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       Obscured, p.1

           Tara Sue Me
 
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  To my husband, who had this crazy idea for the book I thought was going to be women's fiction.

  Chapter One

  The day I meet Isaiah Martin for the second time, I am running late. I pride myself on my punctuality, not to mention that my clients demand it, and I’m not paying attention to my surroundings.

  I look at my watch again. Five minutes after. Shit. I scurry through the hotel lobby, making a beeline to the elevators. If luck happens to be on my side, I won’t have to wait, but the elevators in the largest hotel in Las Vegas are notoriously slow.

  Will the stairs be quicker? I glance over my shoulder. The stairwell is located on the other side of the large open atrium. With my client’s room on the thirtieth floor, the elevator is faster, even if I have to wait. I turn back to the elevators.

  And run right into a man standing in my path, overcorrect, and twist my ankle.

  “Excuse me, ma’am,” he says in a soft, cultured Southern accent, reaching out a hand to steady me. “You okay?”

  “Damn it!” My ankle throbs so much I’m not sure I can walk. I gingerly put my weight on the hurt ankle and curse again at the pain.

  Suck it up, Athena. This is nothing. Think about what’ll happen if you don’t make it upstairs in the next few minutes.

  “Ma’am?” Mr. Southern Gentleman repeats.

  “I’m fine.” I tentatively move my foot side to side. “Just give me a minute.”

  “Why don’t you come sit down and let me take a look at that ankle?”

  “You a doctor?” Odds are he’s just your standard pervert wanting the chance to run his hand up my leg. Even if he is a doctor, I’m not about to let him put his hands on me. Not a wise thing to do, since it’s almost a certainty Mike will find out.

  “No, ma’am,” he says. “But I think you may need to rest that ankle just a bit.”

  “Really, I’m fine.” I put my full weight on the ankle and nearly fall over as the pain sparks up my leg. “Ow. Ow. Ow. Hell.”

  He doesn’t speak again, but takes me by the arm and leads me to a bench near the elevators. His head drops down and he runs a finger along my anklebone. Pokes and prods me. “I don’t think anything’s broken, but you should probably stay off your feet for the next little bit.”

  “Easy for you to say,” I snap. “You’re obviously not the one running late.”

  He looks up and our eyes meet.

  Warm caramel eyes. His thick, black hair is long overdue for a haircut and curls up the tiniest bit at his neck. His firm lips give way to a perfect “O” of surprise at the exact moment I recognize him.

  “Athena?”

  “Isaiah?”

  He embraces me with a crushing hug. “Imagine seeing you here. How are you?”

  My spine goes rigid, and I don’t return the hug. “I’m....I’m fine,” I stutter while my eyes dart around the lobby, trying to see if anyone’s watching me.

  “I can’t believe it’s you.” He is oblivious to my discomfort. “Are you in town for long?”

  I force myself to stop scanning the area and focus on Isaiah instead. A cold chill runs down my spine as I take in his handsome features. The last twelve years have treated him well. No longer is he the awkward teenage boy plagued by acne and thick glasses. He’s grown into the handsome man I always knew lay beneath the surface.

  He looks at me in expectation. What did he ask?

  I fiddle with the hem of my skirt. It rests just above the knee. “I live here.”

  “Here in Vegas?”

  Not only is my skirt too short, but my shirt shows too much cleavage. I pull the edges, but can't get them to cover me anymore. “Yes, not far from here.”

  He looks me up and down. “What are you running late for?”

  If I was an honest person, I’d tell him. After all, he looks nice enough. A striking combination of scruffy and clean cut that somehow works. But I’m not honest. Let’s face it, I get paid for sex.

  “Just a party,” I lie. “Last one there has to buy the first round.”

  “I see,” he says, and for a brief moment I fear he does.

  “It was nice to see you.” I grimace at the thought of putting weight on my bad ankle. “Have a good time in Vegas. Don’t blow it all in one place.”

  “I’m actually living here, too.”

  “You are?” I’d lifted myself part way off the bench, but at his statement, I sit back down. Does that mean I’ll run into him? I’m not sure how I feel about that. “What do you do?”

  “I’m a pastor.”

  My laughter draws the glances of several people in the lobby. I laugh so hard I lose my breath. I almost punch his shoulder and say, “Good one” before I realize he isn’t laughing. “Oh, shit,” I say instead. “You’re serious.”

  He nods.

  “Fuck.” My hand flies up to cover my mouth. “I mean, oh crap.”

  Finally, he laughs. “I can promise you my ears are not so delicate that I’ll be offended by language.”

