“Take it off, take it all off!”
I rolled my eyes at the hoots and hollers of the dick-hungry women, and turned my attention toward the one hollering “Shake it for mama!” while waving a twenty-dollar bill high in the air. Lisa. She was a regular customer and a favorite of mine, but only because she paid well.
Slowly walking to her side of the stage, I turned, giving a little jiggle, and smiled when I felt the tell-tale scratch of green being tucked into the waistband of my boxers. Then, and only then, did I give her what she had come for.
The booty dance. Women went wild for it, and it was the main reason I was one of the highest paid dancers in this godforsaken club. With my back toward them, I pumped my hips, grinding to the music and lowering the waistband of my boxers to encourage further payment while I scoped out the rest of the audience. It was a Thursday evening, so it wasn’t packed. Pickings were slim, but Lisa and her crowd were good for a few hundred bucks.
I slowly made a three-hundred-sixty-degree turn, making sure to grab my junk and putting my game face on for Lisa and her friends. As I predicted, they went wild and piles of bills hit the stage at my feet. I winked, nodding my thanks even as I turned again, scanning the other side of the room as I danced.
When I spotted her, I stopped in my tracks. Every part of me froze, and I couldn’t help but stare.
She had never been here before—of that I was certain—but she was every inch the sort of woman I would have noticed no matter where I was.
She sat at a front row table, but she didn’t seem all that interested in me, or the show, or any part of anything going on in this club. Which fit her, frankly. Little and curvy, her outfit was not the usual I saw on the women who came to cheer me on. Rather, it was the sort that would have been blended in better were she in a strict Catholic school or on the anime-schoolgirl-loving streets of China or Japan. Her blue pleated shirt was short, riding up high on thighs that had to be at least twenty-one or Benny, the doorman, risked losing more than just his mind when he found out she was in here.
Her shirt was damn-near matronly in comparison, with long sleeves and buttons fastened all the way up to the scarlet cravat tied around her neck. Warm as it was in here, she wore the uniform jacket buttoned up too and instead of fuck-me heels, I’ll be damned if her shoes weren’t Mary Janes. The only thing that separated her from the properly attired schoolgirl image she portrayed was all that honey-blonde hair, highlighted in streaks of bright purple. That hair belonged in this room. On my fellow dancers, if not on the overwhelmingly middle-class, suburban, soccer-mom clientele that paid our wages.
That outfit belonged in a porno. And any young lady who went out in public wearing an outfit like that belonged over my knee with white cotton panties at half-mast and my hand beating a steady tattoo against her red-hot backside.
I had a weakness for ‘little’ girls in outfits like that.
And she wasn’t giving me so much as a glance. Maybe because she was shy, or maybe she was just careful. Women these days had to be extra wary of attracting the wrong kind of attention, and that was a damn shame.
But, forget the wrong kind of attention, this woman didn’t seem to want any attention period, particularly not from me. Yet she had all of mine. I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t help it. I liked what I could see of her and I wanted to see more. I had to force myself to keep my dance moving as I peeled my gaze away. As soon as I got a chance, I was going to work the floor tonight—something I typically avoided. I preferred to leave what I saw as begging to the inexperienced newbies. I didn’t need to beg for tips, and I wasn’t desperate enough to prey upon the shyer patrons, thereby making them feel obligated to slip me a few bucks. Some might think me conceited, but I was good and the proof of that was, literally, lying in a pile of bills around my feet.
Another fluttered into view, landing on the stage at that exact moment, and I smirked as I continued my sultry dance. I usually aimed my full attention in whichever direction the money was coming from, but I couldn’t help myself tonight. My naughty schoolgirl was calling to me, and I’d do anything if only she’d look at me.
As if she could hear my silent plea for her attention, she glanced up and for a split second our eyes met. Hers matched the violet highlights in her hair, and there was something endearing about the way she blushed when I caught her checking me out. The eye contact lasted for less than a hot minute, but my breath hitched in my chest, and desire hit me hard. I had to have her.
Sadly, she didn’t seem anywhere near as strongly affected as I was. Breaking eye contact, she switched her attention to her cellphone and my ego took a minor hit. Let it not be said I couldn’t take a hint. As much as I might wish it otherwise, she just wasn’t interested and I was not going to force the issue. But neither could I just up and leave the stage, either. Lisa and her friends weren’t yet done with me. I would know when they were; they had a brutally unique way of letting a dancer know.
