I hate math.
Column one is my net income. Column two is my half of the rent, general expenses, tuition, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Column two exceeds column one. It exceeds it by a lot.
Dammit, I’m going to have to unfasten an extra button on my blouse to get better tips at the bar.
Rachel, my roommate and BFF, comes through the door, her arms weighted down by shopping bags. It’s not the first time this week. Hell, it’s not even the second time.
“Another shopping spree?” My comment comes off a little bitchier than intended.
She drops all of the shopping bags on the floor. “Ohhh, Cait. I have something grand to show you.”
She rummages through the bags, removing a shoebox. She takes out a Christian Louboutin pump and holds it up. Wow, it’s the real deal. There’s no mistaking that with the signature red leather outsole. And the bottom is completely unscathed, meaning that these shoes didn’t come from a consignment shop or thrift store.
“They’re to die for, aye?”
Black paisley lace. Peep toe. Black leather trim. They could possibly be the most gorgeous shoes that I’ve ever seen. “They’re stunners for sure.”
She slips her feet into them and stretches one leg outward, admiring the way it looks on her foot. “I’m so in love with them.”
Christian Louboutin shoes today. Louis Vuitton handbag and Clive Christian perfume three days ago. Unless Rachel has a long-lost aunt who died and left her a fortune, she can’t possibly afford luxury brands like these. “How are you paying for all of these things you’re buying?”
She stands tall and places her hands on her hips. “I have this month’s rent if that’s what you’re getting at.”
I’ve clearly pissed her off, but I think that my concern is a legitimate one. “I’m not implying that you’d stiff me on the rent. It’s just that these shopping sprees are expensive. Very expensive. And I’m wondering how you’re paying for them.”
“In case you forgot, I have a job.”
We have the same job. I know how much money she makes. “Waitresses at The Last Drop can’t afford Christian Louboutin and Louis Vuitton and Clive Christian.”
She takes off the shoes and stuffs them back into their box. “Don’t worry about how I’m paying. I’ve got it covered, and that’s all you need to know.”
Rachel doesn’t talk to me like this. Ever. Not even when she’s angry with me. I don’t care for it at all.
“I don’t want you to get yourself into financial trouble because you had a weak moment and charged some things you can’t afford.”
“I didn’t charge anything.”
None of this makes sense. “Some months we are literally scraping together every pound that we have to make rent.”
“It’s okay. I got a second job.”
She hasn’t mentioned a word about another job. “Where at? And when do you go to this job?”
Rachel inhales deeply and her cheeks expand when she exhales. “You can’t judge, and you can’t jump to conclusions when I tell you.”
“I don’t like the sound of that at all.”
“I’m serious, Cait. You know that you can be judgy.”
Okay. I admit that I’m a little critical at times but only because Rachel has a spectacular talent for making really dumb decisions. “I won’t judge.” Maybe, depending upon how bad it is.
“A fancy businesswoman came into The Last Drop a few months ago. When she got up to leave, she handed a small envelope to me. There was £200 inside along with a business card.”
“Two hundred pounds?” Holy shit.
“The card was for a business called Inamorata.”
Inamorata. “I’ve never heard of that.”
“Me either, but I called her because I was dying to know more. She refused to discuss anything over the phone, which I thought was a wee bit weird at the time, but I was too intrigued to question it.”
I can see that. I’m sucked into the mystery of it right now.
“We met for dinner in Old Town at a swanky restaurant by the castle. We had a few drinks, enough that I was feeling pretty damn good, and she began to explain what her company is about. She calls herself a chatelaine.”
Maybe I’m just a dumbass American, but I’ve never heard of that. “What is a chatelaine?”
“Sounds fancy, right? By definition, it’s a mistress of a household or large establishment. Cora’s organization, Inamorata, is a business that introduces women and men.”
“Inamorata is a dating service?”
“Sort of.” Rachel bites her bottom lip and squeezes one of her eyes together, peeking at me through the open one. “But not really.”
That face. I know it well and it’s never good when it makes an appearance. “Sort of but not really means what exactly?”
“Cora is a businesswoman, a very savvy one who has made a career out of connecting people—very successful men and attractive women—for mutually beneficial relationships.”
Ah, the pieces are coming together now. “Sounds like a fancy way of saying that she’s a madam.”
“I’m not saying that sex isn’t an offered service at Inamorata. It definitely is, but a large portion of the connections are for companionship-only, without sex.”
“Men are men and I understand what drives them to buy sex, but I’m not sure that I understand why they’d pay for a woman’s company when that’s all they’ll be getting.”
“You’d be surprised by how many men want a woman’s company without sex.”
Money seems like an unnecessary part of the equation. “Why not ask a woman out on a date then?”
