***Chapter One***
Word Count: 11,022

May 1994

John wasn't a huge strip club fan. He had been once upon a time, but it was a very bad habit he got rid of a couple of years ago. One that could make a normally sane and responsible man lose it. It didn't take him long to lose stuff. He hadn't realized it was happening at the time, which wasn't unusual he'd come to learn. The stuff he lost he couldn't say he cared much about. There was a lot more to learning by example than he would've believed. The man he wanted to be nothing like reared his ugly head in John's mind more often than not for a while there.

Walking away from the only good thing in his life hadn't helped matters any. He was no better off than he had been when he'd done it either. He should've been. He should've been set for fucking life. He'd pissed that shit away, though. His own fault. He had no one to blame for where he was today but himself. He'd like to blame someone else, but he knew where the buck stopped. At his doorstep.

He was going tonight because one of the guys he worked with was getting married. John had rolled his eyes when he'd been invited to come to the bachelor party, but he liked Lucas well enough so he'd agreed to go. Even if he thought the guy was making the hugest mistake of his life. Both for having a bachelor party at a strip club and getting married in general.

He almost reconsidered coming this afternoon. Staying home would be a much better time for him, or going to a bar where he had a chance of meeting someone he wanted to and could take home with him. The guys he worked with were really the closest things John had to friends these days. It wasn't so easy making them working the hours they worked. He certainly saw them more than anyone else. That was what led to him deciding to go despite really not wanting to at all.

It was a great night for his motorcycle, so that's what he took when he headed toward the club they were all meeting up at. He wasn't going to be drinking since it was a topless club so he wasn't worried about riding home later on it. He supposed there was something to be said for the guys planning Lucas' bachelor party choosing this place over some of the others that served liquor but weren't topless as a result. If he was going to spend his money he'd much rather see the tits than have them covered up even just as little as the law dictated. He'd been to a place or two over the years that used makeup to cover up the, apparently, offensive nipples. Most of them though used some sort of covering.

He found their group easily enough. There was about thirty of them, well over half of those he recognized from work. The other, less than half were probably friends of Lucas' or his soon-to-be wife. John thought he remembered Lucas saying she had a brother or two.

"You did make it," Lucas said as John shook his hand. Clearly, by the looks of things he and a few others had stopped off somewhere for a few drinks before coming here. He wasn't in the wedding party so wasn't offended he hadn't been included in the earlier part of the evening. For all John knew it was an impromptu thing.

"You sure you don't want a beer, John? We have some left in a cooler in my truck," Karl said.

"Nope, I'm fine," he said.

He took a seat near one or two of the more sober-appearing guys in the group. He figured if nothing else they could have a laugh at the drunk ones' expense.

The entertainment was … God, why did guys enjoy this shit? He'd been no exception, so he supposed it wasn't his place to judge. It was so staged, fake. Each and every one of the girls was there to make each and every guy think she was dancing just for him. All to get as much in tips as she could get. You came here with one hundred dollars in your pocket, the one dancing closest to you wanted every penny of that. And then some. She wanted you to request her for your table or lap dances. That was where the real money was. The drunker men got the easier it was to part with their money, too, at the clubs that weren't topless and allowed liquor. John had experience with that. The empty wallet at the end of the night had been the least of his problems when all was said and done.

One other guy in the group seemed to be of the same mindset as John so John spent a good portion of his time talking to him. He'd grown up with Lucas and was his best man, but hadn't planned this portion of the night. He seemed like a decent enough guy and didn't get the appeal of the entertainment any more than John did. John didn't admit that he had at one time found it very appealing. Some things were perhaps left unsaid and in the past.

He was about to leave, had his jacket on and everything. It had gotten up to eighty degrees during the day but yesterday their work day had started barely into the fifties and this morning hadn't been much better. So, he'd worn the jacket not knowing how late he'd stay. Never mind he didn't like riding without a jacket on, it at least offered him some protection from getting scraped up to hell if he got into an accident.

"Come on, John, stay a little while longer. A guy doesn't get married every day. At least I don't."

"Yeah, yeah," John sighed.

He was not a fan of marriage. The guys he worked with knew that. He had no reason to stay. The guy he'd been talking to seemed as if he was ready to leave and he really wasn't having that good of a time. Bars in general were okay to hangout. Drunk people there could at least be entertaining. There was always the chance the chick he (or any guy) had has eye on would be receptive. Here it was difficult to sit back and know that his friends and their friends were getting taken to the cleaners. (John had very wisely left all but thirty bucks at home tonight. He had no problem tipping a particularly good dancer. He'd encountered so few of those in his recent trips to clubs like this so certainly wasn't planning on it tonight. He was a lot pickier than he used to be he supposed.)

He almost said no, until he heard a song come on that he at least wouldn't mind sitting through hearing for the first four or five minutes of the newest group of dancers sets. It was a bit of a change of pace up to this point of the night, slower in tempo. The title of Bump 'n Grind was certainly appropriate. So, he figured what the fuck and sat, leaving his jacket on so he wouldn't be convinced to stay too much longer. It took him a while to focus on the dancer nearest them. He'd heard so many utterances of how hot or gorgeous each dancer was versus the last one. He wondered how much they'd had to drink before coming here. Liquor could make Medusa look beautiful. John hadn't encountered many Medusa's, but certainly he'd woken up to one or two who came close. So he tuned the guys out as they ogled and said things they'd never say if the dancer in question was their sister or one of her friends. He avoided paying too much attention to the dancers, too. Making eye contact was deadly. If they saw you looking they thought you were interested.

He had to admit he didn't mind watching this one dance. She moved in a way that suggested she hadn't been doing this for years and years, giving the impression maybe she was kind of new at this. New wasn't always bad. He tried to remain focused on her legs, which were very nice but he found his gaze drifting up as she moved her hips to the beat of the music.

He wasn't a fan of blondes. Once upon a time he couldn't get enough of them. It'd been a phase, though, not really what he liked. This one, though, knew how to dance. More than one of the guys in their group went up to tip her. Soon enough there was no room left in her G-string for the bills she was getting but the guys made do as best as they could. She obviously didn't mind either.

