I pulled into the parking lot of Cajun Jazz’s Diner—a popular hangout for the locals that the flood of tourists overlooked because it appeared like a place the Board of Health should have condemned years ago. I didn’t like crowds, and I knew my lunch date felt the same way. As I ascended the somewhat rickety staircase and adjusted my slim skirt, I suddenly wished I’d gone with one that was a bit longer and dowdier. Maybe I should have just stuck with my go-to jeans and paint-splattered tee. It wouldn’t do to appear at all sexy around Anthony LaSalla. The man was overprotective and would worry about unwanted attention I could get just by walking down the street.
I stood in the doorway, looking at my reflection for the briefest of seconds. Small and slender, I barely came up to Anthony’s shoulders. Although my outfit may have been too sexy, it was impeccable—a black blouse and gray skirt from a secondhand store that had cost less than this meal was going to, even though it was more than I usually spent on clothing. One of my favorite hair clips that had belonged to my mother sat jauntily atop my shoulder-length hazelnut hair. The ivory clip was the only thing I had on that was of any real monetary value.
Overall, I didn’t mind being poor that much. I’d never really had a lot of money, so I didn’t miss it. I had grown up the only daughter of immigrants from Russia. Both my mother and father had worked all the time, and I kind of got lost in the crowd. And that was the way I liked it. My mother had died at a young age, and my father had been busy building his name for the Russian mafia and was hardly ever around. My father wasn’t high enough up the chain of command to provide much more than a roof over our heads. Every man for himself was the way I was brought up. I’d been cutting coupons since I could hold the scissors safely in my hands, and my adult life hadn’t changed anything.
I always felt I never did anything with my life. A starving artist who could barely pay my bills, but refused to give up my dream of seeing my work hang prominently on a gallery’s wall.
Or maybe I just used my art as an excuse to never apply myself to anything else.
The argument could be made for both.
I opened the door and pasted a smile on my face. The restaurant choice was mine—it was the cheapest place in New Orleans since Anthony steadfastly refused to eat at a fast food joint, and I insisted on us splitting the bill. It was a battle fought and eventually won on my part, but Anthony never liked the idea of going Dutch. Maybe it was the fact that if he paid, our casual monthly lunches would feel like a date to me. And a date with my deceased father’s best friend wasn’t an option.
I was overdressed, but I had to do something to counter his casual elegance that would just strain a touch as his shirt stretched across the breadth of his shoulders, hugging the bulging muscles of his arms as he leaned forward to reach for his coffee cup. Anthony was well into middle age, but showed absolutely no signs of either an encroaching paunch or a rapidly surrendering hairline. If anything, he was looking leaner and meaner than ever since my father’s death, and that was five years ago. I was beginning to think he lived on hot black coffee and not much else.
Conservatively cropped black hair and thick black eyebrows framed eyes bluer than any man ought to be allowed to have. He was perpetually tanned due to his Italian heritage. He was tall, broad, and solid, in every possible way. Anthony LaSalla was hard and serious—except when it came to me. He’d always had a soft spot for me. I used to watch him when I was barely eighteen—before I lived on my own and still resided under my father’s roof. I could see the softening that took over his expression whenever he looked at me. His whole demeanor changed when he was around me. The innocent love and warmth in his eyes was almost painful to see.
Very painful to me.
It wasn’t the kind of love I had wanted.
He acted like an honorary uncle, and for a young woman who had a schoolgirl crush on a much older and powerful man, the demeaning pats on the head, or the way he always acted as if I were a child—even now—crushed the dream of there ever being more.
Anthony was one of those rare men who knew exactly what he was about at all times. He exuded confidence and intelligence. Born of meager beginnings, he had run with a line of formidable men, but he had built a name to be feared and respected on his own. When he had met my father, who was involved in Russian mafia business dealings, he was already running his own empire, and growing it even bigger. He also owned a membership-only men’s club called Black Secrets that my father was part of. Anthony wasn’t flashy or boorish, but classy and steady. And he made class and steadfastness incredibly sexy. The air around him crackled, while he sat back and watched what happened.
But since my father’s death, he’d been away more and more, and I couldn’t say as I blamed him. He’d lost a close friend when my father had been murdered. The moment that bullet had entered the back of my father’s head, Anthony had lost someone who was practically family, and seeing me only reminded him of what he had lost. I wasn’t the responsibility of Anthony LaSalla even though he had sworn to my father that he would forever protect and look after me.
