Chapter Sixteen


LEXI LAY SPRAWLED OUT ON THE BLUE-AND-WHITE-STRIPED Ralph Lauren couch at Cedar Hill House, poring over the guest list for her party.

At sixteen, Lexi Templeton had fully emerged from her awkward early teen years. Gone were the hated braces on her teeth and the mornings spent staring longingly in the mirror trying to make her breasts grow through sheer force of will. Draped over the couch like Cleopatra in a pair of cutoff denim hot pants, her lithe, tanned legs stretching out for miles, Lexi was at last a full-fledged sex kitten. Her brown stomach was as smooth and flat as a Kansas prairie, despite the three bowls of Cocoa Krispies she'd wolfed down for breakfast that morning. A simple white bikini top covered breasts as full, round and perfect as small honeydew melons.

To be strictly accurate, the guest list she was studying was not for her party. Much to Lexi's chagrin, next week's celebration at Cedar Hill House was officially a joint sixteenth for her and Max.

Why should I have to share my birthday with him? Can't I have any life of my own?

Whatever Lexi did these days, her cousin seemed to show up like a bad penny.

Lexi's father felt sorry for him: "I think he's lonely, honey. Stuck in that apartment with his mother all vacation long. He probably doesn't have many friends."

I'm not surprised. He's so arrogant and stuck-up.

Peter had always put Max's moody silences down to shyness. Over the course of their childhoods, Lexi had formed a different view. Max wasn't shy. He was aloof. She called it his superiority complex, and it irritated the hell out of her.

On the plus side, at least Max's lack of social skills meant that a solid 80 percent of the birthday guests would be Lexi's friends from Exeter, and not a bunch of stuffed shirts from Choate, Max's prestigious Connecticut boarding school.

Lexi examined her list again:

Donna Mastroni, Lisa Babbington, Jamie Summerfield...oh, crap. Lisa can't sit next to Jamie. He screwed her over spring break when he was still dating Anna Massey. Where the hell can I put Lisa?

The answer was obvious: Lisa Babbington should sit at Max's table. God knew there were enough spaces. Lexi hesitated. Somehow the idea of seating one of her most attractive girlfriends next to her cousin did not appeal.

The truth was, though she would have died before admitting it, Lexi Templeton had mixed feelings about Max Webster. Three-quarters of the time, she hated him. He followed her around like a bad smell. He was rude, weird and more arrogant than any boy she'd ever met. During their joint internship at Kruger-Brent last Christmas (I can't even get a job on my own) Max had made it perfectly plain that he saw himself as Lexi's superior, intellectually and in every other way. Even at fifteen, the staff had begun to defer to him the way they used to defer to Robbie. Because of Lexi's deafness, people just assumed that Max would inherit the company one day. This assumption, fueled by Max's own sense of entitlement, drove Lexi crazy. At Kruger-Brent, Max made a point of playing up Lexi's disability, treating her with kid gloves as if she were some fragile flower. He never treats me like that when we're alone.

Lexi might be deaf but she wasn't blind. She saw what Max was up to and it incensed her. She also saw, much as it pained her to admit it, that her cousin had grown into an incredibly good-looking young man. Black-haired and even blacker-eyed, Max had an irresistible air of danger and wildness about him, like Heathcliff or a young Lord Byron. Most boys Lexi's age were gauche and immature. Even the jocks at Exeter seemed to have a built-in geekiness that surfaced in the presence of attractive girls like Lexi. But not Max Webster.

Max looked through Lexi as if she didn't exist.

So why does he hang around me all the time? If I'm so goddamn invisible, so beneath his royal notice, why doesn't he get a life of his own?

Lexi began scratching out names with a pen, rearranging the seating chart.

Lisa Babbington could sit next to Grady Jones.

If Max didn't have enough friends to fill his table, it wasn't her problem.

"Do you like it? I know it's not your official birthday yet, but Rachel thought you might want to wear it for the party."

Lexi's interpreter, Rachel, was her more or less constant companion. Peter Templeton had relied heavily on Rachel's advice when it came to choosing Lexi's birthday present. Watching Lexi's face light up now, he was glad he had.