She wasn't their best dancer of the night, but she certainly was trying. Add to that she had, in John's mind, the best set of tits of the night because as opposed to everyone else there, hers were very obviously real. Too new to fall into the trap that she needed to get implants in order to make better money? Or just hoping that guys like him who actually appreciated the real thing would notice and like her over the other dancers on stage?

He sure noticed.

She turned around, facing away from them once it was clear their group was done tipping her. He thought briefly someone had slipped something into his drink and he was hallucinating. It was the only reasonable explanation for what he was seeing.

"What the fuck?" he said. He was absolutely certain he was seeing things. He had to be. There was no way in a million years she'd be here. Stripping no less and seeming comfortable doing it. It was impossible.

"You say something, John?" Tuck said. (Who the fuck named their kid Tuck anyway. John had assumed until about two months ago that it was the guy's nickname, but no his parents had actually named him that legally and everything.)

"Uh, no," he said quickly.

And yet.

He couldn't be seeing things, though, because he wasn't hallucinating. No one in their group would slip something into his Coke. They knew he didn't do that shit and couldn't do that shit anymore. They were too preoccupied spending their money. Some of them were jerks, but not to the point of spiking a sober person's pop. He hadn't left the table or anything either. So, hallucinating was out.

That meant.

She was here. Working as a stripper.

"You know her?" Tuck asked.

"Uh why?" he asked with a frown. Was he being that obvious about it? He was trying not to be.

"Her tattoo. It looks almost identical to yours. Same color and everything. Yours is a little darker, though."

There was a reason for that. He'd been with her the day she'd gotten the butterfly tattoo. It was her own design so it was as one-of-a-kind as a tattoo could get. He did, in fact, have almost the exact same tattoo. The only difference being some shading and more hardened and severe edges to the butterfly so it didn't look feminine. He'd almost chosen to get something else, but a few months later he was very glad he hadn't been stupid enough to get her name tattooed on his body somewhere. He would've done it, too. He was lucky none of the other guys were paying that close of attention to her tattoo, because to John it was pretty obvious they were identical. He'd contemplated getting it removed or something else done over it to cover it, but he'd never bothered. No one questioned why he had a tattoo of a butterfly, so he guessed it didn't make him look like a fag or anything. He hadn't thought about that when he'd gotten it.

"Uh no. Butterfly tattoos are a dime a dozen. I picked it out off of a wall," he said, hoping Tuck bought the lie.

He returned his attention to her. He smirked a little as he watched her, intrigued now. The initial shock of seeing that tattoo had passed, though he was still stunned.

My how the high and mighty had fallen. He wondered what her Shermer High fan club would pay to see her shaking her ass, essentially naked but for a barely-there strip of fabric between her legs, for any guy in Chicago willing to come see her dance.

They would pay good money to see pictures of this he was sure of it. If John were as big of an asshole as lots of people (including her no doubt) thought he was he could certainly capitalize on the situation. He was sure she wouldn't want anyone to know what she was doing. He still knew phone numbers of some people who could get word around fast enough. He hadn't talked to many of them in a while, but he still knew how to get a hold of them.

He wouldn't do that because he didn't want to hurt her any more than he already had. There were some people they'd gone to school with he'd do it to in a heartbeat without batting an eyelash. Claire wasn't one of them.

He couldn't help but wonder what ol' Mrs. Standish thought of her daughter's chosen occupation. He was surprised this place hadn't been shut down as a result of employing her here. He knew full-well the lengths her mom would go to to keep her on the path she believed her daughter was on. So, why was she still here? There was no way she'd get away with hiding this sort of thing from her. Her mom was a resourceful and clever woman when she wanted to be. John had learned that first-hand. He hadn't forgotten that about her either to this day.

Then he grew curious. What had happened in the past nine years that she was here? Instead of taking Daddy's handouts? No scars and no stretch marks so being here because she was supporting a few kids was out of the question. (And that thought relieved him to no end for some bizarre reason.)

She was one of the last dancers of the night. Then she could have been at another section of the rather large stage earlier and he just hadn't seen her. The stage could accommodate probably up to eight dancers at a time. Tonight it'd been mostly a rotation of six. The girls' goal was to get on stage as often as they could in order to get interest piqued for table and lap dances. That was how it worked in these places. As the night went on, too, the place filled up so the later dancers tended to make more money. Potentially.

"Stop gawking," he said, slapping one of the guys next to him who was following her path from the stage to the dressing room area with his eyes as if contemplating going after her. He could acknowledge that even the view of her from behind was a nice one. He'd always thought she had a nice ass. It was good to know that hadn't changed.


"Never mind," John murmured.

He'd slug every one of them if he could, but that wouldn't win him any points. He'd get arrested and he didn't feel like ending his Saturday night at a strip club that way. Certainly, he'd have no friends come Monday morning, which ordinarily wouldn't have really bothered him. He had to work with them, though. Overall, he liked the guys who were in his crew and going out at the end of the day with them was better than going to an empty apartment.

He downed the rest of his watered-down Coke not long after she'd returned to the dressing room area. The club wasn't going to be open for too much longer so the chances of her appearing on stage again were pretty slim. He certainly had no desire to know if anyone from Lucas' bachelor party got a lap dance with her. He wasn't going to sit here and watch her do a table dance for them either. Leaving was the best course of action.

"I'll see you on Monday, Lucas, thanks for inviting me to tag along."

"You sure, John?" Lucas asked.

"Yup. I've had my fill of fun for the evening. Thanks again."

His wedding wasn't until next weekend, which explained why John would see him on Monday. He just hoped in between John's leaving and Lucas' leaving he didn't do anything stupid. His fiancée's brothers being there would hopefully be incentive enough for the guy not to.

John started his motorcycle, revving the engine a bit before taking off from the parking lot as quickly as he could. If he stayed, if he thought too hard on it, he'd look for her. That would get him nowhere except looking down the neck of a never-ending bottle. He'd burnt that bridge. There was no way in hell he was going to be allowed to cross it again.

Been there. Done that.

