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Jana Franklin was out of luck and running out of time. She'd always believed she had more than her share of both. She'd been wrong. She had less than ninety-seven cents in her evening clutch and if she didn't come up with the rent for her motel room tonight she'd be out in the streets tomorrow.
What she needed was what she'd always used—an accommodating and generous man. She'd crashed a charity gala in a three-story Georgian mansion in the most exclusive area of Dallas to find one. But this time desperation, not greed or the allure of being in control, drove her.
Even as the frightening thought materialized, Jana fought to deny it. Desperation was not a word she had ever associated with herself. Why should she? She'd lived a privileged life and was accustomed to having whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, and she'd always wanted the best.
As for need, by the time she was twelve her parents' disinterest had taught her never to need anyone. Her mother had taken the lesson one step further and drilled into the head of her only child to need men least of all.
Jana had learned that lesson well.
Since she was fifteen she'd carelessly used men as the whim struck, then moved on to the next gullible fool. If life had taught her anything it was that need made you weak and love was a joke for those stupid enough to believe in happily-ever-after. People who thought otherwise were asking for their hearts to be trampled on. Jana had always prided herself on being too smart for that, but somehow she'd taken a wrong turn and no matter what she did she couldn't seem to get her life back on track.
Tonight was her last chance.
Life was no longer an amusing game where she made the rules, then bent them for her own satisfaction and enjoyment. Her safe comfortable world was gone, perhaps forever.
Her trembling fingers clenched the stem of the champagne flute as she glanced around the formal living room of the palatial mansion. For the first time in her thirty-two years, she had no place to go and no one to turn to. Her black clutch held loose change, lipstick, and the key to a bug-infested motel room. Friends and family might be an option for some, but not for her. She'd never bothered to have friends and her parents had never bothered with her.
Another cursory glance around the elegant room filled with the wealthy and elite, and those who desperately wanted to be, increased the jittery feeling in Jana's stomach. She'd been here for twenty-five minutes, and although she'd shared good times and a bed with a couple of men in the room, neither had approached her nor spoken.
She felt uncomfortable in her own skin, restless, too keyed up to even enjoy her favorite drink. She was too aware of what would happen to her if she didn't accomplish her goal tonight.
Hope surged as she caught the eye of Dan Jefferies, a wealthy restaurateur and one of several men in the room who had once pursued her relentlessly. She'd rebuffed him and chosen a man ten years his senior and twenty times as wealthy. She hadn't been subtle in her rejection. Dan's sixty-foot craft couldn't compare to a luxurious yacht with its own helipad. As if remembering her very public put-down, he turned away, just as the other men in the room had done that evening.
A hint of color bloomed in Jana's pale cheeks. Her hand fluttered to the plunging neckline of her ill-fitting purple gown. It was a hideous dress, but it was the only appropriate attire she had left. If she had on one of her Armani or Valentino couture gowns, her nails and hair done at Neiman's salon . . . her thoughts trailed off. Somehow she knew those superficial trappings wouldn't help. Nothing had gone right since she'd fled Charleston in disgrace almost a year ago. Corrine Livingston had made sure of that.
"How the mighty have fallen."
"And it couldn't happen to a more deserving bitch."
Jana heard the snide comments of the nearby women as she was meant to and barely kept from tucking her head and leaving. Once they wouldn't have dared cross her and if they had, she'd have given it back to them in spades. What kept the harsh words locked behind her teeth was the vision of the small, cramped space that was now her home . . . at least for now. She could stand their abuse. What she couldn't stand was the possibility of never regaining her position in society.
A rich man would change that. But what if . . .
Her fingers tightened on the stem of the flute. She refused to let herself think about not succeeding. With an unsteady hand she tilted the crystal flute and drained the glass. The vintage wine tasted flat and left her feeling the same way. Once the thought of the chase, of seducing any man to her will, would have made her feel alive. Now it made her stomach roll.
She hadn't eaten all day. The women standing nearby laughed as Jana's stomach grumbled. She flushed with embarrassment.
Apparently tired of their little game, Priscilla Haynes, the hostess who had been standing with the two other women, confronted Jana. "I didn't know you were in town."
