Aspen slammed against the metal push bar of the exit door and stumbled into the street as Sol’s curses rang out behind her. At least she didn’t hit the pavement. She couldn’t afford to fall.
Cold city air hit her in the face as she ran. Not fast enough, as the pounding of the man’s footfalls grew closer. She picked up the pace.
If she could just get into a crowd, to a busier street, even if Sol caught up with her, she could scream and make a scene. Surely someone would help.
She glanced over her shoulder to see how close Sol had gotten to her. That was when she ran smack into a mountain of a man stepping out of a monstrous black limousine. His arms flew up and caught her.
“Help me.” Her lungs screamed with pain. Were her words loud enough?
He twisted her so she ended up behind him just as Sol reached them.
“Step aside, man, and mind your damned business,” Sol demanded.
“Mind your fucking manners,” the guy returned.
She should say something like, oh, maybe, Sol’s boss just tried to force her to give him a blow job. She’d only gone to his office to sign an employee contract, which was probably fraudulent, to ensure she got paid. Instead, she’d found him leaning back in a cracked leather office chair with his disgusting, fleshy dick in his hand. She’d have to bleach her brain to get rid of that image.
Sol pointed his finger at her. “She needs to be arrested for assault. We’re pressing charges, bitch.”
“He assaulted me.” Aspen poked her head around the guy’s shoulder. “Next time, I’ll staple his entire dick.”
“Get in the car, doll.” The guy grasped her arm, but she wrenched it free. She never wanted to be touched again. Not by any man, ever, even if he was standing between her and an enraged bouncer who’d likely been told to haul her back to the strip club for punishment.
She only barely made it out. She’d slipped under Sol’s beefy arms at the bottom of the stairs while his boss stood at the top, limp dick hanging out of his stained pants, hurling obscenities at them both.
Even if she had made $631 tonight, her career as a stripper was over.
That was when it hit her. She stared at her hands—her empty hands. God dammit, she’d dropped her bag in the slimeball’s office. All her cash was gone. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
“Give me my money back,” she spat at Sol.
He looked at her like she was the crazy one. Well, she was. Crazy with anger, disgust, and despair, and she’d had enough.
The guy she was using as a human shield pointed at the dancing girl embroidered on Sol’s black shirt. “You’re with Maxim’s? Tell Jones to chill.”
Sol’s startled face made her feel a modicum better. “If you know Jones, you know he doesn’t take orders from anyone.”
“He’ll take anything from Declan Philips.” The guy’s hand landed on Sol’s chest. “My employer.”
Sol’s eyes narrowed. He cursed and turned away, stomping back toward the club.
The guy grabbed her arm and opened the limo door. “Doll, car.”
“Stop calling me doll.” She wrenched free again, her arm now sore as hell for being clutched at so often that night.
“I would, but you haven’t told me your name.” Was that an annoyed tone she heard? The nerve.
“Then we’re even. You haven’t told me yours, either.”
“I’m Max. Work for Declan Philips. Just dropped him off for the night.”
“Owner of Shakedown? Dance club? You should know it.”
Another strip club? Fantastic. She stepped around him. Time to walk away. She was done with being groped, pushed, grabbed, cussed at, and, in general, being demeaned by anyone. That time, he didn’t reach for her, which might have saved him from being punched even if he’d just saved her from God knew what.
The street was nearly deserted, with a few lone cars farther up the street, crossing the intersection of South Haven Street and O’Donnell and sending slices of light through the dark. What time was it? Had the buses stopped running? Her cell phone, along with her bus pass, was with her cash. Whatever. She could panhandle for five bucks at least.
She moved, each step a wince. The concrete was hell under her feet. By the time she’d gotten halfway up Haven, the blisters on her pinky toes were rubbed raw and stinging.
The rumble of a car engine got closer. “I’m not going to hurt you, for Christ’s sake,” a male voice called from the street.
She turned to face him. Max’s arm hung out of the limo window, which crept alongside her, most definitely following her.
She stopped. “Thanks for the help, but you’re off the hook. You can drop the knight-in-shining-armor bit.”
