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L.a. Woman

$ 360.87
L.a. Woman
Cathy Yardley

Литагент HarperCollins EUR


Ever moved to a city you didn't know, for a guy who wasn't worth it…all because you thought you were in love?Sarah Walker has.She's just moved to L.A. and changed her whole life in anticipation of cohabitation with her fiancе, Benjamin. But he stalls, again. Pushed to the limit, the stability-seeking Sarah snaps and actually finds herself dumping him. Now she's in free fall: no fiancе, no job. No idea what to do next.According to her new roommate Martika, Sarah is now in the perfect place to start life in L.A.Before she knows it, Sarah becomes Martika's project, getting pulled headlong into a crazy, chaotic world of nightclubs and day jobs, where the only constant is change. Sarah's about to discover that "single" isn't a dirty word. Not that she'll be staying single for long….


CATHY YARDLEY


graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a double major in art history and mass communications. In the span of her seven years since graduating, she has been an advertising lackey, an advertising sales lackey, a crazed production manager, a bored marketing manager, a bemused budget analyst and a temp. Strangely, neither major provided useful information for any of these pursuits.

As a writer, though, she’s grateful to finally see the point to all that schooling. And all those jobs. And, basically, her life.


To the family of my heart: Pat Johnson, Katrina Healey, Mike Johnson, Chris Becker, Greedi James. I love you!

And to Liisa and Joey, the coolest people I’ve ever known. Thanks.
L.A. Woman

Cathy Yardley


www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk)
L.A. Woman
Contents


Chapter 1: Waiting For the Sun

Chapter 2: Take It As It Comes

Chapter 3: People Are Strange

Chapter 4: Unhappy Girl

Chapter 5: Break on Through

Chapter 6: The Changeling

Chapter 7: Roadhouse Blues

Chapter 8: Love Me Two Times

Chapter 9: Strange Days

Chapter 10: Wishful Sinful

Chapter 11: Light My Fire

Chapter 12: Hello, I Love You

Chapter 13: We Could Be So Good Together

Chapter 14: When the Music’s Over

Chapter 15: Crystal Ship

Chapter 16: Love Her Madly

Chapter 17: Unhappy Girl (Dance Remix)

Chapter 18: Ship of Fools

Chapter 19: Five to One

Chapter 20: L.A. Woman
Chapter 1

Waiting For the Sun


Sarah looked nervously around the apartment. “You know, this wasn’t how I pictured this. At all.”

She heard Benjamin sigh. “I’m at the office, sweetie. Is this going to be long?”

Sarah sighed. “I just…felt a little lonely. Felt like calling.”

“Well, you’ve been down in Los Angeles for a whole week. How are you doing? Feeling, you know, acclimated?”

“There are cardboard boxes up to the ceiling, but at least the bed’s in. Thank God Judith and David were able to help me.” She paused. “That wasn’t…I mean, I understand you had to work last weekend, too.”

“Don’t even get me started.” She heard an impatient rustle of papers. “Judith…who’s she again?”

“She’s my friend. From college. She got married to David, moved down here—let’s see, that’d be three years ago. Remember? I took you to her wedding.”

A pause. “The Chinese girl?”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “That’s the one.”

“Huh. Well, anyway, it’s not like you’re completely alone down there.”

Sarah leaned against the arm of the couch. “It’s not the same, and you know it,” she teased, glancing out the window. It was looking fit to storm, she noticed. She thought that it never rained in Los Angeles. Maybe that was a myth. She hoped it wouldn’t storm. “I just can’t wait until you’re down here, tucked up in bed with me—picking out some more furniture, this place is very bare—you know. Settling in.”

As soon as she said the words, she winced. She hadn’t meant to say settling. This wasn’t about pressuring him to marry her…even if they had been engaged for four years. This was about her being a good girlfriend, helping him out.

Really.

“Well, what I’m saying is, sure, you miss me…but it’s not going to, you know, kill you or anything.” He laughed, warmly.

She felt a prickle of alarm. She knew that laugh. She’d been at a business party, and he’d made that laugh to one of the decision-makers of a computer company he was trying to sell semiconductors to. He’d walked away with the account.

“I’m not going to die if you’re not here, yeah, but I’m going to be miserable,” she said, hoping that didn’t sound too whiny. On second thought, she was in a city with millions of people she didn’t know. A little whining was probably not out of place. “So, how did Mr. Richardson take you going through with the transfer, anyway? You figured he’d be mad, but you thought once you’d signed with the L.A. office, there wasn’t anything he could do…”

He sighed deeply. “Turned out I was wrong there, actually.”

The prickle turned into a pang. “What happened?”

“Richardson’s being a dick,” Benjamin replied, his voice acidic. “He knew. He knew I’d try to sneak out of the office. With numbers like I bring in, though—I underestimated what he’d do to keep me here. He doesn’t want to lose one of his highest Northern Cal reps to Southern Cal.”

“But there isn’t anything he can do about it, right?” she pressed. “You’ve already agreed with the sales manager, what’s-his-name, right?”

“Sarah, he pulled the vice president in…and he told me, point-blank, that if I tried to leave Fairfield, I wouldn’t be moving to another district—I’d be moving to another company.”

Sarah blanched, and quickly sat down on the couch. “But…you’ve already signed a lease down here!”

I wouldn’t have moved down if you hadn’t!

“He knows it.” Benjamin’s voice dripped bitterness. “He pulled me aside privately and said that he’d work on Richardson, but they’re, you know, friends.” He all but spat the word out. “He said just give him a little time.”

“How much time are we talking about?” Sarah tried to keep her voice calm. She gripped the cordless phone like a life preserver. “A few weeks?”

“More like two months.”

“Two months!”

“You think I’m happy about this?”

Sarah started pacing. “Two months. Okay. That’s like…that’s like summer vacation. That’s not too bad.”

“Actually, it might be three,” he corrected. “It all depends on Richardson. Goddammit!” He paused, then lowered his voice, obviously remembering he was at work, even if it was a weekend. “Goddammit. I’m so sick of this little town!”

She looked out the window. The clouds were definitely heavy-looking, and some drops pelted the window. She turned on a light. “I don’t suppose…well, couldn’t you just get another job down here? Does it have to be with Becker Electronics?”

“Are you crazy? The job market’s terrible. I’m a proven commodity here,” he said, harshly. “I’m not giving all that up and starting over!”

“Just a suggestion,” Sarah replied, heading him off. I just want you down here. That wasn’t going to happen—not on his end.

“I could break the lease, move back…”

“You already gave up your apartment.”

“I could move in with you…”

“Sarah, the apartment’s in my name. I don’t want you fucking up my credit that way, okay?”

Well, it wasn’t my idea in the first place to sign it, now, was it?

She didn’t want to fight. She’d just have to make the best of things. “Okay. Three months by myself. That’s not so bad,” she said, even though it sounded more ghastly every time she thought of it. “I guess I can get a lot of things planned in the meantime.” Like the wedding. He’d promised that it would be by the end of this year. He hadn’t mentioned specifics, but she knew he wouldn’t, so no sense rubbing his nose in it—especially with this Richardson business.

“Four at the absolute outside,” he said, not helping at all. “Man. I envy you.”

“Really?” Sarah smiled. “Why?”

“By the time I get down there, you’ll practically be a native. You’ll know all the places to go, you’ll already have a job, you’ll be genuinely…”

“Wait a second,” she interrupted. “I don’t know that I’ll find the job I want in three months, Benjamin, so you might not have a leg up on me there.”

He laughed—it was that selling laugh again. “I know you wanted to take some time to figure out what you’re really interested in doing, but that’s hardly realistic now, is it?”

She paced a little more quickly. “But that was part of the agreement. I’d move down to L.A. and get your house ready for you, and then you’d cover the bills for a few months while I figured out my, er, direction.”

“After three jobs in four years, honey, does it really matter now if you get a job you don’t like?” His voice was smoothly persuasive. “You can always quit it later, when I finally move down.”

Sarah felt like banging her head against the wall. “The point is, Benjamin, I don’t want to keep quitting jobs. I feel so…planktonic!”

“Planktonic?” This time, the laugh sounded more natural. “Is that a word?”

“I just want to stop floating around,” she said. “I want some stability.”

He sighed, more irritably this time. “That’s not exactly something I’m supposed to provide for you, Sarah. Is it?”

“You’re missing the point.” She frowned at the phone. “I’m usually so unhappy at work. I mean, there’s got to be something out there I actually enjoy.”

“Nobody really enjoys their job,” he dismissed out of hand. “Okay, maybe me. Still, it’s not like you’re going to be able to pay rent without a job, right? So now’s hardly the time to be picky. And bills…they’ll be coming up soon, too.”

“How much will you be able to help out?”

Another one of those long pauses. She was beginning to really hate those.

“Sarah,” he said slowly, “I’m not living there, remember?”

She blinked. “But you said…”

“Things have changed.” His tone was just this side of curt. “You wouldn’t honestly expect me to pay for the rent when I’m not moving down there.”

“Yet,” she said, bristling. “You’re not moving down here yet.”

“I mean, you wouldn’t think that,” he continued stubbornly.

“You’re right, Benjamin.” Her voice was cold. “I would have moved down here with what little savings I have, on a whim, all ready to pay rent even though you said you’d cover it, not knowing you wouldn’t move down here until I’m already unpacked and signed to a year lease. Of course! What was I thinking?”

“I paid the deposit and the first month, so please don’t give me that ‘I’m stranded here!’ bullshit,” Benjamin answered. “You’re the one who was saying, ‘Oh, L.A. will be so much fun’! You were the one who told me you’d love to move down there!”

That’s because you wanted to, you idiot!

She’d already let her temper get too far ahead of her. She didn’t want to fight…especially not with eight hundred miles and a telephone connection being her only hold on him. “I’m sorry. I…it was unexpected. I wasn’t expecting you to pay for everything.”

“Yeah, well, imagine how I felt.”

She was trying to. Very, very hard.

Three months—and getting a job. In a city where she didn’t know anybody except Judith.

Sarah closed her eyes, breathing deeply. She wasn’t going to cry. He hated her crying and could sense it in a few seconds. “So are you going to visit me?”

“I’m in the middle of a killer quota, and we’re not even to threshold, much less target this year…”

Meaning no.

“Sarah, I can tell you’re getting upset about all of this. Believe me, you’ll be so busy, you won’t even think about me.”

Considering every decision she’d made up to this point was for the sole purpose of getting him to move in with her—to get him that much closer to the altar—that seemed highly unlikely. “I miss you already,” she said.

He sighed. “You know, I think this will probably be really good for us,” he said instead.

“How do you figure?”

“I mean, you were spending all of this time with me. We were together all the time.”

“Not all the time,” she protested. “Not with you working as much as you do.”

“But every time I came home, there you were. Now, you’ll have a chance to do outside stuff.”

“You want me to use this as, what, some kind of survival training?” She tried to make it sound like a joke, but her voice had other ideas.

“Well, it’ll show me how long you’ll last without me there.”

She gasped a little at this. “What are you saying?”

“Nothing…nothing. It’s just that, sometimes you can be a handful, Sarah. I feel like I’m taking care of you. Now you hit me up with the ‘how much can you help with rent’ and ‘when are you flying down to visit me?’ stuff, and I just wonder—how can you expect to survive L.A. without me at this rate?”

“I didn’t realize I was going to have to,” she snapped back.

“See? That’s exactly what I mean!”

She sighed. “Benjamin…”

“I’ve got to go. These sales figures aren’t typing themselves into the spreadsheet.” She guessed he was trying to make a joke, too. Like hers, it came out wrong.

“I’ll get a job,” she said hurriedly. “And I’ll make it just fine.”

“I really have to go.”

“Jam,” she said, relapsing into her old nickname for him, “you know I love you.”

“I know, Sarah,” he said. “Talk to you next week.”

He hung up.

She stared at the phone, until it made that annoying beep-beep-beep and she hit the off button.
Lying naked on her back, feeling the soft strokes of his fingertips on her skin, Martika felt truly, utterly bored.

“What are you thinking?” he asked, his blue eyes huge and curious.

She glanced at him. “That’s a woman’s question.”

“You’re so mysterious,” he said, and she supposed he was complimenting her. It might help if he’d stop mooning over her like some Regency poet. “I always wonder what you’re thinking.”

I’m thinking, why the hell am I still here?

