Devoured Sample Chapters
The nightclub was named Vanish, as if the owner wanted to brag that it was an escape from reality. The bathroom’s gray walls were streaked with faint white lines, and glowing lights circled each mirror over every sink. The music pulsed through the walls, dimming it like silicone earplugs, allowing me to think straight for a minute. My sanctuary within a supposed sanctuary; a place where I could vanish.
In the mirror, my dark brown fish eyes stared back at me, naked without my black eyeliner. I ran a hand through my hair, then looked down at my palm. No traces of the spray-on brown hair dye hiding my inky hair. That was good. As long as he didn’t touch my hair, he wouldn’t know. A little black dress with thick sheer tights and a cardigan hid my tattooed arms and legs. My mask. In his eyes, I would be a normal woman, who simply wanted him because he was rich.
My stomach lurched at the thought. I didn’t belong here with these beautiful people. But I could do this. You might not believe you belong here, I coached myself, and maybe, you don’t. But you are a goddess. You are exactly what the new owner of the Dahlia District is looking for. If only you own it.
The door to the bathroom opened, instantly flooding the room with generic top forty music, the lyrics screeching. Two women cluttered in, casual, yet glamorous, with barrel curls falling down their backs. Smokey eye makeup. The picture of perfection, if it weren’t for the fact that one of them had tears in her eyes, her mascara bleeding, and the other had her arm around her friend’s back, obviously concerned that she might fall. The door closed after them, sucking the sound along with it, the bass still thumping through the walls.
I stared at the mirror, fixing my makeup, trying not to pay attention. The crying one rested her ass against the line of sinks, her head falling into her hands. She sniffled.
“Okay, babe, tell me,” the friend said. “What happened now?”
“He bought her a drink,” the crying one said.
“Casey. I told you. He literally bought her a drink as soon as she got here.”
“I told you he was eyeing her.”
I focused on my eyes. If Teagen, my best friend, had done my makeup, I wouldn’t have been hard on it. I would have thought it looked good, like I could be another friend consoling that woman. But because I was the one who had done it, I scrutinized every smudge.
“But I was his date,” the crying friend was howling now. “I was supposed to meet his friends. He was supposed to meet you.”
“You two agreed to be friends with benefits.”
“But you don’t cuddle every night with a fuck buddy.”
“You already knew I didn’t like him.”
“You never liked him,” she scoffed. “Can you pretend to care for once?”
“Okay. I’m sorry. He’s a—” she paused, thinking it over, “—an interesting guy. But really. You don’t deserve his crap. You deserve someone who sees you for who you are.”
The crying woman was silent then. After a moment, she added, “He sees her for who she is. Always pushing her tits out like she’s got back problems.”
“Hey. It’s not her fault that he’s screwing around on you.”
It was hard not to listen. The volume, for one, rivaled the music, and their words echoed in that long bathroom. And she was crying. Ugly crying. It was weird to think about the problems people had outside of the walls of the Dahlia District. These women weren’t held as slaves, paying off enormous debts. They had sex for pleasure, not purely for profit.
Still, the practical side of me said that the woman’s problems would have been fixed if she had simply monetized it. No more emotions. Only income. Not that she would ever be willing to.
My heels clicked on the tile as I approached them. The crying woman glanced up at me, forcing a smile.
“I don’t have any smokes,” she said. “Do you?”
“Someone at our table might,” her friend said.
I shook my head. “I don’t need a smoke. I couldn’t help but overhear though.”
“Sorry we were so loud,” the friend said.
I turned to the crying woman. “If you want him to regret flirting with that other woman,” I pressed my lips together, showing her the fake smile she should give, then said, “Smile as if he doesn’t exist.”
“Fake it. Pretend like you don’t care what he’s doing. You just happen to be in the same place. Like you’re everything that he’s missing.”
“That’s easier said than done.”
And she was right. For years, I had pumped myself up before starting a shift at the Dahlia District, telling myself that I might have been flat-chested, short-haired, a gothic outcast, the opposite of what the billionaire club members were looking for, but that I was still a goddess. I could slip into black latex and transform into the woman I knew I was on the inside, shoving the spike of my heel into a man’s balls as he paid me for the privilege. Until finally, I wasn’t playing pretend anymore. I was that woman.
