A second chance doesn't guarantee a touchdown in this new contemporary romance from the author of Intercepted.
Single-mother Poppy Patterson moved across the country when she was sixteen and pregnant to find a new normal. After years of hard work, she's built a life she loves. It may include a job at a nightclub, weekend soccer games, and more stretch marks than she anticipated, but it's all hers, and nobody can take that away. Well, except for one person.
T.K. Moore, the starting wide receiver for the Denver Mustangs, dreamt his entire life about being in the NFL. His world is football, parties, and women. Maybe at one point he thought his future would play out with his high school sweetheart by his side, but Poppy is long gone and he's moved on.
When Poppy and TK cross paths in the most unlikely of places, emotions they've suppressed for years come rushing back. But with all the secrets they never told each other lying between them, they'll need more than a dating playbook to help them navigate their relationship.
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I'm on my knees.
In the back of a club, covered in a foreign liquid, and on my freaking knees. Plus, I'm pretty sure the coarse, dirty carpet beneath me might rub a hole through my lace stockings.
Some drunk asshole spilled whiskey all over my corset while trying to cop a feel. I'm pretty sure I've looked through hundreds of corsets and still can't find my size. Which, I guess, all things considered, is a good alternative for other reasons to be on my knees in a nightclub.
I never, not in a million years, thought this would be my life, but if life has taught me anything, it's to expect the unexpected.
And also, screw expectations. Expectations always leave you disappointed, broken, or-if you are really lucky, like me-all of the above.
"Hey, Poppy, Papi!" Sadie shimmies into the room, over the piles of mismatched thigh-high stockings and red-sequined corsets, waving a flat iron over her head. "Sadie's here to save the day."
I met Sadie on my first day here. I crossed the threshold into what I was sure was going to be dark, depressing, and coated with daddy issues, only to find my own little rainbow, dusting anyone around her with glitter. Literally. I love her to death, but if you come within three feet of Sadie, you can expect to find glitter on you for the next five months.
"You're a godsend. Phil looked like he was about to have a coronary when he saw me. I guess there's a big group coming tonight and my smelling like cheap booze and having half a head of frizzy hair was almost the end of the world." I grab another corset and check the tag: size zero . . . again. "Ugh! Why am I the only person here not a size zero or two? I'm going to crack a rib trying to close this."
"Because you like wine too much." Sadie doesn't look at me as she plugs the flat iron into the only empty outlet in the room.
"Whatever. Red wine is a health food. My heart is strong as hell, thank you very much." Resigning myself to the fact that I'll spend the rest of the night unable to breathe or bend properly, I start to peel off my ruined uniform, but for some reason, the clasps are stuck. "Ohmygod. Halp!"
Sadie rolls her eyes, taking her sweet time to come and help me. "You are doing the absolute most right now."
"Am not," I whisper yell at her. The upper clasps opened fine, so both of my hands are working to keep my girls covered. "Can you hurry before someone walks in and thinks I'm trying to get onstage tonight?"
"You suck in and squeeze the top as tight as you can. I'll try and rip the bottom ones open." She's biting her lip, and I know if she were to let go, she'd be laughing in my face. "Ready?"
I appreciate her restraint.
"Ready." I nod.
"Go!" She pulls as hard as she can. Which, unfortunately for me, is much stronger than I was bracing for and I go flying.
With the reaction time of a sloth.
I say nothing when I hit the ground. I just lie there, unmoving, taking inventory of my face. Running my tongue along my teeth, all still there. Feeling for the wetness of blood dripping from my nose, all dry. Everything is intact.
Well, everything except my right breast.
And my pride.
But I lost that years ago.
"Holy crap," I moan. "I never thought I'd ever in my life say this, but thank God for thigh-highs." A pile of the lacy little buggers saved my face!
And then I hear it.
Sadie's self-control has left the room.
"Why didn't I have my camera on?" she manages to get out through her peals of laughter. "You should have seen your face going down."
She does her best slo-mo replay for me, complete with openmouthed horror and wide-eyed fear.
