“Why do people respect the package rather than the man?”
― Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays
My day hadn’t been great even before she walked in.
I’d just returned from the funeral of my longtime bookkeeper. He’d died from old age in his sleep surrounded by his five kids, loving wife, and eighteen grandchildren while leaving me with a reconciliation mess and this month’s payroll to finish.
My newly trained bartender had sent a manifesto via text message, blaming his decision to quit on my unwillingness to build a dedicated meditation room and give him four paid half-hour breaks per shift to use it.
Three Diamond Whiskey bottles out of the six that had shipped from the distributor were broken in the crate. If you’re keeping score, that’s seven hundred dollars in Tennessee Whiskey and a crime against humanity.
On the plus side, the suit I’d worn to my parents’ funerals fit and I still looked damn good in it.
Of course, I didn’t know the newcomer was her at first. The door opened and closed, same sound as normal no matter who was coming or going. It was a Sunday mid-morning, still early yet for any of the dancers or bouncers and way too early for any customers.
But the moment she turned the corner and came into view, I gritted my teeth. Here we go. What could she want? She better not be selling Bibles.
“Charlotte.” Standing behind the bar, I crossed my arms and sounded unfriendly. She’d caught me restocking paper products and the three surviving bottles of Diamond Whiskey. I was only half finished with my current task, but nowhere near half finished with my task list for the day. I did not have time for pious Charlotte Mitchell.
As a rule, I had time for two types of folks: people I paid, and people who paid me. A small number of exceptions to this rule existed: a few friends from college and in town, like Beau Winston or Patty Lee, and any woman I’d set my mind on seducing, but even then, I made sure the scales remained balanced—give and take, tit for tat, even-steven. Point is, Charlotte was obviously not the former exception, and there was no way she’d ever be interested in becoming the latter.
“Hank.” She didn’t look at me, but she did paste on an obligatory-looking smile that pulled her full lips tight and came nowhere close to her green eyes. Tracking Charlotte Mitchell’s slow approach, I didn’t miss how she took her time and peered around.
I wanted to snark, “Lost? I believe the wallpaper and sanctimony store is closer to downtown.”
Instead, I ground out, “What do you want?”
I had no availability for charity cases, especially not this one. That’s what Charlotte was: Green Valley’s most infamously pitied citizen. A gorgeous—yet sadly, virtuous—teacher at the local elementary school and a bake sale-making, soccer mom SUV-driving, PTA-volunteering, hoity-toity, do-gooder single mother of four disease vectors (children) whose ass of a husband (now ex-husband, fella by the name of Kevin Buckley) had predictably run out on her a few years back with a nineteen-year-old exotic dancer.
One of mine, actually. I fought a grimace.
Carli Duvall—aka Bendy Bambi—had been a customer favorite, a talented dancer, a shrewd businessperson, and an asset to the club. Her regulars had complained for months after she disappeared, many taking their patronage to The G-Spot for a time and ultimately cutting into my bottom line. Less customers meant losing even more dancers. I’d almost lost the club and sheer stubbornness was the only reason I still operated it now. It had taken me over a year to recover from the mass exodus in the aftermath of her departure.
Don’t get me wrong. Like everyone else, I’d initially felt sorry for Charlotte; I think anyone would. All things considered, she and her kids were probably better off without him. Given who he was and what his family was like, no one should’ve been surprised by her ex-husband’s betrayal, but I did feel for the woman he’d duped and misused.
But then, while I’d been struggling to keep The Pink Pony afloat, people had blamed the club, and me by extension, for the dummy’s infidelity. When the news broke, Patty Lee—who’d finally agreed to give me a chance—had called things off right before our third date. Sure, things hadn’t been perfect, and our lack of chemistry left much to be desired. Still, after years of hoping, being dumped because Kevin Buckley left his wife had been incredibly frustrating.
It all sorta worked out. Patty and I were now relatively good friends; I sought her counsel whenever I needed a female perspective. And because she didn’t pull her punches or ever worry about sparing feelings, unlike my best friend Beau, I found her advice incredibly helpful.
That said, I’d never cared much for or craved local goodwill, but folks had never been that blatantly hostile before. Going out to eat without the expectation of someone spitting in my food or keying my car were privileges I’d ceased taking for granted. The backlash had shocked me; I’d seen Buckley’s infidelity coming a mile away. Why anyone who’d met the bastard felt surprised by his choices or thought I’d influenced them made no damn sense.
Point is, Kevin leaving Charlotte had been bad for my business and worse for my personal life, and I did not much care for his wife showing up here for reasons unknown.
While Charlotte continued her moseying, her head unhurriedly turning this way and that, I eyeballed her, catching glimpses of her perfect profile while simmering in my unease.
“I’ve never been in here,” she said, her voice faraway, distracted. “It’s nicer than I thought it would be.”
I considered her words for a tick. The statements sounded benign, yet something about them made the skin at the back of my neck hot, which set my teeth on edge. Since Charlotte had returned to town a few years back—even before her husband had skipped out—she’d pointedly treated me like a leper from biblical times. Things were finally back on track with The Pony, and her presence here might derail my recent progress.
Making it to the bar, she stopped in front of a stool. Her pale green eyes were cool, surveying me like an afterthought. “May I order a drink yet?”
I studied her. Charlotte looked different than how she typically presented herself around town. She still had on that dainty gold cross around her neck, but gone were the pretty yet shapeless floral-print, button-up shirts and long, flowing skirts. Today, she’d put on dark makeup, taken time to fix her long hair into sleek waves, and the black tank top she wore highlighted her shoulders, arms, neck, and torso, making her generous tits look fantastic. Pushup bra, a good one.
“No,” I said, flat and final.
“You’re not open?”
“Not for you, no.” Not for Charlotte and not for any of her kind.
