High Stakes, Hard Sell Ch. 03
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Let me express my appreciation for the encouraging feedback on the first two chapters, and again give my thanks to the wonderful author karaline for her editing and advice. This is a story about a relationship between consenting (and fictional) adults. Comments, votes and emails are always welcome. Thanks again to my readers!
Finnegan’s was a mid-range restaurant that billed itself as a ‘resto-bar’ in order to justify the outrageous prices it charged for lunch. On the plus side it was brightly-lit and spacious, and the lack of ambient music made it quieter than most eating places and perfect for meetings. The fact that the house white wine was amazing made the high prices easier to digest.
Her older sister Betty was waiting for her when Jane arrived and the two of them embraced before sitting and ordering. Jane was happy to see her sister looking well but disappointed in the beige slacks and old-lady cardigan Betty had chosen to wear; they made her thirty-three year old sister look much older. And not in a good way. Why couldn’t a brainy psychologist learn to dress herself properly for lunch?
They exchanged light chatter while waiting for their meal. Betty dished on James, the boring-yet-suitable man she was seeing and Jane was content to pepper her sister with indiscreet questions about him until the salads arrived. Betty asked Jane how business was going, and this gave Jane the opening she was looking for to get some advice on the situation with Mike. She knew exactly what she wanted to say.
“I’ve got this client that I used to do business with all the time. A few years back I screwed up an order and he got furious and canceled the contract. The problem is, now I need a reference from him in the worst way but I can’t get any traction with him. He doesn’t trust me,” Jane said, then paused for a sip of wine.
She couldn’t mention Mike’s name, of course. Betty passionately hated him and Jane didn’t have the time or energy to fight that battle over lunch. Couching the situation in business terms seemed an easier way to get the advice she needed.
“Oh come on,” her sister said. “There’s no way you’re letting a little thing like that stop you. You’re the unsinkable Jane Willow.”
“There’s more…another vendor is in the picture now,” Jane said.
“I see. A competitor?”
“Not a competitor, exactly. She sells a completely different product. But my client has got so much time and attention tied up in this new vendor that there’s practically none left for me.”
“When will his business with the other vendor be concluded?”
“Not for ages. It’s a long-term contract.”
“And you can’t wait it out?”
“I’ve got four weeks, tops. Probably less.”
“You must have other clients you can get references from,” Betty said.
“Plenty. But I need a reference from this specific client. It carries a lot of weight. If I can’t get it, my career is over.”
“So you’re asking…”
“I’m asking for some tips on how I can re-establish trust with this client. You’re a psychologist, there must be techniques I can use, right?
Betty chewed her salad and took a long sip of lemon-water. She regarded Jane with an analytical expression.
“So, let’s unpack this,” her sister said. “To begin with, your story is obviously a cover, representing an issue you’re having in your personal life.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Because you never have – and never would – seek my advice for a business issue.”
Jane had to concede the point. Betty was a brilliant psychologist but a total dud when it came to the business world.
“Your so-called client is a man you were in a relationship with. The other vendor is a woman, since you used the pronoun ‘she’.” Betty tapped her own chin lightly with her index finger as she continued to think. “But not a romantic rival, since you said she wasn’t a competitor. So that means she’s…what…an ex-wife? Mother? Sister? Daughter? I’m guessing…daughter, since a daughter would be the long-term relationship most likely to tie up almost all his time and attention. So…you’re trying to hook up with an old flame, but he’s got a daughter now and that’s crossing you up.”
Jane shook her head in amazement. Small wonder her sister was pulling down two-hundred bucks an hour in private practice. A truly brilliant woman!
“But he doesn’t trust you. There’s bad blood there. You didn’t just break up; you said he was ‘furious’, which implies…” Betty trailed off, then her eyes grew wide and she covered her mouth in disbelief.
Fuck. She knew.
“Before you say anything,” Jane said, “he is completely different now. Totally domesticated and basically harmless.”
But Betty wasn’t listening. She had her phone out and was tapping and swiping, then handed it to Jane.
“Look familiar?” Betty said.
Jane looked at the small screen and saw her own face, swollen, misshapen and bloody. The whole left side was purple and red and her left eye was partially swollen shut.
“You…kept this?” Jane asked, her voice a horrified whisper.
