Tough Break by Elizabeth SaFleur

6

Luna's eyes widened like twin moons. “You can't quit. You have the matador act to do in fifteen minutes.”

“No one cares.” She waved her hand and leaned down to pick up a dress that lay in a puddle at her feet. It was probably Starr's. She was such a slob.

“Everyone cares.” Luna crossed her arms. “What happened out there tonight? Something most definitely did.”

She lowered her voice so only her sisters could hear. No reason to scare Aspen, who sat ten feet away at her makeup table. “Two guys. Guns. Front row. It's only the beginning.” She hung the dress on the garment rack.

“Did you tell Max because he'd—”

“They're already gone. Now we need to be. Don't worry, I will figure something out for all three of us.”

Starr's eyes darted to Aspen, who pressed her finger against her false eyelash and blinked at herself in the mirror. “Hey, Aspen, you able to fill in for Phee in fifteen?”

The girl shrugged. “Sure.” She rose. “Not getting in between you three. I'll be in the kitchen.”

“Thanks.” Phee nodded at her. Their fellow dancer understood something important was going down.

After Aspen had closed the door behind her, Starr's tell-tale left eyebrow rose as it always did when she wasn't buying whatever was being sold. “And where, pray tell, are you expecting us to go? Burlesque clubs aren't exactly de rigueur on the entertainment scene anymore.”

“Does it matter?”

Luna's hand landed on her forearm. “This is about Declan, isn't it? And what you heard? I, for one, am not surprised about it.”

“Why aren't you?” She shrugged off her sister's touch. They'd reported what they'd learned about Declan to Luna. Her response? A shrug.

“It might make things easier.”

“Easier? You're kidding, right?”

Luna cocked her head in disapproval. “Phee, like I said this afternoon, Declan can't help it if Tomas MacKenna wants to buy him out. But Declan would never let anything happen to us. He's proven that.”

“Like he'd never let anything happen to Starr?” That blind trust led to her being kidnapped a few short months ago. Sure, Nathan, her fiancé, was probably more at blame for that one given he was the one in the MacKennas’ sights, but still…

“That wasn't his fault.” Starr tapped her blusher against the countertop, spraying the top with tiny flecks of red. “Remember, Declan struck a deal with the MacKennas, too.”

“Which I don't trust. It's probably time anyway, right? I mean…” Phee pointed to the bouquet on Starr's nightstand. Nathan had sent flowers complete with teddy bear and a balloon that read, “Just because I love you.” Her sister would soon be married and move out—something Phoenix should have been prepared for long ago. But how could she have understood the depth of that cavern forming behind her ribs? Not living with her two sisters? An odd twist formed in her belly.

“Is that what this is about?” Starr rose from her stool. “Nathan and I haven't decided what we're going to do. It's not like we're moving overseas or something. We'll still be here in Baltimore.”

“And I'm here.” Luna's taffeta bustle rustled as she drew closer. “And whatever happened to talking things out with us? Our pact?”

Phee raised her eyebrows at her sister, who rolled her eyes in return. Luna got her message. Are you kidding me wasn't even close to how Phee felt about Luna's move this past year.

Even though the three sisters forged an agreement years ago after they'd been separated across foster homes to always keep each other in the loop on all things that impacted all three of them, Luna had broken it spectacularly five months ago. She'd taken it upon herself behind Phee and Starr's backs to not only find their deadbeat father but to attempt a reconciliation. Fuck that. The hole in Phee’s chest deepened another inch.

The man was in some halfway house for alcoholics, the address she'd never learned because no way was she visiting a man who landed her in a hospital at eleven years old.

If she thought about it—really thought about it—she could raise up one molecule of understanding around Luna's motivations. Her sister wanted to give Phee an opportunity to confront him. Phee wanted more than that. She wanted him obliterated from her memories, her life, her body. She rubbed that place on her forearm, felt the little ridge in the bone there where the baseball bat had landed.

Phee turned away from her sister and pulled out her matador costume. Someone—someone likely named Starr—had moved it to the yellow section of the garment rack. Phee thrust it back into its rightful place so it aligned with the other red dresses. She plunked her butt down and eased her stocking off. “Whatever happened to our dedication to safety? First, you find the deadbeat, then Declan turns out to be a MacKenna, and now you want to hang out here?”

“Phee,” Starr's soft voice interjected. “I'm fine. We're going to be fine. Remember, Declan—”

“God,” Her breath puffed out in a long moan. “Declan can't do anything!” The MacKennas may have called a tentative truce where Nathan was concerned, but that didn't stop the fact their boss was one of them. He also was a single man, not an army—not to mention a pure gentleman with manners and impeccable taste, neither of which would help in this situation.

Jesus. Her eyes filled. She couldn't afford to fall apart now. “Frankly, you two are being far too cavalier about this whole affair.”

Starr suddenly clutched her belly. “Ooof.”

Phee swung her gaze to her. “What's wrong?”

“Not feeling that great today, that's all.” Starr rolled her shoulders and groaned a little again.

“Where is Declan, anyway?” Luna started toward the door. “He can sort this out.”

“I don't need more talking. I need out.”

Luna turned and glanced at Starr. They quieted. So, the sudden silent technique? They thought she'd rant and get it out of her system? They were sorely mistaken. On this topic, she was unmovable.

“Declan's not here, L.” Starr kept her eyes trained on Phee. “So that’s why he left in such a huff. Nothing like having your lead dancer walk out on you. Leave your sisters holding up the entire show.”

