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Prologue


Tegan walked into the manager’s office to a rousing welcome.

Clapping like a happy seal, the manager, Gerald Cutler, moved towards her. “Congratulations for winning Employee of the Month, Tegan.”

The forty-three-year-old Cutler was a decent-looking man; average height, full head of brown hair, body but that wasn’t ripped but wasn’t oversized either. However, the creepy smile he gave her as he closed the distance between them made her skin crawl.

“Thank you, Mr. Cutler.” Tegan took a step back to avoid the hug she could see coming her way. “If it wasn’t for your support, I never would’ve gotten it.”

“So, you know, huh?” Cutler grabbed her arm and yanked her into his body. “Come here.”

Tegan stood motionless in that unwelcome embrace for a few seconds before untangling herself from his grip. Forcing a smile as she took two steps back, she mechanically said, “Thank you for the congratulations.”

“You’re doing so well, Tegan.” Cutler moved closer again. He gave her a lecherous onceover, his eyes lingering on her breasts, before saying, “If you keep up with this, you’ll soon be a cashier.”

Tegan took a step back. “That’s the goal.”

“Sooner would be better than later though, right?” Grabbing her upper arms and squeezing, he added, “Your brother is still in hospital, right?”

She nodded. “Right.”

“I’m sure a promotion and raise would be very welcome.”

“Yes, it would be.” Unable to keep from cringing, Tegan tried to move away from him. But his grip on her arms was incredibly tight; like steel handcuffs keeping her prisoner.

“That’s why you need to be nicer to me.” Cutler’s hands slid down to her fingers. Playing with her fingers, he reminded her, “You know my brother owns this place, right?”

“I know.” Of course she knew. Why else would she be standing here getting mauled by him instead of kicking him in the balls?

Cutler’s hands came up to the collar of her yellow, store-branded, polo shirt. Pretending to straighten the fabric even as the tips of his fingers brushed against her neck, he said, “I’ll talk to my brother and ask him to move you up the ladder faster. But you have to do something for me.”

Even though she knew what was coming, she asked, “Something like what?”

Instead of answering her question, he smiled. “You’re a pretty girl, Tegan.”

Yes, she knew she was pretty. She’d been hearing it since she was twelve when the perverts started to notice her. Though she was just twenty-one, she wasn’t even shocked that Cutler, a man who was double her age, was hitting on her. She’d been hit on by desperate bastards who were even older than him before. They all wanted to be her ‘daddy’ and not in a fatherly way.

God! She hated them all.

But she hated Cutler most because he was in control of her money; money that she needed desperately. That of course meant that no matter how tempting the thought was, she couldn’t punch his greasy smile off his face.

He slid his hands to her shoulders and squeezed, “If you were my girlfriend, I would be very, very motivated to get you a better position.”

Bile rose up to her throat. The urge to punch him increased until she had to press her fisted hands to the side of her body to keep from going through with it. Hitting on her was well and good, but the fact that his pregnant wife was a regular at the store made his offer even more despicable.

Fortunately, she didn’t have to respond to the offer because right then, the door flew open. Cutler jumped away from her just as Sophie, another employee, walked into the room. Sophie was a black, short-haired, heavyset woman about the same age as Cutler.

Cutler barked at Sophie. “Don’t you know how to knock?”

“Sorry, sorry, I was in a hurry.” There was no sincerity in Sophie’s apology and the quick knowing look she gave Tegan made it clear that she’d deliberately barged in. Smiling at Cutler, Sophie added, “It’s just that the lines are jammed, jammed, jammed. Tegan, we need you on the floor right now.”

Relieved to have a way out, Tegan eagerly grabbed the lifeline that her coworker had thrown her. “Okay, let’s go.”

Before Cutler could say anything more, the two women scrambled out of the room. As soon as the door closed behind them, Sophie turned to Tegan with worried eyes. “Are you okay?”

Tegan nodded. “I am.”

“That bastard,” Sophie exploded as she glared back at the closed door. “Someone ought to cut off his dick. You should report him.”

“I can’t. I need this job.”

“And he knows it.” Scowling fiercely, Sophie slung her arm around Tegan’s waist. As they walked towards the checkout counters, Sophie added, “People like him are the absolute worst. He knows your weak spot, and he’s taking full advantage of it.”

Giving her friend a tired smile, Tegan said, “Thanks for saving me.”

“You’re welcome, but you know I can’t do it every day, right?” Sophie’s face contorted with concern. “We need to do something about him.”

“I’ll figure out something,” Tegan said. When Sophie gave her a doubtful look, she linked arms with the older lady. “Don’t worry. I’ve dealt with worse people than him. I’ll find a way to get him off my back.”

But her words were all a façade. Even as she walked to her position as a bagger for Counter Five, she knew that she’d just have to bear with Cutler’s overtures until she found a better job. With a sigh of resignation, she went back to work.

Since it was a weekend, there was a constant flow of customers. Tegan stayed on her feet the whole of her shift. By the time eight forty-five in the evening came along, her waist felt like it was being sliced and her feet were rioting. Just fifteen more minutes, she consoled her aching body. Just fifteen more minutes.

“Ladies and gentleman, Inomart will be closing in fifteen minutes.” Cutler’s voice came over the speakers. “Please, head to the checkout counter and pay for your groceries. Ladies and gentleman, Inomart will be closing in fifteen minutes. Please head to the checkout counters and pay for your groceries.”

He repeated the announcement three more times over the course of ten minutes. In response, the last stragglers hurriedly wheeled their trolleys to the checkout counters.

Tegan was packing up for a shopper when a familiar face appeared in the line. Even though it’d been three years since they’d graduated, Tegan immediately recognized her former high-school classmate, Sierra Bell.

As soon as Tegan recognized Sierra, she also noted that a lot had changed about the girl. The Sierra she knew was the poorest girl in class. Tegan’s family was poor, but Sierra’s was poor, poor… food-stamp poor. Back then, everything about the girl said that she was going through it. The bony body, the hair that she’d obviously done herself, the Goodwill clothes, the dry-ass sandwiches she brought because she couldn’t afford to pay for school lunch…. She was poor!

However, things had changed. Everything about the Sierra who was standing in line now screamed ‘I got money’. The wig she was wearing looked so real that it was probably worth a small fortune. Her face had been beat perfectly; the type of perfect that you couldn’t get with drug-store makeup. Add in the manicured nails, surgically enhanced boobs that and an equally enhanced ass that looked like it was about to spill from her very expensive, white dress. It was certain that she wasn’t the poor girl Tegan remembered.

Sierra recognized Tegan almost at the same time. The girl’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped. “Tegan?”

