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"Hey, lady, you dishin' out more than fifty bucks, or what?"
The cabdriver's question snapped Hailey Roberts's thoughts away from the imposing mansion behind the gate. Her chest constricted at the mention of money. Once she parted with the crumpled Ben Franklin in her pocket, she wouldn't have a penny to her name. Until the end of the evening. When she got paid for taking off her clothes.
Her stomach roiled. "Fifty is all I have. You said it would be enough." Why was he in such a hurry? She glanced from her watch to the rotating meter. She still had ten dollars and eightyâ€¦no, seventyâ€¦cents' worth of time to muster the courage she needed to leave the cab. Suddenly sweltering in her sturdy trench coat, she scooted nearer the open window, but found no relief from the sultry Florida heat.
Even so, she shivered. "How "bout leavin' some of your dough for a tip, huh?" the cabby begged. "This wasn't no quick drive downtown. It'll take me half an hour to get back to the strip."
As her body temperature rose, Hailey's heart thudded against her ribs, sending pulses of pain straight to the back of her eyelids. She hated causing trouble, even for grumpy, New-York-transplanted cabdrivers trying to rush her into the most humiliating situation she'd ever faced. Not that she was a stranger to humiliation. She'd spent the better part of her life swallowing her pride and delaying her dreams. Aunt Gracie needed constant proof that Hailey and her baby brother, Sammy"only one year old when their parents died"were more than just cramps in her life-style and extra mouths to feed. Hailey'd finally found the courage to break away and start a betterlife for herself and Sammy. No matter what the cost.
It's now or never, Hailey, love. You've got tonight or the streets. Then where will Sammy be?
Her grim predicament fueled her ire. Who did this guy think he was, making her feel guilty just because she wasn't eager to rush her degradation? Hadn't Aunt Gracie used similar tactics over the past fifteen years to ensure Hailey's adherence to her rules? Hailey grabbed the back of the driver's seat like a lifeline. "You want a tip, lose the meter."
Oh, Lord. Hailey snapped her mouth closed with an audible pop, horrified by how much she'd sounded, at that moment, exactly like the aunt she wanted so desperately to escape. Constant exposure to the woman's verbal spite manifested into sharp words whenever Hailey found herself backed into a corner. She'd come out swinging before she could stop herself.
Hailey pushed Gracie's voice out of her head and found her own. "If I had more than fifty, I swear, I'd give you a great tip for making the long drive. But I'm broke. Please, I just need another minute, okay?"
The cabby, blessed with a baby face and kind eyes to offset his coarse voice, shoved his cap back on his forehead. He readjusted the rearview mirror to watch her more closely, then sighed and flipped off the meter.
"Two minutes. Not three. I gotta living to earn and I ain't gonna pick up no fares in a swank neighborhood like this."
She exhaled, though the reflex failed to relax her. "Two minutes. Thank you."
Peering out the rear window, she nodded in agreement with the cabdriver's assessment of Wellesley Manor. The subdivision in Citrus Hill, Florida, definitely rated as "swank", if not "posh" and "exclusive" as well. The homes, constructed of brick in myriad shades from red to amber and designed with more columns than the Coliseum, sat back from the roadways on well-tended, tree-draped lawns. She'd trek quite a distance to the front door of 724 Wellesley Lane, the address her cousin had scribbled on the napkin now clutched in her palm.
Perspiration muted the ink, but Hailey could still read the address well enough to compare it to the gleaming brass numbers on the gate. She'd always wanted to see the inside of a mansion in an exclusive neighborhood like Citrus Hill.
But like this?
Cradling her head in her hands, she inhaled deeply, mindless of the stale stench permeating the cab's floor. With any luck, the resident of 724 Wellesley Lane didn't routinely hire strippers. A regular would spot her inexperience in a flash. Mary Jo might believe Hailey would be a natural, but Hailey couldn't fathom how she'd reached such a dire situation in so short a time.
How could she possibly disrobe in front of strange men?
Her cousin had tried to reassure her. "You're a professional dancer. You take your clothes off in dressing rooms all the time," Mary Jo rationalized. "Half the costumes you wear don't amount to much more than a bikini. Besides, this guy's nice. He's really not as raunchy as he likes everyone to think. The whole thing's just a joke on his uptight brother, anyway. Hailey, love, you can do this.
