"You can't go to the Summit!" Marie screamed. "I got the damn people from Women's Health coming here next week!"
Steve moved the cell phone away from his throbbing ear, and raised his voice. "I told you I didn't want to do the damn thing."
Marie scoffed. "Look. Macmillan International is a recognized company, but I am trying to turn the image into a household name. This is what you said you wanted, Steven."
He winced. Steven. His sister must really have her panties in a knot. "Listen Steven, if you want to stop then say so, but don't have me scheduling shit you're going to drop. I have a reputation too, big brother."
"I will come back for the damn interview. If not, you can call in the swat team and come looking for me."
"You are so friggin ungrateful. Whatever."
The sound of a harsh click ended the conversation, and Steve snapped the phone shut with a sigh. Marie hated being thwarted. The simple fact she'd tracked him down this late at night was proof enough. His responsible mind balked, and he almost turned the SUV around.
"No," Steve said aloud, willing his conscience to let go.
He was getting away and the hell with everyone.
Relaxing into the drive, he pressed a button on the radio to turn up the volume of the CD player. The smooth, winded pipes of Branford Marsalis filled the large SUV, and he savored the calming music. In five hours, maybe less if he floored the pedal, Steve would be pulling up in a driveway far away from everyone and everything. He couldn't wait. First though, he needed some gas.
A huge, brightly lit sign stood like a sentry off the side of the freeway. Checking his mirrors, Steve was glad he'd decided to leave late. At eleven at night, there were few cars on the road. He moved swiftly from the fast lane to the exit lane, and a quick right brought him directly into the gas station. Steve wasn't familiar with the area, but he knew where he was.
The City of Industry was just what the name said. Steve wouldn't be surprised if he owned a thriving business here. The refinement and processing of oil was his main trade, but of late, he'd been steadily breaking into the market of computers. Most likely, he did own a business here, but since he owned so many, he didn't really know.
Maneuvering the SUV next to a gas pump, he waited patiently for an attendant. When a minute passed and no one knocked on his window, Steve looked around. The sign next him clearly read "full service" but a closer look revealed "between the hours of 8 and 8."
Realizing he would have to get out and pump his own gas was kind of funny. How amusing was it that he, an oil magnate, had to fill his own tank. Laughing at the irony of the situation, Steve opened the door and glanced around, hoping all the muggers and carjackers were in for the night. The last thing he wanted was a gun pointed in his face.
The station appeared deserted, but there were other businesses around. A fast food restaurant sat on an adjacent corner next to another gas station. A mini-mart, brightly lit, teemed with life. He shrugged, thinking it was probably safe.
Steve opened the gas tank and untwisted the cap. Grabbing the hose and swiping his credit card, he began pumping. He kept alert, checking for anything out of the ordinary. As his gaze moved around the empty lot, Steve blinked in shock. A woman stood at a phone booth near the street … naked.
Well, not naked exactly. A jacket was wrapped around her body. But, from the long expanse of legs showing, he doubted she was wearing clothes—at least she wasn't wearing anything that should be described as clothes.
A hooker. She's probably on the phone calling her pimp.
Just then, the woman slammed the phone against the booth, stomping her feet. The sounds of her ridiculously high stilettos pounded against the pavement like loud cracks. After the smashing session, she looked around furtively, and walked toward the station.
Steve watched her approach with a mixture of carnal fascination and interest. He'd seen prostitutes before, but not the normal street-walking variety. He told himself that simple curiosity kept his gaze fastened to her, but he knew it wasn't true. Even from a distance, something about the woman beckoned to him.
She had a great pair of legs, and beautiful red hair. Well, not red exactly, Steve amended. It was almost burgundy, making him wonder if it came from a bottle. The long, straight tresses fell way past her shoulders—a definite eye catcher. His vision traveled down the length of her body, noting well-defined limbs, the muscles prominent and highlighted by five-inch heels.
Steve forced his mind away from the thought of those legs, and what they were probably trained to do to a man. Shaking his head to loosen the sudden erotic turn in his thoughts, he scolded himself mentally. He must really be on edge to be having ideas about a prostitute. Here she was, walking the streets at night.
His eyes continued to follow her, watching as she frantically pounded on the windows and doors of the gas station. The attendant awoke rubbing his eyes, looked at her briefly, and waved her away with a nonchalant shrug. Again, Steve felt a buzz of sympathy. What a rough life, he thought.
He'd seen a documentary once on prostitutes. Hookers on the Stroll, he remembered the title. The special depicted a weary, depressing life for ladies of the night, and Steve shook his head in wonder.
The nozzle handle suddenly clicked, startling Steve from his depressing reverie. He put the woman, her legs, and her problems from his mind, and slid back into the driver's seat. Nothing he could do for her. Time to get back on the road.
The engine running smoothly, Steve's mind turned toward his retreat in the mountains. He was reaching to put the SUV in gear, when a quick rap sounded on the window.
