Kira Sullivan pulled her dark, shoulder length hair back into a low ponytail and stared at her reflection. It was hard to miss the embedded lines time had drawn on her skin, despite her daily ritualistic attempts to reduce them. Everyone had told her forty was the new thirty, but they lied. Forty felt like forty; like life was suddenly half over. Aging was something Kira had trouble accepting, but it wasn’t just because of wrinkles, the occasional sprouting gray hair or hot flashes. It was because everything in her world was changing.
Her twins, Michael and Mallory, left for college, rendering her nest empty for the first time in eighteen years. As a typical, mid-western, suburban housewife, Kira had spent the last eighteen years completely absorbed in her children, while her husband, Frank, finished law school and worked his way up to becoming a partner in one of the most prestigious firms in downtown St. Louis. Frank specialized in criminal law and handled all of the high-profile cases in the mid-western region; which meant his workload and travel were often extensive. His schedule was easier on Kira when the kids were home, because they kept her distracted and busy; but now that they were gone, their million-dollar, Ladue home felt like nothing more than an empty shell, shrouding her loneliness.
Kira washed her face and then applied moisturizer and make-up. Holding the eyeliner pencil close to her lashes, she hesitated, taking in her reflection. She was suddenly struck by the reality that no matter how much make-up she wore, it wouldn’t conceal the sadness in the pale, blue eyes staring back at her. If it wasn’t for the nagging of her best friend, Audrey, to meet for coffee this morning, Kira wouldn’t have washed her face or put on make-up at all. In fact, she probably wouldn’t have even gotten out of bed.
Arriving at the Starbucks ten minutes late, Kira scanned the shop. As soon as she saw Audrey sitting in a leather arm chair near the back, a lump formed in her throat. It was like being a little kid who falls down and feigns strength until he sees his mom, and then hurls himself into her arms crying. One look at Audrey and Kira could no longer control the wave of emotion. Approaching her best friend, the dam broke and she burst into sobs.
Audrey set her coffee cup on the table and leapt to her feet. “I knew you weren’t okay!” She blurted, throwing her arms around Kira and holding her tightly. “Why didn’t you call me?” She scolded. “You know I would have come over.”
Kira couldn’t answer. The lump in her throat was too thick and she feared if she tried to speak she would collapse into a blubbering heap.
“You’re lonely,” Audrey surmised, pulling back from their embrace and wiping Kira’s face with a tan napkin. Kira nodded. She was lonely, but what she was feeling was deeper than just loneliness. She felt as if a part of her life was over, and it was the only part she knew. Her children didn’t need her anymore. Her husband was never home. All of a sudden, she felt completely alone.
“You need a hobby,” Audrey said, motioning Kira to sit down and then fetching her a cup of coffee. “If you don’t find something to do, you’re going to slip into depression.” Audrey flipped her long, red hair over her shoulder. “Hell, you might already be in depression.”
She didn’t want to admit it, but deep down she knew Audrey was right. Kira could feel herself on the edge of the abyss, not wanting to get up in the morning, not wanting to shower or clean the house, or even eat. Some mornings she would just stare at the wall and let the tears roll down her cheeks, not even sure of the nature of her thoughts or how to pull herself out of it.
“Look at you,” Audrey spat. “You look like shit.”
“I feel like shit,” Kira sniveled, taking a sip of her non-fat, no-whip, Marble Macchiato. It was both tasty on her tongue and soothing for her soul.
Audrey dug into her Coach handbag and retrieved a small notepad and a pen. “Okay, let’s make a list of things you like to do,” she said, and this made Kira smile. It was just so Audrey. Ever since they were children, Audrey made lists. Lists for which outfits they would wear to school, lists for which games they would play after school, lists of boys they liked and movies they wanted to see, lists of baby names and later in life, lists of divorce attorneys. Audrey’s lists were endless. “What do you like to do?” She asked, her green eyes sparkling with excitement for the task at hand.
Kira shrugged and wiped away the tears that had run down around her chin. Part of the problem was she didn’t know what she liked to do. Her whole life had revolved around her children. At first, it was soccer games and cub scouts and being the best room mother. Then, it was Mallory’s gymnastics and cheerleading and Michael’s football and baseball. Between the kid’s schedules, Kira had no time to herself; no time to discover her own interests. She used to love to snuggle on the couch and watch late night movies with Frank, but that was before he became a partner in the firm. Now, when he was home, it was only to fall into bed exhausted, get up the next morning, shower and leave again.