  I notice he didn’t say the word, though. “Sorry, I just wasn’t expecting you to say that.”

  “Obviously.”

  “I really should be going. I have somewhere to be.” I look down at my watch and frown. “Ten minutes ago.”

  “I won’t keep you. I just want to make sure your ankle’s fine.”

  “I’m sure it is now.” I stand on my good leg and tentatively put a bit of weight on the bad one. “Ow. Damn it.” Nope, still hurts like hell. No way am I going anywhere soon.

  “Have a seat and tell me what you’ve been up to. How you—” he waves, the movement encompassing the hotel lobby.

  “Came to Vegas?” I finish for him, when what I really should tell him is what I do in Vegas. But again, I’m not honest.

  “Yes, that.”

  “Mama died.” I give him a sideways look, keeping my focus on the lobby when I’m not looking at him. “You remember she had cancer?”

  “Yes. That’s why you moved. So your dad could get her better care.”

  Our small town had been ill-equipped to handle the terrible progression of mama’s illness. I clutch my skirt tight in my hands, still remembering the look on the doctor’s face when he told us there was nothing else they could do.

  “Something happened to dad after she died,” I say. “Something snapped. He took off one day and never came back.” I straighten my shoulders. “I was sixteen. I didn’t know what to do.”

  “Wasn’t there anyone you could go to?” he asks. “A family member? Someone?”

  He speaks in the soft, soothing accent I associate with my childhood. And his voice doesn’t hold condemnation or judgement.

  “We were in a strange city,” I continue. “I didn’t know anyone. So much of my time had been spent caring for mama. When dad left, I decided to leave. To buy a bus ticket for Vegas and become a showgirl.”

  Except I knew nothing about being a showgirl. The ballet classes I’d taken as a child weren’t enough to prepare me for the demanding footwork required of a Vegas dancer.

  “That didn’t work out,” I say. “But I liked Vegas. Liked the crowds and the noise and I could put up with the weather. So I stayed.” There’s not much else to say, not that won’t give away my real profession.

  An uncomfortable silence follows, and I say the first thing I can think of, “Tell me about this church of yours.”

  A smile takes over his face. “It hasn’t started yet. I was actually here tonight talking to Mike Randolph about it.”

  Ah, fuck.

  I feel clammy and my heart pounds. “Are you on your way to see him?”

  “I just left his office,” he says, and I breath a small sigh of relief. “Church starts this Sunday in the Playmaker’s Lounge.”

  My head sp
ins and spots dance before my eyes. “Here? That one?” I point down the hall, in the hopes that he’s talking about another Playmaker’s Lounge.

  “That’s the one. Sunday at ten. Mike said it wouldn't be a problem as long as we’re out by eleven. Real nice guy, Mike.”

  I’m going to throw up. Not only am I horribly late, but the odds now point to me seeing Isaiah around town. And he thinks Mike is a nice guy. I can’t deal with this right now. I struggle to my feet and balance precariously on one foot.

  “I’m sorry,” I say. “It was good to see you, but I’m really late, and I have to go.”

  The elevator dings as it arrives, and I jump inside and push the button for the thirtieth floor without waiting for him to say goodbye.

  Chapter Two

  “You’re late,” Theo, my client, says, pulling me into the room as soon as I knock.

  I stumble a bit on my sore ankle and bite the inside of my cheek so I don’t scream out in pain. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I was —”

  “I don’t fucking care. You were expected over fifteen minutes ago.”

  He’s dragged me into the sitting area of the suite, and I look around and discover there’s another man in the room. He’s sitting on the couch, though, so I can’t see him very clearly. I swallow. I wasn’t expecting anyone other than Theo.

  The meeting with Isaiah has stripped me of the carefully constructed mask I hide behind, and I’m surprised at the way my mind rebels at what's been planned for me this evening. I’m not new at this job. I’ve done the three-way thing before. It’s just that talking with Isaiah brought a strange sense of normal to my life. A normal that didn’t include providing sex for money. A normal that whispered of years gone by in a soft Southern accent, I’d long ago given up hope of ever hearing again.

  I look up to see Theo frowning at me and I realize that normal is a very dangerous thing for me to be.

  You aren’t normal. You’ve never been normal. And you never will be normal.

  It was a hard truth to accept years ago, and tonight it’s even harder. I close my eyes and allow myself a deep breath.I have to get it together, and quickly, or things are going to go very badly for me.

  When I open my eyes, I am once more the woman I was before running into Isaiah. I am Athena and I am a prostitute. This is my life, and a coincidental meeting in a hotel lobby hasn’t changed that.

