Dear Agony, Page 3Georgia Cates
“He can tell his wife he’s going to a concert with his buddy. I’m doubtful he’ll tell her he’s doing it with a woman half his age or younger.”
“Okay. Companion must be unmarried. That term has been duly noted.” She’s listening to me? I have a voice?
Vale stands behind me and points at my reflection in the mirror again. “That woman, Rose Middleton, isn’t a nobody. She isn’t filthy or stupid or a nuisance. She’s special and intelligent and beautiful and deserving of good things.”
I look down. I can’t help myself because I’m so uncomfortable with hearing her say those things about me.
“No. You don’t get to drop your head and look away. That’s what the old Rose would do. The new Rose holds her head high because she has no shame.”
“But I am ashamed.” I’m embarrassed about who I am. Who I’ve been. Humiliated by the things that have been done to me.
“It’s easy to see that you’ve been deeply wounded—and trust me, I appreciate your pain—but the past is the past. Today is your new beginning. Now look in the mirror and tell me who Rose Middleton is.”
Vale sees something in me. She’s willing to take a risk on whatever that is. For the life of me, I don’t know what it could be but it makes me want to . . . try. Try to be more. If not for myself, then for her.
Rose Middleton is special and intelligent and beautiful and deserving of good things.
They’re just words. I can do this. “Rose Middleton is special and intelligent and beautiful and deserving of good things.” I look down at the black leather covering my feet. “And I’m deserving of these.”
“Good. You’ve said the words. Now we have to make you believe them.”
Good luck with that.
Week one of training down—one quarter of my trial period behind me. So far, I’m not sorry I accepted this offer.
Life is good.
Agony, I don’t miss you. Hunger, I don’t miss you, either. Not even a little.
It’s been six days since I saw Vale’s physician for my head-to-toe assessment. I’m pretty sure I was tested for everything under the sun. And below the belt. Diagnosis: undernourished and anemic. No surprise there.
I’m being fed multiple small meals each day with healthy snacks in between. I haven’t experienced hunger a single time this week. Don’t miss digging through trash because I can no longer take the pain in my stomach.
I’m taking daily vitamins and iron supplements prescribed by the doctor as well. It may be my imagination but I think I already feel my energy level increasing. Good thing because I begin working with a personal trainer tomorrow. I’m glad because I need my body strong and fit for what’s ahead of me.
Every night, my weary body revels in a soft, luxuriant bed surrounded by the feel of fine linens. Unbelievable. Amazing.
I never knew what eight full hours of restful sleep could do for your body. No more waking every fifteen minutes because I’m terrified someone will steal my only possessions. Or slit my throat.
I could get used to this life.
Today is makeover day, starting with this mop on my head. I’m not sad to see what a professional can do with this hot mess. It needs a serious intervention.
The hair stylist, Gregory, removes my ponytail holder and shakes my hair so it falls over my shoulders and back. “What are we doing with this gorgeous head of hair today?” No one has ever called my hair gorgeous.
“I have no idea.” I haven’t had a proper haircut in years so I’m the wrong person to ask. Although I’m pretty sure he’s asking the boss and not me.
The boss. That’s what I call Vale in my head.
The boss steps up and takes control of the appointment. “I was thinking a gloss to boost the shine and cut some long layers. Maybe shorter pieces in the front to frame her face.”
My hair is thick and coarse. And troublesome. It’s been difficult to manage my whole life. Except for the time my mother chopped it off to my chin over the bathroom sink because she was sick of dealing with its unmanageability.
Why are you always so much damn trouble?
Everything about you is a hassle. Especially this hair. It’s just like his.
I am not dealing with this shit anymore.
Man, the kids at school made fun of that haircut for weeks. One of the more miserable times of my life. I thought things couldn’t get worse than my schoolmates laughing at my hair.
I was wrong.
So very wrong.
“Long layers are a good choice. It’s too pretty to cut short. But I’ll need to thin it quite a bit so it’ll be manageable.”
Manageable? That word is like hearing angels sing from above. “That would be great. And can you show me how to style it?” No one has ever taught me how to care for my hair. Or for myself.
“Of course, darling.” Darling. It’s the first time a man has ever called me a pet name and I didn’t mind.
I watch the dark hair falling around me and imagine the old Rose being cut away one lock at a time until only the new Rose remains.
The new Rose is special. She’s intelligent. Beautiful. And deserving of good things.
I repeat those words to myself ten times a day, just as Vale instructed. Seventy times this week. She says that if I keep saying it, I’ll eventually believe it. I’m waiting, but so far, no part of it has sunk into my thick skull.
“Vale tells me you’ll be starting classes at Tulane next week. That must be exciting.”
“It is. But it’s also scary.”
I was a vagrant last week. I’ll be a college student in five days. All because of Vale. I still don’t know how she managed to get me enrolled on such short notice. And with my less than stellar transcript.
“Only the first day is scary. Then college is a total blast.”
