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 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.”
I quickly retrieve the money from my bucket, stuff it into the wrap around my chest acting as a bra, and flip over the card.
Specializing in Mutually Beneficial Relationships
I’m not into girls, but I can’t resist watching her swagger and listening to her heels click away on the pavement until she disappears around the corner. So elegant and graceful and classy.
“Specializing in mutually beneficial relationships.” I have no idea what that means and I don’t care. I’ll worry about Vale of Duets Foundation after my belly is full, I’m freshly showered, and I’m snuggling in a real bed with a roof over my head.
Or maybe I won’t. I made her no promises.
Agony, please don’t allow this hope to grow if nothing will come of it. I’m barely hanging on. Barely hanging on.
I’m in disguise tonight. The cosmetics, the dress, the shoes. All are a mask, covering the filth beneath my surface. They’re a veil hiding my dirty past. And present. I wear them like a bandage over a wound incapable of healing.
I catch a glimpse of the petite brunette’s reflection in the restaurant’s glass window. I don’t typically like looking at her but tonight she passes for something she isn’t. Elegant and graceful and classy.
The girl looking back at me can pretend all she likes but she’s only different on the outside. Embarrassment. Shame. Agony. Those things fill her to the brim, yet leave her feeling empty inside.
I tug on the bottom of my black dress to smooth the fabric before entering the restaurant. Sure, my attire is a cheap knockoff of an outfit the beneficial relationship specialist wore a few days ago. It’s an absurd notion—and for the life of me I can’t explain why—but I want this woman to approve of my appearance. I want her to see that I used the few beauty skills I have, even if unsuccessful, to make an attempt at looking presentable. I don’t want her to be ashamed to be seen with me in public.
Instinct forces me to lower my head and step aside when I notice I’m standing in the doorway blocking a well-dressed man from exiting the restaurant. “So sorry.”
“Oh, no. Pardon me,” he says as he holds the door open.
I look over my shoulder to see who the kind gesture is intended for but find no one there. Me? This handsome man in a suit is holding the door for me?
This doesn’t happen.
Men don’t behave like gentlemen in my presence.
They taunt me with unkind words. Proposition me with money in exchange for filthy acts. Take what pleasures them without any regard for the pain remaining in its aftermath.
“Thank you.” I smile at the man as I walk through the opened door—and then something else that never happens, does. Eye contact. His eyes meet mine. And despite the kindness I see there, I’m overwhelmed by the urge to look away.
I want to glance back after I pass through the doorway to see if the handsome man is still looking at me. But I’m afraid.
Afraid he is.
Afraid he isn’t.
“Welcome to The Court of Two Sisters. How may I help you?”
“I’m meeting someone for dinner at seven thirty.”
“What name is on the reservation?”
The woman never told me her name. I only know what the card said. “Vale?”
“Yes. Your party has already arrived. Right this way, Madame.” Madame? I don’t think anyone has called me that in my entire life.
I’m led to a courtyard where strings of clear lighting are draped throughout the limbs of the trees. Looks like some kind of glimmering wonderland. Magical. Beautiful.
The woman, Vale, smiles when she sees me being escorted to her table. Has there ever been a time when someone seemed so glad to see me?
The host pulls out my chair and pushes it under me when I lower myself to sit. Surreal. “Your server will be with you shortly.”
The nearly black hair. The red-stained lips. Pale skin. All she needs to do is replace her black dress with a red, blue, and yellow one to pull off being Snow White. I hope she doesn’t turn out to be the wicked witch with a poison apple.
“I’m very happy you came. I didn’t know if you would.”
“I’m not in a position to forego a free meal. Especially in a restaurant like this.” I’ve walked past this place a thousand times and there’s always a delicious aroma in the air. I’ve wondered what it would be like to dine here because from the outside, everything looks so fancy.
She smiles and I can’t help but admire her white, perfect teeth. No gaps or overlapping. No discoloration. No weird underbite like mine. I’d love to have teeth like those. I’d smile all the time if I did. Maybe.
“You like this restaurant, huh?”
“Of course. It’s so nice. Who wouldn’t like it?”
She chuckles below her breath. “You are very easily impressed.”
A girl like me doesn’t get to dine in restaurants with cloth napkins and real utensils. I’m more of a fast-food/convenience store/street vendor kind of foodie. Unless I’ve made no money for the day and I’m forced to dumpster dive. That’s something I strongly suspect this woman already knows about me. And the burning question is why? Why me?
