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In the Night We Trust

Chapter Text

According to Kit, the Blue Banana Club has always been on the seamy side. It's easy to get into. It's easy to find whatever you need: a drink, a diversion, a companion for the night.

You went to the Blue Banana because Kit went to the Blue Banana, not because you're delighted by the atmosphere. You know she's in there now. You know she'd gone there for a diversion. The street life isn't easy, even for someone who chose it. It's even harder for someone who didn't.

Like Skinny Marie. Who was just found dead in a dumpster.

You don't want that to be Kit's fate, but you're scared it won't matter what you want. It rarely matters what you want. For example, you wanted to pay the rent when you woke this evening. However, the travel soap container—and cash stash—hidden in the toilet tank was empty.

You snuck out of the apartment you share with Kit via the fire escape like a fucking criminal. While you were a prostitute, and technically a criminal, you pay the landlord every Saturday.

But Kit ruined that winning streak.

The thumping music spills out of the open door of the Blue Banana. You wind your way around the Harleys parked at the curb, ignoring the attention of the few men in the vestibule. You ask after Kit at the bar, and Pop, the bartender, tells you she's in the pool room.

Ah, shit. You know what that means.

You find Kit wearing sunglasses and obsessively combing her bangs. She's high alright, but coming down. Next to her is Angel and, of fucking course, Carlos.

Kit lights up the second she sees you. "Yo, babe!"

"Is it all gone?" you ask in lieu of a greeting.

She takes off her sunglasses and stumbles to her feet, teetering in her heels. You catch her by the shoulder of her jean jacket. She grabs your forearm to steady herself.

"Is it all gone, Kit?!"

"I—" She braces herself on the table. "I needed a little pick-me-up."

Carlos, the neighborhood pusher and wannabe pimp, intervenes like the nosey little shit he is. "Calm down, chica," he says all rico suave. "She only owes me two hundred more."

You glare at Kit. "Another two hundred?"

"From way before," Kit says.

"Yeah, another two hundred," he replies. "But if you wanna work off her money with me, we can come to some sort of agreement."

Kit takes your elbow and dead-pans, "That's a very sweet offer, Carlos, but not now."

She directs you to the bar as you sputter at his offer. You protest going to the bar because you both have to get to work. There's rent to cover and now an additional two hundred dollars to pay a man who would most definitely knife you both to save face.

Kit insists she needs a snack, and you wonder how she can handle food with that shit running through her veins. She stacks a few cocktail napkins from the bar in her hand and loads it with orange slices and maraschino cherries. Pop chides her, saying it ain't a buffet.

You both duck out of the Blue Banana before anything else can go wrong. The night is mild as usual. There are plenty of cars rolling down Hollywood Boulevard.

"You took it while I was sleeping," you say as you cross the street.

Kit pops a cherry in her mouth. "Unavailable for consultation."

You snort, and Kit retorts, "Besides, it's my apartment."

"Yeah, well, I have to live there, too."

"Look, I gave you money, a place to stay…" She throws a cherry stem on the sidewalk. "And some very valuable vocational advice. Carlos was on my ass, alright? I had to give him something." She nibbles on an orange wedge. "So don't… Don't irritate me."

"Irritate you? Irritate you? I just saw Skinny Marie pulled out of a dumpster."

"Beh! She was a flake—a… a crackhead. Dominic was trying to straighten her out for months."

You want to point out that maybe if Dominic hadn't forced her to fuck strangers and then take most of her money, she wouldn't have been a crackhead. But it's a tired argument.

As you make it to your corner and settle in, a shiny red Beamer rolls by and some cake-eater leans out the window. "Hey, girls!"

Kit smiles at him and pockets the damp napkins half-full of cocktail garnishes. "Hey, yo, baby!"

"How about a freebie? It's my birthday!"

Kit waves the kid away. "Dream on!"

You lean against the closest parking meter. "It's looking really slow tonight."

"Maybe you should get a pimp? Carlos really digs you," she says as she fishes the wad of fruit from her jacket pocket. It's all lint-y now, and she dumps the whole thing in the gutter.

"And then he'll run our lives and take our money. No."

"You're right. We say who, we say when, we say how much."

Before you could say anything more, the terrible screeching of a car's grinding gears comes from the boulevard. The tires chirp as the driver pops the clutch. There comes a honk of a horn and then a man bellowing for the other driver to eat a dick.

Kit's eyes go wide. "Oh yo, oh yo! Catch this!"

You turn to see a steel-gray Lotus Esprit. A fucking Lotus on Hollywood.

"Hold up," you say in awe. "That's a Lotus Esprit."

It's gorgeous and sleek, looking fast even as it jerks to a stop at the curb a few yards ahead.

"No, that's rent. You should go for him. You look hot." Kit adjusts the lapel of your maroon hand-me-down tuxedo jacket. "Don't take less than a hundred. Call me when you're through. Take care of you."

You nod and pull her into a brief hug. "Take care of you."

With a deep breath, you shrug off the jacket and sling it over your big purse. You'd put on your lucky dress tonight. The white halter part clings to your breasts while the blue skirt just covers your ass. The two halves come together with o-rings front and back. You hope it's still lucky.

As you approach the Lotus, you can hear the driver cursing a Jersey-accented storm that you're sure will linger like a miasma of frustration over the boulevard for the rest of the night.

"God-fucking-dammit! Where the fuck is first goddamn gear, you piece of fuck—stupid shit—ass-fucker!"

The squeal of gears finish the tirade, and you cringe for the poor car.

You put on a smile, bend in front of the open passenger-side window, and press your breasts together. "Hey, sugar, you lookin' for a date?"

"No, I wanna find Beverly fucking Hills," the driver snaps, pegging himself as a newcomer of some sort.

He's good-looking and white, younger than you expect, with dark wavy hair that almost brushes his shoulders. He has strong cheekbones and a nearly-Roman nose. His lips are full and pink—downright pretty. He takes up quite a bit of room, too. His hand is huge on the gear shift.

For a john, he looks dangerous. And volatile. Too worked up. Too rich. His creamy skin is flushed with stress—or coke. But a trick is a trick, and you need the money.

"I can get you there," you offer with a smile. "For five bucks."

He finally turns to you, and you realize he is way more handsome than you initially thought. "Are you pushin' fuckin' extortion on me?"

"More like blackmail."

He sarcastically laughs. "Get the fuck outta here."

"Price just went up to ten."

"You can't charge me for shittin' directions."

"I can do whatever I want to, baby. I ain't lost."

You straighten and lean your hip on the car door. You know he's not going anywhere. First, he can barely handle this car. Second, he's lost. Third, it's night in a strange city—which makes being lost even worse.

A string of fucks come from inside the car. "Fine! Alright. Jesus, you win!"

You smirk, but school your features before you open the door. A conceited winner never gets far in life, and you don't want to piss him off.

"You got change for a twenty?" he asks as you install yourself in the passenger seat.

You snatch the bill from between his fingers and stuff it in your thigh-high boot. "For twenty, I'll show you personal. Like where the stars live."

"Tch, don't bother. Already seen Stallone's."

You bet he had.

You point forward. "Keep going straight at the light."

He struggles with the gear shift, snarling curses at the car. You want to point out it's not the car. The car is amazing. But him as a driver? Not so much.

He pulls into traffic, popping the clutch, making the car lurch forward while the tires squeak. You grab the oh-shit handle to keep from jerking into the seatbelt. He mumbles an apology while struggling to find second gear.

It would be cute if he wasn't ruining the car. You catch quick glances at him. Actually, he's cute in his ineptitude. He's trying so hard. You wonder how long he's been driving the Lotus, because he sucks at it. Which is typical for someone who has a lot of money but not a lot of skill. Sometimes, that same principle can be applied to their skill in bed.

The traffic light ahead turns red, and you sigh in relief as you let go of the handle. He brings it to a rough stop and sighs as well.

"How's it like bein' a hooker these days?" he asks.

You know exactly what he's referring to. Everyone thinks you have AIDS these days, either from turning tricks or shooting up. "I always use condoms, okay? And I get checked every month at the clinic." You drum your fingers on the window ledge. "Look, not only am I a better fuck, I'm probably a safer one."

"You got business cards that say that?"

You meet his smiling eyes in the red light. "Why would I need 'em?" you reply as you wave a hand down your posed body.

His gaze follows your hand, and he wets his bottom lip. "I see your point."

Maybe he'll be getting more than directions before the night is through.

He clears his throat. "So, what's your name?"

"Whaddya want it to be?"

He gives you a look that is at once amused and exasperated. You grin with a shrug and tell him the truth. He seems pleased by it, or at least he seems to believe you.

You point out the light has changed. He wrestles to get the balance between gas and clutch to make the car move. You watch his long thighs shift and realize he might need a distraction.

You ask, "What hotel you stayin' at?"

"The, uh…" He gets the car rolling. "Regent Beverly Wilshire."

"Right at the next light."

There's twenty-or-so more minutes of drive-time, and you're not sure the poor car is going to make it. While it might be a high-performance vehicle, it can only take so much. You admire it for a second, knowing this is probably the only time you'll ever sit in one.

"Doesn't this thing blow your mind?" you ask him. "It's gotta corner like it's on rails."

"What?"

"This is only four-cylinders, baby."

"How you know that?"

"Road and Track. Grew up around gearheads. They bought 'em cheap and fixed 'em up. I paid attention."

He grinds into third gear, and you grimace.

"I think you left your transmission back there." You thumb behind you. "You're not shifting right. This is a standard 'H'."

"Like I know what the fuck that means," he grumbles.

You laugh and are about to offer to teach him—for a price, of course—when he pulls over.

"You ever driven a Lotus?"

You scoff at the idea of a person like you driving something like this. "No."

"You're gonna start now." He unbuckles his seatbelt and checks the side mirror before opening the door.

You're left gawping. "Are you kidding?!"

"Nah, it's the only way to get you off my coat." He gets out of the car.

You notice his nice slacks, his silk shirt, the shine on his belt. You scramble out of the car and walk around the rear to switch places. As he passes you, he gives you a little wink. He towers over you, all broad-shouldered and handsome. You tell yourself the little happy flutter in your gut is because you're about to drive a Lotus Esprit.

You get into the driver's seat and pull it forward so you can fully depress the clutch. After buckling yourself in, you adjust the rear-view mirror. It's heady being in control of such power. You can feel the hum of the engine through the steering wheel and shifter. This car can hit its top speed in under eight seconds. It's incredible.

"Fasten your seatbelt," you say. "I'm gonna show you what this car can really do." You put the car in first gear. "Are you ready?"

"Very."

"Hang on."

"'Kay."

You check the traffic to find it sparse enough to pull out. "Here we go."

You whip the car into traffic, smooth as glass. The transmission doesn't feel worse for wear. You quickly shift through the gears until you're cruising in fourth.

You glance over to see him watching. You offer a smile. "This car has pedals like a race car," you tell him. "They're really close together, so it's probably easier for a woman to drive—because we have smaller feet."

When his says nothing, you hold out your arm. "Did you know your foot's as big as your arm from your elbow to your wrist?"

He smiles.

You ask, "Did you know that?"

"Nah."

"Just a little trivia." You shrug as you take the car out of gear and let it coast to the red light ahead.

After a beat, he asks, "What kinda money you girls make these days?"

"Can't take less than a hundred."

"A hundred dollars a night?"

"For an hour."

"You make a hundred dollars an hour and you got a fuckin' safety pin holding your boot together? Ya gotta be shittin' me."

"I don't joke about money," you reply.

"Neither do I. Jesus, hundred dollars an hour? Pretty fuckin' stiff."

You snake your hand into his lap and touch the soft mound of his cock. "No, but it's got potential."

"Yeah, and my potential's gettin' ideas."

You smirk and return your hand to the shifter as the light changes to green. "Sounds dangerous."

"You got no idea."

The rest of the drive is a comfortable kind of quiet. You softly point out some good places along Santa Monica Boulevard, and he hums in acknowledgement. Not that you've ever visited at any of them, of course, but johns talk.

He points out his hotel as you make a right onto Wilshire. It's stories high with a carved stone exterior and black-and-white awnings over the expansive first-floor windows. You would've missed it if he hadn't directed your attention to it, honestly. Because it's on the other side of the street with no sign.

It's like everyone should just know what it is.

There's a treed median separating the opposing lanes in front of the hotel, and you slow the car down to pull a quick u-turn around the median. The Lotus handles just as you thought. It hugs the road and comes to an easy stop in the pull-off lane for the hotel.

A valet rushes to the passenger side and opens the door. "Good evening, sir! Will you be needing the car anymore tonight?"

Your john unfolds himself from the car with a bark of laughter. "Shit, I hope not!"

With a grin, you turn off the car, leaving the keys in the ignition. You're pretty sure no one's going to be stealing it in this neighborhood. As you get out and walk around to the sidewalk, the valet gives you a once-over.

Ah. Yeah. You're definitely not dressed for the neighborhood.

You slink your jacket on as you meet your john on the very clean sidewalk. "So, ah…" you begin and idly finger the hem of your skirt. "You're here."

"Yeah, thanks," he replies and studies you for a few seconds. "You'll be alright?"

"Yup!" You gesture behind you because it's obvious he's not going to invite you inside. "Gonna grab a cab with my twenty bucks."

"Go back to your office."

"Yeah, my office," you laugh. "Yeah."

"Well, thanks for the ride."

"My pleasure," you warmly say and look at his striking face one last time before turning.

The john that got away.

"'Night…"

There's a bus bench a couple yards ahead. The bus is a cheaper option than a cab. Lord knows, you need to save every penny you can right now. You perch on the bench backrest and wonder if Kit's had any luck.

As you tuck your jacket around your middle, you hear:

"No taxis?"

It's the john that got away.

You pivot in his direction and smile. "No, I like the bus."

Maybe he isn't the one that got away.

"You know…" He sidles over, a lightweight trenchcoat draped over an arm. "Shit, I was thinking…" He shrugs. "Did you really say a hundred dollars an hour?"

You tap the soles of your boots on the bench seat. "Yeah."

"Well, if ya got nothing else to do, I'd like it if ya came in."

"Yeah?"

"Hell yeah."

You smile, and he returns it. "You got it," you say as you bounce to your feet.

You walk next to him for a few steps before asking, "What's your name?"

"Pale."

You laugh at what has to be an alias. "Wait a minute!" you tease, calling him out on his bullshit. "You gave me this look when I didn't tell you my name right away, and now you're offering Pale as yours?"

"It's Jimmy—James," Pale says with a pout, pausing before the main entrance.

"But you prefer Pale?"

He nods.

"Yeah, okay…" You watch as he shakes out his trenchcoat. "Pale it is..." You frown in confusion as he holds it open to you. "What're you doing?"

"Put this on."

"Why?"

"This ain't the sort of establishment that rents rooms by the hour."

"Ah." You get it. You obviously look like a hooker with your short, tight dress and shiny thigh-high boots.

Between the two of you, you get the trenchcoat on. It smells like crisp, expensive cologne. The fabric flows like water as you wrap it loosely around you to belt it closed. It has to be silk, or a silk blend. It probably costs more than your whole wardrobe.

Just like the interior of the Regent Beverly Wilshire probably costs more than the whole neighborhood you live in. It's white marble, crystal chandeliers, dark wood, and huge bouquets of flowers. There are rugs on the floor that have to be real Persians or Orientals or whatever fancy-ass rugs rich people own. Everything is hushed like a museum.

Your heels clack on the polished floor as you follow Pale to the reception counter. He struts through the lobby like he owns the place. You feel every set of eyes on you as you lean against the wall to wait for him. You look down to make sure nothing is exposed.

Except for your painted face, that is. You went ham with the eyeliner and red lipstick when getting ready. With a survey of the lobby, you realize no other woman has such dramatic makeup. It's just you. Looking like a streetwalker.

Which you are. But still...

Pale speaks with the receptionist as you struggle to just maintain. You don't want to gawk. However, that's impossible. Your eyes feel as big as saucers as you notice the high ceilings and the gilding at the top of each column throughout the lobby. Everything is so beautiful. Everyone is so refined and speaking in soft tones.

You glance at Pale to find him watching you as he waits on the receptionist. He gives you a little grin and nod. You struggle to return the grin, but manage to nod back.

The receptionist gives Pale a few messages just as a middle-aged woman walks past you, giving you a snooty look. You eye her right back and straighten to your full height. You will not be cowed by some self-important bitch in a shapeless suit.

When Pale finishes at the reception counter, he takes your hand, leading you to a bank of elevator doors. His hand is large and warm in yours. You remind yourself that no one will judge once you two are alone.

However, you will be judged until then. Because the self-important bitch is waiting for an elevator with her pot-bellied husband. She gives you such a look of disdain, you have to roll your eyes. On the other hand, her husband looks at you like you're dessert.

Beside you, Pale presses the lit "up" button for the elevator a few times. You angle yourself and cock your hip, giving the husband a wink when the bitch is looking. She faintly scoffs and knocks her padded shoulder against her husband's.

The elevator doors open, and you let go of Pale to step forward first. There's a padded bench at the back of the elevator. Along with an elevator attendant operating the controls.

You exclaim, "Well, color me happy! There's a sofa in here for two!" You sit on the bench and kick up a heel onto it. "Or maybe three…?" You beam at the husband and watch him turn beet-red.

Pale smirks at you and says, "Big Aerosmith fan—just heard…" He waves a hand. "Fuckin' 'Love In An Elevator' on the way over."

Nobody buys it, of course. The bitch and her husband awkwardly titter, staying where they are. Pale steps in to stand next to you, and the doors close on the strained faces of the couple. The attendant gets the elevator moving a second later.

"Sorry," you say, though you don't really mean it, and stand. "Couldn't help it."

"Nah, I get it. Buncha assholes."

"Did you catch the look she gave me?"

"Yeah, like her shit don't fuckin' stink." He shakes his head. "Don't worry about broads like that. They're dime-a-dozen."

Somehow, you get the feeling he's saying you're not dime-a-dozen. You've had johns tell you how special you are before, of course. But they said that to make themselves feel better about using your body. This didn't feel like that.

The elevator dings, and the attendant announces, "Penthouse."

You give Pale an impressed look as the doors slide open. "Oh, the penthouse!"

You step into the hallway which only has a double door at either end. Pale tells you to go left. You wait by the door, watching as the attendant leans into the hallway to smile at you.

Pale steps out and turns to him. "Don't get any ideas, bozo."

You duck your head to hide your smirk. It's kind of adorable the way Pale's almost possessive. Guys look at you, eat you up with their eyes, all the time. Some ladies, too. It stopped bothering you a long time ago.

The elevator closes as Pale pulls a keycard from his trouser pocket. There's a brief struggle with the lock, and he lowly curses at it. He seems to do that a lot: cursing and doing battle with technology or machinery.

When the door opens, he stomps into the already-lit suite, turning on an extra lamp at the corner. You follow, closing the door behind you. The suite takes your breath. It's gorgeous in a different way than the lobby. But still huge. Not only is there a big sunken living room, there's a dining room on the left that seats six. Along the back wall is a series of French doors open to a stone terrace.

