Kira stood in the hallway for a few seconds, trying to calm her nerves. Her heart was beating wildly as she inched her way down the dark hallway, lined in red velvet drapes and tiny golden sconces casting a yellowish glow. The hallway emptied into the main bar area of the Lair and it was as Audrey had described. The floor was deep, red, plush carpeting, the kind your feet sunk into. There were cocktail tables and chairs and red, velvet couches lining the walls and spaced sporadically throughout the room. The walls were painted dark red, the lighting was dim yellow and shards of mirrored glass and sensual, black and white, framed photographs were hanging eccentrically in various locations. To the left was a bar with six stools. A large mirror hung behind the bar and in front of the mirror stood a bartender dressed in a black tuxedo. He was steadily shaking an aluminum martini shaker. To the right were six closed doors that Kira guessed led to private bedrooms.
Stepping through the red, velvet curtains that adorned the entrance from the hallway to the Lair, Kira immediately recognized the man sitting at the bar. It was the man she had seen in the lobby yesterday, the strikingly handsome one with the dark hair and the bright, hazel eyes; the one that had made her feel flustered. Could this be the gentleman who requested to meet with her? Inching closer, she studied him, all the while wondering why he would have requested her. Taking another step, Kira was startled by an arm that draped around her waist and pulled her toward an inset booth to the immediate right of the entrance. The booth resembled a small cave, and had a red velvet, u-shaped couch and a small cocktail table. Once inside, a person couldn’t be seen by anyone in the room unless they walked directly in front of the cave-like opening. Kira was whisked inside and pushed onto the couch, where she sat face-to-face with her worst nightmare.
“Kira Sullivan, as I live and breathe,” he said, his eyes beaming with sadistic delight. “I had no idea you were one of the sweet little bits and pieces that make up the Candy Shop.” He ran his fingers down her right arm and Kira instinctively pulled away. “What’s the matter? Shy?”
She felt her face flush red and her stomach hollow as if she might vomit. Even if she could have spoken, she had no idea what to say. She was staring into the eyes of Landon Parker, the senior partner in her husband’s firm, Parker, Sullivan & Bates. “Landon, I…” she stuttered.
“Ssshhh,” he interrupted, placing his fingers over her lips and grinning sadistically. “Don’t speak, just listen.” Kira’s eyes began to tear. “Your secret is safe with me as long as you do whatever Lucas asks.”
Kira narrowed her brows, the confusion evident in her expression. “I don’t understand,” she uttered.
Landon folded his hands atop the table. “The Candy Shop is a very good client of ours, as are many of its high-paying customers. You might say Lucas and our firm have a vested interest in keeping our mutual clientele satisfied.”
“Does Frank know about this?” Kira asked and watched a sardonic grin spread across his face. Frank was as conservative as they came and she couldn’t believe he would have anything to do with a Gentleman’s Club.
“Jealous?” Landon chuckled, stroking down her arm with his left index finger. “Wondering if your hubby has been enjoying some bite size pieces from the Candy Shop?”
Bite size pieces, that’s the phrase Lucas had used earlier. Kira pulled away from his touch and tightened her jaw. “Frank wouldn’t have anything to do with a place like this,” she defended.
Landon inched closer and whispered in her ear. “Maybe and maybe not, but the only thing you need to be worried about is whether Frank will find out that his wife is one of the tasty morsels,” he sneered and ran his tongue across the lobe of her right ear. “I don’t think he’d like that, do you?”
Kira pushed Landon backwards. “Touch me again and I’ll scream,” she warned.
Landon chuckled aloud as if he were genuinely amused by her reaction. “You do what you’re told and keep your mouth shut and we all stand to make a shit-load of money.” He rose from the couch. “Now, you shouldn’t keep your gentleman waiting.”
Kira scooted from the couch and stood up, feeling her knees wobble beneath her.
“Oh, and Kira,” he said, taking her by the shoulders and turning her to face him. “I’d hate for anything bad to happen to the people we love. Sometimes too much information has a way of becoming hazardous to a person’s health. You understand?” She dropped her gaze to the floor and he quickly lifted her chin so he could stare directly into her eyes. “Though Parker & Bates does have a nice ring to it. It rolls off the tongue better than Parker, Sullivan & Bates, don’t you think?”
