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His for the Taking: A Dark Mafia Romance by Samantha Madisen – Sample

Chapter One

Natalie

I know I said I would do it, and I was all set to go through with it, but when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I lost my nerve.

I looked good and had, by chance, put on a costume that wasn’t as trashy as the usual garb around here. Maybe that was the problem: I saw my long limbs, my lithe body, my pale skin, and my pretty blonde hair, and I thought: what the hell am I doing?

I swore I would never do this.

When I started working at Kitty Bang Bang, I was a waitress only. Absolutely firm about that. I knew I had a killer body—and Chris, the old owner, and all of his skeezy friends and ‘associates’ pointed that out whenever they got the chance, in the sleaziest way possible—but stripping was not for me. It was a bridge too far. I needed money, but I’d seen where stripping leads: straight to turning tricks, being a mule, or just getting whacked because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Guys sometimes just flipped out and beat girls up for no reason.

No, thanks.

The problem, of course, was that I needed money, and I needed it fast. Suffice it to say I’d chosen to love the wrong people and had the wrong friends.

So waitressing at Kitty Bang Bang seemed like a good deal, and Chris said no problem, with a smirk on his face that indicated he thought the allure of the money the girls were making would suck me in.

He doesn’t know me, I figured.

And I was doing just what I’d said I’d do: waiting tables, keeping out of the way, and not stripping.

Until we got this new owner.

Russians. These guys just didn’t give a shit. Not about rules, not about people’s problems, not about feelings, and definitely not about any previous arrangement I’d had with Chris. So Andrej—he’s a big meathead, with a thick neck and a thick accent and some scary-ass tattoos—made it pretty clear as soon as he took over: no stripping, no job.

I walked out, of course, because no one tells me what to do.

I’d find another job, right? I’m a hard worker and I have a pretty face, and most of the girls don’t even want to wait on tables when they aren’t dancing, because it isn’t where the big money is and it’s a lot of work.

I hit the pavement and figured I’d have a job in no time.

Now, when I say job, the only problem was that I needed a job that paid about fifteen hundred dollars a week, required no degree, background check, or training, and didn’t happen during the day. My choices were pretty limited.

But I thought whatever. I’m a good-looking, blonde, nineteen-year-old girl. I figured, after Andrej gave me the ax, I could find a job at The Den or Diamond Studs or any of the other craptastic strip joints along Brighton Avenue, because frankly, being attractive and not having track marks makes you the Brighton Avenue equivalent of a Harvard Business School graduate.

But fuck me if anyone would hire me on.

Not as a waitress.

Not as a stripper.

And finally I got the message. That prick Andrej had gone around telling everyone not to hire me.

So I marched back into his shithole establishment, and I told him to go to hell. He laughed at me.

To be honest, I didn’t believe for a minute that Andrej was anything but some Russian prick who liked to pretend he had mob connections so that everyone was afraid of him. I really gave him an earful.

I should have looked a little closer at his tattoos.

So long story short, Andrej had me over a barrel: no one on Brighton Avenue or anywhere else was going to hire me, and if I ever talked to Andrej like that again, I was going to end up somewhere dark. Like the inside of a carpet in a dumpster.

Okay… no, thanks to that either.

“All I want you to do, Natalie, is put on a nice show for my guests,” Andrej told me. “You’re a nice, pretty little girl, good as Russian doll. And I know I can count on you to keep quiet. You’re smart, and you need some money. So I pay for your little friend to stay at rehab place, and you take off clothes and keep mouth shut. Simple deal. No complication.”

“No sex,” I snarled.

Because no matter how desperate I was, I was not going down that road.

Andrej smiled. Personally, I think I got a few weirdo mob brownie points with him for being sassy. This girl Jen says those guys like a little sass. Not a lotthat will get your eye blackened—just a little.

“No sex,” Andrej said agreeably. “Two thousand a week. You work upstairs.” He had pointed at the office upstairs, where no one but thugs was allowed to go.

I’ve seen mob movies before, so I should have known where this was going. Irrationally, though, I said:

“Two thousand?”

Andrej nodded.

