Beautifully Complicated

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Chapter 6: Maria Maria

My eyes widened at the sight of dozens and dozens of covert listening devices, hidden cameras, and GPS tracking chips covering the surface of the main work table in my floral studio. “Chloe, what on earth?”

“You need to figure out a way to get your employees to wear these so we can …”

“I’m sorry, what? Lo, my people get naked. Butt … ass … naked. Unless you want to get a close-up of your targets sweaty faces and genital regions, I don’t think putting cameras on my employees is going to help you.”

“Fine. Then you’ll have to figure out how to put them in the floral arrangements.”

“Okay, I’ll start tomorrow night.”

“No, you’ll start right now. We have one month. We need to get these out ASAP.”

“Come on, Lo! Even if I hide them …”

When you hide them.”

“Fine, when I hide them, nobody keeps these flowers. They’re just a front.”

“You’re right; they’re a front for you and they’re a front for whoever’s buying them. How do you know that they don’t take them home to their wives to account for lost time or to make up for something they were previously caught doing?”

“And what if they throw them in the trash? What are you going to do, track them all the way down to the city dump?”

“You let me worry about that. You just worry about where to hide them.”

“There isn’t much to worry about. I just toss them in, right?” I shrugged before her cold gaze made my head jerk in bewilderment. “What?”

“Please try to have a little more finesse about concealing them, Haze. You don’t want your customers to think that you’re spying on them.”

“But I’m not spying on them; you are!”

“Oh so if they find them, your plan is to throw me under the bus? Because that works for you how? And please bear in mind that if any of your customers find these devices, they may come after you or possibly your escorts since they are the ones that meet with them every week. You wouldn’t want your boys and girls to end up dead or in the hospital, would you?”

My baby blues zeroed in on hers, but before I could open my mouth again, I heard the voices of Frank and Andreas in the front room. I hurried to push her out of the floral studio and shut the door behind me.

“I mean, dude was like The Exorcist. What all did he drink?”

“You heard my cousin; that wasn’t just the liquor coming out of his ass. I’m just mad that it ended up in the backseat of my car.”

“Wait,” I interjected with raised eyebrows. “Alan threw up in your car?”

His face fell blank. “Threw up is an understatement. That fool spewed enough liquid food to give Gerber a run for its money and feed all the starving babies of the world.”

“Eww, Frankie, that’s gross.”

“Cousin, you didn’t have to clean it. Thankfully Andreas helped out.”

“You already know I got your back.”

“Aww, isn’t this cute? A little male bonding,” I teased as they smirked at me. “I’m sure you’re tired, Andreas. You can call it a night for now, and thank you for your help.”

“No problem.”

“Uh, hold up, cousin. Me and Chloe need to talk to him for a minute. We can lock up for you if you want.”

“We do?” Chloe asked puzzled. When Frank winked at her, the groan that left her mouth made me wide-eyed with concern. “You told him.”

“We needed an in.”

“Yeah, well now we have two,” she notified, nodding in my direction. “Thanks for having faith in me, big brother.”

“It’s not about having faith in you; it’s about ensuring that we don’t have to talk to our cousin through plated glass!”

“How could you guys bring Andreas into this? He’s just a kid!”

“He’s eighteen, so by law, he’s old enough to legally make his own decisions.”

“Mrs. Donato, I’m okay. Trust me.”

“You’re okay? How are you okay with this?”

“Because of what you told me.”

“What I told you?”

“Yeah. At the hotel,” Andreas hinted as Chloe and Frank gawked curiously. “You said you wanted out, but you didn’t know how you were going to do that without letting everybody down. This is the way. They’re protecting all of us, and freeing you at the same time.”

“My freedom isn’t something you should be worried about, Andreas.”

“I worry about the people I care about. Your problems are my problems.”

Frank released a heavy chuckle as Chloe and I shared a baffled, yet amused, look. “He’s a loyal little worker bee, isn’t he?”


