Louise Diana Nixon

Copyright ©2015 by Diana Nixon All rights reserved No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical...

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Copyright © 2015 by Diana Nixon All rights reserved No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval systems, without prior written permission of the author except where permitted by law. The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author. Cover design by Jennifer Munswami (J. M. Rising Horse Creations) Edited by Heather Anne Davis

Contents Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Acknowledgements About the author

Louise (Summary) It doesn’t hurt to dream, unless you know your dreams will never come true. Since childhood, Louise Woods has wanted to become a dancer. The day she arrives at Le Papillon – a private cabaret club where men come to enjoy the beauty of women dancing, her life completely changes. Louise lives in the club and the rules of living and working there cannot be ignored or broken. Either you do your best to please the clients, or you are out. No flirting, no secret affairs, just dancing. During her first public show, Louise meets a stranger who pays for the privilege to have her privately dance for him. He won't let her see his face, he won't even introduce himself, but he will make an offer that she won’t be able to refuse. He won’t make any hollow promises, but he will make her believe she is special… “I hate following the rules,” he’ll say, “but I do love breaking them.” Will she dare to risk losing everything she has, just to make the darkest of the stranger’s fantasies come true? Once the decision

is made, there will be no way back…

Prologue New York, 2005 My hands were freezing. I looked down at my holed gloves and shoved my hands deeper into my jacket pockets. Not that it helped me warm up, of course, at least I knew I would save my fingers from frostbite. My whole body was shaking, as if I were all naked, standing in the late January wind; the amount of clothes on my body didn’t help a thing — they were all torn and dirty. I bet I smelled like a trash can, though I was the only one who cared about how I looked and smelled. My eyes traveled to the empty hat lying near my knees. I sighed. There was no way I would leave the station without a penny in my hat. Someone will have mercy on me and give me a coin, right? I looked hopefully at the people passing by, but none of them looked back at me. Everyone was in a hurry, thinking about their own lives and problems, running or talking on their phones, or to their companions. Well, of course… Unlike me, they had homes and families to rush home to, and take care of. Unlike me, they knew they would be having dinner today. I took a deep breath and the smell of hotdogs burned my nostrils. I would kill for a bite of a hotdog right now, I thought to myself. I closed my eyes and imagined sinking my teeth into the warm bun; my stomach immediately responded with a hungry growl. What a traitor… “Lu! What the hell are you still doing here?” My dreams

were broken by the sound of my best friend’s voice. “Marlena will be pissed if we don’t get home on time.” Home… I smiled sadly at her words. “We don’t have a home, Tess.” She rolled her big, dark-brown eyes and pulled me by the elbow, helping me up to my feet. “Stop being such a pain in the ass. At least at Paradise we have beds and a roof over our heads. Or do you prefer being one of those cardboard dwellers that we see all around the city?” “No, of course not,” I mumbled, picking up my hat. “Tess, I can’t go back now. I haven’t earned anything today.” She smiled, embracing me by the shoulders. “Not a biggie. I’ll share a few bucks with you.” She tossed me a ragbag full of riffling paper cash and ringing coins. It felt like the biggest treasure I’d ever held in my hands. In a whisper I asked, “How do you always manage to get more than the rest of us?” She smirked, taking the bag away from me and hiding it under her old, long coat. “Too much knowledge makes the head bald.” I shook my head and we walked to the station’s exit, trying to not attract too much unnecessary attention. People always hated beggars, but there were also those whose job was locking us behind bars. To our great relief, the police couldn’t do anything to us, we were just a group of homeless juveniles. We could be sent to the orphanage, but we already lived there, so a few hours behind bars felt almost like a vacation to us. No work, no begging. At least

we could sleep without being afraid of Marlena, our supervisor, splashing a bucket of cold water on us. For some unknown reason, she was sure it was the best way to wake us up in the morning. Paradise was our personal hell, the worst place in the whole world, where children’s lives didn’t cost a dime. We were kept there until the day we were no longer needed. We lived by begging; we spent days and sometimes even nights at the train stations or bus stops all around the city, asking people to give us some money, because one day our parents thought we were a burden, and they wanted nothing further to do with us. So, they sent us away. We were liars… We lied about everything, including our own stories. They were never true. Lies have become our only way to survive. If we couldn’t lie properly, we didn’t get money, and without money, we didn’t get food. There was no such thing as friendship between us, and sometimes I wondered how long it would take Tess to realize that we couldn’t possibly be friends. Not that I didn’t like having her as a friend. She was twelve, only two years older than me, but sometimes I thought she knew so much more than I did, about everything. Tess was one of six children in her blood family. She learned about them from the records she stole from Marlena’s office. She even tried to find her younger sister Brianna, but it was all for nothing, because the day she showed up at the door where her sister’s adopted family lived, she was reported to the police for breaking into their house. All the information about her family was

immediately deleted, from Marlena’s files anyway, and she never got a chance to find the rest of the addresses where her other siblings could be living. When she was brought back to the orphanage, she said she would still find them, no matter what, and they couldn’t keep the records from her forever. We never got back to that conversation, so I didn’t know if Tess was still fascinated with the idea of meeting her brothers and sisters. But one thing I knew for sure — she never wanted to see her parents again. Well, none of us did. For us, they all were just heartless monsters, traitors that couldn’t be forgiven, ever. Because of our so-called parents, our lives were a living hell. I doubt there has even been a worse place for children than Paradise. They treated us like trash there. Those who couldn't work, were simply thrown out into the street. Starting at five years old, every child was forced to learn how to earn money. When it came to work, boys and girls were treated equally. There were no exceptions for anyone. Even if you were sick and had a fever of 105° you still had to work. After all, it was all about getting a bigger portion of cereal. We couldn’t afford to trust anyone, not even those we ate and shared rooms with. Everyone defended his or her own interests. Despite our young age, we were fighters. No one knew the rules of survival better than we did. By the time we were officially allowed to leave the walls of Paradise, we turned into monsters, just like those people who left us there, soulless creatures who would kill for one measly piece of bread. It was a destiny none

of us really knew how to avoid. There was no way out of our everyday prison, either you lie and rob, or you will die. Regardless of how difficult our lives were, we didn’t want to die. The rest was history. Night was the only time of the day when we could get some rest, but we rarely cared about sleep. There were other things to do. We played. Like really played, as if we were just regular kids, with no problems and no need to think about survival. When Marlena fell asleep, we gathered in the basement she never checked, and played and laughed and danced, until it was time to get back to our rooms if we didn’t want to be disclosed and punished. There was only one thing that we ‘loved’ about our supervisor’s bitchy temper — she was a hopeless sack rat. Not even the beginning of World War III could make her get up earlier than her alarm clock was supposed to. Sometimes I wondered if her passion for sleep was our small blessing in this life for all the terrible things that she put us through. I doubt starvation is legally allowed as a punishment for children, even for those who are kept in the orphanages. But in Paradise, anything was possible. We couldn’t run away. We were not allowed even to think about it, because our every step outside the orphanage was carefully tracked and recorded by the strangers who came by every once in a while to check on the small electronic chips we were wearing around our ankles. They took them off just for a few minutes and quickly replaced again, as if we were some super-

dangerous prisoners, with no right to breathe until we were told it was okay to do so. Sounds cruel, I know. But unfortunately, we couldn’t change the situation. Days passed one by one, but the worst part was they were all the same. I woke up, went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, had breakfast which usually consisted of nothing but a cup of tea with a few pieces of toast, and then went to ‘work’. If luck was on my side and I earned some money, I could allow myself a cheeseburger and a coke on my way ‘home’. The only trick here was to not be seen by anyone, because other kids would immediately report me to Marlena, and I would be without food for the rest of the day, and night for that matter. Tess was the only person whom I could trust. Sometimes we ‘went shopping’ together, we never told anyone else about it. It was a small secret she and I both cherished as if it was the most sacred thing in the world. Back then, we had no idea our lives outside of Paradise wouldn’t be much different from what they used to be there… One day, something interesting happened. It was the beginning of March, and thank God, the weather was not as cold as it was a month ago. I was still wearing my old jacket, but now it felt so much warmer and cozier. I was sitting on a piece of folded cardboard, hoping for someone to give me a coin. It was early Monday morning, the most crazy time in the day for New York’s train stations and the best time for us — beggars. There was a girl standing not too far away from where I was sitting. She was probably about my age, ten or twelve maybe. She looked at me

and smiled, which was surprising, considering people rarely paid any attention to us, unless they stopped to give us some money. There was something different about this girl. She looked like she wanted to tell me something, but the moment she tried to take a step closer, her mom pulled her back and whispered something into her ear, which made her smiling expression suddenly darken. Here we go, I thought to myself, she must have told her I was nothing more than a lying hood rat. I turned away from the girl and looked at the corner where Tess was usually standing. As always, she was shamelessly happy, counting the coins and bills that she had in her hat. I still had no idea how she did it. Not even one of the Paradise dwellers had ever been as lucky as she was, at least not when it came to counting your daily revenue. The unexpected sound caught my attention. I turned my head back to my hat and saw a hundred-dollar bill together with a few coins lying there. I’d never received that much from one person, let alone from all of the people who dropped money in my hat in an entire day. “Thanks,” I said, looking up at the stranger standing in front of me. He smiled down at me, I don’t think a stranger had ever smiled so brightly at me before. He was very handsome, like one of those princes I saw in the cartoons. We rarely got a chance to watch them, but whenever we did, it felt like a breath of fresh air, like an escape from our everyday colorless routine. “What’s your name?” He asked, still looking at me. For a

second I had that familiar feeling of fear. At Paradise they always warned us about talking to strangers. They said we couldn’t trust anyone. We could easily be kidnapped and transported to another country where some bad men would sell us into slavery. Stories like that were like everyday prayers we had to listen to every morning before leaving the walls of the orphanage. “Louise,” I said in a small voice. Despite my inner fears, I liked the guy who was so generous to me. He was probably around twenty, wearing what looked like the most expensive coat ever, with a white shirt and dark-gray tie, matching the color of his deep, studying eyes. “Louise,” he repeated quietly. “What a beautiful name.” I felt my cheeks blushing. “Thanks,” I mumbled, lowering my eyes. No one had ever told me my name was beautiful before. Maybe it was because only a few people knew my full name. Everyone in Paradise just called me Lu. “Here, take my gloves,” the guy said, giving me a pair of black, leather gloves. “Yours don’t look good.” I hesitated, looking around for any of the other kids from Paradise who could report me to Marlena for talking to a stranger. He smiled, watching my hesitation. “Take them. You need them more than I do.” I was just about to thank him again when I realized it would be my third thanks in a row. So I nodded shortly, and took the gloves wordlessly. “You are not going to spend my hundred on sweets and ice-cream, are you?”

I shook my head. There was no way I would waste or give the money to Marlena. Not this time. “I’ll buy myself a new scarf,” I said, hiding the money into my ‘secret’ pocket. The guy smiled again. “You have enough to buy yourself a new jacket as well.” I did, but… No one would allow me to wear a new jacket, especially outside Paradise where I was always supposed to look miserable. Not that I was going to tell him about it of course. “I will follow your advice, Sir.” He nodded approvingly, then looked at his watch and grimaced. “I need to go now. Will you promise me something?” “Anything,” I said without hesitation. “Don’t let anyone hurt you.” Uh, if only you knew more about me… “I promise,” I said after a short pause. “Good. Have a great day, Louise.” “You too, Sir.” I watched him walk away from me, and a weird feeling formed inside my chest. He could be someone’s brother or son. His parents must have been rich and successful. He must have had a fantastic childhood… Lucky him. I looked down at the pair of gloves I was still holding in my hands. It was probably the best gift I had ever received from anyone. Carefully, I put them on, and smiled at how warm and cozy they felt against my skin. I kept the gloves on for a few more

seconds, then I took them off and hid them under my jacket, afraid someone would take them away from me. I couldn’t let it happen. Since that day, everything had changed. I was no longer afraid of people kidnapping or hurting me. I didn’t even let myself think about it. I started singing and dancing on the stations, just to attract more attention and get more money. Not that I was good at dancing or singing, but somehow, my childish moves and sounds made people smile. They stopped and watched me, sometimes even clapped their hands. It made my heart flutter. There were moments when I closed my eyes and imagined myself being a famous dancer or singer… People coming to see my shows, applauding and admiring me… Of course, those were just my dreams, and they were never supposed to come true. But there was one more reason for my sudden change of mood. I was waiting for him… Waiting for the moment to see him again — the stranger with the most beautiful eyes ever. I could still see his stare in my mind’s eye. It was not compassionate or anything. It was full of mystery I couldn’t quite understand. As if he knew something I didn’t. Every day, I ran to the station hoping he would be getting off one of the trains and stop by and talk to me again, but he never did… Months passed, but I never stopped hoping I would see him again. Maybe I was simply afraid to let my dreams go, because deep down inside, I knew that the day I let them go, I would be back to the hell I used to live in before the day I met my stranger.

But I made a promise, I couldn’t break it. Even if the only person who could hurt me was myself… “Hey, Lu, can I use your mailbox to receive a few things?” I rubbed my eyes, trying to understand what Tess was talking about. “My mailbox?” “Come on sleepy head, wake up! It’s almost five thirty! We need to be at the station in twenty. And yes, I was talking about your mailbox. You never receive anything from the outside, but I have a friend who wants to send me some things, and that’s why I need your box.” “What happened to yours?” I sat in my bed, wishing I had just a few more minutes to stay under the blanket and watch the rest of my dream. I didn’t remember what it was about, but it made me feel so happy. “Marlena locked it after she found a pack of cigarettes there. Those were not mine, they were Bob’s, but of course, she didn’t believe me.” “I see.” I yawned. “Take mine for as long as you wish. I don’t need it anyway.” There were kids whose biological parents always sent them clothes and sweets. But in my opinion, that was even worse than being abandoned forever. How was it even possible to send your child to an orphanage and then start sending him or her gifts as if they still cared? Nonsense… “Thanks, Lu. You are the best.” Tess hugged me tight and

rushed out of the room. There were three more girls sharing the room with us. Adele was only three, so she still had a few years to enjoy her ‘normal’ life, with no need to think about ‘work’. She was an adorable kid. Always happy and smiling. She didn’t understand what was going on there yet. She didn’t know anything about the people who had left her there, and the not-knowing was her biggest gift, at least for now. Sara and Michaela, our other roommates, were almost fourteen. They didn’t talk to us much, thinking we were too young to be their ‘buddies’. I didn’t care. I had Tess. At least back then, I didn’t know she would be the first person to betray me…

Chapter 1 New York, 2013 My first day of freedom… It was probably the first day in my entire life when I didn’t rush to leave Paradise. I was standing on the porch of the place I had been hating for as long as I could remember, but somehow, today it didn’t seem nearly as scary or awful anymore. I looked back at the windows of the building that looked older than any other place in the city, and smiled. I was finally free; nothing and nobody could make me stay there any longer. Two years ago, when it was time for Tess to leave, I cried my eyes out. I didn’t want to let her go. I couldn’t imagine living without the only person whose presence had always been the only ray of light in the endless tunnel of my dark and hopeless life. “Everything’s going to be fine,” she said back then, giving me a goodbye hug. “I’ll be coming to visit you every day, I swear.” Thank God, at that very moment neither of us knew her words were never supposed to come true. Not that she didn’t try to keep her promise, she just wasn’t allowed to come back at all, ever, for any reason. At first, I thought she forgot about me, then I thought she was too busy with her new, independent life and didn’t have the time to stop by Paradise to see me. Then I found out the children who grew up there didn’t have a right to see their friends, in or outside the orphanage. Maybe Marlena thought they could help us run away, or something. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the answer to that question.

Today, was the first day in years I hoped I would finally get a chance to find my friend. Even though we hadn’t seen each other for so long, I still felt like Tess had always been there for me. Before leaving, she left a small package for me. She said I could open it whenever I needed her help. And so I did. One day, I came back from ‘work’ a little later than usual, and of course, I was punished. Marlena locked me in my room for two days, with a glass of water and a piece of bread that was supposed to keep me alive for 48 hours. After I was finally allowed to come out and go to ‘work’ again, I made a decision — I decided to run away. I knew it was damn near impossible to do, but I still wanted to try my luck. I took the package Tess had left and went to the station, as if I were just going to work, like any other day. When I got to the station, it was still too early for people to show up there. So I sat down and carefully opened the package. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought to myself, quickly closing the box I had hidden in a paper. I looked around frantically, hoping no one saw what was inside the box. Inside there was money, and a lot of it… Only when I was back ‘home’ and made sure the door to my room was locked, I sat on my bed and counted the sum of the money which turned out to be five thousand dollars. Along with the money, there was a short note from Tess that said I should never ever try to run away. It didn’t say anything else, but somehow, I knew it was a warning I should listen to. Since then, I never starved again. Even if Marlena was being her usual bitchy self, and sent me to work without breakfast, I

still managed to eat in a place where no one could see me, and I always came back to my room full, which was probably the only thing that could make me happy; there was nothing else to smile about. My days were still the same, the only difference being I was counting every second until the moment I would be able to leave Paradise forever. And that time had finally come. So there I was, standing on the porch, enjoying the late August night and finally being able to breathe freely. I’d never felt as good as I did at that very moment. I took my small suitcase in my hands and headed for the gates. I pushed them open with a massive sigh of relief, knowing I was getting ready to head into my new and free world, which I called my new life. I didn’t have a place to live yet, but Marlena had given me a name. According to her words, he could help me settle down in the big city. I didn’t know Drew in person, and maybe if I did, I wouldn’t go to him, ever. But back then, I didn’t have a choice but to follow Marlena’s advice. I arrived to Le Papillon in the middle of the night, but to my surprise, the place was still open and full of people going in and coming out the huge, glass doors. I doubted Drew was French or even knew anything about France, but apparently he thought calling his club A Butterfly in a different language would attract more attention, male attention mostly. I didn’t know much about the club, the only thing Marlena told me was that I could make my biggest dream come true there. I wanted to be a dancer. I’d been dreaming about it since I was ten.

Everyone at Paradise knew I loved dancing. So when the time came for me to leave the orphanage, I thought I would go to a dancing school and try to become a professional dancer. But we all know how much of a bitch fate can be, and in my case, this was not an exception. “Hey, you! Yes, you! What’s your name?” A girl in her mid twenties came over to me, apparently noticing my hesitation. I had a very bad feeling about going inside the club. “It’s Louise,” I said, shifting from one foot to the other. “Oh, so you are a newbie. I’m Kate by the way. Come on, I’ll show around.” “I’m not sure I came to the right address,” I said, still hesitating. “Did Marlena send you?” “Yes. How do you know that?” Kate smirked, looking at me from head to toe. “Girls like you are always sent here by Marlena.” “What do you mean by girls like me?” “You ask way too many questions for someone who has nowhere else to go.” I flinched. I didn’t like the sound of her words. Yes, I was used to people making fun of me, laughing, and even calling me a tramp. But now that I thought my life would be so much different from what it used to be in Paradise, I didn’t want anyone to think I couldn’t stand up for myself. “Pride is one of those things that no one gives a damn about here. So you’d better leave it outside if you want to get this job and

have roof over your head.” “What kind of a job are we talking about here?” I looked skeptically at the club’s entrance again, and a very bad feeling formed inside me. “Is it a strip club?” Kate laughed, throwing her red, curly hair back. “Don’t you ever dare to say that aloud in Drew’s presence. You’ll be thrown out into the street in no time flat.” She snapped her fingers, apparently to add emphasis on her time frame. “So it’s not a strip club then, is it?” “Of course, not! We don’t strip here, we dance. Cabaret dancing. Ever heard about it?” “Yeah, I did.” “Good. Now that we are finished talking, why don’t we go inside and I will introduce you to our boss?” Kate put one hand around my shoulders and pulled me to the glass doors. I can do this, can’t I? It’s not like I have to stay here, I can find a different place to live and work, right? No. I was so damn wrong. I had had no idea my future had already been planned for me. Marlena didn’t just send girls to Le Papillon, she sold us. And we, in turn, didn’t have a choice but to work off every cent Drew had to pay for us. I was trapped before I even left Paradise, again, I just hadn’t realized it… The only difference was now my prison was not a dirty orphanage, but a shining club, filled with perfume, laughter, drinks and rich clients. “Drew, your new girl is here!” Kate knocked at the door of her boss’s office and smiled at me. “Wait here. He’ll see you soon.” And then, she left, leaving me to stand in the middle of a huge room

by myself, decorated with mirrors, red carpets and matching curtains. I only hoped it was not going to turn into a scene out of some horror movie. The interior of the room was damn scary. I looked around and saw a small couch near one of the mirrors. I sat down and looked at my reflection. I didn’t know why Marlena thought I would be good at a dancing job. Yes, she saw me dance a couple of times, but I didn’t look like a professional dancer, at all. I was more like a country girl who came to the big city with stars in my eyes, hoping to get famous by starting a new and better life dancing. I was wearing a simple, knee-length, blue dress, with a pair of worn shoes I doubted would survive even one more day. And I had no idea what to do next. “Louise Woods, correct?” I turned when I heard a male voice and nodded, saying, “Yes, that’s my name.” “I’m Drew Berry. Come in, I need you to sign a few papers.” “Aren’t you going to see if I can dance first, before you just give me the job?” He laughed. “Even if you don’t know a damn thing about dancing, you will learn everything you need to know here.” I inhaled deeply and followed Drew into his office that turned out to be even bigger and even more awful than the waiting room. There were pictures everywhere, pictures of men and women dancing. But they were not beautiful or graceful, rather too fussy and tasteless. Just like their owner. Drew looked like a man transported from the 90s. With his dark hair, brown eyes, dark-

green shirt and a thick golden chain around his neck, he reminded me of a gangster. I bet people never dared to stand in his way. “Sit down, Louise. I hope you didn’t have any problems finding the club.” “No, I did not.” “Good. Le Papillon is a closed club. Not everyone is allowed in here. So if you ever want your friends or anyone else to come and watch you dance, you need to ask for my permission, first. Is that clear?” “Yes, Sir.” “Call me Drew. We are a family here. No drama, no fights. If you have any problems, it is better to come and tell me about them, than start a fight with the girls.” “Okay. Can I ask you something, S… I mean Drew?” “Sure, go ahead.” “What if I refuse to work for you?” I regretted the words the second they flew out of my mouth. Slowly, Drew put his pen on the table and rose to his feet, staring down at me. “Let me make myself clear, Sweetie. Girls who come here, stay here. Marlena or whoever else sends you to me, knows I hate disobedience. She should have warned you about asking questions like that...” But she didn’t. And I guess I knew why. Marlena knew me too well to believe I would just agree to work for Drew willingly. That’s why she didn’t tell me anything about him, or his club, apparently hoping that when I got here, I wouldn’t get a chance to leave. And she was right.

“I paid for you,” Drew said, making the fear running through my veins flow even faster. “Now you owe me. And you are going to stay here and work for as long as it takes to work off every last penny I paid for your pretty face.” “What do you mean you paid for me? I’m an adult, you have no right to buy me or force me to work for you.” He smirked, coming closer to where I was sitting. “Now listen to me, Little Scratch Cat. I made a deal with Marlena, and I have a document signed by you, according to which you agree to work for me in exchange for food and bed.” My heartbeat speed up, and I felt a little dizzy. “What document are you talking about?” I asked in a whisper. My throat was so dry, I felt like I was about to suffocate. “The one you signed before leaving the orphanage,” he said, showing me a piece of paper I didn’t even remember holding in my hands. And then… Well then, I remembered signing it. Or to be exact, I remembered signing the papers that allowed me to leave Paradise. I didn’t read them. My goodness, why didn’t I bother to read them? Oh, right… I was so happy that my torture was finally over and I could finally be free, I would have signed anything to just leave as quickly as humanly possible and never look back. I can’t believe I was such an idiot. You are one, hopeless idiot, Louise! I sighed, giving the papers back to Drew. “Yes, the signature is mine,” I said, feeling as if I had just signed my own death sentence.

He smiled, self-satisfied. “I told you, you are staying here and it is inescapable. But don’t worry, you will like it here. Everyone does. Girls who work for me, never want to find a different job. But there’s one rule that you would be best to remember. You are not a slut, you are not allowed to sleep with the clients. You can dance for them, even privately. But sleeping with the clients will automatically throw you out of here, with no money and no right to work in any other club, dancing or not.” Well, that is at least some good news. I sure as hell was not ready to become a prostitute. “I understand.” “Good girl. I’ll call Kate, the girl who brought you here. She’ll show you around.” “Am I allowed to go out?” “Of course you are. Once a week you will have a day off. You may spend it wherever you want. But you need to get back here by midnight. Otherwise, you will be amerced to pay thirty percent of your next salary. Oh, and one more thing before you go… Don’t even think about running away. I’ll find you anywhere.” Again, Drew smiled with that awful self-satisfied smile of his, and I thought I should probably follow his advice. After all, I was not being forced to sleep with anyone, and dancing had always been my dream. So what if I work for Drew for a while? It doesn’t mean I will have to work for him for the rest of my life, does it?.. I rose to my feet, took my suitcase and followed my boss to the door. Kate was already waiting for me outside.

“Show Louise her room, and find her something to eat. I bet she hasn’t eaten anything for hours. Are you hungry?” I shook my head. I was a little hungry, but I was too scared by everything that was going on around me, I simply couldn’t think about food right now. “Don’t worry, Boss. She’ll be fine,” Kate said, taking me by the hand. “Give her a few days to get used to living here. Then, you may start training her.” I swallowed hard. I didn’t know if I could dance in front of so many people. Even though the club was a closed place, I was still sure my audience would consist of at least a few dozen people. “Don’t take him too seriously,” Kate said, closing the door to Drew’s waiting room. “He only wants to seem dangerous, but he’s a good man. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. His only weakness is money. So if he scared you with the obligation of working for him forever, forget it. He will let you go as soon as you work off the sum he paid for you.” “How soon?” “Depends on the sum. But usually, it’s no more than two or three years.” “How did you get here?” “We all get here the same way. Drew bought me. He saw me dancing in a trashy night club and offered its owner a very good deal. The old douche agreed, and here I am.” “How long have you been working for Drew?” “Oh, God… I don’t even remember. Around six or seven

years, why?” “Which means you stayed here even after you were allowed to leave, right?” “Yep. I like it here. Good salary, food, clothes, I pretty much have everything. What else can I wish for?” “Don’t you want to have more than this?” Kate’s smile faded. “I used to have so much more than this. But then, I realized it didn’t make me happy. But that’s a long story, maybe one day, I’ll tell you everything. And now, here’s your room. All clean, spacious, and yours.” “Wow…” Was the only thing I could say at the sight of my new ‘home’. It was nothing like my room at Paradise. Kate was right, it was very spacious, maybe even a little too big for one person. It was not luxurious or anything, but all the furniture was new, the sheets and blankets were clean, but the most surprising part of the room was the wardrobe, hidden behind transparent doors. And it was full of shining dresses, shoes, and other attributes of dancing costumes I had only seen in the movies. “Is it all mine?” “Yes, it is. You are going to need something to start out, Doll. You will need it all for your shows.” I took one of the hats with long white feathers and shining crystals, it was heavier than my entire suitcase. I laughed, “Is that even possible to wear it on my head without breaking my neck?” Kate laughed too. “Hats are a real pain in the ass, but you’ll get used to wearing them. I’ll show a few tricks. Later.” “Thank you.”

“Nothing to thank me for, Darling. I’ll go find you something to eat, be right back.” I nodded and turned back to the wardrobe that still seemed too big and too magical to believe it now belonged to me. For the first time in my entire life, I felt like I was in a fairytale and not in hell. Maybe staying here won’t be as bad as I originally thought?..

Chapter 2 Nothing on earth could make me fall asleep that night. Kate was back after a few minutes with a tray full of food and a cup of hot tea. “What time do I need to be up for breakfast?” I asked, sinking my teeth into a piece of fried chicken. It tasted like heaven, with just enough spices to make my appetite grow even more. “We don’t have a schedule here. Unless you need to train for the night’s show, you can wake up and have breakfast whenever you want. But I would highly recommend you get up before the morning training some of the other girls and I will be attending. That way you can see how it all works around here.” “Yeah, that would be helpful. Thanks.” “Good night, Darling. Hope you will meet the prince of your dreams, in your dreams tonight.” “Um… What?” “Oh, you haven’t heard about that… They say when you move and during your first night in a new place, you can see your future husband in your dreams.” “Oh… No, I have never heard that before.” Kate giggled. “Of course you haven’t. See you tomorrow!” It’s not like I had never thought about having a husband, kids, and a real family. I had, many times. I was only eighteen; I still had plenty of time to think about what I wanted in my future life. The only problem was every time I imagined myself marrying a man, something clicked inside me, as if there was something telling me to

be very careful what I wished for… I had been betrayed once, and it was by my own parents who were never supposed to leave me just like that. Their betrayal left a very big, bleeding scar on my heart. I didn’t want to be left or betrayed, ever again. But I wished I could see him again. The stranger I met years ago at the train station. The image of him had never left my mind. I’m not sure I remembered him very well, though. Time seems to make our memories vague and hazy. But I knew if I ever saw him again, I would recognize him the second I laid my eyes on him. The memories from the day we met were probably the memories I cherished most of all. They kept me breathing, living, and dreaming. Every time I was in a bad mood, I closed my eyes and imagined my beautiful stranger coming to see me again. I replayed his words in my head, as if they were a prayer I couldn’t fall asleep without. He didn’t say much, but his rich voice made my knees tremble, and the older I got, the faster my heart started beating at the mere thought of him. I didn’t know anything about the man who seemed to affect me day and night. I didn’t know his name or where he was from. He looked like a rich or at least a very well off man, but in skimming the newspapers I stole from Marlena’s office in hopes of finding any details about my mystery man, I never even saw his name. He was clearly not famous, and the press didn’t follow him, or maybe he simply never let them get close to him or his personal life. Either way, the thought of meeting him again, still made me smile. If I ever managed to meet him again, I wasn’t really sure what I would tell him, or how I would even introduce myself.

