A Justice Hustlers Novel
Two gorgeous sisters. Only one plays by the rules. But now they’ll have to put their differences—and their lives—on the line, to help the exploited.
Sisters from Trinidad, Violet and Lily have never had much in common. Stunning Lily arrives undocumented in New York and makes her way as a stripper. But Harvard-educated Violet is this close to the perfect assimilated life, thanks to a prestigious job, and her rich bougie fiancé. . . . Until she aids a woman in trouble, and is mistaken for a notorious strip-club mogul’s mistress. And when she’s wrongly accused of helping him embezzle millions of his workers’ earnings, Violet loses everything—except the determination to get her life back.
Now Violet’s on his track with the help of his vengeful ex-wife and the Lower East Side Women’s Health Clinic’s resourceful crew—which includes Lily. But a dashing longtime friend hungering for Violet’s love, along with the mogul’s all-too-real psychotic mistress, put the group’s killer schemes at risk. And as Violet and Lily struggle to finally understand each other, they have only one shot to get justice for those who need it most.
“This well-written and enjoyable installment in de León’s unique, feminist, urban crime-fiction series . . . infuses satisfying power in both plot and character.”
—Booklist on The Boss, STARRED review
About the Author
Aya de León teaches creative writing in UC Berkeley’s African American Studies Department. Her award-winning Justice Hustlers series has received acclaim in the Washington Post, Jacobin Magazine, and The Establishment. Her work has also appeared in Ebony, Essence, Guernica, Plougshares, The Root, VICE, and on Def Poetry. She is an alumna of Cave Canem and VONA. Visit her online at ayadeleon.com, on Tiwitter at @AyadeLeon or on Facebook at ayadeleonwrites.
Read an Excerpt
A year and a half after her sister jumped ship, Violet was planning her wedding to Quentin. Her phone was constantly ringing with wedding planning as well as work calls. She was the assistant to one of New York's top makeup artists. That particular day, they were making up the actress Delia Borbon.
Violet reached into the makeup case and handed her boss the smallest, most delicate brush to line Borbon's left eye. Her boss asked for the black liner, but Violet handed her the navy. Her boss might be the makeup artist to the stars, but she worked mostly with white people. Violet knew Caribbean skin tones. Intuitively, Violet knew the slight blue tint would bring out the copper in the skin of the Puerto Rican actress.
"I love this," Borbon said, in her rich, throaty voice. "It's not quite black, is it?"
Her boss looked closer. "No," she said, squinting. "Dark blue. Violet must have picked the wrong one. A happy accident. It looks great on you."
Violet smiled and nodded, but Borbon gave her a subtle wink.
Back home in Trinidad, Violet's mother had taught her and her sister about makeup. The clients had run the gamut of skin shades. "Everyone is so preoccupied with how dark or light the skin," her mother had said. "But the key to good makeup is to focus on the tones. Do you want to bring out red, gold, or blue, you know?" Their mother had worked hard to de-emphasize color issues in their family, as Violet was much fairer-skinned than Lily.
Her boss was making up Delia Borbon for a weekly magazine wedding shoot. Late May morning light filtered in through the high windows of the Chelsea loft studio. The forty-something star sat in her beige slip, looking utterly relaxed and at home, even with a dozen people running around her. In the magazine, Borbon would have her signature hourglass shape, but now, a roll in her soft belly pressed against the fabric of the slip. On a hanger nearby, a huge, poofy-skirted dress hung beside a full complement of shapewear.
"Violet's getting married on Labor Day," her boss confided to the star, explaining that Violet's soon-to-be mother-in-law had recommended her for the job.
"You're marrying into the Ross family?" Borbon asked.
"They're practically African American royalty."
"I had no idea who he was when we met," Violet said. "I'm not from the US."
"Speaking of royalty," Violet's boss said, "I need you to be sure to get that call from Henri. Well, Mr. Delacroix to you." She turned to Borbon. "The French designer. His son is marrying a member of the British royal family. I'm making her up tomorrow."
"You'll certainly be using paler shades than today," Borbon said. "I've seen that girl. Have they checked for a pulse?" She turned to Violet. "Will your family be coming in for the wedding?"
"My mother has a heart condition, unfortunately," Violet said.
