Thursday, September 19, 2013

Scarlet Stilettos by Ash Penn

Although Laine Lawson is physically male, she's spent much of her life expressing the feminine side of her nature. She's also well-skilled at hiding her romantic feelings for her best friend.

Life's sweet for waiter and ex-stripper Tony Barton. He's met a guy who's everything he wants in a lover, both in and out of bed. Will Thompson isn't the love of Tony's life, but he's fun and doesn't take their relationship too seriously. At least, not until Will discovers Tony's best friend isn't quite as she seems.

When Laine's ex-boyfriend contacts her about a past she'd sooner forget, and with Will's jealousy threatening her friendship with Tony, the only thing she can do is run.

Her absence forces Tony into acknowledging his feelings for Laine aren't entirely platonic. But Laine's a woman, no matter what lies beneath her skirt. They might have shared one night together when they first met, but that was business. A relationship could never work, even if she hadn't disappeared.

After Laine makes a major life-changing decision, she returns home to say goodbye. But Tony can't say goodbye back. He can't say much at all, not with Will doing the talking for him.

There are times when the streets aren’t safe for someone like me. In the past I’d always been rather fortunate in that my appearance was, more often than not, taken at face value. But, as I age, there are increasing occasions when people have tended to question what they see. If they are of a certain type, predictably male, their mood can flip at the swish of my hemline.

Tony bought me a personal alarm a while ago. I scolded him for his paranoia, but as my best friend, he worried about me like no one else. What had happened two years ago, a whole year before he and I even met, wasn’t anything like being attacked out on the street. An alarm would have been of no use to me whatsoever back then. I’d been too drugged to use it. Besides, carrying such a thing around put me at a psychological disadvantage. I refused to live with the constant expectation of attack.

Monday evening started off as usual. I was heading home on foot from another busy day at the salon. A light summer rain dampened the air and seeped through my salon uniform. I shivered so much I almost rattled as I walked.

When a car rumbled up beside me, I lifted my umbrella and peered at the driver’s side window, half expecting a familiar face with the offer of a ride home. But, before I’d even caught a look at the driver, the car surged away up the high street, splashing a puddle from the gutter and drenching me in a cold wash of grubby water.

“Arsehole!” There was no chance of the driver hearing me. The half dozen or so people I shared the street with did, though, and I caught a few glares before angling the umbrella to deflect them. Still, by the time I’d shut my own front door behind me and hung my uniform up to dry over the bath, I attributed what had happened as an accident and certainly nothing out of the ordinary.

Tuesday morning, I encountered an unsavory-looking character loitering outside my building’s main door. I lived on the cheapest side of town, and drug dealers and addicts were always problems. This one wore a hood to obscure his face.

“’Ello, sexy,” he called over and then wolf-whistled as I passed. Ordinarily, such a reaction would make my day, but something about this particular person quickened my pace. I felt his gaze track me all the way down the path from door to pavement, about twenty meters’ distance. When I checked back over my shoulder, he made a lewd gesture at his groin.

As I hurried along the road towards town, an engine coughed to life at the curb. It was the car from the previous evening. A black Audi. I crossed two steps closer, more out of curiosity than to confront the driver. As I did so, the car shot away. Overreaction or not, I hopped onto the bus the rest of the way into town.

Wednesday morning, I finally sought out that personal alarm. Tony’s words came back to haunt me from the day he’d given it to me. “I want you to take this, for protection. You can’t be too careful out there. Especially girls like you.” As much as I resented his words, I also knew from past experience he was completely right, so I carried the damn alarm to work and home again, fortunately without incident.

Thursday, at around eleven a.m., I ventured out for a skinny cappuccino. On my way back to the salon, a hard, bony shoulder knocked against my arm, and the cup tipped in my grasp. The lid skittered off, spewing hot coffee at my feet and splattering my uniform trousers below the knee.

“Hey! Watch where you’re—” I looked up. The rest of my words locked in my throat. I stood face-to-face with the hoodie from earlier at my building’s door. Sallow and pockmarked, he grinned a mouthful of yellow and brown teeth. My grip slipped again, and the cup joined the coffee on the ground.

“Sorry, dude.” The hoodie gave a lazy, druggie smile before swaggering on his way.

I stood still in the street as people navigated around me. Dude. I squatted and picked up the cup, keeping my gaze on the muddy puddle of coffee. I found a bin for the cup, turned away, and walked straight into someone else, a man with a briefcase. Was that shock darkening his eyes? Did he see dude too?

The salon was a five-minute walk down the high street or a two-minute sprint. For the first time in a long while I wished I were wearing my flats, which I’d left in the staff room at the salon. A hundred pairs of eyes burned through my layers of clothing to the bags of silicon in my padded bra and the thick Lycra that kept the contents of my underpants in place. I made the salon in just over a minute and a half. The word dude followed me around for the rest of the day.

I took the bus home, though the same black car sat outside my building when I got there. I stopped and reached into my bag, instantly comforted by the little alarm. Once I got to within a few meters, the engine roared to life and the car took off, leaving me standing there with the alarm in my hand and an internal siren wailing through my head.

I practically flew those last few meters to my door, snapping a heel in my haste.

Thursday morning, at around eight o’ clock and just as I wrestled with my false lashes at my dressing table mirror, my mobile rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I wasn’t particularly wary about answering.


“Hello, Laine. I can’t tell you how good it feels to hear your voice.”

