Authors: Sara Craven
She wouldn't need to stay at the club long, she'd told herself with supreme confidence. She'd soon save enough for an air ticket out of here.
Only it hadn't worked out like that. The money she received had seemed reasonable when it was first offered, but once Mama Rita had exacted rent for that tiny cockroach-ridden room on the top floor of the club, money for the hire of the tacky dresses she insisted that Chellie wore, and payment for the services of Gomez the piano player—which she was convinced he never saw—Chellie barely had enough left to feed herself.
And, worst of all, Mama Rita had taken her passport, which was about all she had left in the world, and locked it away in her desk, making her a virtual prisoner.
The trap had opened and she'd walked straight into it, she realised bitterly.
There was always the option of earning more, of course, as Mama Rita had made clear from the start. Chellie could be friendly, and sit with the customers, encourage them to buy bogus and very expensive champagne. But even if the thought of it hadn't made her flesh crawl she'd been warned off by Jacinta.
'You earn more—she takes more,' the other girl had said with a shrug.
'You sit with a customer one day; you take your clothes off next Because you don't get out of here unless Mama Rita says so. And she chooses when and where you go. And you ain't served your time yet'
She'd paused, giving Chellie a level look. There are worse places than this, believe it And don't try running away, because she always finds you, and then you will be sorrier than you ever dreamed.'
I think I've already reached that point, Chellie thought bleakly. And who ever said blondes had more fun?
She sighed, then got up and began to root along the dress rail in the corner. She performed two sets each evening and had to wear something different for every appearance, which presented its own problems. When she'd begun, she'd worn evening dresses, but these had gradually been taken away and replaced by the kind of revealing costumes the dancers and hostesses wore. Which severely restricted her choice.
She bit her lip hard when she came to the latest addition, a micro-skirt in shiny black leather topped by a bodice that was simply a network of small black beads. She might as well wear nothing at all, but she supposed that was the point Mama Rita was making.
But that's never going to happen, she told herself with grim determination. I'm going to get away from here somehow, whatever the risk. And from now on I'm trusting no one. Especially men…
Her whole body winced as she thought of Ramon. She tried very hard not to think of him, but that wasn't always possible, although the physical memory of him was mercifully fading with every day that passed. She could barely recall what he looked like, or the sound of his voice. One day she might forget his touch, she thought with a shiver, or even the painful delusion that she'd been in love with him.
In a way, she acknowledged, everything that had occurred between them seemed remote—as if it had happened to two other people in some separate lifetime.
Only it hadn't, of course. And that was why she found herself here, duped, robbed and dumped, in this appalling mess.
It might be humiliating to retrace the steps that had brought her here, but it was also salutary.
After all, she'd needed to escape from her life in England and the future that was being so inexorably planned for her. In spite of everything, she still believed that It was just unfortunate that, through Ramon, all she'd done was jump out of the frying pan into a fire like the flames of hell.
But somehow she was going to wrench her life back into her own control.
I'll survive, she told herself with renewed determination.
As she hung the black dress back on the rail the flimsy curtain over the dressing room entrance was pushed aside and Lina, one of the lap dancers, came in.
'Mama Rita wants to see you, girl, in her office—now.'
Chellie's brows snapped together. It was the first time she'd been summoned like this. Usually a girl was called up because of some misdemeanour, she thought, tensing in spite of herself. She'd seen several of the girls with scratched faces and bruised and bleeding mouths after an encounter with Mama Rita's plump ring-laden hands.
Aware that the dancers operated a grapevine second to none, she strove to keep her voice level. 'Do you know why?'
Lina's eyes glinted with malice. 'Maybe you're going to start working for your living, honey, like the rest of us.'
Chellie faced her, lifting her chin. 'I do work—as a singer.'
'Yeah?' Lina's tone was derisive. 'Well, all that may be about to change. The word is that some guy wants to know you better.'
Chellie felt the colour drain from her face. 'No,' she said hoarsely. 'That's not possible.'
'Take it up with Mama Rita.' Lina shrugged indifferently. 'And don't keep her waiting.'