But on nights like tonight, where I was completely out of my element, I still had to play pretend. Pump myself up. Remind myself that I might not have had my platform boots or my riding crop, but I was still that same goddess, just in a different skin.
“You might never truly feel that way,” I said, telling her the honest truth, “But if you can pretend—if you can show him what he’s missing, and smile like he’s always watching you, and always wanting you, then he’ll see what he’s missing.” I shifted my weight, nodding to her. “Make him work for it,” I winked. “Because girl,” I held her eyes, making sure we were staring at each other, “You are gorgeous. You are the goddess he could never have. It’s just you that needs to believe it.”
“Really?” she whimpered. “You think I’m pretty?”
“Oh, come on,” her friend said. “You’re gorgeous.”
“You’re my best friend. You legally have to say that.”
My heart dropped, missing my own best friend. “Yes,” I said. “You’re not just pretty. You are flawless. He should be paying you for the privilege to buy you a drink.”
She laughed, and a lightness filled me. I wasn’t great at being warm and fuzzy, but occasionally I could do it when it came to a fellow woman in need.
I tilted my head. “Really, though. Let him see what he’s missing. Who knows,” I paused, putting a finger to my lips, “You might find someone better.”
She smiled then, the tears nearly gone. “Thanks.”
I walked past the two women and out to the main floor of the nightclub, the purple-tinted pearl walls surrounding me, music thudding in my chest. If nothing else, I had done one good thing that night. But now, there were other matters to attend to.
Roland Price, the new owner of the Dahlia District, was finally in the area. The Dahlia District was an entertainment club for the wealthy elite, but there were rumors that Price wanted to make the Dahlia District into something new, probably something like Vanish, his nightclub line. As a long-time server of the Dahlia District, it was my job to convince him to leave our club exactly as it was. We might have been going through a rough patch, but all businesses had slow periods. With a little investment, the new owner could force the club into another golden age. Why change it if it was already successful?
I stared up at one of the nightclub’s many bars erected on a raised platform, glowing blue lights twinkling from behind the top shelves. Everything was in shades of blues, purples, and greens. The VIP section was marked off to the side, a red rope separating it from the rest of the club. A group of three blonds giggled at the security guard standing beside it. He unhooked the rope, letting them through, then locked it again.
I pulled off my sweater, tucking it under my arm. More skin to show. More tattoos to intimidate, the only piece of my usual getup that I couldn’t leave at the Dahlia District. People were less likely to start a conflict if they thought you were scary. And at work, I always attracted the right kind of clients. But that wasn’t my goal tonight. I had to be what Roland Price wanted. The image of mainstream perfection, like those women in the bathroom. I would never be that, but at least I could tone down the goth vibes and go undercover.
As I walked up the steps to that sectioned off area, the bouncer stood in front of the rope and crossed his arms.
“VIP only,” he barked.
“I’m here to see Roland Price,” I said. He didn’t move. “I’m here to make a business proposition.”
“Prostitution is illegal in—”
“Not that,” I said as sweetly as I could muster. “I’m a big fan of his. I was wondering if I could—” Be like Teagen, I thought, channeling my best friend. Sweet. Innocent. Like I had no ulterior motives. Like I would never hurt a fruit fly. I forced a grin. “I want to pick his brain on a few things. It’s for my internship.” I winked, but felt stupid. Channeling Teagen was not me at all.
But being in this club wasn’t me either.
He held his thumb to his earpiece, listening to it with his eyes up towards the ceiling.
“Up the stairs,” he said to me, motioning with his hand. He unhooked the rope barrier.
“Thanks,” I said, trying to hold back the sarcasm. With each step, I nodded my head, keeping to the beat, trying to self-soothe my nerves. The new owner was a man, and I didn’t trust men, not since my foster-dad, but I could be reasonable and pretend to trust men when it counted. And right now, I needed to be strong for all of the women who worked at the Dahlia District, women who depended on the club for their livelihood. Women like me.
I took the last step onto the spacious balcony. A clear guard rail lined the edges, with several sofas, covered with scantily-clad women and suited men. A few tables. A mini-bar with the trio of blonds surrounding it. I focused on a man standing in front of one of the long, white tufted sofas, pouring vodka into several shot glasses.
