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IF WORD GETS out, I'm a dead man.
Alejandro Torres looked furtively behind him to make sure he wasn't spotted; then ducked into the backroom of After Hours. A real man wouldn't live this way, slipping into the darkness, blending with the shadows, unable to reveal to anyone what he did for a living.
He told himself that CIA operatives were in the same boat, but unfortunately there was one key difference: ops guys carried concealed weapons and cool gadgets. Alejandro carried a concealed pumice stone and very uncool purple foam toe separators.
CIA agents — in theory — sought to protect truth, justice and the American way. Alejandro sought to protect his machismo: keep his cojones from shriveling to the size of peas and dropping off into the dust.
His code name was Señor Manos. Not quite 007, but then, this wasn't MI6 — After Hours was an upscale salon and day spa in Coral Gables, one of the ritzier sections of Miami.
It was way too hot for a cloak, and he'd never needed a dagger yet, but the secrecy was urgent. Alejandro shuddered. If any of his buddies on the soccer team found out what he was up to, things wouldn't be pretty. He should never, ever have filled in for that MIA nail technician!
It was one thing to be a financial partner in a spa. It was quite another for a six-foot-four Peruvian male to be a closet manicurist. But there seemed to be no turning back now: he was in demand, even at the outrageous prices he'd begun charging to dissuade appointments.
"Señor Manos," said a high, breathy female voice.
"I've been waiting all week for this."
The voice came from the shadows of the pedicure chair, from behind a pair of tanned, candlelit knees that were not pressed firmly together.
In fact, the knees were a foot apart from one another, which was alarming, since they wore a short skirt. Not that Alejandro hadn't spread his share of female knees in his thirty-four years — he certainly had. But he didn't wish to spread this pair, not even a little bit. Those were married knees. Knees of a three-time mother.
Nevertheless, as a salon and spa owner, he was accomplished at lying to women. Just part of doing business. "And I, mi corazon, have also been waiting all week. You have toes to melt a man."
The client giggled. "Oh, honey. Do I really have man-melting toes? I don't believe anyone's ever said that to me."
"Then you have obviously been with the wrong men." He smiled and seated himself on the low stool in front of the basin area of her pedicure chair. "How's the water temperature?" He dipped his hands in. "It just got hotter, thanks." She giggled again, and then sighed with pleasure as he took her left foot in his hands and tried not to stare up her skirt, which was quite difficult.
His balls had sagged immediately as he assumed the position. They drooped in shame as he began a preliminary massage with soft liquid soap — an extra service that After Hours provided to their clients.
Heather Carlton, the woman in his chair, moaned with pleasure and Alejandro's manhood pulled a complete turtle, retreating from the horror of this abasement and servitude.
He actually didn't mind the foot massage, as long as the foot in question wasn't too large and gruesome. It was scrubbing the calluses, pushing back the cuticles, cleaning under the nails and filing them that he really despised. And the polishing.
Bad enough that he knew how to do all of it, having grown up helping out in his mother's salon. Beauty Boy, the kids at school had called him, taunting him mercilessly. On one particular, ignominious afternoon, a gang of bullies had jumped him after classes, beaten him to a pulp and then decked him out in a wig and a full face of makeup. He'd laid there groaning until he could force himself up and find a gas station restroom so he could wash it all off.
His mama had scolded him and grounded him for fighting, but he'd never told her what really happened. She was a single mother in a country not her own, and he was all she had, besides her partner and best friend Carlotta Perez. He didn't want Mama to feel guilty that he had to help her after school and on weekends.
Heather's moans of bliss subsided as he rinsed her feet and applied a grainy scrub to exfoliate them and slough off dead skin cells.
"You really have magic hands," she said.
"How did a big, handsome guy like you become a nail technician? I can't figure it out."
Alejandro laughed. "By accident. My family's been in the salon business for years." And now, even though Mama's passed on, I can't seem to get away from it, since Tia Carlotta has no retirement savings and needs me to turn a tidy profit for her....
Those were the things that he couldn't say aloud. The issues that explained why he was stuck in the particular rut of life he found himself in. There were other things he couldn't say, either. Such as:
I hate doing this and that's why I'm getting an MBA on the side. But until I'm done with school and figure out how to franchise After Hours in every big city in the U.S., I have to meet client demands. If the clients are demanding my touch, and will pay as much as you're paying for me to lay my magic hands on you, then so be it.
Heather drained her free glass of wine and hinted strongly that she'd like another. After Hours, to Tia Carlotta's great suspicion, served alcohol and was open until midnight Tuesday through Saturday. He'd bought out most of her interest, relocated the old salon, renamed it and given it a new marketing twist.