Forcing a smile, I stepped over the pile of bills under my feet and cast the violet-haired vixen from my thoughts. Every ounce of sexual tension I had, I threw into shaking what my mama gave me. The song was almost over before I glimpsed Lisa high-fiving her close-knit friends, giggling as she snuck along the edge of the stage behind me. I braced myself, knowing what was coming, but forcing my ass cheeks to continue their teasing bump and grind.
The flat of her hand connected with the thin material of my boxer briefs. The small crowd around the stage dissolved into raucous cheers and laughter. There it was. I had been excused. Why did my first set every Thursday night end in my walking off the stage with my left cheek stinging like somebody had just smacked me with a hornets’ nest?
Technically, audience members were not supposed to touch the dancers on stage, but for some reason, the bouncer always let that one slide. Every. Damn. Time.
I shook it off, scooping up the scattering of bills I’d been given. Trying not to think about how much of this money I’d cheerfully have paid to watch Lisa get her ass smacked for a change, I made my way to the dancers’ lounge behind the bar. I said nothing as I entered, grabbing a bottle of ice-cold water from the mini-fridge and donning my shirt to protect myself from the icy blast of the A/C we used to cool off after each performance.
I nodded at the newest guys as I opened my locker and shoved my cash into my duffel. Counting the pile of bills at the end of the night was my reward for putting up with this job, Lisa and all the other women in the world like her, and this club in general. If I counted too soon, I might be tempted to go home early and I really couldn’t afford that.
Slamming the locker door shut, I twisted the dial on the padlock and joined my friend Azid over at the small gym we had set up in the corner of the lounge. Azid was a big guy who pumped iron like it was going out of style. He was currently rocking the bench press. He didn’t need a spotter; he was just that good, and that tough. But I went to stand over him anyway.
Azid rolled his eyes at me, and grunted as he pushed the weight off his chest toward my waiting grip.
“How’s the crowd tonight, Ma?” My name is Mazi, and Azid was the only person in existence who could shorten it to Ma without getting knocked out cold. Probably because his name shortened to Az, which with the right accent sounded like Ass, and he let me get away with calling him that, even though he could have easily kicked my ‘Az’ with both hands tied behind his back.
“Not bad.” I helped him settle the weight in the stand as he pulled himself into a sitting position and grabbed a water and a towel from the floor beside him. “It’s Thursday, so it’s a little slow, but busy enough to pay the bills.”
Azid grinned sardonically as he gave me a knowing side-eyed look. “Lisa and the girls out there?”
“You know it. And…” I hesitated to tell him about her, selfishly wanting to keep her existence to myself. I knew that wasn’t possible. Azid wasn’t blind, and neither were the rest of the guys.
Azid caught the hesitation. Friends since our first day of high school, he knew me better than anyone. His brow crinkled. “What?”
“Nothing.” I shook my head, unsure where to start or what I was even thinking. “You’ll see soon enough—”
I was interrupted by the club owner, a big burly Scottish oaf of a man named Ezra. The name didn’t evoke images of six-foot-tall bikers with bushy beards, tattoos, and motorcycle jackets, but somehow it seemed to fit him.
“Mazi, this came for you, man. Delivered this afternoon. Certified mail. Lulu had to sign for it.”
I stared at both him and the envelope, so caught up wondering who even knew I worked here, much less who might send me mail, that I didn’t even try to take it from him. It was Azid who finally reached over my shoulder and snatched the envelope from Ezra’s hand. “Certified messenger, huh?” He flicked it over to look at the return address. “This is fancy ass paper.”
“You shoulda seen the dude who delivered it,” Ezra said, flicking me a curious look.
I tried to take it, but Azid moved faster than me. Planting a hand in my chest, he held the mail just out of my reach. Hesitantly, he sniffed the envelope. “Ma,” he said, in a tone that said he wasn’t sure if he ought to be worried or impressed. “It’s perfumed.”
Ezra snorted. “You shoulda smelled the dude who delivered it.”
Hiking his chin in a nod that said, “What’s up, bro? You ok?”, Azid narrowed his gaze on me.
I met his stare with a hard, unamused one of my own. “I have no idea what’s up, but I’m sure I haven’t done anything wrong. If I had, it would be the cops coming for me, not a certified letter on thick fancy paper, dumbass. Now, give over.”
