She tipped her head down again and he could almost convince himself it wasn’t her. She lowered herself to the seat, slid the toe of her shoe across the floor until her knees were touching. She spun around on the seat, kicking her legs up and out until she straddled the chair. She rolled her hips slowly, the fluid grace of hips and smooth thighs moving in tandem had his jaw dropping.
When she lowered herself backward and her palms touched the floor, his body did an all over burn. Hair, both dark and light, twisted around her arms, then pooled to the floor. Copper fire dusted the line of her belly, all the way to the lush handful of her breasts. God, he’d never seen them look like that.
She was his sister’s best friend.
She was the girl next door.
She was sin wrapped in the wettest dreams he’d ever had. His senior year in high school had been one long torture session. Sleepovers with foolish girl talk were bad enough when your little sister was a freshman. The Loran’s had moved next door the summer between Jamie’s middle school and high school year. The girls had become fast friends, inseparable as the tide and beach and just as constant to one another.
Even then, barely a teen, she’d been beautiful. He’d stayed away from her. Oh he’d coveted her innocence from across the lawn, around the pool that first summer, across the hallways of Rumson High in the fall, but he’d never touched her. Music had pulled at him, distracted him from doing something stupid, like flirting or kissing those sassy lips.
His friends were dumb enough to troll for freshman, he preferred the girls in the clubs. At sixteen, he’d already looked the part of nineteen and it suited him to play with older women. They knew the score, and didn’t expect much. By seventeen he was jaded enough to know a woman like Stephanie wasn’t for him.
“Son of a bitch,” he hissed as she brought the other palm to the floor and did a handstand. From her cheerleader days, he remembered the limber line of her legs scissoring with little white tennis shoes. Now, spiked black heels replaced the innocence, and he knew they would follow him into dreams.
Into sleepless nights.
His sister’s best friend, Stephanie Loran, was everything he’d ever wanted and the definition of a woman out of his league.
She twisted and the heavy curve of her breast teased the edges of the bikini top she wore. She flicked the hat across the stage, flipping over to slowly lower her body to the glossy floor. The rope lights threw her skin into a shimmery sparkle as she stalked the hat. Her knees widened with a dip low enough that the tips of her breasts skimmed the floor, even as her back arched as if in pleasure.
In his mind, he heard the purr and wanted the slow, lazy smile to be for him. All that woman, all that hair and all that skin—his for the taking. He sucked in a breath as she inched her way over to the pole, twirled her way up with the hat dangling off her foot. She leaned into the column of steel, one hand gripping as she arched to make a perfect bowl with her body.
She dropped the hat back on her head, hooked her knee around the pole and untied the ribbon at her hip. The black swatch of bikini bottom curled back, showing an even tinier triangle of deep, dark purple. Two skinny straps climbed up her hip leaving the long expanse of thigh naked and gleaming.
Stephanie tucked and rolled neatly onto her back, arching off the stage with a jerk of her hips once, then twice until she matched the horn section of the song. As an afterthought, she flicked the jet black material over her shoulder. She slowly turned over and rose to her knees.
The straps rode the line of her hips and plunged between her perfect ass cheeks. Naked, soft and so round his mouth watered. She crawled over to the pole, dragged herself up and spun around the slick chrome.
She gained momentum, swinging both legs forward. She arched her back until the entire line of her curled around the pole in a fluid coil. She seemed to flow down the column until her toe touched down and her knees hugged the pole. She came to a halt, spreading her legs until she landed in a full split.
Everything inside of him locked down. Breathing, yeah…that was an afterthought when her achingly perfect body was writhing around on that stage. He wanted her writhing around on him for fuck’s sake. The hot mouth, painted a pretty pink, he wanted it on him.
Bouncing once, she grabbed a hold of the chrome again and nimbly rose, curling her knee up the length of the pole until she flipped upside down again. She held herself tight against it, extending her leg out in a scissor-like pose, then slowly climbed higher.
The muscles of her thighs should be around his hips, not that damn pole. No—not your hips, asshole.
Hair fluttering, as her she hips undulated, she was a wild mix of girl and woman. Suddenly she swung wide, her entire body stiff as the pole—and his fucking cock—and twirled out until she spun to the floor and across the glossy surface.
She rose onto her knees and walked her hat up her arm and onto her head. Her wide smile broke through the pink of her lipstick, gleaming white as the shadows hid her perfect blue eyes. She reached behind herself and the straps of her top fell down her shoulders. She tipped her head down and her hat fell into her waiting hands as the bikini top hit the floor.
Hair, in every color imaginable floated around her shoulders as she opened and closed her legs to the lines, “You can leave your hat on.” The curve of her breasts peeked from the sides of the hat.
Part of him wanted to look away. He wanted them for himself, to watch only by himself. He wanted to scream at every male and female in the room to close their eyes. She’d been made for him, to fill his hands. No…not for you.
He growled low in his chest as she teased the room.
Were her nipples a dusky rose? Or a light, pretty pink like her lips. Were they tight? Could he curl his tongue around the tip or did he need to suck them into his mouth to coax them out to harden for him?
Her hair flowed forward, hiding her from him.
