Veronica pulled open the front door to reveal a tall, leggy redhead. "Can I help you?"
The woman hesitated, looked at the paper in her hand and then back to Veronica. "No, I don't think you can. I'm sorry, I…" Her face crumpled and her blue eyes glistened with unshed tears. A quick shake of her head and her composure returned. "I must have the wrong house."
"Veronica, do you want—" He froze, jaw slack with surprise.
"Logan?" The redhead rushed past her into the house and threw herself into Logan's arms.
Instead of pushing the strange woman away, Veronica's husband actually pulled her closer, a smile crossing his face. One of the rare smiles- easy and unguarded, imbued with genuine warmth and happiness. His eyes flicked to Veronica and the smile faltered.
"It is you. I was afraid…" Redhead started crying and Logan gently stroked her back, soothing and comforting her. What the hell was going on? "I'm in trouble. I need money fast and you're the…I need two-hundred grand."
He gripped her shoulders and leaned back to see her face. "Whoa, slow down. What kind of trouble requires two-hundred grand?"
Redhead took a deep breath. "It's—" She stopped talking and glanced back at the door. "Did he call you Veronica?"
Yes, because it's my name. She kept the snotty thought to herself and just nodded.
"The Veronica?" Redhead was staring at Logan waiting for an answer.
He nodded. "I sent you a wedding invitation, but I didn't hear from you."
Stunned was the only way to describe her expression, but then a wide grin split her face. "I knew it! I told you if you stopped being a fuckup she'd come back." She shook her head. "Married? Holy shit, I'm sorry I missed it." Her smile died and the tears started flowing again. "I'm not in Vegas anymore."
Pam Mitchell. Leggy redhead, wedding invitation, and Vegas were all the clues Veronica needed to put together the mystery woman's identity. Turning away from the two of them, she closed the front door and briefly rested her forehead against the jamb. Dealing with her husband's ex who was both in trouble and needed money was a radical change to her afternoon plan. She kissed her nap goodbye and moved away from the door.
Logan wasn't holding her anymore, but his hands were still resting on Pam's shoulders. "When did you leave Vegas?"
Pam's eyes clouded and a slight frown puckered her brow. "Right after I saw you and Carrie in Chicago?" She laid her head on Logan's chest. "God, I'm so glad you're here; I was afraid you'd be deployed."
They made a striking couple. At almost the same height, their bodies fit together; her lush curves molding perfectly to his hard muscular frame. Veronica felt like an interloper.
"I left the Navy."
Dropping her arms from his waist, Pam took a step back and then another. Her gaze moved beyond his shoulder and landed on Veronica, a hostile expression on her face. "Why?"
"Long story." Logan dragged a hand through his hair as he glanced at Veronica and then back to Pam. "Uh… do you want to have lunch with us?"
Not waiting for her answer, Veronica stalked from the room. If she was lucky the baby would sleep for an hour and she wasn't going to spend that time being glared at by Pam. She frowned. It was learning that Logan left the Navy that earned Veronica the nasty look. What's that about?
Plates and glasses for two were already set out on the kitchen table along with a spinach salad. She took down another set of dishes and ladled out a generous serving of black bean soup. Logan sidled up behind her, slid his hand under the bowl and lifted it from her hand. "I've got this, you go sit."
Veronica tilted her head back to see him and he kissed her nose. His eyes were troubled and his brow was furrowed with worry lines. Probably thinks I'm jealous. To alleviate his fear, she smiled at him before taking her soup back and turning to Pam. "We've got lemonade, juice, or water."
Opening the fridge, she took out the Brita water pitcher for herself and waited on Pam's response.
With her hip, Veronica closed the fridge and went to take her seat at the table. Pam lingered in the doorway. She was hugging herself and staring at the floor. Finally, she raised her head and spoke to Logan: "I'm not really hungry."
He dished out a bowl of soup for her anyway. "At least sit down and tell me what's wrong."
Her eyes tracked his progress from the counter to the table and then focused on Wyatt's booster chair. Crossing the room, Pam brushed her fingertips across the green turtle's head. Tears filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. She swiped her hands over her face. "Boy" —her voice cracked— "Or girl?"
Uneasiness descended over Veronica and she paused with her spoon halfway to her mouth to study Pam. The other woman was watching Logan, waiting for his answer. A grin split his face and his eyes brightened. "A girl. Actually, we have two girls."
