Wednesday, May 04, 2016

New Chapter for HOUSE OF THE SATIN GLOVE!



New chapter in HOUSE OF THE SATIN GLOVE!

Chapter 5 is called "In the Flesh," so if you've been following Scarlet's adventures in the world of gloved companions, you can guess what this means--she's about to meet the dark, mysterious billionaire Sebastian Bendt!

But you know women--part of the fun of a party is getting ready, and there's some high drama at the House of the Satin Glove with the cruel Snow...

Trivia tidbit: There's moment in this chapter inspired by the great SHOWGIRLS. If you love this wonderfully bad movie as much as I do, you'll identify that moment easily.

To upload the Radish app on your mobile device, go here!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

HOUSE OF THE SATIN GLOVE chapter 4 up at Radish!



Here, in my neck of the woods, it's a rainy day—a perfect day to read a continuing serial about a dark billionaire and a steamy mystery!

If you haven't read the first three free chapters in my Radish app serial HOUSE OF THE SATIN GLOVE, scroll down. I posted chapter four on the app today, and the mystery deepens as we actually (kind of) meet Sebastian Bendt, the shadowy man our heroine (kind of) encounters in chapter one...

To load the Radish app to your mobile device, you can go here! I'm having a blast writing this dark romance under another pen name, CrystalOh. The story is so VC Andrews to me! I hope you join me in the journey...


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Another *FREE* HOUSE OF THE SATIN GLOVE chapter!

Here's the third free chapter for HOUSE OF THE SATIN GLOVE on the Radish app. Be sure you read my previous entries with chapters one and two before you start this one. I hope you're enjoying this "steamy billionaire romance with a touch of mystery," because I'm loving it!



If you'd like to subscribe to the story, plus read other great ones like Hannah Hunter's paranormal ALPHA WARS: CLAN FAOLADH, go on over to the Radish reading app!

Now, for HOUSE OF THE SATIN GLOVE...