After a few hours of deliberating, the four of us finally decided that it would be best to place our sneaky little pieces of technology on the baskets and such, since my customers were more likely to hang on to the containers the arrangements came in rather than the flowers or wine or food that came in them. And, with Hollywood being the town of glitz, glitter, and glamor, it was easy to disguise the tiny cameras, bugs, and trackers as black jewels by surrounding them with dozens of decorative glass. As soon as we wrapped dainty bows around them, we all agreed that they were picture perfect.

“There’s no way these little beauties are getting tossed in the garbage. They’ll make it into everyone’s homes for sure.”

“How are we going to keep this from the rest of the staff?”

“Easy; don’t tell them. They’ll never suspect a thing as long as you keep your cool. Their safety, and yours, depends on your ability to do that.”

A faint flutter of a touch ran across my hand. It was Andreas. When I looked up into his big brown eyes, they smiled at me.

“We can do this, Mrs. Donato. And if you ever feel like you might slip, don’t worry. I got you. I mean, that’s what I’m here for. That’s why they picked me … to help you.”

“Actually, my brother chose you because he was worried I wasn’t going to be able to convince Hazel to go along.”

“Chloe, give it a rest. Your enthusiasm is extremely appreciated, kid. It gives me a little more confidence in the fact that we might actually be able to get the job done, and you will all be free and clear. Keep your eyes on the prize, and we’ll see y’all bright and early tomorrow. 8AM, right cousin?”

I nodded. “Same as it always is.”

“Ooh, Haze, before I forget to tell you … I don’t want you to be taken by surprise if ever this comes across your desk.”

“What now, Lo?”

“Frank and I have scheduled an extra thirty minutes in between everyone’s rounds, so our agents can wire the hotel rooms before each appointment.”

“Why do I get the feeling that there are going to be a lot of pornos for sale in the near future? You guys are perverts!”

“No, no, no. We are thorough. If we’re going to make our case, we need all the surveillance we can get. We’ll filter through the bullshit later, but right now, we’re collecting everything. See you later,” she waved before her and Frank got into their separate cars and drove off the lot.

Andreas and I spent a few moments standing in silence, until I couldn’t take it anymore. I had enough to worry about with readjusting to life without Lorenzo, and running the business on my own, and the Diamond Secret Society of Psychos, and now secretly working to bust my client base to save my own ass from going to jail. It was already too much, so the last thing I needed was to worry about Andreas being in harm’s way! I had to say something, something to make him change his mind.

“I really think you should reconsider being involved, Andreas. You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. And your mother will have me killed if something happens to you!”

“I spend my entire work day in the shop with you, Mrs. Donato. What’s going to happen to me? Besides, if it’s so dangerous, then why are you doing it?”

“So y’all don’t have to!”

“And I’m doing it so you don’t have to do it alone. Three years I’ve worked with you, Mrs. Donato. Three years under you, and I’ve always had your back. Now, I’ve been given the opportunity to stand beside you, to walk through the trenches with you, and I’m taking it.”

I searched the sky for the sense in his logic. Yeah, no, there wasn’t any. “What are you talking about, Andreas?”

“Your husband is a coward.”

“Andreas!”

“He left you with the weight of this shop, us, and all the secrets held therein. You didn’t come into this alone, so you shouldn’t have to go through this alone, and if you need someone to accompany you to the end of this winding road, I want to be that man.”

My eyebrows bunched into clueless peaks. I didn’t know where this bravado – or whatever he called himself having – was coming from, and in all honesty, I was too tired to keep asking. I barely had enough energy to drive home; I definitely didn’t have enough energy to continue such a wildly awkward conversation.

“You look beat, Mrs. Donato. Do you need a ride home?”

“No, dear. I should be fine, but I think it’s best if I start driving there now.”

“Me too. I’ll follow you.”

My eyes sprung open. “I’m sorry, what? Why?”

