bad guys dont win (janet maple series book 4)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bad Guys Don’t
Win

(Book Four of
the Janet Maple Series)

 

By

Marie Astor

 

 

 

 

Bad Guys Don’t
Win

Copyright ©Marie
Astor 2015

Excerpt from
Thirsty
for Payback
Copyright 2014 Marie Astor

Excerpt from
Baiting
Trouble
Copyright 2014 Marie Astor

 

 

 

All rights reserved. Without limiting
the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be
reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in
any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or
otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and
the above publisher of this book.

This is a work of fiction. Names,
characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the
author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events
or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

Website:
www.marieastor.com

Facebook: Author
Marie Astor

Twitter:
@marieastor

 

 

 

 

Dedication:

 

To my readers—you are the reason I write. Without
you, these words would never see the light of day. Thank you for reading!

Table
of Contents:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3 – Four Weeks Later

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20 – Three Months Later

A Note from Marie Astor

About the Author

Excerpt from
Thirsty for Payback

Excerpt from
Baiting Trouble

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Mila Brabec checked her makeup in the
mirror, hastily adding touch-ups. She wished she could go home to get ready,
but there was just no time. The bar was super busy tonight. She wiped off the
caked mascara from beneath her lower lashes with a makeup remover tissue and
added two fresh coats of mascara to each eye. Then she dusted her face with a
powder puff, added some blush to her cheeks, and finished with two coats of
lipstick—
Plump Cherry
—Philip’s favorite. She released her dark hair from
the ponytail she usually wore at work, letting it fall to her shoulders and ran
a brush through, teasing it lightly. She checked the results in the mirror—not
bad. She readjusted her bra, making sure her cleavage was advantageously
displayed beneath the neckline of her black mini dress, which was complimented
by black stilettos she specifically kept at work for dates with Philip—there
was no way she could wear high heels at work. All in all, she looked pretty
good.

It was just a week night date anyway.
Liar
,
Mila thought. As much as she was scared to admit it, every date with Philip was
special in its own right. He could be taking her to McDonalds, and she’d still
be on cloud nine. She’d never felt this way about any other man before, and at
times she could scarcely believe her own happiness. Good things didn’t happen
to her—that used to be the case, but somehow she’d managed to turn the page. It
was scary, but it was also wonderful.

Mila quickly ran up the stairs to the
main floor. She threw a worried glance at the packed bar stand. Her friend and
business partner, Amy, was serving drinks to the crowd with the help of a
waitress and a busboy. Even with the increased staff, the three of them looked
overwhelmed. They’d need to hire more help pretty soon if they were to keep up.
Mila smiled at the thought—being a business owner still seemed surreal to her
at times. She and Amy were proud owners of Amy and Mila’s—a hip, but casual bar
that drew a mixed crowd of professionals, students, and anyone who was up for a
good time.

Amy waved cheerfully as she caught
Mila’s glance. “See you tomorrow,” she mouthed.

Mila quickly made her way to the bar
stand—she still had a few minutes left before meeting Philip. “Are you sure
you’ll be okay without me? It looks crazy busy. I could cancel my plans with
Philip.”

Amy shook her head, her fiery-red
ponytail swinging in protest. “Nonsense. Get out of here and have some fun.”

“I have fun here.”

Amy narrowed her eyes. “You know what I
mean. And you can drop the indifference routine—I know you’re crazy about
Philip.”

Mila lowered her head. “Guilty as
charged.”

“You’re allowed to have feelings for the
man. It’s a good thing.” Amy grinned, her hands busy pouring shots and mixing
drinks. “Now, get out of here before I get my orders mixed up.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow.” Reluctantly,
Mila headed for the exit.

Her reluctance disappeared the minute
she was outside and saw Philip standing by the curb, waiting for her. His back
was towards her, and she allowed herself a moment to take him in. God, the man
was handsome. At six feet two, Philip managed to still be taller than Mila when
she was wearing heels, which was something very few men could do. And that
wasn’t his only asset. With broad shoulders that were pure muscle, a cinched
waste, and abs one could use as a washboard, Philip’s body could make a sinner
out of a nun. And if that weren’t enough, his face was just as handsome as the
rest of him.

As if sensing her looking at him, Philip
turned around. “Hey, baby. I didn’t hear you sneak up on me.” He flashed her a
smile.

“I didn’t. I was just—”

He didn’t let her finish, swooping her
into his arms and locking his lips with hers. “You were just what?” He asked,
finally pulling away from her.

“I was just about to say hi,” she managed,
unable to take her eyes off him. God, she loved his face—it was handsome, yet
open and kind, with baby blues that made her heart melt, sensual lips that
drove her crazy with passionate kisses, a perfectly straight nose, and a strong
jaw that could make even the most independent woman wish to have a man like
Philip Barrett as her knight in shining armor.

“We’d better get going. We’re going to
be late.” He motioned at his car, waiting for them by the curb.

As usual, there was a driver behind the
wheel of the black Mercedes-Benz. Philip opened the door for Mila and once she
was comfortably settled inside, closed the door behind her. The chauffer
respectfully held the car door open on the other side for Philip to join her.

Once inside the car, Mila’s eyes widened
at the sight of a huge bouquet—it had to be at least two dozen long-stemmed red
roses.

“Happy anniversary,” Philip murmured
into her ear, putting the flowers onto her lap.

Mila blinked, both elated and
embarrassed. Instantly, she remembered—tonight was exactly six months since
they had started seeing each other. How could she have forgotten? Liar, she
caught herself. She remembered it perfectly, but she was afraid to admit it,
even to herself, for fear that Philip might forget. Still, that didn’t stop her
from choosing her outfit carefully for tonight’s outing—the little black dress
she had on would not fail her even in the most formal of restaurants. And the
red silk lingerie number she had stowed away in her bedroom was guaranteed to
drive Philip wild at the end of the night.

