THE MASKBy: Alice Ward
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The clock on the wall wasn’t able to keep up with my racing heart as I checked the time… again. I blew out a breath. It was almost time to go out on stage, and my hands were sweaty, my stomach threatening to expel the carb-free low-cal dinner I’d barely eaten.
Behind me, the door to my dressing room opened, but I ignored it and took a quick look in the mirror to assure myself I looked the part I was about to play.
Dark hair reflected red highlights in an elaborate twist on top of my head, check.
Sparkly purple eyeliner brought out the violet in my dark hazel eyes that could never decide if they were blue or green, check.
Hideous scar, check.
“What are you doing, Adara? You’re on in fifteen minutes and you’re not even dressed.” Brandy’s words were laced with a hint of panic, and I turned to find her surveying my dressing room like she owned the place… which she practically did as the manager of Jewel.
She’d always been like that — bossy as hell — even when we’d shared a room in high school. I met her the first day I was moved into foster care. And while she had a tendency to plow over people, she’d always had my back.
“Ady, I’m wearing your mint-green sweater to the concert,” she’d say, stretching my favorite article of clothing over her boobs, which were two sizes too large for her small frame. And much bigger than my average ones.
It didn’t matter that I’d complain as she put the finishing touches on her perfect makeup application. She’d be out the door before I could convince her to leave my wardrobe alone.
Later, she’d bring my sweater home smelling of smoke and men’s cologne. I’d be pissed, but she was usually too drunk to care, and she’d just pass out on her bed, my sweater beyond hope by morning.
Brandy took what she wanted, but only because she never had anything unless she did. That was why I let her get away with so much. After all, she’d always been there for me when it mattered.
Like when Nate…
I sighed and turned away from the thought, then took a deep breath.
Today, Brandy wore an expensive black suit, the skirt cut too short for decency, the neckline plunging deep into those enormous breasts. Her perfect salon-styled platinum blonde hair swept upward in dramatic waves, highlighting her expertly made-up face.
She was a walking doll, twenty-four years old, just a year older than me. The expression on her face was a strange mix of anxiety and Xanax-level calm.
“Sorry, Bran, I’m just…” Not sure I can go out on that stage.
“Act lively, Ady. You’re at the most exclusive men’s only club in the world and it’s Friday. Money night.”
“Shush, Brandy, don’t call me that. What if someone hears?” I didn’t care if it was the most popular night, the evening most of the men let loose from work and spent more money than other nights. I didn’t care about most things. I didn’t recognize myself anymore or the life I was left with.
“God, okay, okay.” She rolled her eyes and threw up her hands, nearly exposing her panties. “Sorry, Mona. It’s not like this place isn’t full of secrets.”
The men’s club clients were a who’s who of the most powerful men in business, entertainment, and government. Everything that happened within these gilded walls was held in the strictest of confidence. With the Jewels it was different. More cutthroat.
I’d only been here for two months, but already, I wanted to scratch my way out. Too bad I didn’t have anything to go back to now. Brandy had snatched me up out of my darkest days, rescued me from destitution. I’d had a long way to fall from the top, and while I appreciated her for all she’d done, sometimes I felt like gravity had crushed me on the way down.
I met her gaze. “I know what you’re thinking. Why would it matter if my secret got out? After all, I’ve already lost everything.”
Well, not absolutely everything. I’d somehow managed to hold on to a miniscule piece of my pride.
I wasn’t a prostitute, but most of the other women inside Jewel were. Not surprising. Prostitution was one of the oldest professions in the world. Even Jesus chilled with prostitutes. The Jewels, as the working women of the club were called, sometimes made as much as thirty thousand dollars a night. The lowest bid for an evening was ten grand, and the girls received a small percentage of their price, which was still a hunk of money.