Priscilla was flawless in a black silk Armani gown that hugged her trim figure. A million dollars' worth of pure pink sapphires surrounded by oval-cut diamonds hung from her ears and circled her throat. The matching bracelet on her right wrist completed the one-of-a-kind suite. The diamond wedding ring was ten carats and flawless, as was the ten-carat diamond tennis bracelet on her other wrist.
Priscilla was a class-A snob and bitch. The slow drawling words were a none-too-subtle swipe that that knowledge would have precluded Jana being invited to the charity ball, since Priscilla was chair, in her home.
Unable to think of a quick comeback, Jana waved the empty flute in a dismissive gesture, then watched the other woman's hazel eyes narrow and grow even colder. Jana remembered, though now too late, making the same careless gesture shortly before leaving a party in Vail several years ago with Priscilla's fiancé.
Jana hadn't wanted the rich oilman. She'd simply wanted to show Priscilla, who thought she was all that, that she could. She'd sent him back to Priscilla the next day. Apparently his wealth far outweighed her humiliation because they had married six months later as scheduled.
"I . . ." Jana began, but couldn't quite come up with a witty remark. Smart comebacks had once been her staple and trade, that and getting any man she wanted. Saying she was sorry to Priscilla would have been a lie, but then when had Jana ever been bothered with the truth? Her prime objective was self-gratification, but look what that had gotten her.
Mitsy and Sherilyn, the two women who had spoken earlier, flanked Priscilla, bolstering her. A show of strength that said Priscilla had friends and Jana had nothing and no one. She never had. She hadn't thought she'd ever need them.
"Jana, you must have missed your salon appointment. I've seen better hair and nails on my cleaning woman," Mitsy said gleefully.
"We hear you're missing a lot these days." Sherilyn dared to flick the limp, ruffled sleeve of Jana's out-of-season gown. The bright purple design clashed garishly with her cinnamon-hued completion. "Where did you get this? The Salvation Army?"
"She earned it on her back like she has everything else," Mitsy answered.
"Not anymore," Sherilyn said. "Payback's a bitch."
Jana could have stood laughter better than the malicious glee in their eyes, the knowledge that Jana Louise Carpenter Livingston Murphy Franklin, the thrice-married woman who had once ruled those around her, especially men, was almost destitute with no friends, no family, and no place to go.
And it was her own fault.
Jana's brain urged her to leave, but the thought of what would happen to her if she left without accomplishing her mission kept her rooted on the Oriental rug. Without finding a wealthy man to support her she'd be out on the street tomorrow. The motel manager had already said she could "work it off." That she had been scared and desperate enough to momentarily consider his offer made her ill. There had to be one man here who still wanted her.
"I lost weight and didn't have time to shop." Jana carefully set the glass on a nearby table. "Excuse me. I see someone I know."
"We all know you, Jana. That's the problem," said Priscilla.
Jana flinched at the undisguised contempt in the woman's voice, then she continued past the hostile stares of the other people in the room. Most of them as gleeful as the women she had left. It wasn't difficult to read their thoughts: bitchy, man-stealing Jana was finally getting what was coming to her.
Jana's hand trembled as she grasped the brass knob of the powder room down the hallway. Thankfully it opened. Entering, she shut the door, then slid down until her bottom hit the cool black marble floor.
She'd called her mother for help, but she had said that she was having problems of her own. Jana's father had hung up on her. Neither had ever been there for her. Her mother has always been busy with the current lover: her father with his telecommunication firm. Why should now be any different?
Yet she couldn't help hoping that one day things would change.
She'd never worked a real job in her life. First there had been her wealthy father, who gave her money instead of his time, and her mother, who gave her lessons on handling men instead of handling the ups and downs of life, then a succession of men, each one wealthier than the last one. Five months ago that had stopped. Now she had to fend for herself, and had absolutely no idea how to do so.
It seemed that a beautiful face and a shapely body only worked for so long. She had been reduced to selling her clothes and jewelry, even her shoes, and moving to less and less expensive places to live until she had ended up in a dump that, a few months ago, she wouldn't have recommended a dog sleep in.