As much as I appreciate the money and free meal, I need to know what she wants. “Watching me. Giving me money. Inviting me to dinner. Knowing my name. What is this about?”
“That discussion is coming. But let’s enjoy our meal and some drinks first.”
A server appears, as if on cue to interrupt the debate I’m about to begin, and places a glass of wine in front of each of us. “Your dinner will be out soon.”
“But I haven’t ordered.” No way I’m leaving this place without a meal. That would be the ultimate disappointment.
“I took the liberty of ordering for you.”
The server looks at me. “Is that satisfactory, Madame?” Again with Madame.
Disappointment rushes over me like a cold shower. I don’t get to order food in restaurants like this. I really wanted to choose my own meal but I guess I don’t get to since I’m not the one paying. “It’s fine.”
“I promise you’ll enjoy the Chicken Oscar very much.”
I like chicken but I don’t know about the Oscar part. “Oscar isn’t in the escargot family, is it?” I’ll be so disappointed—and disgusted—if they bring me snails.
“Oscar refers to the topping on the chicken. It’s crabmeat and hollandaise, not escargot.”
“Thank God.” Doesn’t matter if I’m homeless or not. No way I’m putting something snotty like that in my mouth.
Vale nods toward my glass. “This wine goes very well with the Chicken Oscar.”
I shrug. “I don’t want to get in trouble for underage drinking.” A problem with the authorities is the last thing I need in my life right now, but I’m more concerned with keeping my wits about me.
“It’s fine, Rose. A nineteen-year-old having a glass of wine with dinner isn’t the worst thing that ever happened in New Orleans. It actually falls pretty low on the police list of concerns.”
Shit. She knows my name and age?
I get the distinct feeling this woman knows more about me than just my name and age. And it’s a total violation of my privacy. Why has she made it her business to know anything about me at all?
“I’m sorry. I can’t sit here and pretend this is a casual dinner being shared between old friends. You want something from me, and I’d really like to know what it is.” So I can run like hell if I need to.
“You’re a no-nonsense kind of girl. I like that about you. And it’s one of the reasons I chose you.”
Something about that frightens me. “Chose me for what?”
“I’m a business woman, Rose. A very savvy one who has made a career out of connecting people—very successful men and success-driven women—for mutually beneficial relationships.”
Ahh . . . the pieces are coming together now. “Your card says you specialize in mutually beneficial relationships. Is that a fancy way to say you’re a madam?”
I may be young and not well educated, but I can add two and two. “All signs are pointing in that direction.”
“The connections I make between men and women aren’t about sex. That’s not to say that the relationships never progress down an intimate path. They do sometimes, but sex is never the purpose behind the introductions I make.”
“What do you mean when you say connections? And introductions?”
“Successful men thrive because they work hard. Hard work requires time, which means they don’t often have the luxury of going out for pleasure. That makes it difficult for them to meet women.”
Oh. Duets Foundation must be some kind of matchmaking service or something. “I’m not interested in a boyfriend.”
This lady is dumb if she thinks dating is anywhere on my radar. Even if I hadn’t written men off completely, my biggest concern right now is survival.
“My clients aren’t on a mission to find a girlfriend or wife. They want clever, talented, engaging, readily available women for the evening or the week or the month. Whatever fits into their schedule. And they’re willing to pay top dollar for that woman’s time and company.”
She isn’t doing this out of the kindness of her heart. “You mean you get paid top dollar.”
“Every woman brought on board is a huge upfront expense for me. I employ full-time professionals to transform my duet girls from head-to-toe. Of course, that consists of the typical things like hair and cosmetics and a designer wardrobe, but it doesn’t stop there. Each woman who represents Duets Foundation must be articulate, have the ability to go head-to-head in an intelligent conversation about a wide range of topics, and demonstrate proper etiquette always. Plus, it’s imperative she’s able to defend herself in the event of an assault. I invest my time, my effort, and my money in every woman while training her. So yes, I am paid top dollar by these men. But my girls are nicely compensated as well. They stick around. The only women who have ever left Duets did so to either further their education or to marry a client after falling in love.”
Falling in love doesn’t interest me in the least but the part about furthering an education definitely catches my attention.
“How much does a Duets girl earn doing something like this?”
“I require each girl to earn back the initial investment I make in her. Once she does that, I give her a fifteen percent royalty fee from what I’m paid. I know that sounds low but she keeps one hundred percent of any earnings made from her client. That could be in the form of gifts, cash, a predetermined allowance, even college tuition. Anything given to her directly from the client is hers to keep free and clear.”