Honestly, he probably didn’t even remember stopping to put money into my hat and giving me his gloves that day. Maybe he was already married, with kids… A family to take care of… I never let that thought take control over me. I tried to push it to the deepest depths and never allow it to resurface to the forefront of my mind. But somehow, tonight the only man I had ever wanted to see by my side, was the only thing I couldn’t stop thinking about, and I kept hoping there was no need for my fears. Maybe it was from where I was now. It reminded of him. He would easily fit in here, sitting on one of the soft velvet couches, with a drink in his hand, watching the girls dancing. I would dance for him… I would pretend to be just another stranger he was never supposed to recognize. I would give him the best dance, with my best moves, trying to make him remember me, and hope maybe one day, he would come back to watch me dance again. The sound of metal clinking against the floor brought me back to reality. I opened my eyes and saw my fork lying on the floor. I laughed silently to myself. You are such an idiot, Louise. How long do you plan on dreaming of a man who doesn’t even remember you? This is not a fairytale, this is real life! But... It doesn’t hurt to dream, right? So why can’t I keep dreaming, especially if it is the only thing that feels more or less real in my new life? It was still hard to believe my freedom lasted less than a trip from one railway station to another. But the fact

remained, which means I had to finish my late supper and get to bed if I still wanted to attend the morning training and make sure local dancing didn’t include undressing or anything indecent. Said the girl who hardly knew what the word ‘decent’ meant… Yeah, it was going to be a very interesting morning. After hours of nothing but endless tossing and turning, I finally decided it was pointless to fight my curiosity and nervousness, so I got out of bed, took a shower and went to the dining room where according to Kate’s words, I could find my breakfast. I was the only person in the room. In fact, it felt like the entire club was still asleep. The halls and even Drew’s waiting room were quiet. It was so quiet I could hear the clock ticking on the wall. Chewing a piece of croissant with a strawberry jam, I entered the show room, the very place where the fun took place. As well as in my new boss’s office, there were mirrors everywhere. It made my fear of dancing in public grow by leaps and bounds. I bet if you looked in the mirrors, the amount of people watching you dance would seem endless. I swallowed hard, looking around the room carefully. There were tables and seats, and small private areas with high-back, round couches to hide the people sitting there. It was all made up in shades of red and gold. So predictable. I smiled at the memory of my first meeting with Kate and Drew. She said he was not the monster I thought he was at first, and the atmosphere of my surroundings only made my smile widen. Drew obviously needed someone to have a few words with him

about new designing tendencies. Not that I was an expert myself, but I was sure there were ways so much better than what I could see all around me to decorate the place. My eyes traveled to the stage, hidden behind the long, dark-red curtains. I took a few steps closer and looked behind them. There was no one on the stage. It was illuminated with a few dozen small lights, making it look surreal, even a little magical. I looked around again, but I was still alone in the room, so I thought no one would mind me trying the stage. I took off my shoes, and tried to replay one of my favorite songs in my head. It was slow, with just enough high notes to make it easier for me to dance to. I closed my eyes, imagining myself as one of those tiny ballet dancers, flying across the stage. I always like ballet dancing. I was not slim enough to try it myself, but I could always use the ballet elements in my other dances. I don’t think I had ever gotten so much pleasure from dancing. It was more than just a dream coming true. It felt so good, as if I were free again. Like a bird flying in the sky, with the wind leading her to the only place where she wanted to be now… One more move, and one more turn, one more step closer to the life I always wanted to live… “Since when have maids been allowed to dance here?” My heart dropped to my feet. Slowly, I turned to the sound of an angry female voice and froze, meeting about a dozen pairs of eyes staring at me. “Do you have a hearing problem or something?” The owner

of the angry voice said again. “I…” “Time to shake your butts, ladies!” Kate entered the room, holding a small record player in her hands. She looked like she didn’t notice me. She put the player on one of the tables and turned to the girls, saying, “Last night was a total screwup. And by screwup I mean that none of you had listened to what I had been trying to tell you the night before. Do you really think Drew will keep paying you for falling in the middle of the show and turning his cabaret into a circus? Or do you think he will keep paying you for losing a part of your costume that was supposed to be perfect?” The blonde that was shouting at me just a few moments ago, was now all shy and almost crying. “I’m so sorry Kate, it was not my fault! Jimmy didn’t have time to fix my dress after it got torn last week, and I didn’t have a choice but to fix it myself.” “Next time make sure your dress stays on you. Otherwise, I will have to report you to Drew for breaking the rules. And we all know how much he hates it when one of us breaks his rules. Lucky you, he didn’t see last night’s show.” “Okay, I understand. It will never happen again. I swear,” the girl said. From what I could see and hear, she was not even close to being sorry for what happened last night. As if confirming my suspicions, she turned away from Kate, and rolled her eyes, whispering, “What a bitch.” “Now, Taira, what the hell was the end of your dance supposed to mean? I told you making that last turn was a bad idea, but you didn’t listen to me! And now what? Should I just forget

about your little misstep that looked more than just ridiculous? A few visitors laughed at you. Do you really think this is what they come here for? To watch a classic Burlesque show? We are not running a comedy house!” “No, of course not. But Kate, I was sure I would do it right.” “Next time, don’t think, just listen to what I tell you to do. Got it?” “Yes.” “Good. Why don’t we start the training then?” Only now did Kate look at me, and she even smiled after what felt like forever of standing there and listening to her incisive comments. I didn’t even want to imagine her shouting at me like that. I wondered if I would ever be able to comply with her demands. “Forget it, Doll. It’s just a part of the working process. Why don’t you take one of the seats over there and watch us for a while? Then, I want you to follow me to one of the dressing rooms to try a few costumes. We need to make sure our designers know your size and what looks best on you. The costumes you already have in your wardrobe might not be all good for your frame. But let’s leave this question for later. It’s time to dance!” She clapped her hands and all the girls gathered on the stage. They all had sticks in their hands, as well as high black hats on their heads. I had never tried myself in cabaret dancing. I didn’t know if there were any rules that should be followed, but according to what I could see, the only rule here was to follow Kate’s orders. She

was a great dancer, her every move was carefully thought-out; no wrong or unnecessary steps, it was all done as if she had planned it and then checked it both backwards and forwards. Regardless how little I knew about whatever the girls were doing now, I could see a few of them were really good at their jobs, while others, including the young lady that I was damn sure would become my number one enemy – the blonde, obviously needed additional dance classes. “So, what do you think?” Kate asked about an hour later. She came over to me and took a bottle of water that had been sitting on my table. “It was… Good,” I said, not quite sure what exactly she wanted to hear from me. “Good? Which means you think it sucked.” “I didn’t say that. I mean… The idea of the dance was great. It’s just that…” “What?” I hesitated. Did I have the right to be so honest with her? “Come on, Louise! There’s nothing to be ashamed of here. The freedom of speech, unlike many other privileges of living in the United States, hasn’t been called off in this unholy place you call home now. So tell me what you really think about the dance?” I smiled. “Well, I just wanted to say some of the dancers do their job better than the others.” She nodded, taking a sip of water. “Damn true. The one that you see over there, Moly, she’s one of the best. Natasha is a newbie, so don’t judge her, there are still many things she needs to

learn to do properly. Jo has always been one of my best dancers, until one day she had an accident, she injured her legs pretty badly. No one expected her dance again, but she’s a very tough and determined girl; she has proven it many times. Laura, the blonde, she’s a real bitch. So try to stay away from her, as much as possible, except for the nights you need to share a few dances with her. She’s a good dancer, not brilliant, but good. And she seems to think sleeping with Drew makes her special. Too bad she doesn’t know sleeping with the jerk doesn’t give you any special privileges, at all.” “And you seem to be well aware of that.” Kate smirked. “You’d better not go there. We don’t mix our personal and work lives here. As for the rest of the team, you will meet them later. We have trainings every day, but girls have days off and rarely gather all together. Only when there are special guests that want to see the whole show.” “What about your ‘favorite child’? Do you have one?” “Oh, yes. I do. Her name is Valery, Val, as we all call her. She’s not here now, but you will see her dance tonight. Come to the show, it will be your first truly great lesson.” “I sure will.” Someone spoke over the intercom system, “Kate and the new one, my office, now!” She and I shared a glance. “What did you do and piss off Drew?” She asked, looking at her watch. “He should be on his morning run now.” “I didn’t do anything. I only had breakfast and came here.”

And took the stage without anyone’s permission… Oh, shit! “It doesn’t matter anymore. If he wants to see us, we’d better hurry up. He hates waiting.” “Looks like he hates everything and everyone. What does he like?” “I told you, he likes money. Everything else is just a way to get it, or a way to spend it.” “Was your history with Drew the reason you stayed here?” I didn’t think before asking that question, but I definitely should have thought twice. Kate stopped, putting her hands on her hips. “I don’t usually repeat myself, but since it’s your first day here, I will say it again, personal life stays personal. Period.” “Okay.” I looked apologetically at her, but she no longer listened. She turned on her heel and walked hurriedly to Drew’s office. He was waiting for us, staring at one of the screens on the wall behind his desk. They appeared to show every room in the club, and they also showed the parking lot out front and the alley behind the club. “You wanted to see us?” Kate asked, taking a seat in one of his chairs. I didn’t dare to do the same, I just continued to stand. I felt like a little girl again, waiting for my punishment. “Why didn’t you tell me that you are so darn good at dancing?”

I didn’t immediately realize Drew was talking to me. “Excuse me?” “I saw you dance today,” he said, taking a seat in his own chair and lighting a cigar. I could smell the sickly sweet smell of the cigar as the smoke filled the room; I continued to stand dumbfounded at his words. Kate frowned, turning to me. “Did you dance today?” “She did,” Drew answered for me, while turning on a video from his constant security feed on one of the screens. I felt like I was about to be fried alive. My cheeks were burning; no, actually my whole body was boiling with humiliation. I didn’t even want to watch the video. I was sure it was awful. “No freaking way… Who taught you to move like that?” I looked at Kate, trying to figure out whether her words were meant to be a compliment or a scolding. “No one did. I have been teaching myself since I was about ten years old,” I said, switching my attention between her and Drew. “She needs a solo,” he said after a short pause. “A what?” I asked, terrified. “A solo dance. You know when the dancer is alone on the stage.” “I know what it means. I just don’t understand why you would want me to do it.” “Because I’ve never seen a more talented newb,” Drew said. His eyes stayed locked with Kate’s for a while, but I didn’t have time to think about their silent exchange of messages.

“The dance should be ready by Saturday night,” he said decisively. “But that’s only two days from now!” There was no way in hell I would be able to make that happen. “You can do this,” Kate said, rising to her feet. “Come, we need to find the perfect music and costume for you.” “Wait! Sir, I mean Drew, I can’t do this. I’ve never danced in front of so many people. I have no idea how to do a solo dance. I am not used to dancing for anyone other than myself and maybe a few others, but definitely not as many people as there will be here!” “I wouldn’t say that. Kate and I both saw your dance. It was almost perfect, unique and very beautiful. The only thing you will need to add is a few cabaret moves. I’m sure the clients will love it.” Oh, my God… This is not happening, this is NOT happening! “Let’s go out for a while before you have a heart attack.” Kate and Drew both laughed at her joke and my anxiety. She took me by the elbow and walked me out of the office, I seemed to be totally unable to leave on my own. “Kate, please, don’t make me do this… I can’t do this.” I would even fall down to my knees and start begging her. I just didn’t realize at the time it was all for naught. Kate’s determination was like a stone. No one and nothing could break it. “Don’t be silly, Louise! You are a great dancer, I’m sure it will be an outstanding show!” Oh, no… I’m so dead… God help me…

Chapter 3 “You’ve got to be kidding me, Kate… I can’t dance wearing these shoes! I mean, no one can dance wearing heels higher than the Eiffel Tower itself!” “You’ll only be wearing them for about ten seconds anyway. You just need them for the beginning of the dance.” “You know they remind me of something… Or rather they remind me of the only kind of dance I absolutely refuse to do, for anyone.” But it looked like Kate wasn’t even listening to me. It was the first time I had ever wished I had been able to remember the proverb about making God laugh before I decided to tell him my plans, I probably shouldn’t have told him about them. Because at that very moment, I was certain he was laughing at me over them. “So what should my dance be about?” I looked skeptically at the dress that Kate was holding, and shook my head. It would barely even keep my upper body concealed, and that doesn’t even begin to cover the fact it would probably show the entirety of my lower body. “I hope you are not going to make me wear that…” “Don’t worry, it’s not for you, I need to find a new costume for Val’s show. The old one was irreparably destroyed.” “How?” “Oh, how I wish I knew the answer to that question. I would gladly kill whoever ruined the amazing bustier and shorts I spent an entire week designing and sewing.” I felt a little surprised at her words, she must do it all around here. She must be a house mother; she trains the girls, brings in the

new ones, makes sure we are fed, cared for, and in addition to all of that, she designs and makes the costumes the girls wear for their shows. “I didn’t know you were also the designer of all the clothes we wear.” I took one of the floor-length dresses that was decorated with dozens of small Swarovski crystals off the rack. It was white and looked a little out of place among the rest of the costumes, considering most of the wardrobe consisted of black, red or darkblue outfits. “We have a great team of designers working here, but sometimes, when I want something special done, I just make it myself.” “What do you think about this dress?” I asked, holding it in front of my body, and facing a huge mirror covering one of the walls of the wardrobe. “Hmm… That might be interesting.” Kate looked at the dress and then looked into the mirror to see the dress held against my body, and nodded. “We’ll take it.” “You still haven’t told me what my dance should be about…” I followed her over to some boxes containing hats, gloves, stockings, and some other accessories. “You are going to tell your story.” “What story?” “Well, you do have a story, don’t you? I mean everyone has a story, so what’s yours?” “You know my story. I grew up in Paradise and then I was sent here when I could finally leave. There is nothing else to add.”

“Tell me more about your life, but this time without words, with a dance instead.” I frowned for a moment, not sure what exactly she wanted me to do. Was one dance enough to tell the story of the majority of my life? And how the hell was I supposed to use cabaret style dancing when in my mind the dance of my life was so much different from what they usually did on these stages? “Okay, so here’s the plan,” Kate said, handing me a mask that matched my white dress. “We both know you are afraid of dancing in front of so many people. Is that right?” I nodded. “So first of all, we need to make sure the guests won’t cause you to be as nervous as they normally would, and that’s why you are going to wear this mask. No one will see your face, you can easily imagine you are up there alone, with no one watching. You can even close your eyes if you wish. Just don’t think about all those greedy bastards gawking at you. They come here to relax and enjoy the beauty of the show. Sometimes they bring women with them, but never their wives. Mistresses mostly. You shouldn’t be worried about them, think about yourself and your dance. The better you dance, the higher your salary will be. And the more money you have, the more luxuries you can afford.” I smirked, humorlessly. “Trust me, I know exactly what that means.” “Good. Which means you will do your best to impress the audience. Oh, and they love newbies, by the way.” “That doesn’t make me feel any better,” I muttered, trying on the mask. It was so beautiful, I felt like a princess from a

fairytale. The only difference was that my fairytale was made for a mature audience. Kate laughed. “I look at you and remember myself at your age. I was afraid of my own shadow. Don’t ask how long it took for me to get used to public dancing. You won’t like the answer.” “Hey, you are not really helping, you know?” She laughed even harder. “Just kidding, I am only joking! Relax, Louise. You know what you are doing. It will be great, I promise!” “Don’t promise me anything, unless you are going to dance that solo for me.” “Stop your belly aching. Let’s go to the show room and try out a few of the moves.” Kate was right about the mask, it helped a lot. Even though no one was in the room, I still felt like there were dozens of eyes staring at me. But then, I put on the mask, and my surroundings seemed to disappear, and definitely didn’t seem as scary as they did before. It was as if the mask had hidden not only my face but my whole body behind its soft, shining fabric and feathers. I liked the idea of my dance. Even though I never said it aloud. The more I trained, the better I got, and I could tell the end result was going to be amazing. It was not a traditional cabaret dance. I added my favorite ballet steps to the dance, and combined them with a few ‘seductives’ as Kate called them — the dance moves that were supposed to show I knew exactly what the visitors wanted from me and my dancing.

I had been training, trying different moves and steps for about an hour, when I heard someone yelling from the other side of the room, “Kate, what the hell is going on here? You are cutting into my training time. How am supposed to be ready by tonight, if I don’t even have a place to practice?” I immediately recognized the owner of the voice. It sounded so painfully familiar, as if I had just been transported back to the day Tess and I had to say our final good-bye. Tears began to fill my eyes. “Calm down, Val. You were not here, so I thought I could use the stage to train the newbie. Now, it’s all yours.” I was standing there, breathing heavily, staring at my best friend who I had been dying to see for years, and I couldn’t make myself say a single word. “Tess,” I called to her after a short pause. But she didn’t even look in my direction. She said something to Kate and left in a hurry. I swallowed hard. I was lost for a moment. I knew I was not the only girl sent here by Marlena, but I could have never imagined I would find Tess here. “Louise, are you listening to me?” I shook my head, shaking off my surprise, “Sorry, what did you say?” Kate looked at me suspiciously. “You okay? You look like you’re about to pass out, you are as pale as a ghost.” “I’m fine. It’s just… Wait, why did you call that girl Val? Is

she the same Valery you told me about earlier?” “Yeah, that’s her. She has quite the temper. Even though I have been around her for a while, I don’t always know how to handle her.” “How long has she been working here?” “For about two years, why? Do you know her? Oh, she was raised in Paradise too, right?” “Yeah, but back then her name was Tess.” “That doesn’t really surprise me. Many of Marlena’s girls change their names when they come to work here.” Slowly, I took off the mask, and inhaled deeply. I was so happy to see my friend, but on the other hand, I didn’t know if she would be as happy to see me. She looked so different now, unreachable... Would she even want to talk to me? What if I just go knock on her bedroom door? Will she see me then? Suddenly, I felt like there was a huge wall between us. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it with my heart. I didn’t know what really made the wall, Tess’s new life here or my inability to understand things didn’t always go the way we wanted them to. Either way, I was going to talk to her, at least to see if my assumptions about her new personality were correct. “How about lunch?” Kate asked, bringing my thoughts back to reality; the reality I knew would never be as perfect as I wanted it to be. “Sounds great.” I forced a smile and followed her out of the show room. I stopped at the threshold just for a second and turned around to look at the illuminated stage one more time. I already

knew I belonged there, I was only unsure if I would be able to meet the expectations of the others. Kate and Drew were sure I would be just fine, I wish I had their assurance… Later that day when Kate and I went through my wardrobe, we took out everything that was too big or too small for me; at that point I only had about an hour left to get changed and ready for the show. The girls were allowed to watch each other’s shows, even if they were not dancing in them. Of course, we were not allowed to sit with the visitors, there were private tables, reserved just for us. Kate also warned me about visitors who could be a little more persistent than the others about getting you into their bed. They would send drinks, ask for personal dances, but would also ask the girls to sleep with them; accepting their favors was forbidden. Drinks were the only thing I could accept from them, because it brought more money into Drew’s pocket, and because girls didn’t have to pay for their own drinks. The visitors were here to watch, and we were here to dance. We were out of their reach, and they were always out of ours. I don’t know why, but I was a little afraid of going to the show room that night. Judging by all the noise behind my door, the club was already filled with the guests. Kate said no matter what we were doing in the show room, we should look perfect, like pictures everyone was allowed to look at but not to touch. We couldn’t show up in shorts, jeans or T-shirts. If you didn’t want to dress up for the night, you were not allowed anywhere near the show room.

It was unbelievable, how many rules we had to follow. For a moment, I thought there were even more than we had in Paradise. My fate obviously had a sick sense of humor. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and didn’t even recognize myself. With Kate’s help, I looked gorgeous, like a real and true lady; my make-up and outfit would fool even the most biased of my beholders. I felt like I was still wearing a mask, like the one I used for my dance. I didn’t look or feel like myself anymore. Is this what my new life is? A dream come true? I was not sure anymore if that was the kind of dream I wanted to be true… The sound of applause tore me from my inner musings. It was a sign that another dance was coming to an end. And it was time for me to join the show. I rose to my feet and headed for the door, not even bothering to look at my reflection even one last time. I wouldn’t see anything I truly liked in it… It was just another lie, yet another role I had to play. And I was going to be damn good at playing it, because there was no way I would give up on my life and let someone else take complete control over it, even though right now I personally had no control over it, someday I would. “Ma’am.” The doorman bowed his head, greeting me. I smiled slightly to myself. I was not any better than him. In fact, we were in the same situation, even if he didn’t have to wear the makeup or dress I had to. None of us had a choice but to keep smiling. “Thank you,” I said, entering the show room. There were so many people inside, I would have never

believed it was a private club. All the tables were taken. Of course, the majority of the visitors were men. They laughed, drank, and talked to their companions. I immediately noticed a few pairs of curious eyes following my every step. Thank God, it was dark enough in the room so no one could notice my embarrassment. Shoot, apparently not even an expensive dress could save my selfassurance from falling to pieces. I took a deep breath and headed for a table I knew I would find Kate sitting at. She and a few other girls I had met earlier in the day, were sitting there too. A new song started and more lights illuminated the stage. Another performance began. Kate waved her hand, and moved closer to Natasha, to give me the space to sit next to her. “So, what do you think?” She asked, sliding a glass of what appeared to be orange juice over to me. “This is crazy,” I said the first thing that came to mind. I didn’t know how else to describe my feelings, or anything else going on around me. The girls laughed. “You will get used to the noise,” Moly said. “When the show is over, and you go back to your room, it feels like a World War has come to an end. It is always such a relief.” “But you don’t have to attend every show,” Kate added. “It’s just that today is your first day as a member of the team. If you don’t dance, you are free to stay in your room, or if it’s your day off, you can go out and have fun somewhere else.” “Excuse me, Miss,” the waitress said, “those gentlemen

from table five sent you this.” She put a glass with an unknown drink on the table and left. “Woo hoo!” Natasha applauded. “Looks like someone has already started collecting fans! Not bad, Girl, not bad at all.” “What am I supposed to do with this?” I pointed to the drink. It didn’t look or smell like juice, and I doubted Kate or Drew would approve of me getting drunk on my first day at work. “Don’t worry about it. Val will gladly have it after her dance is over,” Laura said. “Besides, you are not allowed to drink unless you are twenty-one.” Two hours later, our table was full of drinks sent by the visitors. Most of them were sent to me. Kate said that it was a usual thing to happen around here. She said the men always liked new girls, even if they were not dancing. When the time for Tess’s show came, I was all nerves. I hadn’t seen her since the incident this morning, and I didn’t know what her reaction to seeing me would be. She was supposed to dance with two other girls — Linda and Marisa. The three of them were dressed in black, with huge hats on their heads, corsets and stockings, the ensemble was sexy. I bet most of the men watching them at that moment wanted to see more than just a dance. “Is it even legal to wear that on the stage?” I asked, taking a few sips of my juice. “Not everyone knows what to do with that kind of an outfit, but yes, it’s totally legal and amazing, isn’t it?” I couldn’t help but agree with Kate. No wonder Tess was her favorite baby. She danced smooth as butter and so gracefully,

you could see she had no fear of falling or making any mistakes in her dance. She knew exactly what she was doing, and everyone, including me, was watching her in awe. It didn’t matter how many dancers were there with her. There was only Tess. Everyone’s eyes were focused on her. It was as if people were under a spell from her dance, no one could look away, and they looked like they were in a trance, until the dance was over and Tess was about to leave the stage. She bowed and went down the small set of stairs, leading to our table, gathering compliments along the way. She was a star here. My fears about my show grew even stronger. I will never be as good as she is, I thought to myself. “Well done, Sweetie, as always.” Kate rose to give Tess a hug. “Wow, so many drinks! Who’s stealing all my fans tonight?” I finally dared to reveal my presence to her. “Hi Tess,” I said, waiting for her unpredictable reaction. Slowly, her eyes moved to where I was sitting, as if I was the last person she had ever expected to see again. “I don’t believe it… Louise?” “Believe it or not, but yes, it’s me.” I smiled slightly. “What are you doing here?” There was nothing but pure fear in her question, as well as in her gaze. “She’s the newest member of our team,” Kate said proudly, squeezing my shoulder. “Did Marlena send you here?” We both knew what she actually wanted to ask.

“Yes,” I said without hesitation. “Now I work and live here.” “I see… Well, good luck. With both.” And then, she just walked away from our table and disappeared behind the main doors, opening into the hall. What the hell? “Did she break one of her heels or something?” Apparently, I was not the only person to see Tess’s weird reaction to me. Kate frowned too. She was still staring at the doors, confused. “I’ll be right back,” she said, leaving us. “Do you and Val have some kind of negative history from Paradise?” I looked at Natasha, puzzled. “No. We used to be best friends.” “When was the last time you two saw each other?” “About two years ago, when Tess, I mean Valery was allowed to leave the orphanage.” “Oh, I see,” Moly said thoughtfully. “Do you know that she didn’t come here right after she was out of Paradise? She tried to run away, many times, but Drew always managed to find her.” All of a sudden, I remembered the note Tess left before leaving Paradise. It said to never ever try to run away. I thought it was talking about the orphanage, but apparently, there was something more to it than I had originally realized. It was something I was going to figure out. “Do you know what happened after she was found?” I asked.

“No. But it was rumored Tess was forced to please Drew’s special guests, if you know what I mean.” I didn’t like Natasha’s answer, at all. Obviously, there was a story behind Tess’s mask of hate. The only question was if I really wanted to know it… She has always been like a sister to me. Even today, when I saw a different side of her, I still hoped the Tess I knew and loved was alive in there, maybe hiding somewhere deep down in her heart that somehow turned to stone. I wanted to talk to her, I needed to talk to her. Not just to ask about what happened after she left Paradise, I wanted to talk to my old friend I had been missing for so long.

Chapter 4 I stopped at the door to Tess’s room, unsure of what I should do next. I couldn’t even make myself call her Valery, let alone get used to such an unexpected and maybe even a little shocking change in her appearance and attitude. What if she doesn’t want to see me? What if she… I didn’t have time to finish the thought, because the next second, the door opened and I saw Tess, wearing the same outfit she had worn for her dance. She had walked away so quickly, I didn’t have a chance to figure out the reason behind her weird behavior. She looked a little surprised to see me standing right outside her door. “Oh, it’s you,” she said with disdain, opening the door wider. “I heard footsteps and thought it was Kate. What do you want?” Well, this isn’t going as planned. I never imagined she would start the first conversation we have had in two years with, “Oh, it’s you…” She said ‘you’ as if it were a dirty word she didn’t even want in her mouth; she acted like I was the scum of the Earth. I was clearly an inconvenience to her. My stomach dropped and I felt myself begin to sweat because I was nervous around her. Keep going, Louise, she is your old friend, you can do this! “I just wanted to see you. May I come in?” She hesitated for a moment. “Yeah, sure. Sorry, I had a bad day. No offense, okay?” “None taken. I completely understand, you work a lot. You probably hate it when people bother you after your show.” I looked

around the room, and to my surprise, it was smaller than mine, but there was so much stuff everywhere; every nook and cranny of the room were filled with clothes, jewelry, books, magazines, and makeup among many other things. It was hard to say how big the room would actually be if it were not so full of clutter. Tess grabbed a pack of cigarettes, tapped one out of the box, and lit it. After the nicotine began to kick in I could see her visibly relax a little bit, sitting in one of her chairs, which was covered with a bunch of clothes. “I didn’t know you started smoking,” I said, taking a seat in front of her. “It’s been a long time since we saw each other last, Lu. Many things have changed.” “I can see that.” “You are judging me right now, aren’t you?” She asked, smirking. “No, why would I? It is not your fault Marlena sold you to Drew. You didn’t have a choice in coming here, right? “Right… So how have you been doing all this time?” “Working, trying to survive, the usual, you know?” She nodded wordlessly. “When did you get here?” “Yesterday night.” “So, it’s your first day here.” She leaned back against the chair and took another drag of her cigarette. “I remember my first day here. I splashed a cup of scalding coffee on Drew’s pants.” I smiled. “I bet he didn’t see that coming.” “He surely did not.”

“You didn’t want to stay here, did you?” She puffed on her cigarette and slowly let the smoke out of her mouth, smoke swirled around in front of her. “Do you honestly believe this,” she gestured around her room, “is what I wanted for my life, after I was finally able to leave that hell hole — Paradise?” “Did you try to run away?” Tess laughed humorlessly, shaking her head. “The bitches must have already poisoned you with the rumors.” “They only said you refused to follow Drew’s orders.” I still had a weird feeling that Tess was not happy to see me. It was like she only let me come in because she was too tired to tell me to go to hell. “What else did they tell you?” She asked, watching me closely. For a second, I felt like I was being interrogated by the police, or maybe even somewhere worse - like a court - in front of a judge, and with no lawyer to defend me. “It doesn’t matter. I’m sure those were just rumors.” Tess had been staring at me for at least an entire minute, no less. I didn’t know what she was thinking about. There was something strange about everything she was saying and doing, that I couldn’t put my finger on. Maybe she was high or something. Considering everything around me felt out of place, I guess anything was possible, at this point. When she was in her costume from the show, she looked like a woman without morals; I continued to hope the real Tess was nothing like the frivolous girl I saw on the stage, dancing tonight. “You haven’t changed, Louise, not even a bit. You still

believe dreams can come true, while I know for a fact dreams are never supposed to come true for girls like us; it is a luxury we can’t have, much less afford, we do not have time for dreaming. But don’t worry, you will come to understand it all later, after they fucking drain all of the life energy out of you. You think living here is a fairytale? A horror movie is more like it. You don’t belong to yourself anymore, it’s even worse than Paradise. If you break the rules here, it won’t just leave you without food, it will leave you lifeless, in one of the trash cans somewhere in the ass of the city. And no, I’m not exaggerating about these things. I know exactly what I’m talking about.” I felt my body get cold, my blood was starting to freeze in my veins. I shivered saying, “You can’t be serious… Do they… Kill girls for not following the orders?” I don’t know where I got the courage to ask the question out loud, but I refused to believe it was true. It couldn’t be true. “Forget it. I bet Kate and Drew did their best to make you believe that your life here would be wonderful. Let it be so. After all, not everyone is as much of a pain in the ass as I am.” I smiled. “You haven’t changed either, you’ve always been like this.” Tess laughed. “Damn true.” There were other questions I wanted to ask her, but when I looked at the clock on the wall, it showed midnight, and I thought I should probably give Tess a break and talk to her some other time. “I think it’s time for me to go. You need to get your rest.” “Yeah, it’s been a long day.”