“To make sure you get home safe. Why else?” he laughed. “I would never forgive myself if you fell asleep at the wheel or something when I could have easily kept an eye on you.”

“Uh, Andreas, you’re very sweet, but all that is not necessary.”

“Sure it is. I’m your personal assistant, and I am personally assisting you home,” he said as he opened my car door. “I’ll be right behind you.”


The loneliness that once filled my spirit when I woke up alone in my bed had been swiftly replaced by an intense anxiety. Stepping out of my car to walk up to the bright faces of my staff didn’t help any; all I could think about was how there was another secret hidden behind my eyes, one that wasn’t going into The Vault, and one that couldn’t be discussed in the meeting. I noticed as Frank, Chloe, and Andreas attempted to act normal while watching me from their peripherals. It was like they were waiting for me to crack, expecting it. I could feel the sweat bead up on my forehead, but then I realized … maybe they weren’t the ones being weird. Maybe it was me.

I closed my eyes as I unlocked the shop’s door, and took a deep breath. The contraction that lessened the pressure in my chest, the soothing sound of my own breathing, helped me relax a little. I set the breakfast spread down for everyone to dive into, but as I saw Chenoa and Alan opt out of eating, I motioned for them to follow me to my office.

I could tell they were still feeling the after effects of the partying they did the day before. Part of me wanted to take it easy on them, but on the other hand, I knew that if I let them off easy, my other workers would think they could all make their own rules … and I couldn’t have that. There was only so much I could monitor on my own in the midst of so much crazy.

“So, which of you would like to start explaining?”

“I shouldn’t have to explain anything,” Alan stood as my eyebrows shot up to my hairline. “I was officially off the clock.”

“You’re officially off the clock when you follow procedure. Does that not include the final check-in of the day?”

“Oh, come on, man. That’s a technicality.”

“A technicality that is extremely important in this business! Do you understand that if you don’t keep in contact with us, and something happens to you, I’ve failed you as your employer? You could have been lying in a damn ditch … robbed … or raped … or dismembered … and I would have never known it because you didn’t check in to let us know you were safe! That is the business we’re in, kids! We cannot afford stupid mistakes like not checking in or meeting up with our clients outside of the restraints within this company. And what the hell were you doing meeting up with him anyway? I don’t care if you were off the clock, which while we’re on the subject, Chenoa …”

“I already said that Judd Payton makes me feel uncomfortable, so since nobody listened to me, I skipped him.”

“I’m sorry, what? You never told me Judd Payton made you feel uncomfortable. Since when?”

“I called it in one day and told it to Chloe. She said after that appointment, she would schedule him with someone else, and she never did. I’m not going to keep compromising myself because he’s supposed to be a high-level client.”

“High-level … What the hell? Why am I just hearing about all of this now? You know what? Nevermind. Listen, if you ever have a problem with a client on your schedule, you know that I have an open door policy. You could have easily came and talked to me, but you didn’t, so how about you tell me what the real problem is.”

“I don’t want to lose my job because you’re all tore up about going through a divorce.”

“So you decided to sabotage your job instead?” I questioned as Alan dubiously gawked in Chenoa’s direction. Her face, which previously held firm in her convictions, began to quiver. “Oh, don’t tell me you thought you couldn’t get fired from this job?”

“You wouldn’t fire us. You couldn’t. We know too much about this place. We can go to the authorities, to the press … We could bury this place with what we know.”

I smirked. I figured that was the route she was going to take, but I had hoped she wouldn’t have. Oh, well. “You know what, sweetheart? You’re right. You could bury this place with what you know, and a lot of other people too. Your co-workers, the celebrities you service … Some of those celebrities have records. Some have secret lifestyles they prefer to keep hidden, which of course is why they come to us, because we take care of them. Now, if you were to go and run your mouth to … anybody … what do you think they would do? Do you think you know more crooked cops than they do? Do you think that you’re more connected in this city than they are? Prostitution is still illegal, doll face, and those clients that you would so easily rat out would have no problem going to the police and blowing the whistle on you just to save their own asses. Trust me, threatening me is not the card you want to play right now.”