“Step on it, Joe,” Philip instructed his
driver. “We have reservations at Per Se.”

“How fancy!” Mila exclaimed with
delight.

“Only the best for my girl.”

Approximately thirty minutes later, Mila
and Philip were seated behind the best table at Per Se with the perfect view of
Columbus Circle and Central Park.

“Your waiter will be right with you.”
The host bowed deferentially to Philip before taking his leave. This was no
surprise—no matter what restaurant they went to, Philip always got the best
treatment and deservedly so—making the top one hundred most successful
entrepreneurs of the year list in
Forbes
carried a certain degree of
respect.

“Champagne?” Philip asked.

“That’d be perfect.” Mila smiled,
surveying the room. She had dressed carefully—not wanting to be overdressed,
yet prepared for any place where Philip might take her. The little black dress
she’d picked up on a sales rack at one of the Village designer boutiques was
tastefully understated, yet sexy. She was glad to see she stood out in the sea
of sequins and long gowns.

Philip ordered champagne and then they
placed their orders with the waiter.

After the waiter had brought a bottle of
Veuve Clicquot, Philip raised his glass. “To the most wonderful six months of
my life and to many more to come. Happy anniversary, Mila.”

Mila clinked her glass against Philip’s.
“Happy anniversary,” she whispered, hoping she didn’t sound choked-up. At times
she felt the need to pinch herself to make sure her relationship with Philip
was real.

“So, how are things at work?” Philip
asked, once the waiter had brought out the first course—an intricate
arrangement of a rare crab variety garnished with caviar.

“Good. Busy, but good.” Mila tasted the
appetizer. “Mmm, this is delicious,” she said, hoping to steer the conversation
away from the topic of work. She appreciated Philip’s interest, but when it
came to her business she was determined to stand on her own two feet.

“You’re working very long hours,” Philip
observed.

“Yes, well, that’s the life of an
entrepreneur.” She shrugged. “You know that.”

“I do,” Philip consented. “But I also
know how important it is to allocate resources efficiently. Have you thought
about hiring additional staff, like we talked about?”

“I know a thing or two about efficiencies
too,” Mila said. “Amy and I are assessing the staffing coverage. We just
recently hired two busboys.”

“You don’t have to get defensive about
it.”

“I’m not. I just don’t see why you have
to bring it up now. I thought we were celebrating. I don’t want to talk about
work right now.”

“We are celebrating. And the reason I
bring it up is that it’s part of my anniversary gift.” Philip paused. “I’d like
to extend a loan to you and Amy, so you could hire more help and expand. I
noticed a storefront just opened up next to Amy and Mila’s—it’s prime real
estate and it won’t stay vacant for long. I happen to know the property owner,
and I can get you excellent lease terms. But we have to move fast.”

Mila felt her guard go up. “Expand?
Don’t you think that’s moving a bit fast? Yes, things are going well, but I
don’t know if we want to expand so soon.”

“The place is packed every night. It’s
practically bursting at the seams—now is the perfect time. Strike the iron
while it’s hot.” He winked at her, piercing a piece of crab with his fork and
popping it into his mouth. “Mmm, this is delicious.”

Mila pushed her plate away, swallowing
hard. She’d lost her appetite. “Philip, it’s not that I don’t appreciate it,
but I can’t accept your offer. This is something I must do on my own.”

Philip nodded, the breathtaking blue of
his eyes focusing on Mila’s. He reached for her hand and pressed it to his
lips. “I understand.”

“Good. Thank you for that.” Mila was
surprised by the ease of her victory. Resisting Philip was no small task—he
always found a way to win an argument. That’s probably why he was so successful
in business. And it wasn’t as though Mila didn’t appreciate his offer—it was a
very generous offer—and she didn’t want to seem ungrateful by rejecting it. But
for the first time in her life she had managed to amount to something without a
man’s help and she wasn’t going to screw it up. She had made too many mistakes
relying on men to get her places, and she’d learned the hard way that wasn’t
the way. Mila twirled a loose hair strand between her fingers and took a long
swallow of champagne to chase the memories away. Philip didn’t know about her
past. She’d have to tell him one day, but right now she just wanted to enjoy
their celebratory dinner.

Philip raised his glass. Mila was very
good about keeping her emotions under wraps because he didn’t seem to notice
the turmoil inside her. “I understand completely,” he said, “but Mila, darling,
I must admit the reason I’m interested in investing in your bar is purely
selfish—”

“It’s not just my bar, Philip. Amy and I
are partners. Amy owns the majority share,” Mila reminded him.

“I’m aware of that and I’d love to hear
Amy’s thoughts on this. I doubt she’ll turn me down,” Philip countered, his
eyes twinkling—it wasn’t a flirtatious twinkle, but that of a venturesome
businessman determined to get his end of the bargain. “Amy and Mila’s has great
potential and I’d like to help you both realize it and partake in the profits.
Why should some random bank capitalize on it instead?”

Mila shook her head. “Somehow our banker
wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic when Amy and I approached him for a loan
increase.”

“You’ve applied for a loan increase?”

“We didn’t file any of the paperwork
yet, but we had a preliminary conversation, just to see where we stand.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Philip looked
genuinely hurt. “If the idea of me investing bothers you so much, I could’ve at
least gotten you better terms with another bank.”

“That’s exactly why. Please,” Mila
begged him. “Please, don’t think I don’t appreciate what you’re trying to do. I
do. But I must do this on my own.” Mila paused. “What we have together is
important to me and I don’t want business to come between us.”

Philip sighed. “Did anyone ever tell you
you’re as stubborn as you’re beautiful?”

“Not until now.” Mila grinned, happy to
see Philip’s feelings weren’t hurt.

“Look, believe it or not, but I know
exactly what you’re going through.”

