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At 1:55 a.m., Amanda Nelson finished her last dance. After stopping in the dressing room to pull jeans and a T-shirt over her hot pink bra and Brazilian thong and to replace six-inch heels with flip-flops, she was out the back door by 2:01, keys in hand, way past ready to go home.
There were still customers in the club, finishing one last drink, some of them trying to buy companionship for the rest of the night from the girls willing to be bought. Those who weren't willing were still in the dressing room, unwinding, taking off stage makeup, making plans to go out and party. Amanda was the only one in the shadowy parking lot behind the club. That fact creeped her out and made her walk a little faster, clench the keys a little tighter. She had strong lungs and stronger legs, as well as a container of pepper spray in her purse, but she didn't want to be forced into a test of her ability to defend herself.
She was only a few yards from her car when a shadow separated from the darkness and moved toward her. Her heart jumped and her throat tightened in the instant before she recognized him.
Rick Calloway, part-time bartender, full-time hunk. He'd been at Almost Heaven only a few weeks, and that was all the girls knew about him. Well, that, plus the fact that he was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome.
But Amanda wasn't just one of the girls. She knew Rick was six years older than her, that he came from the small Georgia town of Copper Lake, that the crook in his nose was the result of a high-school brawl, that he had two brothers, Robbie and Russ. She also knew that he hadn't recognized her or her name, and for that she was grateful. Growing up in Copper Lake was an experience she preferred to leave in the past.
"Hey, Amanda. Sorry if I startled you."
"You didn't," she lied. She used the remote to unlock her car, the headlights automatically flashing, illuminating him for a few seconds. He wore jeans, faded and snug, and an emerald-green polo shirt, also snug. His dark hair curled over his collar, and his olive-toned skin was stubbled with beard along his jaw. His eyes were surprisingly blue, like Robbie's, and his voice sounded enough like Robbie's had fifteen years ago that she would need more than a few words to tell them apart.
In his two weeks at the club, he hadn't spoken to her more than a few times, and then only to steer her toward a customer who was dropping big bucks. She'd spoken to him only to thank him with a share of her tip. She never got cozy with the guys at work, neither the managers nor the employees nor the customers. She particularly didn't want to get cozy with Robbie Calloway's brother.
After tossing her gym bag into the backseat, she turned to face him. "Is there something I can do for you?"
"Yeah." He shifted awkwardly. In all the times she'd seen him, awkward hadn't been his style. "I have a friend who, uh, wants to learn to dance. I was wondering if" he shrugged "if you'd teach her."
Amanda had always been a dancer. Her earliest memories were of twirling around the living room, alone or in her father's arms, while her mother watched with an indulgent smile. Then the accident had happened and her father never twirled her nor her mother indulged her again.
She'd never had a lesson. She didn't bother with routines, didn't care about choreography. Moving to music came naturally to her. What little training she'd gotten had been on the job: watching the other dancers at that first club, getting a feel for what the customers liked and making it her own.
"There are classes she can take," she said at last.
"She's a little shy."
"She can buy a videotape."
"She does better with hands-on instruction."
"Does she want to do this as a job or just for you?"
With the only light coming from the nearest street-lamp, it was impossible to say for sure, but his cheeks seemed darker. His voice was definitely a shade hoarser. "Uh, both, I think."
Stripping could certainly bring a shy woman out of her shell. Not that Amanda knew from experience. She'd never had a shy bone in her body, her father used to say. She'd always been brash and bold, going after what she wanted. She still pursued her goals, but the brashness and boldness had worn off after twelve years on the club circuit.
"I'd pay for your time, of course," Rick said.
She smiled thinly. Moneythe magic word. Every exotic dancer she knew was in it for the money. It was a job that always outdid minimum wage and, if a girl was lucky and stayed in good shape, sometimes paid extraordinarily well. The trick was to put some of the good money away to help out through the not-so-good times.
