Venice Vampyr #1
Venice Vampyr #2: Final Affair
VENICE VAMPYR #1
Raphael di Santori never thought he’d lose his life by drowning. A stake through the heart, maybe, or burnt to ash by the sun – but never drowning. Not that it wasn’t something many vampires feared: their cells, after all, were so dense and solid that as a result their bodies were much heavier than water and therefore sank instantly.
That was exactly what had happened to him. One minute he’d been wandering along the canal. Now he was enfolded in its icy cold depths. He could paddle and splash all he wanted, but his weight pulled him under the water without regard for his efforts. All his strength worked against him.
There was nothing to hold onto. The canal was lined with Venetian homes without ledges or docks, without the entry doors on the water level – mainly used for deliveries – that were customary at the larger merchants’ homes. The homes that bordered this narrow, insignificant, yet deep canal in the labyrinth of Venice didn’t have this luxury. Their inhabitants entered from the streets above, streets he’d walked earlier.
The noise of the carnival’s revelers drifted to him, numbed by the water in his ears. Even if he screamed, they wouldn’t hear him. They were too drunk to take any notice. It was one of the reasons he’d been prowling the streets despite the large number of people out. In a drunken crowd, there were more than a few morsels that would turn into prey, more than a few juicy necks he could feast on without being discovered.
All year he’d been careful, never feeding when the streets were busy, always making sure his victims wouldn’t remember what had happened. Only during carnival, when masks were the ultimate accessory to any gown, did he gorge himself on the plentiful buffet of humans.
Had he been careless this time? Had somebody seen him? Why else had he felt a hand on his back, pushing him into the canal? Merely an accident by a drunken passer-by or a deliberate act by someone who knew what he was? Had the Guardians of the Holy Waters finally caught up with him?
The Guardians – he and his brethren feared them. Nobody knew how the secret society of merchants and nobles had come into existence. However, for the last one hundred years of his life, he’d seen more and more of his fellow vampires fall prey to them. Many of his friends had vanished one night never to be heard of again. They’d either died at the end of a stake through their hearts or drowned just like he was about to drown.
Had the hand that he’d briefly felt on his back belonged to one of the elusive Guardians? Elusive, because despite all investigations he and his kind had engaged in, all they’d ever been able to discover was their symbol: a cross intersected by three waves. His brethren had only ever captured one single member of the Holy Waters, but he’d not disclosed much more than their name and the symbol which he wore on a black onyx ring before he’d escaped them by killing himself and taken his secrets to the grave.
Were the Guardians behind his ordeal? Had one of them pushed him, knowing he’d drown? And what did it matter now? In a few minutes, he would be dead, his immortal life over. He would rot on the bottom of the canal, his body never rising to the surface even as it decomposed, the denseness of his cells and bones making sure nothing of his being would ever come to light.
Raphael reflected on his long life, a life longer than any human could have wished for. He was leaving his brother Dante behind. But there was no woman who loved him and would cry a tear for him. His life was empty. With a last breath, he gave up his struggle and allowed the water to take him.
Isabella Tenderini heard the sloshing of water in the otherwise quiet canal and asked her trusted gondolier to go faster. The Canale Grande was busy due to the festivities surrounding the carnival, and she’d instructed Adolfo to take her home via the quiet backwaters.
“Yes, Signora,” he now answered and propelled the gondola forward effortlessly.
Her eyes peered into the darkness, the occasional light from the houses lining the canal throwing eerie shadows along the narrow passage. “Do you see anything?”
“There seems to be a disturbance in the water, just ahead of us,” Adolfo answered.
“Quickly, pull alongside.” Her heart beat faster at the thoughts that entered her mind. “Tell me what you see.”
“Somebody appears to be in the water, Signora.”
The tight fist of fear gripped her, and before she knew it, she divested herself of the cloak that kept the chill of the night air from her body and dropped it onto the seat next to her. “A child?”
“No, larger. A man.”
A sense of déjà vu struck her, her heart reminding her of her own loss. Without hesitation, she undid the laces of her bodice, then felt Adolfo’s hand on her shoulder.
“No, Signora, he’ll be too heavy for you. You can’t rescue a man. A child, yes, but not a grown man.”
Isabella turned to him. She wouldn’t be deterred by his concern. He had to understand that she had to do this so no other woman would feel the pain she had to endure. So no other woman would become a widow like she had. “I can’t let anybody drown, you know that.”
He nodded and, despite the darkness, she knew his expression would be sad. But he wouldn’t stop her. Her own husband, a wealthy merchant, had drowned in one of the canals less than a year ago. The money he’d left her did nothing to appease her loneliness.
As she stripped off her richly embroidered gown and dropped the petticoats to the bottom of the gondola, the cold February air blew through her chemise. But all she could think of was the man whose hands were the only things now visible above the water as if he was trying to hold onto some invisible rope. If she could save him, maybe she would finally be at peace and accept what had happened. Accept Giovanni’s death.
“Hold on,” Isabella begged, “just hold on a few more seconds.” She prayed she wouldn’t be too late.
“I will help you,” Adolfo’s voice came from behind.
She shook her head. Just because she needed to do this foolish thing didn’t mean she would endanger her loyal servant. “No. You can’t swim.”
As he pulled the boat alongside the drowning man, Adolfo released his rudder and stepped behind her. A moment later, she felt his hands on her.
“What?” Was he trying to stop her after all?
“A rope. I’ll tie it around you.”
He expertly tied a rope around her waist while she scanned the dark waters for the man. His hands were gone. He’d slipped under the water. Only ripples remained on the surface. “Hurry.”
Without a glance back, she jumped into the canal, feet first. The icy cold water hit her like a slap in the face. She held her breath and let herself be pulled into the depths of the canal’s murky waters. She felt the pull on the rope and knew Adolfo would make sure she was safe.
Isabella didn’t open her eyes – there was no use. All it would do was hurt her, but she wouldn’t see anything. It was too dark. Even by daylight, there was little chance that her eyes would be of any assistance in her search for the drowning man.
She kicked her legs and reached her hands out, feeling for resistance. Nothing. Frantically she dove deeper, turned to her left, then her right, stretching her arms out further. Finally, her fingers encountered some material. She grasped for it, her hand latching onto a piece of fabric, a coattail or a sleeve. The soaked woolen cloth was heavy. She pulled on it, and to her relief, the weight behind it confirmed that she had found him.
The pressure in her lungs built. She fought against her body’s instinct to come up for air, knowing if she dropped her hold on him and gave into her own need for air, he would be lost.
Isabella slipped one hand under the man’s armpit. He was heavy despite the buoyant quality of the water, heavier than she had expected. Gathering her remaining strength, she signaled Adolfo with a pull on the rope. She had just enough time to hook her second arm under the drowning victim’s and kick her legs before she felt herself being pulled upwards. The man in her arms was big. His massive body pressed against her, her arms barely reaching around his chest.
The moment she breached the surface, she sucked in a much needed breath of air, filling her lungs. The cold stung her chest, but she ignored it, just the way she ignored the dead weight of the man she was holding in her arms. Was he still alive?
“You were so long,” she heard Adolfo proclaim, his voice more tense than usual.
“He’s so heavy,” Isabella pressed out and tried to paddle toward the boat. But all she could do was hold onto the man and let Adolfo do the hard work. She figured a few extra Lira was due Adolfo as a bonus after this ordeal.
As her gondolier pulled on the rope, she felt the stranger slip from her grip. Without thinking, she spread her legs and wrapped them around his hips to hold him in a vice grip. It wasn’t ladylike, nor was it anywhere near appropriate, but the man was unconscious and certainly wouldn’t remember what she’d done.
