STAR FINDER

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Chapter 39: Rules to Reach the Stars

Tem burst into the pantry, unlocked the cuffs, and with a sudden jerk yanked the air mattress out from under Lilly. She sprawled onto the floor and he dragged the sleepy girl out into the middle of the kitchen. It was seven o’clock sharp.

“I have business. I’m interviewing a new tenant. Get up, brainiac!”

Drowsy, she sat up, looked around, but didn’t see Bobby. She knew better than to ask. The frying bacon popped, announcing that Zilla was at the stove. “Does our ‘partnership’ have to start so early?” Lilly stretched and yawned. Her lids were lazy, slow to stay open.

“It’s not a partnership. You’re an apprentice, a gofer.”

A large fork pierced the thick slices. “Tem, she didn’t mean any disrespect. You surprised her.” Zilla dialed back the heat, put down the fork, and wiped her hands on her apron. She went to Lilly, offered the crutch, a steady arm, and delivered her to the table. “There, dear.” She gave Lilly a nervous smile and went back to her cooking.

Lilly’s eyes slanted up at Tem. She remembered Bobby’s advice. Be pleasant. She forced a smile.

“Ew! You’re even more ugly in the morning. Yours is not the first face I wanted to see today. Chow down, brainiac. Then clean up and get to work.”

Zilla dropped a plate on the table in front of Lilly—a fried egg, two slices of bacon, and buttered toast.

Lilly licked her lips and wondered if it would be too gross if she licked her plate. Taking a more focused look at Tem, she noticed he had shaved and was wearing a starched dress shirt. The new tenant must be female. He paraded around the kitchen.

Zilla gushed, “So handsome.”

“Forgot…” He dashed back into the bathroom. When he came out he splashed a handful of cologne on his face.

Lilly lifted her fork and froze when the scent hit her. “That’s Brut,” she blurted. “My father’s Brut. You stole it off his dresser?” She glowered, teeth clenched.

Teeth clenched, Tem picked up her plate and scraped it into the garbage. Butter splattered his clean shirt. “Look what she did.”

Zilla placed a hand on her son’s arm. His head snapped around and she withered.

“We agreed on how this would be handled. Have you changed your mind, Daj?”

Zilla did an about-face and slippers flapping hot-footed it back to the stove.

Tem sat down next to Lilly. He moved in, yanked the chair around. Their knees touched. “Let’s talk. You still don’t get it. You’re standing on my shoulders in some seriously deep shit.”

His voice was a calm sea. In his eyes a storm brewed. “I see being spaced and putting my mother’s life in danger has not brought you to your senses. You are not a guest. Outside this house, you would be squashed like a bug. Inside, the cockroach lives, but outside, you’re a dead bug.” He took her hands in his. He was gentle, petted the back of each. “Nod if you understand your options.”

Her head wobbled.

“It’s time to put a clamp on that tongue. I’ll say this once. Listen and remember. There are rules. While you live under my roof, you will stick to them or suffer the consequences.”

She started to speak but stopped herself. I’m the happy apprentice…happy apprentice.

“Rule number one: you will be up every morning by seven. Two: you will be cuffed in the pantry each night by eight unless my mother has clients. Three: when you are in there,” he pointed, “the door will be padlocked. Four: from this moment forward you will not complain or insult anyone in this house.”

“Tem, I don’t think this is necessary.”

“Daj, quiet. Five: You will cooperate—do exactly what my mother asks. If she says scrub the toilet, use your fingernails. Six: She thinks your presence will seriously add to the family income. In three weeks I will reevaluate this arrangement. If I find you have not been contributing…” Tem picked up Leo’s business card from the table. He held it between her eyes and then ran the edge of the card down her nose, over her lips and chin. He picked up a pen and underlined the cell number twice. He put it in his pocket and recaptured her hands. “I’m all for incentives. Learn fast.”

“And the last rule: don’t leave the apartment. Knowing what is waiting out there, I think the building could catch fire and you wouldn’t run out. You may never touch a phone, computer, or answer the door. You are not allowed to wander around the house. You’re limited to the pantry, bathroom, kitchen, and salon. This is for your own safety. Just a little FYI, brainiac, the man who has the hots for you—Leo—his men are staking out this building. Your only contacts will be the three people who live here. If my cousin Bavol arrives, disappear before he sees you. Got it?”

“Yes.” She looked away. There was something treacherous about his confidence. She cringed and felt tainted by his encroachment into her personal space. For the first time since Lilly had met Tem she saw him for what he was—Satan in a starched shirt.

A stark silence followed. She attempted to draw back from his grasp but he wouldn’t release her. Her internal meter hit the red level, danger. “Zilla…”

She never turned or answered. Lilly was on her own when it came to Tem.

He checked his watch. “Let’s wrap this up.” He folded his arms and relaxed back into the kitchen chair. “You’re thinking right about now, ‘What good are rules without consequences and rewards,’ am I right?”

No. She was thinking, please don’t space me.

His thumbs pressed into the bones of her hands until she thought her slender metacarpals would crack. “Well, I’ll just let that be a surprise.” He looked down at the floor.

“The girl understands. Let me take her.” Zilla dabbed at her sweaty face with a paper towel. “Please son. She’s no good to me if she’s panicked and can’t connect.”

“I’m doing this for you.” He kissed his mother on the cheek. “If you want to keep her make sure she understands. I’ll know if you coddle her.”

Lilly found her voice. “You said there were rewards?”

“Yes. Proper meals. No cuffs at night.”

Zilla drew herself up. “Now that’s done, go put on a fresh shirt and meet our new tenant, son. The woman wants Randall’s old apartment. She likes the view of the park. Last time we rented it too cheap, ask for more this time.” Her head swiveled. “I’ll watch her.”

Zilla patted Lilly’s shoulder. “Into the bathroom with you. Wash up. Clean clothes are folded and on the radiator. Vitamins on the sink.”

Lilly rallied.

“I found big jars of them in your apartment. The label reads, ‘six per day.’ That’s a high dose but if it speeds the healing process you should take them. It would be a waste to throw them out and nobody else around here can use ‘female pubescent formula’ vitamins.”

Lilly recalled that her father had concocted what he referred to as “the optimal blend” just for her. Was optimal his code for savant?

“Then come back here and eat.” The clang of dishes and silverware replaced further conversation.

Lilly had made a bargain with the devil and his mother. Now she would do what was needed to survive.

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