Dark hair you could wrap your fingers in. Secretive brown eyes. Trimmed facial hair lining his jaw. Plump, biteable lips. A physique like a movie star. He might have been a man, and someone I instantly knew I didn’t like, but that didn’t mean I could ignore his appearance. I knew a good-looking man when I saw one. Roland Price was hot.
But that didn’t mean anything.
He glanced up, a half-smirk crossing his lips as he made eye contact with me. As if he knew me. He put the bottle back in the chiller and lifted one of the shot glasses, offering it in my direction. He was taller than I expected. I’m tall for a woman, even without my platform boots, so it throws me off when I have to look up to someone. I put on my best flirtatious smirk and took the shot. We clinked our drinks, then tossed them back. The vodka burned in my throat. I held back a cringe, pretending like I drank straight liquor all of the time, then faced him. He held out a hand.
“I’m Roland Price.”
His voice was deep and velvety, coursing over the music and sinking into my ear, dragging me down with it. I took his hand, surprised by how big it was. He took a seat, then patted the space next to him. I held back a sneer; I wasn’t a dog.
But I had to pretend.
I sat down and grinned. “I know who you are,” I said. “You’re quite the name. Some might even call you—”
“A celebrity,” he said. I grit my teeth. Yes, you cocky bastard. A celebrity.
“Exactly,” I said.
“So what brings you to Vanish?” He leaned back on the seat. “You don’t seem like our usual type.”
Our usual type. Rage instantly flushed through me. I hated when people, especially men, talked about their ‘types.’
“Because I’m not a barbie doll?” I tilted my chin, trying to sound playful and not irritated.
“Because you’re not drunk,” he said. “Or high. You came here with a goal in mind, didn’t you?”
I raised a brow as he sipped from a glass of water. “But you’re trading liquor for water.”
“Hydration is key.”
I glanced around, looking at all of the people. Everyone was so enamored with partying that none of them noticed us, or noticed me. Price had a habit of making people evaporate, as if they had never existed. News articles discussed theories about disagreements between his team members, and suddenly, those people would disappear from all records. While looking him up, I had seen it happen with my own eyes. An article with names here one second, and gone the next. I could disappear tonight, and no one would be the wiser.
But I wasn’t going to let that happen. I straightened my shoulders. “Why are you in the VIP section of your own club?” I asked.
“Because I can be.”
“Are you here every night?”
“I own nightclubs all over the world.”
“Here, I mean,” the aggravation slipped through my words. I adjusted. Be nice, I thought, Be like Teagen. But I couldn’t help the urge to ask questions. “When you’re here, do you party here every night?”
“That depends.” He angled his body toward me. “Do you want me to be here every night?”
Was he trying to come on to me? He cocked a smile, then put his arm on the back of the sofa, his fingers brushing my shoulders. Surprised, I shivered at the touch.
“Are you working right now, or are you here for play?” I asked.
“It depends. Do you want to play?”
I swallowed a dry gulp. If I wanted to do this, I had to commit one hundred percent. I put my sweater on the couch, then straddled him, grinding my hips into his lap, his cock twitching on contact. He smelled fresh, a minty hint to his cologne with an edge of his sweat underneath it. I grabbed the tie around his neck, pulling him sharply towards me.
“I want to play,” I breathed, “with your brain. With your mind. I want to know what your plans are. What you’re going to do with your next project.” I licked my lips. “Your mind turns me on.”
“You want to flip clubs like this?”
“Yes,” I lied. “Tell me.”
He grabbed my throat in one hand, pinching my mouth and chin together with the other. My chest tightened and my body rolled with heat. My thighs clenched. I was on top, still straddling him, looking down into his face, and yet in that position, I wasn’t in control. He was holding onto me. Controlling my air. My life.
“Tell me, Iris,” he said in a low voice, “Is seducing the new owner part of your job at the Dahlia District?”
I blinked my eyes, trying to wrap my head around his words. His eyes stretched, gazing at my mouth, then down to my breasts. He let go of me, letting his hands fall to the sides, resting on my calves.
“You know who I am?” I asked. He nodded. “You knew who I was this whole time?”
“From the moment they checked your ID.”
My blood boiled. He knew, and he let me do all of that?