When she heard voices drift to her from further down the canal, she prayed help was coming. Adolfo wouldn’t be strong enough to pull both her and the man into the gondola. For once, her prayers were heard.
Her limbs were frozen when she finally landed in the gondola, helped by a couple of friendly delivery men who dragged the half-dead stranger into the boat right behind her.
Adolfo instantly covered her with her cloak, but she knew she wasn’t the only one who needed warmth. Isabella scrambled closer to the man she’d just saved and wrapped the cloak around them both, holding him tightly to her soaked body to preserve any heat that was left.
She felt shivers go through his body and could only echo them. He was alive.
Isabella tore the wet clothes off the stranger’s body as her maid Elisabetta stood by wide-eyed. “Don’t just stand there, get a fire going,” she ordered.
“Signora, shouldn’t you let one of the footmen do this?”
Isabella shot her an annoyed look. “There’s no time for modesty.” Already she’d wasted precious minutes by ridding herself of her own wet clothes and drying off before stepping into a chemise and a dressing gown.
Adolfo had helped get the stranger up into her own rooms and placed him on the divan in front of the fireplace. She’d instructed him to keep quiet about the man. Having a stranger who was neither her husband nor a close relative staying with her would start all tongues in Venice wagging. Still, she knew it was only a matter of time before one of her staff gossiped and spread the scandalous news.
Despite the fact that she’d grieved for her husband for almost a year without taking a lover, without so much as allowing any man to even woo her in the most acceptable of manners, even she, a respectable widow, would not get away unscathed. If anyone found out a stranger was at her home – worse, in her own bedchamber – she would have to deal with the consequences. They would be harsh. Were they worth it? She hadn’t craved a man’s touch or attention, only her husband’s. Until now.
As she gazed upon the tall stranger whose clothes she peeled away layer by layer, she was grateful for the fact that her maid was busy with stoking the fire, for she didn’t want to be watched as she devoured the handsome man with her eyes.
Isabella allowed her hand to travel over his muscled chest and felt the raw power he represented. She wondered what kind of work this man did to have such strength in his body. But she knew he wasn’t a common laborer who worked in the warehouses or on the docks. His clothes were too well made and too expensive for that. He had to be a gentleman, a very well-built gentleman.
The moment she opened the flap on his breeches, easing open button after button, her own body heated despite the chill she’d gotten in the freezing water. No man had ever been able to ignite that kind of response in her body, not even her late husband. They’d had a loving marriage, a very comfortable one, but she’d never lusted after him like she lusted after this stranger.
The fabric clung to him. She told herself that she needed to rip it off him so he wouldn’t die of a chill, but she knew better. The reason she tugged forcefully at his soggy clothes was so she could feast her eyes on what was beneath. She stripped him and dropped the wet garments onto the rug.
“Give me a bowl with warm water and a sponge.”
Behind her, Elisabetta shuffled closer. A gasp told her that her maid was looking at the naked man. Isabella shifted her body to obstruct her maid’s view. She didn’t want to share him. What a strange thought, she reflected. He wasn’t hers, yet she wanted to be the only one who saw him like this: vulnerable in his nudity.
“Signora! It is not decent!”
Isabella spun her head and snatched the bowl of water from Elisabetta’s hands. “Leave us. And not a word of this to anybody if you value your position here. Do you hear me?”
She nodded nervously and fled from the room. Isabella looked back at the beautiful naked man in front of her and took a deep breath. She should let one of her male servants do this, but she couldn’t bring herself to relinquish the intimate task.
With the sponge she bathed him, starting with his face. His dark hair, sleek and shiny as that of a raven, clung to his skin. As she gently washed his face, she wondered what kind of eyes lay behind those dark lashes. Were his eyes as dark as his hair? And would those lips smile at her if he knew what she was doing? She sighed. It had been so long since she’d touched another person. And to touch him felt more exciting than she could have imagined.
Isabella cleaned every inch of his body with warm water, then dried him with a large bathing sheet. And all the while she marveled at the beauty of his nude form. Strong, powerful thighs, a muscled chest covered in just a light dusting of dark hair, arms that looked strong. But what truly captured her attention was what lay at the juncture of his thighs.
In a nest of black, coarse curls, a large shaft rested against his sac, which looked as if it held two small eggs. She knew all about the male form – her husband had been a virile man and had taught her about the pleasures of the flesh, how to arouse him and how to pleasure him.
When she looked at this stranger now, she wanted to do just that: arouse him, pleasure him. Her hand stroked over his manhood, exploring his soft skin. How she’d missed touching a man. How she longed for the invasion that stretched her channel to its capacity. And this man would stretch her. Even in its relaxed state, he was of a formidable size. Once aroused, she knew he would be magnificent.
Suddenly, he shifted under her touch, startling her. Isabella instantly reached for the thick blanket and pulled it over him, covering his gorgeous body.
Somebody had made a mistake. For all intents and purposes, he should be in hell. But from what Raphael could see, he’d made it into heaven. He’d never expected there to be a heaven for vampires. But he wasn’t going to complain – no, he would not voice his concerns, even though he knew he didn’t deserve this.
The woman was clearly an angel. Her raven hair was loose, not held up high on her head with hundreds of pins as was the current fashion. And her clothing was indecent at best. She wore a long red dressing gown of rich brocade embroidered with golden roses. It was pulled tight at her waist, but the top gaped open as she leaned over him. He noticed the soft white fabric beneath clinging to her generous breasts.
No, she could not be a mortal. No woman in Venice would dress this scandalously in the presence of a man who was not her husband. It was proof positive that he was in heaven. Why he lay on a divan in a very feminine boudoir, he couldn’t yet explain, but he would get to the bottom of it. Nor could he explain why he felt cold. In fact, he positively shivered.
“I’ll have Elisabetta put more coal on the fire in a moment,” the angel said.
Coals in heaven? Frankly, he’d thought they would have invented something a little more advanced. When she reached out and stroked his face, he realized that her skin was almost as cold as his. He certainly could do something about that.
“You’re awake. Finally. We were worried.” Her voice was like the most beautiful music he’d ever heard.
Worried that he wouldn’t make it to heaven? “My angel, you won’t have to worry any longer. I am here now.” He reached for her hand and pulled it to his mouth, kissing her palm. The floral bouquet of her skin barely masked the heavy, rich scent of the blood in her veins. Despite the fact that he’d fed just before his death, he felt his fangs itch and his stomach clench with thirst for the angel’s blood.
The beauty pulled her hand from his grip. “Signore, there is no need for such familiarity.”
Raphael dropped his gaze to her neckline. “Familiarity? Maybe you mean formality?” He gave her a charming smile, the same kind of smile he used to lure his female victims to him. As he locked eyes with her and gazed into her green orbs, his hand went to her face. That was when he noticed the absence of clothes on his person. Why was he naked?
Surely, if he was without any clothes beneath the blanket and with the most gorgeous angel bending over him, there could only be one reason for it: he was here to make love to her. After all, this was heaven. “You’re right, my angel, why kiss your hand when your lips are so red and full?”
Raphael pulled her to him and brushed his lips against hers. A gasp was her answer. “Shh, my angel, let me love you.”
He captured the lovely creature’s mouth and snaked his free arm around her, pressing her against him. She seemed to want to protest, but he didn’t allow it. Instead, he greedily slipped his tongue between her parted lips and explored her.
Her tangy taste was enthralling, her lips soft and yielding. She tasted as enticing as her scent had hinted at. Yes, he would make love to her and take her intoxicating blood into him at the same time, gorge himself on her to celebrate his arrival in heaven.
