This is where I raise my hand as my friends giggle. The waiter, who has peroxide blond hair and a nose ring, grins as he hands me my drink. “Let me know if you want something stronger,” he says with a wink.
“Don’t worry,” says Macy. “We’ll get her drinking.” Her words are loud enough to attract the attention of a group of guys at the next table. I know Macy. This is intentional.
She’s wrong about me, though. I don’t intend to drink anything harder than the beverage in front of me. Not tonight. Not here.
“Cool, huh?” Lara asks, gesturing around a room filling with people. Even in the most daring dress I own—a burgundy frock with a fitted bra top and spaghetti straps—I look like I missed the dress code memo. Everyone else is in leather, including my friends. Macy is wearing a leather vest cropped above her pierced belly button and hip-hugger jeans. Lara is wearing a leather bustier, matching skirt, and stiletto heels. She’s already thrown back her shot and is dancing in her seat, her blonde curls bobbing in time to the bass that is literally shaking the walls.
“Loosen up, Clara!” Macy nudges me with her bony elbow. “It’s a new beginning, right? So, let’s drink to it!”
She and Lara raise their glasses and I force a smile as I raise mine. Even if this place isn’t what I was expecting, I can at least try to have fun with the friends who drug me out of my apartment.
“To life without your asshole boyfriend,” Macy says to me, and I clink my glass against theirs, wishing I felt as optimistic about my romantic future as they do.
The infectious need to dance has obviously spread to Lara, and now she whoops and starts bouncing along with Macy, making them look like passengers riding in an off-road Jeep. One of the men at the table—a neckless, tattooed behemoth—is staring at us in a way that makes me uneasy.
“This place is cool as fuck,” an oblivious Macy is saying to Lara.
“I know, right?” Lara yells. “I can’t believe you found it!”
Lara and Macy have been hounding me to go clubbing with them for months, but until a week ago, I had a convenient excuse for avoiding clubs in Trevor. He preferred quiet evenings at home. It was Netflix and chill until he decided he’d rather chill with the woman he’d been texting behind my back for the last six weeks.
Going to a club tonight seemed like a good way to break out of old habits and meet new people. It wasn’t until we were speeding across town that I learned that The Underground isn’t an ordinary club. It isn’t listed on Yelp. It doesn’t even have a sign. It’s the kind of place discovered through word of mouth, and if it’s not illegal, I suspect much of what’s going on around me is.
Over at the next table, a dead ringer for Harley Quinn is grinding on the lap of one of the men who’d been looking at us. Lara looks stricken. She’d picked this table for its proximity to the trio. Another girl is talking to one of the other men, but the big man is still staring in our direction. Macy has noticed him now and leans forward to pat my hand, a gesture intended to expose her cleavage to his hungry eyes. It works, because he’s flagging the waiter over and gesturing in our direction.
“Looks likes one of us is about to get a free drink,” Lara giggles. “Maybe more.”
“Whichever ones he chooses, we’re still friends, right?” Macy asks, still dancing in her seat as she smiles in the man’s direction.
“Of course!” Lara yells. “It’s not like there’s not more where he came from.”
At the table on the other side of us, a quartet of younger men is openly passing around a bong. The haze of pungent weed-scented smoke drifts our way. I try not to panic. Will the smell cling to my clothes? I shouldn’t have come here, and I turn to Lara, prepared to tell her that I’m going to leave, when the waiter comes back with the drink.
“From Gus next table, with his compliments. It’s the house special. We call it the Panty Drop.”
I stare down at the drink, which has been placed in front of not Lara or Macy, but me. Me. Really?
I drag my disbelieving gaze up and over to the thick-necked man, whose direct, predatory stare has now made me the object of my friends’ envy.
“Really?” Macy says, voicing my internal thought. “You?”
“Save your snark,” I say loud enough for her to hear me. “I’m not interested in him or any drink called Panty Drop.” I push the drink in her direction. “Knock yourselves out.” I stand up.
“I was just kidding,” Macy says, but she’s obviously relieved and lifts the drink and smiles in the direction of its sender.
“Where are you going?” Lara calls as I pick up my purse.
“The ladies’ room.” I don’t tell her the truth. I’m not ready for this, and even if I were, this isn’t the kind of place I’d have picked to begin my life as a newly single woman. I don’t intend to spend one more moment in The Underground. Yes, I need a new beginning, but not like this.