His words knocked her back a step and she practically fell into the chair next to him. "I don't… wow, you as a Dad? Shit, I'm impressed." A lopsided smile spread over Pam's lips and Veronica relaxed. "You don't waste any time do you?"
"Not when I know what I want." As he spoke, Logan's eyes were locked on Veronica. It was the intense stare that made her want to crawl across the table and do bad things with him. The smug uptick at the corner of his mouth said he knew exactly what she was thinking. She rolled her eyes and he chuckled.
To get her thoughts under control, Veronica filled their water glasses and served the salad. It was made with warm bacon dressing, hard-boiled eggs, and gorgonzola cheese and was her new personal fave. She held out the plate for Pam who shook her head. Your loss. "Two hundred thousand dollars," Veronica prompted.
Her husband was used to her bluntness, but Pam was not. She blinked and looked at Logan for rescue. Instead of changing the subject, he asked: "Do you owe it to somebody?"
"No." With an unsteady hand, she picked up her water glass and took a long sip. "When I left Vegas, I rented an apartment in Santa Monica and started waiting tables at a diner."
"Why did you quit the casino?"
Pam fiddled with her glass, dragging a finger up its side to catch the condensation. "It was time for a change."
She's lying. It wasn't outright- more evasion than lying, but there was some piece of information she was withholding. Veronica's general feeling of unease returned. Maybe I'm being paranoid. Logan didn't look concerned and he knew Pam better than she did. "Big pay cut," was all he said.
"No shit" —a wry grin— "And the rent was crazy."
"Was? You're not there anymore?"
Veronica was losing patience. She wanted Pam to get to her reason for coming here and why she needed the money. The question 'why Logan' almost made it past her lips and she swallowed it down with another spoon of soup. Come on, Veronica you know the why doesn't matter- Logan's not going to say no. There was no way her husband would turn down a woman in distress.
"There was this guy." There always is. "A customer at the diner and he asked me if I'd ever danced before. I told him about Reno and Vegas and he offered me a job." She didn't make any excuses for her decision and Veronica admired her unabashed attitude. "It was a great deal; I didn't have to pay stage fees or share tips. It was a fifty-fifty split for lap dances though, but I was an employee so," she shrugged.
Curiosity engaged. Veronica sighed and asked, "Stage fees? They make you pay to dance?"
Pam nodded. "Some clubs charge a hundred bucks just for you to work. They take cuts from your tips, make you buy a set amount of drinks during your shift and some places even charge you fines- for being late, chewing gum on stage, not smiling enough."
"Seriously?" Veronica was surprised and a little appalled at the way the clubs were taking advantage of their dancers.
"It's their way of claiming you're an independent contractor instead of an employee. This way they don't have to pay you a minimum wage, or provide disability insurance or workers' comp."
"That's against the law."
Pam grimaced. "A lot of what happens inside some strip clubs is against the law."
Logan was being very quiet. His head was bowed and he was eating his soup like it was his last meal. Veronica rubbed her foot against his leg making him jump. "Cat got your tongue?"
Bailey's crying saved him from having to answer. "I'll get her." He practically sprinted from the kitchen.
Veronica gave him the benefit of the doubt -attributing his eagerness to leave the room because he wanted to quiet Bailey before she woke Wyatt and not a desire to escape a discussion between his wife and his ex about illicit activities inside strip clubs.
"How long has he been out of the Navy?"
"Almost a year." Conversations about strip clubs and money troubles were preferable to this discussion.
Pam was a walking and talking embodiment of the nine years of radio silence. She witnessed Logan's drinking and drug use and sketchy behavior. Helped him through withdrawal, attended his college graduation, and watched him get his wings. Even though Logan let her read his journal, Pam still knew things about her husband that Veronica didn't and it made her uncomfortable.
"How is he?"
Too many layers to that question.
"Happy." Standing, Veronica carried her dishes to the sink. "Are you sure you don't want anything? Coffee?" Gracious hostess was an easier role to play.
Logan chose then to return, asking: "Can you make that two?" Bailey was nestled against his chest wide-awake and sucking on her fingers.
Veronica cupped the baby's head. "Hey, Rabbit. How was your very short nap?" At the sound of Veronica's voice, Bay smiled around her fingers and gurgled. "That good, huh?" Lifting the baby's foot, she kissed her toes. "Did you check on Wy?"
He nodded. "Still sleeping."
"Ah, sleep, I did that once back in the day." She pulled three mugs from the cabinet, set the first cup to brew, and went into the living room to get Bailey's bouncer seat. When she walked back into the kitchen, he was in the process of transferring the baby to Pam.
