Every courtesan has secrets… And when those secrets get out, there’s always a price to pay.
When Dani Dawson’s husband becomes deathly ill and medical bills are drowning them, Dani finds the only way out…become a courtesan, with her husband’s full knowledge. But when he extracts a deathbed promise from his brother to take care of Dani, her husband unwittingly exposes her secret life.
When Mac Dawson discovers his widowed sister-in-law Dani has been paying off his brother’s medical bills by being a courtesan, he’ll do anything to make sure he’s the only man she’ll ever play courtesan for.
Now he just has to convince Dani that there is another way out. But can she ever see it as anything but betrayal?
“Jasmine Haynes never disappoints” 5-Star Review
The Only Way Out
© 2016 Jasmine Haynes
Dani Dawson was drowning. Every time she thought she had a handle on the bills, she’d find another unexpected statement in the mailbox. The vultures had swooped down on her before Kern was even cold in the ground, and the balance in the checking account was a mere one hundred forty dollars and change.
The walls of her sunflower yellow kitchen closed in on her. The burn in her belly had risen to her chest. If she’d been a crying person, she would have laid her head on the kitchen table littered with unpaid bills and let loose an ocean of tears; for herself, for Kern, for all his pain, his dying, everything they’d lost. She’d scattered Kern’s ashes a week ago, on a September day too bright for mourning. Now she missed him like hell.
But Dani was long over the tears. Instead, she picked up her cell phone. Kern would understand what she had to do. She hit a speed dial.
Isabel answered on the second ring. “How are you doing, kiddo?”
“I’m fine, thanks for asking.” Dani forced cheer into her voice. “I could really use a date tonight if you can whip up something fast.”
Isabel gave a full five-second pause, an eternity. “You know, Dani, you can give it a little bit more time.”
Dani swallowed, her eyes aching, but she gritted her teeth. She had to get through this. She’d cried in the early days, when they’d first learned about Kern’s cancer. She’d never let him see her tears. She’d been strong and stoic for him in the ensuing year of treatments that didn’t work, mounting medical bills, and the rising fear that he might actually die. Six months ago, when the cancer spread to his kidneys, she’d finally broken down, but not in front of him. No, she’d reserved that mortifying moment for Kern’s brother, Mac. He’d been kind, comforting, but that was the last time she’d lost a grip on herself. She hadn’t cried the day they’d decided to bring hospice into the house—Kern hadn’t wanted to die in a hospital—or ten days ago when he passed away. Not even when she and Mac had flown out over the ocean on that bright and sunny day and let Kern’s ashes blow to the four winds.
She would not do it now. If she started, she would never stop.
“Isabel, I appreciate your concern. It’s very sweet. But I’m fine. The hard part is over. I’m glad he isn’t suffering anymore. Kern would want me to move on.” God, that seemed pathetically justifying. “And I need the money.” Oddly, the truth sounded better.
“Dani, honey, I can help out—”
“Please, Isabel.” God, no. She didn’t want charity. She’d never lied. Isabel always knew it was about the money. Sure, Dani loved sex, and it was a kick to get paid for it, but she’d only become a courtesan when the money dried up and the medical expenses didn’t. When they were doing well financially, they’d occasionally splurged, using Isabel’s special agency for a little variety. Dani’s sex drive had always burned a few degrees hotter than Kern’s, but he loved to watch.
They’d made the decision together that working for Isabel and Courtesans was the perfect solution. Isabel had been more than willing to help, of course.
“Call it a loan, Dani.”
Dani snorted. “I owe too much money already.” She massaged a temple. “I’m really okay with this. If you can find one of my regulars, great. But someone new, that’ll work, too.” Yeah, she was getting desperate. She hoped it didn’t show in her voice. She would get through this difficult time. And she would do it alone. Kern would have hated anyone knowing how bad things had gotten for them. His biggest fear had been Mac finding out how they’d screwed up. Five years younger than his brother, Kern never felt he measured up.
Aw hell, why not admit the truth? She was not going to lean on Isabel or Mac to get her through. She wouldn’t depend on anyone. She’d let Kern make far too many decisions, and look where it had gotten her. She wasn’t about to give up her autonomy again.
Besides, this was just sex, and she loved sex. It might be the only way out, but it wasn’t such a bad way.