Invitation



I’d met Ms. only once so far, and that was when I’d moved into the House.
Mrs. Banks was the one who’d interviewed me. She also ran the residence, leaving Ms. to herself on the top floor. When I’d been introduced to the big boss, it’d been brief. Ms. hadn’t even bothered to turn entirely around to acknowledge me, just kind of glanced at me over her shoulder in a quiet and imperious way, showing half of her face, but that’d been enough for me to get an impression of her.
She was youngish, not more than thirty-five, and she had tea-brown hair that she kept in a low ponytail. She looked Japanese, yet she was also Latina, and she was small and slender. But underneath the tight pants and shirt she’d worn, I could tell that she was in shape, that she worked out in the House gym. I knew that for a fact, because the room was off-limits during the day so she could get her workout on. I had no idea what else she did while the rest of us girls usually slept morning through afternoon. Did she rule the world with conference calls? Make a million dollars a second with the stroke of a cyber pen? Who knew with this woman who didn’t have a full name? I couldn’t even get a bead on her with a cyber search, but I’m sure she spent plenty of her money on erasing her digital footprints, as well as decorating this pricy residence.
Now, as I stood in the doorway of her office, she kept her back to me, looking out the window at the sun peeking over Central Park. Her straight hair rained down her back in her trademark ponytail over the vest of a black jumpsuit. Posh, put-together, petite, and intimidating.
Without glancing at me, she gestured toward a fine leather seat that matched the rest of the modern décor.
“Sit, please.”
I felt odd, still decked out in my gown like a leftover party favor, but I closed the door and made my way to the chair. Gingerly, I sat. The room was so silent that all I could hear was my breathing and my heartbeat in my ears.
She looked partway over her shoulder, exposing a delicate profile. “Milton Tillman was pleased tonight. He praised you and Ebony, said you were like a golden age movie magazine come to life. He doesn’t give out kudos lightly.”
But, I thought, what about the shadow man? Had she checked in with him, too? Had Ebony been wrong about who he was? Was he actually one of her employees who’d been sent to measure me up and see if I was ready for my gloves?
That didn’t explain his scar, though, and that’s what I was mainly curious about.
If I’d had any balls whatsoever, I would have asked Ms. about him, but this was the boss. She held my future in her hands—she could either make getting my life back easier or harder.
I chose easier. “Thank you. Tonight was enjoyable.”
This time, she turned only enough to meet my gaze with a sidelong glance. Actually, it was more like she peered into me with an eye for detail, seeing if I was merely blowing smoke at her or if I was truly in to the life of a companion. And in that eye, I saw a world of color: a light brown glint of intelligence and experiences that she was careful to keep to herself. She might as well have been another shadow.
“I believe you,” she finally said, folding her hands behind her back. “Ebony vouches for you, as well. She sings your attributes and says you’re a natural.”
At pleasing men? My ex would’ve agreed with that. I’d been so busy pleasing him that I hadn’t seen the real Darius, King Asshole of Manhattan.
“Ebony,” I said, “is the best mentor I could have hoped for.”
“She’d like you to improve your musical skills but admires your talent for languages. We’ll have to put that to better use someday.”
Did she mean when I could actually talk to the clients?
When?
I smiled, just as I would have for one of the men. I was a good gloved one, a willing student.
When Ms. motioned to the other side of the room, I saw a wardrobe rack filled with gowns that were much fancier and richer than the one I was wearing. They had something in common—they all featured the color red in some way. Incandescent flashes in the material, tasteful prints, solids with crimson belts and bows and panels.
Holding my breath, I glanced at Ms. Did she know that, after Darius had worked me over, I’d been holding together some of my clothing with staples and safety pines? Was she here to rescue my fashion sense by giving me more to wear and that was all?
From what I could see of her face, she was smiling. “As always, our House seamstress will fit these to your specifications, although the designers already had your measurements.” She held out her hand, indicating her desk. “And the finishing touch is right there. Go ahead, see what it is.”
As I rose to my feet, my knees wobbled, but I got myself together enough to walk to the desk. On its shiny surface was a long box wrapped in a tied ribbon that resembled the viney pattern on my ingénue gloves. I reached out with shaky hands to undo the bow.
Could she be promoting me? Was she?
“Your gloves,” she said, as if she was even more eager than I was. Her level voice didn’t expose that, but there was something else there. Something I couldn’t put my finger on.
Yet I wasn’t about to analyze her tone as I opened the box to find my prize, the symbols I’d been working so hard for.
