HOOKED

a love story of criminal proportions 

by Karla Sorensen & Whitney Barbetti

© 2017- Karla Sorensen & Whitney Barbetti

All Rights Reserved

Cover Designer: Najla Qamber Design, www.najlaqamberdesigns.com

Cover Photography: By Braadyn  

Interior Design: Jade Eby, www.jadeeby.com/services

 

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. The author acknowledges the trademark status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. 

 

 

Chapter One

Lucy  

 

“Holy pissflaps!” I yelled, running right into someone on my way out of my apartment. The Red Bull in my hand fell to the ground and shot liquid gold all over my legs. Glaring at Ronald—the asshole currently standing in my way—I said, “Do you know how expensive those are?” 

Ronald smiled at me, flashing a shiny tooth in the process—playing his clichéd part to perfection. Leaning his weight against the outside of my apartment, he replied, “I do. And do you know how many Red Bulls one could buy with the kind of cash you owe me?” He ran his tongue over his teeth as he took me in, and I reached behind me to slam my door shut, hoping to keep the fumes pouring off his body from soiling my apartment. 

“You’re not supposed to be here, Ron.” I picked up my now-empty can, dread filling my belly. I looked at my surroundings, expecting my parole officer to pop around the corner. That would just tie a bright, glittery bow right over this mess. “Consider this the first installment payment.” I shoved the can against his chest and turned to run down the stairs to the parking lot.  

“You’re not going to get too far,” he called out as I took in the fact that his truck was parked directly behind my car, effectively blocking me in.  

“Knock it off.” I rummaged in my bag for my phone to check the time. I had fifteen minutes to go to Dr. Watkins, but with Ron being a dick, I had exactly two minutes before I’d definitely be late. “Look, can we talk about this later?” I avoided looking in his beady little eyes, so sure I was that he’d be able to suck the soul right out of me just by eye contact.  

He took his sweet time coming down the steps and stopped just a couple feet from me. “I want my money, Lucille.” 

I curled my lip in disgust. I wasn’t sure which was more offensive—his use of my full name or the stench emanating off of his slimy-looking body. “I’ll get you your money, but I can’t get it if you’re blocking me from doing the things I’m required by the court of law to do.” Looking around, I lowered my voice. “And if my parole officer sees you slithering around my apartment, he won’t hesitate one second to send my ass back to prison. Which means you won’t get your cash.”  

He leaned in, and the scent of garbage penetrated my nostrils. “When are you going to get me the money you owe me?” 

“I get it,” I said, nodding slowly. “I understand why you keep showing up begging for cash.” I looked at his head, his thinning hair so greasy you could fry french fries in it and said, “Shampoo out of your budget?” 

Ron narrowed his eyes, which was a feat because they were already in snake-like slits. “For someone who isn’t in the position to test me, you sure have a smart mouth on you.” 

“Thank you.” I curtsied and then glanced meaningfully at his truck. “So about this truck. Let’s move it so you can find a shower and I can be on my way.” 

Ron, unsurprisingly, was unamused. He touched my hair, twirled one of his fingers in it. All I could think about was the number of places those hands had been, and I shuddered. “Where’s my money, doll?” he asked in a voice that wasn’t the least bit as sweet as his endearment suggested. 

I scratched at my arm, one of my tells when I was about to lie. “I have it, but it’s not easily accessible. Especially not when some dickface is blocking my car in.” 

His face perked up. “Are you on your way to get it?” 

“No, I’m on my way to group therapy. And if I’m late, Dr. Watkins is going to mark it in my file and then I’m going to have to attend more sessions with all those wretched people which means—like I’ve been saying all this time—less money for my old buddy Ron.” Ron was not my buddy. He was a drug dealer—my former dealer before I’d ended up in prison. I’d thought the year I spent behind bars had caused amnesia for Ron, but when he’d shown up on my doorstep a week after I got out, I knew I’d hoped for naught. And I owed him a mega shitload of Benjamins.  

“Maybe I should drive you to ‘therapy’—you know, make sure that’s really where you’re going.” 

Throwing up my hands in exasperation, I said, “Are you kidding me right now, Ron? Yeah, great idea. Have the drug dealer drive the reformed drug dealer and addict to her court-mandated group therapy. Won’t look even the slightest bit suspicious.” 

“They won’t know I’m a drug dealer unless you tell them.” 

