“You’re an ass. Leave me alone.” I pretend to read my book. Marty grabs the pages and yanks it away. “Hey!”

“You tell me everything, why can’t you tell me this?” he says holding my book just out of reach. I make a grab for it and miss. He’s too damn tall.

“Because I can’t. And it doesn’t matter now anyway, because everything is all f**ked up.” I stop jumping for my book and sit down hard in the chair. It feels like a wave of hopelessness crashes into me. Suddenly, I can’t breathe and my heart is pounding. I grab the hair on the sides of my head and look at the floor, saying, “I can’t do this.” My breathing becomes labored, like I’m having an asthma attack.

Marty puts my books down and kneels next to me, placing his hand on my back. “Whoa, Avery. Calm down. Slow your breathing.”

Tears well up behind my eyes, but they won’t fall. For once, I wish they would. I wish I could just cry and have this part of my life over with. I rock in the seat. “I can’t do this.”

“Do what, honey? Be more specific.” Marty’s hand rubs small circles on my back. He leans closer to me. “Tell me, love. I’ll help you however I can.”

“But that’s just it,” I look up at him with glassy eyes. “You can’t help me, no one can. I have to do something that I don’t want to do. I’m f**ked every way ‘til Tuesday with no way out.”

Marty keeps his hand on my shoulder and looks at me with an expression that I can’t read. It’s not pity, it’s something else, more like pity’s bastard cousin. “Avery, you ever think that you’re alone because you want to be?” I bristle at the suggestion, but he presses a finger to my lips to shut me up, and shakes his head. “No, don’t talk. Listen. There’s a time for listening, and that’s now. I know you’ve got no one and that you’re all by yourself, but you don’t have to be. I’m here and so is Mel. You shut us out, Avery. When things get hard, you retreat into yourself and no one can get through those walls you put up. It doesn’t have to be that way. Friends are your family now. I know that I’d do anything for you, you don’t even have to ask.”

Awh fuck. His words trigger the tears and they rush down my face. Marty smiles at me, like he knows better. Maybe he does. Maybe I’m the one who’s f**ked up. Maybe I don’t have to do everything by myself, but I don’t know what that world looks like. The only people that I could depend on through thick and thin were my parents. Family was everything to them, to me. Now that I don’t have one, I feel lost, like I don’t belong anywhere, like I can’t fully trust anyone.

I wipe the tears from my face with the back of my hand.

Marty reaches into his pocket and hands me a clean, white hanky. It’s perfectly folded into quarters and creased like he ironed it. He holds it out to me.

I laugh, half choking on the phlegm in my throat. I take the hanky and dab my eyes before wiping my nose. “You made me cry. No one makes me cry.”

“Really?” he asks wryly. “Everything makes me cry. Why do you think I walk around with a hanky?” He grins at me.

I look down at the white cloth in my hands, damp with tears. The confession spills out of my mouth. “I was offered a position as a high dollar call girl. If I take it, it solves my money problems. I can finish school and move on with my life.”

“But…” he prompts, assuming nothing. Marty’s great like that. He doesn’t condemn me.

“But the obvious. But I’d be selling my body. But I’d be letting some stranger have sex with me. But, I’d be giving away my virginity to some freak…” my voice fades as I say the word, thinking of Sean.

Marty smiles softly and adds, “But you like someone else.”

I look up at him. “How’d you know?”

He shrugs, “Just a hunch. Something about the way your voice sounds, like there’s more there than you’re saying. So who is this guy?”

I look at my hands as I speak. “No one. I don’t even know. He helped me when my car got jacked. I’ve seen him a few times, and then I got the job offer. After talking to you the other day, I took it… I took the job because he was the client. Then, things got messed up, and now I can’t have him.” My voice hitches in my throat as I speak. Shaking my head, I ask, “What’s wrong with me? How can I like a guy who’s that twisted? He ordered a virgin call girl.”

“And you showed up,” Marty says, patting my knee. “Listen, life doesn’t always make sense. Maybe this whole thing’s fate, maybe you’re supposed to be with this guy in the end—I don’t know—but it seems to me that’s what’s holding you back.”

“What is?”

“That f**ked up guy. You’re totally sure that there is no way for him to be a client again?”

My eyes flick to his. I shake my head. “No, the madam was really pissed.”

“Then, raise the stakes. Tell her that it’s him or nothing.”

“And what if she says no?” I’m screwed if she says no.

“Then, you’re no worse off than you are now. Why not try to get the money and the man? Go for the gold, girlie. You’re only young once.” He bumps his shoulder into mine and smiles at me.

“Got any more clichés that you’re dying to use?”

“Nah, I just know how much they irritate you. Go find your boss, call girl. And if you work things out, I’m taking you shopping.” Marty gets a giddy look in his eye. “I saw this perfect little dress at Black Label. Any guy would love to rip it right off of you.”