She stood motionless. Was he threatening Frank’s career?
“How are your kids enjoying their first year of college?” His eyes flashed with an unspoken threat. “College can be a dangerous place. It would be a shame if anything happened to them.”
Kira suddenly felt like an elephant was sitting on her chest and she couldn’t breathe. She was trapped. She had made the biggest mistake of her life and now there was no way out. He was threatening her, her children and Frank’s partnership in the firm. Pulling her out of the inset cave, he released her arm and pointed to the man sitting at the bar. “You keep him happy, he keeps Lucas happy, Lucas keeps me happy and everybody wins.”
Landon left her trembling and speechless, trying desperately to regain her composure as she made her way across the room.
Upon seeing her, the hazel-eyed man looked surprised but smiled, stood up, gave the bartender a nod and led Kira across the room to a red, velvet couch that sat in the far corner beneath a large, black and white photograph of a man and a woman whose lips were dangerously close to engaging in what she could only imagine would be a kiss of passion. He extended his hand, motioning for her to sit. The bartender followed and set two martini glasses atop the cocktail table in front of the couch.
Mr. Handsome joined her on the couch, his eyes piercing through her, as if he were reading the darkest secrets of her soul. She squirmed uncomfortably beneath his gaze.
“I saw you yesterday in the foyer. What is your name?” He asked.
“Ki…” she stopped. “Daisy.” She felt foolish calling herself by that name, but a smile filled his face.
“I like daisies,” he said. “They don’t have thorns.” Kira twisted her fingers into nervous knots.
“What is your name?”
“I’m not allowed to tell you,” he answered matter-of-factly, and then leaned forward and whispered. “They give you fake, flower names but they don’t assign clients a name.”
Kira smiled at his honesty. “So, what do I call you?”
He angled himself to face her, crossed his right leg over his left and leaned his right arm on the back of the couch. “Hmmm… how about we name each other? Based on something about my appearance, choose a name for me.”
Mr. Handsome would have been a fitting title, but Kira was too embarrassed to say it aloud. Despite his handsome appearance and muscular build, she kept coming back to his bright, greenish, hazel eyes. “Mr. Green,” she said, “because of your eyes.”
“Very well,” he nodded. “Mr. Green it is, and you are Ms. White, because of the innocence in your eyes.”
Kira dropped her gaze to the floor. Innocence? I’m sitting in a whorehouse and he thinks I’m a saint. What’s wrong with this picture? Everything. Everything was wrong with this picture. She was a married woman, getting ready to partake in God only knew what with a man she didn’t even know, but to whom she felt undeniably attracted. She had put her marriage and family at risk and now there seemed to be no way out.
“I’m not going to touch you,” Mr. Green said, interrupting her thoughts.
“What?” Her breath caught.
“I’m not going to ask you to have sex with me,” he clarified and Kira was instantly puzzled. Relieved, but confused. If he didn’t want to have sex then why was he coming to The Candy Shop? Or was it simply that he had no interest in having sex with her?
“If I’m not your type, Lucas will assign you someone more along the lines of what you’re looking for…” she stuttered and stopped talking when a spark of humor lit his eyes.
“You’re exactly what I’m looking for.” He smiled.
“But… you just said…”
“What I meant was, I will not request anything that we both don’t want to do,” he interrupted. “This is a mutual relationship.”
A relationship? What kind of a man comes to a place like The Candy Shop for a relationship? Kira narrowed her eyes.
“I don’t want to eat all of the chocolate,” Kira blurted.
“I’m sorry?” Mr. Green cocked his head to the side. “What chocolate?”
She leaned toward him and quietly spoke. “I’m married.”
Mr. Green appeared un-phased by her confession. He picked up both drinks from the table and handed one to Kira. “I know,” he winked. “I noticed the tan line from your wedding band.”
She looked down at her left hand. Wow, he’s observant. “So, I don’t want to eat all the chocolate at once. I just came here for bite size pieces.” Her head was foggy from the drugs and she realized by his facial expression that she wasn’t making any sense.
He leaned in closer. “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we forget the chocolate altogether and just have a drink and chat?”