At that, I let out of laugh. “You have a real knack for comedy, Ron. Because you’re totally right—you don’t look the slightest bit like a drug dealer.” I placed a hand on his shiny truck. “No, you,” I bobbed my head up and down his body, “in a truck that probably set you back, what, eighty k? Super legit. The coke clinging to your nostrils and the fact that I can see a dozen very clear needle marks on your arms—that’s all points to an average Joe, right?” I rolled my eyes at him, and nodded at his truck. “If you don’t move your fancy set of wheels, I’m going to have to back my car into it.” 

He looked doubtfully at my car, which, granted, had a bumper hanging off the back of it—a bumper I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to reattach with Hello Kitty duct tape. “You think that hunk of metal—what is that, three cars welded together?—can take down this?” he asked. 

I crossed my arms over my chest and gave him a look that dared him to challenge me. He may have been my former drug dealer, hell bent on getting his money back, but he was also somewhat terrified of me. “Fine.” He pointed a finger at my face. “But bring my cash by the end of this week, or else.” 

I didn’t want to ask him to finish that sentence because I could vividly imagine a number of things that “or else” could accompany, and not a single one of them sounded even the least bit pleasant. 

 

*** 

 

I walked into therapy with seconds to spare, snagging the chair closest to Dr. Watkins. I’d learned in my second week that if the good doctor couldn’t make eye contact with you, the less likely he’d encourage you to share.  

There was another empty seat, directly across from Dr. Watkins in the circle of hell he formed in the dark, former gymnasium with old folding chairs. Quickly, I counted the number of people in the room—five. Which was a normal number for our group, so to see a sixth, as-yet unoccupied chair, confused me. I took a quick review of all the people currently waiting for Dr. Watkins to begin prying into our brains.  

Ryan—the guy who claimed to be an accountant but was definitely some kind of assassin—was sitting in his normal spot, flanking Dr. Watkins on his other side. I suspected Ryan might be a cannibal, too, even though he repeatedly insisted he was an “accountant.” Okay, sure. That was as believable as Ronald being an upstanding dude.  

Next to Ryan was Molly—the girl who had legs that spread with a Pavlovian-kind of effect whenever she was near one of her hot professors. I wasn’t one to slut-shame, but it wasn’t a secret that Molly was addicted to banging much older, scholarly dudes. And, truthfully, she was probably the most normal one in the room—including Dr. Watkins. 

Beside Molly—and currently boring a hole into my skull—was Derrick, the rageaholic who had once ripped a door off with his bare hands. Not that we had seen that—it would’ve added a bit of excitement to our weekly chats—but he made sure to tell us in a quiet and not-at-all-creepy little voice when we hung around the juice boxes Dr. Watkins put out for us.  

And rounding out our family of deplorables was Brett, who had Walking Corpse Syndrome—which wasn’t zombie-related, much to my dismay. No, Brett believed he was actually dead—something he reminded us all the time, despite our collective disagreement that no, this was not an M. Night Shyamalan movie and he was not Bruce Willis.   

Dr. Watkins adjusted his glasses and then ran his fingers over his handlebar mustache as he looked around at us. I slouched in my chair, crossed my arms over my chest, and made sure not to make eye contact with him. I heard his sharp intake of air that indicated he was about to speak, but then the loud bang of the gym door dragged my attention away from our circle. The door to the gym was on the other side, in the darkened corner of the room, so all I could hear for three long seconds was light footfalls across the floor.  

Everyone in the circle turned their attention to the newcomer, just as Dr. Watkins stood and crossed to greet the man who stepped out from the shadows under the yellow light of the room.  

I noticed his coat first. Understated as it was, I could see the label from a mile away. A three-thousand-dollar coat was certainly not a drop in the bucket for me, unless I had nimble fingers and a large bucket with me. His face fit the big money look. His beard was trim and his parted hair looked effortlessly styled—but I could smell that expensive pomade from a mile away. Curiously, he didn’t look at a single one of us except for Dr. Watkins as they shook hands and the doc leaned in to murmur something in his ear. His jaw was set, and his dark eyes made me think of the handsome rogues on the yard sale paperbacks my mom had constantly left around our house. But unlike the Fabio-wannabes with their torn shirts, this man was clothed from head to toe in dark colors, which completely contrasted with my purple pleather leggings and white ruffled tank. Unlike me, he likely bought the clothes he wore—and in high-end stores, no less.

Molly tittered in her seat, and the movement temporarily distracted me. She was taking him in just like I was, but because she was directly next to the empty seat, she had a better, clearer view than I did. Lucky bitch.  

