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"What am I wearing?" Rowan Crosswhite ech oed into the phone, her voice artfully pitched to a breathy sultry purr. Grimacing, she used the hem of her T-shirt and her frayed denim cutoffs to clean the majority of the potting soil from her hands, then took up her watering can. "I'm wearing a black leather bustier, fishnet hose and stiletto heels."
The fabricated description lacked originality, yes, but thus far in her experience in the phone sex business, she'd learned that any imaginative effort she put into her descriptions wasn't appreciated. So why bother?
When Rowan had first considered selling phone sex, she'd worried about being appropriately creative, about fabricating a believable per formance for the men who dialed her number. She'd even called a couple of 1-900 numbers for research purposes because being prepared was the keystone to any successful venture, and her near-manic obsession with doing everything to the ab solute best of her abilityeven something as seedy as being a phone sex operatorhad pre vented her from doing otherwise.
The research had been a wasted effort and she'd worried needlessly about conjuring a suitable performance.
In fact, ironically, she'd learned the less said the better. Rowan rolled her eyes. Hell, all she really had to do was gasp, wince and moaneasy to do, particularly when one was, say, cleaning the toilet or weeding a flower bedand the guys, thank God, took care of the rest. One of the many advantages of phone sex.
And, surprisingly, there were many.
First of allmost importantlyit was safe. There was no risk of abuse or disease, and if a guy freaked her out, all she had to do was sever the con nection and block the number. She mentally shrugged. Simple enough. Furthermore, and equally important given her recent unfortunate cir cumstances, it was lucrative. At $3.99 a minute, where the average call hovered around the twelve-minute mark, that was roughly $240 an hour. Her lips twitched. Considerably more than her previous job as a high-school science teacher.
Just a year shy of tenure, Rowan had been one of the unlucky souls left unemployed by deep state budget cuts. Her boss at Middleton High had promised that as soon as the funds were available, she'd be under contract again.
Regrettably, until then, more panting, moaning and wincing would be in orderand the more dra matic the betterotherwise she'd ultimately starve and, much to the detriment of her heavily padded thighs, she liked food entirely too much to go hungry.
Since she'd been paying off student loans and attending night school to get her master's degree, Rowan had been caught with a grand total of $633 in savings, even less in checking and nothingaside from a 1962 Chevrolet Corvette that had be longed to her father, and for which she would prostitute herself in the literal sense to keep if need beof any value to sell.
She did substitute teaching when she could, but that income hadn't been enough, or even depend able, for that matter. Then she'd read an article about a woman who, in similar circumstances, had morphed herself into a phone sex entrepreneur, and the rest had been history. She'd weighed the advantages and disadvantages, deemed it a good temporary choice, then installed her line and invested in a good mobile headset.
This freed up her hands and allowed her to do the things that she really lovedgardening, stained glass and metal-working. Tinkering, ac cording to her father. Her shoulders sagged with disappointment. Initially, she'd tried to make ends meet by selling her garden art, but unfortunatelyand this thoroughly baffled herno one seemed to get her style. Rowan cast a glance around her eclectic gardenwhimsical metalwork, stained-glass whirligigs, antique roses, bulbs and vinesand swallowed a despondent sigh. Screw 'em, she thought, the tasteless traditional cads. She was an artiste. Her garden thrived and made her happy, which when one really thought about it, was all that mattered anyway.
A stuttered breath hissed across the line, cut through her musings. "Whwhat about your panties? What do they look like?"
Rowan glanced at her watch. She'd had this guy on the phone for eight minutes. Time to finish up. She had some impatiens to transplant, and her roses were looking a little droopy.
"I don't wear panties," she lied breathlessly. "They constrict."
Predictably, the line worked. A garbled groan and the telltale whine of a zipper echoed into her ear.
She lowered her voice. "Can I tell you a secret, Jeff?" she asked, purposely using his name. It played into the whole say-my-name, who's-your-daddy mentality. Sheesh. Men were pathetically predictable.
"Sometimes when I'm alone I like to touch myself." She barely suppressed a snigger. Rowan Crosswhite, former high-school science teacher turned kinky phone sex queen.
Another broken hiss sounded. "Are you Are you touching yourself now?"
