Authors: Lori Foster
Both men stared at her.
Shay prided herself on being open and friendly and approachable. That openness was the trick of her trade, what made her so successful in her efforts. Then something else the little man said hit her, and she stared back at the dark-eyed stranger.
Stunned, she managed to squeak out,
He didn’t answer her, but instead ordered, “Get lost, Chili. Take your money home to your wife for a change.” He hadn’t looked away from Shay when he spoke. Evidently, he didn’t need to.
Whining, Chili accepted his dismissal and faded back into the shadows.
“Well.” Shay cleared her throat. “That was impressive. I gather you’re used to giving orders?”
Instead of answering, he scrutinized her. “I haven’t seen you here before.” His tone was low. Familiar. “So maybe you don’t know how dangerous this particular corner is to work.”
Shay cocked a brow. She knew. Hadn’t she just saved Leigh from working this corner? But…surely he didn’t mean what she thought he meant, at least in reference to her.
“On a night like this,” he continued, “men are more interested in raising hell than paying you for service. Come on. I’ll get you out of the damned rain.”
Her jaw loosened and her brows came down. He
He thought she was a prostitute. Shay shook her head, but there was no denying his words. This positively gorgeous man with a voice that rubbed rough and raw up her spine and eyes that seemed to see to her soul thought she was a lady of the night. A hooker. A streetwalker.
No matter what term she used, it sounded the same.
But she didn’t think he meant to be insulting. In fact, she wasn’t altogether sure what he meant. “Are you offering to buy my services for the night?” If he said yes, she’d probably deck him, gorgeous eyes or not. But if he said no, then where did that leave her?
With a growl and a low, muttered curse, he shrugged out of his jacket. “Put this on.”
My, my, he was full of orders. “Why? Then you’ll just get wet.”
His gaze flicked over her body once more, quickly. He looked out over the surrounding area while leaning close, his nose nearly touching her hair. “You look more naked than not.” His voice was strained, annoyed. Deep and raw. “Believe me, the men here won’t wait for you to name a price before they take what they want. You’re wasting your time, and you could get hurt. Take the damn jacket and come with me.”
Shay blinked rapidly, thankful now for the darkness and the fact that she had her back to everyone—except the preacher. The floodlights would be against her front, leaving her visible to his view. The snowy whiteness of her dress served as a beacon in the darkness. She folded her arms over her chest and started to look down, but he caught her chin on the edge of his fist.
“Put…the jacket…on.” His expression was fierce, his tone abrupt. When she nodded, he held it out and she slipped her arms into the sleeves, rearranging the strap of her purse over her shoulder. Made of nylon and cotton, the jacket smelled of him, and her heartbeat fluttered, just as it had fluttered when she’d first noticed him watching her.
She held the front closed over her breasts with fingers gone numb from the cold rain and humiliation. She lifted her gaze to his face, but he was busy watching the men around them. He certainly wasn’t acting like a customer. Not that she knew how a customer would act. But somehow, she thought he’d be more…interested.
“There’s a safe house close by. You can get dry and wait out the storm. No one will bother you there.”
A safe house. So he wanted to help her? He’d just solved one of her problems, and her mind buzzed with possibilities. Maybe she could work with him; they could combine their efforts.
She certainly wouldn’t object to spending more time with him.
Explanations would have to wait. As he looked up and down the street, watching for danger, impatience throbbed off him in waves. Shay became aware of running feet, then someone broke a window behind her and loud, rather creative cursing was followed by shouts and laughter.
The preacher grabbed her, pulling her close to his chest and turning to move her farther away from the crowd, shielding her with his big body. Her face tucked into his neck and she breathed in his scent. Once again her stomach curled, then tightened. It was a delicious feeling, one she could get used to pretty quickly.
He said against her cheek, “We
Shay nodded, her options limited as more breaking glass erupted around them. “Lead the way.”
He grabbed her hand. “Try to keep up,” he ordered, and hurried her along down the middle of the street. The rain stung her skin and the wind tried to tear her hair from her head before he darted back into the shadows again, away from the lights and the possibility of being noticed.
