“You’re back,” she noted dully.
I attempted a charming smile, but had a sneaking suspicion it looked more like a self-conscious grimace. “I am.”
“I’m still not the right girl.”
“I still don’t agree.”
She sighed, turning her hand over and studying her nails for a moment as if I might very well be the most tedious person she’d ever dealt with. “The other girls have been asking about you, you know. They’d like a chance to get you alone in a room.” She swept her arm around. “You have your pick. Seriously.”
I frowned. “I made my pick. You.”
Her lips formed a thin line. “It didn’t work out.”
“It did work out. That’s what you’re afraid of. Why?”
Her eyes narrowed. “I needed money to pay for car repairs. I got what I needed and now I’m done. I found it … distasteful.”
A spear of hurt ripped a jagged path down my spine, causing me to wince. She watched me, and though her expression remained unaffected, her face paled slightly. “Just go, please,” she said, her voice cracking on the last word, right before she whirled away.
I took a deep breath, running my fingers through my hair, feeling sad and foolish. Crystal.
I watched her serve a few tables, her smile seeming even more hesitant than usual, her laugh more forced. You’re an idiot, Gabriel. She told you to leave. Go.
I finished my beer and paid my tab, finally walking back to the hallway where Anthony was sitting on his stool. I was going to give this one final chance and then this was it. He nodded at me.
“Will you tell Crystal I’m here?”
“She didn’t give me word she’d see you tonight, man.”
“Will you ask her anyway?”
Anthony looked at me and nodded slowly, surprising me with the sympathy that came into his eyes. As if he’d been in situations like this a hundred times with poor saps who came to this club, and fell in love with one of the girls, and were turned away. Typical, his look said. Sad, but typical. “Sure thing, buddy,” he said, standing and walking leisurely down the hall. I put my hands in my pockets and waited.
When he came back two minutes later, he motioned to me. “Come on back.” I startled, shocked. I had been expecting to say thanks to Anthony and walk to my truck. Hope soared in my chest. I followed him to the same purple-curtained room I’d met her in before and smiled at Anthony as he pushed the door open for me, nodding once before closing it again.
I rubbed my hands together, the hope suddenly mixing with nervousness. She was giving me one more chance, and I didn’t want to mess it up. I didn’t want to squander this opportunity, because this was it. I couldn’t come back after this—I was already skating the thin line between persistent and stalker. It could be argued that I’d already crossed it. Christ. I groaned aloud because it was true and the noise broke the silence of the room. There was a light knock on the door, and I frowned slightly because Crystal had never knocked before.
“Come in,” I called.
The door opened and a woman with short, spiky, scarlet-colored hair, wearing a black leather teddy of sorts and fishnet stockings walked in. “Hey, handsome.” She smiled, bright red lips parting to show white but slightly crooked teeth.
“Hi. Uh, I’m sorry but I was waiting for Crystal.”
She walked to the sound system, pressing some buttons before turning. A loud, seductive beat filled the room. “Crystal’s not available. She sent me. My name’s Rita.”
“She sent you?” I asked, my voice barely a whisper over the music. Why would she do that? She knew I wouldn’t want anyone else—knew I’d be unable to tolerate anyone else. Ah, God, that’s exactly why she’d done it. I told myself it was unreasonable to feel so hurt, and yet I felt it all the same. A sick feeling of betrayal.
“Yup.” She moved quickly toward me, pushing me backward onto the couch. I sat down with a startled intake of breath, and before I realized what was happening, she was on top of me, straddling my lap. My head filled with fog, a red, pulsing alarm. She leaned forward and rubbed her breasts in my face, the cloying sweetness of perfume mixed with the musk of unwashed skin. She smelled … dirty.
He’d smelled dirty.
My heart rate jumped erratically, and I turned my face away, cold panic sweeping through me at her unwanted touch. Run! Fight!
I pushed at her and she let out a surprised yelp as she fell to the side, landing on the couch next to me awkwardly. I scrambled up, my breath coming out in harsh gasps. “God, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
She glared at me. “What’s your problem? You don’t like girls, or something?”
