Muse took the large, crumpled wad of bills from her pocket on her way home from working at the diner. She was at the back of the bus and trying to hide the cash in the same way a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge would hoard his gold coins. Thinking that her haul would have been much more impressive if they hadn’t consisted mostly of singles, she sighed and took the lone twenty-dollar bill out with five singles and stuffed them into her purse. It was her money for next month’s monthly bus pass, and if she hadn’t gone to the Human Services Agency office to apply for the low-income pass, she would have easily had to pay three times the amount each month. There was something to be said for being nearly destitute.
Every penny counted nowadays. And to think that it could have been ten times worse if she hadn’t applied for all those grants for her schooling. Of course, that was before she’d had to quit to work full-time in order to try and save up enough money to save their family home.
Walking into her house forty-five minutes later, her back and feet aching from her ten-hour shift, she took the rest of her cash and placed it into the mason jar she kept in her bedroom. At the end of the month, she would bring it all to the bank to be put into larger denominations and give the majority of it to her father in order to pay their mortgage. The rest went to bills and groceries.
The family was already months behind on their mortgage, and the bank was increasing their threats of foreclosing if they didn’t make up the difference soon.
Drew walked into the open door of her bedroom and watched as she put the mason jar away in the back of her underwear drawer. It lay underneath layers of panties that had seen better days. She couldn’t remember the last time she had gone shopping for essential items like panties and bras. She was expecting the elastic in her waistbands to finally throw up their hands in defeat at her and become completely unraveled. Then she’d probably be forced to go commando. Not a great concept to think about. If there was one thing she took for granted, it was her underwear.
“What was the haul this time?” Drew asked her.
Though he was 24 years old and three years Muse’s senior, he still lived at home so that he could care for their disabled father and help pay the bills. If it hadn’t been for Drew, they would have been homeless years ago.
Not that their father had helped much. He had waited far too long to approach his children for help with the mortgage. Had they known that their house was on the brink of foreclosure, they would have done anything to help when their finances had first started to take a nosedive into the red.
“About $120, give or take,” Muse informed her brother. “That’s after I took out my monthly bus pass for May.”
“Not bad,” Drew remarked, shrugging. It was true. There were many days that she could fare much worse, and some days she hardly brought anything but her hourly wage home. Those were the days she usually got stuck with a table that ate and ran, “forgetting” to pay their tab on the way out. Of course, it was always the server’s fault, and it came out of her own tip money.
“Yeah, we might be able to add an extra two to three hundred dollars on past months’ payments,” she told him. Every little bit counted.
“Hey, Dad mentioned something about wanting to speak to us after I got home from work today,” Drew informed her.
“What did he say?” she asked.
“Nothing yet. He wanted to wait until we were both here,” Drew explained.
“You don’t think the bank is going to go through with it yet, do you?” Muse nibbled her bottom lip, worrying the sensitive skin there until it was almost raw. It was a habit she had accrued over years of struggling to make ends meet.
One day she was going to end up chewing her lips right off her damned face.
“I don’t think so. He hasn’t mentioned getting any mildly threatening letters in inexplicable legalese, at least.”
It was the habit of their mortgage company to threaten them with imminent foreclosure in a language that was almost unintelligible to anyone without some knowledge of the real estate world. It went way above both Drew’s and Muse’s collective heads.
“Well I’m here now,” she told him, moving toward the door. “Is he awake?”
“Nope,” Drew told her, popping the ‘P’. “Vicodin.”
It was all Drew needed to say. Since their father had been injured on the job ten years ago, all the settlement money had slowly dwindled to nothing, but the amount of pain he was in all the time had only increased in intensity.
After a fall at a construction site that broke two of their father’s vertebrae, the man had been given increasingly larger doses of Vicodin from his primary care physician. He was on the maximum amount as it was now, and it barely allowed him enough pain-free existence to sleep at night. The next step up would be Percocet.
“Well, I’m going to head to bed, big bro,” Muse told him. “Love ya.”
“Love ya, sis,” he told her before heading back toward his tiny bedroom in the basement.
Before their mother had passed, their father had been looking into getting a bigger home to accommodate their two small children. After Adelina’s untimely death, the little nest egg they had scrimped and saved for to purchase a larger abode had gone to funeral arrangements and daycare for his little ones while Bryant worked at the construction company.