"Daddy, I love it. Oh my goodness."

"Really?" He beamed with pleasure.

"Really."

Lexi ran her fingertips in wonder over the gossamer beaded silk dress. It was Chanel, from the new season's collection. The delicate fabric was the exact same shade of champagne blond as Lexi's hair. The cut was exquisite, plunging and clinging in all the right places, but too much of a work of art to look slutty. It was, without question, the most beautiful item of clothing in existence.

"A beautiful dress for my beautiful girl. You'll look like a princess, my angel."

Lexi smiled. "Thank you, Daddy." He still thinks I'm six years old. "It's an amazing present."

And it's gonna help me get the birthday present I really want:

Christian Harle.

Lexi learned early that her deafness was a double-edged sword when it came to dating.

Going to school with an interpreter who rarely left her side was a definite minus. Lexi's lip-reading was excellent and her speech by no means poor, but she was self-conscious about her imagined slurring and preferred to sign whenever possible and have Rachel speak for her.

She was lucky to have had the same interpreter for almost eight years now, since her early days in the hospital. Peter knew that consistency of caregivers would be crucial to his daughter's recovery. Consequently he had thrown money and perks at the then twenty-year-old Rachel, upping the ante every year to make sure she wasn't tempted to leave. Now twenty-eight, Rachel was considerably chubbier than she had been back then, but just as hardworking and sunny-natured. Lexi herself had long since passed the point where she actively noticed her interpreter's presence. To her, Rachel was like her shadow: always there, yet somehow almost invisible.

Unfortunately, boys didn't see it that way.

"Can't you lose Chubby Checker for half an hour after school?"

Pete Harris, a rebel with floppy blond hair, skater tattoos on his chest, and a reputation as the biggest player in tenth grade, leaned over in math class and whispered in Lexi's ear.

His warm breath on her earlobe felt nice. Lexi could pretty much get the gist of his intentions from pheremones alone. But of course, without being able to see his lips, the words themselves meant nothing.

She signed to Rachel. "Ask him to say it again. Tell him to look at me when he speaks."

Rachel duly did as she was asked. Suddenly the whole class had turned around to stare at Pete Harris. He didn't feel so cool anymore.

"Harris, you moron! Don't you know she needs to see your lips to read them?"

"Yeah, c'mon, Pete. Share with the class, man. What'd you say?"

"You guys should definitely date. Deaf and Dumb, what a couple!"

"I...I'm sorry," Pete Harris blurted, blushing to the roots of his blond hair. "You're cute, but I...I can't do this."

Lexi was philosophical about Pete Harris. He was hot, but he was kind of a moron. Besides, she had her sights set on a much bigger fish: Christian Harle.

Lexi had begun Operation Christian in the eighth grade. At fourteen, she was still far too lowly a minnow in the Exeter High School pond for a guy like Christian Harle to notice. Two years her senior, with the body of an Olympic athlete and a face that could make Brad Pitt cry, Christian Harle dated only cheerleaders or models. The fact that he was astronomically out of Lexi's league didn't faze her in the least. On the contrary, it made this the perfect time for her to lay the groundwork of her operation.

Her plan was simple. She would find out what Christian looked for in a woman. (Big tits, pretty face, ditzy manner, IQ of dung beetle.) She would then transform herself into his ideal mate.

Lexi checked off the points on Christian's wish list one by one.

My tits are nonexistent, but they'll grow.

My face is already pretty, or it will be once the braces come off.

I'm smart enough to pretend to be stupid. So what's left?

Ah yes. Ditzy and helpless.

If having Rachel around was a dating minus, Lexi's deafness also provided some unique dating pluses. Because of her disability, boys tended to think of her as sweet and vulnerable - the poor little deaf heiress who needed their protection. Lexi quickly learned how to turn this misconception to her advantage. By ninth grade, she had her phony damsel-in-distress shtick down to a fine art.

