Chapter One: Unworthy

Chapter One

On days like today, Catherine Ross wished her parents were alive so she could rail at them for leaving her alone with her drug addict of a brother. Well, she wished they were still alive every day, but mostly on days when her beloved, once-perfect brother screwed up.

It had started like any normal day. She stormed into work grumbling at the idiots who had built a city with no urban planning, allowing buildings and neighborhoods to pop up anywhere there wasn’t a swamp.

“Traffic?” Suzy asked as Cat brushed past her in the closet that pretended to be an employee break room.

“Tourists,” Cat said with an exasperated sigh. The one word explained it all to anyone who had lived in Miami for more than eight minutes.

“This far west?” Tourists usually stuck to two neighborhoods, South Beach and Coconut Grove. They generally didn’t make it to the other side of Kendall Drive.

“Santa’s Enchanted Forest?” Cat guessed. It was two weeks before Thanksgiving and more than a month until Christmas—her least favorite time of year—and it meant hordes of revelers visited the sketchy holiday amusement park thrown up during the holidays. “Is Mo in?” she asked, referring to her boss, Mauricio.

“Yeah, and he’s looking for someone to cover a Christmas shift, so you may want to lay low until he finds some other sucker.”

“I’ll do it,” Cat said. She needed the money, and it wasn’t as if she had a single family member with whom to spend Christmas. Danny would probably be too high to even remember it was Christmas.

Suzy sighed. “Why did I know you’d say that? Don’t be a loser. At least ask for double pay ‘cause it’s going to be a bitch of a job. All those depressed people in a bar instead of with their families? Total bummer.”

Cat didn’t say a word, but if she took the shift, she too, would be one of the depressed people in a bar on Christmas. At least she’d be getting paid for it. She tugged off her more modest T-shirt to exchange it for the Mo’s Tavern tight, black T-shirt that was her job uniform. Everyone had tried to explain to Mo a bazillion times that his bar shared a name with a popular cartoon bar, but Mo was either oblivious or he had a warped sense of humor.

“I need to make my rent,” she said. “If I don’t, I’m going to be spending Christmas on a bench on Dixie Highway.”

Suzy squeezed her shoulder. “Don’t say that. I said you could come live with me if you need.”

Cat managed a smile at the offer she’d never take. Suzy lived in a one bedroom with her three-year-old son and a rotating cast of asshole boyfriends. She didn’t relish sharing a bed with someone who might wet it. “I’ll figure things out,” she said, faking a confidence she didn’t have.

Suzy turned back to the mirror and fluffed her hair. Big bangs had gone out with the new millennium, but a lot of women in Miami hadn’t gotten the memo. “Well, good luck. Bar totals here have been shrinking.”

You didn’t need to tell Cat twice. Her rent was due, and if she didn’t pull in a boatload of tips tonight, something wasn’t getting paid. She glanced into the peeling mirror on one wall and plumped up her boobs—not that she had much to work with. She was petite, as in shop in the pre-teen section at Macy’s, petite.

A swipe of bright red hooker lipstick and a wild shake of her blonde hair, and she was ready.

“Let’s go get ‘em,” Suzy said, also putting the last touch on her mask of makeup.

Cat put on her game face and they pushed through the door out into the dark restaurant slash sports bar that hadn’t seen an update since the Bush one years.

“Cat.” Mo looked up from a stack of papers on the glass bar. “Just the girl I’ve been looking for.”

“Hey, Mo. What’s up?” She sidled in next to him, standing on tiptoe to perch her butt onto one of the slippery bar stools. “Heard you’re looking for Christmas coverage.”

Mo grunted.

“I’ll do it, but I want double pay.”

A snort from her boss didn’t bode well for her chances of getting her request.

“Come on, Mo. It’s Christmas.”

“Since when do you give a shit about Christmas?”

“Since my landlord sent me a reminder that rent is due.”

Mo met her gaze. “Can’t pay double. Normal pay, Cat.”

“Come on, Mo.” She heard the whine in her voice and hated it, but desperate times and all that.

Mo’s hand landed on her shoulder. “Not gonna happen, Catherine. Hell, if things don’t pick up around here, we might not be open by the twenty-fifth.”

“Have things been that bad?” She’d gone home light pocketed from the tip pool, but she hadn’t realized things were that desperate.