Her face morphed into an expression of intense irritation and I smirked to cover an involuntary spike in temper. I didn’t know Charlotte well—I didn’t want to know Charlotte at all—but this was the version of her I knew best, the wordless, judgmental glare I encountered if we happened to cross paths at the grocery or hardware store. No amount of carefully applied makeup or fantastic tank-top twins could soften it.
This was my club. We hadn’t accidentally stumbled across each other today. She’d come to me, sought me out, and she was still looking at me like I was trash? Faced with this familiar version of Charlotte in my territory, I tore my eyes from hers and scratched the heat climbing up my neck.
Our paths hadn’t crossed in over a year. Perhaps she was here to fulfill her quota of self-righteous indignation. How heavy is that halo, angel?
One day I would ask. But not today.
Crouching behind the bar, I resumed stocking the whiskey. If I waited, she’d reveal her intentions. Then she’d leave. No need for me to pause work, especially when there was so much work to do.
“Do you have a rule against serving female customers?” she asked, and I knew without looking up that she’d leaned over the bar to scowl down at me.
“No. Mostly just you.”
“Mostly just me,” she parroted, then huffed a laugh; it also sounded irritated. “Okay, fine. Then may I have an application?”
My movements stilled and I stared at the bottle of whiskey in my hand, the one I hadn’t yet set on the shelf.
May I have an application?
“Pardon me?” I looked up, and sure enough, Charlotte’s long honey-colored hair was dangling over me from above, nearly touching my shoulder.
“I said, may I have an application? Please.”
I had to blink before I could think. And I couldn’t think while I was on my haunches, so I stood. She leaned back, sitting on the stool, watching me impassively like she expected me to jump and fulfill her request, like she’d asked for a driver’s license application from the DMV and not an employment application from my club. The same place of business she and all the other small-minded folks condemned and hated.
Which was likely why I asked the stupid question, “What do you want an application for?”
Angling her chin, Charlotte Mitchell lifted one eyebrow, looking down her nose at me even though she was the one sitting, and said matter-of-factly with a smidge of southern tartness, “For a job, of course.”
I scratched my neck again, my eyes drifting to the right. This had to be a joke. Perhaps Beau is somewhere, hiding with a camera?
She snapped her fingers in front of my face. “Hey. Earth to Hank Weller. It’s not a difficult request to fulfill. Either you have applications, or you don’t.”
“But . . .” I shook my head, unable to recall a moment in my life I’d been as confused. This is a joke, this has to be—
“Hank Weller, let me spell it out for you: I want you”—she pointed at me, using her loud, slow voice, the one I’d heard her employ with her children on the rare occasions they behaved like feral animals in public—“to give me”—she pointed to herself—“a job application”—now she mimed a piece of paper—“for The Pink Pony”—she gestured to my club—“so I can fill it out.” She topped off her little show by pretending to write with an invisible pen.
“For what job?” What the heck did she think she was going to do? I needed a bartender, a bouncer, and now, as of this week, a bookkeeper. As far as I knew, she had no experience with any of—
I choked. Before I could fully process this information, she tossed her thumb over her shoulder, indicating toward the way she came in, and said, “I saw the sign from the road, so I know you’re hiring. Now . . .” Charlotte put her hand between us, palm up, and demanded in a voice that brooked no argument, “Hand it over. Please.”
“You cannot be serious.” An application? Dancers didn’t fill out applications. Clearly, she had no idea how this worked. Like most clubs, none of my dancers were employees. They were independent contractors. Yes, they auditioned; yes, they completed payment forms and signed a work services agreement. But there was no application, no interview.
“I am serious. And I came prepared.”
I counted to ten and searched my club for a camera again. Beau did not emerge from some hidden spot and declare this a prank. My eyes returned to Charlotte, flicked over her. What the hell?
Under my perusal she straightened her back, her breasts pushing higher and forward in a move that looked purposeful. “I’m in really good shape, exercising is my only hobby, and I know how to dance.”
“You know how to dance . . .” I searched for Beau again. Nothing about this interaction made a lick of sense. Perhaps I was dreaming? It’s a possibility.
“I do.” Her chin lifted. “I’ve been taking classes and my instructor says I’m quite good. She even wrote me a reference.” Charlotte turned and began digging in the little purse she brought.
“No—no. I don’t need a reference.” Debating whether or not to pinch myself, I ultimately decided against it. If this were a dream, I wanted to see where it would go. I hoped Oscar the Grouch didn’t show up and chase me around with that peanut butter sandwich again.
Ignoring my last statement, she placed the folded-up piece of paper on the bar and smoothed it out with her fingertips. “Here’s the letter of recommendation. You can see here, I have excellent endurance and I can even play the trumpet while I’m on the pole—”
“Did you hit your head?” I made a face, leaning my hands against the bar top and scanning her forehead for an injury. Playing the trumpet while swinging on a pole? In what universe would that ever be sexy?
Her expression flattened.
“Blink twice if you’re in danger.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“Or is this a dissociative fugue? Which personality am I talking to? Let Charlotte come out for a minute.”
“Hank,” she seethed through clenched teeth. “Why are you giving me a hard time? Do you need more strippers or not?”
If this were a dream, she’d already have her top off. Thus, I decided I couldn’t possibly be asleep. “I need more dancers, yes. But I do not need, nor do I want, you—or your emotional support trumpet—in my club.”
She flinched. “Why not?”
Perhaps she was serious about dancing, but she couldn’t possibly be serious about asking me why I’d never allow her in here, and I wasn’t spelling it out for her. In fact, we were done talking. She’d taken up enough of my time. I turned away without another word, lifted the hatch, and left the bar. Walking past where she sat, I crossed toward the back. She could show herself out.
But then she called after me, “I need the money.”
Her startling words and her imploring tone brought me up short. She needs money? That couldn’t be right. Her ex-husband came from money, lots of it. The only thing Kevin had ever done right in his life was being born a Buckley. My father had been friends with the high society patriarch from North Carolina. I’d gone to boarding school with Kevin’s older brother and the dude was as rich as he was insufferable. And he was staggeringly insufferable.
