Rough Hard Fierce (Chicago Underground Boxed Set)(125)

By: Skye Warren

The bathroom was empty—thank God for small favors. The sound of the door slamming cracked loud in my head, even though surely it wouldn’t be heard above the music. I locked it anyway, turning the little knob. So flimsy, an illusion of safety.

I rested my palms on the counter and stared at myself in the mirror. Blonde hair that I’d straightened this afternoon, sleek and shiny. Makeup—perfect, even though lover boy had slobbered down the side of it. Waterproof stuff, cum-proof stuff—never let them see you sweat.

Even my eyes were steady. Clear. Empty.

I searched my appearance for something, any sign of weakness—none. This was what strength looked like, then. Oh, I had confidence aplenty. I strolled and drawled and acted my fucking heart out, but that was the secret. For me, it had never been an act. I hadn’t been hiding what was inside me. There was nothing inside me.

So what was one more empty promise? If he really cared, he would be here right now. He would have protected me from this. What was one more trick? If the life was all I had, I might as well live it.

I touched up my makeup, just because. My hand trembled only a little, but my face came out flawless, like always. And then there was nothing left to pretend, no way left to stall.

The hallway was still empty, and I started to head back to the sitting area. I heard a sound over the pulse of the music: a muffled cry. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end; my heart began to race.

No big deal. Of course there would be those sounds at a party like this, where women were paid to perform, to endure. Probably she had faked it on purpose. But I knew she hadn’t.

Still, don’t get involved. That was the first rule of staying alive. Even that pitiful kid from yesterday had instinctively understood how it worked: look away, pretend you don’t see, don’t start trouble.

But there it was again, that sound. It curled sharp nails into my gut, signaling danger. Get away.

I had stayed alive for years by keeping to myself. Those latent self-protective instincts were still there, still honed, and yet I couldn’t walk away, couldn’t leave her there without knowing.

I crept down the empty hallway and paused at one closed door. At first there was nothing. I almost turned away, left, but then I heard a moan. A female moan of fake pleasure, and that was fine, just fine. Time to go.

A thud sounded from the end of the hall and then echoed in my chest. Inexorably I walked to the last door, knowing through instinct or experience exactly what was happening here. It didn’t matter the men or the woman; it was always the same. Too much, too fast, too hard. I didn’t know, wasn’t expecting. Too late, bitch.

A tear slid down my cheek. It was more than just my safety at stake here. Get away.

I twisted the knob and pushed the door open a crack, exposing just a sliver of the scene. The face of a girl, her face contorted in fury. The grin of a man. Hands holding down arms. The low sound of laughter. A little slice of hell, and what was I supposed to do about it?

I could do nothing.

This wasn’t a young girl on an empty street corner who could be cured with a fast-food burger and a lifetime of therapy. This was one of Henri’s girls, off-limits for me and mother-fucking-hen Marguerite Faust. No one could help her, just like no one could help me.

I saw her body jerk with purpose. Heard the crack as her kick landed on someone’s skin. The laughter grew louder, more combative.

Shit. She was going to get herself killed that way. Beaten, at the least. Didn’t she know that? Didn’t she care?

But Henri didn’t do hand-holding. Had he recruited this girl fresh out of high school? Given her money she desperately needed to get away, to help her friend, only to indebt herself to him forever? Dumped her at this party without any training or knowledge or a goddamned thing?

This wasn’t about me. I told myself that, but it didn’t help.

I pushed the door open and stepped inside. Four guys, not counting the ones out in the sitting area or my erstwhile boyfriend.

I smiled and set my hips to sway. “Hello, gentlemen. I see you’ve started the party without me.”

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