His tongue coaxed her to respond to him, to dance with him in the intimate dance of two lovers. When he stroked against it for the first time, his cock pumped full with blood, readying itself for her. He pressed her body closer to make her aware of his urgent need.
When her hands pushed against his chest, he thought it was so she could free herself of her clothes, but she separated herself entirely from him instead and jumped up from the divan.
She took a few steps back, her body trembling, but he doubted that it was from fear. Yet her look was scolding as she glared at him. “Signore! Is that the thanks I get for taking care of you after you nearly drowned? Being attacked by you in my own home?”
VENICE VAMPYR #2: FINAL AFFAIR
Venice, Italy - early 1800s
At first, she’d thought her physician had made a mistake.
Three months – the doctor had given her only three more months to live. During the last two she’d likely be confined to her bed with blinding pain.
It wasn’t possible.
Just days earlier, her governess had warned her that, despite her pretty face and graceful figure, her outspoken manner and outlandish ideas were scaring away potential husbands. Viola hadn’t cared. She’d figured that if a suitor couldn’t stand up to her, then she’d rather not be married at all. Plus, she was barely one and twenty, and while she was still on the shelf when it came to marriage prospects – which was due to her impetuous nature – she had her whole life ahead of her. So she’d thought.
Three months wasn’t a life.
Yet, despite her brain tumor, she’d make the most of it.
At first, she’d thought to prove her physician wrong. She’d already traveled to Switzerland – leaving in the dead of night and without a chaperone – and consulted another expert. But the answer remained the same: she was dying.
That’s why she’d come to Venice. No longer to prove him wrong, but to live.
She hadn’t told her family where she was going: they would have stopped her. They would have called her foolish and scandalous. But she would not be stopped. Viola had accepted that she would die, but there was one thing she wanted to experience before she left this world.
She refused to die a virgin.
But she was also practical: a scandal wouldn’t serve her family. Already, her sudden disappearance would have to be covered up, something her over-eager mother was more than capable of handling. She would simply let everybody know that Viola was staying in the countryside to tend to an elderly relative. There were plenty to choose from.
Viola had decided to go where nobody knew her or any of her relatives, where her scandalous behavior would not have any repercussions for her parents. She had sent them a letter from Switzerland, telling them that her condition had worsened and that she was confined to a hospital bed. She had also told them in no uncertain terms that she wanted to be left alone and be remembered for who she was before her illness had started.
She had threatened to create a scandal in Florence should her wishes not be respected. Her threat would ensure that her mother complied with her wishes and impressed upon Viola’s father not to make any attempts to fetch her. Besides, her mother was probably happy to be rid of her. After all, Viola had never been able to live up to her high expectations. By rejecting the first – and only – suitor who’d ever dared to court her, Viola had extinguished any goodwill her mother had ever felt toward her.
Viola had arranged for her parents to receive a letter in three months, indicating that their daughter had passed away peacefully. Of course, it would be a lie, because she would take her life much earlier. Once she had accomplished what she’d come to Venice for.
Once she was no longer a virgin, she would take the pistol she carried in her bag and end her life before the pain would debilitate her. She had no intention of suffering a long and painful death.
Viola smoothed a hand over her skirts and righted her cloak. Filling her lungs with a deep breath, she pushed the heavy oak door open.
The place she entered was a club of sorts. According to her information, gentlemen who were looking for female companionship frequented the surprisingly clean establishment. While it was not a brothel, many of the women who joined the men at the club to seek carnal pleasures did so for money. However, the man who’d guided her to this club had assured her that on occasion women of the higher classes were seen there to find diversions their respectable husbands wouldn’t indulge their wives in.
She hoped the man had been correct and the story she had rehearsed would be believable. The last thing she wanted to do was to draw attention to herself. It was hard enough to overcome her embarrassment at having to approach a stranger and ask him to bed her. Being sent on her way without achieving her goal would be worse. Because there was one rule the men at the club insisted on despite their debauchery: nobody was to bed a virgin.
The place smelled of cigars, alcohol, and perfume. Viola took a shallow breath and let the door snap in behind her. A burgundy curtain of heavy velvet separated the foyer from the main rooms behind. Music and laughter drifted to her. She took a step forward when a hand on her arm held her back.
Her breath caught in her throat as she snapped her head to the side.
“There’s a fee, Signora,” the heavy set woman in the richly embroidered dress said. Her breasts spilled over her low-cut gown, and the large baubles around her neck sparkled in the candlelight.
“Of course,” Viola answered and reached into her purse, retrieving a coin. The man who’d told her about the club had prepared her for this. It would not do if she behaved like an innocent who’d never done this before. It would only create suspicion.
The hostess took the coin and made it disappear in the folds of her dress. “Very well then.”
A moment later, she parted the curtain and allowed Viola to step through.
The room was larger than she’d expected. In fact, it was as large as her parents’ ballroom. On the sides, booths had been built to provide a semblance of privacy for anybody who wished it, but in the middle the chaises and sofas as well as their occupants were in plain view. Large chandeliers with blazing candles provided light, and a small string quartet supplied the ambiance.
Servants circulated to supply the guests with beverages and, by the state some of the guests were in, it was clear that alcohol flowed freely. Men lounged on sofas, some fully dressed and perfectly respectable, others with their cravats loosened and their chests partially exposed. Women could be found draped over men’s bodies in more than indecent poses.
Hadn’t her informant said this wasn’t a brothel? Viola felt her heartbeat rise. She was nothing like the women she saw in this place. They seemed unconcerned with modesty or privacy. This was not what she’d expected. Maybe the man had misunderstood her. She’d sought a place to find a man who would bed her in the privacy of a bedchamber and let her experience what it was like to feel a man’s body joined with hers.
This was a mistake. Viola took a step back and bumped into something solid behind her. She swiveled.
“Ciao, bella,” the handsome stranger greeted her as he swept her with an appreciative glance.
Viola swallowed, unable to answer, the pulse at her neck beating so frantically she was sure her vein would burst and drench the man in her blood.
Her silence didn’t seem to bother him. “I see you’re new here.” His hand came up and traced along the seam of her décolleté. Viola gasped at his boldness and pulled back.
“I’m Salvatore. And I’m happy to spend the evening with you.”
She took a steadying breath and gave him an assessing look. He was slightly taller than the average man. Well groomed in his dark suit and fashionable necktie, not even her mother would have any objections to him were he to come courting. But he wasn’t here to court her. Nor did she want him to.
All she wanted was a tumble. Was he the right man for it? Would those elegant hands caress her and make her feel like a real woman, or would his touch leave her indifferent? Was her fluttering heartbeat indication of her interest in him or merely telling her she was scared of actually going through with her plan?
She couldn’t be sure. But if she simply stood here without making a decision, she’d never attain the goal she’d set herself.
Viola summoned her courage and forced a smile onto her lips, pushing back her rising doubts. “That would be charming.”
Dante was furious.
He looked at the bruises on Benedetta’s face. “How often have I told you not to go to that club?” Sure, she was only a girl who sold her father’s carvings on the street, and he was only very loosely acquainted with her, but somehow he felt protective. She was poor and so young. Every time he passed by her stand, he felt compelled to purchase one of her father’s ghastly carved figures.
“I’m sorry,” the girl whimpered, her split lip making her speech slurred. “But business was so bad this month. We needed the money.”
“Who did this?”
Benedetta looked away, but Dante took her chin and made her meet his glare. She winced. “I asked who did this.”
