Better When It Hurts

By: Skye Warren

Chapter One

I try not to scan the floor when I enter. There’s already a buzz in the air, the hunger and desperation of a strip club on Saturday night. I’m ready to earn money, ready to move my body.

Ready to pretend Blue doesn’t bother me.

He’s nowhere in sight, and I breathe a sigh of relief. A group of men are still gathered near the railing. They’d tipped me pretty well while I was up there, so I figure I have a good shot at a lap dance. I saunter over, my breasts barely contained in the red bikini top, my skin coated in sweat and glitter and the thick smoke of this place.

“Nice set,” says a low voice from behind me.

I turn to see Blue standing there, arms crossed so his muscles bulge, lids lowered in that intense way of his. Shit. “Thanks,” I say, but the only thing I’m really thankful for is that my voice doesn’t shake.

He’s the head of security at the Grand, which should make me feel safe. Except we have a history. And he hates my guts. So there’s no affection in his eyes when they scan me up and down. No kindness in his voice when he adds, “You look great.”

The way he says it, it sounds like a threat. He makes me feel like the scared little girl I used to be when I knew him before. And him? He’s like the big bad wolf, sizing me up before he swallows me whole.

I force myself to shrug at him, to toss my hair. “Thanks, sweetie.”

He circles me, surrounding me. “But then, you always look great. That’s what you like, isn’t it? Having men panting after you? Leading us along by our dicks?”

My throat gets tight. I know that’s what people think of me. They take one look at my lipstick and my short skirt and assume the worst. God, they’re right. But it’s worse to hear it from him. Worse because he once believed in me. “Do you expect me to apologize for earning a living?”

His lids lower. “Not for that.”

I can’t meet his eyes. I know exactly what he wants me to apologize for. And he’ll never believe me. Even showing weakness in this game is enough to get me killed. “I don’t apologize to anyone.”

“Of course you don’t,” he says, his voice full of loathing. “But I don’t want your words.”

I can’t help but whisper, “What do you want?”

That makes him smile. It’s not a nice smile. “I think you know the answer to that.”

He wants to hurt me, to use me. He wants to fuck me. I swallow hard. “That isn’t for sale.”

“I wasn’t planning to pay you.”

This should be easy. Tell him no. Make him believe it. I’ve done this for a thousand men before. Somehow he’s different. Maybe because I don’t really believe it myself.

I know he’s watching me. I know he’s hatching his plans. My heart speeds up every time I turn away from him, wondering if this is the time he’ll pounce. One of these times, he’s going to dig into me with his teeth and his claws. He’s going to hurt me, and I’m not sure I’ll survive it.

Not tonight, though. Not now.

I take a step away from him. “If you aren’t going to pay for my time, I think I’ll find someone who will.”

His eyes darken. “Your call, gorgeous.”

I hear the unspoken message beneath his words, steel under velvet. For now.

* * *

From the stage, the men seem small. It’s a form of power, dancing above them, light where they are dark, being thrown money just to show myself. I know that what I do is sordid and degrading. I feel sordid most of the time. I feel degraded. It’s just a natural state for me, as easy as breathing.

But there are a few seconds when the entire room is looking at me, panting over me, desiring me—and I feel like a goddess. Those seconds make what’s about to happen bearable.

Then I’m on the ground again, mortal and low.

The men turn as I approach, already catcalling the way they did when I was onstage.

“Hey, there’s our sexy girl, come to give us a kiss.”

“What a hot bitch. Look at those tits bounce.”

“How much for a night, baby?”

There’s no power left in me, no goddess in sight. The men loom over me now, crowding me as I stand between them. I cock my hip and thrust my breasts in front of me, the picture of female sexuality. I am a lamb in a pack of lions. I wear my confidence like a mask. It’s the only way I’ve survived. But their smiles, cocky and sure, say they can smell the real me underneath. They can smell their prey.

Two of them step aside for another man, one with a sloppy drunk smile and a cruel glint in his eyes. I hear one of them call him Travis.

My throat squeezes tight. No, no. My gut is too good at picking out the genuinely violent guys from the generic asshole. Except I’m not paid to say no.

“Let’s get a private room,” Travis says, the slur scraping down my spine. “Do I get a discount? It’s my party. I’m getting married tomorrow.”

It’ll be a miracle if he’s even conscious tomorrow, but that’s not my problem. My problem right now is with a mean drunk who wants to buy my time. I have a lot of experience with mean drunks. I know that no amount of pleading or negotiating or fighting back will work.

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