Authors: Sara Craven
Chellie stared at him. She said uncertainly, "Go—with you?" She shook her head. "I—I don't think so."
"Listen," he said. "And listen well. I may be the first man to pay for your company, but I certainly won't be the last. And the next guy along may not respect your delicate shrinking. In fact, he could even find it a turn-on," he added laconically. "And expect a damned sight more pleasure from you than I've had. Are you prepared for that?"
She was quiet for a moment. "Why should I trust you?"
"Because you can."
THE BEDROOM BARTER
First North American Publication 2005
Copyright © 2003 by Sara Craven
The waterfront was crowded, the air full of the reek of alcohol, greasy food, and the sultry rhythms of local music. People had spilled out of the crowded bars and sleazy clubs, forming shifting and edgy groups in the stifling humidity of the South American night.
Like a powder keg that only needed a spark was Ash Brennan's wry assessment.
He moved easily but with purpose, at a pace barely above a saunter, over the uneven flagstones, his cool blue glance flicking over the gaudy neon signs advertising booze and women, ignoring the glances that came his way, some measuring, some inviting. All the time maintaining his own space.
Logistically it was only about a mile from the Santo Martino marina, where millionaires moored their yachts and where all the nightspots and casinos which catered for well-heeled tourists were sited. In reality it was light years away, and any tourist foolhardy enough to venture down here would need to take to his expensive heels or risk being mugged or worse.
Ash reckoned that he blended sufficiently well. The sun-bleached tips of his dark blond hair brushed the collar of the elderly blue shirt, which lay open at the throat to reveal a tanned muscular chest. Faded khaki pants clung to lean hips and long legs. His feet were thrust into ancient canvas shoes, and a cheap watch encircled his wrist.
His height and the width of his shoulders, as well as his air of self-possession, suggested a man who could take care of himself and, if provoked, would do so.
He looked like a deckhand in need of rest and recreation, but selective about where he found them.
And tonight his choice had apparently fallen on Mama Rita's. He went past the display boards studded with phoof girls in various stages of undress and down two steps into the club, where he paused, looking round him.
It was the usual sort of place, with a long bar and, closely surrounded by tables with solely male occupants, a small stage lit by powerful spots, with a central pole where the dancers performed.
The air was thick with tobacco smoke and the stink of cheap spirit. And, apart from the sound of the piano being played by a small sad-faced man with a heavy moustache, there was little noise. For the main part, the clientele sat brooding over their drinks.
Waiting for the girls to come on, Ash surmised.
Just inside the door, an enormous woman sat behind a table. Her low-cut sequinned dress in lime-green billowed over her spectacular rolls of fat as if it had been poured there, and her curly hair was dyed a rich mahogany. Her lips were stretched in a crimson-painted smile which never reached eyes that resembled small dark currants sunk into folds of pastry.
Mama Rita, I presume, Ash thought with an inward grimace.
She beckoned to him. 'You pay the cover charge,
.' It was an instruction rather than a question, and Ash complied, his brows lifting faintly at the amount demanded.
'I only want a drink, Mama. I'm not putting in an offer for your club.'
The smile widened. 'You get a drink, my man. My best champagne, and a pretty girl to drink it with you.'
'Just a beer.' Ash met her gaze. 'And I'll decide if I want company.'
For a moment their glances clashed, then she shrugged, sending the sequins rippling and sparkling. 'Anything you say,
.' She snapped her fingers. 'Manuel—find a good table for this beautiful man.
Manuel, tall, handsome and sullen, set off towards the front row of tables clustering round the stage, but Ash detained him curtly.
'This will do,' he said, taking a seat at the back of the room. Manuel shrugged and went off to the bar while Ash, leaning back in his chair, took more careful stock of his surroundings.
He'd been told that Mama Rita had the pick of all the girls who came to Santo Martino, and it seemed to be true. A few of them were already sitting with customers, encouraging them to run up bar bills of cosmic proportions, but there were several lined up at the bar and Ash surveyed them casually as he took out a pack of thin cheroots and lit one, dropping the empty book of matches into the ashtray.
