Gillian Ingram was sitting on the rear bench seat in the Grossman’s Country Squire. The other girls were beside her or crammed onto the bench ahead. It was a tight fit for all seven of them, but no one complained. Complaints were discouraged.
“This isn’t the most salubrious part of town,” Olga said from the front seat, “but, until we get the business fully up and running, it’s the best we can afford. So pay attention, and listen to Al. He’s going to tell you what areas are safe, and what areas you’ll need to avoid.”
Al pointed ahead. “This intersection is where those of you trolling can expect to pick up johns. It’s only a block from the massage parlor so you’ll have easy access. Four blocks in any direction, though, are out of bounds. To the east and north are dangerous, the west and south are becoming too high class. So we’re going to drive around this neighborhood until you’re familiar with the businesses and the people who live here.”
“Thankfully,” Olga said, “Al and I were able to find the apartment house we’re all staying in, in a nicer area on the west side. That’s where you’ll be taking your evening clients.”
Suddenly, Al pulled the station wagon to the curb. “Those two!” He pointed across the street. “The ones getting out of that red car. See them?”
Gillian wondered how anyone could miss them? The dark-haired one was very good looking but the blond was the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen!
“You’ll have to stay away from them!” Al glared over his shoulder at the girls. “They’re cops!” He turned forward again, his hands white-knuckled on the wheel. “This is their beat and we’ve been told they’re very good at their jobs. Mom and I didn’t know about them when we found our building. We are all going to have to be very careful until we can move somewhere out of their area.”
Gillian could hardly believe the car they stood next to. Fire engine red with a bold white stripe, it couldn’t possibly be a police car! Could it? she thought. They must be very, very good, if they patrolled their beat in something like that!
She made sure to keep her face and posture casual, so that her bosses and the other girls didn’t tumble to her immediate intense attraction. She’d just have to find a way to meet that tall, lean, Nordic-looking police officer. A way to meet him other than as the professional she was, of course.
Her ‘duties’ kept her busy for weeks but she carved out enough surveillance time to discover some of his favorite places. And, finally, she managed to be shopping at a particular mom ‘n’ pop market when he came in. She knew he stopped here at least once a week, partial to the herbs and fresh produce the store specialized in.
With tofu and fat-free milk already in her basket, Gillian moved slowly along the aisle filled with all kinds of vegetables and green things. She knew he was coming along behind, selecting many of the same items she was. She’d made it a point to know what he bought.
When the paper bag of Portobello mushrooms slipped out of her hand, he picked it up, as she’d been sure he would. Handing it to her, he smiled. Cornflower blue eyes met hers and she was utterly lost. A smile that would light rooms, eyes as deep and colorful as what she imagined a Wyoming sky might look like, and a gentleman to boot! What more could any woman ask?
“Thank you.” She took the bag and put it in her basket.
“My pleasure.” He moved his cart next to her. “I know this sounds trite but, do you shop here often? I’ve never seen you before.”
“I just moved to Bay City.”
“Oh? From where?” By unspoken mutual agreement, they began walking slowly along the aisle.
He nearly grimaced. “I’ve heard that’s a nice place to be from.”
She didn’t attempt to stifle her laugh. “Yes, indeed. Far from.” She stopped for a head of lettuce and a cucumber.
He matched her selections and added celery. “What brought you here?”
“I’m looking for interesting people and situations. I’m a free lance writer. I sell articles to various magazines.” She thumped a cantaloupe before adding it but he didn’t chose one for himself. “I’d pretty much expended the possibilities in my home town and thought I’d follow someone’s advice to ‘Go west!’”
He chuckled. “I believe that suggestion was made to young men, but you’re most welcome. Believe me!” He extended his right hand. “My name’s Ken Hutchinson, by the way.”
She took it. The grip was firm but not crushing: a good handshake. “Gillian Ingram.”
She smiled because she hoped he’d be caught by it. Many men had been, after all. “My father was a romantic.”
They’d reached the bread aisle and he took a loaf of whole wheat. “Was?”
She passed on the option. “My parents are both dead. I’m free as a bird and trying my wings.”
He smiled again, and she’d been right - it would have illuminated any dark room. “Well, I’m available as a guide to All Things Pleasurable in Bay City, if I might offer my services?”
“That sounds nice, Ken.”
He followed her through check-out, carrying both their bags. “Where’s your car?”
“I don’t have one. I live just around the corner.”
“Well then, Gillian Ingram, may I walk you home?”
She stopped on the sidewalk and, of course, he stopped with her. It was difficult to believe how well this first meeting was going and she didn’t want to jinx things. Perhaps a gentle slow down was appropriate. “Do I know you well enough for that, yet?”
He took a step back, looking embarrassed. “No funny stuff, I promise.”
She took his elbow and turned left. “You’re blushing, Ken. I didn’t know anyone blushed these days.”
He shrugged. “Partly my upbringing, partly my skin, I guess. I sunburn like crazy, too.”
She kept up the small talk until they reached the walk that led to her building. “If you’ll put those down for a minute, I’ll give you my phone number. Then you won’t have to ask for it.”
“Uh, great! That’d be great!” He put the bags on the sidewalk and fumbled for a pad of paper and a pen. When he had them, he looked at her with childlike anticipation.
She watched him write down the address, phone number, and then add her name, before he looked up again.
“Now…” she held her hand out. “If you’ll allow me to steal a sheet of that paper, I’ll write yours down. That way, we’ll be able to get in touch with each other and arrange for my first guided tour of Bay City.”
As he tore off the top sheet, stuck it in his pocket, and handed her the rest, his voice, for the first time, sounded uncertain. “I… uh… I probably should… uh…” When he looked at her again, the expression in his eyes melted her heart. He straightened his shoulders. “I’m a police officer, Gillian. My partner and I. We’re cops.”
She schooled her features into innocence and interest. “Okay.”
“Is that… uh… would that be a problem?”
“Not for me.” She handed the paper and pen back. "I can get your information later, okay? You appear a bit flustered at the moment." She picked up her bag of groceries and headed toward the building, a skip in her step. She wanted him to know how happy she was. When she reached the door, she called back to him. “You’ve got my number. I hope you’ll use it.”
As soon as she got inside, she leaned against the wall, out of view of the sidewalk, and took a deep breath. Step One had been accomplished more successfully than she’d dared hope. She’d never allowed herself to feel this way about anyone, before. Could it be love? Already? Lust, for sure! She was willing to bet he’d be dynamite in bed, but that could wait.
It would be delicate, and require a great deal of care - juggling a cop and her profession - but, if she took things slowly, she’d manage.
Later that evening, between clients, she knocked on the office door. When she heard, “It’s open,” she stepped inside.
Olga looked up from the ledger on the desk in front of her. Al was lounging on one of the ugly chairs in the over-decorated room.
“What is it, Gillian?” Olga asked, barely concealing irritation.
Gillian walked to the desk and took a submissive stance. “I’ve been considering something and wondered if you and Al might think it’s a good idea.”
Olga motioned to a nearby chair. “What kind of something?”
Gillian sat down. “Well, I thought…”
Al got up and moved over, leaning a hip on the corner of the desk, watching her closely. “What?”
Gillian cleared her throat. She wanted to appear nervous but not flustered. “I believe the other girls are a little jealous of me.”
Olga and Al exchanged a look but Gillian couldn’t tell what either one was thinking.
“I have the best apartment," Gillian went on, "and I tend to get the best clients.”
“You’re our star,” Olga said, as if stating the obvious.
Gillian ducked her head, attempting embarrassment. “Possibly.” She looked up again, shifting her gaze between her bosses. “But, what if I was willing to take the day shifts, here at the parlor, and let the others have the evening and night clients. At least,” she went on quickly, “until you’ve found a better location and we can all indulge in the higher class of johns.”
Another, definitely speculative look passed between the Grossmans.
“You’d do that?” Olga asked.
“Yes, ma’am. At least for a while. The girls are all my friends and I wouldn’t want there to be any ill feelings here in our new place. Susie’s great, she and I work well together. I’m sure the two of us can cover all the day-trippers that show up here.”
Al straightened up. “Mom and I’ll talk about it and let you know.”
Gillian stood. “Great. Thanks.” She started for the door but stopped and turned back. “Oh, and may I make one request?”
Al’s expression darkened. “What is it?”
“Could you please arrange for doors on the rooms? It would be humiliating, not to mention possibly disastrous, if someone inadvertently glimpsed what went on behind the curtains. A piece of fabric isn’t very private.”
Al huffed. “It’s all Chinese opium dens use.”
She looked him straight in the eye. “We’re not a Chinese opium den, Mr. Grossman.”
Olga possibly felt the tension and intervened. “Gillian’s right, Al.”
Al nodded, somewhat reluctantly. “I’ll have that done as soon as everything else around here is taken car of.”
“Thanks!” She made her exit gracefully.
She went back out to the reception area to wait for the next client, knowing they’d agree to her proposal. It made too much sense not to.
Gillian had time. She had a job - a day job soon - that paid the bills, and now her nights would be free to court the fabulous Ken Hutchinson. She was pretty sure she was already falling in love with him. A state she’d never been in. She wanted to treasure it, with all its possibilities. Including rooms full of red balloons.