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Vivian Wentworth walked down Ellis Street as fast as her four-inch stilettos could carry her. Head up, eyes alert, she clutched her leather briefcase in one hand, while the other—tucked into the front pocket of her coat—was wrapped securely around a small canister of pepper spray. She ignored the catcalls and crude comments that came from seemingly all directions, cursing her boss, and the judge who had kept her late at court, with every rapid step she took.
"Hey, lady. Are you lost?"
Ignoring the tough-looking teenager who stank of alcohol and sweat was extremely difficult, particularly when he had planted himself directly in her path. But ignore him she did, shifting her body a little to the left to keep from brushing up against the dark-haired youth as she passed.
This whole thing was a bad idea. A really horren-dously bad idea. She'd known it right away, but Richard had been immovable. The firm needed to take on more pro bono cases, needed to raise its profile for community service in a city that took activism to a whole new level. Why she'd been selected as the guinea pig for the new program, she didn't know. But Richard had insisted—they had to take this specific case, had to help this specific shelter, and she, specifically, was the one who had to do it.
She sighed in disgust. She had nothing against pro bono cases, having taken on quite a few in the six years since she had passed the bar. Nor did she hold a grudge against homeless boys accused of murder.
But she wasn't a defense attorney. She was a divorce attorney with a very full plate, and most of her past pro bono cases had been for local women's shelters,helping their residents escape abusive marriages with something more than a bunch of physical and emotional scars.
What did she know about mounting a defense in criminal court, save what they had taught her in law school over six years before? Even then she'd known she wanted to be a divorce attorney, so she hadn't exactly dedicated herself to the criminal law courses. How on earth could she help this boy when she didn't have a clue what she was doing herself?
It wasn't fair, not to her and not to Diego Sanchez. If he truly was innocent, as Richard claimed, then he deserved more than an attorney who hadn't been in a criminal courtroom since her first internship. And if he was guilty, then she took offense at wasting her time defending anyone who could callously and brutally rape and murder a pregnant, sixteen-year-old girl.
Vivian glanced at her watch, knowing what it would say before she saw the little hand sliding past the seven. Court had run over by nearly an hour, which meant that she was hugely late for her appointment with Diego. She hated being late to anything, let alone a client meeting. It was particularly hard to swallow tonight, as her lateness was what had put her in the unenviable position of being hassled by this teenager in the street.
A part of her couldn't help wondering if Diego got his jollies the same way this boy seemed to, though she did her best to ignore the thought.
Maintaining her air of confidence was getting more difficult by the second, but Vivian was determined not to let anyone around her know just how uncomfortable she was walking in this particular area—filled with prostitutes, drug dealers, gang members—as day slowly drifted into twilight. But as the short kid who had spoken to her was joined by a couple of friends and the trio began to trail her down the street, she grew increasingly alarmed.
Taking a deep, bracing breath, she straightened her shoulders a little more and sped up—a task that was more than a little difficult in her skyscraper heels. At another time, this tableau might have been funny, especially since she stood about three inches taller than the tallest boy. But here, now, it wasn't the least bit amusing. It was frightening and disconcerting, and she wanted nothing more than for them to give up and leave her alone.
Not that she thought there was a chance in hell of that happening.
Her hand clenched more tightly around the pepper spray. It was a weak weapon when faced with three drunk or high teenage boys bent on God only knew what, but it was better than nothing.
Besides, it was her own fault. She'd known better than to come down here in her court clothes. The Tenderloin area of San Francisco was famous—or should she say notorious—for the danger lurking on the streets any time of day. Like anywhere, though, night was when the predators came out and the streets were at their most dangerous—so dangerous, in fact, that even the police rarely showed up here after nine o'clock.
She'd planned on going home to change before the meeting, had hoped to wear something a little less conspicuous. Of course, she'd also hoped to take a taxi, which would have delivered her straight to the door of Helping Hands. Instead she'd taken the BART train to a station three blocks from the shelter and then trusted in human goodness that she would make it to the door unharmed.
