“This was what?”
Sheri Brooks laughed. The half dozen rooms above the historic restaurant smelled as if the windows hadn’t been opened in decades. No furniture remained, and the wallpaper was so faded she could barely make out the red and black horizontal stripes. A dusty brocade drape partly covered the cracked window in the room she and the building’s soon-to-be former owner were standing in.
“I never guessed,” she admitted. “All the times I’ve been to the restaurant, I had no idea what was up here. Why didn’t you say anything about this having also been a house of ill repute? Talk about a drawing card.”
Camellia Archer shrugged, but Sheri caught a glint of amusement in the older woman’s eyes. “My siblings and I thought about it, but look around. It would have taken a lot of money to fix up the rooms. Our parents were determined to establish Archers as a fine dining establishment. They were afraid some of the snooty customers wouldn’t have liked knowing they were eating in a whorehouse.”
Although, if it had been her, she would have promoted the heck out of the building’s notorious past, Sheri nodded. As the youngest member of the town’s historic review commission, she was here to consult with the new owner about what he could and couldn’t do with the brick structure located in the middle of the historic district.
Despite her considerable curiosity about what must have taken place here, she was a professional charged with responsibility for keeping one Gage “Wham-Bam” DeStefano in line. Dealing with DeStefano meant being hard-nosed and no-nonsense. After all, the hotshot developer had earned his nickname because he had less than no patience for rules and regulations.
Well, he’d have to learn patience working with her. They didn’t call her a hard-ass, by-the-book historian for nothing. In truth, she itched to go head-to-head with DeStefano. The man was about to meet his match. She had no intention of backing down as much as an inch. Growing up with three older brothers had taught her a lot about male bravado. Bottom line, most men didn’t know what to do with a woman who stood up to them.
“Are you ready to leave?” Camellia asked.
“In a minute.” For some reason she was reluctant to leave the “caught in the past” room. Despite the stale air and poor lighting, it felt alive. Time hung suspended here. Waiting. “I’m just surprised your family didn’t utilize this space. It seems so sad the way it is.”
“Sad?” Camellia drew out the word. Her expression became wistful, young. “I loved coming in here. Being alone with the…the memories.”
“Of what? Sex for hire?”
Camellia blushed and stroked her neck. “There are so many stories, so many lives. Let’s just say that the past exists here, at least it does for me.”
Maybe the past does live here, Sheri pondered a few minutes later. When Camellia had been called downstairs by one of her brothers, Sheri had stalled, saying she wanted to check the walls’ structural integrity. But although she should’ve been looking for dry rot, instead she turned in a slow circle. It had to be the dim lighting, but she half-believed she was standing next to a large, canopied bed with the aroma of sex clinging to the sheets.
Camellia reminded her of the stereotypical librarian, a dried-up prune with her best years behind her, but she had glowed while she was in here. There was no other way of putting it. And the way Camellia had stroked her papery neck—as if she was deliberately turning herself on.
Hell, Camellia wasn’t the only one who needed to get laid. One of the drawbacks to having broken up with Mr. Wrong meant there’d been no sex.
Biting down a frustrated groan, Sheri started toward the door. “Wham-Bam” was already late. Dollars to donuts the man was playing one-upmanship with her, determined to make the point that he considered the historic commission a bunch of busybodies he intended to run roughshod over.
Bring it on, buster. You aren’t the only one who can play hardball.
“There are other ways of playing.”
Sheri jumped. Her hand flew to her breast. Who the hell—?
Her eyes burned, forcing her to blink repeatedly. Hadn’t she been leaving the room? What then was she doing leaning against a far wall?
And where had the three-dimensional bed come from?
Seriously freaked, she stood her ground. Okay, one bed. An ornate canopy draped with red silk, black heart-shaped pillows artfully tossed on the vibrant red brocade spread, more brocade for the lush, full drapes, plush carpet underfoot, lighted candles on the mahogany dresser, a black velvet, floor-length gown, stockings and a deep red corset on the bed.
Her outburst bounced off the walls, drawing her still-freaked attention to the richly flocked scarlet and black wallpaper. Several large paintings of well-endowed, lounging, nude females had been placed in ornate gold frames. Day had turned into night.
Get the hell out of here. Find the twenty-first century, pronto!