“Some of the men are too shy or intimidated to approach a beautiful woman. They may be widowed and want company for a single evening without the complications of going out on a real date. They all have different motives for booking an inamorata. No single reason fits all of them.”
“Are they looking for girlfriends or wives?”
“I guess some are, but most are only interested in readily available women for a set duration. And they don’t care about the price tag.”
“What kind of money are we talking about?”
“I make £200 an hour.”
“Holy shit, Rachel.”
“My pay scale is at the bottom because I’m companionship-only. The girls who have sex make around £400 an hour.”
These women are making bank, sex or not. “Why would any man fork over that kind of money when he could get laid by a regular prostitute for so much cheaper?”
“Inamorata clients don’t book dates because they want a quick shag. They want the whole package: beauty, brains, intelligent conversation, arm candy they can take out in public or to a corporate event.”
“If these women are so beautiful and intelligent, then why aren’t they doing something else?”
“They all have an end goal but not the money to obtain it. Being an inamorata is a stepping-stone to bridge the gap.”
“Is your chatelaine choosy about who she’ll hire?”
“Very. Every woman brought on board is a huge upfront expense for Cora. She transforms them from head to toe, and it doesn’t stop there. Each woman who represents Inamorata must learn etiquette, be articulate, and have the ability to converse about a wide range of topics.”
Rachel is so well-spoken. I hadn’t noticed that change in her until now.
“Has any woman at Inamorata ever been hurt by a client?”
“Not that I’m aware of, but I assume that it’s happened at some point. Nature of the beast, I guess. We’re obviously at higher risk because we are alone with men whom we don’t know. That’s why we all go through a class and learn how to defend ourselves. I’m confident in my ability to fight off a client if need be.”
“I don’t doubt that for a second, even without a class.” Rachel has three older brothers. She’s a natural-born scrapper.
“You mentioned upfront costs. I assume that Cora is reimbursed for that?”
“Oh yeah. She takes 50 percent of the earnings until her investment is repaid. After that, she takes 25 percent off of the top. But we keep 100 percent of any tips or gifts from a client.”
“What’s a typical tip or gift?”
“Jewelry, designer clothes, handbags, cash. Maybe even a predetermined monthly allowance if it’s an ongoing relationship. Some of the lasses get college tuition.”
Whoa! Someone could pay for my education?
Two more semesters—that’s all I need to earn the credits that I require to graduate with my degree. Where things stand now, I’m going to have to take out a student loan to pay for tuition. Not the end of the world but I’d rather not come out of college with a mountain of debt if I can help it.
Dammit, I can’t believe that my stepmonster talked Dad into cutting me off when I’m only two semesters away from getting my degree. I was so close to living my best life. I could almost taste it.
Heidi loves to watch me bleed. She enjoys holding me down and her latest farce proves it.
God, I hate that woman. And I hate the way she manipulates my dad. Not that he ever won any father-of-the-year awards anyway. He was a deadbeat long before Heidi came along.
“Is Cora looking for more girls?”
“Do you think that she could be interested in a girl like me?”
“Absolutely. You’re already beautiful without any effort at all. I’m happy to put you in touch with her if you like.”
Let’s be brutally honest about this. What I’m contemplating is a form of prostitution, sex or not. It doesn’t matter what kind of label we put on it.
“I can see that you’re hesitant, but she’d never ask you to do anything that you didn’t want to. She’s always looking for companionship-only inamoratas: dinner and drinks and discussion. That’s it.”
I inhale deeply and blow out slowly. “All of this scares me.”
“Talking with Cora isn’t an obligation. It’s only a conversation.”
Only a conversation. It sounds so much more enticing when she puts it like that. “All right. Set it up.”
* * *
I’m standing on a platform, the wall in front of me covered with a floor-to-ceiling mirror. I feel like I should be trying on wedding dresses in a bridal boutique, waiting to say yes to the dress so that I can be jacked up with a veil and jewelry.
Cora taps the center of my back directly between my shoulder blades. “Stop slouching.”
She walks down the steps of the platform and looks up at me. “What is your European shoe size?”
“Valerie, bring the seventy-five-millimeter black peep toes in her size.”
Good Lord. This woman has an assistant for everything, even shoe fetching.
“We’ll begin your stride training with lower heels and work our way up to the higher ones.”
Cora is short like me, but you don’t notice until you look at her tall heels and see that four inches of her height can be attributed to her shoes.
Valerie returns and places the black pumps on the floor in front of me.
“Louboutins.” I didn’t intend for that to come out. And I definitely didn’t mean for it to sound so covetous.