They spent the next two hours talking, and to Kira’s surprise, he didn’t touch her and never even made as much as an inappropriate innuendo. He was a complete gentleman. As they walked down the hallway, toward the entrance to the Lair, Kira heard the distinct sound of the door unlocking, and it gave her chills. Were they being watched? Did the bartender notify Ian that they were heading toward the door or were there surveillance cameras? Kira subtly glanced overhead, searching for a camera.
At the end of the hallway, Mr. Green turned to face her, placing both hands on the outside of her shoulders, he leaned forward, as if to kiss her. She froze, a part of her anticipating a kiss and the other part, fearing it. Instead of kissing her, he put his lips against her right ear and whispered, “They are always watching.” He drew back quickly, took her right hand and kissed the top of it. “Until next time, Ms. White,” he said with a smile, and then disappeared through the door.
Kira didn’t say a word on the ride home, though Audrey was babbling so much she couldn’t have gotten a word in edgewise. Besides, her head was pounding and she guessed it was the effects of the drug wearing off.
Audrey loved dancing and all of the attention she got from her male patrons. “I felt hot!” She shrieked with delight. “Hotter than hot!”
Kira smiled, a part of her wishing she could share Audrey’s excitement; but Landon’s threat was ever present in her mind, dampening any desire to return to The Candy Shop.
“What’s the matter?” Audrey asked, pulling the Land Cruiser into Kira’s driveway and turning to face her. “You’ve hardly said two words on the way home.”
“I’m just tired,” Kira lied, opening the passenger door and climbing out. “Headache.”
“I’ll pick you up tomorrow?” Audrey asked. “Same time?”
Kira abruptly stopped and spun around. “Tomorrow?” She gasped.
“Yeah, Lucas said he wants us there tomorrow night, same time,” Audrey shrugged. “Maybe you’ll get to dance on the stage tomorrow. I’m telling you, you’ll love it. It’s incredible.”
Audrey was grinning ear-to-ear and Kira couldn’t remember when she had seen her so happy. She forced a smile. “Okay. See you tomorrow.”
Kira popped three ibuprofen, crawled into bed and stared at the ceiling. She couldn’t tell Frank about Landon and his threat because that would mean admitting that she had been in a whorehouse, albeit an upscale whorehouse. She lay there pondering whether or not Landon was actually capable of inflicting physical harm on someone she loved? Her body sank deep into the feather pillow and goose-down comforter. She was mentally exhausted and emotionally drained. She hadn’t technically cheated on Frank, and yet she felt as if she had. Though she had only talked with Mr. Green, her lust for him was of such magnitude that in her heart she had already physically given herself to him. Guilt rushed over her as she berated herself. What have I done?
By the time Kira awoke, Frank had already come and gone, leaving behind his usual note stating that he loved her and would check in later to see how her day was going. They were like ships passing in the night. Kira crumbled up the note and threw it into the trash, then sauntered to the kitchen to pour herself a cup of coffee. Several sips later, she mustered up the courage to call The Candy Shop and tell Ian she was sick and wouldn’t be coming to work tonight.
Ian didn’t sound pleased and disconnected the call without saying goodbye.
Kira breathed a sigh of relief. Now, all she had to do was break the news to Audrey and this nightmare would be over. Her plan was simple. She would call in sick for the next several days. Assuming Lucas would not want to employ such an unreliable woman, he would easily replace her with someone else. Her mind then drifted to Mr. Green. What if Mr. Green didn’t want anyone else and stopped frequenting The Candy Shop? Lucas would lose his highest paying customer. As soon as the thought entered her mind, she dismissed it. After all, The Candy Shop was filled with women who were more beautiful than she. Mr. Green would have no trouble finding a suitable replacement, Lucas would keep his highest-paying customer, and since she would have been fired by Lucas, Landon couldn’t blame her so Frank would never have to know. Everything would go back to normal.
Audrey wasn’t happy about Kira calling in sick, but said she wasn’t going to miss another opportunity to take the stage. She said she felt more alive than she’d ever felt before. “Who knew all I had to do was get half naked and dance in front of strangers,” she joked. “I wish I would have discovered this years ago. I don’t know how you ever quit.”
