Breathe Me In
Crescent City, Book 1
by Lily Vega
Ebook ISBN: 07296-02352
[ Vampire Romance, MF ]
Will John transform Nika into a vampire when he considers the consequences of immortality a curse?
Veronika Mason slipped the envelope filled with crisp bills into her knockoff Prada bag and hoisted the straps onto her shoulder. The air conditioning in the hotel suite made the ruby-red pleather chilly against her bare arm. She might have breached one of her personal moral codes by agreeing to this deal, but her life depended on earning the money.
Her benefactor, an elegant woman in a slim-fitting navy blue suit, black hair in a severe bun and dead eyes, pointed a gold-tipped fingernail at the bedroom door of the hotel suite. “I shall return in two hours.” Her gaze slid over Veronika’s body, claiming every inch for her employer. “Remember, you are to submit to his every whim.”
A phantom hand gripped Veronika’s throat and squeezed out the breath along with her nerve. “I didn’t agree to that.”
The woman narrowed her eyes. “Why do you think you are getting paid so much?”
Veronika wasn’t in any position to negotiate. The twenty-five-hundred bucks would prevent her from being sliced, diced and filleted by a psychopath. But it was one thing to be a stripper. And a completely different one to be a whore.
In an attempt to reclaim a morsel of dignity, she turned her back on the other woman, sucked in a breath and twisted the doorknob. Stale smoke from a long ago extinguished cigarette assaulted her sinuses. She suppressed a sneeze.
Her client was not lying naked on the round bed with one hand on his flaccid cock. Good call. The ratty burgundy spread probably hosted more DNA than the New Orleans crime lab database.
Instead, he sat fully dressed in a crisp white button-down shirt and charcoal-gray trousers. The clothes hung on his lanky frame and his cheekbones had the pronounced look of someone who had emerged from the bayou after wandering lost for days after his supplies ran out.
Despite his emaciated appearance, he was a striking man with wavy brown hair. After a cheeseburger or thirty, he would be at home on the pages of a high-end menswear catalog. Not at all the desperate, paunchy sleaze she’d imagined.
He didn’t look up when she entered the room, keeping his eyes fixed on the closed drapes blocking out the flashing neon debauchery of Bourbon Street.
His hands, not touching any part of his anatomy, clenched the arms of the chair. Most men awaiting a lap dance weren’t tense. Did he expect her to beat him with strings of Mardi Gras beads or force him to drink a hurricane made with moonshine from a goldfish bowl?
Her mission, to succumb to his every depraved wish, didn’t appear so daunting now. He seemed to want the ordeal over as much as she did. Maybe he had an incurable illness and private time with a stripper topped his bucket list.
Stop it. She refused to allow herself to feel sympathy for the man.
She tugged on her lipstick-red leather corset and smoothed the short black skirt with its mid-thigh-to-waist zipper. The outfit was nothing like the schoolgirl ensemble that had become her uniform at Big Easy Babes. But she never wore her jailbait costume outside of work.
She dropped her handbag on the scarred wooden surface of the dresser and dug out her MP3 player. Soon Joan Jett’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me” belted out of the cheap speaker.
Veronika strode to the metal pole in the corner, cringing before touching the sticky, fingerprint-covered surface. The miniature bottle of hand sanitizer mocked her from the depths of her purse. Were stripper poles a hotel amenity in cities besides New Orleans or Las Vegas? What prop would she need to use as a substitute in Omaha or Orlando?
She zoned out and moved through her routine, barely glancing at her client, caught up in the pounding beat of the song. Breath ragged, she clung to the pole upside down and peered at him.
He remained motionless with his gaze still locked on the closed curtains.
Veronika wasn’t sure he had taken a breath since she entered the room. She didn’t have the stamina to work the pole for the entire session, not that she was eager to get introduced to whatever disturbing act she would have to endure to earn the money. It was going to be a long…
She glanced at her watch — an hour and fifty-three minutes left. Shit.