Muse stripped herself of her work clothes after closing her bedroom door. She grabbed a threadbare tank top and matching shorts set she had gotten for her sweet 16 over five years ago and frowned. Pretty soon she would have to throw them out or reuse them as rags to polish the few nice pieces of wooden furniture that were scattered willy-nilly throughout the house.
Muse was tired. Tired of being poor. Tired of having to live hand to mouth day after day for years on end. Most of their food came from the dollar store unless they needed to purchase milk, eggs, or meat. None of them had bought new clothing in years, and Muse often had to mend the few articles of clothing she still owned numerous times over just to make them presentable.
Her father was completely disabled, and the two vertebrae, though healed now, had been fused together by a spinal surgeon so that his range of motion didn’t allow for any of his previous skills to be of any use to him. He was virtually unemployable and would be on SDI for the remainder of his life.
Muse thought that maybe if she’d had a better body, she could make bank at one of the sleazy strip clubs in the city. Tampa didn’t look it, but it boasted many strip joints and gentleman’s clubs that some of the more fortunate men in society frequented on the regular. She heard the tips there would have paid her mortgage and then some.
She’d probably even be able to rent a nice little studio or one-bedroom apartment for herself. Directly after her father kicked her right the fuck out of the house after finding out how she made the money that kept food in their mouths and a roof over their heads.
Then again, he probably wouldn’t even care if she did strip for money. He barely looked, much less spoke, to his daughter. The most he had to say to her was a gruff “thank you” at the end of the month when she offered up all her hard-earned cash to keep them afloat—or at least housed.
In actuality, Muse wasn’t a bad-looking girl. She wasn’t super thing or have curves to die for, but her body was alright. None of her ex-boyfriends had ever complained, at any rate.
She was on the short side at five feet, two inches tall, with chestnut brown hair and hazel eyes. From looking at old photo albums, she was the spitting image of her mother at age 21, the year her parents had started to date.
Bryant Anderson wasn’t exactly neglectful of either of his children either. He was just passive. He let them live their lives, and they didn’t bother him except during mealtimes and when the bills needed to be paid. Their one luxury was that they all had cell phones. They were cheap and had crappy service, but they were more of a necessity than an actual privilege. Living and working in the city came with its own set of difficulties and dangers.
While Muse waited tables for nickels and pennies, her older brother worked underneath the hoods of Mercedes and Porsches for a living. The family had one car, which was kept in the garage unless absolutely needed. That was usually for some of the numerous doctor’s appointments their father attended monthly.
Still, she felt they had to be grateful for what they had. Some couldn’t say that they had a home to go to, or running water, or three square meals a day. Look at the myriad of homeless that lined the streets of many of Florida’s larger cities.
Before the housing crisis ten years earlier, many of the same folks you saw lining the sidewalks outside of Starbucks and Walgreens begging for change had homes. They may have had a small rental home or a room they leased from the owner, but it was a home at any rate. So, Muse didn’t feel like she should complain much. Or hate on anyone. She reserved that emotion for a very few and very select individuals.
Like the people who owned and operated CB Construction. She didn’t know who they were, but they were trying to eat up all the real estate in her part of town to build some huge mega-mall.
Just what the world needed—another Nordstrom or Bloomingdales to cater to the wealthy elite. With their overpriced apparel and food courts full of fake Chinese fare and mediocre pizza, this town needed another mall like it needed another thousand indigents lining the streets outside the welfare office, hoping for a spare crumb.
Just like the bank, CB Construction had reached out to the Andersons on many occasions, hoping to buy out the house to make room for the parking lot of the future mall. They said they would give them enough money to find a smaller house further outside the city, and they wouldn’t have to bother with paying a mortgage. They would own their new home outright.
While Muse almost wished her father would take them up on the offer, she also understood that this house held memories of her mother. Memories that the whole family held onto for the many years since her passing, and no amount of cold, hard cash could buy back those happy times. They were everything their father had left of Adelina, and he treasured them.
Or at least some of those memories were happy, Muse was sure. The times that her mother was alive and with her father. She sometimes listened in at his door as he pushed in another old VCR tape to watch. He’d bought a video recorder secondhand the year the two young lovers got engaged, and used it frequently afterward. She could sometimes hear her mother’s muffled laughter and the voice of her father on those tapes. Muse wished with everything in her that her father would share those memories with her one day.
As things were, she was almost certain that her father blamed her somehow for her mother’s death. She had died while giving birth to Muse, after all. What was worse than looking at the cause of such heartbreak and having it grow up right in front of you? She was a constant reminder of the woman he had loved and lost.