Steve jumped. The woman stood at the side of his car, and for a moment, he thought of waving her away. But something in her eyes stopped him. She didn't look weary or worn out. She looked pissed off and ready to fight. The challenging gaze, daring him to move an inch, paused Steve's hand mid air. Not sure if he should roll down the window, he studied her silently.
Prostitutes aren't dangerous, right?
Maybe she looked to ply her trade. Finally deciding to trust his instincts, he rolled down the window. He would let her down gently. No need to be rude about it.
"Hey … I uh … I'm not in to that sort of thing. Thanks though." He sounded pleasant, and hoped she wouldn't take the rebuff as an insult.
"What? Oh, shit! Look, the phone over there isn't working and that stupid man won't let me use his. Do you have a cell phone? I'll pay you. I just need to call a cab."
Of course he had a cell phone, he just got off the damn thing, but he wasn't about to hand it over. What if … Oh, Lord! The woman just wanted to use the phone. Reaching across the seat, he grabbed the cell and handed it to her.
"Thanks. Uh … here." She tossed a bill at him with a flick of her wrist.
Thinking she probably needed the money more, Steve tried to give it back, but she'd already stepped away from the car to dial into the keypad. He watched her pace in frustration as she clutched the jacket tightly around her body. Again, he wondered exactly what she had on.
She was young, probably no more than twenty-five or twenty-six. Yet, Steve figured, trailing his gaze across her legs. He would only be about ten years older than her.
She's not that young!
With her angular face and high cheekbones, she reminded him of a cat. The slanted, light colored eyes gave her a feline look, and overall she was really quite beautiful. It wasn't just her unusual features, but the all-knowing look of sensuality she possessed. She looked like she knew what to do with the equipment God gave her, and Lord help him if his cock didn't lengthen in response.
She had a great pair of legs, long and highly toned. She was also an acrobat because she walked in those precariously high-heeled shoes like sandals. Steve felt the smaller brain in his pants give an active twitch of encouragement, but he stifled the reaction. His cock was a little too curious for comfort. He kept reminding his eager member that the woman was a hooker, and he definitely wasn't into that.
Her voice carried in the silence of the night, and he could hear her conversation as clearly as if she was sitting next to him.
"What do you mean it's too late? You're a cab company. Your job is to pick people up who need a ride." She paused for a second. "What! No! Wait a minute!" She tossed her hands up in frustration, and looked as if she was going to throw the phone at the nearest street sign. Apparently, she thought better of it because she turned and stomped toward him. "Thanks," she said, handing him the phone.
Something about this woman gnawed at Steve's gut. When she turned to walk off, a weary droop in her shoulders, she didn't look back at him once. Hell! She didn't even ask for a date. Steve was used to people asking for something. Yet this woman, who so obviously needed help, just turned around without a second glance.
"Hey! Where are you going?" Steve couldn't believe what he'd just blurted. What in the world was he thinking?
"Thanks for letting me use the phone." She turned around briefly, but continued walking. If anything, her pace began to quicken.
Steve watched her move further and further away and a rush of anxiety hit him right between the solar plexus. He should let her go. It wasn't his problem. She wasn't his problem. Yet the further she got, the more his angst increased. It felt wrong to let her walk off into the night, and his mind moved into action.
"Maybe I can give you a ride somewhere," he yelled, still unsure why he cared.
"Look. Mister," she said, turning around fully to face him. "I don't need a ride. I don't need anything. Okay?"
Steve should have been relieved. He could drive away without a trace of guilt. He'd tried to help her, and she'd refused. She also just dismissed him without a second thought. Instead of feeling thankful, he felt a slight tingling of annoyance.
"I can drop you off at a motel or something. There aren't any cabs and it's late. Don't be a fool. I told you, I don't want what you're selling. You're safe."
She stopped, and turned around, the heat emanating from her like a palpable blast to his face. Her foot tapped rapidly on the hard, gray pavement, and Steve marveled at her control in the shoes. After ten seconds passed, his patience almost reached an end.
"You promise not to try any funny stuff?" she finally said.
Steve wanted to laugh, the situation becoming more absurd by the second. "You have my word."
She took a deep breath, and slowly walked toward the vehicle. When the doors unlocked, the mechanism clicked, and the sound made her to stop. "Naw … you know … I'm okay. The club's not far."
Steve rolled his eyes, counted to three, and glared at her irritably. "Look lady, I have a long drive ahead of me. I am offering you a ride out of the kindness of my heart. If you don't want it, then fine," he said, making a great show of placing both hands on the wheel. He didn't want to leave her, but he would if she kept being difficult.
"Wait a minute … okay. Remember, you promised."
"You have my word." Why did he give his word to a hooker? It didn't make sense.
By the time she climbed into the car, Steve already regretted his hasty decision. The long length of tanned, muscled thighs was a little disturbing to his peace of mind.
"When you go out the driveway, make a left at the corner. The club is five blocks down." Her toneless voice banished the leg thoughts, and Steve put the SUV in motion, heading out of the station.