“Left my armor at home. Look, I work for Declan Phillips—”
“So you said.” She put her hands on her hips. “Hey, can you lend me twenty bucks? For a cab? Or let me order an Uber from your phone?” If he wanted to play savior, he could—with money.
“I’ve got your ride right here. You should know if Declan—”
“Jesus, who is this Declan guy?” Her arms fell to her sides with a slap. “You talk about him like he’s the Pope.”
“You work the clubs. I’d think—”
“No.” She walked to the limo and slapped her hands down on the door frame. “I don’t work the clubs. I’m an accountant.” She straightened.
A shot of anger punched through her chest. Well, she used to be in accounting. So much for her Georgetown University degree. Fat lot that did for her.
He arched his eyebrows and let his gaze drop for a second to her clothes—a stupid Maxim’s T-shirt they’d insisted she try on and her best jeans. “Look, Miss Accountant, just get in the back. I’ll drop you off wherever you want, and we can both go home in peace. I gotta follow Declan’s code.” He scrubbed his five o’clock shadow.
She crossed her arms. “What code?”
“I’ll tell you if you get in.” He let his arm once more drop out the open window and bang against the car door. “Take a picture of me, my license place, and your location. Send it to a friend. Then you can sit in the back, and I’ll keep the divider and a window down so you can jump out if I take my hands off the wheel.”
Her feet would never make the eight-block walk to the nearest bus station, and she had no money anyway. So what if this Max guy turned out to be a kidnapper? Hell, maybe she could split the ransom with him. By the length of the limo, he knew people with money.
“Lost my cell phone.”
He reached over to the seat and then handed her his phone. “Code is 1427. Take it with you in back.”
She stopped walking—or limping—grabbed it, and lurched open the back door.
He slammed on the brakes. “Whoa, warn a guy, will ya?”
“You can drop me off at the bus station and lend me some money for the fare. Then I’ll give you your phone back.”
She slid across the seat to the exact middle so she could get an eyeful of his hands. Big. Probably could strangle an elephant.
He turned on his blinker. “So, do I finally get your name?” His voice sounded distant as he turned the ostentatious boat onto Monument Street. People with money really did waste it on a lot of stupid things.
“Real name or stage name?”
“Does it matter?” She ran her hands over the leather seat, new and expensive. It smelled like her old office, and a pang in her chest took her off guard. “And I told you, I’m not stripping.”
“That why one of Jones’s boys was after you? Cooked the books for them?”
“I have never done anything illegal in my life.” She ground her teeth together. No matter her confiscated computer showed $11,000 had been transferred from her old company’s books to her personal checking account, which then promptly disappeared again to God knows where.
“Well, good for you. First night on the job, and Jones get handsy? Yeah, he’s got that reputation.”
“You ask a lot of questions.” She dropped her head against the headrest and slipped off her sandals. “You got any water back here?” Though she really could use something stronger. The adrenaline rush was fading, but she would not disappear into feeling sorry for herself again. She’d allowed herself one day for that—and that day was over.
Max spun his hand on the wheel. “In the fridge. So, you fought back?”
“I stapled his dick.” The little mini fridge opened with a sucking pop. Oh, score. The limo’s liquor stash included Grey Goose vodka.
Max shot a look over his shoulder. “You did what?”
The bottle was chilled and, even better, unopened, which meant full.
“Stapler,” she said. “It was the only thing handy when he asked for that second audition, if you get my drift.” She undid the foil and pulled out the corked top.
He laughed heartily. “Declan would love you. Hey, I’ll introduce you. He’s always hiring.”
“Thanks, but I’m through with strip clubs.” She’d just have to figure out another way to drum up eleven thousand dollars in twenty-five days. She’d begged for more time, but her jerk-off ex-boss said thirty days was generous enough for her crime. If not, he’d have her arrested.
She lifted a crystal cut tumbler from the little rack, filled it halfway, and took a huge slug. It did little to tamp down a curious lump rising in her throat, probably from having to admit she’d actually lowered herself to peeling off a dress the size of a napkin to Britney Spears crooning “Breathe on Me.” Shit. What was she thinking? Stripping?
Her second thought was worse. Who fails at that? Clearly, she had.