“Fuck!” Dante ran his hand through his dark hair. “Have you no sense of self-preservation? Of all people, you had to let Salvatore touch you?” He wasn’t acquainted with the man personally, but he knew he wasn’t fit company for Benedetta.
She closed her swollen eyes. “He was the only one willing to pay.”
“Damn it, girl. If you were my daughter, I’d lock you up at home for your stupidity. No woman in her right mind would let Salvatore touch her. Why do you think he was willing to pay for it? Everybody knows of his reputation. He loves to beat women.”
Tears ran down Benedetta’s face. Dante pulled out a handkerchief and patted her face with it.
“Now, go home. I’ll buy all the carvings you have left for tonight.” Dante glanced at her cart. Tonight, the wooden figures she was selling were particularly ugly. They’d turn into firewood at his home just like all the others before them.
Her face lit up. “Oh, thank you so much, Signore di Santori. You’re so kind.”
Kind? It wasn’t an adjective he was often graced with. No vampire was kind, least of all he, but if Dante hated one thing, it was men who beat women. He loved women in every shape and form they came. Especially when they came – in his bed.
He liked them even more when he fed from them.
A woman’s blood was richer than a man’s. And it was even more intoxicating when he fed from a woman while he was fucking her into oblivion. In fact, it was his preferred way to have dinner. There was nothing kind or civilized about it. When it came down to it, he wasn’t that much better than Salvatore – a mere human – but he drew the line at hurting women.
In fact, he lived to give them pleasure.
His bite was painless, and his powers of suggestion made it possible for him to conceal what he did. After a night in his arms, the women he bedded didn’t remember the passionate man who’d driven them to ecstasy or the blood thirsty and insatiable vampire who’d gorged himself on their necks.
Dante’s anger failed to simmer down by the time he reached the club where Salvatore usually spent his evenings. He arrived spoiling for a fight. A real fight, not one where he would use his superior vampire powers to crush the human. He longed for a brawl in which he’d use his fists to pummel the man.
He pushed inside the club, ignoring the demands of the hostess to pay the fee. He would only stay long enough to find Salvatore and beat the living daylights out of him. Make him look much worse than Benedetta did.
Dante’s entrance and the hostess’ angry complaints behind him caused several heads to turn in his direction. He ignored them and instead scanned the room. It didn’t take long for him to spot Salvatore in one of the booths that lined the room. And Salvatore wasn’t alone. He was already working on his next unsuspecting victim.
Dante took no notice of the other guests’ stares and marched straight toward Salvatore, stopping only a foot away. The man had his hand on the woman’s skirts and his head close to her ear, undoubtedly whispering sweet-sounding lies to her. Dante cleared his throat loudly.
Without looking up, Salvatore tried to dismiss him. “I’m busy.”
Dante clenched his jaw. “You won’t be for much longer.”
The woman snapped her head to him, her eyes widening in fear. She’d clearly heard the threat in his voice. Dante ignored her and snatched Salvatore’s wrist, ripping it away from the woman’s skirts and yanking him up. Startled, Salvatore glared at him.
“What in hell?” Salvatore’s eyes narrowed. “Get your own woman. This one’s mine.”
“I’m not interested in your tart. I’m interested in you.”
Salvatore tried to wrestle from the grip Dante had on his wrist but couldn’t. “Leave me alone, you fag, or I’ll beat the shit out of you.”
“You mean the same way you beat the shit out of Benedetta?”
At Benedetta’s name, a flash of fear crossed his face. He knew he was caught, but the bravado hadn’t left him yet. “None of your damn business.”
“She’s a friend. So it’s my business.” Dante released the man’s wrist and swung. His fist landed in Salvatore’s face, snapping his head back in the process.
Collective gasps went through the assembled guests. In the background, Dante could hear the hostess’ shrill voice. “Gentlemen, take your disagreement outside.”
But it was too late for that. Salvatore had recovered from the first hit and now swung his fist at Dante, grazing his chin. Dante laughed. “That’s all you’ve got?” The human was weak. This would barely be any fun at all. No wonder the asshole liked to beat up on women since men were no match for him.
Dante launched his fist into Salvatore’s stomach, making him double over. “Next time you decide to beat a woman, you’d better think twice.” With an uppercut to Salvatore’s chin, Dante turned. Before he could walk away, the man jumped him, slamming him to the ground.
Inside, Dante rejoiced. Finally, the jerk was fighting back, making this a little more interesting. Jerking his elbow back, Dante jabbed him in the ribs, then rolled, throwing Salvatore off his back. Within seconds, they dealt each other blow after blow. Dante barely felt any pain, but the human winced with each hit he received.
“Stop it! Stop beating him!” a woman’s voice came from behind him.
Holding his victim down with one arm across his neck, Dante turned to look at the woman Salvatore had been with. She stood over him, her fists at her hips, a scowl on her face. “Signorina, you’d do well to keep out of this.”
“I will not let you beat up my companion.”
“Well, would you rather he beat you like he did the last woman he fucked?”
A red blush colored her skin at his crude words. He gave her another look. Now that he perused her closely, he noticed something strange about her. She didn’t belong here. She wasn’t the kind of woman who frequented clubs like these. Her manners seemed refined, her dress understated yet expensive. Her face was fresh and innocent, her hair held up in a tight bun at her nape with not a single loose strand framing her elegant features.
He inhaled her aroma. Yes, she smelled of innocence and goodness. But there was something else – something foreign that seemed to cloud her rich scent. And it made him want to protect her. And keep her close.
Dante tried to shake off the strange sensation while his gaze lingered on her face for a few seconds longer. The most striking thing about her was her eyes. Their dark chocolate brown would have looked dull on any other woman, but combined with her porcelain skin and those red lips, she looked like an enticing tableau. What was a woman like that doing in a hell like this?
“You should leave,” he advised her and turned back to Salvatore.
With one last blow, he knocked him unconscious. As he rose, the hostess blocked his way. “Signore, I do not tolerate this kind of behavior in my –”
Dante held up a hand. “I’m leaving.”
With long strides, he left the club and stepped into the cool night air.
Daniel Sinclair settled back into the comfortable leather seat of his limousine which would take him to JFK airport for his flight to San Francisco.
“We should be at the airport in forty five minutes, Sir,” his driver Maurice announced.
Instead of chartering his own jet like he often did when he travelled cross country, he had decided to fly First Class on a commercial airline. Since both his lead attorney and his girlfriend would fly out to meet him on the West Coast the next day rather than joining him on this flight, there had been no reason to charter a jet just for one passenger.
Audrey, his girlfriend of almost a year, had an important charity function she needed to attend and had promised to take the first flight out the next morning, while his attorney Judd Baum was working on final contract revisions and thought it more prudent to finish them in New York where his staff would assist him.
Daniel had been working on the acquisition of the San Francisco based financial services company for almost a year. Despite the fact that his attorneys and his business managers could handle most of the details, he preferred to be intimately involved in any deal his company struck, especially when it came down to the final few days.
He always made a point of sitting at the table with the other side when the final signatures were exchanged, rather than finalize the deal remotely. Besides, another trip to San Francisco would be just what he needed.
It would provide him with an opportunity to relax as well as catch up with his buddy Tim, who’d hightailed it out of New York five years earlier after he’d decided that life outside of California was not for him. The native Californian had tried to adjust to life on the East Coast, but deep down he had never felt at home. Daniel couldn’t really blame him.
Life in New York was hectic and completely centered around work.
His ulterior motive for coming to San Francisco though was to introduce Audrey to Tim who had the uncanny ability to assess a person’s character within five minutes. Things had been a bit on shaky ground with Audrey for the last few months, especially because he’d been working so damn hard on this deal.
