Chapter 1

*Hank*

The day hadn’t been going great even before she walked in.

I’d just returned from the funeral of my long-time bookkeeper, he’d died from old age in his sleep surrounding by his five kids, loving wife, and eighteen grandchildren while leaving me with a reconciliation mess to clean up and this month’s payroll to finish; my newly trained bartender had sent a manifesto via text message, telling me how he was quitting because he felt like working for tips was unethical and he couldn’t bartend somewhere without a dedicated room for meditation and four paid one-hour breaks per shift to use it; and three Diamond Whiskey bottles out of the six that had shipped from the distributor were broken in the crate. That’s seven hundred dollars in Tennessee Whiskey and a crime against humanity.

On the plus side, my funeral suit still fit and I looked damn good in it.

I didn’t know it was her at first. The door opened and closed, same sound as normal no matter who was coming or going. Since it was a Sunday mid-morning, still early yet for any of the dancers or bouncers and way too early for any customers, I thought maybe the newcomer might be Jethro Winston. He didn’t stay for the shows, but we were business partners of a sorts and when he was in town he sometimes stopped by mid-morning to shoot the shit.

But the moment she turned the corner and came into view, I grit my teeth. Okay. Here we go. What does she want? She better not be selling bibles.

“Charlotte.” Standing behind the bar, I crossed my arms, making sure I sounded unfriendly. She’d caught me restocking paper products and the three bottles of Diamond Whiskey that had survived. I was only half finished with my current task, but nowhere near half finished with my gargantuan task list for the day, and I did not have time for pious Charlotte Mitchell.

In general, I had time for two types of folks: people I paid, and people who paid me. The only exceptions were Beau Winston and any woman I’d set my mind on seducing, but even then I made sure the scales stayed balanced. 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 eyes.

Tracking Charlotte Mitchell’s slow approach, I didn’t miss how she took her time and peered around. Her eyes weren’t wide, but they appeared curious.

I wanted to snark, “Lost? I believe the wallpaper and sanctimony store is closer to downtown.”

Instead, in a rare demonstration of self-restraint, 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; a bake-sale making, soccer mom SUV driving, PTA volunteering, hoity-toity, do-gooder single mother of four disease vectors (children) whose dumbass husband 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. It had taken me over a year to recover from the mass exodus in the aftermath of her departure.

Don’t get me wrong. Just like everyone else, I’d initially felt sorry for Charlotte, I think anyone would. That said, and 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 Kevin’s betrayal, but I did feel for the woman he’d duped and misused.

But then, while I’d been struggling to keep the 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 just 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.

Not helping matters, Charlotte had pointedly treated me like a leaper from biblical times. Unclean. Though I’d never cared much for or sought local goodwill, folks had never been 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 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. Things were finally back on track and her presence here might derail my recent progress.

While Charlotte continued her moseying, her head unhurriedly turned this way and that, I eyeballed her, catching glimpses of her perfect profile and 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.

Making it to the bar, she stopped in front of a stool. Her pale green eyes cool, surveying me like I was an afterthought. “May I order a drink yet?”

I studied her. Charlotte looked different than how she typically presented herself around town. Gone were the pretty but 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, but this was the Charlotte I knew best, the wordless 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. Frustratingly, and 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 look.

But this was my club. We hadn’t accidentally stumbled across each other today. She’d come to me, sought me out, and yet 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 simply here to fulfil her quota of self-righteous indignation. How heavy is that halo, angel?

Maybe 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 auburn 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 very same place of business she and all the other small-minded folks condemned and hated with a fire too hot for Satan.

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 just a smidge of southern tartness, “For a job, of course.”

“Where?”

“Here.”

I scratched my neck again, my eyes drifting to the right. This had to be a joke. Maybe Beau was 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—” now she pointed to herself “—a job application—” now she mimed a piece of paper “—for the Pink Pony—” now 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 bookkeeper, and a bouncer. As far as I knew, she had no experience with—

“A stripper.”

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 booked 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. Maybe 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 just 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 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 of 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 rich.

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 cut off 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, 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 scratched my chin. If she could dance like she said, then maybe—

NOPE! No. Absolutely not. Have you lost your mind?

I have my head a 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?

Maybe 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 because 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 I’d just recently 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, just like anyone else. Treat me like I’m anyone else.”

Well. That would certainly be a novelty for her, she who received differential martyrdom treatment 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 could knew—Charlotte was just 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.”

“I’ll—”

“No.”

“Hank—”

No,” I said firmly, my patience at an end. “The answer is no. You’re not worth the trouble.”

Maybe 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 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. I had twelve other professional dancers to consider, 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 grit out, my temper ballooning. But given 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 just leave.”

Finally.

“You do that.”

I turned and continued toward the back, not waiting for the sound of her departure, and 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 very last thing—was renewed townie scrutiny courtesy of saintly Charlotte Mitchell.

Chapter 2

*Charlotte*

“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, just ten minutes with Hank Weller. I was not feeling 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.

“I don’t understand.” A hand from the backseat settled on my shoulder, my mother’s voice gentle. “Why not? You’re ten times prettier than Hannah Townsend, or Tina Patterson, or any of those girls. Should I go talk to him?”

I snorted at that. I did not agree with her assertion that I was prettier than Hannah or Tina. Covering my momma’s hand where it rested on my shoulder, I patted her fingers while I turned to give her a tight smile. “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 very 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 simply could not comprehend meanness, whereas my daddy—who’d been dead set against my choice in date—had just 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?”