She’d been staying with…Andre. His name was Andre, she reminded herself, watching the way his blond hair hung slightly in his eyes. It used to charm her. Now it just made her fingers itch for scissors. Anyway, she’d been staying with the man for the past five months. He’d been starting to pressure about things like “where are we going with this?” and hinting around “permanent relationships.” She thought he was about two years younger than she was chronologically—about five years younger emotionally, and about fifty years older when it came to things like marriage. She tried not to roll her eyes.

“So what are you thinking?” he pressed.

She winced. “I’m thinking that I’d like to go clubbing. Maybe hit Sunset.”

He frowned. “You’ve been out three nights this week. I thought we could spend tonight at home.” He grinned, his dimples pitting his cheeks. “In bed.”

She was getting bored there, too…and bored in bed meant a hasty exit, stage right. “I really felt like going out.”

His frown turned into a scowl. “Fine.”

She huffed impatiently. “You don’t have to pout.”

“Sometimes, you can be such a bitch, Martika.”

She pulled on a loose black silk robe. “No ‘sometimes’ about it,” she agreed, grabbing her cigarettes and heading for the balcony. She was two steps toward it when she heard the high-pitched trill of her cell phone. She swiped it up on her way, shutting the glass door behind her as she hit the green answer button. “This is me. And you are?”

“Are we drinks?”

She grinned, leaning back and patting the cigarette package, pulling one out with her lips. It smelled like rain…and looked like it. Fat drops were haphazardly hitting the pavement. She hoped it would storm. “Taylor, you are my white knight. I thought I was going to have to bite my own leg off to get out of this place.”

“Oh, Tika,” he said, with a slight note of disapproval. “Have we hit that point, then?”

“If you mean the leaving point, yes, we’ve hit it and run through it.”

“Damn. He’s got such a great body.”

“I know.” She lit the cigarette, taking a long drag. “Too bad he’s not a mute. Still, even then, I could only put up with those soulful looks for so long.”

She glanced back through the glass door. Andre was still sitting on the bed, naked, sulking.

“So. What’s the ETD?”

She grinned. “No departure date yet, Taylor…but soon. I feel like it’s coming up soon.” She took another drag on her cigarette. “Fuck. I hate moving.”

“Strange, for someone who does it as often as you do,” Taylor pointed out dryly. “You’re like the Bedouin Dater. Maybe you should try living with somebody you aren’t sleeping with.”

“I have lived with people I haven’t slept with.”

“Your family doesn’t count, darling, and that was how many years ago?”

“Touchе.” She didn’t think about that, really. “But there was that guy…what was his name? Robbie?”

Taylor laughed. “The other restriction—you need to live with somebody I can’t sleep with. Remember?”

She chuckled. “Ooh. Right. God, what a fiasco that was.”

“Maybe you should try a girl next time.”

“What, to sleep with?”

Taylor huffed. “Roommate, silly. Although…”

Martika cut him off. “I don’t think so. Girls don’t like me.” She unleashed a feral grin. “Probably with good reason.”

She heard a rap on the glass, and looked over. It was Andre, obviously unamused. “Are you going to be out there all night?” he mouthed through the glass.

“Maybe,” she mouthed back, then turned back to look out on the road. “Taylor, there’s the warden. We are more than drinks tonight, sweetie, we are club. Sunset?”

“Oooh. Let’s be trashy and do martinis at the Viper Room.”

She grinned. “This is why I love you, sweetie. I think I want to full out this time—so add about an hour to my usual grooming regime, ’kay?”

“I’m going to go eat first, anyway, and then say hi to Kit.”

“Okay. So Viper Room, around eleven.” She made a kiss noise. “Byee.”

She clicked the phone off, and opened the door.

“Don’t tell me,” Andre said, his arms folded across his naked chest. “Now that the other man in your life calls, you’ll be off running?”

“I can’t believe you’re jealous of a gay guy.”

“I’m starting to think they’re the only men you could love.”

She smiled at him, cruelly sweet. “I see. So is that why you’re acting so bitchy? So I’ll think you’ve crossed over and fall madly for you?”

“Dammit.” His gorgeously chiseled chin rippled as his jaw tensed. He looked like the model he was. Okay, give me angry! Angry! Martika almost laughed at the thought. “Martika, I think I’m in love with you. But I don’t want you to go out with Taylor tonight.”

She gave him a lazy once-over. While ordinarily she’d be applauding his growing a spine, he’d hit a hot button. Taylor was her best friend. Nobody fucked with her friends—or told her who she could and couldn’t see.

“I’m going out tonight, Andre. You can go with me if you want…” She paused. “No. On second thought, you can’t go with me. I am going out with my friends to try to ignore the idiocy that’s just transpired here. You can throw a tantrum, or you could do something productive. Sleep. Watch TV. Write an angst-filled sonnet. Frankly, I don’t care.”

She stalked over to the bathroom, started the water running in the shower. She took off her robe and stepped into the stream, adjusting the heat. It felt good. Relaxing.

He followed her in, pulling open the door. She saw him, his handsome face obscured by the steam. “Maybe…maybe you shouldn’t live here anymore,” he said, and took a deep breath. His blue eyes were both angry and pleading. If he’d started crying, she wouldn’t be surprised.

She sighed. “I’ll be out by the end of the week.”

She shut the door.
Standing in the rain, Sarah glanced up at the sign: Basix Cafе. If she were going to start exploring the city, and getting used to it by herself, then this was as good a place as any. Granted, it was two blocks away from her house, but the fact that she was outside the apartment, among strangers, was a step in the right direction.

Of course, she’d tried calling Judith and seeing if she could meet her for dinner, but she’d only gotten the message machine. It had only taken her another half hour to stir up her courage to come here by herself.

The place was crowded, with a patio area that was closed in with clear plastic curtains and those butane heaters that looked like torches. She made her way toward the inner restaurant, feeling self-conscious. She wondered if she’d see anybody famous. This was Hollywood, after all. Okay, West Hollywood, but still…

The “host” looked her over, smiling slightly. “Good evening. How many?”

“Just one.”

“Right.”

Was it just her, or did he give her an appraising once-over? Not the sexual kind, either, the way men might at home. It was more like…something was wrong with her, or something.

She discreetly checked her jeans zipper.

Maybe it’s because I’m here by myself, she thought. She noticed there were at least twosomes at most tables, usually more.

Next time, she told herself, she’d bring a book. If there were a next time.

He took her to a minuscule table in the corner, half obscured by a potted plant. She took a menu and sat. At least from her duck-blind vantage point she got to look around, which was nice. Nobody famous yet, but it was only, what, eight or so? She imagined they’d probably come out later. Somewhat like vampires.

The thing she noticed immediately was that the restaurant was predominantly filled with men…all well dressed, she noticed, in that stylish, edgy way that seemed very “MTV.” You wouldn’t see guys dressed like this in Fairfield. At least, not in a cafе, for dinner.

She turned her attention to the menu. Her stomach grumbled. The place smelled wonderful, and the desserts…what she could see in the glass case looked so good, she briefly considered having a dinner of chocolate cake with a side order of еclairs. Still, she was running on empty—she needed real food first, or she’d be twitching on the carpeted floor with a sugar rush all night.

“What do you mean, there’s no table for me?” a flamboyant voice pierced the rumble of conversation. All eyes turned to the new arrival. Sarah turned, too, then gaped, momentarily ignoring the menu.

He was one of the biggest men she’d ever seen. He had short hair that was obviously curly in its natural state—it waved over his forehead, obviously calmed by gel of some sort. He had big, dark eyes, broad shoulders, and like everyone else here, it seemed, his clothes were stylish. He was wearing black, shiny cargo pants and an almost metallic looking red shirt. He had two earrings in his right ear, and to her surprise, he had on black nail polish.

“But I’m starving, Mitch,” he said, in a melodramatic whine, then winked at the ma?tre d’. “Besides, I’m clubbing with Tika tonight, so I can’t wait two hours for a table!”

The giant glanced around, then suddenly descended on her. “Is anybody sitting with you?”

Goggling, she gathered enough presence of mind to shake her head.

“Great. Then I’ll just have dinner with you. Hi,” he said, pulling up a chair and sprawling down heavily on it. “I’m Taylor.”

She nodded, feeling overwhelmed. “S-Sarah,” she said.

He beamed. “What a delicious voice! Like a Powerpuff girl. I love them. Did you know they were originally called the WhupAss Girls when they were just a student film? But of course, Cartoon Network wouldn’t let them stay that way…but I digress.” He looked at her. “You haven’t ordered yet, have you?”

“Uh…no.” She glanced back down at the menu. “I’ve never eaten here before,” she ventured, “so I hadn’t decided.”

“Never?” He sounded delighted. “Well, then, you’re in for a treat. Start with the corn bisque, then have a pizza…the barbecued chicken and gouda. It’s fantastic.”

Her stomach growled, and she pressed a hand to it, embarrassed. “That sounds great.”

“Obviously!” He looked her over. What was it with that look? But he was less disparaging, and smiled. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

You think? “Well, I am now.” She smiled weakly. “I just moved in. Up the street.”

“Really?” She wondered if he ever sounded disappointed about anything. “That’s great. I live right up the street, myself! Oh, hold on a sec. That’s a friend of mine.” He got up and maneuvered his way across the room, managing to catch the eye of every person in the restaurant. Which, Sarah supposed, was the point. “Michael! It’s been way too long. Why weren’t you at Beer Bust?”

Sarah watched in amazement as he exuberantly hugged the man in question, who was presenting another man to her dinner companion.

Well, it beats eating alone.

The waiter walked over to her. “Made your decision?”

She nodded. “Corn bisque,” she repeated dutifully, “and the barbecued chicken pizza.”

He smiled again, that sort of slick, polite smile.

“Oh, but he’s sitting with me,” she said, as the waiter started to walk away. “He hasn’t ordered yet.”

“He doesn’t have to,” the waiter said, with a little sneer in his voice. “He gets the same thing every time.”

“Oh.” The food here had better be damned good, she thought, because the service definitely leaves something to be desired.

Taylor was back in a matter of minutes. “Great guy, that Michael.”

“He seemed nice.” Sarah didn’t know what else to say.

He grinned at her, then winked. “Next time, I’ll have to introduce you. We’re practically neighbors, after all.” He sighed gustily. “I’ve been going on and on. You look like a little drowned rat, no offense, with not a friend in the world. So what’s your story, little girl?”

“I didn’t know it rained in L.A.,” she said in her defense, “or I would have brought an umbrella.”

He grinned at her. “So you don’t know L.A. Where are you from?”

“Fairfield.”

His brows raised. She wondered briefly if he had them plucked—they looked like perfect arches. “Fairfield? Where is that? Out in the valley?”

She shook her head. “No. It’s up by Sacramento, sort of. Well, closer to…well, it’s in Northern California,” she said, realizing if he thought it were in “the valley” he didn’t know the area at all.

“Oh, Northern Cal,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Well, that explains the clothes, at least. So you just moved down today? Are you…no, you’re not an actress.”

“How do you know?”

“Not a high enough bitch factor, to be perfectly honest. I mean, you could be an actress, but I doubt you’re a very successful one…of course, L.A. is full of those, too. Besides, you look like you have too much money.”

She didn’t know if she should be insulted by Taylor’s reasoning or not, so she chose not to be. The corn bisque had arrived, and she sampled it, sighing deeply.

“Told you,” Taylor said smugly.

“It’s wonderful,” she said, trying her best not to gobble it down. She didn’t want to know what Taylor would say about deplorable table manners.

Taylor looked at her, his head tilted to one side. “You know,” he said, taking a spoonful of his own bisque and tasting it, “I’ve decided to like you.”

She smiled, the aches from moving momentarily forgotten. “Thanks. That’s nice.”

“And of course, you’re going to like me, so there it is,” he said, and she laughed…she couldn’t help it. He motioned for the waiter to come over. “I like her,” he said expansively. The waiter simply smiled, much more friendly and simpering, Sarah noted. “We’re going to need some wine.”

Sarah stopped him, alarmed. “Oh, no, really, I couldn’t…”

He stared her into silence. “Nonsense. You’re getting a Tayler welcome to L.A. Get me a bottle of that Ravenwood cab, would you? Thanks,” he said, dismissing the waiter, who just nodded and turned silently.

“Now then,” Taylor said, all but rubbing his hands together. “Being such good friends and all, you need to tell me your whole life, beginning to end. Leave out no detail. I want to know everything.”
The master bathroom in Judith and David’s house had two sinks: his and hers. It was a sign of how well David was doing. He’d be making partner any day now. His side of the sink reflected that: an organized display of toiletries, from his silver toothbrush holder and razor holder (no disposables for David), to the little silver mug that he lathered his shaving cream in, right down to the way he folded the towel that hung on his own towel rack, for his own use. He kept the toothpaste and other tackier items hidden in the drawer, even if the toothpaste was Rembrandt and not something cheap like Colgate.

