In most books and movies, the back half of a strip club is a dingy, dark, and dirty place with pint sized dressing rooms off creepy halls littered with debris. Entertainers are paid to shake their ass, smile pretty, and keep their mouth shut. They’re told to feel lucky to have a safe space to change out of their costume, let alone have clean water to wipe the stage paint from their face and the grime from their bodies.
Those fictional places were nothing compared to this.
Glancing around the cheerful area one more time, I felt like a famous A-list celebrity waiting in her private trailer between takes. Not only did I have my own dressing room–with four solid walls and a locking door–my street clothes hung in a real closet and big bright lights-the kinds old Hollywood starlets used-surrounded my mirrors.
Expensive designer makeup lined the table in front of me, my phone had been synced with a speaker, playing calming melodies to help me relax, and the rest of my costumes filled the rolling rack behind me, waiting for their turn. To someone who didn’t know me well, it looked like I had everything I needed. A quick glance around this room and you’d think I was all set to go put on one hell of a show, dance my ass off, and have tons of fun.
It couldn’t have been further from the truth. A major piece of me, one that I’d had at every performance so far, my security blanket, was missing. My fingertips tightened over the arms of the chair, manicured nails sinking into the faded padding, as I tried to keep the panic at bay. I didn’t know how to do this.
Canceling wasn’t an option either.
If I walked out front right now, I’d find accent lights giving the elevated stage a mysterious glow, buff bartenders in sleeveless button-down shirts pouring drinks quickly from behind the bar that ran along the entire length of the room, and waitresses dressed in black booty shorts and tightly-tied corsets taking orders and flirting their way to great tips as they flittered around the hundreds of anxious men–and few dozen excited women– who sat scattered throughout the open space. It would appear to be business as usual, just another day in the most visited burlesque club in Boston.
Tonight was anything but a normal evening in this joint, though. Ruffles McGee, Madam Sparkles, Peaches Anne Cream, Violet Tendencies, and Glitters Galore were making their large venue debut. For one night, and one night only, the most sought after private party entertainers in New England were going big–and bigger was better. At least that’s what the advertisements and billboard claimed. The dancers, who used burlesque roots with a modern twist, usually only appeared at exclusive, invitation only events that booked months in advance, so it came as no surprise when tickets for their show at Sway had sold out in mere minutes.
What the people in the other room didn’t know was that tonight was my last dance. I’d agreed to perform before my life fell apart, ready to go out with a bang, and would never back out at the eleventh hour, no matter how nervous or scared I felt. People depended on me.
That didn’t mean I wanted to be there though. Or that the nasty troll of self-doubt hadn’t reared her ugly head, taunting me, telling me that I’d flail without him.
The knock on the door wasn’t a surprise. Hell, I’d been waiting for them to come get me; the applause from the other acts told me it was almost my turn. Yet, I didn’t budge.
Waves of nausea washed over me. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d never performed in front of more than a few dozen people. And he’d always been hiding in the shadows, watching my six.
“Don’t do this, Cady.”
His voice echoed in my mind, as clear as if was standing right next to me. My breath caught and my stomach knotted so tight my back ached, a cold sweat covered my skin, and I wondered if it really was him on the other side of the door, if he’d come for me after all.
For a fleeting moment, a calmness I hadn’t experienced in weeks settled over me.
Then, memories came rushing forward. Angry shouts, accusations, weak denials filled with half-truths. My heart ached again, just like it had that night, the pain as tangible as if someone had reached into my chest and clutched the organ in an iron fist.
I heard my name, followed by another, much louder and more aggressive knock, yet I couldn’t move. It wasn’t what I wanted to be called coming from the voice I longed to hear.
It shouldn’t be like this.
When the door opened, I glanced over, sure I’d turned the damn lock to keep the world out.
My eyebrows rose at Francesca, my partner in crime. Frankie always looked stunning, but now she’d stop patrons in their tracks. The makeup flawless, her adorable freckles completely hidden, and her lips painted a sexy-as-sin shade of scarlet. The sleek midnight stacked bob wig she wore highlighted her sharp cheekbones and made her seem dangerous, a force to be reckoned with.
Six-inch red pleather stiletto thigh-highs that covered shiny fishnets, clung to her legs, shaping them in a way that would make every single person in the main room want to reach out and touch her. Metallic midnight shorts peeked out from under a half buttoned white long-sleeved dress shirt that contoured to her slim body perfectly. Over it all she wore a jet black thigh-length leather trench coat that told the world she was badass, and almost dared people to mess with her.
This woman wasn’t my best friend, the one who would live in baggy athletic shorts and logoed t-shirts. This was Madam Sparkles. An alter-ego who brought even the most powerful men to their knees.
The fierce amethyst dragon-eyed contacts she wore, not to correct her vision, but to help conceal her identity, almost disappeared as she narrowed her eyes, scanning me. Emotion fleetingly warred on her face, as she tired to decide if she should scold or coddle.
She did neither.
I waived in dismissal. I looked as close to my real-self as she did, but I didn’t need her to point it out. Randy had gone overboard with my makeup, applying it with a too heavy hand. I was fine with the transformation. None of the patrons out front would recognize me. That’s the way I wanted it.