“No sex.”

He smiled. It looked like he moved his head in an affirmative nod. But who knew with these Russians? For all I knew, he could have meant, “No.”

I folded my arms and glared at him. “You gotta say it.”

“No sex,” he said casually.

And then he stood up. I’m not sure I had ever seen Andrej standing before. He is a big guy. He towered over me, and he had a mean glint in his eye. The kind of glint that made me re-think the way I’d been so flippant with him.

I held it together, but only just.

“But your mouth?” he said. Then he put a big meaty finger on my upper lip and a thumb on my lower lip, and he pressed them together hard. It hurt, and I had an invisible bruise the next day that made it hard to eat. Not that I’d ever show him that. Then he mimed buttoning them, zipping them, and throwing away a key.

“You don’t know nothing about nothing,” he said coldly.

And then he mimed slicing his neck. “Or anyone.”

I was in too deep, but I didn’t really have a choice.

It was also—at least for a while—a good gig. He paid me cash, they spoke Russian ninety percent of the time, I kept my eyes on my tray. No one asked me for blowjobs—in fact, no one asked me for anything, and I went home earlier than the other girls most nights. It was pretty obvious that some seriously illegal shit was going on up there, but I told myself I was too dumb to notice it, and that was the story I’d tell anyone who asked.

I’ll admit, I got used to it, and I made a devil’s bargain. It wasn’t my business what Andrej was up to; him or his Russian friends, or his other friends who spoke English with accents. It was all Greek to me. Lucy had her room at Stoney Creek, and I got one extra hour of sleep, which made a real difference in my grades.

Because I am going to finish my degree and get a real job and get the hell out of here.

That went on for a while. I got used to Easy Street.

But then he showed up.

And all that went out the window.

“This guy,” Andrej said, his hands trembling, which scared the shit out of me, “you do whatever he says. Okay? No fucking lip, Natalie, I’m serious.”

“You told me—”

Andrej had his hand on my throat so fast I didn’t see it coming, and I was a little confused as to why my eyes were watering.

His eyes were bugging out, and I had a second to think this was the end, when someone spoke Russian to the left of us.

Or some Slavic-sounding language.

Again, not my business.

How to describe this voice? Not deadpan, because deadpan is for when you’re trying not to be funny. This was the kind of flat, controlled, serious voice that you just know has never been funny in its life.

Andrej let go of me as fast as he grabbed me, and he was shaking for real. Tremors just below the surface of his skin, which terrified me more than if he’d just wigged out.

I rolled my head along the wall to look at this guy—voice guy—and the stage lights were on behind him. But his silhouette was bulky—not like Andrej, leaner than that, and wearing the kind of suit that shines because the material is more than your monthly rent per yard. But muscles pressed against it in all directions, and… I don’t know. You just know when a person is someone you don’t fuck with.

I got the shakes just like Andrej. Right under my skin.

“Got it,” I said, just to have something to say.

“Upstairs,” Andrej whispered, and now he almost seemed to be pleading with me.

Another short sentence came from the mystery man, who had his hands in his pockets and hadn’t moved. This time his voice sounded like whiskey, and I don’t speak Russian, but I somehow knew what was said. I mean… ‘problem’ in Russian is ‘problem’ with a Russian accent, so it wasn’t that hard to figure out.

He said, “Is there a problem?”

Nyet.” Andrej said, his eyes still on mine. “Natalie will go get into costume. She will be ready in five minute.”

This last bit definitely happened in English, because Andrej said it more for me than for the mystery man. In other words, Natalie would get into her costume and be ready in five minutes, or else.

I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. But it was a pretty easy calculation, kind of like a Mack truck headed at you: if the ‘or else’ is something that made a guy like Andrej nervous, well… you better get out of the way.

So I got into a costume—the only one I could find in five minutes—and got into the private room to give this guy the first dance of my life.

A private dance.

Two problems presented themselves right away, of course: one, I wasn’t a dancer, and two, I didn’t want to be.

And three: everyone in Kitty Bang Bang knew what ‘private dance’ meant, and I was no virgin, but I wasn’t into that.