That was a lesson Amanda had learned early on. She'd paid for her car with her savings, bought a house and put herself through college. When her thirty-first birthday rolled around in six weeks, she would officially retire from the business. No more bikini waxes, diets, working nights and sleeping days. No worrying about her body mass index or jogging three miles daily in Atlanta's muggy heat. No wearing clothes that wouldn't adequately cover a toddler
Rick cleared his throat and she refocused on the subject. Did she want to teach Rick Calloway's girlfriend how to turn him on by taking off her clothes? Not particularly. Was she willing to take his money in exchange for a few hours of her free time? Why not? It wasn't as if she would be spending time with him. He would remain just as clueless about her as he was now.
"Okay. Tell her to call me." Climbing into her car, she started the engine, then backed out. When she drove away, he was still standing there in the parking lot, watching her car as it disappeared into the night.
It was a ten-minute drive to her neighborhood, where her house stood in counterpoint to all the white houses on the block. Its wood siding was the color of a pumpkin pie fresh from the oven, its trim the same hue as whipped cream. It was small, little more than thirteen hundred square feet, but came with a decent-sized yard and a big front porch. And it was hers. Until she'd bought it, she'd never really had a place that was hers.
She parked in the driveway, then climbed the steps to the porch. It was deep enough to provide a sheltered view of the frequent summer storms and held a swing, a pine rocker, three wicker chairs and matching tables. With the floral cushions and the potted flowers scattered around, it was the fussiest space in her house.
Like her, the house was a work in progress; unlike her, it would soon be finished. She'd done the labor herselfhauling out cheap carpet and pad, stripping the heart of pine floors, sanding and refinishing them. She'd hung Sheetrock, replaced molding, completely retiled the fireplace surround, the kitchen and the bathroom. The only room left to finish was her bedroom, which would be done about the time she retired from dancing and started her new life.
Her puppy greeted her with a sleepy one-eyed look before rising to her feet, stretching, then padding over for a scratch. Amanda obliged her for a moment, then opened the door so Dancer could trot out into the yard.
In a minute or so, she was back, tail wagging lazily as she headed for her spot on the bed.
Stifling a yawn, Amanda wandered into her bedroom, still a ghastly "before" that would soon become a fresh "after." Not that there was a rush. She hadn't brought anyone home to see it in more months than she wanted to recall.
And that admission was certainly no reason for Rick Calloway's image to pop into her mind. She'd had enough of the Calloways to last a lifetime. Her father had worked for Calloway Industries, as his father and grandfather had. They'd lived in houses and apartments owned by the Calloways, had shopped in Calloway stores in a town whose mayor was always a Calloway. Her own first job had been for the family, and her first broken heart had come at the hands of Robbie Calloway. When she'd left Copper Lake almost fifteen years ago, she'd thought she'd seen the last of them.
Then Rick Calloway had walked into the club. There was no mistaking that he was one of those Calloways. She may not have seen one in ages, but the family resemblance was strong. She'd held her breath for a time, hoping he wouldn't recognize her before realizing her own conceit. He'd never noticed her when they lived in the same small town. He'd been older, she'd been poorer; he'd been special, she'd been nobody. How could he recognize someone he hadn't known existed?
Giving in to a yawn, she kicked off her shoes and went into the bathroom, the tile cold beneath her feet. While the tub filled with hot water, she stripped off her clothes, removed her makeup and secured her hair to the top of her head before sliding into the tub. There was a time when she'd danced a six-or eight-hour shift, then gone out to party for another three hours. Not anymore. Stripping was a demanding job that took its toll on a body. A dancer had only so many good years and she was at the end of hers.
Her new career wouldn't be nearly as strenuous. Walking across campus, carrying books, handing out stacks of papers Eyes closed, she smiled, her satisfaction so intense that the water around her practically vibrated with it. Amanda Nelson, poor girl who would never amount to anything, high school dropout, stripper, was going back to college.
This time as a teacher.
For the first time in her life, she was going to be one hundred percent respectable.
If he were alive today, wouldn't her father be proud?
Bleary-eyed after less than five hours' sleep, Rick Calloway slid into the booth across from his sometimes-partner and removed his sunglasses. He winced at the bright light and put them on again, then took a swig of coffee. What it lacked in heat, it more than made up for in bitterness, but he didn't bother doctoring it. He wouldn't bother finishing it, either.