Dr. Watkins gestured to the seat and the other man paused for a minute before folding his tall body into it. Now that he was about ten feet from me, I could take in his shoes—also designer, and half a grand—and his jeans, which were harder to determine. I mentally tallied up the cost of his outfit and came to the conclusion that his ensemble cost more than triple what I owed Ron.

Which had my brain turning, percolating, calculating.  

He still didn’t look at anyone, and Dr. Watkins started exchanging pleasantries about how our week had been without even bothering to introduce us to the hot Mr. Moneybags—the man who could quite possibly release me from Ron’s clutches.  

I needed to get his attention.  

Brett was currently insisting that nothing had happened all week, because he wasn’t really alive, which caused likely-assassin Ryan to sigh in impatience. I had little doubt that Ryan wouldn’t mind making Brett’s delusion a reality. Molly had scooted her chair closer to the stranger, and I mentally made a note to squirt eye drops in her juice during the break.  

Nothing was within reach for me to draw attention to myself, and Dr. Watkins was a long way from addressing me. Not that that seemed to make a difference for the stranger, who was ignoring Brett’s whimperings that he could smell his flesh rotting. No, the stranger appeared to have found a spot on the floor much more interesting.  

Dr. Watkins’ no-phone policy was really cramping my style right about now. So I did the only thing I could think to do to get the stranger to look at me.  

I pushed off the floor hard enough to send my chair sprawling backward, knocking me out and on the floor.  

“Oh dear,” Dr. Watkins said. 

Molly gasped.  

Brett muttered something about me very likely being dead. 

Ryan grunted. 

And a hand reached down for mine as I lay on my back, rubbing the back of my head more dramatically than necessary. 

The stranger blocked the light with his head, but I could very clearly see his eyes. All dark, with long lashes. They weren’t frightening in their intensity like Ryan’s, or creepy like Ron’s. They were kind—but not quite warm. He blinked quickly, like he was trying to clear his vision to see me better. And his mouth set in a line that did delicious things to his jawline. I had an overwhelming urge to nibble right there.  

No need to scare the guy before we’ve even exchanged names, Lucy

“Here,” he said, as I clasped his hand, and he pulled me upright. His voice matched his clothing, all dark and … rich.  

And those clothes obviously concealed what must have been some seriously strong muscles, because he pulled me to standing with very little effort.  

“Oh,” I said, forcing my voice to sound breathy and damsel-in-distress like. “Thank you. I’m not sure what happened.” 

He righted my chair and then shoved his hands in his pockets, like he was already regretting having touched me. He looked me in the eyes once more and opened his mouth like he was going to say something, but abruptly he turned around and left me alone in a wake of confusion.  

Maybe he was gay. I looked at him again. No way, I decided, shaking my head. There had been something in the way he’d looked back at me. And there was no doubt that after he’d returned to his seat, he did his best not to make eye contact with me, but failed. More than once.  

The third time he begrudgingly looked at me, I felt the side of my lips tip up in a smile that I hoped looked more sultry than deranged and watched as his eyes dropped to my mouth.  

Molly had managed to scoot her chair even a little bit closer to him in the hubbub, but he wasn’t looking or even avoiding looking at her, which made me temporarily reconsider plaguing her with diarrhea during break time.  

But then she leaned over, her long blonde hair falling all over his knee—a move that was as calculated, but admittedly more graceful than mine—and I hoped I had two bottles of eye drops in my purse for extra effect. It wouldn't be a tragedy for Molly to have to spend the rest of therapy in the bathroom, giving me room to schmooze up to Mister Moneybags. 

 

 

Chapter Two

X

 

If I’d never questioned before this exact moment that Dr. Watkins was the worst kind of quack, this freak show would do it. Everyone’s eyes were on me, crawling across my skin like slinking worms, and it made me want to close myself back into the car and go back home.  The other guys had lost interest in me quickly, but the two women were trying to suck my soul out of my body with the way they zeroed in on me.  

I took a deep breath through my nose and edged my leg away from the blonde to my right as unobtrusively as I could manage, when all I wanted to do was plant my boot on her chair and shove it backwards. The smell in the massive, empty space of the gym was stale, and I wanted to be anywhere else.  

When I cracked my neck and stared up at the rafters in the ceiling, trying to ignore the rolling knot of nerves in my stomach, I heard the guy next to me shift in his chair with an obnoxious creak.  