Hi. Tegan mimed and waved shortly before turning back to finish packing up for the lady who was in front of Sierra.

Sierra waited until it was her turn at the register before enthusiastically greeting, “Hi, Tegan. I didn’t know you worked here. How you been, girl?”

“Good, good.” Smiling, Tegan started to pack up the groceries that the cashier was sending her way. “How about you?”

Though Tegan was smiling on the outside, on the inside she was mortified. Obviously, Sierra had come up in the world. Meanwhile, here Tegan was, dressed in this shabby store-branded polo-shirt, black slacks and sneakers, bagging groceries. The gap between their wallets was very, very obvious.

“I’m really good,” Sierra returned. The cashier interrupted their conversation to ask how Sierra was paying. As Sierra paid up, Tegan finished packing her friend’s small pile of groceries into a white shopping bag.

“So what are you up to these days?” Sierra asked as she waited for her card to process.

Wasn’t it obvious? She was bagging these days. Barely able to keep the bitterness from spilling into her voice, Tegan said, “This and that.”

The cashier handed Sierra back her card. As Sierra grabbed her groceries, it was obvious that she wanted to talk to Tegan for a little longer. However, a quick glance behind her revealed that there were several people waiting for her to get out of the way.

Disappointment shining in her eyes, Sierra suggested, “We should meet up some time.”

“We should,” Tegan agreed, but didn’t suggest that time. Frankly, she wasn’t sure that she actually wanted to meet up with Sierra and have her poverty rubbed in her face again.

Before Sierra could say more, the woman behind her barked, “You’re holding up the line, Miss.”

“Sorry, sorry.” As Sierra walked away, she threw Tegan an apologetic smile. “I’ll see you around.”

“Bye.” Tegan called out then turned back to her work.

She thought that that was the last time she’d see Sierra. But it wasn’t.

About an hour later as she was walking out of the store, she saw a black Aston Martin in the parking lot. She probably wouldn’t have noticed the car if its lights weren’t repeatedly blinking as if to call out to her. Seconds later, the driver’s door opened and Sierra emerged.

Grinning widely, she waved at Tegan. “Tegan, Tegan, here.”

For a second, Tegan considered acting like she hadn’t seen or heard her. But her better self intervened and she found herself waving back. Wrapping her jacket tighter around her body, she headed towards Sierra.

“What are you still doing here?” Tegan asked when she was close enough to talk.

“I forgot to take your number when I was in there,” Sierra explained, “and I didn’t want to bother you while you were working.”

Her eyes wide with disbelief, Tegan asked, “So you waited out here?”

“Yeah. We agreed to meet up, and I like to keep my promises.” Waving her phone, Sierra asked, “What’s your number?”

Feeling trapped, Tegan took out her own phone.

As their phones connected, Sierra offered, “Instead of postponing our meeting, why don’t we just have dinner tonight?”

No, Tegan did not want to have dinner with her. She started, “Um… I…”

“I’ll buy,” Sierra offered.

Frantically, Tegan searched for a good excuse to dissuade the lady. But Sierra beat her to it with, “I know you’re hungry. You’ve been working the whole evening. Let me buy you dinner.”

And that was how Tegan found herself in one of the most exclusive restaurants in the city. This place was the kind of eatery that people in her wage-bracket only heard of but didn’t actually go to. Everything about it dripped money; from the luxurious décor, the instrumental music playing in the background, the obviously wealthy patrons, the swanky servers milling around ready to jump on demand, right down to the tiny portions of food that emerged from the kitchen looking like they’d been designed by scientists rather than chefs. The menu didn’t even have prices which scared Tegan and Sierra had to order for her.

Tegan stuck out like a sore thumb, and she caught a few ‘who snuck you in here’ looks from the other patrons. Sierra, on the other hand, fit right in. The way she was dressed, the dainty way she ate, the posh lilt in her speech… it was as if she’d been born into this world.

How could she have changed so much that she fit into this world?

It was as if Sierra could sense Tegan’s questions because after making their orders, she turned to Sierra. “You’re wondering how I did it, right?”

Caught off-guard, Tegan stumbled over her words. “D-did what?”

“How I changed so much and became-” Sierra gestured to herself. “-like this.”

Tegan admitted, “It crossed my mind.”

Sierra giggled then revealed, “I joined an agency.”

“An agency?” Tegan frowned. “Like an acting agency or a modeling agency?”

“Not really.” Sierra looked around before leaning forward to whisper, “An escort agency.”

“A what?” Surely, Tegan had misheard the girl. Her voice rising, she asked, “You’re an escort?”

Frowning, Sierra looked around as if to see if anyone was eavesdropping before turning back to Tegan. “Say it any louder and everyone will hear.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Tegan apologized. Lowering her voice to an almost whisper, she repeated, “You’re an escort?”

Sierra nodded. “Yes.”

Tegan’s breath rushed past her lips in a gush. Now it all made sense. It had only been three years since they’d graduated high-school. No one could make it big that fast unless they’d won the lottery or were dabbling in some illegal stuff. Wait…

She leaned closer to Sierra and asked, “That’s illegal, right?”

“Who cares?” Sierra shrugged. “All I know is that it got me this Birkin-” She lifted her pink purse. “-so that makes it legal in my books.”

Tegan didn’t know what to say to that. She constantly rubbed shoulder with people who had been screwed over by society so of course she knew of some working-girls. But it was shocking to realize that someone she’d once been close to was in the business.

“Don’t look at me like that.” Sierra laughed. “This is different from peddling ass on the streets.”

Was it? Was it really?

Just then the waiter came by with their drinks. Obviously, that brought the conversation to a screeching halt, but as soon as he was out of earshot, Sierra went back to explaining herself. “For one, I don’t have to have sex with my clients. Sometimes they just want my company or want to show me off to their friends. The work I do is classy… I’m like a paid girlfriend.”

Paid girlfriend? Tegan had heard of people sanitizing their jobs but this was new.

“Also, I get paid lots, lots more.” Sierra emphasized, “Like lots and lots of money.”

Though Tegan was scandalized at the thought that her friend was now a ‘paid girlfriend’, she was also amazed. Escorts made this much money? Wow!

 Sierra took a sip of her martini then casually suggested, “I bet a girl like you could make even more money at it. You’ve got the face and the hips to suck money out of men without even trying.”

With a laugh, Tegan shook her head. “No thanks. I’m good.”

“No, I’m serious, T.” Sierra’s expression was graved as she asked, “Aren’t you tired of working at that store?”

Yes, Tegan was tired of working at the store.

