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The lovers game, p.6
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       The Lover's Game, p.6

           J. C. Reed
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  Thalia motioned to get the barman’s attention and flashed her stunning smile, which had him heading for us in an instant.

  I jotted down, “Cranberry cocktails—absolutely no alcohol for me,” on a napkin and pushed it over the counter toward him, with some money tucked inside. He winked at me, then took Thalia’s order.

  A few minutes later, we were sipping our cocktails at a table, our heads bobbing to the music blaring from invisible speakers that forced our conversation into shouts. Before long, one cocktail turned into two and then three, and I had to act as though I was drunk—which was fun, but not as much fun as watching my new friends getting hammered.

  “She’s single,” Thalia shouted to a group of guys before I could stop her.

  “Shush.” I held a finger to my mouth, smiling. “You’re making me look desperate.”

  It was true, but given her intoxicated state, I couldn’t blame her. A few cocktails into the night and both Thalia and Gina were drunk. I had no idea how many drinks they had ordered already, because I had lost count at some point.

  Ever since Thalia had asked about my relationship status and I had revealed I was single, she was hell bent on changing that by attracting the attention of potential suitors.

  “You’re not looking for anyone?” Gina asked, surprised.

  “Hell, no.” I shook my head. “I’m enjoying my single life.” Both Gina and Thalia cast me curious glances. I waved my hand dismissively. “Long story, but getting into a new relationship is the last thing on my mind right now.”

  “Ah. Bad romance gone worse.” Gina laughed. “I could sing that song myself.” She leaned in conspiratorially, her breath smelling of the mint gum she kept chewing. “Who needs love anyway when all you need is someone to warm your bed for the night.”

  I stared at her, open-mouthed. “Just to be clear, I don’t want a relationship,” I said. “I’m not ready for one now.”

  “Everyone says that after being dumped.”

  “I wasn’t dumped,” I protested.

  “Sure.” Gina winked at me. “You know, there’s no shame in admitting it.”

  “What Gina is trying to say is that we can help you to hook up with someone,” Thalia cut in, surprising me once again in her similarity to Sylvie. If it weren’t for her exotic looks, she could have been my roommate’s twin.

  “We’ll be your wingmen,” Gina said. “Or wing women.”

  “Is that even a word?” I shook my head; it was easier than arguing with them in their determined and inebriated state.

  “We’ll find you a hookup,” Thalia said. “No relationships. Just a hot guy who’ll make you forget your ex.”

  I cringed inwardly. Yeah, as if that would happen anytime soon.

  “That’s the plan.” Gina pushed her red hair back over her shoulder and stood to scan the room with the eyes of someone who seemed to have done this before. Several heads turned toward us and for a moment I wished I could just shrink in my seat so no one would see me.

  “Please don’t tell me you’re looking for prospective candidates.” I grabbed her arm and pulled, gently urging her to sit back down, but she wouldn’t budge.

  “As a matter of fact, she is,” Thalia said, laughing. “Now sit back and let the professional do her job. Clearly, you need someone to help you move on, and when it comes to getting revenge, Gina’s the best.”

  “No.” I shook my head again and took a gulp of my drink. “I’m not looking for revenge. More like a rescue plan really, something to keep me from running back to him.” The words tumbled out through my cranberry-tasting lips, and I realized my blunder too late.

  Thalia’s eyebrows knitted together in a frown. “Why would you want to run back to someone? You call them an ex for a reason.”

  I shrugged. Why would I want that indeed? “I don’t know. The sex was pretty good—amazing really.”

  “Here’s what I usually recommend.” Gina finally sat down, turning her attention back to us and wearing a determined look on her face. “If a man hits five on the list, you sleep with him, if only to feel shitty afterward and replace your good memories with bad ones.”

  My lips twitched as I tried hard to suppress the laughter bubbling at the back of my throat. Either they were making fun of me, or the alcohol was speaking and they wouldn’t remember a word the following day. “And what list would that be?”

  “Clean, sexy, good-looking.” She started counting and paused. “That’s it. Everything else is a bonus.” I didn’t want to point out that she barely got to three points; maybe two since the term “clean” was debatable.

