Dear AgonyGeorgia Cates
Georgia Cates Books, LLC
Published by Georgia Cates Books, LLC
Copyright © 2017 Georgia Cates
All rights reserved.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
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Editing services provided by Marion Archer of Making Manuscripts and Karen Lawson, The Proof is in the Reading.
Formatting by Jeff Senter of Indie Formatting Services
Cover photography by Lauren Perry of Perrywinkle Photography
Cover design by Georgia Cates
Also by Georgia Cates
THE LOVIBOND COLLECTION
Tap: A Lovibond Novel 1
Stout: A Lovibond Novel 2
Porter: A Lovibond Novel 3 (TBA)
The Lovibond Collection: Tap, Stout
THE SIN SERIES
A Necessary Sin: Book I
The Next Sin: Book II
One Last Sin: Book III
The Sin Trilogy Bundle
Endurance: A Sin Series Novel
Jamie and Ellison’s Story
Redemption: A Sin Series Novel
Leith and Lorna’s Story
Unintended: A Sin Series Novel
Westlyn and Kieran’s Story
THE BEAUTY SERIES
Beauty from Pain: Book I
Beauty from Surrender: Book II
Beauty from Love: Book III
The Beauty Series Bundle
THE VAMPIRE AGAPE SERIES
Blood of Anteros: Book I
Blood Jewel: Book II
Blood Doll: Book III
The Complete Vampire Agape Series
GOING UNDER SERIES
Going Under: Book I
Shallow: Book II
Going Under Complete Duo
She’s here again. The woman who always dresses in black. The woman with perfectly applied cosmetics and long silky, ebony hair. The woman who sits with crossed legs on a nearby bench and watches me for hours each day.
The woman who’s after something from me.
She puzzles me. And pisses me off.
What could a well-put-together lady like her want with a girl like me? I have nothing. It’s impossible for her to think otherwise.
Look at me. I’m on Jackson Square in New Orleans wearing a ridiculous Mardi Gras getup I found in a dumpster. I stand motionless, imitating a mannequin, and holding a pose on the steps of St. Louis Cathedral. I’ve spent the last two hours praying for kindness and mercy in the form of a few clinks in my tin bucket.
A trio of guys around my age stops in front of me. The tallest one in the bunch steps close and waves a ten-dollar bill back and forth in front of my face. My mouth floods as I consider how much food that would buy. “All you have to do is move. Grab it and it’s all yours, honey.”
I hate when men call me pet names. Just another way of degrading me. I’m no one’s honey or baby or sweetheart or kitten.
And I never will be.
I consider abandoning my pose and snatching the money. Ten bucks would cover my supper tonight plus breakfast in the morning. Maybe lunch tomorrow if I’m frugal.
The guy’s friend punches him in the shoulder. “Make her work for it, dumbass.”
“Right.” He shoves the bill down the front of his jeans. “All you gotta do is go after it, sweetheart.”
I’ve been doing this long enough to know that going after it isn’t all I have to do. No one gives you something for nothing in New Orleans.
Maybe I should do as he asks . . . and give his balls a twist while I’m in there. That would show this dick I’m not his honey or sweetheart.
The runt of the group slaps his friend on the back. “Look at her face, dude. She’s thinking it over.”
The jerk is totally right. I am considering diving into his pants to go fishing for that money. That’s how hungry I am.
I’m a millisecond away from breaking pose . . . until I remember she’s here. Watching me. And something beyond my empty stomach won’t allow me to cave to these pricks in front of her.
I’ve always been stubborn. It’s gotten me in trouble more times than I care to admit. And it will this time too, ultimately costing me meals I so desperately need. But I can’t bring myself to do it. Not while she’s watching. And judging.
Don’t know why I care.
“Come on, Mark. Don’t waste your money on this chick. She’s ugly anyway.”
She’s ugly. Pff . . . like that’s the first time I’ve ever heard that. Like I’m not immune to hearing those words.
Let it go, Rose. Let it roll off your back. Just like you always do. These idiots don’t define you.
The triad of ass monkeys leave, and I’m relieved. Grateful they didn’t stick around to sling more insults in my direction.
I never let jackasses like those guys get to me. I learned to wear my skin like armor a long time ago but this incident is different. She heard them taunt me. This gorgeous woman, with the straightest spine I’ve ever seen, heard them call me ugly.
A tingle in my nose stings, and I will it to stop. But it doesn’t. My stare becomes blurred and I fight the urge to blink, afraid she’ll see my tears and mistake them for something they are not.
I’m not hurt. Emotional pain isn’t possible when there’s only emptiness in the place where you once had a heart.
I. Am. Pissed.
Pissed this woman is here again. Pissed I don’t know why. Pissed she witnessed my humiliation.