We said good-bye and I went to my room. I didn’t want to go back to the show room, all of a sudden, I realized I didn’t have the slightest desire to watch the rest of the show. I had had enough dancing for one day. That’s a first… That night I learned my first out of Paradise life lesson — people don’t change, time only makes them tougher, revealing their true nature which is not always able to be seen at first. When we were younger, it all felt and looked different. We didn’t think about material things. Yes, we were jealous of other kids having so much more than we did, but it still didn’t make our lives worse, it didn’t turn us into haters. And today… Today I suddenly realized Paradise was not actually my worst nightmare, it was actually a place where everything was so much easier. Sure, things were awful, but they were also easier; I knew exactly what to expect every day, now I don’t. I laughed hysterically to myself, leaning against my bedroom’s door. I can’t believe I’ve just thought that life before Le Papillon was easier. I never thought it was easy when I lived in Paradise. Time is supposed to make people age, of course, but it is also supposed to make people wiser as well. And today, looking at Tess, I felt like she was not only two years older than me, she seemed wise beyond her years. If I didn’t know the truth, I would say she had seen and went through so much more than I did. I kept wondering, what really happened to her after she tried to run away

from Drew? Was it so awful and cruel that it turned her into this cynical version of herself? I didn’t know the Tess I had seen tonight. She was like a stranger to me. And she looked at me the same way, as if we had never been best friends, as if all those years we spent in the orphanage – together – had never actually happened. I walked over to the mirror; it took me looking at my reflection to notice the tears running down my cheeks. Why was I crying? I didn’t even know the answer to that question. I just felt like crying, and thank God, I was alone in the room and no one could see the black rivers of mascara, running down my face in lines that would be a pain to remove. What am I supposed to do now? I asked myself. What would you do if you hadn’t realized Tess was here too? My conscience asked in response. Would you just give up on those dreams she said would never come true for ‘girls like you’? Or would you do everything in your power to prove to her and everyone else that she was wrong? I didn’t know the person looking back at me through the mirror. I didn’t know anything about this new Louise, standing at the crossroads of what felt like the worst life adventure ever. I only hoped by the time I finally learned everything there was to know about her, I wouldn’t be disappointed by it… After the hellish day I had, I didn’t have any problem with falling asleep. I took a long, hot shower, hoping it would help me wash away all the stress and feelings that were tearing me apart. I didn’t know what would happen tomorrow, but at least I knew for

tonight I could be the old Lu, the girl with beautiful dreams and things to remember. Giving up has never been on my bucket-list, and this time was not going to be an exception. There was no way I was ready to give up on my dreams. *** It was Saturday, the day of my first show. I was all nerves, probably even worse — I could barely take a step without falling. “Come on, Louise! You’ve got to be kidding me! What happened to your dance?” Kate was furious. She spent the entire day training with me and she was very pleased with the results we had at the end of the day; so, it was no wonder she looked like a fire-breathing dragon now. “What the hell do you think you are doing? Is it because of your fears again? Or did someone tell you something about your dance?” “No. It’s my nerves. I don’t know how to keep myself from falling in the middle of the show. What if I forget the next step? What if the song suddenly stops playing? What if…” “Stop it! Stop thinking about things we both know will never happen.” Kate came over to where I was standing and took me by the shoulders, as if she were going to shake me. “Now, listen to me, Doll. I have never seen a more talented dancer here. If you want to hear the truth, here it is — you are hundred times better than anyone else here, me, Laura, Moly and even Valery. No one has even come close to showing me anything as well executed as you have. You are special, Louise. Remember my words. Only the strongest survive in this world, so don’t you dare let anyone bring

you down to your knees. Because once you do, you will never be able to get back up again. You will stay weak and helpless. And this is not who you are. I knew it the day I met you. You are a fighter, and you know it too.” Kate was right. I have always been a fighter. Even when I thought there was no light in the dark tunnel of my life, I still managed to find it. Thanks to Paradise, I knew exactly what she meant by survival. I needed to be strong. I was strong, I never doubted it until the moment I came to Le Papillon. “Let’s try it one more time,” I said, taking a deep breath. I can do this, just like talking to Tess… I did it, just like surviving Paradise… I can do this... Kate nodded approvingly. She didn’t say anything else, she just watched me while I practiced, and when the dance was over, she applauded, again without a word. I thought it was a good sign. “Not bad,” someone else said. I turned toward the exit and saw Tess standing there. She leaned against the door frame and crossed her arms, smiling slightly. “Why didn’t anyone tell me about her?” She turned to Kate. “Maybe if you weren’t such a snot, you would have stayed with us last night and watched the rest of the show. Louise gave us some pretty good advice about the new dances.” “Is she the new boss around here, or what?” “No, but it wouldn’t hurt you to listen to the things she has to say. They might be helpful, even to you, Princess...” Tess turned back to me, the smile from before vanished without a trace, her face was now stone-cold.

“Who taught you to dance? I’ve never seen you dance this well.” “No one did. But I read books, and watched a few shows.” “You read books? Where the hell did you manage to get them? And don’t tell me that Paradise has a library now, because I know better...” “No, I bought them myself. You left me some money, remember?” I didn’t say anything wrong, but apparently, Tess thought otherwise. “I should have taken it with me,” she practically barked at me. Then she turned around and left the show room, slamming the door shut behind her. “She’ll get over it,” Kate said. “She used to be the best of the best,” I muttered, still staring at the closed door. And I knew Tess well enough to know that she, of all people, would never ever get over it. “Don’t take her words to heart. She’s always been like this. Her problem is that she doesn’t know how to lose, but it was supposed to happen anyway, sooner or later. After all, she’s not a professional dancer. What she does on the stage is good, very good. But it has never been perfect. At least not for those who know what real cabaret dancing should look like.” I couldn’t say I was in complete agreement with Kate. I liked Tess’s show. For me, it did look perfect. But I was not an expert myself either, I couldn’t even say that my dance was good enough to be shown to the audience.

“Don’t forget about your costume. It will be ready in an hour.” “Yeah, I talked to Jimmy earlier today. He said he needed to add a few more small details.” “Make sure you are there when the costume is ready. No one else should see it before tonight. Clear?” “Crystal… But what do you think would happen if someone happens to notice me trying it on?” Kate took the record player and smiled at me, saying, “Do you really think everyone wishes for things to be good for you here? Far from it! The other girls will do their best to screw up your show. Unless you find a way to make them believe it can’t be screwed up regardless of what they try to do.” “Unbelievable.” I sighed. “What? You thought they would just automatically be your buddies? Remember what Drew said about fighting? It happens here all the time. The main rule is to avoid conflicts for as long as you can. And don’t you ever dare start one. Otherwise, Drew will make sure you remember it forever.” There was one thing I couldn’t help but ask about. “Have you ever heard of any girls dying here?” Kate’s face paled. “Who told you that?” “Just rumors.” I shrugged, hoping she would believe my lie. I certainly didn’t want Tess to have any extra problems because of me, let alone give her yet another reason to be mad at me. “We don’t talk about Isabel here.” “So there was a death in the club, right?”

Kate looked around the room carefully. “Come with me. This is not the best place to talk about it.” Wordlessly, I followed her to her room. Only when she closed the door behind me and made sure that we were alone in the room, she said, “Yes, there was a death in the club. Well, not exactly in the club. It happened about a year ago. As I have already said, the girl’s name was Isabel. She had a show with three different dances. But she danced only two of them. When it was time for the third dance, we realized she was missing. Police had been trying to find her for about a week. And then, one day, they called Drew saying they had found a body matching the description of Isabel. Drew and I went to morgue to identify the body. And when we came back to the club, he gathered all the girls and announced the new rules of living and working here. According to the police report, Isabel was murdered by one of the permanent visitors of our club. They had been secretly dating for about six months before the tragedy happened. One day, Vincent saw her entering some trashy motel with his best friend, he got furious, and killed her when she was on her way back here. That’s why Drew forbids the girls to sleep with the visitors, in or outside the club. Regardless of how much money a man offers you to meet him outside Le Papillon, you are not allowed to go with him.” “Aren’t we allowed to have relationships with men?” “You are, unless you want to sleep with one of the men who belong to the club. Your work here is like an unbreakable contract. If you don’t follow the rules, you are out. And no one will care if you don’t have anywhere else to go. But you will never be

allowed back here if we find out you are seeing one of our clients.” “What about the private dances?” “All the clients sign a paper telling them they are not allowed to have any sexual relationships with any of the dancers. They are well aware of the rules. They can watch your private dance, they can even dance with you if they wish, but if they want sex, they will have to go somewhere else to get it.” Another thought came to my mind. “Drew tracks every step we take outside the club, doesn’t he?” Kate smiled sadly. “It’s a part of his job. He doesn’t want his girls to get hurt.” “Why doesn’t he hire professional dancers?” “I thought the answer was obvious. No professional dancer would ever agree to work in a closed club, where her popularity can’t go beyond the walls of this place. Plus, she can’t tell anyone she works here, unless it’s allowed by Drew. Of course, there were a few girls who came here right after their graduation from different dancing schools. But they didn’t stay long. Right after they earned enough money to find an apartment of their own and a new job, they left.” “Because they thought working here would never bring them fame... And being a local star was not enough.” “See? You already know all of the answers. Of course, Drew thinks his club is the best place in the whole world. But he doesn’t see that he’s not the only person who has ambitions. Girls who stay here after their contracts end simply don’t have any other place to go. Some don’t even know what it is like to live and work

somewhere else. They have lives outside Le Papillon, but their real life is here.” “But we can’t stay here forever. One day, we will get too old to dance or even to show our faces in the show room.” “Yes, but until then, we all believe that day will never come.” It was the very moment when I realized one more thing — Kate was not much different from us, the dancers. She was afraid to leave too. Even though I was sure she knew she would never become the boss’s wife or the new boss here. But she still preferred to think that the day she would need to leave would never come…

Chapter 5 My knees were trembling. I was standing behind the curtain, waiting for my show to begin. “Calm down, Louise,” Kate said, coming over to me. I didn’t expect to see her right before my danсe, but I guess I probably needed to hear her words of support, now, more than ever. I nodded, trying to force the terror freezing my body and mind away. I don’t think I had ever been more scared in my entire life. My heart was beating so fast, I hoped I wouldn’t end up in the hospital with a heart attack. The applause got louder and I think I stopped breathing for a moment. “It’s time,” Kate said, slightly pushing me toward the stage entrance. “Remember, they are just strangers, and you are the star.” I can do this, can’t I? Inhaling deeply, I took a step closer to the stage. It was time to show everyone, including myself, just how much of a fighter I really could be. Or at least show them I would not fall in the middle of my dance. Yeah, it was going to be one hell of a trial to go through. I put on the mask, and the show began…. The first beats of the song filled the show room, the audience got quiet. Slowly, I went to the center of the stage, the glow of a single stage light was illuminating the scene, and followed my every step. I couldn’t see anyone, it felt like I was the only

person in the whole room. My only audience was the lonely chair now standing next to me. I sat on it with my legs spread on both sides of the chair, my back to the people, whose breathing I swear I could hear ever through the music. My palms slid down my legs, I took off my shoes, and leaned back, sending an imaginary kiss to the suddenly excited audience, making them scream and shout at every move I made. The music got louder, and so did the applause, but I didn’t dare to look at the people welcoming me. Instead, I closed my eyes and let my dancing nature take over my body, mind, and spirit. I danced like there was no tomorrow. I danced as if it was my first and last chance to prove I knew how to dance. Well, partially, it was true. After all, first impressions are always the most important. When the lights turned from white to red, I pushed the chair away and raised one hand to grab a huge golden ring dropping from the ceiling that was supposed to be my see-saw for the rest of the dance. I had never danced high above the ground before, and I had no more than a few seconds to latch my belt to the ring. I was praying I wouldn’t fall when the ring began to rise back up toward the ceiling. It was probably the scariest part of the show, but it was also my favorite part. For just a minute, I was able to imagine myself as a bird, flying high above the club and the audience… Wind filled my lungs, as the ring started to spin. It was still too dark in the room to see the clients. I mentally thanked Kate for this small trick of light, it became my salvation. The end of the dance was the only part of the whole thing

that I still was not sure about. According to plan A, we needed to make it seem like the ring was falling down; I was supposed to be hanging on to the ring, with my legs, and the rest of my body hanging freely in the air. Kate said I could use plan B. But it wouldn’t be as spectacular. So… I took a deep breath, and leaned back, feeling the air from the giant fan, whipping my dress around in the wind, and playing with my hair. When the song had played its final beat in the silence of the room, I unfastened my belt and let the skirt of my dress fall down to the floor. The lights went off. My heartbeat accelerated. It felt like my heart only had a chance to beat one time during the entire dance and now it finally began to beat regularly again. I didn’t know how much time passed before I heard the loud applause indicating the end of my small performance, but it felt like no less than forever had passed before I realized I had actually done it, and I executed it perfectly. My inner world exploded. Every single second of my endless rehearsals was worth it — this very moment of relief and indescribable euphoria, running through me and filling every inch of my body and mind were all worth it! I finally opened my eyes and had to blink a few times before my vision adjusted to the bright lights. The ring, the chair, and the missing part of my dress were gone. There was just me, hiding behind the mask that was so much more than just a piece of shining fabric. Right then and there it was a whole world that belonged only to one person — me… I bowed and left the stage, as happy as ever.

“My talented girl!” Kate hugged me tight, and I suddenly felt like I might break into tears. Not because I didn’t like my dance, but because I was too excited over all the emotions, feelings, sights, and sounds, going on within and around me. “That was un-freaking-believably beautiful.” I laughed quietly through my tears and took a step back, saying, “If only you knew how much I was worried about the end of the show. But I thought I’d rather stop thinking, and then I just threw my head back, praying it wouldn’t end up kissing the floor.” Kate and a few other girls standing around us laughed. “It was amazing, Louise,” Natasha said. They all congratulated me on my first dance. But there was one more person whose opinion I wanted to hear. Not that I expected any compliments, but still… “Valery!” I called. “What did you think about my dance?” To my surprise, she had been watching me with the rest of the team and not from the show room. “Do you really want to hear my opinion?” “I do,” I said without hesitation. I was sure she wouldn’t say anything good, but she surprised me with her words. “That was fantabulous.” And then, she left without saying another word. It was my first small personal victory. No one knew how close Tess and I used to be. No one knew how painful it was to watch her leave now, even though I knew her words were sincere. They meant the world to me, but on the other hand, I was sure they were just the beginning of the war that neither of us were willing to lose.

“Did you see Drew’s reaction to your dance?” Kate asked, pulling me to the dressing room. “No, I don’t think I saw anyone or anything at all. I still feel like I am dreaming. Did he like the dance?” “Oh, I’m pretty sure he did. He rarely smiles, but when your dance was over, he was the first person to rise to his feet and start applauding you.” “Really? Then next time, I’ll take my time enjoying the aftershow compliments.” Kate laughed again. “You did such a great job, Doll. I’m sure people will remember it forever.” All of a sudden, the door behind us opened, and Tess came in, smiling as if she had just won the lottery. “Room three, private dance,” she said, as if she were announcing the arrival of a king or someone equally as important. Kate and I shared a glance. “What does that mean?” I asked, already knowing the answer. “You need to go,” she said, a little worried. “How am I supposed to dance? Um, I mean, what kind of dance am I supposed to do for him?” “Anything to please your client,” Tess said, smirking devilishly. Oh, she didn’t know me very well. I was not going to miss the dance, regardless of how much I hated the idea of doing a private dance, I also hated the thought of being locked in a room with some stranger. “Okay,” I said, rising to my feet. “Should I change into

something else?” I turned to Kate. She still looked a little worried, and I wondered if she knew something that I didn’t. I looked back at Tess and said, “I’m coming. You may go now.” Her smirking face turned red, but she didn’t say anything else. As soon as she was gone, I asked Kate, “Is there anything else I should know before I leave this room?” “Just remember what I told you last night.” Kate smiled slightly, and nodded to the wardrobe. “You’d better change into something more comfortable. Clients who order private dances don’t like the girls to be wearing too much clothes.” I swallowed hard. “That man, waiting for me now… He won’t try to…” I didn’t dare to finish the question, but it was not needed. Kate knew exactly what I was worried about. “No, of course not. But dancing for him might be… A little more intimate than public dancing is.” “Is he allowed to touch me?” “Yes. But you can stop him whenever you think he crosses the line. Plus… There’s one more thing you should know. Our clients don’t always want to be recognized. So when you enter the room, turn your back to the door. The client may come wearing a mask, or he may also ask you to blindfold your eyes so you wouldn’t see his face. There’s nothing to worry about. It’s normal for private dances.” “I’ve never danced for a man before.” “You’ve never danced for a room full of men either, before tonight that is... So don’t be scared. Just be yourself. Dance and

tease him a little. This is what men come here for. Now go, it’s not polite to keep the client waiting. And good luck, Louise.” I will surely need it, I thought to myself. I changed quickly into a pair of black shorts and a matching bra with shining fringe which covered most of my belly, at least I didn’t feel completely naked. I put back the high heels and headed for room three… I can’t say I was overly scared of doing this private dance. Or maybe I was just still too excited about how successful my show had been, and it felt like I would never be scared of anything, anymore. I entered a room that was half-dark and took a few steps away from the door, stopping at a chair right in the middle of the room. No more than a few moments later, I heard the door behind me opening and closing. Am I supposed to say hi or something? Kate didn’t mention anything about greeting the client, so I thought I would just stay quiet for now. I didn’t know who my client was, or what he looked like. I didn’t even know how old he was. But somehow, I preferred to think he was not much older than me. “Close your eyes,” he said almost in a whisper. I didn’t hear him coming close to me, but when he spoke, I could feel his breath on my neck. Carefully, he covered my eyes with a blindfold and tied it around the back of my head. There was no music in the room, so I didn’t know what to do next. Should I ask him to turn on some music? Or should I just start moving without it?

Suddenly, he spoke, “I liked your dance. It was very beautiful.” “Thank you,” I said, again, not sure if I had the right to talk. From what I could feel, the man was not standing behind me anymore. Maybe he was a few feet away from me. “It was your first show, right? Did you like dancing for so many people?” Why is he asking me so many questions? “Um… Not really. In fact, I was afraid it would be a total failure.” Was he here just to talk to me? “You didn’t look like you were scared or anything. Rather on the contrary.” My breath caught the moment I felt him come to stand right behind me again. “You looked like a dancer who knew exactly what she was doing.” His fingertips ran down the back of my neck and stopped at my shoulder, caressing it lightly. I panicked. I had never been with a man before, and even though I knew it was not going to go any further than I allowed, I was still a little scared. Are there any cameras in the room? Can anyone see us? Will anyone help me if he tries to undress me or worse… I felt my palms sweating. I grabbed the back of the chair standing nearby. As if he could feel my fear, the man spoke, “You don’t have to be afraid of me. I won’t do anything you don’t want me to do.” His voice was so soft, almost like a feather tickling my

shoulder and neck. Something strange started to form inside me. I had never felt it before, well… Maybe just a few times… When I was thinking about the mysterious stranger I met several years ago. The excitement… I didn’t know if it was right or wrong to feel it in the presence of the man whose name I didn’t even know. There were many times I heard the girls from the orphanage telling each other about their ‘boyfriends’. Some of them lost their virginity very early in life, but I still couldn’t understand how it was possible to sleep with a guy just out of curiosity or because you had a few drinks, blurring your mind and judgement. I didn’t know anything about physical attraction, but somehow, I was sure it should be mutual, and right now, I didn’t feel like I should allow my momentary splash of hormones let my defenses go. “Don’t you want me to dance?” I asked, turning my head a little to where I knew I would feel his breath on my skin again. The weird thing about the whole situation was that I was a little hypnotized by everything the man said or did, it was as if he was spellbinding me and I didn’t feel like I had enough strength to resist him. “Do you want to dance for me?” Did I want to dance for him? “Yes, I do…” “Is that what they told you do?” The question was asked in a harsh tone of voice. I couldn’t understand why. Did I do or say something wrong? “No. But you paid for a private dance, which is my job, and

now I need to pay off the money you spent on me.” “Do you always follow the rules, Louise?” He pronounced my name, as if he was tasting it, trying to see if he liked the sound of it. “I don’t have a choice but to follow them.” Now I felt his hands wrapping around my belly, sliding painfully slow across my skin; every inch of me froze. “I hate following the rules,” he said, drawing small circles around my navel. “But I love breaking them,” he added; one of his palms slipped down to my shorts, but I stopped it before it could go too far. He smirked. “You are very shy for a girl who works in Le Papillon.” I felt like I was trapped in a gate with the lion who was just about to swallow me alive. With his hands around me, I couldn’t move or run away. And I bet he knew it too. “You smell like jasmine and oranges,” he whispered into my ear. “It drives me crazy.” I felt his lips on my earlobe, and I don’t know why, but I suddenly wanted to turn around and feel them on my lips as well… “I know I need to step away, but I can’t,” he said with so much despair in his voice. Neither can I… “I’ve been waiting for this moment for so long, Louise.” “You mean for the entire show?” “Yeah… But it still felt like forever,” he replied after a short pause. “I want to take you away from here. Will you go with me?”

“I can’t…” No matter how much I wanted to. What the hell is going on with me? With the stranger’s hands still caressing my belly and back, and with his lips teasing me with a soft whispering, I felt like I was losing my mind. “I don’t want you to dance for anyone else, ever again.” What? “You will never go to the private rooms again, unless you know it’s me waiting for you there.” “I can’t decide for my boss.” “Don’t worry about him. I’ll pay him enough to keep you all for myself.” “Why would you do that?” Finally, I dared to turn around, I wanted to take the blindfold off, only he wouldn’t let me. “Because you are mine now,” he said, catching my hands before they would free my eyes. I almost laughed at his words. “I don’t belong to anyone.” “You do. You always did.” He said with so much assurance, as if he knew everything about me, about my past and maybe even my future. “Who are you?” I asked, trying to find out anything I could about the man I was talking to now. “Does it matter?” “It does. Because it looks like one of us knows so much more than the other one does.” “Don’t you like secrets, Louise?” I could swear I almost

tasted the question on my lips. It was probably asked inches from my mouth. “I hate secrets. Especially, if someone keeps secrets from me.” “I’ll tell you everything about me, but not tonight.” He ran one palm down my cheek and stopped at my chin, saying, “I think it’s enough talking for one night. I’ll see you tomorrow.” “I won’t be here tomorrow.” “Why?” “It’s my day off.” “Then where can I find you?” “We are not allowed to see our clients outside the club.” “Who said you will see me? We can meet somewhere faces don’t matter.” “What are you talking about?” “Will you come, if I give you the address of the place where I would like to see you again?” “I… Don’t think it’s a good idea.” “But will you?” Maybe it was a mistake, maybe even the biggest mistake ever, but I said… “Yes, I will.” I heard the sound of a pen running across a piece of paper, and then he put it into my hand, holding it a little longer than I expected. “Don’t tell anyone.” “I won’t. Can I just ask for your…” I didn’t have a chance

to finish my question, because the next moment, I heard the door opening and closing again. I took off the blindfold, and he was gone…

Chapter 6 I don’t know how long I had been standing in the middle of the empty private dance room, when suddenly I heard Kate calling me from behind the door, “Louise? You okay in there?” She waited for no more than two seconds before she opened the door and let herself in. “Hey, why are you still here? I saw your client leave about ten minutes ago.” “I didn’t realize he had been gone that long, time is going so fast tonight.” I sat on the couch, still trying to catch my breath after my weird ‘dance’ with the client. I had no idea what to think about what had happened. I made sure to keep the note he had given me out of Kate’s sight. “Is there anything I should know about, before you go back to your room?” I swallowed. “No. Why would you think that?” I hoped I didn’t sound like a frantic, caged animal, whose lies she could immediately detect, because that was exactly how I felt at the moment. “You look and sound a little… Lost. Are you sure you are okay?” “Yeah, I’m fine.” “What did the client say about your dance?” Unintentionally, my eyes traveled to my hand, holding the note. I shrugged, as if nothing had happened. “He liked it.” Kate smiled slightly and nodded, taking me by the hand. “Good. Now let’s get out of here. You need a shower and some

rest. Tomorrow’s your first day off. How are you planning to spend it?” “I… Haven’t thought about it yet.” “Not surprising. You had too much to deal with tonight. Tess shouldn’t have sent you to that room. Everyone knows it’s your first show night here. I’m sure Drew would have understood if you had refused to do a private dance tonight.” “Kate,” I stopped, taking a deep breath before proceeding, “It was all good. Really. Stop worrying and rambling, okay?” “Okay.” She looked a little relieved and I wondered if the memories of her own first private dance were the reason for her weird behavior. “Can I ask you something?” I didn’t think Kate was my best friend or anything, but somehow, I knew I could trust her, and I could feel she trusted me too. “Sure, go ahead,” she said. “Can you tell me about your first private dance?” I knew I was trying my luck. Kate hated talking about her past, but I was hoping she would finally open up and explain a few things to me. She smiled, shaking her head. “Sometimes it feels like nothing can be hidden from you. Come on, let’s get a drink.” “I’m not allowed to drink here.” “No, you are not, but I am.” We went to the bar, took a bottle of tequila, lime and salt for Kate, a coke for me. After leaving the bar we went to her room. I didn’t ask any more questions until we were safely hidden behind the closed door.

“Make yourself at home,” she said, kicking off her shoes. “Ugh, these heels are killing me. I’m not supposed to wear them anymore, you know?” “Why?” I took a seat on a small sofa and poured myself a glass of coke. “A few years ago, I had an injury. I fell off the pole I used for one of my dances. I hurt my back, pretty badly. The doctors said I should forget about dancing or wearing heels, but you know me — there was no way I was going to allow a little pain to ruin my life.” She took a shot-glass and poured some tequila into it. “To us!” “Cheers!” We raised our glasses and the so-called ‘drinking party’ started. “So you wanted to know about my first private dance, right?” I nodded wordlessly. “I danced for Drew.” I almost choked on my drink. “You danced for Drew, himself? On your first night here?” “Actually, my first private dance happened before my show did. And unlike yours, it was far from being innocent. In fact, Drew didn’t want me to dance, he wanted to sleep with me. And I didn’t mind, at all.” Kate looked a little guilty, as if she was waiting for my judgment or something. “Before Drew hired me, he said that no matter what kind of a dance he would ask of me, I needed to do it without even one

word of protest. I agreed immediately. And you know why? Because I fell for that arrogant bastard the moment he laid his greedy eyes on me. I couldn’t help myself.” Kate poured another shot and drained it dry. “I’m a fool, I know. Regardless of how old I get, or how many women I see Drew screwing, I still hope that I will be the one… The one he would want to spend the rest of his life with. I sound pathetic, I know.” I smirked to myself. “No, you don’t. You love him. And love isn’t pathetic.” I watched Kate for a minute before I dared to ask another question. “Have you ever told Drew about your feelings for him?” “No. It won’t change anything, so what’s the point?” “What if he loves you too?” “Well, then he has a very special way of showing it.” “I saw you two, you know? It’s like you can carry on your conversations with each other without saying a word. In my opinion, you are a perfect match.” Kate smiled sadly. “Thanks for saying so. I’ve never told anyone about Drew and me. But with you, there is no need for words, you can see right through me. I knew it was going to be that way from the moment we first met. How do you do it?” I shrugged. “I have no idea. Really. I guess it’s because of the time I spent at the train stations. I had an eternity to observe people, guessing the reasons behind their smiles, frowns, and sadness. Sometimes body language and facial expression can tell you more about a person than his words can. Especially if they are a lie.”

