Melony drives a sporty black coupe that puts my car to shame. It stops and goes. The windows move up and down. The heater works. OMFG, the heater! I could die. I slump back into the leather when the heated seat warms up. “I could live in this car.”
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“Holy hell, we need to get you off the poor train. Did you hear what you just said?” She looks over at me briefly, before returning her gaze to the road.
I nod and totally don’t care. The leather is warm and I have my head tipped back and my eyes closed. “You try living with Amber for a semester and we’ll see what crazy crap comes out of your mouth.”
“Did she lock you out again?”
“Yeah,” I nod. “She’s probably having sex with her creepy boyfriend on my couch.” I need more Lysol. I cringe thinking about it. How I ended up with such a rank roommate is beyond me. It’s like the university asked me all those questions on the roommate application thingie to see if I could manage using a pencil okay. I thought I proved that I could use a pencil when I took my SATs. Guess not.
Melony’s little car darts through traffic. We stop at a light and she looks at me. “That guy gives me the creeps.”
“Me too. It’s like her guy radar only picks out soon-to-be-felons. Listen, my nerves are so frayed, I can’t talk about Amber anymore. My frickin’ eye is twitching.” And it is. The lower right lid is going nuts, blinking for no reason. I press my finger to it, trying not to smear my make-up.
“Fine by me. So,” she changes the subject, “are you seeing anyone?”
I laugh in response, and then realize she’s really asking, “Uhm, no. With what time? If I’m not at class, I’m at work. If I’m not at work, I’m at class. I don’t even have time to sleep.Am I dating? ”I say mockingly and laugh, shaking my head. My dark hair falls over my shoulders.
“Back off, Cujo. I was just asking, trying to get a feel for things.”
“What things? Things that’ll never happen this side of hell.”
“Sounding a little bitter there, Avery.”
I smile weakly at her. She’s just trying to help. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. Today had to be the worst day of my life. Besides the douche that stole the car, I had the worst customer. He screamed at me forever and then went to my boss. I’m a fucking hostess. Like I have anything to do with his meal?” I press my fingers to my head and lean my elbow on the door. My job is to seat people at a steakhouse. That’s it. I have nothing to do with anything else, but this guy wouldn’t back off. He seemed to think his night was ruined because of me. By the time he got hold of the manager, somehow everything was my fault. My boss made me look like it was my fault and that sums up my night at work. Absentmindedly, I twist a lock of my hair between my fingers. “It was just one of those days and I’m sick of having them”
“My job is a little unorthodox, but I never have to deal with that shit.” Mel shifts in her seat.
I glance at her. “Unorthodox? What do you mean?”
“You’ll just have to wait and see.” We drive on in silence.
About forty minutes later, we are at a building in Manhattan. A street light floods the sidewalk in front. It looks like an office building. We go inside and ride the elevator up to the seventeenth floor. When the doors open, we’re standing in an open space. The room is decorated in browns and beiges with little splashes of color here or there. It looks like an office.
I glance at Mel. “I thought you worked at a hotel?”
“I do, but this is where I check in.” She walks past me and turns a corner. I follow her down a hallway. Mel stops in front of an office door. She smoothes her dress, like she’s nervous, and knocks. Looking back at me she says quickly, “Don’t say anything. Just listen and answer whatever she asks you.”
My brows pull together. What the hell am I doing here? Mel is dressed up and from the looks of it, we are in an empty office space. There’s no music, no noise. It’s totally silent.
“Enter,” a female voice says, and Melony pushes the door open. A woman in her early forties sits behind a glass desk. She doesn’t look up. “Right on time. Come in and close the door.”
Mel’s voice cracks, “I brought someone for you to meet.” The woman at the desk lifts her eyes and sees me. She immediately shoots daggers at Mel. Mel holds up her hands, explaining, “I didn’t say anything. I told her to come and talk to you. I didn’t breech my contract, Miss Black. I need to keep this job, but my friend here is in the same position as I was and I thought you were looking for someone new.”
I know Mel told me to stay quiet, but I can’t. I don’t want her to lose her job because of me. “It’s all right. I can wait in the car.” I turn to leave.
The woman behind the desk rises. Her gaze slips over me quickly. She says to Mel, “Family? Boyfriend? Funding?”
“No to all three,” Mel answers.
I stop and stare at the two of them
“Come with me, Miss. We’ll have a chat. Melony can wait here.” The woman walks swiftly pasi me. We move to a table in the back corner of the floor. There is a couch behind us and some more nondescript art on the walls. She sits at the table. It’s metal with a glass top. I sit across from her and cross my ankles and pull them under my seat. It feels like an interview.
“Miss Black,” I say apologetically, “I’m sorry for disrupting your evening. Mel said this was a good job and I need a good job, so I came.”
She nods at me. Miss Black crosses her legs at the knee and leans back in her chair. “How old are you? Twenty-two?” I nod. “Family?”
“Deceased.” I still feel the knot in my throat when I say it. I wonder if that’ll ever go away.
“What are you attending school for?”