Trust wasn't her strong suit at the best of times, and tonight was a perfect example of why.
Glancing at the building to her right, she tried to decipher the address through the grime without slowing her pace…1097, thank God! Only a little farther and she'd be at 1055 Ellis Street. Hopefully the community center would be a lot safer than the dilapidated neighborhood it existed in.
Though she'd grown up in San Francisco, she'd never been to this area before—her parents would have quiet heart attacks if they knew she was here now.
"Hey, lady. Whatcha need? I can show you where to get whatever you want." The dark-haired kid reached out and grabbed her elbow, spinning her to face him before she could make a move to stop him.
His words bounced around her brain as Vivian struggled to make sense of them. "Nothing." Her voice came out as a croak. "I don't need anything."
He gestured down the street. "My cousin's got whatever you're looking for. He'll even cut you a good deal, since you're so hot and all." His friends laughed as he leered at her, his rancid breath invading her air space.
She struggled not to gag as the overwhelming smell of booze hit her head-on and his meaning finally sank in. Drugs. He thought she wanted drugs.
Pushing away the sympathy that welled instinctively, Vivian twisted her arm, struggling to break his grasp. "Really, I'm fine. I don't need anything. I'm just trying to get—"
His leer grew more pronounced at her denial. "Well, if you're not looking for smack, what are you looking for? There's only a couple reasons women like you come down here. If it's not to get high…" He let the implication dangle as he crowded her, pushing her against the front of the abandoned building as his lower body—his very hard, very aroused lower body—bumped into her own.
His friends moved in behind him, flanking him on either side and cutting off any viable means for escape.
Anger exploded inside of her, a wild animal raking her with sharp claws, making her heart pound faster and her breathing spiral out of control. Any sympathy she'd had for them evaporated as she vowed not to go down without a fight.
She tried to break away, to bring her arms up between the two of them and push the kid back, but he was stronger than he looked. And she was hampered by the tight skirt of her suit and her total lack of experience with physical brawling. She'd never been in a fight in her life and she had no idea what to do to get out of this one.
She couldn't even use the pepper spray, as he was holding on to both her arms, the weight of his body pressing against hers until she was all but immobile, and completely vulnerable.
"Look," she said, her voice trembling so badly she could barely understand herself. Determined not to show him how afraid she was, she cleared her throat and tried for a steadier tone. "I'm sorry. I just want to get to the community center. I'm supposed to—"
He reached up, grabbed her breast and began to squeeze. "The community center, huh? You'll get there. Eventually." His laugh was low and mean, and his two companions joined in.
Vivian twisted against him, preparing to scream as she looked around frantically for help. But violence was a way of life down here, and the few people near her either didn't notice her plight or didn't care enough to risk their own lives by interceding.
She continued to struggle against her attacker, trying to get her hand free so she could actually use the stupid pepper spray. Her movements only excited him more— she could see it in his eyes, hear it in his suddenly ragged breathing. Feel it in the hardness pressed between her thighs.
Nausea overwhelmed her, burning away the anger and leaving terror in its place. So much for those stupid self-defense classes she'd taken. Nothing they'd taught her was working, and she was suddenly very afraid that she wasn't going to be able to find a way out of this.
His hand moved from her breast to her skirt, and he started to push the raw silk up and out of his way. Fear cut through the fury and tears welled in her eyes before she could stop them, trembling on her lashes before spilling down her cheeks.
"Please." She looked him straight in the eye, struggled to reach the lost kid inside the street tough. Struggled for her own safety and sanity. "Please don't do this. I beg you, please. Stop."
For a second she thought she'd reached him, thought she saw his eyes soften as his hand stilled. But then his friends laughed and one commented, "You were right, Nacho. The rich ones don't mind begging at all."
She glanced at the third boy. He looked scared, nervous, as though he wanted to be anywhere but where he was, though he never opened his mouth, never said a word.