  “She’s right,” Thalia said, her speech slurring more by the second. “It’s hard to find a man who’s caring and sexy, attentive and handsome. And don’t get me started on supportive.”

  “Take it from me,” Gina continued, “most men ran if I so much as asked them to water my plants.”

  Thalia nudged her. “You forgot to add hardworking but not completely obsessed with his career to the point of forgetting that you exist.”

  “So you suggest settling for less?” I asked, amused.

  “No.” Gina drew out the word and exchanged glances with Thalia. “What we’re saying is that if you want to move on, you first need to get laid. There’s no way around that.” She paused for effect. “I know the perfect singles bar, and it just so happens to be down the street. Let’s pay the place a visit.”

  “I hope you’re not talking about that male strippers club again.” Thalia laughed. Gina shot her a dirty look, shutting her up.

  Strippers? Oh, God.

  It was exactly what I had tried to avoid—running around from one place to the next, because I couldn’t possibly leave them to their fate. They were too drunk for that, and someone had to make sure they got home safely. As much as I hated the idea, I couldn’t just abandon them.

  “You said just one bar and one drink,” I muttered.

  “I’ve changed my mind.” Gina grinned and finished her drink in one gulp. “We’ll help you, under one condition.”

  For some reason, I had a bad feeling. All that talk about sleeping with a stranger made me feel uncomfortable. I narrowed my eyes at her. “Which is?”

  “We make the decision.”

  “What decision?” I asked, confused.

  Gina smiled mysteriously. “We choose your guy of the night for you.” At my shocked expression she raised her hands to stop my protest. “ Wait. Hear me out. You don’t have to sleep with him. Just promise that you’ll date him for a couple hours.”

  I looked from Gina to Thalia in confusion. Friends choosing a guy for you? It sounded like a bad idea. I only had to think of my friends’ disaster dates to know that hookups would end in the walk of shame, with my head buried deep in the sand. However, I also wondered what would happen if, for once, I let someone else make such a decision on my behalf. I wasn’t exactly known for my good judgment in choosing suitable males for a relationship. Before Jett, I had only dated the kind of guy who couldn’t commit if his life depended on it. And Jett...

  I blew out a breath. He hadn’t been so different than the others, what with his whole misguided idea about not marrying until we were old and gray. He had been such a bad decision. The whole falling-in-love-with-him thing had been a disaster. What if they had more luck than I had? What if a one-night date, a getting to know a complete stranger without having to sleep with him, was the solution, a way to move on from Jett and banish my memories of him—of being with him?

  “Jealousy is still the best way to get back at someone,” Gina debated with Thalia.

  “It’s not about revenge. It’s about regaining your self-respect by knowing you deserve better,” Thalia answered.

  I held up a hand to stop their chatter. “Okay. I’ll do it.” I grabbed my bag and coat, ready to banish my memories of Jett to the back of my mind, if I hung on to them at all.

  They stared at me until Gina gave Thalia a short pat on the shoulder. “You heard her. Let’s go.”
br />   They grabbed their coats and bags in haste, as though they feared I might change my mind.

  “But no more drinks for me,” I said.

  “Do you remember your address?” Gina asked, grinning.

  I frowned. “Yeah. Why?”

  “That’s all that matters. A yellow cab will take care of the rest.” Her face creased up in laughter. “Besides, I’m next in line to pay, and one last drink won’t change your life.”

  I could only hope so. If only my feelings would stop telling me that she was wrong.

  When Gina had mentioned the singles bar, she forgot to add the fact that she was really talking about an underground club that looked like some sort of seedy, illegal establishment. Bass beats were blasting from inside, so loud my head began to pound before we even walked in. The entire building was painted black, reminding me of a graveyard. The entire atmosphere screamed bizarre, and definitely not my style. I should have already realized from the large, red “HUSH HUSH” neon sign above the entrance door painted in black that it was not the kind of establishment I would ever enter. But instead of arguing and standing my ground at the door, I clamped my mouth shut, waiting to see what could possibly happen next.

