Excerpt from Second Time You
This was what she wanted.
Lexa stared at the dark-haired woman undulating her body against the pole in the darkened Showroom of Crystal’s pole studio located off a busy shopping street in New York City, her eyes closed in sensuous abandon.
Allure. Beauty. Confidence. This woman possessed the ABC of sexiness.
Something Lexa had always hoped would prove rather insignificant compared to, say, brains, until her eighteen-year-old bombshell cousin, Jenny, had marched a new boyfriend – a Hollywood A-lister lookalike with a heart and wallet of gold – into her parents’ house for Christmas dinner, two months ago.
The full package, Aunt Celia had whispered awestruck at the end of the evening, the direction of her gaze speaking louder than her words.
Even the men in the family had approved of the poor soul, after grilling him for hours.
Lexa had felt sorry for the guy and she had felt sorry for herself. Because at twenty-two she hadn’t even come close to fondling a full package, much less enjoyed the package as intended.
Sure, she’d shared a few kisses, had even managed to get groped in the backseat of a car – an experience she didn’t intend to repeat. Ever. Yet she still had to go the full length, so to speak.
Her roommate and best friend, Molly, ascribed Lexa’s lack of luck with men to the ‘sensible’ vibe she exuded ‘like perfume’. In Molly’s elaborate opinion, sensible was a close second to boring, and both character traits cock-blocked even the most daring specimen of the male population.
For Lexa, Molly saying ‘cock-blocked’ without blushing proved that Molly had experience with matters south of the belt-line and was probably speaking the truth.
But even if Lexa hadn’t believed in the Molly-ism, the dancer now dangling head-first from the top of the pole seemed to support the theory that attitude was more important than looks or wardrobe. Although attractive, the woman was by no means a stunner. Nor could her simple black outfit and bare feet hold a candle to the sparkling hot pants and six inch stripper heels of the other senior pole-students showing off their skill during the late evening open house show at Crystal’s. Still, the audience was spellbound.
Lexa was endlessly grateful for the knowledge.
Plastic surgery wasn’t something she wanted to consider and her meager monetary reserves didn’t extend to ‘barely there’ scraps of fabric.
She could, however, afford the course fee for an eight-week Beginners class here at the studio, if she was willing to forgo her daily Belgian waffles for at least a month.
Pulling her lower lip between her teeth, Lexa watched the woman’s navel piercing gleam dully in the soft-pink light, as she swung higher into the air, her legs releasing the metal rod, back arching in an upside down move that defied gravity and had the audience grabbing the edge of their seats.
If this was the end result, Lexa would probably have someone buying waffles for her.
The woman finally sank to the floor, her head bent gracefully towards her shoulder as the last few notes sounding from the stereo system’s speakers in the corner echoed through the dimly lit room.
Applause and shouts erupted, as the audience rose from their seats in excitement.
The woman gave a brief, impersonal smile before venturing off to the side to vacate the stage for the next dancer, a chubby blonde with a sparkle in her eyes.
Gaze still lingering on the dark-haired woman who had retreated towards a gathering of clothes and bags at the back of the room, Lexa watched her slip back into the wrinkle-free white blouse and navy blue pencil skirt she had arrived in earlier. The woman’s careless shrug into the corresponding suit jacket completed the transformation from sexy dancer to attractive business woman and was one more bullet point on the pro side of Lexa’s mental list.
Pole dancing and a professional career outside a strip club were not mutually exclusive.
Pole dancing and ongoing health, on the other hand, was a much trickier combination. The blonde, who had taken the stage, dove head-first down the pole at break-neck speed.
Lexa’s fear must have shown on her face, because the female host of the evening chose that moment to walk her tiny black spandex ensemble over to her.
“Don’t worry,” she said, a smile curving her ruby red lips. “Sophie has been a student in our Advanced class for the last year and a half. Beginners kick off with really easy moves. Our new term starts next week. You can sign up and pay at reception if you’re up for it. You’ll have to be quick, though. I think we have only one spot left.”
Nodding her thanks, Lexa cursed the carrying voice of the host when Barbie Doll from the fifth row grabbed her gigantuan designer bag complete with yapping Chihuahua, and started towards the door.