Glad of the fact she’d worn low-heeled shoes, Shay trotted along behind him, her steps slightly hampered by the narrow width of her skirt. She’d been at a fund-raising banquet and would have changed before coming here today if there’d been time. But she’d needed to reach Leigh, to get to her before she changed her mind.
She’d met Leigh at one of her women’s shelters a few months before. She’d known then that the girl had many problems, but she hadn’t known she was a hooker.
Shay had left the banquet in a rush, taking only enough time to grab Dawn on the way. When someone finally reached out, someone desperate, you didn’t ask her to wait while you changed into something more comfortable.
Lightning shattered the black sky in front of them, followed closely by the crashing of thunder. The preacher pulled Shay into the recessed door front of a small, seedy motel. “Wait here.” Still keeping her hand secured in his, he peered around the corner. “Anyone looking for you?”
He glanced at her, gaze sharp, almost piercing. He repeated, “Do you have a…” He shook his head. “A keeper? A
He shifted against the building, growling the word in a way that Shay knew it bothered him even to say it.
It disturbed Shay a great deal more, especially after seeing what a pimp had done to Leigh. She leveled an indignant look on his profile. “No.”
“I can deal with it,” he told her, and his tone reeked of confidence. “I just don’t want any surprises.”
No one had ever accused Shay of needing a “keeper.” Lecturing the preacher here and now on the evils of assuming too much tempted her, but she settled for saying, “I’m capable of taking care of myself.”
He turned to better face her, settling all that awesome attention on her until she felt like squirming. “Don’t get all huffy.”
She was indignant, not
and there was a huge difference. Not that he seemed inclined to hear about it.
“I’m not judging you.”
He shook his head. “I leave the judging and condemning to the society bitches who keep trying to have this area written off.”
Shay took a step back. “Society—?”
You haven’t heard of them? WAM. Women Aiming for Morality, or some such ridiculous crap. As if they even know what morality means.”
Shay knew them well. They were a group of righteous biddies who had been rather persistent in petitioning her offices, wanting her to back their cause. They considered her one of them: rich and elite and upper class, ready to rid the world of the more unseemly elements, especially the human elements.
But they hadn’t taken into consideration the fact that Shay had come by her money through marriage to a wonderful man, not by familial inheritance. She hadn’t been raised with it, so she had no inbred snobbery. Her own parents were happily middle class, and very supportive of any measure that might help the less fortunate.
She herself had been one of their efforts at helping where and how they could, which added to her determination to spread the goodwill.
When she was six years old, they’d taken her in and smothered her with affection and acceptance, making her a part of their family, giving her a little sister and safety and stability. Now they lovingly put up with her pushy, domineering, take-charge ways, and her unorthodox methods for giving back.
But even they would have difficulty accepting her pretense of being a prostitute.
She should probably tell him the truth. Instead, she said, “You don’t talk like any preacher I’ve ever known.”
That observation brought his frown back and flattened his mouth. His eyes looked like flint, his jaw like granite.
Unfazed by the show of hostility, Shay asked, “Is it just a nickname, or are you really a preacher?”
Leaning his head back against the crumbling face of the building, he released her hand to rub the bridge of his nose.
Shay immediately missed his warmth, his comfort.
After what seemed like forever, he growled, “Yeah, I’m a preacher.” He fell silent a few moments more, listening as the sounds of a police siren swelled and then faded. “But you don’t have to worry about constant sermons and advice at the safe house. You’ll get help, not lectures.”
“I wasn’t worried.” Intrigued, yes, but not worried. He had an edge of sharp competence to his manner that seemed more suitable to a gunslinger, not a man of God. Shay knew her own background, the motives that drove her to this neighborhood on such a miserable night, the overwhelming compulsion to help others as she had been helped.
But what motivated him?
She tucked her hands behind her back, resisting the temptation to touch him. “So you’ve given up on your religion?”
“I didn’t say that.”