She lifted her head and leaned it back against the door. She'd read about the charity event tonight in the newspaper at the McDonald's where she had been able to con the young man behind the counter into letting her have breakfast while she only paid for coffee. But this week he was on vacation and the woman behind the counter wanted cash, not flirtatious smiles and a glimpse of cleavage.
With the elite in attendance—brown, black, white—she had been sure she'd find a man. She'd lived abroad long enough to have crossed the color line before, and saw no reason not to take the opportunity if it presented itself. Dallas was in the South, but the city had a cosmopolitan attitude about relationships.
But the opportunity hadn't presented itself. She wasn't five feet inside the great room where everyone was gathered before the buzz of whispers began to follow her like a bad scent. Her reputation and downfall had preceded her. Women who once cowered before her now smirked. Men who had once begged to be with her now barely looked at her.
No man wanted a woman no one else wanted.
That was the first lesson her mother had taught her when she was fifteen. They'd bonded as much as possible over discussions of men and sex when they had nothing in common to link them but blood. Her mother had taught her how to get a man, but she hadn't bothered to teach her daughter how to keep one. Jana had been taught that there wasn't a man she couldn't get. She found out too late that not all men were ruled by their zippers and now she was paying the high price, and so was her mother.
The brisk knock on the door made Jana jump. "I need to get in."
No please, no excuse me. Whoever was knocking knew Jana was inside, knew she was hiding.
The knock, more demanding, came again.
Jana struggled to her feet and swayed. Two glasses of champagne shouldn't have made her tipsy. She'd been drinking since she was fourteen. First in hiding, then after her mother had finally started to pay attention to her, they'd drink champagne and cosmopolitans when her father wasn't around. They'd done a great deal behind her father's back.
None of it good.
Jana made herself look in the mirror. She winced at the dark smudges beneath her eyes, the gaunt face, and the dull shoulder-length hair she'd tried to cut into a semblance of style with a pair of scissors she'd borrowed from the hotel manager. Her eyes looked old and defeated. She'd lost weight and the gown she'd bought on a wild shopping spree last year sagged on her. Not eating tended to do that to a person. She couldn't remember a day in the past three months when she hadn't gone to sleep hungry.
"Jana, open this door!" Priscilla demanded.
Jana flinched, swallowed, then rubbed her damp palms on her dress and opened the door. She wasn't surprised to see several women crowded into the hallway. They presented a united front against one. Once she would have been included, if only superficially, but that was before Charleston, before her life began its descent into hell.
"I don't want you in my house. A cab is waiting for you," Priscilla said.
Jana almost laughed. She had come by bus. Million-dollar residences needed a barrage of people, preferably at minimum wages, to keep them maintained and the occupants happy. The bus line was essential in bringing much of that help.
If only Jana could say her car was waiting or name a man who wanted to take her home. Home. Had she ever really had one?
"What's the matter with you? Are you so dense that you'd stay where you're not wanted?" Priscilla walked closer. "Get out of my house. Your presence offends me and every decent person here."
The verbal thrust made Jana cringe and come out fighting. "Since I know of your affair with a certain doctor in New York last year, and the rest of the women standing around you are just as bad, except Mitsy who prefers women, I'd say I'm in good company."
The slap across Jana's face snapped her head back and caused her to stumble against the wall. Stunned, she rubbed her stinging cheek. The attack was so unexpected that Jana simply stared at Priscilla as the verbal hatred poured from her mouth. Then, the male guests and a servant were there.
"Get this trash out of my house," Priscilla said, her voice and body trembling with rage. Everett, her husband, his face as closed as that of the other men with him—as if he'd never begged Jana to run off and marry him—put his arm around Priscilla and curtly nodded his head in Jana's direction. The stiff-backed butler stepped forward and grabbed Jana none too gently by the bare arm and led her past the watchful crowd.
It was all Jana could do not to hang her head in shame. By tomorrow news of her humiliation would have reached from one end of the country to another. Her fall from grace was complete. Opening the door, the servant kept walking until they were on the sidewalk. The garbage disposed of, he reentered the house.
