I’m a stylist not a stripper.
Although, if the salon owner, Marlo, thought it could bring in more clients I’m pretty sure she’d take my scissors and put me on a pole. I attempted to singe her with my most self-indignant glare because she’d rescheduled my least favorite client to after-hours. Gregory Herndon, the San Francisco District Attorney and lizard-lipped lecher who asked me out every time he saw me and made me want to purify the salon after he left, was never, ever, to be scheduled at the end of the day. And now I had to stay late.
I stood at the front desk, glowering at the bouquet of tulips, roses, and peonies from Herndon, which included a creepy note:
please accept these flowers,
A thank you for changing hours.
Who sends flowers to their stylist for changing an appointment? And it rhymed putting the creep factor at eleven, on a ten-point scale. The man was polite, educated, respected in the community, and triggered my stranger-danger reflex.
The bells over the door chimed and ended my ineffective glaring. My hottest and most polite client, Alexei Bykov, strode toward me tall, broad-shouldered, and blond. My Thor. He came every three months for a trim and said little, but I treasured each word. The wealthy Russian restauranteur spoke in clipped, usually heavily accented words, and despite being the size of a linebacker, he never triggered a negative response. Nope… he triggered some hot dreams, in which he spoke more, things that included licking, thrusting, gripping…
I loved the way he said my name, like warm honey, sweet, thick, and my thoughts turned back to licking. I blinked a few times, reminding myself I was at work. “Good to see you, Mr. Bykov. This way, please.”
He hung up his suit coat on the rack next to the reception desk and then sat at the shampoo station. I slid the cape around his mile-wide muscular shoulders. I chided myself for perving on the man. I was as bad as Herndon, which made me shudder.
“Are you well, Adrianna?” His golden-brown eyes studied my face.
“Yes, thank you. And you?” I concentrated on massaging the shampoo into his hair, not the way the silky strands felt against my fingers, or the scent of spice and the heat that swirled through my veins encouraging me to melt at his feet.
“You seem troubled.”
My fingers stilled. Heat rushed to my face. Just my luck the man could read me. “It’s nothing,” I whispered. I flicked my gaze to Marlo who now stood at the front desk with her client and cooed over the flowers sent by Herndon. She didn’t mention they were sent to me.
I wish she’d take them home.
“Adrianna?” Mr. Bykov spoke softer. “Tell me what is troubling you.”
“Honestly, it’s nothing.” I smiled, that polite-professional smile and turned on the water and rinsed out the shampoo.
He closed his eyes. “Who sent the flowers?”
“A client.” I turned the water off, reached for the conditioner, and finger-combed it through his shoulder-length hair.
“Is it your birthday?”
“No.” I turned on the water again and rinsed, maybe a little more vigorous than necessary but seriously, the guy had been coming for months and our conversations have included nothing personal, but now he wants to talk about my skeevy client? Gah. I wrung the water from his hair and towel dried it.
He gripped the towel and rubbed it across his head, far more aggressively than I would’ve dared. He opened one eye and searched for me. There may have been some censure in that eye. He handed me the towel and shook his head. His hair, now dark brown, tumbled down around his shoulders. He stood and followed me to my station sitting down and frowning at my reflection in the mirror.
I combed his hair like I’d done before and focused on trimming the ends.
“If someone is bothering you, I would be happy to speak to him.” His growly voice rumbled in my ears.
I liked the image of Thor bringing his hammer down on Herndon. A twinge of guilt scratched at my conscience. Herndon hadn’t done anything other than make my skin crawl. I met Mr. Bykov’s stare in the mirror. “That is very kind of you to offer and I’m sure you do a fine job of persuading people.” I leaned closer. “Honestly, it’s just that I don’t particularly care for a client, and I really don’t like him being the last client of the evening. I’m sure if I didn’t find him quite so repulsive, I wouldn’t mind his attentions.” I kept my tone light-hearted and added the you-know-how-guys-are shrug.
“I see.” He didn’t sound like he understood. He sounded pissed.
My heart skipped a beat, then a second one. I combed through his hair again, ensuring the ends were perfect. Could there really be a man that understood sometimes flirtatious behavior felt threatening?
I dried his hair and brushed all the small hairs from his neck and collar. I hated that it would be three months until he came back.