The office was one floor up, via a rickety iron staircase. Cheilie approached it slowly, the beat of her heart like a trip-hammer. Surely—
this couldn't be happening, she thought Surely Lina was just being malicious. Because Mama Rita had told her at the beginning that there were plenty of willing girls at the club, and that she would never be pressured into anything she did not want.
And Cheilie had believed that. In fact, she'd counted on it.
There was a clatter of feet on the stairs and Manuel came into view.
Cheilie stepped back to allow him to pass, trying not to shrink too visibly. From the moment she'd started working at the club she'd found him a problem. If she hadn't already been repelled by his coarse good looks, then his constant attempts to get her into corners and fondle her would have aroused her disgust.
The first night in her cramped and musty room, some instinct had prompted her to wedge a chair under the handle of her door. And some time in the small hours she'd woken from an uneasy sleep to hear a stealthy noise outside, and the sound of the handle being tried in vain. She'd observed the same precaution ever since.
There was no point in complaining to Mama Rita either, because the other girls reckoned Manuel was her nephew— some even said, her son.
Now, he favoured her with his usual leer. '
, honey girl.'
'Good evening.' Chellie kept her tone curt, and his unpleasant grin widened.
'Oh, you're so high—so proud,
. Too good for poor Manuel. Maybe tomorrow you sing a different tune.' He licked his lips. 'And you'll sing it for me.'
She controlled her shiver of revulsion. 'Don't hold your breath.'
The office door was open and Mama Rita was sitting at her desk, using her laptop. She greeted Chellie with a genial smile. 'You were a big hit tonight,
. One of the customers liked you so much he wants a private performance.'
Chellie's heart skipped a beat. 'Any particular song?' She sounded more cool than she felt.
'You making a joke with me,
?' The geniality was suddenly in short supply. 'He wants that you dance for him.' The mountainous body mimed grotesquely what was required.
Chellie shook her head. 'I don't dance,' she said, her mouth suddenly dry. 'I—I never have. I don't know how…'
'You have watched the others.' Mama Rita shrugged. 'And he don't want some high-tone ballerina. You have a good body. Use it.'
Yes, Chellie thought, but I've only watched the girls table dancing in the club itself. That has limits. The private room thing is totally different…
She said desperately, 'But you employ me as a singer. That was the deal. We have a contract…'
Mama Rita laughed contemptuously. 'Si, but the terms just changed.'
'Then you're in breach, and that cancels any agreement between us.' Chellie kept her hands bunched in the folds of her skirt to conceal the fact that they were trembling. 'So, if you'll return my passport, I'll leave at once,' she added with attempted insouciance.
'You think it that simple?' The older woman shook her head almost sorrowfully. 'You dream,
'I fail to see what's so complicated.' Chellie lifted her chin. 'Legally, you've broken the association between us. End of story.'
'This my club. I make the law here.' Mama Rita leaned forward, her eyes glittering like her sequins. 'And you go nowhere. Because I keep your passport as security until you pay your debts here.'
Chellie was suddenly very still. 'But the rent—everything is paid in advance.'
Mama Rita sighed gustily. 'Not everything,
. There is your medical bill.'
"Medical bill?' Chellie repeated in total bewilderment. 'What are you talking about?'
There was a tut of reproof. 'You have a short memory. When you first come here I call a doctor to examine you. To check whether you sick with pneumonia.'
Chellie recalled with an inward grimace a small fat man with watery, bloodshot eyes and unpleasantly moist hands, who'd breathed raw alcohol into her face as he bent unsteadily over her.
She said, 'I remember. What of it?'
Mama Rita handed her a sheet of paper. 'See—this is what you owe him.'
Chellie took it numbly, her lips parting in shock as she read the total.
She said hoarsely, 'But he can't ask this. He was only with me for about two minutes—he prescribed none of the stuff listed here—and he was drunk. You know that.'
'I know that you were sick, girl, needing a doctor. And Pedro Alvarez is good man.' She nodded, as if enjoying a private joke. 'Plenty discreet. You may be glad of that one day.'