Bumping knees and whispering apologies, Lexa made it to reception first. Her sensible sneakers had given her the seconds’ advantage.
A ginger-haired girl standing behind the reception desk looked up as Lexa approached, her jaw rotating lazily in the fashion of a seasoned gum-chewing addict.
“I’d like to sign up for the new term Beginners class, please.”
“Sure thing.” The girl popped a bubble and beamed at Lexa, exposing a row of pearly whites caged by the stainless steel of fixed braces.
Lexa tried not to stare. Even harboring half of the country’s metal supply in her mouth, the girl lacked no self-esteem. Her grin seemed to widen as she brought up the schedule on the flat-screen computer in front of her.
Lexa ran the tip of her tongue over the inside of her lips where her own braces had cut into the soft tissue four years ago. Maybe Big Billie Joe wouldn’t have laughed at Lexa when she asked him out for prom if she had been a little less self-conscious and a little more like the bundle of energy she was currently talking to. Maybe then Lexa wouldn’t have cried for hours when, after a game of spin-the-bottle, Big Billie Joe’s best friend had told her that kissing her was like licking a bunch of railroad tracks.
Lexa shook herself to get rid of the unwelcome blast from the past and focused back on the girl in front of her. It had to be the atmosphere here at Crystal’s that had everyone brimming with aplomb. Lexa decided, more determined than ever, that she was going to immerse herself in it until it rubbed off on her.
“How did you hear about us?” Braces asked at that moment.
“There was a brief coverage of the studio on The Celebrity news two nights ago.” It had introduced pole dancing as the hip thing to do. Gyms were out. Running was yesterday. Swinging from a metal rod was the newest fashion.
Not someone to jump on the bandwagon normally, something about the sport had appealed to Lexa. It was…different. Unconventional. It was perfect for someone who had learned that ‘ordinary’ failed to live up to expectations time and time again.
Braces bobbed her head in satisfaction. “Oh yes. We shot that about a month ago. Crystal will be pleased to hear that the marketing strategy is working.” She gave a decisive click with her finger on the mouse. “You’re lucky, too. I have one spot left in the seven o’clock class on Thursdays. Shall I book you in?”
Barbie Doll behind Lexa sniffed loudly in affront. Lexa ignored the bad-tempered blonde. “That should work. Can I pay by card?”
“Sure can,” Braces said.
Lexa felt a nervous flutter in her stomach. She was really going to do this.
She could just imagine what her parents would say.
They’d probably make the two-thousand miles trip from Salt Lake to New York just to give her a lecture.
At least they could no longer check her spending habits now that she was self-financing her life.
Lexa bit her lip as she, once again, thought of the quickly disappearing amount of credit in her bank account. The money had been compensation for injuries she had suffered during a violent attack nearly four years ago. The payout had been laughable compared to the physical and emotional pain she had had to go through, recovering from the two jagged scars on her cheek. Just when her braces were being removed and Lexa thought she may finally have a shot at making a good impression on the male population, fate had decided differently.
Lexa huffed a sigh. At least the money had given her some freedom. Only now, the savings were running low. She needed to get a job and soon. Otherwise she would have to go back to using her parents’ money and that was the one thing she refused to do. It had been a major achievement to finally convince them that she needed to become financially independent. Not that they had really understood the need. Her mother had fought the request tooth and nail until Lexa’s father had pointed out that upsetting their emotionally fragile daughter was probably not the best of ideas.
His comment had its desired effect. Lexa’s mother backed off immediately, even while Lexa had barely kept from cringing. She wished they would finally stop their coddling.
She loved her parents. She truly did. On her good days she could even understand their overprotectiveness. They had all suffered after the attack. Still, at twenty-two Lexa needed some space. And that meant more than physical distance. She needed to make her own decisions. She needed to break out of her safety routine. Most of all, she needed to stop being her parents’ little girl and start being a woman if she really wanted to one day have her own hot date for Christmas dinner. Even if embracing her sexuality meant flouncing half naked around a stripper prop. It was all for a good cause. The Rescue Lexa Foundation.