I glanced over my shoulder.
She hopped off the stool, her eyes wide with panicked pleading. That’s when I comprehended the rest of her outfit, skimpy cutoff jean shorts paired with three-inch spiked heels. Her long, firm, pale legs went on and on, up to narrow hips and a narrower waist. The woman was tall and strong and had an exceptional body: perfect athletic proportions paired with a natural D-cup. I frowned.
Well, now, hold on. Wait a minute.
Trumpet or not, she’d be a sight to behold on the stage. I didn’t have anyone on the roster near as tall as her with her kind of muscular shape. April was tall, long and lean, and platinum blond. I scratched my chin. If Charlotte could dance like she said, then—
NOPE! No. Absolutely not. Have you lost your mind?
I gave my head a rough shake. No way in hell was I bringing on Charlotte Mitchell. Looking like she did, and given her angelic reputation, I had no doubt she’d bring in new business. At first. It would be a coup for the club and all my dancers would benefit; new business was good for everyone.
But then what?
I could see her up on the stage, but dancers made most of their income from lap dances at tables and giving private dances in the champagne room. She wasn’t a Carli or a Tina or even a Hannah. She was smart, but she wasn’t shrewd or calculating enough to dance in my club. If she had been, her weak-minded husband never would’ve left. He would’ve been too afraid.
In this business, you were either the giver or the taker, and all my dancers were takers. I made sure of it.
Not to mention, folks would try to run me out of town. Again.
There’d be backlash for certain. Loads of it. And only recently had I finally been able to go to Daisy’s Nuthouse for a cup of coffee and a snack without having to worry about dingles on my donut. Living my best life did not include dingly donuts.
I sighed. “Charlotte—”
“I need the money,” she repeated, stalking closer and twisting her fingers. “And I’m not asking for special treatment. I’ll audition, like anyone else. Treat me like I’m anyone else.”
Well. That would certainly be a novelty for her, she who received differential martyrdom care wherever she went and expected nothing but the best from people. She’d get none of that here. She’d be chewed up and spit out. Successful dancers had hard limits, firm boundaries; they knew their worth and demanded the customers pay them their due. Most women weren’t raised that way and—as far as I knew—Charlotte was exactly like most women.
But I couldn’t say that. Her hackles would rise, and I’d already given her too much of my time and way too much of my attention.
Instead, I said, “If you’re doing this for money, then this ain’t a good fit. You wouldn’t make much to start out, not for six months, at least. New dancers get the shitty shifts, afternoons during the week and mornings on the weekend, making yourself available to fill in for other dancers when they need to call out.”
She bit her lip, chewing over my words before saying, “That’s fine.”
I lifted an incredulous eyebrow. “Oh really? You can dance in the afternoons? What about your teaching job?”
“School is out for summer.”
“It’s August. What happens when school is back in session?”
“Then I’ll . . . figure it out.”
“Not good enough.”
“No,” I said firmly, my patience at an end. “The answer is no. You’re not worth the trouble.”
It’s possible that if she’d caught me on a different day, I would’ve had more tolerance, I might’ve been gentler and calmer. But I was tired of entitled morons dictating to me how to run my business. If I gave an inch, she’d probably demand that I add a dedicated meditation room to the club. And a chapel. And a sauna. And a tiki bar.
Besides, who the hell did she think she was? If she wanted charity, she’d come to the wrong place. Some of us lived in reality. This was my club. Mine. And even though it was often more trouble than it was worth, I had my people to think about: sixteen professional dancers, three bouncers, a bartender—all of whom relied on me and this club to put food on their tables. Unlike her, I never took or gave handouts.
Charlotte rocked backward, her eyes flashing and her hands coming to her hips. “What exactly is your problem with me?”
“You’re still here,” I gritted out, my temper ballooning. But given her past dirty looks, what her ex-husband had done to my business, and all the spit I’d been served in my food, was I surprised she’d pissed me off? No. No I was not.
Huffing, Charlotte’s mouth formed a grim, angry smile. “Fine. Then I guess I’ll leave.”
“You do that.”
I turned and continued toward the back without waiting for the sound of her departure, determined to forget about her intrusion the moment she was gone. Down a bartender, bouncer, and a bookkeeper, the last thing my club needed—the absolute last thing—was renewed townie scrutiny courtesy of saintly Charlotte Mitchell.
“Men are always ready to respect anything that bores them.”
― Marilyn Monroe, My Story
“What’d he say? Did you get the job? When do you start?” My aunt was on me the moment I slid into the passenger seat of her 1992 BMW M5.
“No.” I closed my door with more force than necessary, then cringed. “Sorry,” I said, apologizing for my thoughtlessness. Her car was falling apart. We’d had to remove the front bumper last week when the right side had fallen off and began dragging on the road.
The only excuse for my thoughtlessness was the bitter burn of humiliation that still stung my cheeks and blazed in my chest. It usually took a lot to embarrass me. Or, apparently, a mere ten minutes with Hank Weller. I did not feel like myself.
“What happened?” my aunt asked breathlessly, her tone thick with despair.
“He wouldn’t give me a chance to audition.” Ugh!
I sucked in a breath, telling myself to calm down.
“Oh thank goodness.” A hand from the back seat settled on my shoulder, my mother’s voice gentle. “Even though I don’t understand why he wouldn’t let you audition—you’re ten times prettier than Hannah Townsend, or Tina Patterson, or any of those girls—I can’t say I’m upset.”
“Betty!” Aunt Maddie twisted in her seat. “Charlotte’s plan is our best chance to find Heather. How can you say that?”