Daniel had neglected her on several occasions and was wondering where to take the relationship. Frankly, he needed a little bit of advice from his old college buddy on what to do with her. He never discussed relationships or women with any of his friends or business associates in New York. Tim was the only person he felt comfortable with talking about other things than guy stuff.
He raked his long fingers through his dark hair, something he did frequently when he was preoccupied. His hair was longer than usual since he hadn’t even found the time lately to visit his barber for a quick haircut. His schedule had been too hectic.
Never one to sit idly, he opened his briefcase to start reviewing some of the documents for the deal. As he flipped through the files he cursed under his breath. One of the files his assistant had put together for him was missing. He remembered that he’d taken it out of the briefcase the night before.
He’d gone to pick up Audrey from her apartment, but as usual she hadn’t been ready and he’d waited for her to get dressed. Since Audrey was never one to be rushed, he’d started reviewing the file while he’d waited for her and then promptly forgotten it there. And since he’d dropped her off after dinner rather than spending the night, he hadn’t noticed his neglect.
As he thought about the previous evening, he had difficulty remembering when he’d last spent the night with her. It had to have been more than a couple of weeks ago. And for that matter it had been a while since he’d had sex with her. Strangely enough he hadn’t even noticed. That’s what work did to him. It made him forget everything else.
“Maurice,” he called out to his driver.
“Swing by Miss Hawkins’ place, please. I left some documents there last night.”
It wouldn’t be much of a detour. They were still fighting traffic in midtown, and Audrey’s place was only a few blocks away. He glanced at his watch. She would be at her charity event already, but he had a key and would be able to let himself in. The doorman knew him well and would have no objections letting him go up.
Minutes later Maurice double parked in front of the building, and Daniel sauntered out of the car. Audrey’s apartment was on the top floor of the turn of the century co-op. He impatiently tapped his foot as the wood-paneled cab of the old-fashioned and rather slow elevator climbed from floor to floor.
There were only three units on the top floor, and he headed straight for Audrey’s. As soon as he turned the key and let himself into the apartment, he thought he heard noises.
He wondered whether the housekeeper was there as he walked toward the bedroom, prepared to give Betty a fright. He liked the older woman who always had a ready smile when he visited. She got a kick out of the occasional pranks he played on her, and she made him feel like he was back in college.
He listened. The sound was definitely coming from the bedroom. She probably had the TV on while she cleaned. Grinning and already imagining Betty’s shocked face he gripped the door handle, pushed it down slowly and yanked the door open.
“Boo!” He almost chocked when he didn’t see what he was expecting. This was definitely not Betty cleaning the apartment.
It was obvious that Audrey had decided not to go to the charity event after all. Naked, her hair a mess, her body sweaty and impaled on a naked male body, she’d never get ready in time. Not that she ever had any intention. Charity seemed to be the furthest from her mind. The position she was in suggested anything but charity. Of course, he could be mistaken. Maybe she was fucking his attorney out of charity.
Audrey’s long red hair cascaded over her breasts, strains of them sticking to her glistening skin. She had obviously worked up some sweat riding him, and by the looks of the tangled sheets and the smell of sex in the air, this was a repeat session.
It also figured that Judd wasn’t quite as busy with revisions to the contract as he had claimed, otherwise, how would he have found the time to screw his boss’ girlfriend? That he was screwing himself by doing that had obviously not yet crossed his mind. Maybe he wasn’t quite as bright as Daniel had always thought him to be.
Strangely, as he looked upon the scene before him, Daniel felt detached. And oddly relieved. Audrey’s shocked face was the first genuine emotion he’d ever seen her exhibit.
“I can explain,” Judd started making a feeble attempt at disentangling himself from Audrey, who still straddled him even though she’d had the decency to stop moving up and down on Judd’s cock, an action she would undoubtedly proceed with as soon as Daniel was gone.
Daniel lifted his hand. “Spare me.” The situation was pretty self-explanatory from where he stood.
“Audrey, there’s no need for you to fly out to California. Here’s your key. We’re done.”
He placed her apartment key onto her dresser and picked up his file.
“Daniel, we need to talk about this.”
He shook his head. He wasn’t one to make a big scene. Hysterics were for women and gay guys. He’d never been emotional like others, at least not since puberty. Tim used to kid him saying he didn’t believe that his mother was truly his mother, and he couldn’t possibly be half Italian with the lack of emotion he showed.
At the door he turned once more. “And, Judd. You’re fired. I’ll finish the deal myself.”
“But, you can’t just fire me. You need me …” Even though Judd had actually done him a favor by taking Audrey off his hands, he couldn’t continue working with somebody who went behind his back, especially not an attorney who he had to trust one hundred percent.
“You’re replaceable. Get used to it.” His stab at Judd wasn’t referring to the job he’d just lost, but to the woman in his arms. She’d replace him with somebody else soon enough. What an idiot.
Two minutes later Daniel was leaving her building and was out of Audrey’s life – for good. He felt as if his step was lighter when he walked toward the car, as if a burden had been lifted off his shoulders. He realized the loss of a good attorney hit him harder than the loss of Audrey. He definitely needed to replace him right now. Without a lawyer by his side to finish the acquisition, things could blow up in his face.
He pulled out his cell phone and speed dialed as he got into the car and instructed his driver to continue to the airport.
The call was answered within two rings. “Tim, it’s Daniel.”
“Damn, did I screw up on your arrival time?” Tim was no scatterbrain, but when he had returned to California his social life had taken on massive proportions, and he was constantly hopping from one party to the next.
“No, ‘course not. I’m still in New York.” He heard Tim exhale, audibly relieved. “Listen, I need a favor. I need the best corporate legal firm out there to take over the deal.”
“What, you ran out of attorneys in New York?”
“I fired Judd five minutes ago.” He didn’t feel like going into the details. There’d be plenty of time to rehash the story when he got to San Francisco.
“Okay, I’m on it. I’ll have somebody for you when you arrive. Can’t wait to see you and finally meet Audrey. I made reservations for dinner. We can –”
He interrupted him. “Yeah, about Audrey –”
“What about her?” Tim’s voice was colored with more than just passing curiosity.
“She’s not coming. It’s over.” He didn’t even give his friend a chance to comment. “Which brings me to another issue. I have to attend that damn reception tomorrow night in anticipation of the acquisition. I was planning on having Audrey there to ward off those eligible bachelorettes they usually throw at me at those events, so I need a stand-in.”
He was not interested in having to fend off advances of every woman under forty who would throw herself at him because he was rich and unmarried.
“A stand-in?” Tim’s incredulous voice echoed through the cell phone.
Daniel ran his hand through his hair again, messing it up as if he’d just gotten out of bed, which he hadn’t since he’d been up since four in the morning to manage to get in a workout in the gym before his busy day had started.
“Yes, some arm candy.”
“I can set you up with a blind date,” he suggested eagerly, obviously already having somebody in mind. “In fact, this is perfect timing. The roommate of a good friend of mine is –”
Daniel could virtually see Tim rub his hands together.
Daniel could virtually see Tim rub his hands together.
“Forget it. I want a professional. No romantic entanglements, no blind dates.” Yeah, that’s what he needed like a hole in the head, a blind date.
“Yes, what do they call them? Escorts.” It had just come to him. That was the solution. Instead of a girlfriend he just needed an escort, somebody to indicate to all other women that he wasn’t available. It would solve all his problems. And it would be way less hassle keeping an escort happy rather than a girlfriend. Keeping an escort happy just meant paying her enough.
“Get me one of those. Not too pretty, just reasonable looking and with a bit of a brain so she doesn’t embarrass me at the reception.”