"She's not able to fly."
"Such a shame," her boss said. "I thought you had a sister in town."
"Nope, it's just me," Violet lied.
* * *
Speeding below midtown on the downtown train, she heard her name.
"Violet? Violet Johnson, is that you?"
She turned to see a young man she recognized. She recalled the high cheekbones and full lips but couldn't conjure his name.
"Nigel McDaniels, from Harvard," he said, a smile splitting his dark brown face.
"From the theater department," she said. "How's it going? I haven't seen you since we did The Wiz."
"Really glad to see you," he said. "I was thinking of you and didn't have your number. I've been doing this Caribbean Circus show, and we need a new set and makeup designer. I wondered if you would consider working with us."
"I wish I could," she said. "I actually landed a full-time job." She offered her card with the name of her boss's company, Facing Manhattan.
"Fancy," he said.
"But she's got me running like a lunatic," Violet confided.
"Jump, colored girl!" Nigel said, and Violet laughed.
"Practically. Plus I've got other projects going on."
"I'm glad you're doing well," he said. "I always hoped you'd do something creative, even though you were an economics major."
"You know how it is," she said. "You're Jamaican, right? I'm sure your family is less than thrilled that you're an artist."
"You should hear my mother," he said. " 'Oh, Goooohd,'" he mimicked in her Jamaican English. "We did not send our son to Harvard so he could perform in a circus! So rude and disobedient. No respect!'"
Violet laughed. "My mother is a makeup artist," she said, "so you'd think she'd be happy about it. But she says she expected 'more' from me. Although it's gotten a little better lately, since tomorrow we'll be making up a member of the British royal family."
Nigel laughed out loud. "I'm sure she'll be bragging to all her friends."
A triangle of brown skin kept peeking out from a torn spot in the collar of his Caribbean Circus T-shirt. She could see the curve of his muscle into his collarbone, and it distracted her. Most of the men she interacted with these days wore suits and ties. The only skin visible was on their hands and faces. But she could see the pull of his broad shoulders against the cotton fabric and the length of his strong arms extending from the short sleeves. The easy grace of Nigel's body in the torn shirt reminded her of men back home.
"God, it's great to see you," she said.
"You, too," he said. "Hey, are you still dating that black American guy — what was his name?"
"Quentin," Violet said.
"Quentin Ross," Nigel said. "The Harvard legacy."
"Actually, that's my big personal project. We're getting married." She pulled her hand down from the subway bar and showed him the diamond engagement ring.
"Whoa, that's quite a —"
The train gave a sudden lurch while Violet's hand was off the overhead bar. She crashed into Nigel. As the two pressed together, she noticed that he smelled familiar. Some sort of soap or aftershave or something that men used back in the West Indies. Slowly, she caught herself and straightened up.
"See, you go flashing that big ring, you get into trouble," he said.
"Flashing?" she asked, turning the rock under to the palm side of her hand. "Are you kidding me? Most of the time I hide it so nobody tries to rob me." She gripped the bar overhead to steady herself.
He reached up and touched the gold bangle on her wrist. "Now, this is the jewelry I remember you always wearing. You had this in college, right?"
"Yeah," she said. "Since I was little."
Her mother had curved the precious gold bracelet tight around her wrist when she was seven and had stretched it wider as she grew.
Nigel smiled at her. "Violet Johnson. Well, congratulations on both counts. The wedding and the big job."
"I hope things go great with the circus," she said. "This is my stop."
"Here's my card," he said. "So we can stay in touch."
* * *
When Violet got out of the subway, she wasn't sure where she was going, only that she needed to find her sister. Their mother was worried. Lily's phone was disconnected, and their mother couldn't get hold of her.
Violet wasn't surprised that Lily's phone had been turned off. The big shock was that Lily had managed to keep from being deported and finally gotten her papers somehow.
But if her mother was worried, then she had to check on Lily. Violet had gone by Lily's apartment, but the building manager said she'd moved out with no forwarding address. He did, however, have a work address from her rental application.
Several years earlier — the first time Lily had moved to New York — Violet had still been living in Boston. From time to time, she would get distress calls from her younger sister. Usually Lily needed money. But once, Lily had put Violet down as a reference for a waitressing job. Could Violet vouch for her if the lady called?
