Read the first three chapters of My Bare Lady!

Chapter 1

** Suzie **

In the drop-down mirror of my car, I puckered my lips to add another coat of lipstick. My complexion was flawless and my eyeliner smooth despite my shaking hands. My whole face was perfectly primed, painted, and plumped. Not that nobody ever looked at my face for very long.

I might be bad at most things but at least I looked good doing them. I guess, at some point, we all just start playing to our strengths. And my strengths are dancing on a pole and looking fine. There’s not a person in Green Valley that’d argue with that. Suzie Samuels and stripping go together like bacon and grits. But not after tonight. 

I hoped.

The thrum of activity at the G-Spot hit me before I even left my car. The bass vibrated the dashboard almost enough to cover my own wobbling insides. I smoothed my hair one last time. I’d spent an hour straightening and then curling it into the perfect waves for that just-out-of-bed look. My outfit was a complicated crisscross of elastic straps all over my body meant to emphasize my dancer figure. It was a twofold benefit; the material helped protect my skin on the pole and the straps held a lot more cash than a G-string. 

Plus, I looked damn hot in it. 

I sauntered toward the door with my most eye-catching sway because Ka-Bar sat on a stool outside. I wasn’t part of the Iron Wraiths Motorcycle Club anymore, in fact, I’d gone to their rivals, the Black Demons, but he’d always been good to me, so I gave a little show. Plus, acting real sexy tended to calm my jitters. It was a cold October night and I fought to keep from shivering. 

“Hey, Ka-Bar.” My five-inch platforms wobbled in the gravel leading to the door but I didn’t falter. 

Ka-Bar looked like most of the Iron Wraiths; tattooed, scraggly beard, and leather from head to toe. A giant knife tattoo taking up the length of his arm and the dog tags around his neck distinguished him. He looked me up and down and licked his lips like he wanted a taste. 

“Hey, gorgeous.” He leaned in for the kiss I ghosted over his cheek. “Little early for your shift?” 

“Well, I never get to see you when I come in later.” I leaned out of his embrace noting the familiar smell of exhaust, sweat, and smokes.

“Shucks.” He put a hand over his heart.

“Also, I need to talk to Occum before I go up.” I shrugged like I wasn’t sick to my stomach thinking about it. 

I was high up on the Black Demon’s Motorcycle Club food chain but I was still just a stripper. Stripping was supposed to be temporary, a means to an end after I made some bad life choices. One life choice named Jethro Winston. But I wasn’t thinking about him right now. 

“He should be in the office.” Ka-Bar thumbed toward the building. “Meeting with some suit from the city as we speak.” 

“No shit?”

“Yeah, something for the new renovations. Heard it wasn’t going well. He’s a real hard-ass.”

The same renovations I was here to talk about. I wanted to ask more but didn’t have the chance. Two regulars walked out of the bar; Rooster and Cueball. The Iron Wraiths insignia on their vests was as good as waving a gun in the air. I recognized their swagger as an attempt to hide sloppy drunkenness. G-Spot was neutral territory for several of the local MCs, including the Black Demons and the Iron Wraiths. It’s the only place the MCs tolerated each other, far as I knew. Everywhere else they’d pick a fight over the color of the sky. Here, business was business and us women were business.

“Look at this one.” Rooster—named for his short red mohawk and hooked nose—looked me up and down. These bikers weren’t exactly blowing any minds with their nicknaming skills. 

“Where were you, baby? I’d pay extra for some time with you,” Cueball added. Cueball was—you guessed it—pale with a shiny bald head and round enough to roll down the Smokies.

What I wanted to do was roll my eyes and tell them their wedding rings weren’t just for decoration. But Occum’s rule for dancers was “shut up and look pretty,” so I couldn’t go pissing off his clientele. And Lord knew I was already on thin ice for my sharp tongue and quick temper. 

I smiled and tried to go in past them. If I couldn’t say nothing nice … I’d kick their bikes later. 