My gloves were red. A beautiful rose red, wine red, luscious red that made me itch to run my fingers over the satin.
Once again, Ms.’s voice barely changed. It became as scratchy as one of those old-fashioned records that Grandma used to play for me on rainy days.
“The color will bring out the auburn in your hair,” Ms. said. “And the green of your eyes.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, because all I felt right now was gratitude. Such gratitude that I’d stumbled on a chance to recover after being stabbed in the back by Darius. I had fallen into a world of satin and red and decadence, and the farther I descended, the more I wallowed.
“Put them on,” Ms. said in that quieter voice that might have even held a note of fascination. I didn’t ask myself why. “See how they feel, Scarlet.”
Scarlet.
That was me, the new me, the me that was going to rise from the ashes more powerful than I’d ever been.
Scarlet, like fire, like a fierce heroine from a timeless novel, except with one less “t” to my name.
Bad-ass Scarlet.
Enchanted, I picked up one glove and indulged myself, pressing it against my cheek. I thought I heard a small sound from Ms., but I was too busy loving the smoothness and the unexpected scent of the material: something old and vintage, as if I were taking the place of a Scarlet who’d once worn these gloves in nights past.
I went further, sliding it up my arm, marveling at how perfectly it fit.
“Scarlet,” Ms. whispered, almost as if I wasn’t even in the room.
I looked behind me, one glove on, the other in the box. Ms. was gripping a lapel on her jumpsuit, near her heart. She was still staring out the window as if there was another view out there, one nobody else could see.
“I love the name,” I said.
She stared a moment more, then blinked, straightening her posture and lowering her hand to her side. “It’s a name that hasn’t been used in years. The woman who had it loved wearing her gloves. She loved this life.”
Confusion settled over me. “How long have you been running the House? You don’t seem old enough to have been in charge of the other Scarl…”
Shut up.
As I clamped down on my words, Ms. got that vague smile again.
“I haven’t been running it all that long, but the House goes back decades. It’s stayed in the family.”
I knew that was all the storytelling I’d be getting from her even before she paused, then found her business voice again.
“There’s a special gathering coming up, and that’s part of the reason you’ve been promoted. I want you to attend as a full-fledged companion. The other ingénues still have more to learn, but you’re ready, and as you discovered when you were first invited into the House, this comes with an increase in pay.”
Yes! I thought.
But I wanted to know more about this gathering. My mouth started running before I could stop it.
“This wouldn’t happen to be a supper club, would it?” Because hadn’t Ebony told me that Mystery Man put on extreme ones, and wasn’t it a huge coincidence that he’d come back on the scene in time for this “special” gathering?
Ms. narrowed her eyes, even as she looked out the window. “I wondered if your sharp NYU-scholarship mind would catch on. I don’t like you girls to talk, but this is a rumor I can’t seem to put to rest.” She swallowed. “You saw him at tonight’s gathering.”
It wasn’t a question. “Yes, I did.”
“And seeing him led to questions about the stranger in the room. What was he doing there, and why weren’t you told about him? Why did he hang back from everyone else?”
I obviously wasn’t the only one who could figure things out. She’d nailed me.
Ms. sauntered away from me a few steps, presenting me with her back again. “His name is Sebastian Bendt. His few friends—and many enemies—call him Bash. The first group thinks the nickname is easier to say than his given name, but the second group? They say he bashes anyone who crosses him before they see it coming.”
Sebastian. Bash. A thrill rolled through me, tumbling and scratching, and I imagined him again: dark hair brushing his collar, the sheer size of him that made me wonder just how tall he was, the flare of his cigar, the crack of light providing enough illumination to make me think I’d seen a scar running across his face.
Had someone bashed him at some point?
Ms. had stopped where the wall met the window, and she reached for something that was sitting in a holder. It was a remote.
“What would you say if I told you he noticed you, too, Scarlet?”
I’d figured that much out, but hearing her say it… l burned. I ached. I was one pulsing heartbeat, my body booming and taking my breath away.
Ms. aimed the remote at a huge flat screen TV perched in an upper corner near the ceiling. The screen flickered to life, showing an icon that symbolized a video that was queued up.
“He sent this earlier. Watch it, Scarlet, then tell me what you think afterward.”
If her tone held a sense of warning, I didn’t want to hear it. I was going to see him, hear him, solve the mystery of him. His voice, his face…his scar.
But when Ms. finally turned all the way around and the light from the window bathed her, I flinched, steeped in an even deeper mystery.