“Shakedown’s not a strip club,” Max peered at her in the rearview mirror. “Burlesque. Classy joint.”
“Sure it is. With a code.” She took another gulp of vodka heaven. Instead of being swallowed down, that stupid lump remained, threatening to make her emotional. As if that would help anything.
“Mr. Phillips tells all his employees that if someone’s in trouble, we should never hesitate to follow our gut and help,” he continued.
“Real altruistic guy.”
“You have no idea.” His eyes stared at her in the rearview mirror. “Declan rescued one of Jones’s other girls once. Name’s Phoenix. You should tell her what you did. She could tell you things can get better, even after what happened to her.”
He didn’t need to elaborate on what the bastard had done.
The lump morphed, and her heartbeat ratcheted up. She took another large swallow of vodka, but it did nothing to stop a sob from escaping her throat. She took furious sips, but her teeth chattered against the tumbler.
“Hey.” The limo lurched a little when Max hit the brakes, and vodka splashed all over her and the seat. The bottle she’d set between her feet slipped and tipped over, and the glug-glug of vodka escaping onto the floor mats gave her an odd rise of panic. She grabbed it, but her hand shook so badly she couldn’t get the little stopper back into the neck.
Doors opened. Dings sounded. There was a dip next to her, and then the bottle was taken from her hands. A strong masculine arm went around her shoulder, and that was when her ridiculous crying really let loose.
“It’s okay. You made it out.” Max’s voice was sincere, which only made her feel worse because she wasn’t out—not by a long shot.
“I didn’t make shit. I—I had $631, and now, it’s gone.” She swiped at her face, angry she was melting down.
“Hey.” Through the tears flooding her eyes, a Grey Goose bottle tipped in her direction. “You need this.”
She took a big swallow of vodka and sniffed. The limo smelled like a distillery, masking the expensive leather smell, reminding her of the strip club once more. Whoever said vodka didn’t smell hadn’t dumped half a bottle onto a car floor.
Max handed her an honest-to-God cloth napkin pulled from another rack. As she wiped under her eyes, smears of make-up and mascara colored the white cloth.
She swiveled her head to take him in. He gazed at her with pity, which made her feel worse.
The warmth from his body felt good, however. October wasn’t exactly tee-shirt and jeans weather, and that was all she had on. Oh, yeah, she’d had a coat, too, but it was back at the club with her bag, cell phone, bus pass, and money. Her breath hitched, and her stupid sobs just would not stop.
“I have got to get a grip.” She banged her head against the headrest. “I’m normally not this emotional.”
“Take it tonight’s not been normal for you,” he offered. “More?”
“No, I shouldn’t.” She held out her glass so he could refill it. “I have a lot to do tomorrow, including finding a new job.” She took a sip of the vodka. “Why are you helping me? I mean, you don’t even know me. What was your name again?”
He offered a handshake. “Max Torsney. Driver. Club Security. Like I said.”
Wow, his hands really were huge. “Aspen Snow. Former accountant. Failed stripper. Unemployed.” She left out accused felon.
“You need some water.” He reached over to the little refrigerator.
She held out her glass. “I’ll have more Goose.” Who cared if she was hung over tomorrow? She didn’t have anywhere to be.
Without releasing her hand, he refilled her glass with the magical, make-everything-alright elixir.
She studied his profile as he put the stopper back in the near-empty bottle. He was the dead opposite of Sol, Jones, Mr. Dollar Bills, and all the other anonymous men she’d feigned interest in tonight. Max was handsome in a rugged lumberjack meets a yacht captain sense.
See? Her brain was definitely not working. Mixed metaphors, anyone?
“Now, beautiful,” he said. “Where can I drop you?” His hand had not left hers. All that warmth and masculinity touched her with such care she almost cried again. She pulled her hand free.
She crossed her arms over her chest, splashing a little vodka on the seat. “Do you do this often? Pick up strange women?”
“Never. But you’re not strange. You’re smart and pretty, and you ended up in a place you shouldn’t have.”
“How do you know? You just met me.”
“You’re wearing 7 For All Mankind jeans at two hundred a pop. Your nails were done professionally. And those earrings are real diamonds.”
