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“Where is that pool boy? He was supposed to come this morning.” No, he was supposed to have come the morning after, but the Joneses had had a pool emergency. Vachel wasn’t clear on what a pool emergency was if water wasn’t gushing into the basement, but he was more than willing to rearrange his schedule for a premium price. He didn’t even mind being called a pool boy as long as people paid their bills on time. Vachel got his equipment and closed the van doors. He took off through the immense lawn (yes, he had heard the shriek all the way from the back of the mansion to the drive- way) and found the gate to the back yard. He smirked when he heard the gasps from the assembled girlage. He didn’t particularly care what he looked like, but he was all too aware that the way his genes manifested could be extremely good for business. Vachel didn’t acknowledge the presence of the three lookalikes, even as they talked to him and asked questions. They were barely legal, so he knew they weren’t the ones paying the bill. He also knew that the last three pool services this house had had refused to come back. There was the emergency—a pile of shit, there at the bottom of the deep end. He sighed and, still ignoring the catcalls and whistles, he whipped out his phone and took a picture. He pulled out the contraption he’d devised for just such a purpose and scooped it out, dispensing with it as efficiently as a dirty diaper. He proceeded to drain the pool. “Hey! What are you doing?!” He said nothing because it was expressly written in his service contract that if he had to fish out shit, the pool was getting drained, cleaned, refilled—and at the same premium hourly rate. He knew that was where he differed from his competition. “You can’t do that! I’ve got a party here tonight.” Ignore

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Unwind hose Pull out to street Set pump The girl occupying the middle chaise got up and chased him the length of the driveway to the street. He was quite sure that was the most physical activity she’d engaged in for the last week. He found it odd girls like that were up this early in the morning, but the faint stench of stale beer and sex surrounded her. They hadn’t yet gone to bed. He heard another voice behind him, male, adult. “You’re Vachel Whittaker?” He turned. Ah, yes, the person who paid the bills. “Yes.” “I thought you weren’t supposed to be here until tomorrow.” “Someone took a dump in your pool. Apparently that was enough to call in a pool emergency.” Bill Jones sighed. “Bill,” said the diva in a tone of voice that he knew no one in his family would’ve tolerat- ed for one second. “He’s draining the pool.” “I can see that,” Jones muttered. Vachel vaguely wondered how badly the man’s wife had emasculated him before the daughter got her turn. “He can’t! I have a party tonight.” Jones looked at Vachel. “Do you have to drain the pool?” “Yes.” He didn’t bother to explain. Diva wouldn’t care and Emasculated Dad stared at Vachel’s van, his mind far away. Jones started suddenly and looked at Vachel. “How old are you?” Vachel blinked. “Twenty-six.” Jones cast a dark glance at Diva, who sneered right back at him. “Yeah, but so what?” she snarked. “He’s cleaning shit out of a pool.” Vachel shrugged and went about his business, not caring to step into a dispute between a teenaged bitch and a middle-aged eunuch. “Son!” Jones called as Vachel trudged to the back. Vachel looked over his shoulder. “Yes?” “How long have you worked for your family?” Vachel was confused. “My family?” “Yes. Whittaker Pools.” “Ah.” This should be fun. “It’s mine. Built it from the ground up.” “Really,” Jones drawled, casting another dark glance at the daughter, who looked away in a sulk. “Where did you go to school?” Vachel thought he was going to explode with laughter, but he kept a straight face with a skill borne of much practice. “For undergrad or grad?”

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Jones’s jaw dropped. “Well, that wasn’t fair,” Vachel continued. “I apologize. I went to Georgetown Univer- sity. Bachelor’s in economics. MBA.” Diva looked like she was about to hyperventilate. “Fine,” she spat after recovering her- self. “But you’re still shoveling shit out of a pool.” “No, I’m not,” he said blithely. “I’m standing here being an object lesson for you and getting paid one-fifty an hour for it. I am making money chatting. You are not.”

Emasculated Dad burst out laughing, clapped Vachel on the back, went to his car, and slid behind the wheel. “Do what you have to do, son. Ignore her and the rest of her crew.” Yeah, that was the plan.