“You shouldn’t even be able to see me right now, Doc,” he mumbled. “I’m not even here. I’m not even here.”  

I rubbed at my forehead and sighed.  

Dr. Watkins cleared his throat. “Derrick, would you like to take a turn and talk today? Did you try to interact with some new people over the last week?”  

Derrick glanced nervously at me and I clenched my jaw together.  When I turned my head away from him, I caught the eyes of the woman across from me. She had long brown hair that looked silky, and I rubbed the tips of my fingers along the tops of my thighs when I found myself wondering how it felt. Her head tilted to the side, and I wished she didn’t have the kind of big, long-lashed eyes that made me twitchy, made my muscles lock up. But the absolute worst part about her—beyond any of her individual physical traits—was that every single time I looked over at her, she was staring directly at me.   

Slowly, she crossed her legs and licked her pale pink lips. I darted my eyes away from her and looked back at Dr. Watkins, who looked far more exhausted than usual in my individual sessions with him. Generalized anxiety disorder, the tidy label that they’d given me years earlier when I was still in high school, wasn’t something I was ashamed of anymore. It was just a part of who I was, something that I listed right above my consuming desire for my privacy, beneath my obsession with working out, probably equal to my general likes and dislikes. It was just … who I was.  

Xavier Lockwood, age twenty-six, only son of a billionaire, neat freak, anxious wreck, occasionally paranoid, completely inept when a beautiful woman showed me a modicum of attention.  

Pleasure to meet you. 

I leaned forward in my seat, tuning out Watkins’ voice as he talked to “I’m not here” guy, and I braced my forearms on my knees so I could stare down at the floor. Her eyes were still trained on me, the Disney princess on the other side of the circle. I could feel them burning a hole in the top of my head.  

What did she think when she looked at me? Did she wonder what my kind of crazy was? We all had something, of course. It was why Watkins wanted me to come. He was my fourth therapist in six years, and I didn’t hate him as much as the ones that preceded him.  

“It’s not about sharing your deepest, darkest secrets, X,” he’d said the week before. “It’s about realizing that you’re not alone in the things you struggle with. You can just sit back and observe for a while until you’re comfortable, if that helps.”  

 Even the one word I’d let out felt rusty when it came up my throat. I hadn’t planned to help her, not until I was standing over her and offering her my hand. But no one had moved to help her while she laid awkwardly on her back, the chair impeding her ability to stand up easily. Unconsciously, my hand started smoothing back and forth, back and forth on the material of my jeans. We’d barely touched, because as soon as her feet were on the floor, I’d released her hand instantly.  

When you intentionally lived your life to remove yourself as much as possible from the outside world, it didn’t take long to realize how little you experienced touch from other people. My parents were not affectionate, though their attempts at micromanaging my life were epic. But I didn’t receive hugs from them, not even a casual thump on the back from my father when he stopped working at his financial conglomerate long enough to share a meal with Mother or me. I didn’t go to their house often, because the weight of their eyes on me, the expectations that they had for my life felt like a choking weight shackled to my entire body. But that weight, that pressing sense of responsibility, was the trade-off for the lack of affection that they probably didn’t even notice.  

Which is why the short burst of time that her hand slid into mine went off in my brain like a camera flash, like someone shot off fireworks underneath my skin. Even though I was curious if she was still staring at me, I didn’t look. The meathead who’d done nothing but scowl the entire time spoke, answered a question from Watkins in the sort of gruff, hard syllables that hurt my ears, and I leaned back in my chair again so I could pull my phone out of my back pocket.  

“Dr. Watkins,” she said from across the circle of chairs, her voice smoother and sweeter than I expected and the surprise was enough to make me lift my head in her direction. Her eyes, a greenish bluish gray that looked like someone dipped a glass bottle into fog, were looking into mine so unwaveringly that I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “What happens if someone breaks the phone rule?” 

“Well, Miss Connors,” he said distractedly, blinking over at her. “I’d ask them to put it away.” 

She narrowed her eyes at me and a hot flush covered my chest while I worked to hold her stare. Moving slowly, I slipped my phone back into my pants and she gave me that same little half smile from earlier that made me notice how pink her lips were.  

“Was that a question with a purpose, Lucy? Or were you just trying to find a way to add to the conversation?” 

Lucy.  She looked like a Lucy.  