Mila eyed him dubiously, but decided to
remain silent.

“Yes, I do, young lady.” Philip
intercepted her gaze. “I too have a hard time accepting help from family and
friends. I don’t mean to play the part of a poor little rich boy, but the fact
of the matter is that my family’s money has put certain expectations on me. My
father is a successful financier, so I was expected to follow in his
footsteps—join the family firm and all that good stuff. It bothered me
immensely. I wanted to make it on my own and to show everyone that I was more
than my father’s son who just happened to be born into the family fortune. I saw
energy as the new frontier and I was right. I worked for different companies
learning the business and when the right opportunity to strike out on my own
came up, I was ready to pounce on it. Just like you, I went to a bank and asked
for a loan. The terms they offered me were highway robbery, but I was ready to
accept, thankful for being given a chance. That’s when my father called me and
offered me a loan. The terms were way better than the bank’s, but they were
still fair terms, according to the industry rates at the time.”

“How did your father know you were
looking for a loan?” Mila asked, no longer caring if the point of Philip’s
story was to get her to cave in. He rarely talked about his business, and she
was curious to learn more about him.

Philip chuckled. “Oh, he knew. At the
time, I had about the same reaction as you, but of course it was naïve of me to
think a man like my father wouldn’t know. He might’ve let me go off on my own,
but he kept his ear to the ground to make sure that I didn’t get taken to the
cleaners.”

“Didn’t it bother you?”

“It did at first, but it doesn’t
anymore. In fact, I’m thankful for it. Yes, some may say that my success comes
from me being my father’s son. And frankly, I’d be an idiot to deny that, but
it doesn’t diminish my own accomplishments in any way. Yes, I happened to be
lucky to have my father, but there are plenty of kids born into wealth who
never do anything with the opportunities they’re given.”

“So did you take your father’s loan?”

Philip nodded. “I did and I paid back
every penny of it, with interest. And if I ever need a loan again, I won’t have
any qualms about asking my dad for one, as long as I’m reasonably sure that I
can repay it.”

“Ah, that’s the key—reasonably sure,”
Mila pointed out.

“Your point being?”

“What if I’m not sure that I can pay you
back? What if something goes wrong?”

“Let me get this straight, you were sure
enough to ask a bank for a loan, but you’re not sure enough to ask me? Believe
me, I’ll be a lot more lenient than any bank.”

“I could default on a bank. I can’t
default on you.”

“You won’t. Or I wouldn’t be offering to
invest in you. Give me at least some credit as an investor. Don’t you think I
have some business instincts?”

“Yes, you do. And persuasion powers to
make a rock cave in.”

“What can I tell you? I was captain of a
debate team in high school and in college.”

“I see you haven’t lost your touch.”
Mila smiled. Maybe she was overcomplicating things. Would it be so wrong to
accept Philip’s offer? “Let me talk to Amy about it, okay?”

“Of course. I never meant for you to
make a decision without Amy’s consent.”

“Good. Now can we please enjoy our
dinner?”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m
enjoying it immensely.”

“I bet you are. You just love getting
your way, no matter what.”

“Guilty as charged. Is that such a
horrible flaw?”

“It’s a terrible flaw,” she teased him.
“In fact, it’s making me question this whole relationship.”

“Is it? Is there anything I can do to
change your mind?” he asked suggestively, his eyes blazing with the heat she knew
only too well, as he pressed the palm of her hand to his lips.

Mila barely resisted a groan of
pleasure—even the touch of his lips against her palm was enough to send goose
bumps running down her back. “See now, you’re not being fair. You know I can’t
resist you when you act like that.”

“Like what?” he asked innocently, biting
her thumb gently.

She felt his leg brush against hers
beneath the table. “Like that,” she panted. “If you don’t stop, we’ll have to
get the rest of our dinner to go.”

“So my flaws are forgiven?”

“Yes,” she murmured, glad to see the
waiter approaching with their next course.

A picture of composure, Philip let go of
her hand and smiled at the waiter. “That looks wonderful. We really enjoyed our
first course and can’t wait to see what you have planned for us next.” He
winked at Mila and all she could do was drain her champagne glass to quell the
fire he’d ignited inside her. She couldn’t wait to get Philip to her place.
She’d get her payback once he saw her in the red silk lace ensemble she had
waiting for him in her bedroom. It was going to be a night he’d remember for a
while.

Chapter 2

 

 

When Mila came in to work the next day,
she felt as though she were floating on air. Last night had turned out to be
very memorable indeed. After Philip had wowed her with the romantic dinner at
Per Se, his chauffer dropped them off at Mila’s apartment. Usually Mila stayed
at Philip’s luxurious townhouse in Tribeca. Last night she insisted that they
go to her place since she wasn’t letting the red silk bustier along with
matching lace panties, garter belt, and stockings she’d bought for the occasion
collect dust in her lingerie closet. She’d promised Philip the surprise she had
planned for him was worth forgoing the splendor of his digs and she had been
right. Philip’s eyes looked like they were going to jump out of their sockets
when he saw her all dressed up. He couldn’t wait to ‘unwrap his present,’ as
he’d put it, but instead she’d made him take it slow—it was her time to tease
him. They ended up making love until dawn and fell asleep exhausted, wrapped in
each other’s arms. She had no idea how Philip found the will or the stamina to
get up at seven a.m. for his business meeting—she was barely able to lift her
head off the pillow to mouth goodbye to him when he left. Sleeping in late was
definitely one of the major perks of owning a bar—the work was grueling, but it
suited Mila’s night owl personality perfectly. She’d slept like a baby until
noon and still had time to run errands before going to work at four—they’d be
opening their doors at five p.m.

Dreamily, Mila nodded at Amy who was
already behind the bar, stocking freshly washed glasses from the dishwasher.