I let my aunt and my momma argue for a bit—they’d been bickering about my plan all week—while I simmered in my options. I did not agree with my mother’s assertion that I was prettier than Hannah or Tina. I’d planned to interview as a stripper first, but then bring up the possibility of applying for his open bartender position if he didn’t think I had the looks to be a dancer. Problem was, I had no experience being a bartender either.
Covering my momma’s hand where it still rested on my shoulder, I patted her fingers while I turned to give her a tight smile, interrupting their argument. “Hey. We’ve talked this to death and we already agreed, my plan is the fastest way to find Heather. Can we stop fighting and just figure out what to do next?”
“We all didn’t agree. I don’t agree.” My mother withdrew her fingers and crossed her arms. “Charlotte, you’re like a bull in a china shop. You rush into things without thinking them through. How do you think Kevin and his family are going to react when they find out you’re applying to be a stripper? They’ll try to get custody of the kids and—”
“Momma.” I sighed, rubbing my forehead. We’d already had this argument. I supposed we were having it again. “I think you’re overreacting. I’ll only be stripping for two weeks, then I’ll quit. What are they going to tell the judge? That I’m unfit because I stripped for two weeks?”
“Yes!” My mother whisper-hissed.
“I disagree. But if that is the case, then I’ll just tell the judge the truth,” I said. “I’ll tell them I was only stripping to find my cousin or news about her. Then I quit. Two weeks. What’s so wrong about that? And on that note, what’s so wrong about stripping? Lots of mothers are strippers. I can make that case, too.”
“You are denser than dirt if you think a judge is going to care that lots of mothers are strippers, even if it’s true.” Momma sniffed, her eyes flashing. “And if the Buckleys file for custody, how are you going to pay for a lawyer this time, huh?”
I faced forward again, fighting a shiver of fear. “I’ll sell the beach house in North Carolina.” I made sure to firm my voice so she’d know I considered the matter closed.
Despite the twinge of anxiety caused by my mother’s ridiculous statement, I truly believed no judge would take my kids away because I stripped for two weeks if the only reason I was doing it was to help find my cousin. I just did not believe it. If I’d thought my mother’s doomsday predictions had any merit whatsoever, I never, ever, ever would’ve suggested my plan to my aunt and uncle.
Momma sputtered for a few seconds, then said, “You just got that cottage all pretty and set up as a rental, an extra income source, and now you’re going to sell it? And how much money would you get from it in a sale? It’s tiny.”
“But it’s beach waterfront. Someone could knock it down and build a McMansion on it. The land has value.”
“Now, Betty,” Aunt Maddie cut in, twisting around to face her sister. “Let Charlotte do this if she thinks it’s best.”
My mother made a low noise that sounded like a growl. “Now, Maddie, I know you’re scared for Heather.”
“This might be my only chance to find her, Betty. My only chance.” Her voice wavered and she sniffled, turning back toward the windshield and pulling a tissue from the console at her right. “Charlotte’s right. We all agreed. And I agree with Charlotte. If there were a custody case, I think a judge will be compassionate once they found out why she did this. And it’s only two weeks.”
I reached over and patted my aunt’s leg, hating to see her so upset.
“Well. Fine,” my mother said huffily. “I guess I’m overruled. What are we going to do now that Hank Weller won’t give her an interview? Should I go in there and talk to him?”
I snorted at that. “I do not think having my mother talk to a strip club owner about why he refused to give your daughter an audition is a good idea. But thanks, Momma.”
If memory served, my mother had wanted to do something similar when Hank Weller—the same Hank Weller I’d just begged for a job—had stood me up for my junior prom over a decade ago. “Should I talk to him? Should I call his mother?” she’d asked me at the time. Momma could not comprehend that her opinion didn’t move mountains, whereas my daddy—who’d been dead set against my choice in date—had said, “I told you so.”
My aunt whipped her head around and stared at both of us, her eyes rimmed with panic. “How are we going to find Heather now? What are we supposed to do?”
My cousin’s friend had said Heather was stripping at a club on the outskirts of Green Valley. There were a few strip clubs along the parkway, but only two anywhere close to my hometown: The G-Spot and The Pink Pony.
“It’s fine. I’ll audition at The G-Spot.”
“No!” my mother cried. “No you will not!”
Pressing my lips together, I said nothing. I’d wanted to audition there straightaway, but my momma had vetoed the idea, claiming The Pink Pony was the more genteel establishment, given the two options. She’d said, “If you’re determined to do this stupid, reckless thing, then you should at least check The Pink Pony for Heather first.”
Genteel. Like Hank’s club was serving afternoon tea instead of local beauties in pasties and thongs. For all I knew, his club did serve afternoon tea. Regardless, after my momma had explained things, I understood her point.
According to my mother, where The G-Spot was rumored to cater to motorcycle gangs—and not the charitable, hobby, or friendly kind—The Pink Pony was where local folks went for bachelor and bachelorette parties. Our local firefighters held an annual women customers only all-male revue fundraiser. there, and competition for tickets was always fierce. I’d never gone. When JT MacIntyre had wanted a space to host a community commission singles auction, he’d held it at The Pink Pony. For the record, I had not attended.
Meanwhile, also according to my mother (and don’t ask me how or why she was such an expert on local strip clubs), The G-Spot kept the local sheriff’s office plenty busy with drug busts, overdoses, and violent brawls. She’d said The G-Spot made The Pink Pony look like a country club. As far as I could figure, my mother didn’t approve of The Pink Pony simply because it was a strip club. But she approved of The G-Spot even less and feared it plenty.
Aunt Maddie exhaled a shuddering sigh. “I don’t know what to do.” Her voice small, she covered her face with her hands. “I don’t want you working at that place, Charlotte—even if it’s for a little while. It’s bad enough Heather—” Her voice caught and her shoulders shook with a sob.
I placed a comforting palm on my aunt’s back. “It’s fine. It’s going to be fine,” I soothed, forcing calm into my voice. “This is better, honestly. If Heather is working at The G-Spot, or if she ever worked there, I’ll be able to find out right away.”