For a brief moment, her eyes flicked away from my face to look at Dr. Watkins and I drew in a heavy, relieved breath. Her focus felt strange, and absently, I wondered if she knew who my parents were. Chicago was a big city, but people who ran in the social and financial strata of my parents had recognizable names to anyone who was paying attention. It’s why I’d made Dr. Watkins promise that he wouldn’t use my last name in the group.  

Lucy sighed, the sound dramatic and weighted. The girl next to me made a scoffing sound and shifted close enough to me that her shoulder brushed against mine. My skin crawled and I moved away from her.  

“So, did I ever tell you guys about the time I got this scar?” Lucy asked, leaning forward so she was able to lift the side of her shirt. I swallowed hard at the smooth curve of her waist, and the “I’m not here” guy choked on his spit when she arched her back to point at a long, thin scar.  

“No,” Watkins said, clicking the edge of his pen before he started writing. “But please, we’d love to hear it.”  

Lucy looked back at me while her shirt was still pulled to the side and I glanced away when she dropped it back into place. “Well, this was a few years ago. I woke up on this random boat, right?” Her hands made some waving motions in front of her. “Middle of the ocean, and I had no idea who I was, with this gunshot wound right there on my side.”  

I narrowed my eyes at her when she scratched lightly at the inside of her elbow. Briefly, I looked around the circle, and Watkins was the only one who was even listening to her speak. Real supportive group.  

"Sounds serious," Watkins said, eyes on his pad of paper. I glanced at him to see if he was being genuine, but he was harder to read than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unless you could read Hebrew, which I could.  It's amazing how many languages you can learn when you don't leave your house very often.  

"It was serious," Lucy continued.  If she realized I was the only one looking at her, she did a damn good job of hiding it. "I made it to Paris and found this bank that supposedly had my personal shit in a safe deposit box. So, when the bank dude opens it up, there's like … passports. Dozens of passports, so I figure I must be a spy, right? Or a criminal." Then she laughed like she'd just shared some inside joke, and I pinched the bridge of my nose. The girl next to me shifted and sighed, staring at her fingernails like they'd teleport her out of the room.   

"I thought you couldn't remember who you were?" Watkins asked. He was looking at Lucy now, his tone dry but his face interested. Maybe he wasn’t a quack at all, because, God, he was good. I hope he got paid a shit ton. "What made you think you were a criminal?"  

"Oh come on," I said in an irritated burst. Watkins and Lucy both stared at me in shock. "You don't actually believe her right now, do you?"  

Son of a bitch, Watkins looked away and scrawled something on his notepad. Lucy kept looking at me like the cat who ate the canary. I rubbed the back of my neck at her scrutiny, uncomfortable with the fact that not only had I spoken without thinking, but that I'd seemingly played into her strange little game.  

"Of course Doc believes me." She straightened her shoulders and held my reluctant stare.   

I rolled my eyes. "Let me guess, a pretty woman from the bank drove you around in her crappy car?"  

She shrugged her shoulders. "She had a friendly face."  

Why wasn't Watkins calling her out on this bullshit? “Listen, Bourne, that’s an appendectomy scar, not a bullet wound.”   

“Or maybe it was a really big bullet.”  She widened her eyes and leaned forward in her seat, and I found myself staring at the way her hair fell over her shoulder. “It was like, a fifty-caliber gun or something.” After she said it, she gave one of the bored looking guys a quick side-eyed look, but he’d fallen asleep in his chair. She frowned and then looked back at me. “Are you calling me a liar?” 

Watkins had stopped writing and was watching us with unconcealed interest.  

“I’m not calling you anything,” I said carefully, though in my head, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was a pathological liar. “But yes, it's highly unlikely that happened to you considering it’s fiction.”  

Her arms hooked around the back of her chair, which pushed her chest out. “Maybe the Bourne movies were based on my life.” She raised one eyebrow. “Did that ever occur to you?” 

“No.”  

She smiled at my curt answer, and the tiny glimpse of her white teeth made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Why was she smiling at me? I wasn’t being funny. No one ever thought I was funny.  

I blinked away from her piercing, stupidly green eyes and tried to pretend like I wasn’t obsessing over whether they were all staring at me, only giving a quietly spoken answer to the blonde next to me when she asked my name. Though, the more appropriate description wasn’t ask. She practically eye-raped me, leaning over at an awkward angle so that her pink shirt gaped open. I kept my eyes straight ahead on Lucy’s shoes when I begrudgingly answered. Dr. Watkins beamed at the fact that I’d responded, which made me sigh. The entire exercise made me feel fifteen again. 