  It was only when a guy covered in tattoos exited, his eyes assessing my body hungrily as his tongue brushed his teeth in a gross gesture, that I desperately wanted to run away.

  “Are you insane?” I hissed at Gina.

  “What? Are you scared?” Gina rolled her eyes and pulled at my hand. “Don’t be a pussy. I’ve been here countless times, and it’s great. Just wait until you’re inside.”

  “That’s probably open to interpretation,” I muttered under my breath.

  “You wanted a new date. This is where you’ll find him,” Thalia added. “In your circumstances, you can’t be too fussy. You want to stop running back to your ex, right?”

  I wanted to point out that they had insisted on finding me a date and that it had been all their idea, but there was no point in arguing.

  “What’s the password?” one of the five bouncers asked. He was a big man with greased hair and the most menacing expression I had ever seen. I swallowed hard and looked at Gina, inwardly praying she wouldn’t remember.

  “You’ll never see it coming, Lewis,” Gina said, unfazed, playing with her butterfly necklace. “Tonight I’ll hook up with a hairy guy with large feet and small hands, get his number, then call him next week to tell him he has to go in for STD tests.”

  “That’s harsh.” To my surprise, the bouncer chuckled and, with a wink at Gina, he let us in for free.

  “What was that?” I asked, confused, as we descended the stairs into what looked like a basement. “Was that the password?”

  “There is no a password.” She looked at me and grimaced. “Lewis and I go way back. It’s just an inside joke we’ve had going on forever.”

  I nodded knowingly, even though I had no idea what she was talking about.

  Eventually, we reached a dark corridor and moved past black curtains into a crowded room with silver lights that sent a sharp pain through my eyes. I closed them for a moment, unable to suppress a shiver. Slowly, I opened my eyes again and let them adjust as I took in my surroundings.

  “Oh, my god,” I exclaimed in horror.

  The whole place was dark and hot, with no windows and no visible exits. Like the outside, the walls were painted a gloomy black. It was so hot and stuffy that I figured whoever owned the club must have installed heaters in the corners, probably to entice thirst so their clientele would buy more drinks. The walls looked shabby, and the whole place was in desperate need of some interior design. The tables and chairs were scratched and probably would have benefited from some scrubbing. I didn’t want to sit down, let alone touch anything.

  “It’s awesome, right?” Thalia gushed, pointing to the stripper poles in the corners, where anyone bold enough was allowed to show off their abilities—or lack thereof. Judging from their awkward moves, the dancers were far from being professionals. “Everyone here’s single, which is why they encourage rubbing up against anyone you like to see if they like you back.” As though that was a good thing, she grinned at me and raised her eyebrows meaningfully.

  “No.” I shook my head slowly, fighting hard to stifle the onset of hysteria at the back of my throat. “I meant...Oh, my god. How awful,” I murmured, unable to peel my eyes off the people dancing and making out in what looked like a huge pool, their bodies and clothes covered in foam.

  I had heard of foam parties and had seen them on television, but I had never realized they actually existed and that they could be so wild. The people were uninhibited and probably intoxicated—and many of them were almost naked.

  Someone bumped into me.

  “Sorry,” I mumbled and moved aside, only to slam into someone else.

  Small rivulets of sweat began to trickle down my spine, both from the lack of space and from the stuffy air. I tied my hair behind my back and started to fan my burning face with my hand.

  “Hey, Gina. Get those drinks,” Thalia said. As soon as Gina was gone, she turned to me with a frown on her face. “You’re not going to pass out, are you?”

  “What?” I stared at her. “No, I’m fine.”

  “Please don’t tell me you’ve changed your mind about trying to find someone. I still remember how you looked when I picked up from Central Park. You didn’t seem to be in a good place. It wasn’t hard to figure out that you had been crying your heart out over a guy.”

  The image of Jett with Tiffany flashed through my mind, leaving a sharp stab of pain in its wake. I cringed inwardly. “Was it that obvious?”

