Authors: Lisa Lang Blakeney
"Why are you looking at me like that?" I blurt out before I even realize what I'm saying.
"How am I looking at you?"
"Like a piece of chicken."
Someone tape my mouth shut please.
He lets out a low chuckle highlighting that lone dimple again, which gives me the sudden urge to crawl up his body like a flagpole and lick the side of his face. I wish.
"I'm not a big talker, so I prefer to observe."
"Then why did you want me to have a drink with you? To just observe me?" I giggle nervously.
He moves closer to me. "Do you have a man Duchess?"
I look down at my feet when I answer his question. "Absolutely not."
"Oh, absolutely not. That's a strong statement. Not looking for anything serious are we?"
He lifts my chin with his fingers.
"Nope. I'm not looking for anything serious or casual." I hesitantly look in his eyes to gauge his reaction to my comment.
"Staying away from all men then?"
"Yep. They haven't been so good for my health." I try to joke when in actuality I'm serious as all hell.
He leans his head to the side. "So the fact that I have zero chance is what you're so eloquently trying to say."
I stare at him stunned. It was plain as day that he could have any woman he wanted, but was he actually saying he had some sort of real interest in me?
"I guess that's what I'm saying." I'm not even sure I believe the words coming out of my mouth.
"Something like that."
He pauses a moment and his body language shifts before he says the next thing.
"Have you ever had a no-strings sexual relationship with a man Duchess?"
I choke a little on my wine. He wants to have sex with me? That would be lovely if I wasn't such a scaredy-cat. There's no way in hell an inexperienced mess like me is going to sleep with someone like him. That's why I decide that I need to immediately shut this conversation down and get back to my party, before I say anything stupid like, No but I want one with you.
"Umm no, but listen, thanks so much for your help yet again, but I have to get back to my party. They're probably worried. Maybe I'll see you around."
And I ran out of there like a bat out of hell, before he could stop me.
Even though a small part of me totally wished that he would have tried.
I SHOULD HAVE STOPPED HER from running. That's what a smart man would have done. Damn she was beautiful. Those white jeans hugging every one of her mouth watering curves like a glove. Those perfect tits. That fucking mouth. Those eyes, almond shaped and evocative. I'd love to know what she was thinking about that made her eyes wary of me for just a moment, then warm, then something else. It's the something else that I'm most interested in. I'm not used to that type of layered reaction from a woman. I'm used to attraction and definitely lust, but not whatever that was.
I'm not a superstitious person, but there's no way in hell that I can't recognize a sign when I see one. I see this woman twice in a week and both times I find her on the ground needing my help. I made my mind up to start looking for her at The Lotus and not even twenty-four hours later, she appears to me like a water apparition to a thirsty man in the hot desert. At the very least, I need to know who she is, why she keeps ending up in the middle of the floor, and why the fuck she keeps running from me. I figure the easiest path to the information I need may be obtained if I head back over to the chatty blond bartender.
"I'm looking for Edmonds." I say to her.
"What do you need with him again?" She asks seductively. "Maybe I can help you."
She whips all of her hair to the side so that I have a clearer view of the side of her slender neck and her breasts. She has a nice rack, but she's not who or what I'm interested in at the moment.
"The woman I was talking to. I need to know which private party she's with."
"Why?" She asks with a tinge of jealousy in her voice. I'm used to women being territorial with me, and typically I enjoy it, but I don't have the patience for this shit right now.
"Do you know or not?"
Her mouth twists in disapproval, but she gives me an answer anyway. "She's in the Madison room."
"Madison?" I repeat.
"Yep." She says dismissively as she goes to take an order from another patron.
That's the room my party is in. Joseph's party.
The only other sign I need.
WHEN I ENTER THE DOORS OF The Madison room, I immediately start scanning the room looking for Elizabeth but unfortunately lock eyes with the old man first. I can see the disapproval simmering behind the frozen glare he's giving me. It's his birthday, and his precious Juliette threw him a party for which I am late. He's not going to say anything to me about it, but he doesn't have to. The look he's throwing my way says it all. My father has always been tough on me. I'm used to it. So I nod to him in acknowledgement of his birthday and in silent apology for being late as well. I'm sure he'll make me pay for it in some other way in the very near future.
When I was a kid and my mother took off for over three weeks, which was the longest stretch of time she had ever left home, I ran out of food and money and finally broke down and called Joseph. We weren't close like a typical father and son, but I was desperate. I didn't know it at the time, but my mother was suffering from bipolar disorder in addition to being an addict. She would sometimes leave to go on a binge but had never been missing that long. When Joseph came to pick me up he told me, "You're never coming back here again. So make your peace with it. You're going to be better than this. Forget about this place."
For a while, things were good. I tried to be the son that Joseph wanted me to be. Smart. Respectful. Appreciative. Controlled. Ambitious. The son of a rising millionaire. But I'd been taking care of my mother and myself a little too long in the 'hood to let go of all of my bad habits. My dirty mouth. My temper. My trust issues. My problem solving skills. My penchant for pussy.
As I grew older and started working for Joseph, my bad habits seemed to mushroom, and the distance between us grew even wider. Things came to a head when he politely announced that I had exactly seven days to find another place to live. I remember it exactly, because it was also the same day I came frighteningly close to killing a man. My knuckles were purple, bruised, swollen, and my fingernails still carried traces of the man's crusty dried blood underneath them. I hadn't hurt this particular man because he threatened my life or did something to seriously piss me off. I did it strictly because Joseph asked me to handle a work issue, which I allowed to get completely out of hand. While I definitely had given out my fair share of beat downs in the past, kicking someone's ass beyond the point of reasonable was an entirely different thing for me. Especially because I almost beat this guy to the brink of death.