And not once. Not one time had her father ever told her he loved her. Maybe he did in his own fashion but was too afraid to say anything. Maybe he was afraid to love someone who resembled his late wife too much. Maybe he was afraid to love deeply again at all. Muse could only conjecture. She would never dare ask him.
But still, she loved him. He was her only parent, and while he paid as much attention to her as he did the mailman who came by at one PM every day but on Sundays, he must have felt something towards her, right?
Muse hoped so. If he didn’t, then why even bother to have raised her under his roof? Why even raise his daughter and son at all?
The next morning, Muse and Drew ate silently at the breakfast table while they waited for their father to awaken and speak with them. Drew would be going into the shop in another hour, but Muse had the day off. In all honesty, she would have rather been working. They needed the money desperately.
It was nearing the end of the month, and she was going to take that day to head to the bank and exchange all her dollars bills into something less bulky. Preferably into many crisp one-hundred-dollar bills. Hopefully a few more than last month.
The two of them heard the shuffling of slippered feet as their father made his way into the kitchen to grab himself something to eat. He always moved painfully slowly around the house ever since the accident that practically crippled him and made his life a three-ring circus of pain and the medications to drive that agony away.
As usual, there was very little talk in the morning. Muse was almost done with her cereal when she heard her father clear his throat as she stared at the last few dregs in her bowl.
“Your brother tell you that I wanted to talk with you this morning?” Bryant Anderson’s voice was gruff, his demeanor icy, as it always was with his youngest child.
Muse simply nodded and looked back down at her bowl of soggy breakfast.
“Well, we’re having company tonight,” Bryant told them over his steaming bowl of oatmeal with sliced banana. “Important company, so I need the house cleaned and both of you dressed well for dinner.”
Muse and Drew looked at each other in shock before Drew took the proverbial wheel. “Who’s coming to dinner?” he asked, his voice merely curious.
“Some bigshot shithead from CB Construction,” the man told them with a sigh. If Muse would have had the presence of mind to think about it, she would have realized he sounded a bit defeated.
“What? Why?” She couldn’t help asking, as she knew that her father had no wishes of coming to an agreement with the company that was trying to offer them money for the land their house currently sat upon.
“Because I say so, young lady,” her father bit out as he placed another spoonful of oatmeal to his mouth. “I expect you to be obedient and listen to your father so long as you’re living in his house.”
Yeah, the house Drew and I pay for, Muse thought bitterly to herself. The house I quit college for so that we could have a roof over our heads.
What was worse was that her father spoke about himself in the third person. Like her real father was somewhere that wasn’t in their home at the moment. It was a depressing thought, and she wondered just why again. Why would he even bother not giving her up for adoption as soon as her mother had passed? He certainly hadn’t seemed to see her as much more than another mouth to feed for most of her life.
“Well I hope whoever is coming isn’t expecting lobster and caviar,” Muse remarked wryly. She tried to push away the hurt she felt at his indifference to her and used her ready sarcasm to dull the sting. “I could make pot roast or some chicken marsala if that’s okay with His Highness over at CB construction.”
“Either would be fine,” her father told her offhandedly before blowing on another spoonful of hot cereal. “And go to the store and get some wine or something. I don’t know what would go better with what, but I trust you to make a decent selection.”
Food was the only time her father ever complimented her, though why he bothered at all was up for debate. Muse guessed that the way to a man’s heart was truly through his stomach.
If only she had been born as Rachel Ray.
“I’ll go to the store in a little bit,” Muse asserted. “I have to hit the bank anyway.” Of course, the money that was going to go to the mortgage on the house would be a little depleted after this run to the store to buy wine and food for dinner tonight. She was already regretting this dinner and she hadn’t even started to think about which dish to make. She would let the sales on meat at the store make her decision for her.
The three of them finished the rest of their meal in silence as per usual, but Muse knew from the look in her father’s eyes that this upcoming dinner didn’t portend anything good for them.
Clayton Bennett III was going to the store himself that day. He had forgotten that he had given his housekeeper the day off to go visit her sister, who was laid up with a broken ankle after slipping on wet leaves in her own damned driveway.
When he had realized she was gone and he was left to fend for himself, he went out for breakfast and then headed to the store to grab some items he was running low on.