“Come on now, how much for a quick BJ in the parking lot?” Cueball was so drunk his eyes couldn’t focus on me as he asked. 

My teeth ground together. I knew everybody thought dancers were hookers but we weren’t. At least, not all of us. 

“You can’t afford me, sweetie.” I winked.

“Hey, aren’t you Short Fuse Suze?” Cueball asked. I knew they’d recognize me sooner or later. I was almost a Wraith girl a million years ago. “Careful. You know what she did to Jethro Winston.” 

“I don’t care. I still want a piece.” Rooster just about had me in his grip when Ka-Bar got ‘em. 

He was faster and stronger than these drunks would ever be. He had the redhead face-first against the club exterior faster than you could say Mississippi mud pie. 

“No hands.” His voice was cool but the threat was clear. 

“You can’t fucking touch me,” Rooster said, his cheek smashed against brick.

Cueball looked back and forth, fists balled and ready for action.

“You know the rules. Get your asses home,” Ka-Bar warned.

Rooster stood up and shook out his leather jacket. “Don’t forget who you’re fucking with. Razor’s gonna hear about this.”

My cheeks burned. I dug my fake nails into my palms to keep from clawing their eyes out.

“Big mistake.” Cueball spat on the ground as they made their way toward their rides. When he was a safe distance from Ka-Bar, he shouted something about me being a cocktease. 

I picked up the stool Ka-Bar had been sitting on and lifted it over my head, fully intending on nailing the suckers as they hightailed it out of there. 

“Easy girl.” He grabbed me around the waist, pulling me back out of sight. He ripped the stool out of my tense grip.

“Just one good smack. Teach ‘em a lesson.” I glared after them until their rumbling engines were out of earshot. 

Ka-Bar rubbed my shoulder. “Don’t get any ideas, Short Fuse.”

Set one bike on fire and suddenly you had a reputation. Okay so maybe I had been thinking about setting them on fire. If I couldn’t do that I’d whack ‘em with a stool.

“Mother clucker,” I swore under my breath. 

Ka-bar raised an amused eyebrow at me. 

“I’m trying this new thing where I don’t swear as much. And come on, he’s Rooster. It’s funny.”

“I sure miss your crazy antics.” He shook his head. “Get in. You’re shivering.”

Making him smile helped ease my tension but my fingers still trembled as I ran them through my hair. I should be used to this behavior from men. I’d been ogled since thirteen when my natural Ds sprouted overnight. Still, it was nice to have Ka-Bar around when men got ugly. Not all the Iron Wraiths were so bad. 

Inside, bass thumped through my chest to “Bad Girls” by M.I.A. All around, girls in thongs and bikini tops served drinks, danced, and ground themselves on the customers. The air was heavy with smoke so thick the dim lights created a reddish halo on each table. It took shampooing my hair twice after every shift to get the smell out. The vibe here was dirtier than the Pink Pony but guaranteed a good time for the right price. My palms tingled as I made my way through the crowd toward Occum’s office. Busy was good. Busy meant more money and hopefully a good mood.

I was about to bust into the main office when a loud bang through the door made me jump. It had sounded like a fist slamming down on the desk. Occum did that a lot when he got worked up. I was very familiar with that sound.

“That’s not gonna work,” Occum growled. 

Whoever was in there was doing fine work pissing him off. I shot a quick glance over my shoulder to see if anybody was coming. His office was way in the back where the music hardly reached so hopefully nobody would catch me being nosey. I tiptoed closer to the door in between a stack of lumber and a stepladder.

“The work you laid out doesn’t align with what you detailed in this report. When you’ve updated the blueprints to show the true structural changes being made, I’ll review the site again. If the work is satisfactory at that point, then I’ll sign off on the structural modifications.” The voice was calm, not as deep as Occum’s but smoother, and oddly confident considering it sounded like Occum was two seconds from steaming out his ears. There was something about it that caused a tiny shiver to go down my spine. It was flat but rich. There was no catch at the end of his sentences like he was asking a question the way most folks talked around here. 