  Prove it. I whisper to myself in a voice that no longer holds a trace of Southern accent.

  I slowly unbutton my shirt. “Fifteen minutes? I’ll have to make it up to you.”

  He’s staring at my chest now, his eyes glued to the skin being exposed inch by inch. “Damn straight you will,” he says, but his voice has lost that dangerous edge.

  I slip deeper inside my head. Into that place that allows my body to do things I wouldn’t do if I thought about them too much. That place that’s kept me alive for years. I can’t afford to stay out of it for very long. It’s a luxury that has no place in my world.

  “Is your friend not joining us?” I ask. “Is he waiting for an invitation?”

  Theo shakes his head as if remembering where he is and calls out¸ “You’re missing our toy for the evening, Harris.”

  My hands don’t want to move anymore. Harris. Dear Lord, not him. Anyone but him. I don’t want to be here in front of Harris. I grit my teeth and hope it’s a different Harris.

  But as the man on the couch gets to his feet and turns around, I see that it is him.

  “Athena,” he grinds out.

  I nod in silent acknowledgement.

  Harris is one of Mike’s business associates. In another place and another time, I might have found Harris handsome. He’s tall and well built, with sandy colored hair and eyes a deep dark blue hue I’ve never seen anyone else have.

  But it’s not another place and time. It;s now and it’s Vegas, and I can’t think of him as handsome. Especially when I know he’ll tell Mike about my tardiness. Mike will know. I don’t allow myself to think beyond that at the moment.

  “Finally want to sample the goods?” I almost purr.

  He’s looking at me with an unreadable expression, and it confuses me. I’m typically able to read a man’s face when he’s with me.

  “Not particularly.” His arms are crossed and he’s frowning.

  “Come on, Harris,” Theo says. “What’s your problem?”

  “Nothing,” Harris replies. “Except maybe I’m not in a mood to be with a woman so many men have already sampled.”

  Theo laughs. “Could have fooled me. You didn’t have any trouble with the set of twins we had two weeks ago. Remember? Come on, you weren’t that drunk.”

  Harris stiffens at the reminder of whatever wild times Theo spoke about. “Yes, I remember very well. But this one—” He nods toward me. “Is off limits to me. She’s Mike’s girl.”

  “Aw, fuck, man. I forgot.” Theo looks me up and down. “Guess that means you’ll just have to watch while I enjoy her.”

  I try not to think about the fact that they’re discussing me like I’m not in the room. Like I’m a piece of meat or an animal or something. I find it takes entirely too much brain power and blame that on the meeting with Isaiah.

  Please don’t let me run into him often.

  I know if I see him regularly, that place deep inside me that allows me to do what I do will go away forever.

  Something flickers across Harris’s face, but I find I am, once again, unable to tell what.

  “I don’t think so,” he says in reply. “I don’t get much out of sex when it’s a spectator sport.”

  Theo shrugs. “Suit yourself. You leaving?”

  Harris nods. “Yeah. I think I’ll go on. You guys have fun.”

  But I’m slowly unzipping my skirt and Harris is no longer on Theo’s mind. The door closes behind Harris. I take another deep breath, and get to work.

  ***

  I hadn’t lied to Isaiah when I told him I tried to be a Vegas dancer. I just didn’t tell him the whole truth. I most certainly didn’t tell him what happened after the audition.

  The audition for the new group of dancers is finally over. I tell myself it’s okay and I’ll find some way to earn a living. The rumbling of my stomach reminds me it’s been too long since my last decent meal and hunger didn’t help my audition at all.

  I’m in the dressing room, head down, stuffing my leotard and tights into my bag. Around me the other girls are chatting, but I’m not interested in talking. I want to go back to my hotel room and sleep. I try not to think about how close I am to running out of money.

  The chatting stops suddenly and I’m aware of a presence beside me. I keep my head down, the shoes go into the bag next.

  “Miss Athena.”

  His voice is soft. Seductive. I look up and recognize one of the men from the audition. He didn’t run it, but he was in the room the entire time. Toward the back. Watching. He is breathtakingly handsome and he gives me a smile.

  “Yes,” I manage to say.

  “You’re not a dancer.”

  There is faint giggling from the girls left in the room and my face heats up. “Did you really come back here to tell me that? Seriously?”

  “Only because I’m not looking for a dancer.”

  His comment confuses me and he sees that because a knowing grin spreads across his face, almost as if he knows what I’ll say next.

  “What are you looking for?” I ask.

  “Come have dinner with me and I’ll tell you.”

  My stomach gurgles at the thought of food and his smile grows
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