“Do you like to paint?” Audrey asked. Kira shook her head and scrunched up her nose. “Do you like to sculpt things?” Again, Kira shook her head. “Weird,” Audrey remarked. “When we were kids you were always the artistic one.”
“That was just a phase,” Kira said.
All of a sudden, Audrey’s eyes widened and she snapped her fingers and pointed at Kira. “You like to dance!” She announced loudly enough that two ladies at the next table peered over the top of their coffee drinks. “I remember you dancing in college. What was the name of that club?”
“Sshhh,” Kira scolded. “That was a long time ago.”
“Yeah, so? You loved it, right?” Audrey’s eyes were beaming with a naughty gleam.
“Yes, I loved it,” Kira blushed. “But I’m too old for that now, and Frank would kill me.”
Audrey wrote the word, DANCE, on her piece of paper and circled it. “You’re not too old; you just turned forty and look at you.” She gave her a once over and then scrunched up her face. “Well, don’t look at yourself right now, but when you’re all fixed up, you’re one hot mama.”
“Sshhh!” Kira protested.
“And besides, who says Frank needs to know?” Audrey rolled her eyes. “The man’s never home anyway.”
This was the problem with Audrey. She had ideas, and once she put those ideas into a person’s mind, it was difficult to get rid of them. The bigger dilemma was that Audrey was usually right, though that didn’t mean her ideas were good; and it certainly didn’t mean they wouldn’t backfire. This was one of the reasons Frank and Audrey didn’t like each other. Frank was a rule-follower and Audrey, a rule-breaker. Frank was also best friends with Audrey’s ex-husband, Leon. No one knew what really caused their divorce. Leon said he caught Audrey in bed with another man, which was why he claimed to have started fraternizing with his assistant. Audrey’s story depicted Leon with his assistant first and her infidelity was a mere act of retaliation. Either way, the marriage ended but Audrey and Leon’s hatred for one another lived on.
“There’s an underground Gentleman’s Club, called The Candy Shop, on the Riverfront,” Audrey excitedly explained. “I’ve heard that it has a main level where men come to watch women dance and a lower level which is reserved for high paying customers with private interests.” Audrey raised one eyebrow, gleaming. “If you know what I mean.”
“I’m not interested in any man’s private interests,” Kira gawked. “I’m married, remember?”
“Sure, I remember but does Frank?” Audrey mumbled beneath her breath.
Pursing her lips together Kira gave Audrey a look that told her to stop picking on Frank. “So he’s not the most attentive husband in the world,” she defended. “He loves me and we’ve built a life together.”
Audrey rolled her eyes. “I’ll make you a deal. If I can get us interviews at The Candy Shop, you have to go with me and interview for a dancer position.” Audrey extended her hand across the table. “Deal?”
“Deal,” Kira agreed, with a sigh. What were the chances that Audrey could even get the interviews, much less the chance that a strip club on the Landing in St. Louis would want to hire two forty-something’s? Slim-to-none, Kira thought. So, later that afternoon when Audrey called to say she had scheduled interviews for them at The Candy Shop, Kira was shocked; but a deal was a deal. After all, what was the harm in going downtown and taking a look?
After showering and blowing her hair dry, Kira gazed at her reflection in the mirror. Was she still young enough to dance the way she did in college? Could she ever feel that carefree and sexy again? She exhaled. Was she lonely for her husband, her fading youth or the feeling of being wanted and needed? She didn’t know, but desperation created a willingness to find out.
Several hours later, when she opened the front door to let Audrey inside, her stomach wrenched into nervous knots. “Are you ready for this?” Audrey beamed.
Ready? No. Kira wasn’t even sure if she would be able to go through with it and she was worried about what Frank would say if he ever found out.
“I don’t know,” Kira mumbled. “What if Frank…”
“He won’t find out!” Audrey interrupted. “The only way he could possibly find out is if he kept his ass in town long enough to notice you.” Audrey put her hands on her hips and cocked her head to the side. “Sweetie, he hasn’t been in your life for the past eighteen years, do you really think he’s going to start caring now?”
Her words rang true but that truth hollowed out Kira’s stomach. It wasn’t that Frank didn’t love her. She knew he loved her, but their relationship hadn’t been a priority for him in a long time. Besides, Audrey was right. Frank was working late again and Kira knew she could return from the interview well before he came home.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” Audrey asked, sliding past Kira and heading toward the kitchen. Kira gazed downward and studied her outfit. She was wearing a navy blue pencil skirt, a white blouse with a navy jacket and navy pumps. “You look like an airline attendant,” Audrey blurted. “You’ll never get the job wearing that.”
