Home > Seven Card Stud (Stacked Deck #7)

Seven Card Stud (Stacked Deck #7)
Author: Emilia Finn

Prologue

 

 

“Little Do You Know” plays through the speakers set on a blue milk crate in the corner of our living room. The speakers sit beside a heavy TV – it’s not heavy because it’s massive and fancy, but because it was manufactured in 1991, and thus has the box at the back for all of the cords and brains that developers of today somehow condensed into a screen thinner than a pancake.

Will and I live in the projects, which means that even if we could somehow afford to buy a fifty-inch flatscreen on his salary from the dock yard, or on my pittance from my twice-a-week shifts stacking shelves at the local supermarket, owning something worth stealing wouldn’t be a smart move anyway.

So we make do with what we have.

Alex and Sierra’s voices float through the living room, roll along the stained walls, and echo off the chipped and destroyed wooden floorboards. The acoustics in here are terrible, but I’ve lived with worse – I’ve lived with no music – so I use the system Will gifted me last Christmas, I smile while the singers serenade me with their sweet harmony, and with my eyes closed, I point my toes and spin.

Some girls dream of mansions, fast cars, and handsome husbands that adore them and kiss them on the way out the door every single morning. Some dream of becoming corporate goddesses with a billion pairs of sexy heels and a town car to chauffeur them through the streets of New York City from important meeting to important meeting.

I dream of ballet slippers. Of leotards. Of studios to practice in. Of barres to train with, rather than broomsticks, and mirrors to check my form in, rather than the reflection coming off the box TV. I dream of freedom, of the ability to feel safe in my home, to feel safe on a stage. I dream of making the world a kinder place for Will, because he deserves peace more than I do.

But I learned long ago that I shouldn’t spend my time obsessing over things I don’t have. That kind of thinking leads to bitterness. And bitterness tends to lead a person to the bottle.

Or worse.

Instead, I smile for the music Will made certain I would no longer have to go without. I appreciate the living room, void of almost all furniture — not because we have none, since we have a couch and the milk crate, but because when we push everything away, I can pretend the empty living room is my very own dance studio.

And hell, we don’t have much, but Will makes sure that whatever he can provide, he does.

Standing on my toes in the one possession I would kill for – my slippers – I smile while the music caresses me like a hug, as the final verse comes to an end, and then the song transitions to Anna Clendening. I let the symphony move me, I elongate my arms, my neck. I open my chest, hollow my stomach, and draw on the hundreds and thousands of hours spent self-teaching from tutorials on YouTube since I was twelve and decided that having a dream is better than wallowing and doing nothing.

I’ll never achieve my dream; it’s impossible, and I’m a realist. But rather than fixating on the end of my story, I remain in the now, the journey, and simply… be.

This is my world. My routine. I go to school five days a week, and stack shelves at the nearby supermarket two days a week. The other five, I dance in my living room between the hours of three and seven p.m.

Eventually, around seven, Will comes home from work, and I don’t have to be alone anymore.

Which means when the front door swings open so fast that it bounces off the wall, I drop to flat feet with my heart in my throat, and before the intruder makes their way into the living room, I dash to the kitchen and snatch up the biggest knife we own.

This isn’t the first time someone has tried to break into our home and steal the few things we have, but after the first, I learned to be fast and armor up.

“I’m not new to this neighborhood,” I shout to whoever thought they could help themselves to my home. It’s old, broken, leaking, rusted, bug-infested, and pest-overrun, but shit, it’s better than sleeping in the street, and I’ve done that too. “I will not back down, asshole. Leave now, or leave in a body bag.”

“It’s just me, Bubbles.” Will pops his handsome face into the kitchen and searches until he spots the serrated knife fisted in my hand. His eyes shutter with heartbreak. “I’m sorry for scaring you.”

My pulse slams in my throat, heavy, thick enough to slow my breathing. “It’s not time for you to be home yet.”

I mentally slow my heart. I breathe through the panic from the fact I thought I’d end up in a fight again. Not the hair-pulling, boyfriend-stealing fights so typical for the girls in my school, but the more dangerous kind. The kind that means the difference between having a home, or not. Having a life… or not.

“Dammit, Will.” I slam the knife to the damaged countertop, then grit my teeth when I squish my finger in the process. “I was practicing, and you damn near gave me a heart attack!”

“I’m sorry.”

Coming into the room, he moves around the counter, steps over the hole in the floor – a literal hole that means we can see the dirt beneath our home, which is a convenient way for vermin to enter, along with the stray cats that like to follow and hunt said vermin.

Will palms the knife when he’s close enough, tosses it into the sink as he moves, then pulls me into his embrace so I’m forced to bury my face against his muscular chest and finally breathe out that sigh of relief.

I act tough. I act like I’m willing to get into a knife fight to save a box TV — and I will, I’ll protect our home with my life. But damn, I don’t want to. Girls my age shouldn’t know that life.

“I’m sorry, Bubbles.” Will buries his face in my hair and holds on even when I try to end our hug and pull away. He squeezes me extra tight, forces our breathing to sync, and smiles when I stop fighting and instead allow him to demand my forgiveness. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I was just in a rush to get home.”

“You’re supposed to be on shift until seven.” I loop my hands around his back and snuggle in. He smells… not particularly appealing, but it’s him, and he’s my home, my family. My one and only ally in this war we call life. “I was going to cook dinner in a bit and have it ready for you.”

“We can cook together.” He releases me with a deep-in-his-chest rumble of satisfaction, holds me at arm’s length, and looks me up and down. He doesn’t particularly approve of my outfit choices when I dance – They’re too small, Bubbles. They’re too revealing – but he never actually stops me. He doesn’t control me. He only guides. And, well, I don’t always listen to his guiding advice. “Did you forget to get dressed?”

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