Read an Excerpt
Hey, Vera, whatcha think?"
Vera Mancusoor as the patrons of the Diamond Lounge gentlemen's club knew her, Vera LaRueglanced over at her friend Tawnisha and nearly dropped her makeup brush.
"My God, Tawni! Kinky Cat Woman?"
When she looked closer, she did drop her jawall the way to the floor beneath her own four-inch crystal-clear heels. Why she continued to be surprised by her friend's outrageous outfits she'd never know. Vera had worked at the club for nearly four years now and Tawni's daring outfits still managed to shock her. Tawni always teased her for being too naive for an exotic dancer. Maybe she was right.
"Too much?" her friend asked.
Vera choked on a laugh. "Uh. Maybe too little?" Yikes. "Aren't there parts missing?" The black latex Cat Woman costumecomplete with whipwas minus several strategic bits. The outfit left pretty much nothing to the imagination.
But then again, Vera reminded herself, that was the whole idea here, wasn't it?
Tawni grinned. "Only the important parts."
"Too hot to handle, girl!"
"Just the reaction I'm going for." Tawni wiggled her hips in imitation of what she'd be doing onstage in a few minutes. "Rumor is there's a real hottie out there tonight."
Vera grinned. "Loaded, too, I hope? Because I could seriously use a few good tips tonight."
"You and me both." Tawni crooked her fingers playfully. "Come to mama, baby. Let's see you boys flash those twenty-dollar bills."
"Twenties? Damn. That outfit's gonna bring out the fifties."
"What I like to hear, girlfriend," Tawni said. "Those poor slobs don't stand a chance." She gave the mirror a final check, winked and strutted out ofthe dressing room.
Ho-kay, then. Great news for Tawni. Bad news for Vera. If the punters tossed all their cash at the Kinky Cat Woman during the first set, there'd be nothing left for Vera's Naughty Bride half an hour later. No, not good. Joe's retirement home payment was due in a few days, and after her vintage Camry finally broke down last week she was still three hundred bucks short, let alone her own expenses for the month.
Unbidden, her eyes suddenly swam at the thought of her once-burly stepfather lying in his antiseptic white room. He'd been so full of life, had so many friends, before. Now she was his only visitor, and he hadn't even recognized her two nights ago.
She blew out a breath, fanning her misty eyes. Don't go all weepy on me, Mancuso. Spoil your makeup and forget about those big tips. Buck up, girl!
Besides, tears wouldn't helpthey never did.
And if she got really desperate, she could always borrow the money from Darla, her sister. Well, half sister. Except Darla had taken off, and who knew when she'd be back. Maybe Tawni could help out if worse came to worst. If her friend hadn't already spent all her money on some outrageous new costume by that time. The woman went through expensive stage outfits like Vera went through romance novels.
Not that Vera should be complaining about the costumes. In fact, she was very grateful for them. Tawni was one of the big reasons the punters kept coming back night after night and telling their friends back home in Des Moines about the great club they'd found in Vegas on their last business trip. Diamond Lounge: Women in the rough, perfect and polished. Yeah, that's what it actually said on the playbill out front. Seriously. With a sigh, Vera rolled her eyes. Lecherous Lou's idea, of course. Who else? Now there was a loser. Why couldn't he get Alzheimer's and forget all about Vera and his relentless campaign to get her to sleep with him?
Anyway, Tawni was one of the rough girls. Supposedly, according to Lecherous Lou. And Vera was polished. She snorted. Ha. Tawnisha Adams had graduated from UCLA magna cum laude and was one of the smoothest operators she knew. Vera was the only trailer trash around here, living the life her mother had lived before her. Mentally kicking and silently screaming.
Ah, well. It was what it was.
She leaned forward toward the big lighted mirror that covered an entire wall of the dressing room and critically examined her already generous eye makeup. Maybe a bit more mascara.
There was a fine line between virgin and whore. In her act, she was supposed to be a blushing, innocent bride who revealed her inner bad girl on her wedding night. Right. Like a real virgin would ever know those moves she did onstage. Hell, she barely did. But whatever. The punters loved it. Which kept Lecherous Lou from firing her even though she steadfastly refused to "do the dirty" with him, as he disgustingly referred to it. That's all that really mattered. Keeping her job.
At least until her Prince Charming came to sweep her away from all of this. Maybe tonight would be the night.
She sighed. More mascara it was.
Her sister burst through the dressing-room door and skidded to a halt against the vanity counter, scattering bottles of nail polish and hair products willy-nilly.
Darla's expression was wild. "Thank God you're here!"
"Whoa!" Vera jumped up and steadied her. "Sis, what's wrong? Where have you been all week? You have to stop disappearing like that. Tell me what's going on!"
"Trust me, you don't want to know," Darla said, yanking open her purse.