It only took him fifteen minutes to start draining the pool, after which he left to tend oth-

er customers, ignoring her shrieking about why he was leaving when his job wasn’t done.

Ward Parkway wasn’t his usual Wednesday route, but he was pretty sure none of his

other customers would mind if he came a day early. He called his Thursday customers to reschedule, and though some were annoyed enough he felt obliged to explain, he made a point of saying, “Of course, if it were your pool, I’d do the same.”

A youth spent in the hospitality industry sure came in handy.

He went back to the Joneses house and only had to wait fifteen minutes before turning off the pump. Diva wasn’t around, thank heavens, but it was four o’clock. She was proba-

bly napping so she could go clubbing tonight. He didn’t know which member of his family would have slapped her first, but he would lay odds on Aunt Giselle.

He hit speed dial. “Hey, I’m over on Ward Park-

way and running behind. Can I have Dunc?” It took him exactly ten minutes to pick up

his occasional employee, his

running through Vachel’s family tree.

A kid with a carrot-colored buzz cut bounded out the front door of his house in

Brookside and bounced into the van. “The Brides of Dracula are back,” Vachel muttered once they returned. Diva stared at him, but he ignored her. So she went to work on Dunc (whom he’d set to cleaning the shallow end). Now, Dunc was easygoing like his father and funny like his mother. With that hair, he

had to be. Yet easygoing and funny didn’t negate danger: Dunc had a very long fuse and a very short temper. First, Diva started in on his hair color and what she said was not kind. She started in on his Bermuda shorts. She went after his glasses (which were pretty snazzy).

cousin? Who knew? There was very little actual blood

He started. Speaking of Giselle

It wouldn’t be long now—

Dunc planted the head of the brush on the pool floor and leaned on the pole. “Are you always such a raging bitch or are you on the rag?”

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Vachel hid his smile by turning away. That shut her up for two seconds. “You’re fired,” she pronounced, but he didn’t quit working and Dunc began again. “Did you hear me? You’re fired.” Vachel looked up at her. “Fine. Your total bill is one-fifty per hour for six hours, which is nine hundred, plus early termination of your contract, which is reasonable time for the whole pool season, estimated at seventeen-fifty plus seventeen-fifty for early termination fee. That’s forty-four hundred bucks. Cash. I don’t trust any check you would write.” She looked dumbstruck. “You don’t pay the bills, sweetheart,” Vachel said finally when she didn’t speak, didn’t move. “Therefore, unless you can come up with the cash, you’re shit out of luck and stuck with us. You can stay and drool all over our male perfection or you can leave. We don’t care.” Dunc barked a laugh as he worked, but Diva huffed and puffed. “I’m going to get my boyfriend over here to kick your asses.” Vachel and Dunc stopped, looked at each other, and burst out laughing. The phone was out and dialed and she’d said “Bye” before either of them had caught their breath, but she cast them both a self-satisfied glare. After a while, Vachel checked his watch. “Dunc,” he called. “I’m done. You?” “Yep. Let’s get this puppy loaded.” They climbed out of the pool. The three girls still lay on their lounge chairs and watched them silently. Diva, in the middle again, wore a smug expression. Vachel and Dunc exchanged glances and smirked. Dunc went to get a garden hose to fill up the pool while Vachel put away the equipment. The boyfriend rolled in as Vachel sat on the bumper of his van writing out an invoice, which he would mail because he didn’t trust the Diva to give it to her father. Dunc stood beside him, packing some smaller pieces of equipment. Boyfriend parked his Porsche be- hind the van and Vachel decided not to complete the invoice because now he’d have to charge for the time he spent blocked in. “A’ight,” Boyfriend drawled as he stepped smoothly out of his car, casually hanging his shades in the neck of his tee shirt. Diva and her friends gathered in eager anticipation of ass-kicking. “Which one of you called my girl a bitch?” Dunc raised his hand without hesitation. Vachel shook his head when Boyfriend got within striking distance of Dunc, cracking his knuckles as he sauntered closer. “Why?” “Because she is.” Boyfriend pulled his fist as far back as he could. Vachel didn’t actually see it, as it happened too fast, but in a blur of motion Dunc had Boyfriend pinned up against the back door of the van, his arm twisted behind his back. His face was distorted from being pressed into the window, Dunc’s left forearm applying pressure to the back of the boyfriend’s head.