Her attention is unwanted. Being noticed by people has never ended well for me. And I’m sure it won’t this time either.
I’ve stayed below the radar of many in my life. I actually became skillful and cunning about it. Until that night. The night I let my guard down.
The night I can’t remember.
The night I can’t forget.
I’ve had enough of this—of her—and whatever it is she’s trying to pull. She needs to leave me alone and go away. Now.
I break pose, hold out my hands, and shout at the woman. “Whaaat?”
I fume when I see the amusement spread across her flawless face and red-stained lips. “Do you really have so little going on in your life that you get a kick out of coming here day after day just to have a laugh at my expense?”
She gets up from the bench and approaches, her hips swaying with each long stride she takes in her skyscraper pumps. I don’t know how women walk in shoes like those.
She flashes a business card and several one hundred dollar bills. “Use this money to buy some decent clothes. Rent a room for the night and get cleaned up. You stink. And then meet me at The Court of Two Sisters. We ha
ve reservations for seven thirty tomorrow night.”
One. Two. Three. Four. This woman’s seriously handing over four hundred dollars? For nothing?
Nobody gives you something for nothing. And they definitely don’t give you four hundred dollars for nothing. “I’m not a hooker.”
I’m calling her out on her MO. She needs to know I’m onto her and this little game she’s playing. “You’ve been watching me. I’ve seen you every day this week.”
She laughs, making me feel like I’m not privy to some kind of joke. “I’ve been watching you much longer than a week, Rose.”
Shit. She knows my name? “Who are you? What do you want from me?”
“That’s a conversation for us to have over dinner after you’ve made yourself presentable. Not while we stand in front of St. Louis Cathedral with you looking like . . . that.”
I’m further humiliated when this elegant woman points out the fact that I look like a fool. “You think I like dressing this way? You think I really need you to tell me I look stupid?” I’m homeless—and maybe I am a nobody in everyone’s eyes—but she doesn’t have to be so unkind.
“I think you’re dressed like that because you’re surviving the only way you know how. But I want to show you a different way. If you want to hear what I have to say, be at The Court of Two Sisters tomorrow night.” She drops the card and bills in my bucket. “If you’re not interested, at least spend this money wisely.”
I quickly retrieve the money from my bucket, stuff it into the wrap around my chest acting as a bra, and flip over the card.
Specializing in Mutually Beneficial Relationships
I’m not into girls, but I can’t resist watching her swagger and listening to her heels click away on the pavement until she disappears around the corner. So elegant and graceful and classy.
“Specializing in mutually beneficial relationships.” I have no idea what that means and I don’t care. I’ll worry about Vale of Duets Foundation after my belly is full, I’m freshly showered, and I’m snuggling in a real bed with a roof over my head.
Or maybe I won’t. I made her no promises.
Agony, please don’t allow this hope to grow if nothing will come of it. I’m barely hanging on. Barely hanging on.
I’m in disguise tonight. The cosmetics, the dress, the shoes. All are a mask, covering the filth beneath my surface. They’re a veil hiding my dirty past. And present. I wear them like a bandage over a wound incapable of healing.
I catch a glimpse of the petite brunette’s reflection in the restaurant’s glass window. I don’t typically like looking at her but tonight she passes for something she isn’t. Elegant and graceful and classy.
The girl looking back at me can pretend all she likes but she’s only different on the outside. Embarrassment. Shame. Agony. Those things fill her to the brim, yet leave her feeling empty inside.
I tug on the bottom of my black dress to smooth the fabric before entering the restaurant. Sure, my attire is a cheap knockoff of an outfit the beneficial relationship specialist wore a few days ago. It’s an absurd notion—and for the life of me I can’t explain why—but I want this woman to approve of my appearance. I want her to see that I used the few beauty skills I have, even if unsuccessful, to make an attempt at looking presentable. I don’t want her to be ashamed to be seen with me in public.
Instinct forces me to lower my head and step aside when I notice I’m standing in the doorway blocking a well-dressed man from exiting the restaurant. “So sorry.”
“Oh, no. Pardon me,” he says as he holds the door open.
I look over my shoulder to see who the kind gesture is intended for but find no one there. Me? This handsome man in a suit is holding the door for me?
This doesn’t happen.
Men don’t behave like gentlemen in my presence.
They taunt me with unkind words. Proposition me with money in exchange for filthy acts. Take what pleasures them without any regard for the pain remaining in its aftermath.
“Thank you.” I smile at the man as I walk through the opened door—and then something else that never happens, does. Eye contact. His eyes meet mine. And despite the kindness I see there, I’m overwhelmed by the urge to look away.