“If I didn’t know better, I would have never believed you are only eighteen, Louise. You are wise beyond your years. You don’t belong here. You deserve so much more than this.” She gestured around the place. “Not true, I do belong here. And now I know it for sure.” “You could become a professional dancer, go to college, get a degree…” “Maybe one day I will. When I’m allowed to leave Le Papillon.” “Don’t get attached to this place. Don’t fall for the men you meet here. It’s all a lie, one huge lie. Nothing you see or hear in the club is real, it’s just an illusion… A trick…. You are a smart girl, so don’t let anyone or anything fool you. This place is like a drug, once you taste it, it’s hard to resist it.” “Are we still talking about dancing?” “That too.” Later I realized Kate’s words didn’t have anything to do with the club itself, but rather with the people who came to the club. I could already feel she was right. I wasn’t ‘addicted’ to the stranger I talked to in the private room, I didn’t know anything about him, but somehow, I wanted to know more… “I think it’s time to call it a night,” I said, looking at the sunshaped clock on the wall. “Yeah, it’s been a long day. Go get some sleep.” “Should I be worried about leaving you alone with this bottle?” I asked, nodding to the tequila. She laughed. “We’ll be fine. No need to worry. She and I

have been best friends for a very long time.” “Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” “Sleep well, Beautiful. You rocked the show room tonight.” “Thanks. That’s the best compliment I could wish for.” “Get the hell out. You make me feel too old and too damn experienced.” I smiled, opening the door. “Good night, Kate!” “You too, Babe, you too.” I came back to my room, thinking about Kate’s words and the folded note in my hand. I opened it and read two words and a number, “15 Rockfold Road.” My palms trembled. I was dying to go there and find out why the mysterious man wanted to see me again, especially considering the fact he didn’t even watch me dance, at least not in the private room. In any other situation, I would throw the note away and would never ever agree to go to the meeting with the stranger, whose intentions were obviously far from innocent. But there was a part of me that wanted to take the chance… What is the saying? Oh, right… Forbidden fruit is sweet. I closed my eyes and imagined my stranger still being there with me. A tremor ran through my body. I didn’t know if it was out of fear or excitement. Maybe both? Because, of course, I was afraid of breaking the rules on my first day off, but there was something about the man’s voice that wouldn’t allow me to stop thinking about him and his explicit invitation. What if it was just a

trap set up to test me? No, it couldn’t be a trap… Could it? I sighed, still not sure what to do with the note. I’ll think about it tomorrow, I said to myself, recalling Scarlett O’Hara’s words. After all, new days always brought something new… In my case, I hoped it would be a decision that I wouldn’t regret. *** As expected, I didn’t get a wink of sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I could hear my mysterious stranger’s words, whispered into my ear, over and over again, like a broken record. You are all mine now… What made him think I was his property now? I felt a little irritated. I hated people thinking they could control me against my will. I liked control too. Then why would I suddenly want to lose it? Especially with someone who was more like another fantasy than a real person. There was one more thing that wouldn’t let me go. I had that weird feeling telling me that regardless of my decision about the invitation, the stranger wouldn’t give up so easily. He didn’t seem like a man who would just leave me alone if I decided to say no. Rather on the contrary — the intonation of his voice said it all — if he wanted something, he would get it, no matter what. Finally, after almost two hours of self-torturing and pacing the room impatiently, I had decided to try my luck. After all, I had never been an easy-to-scary girl. Again, I thanked Paradise for teaching me a lesson. There was no place for fear in the heart of a

person whose life had been a living hell. “Well, well, Louise…” I muttered to my reflection in the mirror, “who would have thought you were so easy to seduce?” It’s not like I was preparing to lose my virginity today, but something was telling me the meeting with the man would surprise me. I put on jeans and a sweater that looked anything but hot and sexy, and left, hoping no one would get suspicious about me leaving the club. It was almost noon when I stopped at one of the cafés, dying to have a cup of coffee. I didn’t have time to eat breakfast before I left. Well, not exactly. I did have time to eat, but I didn’t want to see anyone, including Kate, who would no doubt ask me about the plans for the day. “One cappuccino, please,” I said to the waitress. “And a croissant with apple jam.” I paid for my food, and took a seat at a table near the window, which looked right out to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I glanced at my watch, I still had a lot of time before I had to go back to Le Papillon, so I thought visiting a museum would be a nice way to spend it. As for the invitation… “Miss Woods?” A man in a dark suit asked. He was rather tall, around fifty years old, with the most ridiculous stash I had ever seen, at least not in real life. He reminded me of Sherlock Holmes. I looked around carefully. “Yes. That’s me.” “There’s a car waiting for you, across the street. There,” the

man pointed to a black limo parked not far away from the café. “Whose car is that?” “I guess we both know the answer.” He even spoke like Sherlock, with new mysteries filling his every word. My heart started beating rapidly in my chest. The man was right, I didn’t need to ask the question. I immediately knew the answer. I looked at my untouched croissant, but all of a sudden, I didn’t feel like eating it. “You will have breakfast. But not here,” the man said, watching me closely. I could almost feel the intensity of his gaze. He looked like a bodyguard, or maybe a driver, but there was something else about him that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It was as if he knew everything about me. And here I was without a clue of who I was talking to. I hesitated for a moment. “Time is ticking, Miss.” I looked at the dark limo again, and rose to my feet. It’s better to risk and regret it later, than to keep torturing myself with the nonstop questions running through my mind, right? Decisions, decisions… “You are right,” I finally said. The man nodded approvingly. “Follow me, please.” He opened the door and held it for me. I didn’t know if I was being tracked. Drew said he always knew where his girls were, so I was still a little scared I would be out of the club the moment I returned, but I went anyway.

The man in the suit opened the limo door for me and I got in, hoping I would see my stranger from last night inside. But to my disappointment, there was no one in the car. I panicked. Were the doors already locked? Did I still have a chance to change my mind and run away? The car started to move and I realized there was no turning back… We had been driving around the city for about a half hour, when the car suddenly stopped. I looked out of the window and read the address written on the gates to what looked like a park. The gates opened slowly and I found myself surrounded by huge oaks, growing on both sides of the road leading to a house I could swear looked like a hundred-year-old castle. “Welcome to Jasmine Garden, Miss,” the driver, also known as the man in the suit said. At least there was one person I already knew. “Excuse me, what’s your name, Sir?” “It’s Christopher.” “Can I ask you something, Christopher?” “I’m not sure if I’m allowed to answer any more of your questions, Miss.” “But I’ll still try… Am I safe here?” I didn’t know if I could trust the driver, but he didn’t look like a serial killer, or anything. In fact, he made me feel secure. “Always,” he said without hesitation. Okay, that was a relief. Christopher got out of the car, went around it and opened the door for me. For the first time ever I felt like a princess arriving

at the ball. I would probably need a dress for a real ball, but for now, I felt much better in my jeans and a sweater. “My boss is waiting for you, inside.” “Aren’t you going to come in with me?” I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be left alone. “Trust me, Miss, you will be just fine without me.” Christopher smiled and went back to the car, leaving me on the porch of the most beautiful house ever. Inhaling deeply, I took a step closer to the main doors. Even from the distance, I could see they were open. I came closer and gave the doors a push. They opened with a soft rustle and I found myself standing in the middle of a round hall, with a transparent ceiling and an endless staircase leading to the second floor. “I’m glad you could make it,” the familiar voice said. I tried to turn around, but my stranger wouldn’t let me. “Don’t,” he said, holding me by the shoulders. “You are not allowed to see me, remember?” “No one knows I’m here.” The scent of his cologne reached my nostrils, I could feel him standing right behind me. What if I take a step back? Will he embrace me or push me away? I didn’t know where those thoughts came from. It just felt so good to be with him again… “Are you hungry?” “Not really,” I said, still dying to turn around. Maybe coffee was not enough to keep me alive for the rest of the day, but right

then and there, I doubted I would be able to make myself eat. “You need to eat... I don’t want you to faint in the middle of your dance next Sunday.” “I don’t work next Sunday.” “I know. But you will dance for me.” “Why waste your time on a trip to the club if we can talk here and now?” “I didn’t say anything about talking. I said I would come to watch you dance.” “Then what am I doing here?” “I wanted to ask you the same question… I didn’t expect you to come, even though I hoped you would… But you are here, and I can’t stop wondering what made you decide to accept my invitation?” “Did I have a choice?” “You always have a choice.” “Your invitation didn’t sound like a choice, it was more like an order.” The stranger leaned closer to my ear, saying, “If I had wanted to order your presence here, you would have been here a long time ago.” I smirked, humored. “Don’t you think you give yourself too much credit, Mr.?” He replied with a smirk in his voice. “No, I don’t think so.” There was a short pause, after which he asked, “Would you like to see the house?” “Yes. Is it yours?”

“It belongs to my mother, but she lives in Europe, so for now, I’m the only dweller of this place.” “Isn’t it a little scary to live here alone?” Unintentionally, I took a step forward and came to the glass door opening to what I guessed was a sun room. “I’m never alone. I read books, I listen to music, and you are never alone when you have an imaginary world to dive into.” “But it’s still just an allusion. Don’t you want something more… Real?” I turned around, but the stranger was no longer there. “Where are you?” I asked, hoping he was not just another psycho hunting young girls and locking them away in his castle. I know it was a little too late to think about running away, but as it turned out, it was not needed. “I’m here,” his voice from behind the flowers replied. “I knew you would turn around, sooner or later, and I don’t want to break the confidentiality rule.” “And here I thought you didn’t give a damn about following some stupid rules.” “I will follow only this one. At least until you are ready to know more about me. I can assure you Louise, there are way too many things you are not ready to understand now. First, I want you to spend more time with me, to get used to being with me. And I want to know more about you. I won’t hurt you, ever. I just want the moment of looking into eyes to be special.” “Can I still ask you a few questions?” “Yes. But don’t get angry if my answers are not what you expect to hear.”

“So is this going to be like an interview with a ghost or something?” I could hear his quiet laughter. “You hate secrets, I remember that. But for now, it’s better to keep it this way.” “Have you ever cared about anyone, except for your family of course?” I walked over to a blossoming bush of pink roses and bent to smell the sweet aroma. “I don’t think I have. But… I do care about you.”

Chapter 7 My breath caught for a moment. I care about you… For the first time in eight years, my heart fluttered. I smiled to myself. I was obviously out of my mind. It was like walking on the edge, one step forward, and I would be lost forever… “You don’t really know anything about me; you know I work at the club and that’s about it... Why would you care about someone you just met yesterday?” I could hear his footsteps behind me, but I didn’t turn around to see whether he was leaving or coming closer. “I don’t need to know anything about you to actually know you. Your moves, the beating of your heart, the way you breathe… That tells me everything I need to know about you.” I wasn’t sure how far away from me he was now, so I dared to turn around, but of course, I still didn’t see him. “This is insane… Can you please stop hiding from me?” “That is one of the few things I cannot do for you… Not yet.” “What are all these secrets about? Is it just about the rules of the club?” “If I tell you the truth, you won’t believe me.” “Try me.” “Don’t rush things, Louise,” he whispered right into my ear. I didn’t hear him coming, and I couldn’t help but admit I loved having him so close to me. I don’t think my heart had ever beaten faster than it did in those rare moments where he was as close as he

was now. “You refuse to tell me anything about yourself, but you keep teasing me, playing with me, as if I were a mouse and you were a cat.” He surprised me, saying, “The only problem is that you are a cat and I’m a mouse now. I’m addicted to you, regardless of how unbelievable is sounds.” He put his hands on my waist and pulled me slightly back, pressing my back to his chest. “I can’t stop thinking about the dance you did last night. You were stunning on that stage, so sweet and seductive at the same time; so fragile, so dangerous, and yet… So free. You were yourself up there, I could feel how much you enjoyed every move your body made. You were not afraid of falling, every step you took was so natural, as if you had been dancing since the very moment you were born. I’ll never forget that dance.” It was unbelievable, how well he could feel me… “I hope you can’t read my mind,” I said jokingly, “otherwise, I might die of embarrassment.” “Why?” He asked softy, and even though I couldn’t see his face, I knew he was smiling. “Because you make me think about emotions I didn’t even realize I had.” “Emotions like what?” I shook my head, feeling my cheeks blushing. “I can’t tell you.” “Why not?” “Because this is unfair. Why don’t we make a deal? I

answer your question and then you answer mine.” “Okay. Go ahead, ask your question.” “How old are you?” “Does it matter?” “Not really, but I still want to know. And you promised to answer my question, so?” “I’m twenty-eight.” “Which means you are ten years older than me.” “Am I too old for you?” “It depends on what you mean by that…” “Whatever a man may think about, spending his time with one of, if not the most amazing woman in the world.” No one had ever called me amazing. No one had ever talked to me like that — as if I were not a child anymore, but a grown woman, and well aware of everything a man might want from me. We were still standing close to each other, and I didn’t feel like stepping away or running, I just wanted to stay like that at least for a little longer. “I don’t think you are too old,” I said, leaning against his body. I could feel it when he began to breathe quicker. Slowly, his palms slipped under my sweater, and I felt them on my belly, just like last night. I closed my eyes, and sank into the heat coming from his touch. Oh, I was so lost in the moment. I didn’t want to think, I just wanted to feel… To remember this feeling of his touch warming me up.

I didn’t know how to explain myself. I didn’t want to look for an explanation. Because for the first time ever, I finally felt like what I was doing was right; right for me, no matter how wrong it would seem to someone else… And regardless of the club’s rules, I needed this, to hell with the cost. I put my palms over his, and smiled, saying, “You wanted to know about the emotions I didn’t want to share with you… You sure you still want to know the answer?” “Yes.” His warm breath caressed my neck, but I still refused to open my eyes, as if I knew it would ruin something very special. “You make butterflies dance in my tummy. You touch me, and I’m lost… Lost to everything but the feeling of your fingertips drawing invisible circles on my skin. It’s like being caught up in a dream, a dream where no words are needed, it’s just enough to say it all with a touch, with a move, with a kiss maybe…” He growled, tightening his embrace around me. “You can’t even imagine how much I want this beautiful dream of yours to be true. How much I want you to get lost in my touches and kisses, how much I want to be with you… In a way I have never been with any other woman in my entire life.” “Please don’t tell me you’ve never been with a woman before.” “I don’t want to lie to you, Louise. And I guess you know the answer to your question. I’m not a boy anymore, I know exactly what I want. But when I saw you, I suddenly realized you would be the only thing in this world I wouldn’t be able to have. At

least not right now.” “Let me see you.” “No.” Of course, I knew he wouldn’t say yes, but it was still worth a try. “Will you ever let me see you?” “Yes.” “When?” “When the right time comes.” “I hate waiting.” He laughed quietly, the sound of his laugh vibrated on my skin. “I know.” “How about you show me the rest of the house, then?” “Well then, where shall we begin?” “How about your bedroom?” I said, barely able to contain my laughter. I was sure he didn’t expect me to say that. “You sly little fox. I know why you want to start with my bedroom.” “Really? Why?” “You think you will know more about me by seeing it, but I can assure you, my room is as secretive as I am.” “Aren’t you tired of playing all these mysterious games?” He wasn’t holding me anymore, and I was already missing his embrace. I already regretted asking him to show me the rest of the house, I would gladly just stay in the sun room, wrapped in his arms. “If the game involves you, I will never tire of playing it.”

“Do you always have to be so selfish?” “I won’t deny it, I like people doing what I tell them to do. But as I have already said, I don’t want to be the same with you. Unless you want me to give you orders.” “Stop being such an impossible pain in the ass. For now, it’s the best that you can do.” He laughed, pushing me slightly toward the door. “Look who’s talking?” “Well, yeah, I’m not perfect, but…” “There’s nothing more intoxicating than imperfection.” I stopped for a moment, thinking about his words. He was right, if I didn’t like the thrill of danger that could be waiting for me here, I would have never even agreed to get into the limo. If I didn’t like the wrongness in everything that put me and him in one sentence, I wouldn’t want to be with him. Perfection is too rare to keep chasing it. Besides, why look for something perfect, when you can get intoxicated by something so wrong, yet so irresistible?.. “What demons are hidden inside you?” I asked, heading for the staircase, slowly. “You will see them all once you look into my eyes.” “Is that why you don’t want me to see your face?” “That is one of the reasons.” We walked up the stairs in silence. I didn’t know how long I would be able to play Mr. Secret’s game. Patience has never been my strong suit, but with all the rules I had been constantly living under, I had learned how to control my impulses. No matter how much I wanted to know more about my stranger, I liked the

feeling of mystery flying in the air. It only made my blood run faster through my veins. “Which one is yours?” I stopped, looking at the endless amount of doors in the second floor hall. “The last one of the left.” “Why not to move into a smaller house if you don’t have anyone to live here with you?” “I like this place. Besides, I hope one day, I will find someone to live here with me.” “Why did you want me to come here?” “Because I knew I would never be able to have much time alone with you inside the club. Even getting private dances wouldn’t allow me to keep you all for myself for the entire night.” “I hope I was not followed by one of Drew’s men. Otherwise, I’m dead.” “No one followed you.” “How can you be so sure about that?” “Because I was the only person who has been following you all day.” “How is that possible?” “Let’s say I have my ways of controlling things.” “So I was right after all, you are a control freak,” I said with a smile. “Is this your room?” I asked, as I stopped at the door he had mentioned before. “Yes. Do you still want to see it?” Actually, I was dying too… “I don’t think there can be anything in there that would be

capable of frightening me away.” “Let’s see,” he said, with a smile in his voice. He took my hand in his and put it on the doorknob, turning it to open the door. I think I expected anything but what I actually saw when the door opened. The room was so full of light. There were no dark shades of color, everything was white and ivory. There was a sliding glass door opening to the terrace, letting the wind and the light from the outside in. “It looks so… Unlike you.” “What did you expect to see here?” “Anything but this…” I walked over to the bed, covered with a white valance, and ran my hand down the soft fabric. I had never seen a more beautiful room. It even smelled like freedom, and I suddenly wanted to cry. Not because I couldn’t afford it, rather because it reminded of the one thing I couldn’t have now… “Do you like it?” I looked around again, and nodded, fighting the tears filling my eyes. Every detail about the room said it belonged to a man. There were not any unnecessary nicknacks, clothes, or other belongings, it was as if it were only used from time to time. “Do you always live here? I mean this place looks a little… Lifeless.” “I don’t have much time to spend here. But whenever I’m in New York, I live here.” “How often do you come to the city?” I didn’t like the idea of saying good-bye to my stranger. In less than 24 hours he

managed to get closer to me than anyone else had in my eighteen years. “I’ll be here more often now.” “Now?” “Now that I have found you.” I don’t know what was so different about the phrase, but it made my heart bleed. I had never had a family. I had never had anyone waiting for me at home, or missing me. Except for Tess; there had never been anyone else I could be myself with. Too bad even that small piece of my dream of a better life was lost now. For a moment, the pain from my parents’ betrayal returned, stabbing me right in my chest. I felt like I was suffocating. It rarely happened to me, because I never let the thoughts about what they did get to me. And now… Now, I felt like I was about to start screaming. I just wanted to leave. “Will you come to my next show?” I asked, breathing heavily. I didn’t want to stay in the house anymore, I just wanted to get back to my room, curl up in my bed, and fall asleep, praying for my dreams to take away the pain. “When is your next show?” “It’s in one and a half weeks, on Wednesday. I’ll have another solo.” There were more shows planned before that day, but none of them include a solo dance from me. “I’ll be there.” “Are you still coming next Sunday?” “I wouldn’t miss the chance to see… Or rather hear you again for all the world.”

I took a few deep breaths and continued, “Can you ask the driver to take me back to the café?” “You want to leave, already? Why?” “I don’t feel good.” “What happened? Would you like some water?” “No, just… Ask him to take me back to the café, please.” I practically begged, I felt a little frantic. There was a long pause, but he finally said, “As you wish.” I breathed a sigh of relief. I was not ready to explain anything, I didn’t want to explain anything. I just needed to put some distance between us, as well as between me and this place; it was like a vivid reminder of everything I had never had. Not because I couldn’t afford it… It had been taken away from me long before I even knew what was going on. After I heard his footsteps echoing in the hall, I turned around, wiped away a few tears rolling down my cheeks and went out of the room, closing the door quietly behind me. Mr. Secret didn’t come to say good-bye. When I got downstairs, he was nowhere around. There was only Christopher, waiting for me by the open door. Is he angry at me for leaving so soon? Will he still come to see me next Sunday? Oh, I hoped he would. I didn’t want him to think anything bad about me, I also didn’t want to offend him by my sudden change of mood. “Tell him it was not his fault,” I said to Christopher. “And tell him I’ll be waiting for him.”

He nodded, but didn’t ask any questions, apparently knowing his boss would know exactly what I was talking about. The trip back to the café seemed endless. The further we were getting from the house, the more I wanted to go back. I think I was simply afraid I would never see him again. I knew I should have told him why I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. It was one of those things I never shared with anyone, not even with Tess. No one knew how much I wanted to have a real family. No one knew how many nights I spent crying myself to sleep, because I couldn’t call anyone mom or dad. No one knew how many times I tried to find information about the people who left me in the orphanage. Did I hate them? Maybe I did. But I still wanted to know their names. Especially now that I was not a child anymore; I wanted to know everything about them, including the reasons that made them abandon me. There were huge gaps in my childhood memories; either it was due to my young age, or to the fact I simply blocked them out and didn’t let my mind bring me back to the places and things that I refused to remember. The only thing I knew for sure was I didn’t spend even one day with my biological parents. As soon as I was born, I was sent to Paradise. I couldn’t imagine what children who were sent to the orphanage at five, six years old or later felt. They grew up and remembered living a different life, having a family, maybe even sisters and brothers. But as well as the rest of us, they never talked about what they lost, they only talked about their future. “The café, Miss,” Christopher said, opening the dark

window, separating us. “Thanks,” I forced a smile and got out of the car even before he could open the door for me. I didn’t want to go anywhere else today, so I took the bus that would take me back to the club. I hoped no one would start asking me about my day, because I didn’t have the slightest desire to talk about it. And I surely was not going to tell anyone about my meeting with Mr. Secret. Of all the things happened to me today, it was the only one that I wanted and needed to keep to myself. “Louise!” Tess called me the moment I entered the club. I cursed mentally. Not now… Not you, of all people! “What?” I asked a little rougher than usual. “I wanted to apologize.” No, shit? “For what?” I said as if I didn’t know what she was talking about. “I didn’t want to send you to that room last night, but Drew…” “It’s okay, Tess. It was not your call to make. After all, we all follow orders around here. Right?” She looked at me thoughtfully, apparently trying to see if I was attempting to fool her. “So it was all good last night?” “Yes. Why would you think otherwise?” “Just curious. Newbies are always afraid of their first private dance.”

“Well, I wasn’t. Anything else you wanted to talk about?” “Listen, Lu…” “Tess, I get it, really. You have a new life now, and obviously there’s no place for me there. But I’m not mad at you. I’ve changed too, even though you said I did not. I’m not the naïve Lu that you said good-bye to two years ago anymore. I never thought that my life after Paradise would be easy, it is far from it. But I know that I have to be the one to change it. So relax, Tess.” I smiled at her, no matter how hard it was to do. “Go back to the show room. I bet you have a lot of more interesting things to do than talk to me.” I turned on my heel and headed for my room. I didn’t bother to turn around. I knew Tess was still standing there, staring at my back as I walked away. I didn’t try to pretend to be someone else with her, I was myself. I told her just exactly what was on my mind at the moment. And I didn’t care whether she liked it or not. For the first time ever, I realized I was the only person who had ever truly cared about my opinion…

Chapter 8 I was having one of the most difficult nights ever. I didn’t go straight to bed after I got back to my room. Instead, I changed into a pair of shorts and a long t-shirt, then went to one of the bars I knew was empty at that time of the night. It was supposed to only serve the staff, and now everyone was still at the night’s show, so I was not afraid of being seen there. For the first time in my life, I actually bribed a bartender to get a drink. It was just a shot of vodka, but it was more than enough for me to feel a little dizzy. Yes, I was one of those people who would get drunk by just smelling the alcohol, not to mention drinking it. After pouring the shot down my throat, I remembered the first time I had experimented with drinking. It was the day before Tess was supposed to leave Paradise. We were coming back from ‘work’ and decided to stop by one of the bars where, according to Tess’s words, anyone could get a drink without showing an ID. We didn’t want to get drunk or anything, but that’s what happened anyway. We had a few bottles of beer, but it still felt like we had tried half of the beverages sold in the bar. No wonder, Marlena punished us. Not just for being late, but also for showing up deaddrunk. Not that we cared, of course. We laughed like never before. And it felt so good, we were free and careless, even though we were locked in the basement for the entire night, with no beds to sleep on. Back then, we were so happy. We didn’t think about tomorrow or the fact that it was our last night together in Paradise. We were drinking in the moment, remembering different funny stories that had happened to us in and outside the orphanage. For

me, that night was one of my favorite memories... I opened the door to my magical wardrobe and turned the lights on. Thousands of shining crystals covering my costumes blinded me as the light reflected off of them. I sat on the floor and leaned against the wall behind me. Unlike everything else about my new life, dancing was the only thing that still made me believe there were things worth living for; there can be good in the world but you have to make it happen. There was a time when I probably would have died for one of the dresses I owned now. Dancing in one show didn’t automatically make them all mine, no one knew how long I would be allowed to use them, except for Drew maybe. But somehow, I didn’t want to know how long I would have to stay in Le Papillon to work off the money he had paid for me. I was afraid to hear the answer… I only hoped my new ‘imprisonment’ wouldn’t last forever. I could see how hard it was for Kate to keep living there. Work had been her only escape from the endless torture happening inside her. She hated the club, including everything else about her life here. But she loved Drew too much to leave. And I didn’t want to end up the same way she did; I didn’t want to be bound to a place where I knew I would never be happy. Whatever I had there was enough for now, but definitely not for the rest of my life. I stayed in the wardrobe for a little while, until I felt like I was about to pass out at any second. Then I got to my feet and went to bed, falling asleep the second I had pulled the cover up to

my chin. I was having a dream… I was standing in the middle of Mr. Secret’s bedroom. There was no one in the room except for me, so I did a little searching. I walked over to one of the dressers and opened it. To my surprise, there was nothing inside it, except for a stack of letters, wrapped in a red, satin ribbon, with my name on them. I took the first envelope and opened it. “Dear Louise, I miss you so much… Since the day we first met, I can’t stop thinking about you. I will never forget the way you were looking at me. That look in your eyes… It makes tremors run through me. Every time I close my eyes, I see you… And no matter how many times I tried to get those images of you out of my head, I just can’t seem to… I hope one day, I will see you again. Not just in a dream, but for real… Always Yours W.” So his name started with a W… I knew so little about him, this small discovery felt like the biggest victory ever. I read the letter again and smiled, pressing it to my chest. There was nothing special in it, but it still made a familiar feeling of excitement form inside of me. When I was just about to open the next letter, a voice behind me said, “Curiosity can be very dangerous.” Instinctively, I closed my eyes and turned to Mr. W. I

didn’t want him to blindfold my eyes again, but I knew he wouldn’t let me look at him. I didn’t see him, but I could feel him standing very close to me. He took the letters out of my hands and put them back into the dresser, closing it. “Why wouldn’t you let me read them all? They are addressed to me.” He took my hands in his, and pulled me closer, wrapping one arm around me, and touching my chin with the other one. “There are so many things I would like to tell you, Louise.” His fingertips caressed my cheek softly. “There are so many things you need to know about me.” “Tell me… Tell me what the so many things I need to know are.” “I can’t. Not now. There are certain things that can’t be changed, but I promise you, one day, I will answer all of your questions.” I was a little pissed at all of his excuses. I was tired of the little charades games he was playing, I didn’t have the slightest desire to guess what they meant. I just needed a few answers. “Kiss me,” I said, suddenly. If I couldn’t get everything I wanted, maybe I could get at least one small reward for playing those games of his. I could feel his breath tickling my lips, I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t want another promise from him, I wanted more. I wanted to see him… I wanted to be with him… I wanted give myself to him…

“Give me at least one thing to remember about you.” “Oh, Louise, stop teasing me please. You can’t even imagine how much self-control I would need to do what you’re asking me to do.” “Is one kiss too much to ask for?” “I wouldn’t stop at kissing you…” I could feel his embrace tighten around me. “What else would you like to do?” I asked, a little afraid of the answer I would hear. “Do you really want to know?” “I do,” I said without hesitation. Regardless of how frightening his words sounded, I wanted so much more than just a kiss… And now I knew he wanted it too. Suddenly, he let me go and took a step back, leaving me completely alone. Was he going to leave me again? “Where are you?” I asked. “Follow my voice,” he replied. “Keep your eyes closed.” I did what he said, and a few moments later, I felt his arms wrapping around me again. He was standing behind me now. I reached forward and touched a smooth surface, I assumed it was a mirror, and then I wondered why he would take me to a mirror if he didn’t want me to see his face. “You can open your eyes whenever you want.” Really? I hesitated. Was I ready to see him? Was I ready to get the answers I had been looking for for so long? His palms slid up my hands and stopped at my shoulders,

pushing the straps of my dress down. His lips touched my skin, and I forgot all about the endless stream of questions running through my head. The butterflies in my belly danced. Every kiss he gave me, caused my skin to crawl. It was almost too much to bear. It was so easy to imagine spending all of my days and nights lost in the tenderness of his touch. “You can’t even imagine how sexy you look right now; so sweet and so desirable,” he whispered, unzipping my dress from the back. After another second, I felt a light breeze from the wind embracing me, and causing my dress to slip down to my feet with a soft rustle. I was almost naked, and I couldn’t see him. I was standing in front of a mirror and the eyes of the man I wanted to be with. I wasn’t ashamed, not even a little bit. Maybe it was simply because my eyes were still shut; I couldn’t see his face or his eyes, and I was sure he was studying me very carefully. “So beautiful, so pure… Like an angel sent do save me from my hell.” Slowly, he turned me around, pulling me closer to him. “You are the reflection of everything I love so much, Louise.” His palms slid down my sides, bringing our bodies closer together. “You’ve never been with a man before, and I don’t know if I have the right to take advantage of your innocence. If I have the right to claim you as mine and bind your life to mine forever. I don’t know if I deserve such a gift…” I dared to take the last step into his embrace; the fabric of his shirt rubbed my nipples. “Why would you think you don’t deserve me?” I asked

inches from his lips. Even though my eyes were closed, I could feel there was nothing but a thin layer of air between our faces. “If I tell you the truth, you will hate me.” “Then don’t… Don’t say anything, just kiss me. Please…” My palms rested on his chest, I could feel the wild beating of his heart under my skin, it made the desire in me grow. I eased forward and teased his lips with mine. I wasn’t afraid of being pushed away, I knew he would never do that to me. I could feel it. Pressing my lips harder against his, I wrapped my fingers around his neck, hoping I would break his resistance and make him free his needs and desires which I was sure were equal to mine. I was right, it didn’t take long to tear down the wall that had been hiding the real him. I felt like every inch of my body was exposed to him. I was trembling slightly with anticipation over what might happen next. He didn’t rush to deepen the kiss. Instead, his lips made their way down my neck and stopped at my breast, caressing its delicate surface with his tongue. I gasped for air, afraid I may lose my balance. I had never been touched like that before. It was different from everything I had ever experienced, and that doesn’t cover the tension growing in between my legs. Is that what they call physical attraction? If so, I don’t want to miss a second of it. A few moments later, his lips were back on mine, he took his time exploring them, teasing them with his tongue and biting them

gently, as if he were afraid of hurting me. “I wanna see you, please,” I practically begged. “I told you, you can open your eyes whenever you want.” But the moment I thought it was time to see my stranger, something unexpected happened. He turned me back to the mirror, pressing me hard to his chest, his hand slipped down my chest and into my panties, touching the most sensitive part of me. “Remember, Louise — once you see me, there will be no way back…” My eyes flew open, I sat abruptly in my bed, breathing heavily. The dream felt so real, it almost hurt when I realized I was no longer there, unfortunately I had to go back to my own damn reality that I hated so much. I groaned, leaning against my pillow. There was no way the things I had seen in my dream were my secret fantasies, or I was simply trying to fool myself by denying the obvious? Was it possible to want a man you didn’t even know? Oh, hell yes, it was… When I was just about to get up and drink some water, I heard a noise and voices coming from the hall. I tiptoed to the door and pressed my ear against it, trying to catch the words from the conversation. “You are playing with the fire, Val,” someone said. It was one of the girls, I just couldn’t tell which one. “Why do you care?” Tess snapped back. “I’m not obliged to work here anymore, I can leave any time I want.”