Oh, no, she wouldn't get away with that one. “This tough love thing will not work on me.”

Starr's face paled. She pushed past Phee and jogged to the bathroom. Retching sounds echoed against the tiles.

Luna and Phee stared at one another. “If she has the flu…” Luna's hand flew to her mouth. “Or…”

“Or if she's pregnant?” The little potential bombshell landed square in the front of her brain probably because it'd be yet another horrible surprise of the day.

“Already? I mean, I thought they wanted to wait.” So, Starr and L. had already been talking.

“Is she?” Phoenix glared at her sister. “Pregnant?”

Luna lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “I don't know.”

Well, great. It was inevitable, though, wasn't it? One minute their sister was looking at bridal magazines, strewn across every surface of their apartment, and the next thing they knew they'd be picking out onesies and breast pumps.

They both moved to the bathroom. Starr was on her knees, both hands on either side of the toilet seat. Beads of her corset clicked against the porcelain.

“You okay?” Luna scooped hair off Starr's neck.

Starr pushed back onto her heels, her mouth slack, her eyes half-mast. Phee pulled out some paper towels from the wall dispenser and wet them. She handed them to Starr. “Something going on?”

“No. I'm not pregnant. We're not trying. Yeah, I overheard you.” She pushed to her feet, dropping the paper towels in a wet plop on the floor. “Though Cherry's going to be disappointed. It would add to her flock.” Starr lifted her eyes to Phee. “Sorry for scaring you.”

“I'm not scared.” The sick knot in her belly twisted anew. What had Phee expected? She or Luna would never have children? Have their own life? Yes, actually. They'd be together forever.

Starr pushed herself to standing. “It was bad Chinese food.”

“You had salmon tonight.”

“Yeah, with that disgusting truffle sauce you like so much.” She chuckled lightly.

Phee wanted to return her laughter—she really, really did but couldn't.

“Do you seriously want to leave Shakedown?” Starr always got right to the point.

“All three of us need to.”

“Why? And don't you dare say it's because of what Ruark MacKenna tried to do to me. You're not using him as an excuse to avoid falling in love with Declan. There, I said it.”

Her damned eyes pricked. What was wrong with her? She didn't cry—ever.

Starr swallowed. “Sorry. I'm being blunt because I love you and I'm worried you see all men as the enemy.”

“The question is why don't you?” Phee's brain had no trouble regularly inventorying all the crap from her life—most of which Starr and Luna had lived through, too. It seemed like she was the only one of the three, though, that had her past rise like inflated balloons at the bottom of a lake every single day of her life.

Finding their father had unearthed all kinds of things she'd buried deep. First, his alcoholic rages would arise in her mind, starting with the slamming of their bedroom door against the wall as he stormed inside and she being dragged to the floor for no reason. Next always came the foster home, the image of which she did a reasonable job squishing with a mental fist immediately. If not, she'd have considered a lobotomy to end those memories. Then Maxim's strip club rose again. That one was harder to quash, maybe because it was the most recent set of humiliations the three of them had endured.

Starr shrugged. “I have Nathan now. Life is good.”

Which is how you got in that mess to begin with she didn't say, but oh, so wanted to. Her sister's cavalier tone had to be some avoidance technique because the woman had nearly died at the hands of the sociopath Ruark. It was only a matter of time before Ruark was out on parole to exact his thwarted plans. And that would be fine by his family, right? Kill two birds with one stone—get rid of Nathan, rattle the owner of Shakedown until he sold to them. Then? They'd be slaves to a mob family that refused to let you go.

“You don't hate Declan.” Starr smirked. “Ya know what Gabrielle called him? Declicious. It fits, don't you think?”

“Of course, I don't hate him.” Her sisters had never understood her feelings about Declan Phillips, the man who would not stop mooning over her. Yes, that's what he did. He mooned. She didn't hate it or him. He wanted her in all the ways a man wanted a woman, and she could not go there. Letting herself fall for Declan was simply futile.

She turned away. Her makeup needed re-arranging. The lipsticks were not in the proper order. “And that's a ridiculous name, Declicious.” Ick. It was juvenile and undignified—especially for him. He'd be a Sir Declan if anything.

In her periphery, Starr and Luna glanced at one another, then back at her, both sporting wide smiles. Ever since her sister got engaged to Nathan, Starr couldn't stop pushing everyone around her into romantic whatevers.

Phee cocked her head toward them. “I see you're feeling better, Starr.”

Starr shrugged, staring into the mirror, swiping under her eyes. “I bounce back pretty easily.”

Of the three of them, she had. That's where she differed from her sisters. They all had scars inside and outside, but hers were etched in her DNA.

“Tell you what.” Phee squared herself to them. “If I find a place for the three of us to dance, consider it. Sisters forever, friends always, remember?” She wasn't above pulling out their mantra. Starr and Luna had many times over the last few months.

Starr crossed her arms. “Consider, yes. Believe it'd ever be better than what Declan offers?”

“Unlikely.” Luna sang.

Phee turned back to her mirror. “Good,” she said to her reflection. It was a start. “See you both at home.”

“You seriously aren't going on?” Luna's mouth dropped to an O.

“Seriously. I’m headed home and will feed Moonlight.” The cat Nathan had brought home was the only good thing that came out of that union, as far as she was concerned. Good thing she’d adopted the little one out from under them. Starr’s ability to hold a routine was nil.

“Well, let's hope we don't get fired first,” Starr whispered under her breath.