He was a Yankee. 

Color me intrigued. I moved closer to listen. This man better be careful. One, because Occum was likely to get violent and two, I didn’t want him getting my boss all riled up. Not now. 

“Those changes’ll cost a hundred grand easy,” Occum spoke dangerously slow. 

“At least,” the stranger responded. 

The office chair creaked and I pictured Occum leaning back, staring at the ceiling with fists clenched behind his head. 

“How much is this going to cost me?” Occum asked. 

There was a slight pause. “I believe you just estimated. Though to be honest that sounds on the low end to me. You’re cutting corners. Or you could just update the blueprints to reflect the actual changes being made and add a few safety precautions like—”

“How. Much. Do. You. Want?”

There was another pause. My ear now pressed flat against the door. 

“I can recommend a company but I don’t have a crew myself.”

I covered my mouth to hold back a laugh. Either this guy was thick as molasses in winter or he had cojones the size of bowling balls. 

“I want to pay you off so you’ll sign the goddamn papers and I can finish this fucking remodel!” The sound of a chair slamming back into the wall had me jumping back about a foot. “How much do you want?”

“I’m sure you aren’t suggesting I risk my career and reputation for a measly payoff.” The voice was closer this time when it spoke so I tucked myself against the wall and out of the way in case he came out.

“Fuck you. I’ll find someone else to pay.” 

“Good luck. I’m the only certified building inspector within two hundred miles with the authorization to sign off on this.” There was another shuffle and the voice was closer. “And no person with any morals would sign off on the shoddy work I see here.”

The door opened so abruptly after that bold statement I jumped and hid my face to the wall. I didn’t know why. I never hid myself. If anything, I showed too much of myself but for some reason, I didn’t want this stranger seeing me or knowing I had listened in. His confidence in the face of Occum was unsettling; his voice, a little too intriguing. 

He brushed past me with a polite, “Excuse me, ma’am,” taking care not to touch me, which was tricky with the construction material taking up all the hall space. 

He muttered something about fire hazards before melting into the darkness of the bar. I couldn’t tell much from his retreating figure; his dress pants and collared shirt were a little too fancy for this place. His hair was salt and pepper, but that was about all I could see. Shoulders back, his stride was as cool as his voice had been, confidence oozing as he disappeared. My jaw hung slack like a largemouth bass.

Then his words registered. I was half tempted to chase after him just to smack him upside the head. “Ma’am”?! Me? I was equal parts confused and offended. My outfit hardly covered my nipples and he called me something we call ol’ Mrs. Albensi when we saw her at the Piggly Wiggly. I’m not a ma’am, I’m a miss. I’m still in my twenties! Technically. Though, my hangovers were lasting a little longer these days and I did pluck a grey hair this morning. 

I debated chasing after this stranger to give him a piece of my mind when Occum shot out the office.

“Goddamn!” His face was twisted with rage. 

That’s when I should have skedaddled but I was stuck like a bunny on a state route—too afraid to move and about to be roadkill. Occum’s head was shaved completely bald but what he lacked up top sprouted from his face like Rip Van Winkle. The thin tip of his beard reached all the way down to his belt buckle. 

He spotted me still half turned facing the wall. “What in the hell are you doing, Short Fuse?” Before I could make up an answer he added, “Get your ass on stage, right now.”

For somebody with a reputation for talking too much, I struggled to find words. “I need to talk to you.” 

Now wasn’t going to be the best time to talk to him but the words had tumbled out after days of preparing them. I guess that’s why everybody told me God used a teaspoon to pour my brains in and had shaking hands. 

He had been looking down the hall after that ballsy fellow but this caused him to snap his head toward me. “You want to talk? What about, nail polish and blowjobs?”

