Secret was a study in contrasts. The outside was minimal, nondescript. Dev had almost driven right by it. He had circled back, stepping out into the light drizzle. The night air was crisper here than down at the docks, which had carried the hint of metal and blood. The air around Secret was a heady mixture of perfume and liquor. But if one stood near Secret too long, a third scent became evident: sweat.
Dev’s lips curled as he finally identified the musky smell that warmed the night air. He went to the doors, and was halted by some men. He held up his phone, showing the Ring ticket, saying in a low voice, “I heard this was the place to be after a fight.”
The men were satisfied by this, and let him pass. The moment the doors opened, there was a rush of perfume, the fragrant mist settling over him, both blinding him and cloaking him. Suppressing a cough, he pushed through the sweet-scented barrier into the club. The doors opened onto a platform, that had curving stairs on either side. Both were cordoned off. Directly ahead, was an open seating area that took up the entire space. This was where Secret drastically differed from its outside. Everything inside was the epitome of luxury. From the leather chairs, the plush velvet couches, the gold accents, the tinkle of crystal and diamond, everything was the best money could offer.
But the luxurious décor paled in comparison to the people. Men and women were draped on nearly every surface available for sitting, as well as several that were not. Everyone was still masked, and everyone was dressed for seduction. The hedonism was palpable. And between the rich and the bored, weaved the club staff, dressed in red and gold, their faces unmasked. Some offered drinks and food. Others were held, petted like expensive cats in rich laps.
As Dev moved further into the room, he saw there was an arching doorway on the right, leading into a room where tables were laid out like a casino. Chips, cash, and alcohol flowed easily in that room. He glanced to the left, and saw a mirroring arching doorway, only this one had thick red velvet curtains across it. He watched from the shadows as some patrons would go in pairs, groups, alone, behind the curtain, while others would come from behind the curtain. Dev had no illusions as to what happened beyond the curtain.
Exhaling, Dev finally made his way to the bar that took up the back wall of the main room. He slipped into a bar stool on the left side, almost disappearing behind the potted foliage. The bar tender came over, and Dev quietly requested a simple glass of water. The bar tender smiled at him, their pretty face accentuated by eyeliner. “Newcomer, huh?” They asked, their smile not quite reaching their eyes. This patron was younger than the usual first timer, though the mask made it difficult to tell.
The patron’s lips curved upwards, but their brown gaze was empty. “Yes. I heard about this place from a friend.”
The bar tender, Tris, leaned forward, gaze intent on the patron. He had turned to the side, gazing out at Secret. “Like what you see?” They teased the patron.
The patron turned back towards them, his gaze softening. “I don’t know. It’s very different from what I expected,” he admitted.
Tris nodded. “That’s the allure of Secret, having more than what meets the eye at first glance.” They gave the patron an appreciative look. “What’s your name, love?” They asked, their tone becoming sultry, irresistible.
The patron looked at them again, the smile deepening. Tris could now see the dimple in his cheek and the warm mischief in his gaze. He lifted a hand, pressing a finger to his soft lips, winking at Tris. “Secret, beautiful,” he teased, making Tris laugh.
“Have it your way. I’m Tris.” They held their hand out, and the patron shook it. Their hand was soft, smooth.
“Pleasure, Tris. Tell me more about Secret,” the patron said, turning, giving his full attention to Tris. The warm brown gaze sent tingles along Tris’ spine. They liked this version of the patron much more than the cold ice prince.
“As you can see, we have three parts, dining, casino, and pleasure. The staff members? In red?” Tris nodded to the Club Babies on the floor. The patron’s gaze followed their gesture. “Some work the floor, others-” Tris shrugged, shifting a little uncomfortably. “You get it.”
“Yeah.” The patron looked out at the floor, the warmth in his gaze fading. “They’re all very beautiful,” he said softly.
Tris snorted. “That’s the name of the game, baby. But you gotta be more than beautiful to make it in here. Most of the Babies try to get a protector, someone who requests them on the regular. They get better pay for being favorites. Because favorites coax more money out of patrons.”
The patron nodded absently. His gaze was sweeping the floor, and Tris studied his face carefully, curious. Both male and female Babies were on the floor. Who would draw this enigmatic patron’s gaze?
“See a Babie you like?” Tris teased, lifting their hand to signal a Club favorite, Claire. She was currently with a fat politician, so she would be grateful for the young and handsome patron to entertain.