It’s crazy how fast this place has filled up since we arrived. Sweaty bodies pack the dance floor, and I slide between them, uttering perfunctory apologies to dancers who can’t even hear me over the music. Overhead, lights on swivels flash and spin, lending a surrealistic strobing to the dancers that make them look like characters in a stop-motion film. The smell of weed mingles with the scents of sweat and sex. In front of me, two women are seductively swaying pelvis to pelvis. I’m not getting between these two. I turn to the side and slip between the back of one girl and front of a man who’s dancing by himself.
“Hey!” he yells and reaches for me, but I pull away before he can grab me. The EXIT sign looms in the corner like a beacon, but the crush of bodies is making for slow progress. I glance back. I can’t see my table now, and I feel a little guilty. I know that Lara and Macy were just trying to do what I always claimed I wanted—which is to step outside my comfort zone. I’ll text them when I get outside, I tell myself, and apologize for ducking out. I’ll say we’ll do it again next weekend, just not here. I’ve always been the good girl in the group; they may be disappointed, but they’ll understand.
I’ve finally worked my way to the fringe of the crowd. Good. A short walk down past the bar and I’m home free. But just as I reach the middle of the bar, someone steps in my path. It’s him—Gus—the man who bought me the horribly named drink. I’m wondering how he made it through the dancers before I did when he moves to where I’m standing.
“Where you goin’?” he asks.
“I’m leaving. Excuse me.” I move to push past him, but his huge hand clamps around my upper arm.
“Hold up,” he says. “I was listening to your friends over there. You’re newly single, right? So, what’s say we have a little fun?”
“No, thanks,” I say curtly. I try to pull my arm away, but his grip is tight, and his hand immobile.
“I’m not interested. You need to let me go…”
“Didn’t they tell you the rules at the door?” he asks. His tone is somewhere between solicitous and menacing. “If a man buys a pretty girl here a drink, she has to drink it. Then she has to thank him.”
I try again to pull my arm away, but he’s not having it. And I should be scared, but instead I’m just pissed off.
“You need to let go of me,” I say through gritted teeth. “Now.”
“You heard the lady, Gus. Let her go.”
The voice is coming from somewhere to the side. I can’t see the speaker. He’s standing in the dark of a nearby alcove, and how he’s heard the conversation over this din, I don’t know, but his tone is commanding.
“Mind your own business, asshole.” The grip is still tight on my arm. “This is between me and my date.”
“She’s not your date.” A bearded man steps from the shadows. He’s not as broad as the man holding me, or as tall, but he’s just as muscular, and just as tattooed. He steps up to the man holding my arm. “Don’t bullshit me, Gus. No way is this your girlfriend. She’s way too sweet, and way too classy.”
The grip on my arm only gets tighter. Gus is a full head taller than the bouncer, but more bulk than muscle. The man facing him down is rock hard. I can see the definition of his chest through the black t-shirt with the word Bouncer written on it.
“You’ve got to the count of three to let her go. One.”
Gus doesn’t let go, but I feel him shift.
“Two.” The bouncer’s voice is deep. Only when he steps closer does Gus capitulate, roughly pushing me away as he holds up his hands.
“Fine,” he says. “I was just trying to be nice.” He looks at me. “Cunt.”
I watch him walk away in disbelief, too stunned to respond.
Before I can collect myself, the bouncer pulls me to the alcove. I’m eye level with his chest and am forced to look up at him. His beard and hair are dark and close-cropped. His eyes are ice blue and intense.
“Thank you,” I start to say. “That was very…”
“A woman like you shouldn’t be in here,” he interrupts. “It makes for trouble.”
“A woman like me?” I’ve found my voice, and it resounds with indignation. “Excuse me, but I wasn’t the one making the trouble.”
“Do you have a ride?” he asks. “You need to leave.”
“Wait,” I say, momentarily forgetting that I was on my way out. “Shouldn’t you be asking him to leave?”
He’s staring at me sternly. I feel myself shudder slightly under his scrutiny.
“Do you have a ride?” he asks again.
“Yes,” I lie. “I called and he’s right outside the door.”
“Good,” he says. “Now get out of here and don’t come back. You shouldn’t have been let in here in the first place.”
I feel myself flush. “Don’t worry,” I say. “I’ve seen enough of this place to know the men here are chauvinistic assholes.” I look him up and down. “All of them.”
I’m glad now I didn’t completely thank him. He doesn’t deserve it. I don’t look back as I turn and head toward the door. I’m grateful for the breeze that hits me once I’m outside. I fluff my short hair, still fretting over the smells I imagine are clinging to my clothes.