There's a vaguely Asian twist to the decoration and furniture, which is in shades of rose and mahogany. The lighting is mellow, golden. The carpet squishes underfoot.

"Impressed?" he asks as he passes you with his messages in hand.

"Are you kiddin' me? I come here all the time." You step down to the living room. "As a matter of fact, they do rent this room by the hour."

He crosses to the modest desk between two French doors in the living room. "Sure they do," he says with a joking snort as he turns on the desk lamp.

This far up, the city is quiet. You pass through the open door behind Pale. You've never seen LA's lights twinkle like they do now. You could almost forget what it's like down there.

"I bet you can see all the way to the ocean from out here," you say over your shoulder.

"I'll take your word for it, I don't go out there."

You come back in through the next door. "Why not?"

Pale is sitting at the desk, dwarfing the chair. He looks up from the small stack of papers piled in front of him. You shrug off your purse and nudge it under the footrest of the bergere armchair between the next two French doors.

He replies, "Don't care much for heights."

"So, why're you in the penthouse?"

You unbelt his coat and take it off as you walk around the living room.

"Wasn't my idea. I didn't book it."

Draping the coat over the arm of one of the plush sofas, you ask, "Well… Now that you have me here, what are you going to do with me?"

In the wryest tone, he says, "I thought I'd recite some, ya know, sonnets I wrote about birds."

You laugh and shrug off your tuxedo jacket, making your way to the bergere. "What kinda birds?" you ask and toss the jacket on the footrest.

"All kinds. Not discriminatory over here."

"Good to know."

You put a hand on your hip and watch him study you. His downright pretty brown eyes glint in the lamplight. He seems at once defensive, yet warm. Not cruel, but you can see his stubbornness. There's grim determination and a touch of simmering frustration. Maybe loneliness, too. He's no lonelyheart, though, that much you can tell—he's no open book, either.

"You gotta nice set a tits," Pale finally says.

You bark out a laugh. "Thanks!" You subtly arch your back. "They're hoe-made."

He laughs then. Really laughs. The defensiveness you saw disappears. You smile and saunter around the desk, watching him relax in the chair.

"You know," you say. "You could pay me. That's one way to break the ice."

"Shit. Yeah, fuck, of course. Cash good?"

"Cash is king."

He leans forward, pulling his wallet from his back pocket. "Don't fuckin' remind me," he grumbles good-naturedly as he slaps two fifties on the desk.

You slide the fifties in your boot and perch on the desk. You know it can take your weight and possibly the fucking you're about to receive.

"You're on my fax," he points out.

You purr, "Well, that's one I haven't been on before," then cross your legs away from him and lean to the side.

"Cute." He grins, tugging the papers from under your ass. "Veeery fuckin' cute, thanks."

You chuckle and unzip the top of your other boot to pull out a few condoms. "Alrighty, pick one: I got red, I got green, I got yellow. I'm out of purple, but! I do have one gold circle coin left." You take out the gold foil packet from your boot for him to see. "The condom of champions. The one and only. Nothin's gettin' through this sucker." You raise your eyebrows. "Hm, whaddya say?"

"It's a fuckin'... buffet a safety."

You shrug and flourish the condoms in your hands. "I'm a safety girl."

Pale wets his lips and stands. You drop the condoms on the desk before reaching for his belt to undo it. Only to be thwarted when he places his big hands on top of yours.

He gruffly murmurs, "Lemme get you a drink first."

"A drink?" He's got you for an hour, and he wants to waste time with booze? You reason it's his money, and he can do what he wants with it. You shrug and say, "Sure, a drink."

Right then, a mellow chime rings through the suite. You stiffen in surprise, ready to do something. Like hide or run or plead the fifth.

"What's that?" you ask, tugging your hands from his.

"Champagne."

Before you can ask what the hell that means, the chime sounds again. He steps away and heads for the main door. You zip your boot closed, realizing the chime is a doorbell. It's the fanciest sounding doorbell you've ever heard.

He lets in a room service attendant, who greets him. The attendant carries a silver tray holding a champagne bucket, covered dish, and a red rose in a slender vase. Your eyes bug out the same time the attendant's do. It appears neither one of you was expecting the other.

"Good evening!" the attendant says to you, keeping up appearances.

You reply with a "hi" and slip off the desk.

Pale directs the attendant to the small, four-seater bar in corner. After the attendant sets the tray on the bar, Pale tips him five dollars. You blink at him tossing around money, willy-nilly. Five bucks would feed you the whole day with snacks and everything, and here he is, just giving it to a guy for doing his job.

Though, you remember desperately needing tips when you worked at The Big A before you met Kit. But that was valet work, this is simply carrying stuff.

You check yourself, asking if there's any difference. Service is service—a line in which you still work. And you love when johns give you an extra ten on the side.

The attendant discretely thanks Pale and wishes you both a nice evening. You cross the living room as the attendant sees himself out. Pale moves around the bar, hauling the champagne bottle from the bucket as he goes.

You sit on a bar stool and lean an elbow on the counter. "So, you got a wife? Girlfriend?"

"Both," he grunts as he expertly pops the cork on the bottle.

"Where are they? Shopping together?"

"My ex-wife's in Miami with the kids." He puts a champagne flute on the bar and drops a sugar cube in it. "My ex-girlfriend, Anna, 's in New York, packin' my shit as we speak."

You hadn't taken him for a father. He doesn't have that air of fatherhood. He doesn't appear old enough, either. Unless the kids are pretty young. You want to ask after them, but that's way too personal. You're only here for another forty—or so—minutes. At least, that's what your internal clock says.

He uncovers the dish to reveal it stacked with beautiful strawberries and slides it in front of you. He pours a jigger of bitters over the sugar cube as you pick a strawberry. As you bite into it, he fills the flute the rest of the way with champagne.

"Ain't no orange twist to pretty it up, but this should be decent," he states and offers you the cocktail.

It is good, and you make a happy sound of approval. He preens behind the bar as you sip at the drink between bites of juicy strawberry. They really do pair well.

Nevertheless, you're antsy to get the show on the road, but it's never good to pressure a john too much.

Pale gets a snifter and curvy bottle of caramel-colored cognac from below the counter, filling the glass a quarter way. He holds up the snifter, telling you, "This is how I got my nickname."

"Making drinks?"

"Nah, this—" He taps the cognac bottle. "See, VSOP." He points to the letters on the label. "Very Special Old Pale."

You lean forward to read. "This says 'Very Superior Old Pale.'"

He smiles. "I'll take it!"

You raise your flute with an answering grin. "Here's to superiority," you toast and lightly tap his snifter.

"And pretty women."

At the compliment, you huff a laugh through your nose and take a sip. "So tell me, Pale, are you in town for business or pleasure?"

"Business…" He looks at your lips. "Until now."

"Hmm." You hide a grin, knowing you can now maneuver him into what he's paying you for, and finish your drink. "Well… Thanks for the drink, Very Superior Old Pale." You set the delicate flute down. "I appreciate the scene you've set for me, too, but—uh…" You wipe your palms on your thighs and give him a coy look. "I work on an hourly rate, so…?"

He straightens to his full, imposing height. "How much for the night?"

"Stay here?" You glance around with a private snort and just know he's going to be offended by the price you'll quote. "You couldn't afford it."

"Try me."

"Five hundred dollars."

"Done," he announces and plucks the flute off the counter. "Now we can relax." He holds it up. "Want another?"

You nod in shock, watching him place the flute in front of himself.

Kit can pay off Carlos tomorrow night. You'll be able to cover rent for this week and next. It's a miracle—if he's sincere.

"Are you sure you want me for the night?" you ask.

He smiles down at the jigger he's pouring. "Hell yeah." He glances up. "Unless you got something better to do."

"No, I got no one better to do."

Pale snorts in amusement and tips the full jigger into the flute.

You ask, "Ya mind if I take my boots off?"

"Make yourself at home. I'll get the money in a minute."

You go to your purse and stuff the fifties he gave you behind the tatty lining. He doesn't seem the type to rip you off, but you can never be too careful. You sit on the footrest to unzip your boots and roll down the old thigh-high stockings.

Once barefoot, you wiggle your toes in the thick carpet. It's nice, fluffy—feels expensive. You stand to head to the bar and realize you have to pee.

"Where's the bathroom?" you inquire and discreetly pick up your purse.

Pale points to the open doorway on his left. "Straight back."

The carpet continues through the doorway, which leads to a bedroom that has to be the same size as your apartment. The ensuite bathroom is lined in peachy-pink marble. Because, of course. All the fixtures are gold. Naturally. At the head of the swimming-pool size jetted tub is a cut-glass oval window.

Jesus fucking Christ.

Maybe you should've asked for more money.

You close the door and plop your purse on the sink counter before using the facilities. Even the damn toilet paper is luxuriously thick. The maid had folded the end into a neat point, too.

After flushing, you wash your hands and check your teeth in the mirror to see a few strawberry seeds. You sigh as you fish out the spool of floss from the toiletries bag in your purse.

Before you can cut a length to use, a knock sounds and the door opens. You don't know why you do it, but you hide the floss in your fist. Pale pops his head around the door, and you spin to face him with your hand behind your back.

"Hey, I…" He frowns. "Whatcha got there?"

"Nothing!" you promise with a grin. You just know he'll think you're being so prissy about your teeth.

His look darkens as he stomps into the room, approaching like a thundercloud. "Now look, I don't do that shit no more." He grabs your upper arm. "And I don't want anyone doin' drugs around me."

"I don't do drugs, alright!"

You attempt to wiggle out of his hold, but it's like iron as he steers you to the door. That five hundred dollars is slipping away because of goddamn floss! He snatches your purse in his other hand.

"No, wait, please!" you beg and open your damp palm. The spool sticks to your skin.

He looks down and blinks. "Is that fucking dental floss?"

His grip loosens, and you pull away. "Yeah, so?" You turn the little spool in your fingers, showing him it's just normal floss. "There were seeds between my teeth, okay?" You hold it up. "And you shouldn't neglect your gums!"

He stills for a tense second.

"No, yeah, sorry," he grumbles and waves a hand. "Continue."

You turn to the sink, pulling a length of floss out and cutting it loose. You meet his gaze in the mirror as you wind one end around your finger. "You gonna watch?"

"No," he says, looking contrite, and holds out your purse. "Here."

"Thanks." You take it, placing it right where it had been.

"And, uh—" He pulls a thin fold of bills from his pocket and extends it to you. "Here."

You take the bills and slide them temporarily in your bra. "Thanks."

With a relieved sigh, you get a good hold on the floss and bring it to your mouth. You feel him staring, though, and you look over your shoulder to say:

"You're watching."

"I'm going," he replies before stepping out of the bathroom, closing the door behind him.

You floss and rinse, hide all the money deep in your purse, and return to the living room. Pale's turned off a few lights, making the room softer and more intimate. He lounges in an armchair, snifter on the side table, a stack of papers at his elbow. His long legs stretch out, sock-feet crossed on the floor. In the mellow light, his dark eyes glitter and his wavy hair shines. He really is quite handsome—probably one of the best looking johns you've entertained in a while.

"I gotta make some calls," he says, then gestures to the entertainment curio in the corner. "Feel free to watch TV, or whatevah."

You nod and set your purse on a barstool. Your refreshed cocktail is still cool and bubbly, so you take a sip. It's as delicious as the first one. There's also a basket full of small bags of pretzels, chips, and candy on the counter.

"Got out snacks from the bar—if you're hungry." He adds, "Or there's room service."

This must be his way of an apology. Which is endearing, actually. You remind yourself it's always good business to meet your client at least halfway.

"Snacks are good, thanks!" you chirp and check the selection.

You load up on the salty stuff—because it's been hours since you last ate. From the minifridge behind the bar, you grab the squattest bottle of Pepsi you've ever seen.

You survey the dark dining room, since you don't want to disturb him. However, you don't want to eat there. You haven't eaten at a dining-room table in ages. There's no room for one at your place. You usually sit on your bed when you eat and watch the evening news. It was what you'd done tonight.

That leaves the living room. You ask if he's sure he doesn't mind if you camp out on the floor in front of the television. He reassures you he doesn't as he picks up the handset of the telephone on the side table.

You dump the bags and bottle on the carpet before going back for your cocktail. While you're at the bar, you pick up the wine bucket with the champagne, too. It would be such a shame for it to go to waste.

After opening the curio and finding the remote, you settle on the floor. As you flip through the TV channels, Pale argues—or is simply loud—with someone about Rex Two. You have no idea what that means, but it's none of your business, anyway.

You perk up when you find The Arsenio Hall Show. You hardly ever get to watch it. Kit always talks about going to a show. Plans were never made, though, but it would be fun to skip a day to do it.

Once he ends a second call, you turn to him. He jots something down on a paper. You assume it's one of the messages he picked up at the reception desk.

He meets your gaze, giving you a little grin.

You offer, "Would you like something from my little carpet picnic? Or I can refill your drink?"

His voice is soft as he replies, "Nah, honey, I'm good."

He goes back to his notes, and you pour yourself more champagne. It really is good and goes well with the potato chips. Who knew? Warmth spreads across your cheeks from the alcohol. Your limbs feel watery and languid. It's the most relaxed you've felt in months.

You roll onto your stomach as Arsenio comes back from commercial. The guest is unfamiliar, but funny. Him and Arsenio roll through quips and call-back jokes. You put a hand over your mouth to muffle your laughter. Pale's on another call, with staccato answers and forceful corrections.

At a commercial break, movement catches your attention as Pale stands sans phone. He must've ended the conversation while you were distracted. You watch him pad around you to settle on the nearest sofa.

He watches you as he spreads his arms over the sofa back and closest arm. There's something like an invitation in his movements. You sit up, and he relaxes more.

Yeah, you decide, you're reading him right.

You get on your knees and crawl to him. His eyes darken as he bites his bottom lip. Wordlessly, you maneuver his knees farther apart and skim your hands over his firm thighs.

He murmurs, "Show me what's under that dress."

You slip the top of the dress down to reveal a lacy bra. His eyes dart to look at your breasts, the way they fill the cups of your bra. You sweep the dress down your hips, uncovering equally lacy underwear—which doesn't match the bra, but are the same color.

You discard the dress, leaving it in a pile by his foot, and inch closer. He slumps on the sofa and spreads his knees. You lean in with every intention of unbuttoning his shirt, but the roar of laughter from the television distracts you. You smile at him in apology and haul yourself to your feet to get the remote.

Once muting the television, you return to kneel between his legs and rest your upper body across his. His torso is solid under you. His faint cologne entices you to get closer.

"You got a hot body," he says as he brings his hands down to touch your sides.

"So do you."

You begin unbuttoning his shirt, taking it slow. Each inch of chest revealed is only further confirmation of his attractiveness. His skin is creamy smooth and unblemished, dotted with beauty marks. A thick, flat gold chain snakes around his neck. It could be tacky, but it's not.

You kiss the skin right below the chain before whispering: "What're you into?"

"Whaddaya do?"

"Everything... but I don't kiss on the mouth."

"Yeah," he declares. "Neither do I."

With a grin, you lean close to kiss the side of his neck. He tilts his head with a breath. He slides his warm hands over your back and into your hair. He tastes clean with a hint of salt. You nuzzle under his jaw to kiss his thudding pulse.

Pale subtly rolls against you. His belt buckle digs into your belly, but so does his growing erection. You reach between your bodies to undo his belt and slacks.

He directs your head away from his neck before you get far. You think he's going to try to kiss you, but he doesn't. Your eyes meet, and his burn.

"Gonna show me what that pretty mouth can do?"

You grin. "Yeah."

He smooths his hands down your shoulders to your upper arms, thumbs catching on the straps of your bra.

"Show me," he growls.

You wet your lips and begin kissing a line down his torso. His breath catches every time you add a little teeth. You nip at his skin, peppering him with faint pink marks until you reach his loosened belt.

Sitting back, you undo his slacks. His cock tents the fine fabric, spreading the open fly. You run your palm over the bulge of it and feel its heat and heft. He's not small—just like the rest of him.

You scoot his slacks off his hips, and he lifts himself to help. Together, you get him stripped from the waist down.

There, you pause.

You don't consider yourself a cultured person. The only times you've been to a museum was during school. However, you know if a classical sculptor had seen Pale, they'd want to immortalize him.

His cock rests in the crook of his hip, thick and flushed. His thighs are gracefully corded and covered in fine, dark hair. His balls are plump and tight.

You spread his legs, running your hands up his smooth inner thighs. His dick jerks, and a little dribble of precome trickles around the crown. You gather saliva on your tongue and lick him from the seam of his balls to the tip of his cock.

He groans as you hold his erection away from his torso and do it again. The male musk of him coats your tongue, fills your nose. It's clean and salty. You smear the wetness of his precome over your bottom lip.

In response, he put a hand on the nape of your neck.

"That okay?" he murmurs.

"Of course, baby."

You steady the thick shaft of his cock and wet your lips. You want more of him, the taste of him in your mouth, the heft of his dick on your tongue. Taking the head in your mouth, you suck and swivel your head around so he feels all of you.

His breath catches once more as his head falls back. "Fuck…"

The hand at your nape tightens, but not with a threat. It certainly doesn't thwart you from getting more of him. You take him deeper and moan around his cock, receiving an answering groan.

It all felt good—the heat of him, the taste, the weight of his hand, the knowledge that you were giving him something he needed. You work his dick, using all your skill to give him something amazing. His hands shove their way into your hair and hang on—not to force you down, but to steady himself.

Pale moans as he rolls his hips, pushing his cock farther into your mouth again and again. It's like he can't help it, so driven by need. You don't mind the minute thrusts; your fist encircling the base keeps you from choking and gagging helplessly around his cock.

Maybe later you could take all of him. Deep-throating was something you were still learning. But you imagine him backing you against one of these fancy walls and fucking your mouth until he came down your throat. Your lips would be so puffy and wet and sensitive from his thrusts. His come and sweat would be all you could taste.

Your cunt clenches at the thought.

His hands fist your hair and pull you away. You pop off his cock with a gasp. His dick jerks in your hand as you meet his eyes, which are deep and dark. Like the hungry ocean. His chest heaves, and you pant out of sync.

"Get up here with that fuckin' mouth," he says, breathless, drawing you to your knees with one hand at your nape and the other on your shoulder.

When you're close enough, he grips you under your arms to haul you onto his lap. For a second, it looks like he's drawing you in for a kiss. You stiffen, but he dips his head to kiss under your jaw. You relax and tunnel your fingers into his lush hair.

His kisses are sharp and furious with lust. His hands are all over you, sweeping over your back, gripping your waist, clutching at your ass. It's easy to forget you'd only met him two hours ago. Not that he's familiar in the traditional sense, but because it's easy to relax around him.

You rise up, leading him to your breasts. You want his hands cupping them as he kisses them. He rests his forehead at the hinge of your jaw, smoothing his palms up your sides to your breasts.

