Newly crowned psychologist Justin Maxwell is celebrating his last night as a stripper before he starts his career. Then he spies her in the audienceGrace Cooper. He's wanted her for years, but as his student, she'd been off-limits. Now Justin has only one goal: sweet, irresistible seduction.
Grace is through skirting around her fierce attraction to Justin. She's leaving Seattle in two weeks, so why not allow herself one mind-meltingly hot night with Justin? But no pleasure comes without cost. And indulging in their insatiable desire for each other could cost both of them their futures
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The Metro Transit belched a nauseating exhaust cloud as it pulled away from the curb. The transit authority might have a clean-fuel initiative, but Justin Maxwell couldn't breathe. He wiped his tearing eyes at the same time a luxury coupe sped by the bus stop and blanketed him in a sheet of gutter water.
Drenched and sputtering, he cursed. The first thing he was going to do when he started his new job next week was start saving to buy a car. It didn't have to be a sports car. It didn't even have to be a new car. Hell, he couldn't afford new. Just something with a roof, and doors and windows that didn't leak. Anything that kept him from having to take public transportation through the rotten Seattle weather.
No more crowding under bus stops to get out of the rain. No more shuffling through the bus's packed aisle to find space to stand. No more leaving his house an hour and a half early in order to make all his connections across town.
Hoisting his duffel over his shoulder, he trudged up Broad Street, cut across Third Avenue and slipped down the alley behind Beaux Hommes.
The front of the all-male revue was decidedly posh. From the back, though, the building looked like nothing more than unimpressive cinder block, barred windows and steel doors. Very industrial chic, if he ignored the rancid smells of the Dumpster and old restaurant grease from the Chinese place across the alley.
He jogged up the steps to the third door and entered his digital pass code. The keypad beeped, the lock clicked open and Justin slipped inside, heading for the locker room and the showers. No way could he hit the stage with the film of grime covering him.
Deep voices and masculine laughter echoed down the hall. As he shoved through the swinging door, he was met with shouts of welcome followed immediately by some serious ribbing about his grungy state.
"Hey, I can't help it if I'm better dressed on a bad day than the rest of you are on your best." He dumped his bag in his locker and began peeling off his wet clothes. Since he'd started at the club, he'd always been particular about the way he presented himself. It came from the lean years when clothes were too small because there hadn't been money to replace what he'd outgrown.
He was not that kid anymore.
Levi, a longtime friend and the club's lead dancer, sank onto the nearest bench and evaluated him dispassionately. "What the hell happened to you? You look like you've been rolling around in the alley. Brawling or balling?"
Justin snorted and scrubbed his hands over his hair, flinging water everywhere. "Neither."
"That's too bad." Levi stretched, lines of thick muscle quivering before he relaxed. "A little action before the show never hurts."
"Says the least discriminating man I know."
Levi stood, whipped his towel off and snapped it across the back of one of Justin's now-bare thighs.
He yelped and spun around. "You suck, Levi."
The dark-haired man grinned. "Only if they return the favor."
Justin shook his head and laughed. "I'm grabbing a quick shower. What's my rotation tonight?"
"You're fourth. You follow Nick. I follow you."
"Our resident shrink won't make any money shaking his junk after me," Nick called.
Justin laughed. "Right. Because your man boobs are bigger than mine." And they were. Nick was as tall as Justin at six-two, but he was a solid twenty pounds heavier and it was muscle stacked on muscle.
Nick stuck his head around the end of the lockers and made his pecs dance. "Don't hate on me because I'm built better."
Shrugging, Justin grabbed his shower caddy and slammed his locker. "Anyone can build a body, brother, but there's not a damn thing you can do about that face."
The room erupted in laughter, Nick included, and Justin headed for the open showers.
It surprised him to realize he would miss this, the camaraderie and feeling of brotherhood, when he cut back to working only a couple of nights a month. Graduating with his PhD meant he'd finally scored a more traditional, definitely more socially acceptable job. Beginning Monday, he would no longer be a full-time Beaux Hommes man but rather Dr. Justin Maxwell, staff psychologist for Second Chances, a nonprofit leadership initiative for dis-advantaged inner-city youth. Receiving counseling from a licensed psychologist was a big part of the program.
He would know.