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“You little cuntweasel,” he slurred. He yelped when Dunc twisted his arm further. “Two choices,” Vachel said mildly as he wrote. “You can leave now, or my associate here can break your arm, take your keys, and move your car so we can go home. I’ve had a long day and I want to put my feet up. Have a beer.” He took a glimpse at Diva. She was furious, although her friends had wilted like dirty dishrags. “Allen,” she snapped. “You spineless—” She went on with a string of invectives and Vachel leaned toward Boyfriend. “If I were you,” he murmured, “I’d leave now before I got stuck with her for the rest of my life.” He gulped, and Vachel nodded at Dunc to let him go. The Porsche squealed out of the driveway, and Vachel checked his watch. Another two-fifty for “unexpected hazards.” All in a day’s work.

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“Hey, Vachel!” Vachel nodded acknowledgment of Uncle Bryce’s wave and holler out the front door of Dunc’s house and drove around the corner to park his van in the Kenards’ driveway. He was tired, but that signal meant Giselle had dinner ready and he was invited. He and Dunc were all set to tell the story once they’d all sat and prayed and begun eat- ing, but Bryce said, “Vachel, I need a favor. Well, more like a job. Sorta. You decide.” Vachel grunted around his food because he didn’t waste his time on favors, not even for family. “Art exhibition Friday night. A friend of mine’s wife insists on bringing the stepdaugh- ter and demands he get her a suitable escort. Apparently, the crowd the girl runs in tends to party all night and sleep all day on Daddy’s money.” Vachel’s eyebrow rose. “She demanded?” Bryce chuckled. “Yeah, that’s kinda what I thought. I’m not sure which is worse: That he capitulated or that he admitted it.” “How old is this stepdaughter?” “Twenty-four.” “What’s she look like?” “Does it matter?” Well, no, not really. “What’s the job part of it?” “I’ll pay you if it doesn’t offend your sensibilities.” He shrugged. “Okay. When and where and dress and how much?” “Kemper Gallery Friday night around seven-thirty or so. Black tie. And about pay— tell me what you think it’s worth when it’s over.” That out of the way, Dunc launched into the afternoon’s adventure and had Bryce and Giselle howling with his rendition of it—exaggerated for best effect, naturally. Even Vachel found it a lot funnier with Dunc telling the story. The kid was nothing if not hilar- ious. Friday he showed up at the gallery in his almost-best formal wear. Bryce was dressed nearly identically except for one major difference, and Giselle had on some yellow thing that made her look kinda hot for a fifty-something. Most of the rest of his adopted family were there: Knox and Justice Hilliard, and Sebastian Taight and Eilis Logan, Vachel’s

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mentor and trainer, whose job he was taking over in a week. Vachel’s only living relative, his real aunt, lived in DC with her husband and two sons. Vachel garnered quite a few looks of surprise from everybody but his family, but that was nothing new. He dressed the way he liked and he had since he was twelve. If anybody else didn’t like it, that was their problem and they were going to have to get used to seeing him dressed that way. He mingled for a bit and sipped a punch he thought should be dumped in the storm drain. “It’s spiked,” Giselle muttered, looking down at her own glass in dismay. Well, that explained it. He took hers and poured both their glasses in a potted plant. Bryce chuckled. Eilis beckoned him to her side to inform him that the sale of Whittaker Pools had gone through, and it would be out from under him in a week. After that, he was to report to her office a week from Monday to make it officially his. The sound of an escalating argument behind him cut his and Eilis’s conversation short. They both turned, and Vachel didn’t think he could be more shocked. It was Diva and her emasculated father having it out. Clearly, Diva was winning because she didn’t care that her father was embarrassed or that she was acting very badly. What was a teenage girl doing at this exhibit anyway? It wasn’t open to anyone under twenty-one. “Wow,” he muttered when Bryce appeared at his side. “I’d hate to think what Giselle would do to that girl.” Bryce chuckled. “That’d be entertaining, wouldn’t it?” “She’s the girl with the pool Dunc and I cleaned Wednesday.” ”