Slipping into our usual booth opposite him, I looked up quickly to find Anthony staring intently at me. My heart stopped. It was disconcerting for anyone to pay that much attention to my every move—I did my best to blend into the woodwork. There must be something wrong.
“What? Do I have toilet paper on my shoe or something on my face?”
He almost smiled. His smiles had always been rare events—he wasn’t the joke a minute type. “No, I just forget sometimes how much you look like your father.”
“I do not,” I defended staunchly. “We don’t look a thing alike. I’m not an old Russian man.”
“No, you most certainly aren’t. But you have the same air about you.”
The waitress appeared at that point, and I ordered my boring usual—a cup of shrimp gumbo offered as an appetizer. It was also one of the cheapest things on the menu. I could see Anthony grimacing over a menu that hadn’t changed since Eisenhower was in office. He finally settled on his own usual—a pulled pork sandwich with fries and a Coke.
Taking a sip of my tepid tap water, I corrected, “We never had the same air. Father was—well, you know how Father was.”
Everyone loved my dad. I knew he was feared on the streets as being a killer and had a reputation of being beyond ruthless, but at home and around friends, he was charming and could light up the room with his boisterous energy. I, on the other hand, just hid behind an easel and only dealt with people if I had to.
Anthony didn’t say a word, just raised his eyebrow as he seemed to be studying me even more.
I sighed and laced my fingers on the tabletop.
His eyes narrowed on me enough to make me fidget with my napkin.
“Anyway, how have things been going with you?” I asked, deliberately attempting to change the odd energy I was feeling. “How’s Black Secrets?”
Anthony held my eyes for just a millisecond longer, letting me know that he knew exactly what I was doing. “All right. Busy.”
“Hiring?” I asked with a smile.
I was teasing him. As much as I would have died for a waitress job at Black Secrets due to the amount I could make in tips alone, Anthony had already made it quite clear that I would never be working there as long as he was alive. He had said time and time again that Black Secrets was no place for a girl like me.
“Funny,” he mumbled. But he continued to stare at me as if taking in every dark secret I possessed.
I shifted in my seat as surreptitiously as I could. He had a habit of doing that—of paying closer attention to me than I was used to anyone doing. Commenting on something I’d said that no one else had heard, making me feel special, as if I mattered much more than I knew I did. He did it in a very father figure fashion, as casual as a man like him could be.
And every time he did it, every time those all too knowing eyes settled on me, my core clenched.
I had been harboring a horrid secret throughout my late adolescence until now, one that I fully intended to take to the grave with me: I was in love with my father’s best friend.
It hadn’t happened gradually, either. I had been introduced to Anthony when he was invited to dinner one night, and I had lost my heart to him on first sight when I was just eighteen. My father was sadly resigned that I had chosen not to attend college, but we were trying to make the best of it. I came into the room and saw him sitting there—in my usual chair—and I knew I was a goner, that whatever gurgles of feeling I’d had for any boys before were no more than emotional indigestion. Anthony LaSalla was all man, and I instantly became hooked.
This man had reached out and grabbed a hold of my barely beating heart and made me feel alive, made me feel like I could do anything. He then quickly looked away and began talking business with my father. Confused with my rush of emotions, I took a seat as far away from my new obsession as I could get.
What I’d felt then toward Anthony had never gone away, and never diminished. To the contrary, the longer I knew him, the more acute my responses became. It got so that I could barely stand to be in the same room with him, and yet I couldn’t stay away. He and my father had always been close, and since they were in the same ‘circle of friends,’ they spent a lot of time together. I tried desperately not to feel the way I did, and was scrupulously careful not to reveal any of my feelings toward Anthony to anyone. There wasn’t another living soul who knew how I felt about him. I kept it all inside and smiled and laughed and ate dinner with them as if there was nothing more than me being Daddy’s little girl, curious about his crime and underground doings.
Anthony still unknowingly held my heart in his hands, but I would never encroach on my father’s territory, even after death. It would be wrong, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It wasn’t about the age to me, or that I should be calling Anthony Uncle Anthony rather than picturing myself having sex with him.
It was the fact that my father expected Anthony to watch over me… not fuck me.
But I could no more give up our once a month luncheons post Father’s death than I could give up chocolate chip ice cream. He fascinated me, always had, and I needed my fix. Anthony occasionally called to ask me out to dinner, or to accompany him to a social function, but as hard as it was, I always declined. I didn’t know how far I could be trusted with him, and I refused to do anything that might dishonor my father’s memory. I was quite sure that being seen around town with your father’s dear friend fell well into impropriety, so I always turned him down. Lunch was safe… or at least I kept telling myself that.