"Fuck, these tits."

He massages you through the bra, his thumbs tracing the top edge of the fabric. Your nipples harden at the surprisingly delicate touch, and you push into his hands.

"Yeah, like me touchin' ya like this, princess?"

You nod, biting back a whimper.

Pale reaches behind you for the clasp of your bra. He tugs at it, fumbles for a moment. The band bites into your ribs. You take mercy and lean back, folding your arms behind your chest to help.

"I ain't no good with this shit," he gripes as he lets you undo the bra.

You smile. "I wouldn't expect you to be. It's not your bra."

He laughs and holds your ass. His eyes glued to your chest.

You undo the bra and hold the cups steady as you shimmy on his lap. He groans and thrusts against you. Your underwear clings between your legs as his dick rubs you just right. You're tempted to grind against him, but you don't know how much teasing he can take.

He murmurs, "Lemme see 'em."

You arch your back and use the cups to lift your breasts. When the cups start sliding up, you hold them for a suspenseful second before releasing your breasts. They bounce and jiggle as you lift your arms, tossing the bra onto the pile of your dress.

"Shit, lookit these fuckin' tits. Knew you'd be pretty."

He holds the sides of your ribcage and draws you in kiss your chest. You put your hands in his hair again.

God, it's gorgeous.

As is his mouth. He nips at the side of your breast and then takes a nipple in his mouth. He sucks at it, and the tension goes right between your legs. You angle into it, mewling and squirming as his touch gets firmer, rougher.

You lean on him, holding onto his shoulders. He curses against your skin and moves to the other nipple. His hands are back at your ass, squeezing and spreading your cheeks. You don't know which way to press because it all feels good.

He feels good.

Then he yanks down your underwear. Your body rocks with the force of it until he's gathering you close and slipping his fingers between your legs. You yelp and stare down at the top of his dark head. Johns don't usually bother with this step.

You breathe, "Wha—"

"So fuckin' wet, baby," he groans, resting his chin on your sternum. "Such a good girl."

His fingers feel huge as they slide in your slit, teasing you the whole way. He spreads you, and your pussy flutters. You push out your ass, wanting him to touch your clit.

When he does, your mouth drops open.

"Yeeeah, that's it. That's what you need." His free hand grips one cheek of your ass. "Isn't it?"

"Yes, Pale," you whisper.

After a couple of strokes over your clit, he withdraws his fingers. You cry out in protest, but quickly put a hand over your mouth. This isn't about you. If he gets sick of playing with your body, that's fine. You're not here for your own pleasure.

"Don't worry, I ain't done," he says with a pat to your ass. "Stand up and bend over this couch arm."

You pull up your underwear enough to not hinder yourself before sliding off his lap. Standing in front of him, you let your underwear flop to the floor. As you kick them away, he stares at your body, wrapping a hand around his wet cock.

"Lemme see that ass."

You turn and stretch your arms up, cocking a hip to the side to pose for him. You want to indulge him. He's been so sweet with you. You let your hands float down to your hips as you look over your shoulder. In a bold move, you run your hands over your ass, bend a little, and spread your cheeks.

It's only a tease. You know he can't really see anything. But that's the point.

He purrs. You hear the wet schlick as he gives a few pumps to his dick.

"Like showin' me what ya got, don't ya, ya little slut."

The way he calls you a slut makes heat bloom all over. He says it the same way he called you princess—all affection and dark delight. Like he just discovered something new in you. It almost makes you laugh. Being a slut is part of the job.

You snicker as you straighten and turn, giving him a smile. "Your little slut."

"That so?" He stands as you nod, and says, "I like my sluts bent over and ready for my dick."

"Like over the arm of the couch?" you playfully ask.

He smirks as he approaches, his open shirt the only clothing covering him. With one arm around your waist, he draws you in and brings a hand to cup your cheek. His thumb traces over your bottom lip as his gaze dances over your face.

"Yeah," he murmurs.

You kiss the pad of his thumb in reply. Pale then takes hold of your hips and forces you to turn. His cock smears across your ass and nestles in the cleft when he pulls your back to his front. He purrs again, burying his face in your neck, as he walks you to the sofa.

You drag your feet a little, whispering, "Condom."

"I didn't forget," he replies as he urges you over the arm.

The soft sound of fabric hitting the carpet is all you hear before Pale squeezes your ass around his heavy, spit-slick cock and ruts against you. It's such a tease. You want it in you, filling you, and you know it'll feel wonderful.

You move counter to him. The underside of his dick rubs over your asshole. Just a little more and the head will catch on your rim.

"Please, Pale…"

He growls, "Please, what?"

You bite your bottom lip and close your eyes. "Fuck me."

He sounds pleased when he says, "Gotta get ya ready first."

You want to scream you're ready. You've been ready.

He pulls back, steadies your hip, and slides two thick fingers deep in your juicy cunt. All slow and easy. You moan, writhing towards him. It feels better than you thought. He twists his hand, and his fingers rub every alighted nerve inside you.

Then his thumb is on your clit. He strokes you inside and out. You lean heavily on the sofa arm, bracing yourself on the hard frame. Your knees quake and belly tightens. You try to keep your sounds to yourself, but it's impossible. They keep spilling out.

He leans forward, his bare chest at your back, to kiss your shoulder. You cat into it, laying your temple on his. His cock—feeling huge—presses against your ass.

"You're gonna come on my fingers, princess," he says. "And then on my dick."

You groan with a nod. You could do that.

He strokes harder, faster. You gasp out a curse as your body stiffens. He tells you he can feel it. You can, too. The pleasure converges between your legs. It's bright and tense and so good and too much. Yet you give in to that too-much, letting it flare white through you.

Little by little, it burns away at you. Your pussy throbs as heat courses through your whole body. Sweat gathers under your breasts and on your forehead. Slick drips down your inner thighs.

You moan when Pale withdraws his fingers. He shushes you before asking if you're okay. You huff in amusement.

Are you okay? Are you okay?

You haven't been this okay with a john in a long time—if ever.

"'M great," you answer.

He kisses your skin again and steps away. Over your shoulder, you watch him pick out the green condom from the pile on the desk. He rolls it on and adjusts it so it conforms around the ridge of his cockhead.

"My dick looks like the Jolly Green Giant."

You laugh. It's really not that green. "It's certainly big enough!"

The condom has a green tint, sure, but it doesn't look like a cucumber is sprouting from his crotch. He's just being dramatic.

"Oh yeah?" He grins and holds his erection. "You like 'em big?"

"I like yours."

He pads back to you as he says, "And I like your little pussy."

"Oh yeah?" you repeat his words. "Why doncha show me?"

Pale doesn't reply as he grips his cock. You face front again and arch your back. The smooth head runs between the drenched folds of your pussy. It bumps your sensitive clit, and you can't stop the mewl of his name.

"I know, baby," he whispers. "Me too."

Then his dick pushes inside you. The girth of him makes you groan and spread your legs. He takes his time, grinding the full length of that big cock of his inside you.

He puts an arm around your waist and kisses your neck. His breath tickles in the best way. With each shallow inhalation, your cunt relaxes around him. He's a lot to take. It feels like he fills every available space inside you.

As your breathing deepens, he snakes his large hands over your ribcage to cup your breasts. He fondles you, flicking your nipples with his thumbs.

"Like my dick deep inside you?"

"Yes, Pale."

His hips flex, rocking his dick inside you. As much as you're able, you move counter to him. You attempt to get that delicious friction that'll have you coming again.

"Want more, princess?"

"Give it to me."

And he does. He holds your hips to pump his cock deep inside your cunt. He finds a wild rhythm that has you close to breathless. Each inward stroke fills you completely and pushes a pleasured whimper from you.

It spurs him on until you're bracing yourself with one hand on the back of the sofa while the other grips his hip.

He adjusts his stance. His cock is suddenly angled perfectly; he's pressing you against the sofa arm perfectly. If he keeps going like this, you're going to come. You moan and try to hold your position. It feels impossible, each thrust jostles you forward.

He growls and puts a searing hand around your throat, pulling you back to his chest. His fingers compress the veins on the sides of your neck.

"God, so fuckin' tight," he snaps. "So wet."

Your vision swims. Your pulse is everywhere. You sob as everything boils down to the pistoning of his cock. All you feel is him driving you to this gleaming pinnacle with each savage thrust.

"Come on, baby, lemme..."

You choke out, "Yea—"

Pale works his dick, fighting and sweating and snarling and fucking you, until you scream in ecstasy. Orgasm blinds you, like staring at the sun. It flows in turbulent waves, flooding you until you're gushing around his cock. Over and over, you're pulled down until you live in the pleasure he gives you.

His lips press to the top of your head as he changes his grip to simply holding your throat. He cradles your jaw, panting into your hair. His hips stutter, and his cock feels so big in your fluttering cunt.

He crashes into you a handful of times, and your body shakes with every thrust. Without warning, his muscles lock up when he's tight against your back and deep inside you. He brokenly moans into your hair, drowning in pleasure alongside you. His dick throbs as he fills the condom.

For the first time, you wish you could feel it.

Chapter Text

The dim bedroom you wake in is confusing; too cool, too quiet, sheets too soft, mattress too cushy. Your mouth is gummy. And you're very naked. You roll over, feeling every delicious ache from a good fucking.

That's right. Pale. Hotel room.

He's not in bed with you. You hear his voice, though. He's probably on the phone again.

You creak into sitting, smoothing your hair away from your face. On the nightstand is the squat bottle of Pepsi. You crack it open and take a few sips as you wipe the sleep from your eyes.

You suppose you shouldn't linger. Pale paid for the night, he got his night. In all likelihood, he'll want you to disappear so he can get on with his day.

After a few stretches, you totter into the bathroom. The oval window above the tub is dazzling in the morning light. You use the toilet, wash your hands, and splash cold water on your face. It wakes you like nothing else does.

On the back of the bathroom door are two terry-cloth robes. You slip one on, belting it around your waist, before padding out to the living room.

Pale sits at the head of the dining table, back to the living room and phone at his ear. "—about that car a yours…" He pauses a few seconds as the person on the other end speaks. "It corners like it's on goddamn rails."

You duck your head to smile. You didn't think he'd remember you saying that.

He ends the call, and you clear your throat.

"Hey," you softly greet him.

He pivots in his chair, face pleasant yet neutral. "Morning."

The table is covered in papers and covered dishes. There's a teapot and matching tea set on a trolley behind him. Pale's dressed for business in navy slacks and light-gray oxford shirt. The matching suit jacket and tie hang on a side chair.

"I can see you're really busy." You gesture back to the bedroom. "I'll be outta your hair in a minute."

"No—" He stands. "No rush." He takes a step towards you. "Are you hungry?" His look turns sly. "You gotta be."

You grin. "Know that from personal experience?" you ask, moving to the table.

He puts a hand at the small of your back as he says, "Worked up quite the appetite," and flicks his other hand to the trolley-side of the table, where two dirty plates are stacked.

Your grin transforms into a full-fledged smile as you sit. You're glad he had a good time last night. You certainly did.

Pale uncovers two dishes closest to you. One plate has croissants arranged in an artful spiral, the other a mound of scrambled eggs, a few strips of bacon, and a cup of cut fruit.

"Thought you might like somethin' more substantial than coffee." He gestures to the plate. "Protein. Voila."

"Like I didn't get enough meat last night."

He plops down in his seat and picks up the delicate tea cup to toast. "New Jersey bred and raised, doll."

"They all like you in Jersey?" you tease and draw the plate of eggs and bacon closer.

"Nah, one of a kind."

"That's right: Very Special Old Pale."

"And superior, apparently."

"I'll say," you agree and give him a wink.

He appears pleased by that and offers you tea. He tells you it's English Breakfast. You've never had that variety, but you do like tea. You ask for sugar, and he drops two sugar cubes in the steaming tea.

"There should be milk," he states as he places the tea next to your plate. "But this place don't understand ya gotta have it warm."

You gently blow on your tea before taking a sip. It's very good—different than the iced tea your mother makes. Pale watches your reaction.

You nod with a smile. "It's delicious."

He nods back. "Good."

He shuffles some papers around. You squint to try to read them. It doesn't really help. There are a lot of graphs that don't make much sense upside down.

"So…" you begin as you pluck the fork off the table. "Did you sleep much?"

He shrugs. "A little. Had some shit to do." He picks up a thin stack of papers to indicate the shit he had to do. "You?"

"Great," you reply between bites. "Too good, actually." You take another sip of tea. "Forgot for a second where I was."

"Occupational hazard?"

You snort. "Yeah."

It's awkward sitting at a table to eat. You tuck your foot under your opposite knee. That makes it feel a little closer to normal. Everything's so fancy, though. The silverware is heavy. The cut glassware sparkles. Your tea cup is so delicate the sunshine streaming in from the open French doors illuminates the china, making the tea glow.

"So…" you begin again. "You don't sleep much. You don't do drugs anymore. You know plenty about tea. What do you do, Pale?"

He relaxes in his chair. "I'm workin' as a buying agent for Mani Bianchi."

"What're you buying?"

"A restaurant. Maybe two. He don't know yet."

"Like, just a restaurant? Like real estate?"

"Nah, he wants to buy an assembled restaurant."

"And do what?"

"Rebrand. Expand his chain."

"How many does he own now?"

"Three: two in Jersey, one in Philly."

"Nothin' out here?"

"Nope. Told me he wants move the wife and kids to California." Pale leans in. "I think he's wantin' to escape some mob shit."

"Hate to break it to ya, but the Mob's out here, too."

"I know—ain't my problem."

The phone rings at the table, and he picks up. As he talks on the phone, you finish your breakfast and tea. You grab a croissant and head out onto the terrace.

It's a beautiful morning. Down on the sidewalk, grounds crew clean the pavement and prune the potted plants. Traffic is sedate. The few pedestrians carry multiple shopping bags and shade their eyes behind huge sunglasses. As you tear off bites from the croissant, you wonder how it would be to live a life like that.

"Hey, dollface," Pale says to get your attention.

He stands in the doorway, fussing with his tie. The knot is crooked.

"I gotta motor." He frowns at his chest as he attempts to fix the tie. "Realtor has some properties for me." He growls, "Fuck."

You leave the croissant on the balustrade and wipe your greasy fingertips on your robe. "Let me."

He sighs as his hands drop to his sides. You loosen the front tail at the top of the knot and adjust the back tail. You feel him watching you, but you concentrate on his tie. Once it's lying flat and straight, you back off with a friendly nod.

"There. Perfect."

"Thanks," he murmurs and smooths a hand over the silk. "Where you learn that?"

"Well! I screwed the debate team in high school..." you joke as you retrieve the half-eaten croissant.

He laughs and steps back from the doorway.

As you pass him, you tell the truth: "I had a grandpa. Liked ties on Sundays." You toss the croissant on your dirty plate. "Mind if I take a swim in your tub before I go?"

"Not at all. Just stay in the shallow end."

The phone rings again. He rolls his eyes, but goes to answer. You don't linger to eavesdrop. That huge bathtub is calling you.

You grab the Walkman from your purse and untangle the headphones as you step into the bathroom, placing it within reach of the tub. Leaving the door ajar, you run a bath and pour the sample of bubble bath into the filling tub.

The fragrant steam coming off the water fills the room with the scent of honey and lavender. It clings to your hair and the mirror over the sink. You untie your robe and hang it on the hook by the glass shower stall.

In the other room, Pale's still on the phone. It sounds like he'll be there awhile.

As you lower yourself into the swirling water, you grin. The tub is deep and would probably fit three adults comfortably—though probably only two Pales. You fold a towel on the lip of the tub by the faucet, ease back, and turn off the water. You slip the headphones on and hit the play button. Prince's "Do U Lie?" is ending, and you close your eyes as you groove to the jazzy song.

Then your favorite cut, "Kiss," starts and you fist-pump. You sing with Prince's falsetto as you sway in the warm water. You kiss into the air at the song's bridge.

You open your eyes to see the bathroom door open and trail off. You quickly glance to your left, seeing Pale sitting on the tub ledge. His suit jacket hugs his torso perfectly. Giving him an apologetic grin, you slip off the headphones. He smiles in return, affectionate and relaxed.

"Don't you just love Prince?" you ask to break the silence, dropping the headphones on the ledge.

"More than life itself."

You hide your hands under the water. "Did I interrupt your call?"

"Nah, it's fine."

That wasn't a no.

"I gotta—" He cuts himself off to adjust his seat on the ledge. "A business proposition for ya."

"What is it?"

Your mind races. You wonder if he wants another night. You'd be just fine with that. More than fine. He's good company and fucks like a champ. He's a beast, actually.

"I'm in town for the next week. I wantcha to spend it with me."

You smile, not believing what you're hearing. A whole week? You didn't know he liked you that much.

"Really?"

"Yup, I wanna hire you as an employee," he announces. "Can ya put up with me for a week?"

You laugh and almost sit up before you remember you're naked in a bathtub. Not that he hasn't seen it all. Still, you'd like to keep a little modesty. Though, you realize that's ironic coming from you.

Pale adds, "I'll pay you to be at my beck and call."

"I'd love to be your 'beck and call' girl, but you're a handsome guy. You could get a million girls for free."

His cheeks pinken. "I don't want a million girls. I want a professional."

"If you're talkin' twenty-four hours a day, it's gonna cost ya."

He stands and crosses his arms over his chest. The sleeves of his jacket strain.

"Hit me." His accent turns a little New-York when he says, "Ballpark figure. How much?"

You lick your lips, trying to quell the jittery feeling in your gut. "Six full nights—days, too." You do a little mental math, coming up with a thousand a day. "Six thousand."

"Six nights at five hundred is three thousand."

You point out, "You want days, too."

"Four thousand," he fires.

You counter, "Five thousand."

He grins. "Done."

Holy shit. Holy shit. "Holy shit!" you laugh before sliding under the water.

You want to scream. Five thousand dollars! Through the water you hear Pale say your name. He asks if that's a yes. You nod, but realize he can't see you for all the bubbles.

You sit up, laughing and wiping the foam off your face. "Yes!"

He gently bops you in the face with a fluffy towel, and it makes you laugh harder.

"Yes!" you say again before splashing some non-foamy water in your face.

He chuckles and hands you the towel. "I got some money for a down payment. That good?"

"Down payment?" you tease as you dry your face.

"Hey, I can't expect you to stay on my word now, can I?"

"I guess not."

He nods, more to himself than you. "Finish your bath. I'll get the money."

You rise to your knees and hold out a hand to him to help you stand. He takes it, secure and strong. The bubbles trail down your body, feeling like a caress, as you get to your feet.

He holds out your arm to stare at your foam-covered body and lowly curses. "Ya make me wanna forget this meeting I got."

"Think of it as incentive to get home quick."

"Even if I do, honey, we gotta leave right after."

"Why?"

"Business dinner. Tonight. You and me."

Jittery for a new reason, you say, "I don't have anythin' for somethin' like that."

