Four Seconds to Lose Page 2

He’s right. They shouldn’t. Lizzy shouldn’t have been there in the first place. If I hadn’t given up on her, if I hadn’t kicked her out of my apartment, she wouldn’t have.

I could have saved her.

But now I’m too late.

Present Day

“What do you mean you can’t deliver until after the weekend?” Despite every effort to keep my cool, my tone is biting.

“Sir, I’m sorry. As I’ve already explained, we’re experiencing labor shortages. We’re working as fast as we can to cover orders. We’re sorry for the inconvenience,” the customer service rep recites evenly, sounding like she has said it a hundred times today. Because I’m sure she has.

Pinching the bridge of my nose to dull the sudden headache forming, I fight the urge to slam the receiver against the desk. This conversation is a complete waste of time. It’s the same one I’ve had every day for two weeks. “Tell your management that ‘inconvenient’ isn’t the right word.” I hang up before she has a chance to spew the prewritten response for that.

With a groan, I lean back in my leather chair and fold my arms behind my head. I survey the walls of my office—lined floor-to-ceiling with shelves, doubling as supply room overflow. Five weeks of abnormally busy nights at Penny’s coupled with sporadic beer deliveries means I’m out of our top brands for the coming weekend. That means I’ll have to spend yet another Saturday night explaining to customers why being out of Heineken doesn’t entitle them to a free lap dance.

I hate this business, some days.

Lately, I hate this business all days.

Cracking open a fresh bottle of high-end Rémy Martin, I pour the deep golden liquid into my tumbler. It’s my vice—a glass before the club opens to take the edge off and one to close the place down. Unfortunately, the edge doesn’t come off so easily anymore and I find myself topping up the glass a lot. It’s a good thing our hours are limited or I’d have a drinking problem. At two hundred bucks a bottle, I’d also have a money problem.

My office door cracks open just as the comforting burn slides down my throat.

“Cain?” Nate’s deep voice rumbles a second before his six-foot-six, 280-pound frame eases through the doorway. I’m still in awe of how that twiggy little kid turned into the giant now standing before me, almost overnight, too. It shouldn’t surprise me, though, given that I was the one footing the steep grocery bill through his teenage growth spurts. “Just got a text from Cherry. She’s sick.”

“She texted you?”

He nods slowly, his dark eyes never leaving mine.

“That’s the third time she’s called in sick in two weeks.”

“Yup,” he agrees, and I know his thoughts are on the same wavelength as mine. No one knows me better than Nate. In fact, no one really knows me but Nate.

Cherry has worked for me for three and a half years. She has the immune system of a shark. The last time she started missing shifts because she was “sick,” we found her battered and strung out on blow, thanks to her douchebag boyfriend.

“Do you think he’s back?”

I shove my fingers through my hair, gritting my teeth with rising frustration. “He’d be the world’s biggest moron if he is, after what happened the last time.” Nate put him in the hospital with a broken femur and two dislocated shoulders as a warning. I have to think that was an effective deterrent.

“Unless Cherry invited him over.”

I roll my eyes. She’s a good girl with low self-esteem and terrible taste in men. Though I’d be surprised, I wouldn’t put it past her. I’ve seen it happen before. Many times.

“I think I’ll just swing by her place to make sure this isn’t something more than a bug or chick issues.” Nate grabs his keys from the rack.

With a sigh, I grumble, “Thanks Nate.” We’ve helped her stay clean and idiot-boyfriend free for a year. The last thing I want to see is a repeat. “And, here.” I pull a twenty-dollar bill out of my wallet and toss it across my desk. “Her kid loves Big Macs.”

Nate scowls at my money, leaving it where it lays. I should know better. “And if he’s there?”

“If he’s back in the picture . . .” I run my tongue over my teeth. “Don’t do anything yet. Call me. Immediately.”

With a lazy salute, Nate exits my office, leaving me with my elbows on my desk and my folded hands against my clenched mouth, wondering what I’m going to do if Cherry has taken a turn for the worse. I can’t fire her. Not when she needs our help. But . . . f**k. If we have to go through this with her again . . .

And I had to convince Delyla to go back to counseling just last week because she started cutting again. And two weeks before that, we were rushing Marisa to the hospital with complications after the back-street abortion that her ass**le boyfriend convinced her to undergo. She hasn’t even made it back to work yet. And the week before that—

A knock on my door only seconds later makes my temper flare unexpectedly. “What!”

Ginger’s face pokes in.

Taking a deep breath, I gesture her in with a “sorry,” silently chastising myself for barking at her.

“Hey, Cain, my friend is coming in to meet you tonight,” she reminds me in that low, husky voice suitable for phone sex companies. The customers here love it. They love everything else about her, too, including those naturally large br**sts and that sharp-witted tongue. “Remember? The one I mentioned earlier this week.”

I groan. I completely forgot. Ginger sprung it on me last Friday as I was refereeing an argument between Kinsley and China in the hallway. I never did agree to meet with this person but I didn’t say no. Ginger is clearly taking advantage of that. “Right. And she wants a job as what again? A dancer?”

Ginger’s head bobs up and down, her wild short hair—colored in chunks of platinum blond, honey, and pink—in styled disarray. “I think you’ll like her, Cain. She’s different.”

“Different, how?”

Ginger’s hot pink lips twist. “Hard to explain. You’ll see when you meet her. You’ll like her.”

My hand finds its way to the back of my neck, trying to rub the permanent tension out. It won’t work. Weekly trips to a massage therapist do nothing for the kind of knots this place creates. “It’s not about liking her, Ginger. It’s about being overstaffed. I don’t need any more dancers or bartenders right now.” Given ­Penny’s reputation, this place has basically become the crème de la crème of adult entertainment clubs. I don’t take walk-ins or random applications. Employment is by referral only and turnover is low. Aside from Kinsley, I haven’t hired anyone new in almost a year. Too many dancers means catfights over money.

“I know, Cain, but . . . I think you’re really going to like her.” Ginger has been bartending for me for years, longer than anyone else. I trust her opinion of people. The three others she recommended turned out to be outstanding employees who are now on healthy life paths, leading far away from the sex trade business. Hell, she’s the one who introduced me to Storm—my shining success story!

After a long pause, I ask, “And her preferences? Is she . . .? Not that it matters, of course.”

Teal-green cat eyes sparkle as she smiles at me. “I’m pretty sure she’s into dudes. Haven’t seen the proof yet, but that’s what my vibe tells me. Unfortunate for me.” I’ve come to truly appreciate Ginger’s sexual orientation. There’s never been that awkward moment with her, where she’s decided that I would welcome her hand on my cock. She’s one of the very few female employees I can say that about. It’s one of the reasons why I get along with her so well.

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