The man's name was Carl. I'll always remember that name. Anytime I hear it my eye inadvertently twitches. He was in the ICU for five days, and they had to resuscitate him twice. Luckily for me, Joseph took care of the details, and I was never a formal suspect in the beating even though there was DNA evidence all over the place. It was filed by the police as an unsolved gang-related assault thanks to a few connections my father had at the precinct. Although I never faced any charges for it, there was something about almost beating a man to death that stuck with me.
It changed me.
And the change has been darkening, growing, and curling inside me ever since.
That's what my father sees when he looks at me - darkness, disappointment, lack of control.
Joseph comes from the very same humble beginnings that I do, and in order for him to carve out the immense success that he has, I understand that he's had to make tough decisions. Sacrifices. Choices that have cost him a lot. When you make those sorts of choices in life, there are always consequences, and he never likes to look back. I think I remind him of what's back there. What he comes from. What he's had to do. What he now looks upon with disdain and would like to forget. He's rather fucking hypocritical though, and sometimes I'd really like to tell him how much of a hypocrite he is.
Joseph started out his career doing exactly what I do. As a fixer. A man that other men hire to make their problems go away by any means necessary. He worked in the mailroom of a law firm where a then young and upcoming lawyer named Jack Mills hired him to make a paternity suit go away for one of his clients. No experience required. Jack thought he saw something in Joseph's eyes that told him that the problem would be handled. And it was. Joseph never talks about the details of how he handled that case, but rumor has it that he beat the crap out of the woman's younger brother until she agreed to recant her statement and drop the paternity case for a ridiculously low settlement. Something disrespectful like a settlement for a thousand dollars. It was the best beating Joseph ever gave in my opinion. It changed his life and mine in the best way possible. Sometimes I think he forgets that.
With the increased popularity of the Internet, cell phone use, and social media, it was easier than ever for the public to find out all about the trouble celebrities were getting into. This was great for Joseph's new consultant business, because he was gaining the reputation of being one of the best in the business. When it became glaringly obvious during my high school years that I inherited Joseph's natural tendency to fuck somebody up with little remorse, I then became his protégé. His heir apparent. Or more accurately put, his muscle. I do the shit that he no longer wants to do. The dirty stuff. The rough shit. But the reason why Joseph is still one of the most highly sought after fixers on the East Coast is because of his ability to handle problems swiftly, quietly and without loose ends. The Carl incident almost fucked up his pristine reputation, and Joseph never forgets mistakes, especially when he’s not the one making the mistake.
Carl was a two-bit dealer who was selling weed to a very popular teenaged Disney star, who he later decided to blackmail when the kid started using another dealer. I didn't understand why he was resorting to blackmail over one lost customer, but it wasn't my job to understand why idiots do what they do. It was my job to get him to see reason very damn quickly. Joseph's kind of reason. Unfortunately just when I thought Carl and I were coming to an understanding, he spat in my face. Something I don't take kindly to. So I pummeled him ... again. And just when I thought to myself for a split second that it wasn't my fight, that I should walk away and have Joseph find somebody else to deal with him, he managed to muster up the strength and the balls to tell me to "Go fuck yourself, you piece of trash."
And that was it.
Something snapped inside of my brain. Something old and festered, that I preferred to keep locked away deep inside of me, rose up front and center. And that's when I kicked Carl's ass one last and final time, until I made sure that he couldn't say one more fucking thing out of his swollen, bloody mouth.
During that final beating, my heart was racing as my fists hit the side of his skull, my breathing was heavy as I cracked and kicked in the sides of his ribs, and my nostrils were flaring like a wild animal's as I paced and circled around his limp body waiting for him to make a move. I felt alive and powerful as if it was an out of body experience. There was a definite high I felt when I was in the middle of a fight, but this was different. He'd called me trash, and like I said something snapped. I wasn't trying to fight him; I was trying to finish him.
Yet when I was done, and my breathing slowed, and I took a really long look at the man lying stock still in a pool of his own blood, I didn't feel justified or powerful or alive anymore. I was scared. Scared that I had killed the little fucker, and that I had enough blind rage inside of me to actually have done something like that. It hadn't been a fair fight. It hadn't been a fight at all. So I just felt like shit. Dirty. Like there was a layer of grime that no matter how much I wanted to, I just couldn't seem to get rid of. Like there was something really wrong with me that everyone could see. That my father could probably see.
Joseph fined me for my Carl fuck up. Three thousand dollars, which was a hell of lot of money for me back then. He said I needed to cover the costs of all the people he needed to pay off to make sure this stayed out of the news and off any do-gooder police detective's radar. He explained that normally it would have been five thousand dollars, but that I'd need the extra two grand to move out of his house in the next seven days.
Joseph also lectured me. Every day for three days. He wanted to make it very much clear that this was a business he built from the ground up, and that he wasn't going to let his "off-the-rails bastard son ruin everything that he'd worked so hard for." He emphasized that control was the key ingredient to his success, and that I needed to stay focused and show no signs of weakness ever again. He told me that he never wanted the ugliness of what we were sometimes forced to do in our work to ever show up on his doorstep. To dirty his clean life. His clean life with Juliette. And because I couldn't totally be trusted to keep those things separate and apart, I'd need to live somewhere else.
I HEAR THE SWEETEST LAUGH that I've ever heard.
The laughter of an angel.
It's floating above the murmur of all the voices in the room, distracting me from my father's disapproval, and I know instantaneously that it's her. I also know that if it's a man making her laugh like that, that I'm going to politely drag his ass out of Joseph's party and kick his ass until he begs for his mommy.
My father was right.
I sure as hell can't be trusted.