"I know," he assures you, steadying you as you step out of the tub. "You can buy some clothes today." He retrieves the robe from the hook and holds it open for you.

You want to protest as you turn to slip your arms into the robe. You can't afford a new dress. Especially a fancy one.

He continues, "It's on me. You keep 'em."

He brushes the collar of the robe aside and kisses your neck. Just like last night. Your quip about him keeping the dresses for himself dies on your lips. His hands rest at your waist. Your mind swims with all you'll have to do before tonight.

It's doable, but so much.

You touch his smooth cheek and whisper, "Okay."

"Okay," he whispers back and then pulls away.

He strides out of the bathroom. The suit jacket emphasizes his broad shoulders. His hair just skims the collar. You don't know how to pick a dress that will compliment you and his style.

You tie the robe closed and follow him into the bedroom. He stops by his side of the bed and gets something from the nightstand. It's a flat wallet. He turns and hands you a stack of bills, saying this is for the day and new clothes. You can't believe he just walks around with so much money in his wallet.

"You know," you begin as you fold the stack in half and slip it into a robe pocket. "You really should think about traveler's checks."

He good-naturedly scoffs and tucks the wallet into the inner breast-pocket of his jacket. He jerks his head to indicate you should follow him before returning to the dining room.

"We'll be going out at night," he says over his shoulder. "Get good dresses. Maybe something long. I don't know. Dealer's choice."

"I can do that."

"Nothin' too flashy, yeah?"

You know "flashy" means a dress like the one you wore last night. Like you would shop at The Stockroom for a fancy dress to go to a business dinner.

Pale tucks all the papers into a briefcase that now sits on the table. It must've been hidden on a side chair earlier.

He tacks on, "Like conservative."

"Boring," you say.

"Sophisticated." He secures the briefcase and straightens, turning to you. "Somethin' pretty like you."

You smile. "Baby, I'm gonna treat you so nice, you're never gonna wanna let me go."

"I'm only here for six days, baby. I gotta let you go," he states and heads for the front door.

You watch him with a smirk. No longer is he the john that got away. He decided to keep you for a week and pay you more than you've ever gotten from a single trick.

After he closes the door behind himself, you murmur, "But I'm here now."

With money in your pocket and thousands more to come.

You screech and run for the bed. It's a fucking miracle. You make a flying leap onto the bed and roll around on the mussed sheets.

"Five thousand dollars!" you howl and spaz out.

You need to call Kit, though. She needs to know what's going on. You sit up, shake the hair out of your face, and haul the bedside phone onto the mattress.

The line rings and rings before Kit answers with a groggy hello.

"I called and called last night," you reply, which is true. While Pale was in the shower, you phoned the apartment, and no one picked up. "Where were you?"

"Ma?" Kit croaks.

"It's me."

Kit groans. "Out late. Had to party. Where are you?"

"Oh, man. You ready for this? The guy? The Lotus?" You sit up, crossing your legs in front of you. "I'm in his hotel room in Beverly Hills. The penthouse." You gesture around the suite though Kit can't see you. "His bathroom's bigger than the Blue Banana!"

"Do I have to hear this?" Kit drily asks.

"Kit, he wants me to stay the whole week." You lean forward. "And you know what he's gonna give me? Guess—you'll never guess." Kit slurps a drink as you pause a beat. "Five thousand dollars."

"Bullshit!" Kit exclaims, sounding excited.

"I swear to God." You raise a hand. "And extra money to buy clothes."

"Ah, man! I'm bummed I gave that guy to you!" There's a rustle. "Five thousand? Really? Is he twisted?"

You lay on the bed, propping your feet on the padded headboard. "No."

"Ugly?"

"He's good-looking."

Kit asks, "What's wrong with him?"

"Nothing."

"He give you the money yet?"

"End of the week."

"That's what's wrong with him."

You roll onto your side. "He gave me five hundred for last night. I'll leave some at the front desk for you. I want you to pick it up." Kit grunts, and you hear her brushing her teeth. "I'm at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. Write that down. Are you writin' it down? You'll forget it. Write it down."

The brushing stops for a second, and Kit mumbles, "Reg. Bev. Wil."

You scoot to sit at the side of the bed. "Hey, one more thing: Where do I go for clothes? Good stuff—on him."

"In Beverly Hills?" she says all slinky and playful. "Rodeo Drive, baby."

You end the call shortly after, telling her to take care of herself. She tells you the same. You get your purse, pull out four hundred dollars, and pad out to the desk in the living room to search for an envelope. Once you find one—paper thick and the color of unbleached silk—you stuff the bills inside, seal it, and write Kit De Luca on the front.

After rinsing off the bath residue, you change into your clothes from last night. You repack your purse, tie your jacket around your hips, and find the spare keycard by the door. The elevator attendant isn't the same as last night's, and he doesn't give you a second look.

In the light of day, the lobby is just as grand. Sunlight streams in from the glass doors. The white marble floor gleams. It's a lovely, mild day. You can already tell. It's going to be a great day, too. You have almost a thousand dollars in your purse and only one thing to do: spend it.

No one stops you as you walk to the reception desk, either. The clerk greets you with a smile and doesn't question your instructions with Kit's envelope. She promises not to open it, calling you ma'am. You almost laugh at the title.

You walk out of the hotel, and it's the polar opposite of the Boulevard. The sidewalks are so clean. The scent of green things—the potted hedges and flowers, the trees—and wet soil dominate anything else.

You mentally tick the first thing off the to-do list and spy a pharmacy just down the street. You purchase plain condoms, lube, grooming supplies, and some makeup. The cashier doesn't look you in the eye as she accepts your money. She pushes the glossy paper bag across the counter and wishes you a pleasant day.

She put enough stank on it to make her meaning clear: she wants you gone.

You try not letting it get to you as you leave with head held high. It's nothing new. And who cares about some judgy-ass cashier? You got bigger fish to fry.

Rodeo Drive is lined with designer storefronts. There are no rip-off stands or Chinese bootlegs. Prada, not Praba; Louis Vuitton, not Louie Vuibon. You window-shop, enjoying the jewelry displays and pretty clothes. Nothing pulls you in, though.

As you cross the street at a light, a woman coming the other way gives you the stink eye. You stick out your tongue at her and keep walking. You're allowed to be here. It's a free fucking country.

At the corner is a pretty boutique. In the window is a gorgeous cream-toned dress with bold, alencon lace overlay and handkerchief hem. You could see yourself in it, and you think Pale would like it. It's not too fussy—just elegant and feminine.

You hear him say "soPHisticated" in that Jersey way of his as you stare at it.

Inside, the boutique is Southwest-themed with potted cacti and a terracotta floor. It feels casual, but the clothes are super stylish. You make a bee-line for the dress in the window. The back of the dress is just as lovely as the front. You want to touch it—see if the lace is as luscious as it looks.

You're intercepted by an overstyled saleswoman, who asks if she can help you. You reply you're just checking things out. You don't want to appear desperate or unprepared. She hums and asks if you're looking for something in particular.

"Well… Uh, yeah." You smooth the knot of the jacket arms around your waist. "Something conservative?" You bite your lip. "Sophisticated."

She eyes you, coolly saying: "Yes."

You touch the shoulder of a jacket next to you. It's silk. It has to be. "You got nice stuff."

"Thank you."

In a moment of panic, you ask her how much the jacket costs. A second saleswoman joins the first. They both look at you like you crawled out of the sewer.

"I don't think this would fit you," the first saleswoman states.

Ah.

"Well." You wet your lips. "I didn't ask about the fit. I asked how much it was."

She turns to the second saleswoman. "How much is this, Marie?"

The second saleswoman—Marie of the white-blonde-glacial-eyed persuasion—shakes her head and replies, "Oh, it's very expensive."

The first one turns to you and repeats Marie's words. There's something about the way she tilts her head that's condescending. Like you don't know what you're doing. Like you must be lost. Like you're polluting the room with your inferiority.

"Look, I got money to spend in here," you say and walk around a well-dressed mannequin to stop at the center of the sales floor.

"I don't think we have anything for you," the first saleswoman says, lingering beside the mannequin. "You're obviously in the wrong place." Her voice goes hard as she says, "Please leave."

Marie comes up next to her, and they both stare you down. You look at them with your heart in your throat. You want to show them your money to prove you weren't in the wrong place. You only wanted a dress. You weren't going to fuck their boyfriends or take a shit on the shop's couch.

It was pointless, though. They'd made their minds up about you.

You walk out of the boutique with as much dignity as you can muster. Outside, a few people gape at you. Fuck, you think, has everyone been doing that? Were you really so abhorrent?

You untie your jacket and slip it on as you walk back to the hotel. You can't hide your boots, but it'll have to do. Pale's going to be so disappointed, you realize. You can't accompany him to dinner. And if you couldn't do that, were you really worth paying at all?

Luckily, the doorman doesn't stop you from entering the hotel. You tell yourself to hang on until you get back to the penthouse. Then you can lose your shit and regroup. There's got to be something you can do to buy a nice dress.

You're almost at the bank of elevators when a man comes out of nowhere.

"Excuse me, miss," he asks as he catches up with you. "May I help you?"

You really don't need this now, but you reply, "I'm going to my room."

"You're a guest here? Do you have a key?"

The man is in a flawless black suit. His salt-and-pepper hair is styled to perfection. He's so dignified and proper and stiff you wonder if he'd say "shit" with a mouth full of it.

"Yeah—uh..."

You stop to fish out the keycard from your purse. You know you put it in there. You silently plead with the universe to help you find the stupid fucking keycard, promising you won't ask for another thing for a month.

To stall for time you say, "I'm with a friend."

The man hums. "And who would that be?"

"Pale…" You realize Pale never gave you his last name. "I mean, he goes by Pale—" You exclaim, "Jimmy!" as you remember his given name.

The man looks less than impressed.

"James… He's in the penthouse..." You rack your brain for a last name. "James—uh…"

Didn't you see his last name on any of those papers he had lying around? Why didn't you look?!

Behind the man, the elevator dings and opens. You see the elevator attendant from last night.

You point to him. "He knows me!"

The man turns to the elevator, beckoning the attendant forward. "Dennis."

As Dennis galumphs over, the man—obviously his boss—asks, "Did you just come off night shift?"

"Yes, sir."

The man adjusts Dennis' uniform and refastens the high collar as he asks if Dennis knows you. Dennis swallows with a stiff nod and whispers something to the man that you don't catch. Before they finish, you ease away and head for the open elevator.

You make it in and press the PH button. The doors don't even start to close before the man is in the doorway.

"Oh, God!" you cry. "What now?"

He steps next to you, taking hold of your elbow.

You bristle at his touch. "What? What?!"

"Come with me." He crowds you out of the elevator to usher you away. "We'll have a little chat."

"What is with everyone today?!" you ask over him.

He walks you through the lobby. Instead of pushing you out onto the sidewalk, he takes you to a tidy manager's office—with dust-free wainscoting, serene landscape paintings, and the blinds half-drawn. His office, apparently. He orders you to sit as he closes the door after himself.

You're tempted to take the chair behind the desk, but it's best not to push it. You don't want Pale getting in trouble, or yourself arrested. You take a seat in one of the wingback guest chairs, clutching your purse and pharmacy bag to your lap.

"What's your name, miss?"

"Whaddya want it to be?"

He gives you a stern look. "Don't play with me, young lady."

You huff and tell him.

His face softens as he thanks you. Maybe he's not as bad as you thought. He goes to the sideboard under the window and waters the plant there.

"Now, things that go on in other hotels don't happen at the Regent Beverly Wilshire." Which is bullshit, you think. "Of course, customers who stay in the penthouse are special guests. And we consider our special guests as friends." He turns to you. "As a customer, we would expect him to sign in any additional guests, but as a friend, we're willing to overlook it."

As he sits on the edge of the desk, he leads, "Now, I'm assuming you are a…?"

He dips his head with an expectant look. You mirror him as you work out he wants an answer.

He finishes, "Relative…?"

You nod and grip the closed lapels of your jacket.

He grins. "I thought so. Then you must be his…?"

Again, he dips his head with the same expectant look.

This time you reply, "Niece?"

"Of course." He takes a breath and crosses his ankles. "Naturally, when your uncle leaves, I won't see you in this hotel again. I assume you have no other family members here."

You can't believe he's reprimanding you yet has no problem with Pale inviting a hooker into this fine establishment. Everyone's such a goddamn hypocrite. You can't buy a dress—that you only wear on special occasions. You're not welcome in a hotel—that rents room by the day.

Like, how is any of that different from prostitution?

You shake your head, though.

"Good!" he says and straightens. "Then we understand each other. I would also encourage you—" He motions down your seated figure. "—to dress more appropriately." He takes a small step to you, holding out an arm towards the door. "If that'll be all..."

"No, that's not all. That's what I was trying to do." Your voice starts to quake. "I tried to go…" You pull your purse forward. "Get a dress on Rodeo Drive." You show him the stack of cash. "And the women wouldn't help me. And I have all this money now and no dress."

Your chin quivers, and you hate it. "Not that I expect you to help me, but I have all this, okay?" You try to clear your throat, but it's no use. "I have to buy a dress for dinner tonight. And nobody will help me."

The first tear slips down your cheek. The man frowns and offers you a handkerchief. You put the cash back in your purse to take the handkerchief and blot your eyes.

He steps around the desk to pick up the phone.

Fuck. This can't be good.

"Oh man, if you're calling the cops—" you rasp. "Yeah, call the cops. That's great. Tell 'em I said 'hi.'"

That would be the absolutely perfect way to end this bullshit excursion.

He says nothing as he dials and waits. You zip your purse closed, ready to make a break for it.

Then he says, "Women's clothing."

You look up at him in confusion.

He asks for Bridget. After a pause, he introduces himself as Barnard Thompson. Evidently, he's known because he's cut off mid-introduction. He smiles, though, looking bashful, and asks for a favor. He looks at you as he says he's sending over a special guest. He says you're the niece of a very special guest.

The next thing you know, you're on the other side of the hotel and in a glamorous store. Plush carpet and chandeliers overhead. You had no idea this place was here, nor how big the hotel actually was.

You wait for Bridget by a display counter in the women's department. Behind the glass are rows and rows of gloves, colorful scarves, and lapel pins. You check yourself out in the stand mirror on the counter. Your eyes aren't too bloodshot or puffy.

"Hello?" a friendly female voice interrupts you.

You look up to see a cute brunette in tailored, classic clothes. She looks so unostentatious and cordial that it puts you right at ease.

She smiles and holds out her hand. "You must be our special guest. My name's Bridget."

You shake her hand as you introduce yourself. "Barney said you'd be nice to me."

She chuckles. "He's very sweet." She lets go of your hand and asks, "What're your plans while you're in town?"

"We're gonna have dinner."

She nods. "You're gonna go out? Have dinner? Well…" She sunnily smiles. "You'll need a cocktail dress!"

She takes your arm like an old friend. "Come with me."

Together, you walk to the stairs at the center of the department. She correctly guesses your size. You ask how she knows that. She laughs and tells you that's her job.

Midway to the second floor, you confess Pale isn't really your uncle.

She smirks and leans close. "They never are, dear."


Two hours later, your new cocktail dress, and all that goes with it, hang in the bedroom walk-in closet. You fold a few extra things Bridget insisted you'd want in the drawers for later. You then unload the pharmacy bag on the bathroom counter. The suite has been reset—as if you hadn't taken a bath, slept in the bed, or had a carpet picnic last night. With a sigh, you collapse on the sofa.

Bridget was great—as was Barney.

You hadn't seen him on your trek back through the hotel. However, you wanted to thank him. You cross the living room and pick up the phone on the side table to call the front desk.

After asking for him, you wait. He picks up after a minute, and you identify yourself. He asks what he can do for you, sounding so formal.

"Nonono, I don't need anything. I'm sorry for interrupting." You twist the phone cord around a finger. "I just wanted to say Bridget was… She was really great. Thanks, Barney. You're cool."

"You're most welcome," he warmly replies. "I hope you have a splendid evening tonight."

"Hey, if I do, it'll be because of you!"

There's a grin in his voice as he says, "It was my pleasure to help."

"Okay, well—bye, Barney! Thanks, again!"

"Goodbye."

So prim and proper, you think with a smile and hang up.

A minute later, the phone rings. You answer, expecting Barney or someone from the front desk.

"Never pick up the phone," Pale says in lieu of a greeting, a lilt of amusement in his tone.

You grin. "Then why're you callin' me?"

"Did you buy clothes today?"

"I got a dress—cocktail one."

"Good, I'll be in the lobby about seven-forty-five."

"What? Not coming to the door?"

"This ain't a date. It's business."

You hum. "Where're we goin', anyway?"

"A restaurant called Rex Two."

You recognize that name from last night.

"Alright," you sigh in mock exasperation. "I'll meet you in the lobby, but only 'cause you're payin' me to."

You hear the smile in his voice as he says, "Oh, well, thank you very much."

He ends the call before you can reply. You wait by the phone with a feeling he's going to call again.

The phone rings.

You laugh and answer, "Hello?"

He attempts seriousness: "I told you not to pick up the phone."

"Then stop callin' me," you drily say.

He laughs and ends the call.

You grin with a whispered, "Weirdo."

There's a couple of hours before he's due. That's plenty of time to shower, shave, and do something with your hair. You decide to keep the makeup simple with the focus on your eyes.

By seven-forty, you're slipping on your new black heels. The sheer black stockings you wear are so fine and soft, you barely feel them. You hope Pale likes your outfit. Bridget insisted this was the little black dress for you. She had recommended you wear your hair away from your face to show off the unique neckline. It also gave space for the pretty gold earrings with faux-ruby teardrops.

You try not to fidget on the way down to the lobby. You don't want to accidentally ruin the dress by poking a finger through the lace overlay or stretch out the line of lace on your shoulders that holds the off-the-shoulder neckline in place. This dress is too nice to fuck up with your nervous habits.

In the lobby, your eyes meet Barney's. His face transforms from serene blankness to pleased disbelief. It could be insulting, but you know what you look like—before and after.

Barney comes to you, taking your gloved hand. "You look wonderful."

"Told ya: Bridget was great!"

"Shall I call you transportation?"

"Aw, no thanks! I'm meeting Pale here. Can you tell him I'll be at the bar?" you ask and gesture to the lounge off the lobby.

"Absolutely."

You thank him again before heading into the mostly unoccupied lounge. There's soft piano music and brown velvet club chairs. You hope this is a good setting for your big reveal.

You sit at the center of the bar and order a lime seltzer, tipping the bartender a dollar. While you're tempted by something stronger, you don't want to start the dinner drunk. So, you sit and sip your drink.

It's almost eight when you hear someone enter the lounge. The tread is clearly that of a man, and you think you know who it is. You pivot on the bar stool to see Pale standing just beyond the inner archway.

He glances around, not noticing you. He looks as good as he did this morning. His suit isn't rumpled, and his hair is just gorgeous.

You straighten on the stool and watch him, willing him to see you. He turns right then and does a double-take when he meets your gaze. He stares at you for a suspenseful moment before striding over.

