Before I could talk myself out of it, I took a seat in front of my computer, logged in to my e-mail, and pulled up the last message from Chloe. I typed a short response:
Chloe, my answer is yes. Any dates work for me. Just let me know your travel plans. I’m looking forward to meeting you. Gabriel.
And then I hit send before I could change my mind.
Some people are mean to their bones. If you can’t beat ’em, you just have to survive ’em. Play the hand you’ve been dealt until you get a better one.
Gambit, the Duke of Thieves
My car gave a last wheezing stutter before it jerked to a stop and died on the side of the road where I’d managed to steer it at the last minute. I let out an angry yell, banging my palms against the steering wheel. “No, no, no,” I chanted, sitting back in my seat as defeat settled in the pit of my stomach. “God, give me a break.” I banged my head lightly against the headrest, my shoulders sagging.
The glare of the sun was strong as I squinted out the open window; nothing in sight but rocks and trees. I was at least three miles from Glendale, the small town where I lived, and there wasn’t so much as a gas station between here and there. I pulled my phone out of my purse and dialed the local garage and asked for Ricky. When I was told he wasn’t there, I sighed, hanging up. He was the only one who would have given me a free tow. I dialed Kayla’s number next, and it went straight to voice mail.
“Hey, Kay, it’s me. My stupid car just died on the side of the road. If you get this and you’re not working, call me.”
Tossing my phone back in my purse, I rolled my windows up and got out. I stood for a moment considering the five bags of groceries in the backseat and finally blew out a breath, abandoning them as I started walking. I’d get to town and catch a ride back with someone. At least the nonperishables might be salvageable. Goddammit, I’d just spent every cent of last night’s tips on those groceries.
The sun was hot on my back, and I felt sweat gathering between my shoulder blades after only a few minutes. In an attempt to make walking easier, I hitched my jean skirt higher on my thighs. My heeled sandals weren’t exactly ideal for a three-mile hike. I bent down and took them off, but the asphalt beneath my feet was so hot it burned. Shit. Looked like the blister I’d likely get from putting them back on would be the lesser of two evils. I could only hope.
A few cars drove by, but in a town with a population of less than six hundred, I wasn’t expecting this road to be highly traveled.
I’d walked about a mile when I heard the loud roar of a truck engine and turned, moving closer to the dead grass at the side of the road and glancing back at the white truck coming my way. It slowed as it went past me and then pulled to the shoulder of the road, idling. I slowed my pace, nervous flutters beginning to move in my belly when Tommy Hull leaned out the window, squinting back at me.
“Hey, girl, you need a ride?”
I released a breath and sped up, pulling open his passenger side door and climbing in. I hadn’t seen Tommy in a while, but he’d been a regular at the Platinum Pearl before he’d married some townie several months before. “Thanks, Tommy, that’d be great. It sure is hot out there.” The air-conditioning in his truck felt wonderful and I sighed, leaning back against the seat.
He pulled onto the road and glanced over at me, his eyes moving down my bare thighs, lingering. “Sure is.” He started to swerve slightly to the side of the road and looked up, correcting the direction of the truck before glancing at me again. “That your car back there?”
“Yeah.” I let out a humorless laugh. “Piece of junk.” His eyes seemed to be stuck on my thighs again so I pulled my skirt down slightly, the movement getting his attention. He lifted his gaze and smirked at me.
“You’re lookin’ real nice today, girl. You wanna go somewhere?”
I shook my head, resisting the urge to cringe. “No, thank you anyway, Tommy.” I suddenly remembered the groceries I’d left in the backseat of my car, but decided not to ask Tommy to take me back to get them. I just wanted to get home. Fuck the groceries. Fuck my car and my life. I just wanted to get in bed and turn on some mindless talk show and forget about everything.
“Aw, come on.” He put his hand on my thigh and rubbed it lightly. “Damn you’re soft. Forgot how soft you are, baby. Miss those lap dances you used to give me.” He removed his hand to put it back on the wheel as he turned off the highway onto a dirt road.
“I think you owe me a little something for getting you off the side of the road, don’t you? Coulda just left you there, walking your ass back to town in the hot sun. Still could.” And there it was. My shoulders drooped at the cold jeering in his tone. The scenery around us, the inside of his truck, and my hands sitting in my lap seemed to take on a flat quality, as if none of this was real. I wished it wasn’t.