I ran my hand down his arm and squeezed his sinewy bicep. His cologne was overpowering this close. “I was thinking—”

“That face ain’t for thinking.” He pushed me off his arm. “I have important clientele here tonight and I promised them a show. I’ve had enough backtalk from people for one day. Now get moving before the next song starts or I’m gonna have one of my new girls dance and you can bus tables.”

I blinked back the hurt at his words. I batted my eyelashes and smiled to sidetrack his tension. “Okay, sugar. Whatever you want.”

“That’s my girl.” He smacked my bottom as I walked away and headed toward the changing rooms. 

I’d talk to him after my set. I wouldn’t lose my nerve. This was my life. I had gotten myself here with my bad actions and I was paying for them. I wasn’t fit for anything proper, but maybe I could have this one thing just for me.

Chapter 2

** Clifford **

I was meticulous about my hand washing despite the rage pumping adrenaline through me. I glanced at my bland expression through the splashes of God-knows-what on the mirror. I performed my counting mental exercises until my heart beat at a normal pace.

The froth of bubbles was the perfect consistency and evenly distributed as I scrubbed clean. I’d felt dirty for hours now. Of course, there wasn’t a dryer in sight, nor a paper towel roll. The only option was an old-fashioned towel loop where the rag was a rainbow of putrid oranges, browns, and yellows. This whole establishment had been nothing but a disgusting disappointment from the moment I crossed the threshold. 

After seeing what happened here, I was sure there was no surface untainted. 

That barbarian thought that I could be bought. He’d thought I didn’t understand his fumbling bribery. I’d given him a chance to back out, to realize how fruitless his attempt would be, but he was too thick-skulled to recognize the opportunity. 

What would it be like to take the money, to be crooked and betray my own moral code? The things I could do with that bribe. The research I could get funded. But I stopped that train of thought before it derailed. Imagine-the-headline was my favorite way to stop bad decisions. 

“UT Professor Found Guilty in Strip Joint Payoff Scheme.” 

Nope. Not worth it. 

Outside I still looked the unflappable professor, bow tie in place, my hair in need of a cut but at least combed back a bit. My beard was trimmed a respectable length. Not like the rest of these men. I aggressively shook my hands around to dispel the water droplets and carefully opened the door with my elbow to get out. 

I needed to leave before I caught a rash. 

The exit was in sight when the music stopped and the lights all dimmed save for one spotlight focused on the main stage set up in the center of the room. A hush fell over the crowd, like everyone took in a deep breath at the same time. A quick guitar strum filled the air shortly followed by the thrumming tempo of a foot-stomping beat. On stage, a woman materialized from the blackness. She walked forward confidently. The same woman I tried to see in the hallway but who had averted her face from me. I had that effect on women. Especially women like that—women who captured the audience of every man that they passed. 

My workload nagged at the back of my mind. Time to leave. Papers waited to be graded, grants needed to be applied for. I didn’t have time to deal with a backwoods hillbilly trying to buy me off for a side job I didn’t want or need. And yet, my feet remained planted.

A dark cove near the exit beckoned. I crossed my arms and settled into the dim area to watch her unseen. No harm in watching her dance. If she took off her clothes, I’d leave. The music had a life of its own. It existed to highlight her movements and seep under my skin. The tempo of the bass drummed down my chest and out through my extremities. 

With every stomp of dark tempo, she glided her way toward a gleaming pole in the center. Her hair flowed like a living entity as she tossed it around. Onyx waves reached just to the top of her luscious…

I cleared my throat and shifted my feet. 

As the melody built, her movements became more exaggerated and complex. She dropped to the floor suddenly, arched her back, crawled, writhed, flipped her head, and spread her legs, all with intention and fluidity. She was sexuality incarnate. The area around the stage filled with men and women surging forward, waving their cash and trying to get it in her outfit. Occasionally she made her way to them to allow them to slide bills against her glistening skin.