“We don’t have that many more bad nights in us.” Mo looked somber.

She froze and leaned toward Mo. “How long?”

“How long until what?” he asked, even though he knew what she was asking.

“How long until you can’t pay me?”

“A month. So we need a hell of a Thanksgiving.” He spun her gently away from him. “Now get to work.” She found a spot at the long bar and started to roll napkins as if her life depended on it. In a way, it kind of did. She needed the money. She was one paycheck from living on the street. Any extra money—ha—went to the Danny Ross rehab fund. Although her brother would’ve told her to be smart. He wasn’t going to rehab.

Six hours later, as the clock ticked over to a new day, Cat’s shift ended and she could head home at last. Not that home was relaxing; more of a rental cot in a shitty sublet with a shittier landlord. As always, she remembered her teenaged bedroom in her parents’ house whenever she let a self-pity party break out. Her old room had been huge and overlooked the backyard with its turquoise pool.

Now, her only window opened onto the walkway roughly three feet from the apartment behind her. She kept a ratty towel pinned over the glass to keep out peeping toms. On her aching feet, she hobbled over to the wall that served as a kitchen. Standing on a chair and reaching up to a high shelf, she pulled down a ratty box of Cheerios which served as her bank. Two years ago, when she had to choose between monthly banking fees and groceries, she’d converted the cereal box into her piggy bank.

A yawn escaped her as she stuck her hand in with a too-thin stack of cash, but suddenly she was wide awake. Her hand had reached the bottom of the box without hitting a single other dollar bill.

Holy. Fuck. She’d been robbed. With a pounding heart, she slowly circled to scan her apartment with new eyes. Nothing else seemed out of place, not that she had things in place for people to rob. It wasn’t as if she had jewelry or iPads lying around for thieves. The only jewelry she had left was her mother’s engagement ring, which she wore on a thin chain around her neck. Danny had pawned the rest of it years ago.

Danny… He was the only one who knew where she hid her cash, not that she’d told him. Her faith and trust in him was long gone. Unfortunately, one night he’d been crashed in her bed when she came home from work, and she’d thought he’d been asleep when she put her tips away in the Cheerios box. But he must’ve taken her savings.

She’d had just enough cash in the box to pay her rent, but now she only had tonight’s tips, a grand total of $38.62. “Fuck,” she yelled to the room.

It didn’t respond.

Her legs buckled out from under her, and she slid down the scratchy wooden cabinet until her butt hit the cracked linoleum and her cash pooled over her denim-clad lap. She wanted to cry, but tears required effort and passion, and she was so damn tired and drained.

It had been ten years since her world imploded when her parents died, and seven years since the money they’d left had run out, but it felt like forever.

“Goddammit, Danny,” she muttered. “How could you do this to me?” It was the drugs, she knew. He needed money for his next fix or to pay off his last one, but maybe, if she were lucky, he hadn’t spent the money yet. This morning her cereal box had been filled, so the money couldn’t have been missing that long. Maybe Danny still had it. The trick was going to be to find him before he found his dealer.

* * *

Ian Lawrence circled the club with his gaze yet another time, pausing only briefly at the shitty sight in the corner. Danny was here again.

High. Again.

Fuck.

Yes, alcohol and other illegal substances were a reality of the Miami party scene, but it was recreational, weekend use. Not for Danny, however. Ian didn’t know what to do.

How did you throw your oldest best friend to the wolves? If he didn’t provide a safe place for Danny to get his fix, someone else would. At least this way, Ian could keep an eye on things. Any other place would toss Danny in the alley if things got ugly. They likely wouldn’t even call an ambulance for him.

Pretending that all was right in the world, he refocused on the crowd at his table and pasted a laconic smile on his face.

“Holy shit,” Drew said, craning his neck around the brunette model on his lap and noticing Danny. “Is that Danny Ross again?”

Ian didn’t bother looking back. “Yeah,” he muttered. It was Thursday night at the hottest party they threw all week, and it seemed like everyone in Miami was there celebrating the upcoming weekend. Since graduating college, Ian had teamed up with his college roommate, Drew, to promote Miami’s hottest parties.