There was also this problem: This guy, whoever he was, was just about the scariest person I’d ever seen in my life. He wasn’t especially big, though there was definitely some hard muscle behind his purple shirt. It was just… his eyes were dark, which is to say, they were blue, but they were dark—the kind of eyes that had a lot going on behind them and I just knew it wasn’t good. His jaw was square and covered in a stubble that looked as sharp as his gaze, and his mouth—plump lips, perfectly sculpted—was resting in an expression that was… well, unsmiling.

In like, a serial killer sort of way.

Good-looking serial killer way, but still scary as hell.

His hair was dark, almost black, and if he weren’t so scary and his arms weren’t so bulky, he would have looked like a model. There was a tattoo on his neck, and I could see some ink under his cuff.

It set my stomach on ‘cold’ right away.

He was sitting when I came in. Eyes on me like a predator: unflinching, unsparing, hungry in an ‘eat-you-for-dinner’ kind of a way. At the same time, I had a thought go through my mind, right through my brain, down my spine, and right to my pussy, where it throbbed: I could almost feel what that sharp stubble would be like against my inner thigh.

I realized that I was in a very bad situation.

I reached this moment of clarity too late. The door had just clicked behind me, and I had my hand on the handle. I turned it, while doing my best impression of a real stripper for Mystery Man.

But Andrej must have known I’d chicken out. The door was locked.

Mystery Man looked impatient.

Well, I thought. It was a good run. The realization washed slowly over me: of course things would have ended like this when I worked as a waitress at a Russian mafia-owned strip joint.

I was a lot of things, but above all I was a realist.

So I decided to get on with my life by getting out of that room with my life. If this guy was going to try to serial-killer me, I wouldn’t make it easy for him.

“What’s your name, tiger?” I said, throwing myself into my role. At that moment, I had a thought flit through my head: why had this guy asked for me, of all people?

His face didn’t move. He just blinked slowly, tilted his chin, and leaned back in his chair. His mouth didn’t smile, but for some reason he gave the impression of being very cruelly amused by what I had just said.

Sort of like a cat with a mouse.

Well, that didn’t take long. I was out of strategies. This guy didn’t really seem interested in me in a stripper kind of way, which was bad news.

I looked at the door with desperation, and then back at the guy. “You speak English?” I asked, dropping my stripper act.

Nothing. He just looked me up and down. I could actually feel his cool gaze like fingers along my body.

Okay.

This guy was very, very hot.

But scary, I reminded myself.

“Um,” I said, and I looked at the stage. It was best to just get on with it.

Which is when I saw myself: silver panties, glittering bra, thigh-high stockings, clear plastic heels I could barely walk in. All of it supposedly coming off soon.

I met my own eye in the mirror.

I’d always believed that if anything ever came to it, I’d draw a line. It was about my own ethics and whatnot. But when I saw his cool gaze behind me, I lost my nerve.

“I’m Katie,” I lied hopefully, forgetting that Andrej had already used my name.

He looked amused. My heart lifted a little.

“Al,” he said plainly.

For a second I didn’t understand.

He kept staring, and the amusement drained out of his face.

“You don’t look like an Al,” I said doubtfully, trying one last time to make a joke.

Al narrowed his eyes. I physically felt his diminished gaze squeeze me in the abdomen, as surely as if he’d reached forward and twisted his fingers right into my gut. Embarrassingly, I also got a little pang of lust.

I had an idea then, and it made me have two feelings at once: maybe this guy was FBI or something. That gave me a hopeful rush, because then I wouldn’t have to… it was too embarrassing to even think. And he wouldn’t kill me. But it was also terrifying, because if he was a Fed or a cop, then Andrej would probably kill me.

“You’re not a cop, are you?” I asked.

Nothing. A little flicker of amusement, and quick shake of his right wrist while he sort of cracked his neck. This unintentionally called attention to his tattoos.

Yeah, no. This guy was not Fed or cop, and I had just pissed him off making that suggestion.

“Okay,” I said, more for myself than him. “I’ll just… start dancing now, then.”