I feinted a gut-punch, and when Azid doubled over to protect his stomach, I snatched the envelope from his grasp. It was heavier than it appeared, seemingly made from custom paper, but I wasn’t sure. It wasn’t like I spent a lot of time hanging out in stationery shops.
Turning it over in my hands, I was expecting to see a gold bracket clasp, similar to the sort on any manila envelope. Instead the fold was stuck down by a thick glob of wax, embossed by a seal I didn’t recognize. It looked like a crest of arms with a half ring of vining leaves that wrapped up from the bottom on either side.
With Azid and Ezra watching closely, I worked the seal open and carefully removed the contents—a single folded sheet of paper—from inside. The paper was every bit as thick as the envelope itself. Already Azid was closing in to read over my shoulder as I unfolded it and began to read.
Dear Sir Mazi Tucker,
Sir Mazi? I snorted. Anyone who called me ‘sir’ had to be a scammer. But I’d never heard of one that sent their bullshit letters by certified mail, on paper that looked like it cost more than my entire working wardrobe, and with an embossed seal?
Please accept my deepest condolences on the recent death of your mother, Patrice. I would have contacted you earlier, but I have only recently been informed of her passing.
I frowned. My mother had died several years ago. The Big C. Cancer. I only started dancing when she was first diagnosed, hoping to help pay for her treatments. Years later, here I was, still paying those costs off only now without my mother and with a huge mountain of medical bills that I had no choice about paying off if I wanted to keep the little house I’d grown up in as a kid. That house was all I had left of her. I wasn’t about to let it go.
For many years, we had an agreement that I would not contact you, even after you came of age. With her death, I consider that agreement to be null and void.
“What the fuck?” Azid whispered, and I silently echoed the sentiment. My stomach was a nest of squirming anxiety as I continued to read.
What I am trying to say is that once, a long time ago, I knew your mother very well. So well, in fact, that I believe in my heart that you are my son. I would like to extend this sincere invitation for you to join me at my home on the Island of Osei, off the coast of Africa. Your airfare and accommodations are arranged and paid for. I would like you to stay for at least a month, but will understand if that is too long.
To accept this invitation, please call the number listed below and ask for my assistant, Jax. He will take good care of you, prior to and during the duration of your trip.
Please come. We have much to discuss, and the kingdom awaits your arrival with great anticipation.
King of Osei
My hands were shaking as I read that last line, and then reread it multiple times. The implication set in and for a moment it was everything I could do not to lose my temper.
I believe in my heart that you are my son…
Really? Seriously? I turned the envelope over and looked at the writing on the front again, but the anger inside me wasn’t subsiding, or even simmering. It was building, and Azid was watching me, just waiting for the explosion.
“Excuse me.” Thrusting the letter into his waiting hands, I turned and slammed out of the lounge. A younger me would have punched my fist through the wall. Azid knew that, which was probably why he followed me.
My chest was tight. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t explain, couldn’t even look at him as I stormed down that long dark hallway toward the neon exit sign, flung open the back door, and exited into the dark garbage-filled alley beyond. Only once I was safely outside did I finally let the thinning ties on my temper snap, if only just a little.
I cursed. It was loud, explosive, and it echoed all the way out to the street, attracting the attention of some smoker who stuck his head around the distant corner to check me out.
“At least you didn’t punch the wall,” Azid mused, pushing through the door to join me.
I glared at him, but we had been good friends for too long for me not to open up. “Did you read that shit, man?”
“I did.” His dark eyes flickered in sympathy, reflecting what I already knew. As much as I wanted it to be, that letter wasn’t a scam.
Or if it was, it was a damn good one.
My childhood home had been full of paintings of Osei, a small island off the coast of Africa and a place most people have never heard of. I’d asked her about them once. She’d told me she had painted them from pictures she’d seen in a magazine. Obviously, that had been a lie, and not her only one either, since my father was still alive. And not just alive, he was a fucking king. Like, of a kingdom.
I rubbed my face with both hands, hearing the rasp of my palms against the five o’clock shadow I hadn’t bothered to shave before going onstage. Women liked me ‘scruffy.’ They tipped better.
“I’m named after him.” My voice sounded cold and empty even to my own ears. “She fucking gave me his name, and then told him not to contact us, and told me he was dead. Who does that?”
