Stripped Read online

Page 24


Kaz is stolen away then by a nervous-looking young scriptwriter who worked on Gone With the Wind, probably hoping to pitch an idea. I float from one knot of guests to another, chatting and smiling and trying to act like I know how to be a hostess. I feel like an impostor sometimes. Like someone will see through my disguise and point at me and laugh, and say, “She doesn’t belong here! She’s just a hick from Georgia!”

  It never happens, of course, because it’s all in my head.

  I’m on my third glass of wine, the most I’ve ever drank…drunk?…at one time in my whole life. I’m a little dizzy, a little loose. I’ve had amazing conversations with some of the most famous people in the world. Shaquille O’Neal is here, for some reason which I can’t quite figure out. He’s nice. Jack Nicholson is a lot nicer than I thought he’d be, based on most of the roles I’ve seen him play.

  I find myself in the backyard, by the pool, surrounded by a crowd of young producers and a few sound guys, and they’re talking about some project they all worked on together, and I’m able to figure out which film based on the context, which makes me feel pretty smart. I’m listening and learning, and I’m out of wine. I like this feeling, this slow, easy, loose buzzing in my head. Conversation comes easily, and the guys around me listen when I talk, and answer my questions without condescension. I feel like I’m part of the business. I’m in, and it feels great.

  A hand takes the empty wine glass and presses a round tumbler full of square sparkling ice cubes and amber liquid into my hand. I take the glass and stare at it, uncomprehending. Why would I drink this? I don’t drink liquor. I barely drink wine. I tilt my head up to look at the person who gave it to me. He’s very tall and thin, good-looking in a hipster kind of way. He’s wearing tight black jeans and an untucked white button-down beneath an argyle sweater vest. A loosely-knotted tie completes the look. His hair is long and unkempt, and his eyes are glazed but intent on me. I think he may be an agent, or maybe an effects tech. I’ve seen him before somewhere, but I don’t know where. It bothers me.

  I hand the glass back to him. “I’d rather have wine, thanks. ”

  He pushes it back at me. “It’s Blue Label, baby. Some of the best whiskey there is. Just try it. ”

  Those two words—“Blue Label”—bring back a muddled memory, which I force away. “No, really. I don’t like that stuff. ” But I’m sipping it anyway, for some reason. I cough, but the way it burns after I’ve swallowed isn’t unpleasant. I take another sip.

  Hipster smiles happily. “See? Not so bad. I’m Pavel, by the way. ”

  I shake his hand, and he doesn’t let go right away. “Hi, Pavel. I’m—”

  “Oh, I know who you are, Gracie. ” He holds onto my hand, seemingly oblivious to my attempts to withdraw it. His smile shifts. Darkens, somehow.

  My buzz dies. I need out of this conversation, now. But he’s still holding my hand. I pull, but he doesn’t let go. I look around me, but the group I was talking to has scattered, and Pavel and I are alone by the pool. There are people on the other side, near the house, but we’re on the far side, obscured from the view of the house by a huge stand of palm trees.

  “I don’t know what you think you’ve heard, but my name is Grey. I’m Dawson’s fiancée. ”

  He lets go of my hand, but his palm wraps around my back and forces me against him. I struggle, and he just laughs. “Oh, come on. We both know what you really are. I saw you, you know. At Exotic Nights. I was a regular. I loved watching you dance. And then you vanished and the club closed…but now here you are. Dance for me, Gracie. ”

  I lift my knee and jam it as hard as I can into his groin, and he stumbles backward, coughing. He drops the glass he’s holding and it smashes on the ground, splashing whiskey on my sandaled feet.

  He lurches, then stumbles, glances up at me with hate in his eyes. “You bitch! You’re a stripper. That’s all you are. Fancy f**king dresses can’t hide it. ” He takes a step toward me.

  I drop the glass as I back away from him, and it smashes, too, and then massive hands are around my shoulders, pulling me away. I struggle, and then go still when I realize the huge paws belong to Greg. There’s a flash of movement, and then Pavel is flying. He smashes into a tree, and then Dawson is there, holding him off the ground with a hand around his throat. Pavel kicks, makes a strangled gasping noise. His feet are three inches off the ground, and Dawson is keeping him aloft with one hand.

  “Dawson. ” Kaz says calmly as he’s striding up with his scotch and cigar held in the same hand. He puts his free hand on Dawson’s shoulder. “Don’t. Greg will escort him out, and I’ll blacklist him. He’s done. ”

  Pavel shakes his head, more horrified by this pronouncement than by the thought of being brutalized into bloody hamburger by Dawson. Dawson lets go and turns away. Pavel sinks to the ground, coughing, bent over double, gasping. I think it’s over, and so does Pavel, who opens his mouth, probably to plead for his career, but then Dawson whirls back around and his fist is a hammer, smashing into Pavel’s face. He pitches to the side, and Dawson is about to swing again before I capture his arm. I put my hands on Dawson’s face and his arms go around me.

  “No. No more. I’m fine. It’s over. ” I take his hand and rub his knuckles with my thumbs.

  Dawson is on the brink, rage making him bigger and harder, a violent glint in his eyes as he stares down Pavel. “Grey, he—”

  “He’s nothing. It’s your birthday. Just make him leave. ” I meet Dawson’s eyes, and let him see that I’m okay.

  And really, I am. In one respect, Pavel was right. The fancy dresses and expensive jewelry can’t hide who I was, what I used to do. But it’s the past. I’m not that person anymore, no more than I’m the innocent and naïve pastor’s daughter who first moved to L. A. But both are a part of who I am and who I used to be, but it’s not me anymore.

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  It also felt really good to knee the bastard in the balls.

  I laugh at the uncharacteristic thought, and Dawson’s expression shifts from anger to confusion. “What’s funny?”

  “Just…I was thinking how good it felt to nail that ass**le in the balls. ”

  Dawson sputters and then cracks up, and so do Kaz and Greg. “Just don’t do it to me. ”

  I reach down and cup him between the legs. “I would never. I love them too much. ” Kaz and Greg cough and turn away, and I realize I might be a little buzzed still, if I really just said and did that in front of them.

  Dawson is shocked speechless for a moment. “Damn, Grey. You should drink more often if it makes you like this. You’re sexy when you’re tipsy. ”

  I let Dawson draw me inside, and we sit in the living room on the couch. I lose count of how many glasses of wine I drink as we talk to our friends. The room fades until there are only the seven or eight of us clustered on the couch and loveseat and leather recliners, talking the night away, and I get dizzier and dizzier until Dawson is a pillar holding me up, and he’s watching me, gauging me, and letting me do what I want. Kaz lights a cigar and hands it to Dawson, who puffs it, and then, with a quirky smile, puts it to my lips. I take a small puff and cough, choking. The men all laugh, so I take it from Dawson and try again, and maybe it’s just the wine, but I feel sexy holding it and smoking from it, like an actress from the ’40s sitting on a piano in a slinky dress.

  Dawson shakes his head at me, but his eyes gleam.

  I stand up unsteadily, and then have to sit back down. Dawson chuckles. “Need help, baby?”

  I nod. “I’ve gotta pee. ” I sound more Georgia than ever, and I realize I’ve been slowly taking the accent on all night, since the incident with Pavel, which was hours and hours ago by this point. The cable box says it’s 3:26 a. m. I can’t believe I’m still upright.

  I feel something happening to my feet, and I look down to see Dawson unstrapping the heeled sandals I’m wearing, sliding one off, and then the other. I watch him, and let him do i