Instead, Sheri pushed herself away from the wall and crept toward the bed. Her hands shook as she picked up the gown. It was cut low with a million tiny buttons in front. The fabric felt incredibly rich and spoke of opulence, decadence, sex.
You’re losing your frickin’ mind.
Granted, but maybe she didn’t need it anyway.
Holding the gown as if it had been given to her by a lover, she glanced at her watch—or she would have if she still wore one. It was gone, as was her purse and briefcase, her cell phone, her shoes. Where the hell were her sensible loafers? And who was responsible for the open-toe spikes decorated with some kind of fluffy something peeking out from under the bed?
Even more important, why was she reaching for the buttons on her blazer?
* * * *
Lightheaded and smelling of the musky perfume she’d found in a nightstand drawer, Sheri stared at her reflection in the dresser mirror. Thanks to the damnably uncomfortable corset she’d only partially tugged herself into, impressive cleavage strained the top of the luxurious gown now clinging to her. Wriggling and wrenching her way into the corset and buttoning all the tiny dress buttons had taken forever, but the effect was worth it. So was shaking her hair loose from its practical barrette so the auburn strands cascaded over her shoulders. The heels she’d put on were a country mile from being comfortable, and she couldn’t imagine ever getting used to stockings and garters. Ah, the price of beauty.
The price of being a courtesan, more like it.
Frowning, she debated what she would have been called during the early 1900s when the building had been constructed. Soiled dove had a tragic tone to it. Whore? Hardly. She’d punch out whoever tried that. Lady of the night? Yeah, that was possible.
No pimp for her. If she plied her trade here, she’d have a madam, a pit bull of a woman with the proverbial heart of gold and a keen business sense. The madam would filter out the riffraff and gunslingers. She’d cater to the town’s bankers, cattlemen and other movers and shakers. And she’d send the cream of the crop to her best lady of the night, one Sheri Brooks.
As for Sheri Brooks, the lady in question wouldn’t take any crap off any man. She’d insist he hang up his guns and take off his spurs before climbing into her bed. She’d demand to see the color of his money or the size of his gold poke before she’d spread her legs. Oh yes, she’d be known far and wide as the harlot with the most tricks up her nonexistent sleeve.
Hmm. Before she could get away with charging top dollar, she’d have to learn a few more bedroom tricks than she already had. A lot of them.
Her madam, a former lady of the night herself, would teach her everything she needed to know about the male animal. No problem. No problem at all.
Lost in fantasy, Sheri cupped her breasts. They weren’t bad, thanks to good genetics, but the corset made them spectacular. No wonder the men were lining up to spend as much time as they could afford with her. She imagined them drooling over what they’d find when they lifted her skirt, but she wouldn’t make it easy for them. No way. They’d have to work for it.
And when they did, they’d be rewarded—in spades.
She was still staring at her reflection in the dresser mirror with her fingers on her breasts when the tall, broad-shouldered man walked into the room.
Gage DeStefano stared, blinked, stared again. Damn it, he’d been up here several times while deciding whether to buy the historic restaurant. When he’d seen the abandoned second-floor rooms, his mind had churned with the pros and cons of turning them into offices.
That was before.
The lady facing him literally and completely stole his breath. At the same time, it took all he had not to gape and guffaw, not necessarily in that order. Hot damn! Whoever she was, she wore the floor-length gown as if it had been molded onto her. Not particularly tall even in the ridiculous-looking heels, she nevertheless had a “don’t mess with me” air about her. Either that or her considerable mammary glands were responsible for the message quickly making its way to his cock.
This isn’t happening. She isn’t here.
Logic didn’t change anything. Logic fled in the face of the opulent furnishings in what had been a bare room just a few days ago. Also, logic couldn’t be reconciled with heady smells of perfume and sex, muted lighting provided by three candles, the come-hither glint in the lady’s eyes. The unexpected but familiar twitch to his cock.
Screw doing battle with some insufferable old woman from the historic commission. Screw getting his plans approved by the small tourist town’s uptight planning commission, paying for an architect, lining up sub-contractors. Screw everything except her.
The thought of thrashing about on the garish bed with this creature, figuratively knocked him back on his heels.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded. At least he’d intended it as a demand. Unfortunately, he sounded too much like an adolescent desperate to shed himself of his virginity.