Miami was a late-night, party town. They needed to cater to their clientele, and giving them a hot, pre-party spot to get beautiful and tipsy was the perfect solution. The tipsier the clients got, the happier they were and the more money they spent.
Alejandro rose from his stool and held out his hand for her glass. In Peru, his mother's country, the women waited on the men. "Chardonnay or pinot grigio, mi amorcito?"
"Ooh, say that again."
"Say what?" Alejandro asked. "Mi amorcito?"
"Well, I like that, too, of course. But the other."
"Yes. It sounds so sexy when you say it." She sighed and stretched, flashing him abundant cleavage and a swatch of emerald-green crotch.
Crazy woman. "Pinot grigio," Alejandro repeated, averting his gaze. "Is that what you would like, then? Not the chardonnay?"
"Grinot pigio," she said. "Yes, please. Mi, uh, corazon." He bit his lip to keep from laughing. Maybe she was drunker than he'd thought. "Of course. I'll be back in a moment."
He opened the door and slipped out, leaving her alone with the ocean wave music, the candlelight and her wine-buzz. All clear in the hallway. He straightened his shoulders and headed for the little coffee-and-wine area up front, where the customers could help themselves.
For liability reasons, Alejandro and the staff were careful not to serve more than one or two glasses of wine. After that, if the client wanted more, it was available on a self-service basis.
"Are you drinking on the job again?" his partner Marly teased him, as he poured Heather's wine. She was the salon's master hairdresser, and had recently become engaged to Florida's governor, Jack Hammersmith.
"Always, mi vida." He winked. "Actually, my client just asked me for a glass of grigot pinio. No, grinot pigio."
Marly laughed. "Pinot grigio?"
"Well, that's what she meant to say."
"I think Heather was lit when she came in here," their tiny blond receptionist, Shirlie, reported from behind the checkout counter. "She sorta rolled through the door. And I also think she wants you, Alejandro." Shirlie snapped her gum and grinned.
"There's a newsflash." Marly's voice was dry. "Yet another spoiled Coral Gables housewife panting after our Alejo."
He hunched his shoulders. It was actually getting embarrassing, the number of female clients who were trying to bed him.
Nicky, another hairstylist, skipped up and sang into a faux fist microphone, making up the lyrics as he went along. "Yo touch, baby, yo touch, it's just tooooo much!" He followed that with an air-guitar riff. Then he folded his hands behind his head and gyrated his pelvis. Alejandro averted his gaze from the painful sight.
"Nicky, don't quit your day job, okay?"
"You'll be sorry when I'm the next American Idol, sweets."
Alejandro retreated with the wine, calling over his shoulder, "If you ever even pass the first round of American Idol, I will eat an entire box of your highlighting foil."
"Fine," Nicky shouted after him, hands on his black, leather-encased hips. "You better work up an appetite for aluminum, then."
Alejandro did a quick scan of the hallway and then ducked back into the treatment room. He refused to sit out in front with the other manicurists, because of the risk of being seen by someone he knew. He'd only sat out there a couple of times before deciding that he'd never live it down if one of the guys on his soccer team walked by on his way to Benito's restaurant and got an eyeful of their star forward with a bottle of nail polish.
Forget Beauty Boy. They'd call him maricon — fag — or chivo, an even ruder Peruvian term that meant goat. They'd also run him right off the team, talent be damned.
Heather had slid even farther down into the chair, which had caused her skirt to hike up several inches. Not for the first time, Alejandro wondered if he shouldn't just swallow his pride and move up to the front with the others. It would save him from would-be seduction scenes like this one. Beauty Boy! Beauty Boy! The old taunt echoed through his head. He just couldn't do it.
"Your wine, señora." He handed Heather the glass.
"No, no, please don't call me that — it makes me feel a hundred years old."
And it reminds you that you're a married mother of three. Tsk, tsk. "Apologies, mi amorcito. If it's any comfort, you look all of twenty-two."
"Now you're talking, honey."
Alejo assumed the position again and began sawing away at the calluses on Heather's feet, while she sat shamelessly flashing her emerald-green crotch and a come-hither smile.
He wasn't coming any more hither than he already was. He rinsed off her feet, dried them, drained the basin and began her foot and calf massage with scented lotion. She began to make little noises of pleasure, soft moans and small mewls, while he ignored her and tried to be professional.
Once he was done, he wiped his hands on a towel, removed the lotion residue from her toenails and adjusted the light so that he could see better. Heather returned to her wine, blinking resentfully at the stronger light.
She'd chosen a dark red polish color called Sex on the Subway. Coincidence? He thought not. Who were the people who made up these cosmetic colors, anyway?
Alejandro applied two coats to her toenails and then topped it with a clear polish, while she managed to drain the second glass of wine in record time. She stared at him through slitted, smoky eyes that she'd taken great pains making up.