“Oh really? Then why are you still here?” “Get the hell out of my sight, Natasha. You have no right to tell me what to do with my life.” “It won’t take long for people to notice you are not the star here anymore, Val. Someone else has already taken your place.” Tess laughed. “Do you really think Louise Woods can take my place?” She said my name as if it was the most ridiculous name ever. “She’s just another toy that will be broken in no time.” I was a little surprised to hear my name. Who would have thought that Tess, of all people, would ever admit that I was a better dancer than she was? “Not everyone is like you, Valery.” “And what the hell is that supposed to mean?” “You know damn well what I mean. If Drew finds out about your affairs, he will punish you. And we both know that throwing you out into the street would be the easiest punishment for you.” “You don’t know anything about me, Little Doll. So if you want to continue working here, you’d better keep your mouth shut about everything you’ve seen tonight.” “I won’t tell anyone. You know I won’t. But I’m not going to cover for you anymore. Next time you need an excuse to leave the club in the middle of the night, find someone else to help you.” “Didn’t I pay you enough for your small lie?” “I don’t need your money. It’s not like you would ever help me if they decided to kick me out of here, and I want to stay. I need this job.”

“Of course you do. Don’t worry, I won’t bother you anymore. But remember one thing — if you open your little mouth and Drew or anyone else finds out the truth, you will leave with me, whether you like it or not.” Heels clip-clopped against the marble floor, and I didn’t hear anything else. Apparently, the conversation was over. I went back to my bed, thinking about what I had just heard. Where did Tess and Natasha go tonight? What did Natasha see? What affair or affairs was she talking about? Was Tess secretly seeing one of the club’s visitors? No matter how much I hated to admit it, it was the only logical explanation I could find. No wonder Tess looked so careless. With the salaries they pay the dancers here, there is no possible way she could afford all of the fancy belongings I saw in her room. Now I was damn sure all of it wasn’t just clothes and jewelry for the shows. She received them for sleeping with the clients… I can’t say I was surprised about my discovery. I knew the Tess, who lived and worked in the club was not the same Tess I used to be friends with. She acted as if no one, not even Drew could give her orders, as if she was the true and only owner of her life. But I still couldn’t understand why she started seeing our clients outside the club.

For as long as I could remember, Tess has always loved money. But I could have never imagined she loved money that much. After all, becoming a whore would never solve all of her problems… I was sure they didn’t have anything to do with getting more money. There was something else hidden behind her story. It was the something else I had been trying to figure out, and just haven’t been able to yet. Because even for the new Tess, sleeping around didn’t seem like it was the only way to ensure her survival.

Chapter 9 “Louise, are you okay?” Kate and I were having breakfast, but considering the little amount of sleep I managed to get last night, I didn’t feel like eating, at all. “I don’t feel good, actually. I think I might have caught a cold yesterday.” “Where were you, by the way? I checked your room in the afternoon, but you were not there.” “I just … went sightseeing. I’ve never been allowed to have a good look at the city’s sights, you know?” “I can’t believe you guys were not allowed to go more than fifteen miles away from Paradise. How can they say they actually care about homeless kids, when they do everything in their power to make the lives of the children there a living hell?” “I guess we will probably never know the answer to that. Hey, can I ask you about something else instead?” “Sure. What is it about?” I looked around carefully, making sure we were alone in the café. Last night, after I heard the conversation Tess and Natasha were having in the hall, a thought came to my mind… “How close were Valery and that girl... Isabel?” “Well, it’s hard to make friends here, you know? We can pretend we are close, but in reality, we are anything but friends. But Val and Isabel were really close. I still don’t know why. They were polar opposites. I would have never imagined Valery befriending someone like Bella — that is what we call Isabel at the club. She

has always been the black sheep here. I don’t know where Drew found her. She was not one of Paradise’s girls, and she was very different from everyone I had ever met here. She was shy and even while dancing, I could see how hard it was for her to show off too much naked skin, or to make moves that seemed overly sexy in her mind. She never stayed in the show room after her show was over. She always followed the rules. Who would have thought she was having a secret affair with one of the clients? She always came back in time, she never left in the middle of the night. There wasn’t anything that could warn us about the tragedy coming. Then, some time later, I started seeing her with Val a lot. They went out together, they trained together, they even had matching costumes for their shows, even though Val always demands the unique ones, different from everyone else’s.” “Has Drew ever tried to track them? I mean, didn’t it seem suspicious that they went out together that frequently?” “Back then, we didn’t know what was actually going on. We had never dealt with anything like that before. The rules of staying and working here were not as strict as they are now. We still don’t know if there have ever been any other of our girls seeing the clients outside the club. Before the new rules were set, dancing and training was all we cared about. Anyway, why are you wondering about Isabel again?” I was not going to report Tess, or anything, I just wanted to know what she was hiding, because I was one hundred percent sure she was hiding something from everyone, including Kate and Drew.

“You know, Val and I used to be best friends. And now, that we are here… I can see we will never be close like that again. It’s not easy to believe it, after everything she and I have been through together. So I’m just trying to understand why she has changed as much as she has.” Kate smiled, patting my hand. “You are a good girl, Louise. Don’t put yourself in that mess, you will never be able to get out of it. It’s better to concentrate on your own life, your own dreams. Move on and forget about your past. There will never be a way to get it back.” “I know. It’s just… I think I need more time to get used to my new life.” “Speaking of which… I have checked your schedule for the next week, and you know what I have found out?” “What?” My heart skipped a beat at the thought of Mr. Secret’s visit. I knew Kate would be the first to find out about it. “You have a private dance scheduled for next Sunday.” “Again?” I asked, as if I were surprised. “Mmm. The man that you danced for the other night, has paid for another dance. He must have really enjoyed the last one.” Thinking about Tess’s secrets, I didn’t have time to think about the upcoming meeting. I didn’t even realize I was not afraid of it anymore. I just knew it would be special, which only made the expectations even more exciting. “Are you scared?” Kate asked, apparently taking my silence as a bad sign. “No. I mean, yes… A little.”

“But he was nice to you last time he watched you dance, wasn’t he?” “Oh, yes, he was very nice. Left good tips and didn’t try to do anything, you know … improper.” “Good. Which means you don’t have anything to worry about. Do you need a room to train?” “Do you know which room he wants me to dance in?” “Room nine, if I am remembering correctly.” An idea came to my mind. “Is there a pole in that room?” “Yes, why?” Kate asked, looking at me suspiciously. “I just want to try something different this time.” She shook her head, smiling. “You are not going to undress, are you?” “Of course, not. It’s not a strip club, remember?” “Be careful, Louise. Men can be aware of the rules, but they are still men, made of flesh and blood that you’d do best by not trying to boil.” I smirked, rising to my feet. “I’ll remember that.” “Before you go, I would like to tell you a few words about pole dancing. Or do you know how to do pole dancing?” I giggled, sitting down. “I have no clue.” “Good. It makes me believe you will do it all just great.” “Okay, stop laughing at me. Better tell me what to do with the damn pole.” “First of all, you will need a proper pair of shoes. They should be made of plastic, so you could use them to support yourself on the pole. Some girls dance without them, but I’ll be

damned if I know how to do it without ripping my skin on my feet. It will be your first pole dance, so you’d better not try too much of those climbing-up-the-pole things. It’s pretty scary to climb up that fucker for the first time.” I laughed and Kate proceeded. “Don’t get me wrong, but I remember the first time I watched girls dancing around the pole. They did different flips and tricks, and I just kept thinking, Oh, Lord… There’s no way I’m gonna repeat it all without killing myself! But eventually, I learned everything, and even managed to get a job in a strip club where pole was like my third hand; you can’t strip without dancing on and around it first. So if you don’t know what to do once you climb up the pole, just make it spin, but be careful, I don’t want you to break your neck or anything. When the pole is spinning, you are spinning with it. After you learn how to climb the pole and make it spin, try to lay back, with both legs firmly wrapped around the pole. Then take one leg and stretch it out while the other knee is wrapped around the pole with the shoe wrapped around securing your body weight to the pole so you don’t fall. This will look good. Once you know how to do all of the above, try winging yourself up and around the pole and laying vertically with your body flush with the pole spinning the entire time. In this position your thighs are mostly what hold you up, but your feet and shoes add extra security to make sure you do not plummet head first into the ground.” “Okay, it sounds a little complicated, but I think I get the main rules.” “Good. Call me if you need help. I might not be able to train with you today, I have a lot to do before the show. But I can come

and watch your dance any other day.” “I’ll be fine. Thanks.” I smiled at Kate, left the café, and went back to my room, hoping to find a proper outfit for the dance. I was not lying to her, my dance was not supposed to be about stripping the clothes off of my body. It was supposed to be more like an apology for yesterday’s running away. Even though it was also going to involve a pole… There were ten different rooms for private dancing in the club, only three of which had poles. We called them ‘red rooms’. And yes, despite how much Drew hated saying the club did allow stripteases, we all knew using red rooms meant leaving some clothes on the floor. I had never used a pole to dance before, but somehow, I knew Mr. Secret would love my experiment. I chose a bright-red dress with a corset and a short flared skirt that could be easily removed without anyone’s help. As for my dance, I thought it would be different too. A little more open, a little more daring… I remembered the dream I had last night. A part of me still hurt – in a very pleasurable way – at the thought of the scenario coming true. I couldn’t stop thinking about how good it would be to feel his lips on mine. Did he know how much I wanted him to kiss me? Did he see how little I cared about the time we knew each other and how much I wanted to be with him, in the most sensual way? I only hoped he wouldn’t think I was just another show girl that could be easily seduced by a few compliments and money.

I took the dress and went to room nine to try a few moves. My thoughts were miles away from the club and everything going on there, I didn’t see Tess entering one of the private dance rooms. Only when I was about to unlock my room, I heard her saying, “We have a lot of work tonight, I won’t be able to leave unseen.” “Then why don’t I pay some extra cash for a private dance?” A man’s voice said. I didn’t know clients were allowed into the club before the nightly shows started. “You are not the only one who wants to see me in a private room, Rodger. Besides, I doubt you have enough money to pay for two nights in a row with me.” “Didn’t you like dancing for me last night?” He put emphasis on the word dancing, clearly dancing was not what he meant by the term. I frowned. Tess wasn’t working last night… Or was he talking about the ‘dancing’ she did outside the club? “It was okay. But I have work to do. I can’t waste all of my time on you.” “Don’t you dare talk to me like that,” he said in a harsh voice. “We both know that I’m the only person who can help you with your small problem.” “Speaking of which… Did you find out anything about the policeman I told you about?” “Yes. And I’m sure you will like it. You always like the news that I bring you.” “It doesn’t give you any extra rights, though.” “No, really? What if I go tell Drew about your little games

outside the club?” “Go, do whatever you want. He won’t believe you.” “Are you sure about that? I heard he started doubting your loyalty a long time ago. So what do you think might stop him from throwing you out of here?” There was a short pause, then Tess said, “Okay. You can come back tonight. I will dance for you. But no more than that.” “I want a special dance, in a red room.” “Fine.” I heard footsteps and hurried to hide behind the door to my dance room before Tess would be able to notice I had been eavesdropping. I didn’t like the conversation I had heard, at all. Something was telling me that Tess was in trouble, even if she, herself, didn’t know it yet. I sighed, worried. How was I supposed to find out what was going on without making Kate and Drew suspicious? I was sure if I started asking more questions, they would realize I must be up to something they might not like. I looked at the dress I was still holding in my hands. I still had about a week to get ready for another private dance, but considering the amount of shows I would have before it, I doubted I would get another chance to practice. But no matter what, the upcoming dancing session was so much more important than anything else. So I went to the pole and the training started. ***

As expected, Sunday night was the craziest time of the week for Le Papillon. The club was overcrowded. It felt like people were everywhere, and not I couldn’t even hide from nonstop calls for help from the girls who were getting ready for the show. “Louise, I need a different pair of stockings, these look awful with my costume.” Natasha was almost crying, standing at the threshold of my room. “How could I not notice that last night? I tried the outfit like five times, and not even once did I think about changing the damn stockings!” “Don’t worry, I think I have a pair that will match your top perfectly.” I searched through my drawers. “Here. Take these gloves as well, I think they will look good on you.” “Thank you so much, Dear.” She hugged me tight. “I would be lost without you. You know Kate, she hates when something doesn’t look perfect.” But I had my own reasons to be that generous with Natasha. Not that I didn’t wish her luck with her dance, but I also wanted to ask her a few questions. Last night, I saw her and Tess coming back late again, and I had no doubt they didn’t have permission to leave the club on Saturday night. “I bet it’s hard to get back to work after a long day off.” “I’m sure it is, but I don’t remember the last time I had a day off. You know my dancing skills suck, I need to spend days and nights training.” “Oh, and I thought you had a day off yesterday. I heard you come back in fairly late.”

Her face paled. She stared at me terrified, apparently afraid I would start asking more questions, but I was smarter than that. “I woke up thirsty and saw that my water pitcher was empty. I went to the café to get some water and saw you heading for your room.” “Oh, so you didn’t see or… Hear anything else?” “What do you mean? I thought you were alone, were you not?” “I was alone. Never mind.” A nervous laugh escaped her lips. “I’m just so nervous about the show tonight. I am acting like a complete idiot.” I smiled, wordlessly. I should find a different opportunity to make her talk. Maybe after the show, when she’s less scared about doing or saying something wrong. “I gotta go, my dance starts in five,” she said, looking one last time in my mirror. “Thanks again for the gloves, they are stunning.” “You are welcome.” I closed the door behind her and got back to painting my nails. Every small part of me should be perfect tonight. Natasha was just a few months older than me, and from what I could see, she was not as smart as I first thought she was. Apparently, it took Tess less than two seconds to make her obey her orders. What did Tess promise her? Money? Jewelry? Shoes? I doubted Natasha was interested in sleeping with the clients. She didn’t look like that kind of girl. But she obviously knew something

that could help me figure out what was going on with Tess. I just needed more time to get the needed information from her. Hours later, when it was time for my private dance to start, I got dressed and headed for one of the red rooms, hoping Mr. Secret would like what I had prepared for him. As expected, the room was empty. Apparently, he was waiting for me to get ready for the dance. This time, there was a CD player sitting on a small table in the corner. I had a CD with the song I was going to use for my dance. I put it in and the sounds of music filled the entire space around me. I came to the couch and took one of the blindfolds lying on it. “Let me help you,” the familiar voice said behind me. I smiled. “How do you do this?” “Do what?” Mr. Secret asked, taking the piece of fabric from my hands. “You always show up unheard, and disappear without a sound.” “If you want to know whether I’m real or not, then the answer is yes, I am more than real. It’s just the music quieting the sounds we make…” The beating of my heart became faster. I was sure the choice of his words was not accidental. He was playing with me, again. Only this time, I was going to join in the game. “I have something for you,” I said, as I turned around. “I can see that. Lovely dress, by the way.”

I smirked. “I was actually talking about the dance. And about the things that can’t be well seen with this dress on.” I could swear, he was speechless, because for the next few moments, I didn’t hear anything but his uneven breathing on my face. “I can’t wait to see what you have prepared for me,” he finally said. I walked around him and came to the pole. It was not hard to find it. The room wasn’t big, so even with my eyes blindfolded, it was easy to orient myself with my surroundings. I was wearing high heels that I bet would kill anyone trying to wear them outside the club, but since there was a pole I could hold on to, I wasn’t afraid of falling. Plus, I knew Mr. Secret was watching me now, I couldn’t afford to screw up. With one hand holding the pole, I took a few steps around it, before sliding slowly to the floor, with my back pressed against its metal surface. Then, getting up and standing on one leg, I gave my body a little push to make it spin around the pole. The main thing here was to never let the pole go. At least it was one of a few things that I knew about pole dancing. I pulled myself away from the pole, and then wrapped one leg around it, spinning with my other leg stretched aside. Every move felt so natural, so easy, as if I had always danced like this, for this very man. I remembered the words I said to Kate about stripteases… I wasn’t sure if I would really never dance a striptease for anyone anymore. In fact, I wanted to give it a try… Maybe not right there and then, but one day.

I kept swirling around the pole, as if it was a man I was dancing with. Not even for a second did I feel like I was doing something wrong. I was sure my every move appeared perfect, just the way it was supposed to be. By the time my dance was about to end, I felt so good, even a little high, as if it was not just a dance I was enjoying, but a drug I couldn’t get enough of. I pulled the edge of my skirt and threw it away, leaving myself in a red corset, with stockings and matching bright-red high heels. With my hands holding the pole high above my head, I was just about to make the last move, when suddenly… “Louise,” I heard my name whispered right along with the hands, sliding up my sides. The dance was not over yet, but all of a sudden, I felt like I couldn’t move, as if spellbound by the touch. “You are such a tease, a dare that is so hard to ignore.” “I’m not done teasing you yet,” I said, taking a step into the welcoming embrace that I missed so much. “I know. But I don’t think I can stand it anymore.” “Didn’t you like my dance?” “You know the answer. I couldn’t not like it. It was like all my fantasies about you were coming true.” “Is dancing the only thing that we are doing in your fantasies?” “You are not helping, you know?” “I wasn’t trying to be helpful,” I said teasingly. I knew I was risking a lot. He could leave at any second, and I wouldn’t be able to stop him. I only hoped he wanted to stay as much as I wanted him to stay with me.

“I want to give you something to remember me by,” he said, caressing my chin with his fingertips. “I want to give you this.” The next moment his lips were on mine, kissing me with so much need and passion, I think I forgot how to breathe. The kiss was anything but slow and easy; it was giving and taking, begging and demanding, as if he wanted to tell me something with that kiss, the something that I was obviously missing. I could feel how desperate he was. I didn’t need to see his face to know it. His lips said it all. As if he was drinking me in; every breath I took, every beat my heart made, every small move that my body made next to his. But it was still not enough… Now that I knew what it was like to actually feel him, I didn’t want to stop. I think at that very moment, there was nothing but him that I could think about. I wasn’t afraid of being caught, I wasn’t afraid of being fired, I just wanted to run away with him, somewhere we could be together for real, with nothing separating our bodies and minds, with our kisses and moves saying it all for us. His fingers tangled in my hair, I heard him moaning into my mouth. “This is too much, Louise… You are too much.” And then, his lips were back on mine, so soft, so sweet, with the velvet of his tongue searching mine, teasing, tasting, playing. “I want to see the rest of your dance, but not now, not here.” “Why not now?” I asked, desperately. I couldn’t believe he was going to say good-bye, leaving me in agony that I didn’t know how to deal with. “Because if you keep dancing like you did before, I don’t

think I can stop at watching you. I will tear this lovely corset off of you, I will kiss every inch of you, until you no longer remember how to take a breath. And then… God, then I will probably do things that will never let me cross the threshold of this unholy place again. And that, is one thing that I can’t let happen. Not now…”

Chapter 10 “You always say one and the same thing — not now. What is so different about now that might change after some time?” He sighed, pressing his forehead to mine. “You are so young, Louise... You shouldn’t be here. You deserve so much better than this… Men pay for your dance, for your beauty, but I don’t want to be one of those bastards who care about nothing but using women. I’ve been waiting for you for too long to let my body’s needs ruin it all.” “But I want to be with you. In the way I know you want to be with me too.” “It’s not that simple. Even if we give in to the temptation, it won’t change anything, but make us suffer even more. Because you will still need to get back here, to work for Drew, until he decides to let you go. Not even I can change it.” “Then why are you here now?” “Because I know that one day, you will be allowed to leave. And I can’t wait for that day to come.” “Why me?” I guess it was the most important question I had ever asked. I still didn’t know why Mr. Secret chose me. No one has ever placed a priority on me before. “What is so different about me?” “Everything.” “How do you know that?” “I can feel it.” Fine answers… God, I hated people paying with fine answers…

“Tell me something about you, anything. Please.” “What would you like to know?” “Your name? It’s not a hard question, is it?” He hesitated for a moment. “It’s Will, William.” “William?” The memory of my dream last night started forming in my head. I couldn’t believe it… First, he said he wanted to give me something to remember him by, which was exactly what I asked for in my dream, and now this… “Why does that surprise you?” He asked, removing a few locks of my hair away from my face. “Because everything happening right here and now feels a little surreal. My eyes are blindfolded, but I still trust you, even though I know I shouldn’t. You are a stranger, and I’m just a stupid girl attracted to the beautiful illusion that you create in my mind. If I had a mother, she would probably tell me to stay away from you. But I don’t have anyone to stop me from doing what I want to do.” I reached one hand and touched his face, sliding my palm slowly up his cheek. “They say that blind people can feel the beauty around them. And right now, I feel like I’m one of them too, trying to see you in my mind, imagining your eyes, your lips, your smile… Don’t you think it’s unfair?” He caught my hand, and kissed the back of my palm, pulling me closer to his chest. “I couldn’t agree with you more. But life is always unfair. We don’t have control over things that someone decides for us.” “Are we not allowed to make at least one of our dreams come true?”

“This is exactly what we are doing now — making our dream come true.” He was right. I didn’t know where that sudden feeling of need to be with him came, but I hardly cared. He was there with me now, and it was the only thing that really mattered. “There’s one more thing I wanted to tell you,” I said. “I’m sorry for running away the other day. I didn’t mean to leave so soon.” “Can I ask why you suddenly wanted to leave?” “I don’t think I want to talk about it now.” “So it’s your turn to leave me at sea now?” He asked with a smile in his voice. “I will tell you everything when the right time comes.” “Ugh, I always knew that payback is a bitch.” I laughed under my breath. “Sometimes tables turn, right? At least now you know how I feel when you are not playing fair.” “My time with you is almost over.” “Can’t you stay longer?” “Not tonight. But I will come back on Wednesday, I promise.” He let go of me and I suddenly felt so cold and lost without him. “What has a man like you found in someone like me? You can have any woman you want…” “That’s the thing… I can’t… Because the only woman I want is you. You are different, Louise. You’ve always been and you will always be.” Then the door opened and closed, and I felt like breaking

into tears. Again, he made me feel something that I had never felt before. I didn’t know what missing someone meant. I could have never imagined I would miss someone one day. I did miss Tess after she left Paradise, but what I felt whenever I said good-bye to Mr. Secret was so much different. It scared the hell out of me, because for the first time ever, I felt like I was addicted to someone. The worst of my fears returned… I don’t think I could live through another betrayal. I already knew that the day he didn’t come back, would be the worst day ever. I took off the blindfold, left it on the couch and headed back to my room. At least tonight, we managed to take one step forward — now I knew what Mr. Secret’s name was. William… “Louise, can I have a word with you?” Drew asked, running after me. “Did I do something wrong?” He laughed, embracing me by the shoulders. “Why would you think that?” “Well… Maybe because when your boss wants to have a word with you, it usually doesn’t promise anything good.” “This time, you are wrong. I was actually going to make you an offer.” He looked around the hall, and nodded to his waiting room. “Why don’t we go to my office? I don’t want anyone to hear what I’ve got to tell you.” I didn’t like the sound of that. Drew was the boss here. He could go and talk to anyone, anywhere. Then why would he care if

anyone could hear our conversation? Only after he closed the door to his office behind him, he spoke, “The night of your first show, I had a few special guests here. Please, sit.” He nodded to one of the chairs opposite his. “One of them was my old friend, Pierre. He’s the owner of one of the cabaret clubs in Paris. He was fascinated by your dance and he wanted to know if maybe you would agree to participate in one of his shows.” “In Paris?” “Yes. What do you think?” “Wow… I don’t really know what to say. I’m sure it would be an honor…” “But?” “I didn’t say anything about ‘but’.” “Which means you agree to go to Paris with him?” There was one thing I wanted to know first. “Is his club like Le Papillon? I mean it’s not a strip club, is it?” “They do all kinds of dancing there. But no, Pierre doesn’t want you to dance striptease; it will be a traditional cabaret show, with a solo from you.” “When does he want me to be there?” “By Tuesday night.” “Which means I’m gonna miss my Wednesday show.” Oh no… William was supposed to be here on Wednesday. Was there a way to let him know I wouldn’t be here? “I don’t think it’s a problem. We can reschedule your next show for Friday night. So what do you say?”

Did I have a choice? I don’t think so… “I will go.” Drew smiled happily. “That’s the right answer. Not everyone gets such a generous offer from Pierre.” “Has any other girl from here ever participated in his shows?” “Yes, but it was a long time ago. Pierre is always looking for new talents. And of course, he will pay you for the show.” Money was the last thing I cared about. I was still thinking about a way to contact Will. Or maybe I shouldn’t be worried about that… What if everything he said and promised was nothing but a game, carefully thought-out plan on how to force me into his bed? Damn it… What the hell is wrong with you, Louise? Less than twenty minutes ago you were ready to sleep with him right in the red room, and now you doubt every breath you take? This is ridiculous… Of course, he can be just another liar. But… God, you know he is not. “How am I supposed to get to Paris?” “You will fly, of course. Pierre will accompany you, so you don’t have anything to worry about. Be ready by tomorrow noon. I’ll call him right away and tell him about your decision.” Drew picked up the phone and started dialing the number. It looked like our conversation was over, so I rose to my feet and left.

*** Kate was waiting for me in my room. “What did he want from you?” She asked, a little nervous. “How did you get in here?” I was sure I had locked the room before leaving. “I have keys to all the rooms in this building. So let’s get back to my question. What’d Drew want from you?” “Relax, he didn’t ask me to sleep with him.” A nervous laugh escaped her lips. “I’m sure he did not.” “Then why do you look like you are about to go break his neck or something?” “I know Drew well enough to be sure that if he drags you into his office, he must be up to something that is not always legal or decent. So what was it all about?” “He asked if I wanted to go to Paris to participate in his friend’s show.” “You’ve got to be kidding me… Does he want you to go to Pierre’s club?” “Do you know him?” “Of course, I do! The son of a bitch fucks everything with a vagina and trust me, Louise, if he has laid his eyes on you, he wants nothing but to sleep with you.” “Oh, my goodness… I have already said yes. What am I supposed to do now?” “Stay here. I’ll talk to Drew.” “No! Please don’t. I don’t want him to think that I complain about my work, or worse — that I don’t respect his orders.”

“Forget about his shitty orders! Not even he can make you sleep with anyone he wants.” “Kate, please…” But it was already too late. She rushed out of my room, leaving the door half-open. I went out into the hall, and saw Tess, returning to her room. Apparently, her show had just ended. She was wearing another sexy outfit that left so little to the man’s imagination, and she looked like she was upset about something. “Is everything alright?” She stopped and smirked, humorless. “Never has been better. Why?” “No reason.” She looked at me from head to toe, and then her eyes stopped at my face again. “Are you working tonight?” “No, but I had a private dance to show.” She frowned. “For whom?” “I don’t know. He didn’t introduce himself.” “Did you see his face?” “No.” She looked at me thoughtfully, but said nothing and walked away. “Hey, Tess!” I called after her. “Do you know if clients are allowed here before the main show begins?” “What?” She stopped, turning around slowly, and stared at me, puzzled. “I thought I heard you talking to one of the clients a few days ago, but I guess it was not you…”

In the blink of an eye, she was back to where she was standing before, drilling me with her angry gaze. “What did you hear?” She asked in a barely audible voice. “Nothing. Just the voices. I didn’t get anything, there were other people in the hall. I wouldn’t have been able to get a word even if I had wanted to.” A little lie won’t hurt anyone, I thought to myself. I could see how nervous Tess was. Obviously, no one else was supposed to hear her conversation. “He was not a client. Just one of my designers,” she said, taking a step back. “We needed to discuss the dress for the next show.” “Oh… Can’t wait to see it, then.” I smiled and went back to my room. She was not buying it. I knew Tess well enough to see that she got suspicious. Maybe I shouldn’t have rushed things with my ‘investigation’? Well, too late to think about taking my words back. At least now, I knew for sure that she was hiding something. And I couldn’t wait to find out what it was. Kate didn’t come back for at least an hour. I took a shower and got changed, hoping she wouldn’t do anything to make Drew throw me out into the street. No matter how much I hated the idea of working for him for the rest of my life, I was still not ready to leave. Kate returned around midnight, all thoughtful and secretive.