Hot water sluiced over his body as he soaped up, but the heat did little to ease his tension. All he wanted at the moment was to skip tonight's show, go home, get his stuff ready for Monday and then crash. But the efficiency apartment was brand-new to him. "New" really meant "empty." He'd bought a bed, but that was it. Save for that and a few pots and pans from a local thrift shop, the apartment was empty. He still funneled most of his earnings to his mom's house, covering the majority of the bills, making sure his sisters were fed and clothed. He owed them that much at least.
Resting his forearm against the tile wall, he let his chin fall forward so the shower stream pummeled his neck and shoulders.
Sixteen years. Sixteen years since the military had sent the chaplain to their door, and it still pissed him off. But thinking about it wasn't going to get him anywhere. He needed to get his game face on, dress and hit the weights before his first set.
Shutting the faucet off didn't stop the emotional trip down memory lane. He found himself considering who he was now versus who he'd been the first time he'd walked through the doors of Beaux Hommes on an open-call night ten years ago. He'd been working as a janitor for several weeks, watching the dancers' nightly cash take. When the next open call came for tryouts, he was there. He'd figured he'd get up on stage and show everyone how it was done and had brought a couple of his homeboys with him to yuck it up when he was finished. Mistake number one. The lead dancer hadn't even looked at Justin twice. He'd not even set foot on the stage before the guy called out, "Pass."
Furious, Justin had got up in the guy's grill. Mistake number two.
The lead dancer hadn't backed down, didn't even bat a damn eye. He'd come at Justin, drilling his finger into his chest. "Grow a pair, and I don't mean Leftie and Rightie over there, and you can audition again. If, and I do mean if, you cut clean now."
Justin's anger, always simmering so close to the surface then, had boiled over. "You're calling my boys"
"Your testicles. Yes, I'm calling them your testicles. If you've got to wear 'em on your sleeve, this isn't the job for you. Get out."
Ego bruised, he'd gone home, stewed over it for a few days and then talked to his counselor about the opportunity. With support from Second Chances, he'd come back. Alone. They'd hired him with one major caveat: the stuff they suspected he was dabbling ingangs, guns and girlscould never, ever come to work with him. He'd had a choice in that moment. Clean up and make a decent living at twenty, or turn to the streets full-time. Most of the Deuce-8 crew didn't live to see thirty. It wasn't much of a choice.
Bracing a fist against the shower wall, Justin grinned and shook his head. He'd been an idiot that first night, thinking he was all that while living fast and hard amid gunfire and turf wars. "Idiot" didn't even begin to cover it.
Grabbing his towel, he dried off as muffled, bass-heavy music drifted through the locker room. The first screams from the crowd went up. His stomach did the ever-familiar flip. Dancing for dollars would never be second nature to him the way it was to Levi, but the money had always been as good as they'd promised. And he had a large debt to repayto his mom and to Second Chances.
He grabbed his first costume. Time to pay a few bills.
Justin stood in the wings and waited. Nick's routine was almost over, and the stagehands had swept up cash twice already. It would be a nice take.
Levi slipped in beside Justin, wearing his fireman costumea crowd favorite. "We've got a full house tonight."
That stomach flip thing happened again. Justin hated the tension of standing around waiting. It was easier to show up as the other guy's set was ending. Then he could simply walk onstage as soon as his props were set. But Levi had rearranged a few things when he'd recently bought into the club as a partner, and one of those things was that the next dancer had to be ready and waiting off stage in order to prevent delays. Despite Justin's irritation, he had to admit it worked well. They'd been able to add in two extra routines a night, and that meant higher revenues for everyone involved. Still, it didn't do anything for his butterflies other than give them sharp-edged wings.
The dark-haired man glanced over. "Seems odd this is your last regular weekend."
"Yeah." Justin ran a hand around his neck and pulled hard enough his arm shook with the strain. "It won't change too much, though."
Assessing the crowd, Justin's gaze skipped from face to face as he considered his routine. He recognized a few regulars who tipped well. He'd work their seats hard. A couple of tables sported bride sashes and tiaraswedding groups were always good money. Those were added to his front list. The rest of the tables were crowded with unfamiliar faces. He'd watch those customers, see how they responded to him and react accordingly.
Guilt burned in his belly. This was the part he hated, casing the crowd like some damn dollar-bill desperado, deciding who was worth the bulk of his time after just a couple of quick passes.
He'd learned the skill on the streets, how to single out the best chump or the weakest link. Using that skill now left him feeling tainted, as if he was selling not only his body but his hard-won integrity, as well. Such a long way he'd come, climbing out of the gutter only ten years ago. It was a lifetime and just yesterday.