“Looks like someone had a good time last
night,” Amy caught Mila off guard. “You look very limber and relaxed,” Amy
added with a grin. “I like your hair loose like that.”

Mila shook her head, quickly tucking her
mane into a ponytail. She got behind the bar next to Amy, put on her apron, and
busied herself with shelving martini glasses. They had a ton of things to do
before they opened their doors. “How was it last night? Busy?” she asked,
hoping to steer the conversation away from herself and Philip. She wasn’t a
prude, but when it came to Philip she liked to keep the details of their
private life private.

“It was fine. We made out just fine. You
aren’t that good of a bartender you know,” Amy teased her.

“Oh, really? Well then maybe I should
take off early tonight as well,” Mila shot back.

“Don’t push it. I just got a call from
Claire—she’s got an audition and she can’t make it in tonight.”

“Where’s she auditioning, a peep show? I
thought auditions were held during the day.”

“Apparently it’s an off, off, off
Broadway play.”

Mila rolled her eyes. “The girl’s barely
worked here a month and she’s been out more than she’s been in.”

“I guess she doesn’t mind missing out on
tips.”

“We’re running a bar here. How are we
supposed to service our patrons without reliable service?”

“Calm down, will ya? This is the service
industry—the majority of people who work here have other aspirations.”

“Like starring in an off, off, off
Broadway play. I get it.”

Amy shrugged. “Maybe if we could afford
to hire full-time staff and offer employee benefits, we could attract more
reliable and professional staff. You know, former off, off, off Broadway actors
who became full-time professional bartenders. We should talk with our banker
about the loan again.”

“We should.” Mila instantly felt uneasy,
the details of Philip’s offer to invest in their bar coming back into her mind.
Amy and Mila’s was doing great, but they could do so much more with an
injection of cash. The preliminary terms their bank had offered them were
steep, manageable, but steep. If Philip was offering to cut them a break, would
it be so wrong to accept his help?

“Uh-oh, I know that look. What’s on your
mind?”

“Nothing.” Mila sighed. She knew she had
to tell Amy about Philip’s offer. After all, Amy was the majority partner, and
it was her decision too. She was going to tell her, but first she needed to
decide what she was going to do if Amy was going to say yes. The possibility
made Mila so nervous that a stack of shot glasses she was in the process of
putting on the shelf nearly slipped out of her hands.

Amy burrowed into her with an X-ray
stare. “Out with it before you cost us a fortune in broken glassware.”

Mila leaned against the bar stand,
biting her lips. “I need to tell you something.”

“I already figured that. Wait a minute,
is everything all right with you and Philip? You looked so happy when you
walked in, so I thought you were just being your usual cryptic self, but if
anything is wrong, I’m gonna personally kick the bastard in the balls and make
him—”

“Everything is great,” Mila cut off
Amy’s tirade before it got any more graphic. “Better than I could’ve hoped for,
actually.”

“Wait a minute—” Amy’s eyes widened.
“Show me your left hand! “Did he—”

“Propose? No.” Mila produced both hands
for inspection. She’d be a liar if she didn’t admit she’d thought about the
possibility of Philip popping the question. Someday, once she was set on her
path and knew where she was going, she’d welcome it, but right now it would
only wreak havoc in her life.

“Sorry, I got overly excited there for a
moment. So everything is good between you love birds?”

“Philip wants to invest in our bar,”
Mila blurted out, unable to keep the suspense up any longer. It was better to
just get it out in the open.

Amy’s eyes lit up. “He does? That’s
great, Mila! Wasn’t he named one of the savviest investors of the year or
something like that?”

“He made
Forbes
’ top one hundred
most successful entrepreneurs of the year list.”

“Isn’t that amazing? It means our
business has real potential, or Philip wouldn’t be offering to invest in it.”

“Are you sure about that? What if he’s
just offering because—”

“Because what? Because he’s sleeping
with you?”

“You don’t have to put it so crudely,”
Mila countered.

“Pardon my manners,” Amy quipped. “I
didn’t realize my language would offend you.”

“Knock it off.” Mila sighed. She had no
idea why she got so touchy all of a sudden. She and Amy went way back to the
time when they waitressed at Hogs and Heifers, dancing in their bras on bar
stands. Mila was no sheltered flower, but Philip was changing that and it
scared her. “Yes, it worries me that he’s only willing to give us the money
because he’s sleeping with me,” she forced herself to say the words even though
they stung her tongue—what she had with Philip went beyond the bedroom, or at
least she hoped so. “And it scares me that it’s going to diminish everything we’ve
done—it will no longer be our bar—it’ll be his too. And no matter how hard we
work, people will always think we got our break because Philip Barrett invested
in us.”

“Since when do you worry about what
people think? From what I remember, this isn’t the first time you’re dating a
wealthy guy, but none of them have ever offered to invest in your business
before.”

“That’s because I didn’t have a
business.”

“Or maybe it’s because none of them
respected or valued you the way Philip does.”

“That too. I’m scared of losing what I
have with him, and I’m scared of losing what I’ve achieved here, with you. Amy
and Mila’s is our place—we built it from scratch. I’m scared of messing up,
again.”

Amy reached for Mila’s hand, squeezing
it in a comforting gesture. “You won’t mess up. I won’t let you. But I won’t
let you miss out on a great opportunity either. We’re going to meet with Philip
tomorrow and look at the terms that he’s offering. If his offer beats the
bank’s, we’re taking it. Plain and simple. I don’t like pulling rank, but I’m
the majority partner here and I have the votes,” Amy finished triumphantly.

“Philip also thought we should expand
into the vacant lot next to us. He knows the owner and could get us a break on
the rent.”

“That’s awesome! I thought about expanding,
but I didn’t think we could swing it with the bank’s rates. But if the numbers
work out, I’m all for it.”

Mila threw up her hands, knowing she was
outnumbered. “I’ll call him tomorrow.”

