Chapter 1: Michael
Professor Michael Horine stared at his statistics class, his eyes discreetly going to each student. He had the usual crowd that a stats class taught at a community college did: a lot of mom's returning to get their GED or associate's degree. A lot of economically challenged students only just past college age. A lot of people who felt that 'real' college would be too hard for them.
And...someone different. Someone with brown doe eyes and a body, under a maxi dress and denim jacket, that made him again question his choice to teach. Because, too often, he found himself attracted to his female students. And, yes, it wasn't like he taught elementary school. God, then he would really be in trouble. At least all of his students were adults.
But it was wrong. On so many levels.
But after class, when the students signed the attendance sheet, he watched carefully as she took the pen in her left hand and bit her lip while signing her name. Nikki.
Nikki Shannon. God help him, even her name turned him on.
In the weeks after the first class, Michael found himself, as usual, paying her more attention. He mentally catalogued every outfit she wore: one week it was a mini dress that made him so uncomfortable he didn't stand up for the whole class; one week it was knee high boots with rompers (he was pretty sure that was the name of the onesie like garment), one week it was simply jeans and a t-shirt.
One week it was a bruise, something almost but not quite camaflouged by her obviously thicker than usual makeup.
That was the day he approached her after class. "I see that you had some trouble with the last test, Nikki," he said, perching on the table she was sitting at.
She looked up at him with those huge eyes and he felt something shift inside.
"Yeah, I haven't been doin' so well lately," she confessed, ducking her head. "I recently took a second job and I'm a little distracted right now."
"I offer, well, not tutoring, but I'd be glad to meet with you before or after class sometime," he told her. "I'd be glad to explain anything. To really be a good teacher, you have to know that every student truly understands the material. So what do you say?"
Her eyes skittered over him, then away. She leaned over in her chair to finish packing her bag and he tried to not look at the view down her shirt. Because his offer was genuine. It wasn't a try to get in her pants. Definitely not. But he wanted to help her. It was partly because he was attracted to her and partly because he felt she was his only student who didn't get any help, at home, at work and not at school.
He could see the helplessness, the skittishness in her eyes and motions sometimes. He could see that she'd suffered some sort of abuse or neglect in the past...or both. And, if nothing else, he wanted to help her At least through this class.
He felt that the world owed her that much. And the world wasn't paying up.
Nikki finally emerged from rummaging in her bag. She had a strange look on her face, as if she didn't believe him.
"Um. I have a real packed schedule," she said. "I'm takin' as many classes as possible tryin' to get a degree here and as I said, I work two jobs. And I need to to support myself. But..." Her hair had fallen into her eyes. She took a deep breath and looked up at him.
Michael realized that even sitting (well, it was a tall table) he was taller than her.
She brushed her hair away from her face impatiently. "I can't stay today," she said hurriedly. "I have a shift at my job to get to. But maybe next time I'll come in early."
He smiled, resisting the urge to smoothe her hair behind her ear for her. "I'm always here in the full hour before class starts and I'm always willing to help students along."
Nikki smiled, something rare for him to see, and he smiled back.
"Thanks," she said, then ducked her head again and hurried from the room.
Michael felt the smallest pinch of gratification when he saw her turn to look behind her.
Chapter 2: Riley
On Nikki Shannon...
Riley adored her. Yes, anyone who would willingly and so easily jump into the kind of work that Riley did at her salon was a little, well, quirky, even if tuition was due at the college.
But Riley looked past all of that. Honestly, who was she to judge? And Nikki was perky and sweet and oh-so-helpful, and god...that massage she'd given Riley. For a few weeks, Riley remembered it as the best massage she'd even received, until that honor was taken by Derek.
Still. Nikki had magic in her hands, and Riley wasn't afraid to admit that some of the reasons she'd hired Nikki was because of how amazing her legs looked in the rompers she had The Ru workers wear, and because of the C-cups that Georgia had noted.
Hell, sex sold things. Riley would be the hugest hypocrite ever to not admit that. If Nikki was willing to work her thing, Riley was more than willing to let her.
As the weeks went by, Nikki continued to be the most helpful employee (read, not Selena) that Riley could ever remember. Always willing to take another massage, always willing to do one with Riley, always willing to stay late and punch numbers. She was sweet and kind and...Selena hated her.