She was flawless. She was a beacon of pure light in this grotesque pit of hell. Her sloping waist, her creamy skin—all perfected to allure men. She was a siren with cash crashing at her feet like boats against rocks. 

Good God, she even made my thoughts poetic. Pathetic.

The chorus started and with a small head start, she jumped to the top of the pole in an outstanding act of pure athleticism. The sultry voice blaring through the speakers sang of rivers and mouths and sex and power. Goosebumps prickled my arms and neck. 

Her body spun around the bar completely unaffected by gravity. She ran and flowed and never stopped collecting the attention of everybody around her. It looked effortless, but immense strength powered those smooth curves. 

I was transfixed. It wasn’t just the way she mastered the room. It wasn’t just how her choreography perfectly correlated with the entrancing music. It wasn’t just her sex appeal. It was that unwavering gaze and focus on her task. To the rest of the room, staring blatantly at her admirable—ahem—assets, she was an object, but I recognized the barely controlled passion roiling under her skin. What would it be like to be that strong? Not just physically, but strong in a way that allowed her to bare her soul to a group of greedy strangers. My passions were locked away safely inside me and yet she put it all out there. Such bravery and passion. 

In certain moments, I swear she looked right at me—quick, stolen glances that shot a bolt of adrenaline down my spine. Perhaps this was a skill she learned to earn more tips, as the money was out in droves now, peppered over the stage and her sweating skin. But I swore she saw me. Saw through me. To the things I didn’t want seen. I stepped back further into the darkness knowing my concerns were irrational but unable to tear my eyes off hers. I was stronger than this. I was thoughtful, pragmatic, and not a victim of animalistic natures and poetic fantasies.

Though she occasionally snapped the thin strips of material that made up her outfit in a playful tease, she never took any clothes off. She didn’t need to. She’d managed to capture the attention of every person in that room with her movements alone. 

My body reacted despite my rationale; heart pounding, skin aflame. I needed to leave. I wouldn’t be like the rest of these people. 

The song crescendoed and in a show of strength, she launched herself back to the top of the pole once again. A small gasp escaped from me but the music drowned out all noise. She performed a trick that made her appear to fall down the entire length of the pole, tumbling over and sideways, limb over limb, only to catch herself at the bottom using only her thighs. She hung upside down, panting, dark hair sprawled out around her and her gaze set on me. Her eyes were a brilliant emerald, unlike any color I’d ever seen. They were luminescent in the stage lighting. Even across the hazy bar, they were transcendent. Glowing. Fixated on me.

Nobody else. 

I swallowed but it wasn’t easy. The song ended and the lights went out. The crowd went wild. Several moments passed before I gained control of my faculties again. With that control came the shame of watching her. The understanding that just seeing her perform was enough to make me forget who I was. That couldn’t happen.

I got out of there as fast as I could. The entire drive back to Knoxville my chest heaved at an alarming rate; my body remained a mass of tension. Her hypnotic gaze flashed repeatedly in my vision no matter how often I tried to shake it loose. 

Thankfully, I’d never see her again.

Chapter 3

** Suzie **

I left the stage sweaty and satisfied. That’s more than I could say for the last few sexual experiences I’ve had. “Like a River” by Bishop Briggs was a risky choice over the usual crowd pleasers but her demanding voice and that hungry tempo hit nerves. I’d put on one hell of a show and made more money than expected. Sometimes the music spoke to me and my body moved in just the right way so the crowd ate it up. More than speaking to me, it spoke through me. It made me feel like I was more than a stripper. It made me want to be something extraordinary. 

Not that I’d ever tell anybody that. I could just imagine the look of one of the Black Demons as I explained how powerful and alive I felt when I moved around that pole. They’d likely tell me to shut my trap and spread my legs.

I organized my bills, flattening and stacking from singles to the fifty. The fifty I folded up and hid in the thick strap under my boob. Despite everyone calling me dumber than a bag of bricks, I knew enough to keep some cash hidden. That should get Daddy through the week. I made my way back to Occum’s office. 

