Stripped, p.12
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       Stripped, p.12

         Part #1 of Stripped series by Jasinda Wilder
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We pull into a Beverly Hills gated community, passing gargantuan estates worth tens of millions of dollars, rolling expanses of green grass and sculpted shrubs and wide curving driveways. As we roll at a surprisingly sedate pace through the neighborhood, I see a well-known actress getting her mail, and then a high-profile L. A. basketball player washing a sports car. Dawson glances at me as if to gauge my reaction to the neighborhood.

  “You’re driving like a normal person,” I remark.

  He shrugs. “This is my community. I know these people. They have kids. ” He waves toward L. A. at large. “Out there? It’s a warzone. I was born and raised in L. A. , and I know this city backward and forward. I know its traffic patterns, I know where the speed traps are, and where the really dangerous neighborhood are. In here? I live here. I’m not gonna drive like a jackass in here. ”

  “You never answered my question. You said before you got serious about acting. How did you get into it?”

  He doesn’t answer. He pulls the Bugatti down a long driveway and under an archway into a courtyard. The house is a massive Spanish hacienda-style mansion, with balconies looking into the courtyard, in the center of which is a fountain spewing water. On one side of the courtyard is an expansive wall of garage doors, a few of which are open, showing the tails of various kinds of cars. The Bugatti is parked near the front door, behind a classic cherry-red convertible. I want to say it’s a Ford Mustang, but I’m not sure.

  Dawson sees me looking at it. “That’s a 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429. ” I must look baffled. “It’s pretty rare, in terms of that year and that particular style. ”

  “Did you build it?”

  He nods. “Yeah. Well, rebuilt is more accurate. I bought the chassis from a guy in Mendocino, and then found a Boss 429 engine and cleaned it up. It’s got the original radio, leather bucket seats—the whole interior is in mint condition and almost entirely original. ” His expression lights up as he talks about the car, and I get out and follow him over to it. It’s a pretty car, I think. More masculine. It fits Dawson perfectly. If I picture him driving, it would be in this car. The Bugatti is a status symbol, I think. He’s got the hood open, and he’s pointing at various parts of the engine, rattling off facts and figures and names, and I can’t possibly keep up or understand anything he’s talking about, but God, is it cute watching him get excited. He’s a totally different Dawson, talking about his car. His eyes are greenish now, the luminous shade of lichen on stone.

  Page 33

 

  And then I realize he still hasn’t answered my question. It seems he’s evading it. I let it go and watch him talk, listening and trying not to get pulled into the orbit again. It’s a constant battle. His face is animated and boyish and, god, so so handsome. The lines and angles of his face are sculpted as if by an artist. I don’t believe in God anymore, but if I did, Dawson would be proof of His handiwork.

  Eventually Dawson realizes I’m not really following anything he’s saying and stops mid-sentence, blushing. He rubs the back of his neck and grins sheepishly at me. “Shit, I just went all guy on you, didn’t I?” He closes the hood, grabs me by the hand, and pulls me toward the front door. “Sorry. Cars are my thing, and I kind of nerd out when I talk about them. ”

  I can’t help grinning at him. “It was cute. ”

  “Great. ‘It was cute. ’ That’s the kiss of death for a guy. ”

  “What’s that supposed to mean? It was cute. It’s not a bad thing. ” I follow him through the front door and into an echoing foyer with an elaborate faux-candle chandelier.

  “Grey, no guy ever likes to be called ‘cute. ’ Cute is the diametric opposite of sexy. ”

  I feel myself blush furiously, and he gives me that look again, the one that says he doesn’t understand how I don’t know what he’s talking about. “You blush at the drop of a hat, you know that?” He touches my cheek with his fingertip, and my skin burns where he touches me. I want to pull away, but I can’t. My clear discomfort amuses him even more. “Where did you grow up that you’re so innocent?”

  I sigh. “I grew up in Macon, Georgia. ” He gives me an …and? look. I turn away from him and busy myself with examining a suit of armor that stands between the two wings of the curved staircase. “I was sheltered, okay? Just…just leave it at that. ” I’m nowhere near ready to tell him about my upbringing.

  “Sheltered, huh?” He moves to stand behind me, and even though I can’t see him or even feel him, as he’s not touching me, I can sense his presence like an inferno. “So how’d you go from a sheltered girl in Macon to a stripper in L. A. ?”