Judith’s side was almost clinical looking. There was a complete line of Dr. Hauschka skin care, sitting companionably with its almost generic labels of white with a thin band of orange. Cleansing milk, cleansing cream, toner, moisturizer—daily and Rose Cream, for problem areas. Her toothbrush was sitting in a ceramic cup, a creamy white. The toothbrush itself was orange.

She went through the ritual: brush, wash, tone, moisturize. Search for wrinkles, even at twenty-five, even with her moisture-plump Asian skin that people at work continually proclaimed an envious miracle. Remove hair band. Brush lustrous black hair, fifteen measured strokes. Throw clothes in hamper, put on cotton nightgown. Climb into California King bed, on the right hand side, by the wall. David liked sleeping on the side by the door. She rolled and picked up the book she’d left on his nightstand. The Oz Principle. Something for work. She wanted to get a leg up on it—the next few weeks would be busy. Her Filofax was pretty full.

She barely registered the noises of David going through his ritual: long span in the bathroom, evacuating that night’s dinner (in this case, Ahi tuna appetizer and braised lamb chops from Chinois) with a book in the bathroom before brushing his teeth and surveying the wrinkle situation, a larger possibility considering he was thirty-two. She felt rather than heard him checking his hairline for signs of losing ground—a tiny buzz of apprehension before the shrug of denial. He wouldn’t stoop to doing a full nightly regimen including moisturizer, but she’d walked in on him trying some of the Dr. Hauschka. Judith planned on picking up some more bottles in preparation for the eventuality. She felt sure he’d keep his hidden in the other drawer, or in the medicine cabinet.

He lumbered toward bed in just boxers, and she handed him the book. He rested it on the nearby bookcase. David in just boxers signaled sex. She took off her nightgown and panties, handed them to him, as well. He stripped out of his boxers, and climbed into bed, settling the covers around him.

It would take about five, ten minutes of conversation for him to be ready.

“So. Anybody call while we were gone?”

“Sarah,” Judith said. “She wanted to know if I wanted to see her for lunch tomorrow. I think I’ll go visit…she sounded a little lonely.”

“Sarah. She was one of your friends from college, right?” He toyed with her shoulder, then absently with one breast.

She smiled. “She was my best friend from college. She was like my little sister. We roomed together as freshmen, in the dorms.”

“Little sister? Is she younger than you?”

Judith shrugged. He was stroking a little more insistently. “She always seemed younger. She changed her major four times,” she said with a laugh. “She just always needed to…I don’t know. She had trouble getting it together.”

He laughed, his deliberate caressing sidetracked for a moment. “You two must have been the Odd Couple, redux.”

“I helped her, a little. She’s nice. You just want to give her a hand.” Judith stared at the ceiling. “Still, I was really glad that she got involved with Benjamin. He is a very stabilizing force for her. Now, if she could just get him to the altar…”

David looked at her for a moment. “You say his name funny. Like it’s a title or something.”

“Do I?” She thought about it. “He’s the consummate salesman, from what I can tell. I’ve never met anybody more driven in my life.”

“Not even you?” He resumed stroking. She ignored the ticklish sensation as he traced across her stomach, and consciously moved so he’d tickle elsewhere. He didn’t notice.

“He went through his M.B.A. program in record time, but he still went for sales—something about his personality. Very charismatic.”

“The guy’s got some redeeming features, right?”

That would be jealousy. Lately, David’s ego was bruising a bit more easily. Judith made sure some of her skin rubbed lightly against his developing erection.

“He’s loyal, I think.” Even as she said it, she wasn’t sure. “At least, I hope so, for Sarah’s sake. He shouldn’t be long in moving, anyway. A man shouldn’t be left to his own devices for very long.”

“Why not?”

“He’s young, attractive, good income, good car, going places. Women target men like that—and men like that find women who target hard to resist, I get the feeling. Sarah would be smart to keep an eye on him, until they’re married.”

The erection was still hovering at semihard, and Judith studied him to gauge possible problems. This might be a blowjob night. Damn.

He was staring at her with a look that was part fascination and part disgust. “Target, huh? That sounds downright eerie.”

“I don’t make the rules.”

“You just live by them, right?”

She inched away from him, irritated. Why couldn’t he just enjoy this and go to sleep? “I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to.”

He needed coddling, apparently. She should have chosen more appropriate foreplay conversation, but work was pressing her a little too hard recently. She needed to get back into her meditation. With a sigh, she concentrated harder. Leaning over, she kissed him rather thoroughly. “I landed you, didn’t I?” she asked, and was glad to feel the familiar press against her inner thigh.

If it were that easy, he couldn’t be too upset.

“That’s right. You did land me. Damned good choice on your part.” There was that overtone of the cocky lawyer back in his voice. He’d be energetic, she thought as she angled away from him. Chances were good he’d be relatively quick.

Within moments, he’d shut off the light. In the darkness, he felt him reach for her. Minutes after that, she was being pressed into the soft, enveloping mass that was her mattress pad, foam egg crate, and gently resilient Sealy-Posturepedic mattress. She deliberately moaned, getting louder when his breathing picked up pitch.

When he groaned against her, she closed her eyes.

He rolled off of her and handed her her nightgown and underwear. She could feel his weight pressing down on the bed, his maneuvering his boxers back on, clumsily.

His breathing turned to snores not long after.

She put her clothes back on with a bare minimum of movement, careful not to wake him. She could picture her Filofax in her mind, mentally scheduling a call to that meditation coach after her 10:00 a.m. meeting. Canceling her manicure. Seeing if there were a job opening for Sarah somewhere…maybe account management or H.R.

By the time she mentally got to the section of the day labeled Go To Bed, she fell asleep.
Chapter 2

Take It As It Comes


The next morning, it took Sarah a few minutes to figure out where she was. Sunlight was pouring in cruelly through the bedroom window. Los Angeles, she thought groggily. She was in bed, in her new bedroom, in her new apartment.

She had absolutely no recollection of how she got there. Or why her head was pounding.

She glanced down.

Or, to add to matters, why she was wearing her clothes.

The doorbell rang, and she groaned, stumbling out of bed. Well, the door was locked, even if the dead bolt wasn’t, she noticed. Small blessings. She hit the intercom. “Hello?” she croaked.

“Sarah, darling? It’s me, Taylor.”

Taylor? She flipped through her mental Rolodex. “Taylor…”

“Gorgeous man who tucked you in yesterday, sweetie. Come on, be a good girl and open up…oh, never mind, here’s a gentleman getting the door. Up in a second.”

She stood there, listening to the door shut with agonizing loudness. Her heart started beating a little faster.

How could you have been so stupid?

Last night was a blur, but she did remember the stylish giant she’d had dinner with. At least, she remembered him to a point. She closed her eyes, swaying a little as she did so, fighting to remember. She’d managed to knock out a bottle of Ravenswood Cabernet with a six-foot-five stranger. He’d helped her to get to her door…she seemed to recall being carried part of the way, or did she dream that?

He had tucked her in, she seemed to remember. He’d given her a kiss on her forehead, and said he’d be back in the morning.

She hastily went over to her purse, pawing through it. Well, the credit cards were still there, as was her cash.

How could you have been so stupid? She’d let a complete stranger, no matter how “nice” he was, into her house! And let him lock up after himself! After getting drunk with him!

A sharp knock on the door rapped her out of her thoughts. Her heart pounded painfully in her chest.

He could be some kind of serial killer. Don’t you open the door!

“Sarah? Sweetie, open the door, it’s just me.”

She stayed silent for a minute.

“Sarah.” She heard him let out an irritated sigh. “Come on, I know you’re there, and I’ve got something that will fix you right up.”

She thought about going to the kitchen, getting a knife or something. She couldn’t lock the dead bolt without being…

Without being what? Rude?

There was a long pause. “Oh, baby, don’t be this way,” she heard him finally say, obviously pitching his voice deeper. “After you slept with me last night, I thought…”

She gasped, and before she could think the better of it threw open the door. “I did not sleep with you!”

She looked up and saw him grinning at her. “Well, obviously. But I figured you’d open the door if I said you did.”

She was blushing. She knew she was blushing.

“Mind if I come in for a sec? These are a little heavy.”

Without really waiting for an invitation, he walked in, followed by another man. She eyed them both nervously.

Taylor was resplendent in a sparkling white T-shirt and jeans that looked like they were pressed, with various holes that were obviously cut in the knees for artistic effect, not worn-out naturally. He was carrying what looked like two cases of soda. “I figured eleven was late enough to come over. Kit? Could you give her the coffee?”

The other man was lanky, with sandy-brown hair tucked under a backward baseball cap. He wore a gray T-shirt and a pair of khaki cargo pants which sported holes that were probably from actual use, as well as a scuffed pair of suede sneakers. He looked short next to Taylor, but she guessed he was maybe six foot. “Welcome…to Jurassic Park,” he said, and handed her a foam cup with a lid.

She looked at Taylor nervously, and he rolled his eyes. “You’ll get used to Kit. He’s my DSF.”

“DSF?” she asked.

“Designated Straight Friend.”

“So nice to fill a quota,” Kit said, shrugging.

She smiled weakly, then sipped the coffee. It was good. The headache retreated a few millimeters. In fact, she would have felt a lot better if the doorbell hadn’t chosen to ring at that particular moment.

“Yes?”

“Sarah? It’s Judith. I was in the neighborhood, so I thought I’d take you to lunch.”

Sarah glanced at the dynamic duo in her living room. “Um…it’ll take me a little bit to get ready…”

“Just let me in, Sarah. I’ll wait.”

Sarah buzzed the entry button, then glanced at the men. “That was my friend Judith,” she explained.

Taylor smiled, obviously not getting the point—that she wanted them out of there. “So, this is your place?”

“Such as it is,” she said. “There’s two bedrooms and a bathroom.”

“Heaven.” Without being asked (much like when he entered her apartment) he peeked into both rooms. “Spacious. You wouldn’t happen to be looking for a roommate, would you? I know someone who’s looking…”

“No,” she said emphatically, then rubbed at her temples. Okay, less emphasis. On everything this morning. “I’m…my boyfriend is moving down.”

“Oh, right. The guy you mentioned last night.” He sent a skeptical glance to Kit. Sarah scowled.

“I’m sure he’ll…”

Judith stepped in the half-opened door. “Sarah? Hi. I thought, since it’s eleven, it wouldn’t be too…” She stopped stock-still, and took in Taylor and Kit. “Oh. I didn’t realize you had company.” She arched one inky-black eyebrow at Sarah. “Friends of yours?”

Sarah looked away. “Well…”

“I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself. It’s what I’m best at,” Taylor said, offering one of his huge hands. Judith was surprised into shaking it. “I’m Taylor, one of Sarah’s neighbors. This is Kit.” Kit didn’t shake hands with Judith, he simply nodded. “Kit is just Kit.”

“I see. And how well do you know Sarah?”

Taylor’s expression was almost gleeful. “Oh, about as well as someone can get to know another person after getting completely plastered with them. Sarah’s a cutie-pie,” he pronounced, and if he reached over to pinch her cheek, she wouldn’t have been surprised. “I think we’ll keep her.”

“Sarah?” Judith was looking more anxious than disapproving now.

“Taylor’s okay,” Sarah said, and realized that she really did believe he was. “Taylor, thanks for stopping by and, um, checking on me.”

“No problem.” He ignored Judith’s stares, and sidled up to Sarah, dropping to a mock whisper. “No offense, my dear, but you might want to jump in the shower and change before you brunch with Ms. Mom. You’ll feel much better.”

“I was planning to,” she said.

“Oh, and here.” He handed her a can from the case of soda he had carried in and put on her kitchen table.

“What’s this?”

“Fabulous stuff. Buy it in Chinatown by the caseload,” he said. She realized she couldn’t read the label—she thought the label was Chinese, or possibly Korean. “I like to call it Hangover Remover. You chug that down like a good girl. Do you club?”

Her eyes widened. “Um…”

He smiled, and it was like being smiled on by a benevolent god. “You are so sweet! Well, we’ll stick to dinners first, but I like you,” he said expansively. She liked him, too, she realized. “Here.” He reached into his back pocket, and pulled out a business card. She read it: “Taylor Mayerling. Marketing Communications Manager, Demille Plastics Company.”