She paused, studying Chellie with quiet satisfaction. 'But you don't leave owing all this money,
. So, you have to earn to pay it. And this man who wants you has cash to spend Good-looking
too.' A laugh shook her, sending the rolls of fat wobbling. 'Be nice—you could make all you need in one night.'
' Chellie shook her head almost violently, her arms crossing over her body in an unconsciously defensive gesture. 'I can't. I
. And you can't make me.'
'No?' The small eyes glared at her with sudden malevolence. Mama Rita brought the flat of her hand down hard on the desk. 'I patient with you,
, but no more. You do what you're told—understand?' She sat back, breathing heavily. 'Maybe I give you to Manuel first—let him teach you to be grateful. You want that?'
'No,' Chellie said, her voice barely audible. 'I don't.'
Mama paused. 'Or I send you to my friend Consuela.' She gave a grating laugh. 'She don't ask you to sing or dance.'
Oh, God, Chellie thought, her throat closing in panic as she remembered overheard dressing room gossip.
anything but that
She bent her head defeatedly. 'No,' she said. Then, with difficulty, 'Please…'
'Now you begin think sense.' Mama nodded with satisfaction. 'Lina will take you to room. Then I send him to you.'
Lina was waiting in the passage outside. She gave Chellie a contemptuous grin. 'Joining the real world, honey? After tonight, maybe you won't be looking down your nose at the nest of us.'
'Is that what I did?' Chellie asked numbly. 'I—I'm sorry. I didn't realise.'
Lina looked at her sharply. 'Hey, you're not going to pass out on me, are you? Because Mama would not find that funny.'
'No,' Chellie said, with an effort. 'I'll try and stay conscious.'
'What's the big problem, anyway?' Lina threw open a door at the end of the passage. 'You must've known Mama wasn't running no charity. So, why come here?'
Chellie looked around her, an icy finger tracing her spine. The room, with its heavily shaded lamps, wasn't large, and was totally dominated by a wide crimson couch with heaped cushions that stood against one wall. Music with a slow Latin beat was playing softly, and a bottle of champagne on ice with two glasses waited on a small side table.
She said wearily, 'It wasn't exactly my choice. I was robbed, and I went to the police. One of them said he'd find me a safe place to stay while they traced my money. And this was it'
'That figures.' Lina shrugged. 'It's how Mama gets a lot of her girls—she pays the police to send her the debris that washes up on the beach.'
Chellie bit her lip. 'Thanks.'
.' Lina walked to the door, then hesitated. 'Look, honey, it's no big deal. Just smile and make like you're enjoying yourself. It's not your first time—right?'
'No.' Chellie tried not think about those few humiliating, uncomfortable nights with Ramon. At the time she'd thought nothing worse could happen to her. How wrong could anyone be? she asked herself with bitter irony.
'If things get heavy there's a panic button under the table,' Lina added. 'But don't press unless you actually need to, or Manuel won't like it. And you really don't want to upset him. He's one of the bad guys.' She fluttered her fingers in mocking farewell. 'So—good luck.'
All the walls were hung with floor-length drapes, so it was impossible to tell where the window was—if it existed at all. And past experience suggested it would be locked and barred even if Chellie could find it—before the client found her.
But she could really do with some fresh air. The atmosphere in the room was heavy, and thick with some musky scent She began to walk round the edge of the room, her heels sinking into the soft thick carpet, lifting the curtains and finding only blank wall to her increasing frustration.
She wasn't sure of the exact moment when she realised she wasn't alone any longer.
She hadn't heard the door, and the carpet must have muffled the sound of his footsteps. Yet he was there—behind her. Waiting. She knew it as surely as if he'd come across the room and put a hand on her shoulder.
For a moment she felt the breath catch in her throat, then she allowed the curtain she was holding to drop back into place and turned slowly and reluctantly to face him.
And paused, her eyes widening in total incredulity as she recognised him. As she registered all over again, but this time at much closer quarters, the cool, uncompromising good looks—the high-bridged nose, the strong lines of jaw and cheekbones. The face of a man who did not take no for an answer.