He was not going back there again.

He went back the next weekend and the next, always mindful to stay out of her line of sight. The stage lights made it difficult to see anyone past those standing right by the stage anyway. He knew that, but he was careful just the same.

A month of trying to decide which he wanted to do more: beat the crap out of every guy who saw her like this or take the voluptuous waitress up on her offer of a date after she got done with her shift. He always seemed to get the same one, and she didn't seem to make the offer to every guy so she evidently liked something about him. More than once he'd been tempted. The temptation came when he saw Claire go to one of the private booths with guys willing to pay the fee for a more private lap dance with the dancer of his choice. It wasn't a separate room, but there were walls in between each booth giving the illusion it was just the customer and the dancer for that little while. A lightweight curtain was drawn to give the further illusion of privacy. She was fairly popular, not surprising. She was attractive, fit, with an exceptional body on her. Contrary to what most strippers seemed to believe, there were lots of men out there who liked their tits the way God made them, squeezable. Those fake things just were nowhere near as nice. There was no way in hell she shouldn't be raking in the money every night she worked. A couple of times he even saw her go back with a woman. And that was an image he had absolutely no business enjoying. Immensely.

Every time he saw her she had the blonde hair. Odd choice since her stage name was Ariel. He'd think she'd capitalize on the whole Little Mermaid thing and go with her natural hair color. Then what did he know? Maybe men didn't want to think of a Disney character while watching her dance.

He came in on a Sunday night in June with enough money in his pocket this time to actually talk to her. He was entering dangerous territory doing this. He'd sworn he would never talk to or even see her again. He'd kept his promise for years now. He'd left her high and dry without a phone call giving her a reason she wasn't going to hear from him again.

It wasn't his fault she'd, quite literally, fallen into his lap years later. He'd come to terms with his weaknesses and given control over to his Higher Power. He'd come to believe in things like fate along the way, too. Like stumbling across her now, years later. Mommy couldn't interfere. How much further did she think John could drag her down? She was already taking her clothes off for tips as a job. Something John certainly wouldn't have allowed her to do if they'd stayed together.

He had planned on them staying together, too. Mommy Dearest had other, better, plans for her daughter than the likes of John Bender, though.

He tried telling himself it wasn't any residual attraction but curiosity getting the better of him causing him to fork over a good chunk of his paycheck to ensure he'd get a lap dance with her in one of the booths. (And, yeah, okay, maybe there was a part of him that remembered what being in love with her had been like and wanted to be sure she was all right and not here dancing out of some necessity or to feed a habit.) Being a Sunday it wasn't nearly as busy as the previous nights of the weekend, but he wanted to be sure his request was taken seriously.

He was led to one of the private booths. He was a little relieved to know this was one of the establishments in the Chicago area that did not allow illegal contact to occur between its dancers and the paying clients. (The overly attentive waitress had told him that one of the nights he'd been here and they'd talked on and off while he was there.) That meant she was really in these private sections giving lap dances not fucking every one of the guys she came back here with. He'd been to an establishment or two that didn't care what happened between stripper and client behind closed doors. John had frequented one of them for about a year.

She didn't even look at him when she came to him. Well, she glanced, but obviously wasn't looking to take him in or see him over any of the other guys willing to pay for a private lap dance with her. He looked, too, before the realization of who he was sunk in with her. He didn't doubt for a second she wasn't going to be pleased and would probably try to get out of having to give him his dance. He didn't want the fucking dance, but he'd paid for her time. He wasn't going to let her out of that.

So, what did he say to the woman he was on the verge of asking to marry him nine years ago before her mom interfered? He had no clue. She wasn't going to be happy no matter what he said, but he had to know why the fuck she was here. That she was okay. He couldn't just blow off the fact that the most unlikely person in the world was working as a stripper.

"Why Ariel?" he asked as she was getting ready to straddle him.

"I like the name," she said.

"Why'd you go blonde then? The red would go well with the name, wouldn't it?"

She knew then. Maybe she didn't recognize his voice. He couldn't deny that hurt, but he supposed he couldn't blame her. She saw dozens of guys a night here. He had no idea how long she'd been working here to know how many voices since his she'd heard. Nine years was a very long time.

"What the fuck are you doing here?"

"Paying for a lap dance."

"Very funny," she said. "I'll refund your money."

"Not so fast," he said, settling his hands at her hips. Very wrong. He knew he could get in huge trouble for handling her if someone saw him. Or if she took it upon herself to complain. He'd very likely be told not to come back, which would be all right generally speaking.

"I don't want the dance," he said.

Touching her had been a mistake for a very different reason than the potential for his getting in trouble. He remembered vividly the first time he'd coaxed her onto his lap to take him inside of her that way. She'd pulled away almost exactly the same way she had just now and he'd grabbed her much the same way, too. "I realize you have to make it look like you're giving me one. You used to like sitting on my lap." Boy had she. After that first time he almost thought he'd created a monster because she loved fucking him like that more than any other position. He hadn't minded, not in the least. Far from it.

"I'm not that girl anymore, John."

"Obviously," he said bitterly. "I just want to talk to you."

"Now? You want to talk to me now? Are you fucking crazy? I'm at work."

"Yeah, and I paid for your time. You'd rather be with some other guy paying for your time to grind on them and shove your tits in their face?"

She nibbled at her lower lip, and he was glad to see she still had that nervous habit. She did it when she was thinking things through.

"I mean they're still nice tits, don't get me wrong. If it'd make you feel better for taking my money I wouldn't be opposed to the idea…"

"How did you find me?"

"I didn't. I mean, I wasn't looking for you. Get over yourself. I came in here about a month ago with some friends for a bachelor party. Wouldn't have recognized you if it wasn't for that fucking tattoo."

"Yeah," she said. "You still have yours?"

"Yes," he said.

"I liked yours better," she said.

"Why?" he asked with a frown. His was just kind of a roughed up version of hers, so they were essentially the same. That had been the point of getting them together. The same thing, but not quite. She wasn't going to get skulls or anything like that. He wasn't going to get roses so they'd settled for butterflies.

