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Wicked Dirty, Page 2

J. Kenner

  Unfortunately, that theory wasn't ever put to the test, primarily because I passed out when Joy came at me with the needle.

  So instead of body art, I got a best friend.

  All in all, I figure that was a fair trade. Even if she does still tease me about the fainting.

  Now, I'm perched on the stool behind the reception counter and Joy's standing on the other side, her fingers tap-tapping on my dastardly little numbers. It's still an hour until closing, but the place is empty. So we're using the counter as ground zero for the recap of my financial woes.

  "You know I was just kidding," she says. "But honestly, Laine, I don't have a better idea. Unless you want to rob a bank. Or, you know, win the lottery or something."

  I thwap my temple with the heel of my hand. "You're brilliant," I say, slamming the notebook shut. "Problem solved."

  Joy rolls her eyes and shakes her head, making the colored gemstones that line the curve of her left ear sparkle.

  I lean forward and prop my chin on my fist. "Honestly, you're right. I should figure out a way to grab a few more hours. But I just don't know how. I'm already pulling shifts at Blacklist and Maudie's," I say, naming off our favorite bar as well as a local diner.

  "Plus, Mrs. Donahue's letting me come in once a week to deep clean sections of her house. And Jacob is paying me to walk Lancelot most mornings." My neighbor, Mrs. Donahue, is perfectly capable of scouring her own house, despite having just celebrated her eighty-first birthday. But she's a sweetheart who takes in stray pets and people, and she offered me the cleaning gig the minute she learned about my financial woes. Jacob, the UCLA business major who lives in Mrs. Donahue's garage apartment, is less of a sweetheart, but I'm not about to turn down the extra cash.

  "Jacob just wants to get in your pants."

  I grimace.

  "What? What's wrong with Jacob?"

  "You mean other than the fact that ever since he learned my first name he won't stop asking if I taste like candy?"

  Joy snorts. "Like you've never heard that one before."

  My name is Sugar Laine. Which, as names go, is about as bad as it gets. Couple that with blonde hair, huge brown eyes, and tits that I consider unfortunately large, and I probably should have chucked it all years ago and signed up to be a stripper or a hooker.

  Then again, maybe I got off lucky. I mean, my last name could have been Buns.

  That's me. Always looking on the bright side.

  Despite having saddled me with an utterly ridiculous name, I'm certain my parents loved me. Or, at least, I'm certain my mom did. And she always swore that my dad loved me, too, and that his sudden and unexpected departure when I was nine had nothing whatsoever to do with the way he felt about me or my little brother Andy, who lucked out with a completely normal name.

  Maybe Mom was right. But I'm still operating under the assumption that my father is a soulless, charmless prick who feels nothing for nobody.

  I figure if I'm wrong, he can damn well crawl out of the woodwork, track me down, and then bust his tail to prove it.

  My mom, though...

  Well, despite her unfortunate choice of names, she did love me. And when I once asked--after having been teased in fourth grade--what she could possibly have been thinking, she said that when the nurse put me in her arms, she thought I was the sweetest thing she'd ever seen. And what was sweeter than sugar?

  How could I get upset about that?

  I couldn't. So I didn't.

  But I did start calling myself Laine.

  An uncomfortable tightness grips my chest as I think about my mom. How we'd settle on the couch with Andy between us to read or watch TV. How she let me make Christmas cookies in July because every day should be like Christmas. How she used to listen to classic country music and cry, because she said it cleared her soul and refilled her well.

  Oh, God. I try to draw in a breath, and realize my throat is clogged with tears.

  "Hey?" Joy's moved around the counter, so now she's pretty much nose to nose with me. She takes my hand and squeezes, the pressure bringing me back to myself. "Hey, you okay?"

  "Sorry. Sorry. I just--I started thinking about my name, and that made me think about my mom and Andy and--"

  I break off, tears threatening.

  "It's okay. Come on, girl. Deep breaths."

  I sniffle and manage a wobbly smile. "I don't know what set me off," I say when I can talk again. I swipe the edge of my forefingers under each eye, drying my tears. "It's not like thinking about them is an unusual occurrence. Hell, I think about them every time I walk through my front door."