"Absolutely not," Violet had said, exasperated. "I can't lie to this woman for you."
"But I do have waitressing experience," Lily said. "Back in Trinidad. She said I needed someone in the states to vouch for me. I told her I did some catering for you, and gave her your number."
"Without asking me?" Violet asked, her anger rising.
"I had to improvise," Lily said. "Yours is the only number in the US that I know by heart."
So Violet had reluctantly agreed, and Lily had gotten the job. She'd promised Violet unlimited free drinks when she and Quentin came to Manhattan. But Violet had never made it from Boston to New York City in the two years that Lily had lived there. Then Lily had moved back to Trinidad, and the two of them had very little contact until the day Violet met her sister at the cruise ship docks.
Now, Violet walked down a street in Lower Manhattan with Lily's work address in her hand. The One-Eyed King. Was this the bar where she'd helped her sister get a job?
When Violet arrived at the location, she double-checked the address. The One-Eyed King was worse than the dive bar Violet had been imagining. A strip club? Lily worked at a Manhattan strip club? She knew Lily had played a stripper on Broadway. That was bad enough, but actually stripping?
She walked to the door, where a young woman with blue hair looked her up and down. She took in Violet's modest sheath dress, shoulder-length pressed hair, and light makeup. But above all, she observed her tight expression of distaste.
"Can I help you?" the young woman asked.
Violet explained that she was Lily's sister. The girl said that they usually didn't give out information, but she knew Lily's phone was cut off, and they did look a lot alike.
Yes, Lily did work there, but she wasn't scheduled for that day. She might be found volunteering at a health center nearby. The girl offered to give her walking or subway directions to the Maria de la Vega Community Health Clinic.
"No, thanks," Violet said, but she copied down the name and phone number for the health center and texted it to her mother.
There. She'd located Lily to the best of her ability. Not dead. Not deported. Not in the hospital. Let her mother take it from here. Now Violet could finally start her weekend.
She didn't want to be picked up in front of the strip club, so she walked down a couple of doors to a national café franchise.
The day was hot and muggy, but she hated waiting in the arctic interior of the overly air-conditioned coffee shop. Humid East Coast summers reminded her of Trinidad in weather only, but unless she was in Brooklyn, the similarities ended there. Manhattan held none of the rhythms of Trinidad. Even in the most crowded part of downtown Port of Spain, there was some touch of nature, some reminder of the sea or the island's rural history.
She had just finished texting her location to Quentin when a young woman tapped her on the shoulder. She wore a too-tight yellow dress and asked to borrow Violet's cell phone. She had left hers at home and needed to check in with her babysitter.
Violet unlocked her phone and handed it over.
The young woman dialed a number. "Hello, Mrs. Ramirez. Just want to make sure everything's okay."
As the girl listened and nodded, Violet noticed that she was pretty but had on too much makeup. The lipstick was too dark. It should have been brighter. And the eyes were overly lined above and below. Especially on a light-skinned girl like her, all that black just looked heavy. What was she? Black? Indian? Latina? On a warm day like today, she should have just lined the upper lid and done mascara.
At the curb, Quentin's limo beeped.
Violet retrieved the phone from the young woman, who smiled and thanked her profusely.
"No worries," Violet said and slid into the limo next to Quentin.
He greeted her with a soft kiss on the lips. "How was your day, future Mrs. Ross?" Quentin wasn't exactly handsome as much as he was charismatic. The planes of his face didn't inspire art, but Violet was attracted to the confidence with which he carried himself.
When he had asked her on a date in college, she was shocked. Her? The editor of The Crimson, the president of the Black Students Association, the hotshot in the Delphic Club was interested in her? Over time, she came to find his looks intensely attractive, as he showed the world his power but was always soft with her.
"My day was —" Violet began.
"No, baby," Quentin said with a chuckle. "We talked about this. If you're gonna marry into this family, you need to start learning to refer to yourself in the third person."
"Right," Violet laughed. "The future Mrs. Ross spent her morning fetching and carrying for her mistress and is now waiting for an important phone call from Henri Delacroix."
"The French fashion designer?" Quentin asked.