She turned her back on him and faced the pole. Bending from the waist, she drew in a deep breath. Once she paid off her ex’s gambling debt, the thug who threatened her would leave her alone and her life would return to normal. Maybe she could even return to teaching yoga.
Exhaling through her nose, she imagined releasing the tension that had clung to her since the man had twisted her wrist back and described in vivid detail exactly what he would do if she didn’t have the money the next time he came calling. She gulped in another breath. It would be okay. She had enough cash in her purse to keep him from following through with his violent agenda.
Enough stalling. This time she moved through the song, keeping her motions more sensual and less aerobic, and watched her client staring at the curtains.
Heat crept up her neck. She might not be the youngest employee at Big Easy Babes, or the one with the biggest breasts, or the firmest ass, but she refused to be ignored.
She excavated the hand sanitizer from her purse without touching the inside fabric, squirted a quarter-sized amount in her palm and rubbed her hands together. Once she smelled the lavender fragrance, she imagined the bacteria getting zapped by the chemical.
She turned to face her client and strutted toward him, drawing the zipper of her skirt down inch by inch to reveal the bucktoothed cartoon chipmunk on the triangle of fabric of her g-string. The undergarment went a hell of a lot better with the schoolgirl costume than her current ensemble, but screw him if he couldn’t take a joke.
“Hey, the show is over here.” She snapped her fingers and shimmied her hips.
He stared at the woodland creature on her panties, one eyebrow raised, and his mouth turned up in an appreciative smile that made her insides turn gooier than a pat of butter on a steaming plate of grits.
The music player switched to the Divinyls’ song “I Touch Myself.” Perfect. She couldn’t have done better with a live DJ spinning for her. She had captured his attention. His gaze tracked the movement of her left hand. She ran it down her body and licked her lips.
Her imagination must be working in overdrive, but she could swear her skin warmed under his concentrated gaze. She unfastened one tiny hook on her corset at a time.
He was rapt. Could he be making a silent wager with himself over the possibility that she had more cartoon creatures to reveal?
She did have another trick. The last fastener released with a snap and she turned away from him, drawing the material from her skin a millimeter at a time to reveal her one and only tattoo.
Her tramp stamp was unique. The cartoon bunny etched on her lower back always elicited some kind of response. She didn’t mind if people saw the rabbit with the pointy vampire teeth. She liked that this man showed amusement.
The color of the pigment had faded over the years, but her satisfaction with the tattoo remained vivid. Most people assumed it was some unfortunate choice fueled by too many hurricanes consumed during Mardi Gras.
Certainly the Quarter pumped out tourists making unfortunate decisions by the thousands. The souvenir shops should sell shirts declaring, “I make bad choices.” Not that she could judge. Strippers who lived in glass houses shouldn’t throw stilettos.
She removed her corset, revealing a pair of sequined pasties.
“Interesting tattoo.” His voice was dry, with the fragility of the oldest bones in the Lafayette #1 cemetery.
She swiveled to face him, dancing and stroking her skin. She hadn’t shared the story behind the tattoo with even her closest friends. Spilling her secret now with a client wasn’t going to happen. If pressed, she’d lie. People didn’t seek out strippers for honest conversations.
He brought his hand to his mouth, drawing her attention to his sensuous lower lip.
Shit. Not only was the man a client; she’d agreed to satisfy his every wish. She’d seen Pretty Woman. In real life by the time the credits rolled, the pretty woman wasn’t living in a fantasy world with Richard Gere. Rather she was used up and sad, bartering whatever cash she made for a bit of bliss to shove up her nose or into a vein. Like some of the women at Big Easy Babes.
Hookers weren’t supposed to be attracted to their johns. Kissing them on the mouth wasn’t an option. Lousy prostitute she made. Good thing this show was a one night engagement.
If she kept repeating it in her mind, it had to be true.
