This was all for him, I realized. The partying, the entertainment—it was his. Everything was centered on him.
Except, in my periphery, where the others continued with their previous activities, I realized everything really wasn’t centered on him. The party might have been his, but no one was giving him any mind. It was me that was centered on him. Centered like the whole room was a ship on rocky waves and this single man was the axis. A solitary point of balance in a space of chaos. It was unusual because I was used to being the point of balance in chaos. I was stability. I was order.
Under his intense scrutiny, I was knocked off-kilter. As if one heel had broken and my foot had scrambled for purchase and he had been there to give me an arm. He both tripped me and steadied me all at once.
I don’t know when he started talking again. I saw his lips moving before I registered the sound. “Come on. Join us,” I think he said.
“What?” I had now completely zeroed in on his mouth—his teeth were perfect, straight and white. His bottom lip was plumper than the top, pale and inviting.
It curved up into a slight smile. “Pull up a seat. Alyssa will get you a drink. Maybe Luke will even give you a backrub. He’s great at working out muscles. You’re so tight I can see your knots from here.”
“I don’t…I can’t…I’m…” I was flustered. Flabbergasted. He was the mobster asking the cop to dinner. Who even did that?
Plus, he was really attractive. And while really attractive men usually had no effect on me whatsoever, this one did. And that…scared me.
So much for having a high fear threshold.
The man motioned to someone behind me. “Jennie, can you get our guest a chair?”
The underwear-clad woman pushed a chair closer to me, and automatically I sat, my knees pointed toward the stranger like a compass pointing north.
Then, realizing that wasn’t what I should be doing, I popped back up. Back to myself. Back to my place of authority where I was the one in control, the one with the poise.
“Thank you,” I said, firmly, steadily—at least I hoped firmly and steadily—“but no. I actually have to ask you to clean this act up.”
“Clean what up exactly?” His casual demeanor threw me. Again. Usually when a manager busted a patron, the guilty party became apologetic and full of excuses. Unless they were too drugged or drunk to care, and this man seemed to be neither.
Surprised that I was, I tried to keep it together. “There’s no smoking in the club. Or gambling. Or stripping. Tell your friends to extinguish their cigars, put away the cards and put their clothing on or they can leave. Or do all those things and leave. That would be another, even better option.”
While most of the room remained unaffected by my speech, one of the men tapped my waitress on the shoulder. “Alyssa, who is this chick?”
Irritated that Alyssa obviously knew more about this party than she’d cared to share with me downstairs, I gave her a searing look that said both don’t answer that and we’re going to have to have a talk later.
Maybe my annoyance was misplaced. Male customers commonly learned the names of their waitresses, sometimes innocently, sometimes not so innocently. Matt had a strict rule that only first names were used at the club for exactly that reason—so that no one could find themselves stalked online or their home address searched for on findsomeone.com. It was a safety precaution that I one-hundred-percent supported.
Still, the way Alyssa exchanged glances with the questioner, it seemed she knew this crowd much better than she’d let on. It dawned on me that they were regulars.
But I wasn’t a regular. Not on Tuesdays, so I was more than a little stunned when the charismatic stranger said, “This is Gwen. She’s our manager on duty tonight.”
“How did…?” I cut off, but not before I’d given myself away. There was no way he couldn’t tell how easily he derailed me.
“You’re wondering how I know all that.” He sat back in his chair, placing his ankle over his opposite knee. One of the topless women came to perch on the arm of his chair and draped a hand around his neck while he spoke, but he didn’t throw her so much as a glance as he continued speaking. “I’ll tell you how I know. It’s my business to look out for my guests, and that includes knowing the staff on duty. Alyssa here informed me earlier you were in charge tonight. She did a pretty good job describing you, too.”
My jaw tensed as I wondered exactly how Alyssa had described me—blonde? Bony? Uptight? A pain in the ass?
“Though, Alyssa, you were wrong,” JC said to the waitress behind me. “You said that she was pretty, which is totally not correct.”
My eyes widened with horror. I wasn’t pageant material maybe, but I’d never been outright told I wasn’t pretty.
JC turned his focus back to me. “No, no, no. You’re taking me wrong.” Jesus, was I really so transparent? “Pretty is a complete put-down if you ask me, because you’re actually quite gorgeous. It’s a unique sort of beauty. A hardened one. Not many people can pull off stony and stunning. But you can. It’s your eyes. They’re softer, inset like that. They contradict your expression.”
I blinked. Maybe I gaped a bit too. The straightforward way this man—this stranger—talked about me, about my looks…it should have felt crude. Violating. Not flattering. Not charming.
And it sure as hell shouldn’t make my stomach flutter with butterflies or make my pulse pick up. Or make my cheeks blush.
The woman behind him leaned forward, her breasts rubbing casually against the man’s ear. “It doesn’t hurt that she has nice tits,” she added.
This time I did gape. For one, how could she possibly know anything about my tits, which were on the bigger side, yes, but completely covered? And two, had she looked in a mirror? Because if we were talking about nice tits, there were few that could compete with hers, and I was even pretty sure they were real.
“Now, Natalie, that’s hardly appropriate.” But his eyes moved down to check out my rack as he said it.
Still, I appreciated the attempt at civility.
Then I remembered I didn’t appreciate any of this at all. “Flattery is not going to get you anywhere with me. You need to get this out of here. Now.” Thank God for the natural rasp in my voice—I used it to hide my unsteadiness.
“I don’t do flattery, Gwen.” He paused, seeming to want that to sink in before he went on. “And, I’m sorry to be the one to inform you, but I have this room booked to do absolutely whatever I want.”