I only truly cared about one man.
“Did you see him?” I heard the desperation in my own voice, unable to hide it from her. “Is he out there?”
Apprehension crossed her face as she bit the inside of her cheek. “Cady,” she started slowly, her tone sad.
She didn’t need to say more. I’d known it was a gamble when we’d been given the date, yet part of me had clung to the idea that he would find a way to be there for me, the way I had always found it in me to do the right thing for him. My heart sank, the pain in my chest palpable once more. He really hadn’t come.
He’d made his choice. It wasn’t me. To him, I would never be anything more than a girl who took off her clothes for money. It didn’t matter how hypocritical that belief was, coming from him. I shook my head in an attempt to drive the horrible thought away. I’d expected more from him.
“How in the hell am I supposed to go out there? How can I possibly do this without him?”
Frankie’s brow furrowed as she crossed her arms over her chest and considered my questions. “The same way you do everything else. You get up, put one foot in front of the other, and kick ass.”
Inhaling sharply, I closed my eyes and spun my chair. When I opened them, I didn’t recognize the woman staring back at me from the mirror. My typical frizzy mousy-light reddish brown mop had been styled in a sleek, soft wave, lengthened with the help of dozens of dark colored extensions. The smoky eye and contouring powder, added to the layers of foundation and creams, had transformed my face.
I might have looked like someone else on the outside, but I was still me. The awkward and introverted geek who hated to be the center of attention, yet needed to do whatever it took to finish school and get her degree. It didn’t matter what the men in the other room thought or what they said to, or about, me. This was all an illusion, the reflection had never really existed.
Unfortunately, I loved a man who struggled with that fact. It had been obvious for months that he was confused about his feelings, even though I’d clung to the hope that he cared about me as much as I did him. His absence tonight made it clear that I had been wrong.
“Fuck it.” I launched myself to my feet, smoothing my hands over the tight dark silver corset that hugged my curves, cinched my waist, and matched flawlessly with the pale gray sheer-strapped bra that both pushed my breasts together and gave them a lift. I fluffed the soft fabric of the layered navy blue and brown skirt that circled my hips, and straightened out the cascading ruffles of my hooded cape that fell to the floor behind me before I adjusted the leather cuffs around my wrists. With a deep breath, I turned to face Frankie, pure determination pumping through my veins. “Let’s go kick some ass.”
She reached for me as I approached, looping her arm through mine, and our steps synced as we made our way down the hall, stopping on the large bright neon green X that marked the spot in the wing. One of my friends worked the audience to a lighthearted beat, garnering loud hoots and obnoxious applause as she finished her routine.
Lost in memories of him, I barely noticed as Frankie nodded to someone at the edge of the curtain, and I didn’t hear one word the announcer uttered. When the lights faded and a staccato guitar and drum riff began to repeat, the entire room quieted. Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ wasn’t part of my usual routine and the moment Frank recognized the tune her face paled slightly. She stiffened and gaped, her eyes burning my skin as they raked over me. I could almost read her disgusted thoughts as her gaze lingered on my meticulously planned outfit and the familiar fabric that Randy had worked tirelessly to make perfect.
My lips twisted into a sarcastic smirk as she shook her head, horrified. I lifted a shoulder, pretending not to care. He wasn’t there to see, so screw him.
I ignored the way her eyes suddenly narrowed and the sneer she gave my Nordic warrior goddess-like costume, complete with knee-high fur boots, I took an apprehensive step forward and tugged the hood over my head. He might not want me, but every single man in that room would before the night ended. He’d taught me just how easily it was to convince someone you were their entire world.
As the distinctive wail came from the speakers, I strutted out onto the stage with a swing of my hips, threw my arms into the air, and forced my thoughts away from him and the nuptials being celebrated on the other side of town, and refused to picture the man who probably looked dashing in his tux as he spun his breathtaking new bride around the ballroom, moving in only the way he did.
He might not be there to see my performance, but I carried him with me everywhere. I always would. I closed my eyes, conjuring the vision of the smile he gave only to me, and let my body move to the sound of his favorite song.
The beat transported me away and I got lost in the energy of the audience. As my hands caressed my sides and hips, and each piece of costume slowly dropped to the floor behind me, memories of how I’d gotten to that stage assaulted me. Even with the heartbreak, the happiest highs and the darkest lows, if I had the chance to do it all over, I wouldn’t change a thing.
I put my back to the audience, pulled open the last clip on my corset and glanced over my shoulder flirtatiously, before I spun the piece of fabric on a fingertip and tossed it to no one in particular. Whistles pierced the air, cheers of people who appreciated burlesque made me smile. I shimmied my shoulders and bumped my hips before covering my breasts playfully with my hands and turning, a wicked grin tugging at my lips. Slowly my gaze drifted around the room, looking for a man who needed a little extra attention.
Instead, a familiar face jumped out at me. The pair of dark eyes widened when I met them, then narrowed, filled with unbridled anger and resentment. I almost missed my step.
I ignored the pure bitterness that was aimed my way and turned back to my adoring fans, heart beating wildly. Ruffles McGee might not change a thing that had happened in the last few months because she loved her life. Cady Knowlton, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure.