Tough Break by Elizabeth SaFleur

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Six Years Ago

Tonight would not be Declan's proudest moment. He knew it three steps into Maxim's. What did it matter? Three days out of Eastern Men's Correctional Facility and he had nothing better to do. Besides, he hadn't been in the presence of, let alone touched by a woman for two years. Pure hell for a man like him.

He had one last desire before he'd go down to the waterfront to see if he really had the guts to walk into the river. He wasn't disappearing into the murky Patapsco River without one last physical contact with a woman. A strip club seemed as good an answer as any to fulfill that wish.

He threw a $50 bill into the jar at the front desk for the main doorman and handed over another to the slight young brunette behind the register for the entry fee.

Her deadpan expression morphed into a bright smile. “You look like a man who deserves the private tent.”

Sure, he did. A few days’ stubble on his face in a plain white shirt and blue workman's pants—the dead opposite of how he entered prison—wasn't private tent material, but nothing mattered to anyone here except money. “No, sweetheart. Tip rail's fine.” He leaned against his cane. His leg throbbed, and he needed to sit his ass down for a bit.

His cellmate couldn't stop waxing on about how, once free, he'd be going to Maxim's. “Got the most gorgeous dolls there. Make you feel real good,” Mick had said with that faraway look that could get you killed in prison, leaving yourself open for being jumped.

“You sure? I can get you someone special just for you.” The main doorman, a stocky fellow with jet black hair and a nose that appeared broken a few too many times, quirked his lips at him. “Perhaps two?”

“All good here.” He didn't need a private VIP area for a bit of attention. The girls here may be instructed to never object to what the client desired—so long as it wasn't recorded or traceable—but his goals were modest. The lack of their true consent for that last part roiled his gut, but here he was, buying into a system where a man could buy a bit of imaginary love. A few touches, a few smiles, that’s all he required.

The doorman eyed him. “You a cop?”

“Not even close.”

The man circled his shoulder, glanced around and then dropped his voice low. “You need somethin' special, give me, Trace, a shout. I’ll hook you up with some pussy.” The guy’s gaze dropped to Declan’s cane. He'd gotten used to that look—pure pity for the crippled half-man. No matter. He could take down a man twice his size if needed, another skill learned over the last two years out of necessity.

The guy scratched his chin. “We've got quite a few women who'd love to spend some time with you.”

More like his money. “No, thanks.” With a quick head shake, he freed himself from the unwanted offer. He seated himself on a cracked black vinyl stool at the tip rail.

Prostitutes weren't his style, but he'd accept a dancer's feigned interest. They likely needed his money more than he did. In fact, he may never need money again.

A thin blond woman swayed her hips against a pole and eyed him. Of course, she sized him up. Was he a Kmart shopper who'd spend very little or a holy roller?

“Best vodka you have. Straight up,” he said to a cocktail waitress who’d sidled up to him.

Declan laid a stack of $20 bills, all creased down the middle, on the lip of the stage. That was all it took for his status to be established.

The dancer slunk to her knees and crawled toward him, a smile plastered across her face. “Hi, handsome. I'm Heaven.” He held out a $20 to her, which she took with her teeth. She rose to her knees and gyrated her crotch in front of him while another dancer on the floor drew closer to him. She walked by him twice, eyeballing his cane but not stopping.

Heaven dropped to all fours and slithered closer. The scent of freshly baked cookies rolled over him. Had women always smelled this good? Her cheek, as soft as a baby’s butt, brushed his as she whispered a thank you. Her hand slid down his forearm to his hand, which she grasped and raised to the silky skin on her neck.

Up close, she resembled a little girl, all pink, pouty lips and round face. Was she even of legal age? After two years of never touching another soul, the feel of her matched her name. Her gesture was such a small thing for such a big impact, but there it was—powerful beyond measure.

He memorized the flush across her smooth chest, the warmth of her skin in case he got to carry it with him to wherever souls like him went in the hereafter.

As soon as his drink arrived, he withdrew his hand. He threw back the vodka and pointed to the stack of bills. “They're all yours.” She blinked as if she hadn't heard him right.

The doorman appeared. With one meaty hand on the rail and the other on the back of his chair, he leaned down to him. “You look like a man seeking something special. Blonds not your type?” His gaze shot to the stage and back to him. “Or did she—”

“Heaven was perfect.” Declan rose and pressed both palms into the end of his cane. He wouldn't be responsible for any black mark on her reputation here—and this guy seemed like someone who'd take any chance to lower these girls’ status by any imagined infraction.

