aryn Hall was tired, sweaty, and fit to killâright after she emasculated her boss with the spiked stripper heels she'd been coerced into wearing last night. It was because of that rat bastard that she was homeless, jobless, and seconds away from committing her first felony.
“I hate Willard,” she grumbled, and tugged her skintight uniform away from her damp skin. The effort didn't help the cooling process, as the sun continued to beat down with unusual ferocity given the early hour.
“Me too,” Summer said, as she wobbled on loose gravel on high heels. She righted herself with outstretched arms to keep from pitching sideways into the shallow, weedy ditch that paralleled the desolate country road. Summer had an unnatural fear of snakes and was convinced that they were waiting just out of sight for her to make one wrong step.
“I think I just inhaled a bug,” Jess said, and coughed to expel it. When that failed, she made a face and gave up. “Yum. Breakfast.”
“You could have shared,” Taryn said. “I'm starving.”
“I think I have a gnat stuck in my mascara.” Summer blinked and touched her lashes. “Would that help?”
Taryn sighed. “Give me another hour without food and I'll take you up on your offer.”
Despite the fact that Michigan summers normally hovered at temperatures around a humid eighty degrees at midday, it had to be that already, and it was only six a.m. Add this to the misery of skintight, sweat- and grit-damp red-white-and-blue polyester, matching sequins, and heels that defied any explanationâother than that a man must have invented themâthe normally cool-headed Taryn Hall was near her breaking point.
“What are the chances of rain?” Summer said, examining the blue sky and fanning herself with her hand. “I could use a shower.”
Taryn looked over to see Summer's damp blond locks escaping her ponytail, and Jess's once carefully tamped-down brown curls losing the fight against what felt like nearly one hundred percent humidity. Her heart filled with guilt. Her two friends were a bedraggled mess and there was nothing she could do.
They were all miserable and it was her fault. “I'm really sorry, you guys. This isn't the way I expected the night would end. I thought we'd be ogled a bit and that's all. I should have known Willard was up to something when he coerced me into wearing these stupid shoes.”
“Don't apologize,” Jess said with a fierce stare. “You didn't cause this mess. You were the victim of that letch.”
“She's right,” Summer chimed in. “Willard is a jerk.”
Leave it to Jess to be the voice of reason and for Summer to agree. The three of them were friends to the end. If Taryn had to be fired and dumped in the middle of nowhere, to limp her way to civilization on screaming feet, she was glad it was with her two best friends.
“I wish I was back in Texas.” Summer sighed. She swiped her hair out of her bright blue eyes. “At least it's dry heat.”
Jess snorted. “Great. We'd be in an oven rather than a sauna. Which is worse?”
They began a debate about dry heat versus humid heat.
Taryn ignored them and looked up, expecting to see buzzards circling, just waiting for one of them to drop over. If she was the first to fall, she wasn't entirely sure she'd fight off the beaked scavengers. It was that kind of day.
“As soon as we get to a phone, I'm renting a car, hunting down Willard, and finishing him off,” Taryn snapped. “Then I'm having him stuffed.”
“You can't do that,” Jess interjected before Taryn got off on a tangent. “Lawyers first. By the time you're done suing his sorry butt, you'll own the Muskrats.”
Her friend had a point. Willard had a ton of money, but he was an obsessed coupon-clipper and cheapskate. His children wore garage sale clothing, and not the good stuff, and his wife cut her own hair, much to the horror of professional beauticians everywhere.
The idea of prying a huge settlement check from his pudgy, groping fingers lightened her mood. Just a little. “The image of thinning his accounts does sound fun.”
Summer grinned. “See, something to look forward to. Well, if we ever get back to civilization.” She looked into the weeds and shuddered. “I hate Willard, too.”
Willard J. Covington III was the owner of the newly minted upstart pro football team, the Lansing Mighty Muskrats and their cheerleading squad, which Taryn, Summer, and Jess were on. Willard was the trio's former employer. He was the kind of guy who, had it not been for his wealth, would be just another perv on the street.
Willard liked to brag that it was his superior negotiating skills that led to the approval of a new team, but Taryn wasn't convinced. There were whispers of a wild night in Vegas five years past involving Willard, several strippers, a famous football player, and a billionaire team owner. Within weeks of that night of debauchery, Willard was pre-approved for a new team and the stadium had been completed late last year.
Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.
However, that had nothing to do with the current circumstances. During a small private party last night with Willard and his icky friends, aboard their traveling bus, he'd finally stepped over the line with Taryn. After consuming a copious number of whiskey sours, he'd gleefully trapped her against the bathroom door, shoved his hand down her uniform top, and groped her.
Taryn, always prepared for the worst when Willard was around, carried a small pink can of Mace in her bodice for any eventuality. As he fumbled for a grip on her left breast, he'd dislodged the can, enabling her to miraculously retrieve it with quick reflexes before it was able to fall to the floor.
Armed and ticked off, she'd quickly aimed and squirted him dead-on in his beady little eyes.
He'd gasped from the burn and pitched sideways, squawking and gagging under the onslaught of noxious chemicals. They both bounced off the back bench seat and fell into the aisle in a tangle of arms and legs, she landing on top of his doughy body, his hand still hooked in her bodice.
Despite not being able to see or breathe, he still managed to squeeze her left buttock with his free hand as she struggled to push off his porcine frame, which earned him an elbow to the face and a broken nose.
His yelp and her outraged screams alerted Summer and Jess, and they jumped into the fray.
Unfortunately, Willard had a bodyguard on board: Alvin the Ape, they called him, as the man was obscenely hairy. After a flurry of fists and nails, and arterial spray from Willard's hairy nostrils, the three women were ejected from the bus by the huge primate, sans luggage and cell phones, and left to whatever fate awaited.
Worse, she still had Willard's blood on her uniform, compliments of his crumpled nose.
Thinking about his yucky DNA on her made her itch. “I've got to wash this blood off before I get cooties,” Taryn said and shuddered. Dark red stains marked the white sequins. “Where is a dry cleaner when you need one?”
“Oh, no, you don't. It's evidence of a crime,” Summer said. “When we get back home, we're going to take pictures, bag your uniform, and give it to the lawyer. Then it won't be your word against his.”
Taryn shot her a sidelong glance. Most (men) dismissed Summer as a ditzy blonde, but Taryn and Jess knew better. She was crazy smart and a killer with anything techy.
“You're right,” Taryn said and stopped walking. “Thanks. But still, yuck.”
Summer hugged her. Jess jumped in. Taryn was the first to pull away. She wrinkled her nose. “One of you smells funky. Like cheap cologne and sweaty gravel dust.”
“It's me,” Summer said. “Saul Fleischman pulled me into a bear hug after he proposed. His cologne comes in big spray bottles, and is also used as a bear repellent.”
“Really?” Jess said.
“He told me so.”
Taryn skipped over the cologne comment. “Isn't he married with six kids and something like forty grandkids?”
“Yup. He's been married for fifty years,” Summer said, and waved away a second gnat looking to join the first in her lashes. She blinked again. “Creep.”
They tottered along for a couple of minutes in silence. Taryn felt a bit light-headed and wondered how many gnats she'd need for a decent breakfast. Summer did wear a lot of mascara.
She glanced back up at the vultures and thought about lying down as bait. If one landed on her, the three of them could catch it and eat it. But the plan faded with the absurdity of the idea. She made a face and prayed for a quick end. Surely hallucinating was a sign of impending death.
“We never should have agreed to that party without the guys for backup,” Jess said. She kicked her shoes off into the ditch and kept walking. “We were set up as Willard's personal harem.”
“True. And by the time I realized the rest of our squad wasn't coming, the bus was already rolling,” Taryn agreed. “We were lambs being led to slaughter.”
“Baa.” Sweet Summer's face turned red. Her hands curled into fists. “Did he really think he could pimp us out and we'd go along with it? Do I look like a hooker?”
Okay, the skimpy cheerleader uniform and the stripper heels they'd been asked to wear instead of their usual sneakers didn't scream librarian. But she was right, Taryn thought. Every man on the bus probably had some sort of cheerleader fantasy. And a deluded Willard had expected them to perform.
“Clearly, he did.” Jess yanked up her low-cut bodice and grimaced. “We're cheerleaders, not hookers.”
“Yeah, cheerleaders,” Summer said and they fist-bumped.
None of the trio saw their job as a lifelong career. It was all about travel and having fun while they were young. They each had other plans, but had never thought they'd have to make a career change this soon. The money wasn't great, but it was enough for a twenty-something to live on if she was frugal.
Food, clothing, and saving for her future were why Taryn had ignored Willard's creepy innuendos. Big mistake.
Cheerleading was for kicks and cash. They'd all done it in high school and college. Now they'd been fired because she wouldn't do Willard.
Taryn scratched her grimy arm and looked around. They really were in the middle of nowhere. There were overgrown fields of weeds, scattered clumps of trees, and an occasional wildflower thrown in for fun. Fifteen minutes back, they'd stumbled upon the dump site of an old white refrigerator with a missing door and a computer monitor from a previous decade.
After an hour of walking down this empty road and not one car passing by, Taryn was losing hope of rescue.
A ramshackle red barn from another century was the only sign that people once lived in the area.
“Willard is so done. Unless we get murdered by some freak out here in the sticks,” Jess, the city girl, said. “Then Willard's home free to debauch for another day.”
The trio glanced nervously around. Fields, fields, and more fields, as far as the eye could see.
Then, “Wait, there's something,” Taryn said. “Look. Cows.” Hope welled inside her sweaty breast. “They usually don't roam around feral. There must be a farm nearby.”
“Good,” Summer said. “I'm tired of walking.”
Taryn slipped an arm around her. “Me too. But if we can't find the farmhouse, then we're taking our chances and hitching a ride with the first axe murderer that comes along. Deal?”
“Deal,” Summer said with a shaky laugh.
As if on cue, a car engine rumbled from behind them, cutting the silence. Surprised, they spun around to see a sparkling black limo speeding up the road, trailing a cloud of dust in its wake. The three women darted to the narrow shoulder as the car skidded to a halt a few feet away.
“Is it Willard?” Summer whispered.
“I'm not sure.” Taryn waved dust out of her eyes and strained to see through the smoked glass windows of the vehicle. All she saw was her own reflection. Her hazel eyes were wide and worried and her hair was sweat-plastered around her face. It wasn't pretty. “I don't recognize the car.”
The three grouped together for protection.
For a moment, the car idled with no obvious signs of human habitation. For a second, Taryn imagined a black-and-white bovine behind the wheel. She was seriously losing it.
“The car is sizing us up for death like creepy Christine from an old scary Stephen King movie,” Jess offered in an ominous tone. Despite the jest, her expression was concerned.
“Not funny,” Summer snapped.
The car inched forward until it was parallel to them. Taryn wished she still had her Mace. Then the back window slid down and an innocuous face appeared behind an oversized pair of reflective sunglasses. Fifty or eighty, it was impossible to determine the man's age at first glance. But despite his bland appearance, she couldn't rule out danger.
Taryn, as unofficial leader of their group, held out her arms in front of her friends in a protective gesture. “Be ready to run,” she said softly.
Bracing for flight proved unneeded when the stranger's mouth split into a wide, crooked, and disarming grin. He slid his sunglasses off to reveal a face well past the age requirements for a senior-discounted McDonald's coffee.
“Good morning, Angels,” he said. “My name is Irving.”