Audrey’s comment took Kira back in time to her sophomore year in college when she danced at a seedy little club in mid-Missouri. She took the job because she needed money, but kept it because she fell in love with being on stage. It was a feeling of freedom and control. When she was dancing, she felt sexy, alive and beautiful. Remembering how she felt then, she couldn’t fault Audrey for what she was feeling now? Besides, Audrey was single and could do anything she wanted. The truth was, had Kira never met Frank, she would have continued to dance her way through college; but he believed strip clubs were amoral cesspools of sin. There was no way she could ever let him find out about The Candy Shop.
At ten o’clock Kira crawled into bed having spent much of the day waiting for Lucas, Ian or even Landon to contact her and confirm that she was really sick. They must have bought the story because a call never came. Maybe this nightmare is over. She drifted to sleep, stirring only once around midnight when she heard Frank come in and slip into bed next to her. He draped his arm over her stomach and she snuggled close to him, glad he was home.
When the phone rang at 5:00am, Kira jumped up, saw that Frank was no longer in bed and dove across his side of the bed to fetch the receiver. She could hear the shower running from the bathroom as she pressed the talk button and said hello.
“Mom?” It was Michael and he sounded upset.
“Michael, what’s wrong?” Kira gasped. “Are you all right? Is Mallory all right?” Her heart rate accelerated.
“We’re fine, mom, but my car’s not.”
“Were you in an accident? What happened?” Kira felt frantic with worry.
“No, we weren’t in an accident. I came out to get in my car this morning and all four tires are slashed,” Michael explained.
“Slashed?” Kira repeated, almost in disbelief.
“Yeah, like totally gouged. They can’t be fixed.” Michael sounded deflated. “I need money for new tires.”
“Do you have any idea who would do this?” Kira asked.
“No. I don’t get it. I don’t have any enemies here, at least I didn’t think I did,” Michael huffed. “Obviously I’m not as well-liked as I thought.”
Kira heard the shower turn off and she took the phone to the bathroom and handed it to Frank. She listened as Frank issued some choice words about the person who slashed Michael’s tires and then assured Michael the money would be in his account right away. “I want you to report this to the police,” Frank told Michael. “It’s vandalism and we can’t just let people get away with it.”
Kira whispered to Frank. “Does he want me to drive up and go with him?” Columbia was only a two hour drive from St. Louis. “Tell him I can throw on some clothes and be there before 8:00am.”
Frank relayed the message to Michael and then shook his head no. “He says he can handle it. He’ll take Mallory with him.”
Kira deflated. She wanted to rush to his side, but she knew he was old enough to handle it on his own. He didn’t need his mommy anymore.
“Well, you must have pissed somebody off!” Frank barked into the phone. “Tell the police I want your car checked for prints.”
By the time Frank left for work, an unsettling thought had popped into Kira’s head. What if Michael’s tires being slashed the same night she called in sick to The Candy Shop wasn’t a coincidence? It sounded ludicrous at first, but each time she pushed the thought away, it inevitably crept back in; and Landon’s comment about college being a dangerous place replayed in her mind.
For the next three nights, Kira called in sick, never hearing a word from Ian, Lucas or Landon. How long would she have to keep this up before they would fire her? At 10:30pm Frank called from the office and told her that he needed to catch the red-eye to Chicago and he’d be back tomorrow.
“Why can’t you fly out in the morning?” Kira asked.
“Landon thinks we need to meet with the client tonight to make sure all of our ducks are in a row before we set things in motion tomorrow,” he explained. “Sorry.”
It wasn’t the first apology and it wouldn’t be the last. Such was the life of being married to a workaholic.
Kira climbed into bed and text Audrey: HOW’S THE DANCING?
Audrey text back: AWESOME! WISH YOU’D COME BACK. LUCAS WANTS YOU BACK AND SO DOES YOUR CLIENT.
“Mr. Green,” Kira sighed to herself, and then text Audrey: I CAN’T. SORRY. HAVE FUN.
Setting her cell phone atop the nightstand, Kira turned off the bedside lamp and lay down. She had just closed her eyes when her phone buzzed with an incoming text. It was from Audrey and it read: LUCAS ISN’T HAPPY. YOU NEED TO COME NOW.