Occum took over the Black Demons right around the time I came looking for help about eight years ago. He ran the G-Spot and was in the process of upgrading it from a dive bar with strippers to a fancy nightclub—also with strippers. He was only sort of rough before he busted faces to get to the top. Now, there was a cruelty about him that made my skin itch. But he was the boss so if I wanted change, I went through him. 

Still panting from my routine I pushed into the office. Maison was in his lap, arms wrapped around his neck. She was new and eager to prove herself by shoving her tongue in his ear. I hid a shudder. I had been there only a few years ago. Thank God I’d moved up the ranks because I could still recall the smell of sour cigarettes in his uncombed beard. 

“A couple of guys just sat in your section,” I told her. It may or may not have been true.

She stuck out her lower lip to Occum. He roughly pushed her off his lap. He smacked her ass loudly as she walked away. She giggled but I recognized that hidden wince. Those booty shorts didn’t cushion against the sting of a flat palm or pinch.

“Shoo,” I said and waved her away with one hand and dabbed sweat off my neck with a towel. 

She scurried out of the room. Maison might call me a name now, but at least she didn’t have to do something she may regret later. I wish I could tell her that she didn’t have to prove herself that way, that there were other ways to earn your value, but I wasn’t exactly a showcase example myself. 

“Next time. You knock.” Occum leaned back in his chair and adjusted his jeans. 

“Sure thing, babe.” Men had to be stroked just right. Especially their egos. 

I laid the bills out in front of him, still damp from being thrown on stage, covered in beer or various body fluids. 

“That it?” he asked. 

“‘Course,” I said. 

“Good night.” He flipped through the cash, counting it out. He gave a small frown of approval behind his scraggly beard. He took half the cash. 

“Hey, what gives?” I spoke without thinking. 

“Excuse me?” He stilled on his way to the safe behind the desk and looked up at me with yellow eyes.

They didn’t call me Short Fuse Suze for nothing. I couldn’t stand by and let him take half the money I worked my booty off for. Usually, he only took twenty percent. 

“I got bills.”

“You mean you gotta support your daddy’s habit.”

“I need that money.” I smoothed my hair into a twist over my shoulder. It wasn’t any of his damn business.

“Yeah, well your real family needs it more. This is for keeping your top on. You know what they’re paying for.”

I ground my teeth. I had tried to get away with staying dressed. I wore an outfit that was basically like being naked but it still wasn’t enough. Even though I made more tonight than most of the other girls did in weeks. I bit my tongue. Better blood in my mouth than blood on the ground. I stared longingly at the bills. The things I could do with that money. The money I earned through sweat and bruises and rough hands. 

“About that.” I bit back the overwhelming desire to yell at him, remembering what my main goal was here. “I heard about the VIP stage you’re building.”

“What did you hear?” He leveled me with a look.

“That it’s gonna be upstairs, in the new level. That’ll be like a Vegas show.”

“Right.” He stroked his long beard, face unreadable. “And?”

“I was thinking—”

“And isn’t that the problem. What did I tell you about that?” He quirked a smile at his own joke. One I’d heard a thousand times. 

I squared my shoulders and plowed on. I’d been working up to this for some time. Even if I was scared shitless, I had to ask. “What if I stopped stripping down here and I put on a real show. I have some real good dances, actually, I’ve got lots of fans on Instagram—”

“No stripping?”

“I wouldn’t get naked, not completely, but I’d put on an actual show. I could do big dance numbers with the other girls, have fun costumes, stuff like that.”

“Short Fuse. You’re my main girl.” He patted his lap. “Come ’ere.”

“Thanks.” I flipped my hair off my shoulder and started twisting it up into a knot to get it off my sweaty neck. I didn’t show any hesitation as I went to his lap but dang, I was so tired. I didn’t want to do the flirting thing tonight. I was so tired of the games.