“Plastics?” she said.

Kit grinned. “There is a great future in plastics.”

“The Graduate. That’s so easy.” Taylor frowned at him, then turned back to Sarah. “Well, it’s not sexy, but it’s a paycheck.”

“I hear you,” Sarah said, then winced again.

“Gotta run, but you call me and we’ll do dinner. I’d ask for your number, but…” He looked at Judith and smiled. “Well, some other time. Oh!” He took the card back, grabbed a pen off of her table and wrote on the other side.

She glanced at his hasty scrawl. “Martika?”

“That’s her number. If you change your mind about the roomie thing, give her a call.”

He hugged her, and it was nice—even if Judith was frowning. Kit just gave her a friendly half nod, and the two of them trooped out, closing the door behind them.

“Who were those characters?” Judith said.

Sarah smiled, looking down at the card. “Friends,” she said. “My first friends here.”

Judith’s lips pursed. “You really need to be more careful, Sarah. They could be dangerous.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Sarah,” Judith said. Now that the men were gone, disapproval replaced fear. “Honestly. This isn’t Fairfield.”

“So. We’re having brunch?” Sarah didn’t want to be reminded, or lectured.

“I know you’re looking for the perfect job, but I thought you might want to try advertising. I mean, you’ve done P.R. and a little ad sales, so why not try the agency?”

Ordinarily, Sarah would have considered the agency on the same level as, say, becoming a freelance sump pump service tech. But she didn’t have a lot of options. “I’m a little less picky than I thought I’d be,” Sarah replied.

Judith smiled. “I thought we’d eat and go over your rеsumе. I seem to remember a spot opening up on Account Management,” Judith said, all business now. “I don’t have any particular restaurant in mind, but I’m sure there’s going to be something fairly close by. This is West Hollywood, after all.”

“What, is that a good restaurant part of town?”

Judith sent her a little puzzled grin. “Sarah…don’t you know about West Hollywood?”

Sarah frowned. “What about it?”

“Your friend Taylor is a shining example of the residents of West Hollywood,” Judith said.

“So what?” Sarah huffed impatiently. “I like Taylor. And he’s right, I need to shower and change my clothes real quick…”

“Notice how many men are around here?” Judith interrupted. “Good-looking, well dressed….”

Something tugged at Sarah’s hangover-fogged consciousness. A very faint light went on. “Wait a minute. You mean, I’m living in the…”

“Gay district,” Judith said, nodding. “I thought everybody knew.”

“Oh.” Sarah blinked.

Benjamin wasn’t going to be thrilled about this. She could just tell.
Just get the job, Sarah.

Sarah stood in Becky Weisel’s office, in the ad agency where Judith worked, albeit on a higher floor. It was a corner office, the kind that looked out over the city, with glass windows rather than walls. She had a full cherry-wood desk set, complete with credenza and bookshelves. Sarah could see little placards and inspirational quotes engraved on chotchke. Sarah waited while Becky finished the phone call, holding her portfolio awkwardly in front of her like a high school student.

She hated the interview process. Still, as Benjamin pointed out, those bills weren’t going to be paying themselves.

And I don’t need him to pay them for me.

Becky impatiently motioned her to take a chair, which she did.

“John, I didn’t ask for the numbers for first quarter sales to be on my desk by Monday. I asked you to get them to me today.” Becky paused slightly. “That was this morning, John. You don’t need to whine at me, I know what the time difference is. Just do it, okay?” She sighed, obviously listening to whoever was on the other end of the phone. “Listen, would you rather deal with Stefan? I can patch him over the next time he calls to chew my ass out.” She waited again, then smiled smugly. “Great. I’ll look forward to seeing them tonight.”

She hung up the phone, then looked at Sarah, as if trying to reorient herself. “Right. Who are you, and why are you here?”

Before Sarah could answer, Becky snapped her fingers. “Oh, right. You must be…let’s see…Sarah.” She reached across the desk, shaking Sarah’s hand with a firmness that bordered on painful. “I’m Becky Weisel. I’m one of the Account Supervisors here at Salamanca Advertising.”

She leaned back against her leather seat, surveying Sarah. Sarah sat up straighter, trying to make the best impression possible. It was Let’s Make A Deal. She was doing everything except holding a sign that said “Hire me! Hire me!”

Sarah smiled at the thought. The friendly gesture seemed to give Becky pause.

“So…why do you want to work at Salamanca Advertising?”

Because I like paying my rent. “I’ve read it’s a great firm, really up-and-coming, with cutting-edge advertising and a lot of high-tech clients…” At least, that’s what the Web site had mentioned. Sarah had had only a few minutes to go over it prior to the interview.

Becky smiled. “Done your homework. Like that. And friendly. That always helps.”

“Thank you.”

“And polite.” Becky looked like she was buying a car. Sarah hoped she wasn’t going to kick her tires, as it were—or check her teeth, to mix metaphors. “All right. You’re better than most of the applicants I’ve seen, I’ve got to tell you that.” She glanced down at the copy of the rеsumе Sarah had faxed to her. She made a few inarticulate noises of acknowledgment. Sarah sat quietly. “Hmm. P.R…. and some education…kind of all over the place, aren’t you?”

Sarah felt her stomach drop a little. “I’m still narrowing my focus,” she explained. “I have a lot of interests…”

“How old are you?”

Sarah blinked. That was an illegal question—this woman ought to know that.

Becky’s smile turned crafty. “You don’t mind me asking that, do you?”

Sarah felt stunned, but found herself shaking her head slowly. “No, of course not,” she said, thinking about her bank account…the way the savings number slowly decreased. Rent was coming due soon. “I’m twenty-five.”

“That’s not so old,” Becky said dubiously, then laughed. “You’ve got plenty of time, I guess. And maybe advertising is just what you’ve been looking for.”

Sarah took a deep breath, feeling as if she’d somehow passed a test. “That’s what I’m hoping.”

“Great. How’s your Excel? PowerPoint? We do a lot of presentations here.”

Sarah nodded. Now she was on familiar ground. “I’ve got a lot of experience in all of the Microsoft Office Suite.”

“How do you feel about overtime?” Becky asked. “We work on big projects for important clients here, Sarah. I need somebody I can count on.”

Sarah felt her spine straighten, and she nodded her head proudly. “I am willing to work overtime if a project needs finishing. I want to do the best possible job I can.” She wondered if that last touch was a little too kiss-ass, then decided she didn’t care. Besides, a little overtime wouldn’t kill her. It wasn’t like she had a social life to speak of in this town.

Becky’s eyes flashed. Sarah had obviously jumped through the second hoop. What else… “We ask people to do things that are outside of their job description here. I’m going to need you to be versatile, and really think outside the box. Are you willing to do that?”

Sarah nodded. “Of course.” Outside the box. Good grief. Next thing, she’d be saying, We need someone who’s a people person and a team player who displays over-the-line accountability.

Becky leaned back, all but putting her hands behind her head as she smiled triumphantly. “I don’t usually do this, but I have a really good feeling about you, Sarah. What would you say if I offered you a job, right now?”

Sarah goggled, then got a hold of herself. “We might want to discuss pay,” she said instead, feeling shaky.

Becky laughed. “Well of course! Well put, shows you’re paying attention.” She named a figure. Sarah did some quick math. It would cover her rent…if she lived very, very spartanly.

And, say, didn’t turn on her lights.

I don’t know what the next job offer’s going to be, either. Or when. And Benjamin isn’t going to help me.

Sarah weighed, decided. Nodded. “That seems fine.”

Becky’s quick smile sealed the deal.
Sarah would be starting work that following Monday. It was now Thursday. Rent was coming due Tuesday.

She needed help.

How do you expect to survive in L.A. without me? Benjamin’s voice rang in her head.

She’d find help somewhere else.

There, on the coffee table in her barren-looking living room, sat Taylor’s business card, with “Martika” written on it. Taylor’s friend, Martika—the one looking for a roomie.

Possibly the help she was looking for.

She finally dialed Martika’s number. It rang five times. She was about to hang up on the sixth when she heard a deep, sultry voice say, “This is me. And you are?”

“I’m sorry?” Sarah looked at the number. “Maybe I’ve misdialed…”

There was a pause on the other line. “Maybe you have. This is Martika.”

Sarah winced. This was not starting off well. “Um, Taylor asked me to call you…”

“Taylor! That bitch, he hasn’t called me, and he missed Beer Bust. Well, you can’t be his new flame, unless something weirdly radical has changed in his life that he’s not telling me,” she said, all in a rush. Sarah thought she could hear her puffing cigarettes…there was a crackle, and Sarah realized that she had called Martika’s cell phone. “So, what did he want you to call me for?”

Sarah paused. “Well, ah, he seemed to think you might be looking for a place to live, and I’m looking for a roommate…”

“Great! As a matter of fact, I am,” she said. “Where are you?”

“Santa Monica and Robertson.”

Martika squealed. Sarah had to pull the phone away from her ear. “Perfect! I’m right around the corner…and this is my spot. I hadn’t realized Taylor would find me something so convenient. How do you know Taylor again?” Sarah started to answer, but was quickly cut off. “Dumb question. I’ll be over in ten minutes. What’s your address?”

Numbly, Sarah gave it to her, then heard her say “Be there in a sec. Byee!” and quickly clicked off.

Please, let her not be a psycho.

She still didn’t quite know why she trusted Taylor as much as she did…maybe it was still gratitude at the fact that he’d at least given her one positive experience in this strange new world. She would have had a truly miserable night if she hadn’t bumped into the flamboyant giant.

It was less than ten minutes when her intercom buzzed, and Martika announced her presence. Sarah buzzed her in, praying even as she walked to the door. When she opened it, she felt her jaw drop.

Martika was an Amazon. Easily five-ten, she had deep maroon hair that cascaded in curls down past her shoulder blades. She was wearing a pair of hip-hugging bell bottoms in a deep black, and a maroon top of a sort of silky material that sported some sort of Indian embroidery design at the bottom. She had on a black leather coat over it. She was wearing sunglasses perched on her head, ostensibly to keep the curls out of her face. Her face…it wasn’t necessarily pretty, not in the vogue sort of way. She had large hazel eyes and a pug nose that looked odd on her. She had a strong chin, and a round face. She stared back at Sarah.

“I don’t bite,” she said pointedly. “At least, not until I get to know you.”

Sarah shook herself. “Oh! Sorry. You must be Martika.”

“I must be,” she drawled, and walked in, her stacked heel half-boots making her stride seem even more impressive. She gave Sarah a little questioning look as she walked in, then let out a low whistle as her attention shifted from the owner of the apartment to the apartment itself. “Nice. Empty, but we could fix that in a minute. All yours?”

“Um, yes. Although it’d have to be month to month…”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Martika said, eliminating that possible bone of contention. She went out to the balcony. “I guess this would be my smoking area…I can’t stand smoking in the house, strangely enough. I like smoking, but hate smelling it all the time.”

“Okay,” Sarah said.

Martika turned around, and studied Sarah again. Sarah felt…dowdy. And old, although she knew the woman was probably older than she was. “And you’re Taylor’s friend?” Martika asked.

“I know,” Sarah said. “I have trouble believing it myself.”

Martika laughed, a leonine laugh that matched the rest of her. Sarah was torn between admiring her and being intimidated by her. “So which room’d be mine?”

Sarah showed her. “I’d move the boxes, of course…”

“Oh, this would work out fine, just fine,” Martika pronounced on the spot. “Great! So when could I move in?”

“Um…” Apparently, this was more of a done deal than she’d expected. “Don’t you want to ask any questions about me?”

Martika looked at her, a sarcastic, wry expression on her very expressive face. “You look like…” She paused, as if editing her words. “Let’s just say I trust you to pay your bills on time, sweetie, and leave it at that.”

Sarah knew that wasn’t a compliment, but didn’t know what she could say to counter it. “I might need a little time to think about it.”

Martika looked at her, curious and amused. “You don’t like me, do you?”

“I don’t even know you,” Sarah protested. “How could I not like you?”

“I can just tell that about people. They get this poochy-faced little look that says, ‘I may not know you, but you’re definitely not my kind of people.’ You haven’t gotten that look yet,” Martika said, ducking her head to meet the level of Sarah’s face, “but you’re working on it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sarah said, even though she did. “I just…I’m new to L.A.”

Martika laughed. “I’d guessed, sweetie.”

Sarah glanced around, trying to buy some time. She needed a roommate, but she’d already made one snap decision out of desperation this week. She was starting to develop a habit.