“You knew I worked at the Dahlia District?”
“Dahlia told me about you,” he said. He massaged my calves as if this were nothing. As if I truly were one of the many gold-digging women at his disposal. I didn’t want to like the way he played with my calf muscles, but it felt good. Really good. I forced a scowl at him. “She said you were one of the best,” he said.
“And she said you were not looking forward to the transition.”
His fingers kneaded my muscles deeper, and though it relaxed me and I didn’t want him to stop, I slid back into the empty seat beside him. There was no point in seduction if he knew my position.
“What are you going to do to the Dahlia District?” I asked.
“Simple,” he grinned. “Change it into a nightclub.”
I gestured around us. “Is that smart, with Vanish Sage City, this close?”
“It’ll be part of my new brand,” he said, a cocky smile on his lips. “Departure. A nightclub exclusively for the wealthy.” He tilted his head. “Sort of like the Dahlia District is now. But better.”
He had no idea how much money the club brought in when we were at our height.
“It’s lucrative already,” I snapped.
“Not as much as it could be.”
“The club is actually doing really well the way it is. You could even—” I thought hard, biting my lip before I said this, “You could even charge an initial fee for the use of the private rooms. By that alone, you’d make a killing.” I crossed my arms. “I’m telling you, the Dahlia District doesn’t need any changes.”
“That’s not the way I see it.” A seriousness crossed his face, shadowing it. “There’s a lot of potential in the Dahlia District. But I’m not interested in a sex club. It needs to be more. You want to attract more than the deviants, right? You want the mainstreamers too.” He nodded at me, assuming I agreed. “A nightclub exclusively for the wealthy is a good concept, and the Dahlia District will be my first experiment.”
I swallowed hard. Clenched my fists. Bobbed my head. Self-soothed. I didn’t need to get angry. This was a discussion. Only a discussion.
But I couldn’t help it.
“You’re making a mistake,” I said.
“You’re invested in the club, right?” he said. He tilted his chin. “Dahlia mentioned that you thought of it as your home.”
“Because I literally live there,” I said. He stared at me, all of that playfulness gone. Maybe he was finally considering how it affected my life. My livelihood. My home.
“I think you’ll come to see my point of view,” he said. He cocked a brow. “Hell, I can even build an apartment next door if that’s what you need. Let’s discuss it on Monday.” He stood, straightening his jacket. “Right now, I have a meeting to attend.”
It was an excuse; I wasn’t good enough for his time right then.
But I wasn’t going to beg for his attention.
I stomped down the stairs. The bouncer immediately opened the rope and I pushed past him. Getting to the door of this place was like going through a jungle, but instead of trees and insects and breathable air, it was all sweat and human and too close for comfort. I slid past some strangers, their sweat getting on my arm, and I cringed. A man opened the entrance doors for me, and I flooded past a long line of manufactured beauty waiting to get in. I looked up at the sky, finding a dark canvas. Sage City was too bright to see stars, and with the new moon, there was nothing there. It was bleak. Empty. Like me.
“Iris,” a male voice called. I turned around, my shoulders sinking when I saw it was him. Roland Price. The giant man with the cocky grin constantly plastered to his face. He lifted my black sweater. “Don’t catch a cold now.”
I swiped it from his hand. A charitable, yet condescending action from a billionaire. Gee whiz, mister. Thanks so much.
“Thanks,” I said, forcing myself to be polite. I turned away and headed straight for Teagen’s car, not daring to look back. He might have been a billionaire, a handsome man, the new owner of the Dahlia District, but none of that meant anything to me. I didn’t trust many people, and I especially did not trust him.
Iris’s chalky brown hair fluttered next to her ears as a breeze drifted through the parking lot. She walked like she hated the ground, each step forward harder than the last. Her tattoos were illuminated under the lampposts, dashes of bright color on her light skin. The scent of cranberry and oranges floated in the air, making me think of warmth, though she was far from it. Her voice in my memory, the sound equal parts silky and sharp, and yet vibrant too, like her words could punch through a door. She opened the door to an older car, and in the driver’s seat, she shot a glare at me before starting the engine.
That woman was a cherry bomb. Tight and compact, but full of power.