Sierra cajoled, “This is an easy way to get out of that dead-end job, get yourself some good clothes, a car, maybe even a house.” She offered, “I can introduce you to my agent. She’s got connections to the upper class… as in upper upper class. Millionaires, A-list celebs, pro-athletes, politicians… you won’t have to deal with any broke-ass scrubs. It’s just dudes with too much money and nowhere to spend it. Once you’re in, you’ve got it made.”

It was tempting, really tempting. Imagine never having to deal with Cutler again, never having to worry about money, never having to feel this tired for just eight dollars an hour. It sounded like a dream. But Tegan shook her head vigorously. “No, I don’t think I’m cut out for it.”

Sierra watched her for a long, silent moment before smirking. “Ah, you’re one of those.”

“One of those what?”

Sierra’s top lip lifted in a sneer. “One of those girls who claim to have morals.”

Feeling attacked, Tegan glared at her friend. “Is that so bad?”

“No, it’s okay to have morals… if you’ve got money.” Sierra took another sip of her drink. “But if you’re like me and you, then they’re a waste of time. Morals never fed anyone and they certainly don’t pay your bills. If you get a way out, you take it. Screw morals!”

No, Tegan wasn’t ready to screw her morals just yet.

“I get what you’re saying,” Tegan said. “But I think I’ll just stick to bagging.”

“I’m telling you this could be your way out,” Sierra coaxed. “You don’t even have to sleep with anyone. You could just start with the companionship. Going to events, listening to them whine about their wives… that kind of thing.”

“Sounds exciting,” Tegan returned with barely veiled sarcasm. “But I don’t think so.”

Sierra blew out a frustrated breath then said, “Anyway, you have my number. You can call me anytime if you change your mind.”

No, Tegan definitely wouldn’t change her mind.

 

* * * * *

 

TWO HOURS LATER, Tegan got home.

As soon as she walked through the front door of the tiny two-bedroom apartment, a throw pillow came flying at her. It smacked her right in the face and was soon followed by ear-piercing screeching.

“Where are you coming from?” Tegan’s mother, Jennifer a.k.a. Mama Jen, was practically shaking with rage as she glared at Tegan.

Toya, Tegan’s seventeen-year-old sister, who was seated right next to the older woman on the couch, seemed unaffected by their mother’s rage. She was just calmly watching TV.

“Where are you coming from?” Mama Jen’s voice rose even more. “I told that you needed to be here by ten. It’s-” She glanced at the clock. “Eleven-thirty.”

Her heart in her throat, Tegan started to explain herself, “A friend invited me to-”

“Do you think you run this house?” Mama Jen cut her off sharply. “Coming in whenever you please?”

“I-”

“SHUT UP!” The remote controller went flying towards Tegan.

If it wasn’t for her fast reflexes, it would’ve smacked her in the face. Thankfully, she dodged it, and it harmlessly flew past the still open door to crash-land in the hallway.

“Shut up!” Mama Jen shot to her feet. Like Tegan, she was just five-feet four. However, her anger made her looking like a towering Amazon. She barked, “Keep that mouth shut or I swear to God, I will stitch up your lips for you. Girl, you better shut up before I punch you in the vocal chords.” A second later, she demanded, “Where were you?”

Tegan answered with silence.

“I asked you a question,” the older woman screeched.

Meanwhile, Toya kept watching TV. However, the smirk that lifted the corner of her lips made clear that she was very aware of the chaos going on around her, and was enjoying it.

Though she was gripping the strap of her purse tightly, Tegan managed to sound calm as she asked, “Do you want me to shut up or to answer your question? Cause I can’t do both.”

“I SWEAR TO GOD-” The older woman started moving forward as if to come at Tegan. However, after two steps, she stopped. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to calm herself. However, when she opened her eyes, it was quite obvious that the short pause had done nothing to extinguish her fury. “You know what? I can’t live with a rude thing like you. Get out.”

What? Tegan stood in frozen shock. She was being kicked out without even getting a chance to defend herself?

“GET OUT,” her mother screamed. “GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!”

Mama Jen bent down and picked up the white vase on the coffee-table. That was Tegan’s cue to move. She darted out the door just as the vase came flying after her. It smashed into the floor right by her heels, shattering into several pieces.

Given that the door was open and Mama Jen was screaming her lungs out and breaking stuff, it was no wonder that Tegan ran out into the hallway to find several of their neighbors outside the doors, watching in concern.

 “Are you okay?” Nancy, from the apartment opposite theirs, asked.

“I’m okay.” Forcing a smile, Tegan headed to the stairs.

Frankly, Tegan wasn’t fazed about being thrown out. It had happened so many times that she’d stopped counting. Tomorrow would come around and her mother would grudgingly let her back into the house. After all, they needed the few pennies she made at the store to pay their bills.

As for tonight… where the hell was she going to sleep?

She sat down on the steps in front of the building, going through her phone contacts. It was almost midnight now. Who would allow her to crash on their couch at this ungodly hour?

She was just deciding between Sophie and a former high-school friend when she heard a voice behind her.

“You ain’t got no place to go?” Toya asked as she came down the steps. She was carrying a navy duffel-bag. Smirking, she added, “Why am I not surprised?”

Tegan rolled her eyes. “Can I help you, little girl?”

It was no surprise that her sister was reveling in her misery. The little twit had always been like that. It was the result of being the favored, spoilt last-born. To Mama Jen, Toya’s shit smelt like roses.

Toya tossed the duffel-bag beside Tegan. “Mama told me to pack up your stuff and bring it to you. She don’t want you or your things in her house.”

Ignoring her sister’s snide, gloating tone, Tegan pulled the bag closer and unzipped it. Seconds later, she turned to her sister in disbelief. “These are just sheets. What am I supposed to wear?”

“I don’t know.” With a shrug, Toya leaned back against the rails that framed the steps. “I just threw whatever into the bag. Why should I waste my time packing for you when you’re going to be back tomorrow anyway?”

Tegan glared at her. “You’re such a little bitch.”

“I’m going to tell Mama you called me a bitch.”

“Add that I said you’re a snitch too.” Tegan kissed her teeth. “A snitchy bitch!”

Toya sniggered. “You’re just mad cause Mama’s mad at you. You should be glad that she didn’t put her hands on you.”

Tegan pulled in a breath then asked, “What’s her problem anyway? I’m sure she’s not angry because I came late. I’ve been late before. Did something happen?”

“The charity called.”

“The chari… oh, the one that’s paying Ty’s bills?”

“Yeah. That one.” Toya nodded. “They didn’t get enough funding this year so we’re going to have to chip in. They asked for five thousand.”

