sacrifices we make
“You’re sure you want to do this?” my way oversexed best friend asked me for what seemed like the millionth time since I’d walked through the doors of the nightclub where she worked—and played—the slut.
Dez was my rock. She held me down when life got too serious, and it was over-the-top serious at the moment. Dez was short for Desdemona, which loosely translated meant “of the devil.” She’d changed her name the day she turned eighteen, only because her parents refused to let her do so before then. Seriously, her parents had named her Princess when she was born, but if anyone other than them tried to call her that, it was a bar brawl in the making. Dez was crazy beautiful, the sort of bosomy babe you read about in all the romance novels: long, silky black hair, hourglass figure, legs that go on for days, and the face of a goddess. The only problem was that she carried herself like a biker chick. She also liked to test-ride all the models. Like I said, slut. But I loved her like she was my own flesh and blood. And considering what I was willing to do for my flesh and blood, that was saying a lot.
“No, I’m not sure, Dez, but I have to. So stop asking me before you make me change my mind and I go running out of here like the scaredy cat we both know I really am,” I snapped at her.
She never took my drama too personally, because she gave just as good as she got. Boy, did she ever. And she had not an ounce of shame for it.
“And you’re really willing to give up your V-card to a total stranger? Sans romance? No wining, no dining, no sixty-nining?” Her incessant questioning grated on my last nerve, but I knew it was because she loved me and wanted to be sure I’d considered everything. We had gone over all the pros and cons with a fine-toothed comb, and I really didn’t think we had missed anything. But the unknown was what worried me the most.
“In exchange for my mother’s life? In a heartbeat,” I said as I followed her down the dark corridor that led to the underbelly of Foreplay, the club where she worked. Foreplay: that was where my life would change. It was the point of no return.
My mother, Faye, was terminally ill. She had always had a weak heart, and it had progressively gotten worse over the years. She had nearly died while giving birth to me, but had managed to bounce back from that and countless other operations and procedures. There was no bouncing back now. Her light was fading entirely too fast.
She was so weak and frail at this stage that she was bedridden, but not before having been in and out of hospitals so much that my father, Mack, had lost his job. He had refused to leave her alone in the name of helping some stupid factory meet its production numbers. I never blamed him for that. She was his wife, and he took his duty as her husband very seriously. She was his to care for, just like she would’ve cared for him if the roles had been reversed. But no job meant no health insurance. It also meant we were forced to live off the meager savings account my father had managed to tuck away for their golden years. Ergo, purchasing health insurance was a luxury my parents could not afford. Fantastic situation, huh?
Things had gotten even worse. Faye’s illness had progressed to the point that a heart transplant was essential in order for her to continue living. That bit of news had taken a toll on all of us, but none more than Mack.
I’d watched my father day in and day out. He had been losing weight, his primary concern for his wife overshadowing his own care. And the dark rings under his red eyes made it obvious that he hadn’t been getting as much sleep as he should have, either. Be that as it may, he had always put on a brave face for my mother. She had accepted her imminent demise, but my father . . . he still held out hope. The problem was that his hope was diminishing. It was killing his very soul to watch her die a little more each day. I think a piece of him went with every little piece of her.
I had walked in on him one night after my mother had fallen fast asleep. He was slumped over in his recliner, head in his hands, shoulders heaving from his disheartened sobs.
He hadn’t meant for anyone to see him that way. But I had.
Never had I seen him so despondent. There was this nagging feeling tugging at my heart constantly that told me when my mother died, my father wouldn’t be far behind. He would literally mourn himself to death. There was no doubt in my mind.
I had to do something. I was desperate to make everything better. To make them better.
Dez was my best friend. My very best friend. I had always shared everything with her, so she was wholly aware of the situation. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and after seeing just how desperate I had become, she had finally told me about the more scandalous business that was conducted beneath Foreplay.
Scott Christopher, the owner, was what one might call an aggressive entrepreneur. Basically, he was a pimp, but not any run-of-the-mill pimp on the streets. No, he’d figured out a way to tap the pockets of those whose pockets were overflowing. His was a high-class operation, an auction where women were sold to the highest bidder. Foreplay might have been the face of his business, but the auction was his bread and butter. It was a big frat party on top, college kids finding their next hookup and getting so wasted they couldn’t remember their names, which was the perfect cover for the refined establishment underneath. From what I understood, some of the women—myself included—were participating voluntarily, while others owed Scott in some way. Selling their bodies was their last-ditch effort to repay him, even though it meant losing their freedom in the process.
Dez told me that the clients were always men with fat bank accounts. Even the world’s richest tycoons had a thirst for the kinkiest of fantasies—fantasies they would never want to see go public. For the right amount of money, they could find willing flesh and never have to worry about their secret getting out. But it was luck of the draw—I could end up with someone gracious and kind, or a total tyrant who enjoyed dominating his property. If history was any indication, I’d end up with the latter. I hadn’t exactly had the best of luck in my life, so why should I believe the powers that be would grant me any favors now?
My mother’s illness had required constant sacrifice not only from my father but from me as well. It wasn’t like I was resentful, but instead of going to college, I had stayed home with her so that my father could work. Now that he didn’t have a job, they saw no reason for me to feel obligated to stick around. I’d never felt obligated. She was my mother, and I loved her. Besides, I still hadn’t made up my mind about what I wanted to do with my future anyway. You’d think a woman of twenty-four would have had her life together, but no, not really.