I ran a hand through my hair, fighting to draw in air. “It’s not you, it’s not—” I needed to go. I was sweating and shaking and I felt nauseated. “I’m sorry,” I repeated, practically running toward the door. I flung it open and stumbled into the hall. Anthony looked up as I approached, his brow furrowing. I looked away. He didn’t say anything, just leaned back as I passed him.
As I was heading toward the outside door, Crystal appeared to my right, still in her waitressing uniform, holding a tray of drinks, having obviously come from the bar. She stopped in her tracks, her eyes growing wide as she took me in. The shame in her expression was little comfort to me in that moment. She turned her head and looked at the floor.
I looked away, passing by her, pushing the door open, and bursting out into the parking lot.
Well, now you’re in a fix, worst of your life. Are you going to make it better? Or make it worse?
Gambit, the Duke of Thieves
I hadn’t thought it was possible to hate myself any more than I already did. But seeing Gabriel fleeing the Platinum Pearl with a look of horror on his face proved me wrong. I’d done that to him. I’d set him up to face his worst nightmare. After he’d already suffered so greatly. I was cruel and selfish—a worthless bitch. If anyone deserved to be hurt, it was me.
It was just … it was just that he wouldn’t stop coming back, wouldn’t stop badgering me. Stop trying to justify it to yourself. Just stop. The real truth was that his unrelenting presence made me hope for things I’d given up on long ago, and the reminder of my own forgotten dreams had hurt in a way nothing had hurt in a very long time. The groping, the leering, being used, the dismissals, none of that hurt like Gabriel Dalton asking me to have coffee with him. Why? It was like he was dangling this delicious morsel of food in front of me—but directly out of reach—and I was hungry. God, I was starving. And he’d caused me to dwell on that, and it felt like a slow torture, the final crumbling of the very last intact piece of my heart. I knew that sort of hunger. I’d repressed it for so many years. Now I wanted things I could never, ever have. And I was tired, God, I was so tired of this empty life I led.
I sat at the top of my steps waiting for Kayla to arrive. My car was still in the shop but finally being worked on now that I’d paid my past-due bill. Thankfully, the part needed to fix it this time wasn’t too expensive. Still two hundred and fifty dollars I didn’t have, but I’d be able to come up with it if I was late with the rent next month. The vision of a notice stuck to a front door moved through my mind, my stomach clenching with the memory.
What am I gonna do now? Oh, Lord God, what am I gonna do now?
Bleakness fell over me as if the memory were a heavy, wet blanket. I attempted to shrug it off, but couldn’t manage it. Not today, not with Gabriel’s tormented expression sitting in the front of my mind.
My apartment was at the top of a three-story set of outdoor steps. What had once been a single-family home had been separated into three apartments, the set of rickety wooden steps to mine on the back side of the building. I gazed down at the concrete area below, the small parking lot that had once perhaps been a grassy area where children played. There were several small puddles from the rain that had fallen the night before, and another memory came to me. Mrs. Hollyfield holding my hand as I laughed and jumped from one puddle to another, splashing her with dirty water.
I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to block out the onslaught of emotion. God, why were all these memories, all these words suddenly running through my mind? I’d pushed them all away for so long and now, for some inexplicable reason, it was like they’d all shown up at my door at the very same time demanding to be let in, demanding I look at them when I really didn’t want to.
Still, the memory of the rain puddles persisted. I swore I could feel the cold water as it leaked through the holes in the bottoms of my secondhand rain boots, sense the distant rush of joy as Mrs. Hollyfield scolded me through her laughter and then pulled me into the comforting softness of her side and kissed the top of my head. I remembered gasping at the rainbows floating at the tops of the puddles as if they were magical, and Mrs. Hollyfield had agreed and told me there was magic everywhere if you were just willing to see it. I’d learned later that those rainbows were really nothing more than dirty oil floating on the surface of the water. And I’d felt deceived. What had seemed magical was really nothing more than grime. There was a metaphor somewhere in there about the direction my life had gone, but I was too weary to try to figure it out.