Oh, thank God. He’s gay. Or married. Because he also was gorgeous and protective—and vodka always did turn on her hormones like a mermaid sent to lure sailors.
She must have said that aloud because he laughed. “I’m not gay. I’m around dancers—a lot of them nothing like who you’ve been hanging out with tonight at Maxim’s.”
Shit. Now he’s straight—and gorgeous and protective. Of course, everyone was gorgeous when a third of a bottle of Grey Goose had been consumed.
“And Jones has enough victims on the street—”
“I’m not a victim. I put myself there.” Sort of.
“Of course not. But I felt called to help.” He scratched his chin, even the sound of stubble sounding masculine if such a thing were possible. Yeah, he was good looking, alright, all that dark tousled hair and a tiny scar across one cheek. And he had that knight in shining armor thing down.
“Are you single?” No one like him could be.
His eyebrows shot up. “Asking me out?”
“Maybe.” She set her glass down on the floorboard. “But we’re already out.”
She leaned toward him and kissed his cheek. His five o’clock shadow felt as good as it looked. “So, thank you for being called to help.”
He smiled back, confident but not smug. His eyes were a warm brown if that was possible. Kind eyes, her mother would have said. The mother who’d stopped talking to her since she got fired from her job.
“Now, Aspen-not-a-stripper, where do you live? I’ll take you.” For one brief second, she couldn’t remember because he had really nice lips. Who could think when she was less than six inches from those?
She wasn’t sure who started the kiss. All she knew was their lips met, his a little hesitant at the contact, hers decisive as if her mouth had a mind of its own. She was just about to dip her tongue between his lips when they opened and he took over. Holy hell, did he take over.
But then, as soon as the kiss began, it ended.
He pulled back. “What are you doing, doll?”
“It’s Aspen to you.” She dipped her chin and let her eyelashes flutter—trying to look innocent over the devil that clawed at her insides, desperate to get out.
He didn’t do anything but stare at her lips. So she licked them. She’d had a craptastic day, and she would never see him again. She wanted to forget all about her situation. She wanted to feel good for ten minutes. Was that asking too much?
She put her hand on his thigh—just a little test to see how he’d respond. “So, how far does this code extend? I mean, if a girl needed help in other ways …” Up close, his eyes were more hazel than brown, confident and kind. But his smile was more of a wicked tilt that egged her on.
He smiled, lifted her hand from his thigh, and placed it back on hers. “The girl drinking straight vodka gets the help she needs by being taken home.”
“Why?” God, was that a whine?
Oh, screw that. She didn’t wait for an answer. She went for his mouth. Once more, he didn’t kiss her back right away, so she pressed forward, dipping her tongue between his lips. Mmm, he was delicious. She might have moaned a little aloud at his taste, which was clearly the right thing to do because that was when he took over. His hands were on her back, his chest pressing against her aching nipples and his lips moving over her mouth like he owned them.
She swung her leg over his lap and positioned herself over his crotch, and, sweet Jesus, he had a package inside those expensive trousers.
He grasped both sides of her face and pulled her from her blitz on his lips.
“Aspen …” he mumbled. He leaned his head back and took a good long look at her face. Hesitation grew in his eyes, and for a quick second, she panicked that he might consider stopping.
“You promised.” That was most definitely a whine.
His eyebrow arched up. “What?”
“To help me. I had the worst day of my life today.” Well, not exactly. Being escorted out of the building four days ago after being accused of embezzlement was pretty damned bad. Having your mother hang up on you when she learned of your alleged criminal activities was horrible. Being asked to give a blow job to a rotting heap of flesh …
“Aspen. Look at me.” He swiped his thumbs under her eyes. “Don’t cry.”
Fuck, her eyes leaked more emotion she couldn’t control.
“I’m taking you home,” he said.
“Not yet. Please.” She put a little begging into her tone, and his nostrils flared.
“You need to know there are some good men in the world.”
So she’d been told. But was he for real? Turning down no-strings sex? Shit. He was going for sainthood.
The limo door dinged as he folded himself into the driver’s seat again. He slammed the door and adjusted the mirror so she caught those beautiful eyes.
She crossed her arms and huffed. “Now you’re going to make me wish you remembered me and called me in the morning, and … I hate that.”