He paid at the reception desk. He studied Herndon’s card, which Marlo had left conspicuously next to the flowers. He narrowed his eyes and turned to face me. “Don’t forget my offer.” One eyebrow rose and I swear he telegraphed he’d take on the District Attorney.
Thirty minutes with Thor gave me new fantasies for months. Thor banishing bad behavior, protecting woman against inappropriate asshats and leering lechers.
I fanned myself and offered a weak smile. “Thank you. See you in January.”
He nodded once and exited.
“He tipped you twenty bucks,” Haley, our receptionist, whispered. “He’s scary hot. Like scary but hot.” Her head whipped toward the sound of the door chimes and she welcomed in my next customer.
Two perms, and a dye later I found myself repeating the mantra: I’m a stylist not a stripper.
Herndon’s reptilian gaze slithered down my body. I suppressed an eye roll and gag and pulled the black barber’s cape from the cabinet. Miranda Lambert crooned on the speakers overhead advising me to fix my makeup and hide my crazy. Kendra, my bff and coworker was MIA fetching Starbucks, and everyone else had gone home.
I fluffed the barber’s cape across Mr. Herndon minimizing any physical contact. The scent of his cologne, a mixture of yak pee and wet leather, wafted toward me as the cape settled. My eyes watered, and my fingers fumbled with the snap at the back of the cape. He adjusted his butt in the chair, his head tilted and grazed the side of my breast.
My fingers twitched with the urge to slap him. Instead I reclined the back of the chair, surprising him, but his reflexes prevented his head from hitting the sink. He settled back, his lips stretched to display whiter-than-Kleenex teeth, his best feature. It kept my eyes off his non-existent chin.
He had one positive quality. He tipped like a death-row inmate getting his last private lap dance. He was a pig, but I certainly wasn’t a pearl, and I had bills. And common sense. Unlike the snake nested in my chair, wearing a week’s salary camouflaged as an ugly silk tie. My desperate-to-pay-bills reality trumped my pride and I’d continue to cut and style the lizard until I could afford not to.
He’d offered to be my sugar daddy once. Well, not quite in those words, but I didn’t need a college degree to understand. The thought of him touching me made my girly parts shrivel. To have no bills would be heavenly, but between the Catholic guilt and the bleach bath I’d have to take afterwards, I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to consider faking it for cash.
I wished Kendra’s craving for a venti caramel macchiato hadn’t coincided with Haley’s departure and Herndon’s arrival.
Leaving me alone with the slug.
Making me wish I had salt.
“Adrianna, thank you for seeing me so late. Let me make it up to you. I’d love to feed you. We could start with dinner,” he said to my breasts.
“No thank you, Mr. Herndon.” I aimed the sprayer in his ear, making him shut his mouth. My fingers shampooed his scalp. I checked outside, wishing I had the power to make Kendra appear. Twilight turned the shadows gray, but there was a pretty pink hue reflected in the store windows across the downtown San Francisco street.
I’d settled the lecher at our vanity-for-the-vain. The shampoo station featured a marble sink and massage chair, but more importantly, was situated next to the plate glass window in front. Because why spend two grand on a shampoo station and hide it?
Mercury street lamps bathed the sidewalk of the massive apartment building across the street. A businessman, armored in Armani, studied his phone. The man looked at me, as if he felt my gaze, and I recognized Thor. What was he doing across the street? Why couldn’t he ask me to dinner?
“You have such great hands.” Herndon’s tone, low, insincere, practiced, and unpalatable pulled my attention back to the swine in my chair. “Have you considered offering personal massages?”
“Never.” I turned the water to frigid and rinsed Herndon’s hair. Keep it up buddy, and I’ll go shiatsu on your ass. Across the street, Thor stood in the shadows of the doorway, watching us. Was he here for me? I couldn’t see his expression, just the large frame of his body. He leaned forward, his head cocked to one side, as if he was saying, “I’ve got your back.”
The simple gesture sent a spark, warmed my tired muscles, and eased the tension of being stuck alone with Herndon. I nodded back to my guardian angel thanking him for his presence.
I leaned over to turn off the water. Herndon shifted, the fabric of my shirt fell against his face.