“I don’t want to see you push yourself too quickly, sweetie,” Isabel said. “You’ve been through something terribly traumatic.”
“I know that.” Dani’s voice quavered. It was all she could do to stuff the emotion back down. “But I”—suddenly starving for air, she gulped a breath—“I really need this. I—I just need it. Please.” It was almost begging. “If it’s someone I haven’t been with before, could you make sure they’re okay with cash?”
Many clients paid in gifts: jewelry, artwork, trips. Dani worked on a strictly cash basis. She had no set price. It depended upon the patron and what they wanted, but Isabel didn’t cater to an overly thrifty clientele.
Isabel sighed. “All right, you win. Let me see what we’ve got going. Will tomorrow night work, too?”
“Yes,” Dani answered, feeling a small surge of relief. Tonight, tomorrow night, every night until she could get out from under this weight. “Thanks.”
“If you need to talk,” Isabel added, “I’m always here for you.”
Isabel was one of the few people who knew the true toll Kern’s illness had taken on her. “I appreciate it, but I’m fine, honestly. I’ll get through this.”
“I know you will. You were always the strong one. But you don’t have to do it all alone.”
Yes, she did. Isabel knew that, too, because she was the same way. “Thanks. I’ll wait to hear back.”
Hanging up, Dani didn’t feel so strong now. In the beginning, getting paid for sex had been a unique thrill. Kern had gotten off on it, too. But the massive financial crisis she found herself in had stolen the fun out of it. Not to mention the fact that she and Kern had always enjoyed talking about it afterward, giving her a second high out of it. It wouldn’t be the same doing it all alone, but whatever. Taking care of some of these bills and getting back on her feet was all that mattered for the time being.
She and Kern had made some bad choices. She couldn’t blame him; she’d agreed to everything, starting the business, canceling the life insurance, the shitty medical plan. Yeah, when you’re in your mid-thirties, healthy and happy, you don’t think about dying. You think you’ve got years to accomplish anything you want. Until the day some doctor says you’ve got only a few months left to live.
Water under the bridge. Right now, she needed Isabel to find her a date.
* * * * *
After a long day at the office, McKinley Dawson pulled into the circular driveway of his brother’s house. His heart hurt simply looking at the familiar wood siding and manicured bushes. He wondered how long it would be before he stopped seeing Kern’s emaciated, ravaged body and could remember him the way he used to be. God, he missed him. They’d lost their parents years ago, their dad to a heart attack and Mom to breast cancer. He’d never expected to lose Kern so soon. At thirty-nine, Kern had been five years younger than Mac, for God’s sake. It didn’t seem possible. Or fair.
Now Kern had tasked him with taking care of his wife. Dani was tough. Amazing, in fact, with the way she’d handled everything. In the eighteen-month battle she and Kern had fought with his cancer, Mac had seen only one crack in her facade. She’d shored it up quickly, and he still saw her as the last woman who would need taking care of. He’d made that deathbed promise, however, and dammit, he was here to make sure she had whatever she needed.
Standing on the pebbled front stoop, he could hear the doorbell echoing through the house. The two weeks before Kern’s death, when things got really bad, he and Dani had shared caring for him, with hospice aides coming in twice a day. He hadn’t rung the doorbell then. He’d simply walked in. In the evenings, after a grueling day that had seemed to last forever, while Kern slept, Mac and Dani shared a bottle of wine, talk, a movie. They’d watched Young Frankenstein, and he remembered laughing hysterically, followed by the stab of guilt at being capable of laughter. The last couple of days, after Kern fell into the coma, he’d spent the night so Dani wouldn’t be alone if . . . when . . .
For those two weeks, he’d felt closer to her than to any other human being, even Kern. He couldn’t adequately express how much it meant that she hadn’t hesitated to allow him those last few precious days with his brother. Some people never got to say good-bye. Then Kern was gone, his ashes scattered, and she’d slammed the metaphorical door in Mac’s face.
Inside, he heard her shoes on the tile entry hall. The door swung open.
“You’re early. I’m not quite ready.” She glanced up, fastening an earring in her lobe, and stopped, her lips parted as if she’d been about to add something.
