Authors: Lisa Clark O'Neill
Martin pulled her car over on the side of Highway 17 for the sole purpose of throwing up. And once she’d communed with the scraggly weeds and scattered litter and a strip of rubber from an eighteen wheeler’s blowout, she felt… no better at all.
She absolutely, positively could not believe that she was doing this.
She, who loathed the idea of being valued solely on the basis of her physical attributes – of any woman being judged by the way she filled out her shirt – was going to take off her clothes in order to turn a profit. She was actually going to strip – as in naked – and somebody was going to pay her good money to do so.
Well… technically she wouldn’t be naked. She’d eventually wind up in pasties and a G-string. With little pink sequins decorating her crotch. And tassels hanging off her nipples.
“Oh, God.” Upchuck, take two. And after she’d seen the very, very last of the chocolate milkshake she’d mistakenly assumed would calm her stomach, she still didn’t feel any better. Clutching her middle, Sam stumbled around the front of her car. Right at that moment another car blew by, and wouldn’t you know it? It was filled with teenage boys. The heat from their exhaust stirred the air, fluttering the edges of her trench coat. The old London Fog concealed the worst of her get-up, but the go-go boots were decidedly visible. The bright red wig was an eye-catcher, too.
Sure enough, as she made her way weakly to the door, the geniuses in the souped-up GTO hit the brakes. And if that didn’t qualify as a sure-fire way to ensure they didn’t make it to their respective twenty-first birthdays, she wasn’t really certain what did. What were the idiots thinking? That the next car that came barreling up behind them was going to automatically stop for their stupidity?
Luckily for their parents’ sakes, the driver had the wherewithal to steer his teen dream machine over to the berm.
Unluckily for Sam, they decided to roll down the windows.
“Hey baby!” The front passenger leaned out the window. Scrawny arms dangled from a ratty wife-beater, but Sam knew that scrawny didn’t always equal weak. “Why don’t you come on over here a minute and we’ll have ourselves a little party.”
How to resist the temptation?
She should simply ignore the little turds, but letting men get away with bad behavior was a practice she’d abandoned long ago.
is the operative word,” she called over her shoulder as she yanked on her door handle. But the darn thing stuck and she couldn’t get it to budge. From behind her she heard a burst of sophomoric laughter, followed by a barked order to “shut up!” She wasn’t sure whether the kid was talking to her or to his friends, and really didn’t give a damn either way.
Pulling on the handle and swearing under her breath, Sam almost didn’t hear his approach. But the scent of Obsession for men drifted in on the night breeze like a bad department store fog, and she rolled her eyes with impatience. She didn’t have time for this shit.
She turned and – no big surprise – the kid walked toward her, backlit from his friend’s brake lights, cupping himself in some kind of challenge. It was difficult to distinguish his features as he had a camouflage boonie hat pulled low over his head, but his swagger practically radiated testosterone-charged contention, a walking billboard of up-to-no-good. As he moved even closer she caught the unmistakable scent of booze. Great. This kid was probably sixteen, seventeen at the outside, and walking along the dark highway half-cocked. If the Halfwit of the Month Club was looking for October’s poster child, they needed to search no further.
“Look, son.” Y
eah, he didn’t like her calling him that, but she wasn’t in the mood to placate his fragile ego. “I understand that at your age your social acceptability is directly proportional to your ability to exercise poor judgment, but I’m telling you right now that you need to turn around and walk away. I’m running late, I’m cranky, and this is a very busy highway. If you’re not careful someone acting even more irresponsibly than you are is going to come along and run over your ass. So do us both a favor and pretend you have some sense.”
Junior laughed, as she’d feared he would, and swaggered even closer. Sam squeezed her eyes shut briefly, wondering why she seemed to draw assholes like flies to sticky paper. Maybe there was a jerk-magnet buried under her skin. “Why don’t you put that mouth to better use, sweet thing, and then we’ll see who you’re calling little. I got money.” He reached into the back pocket of his baggy jeans. “Ten bucks should cover it.”