Tegan’s jaw dropped. “Five thousand dollars?”

“Now, you see why Mama’s mad.” Toya suggested, “You should find that money. It’s your fault that Ty’s in the hospital.”

“Where am I supposed to find five thousand dollars?”

“I don’t know.” Toya shrugged. “Don’t you have a job?”

“It doesn’t even pay two thousand dollars each month.”

“Well then, I guess you’re going to have to get another job.” As if what she’d just made complete sense, Toya stood up straighter. “It’s cold out here. I’m going in.”

In seconds, she was gone. Tegan stayed seated on the stairs with her bag full of sheets, wondering where the hell she was going to get five thousand dollars every month. Toya’s suggestion might’ve seemed ridiculous, but Mama Jen was definitely going to make the same demand, and she’d use the same excuse too. It was Tegan’s fault that Ty was in hospital. She should be the one to pay the bill.

The worst part was that Tegan knew they were right. She was the one who’d put her older brother in that hospital bed, so it made sense for her to have to pay for that bed. Besides, Ty had been the only one in the family who treated her right. Even if his illness wasn’t her fault, she still would’ve done everything she could to help him.

Oh God! Where would she get that money? Maybe she could borrow a few dollars here and there this month. But what about next month, and the next, and the next? What she needed was a job that could pay that bill? But what job? She only had a high-school diploma and not a good one at that. She had no talents that she could sell at that steep price, and no business acumen. Basically, she was screwed. At this rate, Ty would end up dead. Unless…

Sierra flashed in Tegan’s thoughts. Not her face, but all the things she’d had. Her expensive clothes, the physical enhancements that had to have cost a pretty penny, her car, the five-hundred dollar dinner bill that she’d paid without even blinking an eye…

No, no. Tegan shook her head. I can’t.

But did she really have a choice? Like Sierra had said, people like her didn’t have the option of having morals. Morals weren’t going to write her a check big enough to pay that hospital bill. Besides, Sierra had said that she didn’t have to turn into a real sex-worker. She could just be a companion. A part-time job as a ‘companion’ wasn’t so bad if it brought in a few extra coins.

Her fingers trembling, she scrolled through her phone to find Sierra’s number.

.

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Chapter 1


8 YEARS LATER

“Chris Evans or Chris Rock?” Tegan asked.

Without even taking a breath, Sierra firmly returned, “Chris Evans.”

“You chose Evans over Rock?” Jamillah Harris, better known as Jam-Jam, gave Sierra a look of disbelief. “You’re crazy.”

The three women were seated around a pub-table at one of the most exclusive members-only bars in the city. This place was so exclusive one had to pay an enormous annual fee, and it showed in the luxurious décor and affluent clientele. Seated at the bar was a popular movie-star making out with an equally popular pop-star who he’d claimed to be just friends with on Entertainment Tonight. In the corner of the room, a pro baseball player was noisily hanging out with his friends. Another table held a well-known trust-fund kid and her boy-toy.

Never in a million years had Tegan thought that she would one day be hanging out at this kind of place. But here she was, wearing a Fendi dress and red Manolos, carrying a Dior purse, drinking a glass of wine that was worth someone’s daily’s wage, and breathing the same air as celebrities. Oh, how eight years could make a difference.

 “Why does Evans win over Rock?” Tegan asked Sierra.

“Because Rock is black.” Sierra sniggered. “You know I don’t do black.”

Jam-Jam’s jaw dropped. “Wow!”

Tegan reminded her friend, “You know you’re black, right?”

 “I know, and that’s why I know that they’re tight with their money. And if they’re not, they’re spreading it around too thin, giving it to strippers and their baby mamas…. ” Sierra made a face. “No, I’ll stick with my Evans.”

“I can categorically say that that is not true,” Jam-Jam insisted. “Have you forgotten that my husband is black?”

“Keith isn’t a normal black man,” Sierra retorted. “Otherwise, why would he marry you?”

Though the swipe was quick and light, Jam-Jam caught it and her eyes immediately fired up. To prevent another one of their arguments, Tegan quickly cut in with, “Alright, Chris Evans versus Cris Ronaldo.”

After Sierra had introduced Tegan to the business, they’d stayed friends. How could they not when most people were too busy judging them and considered being friends with them an embarrassment? Jam-Jam was a new addition to the group. Though she was now married, her history was almost the same as theirs. Birds of a feather and everything…

“That’s a tough one.” Sierra thought over it for a second. “But I’ll stick with my Evans. Ronaldo is a baller so I don’t think I can hang with all the hos who hover around him.”

Jam-Jam reminded her, “I thought you said that there’s no ho who can beat you at your game.”

“Yeah, but why bother competing for one Chris when there are so many more out there? They can have that one.”

“That’s a good point,” Tegan agreed. “Okay, Chris Evans versus Hemsworth?”

“Girl, is that even a question?” Sierra grinned. “Thor could grab my hair and drag me out this restaurant and I’d still be screaming ‘Take me Daddy’.”

Her answer drew laughter from al the ladies. However, their laughter was interrupted by the beep of Jam-Jam’s phone. Still smiling, she swiped her finger over the screen to read the message. As she read the text message, her smile widened.

“It’s Keith, isn’t it?” Tegan asked. Jam-Jam didn’t say anything but her ever-widening smile was an answer in itself.

“What does he say?” Sierra leaned closer to Jam-Jam so she could see.

Jam-Jam grinned. “He says not to be shy with the black card. He signed a big deal today.”

Tegan said, “Tell him we said congratulations.”

“Why bother?” Sierra sat back in her seat. Her tone was a little salty as she added, “He’s always signing big deals anyway.”

“Because it’s a big deal for him,” Tegan said. “And a new car for her.”

“See. You get it!” Jam-Jam leaned forward to give Tegan a high-five. “That’s why you and I are the perfect match.”

“I still don’t get it.” Her lips crooked in a half-smirk, Sierra turned to face Jam-Jam. “How is it that you’re the one who’s married? Like if it was Tegan or I, I would understand it.”

Jam-Jam’s eyes flared up again. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Already seeing where this was going, Tegan scolded, “Sierra, stop it.”

But nobody could stop Sierra when she was on her stink-face roll. “You know, the two of us-” She pointed to herself and Tegan. “- are wifey type.”

“And I’m not?” Jam-Jam rolled her neck so hard it was a surprise that her head stayed on.

Desperate now, Tegan tried again, “Guys, stop it. Let’s not do this now.”

But Jam-Jam wasn’t about to be stopped either. Glaring at Sierra, she demanded, “Why? Because you think you’re prettier than me?”