Darla'd done one of her runners two weeks ago. Which in itself wasn't unusual. Her ditzy sister took off for parts unknown all the time, at the drop of a hat. But she always came back happier and even more relaxed than she normally was, never looking like hell warmed over. Or agitated.
"Darla, you look something the cat dragged in," Vera said, genuine worry starting to hum through her. "Seriously, are you all right?" She'd never seen her chronically anesthetized and laid-back half sister so upset. Well, not since their poor excuse for a father had tried to throw Vera out of Darla's penthouse apartment for being a, quote, "money-grubbing gold-digging daughter of a streetwalker." But that was a whole different story.
"Yes. No! Oh, I don't know," Darla wailed. "Where the hell is it?" Stuff spilled all over the dressing table as she clawed desperately through her designer purse. A new Kate Spade, Vera noted. The real deal. Not like the knockoff Vera was carrying today, sitting on the counter next to Darla's purse. What a difference.
She caught a lipstick that went flying. "Sis, you're talking crazy. Where's what?"
"I gotta get out of town for a while, Vera. And I need you to do something for me Yes! Here it is!"
Triumphantly, her sister held up a ring. A big sparkly one. Jeez Louise, was that a diamond? Nah, had to be fake. Even rich-as-Ivanka-Trump Darla St. Giles wouldn't have a rock that huge.
Darla thrust the ring at her. "Can you hide this for me back at our place somewhere?"
Despite their father's objections, Vera shared Darla's penthouse apartment, for whichat Darla's insistenceshe paid a ridiculously small amount of rent. Amazingly generous, and a true godsend. Without it Vera'd be living in some low-rent dive in the burbs, an hour from work. Or on a sidewalk grate.
Half sisters, Vera was a product of their playboy father Max-imillian St. Giles's legendary philandering. It pleased Darla whom he basically ignored in favor of her older brother Henryto no end to throw their father's many faults and mistakes in his face. Sharing a penthouse with his by-blow ranked right up there. Why should Vera feel guilty about that? The man had treated them both like crap. And it was fun having a sister, even if Darla was a bit out of control at times. Okay, most of the time. They even looked alike. Superficially, at least. Darla meant a lot to her. She'd do anything for her sister.
She looked at the diamond ring in her hand. "Omigod, it's gorgeous! Where'd you get it? Why do you want me to hide it?" Vera asked, instantly drawn in by the astoundingly beautiful sparkling jewel.
Darla scooped her stuff back into her Kate Spade. "Just as a favor. Lord, you're a lifesaver. I" Her sister turned and for the first time noticed what Vera was wearing. Her eyes widened and a fleeting grin passed over her lips. "Dang, sis. Great corset. Man, that'll have 'em whackin' off in the aisles."
Darla always did have a way with words.
"Thanks, I think," Vera said wryly. Another thing about Darla: she might be an unholy mess, but she was an honest and genuine unholy messand never, ever judged Vera. About anything. "It is pretty spectacular, isn't it? I had it made to match my bride costume. What do you think? I designed it myself."
Seeing the fake wedding dress hanging from the mirror, a lightbulb went off behind eyes that looked so much like Vera's own. "Oh, it's fabulous," Darla exclaimed. "Hey! The ring'll blend right in! Go ahead, put it on," she urged.
She didn't have to ask twice. Vera slid the flashy ring onto her finger. "Wow. A perfect fit. It is so incredibly beautiful." And Darla was right. It went great with the bride outfit.
Again Vera's eyes were dazzled by the kaleidoscope of colors swirling in its centergreen and blue and violet. Like one of those pinwheel whirly things used to hypnotize people in bad movies.
She shook her head to clear it of the weird feeling. "Seriously, what's the deal with the ring?"
A noise sounded out in the hall. Her sister darted a panicked glance at the door, then gave her a smile she knew darn well was forced. "No deal," Darla said. "Just hide it for me, okay?"
"And whatever you do, do not talk to Thomas."
As in Thomas Smythe? Darla's ex-boyfriend? Before Vera could ask anything more, Darla pulled her into a quick, hard hug, then grabbed her Kate Spade and vanished out the door as quickly as she'd arrived.
Okay, that couldn't be good. Something was up.
Darla was never like thatall twitchy and in a rush. Darla never rushed anywhere. Or panicked over anything. Possibly because of the drugs she used far more than she should, but no doubt also because she had learned long ago that money could solve anything and everything. Even a messed-up life.
Tell her about it. Vera only wished she'd had the chance to learn that particular lesson.
Speaking of which, she'd better get her butt moving. If she missed her cue to go onstage, Lecherous Lou would pitch a fit. And have one more excuse to hit on her and expect capitulation. Gak. As if.