She wore a short black cocktail dress, the deep scoop of the neckline barely covering her nipples. In sheer black stockings and fuck-me high heels, her legs were miles long. Statuesque when barefoot, with the heels and standing a step up from him in the front hall, she was actually taller than his own six-two. Her auburn hair curled about her shoulders like a wave, and her lips were painted a deep, luscious red.
Christ, she smelled good. Something subtly sweet and exotic like the bottled scent of feminine arousal.
The hall clock started to chime. Behind him, a car pulled into the opposite end of the circular drive, a long black sedan.
She had a date. Kern hadn’t been dead two weeks, and she had a fucking date.
“Sorry. Didn’t know you were going out.” He couldn’t get the hell away fast enough. What the fuck? He needed time to think before he said something he’d regret.
So he left her with the entry light shining down on her burnished hair. She still hadn’t said a word. As he pulled away, in his rearview mirror he saw a man climb out of the car, tall, black suit.
Had she been cheating on Kern while he lay dying? Mac’s head whirled with a load of shitty thoughts. That bitch. His hands tightened on the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white.
She didn’t need him to fucking take care of her. She’d already had someone on the side.
His blood raced in his ears, and he wanted to pound something. Passing through a green light, the bright neon of a bar sign flashed from the street corner, and Mac pulled into the parking lot.
He needed a drink.
It felt as if he had to pry his stiff fingers off the steering wheel. All he could hear was Kern’s voice in his head.
I fucked up so bad, man.
In a rare moment of lucidity, before he succumbed to the coma, Kern had gripped Mac’s hand. Dani was out getting groceries, and to grab a breath of fresh air away from Kern’s sickroom. Mac had thought she needed it. While he spent as much time as he could, she’d borne the brunt of taking care of Kern.
“You didn’t fuck up,” Mac had told his brother.
Moisture trickled from Kern’s left eye, but not his right. Mac’s guts twisted as he wiped it away.
“I did, man, screwed up real bad. You don’t know. I was a bad husband. I let her down in so many ways. Now I’m dying on her.”
They’d had the storybook marriage; they were happy. Until Kern got sick. “It’s not your fault. You couldn’t help it.”
Kern shook his head. “You don’t know what she’s done for me. You don’t know what I’ve put her through. It’s all my fault.” He dropped back against the pillow, his face going completely slack, eyelids drooping.
Chest tight, a knot in his throat, Mac put two fingers to Kern’s wrist. It seemed like an eternity before he found a pulse.
Kern opened his eyes and spoke as if the moment hadn’t happened. “Promise me you’ll take care of her.”
“Of course.” Though Mac knew Dani wouldn’t need it. She was strong.
Kern clutched his hand, squeezing with more vigor than Mac would have thought possible.
“Don’t tell her I’m saying any of this, okay? She’ll kill me if she knew.” Kern laughed, then lapsed into a choking cough, his throat rattling. He sucked on the straw Mac held out, his lips dry and cracked despite the Vaseline Mac had rubbed in only a short time ago.
“Joke’s on me, I guess.” Kern drew in a deep breath. “Where’s my cell phone?”
“Right here, buddy.” On the bedside table along with Kern’s watch, wallet, and keys. As if one of these days he was going to get up out of the hospital bed hospice had brought to the house for him.
“Take it, man. After I’m gone, let her get settled a bit, then call the first number on speed dial.”
“Sure. What’ll I say?”
“Just say you’re my brother, and that you want to help Dani.”
“I will.” Mac agreed to everything to ease his brother’s worry.
“She’s gonna hate it when she knows I told you. But don’t let that stop you, okay?”
“I won’t.” Though Kern hadn’t told him a damn thing. Mac still didn’t know why Kern thought he’d fucked up, what he believed Mac could do for Dani by calling a number, or how the hell long he was supposed to wait to let her “get settled.”
That night, Kern lapsed into a coma. He never came out of it. Two days later, he was gone. Dani never asked where his cell phone was.
Sitting in the bar’s parking lot, the neon sign flashing on, off, Mac experienced the rush of revelation.
He didn’t know where she was going tonight or who the guy driving the car was, but he knew one thing. She’d loved Kern. She’d gone through eighteen months of hell, spent hours at his bedside, soothed his brow, cleaned him, held the tissues as he coughed up phlegm, and so much more. She wouldn’t have cheated on him. There had to be another explanation. Something to do with the phone number Kern had wanted Mac to use.
It was time to make that call.