Vachel pursed his lips and stared at Diva. “This is really gonna cost you.” “I kinda figured it might,” Bryce muttered. “Two hundred fifty an hour, two-hour minimum.” “One fifty. I have to have some room for markup.” “Two twenty-five. I’m retail, pal, and your markup is your problem. Go get a wholesale vendor so I can find an impromptu date.” “Includes rescuing Bill from her.” Vachel thought a moment. She was gorgeous, but she needed a lot of work so as to not look exactly like her friends. It helped that none of them were here to compare her to. She had patrician features, though preternaturally pale (enhanced with goth white and goth scarlet lipstick), electric blue hair cut in a bob. She was about five-eight, five-nine. But that dress—if it could be called that—was a travesty. Too much skin, too much trash. Vachel had spent the first twelve years of his life being poor white trailer trash. He wasn’t thrilled about some rich bitch with an entitlement complex glamorizing it. He looked at his watch. “Okay. I’ll accept that condition.”

He felt Bryce start. “Huh

Hmmm

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“Done.” Immediately, Vachel strode toward the girl (twenty-four? really?), who was still yelling at her fath—erm, stepfather. Now the emasculation made a little more sense. So en- grossed was she in her tantrum, she didn’t notice him until he pressed his mouth to her ear and whispered, “How was your pool party?” She jumped, staring at him as if she didn’t recognize him. Her breathing slowed as her fright eased and her anger returned. “You fucking bastard!” she hissed. “Watch your language. You already look trashy enough without acting like it.” “Trashy?!” “All you need to complete the look is a half-smoked Marlboro in one hand and a can of Blue Ribbon in the other. Trust me. I know from trashy.” Her nostrils flared. “Of course. You’re just a pool boy.” “Mmmm, well yes and no. I’m the pool boy until next Friday. Then I turn into the new CEO of OKH Enterprises.” Her mouth dropped open. Blessed silence. Finally. Her jaw worked up and down, but nothing came out. “You— you’re that Vachel Whittaker?” she squeaked. “Not too many Vachels running around these days.” “You’re going to be Bill’s boss?” Her squeak hit dog-whistle range. “Yes. And if you don’t act like a decent human being this evening, I’ll fire him. You’ll have to get a job. How ’bout that?” She gulped. Ah, she did have an Achilles’ heel. It was at that moment she noticed what he was wearing and her chest heaved. She pointed to his knees and tried to speak, but “That— You— It—” “Yes, Miss Jones, it’s a kilt. Problem?” She recovered herself. “My name’s not Jones,” she snapped, though low. She’d turned her back on the room so she couldn’t be overhead. So she could be trained. “Okay. I’ll call you Diva.” Her jaw clenched and her nostrils flared, but she kept the volume down. She made it up in attitude. “That’s not my name, either.” Vachel snorted. “I don’t care what your name is. Be lucky I don’t call you Rich Bitch. Let’s go.” “Where are you taking me?” she demanded when he grasped her upper arm again and propelled her toward the exit, away from the party. “Better watch the volume, there, Diva,” he muttered. “Job.” “You wouldn’t fire Bill because of me.” “Do you remember what happened to your boyfriend Wednesday?” She didn’t answer. “I see you do. Don’t test me.”