Ian’s father hated his job choice, and he was reminded weekly at Sunday brunch that a place at the family business waited for him when he finally decided to get his head out of his ass and stop partying for a living. Ian had no intention of taking on his father’s offer. He enjoyed his life too much, except for moments like this when the nightlife turned ugly.

“He needs to find somewhere else to buy his coke,” Drew said. “I know he’s your friend from high school, Ian, but his little corner of the universe is bringing the party down over there.”

Drew’s woman of the night—one night only—distracted them for a second. She was scowling across the table. “Coke is over. Look what I brought.” She unfurled a small plastic baggie of brightly colored tablets that looked more like candy that belonged in a children’s vending machine. “I’ll share with your friend over there.”

Yeah, good idea. Give the addict Molly. Ian grabbed the bag from the model, shoved it in the breast pocket of his linen button-down, and pushed his way out of the booth.

“Hey,” the woman protested, but Ian ignored her. She was easily ignorable. Every night Drew had a different woman by his side, all of them tall, leggy and clad in dresses that would barely fit a preschooler. Sure, the women’s skin color, height, and bra sizes differed, but they were interchangeable in Ian’s mind. Probably Drew’s too. All of them saw Drew as their ticket to the best parties in Miami. Each thought they would be the one to make it to a second night. None ever had. So yeah, Ian had zero problem pissing this woman off and confiscating her drugs. He’d never see her again. And speaking of people he never thought he’d see again…

A tiny firecracker of a blonde was barreling through the crowded dance floor on a direct path to Danny.

“Catherine,” he muttered under his breath, rising and halfway across the club before his brain had caught up to realize his feet had beelined to her.

He hadn’t seen her in years, not since her eighteenth birthday party, but he recognized her easily with her diminutive height, athletic build, and stick-straight blonde hair. Truth was, she could’ve dyed her hair, pierced her nose, and he’d still know her. He’d always had a sixth sense when it came to his best friend’s little sister.

He’d purposely lost track of her. He knew he had nothing to give her that she needed, and it was kinder to let her move on with her life and find peace after her parents’ death. On her eighteenth birthday, she’d looked at him with love and expectations in her eyes that at twenty-two he’d had no ability to fulfill.

Danny, he knew more about, seeing how the guy was at his parties scoring drugs at least once or twice a week, but since he hadn’t seen Cat, he’d assumed she wisely got sick of her junkie brother’s ass and was on to bigger and better things.

The second he got closer to the siblings, Ian could hear Cat lighting into her brother. She was louder than the massive speakers that shook the dance floor with their bass vibrations.

“Where’s my money?” Catherine’s petite body was in her brother’s space, as in, up in it, nearly pushing him backward.

“Catherine,” Ian said, reaching out to give her a hug, but her palm landed hard on his sternum. Her fingernails were short, clean and unpolished, which was strange because Cat had forever been sitting by the pool painting her fingers and toenails.

“Back up, Ian,” Cat said. “You are the last person I need to see.”

It felt like a punch in the gut to have the girl who’d handed him her heart look at him with disgust. He’d earned her wrath by crushing her teenage dreams, but surely seven years was long enough to gain forgiveness. “We used to be friends, Cat.”

“You’re not my friend, Ian,” Cat said in a level voice, keeping her direct attention on her brother, who was almost too stoned to notice his baby sister practically erupting with volcanic force a foot from his face.

Ian quickly assessed this was a family matter. Once upon a time, he’d been like a family member, but he forced himself to shake off any lingering shock and sadness that Cat was a virtual stranger to him now. Cutting himself off from her had been his goal. He didn’t get to have regrets that his plan had worked.

“Let’s get you guys some privacy. Come on.” He pivoted, leading the way to a back office. He took one step then another before turning back. “Let’s go, Rosses.” When Danny had pushed himself off his seat and stumbled toward him, he resumed his path to the office.

They had to push their way through a crowded line waiting for the bathroom, and Ian averted his eyes as more than one woman tried to catch his attention. He was avoiding one woman in particular. He’d slept with her a month ago, and she wasn’t taking the hint that he wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship, and instead kept showing up at his parties. He heard her call his name, but ignored it and pulled a key out of his pocket to usher Cat and Danny to the owner’s back office, which Ian was allowed use of on Thursday nights.