“You’re kidding!” Even though he couldn’t see Tim’s face, he could tell that his jaw had just dropped.
“I’m dead serious. So, make a booking for me. I assume they take credit cards?” If anything, Daniel was practical. That’s why he was an excellent businessman.
“How the hell should I know? Do I look like someone who hangs out with escorts?” Tim sounded less miffed and more and more amused. He could even hear what sounded like a stifled laugh coming through the phone.
“Come on, do this for me and I’ll tell you why I broke up with Audrey.” He knew just how much Tim liked some good gossip. In that respect gay men were like women.
“Every dirty detail?” he negotiated quickly.
“Can’t get any dirtier than that.”
“You’re so on. Any preference? Brunette, blond, redhead? Big boobs? Long legs?”
Daniel shook his head and grinned. It wasn’t like he wanted to sleep with the escort, he just wanted her to accompany him to that darn reception. He really didn’t care either way what she looked like, as long as she wasn’t ugly and could parade as his girlfriend.
“Why don’t you surprise me? See you soon.” He was about to disconnect, then thought of it otherwise. “And, thanks Tim, for everything.”
“Love you too.”
How he had ever ended up being best friends with a gay man, he had no idea. When he had first invited Tim to his parents’ house in the Hamptons during the summer holidays when they were attending college together, Daniel’s parents had been afraid he was about to tell them he was gay.
Just thinking back and remembering the relief on their faces when he had told them that he was as straight as the A’s he brought home from college, made him chuckle. Not that they wouldn’t have loved him the same, they had assured him and given Tim an apologetic look, but they did want grandchildren one day. No pressure, of course. And yes, Tim was always welcome at their house.
They’d practically adopted him after that summer and politically correct as they were, they loved parading him around telling everybody who did or did not want to know that Tim was gay and their straight son’s best friend.
He settled into his comfortable first class seat and reviewed the last remaining issues of the deal. He would have his assistant send all current contracts electronically to his new attorneys who could take over where Judd had left off. At worst, it would delay the deal for a week, but he didn’t care at this point.
Maybe he could use the downtime and go up to the wine country and relax for a few days. He’d ask Tim if he could recommend any place in particular. As a wine snob Tim was bound to know the best places to go. He could unwind with a good bottle of wine in one hand and a book in the other.
Hell, who was he kidding? Since when did he know how to relax? In the last year he hadn’t taken a single day off away from his company. Even on Sundays he’d been working, trying to put together another deal, even when Audrey had begged him to go away for a weekend with her. He couldn’t really blame her that she’d found solace in Judd’s arms. He hadn’t exactly been the most attentive of boyfriends. Or the most romantic. Frankly he just wasn’t the type.
Daniel already pitied the woman who’d fall for him one day. Good luck to her ever pulling him away from his work. Audrey certainly hadn’t managed to, and she was beautiful and enticing. But his priority had always been his work, and that wouldn’t change. Ever.
He hadn’t come this far, and this far without taking any of his father’s money, to have a woman stifle his ambition and make him feel guilty for not spending enough time with her. That was the path other men took. It wasn’t his. He needed the challenge, the conquest, the battles. Not a woman sitting at home and whining that he didn’t have time for her.
He’d pretty much given up on finding the right woman, suspecting that the woman who’d put up with him wasn’t born yet. It wasn’t that he hadn’t tried, but the ones he’d ended up attracting were women like Audrey. High maintenance, spoiled, and ultimately after his money. No thanks.
Looking back at his life, he couldn’t put his finger on the exact point when he’d turned from a fun loving young man into the driven businessman he was now. Women had always flocked to him, mostly because of his Italian good looks, so he had never really had to work at it and taken them for granted.
Sex was certainly a part of his life, but not an important one. He’d often forego sex with Audrey for late night business meetings. And it had seemed that she hadn’t minded that much, as long as he would go to all important society events with her. Most of these events bored the hell out of him, so these events had been few and far between.
Daniel rarely appeared in any gossip pages which had bugged Audrey tremendously since she loved reading about herself in the papers. He was much more of a private person and certainly not as flashy as she had wanted him to be. Looking back, he didn’t know why he had ever started dating her. They were completely unsuited for each other.
If only Sabrina Palmer had taken the other job she’d been offered and not this one at the Law Offices of Brand, Freeman & Merriweather, she wouldn’t want to crawl out of her skin right now. She would be sitting in an air conditioned law office in Stockton with a job that would probably go nowhere, rather than having one of the Senior Associates hover over her from behind, pretending to read the document on her computer screen, when she knew he was peering down her blouse.
But no, she had to go for the job with the most reputable firm in San Francisco in the hope that she would be able to gain the right kind of legal experience to advance her career. She had passed the bar with flying colors and had thought she could take on the world, only to come up against an age-old problem. She was a woman in a man’s world.
And now, instead of getting to work on any of the interesting cases the male Junior Associates were assigned to, she was relegated to routine corporate law while Jon Hannigan, or Slime Ball Jonny as the secretaries called him behind his back, checked out her boobs.
Not that her boobs were that pronounced, but for her petite size she had a nicely proportioned set, together with a relatively curvy figure. Slim like a model, she was not. Nor was she tall. She would have loved to be at least a couple of inches taller so that not all men would automatically be able to look down to her navel when she wore a v-line neckline top, but she couldn’t change her genes.
She wore her hair shorter than she had in law school, and she’d recently had it trimmed so that it barely grazed her shoulders. It was what her enthusiastic hairstylist called darkest brown. He’d also begged her to allow him to lighten it up with highlights, but she had refused each time and had only let him layer it so it framed her face with a softer style.
“You’ll need to rephrase this paragraph,” Hannigan suggested as he leaned even closer and moved his arm past her shoulder to point at the screen. A whiff of body odor accompanied his movement. “You need to convey intent.”
She knew all about intent. His intent. The day she was introduced to Jon Hannigan she knew he’d be trouble. The sleazy look he’d given her had told her everything she needed to know: to be on guard. He’d squeezed her hand with his sausage fingers for far too long, and Sabrina had had to keep all her cool not to yank it out from his grip causing an unpleasant scene.
His pasty face was accentuated by an often slightly red nose, which could have been either caused by too much exposure to the sun, or too much ingestion of alcohol. She suspected the latter. He wasn’t handsome, but he wasn’t particularly ugly either, even though this personality made him ugly from the inside.
If she had to describe him to anybody, she would have said that he was average. Just an average asshole.
“Sabrina, I’ll let you in on a little secret. You want to move up here, you just stick with me.”
Sabrina shuddered inwardly. Moving up was not what he had in mind, she was certain. Moving down was much more likely, down his body. She’d heard enough from the secretaries who’d been harassed by him. The mere recollection of what she’d heard made the hair on her neck stand up in high alert. The man was a pig.
“I can revise the brief first thing tomorrow. It’ll be on your desk before you get in.”
“How about you’ll be on my desk first thing in the morning?”
She sucked in a quick breath. Yes, she’d heard alright. Hannigan was getting more brazen, and she had to get away, now.
“I’d better finish off for today,” she said cautiously and started to power down her computer. He didn’t make a move, but remained standing behind her chair, preventing her from pushing it back. Turning her head slightly into his direction, she made another attempt.
“Excuse me, please.”
He moved back only a foot, enough for her to get out of her chair, but it brought her far too close to his body. She sucked in air and tried to squeeze past him. He had a sick grin pasted on his face. Did he really think he looked seductive like that? The homeless guy at the bus station had a better chance at getting into her pants than Hannigan.
“Why in such a hurry?”