I ran a hand through my hair and turned back to the building, striding through the main entrance. A few people shouted my name, and I waved back, undercover security following me in close proximity. I had set up Vanish Sage City two years ago, but this was the first time I had been back. I preferred to be on the move. The only reason I was back was to take care of the Dahlia District, turning a once profitable private billionaires’ club—and let’s be honest, brothel—into a nightclub for those same men, but with a different mentality.
“The Adlers are here,” the security lead said, joining me in my walk as I approached the ropes to the VIP section. “Wil, the one you’ve been speaking to, and Derek, the future leader.”
“No Gerard?” I asked. It was a shame. That man had been around for a while. It would have been interesting to meet someone with that kind of legacy.
“Had other business. And there’s another Adler running around here somewhere, scouting the perimeter.”
I raised a brow. The Adlers had a reputation, but our relationship had been casual so far. There was no reason to make it antagonistic. No reason to focus on the missing Adler.
The guard at the foot of the stairs lifted the rope, and I walked up the steps, finding two dark-haired brothers sitting on the same couch as Iris had. The image of her sheer stockings flashed in my mind, covering that vibrant artwork, almost like a forest, that trailed down her legs.
The younger of the two brothers stood, offering me his hand.
“Roland Price,” he said. I took his grip, giving him a firm shake back.
“You must be Wil,” I said. He nodded. “And you’re Derek Adler?”
Derek and I shook hands.
“We finally meet,” Wil said. He gestured at the vodka. “I see you’ve gotten started without us.”
“I’m always in the middle of a good time,” I said. After a waitress brought some fresh glasses, I poured us a round of shots, and we toasted to new beginnings, tossing the alcohol back. Derek hit his chest with his fist, to deter the punch of the liquor, but Wil and I took it easy. We were both used to this kind of atmosphere.
But business was business. I had items I wanted to discuss with them.
“How long have you been protecting the Dahlia District?” I asked.
“For a few decades,” Derek said, wiping his lips on the sleeve of his button-up shirt. He rolled them up to his elbows. “Dahlia was having some trouble with the police and keeping the servers in line, so our father offered our services.”
“Keeping the servers in line?” I asked.
“They tried to run away before they had paid their debts.”
So the rumors were true. The sex workers there, keeping the brothel alive, were being sex trafficked. Yeah, that needed to end. “Their debts will be lifted,” I said, making it my official first line of business. “Not an issue anymore. They can come and go as they please. And the brand I’ll bring to the location,” I grinned, “We won’t need slavery to run it. People will be begging for jobs there.”
“What’s the plan?”
“Still a club, but with more of a nightclub atmosphere. Mainstream.” I understood the value of the sexual aspect of an elite club, but the Dahlia District clearly needed more to thrive. “I imagine some form of entertainment will suffice, but not like that. Not when you can pay for a decent escort in Sage City. Anyway,” I sighed, “you said you wanted to discuss a potential arrangement?”
“Yeah,” Derek sat up. “We want to sell our product in your clubs.”
“Vanish, or the Dahlia District?”
“And you don’t already?” I wasn’t stupid. I knew how it worked.
Derek rubbed a finger across his chin, looking off to the side. “The Dahlia District, yes. But Vanish? It hasn’t been,” he paused, “the easiest venue to establish our footing. But with your help, I’m sure that can change.”
That was good; my security was doing their job. I liked indulging in substances as much as the next, but I needed to be a part of those deals. I was never going to let another dealer sell unnoticed.
“For a reasonable cut, I don’t see why I couldn’t,” I said.
“That can be arranged,” Derek said.
Wil lifted a glass. “I knew you two would get along.”
We took another shot, then discussed their product. Molly and cocaine, mainly. Wil handed me a sample and I pocketed it for a later time. I had something else—someone else—on my mind right then.
“Do you know Iris Weaver?” They both shook their heads, and I pulled out my phone, going to the Dahlia District’s website and pulling up that little goth woman’s profile. Little—that description was an impulse. She was tall and wiry, but still smaller than me.
Derek smirked at his brother, and Wil shoved his arm.
“Yeah, we know her,” Wil said.
“She beat the hell out of Wil for his birthday once,” Derek said.
“Gave me one bruise, man. One.” Wil said.
