I don’t belong here.
I repeat the words to myself like a mantra. I do not belong here.
My foot tap-tap-taps on the chair leg, as I watch Kenzie work her magic by the bar. Laughing at jokes that aren’t funny. Smiling just enough to convey interest without coming off as desperate. Each hair flip and slow blink is a carefully choreographed dance step intended to entice.
The moves would probably work even if she wasn’t gorgeous, but she is. I’ve done a good job accentuating her cheekbones, balancing highlight and bronzer so that the light hits the high points of her face just right. She’s got the sort of ski-sloped nose you’d expect to find on a doll, not a living, breathing human woman.
I’m not saying I’m ugly in comparison. I’m just not pretty in the same way Kenzie is. She brightens any room she enters, while I stand in the corner praying not to be noticed. Where she’s warm, I’m cold, jittery, like a nervous cat. The moon to Kenzie’s sun; I expect she shines even brighter beside me.
I remind myself Kenzie’s good at this because she’s had to be, and she’s just as good at turning it off when needed. Some guys will take a polite smile as an invitation to invade your personal space.
Others don’t need any prompting at all.
The men here seem to appreciate the dance, like it’s a type of foreplay. I watch them watching her, drinking her in like a glass of champagne.
For the tiniest of moments, I’m jealous. Not because I wish they’d look at me that way, but because of how easily it comes to Kenzie. People are drawn to her in ways they simply aren’t drawn to me. Because she doesn’t instinctively give off a don’t-talk to-me vibe.
Apparently, that vibe isn’t enough to turn away the white-haired geezer shoving his crotch in my face.
“Aren’t you the sweetest thing,” he says, standing over me, his hand resting on the back of my chair.
“Am I?” I sip champagne and glance anxiously in Kenzie’s direction, but she doesn’t turn toward me.
“I think you might be the prettiest peach in the room.”
I instruct my eyes not to roll as I finally look up at him. My pulse picks up speed. The old man smiles, and his teeth are blindingly white, like he had them bleached this morning.
“That’s very kind of you,” I tell him.
He takes the empty seat beside me. I feel the sweat start to build under my arms and behind my knees. I wish he’d go away. Choose someone else, someone who actually looks excited to see him and his money.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you at one of these things before,” he says. “Are you a virgin?”
I nearly choke on my champagne. He chuckles, a croaking frog-like sound. I am probably one of the least experienced girls here, but I’m not about to advertise that fact. Having sex means letting people get close to you, and I don’t let very many people get close to me.
“Excuse me,” I say, rising to my feet. “I need to…reapply my lipstick.”
“Aw, I was just joking, sweetie. No need to play hard to get.” He grabs my hand and pulls me onto his lap. My limbs freeze up as his bony arms cinch around my waist. “Though I must say, the deer-in-headlights look is really doing it for me—”
“I believe you’re in my seat, Mr. Treasurer.”
I crane my neck to get a look at the face of the man staring down at us. I instantly recognize him from before, when I first walked in.
Ice-blue eyes. Sandy brown hair, shorn close to the scalp, yet still long enough to comb your fingers through, if you were interested in doing that sort of thing. He’s younger than most of the men here, though that still places him firmly in his late thirties.
His gaze meets mine, and even though I’m seated on a creep’s lap, I immediately feel…safer.
“I don’t see your name on it,” the old man—Mr. Treasurer—says.
“Trust me, it’s there. Now let the young lady stand up so I can claim what’s mine.”
Mr. Treasurer narrows his gaze at the younger man, who makes no move to step down or back away.
“I didn’t realize you’d made a down payment. My apologies.” The old creep lets go of me. I practically leap from his lap. He stands up and waves his hand at the chair. “All yours.”
The younger man takes the empty seat without a word.
“Name’s Jack,” the man says, holding out his hand to me. “Forgive me if I’ve just pulled you away from the geriatric of your dreams, but you looked like you could use an emergency exit.”
“God, yes…and thank you.” I shake his hand. He doesn’t pull or try to convince me to sit in his lap, but I find myself mysteriously drawn to him.