“Four bursa escort broken teeth. Deep cuts to your cheek and forehead requiring eight stitches. A broken jaw. A grade three concussion – you were out cold for at least ten minutes. You spent two days in the hospital, missed three weeks of work and complained of post-concussion light sensitivity and frequent headaches for more than eight months,” Betty said, counting off each injury on her fingers.
“Why would you keep this picture?” Jane’s horror slowly morphed into outrage.
“Victims of domestic assault frequently return to their abusers. I kept the picture in case you ever had thoughts of going back, and needed a visceral reminder of what he did to you.”
“He’s not an ‘abuser’! He just lost his temper one time and hit me.”
“Oh, you’re right, that’s totally a different thing,” Betty said, rolling her eyes.
“It wasn’t all his fault, you kind of deserved it, you shouldn’t have made him angry. That’s what you’re going to say now, right?” Betty said.
Jane fumed silently. Her sister was annoyingly smart.
“Ah, yes. The classics never go out of style,” Betty said.
“He’s different now. He’s got a kid.”
“And God knows what he’s doing to her,” Betty said in a voice filled with contempt.
“He’s an unbelievable dad. He’s not ‘doing’ anything to her!”
“Not when you’re there, obviously. But when you’re not he probably beats her, or worse. It would fit the pattern.”
“Oh, is that your professional assessment?” Jane said.
“I didn’t realize I was on the clock,” Betty countered. “I don’t work cheap, you know.”
Jane gritted her teeth and tried to move the conversation forward. Irksome or not, Betty would have some great ideas for how to smooth things over with Mike.
“Why four weeks?” the older sister interrupted.
“You said you’ve got four weeks to get his ‘reference’, and that your ‘career’ would be over if you didn’t. What did that mean?” Betty’s expression became grave.
Jane sighed. She didn’t want to tell Betty about the old woman’s curse. Her sister was too rational and wouldn’t believe it even for a moment. She tried to evade.
“It didn’t mean anything. Look, I need…”
“Everything means something,” Betty said, leaning forward, “Does he have something on you and is giving you some sort of ultimatum or deadline? Did he threaten you?”
“I sought HIM out. I showed up at the gym, then cornered him at his apartment. You’re not listening. The problem is that he wants nothing to do with me,” Jane said, exasperated. “Please, Betty…I need your advice. I tried some couples counseling tricks but things are worse now than ever. I have to make him trust me again!”
Betty regarded her silently for several minutes, the food forgotten.
“You want revenge, maybe? Make him fall in love again and then rip his heart out?” Betty said.
Jane took a steadying breath. “Fine, yes. If it will move things along, let’s say that’s the reason. What’s the best way to regain his trust?”
“I’d suggest some intense therapy, maybe psychiatric help.”
“He’d never go for it,” Jane said, gesturing dismissively.
“I’m talking about you,” Betty said. “This guy beat you into unconsciousness. Going back is idiotic.”
“It was just one punch.”
“Exactly! He injured you that severely with just one punch. Imagine if he’d hit you twice, or ten times?”
“He’s the one who called the police and the ambulance,” Jane said, frustrated. This wasn’t the conversation she wanted to have.
“Probably easier than disposing of a body.”
“He felt awful about it,” Jane said, then stopped herself. This was going nowhere. She took another breath. “You won’t help me, then?”
“You’re going to do it anyway, regardless of what I say, aren’t you?” Betty asked in a tone that suggested it was a foregone conclusion.
Betty was quiet for several moments. “Two conditions,” she said.
“Call mom. Resolve things between the two of you.”
“No way. I have nothing to say to her,” Jane said.
“The two of you need to talk. She asks me about you every time I see her.”
Jane brooded silently for a few minutes, glaring at her sister. Betty had raised the same issue every time they met for fifteen years. Call mom. Talk to mom. Work things out with mom. Betty wouldn’t let it go, and Jane refused to give in. But now…now Betty had leverage.
“Tell you what. If you help me and I win Mike’s trust back, I’ll do whatever you want with regard to mom. How’s that?” Jane was more comfortable negotiating than capitulating.
“Fine. Your second condition?”
Betty smiled wickedly, then gestured to the phone in Jane’s hand. “If you ARE going to rip the bastard’s heart out, at least do it over the phone this time?”