  My breath hitches and tears fill my eyes again. "Dammit," I murmur as I grab a tissue. "It's the house. I just can't cope with losing the house. It's all I have left of them."

  My mom and thirteen-year-old brother were killed when a drunk driver plowed his SUV into their car five years ago. I was finishing my first semester at UCLA, and they were on their way to pick me up so that we could celebrate by driving to Anaheim and going to Disneyland.

  They both died at the scene. The officer who found me in my dorm told me that it had been fast. That they wouldn't have suffered. I don't know if that's true or not, but I believe it because I have to.

  My mother had scrambled her entire life, waitressing, working temp jobs, manning the checkout stand at grocery stores. Her only asset was the house, which my dad had paid off before he bailed. But it hadn't been kept up well, and at the end of her life, my mom had a mountain of debt, a house in desperate need of repairs, and no money in the bank.

  Which means that I inherited the house, and pretty much nothing else. But if I don't come up with thirty-one thousand and change in the next two weeks to pay off a short-term equity loan, the bank's going to foreclose and I'm going to lose that last connection to my family.

  And I have no freaking idea how I can get that much money.

  "I'm so screwed," I whisper to Joy, feeling fragile and lost and alone. I'm only twenty-three. I should have finished college instead of dropping out so that I could work to buy food and pay taxes and fix the house. Hell, I should be applying to grad schools.

  I should be bringing my laundry home and begging my mom to do it for me while I harass my little brother. I should be going out to bars with friends at night, not actually serving the drinks.

  I shouldn't have the weight of the world on my shoulders.

  But I do. And I've accepted that. I'm dealing--I am. But any more pressure and I swear I'll shatter into a million pieces.

  "I can't lose the house." My voice cracks, and I hate that my weakness is showing, even to my best friend. "I can't. But they're gonna take it anyway."

  "The hell they are." She taps my notebook authoritatively. She's only three years older than me, but Joy is the maternal type. Originally, I'd thought she was the bossy type, but she'd assured me that I was wrong. "Leave this depressing pile of shit and come with me."


  "You need a drink."

  "I can't afford a drink."

  "Ha ha. I'm buying. Come on. Let's go."

  "Joy ... you're supposed to be working."

  "So? You need me."

  I hear the back door snick open, and realize that Cass--the owner of the shop and one of the best tattoo artists I've ever met--must be back.

  "I don't have any more appointments," Joy continues. "My instruments area all sterilized. My area is clean. And my boss," she adds in a much louder voice, "is not a raging bitch."

  "I heard that!" Cass calls. "And you're wrong. I'm a stone cold bitch, and you know it."

  Joy snorts, then calls out to Class. "You had a walk-in a few minutes ago. I told him you were gone for the day, but would be in by ten tomorrow. And I can stay if you really, really want me to, but poor Laine is having a shitty day, and she really needs a drink."

  "Joy! Don't you dare blame me for cutting out early."

  "It's Friday," Joy says. "I'll take whatever excuse I can get."

  "Careful, or I wi
ll turn into a raging bitch." Cass rounds the corner, coming toward us. She's wearing black leather slacks and a silver tank top that shows off the plumage of the amazing bird tattoo that starts at her shoulder blade and trails down her arm. Today, her hair is coal-black with red at the tips, so she almost looks like she's on fire. A tiny diamond stud decorates her nose--the piercing courtesy of my bestie, Joy.

  She's stunningly beautiful and always outrageous, and she's one of my favorite people. Now, she aims a wide smile at me. "Hey, Laine, how are you?"

  "Fine," I say, lying.

  "Broke," Joy says.

  I sigh. "An open book," I tell Cass as I glare at Joy. "Apparently, I'm an open book."

  Joy holds up her hands. "Hey, I can't lie to my boss. Who looks amazing, by the way. You went home and changed. Big plans tonight?"

  "Siobhan and I are having dinner with a few of the folks from her job," Cass says, referring to her girlfriend. "Tomorrow is opening night for her first big exhibit since she started working at the Stark Center. So she's nervous. I'm the designated hand-holder."

  "Me, too," Joy says, looking meaningfully at me.

  "I'm not nervous," I tell her. "I'm freaking out. There's a difference."