And it was because there was a scar slashing across the upper right side of her face—one that seemed to continue where Sebastian Bendt’s had left off.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

HOUSE OF THE SATIN GLOVE, chapter 2, FREE read!!!

Ready for chapter 2 on the Radish app for HOUSE OF THE SATIN GLOVE? The first three chapters will be ***free,*** and if you'd like to subscribe to the entire book as it comes out chapter by chapter, you can do that. Chapter 1 ("Ingenue") is already posted. (Download Radish here!) This chapter is called "Rumors"...



Once we were back in the town car, Ebony undid her dark hair, letting it tumble over her shoulders, its blond streak catching the moonlight through the window. She pushed her gloved fingers through the mass.
Ebony gloves...
After tonight’s successful gathering, would I get my own gloves and a name? And what would I be known as?
But I had even bigger questions in mind than that—and they were about the mystery shadow man who’d been sitting in the corner of the cellar.
Ebony beat me to speaking as Gerry put the pedal to the medal, leaving the mansion behind. “What would your mama say if she knew?”
I didn’t have to ask her to clarify. “The first thing she would’ve said was, ‘You mean those men didn’t want sex from you?’”
That’d been Mom—always practical and sunny-side up, even on the day a few years ago when she and Dad had driven away, never to come back after they were blindsided by a semi truck on the country route near our small heartland town. Dad had been happy-go-lucky, too, but he wouldn’t have understood the difference between a companion and a call girl. And my sister? Miss Married Perfection and Trying to Get Preggers? She would’ve shaken her head in disappointment with me, and that disappointment was so much worse than anything my parents could’ve dished out.
One thing Mom would’ve definitely asked about was the dark man in the corner, and before Ebony went any further, I said, “At the beginning of the night, there were more than five clients. I know that you noticed.”
A small grin drifted over her lips. “Did I?”
I almost gave her a light push because of her taunting, but then she shrugged.
“Ms. told me another client might be present, but she didn’t give me much information about him. She said that if there was a sixth, just to indulge the men and to ignore him.”
“And who is this ‘him’?”
In the front seat, Gerry and Nash were silent. Ebony put up the partition that divided us, and my stomach tumbled slightly. Why? Maybe it was because of the sudden hush. Maybe it was because I couldn’t stop thinking about that silhouette with the wide shoulders whose gaze had seemed to brush over me like invisible, sure fingertips. And the scar.
That scar…
Ebony faced me, almost as if she wanted to get the full force of my reaction. “Ms. didn’t tell me his name, but the other girls have talked about a client who comes and goes, and I thought it might be him. Last I heard, he’d been banned by Ms. for some reason or another. Someone in the House said he took advantage of a girl named Lavender a couple years ago, and Ms. cut him off. Others say he left the country because of business.”
“Which is what?”
“The same as what the rest of these clients usually do: collect real estate, fool around with corporate raiding, practice high-powered law, make movies and loads of money… They’re all the same, aren’t they?”
“I’m slowly finding that out.”
Ebony raised an eyebrow. “You’re awfully interested in the sixth man, aren’t you?”
“Aren’t you?”
Her smile told me that she was only playing it cool. She was interested, even though she’d been trained not to show it.
“I also hear,” she said, “that he used to have so-called supper clubs designed to push his guests to their limits. That’s what Snow shared one rare night when she was off the clock, sipping wine in the kitchen and feeling friendly, so take that for what it’s worth.”
Snow had pure white gloves, and there wasn’t a more ironic name in the House. She was more like a wicked queen than a fairy-tale princess, her hair as red as blood, her eyes a dark, poisonous brandy color. She’d come to New York to pursue an acting career, but that hadn’t panned out. She’d been around the longest of any of us.
From what I’d guessed, companions didn’t have real long shelf lives. Not that this mattered to me, though. With the money we earned, I could pay off my debts and make enough good investments to set me up for my real purpose—the corporate world. With smarter choices and better luck, I’d be able to hire companions some day myself, if that was my thing.
“So Snow went to one of the sixth man’s gatherings,” I said.
Ebony rolled her eyes. “That’s what she implied.”
I still hadn’t gotten all the information I needed. “So that’s it? That’s all you know about him?”
“Feel free to ask Snow yourself,” she said with a little laugh. “Or Ms. I’m sure both of them will gush with the details.”
And that was that.
The rest of the way, Ebony reviewed my performance from that night, complimenting me on how I’d pulled off the quiet satin doll routine and quizzing me on the operas the men had briefly chatted about. By the time we arrived at the Fifth Avenue skyscraper that held our fifteen-room residence, the sky was starting to get pale, the city beginning to wake up.
Gerry and Nash walked us to the residence door, then murmured their goodbyes. That’s the most talk we ever got out of them, and on any other night, I’d be too tired to note it. But not now. I was keyed up, still thinking of Mystery Man, and I gave Nash a big old smile as he started to leave.
He looked confounded by that before he turned around and walked away.
Ebony shut the door behind us. “What was that, Ingénue?”
Oh, oh—she had her mentor voice on. “Just in a good mood.” I grinned. How could I help it when I was so intrigued by the events of the night? “I won’t ever engage a bodyguard again.”
She sighed, shaking her head, making her way through the marble foyer. I followed her, eager to go to the kitchen to make a cup of chamomile tea to key myself down.