“Oh, but you can threaten me? Me and Alan?”

“Leave me out of this.”

“I’m not threatening you, dear. It was simply a warning. And here’s another one: if I were you, I wouldn’t come in to work for the next couple of days. You won’t be on the schedule. You either, Alan.”

“What?”

“Consider it a vacation. I’ll call you both when this calms down and when I feel that you are in the proper mindset to return to work.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Oh no?” I challenged before rising from my chair to open my office door. “I would say grab some food on your way out, but since y’all don’t look like you can hold anything down, your best bet might be to grab some coffee. Enjoy your vacation. I’ll be in touch.”

Chenoa furiously glared me down as she stomped through the shop into the parking lot. I rolled my eyes, unfazed by her childish antics. If nothing else, she would know for future reference to not write checks that her ass couldn’t cash.

“Hey, Mrs. Donato?” Alan softly called, pausing in front me. “This wouldn’t happen to be a paid vacation, would it?”

“Have a safe drive home.”

His nod was solemn and full of regret. I followed him on his way out, and viewed the ghastly looks on everyone’s face. I imagined it was because of the fact that I had never sent anyone home before or placed someone on suspension, but when I looked up as Alan stopped to shake hands with a figure at the door, I realized the real reason for their alarmed expressions.

“Lorenzo.”

“Hey, Hazel. Can I borrow you for a minute?”

“Ha! You must be joking.”

“My mother told me to stop by.”

“Well you can tell her that I told you to go to hell. She can join you there if she likes.”

“Is that really necessary?”

“Lorenzo, what do you want?”

“I want to talk to you.”

“I’m busy.”

“Well when are you not busy?”

“The day after never.”

“Do you really want to do this here?”

“You’re the one who came here! Isn’t that question better suited for you rather than me?”

His heavy sigh and head shaking in disappointment didn’t seem to bother the temperature of the room. “I have something really important to discuss with you, but I guess it can wait. I’ll stop by later.”

“Fine. Goodbye,” I shooed off as he sulked out of the door. “We will have our meeting in a few moments. Until then, everybody enjoy their food, and Chloe? I need to see you in my office. Right now.”

Frank and Andreas suspiciously stared as she slowly rose to trail at my heels. Once we got to the threshold, I let her walk ahead of me to sit down as I closed the door. By the unease consuming her face, I knew she could tell that I was as mad as a hornet.

“How dare you? How dare you interfere with my business and my staff’s well-being?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Chenoa said she wasn’t comfortable during her appointments with Judd Payton. She said she voiced that discomfort to you, and you told her some bullshit about him being a high-level client! The entire client base is A-listers; they’re all high-level! We don’t have special clients. We don’t give special treatment …”

“Okay, would you like to hear me explain.”

“Please. By all means.”

“Judd is one of the people we have our eye on. After she told me about the things he was doing to her …”

“I’m sorry, what? Wait a minute. What do you mean the things he was doing to her? What things?”

“Do you remember when she said that some celebrities treat them like they’re sex slaves and none of them should have to compromise their sense of self to please their customers? Well, I talked to her after that meeting and asked if there was any other motivation behind that speech, and she told me that she doesn’t like how Judd’s version of role play is having her dress like Pocahontas while he overexerts John Smith.”

“Overexerts how?”

“He’s forceful, to the point that it feels … hateful, like he’s acting out some twisted rape fantasy. It takes her out of her comfort zone and throws her off her game with the rest of her clients.”

“Oh my God.”

“I’m not done, Haze. She said that the last time she was with him, he tried to brand her.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Yeah, with a ring, a ring in the shape of an eye.”

“You knew all this and you were keeping her on the schedule with him?”

