Glasses clinking and men cheering loudly polluted the smoky air. Leah yawned, glancing at the clock on the light gray wall. It was nearly midnight, and she only had a few more hours of this. The dimly lit club was packed and hot. It was far from her dream job, but it paid the bills most of the time.
Leah's friend, Mindy, worked the poles on stage. There were many conversations with her explaining that dancing would make more money than serving. However, Leah felt exposed enough in the crop top and booty shorts she was forced to work in. She was by no means a prude, but getting her ass grabbed got old, even if the customers who did so got instantly kicked out. Leah didn't trust men. She had been down that road one too many times. The cat calls and longing stares still made her nervous sometimes.
That's just how waitressing at a strip club went, though. Surrounded by horny men who were too drunk, or just downright scummy, to show any form of respect. It was the pits, but it was the only thing Leah found that worked for her. She was lucky to have found a job so soon after arriving at Everthorn, South Carolina.
Leah sighed, pulling her light brown hair into a ponytail. She hoped this would be their last stop; she was so sick of running. The feeling of someone's eyes on her made the hair on her neck stand up. Instinctively, she knew he had come in. Despite any best efforts, her heart began to race, and her palms sweat. Only one man's deep, dark brown eyes made her body react that way; she hated it.
"He's staring at you again," Mindy giggled as she slid into the seat beside Leah, who was typing an order into the computer.
"He's probably looking at you," Leah replied, trying to distract her coworker. "I mean, those boots are totally hot, girl."
The twenty-one-year-old rolled her eyes, but blood flooded her cheeks. She was a thin, long-legged, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman, every man's wet dream. Leah was more than content to let her have any attention they offered.
Leah may have seven years on Mindy, but she learned her lesson. Men were nothing but trouble and not worth it. Leah had her solution in a drawer next to her bed at home. It was much safer than letting another man around herself or her six-year-old daughter.
"God, I wish." Mindy swooned, drawing Leah's attention back to her. "I would love to take him for a spin. I wonder if he would give me a raise after finding out how naughty I can be."
"You're disgusting," Leah grimaced, rolling her eyes.
"That's what men like him want, babe." She rolled her eyes.
"You've never even talked to him." Leah pointed out.
"I've worked the back rooms enough to know the type. He is the chains-and-whips type." She winked. "Maybe even the leave-marks type."
Leah involuntarily shuddered as memories assaulted her. The bruises that had long since healed suddenly felt more visible than ever before. Her stomach churned at the memory, and she told her friend to shut up.
"Hey, don't diss it 'til you've tried it. I knew a guy who enjoyed holding me down by my throat." Mindy chuckled.
Leah felt the tightness in her throat before the burning acid began to trail up. She was sure she would throw up, a typical response to the particular memories Mindy was unintentionally bringing up.
Placing the platter down, Leah darted to the nearest exit, knowing she wouldn't reach the bathroom. She heaved into a bush on the edge of the parking lot; the acidic taste burned her throat. As she emptied the contents of her stomach, she hoped her boss hadn't noticed her sudden departure. They were busy, and she couldn't lose her job.
Leah's heart was pounding inside her chest like she was being squeezed. As she fought the panic attack by forcing deep breaths, she squeezed her eyes shut and sank to the concrete. She hugged her knees tightly to her chest and slowly rocked herself back and forth.
"You're safe; you're safe; you're safe..." She chanted the mantra as if her life depended on it.
"What's wrong?" A purely masculine voice asked in an attempted comforting tone.
Leah still jerked away from the sound before turning towards the voice. There he was, all six foot six of muscle, crouched two feet away from her. Tonight, his long, ashy brown, curly hair was loose and hung past his shoulders. His long, thick beard matched, making him look more intimidating somehow.
As always, it was his eyes that drew her in. Despite his rough and ragged exterior, they told a different story; they showed genuine concern. His face was soft, kind, and not at all angry.
"I'm fine," Leah responded, standing quickly, glad to notice her attack had mainly passed. "I'm so sorry. It was so stuffy in there, and I needed some air. I'll work through my last fifteen."
Even though Leah trembled slightly, she forced herself to stand tall. She wasn't a short woman; at five foot eight, she rarely felt dwarfed. This man stood almost a whole foot taller than her, though.
"I wasn't asking as your boss." He smirked, cocking an eyebrow.
"Then, as a total stranger, it's none of your business." She quipped, heart racing as she moved to walk around him.
A soft chuckle barely sounded behind her before he called after her, "Take you fifteen when it comes time; you look tired."
Leah didn't turn around or respond when she heard his heavy boots behind her. She had always been attracted to the bad boys. So his biker jacket, unkempt appearance, and tattoos were hot. However, she would never allow herself to endanger her daughter by allowing a man anywhere near them again.
Leah felt him watching her the rest of her shift, so she purposefully worked straight through her final break. She had to admit that he was right; she was exhausted. She yawned as she slid into her coat and grabbed her bag.
The walk home at four in the morning was never a fun one. On days when Leah could hardly keep her eyes open, it was worse. Usually, she walked half the way with Mindy, but she found a man willing to take her to his house. So Leah headed down the sidewalk alone, clutching her purse with one hand and the other on her pepper spray.
Leah was saving up to fix her car, but now, she might need a new one. That thought got her thinking about money again. She needed a car; she and Amelia needed an actual place to live, not some rundown motel. She took a deep breath and realized she needed a second job.
Maybe Leah could find one to work while Amelia was at school. She would have to take a nap when Amelia got home. She sighed, hating the idea of losing the only little time she would have with her daughter. Maybe she could find a place to work her the three nights she wasn't at the club.
Leah could work six to four like she did every other night. The sweet old lady who managed their hotel was sweet and lived across the hall. She already watched Amelia most nights. Leah hated leaving her daughter alone. But asleep and with the manager right next door, she knew her little girl was safe.