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       Caged, p.1

         Part #4 of Mastered series by Lorelei James
 



  CHAPTER ONE

  “YOU’RE taking me to a strip club? Seriously?” Molly stared at her friend/coworker/frequent rabble-rouser, Presley, hoping she was joking.

  Presley slipped her arm through Molly’s. “Good golly, Miss Molly, this’ll be fun. I promise. See, Bloody Mary used to work here.”

  The blond bruiser from Presley’s roller derby team known as Bloody Mary walked in front of them. “Why’d she quit stripping?”

  “Last year she scored a job as a personal trainer. I guess the bosses at the skin boutique weren’t happy she’d put on so much muscle. They prefer their strippers to be tanned bags of bones with fake jugs.” Presley shrugged. “I don’t get that. If I were a dude paying to see tits and ass, I’d want a variety of tits and ass—know what I mean?”

  “To be honest, Presley, I have absolutely no idea what you mean, or why you think I’d want to see any tits and ass. Hell, I don’t even want to look at my own boobs and butt.”

  Then they were standing below a neon sign that boasted HOT EXOTIC DANCERS—READY TO DANCE FOR YOU!

  “Hot and ready . . . Sounds like a pizza joint,” she muttered. When Presley didn’t respond, she cast a quick glance around the line of guys ahead of them, waiting to get in. The closer they got to the entrance, the more she was tempted to make a break for it.

  “Don’t you even think about ditching me, Calloway,” Presley warned in her ear. “You will walk in and have at least one drink. If it sucks, we’ll go.”

  The bouncer, a big African-American guy, threw open his arms when he saw Bloody Mary. “Marisol! Gimme some sugar.”

  “Marisol was her stripper name,” Presley whispered.

  “I gathered that.”

  “Black Bart, baby,” Bloody Mary cooed. “You’re looking as badass as ever.”

  “No need to flatter me. You know I’m waving the cover charge for y’all. Tell me who you’re bringing to class up the joint,” Black Bart asked.

  “You remember Elvis from my Denver Divas roller derby team?”

  It took a second for Molly to remember that Presley’s team nickname was—duh—Elvis.

  Then Bloody Mary snagged Molly’s hand and tugged her forward. “We’re popping Miss Molly’s strip-club cherry tonight.”

  Black Bart gave Molly a slow once-over. “You don’t say.”

  She fought the urge to fidget. This man was used to seeing women with perfect bodies, naked women, letting it all hang out—literally. Please ignore me. That’d be easier than seeing a sneering expression that proved he found her seriously lacking.

  But he offered her a hot-eyed stare and a very wolfish grin. “You need anything, pretty eyes—and I mean anything—you come find Black Bart and I’ll take care of you. Mmm-mmm, sweet thang. Would I love to take care of you.”

  She blushed like a virgin. “Ah, thanks?”

  Bloody Mary kept a firm grip on Molly’s forearm as she led the way inside. They paused in the doorway. “So, Cherry, behold Jiggles, the classiest strip joint in Denver. Which ain’t saying much. But trust me—this is ten steps above the other clubs in town.”

  Cherry? Awesome, she’d gotten a nickname.

  “Let’s sit there,” Presley said, pointing to a table in the back. “I don’t need to see a cooter up close.”

  “Then why are we at a freakin’ strip club?” Molly demanded.

  “We drink for free. See, dudes in here ain’t ever gonna get with a stripper, no matter how many lap dances they buy. So when they start looking around and see a table of available women . . .” She shrugged. “It’s win-win. We flirt, they buy us drinks, and sometimes we end up with a hot hookup.”

  Molly noticed all the chairs at the table faced the stage, so she couldn’t look at, oh, the wall. “You’ve hooked up with a guy you met in a strip club?”

  “In some ways it’s better than meeting a guy in a bar.” Presley plopped down next to her. “Just steer clear of the ones you can see masturbating under the table.”

  Her mouth fell open. “You can see that?”

  “It’s obvious by how fast their arm is moving,” Bloody Mary said. “I always felt sorry for the cleanup crew. They have to stock some special, industrial-strength jizz remover.”

  The stripper strutted onstage wearing a spangly fringed top, slinky black pants, and a black cowboy hat. Molly recognized the song as “Wild West.” The stripper was gorgeous, with auburn hair that fell past her shoulders, long legs, and—holy crap—she just ripped off her shirt to reveal enormous boobs. After a few twirls around the stripper’s pole, another rip and her pants were gone. The woman had no hips to speak of, and her legs bordered on scrawny. Her sparkly G-string was the only item of clothing remaining, besides the five-inch acrylic stilettos.

