The Keys to Jericho

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Chapter 34

My heart bleeds for my sister.

Rumor has it, robots do that shit, too.

Since Dad and a couple of Hadley’s friends were taking care of her when she was released from the hospital, I held off on driving to Richmond. Dad said Hadley insists she’ll be well enough to be in my wedding, which is ridiculous for her to attempt.

Sitting in Dad’s kitchen, I check my wedding to-do list. Because I’m currently between jobs, as I was last summer, I’ve been able to get my shit done this week.

Pausing my pen in mid-air over the notepad, it strikes me that it’s now been a year since Kat and I got together at the beach house. When we were living in separate cities during the year, time dragged, but now that our wedding is tomorrow, it seems time has flown.

Hearing footsteps coming into the kitchen, I look up to see Hadley. Looking surprised, she then frowns and asks, “What’re you doing here this early?”

“Early? It’s 11:13.”

“Oh.” She crosses her arms as she stiffly walks past the table, avoiding eye contact with me. “Congratulations on having your shit together,” Hadley blandly sneers while she goes to the cabinet for a glass. Filling it with water, she picks up a pill bottle sitting on the counter.

Tapping my pen against the notepad, I hesitantly ask, “How’re you feeling?”

“Fine.” Looking downward, she cringes as she shakes out a pill from the first bottle.

“Don’t give me that shit. You look far from it.”

Swallowing her pill, she answers, “Thanks a lot. I’m sorry I’m not in the running to win a beauty pageant.”

“I’m only saying that because—”

“I said I’m fine. Drop it.”

“You’re just closing up about it?” Fuck. This is like déjà vu in a sci-fi movie.

She continues to avoid looking directly at me. “I should rent a billboard and advertise how idiotic I am, right? WWJD—What would Jared do?”

“You’re not idiotic.”

“I guess Dad didn’t tell you the entire sordid story then?”

“It wasn’t—”

“My fault? Yeah. It was. All of it. Even when the room spun around, so don’t bother.”

I clench my teeth together. “Where’s Finn right now?”

“Working.”

“No shit. Where?”

“Leave it alone.” Hadley shifts her gaze to the counter and sighs, opening another pill bottle. “I’ve been a horrible bridesmaid. I haven’t been around to help Kat.”

“Fucking understandable, Hadley. Kat knows this. We both said not to worry about—”

“I’ll give her a call to see if she needs me to do anything after I pick up my dress.”

“You’re supposed to be resting. I can pick up your dress.”

She finally looks up at me. “I need to do it.”

“It’s just a dress. I can manage it. I just hope they don’t make me wear heels when I try it on.”

Setting down her empty glass, she asks, “Is there anything you need me to do for you today? Do you have your tux? I can pick that up for you, too.”

“I have it. Get some rest. Tomorrow is going to be a hectic day for everyone. If you don’t rest today, I’ll demote you to benchwarmer.” Without warning, Hadley’s face crumples before her hand goes to her mouth. “What? Are you okay? Is it pain?”

Just as fast as that happened, she drops her hand and composes herself. “I’m fine.” I still notice a brief passing of pain on her face. “I’ll be okay. I’ll be a good bridesmaid.” Glancing away from me, she says, “I’m getting dressed and then run some errands. I’ll call Kat, too.”

“I’ll be watching you tomorrow. I’ll have someone bring you back here if you don’t take me seriously.”

She snaps, “You’re irritating me.”

I frown and drop my pen. “I’m only looking out for you.”

“I’ve been looked after before by…” She slides her hand over the counter, something to busy her mind, I think. “Don’t treat me like a victim.” Shit. My sister sounds like me.

“You’re not a victim.” Jesus. I’ve said that to my fiancée plenty, too.

“Then don’t treat me like one. It’s all my fault.” Christ Almighty. We Becketts are more alike than I thought.

She leaves the kitchen, and I sigh as I pick up my pen, adding a couple of things to my to-do list, as well as to the one running in my head, which will be dealt with soon. I can promise her that.

Setting aside the shop vac, I shut the driver’s side door of my car as Dad pulls into the garage. Walking over to me, loosening his tie, he asks, “How’s everything going?”

I nod at my car. “Just checking off my list.”

“Where’s Hadley?”

“She had errands to run. I told her to rest, but you know how stubborn she is.”

He frowns. “Yeah. She’ll end up back in the hospital if she doesn’t take it easy. I’m worried about her.” Dad peers into the garage and then back at me. “What do you have to do next?”

“Nothing until the rehearsal. Kat’s decorating the hall with her mother. Dash is there helping, though. I was told to stay away. I think it’s because of my keeping the honeymoon location a secret.”

Dad ruefully smiles as he unbuttons the top of his shirt. “Oh. About that. Brenda knows. She heard me talking to you on the phone at the office. Sorry.”

I scowl at him as I wrap the cord around the vac. “Jesus. As long as she doesn’t tell Kat.”

“She said she won’t.”

I roll my eyes. “We’ll see about that.”

Heading into the garage, Dad says, “I’ll be back. I want to change clothes.”

When I have the vacuum and the rest of my mess put away, the sound of a basketball snags my attention. Seeing my dad wearing gym shorts, a tank top, and roughed-up hair, looking like the basketball star he used to be, I give him a weird look. He asks, “You in the mood for a little one-on-one?”

I laugh. “You’re crazy.”

“You chicken?”

“I’m sober. There’s no way I can play you.”

As he nimbly dribbles the ball, alternating hands, he scoffs, “Come on. I’ll go easy on you.”

“Thanks? Maybe you should offer your charity to the homeless shelter or something.”

Tossing the ball to me, I catch it, and he laughs. “There may be hope for you yet, young Beckett.”

Spinning the ball on the tips of my fingers, the only cool trick I know how to do, I counter, “I think I’m walking into a noose headfirst.”

