Guarded By Grayson by A.J. Andersen

Chapter One


Music pounds around me,the bass so heavy it vibrates behind my sternum like thousands of bees. My lip involuntarily curls in distaste. I hate this place. TasselsBurlesque Club. It’s a strip club right down to the requisite neon sign outside flashing “girls” 24/7. It’s not false advertising at all. The patrons may be predominantly male, but other than the bouncers and one or two bartenders, the rest of the staff is one hundred percent female.

Flashing rainbows of light dance on the floor at my feet as I stride down the dark hall and push my way past the prism spangled curtain that mostly blocks my view of the main stage. The air is thick with a haze of acrid cigarette smoke; yes, it’s still legal to smoke inside in Vegas, and the heavy scent of more perfume than can possibly be necessary burns my nostrils. I’ll never understand why clubs can’t issue the dancers the same scent or something. It would make for less of an assault on the olfactory nerves of their paying customers. Since I’m not one of those I suppose that means my opinion wouldn’t matter anyway.

It’s not really the smell that has my stomach churning with disgust, it’s the memories that stepping foot through the doors of this establishment bring to mind. There’s a reason I steer clear of clubs. Strip clubs in particular. Even walking past one on the street brings to mind the bitter echoes of stored-up childhood memories I have of places just like this. It doesn’t matter what city they are in, under the glitter and the makeup, so many of the women who find themselves selling themselves this way are doing it because they feel that they don’t have a choice.

Don’t get me wrong, I know some of them are doing exactly what they want, and more power to them, but those aren’t the women I’m thinking about.

No matter what, I’m not here for the girls. It’s never about the girls when I find myself occupying a bar stool in a club with my back to the stage, my eyes firmly locked on my drink. It’s always about family and tonight is no different. Tonight, I’m looking for Dominic Cerelli. Acting Head of the Cerelli crime family, my best friend’s uncle, and if the gossip is true… the man voted most likely to have donated half of my DNA. Though I suppose if thats true then Xavier is more than my friend, he’d also be my cousin. But, since that rumor hasn’t been confirmed, or denied, by the man in question, it remains an unknown. I’d prefer to keep it that way. Finding out that I resulted from an encounter between my mother and Dominic… I can’t stop the small shiver of revulsion at the thought. Being his kid is the last thing I’d ever want. I’d prefer to be the bastard of any random man who my mom took up with.

The only person who would know for sure, my mother, has been gone for a decade already. Her pitiful life finally too much for her to accept as she spiraled deeper and deeper into the darkness of depression. How she held out as long as she did before succumbing to the lure of endless sleep I’ll never know. Wanting to see me grown is the only reason I can think of since she swallowed a cocktail of pills and booze the day after she watched me graduate from high school. Something she wanted for me more than anything. I even went to college. I wish she’d been there to see that, and to be there the day I started with the NYFD. It had been my goal since the first time I saw those big red ladder trucks screaming toward a burning building. She would not like knowing that I left my dream job behind, but I needed to get out of New York and away from the memories I couldn’t seem to shake. There are other departments though, and when I’m ready I will get my application and resume in.

Mom’s face is all I see when my eyes flit over the barely covered bodies moving fluidly under the bright lights of the three stages, taking in women who are living lives just like my mother’s. Taking their clothes off for money in one of Dominic Cerelli’s clubs. I understand the lure. The money is good. At least until they get too old or have a baby and their bodies don’t look the same. Then they’re finished and the only thing left for them is to scratch out a living in one of his less desirable clubs or flat on their backs in a back room.

Dominic never lets his girls go. They work for him forever, doing whatever he tells them to[AB3] . The lucky ones get snatched up by one of the soldiers, or a capo if they’re really lucky. Dominic never stops them from marrying into the family. It’s the only mercy he shows. I know from years of watching from the sidelines that after a couple of years on stage, competition between the dancers to snag one of Dom’s men is fierce. I don’t think there’s much those poor girls wouldn’t do to get free of the clubs at that point. If only he’d been willing to cut my mother loose, to marry one of the other guys, maybe she’d still be here… but there’s nothing that can be done to change the outcome now.

Thinking about her, and Dominic’s current harem,leaves a sour taste in my mouth. There’s no way I’d have stepped a single foot into this place if Xavier hadn’t asked me to. He hasn’t been the same since his bride Ana went missing a few months ago, otherwise, I’m confident that he would have asked anyone other than me to do this for him. He knows how I feel about Dominic’s clubs. Hell, all clubs, but especially one owned by anyone named Cerelli.

Ignoring the weight of the covetous stares turned my way by the dancers who aren’t on stage, I head in the direction of the bar. I may not be Dominic’s man, but being Xavier’s best friend lumps me into the ‘sought after’ category. I have no doubt that Dominic would allow me to have any of these women if I asked for one, but that won’t ever happen. The thought of it makes me ill.

I edge along the less crowded perimeter of the building, avoiding the mass of bodies crowding the main stage. It’s quieter by the bar which will make it easier to ask around about Dominic’s whereabouts. Shouldering my way through a rowdy group of frat boys sporting UNLV t-shirts and ball caps I claim a spot and lean against the polished wood waiting for the bartender, Sebastian, to notice me.

It doesn’t take him long.

“Whatcha havin’ Gray?” he growls, sliding a tray of draft beers to a preppy looking group that looks like they’re just barely legal to be here.

“Whiskey, neat,” I reply, wanting something that will help to soften the sharp edges that being subjected to places like this always brings to the surface. Whiskey’s always good for that.

He nods once, acknowledging my order as he quickly mixes drinks for a waitress hovering nearby, her heavily made-up eyes focused hungrily on me. Turning my back in her direction I watch Sebastian pour my drink and place it in front of me.

“Not your usual scene,” he observes wryly, looking pointedly around the teeming club.

I shrug, sipping my drink. That’s as much of a confirmation as I’m going to give. I don’t talk to anyone about my aversion to strip joints. Not even my closest friends. Granted, they already know all the reasons why.

“Seen Dominic around?” I inquire. There’s no reason to beat around the bush. Anyone who’s been around the Cerellis long enough to know who I am knows that me being here is completely abnormal. I’m clearly here for a reason. Might as well make that reason known.

Something dark flickers in his eyes and for a second the laid back, easy-going guy I’ve run into at the gym countless times in the last few months is replaced by someone I haven’t seen before. Then he shakes his head negatively and turns to fill another order. It happens so fast I wonder if I imagined it, or if it was only a trick of the light, but I know better. When I asked about Dom, Sebastian reacted. I don’t know why, but it’s not something I’m going to forget. I’ll figure it out later, right now I just want to try to figure out where Dom is so I can get out of here and back to my place. I’m going to need a shower to wash away the stink that’s surely clinging to me from being in here.