  I almost managed to forget, for a split second, how I earn my living. It’s Thursday, the last of my three days off; I work Friday through Monday. On Tuesday, I’m relieved that I’m not working, that I can just be me and not have to perform. On Wednesday, the awful fact of what I do has receded just a bit, fading to the back of my mind as I focus on school and the internship. By Thursday I can almost forget. I can almost pretend I’m just Grey, a normal college student. And then Friday rolls around, and I’m forced back into reality: I’m a stripper. I take off my clothes for money, for men’s sexual fantasy and desire.

  Thursday is my golden day. It’s my only day to be Grey, just Grey. And now Dawson has to go and remind me.

  I’m filled with an unreasoning rage. I whirl and yell, “Desperation, okay?” shoving him backward, not to hurt him, but out of raw anger and frustration. “I didn’t have a choice! It was the only job opening I could find, and I looked for months. Months! I didn’t have any job experience in anything. I ain’t got—I don’t have anyone to ask for help. I got…I’ve got nowhere to go. I can’t and won’t go back to Georgia. My scholarships ran out, and those covered everything from tuition to room and board and books. I hate it. I hate it. I hate…I hate it!” In my upset, the Georgia twang is seeping in.

  I’m sobbing, and I can’t stop. I turn away from him again, stumble, and sink to the cold marble floor. It all breaks out, all the emotions I’ve kept bottled up for months now. The loneliness, the homesickness, the shame and the guilt. It doesn’t come out as words, but as raw and ragged sobs.

  I feel him kneel beside me, feel his arms go around me. I push at him, but I’ve got no strength left and he’s too strong and too warm and comforting.

  “You’re not alone anymore, Grey. ” It’s the worst possible thing he can say to me. If I was sobbing before, it turns into a storm of tears, into whatever comes after sobbing.

  He doesn’t say anything else. He just holds me, there on the floor of his foyer, and lets me cry. I wish I could say this outburst is cathartic, but it’s not. It’s just necessary. A crisis of self-pity. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t change anything.

  “Let me go,” I say, struggling against him.

  “No. ” His voice is gentle but firm, and his arms unrelentingly strong.

  “Please. Just let me go. I’m fine. ”

  “Bullshit. ”

  “What do you want from me?” I give up struggling and go limp, but I’m tense.

  “The truth about yourself?”

  It’s the one thing I can’t give, won’t give. I don’t know what the truth is, and even if I did, Dawson isn’t someone I could explain it to. He’s Dawson Kellor, Hollywood movie star. I’m just Grey from Macon, Georgia.

  His phone chirps in his pocket, and even though he doesn’t move to answer it, it’s a reminder of reality. His arms are around me, warm and comforting, and I want to stay here forever, just like this, because I can almost…almost forget about who I am and who he is and the reality that’s waiting for me.

  Almost.

  His lips brush the shell of my ear, and I tremble, shocked by the tenderness and the intimacy of the moment.

  But I can’t afford to let myself think this means anything. That text message from Ashley M reminded me of an important fact: Dawson Kellor and I come from two drastically different worlds. I got sucked in
and hypnotized by the intensity and charm and ruggedly masculine beauty that is Dawson. But then, I’m not alone in that, am I? He’s paid millions of dollars to be that way. He graces the silver screen and gives Oscar-worthy performances because of that ability, that innate seductiveness. It’s in him, a part of him. He seduces without trying. He’s an accidental incubus. His quicksilver eyes draw you in, one moment hazel, a muddy and serene gray-green-blue, and then he gets excited and they’re greenish, or he’s angry and they’re blue. His body seduces, too, the angles of his shoulders and the line of his jaw, the exotic lift of his cheekbones, the power of his hands and the broad expanse of his shoulders and the tapered hardness of his waist. His lithe and lethal grace is hypnotic, too, in the way he moves like a leopard in the African grass, even if it’s just striding down a sidewalk.

  Page 34

 

  I got sucked into all this, but I can’t afford to let it happen again. He doesn’t know me, nor I him. We’re not friends. We’re not lovers. He kissed me, but that means nothing. To a man like Dawson, a kiss is no more than a handshake. He’s used to a night of sex and then a quick goodbye. It’s an exchange of pleasure for him. Nothing more.