Just like every other monthly meal, we sat and talked about the weather, what we had been doing for the past month, and other inconsequential topics. Although not terribly exciting, it was comfortable and always made me feel a sense of calm.
Toward the end of the meal, he threw his napkin on his plate. “Next time, we’re going someplace where the food is decent.”
“This is decent,” I peeped indignantly.
That eyebrow shot up as he pinned me with a glance. “It’s barely edible. Next month we’re going to Luciano’s.”
I pursed my lips. “The pretentious Italian restaurant? I can’t afford it.”
Another near smile. “But I can, and I’m taking you. For dinner. And I’m not taking ‘no’ for an answer. I work too damn hard for my money to be eating in dives like this. And there are far too many good restaurants in New Orleans to be wasting our time here.”
I held my breath, my eyes skittering away from his to the neutral territory of the scratched Formica tabletop. I knew—just from being around him—that Anthony was a very dominant man. Certainly not abusively so—well, at least not toward women—in any way, but there was never any question as to who was in charge in his relationship with me. Anthony never hesitated to lay down the law in more ways than one.
Anthony LaSalla had spanked me.
God, even thinking about that statement made me want to blush and giggle like an adolescent schoolgirl.
But it was a day I would never forget.
I remember that I had come fervently knocking on Anthony’s door, looking for a refuge after having had a bit of a fender bender while trying to parallel park downtown. I’d barely been able to get out much of anything beyond, “Oh, man, am I in trouble! You have to help me keep it from Father. Please.”
That Lincoln Town Car was as close to a baby as Father had now that I was grown, and he had saved nearly a year for it. I had taken it because my own car was in the shop.
Without telling my father.
And now it was in need of repair—preferably before he missed it.
After Anthony gave me a once-over to make sure I wasn’t hurt, his look of concern had turned to one of anger.
Coming to him for refuge was a grave mistake. My father’s wrath would have been nothing in comparison to Anthony’s.
I barely made it through the door before he had my pants and panties down. He put his foot up on the seat of a tapestried chair he had in the foyer and hauled me over his knee. I was hanging there, over his leg. My feet didn’t touch the floor, and neither could my hands. I worried the whole time I was going to overbalance and end up falling on my head, but I should have known better. I wasn’t going anywhere until he let me go, which was when my butt was about the color of the vermillion paint I had used earlier for a sunset picture. He stopped—eventually—and tugged me into the living room, and I could see my butt in the tri-fold mirror over a narrow table before he dropped onto the couch, pulled me over his lap, and started up again. He spanked me so hard and long. I think the only reason he stopped was because his hand started to hurt. I had to then go home and deal with the lecture from my father with a sore behind. I never told him or anyone that I had been disciplined by Anthony LaSalla.
An incident that had only fueled my fantasies and obsession with the man.
I was shifting as if I could feel the spanking even now, though this had happened years ago.
“Raychel? Raychel, are you all right?” Anthony waved his hand in front of my face, trying to get me to come back to him. It wasn’t like me to space out like that, at least not unless I was painting.
“I’m here, I’m here.” I wrestled my mind away from the vivid memories of the man who was currently sitting less than two feet away from me and when he had spanked my bare bottom. I crossed my legs delicately under the table, but it was really just to see if I could alleviate the ache those thoughts created in several places at once—in my heart, in my mind, and in much more earthy areas on my person.
But clenching my legs together only served to help me realize my trip down memory lane had caused my pussy to leak, soaking my panties.
“You were miles away. What were you thinking?” Anthony asked.
I racked my brain to come up with an answer that was not provocative or related in any way to what I’d been rolling around in my mind. “That I can’t afford Luciano’s. I’ll meet you here again next month.”
I started to scoot across the maroon vinyl bench, but his hand over mine stopped me dead. His touch felt as if he were an ER doctor laying a live paddle on my hand. Anthony had never been a touchy person, so I was surprised by the warmth of his fingertips on my skin.
“You’re not listening to me.” That voice was like a swatch of rich velvet being pulled over a chunk of rough granite. It was soft, but it commanded obedience. My nipples loved it, begging with tight, aching peaks for just a little of his attention. “Next month, on the fifth, at Luciano’s. I’ll pick you up at seven.”