“Doctor’s appointment. Excuse me.”
After giving her boobs another palpable glance, he moved aside and let her pass. She felt nauseous from the mix of his overwhelming cologne and his body odor. Without turning she snatched her handbag off the desk and headed for the door.
“See you tomorrow, Sabrina.”
His voice too close behind her made her speed up. She had to get out of there. Even though it was barely four in the afternoon, and normally she worked at least past six o’clock, she couldn’t stand it any longer. The doctor’s appointment had been an excuse to escape Hannigan. Another minute in his presence and she would have puked or passed out.
How she was supposed to stick it out in the firm for at least a full year, with him heavily breathing down her neck, or rather her blouse, she had no idea.
“Gone for the day?” Caroline, the receptionist asked her as she passed through the foyer.
Sabrina gave her a look that said more than she could have imparted in a ten minute conversation.
She nodded and leaned over the counter to whisper to Caroline. “I don’t know how much longer I can take this.”
“You know what happened to Amy. If you complain, they’ll just find a reason to get rid of you.” The receptionist gave her a pitiful look. It was true. Apparently the partners valued Hannigan’s achievements enough to overlook his indiscretions.
Old boys club, that’s all it was. It was like swimming against the current. The question was, how long was she going to struggle, or was she going to get out of the river?
“Doesn’t leave me many options, does it? See you tomorrow.”
Despite the fact that it was a warm summer day, Sabrina felt the air refreshing when she stepped out of the building. She hadn’t been able to breathe in her office at all, not with him around.
The funny thing was that the secretaries had been happy that the firm had finally hired a female junior associate, and now she knew why. Hannigan wasn’t bothering them much anymore. She’d become the lightning rod for them. As much as she felt for the secretaries, she had to look after herself and make a decision on what to do about him. Could she risk filing a formal complaint? How would this impact her career?
Remembering that the fridge at home was nearly empty, she decided to use the extra time to go grocery shopping on her way home. The supermarket was incredibly busy, and only one of the checkouts was staffed. Apparently some computer glitch had shut down all remaining checkouts.
While she made sure she could keep her place in line, she went back to the freezer aisle and picked up a pint of ice cream. She hoped Holly, her roommate and childhood friend, was home and they could devour the ice cream together while bitching about men in general and Hannigan in particular.
By the time she finally entered their shared flat, it was past six, the time she usually came home.
“Holly, you home?” she called out and headed for the kitchen placing the bags of groceries onto the counter. Before the ice cream could melt, she put it in the freezer and turned when she heard a sound coming from the bathroom down the hall.
“Holly, you ok?”
The bathroom door was ajar, and she saw Holly crouched on the floor in front of the toilet. She was in her pink bathrobe and throwing up.
“What’s wrong, sweetie? Did you eat something bad?”
Sabrina lowered herself down and pulled her friend’s long blond hair back. Her face was ashen.
“Don’t know. I was fine a couple of hours ago. But then …”
Her head veered toward the porcelain throne again, and she lost yet more of the contents of her stomach. Sabrina seized a washcloth from the linen closet and soaked it in cold water before she sat next to her friend again.
“Here you go, sweetie.” She pressed the cold cloth against Holly’s neck while she continued holding her hair back. “Just get it all out.”
“You look stressed. Bad day?” Holly tried to make conversation, evidently hoping to distract herself from her nausea.
Sabrina smiled gently. “Obviously not at bad as yours.”
“Hannigan again?” Holly gave her a knowing look as she clutched her stomach again and held her head over the bowl.
“Not any worse than before,” Sabrina lied. It was getting worse. He’d started making distinctly sexual suggestions and she had run out of excuses to get out of his way. But she wasn’t going to burden Holly with this right now.
“You should really do something about it.” Holly was adamant.
“Well, let’s take care of you first before we make any plans on how to deal with Hannigan, shall we?”
She helped Holly up and could feel how wobbly she was. She supported her weight, while Holly cleaned her face and rinsed her mouth with mouthwash.
“Do you want to stretch out on the couch or your bed?”
“The couch, please.”
While Sabrina helped her to the living room, the phone rang.
“Let the machine get it. I can imagine who that is.”
Sabrina only raised her eyebrow, but didn’t question her. Since she herself rarely ever got phone calls on their landline, she was pretty sure the call was for Holly anyway.
As soon as the beep sounded, an irritated female voice could be heard through the answering machine. “Holly, it’s Misty. I know you’re there, so pick up the damn phone. Do you hear me? If you think you can just leave me a message to say you’re not taking tonight’s booking, you’ve got it coming. After what you did with the Japanese client last week, I have no more patience with you.”
Sabrina sent her a questioning look, but Holly just scowled and shrugged her shoulders.
“All the other girls are booked, so there’s nobody to take your place. You’ll work tonight, no matter how sick you are or you won’t work for me anymore. Do you hear me? And I’ll make sure nobody else in town will hire you either. I hope we understand each other. I want you at the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental, Room 2307 tonight at 7pm, or you’re fired.”
The machine stopped.
“Old hag!” Holly croaked, her voice still hoarse from throwing up.
“What was that with the Japanese client?” Sabrina looked at her friend who made a telling hand movement.
“Pervert.” At first it looked like she didn’t want to give any more information, but Sabrina knew her friend well and knew that eventually she’d always tell her what she wanted to know. Holly wasn’t one to keep secrets.
“So, we’re in his hotel room, and I think he just wants what most of these guys want. But no, that man had to go all kinky on me. He brought with him these little steel balls on a chain, and you really don’t want to know what he wanted me to do with them …”
Sabrina gave her a look, confirming that no details were necessary. She’d already received more information than she cared for.
“So, anyway, I bolted, and when Misty found out, she basically put me on probation. Said if I walked out on a client again, she’d fry my ass. Pardon my French.”
Holly’s French was never the problem. In fact most of her clients liked her French and anything else she could do with her tongue. Sabrina shook her head and laughed.
“Let me make you some chamomile tea.”
While she busied herself in the large eat-in kitchen and tried to find some dry crackers to go with the tea, Sabrina wondered whether any of her colleagues would find it strange that she shared a flat with a professional escort.
She and Holly had grown up together in a small town on the East Bay. They had been best friends back then and had reconnected after college when they’d found out that they both had decided to move to San Francisco. Nothing had been more natural than sharing a flat.
While Sabrina went on to go to law school, Holly had bounced from one job to the next, until she’d realized that there was an easier way to make money.
Blond and blue-eyed she was quite a beauty. In the right clothes, she was a stunner. So why go out on dates with guys who’d just buy her dinner and then expected her to sleep with them, when she could actually get paid for what she was going to do anyway?
Of course, there were always clients like the Japanese businessman from the previous week, but according to Holly most of the guys were normal men, mostly businessmen from out of town who felt lonely.
At first Sabrina had been shocked at Holly’s choice to become an escort, but when she saw that Holly enjoyed her job, at least most of the time, and had remained the same kind of person who she was before her odd career choice, she had stopped trying to change her friend.
In any case, Holly’s large income had come in handy when Sabrina hadn’t been able to maintain her part-time waitress job during the last year of law school due to the demands of her studies and Holly had taken over paying the entire rent for the flat and always made sure the fridge was stocked.
Her friend had never let her pay anything back, not even now when Sabrina had gotten a job which paid her well enough to put a few hundred dollars aside every month. What were friends for, Holly had insisted. She was more a sister to her than a friend, and she knew Holly felt the same about her.
Holly was still as pale as Snow White when Sabrina brought her the tea and made her sip some of it. She was propped up on a couple of cushions.