  For me, sex is a mystery. A fantasy. A dream. The future. It’s always been the future. Someday I’ll meet the right guy; that was my teenage philosophy. Now, I just want to graduate and get a job and be able to stop working at Exotic Nights. I want to stop stripping. I don’t think of the future, except for a vague idea of hope that it’ll get better. Dawson isn’t the future. He’s my present, and he’s nothing to me. Nor I to him. I’m not an object of desire, except in that he’s seen me naked and wants me for that one night of pleasure.

  And I want more. I want a future.

  I shake myself then breathe deeply. When I’ve established a sense of equilibrium, I stand up, and now Dawson lets me. I feel his eyes on me as I straighten my skirt and tighten my ponytail. “Thank you. ”

  He stands up, and his hands go to my waist. I don’t even think about it for several seconds, because it just feels so…right. But then I remember and step away.

  “Are you okay?” he asks. His eyes are back to muted hazel, but his expression shows his concern.

  I nod. “I’m fine. ”

  “You’re a woman. ‘Fine’ has a lot of meanings. ”

  A clock tolls somewhere, marking the half-hour.

  “I’m fine. I’m okay. I’m sorry I lost it like that,” I say with forced professionalism. “Your meeting is in half an hour. You should change. ”

  “Grey…” He reaches for me.

  I tug at the hem of my shirt. “Where’s your bathroom? I should clean up if we’re going to Spago. ”

  “I don’t care about the meeting. Have a drink with me. Talk to me. ”

  “Talk about what?” I meet his eyes briefly. “It’s nothing for you to worry about. ”

  “But I am worrying about it,” he says and I can tell he’s being sincere.

  “Well…don’t. It doesn’t matter. ” I turn and move deeper into the house, figuring I’ll find a bathroom on my own. I have to get away from him. It’s too easy to believe he actually cares.

  “Damn it, Grey. Just stop. I’m not stupid; it’s obvious you’re not okay. ” He’s still standing in the foyer near the suit of armor.

  I find a half-bathroom and stop in the doorway, look at him, and smile. It’s fake, though, and he knows it. “Maybe not, but it’s not your problem. I’m just the intern. My private life isn’t part of the assignment. ”

  “You’re not just an assignment. I didn’t meet you as Grey the intern. I met you as Gracie, the stripper. But that’s not you, and you don’t belong there. ” He moves toward me, bulky and intimidating, his eyes freezing me in place. “I knew it then, and I know it now. I can’t…I can’t even picture you there. You’re so much more than that shitty club. ”

  “But that’s my reality. It’s all there is. You…we barely know each other. Just—stop confusing me, okay? Please?” I’m shrinking away from him, backing into the bathroom. Whenever he’s this near, just inches away with his eyes on me, dark and inscrutable, I can’t think and can’t remember why I’m supposed to stay away from him.

  “Confusing you? How am I confusing you?”

  “You just do. Everything about you. You talk to me and act like you know me. Like…we’re something. ” My backside hits the sink, and he’s right there and I have nowhere to go.

  “Why does that confuse you?”

  “Because it’s not true?” I hate that it comes out as a question, like there’s doubt.

  “But what if it is? What if I do know you? What if we are something…or could be?” His hands rise to rest on my hips, and I feel myself being drawn back to him, closer and closer.

  His mouth draws nearer, his eyes inches from mine. No, this can’t happen again. I lose more of myself every time he kisses me. But that’s not true. It’s what I feel should be true. The reality is that I gain more of myself when he kisses me. As if layers of lies and confusion and shame fall away, and everything is just him and me and our mouths and the sensation of his kiss.

  It happens.

  His lips touch mine, and everything else falls away. I’m possessed by him. He kisses me with the same effortless mastery that he drives his car. He pulls a moan from me, draws my body against his and molds me to him and guides me into a place of acquiescence, with just his mouth and hands.

  I’m not just letting him kiss me; I’m kissing him back. My mouth moves, my lips taste his, my hands settle on his chest between us and curl into his shirt, and I’m pressing in against him, crushing my curves against his angles. I’m taking part, I’m encouraging.

  His hand slips from the upper bell of my hip down and around to cup my backside, and a spark is lit inside me. It’s a forbidden touch, a familiar, possessive, erotic, provocative gesture. It’s a step toward more.

  A kiss is just a kiss, but his hand on my bottom, holding me and owning me like that…it’s more.

  I like it. Heat builds in my belly at his grip on my bottom. One hand, and then, when I don’t stop him…two. Both hands on my backside. Just holding at first. Then exploring and caressing in slow, expanding circles. His fingers claw in, dig into the muscle, grip tightly, release, and grip again. Caress gently, circle and hold. He lifts me closer. I feel his desire.

