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By:Joan Swan

“Put your pea-sized brain to rest, Josh,” she told him. “I’m not stripping.”

One golden brow lifted in disbelief, and his gaze skimmed down her body.

“God, you’re such an ass.” She crossed her arms again. “I talk to the men. They tell me what moves and routines they like to see from the dancers. I train the girls to do what the men like, which makes them more money. And when they make more money, I make more money. I’m. Their. Choreographer.”

That wasn’t the job title her boss had given her, but it was the one she’d built around her position as house mom. So, in addition to managing all the girls’ needs backstage, which included being a surrogate mother, a psychologist, a makeup artist, a troubleshooter, and a comedian, Grace also taught them how to dance. How to tease and please. And her work had pushed the club onto the top-ten list of strip clubs in San Diego. It had also helped the dancers pay for medical care and school tuition and quality daycare for their kids.

And if the plan she’d put into motion spun out the way she’d planned, she’d slough off the house mom part of the job and take over her very own lucrative niche as dance instructor and choreographer to the area’s top entertainers.

But Josh didn’t deserve to know her secrets or her dreams.

He gave her a dubious slant-eyed gaze and planted both hands at his narrow hips. “Your job description doesn’t matter, Grace. You’re still here, still dressed—Jesus, I can’t breathe looking at you in that—and you still have to walk across that parking lot where some guy was gutted last week. Strip clubs breed crime—”

“So do liquor stores and Planned Parenthood pickets and TV violence, for God’s sake.” She was tempted to tell him to go back to the part where he couldn’t breathe, but she was sure the tease would have been wasted. “We don’t stop driving because someone dies in a car accident. And I’m not going to give up a good job because some assholes drank too much and got in a fight.”

Songs switched again—the fourth change since she’d set eyes on Josh, which meant she’d been gone from the dressing room too long.

She continued the rest of the way down the hall, but paused before turning the corner and glanced back at him. Hands on hips, shirtsleeves rolled up on his forearms, tension drawing all six feet of his amazing body up tight, he looked every bit the commanding presence he’d always been. Overhead lights made his wheat-colored hair shine like the sun. Her heart felt like it was being cut into tiny little pieces, and she cursed herself for one: falling in love with him in the first place, and two: never falling back out.

Her whole chest ached.

“Go home, Josh. There’s nothing here for you.”

Gracie finger-waved to Beth, the house mom who’d taken over for her at midnight. “Good night, Sadie. Remember to tell Rebecca to ice her ankle, please.”

“Will do.” Beth picked up a brush to fluff Clarissa’s hair before the dancer took center stage. “Have Theo walk you out.”

“Will do.”

Grace made her way through the halls toward the front door, exhaustion and heartache dragging at her. Seeing Josh again, so unexpectedly, had been tough. But sending him away with all the unease still between them left her feeling hollow and depressed. More than anything she needed a friend in her life now. The casual friendships she’d made with the staff at the club were great for everyday conversation and company, but she wished she had someone deeper in her life. Someone who really got her. And the reminder that she’d ruined that with Josh really hurt.

There had been a thousand times over the last year when she’d wished she hadn’t asked him to move in with her, that she hadn’t suggested there was more than friendship between them. Not because it hadn’t been true, but because she’d lost his friendship over voicing the reality.

Passing into the foyer, she searched for Theo, the bouncer manning the door. He was speaking to a patron, then ushered him into the club before he turned to Grace.

“What’d you do to that guy, Nikki?” he asked. “He’s a mess.”

Grace peered toward the bar, where Josh sat slumped on a stool, arms crossed on the bar, head resting facedown on his forearms. His blazer was draped over the stool beside him. And Dean, her boss and the club’s owner, was standing thirty feet away, talking to a customer.

“Je-sus.” Her heart twisted. “Why’d you let him stay?”

“Because the girls feel sorry for him. Every time I approached him with the intention of pushing him into a cab, Kelly gave me the death stare.” Theo’s big shoulders lifted in a shrug as if he couldn’t help himself. “And everyone really likes him. Even Dean. They sat around talking for over an hour.”