“Okay.” He lurched the car into drive and spun his hand on the wheel. “I’ll call in the afternoon.”
Vodka was the devil’s blood. Its retreat from her body left pure fire that now coursed through her head, her limbs, and her stomach.
She rolled to her back.
Oh, God, her stomach had woken up, and it was not happy. It roiled. She ran to the bathroom and promptly upchucked. Then she fell back onto the bathroom rug and shivered.
Did last night really happen?
Yep. But it was over.
Time for a self-pep talk.
For one, things could be worse. She could have given in to Jones. She could be out on the street. She could have had to walk home. Instead, she threw herself at a perfect stranger—someone with a code. See? More than one thing was good. She would recover from it—all of it.
There was a loud pounding on her front door, and she sat up. Blood pulsed in her head—and her heart. Someone was at her front door, and whoever it was didn’t sound patient.
Crap. She’d put a fake address on Maxim’s employment document, but her address would be easy enough to find.
Maybe they’d come for her, and if so, something told her it wasn’t to return her $631, coat, and cell phone.
Shit, she didn’t even have the ability to call 9-1-1.
The knocking sounded again. She crept into the hallway, her tee shirt with the giant kangaroo on the front barely covering her ass. She grabbed the first thing she could get her hands on. A brass bowl where she usually put her keys—which she also didn’t have. How did she get into bed anyway?
Oh, that guy with the limo … Where was he now?
“I’m calling the police,” she screamed, making lightning bolts go straight through her head.
“You never say that,” a male voice said through the door. It sounded familiar.
She crept over to the peephole. Max. Limo guy. His hair was darker than she recalled. She slid the deadbolt over and opened the door.
She held the door open only halfway. “Oh, and what was I supposed to say?”
“You yell out a guy’s name like you’re calling your six-foot-two Marine Corps husband from the back room.”
“They’d get all that from a name?”
“If he’s named Max.” He held up a plastic grocery bag. “Rescue package. Motrin, an Emer-gen-C, and—” he grinned and lifted a grease-stained bag with his other hand, “—Charger’s French fries.”
She grabbed the greasy bag, the aroma of roasted potatoes instantly calming her stomach. “You are a god.” French fries should never be turned away. Her gut told her if he brought her French fries, he wasn’t the assaulting type. Plus, there was that code thing, which so far proved real.
She stepped inside, and he followed.
Plunking down onto her couch, she tore the bag open and reached in. Her fingers met the hot, oily, delicious fries, and she stuffed three of them into her mouth. As the salt hit her tongue, she murmured. “God’s fooooo.” Her mouth was too full, but the magic of grease and potatoes were doing the trick, instantly settling her belly.
Max shook the water bottle, now fizzing and growing orange with the Emer-Gen-C. “You’re looking less green.”
She swallowed. “Not my best color.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I imagine you look good in anything.” He winked.
Uh-oh. Flirt alert. The fact that she’d straddled his lap last night and practically begged him to nail her in the backseat of a stretch limo she’d defiled with half a bottle of vodka was probably a clue she was open for business.
He must have gotten her home last night. Oh, shit, had they done the deed? Who could tell, given her body was in full revolt? She had a vague recollection of him pulling covers over her shoulder. “We didn’t—”
“Relax, Aspen-Anna Davis. Once you showed me where you had a spare key on the ledge—you put up quite a fight there, which was good on you—you passed out.”
“I don’t usually drink.” That much. “Wait a minute. How do you know my real name?”
He held out his hand, her cell phone nestled in his large palm.
She grabbed it and squealed. “You found it!” She stared at her phone. He could have handed her a velvet bag full of diamonds, and it wouldn’t have compared. Her gaze shot up to him. “How?”
“Told you I’d call you in the afternoon. Only Jones answered, so I stopped by to get it for you.”
She harrumphed, checking the time. Two in the afternoon already? “And he just handed it over?”
He lifted his other hand, her purse dangling from it. “He was … accommodating. I took the liberty of looking at your driver’s license. Sue me.”