"Oh, I want to, Jeff. Do you want me to?"
"Oh, God, yes."
"Then I should probably lie down." Rowan affected a dramatic wince. "My sheets are cool especially since I'm so hot." That wasn't a complete lie. It was hot. And humid, she thought pulling her tank top away from her chest, a vain effort to cir culate a little air beneath her shirt.
A harsh breath stuttered across the line. "How hot are you?"
"I'm on fire, Jeff. I'm imagining that you're touching me. Can I touch you?"
Thirty seconds later it was over. She was thirty-six dollars richer and her sheets were still clean. Honestly, if a woman was going to use her body for profit, phone sex was definitely the way to go. In all seriousness, Rowan knew there were some people who would criticize her choice of tempo rary employment, but she'd used her own moral ity meter when making the decision. As far as she was concerned, she was providing a harmless form of entertainment. She simply played a part, ca tered to men's fantasies from a comfortable dis tance. No harm, no foul. It was a practical business arrangement, one that benefited her, kept food in the fridge and the power on.
She waited until his breathing slowed before she spoke again. "I've enjoyed talking with you, Jeff. Call me again, anytime."
Jeff exhaled a long, satisfied breath. "You can count on it." He paused. "Hey, as long as you're still there, do you mind if I ask you a quick question?"
"Sure. Go ahead." This was common. Men fre quently asked her for all kinds of advice. Every thing from how to remove stains, to what brand of fabric softener did she prefer. She didn't mind. It was their dime, after all. Cha-ching.
She'd even had a teenage boy callshe'd taught enough of them to recognize the pubescent squeaking croakand, after she'd neatly avoided the sex issue, she'd ended up tutoring him in sci ence. He'd contacted her several times during one week, then the calls had abruptly ceased. She'd been tempted to give him her home number, but Caller ID and cross-referencing had prevented the impulse. What she did on her own time wasn't anyone's business, but she didn't think Middle ton's Mississippi Bible Belt board of education would agree. She'd fully expected a call from an outraged parent, but so far nothing had come of it, and she sincerely hoped nothing did.
"I've got a date tonight," the caller said, "and I really want to impress this girl. What do you think? Burger King or McDonald's?"
Rowan rolled her eyes. Her clients, the poor fools. No wonder they could never get laid in the traditional sense. "Wow her," she told him flatly. "Head for the border."
"Taco Bell?" A thoughtful hum, then, "An even better choice. Thanks."
"No problem." She chuckled under her breath and disconnected. Just in the nick of time, too, Rowan thought, as she watched her elderly neigh bor, Ida Holcomb, amble unsteadily across her backyard toward Rowan's fence.
Rowan rented the small guest house, which was located at the rear of Ida's property, from the older lady. The white frame house was small, but two-storied with full, sweeping porches on both levels. It was the mini-version of Ida's grand antebellum home and, for what it lacked in modern conve nience, it more than made up for in character.
There was only one plug-in in the bathroom, and the pipes invariably froze in the winter, but the ten-foot ceilings lent an airy mood to the house, and the crown molding, fireplace, and hardwood floors had been handcrafted with a quality of workmanship which couldn't be duplicated much less found in today's power-tool, particle-board world. The small greenhouse, workshop and at tached garden had made it the perfect choice for Rowan.
When Rowan lost her job, Ida had sacrificed part of the rent in exchange for errands and per sonal services. Rowan did Ida's grocery shopping, took her to and from the hairdresser's, paid her bills and whatnot. She plucked her eyebrowsnot that there were that many left because Ida had been part of a generation where having no eye brows was fashionableand stoicallymiserably rendered the occasional pedicure. Her gaze involuntarily moved to Ida's slowly-approaching slippered feet and she quelled a shudder. In Row an's opinion, there was nothing remotely attractive about feet, and there was something downright yuck about knobby, gnarled old-people feet.
For all of that, however, she'd nonetheless grown very fond of her neighbor. Her grandparents had passed away when she was small, and her par ents had decided to make the most of their retire ment by seeing how many stamps they could add to their passports before they grew too old and feeble to globetrot. They were part of the new gen eration of fashionable retirees. They'd visited the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China and were currently on an extended tour of Europe.