"Rachel? Would you ask Johnny to help me with my books? I'm so tired this morning, I really couldn't walk another step."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Thomas, but I'm afraid I couldn't finish my assignment this week. I've been having terrible nightmares. Flashbacks about my ordeal."

Lexi's big gray eyes welled with tears. Rachel thought: She's a fine little actress, this one. She's got them all fooled.

Christian liked ditzy? Lexi would give him ditzy.

Right along with this stupid-ass virginity burning a hole in my panties.

Lexi was convinced she must be the oldest virgin at Exeter, if not in the whole of America. It was conceivable she was the oldest virgin in the world. Apart from nuns, obviously. And really ugly people like her aunt Eve.

Deep down she was afraid that what happened to her as a child might have spoiled her for sex. She still had nightmares about the pig. Is that the real reason I've been saving myself for Christian? Did I pick someone I knew was unobtainable because I was too scared to "do it"?

Whatever her true motivations, the wait was now officially over. Tonight was the night.

As the party drew nearer, Lexi's nerves started to get the better of her.

What if he only likes girls with experience? I guess I'll have to fake that, too.

Sometimes Lexi worried that she pretended so much she'd forgotten who she really was inside.

Maybe I want to forget?

"Oh, Max. Max! Don't stop! Please don't stop! I'm coming!"

Max Webster looked down at the girl writhing beneath him and felt ineffably bored. Her name was Sasha Harvey-Newton. Her father owned shipyards. Her mother's father owned oil fields. She was eighteen years old, stunningly beautiful and sickeningly rich. She was widely considered to be one of New York's most eligible young heiresses.

She was also a nymphomaniac.

"Harder, baby! Harder!"

Sasha Harvey-Newton arched her eligible, $20-million back for Max's benefit and let out a whoop of ecstasy.

"Shut up." Max put his hand over her mouth. She started sucking his fingers, and he fought back a powerful urge to ram them down her stupid, vacuous throat. Instead he forced her head down onto the pillow, muting her moans.

"Hey. What'd you do that for?"

Sasha looked up at him, her face flushed an unattractive strawberry red.

"You were making too much noise. What if your mom heard us?"

"What if she did? You know how many times I've had to listen to her and the tennis coach going at it? My mom's a whore."

Max watched Sasha get dressed, pulling on a pair of skintight jeans with no panties, and without bothering to wash first.

Like mother, like daughter.

Sasha smiled. "So. Does this mean I'm your date for your birthday party next weekend? I've always wanted to see Cedar Hill House."

Max wrinkled his nose in distaste.

"No."

"What do you mean, no?" The smile was gone.

"I mean no. I realize it's probably not a word you hear very often. But we're already at maximum capacity for the party, I'm afraid. Our security people have insisted, no more guests."

"Your security people?" Sasha snarled. "Who do you think you are? The president? It's a sixteenth birthday party, not a U.N. Security Council meeting. Uninvite someone if you have to."

"Ah, but I don't have to," said Max. "You got what you wanted, Sasha. I'll see myself out."

Walking back to Park Avenue, Max reflected on his afternoon's activities. He had not enjoyed the sex with Sasha Harvey-Newton, and he wondered why he'd agreed to go to bed with her in the first place. So he could boast about it? She was considered a good catch, after all. But to whom would he boast? It wasn't as if he had a bunch of male buddies whom he tried to impress. Max Webster needed approval from one person and one person only. His mother wouldn't give a damn that he'd wasted half a day balling some half-witted rich bitch who didn't even turn him on.

That's the problem. None of them turn me on. None of them can hold a candle to Eve.

Max loathed parties. He had only agreed to the joint birthday with Lexi because his mother asked him.

"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, my darling." That was Eve's motto, at least where Lexi was concerned. She was always pushing the two of them together. "There will be a lot of important people at Cedar Hill House that weekend. Kruger-Brent board members, all the major shareholders and business heads. You can't afford to let Lexi look like the star of the show."

There wasn't much danger of that. No one at Kruger-Brent took Lexi seriously. Not anymore. But, technically speaking, under the terms of Kate Blackwell's will, she still stood a chance of being appointed chairman when she turned twenty-five. Until he, Max, was safely sitting in the chairman's seat, he couldn't afford to get complacent.