“Call him now. I don’t want him to
change his mind.”

“All right.” Mila was about to reach for
her cell phone when the front door opened and a tall girl with dark, long hair
walked inside. She was dressed in skinny jeans, leather jacket, and a tight
black top that prominently displayed her ample cleavage.

“Sorry, we aren’t open yet,” Amy said
apologetically.

“Damn, I forgot to lock the door.” Mila
shook her head. “We open at five,” she informed the girl who was still
lingering by the bar stand.

“Oh, excuse me, sorry to barge in on you
like this. I was just wondering if you might be hiring?” the girl asked.

Mila was about to say that they
weren’t—since technically they really weren’t, but Amy intercepted her, “As a
matter of fact, we are. Do you have any experience bar tending?”

“My last job was with Red Door, and
before that I waitressed at bars all over the city—it’s all in here. My
references are attached.” She put a copy of her résumé on the bar stand.
“Sorry, I should’ve brought more copies.”

“I see.” Mila shot Amy a look—Red Door
was a strip bar, a fact she happened to know because it was only a few blocks
away from their own bar and she passed it on her way to work every day.

“That’s quite an impressive list, Jess
Hall,” Amy observed, getting the girl’s name from the résumé. “I’m Amy and this
is Mila. We own Amy and Mila’s together.”

“So nice to meet you. And thank you.”

“So what made you leave Red Door?” Mila
asked.

Jess looked squarely at her when she
answered without a trace of embarrassment in her voice. “I’ll just say that the
management expected more from its bartenders than the standard duties.”

“Sleazy bastards,” Amy muttered. “When
can you start?” she added.

Jess’s face lit up. “When do you need me
to? The sooner the better.”

“How about tonight? One of our girls
couldn’t make it in, so we’re short staffed. We pay minimum wage and whatever
you make from the tips is yours.”

“Sounds good to me, as long as I don’t
have to do anything other than mixing and serving drinks.”

“That pretty much sums it up. Oh, we
might ask you to help out the busboys with the dishes if we’re short staffed,
but that’s the extent of it—there won’t be any funny business, if that’s what
you’re worried about. In fact, we have a strict policy about professional staff
and client interactions. A little bit of flirting is fine—we all know that’s
the way to get them to buy more drinks, but that’s where it ends. This is a
place of business. If you’re looking for a date, it’s gotta be elsewhere.” Amy
crossed her arms on her chest. “These are the rules. If they sound good to you,
you can start tonight.”

“That sounds perfect. You won’t have to
worry about me breaking any of your rules,” Jess assured them. “Where can I
leave my things?”

“Downstairs. I’ll show you the employee
changing room.” Amy headed towards the stairs in the back leading to the
basement.

A few minutes later, Amy was back behind
the bar. “Jess will be up here in a few minutes. She’s just freshening up.”

“Good.” Mila pursed her lips. “The
glasses are all stocked. We’re running short on vermouth and Southern Comfort,
so I’m going to go downstairs and place an order. We still got a few minutes
before opening time.”

“Okay, sounds good.” Amy nodded. Mila
was about to walk away when Amy stopped her. “Hey, aren’t you going to tell me
what you think about our new hire? That’s what I call perfect timing.”

“Does it really matter what I think? You
just went ahead and hired her without asking me.”

Amy seemed taken aback. “Sorry, I didn’t
mean it like that. I just thought if you had any objections, you’d speak up.
She seems like a hard worker. Don’t you think?”

“We hardly know anything about her,”
Mila shot back, “but what does it matter what I think when you’ve made it clear
that you’re the majority partner and you call all the shots.”

“I didn’t mean it like that, and you
know it. You’re taking the whole thing out of context.” Amy narrowed her eyes.
“Wait a minute, are you mad at me for wanting to hear Philip’s offer? Is that
what it is? If you don’t want to do it, I won’t force you. I don’t need any
favors from you or him.”

Mila sighed. The last thing they both
needed was to get into a stupid fight right before opening time. “I’m sorry.
I’m just being overly touchy. But don’t you think we should’ve at least checked
this girl’s references before hiring her? For crying out loud, you left her
alone downstairs and we don’t even know her.”

“What is she going to do? Walk away with
a case of Jameson? Our computer systems are password protected and all the
petty cash is locked in a safe. I just thought we could use an extra hand—if
she doesn’t work out, we’ll let her go. It’s that simple.”

“I hope so. I just hope she’s not a mass
murderer or something.”

Amy rolled her eyes. “We’re not in a
Stephen King novel, for crying out loud.”

“No, but I still would like to call Red
Door and see what they have to say about her.”

“Sure, that’d be a very useful reference
since those guys are the pinnacle of discretion and work ethic.”

“It’s better than nothing,” Mila
countered.

Amy handed Mila Jess’s résumé. “Why
don’t you go downstairs and check her out right now?”

“Now? We’re about to open—there’s no
time.”

“I think I can hold the fort for a few
minutes. It won’t get busy for another half an hour or so. If anything doesn’t
check out, she’s out.”

Just then Mila noticed Jess walking
towards them. “I think I’ll do just that.” She smiled brightly at Jess. “Amy is
going to show you the ropes. I have to take care of restocking downstairs.”

Amy checked her watch. “It’s opening
time. You’re going to get baptized by fire, Jess.”

“I hope I won’t disappoint you.” Jess
took her place behind the bar.

Once downstairs, Mila got to work right
away, checking out Jess’s references. She made sure not to stay away too long
though, since she could tell from the noise coming from upstairs that the place
was filling up fast. In less than twenty minutes she was back upstairs.

“I need two Bloody Mary’s and a gin and
tonic,” Amy shouted.

“Coming right up,” Jess beat Mila to the
task.

Mila exchanged glances with Amy. “I see
it’s going well.” She noticed Jess’s hands busily mixing drinks—the speed and
dexterity of her movements was proof enough that she was no stranger to being
behind the bar stand.