“But Heather might be working at The Pink Pony,” my mother protested. “We don’t know which strip club she’s working at, and if you’re so darn determined, I don’t see why you can’t work at The Pink Pony first and—”
“Mother,” I cut in. “Hank—Mr. Weller said no. He is not interested in me working at his club.” I should have known better than to ask him for anything. For some reason, the man severely disliked me. Which was why I’d gone out of my way to avoid him at all costs since high school. Or he didn’t dislike me in particular but was simply a mean person in general. “And besides, from the description Heather’s friend gave Uncle Chuck, the club where she’s supposed to be stripping sounds more like The G-Spot than The Pink Pony.”
“That G-Spot club is dangerous,” my mother said weakly, real fear entering her voice. “We—we could find someone who will track her down at a discount price.”
“We’ve already been to seven different PI offices.” My temples throbbed. No one was going to look for my cousin pro bono.
When my aunt had come to us last month, begging for help finding my cousin, I’d asked her why she didn’t hire a private investigator. That was before I knew how much private investigators cost. That was also before my aunt and uncle confessed how my cousin had been slowly cleaning out their savings for the past two years to pay off drug debts and extensive legal fees.
None of us had twenty-thousand dollars lying around to put a private investigator on retainer. I’d debated whether or not to sell the beach cottage then, to pay for the PI, but I couldn’t. I needed it. That place was my nest egg. It was my emergency investment in case one day Kevin suddenly agreed with his parents and wanted to fight me for custody.
He hadn’t cared about custody when we divorced; it had been his family who’d made a fuss. Even so, I couldn’t assume his disinterest would last forever. I’d specifically asked for the small cottage in the divorce because he hated how little it was. Of all his holdings, it was the one he cared about the least. If we ended up in court again, I didn’t think he’d ever win, but even I realized how important it was to have money set aside just in case. As my momma had said, I knew I could be dense about certain things. But I wasn’t denser than dirt.
“I’ll be careful,” I promised. “I’ll get the dancers to trust me, and then they’ll talk.” The G-Spot was dangerous, but I felt certain I could handle it after I’d surreptitiously asked my friend Jackson James about the club last week.
As a sheriff’s deputy who’d made plenty of arrests at The G-Spot, Jackson had given me an idea of what to expect. He’d said, unlike the tight ship and no-tolerance policy Hank had at The Pink Pony, some of the dancers at The G-Spot were strung out and had been arrested on drug and/or prostitution charges. But there hadn’t been any arrests made in the last ten years that involved violence between a dancer and a customer.
“And I would only be there for two weeks at the most,” I reminded my momma and my aunt. “Only long enough to talk to the staff, ask around.”
My shoulders drooped, the earlier sting of embarrassment now mostly subsided, leaving me feeling spent. If I never saw Hank Weller again it would be too soon.
A long, long time ago, I had a giant crush on Hank. He was about three or four years older than me and had been in college at the time. Roscoe had been a good friend of mine in high school—I’d (platonically) loved how sweet, funny, and sincere he was—but I’d also shamelessly pushed to hang out at his house instead of mine in case Hank stopped by to see Roscoe’s brother Beau. In retrospect, I’d been naïve, bordering on pathetic, in my pursuit of Hank Weller.
Fighting a yawn, I ran my hands up and down my arms, feeling a chill. I’d gone to bed too late last night and I’d woken up early this morning, wanting to finish my hair and makeup before the kids awoke. Then breakfast. Then dishes. Then a quick shopping trip with my aunt and Momma for some new clothes that made me look the part.
“No.” Aunt Maddie shook her head abruptly, her hands dropping away. “We’ll have to ask your friend again—what was her name? Hannah? Let’s ask Hannah one more time.”
I tried my best to disguise my frustration by pasting on another smile. “I already told you, Hannah is not going to talk to us. She won’t tell us anything.”
When we couldn’t find an affordable private investigator, I’d reached out to my friendly acquaintance Hannah Townsend—currently a stripper at The Pink Pony—and asked if she’d seen Heather or if she could help locate her. I’ve known Hannah my whole life. Unlike my male friendly acquaintances, I trusted her to hear me out and let me decide how to proceed.
In my experience, whenever I confided my troubles to a male friend or acquaintance, he always wanted to take over, dictate to and “fix things” for me, even if I’d been seeking nothing but advice. Which was why I didn’t want to ask one of them to patronize The Pink Pony or The G-Spot and keep an eye out for Heather. I didn’t trust them to follow my directions.
I took for granted that Hannah would confide in me, tell me honestly if my cousin worked with her, and be discrete. Not only did she not answer my questions, she’d turned to stone. She’d also advised me to stop asking around if—assuming Heather was stripping at a local club—I didn’t want my cousin to cut and run.
Hannah had eventually explained that dancers, bouncers, and especially club owners never, never, never gave up information about each other. You never knew if a dancer was running from a bad situation, like trying to escape an abusive family. It was also how they kept the women safe from angry spouses and entitled customers, which was one of the reasons why all dancers had a stage name.
“You have four beautiful children who need you.” My momma’s voice cracked. “You have a good job. You’re a respectable, Godly woman. I am asking you again to rethink this. What will people in town say? Think of your reputation. Your aunt and uncle cannot ask you to debase yourself in this way.”
Gritting my teeth, I stared out the windshield. “I can still be respectable and help my family, Momma. No one is going to care if I spend two weeks this summer stripping in a local club. Why would they?”
“Charlotte.” My mother shifted forward in her seat and spoke right next to my ear. “I know this might be hard for you to believe, but people do gossip in Green Valley.” Her tone had turned patronizing, like it always did when she spoke to me about ‘proper behavior.’ “Your whole life, you’ve pretended like no one cares what you do. You never think or consider what people might say, how perception will impact your reputation. But you are gossiped about. Make no mistake. People have an opinion about you.”