I laugh and lean into his shoulder. The whole in the center of my chest, that painful ache that was consuming me, withers and I feel like maybe I can do this. I have to convince Miss Black to get Sean back. I can do that.

I think.


After promising Marty that we’d go shopping tonight, I head to my car. Pulling the seat forward, I toss my books in the back. When I go to push the seat forward, it won’t move. It’s not as cold today, but still—standing in a parking lot alone is asking for trouble. My track record for getting robbed is shamefully high. I yank the seat, but it’s stuck. I climb in the backseat and put all my weight into it and pull, trying to force it into an upright position. There’s a cracking sound and then seat comes free and falls back into place. I try to squeeze between the seat and the door so that it doesn’t get stuck again, but I don’t fit. So, I’m forced to climb through the bucket seats, head first, and I pretty much fall out the door. I stand, brush myself off, and jump into the car. I lean back before grabbing the seatbelt. The crappy old seat holds. I half expected it to snap off.

I start my magic car and head toward Miss Black’s. When I arrive, the place is bustling with people. I’ve never seen anyone here before. There are workers at desks. I hear a woman talking on a phone saying something about insurance for employees. Shocked, I stand there in the door way to the office with my mouth hanging open. It takes this many people to run a brothel? The phones ring nonstop. It’s like the call girl call center.

Miss Black spots me from across the room. She’s standing at an aged man’s desk, handing him a file. An irritated look flashes in her eyes and she quickly walks toward me in her tailored suit. She tucks the remaining files under her arm. “May I help you?”

Nodding, I look at her. “Yes, I believe so.”

“Very well, come with me.” Miss Black has perfect posture, even in those heels. She walks in front of me and I follow her back to her office, where she closes the door. “It is extremely unprofessional to arrive unannounced, Avery.”

“I’m sorry,” I say taking a chair. I sit on the edge of my seat and place my hands on her desk. Miss Black is leaning back in her seat, legs crossed. “I needed to discuss something with you.”

“I’ll allow it this time, however, in the future, if you want to speak with me, it has to wait until you check in on the weekend.”

“That’s just it. Since things got messed up the other night, I wouldn’t be checking in and I didn’t want to wait for you to call me. I decided that I’m not cut out for this.” My heart is pounding as I speak. I try so hard to keep my nerves off my face. My hands rest perfectly still on her desk. There is no tremor in my voice. “I’m withdrawing my application. Thank you.” I stand, like I’m going to walk away.

Her little speech about what a rare commodity I am is my only card to play. I’m totally bluffing. I need this job, but I want it on my terms. I step towards the door and reach for the knob. Miss Black doesn’t say anything until I’m ready to pull the door open.

“Wait,” she says. I stop and turn to look at her. “Please sit.” Miss Black straightens in her chair and leans forward, her eyes tracking me as I walk back toward her and sit down. “The other night was an anomaly. That is not the usual course of events. In all my time doing this, that is only the second time I’ve had to intervene. I apologize that it made you question your choice to work here. There are other clients who have been on our roster longer, that have a proven track record. I would—”

I cut her off, “I’m not interested. The thing is, I didn’t feel threatened the other night and while it might have broken your rules, he didn’t make me feel like a prostitute. I didn’t expect that to happen. I was the idiot who followed him outside. He wasn’t the one who broke the rule. I did.”

Miss Black looks at me with her dark eyes. The tips of her fingers press together one by one as she watches me from behind her desk. “You’re not telling me something. What is it?”

“I’ll consider staying, if I was given a second chance with that client. I won’t leave the hotel this time. I’ll do my job, and you’ll get your money.” My throat tightens as I speak. My heart is racing so fast. This scares the hell out of me. The whole thing, and here I am telling her what to do. For all I know, she has those beefcake ninjas locked in her closet and they’ll bust out and break my face for suggesting such a thing.

Miss Black stares at me. I don’t breathe. My tongue is between my teeth to keep me from spewing her with nervous chatter. Her index fingers press together and then she taps them three times, like she’s deciding something. “So, this is about money?”

No. “Yes.”

“And…” she prompts.

“And I didn’t think I could do this, but after the other night, I know I could follow through with him.”

“Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could get him back. We exchanged some terse words after the event.” Miss Black taps her desk. She glances up at me.

I rush out what I wanted to say. “Just tell him. If he refuses, then I’ll consider someone else. Are we agreed?”

Miss Black isn’t stupid. She leans toward me and says, “Something else is going on here, of that I’m certain. However, I’m not one to blow a business deal over suspicion. I’ll ask him, under the condition that if he says no, that you’ll continue working for us—that you’ll trust my judgment when I select another match for you.”