My fingers tightened into a fist, and I longed to be home, working the punching bag in my customized gym in the finished basement.  

“Okay everyone,” Watkins said after another prolonged silence. “Thanks for coming. We’ll see you again next week.”  

 I stood from my chair so fast that it tipped over behind me in a loud rattle against the shiny gym floor, and I could hear the low puff of laughter come from Lucy. While I walked to the door, I could feel her eyes on my back the entire way, and I had to fight not to turn back around to look at her.  

The gym door popped open with a clang, and my driver Claude stood up from where he was leaning against the black Audi Q2, the most sedate of the cars that I owned, but rarely drove.  

Seventy-seven percent of car accidents happened within fifteen miles of home, and every single damn time I crossed within that fifteen-mile radius of my Lake Forest home, I swear I could feel the knot in my belly ratchet up a half a size in intensity. A professional driver already paid by my father to serve our family felt like the most prudent way for me to get around. Plus, Claude respected the fact that I detested small talk, unlike the typical taxi or Uber driver.  

Talking the weather with someone I didn’t really know made me want to gouge my eyes out on a regular basis. So when Claude opened the door with a brief nod and polite smile on his lined face, I gave him as warm of a smile as I was capable, which wasn’t saying much. As he rounded the front of the car and I clicked my seatbelt into place, I saw Lucy leave the building and glance at the car with slightly narrowed eyes.  

Then the car took off, and she was out of sight. I breathed easily for the first time in the last two hours.    

 

 

 

Chapter Three

Lucy

 

 

“Order up,” the cook called from the back, slamming his hand hard enough on the bell to make me grit my teeth. I glared at him and grabbed the plate, eyeing the mashed potatoes and their pool of gravy longingly. It seemed so long since I’d put carbs in my face. If I closed my eyes, I could remember the Eggo waffle I’d inhaled like it was yesterday. Probably because it was yesterday.  

It’d been more than twenty-four hours since I’d had carbs, which was an eternity in my world. I briefly debated stealing a spoonful of taters, but quickly dismissed it. Even thieves had standards—not many, admittedly. But swiping food from a customer’s plate was pretty much where I drew the line.  

Granted, I had eaten more than my fair share of leftover pieces of toast, long after the customer had left and paid their bill. Like I said, my standards weren’t many nor were they that high.  

After delivering the plate of warm, carby goodness, I retreated to the back where Kissy was washing dishes. “Need help?” I asked, grabbing a towel and picking up the silverware she’d laid on another towel.  

Kissy gave me a grateful smile. “Thanks. There’s something clogged in the dishwasher again.” She pushed her headband further up on her head, holding back the riot of black curls that poofed around her head like a poodle. As she leaned in, her head concealed entirely by the inside of the machine, I pocketed a fork and a spoon at the same time, and then resumed wrapping a fork, spoon, and butter knife in napkins. Silverware wasn’t cheap, but I was.  

“Found it!” Kissy exclaimed from inside of the dishwasher, unearthing a square plastic tag that she tossed onto the counter. “Wonder what piece of shit did that?”  

“Probably Marky Mark.” I nodded at the line cook whose pants were dangerously close to falling off his ass. “You know that wanna-be underwear model has the hots for you.” 

“Ugh.” Kissy shuddered and began washing her hands. “I don’t think he’s matured past the sixth grade.” 

As if his ears were burning, Marky Mark—whose name was actually James—pulled up on the waistband of his pants and then did this weird nod with his head at Kissy. I imagined his internal dialogue with that move to be something like, Hey girl. Lookin’ good. Some seriously eloquent shit, for sure.  

“But why would he put a plastic tag in the dishwasher?” 

I shrugged and discreetly pocketed a second set of silverware—just in case I ever had a guest. “Like you said, he hasn’t matured even into the teen years. Boys do stupid shit to get girls’ attention. And he got you to bend over, so in his book, he’s a genius.” 

Kissy blew out a breath and wiped the paper towels she used to dry her hands over her forehead. She was a natural beauty, with caramel skin and features that didn’t need makeup to make them stand out. Her blue eyes were the color of those commercials you see for tropical waters, which made her that much more striking. At twenty-one, she was two years younger than me, but had accomplished so much more than me that it was unfair that she was working as a dishwasher for a Podunk diner and not teaching kids trigonometry or whatever math she’d studied in college.  

“Is it busy today?” She asked, raising her arms above her head and stretching her neck back and forth.  