“So, what do you think?” Amy asked. She
kept her voice low, but it was so noisy in the bar that there was no danger of
Jess overhearing them.

“I think you made the right call,” Mila
conceded.

“What about the references?” Amy asked.

“They all checked out,” Mila said
sheepishly. “I guess I overreacted. I should’ve trusted your gut feeling.”

“There was a time when I took a chance
and hired you,” Amy pointed out. “Although it does feel like a lifetime ago.”

“It sure does,” Mila agreed, remembering
the time Amy used to be a manager at Hogs and Heifers. A lot of things had
happened to her since then, both good and bad. For a while it had seemed like
the bad streak was drowning out the good one, but now things were finally
looking up and Mila hoped that the dark streak in her life was over. Perhaps it
was time to give someone else a chance, just like she had been given a chance
in the past.

“Great then. I’m sure glad we have an
extra set of hands helping us out tonight,” Amy said without a trace of triumph
in her voice. “We would’ve been swamped without Jess.”

“Hey there, ladies, can I get two
whiskey sours for me and my buddy here?” The request came from a heavy guy with
a bushy beard. He was dressed in a biker jacket.

“We’ve been waiting for a while,” his
friend piped in. He was just as heavy and was wearing a similar biker jacket,
but his beard was much shorter. Both men had beads of perspiration glistening
on their foreheads.

“Coming right up, gentlemen.” Mila
hurried to mix the cocktails.

“Keep an eye on those two,” Amy
whispered. “It’s their third drink and they’ve both been here less than twenty
minutes.”

Mila shrugged. “Since when is that a
problem? Don’t we want paying customers?”

“Yes we do, but we don’t want rowdy
drunks who cost more in damaged property than they spend on drinks,” Amy
countered.

“Don’t worry, I got it,” Mila assured
her.

“Good. Because I’m dying to pee. I’ll be
right back,” Amy whispered.

Mila placed the drinks on the counter.
“Here are your drinks, gentlemen. Sip and enjoy. The night is still young.”

“Men don’t sip,” the guy with the bushy
beard growled. He picked up his drink and drained the glass without breaking
for breath. His friend followed suit.

Men don’t drink sugary drinks
, Mila thought,
but knew better than to say anything.

“Again,” the guy with the longer beard
demanded, slamming his glass on the counter.

“Why don’t you gentlemen pace yourself?”
Mila leaned across the bar with a friendly smile. “What’s your hurry?”

The guy with the bushy beard ogled her
cleavage. “I’d like me a taste of that,” he said, grabbing Mila’s breasts.

Mila froze like a deer caught in the
headlights. She’d worked in her share of seedy places before, but it’d been a
while since she had to fend grubby hands off her boobs. No matter—she might be
out of practice, but she could still fend for herself. She was about to unleash
a barrage of expletives when the unruly customer squealed like a baby pig and
let go of her. Surprised, Mila looked up and saw that somehow Jess had managed
to make her way around the bar stand unnoticed and was now holding the fat
bully by his ear, as though he were a misbehaving first grader. Her grip was so
firm that the man’s ear had turned red.

“That’s no way to treat a lady. Why
don’t you apologize?” Jess requested.

“Hey, she was coming on to me, flashing
her boobs and all,” he panted, clearly not wanting to apologize.

Jess increased her pressure, twisting
his ear so hard it seemed about ready to fall off.

“Okay, okay,” the guy pleaded. “I
apologize. I didn’t mean to grab you. I was just having a little fun,” he
squealed while his friend looked on in drunken stupor.

“That’s all right. Gentlemen, we
appreciate your business, but I think it’ll be best for all of us if you take
your party elsewhere,” Mila said firmly. She braced herself, prepared for a
whirlwind of profanities, but none followed.

“Thank you. You’ve got a lovely bar here,”
the guy with the bushy beard said, Jess still holding his ear tightly. “How
much do we owe you?”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s on the
house,” Mila said, eager to get rid of them.

“We’ll be going then,” he said
sheepishly. “Could I have my ear back now?”

“If I ever see you in here again, I’m
going to chop it right off,” Jess hissed, tugging it one more time for good
measure.

He raised his hands in horror. “You
won’t. I promise.”

Jess let go, watching them like a hawk,
as the two drunks beelined for the exit.

“I can’t stand losers like that,” Jess
spat when she got back behind the bar.

“You handled it really well,” Mila said,
still a little shaken up. It was amazing how quickly one got out of habit of
dealing with scumbags. So far they’ve been lucky with their clientele, but
apparently that was going to change—fame had a price.

“It’s nothing,” Jess replied. “I used to
have to deal with much worse at Red Door.”

“I can imagine.” Mila shook her head.
“Thanks for having my back.”

“Happy to do it,” Jess said matter-of-factly.

“Happy to do what? What did I miss?” Amy
had joined them behind the bar stand.

“It’s nothing,” Mila replied quickly.
“I’ll tell you later.”

“What happened?” Amy persisted.

“There was a little altercation and Jess
here saved my behind.” Mila quickly told Amy what happened, knowing her friend
wouldn’t back off unless she did.

Amy whistled. “Wow, not only are you a
pro at mixing drinks, you can hold your own against drunks? Can I pick ’em or
can I pick ’em?”

Jess blushed. “You’re making it sound
like something much bigger than it was. I grew up with three brothers and I
have a black belt in karate. Kicking a fat guy’s butt is a walk in the park
compared to that.”

“That’ll do it,” Amy agreed.

“Jess, your shirt is torn.” Mila
hurriedly handed Jess a napkin.

“Oh, thanks, I didn’t realize.” Jess
clutched the torn cloth to her chest, which had a butterfly tattoo on the left
side, right above her breast.

“Oh, a tattoo!” Amy teased her. “You’re
a wild one, aren’t you?”