  "You're that bad off?" Genuine concern colors Cass's expression, and I immediately regret saying anything. I hate the idea of the whole world knowing the width and breadth of my problems.

  "It's fine," I lie. "Really. Things are just tight right now, and I'm looking for another job to add to the mix."

  "Hmm. Well, I can't afford to bring anyone on full time right now, but I could hire you for a couple of weeks. Answer phones. Clean. Help me organize all the paperwork."

  "Could you? That would be--"

  "Really nice," Joy puts in. "But probably not necessary."

  I turn to gape at her. "Um, yeah. Necessary."

  "You're awesome, Cass," she says, completely ignoring me. "But let's put a pin in it. I just thought of something that's a perfect fit for Laine. And the pay's stellar, too."

  "Yeah?" Cass looks between the two of us. "Well, if it doesn't work out, the offer stands."

  "What?" I demand. "What's perfect?"

  "Let's go get that drink, and I'll tell you." She aims puppy dog eyes at Cass. "Just this one time. Laine needs me."

  Cass shakes her head in mock exasperation. "Go. I'll close up. But you open tomorrow," she says.

  "Deal. We'll go to Blacklist," she adds, turning her attention back to me. She winks. "Since you work there, maybe they'll give us drinks for free."

  I grimace. "I'd rather David let me pick up a shift."

  Like my house, Totally Tattoo is located on some prime real estate. The street runs perpendicular to the beach, just a few blocks from the boardwalk. As soon as we step out the door, we turn right, so we're walking away from the Pacific. The sun is low over the ocean behind us, and our shadows stretch out on the sidewalk, as if racing us to the bar.

  Blacklist is just a few doors down, with glass and wood exterior walls that open like an accordion, so that patrons can sit at tables that are both in the bar and also on the sidewalk. It's a Venice Beach icon that's been around since the Thirties, though it's now considerably more upscale than the dive it used to be.

  A couple is just leaving, and as we snag their table, Joy waves at Nessie, who hurries over with two glasses of water.

  "Hey, Joy. Hey, Laine. You're not working today?"

  I shake my head. "David said the schedule was full." I make a face. "Too bad. I could use the bucks."

  "I hear you there. I'm dying for this insane pair of Christian Louboutins I saw last week. And with tips and the allowance my dad sends me, I'll have enough to get them. I mean, I would seriously die if I had to wait another week."

  "I know exactly what you mean," I say, as Joy looks at the tabletop, obviously trying not to laugh.

  I order wine for both of us, and when Nessie is gone, Joy finally looks up. "Ya gotta love her cluelessness."

  I shrug. "Home foreclosure, fancy shoes. It's all about perspective." And, yeah, there are times when I wish that my perspective included a dad who bought me a convertible, set me up in a beach condo, and sent me a weekly allowance. But it is what it is, and I learned a long time ago that the only thing that matters is doing. As far as I'm concerned, wishing is for birthday candles, and that's about it.

  "What is it you want to tell me?" I ask. "What perfect scheme are you concocting that's going to keep the bank from ripping my house out from under me?"

  "Wait for the wine." Her forehead scrunches up as if in thought. "Actually, we'll wait until you're onto the second glass of wine."

  I lean back and cross my arms. "This isn't some multi-level marketing thing, is it? Because, no."

  "Oh, please. You know me better than that. No, this is solid--and lucrative. But you need an open mind."

  I add narrowed eyes to my already crossed arms. "Is it legal?"

  "Yes, of course. Technically, it's totally legal."

  "Technically? What does that mean?"

  She's saved from answering by Nessie's return with two glasses of Cabernet.

  "David said these are on the house. It's a bottle he got from a new distributor. Give him a thumbs-up or down and he'll call it payment."

  "What did I tell you?" Joy says, clinking our glasses even though mine's still on the table. "Here's to good friends and free drinks."

  "He also said that Carla can't come in tomorrow. If you ask him, maybe he'll let you--"

  "On it." I'm out of my seat before she even gets to the end of the sentence, and I wave to the regulars as I hurry toward the back.

  The inside of the bar is jam-packed with an eclectic mix of bikers, cops, locals, and buttoned-up business types. Venice Beach is colorful, and Blacklist is pretty much a mirror of the community.