“You weren’t thrilled about it.”
“What the hell was I supposed to do?”
“Is she a dominatrix?” I asked.
“Yeah, the pro-domme server at the Dahlia District, right?” Wil said. “Don’t listen to him. They had already booked her for a scene on the stage to ‘celebrate’ my birthday. And I wanted to be a good sport, but holy hell, do you know how much a single tail hurts?”
I did, actually. I never did something to a woman that I wouldn’t be willing to take myself. It was only fair that way.
“Not the preferred birthday gift?” I asked.
“Not at all,” Wil said. “I would have preferred strippers and a cake.”
“We do that every year. We had to do something special,” Derek chuckled. “Imagine what we’ll do for your thirtieth.”
“You better not.”
The two of them were a few years younger than me, almost thirty with Wil, and mid-thirties with Derek. I was in my late thirties. Birthdays seemed to blur together the older you got, but there was one way to make them memorable: a single tail demonstration with a professional dominatrix seemed like a good option.
“Do you sub?” Wil asked. I shook my head. I preferred to avoid those labels, but when I did use them, submissive wasn’t my choice. Dominant—heathen, aggressor, predator, was more like it. “Me neither.”
“What’s up with her, then?” Derek asked. “That Iris chick.”
I told them about her visit, then said, “Dahlia mentioned that she was her most trusted server and that she would be the one most resistant to change. Apparently, she started working there at a young age, so she wasn’t thrilled that Dahlia had sold the place.”
“She came to the house recently with Dahlia actually,” Derek said. “I never liked how much Dahlia trusted her. Seemed bad for business.”
“And she always looked at me like a hawk,” Wil said.
“Because she beat your ass, man.”
“All right, let it go. That birthday happened years ago anyway.” Wil shook his head. “I’m saying that she always seemed like she knew more than she should. Watching everyone, especially us, with viciousness in her eyes.”
I could appreciate a wary attitude. “Think I can use her as my own personal weapon?” I asked.
They both shook their heads. “She doesn’t trust men.”
And I didn’t trust anyone. I was friendly with the Adlers, but I knew better than to assume that they wouldn’t turn on me if it were a profitable outcome. That’s the way business worked. But I could eliminate them too.
As much as I liked the idea of having a kick-ass woman as a sidekick, something told me that Iris was a sidekick to no one. And me? I worked alone. It was more of a question out of boredom than an actual consideration. One woman to ponder, then onto the next.
“I want to keep all of the servers and staff on the payroll if they’re willing, but it’ll be a different setup. Dahlia said the other servers wouldn’t give me much trouble, but warned me about Iris,” I said. “I haven’t done anything yet, and she’s already disgusted by the changes.”
“She’s already disgusted?” Wil asked. “The hell?”
“Iris was, to quote Dahlia, ‘personally offended’ when Dahlia told her she had sold the business to me.”
Derek and Wil exchanged a look, then Derek nodded.
“Do you want us to set up a watch on her?” Wil asked. “We can get rid of her, or keep an eye on her. Make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid. Like I said, we never trusted her.”
“Dahlia had us put tracking devices on the servers’ cars. If I’m remembering correctly, Iris uses her friend’s car,” Wil said.
“I can confirm that,” Derek said.
It seemed extreme. Iris would be a challenge, but she hadn’t proved that she was a problem yet. But that kind of surveillance could be convenient in the future. At some point, I would need to remove all of those tracking devices in their cars. I was a cautious man, but if the Dahlia District was no longer a sex trafficking ring with a need to keep human assets, then there was no need for tracking devices.
But that was for a later time.
“I’ll consider it,” I said. “And let me know what you need with your business here, and at any of my clubs. Sage City, Cresting Heights, beyond that.”
“Great,” Wil said. We all stood and shook hands again.
“We’ll be in touch,” Derek said.
After the two of them left, I scanned the balcony, looking for a thrill. But none of the women caught my attention, my mind still reeling, itching for a combative woman who would give as much as she would take. I popped a Ritalin, throwing it back with another shot of vodka, and went down the stairs. The room was buzzing, but the night was young and I had tasks to do. If there weren’t any distractions worth my time, then off to the office it was.
“Hey sexy,” one of the cocktail waitresses said as I made my way towards the stairs. “You want to take me out after closing?”