How ridiculous was it to still be thinking about a man who was only a shadow? But even thoughts of him were powerful enough to send delicious shivers through me. The electric sensations seemed to take the place of my blood, pulsing and humming and gathering deep in my belly. From there, the buzzing turned into an aching heat that traveled even lower, between my legs.
Just because of a shadow.
As Ebony began to climb the grand, curved stairway that led to the upper floors, an ear-ripping sound tore through the air.
“You bitch!”
Something crashed and shattered, and then there were two voices tangling with each other.
“Calm down!”
“Bitch!”
Ebony paused on the stairs and leaned back her head, clearly knowing to whom one of those voices belonged. She turned around and descended, holding onto the wrought iron railing with one hand while lifting her gown with the other so she didn’t trip.
“Come on,” she said. “I might need some help.”
When we got to the grand parlor to find Snow and another ingénue whose real name was Jayne pulling at each other’s hair, Ebony went right for Snow, hooking her arm around the woman’s neck and pulling her off of the younger girl.
Right away, Snow pushed away from Ebony, going for her hair. Calmly, Ebony pushed her arm away.
“No you don’t,” she said, lifting a finger in warning.
Meanwhile, I’d pulled Jayne away. She was tiny, Filipino, and gorgeous. Her silk pajamas swallowed her up, and, at first, her long sleeves covered her hands. Then she held up a fist, the sleeve easing down as she opened her fingers to reveal a simple necklace with a heart pendant.
When Snow saw it, she moved toward Jayne so fast that her long red hair was a blur. “Give that to me. Ms. is going to kick your stealing ass out when she hears about this.”
“I found it there.” Jayne pointed to the Persian rug that covered the hardwood floor. A vase was in broken pieces, marking the spot. She looked up at me with those liquid dark eyes. “I didn’t steal anything.”
“Well, you had no business touching it, wherever you found it.” Snow made another move toward Jayne, who dropped the necklace and held up her hands.
“Have it then,” she said. “I was only going to ask around about it. I’m not a thief.”
Snow’s pale skin was flushed as she snagged the cheap jewelry from the floor. From the way she wasn’t saying anything else, I wondered if she’d dropped the trinket and was setting up Jayne to get kicked out. At any rate, she stomped off, holding the pendant closely.
All of us just stared at each other for a moment. Then Jayne spoke to Ebony.
“I didn’t snatch it from her. Honestly.”
“I’m sure you didn’t.” Ebony cocked her head and looked to where Snow had disappeared through the tall archway. “Whatever that necklace is, it either means a lot to her or she’s using it to make you look bad.”
See? Great minds think alike, but how could Ebony question if anything meant something to Snow? She didn’t seem to have a sentimental bone in her body.
Jayne started up again. “Do you think Ms. is going to—”
“No.” Ebony slowly tugged up one of her gloves, unmoved. “If anything, it’s Snow who’ll be asked to leave. But don’t get your hopes up. For some ungodly reason, she’s got a lot of repeat clients who happen to be our richest.”
“She’s a great actress. No one sees the real Snow except us.” Jayne turned to me, and it seemed that she’d already left the catfight behind. I wished I could let water flow off my own back like that.
“How was you appointment tonight?” she asked me.
“Great. How about yours?”
“Early ender. The host passed out drunk within the first hour, so his staff dismissed us.”
I snuck a glance at Ebony. Should I mention the excitement of our Mystery Man? Or was it one of those discreet things I should be clever enough to keep to myself? Ms. didn’t like gossip, and even though we did it anyway—I mean, come on, we’re human—this was business. This was one of those things we had to learn in order to be an effective companion.
Ebony gave me the slightest shake of the head, so I kept mum. Then she said, “I’m so proud of my ingénue. She knows how to watch and learn, and she did both well tonight. She’s going to earn her gloves very soon if I have any input.”
Hell, yeah.
Jayne laughed at my grin. “Sooner than I will? Won’t that burn Olive.”
Olive was Jayne’s mentor, and the two of them were well matched with playful senses of humor. But Olive was also one of the older girls, and I had to wonder if Ms. was having her train Jayne to take her place someday.
Whose place would I be taking?
After I said goodnight to Ebony and Jayne, I made my way to the roomy, state-of-the-art kitchen. I carefully peeled off my ingénue gloves, setting them on a marble counter, then went about making my tea the old fashioned way—on the gas range. While I waited for the water to come to a boil, I felt a simmering in my veins, something like lingering interest. My ex Darius had left me so numb, and tonight was the first time I’d had anything but an anesthetic running through me…
At the howl of the kettle, I shut off the flame. Stupid fantasies. Whoever the shadow was, he was first and foremost a client. Unless he wanted to buy Ms. out to become my “patron,” there’d be nothing with him, only flirting and smiling and entertaining. That was all I wanted, anyway, because, after the number my ex had done on me, I wasn’t about to let anyone into my heart again.
And I’d be happy like that.
I was steeping the tea with a chamomile bag when I heard light footsteps on the floor. I looked over my shoulder to find a steel gray-haired woman standing in the doorway. Mrs. Banks, who was Ms.’s liaison. Behind her, another companion, Magenta, was watching me, wearing a slip. Right behind her was the third and last ingénue, Nika, also in her nightwear.
Both of their gazes were wide, and I got the feeling Mrs. Banks was here to deliver some kind of important news.
My heartbeat fluttered, my nerves quivering as the woman spoke.
“Ms. would like to see you.”