Her full lips twitched. She planted her hands on her equally full hips, thrust her pelvis in his direction and gave him a more than thorough going-over, all at once. “I’m waiting for you, big boy.”
Two of us can play this game. “Are you? And who do you think this big boy is?”
“Name doesn’t matter in here, although maybe I’ll call you Tex.” She fixed her gaze on the gap between his legs. “Yep, big covers it, all right. You’ll do. So you came to see me, did you, Tex? Months on the trail got you hungry for a piece of ass?”
Tex? Trail? “Depends. Maybe I’ll get a shot of rotgut whiskey first.”
“Afterward, if you’re so inclined. But I don’t want no booze blunting your edge, if you know what I mean.”
“You got yourself a point, ma’am.”
She laughed, the sound low and earthy and capable of carving heat through him. No doubt about it, he’d lost his mind, but he didn’t care. This was too much fun—beyond fun.
“I ain’t no ma’am, Tex,” she said. “And I ain’t no sad soiled dove either. What I do, I do because I’m excellent at it. Because I love wrapping my legs around a real man.”
He might have been intending to reach for his cell phone, something to bring him back to the here and now. However, when he wound up hooking his thumbs over the low-slung, broad leather belt clinging to his hips, the weight of it felt right. Tex had been on the trail so long he probably had dust in his ears and definitely was in need for a hell of a lot more than a bath. Through some stroke of luck or insanity, the solution for that need was standing in front of him, boldly advertising her wares.
“You look like a Sadie to me,” he came up with by way of a reply. “Maybe Rose. Possibly Star. What is it?”
“Star works, Tex. You gonna get rid of the hardware? I’m not bonking no cowpoke who’s still carrying.”
Hardware? Because she’d indicated his sides, he ran his hands in that direction. Shit, he was wearing pistols! Who had he become, Jesse James?
He fingered the smooth handles without taking his eyes off the lady. “How much is this bonking going to cost me, Star?”
“For you, Tex, a reduced rate. Unfortunately, most of my customers look like buzzard bait, but in these isolated parts, a business woman like myself can’t be too picky. You’re going to be a pleasure, a real pleasure.”
I could say the same thing about you. More than a little relieved to be rid of the weapons he had scant idea how to use, he unhooked the holster and draped everything over the bed post closest to him.
Even though this was absolutely insane, he rather liked thinking of himself as a gunman, maybe the Lone Ranger minus Tonto. After all, he’d always fought convention, much to his straight-laced parents’ discomfort. Fortunately, his outside-the-box thinking had resulted in him taking financial risks that so far had paid off, handsomely. According to his business manager, the only thing his life lacked in order for it to be perfect was a wife and two-point-something children. In the rare moment when he had time to think about those things, he agreed. Not only would a family make him even more appealing to investors, he lived in a house that was too big for one person.
Be honest, he chided himself. Truth was he wanted to love and be loved.
Star licked her lips and stepped closer but left too much tantalizing distance between them. At least her presence neatly separated him from thoughts he didn’t want today. “You aren’t wanted by the law, are you?”
He gave his best imitation of a frown. “Not that I know of. That gambler in Aberdeen, he drew first.”
“Get him in one shot, did you?”
Giving her what he hoped was a steely-eyed look, he jerked his head up and down. “I took his ill-gotten winnings too. That necessitated a rather hasty departure, if you get my drift.”
She winked. “Oh, I do.”
“So, what brought you to this establishment, Star?” he asked.
“Tombstone got too hot. Me and the marshal, let’s say we didn’t see eye to eye. He tried to convince me to give away something I wasn’t willing to.”
“Maybe he didn’t know how to ask.”
She cocked her head. “He had a notion that threatening to lock me up in the hoosegow would get me to see things his way. I proved him wrong. What about you, Tex? You know how to get what you want from a lady the right way?”
Hoping for a casualness he didn’t feel, he started to run his fingers through his hair. Something was in the way. A hat. A black, ten-gallon hat. This fantasy or role-playing or flat-out nonsense couldn’t get more authentic. Holding the dusty hat in front of him, he shot her a smile. “Why don’t we find out if I have the persuasive power you’re looking for, Star?”