She was gorgeous—blond hair, a nice rack, thick red lips—but I wasn’t stupid enough to fuck my staff. Women like her wanted me for one of two things: my dick or my money, sometimes both. But usually, they wanted to see how much partying they could get out of me without paying a cent on their own. I was a generous host. Why earn this money if you didn’t spend it?
But my mind was on other things. Other attributes.
“Maybe next time,” I winked, patting her on the back.
In every Vanish venue, I had a soundproof office in the back with a dual monitor computer and enough space to pace while I worked. Using the concentration to my advantage, I went over the books for the northwest region, double-checking the last month’s records. I had bookkeepers who were paid to do this, but, like I said, I had a hard time trusting anyone, especially after what happened in California.
After getting through those, I checked the time—still an hour before close. I changed pace, switching to the next task. I searched for different forgotten nightclubs in major cities. Though I hadn’t officially started working on the Dahlia District, I was always searching for my next project. It was better to be on the move; you never got bored that way.
There were a few in New York that I was eyeing. The city was an untapped market for something like Departure, my new nightclub chain. I was ecstatic to work on the new project and eager to see what the Dahlia District had to offer.
And then curiosity led me to Iris’s profile again.
A studio shot of her: black hair in soft ringlets to the middle of her neck. Her wide, round eyes circled with dark makeup. Fishnets on her tattooed arms and legs. A band of black straps around her core, covering her nipples, her navel, her cunt. One boot on the ground, the other on the chair in front of her. Platform boots with large metal buckles, making her a foot taller, using height as intimidation. A mischievousness to her scowl. Deep purple lips.
She was different, to say the least. Not your typical club-addicted bombshell. But it was more than her physical appearance that intrigued me—her attitude, the way she eyed me, that molten intensity deep in her eyes as she straddled me, knowing exactly what she was doing. There was nothing innocent about her. The small gasp she gave when I grabbed her throat, the gulp that traveled down her neck, that subtle lick of her lips.
On the club’s website, I clicked on the livestream of the Greenhouse, which was the building containing the dorm rooms and dressing rooms of the Dahlia District. That was an interesting idea, one I had to give Dahlia credit for. I clicked through the feeds until I caught a lanky dark-haired woman in a kitchen, talking to a busty brunette. Another thicker blond was at the sink, washing a dish.
“He complained because I said he had to shower first,” the brunette said.
“It was that bad?” Iris asked.
“Dude. I’m telling you,” the brunette said. She leaned forward and whispered something.
“Okay. Yes. That totally requires a shower,” Iris said.
“Do you think I should back out of it?”
“Absolutely not. But upcharge him.” She winked. “Make him pay. And if he gives you a hard time for it, let me know. I’ll talk to him for you.”
“Let her deal with it herself, for fuck’s sake,” the blond woman said. Iris visibly rolled her eyes. “We’re all big girls. We can handle ourselves.”
“She asked me for advice, Kendall,” Iris said.
“Yeah, Kendall. What do you think I should do?” the brunette asked.
“I think you should deal with it yourself.”
“Well,” Iris sighed, “I’m off. You two get some sleep.”
“Night, folder whore,” the blond said.
“Goodnight, Mama Bear,” the brunette said.
“Night,” Iris said, waving a hand.
The blond and Iris didn’t get along, that was clear. But the ‘mama bear’ endearment from the other woman showed that there was affection there, like Dahlia had said. They trusted Iris. She was one of them, after all. It would be beneficial to have Iris on my side to smooth over the transition.
But that didn’t mean that I trusted her. Everyone was selfish, and while I admired Iris’s drive, she had proven that she had a goal in mind. She wanted to keep the failing Dahlia District the exact way it was, and I wanted to do what was best for everyone involved, including her. I wanted to make it a profitable club again, one that she could work at, if she chose to stay.
Convincing her to see my side of things would be a challenge, one I was looking forward to breaking.
I watched her walk through the halls on the livestream. Iris, I thought. My discordant little flower. What fun I’ll have with you.
The next morning, or should I say, afternoon, I stumbled through the Greenhouse, past the dressing rooms and dorm rooms to the communal kitchen. I opened the refrigerator. On my shelf, there was a small angel food cake, a tub of cream cheese, a muffin—and there should have been a bottle of tangerine juice.