She snatched it and hugged it to her chest. So what if the leather got a little French fry grease on it? “Oh, thank you, thank you.” She opened it up and rummaged around. Shocking, but her wallet was inside. She broke it open and found bills—lots and lots of them.
Her lips fell open.
Max shrugged. “He gave you a bonus.”
A week ago, she’d have waited until Max was gone to count the money. But a week ago, she wasn’t an accused felon. She found two thousand dollars inside.
Max settled into the chair near the couch and put his elbows on his knees. “Feeling better?”
He assessed her with his beautiful brown eyes. But he was studying her a little too hard.
“Listen.” She moved her purse and greasy paper bag to the side, the edges scratching her bare legs. Oops. Brain not yet on. She pulled the blanket from the back of the couch and draped it over her thighs. “I appreciate all this, but I’m never working for a club again.” He clearly was there to recruit her. Strips clubs were always looking for new girls.
“Not even to do accounting work? Yeah, I talked with Declan,” he scrubbed his hair and stared down at the floor, “and I usually don’t go this far, but let’s just say Shakedown is a place of second chances, and it seems like you could use one.”
She took a swig of the Emer-Gen-C, which for the record, didn’t go with French fries. “This part of the code? Find an almost-convicted felon a job?” Why not go all the way with the truth? By the look on his face, he wasn’t expecting that.
“Sort of. I have until the thirtieth to return $11,000 that I didn’t take from my firm but somehow magically appeared in my account and then even more mysteriously disappeared within three hours. Ya know, a typical Monday at the office.”
“Declan will loan it to you.”
She harumphed. Another stapler was in her future with this guy, wasn’t it? “Why would he do that?”
Max shrugged. “He’s always doing shit like that.”
She cocked her head, not buying this whole scenario.
“Okay,” he sighed. “I’ll tell you.”
Here it came. That Declan guy was mafia, and Max was there to break her legs if she refused.
He reached over and grabbed the paper bag, pulling out a fry from the bag and sticking it in his mouth. “Declan went to jail a long time ago on bogus charges. Not my story to tell. But he tends to believe people when they’re telling the truth.”
“How do you know I’m not just making it all up? To worm my way into your good graces only to … cook the books, as you said last night.”
“Like I said last night, I can tell you’re someone who at least once had money. Besides, you’d have inflated the number. Rounded it to something like twenty grand. Or you’d have charged me for the pleasure of your crotch on mine.”
She swallowed hard. She’d connected with him on that level, hadn’t she? But prostitution? “No, even I have limits.”
“Of course you do. Finish breakfast.” His gaze fell to the French fry bag. “Then, take a shower. I’m taking you to meet Declan.”
Bossy. “I’m not sure—”
“You got somewhere else to be?”
Truly, she hadn’t.
Max filled her in on the way over about how Declan had met a stripper who really was a very talented dancer, and she’d rescued him, and he’d paid her back … and honestly, it sounded like a Hallmark movie. Only with sex.
Then it got better. Max wasn’t kidding about Shakedown being a high-end burlesque club.
The club’s outside looked like a warehouse except for the red awning leading up to an etched glass front door. And inside? Pure 1920s glamour. Green tufted booths, a long wood bar with a gleaming brass foot rail, and a large stage framed by heavy red velvet curtains.
But it was the sign above the bar that proved the adage that some things are too good to be true.
Touching any of our performers will result in the offender’s permanent removal. Removal in one piece not guaranteed.
She’d most definitely walked into a mob lair. She spun on him. “If you kill me, I will haunt you forever.”
A grin broke out on his face. “Too late. You’re already doing that.”
Her brows pinched together. “Charming me before the axe falls?” Because dying by axe was not on her agenda. Even if she was joking, she still shuddered at the thought.
“You think I storm into a strip club for a woman’s cell phone and purse just to try something? I’ve seen your defensive skills. Jones is walking with a limp, by the way, and not from me. Thought you’d like to know.”
“Good.” She returned to studying the room as her eyes had adjusted from the bright sunshine outside to dimmer surroundings. “How does this place not have an accountant already?”
“Declan handles all of it by himself, but he recently got hooked up, so—”
“So, he needs to have time for me,” a woman’s voice rang from the other side of the room. She stepped out from a long line of shadows. Flame red hair framed a drop-dead gorgeous face.