  David's not behind the bar like he usually is on a Friday night, but Jerry, the bartender, tells me that he went to his office to take a call. I don't want to interrupt, but I also don't want to blow this chance, so I push through the swinging doors into the kitchen, then hover in the doorway of David's cramped office.

  He looks up, sees me, and gestures to the black metal folding chair that sits across from his battered wooden desk.

  I plunk myself down, and although I don't want to eavesdrop, I can't help but tune in when he starts talking about plumbing and wood rot. Those two are the main culprits in my current loan fiasco. About four years ago, not long after I met Joy, I had to deal with some serious repairs on the house or risk the city condemning it. Now I have to pay back the loan I took out to pay for the repairs to save my house ... or risk the bank foreclosing on it.

  "Bad news?" I ask when David hangs up. He's a former cop who looks like he stepped out of Central Casting. A burly, bear of a man with a shaved head and the kind of eyes that belie his take-no-prisoners attitude.

  "Damn restroom is a shit hole, no pun intended." He shakes his head. "I love this place, but it's held together with spit, Band-Aids, and chewing gum."

  He leans back in his chair, then kicks his feet up on his desk. "But you're not here to listen to me gripe. I'm guessing Nessie told you about Carla?"

  "I was hoping I could pick up her shift. I need it. The Band-Aids and chewing gum that are holding my place together were expensive."

  "I am sorry for that, Lainey. Damn banks. And yeah. She's only on the schedule from ten to two, but if you want it, you got it."

  I stand, relieved. "You are absolutely the best."

  He shakes his head. "Saturday night, and me short one waitress? Trust me, you're doing me a favor, too."

  "Either way, I owe you one." I almost put my arms around him--David acts gruff, but he's all Teddy bear--but I fight the urge. Instead, I say thank you about a half dozen more times, then practically skip back to Joy.

  "He said yes," she guesses.

  "Four hours on the clock on a Saturday night. That's prime tip time. It won't get me there--but it's something."

get you there? It won't even get you close."

  "Thanks so much for the reminder." I scowl at her. "You know, if you're going to pop my happy bubble, at least tell me your idea. That's why you dragged me here, right?"

  Her eyes dip to my wine, and I sigh, then swallow the rest in two big gulps.

  "There," I say. "And I don't want a second glass, so tell me now."

  She hesitates, but then speaks. "Okay, you remember the foot guy?"

  "That blind date from a couple of weekends ago? The one your cousin hooked you up with?"

  "Right." She leans forward, lowering her voice. "Well, it wasn't exactly a blind date."

  "What was it?"

  "An easy grand, actually."

  "Okay, you're going to have to run that by me again, because you can't mean what I think you mean." Except, maybe she can. Because right now, she's looking more than a little abashed, and Joy's not the kind of girl who gets embarrassed about, well, anything.

  I do a mental rewind and regroup. "You're telling me you got paid a thousand dollars for him to do ... stuff to your feet?"

  "Pretty much."

  "How--I mean, well, I'm not sure what I mean." I try again. "How did you meet him?"

  "My cousin. I told you."

  "Did she know when she introduced you that--"

  She lays her hand over mine. "You, my friend, are way too innocent. Marjorie arranged it, just like I said." She leans in closer, then whispers. "She runs an escort service."

  I gape at her. "Seriously?"

  Joy nods. "But keep it to yourself, okay. It's high end, and very discrete."

  "Yeah. Sure. But what's this got to do with me?"

  And that's when it hits me. Honestly, I can't believe it took me so long. I blame the wine. And the fact that never in a million years would I think that my best friend is trying to whore me out through an escort service.

  "Are you crazy?" I blurt.

  "Oh, come on. It's just sex."

  Just sex.

  Is there such a thing?

  That, of course, is a rhetorical question.

  Because no, there isn't any such beast. There are always strings. Always consequences.

  My first time, sex was like a weapon, and even though I'd been the one wielding it, I was also the one who got hurt. And the scars ran deep enough that I've avoided a repeat performance for almost five years now.

  Not that I've been a pure little flower during that time. I've dated. I've fooled around. There've been fingers and tongues and a couple of really nice orgasms. But I drew a line after that first, horrible night, and I haven't let anybody cross it since.