9

At the beginning I worked most nights. I shared a one-room apartment with Sutton who arrived in Tanglewood more broke than myself. Every cent I earned went into investments some throughout the city in real estate others in the stock market. As my portfolio grew and my hourly rate got higher I stopped working—except for Saturday nights.


Even with a large nest egg the money I make in a single evening is worthwhile. My services are only for the elite women of the city those who can afford to throw thousands of dollars at pleasure.


And I enjoy my time usually.


The arrangement suits me but not everyone is pleased. When a knock comes on my door Sunday morning I know who it is before I check the security camera on my phone.


It is with great reluctance that I press the button to let her in.


I take a final swallow of espresso before I get up to meet her at the door. We exchange kisses on the cheek superficial pleasantries before she attempts to stab me in the back.


“Come in” I tell her genially because I have much experience with pretending.


Melissande gives me a dark look because she knows this. “Beatrix Cartwright booked you again.”


I stroll into the living room and recline on one of the over-plush leather sofas. Everything here is luxurious and modern and completely impersonal. The furnished loft was only going to be a stepping stone after moving out of Sutton’s but I’ve never seen any reason to leave.


“I thought you’d be pleased.” This is a lie. Nothing has pleased her for many years.


She sits across from me crossing her long slender legs revealing the edge of her garters. Always dressed to impress this woman. “Meanwhile the rest of your clients are clamoring for an appointment. This new girl is taking up all of your time.”


“So give the night to someone else” I say pretending my throat isn’t tight at the thought of not seeing Bea again. But I’ve never minded who booked my time before. I’m not going to start now especially when Melissande would see it for the weakness it is.


“Beatrix pays too well” she says looking annoyed despite the fact that she makes a neat forty percent for doing nothing but taking phone calls.


“Then why are you here?”


“You know why. Because you need to work more nights.”


“Non I’m doing very well. You are the one who needs me to work more nights.”


A sneer forms on her pretty lips. “Are you having trouble keeping it up more than once a week? There are medicines that can help with that.”


It does not bother me the insult. She used to be a whore before she became the madam. And like most women her hourly rates only went down and down. While mine only goes up. It is the curse of our genders but I will not quibble over it. “I work Saturday nights. That’s all.”


At my quiet certainty her face forms a pout. I’m sure that is effective on some men. Once it would have been effective on me but I learned not to trust her a long time ago.


Her dark gaze takes me in from my open collar to my fresh slacks to my bare feet. I am only beginning the day still comfortable and crisp. Her eyes heat in that familiar way that once would have made the back of my neck warm. Now I’m left completely cold.


“Or perhaps I can remind you of what it felt like to have sex every night. Several times a night. You were quite skilled at that once. Maybe that was only for me.”


“I was fifteen” I say my voice flat. “And horny.”


Rage flashes in her eyes. “Don’t be crass darling.”


I manage not to flinch when she says that. Darling. That’s where I learned it after all. A word to push someone away. “You know very well that I can leave you whenever I please and earn the same amount of money. More probably.”


She smiles probably not realizing how cruel it looks. “Then why don’t you?”


Melissande was a beautiful woman when I met her in the finest designer clothes and with her glossy hair in curls. She had so much money I could not have guessed that she was a prostitute for the wealthy men who came to the city. She took me into her penthouse suite and showed me what it meant to be a man—or at least what I thought it meant.


There was nothing keeping me in Tangier so when she offered me the chance to come with her to America I took it. Perhaps it should have alarmed me that we had to pretend I was her adopted son in the paperwork but I was too eager to come. Too blindly in love.


My lips twist in a wry smile. “Perhaps because I still have feelings for you.”


Her cheeks flush most likely with anger. She hates to be the subject of pity. But what else can I feel for her? When I realized she only wanted to whore me out it broke my heart. There are no feelings left in that organ now. No love and no warmth.


“I’ll give you seventy percent” she says flatly.


“Thank you” I say. “I will be happy to accept seventy percent of what Beatrix pays for Saturday night. But no more than that. One night a week. That’s all you get.”


She narrows her eyes. “There’s something different about this girl isn’t there?”


“Apparently she pays more” I say my voice dry.


“No something else. Is her pussy extra tight? She did mention her little problem. The virginity thing. I told her you would take care of that. Did it feel special Hugo?”


It’s been years since her digs could make me angry. And yet I feel it rising inside me now the need to tell her not to talk about Bea. It would only give Melissande power.


“But no I have not even fucked her yet.”


Her eyes widen her surprise real instead of manufactured. “Why not?”


“Perhaps because I’m making her fall in love with me. After all I did learn from the best.”


***


“Dim sum” I tell her twirling the last sip of wine in the glass. We’re having dinner again downstairs in Beau Ciel because it’s the only restaurant she can visit. For now. “They have dumplings with pork and lotus root. It comes fresh from the kitchen because it’s the only restaurant she can visit. For now. “They have dumplings with pork and lotus root. It comes fresh from the kitchen still steaming as they bring it around to the tables.”


It feels explicit to describe this food to her especially the way her eyes have turned soft and sensual the sage green she gives me when she’s going to come. “Don’t” she whispers.


“You pick one up with your chopsticks. Have you used chopsticks before? No matter you can use your fingers. The dumpling will be soft and round but tightly held. You can bring it to your lips and—”


She makes a squeak. There’s no other word for the sound. Like a mouse. “I can’t go. I want to I mean I really want to but it’s not as simple as that.”