I doubt it’ll be much of a blast for me. When I’m not studying, I’ll be training with Vale. She was very clear about that being part of the tradeoff. But I don’t mind. I had no intention of partying anyway.
I’m used to being a loner, and I’m okay with that. I’ve never made friends easily. Been that way my whole life. I mostly shied away from other kids, especially after the story broke about my biological father. The kids at school were so cruel that I really had no choice but to close myself off. It wasn’t until we moved to New Orleans that I felt some semblance of normalcy and was able to make friends for the first time.
And that didn’t end well.
“Picked your major?”
“Not yet. I’m just taking the pre-requisite stuff until I make a decision.”
I should probably be driven to do something like counseling. I could probably help girls like myself—but I’m just so sick of that world. And tired of the fight. I need those things out of my life.
I want something different for myself. Success. Wealth. Prosperity.
All of the things I’ve been told I don’t deserve.
All of the things I’ve been told I’ll never have.
All of the things I’ve only ever dreamed of.
Three Years Later
“How’s the brothel business this quarter, Madame Vale?” V hates when I call her that. So, of course, that’s why I do it.
She leans back in her chair, arms crossed, eyes narrowed. Her spine isn’t the straight rod it is when she’s in Madame Vale mode. This is V. My V. The V I grew up with. “You can be such an irritating jackass sometimes.”
“I helped finance your cathouse so you could make a profession out of flesh-peddling. I wouldn’t be a very wise businessman if I didn’t ask how things were going.” Cathouse. Flesh-peddling. Those terms should really get her riled up.
“I’m going to kick you in your balls under this table and laugh while you choke on those shrimp if you don’t show my legitimate business the respe
ct it deserves.” If V says she’ll put her foot in my nuts, she means it.
Everything about Duets Foundation is a legitimate business. Its earnings prove it. “You know the only reason I mess with you about DF is because I love and adore you. And because it’s one of my most profitable investments to date.”
“I know. And it’s the only reason I’m not digging my spiked heel into your family jewels right now.”
The concept and brand Vale has created amazes me more and more every quarter. “You’ve created a highly successful business. I’m proud of you and your impressive accomplishments.”
“I wouldn’t have DF without you.”
I don’t believe that for a second. Vale has always been driven. Business-minded. Motivated to succeed. Even when she was a teenager, she always had some kind of moneymaking strategy up her sleeve. “I have no doubt you would have found a way to start up the foundation if I hadn’t been on board.”
“I imagine I would have had a hard time convincing a loan officer at a bank to finance my cathouse. Good thing my best friend is a multi-millionaire with money to throw at my flesh-peddling ventures.”
I never cared what Duets Foundation was about. I would have financed a snow cone business in Alaska for Vale. I love her that much. But lucky for me it was an investment with a concept I liked. I still like the concept. And I like the financial return even more. It’s been a win-win for both of us.
Vale slides an envelope across the table. “It’s the quarterly plus a substantial balloon payment.”
I hate when she does this. “That’s not necessary.”
“I want to pay off my debt as quickly as possible.”
Vale has no way of knowing that I won’t live long enough to see this debt paid in full. I’d prefer she keep her money. “Take as long as you need.”
“That’s not how I roll. You were generous enough to loan the money to me. I won’t take advantage of your kindness by not paying it back—with interest—in a reasonable timeframe.”
Vale is proud. I respect that she wants to clear her debt in a timely manner but she has nothing to prove to me. “I know exactly how you roll. It’s one of the reasons I worry you’re paying this loan back too quickly. I don’t want you to put your hard work and investment at risk. You should hold on to the capital.”
“Duets Foundation is doing great. Really.” I don’t doubt that for a moment based on the balloon payments she’s made this year.
Now feels like the perfect time to ask about her investment. “How is the special project working out? Your prodigy?”
“Rose is perfect. Couldn’t be working out better.”
I’m not sure how that can be the case. Rose hasn’t turned a profit for Vale since she took her in three years ago. “How much longer until you place her with a client?”
“I’ve actually been rethinking that decision.”
Vale initially said she’d invest two years in this woman. Two became three. Now, it sounds like she’s going to procrastinate about matching her with a client once again. “Why do you keep putting it off? Don’t you need to recoup your investment in her?”
“Rose is the best trainee I’ve ever had. I feel like I can utilize her talents far better than what I originally planned.”
Vale has a soft place in her heart for this woman and has from the start. She sends her to college. Gives her the best of everything. Treats her differently than the other Duets girls. “What’s going on with you and this woman?”
“She’s not like the other Duets. I’ve never seen a more loyal or dedicated trainee. She’s on a completely different level when it comes to judgment and intellect.” Vale’s face lights up like a candle when she talks about Rose.
I’ve been happy to stay in the background where DF is concerned. I’ve certainly never had a desire to meet any of the women Vale has taken on as a Duet. But this one . . . this Rose. I’ve become curious about her and the role she has in my best friend’s life. It’s impossible not to wonder why Vale thinks so highly of her, yet has never introduced us.