“It’s all good. No need to worry,” was all she said. “And?” “And you are leaving tomorrow, noon, with Pierre.” “What about sleeping with him?” “You don’t need to sleep with him or anyone else. Drew promised he wouldn’t touch you. So relax and go get some sleep. We will need to work on your new solo dance before you leave. I’ll be waiting for you in the show room, at six thirty.” There was something weird about Kate’s words and behavior. She avoided looking into my eyes, and I didn’t know if I had the right to ask any more questions. After all, she was like my second boss there. “Okay,” I finally said, nodding. “I’ll be there at six thirty.” She looked at me one last time and left. I didn’t know what to think. What did Drew tell Kate to make her change her mind about my trip to Paris? She was not an easy person to persuade. He must have told her something really believable if she supported his decision wordlessly. *** The next day started with a knock at my door. It was not even six thirty yet, so I doubted it was Kate trying to wake me up. Yawning, I went to open the door, but to my surprise, there was no one behind it. “You’ve got to be freaking kidding me,” I muttered angrily. Was it some kind of a stupid joke from one of my new ‘friends’? When I was just about to shut the door, I saw a note lying on the

floor. I picked it up and went back into the room. There was my name written on the note, I opened it and read, “The car will be waiting for you at the club’s entrance at 11.30 AM. Don’t be late.” Well, thanks for being all nice and sweet, Mr. Pierre, I thought, smirking. The note was not signed, but there was no doubt it was from my soon-to-be boss. I tossed it into the trash can and went to take a shower. I still needed to pack a few things that I might need in Paris, the rest of my baggage was packed the night before. Despite Kate’s words, I was still a little scared about the trip. It was not just my first trip abroad, it was the first time that I was going to be all alone, with the people and in the place that I didn’t know anything about. Le Papillon didn’t count, at least it was situated in New York and people here spoke English. I hoped Pierre could speak English too, otherwise it was going to be another trial for me. Thank God, dancing didn’t include talking, and I truly hoped it would be all about dancing trip and nothing else. As always, Kate was waiting for me in the show room. “Have you ever been late for a training?” I asked, coming closer to the stage. “Good morning to you too,” she replied, smiling. “No, not that I remember.” “Lucky you, I can hardly force myself out of bed if I don’t get enough sleep at night.” “Forget about good sleep, Doll. Here we are not allowed to

think about rest, if we have work to do.” “I am sick and tired of the damn rules. They follow me everywhere!” “Tell me about it. Now, enough complaining. It’s time to dance! What would you like your next solo to look like?” “Whatever you have in mind, is okay. I seem to be unable to think straight today. The damn messenger woke me up at five in the morning. If only I could kill whoever it was.” “Who was the message from?” “Pierre. He wanted to remind me about the trip. Not that I was going to forget about it, you know?” “You don’t sound excited. Are you still scared of traveling with him?” “I don’t know. I just have this weird feeling telling me that things won’t go smoothly.” “Stop worrying about Pierre. He can hardly speak English, and Drew said that he was not going to sleep with you, so all you need to do is to concentrate on your dance. It’s just a two-day trip. It will be over sooner than you know.” “I hope so. I don’t want to miss my show Friday as well.” “Who would have thought you would be so eager to work after less than two weeks here?” Kate looked at me squinting. “Is there anything you would like to tell me about?” “Like what?” I turned away from her studying eyes, pretending I was looking for a song in the collection of her CDs. It was a bad idea to mention my next show. I didn’t want Kate to get suspicious, and I wanted her to find out about Will and our meeting

outside the club even less. “I don’t know. It’s just that not everyone likes working here, and you seem to be totally fine about everything that we want you to do here.” “It’s just a temporary job. No need to be pissed about every small thing that I might not like. Shall we start the training now?”

Chapter 11 “You are not afraid of flying, are you?” After we finished my training, Kate and I went to my room. She wanted to make sure I had everything ready for the trip. “I will be able to answer that question after the flight. I’ve never been on a plane before, remember?” “Right.” “Do you know who the other girl was, that Drew mentioned had also worked for Pierre?” She didn’t answer. “Kate? Are you listening to me?” She looked a little lost, staring at nothing in particular. “Are you okay?” I asked, worried. “It was me,” she said after a short pause. “Why didn’t you tell me it was you?” “Why would I? There’s nothing interesting to tell actually.” She rose to her feet and headed for the door, but I couldn’t let her go just like that.” “Wait,” I said, catching her by the hand. “What happened in Paris?” “I don’t think you need to know that. Besides, your trip will be different.” “How can you be so sure about that?” “Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.” And then, she just left, leaving me with even more worries than I had before. Great, now I can start doubting my safety. Maybe I should go and tell Drew I changed my mind. Or should I just

keep my mouth shut and just do what he told me to do? Ugh… If only it was that easy. A few moments later, one of the club’s security guards came to let me know a car was already outside, waiting for me. I thanked him for the information, took my purse and suitcase and went into the hall, praying for my self-assurance to not let me down. “Miss,” the driver nodded politely, opening the door for me. I got into the car and fastened the seat belt. It was going to be a long adventure, even though it was supposed to last for no more than two days. I looked at the club one last time and mentally wished myself good luck. Maybe I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I had spent too much of my lifetime following the orders given to me by others. And now, it was time to see if I could do something for myself as well. After all, seeing Paris was one of the most incredible dreams of mine, and it was about to come true. The first surprise was waiting for me right at the airport. It was not one of the big commercial New York airports, but a private one, with a shining white plane waiting for me there. “Has Mr. Pierre already arrived?” I asked the driver helping me with my baggage. “Miss Woods?” Someone called before he could answer my question. I turned around and saw a man standing on the plane’s stairway. He was around forty, wearing a dark-blue suit, with a white hat and matching gloves.

He must be the pilot. “Yes,” I said, coming closer to where he was standing. “My name is Brian, Brian Parrow. I’ll be your pilot for your flight to Paris. Welcome aboard.” “Thanks.” I smiled uneasily, going up the stairs. “The other passenger is waiting for you inside. He’s on a conference call right now, but he will join you as soon as possible. Please, make yourself at home.” I looked around the cabin, it was big enough to contain at least twenty more people. There were black leather chairs and tables everywhere, along with two small couches sitting on both sides of the cabin. “There are two more cabins here, you can take the one behind this door,” Brian said, pointing to the door on his right. “The flight will last for about seven hours. Would you like something to drink? That is Lucy,” he said, pointing to a girl who had just entered the cabin. “If there is anything you need, feel free to ask her, she will get it.” The girl, Lucy, had sandy hair, and was probably a few years older than me. She was wearing a dark-blue jacket and a matching skirt, and she had a trolley full of drinks and snacks. “Enjoy your flight, Miss Woods,” Brian said before leaving. I smiled and took one of the seats near the window. “A cup of tea, Miss?” Lucy asked. “Yes, please.” I didn’t have time to have breakfast, but I think I was too nervous to eat anything right now anyway. “Thanks,” I said, taking the cup from her hands.

“Let me know if you need anything else.” I nodded, and Lucy left, leaving a plate of snacks on my table. Apparently, she thought I was too shy to ask for them myself. About ten minutes later, I heard the sound of the engine roaring. My heartbeat accelerated. I hoped I wouldn’t faint or anything, because by the time the plane started to take off, I felt lightheaded and dizzy. “Miss Woods, here’s a note for you,” Lucy said, giving me a piece of paper. She took my empty cup away, but left the snacks untouched. How very thoughtful of her. I unfolded the note and read the following, “If you promise to behave, I won’t put a blindfold on you.” You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought to myself, shocked. “Will? Is that you?” I asked in a trembling voice, hearing someone take a seat right behind me. No one answered. I panicked. What if I was wrong and it was Pierre sitting there, now trying to guess who Will was. God, I was so screwed. “Good to see you again, Louise.” I breathed a sigh of relief at the sound of the familiar voice. Even now, I could tell Will was smiling. “This is not funny, at all,” I said, a little irritated. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack when you didn’t reply to my question.” He laughed quietly. “I wanted to surprise you.”

“And you did surprise me. What are you doing here? I was supposed to go to Paris with Pierre.” “Actually, you were never supposed to go there with anyone but me.” “What?” “I have planned this trip for the two of us.” I couldn’t help but smile at the sound of that. “Why didn’t you tell me about it? And here I thought I was going to miss my show Wednesday and wouldn’t be able to dance for you again.” “Were you upset about missing a meeting with me?” There was no point in lying to him. “Yes. At first, I thought I would find a way to let you know I wouldn’t be there on Wednesday, but then…” “But then what?” “I thought maybe I was just imagining things and you didn’t really want to see me again.” I heard him sigh. “I wouldn’t miss my chance to see you again for the world.” I smiled again, leaning against the back of my chair. All of my fears were gone in no time, it was just enough to know that I was with Will now. And with him, I always felt good and safe. “Does Drew know about your trick?” “He doesn’t. But Pierre does, because without his help, this trip wouldn’t be happening.” “Did you bribe him or something?” “Or something…”

“Aren’t you going to tell me how you managed to fool everyone and kidnap me for two entire days?” “Does it matter?” I thought for a moment, before saying, “No, not at all.” “You will still need to dance in Pierre’s club. We will need pictures to prove you were there.” “That is not a problem. I have a solo dance prepared for the show, and I have my costume with me.” “Good, then there’s nothing to worry about.” “Except for one thing…” “What one thing?” “When you said to behave in your note, did you mean I shouldn’t turn around to see your face?” “Does it bother you?” “Not really. But it’s hard to imagine spending time in Paris with you without actually seeing you there.” “I don’t think it will be a problem. I came up with a few tricks to make things easier for you.” I smirked, crossing my arms. “I bet you have.” He laughed, apparently hearing the accusation notes in my voice. “I just love teasing you.” “Two can play that game, you know?” “Oh, trust me, Louise, after your little dance last night…” He paused, and cleared his throat before continuing, “I’m certain you actually know the rules to this game even better than I do.” “Serves you right, Mr. Secret.”

“Is that what you call me behind my back?” “Exactly.” “I’ve been called worse.” “I bet.” “Hey, don’t you think you should be thanking me for taking you away from Drew for a couple days? I think I deserve a thank you, Mr. Secret.” I rolled my eyes. “No, you don’t. Not just yet. But if you promise to make these two days unforgettable, I will thank you, later.” “My, my… Who would have thought it would be so hard to please you, Louise?” He said quietly. “Why does that surprise you? You hardly know anything about me or the ways to please me.” “No, really? Why don’t you enlighten me, then?” “Only if you promise to behave.” “And what do you mean by that?” I can’t help but admit that I loved our small word play. And I was sure I was not the only one enjoying it. “I want a dinner with you. With no mask on my face,” I blurted, frustrated with the secrecy. “Hmm…” “You can wear one if you wish, but I want my eyes to be wide open. Deal?” He hesitated for a moment. “Deal.” “And why does your answer sound so suspiciously good, and easy?”

“Maybe because I have an offer to make in exchange for dinner…” I shook my head, saying, “I should have known better than to make a deal with the devil.” I could hear the smirk in his voice when he said, “You definitely should have.” “Okay, tell me, what do you have in that dirty mind of yours?” “I want a night with you. A whole night with you.” I think I forgot how to speak for a moment. I didn’t know how to react or what to say in response. Was I terrified by his unexpected offer? No, not really… Was I thrilled about the idea of spending a whole night with Will? Oh, hell yes, I was… “You never make fair deals, do you?” I said, looking out of the window. I couldn’t see anything but an endless sea of clouds. It made the whole situation even more surreal. “Why do you think it’s an unfair deal?” “A dinner in exchange for a night… Don’t you think you are asking for so much more than I am?” “And here I thought you said you wanted to be with me, in the way I want to be with you...” My words… Of course, he remembered them. Smartass. “What made you change your mind?” I asked, remembering how many times he refused to get too close to me. “Life is so short… I have decided we shouldn’t spend it denying what is getting more and more obvious, with every passing day...”

“What if I say no?” “It will be your choice. I can’t make you do things you don’t want to do, or things that you are not ready for.” “And what if I say yes?” “I will make sure you will never forget the night we spend together.” “How much time do I have to think about it?” “You have all the time you need, Louise.” Then I heard him rise and leave. As always, he left me with even more questions than I had had before I knew it was him I was going on a trip with. Dreaming about Will was one thing, but actually being with him, in one room, in one bed — was something completely different. Was I ready for a whole night with him? I wasn’t… But I couldn’t wait for the moment to happen. It was so easy to close my eyes and imagine him making love to me, even though I had never been with a man before, I knew that with him, it would be perfect. I felt the familiar trepidation forming in my belly. He was like pure seduction to me. His every word, his every touch made my mind explode. I wanted nothing but to get lost in his embrace, with his searching lips taking me to heights I had never been before. Every small thing I felt when I was in his presence was new to me. I didn’t know how he was doing it, but I liked everything he made me feel. And I didn’t want to lose that feeling. I couldn’t even imagine losing it, losing him. I didn’t see or rather hear Will for the rest of the flight. It

wasn’t as scary as I originally thought it would be. I even dared to look out of the window a few times. I didn’t think about falling asleep; I was too anxious to think about sleep, but maybe that’s why I missed the moment I closed my eyes and sank into another dream of walking around Will’s house. There was something mystical about my mind’s ability to take me there whenever I fell asleep. It was like I knew everything about the place, and nothing at the same time. I knew every turn, every corner, every hall. But whenever I wanted to get closer to the secrets hidden by Will, it felt like the house refused to help me, giving me more and more charades to solve. This time, Will wasn’t there with me. But there were more letters with my name on them. They were lying on the table in the living room, as if they were just sitting there, waiting for me to read them. Curiosity can be dangerous, I remembered Will saying. I took one of the letters in my hands, but I didn’t open it. Instead, I put it into my pocket and thought I should wait until later to read it, I could always read it when I got back to Le Papillon. I hoped Will wouldn’t notice I took one of the letters that I couldn’t wait to read. The moment I was about to leave his house, I heard him saying behind me, “Do you really think you can run away unseen?” I turned around, but as always, he was no longer there… I didn’t like the way his words were said. They didn’t sound like a question, they sounded more like a warning. As if he wanted to let me know that I couldn’t hide from him, anywhere. I felt so small at the moment. And I wanted to run away again. Just

like the first time I was in his house. There was something I didn’t like about the place, it was as if it could reveal Will’s secrets that I was not ready to know. I opened the door and went out into the street, welcoming the fresh air filling my lungs. There was no car waiting for me outside. How am I supposed to get back to the club? I thought to myself. I sat on the porch and took the stolen letter out of my pocket. I don’t think I could wait any longer to read it. “I could live a million lives, and yet, I would never find the right words to tell you how much you mean to me, Louise; even trying would be pointless… The true emotions overwhelming me at the moment are too deep to talk about; they need to be felt more than described. Falling in love is never easy, but with you, it was as easy and natural as breathing. You have become an essential part of me that will never be erased or replaced by anyone. You are the wings that I can’t fly without, you give me hope for a future with you and I cherish this hope like the most precious treasure in the world. Forever in my heart, you disappear with the sunrise, but I’m still waiting for your return… Always Yours W.” “Miss Woods, we are landing in twenty minutes,” Lucy said, waking me. “Would you like anything to eat or drink before we land?” I looked at my watch a little puzzled and realized that I

had been asleep for almost five hours. Apparently, I was too exhausted by the events of the last few days to stay awake for the entire flight. “No, thanks. Where’s Mr. William?” “He’s talking on the phone. Should I call him?” “Yes, please.” The words written in the letter were still ringing in my head. A part of me didn’t want to forget them, repeating them, word by word, over and over again. But the other part was screaming in agony, because the things the letter from my dream made me feel were too damn good to become real… I shook my head, and blinked a few times hoping it would help my mind come back to reality. Will and I didn’t have time to talk about the show or the hotel reservation, or anything else for that matter. So it would be helpful to know more about our plans for the next two days. I rubbed my eyes, trying to force the remnants of my strange dream away. Maybe I shouldn’t let my imagination run wild. Maybe I was thinking too much about things which actually didn’t deserve so much of my attention. Maybe everything I saw in my dream was just a fantasy buried in the depths of my mind that I knew would never come true, yet couldn’t let go. “Did you sleep well?” I flinched from the sound of Will’s rich voice, ringing right above my head. “Will you disappear again if I look up?” I asked, jokingly. “You promised to behave, remember?”

“I didn’t promise you anything, remember?” “Always a tease.” He ran the back of his palm down my cheek and neck, his breath caressed my skin, making my whole body tremble. He didn’t even need to kiss me or anything to make the desire inside me grow stronger. “When do I need to go to Pierre’s club?” I asked, trying to switch my attention to anything other than the sensations his touches made me feel. “Tomorrow night. You will have the entire day to get ready for the show.” “Will you come to watch me dancing?” “I will. But you won’t see me.” “I didn’t expect to see you there. But I want you to be there. At least to be sure that no one will make me dance privately for one of their clients.” “I told you, you will never dance privately for anyone but me. When we land, my driver will take you to the hotel, where I have reserved two rooms opening into each other. So if you need anything, I will be right behind the door.” “And by anything you mean… If I want to spend a night in your bed instead of mine?” “That too.” “I haven’t made the decision yet.” “I know you have not.” “How do you always know everything that I’m not saying aloud?” “It is called intuition.”

“Right.” “By the way, I wanted to give you something… Here.” He put a black box into my hands. “A cellphone?” “I don’t want you to get lost in the new city. Besides, I want to be there with you, no matter where you go.” “How very thoughtful of you. So this is one of your tricks to be with me, and not to be with me at the same time, right?” “This is the best we can do for now.” What about the night that you want to spend with me? I thought to myself. How in the world are we supposed to spend it together without seeing each other? I sure as hell didn’t want to spend it with another blindfold on my eyes. Or did he know of other ways to be with me without letting me see him? I was kind of curious to find it out…

Chapter 12 I didn’t know much about Paris, but much like the rest of the world outside of Paris, I have read about and seen sights like the beautiful Eiffel Tower, Louvre, and Champs Elysees, so when the driver stopped at the entrance to Fouquet's Barriere Hotel, all I said was, “Thank you.” “This is one of the best hotels in Paris, Miss,” he said, nodding meaningfully to the entrance. “Really?” I looked at the majestic building again. I should have known it was as he said, ‘one of the best hotels in Paris’, Will would never agree to anything less than the best. My phone chimed in my purse. It was a message from Will, saying that my room number was 303 and that he had already taken care of my check in. All I needed to do was to go upstairs… Something was telling me that my life would never be the same after this trip was over. To everyone else, I might seem too young to understand the magnitude of the changes and events that were happening in my life right now, but not to myself. I was more than ready to face everything my fate had prepared for me. Back then, I had no idea that I was definitely not ready for the surprises Fate was getting ready to throw in my direction. As it turned out, I didn’t really know the first thing about living, and I was even more lost and confused when it came to the rules of the game Fate enjoyed playing with people. But right then and there, none of that mattered, because I was happy… I wasn’t about to question all the changes in my life, I simply wanted to be free, and when I was in Paris for the first time in my life I felt free even though I wasn’t, not

really. Not yet anyway. Never in my life had an elevator ride seemed so long. It was almost midnight when I finally stepped through the door to my room; it was drowned in the dim lighting of the city, seeping through the dark windows. I flipped the switch on the wall, turning on the lights, and gasped at all of the beauty surrounding me. The room was huge. It was like a separate apartment that just happened to be inside of a hotel. There was a hall, a living room, and a bedroom with the bathroom that was to die for. Taking a long, hot bath was the first thought that crossed my mind at the sight of it. I put my purse on the bed and noticed a note lying on one of the pillows. “I hope you like your room. Call me if you need anything, I’m right behind the red door…” I went back into the living room, and saw the mentioned door and knocked quietly. “Yes?” Will responded immediately, as if he had been waiting on the other side for me to come knocking. “I just wanted to make sure that I’m not alone.” My room looked too big and too lifeless to stay in by myself. Obviously, I was not one of those people for whom luxury could replace the warmth of a person’s touch or presence. “Would you like anything to eat?” Will asked. “I will call the restaurant and ask the chef to cook something special for you.” “No, but I would gladly take a bath…” “And I would gladly join you there…”

I bit my lower lip, not sure if saying what I had in mind was the right thing to do. But then… Well, there was only one way to find it out. I took a deep breath and said, “You can join me if you’d like to… I promise, I’ll behave.” I smiled to myself, trying to imagine his reaction to my words. But to my disappointment, no reply followed. I waited for a little while, and then went to the bathroom to get undressed and ready for the bath. Maybe I shouldn’t have invited him to join me. But just in case he was going to change his mind, I left the bathroom door open. I turned on the water in the bathtub to let it heat up and came to stand in front of a huge mirror. I tried to recognize the girl looking back at me. She still looked like the Louise from my past, yet so much different. The green pools of my eyes were shining so brightly, as if they were illuminated from the inside. I ran one hand through my chestnut hair, letting the strands fall freely down my shoulders and back. I felt like every inch of me was on fire, burning slowly beneath my skin. I closed my eyes, and wrapped both arms around my body, imagining it was Will holding me now. The memory of the first kiss we shared filled my mind. It was nothing like the real kiss had been, it was too void and pale in comparison to the emotions the gentle touch of his lips made me feel. No imagination in this world could give him enough credit for the kiss he gave me — the magic of the passionate bliss created by the high of two people giving in to one another for the first time; sailing through the depths of each other’s beating heart, with every sharp breath

suppressing the end of time… The sound of the door opening brought me back to reality. I turned around, a little scared, but I was still alone in the bathroom. Only now, it was filled with the steam created by the hot water filling the bathtub. “Who is there?” I asked, edging closer to the half-opened door. “It’s just me,” Will replied, pushing the door slightly. I stepped back, excited but not sure what to do or how to react to his presence. “Aren’t you afraid of me seeing you, Will?” I asked, looking at his shadow dancing on the bathroom floor. “Turn around. It’s still too early for you to see me.” “Then why are you here?” His response followed immediately, “Because I seem to be unable to resist you. I tried to not think about your meaningful invitation, God knows I tried… But it was all for nothing. I want to be here with you, and I want to be here with you now. May I please come in?” I hesitated for a few seconds, but no longer… The thought of having him with me with too thrilling to say no. “Yes,” I said, turning away from the door. It was difficult for me to not stay turned toward the door and play by his rules because I would give almost anything to finally be able to look into his eyes, to see the face I have been longing to see since the second I heard his voice, for the very first time, in the dance room three.

My heart was beating wildly in my chest. I could hear every step he took, bringing him closer to me. I think, I could even hear his breathing, it was as if he was too excited to control it. His palms rested on my shoulders, then pushed the edges of my bathrobe down, making it fall down to my feet. I took one small step back, his eager hands met me halfway, wrapping slowly around me, along with his lips kissing my neck and collarbone. Oh yes… This is definitely better than hugging myself, pretending it is him. His arms are much more sensual around my body than my own. His arms are so strong. This is the best feeling in the world. I felt unable to move, hypnotized by the feeling of his palms gently rubbing my skin, and the softness of his lips eagerly kissing my body. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to turn around and look into his eyes and kiss his lips... The warmth of his skin felt like fire against my belly. He slid his palms up and down my sides, as if he was trying to memorize every curve of my body with his hands. The only sound I could hear was the running water. The air was filled with clouds of steam, surrounding us, like a transparent blanket. “My God, Louise, you are making me crazy,” he said, and delicately cupped my breasts with his hands, rubbing my nipples with his thumbs. “You have so much power over me, I don’t think I have ever gotten so much pleasure from losing my control. I would take you right here and now, if only I didn’t know it would be your first time.” He worked his hands down my stomach, leaving one of them tightly wrapped around my waist, the other moving lower, to

where I needed him the most. “I want to touch you here,” he breathed, his hand resting on my pelvic bone. “I want to kiss you there,” he said, gently tapping his finger right above my clit. “I want to tease your clit with my tongue, then suck it into my mouth, enjoying the sweet sounds of pleasure escaping your luscious lips,” he whispered, then gently nibbled my neck. I couldn’t help but moan at the image his words formed in my mind. He had never been so open with me. I wondered if that was just a hint of what he would really do to me when we were finally able to be together. “Yes, please, I want it too,” I pleaded, maybe even whined a little. “Don’t rush things, my sweet girl. Let me enjoy this moment of intimacy with you first. I have been dreaming about being with you for too long to let it disappear so fast.” His fingers slid in between my hairless lips, circled my clit and then slipped inside me, making my need for him impossible to suppress. Slowly, he pushed his fingers deeper inside me, not deep enough to hurt me, but deep enough to make me want so much more than just his fingers. Turn me around, make love to me, please make love to me. I want you inside of me more than I have ever wanted anything. I am craving you. “Ugh, you are so responsive, and tight, Louise. The feeling of your softness wrapped around my fingers is amazing, beyond description. I want nothing more than to feel that softness taking me inside of you.” I felt his lips moving down my back and then up again,

tickling and turning me on even more. The speed of his fingers moving in between my legs became faster. “Let’s get into the water,” he said, pulling them out. Then he nudged me slightly forward, toward the bathtub, standing just a few feet away from me. I could hardly think about anything but the loss of his touch; the touch I was enjoying more than I could have ever imagined. I stepped into the hot water, turning around slightly… But not to where I could see him, waiting for him to join me. He is finally touching me and losing himself in me. Play by the rules, Louise and he just might allow you have a look at him… Just keep playing by his rules… I didn’t need to wait for too long. A few seconds later, he was standing right behind me again, with his hardness pressed firmly against my back. I had never been that close to a man’s nakedness, but it didn’t scare me; in fact, I wanted nothing more than to get even closer… So I did the only logical thing I knew to do to get myself closer to it, I reached one hand back, and wrapped my fingers around his arousal, making him moan loudly into the curve of my neck. “Sink down to your knees,” he whispered into my ear. I did as he instructed and he followed shortly after me, making the water splash over the edges of the bath. In seconds, his fingers were inside me again, teasing and playing. I threw my head back against his shoulder, moving one of his hands to my breast, making sure I kept my eyes closed. He licked my earlobe, igniting the fire that had already been burning me

alive since the moment we first met. “I can’t even imagine how amazing it would be to make love to you, Louise. It will take me forever to recover after this bath. And I can’t wait for the moment when I can see your beauty spread on my sheets, your hands raised over your head, grasping the headboard of the bed, with your legs wrapped tightly around me.” “Oh, please stop saying that,” I said, hardly breathing. I was already too excited to stand any more of his word torture, if he wanted to say it he need to act upon it. “Stay with me tonight. I don’t think I will be able to fall asleep without you.” “Do you really want me to stay?” “Isn’t it obvious?” “I will stay with you... But only so I can make sure you have a peaceful night. It’s been a long day, for both of us, we both need to rest.” “I don’t want to sleep.” “Neither do I. But that is exactly what we are going to do if I stay the night with you.” “You are incredibly cruel,” I said, smiling slightly. He didn’t say anything in response, instead, he kept covering my skin with small kisses, while his hands continued to study my body. He pulled me back closer to his chest, and I took it as a silent invitation to continue my teasing work. I touched his lower stomach, brushed my palm towards his hard-on and wrapped my hand around it again, sliding up and down, imagining it filling me, thrusting deeper and deeper inside me.

Ugh, it was probably not the best thing to think about at the moment, because within seconds, I felt like I was falling apart, losing myself in the wonderful sensations caused by his touch. The heat of the water splashing around me only made the inevitable moment of euphoria harder to suppress. “Come for me, Baby,” he said, increasing the speed of his thrusting and twirling fingers. “Not until you do the same for me,” I said in response, stroking him faster and harder. “Oh, yes... I don’t want to wait any longer,” he immediately complied. The sensations showering over me were excruciating. My tummy muscles tightened in an ecstasy that was nothing but pure bliss, a mixture of heat and indescribable relief that I had been waiting for for too long. I let out a pleased moan, joined by Will’s growling. His embrace around me turned into a death grip, as if he was afraid to let me go. As if he was afraid of losing this moment, and of losing me being with him forever. “I can hardly think straight right now,” he whispered, gasping for air. Gently, he pulled his fingers out of me, then kissed my shoulder one more time before he let me go. “Take a bath, you need it now.” “Aren’t you going to stay?” I was dying to turn around, I couldn’t wait to see the emotions crossing his features. I could easily imagine them in my mind, even though I had no idea what the man behind me looked like.

“I will join you later, in the bed. Now close your eyes.” I sighed, a little disappointed, but still too happy to get too upset about him leaving. Sinking into the water, I leaned back against the bathtub’s marble edge, and smiled. “You are not going to break the promise, are you?” I asked. No response followed. Will was no longer there. I knew it without opening my eyes. I always knew when he was gone. It made me feel so alone, so insecure. Except this time, I was more than sure I wouldn’t spend the rest of my night alone. We had gotten ourselves in too deep to pull out now. There was no doubt I would fall asleep in his arms. *** Before I even knew what was happening, my alarm clock was buzzing loudly, jolting me awake with the morning sun streaming brightly through the edges of the hotel’s curtains. I was so lost in a dream, I didn’t immediately realize where I was. It was only after my eyes finally adjusted to the light coming through the window that the memories from last night returned. I sat upright in my bed, afraid to turn to my left and see the place next to me empty. He promised to stay… But, of course, there was no one on the other side of the bed, except for a letter left on the pillow, with my name written neatly across the front of the envelope. I didn’t remember falling asleep, I guess I was too exhausted to wait for Will to come back.