I only got the ‘n’ sound of ‘no’ out before he cut in.
“Not one word.”
I glared at him, but continued to get out of the booth, clutching the check for my lunch like a banner to ward him off. I didn’t want to take his charity in any way. Not companionship-wise, and certainly not money-wise. That’s one of the reasons I always insisted we eat here—I knew I could afford it, once a month.
We both paid, then he walked me out to my junker of a car, shaking his head as he always did at its condition. “This thing should be condemned.”
“Ya know, you need to get a new line to insult my car with.”
“There’s certainly a lot to work with.”
“Well, if you hired me as a cigar girl or something at your swanky club, then maybe I could buy a nicer vehicle. Not my fault you won’t let me work there.”
I knew by bringing up Black Secrets again, he would drop the subject of money since clearly the thought of me walking through his establishment’s doors was a no go.
I slid behind the wheel and rolled down the window when he crouched beside it. “Remember. The fifth of next month. I’ll pick you up at seven.”
“Uh huh. You’re too busy for that. You’ll have something else to do that night. Like smoking cigars and drinking expensive bourbon.”
Anthony frowned, and it was a truly terrible thing. “If I have anything important come up, I’ll cancel it,” he growled. “Drive carefully.”
That was it. He’d ordered, and I knew from past experiences with him that I’d better obey.
Would he spank me again if I said no to dinner?
I shivered at the thought, then pulled out into traffic and tried—unsuccessfully—to forget about Anthony LaSalla.
I pulled into my parking space late that same night, hearing the crackling crunch of the frozen rain beneath the tires of the car. Damn, I hated winter—hail was uncommon for my city, but this winter had been unusually wetter and colder than normal for NOLA. I gathered up the few small groceries in their useless thin plastic bags and slung my purse over my shoulder, then climbed the three flights of outside stairs to the only apartment in the French Quarter that I not only adored, but one that I—the brilliant starving artist—could afford. At this point, I was much more starving than brilliant. I’d already realized the cold hard truth about being an artist was that you had to die in order to be appreciated, and despite the fact that I was largely alone in this world with only a handful of friends, I wasn’t in any particular hurry to leave it.
I plunked my keys, purse, and the groceries—which consisted more of ramen soup than anything else—on the countertop of my galley kitchen, then flipped on the ceiling light that illuminated my small apartment, and all of my ‘children.’
That was how I thought of my paintings—all of them. They were like the children I’d never had. Probably never would have. I stuck to those things I loved—the city of New Orleans, the buildings, the people—as much as possible, but occasionally indulged in a portrait or two. The canvases were lined up around the perimeter of the cramped apartment, like soldiers leaning against a wall for a moment of R and R in the midst of battle.
I couldn’t have picked a favorite amongst the non-portraits if I had to. I loved them all equally—daily life of the city and I were partners, always had been. My visions of the energy that flowed on the streets played out in the incredibly detailed canvases before me, and every time I looked at them, they magically transported me to the streets of the town I loved. They were so realistic I would swear I should be smelling the spicy aroma of rich foods, and the earthiness of the flora filling the air all around inside my apartment. Luckily, the subject of my fascination was right outside my door, and I often spent my time—when I wasn’t trudging through my waitress job—letting the city absorb me and then watching it come alive as I mixed colors as vibrant as the city itself, transferring its very essence to canvas with every loving brushstroke beneath my hand.
I never felt as much at peace as I did when I was painting in Jefferson Square or by the river. Everything else—every worry, every dunning phone call, every pang of loss or regret—escaped my soul, and I was left open and vulnerable but safe and sound in the arms of a city I would forever call home.
I always added more to the paintings than just what I saw. Red flowers, or roses in particular—they were a testament to my mother who’d worked hard to keep the family fed, but on those rare days off, she’d spent her time growing roses in the back yard. I never could get over their stark beauty, so I strived to reproduce it, never quite managing to match the images in my mind.
I sat down on the beat-up old couch that also served as my bed many a night since it seemed to make me feel less lonely than sleeping alone in my bed, and flipped on the TV, but my eye was already caught by the canvases that were in front of me. Two portraits—one of my father, and one of Anthony. They were bigger than any of the others. One was still on the easel because I couldn’t resist tinkering with it, although it had been finished long ago. They were both done from memory, one a tribute and the other… the other a sad testimonial to what might have been—to what still lived inside me, and always would.