"You look like you had a tough night." Julia Dautrieve's voice was just like herno-nonsense. Everything about her was function over style, from her black dress with matching jacket to her low-heeled shoes. She was smart as hell, handled a gun better than most of the men they worked with and was more capable than just about anyone he knew. He just couldn't see her handling this new job.
"My night would have been fine if someone hadn't dragged me out of bed at an ungodly hour for coffee," he grumbled. The club closed at two, but by the time he got everyone out so he could clean and lock up, it was usually after three. This morning it had been four before he'd made it home, five before he'd showered and fallen asleep.
Thinking about Amanda Nelson.
He'd noticed her his first night on the job. Hell, he was alive, wasn't he? Five foot six, slender as a reed but with some very nice curves, too. Long auburn hair that curled wildly, endless legs, pale golden skin. And she'd been showing a lot of skin that first night, wearing a tiny yellow bra that covered only the necessities and a breakaway skirt that was about the size of a paper towel.
It had been clear that night that she was a lot of guys' fantasy come to life, but not his. She was part of the job and Harry had told him with a wink and a grin, "Look, but don't touch." That was official policy at all the clubs, though it was broken at all of them. He hadn't yet met the bartender, bouncer or manager who hadn't had a thing with one or more of the girls at their clubs.
Look, but don't touch was his official policy. His bosses at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation would frown on him hooking up with a stripper while in the course of his investigation.
"Did you talk to her?"
Julia's businesslike tone cut into his thoughts and made him scowl. "Yeah. She said okay."
"Damn." Julia's voice held more emotion than usualdisappointment, irritation. "I was hoping "
That Amanda would turn him down. That all the girls would tell him no, earning Julia a reprieve. Amanda had agreed for a price, though they hadn't settled on an amount yet. Most of the dancers at Almost Heaven would have agreed for freeat least, for no cash payment. Most of them had already come on to him.
"You can tell Baker you won't do it."
Now it was her turn to scowl. "I've never backed away from a challenge. I can't afford to."
Being a woman in a still predominantly male field probably did have its challenges. Rick wondered if that was the reason for the ugly shoes, the plain clothes, the severe hair. Was this her way of making her gender less of an issue, or was she stuffy and uptight by nature? He'd worked with her for three years, but didn't know. Didn't know much at all about her personal life. He'd asked. She'd just never answered.
"He can't make you go undercover as a stripper."
Julia shrugged. "It's just part of the job. No big deal." Then she slid her cell phone across the table. "Call her. Set up an appointment."
Rick ignored her phone and pulled his out instead. Before leaving the club that morning, he'd put Amanda's number in his phone book. She would think he'd gotten it from Harry, which suited him just fine. None of the girls needed to know that GBI had done background investigations on them all.
As the phone rang, he idly wondered if it was too early to call. She'd left the club two hours before him, but that didn't mean she'd gone home and to bed. She could have stopped for something to eat, gone out with friends or had a date. Not his business if she had.
But she answered on the third ring and her voice was too cheerful and alert for her to have been sleeping. The simple sound of her hello conjured an image of her, not in the skimpy clothes he usually saw her in, but the way she'd looked that morning, in faded jeans and a T-shirt advertising Atlanta's zoo. She'd looked so different. Still pretty, still sexy, just wholesome. Unjaded.
She'd repeated the hello before he prodded himself to answer. "Hey, this is Calloway. Did I wake you?"
"No, not at all."
"I told Julia, my, uh, friend, that you'd agreed to teach her, and she wanted to know when you could start."
Her voice hushed, Amanda spoke to someone in the background, and Rick wondered again if she'd had a date and if he'd slept over. What kind of man dated a stripper? Not that there was anything wrong with strippers in general. Most of them he'd met were nice women just trying to make their way. But what kind of man didn't mind that his girlfriend took off her clothes for the gratification of strangers? Maybe Rick was old-fashioned, but he liked to believe that, when he was involved with a woman, he was the only one seeing her naked, or practically so.
"Sorry,"Amanda said into the phone. "My puppy was trying to eat my laundry. Um, is she available today?"
Today? Rick mouthed, and Julia mouthed back, Now? "How about now?" he asked.