The patron’s cool fingers curled around Tris’ hand, and warm lips pressed into their inner wrist. Pleasure shot down Tris’ spine, coiling in their stomach. “Why would I want someone else when I already have you, Tris?” The patron murmured, tilting his face towards Tris, the heat in the brown gaze making Tris swallow. They were a bar tender. They’d gotten flirted with before. No reason for this masked mystery to make them weak at the knees. None.
A light, soft voice interrupted Tris’ sinful thoughts, and Tris looked over to where Stephan had appeared. The little one had a talent for slipping through the shadows. But what interested Tris the most was the intensity with which Stephan stared at the patron, who’s fingers were still interlaced with Tris. The patron looked back at Stephan, and Tris knew that the two knew each other, and that Stephan was less than pleased by the patron’s presence. They withdrew their hand, their features hardening. “Baby, do you know him?” They asked sharply.
Stephan slid into the seat next to the patron, propping his tiny chin on his palm. “Yes,” he said calmly. He looked at Tris. “It’s fine. We just need to talk, is all. Go back to your station.”
Tris hesitated, looking at the patron again. They’d worked here for several years, so they had a pretty good read on people. There was nothing that said this patron was dangerous. Besides. This was Stephan. If the patron caused Stephan to get so much as a paper cut, Jasper would gut him. Deciding that it was fine, Tris shrugged, turning to go back to work.
Stephan looked at the GPA, who’s gaze was once again unreadable. “What are you doing here?” He asked quietly.
Stephan frowned at him. “What does that mean?”
The GPA sipped his water, setting the glass down slowly. He tapped his finger on the rim of the glass. “I want to get you all out. Jack, Elle, Ross, and you.”
If the world had suddenly dropped out from under Stephan’s feet he wouldn’t have been as surprised. “Why?” He demanded, frowning.
“Elle asked me the same thing. Is it really hard for you all to believe that someone would want to help you?” The GPA asked, musingly.
“Yes,” Stephan shot back viciously. He narrowed his eyes at the GPA. “We aren’t about to go from being one rich man’s toy to another’s. So, save your pity, we don’t need it. Leave.” He slid out of his seat, making ready to leave.
“I don’t pity you. I envy you.”
Stephan stared at the GPA in shock. “Envy? You envy us? You? With your wealth, your big house, your family, freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want? What can you possibly envy?” He spat at the GPA.
The GPA met his gaze squarely, before his gaze fell onto Stephan’s collar. He reached out to touch it and Stephan caught his wrist in a painful grip. The GPA’s gaze flicked back to Stephan’s. “Just because I don’t wear my cage around my neck doesn’t mean I’m not trapped,” he said softly. “We’re not that different, you know.”
“Oh really? You’re a prostitute too?” Stephan snapped.
The GPA met his gaze, and Stephan felt his fury melt a little at the sadness in the GPA’s gaze. “No. We both live in a world that uses beautiful things to try and hide how ugly it really is.”
The softness in his voice curled around Stephan, soothing him. His grip became less painful, but he did not let go yet. “However ugly your world is, it’s nothing compared to mine,” he reminded the GPA.
The GPA lifted a shoulder. “True. But you have something in your world that I do not.”
“And what would that be?” Stephan asked, finally letting go of the GPA’s wrist.
Stephan frowned at him, slipping back onto the bar stool. “What?”
The GPA took a sip of water. Stephan winced at the deep red marks around his wrist. “I live my life in a cold, empty house, with no one to talk to or rely on. Sometimes I wish my parents were dead, so then at least they’d have a reason for abandoning me. That would be preferable to knowing that no matter what I do will never be enough for them to want me. As for freedom to do what I want?” He lifted his lips in a cold, empty smile. “What does it matter, when there’s no one to care? And all the money in the world won’t buy me the warmth you feel when Ross looks at you.”
Stephan flushed, then paled. He cleared his throat. “Fine. But I still don’t understand what all that has to do with us.”
“For the first time in my life, someone needed me. I had a purpose. I liked that feeling. And I like all of you. I like that you stick with each other through thick and thin. I’ve never had that. So I want to help you.”
“Okay, say you get us out. Then what?” Stephan demanded.
The GPA smiled, and for the first time, there was warmth in his gaze. “Then you do whatever you want.”
Stephan was quiet. He stared into the depths of the bar table, biting his lip. A chance to get out. A chance to get away. The heavy weight of the collar made the decision. “How?” He asked, looking up at the GPA.
The GPA pulled something out of his pocket. “I was at the Fight to get an idea of the players involved. They’re all from my circle, so I know them. And I have connections. That way, I can devise the best way to weaken the different Districts, to hit them where they’d hurt: finances. That way, that gives me leverage to not only get you out, but keep you out. I’m still working on the fine details, but I do know one thing. I need you.”