Sierra’s smirk and the quick lift of her shoulder was answer enough.

Still, Tegan tried to do damage control, “Jam-Jam, I’m sure Sierra didn’t mean it that way.

But Jam-Jam wasn’t buying it and Sierra wasn’t interested in explaining herself. Jam-Jam exploded, “Who made you the pretty-police? You think just because you’re light-skinned and I’m not-”

Sierra suddenly stood, cutting into Jam-Jam’s words. “I need to go to the little girls’ room.”

She grabbed her clutch and walked away, leaving Jam-Jam steaming. Jam-Jam stood as if to follow her, but Tegan grabbed her arm.

“Don’t,” Tegan dragged her friend back to her seat. “Let it go.”

“Why should I?” Though Jam-Jam was still fired up, she stayed seated. “She deserves a smack.”

“Leave her alone.” Tegan rubbed her friend’s back in soothing strokes. “You know she’s been having a hard time.”

Unlike Jam-Jam and Tegan, Sierra had never been able to keep a long-term partner. They kept using her, paying her then disappearing. Sierra, who was very proud of her looks, couldn’t understand it. Now, that she was getting up there in age, the agency was sending less people to her and she was desperate to catch a big fish. Unfortunately, most of the big fish could see right through her to what she really was – a taker. And the blind ones had their pick of girls who were younger and prettier than Sierra.

“That’s not an excuse to be such a bitch.” Jam-Jam blew out a breath. “Plus, this isn’t the first time. She’s always taking shots at me. Why are you even friends with her?”

“You’re friends with her too,” Tegan reminded her.

“No, I’m friends with you.” Jam-Jam pointed at Tegan for emphasis. “I can’t stand that salty heifer. I just hang out with her because she’s your friend. But if she keeps up with that nasty attitude, I might have to set her straight. I’m just warning you. I will blow up this fake-ass friendship if she keeps running her mouth. Get your friend, T.”

“Okay, okay, I will. I’ll talk to her.”

“You better.” Jam-Jam took a sip of her Margarita then made a sour face. “Ugh! I need something stronger than this.” She lifted her hand as if to call the server over.

Tegan jerked her friend’s arm back down. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Not in the mood you’re in.”

“You’re right.” Jam-Jam took a deep breath. When she spoke again, her tone was more conciliatory. “Sorry I blew up at you even though it’s not your fault. You know you’re still my bitch, right?”

Tegan laughed. “I know.”

When Sierra came back from the toilet, the tension was already defused. Thankfully, she didn’t throw anymore jabs. Unfortunately, this just wasn’t Tegan’s night. About thirty minutes later, Tegan’s worst nightmare walked into the bar. She was white, platinum-blonde, petite and pretty… like a poodle. But the moment, she spotted Tegan her eyes changed. In a split second, she went from rich little poodle to rabid Chihuahua.

“Oh no!” Jam-Jam recognized her too. “Is that Natalie?”

“Yeah, it is.” Tegan was surprised that she sounded so calm when her heart was already beating so fast that it felt like it was about to jump out of her chest.

Natalie was not alone. She had a friend with her. The friend seemed just as well-heeled as Natalie and her aura was just as expensive as her clothes. But the three friends barely noticed her. All their attention was on Natalie, who was now frozen at the door, glaring at Tegan.

Sierra asked, “Who’s Natalie?”

“Arthur’s daughter.”

“Damn!” Sierra cussed. A second later, her shock turned into panic. “She’s coming our way. She’s coming our way.”

Sierra’s panic had nothing on Tegan’s. Tegan’s heart was now in her throat. A fist had closed around her lungs, and it was becoming harder to breathe by the second. She gripped the table hard as she watched Natalie and her friend head to their table. Though she wanted to run away, all her limbs were suddenly frozen.

“Well, well, well! Look who it is.” Though Natalie’s lips were smiling, her eyes were shooting bullets. “If it isn’t my father’s whore!”

Everyone’s jaw dropped. Even Natalie’s friend couldn’t believe what she’d just heard.

Sierra immediately angrily started, “What the-”

Tegan’s hand immediately flew out to grab her friend’s arm in a silent order to shut up.

“I didn’t know trash like you was allowed into places like this.” Her top lip lifted in a sneer, Natalie asked, “Can you even afford it?” A second later, she guffawed. “Oh, I’m sorry… I forgot. My father’s probably paying for this too, isn’t he?”

Jam-Jam cut in this time. Her tone was tight with anger as she said, “No, he’s not the one paying.”

Natalie arched one eyebrow. “And who are you?”

“I know you know me, Natalie.” Jam-Jam gritted between her teeth. “We had dinner together with your family last week.”

“I’m sorry… it skipped my mind.” Natalie tapped her forehead as if just remembering. “Ah, I remember who you are. You’re Uncle Keith’s little gold-digger mistress, aren’t you? The one he replaced his wife with.”

Jam-Jam lunged forward but Tegan grabbed her too. “Don’t.”

“Well, I wish I could stay for long but I’m afraid your STDs might rub off on me.” Natalie waved as she sashayed away, her friend on her heels. “Ta-ta. I’ll see you whores around.”

 “I will beat her skinny, little, white ass,” Jam-Jam growled as she stared daggers at Natalie’s back. “Let me go, Tegan.”

“No, just let her be,” Tegan soothed. “It’s all just words anyway.”

“If you two won’t beat her ass, then let me have a go at her,” Sierra suggested.

Tegan shook her head. “No, don’t.”

Sierra asked, “Are you afraid that it’s going to mess up the little thing you have going on with Arthur?”

“No, that’s not it,” Tegan said but didn’t explain.

How could she explain her reasons for not confronting Natalie to her friends when they constantly emphasized how ‘not ashamed’ they were of their life choices? Frankly, Tegan understood Natalie. If she were in her shoes, she’d be bitter too. No sane daughter would happily greet her father’s mistress. Tegan counted herself lucky that Natalie had never swung at her.

It was as if Sierra could read her mind because she said, “I really hate when you act like this, like you did something wrong. Did you kidnap Arthur and tie him to your bed? Did you steal his card and buy yourself things with it? He brought his old ass self to you. That little blonde bitch should be blaming her mother for being so boring that her father went looking for excitement elsewhere.”

Tegan didn’t quite agree. But instead of arguing, she suggested, “We should leave.”

“Why? Because of her?” Sierra pointed to the table that Natalie and her friend had taken. “Over my dead body.”

In a rare show of solidarity with Sierra, Jam-Jam chimed in. “I’m not leaving either.”