Hell, for the first week, Riley just counted it as another point in Nikki's favor. If Selena had liked her, welllll, then Riley might have been in trouble, considering the people that Selena usually liked. Riley saw it as a testament to Nikki's unspoiled sweetness that Selena disliked her. Selena disliked anything that was shinier than she was herself, even if that someone had just as much money troubles, men troubles and anything troubles that she herself did.
She was a little troubled by the fact that Selena thought Nikki was up to no good for so long. After all, Selena usually had pretty good instincts.
And when Selena caught Nikki taking that damn oil...well, then Riley was really troubled. After all, Nikki was being sincere when she said that she expected the masseuses to share their oils. If Riley had been out, she would have thought nothing of taking Selena's extra bottle.
But it was the way that Selena insisted Nikki had been sneaking...
Riley had to admit to Nikki sneaked sometimes. Not that that even really made sense. How exactly did someone sneak, for goodness' sake!
And then Nikki had quit. Riley couldn't blame her for that, and neither could she blame the girl for returning to Wild Nights. Riley was ever more thankful for how much of a haven The Rub had turned out to be, in that, yes, they were doing illegal things and always ran the risk of getting caught, but...it was all fun. Riley honestly enjoyed giving those goofy, sexy massages. She liked dressing up in the outfits and letting the guys admire her. She liked making them happy, soothing all of their hurts away.
And Nikki quit. Gone like the wind and Riley felt so incredibly guilty over the whole thing.
In hindsight, she looked on that incident as the reason that Nikki had so betrayed her by stealing the list. Yes, nothing would excuse that in Riley's mind but there was still that niggling doubt, that little voice that said, if you had shown more trust in her, been an even better example to her, she wouldn't have gone back to Carlyle that second time.
Yes, maybe Riley would never truly know why Nikki had gone back. Maybe she'd never know why she lost her brave, beautiful masseuse to the dark side.
But she regretted it. Years down the road, Riley remembered Nikki as the biggest regret of her life. She replaced Kyle as the person about which Riley thought, if I'd tried harder, loved more obviously, shown it in the important moments...would Nikki still be in my life?
The image of Nikki Shannon, in Riley's mind, never changed from the first day she'd seen her:
long legs, eager smile, plump cheeks that blushed easily, alert eyes and small hands that gave one of best massages she'd ever received.
She remembered Nikki. And she wished her well.
Chapter 3: Selena
She was a sneak. A sneak and a thief; there were no two ways about it.
She drove Selena nuts. God, that voice and those fucking legs that went on forever even though she had to be two inches shorter than Selena herself.
Her constant perkiness. Even before her morning cup of coffee, Nikki was like a squirrel or something, always energetic and pouncing on extra duties that Riley doled out before Selena's caffeine dry brain before she could even fully process the request.
God. She was the worst. So annoying and grating and naive and the damn oil incident...
Selena would have treated anyone that harshly. It wasn't just Nikki.
At least she pretended that.
Nikki annoyed her. She was too good and too vulnerable and too naive and too stupid and she bought her virginity bag out from under her. She didn't even have the fucking nerve to buy it from Selena in person. And then the little trollop paraded it in front of Selena with the chili on it...
Now Selena was getting riled up. Shit. Even though she was over it and hadn't thought of it in years.
Her memory softened: Derek had bought the bag back from Nikki and gifted it to Selena.
God, she loved that man.
And Nikki. Back to Nikki.
At the end of the day, Selena wanted to pity her. After all, Selena had been through some hell herself and knew the feeling of being desperate and having nowhere to go. She'd never fully know why Nikki decided to go back to Carlyle.
And she never asked.
She also never asked why, of all people, Selena was the person that Nikki chose to keep in touch with. Not Riley.
Nikki even repeatedly confirmed with Selena that Riley didn't know that Nikki was in contact with her.
Selena almost understood it.
There was too much pain in Nikki and Riley's relationship. Too much history.
Even Selena didn't know the full extent of what had happened that night The Rub burned down. The night Nikki disappeared for, what Selena had first feared, forever.
But it wasn't forever.
Not by a long shot.
One day, she just walked back into Selena's life, as pretty and perky as ever but not as young. And not as naive. And not as simple.
Nikki had always been a woman of secrets. She just used to be more transpartent about it. Selena used to be able to tell when Nikki was hiding something from a mile off.
And now...She looked at Nikki from across a table in a fancy restaurant and wondered what had happened in Nikki's life. If it had been good, if it had been bad, how she was now finally able to afford this kind of life...
Was it because of good or bad decisions made?
Selena just couldn't tell.