“What are you wearing?” Kira chided, and Audrey opened her tan trench coat to reveal a bright red negligée and thigh high black stockings with lace around the top. Kira gasped. “I don’t own anything like that.”
Audrey pulled a small bag from her purse. “You do now,” she winked. “I got you a black one.” She said smiling with a cat-that-ate-the-mouse grin. “Go put it on,” she ordered. “We don’t want to be late.”
Kira rushed to the bedroom, slipped on the lingerie and surveyed her reflection in the full-length mirror. She was thankful for all of the Pilates classes that had kept her figure slim and her muscles toned. “I don’t actually look half bad,” she mumbled to herself, switching the navy pumps for a pair of black, strappy stilettos; and then she pulled on her black trench coat and cinched the belt around her waist.
The Candy Shop was a stand-alone building, sitting right on the cobblestone streets of the St. Louis Riverfront, overlooking the Mississippi River. Valet parking was the only option, unless they wanted to park several blocks away and walk; an idea Kira didn’t want to entertain while dressed in lingerie and stilettos. “People will think we’re hookers,” she told Audrey.
The valet looked more like a night-club bouncer than a person who parked cars. He stood six foot four and Kira guessed he was two hundred and twenty pounds of pure muscle. He was bald, dressed head to toe in black, had a black goatee and wore dark glasses, despite the fact that it was dusk. Opening the passenger side door, he helped Kira step out and then walked around the car, took the keys from Audrey and pulled away in Audrey’s black Land Cruiser; never uttering a word.
“I hope he brings it back,” Audrey mumbled, watching intently as her car pulled away.
“He will,” a voice came from behind them and Kira whirled around to see a man, dressed in a dark gray, silk suit and shiny black wing tipped shoes. He stood five foot, ten inches tall, his black hair was salted with gray and his eyes were dark brown. “Ladies,” he said, pulling open the solid steel door and motioning them inside. Butterflies fluttered in Kira’s stomach. Part of her wanted to turn around and run, but curiosity begged her to stay.
Through the steel door was another set of doors. They were wooden and oversized, with metal spikes and a large dragon headed knocker that gave a medieval feel. Using the knocker, the man hit the door two times, and then glanced up at a security camera which hung in the corner to the left, and gave a nod. A loud clicking sound let them know they had been granted access and the man pulled the door open and ushered them inside.
The entry way was painted dark red and sensual, black and white photographs, hung in thick black frames to the left above two red velvet arm chairs. The floor was light hardwood and a chandelier with tiny red lamp shades on each bulb hung overhead. Long, jagged shards of mirrored glass hung on the wall to the right and reflected the light from the chandelier. Two oversized, medieval looking doors were straight ahead and Kira swallowed hard as the man led them toward the doors.
“Mr. Coronado is expecting you,” he said, pulling open one of the doors so that the ladies could step through. “Wait in here.”
“Thank you,” Audrey said. Kira wanted to speak, but her throat was suddenly dry. Coronado. Why does that name ring a bell?
When the man left, Kira turned to Audrey, grabbing her arms. “What are we doing here?” She wailed. “This is insane.”
“We’re getting you a hobby, remember?” Audrey snapped. “Besides, look around, it’s fascinating.”
She wasn’t wrong. Kira glanced around the room and it was indeed fascinating. It resembled a living room, with two red velvet couches in the center of the room, atop a red patterned rug and a light wooden coffee table that held a line of candles, all in different colors and sizes. To the left was another set of double, wooden, medieval doors and to the right was a single wooden door. Four large stained glass windows, running from ceiling to floor, covered the far wall, each with one star shaped pane of clear glass. Inching closer, Kira noticed that the star was eye-level for an average height person and looked down into what she could only guess was the nightclub. It had a large stage, adorned with gold dancing poles and two golden, hanging cages on either side. A runway jetted out from the front of the stage and was surrounded by cocktail tables and red, velvet covered chairs. She swallowed hard, as the fact that she was about to audition for The Candy Shop felt surreal.
“Beautiful,” he said, entering the room and walking briskly toward Kira. “Absolutely breathtaking.” Kira turned from the windows and met eyes with Mr. Coronado, who strode past Audrey as if she wasn’t even there, took Kira’s hand and kissed the top of it. “Demure,” he sighed. “That’s what my high paying customers like. Demure.”