Max's old familiar hatred of his cousin had taken a disturbing twist recently. Overnight, it seemed, Lexi had transformed into a sensuous, desirable woman. What made it worse, and more confusing, was that she was starting to look more and more like a young version of Eve. Lexi's mother, Alexandra, had been Eve's identical twin, after all, so perhaps it was inevitable that the likeness would be striking. Still, Max found this genetic irony upsetting. In fact, he found everything about his cousin Lexi upsetting.

The paparazzi had always loved her: the brave, beautiful Blackwell baby, the plucky kidnapping survivor. Eve had once contemptuously described her niece as "America's favorite cripple" and she wasn't far wrong. Now, thanks to Lexi's butterflylike emergence as a society belle, media interest in her life seemed to have quintupled. She was no longer the Blackwell Baby, but the Blackwell Bombshell. Everyone wanted a piece of her.

She loves every second of it, too, Max thought bitterly. Last Christmas, when they'd briefly worked together at Kruger-Brent, he had sensed Lexi silently watching him. As if she were trying to catch him lusting after her, the way that everybody else seemed to.

Forget it. Not me.

Why can't you just disappear? Go to deaf school, marry some other special-ed retard and get the hell out of my life?

Sasha Harvey-Newton didn't know how lucky she was to be missing Max's birthday party. He heartily wished he could have missed it himself.

"Quite a spread, isn't it?"

Tristram Harwood, head of Kruger-Brent's oil and gas division, was talking to Logan Marshall, who ran the mining businesses.

"I wouldn't expect anything less."

Neither of them had been to the Blackwells' Dark Harbor compound since Kate Blackwell's funeral almost seventeen years ago. It was wonderful to see the old house bursting with life and vitality again. Everywhere you turned, America's impossibly beautiful, privileged youth were laughing and talking and dancing with one another while their parents looked on, the mothers dripping diamonds while they gossiped, the fathers grumbling about the latest plunge in the Dow Jones and the new fortunes to be made on the Internet.

Cedar Hill House itself had barely changed since Kate's day. The same Vlaminck floral canvas hung over the fireplace in the living room. Even the rose-and-green-chintz sofas remained, providing a lingering touch of femininity to what was now a man's home. Peter Templeton had inherited the estate upon Alexandra's death, but for years he had found the house too full of painful memories and rarely visited it. After Lexi's ordeal, however, he'd brought her to Maine to recuperate. Slowly, summer by summer, Cedar Hill House had been allowed to live again.

"Ah, there he is. The birthday boy. I suppose we should go and tug our forelocks, get it over and done with?"

Logan Marshall followed Tristram Harwood's gaze. Max was on the veranda, surrounded by a gaggle of admiring teenage girls. In a Ralph Lauren suit and Choate tie, on the surface he looked the epitome of a preppy young gentleman. But neither the clothes nor the old-money, East Coast setting could completely conceal Max's feral nature. He reminded Tristram Harwood of a jungle savage whom some misguided anthropologist had "rescued" and dragged, kicking and screaming, into the civilized world. As if he might at any moment start tearing off his Brooks Brothers shirt with his teeth.

"Happy birthday, young man. I trust you're enjoying the party?"

Max turned around. He wiped the bored expression off his face and greeted the two Kruger-Brent board members warmly. He knew that his mother would be watching.

"Of course. My uncle's gone to a tremendous effort. And you, are you both well?"

Tristram Harwood nodded. "Very well. Business is booming."

For a sixteen-year-old, the boy sure had an adult way of expressing himself. Such maturity. Such poise. Everyone at the firm knew that Kate Blackwell's will favored Alexandra's offspring over Eve's. But when the time came to vote for a new chairman, all board members would be consulted. If they unanimously voted for Max, it would be difficult for the family to ignore their position. And really, how would a deaf woman ever manage to run one of the biggest multinationals in the world? The very idea was laughable.