He inhaled, his nose and cheek rested against my breast.
My body recoiled, and I tasted the bitter remnants of lunch. I snatched a towel and tossed it at him.
“C’mon,” he whined attempting to mimic Barry White but sounding like Betty. He sat up and scrubbed the brown shag on his head. “You have to eat. I’d love to treat you to something special.”
“No. Really.” Short concise words should work, right?
He slid forward on the seat and grabbed my waist. The pressure of his hands on my body slowed time. Old memories stumbled against my need for distance.
He’s touching me.
His hands are touching me.
Herndon’s glassy eyes glued to my breasts. I stepped back, halted by his fingers pulling at my shirt. He pushed his nose against my belly and inhaled.
My skin shuddered. Cold spiked down my spine.
“Stop it.” My tone wavered between fear and bitch-gonna-castrate-you. I side-stepped away, feeling his fingernails dig into my skin and scratch, and lunged for the scissors at Kendra’s station. I waved my weapon, ready to go full out Housewives-of-Hell on him. “Get. Out.” The words snapped, harsh, staccato, sounding just like my father.
He put up his hands; a weak defensive posture.
Just like my mother.
“Now, sweetheart, I didn’t mean to upset you,” he said.
“You need to leave. Now.” The words were devoid of emotion, but inside my skin the anger and fear swirled, the cyclone making each breath harder.
He stood, his smarmy grin replaced with malice.
The bell over the door chimed. “I’m back,” Kendra called out.
“And you’re leaving,” I said to Herndon, a tremor of relief skittered down my spine.
“If that’s what you want.” He removed the cape and threw it onto the chair with his towel.
“Don’t come back.” My whispered words held no heat, he’d sucked that out of me.
He smirked. “I’ll see you around, then.” He pulled out a hundred-dollar bill from his wallet and tossed it on top of the cape.
Kendra stood at the door, slack-jawed. Her perfectly manicured hand held the coffee cup away from her off-white Kate Spade knock-off dress. She stepped clear of the door.
Herndon shuffled passed.
She rushed over, and her coffee puddled on the lid. “What happened?”
My hand wrapped around the scissors refused to release. I uncurled my fist, set the scissors down and massaged the blood back into my fingers. I methodically cleaned the station. The routine normal, and I needed normal.
Kendra waited, her face clouded, ready to erupt in whatever emotion needed expressing. My eyes flicked to the scene outside.
Where was Thor? Had he seen what happened and ignored me?
“Herndon grabbed me,” I said. “He might’ve been drunk, I don’t know, but he grabbed me and when I told him to leave, he…” Had I over-reacted? No. “He had this look.” I shivered. “It was evil.”
“God, he’s creepy. I shouldn’t have gone.” Kendra walked to the front door and locked it.
“Will Marlo freak?” I asked, not bothering to hide the worry in my voice. The salon owner liked having wealthy and influential clients. Like they might forget she had an esthetician certificate from Golden Gate College instead of an MBA from Berkeley and invite her to brunch.
“He crossed the line this time, but maybe not say anything until she brings it up?” Kendra picked up his money and charged him for his usual haircut, handing me the change. Seventy-six dollars for feeling me up. It wasn’t worth it.
I started the laundry, and we cleaned the floors, waiting for the wash cycle to end so we could put the wet towels in the dryer and leave. Kendra, as the stylist of the month, parked in the reserved spot behind the salon. I parked a block away but chose wisely on a well-lit street. And things didn’t get freaky in this San Francisco neighborhood until after ten.
Kendra honked twice as she turned the corner. Cars drove past so close to the sidewalk my skirt flapped against my legs. Steps followed mine, a soft scuff in time with the click of my heels. Edgy, I turned expecting a couple walking home from dinner, but there was nobody. My heart skipped, and then raced. My car sat another half-block away, waiting under a streetlight, but it looked like a mile.
I reached into my purse, pulled out my keychain, and flicked the safety on the pepper spray. Forty feet and I could dive into the safety of my piece of crap car. I stepped off the curb, crossed the alley picking up my pace. My skin prickled in the chilled October air.
A hand gripped my upper arm, yanked hard, and slammed my body against the brick wall. My head hit. Confused, I swallowed a gulp of air. His pungent cologne publicized his presence.