Propping herself up against the headboard, Kira text back: NO. JUST CALL ME WHEN YOU’RE ON YOUR WAY HOME.
She hit send and then stared at the phone, waiting for a response. Finally, after several minutes, the phone buzzed and the text read: NO. WE’RE DONE.
“We’re done?” Kira said aloud. “What does she mean, ‘we’re done?’” Kira huffed and stared at her phone. Why would Audrey say that? What difference did it make if Kira was there working downstairs while Audrey was dancing upstairs? It wasn’t as if they even got to see each other or work together. She set the phone back onto the night stand, scrunched down into the sheets and closed her eyes. She’d call Audrey first thing in the morning.
At 3:00am the home phone startled her awake. Sliding to Frank’s side of the bed, she grabbed the phone, pressed talk and mumbled a half-coherent hello into the receiver.
The voice was automated and robot sounding. It said, “First a terrible awful wreck, then the tires, then the neck.” Then silence.
A bolt of fear jolted Kira into a sitting position. With the receiver clutched tightly in her grip, she hollered into the phone. “Lucas? Ian? Landon? Who is this?” She pressed the phone against her ear and could hear faint sobs. She couldn’t make out who was crying, but it sounded like a woman. She was sniveling and begging and all Kira could make out were sobs of, “No. No. Please. No.”
“Who is this?” Kira yelled into the phone. “What do you want?” But it was too late. They had hung up. Kira’s hands trembled as she dialed Mallory’s phone, praying that the woman she had heard in the background wasn’t her daughter. All she could think about was the mention of the tires and how Michael’s tires had been slashed. And what if Mallory was the woman sobbing in the background? Darts of fear prickled up her neck and a wave of nausea hit her stomach when Mallory’s voicemail came on. Kira hung up and immediately dialed Michael.
“Yeah?” Michael groggily answered.
“Michael!” Kira exclaimed. “Where is your sister? She’s not answering her phone.”
“Mom, it’s like three something in the morning,” Michael moaned.
“I need to talk to your sister,” Kira wailed, failing miserably at masking her panic.
“What’s wrong? Where’s dad? Are you okay?” She could hear fear rising in Michael’s voice.
“Your father and I are fine. I just need to talk to Mallory. Do you know where she is?” Tears poured down Kira’s face and her hands trembled.
“Relax, mom. She’s here. She fell asleep on the couch and I didn’t want to wake her to send her home. Hold on a sec, I’ll get her.”
Kira could hear Michael shuffling around and she pictured him getting out of bed and going to find his sister. The next voice she heard was like an angel speaking. It was Mallory, half-asleep and mumbling into the phone. “Mom?” Mallory slurred. “Are you okay?”
Kira could barely utter words, as relief filled her soul. “Mallory, baby,” she cried. “I’m sorry I woke you.” Her voice was shaky with emotion.
“It’s okay. It’s weird, but okay.”
Kira smiled, amid the tears. “Put your brother back on and go back to sleep. I love you.”
“I love you too, mom.”
“Mom?” Michael spoke into the phone. “Everything okay?”
Kira took a deep breath. “I want you to do me a favor. Keep your sister there tonight and for the next several nights. Don’t let each other out of sight. Walk to classes together, eat together, stay in groups of people, don’t go anywhere by yourself. Can you promise me that?”
“What’s going on, mom?” There was genuine concern in Michael’s voice.
“It’s probably nothing, but I’ve received some harassing phone calls and with your tires being slashed…” her voice faded. “I just want us all alert and safe.”
“Is this related to one of dad’s cases?” Michael asked, prompting Kira to remember that they had received prank phone calls and threats one time when Frank was working on a murder case that involved several mobsters from Chicago.
“It might be,” Kira lied. “Just promise me you and Mallory will stay together.”
After Michael hung up, Kira dialed Audrey and left her a voicemail asking her to call as soon as she left The Candy Shop. Just as she hung up, the phone rang and she quickly answered.
“Hello? Audrey?” Kira blurted.
“I’m monitoring your phone. If you call anyone else, your husband will never come home.” It was the same robotic voice and Kira hit the off button. With her whole body shaking she jumped out of bed, rushed to Frank’s closet and retrieved a small, metal case from the top shelf. It held a 357 Magnum.