“Wow…you look great!” Mike said as Jane emerged from the bathroom after her shower. The compliment sounded heartfelt and she gave him an appreciative smile. She DID look great – her royal bursa escort bayan blue pleated skirt fell to mid-thigh and exposed the perfect amount of leg; when she sat on the couch it would barely be enough to conceal the fact she was naked underneath it. She’d gone bra-less under a white, silk, button-up strappy top, ready for – and hoping for – a repeat of Monday’s sex play.
She felt great, too. A hot shower had restorative powers, to begin with – and after another long, exhausting day of housework she sure needed it. More than that, she was armed with her sister’s advice on how to avoid the kind of disaster that had unfolded on Monday evening, and how to move things in a positive direction. Betty was a genius, and Jane knew her sister’s counsel would be on the money.
He stood and faced her as she approached, casting an approving eye over her outfit. A subtle shiver went through her when she spotted the hunger in his eyes. But there was hesitation there, too.
“So, what’s on the agenda for tonight? Got another counseling trick up your sleeve?” he asked, aiming for a lighthearted tone but falling well short. After Monday night’s debacle she couldn’t fault him for being unenthusiastic.
“You don’t want to relax a bit first?” she asked, coming to a stop within easy reach of his hands. The suggestion in her voice was obvious. Nessa was in bed and there was no reason to rush their time together.
“I think I’ll relax a lot more when it’s over,” he replied with a forced half-smile.
“Okay, you asked for it. Go sit on the couch,” she said, then retrieved her purse and arranged herself on the couch facing him. She pulled out a deck of playing cards.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“I’m thinking Gin Rummy. You wouldn’t stand a chance at Poker.”
“This is a counseling thing?” He looked and sounded confused.
She looked up at him with a rueful smile.
“I’m not doing any more counseling things. I’m no good at them and I think I was doing more harm than good.”
He was silent as she began to shuffle the cards.
“So our deal is off, then?” he asked. Did she detect the faintest note of disappointment in his voice, or was it just wishful thinking on her part?
“No, it’s still on, exactly as we agreed. But maybe instead of an hour of counseling we can just hang out together? You know…relax, chat, play some cards. I still get my hour, but we don’t spent it venting at each other. Sound good?”
His brow furrowed and he looked at her skeptically. He suspected a trick or a ploy, and she realized again how vast the chasm was between where they were and where they needed to be. He distrusted her every word.
“It’s not a trick,” she said meeting his eyes. “I just thought this might be a better way to go about things. What do you think?”
He stared at her for another few seconds before allowing himself a slight smile.
“I think I would kick your ass at Poker. Gin Rummy is for old ladies.”
“Gin Rummy is NOT for old ladies. My sister and I sometimes play. But if you want to spend the evening losing at Poker, I’m happy to oblige. Five-card draw?”
He nodded and she dealt them each a hand of five.
“What do we use for an ante?” he asked.
“What have you got?”
The game started and she folded the first two hands. That was the essence of Poker; knowing when to stand and fight and when to cut and run.
“I read about your next fight online. They’re saying you’re an underdog,” Jane said as he dealt the next hand. Betty’s advice: talk about anything except the relationship. Re-establish easy, safe, friendly communication.
“Yup. The other guy’s taller, got faster hands.”
“So you’re going to try to get him on the ground?”
“That’s my best bet. He’s a pretty cocky guy. I might be able to catch him off guard.”
It was Mike’s turn to fold the hand. Jane collected the cards and shuffled.
“The fight’s in less than a month. How’s the training going?”
He shrugged. “Not too bad. I’m getting in a solid four, five hours per day, except on the weekends.”
“I guess it’s hard to work everything around Nessa’s schedule,” she said.
“Yeah, it gets tricky sometimes.”
She won the next hand, collecting six checkers in all. Mike was terrible at bluffing, even worse when he was sneaking peeks at the outline of her nipples in the silk top when he thought she wasn’t looking.
“Not too late for Gin Rummy,” she quipped innocently.
“I thought you were supposed to be cursed,” he muttered. “You seem awfully lucky tonight.”
She just smiled with exaggerated sweetness and dealt the next hand.
“I want to help out. With Nessa, I mean. If I drop her off at school and pick her up in the afternoon, you could be at the gym from nine to five. Supper would be waiting for you when you got home,” Jane said. “That’s an extra three hours a day you could spend training. I could even look after her on the weekends so you could…”
“Thanks, but let’s just stick with how things are now,” he said.