“Mr. Coronado, my name is Audrey and this is Kira,” Audrey spoke, extending her hand to shake his; but he never took his eyes off of Kira, nor did he release her hand, which began to make Kira feel uncomfortable. “We’re here for the interview,” Audrey said, trying to re-direct his attention.
Mr. Coronado was an unusual looking man. He was in his mid-fifties, stood six feet tall with grayish brown hair and crystal clear blue eyes that were so clear they looked almost white. His chin was pointy and his smile reminded Kira of the Joker from Batman. He was dressed in crisply pleated, black slacks and a black and gray patterned V-neck sweater that revealed a tiny clump of chest hair and a platinum skull chain that hung around his neck. He seemed to slither across the room.
“Yes, the interview,” he said. “Come, let’s have a seat.” He released Kira’s hand and motioned them toward the red velvet couches. He sat on one while Kira and Audrey sat on the other, facing him. “Let me ask you, first, why you have come to me today?”
Kira wasn’t prepared for the question, but thankfully Audrey didn’t miss a beat. “We understand The Candy Shop is a high-class establishment where women like us can do what we enjoy in a safe, upscale environment.” Audrey sounded so poised it made Kira wonder if she had rehearsed it.
Mr. Coronado looked amused by her answer, or maybe he was simply amused by her; Kira wasn’t sure which. “And, what about you?” He asked Kira directly.
She knotted her fingers together in her lap and swallowed hard. “I used to dance in college,” she looked up, sheepishly. “I’m probably too old now, but …”
“I don’t employ trampy twenty-something’s,” he replied curtly, cutting her off. “I employ high class women, who possess sensual beauty.” He leaned back, draping his arms across the back of the couch and crossing his right leg over his left. “I employ women with passion.” The word seemed to ooze from his lips as his eyes tore through Kira. “Do you have passion?”
“Yes, we…” Audrey began but he interrupted.
“I was talking to Kira.”
Kira’s breath caught in her chest. Did she have passion? She didn’t know anymore. It had been a long time since she had viewed herself as a sensual creature with passion. She blinked quickly, suddenly feeling as if she might hyperventilate.
“You’ll find I’m a very patient man,” he said, obviously noticing her struggle to form words. “Why don’t I have some of the ladies give you a tour and then we’ll meet back here.”
As he stepped out of the room, Audrey turned to Kira. “What the hell is wrong with you?” She blurted. “He’s totally into you and you’re like a deer in the headlights.”
“I’m sorry,” Kira moaned. “He makes me nervous and he kind of creeps me out.” She leaned forward and buried her face in her hands. “I can’t believe we’re actually doing this. We shouldn’t be here.”
Audrey scowled. “Don’t blow this. I need this and so do you.”
Two women opened the double doors and glided in. One was tall and blonde with cleavage stacked so high that Kira found it distracting. She wore bright red lipstick, too much eye liner and her hair hung almost to her bottom. The other woman was Kira’s height, had short, dark brown hair, chocolate brown eyes and a warm smile. Both were scantily dressed.
“I’m Miranda,” said the brunette, “and this is Shelby.” Shelby gave an overly bubbly wave and giggle. “We’ll have to make this short because we open in an hour and we have to finish getting ready.”
Miranda led the tour and it was quickly evident to Kira that Miranda was the brains and Shelby was the bobble headed eye-candy. They visited the main stage area, backstage and the dressing room. “Lucas will choose your clothing each night,” Miranda explained.
“Lucas?” Kira asked.
“Mr. Coronado,” Miranda clarified.
“Once you’re hired, you’ll get to call him by his first name,” Shelby giggled.
“IF you’re hired,” added Miranda with a condescending smirk.
“Exactly what kind of entertainment do you provide?” Audrey asked, using her fingers to make quotation marks around the word entertainment.
Miranda shot Audrey a glare that said she didn’t appreciate the innuendo. “We’re not prostitutes or call-girls if that’s what you were implying.”
“No…I…” Audrey stopped. “What I meant to ask was do you strip?”
Shelby giggled. “Only topless. We’re not allowed to show anything from the waist down.”
“Lucas will give you his guidelines IF he decides you’re Candy Shop material,” Miranda remarked. “Let’s head back.”
“What about the downstairs?” Audrey blurted.
Miranda turned slowly, her eyes narrowing. “How do you know about the downstairs?”
“Just rumors,” Audrey said.
“Well, you can discuss those rumors with Lucas,” she smirked sarcastically and made quotation marks around the word rumors. “I doubt you’re downstairs material.”