I certainly didn’t feel the same way on hearing his. I might not have recognized the number, but I knew the soft baritone at once. I’d spent over a year living with its owner: a hunk of gorgeous manhood I’d never quite managed to airbrush completely from my past. My brain, however, insisted my ears had tricked me. The voice couldn’t belong to Adam Castleford, because Adam Castleford would never again deign to breathe the same air, let alone call the filthy little slut who’d broken his heart.

“Who is this?” I stared at the overly made-up face in the mirror, too heavy on the blusher and too light on the tweezers. Well-defined eyebrows were back in fashion, and I’d let them go a little wild these past months. Adam would have loved my masculine brows were he right here with me in my bedroom, rather than some distance away with a phone pressed to his ear. Unless he was hands-free. Was that a car engine rumbling in the background? A black Audi, perhaps?

“You know who this is.” The voice, smooth as honey, slicked down the line. “Sweetheart, I’m so sorry. For everything.”

Sweetheart. No one had called me sweetheart in two years, except the odd elderly female client or the younger males. Older men tended to refer to me as dear or miss, as though they were back at school rather than in for a paraffin pedicure or an upper back wax.

“What do you mean you’re sorry?”

“I know the truth. About what Ollie—Oliver—did, and why. I threw him out a week ago.”

He stated the last sentence so matter-of-factly I had to rerun the words back through my mind to make sure I heard right. I hoped he meant thrown out in the literal sense. As in facedown on the pavement, with the same scraped palms and cut knees I’d suffered when Adam had Oliver do the same to me.

“So call the council if you want your trash collected. There’s nothing I can do for you.”

I didn’t follow my instinct to hang up right away. Instead, I listened to the tense rhythm of his breathing through the silence.

“You could meet me,” he said eventually. “Your choice of location. There are things I’d like to discuss.”

I had nothing to say to him, whether he believed me or not. He was around two years too late. “How did you get my number?”

“Crisp gave it to me.”

Of course. Crispin and Adam had forged a lifetime’s friendship long before I showed up. There was no way Crisp would choose my privacy over his best friend’s determination to contact me. “He had no right.”

“He owed me a favor. If it helps get him off the hook, he refused me your address.”

“Like you don’t already know it.” Did he honestly think me so naive? He was probably outside, waiting to tag me to work again.

“Laine, truthfully, I don’t know. I can find out, but I’d like the opportunity to have it the easy way. From your lips.” There was the charm. Charisma was something for which Adam had never wanted. “We parted so badly—”

“You had me thrown out onto the street too.” Oliver had packed my things with huge relish. Adam spent the entire time with his back turned, peering out of the window. If it hadn’t been for our upstairs neighbor that night, I’d have ended up under a bridge instead of her spare room.

“Who do you think asked Crispin to give you somewhere to stay?”

“Only because you couldn’t bear the thought of me still living in the same building as you.” My voice broke with my mood, and a fresh burn of tears threatened to fall. I took a breath to calm myself. I’d cried far too much over this man. I wouldn’t let him destroy me a second time.

In the mirror, my eyelash drooped at the corner. I peeled it off and tossed it in amongst my cosmetics on the dressing table. I’d have to start from scratch.

“Don’t get hysterical. I know this—”

“I’m not hysterical.” I swiped at the tears with the back of my hand. “I told you what he did, and you took his side over mine.”

“Ollie deceived me. What he did, my best and oldest friend—”

“Your lover,” I said as my tears turned black with traces of eyeliner and mascara.

Adam sighed. “I’d like the chance to apologize.”

“I said no. You’re a part of my past I have no wish to revisit. Now please, leave me alone. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t follow me home from work anymore. It’s incredibly…desperate.”

“Laine, I don’t know where you work. Or live. Crisp won’t tell me.”

He sounded genuinely puzzled, but I wasn’t falling for any kind of deception ever again. “You could find out easy enough.”

“Yes. But out of respect for you, I haven’t.” His tone grew tense. “What’s been happening? Tell me who’s been following you.”

“Why should I?” I didn’t think he would associate with creeps like that hoodie. Perhaps the car and the hoodie weren’t even connected, and it was all just one big coincidence and no one was following me at all. Adam certainly had no reason to stalk me.

“Because there are things you don’t yet know. Things I have no intention of discussing over the phone. If you’d just—”



“I don’t want to hear your reasons or your excuses. You’re a part of my past, Adam. I locked you away a long time ago. Please don’t contact me again.”

“Laine.” He barked my name. “Don’t hang up. I need to se—”

I hung up. He had no right to be impatient. He had taken his best friend’s word over mine and left me ruined and heartbroken and living in a body I could barely look at in the mirror each morning. Everything I had done for him counted for nothing. Now two whole years after the event he wanted us to finally talk? No. Not a single inch of him would touch my life again.

I switched my phone off before he could ring me back. I’d change my number today. Then I’d call Crisp to tell him exactly what I thought of his betrayal. I’d also ask him what had happened between Adam and Oliver. How had Adam discovered the truth of his best friend’s—no, his lover’s—deception after all this time? No. I wouldn’t fall into Adam’s trap. I didn’t care anymore. That part of my life was over.

I plucked a makeup wipe from the packet on my dressing table and began to strip my skin of cosmetics and tears. The mask I wore on a near daily basis faded away to natural skin. Exactly the way Adam once liked me to look, back when we were together and in love.

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