I pull my phone from my purse so I can text Lara and let her and Macy know I’m taking off. But there’s no signal in the alley, which had been teeming with people when we arrived. Shit. So much for my plans to call an Uber. I could go back inside and borrow the phone, but to do so would diminish the dramatic effect of my parting shot at that arrogant bouncer. And it’s not that far to the street. Still, my heels sound loud in the alley, and I jump at the sound of something near a dumpster. To my relief, it’s only a stray cat hopping down from the rim to land in a pile of trash. It stops, narrowing its distrustful copper eyes at me, then briefly arches its back as I approach.
“Kitty, kitty,” I say, contrasting its scruffy appearance to the sleekness of the well-fed feline waiting for me at home. The stray, unimpressed by my show of compassion, slinks low around the back of the dumpster as I pass.
I pick up the pace. The hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. It’s dim in the alley, which is lit only by lights from the street up ahead. I pull out my iPhone and open the flashlight app, shining it in the direction I’m walking. The Underground is literally a hole in the wall in the back of an abandoned building with several side entrances that open into the alley. Some of the doors are boarded shut and the walls are covered in graffiti, giving the narrow passage a post-apocalyptic, ominous feel. I felt uneasy walking down to the club, and that was with my friends. Now, alone, I feel even more anxious. To my right, someone has written Turn back now in red spray paint. The paint had run down the wall before it dried, so the words look like dried blood. My heart begins to race and a primal fear grips me. I’m starting to quicken my pace when a door behind me opens.
I spin around, fumbling for the mace I should have been holding in the first place, but it’s too late. He grabs me, his huge hand suppressing both my scream and my breath as it covers my nose and mouth. An arm goes around me, smashing my breasts and pinning my arms to my sides. I hear my phone clatter to the cobblestones and feel a shoe dislodge as the heel strikes the ground. I’m helpless as a rabbit in the clutches of a wolf as he hauls me backward, and my first thought in this one surreal moment is that I’m going to be raped—that I left my house against my better judgment, and now I’m going to be raped.
As a single woman, I’ve read plenty about what to do if you’re attacked. I’ve even taken a self-defense course. But I can’t get my thoughts collected enough to think what to do as I’m pulled through the side door I just passed moments earlier. This part of the building is dark and smells of mold and mouse piss, and when he turns me around and slams me against the wall, dirt and pieces of rotting wood from above showers down onto my hair.
“Stuck-up bitch,” he says. His speech is slurred, his breath sharp and sour with whiskey. “Your two little friends were all but flashing their tits, and I chose you. You!”
His snarled words drip with hatred. He presses his hand harder against my face, and I feel myself starting to panic. I can’t breathe; even if I wanted to fight back, my body is so desperate for air that I can’t. I’m thrashing in a desperate bid to dislodge his grasp. I’m vaguely aware of his hand snaking its way under my skirt, groping. He’s laughing. The black of the room gets blacker as I begin to lose consciousness.
“Not so stuck-up now, are you?” His words sound far away, but I’m vaguely aware of the bass from the club faintly coming through the walls. Is this what it’s like to die?
My next awareness is of being on the ground. Did I hear a loud bang before I slumped to my knees or did I imagine it? Pain. I’m kneeling on concrete and look down to see pieces of broken glass and splintered wood all around me, but the sweet relief of breathing the moldy air eclipses the discomfort. There’s a noise behind me, a thudding. I raise myself to sitting and turn. There’s a small light in the room, and it’s just enough for me to make out that my assailant is now the one pinned against the wall. The man holding him there with one hand against his throat is wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt, and the thudding sound is made by his fist striking my attacker’s midsection. Each blow is accompanied by an ‘oomph’ and then a muscular arm pulls back and the next punch is aimed at Gus’ face. I hear the sickening sound of something crunching as Gus’ nose breaks. He lets out a wet wail of pain. I rise shakily to my feet, and as the room spins, I steady myself in time to see the man who grabbed me slump to the floor.
But his ordeal isn’t over. The man in the black t-shirt kicks him in the lower belly, and when the bigger man rolls over in agony, he grabs him by the shirt collar and lifts his upper body off the floor.
“Think you’re a big man, following that girl out here? Think you’re a big man, dragging her in here? I should fucking kill you, Gus. I can, you know. I could break your fucking neck right now, leave you here, and after my shift, have a couple of my buddies haul your fat ass to where it would never be found.” I recognize the voice. It’s the bouncer who confronted me before I left.
Gus makes a sound that could be a plea or an affirmation of what was said to him. He’s weakly brought his arm up to his face, and I smell the distinct smell of urine, human this time, as he pisses himself.
The bouncer grasps Gus’ chin and turns it in my direction.
“See that pretty little girl?” he asks.