He crosses his arms and looks to the road before looking back at me. “Nah. Just a friendly game of basketball between father and son.”

“Right.”

Dad smugly smiles. “If you’re man enough, move your car, and we’ll play some.”

“Now, you’re calling my masculinity into question?”

He shrugs. “Maybe you should be the one wearing the wedding dress.”

“That’s it, old man.” Since he’s not ready, I shoot him the ball, intending to bounce the ball off his body, but he quickly catches it, and I gape at him in disbelief.

Dribbling the basketball beneath his leg, making a flawless recovery, he grins. “How long are you going to stand there and gawk? You move slower than a legless turtle.”

I laugh. “Come again?”

“The clock’s ticking. You’d better get your ass in gear.”

Getting into my car, I state, “Someone kidnapped Adam Beckett.”

Parking my car in front of the house, I spin my hat backward as I walk up the driveway. He bounces the ball to me and announces, “Visiting team goes first.”

I roll my eyes as I dribble the ball but then seriously ask, “What’s going on with you and Brenda?”

Taking his eyes off the ball, he looks at me, confused. “What do you mean?”

“Come on, Dad. Do I really have to spell it out for you?”

Giving me a suspicious look, he answers, “Maybe…”

I sigh, scratching my head through the outside of my cap with my left hand while dribbling with my right. “Are you fu—sleeping with Brenda?”

Putting his hands on his hips, Dad squints at me and tilts his head. “Why would you think that?”

“You’re awfully chummy with her.”

“We’re friends.”

“With benefits?”

“Jared.”

“You’re a guy. You can’t have stayed celibate since… It’s just not possible.”

“I didn’t say I have been.”

I stop dribbling, stunned he admitted that. “Oh?”

He shrugs. “I’ve had girlfriends. Will you shoot the ball, or do I have to show you how?”

“Smartass today.”

“When necessary.”

Tucking the ball under my arm, I ask, “So, you’ve had girlfriends? Why didn’t I know?”

“Didn’t stay with anyone long enough.”

“You have girlfriends occasionally or all the time?”

Dad cautiously answers, “Off and on.”

“Is this an on time for you?”

He laughs and glances down. “Actually, yeah. I uh, I am with someone. I’ve been with her since before Christmas.”

“Um, how come I know shit about this?”

“You haven’t been living here. We haven’t told anyone.”

“What the hell, Dad? Are you dating a woman? What’s her name, and where’d you meet?”

Dad uneasily licks his lip, momentarily peering past me. He finally says, “Her name is Nora. Brenda set us up.”

“Jesus. Please don’t say she’s related to her in any way. I refuse to be Kat’s brother, but I’ll do without being a cousin, nephew, or uncle, too.”

Dad laughs again. “She’s Brenda’s best friend. She’s an executive at an insurance company. She used to live in Annapolis, but she took a job in Chicago. She didn’t like it and came back.”

“I’m shocked. I thought you and Brenda were… I can’t believe you’ve been with a woman all this time and haven’t told us.”

“I’ve always done it that way, Jared.” Holy fuck.

“Why?”

“I didn’t want you two to worry about me or instantly compare anyone to… Thinking they’re…” He sighs. “I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Just like you had your reasons to keep Kat or any of your past girlfriends a secret, so did I.”

“Well, shit.”

“Like father, like son?”

I scowl. “No comment.” Finally shooting the ball, it bounces off the basket, and he easily snares it. I don’t fight him for it. “When’re we meeting Nora?”

“Tomorrow. I wanted to tell you and Hadley about her tonight after the rehearsal, but since your bachelor party is later, I thought I should tell you now.”

My hand goes to my hat, restlessly shifting it. “Are… Are you in love with her?”

He stops his dribbling. “Yeah, I am.”

“Did you have trouble admitting that to yourself like I did?”

“I thought I would, but seeing you go through it with Kat, I learned a thing or two.”

“Like what not to do?”

He laughs. “Something like that. I guess my pride was on the line.”

“Jesus, Dad.”

“You indirectly helped me. Seeing you fall in love with Kat was a learning experience for you and me. I didn’t hide it from Nora for long.”

“You going to marry her?”

“Uh, I…” He shakes his head. “I don’t want to take that step if you and Hadley don’t approve.”

“Dad, we’re all adults.”

“I feel like you two should have a say since…” He stops, looking at the basketball.

I walk over to him, putting my hand on his shoulder. “It’s about damned time you found someone.”

“I guess I was waiting for the right one, too.”

I grin at him before stealing the ball out of his grasp, dribbling to the basket for a layup. Rubbing it in, I laugh at him for being gullible.

Shit.

I’m more my father’s son than I ever realized.

Shit.

That makes me kind of proud.

“There’s the groom-to-be!” Brenda shouts from the steps of the gazebo as I cross over the footbridge.

“Here I am.”

“Your bride is somewhere around here. Maybe she ran off with one of the caretakers here.”

I scowl at her. “Thanks a lot.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Just teasing. You nervous?”

“No,” I lie.

“Kat’s a bundle of nerves. She keeps shaking and can’t stand still. I’ve never seen her like this before.”

Chuckling, Dad says, “She’s getting married.”

Brenda laughs. “She’s done this!”

“Thanks again.”

“That asshole didn’t count. I just mean she’s been through the technicalities of it.”

Dad says, “But she’s marrying the love of her life this time. Right, bud?” Since Dad told me to leave my hat at home, he messes up the back of my hair, teasing me, no doubt.

I cross my arms and glance around the area. Dash nearly skips over to me, yanking the blue sucker from his mouth. “Jericho!” He looks past me to Dad. “Mr. Beckett.” His gaze then searches behind us to the bridge.

“Hadley isn’t with us.”

Dash shrugs, but the corners of his mouth drop. “I was looking for Rio.” Lie.