“So busy. Two tables. One of which has ordered water, so I’m sure I’ll get a big, fat tip from him.” 

Kissy frowned. “I don’t know how Marybeth is going to keep this place afloat much longer if business doesn’t turn around. We’ll all be out of jobs.”  

I equally dreaded and relished the idea of not working at the diner. The former because, well, it was my only source of legitimate cash at the moment. The latter because it was a total dump, and the pay was shit. “I had a dine and dash yesterday,” I told Kissy. “Fifty bucks. Goodbye groceries,” I said, dramatically blowing a kiss with my hand.  

“Come eat dinner with my family a few nights this week. We always have extras, and we’d be happy to have you.”  

Bless Kissy. Her kindness was admirable, but there was no way I’d take her up on her offer. Kissy was nice, but I’d seen enough of her dad to know that the dude was a total dick—and knowing me and my big mouth, there’s no way I’d be able to sit back and endure a dinner listening to him bitch at Kissy without opening my mouth or plotting ways to poison his food. Either would only serve to make things more difficult for Kissy, who was the sole breadwinner for her dad and siblings, so I just kept politely declining her offer. There were very few instances where I relished the fact that I had no family of my own, but being around Kissy’s was one of them. I’d rather have no family than hers. 

“Thanks, but I have to wash my cat.” 

“You have a cat?” 

“Sure do,” I lied.  

“And you have to wash him … multiple times this week?” 

“She’s a girl, actually, and she’s mostly an outside cat. Her name’s Garbage because that’s where she hangs out.”  

Kissy laughed and tossed a dishrag at me. “You’re such a liar.”  

“I know.” I sighed and folded up the last silverware set. “Sorry. I know you’re a great cook, but I’ve been on a kick with putting eye drops in the beverages of my arch nemeses lately, so unless you want your dad to destroy your apartment’s only toilet, it’s probably best if you keep me from coming over.” 

“Kind of you,” Kissy said on a laugh. “Maybe I’ll just pack up some meals for you anyway.” 

“That’d be great. I don’t remember the last time I ate a home cooked meal in my own apartment.” 

“You need to find yourself a boyfriend then, someone who’ll bring home Chinese or tacos or whatever the hell you’re craving in your time of need.” 

“Ugh.” I put the rest of the unused napkins away. “Yeah right. A boyfriend is just what got me in this position, and the only position I want to be in because of a man, is on my back.” I raised an eyebrow and Kissy giggled.  

“You strike me as a girl who prefers to be on top.” 

I shrugged. “I’m equal opportunity in that area.” 

“Hey!” Marybeth barked, coming around the corner. “I’m not paying you to gab, especially when there are customers waiting to eat.” She disappeared back around the corner and I turned to Kissy. 

“No, she pays me two dollars and thirteen cents an hour to serve greasy food to greasier people,” I said to Kissy after rolling my eyes. “I’ll catch you later.” 

Kissy gave me a sympathetic smile and I turned into the restaurant, pushing a smile to my face in preparation for whatever customer awaited me. Water-only guy was gone, his table empty of even the cup. I couldn’t judge him for that, because I already had two cups I’d permanently borrowed from the diner in my own cupboard.  

Around the hostess desk stood a man with his back to me, but I recognized him immediately and let the fake smile drop from my face. I half expected the grease in his hair to cause droplets on the back of his shirt, but at least he smelled marginally better than the last time I was in his presence.  

“Ronald,” I said, coming around the hostess stand and bracing my hands on it. “What do you want?” 

“You know what I want.” He raised an eyebrow at me and I narrowed my eyes.  

“It’s not the end of the week,” I told him. “You said I had until the end of the week. I’m taking every day until then.” I looked over the restaurant, grateful that Marybeth had disappeared from view. “You can’t just bother me at work—I could lose my job.” 

Ronald laid his hands on the hostess stand, far too close to mine for comfort. “What kind of cash are you pulling in from this place? Ten bucks a shift, with tips?” 

Closer to fifteen, but he didn’t have to know that. “So what?” 

“I don’t think you have the money you owe me. If you did, you wouldn’t be working for pennies here.” 

He wasn’t wrong. “Part of the requirements of my parole is holding down employment, Ronald. If I lose my job, my parole officer will be on my ass.” 

Ron’s answering smile was borderline clown-like in its creepiness. “And what an ass it is.” He raised his eyebrows and looked me up and down. “If you want to work off some of your debt, we can—” 

“Ha!” I exclaimed. “No, we most certainly can’t. Hell no, not ever. I’d rather die.” 