Jaw clenching, Azid watched me pace the alley. “Off the top of my head, I’d say someone who loves her son.”
Trust Azid to know exactly what to say to cut straight through the last of my temper and nick me where it actually, physically hurt. I loved my mother, too, and I missed the hell out of her now that she was gone.
“Look, we don’t know her reasons or the whole story, and we might not ever. She’s gone, she took it to her grave, and as much as it sucks, that’s just the way it is. But if this man is your father, then he’s reaching out to you now, bro, and you have a choice to make.”
I glared at him.
He grabbed my shoulders and shook lightly. “Wake up, man! Are you kidding me? You might be the son of a king! The only question I see here is, are you going to man up and go to Osei, at least long enough to hear his side of the story, or are you going to go home, go to bed, and pretend this whole day never happened? Whatever you decide, I’ve got your back, but you’d have to be crazy not to be just a little bit curious.”
As much as I wanted to blow the man off and fail to acknowledge that I had ever received his stupid letter, like a big silent ‘fuck you,’ I knew I was going to go. For a split second, I considered asking Azid to come and actually have my back, but I dismissed the idea just as quickly. This was something I had to do for myself. And Azid would still have my back—he would just have it from a different continent.
Eyebrows arching as if he could hear my inner thoughts, Azid smirked and handed me his phone. “Call that Jax dude. I’ll wait for you inside.”
Five minutes later, my fate was sealed. In a week’s time, I’d be aboard a private jet, headed for the island of Osei. To meet my father. The King of Osei.
I stared at the man shaking his assets on the stage and rolled my eyes, drumming my fingers on the sticky table. First impressions? This place was more or less a dive, albeit a popular one. Unfortunately, I was going to need a bit more than just that one thought for my review. A freaking master’s degree in journalism, and this was the kind of story I got stuck with on a regular basis. A belated human-interest column on a male dance club that had already been open for five years. And they wanted me to go on a Thursday night, no less. Sure, this weekend was a busy one in the city, but what made the club so special that it needed to be covered this weekend? They had already waited this long.
I’d give it one hour, and one drink. And the drink, as well as the cover charge, was going on my expense account. Like I would ever spend my hard-earned money to come watch guys jiggle their junk at desperate soccer moms.
I cut across the room, walking by the stage and ignoring the baby-faced blond dancer wiggling his hips suggestively as I headed to the bar. I ordered a Long Island Iced Tea, because, hey, if they forced me to be here and they were paying, I might as well make it worth my time. And just like clockwork, I had to show my ID. Again. Like no one had ever heard of anime. I’d spent my last two years in high school as a Japanese exchange student. I liked the style; so, sue me.
Sipping my drink, I made my way back to my table in the corner, I found myself actually pleasantly surprised. As far as Long Islands go, the drink was excellent. One of the best I’d had. I pulled a small notebook out of the pocket of my jacket and made a note for my review.
The music changed, and I glanced at the stage with disinterest as a new dancer strolled out and took his place. He was a popular one, judging by the hoots and hollers of the crowd of ladies now surging to surround the stage.
This guy was smoking hot—the tall, dark, and handsome variety—and I recognized him instantly from the ads out front. I think I might even have seen him in a commercial or two on late night TV. Staring at him in person was no hardship, that was for sure, but I was still uncomfortable. Luckily, he turned his body toward the large group of women across from me, and I was free to ogle his sculpted ass without his watching me in turn. That worked better for me and, I suppose, this was better than the pre-K T-ball game they had me cover last night.
Less noise. Much nicer view.
My phone vibrated on the table, and I scowled at it. My boyfriend, Brian, had a jealous side. And an angry side. Really, he was just an insecure asshole. I knew I could do better, even though he liked to tell me I couldn’t. Really, who had time to date around?
And the texts just kept coming through, one after another.
Where are you?
When are you coming home?
Who are you with?
I scowled, drinking faster. Work was work, but I needed to get home before Brian lost his mind, or worse yet, showed up here.
Determined to get enough for a five-hundred-word column, I turned my attention back to the stage—not that doing so was any kind of hardship. The dancer was doing a unique booty dance as he slowly turned in a circle, working the room from all angles. I glanced down at my phone as he faced me, not wanting to draw attention to myself. I was here for a story, not to throw money away or beg for male attention.
