I hadn’t meant to let my anger get the better of me, and I knew that if Elliot told his brother about my slap then I’d be out the door quicker than you can say physical assault, but I couldn't help it.
Elliot rubbed his face, but his grin was like that of a pirate that had found interesting treasure.
“What was that for?” He asked, amused. “Or is that part of our game?”
“You asked me to sleep with you for money.” I kept my voice impassive and shrugged as I said it. I towered over him in the chair, and it felt good. Anger licked at my insides and stole all rationality. “I am not a whore.”
I knew that rage made a person ugly, but I didn’t care. I ripped myself away from him, pulling back like he was a planet that I’d found myself orbiting. I turned away, and something gripped my wrist.
I knew that the knots in his precious silk tie were flimsy, but the quickness of which he had broken free was a little humiliating.
He had had the power all along; he only let me think that I was in control.
“That wasn’t my intension, Pepper.” Elliot reached up and took a lock of my hair between his fingers. His eyes were intense. Under his gaze, it took everything inside of me not to squirm.
His attention was like a laser. I looked away, too strong to handle the full force.
“How did you know that it was me?” I whispered when I recognised his expression.
I wanted to slap my forehead for my stupidity.
“The name...” I breathed, my face coloured with my humiliation. I opened my mouth and found myself closing it again at a loss for words.
I was an indebt mess that couldn’t escape the shackles of my trailer trash mother.
I had nothing to offer but complications.
My eyes were wide as he pressed his lips to mine. Hard and unwieldy. I found myself melting against him. My hands gripped the lapels of his suit jacket for balance. My eyes fluttered closed.
His rough stubble brushed against my chin. Then as suddenly as the kiss had started, my lips were cold with his absence.
I did not open my eyes straight away as I floated back down to my body.
The door slammed and I was alone.
Every year, for the first week of November, Goldryn Bois hosted the annual St Ann's Parish Seafood festival. St Ann's Parish lined the coast but Goldryn Bois was a two-hour drive to the sea once you reached the town limits.
Crawfish and lobster, as well as shrimp the size of your fist available at every stall. Every type of dish that you could imagine. Gumbo. Jambalaya. Oysters Rockefeller. If you could think it, then they could broil it.
Every year I had watched the stalls, looking at the deep-fried lobster and crawfish bread with a longing that I couldn’t quantify.
I didn’t have the money to spare on the food stalls or novelty items made of cleaned out shells; but being out from under Mama’s thumb came with a sense of freedom that I couldn’t explain.
Rina met me outside of my apartment, though I’d asked her not to do so. I didn’t live in a ‘nice’ neighbourhood like the Row. Never the less, when I spotted her on the sidewalk, hovering outside the apartment block’s broken front door, I noticed that Rina Langley looked like she belonged to the neighbourhood more than I did.
Rina was dressed in ripped high-waisted jeans and a crop top that showcased a sliver of skin. Her black hair was flicked out at the ends, skimming her jawline and a nose ring adorned her right nostril.
I was dressed in a white t-shirt and a pair of skinny jeans that I had gotten on sale at Target a few years previously. I looked positively preppy compared to her with my dark frizzy hair in a ponytail and my glossy lips.
Rina leapt forward and soothed me with a hug. “Oh my god, Sugar. I've missed you so damn much.”
I laughed against her shoulder. “You are missing all the lady lovin' now that you're all set to marry a Gold?”
Rina wrinkled her nose, but her eyes sparkled with mischief like the pixie she was. “We both know that Julian would let me go and get the lady lovin' if I wanted to.” She whispered, as if letting me in on a secret.
I gave her the side eye as we began to walk to Main Street. Rina fanned herself.
“Why the hell is it so damn hot in November? I'm gunna spend Thanksgiving in front of my Aircon if this carries on.”
I nodded in response, but I knew that I wasn’t going to turn on my air conditioning unless it was hotter than Satan’s asshole. I could deal with ice cream weather.
“So, has Julian had many girls in his office?” Rina’s tone was deceptively light. “I mean... I don’t know what I mean.”
I shrugged. “Scarlett’s his favourite.” I told her. “I think they're fucking but they’re secretive about it. No favourites. Other than that, he doesn’t seem to mix business and pleasure.”
Rina nodded to herself. “At least I know where I stand.”