You have to unless you want my mother raising Sammy without you around to undo the damage."
Hailey had shivered. "It's a wonder he's turned out so special this far." Staring out the window of Mary Jo's apartment, she had focused on the spot where her car should have been"but wasn't.
Her cousin laid a loving hand on her shoulder. "Sammy's okay because you've spent your entire life running interference. You made sure he had lots of love and confidence. Friends and interests."
"I hated leaving him."
"You won't be apart for long. Look, if I had the cash on hand, I swear it'd be yours. Buck says he's about to score big. Maybe I could convince him to!"
Hailey stiffened. "I won't take his money."
Mary Jo stepped away, dropping her hand to her side. "Then this is all you've got. One night can save your entire future."
Unfortunately, Mary Jo had been right. Hailey had no choice. Two days ago, she'd made the final break from her manipulative aunt, taking the last of her life's savings" the fifteen hundred Grace had yet to steal from their joint account"and headed toward a new life. A day later, she'd been carjacked. Gun-wielding teenagers stole her car, her cash, her costumes and worst of all, her precarious sense of safety, leaving her with nothing but the clothes she'd worn and the fifty dollars she'd tucked in her bra. For emergencies.
She couldn't even laugh at the irony.
In those horrifying seconds, her lifelong dream of independence and normality for herself and her brother abruptly ended. Or, at least, hit an abyss even the bus from Speed couldn't jump. She'd walked away with her life, but what kind of life would that be?
If she didn't earn at least five hundred dollars by Monday, she'd lose the four thousand she'd deposited a month before as a down payment on her studio. Her career as a dance therapist would go bankrupt before she printed her first business card.
Most importantly, she would have no way of supporting her brother once he left their aunt's house. He'd given her less than a month to get on her feet before he swore he'd run away from Gracie to join her. Sixteen and sensitive, Sammy wasn't the type of kid who'd thrive on the streets. He was an academic whiz kid who needed to worry about school and his future"not about their next meal.
That was Hailey's job. Always had been.
Now, Hailey needed help and Mary Jo offered in the only way she knew. Having run away from Grace herself at eighteen, Mary Jo knew despair firsthand. She'd survived by taking any job she could. When stripping rescued Mary Jo from homelessness, Hailey pushed her preconceived notions aside.
Women in desperate situations did desperate things" just as Hailey would to save her future.
Though separated from Hailey for the past decade, Mary Jo picked Hailey up off her doorstep, offered her a private stripping job and gave her a place to live while she left town with Buck. She'd even negotiated a higher price than usual because they'd tailored the act to the customer's specifications. She may not have had a dollar to her name, but Mary Jo had a big heart.
And a big price. Charging five hundred dollars for each job, plus fifty extra to travel outside Tampa, Mary Jo should have had a stash of savings surpassing the dance contest winnings Aunt Gracie swindled from Hailey. After meeting her boyfriend Buck, however, Hailey suspected
Mary Jo's earnings probably paid for more than just his imitation suede jacket and pungent musk cologne.
She also knew he wouldn't put up with Hailey as a third roommate much longer.
Even if she had to prance around in her panties, Hailey wouldn't end up like Mary Jo in one respect"dependent on a man to make her feel important. She'd learned the futility of that from Paul. She'd been so young when they met. Barely sixteen. He'd become her dance partner, her confidant, her protection from Aunt Gracie's constant criticism.
On her eighteenth birthday, he'd become her lover. He showered her with intimate attention, filling her with a sense of power that, with her past, acted almost like a drug. She'd never been with anyone but him and he used her inexperience to keep her under his control. More subtle in his domination than Gracie, Paul managed to direct nearly every aspect of her life without her really taking notice.
Until he left. He abandoned her just months before the most important competition of her career"one whose payout would have financed the education she so desperately wanted to complete.
Since then, every decision she'd made, from finding another partner and finishing college, to leaving Miami and leasing the studio in Tampa, was a bold step toward sweet freedom for her and Sammy.
And sometimes, to find the honeyed center, you have to chew through the bitter edges.
"Two minutes are up, lady," the cabdriver announced.
"I gotta get goin'."
Hailey tossed the fifty-dollar bill into the front seat and closed her coat tighter. "So do I. God help me, but so do I."