“Why would Duquesne be with me?”

“I don’t know.” He shoves the sucker back into his mouth and pretends to be interested in his phone.

Rolling my eyes, I walk up the stairs, and the memory of proposing to Kat twice in here strikes me.

Looking to the back of the gazebo, I see Kat standing in front of a bench, with her back to me, which isn’t a bad thing since I stare at her ass. I haven’t seen her naked in two weeks, with me packing up my apartment in Philly while Kat packs her place, which is no easy task with all the shit she got for her bridal shower. Then with all the wedding chaos, we haven’t had time or energy to have sex when we are together.

Putting my arms around her, I rest my chin against the side of her head. “Hey, baby. Nice ass.”

She loudly whispers, “Jared! You can’t say that to me in here! We’ll be getting married in this gazebo in less than twenty-four hours!”

“Yeah. Married. Not becoming saints. Can’t I rehearse my kiss for my bride?”

She continues to look out at the park. “Nope. Not until tomorrow.”

“Are you serious? I kissed you last night before you fell asleep.”

“I’m saving my lips for our big moment.”

I whisper, “You know, I’ve had them before.”

She whispers back, “You know, you’ve waited longer than a day to kiss me before, too.”

I sigh. “I know that, Kit Kat, but now that I’ve had them, you can’t deny me when you’re right here.”

“Just until tomorrow.”

I bury my mouth in her neck. “You’re killing me.”

Kat giggles. “You can live through a little more suffering.”

“Like hell, I can.”

Brenda walks over to us. “The weather forecast is calling for rain tomorrow, about an hour after the ceremony. It’s a good thing the reception is indoors.”

Kat turns around, putting her hands on my shoulders. “I heard.”

Looking at Brenda, I retort, “You’re certainly the bearer of anxiety today.”

“Oh, shit. I am, aren’t I? Rain is good luck on your wedding day, though.”

Kat frowns. “I’ll take a rabbit’s foot over rain on my wedding day.”

Brenda sighs. “Damn it. I need to put duct tape over my mouth.”

Kat says, “I’ll do that for you.” Brenda dismisses Kat with a wave and turns to talk to my dad.

“Hey, Beckett.”

I look over my shoulder and narrow my gaze. “It’s about time, Duquesne. Jesus. Kat and I already married. You missed it.”

“What? I didn’t get to object when the minister asked? That’s bogus.”

Kat leaves me to hug Rio and his warden. I mutter, “Aren’t you funny today?”

Kat says, “Someone has to be.”

She follows Liberty, and when they’re out of earshot, Rio laughs. “Wait until you hear what Douche has planned for tonight.”

“Holy fuck. I’ll murder my dad for handing off the bachelor party to Calder. I didn’t want one, anyway.”

“It’s so fucked up. Just remember, it was all his idea.”

I sigh and swing my head to catch sight of Dash, but no such luck. “Fucking Calder. He just upgraded his death warrant to next.”

Howie, the minister, arrives. He’s a friend of Brenda’s and is a FedEx driver during the week. I guess it pays to make friends everywhere, as Brenda obviously does.

Following Howie is my sister. Rio looks her way and then looks back to me. “Jesus. She’s frail.”

“I told her to sit the whole thing out, but she doesn’t listen worth shit.”

“She’s a Beckett, no doubt about that.”

I scoff, “Stubborn. I know.”

Rio says, “Tough as hell, too. Everything she’s been through? Fuck. I don’t see how she’s still standing.”

Shaking my head, I watch her. “One thing is for sure. I will be taking care of shit after I get back from my honeymoon.”

“Jare, no. She’ll never speak to you again.”

“I can’t stand by and let her waste away.”

Appearing somewhat relieved, he says, “Oh. I thought you meant you’d visit…”

“That, too.”

“Oh, fuck. Don’t do it.”

“Who’s going to stop me?”

Rio sighs. “Me?”

I grin. “You only put out the fires, Smokey.”

“Yeah, and only you can prevent them. Do not do it.”

“Don’t worry about it. Just a friendly chat with Finn.”

He folds his arms over his chest. “Christ. I’ll need to come with you.”

“Not a chance in hell. I work alone.”

Rio mumbles something sounding like, “Fuck me,” as Howie gathers us to start the rehearsal.

Since there isn’t much to rehearse, it goes off without a hitch, literally. Kat also refused to kiss me, staying true to her word. For now. I’ll get her to cave at some point.

While Kat talks with Hadley, I’m ambushed by Dash, Rio, and my dad. Dash puts his arm around my shoulders. “We’ll pick you up at 9:00.”

“I’m staying at Dad’s. You’ll have to pick up both of us there.”

Dash emphatically shakes his head. “Nope. Won’t work. Be at Kat’s apartment.”

I look at all three of them. “What the hell am I getting into?”

Rio smirks. “That’s a dangerous question, Jare.”

Dash laughs. “Very.”

My dad sighs. “Oh, hell.”

“I need new friends or a prescription for Xanax.”

Getting into Dad’s truck and seeing what I see, I groan. “What the fucking shit?”

My dad laughs when he sees it. “You don’t like?”

I look at each jackass, wearing matching Jared’s Bachelor Party Crew T-shirts. “More than even you.”

Rio swings a shirt from behind my seat, hitting me in the chest. “Enjoy.”

Unfolding the white shirt, I see a graphic of a man with a ball and chain and above it, Dead Man Walking.

I toss the shirt behind me to Rio. “I’m not wearing this shit.”

Dash says, “Look at the back!”

Rio turns the shirt around, showing Groom-to-be, but the groom is marked out, and pussy is written above it.

I scowl at Dash and Rio. “Fuck, no!”

Dad sighs. “Watch your mouth and lighten up.” His glare warns me to stop being an asshole.