“Yes, Mother. I know gossip exists in this town, gossip exists everywhere,” I seethed. “But I’m never going to care what other people say about me, nor am I going to pay attention to it.”
“It would do you good to pay attention to what they say about you and what they say about other folks, too. I think you’re the only person in this whole town who didn’t know that Diane Donner ran away with that motorcycle man.”
I huffed a dry laugh. “Are we seriously talking about Diane Donner right now? And that was like ten years ago, wasn’t it?”
“It was four years ago, not ten,” she said primly. “And this is exactly what I’m talking about, this is the problem with you. Folks are still talking about Diane and that man, and you don’t even know when it happened.”
“Who cares?! Why are we discussing this foolishness? What does Diane Donner have to do with anything?”
“You got nothing but cotton between your ears if you think folks in this town don’t love to gossip and judge, and pretending they don’t makes you the fool.” She lifted her voice, now yelling at me. “Everybody knows the story except you! You bury your head in the sand and—”
“You think I have space in my brain for what other folks are doing or not doing?” I yelled back. “Two of my kids are picky eaters whose palate changes based on the weather. I can’t keep up with who hates mustard and who hates mayonnaise, and you want me to give a crap about Diane Donner’s boyfriend?”
“It was the scandal of the century!” she shrieked dramatically.
“Again, why would I care?!” I turned and faced her again, my eyes probably wild with frustration. But how the heck had we arrived here? My mother and I yelling at each other in the parking lot of Hank Weller’s strip club about Diane Donner, former high society matron who’d disappeared ten—or, I guess, four—years ago? Who gave a flying flip about Diane Donner? We had bigger fish to fry.
“Listen.” I tried to calm my temper, cool my tone. “I don’t care about what other folks are doing or not doing unless they’re my friend and need help. Now, can we please move on and focus on what I need to do to interview or audition at The G-Spot?”
Aunt Maddie, who’d started crying quietly during my shouting match with my mother, shook her head. “I don’t know, Charlotte. I think I agree with your momma. I couldn’t live with myself if you got hurt at that other club.”
“Please, just trust me, okay? Finding Heather is the most important thing. Besides, you didn’t ask, I offered.” Dancing on stage in front of horny men couldn’t be any worse or more challenging than holding twenty-seven parent–teacher conferences in three days, or cleaning up after kindergarteners five days a week, or solo balancing the needs of my own children 24-7.
“But taking your clothes off,” my mother whined, no longer yelling. “Your modesty—”
I’d had enough. “Momma, I’ve had four children, my legs spread-eagle each time. Half the hospital has seen me more naked than I’ll be at The G-Spot.” Assuming I get the job. “And I’ve breastfed four babies. Everyone in this town has seen my boobs, several times. They are boobs, not a treasure chest full of pirate gold. And! I haven’t gone to the bathroom alone since Kimmy was born. I poop in front of an audience every day. Modesty holds no meaning for me, and besides, what use am I getting out of this body? At least I’ll get paid for showing it off.”
My mother gasped and I forced myself to shut my mouth. I didn’t want to upset my mother any more than was absolutely necessary. She’d always tried her best to love me, even when I didn’t make things easy. But I didn’t know how to be anyone other than myself. She’d always wanted a daughter as demure as she’d been: soft-spoken, decorous. Elegant. The poor woman had been given me instead.
God either had a wicked sense of humor or He was plain wicked.
“Sorry,” I said, lifting my eyes to the ceiling of my aunt’s car. The cloth above me was water-stained and sagging. “But it’s true. I’m not worried about taking my clothes off in front of people. But I am worried about my cousin.” I turned to my aunt again. “Let’s go to The G-Spot. I’ll see if they’ll let me audition, and then we’ll take things from there, okay?”
My aunt started the engine and nodded, visibly holding back more tears. I sent her a smile and buckled up.
I’d never been particularly close to my cousin—she was over ten years younger than me—but she was my family. Family came first. Always. I didn’t have spare money to hire a PI, and I believed Hannah when she said no one would answer our questions. We couldn’t go to the police since Heather was wanted in Florida for violating the terms of her parole.
I’d offered to infiltrate the clubs and pose as a stripper. What other option did we have? This was it. This was the way. And there was no use sitting in a parking lot, debating it for the hundredth time.
As much as I’d dreaded seeing and speaking to Hank again, I wasn’t dreading the prospect of stripping—at The Pony or at The G-Spot. That said, I wasn’t jumping for joy about it either, but I saw no reason to complain. It was something that needed to be done to locate my cousin while also not bringing her to the attention of law enforcement.
And doing what needed to be done without second-guessing myself or complaining about it was my superpower. When I died, my gravestone would probably read, “Charlotte Mitchell, she got shit done.”
“One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.”
― Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
In the same way Charlotte Mitchell’s visit had contributed to a ruined Sunday, echoes of her pleading voice corrupted my double bartending shift on Monday. Likewise, thoughts of her long legs and frustrated expression had intruded on Tuesday while I worked after hours to catch up on payroll.
I wasn’t obsessing, I was . . . curious. And wary. And suspicious.
Was she trying to sabotage The Pony? Did I need to watch my back? Did she hold a grudge because her ex had met Carli at my club?
Or, if she was telling the truth, why did she need money? Why didn’t she have enough? If she was looking to dance at The Pony, then she must’ve been desperate. Had Kevin Buckley’s family stopped paying child support? That seemed unlikely. I knew the judge who’d delivered the decision in her divorce proceedings. I could call and ask. I also knew the Buckleys. I could—
Wait a damn minute. Why do I care?
Glancing eastward over Bandit Lake, I dropped the cooler and tackle box I’d been carrying toward my boat, set my hands on my hips, and frowned at the orange and yellow gradient of the early August sky. I’d never been one to fret over the bad business decisions of other people. Charlotte had made a bad investment and now she was paying for it. She’d been an adult when she married Kevin. Her willful ignorance of human nature, lack of wisdom, and inability to read people wasn’t my problem.
