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Rules of Protection

By:Alison Bliss

Chapter One

I caught him eyeing me from across the room.

He was tall, dark, and…well, interested. I couldn’t get a good enough look to see if he was handsome. Although dim lighting obscured his face, it highlighted the thick, gold chain around his neck and ridiculously huge diamond stud in his ear.

Nestled in downtown Chicago, The Jungle Room buzzed with flashy, well-lubricated businessmen with oversized wallets and scantily clad women with oversized racks. They circled each other like vultures, waiting to see who’d fall onto their backs first. It appeared the men were winning—a form of upscale prostitution.

Gina sat beside me at the bar, encouraging me to do the flirty eye thing with Shadow Man. “It’s your twenty-eighth birthday. Everyone should get laid on their birthday. What better present to give yourself?”

“I can give myself an orgasm.”

Gina laughed. “Not the same.”

I shrugged. “Depends on the guy. Besides, I don’t need birthday sex. I can hardly see him. He’s probably ugly.”

“It’s a one-night stand. Only thing that matters is the size of his—”

“Then pretend it’s your birthday!” I downed my cosmopolitan and spun the stool around. “Bathroom break. Keep an eye out for Dale.”

I followed the hallway to the restrooms. A line formed outside, but moved fast. Two women stepped in behind me, giggling like teenagers. I half-assed listened to them when someone grasped my elbow.

I immediately recognized the jewelry.

The man was 100 percent Italian Stallion, sporting a tight zipper shirt and black hair slicked back over his ears. He was around my age with a decent face—definitely not ugly like I’d thought—and he was tall and nicely built. Actually, he wasn’t bad looking at all. Maybe Gina was on to something with this birthday sex idea.

“Hey, sweetness. Saw you eyeing me back there.” He looked me up and down, licking his lips. “Now that I’m here, what are your other two wishes?”

Oh, jeez. Did he have to open his mouth? I hate men who start a conversation using cocky, sexist remarks. They come off as piggish jerks.

“I wasn’t eyeing you. I was…uh, looking for someone.”

“Well, you found me.”

“No, I mean someone else…the guy I’m with.”

Okay, so I lied. Dale hadn’t arrived yet, and even if he had, no one would believe he was my boyfriend. Ever. I didn’t have the right equipment Dale’s sexual preference gravitated toward. But this guy didn’t need to know that.

“The name’s Sergio. How about I buy you a drink, honey?” He rubbed a finger down my arm as I stared at his weird girly hands.

“No thanks,” I said, moving away.

“Aw, come on. I’ll wait for you, then we can go get that drink.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I can’t.”

He grinned as if I had somehow encouraged him and leaned against the wall. “No problem. I don’t mind waiting.”

What the fuck? Is he deaf?

“No, really, I can’t. My stomach’s upset and I… I’m going to be in here for quite a while.”

The two girls next to me made faces at each other, stepped out of line, and walked away. Oh, great. Did I just make them think I had diarrhea? Sadly enough, it didn’t deter Sergio.

“Whatcha drinking tonight?” he asked, still not giving up.

I sighed, rolling my eyes. “Pepto Bismol.”

A woman stepped out of the bathroom, and I ran in before the door could shut. I didn’t know what was worse—me pretending to have diarrhea or Sergio not caring that I did. Gross.

Momentarily cornered, I tousled my hair, washed my hands twice while singing “Happy Birthday” to myself, and then reapplied my makeup. Hard to believe it was my birthday, and I was spending it hiding in a public bathroom eating a Tootsie Roll I found in the bottom of my purse.

I even realized something while in there. There isn’t much to do in a bathroom to occupy your time—unless, of course, you actually have the shits.

I’d just finished chewing the chocolate candy when I poked my head out the door. Yes! He was gone. I hurried down the hall and rounded the corner, but Sergio stood at the nearby bar. I ducked back into the corridor, hoping he hadn’t seen me.

I rubbed my hand over my eyes and breathed out. “Christ.”

Then a smooth, deep voice asked, “You okay?”

It startled me at first, thinking Sergio had found me. I pulled my hand away from my face reluctantly and gazed up at a man with wavy dark brown hair. He was tall—probably a few inches over six feet—and wore black slacks and a white dress shirt. His steel gray eyes pierced mine, making it hard to form a coherent thought, much less breathe.

When I didn’t answer, he asked again. “Are you okay, ma’am?”

“Um, I… I’m fine.”

“Let me guess, avoiding someone?”

My sluggish brain finally caught up, and I recalled hiding from Sergio. “You could say that.”

“I just did,” he responded, a hint of southern twang fortifying his voice. “Pull the boyfriend card. It usually works on us clowns.”

“I tried, but this guy is more persistent than most. My friends are somewhere on the other side of the bar, and I’m tired of hiding in the bathroom.”

The man glanced at his watch. “Tell you what, if you’re still here when I come out, I’ll escort you across the room.”

“Best offer I’ve had all night.”

His eyes scanned my black miniskirt, stopping on my bare legs. “Somehow I doubt that.” He turned and walked toward the men’s bathroom.

I blew out the large breath I’d been holding and resisted the urge to loosen a button on my blouse. Sergio or no Sergio, I planned to stay put until he came back.

Okay, so I’m a hypocrite.

Sergio’s remarks and lingering looks came off way more threatening than the new guy’s did. Tall, Dark, and Delicious was virtually harmless and particularly flattering. It helped that he hadn’t approached me with a line; he was more interested in helping… Ah, damn. Men are such weasels.

The guy played me. Of course.

He knew if he showed concern for my well-being, I’d drop my guard. That’s why he did it. Sadly enough, it almost w