Sliding off the stool, you gather your clutch and smooth your dress over your hip.

"You're late," you lightly point out when he's close enough.

"You're beautiful."

You chuckle, privately delighted. "You're forgiven."

He grins and offers his elbow for you to take. Side by side, you walk out of the lounge. He puts his other hand over yours on his bicep as if you'll sprint off. Or someone will steal you away.

"Goddamn, you're lucky we're not upstairs," he says, sotto voce.

You ask equally as softly, "Why's that?"

"'Cause I'd be layin' you out on the bed right now. Messin' up that lipstick."

"Ah, ah," you admonish. "No kissing."

"I didn't say I'd be kissing that pretty mouth a yours."

You grin, feeling your face heat. Even the mild evening air does nothing to cool your face. That is, until you see a gray limo waiting at the curb.

"Is this for us?" you ask.

"Yeah? Why?"

The driver is a burly guy in a suit that almost matches the limo. He opens the passenger door with a soft "good evening." You glance at Pale, seeing him unconcerned, before greeting the driver and getting in.

The ride is uneventful. Pale orders you to stay on your side of the bench seat. He says he doesn't want to be enticed.

The restaurant has a lush Asian-colonial flare in black lacquer chairs with woven cane inserts, fishing basket pendant lights, potted banana leaf plants, and crisp white tablecloths. High overhead, a glass ceiling lets in all the creamy red-orange light of a typical LA sunset.

Pale didn't have to introduce himself at the hostess stand. She knows him by sight and leads you to the chef's table in the kitchen. Shortly thereafter, a petite man in a linen suit comes to the table, shakes Pale's hand, and introduces himself as Giang Tu Tuan.

"Like the singer," he adds, though you don't know to whom he's referring.

Nevertheless, you smile and shake Tuan's proffered hand as Pale introduces you as a friend. A porter comes to the table and pours you both wine. As Tuan tells you about what you'll be served, fusion French-Vietnamese, the chef himself steps beside him.

There's a brotherly snark between them, which is delightful. The chef, Tran Hung Tuan, teases Giang about overloading his guests with information.

"I don't want them to be surprised!" Giang insists.

"Surprise is the point!" Tran ends with an obvious insult in Vietnamese.

Giang snips back and then gives you a wink.

Tran turns to Pale, saying: "Thanks for coming by. I appreciate Mr. Bianchi's interest in partnering with us." He shakes Pale's hand, then yours. "It's an honor to host you for the evening."

Something twists in your gut when you hear the word "partnering." Pale said this morning Bianchi was looking to buy an assembled restaurant to add to his franchise. You didn't think Bianchi was interested in being a silent partner with the brothers.

Pale nods and replies, "It's my pleasure, gentlemen."

Tran and Giang leave you two alone when the expeditor announces—in French—orders are ready.

You lean close to Pale. "Partnering?"

He shakes his head.

"What's going on?" you ask. "Don't they know?"

With a name like Bianchi, you have to assume he isn't serving anything even close to Vietnamese in New Jersey or Philadelphia.

He gives you a look that's half-stern, half-pleading. "Not here."

You take off your evening gloves and offer your hand to him. While there might be some subterfuge, the look he gives you speaks to something deeper going on. Regardless, you're here to support Pale.

He places his big hand over yours, thumb stroking your skin.

The first course—goa cua—starts tense, but as the wine flows and Giang charms, the atmosphere lightens. You're thankful Kit taught you how to use chopsticks, and you mention you're newly acquired skill to Giang and Pale. Giang compliments you, calling you a natural. Pale asks you to adjust his grip on his own chopsticks.

You come around the table to help Pale, though you catch him looking down your dress as you straighten.

However, you're not much of a natural when it comes to escargot. The little tongs are weird. It's hard to get a grip on the shell. The two-pronged fork keeps catching on the shell.

In one jerk of your fork, you launch an escargot, the first airborne mollusk, into the kitchen. The expeditor catches it with a laugh, salutes you, and plucks the meat right out with a toothpick.

"On the house!" you call to him.

He laughs again.

You look over at Pale to see him smiling at you.


On the ride back to the hotel, Pale is quiet. You make conversation with the burly driver—whose name is Darryl—to diffuse the renewed tension. Pale remains quiet on the walk inside and the elevator ride, too.

He disappears into the bathroom while you kick off your heels and unload your clutch. When he comes out, his tie is hanging around his neck like a noose. His jacket drapes over his forearm limp and weary. He looks so tired.

"Here," you softly say as you pad over and undo the knot of his tie.

You take the tie and jacket to the closet to hang them up. He's gone when you step out. For a moment, you don't know what to do. There are so many possibilities. You wonder if you should go to him, offer a blowjob or a shoulder rub—or both.

Before you can do either of those things, you must deal with your full bladder. While you're in the bathroom, you strip off your stockings and take down your hair.

You find Pale sitting in a bergere armchair he's moved to straddle the threshold between terrace and living room. His sleeves are rolled up, and a couple of shirt buttons are undone. He stares into the night as if there are answers to be found in the light-polluted sky.

"I thought you said you didn't come out here," you say as you walk closer.

He glances down at the floor. "I'm only halfway out."

You ease around him and prop your elbows on the balustrade. "You didn't say much in the car. You thinkin' about dinner?"

He shrugs a shoulder.

"The food was great. Giang and Tran are amazing…" You gnaw at your lip for a second. "I think you like them and their restaurant—as it is."

"Don't matter if I do."

"Can you help them?"

He snorts. "Ain't got that kinda money."

"No, I mean, like, business management."

"Like a fixer?" He snorts again. "I already done that kinda shit. No fucking thank you. Three hours a sleep a night. Sometimes not even that. Fuck, and goddamn coke everywhere. Couldn't take a shit without seeing it on the counter. Fuckin' bloody tissues all over the goddamn place. Sometimes needles." He pointed at you. "Un-fuckin'-sanitary."

Rex Two didn't seem like that kind of place, but you don't know much about restaurants. They were busy, though, and had a full house the whole time you two were there. Before you and Pale left, Giang reminded him about the polo game they were catering the day after next.

Rex Two was doing well by your estimation. You didn't know why they were selling, or why they wanted a partner from the east coast.

"Well… What if Giang does the fixer stuff while you do more business things?" you offer.

Pale hummed noncommittally.

You want to add you understand that Pale works for Bianchi, that backing the brothers would be tantamount to double-crossing him. However, there are plenty of restaurants to buy. Bianchi doesn't need this one.

You flounder for a second, not knowing what to do. You can tell he doesn't want to talk about the restaurant business anymore.

"Hey, I got an idea," you say as something comes to you and kneel next to him. "How about we veg out in front of the TV for the rest of the night?"

He grins. "Veg out?"

"Yeah, ya know, be still like vegetables. Lay like broccoli."

He rises to his feet, and you hope he'll offer his hand. You're not sure why. Maybe it'll mean you hadn't overstepped. He doesn't appear offended, though.

He delicately cups your chin, more tender and controlled than you thought him capable.

He says, "I'll be back. We'll do broccoli tomorrow."

You straighten as he turns away. "Where're you going?"

"Downstairs—for a while."

It's not an invitation, so you watch him leave the suite. You flounder again, wondering if you've fucked it all up. Perhaps you should've offered to blow him right there. Then he could've fisted your hair and forgotten all about Rex Two for a time.

Too late for that now.

You right the bergere chair before heading to the bedroom to undress. You change into one of the extra things Bridget had sent you away with: a slinky black silk nightgown. It's almost a slip—or maybe it is one, but you've never seen a slip this pretty.

You think Pale will like it when he comes back.

You set yourself up in the living room, getting a glass of water and flipping on the television. You fluff your hair and get comfortable as you find something to watch. You stop at a movie channel with a yawn. Opening credits are just starting, and you want to see what it is.

The end of a movie—one you didn't start with—wakes you. You squint at the cut crystal clock on the side table and can't believe it's almost three in the morning.

You straighten and look around the suite, not seeing or hearing Pale. You pad around to confirm he's not there. While you could play hide-and-seek in the hotel for the rest of the night, there's an easier solution:

You call the front desk and ask if they've seen Pale.

They have, and tell you the elevator attendant, Dennis, would know where he is. After thanking them, you pull on a hotel robe, grab a keycard, and head out to the elevator. Dennis is waiting for you with a coy look.

He escorts you to a set of ajar double-doors on the main floor. Piano music drifts out, flowing and nocturnal, full of trills and dreams. Inside, only wall sconces light the intimate ballroom. Banquet tables crowned with chairs fill the floor. There are a few workers bagging soiled table linens. Two are sitting at a table off to the side, smoking and talking softly.

On the band dais, Pale sits at the shiny grand piano. He doesn't see you as he plays. His body sways as he follows his hands along the keyboard. He is magnetic and moving, rendering you speechless.

When the song comes to its conclusion, the workers stop and subduedly applaud. You join them. Pale thanks the room and turns as if to ask for requests. He sees you and stops; not quite deer-in-headlights, but surprised, nonetheless.

You give him a smile and walk to the side of the piano. "I didn't know you played."

"Only for strangers."

You wonder if you count as a stranger or not.

"I was gettin' lonely upstairs," you comment as you round the corner of the piano.

His look changes from guarded neutral to hungry. You recognize that look, knowing what it means.

You're about to reach for his hand to take him back to the penthouse when he requests the workers leave. You watch as no one hesitates. No arguments. They all pack up and file out, like worker ants.

"People always do what you tell them to do?" you ask, half-curious.

Pale doesn't reply as he puts his hands at your waist and tugs you in front of him. Your ass drags over the keys; discordant noise to go along with the jerky movement.

He rests his forehead against your stomach, and you automatically tunnel your fingers into his hair. You don't know what's wrong, but there is something amiss with him.

He looks up at you to meet your eyes. You hold the back of his head, your thumbs below his ears. His dark eyes are deep enough to drown in. He loosens the knot of your belt and spreads the two sides to reveal your nightgown. He stares at your body and kneads your hips, making you roll with his movements.

Abruptly, he stands to crowd you against the piano. He holds your ass, studying your face and reaction.

You look at his full lips and wonder how it would be to kiss him right now. You think he'd take charge, nipping at your bottom lip and tongue. Invading you, tasting you.

At the moment, you understand why everyone obeyed his request.

"I guess so," you murmur.

He picks you up, placing you on top of the piano. Your feet hit the keys, another jangle of notes filling the air. The robe slumps down your upper arms to pool at your elbows. He smooths your hair from your face and moves in to kiss you.

You smell the whiskey on his breath. You lean away and have to do it again as he holds the back of your neck and tries a second time. You can't kiss him. If you do, you'll ruin it. You'll fall. It's too much.

You tuck your face under his jaw to kiss his neck. You know it's hardly what he wants, but he tilts his head just the same. You kiss to his ear and suck at the lobe.

He lowly groans and maneuvers between your legs. He pulls you tight to him and sweeps his hands up your ass, taking your nightgown with him. The cool air draws goosebumps over your bare skin.

Arching your spine, you hang onto his shoulders. He eases you onto your back and jerks your hips down to grind against you. You briefly hold his forearms, feeling his tendons roll under the skin.

He trails his palms over your torso, caressing your breasts, pushing the nightgown out of the way. You close your eyes as he bends to kiss your lower belly. His mouth is so hot, branding you. His hands are huge and strong.

He hooks those huge, strong hands under your thighs and shoves them up. You cry out in surprise, but don't protest. You know you're clean. He can do whatever he wants; you're here for his pleasure.

Pale growls, eager and starving. He pushes his tongue in your slit to lick up your pussy. Again, you cry out in surprise. Your hands scrabble over the sleek surface of the piano and find nothing to grip.

He laps at you over and over, taking your cry as encouragement. Then he swirls his tongue, groaning as he goes. He finds your clit and cups it with his tongue. He's fierce and merciless and relentless as he sucks at it.

You squirm against his mouth, in his hold. It seems to drive him on and on until your gasping out yeses and pleads.

The pleasure swells. Your body suddenly locks up. You grit your teeth and keen. It's too much. You're going to snap. But you don't. That growing tension rolls over you, surging like the ocean. Your cunt thrums again and again, and your heart pounds. It eclipses everything. Orgasm drains you of strength, leaving you with only breathless, throbbing ecstasy.

Then he pushes a thick finger inside you.

You moan and curl to look at the top of his head.

"You're gonna give me another," he darkly demands as he pumps his finger.

You bite your lip with a nod, shuddering at how good that felt. He pushes another finger in you and crooks them up. Your mouth drops open as new heat radiates from your chest.

"Yes, Pale," you whisper and sink into it.

His tongue is on you again, licking your tender clit. He presses against the walls of your wet pussy.

You don't mean to, but you make a needy, guttural sound you've never heard from yourself before. He replies with one of his own. You don't know what he's doing, but you never want him to stop.

Because there's a new kind of tension now. It's urgent and taut like a clenching fist. You writhe on the piano and mewl. You don't know if you want more or if it's too much.

Pale sheathes your clit with his searing mouth. His lush, wet lips feel incredible. He adds a delicious pressure inside and out that has you crying again. You fight the iron hold he has on your thigh. You curse and shake your head, covering your mouth with a hand.

A primal scream builds up from somewhere deep in your gut.

Then the heat overtakes your body. Your hair sticks to your damp forehead. The terry cloth scratches against your sensitive skin.

Everything stills for a knife-edged second before you're engulfed. You can't move, can't breathe. You burn—there in the hotel ballroom. Pale holds you down, controlling your twisting body as he laps at your dripping pussy. The blaze inside eats away at you in pulsating flare-up until you're nothing but a smoldering residue of yourself.

From the static void of waning pleasure comes the clink of a belt buckle. He lets your legs down. Dissonant non-music rings beneath you as your heels land on the keys. You attempt to prop yourself on an elbow, but Pale's heavy hand on your breastbone pushes you flat to the piano.

"I'm gonna come all over you," he promises.

He spits into the palm of his hand, the one that had been inside you, and reaches into the open fly of his slacks. He's mean and vicious with himself, twisting his hand around the tip of his cock.

His glossy lips curl into a snarl. His dark eyes glow with want. His face is a mask of frenzied lust as he pants.

You reach for his blushing face. You need to touch him, caress his cheek. He curls into it, kissing your palm, sucking at your thumb. Sloppy and ardent.

"Pale," you breathe.

He groans and curves over you. His hair curtains his face as he puffs. His knuckles bump your belly. He suddenly lets out a drawn-out "fuuuuck." Warm, thick liquid stripes your stomach. You smell the salt of his come mixing with yours.

You lazily smile at him, sweaty and worn out.

"Fuck," he chuckles as he catches his breath. He kisses your palm again. "Let's go to bed."

Chapter Text

You wake to a wall of heat against your back. The wall moves as something soft gently and repeatedly pecks at your neck. There are hands, too. You know the feeling of hands. There's one cupping your breast while the other is smoothing over your thigh.

You realize you're being held. In bed. With the covers over your shoulder.

With a sleepy whine, you wiggle into the embrace. You're still wet from the previous night. And the soothing touch of those big hands is making you wetter. The hard line of an erection rests at the crevice of your ass.

You're mildly shushed before the hand on your thigh angles you back. Your eyes fly open when fingers edge between your legs. You recognize that touch:

"Pale," you breathe.

He hums in confirmation as he strokes your clit. You move with him, putting a hand on his forearm. His cock slides against your ass, slow and easy. He dips his fingers into your cunt to wet them. You gasp. It feels so good. It makes you want and ache.

"Please, Pale…"

His voice is gravelly when he asks, "Please, what?"

"Please, fuck me."

He kisses behind your ear in reply and rolls onto his back, fumbling for a condom. He pulls his arm from underneath you. You offer to help, but he declines as he rips open the little wrapper.

"Just stay put," he orders.

You adjust your position on your side with a stretch and push your pillow towards the headboard. He slots behind you, hand on your hip. His lips return to your neck and shoulder.

He murmurs, "Couldn't help myself—you're too pretty."

You smile and reach back to pet his disheveled hair. "I don't mind."

He reaches between your bodies, positioning himself. You arch your back to offer yourself. The smooth head of his cock pushes into your slit. His knuckles at the base press between your legs.

You rock together, teasing each other. He tenses each time the tip of his dick glances off your opening. You bite your lip and brace yourself against the bed.

You make a needy sound he echoes as you try to catch him at the right angle. When you do, it's like a piece perfectly sliding into place. He eases right in, feeling huge and so hot. He places a hand on your hip to draw you back until your pussy is full of him.

He groans and gathers you in his arms. He nuzzles at your neck, fondles your breasts. He strokes the undersides, tracing the curves.

Pale mumbles something that sounds like your name.

You nod and touch the back of his hand. He kisses your neck one more time before gripping your hips. You steady yourself against the mattress.

He begins slow with a rolling of his hips. While his cock doesn't move much, it's deep. Then his hold on you tenses. He buries his nose in your hair and breathes out a groan like he can't stop himself. He pulls you back roughly, fingertips digging into your flesh.

If he continues like this, you'll have bruises.

You find you don't mind.

Your ass bounces off his pelvis with every thrust. You attempt to hold still. You want to get him as hard and deep as you can, and whine when you can't.

He suddenly pushes you onto your stomach, and the covers go with you. His cock slips out, and you gasp at the empty feeling. He knocks the sheets away before straddling your upper thighs. His weight presses you into the mattress.

You prop yourself on your elbows and push your ass back. He leans forward to rest against you, kissing between your shoulder blades. With his thumbs, he spreads your ass and then slides his cock right in your slit again.

"God, so fucking wet, princess," he growls.

You close your eyes, undulating against him. "Only for you."

"Damn right," he says and grips your jaw.

His thumb draws down your bottom lip, and you lick the tip. He slips his finger in your mouth and kisses your cheek as you suck at it.

He whispers in your ear, "You want my dick, don't ya?"

You nod with a whine and try to get him inside you.

"Tell me," he says, sliding his finger out of your mouth.

"I want it—want you."

You quiver and clench your thighs together, but it's not enough. You need it so badly.

He rubs his cock between your folds, strokes your sensitive clit. You whine again as your slick cunt throbs.

In an act of mercy, he rises up and guides his cock inside you. You moan at the feeling of fullness. He feels so big, too much, and you shock yourself by wanting more.

He groans before wrapping his hands around the tops of your hipbones. He settles fully, lazily rocking his pelvis, grinding his cock—feverish and thick—in your pussy. You push back to egg him on.

Within two pumps, he's using his full weight to fuck you. The head of his cock strokes the front wall of your cunt as obscene, rhythmic squelches punctuate each thrust.

You try to squeeze around him, give you both something more, but you can't. He's too much. You stretch under him, locking your knees to brace yourself. You're on the cusp of something akin to climax.

He spits out curses, puts his hands at the small of your back. It forces your waist into the bed, and he fucks you faster. The bed squeaks, sharp and metallic.

The new angle has you crying out. Something about it ratchets you further into pleasure. Your peaked nipples drag against the smooth sheets. You let your head hang between your arms and moan.