Jess blushed. “I had it done a long time
ago.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry,” Amy
apologized.

“It’s okay.” Jess shrugged. “I’ve had it
for so long, I forget it’s there.”

“I have an extra top in the back—you can
wear it,” Mila offered.

“Great, I’ll go and change real quick.”
Jess was about to head to the basement.

“How about we all go out for drinks
after we close tonight?” Amy asked.

“I’m in,” Mila said. “Jess, it’ll be our
treat—it’s the least we can do to thank you for getting rid of those drunks.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Jess interjected.
“It was really no problem.”

“But we want to,” Mila insisted. “It’ll
be fun—a girl’s night out.”

Chapter 3 –
Four Weeks Later

 

 

Janet Maple checked the address to make
sure she had the right building. A part of her still couldn’t believe she was
moving in with Dennis Walker. Now and then, she had to look at the ring on her
finger to remind herself they were engaged.

“Sorry I’m late!”

The sound of Dennis’s voice made Janet
turn around. “It’s all right,” Janet said as she smiled at Dennis. “The realtor
isn’t here yet. Busy day?” Even though they both worked for Kirk &
Associates, there were times when their assignments took them on different
paths. Dennis had been busy doing field research all morning.

“Crazy.” Dennis shook his head. “I’ll
tell you later. I don’t want to talk about work now, not when we’re about to
see what could be our first apartment together.”

Janet smiled dreamily. “Do you think
this could be the one?” she asked, eyeing the seven story brownstone. “Did you
see the courtyard in the back?” She grabbed Dennis’s hand, tugging him along
for a better view.

“Very nice,” Dennis confirmed eyeing the
charming garden in the back of the building. “And I like the location—East
Village. But it’s kind of far from the subway, though.”

“Which is probably why we can afford a
down payment on it,” Janet promptly pointed out. Their last case at Kirk &
Associates had resulted in very handsome bonuses, but Manhattan’s real estate
prices were astronomical.

“Does the building have an elevator?”
Dennis asked.

“Um, I’m not sure,” Janet lied. There
was no elevator, but she decided not to mention it to Dennis, hoping the
charming building and the winding East Village street on which it was located
would make him oblivious to the fact.

“Dennis, Janet!” That raspy British
accent belonged to none other than their realtor.

“Fiona! So great to see you.” Janet
plastered on a fake smile as she watched Fiona plant a kiss on Dennis’s cheek.
It wasn’t like they were friends or anything—Fiona was their realtor for crying
out loud. Janet wrote it off as British eccentricity.

“Janet!” Fiona exclaimed breathily,
limiting herself to a limp pat on Janet’s arm. “How wonderful to see you!”

“It’s great to see you too,” Janet lied.
She didn’t really like Fiona. Always immaculately put together in tailored
suits that showcased her killer body, she made Janet feel like a peasant at
royal court. What kind of a name was Fiona anyway? Up until recently, Janet had
thought it belonged exclusively in fairy tales. Unfortunately, Fiona just happened
to have the exclusive listing for the one bedroom apartment Janet thought might
be the perfect home for her and Dennis, so she had to put her qualms aside.

Fiona dangled her keys. “Shall we?”

“By all means.” Dennis offered his arm
to Janet, which she promptly took—Fiona better keep her hands off her man.

Fiona fumbled with the front lock,
finally getting it open. “Right this way.”

“Isn’t there a doorman?” Dennis asked.

“The super lives in the building and
he’s there to take care of packages and such,” Fiona explained. “But there’s no
doorman per se.”

Noticing Dennis’s hesitation, Janet
tugged at his sleeve. “The super is there to take care of packages,” she
repeated.

“I got that, but what about monitoring
building access? I’d feel much better knowing there was a doorman.”

“There’s an intercom—visitors get buzzed
in,” Fiona said primly. “Please follow me. Right this way.” Notwithstanding her
three-inch heels, Fiona began an energetic climb up the stairs, the fabric of
her skin-tight pencil skirt stretching tautly over her hips as she did so.

Dennis followed after Fiona. As they
reached the fifth floor, he called over his shoulder. “Come on, Janet. Keep
up!”

At the sight of Fiona’s rhythmically
undulating behind so prominently displayed before Dennis’s eyes, Janet started
having second thoughts about the whole idea. Perhaps she should’ve opted for an
elevator building after all—or a male real-estate agent.

“Keep moving!” Fiona chirped over her
shoulder.

“Are we almost there?” Dennis asked,
panting theatrically.

Janet knew he was faking it. The man
could run ten miles without breaking a sweat.

“It’s top floor!” Fiona informed them.

“Top floor?” Dennis threw a glance over
his shoulder and Janet had to grip the rails to steady herself. “At least we’ll
be in great shape by the time we get there.”

“Here we are!” Fiona announced
triumphantly after reaching the top of the stairs. A faint blush on her cheeks
was the only indication of exertion after the stair climb. Except for the top
three buttons of her blouse, which had somehow come undone during their climb
and now provided an ample view of her cleavage, her appearance was perfectly
intact. “Come on, Janet!” Fiona edged closer to Dennis who had by now also
reached the top. “I’m sure Dennis can’t wait to see the place.”

Janet smiled bravely, as she conquered
the remaining stairs. For her part, she couldn’t claim the same composure as
Fiona. Her heart was beating like a sledge hammer and she could feel her back
getting damp with perspiration. Loose strands of her hair had treacherously
escaped from her updo, which had looked so classy only a few moments ago.

“Janet, honey, are you all right?”
Dennis asked with exaggerated concern.

“That was quite a climb,” Janet
admitted, sensing Dennis’s ironic glance.
Okay, he had won this
one—elevators were important
.

“Trust me, what you’re about to see is
worth a few flights of stairs.” Fiona smiled brightly as she deftly opened the
front door lock. “Voila!”