Why not? If a tree falls and embarrasses itself right before getting knocked off by a hot, scary guy in the back room of a trashy strip joint, does anyone care?

I climbed on the small stage, which was a sturdy circular table with a pole running through the middle and LED lights under a thick plastic top that served as the floor. When I stepped up the ladder, a staircase for pampered dogs to get into their owners’ beds, I tripped and nearly fell… the shoes I’d grabbed were too big. I had to steady myself on the pole and my ankle twisted almost all the way to the floor. I smiled, and struck a pretty lame pose.

I could do this. And if I did it long enough, maybe I would think of something to get myself out of this situation.

And then I realized I had no music playing.

My face was red, a curious mix of embarrassment and fear, and maybe attraction… I didn’t know. Just get it over with, I thought.

“I, uh… need to, uh… put the music on,” I stammered.

I looked around the room, locating what I thought was the stereo system. Clumsily, I climbed off the stage and wobbled over to the system, only to be mystified about how it worked when I got there.

Okay, I thought. This was actually perfect. I could just bang on the door, tell Andrej I needed some music, and then escape.

In these shoes. Yeah, right.

I spent a lot of time in the corner, ‘inspecting’ the stereo, thinking about how I could slip out of my shoes, and which way I would run, and what I would do after I did. My throat was getting choked up, my heart was throbbing in my throat, and my stomach was giving a series of wrenching twists.

I jumped when I heard the music, and I looked over to see him setting his phone down on the table next to him. Music played from it.

No drinks, I noticed.

God. Even worse. Staying sober to methodically chop me up, I guessed. I’d noticed that all the Russian hatchet jobs that came through never did any drugs or drank any vodka.

Fuck. Had I heard too much, or seen something?

The song was R&B. He looked at me as if to say, ‘problem solved.’

Maybe he did say that.

But it was pretty clear: there would be no leaving, the door would stay locked, and I was going to have to dance.

I moved toward the stage, and started back up the doggie steps, my stomach churning.

“Don’t go on the stage,” he said.

I froze, and looked over at him. The heat of his gaze sent a flush through me that was scandalously… well, hot.

So hot. The back of my neck crawled with a delicious feeling, and I was mortified to feel a wave of hot liquid swell up in the silver panties. I could feel red crawl over my cheeks.

“Um… don’t you want—?”

“Come here.”

His accent didn’t sound anything like Andrej’s, which was a strange thing to notice at the time, but I was in a tunnel and he was the only thing at the end of it.

I glanced nervously back at the door. “I don’t… we’re not supposed… to…”

His head moved slightly, as if he couldn’t quite believe what I was saying and he wanted me to say it again. He lifted his hand and beckoned me with his fingers, the way you would call over an underling.

My eyes went back to the door, as though anyone was coming to help me.

I wasn’t a hundred percent on even wanting to be helped. The side of my body closest to him was tingling as though he was stroking me with a feather. Fear wasn’t too far out of my mind, though; this guy looked mean and dangerous.

And hot. So hot.

“The door is locked,” he said, and I jerked my eyes back to him. I felt my mouth open, but I said nothing, because the air was locked in my chest, which felt like a horse was standing on it now.

“No one is coming until I tell them to,” he said, picking up the phone and tipping it side to side before setting it back down and turning off the music.

The pulse of the strip club below reverberated in the floor and walls. It seemed extra loud now that his phone was turned off.

“No one can hear you,” he said calmly. So calmly it took me a minute to process what he had said.

What it meant.

My heart actually stopped in my chest. This was it, I remember thinking. This guy was here to knock me off.

My mind went hazy. I thought about running; breaking down the door with my bare hands. But the moment I moved in that direction, Serial Killer’s hands shot out, clamping down on my wrists. They were warm, soft, strong hands, and he didn’t squeeze my wrists, but it was clear: I wasn’t going anywhere.

“No one is coming for you until I say so. So until then, Natalia, you are all mine.”

The cold that had been growing in my stomach spread out through my whole body. I felt my head moving side to side—was I shaking my head at this guy?—and my feet moved on the floor, trying to take me backward.