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Once outside in the cool May evening, he gave his ticket to the valet. In the time it took for his car to be brought around, she tried to wrest herself from his grasp, but he didn’t budge. She asked again where he was taking her, but he didn’t answer her. When his car finally was brought around, her mouth dropped open. Again. “What is that?” she whispered with something akin to respect. “Jaguar ’63,” he said shortly and released her to open the passenger door—the one on the left side of the car. She bolted. Well, attempted to. He’d expected that, so he calmly caught her by the barely-there strings that held the little handkerchief to her bosom. “Get in.” With a half rebellious, half fearful look, she obeyed. Vachel went around to the other side, tipped the valet and dropped into the seat on the right side of the car. “As to where I’m taking you,” he said as he shifted smoothly with his left hand, “it’s to get a decent dress. I’m not going to be seen with you when you look like that.” “What?!” He was going to need hearing aids. “You don’t have to be seen with me at all.” “Oh, no. I’m being paid to be your arm candy and I am not going to tarnish my reputa- tion by having a cheap conformist on my arm.” “Paid?!” “Yes. With a two-hour minimum, so you’re stuck with me for the next, oh,” he looked at his watch, “hour and forty-five minutes. At least. And don’t think this is the easiest job I’ve ever done. Think about that for a minute, Diva. Somebody had to be paid to escort you to a nice function. I’d call that humiliating.” That shut her up long enough for them to get to Crown Center. It took him some time to fight the Saturday crowd to get to the restrooms, dragging Diva all the way. Again, they garnered a lot of looks, but he could see how it must look: Dude in a tartan kilt and tux coat dragging a barely-dressed, hissing and spitting young woman (who looked like jail- bait) through a chichi mall and right on into the women’s bathroom. “Is that a wig?” “Yes,” she snapped. “Take it off.” “No.” He cocked his eyebrow and tilted his head. “Excuse me?” She huffed, but obeyed. A mass of huge red-brown curls tumbled down, and he looked at her. She looked so much better already. “Aw, now that’s nice,” he murmured, grabbing the wig and throwing it in the trash. “Now strip the greasepaint.” Glaring at him, she did, and what emerged wasn’t exactly the ugliest thing he’d ever seen. Nice peaches’n’cream complexion that didn’t match her unnaturally purple eyes. “Contacts. And I know those aren’t prescription.” “How do you know?” she snarled. “I’m blind as a bat. I know from prescription.” Gray. A respectable color.

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He dragged her out of the bathroom, startling several women along the way, and pulled her from one clothing store to the next until he found a suitable one. He propelled her across the threshold and summoned one of the dumbfounded saleswomen. “Something green. Preferably silk. Simple. Modest. No frou-frou.” The saleslady came back with several dresses, and he sent Diva with her. He lounged in a small loveseat in front of the dressing rooms, his arms stretched wide across the back of the couch and his ankle over his knee while she changed. She started when she came out in the first dress. “What are you doing?” “Buying a dress. Turn around.” When she refused to budge, he said, “Flipping burgers doesn’t pay very well.” Her mouth tightened, and she turned. “Not that one. Next.” Five dresses later, he settled on a silvery green sheath dress that seemed tailored enough to make her look something approximating her age and get the right kind of attention. When the saleslady finally came back, she gasped and stepped back, her hand over her mouth, staring at Diva. “What, bit—?” Diva snapped. “Diva,” Vachel snapped, immediately angry. “Don’t talk to people like that, especially people who work for a living. They are your superiors in every way.” That startled the sales- lady as much as Diva had. It was to the clerk he turned. “Is there something I’m missing? What do you suggest?” “Nothing, sir,” she breathed. “That is stunning. I have never seen anyone do that dress justice, and it’s hung on the rack forever. It’s like it was made for her.” Vachel felt very pleased with himself, and Diva just stared at the saleslady as if she couldn’t believe what she’d just heard. “If you could throw that dishcloth away,” he gestured toward the dressing room, “I’d appreciate it.” “Of course, sir.” “The shoes don’t match,” Diva grumbled once she’d watched the saleslady walk out of sight with her outfit. Vachel grunted. “Can’t see them anyway.” The dress was marked down seventy-five percent (for the third time) and of course, that entertained Vachel even more. That was a helluva margin, though he hadn’t intended to have to invest any actual money into this job. “I don’t fucking believe this. You’re making me wear a twenty-dollar dress?” “Yep,” he said as he handed his credit card to the saleslady. Once he’d signed the credit card receipt, he slipped the saleslady a twenty and dragged Diva out of the store. Now, one thing Vachel didn’t consider himself to be was foolish. He hadn’t survived his grandmother for twelve years by being so. He hadn’t tracked and hunted and bagged almost every edible species of animal in the Ozarks by the age of sixteen by being foolish. He hadn’t gotten to the position of CEO of OKH at twenty-six by being foolish.