I could feel his eyes burning into me, and I forced myself not to look up. I didn’t need to. His dark olive skin glistened under the lights, and those muscles were burned into the recesses of my brain, at least for tonight. I all but held my breath while he stared. When I felt him shift, I finished off my drink and tossed a few bills on the table to cover a tip.
My phone buzzed again and I stood, taking one last long stare at his departing backside as he strolled off the stage. I had enough for a decent column. For my own sanity now, I think, it was time to get home.
“Norah, baby, I’m sorry! I’ll never do it again.”
I glared up at Brian from my spot on the floor and gingerly touched the skin around my eye with two fingers. To his credit, he did look appalled; to my credit, it was one wild fist to the eye too late for that.
When I was sure no skin had been broken, I leapt to my feet with my fists out in front of me. “Get out!”
The second round of apologies began, but I didn’t care. I had heard it all before. The only difference between all those times and tonight was this was the first time he’d actually hit me.
“Baby, c’mon, don’t be like that. You know I love you. You didn’t answer my texts and I freaked. I’m sorry, baby. Let’s forget all about it. I’ll order in some Chinese, and we can have a picnic on the patio and stay in tonight. I just need you all to myself.”
“Not this time, Brian. Leave now, or I’m calling the cops.”
His face changed instantly at the threat and he stepped toward me with a menacing scowl. “Who do you think you are?”
He made no move to leave as I slid my phone out of my pocket and began to dial. I understood. He didn’t think I’d really do it. We’d been here before.
My eye was swelling, making the numbers on the small cellular more difficult to read by the minute. I stared him square in the eye, with a defiant look on my face and pushed the send button.
Brian’s face changed from an expression of menace to rage to disgust in a split second. I flinched, but managed not to duck when his fist made contact with the wall behind me. This was my home, and I wasn’t going to be bullied in it. Not tonight. Not anymore.
“You stupid worthless bitch. Just remember, when I walk out that door, you’re all alone. Nobody else wants you, and they never will. How could they, especially once they find out about your”—he looked me up and down as if I were disgusting, sneering—“issues? You’re a nothing, a nobody. You don’t matter.”
It was the same pathetic line he always used, and it usually got me. Tonight, by some miracle, I was able to see the desperately spewed words for the lies they were.
“I matter to me.” The operator had answered and was speaking on the other end of the line. My eyes met his, and he turned and stomped out, slamming the door behind him. I followed him and quickly locked it before giving my attention back to the 911 operator.
“Sorry, ma’am. I thought there was an intruder in my home. False alarm.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. If he stayed another second, he would have been intruding.
My hands started shaking, then. So did my legs. Clutching my phone in my hand just in case he decided to come back, I retreated back into the bedroom and grabbed Ms. Beatrix off the bed. Ms. Beatrix was my bunny, handmade by my grandmother back before I was born; she was made of white cloth, with button eyes, smiling stitched mouth, floppy ears, and a blue Alice-in-Wonderland dress and apron, the likes of which I used to wish I could wear all the time, back before I fell in love with schoolgirl uniforms. Sinking down onto the edge of the bed, I hugged her to my chest until the worst of the shaking had stopped. Quiet, accepting, Ms. Beatrix soothed me, giving me the strength I needed to go back out into the living room and pick up off the floor that slip of paper that had started our fight in the first place.
It was a job offer. Not just any offer, but the offer of a lifetime. A chance for a fresh start, a new Norah, and the kind of adventure I’d be stupid not to take it.
But more than all of that, it was proof. Proof that I mattered. Proof that I was worth something and that someone did, in fact, want me in any capacity. Brian couldn’t handle that, but Ms. Beatrix could.
I hugged my bunny tighter, the words on the paper blurring before my eyes. Dammit. Well, he’d got me a good one, but at least I was making sure the first time he’d hit me would also be the last. If I took this job, I would be putting thousands of miles between us and Brian, and at the moment, neither Ms. Beatrix nor I could think of anything sweeter.
The skin around my eye throbbing, I walked into the kitchen and snagged a bag of peas from the freezer. “Fuck you, Brian,” I said as I put it on my face.
Normally not one to approve of bad language, Ms. Beatrix quietly cheered me on as I, while I could still see out of that eye, used the letter and my phone to make the call that would change my life.