"I don't know. It turned out nicer," she said with a shrug.

"I haven't gotten a real good look at it, but yours still looks pretty good and fresh. I was surprised."

"I had it touched up about seven months ago. I figured doing this I shouldn't have it look all faded and aged. Don't want the paying customers thinking I'm as old as I am."

"I suppose not," he said, sliding a hand to her hair. He had to. "It's a wig," he said, more relieved than he thought he could be at the idea that she hadn't dyed her hair.

"It is," she said.

"It's a good wig," he said.

"I know. I spent a lot of money on it. No one here knows my real hair color except my roommate."

"Your roommate?"

"Yeah, she works here, too."

"I see," he said.

He didn't, not really. Why the fuck was she doing this? Why was she living with other strippers? What the fuck had happened? If he didn't know better he'd swear he was living out an episode of The Twilight Zone because it was just insane to think of Claire Standish doing this. She was currently sitting on his lap in a G-string with no top on. If he wanted to be a dick he could make her give him what he'd paid for. He didn't ever want to pay her for what he'd gotten for free once upon a time, though.

He couldn't deny it was tempting as hell to touch her. Fuck, he'd loved touching her. To this day he still maintained she had the best tits he'd ever had the pleasure of touching.

"So, why a blonde Ariel?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I should ask you how you know who Ariel is."

"So, your mom…"

"You can't mention my mom here. I can't stop you from coming here. I can't stop you from paying for time with me, but you cannot talk about me here as if you know me."


"It's Ariel," she hissed. "I mean it, John. I can't stop you, but if you're going to do that I will tell the managers you did something you shouldn't be doing and you won't be able to get back in."

"You'd do that?"

"If you tell people anything about me. Yes."

"What the fuck is your deal?"

"You should talk, asking me to justify myself to you. I'm not the one who asked you to move in with me and then never returned your calls again."

"I know," he said.

"I can't talk about this now, John, I really can't. It's just not a good time, you know?"

"No, I certainly don't know. I'd like to find out, though," he said.

Fuck, he hadn't broken up with her as he had for this to happen to her. Where the fuck was her mother? Screw her mother. Where was her old man? He'd been a pretty standup guy John thought, loved Claire and everything. So why wasn't he helping his daughter out. He watched her closely, too, looking for any signs that she was on something. He had met very few strippers who weren't on something. It was how they got through working this kind of job, numb and stoned out of their gourd so they didn't have to think about the fact they were selling themselves. Not every guy who paid for lap or table dances looked like Tom Cruise either. He'd wager a good portion of them were on the opposite end of the looks scale. (Then he'd paid for lap dances over the years, so he wasn't sure what that was saying about him.)

She leaned toward him and he couldn't help it. He groaned like a man dying of thirst given a sip of water when he felt her breasts against him. He thought for a second she was going to kiss him, but she leaned toward his ear instead.

"I want you to leave and forget you saw me, John. I really do. I can't stop you from coming here, but I won't take another dime of your money. If you come here and ask for another dance I will tell them you tried to do something."

"Claire," he whispered. "Ariel, sorry," he hissed. "Come on. I just want to talk to you. That's all I'm asking for here. I mean, this is me you're talking to."

"You don't know me! I already said I'm not that girl anymore."

"I know that. Clearly, but come on. This isn't you. Working in a place like this."

"Why the fuck do you care?"

"Why do I care?" He sighed. He shook his head. "Because I love you. I never stopped loving you."

"You have a real fucked up way of showing it."

"I know," he said. "I was stupid. You know. I was nineteen. If I could go back an undo a decision I made I'd do it. You certainly wouldn't be working here if I had."

"You don't know what I'd be doing."

"You think you'd need to work some place like this if we were married? I realize I'm not in the same league as big brother Chris, but I'd be able to support you just fine."

Tears formed in her eyes and he hated seeing them there.

She leaned toward his ear again.

"There's a Denny's down the road about twenty miles. If you really want to talk to me meet me there at four."

"In the morning?"

"That's what time I can be there."

"There's a place right down the street, though," he whispered, as much as the music in this place would let him whisper. God, this close she smelled terrific. She still wore the Chanel No. 5 she'd been so fond of then. He'd bought her a bottle for Christmas once and about had a heart attack at how much it cost.

"People from here go there after work. They'd see me talking to you. I don't look that different without the wig. The Denny's is safer, far enough away so very few from here go there."

"Are you all right?" he asked.

She laughed softly at that, pulling away from him and he missed her immediately. He fought the instinct to touch her, to settle his hands over the parts of her he was still so fond of so he could feel the weight of her in the palms of his hands once more. God he'd missed that, her. He'd tried to find it elsewhere, replace her and he hadn't been able to.

"Four o'clock," she whispered. "If you're not there by fifteen after I'm leaving and I won't see you again."

"Yeah, all right," he said. He had no idea what the fuck he'd do between now and then. It wasn't exactly a hop, skip, and a jump away from his place. He'd figure out something he supposed because he was curious.

He found a bar not far from the Denny's in question and ordered a Coke and a shot of whiskey, separate.

"You look mighty thirsty," the bartender said. He was an old guy, probably pushing seventy and from the looks of things had probably served more shots of whisky than John could fathom over the years.

"Yup," John said.

"It ain't going to bite you."

"Maybe not literally."

"Ah," the bartender said with a knowing nod. "One of those nights."

"Yup," John said. He ran a fingertip along the rim of the shot glass. God, it'd be so easy. Just toss it back. He could still taste the way it felt going down, that burning sensation that he'd lived for night after night. What could it hurt?

"Women trouble?" he asked, as if sensing John's thoughts were taking him down a road he didn't need to go down.

"Isn't it always?"

"Most of the time," he agreed. The guy must have heard some stories over the years, too, to form that opinion based on. "The fairer sex has been responsible for more than one man to fall off the wagon."

"I'm not off yet."

"You're thinking about it awfully hard."

"Yup," he said, dipping a finger into the shot glass' contents. He sighed softly as he lifted it out, watching the amber liquid drip back into the little glass. What a waste.