A sick obsession.
A silly girl’s dream of what she could never have.
They were my best works, and could never, would never be seen by anyone.
The portrait of my father was perfection itself—just as he had been in my eyes. Familiar tears welled as I stared into my father’s clear blue eyes. I’d gotten the curl of Father’s almost white-blond hair, and the ethereal quality of his expression shone through so clearly that it was almost eerie. It was something I’d had to do—a compulsion I couldn’t deny, and I’d painted it six months after my father died, painting for nearly a week straight, barely stopping for food or sleep. When it was done, I had collapsed into a heap on the couch, much as I had this evening, just staring at him as if it held the key to my salvation. It was a masterpiece, and it would never see the light of day. It was mine and only mine.
Anthony, on the other hand, seemed to smolder on the canvas. I’d always wondered why the fabric didn’t smoke beneath the paint. It was him, in all his dominant, self-assured, unbelievably sexy glory. His head was just slightly cocked, chin down, one coal black eyebrow raised the tiniest bit. He really had too big a nose and too prominent a jawline to be considered classically handsome, but that expression would be enough to stop the heart of any woman from eighteen to eighty. That was partly why I almost always kept it at the back of my closet—because that look was just too intense for comfort.
I’d portrayed him the way I always saw him—in crisp slacks and his black shirt—but had taken the liberty of making him look much more rumpled than I had ever seen him. As if he were just recovering from a particularly deep, sexual kiss and was about to reach for me to turn me onto the desk beneath him. The usual black cotton shirt was pulled out of his waistband, several of the buttons of his shirt opened so that it hung just artfully enough to display the smattering of chest hair over the tanned, muscular ripples beneath. He was leaning back against a desk, his arms folded on his chest, and I always imagined that that must be what he looked like just before sex.
That painting wasn’t so much a portrait as a desire unfulfilled. It was the way I wished, in my heart of hearts, that he would look at me.
It was funny, because if he ever did look at me like that—as if he were going to sweep me up into his arms and carry me to the bedroom to ravish me—I would turn tail and run into the next state. It wasn’t that I didn’t want Anthony—I did. More than almost anything in the world. My passion for him was as deep and true as my passion for painting, but it was also more raw and uncontrolled. That was one of the reasons that, although I had always been close to Anthony and maintained that relationship even after my father’s death, I had never allowed myself to become particularly comfortable around the man.
My feelings wouldn’t allow for comfort, and seeing him too regularly, being reminded of that which I would never—could never—have, was just a bit too much.
My only saving grace was I didn’t think my father knew of my fixation on a man completely out of my childish league.
After Anthony had spanked my bare ass, Father had noticed that I tended to refuse to go to dinner with the two of them like I used to, and that I rarely made an appearance at the house if I thought Anthony was going to be there, and he told me outright that he understood. That Anthony made a lot of people nervous. That Anthony’s world was a scary place and he didn’t want me to be part of it at all. Hypocritical since my father had been delving even deeper into the Russian mafia.
I had choked on the lemonade I was drinking, and managed not to disgrace myself by telling Father that the reason I was uncomfortable around Anthony was that he could make me wet just by his mere existence. I let Father think what he wanted to think. No one in this world knew just how vulnerable I was—or could be—to his best friend.
Most particularly not the man himself.
I got up and poured myself a glass of water, coming back to stand in front of my version of Anthony and eyed him with a glare I would never dare use in real life. I loved him. I wanted him. But at the same time, I hated him because he’d only see me as his friend’s kid and nothing more. I knew he loved me. But as family.
A minuscule part of me worried that somehow, Father had known about the lustful thoughts that had filled my mind whenever Anthony was within a three-mile radius. That somehow, I’d caused Father’s death with those naughty, taboo thoughts.
Sinners must pay the price.
That maybe my punishment for being such an awful daughter was God taking Father away from me forever.
And yet, despite the needless guilt that sometimes snuck up on me, I still coveted him. Although, as far as I was concerned, he was just as off limits since Father died as he had been while he was alive. Anthony didn’t want me. He didn’t need me. He kept seeing me out of the goodness of his heart, and because I was all he had left. I snorted. It wasn’t like he had much choice. He was alone in this world just as I was.
“Why do you torture me?” I whispered at the portrait. Sometimes I hated him at least as much as I loved him.
I stood there, tears dripping down my cheeks, and stared at my image of perfection, of what I ached for but could never have as it seared its way slowly through my heart.