I looked at Tommy blankly, a familiar sense of futility settling over me. What did it matter anyway if I let him grope me in his truck? Here, alone on the side of the road, I didn’t even have the thin veneer of safety the Platinum Pearl offered. And judging by the mean look in Tommy’s eyes, I knew it’d take more effort to dissuade him.
Evidently the fact that he was married didn’t mean much to Tommy. What a lucky girl she was.
I forced my lips to lift into something that felt like a smile. “If that’s what you want, sugar.” It was impossible to inject anything other than fatigue and detachment into my voice. Not that he would care.
He stopped the truck, grinning triumphantly at me. “That’s my girl.” He was on me before I could even blink, his hands everywhere, his mouth fastened to mine, his tongue probing as if digging for lost treasure. I hardened myself, my mind moving elsewhere until his taste, tobacco and something salty he’d recently eaten, was bearable, seemingly innocuous. I tilted my head back against the glass of the window, gazing up at the sky, and noticed a blackbird soaring in the distance. I watched it until it was nothing more than a small black speck, watched it until it disappeared into nothing at all.
Tommy thrust against me, panting, his hand desperately pulling at my panties as he licked up my jaw. “Aw, Jesus you get me worked up, baby. You’re so fuckin’ gorgeous. Aw, fuck.” His zipper was down and he was attempting to take his belt off with one hand, still grinding against me in a frenzy, when he let out a loud gasp that ended in a groan, stilling as I felt warm wetness against my bare hip. “Fuck!” he swore, pulling away instantly.
I sat up quickly, jerked out of my daze, pulling my skirt down, wiping at the sour smell of his saliva on my jaw.
He zipped up his pants, sitting back in his seat and running his fingers through his blond hair. “Goddammit! How the fuck am I supposed to go home like this? What do you think my wife’s gonna say?” He pointed down at the large wet spot on the front of his jeans.
I stared at it for a moment, and hilarity moved up my throat. Nice job, sharp shooter. My chest rose and fell rapidly with the effort not to laugh, some vague sense of hysteria mixed with the laughter that was bubbling in my chest, begging for escape. When Tommy attempted to wipe at the spot with the edge of his shirt and only ended up making it bigger, I couldn’t hold back anymore. A burst of laughter exploded from my mouth and I clutched my stomach, doubling over. I laughed so hard tears poured down my cheeks.
I looked up just in time to see the rage etched across Tommy’s face, but not in time to dodge the smack that whipped my head back against the window. That killed my laughter. I brought my hand up to my face, my laughter turning into small bursts of wheezing breath.
“Not laughing now, are ya, you cheap slut? Get the fuck out of my truck.” He reached around me and opened the door, and since I was leaning against it, I fell out, tumbling backward, hitting the ground so hard the breath was knocked from my lungs. My purse landed in a patch of dead grass to my left, and the door of the truck slammed above me. Trying my best to draw breath, I crawled backward through the dirt as the truck roared to life, turned around, and headed back toward the main road.
I sat there for a minute, sucking in oxygen, all the laughter dead on my lips. Eventually, I pulled myself up, groaning slightly at the ache in my bruised backside, and rubbing carefully where Tommy had hit me. I walked toward the highway. At least I was a little closer to home than I’d been before. That was something.
* * *
Forty-five minutes later, sweating profusely, and limping from the blisters formed on my aching feet, I let myself into my apartment. Dropping my purse on the floor, I began removing my clothes, leaving them in a trail as I headed to the shower. I stood under the cool water, attempting to let the last hour and a half wash off my body and follow the soapy water down the drain. I just want to feel clean. When I emerged, I felt a little bit better, cooler at least. I opened my apartment window, though there wasn’t much of a breeze, and turned on the floor fan, grabbing my phone from my purse and flopping down on my bed.
No calls. Kayla must be working. I thought about my car, currently on the side of the road with the groceries in the backseat, and a lump formed in my throat. I needed that car—needed it to get to work. Needed it to survive. Needed it so that I didn’t have to accept rides from men who were likely to take liberties with my body on the side of the road. A sick feeling washed through me when I thought of Tommy again, but I pushed the recent memory away as best as I could.