"That's right," Pale pants. "Takin' it all—such a good girl."

He jackhammers that big cock of his deep. Your body locks up, quaking and needy. You're so close, but you know he's closer. And you want him to come, want him to fill you up.

He tugs your hips back, so you meet him right in the middle of each hard thrust. He seizes abruptly with a drawn-out moan.

"Fuck!" he grits.

His cock gets impossibly harder, and he pumps his hips, tough and intense. It's almost too much, and it drives the air right out of your lungs. His dick throbs, and you know he's filling the condom.

You wish you could feel it filling you instead. You bet you'd feel each spurt hit your cervix. It would be primal and so satisfying—to be claimed in such a way by him.

Pale sags on an elbow and reaches between your bodies to steady the condom as he pulls out. You bite back a whimper—you're not ready to be empty so soon. He kisses your shoulder, the side of your neck, as he drops the used condom on the floor. He pushes his nose under your jaw to mouth at your galloping pulse.

The ghost of his hands linger on your hips. Your wetness and the condom lube ooze down your slit, heavy and syrupy. You smell his fresh sweat and the sleep in his hair.

He murmurs, "Ya know, good girls deserve rewards."

"Pale, it's—"

He shoves a damp hand between you and the mattress before you can finish. He cups your mound and slithers two fingers through your sopping folds. With a press against your clit, your cunt pulses in need. You choke on your words and fist the sheets.

He murmurs a little encouragement as he strokes your sensitive clit. He quickly finds a luscious tempo that makes you squirm and gasp his name. He controls your body, forcing his hips and chest to your back. You're trapped and surrounded by him as he drives you to orgasm.

You reach for his hand on the bed, and he tucks it under you. He holds your ribs, cradles a breast. You lean your head on his shoulder as you let everything go, let him take care of you.

The warmth of oncoming climax floods your spine. Your thighs clench around his hand. You dig your toes into the bed and hump his fingers.

"That's right, baby," he purrs as he strokes your clit faster; his fingers press on either side.

A whimpery groan stutters out of your mouth. Then orgasm hits you, all heat and pulsating pleasure. The hotel room disappears. You can't hear Pale's voice. It's just you and the overwhelming thrum of ecstasy.

And he doesn't stop. He continues to touch you. Each stroke earns you another throb of orgasm. It goes on and on until you mewl in oversensitivity.

Finally, he relents. He splays his hand on your belly and kisses your shoulder, then your temple. You smile and lean into it as you catch your breath.

After a tranquil moment, he rolls to the side and stretches out like a big cat. You meet his dark, sleepy eyes and pet the whiskers on his chin.

With blushing cheeks and gleaming eyes, he grins. "G'mornin'."

You grin back. "Good morning."

"You ready for more shopping?"

Shopping. You can't stop yourself from scrunching your nose.

"What?" he asks with a frown and heaves onto his elbows.

"It wasn't as much fun I thought."

"Yeah? I'm surprised you didn't buy more."

You shrug. "They were mean to me."

His eyes narrow. "Mean to you? Who the fuck was mean to you?"

"Just ya know…" You look away, not wanting to relive the embarrassment. "People."

"Who?"

"Salespeople on Rodeo."

He gently cups your chin to make you meet his eyes. "Who?"

"Pale…" You cover his hand with yours. "It was just some snotty women. It's nothin' new."

"Not on my fuckin' watch." He pulls away and sits. "Ain't no one shittin' on you. I won't fuckin' have it."

"Maybe it'll be better today?"

You highly doubt it, but you don't want him to get worked up over it.

He gives you a look as if he can read your mind. "Bullshit." He combs his hair away from his face. "I'm comin' with ya."

"But what about…?" You gesture to indicate all the business he has to accomplish while in town.

"Don't matter. Nothin's going nowhere without me."

"I don't—"

He stops you. "Hey, no more arguin' or obfuscatin'. Get cleaned up, we're going out." He kisses your forehead, sees your doubt. "There somethin' wrong with me comin' with?"

You shook your head. "Of course not. I don't wanna bore you."

"If I get to watch you, I ain't bored."


A long shower and one shared breakfast later, Pale says:

"You cannot fuckin' wear that, honey."

"It's all I got," you reply as you adjust the strap on your white-and-blue dress.

You know the dress is what got you in trouble yesterday. You don't know what else to wear, though. The cocktail dress is too fancy to go shopping in. You certainly don't want to get it dirty or snag the lace on a hanger.

You wonder if wearing it would make it more or less obvious you don't belong.

Pale hums in thought as he finishes tying his shoelaces. You stand there barefoot, maroon jacket in your hands.

He looks at you and then to the closet.

"I got an idea," he says as he stands. "Get those heels on from last night."

As you slip your feet into the plain black pumps, he pulls out a crisp white oxford shirt. He holds it out for you, and you slide your arms into the sleeves. You're not sure it's better than your jacket, but you say nothing as you turn to him.

You catch a glimpse of yourself in the closet mirror and snort. You look like a kid playing dress-up. The sleeves are way too long. The hem almost touches the edge of your skirt.

He holds up his hands. "Alright, I know it's a little big."

"A little big?" you tease and flap the ends of the sleeves in the air.

He grins. "Hey, I'm workin' with limited provisions here, okay."

"I know, thank you."

He cocks his head, looking a bit bashful. "Gimme an arm, princess."

From there, he rolls up your sleeves until you can take over. He has you fasten a few buttons in the front and tie the tails at your waist. Between you both, you get the shirt looking halfway decent. It's big and blousy, but cute. You look like arm-candy with your bare legs and short skirt.

You pick up your purse, but he stops you.

"No. I pay. You shop. Got it?"

"Well, let me put a few bucks in my bra."

"Fine, but I don't wanna see it. That's for emergencies."

"Shopping emergencies?"

"Exactly," he agrees like he knows he's being ridiculous.

The phone rings, and he sighs. As he takes the call, you fold a few bills in your bra and then wedge your purse under the heavy armchair in the corner. You don't want to tempt housekeeping with your belongings.

Once he's finished on the phone, he takes your hand and leads the way. You get very different looks on the way out of the hotel and on the street. They're still judgy, but not because you're a hooker.

Pale doesn't seem to notice as he walks with you down Rodeo. He looks handsome in a double-breasted charcoal-gray suit and black tie. If people look at him, it's because he's striking and imposing. He has this presence you can't explain.

You comment, "People are staring at me."

It's like they know you don't belong there. You expect the saleswomen from yesterday to point you out and tell everyone what happened.

"They ain't lookin' at you," he returns. "They're lookin' at me."

"These stores aren't nice to people…"

Like me, you think.

"Stores aren't nice to anyone. Stores're nice to money."

He stops in front of a shop—named V—with low planter boxes full of groomed boxwood hedges. Cream-colored awnings shade the tall display windows. You know you passed V yesterday. The matte-black mannequins wear lovely, yet casual clothes. It wasn't what you'd been looking for.

"No one's gonna fuck with you," he assures as he opens the door to V.

Inside is cool with air-conditioning and lit by the reflected sun. The atmosphere is completely different than the boutique from yesterday. You're greeted, but allowed to wander.

Pale offers you his hand again and leads you to a rack of spring-colored dresses. You mention the polo game tomorrow, and he nods.

"I don't know what ladies wear to somethin' like that, but they got nice shit here," he says as he pushes back the arm of a hanger to look at a two-piece pink dress.

You look at the dress, too. It's the opposite of the black, lacy one you already own.

"Well, obviously not a fancy cocktail dress."

"Nah—"

"Excuse me," a man in a brown suit interrupts. "I'm Mr. Hollister, the manager. May I help you?"

Cold dread tightens your chest. It's going to be like yesterday. They've figured you out, seen you for what you are, and want you gone.

Pale lets go of you, turns to Hollister, and holds out a hand as he introduces himself. Hollister shakes his hand and smiles at him, then you. You see no judgment there, only eagerness.

"You see my girl, here?" Pale asks and presents you.

You step forward, and Hollister looks at you, but not for too long.

"Yes, sir," Hollister answers.

"You got anything as beautiful as her?"

You try to hide your glee as Pale puts an arm around your waist. His thumb sneaks under your shirt—his shirt—and caresses your skin. You lean against his side with a smile.

"Oh-ho, yes—" Hollister's eyes go wide, and he puts a hand in his suit-pocket. "Oh, no! Nononono, I'm saying—" He holds up a pointer finger. "—we have many things as beautiful as she would want them to be. That's the point I was getting at..."

Pale takes a hold of Hollister's shoulder as Hollister continues to babble and leads him a few steps away. You sneak behind them.

"You know what we need here?" Pale rhetorically asks, and Hollister gamely shakes his head. "We're gonna need a few more people helping us. I'll tell ya why: We're gonna be spendin' an obscene amount of money in here. So, we're gonna need more people suckin' up to us, yeah?" He smiles and throws a wink at you. "That's what we like."

"Sir, if I may say so," Hollister says. "You're in the right store and in the right city, for that matter!"

"That's what I like to hear."

Hollister turns to you and leads you to a sofa in the middle of the sales floor. He gives you a hardback catalog with a smile, telling you anything you see in it, they can do. Next thing you know, salespeople are surrounding you with beautiful clothes.

They show you dresses and hats, belts and scarves. They smile at you, compliment you, and help you find colors that bring out the best in your skin tone.

You tell them about the polo game and dinners out. You describe the cocktail dress you have and how much you love it. They nod and reply as a group: "romantic, but not fussy," "eleganante," "chic," "timeless and smart."

You nod, not knowing if they're describing you, your style, or the dress. They must sense you're overwhelmed, because they lead you to a big dressing room. One of the saleswomen—Mary Kate? Mary Francis?—Why do so many of them have two names? They sound like nuns—hangs a sleek red dress with black trim on one of the pegs.

You change into it and step out. In the big three-panel mirror, you check yourself out and meet Pale's reflected gaze. You turn to him and silently ask him if he likes it. He makes a "so-so" gesture, and the same saleswoman offers you a black, wide-brimmed hat. When you put the hat on, he points to it with a pleased look.

Hollister walks Pale to the sales counter and offers the shop's cordless phone to him. You watch Hollister ask something before swooning off, looking halfway in love with Pale when he gets a reply.

You turn away a fluttery lilac dress you know Pale won't like. You do accept an espresso, though. Hollister brings it to you, asking how everything is going. So far, you have a hat, but there is a line of salespeople with options.

You're offered jackets and slacks and more hats, and shown to the dressing room again—where there are more clothes waiting for you. When you come out in a gray shirt-dress, Pale is there with credit card in hand.

"Gotta get back, because, apparently, I'm in-fuckin'-dispensable." He rolls his eyes and hands you the card. "You're lookin' great. I'll see you tonight." He leans in. "If shit goes sideways, call the hotel."

You nod, though you don't want him to leave.

"Hey," he murmurs and tilts your chin up with a knuckle. "Ya got this."

You nod again and say, "Okay."

He gently tweaks your nose before walking away. It makes you smile.

"She has my card," Pale says as he strides to the front door.

"And we'll help her use it, sir!" Hollister chirps.

Do they ever.

The stack of clothes behind the sales counter grows by the minute. There are silk dresses and stockings, trousers, vests, embroidered jackets, shirts and light-weight sweaters in a multitude of colors. You're encouraged to put in special orders for evening gowns. You pick and choose lingerie and peignoir sets—of all sorts.

Your old clothes and Pale's shirt are bagged and sent to the hotel for you. You don a comfortable white dress with black details to wear for the rest of the day.

Hollister escorts you to V's sister store for shoes and bags. The salespeople there fawn over you. They sit you down in an armchair with another coffee. You mention you're hungry and really in the mood for pizza.

One of the salespeople rushes to the phone before you can specify.

Hollister remembers everything you've purchased thus far and makes sure you have the proper accessories. You try on heels and flats and sandals; pick out clutches and shoulder bags.

When one of the salesmen, Todd, comes back with a few boxes of shoes, you notice his tie. It's just right for Pale: silvery gray silk with a twisting, golden snakeskin ribbon printed on it. You mention how Pale would love that tie.

Before you can even ask where Todd got it, Hollister says, "Give her the tie."

Todd looks down. "The tie?"

"Yes, the tie."

You go along with Hollister and comment, "Pale would go nuts for that tie."

Todd gives you a surprised look. "The tie!"

He drops the boxes and unknots the tie.

Right then, the pizza arrives, steaming and smelling like heaven. It's like a birthday pizza-party. Someone turns on the radio as you choose shoes and eat pizza. You make Todd take a load off and have a slice.

After the whirlwind of V, you have most of your purchases sent to the hotel. You decide to carry a hat box and the accessory bag. You wear the black hat Pale liked, and match it with a black patent-leather clutch and kitten heels.

As you walk down Rodeo, you feel like a spy—the happiest, most beautiful spy, but a spy nonetheless. No one knows what you really are under your respectable costume. A driver waiting in front of Balenciaga smiles at you. You return the smile and keep walking.

It's strange to see the world from the other side. It's funny how an expensive dress can change the way others treat you.

As you come to the corner of the block, you see that Southwest-themed boutique from yesterday. The cream-colored dress with the alencon lace is still in the window. You know Pale would like it, but you won't deign to give his money to those bitches.

You grin as you think of sweet revenge and walk into the boutique, a spring in your step. Marie is by the front door, wearing a big-shouldered white blazer. Her red lipstick makes her eyes look even more glacial.

She eagerly asks, "May I help you?"

"No, thank you!" you cheerfully reply.

Seeing the first saleswoman, the one who told you to leave yesterday, you sashay over. She's as overstyled, over-accessorized, today as she was yesterday.

"Hi," you say when she meets your eyes.

Hers light up like Christmas morning. "Hello!"

"Do you remember me?"

"No, I'm sorry..."

"I was in here yesterday." You slowly circle around her and the display she's assembling. "You wouldn't wait on me."

"Oh, goodn—"

"You work on commission, right?"

"Uh, y-yes?"

"Big mistake." You hold up the large bags in your hands, wishing you had the rest to show how much you'd bought. "Big. Huge!"

Her mouth gapes like a fish.

You announce, "I have to go shopping now!"

You channel Pale as you stride out, powerful and confident. Forget those hypocritical bitches. You had value yesterday, and you have value today. And they aren't getting a single cent or second more of your time.

The sun shines vibrant and clear as you walk back to the hotel. The yellow-and-white awnings of Giorgio Beverly Hills blaze against the backdrop of a cloudless sky. The green shade of narrow trees twinkle in the breeze. It feels like everything is slotting into place.

That feeling continues as you're greeted in the Beverly Wilshire lobby by a bellhop with a luggage trolley piled with your bags. He calls you ma'am and asks how your day has been. You give him the bags you carry as you answer and follow him to the penthouse.

Once alone, you flop onto an armchair and stare at the mound of garment bags, hat boxes, and shopping bags obscuring the sofa across the room. You toss your hat onto the collection and wiggle off your shoes.

You wake half an hour later in the same position. You remind yourself there's plenty to do before Pale comes home. As you hoist yourself to your feet, a plan for the night starts to form.


You sit naked at the dining table and look over the carefully arranged covered dishes. Only candlelight illuminates the room. The rest of the suite is dim. The French doors are open to the mild night, though the curtains hardly move. Everything looks perfect, mellow and soft.

The main door opens, and you lean back in the chair. Crossing your high-heeled feet on the corner of the table, you toss the tails of the new tie tied around your neck over a shoulder.

Pale steps down into the living room, distracted by the newspaper in his hand.

"How was your day, dear?" you wryly ask as you finger the tie.

He turns to you. His face transforms from private scowl to blank surprise.

With one hand, you slowly pull the tie in front of you, letting it drape down your bare torso. He watches the movement. It's like being stared at by a lion.

"Nice tie," he says.

You shrug a shoulder, relaxing in the chair. "I got it for you."

"That right?" he asks and drops the newspaper before prowling to you.

You nod and run your hands over your smooth thighs.

"Why dontcha stand up and let me get a better look at this new tie."

You gracefully lower your feet to the floor and stand. The cool silk of the tie tickles your belly. He holds out a hand. You grin at him before placing the tails of the tie in his palm.

He examines it before meeting your eyes and giving the tie a little tug. You step closer until your front almost touches his suit.

"Thank you," he says.

"You're welcome," you return and slowly drop to your knees.

His eyes burn, dark and intense. He says nothing as he keeps hold on the tie.

You unbutton his suit jacket, open it, and run your hands over his firm waist. He towers over you. His shaggy hair shadows his eyes as he watches you.

You lean forward to grip his leather belt with your teeth. You pull the end of the belt free of the buckle and undo the rest with your hands. His hips subtly push closer as you slide the belt free of the loops on his slacks. You can see the bulge of his swelling erection.

Like a cat, you graze that bulge with your nose and lips. It's warm through the thin layers of fabric. The tension in the tie increases, pulling you closer.

You look up at him as you rub your chin and cheek against his cock.

"You gonna be a good girl for me, baby? Show me some appreciation?"

"Yes, sir," you reply with a grin.

He loosens the tension on the tie, and you sit back to unzip his fly. Before you draw his cock out, you grab the last unlubed condom from under your chair. While you'd love to feel him come down your throat, you have to be safe.

Pale doesn't seem to mind when you fish his erection from his briefs and roll it on. You lick your lips and tease his big cock, stroking it with just your fingertips. The latex at the tip darkens as precome wets it.

You wrap your fist around the base and gather saliva on your tongue before licking the underside. He sighs and rests his hand on your shoulder. You take the head of his dick between your lips to suck as hard as you can.

His reaction is instantaneous: he groans, pulls you forward by the tie, and thrusts. Luckily, you can take it. You're beginning to think you can take all of him. Shit, you want to.

Like a well-oiled machine, you work together. He fucks while you swallow. His cock is thick and hot in your mouth, slick with spit-wet latex. You stroke it with your tongue, kiss it, moan around it. It feels good.

Finger by finger, you loosen your fist at the base of his cock. You concentrate on swallowing and timing your breathing and not clenching your teeth with the occasional gag. The musk of him fills your nose. Tears roll down your cheeks from gagging, but you don't care. You hold his rocking hips, guiding him even as he uses the tie as a leash around your neck.

You can't go anywhere. You're his—to use, to fuck, to enjoy.

He growls, "Gonna come in that pretty mouth."

You brokenly moan, wanting it so badly. You wish to tell him you want his come, his sweat, his—

Oh fuck, you want him to love you. Kit would be horrified, but she's not here. You're here with him. Only him.

You close your eyes, lashes heavy with tears, chin wet with spit. His cock becomes harder, his thrusts get choppier and deeper. You grip his thighs as you relax, breathing shallowly, and suck his gorgeous cock.

His voice is tight as he snarls, "So fuckin'— Goddamn—"

You want to agree, but he thrusts deep. Your nose drives into his pelvis, and your throat spasms as your air is cut off. He moans as his cock throbs. His thighs quiver under your hands. His hand cups the back of your neck, more of a caress than a stranglehold. The tie goes limp around your neck.