“It’s fine. I’ll audition at the G-Spot.” I’d wanted to audition there straightaway, but my momma had vetoed the idea, claiming The Pink Pony was of a more genteel establishment and we should at least check there for Heather first.

Genteel. Like Hank’s club was serving afternoon tea instead of local beauties in pasties and thongs. But I knew what she meant. 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.

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 all-male revue, women customers only annual fundraiser there, and competition for tickets was always fierce. I’d never gone. When TJ McIntyre 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, the G-Spot kept the local sheriff’s office plenty busy with drug busts, overdoses, and violent brawls. Basically, The G-Spot made The Pink Pony look like a country club.

Aunt Matty 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 just 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 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 maybe he was just a mean person. “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 club is dangerous,” my mother said weakly. “Maybe-maybe 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’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 a week. Two at the most. Just 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. I’d shamelessly hang out with Roscoe Winston at the Winston homestead just in case Hank stopped by to see Beau Winston. In retrospect I’d been naïve, bordering on pathetic.

Fighting a yawn, I ran my hands up and down my arms, suddenly 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 Matty shook her head abruptly, her hands dropping away. “We’ll just 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. “We’ve already talked this to death. Hannah is not going to tell us anything.”

When we couldn’t find a private investigator we could afford, I’d reached out to Hannah Townsend—a stripper at the Pink Pony—and asked if she’d seen Heather there, or if she could help. Now, I’ve known Hannah my whole life and we’ve always been friendly, so I took for granted that she’d answer my questions and tell me honestly if my cousin worked with her.

Not only did she not answer my questions, she’d basically turned to stone. Furthermore, she’d 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, 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 aunt’s voice cracked. “You have a good job. You’re a respectable, Godly woman. I cannot ask you to debase yourself in this way.”

I stopped short of snorting. “I can still be respectable and help my family. 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, your modesty—”

“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 just boobs. And! I haven’t gone to the bathroom alone since Kimmy was born. I poop in front of an audience. 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, 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 just plain wicked.

“Sorry,” I said, lifting my eyes to the ceiling of my aunt’s car. The cloth above me was 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 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. So I’d offered to infiltrate the clubs and pose as a stripper because what other option did we have?

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 simply something that needed to be done in order 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.”

Chapter 3

*Hank*

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—

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 financial solvency.

Decided, I bent to pick up my cooler and tackle box, then stepped on to the boat. Irritatingly, 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. At least, I was fairly certain the tall tomboy with auburn hair and a smart mouth was the same girl who’d grown up into the tall woman with auburn hair who’d made my life hell 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 good friends 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 answered. 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 maybe 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. As I affixed it in place, I decided that—if that girl had been Charlotte—she’d been different when we were young. But ultimately, she’d turned out just like everyone else, hadn’t she? Just 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 just 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?”

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). 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, very few 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 just for a decent cup of coffee.

“Charlotte,” he said, pronouncing the ‘t’ sound of 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 he she was talking to Odell behind the register who’d talked to Tina, and Tina had heard it from Catfish at the club, because 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. “Me?”

“Yes, you.” He gave me a small shake. “You should offer her a job at the Pony.”

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? What do you mean why?” 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 had just started to peek over the edge of the tree line. If we didn’t leave the dock soon, all the fish would go back to sleep.

Besides, 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 just 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?”

“For Kevin.”

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 TJ McIntyre and his demands for the community commission 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 going to 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 a decision to stay out of it.”

I threw my hands up. “Fine. I did.”

“Why?”

“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 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 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. The boat unmoored, I stomped to the captain’s chair. “It worked out for everyone 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.

“Hank.”

I turned the engine. In my peripheral vision, I saw him cross his arms and my throat worked again.

“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 know 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 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 dancer.

** END SNEAK PEEK **

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He needs to get her out of his system. Just once…
Hank Weller doesn’t help people. He leaves that do-gooder nonsense to his best friend, Beau Winston. Hank does what he wants, when he wants, with whomever he wants—and Hank does not want to hire Charlotte Mitchell to be an exotic dancer at his club, The Pink Pony. Sure, he can’t help noticing the dips and curves of her, how shrewd, smart, and funny she is, the fire in her hazel eyes. He’s always noticed. She’d probably draw a crowd and entice the regulars. But after Charlotte’s messy, public divorce made Hank’s club out to be the culprit—and made her the single mother of four kids—he doesn’t need or want any additional bad press courtesy of Charlotte Mitchell. Or the distraction. Unfortunately for him, the town’s prettiest charity case doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the words nope, no, and never.
Charlotte Mitchell doesn’t much like Hank Weller. Once upon a time, she used to. Years ago, she liked him a whole heckofalot despite other folks in town labeling him as “eccentric” and “nonconformist,” which were polite southern alternatives to “filthy rich” and “self-centered douchebag.” Her opinion of him changed dramatically after he volunteered to be her date to junior prom and then promptly stood her up. They haven’t so much as acknowledged each other in over a decade. But a sudden family emergency means Charlotte needs access to Hank’s club ASAP. Unfortunately for her, the narcissistic fancy-pants doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the words help, generosity, and compassion.
But he’s about to find himself schooled. Charlotte is going to teach Hank a lesson once and for all about basic human decency, whether he likes it or not.
Spoiler alert. . . he likes it. 😉
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