Page 1 of 78 - Dear Agony
 
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Chapter One


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Rose Middleton



She’s here again. The woman who always dresses in black. The woman with perfectly applied cosmetics and long silky, ebony hair. The woman who sits with crossed legs on a nearby bench and watches me for hours each day.

The woman who’s after something from me.

She puzzles me. And pisses me off.

What could a well-put-together lady like her want with a girl like me? I have nothing. It’s impossible for her to think otherwise.

Look at me. I’m on Jackson Square in New Orleans wearing a ridiculous Mardi Gras getup I found in a dumpster. I stand motionless, imitating a mannequin, and holding a pose on the steps of St. Louis Cathedral. I’ve spent the last two hours praying for kindness and mercy in the form of a few clinks in my tin bucket.

A trio of guys around my age stops in front of me. The tallest one in the bunch steps close and waves a ten-dollar bill back and forth in front of my face. My mouth floods as I consider how much food that would buy. “All you have to do is move. Grab it and it’s all yours, honey.”

I hate when men call me pet names. Just another way of degrading me. I’m no one’s honey or baby or sweetheart or kitten.

And I never will be.

I consider abandoning my pose and snatching the money. Ten bucks would cover my supper tonight plus breakfast in the morning. Maybe lunch tomorrow if I’m frugal.

The guy’s friend punches him in the shoulder. “Make her work for it, dumbass.”

“Right.” He shoves the bill down the front of his jeans. “All you gotta do is go after it, sweetheart.”

I’ve been doing this long enough to know that going after it isn’t all I have to do. No one gives you something for nothing in New Orleans.

Maybe I should do as he asks . . . and give his balls a twist while I’m in there. That would show this dick I’m not his honey or sweetheart.

The runt of the group slaps his friend on the back. “Look at her face, dude. She’s thinking it over.”

The jerk is totally right. I am considering diving into his pants to go fishing for that money. That’s how hungry I am.

I’m a millisecond away from breaking pose . . . until I remember she’s here. Watching me. And something beyond my empty stomach won’t allow me to cave to these pricks in front of her.

I’ve always been stubborn. It’s gotten me in trouble more times than I care to admit. And it will this time too, ultimately costing me meals I so desperately need. But I can’t bring myself to do it. Not while she’s watching. And judging.

Don’t know why I care.

“Come on, Mark. Don’t waste your money on this chick. She’s ugly anyway.”

She’s ugly. Pff . . . like that’s the first time I’ve ever heard that. Like I’m not immune to hearing those words.

Let it go, Rose. Let it roll off your back. Just like you always do. These idiots don’t define you.

The triad of ass monkeys leave, and I’m relieved. Grateful they didn’t stick around to sling more insults in my direction.

I never let jackasses like those guys get to me. I learned to wear my skin like armor a long time ago but this incident is different. She heard them taunt me. This gorgeous woman, with the straightest spine I’ve ever seen, heard them call me ugly.

A tingle in my nose stings, and I will it to stop. But it doesn’t. My stare becomes blurred and I fight the urge to blink, afraid she’ll see my tears and mistake them for something they are not.

I’m not hurt. Emotional pain isn’t possible when there’s only emptiness in the place where you once had a heart.

I. Am. Pissed.

Pissed this woman is here again. Pissed I don’t know why. Pissed she witnessed my humiliation.

Her attention is unwanted. Being noticed by people has never ended well for me. And I’m sure it won’t this time either.

I’ve stayed below the radar of many in my life. I actually became skillful and cunning about it. Until that night. The night I let my guard down.

The night I can’t remember.

The night I can’t forget.

I’ve had enough of this—of her—and whatever it is she’s trying to pull. She needs to leave me alone and go away. Now.

I break pose, hold out my hands, and shout at the woman. “Whaaat?”

I fume when I see the amusement spread across her flawless face and red-stained lips. “Do you really have so little going on in your life that you get a kick out of coming here day after day just to have a laugh at my expense?”

She gets up from the bench and approaches, her hips swaying with each long stride she takes in her skyscraper pumps. I don’t know how women walk in shoes like those.

She flashes a business card and several one hundred dollar bills. “Use this money to buy some decent clothes. Rent a room for the night and get cleaned up. You stink. And then meet me at The Court of Two Sisters. We have reservations for seven thirty tomorrow night.”

One. Two. Three. Four. This woman’s seriously handing over four hundred dollars? For nothing?

Nobody gives you something for nothing. And they definitely don’t give you four hundred dollars for nothing. “I’m not a hooker.”

“I’m aware.”

I’m calling her out on her MO. She needs to know I’m onto her and this little game she’s playing. “You’ve been watching me. I’ve seen you every day this week.”

She laughs, making me feel like I’m not privy to some kind of joke. “I’ve been watching you much longer than a week, Rose.”

Shit. She knows my name? “Who are you? What do you want from me?”

“That’s a conversation for us to have over dinner after you’ve made yourself presentable. Not while we stand in front of St. Louis Cathedral with you looking like . . . that.”

I’m further humiliated when this elegant woman points out the fact that I look like a fool. “You think I like dressing this way? You think I really need you to tell me I look stupid?” I’m homeless—and maybe I am a nobody in everyone’s eyes—but she doesn’t have to be so unkind.

“I think you’re dressed like that because you’re surviving the only way you know how. But I want to show you a different way. If you want to hear what I have to say, be at The Court of Two Sisters tomorrow night.” She drops the card and bills in my bucket. “If you’re not interested, at least spend this money wisely.”

 
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