For a long time Jana simply stared at the closed, recessed door, the light spilling from the many windows of the three-story home. The poorest to the wealthiest person inside had a home, maybe family and friends, waiting for them. What wouldn't she give to have as much? She'd never realized how desperately she wanted both until it was too late.
Trembling, Jana swallowed the knot in her throat, then turned, looked up and down the wide street bordered by million-dollar homes and flawlessly manicured lawns. Luxury cars and the Texas elite's newest darling, Hummers, lined both sides of the exclusive address, but there was no taxi. Jana glanced at her wrist, then felt a tear slide down her cheek. The 18-carat white gold Rolex with a mother-of-pearl face surrounded by two rows of diamonds, given to her by a very generous lover, had been sold weeks ago at a grocery parking lot to a man who had given her a tenth of what it was worth, but more than a pawn shop would have.
Opening her small clutch purse, she pulled out a wad of toilet tissue and dabbed her eyes. Pay-by-the-day motels didn't have Kleenex. But crying wouldn't change things. If it would have, she'd be back inside snubbing the hostess and selecting the lucky man to take her home. In the morning she'd have breakfast—mimosa, freshly baked flaky croissants, and waffles piled high with plump, juicy strawberries and fresh whipped cream.
Her stomach growled again. She should have eaten at the party when she had the chance, but she had been afraid that once she started she couldn't have stopped. Or worse, she might have thrown up the rich food. She was learning that hunger was manageable if you kept starving it. Feed it and your body wanted more.
She turned toward the bus stop, thinking as her steps quickened on the deserted street that she should have checked to see when it stopped running. The wealthy might want help during the day, but at night the servants went home unless they were working.
"Hey, beautiful, need a lift?"
Jana almost stumbled, then jerked around and saw Douglas Gregory in a $75,000 Mercedes. Salvation! She felt almost light-headed. Douglas was a second-string player for a Dallas sports team that was last in their division. At the party he'd been loud and obviously out-of-place and trying to fit in. He had probably been invited because of his connection to the team, but he wasn't accepted into the upper ranks. Each time he had joined a group, it splintered off.
"I'll take you anyplace you want to go." He glanced over his shoulder and behind him, then shoved open the passenger's side door.
Where he planned to take her was to bed. She hesitated. She hadn't been with a man in five months and frankly, for the first time in memory, she wasn't looking forward to it.
"Come on," he urged.
She took a step closer. In the dim light coming from the car she saw his angular, clean-shaven face. He wasn't much to look at, but she'd been with unattractive men before. Money, not looks, was important. Another lesson her mother had taught her.
Douglas glanced over his shoulder again. "Come on, get in."
Jana quickly understood what was going on. He didn't want anyone at the party to know he had picked her up. That was all right with her. He wasn't the type of man she usually chose either. The men she allowed her favors were charming, sophisticated, connected, and very wealthy. They had to be to be able to afford her. If she woke up at three in the morning and was hungry, there had better be a chef in residence or a hotel with twenty-four-hour room service to accommodate her.
"You coming or not?" he asked, impatience in his voice.
Jana quickly stuffed the tissue back in her purse then rounded the hood of the gleaming black car and got inside. She had barely closed the door before the vehicle took off. The smell of the new leather mingled unpleasantly with his heavy, woodsy cologne, causing Jana to feel queasy.
"Jana." First names meant sex for a night and good-bye in the morning. She'd played the game before, but this time she needed more than a night.
Bringing a smile to her face she turned toward him, thankful that the dimness of the car's interior showed only profile and cleavage as they passed the street lights, not the ravages of the past five months. "Thanks."
He chuckled. "I aim to please."
I just bet you do, Jana thought. Another man who thought he had the right moves to bring any woman ecstasy—which usually meant he didn't. But that was all right. Jana was a pro at faking it. Sex was a device to control men. Occasionally she found pleasure in the act, but she wasn't bothered if she didn't.
What she cared about was his paycheck. Since he'd been invited to the gala, it must be substantial which meant he could afford to keep her in the style she'd grown accustomed to.
"I just flew in for the charity event. I'm supposed to fly back out in the morning, but who knows. . . ." She let her voice trail off seductively.