“Why are you marrying him, Rina?” The smell of crawfish grew as we got closer to Main Street and my stomach growled.
“You should have seen Daddy's face when I told him.” Rina admitted. Her smile was shaky. “I have my reasons and Julian’s been great about it all.”
I rubbed my stomach to change the subject. “I’m gonna eat my weight in shrimp.”
It was stupid to spend money on something so frivolous when I still owed Daniel Davis fifteen large. I didn’t care. I wasn’t letting Mama take something I’d been looking forward to since the year had started.
We reached the first stall, lobster thermadore served in Styrofoam. I inhaled deeply and my mouth watered.
Rina tugged my arm. “We’re not gonna make it past the first stall. I think we should walk around, say hi to everyone and then make a list of what we wanna try. Sound good?”
“Bless your heart.” I smiled. “I’d make it past five stalls before this stomach would get full.”
Rina eyed my belly and nodded in agreement. “I can’t believe how much your body has changed since you moved out.”
I looked down at my boobs. “These babies filled out, that’s for sure.”
A male voice drifted over to where Rina and I stood.
“I couldn’t agree more.” Elliot said.
I looked up and saw all three Gold brothers taking up the walkway.
Elliot wore a white shirt the stretched over his broad shoulders. Taller than his brothers by a head, he was clean-cut and respectable.
By contrast, his brothers couldn’t have been more different. Nate was tattooed, leather jacket and all, with a cigarette dangling from his lips like he was channelling James Dean.
I nodded at my boss, Julian Gold. Male fashionista, artfully styled with the softest heart I had probably ever known.
He hid it behind cheeky smiles and the odd rude comment, but all the girls at the Pink Sleeve knew he was a good'n.
I studied Rina out of the corner of my eye and saw a splash on pink on her delicate cheekbones. Interesting.
She shook her head to clear it. “Uh-oh! Gold’s on the prowl.” She said playfully. Julian broke away from his brotherly line-up to come to her side and slide his arm over her shoulders.
I glanced at Elliot from under my lashes and wished that I hadn’t.
Who was I?
A stripper and a one night stand.
He wouldn’t want to be seen in public with me.
Whilst it wasn’t common knowledge who danced at the Pink Sleeve, some of the older and more prominent male members of the town came in for private dances.
I would be willing to bet the Elliot Gold wouldn’t want the mayor to see him with his arm around a woman that showed off her body for money.
He stood in front of me, the same distance as Nate Gold. Friendly but impersonal.
“You are looking for someone, Nate?” Julian joked as he tickled Rina’s waist and she slapped him away. “Because I know for a fact that the Bell B&B has a stall over by the TeaSpoon. Something about a lobster cage and fishing experience?”
Nate glanced at us and walked away with a wicked smirk.
“Oh no.” Rina cried in horror as she slapped Julian on the chest. “How could you sic him on Gwen Bell like that?”
Julian had a mischievous twist to his smile. “Those two have more drama than a telenovela.” He said.
“You tryin' to light a match under those two?” Elliot’s deep voice broke the spell the couple seemed to be weaving over each other. I swallowed the lump in my throat.
“What do you think, Harriet?” Elliot drawled. “You haven’t said a word.”
Rina gave me a look that asked a ton of questions that I couldn’t answer.
“Harriet?” Rina giggled. “I haven’t heard our Harry called that in a long time.”
“Harry?” Elliot said slowly, as if tasting my nickname. “Did you used to work at the diner on the 603?”
I nodded and his eyes flicked to my hairline, as if remembering the bruise that had been there the first time we had met. His eyes widened in realisation.
“It seems our paths have crossed a lot more than I realised.” Elliot's cornflower blue eyes held mine and refused to let go.
Julian cleared his throat. “Rina and I are gunna go check out the shell necklaces over by the stage. Why don’t you get Harry some food, Elliot?”
Julian's expression implied that it wasn’t a suggestion at all, but a thinly veiled threat delivered with a quirked brow and a benign smirk. Without a word, the strangest couple I knew disappeared into the crowd.
It was awkward standing in the middle of Main Street with a man that could buy the whole strip if he wanted. The same man that I had between my legs, with his mouth and cock, on the best night of my life. My stomach wiggled with nerves, like it was home to viper’s nest.
“How have you been?” Elliot's voice was uncharacteristically soft.