He wasn’t thinking about the deal he wanted to make later that night, nor was he contemplating the upcoming project that would follow if everything went well after the conclusion of it either. He was thinking about something completely different.
At 32 years old, one would think that they’d have let go of the reigns a bit more with him, but that wasn’t the case. They had been nagging him for quite some time, reminding him of a certain situation that needed to be dealt with before he would be able to take over the family business completely. It was something that he had been trying to get them to do for a couple of years now, but they were firm. He either found himself a wife and settled down and had kids, or they would continue to hold the majority of shares in the company.
Clay knew better, though. They only wanted the family name to continue. His father would be damned if he let the company be bought out or sold if the name Bennett didn’t go right along with it. His own father had worked too hard building it from the ground up to watch it go to anyone but family. It was his legacy.
As Clay shopped—or rather perused—the liquor aisle, he saw a flash of long, shiny hair being whipped around as a woman who was kneeling near the ground in the wine section stood up.
Looking over at what caught his attention, he saw a girl. No—a young woman. She was nibbling on her lips as she held two bottles of wine in her hand.
To be honest, she looked barely legal enough to drink.
Pretending to pick up his own bottle of liquor, he watched as she worried her lip over which wine to buy before she put the bottle of red away and placed the white into her shopping cart. Then the woman turned in his direction, and he caught a full view of her.
That’s when his breath caught in his chest.
She wasn’t gorgeous in any traditional way, but she was stunning to him nonetheless.
Her hair was a dark brown and cascaded down over the top of her shoulder blades in silky waves. The lips she had nibbled on were deep pink and full, and he wondered if that was from her biting at them, or if they were always that naturally plump. She was neither thin nor stout, and her breasts were generous.
As she walked closer to him looking at other brands of liquor, she stopped again and bit down on the corner of her lip again.
Clay’s manhood twitched in his pants when he saw her do that, and he suddenly wished he could do the same to her mouth. Her lips looked as succulent as fresh berries.
The woman’s phone rang as if a message had been sent to her, and she pulled the battered-looking thing out of her ratty purse. She smiled as she read whatever was there, and the simple gesture lit up her face. The look of worry vanished as if it had never been there in the first place.
The girl’s teeth were even and white, and a small dimple dented her left cheek near her mouth. Her clothing wasn’t much to look at, but then again, who wore anything nice when shopping for groceries?
Still, her t-shirt was worn and faded in places that were usually not liable to fade, and the thin material made the outline of her bra underneath it very noticeable.
So maybe it was shopping and laundry day maybe. That made sense. She was set to do her laundry after she got home with her purchases and had worn some of her older clothing that was still clean.
Looking at the girl as she put away her phone and started heading towards him again, he was about to say something to her when his own cart was jolted noisily and crashed into his hip.
He looked over to see a small child with one of those mini shopping carts that some of the stores had for the little ones to play with so they didn’t wander too far away from their parents. Damn, he hated those carts. They always ended running over his feet while he tried to hide the wince behind a smile as the kid’s parent apologized profusely.
Whoever had invented those carts needed to be drug out into the street and shot—preferably after having every inch of his body pulverized by tiny mini carts driven by sugar-high toddlers.
As always, the woman that was with the tyke started to apologize while Clayton assured her it was okay and that he still had all ten toes. She kept apologizing and then started calling out to the little boy. whose name was apparently Jeffrey. She called to him so loudly, he was certain the entire store was now very well aware that a little boy named Jeffrey was going to “get it” when he got home.
When Clay was finally able to move away from the woman and her hazard of a son, he looked around to try and locate the girl with the bottle of wine and lush lips.
But she was nowhere to be found.
By the time Clay made it home, his friend and personal assistant, Jim, was sitting on his couch and going over some documents for that evening.
Jim Lavezzo also lived in the mansion, but had slept in a bit when he found out that Clay was taking the day off. He sometimes did that on Fridays or Mondays in preparation for important meetings.
“Do you think the man will cave this time?” Jim asked without looking up from the paperwork.
“I hope so. From what I’ve been hearing, he’s practically penniless.” Clay frowned at the obstinacy of the man they were talking about. Why Mr. Anderson was being so difficult about selling his property, he didn’t know. Some people were just too damned stubborn for their own good.
“His kids have been paying the bills to keep them afloat,” Jim informed him.
“How did you find that out?” Clay questioned, a brow rising in surprise.