"I kind of hate you right now." I fight my own smile. I'm secretly also bummed she didn't catch it on camera. I know it makes me seem like a nine-year-old, but watching people fall is a favorite pastime of mine . . . even when it's me. "You pushed me."
"That's what happens when you ask someone to undress you while wearing four-inch stilettos." She gestures to my weapon-adorned feet. "I accept none of the blame."
"You're a terrible friend. You could at least pretend to feel bad." I don't even try to stand up. I just lie on the floor and twist the clasps until they come undone . . . about four minutes too late. I'm half tempted to throw on my leggings and take my ass home.
Alas, the nearing empty gas tank in my car and electric bill that was fifty dollars more than normal pop into my head, reminding me I am a certified adult with certified adult problems. So my adult ass has to stay and serve adult drinks.
"Pretending is for porn stars, darling," Sadie says. "Now throw on a robe so I can fix your hair."
Ugh. My hair.
I don't hate much about my job.
But nearing the top of my hate list is burning my curly locks into submission. I've always loved my gravity-defying hair, but Phil-the club owner-has a strict "straight hair only" policy. I think it's bullshit and low-key racist, but I need a paycheck more than I need to stand on this Black Girl Magic mountain.
"How are the tips for you tonight?" I ask as Sadie yanks my head around, trying to get as close to my roots as possible without scorching my scalp.
"Not great." She avoids my eyes in the mirror. "But Phil put us on the VIP table tonight and they were walking in when I was heading up here, so things should get good."
"If it doesn't, let me know if you need one of my tables after they leave. I've worked overtime this week and my feet could use a slow night."
In reality, I could use every spare cent I can get.
But Sadie's been having a rough go as of late with her mom crashing at her place and giving her exactly zero extra dollars a month for rent and food. Plus, with prices skyrocketing in Denver, thanks to the thousands of marijuana enthusiasts moving in, she's struggling.
Something I understand all too well.
Supporting two people on this pay isn't what one would call a cake walk.
"Thank you," she says into my smoking tresses. "Maybe I could take one."
"No, thank you." I reach my arm beyond me, blindly searching for her hand to squeeze. "I have to spend the rest of the night in a uniform a size too small. I'm going to look like a stuffed sausage. You're saving me from extra humiliation."
"Oh, stop it." She finally looks at me, her eyes lit with humor. "The only thing it's going to do is make your waist look smaller and your already massive boobs look even bigger. You're going to rake it in tonight."
"I can always count on you to look on the bright side."
"That you can." She smirks at me and, as if by magic, conjures up a handful of glitter and throws it over my head.
I don't even attempt to brush it off me. This has happened to me enough to know glitter is like quicksand-the more you fight it, the more it sticks to you. Instead, I hang my head, resigned to the fact that I befriended a glitter-wielding psychopath.
If anyone tries to quote me, I'll deny it with every last breath, but I adore my waitress costume-not uniform, this is straight dress-up.
Well, when it's not crushing my lungs.
When I'm not at the club, I'm at home or school pickup in leggings, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes. I never, not in a million years, imagined myself working at a club, but I do take a secret pleasure in playing sex vixen. When I first started, I convinced myself it was an acting job. I have zero talent in the arts, but ever since I watched season one of American Idol, I've wanted to "gig." So that's what I told myself. Just going giggin'.
And it still works.
I'm one of the best waitresses here, and I consistently bring in the highest tips. Because when I walk in the door, I'm no longer Poppy Patterson: single mother and disowned daughter. Nope. I'm Serena. My stretch marks are hidden under my corset and thigh-highs. The mandatory red lipstick only makes my full lips seem even fuller. The metal piping in the deep V corset makes my waist smaller and my post-baby boobs perky and full. Not to mention, the sky-high heels I was convinced would grant me a workers' comp case make my short legs enviable even to someone who's five eight.
"I hate you," Charity says as soon as I step on the floor.
I jerk my head back. "What did I do?"
"Sadie said you couldn't find a corset in your size and you might go home." She sets her empty tray on the bar and uses her free hands to gesture the length of my body. "But you're still here lookin' like your tits are about to slap you in the face and Phil just pulled me from the high rollers."