Blue eyes sparkled at her. “I’m Phee, short for Phoenix. And you must be Anna. Or do you prefer Aspen?”
Oh, she was the woman Max had told her about, the one who’d had a similar experience with Jones. Amazing how Anna recalled that tidbit. Word had gotten around fast about her failed employment at Maxim’s. Or rather, her humiliating attempt at raising money by gyrating nearly naked before men with folded dollar bills. “Anna. I’m burying Aspen.”
“Oh, you don’t need to do that. Just bring her back out when you feel like driving some man wild, even in private.” Phee winked and looped her arm in Anna’s. “Want a tour?”
Max stepped in front of them. “Phee, I’ve got this.”
Anna must have startled and jumped back a bit when he took her other arm. They both quickly dropped their hold on her, their faces dropping into concern.
“Want a stapler?” Max asked, a grin spreading across his face. Making fun of her?
“Max.” Phoenix crossed her arms and pursed her lips. She inched closer to Anna. “I guess he didn’t tell you much about us. Here’s what you need to know. If you want to dance, you have to audition—next year, and there’s a waiting list. You’re not allowed to take your clothes off. Believe me, my sister Starr has tried to break that rule. Also, Jerk-off Jones is an ass. Declan is the best man I’ve ever encountered. And,” she leaned closer, “Max is a close second.”
A puff of air left his lips. “I wouldn’t say that.”
“Okay,” she smiled. “You’re fourth or fifth.” Phee squeezed Anna’s elbow. “Come see me if you want to talk. No one here has to use office supplies to survive.” She pointed at the sign over the bar that threatened bodily harm if the dancers were threatened. “They mean it. It’s been tested, and they’re barred for life.” Phoenix waved a hand and then glided away through a set of black curtains.
Anna turned to Max. “You brought her out here to put me at ease, didn’t you?”
He chuckled. “Phoenix has never put anyone at ease. She just wants that accountant position filled.” He gestured to the black curtains. “The office is that way.”
She sighed heavily and was probably about to make yet another bad decision, though stripping still topped the list. Really, how could following him be any worse? She walked through the black curtains.
The mysterious code master, Declan, turned out to be a hell of a silver fox in an antiques-laden office. He asked normal interview questions with only two about the “false accusations,” as he called them. Did she take the money? And had she ever thought she could before?
The answers were easy. No, and she wasn’t stupid. “Risking my entire life for eleven thousand?”
He’d chuckled and agreed. “I appreciate a woman with a grand vision.” He pushed himself off the edge of the desk where he’d been perched. “Fair warning. Our books are quite behind. It’s a big job to catch us up. Blame it on a distraction named Phoenix.”
“Oh, she’s your—”
“Love of my life? Yes.” He glanced up at Max and cocked his head.
She’d almost forgotten Max was there in the background. She turned to look at him. He was staring at her intently and turned as red as a firetruck when she caught his gaze. He cleared his throat and shifted in his seat. When she swung her gaze back to Declan, he was smiling broadly. What was going on?
Declan rounded his desk. “Max doesn’t normally make such a vehement case for someone. When can you start?”
Oh. “I’m hired?”
“I trust Max with my life.” He raised a hand. “Which means he keeps me from dying in Baltimore traffic, which is the same as taking one’s life in your hands. Need time to think about the job?”
Time was one thing she did not have on her side. “No. I mean, yes, I’d like the job. But there’s a little matter of salary.”
Declan smiled at her. “You can start at seventy-five K. I’ll loan you the $11,000 and take a little out of your paycheck each month. In the meantime, we’ll see what we can do to chase down who might have set you up. Unfortunately, this isn’t our first encounter with such circumstances.”
Was he kidding? First, his offer was double what she’d made before. And to pay off her wholly-unfair debt? Then to help her figure out how she got into this predicament to begin with? When one encounters something that seemed too good to be true, it generally was, her mother had told her. Then again, that was the woman who’d hung up on her when she’d asked for a loan.
“But you don’t even know me. It’s just so … generous of you.”
“I don’t want you worried about money while you’re taking care of mine. So take the night to think about it. Go out and enjoy the show. Have dinner. Phee’s favorite is the salmon.”