Huffing a heavier sigh, I ultimately groan, “Damn it. For one hour.”

“You also have to wear this.” Dash hands me a soft, black bag.

“What’s this for? If we’re doing one of those stupid scavenger hunts, I’m shoving this bag down your throat.”

“Jericho, it’s so you won’t see where we’re going.”

“I have a pretty good idea where we’re going.”

Dash pleads, “Don’t ruin this.”

“I’m not wearing a black bag over my head.”

“It’s an executioner’s hood. You’ll have to wear it backward, though, so you can’t see.”

“I’m going to strangle you with this hood, and I don’t care whether you can see your life flash before your eyes or not. I don’t even want to know where you got this.”

“Just put the hood on, Jare.”

“Why couldn’t you get a simple blindfold like any other normal person?”

“Ask Diet Dr. Pussy. It was his idea.”

Turning to him, I warn, “Oh, Duquesne. You’ll pay for this.”

Rio says, “Relax and have fun. It’s your last night as a bachelor. Tomorrow, you’ll be fitted with your ball and chain.”

“Good. My balls are killing me.”

“Jared Adam.” I glance at my dad and laugh. “Shut up and wear the shirt and hood, so we can leave.”

Growling in defeat, I remove my hat, pull off my T-shirt, and grab the other one from Duquesne. “Assholes. Just all of you wait.” I whip the hood to the back seat, drawing the line after the T-shirt. “Paybacks are hell. I promise.”

As I return my hat to my head, Dad backs out of Kat’s driveway, and Dash throws the hood back at me, hitting my shoulder. “Stop your bitching already. Eyes closed, Jericho.”

“Fuck you.”

Dad sighs. “Jared Adam.”

Sitting back and putting on my seatbelt, I grin as I lower my hat over my eyes and close them. “Just checking to see if you’re listening.”

“Unfortunately.”

About fifteen minutes later, it feels like, the truck slows. Exiting is a treat since Rio nearly lets me fall face-first, and Dash doesn’t stop me from walking into a lamppost.

“This is fucking ridiculous,” I complain, and my dad, I’m positive, smacks the back of my head.

When we enter the building, the smell is immediately familiar, and I announce, “I know where we are.” Shifting my hat off my eyes, I look around the bar, and the stripper pole gleams like a beacon. “I knew it.”

Heading over to the far end of the bar, Dash says, “I thought you had a limited imagination.”

“Not so. I currently have sixty-three different ways I could kill you.”

“I think you love me even more.” He crookedly grins, making me frown, which makes him laugh as he grabs some pretzels from a bowl.

“And I think you’re huffing tassel glue.”

Shell walks onto the stage, dressed in her usual tight clothes, a skimpy sequin top, and leather pants. I thank Christ she’s not in anything less, which would be rather awkward for all involved, especially her son.

In super-tall high heels, she click-clacks her way down the stage’s stairs and over to us at the bar. “There’s the groom! Hey, handsome!” She hugs me, and her perfume and blonde hair cover my face like a fog.

Shell then hugs my dad before looking at Rio. “Well, who’s this hot commodity with the sexy hair?”

Sitting on a stool, Dash mutters, “That’s Rio Duquesne.”

“Well, hi there, Rio Duquesne. You’re certainly a sight for sore eyes.”

Rio says a polite hello but doesn’t make any comments since he’s not one for flirting.

Not looking away from Rio and me, Shell says, “You have hot friends, Dashiell.”

“You’re a lesbian, Mommy dearest. Why do you keep forgetting that?”

She rolls her eyes. “Oh, shut up, Dash. I can admire works of art even if I don’t paint in the medium.”

“My God.” Dash slumps on his stool, looking like a sullen fifth grader.

Dash’s dad, Dave, enters the bar from the kitchen. “Hey, Jared!” He nods at me. “Congratulations on the ball and chain!”

“Uh, thanks.” I’m going to kill your son with a blowtorch.

Dave’s bald head shines underneath the club’s overhead lighting while it darkens his beard. I look at his heavily tattooed arms and neck, wondering how he comes up with all the permanence etched onto his body. He’s such a contradiction to Dash that it always makes me laugh.

Shell asks, “We ready to get started?”

Dash says, “No. We need to wait for a couple more.”

“What the hell? Who else is coming?” As the words leave my mouth, Tony and Pete enter the club from the back entrance.

I roll my eyes, looking up at the ceiling. “Christ.”

Tony looks embarrassed to be here but reluctantly intrigued at the same time. Putting his hand out, he says, “Hey there, brother-in-law.”

Shaking his hand with a slight smile, I say, “Yep. Tomorrow I’ll officially be tied to your family like a weighted rope.”

“I’m glad. You helped my sister. Pete and I are grateful. You’re a hell of a guy.”

“I am? I only helped Kat get her license.”

Dash says, “Right. Because helping someone get their driver’s license always leads to the altar.”

I flip him off, and Dad says, “Jared, behave.”

“We’re in a strip club!”

I reluctantly take a stool, and Rio sits on the left side of me while Pete is on my right. Dad and Tony sit at the other end of the bar, opposite of Dash.

I ask Dash, “Your brothers aren’t here?”

“Jagger had to work, and Pierce couldn’t get a flight. They both say congrats, though.”

“Hey, boys!” Victor yells from the stage, frenziedly waving, causing the black-sequined vest he’s wearing to flash as if going from dim to high beams. Regrettably, he’s not wearing a shirt underneath. The black leather pants he’s wearing also defy description. Jesus.

Shell asks, “Are the girls almost ready?”

Victor clasps his hands together as he approaches the bar. “They’re all sprayed, weighed, and unpaid.” He disappears into Dave’s office, probably to add more leather.

I swing my head to Calder. “Dash, you promised!”

Shell asks, “What’s wrong?”