“Look,” I said. “I don’t… I don’t do this kind of thing.”

I bumped into the stage almost immediately. My arms were stretched, and he was holding me as calmly as though I hadn’t moved. As soon as I made contact with the stage, I melted against it; my knees had pretty much given up on working and my legs were Jell-O.

He was out of his chair and standing in front of me, against me, in a flash. His hard body was against my skin, and I could feel the solid curves of his pecs, the firmness of his abdomen, the… er… large, solid outline of his cock against my thigh.

Somehow, just like that, he pulled my wrists behind me and transferred them to one hand. His lips were right next to my forehead, and I could feel his breath snaking over me like a caress. I had this completely insane idea that I would give anything—anything—to feel his lips on my forehead.

This is what I was thinking right before I was murdered?

His other hand moved up my back, and I shivered. Embarrassed that goosebumps had washed over my skin, I felt myself flush.

Then he grabbed my hair and pulled my head back.

Okay, I thought. The honeymoon is over.

I struggled to get my hands out his grasp, but they weren’t going anywhere. He had me pinned to the stage floor, pressed against it on my front side, and his hand had such a strong, firm grip in my hair that I couldn’t do anything but look up at his face.

“You can’t do that!” I hissed, but even as I did, I realized how futile it was. He could do it; he could do whatever he wanted. “It’s against the—”

“No one is here,” he repeated.

His voice and his expression were strangely—disturbingly—calm, not the way you’d expect a man who had you by the hair on a strip club stage, alone, locked in a room, to sound. He sounded like he was making toast for someone and telling them he was putting butter on it.

I struggled again. I didn’t want to, but instinct was taking over. I was blabbing, yelling, sassing, and I wanted myself to shut up, but the words just came out of my mouth. “Listen, you freak, fuck you!” I heard myself saying.

This guy was likely to get mad, and he seemed like a real bastard. The quiet ones always are. I forced myself to close my mouth, and I rolled my eyes around, looking for a weapon of some kind. As if I could get my hands free to use it, I thought miserably.

“Ow,” I said, as he pulled a little harder on my hair.

Maybe, I thought, I could sweet-talk him long enough to get him to let his guard down.

“Look, Al, listen. I’m not really a stripper, okay? You have the wrong gal. I know a lot of girls downstairs who can—”

Somehow, my body was getting turned around. I was disoriented as he stretched my hands up to the pole and wrapped something around them, fixing them above my head. I was still thinking about that while he pulled my panties down.

Then I thought, oh, shit.

Back to fighting, I decided.

“You fucking bastard! Fuck you!” I tried to kick backwards at him, but he very calmly pressed against my body and pushed my legs apart and against the table. One hand came around my face and covered my mouth, a thumb sliding the length of my neck in warning: shut up.

“Natalia, I want you to listen to me very closely,” he said, his stubble scraping my cheek, his lips right against my ear. A shiver of delight rolled down my spine, but it was followed directly by a wave of cold fear. I thought about biting his hand, but that seemed like a very bad idea.

I felt his left hand travel from my hands, which I was just starting to realize were bound by leather to the pole, down my left arm, over my shoulder, and along my ribcage, before stroking me right across my bare bottom.

“Hey!” I exclaimed into his hand, but it came out “mmmuuuh.”

“If you want to be a stripper and a little slut,” he continued, as though he were talking about the weather, while his hand traveled all over the back of my body. I felt his cock against my right buttock, and I looked down at that moment to see what his right hand was doing. “That’s your business.”

His right hand was flat against the table, strength coiled inside of it.

His voice was a whisper against my neck. “But working for men like Andrej Sulov is very, very dangerous.”

As he made this pronouncement, he moved his hand along my right buttock, along my hip, and up my torso, then back down. I had to close my eyes, overwhelmed by the deadly mixture of lust and fear twisting inside of me.

His warm body left me, and I felt his left hand seize me at my lower back, pushing me against the stage and holding me in place with large, strong fingers that allowed me to make no mistake: I wasn’t squirming away anywhere.