"Does it ever bother you?" he asked quietly. "What we do?"
Levi didn't look at him when he answered but kept his eyes on the crowd. "No. We're feeding a fantasy for them, a craving to desire and be desired. As a psychologist, you know that better than any of us." When Justin didn't immediately answer, the taller man glanced his way. "What's bugging you?"
"You need to get laid."
Justin grinned and shook his head. "That's your answer for everything."
"I'm serious. When was the last time you got some?"
"Been a while."
"You don't even remember, do you?"
Justin shrugged uncomfortably. "I just got a bed. What was I supposed to do before that, Levi? Ask a woman if she wanted to go back to my empty place and fool around on the floor? That was bound to garner a hell of a lot of yeses."
Levi turned to him. "You have to blow off some steam, enjoy life a little more than you have over the past, oh, decade plus. You've done nothing but take care of your family and go to school. You worked your ass off and you've made it, man. Monday begins a new chapter in your life. Take tonight and just enjoy yourself. Once every ten years or so won't kill you."
"Funny." But Justin knew Levi was at least partially right. He'd done nothing but work: as a student and teacher's assistant on campus during the day and as a stripper Thursday through Saturday nights. There hadn't been time for indulgences.
Looking over the crowd, his gaze landed on a stunning auburn-haired woman. Bright, cat-shaped eyes tilted up at the corners. She wore very little makeup. Full lips, high cheekbones, pert nose, an elegant neckeverything he could see made his blood hum through his veins. She smiled at the woman beside her, revealing a flash of white teeth and a single dimple.
"Well, what do you know," he murmured. It was Grace Cooper, the only student who had ever come close to convincing him to break the ethics clause in his teaching assistant's contract with the university. And she hadn't even been aware she was doing it. She'd just shown up to class and been beautiful, lusciously curvy and decidedly brilliant.
They'd flirteda brush of a hand here, a gentle touch there, an undisguised look caught before it was cloaked. He'd come so close to asking her out. She had been everything he'd wanted in a woman. Still was. And the want was still there, burning just beneath the surface.
But he was no longer her instructor, no longer bound by honor to keep his desires to himself. He could pursue her. Here. Tonight. Now.
His previous plan went out the window as he mentally amended his routine. "I'm switching gears," he said to Levi. "Tell the DJ to cue up the song for my new set. And I'm going to need a chair."
The other man shifted to see what Justin was staring at. He whistled. "Hottie at one o'clock."
Justin stepped into Levi's line of sight. "One warninghands off."
Levi grinned and held his hands out, palms open. "Got it."
"Great. Now get me a chair and make sure the DJ switches up the song."
Justin's conscience reared, ready to argue, but lust sucker-punched the bastard before it could draw a solid breath. He'd played by the rules for the past three years where she was concerned. And this was his last night before he joined the eight-to-five world. Once, just once, he wanted to live a little.
For the first time in his life, taking it off felt as natural as breathing.
Grace Cooper sank back in her chair and pushed her mass of hair over one shoulder. This had been the best possible way to spend the weekend. Hands down. Stealing some down time and allowing herself to splurge for once had been critical to her mental health. As an almost psychologist, she would know.
She'd spent the day wandering the waterfront with her friends. Pike Place had the most amazing flower market, and she'd caved, buying a bouquet of daisies for the kitchen. Then there had been the crepe restaurant for dinner. Holy. Crow. So good. She was still full. And now this, the pinnacle of the weekend. Gorgeous men taking their clothes off, a little benign flirting and some innocent fun with her girlfriends before they left the city and started careers in different parts of the country.
Meg, her best friend, leaned over and tapped her shoulder. "Best. Idea. Ever."
Grace laughed. "You need a bib. You've got a little something right" she dragged her thumb across Meg's chin "there."
Meg grimaced as heat burned across her cheeks. "Did you see Nick?"
"Just as much of him as you did."
"I've never seen a man move that way." Meg fanned herself. "I'd come back frequently if I wasn't moving to Baltimore."
"And I'll be following you as soon as this practicum is over." Grabbing her margarita, she took a healthy sip.
Two weeks. After that, she had some decisions to make. The kinds of decisions she'd been looking forward to making for as long as she could remember. She was moving to Baltimore with Meg, completely stepping away from the life she'd been trapped in since birth and becoming something, someone, more. All she'd ever wanted was the ability to choose for herself who she'd be instead of living as an unwanted by-product of her mother's environment and choices.