Always antsy, Dash moves to the stool on the other side of Rio. “Jericho didn’t want strippers.”

Shell laughs. “Right, Jared. What guy doesn’t want to see strippers?”

“Me.”

“What fun is that?”

Rio reaches up and twists my hat backward. “Just relax, Jare.”

I readjust my hat and shoot him an irritated look. “You’re not the one in the hot seat, Duquesne.”

“Exactly.”

“Paybacks.”

Shell asks, “So, you only want to see your wife strip for you? Not strippers?”

“Yep.”

Shell shakes her head with a laugh. “I don’t think you’re normal.”

Victor returns from the back room. “Most of the girls are nervous.”

Shell picks up a clipboard from the bar as Dave delivers a crate full of shot glasses. Shell says, “These girls are auditioning for the club. I told them all to wear masks.” She eyes Dashiell, and he frowns. “Most of them haven’t had much stage time, so go easy on them but not too easy.”

Dash laughs, and his dimples make him look goddamn illegal in here. “So, if you get turned-on, Jericho, they’re hired.”

I snap, “Jesus Christ, Dash.”

“Jared Adam.”

I roll my eyes, and Dash says, “Let’s get some alcohol flowing. That’ll dull the pain.”

“Not for your murder.”

Dave grabs a bottle of tequila and sets up several shot glasses. Drops of booze splash onto the black bar and shine like dark pools. He then drops a bucket of sliced limes and a container of salt. “Drink up, Jericho. Last night as a free man.”

“Quite possibly since I’ll be serving time for first-degree murder.”

Sighing, I take a filled glass, and Dash shouts, “Hold up! First, I want to say congratulations to my best friend, Jared. May you and Kat have a long and happy marriage and always a place for me to stay.”

I scoff, “Garage.”

“I’ll take it. To Jericho and Merrick.”

Everyone repeats the sentiment before swigging the tequila. I grudgingly down mine, resigned to the fact I’ll be getting trashed tonight under duress.

Dave keeps the liquor coming, and I take my second shot, fighting it less than the first.

On a roll, Dash slides another shot glass my way. “How’s your sister doing?” When I glare at him, he says, “Really, I mean. She hasn’t said much and looks…”

“Like hell?”

“Defeated.”

I shake my head. “You know how it goes.”

Dash nods, grabbing another shot and tipping it to his mouth. Slamming down the empty glass, he yells, “What’s the holdup, garçon?”

“Your dad will slam you for that.”

“He’s the one who sent me to France for two weeks in college. He loves me.”

“Doubtful.”

Dash pounds on the bar. “Jericho! DDP! Drink up!” Duquesne picks up his glass, drinking the tequila in a fast gulp. Dash yelps, “That’s it! Jericho, your turn!”

“I did.”

“Your glass is full.”

“That’s an extra one. Take it.”

Dash gives me a quizzical look but reaches for it, downing it before I even blink.

Dave returns, pouring more, and even Rio starts pounding them back. Dave asks, “What’s your poison, Jared? You want something else?”

“Nah. This is good. Thanks.”

Picking up a lime, I put it in my mouth, giving Dash the impression I’m drinking more than he thinks I am, so he’ll shut the hell up. Dash can put back the booze. However, once he starts, he doesn’t know how to stop and usually has to be drug out of bars by Rio or me.

I glance over at my dad, who seems to be content, drinking his Coke, which also seems true for Tony. Pete, on the other hand, seems bored.

From behind the bar, someone taps me, and I look over my shoulder to see Victor. “So, Jared Beckett is in love?”

“I am.”

“That sweet Katriona has stolen your heart?”

“She has.”

He kind of hums and I give him a confused look. He says, “You treat her like she’s your stolen treasure. You understand?”

Instead of laughing in his face, I nod. “Understood.”

Pete asks, “Should we wager which one of these rookies will choke first?”

Dash smacks his lips. “I bet they just need some guidance.”

Crossing my arms, I nod to the stage. “You should show them how it’s done, Calder.” I grin at him, and even though I run the risk of seeing his dick, I think everyone else should suffer, too.

The lights dim, and Dash says, “No way.”

I laugh, watching as he takes another shot of tequila. “We’ll see.”

From the overhead speakers, Shell’s voice announces the stripper’s name, which is Heaven Sent. Dash leans over Rio, asking, “What the fuck kind of name is that?”

I reply, “Your mother’s was Cherry Bomb.”

“That’s better than Heaven Sent. Definitely not heavenly in here.”

“Maybe that’s the irony.”

Crossing his arms, mirroring me, Rio asks, “Do they pick their damn songs?”

Dash downs a shot. “Yeah. Why?”

Rio scoffs, “Who in the fuck strips to Runaway Train?”

Dash shrugs, looking at the girl with larger-than-life tits, wearing what looks like a burlap sack, an eye mask, and a rainbow clown wig—no lie—taking the stage. “Heaven Sent, apparently.”

I shift my hat. “Jesus Christ.” Maybe Tony has a nail gun with him.

We watch her unsteadily spinning around and then awkwardly gyrating against the pole. Frowning, I ask no one in particular, “Who would think this shit is remotely hot?”

Pete asks, “A circus clown on crack?” Even my dad cringes when I look at him.

Dash asks, “No boner for you?”

I glare at him while Pete yells, “Take it all off!”

Dash says, “They only go topless here.”

Pete shrugs, taking another shot glass. “Does she know that for sure?”

“True.” Dash cups his mouth and yells, “Get naked!”

Rio mutters, “Shit. It can only get worse from here.”

The girl eventually takes off the bag, revealing a too small, black bikini and tries to hide herself through her dance moves.

Dash sneers, “Are you kidding me?”

Pete says, “I see more skin in the parking lot at Oceanic.”

I nudge Duquesne. “You see more before you clock in at work.”