The bartender handed him his bar towel, which John took and dried his finger off. He'd have to go to the bathroom before he left to wash his hands. Wiping it off wouldn't remove every trace of the liquor. He knew that. That's all he'd need, get to Denny's and forget he'd done it and taste the whiskey by accident.

"Want to talk about it?" he asked.

John tapped a cigarette out from his soft-pack, offering one to the bartender. Being a Sunday he wasn't exactly overwhelmed by business. John currently had his undivided attention. The only other person in the bar currently appeared to be passed out at the other end of the bar.

"Not much to talk about. It was a long time ago, just wasn't planning on seeing her," he said, lighting the cigarette before offering the lighter to the man.

"What happened?"

"We were young. She was in college. I asked her to move in with me. Her mom found out. You know that movie The Godfather?"

The bartender scoffed.

"Yeah, I guess you would know it," he'd probably seen it when it came out in theaters. "Well, her mother made me an offer I was too stupid to realize I could refuse."

"What kind of an offer?"

"A lot of money if I'd go away."

"How much are we talking here?"

"Enough to buy a house, a motorcycle, and a car with and still have some left over."

"A nice house?"

"Nice enough."

"I noticed you pulled up in a motorcycle."

"That's all I have left."

"You lost a house?"

"Divorce. She wanted the house, I didn't give a shit. I should've since it was paid off, but," he said lifting the shot glass. "This shit prevented me from seeing that."

"So you took the money?"

"Never called her again. Not even to say good bye. I knew if I did," he sighed.

"You'd go back on your word?"

"Yup. She had that kind of an effect on me. Saw her about a month ago in the last place I ever expected to see her. Her mom handing me a check for that amount of money was nothing to her family."

"Well to do?"

"Yeah," he said, taking a sip of his Coke before a drag from his cigarette. He exhaled with a shake of his head. "So there's absolutely no reason she should be working this kind of job, you know?"

The bartender nodded a bit as he smoked the cigarette John had given him.

"So I finally approached her tonight and she told me to meet her down the street at four. Not a whole lot else open besides your place here. We'll see if she shows. I wouldn't blame her if she didn't. I wouldn't show if I was her."

"Me neither," the bartender said.

"Thanks," John said, laughing softly.

"You going to tell her?"

"I don't know. I guess it depends on what she tells me. She's going to be mad."

"Probably more mad at her mother than you."


He sighed softly, pushing the shot glass away. The bartender took it and dumped it down a sink back there. John watched him do it, almost stopped him at the last minute. Almosts didn't count with this stupid fucking disease. The bartender only charged John for the Coke, which was nice of him. He certainly would've been within his right to charge him for the shot.

"You have a sponsor?"

"I do," he said.

"Might want to call him."

"I will when I get home."

"Good. I think you might need that."

"I think so, too."

The bar closed at three. John must have struck the old guy as being harmless because he let him sit there, nursing his Coke while he closed up. If he'd known him six or seven years ago he wouldn't have trusted him.

He rousted the passed out guy, John helped him get him up and standing so he could leave the bar on his own two feet.

"He need to get somewhere?" John asked.

"Nah, he'll stumble home. He only lives about three blocks from here."

"Ah," John said. "Thanks for the Coke and stuff."

"I hope she shows."

"I'm not sure if I do or not."

The bartender chuckled as he locked the door.

"Something tells me she realizes you'll just show up wherever she's working again if she doesn't."

"Probably," he said. He had to know, though, so he probably would go there again until she actually met him.

He made his way down the street to the Denny's in question. It was a little before four o'clock so he got a booth, ordering another Coke and telling the waiter he was waiting on another person. He hadn't remembered to wash his hands before leaving the bar so he took the time before she got there to do it now.

It was a little after four when she got there, but he wasn't going to quibble over ten minutes. He was surprised she was meeting him truthfully. He wouldn't have if the situation was reversed. Then, as the bartender had said, he would've just shown up again.

"Sorry," she said.

"It's nice to see the red," he said.

"You don't get to talk to me about my choice in hair color, John. Ever."

"Hey, I was paying you a compliment. I like the red. Sue me."

"Thanks. I'll store it away for the next time I dress with you in mind. That will be never so I guess I don't need to store it away."

"What is your problem?"

"My problem? You show up where I work…"

"I wasn't stalking you or anything. Get over yourself, fucking-A. I paid for my time with you. My money spends the same as everyone else's last I checked. And like I said, at least for that bit of time you didn't have to do what you normally do."

She sighed softly.

"Why'd you come back?"

"What?" he asked, confused.

"You said you were there a month ago for a bachelor party. Why'd you come back?"

"To find out why in the fuck you are working there."

"God, I had hoped this place was far enough away from anyone I could possibly know."

"I go where the good times take me, Princess."

"Don't you dare call me that. Ever again. I'm not your princess, and I'm positive I never really was. It was all bullshit. You got me out of my panties. Got me to fall in love with you. You won whatever game you were playing and I lost. I was an idiot and you were everything everyone else told me you were. I'm here to explain something to you. That's it. I don't want to see or hear from you again after tonight."

"All right."

"I'm working on my Doctorate of Psychology dissertation. My study is on the life of those in the sex … field. Strippers mostly. It's no huge mystery why prostitutes become prostitutes. Generally. There've been studies done on it. I wanted to delve deeper into what drove men and women to take off their clothes in front of strangers night after night. I've talked with some prostitutes because I wanted to be able to compare and contrast. For some reason strippers aren't as willing to talk as prostitutes are. I guess because my questions can't be asked in the amount of time it takes to complete a lap dance."

"I'm sorry, you've paid prostitutes to talk to them?"

"Yes. Most of them seem almost relieved to spend a couple of hours with me and have nothing expected of them but talking. I usually buy them something to eat or a cup of coffee whatever."

"Okay," he said cautiously.

"I tried for over a year to befriend someone, anyone, but no one would give me the time of day. So, finally, my friend and I came up with the bright idea …"

"To become strippers?"

"Yes. My roommate. Her name is Brenda and she works there, too. She got the job before I did so it wouldn't seem suspicious that we already lived together."