“It’s just that I’m very linear,” she said slowly, looking at Martika. “I get the feeling you’re very…organic.”

Martika stared at her, then burst out into another round of raucous laughter. “Oh, sweetie, if you keep popping out with gems like that, I may have to live here!” She chuckled. “No wonder you’re a friend of Taylor’s. You’re so cute, I could eat you up with a spoon.”

Sarah wasn’t sure how to handle that comment. Things were already getting less linear by the minute.

“This will work out perfectly,” Martika said with a flourish. “I’ll have Taylor and the boys move me in on Saturday. Do you have a spare key?”

“Wait a second. I hadn’t decided yet.”

Martika shot her a skeptical look. “You’ve got rent on the first, right?”

“Well, yes.”

“Where else were you thinking of looking for a roommate?”

Sarah fidgeted. “I hadn’t…well, I’m still in preliminary stages,” she hedged.

“In other words, you don’t know,” Martika said, cutting through her excuse. “Let me fill you in—if you advertise in the L.A. Times, you’re going to get the cr?me de la cr?me of freak shows. If you go through an agency, you’ll get the freaks that are willing to pay some clerk at a Mailboxes Etc. to put their name on a list…and you’ll have to pay to find them. If you’re going for someone who’s willing to go month to month, you’ll get somebody who probably likes to turn young Asian boys into patio furniture in his spare time.” She did a slow twirl. “Or, you can get me—who’s vouched for by Taylor.”

Sarah winced.

“I don’t even really think it’s a question, do you?” Martika said mildly.

Sarah sighed. “I…er. I’ve got the spare key somewhere.”

Martika smiled sweetly. “Wise choice.”

Sarah smiled back uncertainly. Glad one of us thinks so.
Chapter 3

People Are Strange


“Well,” Martika murmured, “it’s not much, but it’s home.”

“I think we moved you in record time,” Taylor drawled, surveying her new digs with the air of one bored with the process. “What, five hours?”

“I’ve unloaded a lot since last time.”

“You mean, besides Andre?”

“Let’s not be bitchy,” Martika chastised, then stuck out her tongue at him before arranging her peacock feathers in a tall wooden vase in the corner. This looked much more homey. The way this Sarah chick had decorated—ick. It looked like corporate housing. She was surprised the girl hadn’t put a Sanitized For Your Protection banner across the toilet.

Kit glanced around, muttering incoherently.

“Sorry?”

He half smiled at her. She didn’t think he ever full smiled. “I said, there’s no place like home.”

“Wizard of Oz,” Taylor said promptly.

Martika simply rolled her eyes. “You two still playing that game?”

Kit shrugged. Taylor started babbling. Martika grabbed her last moving box, labeled Private in big block print, and moved to the bedroom. This was always the last part of her unpacking ritual—the nightstands. She wondered how Andre would fare tonight, getting his bed out of storage, since the three pieces of furniture that she had since she was twenty-two was a California king bed and two nightstands. Girl’s gotta have her necessities, she thought. She loaded up the nightstand on the right of the bed with condoms and a variety of oils and other lubricants, her handcuffs, and a few other knickknacks she’d picked up along the way. The one on the right was always for guests. The one on the left…she put her chicken-scratch-filled journal, loaded with the most disgustingly self-pitying poetry ever spouted on earth, a few Chunky bars, several boxes of cigarettes, a vibrator and a pack of gum.

That drawer wasn’t for anybody else.

She closed it with a nod, and headed out. The guys were on the couch. Sarah was giving them glasses of lemonade. How very Martha Stewart, Martika thought with a grin.

This was already weird. She hadn’t roomed with a girl in longer than she could remember—and a girl like this, the native version of F.O.B. She supposed Sarah was F.O.F… Fresh Outta Fairfax. Or whatever the name of her Podunk town was.

“Well, looks like I’m all settled in,” Martika said.

Sarah was nodding as she looked around, clearly bewildered. “It’s…more than I expected.”

Was that disapproval? Martika smiled. God, she hoped so. “Well, when I move someplace, I like to…”

“Take it over?” Luis, Taylor’s boyfriend, commented with a nasal whine.

Martika grinned at him, feeling her anger start to turn over a little. She usually couldn’t take Luis for longer than, oh, fifteen minutes. She’d now been with him for over six hours, and if the man realized how close to death he was…

She shrugged it off, searching for lemonade. At least the asshole moved the bed in. You made allowances.

“Well, everything looks great,” Sarah said in a soft voice behind her.

“Thanks.” Martika smiled a little more easily. Kid’s shy, she thought, but there’s potential there. “I’m a graphic designer, did I mention that?”

“No.”

“Well, I am. I like to have artistic things around me.” She noted that almost all of the prints up were hers. “It’s all about atmosphere, presentation…you know.”

Sarah nodded, although Martika doubted she understood a damned word. She was doing that agreeing-to-be-agreeable thing.

“I mean, what did you think you were saying with the apartment before?” she pressed.

“Um….” Sarah blinked, very deer-in-headlights, at being put on the spot. “This space for rent?”

Martika laughed. Definite potential.

She wandered back out to the living room. “Well. I’m starving.” Translation: We are now going out to eat. She looked around expectantly.

Taylor looked happy at the proclamation, Luis looked sour at spending time with her (ah, but I’m so looking forward to bonding with you! she thought with a smile), and Kit…well, Kit just looked the same as he usually did. She had tried getting him to sleep with her, but she suspected he must actually bat for Taylor’s team, no matter what Taylor said about him being a DSF. She just had a feeling about this sort of thing.

“So. Where are we eating?”

Luis spoke up. “Why not Trader Vic’s?”

She shot Taylor a glance. He shrugged, embarrassed. She rolled her eyes, communicating quite clearly: Well, you’re the one fucking him. She shook her head. “Let me try this again. So. Where are we eating?”

“What? What?”

“Too tacky,” Taylor explained.

“If I wanted to spend that kind of money to see a bunch of old white men, I’d go to Le Dome,” Martika added, causing Luis to pout.

“How about Le Dome?” Kit put in sardonically.

She thought she heard Sarah giggle at that, again softly, but when she turned around Sarah’s face was impassive.

“Hmm…obviously I’m going to…ooh! How about L.A. Farm? I haven’t been in ages.” There! A viable alternative. “They’ve got a great vegetarian spread.”

“So you’re vegetarian this week?” Kit asked.

She frowned at him. “Like you’re even going, Kit.”

Kit shrugged. “Nope. Working a shift at the coffeehouse.”

“Didn’t anybody tell you? The grunge scene is over.”

“It’s retro.”

Taylor shook his head. “Working at a coffee shop on a Saturday night seems just wrong, somehow. Going to the club with us later? I thought Asylum, just for kicks.”

Kit shrugged. “I guess. I’ll catch up with you later.”

“Lovely. So L.A. Farm it is,” Martika said, and glared at Luis, who looked ready to dissent.

“Sure,” Taylor said, and Luis did not look pleased. “Just give me time to run home and change…I’m not going all sweaty and stinky like this.”

She laughed, then looked at Sarah. She was standing there, very wallflowerish. Well, now was as good a time as any to test the new girl. “What about you? I’ll give you forty minutes to get ready, but only because I’m going to use the bathroom first.” She winked, to show she was kidding. Although she really wasn’t.

Sarah cleared her throat. “No. I’m sorry. I’d love to, but I can’t.”

“You’re just saying that,” Martika said. Sarah sounded so polite it was painful. “Come on. It’ll be fun, and I really do want you there. Think of it as an initiation ritual.”

“Like hazing,” Kit offered. “I name you…Pinto.”

“Animal House,” Taylor interjected.

“Shut up.” Martika studied Sarah’s face. “So how about it?”

“I really can’t,” Sarah said, and there was a trace more firmness in her voice. “My boyfriend—that is, my fiancе, is going to be calling me tonight.”

“Oh?” She raised her eyebrow, then glanced at Taylor. He rolled his eyes, and formed a small “W” with his thumbs and index fingers. She didn’t think that Sarah caught it, and even if she did, she doubted she’d put it together.

Whatever, Taylor was telling her. And he’d fill Martika in on the rest of it later, no doubt.

“Fine,” she said, shrugging. So her new roommate was…boring. Well, hell. It’s not like she had to sleep with her. “Wouldn’t want to get in the way of true love. I’m going to use the bathroom, sweetie, so if you’ve got to pee, better do it now…I could be a while.”

“I’ll be back here in an hour, Tika,” Taylor said with a tone of warning.

“I’ll be ready,” she said, shuffling the boys out the door. After she closed it, she turned to Sarah, only to find her still staring. “You sure? You could always call him back later. Or tomorrow.”

Sarah just gave her a cool smile. “Thanks anyway.”

She shrugged, then headed for the bathroom, remembering belatedly to shut the door before she started stripping. She doubted Sarah would be amenable to her relatively exhibitionist ways.

Well, Martika thought as she stepped into the shower, I’ve shacked up with a nun who’s pining away for some absentee boyfriend. Joy. Fun.

Two choices: get ready to move again, which was unpalatable. Or start corrupting the girl.

Martika smiled against the force of the water hitting her face. Like there was even a question there.
It was Saturday night…rather, it was Sunday morning, Sarah thought, blearily looking at the clock. She had woken up, and initially she wasn’t sure why: 3:00 a.m. What the hell?

She hadn’t had a great Saturday night, frankly. She had waited for Benjamin to call…then had left a message on his machine at work and at home, and still waited. By eleven, she had made herself a hot chocolate, thought about it, dumped a little rum in and went to bed. She’d plowed through Bridget Jones and enjoyed it thoroughly, then switched gears and was now reading Harry Potter. She had gone to sleep, curled in a ball by eleven o’clock. Now, 3:00 a.m., and she was…

“Oh… Oh… Oh, yeah, baby, like that…”

Sarah went still, like a frightened mouse. The sounds were growing louder. They reminded her of Martika’s shower singing, all low and throaty.

Sarah got up and crept to her half-opened bedroom door. She peeked out. It was dark, and Martika’s bedroom door was closed. She could hear the bedsprings creaking wildly, picking up in speed.

Horribly embarrassed, Sarah shut her door quietly, all the way. In the deathly stillness of the early morning, she could still hear the noises, which were starting to gain a bit in volume. Looking around, she saw her fuzzy terry-cloth bathrobe hanging from a hook on her closet door. She threw it down across the crack of the door, hoping to muffle some of the sound. Still no help. She crawled back into bed, yanking a pillow over her head and pushing it against her ear. And the flannel and fleece lap blanket her mother had given her for Christmas from Costco, saying that it did get cold at nights.

Martika, Sarah reflected, might not have been the great idea Taylor thought it’d be.
On that Thursday night, almost a full week of work at Salamanca and a paid month’s rent behind her, she felt downright jubilant.

“Benjamin Slater.”

“Jam, it’s me. Sarah.”

“Sarah.” She thought she could hear the smile in his voice. “Hey there. How are things going in L.A.? I was going to call you Saturday.”

“I figured I’d jump the gun,” she said. “Guess what? I got a job!”

“I knew you would,” he said. “What are you doing?”

“I’m an assistant account executive at Salamanca Advertising Agency. That’s where Judith works, but I’m not working with Judith—she’s in production. I’m on the account management side.”

“That’s great, honey.”

“I’ve been really busy, and it’s only been the first few days…”

“I’ve been swamped, myself,” he said, with a heavy sigh.

She paused. “Any luck with Richardson? I’m not trying to push.”

“None. I have to make the assumption that Andrew—the V.P., you know?—that he’s making good on his promise to get me out of there. So Cal could use somebody like me. That’s what he said.”

“That’s great, Jam.”

“So just a few more months, and then I’ll be able to move down,” he said. “I just have to make it up here in the meantime.”

“I’m sure you will,” she said warmly.

“Actually, I can’t talk long,” he said. “Paul Jacobs and, well, some people from the L.A. office are up for a visit—I promised I’d go out for a few beers with them. You know, blow off some steam.”

She bit her lip. “Um, okay.”

“It’s just a few beers, Sarah.” He sighed again, this time a little more irritably. “It’s not like I’m going out and boinking a bunch of coeds.”

“I know that!” she replied. What, did she expect him to stay in every night, just because she wasn’t up there with him?

Still, a little more pining would be comforting, she thought, then brushed the thought aside.

“Sarah! Saaa-rah…” Martika called from the frame of Sarah’s bedroom door. “You wanna come out with us? We’re drinks.”

Sarah frowned, then motioned to the phone that she held to her ear. Martika huffed irritably, then retreated to the living room.