When did I get out of the bath? I didn’t even know if he had been here, other than to leave me a letter… How could I have fallen asleep without seeing him? Frustrated, I tore open the envelope and pulled out the piece of paper with the note, and read it. “I have crossed the line… I did something I should have never done… But I don’t regret any of it. Being with you was one of the most exciting things I had ever felt, in my entire life. With the wind and moonlight caressing your gentle features, I’m sitting here, watching you sleep. I’m afraid to move, afraid to make a sound, afraid to wake you and break the dream that is hiding me from you. When in reality, I want nothing more than to slip under this soft blanket of yours, wrap my arms around you, and feel your steady breath kissing my lips. But I can’t… I can’t make another mistake that will make you hate me forever. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought you to Paris with me. It’s so hard to keep secrets from you, to be with you without actually being with you. It’s hard to breathe when you are around, and it’s simply impossible to take my eyes off of you now. It’s like I’m blinded by your light that shines brighter than the sun itself. Your grace and beauty are my Kryptonite; they capture me and don’t let me go; they keep pulling me to you, and I don’t have the strength to stay away from you, when in fact, this would be the best I could do to save you from the pain that I know will break you, sooner or later. I should have

done so many things differently… And now, that I know you, I can’t just walk away from you. I turn into a prisoner of my own weakness, becoming a hostage of the youth and light I can see in you. I hear you calling out my name, and my heart skips a beat. I feel your touch on my skin, and I’m lost to anything but the pleasant warmth it sends through me. I kiss you and the world around me comes to stop, as if it is giving me a chance to enjoy this very moment with you. I’m longing to see you in my dreams, where I know there are no boundaries and we can be together again, at least until the new day comes… You once asked me about the demons living inside of me. Now I know for sure that only you can save me from them. Only you know how to make my life peaceful. Because when I’m with you, I don’t know where I end and you begin; I feel like we are one together, I’m so happy, I’m afraid to take a breath as if it may frighten this feeling away. It flows straight through my soul, filling every inch of me. I would spend the rest of my life trying to make you happy, if only you ever let me inside your world. I know I don’t deserve to see it, and I know that no matter how hard I try to beg for your forgiveness, you will still hate me, for everything I have done wrong. I only hope your hate will eventually turn into something else, the something that I have been trying to deny for so long, the something that wouldn’t let me leave you again, the something that I cherish like the most amazing feeling in the world… You are so close, yet so far away, as if there are miles

between us. I still can’t believe you let me get so close to you. You don’t know anything about me, yet you trust me so much, giving yourself to me, unconditionally. I appreciate it more than you know, and I hope you will never regret the decisions you make about us, regardless of the outcome… Always Yours W.” I don’t know how many times I read the letter. It felt like every time I read it, I could see something new hidden in between the lines, like an unspoken message that I needed to see and understand. Tears were running down my cheeks, I didn’t try to stop them. I don’t know why I was crying, but I had so many different emotions running through my body and they were simply impossible to control. It was as if a different person had read the letter and not myself. The real me would never have taken the words so close to my heart. I was a strong person, wasn’t I? At least, I used to think so before I met Will. He changed me in so many ways. Did he even realize how much power he held over me? Did he realize how quickly he became my weakness? He said the same words about me last night, but I doubted he knew that I felt the very same way about him.

Chapter 13 My cellphone rang on my bedside table. It was not just a new message, but a real call from Will. I wiped the tears from my cheeks and inhaled deeply, saying, “Hello?” “Good morning, Louise. Did you sleep well?” As always, the sound of his voice made me tremble. I don’t know what excited me most, the things the man could do to me, even without showing me his face, or the fear that went along with everything that was happening between us. “Yes, I guess I did. I didn’t hear you come in and leave last night. Did you sleep well?” “Oh yes¸ it was probably one of the best nights ever. Did you have breakfast?” “No, I just woke up. You?” “I’m already on my way to my business meeting, but you can order whatever you want. Just look through the menu they left on the table in the living room.” “I will. Do you know what time I should be at Pierre’s club? Wait a second, I don’t even know its name.” “The Crimson Moon opens at noon, but your show starts at ten tonight, so you will have plenty of time to get there and get ready for the show. Would you like to go sightseeing before you go to work?” “With you?” He laughed quietly into the handset, I swear, I could feel his laughter vibrating on my skin, as if he were there with me now¸ and not miles away.

“Yes, I’ll go with you, but not in a traditional way.” Oh, I knew exactly what he was talking about. I rolled my eyes, sighing. “Don’t you think it’s a little too late to talk about keeping distance from me, especially after what happened last night?” I knew I wasn’t playing fair, but blackmailing him was the only weapon I had in the war we had going, which I felt I would never win. He sighed too. “Did you read the letter I left for you?” “I did…” “It didn’t change your mind about being with me, did it?” “If you hoped you would be able to get rid of me that easily, you were so wrong about me.” He laughed again. “Then I can’t wait to see you tonight.” “We are having a dinner, aren’t we?” “Anything you want, mon trésor — my treasure.” The words seeped through my skin and right into the center of my heart, warming it pleasantly. It was unbelievable, how a few words from a handsome man could melt a girl’s stupid heart, and maybe not just her heart… “Be careful with your words, Mr. Secret. You never know how they can be used against you.” “I’m looking forward to the moment I can see you again, Louise.” “Same here. Though everything would have been so much easier if you had just stayed…” “I will. One day.”

“Then I guess I don’t have anything else to do, but take a shower and get dressed for the day.” He groaned into my ear. “Don’t remind me about the shower, I still have a very important meeting to live through.” “Well, good luck with that.” An idea came to mind, but I was not going to say a word about it, at least not right now. “See you later, Will.” I hung up the phone and smiled at the screen, already knowing there was no way I would let him live through the meeting without driving him insane first. My eyes traveled to the letter lying on the blanket. I picked it up and put it back into the envelope, hiding it in my bedside table’s drawer. No matter how sad it made me feel, there was something about it that gave me hope — hope for a better future with Will. At about ten in the morning I got a call from the receptionist, saying there was a car waiting for me downstairs. I didn’t ask anyone to prepare a car for me, but I guess Will did. “Thank you,” I said, grabbing my jacket, a purse, and a bag with my costume for the show. I wasn’t going to come back to the hotel before the show started. “Good morning, Miss,” the driver said, nodding and opening the door for me. He was the same driver that picked me up from the airport last night. “What’s your name?” I asked, hoping for a little small talk. “It’s Patrick, Miss.” He said with a slight French accent, so I figured the man was not a native of France, maybe an immigrant

from Britain or the US. “Okay. So Patrick, do you know where we should go first?” “Mr. William told me to take you the Eiffel Tower. He’ll be waiting for you there in an hour.” No, really? I bet it was going to be another ‘blind date’ or something. But it was still better than traveling around one of the most beautiful cities in the world alone. I took my cellphone and started typing a message. “Hope your meeting is going well. Though I, personally, can’t even imagine talking about business… Now that my thoughts keep taking me back to the bath, full of hot water and your hands all over me…” Send. “Keep your fantasies for later, Sweetheart. I really need to work.” Right… “I thought you liked me sharing my fantasies with you…” “You will tell me everything about them tonight.” “How about I tell you a little right now? Do you even know how much I wanted to wake up with your arms around me, and not just a blanket keeping me warm?” “Louise, I’m working…” “I asked you to stay with me last night, but you left. I hope you are not going to do the same tonight? Otherwise, I swear, I will make you regret keeping so many secrets from

me.” “Tonight I will stay with you, I promise.” Okay, that was something, but there was one more thing I wanted to be sure about… “Will you make love to me?” I asked, feeling my hands shake, waiting for his unpredictable response. “Louise, please…” “Will you?” I didn’t know Will well, but one thing I knew for sure — if I wanted to get anything from him, I needed to make him promise it to me. Ugh, did he always have to be so hard to deal with? “I will…” Was his short reply. I smiled, self-satisfied. “Can’t wait…” I had about forty minutes to walk to the Eiffel Tower, buy some souvenirs and take a few pictures. Patrick was there with me, he didn’t come too close, always staying a few feet away from me, but here and there, I could see his face among the endless amount of tourists walking around me. “It’s time to go to the elevators,” he said some time later. I nodded and followed him to the Tower. “This elevator will take you right to the top of the Tower,” he said, handing a ticket to one of the ticket takers. “Aren’t you going with me?” I asked, a little terrified. I had always been afraid of heights, and now, looking up at the top of the Tower, I felt like I was about to pass out, before I could even get all the way up there. “You will have a companion,” Patrick said, smiling politely.

“Oh, will I?” When the elevator doors opened, I went inside, my knees trembled even more. It was made of glass, which was not helpful, considering I could already feel the buzz in my ears, indicating that my fears were growing with the incredible speed of the elevator. “Scared?” The familiar voice asked behind me. “That is not the right freaking word,” I replied, a little relieved to know that Will was there with me now. “Don’t be.” Carefully, he wrapped his arms around me, and inhaled deeply, as if he, himself couldn’t believe that we were so close to each other again. He kissed my hair, saying, “You smell like apples.” “It’s just my body wash.” “What a shame I wasn’t there when you were using it.” “Indeed. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind helping me use it.” “You do realize that your messages ruined my meeting, don’t you?” He didn’t sound angry, rather excited. “That was the plan,” I said, covering his hands with mine. Leaning back against him, I didn’t notice the elevator going up. So when the doors opened again, it was like waking up from one of the best dreams ever. “So you are using my own methods against me now?” “Teasing is the only weapon I have to use against you. So yes, I will keep teasing you, until you can no longer think about the damn rules and give up.” He pushed me slightly to the exit, laughing behind me. “Be careful what you wish for, Darling. What if you can’t handle me

giving up?” But I was no longer listening to him. My breath caught at the stunning view right in front of my eyes — I took a few steps toward the transparent wall, shielding us from the beauty of Paris panorama. It felt like we were on top of the world, watching the lives of so many people so far below us. “Have you ever been up here before?” I asked Will. “Just once. But back then, you were not here with me, so it doesn’t really count.” He wasn’t embracing me anymore, but I could still feel that he was standing very close to me. It always felt so surreal, to feel him, but not to see him; to be with him, but not to be with him at the same time. It felt like I was talking to my imagination, sharing the most precious of my thoughts and desires with it. The good news was, at least sometimes my ‘imagination’ responded… Most people don’t have that luxury, and when they do, they are considered crazy. My knees were still trembling slightly, but I didn’t care about it anymore. I was so hypnotized by the unbelievably breathtaking view opening up in front of my very eyes, I didn’t even think about Will’s presence, which I had always enjoyed more than anything else. “I could dance here,” I said suddenly, already knowing the exact combination of moves and steps I would use in my dance. I don’t think I had ever felt more inspired in my entire life. “Will you dance for me tonight?” “Of course I will. You said you would come to the show,

right?” “I’m talking about after the show…” “So this is going to be another private dance… Will you dance with me?” “I told you, I will do anything you want me to do. Except for one thing…” “I know. You won’t let me see your face,” I said, feeling a little frustrated. Who does that? Why is it such a problem for me to see his face? And why is it okay for us to touch each other, but not right for me to look at him? “But I will still try my best to make this night unforgettable,” he whispered into my ear, leaving a small kiss under my earlobe. “Will, can I ask for one more thing, please?” “Anything for you.” “Can you kiss me for real? Now…” “Will you behave?” Oh, he didn’t even know how much I hated that question. “I will,” I said before he could decide it was too risky to kiss me without a blindfold covering my eyes. “Then turn around.” I closed my eyes, and slowly, turned around. In the blink of an eye, his arm was around me, as sure and hard as the first time he was kissing me in private dance room nine. The rush of helplessness ran through me. No matter how many times I tried to deny it, he did have some invisible power over me, turning me into one hopeless mess of uncontrollable thoughts, emotions and desires.

He ran his fingertips down my cheek and lips; the touch was so soft, it felt like I was being kissed by the clouds flying above our heads. He tangled his fingers in my hair, pulled my face closer to his; his lips brushed mine, slowly, teasingly. For a moment, I thought he was having an internal battle with himself, afraid to release and reveal his true emotions. Capturing my mouth in a kiss, he parted my lips with his tongue, possessively. The intensity of the kiss grew with every passing second, making me cling to him as if he was the only solid thing in the swaying world of my sweet weakness. His demanding mouth kept torturing my lips with the most sensual kiss ever, sending even more shivers through me, awakening the familiar need in my lower body that only he knew how to satisfy. I was kissing him back without hesitation, as if I knew the man was meant for me centuries ago. And even if it was just another trick of my wild imagination, I didn’t want to wake up, or break free from his hands and lips, spellbinding my body and mind. Stupid self-control… It was breaking into million small pieces, with no hope of being restored, ever again. Will broke the kiss unwillingly, breathing heavily. “You don’t even know how hard it is for me to step back now, to get into the damn elevator and say good-bye to you, Louise.” “Then don’t… Don’t go.” “I can’t stay, because if I stay, I can’t guarantee I will be able to keep my hands off of you. And we don’t want to be arrested for making love at the top of the Eiffel Tower, do we?” I giggled, sinking into his warm embrace. “That is probably

the last thing I am worried about right now.” His palms traveled up and down my back, pressing me closer to his chest. “Just wait for a few more hours. And then, you will be all mine, and I will all yours. For as long as you wish…” “How about forever?” I asked without thinking. Seriously, the question just slipped out of my lips before I could stop it. Every inch of me tensed, waiting for Will’s unpredictable reaction. Is was almost the same as saying I loved him, but I knew neither of us was ready for the words like that. Neither to say, nor to hear them. “I don’t mind spending the rest of my forever with you, Louise. In fact, I would give up everything I have to make it happen.” His voice became very quiet. I could barely hear his words, mixed with the wind, blowing around us. “We can make it happen, can’t we?” My eyes were no longer closed, but I still couldn’t look up at Will. No matter how much I wanted to. “We can do anything we want,” he said, kissing my hair. “But right now, we need to go back to the reality of our lives.” I sighed. “Damn it…” He smirked, turning me forcefully away from him. “It’s just a matter of a couple hours that we need to spend apart. But then, I promise you Louise, I won’t leave an inch of your body kissless.” Tremors ran through me. I felt Will’s hands slipping off of me, and the next second, he was gone, leaving me at the top of the Eiffel Tower, lost and alone. I waited for the elevator to return and let it take me down to

where Patrick had already been waiting for me. “What’s next?” I asked, trying to switch my disarrayed thoughts back to my sightseeing tour, which was far from being easy to do. “How about a short walk? You could stop by one of the cafes and have lunch.” “Sounds good,” I said absently, following him. We walked down the beautiful road of fountains, and headed for Champs Elysees. I couldn’t stop thinking about my upcoming night with Will. I didn’t care about the show or my solo dance, that I somehow knew would be perfect. I just couldn’t wait for the moment to be with him again. It was going to be a special night, for both of us. Was I afraid of being so close to him again? No, far from it. Rather on the contrary, I was dying to know what it was like to feel him inside me, with his lips and hands studying my body… Teaching me, pleasing me. I didn’t know much about pleasing him, but something was telling me that I didn’t need to. Will would never make me feel embarrassed about it, and he would show me how. Patrick said something about the café we stopped by, but I hardly listened. I let him order for me and went to take a seat at one of the tables on the terrace. “How long have you known Will?” I asked when he returned with two cups of coffee, croissants and a chocolate ice cream for me. “For more than five years, Miss. Why?” “Tell me more about William.”

“I’m not sure I’m allowed to talk about him with you, Miss.” I smiled. “I won’t tell him, I promise.” The sound of my cellphone ringing announced a new message received. “Don’t try to bribe Patrick with your beautiful smile. He’s playing for my team.” My eyes widened at the words. “Can Will see or hear us now?” I asked, incredulously. Patrick smiled slightly. “It wouldn’t be surprising.” Then he took a sip of his coffee, apparently thinking he had already said too much. “Unbelievable…” I muttered, typing a new message to Will. “Stop being so bossy, people need to breathe freely, at least sometimes!” Send. “Then stop trying to break the rules behind my back!” “I hate your stupid rules and games…” “All of them?” Smartass. “Some I like a lot…” “So I thought…” I shook my head and got back to my lunch. Thank God, at least food was not in my list of Will’s restrictions. The rest of the day went by in a blur. Patrick told me a few interesting things about the city where he had been living for more than ten years. He had a family, with a wife and two kids about my

age. They studied literature at the Sorbonne, and hoped one day they would be able to see New York and Hollywood. As it turned out, Will was a permanent visitor of Paris. He lived here for a couple of years, and that’s all I managed to get from Patrick. Will was right, there was no way to make the man speak. Well, at least my smiles didn’t help much, but I was not going to give up. I needed to find out everything about Mr. Secret, one way or another. Besides, he promised to answer all of my questions one day. I only hoped that day would come sooner rather than later.

Chapter 14 The Crimson Moon wasn’t anything like Le Papillon. For the first time in my entire life I was embarrassed to be in a place like that, not to mention dancing or talking to one of the club’s visitors. I had only a few minutes to familiarize myself with the show room, but it was more than enough to kill my desire to come back here, ever again. Men and women of different ages were everywhere. Some were just talking and laughing, others were making out, and some, well… Some were about to have sex right on the tables right next to them. “You must be Louise,” said a woman with a rich American accent. “Yes, and you are…” “Julia. I’m the manager of the club and one of the trainers. Welcome aboard, Sweetie. Let’s go find you a spare room to get changed.” No time to take a breath or look around, okay… I followed Julia down the long hall, full of doors of different colors. “Why are they painted differently?” I asked, curious. But, of course, I expected anything but what Julia said in response. “They are entertainment rooms. The color of the door indicates the limits for the clients, if you know what I mean.” She turned around briefly and winked at me. “If you want to become

one of the entertainers, we need to discuss the details.” “Oh, no. I wasn’t going to…” Her laughter stopped me mid-sentence. “Don’t worry, Chérie. I know you are here to dance only. Here we go — the room for you.” She opened the door to what looked like a changing room. There were costumes, all sorts of makeup and mirrors everywhere. “You have about two hours to get ready. We wanted to include you into one of the main shows, but the time for dancing is limited for tonight. So there will be only a solo dance from you, if you don’t mind.” “I don’t mind at all.” I was actually more than happy that I didn’t have to participate in any other show but my own. I knew the dances the other girls were about to perform, they didn’t change as often as ours did in Le Papillon; so, I could watch a video from one of their trainings and learn the moves without anyone showing me them in person. Besides, Kate had already trained me the morning of my flight to Paris, that’s why I was ready for anything they threw at me here. Outside of having sex with the clients that is. Julia left, saying she would come back a few minutes before my show began, so I finally got a chance to look around. There was a huge screen in the room, demonstrating everything that was going on in the show room. I came closer and flinched at the thought of being a part of the local dancing team. Obviously, dancing was just a minor detail of the real work that the girls needed to do here. Someone knocked at my door. “Yes?” I asked cautiously. I wasn’t expecting anyone, and I

sure as hell didn’t want one of the clients to take me for another local ‘star’. “Hey,” a dark-haired girl, maybe just a few years older than me said, stepping inside the room. “I’m Carrie. I was supposed to help you with your makeup and hair.” “Oh, thanks. I didn’t know I would have a makeup artist. Do all the girls have them here?” “No, but you are a foreign guest, which means you should have privileges.” “How very nice of you. Where are you from? Britain?” I asked, taking a seat in front of one of the illuminated mirrors. “Yes, how did you know?” Carrie came to stand behind me and started combing my hair. “Your accent. It doesn’t sound American, so I thought you were a Brit.” She smiled. “I speak French as well, but talking to someone who knows English as well as you do, is always a great pleasure.” “What about Julia?” “She’s the only other English speaking person here. But we don’t talk much. She’s the boss and I’m just a part of the personnel that she likes chewing out a lot. So if you care about your job and good mood, you’d better stay away from her.” “Oh, I see. Thank God, my boss back home is a great person. She’s more like a friend than the boss.” “You work in Le Papillon, right?” “Yes.” “Do you know the lady named Kate?”

“Um … yes. Why?” “Julia hates her. I don’t know why, but she always says awful things about her.” “Things like what?” I asked, curious. Obviously, a woman like Julia had enough things to think about other than gossiping about someone who lived and worked in a different country. “Did you know that Kate used to work here?” “You mean she trained girls, right?” Carrie shook her head, looking at me through the mirror. “She was one of the … entertainers.” “What?” Of course I knew Kate used to dance in Pierre’s club, but I would have never imagined her doing anything but that… “Don’t tell anyone I told you that,” Carrie said. “I’ll keep my mouth shut. How long ago was it?” “Um, I’m not sure. About seven years ago, maybe. I didn’t work here back then. But Julia did. And as far as I know, she was afraid of Kate would take her place. Because Kate had always been one of Pierre’s favorites… If you know what I mean.” Is that why Kate got so nervous when she found out I was supposed to go to Paris with Pierre? “Was there anything between Julia and Pierre?” “No, and that’s where the problem lies. She’s still trying to get into his pants, but it’s all for nothing. Pierre hates her. Once I heard a conversation between them. They were shouting at each other, and Julia said that Kate would never betray Drew, your boss, right?” I nodded. “So Pierre hit her, like really hit her. She didn’t cry or anything, she just left saying she would destroy Kate, one

way or another.” “So she hates her for stealing Pierre’s heart?” “This is why Pierre likes going to Le Papillon so much. He knows that Kate doesn’t participate in the shows anymore, but at least he can see her again.” “I didn’t know that,” I said thoughtfully. “Who would have thought that hate has no boundaries between countries, even when they are oceans apart?” “My point exactly. I still don’t know why Julia keeps working here. She could have found a different job, a long time ago. But she hates the idea of leaving. Once she said she would only leave when she was toes up.” I laughed. “The woman must be totally crazy about Pierre.” Carrie giggled. “I don’t think that ‘crazy’ is a strong enough word to describe her obsession with him. Now, what do you think?” I looked at my hair and I really liked the job Carrie did. “Looks amazing. Thanks.” “You are most welcome. What colors and shades would you like your makeup to consist of?” “I think gray and silver would be perfect to match my dress.” “Okay, whatever you wish.” In less than half an hour, I was ready for my solo, and I still had plenty of time to do, well, nothing. So I called William. “Louise?” He answered the call, sounding a little worried.

“Is everything all right?” “Yes, why would you think different?” “It’s the first time you have ever called me...” “I have some free time before my show begins. I thought I would tell you more about the dress that I’m going to dance in tonight.” He cleared his throat, obviously trying not to laugh into the handset. “I’m getting more and more impatient to see it.” “Wait until you see me on the stage.” “What are you wearing now?” I looked down at myself, but there was not much to talk about… “Just a robe.” “Is there anything under it?” “What would you like to see under there?” “Nothing...” I smiled. “So I thought.” “You know me too well, Louise.” “No, I don’t. But you know how much I would like to know more.” “Hmm… You have a little more than an hour before the shows start, right?” “Yes.” “Then how about we play a round of ten-questions?” “Aren’t you afraid of the questions I might ask?” “Go ahead, try me.” Okay… So, what shall I start with? There were way too

many questions I wanted to ask. “Are you going to wear a mask tonight?” “Yes.” “Will you take it off when we make love?” “Yes.” “But you will tell me to close my eyes, right?” “Maybe...” “What does that mean?” “There are many ways to make love without looking at each other...” Oh God, I shouldn’t have asked that question. But I couldn’t help myself. “Ways like what?” “I would rather show you than tell you about them.” “This is not fair. You have just ruined my fifth question!” He laughed. “Then think really hard before you ask the next one.” “Okay. Is there anything that you like women… to do… to you most?” I think I blushed from head to toe while asking that question. Thank God, Will couldn’t see me now. ‘Cause there was no way I was gonna ask him about that without the phone separating us. “Yes. But I don’t think it matters. When I’m with you, it all happens naturally.” He was right. Whenever we were together, no words were needed. It was as if he knew exactly what I wanted him to do, as well as I knew what he wanted me to do.

“Will you join me in the shower again? After we eat and dance…” “With pleasure.” “Will you be waiting for me in my room when I get back from the club?” “Yes. I’ll be waiting for you there. I like it more than mine.” I laughed. “I already figured that much.” “Two more questions, Louise.” Right… “So… Is this night going to be the only one that you will spend in my room?” “I don’t think I’ll be able to spend at least one more night without you.” His answer made my heart hurt. I didn’t know if he was going to keep seeing me after we were back to New York, I didn’t even want to think about it... “I know what you are thinking,” he said suddenly. “You do?” “I’ll find a way to spend as much time as I can with you, no matter where we are.” I breathed a sigh of relief. So this unexpected vacation was not going to be a good-bye couple of days. “One more question,” Will reminded me. “You’ve just answered the only one I had on my mind. But can I save my last question for later?” “Okay.” His answer humored me. “You are unbelievably obliging

today.” “It’s because I know I will get a reward.” I shook my head. “You will never change, will you?” “At least not in my attitude toward you.” There was one more thing I wanted to tell Will. “Thank you,” I said, reaching for my dress. It was time to put it on, but I had no desire to finish this conversation. “For what?” “For the Tower trip.” It was not the first time that Will and I spent together, but it still felt very special, not to mention the kiss that I could still feel burning on my lips. “You are welcome. Maybe one day, we will go there again. With no secrets hiding us from each other.” “I’d love that.” You mean secrets hiding you from me... “I think it’s time for you to go,” Will said. Did I just imagine it, or was he really upset about saying good-bye to me? “I’ll see you in a couple of hours.” “I can’t wait for that moment to happen.” “Me too...” I hung up the phone, leaving the conversation unfinished. I thought it would be better to leave it like that, with no final point. Just as if we were still talking to each other, even if it was happening in our minds only. A few moments later, I got a new message from Will. “There will be a room for you and me, with nothing and no one standing between us, except for our hearts beating in sync together, and our breath mixing with each other. I’ll dance with you and I’ll drive you wild… Drive you crazy

through the night. I will make sure your body and mind remember it forever… And when the dawn comes, I’ll awake you with a kiss, and then I’ll make love to you again, until you can no longer feel where the reality ends and a new dream begins…” Oh my… I shut my eyes for a moment, trying to stop the images drawn by his words from running through my mind. I used to think that men who still knew how to turn on a woman with the words alone, didn't exist anymore. Obviously, I was wrong. I didn’t dare to read the message one more time, because I was sure if I did, I wouldn’t be able to take a step out of the changing room. And I couldn’t miss my chance to dance for Will again, even though I knew I wouldn’t see him in the show room. But knowing that he would be there, watching me, was more than enough to bring my thoughts back to reality. I’ll have plenty of time to think about his message later, and hopefully, not just think, but experience his words and the meaning behind them… I took a deep breath and got up to get changed into my costume. This time there was not going to be any flying in the air, which was a relief. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to repeat my debut dance ever again, and definitely not in a place like The Crimson Moon. When the time for my show came, Julia told me to go to the foyer where other dancers had been waiting for their shows. On my

way there, someone called my name. I turned around and saw a tall, elegant man in his mid forties coming to me. I didn’t know him. But judging by the glances others were giving him, he was an important person here. “Can I help you, Sir?” I didn’t know if he could speak English. Even my name said by him, sounded very French. “Louise,” he said again, taking my hand in his and kissing it. “I couldn’t wait to see you here, I hope your flight was all right? “Oh, I guess you are Mr. Pierre? I’m sorry I don’t know your last name.” “Not a big deal. Seeing you here is a great honor to me.” I smiled sheepishly. I was not used to receiving compliments from men like Pierre. Will didn’t count, I loved everything about being with him. As for Pierre… I was a little afraid of him, even though his greeting seemed polite and decent. “I can’t wait to see your dance,” he said. “I loved the one I saw in Le Papillon. I wanted to invite you to work for me for a while, but Will was very generous making an offer that I couldn’t resist, so I agreed to become a part of his small game. You must be very special to him, if he risked his head to bring you here.” “He’s very kind. And his invitation meant a lot to me.” Pierre looked at me, smiling mischievously. “No doubt. But I don’t want to take any more of your time, Louise. Go get ready for your show, and good luck.” “Thank you, Sir.” Pierre smiled at the girl standing a few feet away from me and headed in the opposite direction. Julia gave me a curious look.

“Were you not invited by Pierre? I thought it was his idea to bring you here.” “It was his idea,” I said, as if I didn’t know what she was talking about. Apparently, she had heard a part of my conversation with her boss, and now she was trying to understand whether or not I was a new threat to her precious career. “Louise!” Carrie called, waving. “It’s time!” “Excuse me.” I put my best smile on my face, and went to the stage. There were so many lights illuminating the stage, the effect was almost the same as dancing in complete darkness, because I couldn’t see anyone sitting in the show room. My eyes found the table and the chair that I was supposed to use for my dance, I counted to three and the show began. The entire time my dance lasted, I was imagining Will watching me, and I was dancing for him… Did he like my dance? Did he like my dress, made of black and silver? Did he know I was thinking about him while performing the show? Did he know how much I wanted the show to end?..

Chapter 15 I didn’t remember much about my dance. I tried my best to make it look good, but I didn’t care about what people might say about it. There was only one person whose opinion really mattered to me. And I was sure he loved every move I made on that stage. My thoughts were so far away from the club now. I was sitting in the backseat of the car while Patrick, the driver, navigated the streets of Paris to take me back to my hotel. I was as nervous as ever. “Would you like to see the pictures, Miss?” I frowned, puzzled. “What pictures?” “The pictures of your dance.” I didn’t see anyone photographing me, I thought to myself. “Yes, sure.” Patrick reached back to where I was sitting, holding out an envelope. I carefully took the envelope in my hands, surprised by how heavy it was. There must be no less than two dozen pictures inside. The first picture was of me standing on the stage. My face was hardly visible, but I loved the way the train of my dress looked… It appeared to glide, as if it were swaying in the air with my every move. The next picture was taken from a very close distance. It showed my face, I could clearly see the look in my eyes — searching. Was I trying to find Will, hoping I would recognize him if I saw him? I hadn’t realized that I was actively looking for him among the men watching me. Did I see him? Did he realize at one point or another our eyes had probably met? The other

pictures depicted me doing all of the dance moves that Kate had helped me learn before I left the country. To my delight, they were all outstandingly beautiful; I could probably just sit and study them for hours; when I looked at myself in those pictures, for the first time in my life I saw beauty and grace… I didn’t even know I possessed those qualities. “Patrick, do you know who took these pictures?” “Mr. William did.” What? I couldn’t believe he was so close to me, and I didn’t even know it! I almost screamed in frustration. “I didn’t know he was a photographer as well,” I muttered, admiring the pictures in my hands. “He took photography classes here, in Paris.” “Really?” So he likes photography… I will have to remember that for later. I put the pictures back into the envelope and tucked it in my bag. Now I had even more proof that I was in Paris, just in case Drew or anyone else tried to question it. Of course, no picture could be as amazing as the real memories I had made there, especially those I had from my date with Will at the top of the Eiffel Tower. It inspired me like anything else. I felt like I could do anything I wanted to at the moment, absolutely anything… Well, except for one thing, the one thing I wanted to do most of all… I still wasn’t allowed to look at Will. Less than ten minutes later, Patrick pulled up to the entrance of the hotel. “Thanks for the ride,” I said, getting out.