Eve watched her son schmoozing with Harwood and Marshall and smiled contentedly. She was seated alone in a corner of the living room, next to the French doors that opened onto the veranda. In a full-length black shift, with an exquisitely hand-painted Venetian mask covering her ravaged face, she sat as still and unnoticed as a black widow spider while the party ebbed and flowed around her.

Good boy. Reel them in.

Tristram Harwood had always been a shameless opportunist. Years ago, he'd tried to seduce Eve on almost the exact same spot where he now stood sucking up to her son. Eve had toyed with him a little, until her grandmother stepped in.

"He's a married man, Eve, and a vital asset to the company. Leave him bloody well alone!"

Stupid old bitch. As if she, Eve Blackwell, would be interested in a lowly, chinless drone like Tristram Harwood!

Just then, Lexi appeared on the veranda. She had run up from the bottom of the lawn, followed by a ravishing boy. Her flawless cheeks were flushed from laughter and exertion. Eve felt her heart tighten and a ball of hatred swell in her chest. It was like looking in a twenty-five-year-old mirror.

She looks exactly like me. She's stolen my beauty. My youth. My power. Everything that was taken from me has been given to that cripple. Alex's spawn.

"Holy moly," Logan Marshall whispered to Tristram Harwood. "Somebody's grown up fast."

Max looked on as both men turned to admire his cousin. Lexi was indeed looking stunning. The dress his uncle Peter had bought her clung to her teenage body like shrink-wrap. Her hair, worn up for once and held loosely in place with a vintage diamond-encrusted comb that had once belonged to Kate Blackwell, was escaping in sexy tendrils around her beautiful face. Max felt the beginnings of an erection.

I hate her.

Just then, a loud crash from the boathouse caught everyone's attention.

"What the hell was that?"

A skinny, blond man with incredibly long legs and a long-lens camera slung around his neck was limping toward the harbor. Judging from the hole in the boathouse roof and the debris scattered across the grass, he must have been hiding behind one of the gables and somehow lost his footing.

"Get security!" A grim-faced Peter Templeton emerged from inside. "Someone go after that guy."

"Don't worry, Daddy," said Lexi as Danny Corretti hurled himself into a waiting motorboat and roared off into the night. "It's only paparazzi. I'm used to them."

"Yes, well. You shouldn't have to be used to them," said Peter. To Tristram Harwood he added: "These lowlifes follow my daughter around like a pack of hyenas. It's a disgrace."

Max's eyes were glued to Lexi.

A disgrace? Bullshit. She's loving every second of it.

A liveried butler emerged from the living room.

"Ladies and gentlemen. Dinner is served."

Robbie sat next to his godfather, Barney Hunt.

Barney asked: "So, are you going to play for us tonight? A live performance from the great Robert Templeton?"

Robbie spooned another meltingly good piece of Black Forest chocolate cake into his mouth and shook his head firmly.

"Uh-uh. No way. I'm off duty. Anyway, Dad hasn't asked me. He's got the entire evening choreographed down to a tee. I wouldn't want to upset him any more than I do already. You know, by existing."

It was said in jest, but Barney Hunt picked up the undertone of sadness.

"Come on. Your father loves you. He just..."

"...wishes I weren't gay. I know."

Lisa Babbington, one of Lexi's most beautiful girlfriends, caught Robbie's eye and winked at him lasciviously from two tables away. Clearly, the boy sitting beside her, Grady Jones, was failing to float her boat.

"Looks like your dad isn't the only one." Barney laughed. "Have you had much time alone with your sister yet?"

Robbie looked frustrated. "No. Every time I get near her, she's being whisked off to dance or for photographs. I have to fly back to Paris in the morning, but I can't seem to pin her down."

Barney glanced over at the top table. Lexi's place was empty.

"Hmm. I see what you mean."

On the floor of the boathouse, Lexi lay beneath Christian Harle trying not to feel disappointed.

Is this it? Is this really what I waited two whole years for?