“I understand. You’ve never had shoes like these, but your closet is about to be filled with countless pairs like them along with designer clothing and handbags. You represent Inamorata. You represent me. It’s crucial that you always look your best, but your job right now is to be my student. Listen to me and you’ll learn how to entertain some of the wealthiest and most influential men in Scotland.”
That’s a frightening thought.
“You aren’t at all concerned that your clients won’t like me?”
“You’re going to be a polished gem when I finish with you. No part of you will be unlikable.”
I’m pretty sure that she’s wrong about that.
“Not everyone loves Americans.” I’ve lived in Scotland for six years, but I still consider myself American—my first sixteen years were spent there.
“Inamorata clients are going to love that about you. You’re a different flavor from my other girls.”
I hear what she’s saying, but I look at myself in the mirror and can’t imagine any high-class Scotsman who would be willing to pay big bucks for my company. I’m nobody.
“What’s wrong, Caitriona?”
“Don’t be. I do background checks on every man before accepting him as a client. I reject anyone with even a hint of a questionable past.”
“That’s not the kind of afraid that I’m talking about.”
“Well, I need you to explain what that means before we go any further.”
It’s embarrassing to admit my fears. “What if they don’t think I’m pretty enough? Or smart enough? Or interesting enough?”
Cora claps her palms together twice, making a high-pitched slapping sound. “Everyone out. Now.”
Her three assistants scramble to get through the door, nearly running each other down. I truly believe that if Cora told them to jump, they would ask how high.
She comes up on the platform, standing behind me. She grasps my upper arms and looks over my shoulder at my reflection in the mirror. “Look at the woman staring back at you. Who is she?”
“You’re stating the obvious and it’s a waste of my time. Look deep inside of the woman in front of you, and find the wee lass beneath her surface.”
Find the wee lass beneath my surface? No way. That’s stupid.
I shake my head. “I don’t want to do that.”
“I don’t care if you want to do it or not. You’re going to if you want to work for me. The choice is yours.”
I contemplate walking out. I want to so badly, but I can’t. I need money.
“What do you want from me?”
“Start by taking a long hard look at yourself in the mirror and think about what you see.”
Long brown hair, thick and often unruly. Hazel eyes, more green than brown after I’ve had a good cry. Fair skin, a few scattered freckles across my nose and cheeks. Short and small-framed.
“Are you pretty?” Cora asks.
“According to others, I am. But I never was in my mother’s eyes.”
“What did your mother say to you about the way you look?”
God, you look just like that Scottish bastard. I heard that from her so many times that it became as much a part of my DNA as the X chromosome that he gave me. “She said that I looked like my father.”
“Did she hate him?”
“She did eventually.” His marriage to Heidi changed everything. My mother couldn’t take his being happy with another woman.
“She saw him when she looked at you?”
“We grow up and become women, but no matter how old we get, we always have a wee lass living inside of us.”
I’ve never heard anyone say anything like that, but I suppose it’s true at least to some degree.
“Tell me about the wee lass inside of you.”
Little Caity Louden. She’s not someone that I like to think about. Her story isn’t a happily-ever-after fairy tale. “Her father abandoned her before she was born. She was raised by a single mom in the trashiest part of New Orleans. Her mother worked at a bar on Bourbon Street, but she drank more cocktails than she served.”
“She learned at a very early age how to fend for herself because no one took care of her.” No one loved her. It’s hard to admit, even to myself only in my head, that the one person in this world who was supposed to love me unconditionally didn’t.
“And?” Cora says.
“Her tears ran dry and her delicate, soft heart hardened. It turned to stone.”
Cora nods. “Stone is strong and resilient.”
My eyes move to hers. “Stone is cold and resistant to penetration without being broken.”
I look back at myself. “I’m damaged. Something’s missing inside of me. A piece of me is not here.”
Cora walks around and stands in front of me so that we’re face-to-face. “Strong people don’t have easy pasts, and the scars they carry prove that they are stronger than whatever tried to hurt them. You’re a warrior and a beautiful young woman who is deserving of good things and happiness. You’re special, Caitriona, whether you realize it or not. Our pasts aren’t all that different; I understand you far better than you can ever imagine.”
Cora’s words are… empowering and soothing at the same time.
She crouches, unnecessarily repositioning the shoes in front of me, and I see the act for what it truly is. She’s lowering herself and elevating me. “Toes go in first, beautiful warrior.”
I grow three inches when I step into the shoes. She stands upright, and it feels good to look this powerful, independent woman in the eyes. She makes me want to be stronger.
“Diamonds are beautiful. And they’re also flawed. They don’t crack but they do cut.” Cora places a finger beneath my chin, lifting it slightly, and looks directly into my eyes. “Be a diamond, Caitriona.”