He kept quiet and tried to remain focused on the road. It was difficult not to look at her, though. He cast a couple of shifty glances at the woman.
She stared straight ahead, as if watching for any sudden moves. Her hand was plastered to the door handle, ready to bolt if need be. Up close, he could clearly see her features. Her nose was pointy, but not long. She had the prerequisite Californian tan, but a slight flush tinged her cheeks. Steve reassessed his first impression—beautiful and captivating.
Nearing the end of the five-block journey, he noticed a flashing orange and pink neon sign: Classy Lady.
"Thanks, I really appreciate it."
She already had the door open before the wheels stopped rolling, and was out and walking toward the entrance. She didn't even turn to look at Steve in parting, and he watched her go with a faint sense of wonder.
Does she work here as well as prostitute?
He shook his head in amazement. She must have a really tough life. Steve's bursts of concern startled him. He was one who understood that the sun didn't shine the same on everyone. Some things happened for different people differently, no rhyme or reason for it. He grabbed the wheel to turn away from the woman, and the club, when loud arguing caused him to stop mid-motion. The redhead was in a fierce argument with two large men dressed entirely in black.
Steve willed himself to go. This wasn't his problem. He didn't need to get involved. He didn't have time to get involved. Damn! Though all that made sense, he pulled quickly into the nearest available space and silenced the engine. He couldn't just leave her there. What if something happened to her?
"You're not going in there!" One of the large men shouted. "You made your bed, Jordan. Now go home and lie in it."
"Dammit, Ric! I just want to get my shit. Okay?"
Steve watched the woman as he approached. The large man shouting at her was at least six feet tall and burly, yet she didn't back down.
"You can come and get it from the curb tomorrow," said the smaller of the two men.
She screamed furiously, pointing toward the door. "Go get Dan! Tell him I want to talk to him."
"He won't talk to you, Jordan. Get out of here before we throw your ass across the street." The smaller man stepped forward slightly, and Steve could taste the violence in the air.
"Look, maybe we should all just calm down," Steve said, entering the melee from the side.
The tall one smiled leeringly at his diminutive combatant, "So Jordan, I see you went and picked up a friend."
Steve felt his hackles rise, but tamped down on the urge to defend himself. "Why don't you go get this Dan person? Maybe he can straighten this out." He used the tone he normally reserved on recalcitrant employees and board members. Nine times out of ten, it usually worked to get things done. But the large muscular man grimaced, twisting his face into a mean frown.
"Why don't you both get the fuck outta here before I throw both your asses across the street?"
Steve's first thought was that the man needed some better lines. No one with an ounce of good sense would talk to him that way. His narrow gaze assessed the thick-necked thug. He doubted the guy could actually throw him anywhere. At six feet, four inches, two hundred thirty pounds, he wasn't easily tossed by anyone.
"How the high and mighty have fallen." The smaller man glared at the spitfire, but she merely raised her head, not willing to give an inch. Steve nearly smiled in appreciation, admiring her courage.
She turned on the short, stocky man with a mocking stare of innocence. "There is no sin except stupidity."
Steve blinked, a little taken back to hear her quote Oscar Wilde. He looked at her briefly. A hooker who could quote Wilde was something he never thought existed.
The taller of the two black-clad men didn't appear to understand the quote; his brows furrowed in confusion. But the word "stupid" was not lost on him. He took a menacing step toward her, and Steve could tell from the look in his eyes things were about to get ugly.
Years of instinct made Steve step in front of her. "Don't even think about it." His tone was cold, and right to the point.
Steve only had a second to recognize the shocked expression on the bouncer's face, before a huge, meaty fist connected to the right side of his jaw. Well equipped to defend himself, having taken boxing lessons earlier in his youth, and Judo when he was an adult, he struck back quickly with a flash of hands. But with two against one, the odds weren't in his favor.
Steve connected a few punches, scoring a direct hit when he clobbered the short one. A large popping noise came from the left, and he turned to look toward the commotion before the world went black. Well, not black exactly, it was more like a flash of bright light that went out very quickly.
The taller one had just punched him dead in the eye, and he stumbled a bit, trying to catch his balance. Another popping sounded, and then there was silence.
"Hurry up! Come on before they come around."
The feisty little redhead pulled and tugged on his arm. Steve willingly followed, still a little dazed from the blow. "Wait a minute, I thought you wanted to go inside," he said, dragging her to a halt.
"Are you crazy? We've got to get out of here before someone calls the cops. Where did you park the truck?"
Steve shook his head at the question, more in an attempt to clear his mind than from lack of an answer. He stopped her incessant pulling, and turned her around to face him. "Are you going to tell me what the hell is going on here?"
She sighed, "Yes, just as soon as we get out of here."
Steve shot a quick glance at the entrance, deciding she was probably right. A few people were already emerging from the club and pointing animated fingers in their direction. He looked around again, wondering for the millionth time how in the world he had gotten himself in this situation.
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