I felt like screaming. God, I needed to pull myself out of this …funk.
“Thanks, Anthony, I’ll be there in a sec.” He nodded and shut the door behind him.
Kayla stood. “Well, I’ve got a dance in fifteen minutes. I gotta go get ready.” She hugged me. “Thanks for the talk.”
“Anytime,” I murmured. Kayla left, shutting the door behind her. I stood there for a few moments, attempting to find my equilibrium, to form that protective shell around myself. Memories of my mother, along with the confusing feelings Gabriel brought up in me, made me feel raw, as if I’d turned my skin inside out, and I had the brief, intense desire to cry. Cry. The feeling shocked me. When was the last time I’d cried? I really couldn’t remember. I wasn’t a crier. Why cry when it solved nothing? Why be like her? My mother had been a crier. She’d cried all the damn time, and what had it gotten her in the end? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I grabbed my sweatshirt and pulled it on over my costume, took a deep, shaky breath, and walked out of my dressing room, toward the lap-dance room. When I opened the door, Gabriel was standing by the couch. He was wearing a T-shirt this time rather than the button-down shirts he wore the first two times he’d been here. In one sweeping gaze, I took in his tanned arms, the contours of his muscles, his broad shoulders—not the efforts of a gym rat, but the slim, defined body of a man who used his muscles as he worked. It surprised me to notice at all. Somewhere along the line, men’s bodies had all started looking the same to me. Fat, skinny, well built … what did it matter? They all used them the same way: to inflict pain on others, and to take pleasure for themselves.
Gabriel startled slightly at my abrupt entrance and then smiled, that warm, open smile that put me on edge. But his smile faded when he saw me. “Hey, is everything all right?”
I realized I was frowning and forced a smile. “Of course.”
He brought his hand up and presented a small bouquet of white flowers, holding them out to me. “I brought these for you.”
I stared at them for a moment. “You don’t have to bring me flowers, sugar. You just have to bring me cash.” His smile wilted, and he brought one hand to the back of his neck, massaging it as he grimaced slightly. “I told myself it was a stupid idea. I just passed them as I was walking to my truck and I thought of you.”
“You thought of me when you saw flowers?” I scoffed softly. “Well, that’s one I haven’t heard before.”
His cheekbones had taken on a pink tinge. I knew I was embarrassing and hurting him, and something small and mean inside me took satisfaction in it. I tried to hang on to the shallow feeling, but the remorse that rose up instead overwhelmed it, and I turned my face away momentarily so he couldn’t see the regret in my eyes. When I turned back, he was setting the flowers down on the arm of the couch. A rejected gift.
“Ready to get started?” My voice sounded empty and sort of hollow.
He paused, his brow creasing. “Sure. But is it okay if we just talk for a little bit?”
I sighed. I was about all talked out. “All right. What do you want to talk about?” I sat down on the couch and he sat down, too, in the same positions we’d started out in the last time.
He smiled, turning toward me and putting his palms on his knees. I studied his hands for a moment, laid out flat like that. I couldn’t help thinking how beautiful they were for a man, his fingers long and graceful, his skin smooth and tanned. “How has your day been?”
“Just peachy.” I crossed my legs, and his eyes followed the movement. He swallowed, his cheekbones flushing very slightly again. “How about you, sugar? How’s your day been going?”
He stared at me for a moment in that assessing way, like he wanted to know all my deepest secrets. Some sort of desperation pooled in my belly. “Not too bad,” he finally murmured. “Good now. I’m happy to see you.”
I laughed, a shaky sound. “Well, if I’m the best part of your day, it couldn’t have been very good, sugar.”
His brow creased again and he tilted his head. “Why do you say that?”
I shrugged, examining a fingernail. “Do you want to get started, or not? I hate to waste your therapy time.”
“What’s wrong? Please tell me.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” I said, but it came out too high-pitched. It sounded wrong and strangely far away. “Please, Gabe, can we just get started? I want to help you.”