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But as he dragged Diva back through Crown Center togged in that pretty dress, her brown-red hair all curly and tousled and down around her shoulders, her gray eyes spar- kling silver because of the reflection of the silvery-green dress, and her peaches’n’cream complexion flushing in anger, he felt very, very foolish. He had a hard-on. Not that that didn’t happen on a regular basis when in the company of beautiful wom- en—especially ones he planned to seduce—but this one didn’t deserve an ounce of her beauty and he hated that. Hated her. They got to the parking garage, and she opened her mouth to say (screech) something else, but Vachel kissed her. He didn’t know why, since he didn’t make a habit of kissing women he didn’t like. He ignored her little gasp and deepened the kiss when she relaxed, opened her mouth, met his tongue. By the time he pulled away from her, her flawless face had a different flush. She opened those magnificent silver eyes. And then she spit at him. Vachel laughed bitterly and shook his head as he wiped the spittle from his face. “You really think you’re entitled to the world, don’t you? Get in and shut up.” He looked at his watch and said, “Only another half hour. Yay.” He slammed her door closed and went around to get in the driver’s side. He didn’t speak to her during the drive from Crown Center back to the Kemper Gallery, nor did he speak to her when he opened her door once they arrived, nor did he speak when he placed her hand in the crook of his arm and flexed his arm so her hand was caught between his forearm and biceps when she attempted to pull away. He dragged her in and immediately they garnered attention. It was of some surprise to him that they weren’t looking at his kilt. They were looking at Diva, and their mouths hung open. She left a wake of astounded people behind her. He felt vaguely pleased when he saw Bryce’s eyebrow rise and his mouth twitch. They finally arrived at Vachel’s intended destination, which was the dance floor in front of the jazz band. “I sure hope you know how to dance,” Vachel muttered as he took her hand and swung her out, his arm over her head. She snarled at him, but she danced with him and, he had to admit, she wasn’t too shabby. To his surprise and—most definitely hers—they spent the entire evening dancing (even the slow ones). Neither spoke, but Vachel could feel the muscles in her back loosen up, her breathing even out. He found himself drawing her closer to him— She looked up at him, her expression somber. He glanced at her mouth. Wondered if he dared kiss her in front of all these people. Decided not to. She sighed—relief? disap- pointment?—and focused on his tie.

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By the time Diva’s mother (shit, an equally self-entitled rich bitch with an equally ob- noxious fetish for the poor-white-trash look) came to collect her, she had relaxed enough to give him a shy smile him when she made a misstep that would have sent her crashing to the floor if he hadn’t caught her. DivaMama raked Vachel head to toe and sneered, and then raked Diva and sneered. Vachel caught the tightening of Diva’s mouth, the flush, the mist in her eyes. Ah, so the stepfather wasn’t the only victim in the house. Vachel reached for Diva’s hand and pressed a kiss to the back of it. “Thanks, Diva,” he murmured. “I had a good time.” The look of shock on her face was priceless, and she stared at him over her shoulder even as her mother dragged her off. Bryce and Eilis walked up to stand on either side of him and watched DivaMama hound Diva and Emasculated Dad as they left. Vachel looked at his watch and quickly calculated. “Four and a quarter hours at two-twenty-five plus expenses. Eleven hundred bucks. Net fifteen.” Bryce growled in his throat. “I told you it was going to cost you and you’re lucky I don’t charge you extra for hazard pay.” “That dress was on sale for twenty dollars at Spangles,” Giselle muttered when she stuck her head in between them to watch the disappearing spectacle. “I would’ve bought it but it washed me out.” “What?!” Bryce said, his mouth open. “You charged me a hundred and fifty dollars for a twenty-dollar dress?” “Forty with tip. It’s called markup, Bryce. And you didn’t set the terms beforehand so sucks to be you.” Eilis offered her fist for Vachel to bump. “And that, my dear Bryce, is why Vachel is my successor.”