They were a fairly cosmopolitan mix, he thought. All of them young and most of them pretty.
He spotted a couple of North Americans and a few Europeans, as well as the local
who'd strayed into port from farms and plantations of looking for an alternative to early marriage and endless childbirth. Well, they'd found that all right, he thought cynically, stifling a brief pang of regret. Because he wasn't there to feel compassion. He couldn't afford it.
'You see something you like,
?' Manuel was back with his beer, his smile knowing.
'Not yet,' Ash returned coolly, tapping the ash from his cheroot 'When I do, I'll let you know.'
Manuel shrugged. 'As you wish,
. You have only to speak.' He nodded towards an archway with a beaded curtain behind the stage. 'We have rooms—very private rooms—where the girls would dance for you alone,' he added with blatant insinuation. 'I can arrange. At a price,
'You amaze me,' said Ash. 'I'll bear it in mind.'
The beer was surprisingly good, and wonderfully cold, and he took several long deep swallows, turning his attention away from the flashing smiles of the hopeful girls and focussing instead on the piano player who was still doggedly persisting with a range of old standards in spite of the indifference of his audience.
I hope the old witch at the door pays you well, brother, Ash told him silently as he stubbed out the cheroot. You deserve it.
The pianist reached the end of his set and half-rose to acknowledge the non-existent applause. He seated himself again, and struck a chord loudly.
The bead curtain shivered and admitted a girl.
At her entrance a strange sound like a low growl went through the room. The predators scenting their prey, Ash thought with distaste, then paused, eyes narrowing as he saw her properly.
She was blonde, and slightly less than medium height in spite of her high heels, her slim, taut body complemented by the fluid lines of the brief black dress she was wearing. The strapless bodice was cut straight across the swell of her high rounded breasts, making her skin glow like ivory. The silky fabric clung to her slender hips, ending just below mid-thigh, giving the troubling impression that beneath it she was naked.
But she did not climb up on the stage and begin her routine. Instead, head slightly bent, looking at no one and ignoring the whistles and ribald shouts, she skirted the edge of the platform until she reached the piano. She leaned back against it, as if glad of its support, while the pianist played the introduction to 'Killing Me Softly'.
She had an incredible face, Ash thought frowningly, his attention completely caught. In contrast to the tumble of fair hair on her shoulders her brows and lashes were startlingly dark, fringing eyes as green and wary as a cat's. She had exquisite cheekbones, and her mouth was painted a hot, sexy pink.
And she was scared witless.
He'd known it from the moment of her entrance. Even across the crowd of waiting men he'd felt the force of her fear like a cold hand laid on his shoulder. Now he noticed the small hands balled into fists among the folds of her skirt, the blank, tense smile on her lips.
She was like a small animal, he thought, caught in the headlights of a car and powerless to move.
But there was no problem with her voice when she began to sing. It was low-pitched, powerful and faintly husky. The kind of voice a man would want to hear moaning his name at the moment of climax, Ash thought, his mouth curving in self-contempt.
Her audience was listening while she sang, but with a faint restiveness. However appealing her voice might be, it was the promise offered by the skimpy dress that mattered to them. They couldn't believe it was just a song that was on offer. All the other girls took off their clothes, so why shouldn't she?
She moved effortlessly into the next song—'Someone to Watch Over Me'. She was no longer staring at the floor. Her head was up, and she seemed to be looking far beyond the confines of the club with a wistfulness and undisguised yearning that matched the words of the song.
And in that moment, as her voice trembled into silence, Ash's gaze met hers over the heads of the crowd. Met— and held it for one endless, breathless moment.
Now, he thought, I know why I came here tonight.
The number over, she ducked her head swiftly and shyly in response to the sprinkling of applause, and went back the way she had come. Ash waited to see if she would glance back at him, but she did not, simply vanishing behind the curtain, followed by catcalls and shouts of disappointment.