What the… was he serious? Just because she was wearing a trench coat and go-go boots the little punk had the right to assume? “Okay, kiddo.” She barely resisted the urge to slap him. “I’m going to offer you a piece of advice. You and your friends need to go home and sober up before you do something truly stupid.”
He reached out and grabbed for her breast. “The only stupid thing I’m looking to do tonight is you.”
Sam’s hand snapped out so fast that the kid had no idea what hit him. Blood spurted – the heel of her palm had connected pretty solidly with his nose – as he stumbled back with a shriek. His bloodshot eyes registered surprise even as they went watery from the force of the impact. Before that surprise could morph into humiliation and anger – a dangerous combination in a teenaged male – Sam had her hand on her cell phone.
She held it up so the kid could make an informed decision as to what he should do next. “Unless you’d like to explain to your parents how you ended up in jail, drunk off your ass, booked on charges for underage drinking and attempted assault, I suggest you think twice about
trying to touch me. I don’t take lightly to unsolicited groping, and here’s a hint – no means no. Always. No exceptions. Now unless you’d like me to have a chat with the 911 operator who’s standing by, you need to turn around and get out of my sight.”
Using the edge of his shirt to mop the blood which still trickled from his nose, the kid glared and weighed the options. Sam swallowed the bitter taste of fear – there were three other boys in
that car, and no amount of self-defense training would even those odds – but another car passed by, slowing to survey the scene, and thankfully Junior had the smarts to check his pride in favor of avoiding a trip to the pokey.
“Bitch,” he hissed, stooping to retrieve the hat which had been knocked from his head when she hit him.
“Sticks and stones, pal.”
As he stalked off toward his friends, Sam’s breath whooshed out in a rush, legs trembling beneath her coat. No matter how many times she’d been in that kind of situation, it never got any easier.
But she hadn’t let him see her fear.
Watching the kid climb into the car amid the cackling laughter of his friends, she hoped he’d at least learned a lesson. “Hell,” she said out loud, as the GTO peeled away. “I could seriously use a drink.” And because the thought of a drink reminded her that she was supposed to have been at Murphy’s Pub as of – she glanced at her watch – ten minutes ago, Sam turned toward her car and gave another violent tug on the handle. The stupid thing decided to cooperate, and she yanked the door open in frustration.
Settling her long legs, which with the addition of the three-inch platforms on the boots had become ridiculously unwieldy, into the cramped area between the bucket seat and the gas pedal, Sam wrapped her arms around the steering wheel and leaned her head down with a shaky sigh. The vomiting and then the fun little tango with that shining example of teenage stupidity had played havoc with her already frazzled nerves.
Lifting her head, she flipped down her visor so that she could check her makeup in the little lighted mirror. Most of the war paint was still in place, but she’d worn off all of her lipstick. Pulling a tube of Kiss-Me Red from the cup-holder between the seats, she hastily performed a repair job.
Although really, she might as well not have bothered. No one ever looked at her face.
Without the multiple layers of make-up and the shockingly red wig, her face wasn’t much to speak of. Plain hazel eyes surrounded by stubby lashes topped off a button nose and nondescript lips. Her cheeks were too full, her face too round, and though she was spared the ignominy of freckles, her features were so aw-shucks bland and uninteresting that she could only be described as average. She’d heard cute a few times, and more often, wholesome.
Which was why it was some kind of great, cosmic joke that that face was attached to her body. Because her body was blatant sin.
Double-D breasts, a narrow waist and legs that seemed to go on forever. True, her hips might show the evidence of a few too many candy bars here lately, but there was no question that overall Sam was built like one of Hugh Hefner’s wet dreams.
Trying not to resent the fact that she was going to have to use that body in a way that made her sick, Sam put the key in the ignition of her ancient Ford, and listened as the engine turned over.