Her grip tightened on the bouncer and she frowned at the two of them. Their chairs were pushed together, shoulders touching and heads bent over the baby. Bailey was gripping Logan's finger and cooing at Pam.
"She's beautiful, Logan." Pam cuddled the baby closer and brushed her fingers over Bailey's cheek.
Veronica slammed the bouncer seat on the table a little harder than intended and all three of them startled at the sound. "How do you want your coffee, Pam?"
"Black is fine."
Turning her back on them, she concentrated on making the coffee. By the time she carried their mugs to the table, Bay was on the floor in her bouncer trying to catch the stuffed giraffe. She swatted at it and kicked her feet making the seat bounce and her squeal.
After handing them their cups, she got her own and rejoined them at the table. "So are you still dancing at this club?" Veronica sipped her coffee and stared at Pam over the rim. Time to finish your story and go home.
"Yes and no. Joey-he's the guy who owned the club-started me on the day shift during the week, and then I moved to nights and weekends. After about a year, he made me manager."
The upward mobility of stripping. "You work there, but don't dance."
Pam shook her head. "I still dance —Friday and Saturday nights mostly— plus I fill in for girls who call out sick and we do private parties." Her coffee cup suddenly demanded all her attention. She traced the rim, nudged at the handle, and finally picked it up to take a sip.
It was the mention of private parties that rattled her. Veronica glanced at Logan. In between drinking his coffee, he was making funny faces at the baby trying to make her laugh. She knew he was paying attention to the conversation; yet he wasn't asking any of his own questions. If I wasn't here would he have just given her the money by now? Veronica frowned at the thought. "Did something happen at one of the parties?"
Her eyes widened in surprise at the astute guess. This ain't my first time at the rodeo, Pam. "Yes, but… I thought Joey owned Shenanigans so last year when he approached me with a deal, I…" She banged down her mug. "Fuck."
Reaching across the table, Logan placed his hand on hers and gave it a soft squeeze. "It's okay, Red." A fleeting smile at his use of the nickname. "We're going to help you."
Thanks for making that decision alone, Echolls. Veronica stared at their touching hands. "What was the deal?"
Pam followed her gaze to their hands and slid hers off the table, tucking it into her lap.
Logan's head swiveled in Veronica's direction, a frown on his face. Adopting an innocent expression, she gave him a one-shouldered shrug: beats me what that was about. His eyes narrowed with suspicion and she turned away.
"Joey knew I was saving money; I make five, six hundred bucks a shift —five shifts a week— plus whatever I earn in the VIP room." She looked away and Veronica wondered what else Pam was doing in the VIP room besides dancing. "I was banking most of it; thought I could open my own club." It was said with a wistful tone like that dream was gone.
"What did Joey—"
Logan cut her off. "Take your time." Her husband was no longer looking at her or the baby, his focus was on Pam's story.
Guess he's done with me taking the lead. Veronica finished her decaf and went to put the mug in the sink. She glanced at the clock. The baby would probably be looking to nurse right around the time Wyatt got up from her nap. If Pam didn't wrap up her story soon, she'd be telling it to just Logan. Maybe that's what he wants.
"He offered to make me a partner. I gave him what I had for a twenty-five percent stake in the club. What he didn't tell me was that he already had a partner." She planted her face on the table. "God- I'm such a fucking idiot."
Logan rubbed her shoulder. Does he have to keep touching her? Veronica started to load the dishwasher fully aware that she was being catty. Her husband was a very tactile person. Touch was something that was missing from the early part of his life and it was important to him.
Without lifting it from the table, Pam turned her head. "Sam Carlucci is not somebody you want to be partners with."
"I figured that much out all by myself."
Another one of her crooked smiles- the kind that reached her eyes and lit up her face. "Logan Echolls, boy genius."
"Hey now, I'm well past boy."
"Yeah, I remember." She sat up and tilted her mug. "How 'bout you make yourself useful and hook me up with another cup of coffee."
Pam tossed her head back —sending cascades of auburn curls over her shoulders— and laughed. "Asshole."
Chuckling, Logan got up and fixed her another cup of coffee. "Do you need the money to pay off Sam?"
She immediately sobered. "I wish it was that simple." Reaching for his hand, she gave it a gentle squeeze. "You've made a really good life for yourself here; I'm proud of you, Logan."