"The very one," Violet said. "His son is marrying some young royal from England, and we're making her up tomorrow. My boss is thrilled to add royalty to her list of clients. And the fact that Delacroix asked her personally has her beside herself. He's supposed to call me when he gets into Manhattan, and my boss wants me to ask him personally if everything is okay."
"Can't his hotel concierge do that?"
"Why contract out when you've got your own hired help?"
Violet asked. "Don't worry, honey, it's just gonna be one phone call. He should be landing soon. Once he arrives, I turn off the cell and we can practice for our honeymoon."
"Why wait?" Quentin asked and pulled her into a more aggressive kiss.
Violet glanced up at the limo driver and raised the privacy partition.
They couple was still making out five minutes later when Violet's phone rang.
"Hold on," she said, adjusting her blouse.
The number came up blocked, but she answered the phone.
"Violet Johnson," she said. The phone was staticky in her ear, but there seemed to be a voice cutting in and out. She heard "today" then "plane" — or could it have been "feign"? Then the phone dropped the call.
"Hello? Hello?" Her phone had several bars of service and a full charge.
It rang again, and Violet was greeted with the same static. "We seem to have a bad connection," she said. "Who's calling, please?"
The phone crackled, and she could hear a male voice talking in what sounded like a distant tunnel. She couldn't make out any of the words.
"Can you speak up?" she asked. "Perhaps increase the volume on your phone?"
Quentin turned on the limo's TV and flipped channels until he found CNN.
She waved for him to turn it down, but Quentin didn't seem to notice. She plugged her other ear with her finger and hunched down to listen closely. On the phone, a man was speaking in a distant, muffled voice. She could only make out a sense of urgency in his tone.
"I still can't hear you," she said. "My signal is fine. Is there anything you can do on your end?"
She thought she heard the voice say "Damn!" and then a minute of static before the call dropped again.
"Quentin, can you please turn off the volume on the TV?" she asked. "Or at least wear the headphones?"
Quentin lifted the remote and muted the TV, picking up his earbuds. "Was it Delacroix?" he asked.
"I couldn't tell," Violet said. "With my boss, I never know who she'll have calling me. Maybe I should check in with her."
"Don't worry about it," Quentin said, sliding a hand onto her hip. "There's obviously nothing you can do ..."
The phone rang a third time, and Violet picked up for the same blocked number.
"Can you hear me?" she asked. "Is this Mr. Delacroix?"
"I can hear you," came the response. At the same time her own voice echoed back to her.
"Kitty, is that you?" Delacroix asked.
Violet had expected his accent to be French. "Not Kitty. Violet," she said. "The assistant at Facing Manhattan."
"I'm in Manhattan," Delacroix said.
"Already?" Violet asked. "Didn't you just land at JFK?" "What are you talking about?" Delacroix asked. "Honey, don't play with me."
"Excuse me?" Violet asked.
"I said don't play with me," he said. "When are you coming, Kitty? Big Daddy needs his pussycat."
"Mr. Delacroix!" Violet sat up straight in her seat. "That's not appropriate."
"Dela-who?" the man asked, his voice now hard, suspicious. "Is this Kitty?"
"This is not Kitty," Violet said. "You have the wrong number. Goodbye."
"What happened?" Quentin asked.
"I don't know," Violet said. "I can't tell if it was a wrong number or an obscene phone call."
He slid a hand onto her hip. "Can I whisper something obscene in your ear?"
She lifted his hand up off her. "Please, Quentin. The only thing that's less of a turn-on than an obscene phone call is your boyfriend joking about it."
"Fiancé," he corrected and turned to the stock reports on CNN, putting the earbuds into his ears.
* * *
Violet dozed. She woke up briefly to see spindly trees passing the window. She fell asleep again.
She woke up as the limo was pulling to a stop in front of a stunning five-story hotel.
It had a stately stone façade, but the lobby was decidedly modern.
"Pretty gorgeous, huh?" Quentin asked.
Violet glanced down at her phone to make sure she didn't have any missed calls. "Amazing," she said, and kissed him.
The hotel was even more impressive inside, with a huge hall that had a wall of windows that opened onto the sea.
Excerpted from "The Accidental Mistress"
Copyright © 2018 Aya de León.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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