“Rose should be highly intelligent. You’ve sent her to Tulane for three years and spent a ton of money on her education. I presume she’s done well?”
“Wonderfully so. Rose is business-minded. She understands my company, and I believe she could be a huge asset to Duets. I’m thinking of making her partner and using her full-time to help me train new girls. I could double the number of new trainees coming on if I had her help. I could pay my loan back in half the time.”
Sorry, Vale. That isn’t going to work for me.
Vale and I have much different plans for her prodigy. “I think you’re absolutely right. Rose could be a huge asset to Duets but in a very different way.”
“You know I’m always open to suggestions.”
“I have a business proposition.” Vale sits straighter, getting into Madame Vale mode. “I will eliminate your remaining debt of two million dollars in exchange for Rose. I want her as my companion.”
A huge wrinkle forms across Vale’s brow as she looks at me, saying nothing.
I’ve never offered advice or thoughts or direction on how Vale should run her company. And although I’m presenting this like a business proposition, it isn’t in the least. Making Rose my companion has nothing to do with Duets and everything to do with me.
I need Rose.
I want her.
I’ve had this conversation with Vale a thousand times in my head. I’ve imagined her having all kinds of reactions but silence wasn’t one of them.
“What are you thinking?”
She hesitates before answering. “I’m not sure what I’m thinking. You’ve caught me off guard.”
I need her to say yes. “You know how much I work. My schedule isn’t conducive for dating. Women want time and attention—something I’m not able to give them.”
She’s looking at me as if I’ve lost my mind. I guess in this case, one could say I have.
She still isn’t offering a response. I have to be more persuasive.
“Your clients always return so that proves they’re pleased with the paid companion process. Maybe it could work for me too. And even if it doesn’t, even if Rose doesn’t work out as my companion, your debt is still cleared.”
“Any Duets girl will work as your companion.”
“I want Rose.”
“You say she’s intelligent and dedicated and loyal. By your own account, she’s the best Duet you’ve ever trained. You know me, V. You understand my need for excellence. I expect to have the best, which is why for two million dollars, I want Rose.”
“Rose isn’t going to sleep with you. You can forget that. It’s one of her stipulations.”
“I could find a piece of ass if I was after sex.”
“And I know you do.” Vale isn’t wrong.
I’m a man. I need a woman from time to time. I can’t help that the flesh-peddler doesn’t always approve of my choices in sexual partners.
Making Rose my companion is about something more. Something I’m not ready to tell my best friend. “I don’t want romance, V. I want someone there at night when I come home from work. Someone I can talk to over dinner. Someone to travel with me when I go out of town for work. I’m tired of being alone.”
“Why do this? Why not settle down with a nice girl and finally get married?”
Romance isn’t an option. A true connection is off the table. Any relationship I have must be on my terms. A paid companion is the only way to ensure it doesn’t become clouded with love or sex. “Too much work. This is the easy button. I have a loyal companion with zero commitment. I get to do as I please minus the hassle and nagging.”
“I don’t know. I need time to think about this.”
I don’t want to give her time. I want this agreement finalized tonight. “Come on, V. This is a no-brainer. My offer is above and beyond generous and you know it.”
“I’m not disput
ing that—and I wouldn’t hesitate if it were any other Duet—but you’re asking me to give you Rose.”
Vale has never cared so much about a trainee. “Who is this girl to you? Why are you so unwilling to release her from your hold?”
Vale lowers her eyes, breaking our contact. “She has come to mean a lot to me. I think of her as the daughter I never had.”
Vale and I share a bond I can’t quite label. We’re more than just best friends. We grew up together in the same house. Our relationship very much resembles that of siblings, minus the discord, so I’m a little taken aback by her hesitancy to accept my proposition. Yes, she had plans to use her to train new Duets, but couldn’t Rose do that during the day and still be home at night for me?
“I will treat her well. You never have to question that with me.”
She slowly shakes her head. “I don’t. Not even for a second. It’s just that . . . somewhere along the way, she became my companion. Trading her to you means giving up a relationship I’ve come to treasure. I’m not sure I’m willing to do that.”
“Not even for two million dollars?”
“It’s a generous offer, Bastien. Truly.” She’s really saying no?
It’s not as though she’ll never see her again. “You can still see Rose each day at the office.”
Vale looks truly pained by the thought of parting with this woman. It’s not as if I’m taking her to live in a different country.
I knew Vale had grown fond of Rose over the last three years. I guess it would be difficult not to when you live under the same roof and spend so much time together. But I had no idea Vale was so deeply attached to her.
She has come to mean a lot to me. I think of her as the daughter I never had. How did I not see that? Was I really working so much that I failed to see their growing connection?
“Rose and I made an agreement when she came on. She must meet and approve of any potential companion.”
“Rose gets to pick and choose her companion while the others must take whatever geezer they’re assigned to?” Damn, she really does show this woman favoritism.