“That man, Hatchett. The one with the crossed eyes? He used to work with Anderson and says he still talks to him on occasion. His daughter left college so she could get a full-time job to help pay the bills. Smart girl she was, too. A shame really.”
“What happened to the wife?” Clay asked, ignoring the remark about the man’s daughter.
“Died giving birth to the girl. Hemorrhaged right on the operating table,” Jim told him. “Anderson was distraught. Loved his wife to bits, they say.”
“Right,” Clay replied dismissively as he brought his bag of groceries into the kitchen.
Clay didn’t hold much faith in love. Or marriage, for that matter. Just look at his parents. If they were so in love, why would both of them be sleeping with other people?
Fidelity was obviously for pussy-whipped romantics.
Still, if Clay ever did marry, he wouldn’t be able to find it in himself to be unfaithful. He didn’t strive to be just like his parents. Fighting during the day and then turning to other lovers by night.
Yes, if Clay was to marry, it would be for looks only. Someone who was sexy but kind. Good-looking, yet not so beautiful that he would have to fight off other men for her attentions. He needed someone who could be content with his icy demeanor and yet warm him up in bed at night.
In other words, he needed a trophy wife.
Someone maybe like the woman in the grocery store? It was a possibility. In fact, the best possibility he had seen yet. At least no one else had yet to stir in him what that woman had with her lush lips and brilliant smile.
Damned grocery stores and their fucking mini-carts. If it hadn’t been for that rogue four-year-old and his overly apologetic mother, she could have been warming his bed this very night.
Clay knew he was a good-looking man. He was tan and built, spending many hours a week in the gym to keep fit. With startlingly dark, raven-black hair and light green eyes, he was what older women would call a “dish”, and what the younger women would think of as “hot”.
Hot. He almost smirked the first time someone had called him that. It had been in his bed, and the stupid bitch didn’t know the half of it. Maybe she had thought that their little one-night stand could lead to something more, but he was in it only for the pussy and had kicked her out as soon as he had come.
Hot, his ass. He was colder than ice. Proud of it, too.
Clay put the bottle of wine in the fridge and placed his other purchases away while fumbling to figure out where Mrs. Kramer, his housekeeper, kept the majority of items.
This was why he didn’t go to the grocery store. He had no fucking clue where anything went. Unless it was refrigerated, he was shit out of luck.
Still, he didn’t regret going, and wondered if the girl with the smile went there often. Perhaps he could see her again if he accompanied Marietta Kramer the next time she shopped for the house.
“You know you don’t have to dress to impress the man, Clay,” Jim told him later on that evening as he got ready for his dinner with the Andersons. “They certainly don’t have the money for extravagant clothing and five-course meals.”
“It’s the principal,” Clay barked at him as he laced his tie around his neck easily. “If you went into a bank for a loan, would you want to be wearing sweats and a wifebeater?”
Jim ignored that and kept talking. “Do you need me to come with you?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“Not necessary,” Clay told him. “I’m handling it. Just like I always do.”
“And what about your parents? They called earlier today.”
“Fuck my parents,” Clay bit out.
“Half the town already has,” Jim shot back, earning a glare from Clay. It was a low blow. He knew his parents were in bed with half the politicians and bigwigs in this town. Both figuratively and—more often—literally.
As Clay placed his jacket over his shoulders, he thought again about the girl with the gorgeous, dimpled smile. His mind had been flickering back to her more times than he could count, and he again cursed rambunctious children and their idiotic, neglectful mothers.
Spraying on some expensive cologne, he exited the house with a dismissive goodbye from Jim, wishing him good luck. He had a feeling he was going to need it.
Clay took his sedan instead of the ostentatious Escalade that sat in his four-car garage. It was less showy and, hopefully, he wouldn’t come back to find it broken into after dinner. The Andersons didn’t exactly live in the nicest part of town.
He found parking a half a block away from their small house, and he counted off the number of other houses that he had already bought out from under the owners as he walked.
Six. And hopefully, the Andersons’ home would be his seventh. Then he could break ground soon on the new mega-mall. His investors were getting antsy as well. And the fucking banks.
Clay walked up the rickety steps of 152 Marsden Street and knocked crisply on the door three times. He checked his tie with his hands and cleared his throat unnecessarily.
There was a shuffling and a feminine voice that he could hear through the door. He was about to knock again when it opened for him. The man froze, utterly shocked.
It looked like he wouldn’t have to accompany Mrs. Kramer to the grocery store after all.