“But no I can have my car pulled around in two minutes flat.”


“I would have a panic attack.”


I can tell from the earnestness in her voice that she believes this. However I can also tell that she needs to overcome this that she will never fully be living until she does. It’s not only the fact of her existence in L’Etoile’s marble walls. Perhaps another woman would be content here. It’s the hunger in her eyes that becomes stronger every time I speak of a new thing she could experience if she left.


Bea must leave and somehow I’ve made it my mission to have her do it.


“Is there something we could do for a panic? Perhaps a breathing technique. Or a medicine.”


She’s already shaking her head. “There’s nothing.”


I give her a dubious look. “How can you be sure? They have many advancements. And when is the last time you tried to leave?”


She picks at her steak. From here I can see that it’s perfectly cooked. Juicy. And completely terrible to a woman who can have only this and a small menu besides. “It may have been a while but that’s only because I learned my boundaries. I remember how it felt.”


“And how was that?”


“Like dying.”


That is no small feat to overcome then. “Have I told you about the little shop off Fifth Street? They serve a green tea gelato pressed between two fresh lavender macarons.”


Her eyes are darker again. It’s the sex look. I’ve been dreaming about it. My nights are filled with moss and fog. I’m searching for something for someone but never satisfied.


“I’ll have it delivered” she says.


I give her a look. “Non. You will have melting gelato and soggy cookies.”


“You don’t understand.”


“So explain it to me. You must have some kind of doctor yes? What does he say?”


“I have a psychologist yes. She comes to visit me once a month.”


“This time you will explain you wish to leave.”


Her eyes narrow. “You’re very bossy.”


I take her hand from across the table. “I would not dare to boss you. I only want to help. The way you look at me it seems like you want that too.”


She sighs. “Oh yes. Yes. But it’s impossible.”


Building an incredible celebrity without ever leaving this building that’s impossible. Hiring an overpriced escort to take her sweet virginity impossible. This woman does impossible things.


A sudden stroke of inspiration has me sitting up straight. “What about a piano? Don’t you wish to play on pianos other than your own?”


Her stricken expression is almost enough to stop me. Almost.


“Bellmont” comes a low voice behind me.


I turn startled to recall that we aren’t alone. There’s Damon Scott the proprietor of the Den. He’s a powerful and dangerous man in this city. And apparently one of the diners at Beau Ciel tonight.


My stomach tightens. I have been seen with my clients before. Of course I have. In some ways I am like an expensive crocodile leather purse. I am the toy breed dog they carry inside. Something to show how wealthy and fabulous they are. There is no shame for them or for me but Bea is different.


If they give her a snide look I’m not sure what I will do.


But the woman on Damon Scott’s arm—I remember her name Penny—she smiles at us. “Did I hear you mention pianos? We have a beautiful Bluthner grand in the library. I can’t play but we keep it tuned in case someone else can.”


Bea’s lips form an O of undisguised longing. “That would be incredible but… I really can’t. I’m sorry.”


Damon smiles genially though he must remember my profession. And he must guess who Bea is to me. “It’s perfectly fine. Anytime you wish to come have Hugo bring you.”


“Thank you” I tell him softly.


“A friend of yours is a friend of ours” Damon answers at the same volume.


I could not say what Bea is to me. A friend? A lover? But she is more than just a client and I have not even taken her virginity yet. What will happen when I breach her hymen? It should be a purely physical act but I’m discovering more and more that nothing is ever as simple as it seems with her.


“Bea is a very talented musician” I tell them.


“Oh it must run in the family” Penny says brightly. All three of us stare at her for a surprised beat and her lips twist. “Did I say something wrong?”


“How did you know?” I manage to ask because Bea looks too shocked to respond.


Penny scrunches her nose. “Was I not supposed to say anything? I’m sorry. It’s just that your father was so amazing. His work on computational lexicon is basically legend. I read his biography so I know about his wife and that he had a daughter. I shouldn’t have said anything.”


“No it’s fine” Bea assures her recovering her voice. “Truly. I was only surprised because people don’t usually recognize me unless they see my full name.”


“You have his eyes” Penny says as if offering a confession.


That makes Bea smile a little. “I know. And thank you for remembering him this way. It’s really such a gift that you remember him for the good in his life instead of…”


Instead of his tragic death.


Damon clears his throat. “I’ll see you at the Den Bellmont?”


“Tomorrow” I murmur unable to take my eyes from Bea’s melancholy expression.


And then we are alone. “Who’s your father?” I ask softly.


“Arthur Cartwright.”


I know him immediately though I never would have linked the tech magnate with Silicon Valley origins to the timid young woman trapped in a tower in Tanglewood. “The inventor.”


She nods. “The only thing he loved more than his work is my mother.”


“I’m sorry” I say knowing the memories are dark.


“I meant what I said. I’m glad that he can be remembered for the things he accomplished. I don’t think I’ve lived up to the family name anyway. Not with the way I’m stuck here. The way I panic at even the thought of going outside.”


“We can go to the Den. I would stay with you every second.”


She laughs though the sound wrenches my heart. “It’s impossible Hugo.”


I do not argue with words but she knows my thoughts.


“Come upstairs” she offers and my arguments evaporate into nothing. There is only her offer and the powerful knowledge in her eyes. Tonight.

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