“Okay, escort bursa whatever you want,” she said, backing off. “Do you mind if I ask why?”
It had bothered her from the start that he’d accepted only a fraction of the help she had offered. Why turn up his nose at a 24/7 servant and willing fuck buddy?
He tossed a checker into the pot. “Because if you’re here three days a week, Nessa thinks you’re the nice lady who does the housework. But if you’re here every day, picking her up from school and looking after her, Nessa will think you’re a mom.”
“And that’s a bad thing? You know I’d always be good to her, set a good example for her.”
“I know you would. Right up until the day you left. Then Nessa would have to come to terms with another mother disappearing, abandoning her. It was hard enough picking up the pieces when her mom passed away”
Jane was silent as she considered the new information and what she could do with it. She’d been right about Nessa’s mom being dead. How did this change the landscape of her relationship with Mike? What opportunities did it present for furthering his trust in her?
“Two pair,” he said, laying down his cards triumphantly.
“Three of a kind,” she countered, showing her cards then raking in the checkers. “I suppose if you commanded me to have mercy on you I’d have to obey…”
“Oh, no. I don’t want you to have any excuses when I win,” he replied, flicking a checker into the ante defiantly.
“Suit yourself.” She dealt again.
“Mind if I ask a question?” he said.
“On Monday you said you cheated on me with Rob because you were protecting me. I don’t understand what that means.” Mike sounded more curious than angry, although she knew from his guarded tone that anger wasn’t far away.
She looked up from her cards to find him watching her. She’d expected the question, and regretted her decision to volunteer that tidbit of information on Monday. Going off-script was almost always a losing proposition. When would she learn?
“That’s kind of complicated,” she said.
“Was it the truth, or just more sales-y bullshit?”
“Then explain. What were you protecting me from?”
She lowered her cards and met his eyes. “The honest truth is that I’d rather not explain. I will if you insist – I said I’d do anything you want – but I’m asking you to let it go and leave it in the past. Can you do that? Can we just move forward from where we are today?”
“Was it Rob? Did he threaten you, or threaten me?”
“Rob had nothing to do with it. He never meant anything to me.”
“Then what was it?”
“Mike, could we please just leave it in the past where it belongs?”
He didn’t say anything right away, then shrugged and tuned his attention to his cards again. They played the next two hands in uncomfortable silence, splitting one win apiece. Mike got up and returned with bottles of water for both of them and they took a break from the game to sip a while.
“How did you end up with Nessa?” Jane asked, a question that had been on her mind for several days.
He got quiet for several moments.
“Do you believe in salvation?” he asked.
She was taken aback by the weight of the incongruous question and took a moment to answer.
“You mean like…in a religious way?”
“Kind of. But more just the concept. I mean, when we fuck things up badly, is there a way we can make things right again? Or do we just wear that stain forever?”
“I guess I believe in salvation. I’m here tonight because I believe that things can be made right again,” she replied, hoping it was the right answer. She’d never known Mike to ponder such things and it was throwing her off.
“For a long time I didn’t believe in it. I thought that if you messed up, it was all over. A permanent black mark on your life.” He paused, then met her eyes. “After I hit you, I figured that was it. I was a shitty person and I’d live the rest of my life under the shadow of what I’d done. I just packed it in…stopped caring. Put on weight, stopped working, slept on my brother’s couch. My life had no meaning and no value.”
“That’s not true. You’ve always been a great man. It was just because I…”
“But I wasn’t a great man, Janey. A great man doesn’t beat up someone he loves. A great man doesn’t hit a woman. Everyone knows that.”
She was quiet, not believing it but not in a position to argue the point.
“So Greg’s wife got tired of me lying around the house and gave me an ultimatum – get a job or get the hell out. She didn’t want her boys seeing what a loser their uncle was. Eventually, I ended up behind the counter at a soup kitchen, dishing out hot meals and packages of food to people who couldn’t make ends meet. Every Friday afternoon this young woman came in with her little girl to get a hot meal and a bag of food. And her kid was real cute, always laughing, so I started giving her an extra cookie each time she came in.” He smiled then; it was obviously a good memory for him.
“Anyway, the weeks passed and I learned the mom’s name was Brynn and the kid was Nessa. One week we decided to meet up at Burger World for a meal and so Nessa could play in the indoor playground. And that became a regular Saturday thing – I took them out for lunch at Burger World.”
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