How the hell she was going to take off her clothes in front of a room full of men, she honestly had no idea.
Josh Harding stood at the time-worn front doors to Murphy’s Irish Pub – a semi-famous Charleston landmark housed in one of the city’s most venerable buildings – reading the hand-lettered sign advising that the bar was closed for a private party. A light breeze, the first real kiss of autumn, stirred a smattering of leaves which had fallen from one of the city’s few deciduous trees.
Somehow, the summer had gone and he’d failed to notice.
The past few months had been a weird sort of blur, filled with a relentless cycle of doctors and specialists and physical rehabilitation as he worked to regain the full use of his dominant right arm – torn to hell by the passage of a bullet through the shoulder – so that he could fully assume his position as a forensic artist with the Charleston PD. It was just a few weeks past that he’d finally been given the green light, and although he still experienced an occasional tingling sensation in his fingers if he spent too many hours gripping a pencil, his artistic abilities didn’t seem to have suffered.
Given his single-minded focus on putting his health and his career back on track, Josh hadn’t given a thought to his social life. It felt oddly surreal, like something out of a former lifetime, to find himself on the threshold of re-entering the whole scen
e. He glanced at the sign. If he was going to start doing the face-to-face with people again, this little soiree was surely the way to do it.
The party in question was the old traditional bachelor send-off: a gathering of male relatives and friends of the groom-to-be – in this case Josh’s FBI pal Clay Copeland – ostensibly to celebrate the end of one era in the soon-to-be-wedded man’s life while toasting the beginning of the new.
In reality, it was an excuse for a bunch of normally well-behaved guys to get stinking drunk, act like idiots, and watch well-endowed women take off their clothes.
Smiling to himself, Josh tugged on the old brass handle, chuckling as the pulsing beat of some kind of dance music mingled with the deep, raucous cadence of male laughter. The bar area, normally hopping at this time of night, was eerily vacant – the only patrons perching on the well-worn stools the ghosts of Murphy’s checkered past.
Weaving his way through the clusters of high tables, Josh headed toward the stairs, the ruckus growing louder as he ascended.
Normally a dining room packed with tourists and locals and the mouthwatering aroma of fresh seafood, the large area was now thick with the scent of male bodies – of cigar smoke and spilled beer and high-test whiskey flowing through many a vein. The cloud of rampant masculinity engulfed Josh as he gained the upper landing, and before he’d even stepped three feet into the room he’d acquired a contact buzz. The cop in him sniffed briefly, wondering if it was indeed only cigars that he’d scented, but as he figured the guest of honor was a federal cop himself, he’d be better off turning a blind eye – or nose – to whatever went on here tonight. The Murphy’s, the twin brothers and their fireball of a dad who owned and operated this establishment, were known to be a rowdy bunch when the occasion called for it. And the marriage of their cousin/niece, Tate Hennessey, to a man they’d come to think of as one of their own was definitely such an occasion. This send-off to Clay’s bachelorhood was simply the first installment in a week’s worth of festivities, culminating in the blow-out, storybook wedding, in which Josh had been asked to participate as an usher. Looking around and spotting the groom-to-be doing – oh my God – a keg-stand in the far corner, he figured that the poor guy would probably require the full seven days to recover enough to walk down the aisle on his own two feet. As a matter of fact, he hoped Clay wouldn’t be either hospitalized or dead by the end of the night.
Shaking his head on another chuckle, Josh edged around a couple of guys he didn’t recognize, and as he turned to head toward one of the full service bars set up on either side of the room, he ran headlong into another guest. “Excuse me,” he said to the… blow-up woman. She was about six feet tall, wearing a come hither grin. Someone had scrawled across her chest with permanent marker, labeling her The Perfect Wife.
“Good Lord,” he muttered, running his hand across eyes dancing with laughter. He really hoped the thing was there for decorative and/or comedic purposes only, and not considered a piece of functional party equipment. The way this event was shaping up, they’d all be lucky to make it through the night.