"Right," he said. "How long have you been doing this exactly?"

"Six months now. I have six more months to go. I mean, if I get enough information before that I can stop, but I want as much information as I can. I don't want to feel as though I missed something, didn't research enough."

"And Brenda?"

"I'm kind of to make sure she doesn't get sucked in."

"It's easy to do."

"I know."

"She's not worried about you?"

"No," Claire said with a shrug. "It's a job. It's research. I can compartmentalize. Working there, though, it allows me to make friends. As friendly as we can be with one another. It's fairly competitive."

"Right. Sure. They don't want you to get more stage time than them because more stage time means more potential private dances. I know how it works."

"Spend a lot of time in strip clubs?"

"More than enough."

"Not surprising."

"Nope," he said with a shrug. "Do you, uh, want something to eat?" he asked when he saw their waiter approaching their table.

"Just a Coke."

"Come on. You've been working all night. You've got to be hungry."

"I could go for something, I suppose. I just…"

"Don't worry. I know what this is and isn't."

"Okay. Give us another minute then please," she said to the waiter. "When you come back with my Coke I should be ready."

"Okay," he said, walking away.

"So," she said, after they ordered. "The bachelor party wasn't for you, I take it?"

"Why?" he asked with a frown.

"No ring," she said.

"Oh," he said with a soft chuckle. "No, not this time."

"You're married?"

"No, I was."

"Really?" she asked and for some reason he got the feeling she hadn't liked that answer.

"Twice," he said with a shrug.

"Twice? You're twenty-nine years old."

"I repeat mistakes?"

"What happened?"

He sighed. "I didn't love them."

"Why'd you marry them?"

"Because I thought I could. I don't know. I was a fucking drunk, you know. I was lucky I didn't get a DWI every day."

"You weren't that bad…"

"No, I wasn't. Things changed. I made a bad decision and I drank myself into a bottomless pit. Got married because I thought it'd help get me out of that bottomless pit. It didn't, though."



"Sure," she said.

"They weren't you."

"Shut up."

"I'm serious. You don't know what happened. I know what you think happened."

"You mean you got too close to an actual commitment and ran away?"

"Yeah, that. It's not what happened."

"What happened then?"

"Your mom happened."

"My mother?"

"Yup. You must have told her about our plans to move in together."

"I told my dad…"

"He must have shared the news with your mom then. She paid me a visit one day. Told me under no circumstances was she going to allow it."

"I was an adult."

"She told me that if I continued seeing you she'd make my life a living hell. Police, job references, whatever. You can imagine, at the time, possessing alcohol under the age of twenty-one was the least of my concerns and she knew that. She sweetened the pot, though, by offering me money. I took it," he shrugged.

"I'm sorry. My mother paid you to stay away from me and you let her do that?"

"I was nineteen years old. I'd never seen a check with that many zeroes in it before in my life. I knew what she said was the truth, I wasn't going to do anything but hold you back, tie you down. I also knew she would've been able to ruin my life. I didn't think I was going to be the next Rockefeller or anything, but I certainly didn't want my choices even more limited than they already were with a felony on my record."

"She didn't even know you."

"She knew my mom, I guess. Guilt by association. She was right on as it turned out."


"I got married about six months later. Thought it'd be the perfect way to get on with my life without you."

"Marrying someone?"

"Sure. If I had a wife who wasn't you I wasn't going to crawl back to you."

"Oh," she said.

"I dated her for about four months. She was fun. We had a good time, it seemed a sound reason at the time to get married. We were divorced within six months. She was pregnant so we couldn't go the annulment route, which we were going to do initially."

"Pregnant?" That part seemed to upset her more than the wife part did. Huh.


"You have a child?"

"Yup," he said. "Don't see her much, twice a month because the court says she has to let me. She doesn't believe I'm really sober or trustworthy. She also thinks I may be a bit emotionally unstable."


He pushed the sleeve of his jacket up a bit, enough to show her his wrist and a couple of scars there. "That's why."

"You tried to…"

"I didn't try very well obviously. I'm here."

"But, John…"

"It's not important," he said, sliding his sleeve back down again.

"Not important? John!"

"Don't psychoanalyze me, Claire. It was almost eight years ago. I was at a pretty low point. Believe it or not that wasn't my bottom."

"You tried again?"

"Yup, a bottle of sleeping pills about four years ago. Not enough, evidently to do anything but render me unconscious and require my stomach pumped. Some charcoal shit they used to flush my system or whatever. I don't remember it, obviously. I just remember my dick hurting for days afterward because of the catheter they had to put in me there."

"I'm sorry."

"She doesn't know about that one, my second wife, actually took me in for a while. She was still listed as my emergency contact. I didn't have anyone else to change it to and we were, you know, amicable. Decent. She just wanted more than a husband who didn't want to be home ever. She never told her what happened. Otherwise, I'd probably never see her. My daughter, I mean."

"That's terrible. I had no…"

"She also doesn't believe I won't have a wild orgy when she's in the house. She's kind of a bitch."

"You married her without loving her. Who could blame her?"

"Actually, that's not why really. She knew what kind of guy I was when we got married. We were both into stuff we shouldn't have been into. She, thankfully, quit the hard stuff before she got pregnant. That's when she started getting bitchy about things, expecting me to quit. I didn't have a reason to quit, I certainly didn't want to quit. Quitting would mean thinking, thinking was bad. She thought I was cheating on her. Incessantly. I mean, like every other day she accused me of doing something. I offered to give her my pager for a day so she could call back anyone who paged me to see I wasn't."

"Were you?"


"So what happened? She didn't just think that for no reason."

"I, uh," he said, glancing at his glass of Coke just then. "I said someone else's name at a pretty inopportune time. More than once evidently. Bear in mind, drunk and stoned I wasn't always in the right state of mind to control my thoughts or not blurt out my mental preferences. She wasn't too happy because she was aware of who this person was and how close I'd come to living with her. Of course that would've meant I wouldn't have been married to her."

"Oh," she said, blushing and he chuckled at that. Lord the things she had to have seen and heard working where she was working and that made her blush.