“Sorry,” Sarah muttered.

“Who the hell was that? I thought you were at home.”

“I am,” Sarah replied. “That was…well, I couldn’t quite make rent just on my salary. So I took on a roommate.”

There was a pause as Benjamin digested that fact.

“It wasn’t my idea,” Sarah assured him hastily. “Besides, Martika knows that it’s month-to-month…”

“Martika? What the hell sort of name is that?”

“I don’t know. Danish, I think.” Okay, that was a shot in the dark.

“I told you that I’d make it down to Los Angeles as soon as Richardson gives me a goddamn chance, Sarah. I didn’t tell you to get a roommate.”

Sarah frowned. “What you told me was that I had to cover rent on this apartment—this considerably more expensive apartment, I might add—by myself. Since you’re not living here yet. Really, realistically, what would you have had me do, Jam?”

“Dammit, Sarah, I didn’t…don’t get all touchy on me, okay? I really don’t need this right now.”

Like I do?

She sighed. “I’m just saying I didn’t have a lot of options.”

“I see.” He made a low grumbling sort of sound. “Well, you’re right, of course. It’s better that you got a roommate. Just… Did you do a thorough search?”

Sarah crossed her fingers—childish, granted. “Sure I did. She’s a friend of a friend of mine, so it wasn’t like getting a complete stranger.”

“Huh. What’s she like?”

She thought about Martika’s late night sex-a-thons. “Um, she’s very social.”

“Social?”

“Yes,” Sarah said hastily, “but responsible. I mean, she’s kicked in for half of the bills already, on time, and she’s a graphic designer.”

“I see.” He didn’t, obviously—his tone said that much. “Did she just say something about drinking?”

Sarah shrugged. “I think she wants me to go out with…them.” She was going to say her and Taylor, but she suddenly didn’t want to explain Taylor. That whole incident was something Benjamin would definitely frown upon.

Too late. “Well, I think you might want to consider before you go out.”

“Consider what?” Sarah felt a little burn of anger. “You’re going out for beers with the guys. I’d just have, I don’t know, a drink or two with Martika.”

“L.A. isn’t Fairfield, you know. It’s a more dangerous city.”

Sarah thought of Martika and Taylor, the imposing duo. “I think I’ll be fine.”

“You’re so naive sometimes,” he said. “Fine. Do whatever you think is best. I have to go.”

“I’ll be sure not to boink any coeds,” she replied, wanting to lighten the conversation a little.

He laughed, as she hoped he would. “I’ll talk to you next week.”

“Love you,” she said quickly.

“You, too,” he said. He clicked off.

What was that all about? Sarah hung up the phone, pensive. She wanted to believe he was just being protective—but part of her felt like he was just maintaining some sort of double standard.

He’s going out and having beers with the guys. Why shouldn’t I go out?

After all, he was the one who said that she just clung to him like a vine. If anything, this would be…asserting her independence, she thought.

She went out to the living room. Martika was in the labor-intensive process of lacing up her knee-length black leather boots. “Martika?”

“Mmm?”

“Is that invitation still open?”

Martika looked up from her boots. “Really? You’ll really go?”

“Just for a little bit,” Sarah hedged. “I’ve got a big day at work tomorrow.”

“It’s Friday. Who does much on Fridays?”

Sarah bit her lip. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

“You don’t do anything much your first week,” Martika said, as if countering Sarah’s resistance. Then she flashed her a quick, mischievous grin. “Besides, I told Taylor you weren’t going to come anyway. You’d probably just curl up with a book and be asleep by ten or whatever.”

Martika was doing everything but calling her chicken. She really didn’t… “What, do I have ‘Shirley Temple’ written across my forehead or something?”

“You don’t need it,” Martika answered with a wink. “You practically introduce yourself that way. So, out to 5140 with me and Taylor? Just a few drinks, and I promise we’ll get you home early since it’s a school night.”

“All right,” Sarah said, ignoring the tail end of Martika’s statement. “Just let me get my coat.”

“This is historic,” Martika said from the living room. “Next thing you know, I’ll have you dancing with male strippers.”

Sarah came back, tugging on her coat and then clutching her purse. “Just a few drinks,” Sarah hastily added. She didn’t want to do anything that would make Benjamin right about her being naive. “No strippers, nothing like that.”

“Careful, Shirley,” Martika said with a wicked smile. “You’re backsliding.”
“Maybe 5140 wasn’t the best place to take her for her first time out,” Taylor said with a note of concern.

Martika leaned back against the slick red vinyl cushion of the booth they were sitting in. The lights were dim enough to cause your pupils to dilate like dinner plates. Sarah sat huddled against one corner, trying as hard as she could to blend into the scenery.

Martika sighed…5140 was a fairly rough-and-tumble bar, nice and seedy, with none of the Hollywood club kids or the college pricks from West L.A. and Santa Monica. As good a testing ground as any.

“So, can I get you another drink?” Martika asked as politely as she could, considering she needed to yell to get over the blasting jukebox.

Sarah shook her head vehemently, clutching her pi?a colada with a weak smile. “I’m fine. Thank you, though,” she said politely, doing her Martha Stewart impression again. She glanced around, as if she were sightseeing in a demilitarized zone.

Taylor scooted next to her. “Don’t worry, girlie-girl, Martika just likes dives.” He grinned at her. “Trashy.”

“Drama,” she said back, blowing him a kiss. “I do like dives. Less pretentious.” She turned her gaze on Sarah. “What do you think?”

Sarah bit the corner of her lip, looking around. “It’s…surprisingly roomy,” she offered, with a hopeful look.

“Roomy,” Martika repeated, as Taylor roared with laughter. “That’s a good description. Roomy. Well, I’m going to go see if I can’t make it over the vast expanse to the bar,” she said, tilting her empty glass. “I could do for a refill. Taylor?”

“Another currant martini, please.”

She smiled, heading over to the bar, noticing several of the guys at the bar were watching her as she walked. She was used to it, sending them a killer smile then ignoring them.

She’d finally taken Taylor’s advice and decided to live with somebody she wasn’t planning on sleeping with, and she wound up with a virgin schoolgirl. Irony. Like a continual cosmic joke.

Still, the kid had potential—and she got the feeling that that phone conversation Sarah had been on was with her boyfriend/fiancе/whatever. And that it hadn’t gone well, if she was going out with Martika & Crew.

“One watermelon shot and one currant martini,” she said to Bill, the bartender. He nodded, quickly making up the drinks. “Oh, and another pi?a colada,” she said. “Strong.”

He added the third. “You gonna pay off that tab anytime soon, Tika?”

“I get paid next Friday,” she said, with a wink, and deftly balanced the three drinks, carrying them while still managing to wiggle her hips. She put them down on the small table in front of the chatting Sarah and Taylor with a plunk. “Bottoms up, people.”

“I’ve still got half a drink,” Sarah protested.

“Well then,” Martika drawled, “you’d better hurry, huh?”

Sarah’s eyes grew round.

“Taylor…would you care to show her how?”

Taylor grinned. “Not really, as I’m forced to drive during this excursion. Besides, I’m supposed to see Luis later this evening, and he hates it when I’m plowed without him.” He sipped genteelly from the martini glass instead, then made a florid gesture at her own shot glass. “You show her. You’re the pro, anyway.”

Sarah said, “You want me to just chug this, don’t you?”

Martika was surprised into a real smile. “Chug?”

“I know. I’m not that sheltered,” she said. “I’m not good at that sort of thing, though, I have to warn you.”

“Well, show me what you’ve got.”

Sarah screwed up her face for courage, then took the half-drunk pi?a colada and finished it off in about eight manful swallows. Martika grinned at Taylor, watching the debacle.

Sarah took a deep breath. Her pale cheeks were flushed and pink—from the alcohol or from the time that it took her to drink it without pausing for air, Martika wasn’t sure.

“There. I did it.”

Taylor made a polite golf clap. “Brava.”

“Now the other one,” Martika said. “A little faster, this time.”

“But…I have to go to work tomorrow!”

“Two pi?a coladas isn’t going to put you under the table,” Martika said, with an exasperated sigh. “Besides, we haven’t even gone to a club yet. This is just warm-up.”

As Taylor started to protest that he needed to make this an early night (“I promised Luis!”) Martika noticed that Sarah was going from flushed to pale.

“I think I’ll just nurse this one.”

Martika shrugged. “Suit yourself.” She took her watermelon shot, and with a quick snap of the wrist threw it back, feeling more than tasting the quick tang of Midori before being hit with the slight flame of alcohol. She put the glass down, smiling at Sarah. “One pi?a colada, and you’re trashy. This is downright epic.”

“I didn’t say I was trashy. I just said I had to go to work tomorrow.”

“What is it you do again?”

“I’m an assistant account executive,” she said. Her dilated eyes were beginning to look a little out of focus. “At Judith’s…that’s my friend.” She took another sip of the pi?a colada, as if she weren’t thinking about it—like she was just thirsty. “My friend Judith, who you haven’t met.”

“I have,” Taylor said, also noticing that Sarah was slowly working down her drink. “Judith makes this one look like you.”

“Wow. Guess I’ll have to not meet her, then.”

Taylor chuckled. Sarah sipped.

In an hour, Sarah had sipped her way through another pi?a colada and was getting surprisingly talkative. The club idea was out—the girl was weaving as they got her into the car, something Martika thought completely hysterical and Taylor found “charming.”

“I’ve gotten so used to you stereotypical Irish two-fisters that it’s been a while to see a ladylike, girl-drink-drunk,” he said. Martika frowned at him.

“I’m ladylike.”

“Sure,” Taylor patted her cheek. “And I’m Keanu Reeves.”

“Good night, Keanu!” Sarah said, and abruptly started hiccupping. “Oh, God. Hope I don’t yuke.”

“You and me both, sister,” Martika said, propping her up in the elevator. “Four pi?a coladas and you’re a mess. This is so funny.”

Martika guided her back to the apartment. She was still talking in that little girl voice of hers.

“So I’m waiting for Jam to move back,” Sarah confided earnestly. “Well, not back, it’s not like he’s lived here before. But you know what I mean.”

“Sure.” She grinned as she undid the top two dead bolts and finally got the door handle. “Although, if I hadn’t heard the details from Taylor, I’d guess that Jam was your invisible friend rather than your fiancе.”

“Well, he’s sort of my invisible fiancе,” she said, with a hiccupy little laugh.

“You said it,” Martika pointed out, closing the door behind the wobbling Sarah. “Not me.”

“I know. I don’t mean to complain. I just miss him, that’s all. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like he misses me,” she said. The tone was so matter-of-fact, Martika felt a pang of pain on her behalf. She wondered if Sarah were sober if she would have felt the pain. Then she realized—if Sarah were sober, she wouldn’t be saying all of this. “So why do you stay with the guy?”

Martika knew she probably shouldn’t counsel her roommate on her love life—but hell, she counseled all of her friends. And if anyone ever needed a mentor, it was this little drunk girl with the long blond hair—like a misplaced Norwegian waif.

Sarah stopped by the arm of the couch, in the middle of a very amusing tableau of trying to kick one shoe off with the other foot. “Why what?”

“If he’s invisible, and you miss him, why do you stay with him?”

“Can’t walk away,” she mumbled, finally successfully kicking off one shoe and sighing. “I mean, you can’t just give up on something like that. Besides, I love him. I couldn’t walk away from somebody I loved.”

“I can understand that,” Martika said. Not about relationships. But say Taylor—she’d never walk away from him. “But the question is, does he love you? He seems to be hurting you an awful lot.”

Sarah seemed to sober for a moment—like a kid at a high school party who had suddenly realized that her parents had come home. “He’s not hurting me,” she said, struggling with the other shoe. “He just…he’s just busy. He needs me to understand. I’m trying to be very, very understanding.”

Martika was understanding this whole thing a bit, herself. She frowned. The guy was an obvious asshole. Sarah really ought to dump him, move on. Maybe she’d start that campaign, too, as well as her campaign to “corrupt” the kid. “Well, as long as he’s away, it doesn’t matter how often you’re out, right?”

Sarah thought about this for a minute, then grinned. “Nope. Doesn’t, really. I’m sure he might mind if it were like every night or if it were interfering with my career…”

“Well, it won’t.”

“I’m just saying,” Sarah said…then slumped into the couch. “I think I’m going to sleep right here.”

“Oh, no, you’re not,” Martika said, tugging her to an upright position. She’d never seen somebody decompress quite this fast. “Shit. Come on, Sarah. You take Martika’s advice—a few vitamins, a few aspirins and one huge glass of water. Then brush your teeth, and go to bed.”