He shakes his head, but says, “Uh, yeah.”

Dave laughs at our observations while filling more glasses. “Shell wasn’t kidding when she said some of these girls were green.”

I laugh. “Green? This one still has milk on her lips!”

As Dash slides another shot to me, he screws up his face. “Huh?”

I glance at Pete, subtly sliding the glass on to him as he clarifies, “She was just pulled off her mother’s tit.”

Recognition lights up Dash’s face. “Well, that’s a visual.”

When she’s finished, Shell announces the next contestant: Mrs. Clitfire.

With a headache brewing, I scoff, “What the fuck?”

Dash asks, “She’s married and advertising that fact?”

I irritably retort, “That’s the detail you noticed? She needs to try again. Sounds like she’s advertising some venereal disease.”

Rio offers, “At least she picked Crazy Bitch.”

Dash shakes his head. “So overplayed.”

“Her outfit isn’t bad,” Pete observes. The purple-sequined, cut-off top, and matching shorts aren’t as bad as the last one’s choice in costume.

Dash says, “Her mask is too flashy. Too distracting.”

Pete nods. “Oh, yeah. I keep forgetting you’re an expert.”

Shrugging, Dash grabs another shot and slides it to me, ensuring I’m getting my share. “I just know my stripping shit.”

Pete asks, “Who gets final approval?”

“My mom picks them. My dad trusts her but has final approval.”

I say, “It’s so nice when exes work together for the greater good of stripping.”

“They’re still friends.” Dash frowns at me since I already know this shit.

“As they should be. I mean, they did share an unfortunate night of passion, resulting in you.”

“Bite it, Jericho.”

The rookie undulates over to us, taking her top off on her way. She stops in front of us, and blankly asks, “Which one is the groom?”

I shake my head, not wanting to participate, but it is obvious which one of us is the groom with our ridiculous shirts. Dash sends another shot my way, which I take this time. Drinking it, I shift on my barstool, making myself inaccessible while she twirls in front of me and shakes her ass. Glancing over at Calder, I warn, “Say your goodbyes now.”

He grabs another handful of pretzels, dropping some on the floor. “Blame your dad. He handed the party over to me. He wanted to shoot pool. How boring!”

I move my glower to my father, who shrugs. “I thought you’d want something more fun than that.”

“Wrong!”

She puts her hands on my knees, shaking her tits at me, making Rio lean away, distancing himself from the calamity. Her dull, brown eyes are filled with worthless suggestion. I curtly remove her hands from me, and say, “Sorry. You’re married. I don’t do that shit.”

Holding up her hand, she giggles. “No ring tonight!”

I nod to the door, already dismissing this one for Dave and Shell.

As she pouts and heads for the stage to grab her top, Tony says, “At least her wig looked real.”

Rio asks, “How’d you know she was wearing a wig?”

“I saw the tag.”

Dash howls, “Oh, man! And dismissed!”

I shrug, catching the next shot Dash passes to me. “This could be fun, after all.”

Leaning my elbows on the bar behind me, Shell announces the next prospect to be Tainted Love, playing her namesake song.

Dash shouts, “Fucking seriously? That’s the best she could do?”

Pete says, “Taint. That word makes me gag.”

I sneer, “Does she even know what that shit means? Why don’t you explain it to her, doc?”

Rio shakes his head before he downs his drink. “Fuck. I’d rather not.”

When she dances onto the stage, her glittery gold mask, and gold, metallic wig join forces, blinding us as she swings her hips from side to side. Her cheap, gold nightie swings more to the rhythm than she does. Pete says, “She looks like a set of pompoms my sister had as a kid.” Tony laughs, reaching for a shot of tequila.

After shaking around the stage like she’s in a disco earthquake, she sashays to us. Dash says, “Get ready, executioner.”

Her gaze settles on me. I guess this one can read. Crossing my arms, I smirk at her when she licks her lips. Suddenly twirling, she spins her way between my legs, making me frown at her.

Shoving her barely contained tits into my face, she says, “I allow touching.” That statement makes Calder turn his mouthful of tequila into a spray.

I suck air in through my teeth as I shake my head. “You know, I’m not feeling it or your ass.” Shrugging, I give her a not-so contrite smile.

Forgetting about me, she moves on to Duquesne. “You can feel me if you want.”

Rio tightly smiles and avoids looking into her bright light. “Uh, I’ll pass. Thanks anyway.”

She tries Calder. “How about you? You’re adorable.”

Dash smugly grins. “Sorry. Underage.”

She jumps back from him like he announced he has a grenade. “Are you serious?” Dash picks up another shot, nods at her, and then empties it in front of her. Christ. How stupid is she?

Scowling at us, she puts her hands on her hips. “Well, you’re all a bunch of sticks in the mud. Loosen up.”

“If I wanted to touch you, I would.” I nod to the door. “Next.”

She glances at the others in the small audience, and when nobody objects, she turns in a huff. “Assholes.”

Another shot glides over the bar to me, and I glance over my shoulder. “I think I’ve had enough for now.”

“Nope!”

Shell announces the next victim as Lady Zass to Bootylicious.

Dash loudly sighs. “Another overused song for strippers.”

“Zass?” Pete questions, taking a drink.

When she spins around the stripper pole, we see her zass plain as day.

Pete says, “Jesus. It needs its own zip code.”

She tears off her see-through, red robe to reveal pasties and a black G-string. Pete and Dash yell. Rio and I shake our heads as she shakes her ass. Dash observes, “She kind of looks like Rihanna in the face.”

Pete laughs. “With Beyoncé tied around her waist.”

When she slithers to the bar, jiggling her ass like Jell-O, she heads right for me. Her mask is feathery, and when she dances to the spot between my legs, the feathers fly into my face. Even as I blow and swat them away, she keeps swiveling around as if she’s lost in her own world. She sways her hips against my legs like she’s a bell. I can’t even move to escape her.

