She knew a day would come when Wayne would show up. Try to claim her once more. As if the judges decree around their annulment meant anything to him. He was not one to follow rules.
But did his appearance have to be today?
She’d wanted to her walk to be flawless, perfect. Yet seeing him had her falter, a slight pause in her advance down the catwalk. It pissed her off—until that usual terror took its place. The pattern was always the same around him—a slice of heat ran through her body followed by a cold chill that washed over her like a tidal wave.
In her periphery, she sought Richard. He’d kept his gaze on her through her entire walk. And, as she knew it would, as soon as her hesitation to move forward took over, she felt him. His presence was like a giant invisible hand curling around her whole body, urging her forward despite her fear.
You know what? Wayne could go to hell. Her renewed bravado didn’t stop her from automatically searching the crowd, however. Wayne rarely traveled alone. His posse of idiots had to be with him.
But then again she was not alone. Never would be again.
She continued walking until she got to the end of the catwalk. She rounded the corner of the tall accordion screen and Laurent caught her in a half embrace. Her knees had given out.
Richard had always told her “take the small victories and they will turn into larger ones.” So she was proud of herself for waiting to crumble once out Wayne’s sight.
“I’m okay,” she said automatically to Laurent. “I-I am fine. Nerves that’s all.”
“Quickly. It’s time for the final parade.” He grasped her shoulders.
She couldn’t go back out there, could she?
She had to.
She would not disappoint Laurent—or Richard.
Laurent sighed and dropped his arms. “This…” he waved his hands up and down her torso. “… some of my greatest work. You’re going to look gorgeous in it when you take your march down the wedding aisle. Now go… I’ll be right behind you,” he whispered dramatically.
She smoothed her hands down the bodice. “It’s the most gorgeous thing I will ever wear. Thank you.” If Wayne doesn’t fuck that up.
She clasped both his wrists and his smile returned. “Whenever you have time to make it, of course.”
His brow furrowed. “Make it? Darling, it’s been made. You’re wearing your wedding gown.”
Oh. “Richard bought it, didn’t he?”
Laurent raised one eyebrow as if “duh.”
Richard had been in a hurry to marry her. And technically she was free to do so. If only Wayne hadn’t shown up and trying to ruin it. Richard knew about her past—at least most of it, like how after Daniel died she was barely holding on.
She was easy prey for Wayne and his gang. She was more than easy. She might as well have had a target on her ass.
They showed up nearly every night at the bar where she worked. At first Wayne had been kind. Large tips left behind. Telling the other men to back off when they got drunk and their hands wandered to her butt. He started hanging out towards the end of her shift, helping her stack sticky chairs on even sticker tables. He’d walk her to her car make sure she got there safely. At first she felt protected. But then…
Shake it off. She had a new life waiting for her. There was no reason to visit the old one.
She took in a cleansing breath, took her place in the line up with Laurent behind her. He grasped her shoulders, squeezed once and squealed. Before she knew it her feet were gliding her forward with the rest of the models.
A wall of applause hit her as soon as she re-entered the South Hall. People were on their feet clapping excitedly.
Her eyes frantically searched the crowd for Richard. He was nowhere to be found. But then again neither was Wayne. His minions, however, stood off to the side, like sentinels waiting for a chance to strike.
She recognized one, a tall lanky guy she’d labeled Sneerface. He never talked much. But rather scoffed his way through most conversations. Another guy she didn’t recognize stood next to him. Sneerface leaned down and whispered something to him. The man’s eyes sliced her way and he nodded once.
Shit. They were planning to snatch her already?
Where was Richard? She had to find him. As soon as she’d turned back behind the garment racks, she kicked off her shoes and slipped on her flats. But screw taking off the dress, though she itched to rip it off herself.
She didn’t belong in a wedding dress, let alone one of Laurent’s creations.
When she’d been wearing it, showing it off, she’d felt new—like a clean spring rain. Then seeing Wayne, his disgusted face—yes, it was pure disgust coloring his eyes—she’d curdled inside. The look was familiar. It had its usual effect. She felt dirty.
The stiff blue silk rustled as she scooted down the hall. The Arts and Industries building was big but not impossibly large. She had to find him—and prayed he wasn’t with Wayne.
If they were together… Well, Wayne, certainly would have nothing good to say about her today. Because if she knew one thing about him. He’d come here to ruin whatever good he saw happening around Charlotte.
Richard’s low rumble echoed in the East Hall. The rich tone drew her forward like a siren’s call.
She rounded the corner. Wayne was pressed against the wall. Familiar men stood around Richard who was mere inches from him.
Sneerface strode up behind her, went around her as if she nothing more than an obstacle to ignore, and marched up behind Richard.
Marcos’ hand flew out, landed on the guy’s chest. “Step back, buddy. Not your scene.”
Sneerface earned his name in that moment, leering back at Marcos. Stupid man. He played with fire and didn’t even realize it.
She’d been so fixated on finding Richard, it was only then she realized the other men with Marcos were Carson, Derek and Alexander.
Whatever was going down was serious.
She didn’t know what courage she found but she rustled up to them.. “Stop,” she called.
Richard’s eyes turned to her, blazed with fury. “Get back to Sarah.”
“No.” She lifted her chin, brazened a look at Wayne. He’d aged. Lines marred his forehead but basically he was the same shyster. Slicked back hair. Expensive suit that he made look cheap. Why did she not see the poser he was back then?
The fire lit anew in Richard’s eyes. “Now Charlotte.”
Alexander touched her elbow but said nothing.
Wayne let out puff of air from his nostrils, screwed his lips together and shook his head slowly. “Really, Charlotte? A wedding dress. At least you knew better than to wear white.”