I tried to speak but my voice creaked like a rusty hinge. I cleared my throat and tried again. “G-Good.”
He gripped my shoulder and squeezed. I forced myself to look at his face. The situation was too different to connect to the dark room at the Pink Sleeve, where I had held the power.
“Where’s my feisty Pepper gone?” He joked. “I won’t bite, come on.”
He gestured to the nearest stall. Crawdad gumbo. My stomach purred in agreement.
I followed him to the bistro chairs with a stiff nod. He pulled out a seat for me like a true Southern gent.
I couldn’t help but look around to see who was watching. My nerves were shot and when he spoke again, I jumped a mile high like a cat on a tin roof.
“Who are you looking for?” he asked.
I gripped the napkin on the table and twisted it between my fingers. “Aren’t you worried about what people would think, being seen with me?”
Elliot shrugged but his eyes never left mine. “Better than being seen with anyone else.”
“No girlfriend?” I asked. “What about Sarah Mallory?”
“Nothing. She's married.” Elliot's voice was cold. I hated that I’d brought up a subject that had put ice all over our conversation. Without a word, he stood up and walked over to the temporary counter. Ordering food for the both of us. I didn’t even have a chance to get out my wallet when he put a steaming bowl of gumbo in front of me.
I inhaled deeply and bit back my moan.
“I don’t want to talk about Sarah Mallory.” Elliot admitted in a low voice.
I lifted my spoon and took the biggest bite of my food that I could so I didn’t have to speak.
“I don’t know why you think I’d be ashamed to be seen with you, Harry.” He said softly. Ignoring his food. “Your dad was the sheriff before Bell stepped up, right?”
I nodded but took another spoonful of food to avoid having to say anything.
“You’re the prettiest girl in the whole town.” Elliot admitted, staring at his spoon with a frown. “Smartest too.”
“How did you—”
“I have money, Harriet Alice Thompson.” He said bitterly. “I had someone trying to find my mystery girl for months. Once I had your name, it was easier to pin you down. 4.0 GPA, founder of the Goldryn High Photography club.”
“Stop.” I interrupted.
“Two social services visits for bruises.” He continued. “I saw that bruise back at the diner. It didn’t stop, did it?”
I gripped my spoon so hard that much knuckles turned white. “Having money doesn’t give you permission to rifle through my life.” I said scathingly. Betrayal laced my weak voice.
A heavy silence descended on the table. I pushed my chair away and began to stand up.
“Please don’t leave.” Elliot said. His eyes were full of pain. “I shouldn’t have done it.”
I sat back down and found myself staring at my clenched fists as they rested on my lap. “You shouldn’t have done it.” I repeated his words back at him.
“Harry.” He begged. “Look at me.”
“I’m sorry.” Elliot said, rubbing the back of his neck. I got the impression apologizing wasn't something that Elliot did often.
We stayed silent until both of us finished our food. When we stood, Elliot held out his elbow for me to take.
“You like photography?” He asked, as we weaved through the crowds in front of each of the stalls.
“I don’t have much time for it anymore.” I replied. “I’m on Instagram, though.”
“I know how you feel.” He chuckled softly and shook his head. “I feel I am constantly circling a drain. Demands on my time keep growing and I can’t keep up.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that.” I admitted. “But I know what it’s like to tread water.”
We reached the end of the stalls, and had separately from the crowd.
“Why did you lie about your name?” Elliot asked me, his gaze was both accusing and curious. It was a strange combination.
I shrugged. “I’m not the type of person that belongs at the Goldryn Masquerade.”
“Are you sure?” Elliot said, his lips twisting to one side.
My brow creased in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“Never mind.” Elliot smiled and the expression lit up his entire face and took my breath away. We stood, hidden at the beginning of an alleyway, between two stalls.
Elliot put both of his hands on my cheeks, and his lips were so close to mine. My mouth parted, I could feel his breath on my skin.
“I’m not good for you.” He told me, begrudgingly.
I nodded in agreement, although something inside of my heart was screaming as my emotions crashed and burnt. “I agree.” I croaked.
He didn’t kiss me. I wanted him to kiss me anyway.
“Friends?” He asked, but he seemed to be asking the question to himself as well.
I nodded, because even though I wanted more, it was all I could offer as well.