Tegan wanted to leave anyway, but she was afraid that her friends might start something with Natalie when she wasn’t around. Jam-Jam might be the wife of a stinking rich venture capitalist right now, but she still had lots of street in her. And Sierra… well her mouth alone was enough to start wildfires.

So Tegan stayed.

Natalie was more affected by the encounter than she’d let on. Tegan, who was watching her, noted how she kept chugging hard drinks. Her little body wasn’t made for that much alcohol. Within an hour, her eyes were already drooping. Instead of sticking by her, the friend left. Natalie was left alone, tossing drink after drink. Soon, her head fell on the table. She’d blacked out.

Tegan knew it wasn’t her business, but Arthur mentioned that Natalie liked to drive herself which meant she was all alone here. How was she going to get home? Tegan grabbed her phone and scrolled down to a familiar number.

 

* * * * *

 

MAXWELL WARD STARED at his ringing phone in utter shock. Though he’d known Tegan for eight years, she’d never once called him. He was always the one calling her.

He flipped the phone open then pressed it to his ear. “Hello?”

“Max, it’s Tegan.” Her voice, like dark honey and sin, came over the line. “Tegan Baptiste.”

Immediately, his senses awakened and his body tightened at the sound of her voice. Though his brain understood that she was off-limits, his body still hadn’t accepted that fact. He cleared his throat then said, “I know it’s you, Tegan. I have your number saved.”

She asked, “Are you somewhere where you can leave?”

He was at the office, working late. Already starting to shut down his computer, he answered, “Yeah, what do you need?”

“I’m at Last Base,” she explained. “Natalie’s here too.”

The mention of his cousin and Tegan in the same space was enough to shock the arousal out of him. He sat up straighter. “You guys didn’t fight, did you?”

“No. But she’s alone here and seems really drunk. But I can’t offer to drive her home because…” Tegan paused a second before finishing with an ambiguous, “… You know.”

He knew. “I’ll be there in about twenty minutes.”

“Good. I’ll wait until you get here.” She ended the call.

Max grabbed his suit jacket and car-keys then headed out of the office. Given that it was ten p.m. on a weekday, there were barely any cars on the road. He got to Last Base in less than fifteen minute. After handing his car-keys to the valet, he headed into the club. Tegan and her friends were seated quite close to the entrance so he found them easily.

Sierra saw him first, and her eyes lit up… like a predator who’d just sighted her prey. Immediately, his insides recoiled in alarm. Strangely, his tension eased the moment his and Tegan’s eyes connected. There was just something about her that seemed to always melt him.

What was it about her that drew him so much? He didn’t understand it either. He knew prettier girls, girls with better personalities… girls who weren’t his uncle’s mistress. So why was he so attracted to Tegan?

Christ! Maybe he had some undiscovered Alabama running in his blood.

“Hi, Maxwell,” Sierra was the first to greet him when he came over. Her voice was as seductive as the smile she gave him.

Max simply gave her a nod then turned to Tegan. “Where is she?”

Tegan turned and pointed to a table deeper down the club. Sure enough, Natalie was at that table by herself, sleeping.

“Thanks.” His face blank of any emotion, he walked away from the three women. Thankfully, in all the eight years of knowing Tegan, he’d never accidentally or otherwise revealed his weird attraction to her.

It took several minutes to wake Natalie from her alcohol-fuelled sleep. When she finally opened her eyes, they were glazed, but she still recognized him. She gave him a slow, dazed smile. “Max? What are you doing here?”

“Picking you up.” Max took her purse from the seat next to her and slung it around his neck. He took her arm and helped her to her feet. “Let’s go home.”

“You came all the way here to pick me?” Natalie’s speech was unbearably slow and hesitant. “You’re a good brother. That’s why I love you.”

“Okay, Princess.” He put his arm around her waist. “Let’s start walking.”

She leaned heavily against the side of his body. “Carry me.”

“You’re too old for me to carry you in public.” Tapping the side of her waist, he urged. “Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot.”

Obviously, Natalie wasn’t too far gone. Even though she was wearing heels, she managed to follow his instructions without tripping on her feet. However, her steps halted right as they were about to get to Tegan’s table. Even drunk, Natalie managed to see the other woman, and of course her claws came out.

“Aaah! Look who it is.” Natalie shoved Max so abruptly away from her that he staggered a few steps back giving her the room she needed to stumble away from him and to Tegan’s table.

Somehow, she managed to squeeze right between Sierra and Jam-Jam so that she was right opposite Tegan.

“T – Teggy… T- Tiger… T… What’s your name again?” Natalie leaned against the table with her elbow. Her hooded eyes on Tegan, she drawled, “Hey, why are you living like this? Are you happy breaking people’s families?”

Tegan didn’t say anything, and her expression didn’t change.

Max hurried forward to take his cousin’s arm. “Natalie, let’s go.”

Natalie shook him off as she glared at Tegan. “Don’t you feel sorry for my mother? That poor woman can’t even come and beat you up herself.”

“Hey, little girl,” Sierra spoke up for the first time. Rage coloring her tone, she bit out, “Just go home. Nobody’s trying to listen to your bitching.”

Tegan immediately grabbed Sierra’s arm. “Leave her alone.”

“Hey, let’s go outside. Let’s fight,” Natalie dared. She gave Tegan a slow onceover and sneered. “You look like you could beat me but I bet I can get some punches in. Let’s go!”

Clearly, Natalie was out of her mind. Max needed to get her out of her before she actually started a fist-fight.

“That’s enough.” Despite the other patrons watching them, he bent down and hauled her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

“Max,” Natalie screamed and pummeled his back with her fist as he carried her out of the bar. “Put me down.”

He didn’t put her down. Despite her fussing, she was tiny enough that getting her to the car and forcing her into the backseat was easy. Once she was in the car, all the steam went out of her. Within minutes, she was dead to the world again.

At a red-light, Max dialed Tegan’s number. She picked up immediately. “Yeah?”

“Sorry about that,” he apologized. When she didn’t respond, he said, “Just a heads-up, when Uncle Arthur left the office, he said he was headed to your place.”

“What?” Tegan immediately ended the call.

Max wasn’t surprised. She was probably already on her way home. His uncle, Arthur, was not an easy man to deal with especially when someone kept him waiting.

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Chapter 2


Please, please, God, don’t let Arthur be home. Tegan nervously keyed in her pass-code into the front door’s keypad. Don’t let him be home.

When she’d driven into the building, she’d checked the parking lot. Arthur’s car wasn’t there. However, that wasn’t enough to ease her anxiety. Sometimes his driver dropped him off. Hopefully, that wasn’t the case today.

