“Go ahead, do it,” he said, a sad smile toying with the corners of his mouth. “Show me what you’re made of.”
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “You’ll never know how much I wish this weren’t happening.”
“Then don’t do it. Whatever it is, we can work through it. I’ll help you.”
He sighed, then looked past me and jerked his chin.
“It’s over, babe,” I heard a man say from behind. Huh. I guess it was. Fortunately, I had just enough time to pull the trigger before he hit me.
EIGHTEEN DAYS EARLIER
My back was killing me.
It was nearly two in the morning, and I’d just finished up the late-night cleaning shift at the pawn shop. I’d been letting myself get soft the past couple of months. Too much time spent managing the business, not enough time scouring bathrooms, because I’d forgotten just how much work scrubbing a toilet really is.
Well, scrubbing toilets, floors, dusting, vacuuming. London’s Cleaning Service did it all, and while we might not be the cheapest crew in town, we were the best. I knew this because I turned down more accounts than I took these days. Thanks to my hard-earned reputation, finding new clients was easy. Workers? Not so much. Most people aren’t fans of spending their nights wiping up after others, and even with my higher-than-average starting pay, people flaked on me.
Tonight, for example.
I’d gotten a call from Anna—one of my crew leads—to say she had two no-shows. Because the life of a cleaning lady is nonstop glamour, that meant I got to spend my Friday evening scraping dried pee off the floor in a men’s bathroom.
Charmed existence, I know.
At least my aching back and I could crawl into bed soon.
I pulled up to the house and noticed a blue Honda Civic parked in front. Mellie’s car—my young cousin’s best friend. She must be spending the night with Jessie, I realized. I bit back the surge of annoyance. On the one hand, I really preferred it when Jess cleared stuff like this with me ahead of time.
On the other, there were worse things than having the girl home on a Friday. Most of them were worse, actually. God, I loved her so much, but Jessica was impossible. I reminded myself yet again that it wasn’t entirely her fault—the counselors told me over and over that I needed to help her learn to cope with her limitations, because it’s not like she’d grow out of them.
Decision making wasn’t Jessica’s strong suit.
According to the experts, that part of her brain just hadn’t developed quite right, thanks to her mother’s ongoing chemical romance. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I knew she wasn’t like other kids. But you know what? We all have to learn to get along in this world. Nobody’s born with a clean slate, and she wasn’t a little girl anymore.
I unlocked the front door to find Mellie sitting on the couch. Her knees were drawn up, her eyes were huge, and she clutched a can of Diet Coke like a shield.
My parent radar crackled to life.
“What did she do now?”
“We were at a party,” Mel whispered. “It was around ten o’clock. She ran into some girls who graduated a couple years ago—Terry Fratelli and her friends—and they invited us out to the Armory for a party with the Reapers motorcycle club.”
I swayed, grabbing the back of my old, green wing-backed chair to catch myself.
Mellie’s eyes got even wider. I didn’t cuss. She knew I didn’t cuss. Ever.
“What’s the rest of it?”
The girl looked away, biting her lip.
“I’m so sorry for leaving her,” she said, guilt written all over her face. “But there was no way I’d go out there and she didn’t listen to me. She actually got kind of …”
Her voice trailed off and I filled in the gaps. Jessica liked to make fun of Mel when she wouldn’t follow along like a well-trained puppy. Classic Jess. Such an idiot child—I wasn’t quite sure how she managed to keep a friend like Melanie around, given the shit she pulled.
“Anyway, she promised me she’d text, and I told her I wouldn’t say anything as long as she stayed in touch. But she stopped texting me around midnight and I could tell she was really drunk. Her messages weren’t even making sense. I’m really scared for her, London.”
This last was said with a sniffle, and I realized the poor girl was terrified. I came over and sat down next to her, giving her a hug. Mel spent so much time over here that she felt like my own sometimes.
“She’s gonna be so pissed I told you.”
“You did the right thing, baby,” I said, running a hand across her hair. “She’s being a selfish brat, putting you into this position.”
“Well, on the bright side she’ll forgive me,” Mel muttered. She sniffed and pulled back, looking up at me with a wavering smile. “She always does.”
I smiled back, but my thoughts were grim. Mel was too nice. Sometimes I wished she’d ditch Jessie and find a new best friend. Then I felt guilty, because even with her issues, Jess was my heart.
“I need to go find her,” I said. “Do you want to stay here or head home?”
“I was thinking I could sleep here tonight?” she asked. I nodded, already knowing the rest of the story. Friday nights at Mel’s house weren’t pretty, especially on paydays. Her dad liked to celebrate the end of the week a little too much.
I tried calling Bolt Harrison from my van so Mellie wouldn’t hear me. He managed Pawns, the same store I’d been cleaning that night. It happened to be owned by the Reapers MC. Bolt was their vice president.
I’d had the cleaning contract there for about six months now. They were becoming one of my most valuable accounts and had dropped hints about offering a second contract for The Line, their strip club. We’d already come in a few times when they needed extra help, and I had high hopes it would grow into something bigger. I originally ran the Pawns crew myself, but two months ago I’d turned it over to Jason, an older guy who’d been with me for almost five years. He was reliable, worked hard, and did a great job managing the people under him.
The MC paid well, and they paid in cash, which was convenient. In return, we kept our mouths shut about anything we might see, which honestly wasn’t as much as you’d think. I thought there might be some prostitution happening in the back rooms out at The Line, but I’d never seen any sign of women being forced.