His eyes turned icy and he pinned my hands with one of his on the stand. “You know that can be arranged, Lucille. If you don’t get my money, I’ll have to get it out of you some other way.” 

“What, by selling my liver on the black market?” I sneered, and tried in vain to release my hands from under his.  

He leaned in, his lips inches from my face. “You think you’re so cute and untouchable, don’t you? Guess again, Luce. You’re all alone. Without protection.” Cold poured into my limbs, knowing what he said was true. “There are things I could do to you, things that would be very unpleasant, if you don’t bring me my money. You remember what happened to Angela, don’t you?” He pushed back a lock of my hair and I wrenched myself back.  

“I remember what you did to her. What you and Dale did to her.” Dale, his business partner. Every bad guy needed an equally bad guy to back him up. A chill ran through me. Though I didn’t know her, it wasn’t uncommon to hear about the deaths of those in the business—and in Angela’s case: the torture, especially.  

“Yeah,” he said, his voice low and threatening. “I got my money out of her. I can get it out of you, too.” 

Fear slithered into me like an unwelcome snake. Despite the debts I’d often owed Ron, he had never had the upper hand with me. Back when I was a hardcore drug user and dealer, I’d had people in my corner to back me up—just not the ex who’d landed me in all this mess. But since I didn’t run with the same crowd anymore, and the people I’d known before prison were either locked up, dead, or felt like I’d betrayed them, I was alone. Which is what drove my fear, knowing that Ron’s threats were not idle ones. 

“Let go of me,” I said under my breath, but with as much strength as I could. It was as if I could feel every molecule of grime on his hands, pressing into me.  

He let go and raised his hands in mock surrender. “Three more days.” 

Sweat broke out across the back of my neck. “Can you give me five?” 

His eyes narrowed into slits. “No. Three is what we agreed to.” 

I tried to think about when I’d get my next chance at Mr. Moneybags from group therapy, and realized therapy was four days away. I didn’t have a plan, but I knew I’d have to steal from him or persuade him to give me big cash. Though Molly had once taught me some exceptionally sexy moves around her stripper pole once, I didn’t think I had enough practice being seductive to persuade anyone to give me the kind of money I owed Ron.

“I need five,” I said, glancing toward the kitchen when Marybeth stepped around the counter. She frowned at me, no doubt misjudging my body language and the way I was glaring at Ron—who was most certainly not a paying customer today. “Please,” I said, hating myself for the way I’d cowered under him.  

He studied me for a moment, and I hoped my body didn’t betray the trembles that I felt in my legs. “Four.” 

“A long four,” I countered. “I might need the whole day.” 

He ran a hand through his hair, and I held in the cringe in thinking how much grease must have now coated his fingers. “Fine. Before midnight.” 

I nodded, still not sure exactly how I’d get him the money, but I knew I’d need to study X, as he’d called himself, better—and figure out what I could lift off of him in order to sell.  

Marybeth started walking toward us, which was exactly the last thing I needed. Oh hey, Marybeth! Have you met my drug dealer, Ron? He’s a real gem. Marybeth already thought very little of me—but she’d hired me anyway because beggars couldn’t be choosers—something we both acknowledged equally.  

“Go,” I said with my head turned so Marybeth couldn’t read my lips. I stepped around the hostess stand to block Marybeth’s approach but was halted by Ron grabbing my wrist and yanking me toward him.  

With his head bent and his lips at my ear, he whispered, “Don’t be stupid. I can hurt you in ways you don’t want to imagine.” And then he let go and stepped out the door, leaving me facing an angry-looking Marybeth.  

“What the fuck was that?” 

I could be quick on my feet when needed, but his parting words made me stumble over my words. “He wanted t-t-tuh-tequila.” I swallowed and glanced at the way he’d gone. “I told him we didn’t serve hard liquor and he got handsy, is all.” 

Marybeth put her hands on her hips as she looked me over, and I knew the lie was thin enough to see through. But she didn’t question it, or me, and glanced over her shoulder. “Table sixteen needs a refill.” 

Nodding, I moved around her, trying to appear as calm as possible as I picked up my customers’ cups and retreated to the kitchen.  

To make myself feel better, I swiped a salt and pepper set, but I still felt that pit of dread in my stomach. I’d need to come up with a game plan at the next therapy session because all of the stolen flatware and salt and pepper shakers in the diner couldn’t pay back Ronald.