He was a talker.

Autumn sat on the enormous bed, her arms wrapped around her knees. From the right angle he had a prime view of her thong but by now she’d figured out he wasn’t interested in her lingerie. Or what was underneath it, which was fine by her. After a month of opening her legs for strangers she was getting sick of it. The grunting, the endless probing and slapping, the slimy feel of a stranger’s sweat against her skin.

If only she could go back.

The truth was there was nothing to go back to. Nobody gave a damn what  happened to her and, as far as she knew, her foster parents hadn’t even bothered to report her disappearance. Why do that when it meant losing the measly check social services cut for them every month?

Of course, Jimmy probably missed her. Kim had never been one to put out on a regular basis—at least not according to Jimmy—and her foster father would never spring for a hooker. He had better things to spend his money on, like his latest fix.

More than likely the two of them would brush her absence under the rug somehow and get themselves a new foster kid. Then would have somebody new to clean up after her and Jimmy wouldn’t need to worry about dishing out any cash to satisfy his urges. . .

She shivered.


“No, I’m good,” she said. “It’s pretty warm in here.”

“It is, isn’t it?” The corners of his mouth arched, ever so slightly. “Still, I’ve never quite adjusted to central heating. It is efficacious, no doubt, but it does lack ambience.”
Autumn nodded. She’d never heard the word before but she got the general gist.

“A roaring fire, now that would be more the thing. I wish I could take you home and give you a proper meal. You certainly look as if you could use one, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“I don’t mind.” She didn’t. She wasn’t even sure she’d mind if he did want to fuck her. She wasn’t sure she didn’t want to fuck him.

“Well, your cocoa should be here any minute. That should tide you over until it’s time.”

“Time for what?” she wanted to ask but kept silent. Maybe he was going to do it with her, after all. 

Her stomach fluttered. What would it be like, to be with someone so . . . she searched for a word, couldn’t find one. 

He had just the trace of British accent, which she couldn’t help thinking was sexy. His clothes were kind of weird—the puffy-sleeved shirt looked girly and the scarlet gold-buttoned vest was definitely over the top—but she’d seen plenty worse since she’d started working for the agency.

Plenty worse.

Still, there was something odd about him, even aside from the outfit and the unnaturally pale shade of his skin. When he showed up at the designated meeting spot she’d thought he was LARPing. But after spending a couple of hours with the guy she couldn’t shake the feeling he wasn’t just playing some role. And now that she’d gotten a closer look at him she could see he wasn’t wearing stage make-up. His skin really was that white. Ghostly white.

Someone knocked on the door, softly, almost hesitantly.

He uncrossed his long legs and rose out of the wing-back armchair he’d been lounging in. “Ah,” he said, gliding toward the door, “at last. I was beginning to wonder what was keeping them.”

When he returned he held a silver tray laden with lovely things. She reached for the steaming cup of hot chocolate and took a sip. The whipped cream clung to her upper lip, giving her a mustache. When she caught him starting at her, she giggled.  

He leaned forward and dabbed at the whipped cream with a napkin. “There you go,” he said, “though you’ll need to reapply your lipstick. I’ve smudged it a bit.”

“It’s okay.” From the way he spoke to her, she could tell he thought of her as just a kid. Maybe that was why he didn’t want to have sex with her. But then why had he bothered to pay? It wasn’t like the agency was cheap.

He pulled a watch on a chain out of his vest pocket and glanced down at it. “Drink up,” he said. “It’s almost time.”

She felt the heat traveling to her face. “So . . . you changed your mind?”

A whisper of a smile crossed his face. “Oh, heavens, no. Though I am sorry.”

Sorry. The word sent a chill up her spine.

“For what?” she asked, setting the cup onto the tray.

He sat down beside her on the bed and reached out to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. “You do understand it’s nothing personal. I mean, yes, of course, I did request someone young. And the hair color had to be right. Though I would have preferred a more authentic shade, but I suppose that’s asking a bit too much. So few women are genuine redheads these days. Then again, it’s immaterial. 

The effect will still be the same.”

For the first time since they’d checked into the hotel, she wished she’d ended up with another John. Who the hell was he to criticize her hair? Or anything about her? However good looking he was he was still paying for sex. Probably couldn’t get any on his own. Or maybe he was a fairy.

She edged away from him. “So you, uh, like redheads?”

A muscle in his jaw twitched. “There is only one woman of any consequence to me,” he said, his voice a mere whisper.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out she wasn’t the woman of consequence. The chill was spreading through her entire body, freezing her up inside. The door was only a few feet away but if she made a run for it she’d never make it. He was too close.

And he’d drawn the chain.

“I need to pee.” She could hear the quaver in her voice and could only hope he wouldn’t notice it or, if he did, would think she was just nervous about the sex part.

His bright eyes studied her closely. Just when she’d made up her mind that he’d caught on to what was going through her mind, he nodded. “All right,” he said. “But be quick about it, for the love of God. I don’t have all night.”

For the love of God. Without being able to say exactly why, she knew this man had no love of God. 

Or maybe of anything or anyone at all. Besides the woman.

The woman who wasn’t her.

She scuttled off the bed, glancing at the strappy black shoes she’d tossed onto the rug. If she reached for them he’d know the gig was up and that wouldn’t be good. But she couldn’t go back out onto the street, not in this weather. It was freezing out.

Well, she’d have to figure out a way to get some other shoes. Because she sure as hell wasn’t gonna risk staying another minute in the room with the guy. If he was LARPing some creepy serial killer he was doing a damn good job of it. He should win an academy award or something.

Ignoring the shoes, she padded across the floor in the direction of the bathroom, which thankfully was the same direction as the door. She felt his eyes on her back but he said nothing. Pretend to pee first and lunge for the door on the way out? Or go for it right away?

Go for it right away.

Not even a choice, really. The sooner she got out of there, the better. Her whole damn body was shaking, like she was some innocent little school girl. Like she didn’t already know what it was to lie there while some asshole did the worst things possible to her. 

So why was she shaking?

When she reached the bathroom door she whirled around and flung herself at the door, her hand scrambling to get the chain off. He was on her before she could open her mouth to scream. He clamped his arm around her neck and whispered sweet nothings into her ear, his words singing her forever to sleep. 

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