“What day is it?”

“Thursday, sweetie. Remember?”

“I think I have something important to do tomorrow, but I can’t remember what.”

“You’ll remember tomorrow,” Martika promised. “I swear, honey. Now get up and brush.”
Chapter 4

Unhappy Girl


“Walker! Where the fuck have you been?”

Sarah stood stock-still, as if she’d been shot. Her slight headache made her feel as if she had been shot. “I beg your pardon?”

“I told everybody they needed to be in here early today!” Becky’s eyes were glinting like gunmetal, and if she’d shot red lasers out of them, Sarah would have been no less surprised. “Early! What time is it?”

Sarah glanced at her watch, unsure if that was a rhetorical question or not. “Eight?” she said, glad that she’d set the alarm before she went out on the town.

“Goddam eight. Jacob has been in here since seven. Michelle has been here since goddamn six.”

Jacob and Michelle had not been hazed at 5140, either, Sarah reflected. She knew there was something she was supposed to do today. “I’m sorry,” she said instead. Just when she was trying to make a good impression, too! She needed this job. She really, really needed this job!

Becky was not appeased. “I need you to input all of these—and double check this time—and Raquel’s going to be busy doing copying for me, so I need you to go to the cleaners and get my suits. Goddam presentation is first thing Monday morning, we’ve got absolutely nothing worth showing yet, I need to pull off a goddamn miracle. If you’re not careful, Sarah, you’re not going to be staying here. Off the top of my head, I can think of twenty people who’d give their right arm to work for a place like Salamanca.”

Oh, no. Sarah felt herself go clammy with shock. “I’m really very sorry,” she breathed. “I know you’ve got a lot to do, and I want to make sure that everything gets done. No matter how much overtime it takes, I’ll make sure you get what you need. On time.”

Jacob and Michelle were staring at her with expressions of abject horror. Becky, on the other hand, looked speculative.

“Now there’s team spirit. Much better,” Becky said, with a smooth, pleased tone that gave Sarah the willies. “Why don’t you come to my office after I finish up this conference call, and we can talk about that?”

“Sure,” Sarah said, but Becky was already on her way. Once she’d left the room, Jacob turned to Sarah.

“Are you out of your mind?”

Sarah shrugged. “I’m trying to get a little more in my paycheck. I’m not going to prove anything by coming in hung-over,” she said, rubbing at her temples. “I’m just trying to show that I’m good at my job.”

“You could come in here with a gun and they wouldn’t fire you,” Michelle said. “You’re in for a world of pain, Sarah.”

“You’ve got absolutely no idea,” Jacob said, in sepulchral tones. “Brand review is coming. You’re going to be in hell.”

Sarah shrugged. “Aren’t you exaggerating just a bit?”

Michelle looked at Jacob. “Cavalier little thing, isn’t she?”

“You can’t say you weren’t warned,” Jacob replied to Sarah instead. “I put five dollars on you cracking like a walnut in two weeks.”

“I give her a month,” Michelle said. “She looks like a scrapper.”

Sarah sighed. “I’m going to go scrounge up some Tylenol before she gets finished with that call. And believe it or not, I’m going to make it.”

Sarah was walking away as she heard Ernest down the hall call out, “Put me down for two months.”
By the end of the fifth week, Sarah was bleary-eyed. She left the office at eight, Friday night, surprised that it was suddenly April. Thank God she did her taxes early this year…she didn’t even know it was coming.

“Good night,” she said to Schuyler, the portly security guard. He no longer asked her to show her badge. She’d been there the past five weekends and late every single night. He knew her on sight, and regularly asked her “how it was going.”

“You get some rest, Miss Walker,” he called after her.

She drove home, exhausted. It was only about twenty minutes back to West Hollywood from the Mid-Wilshire district, if that, but tonight traffic seemed particularly bad. She’d be back in at ten tomorrow morning—Becky was letting them have a little sleep-in before cracking down on yet another pointless presentation, complete with requisite numbers and velo-bound reports. God, she hated velo-binding.

She parked her car, noted that Martika’s car was not there and sent up a little prayer. Probably out with Taylor, searching for this weekend’s Random Fuck, as she so colorfully put it. She and Martika were not working out as well as she had hoped. Martika had tried to invite her out again, but after having her job threatened, Sarah made it a point of not joining Martika on her excursions. Martika was sort of hurt by this, and consequently cold, but there wasn’t anything that could be done. Benjamin had been right—she was naive.

Now, Sarah would stumble in just as Martika was striding out, or sometimes at the same time as Martika stumbled in, with or without a companion. They only spoke about things like the utilities. Sarah had hoped to have a bit more friendly relationship with her roommate. Now, she just prayed that Martika would pipe down and maybe put some WD-40 on her box springs.

She closed the door of her Saturn, hearing the alarm beep on. She made her way to the elevator from the parking garage and hit three, then leaned her head against the door as it slowly creaked its way upstairs. A bath. No, food. No, a bath, and then food. If she had food then the bath, she’d drown.

She stepped out of the elevator, then stopped abruptly. A figure, a male figure, was hovering by her doorstep. He had a dark coat, and his blond hair was…

“Jam?”

He turned, and his face was like a storm cloud. “I’ve been here for hours,” he said, without preamble.

“I’m so sorry!” The response was automatic, like saying ouch when you stubbed your toe. “I didn’t know. Why didn’t you tell me you were going to come down?”

“I didn’t really know myself. Screw up at the L.A. office…and they brought me in to ‘consult’ on some possible solutions to getting their numbers up. It’s going to be soon, I’m telling you. The flights were delayed, so I figured I’d stay over a night and see you.”

She wanted to feel more elated by the whole process, but felt weary as she fumbled for her keys. She let him in the apartment. “I’m so glad you made it,” she said, wondering even as they spoke what kind of food she had around. They could do a restaurant. Of course, it was Friday night in WeHo. They were going to have a hell of a time getting a table. Maybe she could order a pizza.

“So this is the apartment. Huh. I haven’t seen it since I signed the lease.”

She paused, before hanging her key on the set of hooks under the pretty white wooden cabinet-looking thing that she used to separate mail for herself and Martika. Her mailbox had a cheerful yellow daisy on it…Martika’s, a sticker of one of the Powerpuff girls. “Home sweet home,” she said, wondering what his tone was all about.

“Hmm.” He was studying the place minutely. Then he shrugged. “Pretty good sized. Seems like a nice enough neighborhood.”

Sarah let out a breath she didn’t even know she was holding. “I like it.”

He scowled. “I think some guy was hitting on me in the lobby, though.”

“Really?” Now was obviously not the time to explain West Hollywood to him. “How odd.”
They wound up staying in and ordering pizza. Sarah wished she could take that hot bath, but he seemed in the mood to talk. They talked at length about his job, and she told him about the hell that was her boss and the ad agency. “I’ve got to go into work tomorrow, too,” she said sorrowfully.

He didn’t seem very sympathetic. “Honey, I’ve told you before…you’ve got to pay your dues. You didn’t just think they’d give you some six-figure job you loved right out of school, do you?”

She hated it when he got patronizing, but she knew he was just trying to be helpful. “I didn’t think that. I just didn’t think I’d have to work every single day for a month going to a job that frankly makes me want to vomit every time I go in in the morning. Honestly, when I get sight of the building, my foot eases up off the accelerator.”

He shook his head. “It’s normal. If it were fun, you wouldn’t get paid for it.”

“Don’t you think that’s sad?”

He shrugged. “I think that’s reality.” He smiled, and it was one of his indulgent smiles. “Honey, you just want a little dream world.”

“Guess I’m in the right city,” she said, and went over to the bedroom.

He followed her in, sighing heavily. “Don’t be this way,” he said, in a voice that was persuasive but she knew could turn stern at the drop of a hat. “I’ve come all the way down to L.A. to see you. Do you really want to waste what little time we have fighting?”

She immediately felt the wave of guilt hit her, and she sighed. “No. I’m sorry.”

“Then let’s make up.” He stroked the back of her neck, then reached forward to unbutton her blouse. Within minutes, she was naked, on her back, while he went at her a little more quickly than she’d have liked. Of course, she’d been so tired lately, it wasn’t like she was even really in the mood. She went through the motions of being interested as best she could, when all she could picture was her deep tub and scalding hot water. Maybe some lavender bubble bath. Mmm, she thought, smiling over his shoulder. Bubble bath. God, that sounded good.

Still, she was glad he was there, she thought as he shuddered and groaned, pushing against her. It had been a while. Besides, it was only twenty minutes out of an otherwise very long day.
Sarah turned over the next morning, and immediately gasped. Shit, ten o’clock, ten o’clock, ten o’clock! She prayed that Becky wasn’t coming into the office this morning. She sort of doubted it…Becky usually had plans on the weekend, and she left the work to her “able team.” Sarah grabbed her toothbrush, smeared toothpaste on it as she turned the shower on, then jumped in, brushing and getting her hair wet at the same time. Screw shaving, no time for that. She jumped out and was toweling herself off when she realized that something was missing. It wasn’t unusual to wake up alone, she realized, but this morning she had, and she shouldn’t have. Benjamin had been snoring in her ear when she’d dozed off last night around one.

She came out in a towel. “Honey…?”

She stopped, abruptly. Martika was sitting at the kitchen table, eating cottage cheese straight out of the carton with a spoon. “Sweetie?” she said, mimicking Sarah’s tone.

Sarah blinked at her, surprised twice in the past five minutes. “I’m sorry. I thought…did you see my fiancе here? Tall guy, blond…”

“Bit of a prick?” Martika calmly spooned up some more cottage cheese, then put the cartoon down and drizzled honey over it. “He was leaving when I got home. I tried to introduce myself, but he looked at me like I was some sort of thief until he realized I was your roommate. Then he looked at me like I was a potted plant. Grunted something incomprehensible, left in a hurry.”

Sarah’s heart fell.

“Real prince you got there.”

“You could tell that from just five minutes,” Sarah said sharply. “You don’t know him. You don’t even know me, and I live here.”

“Good!” Martika smiled, a bitchly-sweet sort of grin. “I was starting to wonder if you were dead. You know, that’s the loudest and clearest I’ve ever heard you speak? And what exactly is so wonderful about Mr. Personality, that I seem to have overlooked?”

Sarah didn’t even grace it with a response. She was already late, it was ten, and her boyfriend had left her without so much as a goodbye. She just sort of harrumphed in Martika’s general direction. Sarah conjured up a vision of him, stumbling around in the dark, getting ready and trying not to wake her up, kissing her gently while she slept. No, Martika didn’t know him, and she did. After being engaged to him for four years, she ought to know, dammit. She pulled on jeans and a T-shirt, dumping her towel on the floor. Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit.
Sarah was still thinking about the exchange on Sunday, the first day off she’d had in…hell, too long. They were testing the building for asbestos or something, so Becky couldn’t force her to come in. Though she’d tried.

Sarah sat at a lunch table at Il Trattorio on Melrose with Judith. It was nice to see a friendly face that didn’t want a mound of paperwork done.

Sarah toyed with her salad. “Judith? Do you think Benjamin…I mean, does he strike you…”

Judith sighed, putting her own salad fork down. “This has your roommate Martika written all over it. What’s the so-called problem with Benjamin now?”

“You don’t think he’s a prick, do you?”

Judith goggled. Sarah didn’t think she’d ever heard Judith say “prick” in her life, now that she thought about it.

“No, I most certainly do not think he’s…that.” Judith straightened out her napkin on her lap with a cluck. “Just because he’s not some sideshow freak or a candidate for that Jim Rose tattoo show doesn’t mean the man’s a…” Judith glanced around, seeing if any of the other tables were noticing the inappropriate turn this conversation was taking. “Well, he just isn’t.”

Sarah smiled, suppressing the urge to say “Prick! Prick! Prick!” and watch Judith turn purple.

“Why do you ask? Do you think he is?”

Sarah looked down at the table. “I’ve been sort of unhappy lately.”

“Well, that’s understandable,” Judith soothed. “You’ve been apart for a while, and you guys haven’t been separated since college, for pity’s sake.”

“I know, I know,” Sarah said. “It’s just…”

She paused.

“Spit it out already.”

“Well, don’t you think it’s sort of…well, prickish of him to be completely behind me moving down here, to help him out, and then all of a sudden he can’t help me make ends meet with the rent?”

Judith looked at her inscrutably. “You mean, when he found out the promotion he was counting on suddenly fell through?”