“You can’t possibly work tonight. She’ll have to understand that.”
Holly frowned. “That’s what I told her, but you heard what she said. If I don’t get my ass over there, I’m fired. And this time she means it.”
Holly tried to sit up, but instantly dropped back into the cushions. “Oh damn. So dizzy.”
“You can’t go. I’ll call her and explain it.” Sabrina got up but felt herself be pulled back by Holly’s hand.
“You’re not my mother, so don’t. There’s no use. She’s about as understanding as Scrooge.”
“Can’t you find anybody to sub for you?” Surely there were other girls who could take this call for her. There wasn’t a convention in town at the moment, so business should be slow.
“I’m not a teacher, Sabrina, I’m an escort. We don’t have a central system where we call when we need a substitute.”
“There must be some independents out there. Don’t you know anybody?” There was no way she would let Holly go and work tonight. She needed her rest and recover from whatever bug she’d picked up. What if she had salmonella poisoning? No, she wouldn’t let Holly exhaust herself today.
“What? You wanna do it?” Holly laughed and then stared at Sabrina’s shocked face.
“Oh, come on, I wouldn’t know what to do,” Sabrina waved her off instantly. She and sex weren’t exactly on speaking terms right now. She had barely dated in years, and hadn’t … Well, never mind. It was not an option. The closest she’d gotten to sex in the last three years was listening to Holly’s stories about her clients.
“It would be perfect. Just look at it like a date.”
“Out of the question.” Was Holly completely out of her mind? She probably had a fever. Maybe she should get the thermometer and check. Or better yet, drive her to the hospital to make sure she wasn’t delirious. Sabrina put a hand on Holly’s forehead to feel if she was hot.
“What are you doing?”
“Checking if you’re feverish.”
“I’m not. Listen, you might not even have to sleep with him. Some of the guys just want company.”
“Like they pay that kind of money just to talk to somebody, puh-lease!” Sabrina huffed indignantly. Not even she was that naïve. She knew exactly what an escort was expected to do, at least she knew enough from the stories Holly had told her. There was no need to find out first hand.
“And besides, I have enough trouble just fending off Hannigan every day.”
“Well, that guy’s a jerk,” Holly commented. “I don’t know why you haven’t kicked him in the balls yet. I’ll do it for you, if you let me.” Holly’s grin turned truly wicked. Sabrina knew her friend would thoroughly enjoy kicking the crap out of Hannigan. She knew all those places where guys hurt the most, intimately. And she’d make full use of her knowledge.
“Maybe I’ll let you do that one day. In the meantime, I still need my job.” Sabrina tried not to think of the predicament she was in. She wanted her career to flourish, but she didn’t want to do it at the expense of her integrity. Giving into Hannigan would mean plum assignments to interesting cases, but nothing disgusted her more than the thought of Hannigan touching her. She’d rather have leeches put onto her skin to suck her blood.
“And I need mine. We’re in the same boat.” Holly’s voice sounded resigned. Sabrina gave her a long look. What her friend was suggesting was too much of a stretch for her.
“I can’t. I can’t just sleep with some guy I don’t know.”
Holly took her hand. “When did you last have sex?”
“You mean sex other than with a battery operated device made in China?”
“Yes, sex with a man.”
“You know that as well as I do, so what’s that got to do with anything?”
“When?” Even though Holly’s voice was still weak, she wouldn’t give up.
“First year of law school. As if you didn’t know the story – hell, everybody watching YouTube sure had a good look of my ass.” Sabrina shuddered at the memory of it. Without her knowledge, Brian had videotaped them having sex and then posted it on YouTube for everybody to see.
“That was quite unfortunate, I admit. However, you shouldn’t let a bad experience like that hold you back. You need to let loose, pretend to be somebody else and just let yourself go. You can’t wallow in those bad memories and be afraid of what the next guy is going to do. You’ve got to take charge of your life. If you assert yourself in your sex life, you’ll get what you want. So, don’t sit around like a wallflower. You’re pretty, you’re charming, you’re smart. You could be anything. And you could get any guy you wanted to.”
Sabrina looked at her friend as if she’d lost her mind. She couldn’t do what Holly suggested. “I could never pull it off.” She could come up with a hundred reasons why she couldn’t do it. “I’m not like you, Holly. I don’t jump into bed with guys on the first date. Hell, I barely kiss on the first date. I’m just so not a candidate for this.”
“Bull! You took drama in college. Don’t tell me you can’t playact a little. Just pretend you’re me. In fact, that’s what you would have to do anyway, so that the whole thing doesn’t blow up in our faces, or in mine, that is. You just go there and tell him you’re Holly Foster, and then you’ll behave like Holly Foster. Just pretend you’re going on a blind date.”
Strangely, the more Holly marketed the idea to her, the less unreasonable it sounded.
“A blind date? He’ll buy me dinner, and then he’ll expect to have sex with me. Like that?” She tried it out for size. It sounded strange in her own ears. “Ridiculous. I’m not the type for this. You’ve known me all my life. What in my history makes you think that I could even pull this off? The guy will see straight through me.”
“Don’t be so paranoid. All he’ll see is your pretty face, and nothing else will matter. It’ll be like a date, only that he paid for it in advance. And you know exactly what’s coming. In fact, you’ll be in charge. Most guys let me take the lead. They want to be seduced. It’ll give you some practice. I tell you, you sure need it.”
That jab hurt. She’d put herself on the shelf after the disaster with her fellow student Brian, who’d obviously just wanted to see if he could get her into bed so he could post some sex video on the internet. The humiliation was something she never wanted to feel again.
She’d buried herself in her studies after that and had rarely taken part in the school’s social activities to avoid seeing him more than she had to.
“You need to get over it. What better way to do it knowing exactly what you’re up against? It’s a one-night thing. He’s from out of town. You’ll never see him again. This is your chance to do something crazy, have fun, have fabulous sex, enjoy yourself, let loose.”
Holly gingerly bit into a cracker as she glanced at Sabrina. Sabrina was torn. She wanted to help her best friend out of a jam. Holly had helped her out so many times over the last few years, and she really owed her. But this? How could she agree to pretend to be an escort and go to a strange man’s hotel room to have sex with him?
If her parents ever found out they would be appalled and sink into the ground out of shame for their daughter. Yet, one thing Holly had said, had struck. She had wallowed in her bad memories and hadn’t let anybody close because of it. She was afraid of getting hurt again and had passed up sex because of it.
Perhaps it wasn’t any worse that a blind date. Two strangers, a dinner, some sex. Wasn’t that what most men expected anyway from the women they dated? Only that they got away cheaper, with just a lousy dinner. Why not sell herself for something more, something closer to what she was actually worth?
And besides, she had started missing sex and the touch of a man. You couldn’t cuddle with a vibrator. But her fear of being hurt again had held her back from dating. She’d figured that once she’d met the right guy, things would fall into place. But they hadn’t. She hadn’t met anybody, and she was just as lonely now as she was after the debacle in law school.
Maybe Holly was right, and it was time to let loose and have one wild night with a stranger. Just one night. Without regret, without ever having to see the guy again, so there could be no embarrassment and no hurt. He wouldn’t even know who she was. Anonymity was a great protector.
“Will I have to ask him for the money upfront?”
Holly smiled. “No. Everything’s already paid for through the office. No messy dealings with cash. It’ll be like a date.”
Sabrina nodded slowly. There was no going back now. She had to be brave to help her friend and in the process help herself.
“Ok. I’ll do it. I’ll be Holly Foster for tonight.”
Copyright 2010 Tina Folsom
Copyright 2010 Tina Folsom