She'd expected...what had she expected, exactly? Pain. That's what all the books said. A sharp pain, followed by something momentous, some life-changing, mind-altering feeling of bliss that she would remember for the rest of her life. This was Christian Harle, after all. Christian Harle! The biggest catch in Exeter, the boy who had filled Lexi's days and consumed her nights since she was fourteen years old.

After Lexi's kidnapping, the psychiatrists had told Peter that the trauma of sexual abuse would stay with her forever. "She may marry. She may have children. But it's unrealistic to expect her sexual relationships to develop normally." Once again, however, they had underestimated Lexi's willpower.

She would enjoy sex.

She must.

She would not give the pig another victory.

So why was sleeping with Christian such a terrible letdown?

Still inside her, Christian propped himself up on his forearms so Lexi could read his lips. Sweat was dripping from his forehead. His cheeks were flushed beet red. He did not look his best.

"Is that good, baby?"

Dear God. Is he talking to me? What is this, twenty questions? Why isn't the earth moving?

Lexi nodded, pulling him back down on top of her. She wriggled around, the way she'd seem Pamela Anderson do it with Tommy Lee on the Internet, and tried to breathe more heavily. Christian had clearly learned his technique from a different sex tape. He started doing some sort of strange, circular motion inside her, like someone vacuuming the interior of a car and wanting to make sure he got his nozzle into every nook and cranny.

At least he's thorough. Thoroughness is an underrated attribute in a man. One can never be too thorough, that's what my old nanny used to say. I wonder how Mrs. Carter's doing these days?

Above Christian's head was the hole in the roof where the paparazzo had fallen earlier.

Poor man. I hope he's okay.

Lexi stared up at the stars. She felt the muscles in Christian's butt and stomach tighten, then relax. The warm wetness between her legs gave her a brief feeling of triumph. Good-bye, virginity! I won't miss you. A few seconds later, the warm glow faded. Lexi started shaking.

"What's the matter?" Christian panted. "Hey, are you okay?"

He was looking at her, talking to her. But Lexi couldn't read his lips or see the concern on his face. All she saw was a pig mask.

One word and I'll slit your throat.

She screamed.

Christian Harle started to panic. Lexi's cries were unearthly and getting louder. She wouldn't stop screaming.

What's wrong with her? One minute she's all over me, squirming around like a fish on a hook. The next she's acting like I raped her.

"Stop it, Lex. Please! Someone'll hear."

Not knowing what else to do, he slapped Lexi hard across the face.

Miraculously, it worked. The screams stopped. Lexi watched, dazed, as the pig mask faded away. She found herself looking deeply into Christian Harle's terrified eyes.

You're just a boy. A kid. You're as lost and scared as I am.

What did I ever see in you?

She got to her feet, silently straightened her dress, and walked back to the house.

Peter looked worried. "Where have you been? Rachel says you went off to the ladies' room and never came back."

Lexi signed angrily: "I went for a walk. I needed some air, that's all. Rachel worries too much."

"Yes, well. The dancing's about to start. I thought it'd be nice if you and Max kicked things off."

Lexi looked at him incredulously. "Me and Max?"

"You are the joint hosts, after all."

"He's a freak."

"Lexi, come on now. He's your cousin."

"No. No way. Why can't I dance with Robbie? He's my brother."

Not for the first time, Peter was glad that so few people understood sign language. Lexi could be incredibly rude when she wanted to be, not to mention stubborn. He tried to make excuses for her. Her deafness must be horribly frustrating. Even so, it embarrassed him at times.

"Robbie's playing piano. Uncle Barney roped him into it. Look, Max is coming over now. I'm warning you, Lexi, don't make a scene."

So many bodies in a confined space had made the house stiflingly hot. Max had removed his tie and jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. With his tanned skin and jet-black hair, he reminded Lexi of a pirate.

All he needs is the cutlass between his teeth.

"Would you like to dance?" He spoke deliberately slowly, as if Lexi were incapable of comprehending ordinary speech. He knew how much it irritated her, and was delighted to see the flash of anger in her eyes as he led her onto the floor. At a nod from Peter, Robbie began playing, Strauss's "Blue Danube Waltz."