“You’re damn good at what you do. I expect the best from you.”

I fell into his lap and threw my arms around his neck, making sure to press my breasts into him. “Thanks, babe.”

“It’s because you’re my number one girl that I give you the most important assignments.”

I smiled but my stomach twisted. He wasn’t answering me about the VIP room. I’d been working up to ask about it for weeks and he brushed it off without consideration. 

“I need you to help out your family now. I need you to step up.”

“Okay. You know I will.”

“That’s my girl.” He pushed back my hair causing it to fall out of the bun I just created and tugged my head toward him.

There was something in that grip. A little voice deep down inside, the one I had learned to ignore a long time ago, warned me to get out. He grabbed my hair into a fist and yanked back my head so our eyes were locked. It stung enough that my eyes watered.

“The G-Spot is our home. All these people that work here, all your family in the Black Demons, they rely on it. And,” he ran his free hand down his face, “the Man wants us to fail. They hate that us working folk are busting our asses and finally making our way up in the world. So they’re putting bureaucratic red tape all over the place.”

His rant was mostly to himself, but when he looked up again his face hardened with focus. I didn’t know what he was building toward but I wish he’d just tell me already. 

“Now don’t worry your pretty face over the details. Just know the Man doesn’t like us. He’s trying to bring us down. I work hard to protect you and the girls. I do things to protect this family…” He trailed off with a shake of his head. “Like I said. I need you to do something. You’re a good girl and so I know you won’t let your family down.” 

“Just tell me what you need, baby.” 

“There was a suit in here tonight. Tryna to tell me that my work’s not up to snuff. That we aren’t working hard enough and that just ain’t fair. He wants to make a dime off our hard work.”

I knew exactly who he was talking about. I thought of that man again. The one who hadn’t worn a suit but was dressed totally different than most of the men in this place, with that little dorky bowtie. He was intriguing. He had watched me on stage so intently. Couldn’t take his eyes off me. But it was the way he focused on my eyes that stuck with me. He had strayed briefly to study my moves but he always came back to my face. His attention drove me to push harder, be sexier, feel more. Normally up there, I didn’t think—I just felt. 

Suddenly, I didn’t want to be here on Occum’s lap waiting to hear his plans for me. I didn’t want anybody telling me what I wanted or needed. I wanted the attention of a man like that. A sophisticated and classy man. But I kept all that to myself because I was torn. Occum was real upset but that man seemed like he was just trying to do right. He seemed like he was just doing his job. But maybe I wasn’t thinking straight. I’d been fooled by a man before. 

“He must want his cut but he isn’t taking cash.” Occum ran dirty fingernails down my arm. “But every man has a price, you understand.”

His finger traced across my collarbone. There was a time where this action would have had me purring under his attention but now my stomach soured. I was trying to change, be better. No more swearing. No more stripping. 

“Occum, I want to help…” But what? I didn’t finish. I didn’t want to know what he was getting at. 

“Good.” He released my hair and gently kissed my forehead. “So you’ll go to him. You’ll give him whatever he needs to get this renovation moving.”

The dread in my gut solidified into a block of ice that shot through my veins. 

I knew what he was really asking me to do. Despite what everyone said, I wasn’t an idiot. I wasn’t that type of girl. Sure, I’ve had good times with a few of the guys, but that was always my choice. That was what I wanted to do. This. What he asked me, this felt awfully close to that line I promised myself I would never cross. 

“I can talk to him but I d-don’t—” I couldn’t get the words out. 

Occum had some of the girls doing things under the table—literally—but he never asked that of me. I thought I was above that. I thought. And wasn’t that my problem? Thinking. I’ve been told my whole life I was too pretty to worry about thinking.

“Oh, look at you.” He rubbed a thumb over my bottom lip. “I can smell the smoke. Don’t think so hard. This is easy. This is what you’re good at. Look at you. You’re gorgeous. You’re made for this.”