"She took the house that I'd bought with the money your mom gave me, so what do I have out of leaving you? A kid I barely see and a motorcycle. That's it."

"I wish you would've…"

"Talked to you? Why? So you could run away with me? I wanted you to live with me, but doing that would've cut you off from your parents. I wasn't going to do that. She was right, I had nothing to offer you and as fairly evident by the fact I have nothing to my name that I've come by legitimately she was right on."


"Wife number two was about six years ago now, I guess. That didn't end much better or last much longer. A year. I didn't cheat with her either, learned my lesson and controlled my utterances. She knew nothing about you so I'm not sure she would've gotten as upset. I wasn't ever home, though. After the first divorce I put myself through trucking school. Made good money, but I was never home. I took every load offered me to avoid being there as often as I could. When I was at home. Well, I had too many friends that were willing to enjoy one last drink with me before we had to go home. She was a drinker but not heavily and not a user of anything else. I think she thought she could fix me, be the reason I'd want to stop. Eventually, she learned I wasn't going to stop for her. I came back to the apartment one day to everything gone. A note with the divorce papers asking me to sign them without contesting anything and she'd let me see my daughter when she was born. She didn't know it was a daughter at the time of the note, but, well, I know she's my daughter now."


"Hey, I was married."

"Yeah, but…"

"I got sober about three years ago. It took me that long to realize that was my problem ultimately. Drugs. Booze. Doing the bad habits I'd picked up from my old man. And, hey, lots of fights during both marriages and I never laid a hand on either of them, so I guess at least I found out I'm not completely like him."

"I'm not sure if I should say that's good or not."

"Well, I was pretty happy."

"So, you see your younger daughter?"

"Yeah. Her mom's actually not so bad to deal with. I think she understands it wasn't her. Like I said, I just wasn't ever there. She wanted more than a guy who never wanted to be home. Who could blame her really? I'm not blaming booze and drugs, but I'm a different person when I'm using."

"Aren't most people?"

"Most people who are addicts? Probably so. Most people who can just use casually? Probably not as much."

"I wouldn't know."

"I suppose you wouldn't."

"I can't believe my mom…"

"Yeah, that's why I wanted to talk to you. I found it rather ironic that she paid me off to stay away from you and here you are working at a strip club."

"She doesn't know!"

"I gathered that."

"She knows I live with Brenda, but she doesn't know anything else. I'm not even sure she knows what my dissertation focus is."

"She sure didn't like me."

"No, she didn't."

Silence as they both seemed to be thinking their own thoughts, processing what they'd told one another.

"What are their names?"

"Who? My ex's?"

"No," she said with a laugh. "Your kids," she said.

"Oh," he said. "I was wondering why you gave a shit about that. Amanda and Catherine."

"And they're?"

"Wow, you're really putting me on the spot."

"You don't know how old they are?"

"I do. I was teasing. Amanda just turned seven last month. Catherine is four and a half. I've learned, by way of leaving it out, that the 'and a half' part is crucial. I never realized that was true until now."

"Have they met?"

"Yes," he said. "I get them both together sometimes."

"Do they get along?"

"They're seven and four, they're kids. They get along with anyone."

"Oh," she said.

"I wasn't just going to live with you, you know that, right?"


"I was going to ask you to marry me. Had a ring picked out and everything."

"Shut up."

"I did. I still have it in a box somewhere."

"You bought me a ring?"

"Yup. It didn't seem right, someone like you just living with someone. Just so you know, that wasn't what I was doing. I don't know. Corrupting you. Whatever. I wasn't trying to get it for free."

"You did get it for free."

"Yeah, well, you weren't living with me. That was a whole new thing we were talking about."

She was quiet, sipping her Coke. Their waiter had come back a couple of times but neither of them had seemed to want to order anything yet. Maybe they'd just get their Cokes, finish their conversation and go on their way. He had no idea.

"You're not married now?"

"No, I swore off any more wives."


"Nope. Girlfriends tend to think they'll become wives."

"Want to get it for free now?"

"I'm sorry? Here?"

"Well, of course not here," she said. "You have a car, I presume."

"I do, yes, not here. I rode my bike."

"Oh," she said. "I have a car."

"Are you asking me what I think you're asking me?"

"You did pay for a lap dance…"

He smirked at that. "I did."

"I can do way better than what you would've gotten there."

"Somehow I think Denny's may frown on that type of activity going on in their parking lot."

"Take me somewhere."

"Oh, Princess, name it, I'll take you anywhere you want to go. There's a bar just up the road a bit. I stopped there while waiting for you. It's closed now. I bet they wouldn't mind their parking lot being used for that type of activity."

"Show me," she said.

She didn't have to ask him twice. He left a ten on the table.

"We got two Cokes."

"I don't want to wait for the check."

"Afraid I'll change my mind?"

"Afraid I'm dreaming and I'll wake up before the good part gets here."

That was how he ended up in a bar's parking lot, sitting in her backseat with her currently going down on him. He got hard just about the second he got into the backseat of her car and realized she was really going to just fuck him. His hand snuck under her skirt and he groaned softly when he realized she wasn't wearing any panties underneath.

"Did you know you were going to ask me this?"

"I took them off up there, they're on the front seat."

"I liked the other idea better."

"Pig," she said.

"That's me," he said, sliding a finger inside of her. "Fuck," he hissed at the feel of her around him.

"You have something," she whispered, moving to his lap.

"Uh, yeah," he said, pulling his wallet out and the packet from it. She took it from him, wasting no time in tearing it open and rolling it over his erection. He groaned as she did that. He slid his hands along her torso, pushing her shirt up.

"You took your bra off, too?"

"Nope," she said.

"I always loved your tits."

"I know," she said, reaching to draw her shirt up and over her head before turning away from him.

"Hey," he said before realizing she was going to straddle him that way. Absolutely no hardship doing it this way.

He slid his hands to her hips, helping guide him into her.

"Fuck," he said again.

"I'm trying!"

"I know. You're kind of…"

"I know. It's been a while," she said.