None of this was my business unless she targeted my club. Then I’d have to do something. Until then, living my best life did not include wondering about Charlotte Mitchell’s financial solvency.
Decided, I bent to pick up my cooler and tackle box, then stepped on to the boat.
But to my eternal irritation, and likely due to my lack of sleep, I found myself unable to stop ruminating. When I was younger, she’d been a fixture at the Winston homestead during my school breaks. At least I was fairly certain the tall, sporty girl with messy blond hair, scraped knees, and a smart mouth was the same girl who’d grown up into the tall woman with honey-colored hair who’d made my life hellish for the last two years and then walked into my club on Sunday. If memory served, Beau’s youngest brother, Roscoe, and Charlotte had been friendly in high school.
Yeah . . . I think that’s her.
She’d been funnier then, and opinionated, talkative. She would ask me what book I was reading and then had a hundred follow-up questions when I told her the title. The one time we’d played Truth or Dare together, she’d always chosen dare. Nothing seemed to embarrass younger Charlotte, and I vaguely remembered admiring that about her.
Or that girl wasn’t Charlotte? I’d have to ask Beau to be sure.
Lowering to my haunches, I flipped open the tackle box and withdrew a fly. Since she’d returned to the valley a few years back and Beau had made a point of introducing us at the Friday night jam session—this was months before her divorce from Kevin, but after he’d already started frequenting my club—I’d been immediately attracted to Charlotte’s outside. Not sure there existed a straight man in Tennessee who wouldn’t be.
She’d smiled politely at the time, shook my hand, said without feeling, “Nice to see you,” and then dismissed me. I hadn’t been surprised. I was the local strip club owner after all; I was used to folks pretending I didn’t exist. Yet, for reasons unknown, Charlotte Mitchell was the only person on God’s green earth who’d ever been able to piss me off with a single, contemptuous look.
I’d come to dislike her pious personality more than I liked looking at her exterior.
As I affixed the lure in place, I decided that if that girl during my school breaks had been Charlotte, she’d been completely different when we were young. She’d turned out exactly like everyone else, hadn’t she? Like all the other boring, brainwashed, judgmental members of polite society.
Studying the early morning mist rising over the lake, I asked myself again, Why do I care?
I didn’t. And I wouldn’t. The end.
“Hey! Hank. You’re never going to believe this.”
At the sound of Beau’s loud whisper, I stood from my tackle box and turned toward the dock, watching the redhead’s approach. He appeared to be agitated and my stomach tightened.
“Shelly is pregnant,” I said automatically, waiting for him to confirm my long-held fear at last.
His steps faltered and his eyebrows pulled together as he drew even with the boat. “What? No, dummy. Shelly isn’t pregnant.” He stepped on the vessel, placing his cooler next to mine and no longer whispering. “Why do you always think I’m going to say Shelly is pregnant?”
The tension in me eased and I turned back to the tackle box. “It was a joke. What’s up?” It wasn’t a joke. It was going to happen sooner or later. And when it did, I would be happy for him. I would. I’d be so . . . happy.
Beau Winston—my best friend since forever and the best person I knew—had been in a serious relationship for several years with the same woman. I hadn’t been keeping track, but they’d been together more than five years but less than ten. Anyway, they weren’t married, but they’d moved in together. Which meant it was only a matter of time before the two of them began populating the earth with their spawn.
Don’t misunderstand, I got nothing against spawn (children), and my business partner’s kids seemed all right. Someone has to pay into social security and keep Medicare afloat. But I can’t employ children, nor are children—especially babies—likely to be customers of my club, or invest in my real-estate interests, or have extensive knowledge of the bond market. In short and in general, I had no use for kids.
But once Beau and Shelly had kids, the good times would be over. He’d be a dad. Since Beau was an exceptionally good man, he’d want to spend time with his spawn. That meant less fishing, no Saturday nights hanging out at Genie’s, fewer camping trips, and no more Beau picking up bartending shifts at The Pink Pony. Something about gestating and birthing spawn made even the most fun-loving of women abhor clubs like mine. Shelly didn’t even have kids and she wasn’t especially fun nor loving.
So. Yeah. The writing was on the wall, and it was written in baby food.
“It’s about Charlotte Mitchell,” he said, tapping my tackle box with his shoe, the movement urgent. “And it’s the nuttiest news since Diane Donner skipped town with Repo.”
Oh no. My heart skipped a beat. What has she done? “What is it?”
Clearly, I’d been right to be suspicious. The woman was making her move. Was Charlotte spreading rumors around town? Was I doomed to live a life of dingly donuts? I was so damn tired of driving all the way to Knoxville for a decent cup of coffee.
“Charlotte,” he said, pronouncing the T in her name with a crisp snap, “is stripping at The G-Spot.”
“Uh . . .” I held perfectly still. “Come again?”
“That’s right.” He nodded with vigor, his forehead wrinkling. “You heard me right. She’s stripping at The G-Spot. Hannah told me. I was checking out of the Piggly Wiggly late last night and she told me she was talking to Odell behind the register, who’d talked to Tina, and Tina had heard it from Catfish at the club, he was there when she asked for an audition.”
“When? When did she audition?” I don’t know why I asked the question. I already knew the answer.
“Sunday. But they didn’t have her audition.” Beau gave his head a disgusted shake. “Old Jasper took one look at her and hired her on the spot—no pun intended. Anyway, she starts this weekend.”
I rubbed my forehead. The G-Spot? Jesus. If she’d be chewed up and spit out at my club, she’d be chewed up, spit out, doused in gasoline, and lit on fire at The G-Spot. Then they’d piss on her ashes.