He sounded so put out with her, Shay let that topic drop. “What’s your name?”
His gaze zeroed in on her again. “Everyone calls me Preacher.”
“So I’m not allowed to know it?”
“You don’t need to know. Besides, we have more important things to think about tonight.” He started away, but Shay didn’t budge.
Glancing over his shoulder, he ordered, “Get a move on.”
Shay countered, “Tell me your name.”
Impatience rose up, nearly making his dark blond hair stand on end. “This is no time for games.”
Oh, boy. And here she’d always thought preachers were supposed to be full of endless, unwavering forbearance. Such a contradiction. But Shay didn’t scare easily. “I’ll go with you. When I know your name.” And then, to soften her insistence: “You can’t expect me to just go traipsing off with a stranger.”
“And hearing my name is all the reassurance you need?”
His disbelief and suspicion made Shay grin. “Yeah.”
Rankled, he rubbed his jaw, dragged a hand over his damp hair. Then he stuck out his hand. “Bryan Kelly.” No sooner did he say it than he looked poleaxed, like he wanted to turn around and walk away from her, or curse, or punch the brick wall.
Instead, he just stood there, frozen, his hand extended.
“Bryan.” She tasted the name, watched him watching her, and closed her fingers around his. “I like it.”
“I meant to say Bruce.”
Shay blinked twice. “What?”
With her hand still held in his, he repeated, “I meant to say Bruce. Bryan’s…my middle name.”
“Bruce Bryan Kelly?” And she thought her own name was unique.
His scowl was back, blacker and meaner than ever. “I prefer you call me Preacher.”
He appeared to be grinding his teeth. “Because that’s what everyone calls me.”
“I can’t show favoritism.” He seemed satisfied with that explanation, enough to expound on it. “You can imagine how that’d look, all things considered.”
It was difficult not to laugh. “Things being that I’m a prostitute and you’re offering to protect me?”
If looks could hurt…“Exactly.”
“I’ll call you Bryan—but only when we’re alone.”
Seconds passed while he stared at her, probably trying to intimidate her. “Will you, now?”
She met him stare for stare. “Yes.”
His eyes narrowed more, his lip curled, and he turned away. “Good thing we won’t be alone much, then.” He still had her hand caught in his, practically dragging her along, keeping close to the buildings and as far from the blowing rain as they could get.
Pulling the tiger’s tail, Shay asked sweetly, “Don’t you want to know my name?”
They walked another ten feet before he said in distraction, “What the hell? Go ahead and tell me.”
His absent tone was tempered by the protective way he led her down the deserted street. For a preacher, he had incredible instincts, staying alert, constantly scanning the area. Had he maybe served in the service before choosing this vocation? Or was his edgy, suspicious nature just a basic part of the man?
Whatever the reasons for his unique attitudes, Shay liked them. She liked him.
It was the first time since her husband that a man had bothered to show interest in her for any reason other than her money. She was well used to men fawning over her, trying to ingratiate themselves into her life. She had connections and wealth, which meant she had power. The combination served as quite an inducement to most guys.
But Bryan Kelly was unaware of her assets; for heaven’s sake, the man thought she was a common hooker in a dirty little neighborhood, desperate enough to be selling her wares on a night like this. It wasn’t the most complimentary assumption ever made.
But it was better than being wanted for her money.
And for the moment, she preferred he go on thinking it. Which meant she couldn’t give him her full name. “You can call me Shay.”
No way would she give him her last name. After recent events, she’d suffered some truly awful publicity and he’d probably read most of it. Knowing how he felt about WAM, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think he’d leave her standing in the street alone if he realized her identity. “Just Shay.”
After a furtive glance, he asked, “Just Shea, like the stadium?” Amusement lightened his eyes. “Or just Shea, like Cher, important enough that you only need one name?”
Was he laughing at her? It didn’t matter. Laughter was better than disdain any day. “Just Shay, as in short for Shaina.” She spelled out her name for him. No one in the papers had known her full name. No one had called her Shaina since she’d been adopted.