3

Regina lay in her bed awake, listening to her mother scream at Bill about how humiliated she was by Regina’s appearance and that Vachel Whittaker—of all people—had made it clear that he found Regina’s wardrobe unacceptable enough that he’d taken her out and re-

dressed her in a twenty-dollar rag she wouldn’t use to scrub the floor. If she scrubbed floors.

A tear escaped Regina’s eyelid and ran down her face into the pillow. She wasn’t exactly

sure what had happened tonight, but she’d felt more alive with that—that—pool boy— than she had ever felt in a nightclub with its pulsing rhythms and flashing lights. Think about that for a minute, Diva. Somebody had to be paid to escort you to a nice function. I’d call that humiliating. Yeah. That was humiliating. On the other hand, he’d made her feel pretty, and that was something she’d never felt. He’d danced with her, kissed her hand, told her he had fun. She figured he wouldn’t

say that if he didn’t mean it because he hadn’t been shy about making the rest of his opin- ions about her known. And that kiss— Regina touched her fingertips to her lips carefully. people who work for a living. They are your superiors in every way. Everybody at OKH Enterprises had been waiting for weeks to find out who the new CEO would be when Eilis Logan had announced her wish to retire and spend her time with her husband and family. It had only come down that morning and the Wall Street Journal had the scoop before the employees were told. Vachel Whittaker. Twenty-six. Who wore a kilt. The freakin’ pool boy— Well over six feet tall; bare chest buff and tan; longish white-blond hair caught back in a leather strap; strong legs clad in knee-length board shorts. —whom she’d taunted and mocked, wanting to get his attention the only way she knew how.

It had backfired.

She’d seen the way he looked at her before he’d kissed her, those clear, rich turquoise eyes glittering with disgust and hate. But he had kissed her, and then danced with her— almost kissed her again—saved her from tripping over herself.

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It wasn’t hate she’d seen when her mother had dragged her away from him. It was pity.

She swallowed. There was nothing worse in the world than the pool boy thinking she was inferior because she didn’t have to work, or hating her because she really was a bitch, or pitying her for her home life. She thought it might even be worse than her mother’s derision because she had deigned to wear a “twenty-dollar rag” to a society function.

“He forced me to, Carol!” she’d cried desperately in the car on the way home.

“Oh, bullshit. Nobody can force you to do what you don’t want to do.” Except for you. Horrified, Regina realized she’d almost said that out loud. “What did he do, fuck you in the changing room like a cheap whore? If you’d been smart, you could’ve gotten a two- thousand-dollar dress out of the deal.” Regina sucked in a sharp breath. “Carol!” Bill snapped. “That was uncalled for.” “Oh, please. She embarrassed me in front of my friends.”

“I personally thought she looked very nice and quite a few people noticed, as well.”

That is stunning.

“Bill, you’ve had a hard-on for her since you married me.” Regina looked out the window. Bill’s jaw ground. That was what Regina’s mother al- ways said when she was losing an argument. It was a threat, a way to keep both Regina and Bill under her thumb. She played them against each other like a master puppeteer with the threat of telling the one lie guaranteed to ruin any man’s life forever. Even Regina, who had long ago given up her dreams of Bill protecting her, standing up to her mother on her behalf, knew that that was a horrible thing to do to someone.

A man just two years older than she who’d cleaned her pool just Wednesday, was going

to take over a several-billion-dollar business next week as its CEO and be her stepfather’s boss. Regina had nothing to show for her life. She had no skills. She had no education. She had never had a job. And tonight was the first time she had ever been ashamed of that instead of proud. She waited until she heard her mother slam her bedroom door before wrapping herself and her “twenty-dollar rag” in a cush bathrobe and went to the massive library where she found Bill nursing a whiskey sour. As usual. Startled, Bill looked up when she hesitantly knocked on the doorjamb. “Regina,” he breathed. “You shouldn’t be here. If your mother saw—”

“I won’t be long,” she murmured. “I—” She gulped. “How do I, um, how do I go about

getting a job?”

to be continued …

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