The guy's fake smile was back. “I got something for you.” He raised his hand and snapped his fingers at a redhead across the floor. “Hey, Red!”

The woman straightened from her lean over a table of women—an unusual sight in a strip club. The doorman jerked his head in a “get over here” gesture.

With a roll of her eyes, she moved toward them.

“We're breaking her in.” He cocked his head toward Declan. “For a little extra, I'll make sure she does you extra. You got the cash, you got access to whatever you want.”

The woman’s saunter held a grace he hadn’t seen in a while—like she’d been on a runway once or a performance stage. As she grew closer, her blue eyes sparkled like the waters off a Caribbean island.

“Hi, I'm Phoenix Rising.” Her gaze dropped to his cane quickly and then back to his face. Not an ounce of pity showed in her face, a gift she probably had no clue she'd given him.

“She'll get a rise out of you, for sure,” the doorman chuckled. “You know what they say about redheads, right? Firebrands… the lot of them. She gets too hot, you've got that cane.” He lifted his chin. The man was giving him permission to hit one of his dancers? He'd seen enough, gotten enough. A few inhales of feminine perfume, a bit of skin-on-skin contact was all he could hope for.

“Heading out.”

The doorman gripped her arm. “She'll do whatever you want. Won't you, Red?”

She tried to yank her arm free. The guy held it so tightly her lower arm grew paler from restricted blood.

“Let her go.”

The guy dropped his hand and huffed. “Like I said—”

“Lap dance.” The words tumbled out of his mouth. “That's all I want.” He pulled out a hundred from inside his jacket—one of three he'd put there with thoughts of slipping them under St. Mary's of the 2nd street Episcopal church door before ending things. His one last gift to the God that had abandoned him long ago to put Him in Declan's debt for fucking once.

The doorman snatched it, and the woman glared at him. “You came in after eight. You know what that means.”

Mick had told Declan what that meant. The time of day the girls arrived equaled the percentage they got to keep. The later they arrived, the less their percentages no matter what they did when they were there. Phoenix wasn't seeing any of that hundred.

“Phoenix.” Declan dipped his chin. “Do me the honors.” He held out his elbow, his other hand gripping his cane. He could at least get her away from the fucking doorman.

“Of course.” She took his arm and papered on a smile. With one last glare at the doorman, she led him to a set of curtains.

The private rooms in back were small, a six-foot-by-six-foot space with a double-wide chair illuminated in dark red and purple light. Piped-in music floated down from the ceiling. After making a point to leave his cane out of his own reach, he lowered himself to the double-sided vinyl chair.

“What's your name, gentleman?” She ran a hand up and down the arm the doorman had gripped, angry red fingerprint marks blooming.

“Declan.”

“Well, Declan. I'm so happy you came tonight.”

Sure, she was. “Sorry he grabbed you like that. I'll make sure you're paid.”

Her lips twisted in amusement. “Is this your first time to a strip club, Declan?” She softened her voice as if willing up some innocence and took two steps forward.

“No, but you—”

“Don't. Worry.” She placed a finger on his lips and straddled him, her thighs barely touching his. “I'll report him to the stripper's union.” One side of her lips inched up and her hips rolled over his legs in sensual undulations.

His single backpack left back at that motel with all his possessions weighed more than she did. She was like a rare, tropical bird—flaming red hair over skin as white as milk. He'd give anything to have bare legs, to feel the skin of her thighs on his. He hardened instantly.

Her full breasts brushed softly across his face, and her scent—cinnamon cookies—rose up a warm ache in his heart. Bruises marring her delicate neck caught his attention.

He touched her skin there, and she flinched. Their eyes locked.

“He give those to you?”

She didn't answer. “Where are you from?” Her eyes cleared as if she'd mentally shaken something from her mind.

“Here. But I've been away.”

She put a little space between their chests but kept her hips rocking. “Vacation?” Her eyes lit up, an obvious act. She was more intelligent than she played. All that blue flickered with attention and thoughts.

“Prison.”

She eased off him. She wouldn't want to touch him after learning that. Instead, she lifted her hair and let it cascade over her shoulders as she swayed. “You just got out? Congratulations.” She undulated and flitted thin fingers over her hips. Had he ever seen anyone so pale? She glanced down at his hard-on attempting to punch through his pants.

“Sorry.” Hiding his reaction to her, however, was near impossible.

She laughed. “That's the point.” Her knee slipped between his.

The urge to run his hands over her shoulders, her arms, down to her tiny waist obliterated his thinking.

Red hair covered his face as she placed both hands on the back of the chair and leaned toward him. “Besides, if you didn't walk out of here with a huge hard-on, it means I've failed.”