The thumping of the ever-present Miami bass dimmed as he shut the door behind him. Danny collapsed into a chair, doing a crap job at hiding the fact that his hands were shaking and he’d nearly missed the chair to end up on his ass on the floor.

Ian strolled around the desk to the club owner’s chair and waited for the siblings to resume whatever argument they’d been in before. Only Cat wasn’t yelling at Danny now that they had privacy. Instead, she was straight as a miniature flagpole, arms crossed over her breasts and glaring at him. He reciprocated with a raised brow. “Well?” he asked, gesturing to Danny. “Have at him.”

“Can we get a little privacy, please?” Cat’s voice had matured since the last time he’d heard her. Like whisky and cigars, it went down smooth with a little kick.

“Not in my club,” Ian said, and leaned back to observe, folding his own arms over his chest. Cat held his gaze another minute before rolling her eyes and sighing.

“Fine.” She turned to her brother, who looked a little sweaty and green under the office’s fluorescent lights. “I need my money back, Dan. Rent is due.”

“What money?” Danny’s words were slurred and a little unnoticed line of saliva trailed down the side of his mouth.

Ian’s body tightened in disgust and dismay at his one-time best friend’s state.

“Don’t be a jackass. My rent money, Danny.” Cat’s hands fisted at her sides and she leaned over her brother. “Tips, lots of singles, an old Cheerios box. Ring any bells?”

Ian heard Danny answering, but his attention was on Cat who’d stormed his club wearing ancient jeans that did nothing for her ass, and a stained T-shirt that inexplicably said Mo’s Tavern.  Like the bar on the cartoon? How the hell had she made it through his doormen wearing that excuse of an outfit? To get into one of his parties, skin was your ticket in. Only Cat’s forearms and face were visible. He’d have to have a word with his people up front, but then the words from Danny started penetrating and Ian tried to connect the dots of what was happening here.

It sounded as if Cat needed rent money and Danny had taken it. But why would she need rent money? Didn’t she still have the house her parents had left to her? And what was that about Cheerios? He sat forward with his forearms balanced on the desk, as Danny stumbled to his feet and pushed his way out of the office, while muttering, “Money’s gone, Catie.”

“Danny,” Cat shouted after him, sounding every inch the spitfire Ian remembered, but when she turned back to him, tears were streaming down her face, and she was trembling from head to toe. “What am I going to do?” she murmured. “I’m so screwed.”

Ian had never had a white knight complex. Female tears didn’t make him want to brandish a sword and solve their problems, but he’d always had a soft spot for Catherine Ross. Seeing her looking like a hot mess was doing uncomfortable things to his gut. Things he wanted to ignore but couldn’t because mostly, he wanted to grab Cat, pull her onto his lap, and wipe her tears away.

“Sit down. How much do you need?” he finally asked. She didn’t answer at first.

“A million dollars?”

Ian smiled at the ridiculous request but lost the grin when he saw Cat was dead serious. “What’s going on, Cat?”

 

Cat looked through her tears at the boy who used to be like a big brother, now a fully-grown, very sexy, slightly scary man. She hadn’t seen him since her eighteenth birthday party where she’d thrown herself naked at him and given him her virginity. A reverse birthday present.

She’d lied to herself for years that it’d been her worst decision ever, but truth was that one time with Ian was better than dying and never knowing what it was like to have sex with him. At the time, she’d felt special. Seven years later, she knew there was nothing special about being a notch on Ian’s bedpost. There were a lot of notches in the 305.

She knew he’d graduated from University of Florida then came home to become Miami’s biggest party promoter. She also knew Danny took advantage of this fact by using their friendship to get into the parties where he scored premium drugs.

So no, she really had no use for Ian Lawrence, who maybe used to be a friend, but definitely no longer was due to the fact that he’d let Danny get to this point. Was she being fair? No. Danny had made his own bed. But Ian had handed him the sheets and blanket.

Still, the crush she’d harbored forever fanned back to life at seeing his big body across the scarred wooden desk with curiosity and maybe sympathy in his eyes. The temptation to unburden herself and offload her problems was great, but what was the point? It wasn’t as if she’d accept money from Ian.

She rose, the full effect of working a long shift finally hitting now that the adrenaline of chasing her brother to South Beach had worn off. Her hand pressed on the desk, steadying herself. Suddenly Ian was around her side of the room, pushing her exhausted body back into the chair.