Suddenly, she grabs my hands, putting them over her tits, holding my hands on them, and I notice how fake her tits feel. She giggles. “You’re frisky.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, you’re out of here.”

“What? Why?”

Dropping my hands, I say, “Because you can’t handle me, hot stuff. I promise you.”

Hearing the others laugh, she steps back, glaring at us. “You’re missing out. I promise you. Nobody snubs these tits!”

“I just did.” I give her a sardonic smile before yelling, “Next! And give me some hand sanitizer!”

She tosses her fake hair over her shoulder. “I can easily get a job at Shaker’s.”

From behind the counter, Dave slides a bottle of germ-X my way and says, “You should. They also pay twice as less, and you have to split all your tips. Good luck.”

As I rub gel onto my hands, she stomps to the stage on her way to scrape together her robe and her dignity.

Shell announces, “Please welcome Star!”

Some pop song comes on and a sickly-looking girl, wearing a white wig, which looks gray beneath the light, and a flimsy, white dress, appears. Jerkily dancing onto the stage, she grabs the stripper pole and whirls like a skeleton dancing around a dead tree.

Rio finishes his shot and asks, “What in the fuck is her deal?”

Dash just as unsteadily sends me another shot. I doubt he’ll remember the rest of the night if there’s much more to it. I have to admit, I never knew swinging an ax could be so fun.

When she makes her obligatory trip to the bar, I close my legs more so I’m not a literal open invitation. That doesn’t stop her from bumping against my legs, nearly cutting me with her sharp hipbones. Closing her eyes, she raises her arms and sways her body as if she’s listening to different music in her head. I questioningly glance at Rio and Dash, who both roll their eyes. Shit. Calder’s even ten sheets to the wind, and he gets how fucked up this one is.

Adding some odd drumming hand movements, she swings her hands around but loses her balance, nearly stumbling in her tall, white boots. On impulse, Rio and I jump off our stools, each grabbing an arm to steady her. Rio asks, “You okay?”

Not answering, she just starts swaying again, trying not to miss a beat. We both let go of her, and I say, “Hey. You can stop now.”

Instead, she bends and whips her head around like a plane’s propellers taking off, going faster and faster.

Dash squeals, “Whoa!”

She keeps going until the song ends, even when her white wig flies off, landing at Duquesne’s feet. Standing, her blonde hair is a clusterfuck as she dizzily sways from spinning. Rio hands her the wig, and she takes a bow, almost falling over again.

Looking over at Dash as Rio and I sit down, I say to her, “We’ll call you.”

Saying nothing, she nods and teeters out the side door.

Rio mutters, “Jesus Christ. I’ve seen it all.”

Pete asks, “What the fuck was that shit? I felt like I needed to prepare for takeoff.”

I laugh. “Your future wife. Don’t let her get away, Pete.”

“Shit. She looked like a fucking ghost.”

Dad says, “I think she was dancing to that song from Beetlejuice in her head.”

“No doubt, Dad. This is nuts. Someone needs to show them how it’s done.”

Pete says, “Fuck, yes.”

Dash jumps down from his stool and goes to the stage, yanking off his shirt as he goes.

Behind the bar, Dave says, “Jesus. Not again.”

A fast remake of Smooth Criminal blasts the room, and Dash single-handedly clutches the pole and expertly swings around it, dipping low and moving better than the other contestants did. Fucker.

Putting both hands on the pole, he leans back and lifts his feet onto it, climbing like a monkey. Wrapping his legs around the pole, Dash leans back, dangling upside down from it, which has to take strong stomach muscles to achieve. My stomach should win an award for holding down my food.

Dave sighs. “I fucking hate when he does that shit.” He shouts to Dash, “Get your fucking ass off there before I knock you into next week! This isn’t your gym class!” Poor kids.

Ignoring his dad and still holding on, Dash slides down and kicks his feet out, standing on the pole sideways while swinging around it.

Pete yells, “Go, you sexy beast!”

Rio reaches to the bar behind us. “I don’t need to see Douche that flexible. I need another drink.”

I laugh and yell, “Rio wants to see your monster dick!”

“For crying out loud, Jared Adam.” He yells, “No, Dashiell!”

Rio frowns at me before shouting, “Keep that shit to yourself!”

Dave says, “If he does, I’ll rip that pole from the ceiling and beat his ass with it.”

Dash finally jumps down, taking a bow, and we promptly boo. Picking up his shirt, he jogs back to the bar, heading straight for me. “Jericho, you’ll take me home tonight, won’t you?” He puckers his lips to me, and I shove his head away.

Laughing, I say, “Fuck off, Calder. Your hair is a mess. Next!”

As he brushes it with his fingers, Pete asks, “Where in the hell did you learn how to do that?”

Dash throws his hands into the air, waving to the room. “Really, Pete?”

Dave says, “You’ll polish that pole, dumbass.”

Dash wrinkles his face. “I thought I just did?”

I say, “Don’t get it confused with your pole, which you sparkle nightly.”

Putting on his shirt, he again messes with his hair. “Fuck you. Your sister likes it.” His bleary grin wavers, thinking of Hadley fucking his pole, most likely.

My smile drops, and I grip him by the shirt. “And you’ll be carrying a harp while flying through the goddamn clouds.”

Dad says, “Jared.”

“Aww, Jericho. No pitchfork for me?”

Rio says, “Take a seat, Douche. You’re trashed.” Dash trips over himself as he returns to his stool. I knew he’d get this drunk tonight, having my sister within reach yet so far away. He has to fucking get over her for the sake of all of our sanities.

Overhead, Shell says, “Hang on to your seats, gentleman. Here is Roxanne!”

Rio says, “Back to it, executioner.”