  I moan into his kiss. He lifts farther and I’m sitting on the edge of the sink. Of their own volition, my traitor legs curl around his waist. His hands hold me aloft, and his mouth is devouring mine. I’m losing myself. He sets me back on the counter and the sink’s lip hits my tailbone, wakes me from my trance.

  I break the kiss, push weakly at him. “No, stop. Stop. I can’t…we can’t. ”

  He doesn’t let go, and neither do I.

  “Why?” he asks, his voice a harsh, ragged whisper.

  “I can’t. We can’t. ” I don’t know how to formulate a reason because I can’t remember the reason.

  I don’t know what lies beyond the kissing. Intellectually, I know what lies beyond is sex. But that’s a foreign land. A myth. An unreal idea. A scary notion of naked bodies and intrusion, vulnerability and pregnancy. Sin.

  Page 35

 

  And I’m not ready for that, but I can’t say that to Dawson.

  I don’t know how to formulate any of this into words.

  “We’re not…this isn’t…” I grasp at anything to tell him, even cheap half-truths that aren’t real reasons. “We’re from different worlds. It won’t work. And I’m your employee. ”

  He backs away, and I see the knowledge of my lies on his face, in the hardness of his eyes. “Yeah. Okay. It’s not you, it’s me. We’re too different. ” He spins on his heel. “Whatever. ”

  And then he’s gone and I’m partially on the sink, one heeled foot dangling over the marble floor, the knee of my other leg cocked across the counter. I turn
and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror; my makeup is smeared and running, my hair is rumpled, my clothes wrinkled and out of place. My eyes are sad, and my lips swollen.

  I look lost.

  Exactly how I feel.

  I force myself to go through the motions of cleaning up, and then Dawson is outside the bathroom, dressed in a pair of pressed chinos and a white polo shirt. “Let’s go, Miss Amundsen. Time to work. We’re late. ” His tone is hard and formal.

  I follow, having gotten what I asked for.

  He doesn’t say a word all the way to the restaurant.

  Chapter 10

  I can’t breathe. I’m behind the curtain at Exotic Nights, waiting to go out for my first stage dance of Friday night. My heart is palpitating, beating so hard I swear I can see it thumping under my skin. My stomach is roiling with nausea, so hard I’m not sure I’ll make it through this number without vomiting. I force a deep breath. I can do this. Nothing has changed. Nothing is different.

  But that’s a lie. Such a lie. Everything is different. I’m different.

  The deep breath turns into a low whining moan in the back of my throat. Candy is finishing her dance, and now Timothy is introducing me. The crowd of men goes wild. I even hear a few female voices. I still find it odd that women visit strip clubs like this.

  “…Please help me welcome…Gracie!” Timothy shouts into the mic.

  My cue. I run my palms over my stomach as if that will settle it, and then down my hips. I have to force my feet to move, force myself out onto the stage. The whistles and cheers and lewd shouts increase to a crescendo. Stage lights blind me. I have to blink several times, and I peer into the sea of faces. I see no one I know, thank god.

  I close my eyes, do my best to empty myself of my nerves, and then begin my routine. I open my eyes and stare into the middle distance, not looking at any one face. As usual, by the end, I have over a hundred dollars in ones, fives, and a few tens. Tears mingle with the sweat on my face.

  I rush back to the dressing room and the tiny bathroom, dropping the fistful of bills on the vanity as I pass. I close the toilet lid and sit down, letting the tears go.

  Dawson’s face emerges in my mind’s eye.

  You don’t belong here. You’re so much more than that shitty club.

  All I can see, though, is the closed-off hardness of his eyes as we sat through the business dinner. I took notes, chimed in with a few ideas, and pretended that I didn’t see the hurt lingering behind Dawson’s shuttered expression. He had Greg take me home and walk me to my door.

  Before he left, Greg handed me a business card. “You need anything, call me. ” He wiped at his forehead with a knuckle. “This is from me, not him. ”

  When I got up the next morning, the Rover was back in the parking lot, and the keys were in my mailbox with a note.

  It had two words: Be safe. It was signed with a casually dramatic letter “D” and nothing else. I still walked to classes but drove to work, grateful for his thoughtfulness even in the face of our awkward situation.

 
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