Determined to go through with this idea, morals be damned, Lexa handed her credit card over to Braces.
“I want my whiskey neat.”
Jack Daniels lifted his gaze and studied his newest client over the width of the restaurant table, keeping his expression carefully bland.
Thirty-three, beach blonde and with a body that at least half of the office at Corporate Calls would die for to touch, he didn’t doubt Mrs. Marie-Lou Garnett was used to getting what she wanted. Like this lunch meeting in the romantic pizzeria around the corner instead of the cool conference rooms back at his office.
He also didn’t doubt that there was at least one thing Marie-Lou wanted that she wouldn’t get. Jack Daniels. Neat or otherwise.
Ignoring Marie-Lou’s eyes lingering on his suit instead of the whiskey she was complaining about, Jack waited until the waiter, a middle-aged man, had apologized profusely to Marie-Lou’s cleavage and swept the drink on the rocks away to get a fresh one according to order, before meeting his client’s gaze. “Mrs. Garnett—”
“Marie-Lou, Jack. Please.” She batted her darker-than-midnight lashes one time too many. “After all, we’re about to get much better acquainted.”
Acquainted was what Jack was worried about. He sighed surreptitiously, wondering for the hundredth time since seeing Marie-Lou Garnett sashaying into the restaurant what had ridden him to say ‘yes’ when his brother Michael had asked Jack to take over the kick-off meeting for the Dancing Bear project. Ambition, Jack reminded himself. The devil that had gotten him his PhD two years before everyone else. Unfortunately, ambition could sometimes be a bitch. And in this case her name was…“Marie-Lou, your husband wasn’t quite clear on the project requirements when he called earlier this morning.”
“Teddy,” Marie-Lou laughed. A guttural sound that Jack found as appealing as he would the scrape of her sharp, red-tipped nails across a chalk-board. “He isn’t very good at explaining things, I’m afraid.”
Jack begged to disagree. He thought Theodore ‘Teddy’ Garnett – one of the richest media moguls in the United States and main sponsor of The Great American Dance Off – had managed to explain the most important thing in seconds. His trophy wife’s happiness was the ticket to securing Corporate Calls’s financial future within a year of its inception. Treating her right – or wrong, Jack wondered – would ensure their ongoing cooperation with the biggest franchise of dancing shows for years to come.
Recognizing a cash bear when he saw one, Michael – as the older brother and senior partner of the company – had decided that this meeting was too important to be led by one of their two managers. Tied up himself, he had thrown Jack to the pussy-cat.
Jack suppressed a wince. The nickname mentioned by Teddy on the phone still had the power to make him cringe, especially as pussy-cat had turned into a cougar the minute Mr. Garnett dropped her off and left the building for another meeting. Of course, only after dutifully carrying Mary-Lou’s project bag into the restaurant.
Jack wondered if this was karma. The chance he had pounced on so eagerly to show his brother that he was worthy of the junior partner position he’d received six months ago, was now pouncing on him in return.
He had never considered himself easy prey, but Mary-Lou took the term ‘on the prowl’ to a whole new level.
Jack resisted the urge to drag a weary hand over his face and focused on re-routing Mary-Lou’s seduction attempts to project planning. Something that seemed more and more impossible by the second.
“Maybe you can shed some light on what it is exactly you’re looking for?” he prompted her, feeling his gut tightening with dread when the comment brought a sensual smile to Mary-Lou’s perfectly painted lips.
”I can most certainly do that, Jack,” she purred, her gaze still fastened on his body, as if what she was looking for was indeed what she was looking at.
Jack swallowed another sigh. The woman was a lost cause.
As if to prove him right, Mary-Lou seductively fluttered her lashes once more, arching one eyebrow in expectation.
Jack looked back at her with stoic calm.
He could tell the exact moment she realized he wasn’t going to take her up on her silent offer. Her smile turned forced around the edges before she slid smoothly into the professional persona that everyone knew from their late-night TV screen. To regroup, Jack was certain. Cougars didn’t know how to yield.