Lexi was aware of hundreds of eyes watching them as Max guided her expertly around the room. She disliked dancing. Letting a man lead went against her nature anyway. Being deaf and unable to hear the music meant she had to place even more trust in her partner than other girls did. Lexi did not trust Max Webster as far as she could spit.

"Just relax. Lean into me."

He overenunciated every word.

Lexi thought: I loathe you. Pressed against him, she breathed in the scent of his body. He smelled of sweat and aftershave. She was horrified to find herself feeling aroused. Why didn't Christian Harle turn me on like this? What's wrong with me?

The waltz ended. Robbie began playing another, and couples started drifting onto the dance floor. Lexi made as if to leave, but Max pulled her back.

"One more dance."

It was not a request. It was a command. Lexi contemplated storming off, but they were already moving, swept up in the rhythm of the waltz. Max spun her around so she could read his lips.

"I know what you've been up to."

Lexi ignored him

"You reek of sex."

The words were so unexpected, at first she thought she'd misread what he said.

"What?"

"So, who was he? Anyone I know?"

This time there was no mistaking him. The sneer on Max's face spoke a thousand words.

"Why don't I take a guess? Christian Harle. Am I warm? Everyone knows you've had the hots for that Neanderthal since seventh grade."

Lexi blushed furiously. Did everybody know? How?

"Maybe I'm jumping to conclusions. I guess it could've been anyone, right? You're probably as much of a slut as your mother was."

How dare he talk about my mother! Lexi felt sick. Violated. She tried to wriggle free but Max's grip was like iron. She could feel the friction burns forming on her wrists.

"Not so high-and-mighty now, are we?" Max taunted her. "What's it worth for me not to tell your doting daddy what his princess has been doing tonight? Or should I say who she's been doing? How about we go somewhere quiet, you suck my dick like a good little girl, and I'll forget I know anything?"

Max laughed, spinning Lexi around and around till she felt nauseous. Someone tapped her on the back. It was one of her girlfriends, Donna Mastroni.

Thank God!

"Lexi, some guy's here to see you. He says it's important. Security stopped him at the gate, but he won't leave."

With Donna standing there, Max had no option but to let Lexi go.

With a parting look of purest hatred, Lexi followed Donna into the night.

The man was short and sallow-skinned. In his midfifties, he wore a cheap, shiny blue suit. His shoes were worn and scuffed with age. He introduced himself as Tommy King and handed Lexi a ratty-looking business card with visible thumb smudges at the corner.

KING & ASSOCIATES

Investigations

(212) 965-1165

Glancing around to make sure she was alone, Lexi whispered: "We can't talk here. Far too dangerous."

Tommy King followed her to a secluded corner of the grounds, far from the prying eyes of the security guards.

"Can you do the job?"

Tommy King smiled, revealing a crooked row of teeth more gold than enamel.

"I can do the job, princess. But it might take a while. You haven't given me much to go on."

Lexi cut to the chase.

"How much?"

"A hundred bucks a day. We bill monthly. You get a progress report at the end of each month, photographs, any other material we've managed to dig up. Expenses are extra."

Lexi nodded.

"I'll need a deposit to get started. Seven hundred plus five hundred for expenses."

"You can have five hundred today. No more. I'll pay you the rest when I get your first report."

Tommy King scowled. Why was it always the richest clients who were the cheapest? The dress Lexi was wearing looked like it cost more than his apartment. Still, he figured, he shouldn't be greedy. If he played his cards right and strung the thing out, the Blackwell girl could wind up being a gold mine.

"Fine. Five hundred. You have it with you?"

Lexi fumbled down the front of her dress and pulled a tightly rolled wad of notes from her bra. Looking around again, she thrust it into Tommy's eagerly sweating hand.

After he was gone, she thought: What have I done? What if he runs off with that money and I never see hide nor hair of him again?

It was a risk worth taking. After years of saving, squirreling away her allowance and birthday and Christmas gifts in a secret account, Lexi now had over $30,000 in her own name. It wasn't a fortune. But it was a start.

The time had come.

Prepare to die, pig.

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