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Medical student Adam Burke was deeply engrossed in his anatomy text when a size-twelve foot kicked it out of his hands. It flew up and banged him in the chest.
"Pull your head out, nerd! We have a bachelor party to go to. Ogling strippers is a much better way to study anatomy."
Adam hated strip jointsthe cheesiness of them and the overpriced drinks, just for starters. He groaned. "Devon, I have a killer exam on Monday. And it's not on the finer points of silicone implants."
"All work and no play will turn your hair prematurely gray," Devon said, seizing the twenty-pound anatomy book and tossing it onto the king-size bed in their hotel room.
"No, you will. Where did you come from, anyway?" Adam frowned and then belatedly noticed the open door.
Devon followed his gaze and laughed. "Good detective work, Holmes. I can't believe you didn't hear me come inyou're scary intense when you study."
That was truethough there had been a time in high school, when he'd been "in love" with the class bad girl, during which Adam had been just as intense about screwing off to impress her. He'd tried his best to mess up his life.
"I have to be. You don't get into, or through, med school without the ability to focus." Adam, now twenty-five, ran a hand through his hair and reluctantly got up from the armchair he'd been sitting in. "Bachelor party, huh?" He said it without a trace of enthusiasm.
"Fire up, buddy. Mark's getting marriedgoing over to the Dark Side. We're the groomsmen. We gotta send him off in style, with lots of drinks and lots of wellendowed women."
Adam saw the glint in Devon's eye. It told him that protesting would do no good. His only hope was to go to the damned party and wait the requisite hour or so until all the guys were so shit-faced that they wouldn't notice him sneak out. He really didn't have time for this.
Devon started to describe the various abilities of the "talent" that awaited them. "They've got this one chick who walks around with a selection of cigars tucked in her G-string. You get a lap dance while you choose one. Then another girl will hold your cigar for you between her hooters while girl number three bends over and lights it with a match between her teeth."
"I can't wait," said Adam without a trace of sincerity.
"And that's just the beginning. This place we're going gets wild. later, this other chick, the star attraction, will take it all off and do things that you can't even imagine. she's got a prehensile"
"enough. I get the picture."
"No, really, she can pick up a lit cigar from an ashtray with her"
"and bring it up to your mouth again. I once saw a guy"
"Devon! Enough. And do you have any idea how unsanitary that is?"
"Dude. I'm not saying I'd smoke it again myself, just that it was a trip to watch."
Blek. Adam would rather have a root canal. Not that he didn't like naked women. But he liked them a little more wholesome than that. He wasn't a fan of strippers and blatant womanly wiles. The whole scene was so far removed from his daily life, where most of the females he encountered wore either sweats, jeans or surgical scrubsnot fishnets or pasties.
Adam also didn't care for most of the men who hung out at these clubs. They were generally either creeps or assholes. After they left the clubs, it wasn't unusual for the former to use their fists to abuse themselves and the latter to use their fists to abuse others. Emergency rooms were full of bruised and bloody idiots who had limped out of bars.
"C'mon, c'mon," Dev urged him. "You got ten minutes to grab a shower and pull yourself together."
"I am together," said Adam, looking at Devon's spiky, product-laden hair and the chain around his neck. He looked like some kind of designer dog. "And at least I don't have grease in my mop like some others I could mention. You're the one who needs the shower. Also, if you're going to wear a choke chain, where's your rabies tag?"
"Grease? This is Pomade a I'Hommes, imported from
Paris, and it costs a mint, thank you very much. I'm going to ignore your gratuitous comment about my" "Pomade a l'homosexual, more like," Adam said, grinning.
"Dude. You know better. I scored with number three hundred and twenty-six last month. That's a lot of women since age fourteen "
"Yeah. It makes me wonder when your dick's gonna fall off and what you're trying to prove." Adam disappeared into the bathroom, ignoring the insults Devon hurled at him through the door. Devon didn't have a gay bone in his body, but it was fun to rile him.
The quick hot shower cleared Adam's brain of fog and snapped him awake, since the anatomy text had had a sedative effect in spite of his legendary focus. He wrapped the hotel towel around his waist and shaved, though he didn't know why he bothered.
Then he threw on his clothes, cracked his knuckles like a caveman and girded his decidedly not inflamed loins for the evening.
Nikki Fine stared at the huge, hollow plywood cake on wheels in front of her. It was frosted with spackle and house-paint in unfortunate shades of peach and blue, and it had seen better days. Scuffs and footprints marred the once-festive surface, and a big chunk of icing had chipped off one side.
She shook her head. "I can't get in there," she said. "I'm claustrophobic and I'm afraid of the dark." Nobody had told her she'd be wheeled into the bachelor party this way. The inside of the cake might as well be a coffin as far as she was concerned. And was that a spiderweb down there? She shivered involuntarily.
Nikki always kept a tiny light plugged in next to her nightstand. Rationally she knew that there were no monsters under her bed. She was an adult, after all. But somehow she'd never outgrown her fear of total blackness in a room. And lately she'd had recurring nightmares about being buried alive after seeing a news story on the modus operandi of a particularly charming serial killer.
She was not getting into that small round box. No way.
Her neighbor Yvonne Morales blinked at her, tossing her glossy dark mane over her shoulder. Then she laughed. "Get over it, chica. You've been hired. Climb into the damn cake."
"I can't," Nikki said for the third time.
Not even in the name of paying off her crushing debt could she get in there.
"You want to lose this job in the first hour you have it? What about all that whinin' you did about being broke and needing to pay the minimum on your credit cards? What's your problem?"