Luckily, because of her close association with the wealthy St. Giles family, Lecherous Loualong with everyone else at the Diamond Loungewas under the mistaken impression that Vera was loaded, too, and didn't need this job. That she just played at exotic dancing as a lark, to piss off conservative parents or whatever. Thank God for small favors. She knew other girls at the club didn't have that kind of leverage against Lecherous Lou to resist his overtures. Or other, shadier propositions. She'd heard about the "private gentlemen's parties" he ran off the books. It was really good money, and she'd been sorely tempted a time or two, but in the end, the thought of what else she'd be expected to doaccording to those who didmade her just plain queasy. She shuddered with revulsion.
She might really, really need this job and she might not have had sex in so long she'd probably forgotten how to do it but she would never, ever, ever
Hell, she wouldn't even do lap dances.
Brushing off the sordid feeling, she carefully shook out the satin skirt of her faux wedding dress and wrapped it around her waist, fastening it over the sexy white, berib-boned corset she was wearing. Then she slid on the matching satin bolero-style jacket that made her look oh, so prim and proper, just like a blushing bride. Gathering the yards and yards of see-through veilthe punters particularly liked when she teased them with thatshe attached the gossamer cloud to a glittering rhinestone tiara that held it in place on her head.
She checked herself in the mirror. Not bad. The dress was actually gorgeous. In it, she felt like Cinderella stepping from the pumpkin coach. Every man's fantasy bride come to life.
For a split second, a wave of wistfulness sifted through her at the sight of her own reflection. Too bad it was all just an illusion.
She sighed. Oh, well. Maybe someday it would happen for real.
Sure. Like right after Las Vegas got three feet of snow in July.
Face it, Prince Charming was never going to sweep her off her feet and marry her. Who was she kidding? She knew when she got into this gig that no man she'd ever want to marry would look twice at her in that way again. Not after he found out where she came from, and on top of that, what she did for a living. It didn't matter that she'd graduated high school at the top of her class and could have gotten a full ride to any collegeeven Stanford. Wouldas and couldas didn't matter to men. Only perceptions. She knew that. Look what had happened to her own mother, a woman as smart and loving as any who'd ever lived, bless her.
She knew it would kill Mama, absolutely eviscerate her, if she were alive to see what Vera was doing.
But what choice did she have?
A mere high school graduate could not find an honest, decent job that paid enough to keep Joe in that pricey retirement home. And she'd be damned if she let the best man she'd ever met waste away his last years parked at some damn trailer park day care because she couldn't afford to pay for a proper assisted-living facility. No sirree. Never. Not as long as Vera had breath in her body. And boobs and an ass that could attract fifty-dollar bills. Heck, even the occasional hundred.
So. Off she went to the stage. And truth be told, she didn't even mind that much. Honestly. She likedherbody. She'd been born with generous curves, and it did not bother her a bit to use them to her advantage. She'd never been shy. And if looking at her nude body could bring a few moments of pleasure to some lonely businessman jonesing for his far-off wife or girlfriend, well, hallelujah. Maybe she'd saved their marriage. Because men could look all they wanted, but they could not touch. That was a firm and fast rule. Both for the club and her personally.
"Two minutes!" Jerry, the bored UNLV senior and part-time stagehand, called from the hallway.
Pursing her bright red lips, she blew a good-luck kiss to the framed photo of Joe and Mama that sat at her spot on the dressing-room vanity, then hurried out and up the stairs toward the black-curtained wings of the stage. Tawni was just coming off.
"How's the house tonight?" Vera whispered.
Smiling broadly, Tawni shook a thick bundle of green bills in her fist. "Hot, baby, hot. Some real high rollers tonight. And, oh, those rumors were true. There's one singularly fine-lookin' man out there. You go get 'em, girl. Knock their little you-know-whats off."
Vera giggled. "You are so bad."
Tawni waggled her eyebrows and snapped her Cat Woman whip so it cracked the air. "And lovin' every minute." She raised a considering brow. "Though, Mr. Handsome didn't pay me no nevermind, so maybe he's ripe for a more frilly feminine type."
"One can only hope." And that he was rich as Croesus.
"Ten seconds, Miss LaRue." That came from Jerry.
Tawni gave her a wink, and Vera stepped up to the curtain.
"And now, gentlemen" Lecherous Lou's smarmy, fake-Scottish accent crooned over the club PA system. Her music cued up with a long note from a church organ. "you are in for a verra special treat, indeed. This next lass is guaranteed to make all you confirmed bachelors out there want to slip a gold ring on her finger and take her home for your verra own fantasy wedding night."
Stifling a yawn, Jerry stood with his nose buried in a textbook, curtain in hand, timing her entrance to exactly when the applause and male howling peaked. He didn't even look up. She didn't take it personally. Jerry'd just come out of the closet. Besides, he had exams this week.
"The Diamond Lounge is verra proud to present "
She took a deep breath. The stage went black.
"Miss Vera LaRue!