She stood. Everyone in that room knew she’d take the job. After all, what choice did she have? “Thanks for taking a chance on me.”
“What’s life if we don’t give each other chances?”
The “show” turned out to be spectacular. Men, women, all adorned in sparkles and feathers, and not a single strip move in sight. Rather, their acts were storytelling in motion. A Valkyrie taking another woman to Valhalla—or at least she thought that was what was going on. A huntress meeting up with two hunters and besting them. It was downright feminist if she thought about it. But also, their acts were elegant. Sensual.
One performer stood out, however. When the curtains split and the spotlight lit up Phoenix’s pale skin and sunset hair, she understood what Declan saw in her. She rode a giant stuffed bull in a matador costume. Smoke billowed from the beast’s mechanical, bobbing head. With one arm lifted, she rode the bull into the center stage, and the crowd jumped to their feet. She was pure sexual power, presenting herself without apology or the need to explain herself. It was mesmerizing.
“Wow.” Anna couldn’t say anything else.
Max bought his head closer to her. “Phoenix doesn’t perform much anymore. She owns the dance school next door. Declan set her up.” He was so close she could smell his masculine scent mixing with the lavender and vanilla of the club. That was another thing about the place. A few men smoked cigars, but for the life of her, she couldn’t smell them.
“Guess love makes you do all kinds of things.” She didn’t understand why she said that. When had she ever been in love?
Max’s eyes glittered from the stage lights in the dark as he looked into her eyes. “Yes, it does.” He flushed.
It was so wild that he had blushed a couple of times in her presence. He didn’t seem the type to be undone by much. He looked like the type of man who made others shake in their boots. Thick biceps straining his jacket. Hands that were nimble and strong. Then, there were the tattoos she just now noticed. Of course, she was now sober, not hungover or running for her life.
Max’s arm was warm against her back. He’d placed it along the back of her chair.
She didn’t hate it. “You said you work here as a bodyguard.”
“Yep. Driving Declan when he goes to less desirable neighborhoods. General security.”
She could believe it. He looked like someone who could handle anything that came his way. And not just because he was sporting multicolor tattoos that climbed up his neck and trailed beyond his shirt cuffs.
He tugged at a sleeve.
“They’re nice.” She hoped that sounded right. She wasn’t used to being around people who supported more than the usual female tramp stamp so popular in the 1990s.
He fiddled with his water glass. He didn’t seem to drink at all, sipping ice water all night with his prime rib. She joined him with that choice, given her poor choice last night with all the vodka. Her stomach lurched at the memory.
He cleared his throat. “If I could get rid of some, I would. But…”
“Sounds like you have a past, too.” She might as well go there with him. He’d heard the worst about her.
“Yes.” He took a swig of water and averted his eyes.
“Have I thanked you yet for setting me up with Declan?”
She chuckled. “Honest.”
“Thank you, Max. I appreciate you.”
His gaze sliced her way. “Does that mean you’ll go out with me sometime?” His words were stilted, like he was almost afraid to ask.
She looked at him. Really looked into his eyes. Yes, kindness lived there. He’d said something about good guys last night. She could tell he was. “Tonight sort of counts like a date. I’ve never been taken to a club like this before.”
He nodded slowly. “Okay. A date.” Lines in his forehead smoothed.
“You haven’t asked out many women, have you?”
“I’m more of a pick them up off the streets in the limo guy.” He half-laughed.
“You do seem to have a knack for it. I mean, the limo was …”
One corner of his mouth tilted up. “Want to see it sober?”
The subtext of his question was as clear as the water in his glass. He wanted to pick up where they’d left off.
She’d known this guy for twenty-four hours, and every bit of her said “play the good girl” game. But look where that had landed her. An easy target to defraud and then get accused of embezzlement. Demeaned to stripping, the only way she knew how to raise that much money that fast. Good girls didn’t get very far, she decided. And what was the good of feminism if she couldn’t do what spoke to her?
She placed her hand on his forearm. “Lead the way.”
His nostrils flared, and he scraped his chair backward. “I’ll tell you my story there. Then you decide if the limo is for you.”