Kira saw Audrey’s jaw tighten at the insult and she reached over and squeezed her arm, willing her to calm down and let it go. Audrey rolled her eyes and wrenched her arm away.
Shelby and Miranda led them back to the living room where they waited for Mr. Coronado to return. Audrey sat on the red velvet couch, with her arms crossed, swinging her leg impatiently; while Kira stood in front of the stained glass windows peering down at the stage. She couldn’t deny the fact that she felt drawn to it. Common sense told her this was crazy and wrong; but something deep inside yearned for it.
“What a bitch!” Audrey blurted out of the blue. “That Miranda is on my shit list.”
Kira laughed at the thought of Audrey’s ever-growing shit list. She kept an actual list entitled ‘Shit List’ and she added names through the years. “Just ignore her,” Kira said. “She obviously has a chip on her shoulder.”
“She’s not even that pretty. Why would Lucas hire someone like that anyway?” Audrey snapped.
“Because she was requested by one of my highest paying patrons,” Mr. Coronado answered, having entered the room without either of them noticing. “You see, my customers, my clientele, are my priority. What they request, I offer. It’s a form of customer service to which the majority of the outside world is not accustomed.” He slid onto the couch across from Audrey and motioned for Kira to come and sit. “I do something for you and then you do something for me. That’s how effective businesses are run. Now, stand up and remove your coats,” he ordered.
Audrey rose first, un-tied her trench coat and let it fall to the floor around her ankles. Kira rose, un-cinched her coat and draped it off of her shoulders, but kept it mostly on. Mr. Coronado grinned. “Ah,” he sighed. “The bold and the demure.” He rose from the couch and gestured toward the doors. “Ian will see you out. Come back tomorrow at six o’clock sharp for your wardrobe and new ID’s. We’ll do a test run tomorrow evening and see if you have what it takes.”
“ID’s?” Audrey asked.
“The Candy Shop is a private club, exclusive in its membership. You won’t be entertaining Frat parties, ladies, nor will you be dancing in front of your neighbor’s beer-gutted husband.” He raised his eyebrows. “The exclusivity and privacy of my members is in direct correlation to the exclusivity and private identities of my employees.”
“I don’t understand,” Kira whispered.
“I’ll assign you a new name and ensure that no one from your circle of existence is present in the club during your shift,” he explained.
“How do you ensure that?” Audrey snorted. “You’d have to background check everybody.”
“Yes,” he nodded, matter-of-factly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Mr. Coronado exited the room and Ian, the man in the gray silk suit who had originally escorted them inside, led them back into the lobby to wait for Audrey’s car to be brought around.
“Ian,” Audrey said. “I hate to be a bother, but do you think I could use the powder room before we leave?”
“Certainly,” he nodded, and led Audrey back through the double doors, leaving Kira waiting in the lobby alone. Glancing at her reflection in the shards of glass, excitement began to replace trepidation. She felt young again, and though Mr. Coronado frightened her, she couldn’t deny that the attention from a strange man somehow nourished her soul.
It was taking Audrey a long time to use the bathroom, and Kira sank into one of the red velvet chairs, noting the softness of the fabric against her skin. She leapt to her feet when Ian came back through the double doors without Audrey in tow. He appeared startled to see that she was still there, but quickly re-focused his attention on the main door; opening it and gesturing a tall gentleman inside.
“Good evening, sir,” Ian said. “May I take your coat?”
Kira met eyes with the gentleman and felt her heart flutter. He was handsome, in a polished, sophisticated sort of way. He wore a black suit with a gray textured tie and long black trench coat, which Ian slid from his body and tucked over his arm. His hair was short and dark brown, his skin was tan and his eyes were an alluring hazel. He nodded at Kira and she quickly lowered her eyes to the floor, unsure of whether she was supposed to acknowledge him. With all the talk about privacy and exclusivity, Kira didn’t know if her seeing him and him seeing her was some sort of violation of Mr. Coronado’s rules. After all, what would have happened if he was someone she knew? That could have been devastating.
As Ian led him through the double doors and into the living room, Kira sank back into the red velvet chair, feeling a twinge of guilt for the instant attraction she had felt for this stranger. In her defense, she didn’t get out much, so her sphere of men was small; and none of them looked anything like him. Her lustful urges were limited to a few good-looking actors, so she found it startling when a real man in real life triggered a flustered, hormonal surge. Not wanting to endure endless teasing, she decided not to tell Audrey about the encounter.