He gave her a quick grin, then let his beefy hand fall heavily on her thigh. She wanted to shove his hand off. Instead she chatted, her edgy feeling returning as time passed. He didn't ask for her address.
A short time later she frowned as he pulled into the darkened theater parking lot of Highland Park Village. The upscale shopping center strip had single-level shops that rivaled those on Rodeo Drive.
Parking in a dark corner of the lot, Douglas cut the motor and reached for her. Jana inched back against the door. She didn't want a quickie, she wanted someone to take care of her. Someone to fix things and make her life right again.
"Why are we parked here?"
"My wife is home and I can't risk going to a hotel where I might be recognized," he told her impatiently.
Jana almost felt cheap and ashamed. "You could give me the money and I could rent the room, then call you on your cell," she suggested.
"I'm not going to risk it. From what I heard about you, this can't be your first time in a car," he said snidely.
It wasn't, but it had never been in these circumstances and never so crudely initiated. Jana stared at the disgruntled man and realized she had finally hit rock bottom.
All these years she'd told herself that she was using men. With startling clarity she realized they'd been using her. Her mother had been wrong. The man glaring at her wouldn't mind taking her in the front seat of his car, but he wouldn't want any of his friends to know, except the few he'd later brag to. He'd probably already bragged to at least one man at the party that he was going to score with her.
How could she have been so blind?
With a quick turn, she opened the door and got out. She heard the curse behind her and deftly evaded the hand grabbing for her. The chiffon ruffle on the back of her dress wasn't so fortunate. Her curse joined his at the sound of the fragile material tearing, but she didn't dare pause. Some men didn't take no. Her heels clicked loudly on the pavement as she headed toward the beckoning light of the shopping center.
"Get back in this damn car!" he yelled.
Although she felt light-headed, she increased her pace, fearing any moment she'd feel his rough hand on her arm. Instead she heard the slam of a door, then another. She dared glance over her shoulder to see the big car back up, then roar out of the parking lot. Panting, she slowed to fight off another wave of dizziness, unsure if it was from not eating a full meal in the last week or the intense heat. Even at night, the temperature in Dallas hung in the low nineties at this time of the year.
Catching her breath, her steps measured, Jana emerged from the parking lot and started toward the street at the other end of the shopping center. She was too wary to even glance into the store windows as she passed St. Johns, Gucci, and Cartier. Her focus was the street ahead. Hopefully a bus would be there, but the way her luck had been going, she doubted it.
A few steps later another wave of dizziness forced her to stop and press her hand against a plate glass window to steady herself. Eyes closed, she waited for her head to clear, painfully aware that each time the dizziness came it was more difficult to fight.
What wouldn't she give to be able to lie down on cool, clean sheets or for a cool glass of water. She didn't think she'd ever been as tired as she was now. If she didn't rest and get something to drink, she was afraid she wouldn't make it to the bus stop. Worse, she might pass out on the bus. And if she sat down on the sidewalk, she wasn't sure she'd be able to get back up.
Opening her eyes, she lifted her head and stared into the store. Directly in front of her was a king-sized brass bed piled high with luxurious linens and pillows. On the chrome nightstand was a silver pitcher, two silver flutes, and a small bouquet of fresh-cut flowers. Some might see the humor in the situation, but humor had never been Jana's strong suit.
As her gaze tracked around the store filled with colorful linens and bath products, she saw a tall, well-built man sitting behind a French country desk, his long legs, encased in jeans, stretched out in front of him. He wore a white shirt with the cuffs rolled back. His long-fingered hand slowly turned the pages in front of him.
As if suddenly aware he was being watched, he looked up and their gazes met. His dark eyes narrowed behind wire-rimmed glasses. For some odd reason his direct gaze made her want to step back into the shadows. She attributed the pounding of her heart to fear that he might recognize her. Priscilla and her friends would have a good laugh on hearing that Jana had passed out on the sidewalk.
Jana glanced toward the busy street that was a block away. She'd never make it if she didn't rest for a moment. There was only one choice left.
Before she lost her nerve, she reached for the crystal doorknob.
Copyright © 2005 by Francis Ray