“I had agents watching her every time she met with him. I didn’t leave her unattended. She was still safe.”

“I don’t care! She didn’t feel safe, Lo. She didn’t know you had people watching her; all she knew was that she told you what was going on, assumed that you told me, and since nothing was done, she felt neglected. I can’t have that happening to her or any of my people. I need them to know that I back them wholeheartedly. It’s important to me that all my workers feel safe.”

“Okay! Okay, Haze, you’re right. I threw a monkey wrench in your operation. I get it, and I’m sorry, but listen. My office suspects that Judd is involved in a human trafficking ring, one that participates in the branding of prostitutes, and the women that have come forward, or the ones that we’ve found dead, have been marked with a watchful eye symbol. The same watchful eye that was on the ring Chenoa said Judd tried to brand her with.”

“Oh my God! I didn’t know. Oh God, I didn’t know.”

“I know you didn’t, but that’s just one of the cases your shop is helping us bust. I understand you’re worried, but this is what we have to do. This is what it takes to bring down the bad guys and clear the people you love.”

What a life. I agreed to team up with Chloe and Frank just so I could be put in the same life or death position I’m already in with the Diamond Secret Society? Does the universe hate me right now, or what? “I’m not … putting … my girls at risk so you can catch the bad guys, Lo.”

“You’re telling me that you don’t have a girl who’s trained to handle herself?”

Trained to handle herself? I run a sex escort service, not the damn U.S. Marine Corps! This is the business of sex and sweet nothings and sucking up secrets like a sponge. Nowhere in the job description have I ever put: Must be able to kick some ass if you come across a potential murderer or low-key pimp! You just said this guy is branding females and putting them in a trafficking ring, and you want me to send a girl to him that can handle herself. I tell you what, Lo; why don’t you and your office have one of your trained lady agents act as one of ours, and I’ll send them, ’kay? Because I’m not putting my girls in harm’s way. There’s no way in hell.”

“Hmm,” she hummed, and when her eyes traveled the room with a slick grin, I knew something was up. I just hoped it was something I would like. “You might have a point there, baby cousin. I’ll make some calls. Are we done here?”

“What? No, we’re not done here! How can you … So that’s it? I tell you get one of your agents to stand in, and you’ve got one on standby, just like that? There’s somebody willing to jump in and have sex with somebody just because?”

“Isn’t that what y’all do here for a living? Going undercover, doing what we have to do to get the job done, that’s what we do for a living. Now, let’s get back out here and have this meeting before the crew suspects something.”

Of course, that was easier said than done. Before I could even get a word in edgewise, everyone was bubbling with questions. So much for a regular meeting.

“What happened with Chenoa and Alan?”

“Are they coming back?”

“Why was Lorenzo here? Is he coming back?”

“How come my rounds are starting later than usual?”

“Yours too?”

“Okay, you guys, if you want me to answer, you have to let me talk. This is not how we usually do business.”

Usual flew out the window when secret meetings and ex-husbands flew in,” Cam sassed. “You’ve always prided yourself on being straight with us, Mrs. Donato, but right now it seems like things are changing all around us and you’re not saying anything! So, you know what? I’m going to say it. What the hell is going on here?”

I sighed and shook my head. Aww, hell. “Chenoa and Alan chose to endanger themselves and bypass protocol to do their own thing yesterday, so today, they are being reprimanded.”

“Wait,” Jasper whispered over to Sebastian. “We can be reprimanded at this job?”

“Yes, you can, and yes, they are coming back. I just can’t tell you when right now. As for my soon-to-be ex-husband … well, hell. Y’all heard the conversation. I don’t know anymore than you do.”

“If he wanted to come back, would you let him?” Ana asked as everyone edgily awaited my answer, an answer I wasn’t sure that I was equip to give. So, in the midst of my uncertainty, I told the truth.