When Gus doesn’t answer, the bouncer cuffs him hard on the side of the head. “I asked you a goddamned question, son. See her?”
Gus mewls and nods to the extent he can move his head.
“Good. Because you so much as look at her sideways ever again, and I’ll make sure whatever you had planned for her pales in comparison to the pain you’ll suffer. Got it?”
Gus nods weakly, and the bouncer lets go. Gus’ head hits the concrete as it falls from the grasping hand. He moans so pitifully that if it were anyone else, I’d feel sorry for him.
I realize where the light is coming from when I see a phone—my phone—sitting on the floor. The bouncer doesn’t say anything to me as he retrieves it. He must have picked it up in the alley and brought it in here, along with my shoe. He picks them both up and hands me the shoe and waits for me to put it on before wordlessly taking hold of my elbow. Using the light of my still-glowing phone, he guides me through the building until we walk through a series of rooms. I realize now how Gus was able to intercept me. He must have walked from the club through the long building to come out at the door just as I passed.
The bass is getting louder as we approach an interior door that opens to a wood-paneled hallway.
“Thank you,” I finally say, feeling awful now for calling this man an asshole. If he’d not followed me… I don’t even want to think about what would have happened. The possibility makes me physically ill, and only when we enter a small office do I realize I’m shaking.
As soon as he shuts the door, my rescuer guides me to a chair. He gently pushes me to sitting, although it doesn’t take much of a push. My legs feel weak. He crouches down and looks up at me, his blue eyes scanning my face. They’re still hard, but there’s something else there, too. Concern.
I shake my head. “No.” Then I start to cry. “No…”
“Are you hurt?”
When I glance down at my legs, he does, too.
“Let me have a look,” he says, and raises the hem of my skirt to reveal my badly scraped knees. Miraculously, there’s no glass imbedded in the skin, but they are bleeding. Wordlessly, he stands and walks to where a cabinet hangs on the wall.
“You said you had someone waiting for you outside.” He pulls out a bottle of alcohol and some cotton balls. “Was that the truth?”
I look down at the floor. I don’t want to answer, but I feel I owe it to him.
“No,” I say.
He doesn’t reply. He’s pouring alcohol on the cotton balls, which are small in his large hands. In the light of the office, I get a better look at the man who first offended, then saved me. I’m not surprised Gus backed down in the club. This man has a fighter’s build. His upper biceps bulge; his triceps are corded and hard. Both arms are inked, but I get the feeling that even if I couldn’t see the tattoos, I’d know they were there. Macy once said that ink is more than ink; it’s attitude. I didn’t know what she meant at the time. Now I do. Even though he saved me, even though he’s preparing to dress my wounds, I sense danger in his presence.
“Why did you lie to me?” he asks.
“I shouldn’t have,” I say. “It’s a sin.” It’s a ridiculous reply, but the first thing that pops into my head. I feel my face get warm.
He looks up at me, his expression unreadable. This only ratchets up my nervousness. I feel compelled to fill the silence between us with words.
“That’s what they say at the school,” I add.
“At school?” He eyes me hard. “Are you a student?”
I know I look young, but not that young.
“No,” I say as he kneels in front of me. “I’m a teacher. Ow! That burns!”
“Hold still,” he says. “Where do you teach?”
I won’t realize until later that if I were going to lie, this would have been the perfect time. “Saint Mary’s,” I say.
“Saint Mary’s? What’s a Catholic school teacher doing at The Underground?” he asks.
“I’m here with friends.”
“You need better friends.”
“If it’s so bad, why are you here?” I counter.
“I own it,” he says.
He stands up, and I notice that the word Bouncer on his shirt is flecked with blood. Gus’ blood.
He wipes his hands on a towel and stares thoughtfully at me. “You shouldn’t have been let in.” He tosses the towel aside and crosses his arms. “Women who come here looking for a walk on the wild side sometimes get more than they bargain for.” He pauses. “My name’s Jackson Rider.”
It sounds like a stage name, and I wonder if it’s real. Probably not.
“Clara,” I say. “Clara Linnett.”
“Well, Clara Linnett,” he said. “I saved your life.”
“Yes,” I say. “You did. I owe you a debt of gratitude.”
“You owe me more than that.”
My heart pounds a little in my chest. I feel afraid again, but not the kind of afraid I felt with Gus. This fear is different, like the fear I felt at the amusement park last summer when the roller coaster car I was in clacked its way up to the top. It was my first roller coaster ride, and I had no idea what to expect.
“Jackson,” he corrects.
“Jackson,” I say. “If it’s money you want…”
“I don’t want money,” he says, and I’m not surprised. I’m not the most experienced woman, but I’m experienced enough to know what lust looks like. Still, I’m not going to say it. I play dumb.