“Don’t tell me you believe vampire animals exist.” There was a hint of repressed laughter in his voice.
“People believe in the chupacabra. So why not?” She would gladly sacrifice a goat to the mythical creature to hear a genuine laugh from him. This man was more addictive than Belgian chocolate.
“Touché.” His voice changed the more he spoke, taking on a silky undertone. Her nipples hardened under the pasties. “Would you do something for me?” His words made it sound like she had a choice.
Not trusting her voice, she nodded her response. Her gaze drifted to her handbag with the package of condoms inside. Here it comes.
“I would like to touch your tattoo, if I may.” He leaned forward, index finger extended.
How odd. His gentlemanly manner brought back a memory of dating boys in high school who asked if they could kiss her at the end of the date. This wasn’t a man who took what he wanted from a woman without her consent.
“Sure.” Her voice came out a breathy whisper. She turned around so he could see the tattoo.
He stroked the bare flesh of her lower back, bringing goose bumps to the surface of her skin. Her breath caught. A need buried deep within her had been awakened.
Why hadn’t she met him in a bar or a club instead of while turning a trick?
She held herself still. Waiting. Alert for a sign of danger. But the danger didn’t lie in him. It lay within her. She’d sworn to never trust another man, and she didn’t trust this one. Or rather she didn’t trust herself with him. How long had it been since anyone evoked a hunger within her for sex?
After spending all night dancing at the strip club and doling out lap dances to anyone with the required amount of cash in his wallet or enough room on a credit card, her passion for — well, passion — had dried up like alligator jerky.
She’d sworn off men altogether after Doug left town with her computer, her cash and her dignity. After a couple pints of chocolate peanut butter cup ice cream, three boxes of tissues, and a dozen Kate Hudson movies, she might have been okay. But the bastard had given his bookie her name for collateral on his losing bet on the Saints.
“Tell me your name.” He traced the outline of the tattoo.
Her heart beat faster than the tempo of the music. She scrunched up her toes in her three-inch heels to keep from jumping on him and turned to face him.
“Veronika.” Damn it. She’d blurted out her real name instead of her stage name.
“Nika.” His voice was a verbal caress.
“What’s your name?” She needed to know it. To roll it over her tongue. To taste it.
“John,” he replied, his lips turning up in an ironic smile.
His words delivered a sucker punch to the kidneys. Not funny. He might be a john but she doubted it was his real name. She’d shared her real name and he’d made a joke. The revelation that he’d lied to her stung. Then she realized it was a gift. If she knew his real name, she might be tempted to find him.
Shaking harder than a preteen on a first date, she pushed his legs open and ran her hands along his thighs. He felt too damned good. Solid and strong, but a tad on the thin side for her tastes.
She leaned forward, her breasts skimming against his face, his chest, his crotch. Arousal brought a moist heat to her core. The scent of cinnamon, cigars and a hint of musk drifted from him.
She straightened. To avoid the intense longing in his eyes, she focused her gaze on the lower part of his face. Bad idea. Staring at his tempting lips up close made her want to devour them all the more. She leaned forward and abandoned her carefully crafted rules. He wasn’t Richard Gere and she wasn’t Julia Roberts. To hell with the consequences. She had to know what it felt like to kiss him.
Their lips met in an electric kiss that left her yearning for more. He wrapped his strong arms around her. His hands were cool, but quickly warmed from her body heat. She should cross the room and grab a condom — or three. But her purse might as well be in another parish. Her energy ebbed and it was all she could do to lie against him and just breathe.
A yawn stretched her mouth. What the hell? She had felt so alive and awakened under his gaze, yet now her eyelids were granite slabs and she could barely summon the energy to yawn. Had he slipped her a roofie?
His lips touched her ear. “I’m so sorry, Nika.”
The room tilted like she had stepped on a carousel and lost her balance. She reached out, trying to regain her stability, but her hands closed on nothingness, and blackness wrapped her in its embrace.