When the cab's taillights faded, the early fall of evening cloaked Hailey as she slipped through the unlocked gate and down the palm-lined drive. Mary Jo's customer asked that her arrival be a surprise, not for the groom, oddly enough, but for the owner of the house who reportedly didn't know this gathering was a bachelor party.
Hailey's hopes brightened. Maybe she'd get thrown out before she took off her overcoat. She could demand full payment for her trouble and escape with her self-respect and costume fully intact.
Yet when she crossed in front of the living room picture window, her optimism deflated. Four men in their early thirties congregated around a large screen television, tossing catcalls at a porno film like prison inmates on conjugal visiting day.
Five hundred dollars, she reminded herself. Without the cash, you're either on the street or slinking back to Aunt Gracie with your tail between your legs. And what about Sammy? He's a lost lamb in a wolf's den without you.
She raised her hand to the doorbell, but held back when she heard a male voice echo from the side of the house. Deep-throated and controlled, the sound piqued her curiosity.
"I apologize, Mr. Phipps. You were saying?" Stepping quietly across the portico, she peeked through the branches of a tall rhododendron, spying movement near a set of French doors. High-voltage brass lamps bathed the marble deck in bright light, casting the man, whose voice she'd heard, in shadow. When he stepped out of the glare, her breath caught, not because he might see her, but because he was the most gorgeous"and the most intense-looking"man she'd ever encountered.
Dressed in khaki pants and a golf shirt, he jammed one hand into his pocket. The other clutched the portable phone so tightly, she thought he might crack the casing.
His light-brown hair, cropped short and wavy, curved around a face singularly attractive despite his deep-set scowl.
This was a man to be reckoned with, a man of great power. Whoever had wrenched an apology from him just a moment ago must be very, very important.
Hailey'd never really known any men of consequence, but she'd seen them. On television. In the business section of the Miami Herald. Featured on the covers of Money or Forbes. Of course, none had been as devastatingly handsome.
His eyes, dark and intense, reflected utter exasperation. His nose, slanted to bring attention to full grimacing lips, flared at the nostrils, reminding her of a lion disturbed from his nap. His evening was obviously going as swimmingly as hers.
Yet he still managed to look like a god.
And not a minor deity like Theseus or Adonis. An Olympian. A son of Zeus himself.
Hailey shook herself, noting this was the worst possible time for her to find herself in the throes of lust. Lust led to men and men led to trouble. Paul had been a prime example.
This man, however, lacked Paul's spurious sparkle and spit-shine. When he stalked silently from one end of the deck to the other, she warmed at the raw earthiness beneath the casual clothes. Holding his anger in check obviously took every ounce of his concentration, but the strain only enhanced his allure. He looked neither kind nor caring nor loving.
Still, her mouth watered.
He took a step toward the railing. She flattened herself against the outer wall.
"Mr. Phipps, I am not having a "wild party."
Not yet, you're not.Hailey stepped back, finally realizing she couldn't go through with her plan. Alternatives flew through her brain like an Irishman's footwork in a fast-paced jig. Maybe she could work something out with the studio's landlord. After all, she'd already given the man four thousand in cash. She'd get a job"doing anything but stripping"until she could afford the rent. The studio had lots of windows. She could do without air-conditioning for a while. Lettuce was cheap. She'd live on salads"kick that junk-food habit she'd been trying to break. That ought to save a few bucks. In a short time, she'd arrange for patients and start her career.
Then there was Sammy. Hailey drew her thumbnail into her mouth and bit down hard. She couldn't leave him with Grace any longer than she'd planned, but she also couldn't bring him to Tampa until her cash flow improved. Sammy thrived at school with his techno-nerd friends and science courses.
Science course. Hailey remembered Mr. Finch, Sammy's favorite teacher, who'd shown such compassion when she'd gone to the high school to discuss leaving Sammy behind. Knowing Grace's crazy priorities for her niece and nephew, Mr. Finch volunteered to take Sammy in if things with Grace got too crazy. At the time, Hailey had been too proud to accept. The separation was supposed to be temporary and only one month remained until Sammy finished eleventh grade.
Yet things had definitely changed. Finch's sincere offer probably still stood. She'd call him tonight"as soon as she got out of this mess without ruining her or Mary Jo's reputation.
She'd simply ring the doorbell, tell them "Moana," Mary Jo's stage persona, had to go out of town due to an emergency and couldn't perform.