Janet walked inside, instantly
forgetting about the steep stairs. The apartment opened into a sunlit living
room that was spacious by any standards, but simply ginormous by those of New
York City.

“The owner recently redid the floors,”
Fiona proudly pointed out. “And since this building was constructed in 1929,
it’s got the wonderful pre-war ceilings—”

“I’m more concerned about the pre-war
lack of elevator,” Dennis observed.

Janet remained oblivious to her fiancé’s
snide remark. The newly finished parquet floors glistened like mirrors under
her feet, as she made her way into a perfectly-sized kitchen, complete with new
appliances. The open-plan kitchen had a granite counter running along its
length. She could just see herself and Dennis perched on bar stools, unwinding
with a couple of cocktails after work. This place was perfect. Of course there
was the steep stair climb, but she had already caught her breath, and things
were never really perfect, were they?

“And of course the building allows pets.
I know how important that is to you,” Fiona said proudly.

“Yes, that’s very important to us,”
Janet agreed, thinking of her Jack Russell Terrier, Baxter. She could just
picture him racing across the vast living room space, not to mention the nearby
park that would be the perfect place to walk him.

“Well?” Fiona asked.

“We’ll think about it,” Dennis replied
before Janet could get a word in. “Do you have anything else to show us today?”

“I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got.” Fiona
clicked her tongue, wringing an imaginary handkerchief with her hands. “I had
two more places in mind for you, but both just went under contract.”

“That fast?” Janet asked, shooting
Dennis a worried look.

“Good properties go very quickly,” Fiona
replied sagely. “I suggest you don’t drag your feet on this one—I’ve got two
more showings scheduled today. This apartment won’t be on the market for long.”

“How could it? A place that offers the
benefit of a workout every time you come home is bound to have a bidding war,”
Dennis observed in full seriousness, but his eyes were filled with playful
irony.

Under a different set of circumstances
Janet would have laughed, but this was the tenth apartment they had seen and as
with its predecessors, Dennis had managed to find a flaw. At this rate they
were never going to find a place.

Fiona pursed her lips. “There’s always
some give-and-take,” she said icily. “I’ll let you know if anything else comes
up in your price range. I’ll walk you out.”

“Are you sure?” Dennis asked. “You might
want to save yourself a trip for the next showing.”

“Oh, it’s all right.” Fiona laughed
dryly. “I don’t mind a little exercise.”

Once she and Dennis were outside and
Fiona had left, Janet eyed Dennis reproachfully. “Did you have to do that?”

“What?” Dennis shrugged innocently.

“You know damn well what. You pissed off
Fiona. I doubt she’s going to show us anything else now.”

“If it’s anything like this place, I’d
rather she didn’t. I don’t relish the idea of working up a sweat every time I
come home.”

“It wasn’t that bad. Besides, there’s
got to be some give-and-take.”

“Those are Fiona’s words. I remember someone
telling me she wasn’t going to give up until she found the perfect place.”

“That was before I knew the realities of
the Manhattan real estate market. I’ve only lived in rentals before.”

“The Janet Maple I know doesn’t cave in
so easily.”

“Okay, I guess you’re right. We’ll keep
looking,” Janet sighed, frowning.

“Hey,” Dennis’s voice grew lower as he
stepped in closer, cupping her face with his hand and gently tilting it up.
“Why the long face?”

“It’s just that there’s so much to do.
We’ve got our wedding to plan—I was hoping we’d be moved in before then.”

“Our perfect place is waiting for us—I
promise. Besides, we’re practically moved in already.” Gently at first and then
passionately, Dennis touched his lips to Janet’s.

Janet nodded. Maybe that was the
problem—Dennis spent so much time in her studio apartment, he practically lived
there. Maybe things were getting too comfortable, or worse—stagnant? The next
thing she knew Dennis would be putting off their wedding date and then theirs
would be turning into one of those infinite engagements without a wedding date
in sight. Stop it, she thought, annoyed at her doubts—spending an hour with
Fiona wasn’t exactly a confidence booster.

“Janet, honey, are you all right?”
Dennis’s voice brought her back to reality.

“I’m fine.” Janet nodded. “Just a little
tired.”

“I’m not surprised—that climb was enough
to wear out an Olympic champion.”

Janet nudged him with her elbow. “Give
it a rest, Dennis.”

“All right, that was a bit over the top.
I was just trying to cheer you up. How about I take you out to dinner and then
continue the evening with a complimentary foot massage?”

“Mmm, that sounds nice.” Janet leaned
into Dennis’s shoulder, instantly feeling like an idiot—any man who offered his
fiancée a foot massage couldn’t be accused of getting cold feet.

“How does Franky’s sound?” Dennis named
Janet’s favorite steak house.

“Sounds perfect.”

“So Franky’s it is, then a foot massage,
and then perhaps some unscheduled activities,” Dennis’s voice trailed off
seductively as he wrapped his arm around Janet’s shoulders.

“Now you’re pushing your luck, mister,”
Janet teased him, playfully bumping her hip against his.

He cocked an eyebrow. “Oh? We’ll see
about that. I’ll have you know I’m very good at foot massages.”

Janet felt a shiver run down her spine,
remembering the sensual touch of Dennis’s fingers on her toes—it was almost
enough to make her skip dinner altogether. “Is that so?”

“That’s what I’ve been told.”

“Have you now? We’ll see about that.”

“Yes, we’ll see.” He nuzzled her neck,
the sensual touch of his lips igniting myriads of pleasure sparks.

With a tremendous effort, Janet pulled
away from him. “How about that steak dinner you promised me, mister?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Dennis took his hands off
of her and tipped an imaginary hat. “I beg your pardon. It’s just that I find
your charms irresistible and I seem to be forgetting myself.” Then he hailed an
approaching cab and ushered her inside.