I sit down on the arm of his chair, granting me a front-row seat to his face. He’s handsome, but not flawless. There’s a faint scar on his forehead, and his nose is slightly crooked; he probably broke it as a kid. The dusting of stubble along his jaw makes him look rugged, which is hard to pull off in a suit.
He has to be rich if he’s here tonight. I wonder how he makes his money.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Mia,” I say, using the fake name Kenzie helped me come up with.
“Where are you from, Mia?”
“All over,” I say with a shrug. A stock answer for strangers, but Jack doesn’t feel like a stranger. I feel like I’ve known him for ages.
“What brings you out into the country on a Saturday night? Shouldn’t you be partying with your friends?”
“I don’t really like parties,” I say.
“In that case, why’re you here?”
“My friend wanted to come. She thought we could make some easy money.”
The light dims behind his smile.
“Trust me, sweetheart. Ain’t nothing easy about this kind of money.”
I finish off the last of my champagne. Jack watches my throat closely as I swallow, his gaze warm and intense.
“How old are you, Mia?”
“Eighteen,” I say.
For a second, I think he looks relieved. His face is kind. I hate to think he’s a creep like the rest of the men here, but why else would he be at this party?
“You in some kind of trouble?” he asks.
“Why? You want to rescue me again?”
He chuckles. “Just wondering if you could use a getaway.”
Kenzie and I lock eyes from across the room. She makes a crude gesture with her fingers at the sight of me sitting so close with a man. I purse my lips, grateful I went with full-coverage foundation tonight, otherwise my cheeks would be as red as the hair on my head.
“I’d love to get the hell out of here,” I say. “But I can’t leave my friend. Thanks for the offer, though.”
“Anytime,” he says, and I get the feeling he means it.
I have no good reason to trust Jack, but it’s rare that I meet someone who’s so easy to talk to. Someone who doesn’t make me break out in a cold sweat just by looking at them. The only other person I feel this comfortable around is Kenzie.
The chair’s arm is sharp and unforgiving against my backside. Before I realize it, I’m sliding down onto Jack’s lap. His arms go around me, but unlike the old man, his hold doesn’t feel confining. It feels protective, comforting. Like sinking into bed.
“My name’s not Mia,” I tell him. “It’s Holly. I’m sorry I lied.”
“Nah, you’re smart not to advertise your real name. I bet most of the girls here are going by some kind of alias. Now, how old are you really?”
I laugh softly. “That, I didn’t lie about.”
“Thank fucking God.” He touches his temple to mine. I probably shouldn’t have told him my real name. He’s a stranger, no one special to me. But part of me hated the thought of lying to him.
“Seems like you’re the only man here who cares to ask how old we are.”
“Oh, they care,” he says, with an edge to his voice. “They’re just hoping for a different answer.”
A cold chill runs down my back and settles in my stomach. Jack must feel it, too, because he’s suddenly holding me tighter. I tuck my face into the angle of his neck and jaw. If I close my eyes and tune out the party around us, I can pretend we’re somewhere far away from here. Just the two of us.
“I think your friend wants to talk to you,” Jack says.
I glance at the bar where Kenzie stands waving and beckoning.
Sighing with frustration, I straighten my posture. “I should go see what she needs.”
“Hold on a sec, Holly.” Jack reaches into the breast pocket of his jacket and pulls out a scuffed-up pen and a small notepad. He clicks the point down and writes something on a piece of paper, which he then tears out. “If you ever find yourself backed into a corner, I have friends in the Knoxville Police Department who can help.”
“Friends?” I can’t say Kenzie and I have ever put much faith in cops. In fact, we’ve spent the last three years going out of our way to avoid them.
“People I trust.” He folds the piece of paper into a small square, which he then tucks into my cleavage.
Before my body even registers that he’s touching my breast, his fingers are already gone.
“If you’re ever in trouble,” he says, “ask for Caleb Larkin. Say it for me, will ya?”
“Caleb Larkin,” I echo.
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