After a lengthy deliberation, I ordered the Puck’s Chinese Chicken Salad and a side of sofrito rice. Rick ordered braised short ribs with mashed potatoes and organic mushrooms and even asked for a basket of bread. “I usually eat a big lunch because I don’t cook dinner when I get home at night. By the time I leave the office, it’s too late for a heavy meal.”
“No need to explain. You’re a big man and can handle the extra calories.” I studied him on the sly. He had the body of a running back, well built but not freakishly large.
Rick shifted in his seat, pulling my attention back to his face. The way he smiled told me he’d been watching me watching him. Busted. “Do you still play football?” I asked, letting him know I had indeed done my cyber search.
“Not since I got out of college. So I guess what you discovered online didn’t turn you off.”
The only surprise had been discovering his real name was Warrick. Since his business card read Rick Gardner, I’d assumed it was short for Richard until I read his profile online. “Nothing negative came up, but you already knew that.”
His smile widened. “One of my father’s favorite sayings is, ‘Keep your nose clean, son. As soon as you mess up, someone is going to make sure the whole world knows. There’s no one in this world that’s so important they can’t be taken down by bad decisions or scandal.’”
“Yeah, just ask Tiger Woods,” I said with a smirk.
Today Rick seemed so confident and self-assured, not all awkward and ill at ease like the first night he’d come into Dreamland.
“I read that you’re from a family of New Jersey lawyers. What’s that like?”
“Having everyone in the family in the same field is reassuring in a way. We all understand each other.” He uttered a strange laugh. “It’s just that sometimes the family expectations can get to be overwhelming. I always wanted to be an attorney.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“The problem is that my family specializes in business law. My oldest sister, Veronica, is a patent attorney. I was the rogue of the family until my little sister came along. Lisette is still in college. She wants to specialize in non-profit law.”
“Business law wasn’t exciting enough for you? You wanted to go for the drama, huh?”
“That’s an interesting way of putting it, but yes.” He paused when the waiter delivered our meals and left the table then he continued. “I guess that’s what I wanted. Mergers and acquisitions make me nod. For years I went along with the program. My friend, Camp, the one you met the other night, has been with B.A.G. for a while. He called to tell me there was a position opening up here in Atlanta, so I flew down to interview and got the job.”
I closed my eyes and savored the flavor of the Asian mustard-sesame dressing on my salad, thinking he was rather talkative for a man. But then he was a lawyer. They made their money with their arguments. When I opened my eyes, he was staring at me. I squirmed under his blatant scrutiny. “How long have you been in Atlanta?” I asked, attempting to draw his attention away from me.
“A little over a year,” he said without taking his gaze from my face.
“I bet mama and daddy weren’t too thrilled about you leaving the firm.”
“My father wasn’t. My mother isn’t an attorney. She just wanted me to stay close to home.”
“That’s how mothers are. So what does she do?”
Another strange laugh. I didn’t understand until he said, “My mother has never worked. She and my father married in college. From that day her calling in life has been to spend the money he makes by making the world a more beautiful place. She shops, decorates and dresses those around her.”
He finally looked down at his plate and picked up a rib. “Tell me about yourself.”
“I’m an only child. My family is as different from yours as it can get,” I answered as he threw down on his man-sized meal. “My parents divorced when I was young, and my father remarried. Once that happened, I saw him less and less. My mom works auto assembly. Luckily she has seniority and has been able to hang onto her job during the recession. We’re not interesting at all.”
Rick wiped barbecue sauce from his mouth with a napkin, leaned back in his chair and retrained his smoldering gaze on me. He had an aura of power and assurance not many men displayed. It wasn’t a street swagger, but more like he was sure of his intelligence, good looks and raw sexuality. His poise and quiet manner of speaking must have come from growing up around people who had money. “I wouldn’t say that. What are you studying at Georgia State?”
“Business. This semester I’m taking risk management/insurance and marketing. That’s about all I can handle and work too. Next semester I’ll have entrepreneurship and taxation. I have less than a year left until I graduate.”
“What are your plans then?”
“To open my own store.” For the next few minutes I launched into an impassioned explanation of my business idea.
When I finally caught my breath, he looked impressed. “So you want to be a business owner. That’s a far cry from what you do now. You’re a student, and you’re so intelligent. Why do you dance at a place like Dreamland?”
There it was. The disapproval. I should’ve known it was coming sooner or later. You’re so intelligent. I hadn’t expected him to be one of those people who assumed all women in adult entertainment had IQs six points above a houseplant. That’s why I refused to tell many people where I worked. The judgment was too much for me to take. “It’s all part of the plan.” I kept my voice calm so I wouldn’t reveal how much his attitude annoyed me.
Rick frowned, skewered a couple of mushrooms with his fork and popped them between his full lips.
“You planned to work there?”
“That’s right.” I poked around for the remaining chicken in my salad, while I tried to come up with an answer that didn’t sound defensive or snippy. “As you said, I’m only on my way to becoming a successful entrepreneur. I needed something that paid more than the typical desk job, waiting tables or retail sales. It takes a lot of money to pay for school, rent and living expenses, and then also come up with the collateral for a government business loan. My decision was based on the fact that I’ll probably make as much as you will this year. Do you think only stupid women dance in gentlemen’s clubs?”
“Strip clubs,” he corrected. “And that’s not what I meant to imply.”
Oh, no he didn’t. I know he wasn’t trying to pass judgment on me. After I dragged in a long breath, I calmly tossed the ball back into his court. “If I remember correctly, you were a patron in that strip club.”
Rick glanced down into his plate, avoiding my eyes for the first time. “True, but that wasn’t intentional. Well, not the first time anyway.”
He was throwing mixed signals, and I resented the reproach in his tone. “And what was your excuse for the second time? Nobody dragged you in there kicking and screaming. What problem do you have with Dreamland?” The conversation had ruined my appetite, and I pushed my plate away
“I don’t have a problem with the club. It’s just not the kind of place God wants me spending my time.”
I knew it. This guy was on a religious crusade to save the poor misled girl from a life of degradation. “What does God have to do with it?”
Rick drew his lips in then poked them out before he answered. “I’m a Christian, Tamyra.”
“Oh, and you came to worship at Dreamland?”
A look of discomfort flashed across his face before he frowned in exasperation and spoke softly. “No. God wasn’t pleased with my being there. He has a vested interest in everything I do, but I think He understands my motive for the second visit.”
“To simply ask a very beautiful woman out to lunch.”
His tantalizing smile took all the fire out of the scathing comeback I had ready. He was torn, and I had no time for a confused man in my life. “My job doesn’t define me. It appears you have some issues with what I do. Don’t be a hypocrite, Rick.” I opened my purse, took out a twenty and placed it on the table. “I need to get a few hours sleep before work tonight, so I’d better go now.”
Speechless, he watched me walk away. As I strode out of the restaurant, my coworkers' warnings came to mind. I should have listened to them.