Easing off, you hold the condom in place. You wipe off your chin as you try to catch your breath. You look at his face, beautifully flushed with luminous eyes like dark amber. Your throat is raw, lips tender.

Pale gives you no respite. He grips your upper arm, hauling you to your feet. He licks up one side of your damp chin and comes so close to your lips. All you have to do is turn your head just a fraction.

But you don't.

You pant and let him kiss your cheek, your jaw, your neck. He touches your breast, strokes the heavy underside, pinches the nipple. That little hurt sends a frisson down your spine. Your cunt clenches, and you feel then how wet you are.

He sits you at the corner of the table and kicks your feet apart.

"Touch yourself for me, honey."

You reach between your legs to find your slit sopping wet. Pale takes hold of your jaw and forces you to look into his glimmering eyes. You can't stop glancing at his pink lips as you stroke your clit. You know what his mouth can do, remembering what he did to you last night.

Pressing harder against your clit, pleasure swells like a rising tide. You gasp and shake as you move against your hand. You fist the back of his suit to stay upright, and he gets closer to wrap an arm behind your ribs.

"Oh fuck…" you whimper.

"So close, princess—you can come."

You nod. You can't stop it, anyway.

Pale drags a thumb over your sensitive bottom lip as he croons what a sweet girl you are. Orgasm starts slow and builds and builds until you're drowning in it. Brutal and sublime. You give in until you can't hold yourself up anymore.

He holds you as you put pressure on your clit, and your pussy clenches. You bury your face in his shoulder and groan when his hand joins yours between your legs. However, he doesn't do much except entwine his fingers with yours.

He kisses the top of your head and holds you for an indeterminable amount of time. Slowly, he sits you upright, making sure you're stable before he steps away. He pulls the condom off his cock, deposits it in one of the metal dish covers, and zips his fly.

Pale comes back for you a second later. He steadies you onto his lap as he sits and loosens the tie from around your neck. He asks if you're good, and you nod. You feel great and say so, though you don't want to ruin his trousers with your come.

"Pfft," he replies as he slides your plate next to his. "We got dry cleaning for that."


You suggest a shared bath after dinner. You want to pamper him just a little. Also, you're pretty sure he's never bothered with the suite's tub. Part of it is to make sure he relaxes, but there's another part that simply wants to hold him. You don't think he gets much of that.

He gives you a look like it's a ridiculous idea, like he doesn't understand why you'd want that with him.

You give him a challenging smile. "C'mon. It'll be nice."

"Alright, princess, fine. Ya got it. I'll sit in a pool of my own filth."

"No," you correct. "We shower off the filth and then luxuriate."

"So, ya want me to shower with ya, too."

"That so bad?"

"Nah, that ain't so bad."

And it isn't. You wash his back. He washes yours. He takes extra care with your ass, kneading your flesh and running teasing fingers down the cleft. You soap up his flushed chest and flat stomach. His arms are defined, but not overworked. And those strong hands of his—big paws that could easily crush your throat. But he's gentle as he rests them on your hips.

Not that they stay there for long. He turns you around and fondles your breasts. You lean against him as he touches you, pressing your ass against his groin.

He groans. "Shit, I'm so goddamn old."

You turn to cup his cheek. "You don't look old to me."

It's true. You can't really tell how old he is. His hair is completely dark. There are the faintest of laugh lines around his eyes. He has one or two shallow expression lines on his forehead. He's no child—a glance down at his dick confirms that—but it feels impossible to gauge his age.

"Hey, don't lookit me like that."

His cheeks are pink, and you don't know if it's from the warmth of the shower or something else.

You ask, "Like how?"

"Like ya need it from me again."

"Is that bad?"

"Well, yeah! Not when I can't get it up again!"

You laugh at his confession. "I don't care about that right now!"

"Yeah?"

"Yeah, baby. I just like bein' close to you."

"Aw, shit!" He ducked his head. "Don't say shit like that, either."

You grinned. "Why not?"

"'Cause it's givin' me ideas."

"I like your ideas."

Especially if they involved going out together, or sharing a meal and a shower, talking like this, or him making you a fancy drink.

"Well, I think we oughta get to the tub before I become a complete fuckin' prune," he says and holds up a hand to show how wrinkly the pads of his fingers already are.

"Okay, okay—Very Superior Old Pale!"

He snorts and lets you step back to turn off the shower. You sluice the excess water from his shoulders and chest as he gives you this indulgent look. You shrug a shoulder. Who could blame you for wanting to touch him?

You step out of the shower stall first and head for the tub, unconcerned about the trail of water you leave behind. It's so hedonistic to not care about water on the floor or dirty dishes or an unmade bed.

He pads to the sink to comb his wet hair as you prepare the bath. When it's halfway full, you sink in and melt against the side. He turns to you, and you beckon him with a crooked finger.

He smirks and sits on the tub edge to swing his long legs over the side. He attempts to settle at the opposite side of the tub, but you won't have it.

"Lie against me," you tell him as you open your arms and legs.

"I ain't crushin' you."

"You're not gonna crush me."

He huffs before slowly turning and scooting back to you, each movement squeaking awkwardly. You wrap an arm around his chest when he's close enough and ease him against you, guiding his head to rest on your shoulder. He's heavy in the best way, comforting and warm.

Pale remains stiff until you tell him you can breathe just fine. Incrementally, he relaxes. You let your knees loosen until they rest on the tub walls. He finally sighs and lets you take his weight.

When the water level hits the overflow drain, he turns off the faucet for you. Together, you bask in the hush of the suite. A few droplets slip off the faucet in a leisurely arhythm until it stops altogether.

It's quiet for a moment before he asks, "You got a big family?"

"No. You?"

"Seven of us… Well, six now."

"What happened?"

"My brother Robbie died."

"Shit, I'm sorry."

"He was the youngest, ya know." He minutely shakes his head. "Fuckin' boating accident—can you believe that?"

You kiss the rim of his ear, not knowing what to say.

"That's how I met Anna."

"The one who's moving out?"

"Movin' me out, yeah. We had a good run, but I was never home. Then she was busy."

"What she do?"

"She's a choreographer." He twirled his hands through the water. "That's how she met Robbie. They were both dancers."

"Were they good?"

"I dunno—never saw 'em." He sighs, and there's something desolate in it. "Anna said he was great, worked really hard. I wasn't into that kinda shit." He half-glances at you. "Arty, gay shit, right? But I saw somethin' she composed for him, and it was…"

He went silent for too long. You stroke his chest and lean your head on his temple.

He tightly whispers, "And, uh, ya know— He was just… Gone."

You know all about people just being gone. It happens all the time. Sometimes girls disappear, and no one cares. Or even comments. You can't report it to the police for obvious reasons. They don't care about dead hookers, anyway, unless one dies in an unfortunate place.

Pale continues, "I was wrong about his arty, gay shit. Wrong about every-fuckin'-thing. She told me one time how I had missed him. Like, yeah, he was gone, but I hadn't been there in the first place."

"How do you mourn someone you never knew?" you softly offer.

"Yeah, that's a fuck of a question, ain't it."

You hug him tighter. He puts a hand over your forearms.

"Learned a lot about him bein' with Anna." He sighs. "Can't really regret any of it."

"Maybe you and Anna meeting gave Robbie's death meaning?"

"Yeah, maybe. I dunno. Would've rather learned this shit from him, ya know?" He gesticulates, slopping water around the tub. "But wouldn'ta been possible with the way we were, though."

"So, it happened how it happened."

"Yeah."

You say, "And now you're here with me."

"Talkin' to ya like you're the sexiest shrink I ever fuckin' saw."

You smile. "For the bargain price of five thousand dollars."

He barks out a laugh before lifting your hand out of the water to kiss.

Chapter Text

"Pale, I don't know about this," you say as you close the car door behind you.

Beyond the copse of trees, where Darryl parked the limo, is the polo field. Country-club-looking people schmooze and politely titter near the white picket fence surrounding the field; all dressed in pastels and soft shades, like pallid vultures.

Pale is handsome in a dove-gray suit and the necktie you'd gotten him. He steps in front of you, blocking the view, and asks:

"What's wrong?"

"What if someone recognizes me?"

"Un-fuckin'-likely." He offers you his hand. "I doubt anyone here spends much time on Hollywood Boulevard."

"You did."

When you don't take his hand, he steps closer to put his hands on the wide belt at your waist.

He points out, "You think I'm like them?"

"No, of course not."

"So, we're both fish outta water. So what? They ain't gonna say shit."

You sigh and shake your head. People like them can sense when someone's out of place. Within ten seconds of meeting you, they'll be able to tell how low-class you are.

He adds, "And we ain't here for them." He gives your waist a gentle squeeze. "Right?"

You nod.

"Okay. Gimme your hand." He steps back and offers his hand once more. "You look beautiful. We're gonna have a good time."

You take Pale's hand with a grin, and he leads you away from the limo. You're glad you're wearing gloves because you're sure your palms are sweaty. As you walk behind him, you struggle to keep your heels from sinking too far into the grass.

Ahead is a canopied platform for the game announcers. The female announcer seems to sense Pale's approach and pivots in her chair to him. Her lean, tan calves draw your eye as she arranges her white skirt and crosses her legs. A woman standing by her turns, and you can tell they're closely related.

You're suddenly thankful you took the salespeople's advice yesterday. You fit right in with your tan polka-dot silk dress and matching hat.

The standing woman smiles and greets Pale, holding out a hand for him to take. He has to let go of you, but you keep at his side as he introduces you to the two women: Gwen and Gretchen Olsen.

He says to you: "I got to know 'em this past Saturday at Phil's."

He must've met them right before you, then. Maybe at a party? You hadn't asked where Pale had been earlier that night.

"These two know everything about everybody." He winks. "Gotta watch out for 'em."

Gretchen, the standing Olsen, laughs and good-naturedly waves a hand.

"Pale," Gwen says, a tone of admonishment in her voice.

Something or someone catches his eye. "Be right back," he says and touches your bare upper arm before walking away.

When he's out of earshot, Gwen says to you, "So, you're the one he settled on, hm?" She gives you a smug, disdainful look before returning to her announcer duties.

Ah, you think, so that's the score.

"Oh, don't mind her," Gretchen says, evidently not caring if her sister overhears. "She failed to land Pale at the party."

"Well," you begin, matching Gretchen's volume. "I'm not trying to land him. I'm just using him for sex."

You grin at a shocked Gretchen and throw a look at Gwen's back before walking away. You meet Pale midway between the spectator chairs and catering tent. He offers you a glass of white wine and a smile.

"Didn't want to hang around the Olsen sisters?" he asks.

"Nah, too much good breeding for me."

He snorts, and you both amble over to watch the match. The seated couple in front you calls out "well done!" as a player does something well. Pale repeats the praise.

"Well done!" you shout and whoop a few times, pumping your fist in the air.

A moment later, an air-horn sounds and the announcer says, "That's the chukker, ladies and gentlemen. Falcons, seven. Gems, four."

You take a sip of wine. It's surprisingly dry and not at all fruity. You're sure it's expensive, but you don't like it. Before you can pour it in the grass, someone calls out to Pale.

A short, plump man in a glen-plaid sport coat and black aviator glasses waves Pale over. Dixieland jazz starts over the PA system a second later. Pale takes your hand, leading you to him.

You're introduced to Philip Stuckey, Bianchi's west-coast lawyer. Next to him is his wife Elizabeth, who's clearly disappointed you're not Anna. Her gaze snags on someone walking past, and her eyes go wide.

"Oh, my God!" she exclaims. "It's Tate Whitley Wallington!" She darts away, trilling, "Tate!? It's me, Elizabeth, from Workout World!"

Philip says, "My wife, the aerobics queen. Feel the burn!" He sighs and offers to refresh your beverage.

"Oh, no, thank you! I'm fine," you reply and take the tiniest sip of the horrible wine.

Philip plucks Pale's wine glass from his hand. "I brought better stuff." He affably cuffs Pale on the arm, but asks you, "Can I steal him for a minute?"

"Sure, I'll check out the catering while you two get the good stuff."

"You okay?" Pale checks as Philip begins walking away.

"Yeah, I wanna say 'hi' to Giang and Tran, anyway."

With a nod, Pale says, "See ya in a few."

The moment you step into the shelter of the delicious-smelling catering tent, Giang calls you over. He comes around the pick-up counter and embraces you, kissing you on both cheeks.

"How are you?" he asks and takes your wine glass, setting it aside. He quickly adds: "Are you hungry? Where is Pale?"

You blink at the questions. "He's with Philip."

Giang hums and gives you a sly look. "Philip, what a shark."

"He seems okay."

"For an American lawyer." He waves a hand to dismiss the topic. "How are you? You look lovely, as always."

"Thank you! I'm good?" you reply and glance around. You think you're blending in well enough and holding your own.

"Me too," Giang sighs.

Something about the way he says it makes you perk up with a smile.

"Oh?" you lead.

His eyes are full of mirth, and he bites his bottom lip. "Would you like to meet one of the players and his horse?"

"Absolutely!"

You've never been close to a horse before. You wonder if you'll be allowed to feed it and pet it.

He takes your elbow and steers you out of the tent, giddy like a kid. His excitement is contagious, and soon there's a bounce in your step. He takes you over to where the horse trailers are parked in the shade.

The player Giang walks you to is tall with curly dark-blond hair and a cigarette between his lips. When the player sees the two of you, he brightens and jogs over.

"This is Daniel," Giang warmly says.

Daniel tosses his cigarette away and offers his hand as you introduce yourself. It's obvious Giang has a crush. Daniel most likely reciprocates, especially with the way he can't look at Giang for too long.

He also indulges any and all requests. His horse—Belinda—is presented to you within a minute of Giang's asking. You're given carrots to feed her. She's gentle and friendly, allowing you to stroke her strong neck and the blaze on her snout.

You grin at Giang when Daniel oh-so casually mentions where he'll be after the game. You're about to ask where Giang will be when a male announcer asks for the audience's help.

Gwen agrees, "Yes! We need you to help replace some of the divots out here on the grass." There's a smile in her voice when she says, "So come on out now!"

Daniel encourages you both out onto the field. You laugh and walk onto the bright field, Giang close behind. There are mallet divots scattered across the grass.

The male announcer continues, "Come on! Come on, folks. You heard her. The stomping of the divots."

Many of the spectators dip under the ribbon barrier, champagne flutes in hand. You find a divot, roll it over with your foot, and press it into the ground.

"This is a time-honored tradition, ladies and gentlemen!" says the announcer. "As old as the game of polo itself."

Around you, people laugh and stomp on the divots.

"Kings and queens used to do this!"

Pale steps from behind a large tree to your right and calls your name. You smile at him, beckoning him to join you. He hightails it to you. His cheeks are pink, and his eyes gleam in the sunshine.

He stops a step away, puts his hands on his hips, and pitches his voice into bass to boom, "Ho! Ho! Ho!"

You laugh, recalling his reaction to that green condom, and sing the jingle, "Green Giant!"

Without warning, he wraps an arm around your waist and lifts you off the ground. He twirls you around, and you squeak, holding onto him as he spins.

After a few rotations, he lets you slide down his front. The skirt of your lightweight dress catches on his slacks, but you don't mind. He beams and fondly pats your hip. You want to kiss him so badly. Instead, you take his hand and shepherd him to a divot. Together, you stomp divots, teetering and laughing the whole time, until the air horn is blown.

As you walk off the field, you notice you've scuffed one of your heels and bemoan it to Pale. Giang joins you and greets Pale before you show him how you've ruined your new shoes.

Giang tsks at your luck and then holds up a finger. "I believe we have something in the van that will polish that out."

"Oh, you're a life-saver," you exclaim and turn to Pale. "I'll be back in a minute."

"Alright," Pale says and kisses your temple as he lets his hand drift down your ass.

You give him a grin before walking to one of the Rex Two vans with Giang. There, Giang takes your shoe, cuts a lime in half, and rubs the scuffs out with it. After that, he scoops the smallest dab of coconut oil on his finger and polishes the leather.

You thank him and marvel at how your shoe looks brand new again. Giang tells you he needs to bring a few supplies back to the catering tent. You offer to help, but he refuses, telling you to have a good time and stop by for suon nuong and a banh uot before you leave.

You thank him once more before returning to the field. The day is beautiful with wispy clouds stretched over a soft blue sky. An easy breeze ruffles your dress, and you steady your hat.

Pale's not in sight, but you find a place under a birch to watch the game. You're sure he'll find you soon.

However, he doesn't find you—Philip does. He swaggers over, spinning his sunglasses. You smile at him in greeting, and he asks if you're having a good time.

"Oh yeah, I'm having a great time," you reply.

He feels off—different from an hour ago. Maybe he's showing you who he really is since Pale isn't around. Nevertheless, you continue to smile.

He sniffs. "Must—uh— Must be quite a change from Hollywood Boulevard, hm?"

Your stomach churns at the mention of the Boulevard. "What?"

"Yeah, Pale told me," he says, laid-back, but there's something sharp in his eyes. "But don't worry, your secret's safe with me." He gives you an oily grin. "Listen, maybe…" He runs the edge of his sunglasses down your upper arm. "You and I could get together sometime… After Pale leaves."

You numbly stare out at the game, hardly seeing it, and pretend to consider.

"Yeah, sure," you finally answer, glancing at Philip. "Why not?"

You silently pray he'll walk away, but he doesn't.

He purrs, "Yeah, we'll do that. Make a night of it," and touches your shoulder, stroking your skin with his thumb.

You look at him to see how blown-out his pupils are. Then you think of Pale with blushing cheeks, rushing for you and picking you up and touching your ass. Not a care in the world. Practically blissed out. You wonder why you hadn't detected anything amiss.

In the distance, Elizabeth calls for Philip. He smirks and strides away, leaving you dazed and shaking.

Over the PA, Gwen says, "Hi, tailgaters, I'd like to mention a couple of our silver sponsors…"

You look over your shoulder to catch sight of Pale. He's laughing with Tran and a few others. You don't watch him long enough to see if he notices.

As you cross your arms, you think of how Pale said he didn't do drugs. You recall him saying how he didn't want anyone to treat you poorly, either. It now feels naive to have believed him, to have actually thought he could care about you.

You thought you had better instincts than this.


On the return trip to the hotel, Pale attempts to lure you to his side of the limo. You shake your head and try not to look at him. You'd made nice in public, but you don't want to be nice now. You're not sure you're capable of it.

"You okay?" he asks.

"I'm fine."

"Hey, if you're not feeling good, ya can tell me."

You shake your head again. "I'm fine."

You see Darryl glance into the rearview mirror before the partition rises. You quickly scan Pale to see his hands on his thighs, a knee jumping at a fast pace.

"Are ya hungry? You didn't eat much at the game."

You hadn't eaten at all, actually. While the food smelled incredible, your stomach was in knots. The champagne he gave you might as well have been vinegar for all you tasted of it.

"No, I'm fine. Thank you."