“I don’t know. But I do know this: in order for us to continue to be successful, we, as a team, need to stick to the rules. That means check in regularly. Don’t meet with customers outside of your schedules. Don’t even give them your phone numbers, other contact information, nothing. If they have a desire to talk to you when you’re not on the clock or otherwise occupied for any damn reason, they can call here and leave a message.”

“And our rounds?” Hiro noted again. “Why have they been readjusted? One appointment has me in Beverly Hills, then I’m going to Calabasas just to drive all the way out to El Segundo, and come right back here to Hollywood. Each one of those trips is a good forty-five minutes a piece! What happened to keeping all the sessions close by?”

“Uh, well … they’ve been readjusted to, uh … to …”

“To give us enough time to troubleshoot the situation with a client if anybody else decides to pull a no-show like Chenoa and Alan did yesterday,” Andreas stepped in. “It’s just an extra precaution so something like that never happens again.”

“Exactly. And while we’re on the subject of changes around here, we have a new look for our floral arrangements. They’re encrusted in jewels. It’s a new look … for a new us. Now, does anybody have anything to report? Yes, Jade?”

“Just a heads up, you might get a call from Martin Hillard. He said he was invited to another one of those elusive Serpents & Sirens parties, and he wanted to know how to go about asking for my presence there. I told him to call here, but I also see him again today. Is there anything you want me to tell him.”

Both the gentleman and the event names were familiar to me. Martin Hillard was the billionaire owner of a Fortune 500 company, and the Serpents & Sirens party was an invitation-only sexcapade of the wildest kind … or at least that’s what I had heard. There were a lot of rumors in this town about an S&S affair, but no one could really account for what went on at those parties unless they had been there, and the people who had been there … were not supposed to say a word about them. It was top secret, kind of like our operation, which made sense as to why Martin felt an ease in telling Jade.

Initially, I had my mouth all set to say no, no, and Hell no … but when I looked over to the left and saw my two older cousins’ eyes bulging at me, visually nudging me, different words came out. “Just remind him to make the call here to speak to me. In the meantime, let me take a minute to think about it. Anything else?”

“I have a question,” Darius raised. “Who’s filling in for Chenoa and Alan? Can we pick up extra shifts? I’ll be glad to take on Alan’s female clients until he comes back, but you’ll have to find somebody else for his guy friends. I don’t swing that way.”

“I do!” Thomas waved with a goofy grin that encouraged everyone to laugh. “You can swing them right over here.”

“All right, all right. I’m not entirely sure how we’re divvying that up. Uh, Chloe? Frank? Do either of you know how many clients they have on the schedule today?
“To be honest, cousin, when you pulled them to your office, Talia and I already saw their suspension coming, so we cleared their schedules.”

“I’m sorry, what? I mean, I appreciate you two showing initiative, but damn! What … do we even have enough complimentary arrangements to do that?”

“We’ll check on that, and whatever we don’t have, we’ll make. Don’t worry, cousin. We’re on top of it. Chenoa’s first appointment isn’t until noon, and Alan’s isn’t until one, so we still have time.”

“Ooooooookay. If y’all say so, I’ll trust you to run with it. Just … please make sure you get it done. I can’t afford anymore mishaps. Any other pressing business?” I asked as they all shook their heads in opposition. “Good. Well, finish up your breakfast and I will load your deliveries in your cars.”

“You want me to help, Mrs. Donato?” Andreas volunteered with a smile. It was an offer that he had been making ever since the day Lorenzo bailed on me. Our employees were used to seeing me and Lorenzo do things together, and now, they were trying to get used to seeing me do things all by myself, or rely more on them … which Andreas did not seem to mind … for some odd reason.

I wanted to thank him. When I almost lost my footing at the start of the meeting, he could have left me to look stupid, but he didn’t. He saw me drop the ball, picked it up, and delivered a winning shot. Thank you just didn’t seem good enough, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so after we loaded the last box in its respective car, he walked back inside and I waved to my fleet of delivery people as they drove off the lot to their destinations.

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