  She shrugged, as though it didn’t matter either way. “No, but I’m used to seeing girls in your state of mind. Plus, you told me you were trying to move on from an ex and all that crap, so I figured out the rest. This might not be the most obvious place to visit after a breakup, but it’s a lot of fun getting to know someone new, as long as you know what you’re looking for.” Her gaze lingered on a nearby couple, their bodies intertwined in a slow dance.

  “I suppose so,” I muttered and looked up to see Gina snaking her way toward us, balancing three pink-colored, and sugar-rimmed drinks decorated with sparkly straws and little umbrellas.

  “They have the best cocktails in town.” She handed each of us a glass, keeping one for herself, then continued to gush about the place. I eyed my drink warily, my brain struggling to come up with a good excuse to order my own.

  “Drink up,” Gina said, waiting for me to take a sip. “You’ll need it when we go hunting for a guy.”

  To drink or not to drink? The question was a no-brainer. If I refused, I’d have to come up with an excuse. While I liked Gina and Thalia, I still didn’t trust them enough to reveal my pregnancy, and I certainly didn’t want to feel like the oddball of the group, the third wheel. I wanted to have fun, like a real New Yorker. I didn’t want life to grip and hold me; I wanted to grip life and make it mine.

  I lifted the glass and admired the beautiful pink liquid and sparkling granules of grenadine sugar around the rim. I took a sip and winced when the strong, sweet flavor hit my taste buds. It was delicious, leaving a sweet and tangy grapefruit zest behind—so delicious that I simply had to take another sip.

  I didn’t know if it was the atmosphere or the drink, but within a few minutes, the blood in my veins began to rush, my body growing lighter, until I felt like I was floating in midair. Usually, a drink or two didn’t make me giddy and certainly not drunk, but I felt different this time, alive and excited—as if every fiber of my being wanted to move, dance, and act crazy. Even though I was scared of heights in any form, I felt as though I could jump off a cliff and into cold water, which I attributed to the alcohol mingling with my pregnancy hormones in a strange way.

  ”What is this stuff?” I held my glass up to Gina while continuing to sway to the rhythm of the music. Adrenaline rushed through my veins, as if the music inspired my body to be harmonious. Surr
eal happiness at the thought that I was young and ready to take on the world surged through me, a kind of blissfulness I had never felt before.

  “My own personalized pink puddle drink,” Gina said proudly. “It’s my favorite. You want another one?”

  Definitely not, but she was gone before I had a chance to stop her. It didn’t take her long to return with another round of glasses, insisting that she show us the rest of the club. While I was reluctant to take another sip, the heat was slowly getting to me. I was thirsty and covered in a layer of sweat. Without Gina’s noticing, I put down my first, half-full glass and took another one from her outstretched hand.

  As we crossed the open-plan space at a snail’s pace and pushed through the crowd, I began to see why the place was so popular. Everywhere I looked, people were dancing, talking, and having the time of their lives, just like I was. They seemed so carefree, which made me realize that in just a few months, I would no longer be like them. Soon I’d be a mother—bound to responsibilities and facing yet more bills. It might very well be my first and last time at HUSH HUSH or any other club, for that matter, and the thought scared me.

  “See that?” Gina pointed to a circular area with dozens of black wicker chairs. I nodded and she yelled in my ear, “It’s the speed-dating area for singles...or those pretending to be.”

  The area was secluded, in the far corner, away from the dancing rooms and the foam party. Each booth had two wicker chairs facing one another, closed off by a string curtain that I assumed could be drawn, allowing for more privacy. The entire dating space was bathed in a violet glow, and was even darker than the rest of the club. I craned my neck to get a better view. A table was set up between each set of chairs. It was the perfect place to get to know someone without leaving the club.

  “It works like this: you chat with somebody, and if you like what you see, you close the curtains.” Gina took a sip of her cocktail, her eyes shining unnaturally bright as her eyes scanned the dating area.

  I expected her to want to move closer, if only so she could show me around, but strangely, she remained glued to the spot, staring ahead as though she was waiting for something to happen. I had no idea how she could see in the darkness. While I could see the shape and movement of figures all around us, my vision wasn’t sharp enough to make out faces. Eventually, Gina whispered in Thalia’s ear, and they both turned to me.

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