Nikki gulped. Small, dark places. That's my problem. And total fear that I'm going to make an idiot out of myself in front of a hundred guys. Who was I kidding? I can't moonlight as a stripper. "Look," she said to Yvonne. "I kind of exaggerated my dancing skills. I can't dance at all. I didn't even make pep squad in high school." In fact, she'd been mocked by the mean girls for even attempting it.
Hey, Nikki, you're so fine, you're so fine, hey, Nikki!
She pushed aside the painful memory and the chorus line of the song they'd used to torment her. How she'd hated her name back then.
Yvonne laughed. "You don't gotta dance. You pop the top off the cake and wiggle around. Then pop your own top. The dumb-asses in the bar are all drunk, anyway. They couldn't tell the difference between you and Britney Spears out there. Just shake it and smile and lick your lips a lot."
The more she thought about it, the more Nikki realized exactly how bad an idea this was. "What if someone I know recognizes me?"
"In ten pounds of stage makeup, false eyelashes and pasties? I really don't think so. And believe me, they will not be focused on your face."
No, they would be focused on her breasts and her booty. No secret there. She flushed with humiliation as she remembered her experience at Yvonne's waxing place.
C 'mon, honey, we got to get you a Brazilian before tomorrow if you 're goin' onstage in a G-string.
Nikki had had to take off all clothingallbelow her waist. Then she'd been ordered onto a platform table and told to spread 'em while a strange woman had smacked noisily on her gum and stared at what Yvonne would call her "box."
Not only had the strange woman stared at it, she'd snipped at it with small scissors and then spread hot wax in highly embarrassing places with a wooden tongue-depressor. Far worse, she'd pressed muslin strips into the wax and then
"Oww!" Nikki had shrieked.
The woman snapped her gum and rolled her eyes as she tossed the strip into the trash. Then she grinned evilly and grasped another.
Approximately seventeen yelps later, her tormentor had made her roll over and assume an even more horrendous position . Nikki closed her eyes simply thinking about it. She'd refused to speak to Yvonne once she emerged from the chamber of horrors, while her neighbor just laughed and laughed.
Nikki had raced home, submerged her lower half in a tub of cold water, clamped her knees and gulped a glass of wine without stopping to breathe. Then she'd poured another and popped four painkillers.
This morning the angry red bumps had faded to a nice pink blush, a perfect background for the tiny heart that now nestled at the apex of her legs. I am a fallen woman, Nikki thought. Now, do I really need to pop out of a cake and fall again? Right on my butt in front of a bunch of horny, drunken men?
No, I do not. Best to walk away from this cake and this terrible job and figure out a different way to pay my credit cards.
The balance on the cards haunted her and made her want to puke when she thought about it. And it wasn't from irresponsibility, eitherwho could have foreseen that a perfectly healthy twenty-four-year-old would fall victim to appendicitis right after losing her job and declining to pay the huge hike in fees for COBRA?
It seemed beyond unfair. But she was the one who had been dumb enough to borrow money last month from Yvonne to tide her over until her new job started.
Yvonne grasped Nikki by the upper arms and shook hernot so gently. "Get a grip, girlfriend. I put myself on the line for you. You can't back out now or I'm gonna look bad and my manager will blame me when these guys call and complain. I do not need that, and I don't have time to get somebody else over here to cover this event. So you move your little culo and climb into that cake before I slap you into next month."
Nikki stiffened in surprise. Yvonne's tone wasn't so friendly and lighthearted anymore. Neither were Yvonne's fingers as they dug into her flesh. And her eyesthey'd hardened to the point of glassiness.
Nikki should have known better than to trust a woman who'd succumbed to Miami's latest in cosmetic surgery trends and gotten butt implants.
That friendly neighbor who had become a neighborly friend? She'd turned into Tonya Harding with PMS. What had Nikki gotten herself into?
"Do it," Yvonne ordered, in a menacing voice. She looked utterly capable of going after Nikki's knees with a tire iron.
That, combined with the fact that she had committed to tonight's job, persuaded Nikki to raise her left foot in its ridiculously high spike heel and swing it over the edge of the wooden cake.
"Good girl," said Yvonne.
Nikki refused to look at her. Good girl? I am dressed like a hooker and I'm walking around with a Brazilian. She straddled the edge of the cake and peered around, looking for any sign of the occupant of that spiderweb. Nothing with beady little eyes or more legs than her stared back.
Nikki swallowed hard.
"C'mon already," Yvonne said, wearing a look of contempt and little else herself. She grabbed Nikki by the ankle that still dangled outside the wooden cake and shoved it in, knocking her off balance.
Nikki lurched and clutched wildly at the walls, finally sliding down into a nervous crouch. Her rear end felt unnaturally exposed and the G-string gave her a fierce wedgie that she didn't have room to fix.
No spider, no spider, no spider, she repeated to herself. Nothing to be afraid of. Thirty seconds, a couple of minutes at most, then you' ll be wheeled into the party and you'll jump out on cue. Breathe evenly. You can do this. Just for one night.
Because this was the last night, the only night, that she'd humiliate herself this way. Monday she started her new job. And she would deliver pizzas on the side, do data entry at night, sell cosmeticswhatever it took. She'd pay off her cards somehow. But not like this.
"I'll be hanging in Ralph's office," Yvonne said. Ralph, her cousin, owned the strip club. "You can come get paid afterward."
She shook her head as she stared unblinkingly at Nikki. "You're actually scared. That's pathetic. Get a smile on your face this second. Now, head down."
Nikki produced a smile as genuine as a Vuitton bag on a New York street-vendor's cart and bent forward. Then everything went terrifyingly black and airless as the lid crashed into place.