The first stroke landed right across my ass, in the center, and at first I was so surprised I didn’t even know what had happened. I thought it was ice water. The slap reached my ears after the icy sting, and that’s when I realized what it was.

He had just spanked me.

The burn of the swat welled up from deep inside me, spreading out across all of my skin, and a glow was crawling across my face. The next two slaps came before I could get my thoughts together.

I was getting spanked.

By a total stranger.

“What the f—”

Another hard smack on my bottom knocked the air right out of me. My ass was burning now, the heat radiating in waves to my lower back and my thighs.

“You need someone to teach you a lesson, Natalia,” he said, each word punctuated by a hard slap on my bottom.

I pulled on the strap binding me to the pole but lost my footing as I tried to kick back at him. He squeezed me harder at my waist, and the spanking rained down on me faster. Tears welled up in my eyes. “Stop it!” I yelled at him. “What are you—?” I squeaked. I meant to say, “Crazy?” but I couldn’t get it out. “Ow! Fuck! Stop!”

He didn’t.

I went limp, and he slowed his spanking, which was a relief. I closed my eyes. If I just gave in, maybe he would slow down. I didn’t think I could take much more. My ass was throbbing, the heat rolling over me in waves, every smack biting into the intense sting that already burned there. “Please,” I blubbered. “Please stop.”

“I will stop,” he said, giving me another hard smack that made me whimper, “when you promise me, you will act like a lady.”

“What?” I yelled. What the hell?

“Act,” smack, “like,” smack, “a lady.” Smack.

Even though my bottom was on fire, and tears were streaming down my face, I had a flash of anger. Who the hell did this guy think he was?

He spanked me again. “Say it.”

I sobbed.

Okay, I thought. I wasn’t quite cut out for defiance. My ass really hurt. And worse than that, I could feel my pussy throbbing, and a wetness that was threatening to slide down my thighs.

I had no idea what that all meant, but I needed to get out of this situation. Specifically, I needed him to stop spanking me.

Another swat ripped against my flesh. “Tell me you are going to act like a lady, Natalia.”

“Okay,” I said. “Okay, okay.” I sniffed.

His hand rested on my ass, and his skin was hot against mine. His touch brought the fire in my muscles to the surface, where it raged, throbbing so fiercely I had to shift my feet. His touch turned to a caress, and it felt awful and wonderful at the same time. “Okay, what?” he growled.

I had suddenly forgotten what he wanted. “I… I… I…” I stammered.

Another slap, a little gentler, but still painful, rained on my sore ass. “You’re going to act like a…” he prompted.

“Like a lady!” I almost shouted. “Yes. I will act like a lady. Please. Just please stop spanking me.”

I was out of breath, my butt burned, and I was shaking. My face was red-hot.

And my pussy was throbbing.

His body ceased to touch mine. A wave of heat rose up on my tender skin. I tried to look back at him, but he was in my blind spot.

“Are you going to stop working here, Natalia?”

I let out a shaky gasp. Yeah, sure, buddy, whatever.

“Okay,” I said. It came out a little more like a question. Because really, it was. Stop working here? A spanking?

This guy was just a crazy pervert.

A hot, crazy pervert.

Fuck, Natalie, stop it.

He was against me again. His fingers slid down to my thighs, and I cringed as he touched the slippery wetness of my arousal. With an expert’s touch, he slipped one finger into me, and I expected more, but he stroked my clit, as though he knew my body for decades. I shuddered. Most guys are so stupidly klutzy with your body you’d rather they didn’t bother, but this guy stroked me and I thought I would come with one more touch.

But he didn’t give it to me. His finger traveled back down, dragging my juices up to the hole of my ass.

My face went hot again, because I squirmed. I couldn’t help it. From my chest a moan threatened to escape, so I bit my lip.

“I will be watching you,” he breathed onto my neck. “And I don’t ever want to see you here again.”

His hand was above me as he untied the straps holding my hands, and I fell forward when they were loose, because he pushed against me. I was so dizzy with arousal, fear, and confusion that I lay on the plastic tabletop, and he pushed my hair up so that my cheek was bared toward him. His touch with my hair was delicious, even though he loomed behind me like a demon.