Ash drained his beer and got to his feet. Mama Rita looked up at his approach, her eyes sharp and shrewd.
'You want something,
'I want the songbird,' Ash said levelly.
She considered that. 'To sit with you—have a few drinks—be nice?'
'Nice, yes,' Ash told her. 'But in one of your private rooms, Mama. I want her to dance for me. Alone.'
Her brows lifted and she began to laugh, the sequins shaking and flashing. 'She's my newest girl. She still learning,
. And maybe I'm saving her for a rich customer, anyway. You couldn't afford her.'
He said softly, 'Try me.'
'Crazy man,' she said. 'Why spend all your money? Choose another girl. One who dances good.'
'No,' he said. 'The songbird. I'll pay the price for her.'
She looked him over. 'You got that sort of money?' There was frank disbelief in her voice.
'You know that I have.' Ash took a billfold from his back pocket, peeled off some notes, and tossed them on to the table in front of her. 'And I know what I want.'
She picked them up swiftly. 'That for me,' she said. 'Commission. You pay her too. Whatever she worth. Whatever you get her to do. Should be easy,' she added. 'Beautiful man like you,
.' She chuckled again. 'Teach her some lessons,
,' Ash said softly. 'The lessons of a lifetime.' He paused. 'Does she have a name?'
She tucked the money he'd given her into her cleavage and surged to her feet 'She called Micaela.' She leered triumphantly at him. 'You have another beer—on the house. I go tell your songbird that she's lucky girl.'
I only hope, Ash said silently, watching Mama Rita's departure, that she thinks so too.
But that, he thought as he went back to his table, was in the lap of the gods—like so much else. And he ordered his beer and settled down to wait.
Chellie sank on to the stool in front of the mirror, gripping the edge of the dressing table until the shaking stopped. It was nearly a month since she'd started singing in the club, and she ought to be used to it by now. But she wasn't, and maybe she never would be.
It was the men's faces—the hot, hungry eyes devouring her—that she couldn't handle, the things they called out to her that she was thankful she couldn't understand properly.
'How do you bear it?' she'd asked Jacinta, one of the pole dancers and the only girl working at Mama Rita's to be even marginally friendly.
Jacinta had shrugged. 'I don't see,' she'd replied brusquely. 'I smile, but I don't look at them. I look past— think my own thoughts. Is better that way.'
It seemed wise advice, and Chellie had followed it Until tonight, that was, when, totally against her will, she'd found herself being drawn almost inexorably to a man's gaze. True, he'd been sitting by, himself at one of the rear tables, in itself unusual, as most of the male clientele liked to bunch at the front, baying like wolves for every inch of exposed flesh. But that wasn't the only thing that had seemed to set him apart.
For one thing, he was clearly a European, and they didn't get many at the club.
For another, he was strikingly—almost dangerously attractive, his surface good looks masking a toughness as potent as a clenched fist.
Even across the crowded club he'd made her aware of that.
She thought in bewilderment, Somehow he made me look at him…
So, what could have brought him to seek the tawdry erotic stimulus of a place like Mama Rita's?
Chellie's experience of men was frankly limited, but instinct told her that this was the last man on earth who would need to buy his pleasures.
Oh, God, she thought impatiently, things must be bad if you're starting to fantasise about a customer.
And things were indeed about as bad as they could get Her life had become a nightmare without end, she realised as she peeled off the loathsome blonde wig, and ran her fingers thankfully through the short feathery spikes of raven hair that it concealed.
Mama Rita had been adamant about that. Brunettes were no novelty in this part of the world. The men who came to her club wanted blondes, and pale-skinned blondes at that.
It had seemed such a small concession at the time, and she'd been so desperate—so grateful for a place to stay and the chance to earn some money—that she'd probably have agreed to anything. Especially as she was being given the chance to sing. She'd thought it was the end of the disasters that had befallen her. Instead, it had only been the beginning.