I'll be posting chapter 3 on Wednesday...

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

HOUSE OF THE SATIN GLOVE excerpt


Here's the first chapter from my newest project--HOUSE OF THE SATIN GLOVE!
I've been writing this novel under a pseudonym (CrystalOh) for the Radish app, which you can download on your mobile device. This is something really new for me, especially since I've never written a serial before. I'll be uploading new chapters (the first three are free) two times a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and I hope you like this! (BTW, this story is designed for mobile reading, with short chapters and major cliffhangers.)
(You can check out Radish here!)
I would say HOUSE OF THE SATIN GLOVE is a combination of fan fiction (Kylo Ren and the awesome WILD ORCHID), VC Andrews gothic, and "dark billionaire romance." This isn't paranormal, but there's a lot of intrigue. Here's a blurb:
Deep in the heart of Manhattan, there exists a secret society of companions. They are not call girls. They are not fake girlfriends. They are sophisticated and adored escorts for the rich and powerful, and they all have one thing in common.
The satin gloves that give them their names.
Scarlet has just become a full-fledged companion, and when a mysterious billionaire hires her for an underground gathering, she’s intrigued. Who is this dark, wounded man of the shadows? And why has he chosen her as his most honored guest?
As she unravels his reasons—and his past—he pushes Scarlet to her steamy, erotic limits, daring her, and maybe even damning her as she enters his seductive world…
So are you ready for the first chapter...? (I apologize about the wonky Blogger formatting. It's way more beautiful on Radish. )
Chapter 1
Ingenue
We aren’t anyone’s playthings or girlfriends for the night. We aren’t prostitutes or property. And don’t you dare call us the American version of geisha, because in our House, Ms. will put you in your place faster than a soft, harsh slap.
We are not to be touched by our rich and bored clients, and when they invite us to their underground parties, we go as if we’re walking a red carpet, our hair sleek and styled, our glamorous dresses long and silky and showing just enough skin to tease, our elbow-length satin gloves on.
No one leaves the House without those gloves. Ever.
That’s why, on the night of my fourth gathering, I was wearing a pair of them, along with a backless halter gown that seemed to change colors—from beige to a slight bronze—whenever I was in the light. But the appeal didn’t come from the material itself; it came from the fit, the way the dress kissed my tall body, the way it flowed as I walked.
My nondescript gloves went with the gown perfectly, except for the thin, viney black design that twined around them like bare branches, showing that I was only a pupil. I hadn’t earned my House name yet, and that would come after Ms. thought I was ready to be a full-fledged member. But who knew when that would be? All I knew was that my gloves weren’t as bold as the ones my partner wore—a dramatic black.
They called her Ebony, because of her gloves, of course. The color belonged to her and her alone. As for me, people called me…Well, nothing right now. I was the new girl, the “ingénue,” but at least it was more exciting than being known by my real name, “Maryann.” Maybe my mom had been high on painkillers and watching too much Gilligan’s Island when she’d crowned me with that one. I wished she’d even left the naming to Grandma, who’d loved those old, classy movies and would turn to me during the ones with Ava Gardner to touch my thick hair. “You’re a sassy auburn brunette, too,” she’d say. “Someday, you’ll be a mankiller, just like her.”
Good thing Grandma hadn’t lived long enough to see what a man had done to me to get me into this situation.
Ebony and I were in the back of a town car that had made its way into Westchester and was now winding over a moonlit road that cut through acres of manicured grass. We arrived in the front of a mansion with only a lone porch light shining. We never went in through the back door. Ms. wouldn’t have allowed that.
Ebony tilted a gloved finger under my chin and inspected me under the car’s light. I checked her out at the same time: rosy/tan skin and big, dark brown eyes that our House makeup artist had applied Cleopatra eyeliner to. Her brown hair had a faint but mildly rebellious blond streak that swerved from her temple to her ear, but tonight, she’d pulled all that hair into a chignon, complementing a white dress that was belted just under her bust. I’d heard her real name was “Maria” and she was from an affluent Manhattan family and had joined the House for kicks. Must be nice.
She removed her finger from under my chin and nodded in approval. In the front seat, our two bodyguards got out of the car and softly shut their doors, leaving her to coach me one last time before we went in.
“Don’t be anxious,” she said in a prep school tone. “Remember, this gathering is a lot like the last one we went to, but smaller. It’ll be very tame, too—Milton Tillman’s events always are after he closes a big deal."
“Who—me, anxious?”
She smiled and acted as if my voice hadn’t shaken a little. I don’t know why the hell I wasn’t more confident, because I had a hold of this. In fact, we’d studied dossiers on the guests, and I was prepared for all mellow, tame five of them.