“I want to be a marriage and family counselor when I graduate. I have to finish undergrad and grad school first. I have a very generous scholarship that pays for my classes, fees, and books, but I still have to pay for rent and food.”
“You need a job with better pay and fewer hours?” she asks, and I nod. “Are you involved with anyone?”
My eyebrows start to creep up my face. “No, but—”
“Any piercings or tattoos?” Miss Black’s eyes sweep over me, like she’s looking for them through
“No,” I blurt out, confused. What does it matter if a hotel clerk has tattoos?
“And I’m guessing that’s the best dress and shoes you own.” I nod, not wanting to answer. It’s all I could afford. I thought I looked nice, but I was already at work and thenthere was the thing with my car. “If you work for us, we expect you to have a certain kind of attire. There are stores where you have to shop. It’s not optional. Is that a problem?”
“Only if I can’t afford to shop there.”
She smiles, “Oh, you’ll be able to afford it. Listen. You seem like the type of girl we are looking for—no attachments, driven, hardworking, and ethical.” I try not to smile. I still don’t know what the job is, but my heart starts to race like I want it very badly. Miss Black takes a card from her pocket and slips it across the table to me. “That is starting salary. It’s paid weekly, in cash.”
A warning bell is chiming softly in my head before I glance at the card. Cash, why is it cash? Some companies hire extra staff off the books. It shouldn’t spook me, but it does when I lift the card. My jaw drops open. “This is more money than I make in a month.” Holy shit! Mel wasn’ exaggerating.
“I know, and that’s just to start. It goes up from there. Those who perform well are paid well.”
I stare at the card and the massive number. I’ve got to be missing something. I look up and ask, “What’s my job?”
Miss Black grins and places her palms together. She points her index fingers at me. “Ah, that’s where things get tricky. You see, we are in one of the oldest professions in the world—the matchmaking business. Beautiful young women come to us and we take care of them and make sure they’re safe. We’re selective about our clientele and attempt to match preferences to keep things as pleasant as possible. Now, if—”
My mouth is hanging open. I blink as she speaks, thinking that I must be misunderstanding, but the longer she talks, the clearer things become. I find my voice and squeak out, “You want to be my pimp?” Okay, today is totally the worst day of my life. I stare at her wide-eyed. “Does Mel know—” Mel speaks from behind me. “Of course I know. I work here, Avery. I’m a high dollar call girl, if you need the bluntness, and from the look on your face, I think you do.” I’m ready to bounce out of my chair and run, but Mel puts a hand on my shoulder and sits next to me. “I know what you’re feeling, but hear me out. Miss Black is a madam It’s not the same as whoring yourself out. It’s more like matchmaking.”
“For money,” I retort.
“What’s so bad about that? I mean, you get to work a few hours a week, get good pay, and have someone looking out for you. The guys have a background check, are guaranteed drug and disease free. That’s better than dating the old fashioned way.”
“This isn’t dating, Mel!” I stand up, but Mel grabs my wrist and pulls me back into my seat. I’m sc annoyed with her. I want to leave, but it’s because I’m upset. I can’t believe she took me here. I can’t believe she does this!
Mel sighs and gives me her annoyed look that’s just short of an eye roll. She thinks I’m blowing things out of proportion. “There are different levels of service, Avery. You could just be some guy’s arm-candy for the night. No sex. It’s your call.”
I glance at Miss Black. Her expression is neutral. “Is that true?”
Miss Black nods. “We have different clients with different needs. When you begin working for us,
you tell us what you’re comfortable with and how far you’re willing to go. Limits are set ahead of time so there is no confusion. You have a security device with you at all times and check in here every weekend.”
“I—” my mouth is hanging open. Getting paid to be someone’s date doesn’t sound bad. “I don’t know.”
Mel explains, “The dates don’t pay as much, Avery. But it’s a good way to see how good they match you up. I mean, if it’s the kind of guy you’d take to bed anyway. ” Mel winks at me and then shrugs, like it’s no big deal.
I break eye contact with Mel and stare at the table. I’m gripping my hands in my lap so tightly that they’re turning white.
Miss Black pushes a sheet of paper in front of me and a pen. “This is a list of things that might occur on a date with a client. You can check off the things you are willing to take part in.”
I stare at the sheet. There are normal things—hugs, kisses, pecks, French kissing—and then the list gets more specific: stroking, petting, oral sex, vaginal sex, anal sex, and it keeps going, getting weirder and weirder. There are two columns filled with anything and everything. Fisting? What the hell is that?
I shake my head and push the page back to her. “No.” I can’t do this. I feel like I’m standing on the slippery slope and about to fall down, ass first.
Miss Black eyes me for a moment, like she knows me. “How experienced are you, Avery?”
I freeze, and my shoulders straighten. I turn to her slowly. My answer must be written across my face, because Miss Black smiles at me with that smile people have when they discover something serendipitous.
Miss Black hands me another card. This one is black with white letters. My reflex is to take it “That also has its own set of rules and prices.” I squirm under her gaze. I wonder how she can tell. I hold the card in my hand without looking at it, heart pounding.
Mel isn’t following, “What has its own rules?”
“Your friend is a virgin,” Miss Black says, pleased.