He studied me again, his expression filled with so much compassion it made me feel raw and vulnerable all over again. Needy. Why did he have to look at me that way? I didn’t know how to react to that look. It made me want to run away, hightail it out of this room.
“I want to help you, too,” he said softly.
I laughed then, and it sounded cold and bitter, even to my own ears. “But I haven’t asked for your help, Gabe.”
“No, you haven’t. But I can be a friend. We could go for coffee and talk. Somewhere other than here.”
I shook my head. “You’re not my friend. You’re a client. And you’re paying me.” My hands felt shaky, and I pressed them down on the leather couch to the sides of my thighs.
His gaze traveled from my hands to my eyes, and he gave me a small smile. “Then you can buy my coffee. I might even have a slice of pie, too. Your treat.” He tilted his head and gazed at me imploringly, so sweetly flirtatious. I stared back, a fluttering between my ribs, knowing somehow that he wasn’t even aware of his appeal.
“Coffee? Most men request a threesome. The last time I went out with a guy I met here, he showed up at the restaurant with a friend and they asked if they could take turns doing me in the bathroom. Some sort of fantasy they had going, you know?”
He looked momentarily shocked, and then his expression settled into one of sadness. I had meant to repel and disgust him, not make him feel sad. I looked away.
“I’m not most guys, I guess,” he said softly.
No, he definitely wasn’t. He couldn’t even hold my hand without having a panic attack. Maybe he was the safest man on the planet. So why did he make me feel so decidedly unsafe? I picked at my cuticles. When I looked back at him, he was studying me intensely, that same sad look on his face.
“I think you’re getting the wrong idea here, Gabe.”
He pressed his lips together. “How’d you get that bruise?” he asked, nodding to my cheekbone. I had tried to cover it up with makeup, but it had turned a darker purple in the last couple of days, and apparently he’d spotted it. I put my fingers on it lightly. “Hazard of the job. I hit my cheek on the pole.”
He nodded slowly, but didn’t look convinced.
“Please can we just get started?”
I nodded, one jerky movement of chin to chest, and scooted closer. He stilled and his expression changed slightly, but he didn’t move. He held eye contact as I drew nearer, his only reaction to the brush of our thighs a soft intake of breath. My own heart picked up speed, and I felt slightly flushed—the same reaction I’d had to getting closer to him the last time. I didn’t like it. I let my mind drift, moving my gaze from his eyes down to his chin, focusing on the very slight cleft, the angle of his jaw, the stubble that was just beginning to grow in. His stubble was dark, with a smattering of gold pieces throughout. If he ever grew a beard, it’d be lighter than his hair …
“Don’t leave me,” he whispered.
My eyes moved to his mouth just as he finished speaking. “I wasn’t going to go anywhere,” I murmured, feeling disoriented. Why had he thought that?
“No.” He brought his trembling hand up and tipped my chin. “Stay with me here.” He stared straight into my eyes. “I need you.”
I blinked once, then my eyes locked on his. The force of our connection shocked me, as if he had reached out and touched me in some way I didn’t understand, and had certainly never experienced before. His gaze wouldn’t release me. He knew I’d gone somewhere else in my mind. He knew. That desperate feeling in my belly moved up to my chest, into my throat, and I gasped out loud, finally breaking eye contact.
“What’s your name?” he asked quietly. Stay with me here. I stood, stumbling away. When I turned, he was standing, too. Panic seized me. He’d asked for my name, but it felt like he was requesting my soul. No, no.
He was asking too much, and I had so little to give. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t.
“I don’t think this is working.” I pulled myself straight, attempting to shake off the feeling that had overcome me, the inexplicable desperation coursing through my blood. “I … I don’t think I’m the right girl. I’m sorry. I know I accepted the job but—”
He took one step toward me, but no more. “I don’t want anyone else except you. You are the right girl. Please.” He attempted to look in my eyes again, but I avoided eye contact. I can’t … I can’t bear it. This, whatever this is. It’s too much. The tension in the room was palpable, the silence awkward and loud. I wanted to put my hands over my ears to block it out. God, why am I feeling this way?