She dropped her hat back on her head, crossing her silver tipped fingers over her breasts. She cupped them like he wanted to. God, he wanted that warm weight to fill his palm. He wanted to brush his thumb over—he laughed as silver peeked from her fingers, then from her hair.
Stephanie had stars pasted over her nipples.
The fact that she didn’t share every last piece of herself with the room made his belly loosen and his dick harden even more.
She looked up, her smile sliding away as their eyes locked. The fluid grace of her dance faltered for a moment as he stared into the electric blue of her eyes. She knew it was him.
There was no doubt.
* * *
Startled, Stephanie Loran drew her knees in. Exposed, shocked, mortified—the words tumbled through her mind. Oh, God. No, not Richie—anyone but Richie. Please God. She lifted her hands to her breasts as if to cover them. She knew she was supposed to tease and titillate. Show a little skin.
Her brain just wouldn’t work. God, oh God. The routine was burned inside of her brain. She’d performed, “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” over a hundred times—once for every day that she’d been here. Four months of performances. She’d promised herself that she’d be out of here within six months. That she’d be back on her feet.
She slammed her eyes shut. Richie’s wide brown eyes bore holes into her flesh. Exposed and slathered in the glitter of her trade—no, temporary trade. She’d never felt more like a stripper than she did right then. Normally she played to the sea of faces. It was easy to make them to blur a little, fade out of focus until she couldn’t feel their eyes. She could pretend she was just dancing for herself, for the love of the music and the movement. The room was a studio and she was just in rehearsal, honing her moves.
The brass and the beat filled her mind. The scarred wood of the chair under her shoe, she looked down to find the worn spot, the spot she stepped on every night. She kicked it back, just as she’d practiced again and again, tumbling in a slow, back flip. She could feel her muscles tighten and burn as she forced herself to stretch until every inch of her would gleam under the lights.
Just one more turn around the pole.
The finish was only thirty seconds away.
Another flip and she started her signature spin. Her dancer’s training kept her straight as she picked the spot on the wall and finally twirled her way up the warm chrome. Pressing the back of her knee into the metal she rose up and spread her arms wide. Every muscle in her belly screamed, but she kept still, she looked like she was about to take flight.
The applause roared like thunder.
She looked out, but he was gone.
The house lights snapped off, leaving her in darkness. She slid down and left everything on the stage. The money, the costume, the hat—none of it mattered. He’d left. Shame burned hot in her chest, chasing her into the dressing room.
She tugged on jeans from her tiny locker, flipped off her shoes and stuffed her feet into her worn white Keds. She couldn’t even take the time to peel off her pasties, just dragged her Bon Jovi shirt down over the bawdy stars that gave her one tiny bit of anonymity. Richie’s solemn face and wild hair stared back at her in the mirror.
Stephanie closed her eyes and zipped a hoodie over his face.
Fisting the tips from her earlier show, she dropped her shoes and her lucky Mardi Gras beads onto her neighbor’s station.
No one knew her real name here. The people that knew her, that loved her…To them she was Stephanie Loran. Her birth certificate had an extra name…Roseanne—Rosie. She’d always hated the name. As the nausea rose, she knew it would stay that way. “Keep ‘em Trina. I won’t be needing them anymore.”
“But these are your favorite shoes.”
“And they’ll make your legs look amazing. Don’t forget the bodywave, corkscrew combo we worked on last weekend.”
Trina stopped snapping her blue leather vest. “Rosie, what’s going on?”
“It’s that time, sweetie.”
“What?” Trina stood. A quick spurt of tears spilled from her overdone
“And I’ve been here four months too long.” Steph zipped up her battered denim purse, her strap full of buttons tinkled together in a mishmash of band logos. She’d come to
“What will I do without you? You’re the only one with enough brains to share coffee and conversation with at four in the morning.”
She tugged on one of her stiff curls. “You could get out too.”
“Me?” Trina laughed. “I’ll be swinging around that pole ‘til the cellulite forces me off, babycakes.”
Steph laughed. Somehow she knew that was exactly right, and exactly wrong when it came to her. She’d danced to pay the rent and to have money to eat. She told herself it would only be until one of the auditions panned out. Except she wasn’t going to auditions like she used to and the tips were making her a little too comfortable.
“I gotta go, Trina. You know this isn’t for me.”
Her big, blue eyes filled again. “It could be.”
Steph covered her hand. “No, it can’t be.” She let it slip away. She wouldn’t let it be.
“But does it have to be tonight? You know Larry’s gonna flip.”
Richie’s shocked eyes flashed in her memory. “Yes, tonight.” She swallowed down the lump in her throat long enough to hug her friend. “Just smile pretty at him and tell him he won’t have to pay my ungodly salary anymore.”
Tears blinded her. Stephanie Loran walked out of Lady Tanga’s, leaving Rosie behind. Trish’s voice was plowing through the buzz in her head as she headed out the back door. He’d left. Simply left. No word, no gesture, just that one shocked look. She’d closed off on the rest, positive that he’d watched her. She’d felt his eyes.
She headed downtown, skipping even the trip back to her box of an apartment. There was nothing she wanted. Nothing she needed here in this city, nothing left but the dreams and pride that held her here.
She stood in line for the bus back home—back to NJ.
And who needed dreams anymore?