The thought of him getting home before her was anxiety-inducing because it would inevitably lead to an argument. Where was she? What was she doing? Who was she doing it with? Was she cheating on him? Thankfully, all the lights were off and his shoes weren’t in the hallway when she walked into the house.

He wasn’t home yet.

Heaving a relieved breath, she kicked off her heels then hung her purse on one of the hooks beside the door. She padded down the large marble-floored hallway into the living-room.

Everything about the living-room was oversized. Rectangular floor-to-ceiling windows covered two of the room’s walls, offering a breathtaking, unobstructed view of the whole city. The other wall hosted a huge TV flunked by two large paintings by a well-known artist. The furniture was just as imposing; the long, gray, plush sectional, the glass coffee-table, the black and gray rug beneath it… everything was massive.

To be honest, Tegan would’ve preferred a little more color in the décor. But Arthur liked gray, black and chrome. Since everything in here was his anyway, that’s what she went with.

Attached to the living-room was a gourmet, open kitchen. The kitchen was characterized by custom slab counters, floating shelves painted black and a large, walk-in pantry. The sleek, built-in, steel appliances were the perfect match for the gleaming white or silver utensils that were replaced every year.

It was most cooks’ dream… just not Tegan’s. She would’ve preferred her kitchen to have a little more life, more wood, more color, more character and more plants. But this was Arthur’s kitchen… so she bore with it.

Eight years ago, she’d thought that people who lived in places like this were happy, that they were living their dream. Now that she was here, she knew better. It was too cold and lonely at the top. There was too much steel and too many cold, judging stares. However, it still beat being poor. Being rich and unhappy was much, much better than being poor and unhappy.

She headed to the large master-bedroom, stripped off her clothes and headed into the shower. After her shower, she got into bed. Despite the alcohol still running in her system, she wasn’t tired. She switched on the TV to catch up on her favorite show. However, she didn’t get to enjoy it.

About ten minutes into her show, the tablet on the bedside table lit up. A quick glance revealed that it was a warning; someone was coming into her house. She swiped her fingers over the screen to see who it was. Though all she saw was the top of his blond, thinning hair, she immediately knew who it was. Arthur. And he was keying in the pass-code.

Quickly, she turned off the TV, lay down and drew the covers to her shoulders. By the time he got to the bedroom, her eyes were closed and her breathing was even. Anyone would assume that she was asleep. So did he.

Even though her eyes were closed, she could hear him breathing hard and shuffling around. Metal fell on the vanity (probably his watch) and was soon followed by the sound of fabric falling to the floor. He was removing his clothes. A few minutes later, he circled to her side of her bed. He stopped close enough to her that she was immediately hit by the sharp scent of perfume.

No, it was not his cologne. It was definitely another woman’s smell, and not his wife’s. Tegan hid a sneer. Imagine that; a mistress getting cheated on. Not that she was surprised. In their eight years of being ‘together’, there’d been many women. Tegan was just the one he kept coming back to.

Did she mind? No, not even a little. His other side-pieces were her saviors. Whenever he went to them, she didn’t need to service him. Maybe his wife felt the same way about her.

Arthur stayed a second beside her then moved away to his side of the bed. Even without opening her eyes, she knew that he’d taken her phone. The bed dipped as he got in beside her. Seconds later, she heard a beep as her phone unlocked. Yes, he knew her password. And no, she couldn’t change it unless she wanted to deal with one of his tantrums.

His breathing heavy and labored, he scrolled through her phone. He was probably checking the call-logs and messages. She didn’t care. There was nothing there for him to see. Even if she was doing sneaky things behind his back, she was too smart to leave the evidence on her phone.

Obviously, whatever he saw on her phone left him with doubts because minutes later, he started shaking her shoulder. “Tegan. Tegan. Tegan.”

She took her sweet time ‘waking up’, and when she did, it was with a deep sigh. “Hmm?”

“Wake up.” He forcefully turned her to face him.

“What?” She slowly opened her eyes. Putting on her best attempt at sounding sleepy, she asked, “What’s the matter?”

In his younger days, Arthur Vaughn would’ve passed as a very handsome man. Now that age had caught up with him, the handsome had been dimmed by his thinning blond hair, face heavily lined with wrinkles and sagging skin. Still, he looked much younger than his sixty-seven years thanks to lots of money and good doctors.

Glaring at her, he held out her phone. “Who is this?”

“Who is who?” Tegan took the phone to see what he was talking about.

“That number.” He pointed to her phone. “The one without a name attached.”

She stared at her phone for a second, trying to remember who’d called with that number.

“Who is it?” Arthur demanded, the bags under his eyes seeming more pronounced as he glared daggers at her. “It’s another man, right?”

It took all her effort not to snigger. “Of course not.”

“Then who is it?”

“Give me a second.” She sat up as she thought over it. A moment later, it came to her. “Ah… it was a scammer. One of those IRS fraud numbers.”

“A scammer?” Disbelief still shone in his eyes. “Why would they call you?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Why do they call anyone?”

“You’re not lying to me, are you?”

“No.” She offered, “But if you want, you can call the number.”

Of course he called the number. The phone was picked within seconds. Whatever he heard next must’ve erased all his doubts because just moments later when he hung up, he was smiling at her. “Sorry about that.”

Though she was sneering on the inside, she managed to return his smile. “It’s okay.”

Her curved his arm around her shoulder and hauled her closer to him. “You know I only do it because I love you, right?”

Even though she wanted to push him away from her, she nodded. “I know.”

He bent his head to place a quick kiss on her lips. “I just hate the thought of someone ruining what we have.”

“I know,” she repeated, but on the inside, she wondered, what did they have?

Theirs was a twisted relationship. Arthur was her first and last client. When Sierra had introduced her into the world of escorts, Tegan’s first assignment was to attend a yacht party hosted by a wealthy businessman. Her job there was to look pretty in her scanty bikini, drink wine and make the male guests happy. Arthur was one of the guests there. The moment he’d spotted her, he’d decided that she was his.

Attracted by the thought that she was fresh in the business, he’d monopolized her client list. He’d even gone as far as to give their manager a hefty bonus so that she wouldn’t send Tegan to other clients. Eventually, their relationship had moved from client-escort relationship to sugar-baby and sponsor.

Did that count as love? Not in Tegan’s books. No matter how often they tossed around the ‘I love you’ words, it could not change the fact that theirs was just a convenient relationship. He needed a younger woman to stroke his ego and give him the adventure he didn’t get from his wife, and she needed an older man to pay her bills.

Quid pro quo.

However, lately, she’d been considering leaving him. The things she got from their relationship just didn’t seem worth it any more. The large apartment? She was okay with a smaller one. The luxury car? Taking a cab or the bus was looking more attractive by the minute. The clothing boutique that he’d started for her? She could do without it.