College tuition? It’s unreal that an opportunity to further my education would fall into my lap like this. Why? “I want to know how you know my name and age. And anything else you’ve dug up about me.”
“I have a liaison at the homeless shelter. I pay her to notify me anytime a potential Duet comes through.”
“Your liaison told you personal information about me?” No way that’s not illegal.
“She tells me enough so I can decide if I think the girl is worth pursuing.”
All the pieces suddenly click. “Oh my God. You’re the one the girls at the shelter call Fairy Godmother.” The woman who takes girls off the street and teaches them to be classy ladies. I thought she was an urban legend.
“Are you asking me to become a Duets girl?”
“I’m asking you to become something different. Something more. Something so much better. A special project I’ve been strategizing for two years. My prodigy.”
“What makes your prodigy different from the other Duets girls?”
“Your training would be much more in-depth. Two years minimum instead of the usual six months.”
Two years training? Aside from the time she’d spend on me, that’s a huge financial investment. How can she place so much faith in me?
“The end goal would be to secure a long-term companionship agreement with a single man. You’d never have sporadic arrangements with multiple men like the other girls. You’d live with your companion.”
Long-term companionship where I’d live with him. My mind immediately skims over that part and considers what living with a companion means.
A roof over my head. A bed to sleep in. Food in my stomach.
If I agree to do this, I wouldn’t mind the stability to go along with it. No more living on the streets. No more hand to mouth. No more constant fear.
Although I like the idea of safety and security, I need to know how long I’d be locked into this agreement. “What is considered long-term for something like this?”
“Six months? A year? Two years? The timeframe would be negotiable between you and the client.”
“I assume something like this would be expensive for the client.” She said I’d earn a fifteen percent royalty once her investment was earned back.
“Two years of training would be costly. The only way to recoup my investment would be to charge one million dollars for your first assignment.”
One. Million. Dollars.
This is crazy talk.
“Are you serious?”
“Why would any man fork over that kind of money for a woman who won’t have sex with him when he could get a prostitute?” I’m certain that would be a much cheaper route.
“When men want sex, they get a prostitute. When they want companionship with a wholesome girl they’re proud to take out in public, they come to me.”
I don’t know what makes her think I’m wholesome.
And this sounds way too good to be true.
“Let’s say that there’s a man who’s looking for a wholesome companion. Why would he pay a million dollars to spend time with a homeless street performer?”
“You wouldn’t be a homeless street performer when your training ended. You’ll be beautiful. Elegant. Charming. Men will crave your company and be willing to pay big money for it.”
It’s hard for me to believe this woman possesses the skills to make me pretty, much less beautiful and desirable.
I’m not sure I want to be made beautiful.
And I’m really not sure I want to be made desirable.
I’m not completely sure I could be made beautiful or desirable. Ever.
Every time I look at you, all I see is him.
You ruined my life.
I wish you were never born.
It’s hard to comprehend why someone would see value in you when your own mother didn’t. “Why me?”
“This is about so much more than a pretty face and sexy body. It’s going to require strength. Resilience. Loyalty. I think you possess all of those qualities.”
No doubt about it. This year has made me stronger and more resilient. But loyal, I’m not so sure. I hold everyone at a distance. I’ve never gotten close enough to know if I’m capable of being devoted.
“Being homeless and having no idea when I’ll eat again is scary but it’s nothing compared to the prospect of saying yes to this.” It feels like selling my soul.
“Would you feel better if I said you won’t be matched with a man unless you approve of him and the terms of his companionship agreement?”
I’d have a little control. “That would help.”
"You’ll have your own terms as well, and he must abide by them or the deal is off. You won’t have to do anything you don’t agree to.”
I inhale deeply and blow out slowly. “I don’t know about this.”
“Let me train you for a month. If you don’t like the way things go, we’ll part ways. No hard feelings.”
A trial period seems like a logical idea. “You do understand that if I decide to leave, I’ll have no way of reimbursing you for the expenses you’ll incur during my training?”
Vale points to her face. “Do you see this? It’s called lack of concern.”
She wants me. Not a prettier or smarter girl. Me. I still don’t understand why, but I’m using it as a bargaining chip to secure my future.
“I want to go to college.” I have no idea what I want to do or become, but I know college is the only way to get where I aspire to be one day.
“That can be arranged.”
She’s saying yes? Just like that? No hesitation? “Then I guess you and I have an arrangement.”
“Perfect. We start first thing in the morning.”
“Let’s toast.” Vale lifts her glass and I mimic her because I don’t know what else to do. “Your new life. It begins now.”
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