“The Great American Dance Off, or TGADO as our viewers like to call it, is looking to catch up with the rest of the planet.” She was all business – for now. Mary-Lou extracted a binder out of the project bag and, in a move that Jack believed was so ingrained it had become unconscious, tilted her head until her wavy hair spilled over her shoulder and curled into her cleavage.
Jack kept his gaze fixated on her face.
Mary-Lou tapped the first page of the binder, where a bar chart displayed the number of participants on the show.
“Set up as a dance-off between individuals, the show features a knock-out system. The competitors are divided into pairs and fight for survival against their partner. The winner of each duel progresses to the next round, the loser leaves the show as soon as the votes are in. The prize money and a contract with one of the biggest dance studios in New York attracts hundreds of people to audition every year. As per our rules, only individuals with an online following of at least one thousand fans are entitled to enter the competition. Just last fall, we’ve worked with OnComm to upgrade the way we determine the eligibility of new applicants.”
At the mention of their biggest competitor, Jack perked up. Much bigger than Corporate Calls, OnComm had been around for years, but was slowly losing its market share.
“What happened?” Jack asked, trying to glean where their rival had messed up so they could avoid making the same mistake.
Mary-Lou waved a dismissive hand in the air. “The attendance they gave to the project was sub-standard.”
Or was it the lack of attendance they gave to the project liaison, Jack wondered, hoping he would never have to actually find out.
“In any case,” Mary-Lou continued, clearly eager to move on, “we have terminated our contract with them, but are now left in a lurch for the second phase of the project.”
“The live-show voting.” Mary-Lou turned the page on the binder to show him another chart. “We’re still running an old-fashioned call center, when barely anyone wants to take the time or spend the money involved in picking up a phone. We’re planning for a new getup. An app to vote on mobile devices. A website with a voting feature. We hoped you could design both and the backend software with it, in a way that allows the results to be displayed in real time. The instant decision will cater to our viewers’ appetite for immediacy. I know that Corporate Calls is focusing on application and software development, not websites, but Michael promised you are well versed in both areas.” She held out the binder for Jack to take. “Our specifications are in the back.”
Jack stretched out his hand to grab the thin binder and felt Mary-Lou’s claws rake over his skin. He did a quick double take to see if the contact had been intentional, but Mary-Lou’s professional persona stayed firmly in place.
Choosing to ignore the contact, Jack flicked through the pages.
“How much has your previous project partner done to develop this idea?”
He set the binder on the table next to him. He and Michael would go through the documents in detail later. Even if Michael took over the project lead role, he always tried to include Jack in the decision making process. Jack had a feeling his brother was nudging him slowly in the direction of independently overseeing his own projects. Something Jack had managed to dodge for too long, considering his new position in the company.
But all of that was secondary at the moment. Right now, it was important for Jack to wrap up this meeting successfully and show his brother that it had been worth giving up his own dream of a university degree to pay for Jack’s education.
At the same time, he needed to find out how deeply involved Mary-Lou had been in the initial project development and how much she wanted to be involved going forward.
All the way it seemed, Jack thought when Mary-Lou gave him a detailed run-down of the few points OnComm had dealt with in the second project phase.
“However,” she said, resolutely dismissing OnComm’s work, “we’re looking to start over completely new. I wasn’t happy with the original ideas and would like to see where your imagination takes us.” She waited a beat until it was clear he couldn’t have missed the double-entendre. “I do assume you’ll be my liaison?”
Jack cringed when he saw Mary-Lou’s eyes light up at the possibility. He had been right. Her earlier defeat had been merely a retreat, to better gather momentum before she tried again. “The final decision has yet to be made.” He had no intention to be her anything. Jack was keen on proving his worth to his brother, but he’d prefer it was not at the expense of his dignity. “In any case, the day-to-day development of the application will rest with our very capable development team.”
“I see.” Mary-Lou tapped a slender finger thoughtfully against the tabletop. “I will have a conversation with your brother regarding who I deem to be the best project lead for this project.”
Which meant, unless she had the hots for Michael, too, Jack was going to be fucked.
At the thought, his manly bits tucked closer to his body in sheer self-preservation.
He was in for a long two months.