For what, exactly? I focused on his hard stare as it bore into me. I pushed away the scary and overwhelming thoughts that tried to pull me under. Better when I didn’t think at all. I knew that. 

I nodded slightly. 

“You want to go back to the Wraiths? You want them to collect what’s owed to them the old-fashioned way? The way I see it, you have it pretty good here. Don’t you want your big stage?”

I nodded. 

“I need you and the best girls. I’m throwing a private party.”

I didn’t know I was available for assignments. My schedule was pretty full between the club and keeping my social media accounts up to date. I had almost five thousand followers on my Instagram and not all of them were men. Women were always asking for health and makeup tips. I wondered if I could …

“Suzie, goddammit! Pay attention. I swear to God, you’re no better than a bitch in heat at a dog park.” Occum was in a no-lip mood so I smiled pretty for him. “I’m throwing a private party for some very important people. Very important. Very intimate.”

“Okay,” I said. “You want me to dance?”

“Yeah. Black Demons rented out a hotel. One of those big rooms.”

He meant a banquet hall, but I wasn’t about to correct him. 

“Why not here?”

He chewed the hairs on his bottom lip and the coarse sound made my stomach turn over. “This is a big show. For all the regulars and VIPs. You don’t need to know any more than that. That man’s gonna be there. His name is Clifford Rutledge. He’s a professor at UT. You’re gonna dance for him in the private booth.”

“Oh okay,” I sort of drug out the word because Occum looked real desperate. “Just dance for him? Get him to sign off?”

“Of course. Do what comes natural.”

What comes natural? Dancing came natural, nothing else. But I could get a man to agree to things. I could do it without crossing my own lines. I needed to get that stage.

“Okay,” I said.

His chin dropped to his chest and he glared up at me without lifting it. At that angle and the dim lighting, he looked like a demon straight from hell. “Good,” he rumbled. “I don’t need to remind you of life outside this MC. Nobody having your back. No money. Wraiths breaking down your door and your daddy’s other leg. You don’t want to fuck this up, Short Fuse. Not if you want your own stage. Haven’t I taken care of you?”

I nodded as best I could under his grasp.

“I put my neck on the line for you. Razor and the Iron Wraiths own this town but I’ve kept you safe from them.”

I swallowed.

“You know Razor came sniffing ‘round for you again. Asking for his cut. I kept him away but it cost me.”

“When?” I asked. 

I hadn’t seen Razor. I had hoped I was close to paying off my debt to Razor. It weighed me down like a lead blanket, day and night, for eight years now. 

“Don’t worry about it.” He waved off my question. “Here’re the facts you need to worry about. Your daddy’s a drunk. Your momma left. Dropped you without a thought. The Black Demons saved you. We protected you, and continue to do so, from those scum in the Iron Wraiths. We want you safe. Not like the family that supposedly shares your blood. We took you in and protected you when nobody else cared.”

He was right. Alone I was dead; with the boys I was at least protected.

I took too long to answer so he kept talking. 

“You’re my main girl. I’m going to keep you safe and take care of you. I’m going to give you the VIP stage so you can dance for top dollar. You need to do your fair share too. We all do.”

I blinked up at him. “Really? You promise the VIP stage?”

“Of course. You’re the first girl I thought of for it.” 

I didn’t want to seduce this stranger, but maybe I could find another way. Maybe I could talk to him. I didn’t have a choice. Not really. 

“Okay,” my voice was weak as I said it. “I’ll do my best.”

“That’s my girl. Now head on home. Rest and clean up. You got a big task ahead of you.”

I swallowed down what felt like my lunch trying to make a reappearance. I could do what Occum asked of me. I didn’t have to sleep with that professor guy. I could find another way. I’d gotten plenty of men to do my bidding without sleeping with them. This was some nerd who’d probably never been laid. How hard could it be?


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