I wanted Ebony to know that I wasn’t going to be some kind of moronic disaster, so I said, “Who wouldn’t want a chance to laugh it up with some businessmen who’ve finished negotiating a multimillion dollar contract and only want to relax with some fine wines and sophisticated company while their wives aren’t around? We’re here to make them happy, and I aim to please."
“Bottom line—just make them feel important and you’ll have done your job. That’s all these guys really want. That’s all any of them want.”
Or, as Ms. had supposedly told one of the other girls in the House once, “You’re there to make them think they’re important.” Every woman from the House was a status symbol that came at a high cost, a social party favor that announced LOOK WHAT TROPHIES I CAN AFFORD!
I could do trophy real well.
Ebony wasn’t done with me yet. “So follow my lead like you did before. I do the talking and entertaining while you pour drinks and look…” She scanned me again. “Good. Very, very good, Ingénue.”
She had a sparkle in her eyes, as if every gathering was a challenge for her. Most of the women in the House would’ve loved to find themselves a rich man among the clientele to settle down with, but Ebony? I thought she genuinely enjoyed the company—or maybe only the idea of running into a couple of her family’s rich friends someday and causing quite the "scandale."
I grinned. “I haven’t disappointed you yet, have I?”
“You keep doing me proud, and I’ll take care of you. No one in the House can ever say that they have a better mentor.” She winked. “Remember that, too.”
She rapped on the window with her gloved knuckles, and her bodyguard, Gerry, opened the door. My guy, Nash, was right behind him, practically blending into the night with his own tight black sports coat, T-shirt, and trousers. They took each of us in turn by the hand and helped us out of the car, fading behind us as Ebony and I walked to the front door. It was already open, a valet standing by with his head down in apparent respect at the price his boss was paying for our company. After he shut the door, he wordlessly led us through the foyer and directly to another door. He opened that one, a dim light barely illuminating a winding stairway.
I traded a glance with Ebony, because it looked as if we were being led into a cellar.
Great—wouldn’t it be my luck to find myself shackled in a dungeon? But that’s not how Ms.’s business worked. My first three gatherings had been in an abandoned warehouse in Brooklyn for a hipster tech billionaire’s birthday, then a penthouse where we’d lounged with a tycoon who missed his younger years, and then on a tiny, private island where several of us girls had been flown to entertain a movie star with, shall we say, tastes that ran to the exotic when it came to imagining that he was Ava Gardner. But men have different tastes like that, no matter how expensive or cheap. My ex sure had: He’d been the one who’d told me about the House in the first place—his hedge fund-loving boss had supposedly hired the services of Ms.’s women only once, before she’d threatened his ass with damages for breaking a non-disclosure clause in a contract all her clients signed. But I thought my ex—Darius the donkey—had been joking about this secret society of companions, just as I’d thought he’d been fooling around when he’d taken off one morning without a word, my accounts cleared, my valuables gone. The bastard had even run away with the diamond bracelet Grandma had given me.
There was one thing he hadn’t stolen from me, though: this path he’d set me on, one that’d led to the House, where a college grad who’d majored in global business, spoke four languages, and couldn’t find a job that could pay off all her debts quickly enough could start her life over again. Maybe, someday, I’d even save up enough money to hire a PI to track Darius’ pathetic self down.
Now, at the head of that staircase, Ebony smoothed one of her gloves, then glanced behind her to Gerry and Nash. Gerry went in front of her, holding out a palm. She placed her hand in his as he followed the valet down the stairway. Nash had me do the same with him, and my heart drummed in my ears, blood thudding in my veins. I didn’t want to be a bad pupil, didn’t want to disappoint Ebony or especially Ms., who was rumored to toss new girls out all the time.
I needed the money. Badly.
I could be good at this.
The stairway was lit by lanterns that flickered on the stone walls, and the lower we went, the cooler it got. I wished I had a wrap, but, come on—I wasn’t here to be covered up by another layer of material. And when we got to the bottom of the steps, I was glad that I’d suffered for beauty.
The nearly empty room opened up to a silent gathering of the five men I’d studied. I smiled like a good ingénue as I saw that they were sitting on a woven mat that held a selection of foods: cheeses, artisan breads, grapes, sliced apples, charcuterie, and nuts. The men, mostly gray-haired with their ties undone on their designer suits, reclined against lux pillows and were drinking wine. Vaguely, I noted that their fine Italian leather shoes were lined up against the far stone wall, where I could see an opening to another room that held wine racks, armies of bottles, toys for people who didn’t know what else to do with their paychecks.
But bitter? Not me.