"Dammit, ya gotta talk to me."

"I am talking to you. I said I'm fine."

He fidgets until he's facing you. "No, my grandma is fine, and she's been buried for a decade. What the fuck is wrong?!"

"I'm…" You search for an excuse, only to come up with: "Tired." You sigh. "I'm fine. Really."

He huffs and scoots closer. "Is it tired or fine?"

"Can't I be both?" you say to your knees.

"Why ain't ya lookin' at me no more?"

You draw in a breath and look him in the eye. You raise your eyebrows in defiance.

"I'm fine," you bite out.

"You're fine—"

The limo pulls in front of the hotel and the door on your side opens. You jump out of the car and walk into the lobby. Your heels click on the stone floor. You feel Pale a step behind you.

He pushes the call button for the elevator before you can. He waits beside you, twitchy hands in his pockets.

You don't know what to do. You want to yell and stomp your feet. You want to cry. You want to punch Philip in his smug, stupid face. Hell, you want to punch Pale, too. You want to leave this sham of a world and go back to Hollywood Boulevard.

The elevator dings when it arrives, and the doors open. You walk in, keeping silent. The operator asks which floor, and Pale tells him the penthouse.

But most of all, you want Pale.

And it's dumb to want him.

When you arrive at the top floor, you step out first and wait for him to open the suite door. He whispers curses and fights with the keycard. It should be endearing, but it feels impossible to think like that right now.

He gets the door open and holds it for you. You thank him and place your hat and gloves on one of the narrow console tables in the entryway. He closes the door behind himself. The clank of it reminds you of a cell door.

"So, now that we're alone, you gonna tell me what's wrong?" he asks.

"I said I'm fine," you say and walk into the living room.

"That's, what? Seven, eight, fuckin' fines since we left the match."

You shake your head as you stomp into the bedroom, throwing your purse on the bed. You want to get out of this ladylike dress and kick off these stupid heels.

Pale calls after you, "Can I get another word, please, Pat Sajak?"

"Asshole!" you yell. "There's a word."

He marches to the bedroom doorway. "Why am I the fuckin' asshole here?!"

"You know what?" You pull off your shoes and point with them. "Tell me one thing: Why did you make me get all dressed up?"

"Well, for one thing, the clothes were appropriate."

"No, I mean, if you were gonna tell everybody I'm a hooker, why didn't you just let me wear my own clothes?"

"I didn't tell—"

"You told Philip! And he probably told everyone else in some coked-out frenzy!"

They all knew. They had to have known. They must've been laughing behind your back, humoring you by the end. You wonder if Giang and Tran know by now.

Pale's features darken.

You continue before he can even open his mouth: "You know, in my own clothes, when someone like Philip comes at me, I can handle it. I'm prepared." You throw the shoes on the floor. "And don't tell me you weren't blowing rails with him! I can tell, Pale! You did. You're a cokehead, and I'm a hooker! At least be honest about it!"

"I ain't no fuckin' cokehead!"

"Says the asshole still high on cocaine!"

"Says the hooker in a two-hundred-dollar dress!"

You screech and rush for the bathroom. If you stay in this room with him, you're going to lose your shit. You need distance and a barrier. He's right behind you, though, blocking the bathroom door with his shoe.

He growls, "Don't you walk away from me."

You push the door against his foot. "God, what are you, my pimp now? You think you can pass me around to your friends? I'm not some fucktoy!"

"Fuckin' what? No, you ain't a fucktoy!" He forces the door open. "You ain't a toy. Phil thought ya was passing info to Rex Two. Or you was some kinda spy for another buyer. I dunno, he got paranoid."

You back away from the door. "And why would I need to pass info to Giang, huh? Is something fishy goin' on?"

"That ain't nonna ya business."

"But I'm being blamed for may be sabotaging your business."

He bellows, "I ain't gonna fight with ya for the next three goddamn days!" He rages into the bathroom, face red and eyes blazing. "I'm fuckin' sorry! End of the fuckin' discussion!"

You stumble over the corner of the tub to get away. You don't know what he's capable of when like this. He's huge, broad-shouldered, and so strong. You brace yourself on the shower-stall door, heart in your throat.

His eyes go wide, and he straightens. "Woah, hey, I ain't gonna hurt ya." He holds up his hands. "I'd never hurt ya. I'm sorry. I mean it."

Your vision blurs, and you shake your head because he already did.

Pale eases out of the bathroom and takes off his jacket, leaving it on the bed.

You make sure he's left the bedroom before sneaking to the closet. You gather what you can in your arms before shouldering today's purse and yanking your big one from under the armchair in the corner. You manage to get your heels on, swallow around the lump in your throat, and walk into the living room with as much dignity as you can muster.

"I want my money," you say. "I wanna get out of here."

He turns from his place by the desk and studies you. There must be something about your face that screams you're serious. He gives you a wide berth as he goes into the bedroom. When he comes out, he places a stack of money on the side table by the sofa and then walks to the closest French door in the dining room.

You stare at the money. All hundred-dollar bills. You need to take it and go. You tell yourself that over and over: Take it and go.

However, you don't want any more reminders of him. It'll destroy you to stash it away and count it out to pay the bills. Every time you touch one of his banknotes, you'll see his smile, his generosity—and his betrayal and lies. It's not worth your heart breaking each time.

You leave the money and hurry out of the penthouse before you change your mind. You press the call button for the elevator a few times.

"Come on," you hiss, your voice breaking and eyes flooding with tears.

The penthouse door opens rather than the elevator's.

You brace yourself and stare at the elevator, hugging the clothes in your arms.

Pale walks into the hallway, calm and somber. "I'm sorry, alright? I fucked up—" Got fucked up, you mentally correct. "—and did somethin' stupid." He sidles closer. "I don't want ya to go. Stay with me—for the week."

"Why'd you tell him?"

"Thing's got outta control, and Phil was gettin' paranoid." He shifts his weight and grumbles, "And I saw ya with that polo player."

You softly scoff. "He's gay, and we were just talking."

"I didn't like it."

You were about to tell him all about Daniel and Giang when the elevator finally arrives. The doors open to reveal Dennis. Shift change must've just happened.

"Down?" Dennis asks, looking hopeful.

You sigh and stare into Pale's dark eyes. You see remorse and sincerity. Though he might be a jealous prick, you sense he hadn't meant to hurt you. You know he wouldn't have gotten so worked up if he didn't care. And that realization makes your chest tight for a wholly different reason.

You look at Dennis and shake your head, because your voice is gone.

Dennis ducks back into the elevator, and the doors hush closed.

"You really hurt me," you croak, your eyes swimming in new tears. "Don't do it again."

He agrees with a bob of his head and takes a few steps closer. You turn from the elevator and meet him halfway. Wordlessly, he ushers you into the suite, lifting the purses off your shoulder.

He remains quiet as he helps you re-hang your clothes. When you sit on the bed to take off your shoes, he does the same. It's still for a moment before he offers his hand.

You look at it for a second before sliding your fingers between his. His callused thumb strokes your skin. You look at him to find him already gazing at you. He feels so much different than fifteen minutes ago. He feels different than your previous johns, your one-nighters, your exes.

You murmur, "First guy I ever loved was a total loser." You huff through your nose. "Second was worse." Shit, was he ever. "Mom called me a bum magnet. If there was a bum within a fifty-mile radius, I was completely into them. It's how I got here: followed bum number three."

Pale's toes curl into the carpet, but he remains silent.

"So there I was: no money, no friends, no bum."

"Then ya chose this for a profession?"

"Parked cars at wrestling. Couple fast-food places." You shrug. "Couldn't make rent, couldn't go home." You grin at him. "Then I met Kit. She was a hooker and made it sound so easy... So one day, I did it."

You stare at your joined hands. "Cried the whole time." After wetting your lips, you say, "But I got some regulars and, you know…" You make a whatever gesture with your free hand. "It's not like anybody plans this. It's not, like, your childhood dream."

He softly points out, "You could be more."

You hum to yourself. "People put you down long enough, you start to believe it."

"Yeah, well, fuck 'em."

You smile as you say, "The bad shit's easier to believe, though. Ever notice that?"

"You shouldn't believe that horseshit. I ain't never met someone like you. You're…" He shakes his head. "Incredible."

"So're you."

You stare into his eyes, study his handsome face. This should be when you kiss him. You want to kiss him. You want everything with him.

Pale makes the decision for you by moving in to kiss near your ear. You lean your cheek against his and angle closer as he kisses down your neck. He untangles his fingers from yours and holds you, easing you down onto the bed.

You roll closer to throw a leg over his, hiding your face against his neck. He wraps an arm behind your back; his other hand holds your hip. In reply, you suck on his earlobe, hear his breath catch as you give it a nibble. He pulls you closer and gets his hand on your ass.

The collar of his shirt is in your way, so you attempt to tug the knot in his tie loose. The angle's all wrong, though. You push yourself up and slide onto his lap.

From your new vantage point, you look at him, letting your hands sweep down his firm chest. His nearly-black hair fans out across the bedspread. Those high cheekbones of his are flushed. And his eyes. His eyes eat you up as he rests his hands on your hips.

You open your mouth to speak, but stop yourself and grin instead.

There's nothing you can say that should be said.

You unknot his tie and slowly draw it from around his neck. You toss it to the side and begin on the buttons of his shirt. He lets you do what you wish, and it feels like communication. It feels like trust.

You tug his shirt-tails from his slacks and push his shirt open. Underneath is a thin white undershirt and his gold chain. You feel his heat radiating from underneath the thin shirt. You tug it free as well and sweep it up his torso.

His skin is silky soft under your palms. You tease his nipples, feel them harden as you circle them with your thumbs. He arches into your touch, biting his plump lip.

You bend to tease one of his nipples with your tongue. His skin tastes of salt and sun. You suck at the petite peak and draw your teeth up to the tip. His fingers shove into your pinned-back hair. It hurts—a minor pain—and urges you on. You turn to his other nipple and nip at it.

He gasps as you kiss his chest. He clings to you as you mouth your way down his abdomen.

He whispers, "Take your dress off, princess."

"In a minute," you promise and unbuckle his belt.

His crotch of his slacks is tented with his growing erection, and you frame that big bulge with your hands. He's so hot against you, like he's swallowed the sun.

You undo his slacks and kiss the sweat-damp skin above his briefs. As you sit back on his thighs, you notice the color of his briefs and laugh before you can stop yourself.

They're hunter green.

You hadn't seen him dress this morning, and you had no idea how they didn't show through his slacks. But you love it just the same.

He smiles and puts his hands under his head. "Ho, ho, ho."

You hold his hips and duck your head to laugh again. This explains so much.

"You got somethin' healthy for me under these?" you ask as you meet his sparkling eyes.

"You know it."

You tease, purring, "Something fresh and delicious?"

"And all for you," he replies, playing along.

You wiggle his slacks and briefs down just enough to expose his flushed cock. The musk of him makes your mouth water. You kiss down his treasure trail and lick at the base of his erection. His hands find a place at your nape as you run your tongue up his hardening cock.

He murmurs, "So good to me, princess."

You delicately suck at the underside of the tip, letting his thick precome wet your lips further. You take it in your mouth to roll your tongue around the sensitive ridge. He bucks into your mouth, but you don't mind—you're ready for it. You bob your head with his small movements.

Just as you're losing yourself, he pulls at your hair. You go with his fist and lick your lips as you catch your breath. You meet his gaze, and he smirks like a predator.

"So hungry for my dick, ain't ya, princess?"

You nod and swallow.

"Shit, I'm lucky to have found such a cock-hungry, little slut like you." He drags a thumb over your bottom lip, and it goes right to your cunt. You suck his thumb and watch him crumble.

Pale's voice is hoarse when he says, "So gorgeous, princess." He caresses your cheek. "Take off that dress for me, honey."

You scoot off the bed and unbuckle your belt. You let it fall to the floor as he unbuttons the cuffs of his shirt. He sits up as you cross your arms to draw your dress up your body. You let it, too, fall to the floor in a puddle of silk.

He curses as you stand there in bra and underwear. You notice his cock throb where it rests against the rumpled fabric of his slacks. He whips off his button-up and undershirt with eyes locked on you.

"All of it. Lemme see those tits."

You undo the hooks of your bra and flick the shoulder straps away. As you lower your arms, your bra follows. You catch it with one hand and then drop it onto the dress.

"Jesus fuck…" He fists his dick. "Ya think I'd wanna pass ya around?"

With the way he looks at you now, your previous accusations seem foolish. No, you don't think he wants to share you.

"Get those panties off," he orders.

"Yes, Pale."

You watch him kick off his slacks and briefs as he watches you wiggle your underwear down. He yanks off his socks by the toes and throws them to the side before scooting back towards the headboard. You step out of your underwear and knee-walk over the mattress to him.

He snares you with an arm around your waist and lies back, pulling you down with him. He holds you and tucks his face under your jaw to kiss and suck at your neck. His searing-hot hands slide over your back, cup your ass. He kneads your flesh before smacking one buttock.

You moan as your pussy clenches.

"Like that?" he asks.

You nod and arch your back.

He spanks you again, and your skin heats. He smacks the other buttock—hard. You groan and writhe, clutching at his shoulder and the blanket. He squeezes your ass and uses his grip to haul you up his body until your breasts bump his chin.

He nuzzles your breasts with a groan, kissing the valley between them. He spanks your ass with both hands one more time before holding your ribs and maneuvering you.

All you can do is yield—yield to the fever under your skin, to his lust and the pleasure he gives you.

He sucks at one of your nipples, and you feel the tug of it like a taut cord connected between your legs. You squirm against him as you're barely able to support your weight. Though you hardly need to—he controls your upper body with ease.

"Please—" you whine. "Please, Pale."

He drags his chin over your breast. "Ya wet for me, princess?"

You nod. "Mm-hm."

You're so slick and hot and wired. You need to move, need him deep inside you. Just the thought of having his thick cock filling your cunt has you writhing again.

"How 'bout ya get a condom for us and show me whatcha can do."

With shaky limbs, you crawl to the nightstand and retrieve a condom. His hand lingers on you, trailing down your hip and thigh and calf to rest at your ankle. When you turn to him, you find him watching you with fathomless dark eyes.

You should kiss him. Fuck what Kit said. You should. His lips are flushed and swollen, and he's looking at you like he wants you to.

But then you remember you only have three more days with him. It's going to hurt to leave already. And you know if you take that last step, it's going to be worse.

You concentrate on opening the condom as you shuffle back to his side. You roll the condom down his erection, adjusting it for the perfect fit. His dick jerks in your hands, and you give him a glance before rubbing the condom over his glans.

He grunts and thrusts before biting out, "Get on my dick."

You swing a leg over Pale's hips, balancing yourself with a hand on his chest, and steady his cock with the other to rub your dripping slit on the tip. You don't know who it teases more. Each stroke has you panting as he rocks with you.

"Fuck, that feels so good," he whispers.

You nod with a whimper, but you can't wait any longer. It's apparent neither can he.

"C'mon, honey, ride me."

You give him a coy grin and say, "Yes, Pale," before nestling his cock at your vagina.

He goes rigid, looking between your bodies. You relax and release a breath as you slowly lower yourself on his big cock. He fills you, stretches you. It's exquisite—almost too much, but you need it.

You let go when you're halfway down and brace yourself on his chest. His hands go to your hips.

"All the way. I know that sweet pussy can take it."

And you do—you take him deep inside. He fills the emptiness, warms you from the inside out. You groan as you settle, taking a moment to adjust. He minutely pulls at your hips so you sway on his lap. The motion is just enough to alight your nerves further.

You bite your lip as the swaying becomes rocking becomes full-out riding. You lean forward on your hands, spread your knees, and bounce on his cock. He clutches at your hips and brings you down hard with a growl.

With a bend of your elbows, you find that perfect angle. You fuck yourself on him, moaning with every thrust. You push your quivering cunt down on him over and over as sweat breaks out on your inner thighs and chest. He's sweating too, panting and yearning.

He gives you no warning as his huge hands clap down on your ass. The sting jolts through you. Your pussy clenches, and you moan as you almost orgasm from it. He does it again, right on the same spot. It scalds and shocks and ratchets you closer.

"Oh fuck…" you moan and let your head flop back.

"C'mon," he hisses. "Come on me."

You grit your teeth and push yourself to ride faster. Your thighs burn, but it doesn't matter. His dick, the drag of its thick length, feels so good. You can't get enough of him.

You suddenly lose your hold on his sweaty chest and catch yourself on the bed above his shoulders. He wraps his arms around your middle and thrusts up, fucking a startled moan out of you.

He repeatedly jerks you down as he moves up, encouraging you to let go and calling you baby. He rams deep as he kisses your chest, licks at your sweat. You claw at the bed as your body quivers and tightens. You can't stop the noises you make as he fucks you.

Pale answers you until you can't hear him anymore. You know it's over, that you're about to come. You can't fight it, and you don't want to.

Then you seize. Orgasm is scorching heat that suffuses your belly. Your vision whites out. Your cunt throbs as you gush around his big, pistoning cock. It's devastating and intense and wonderful. You fall onto him, into him. All you smell is his cologne and sweat.

The world spins. The blanket presses too-warm and almost gummy at your back. Pale crushes you to the bed as he rams deep, forcing his dick all the way inside. You hang onto his shoulders, fingers catching on his necklace, and moan as your climax weakens.

He takes you in a frenzy, cursing with the pumping of his hips. You cling, feeling your pussy give another throb. He holds you tight as he gives you a handful of near-violent thrusts. It's too much, but you don't want to get away. You want it all—all of him. He brokenly gasps your name and tenses, his dick pulsating in your dripping cunt.

After a still moment, you rest your head on the bed and try to catch your breath. His soft lips trail down your neck, and he licks at the dip of your collarbone. His breath tickles your sensitive skin. In reply, you comb his sweat-damp hair away from his fever-hot face.

He rasps, "Jesus Christ."

You grin, huffing in agreement.

He steadies the condom and pulls out with a groan. You whine, not wanting to be apart, but release him just the same. He flops on his side next to you; his body a muscled mass of humidity. You straighten your legs, ignoring the gooey feel of come and lube. The sweat on your torso starts to evaporate.

You reach out to touch his cheek with the back of your hand. He lets you stroke his cheekbone with a gentle knuckle. He's serene and beautiful, all tousled hair and pink skin, and you realize you want to see him like this every day. You want him happy.

You wonder if this is what love feels like: tender and warm and quiet. Is that love? Like something soft-edged yet crystalline blooms in your chest. Is love looking into his eyes to see understanding and kindness? Or is that just affection? A post-coital haze?

No one's ever looked at you like he does, though.

He brings the back of your hand to his lips and kisses it. His eyes twinkle in the evening light; they smile before his mouth does. And you can't help smiling back.

The hush is broken by your stomach growling, followed by his a second later. You both chuckle, and he kisses your hand once more.

"Food," he says.

"Shower," you retort.

He surveys your body before smirking. "Yeah, shower sounds damn good right now."