Nacho's eyes hardened, the brief look of compassion dying out as if it had never been there. "That's right. Didn't I tell you I know how to treat a woman? By the time I'm done she'll be beggin'… on her knees."
He gave a sharp tug and Vivian felt her panty hose rip. She did scream then, one long, thin burst of sound as she struggled violently. When she finally got her left hand free, she brought it to Nacho's face and scratched long furrows down his cheek even as she continued to buck against him. Trying desperately to get to the pepper spray, to dislodge his grip on her skirt. To get away.
Nacho swore as her nails raked his face, and brought his hand back to slap her. His friends crowded in and Vivian closed her eyes, bracing for the blow she knew was coming.
But it never landed. Suddenly she was free, and Nacho and his friends were simply gone. "What do you think you're doing?" It was a new voice, deep and husky and so authoritative it got her attention instantly.
She opened her eyes in time to see Nacho stumble back against the wall. Glancing around wildly, half expecting his friends to attack in his place, she was shocked to see them sprawled on the dirty sidewalk and sidling backward slowly, their eyes fixed on the newcomer's furious face.
Not that she blamed them—she'd never seen anyone or anything like him in her life. Even as she straightened her clothes, her precarious situation hanging heavily over her head, she was painfully aware of him and the power he wore like a second skin.
He was huge, towering over her despite her own impressive height. He was built like an ancient warrior, and normally his wide shoulders, broad chest and narrow hips would have made her nervous as hell. At this particular moment, however, she couldn't be more grateful for his strength and obvious command.
Looking up into eyes so deep and black she swore they could belong to the devil himself, Vivian took an uncertain breath, then pressed a trembling hand to her heart as she fought to breathe around the relief pumping through her. His gaze swept her from head to toe, one long look that must have assured him she was unharmed, because he turned back to her would-be attacker.
"Since when do you get your kicks beating up women?" he snarled as he hauled the kid up, his face inches from Nacho's suddenly young and frightened one. "I thought you knew better than that. If you want to fight, why don't you pick on someone you don't outweigh by fifty pounds?"
Her savior's fingers tightened into fists and the kid started to back away. "Hey, Rafa, chill. We were just havin' some fun. Playing with the gringa."
"Fun?" His voice dripped disgust. "That's the kind of fun that'll get you arrested, Nacho. Or killed." His voice was low, the threat unmistakable.
"Hey, no way, man. I wasn't really going to hurt her." Nacho shoved against the newcomer hard and ran, his friends trailing quickly behind him.
Her rescuer turned his head, pinned Vivian with a look that was both dark and intense. "Do you have a cell phone?" he asked.
Caught in the act of fumbling her crumpled skirt back into place, Vivian repeated dumbly, "A cell phone?"
"To call the cops?"
Her teeth were chattering so badly she almost couldn't speak. "The cops?"
"Never mind." Reaching down, he grabbed the briefcase she had dropped during the scuffle. "We'll call from my place. I'm just up the block."
As the haze of terror wore off, Vivian's brain began working again. "I don't think—"
"Relax," he said, with a grin that was more a baring of teeth than an actual smile. "I own the community center. You'll be safe there."
"Community…" Things began to sink in as she walked toward him. "Oh, you're with—"
"Helping Hands." He nodded, placing his palm gently on the small of her back as he guided her down the sidewalk. Any other day she would have shrugged him off, but her knees were still knocking together and the support felt good.
"Are you hurt?" he asked as he propelled her toward the center.
"I'm fine." Her voice was a little higher than she would have liked, but the nervous adrenaline coursing through her made her regular tone impossible.
"Are you sure? I can call an ambulance." He glanced at her. "It might be a good idea to do that anyway."
"No, really. I'm good, just a little shaky."
They continued walking in silence for a few moments and Vivian struggled to compose her thoughts. She didn't usually need to be rescued, and it pricked her pride that he thought she was so fragile that she required an ambulance to keep from freaking out.