"You helped." They stared at each other and once again Veronica felt like she was intruding on something. "Now let me help you. I can write you a check or I can make a call and get cash."
Relief washed over her. "I'll pay you back, I swear."
He waved away her offer. "Don't worry about it."
That's it? Have the money and don't worry about it? Veronica shut the dishwasher. "Are you being blackmailed?" The two of them turned to stare at her. "What? If she's being blackmailed they're not going to go away because she pays them. In fact, if she pays them this easily, they're going to think they didn't ask for enough and they're going to make a new demand. A new demand for more- it's never going to stop."
Pam's face crumbled and Logan looked annoyed.
"You know I'm right."
A solemn nod from Pam. "She is right, but it's… it's not blackmail."
"Then there's no problem." The words were for Pam, but Logan's eyes were on Veronica. "Right?"
Now she was mad. "It's your money- do what you want with it."
"Good. Glad that's settled." Tugging open the refrigerator, she pulled out a bag of breast milk and poured four ounces in the Mimijumi bottle. Unlike Wyatt, Bailey was not happy if she wasn't actually nursing. Trying to feed her from a bottle was an unpleasant experience at best, but these anatomically correct, very expensive bottles made it at least sufferable. She stuck it in the bottle warmer.
"I don't want to cause any problems for you."
Logan said: "You're not" at the same time Veronica responded with "No problem at all."
Pressing her hands flat on the countertop, she took a few deep breaths. If she tried feeding the baby while she was angry, Bailey would only fuss and cry more.
"Before you decide to help, I think you need to know the rest of the story." Pam held up her hand to keep him from protesting. "Once I bought into the club, Sam came around to introduce himself."
The way she said the word 'introduce' had Veronica's head spinning around to look at her. Pam's composure was a little shaken, but she pushed back her shoulders and plowed ahead with her story. "He started using the club to conduct his business. Sometimes up in front, sometimes in the back office or VIP rooms. Then he started having private parties."
All the color leached from Logan's face and he shook his head. "You don't need to tell me anymore."
The warmer shut off and Veronica plucked the bottle from its warm water bath. She couldn't wait to feed the baby; Bay was already fidgeting in her seat and gnawing on her hand. Veronica scooped her up, sat at the table and got as comfortable as she could in the hard chair.
As soon as she realized it was a bottle, the baby clamped her mouth shut and started rooting around for the breast. "Come on, Bay." She gently tapped the nipple against Bailey's lips until she opened her mouth and started to drink. She leveled Veronica with a baleful stare.
Pam was watching them and her earlier tears returned in earnest. "Last week Sam had a party. It was him and two of his associates, plus three guys I've never seen before. I was there along with four other dancers." She dragged her eyes away from Veronica and the baby and took a large gulp of her coffee.
"It was a drug buy; I think Sam was looking for a new supplier so it was a small deal- five kilos at twenty grand a piece."
One hundred thousand dollars cash and one hundred thousand dollars worth of coke- two hundred grand total. "Did you steal it?"
"Veronica," he barked.
Logan's angry tone made Bailey start to whimper. "Ssh, it's okay Rabbit." She bounced the baby and gently started to rock. "I wasn't accusing her; I was asking."
"Maybe you should go feed—"
Veronica cut him off. "I'm not leaving."
Pam's gaze swung between them. "I didn't steal it."
"I know you didn't," Logan reassured her. "But they think you did."
"Boy genius strikes again." This time it was said without any humor. "Both the coke and the money went missing and they think one of us has it." She buried her face in her hands, shoulders shaking. "It's bad, Logan."
She dropped her hands. "They're at the club all the time now; watching us- threatening us. One of the dancers… Karen, she called me, said they came to her house. She was whimpering and talking to herself. They… they terrorized her." Tiny beads of sweat popped out over Pam's upper lip. "She hasn't been at the club and she's not in her apartment. I tried calling her, but her cell phone's disconnected."
"It'll be okay, Pam; you'll give them the money and you'll be fine."
Veronica was shaking her head. "It won't work."
"Aren't you just Little Mary Sunshine today?"
"And you're the King of Wishful Thinking- they're not just going to leave her alone because you ask nicely. They think she stole from them and if she gives them the cash it's as good as confessing."
She could see the exact moment the truth of her words hit him by the expression on his face. "Take the money and use it to disappear."
"I can't." Pam slumped in her chair. "If it was just me- maybe, but… I have a son, Logan. They're threatening to hurt my son."