“What do you want?”
The man in front of me is gorgeous, and despite what I’ve just been through, the dark side of Clara—the side that I’ve kept carefully suppressed—is growing wet at the possibility that my handsome, dangerous savior wants to extract a carnal payment for his services. My eyes move past him to the desk. I imagine myself bent over it and push the thought from my mind.
“You’re going to have dinner with me Tuesday night. Here. At seven o’clock.”
“Dinner.” This is unexpected. I will not be fucked on the desk, which is both a disappointment and a relief. The angel on my shoulder has pushed the devil aside, and is now telling me that even dinner with this man is not a good idea.
“You said I didn’t belong here.”
“The club is closed on Tuesdays. We’ll be alone.”
I stand up, wincing a little. My knees are sore; they’ll be even sorer tomorrow.
“Look,” I say. “I’m flattered that you’d ask, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. Thank you for saving my life. I appreciate it. But I’m afraid I can’t do what you ask, Mr. Rider.”
“I’m not asking, Miss Linnett.”
I pause, thinking of a strategy that may get me out of this. “How do you know it’s not Mrs. Linnett?”
“Because if you’re married, and your husband let you come here without him, you owe it to yourself to spend some time with a real man.”
“And that’s your idea of a relationship, then? Telling a woman what she can and can’t do?” I’m back to being angry again.
“Some women like that.”
“I don’t,” I say. “And while I appreciate that you want to have dinner with me, you can’t make me come back. So, your offer or order or whatever you want to call it? It’s declined.”
He leans back against the desk and stares at me for a moment. “Did you come here alone?”
“No,” I say. “I came here with a couple of friends.”
He reaches for his belt and picks up a small walkie-talkie. “Dale, you busy?” The crackle of static is followed by a voice.
“No. What’s up?”
“Come to the office.”
He doesn’t say anything as he waits. A moment later, a short thin man with a shaved head walks in. I recognize him as the man who was working the door when we arrived. He glances at me before turning to Rider. “What’s up?”
“You let her in?”
“Yeah. She came in with a couple of other girls. They’re out there dancing.”
“Dale, we talked about this…”
“Hey, some of the guys have been saying the regular crowd was getting kind of stale.”
Jackson sighs. “Well, your indulgence has caused an incident. I’ll explain later, but she’s leaving and I want those other two escorted out. If they ask about their friend, tell them she’s already gone.”
“Consider it done.” The smaller man looks chastened as he turns to leave.
When the door shuts, Jackson looks back at me. “Your friends brought you here?”
“Yes,” I reply impatiently.
“What did they tell you about this place?”
I consider not answering, but despite his ink and dangerous vibe, I feel the same way I feel when I meet with the principal at Saint Mary’s. Nervous and small. I feel required to answer him.
“Just that it was edgy. Kind of like a biker bar, but without bikers.” I swallow nervously. “Macy said she heard about it through a friend of a friend.”
“Did she tell you how many times this place has been raided by the cops?”
“Just because you haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a reputation. It’s not a good one.” He turns again and pushes a button. It’s a CCTV, and I can see a bluish image of the exit sign and the bar. I see my friends being escorted out, and although here’s no audio, I can tell by Macy’s gesticulations that they’re objecting to their ousting.
Jackson Rider pushes another button and now we’re looking at recorded footage now. And there I am, sitting at the table with my friends. And then there I am walking along the bar, and there’s Gus, and there’s Jackson making him back off.
I feel a chill come over me as I watch. “I’m thinking your bosses over at Saint Mary’s wouldn’t like it if they found out you were rubbing shoulders with the kind of people who hang out here. It may have been okay for Jesus to hang out with thieves, but for a school teacher…?”
“But… you’re not going to say anything, right?”
He doesn’t answer. He just cocks an eyebrow and picks up a card off his desk. He scribbles something on it and hands it to me. “I’ll pick you up Tuesday at seven. What’s your address?”
Why do I give it to him? I’m not spineless. I’m not desperate for male attention. A guy who vaguely threatens me for a date? Even if that wasn’t enough to put me off, he’s as far from my type as a man could get. And he scares me.
By the time he arranges for the Uber, I’ve convinced myself he was just toying with me. There were dozens of beautiful women in that club. A man like him could have any of them. He’ll forget about me by tomorrow. And I’ll forget about him.
That’s what I tell myself. But it’s a lie. By the time I get home, my panties are soaked through, and all because I can’t stop thinking of what it would have been like if he’d demanded something other than dinner.