It might have been a pretty low move on my part, getting their hopes up and all, but like I said, hope was something that was lacking in my household, and it certainly couldn’t hurt to give them a little. So I managed to successfully convince my mother and father that I had scored a super-sweet, all-expenses-paid scholarship to NYU. Yes, I knew that wasn’t something that was likely to happen at this point in my life, but my parents didn’t know, and that made all the difference in the world. Being so far away from home meant I wouldn’t be able to visit as often, and as much as it pained me to be away from my dying mother for so long, it was absolutely necessary for my plan to work. If I was lucky, they’d never be the wiser. But you remember what I said about my luck, right?
The deal I had made with Scott was that I would agree to live with my “owner” for a period of two years. No more, no less. After that, I would be free to live my own life. Exactly what sort of life that would be at that point was yet to be determined, but I had to remain positive. Regardless, two years was a small price to pay to ensure any amount of time for my mother and, ultimately, my father as well.
The bass coming from the club music upstairs pulsed through the walls and took over my heartbeat, but I tried desperately not to wish I was up there drowning myself in booze and good times, like everyone else who had no clue about the secret outfit that existed right under their feet. The women down here were drowning in something completely different.
We stepped around the club doorman holding a VIP list on a clipboard. He knew who we were and why we were there, so he let us inside immediately. I almost lost my nerve as we made our way past the crowd of women that lined the hallway. They were an assorted bunch, some with a regal air about them and others who looked like this wasn’t their first time at bat, but perhaps it was the first time they’d made it to the big leagues. Each woman had a number taped to her bare stomach, and they were standing in front of a mirror that lined the opposite wall.
“Two-way mirror,” Dez explained. “Each client who comes in has a write-up on every girl on the auction block tonight. Then they’re herded in here like cattle and put on display for the high rollers. It gives them an opportunity to check out the goods so they can decide which desperate girl they might want to bid on.”
“Gee, thanks, Dez. That doesn’t make me feel bad at all.”
“Oh, hush. You know I don’t mean it like that,” she said, trying to make me feel better. “You’re way too good for this sort of thing, and you know it. You’re not them.” She motioned toward the other women in the hall. “But I get it. You’re doing it for Faye, and that has to be the most selfless thing I’ve ever heard of.”
Those other women could very well have had their own Faye at home, I thought as I averted my gaze so as not to make eye contact.
We reached the end of the hall, and Dez knocked on the door. A voice yelled for us to come in, but when Dez backed out of the way and motioned toward the entrance, I panicked. Full-on hyperventilation was only moments away, I just knew it.
“Hey, look at me.” Dez forced me to face her. “You don’t have to go in there. We can turn around right now and walk out of here.”
“No, we can’t,” I said, tremors racking my body no matter how hard I tried to steady my nerves.
“I can’t go in there with you. You’re on your own from here on out,” she said, unable to completely hide her regret and worry.
I nodded my understanding and ducked my head so she wouldn’t see the tears welling up in my eyes.
Dez abruptly hugged me to her chest and practically squeezed the air from my lungs. “You can do this. Hell, maybe you’ll actually get some good sex out of it. You never know. Don Juan might be on the other side of that mirror waiting to sweep you off your feet.”
“Ha! Not likely,” I scoffed, and managed to smile a little before backing out of her safe embrace. “I’ll be okay. You just make sure the jerk that ends up with me follows through on our deal. If he doesn’t, I expect you to send the FBI in here with guns a-blazin’.”
“Girl, you already know it. And you know the digits, so you better call me with status reports or I’m coming after you. I have to get back to the bar now, before I lose my job and the inside scoop on you. But remember that I sort of like you and shit.” Dez wasn’t one for the mush, but I knew that was code for I love you. She kissed my cheek and said, “Give ’em hell, babe,” before swatting me on the ass and turning to walk away. She wasn’t fooling me. I saw the way her shoulders curled in and she dabbed at her eyes with her fingertips when she thought I couldn’t see her.
“I sort of like you, too,” I said under my breath because she was already out of earshot.
I turned toward the door, psyching myself up before I lost my nerve and backed out. One thought of my mother, and I knew there was no turning back. So I opened the door and marched into that office to finalize the terms of my contract.
Scott’s office looked like something I might have expected for a Mafia kingpin. Plush carpet covered the floor, a beautiful chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling, lighted glass cases held various things I assumed cost a fortune, and fine art lined the walls. Classical music wafted from invisible speakers in an attempt to lure me into a false sense of security. The music and elegant décor lent the illusion of a refined establishment, which may have made the clientele feel more at home, but I knew better. You could put a suit and tie on a pig, but it didn’t change the fact that it was still a pig.
Scott was at his desk with a cigarette in one hand and a lowball of whiskey in the other. His feet were propped on the desk while he lounged back in his chair, his fingers directing an invisible orchestra like he hadn’t a care in the world.
He turned to look at me and grinned before sitting upright and butting his cigarette in a marble ashtray. “Ah, Ms. Talbot. I wondered if you’d grace us with an appearance tonight.”
Squaring my shoulders and setting my chin, I looked him in the eye. This was my deal, and I was in control until the money was exchanged. I wasn’t about to let Scott Christopher think he was anything other than the middleman he was. “I said I’d be here, and so I am.”
Excerpted from A Million Dirty Secrets by C. L. Parker. Copyright © 2013 by C. L. Parker. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.