Their faces had already lit up at the sight of us, and even if we had bodyguards who’d already gone to the corners of the room, I felt safe. Actually, I felt worshipped and appreciated as our clients’ gazes took in our gowns and hair and gloves. Ms. screened her clients thoroughly, promising her women that the gatherings would be harmless, and as I told myself this, all my Maryann fears of cellars and dungeons went poof.
But, after I took everything in, I noticed something strange about this gathering. There was another man in the room, and, suddenly, my hackles went up again.
He wasn’t with the others as he sat in a chair in another corner. Darkness swallowed everything but the glow of his cigar as he held it between his fingers, watching us. A bodyguard? An unexpected guest who hadn’t been covered by a dossier? Whatever he was, the other men weren’t paying any attention to him, and it was almost as if he were a dark ghost, lingering, enjoying us as much as the others were.
A rogue shiver danced up my skin, almost like fingers on piano keys playing a few discordant notes. But Ebony was giving me a firm mentorlike look, and I gathered myself, sidling up behind her, my hair falling down to cover one of my eyes. Untouchable, a companion, a trophy for the night. I’d ask Ebony later if she’d been informed about a sixth man.
One of the clients on the mat struggled to his feet. Clearly, he’d made best friends with the wine already and he felt at ease enough to greet us.
Mr. Milton Tillman, our host.
“The goddesses arrive.”
The other clients had followed his lead, and Ebony acknowledged all of them with one, smooth nod.
“A standing ovation already,” she said, amused. “What should we do for an encore?”
They laughed, and the host motioned to a large sitting pillow next to him. There was another one opposite him on the far end of the mat, and I supposed that was for me, but, first, I had things to do, places to see, people to meet. As Ebony swiveled her way toward the honored spot by the host, I watched how she moved—sexy, but not too sexy, just enough to catch the eye with her subtle wiggle. I’d been practicing, too, and from the way those men looked at me with hungry yet respectful gazes, I thought I nailed it.
Had the silhouette in the corner noticed, too?
I wasn’t sure why that mattered when I’d been warned to never get close, never lock gazes with any client too long or give him hope for the things our contracts didn’t call for us to do. So I took up the nearest wine bottle and poured enough in a few glasses to keep the men drinking—but not too much. Fine wines weren’t meant to be slugged down as if we were in a Williamsburg bar.
Ebony folded her legs to the side so they were covered by her dress, showing only a little bit of ankle and polished toenails above her strappy, rhinestone-studded pumps. I tilted the wine bottle’s label toward her so she could see it. Ms. had a sommelier who educated us in wine every week, and those lessons were about to pay off once again.
“Domaine Leroy Musigny Grand Cru,” Ebony said. “It looks like a Pinot Noir night for the gentlemen."
The host looked proud of her acumen—or maybe his bank account—as he poured her a glass. There were a few bottles lined up on the side of the mat, empty. “It’s also Pinot Noir for our femme fatale guests. Extremely fitting.” He paused, then said, “Just as fitting as those.”
His eyes were all over Ebony’s gloves, caressing them, asking her to slip them off, to stay awhile, to make him the only man who’d ever gotten one of us to take them off.
But Ebony merely slid him a playful look that silenced him. The gloves would stay. Taking them off would be like removing a mask or an extra layer that kept us at a distance, reminding our clients of their places and our places.
She began to chatter about the wine, lifting the tension, and I locked gazes with the man to my right, expressing clear appreciation for a bottle that cost thousands of dollars. He gestured, obviously asking me if I’d like a glass. I went ahead and carefully poured a splash for myself, now that I’d been invited.
I raised it to him in a toast, but in my peripheral vision, I saw that the mystery guest in the corner had leaned forward, his forearms braced on his thighs. A slant of light caught him, and I sucked in a breath. I didn’t see his face as much as I saw…
Was it a scar on one side? A long slash of red?
Then there was no light, and all I could really make out was a silhouette with broad shoulders and longish hair and the circle of cigar ash flaming. That odd feeling trilled over me again, a gentle run of music over my nerve endings, confusing, totally out of place. It felt as if I was hitting a bunch of wrong notes during the piano lessons I took at the House.
Ebony’s banter didn’t register as I listened to the men laughing at her wit, her sly jokes. I only kept filling glasses and plates, looking pretty for them, as I was hired to do.
Wanting, for some reason, to look pretty for that intriguing shadow in the corner most of all.
I tried not to glance at him again—really, I did, because if we showed favor to anyone, it was to the host—yet…
Yet there I was, battling not to peer over to that corner.
He’s not different from any of them, I thought. Just do your job and then go back to the House to count your money for this month’s credit card bill.
I sipped my wine, leaving a lipstick mark behind, turning the glass so one of the men next to me could see the sensuous mark. I smiled at him again, lowering my gaze at just the right time. But then…
I couldn’t help myself.
I looked.
Only to find an empty space where the shadow had been.