  She gyrated her hips, shook her nonexistent ass, spun around the pole, dropping into a squat and rolling up slowly. On the last spin she performed a backbend, keeping one hand on the pole until she did a walkover and landed in the splits. Then the stripper whipped off her G-string and played pussy peekaboo with her cowboy hat. Her final bow—with her head between her legs—gave everyone a full view.

  The DJ warned the patrons to stick around because Madora the Sexplorer would be taking the stage in ten minutes.

  Molly tried to play it cool, but she gawked at the women strolling around in ankle-breaking heels and itty-bitty scraps of silk. Even if she had a super-hot body, she doubted she’d ever have the guts to parade around half naked. She wondered if the dancers ever got cold.

  Of course they do; look at their nipples.

  Then again, with as vigorously as they rubbed a guy’s crotch during a lap dance, friction had to at least keep their butt cheeks warm.

  The cocktail waitress took their orders. Bloody Mary ordered Jäger bombs. Jägermeister always reminded Molly of him.

  Deacon McConnell.

  Even his name dripped sex.

  When Molly had signed up for a kickboxing class at Black Arts dojo, she hadn’t known Deacon “Con Man” McConnell was the instructor. He’d strolled into class and scared the crap out of her. It wasn’t his killer physique that turned her knees to jelly, although six feet two inches of a massively muscled, heavily tattooed, shaven-headed MMA fighter with icy blue eyes would kick-start any woman’s hormones. She’d never been attracted to a man with a don’t-fuck-with-me badass attitude, so the pull she’d felt toward him both fascinated and frightened her.

  Not that Deacon had noticed. The only time he paid attention to her was to chastise her in class. But even when the man barked orders at her like a drill sergeant, she wondered what it’d be like to hear that sexy southern drawl whispering honey-sweet words against her fevered skin in the dark.

  Since Molly’s boss, Amery Hardwick Black, was married to Ronin Black, Deacon’s boss, they occasionally ended up in social situations outside their class time. One night a group of them had gone out to a bar and Molly had sensed Deacon watching her. Liquid courage in the form of three margaritas had allowed her to meet his gaze. Those crystalline eyes showed no guilt at getting caught staring at her, yet she hadn’t seen a glimmer of attraction either, so she’d brushed it aside.

  The man sent her mixed signals. He let her know he was pissed off that she’d signed up for private boxing lessons from Fisher Durant—another Black Arts MMA instructor—instead of him. Deacon didn’t mention his displeasure again for almost a year . . . until she’d missed three of his kickboxing classes. Then he’d shown up at her apartment—three Sunday afternoons in a row—for makeup lessons.

  The following week he’d cornered her at the dojo and asked her out on a real date. She’d been so excited and nervous, it hadn’t occurred to her that he might’ve been messing with her. So she’d felt like a total chump, sitting in the restaurant for two hours waitin
g on him, only to get a Sorry, bad timing–C U around text that wasn’t an apology or an explanation.

  Then, to make matters even more confusing, Deacon had passed off his kickboxing classes to Shihan Beck, the new second-in-command at Black Arts. So Molly hadn’t seen Deacon for two months.

  That didn’t mean she hadn’t thought about him. She had, way more than was healthy, actually—which was sort of pathetic, even when half of her scenarios had a violent comeuppance, where she leveled one perfect punch to Con Man’s smug mug, which knocked him out cold. In front of everyone in the dojo.

  Yeah? What about the other scenario? Where you lick his bulging, tattooed biceps and stroke his shaved head until he purrs? Tease him into a sexual frenzy so he regrets that he stood you up?

  The cocktail waitress dropped off the shots and whispered in Bloody Mary’s ear.

  Bloody Mary stood and said, “One of my old regulars is here in the VIP section. I’m going to surprise him.”

  What constituted a regular customer? Was there a VIP punch card? Buy four lap dances and get the fifth one free? And what kind of hard-up loser was a frequent strip-club patron anyway?

  “Molly, you all right?” Presley asked. “You’re quiet.”

  She gave Presley a fake smile. “I’m awesome. Cheers.” She held up her shot for a toast and knocked it back. “Whoo-ee! That’ll put hair on your chest.”

  “I’d much rather have a hot guy’s hairy chest rubbing on mine,” Presley grumbled.

  “Look around, Pres. You’re not gonna find that guy in here tonight.” Molly leaned closer. “My cherry is officially popped. I saw a stripper and had my one drink. Let’s ditch this place and go somewhere we can dance, okay?”

  “Fine. I’ll go tell Bloody Mary we’re leaving.”

  Molly stood. “I’ll do it. I have to use the restroom anyway.”

  She wandered to the VIP section, which wasn’t cordoned off with velvet ropes, just a small sign that warned membership cards were required. The area was more smoke and mirrors than posh. The chairs were wider—likely for all of those free lap dances. A private bar lined the back wall.

  A table of businessmen watched as a guy in the corner got a lap dance.