A few of the servers were sitting at the round table, a painting of a dark, foggy ocean hanging above them. Melissa, a friend of mine and a server from the club who had mysteriously disappeared, had painted it before she left. Though I loved the bleakness of her art, seeing it right then put a sour taste in my mouth. I was sick of people leaving the Dahlia District. I wanted to take it down like I had ripped off the poster of the flower field.
But it wasn’t Melissa’s or her art work’s fault.
“Mama Bear,” one of the servers said, “You look—”
“Has anyone seen my tangerine juice?” I asked, cutting her off. The three servers stared at me. “It comes in a clear bottle. It’s darker than orange juice, but it would basically look the same. Maybe someone drank it on accident?” They shook their heads. “No one has seen it?”
“I think I saw Kendall drinking orange juice this morning,” one of them offered.
I sighed. Kendall. Great.
“Thanks,” I said.
I walked through the narrow corridor to Kendall’s room, debating whether I should go put on my latex and boots, get out the bamboo cane, and beat the hell out of her, getting revenge for the years of abuse she had put me through. But no… It was stupid to get upset about tangerine juice.
But it wasn’t stupid. I had to have it specially delivered here, paying a stupid fee, and it was something that reminded me of Teagen. We had tried it together for the first time and drinking it made me feel like maybe she’d open up the back door in the kitchen and slide in any minute, like nothing had changed. Like she hadn’t run away with a mobster.
Kendall whipped around at my presence, her wavy blond hair smacking her in the face. Sure enough, right on Kendall’s dresser was an empty plastic bottle, with the tangerine juice label. My tangerine juice.
“What?” she asked.
“Why do you mess with me?” I said, exasperation leaking through my tone. “What happened between us was years ago. We’re adults now. Why do you feel it necessary to—”
“What are you even talking about?”
I took a deep breath. “Why did you steal my juice?”
“I didn’t steal it. I drank it,” she said. “You make an enemy with me, you make it for life.” As if breaking my ribs and cutting off my hair when we were teenagers wasn’t enough. She sneered, her nose pinching shut. “You proved that when you sent your little cunt of a friend to fight me.”
She meant Melissa. “That had nothing to do with me.”
“So you’re a liar too?” Kendall said. “I know she was friends with you. I know that you told her about me.”
And for once, I saw what she meant. “Okay. Yes. Melissa was my friend. But she was looking out for you, trying to warn you about—”
“I don’t give a fuck about what she was trying to warn me about. I won’t get into another fight,” she paused, lifting her hands in frustration, “I like it here too much to get kicked out. But you and I? We’re enemies, bitch. Fair and square.”
I was taller than Kendall by an inch or two, but Kendall was bigger. She had more muscles than I did. But at least now, more than ten years after we had lived together in the group home, I knew I could hold my own, at least for a while.
“You are wasting both of our time,” I snapped. “We wouldn’t be talking if you hadn’t taken my drink.”
“What’s your problem? You mad that your best friend left you?”
“Yes,” I said. I couldn’t help but be honest right then. “I’m pissed.” Teagen was gone. I had no way of contacting her on my own. I was left at the mercy of gift packages and random phone calls because Teagen had decided that running away with her criminal dream man was a good idea. It wasn’t. It was a horrible idea. And now? Now I was alone. Haley was gone. Melissa was gone. Even Scarlett, the random server that popped in and out quicker than anyone I had ever seen in the Dahlia District, was gone. There was no one here that I could talk to about why I was upset that the Dahlia District was being torn apart, limb by limb, right before our very eyes. No one that would get it. So I couldn’t help but be honest. “Yes, I’m mad,” I said. And I was hurt. And exhausted. “And I would really, really appreciate it, if you left my damn juice—”
A soft hand landed on my shoulder. I turned around. Dahlia’s platinum blond hair hung straight by her face, her eyes narrowed on me.
“Iris,” she said, her voice raspy. “Can you help me for a minute? I need you in my office.” I nodded, unable to say any words without a switch going off. “Good to see you, Kendall. Your dance the other night was lovely, by the way.”
“Thank you, gorgeous,” Kendall said, her voice suddenly sweet.