***The Haven Apartments, Montrose***
“As you can see, the place is both spacious and secluded. Or as secluded as you can get in the city,” the flamboyant, older man in his khaki shorts, Hawaiian flower print shirt, and sandals addressed them all, but his gaze seemed to follow Jo more than the others.
She was reasonably confident that the man could not see the fading bruises beneath her make-up. Vic had done it. Jo had to admit that he’d do exceptional as a make-up artist if the man ever decided to retire from drag performing. It was a luxury that she rarely allowed herself, usually reserved for some high-profile case or charity function. But their new ‘friend’ has done better than any of the half-dozen professionals she had tried in LA.
Jo walked to the double, floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that looked out onto a wooded area, “That’s Buffalo Bayou, darlin.’”
“Yes, my wife’s from Texas,” Vic laid on the Mexican accent thicker than usual. She still wasn’t sure about this whole plan, but neither she nor Donovan had come up with a better one. There were just too many unknowns.
“Your wife?” The man had been assessing Vic’s assets since they walked into the rental office.
This was the fifth place they had checked out. One did not offer three bedrooms, another would not have anything available for another month, and the application process at the other two was too stringent. They needed something they could move into immediately. And obviously, someplace where their cash, of which Vic seemed to have a shocking amount, would be more critical than rental and credit history.
Vic smiled, she had seen a few of his portfolio shots, and even she would admit Victoria was stunning, especially in her younger years. That smile reminded her of those. “Yes, our little family is a tad unusual, but with a name like The Haven, we were hoping this might be a good fit for us.”
The man smiled and nodded as Vic continued, “Jo-Jo and I have been together forever. I’m sure you can understand that. We had Cee-Cee when we were only children ourselves. My Mama was so glad to have la nieta. She spoiled the girl.” He waved his hand and smiled at Selena. “Maybe too much, hija?”
Jo was finding it hard not to laugh at how thick Vic was slinging the shit. And how much this man was eating it up. “So, when I…. discovered myself.” He shrugged, “Well, we were just so comfortable with one another that we saw no reason to go changing things.”
Vic looked to Donovan, “Well, too much. Jo-Jo has her ‘friend.’ And occasionally, I have mine.”
The man smiled and nodded, “How incredibly inclusive.” Did he just shiver?
She had to admit she got a good feeling about the older gay couple who owned and managed this small apartment complex. It was their best bet for finding what they wanted. That was probably why Vic was laying it on.
“Well, if you like what you see, you can fill out the application. It usually takes a couple of days for the credit check and rental history to process….”
Vic frowned; it had been the problem with those other places too. “We’re actually looking for someplace that is ready for immediate occupancy. I need to get them all settled before I start work….”
“What do you do?”
The transformation was remarkable. Even without the costumes, wigs, and makeup, it was as if Vic disappeared and Victoria appeared before her eyes. The voice, the facial features, and the mannerisms changed. “I’m a performer extraordinaire, amigo. Victoria Flores.”
“Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god. No. Really? Well, of course. Why didn’t we see it sooner? Al and I saw you perform at La Nueva. What it must have been…. Well, never mind how long ago it was. I can’t believe it. Wait until I tell Al that Victoria Flores is living in our little complex.”
Now Jo really wanted to laugh. But instead, she distracted herself by having a closer look at the place that would be her new home. At least temporarily. This place really was charming. Solid wood floors in the massive open plan living and dining room combo. Stone tiles in the kitchen with its stainless steel appliances. There were two decent-sized bedrooms, both with en suite bathrooms. One on either side of the living area. And the art-deco curving staircase to the upper floor was breathtaking.
She decided to explore there as well. The stairs ended in an open landing that looked out over the living room. To the right was an open nook that could be a reading area, an office, or a second living area. Especially since she noticed two large windows above that sliding glass door. The view was spectacular.
The bathroom was straight ahead. With a sunken tub and walk-in shower as well as a double vanity. And a bidet? They weren’t charging nearly enough for this place. Jo had to admit this was precisely the type of place she liked. Modern design with touches of elegance and stunning views.
“You like it.” Donavan didn’t make it a question.
She turned as he stepped away from the stairs. “Vic is finalizing things with Dusty. We’re lucky they’re such huge fans. They’re even throwing in some old furniture they have in storage from previous tenants that just disappeared.”
Her throat tightened; was that what would happen to her things? Did it really matter? Sure, she had spent good money making her apartment a comfortable refuge to come back to after a long day. But even on the weekends, she rarely spent any time there. Between work and the gym, she usually just came in and crashed into bed. No, there was nothing there that mattered.
Her career, her apartment, she didn’t even have any friends to speak of. Her whole life, at least the last quarter-century of it, and nothing mattered. As much as she had invested in Tyson, Turner & Tyson, LLP, they had already reassigned her cases to other partners.
Hell, Jack and Junior had tried to have her murdered if that goon in Vegas was to be believed. And why wouldn’t she? For what? Money? She had sold not just her legal skills but her soul to the devil for money and prestige? Maybe she didn’t even have a soul. Perhaps that too had died in that….
“It’ll be okay,” strong arms wrapped around her waist from behind.
Jo wasn’t sure where the strength came from, but somehow she managed to break free of Donovan’s embrace. She turned and began to pummel his chest with her fists. “You don’t know that. None of us do.”
His hands captured her fists and drew them up around his neck. His arm wrapped around her back this time as he drew her against his hard body. She was too tired to fight anymore. So she rested her head on his chest. She could hear the steady beat of his heart beneath her cheek. “You’re right. I don’t know. But I promise you I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe.”
She shook her head against the solid wall of muscle, “You’ve chosen the wrong one. Go protect Selena and that baby. I don’t deserve it. I haven’t in decades. Maybe I never did.”
His fingers beneath her chin lifted her face. He leaned in, and those lips softly, tenderly, slowly caressed hers. It was like the tingle of a ladybug on her arm, except the heat moved through her whole body, electrifying and sensitizing everything in its path. She could have gotten lost in the sweet saltiness of that kiss.
Except for the loud throat clearing from behind her. Donovan lifted his head reluctantly, and Jo turned to see Vic standing at the top of the stairs.
“Oh, sweet Mary, mother of god, not another tear factory.” Only then did she realize that the saltiness came from tears running down her cheeks.
“That mascara ain’t waterproof, sweetie.” Jo was never sure if she liked Victoria or not. But Vic’s attention was focused elsewhere now, “Come on, beefcake. Let’s see if those muscles are good for anything other than looks. Dusty says we can have our pick of the furniture in storage. And all it will cost us is my stunning company at Al’s seventieth birthday party on Sunday. Sweet timing that.”
“You two can have this loft. I’m not a huge fan of heights. But you have to promise to keep the moaning and screams to a minimum. Not all of us girls get so lucky.”
As Jo watched the men descend the spiral staircase, she shivered. She had forgotten that this plan had her sharing a bedroom with Donovan. Not that they hadn’t been in close quarters in the RV. She had fallen asleep or woken up in his arms several times. But that was different. Donovan was just there to check up on her, make sure she was healing properly.
But now, she was mostly healed. How was she going to share a bed with him? For days? Weeks? Who knew how long? She might have gotten the better of him that night in Vegas. But he was smart. Donovan was onto her little ‘game’ now. How did she get out of this situation without explaining why she played those little games, to begin with?
She looked across to the nook; maybe there was a futon or something in that storage locker that she could use. She’d better follow them and see. She was pretty sure they wouldn’t find a crib or bassinet, but they had months to figure that one out. Assuming they were here that long. Assuming they even survived. If Jack Tyson’s goons found them.