  Single men sat at smaller tables among the groups of guys.

  Molly’s gaze moved to the man, who had both his hands full of Bloody Mary’s ass as she straddled his lap, her boobs in his face.

  Then Bloody Mary threw herself into a backbend, which gave Molly an unimpeded view of the “regular’s” face.

  A familiar face, smiling at Bloody Mary with those icy blue eyes.

  Deacon.

  His sexy grin dried up when his gaze connected with Molly’s.

  Her heart plummeted. Now I know why you stood me up, you bastard. Face burning, she retreated and kept a leisurely pace as she cut through the tables, her gut urging her to run outside, snag a cab, and go home.

  Once inside the restroom, she braced her hands on the sink and dropped her head down, forcing deep, even breaths into her lungs. It didn’t help. Mortification had morphed into anger. Mad as hell, she let fly, “You motherfucking, cocksucking sonuvawhore, ass-licking fuckwad!”

  The bathroom door opened.

  “Whoa. What’s wrong?” Presley asked. “You ran in here like you saw your minister in the VIP section.”

  “No. But guess who I did see?” She paused and met Presley’s eyes in the mirror. “Deacon.”

  “As in our former kickboxing teacher, Deacon?”

  “Apparently he’s Bloody Mary’s regular customer.”

  When Presley didn’t say anything but became very interested in checking her makeup, Molly’s eyes narrowed.

  “You’ve seen Deacon in here before.”

  “Just once, okay? It was around the time Knox and Shiori got married, so I figured it might be a bachelor-party thing.”

  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

  “Because I didn’t know it’d matter to you.” Presley’s gaze met hers in the mirror. “Why does it matter to you?”

  “It doesn’t.”

  “Oh yeah? Then why are you so upset?”

  “I’m not upset!” Okay. She sounded upset. Molly slumped against the wall. “Seeing him here clears up the mystery about why he pulled a no-show for our date. I’m not his type.”

  Presley got right in her face. “Fuck that. And fuck him. You don’t want a man who drools over tits and ass, unless it’s your tits and ass. I’ll bet a lap dance is the only action he gets since he’s so big, mean, and scary-looking.”

  Molly had watched ring bunnies hanging all over Deacon because being big, mean, and scary-looking was what made him so compelling. And she was smart enough to admit that was part of the reason he appealed to her too.

  Appealed. Past tense. Let it go. “I need a drink.”

  “Come on. I’ll buy.”

  Molly followed Presley out of the bathroom.

  Presley stopped in the middle of the hallway so abruptly that Molly ran into her.

  When she glanced up to see what’d caught Presley’s attention, she froze.

  Deacon leaned against the wall, his muscled arms crossed over his chest, one knee bent with his cowboy boot pressed behind him. The pose seemed casual, but she wasn’t fooled.

  “Beat it,” he said to Presley. “I need to talk to Molly.”

  Her stomach swooped.

  “You have shitty manners,” Presley said.

  Deacon ignored Presley and continued to level his brooding stare at her.

  Talk about unnerving.

  Talk about hot.

  Shut up, hormones.

  Then Presley moved and blocked Molly from his view. “Tell me what to do.”

  “Go. I’ll give him five minutes.”

  “Don’t take his crap.”

  “I won’t.”

  Presley’s gaze darted between Molly and Deacon as she backed away. “I’ll be right over there if you need anything.”

  “She won’t.”

  “I wasn’t talking to you, asshole.”

  “I know. Keep walking.”

  When they were alone, Molly kept the entire width of the hallway between them. “You were rude to her.”

  “So?”

  “So you save your decent behavior for the strippers working the VIP section?”

  His eyes flashed. “Sometimes. What are you doin’ here?”

  “Drinking with my friends and soaking in the naked entertainment.”

  “Doesn’t seem like your scene.”

  “I hardly think you can chastise me for being here when it appears you’re a frequent patron of this strip club, Mr. VIP.”

  In the blink of an eye, Deacon had caged her against the wall, his mouth next to her ear.

  She shivered when his hot breath tickled her neck.

  “Goddamn flowers,” he muttered. “You always smell sweet. Even after sweating in class for an hour, you didn’t reek like everyone else.”

  “There’s a compliment.” Molly put her hands on his chest and pushed him. “Now move it.”

  A soft growl vibrated against her cheek. “You drive me crazy, woman.”

  “Hey!” a loud male voice shouted behind them. “Let her go.” The bouncer stopped a foot from Molly and set his hand on her shoulder. “Hey, pretty eyes. Is this fucker harassing you?”

  “No, I’m not harassing her, but I’ll break your hand if you don’t take it off of her.”

  “Deacon!” she gasped. “What is wrong with you?”

  “Got a case of mine, I’m thinking,” Black Bart said. “You know this joker, sweet thang?”

 
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