When she’d been walking down the catwalk, the dress had begun to feel good like maybe it and she belonged together. It was something pretty, frail but strong – something she’d begun to feel. It was ridiculous, really. She was only one of those things. Weak. Easily taken in. Then used up beyond recognition. Damaged goods don’t get pretty packages like lace and silk and…
“Alexander, please.” Richard’s voice ran through her like sandpaper. The fury in his eyes did more damage to her soul. The message was clear. “Get her out of here,” they said.
Alexander urged her back. “I’ll escort you, Charlotte.”
Sneerface, for the first time since she’d known him, actually spoke. “An escort for an escort. That’s appropriate.”
Richard’s gaze snapped to him. “You don’t say a word to her or risk losing your tongue.”
Wayne looked past him, chuckled. ‘Oh? Didn’t know that about our little redhead here? Like I told you. She was no more than a prostitute when I found her.” Triumph filled his eyes.
Richard’s head snapped to the side, his eyes slicing over his shoulder toward her but not fully meeting her gaze. His head cocked as if he didn’t understand. Then his shoulders dropped as if Wayne’s words made sense. Escort. Whore. Hooker. Wayne had filled him in—or his version of things anyway.
Wayne did what he’d set out to do. He’d ruined her—again.
Alexander’s hold on her elbow tightened and, like the trash, he took her out of the hall and steered her back to the South Hall.
Alexander didn’t say a word until they rounded the corner. Then he stopped her abruptly looked down at her with those ice blue eyes. “Do not let them get to you.”
His voice was so commanding under a normal circumstance she might consider what he said.
“What were they talking about before I got there? I mean, they didn’t…” she almost asked it out loud. Alexander had that effect on people he often had them admit things, tell the truth.
Richard had asked for that hadn’t he? Only there was one truth he would never forgive her for, and it would end everything.
How Wayne coerced her into marrying him.
How he at first made love to her sweetly.
How it had turned ugly.
How he never took “no” for an answer.
How he was the one who turned her into a prostitute.
He once locked her out of the car in parking lot in the pouring rain until she promised to give him a blow job. Eventually, he didn’t allow her food unless she gave him sexual favors.
Her ribs hurt from hunching over. “I just need to get out of here. Could you drive me to…?” she almost said “home” but she wasn’t sure she’d have one again
“Richard will want to drive you home,” he finished.
‘I can’t stay here.”
Then she had to get out of the wedding dress right now. She rushed forward went behind the curtain and started ripping at the dress.
“Whoa there you’re going to ruin it,” cried out one of the dressers. He started to help her out of it but she couldn’t get it off fast enough.
Sarah rushed over with Laurent. “Charlotte, what is going on?”
Richard’s voice met her ears. “Give us a minute.”
Like a receding wave on a beach, everyone slunk back.
Richards face morphed into something she couldn’t read. She thought she’d memorized all his faces and where or not she pleased him. Right then his face wasn’t recognizable in the slightest—tense lips, eyes hooded with fury.
This was the moment, wasn’t it? When her life all fell apart again?
Richard strode up to her, peered down at her. “I’ll take her out of the dress.”
Of course he would. He’d never want to see it on her again.
A while ago Richard had told her about his grandmother Maria. How she’d had to do whatever it took to survive Mussolini’s terror in Sorrento—even using her own body. How she’d vowed never to be at the mercy of men again, made everyone in their family to swear to pass on a promise: never let another woman in their family stoop so low.
Richard’s mother made him promise the same thing. To never let a woman in his path bring herself to his grandmother’s state – to let herself be taken to the point of sacrificing one’s own dignity.
Charlotte had always felt somehow that meeting Richard was kismet, a sign from his mother’s grave.
But now? He’d learned the worst of her, and his anger, shining from his eyes, made her skin prickle.
He took her back to the furthest corner of the dressing area, pulled her behind one of the accordion screens. He spun her so she faced away from him. Then silently began to unbutton the tiny row of buttons down her back. He wasn’t gentle with them.
“Spread your legs. There’s something of mine I’m going to retrieve,” he growled.
Ah, the Ben Wa balls. She’d nearly forgotten they were there. He removed them, let them clatter to the floor.
She leaned her forehead against her forearms against the wall and gave up. She began to weep.
He pressed against her. “You will never see them again,”
She nodded, sniffed.
His hands fell to her shoulders, and he sighed heavily. Then he spun her around. The dress was fully unbuttoned and the bodice dropped her waist. She automatically folded her arms over her breasts. They were covered in tiny pasties but still. She never felt so exposed in her life.
His dark eyes had softened. “Charlotte, do not hide yourself.”
Her eyes glanced around there were just a few people milling around everyone else had probably moved on to the after party by now.
“I’m…I’m…” she kept saying.
“You are what, Charlotte? A victim of a man who made you feel you deserved his treatment of you? How he labeled you something you didn’t choose to be.”
“You don’t think I didn’t look into every corner of your life by now? Let the dress fall to the ground. You are more important right now.”
She did what he asked, and the silk pooled around her calves, the stiff skirt not letting it collapse entirely.
Richard drew down the thin g-string panties she wore. “I’ve been watching Wayne and his posse for some time. I see how he treats women. How he makes them feel.”
“Like a prostitute,” she whispered.
“But you aren’t. If anything, he is. He can’t live without manipulating someone. He traded his life, his morals, his very soul in order to get his fix. I’d say that makes him the prostitute—though it would be an affront to all legal sex workers to put him in their same camp.”
Richard could never fault anyone for their choices so long as there was consent.
He drew her to him, and his fingers traced along the seam of her bare ass. “Now who are you?”
“Other than that, I don’t know.”
“I will remind you. Widen those legs.”
“People will see.” Though whatever he did to her now most of the people still lingering backstage had already witnessed at Club Accendos.