I want to glance back after I pass through the doorway to see if the handsome man is still looking at me. But I’m afraid.
Afraid he is.
Afraid he isn’t.
“Welcome to The Court of Two Sisters. How may I help you?”
“I’m meeting someone for dinner at seven thirty.”
“What name is on the reservation?”
The woman never told me her name. I only know what the card said. “Vale?”
“Yes. Your party has already arrived. Right this way, Madame.” Madame? I don’t think anyone has called me that in my entire life.
I’m led to a courtyard where strings of clear lighting are draped throughout the limbs of the trees. Looks like some kind of glimmering wonderland. Magical. Beautiful.
The woman, Vale, smiles when she sees me being escorted to her table. Has there ever been a time when someone seemed so glad to see me?
The host pulls out my chair and pushes it under me when I lower myself to sit. Surreal. “Your server will be with you shortly.”
The nearly black hair. The red-stained lips. Pale skin. All she needs to do is replace her black dress with a red, blue, and yellow one to pull off being Snow White. I hope she doesn’t turn out to be the wicked witch with a poison apple.
“I’m very happy you came. I didn’t know if you would.”
“I’m not in a position to forego a free meal. Especially in a restaurant like this.” I’ve walked past this place a thousand times and there’s always a delicious aroma in the air. I’ve wondered what it would be like to dine here because from the outside, everything looks so fancy.
She smiles and I can’t help but admire her white, perfect teeth. No gaps or overlapping. No discoloration. No weird underbite like mine. I’d love to have teeth like those. I’d smile all the time if I did. Maybe.
“You like this restaurant, huh?”
“Of course. It’s so nice. Who wouldn’t like it?”
She chuckles below her breath. “You are very easily impressed.”
A girl like me doesn’t get to dine in restaurants with cloth napkins and real utensils. I’m more of a fast-food/convenience store/street vendor kind of foodie. Unless I’ve made no money for the day and I’m forced to dumpster dive. That’s something I strongly suspect this woman already knows about me. And the burning question is why? Why me?
As much as I appreciate the money and free meal, I need to know what she wants. “Watching me. Giving me money. Inviting me to dinner. Knowing my name. What is this about?”
“That discussion is coming. But let’s enjoy our meal and some drinks first.”
A server appears, as if on cue to interrupt the debate I’m about to begin, and places a glass of wine in front of each of us. “Your dinner will be out soon.”
“But I haven’t ordered.” No way I’m leaving this place without a meal. That would be the ultimate disappointment.
“I took the liberty of ordering for you.”
The server looks at me. “Is that satisfactory, Madame?” Again with Madame.
Disappointment rushes over me like a cold shower. I don’t get to order food in restaurants like this. I really wanted to choose my own meal but I guess I don’t get to since I’m not the one paying. “It’s fine.”
“I promise you’ll enjoy the Chicken Oscar very much.”
I like chicken but I don’t know about the Oscar part. “Oscar isn’t in the e
scargot family, is it?” I’ll be so disappointed—and disgusted—if they bring me snails.
“Oscar refers to the topping on the chicken. It’s crabmeat and hollandaise, not escargot.”
“Thank God.” Doesn’t matter if I’m homeless or not. No way I’m putting something snotty like that in my mouth.
Vale nods toward my glass. “This wine goes very well with the Chicken Oscar.”
I shrug. “I don’t want to get in trouble for underage drinking.” A problem with the authorities is the last thing I need in my life right now, but I’m more concerned with keeping my wits about me.
“It’s fine, Rose. A nineteen-year-old having a glass of wine with dinner isn’t the worst thing that ever happened in New Orleans. It actually falls pretty low on the police list of concerns.”
Shit. She knows my name and age?
I get the distinct feeling this woman knows more about me than just my name and age. And it’s a total violation of my privacy. Why has she made it her business to know anything about me at all?
“I’m sorry. I can’t sit here and pretend this is a casual dinner being shared between old friends. You want something from me, and I’d really like to know what it is.” So I can run like hell if I need to.
“You’re a no-nonsense kind of girl. I like that about you. And it’s one of the reasons I chose you.”
Something about that frightens me. “Chose me for what?”
“I’m a business woman, Rose. A very savvy one who has made a career out of connecting people—very successful men and success-driven women—for mutually beneficial relationships.”
Ahh . . . the pieces are coming together now. “Your card says you specialize in mutually beneficial relationships. Is that a fancy way to say you’re a madam?”
I may be young and not well educated, but I can add two and two. “All signs are pointing in that direction.”
“The connections I make between men and women aren’t about sex. That’s not to say that the relationships never progress down an intimate path. They do sometimes, but sex is never the purpose behind the introductions I make.”