“Hank—” Beau reached out and put a hand on my shoulder. “You have to step in.”
My eyes widened and I reared back. “Me?”
“Yes, you.” He gave me a small shake. “You should offer her a job at The Pony. Make her a bartender or a dishwasher or something—not a dancer.”
I opened my mouth. Nothing came out.
“She can’t dance at The G-Spot,” he said with conviction. “We can’t let that happen.”
“Wha—why not?” I croaked.
“Why not? What do you mean why not?” Now he was looking at me like I’d lost my marbles. Or I was an idiot.
I glowered at the sky over his shoulder. The sun peeked over the edge of the tree line. If we didn’t leave the dock soon, all the fish would go back to sleep.
Charlotte Michell had already ruined three days this week; I did not appreciate her flailing antics encroaching on my fishing time with Beau. The woman was determined to be a stripper? Fine. Last time I checked, she was an adult, responsible for her own choices. She had agency and free will. Good luck to her.
Beau’s hand dropped and his blue eyes narrowed. “Those women over there are seasoned professionals, with fifteen years or more in the business. Or they’re looking to dance someplace with lax rules. Jasper doesn’t encourage it, but he doesn’t step in either. This is Charlotte’s first gig. You need to help her out. And if you’re looking for a selfish reason to step in, then let me break it down for you: if you don’t offer her an alternative, folks in town will pick up their pitchforks again and blame you when she gets hurt.”
I hissed out a breath between clenched teeth and turned away. Well. This was fucking fantastic. Would I never be free of Charlotte Mitchell’s stupidity?
“Come on, Hank. You owe her.”
Rearing back, I spun around. “I owe her? I owe her? For what?”
I blinked at my friend’s stern expression, atypical for his face, and I couldn’t believe my ears. He’d watched the last two years unfold; he’d listened to me bitch and moan about how things were with the townies, all the hoops I’d jumped through to turn things around. How I’d hosted the damn firefighter fundraiser without charging a fee last year. How I’d grinned politely in the face of that blowhard JT MacIntyre and his demands for the community commission singles auction. Beau had never said a word other than to commiserate. I thought he was on my side.
And now he . . . what? Agreed with them?
“What are you talking about?” I asked, seething.
“Why didn’t you step in with Kevin? Or with Carli? You knew what was going on.”
“It was none of my—”
Beau snorted. “Yeah, no. That’s not gonna fly. You’ve stepped in before and you’ve stepped in since. You’ve banned fellas from the club for giving too much attention to a particular dancer when they’re married—I know you do, I’ve seen you do it, though you justify it with some other BS reason. Or if the guy is reasonable and going through a hard time, you take the time to have a talk and strongly advise him to take a break from the club. But with Kevin, you saw it and you let it happen.”
Fucking Wednesday shot to hell.
“Hank.” He lifted a finger between us, looking irritated. Beau never looked irritated. Beau always sounded affable. He forgave easily. He laughed often. He told jokes. But I knew nothing he said next would be funny. “You could’ve stepped in with Kevin, and you made the decision to stay out of it.”
I was starting to resent the club. These days I netted more money in a month from my real-estate investments and rental properties than I made in a whole damn year at The Pony. Would the trouble and irritation it brought to my doorstep never cease? I swear, the only reason I kept it was to piss off the hoity-toity locals and because Jethro Winston was a silent partner. And, you know, I wanted to make sure my people were seen to, taken care of, kept safe, and—
“Hank. Answer me,” Beau pushed, cutting into my thoughts.
Grunting, I threw my hands up. “Fine. I did.”
“Why waste my time? Why step in when keeping quiet ultimately did everyone a favor? I know the Buckley family—I went to school with two of those kids at Belmont. They are pretentious, dishonorable bullies and no matter who Kevin had married, she was always going to be a first wife. Old man Buckley is on his seventh. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were related to Henry the Eighth.” I marched over to unwind the rope securing us to the dock and tugged. “If anyone owes anyone, Charlotte owes me. Where’s my thank-you note? A fruit basket would’ve been nice.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. And what about Carli?”
I waved an impatient hand. “Carli knew what she was doing. Her eyes were wide open. She probably cleaned him out and is living her best life in the Bahamas.” Unlike me, stuck here with scratches on my car and dirty looks whenever I went to the post office. With the boat unmoored, I stomped to the captain’s chair. “It worked out for everyone but me and I do not owe anyone a damn thing.”
“What about their kids?”
“I did them a favor, too. Who would want Kevin Buckley as a father? A crocodile would’ve been an improvement.”
I heard Beau heave a sigh. “You are such a grumpy asshole sometimes.”
“I never said I wasn’t.” I cut him a glance as he came to stand at my shoulder, leveling me with one of his I’m disappointed in you looks. I swallowed thickly, determined to remain unaffected. He would not talk me into this. I would not cave under Beau Winston’s do-gooder pressure. Not this time.
I turned the engine. In my peripheral vision, I saw him cross his arms, and my throat worked again. Forget this. I should ask Patty to come fishing on Wednesdays instead of Beau. On the one hand, she didn’t know how to fish. On the other hand, since we’d broken up and become friends, she never pushed me to do pointless shit out of some misplaced, do-gooder instinct.
“You got to do the right thing,” he said, quiet and certain.
I scowled. “Why can’t you let things alone?”
“I leave you alone plenty and you know it.”
That was true. I’d known Beau for over twenty years and he rarely asked me for anything. I could count the number of times he’d asked me to do something altruistic on one hand, and he’d always been right to ask. The most recent example had been years ago when he asked me to give his brother Jethro a chance to do some carpentry work at the club, a simple favor that had turned out to be one of the best business decisions of my life.
“Besides,” Beau continued, sounding irritatingly reasonable and wise, “this will not end well if you don’t step in—not for Charlotte, not for her kids, and definitely not for you.”
Well . . . fuck.
I guess The Pink Pony had a new employee.