Rowan had one brother, who naturally be grudged their parents the fruit of their hard-earned labor and, rather than admiring them for packing as much living into their lives as she did, only be moaned the loss of his dwindling inheritance. Though they both lived in Middleton, she rarely saw him, which, sadly, was fine with her.
Were her parents aware of her circumstances, Rowan knew they wouldn't hesitate to help her out, but pride, the insistent desire to fend for her self and the idea that they might miss another stamp because of her kept her from asking. She scowled. Besides, her brother had his hand out often enough for both of them.
She could make it on her own.
Would make it on her own. All she had to do was get through another month, then hopefully she'd get called back to school. Until then, she'd just answer her 1-900 line every time it rang and take care of her neighbor. It was a small price to pay for her independence.
Rowan summoned a weak smile as Ida drew near and silentlyferventlyprayed that the woman hadn't developed another ingrown toenail.
"I swear, you're the dirtiest female I think I've ever seen," Ida chided. "Gardening is dirty work, I'll grant you. But" her lips twisted with displea sure as she inventoried every smudge and smear on Rowan's body "I think that you get down and roll in it." Her lined face folded into a frown. "How do you ever expect to find a man when you look more fit to be the bride of a pig?"
Rowan barely smothered a sigh. In addition to being part of the no-eyebrow generation, Ida was also of the outdated opinion that a woman wasn't complete until she had a man to make her whole. It was penis envy to the nth degree and the men tality never ceased to make her grind her teeth in frustration.
Furthermore, Rowan had been burned once and, call her crazy, but she simply wasn't up to a repeat performance of that disaster at the moment. She'd been in love, imagining the happily ever after that Ida relentlessly preachedshe'd even reluctantly let that bastard drive her car, her biggest regret because he hadn't been vintage-Vette worthy and she'd known itbut hadn't heeded her own intuition because she'd been too busy picking out china patterns and bridesmaids' dresses. She'd tricked herself into thinking that she was in love, and he'd tricked her into believing he reciprocated the sentiment.
He'd been reciprocating something all right, but it hadn't been with her.
Two weeks before the wedding, she'd shown up at her fiancé's apartment for some surprise sex. It turned out to be surprise sex, too, only she was the one surprised and he was the one having sex.
Bitter pill, hard lesson.
Since then, she'd developed an unspoken code of sorts, one that her father had unwittingly inspired. She didn't date anyone who didn't fully appreciate her car, and she didn't sleep with anyone who had the gall to ask to drive it. Bizarre? Yes. But it worked.
Rowan glanced at the sleek little convertible parked in her driveway and felt her lips curl at the corners. Dubbed the first American sports car, the Vette was an unparalleled testament to fine engi neering at its best. Honduras Maroon with fawn in terior and a white ragtop, it had a 327 V-eight with four on the floor, and it purred with megahorse power perfection. It had been her dad's first brand-new car and he'd cared for it with the kind of reverent regard the vehicle deserved. She'd shared his passion and, as a result, he'd handed her the keys when she'd graduated from high school.
Rowan had decided that while she might not be a '62 Vette, she nonetheless deserved the same care and attention, and the same reverence. Until she found a guy willing to ante up all of the above, she planned to play her cards close to her vest. Did she occasionally long for more? Of course she did. She enjoyed her independence, yes, but not to the point of being a perpetual loner. There were nights when the silence closed in around her and she literally ached for the presence of another body. A big, warm masculine body. Nights when she craved conversation and companionship, a lover and friend. A safe harbor amid the ordered chaos of her life. But she refused to settle for anything less than the total package, and therein lay the rub.
Ignoring Ida's bride-of-a-pig remark, Rowan summoned a smile. "Was there something I could do for you, Ida?"
Ida started. Her preoccupied gaze darted away from Rowan's grimy shirt and settled on her face. Then she frowned, huffed an exaggerated breath and fished a napkin from the front pocket of her housecoat. "Honestly," Ida complained as she wiped Rowan's cheek. "It's all over your face, too." She tsked under her breath. "I hope you're hosing yourself down before you climb into that old tub. Those drains are slow enough as it is."