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Vice

By:L.M. Pruitt

PROLOGUE


People like to believe the slide to rock bottom starts with cigarettes  or drugs or alcohol or one of any hundred so-called vices.

Mine started with a dress a size too small, a limp corsage, and tepid  fruit punch served in a paper cup already wilting from the heat of too  many bodies packed in the American Legion Meeting Hall.

That was the moment when I realized the entire town of Cotton Creek,  Georgia believed I was good for one thing and one thing only.

I'd ducked behind one of a dozen oversized balloon towers, pressing the  lukewarm paper cup to my sweaty forehead. It didn't actually cool me  off-the ice had melted long ago, watering down the already tasteless  off-brand punch-but it helped to pretend it did. My dress, a  hand-me-down from my older sister and better suited to her slim form  than my decidedly curvaceous one, clung like a second skin, drawing  attention to my so-called assets in a way which had made old Mrs. Wilson  turn up her nose and sniff at me and which also, unfortunately, made me  sweat like a pig. The pile of curls, secured by a hundred bobby pins,  half a can of hairspray, and prayer, was already in danger of falling  down even though I'd only been at the dance for an hour. My corsage was  worse for the wear, too, the flowers already drooping. I wouldn't be  surprised if I lost more than a few petals by the end of the night.

But it was all worth it because I was here with him.

Abraham Hansom. The Abraham Hansom.

Everybody in town, even his parents Mary and Marcus, called him Handsome  Hansom and he was but he was so much more than that. He was smart and  funny and he was nice-nice for real and not the fake kind the so-called  Christians who occupied the front row of the First Baptist Church  specialized in. He was the best thing in the entire town of Cotton Creek  and everybody knew it.

And he'd invited me to prom.

Me, the girl who was literally from the wrong side of the tracks, whose  daddy had run off with the next door neighbor's daughter and whose mama  had drank herself to death. The girl whose sister had been knocked up  twice by the age of sixteen and was on her second marriage before  twenty-one. If Abraham Hansom was everything right in Cotton Creek, I  was everything wrong.

But again, it didn't matter. Because he'd seen past all that, past the  hand-me down clothes and shoes and the hair done in the kitchen of  Lizbeth Richard's doublewide. He actually saw me.

I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes, glad nobody could see  the dopey smile on my face. I lifted my cup to take another sip only to  freeze when I heard Lynn Smith's distinctive laugh.

"Oh, my God. Did you see her dress?" She laughed again and I caught a  glimpse of her through the balloons as she flipped her waist-length  blonde hair over her shoulder and turned to one of her ever-present  groupies. "She should just stick a price tag on her chest."

"There's definitely enough room." Beth Bailey, shorter, plumper, her own  blonde hair twisted in to the same sort of chignon her mother wore to  church every Sunday, scoffed and handed her cup to her boyfriend, Ben  Barnes, the epitome of strong, silent, and stupid. "Everybody knows she  has more tits than brains. She doesn't need to remind us."

"Yeah, I mean, and if it gets any shorter you'll totally be able to see  her va-jay-jay." Dana Jones hadn't had an original thought since she'd  became friends with Lynn in the second grade but that didn't keep her  from acting as if she was head of the local chapter of the National  Honor Society. I would have blamed it on the bleach she used in order to  get her hair the same bright shade as Lynn and Beth but I didn't think  that had anything to do with it. "I still can't believe you actually  asked her, Abraham."

Abraham. Abraham was there. He was listening to everything.

And he wasn't saying anything in my defense.

"I mean, like, I know you have that thing about not backing down from a  bet and all but still." Dana snorted-another one of her annoying  habits-and slouched against her boyfriend, Allen Woodard, second string  quarterback for the Cotton Creek Cougars. "Seriously, would it really  have been so bad to have to paint your truck pink for a week? I mean,  it's totally temporary. This, though, is senior prom. This is, like,  forever. And all your pictures and memories are going to be with the  class whore."

He'd say something now. He would. He had to. There was no way Abraham Hansom would let-.

