Sitting there, I felt the sadness that still lived inside me at the long-ago loss of Mrs. Hollyfield. I wondered how different my life might have been if she hadn’t died. But she had. Because that’s what people did. They died, they left without so much as a goodbye—eventually they all went away. If you got attached, if you hoped for love, it was your own stupid fault and you deserved the consequences.
Kayla’s car pulling into the lot snapped me out of my grim thoughts, and I stood, descending the steps.
“Hey there,” I said, sliding into the passenger seat of Kayla’s junky white Chevy. Her car was in even worse shape than mine, which was a true feat. I rested my elbow on the ledge of the open window as the car sputtered its way out of the parking lot.
“Thank God it’s cooler,” Kayla said, the cross breeze from the open windows streaming in as the car picked up speed. I just nodded.
After a few minutes of silence, Kayla asked, “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I think I just need a break. Thankfully this is my last shift before I have a couple of days off. Just … I don’t know, burnt out.”
Kayla sighed. “Aren’t we all?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
We arrived at the Platinum Pearl and both went to our dressing room to change and get made up. I felt like I was partially numb, merely going through the motions, which wasn’t exactly new. But I also felt both shaken somehow and especially tired.
“Hey, Crystal,” Rita said, walking into our dressing room a few minutes after Kayla had left. I hated nights like this where the three of us who shared the room were all working. I felt like there was nowhere I could be by myself, even for a minute or two. Some nights those minutes were the difference between keeping a smile plastered to my face and being the bitch Rodney had accused me of being.
“Hey, Rita.” I went back to applying powder over the foundation I’d just spread over my face.
“Think my boyfriend will be back tonight to give me another try?” Rita smirked.
Anger flashed through my system, but I kept my expression placid. Plus, the anger wasn’t really directed at Rita. It was directed at myself. “Doubt it.”
“What’s wrong with him anyway? Man that good-looking doesn’t like girls? A shame, isn’t it?”
“Who said he doesn’t like girls?”
“He acted like he was scared to death that I’d even touched him. Started breathing all crazy. I couldn’t tell at first if he was scared or turned on.” Sick shame moved through me slowly. I pretended concentration, attaching my false eyelashes, leaning toward the mirror and focusing intently on what I was doing. But my hands had started to shake, and I threw the lashes down. Useless. The lash strip lay on the table in front of me, looking like a sad, dead spider.
“I guess he just didn’t like you,” I tossed at her nonchalantly.
Rita glanced over at me as she pulled on a pair of bikini bottoms. She turned around and inspected her ass in the mirror. I looked away as she began adjusting her G-string. She spanked her firm, unblemished backside and laughed. “Nope. That can’t be it.” She laughed again. “But I’m willing to give him another chance to work up the nerve to enjoy my assets. Man that fine deserves at least one more. So tall and hard all over. Nice big … hands and feet. Mmm.” She winked, and I found myself wanting to literally kick her out of the room.
“Enough, Rita,” I said, and my voice sounded overly hostile. Or perhaps it conveyed exactly what I was feeling.
Rita looked at me sharply. “What?” she whined. “You gave him to me.”
“I didn’t give him to you,” I snapped, picking up the lash strip again. “He’s not mine to give.”
“Hmm,” she said, looking at me thoughtfully as I again attempted to apply the lash strip, having more success this time. “You seem upset, Crystal. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing’s the matter. That man just annoys me. I’m glad he won’t be back.”
She gave me a fake sounding laugh. “Okay. Whatever you say. If you don’t want him, someone else will scoop him up quickly enough.”
Yes. Yes, that was true. And it was what I wanted. And it was what he needed, whether he was too stupid to realize it or not. I felt slightly better as I finished attaching the second lash strip, standing to get dressed.
Rita sat down on the couch and started buckling her heels. “He looks familiar, too,” she said. “I think he might have gone to school with my older sister. I think she dated him in middle school.”