She slid herself over him, taking him inside of her slowly. She was so fucking tight he thought he'd come before she even got him all the way inside of her. She grabbed onto the headrest of the seat in front of her, crying out as she pushed him into her in one deep thrust.

"You okay?"

"God, yes, just give me a second."

"All right, don't want you to hurt yourself."

"I'm not! I just," she said, lifting her hips a little bit.

He slid a hand from her hip up, sliding it along her side to cup a breast.

"Your hands are rough."

"Sorry," he whispered, letting his hand drop back to her hip.

"I didn't say to stop."

"It sounded like a complaint!"

"Just an observation. They weren't that rough the last time."

"A lot has happened in nine years," he whispered.

"Tell me about it. Like me forgetting what this was like," she whispered, moving herself along his shaft a lot easier now. He slid his hand back up then, cupping her and groaning softly at the feel of her in his hand again. He slid his other hand around her, sneaking it between her legs to touch her clit.

That was the last coherent thing either of them said for the next little while. He was pretty sure he said a couple of things he'd probably regret later. Like how he'd never been with better. They both came pretty hard and fast, not surprising given where they were and what this was.

"Best lap dance ever," he said, his head settled against the headrest behind him.

"Funny, except you've been with a stripper I bet."

"Not this stripper," he said, sliding a fingertip along the outline of her tattoo. "If I still used now would be a fantastic time for a joint."

"Tell me about it," she whispered.

"You don't anymore?"

"I haven't since freshman year of college. Maybe sophomore year."

"Huh," he said.

"God, I hate it."


"No, the job."

"I don't blame you."

"There are a couple of girls who are giving me so much good information, though. Pasts, down to their first memories, you know. None of them good. I can't walk away now."

"I understand."

She slid off of his lap then and moved to the seat next to him. He opened her door long enough to throw the used rubber on the ground there. He felt a little guilty doing that because the bartender had been nice to him, but chances were since he closed he wouldn't be the one opening later on and going through the parking lot.

What the fuck did they say now?

"You going to tell your mom you know?"

"I can't! She'd ask me where I saw you."

He chuckled softly at that, drawing his cigarettes out of his pocket and tapping one out.

"Want one?" he asked.

"Sure," she said. He handed her the one he'd already gotten out, getting another one for himself. He lit hers first and then his.

"Man, I can't believe you've gotten away with it for six months, Claire. That's crazy."

"I know, believe me. It hasn't been easy. Brenda and I have to be immensely careful. We have two lines at our apartment. One that we gave to work, the other everyone else has. The answering machine for the number the club has is in our linen closet.

"And your mom doesn't wonder why you have an answering machine in your linen closet?"

"No," she said. "She's never looked that closely."

"Oh," John said.

They were quiet, each smoking their cigarettes.

"Listen, I'm sorry. Okay? I fucked up. I don't expect you to forgive me. I certainly didn't expect you to want to fuck me."

"I know, but God you were so good at that."

"We were good at that."

"Yeah, we were," she said with a soft laugh.

"I'm just saying I'm sorry. That's all. You know I went through the steps. One of them was to make amends. I couldn't make them to you. I wanted to, and I guess I've always felt like my sobriety isn't entirely sincere because I hadn't."

"I'm glad you're sober."

"Me, too," he said. "Especially tonight."


"Because if I wasn't sober I'd wake up tomorrow and wonder if that just really happened."

"Shut up."


She shrugged, tossing the cigarette butt outside before finding her shirt and pulling it on.

"I was horny? You were here?"

"You don't…"

"Nope, never. I'm there for research and as much as I could probably learn from the guys who fuck strippers in a private booth that's not what I'm after."

"That's good."

"There are a couple guys who come regularly, they pay for dances but they just want to talk to me."

He scoffed. "Are they gay?"

"I think they're just lonely. I don't know. They just talk. I've met a couple of them outside of work, to talk to them."


"Somewhere public and I've told them the truth. Not my real name, but what I'm doing."

"And they talk to you?"

"The ones like that, some of them, yeah. I mean, the ones that are all touchy, no. They're not going to talk to me and I know that. Anyone who's paying me money to just talk to me wants to talk. So, kind of like the prostitutes, I buy them something to eat or coffee and they talk to me." She shrugged.

"I suppose."

"Some of them think I'm really inviting them for something else. That's why I meet them somewhere public."

"I'm glad you do that. It's still risky."

"What do you do?"


"Your hands."

He flicked his cigarette out the door and held his hands up in front of him. He'd never gotten complaints before tonight about how they felt. He wasn't sure what that said about the chicks he'd been with before or just because she knew him before he actually worked for a living.

"Construction," he said.

"Oh," she said.

"Yup. They're only going to get worse."

"I was just curious," she said. "They weren't like that before."

"I hadn't worked as much with them."

"You worked with them on me just fine."

"Back at you."

"You work today?"

"I do. I think I might actually call in sick, though."


"This is the third year I've been working for them and I've never called in sick before."

"Huh," she said.

"I wasn't planning on being out until," he paused to glance at his watch. "Five thirty in the morning."


"Not your fault. I knew it was Sunday when I went."

"Want to come home with me?"

"To sleep?"

"Not really what I had in mind, no."

"You know the answer to that then."

"If I'd said to sleep?"

He sighed softly. "I'd probably say no. For the express purpose of sleeping, I mean."


He shrugged. "Don't know."

"And if you fall asleep there?"

"Then I guess I fall asleep there. What's your roommate going to think?"

"She's not."

"You sure?"


"Okay," he said. "I'll follow you, I guess."

"Do you have…"

"More? No, we should probably stop at a Walgreen's on our way."

"All right," she said.

"You sure you want to do this, Claire?"

She shrugged, grabbing her panties from the front seat and sliding them on. He couldn't help but laugh at watching her struggle to put them back on in the confines of her backseat, but she managed.

"It's sex. Like I said, it's been a while. You're here. I know I won't wake up tomorrow disappointed."

"I suppose not," he said. "All right," he said, pushing her front seat up so he could get out. She did the same on her side.

"Nice bike."

"It better be. I paid a pretty hefty price for it."

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