Sarah continued doggedly, “Okay, but…he never calls, and he’s only visited the once, and it always seems like it’s all about him…”

“When it ought to be all about you?”

Sarah glared at her. “When it ought to be, you know, more even.”

Judith shook her head, then took a sip of her iced tea. “Sarah, what exactly do you think he’s done to you that’s so ‘prickish’?”

“He just doesn’t seem supportive at all.” Sarah knew that was a lame way to put it, and her carefully thought out argument, the one that made so much sense when she ranted to herself in the car on the way over to this lunch, suddenly seemed like a cross between a whine and a wail. “I mean, I know he’s busy and all—and he has a set career, while I’m still bobbing, but…but I mean, I’ve been working really hellish hours…”

“That he’s been working all this time,” Judith interjected.

“Judith, you’re not helping!” Sarah finally burst out.

“Sarah, I’m trying to. I’m trying to help you put this in perspective.” Her voice had the cold logic of Mr. Spock. Sarah bit back on a pout, feeling like a complete and utter idiot. “He’s been working really hard to try to get down here to be with you. He’s been working crazy hours for years, while you’ve flitted from job to job. You volunteered to help him out by moving down here. Now, are you going to help him out or not?”

“I thought you’d be on my side, is all,” Sarah finally grumped. “I’m being a complete baby about this, aren’t I?” Strangely, she felt a little better—like she wasn’t dating a loser prick, as Martika was intimating.

Judith smiled. “You’re just losing perspective a little, that’s all. You’ve become really independent lately, and that’s a big change.”

Sarah sighed. “Work has really been grating on me.”

“You’ll get used to it.”

But I don’t want to get used to it!

Sarah sipped at her Diet Coke. “Well, does it get any easier?”

“Yes. After a while, it’s like you’ve been doing it all your life. It’ll be like…brushing your teeth, washing your face. You won’t remember a time when your life wasn’t like this. Here’s a bit of advice from a greeting card I once got…”

“Judith,” Sarah warned.

“I like it. It said, ‘Not shelter from the storm, but peace within the storm.’ You just have to look at life like that. Recognize how everything is, and be okay with it.”

That was depressing enough to send Sarah to the dessert tray with Chocolate Suicide in mind.
Chapter 5

Break on Through


Peace within the storm, peace within the storm, Sarah thought, as she made copies in the office. It was three in the morning. She was here, alone, with a temp from CompuPros. He was working furiously on one of their stronger graphic design computers, doing some complicated presentation with animation and music and movie clips. He hummed the theme to Star Trek to himself incessantly as he ate Chee•tos and drank Mountain Dew. “Highest caffeine of any regular brand,” he confided in her, producing a two-liter bottle from his knapsack. “I don’t like the taste of Jolt. Those are a hell of a lot of copies,” he noted, as the computer whirred, processing something. “Why don’t you send it out to Kinko’s?”

Sarah rubbed at her eyes, waiting for the bleary, blurred vision to clear. After a second, it did. “My boss wants me to keep an eye on it. Kinko’s screwed up her last order.”

“Must’ve been pretty bad.” He shrugged.

“It wasn’t entirely their fault,” Sarah said, trying not to lose count. At least the conversation was keeping her awake. “But…well, you met my boss.”

“Briefly.” The man’s tone spoke volumes. “She always like that?”

“She’s been stressed…” Sarah started to make the excuse, then sighed. “Yes. She’s always like that.” She took a deep breath as she hit the stapler with a little too much force. She pulled out the crumpled bit of metal and tried again, more carefully. “She threw such a fit that the Kinko’s manager said not only would he not help her, he was going to send her picture out like a Wanted poster to all the other branches in a fifteen-mile radius. I thought Becky was going to have an aneurysm.”

“So you’re here by yourself.”

Sarah nodded. She was doing the binders, and revising the spreadsheets, and revising the presentation notes, and making sure that all the arrangements for the team offsite that Becky was planning was going according to schedule. Raquel, their admin, had lost her marbles over the weekend, and had quit by sharpening a pencil to a spike point and driving it through a note on Becky’s desk that said I QUIT in a quavery red line. Sarah prayed it was ink.

“That’s gotta suck.”

“Not so bad,” Sarah said stoically, frowning. She’d lost count. She went through the piles again.

She was trying to hold on. She really was. She spoke with Benjamin every Saturday religiously, and didn’t bother him during the week. The promotion was on the cusp, he told her, just weeks to days away. He would be coming to L.A. And, like the caterpillar says in A Bug’s Life, “then things would be much better.” She just had to take Judith’s advice, grow up and hold out.

“Man, I’m tired.” The CompuPro guy leaned back, taking off his glasses and rubbing at his eyes.

“When do you think you’ll be done with this?” Sarah asked hopefully. When he was done with the mechanics, she could proof it, do the notes and stills from it, and then get some sleep, herself.

“Oh, man. Not too much longer.”

“Great.” Sarah breathed a sigh of relief.

“I figure not later than six.”

“Six?”

“Yup. You said you wanted it done by tomorrow, that’s before workday tomorrow,” he said defensively, as he saw Sarah’s ashen face. “Maybe sooner.”

“Please, God,” she murmured.

Good as his word, he was done with the presentation just as the sun rose. It was six on the dot. “I’ll send the bill on,” he said, yawning. “God, I’m glad I don’t have an assignment today.”

She hurried him out, then looked over the presentation. She had hit a nice buzz…her second wind (or perhaps third wind) had struck at around five, and she was moving on a pleasant little high. She went through the presentation. It looked pretty good to her—but then, a Crayola presentation would look pretty damn slick at this point, she reasoned. Becky would be in the office in about an hour, she thought. She briefly considered going home, then decided against it. Something of the martyr was creeping up on her. If Becky sees that I’ve stayed here all night, Sarah reasoned as best she could in her sleep-deprived mind, then she’ll see how dedicated I am. She’ll go easier on me. I’ll have paid my dues.

With this, Sarah collated, made calls and got a good chunk of her to-do list done. By seven, she was frenetically wiping down her desk with Windex when Jacob came in.

“Have you been here all night?” he said, eyeing her clothes…studying her eyes.

“Yes, I have,” she said, noticing her hands were shaking a little when she stopped doing something with them. She took another sip of Mountain Dew, sighing as the caffeine and sugar hit her bloodstream. That CompuPro kid wasn’t lying. “I’ve gotten a lot done.”

“You certainly have,” Becky said.

Was that a pleased tone? In her delirium, Sarah smiled, sure that it was. “Those are all the packets,” she said proudly, “and these are the graphs and the reports and sales figures and media charts you wanted. And here’s the presentation.” She handed Becky the chart, the pi?ce de rеsistance. And now, can I please go home and go to…

Becky looked at the disk like it held the plague. “What the hell is that?”

Sarah stared at her. “It’s…the presentation,” she said. Seeing Becky’s blank stare, she reminded her, “You said you wanted it to be really snazzy, remember? You authorized us to bring in a temp from CompuPro to add animations and…and music, and…”

“Yes, yes,” Becky said, with an impatient wave of her hand. “But where are the slides?”

Sarah stared at her like she’d lost her mind. “They don’t come with slides,” she said, trying desperately not to add you stupid slut. “You use the LCD projector…it runs right off the laptop.”

She should have known better. Becky’s eyes rolled back in her head like a terrified cow just at the mention of laptop. “Oh, no, I’m not,” she said, angry and accusing. Jacob, Sarah noticed, vanished. “I’m not using a goddamn laptop to give this presentation. Why didn’t anybody mention this earlier? I’ve got to give this fucking thing at two o’clock, why didn’t somebody mention it earlier?”

How precisely Becky thought that you could add moving images to a piece of plastic with ink on it, Sarah wasn’t sure. But obviously that’s exactly what she thought. “I…didn’t realize that you didn’t know about the LCD projector,” Sarah said slowly, feeling that delicious euphoria start to fade and the cold hard reality sink in.

“Listen here. I want slides printed up. SLIDES!”

Sarah did mental calculations. The meeting starts at noon. Presentation at two. It was now eight. It took about a minute a slide…there were one hundred and twenty slides…she could get them all printed out with an hour to spare. Plenty of time.

“All right, Becky,” she said. Peace within the storm, peace within the storm…

Becky had picked up one of the booklets…one with the printed stills. She glanced through it quickly and to Sarah’s horror, picked up a pen.

“Also, I’m going to need some changes.”

Sarah quickly saw the mountain of velo-bound presentation folders, the slides, all of it, getting shot to hell. Peace within…oh, suck.
By noon, Sarah had moved from euphoria to hysteria. She had already burst into spontaneous tears at her keyboard not once, but twice. Jacob was her godsend, fetching her Jolt and Mountain Dew. He would have set up an IV if he’d known how. She flashed through the changes Becky made, then sent him with the prints to make the note pages and velo-bind the presentation stuff. She printed out each slide, removing the animation stuff that would leave the little icon. Stupid cow, stupid cow, stupid cow, she thought. The “peace within” mantra just wasn’t working, and the stupid cow one at least gave her enough fuel to continue going. She was seriously considering taking a cab home…or saying fuck it, and going to sleep under her desk. She’d probably go with the cab. At least she’d be away from Becky…

“Sarah, how’s it coming?”

Sarah glanced at the printer, which was moaning like it was going to die a horrible electronic death. She picked up the last sheet of acetate. “Last slide,” she said, putting it over the last white sheet of paper with a flourish. “And the overhead is all set up in the conference center.”

“And you ordered lunch, of course?” Becky’s eyes narrowed. “I know I didn’t ask you to, but I figured you should know…”

Sarah smiled with an exhausted sort of smugness. “I ordered lunch. Maria’s. They delivered at eleven forty-five.”

“You’re tired, aren’t you?” As if she had only just noticed, Becky squinted her eyes, studying Sarah’s face.

And about to remedy that, Sarah thought. “Yes, I am.”

“You shouldn’t stay at that keyboard.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“You should get up,” Becky said thoughtfully. “Walk around. Definitely pick up some lunch. I’ll be out of my meeting at three, and maybe we could go over the Veggi-round TV spots they’re shooting next month.”

Sarah didn’t believe she’d heard correctly. “You mean…you want me to stay?”

Becky looked at her like she was from Pluto. “It’s noon, Sarah. You did a good job, and all, but I wasn’t going to give you a half day.”

“A HALF DAY?” Sarah felt like she was channeling the voice that was yelling. “I was here all night!”

Becky blinked, obviously not expecting her docile A.A.E. to start shouting. “And I appreciate it,” she said, in that sickly smooth voice that Sarah hated.

“I am going home,” Sarah said, grabbing her coat. It tangled when she tried to stick her arm through it…she slowly realized she was putting it in the wrong hole. She straightened it out. “I am leaving here. I’ll be lucky if I don’t wrap my car around a telephone pole from here to Santa Monica Boulevard. Are you out of your mind? I am going home!”

Becky sighed wearily. “Oh, all right. There is just one more thing I need you to do, though. It’ll be quick, and it’ll be on your way.” She shot her an accusing glare. “You said you’d do anything to make my job easier, you know.”

Paying your dues, peace within the storm…

“What did you want me to do?” Sarah said instead. Sainthood, here I come.

Becky rummaged around in her pockets, pulling out a key. Sarah stared at it. “This is the key to my apartment. I just need you to take care of Charlie. You remember Charlie, right? The cat I asked you to feed over the July Fourth weekend, when I was out of town?”

Sarah sighed. “You want me to feed Charlie.”

“Not…well, no.” Becky shrugged. “His litter box is just behind the…”

“NO.”

Becky looked at her. “Well, it will get you out of work early, won’t it?” she said like she was conferring a favor.

Sarah stared at the key, at the pile of presentation booklets, at Jacob who was staring at Becky like she was possessed. She didn’t even have any inflection in her voice when she spoke.

“Becky, I quit. I completely, utterly, totally quit.” She grabbed her purse. “I’m through paying my dues, I’m not growing up, and fuck peace within the storm!”

Sarah made it home safely, guessing that it was probably due to whichever saint it was that watched over drunks, tramps and stupid twats who stuck to jobs long past the point of abuse. Martika was blessedly still at work when she got home at twelve-thirty. She took off her clothes and burrowed under her covers naked. She wandered through the living room at around three naked, to pee, then promptly went back to sleep. She finally emerged at around seven, realizing she was hungry. She’d been crying in her sleep…she’d left makeup on, and there were rings of mascara around her eyes. She looked like she’d been beat up.
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