No, he was locked in a basement when he should have been in middle school. The thought made my throat feel tight, but I nodded to Rita, murmuring a noncommittal response. “Do you see my white heel?” I asked after a moment, looking around. I wanted to get off this topic. I didn’t want to talk about Gabriel Dalton anymore. I didn’t want to think about Gabriel Dalton anymore.
“Yeah, it’s over there by the door.”
“Thanks.” I picked up my shoe and we started talking about the music we were using that night, and five minutes after that, she headed out the door for her first dance. I used the fifteen minutes I had before I performed to try to get my head on straight. I tried to move my thoughts somewhere other than Gabriel, other than the shame I still felt, other than shy smiles and then the final look of shocked betrayal. But it didn’t work. It didn’t even come close.
* * *
I only had about an hour left before my shift was over when I approached a table of three young, college-aged-looking guys of the variety I supposed most women would find attractive. They obviously worked out and made sure the world noticed with their tight T-shirts, short sleeves rolled up to showcase as much bicep as possible. I threw a round of cocktail napkins on the table. “What can I get you, boys?”
“You,” the brown-haired guy with the extremely square jaw said, ogling me. Go to hell.
“Same here,” the blond with the short beard agreed, staring at my breasts. “I’ll have a large serving.” His eyes were glassy, and he’d obviously already been overserved.
I smirked. “Well now, there’s plenty of me to go around, boys. Come back three nights from now and I’ll carve out some time for a personal dance just for the both of you.” I winked.
The third guy—the one with spiky black hair who was leaning back negligently in his chair—laughed, tipping himself forward. “I’ll get in on that action.” He shot me what I’m sure he imagined was a charming smile.
“What if we don’t want to wait? What if we want you tonight?” the brunet interrupted, reaching out and giving my ass a hard squeeze. I gritted my teeth. God, this is tiresome.
“I’m sorry, the club is closing in an hour, sugar, but there’s time for another round of drinks. What’ll you have?” I glanced around at them, trying to keep the irritation from my voice.
“Guess we’ll just have to take what we want,” the blond said, pulling me onto his lap and palming my breast. “You like that, baby?” he whispered, planting his face against my neck, his beard scratchy, and his moist breath hot against my skin. “I can tell you do.”
I let out a surprised squeak and struggled to get up. Where the hell is Anthony? The man held me down. I felt his erection under my ass as he thrust upward, grinding it into me. Grinding. Pulling. Reaching. Taking. Like every other man before him. And like all the men to come … except Gabriel Dalton. Why the simple honesty of his smile came to my mind—his hesitant touch, the respectful tone in his voice—I had no idea. This was the regular game. I knew the game. Yet, the contrast between Gabriel and this man inspired some sort of immediate, almost irrational rage within me.
I glanced around at the laughing, leering men, the guy whose lap I was sitting on taking every liberty he wanted. Hatred overcame me suddenly and swiftly—loathing that felt limitless and unending—and I raised my hand and slapped his face so hard, his head jerked backward. He let go of me and I leapt to my feet, stumbling away, shocked by my own behavior. I’d never hit anyone in my life. His friends started laughing like fiends, pointing at the man I’d slapped.
“You fucking bitch,” he grated between clenched teeth, his hand moving to his cheek.
“What’s going on here, gentlemen?”Anthony. I spun toward him.
“Where were you?” I asked, an edge of panic obvious in my voice.
“Taking a piss. Sorry, girl.” He turned back to the men. “Out,” he said. “Don’t make me drag you.”
The blond-haired guy pointed at me, his eyes glittering with humiliation. “That two-bit whore slapped me!”
“That’s it,” Anthony said, picking the guy up by the collar of his T-shirt.
“Okay, okay,” the brunet said, standing and weaving slightly. “We were leaving anyway. Calm the fuck down.”
I spun away from the whole scene, making my way to the back, where I threw my tray down and stood against a counter for a few minutes, catching my breath and attempting to rein in my shaky rage.