“Sit, Cat. What the fuck is going on?”

“Danny stole my rent money,” she finally muttered, fighting and losing against a yawn.

“And…”

Was he a moron? What did he think would happen if her brother stole her rent money? “And I’m already behind on utilities. I’ll get kicked out if I can’t pay.” She was suddenly wide awake as Ian reached into his back pocket, pulled out a sleek, black leather wallet, counted out a few hundred-dollar bills, and laid them on the desk.

“Pay me back when you can.”

She glanced down at the ten crisp, clean hundred-dollar bills and started to laugh—well, laughter with tears leaking from her eyes, so not really laughter, but hysterics. One-thousand …how the hell did Ian think she’d pay that kind of money back?

“What?” he asked sharply. “Take the fucking money, Cat.”

“Hell no,” she said.

“Why not?”

“One, because I didn’t earn it, and two, because I’d never be able to pay you back.”

Silence. Then Ian blinked at her. “What the fuck is going on, Cat? You have money from your parents.”

When she didn’t answer and stared steadily at him, his eyes narrowed. “Don’t you?”

She remained quiet and then decided what the hell? Who better to tell than a really longtime friend? Let him feel the burn of what he’d had a hand in.

“Danny was my guardian, Ian. After high school when you were off at college, he made some messed up decisions. Like the drugs. It’s an expensive habit. All that pot you two smoked. It was a fun party thing for you. For Danny? It’s a lifestyle.” She shrugged. “Money’s gone. He sold the house a long time ago. I’ve been on my own since high school.”

“What about your aunt? The one who was supposed to take care of you while Danny went to college?” Except they both knew Danny had only made it one semester at the U before dropping out to major in cocaine.

“My mother’s sister was more focused on her family back in Cuba,” she said. “I think she was hoping to use my money to pull strings and get the rest of the family over here. I would’ve been happy to help, except I didn’t have control of the money. Danny did. Aunt Ros lived with us for a while until she was done with us.” Another shrug and then she found the energy to take another step and find her way home, leaving Ian’s money on the table.

“Cat, get back here,” he called before her big toe hit the doorway.

She peeked over her shoulder back at him, noting the Benjamins were gone from the desk. Ian had always been quick. “What are you going to do, Ian? I told you my sob story. It’s no worse than loads of people here in Miami. At least I had fifteen years of good before I got the shaft. At least I had a taste of the good life. Gives me something to want to get back to. Gives me dreams.”

“You used to dream of college and dancing. What are your dreams now?” Ian asked, his deep voice washing over her.

She frowned. She’d lied to Ian just now. Dreams were for people who had time and money. She only had the day-to-day grind of work, worry, rinse, repeat. Jeez, what would she dream about if she had the time?

“Rent money would be a good start. Getting Danny into rehab, a place to live where my landlord didn’t feel as if he could walk in any time of day even when I was sleeping.” Now she was getting on a roll and barely registered Ian’s frown when she mentioned her pervy landlord. “My parents alive again. A house with a pool. A steady job where my ass didn’t get pinched or fondled. Oh, and world peace.”

That second-to-last dream turned Ian’s frown into a full-blown scowl. Hypocrite. Like the girls in his employ weren’t paid to get more than their asses fondled?

“I can’t raise your parents from the dead, and I won’t buy you a house, but I can give you a job,” he said.

She stared at him. “Doing what exactly?”

He gestured to the chair. “Sit your ass down, and let’s talk.”

She shook her head. “Is this guilt speaking? I would’ve given you everything seven years ago. Now I want nothing from you.”

He stared at her unhappily. “I fucked up, Cat. I didn’t appreciate—”

“No,” she interrupted. “You didn’t. Do me a favor and stay out of my life. If you want to help, don’t let Danny at your parties.”

He nodded, because there was nothing else to say. She didn’t want his apologies or to rehash the past.

“Goodbye, Ian.”

He raised a hand but didn’t speak. Cat turned to leave, a wave of sadness crashing over her because this was the end of her dream in which she and Ian ended up living happily ever after. Why couldn’t he be the hero who ignored her words, saw through her to her deepest darkest fantasies, and leaped over the desk to beg her to stay? Instead he was the asshole who let her go.

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