I could still feel his thigh against mine, and I was frozen with fear and desire, both hoping that I would hear his pants unzipping and feel that obviously large cock against my wet thigh, just before he filled me up with it. My pussy throbbed; I wanted him inside me, just one more touch like the one before, and I would be screaming in ecstasy, I knew it.

It seemed like a long time passed like that, and it was pure torture. I no longer felt my throbbing ass, until he placed a hand on it again. “Next time,” he said, his hand moving over my hot, welted skin, “I won’t be so gentle.”

And then, just like that, he walked to the door. I saw the glow of his phone in his hand. I stood up, dizzy, looking for my panties, completely disoriented.

“Get dressed,” he said, without looking back at me.

I fumbled for the bottom half of the costume and put it on shakily. I almost fell again in those ridiculous shoes.

The door opened.

Andrej was outside. He looked at me, and the mystery man said something in Russian in a low voice and walked through the door.

Andrej followed him, after giving a final look back at me.

I looked around the room, stunned. I don’t know how long passed, me standing there, wondering what the hell had just happened. My eyes fell on the stage, where a pile of cash was stacked. I hadn’t seen it. I blinked at it stupidly. My ass throbbed.

The door opened again, and Andrej was red-faced, angry, glaring at me. “What are you waiting for?” he yelled, his accent stronger than ever. “Get out of here. Out! Get out of my club. Never to be coming back!”

Well.

Like I said, I was a realist. I did some quick calculations: the door was open, I was leaving, and I was broke. Never mind the rest of this shit, I’d think about it later.

I grabbed the cash, and I hurried past Andrej and into the dressing room. I was sure he, and anyone else who looked, could see my red ass, so a wave of humiliation rolled over me, but I didn’t have time to think about it. I grabbed my clothes, not even changing out of the stripper costume, except to peel off those stupid shoes and put on my own flats.

Then I walked as calmly as I could down the stairs, everything happening in slow motion. Two girls were on stage, doing the handcuff routine, the men staring at them like zombies. A redhead named Renee smiled at me and then frowned as I walked past her without saying anything, and I thought I heard her say “bitch” as I walked away. I continued right to the back door, which I figured was a bad choice as soon as I got there, but I wasn’t going back in. I was almost out.

The alley was dark but empty. Some lights were on in the buildings on either side of the place; at least someone would see me if I died here.

I walked fast, almost running, my breath ragged.

When I got down the alley, I gave one look back as I hailed a cab. It was pretty much a miracle there was one on Brighton at that time of night.

I saw an expensive black sedan parked right behind the door I had exited. It was tinted so dark the sun could have been inside and I wouldn’t see it.

The lights came on just as I looked at it.

And I just knew he was in there. Watching.

The wind picked up my hair and I was frozen again. Frozen by that same feeling—half-fear, half-dark, pulsing attraction.

“You want a cab or not, sweetheart?” the driver yelled, breaking my trance.

I opened the door. Did I?

The cabbie looked skeezy, but it was a real cab, and yellow. I sank into it, giving the sedan one last look. I think I wanted Mystery Man to know I was pissed off.

Or was it something else? My eyes were drawn to him in that sedan like a magnet, and inside my chest I felt something throb.

“Shit or get off the pot,” the cabbie said.

“Take me to… up the street here,” I stammered, pointing straight ahead.

“How far,” he drawled, annoyed.

“I’ll tell you,” I snapped.

“You got—?”

I had the bills in my hand. They were all clean, new, stacked about a half inch high, and wrapped in a white wrapper with yellow edges. I saw a bunch of zeros, but I didn’t think it could be real money or a real number. Still, the top bill was a hundred, and I yanked it out and tossed it up front as I cut him off. “Here,” I shot.

I could do a lot of better things with a hundred dollars, especially since this pile was sure to have a bunch of ones in the center and evidently, I’d just lost my job.

But damn if I couldn’t think of anything else to do besides ride down Brighton Avenue to the very end, wherever that was, with my hundred-dollar bill, and see where I got.

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