Stripped Read online

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We pull into a Beverly Hills gated community, passing gargantuan estates worth tens of millions of dollars, rolling expanses of green grass and sculpted shrubs and wide curving driveways. As we roll at a surprisingly sedate pace through the neighborhood, I see a well-known actress getting her mail, and then a high-profile L. A. basketball player washing a sports car. Dawson glances at me as if to gauge my reaction to the neighborhood.

  “You’re driving like a normal person,” I remark.

  He shrugs. “This is my community. I know these people. They have kids. ” He waves toward L. A. at large. “Out there? It’s a warzone. I was born and raised in L. A. , and I know this city backward and forward. I know its traffic patterns, I know where the speed traps are, and where the really dangerous neighborhood are. In here? I live here. I’m not gonna drive like a jackass in here. ”

  “You never answered my question. You said before you got serious about acting. How did you get into it?”

  He doesn’t answer. He pulls the Bugatti down a long driveway and under an archway into a courtyard. The house is a massive Spanish hacienda-style mansion, with balconies looking into the courtyard, in the center of which is a fountain spewing water. On one side of the courtyard is an expansive wall of garage doors, a few of which are open, showing the tails of various kinds of cars. The Bugatti is parked near the front door, behind a classic cherry-red convertible. I want to say it’s a Ford Mustang, but I’m not sure.

  Dawson sees me looking at it. “That’s a 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429. ” I must look baffled. “It’s pretty rare, in terms of that year and that particular style. ”

  “Did you build it?”

  He nods. “Yeah. Well, rebuilt is more accurate. I bought the chassis from a guy in Mendocino, and then found a Boss 429 engine and cleaned it up. It’s got the original radio, leather bucket seats—the whole interior is in mint condition and almost entirely original. ” His expression lights up as he talks about the car, and I get out and follow him over to it. It’s a pretty car, I think. More masculine. It fits Dawson perfectly. If I picture him driving, it would be in this car. The Bugatti is a status symbol, I think. He’s got the hood open, and he’s pointing at various parts of the engine, rattling off facts and figures and names, and I can’t possibly keep up or understand anything he’s talking about, but God, is it cute watching him get excited. He’s a totally different Dawson, talking about his car. His eyes are greenish now, the luminous shade of lichen on stone.

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  And then I realize he still hasn’t answered my question. It seems he’s evading it. I let it go and watch him talk, listening and trying not to get pulled into the orbit again. It’s a constant battle. His face is animated and boyish and, god, so so handsome. The lines and angles of his face are sculpted as if by an artist. I don’t believe in God anymore, but if I did, Dawson would be proof of His handiwork.

  Eventually Dawson realizes I’m not really following anything he’s saying and stops mid-sentence, blushing. He rubs the back of his neck and grins sheepishly at me. “Shit, I just went all guy on you, didn’t I?” He closes the hood, grabs me by the hand, and pulls me toward the front door. “Sorry. Cars are my thing, and I kind of nerd out when I talk about them. ”

  I can’t help grinning at him. “It was cute. ”

  “Great. ‘It was cute. ’ That’s the kiss of death for a guy. ”

  “What’s that supposed to mean? It was cute. It’s not a bad thing. ” I follow him through the front door and into an echoing foyer with an elaborate faux-candle chandelier.

  “Grey, no guy ever likes to be called ‘cute. ’ Cute is the diametric opposite of sexy. ”

  I feel myself blush furiously, and he gives me that look again, the one that says he doesn’t understand how I don’t know what he’s talking about. “You blush at the drop of a hat, you know that?” He touches my cheek with his fingertip, and my skin burns where he touches me. I want to pull away, but I can’t. My clear discomfort amuses him even more. “Where did you grow up that you’re so innocent?”

  I sigh. “I grew up in Macon, Georgia. ” He gives me an …and? look. I turn away from him and busy myself with examining a suit of armor that stands between the two wings of the curved staircase. “I was sheltered, okay? Just…just leave it at that. ” I’m nowhere near ready to tell him about my upbringing.

  “Sheltered, huh?” He moves to stand behind me, and even though I can’t see him or even feel him, as he’s not touching me, I can sense his presence like an inferno. “So how’d you go from a sheltered girl in Macon to a stripper in L. A. ?”

  I almost managed to forget, for a split second, how I earn my living. It’s Thursday, the last of my three days off; I work Friday through Monday. On Tuesday, I’m relieved that I’m not working, that I can just be me and not have to perform. On Wednesday, the awful fact of what I do has receded just a bit, fading to the back of my mind as I focus on school and the internship. By Thursday I can almost forget. I can almost pretend I’m just Grey, a normal college student. And then Friday rolls around, and I’m forced back into reality: I’m a stripper. I take off my clothes for money, for men’s sexual fantasy and desire.

  Thursday is my golden day. It’s my only day to be Grey, just Grey. And now Dawson has to go and remind me.

  I’m filled with an unreasoning rage. I whirl and yell, “Desperation, okay?” shoving him backward, not to hurt him, but out of raw anger and frustration. “I didn’t have a choice! It was the only job opening I could find, and I looked for months. Months! I didn’t have any job experience in anything. I ain’t got—I don’t have anyone to ask for help. I got…I’ve got nowhere to go. I can’t and won’t go back to Georgia. My scholarships ran out, and those covered everything from tuition to room and board and books. I hate it. I hate it. I hate…I hate it!” In my upset, the Georgia twang is seeping in.

  I’m sobbing, and I can’t stop. I turn away from him again, stumble, and sink to the cold marble floor. It all breaks out, all the emotions I’ve kept bottled up for months now. The loneliness, the homesickness, the shame and the guilt. It doesn’t come out as words, but as raw and ragged sobs.

  I feel him kneel beside me, feel his arms go around me. I push at him, but I’ve got no strength left and he’s too strong and too warm and comforting.

  “You’re not alone anymore, Grey. ” It’s the worst possible thing he can say to me. If I was sobbing before, it turns into a storm of tears, into whatever comes after sobbing.

  He doesn’t say anything else. He just holds me, there on the floor of his foyer, and lets me cry. I wish I could say this outburst is cathartic, but it’s not. It’s just necessary. A crisis of self-pity. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t change anything.

  “Let me go,” I say, struggling against him.

  “No. ” His voice is gentle but firm, and his arms unrelentingly strong.

  “Please. Just let me go. I’m fine. ”

  “Bullshit. ”

  “What do you want from me?” I give up struggling and go limp, but I’m tense.

  “The truth about yourself?”

  It’s the one thing I can’t give, won’t give. I don’t know what the truth is, and even if I did, Dawson isn’t someone I could explain it to. He’s Dawson Kellor, Hollywood movie star. I’m just Grey from Macon, Georgia.

  His phone chirps in his pocket, and even though he doesn’t move to answer it, it’s a reminder of reality. His arms are around me, warm and comforting, and I want to stay here forever, just like this, because I can almost…almost forget about who I am and who he is and the reality that’s waiting for me.


  His lips brush the shell of my ear, and I tremble, shocked by the tenderness and the intimacy of the moment.

  But I can’t afford to let myself think this means anything. That text message from Ashley M reminded me of an important fact: Dawson Kellor and I come from two drastically different worlds. I got sucked in