The lights go up, and we see the back of a girl with her leg hitched up on a chair. She shakes her ass when The Police’s Roxanne plays. Even her two black and pink ponytails bounce in rhythm.

When she kicks out the chair, she spins around, still shaking her hips with the beat. Her short, red dress and black fishnet stockings seem to fit the song, but her black combat boots are different. Her mask is also black, but her bright blue eyes shine.

“Take it off!” Dash shouts.

She grabs onto the stripper pole and swings around it with better agility than the previous attempts by the others, even matching Dash’s. The skirt of her dress flares out, revealing red, sparkly underwear. Pete says, “She’s promising.”

I cross my arms. “Too early to tell.”

With her back to us again, she looks over her shoulder and licks her lips before letting go of the pole and exiting the stage to do the up-close portion of her audition.

She marches straight for Dash, tilting his chin up and roughing up his hair, which being this drunk, he doesn’t try to fix. Twirling, she goes to Rio and kisses his cheek. As they gape at her, she sidesteps to me but touches Pete’s arm and then covers her mouth as she giggles.

Finally, her attention goes to me, and I narrow my gaze. She yanks on my hand, so I’ll get off the stool. Sighing to Rio, I stand as she closely dances around me, running her hands over my back, my abs, and then up to my chest. At least this one isn’t wearing a wedding ring.

When she shimmies against me, I inhale as I roll my eyes at the other guys, who are watching with interest. She tugs on the bill of my Colts cap and brings her face close to mine, teasing me, but then turns her head before our lips touch.

Suddenly, I put my hands on her hips, yanking her closer. Tilting my head, I swiftly lean down and kiss up her neck, stopping at her jaw, where I veer close to her mouth but don’t kiss her lips.

Rio clears his throat. “Jare.”

I look to our audience. “What? Hard-on worthy. This one gets the job.”

Dash slurs, “Um, I know what I’m seeing isn’t right. Are you falling for a stripper?”

Pete says, “Jared. Come on.”

Tony gapes, and my Dad says, “Jared, you’ve had a lot to drink.”

I petulantly refute, “Nah-uh.”

Pete shouts, “You’re marrying my sister tomorrow!”

I glance over at him and shrug. “Maybe not. This one’s cute. I like striped hair.” Turning back to her, I say, “Maybe we’ll elope.”

Her blue eyes widen behind her mask, and she stumbles backward, but I hold onto her and whisper, “I love the way you smell. All over. It’s my favorite.”

She shoves my chest, escaping my grasp and rips off her mask. “Are you fucking serious?”

Dash yelps, “Merrick?”

I smirk at him and then her, but she screeches, “Why’re you so smug? You were hitting on a stripper!”

“Yeah. You.”

She throws her mask at my chest. “You didn’t know it was me!”

“I did, Kit Kat. From the moment you turned around on stage.”

“Just like when you saw me at my mom’s last summer, right?” My grin fades at the low blow.

“No! I hadn’t seen you in years, and you looked—”

“You were supposed to not recognize me again! Instead, you practically propose?” Her fake blue eyes well with tears, and she backs away.

I take a step toward her. “Kat, I knew it was you! I swear!”

“You’re drunk, Jared!”

From the corner of my eye, I see Rio stand, and my dad walking over. “I’ve had three shots! That’s all!”

Spinning on her heel, she heads for the stage, and I go after her, skipping the stairs and hopping onto the stage. “Kat, wait!” I snag her arm, whirling her around.

She jerks her hand from my grip and moves away from me. “How do I know you wouldn’t have cheated on me?”

“Your brothers are in the same room! My dad! I’m in love with you!”

Dash yells, “That is Merrick, right?”

Kat crosses her arms. “Maybe you would’ve met up with one of them for a fuck like you used to.”

“Jesus! What’s wrong with you?”

“Me?”

Dad puts his hand on my chest. “Hey. You’re both strung out. Nerves are on overload. You should take a breather and then talk when you’ve calmed down.”

Shaking my head, I yell, “I told you I’ll never cheat on you! You think I’m lying? I’m not that asshole you were married to or even—”

“You’ll just be the next jerk I’m married to.” She turns to leave, and I grab her arm as my dad moves with me.

He warns, “Jared, don’t.”

Pulling her back to me, I demand, “Where’re you going?”

“Home.”

“That’s it? You came here to get an expectant reaction from me—testing me. When I shock you by giving you a different answer, you stomp off? Didn’t I just prove how much I know you? How far I’ve come?”

She swipes at the black streaks on her face. “I don’t know what to think! You’re only trying to talk your way out of getting caught!”

“I didn’t! I knew! Kat! Come on! Fuck! Why don’t you believe me?”

Again, she twists her arm from me. “Bye, Jared.”

Dad grabs my arm, holding onto me. When she turns, I try to catch her, but my dad tugs me back, letting her escape backstage. He says, “You’ll only make it worse. Cool down.”

Near hysterics, I argue, “She’s leaving me! We’re getting married tomorrow!”

Grabbing my shoulders, he turns me to face him. “It’ll be okay. You’re both edgy, and emotions are high.”

“I swear to God I knew it was her, Dad. The way she moved. The shape of her lips. Her perfume. Even her fake blue eyes. I knew it was Kat because I’d never make the mistake of not knowing her again.”

“I know that. So does she, but do you realize how nervous she is right now, too? She’s not thinking rationally. She will, though. Once this wedding stuff is over with, and you’re on the plane Sunday morning, you’ll remember why you went through all this.”

Looking to the side of the stage and then back to my father, I plead, “Dad…”

“I promise, Jared. She’ll be there tomorrow.”

Determined, I say, “If not, I’ll remind her why she has to marry me.”

“That’s my boy.”

And if she doesn’t remember, she’ll have fucked me at the gazebo in front of an audience.

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