Four Seconds to Lose Page 3

“Her name?”

“Charlie.”

“Real or stage?”

She shrugs. “Real, I think. ‘Charlie’ is the only name she’s ever given me.”

I pause to take another sip of my drink. “You vetted her?” Ginger knows the requirements. No track marks. No pimps. No prostitution. I have zero tolerance for drugs and prostitution. I’d get shut down in a heartbeat if the cops caught on, and too many people rely on Penny’s to let that happen. Plus, there’s no need for it here. I make sure the girls can rake in the money safely, without selling the last shreds of their dignity.

Her curt nod answers me.

“Experience?”

“Vegas. She had a couple of interviews here, including one at Sin City.” Ginger’s brow arches meaningfully. “You know what Rick makes them do.”

I lean back in my chair. Yeah, I’ve heard what Rick’s requirements are for getting and keeping a job in his club. The fact that the guy’s a fat, sweaty tub of hair doesn’t help. “She didn’t comply?”

Ginger giggles. “She barely made it out of there without puking, from what she told me.”

I nod slowly. That definitely earns her a few points with me. I want to help out every woman who feels she needs to take her clothes off to survive but I’m only one man, and not every woman is strong enough to avoid the pitfalls of this industry.

I’ve seen too many of them fall fast.

And trying to catch them over and over again is so very exhausting.

Taking in Ginger’s exotically beautiful face, I finally ask the big question. “What’s her deal, Ginger? Why strip?” With a finger, I slowly trace the rim of my glass. There’s usually a good reason. Or a bad reason, depending on how you look at it. As far as ratios of completely normal to f**ked-up employees go, the numbers generally weigh in heavy for the latter. “High school dropout with no future? History of abuse? Douchebag boyfriend wanting extra cash? Daddy issues? Or is she just looking for attention?”

Ginger’s head tilts as she murmurs in a dry tone, “Jaded much?”

I throw my hands up in the air. “You’re the exception, Ginger. You know that.” Since the day Ginger walked into my office—on her eighteenth birthday—I’ve never had to worry about her. She comes from a stable, abuse-free home and she has never even batted an eye at the stage. Her purpose is straightforward and honest: save enough money to open an inn in Napa Valley. With the kind of money she rakes in here, I’d say she’s getting close to that dream.

After a pause, she shrugs. “All I know is she wants to make good money. But she seems to have her head on straight, since she didn’t take the other jobs.”

Because she probably figured out she’d be sucking c**k in the private room . . . With a deep exhale and my hand pressed against my forehead, rubbing the frown smooth, I mutter, “All right. We’ll see.” Am I really going to do this right now? What if she’s another Cherry? Or Marisa? Or China? Or Shaylen? Or—

“Great. Thanks, Cain.” She pauses, her curvy frame—dressed in cut-off shorts and a tank top for setting up the bar—leaning against the door frame. “You okay? You seem worn out lately.”

Worn out. That’s a good way to describe it. Worn out by week after week, month after month of brazen customers, everyday ownership issues, and employees who can’t seem to straighten out their lives without someone running interference. Throw in police attention—because they assume, based on my past and my current business, that I’m following in the footsteps of my ­parents—and you’ve summarized my life for the past decade.

It’s enough to make any rational person quit.

And I have considered quitting. I’ve considered selling Penny’s and walking away. And then I look at my employees’ faces—the ones who I know will end up at a place like Sin City without me—and the metal teeth of the trap around my chest dig in tighter.

I can’t abandon them. Not yet. If I could just get this lot out and safe, without adding any more problems to my plate, I could live out my life somewhere quietly. A remote beach in Fiji is sounding pretty damn good.

None of those thoughts ever gets spoken out loud, though. “Just haven’t been sleeping well,” I say to Ginger, pulling on the fake smile that I’ve mastered. It’s beginning to feel like a suffocating iron mask.

By the way Ginger’s brow pulls together, I know she doesn’t believe me. “Okay, well, you know you always have my ears if you want ’em,” she offers, grinning playfully as she rolls her hips and winks. “And nothing else.”

Her soft laughter follows her out the door, temporarily lifting my dour mood as I set to preparing payroll for the small army of dancers, security, kitchen, and wait staff I have under my employ. Serge—a forty-eight-year-old retired Italian opera singer—­manages my kitchen as if it were his own, but I handle everything else.

Unfortunately, the dour mood returns with a vengeance twenty minutes later when Nate’s call comes through. “His blue Dodge is here.”

My fist slams down against the desk, rattling everything. “You’re kidding me, right?” I take a moment to gain control of the rage bubbling inside me. Nate doesn’t bother to answer. The two of us have always had an easy back-and-forth banter, but he knows what not to joke with me about. Fuckheads taking advantage of women is one of those things.

“You want me to go in?” Nate offers.

“No, wait outside. If he’s back, he’s probably carrying.” As stupid as this guy is, he must have learned after the last time. “I’m on my way. Don’t go inside, Nate.” I throw that last warning in with a stern voice. I couldn’t bear to lose Nate over this. I shouldn’t even have let him get involved. I should have made him go to college and lead a normal life. But I didn’t, because he’s all I have and I like having him around.

I’m out of my seat and crouched in the corner in seconds, dialing the safe combination. My fingers wrap tightly around the biting steel of my Glock. I despise myself for touching it. It represents violence, illegality . . . the life and the choices that I’ve left behind, that I would never let consume me again. But if it means keeping Nate and Cherry and her eight-year-old son—the one who dialed my number on Cherry’s cell phone for help when he found his mother unconscious on the couch the last time—safe, then I will jam the barrel right into the scumbag’s temple.

I’m about to slip on the holster when the door creaks open. “Cain?”

I need to start locking my damn office door again, I tell myself. Stifling a curse, I slide the gun back into the safe and stand, struggling to keep the venom from my voice as I growl, “Ginger, you really need to learn—” How to knock is how that sentence is supposed to end.

But instead it ends in a sharp hiss, as I find myself staring at my past.

At Penny.

Chapter two

CHARLIE

Plan A—Turn myself in and beg for immunity in exchange for information.

I don’t have enough concrete information to nail him. I’ll probably end up in jail for the next twenty-five years. If I even make it there, alive.

Plan A – Turn myself in and beg for immunity in exchange for information.

Plan B—Lose all my identification and fake amnesia so the government will be forced to create new documentation for me . . . eventually.

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