"Beth." Even laced with exasperation, Abraham's voice was low and rich  and smooth, as beautiful as the rest of him. "Nobody keeps pictures from  prom. That truck, though, will last me twenty years, easy." He laughed,  the sound wrapping around me like a blanket, providing me little warmth  from his next words. "I'd do a lot worse than go to prom with Jeannie  Jackson. Besides, how else am I going to get laid tonight?"         

     



 

Even as the little knot exploded in to laughter, I pushed the balloons  aside and stepped forward. Dana was the first to notice me, her big,  blue eyes going wide and her jaw falling open. She elbowed Beth, who in  turn elbowed Ben, the not so subtle nudging making its way around the  circle until Lynn elbowed Abraham, standing with his back to me.

He turned, the lazy smile dying away, his dark brown eyes still  beautiful, even though I knew they were full of lies. He raked a hand  through his shaggy brown hair and flicked a tongue over the lips I'd  been fantasizing about since freshman year. "Jeannie-."

"You think you actually had a chance with me?" I took a step closer, my  toes bumping against his. Lifting my chin, I said, "Bless your heart,  honey." I rested one hand on his shoulder, rising up until I was able to  press my lips to his ear, lowering my voice to a whisper. "You couldn't  afford me."

I dropped back on my heels and spun neatly, striding across the room,  pausing only to throw away the mangled cup and wilted corsage before  marching out of the American Legion. I had one more week until  graduation. One more week and then I was out of Cotton Creek and I was  never coming back.

Anyplace was better than here.





CHAPTER ONE





Fifteen years later

I was dying. At least that's what it felt like when I turned over,  nearly braining myself on the sharp edge of the flimsy excuse for a  nightstand. The bottle of water I'd set there the night before tipped  over the far end, falling to the floor and rolling away. I would have  cursed the loss if my mouth wasn't as dry as the proverbial desert.

There was no such thing as free tequila.

You always paid, one way or another.

Next to me, the man whose tequila I'd spent the night drinking grunted  and tugged the sheets around him. His tequila had been better than his  tacos and his tacos were infinitely better than his sheets. The sex,  what I remembered of it, had fallen somewhere between the tacos and the  sheets, which wasn't necessarily his fault.

My standards for sex weren't very high. My standards for tacos, on the other hand, were.

I sat up, slowly, squinting when the motion set off bells and whistles  in my head. As far as hangovers went, it wasn't the worst I'd ever had  but neither was it a walk in the park. So far, it seemed to be confined  to only my head but there was a good chance that would change once I  started moving. There was only one cure for a hangover and I already  knew I wouldn't find it in....

Were the hell was I again?

Careful to not wake the man next to me, I slipped out of bed, tiptoeing  my way to the bathroom. Easing the door shut behind me, I turned the  sink on full blast, letting it run while I took care of the other  necessities. Cupping my hands under the faucet, I let my palms overflow  before splashing my face with ice cold water. There wasn't a spare  toothbrush-shocking-but there was no way I could live with the taste of  tequila, tobacco, and mediocre sex any longer so I squeezed toothpaste  on my finger and used it as a makeshift toothbrush.

Spitting and rinsing one final time, I turned the water off and  straightened, brushing my nearly white blonde hair back and examining my  reflection in the mirror. My makeup was still mostly in place-another  sign of the okay but not wonderful sex-and would do until I could find a  rest stop. There might have been a hint of red rimming my pale blue  eyes but it was nothing my sunglasses wouldn't hide. Huffing out a  breath, I scraped my hair back in a loose bun, wincing every time I hit a  tangle.

I wouldn't win any beauty contests but at least I wouldn't make little children cry on the street, either.

When I walked back in to the bedroom, he was still passed out, the sheet  wrapped so tight around him he resembled... well, a burrito. I studied  him, trying to remember his name, only to give up after a moment. The  only reason I needed it was for the restaurant write-up and I knew it  was somewhere in the paperwork my near saintly assistant had sent me a  few days earlier.

The only thing left to do was find my clothes and my purse and get the hell out of... wherever I was.

He slept through my search for my clothing. I found my bra tossed over  the back of a ratty armchair in the corner of the room. My shirt and  jeans were in the living room. I couldn't remember if I'd been wearing  underwear when I started drinking so if I had, they were gone. My socks  and shoes were next to the door and I considered simply tucking them  under one arm and walking out in my bare feet.

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