“I don't think you could ever fail.”

She pulled back a little so he could peer directly into her eyes. His heart wrenched at the sadness he found there.

How did she end up here? How did he? Why did he believe going to a strip club, a pathetic attempt to get a little humanity before ending things, was a good idea at all? How had anything happened the way it did?

Before prison, he'd lived a good life—at least, until the MacKenna family got him in his sights. Now, he was a former antiques dealer who'd gone to prison under a set-up because he wouldn't play nice with that mob family—a group he didn't even realize he'd been related to most of his life.

As soon as they'd learned of his existence, a long-lost cousin and nephew to the family's patriarch, his life had shrunk like a corpse in the desert heat. First, they’d tried to lure him into the family business. When he’d balked, the threats came. Then, when their strong-arm tactics didn't work, they'd set him up for vehicular manslaughter, thanks to some tampered brakes. Antiques dealer to prison in less than one afternoon—what a bad made-for-TV movie.

“I went to prison for an accident.” He needed to explain. He didn't want her scared of him.

“I'm sure it was.”

“It was.”

“I believe you.” Her pink tongue darted out to lick her top lip.

“Good.”

She let out a soft half-laugh. “Why do you care if I believe you?” She spun and presented her backside—perfect, tight, alabaster white. She rocked her hips over his erection.

“Don't want you to think I'm a criminal who's violent. Like your doorman.”

She turned to face him. “Don't do anything.” She backed away. The music had died. “I hope you enjoyed your dance.” That fake smile was back. “Come on, I'll escort you out.”

“You deserve better.” Why was he talking to her like this? Maybe because she didn't belong here. He didn't either, but then he didn't belong anywhere. But this woman? Her skin, like cream, didn't belong against the glaring colored lights, cracked black vinyl chairs, and stained red carpets. Her eyes—God, those blue eyes that held so many secrets, full of intelligence but also anguish and pain—didn't match the smile she'd forced on her face.

“How are you here?” His mouth couldn't stop questioning this inexplicable dichotomy.

She held out her hand. “Oh, didn't I tell you? I have a master's in Shakespeare studies. I'm just having fun here.” She winked and helped him stand, which was humiliating as fuck.

“All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players?”

“They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts,” she completed and handed him his cane. “I always did like a man with a cane. It's elegant and…” She stopped short and a peach flush bloomed across her cheeks.

Jesus, she was beautiful.

He handed her his last two $100 bills, all the money he had in the world. “Thank you. And keep at least one of these bills for yourself.”

“Hey.” She stopped him from stepping through the curtain. “How about a second dance? On the house as a congratulations for getting out. I can tell you're one of the good ones.”

The good ones? Hardly. “You'll get in trouble.”

“I'm always in trouble.” She winked. “Firebrand and all.”

She led him to the couch and straddled him anew. “It must have been hard on the inside.” She then placed her small hands alongside his neck and it felt so fucking, insanely good because she'd dropped the stripper act for a minute.

He shrugged. “Life is funny that way.” He swallowed down the emotion that threatened to rise. “How'd you end up here? You don't seem like you belong at a strip club.”

She stopped moving, stared into his eyes. “Neither do you.”

The curtain swiped back, and the doorman barreled inside. “You only paid for one dance.”

Phoenix jumped off him and stood with her back flattened against the wall. She held up a hundred. “Oh, he did.”

The guy reached over and yanked the second hundred from her bra. “And this? You skimming now?”

“No, she's not.” Declan set his cane out in front to block the guy.

“Yeah, yeah. Take it outside.” He inclined his head. “This ain't your problem anymore.”

“Listen—”

“Get out,” the man said to Declan.

No, he wouldn’t. He stayed between the ass and Phoenix, but two more bodyguards showed up and had no trouble yanking him out. Just as he was through the curtains, the sickening thud of a man's fist against flesh filled the air.

Declan wrenched around, slipping from one of the guys’ grasp. Phoenix was crouched to the floor, hands against her cheek. All her red hair waterfalled over her perfect shoulders, hiding her eyes. Trace curled his hands into her hair and yanked her up. Declan had never wanted to pummel a man so badly.

One of the goons who gripped his arm growled, “Leave it. She's used to it.”

“I'll be back,” Declan said right into her gaze.

The doorman took Phoenix by the arm, yanked her past him and toward another set of curtains.

“Don't bother. We got better girls.” The bodyguard jerked him in the opposite direction.

No, they didn't—and he would be back.

Fate, kismet, whatever anyone wanted to call his visit, Declan wouldn't leave her here.

He wasn't walking into that river.