The only reason she hadn’t walked away from him was because of loyalty and gratefulness. Despite his cantankerous and controlling nature, Arthur had helped her out when she was down. Without him, she had no idea where she or her family would be today, but no doubt it would be a worse place.

Leaving him seemed like a betrayal of his generosity; like she was dumping him now that she didn’t need his money anymore. The only thing she could do now was hope that he got tired of her soon and replaced her with a better model. If he let her go, she’d happily leave.

Still holding her close and his fingers stroking the side of her arm, Arthur asked, “What did you do today?”

She shrugged. “I just hung out at the shop, then had some drinks with the girls.”

“With the girls?” His forehead furrowed and anger lit up his blue eyes. “You mean with Sierra?”

“Jam-Jam was there too.”

His lips thinned into an angry line. “I don’t like it when you hang around with Sierra.”

“I know.” Tegan sighed. “But she’s my friend.”

“She’s also a whore who sleeps with anything that will show her green.” Arthur bit out. “I don’t want her influencing you.”

“I’m an adult, Arthur. No one can influence me,” she said. He opened his mouth to protest further, but she cut him off with a quick kiss. “Arthur, I love you. No man can replace you. And why would I want someone else? You give me everything I want.”

Doubt still furrowing his brow, he started, “Still-”

“Have I ever given you any reason not to trust me?” she asked. Laying her palm on his t-shirt covered chest, she said, “I’m yours and yours alone.”

“Mine and mine alone?”

“All yours. I love only you.” She smiled up at him. “I promise. You don’t have to worry about me replacing you with anyone.”

Her answer was enough to draw a smile from him. Slowly setting her to lie on the bed, he came over her. “Good.”

He lowered his head and set his lips over hers.

 

* * * * *

 

“HOW MANY TIMES have I told you to stop drinking?” Debbie Vaughn, Arthur’s wife, slapped Natalie’s back. “You can’t handle it.”

“Ow!” Natalie, who was currently on Max’s back, mumbled. “That hurt.”

“It’s supposed to hurt.” Her mother scoffed as the three of them took the stairs up to the first floor. “What would you have done if your cousin didn’t come to pick you up?”

“Whatever!” Natalie’s head slumped against Max’s shoulder.

“Don’t whatever me.” Debbie smacked her errant daughter again in the back.

Like Natalie, Debbie was a diminutive woman; barely five-foot two and incredibly slim. Her figure and her short, blonde, pixie-cut hair left most people thinking that she was younger than her real age. The only clues to her real age were the wrinkles that lined the sides of her green eyes behind the glasses, the slightly downturned mouth and the sagging skin in her neck. Still, she looked pretty good for sixty-two.

Natalie was quiet for a few seconds. But just as they got to the landing of the first floor, she turned her head so she was looking at her mother. “Mom, I saw her.”

“Saw who?” Debbie asked as she went ahead of them in the hallway.

“Tegan.” Though Natalie’s words were a mere mumble, the older woman heard them and she immediately stopped moving. Startled she turned to face the two. Her eyes met Max’s.

Debbie asked, “You met Tegan?”

“She was at the same bar,” Max confirmed.

“Yeah!” Natalie snorted. “Spending Daddy’s money.”

That was enough to silence Debbie. Her expression graver than before, she turned and led the way to Natalie’s room.

Natalie’s space was a testament to her artsy nature. Paintings that she’d done herself covered the brightly painted walls. The furniture in the room was mostly vintage with modern pieces thrown in here and there to keep it from looking outdated.

One corner of the room held the violin from her violin-playing days. Next to the violin was a mannequin wearing Natalie’s ballet get-up from when she’d starred in her college’s rendition of ‘Coppélia’. Next to the mannequin was a rack of clothes she’d designed for her latest fashion show. Those clothes had earned enough to convince Arthur that she was more suited to the fashion world than for a management position in his company.

As Max carried Natalie into the room, Debbie rushed forward to turn the bed out. While Max set his cousin on the sheets, Debbie knelt to remove her shoes.

“Did you hear me?” Natalie stared down at her mother with hooded eyes. “I said that I saw her.”

“I heard you,” Debbie returned without looking up.

“Ugh! You’re so annoying.” Natalie made a face. “Can’t you even get angry?”

“You’re drunk.” Debbie stood up and swung Natalie’s legs onto the bed. “Go to bed.”

“This is why he keeps doing it. Because you don’t react.” Natalie mumbled even as her eyes closed. “Break something, murder someone… or better yet, divorce him and take all his money.”

Her mother pulled the covers to her shoulders. “Go to sleep, Natalie.”

“You’re going to divorce him, right?” Natalie asked. Debbie didn’t answer. However, the younger woman didn’t push further because she’d already faded off.

Max headed out of her room first and took the stairs down. Debbie found him in the living-room a few minutes later.

“Do you want a drink?” Debbie asked as she headed straight to the bar. At Max’s nod, she poured them both a glass of cognac and brought it over.

“Thanks.” Max took his glass and set it on the coffee-table.

Debbie sat down then took a sip of her drink. Without meeting Max’s eyes, she asked, “Is your uncle spending the night with her?”

Max didn’t say anything, but his silence was an answer in itself.

Debbie laughed. “Should I be mad or grateful?”

Max didn’t say anything again. He’d learnt a long time ago that it was safer not to have any opinions about his Uncle and Aunt’s flawed marriage. They were both adults, and neither of them was a hostage.

“You’re probably wondering why I don’t leave him, right?” she asked.

Max didn’t respond.

“At first it was because of Natalie. I didn’t want her to grow up without her father. Then it was because of the lifestyle,” Debbie explained. “Now, it’s just because I’m used to it. I don’t care anymore. I’m too old to be with someone else anyway, and I don’t want to be alone.” With a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, she turned to Max. “I sound really pathetic right now, don’t I?”

“No.” He spoke for the first time. “I get it.”

“I doubt it.” Debbie made a sound that sounded like laughter but had a bitter ring to it. She sighed. “I don’t even know why I’m telling you this. You’re on his side.”

No, Max really wasn’t on anyone’s side on this. It takes two hands to clap. Yes, his uncle’s disloyalty was repulsive. But his aunt wasn’t blameless either. A person only treated you as you let them treat you. She’d turned a blind eye to Arthur’s sins which had made him even bolder. If Tegan disappeared today, Arthur would replace her with another young, pretty thing, and Debbie would still act like her marriage was just fine.

But Max didn’t say all that. He just quietly sipped his drink.

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