The thing with Charity is, even though I've worked with her for the last two years, I still don't know how she feels about me. She either has the best, driest sense of humor, or she loathes me.
My heart says I'm her favorite person on the planet.
My brain, on the other hand, says she'd run me over if given the chance.
"If it makes you feel better, I can't breathe. There's a high probability of me spilling a drink all over someone tonight and getting fired."
"One can only hope." She points at the tray Nate, one of the bartenders tonight, is loading with shots and cocktails and throws a sideways glance my way. "VIP. You're up."
What a peach.
You'd think with a name like Charity, she'd be obligated to be kind.
She turns to leave and I call out to her back, "Thanks, Char-Char." She doesn't turn around, the slight stutter in her step the only indication she heard me at all. Maybe nicknames and Charity don't go together. Point taken.
The Emerald Cabaret is in an old building in Historic Downtown Denver. I never knew such classy clubs existed until I came here. It's almost like a speakeasy of sorts. The bottom floor is a steakhouse that costs a mint-not that I know from personal experience, I've never eaten there-and the upper two floors are the club. They had it remodeled so the third floor is the VIP section. It's completely open to the lower floor, and from what the performers have told me, they had to special order the silks for them to be long enough to do all the aerial tricks they do. There's also a private stage and a couple of private rooms I have no desire to ever step into.
Every night I take a second to appreciate the girls.
It is freaking art. You have to be strong as hell to do some of the Cirque du Soleil stunts they do. I swear, some nights I leave with my heart in my throat because of secondhand fear of these women flipping and twisting down the silk headfirst.
Most nights, though, I'm just in awe.
And thankful. Because of their skill set, we are filled with a certain kind of client. Besides a bachelor party here and there, we mostly serve the lawyer or businessman trying to have fun and make deals without seeming too sleazy. And not the football-playing variety. Something I made sure of before I accepted the job.
It was the only question I had during my interview, and Phil's firm (and angry) no is the reason I'm here.
And for two years, it's held up.
I walk up the stairs, feeling the strain in my calves that never seems to fade even though I've walked up them hundreds of times. I reach the top step and Dane, my favorite security teddy bear, lifts the velvet rope so I'm allowed to share breathing space with these very important people. I see Sadie clearing empty glasses off the table in front of the stage that Ruby (real name: Hannah) is slaying on. The silk is twisted around her ankle and going behind her head as she twirls and flips. I square my shoulders, put a little extra sway in my hips, and plaster a smile on my face. I take comfort in knowing I'm rocking the shit out of my sequined corset and my legs look fab in my sky-high heels and stockings.
This is my gig. I am Meryl. I am Julia. I am Sandra. I got this.
I repeat the mantra in my head on a loop until I round the table and take a deep breath to greet my new group of customers.
Then I see him and everything is forgotten.
Everything tonight, at least.
Not the bus ride across town. Not Mrs. Moore staring with disgust at my bloated midsection, telling me he didn't want me. Not all my dreams going down the drain.
Not the white-hot burn of rejection.
No, that's all crystal clear.
But where I am and what I'm supposed to be doing? Poof. All gone.
I grab the tray with my free hand when my shaking causes the drinks to rattle, and I start to back away. I can't decide on a pace, so it's an awkward dance of moving too fast and looking like I'm fleeing (accurate) or walking too slow and drawing attention to myself for looking suspicious (also accurate).
I have tunnel vision on Dane and the velvet rope to freedom when an arm brushes against my shoulder. Every tightened muscle in my body unravels like a jack-in-the-box and I spring forward.
"Shit!" I screech, throwing my hands in the air trying to stop it, but helpless as I watch my tray and all the drinks go flying in the one direction I need them not to go.
The liquid drenches the poor man from his too-long, light brown hair and thick beard covering his strong, square jaw to his chocolate leather loafers as the glass tumblers crash to the floor around him. The dark amber liquid dripping down his perfectly straight nose, despite the fact that he broke it in high school, is a vivid contrast to his ivory skin. All his friends manage to jump up-narrowly avoiding smelling like a distillery for the next year.