“Miss Louise, wait! Let me help you with your bag.” “No need, don’t worry, I can get it.” I smiled at him, and rushed away. I looked impatiently at my watch, counting seconds until I would finally be able to see, or rather hear Will again. He said he would be waiting for me in my room. I put the keycard into the lock and the door opened with a click. The lights were all shut off inside the room, the only illumination was a few candles, burning on a round table in the middle of my living room. “Will?” I called, hoping he wouldn’t break his promise about meeting me here tonight. Who else would have lit candles in my room? “I am in here,” he responded from my bedroom. I walked in, and saw him standing near one of the floorlength windows, looking out into the street. His silhouette made shadows dance on the floor. I breathed a sigh of relief and leaned against the door frame, fascinated. He was there… Once again, he was so close, yet so far away from me. I hesitated, not sure what to do next. No, scratch that, I knew exactly what I wanted to do now — to come closer, to feel his arms around me, to feel his lips kissing mine… “You were stunning tonight,” he said, still standing with his back to me. “So you liked the dance…” “I loved it. I don’t think you’ve ever danced as beautifully

as you did tonight. Did you see the pictures?” “Yes, great job. Why didn’t you tell me you liked photography? It’s not a secret, is it?” “Not anymore.” He turned around, and I saw a black mask covering half of his face from his forehead to his cheeks. He was wearing a tux, with no tie. A few of the upper buttons on his white shirt were undone. He came closer and cupped my face in his hands, caressing my cheeks with his thumps. “What picture did you like most?” He asked. I was mesmerized by his closeness. It was the first time that I could look at him, even though the mask didn’t show much, but at least I could finally enjoy the view of his perfectly-sculptured, full lips. “The one with my face turned to the audience. What about you? Do you have a favorite picture of me?” “I do.” He touched the corners of my lips with his fingertips; tremors ran through me. “It’s the same as yours. You were looking right at me, when I was taking it. You didn’t know it, but God, that look in your eyes… It went right through me. I wanted nothing more than to throw the damn camera away and come kiss your parted lips, right in front of everyone watching us.” “You are more than welcome to do it now.” He smiled, looking down at me. I never doubted that he had a beautiful smile, but actually seeing it, with my eyes instead of my imagination… It took my breath away. I was looking up at him, trying to guess what color his eyes

were. But I could hardly see anything while the lights were off, and the mask did a great job keeping his eyes and his identity hidden from me. “It feels even more surreal than before, doesn’t it?” He said, as if reading my mind. I reached one hand up and touched his face, trying to remember the emotions I felt the first time I had touched him this way. “You once said that blind people are capable of feeling things much better than we can,” he said, “but I feel like even with my eyes open, I can’t get enough of you; of looking at you, of being with you, of dreaming of you. Because every time we are together, it feels like I am caught up in a dream — in the most beautiful and exciting dream.” He bent down and touched my lips with his, softly, just once, which was a complete disappointment, considering how much more I wanted at the moment. “Whenever I touch you, I see your chest rising and falling, as if it’s hard for you to control your breathing; your lips part with a sharp intake of breath. I see the light blush covering your cheeks, and it drives me totally crazy. The mere thought of taking away your innocence makes me drunk. I feel like I’m losing control, but I don’t give a damn. All I want and need is you.” His gaze met mine, and now, more than ever, I despised the fact I couldn’t see his eyes… I hated it even more than I already had before. “And when our lips touch, I’m lost, lost to everything but the softness and sweetness of the kiss we share. I want to kiss you senseless, and it takes all of

my self-control to stop when I feel like going too far. I have no power over the pull overwhelming me, but I love it,” he whispered against my lips, before capturing them in a real kiss. His fingers twined in my hair, pulling it, as if demanding an immediate response from me. He didn’t have to wait long for my response. All at once, the thoughts and emotions running through me turned into something I didn’t even realize I was capable of feeling — love… The sudden realization was even more frightening than everything I had felt for William before this very moment. I used to think that I was strong, but with him, I didn’t want to be strong anymore. I wanted to be weak and fragile, and I didn’t care if it sounded stupid. He was my strength, like the air filling my lungs, the heart beating wildly in my chest, and the light that I couldn’t live without. Kissing me one last time, he grabbed my wrists and pushed me into the wall behind me, pressing his chest hard against mine. “What are you doing to me, Louise? Why can’t I let you go? Why can’t I stay away from you? Give you a chance to live your own life, and not mine?” There was so much pain in his voice which sounded more like a desperate whisper. “I want you all for myself, always. I can’t imagine letting you go back to Le Papillon. I can’t imagine letting other men enjoy your beauty. I just can’t…” “You don’t have to worry about other men. I don’t need any of them, I just need you.” As if those were the exact words he wanted to hear from me, he started kissing me again, with even more need and desire, I

could feel it radiating from him; it was like he was shooting off electricity from his body and sending it straight through mine. A faint moan escaped my lips, burning down all the doubt and fears I had ever had about being with Will. The heat of his kiss left me weak and wanting. What did I say about dinner? Oh, right, we were supposed to have dinner first… Will broke the kiss, and slowly let my wrists go, just to cup my face in his palms again. “You are so responsive, Louise. I seem to be unable to step away from you while feeling so much need in your kiss.” “Do you need a minute to catch your breath?” I asked, jokingly. “Most definitely.” He swallowed hard and stepped back, running one hand through his dark hair. “How about we eat … first?” He looked at me, a small smile curved the corners of his gorgeous lips. “First? I love the sound of that. Let’s eat.” We went into the living room, and sat at the table with the candles burning on it. We could eat without trying to tear the clothes off of each other, couldn’t we? Well, we could at least give it a try. “Don’t look at me like that, Louise.” Will growled, closing his eyes for a moment. “I can hardly think about anything but taking you right here, right now, on this table, and you keep sending me those silent messages that I don’t really know how to ignore. Please, just … stop it.” I smiled. “As you wish, Mr. Secret.”

He smiled too, a little more relaxed this time. “Despite the fact that I still need to keep secrets from you, I love it when you call me that.” “And I think I know why.” “No, really?” He leaned closer, watching me intently. “It makes your self-esteem exult.” He laughed. “Do you really think that low of me?” “I’m just sure that self-esteem is one of the weakest traits men like you have.” “Men like me?” “You know, men who think they know everything about everything, for whom losing control over the situation is the same as losing a World War; men who don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” Will studied me for a long minute. “You are right, Louise. Well, almost.” “Almost?” “I like losing control with you.” I could feel my cheeks burning again, and I bet he could see it. “Let’s order some drinks. Maybe they will help you… Cool off a little.” I rolled my eyes, taking the wine list. “As if I were the only person here who needs to cool off.” He laughed quietly under his breath. “Let’s think about food instead, Louise. At least for a little while.” “You always sound so bossy. Why do you think I need food? Are you planning to exhaust me tonight or are you just trying

to fatten me up?” “Maybe… About the exhausting part, I mean; you are perfect, no need for fattening…” He stumbled over the last words, barely holding back another smile. He didn’t even look at me, still staring at the menu, when I knew for sure his own thoughts were far from food or drinks. “I’m not going to follow your orders, neither in a bed, nor out of it,” I said firmly. No matter how much I loved being with him, I also wanted him to know that I was not going to turn into his personal slave, sex or otherwise, and make his every dream come true without saying a word. “We will see.” Seriously? “I can’t believe I trusted you so much.” “What if you like my orders? You never know if something tastes good or bad until you try it.” I looked up and saw him smiling at me. “Why don’t you switch your dirty thoughts to food, Mister?” “As you wish, Miss.” We ate in silence. It might seem a little weird for someone else, but not to us. Our eyes stayed locked for almost the entire dinner, except for those rare moments when we needed to refresh our drinks, or slice a piece of roast beef. After the waiter came back to take the dishes away, and we were alone again, Will went to the record player and turned it on, letting the sounds of music fill the room.

“Shall we dance?” He asked, offering me his hand. “You’ve never danced with me before,” I said, rising to my feet. “You’ve never asked me to dance with you.” “Right… My mistake.” I looked down at our bodies touching, and once again I realized that there was no hesitation in what we were doing, it was as if we had been dancing for years, knowing every step either one of us was about to take. Will spun me around, and pulled my back to his chest, saying, “I remember you asking me to tell you how we could make love without seeing each other’s face… This is one of the ways.” His palm slid down my dress and pulled the edge of it up, exposing my hip and a part of my lingerie. I sucked in a deep breath, afraid of what he was going to do next. His hand slipped lower, to where I could feel his fingers caressing me through the fabric of my panties. His lips touched my ear, hot flesh against my skin; my head started to spin. My tummy tightened at the force of the need I felt at that moment. A gentle breeze from the open window rustled my dress and my hair; the scent of Will’s cologne drifted in the air, a mix of spices and wood. “What are you thinking about?” He whispered, now moving his hand from my panties and up to my belly, as if licking my skin with the heat of his touch. “I think I have too many clothes on me,” I said, gasping for air. Even with the window open, it still felt like there was not enough fresh air in the room. He smirked. “I couldn’t agree with you more.” He pushed

his hand deeper under my dress and with the help of his other hand, he took it off of me, letting it fall down to my feet. I didn’t move. “Turn around,” he said in a low but firm voice. I did as he said, trying to fight the embarrassment that I thought would never return, especially after the bath he and I shared last night. I don’t know why, but something felt different about tonight. Maybe the fact that I was finally allowed to keep my eyes open, or the fact that I knew our game would go so much further than it did last night. Wordlessly, he reached for the back of my bra and unfastened it, slowly pushing the straps down my shoulders. The bra joined my dress, laying on the floor, and I kept staring at them because I didn’t really have enough courage to look into Will’s eyes. He touched my chin with his thumb, forcing me to look up at him. “Is it even legal to be so stunningly beautiful?” He smiled, leaning closer, his breath feathered my lips, making the temperature of my body rise to several degrees. Our gazes met for a brief moment, but it was more than enough to feel the heat pulsing between us. I closed my eyes, leaning forward, dying to feel his mouth on mine again. I could taste the wine on his lips, making indescribable sensations travel through my bloodstream, just like the drink that we had shared, moments ago. He could feel my weakness, I knew he did. But I hardly cared. With him, I was not afraid of losing my balance or falling.

He broke the kiss from time to time, and I could feel his tremulous breath escaping his lips and tickling mine, it was teasing me and I could barely handle it anymore. His closeness was so disarming. I wouldn’t be able to fight whatever he had on his mind that he was going to do to me, even if I wanted to. The good news was I was sure our thoughts and desires were the same. I could feel every single part of my body that his wanting eyes stopped at. My heart was about to jump out of my chest at the force of the anxiety that was swallowing me alive. Now or never, I thought to myself. I took a few steps back, until I bumped into the table with my rear. Resting my palms on its smooth surface, I sat on it. “Come here,” I said, a little afraid he wouldn’t take the dare. “I remember you mentioning this table in our previous conversation…” He shook his head slowly, as if he couldn’t believe his eyes and ears. “It’s your first time, Louise, it should be done differently.” “Alright, but we can at least start here, can’t we?” I reached for my panties and pushed them down my legs, watching Will’s eyes following my provocative gesture. When our gazes locked again, I knew his restraint had been destroyed. So much for your famous self-control, Mr. Secret. He took a few steps closer, spread my legs apart and pulled me roughly to his body. “I told you to be careful what you wish for, remember?” “Yes.”

“Then you’d better not try to stop me, ‘cause there’s no way I’m gonna leave this room without getting what I have been dreaming about for nights, first.” “I won’t try to stop you.” “Are you sure about that?” Was I? “I am,” I said, wrapping my hands around his neck, capturing his delicious lips in a kiss. It was anything but slow and tender. Will deepened the kiss almost immediately after I started it. I was melting in his arms, and I didn’t care if I couldn’t ever be myself again… I just needed to be with him; I needed to be with him right now. Plain and simple. “God help me, Louise… I want you… So much, I can barely breathe without suffocating.” “Then what are you waiting for?”

Chapter 16 Hot lips moved up my belly, leaving fiery kisses on my skin. The coldness of the table surface beneath me contrasted with the heat boiling inside me. Leaning on my elbows, I let the sweetest of sensations swallow me up. Will was hovering over me, with nothing but his lips touching me. He put his hands on the table, one on each side of me, and smiled slightly, saying, “This is going to be a long night, Louise.” “Sounds good to me. I wasn’t going to sleep anyway.” “When you are with me, you will never get enough sleep at night.” And before I could stop him, he pulled me to his body again, pressing his arousal against my sex. Even through the fabric of his trousers I could feel how hard he was. Oh, boy, did I still have a chance to stop him? Did I want to stop him? No, not in this life for sure. Sliding his palms up my hips and sides, he leaned even closer and pinned my hands over my head; his lips working their way down to my breast. Running his tongue across my nipples, he pressed himself harder against me, and I couldn’t help but admit that I wanted him now more than ever. Not just his fingers and lips, but him, all over me, inside me, hard and deep. He sucked one of my nipples in between his lips, making another shattering moan escape my throat. “You make the most erotic sounds I have ever heard,” he murmured, now moving one hand down my stomach and in between my legs. “You are like the most exquisite instrument that I can’t get enough of playing. I want to hear every fine sound you

make, I want to dive into the music of your moans, I want to dive inside you and never come back from the magical and mindblowing world that you create around me.” Slowly, he thrust one finger inside me, finding the spot, pressing it tenderly and making more delicious moans of pleasure fill the silence of the room. Shivers ran up and down my spine. The wind from the opened window joined in our sweet game, making goose bumps cover my skin. It was like bathing in an ocean made of both fire and ice, burning to ashes and then coming back to life again, taking a deep breath and letting the fresh air fill my lungs. Will pushed his fingers deeper inside of me and I flinched from the pain it caused. It’s not like I couldn’t stand it. It hurt just enough to make me want more, more of him inside me. He kept his mouth on me, relishing every inch of me that his knowing lips could find. God, women must have been crazy about spending the night with him, in one bed… A very unpleasant feeling formed inside me, overshadowing the sensations he was flooding my body with. Jealousy… “How many were there before me?” I asked, surprising both of us by the unexpected question. “What?” He stared down at me, his lips pressed into a thin line, making him look a little angry and definitely more dangerous. “How many women were there before me?” I don’t know why I suddenly wanted to know the answer to that question. Maybe because I didn’t want to be just another toy to him; a toy he couldn’t wait to play with, and then toss away as soon as he was

finished with his fun and games. Or maybe it was because I loved him too much to let someone else take him away from me. Love… I shook my head slightly. “Never mind,” I said. “It doesn’t really matter anyway.” “It doesn’t. But your worries do matter to me.” He sighed, touching the corner of my lip with his thumb. “None of the women I have been with were you, and they never will be. Because you are the only one I want to be with… Today, tomorrow, always.” “Then take off the mask. Let me look into your eyes, let me see the emotions crossing your face.” Please, just give me this one thing I am asking for… “I can’t, Louise. God knows it would be a mistake to let you see me now. So please, just let us live in the moment — this very moment of you and me, in each other’s arms.” “Okay,” was the only thing I could say in response. Faces didn’t matter now, neither did his past, or mine for that matter; right then and there it was good enough to just feel each other; nothing could be compared to the feeling of our hearts beating as one. We were tuned so perfectly to each other. I sat up, and reached for Will’s shirt, unbuttoning it. I didn’t dare to look up at him, though I knew his eyes were following my every move. I ran my palm across his naked chest, eyes admiring the beauty of the man’s body. God, I wanted it nowhere else but pressed hard against me. When I leaned forward and touched his perfectly-toned chest with my lips, he groaned aloud. My hands slid deeper under his shirt and pushed it and the tux off of his shoulders;

my lips leaving small kisses on his chest. The presence of the mask on his face was still bothering me a little, but I tried to not think about it. After all, it added even more mystery to everything we were doing. Cupping my face in his hands, Will bent down and kissed me deeply, hungrily, putting all the need that he felt into that one kiss. He kissed my jaw, my neckline, and then moved down my chest and my belly, and to my inner thighs, biting the softness of the skin lightly. My hands grabbed the edge of the table for support. The closer his lips moved to the most sensitive part of my body, the more anxious I became. I was almost vibrating, dying to feel him kissing me there — right where the sweetest of pains was getting almost impossible to stand. As if hearing my thoughts, he drove his tongue inside me, pressing his thumb to my clit. I threw my head back and closed my eyes, letting the deliciously exciting sensations take over me. Plundering me with his tongue, he grabbed my hips, making the skin around his touch redden. It was a view to die for, I didn’t want to miss a second of it. If only I could take pictures of it… “Do you have your camera?” I asked, barely forming my words into an intelligible question. He giggled into my sex. “I do. Why?” “I want to take a few pictures. Can I?” “Only if you let me take pictures of you as well.”

“I don’t mind.” He rose to his feet, still holding his thumb against my clit and circling it lightly. “You make the dirtiest of my fantasies come to life, Louise.” He kissed my lips softly, and went to his room, returning no more than a minute later, with a camera in his hands. He gave it to me, smiling in amusement. “What are you going to do with the pictures you take?” I smirked, trying to figure out how the camera worked. “Get back to your ‘mouth work’. I’ll tell you later.” He laughed, moving one of the candles closer to where I was sitting, apparently to give me better illumination for my photo session. I looked up at him and once again, I caught myself regretting the inability to have a closer look at his face, and especially his eyes. The shadows created by the candle light were dancing on his skin, and I couldn’t help but admire the beauty of his body again. “Take your trousers off,” I said, fixing the camera on his chest. “Are you sure you want to take such a… Close picture of me?” “I’ve never been more sure about anything.” He laughed again, very quiet this time, but did just exactly what I told him to do. I lost my ability to speak for a moment. Well, hell… Of course, I knew he would be perfect there too, but I could have

imagined the view of his arousal, all ready and waiting would turn me on even more than his lips and hands did. “See something you like?” He asked in that sexy, selfsatisfied manner of his. “Well, it’s definitely… Bigger than I expected.” “Scared?” “Not even a little bit.” He bit his lower lip, leaning closer. “But you should be.” Unintentionally, my finger pressed the red button on the camera, the flash illuminating the space around us. I looked down at the shot and gasped — it showed just exactly what I wanted and needed now — our bodies touching in the most sensual way, just as if they were about to connect. “Nice shot,” Will said, turning the camera so he could see better. “I’ll make it a wallpaper on my laptop.” I laughed. “And I will print it, and frame it to have it on my bedside table.” “Enough talking.” He smiled devilishly down at me and sank back to his knees, sucking me without warning. I gasped for air. Oh, the man obviously knew how to use his mouth. I turned the camera to where he was kissing me… Click. His hand, grabbing my hip… Another click. His fingers plunging inside me… Click. His lips on my hip… One more click. His mouth on my belly… Click.

His lips around my nipple… Click. His cock pressed against me again… Click… Click… Click. “I think it’s enough pictures for now.” Will took the camera out of my hands and put in on the table next to me. Then he wrapped my legs around him, and put my hands around his neck. “Hold on, Baby. I am gonna take you for a ride.” He raised me from the table and took me to the bedroom. Only this time, it was his bedroom, not mine. Carefully, he lowered me on the bed, spreading my legs and positioning himself in between them. Reaching for his bedside table, he took a condom and quickly ripped open the package, pulling it out, and rolling it on. “I want you to remember this moment forever,” he whispered against my lips, before capturing them with his. He was so warm, hard in just the right places, and so tender; I could have never imagined that a man who was so strong could be so careful and gentle in everything he did. I knew the inevitable was coming; I had been looking for this moment for so long, and suddenly, I didn’t know if I could handle it… Not that Will gave me a chance to change my mind. He started to push in, achingly slow, watching me closely, drinking in every small emotion that crossed my face. Ugh, it was so unfair. I wish I could see him too, for real, and not just a mask, hiding his face from me. The next second, he was all inside me, rock hard and

unstoppable, breaking through the thin wall of my virginity, making shivers run up and down my back. My body ached for him. “God, you feel so good, Louise, so tight, wet, and welcoming.” His voice was barely audible, as if he could hardly make himself speak, drunk by the closeness of our bodies moving as one. There was nothing but him for me now; my world had reduced to the here and now, with the most wanted and gorgeous man in the world making love to me. I had no doubt that what we were doing was considered love. It couldn’t be described better with any other word. They all just seemed too pale to properly color the sensations radiating between us. His every stroke rubbed firmly against me, with the heat of his lower body skin and hips pressed to my thighs. The moves grew faster, harder, deeper. The kisses became more urgent, more frantic. Neither of us had any control over the moment. We just let it take us away; away from everything but the sounds of our rapid breathing and the music of our hearts singing to each other. With my hands scratching his shoulders possessively, I gave in to the most irresistible temptation ever. I could have never imagined that sex would be so connecting. It felt like even our souls were one now. I didn’t know where I ended and he began, it just all felt like one deep sea of pleasure and bliss splashing inside and around us, filling every small part of our bodies and minds, mingling our desires and needs in one perfect connection. I felt like I was walking off the edge of a cliff. One step forward, and I no longer belonged to myself. Will possessed not

just my body, he possessed every thought crossing mind, every breath I took. He kissed me like it was the last time he would ever be with me again. His teeth sank into my neck, but it was not painful, it was actually too pleasant to say no. He sped up a little, making my breasts bounce with his every thrust. “You’ve always been too much, Louise,” he said, his breath hot against my shoulder’s skin. “I can’t get enough of being with you, inside you in particular. I can’t get enough of kissing you, of studying your perfect curves. And I can’t stop… I just can’t.” He moved in and out of me, with slow, careful thrusts, as if he wanted to prolong the moment, but was not really patient enough to do so. “Then don’t stop,” I said, arching my hips to meet his hips and feel the force of his moves. “Remember that later. You are the one who told me to not stop…” In the blink of an eye, I was on my knees with my back pressed hard against Will’s body, with his length pushing inside me, urgently, roughly. But I didn’t mind it, at all. Because right then and there, I couldn’t get enough of him either, of everything he was doing to me. And I didn’t want him to stop, I wanted more… He let out another delicious grunt and I saw something fall to the sheet, right next to me. The mask… He took it off when I could no longer see his face. I smiled to myself. There was no more secrecy standing between us. It made everything even more amazing, even more overwhelming. I reached one hand back and wrapped it around Will’s

neck, bringing his face closer to mine. “You will be the death of me, Louise,” he said, thrusting even harder inside me. With one hand wrapped firmly around my waist, he moved his other hand down my side, my thigh, and to where we were connected, caressing my lips and clit with his fingers. “If only you could see yourself now — so lost in the moment, so sexy, so fucking beautiful.” His words sounded like an echo in my head, bringing me even closer to the end of something that I could have never imagined being so unbelievably fascinating, and exceptional. And then, I felt it… Building somewhere in the depths of my mind, an aching need rolled down my back and right to my sex, exploding like fireworks in the night sky, with millions of colors and emotions taking my breath away and making me shatter from the climax, running through my entire body. “Oh, yes, this is how I wanted you to come, hard and all over me,” Will said, giving me a few more deep thrusts. His body became rigid, for no longer than a few seconds, and then, I heard him coming with a low groan, trembling slightly against me, joining me in the moment of endless euphoria taking us to the highest of heights, where no masks or secrets mattered. He let me go, and quickly turned around, sat on the bed with his feet on the floor, and his fingers digging into the satin sheets. I sighed, laying down. It was so hard to get back to reality. I didn’t want it to break into our perfect world. I was still too lost to think straight, but then I turned to my left and saw it… Will’s mask

was still lying next to me. I took it into my hands and threw it across the room with all the hate I felt for the thing at the moment. “I hope I didn’t hurt you, did I?” He asked, turning his head just a little, still breathing heavily. “You did not.” I sat up and moved closer to him, wrapping my legs and hands around him. “I’ve never felt better than I do right now,” I said, pressing my cheek to his back. “And don’t you dare to say that you regret what has just happened between us.” His shoulders relaxed a little. He took one of my hands in his and brought it to his lips, kissing my fingers, one by one. “How could I? You have just made me the happiest man in the world. I would never call this moment a mistake. It was amazing, shattering and … so disarming. How am I supposed to keep lying to you, especially now, that we are so close?” Inhaling deeply, I placed a soft kiss on his shoulder, saying, “I don’t care about your secrets anymore. I just want to be with you, with or without a mask.” I could hear him smiling. “You are so young, yet so brave, Louise. I still can’t believe you let me make you mine.” “There’s no one else I would rather belong to…” “Do you trust me?” “You know I do. Always.” “You said I could take a few pictures of you… Can I take them now?” “Shall I close my eyes?” “Yes, please.” I kissed his shoulder one more time and leaned back,

moving up to the pillows above my head. “How do you want me to pose?” “Just don’t move.” “Okay.” I waited for him to bring the camera, but no matter how strong the desire to open my eyes was, I kept my promise and stayed still, with the images of what we had just been doing flashing behind my closed eyes. It was nothing but a photo shoot that I did. Hovering over me, Will took pictures, kissing me here and there, rubbing his body against mine, licking and sucking my skin, and then taking more pictures of everything he was doing, and of our bodies touching. “I want you, again…” he said after some time. I smiled. “You don’t need to ask for permission.” “I want it to be different this time…” “How different?” He didn’t reply, and I wondered if he was going to finally let me see him. “Do you still trust me?” “I do,” I said without hesitation. “I want it to be like this now,” he whispered, diving deep inside me. I gasped at his unexpected move. He was not protected, and neither was I… Skin to skin, flesh to flesh. It was different, in so many ways; even more exciting, even more connecting… “Just keep your eyes closed,” he whispered, holding me by

the wrists, with my hands pinned above my head. “I will,” I said in response, meeting his hungry moves eagerly. I didn’t care how far it could all go, I just wanted him, all for myself, for as long as I could keep him by my side…

Chapter 17 I woke up with a strong feeling that there was something wrong. The room was pitch-black. I couldn’t see anything, and only when I tried to move, did I finally realize what felt so wrong. Well, not exactly wrong… Will’s hand was wrapped tightly around me, with his other hand laying under my pillow. I swallowed, recalling the hours of love making that proceeded falling asleep, almost senseless. I could already feel that sore pain in my lower body. And oh, God… It felt so freaking amazing. I smiled to myself, leaning closer to Will’s chest. He didn’t put the mask back, but he didn’t let me see his face either. And now, that the room was so dark, I knew he had closed the curtains to prevent me from waking and looking upon his face while he slept. All of a sudden, I felt like awakening him, begging him to make love to me again. I didn’t care if I couldn’t walk tomorrow. I could just stay in bed all day. “Will?” I called quietly. But no response followed. Disappointed, I carefully removed his hand, got out of the bed and headed for the bathroom, hoping a shower would help me relax enough to get back to sleep. I stepped into the shower and turned on the water as hot as it could be. Once the water heated all the way I tipped my face up and opened my mouth, allowing the water to fill it and let it flow back out again. Drops of scalding rain ran down my hair and face, to my shoulders and back, soaking my entire body, rinsing away the sweat and sex from earlier. I still couldn’t believe Will had actually

decided to stay. And what was even less believable to me, were the things we had done in his bed just a few hours ago, I just couldn’t fathom that it had really happened, that it was real… After wishing for nothing more than to give myself to him since the moment we met in the dance room nine, it was the most amazing feeling in the world. Technically, it was his bed that I needed to leave when everything was over, but I couldn’t… And he didn’t seem to mind me staying. I could have never imagined that being with a man for the first time could be so wonderful. I could still feel Will all over my body; every inch of me trembled recalling the memories of what he could do to me. He didn’t give me a chance to change my mind about spending the night with him. Even with a mask on his face, he still had so much power over me; it was too damn exciting to stop him or say no. Besides, how could I say no since I wanted to be with him more than I wanted anything else? “You could have told me you wanted to take a shower,” Will said against my neck. I flinched at the sound of his voice. I was standing with my back to the shower door, and I didn’t hear him me into the bathroom or get into the shower. “I thought you were sleeping,” I said, feeling his hands travel down my sides. “The bed was too cold without you,” he said, taking the soap from my hands. “Mind if I help you with that?” “Not at all.” Oh God, he didn’t know how glad I was just to feel him close to my body again. I remembered the bath foreplay we had the other night, and swallowed hard at the thought of

making love to Will right there and then, with water pouring down our bodies like a waterfall. He pressed his pelvis against my backside, letting me know he wanted the exact same thing at the moment. Wordlessly, I took his hand in mine and moved it slowly to where I needed him most; the muscles of my lower body tensed at the heat of his touch against my skin. He pushed his hand lower, making my body bow beneath him, bringing us even closer to each other. “You can’t even imagine how much I want to be inside you again,” he said into my ear. “I would stay there forever if only I could.” His fingers slipped inside me and I gasped at how good it felt, but it still wasn’t enough… “I want you,” I said, shamelessly. “Now.” His thumb circled my clit and my desire grew even stronger. “We can’t, Baby. Not now. I don’t want you to be too sore tomorrow.” “I don’t give a damn about being sore tomorrow.” He growled into the curve of my neck. “Stop tempting me, Louise. I’m already fighting for every ounce of control I have right now, and it isn’t much. I can hardly keep myself away from you.” “Then don’t,” I breathed. I could feel my heartbeat accelerate. My body welcomed his every touch, and I didn’t know how long I would be able to stay still and not turn around. In fact, I don’t know how much longer I could follow that rule at all. I wanted to… No, I needed to see his face.

I swear the man could read my mind because the next thing he said was his way of making me stick to the rules of that game of his. “Finish your shower and get back to bed. I’ll be waiting for you there.” All of a sudden, Will’s hands were gone, and with them, the feeling of bliss that I could already feel forming inside me. Oh, how I hated him for leaving me now. I groaned aloud, leaning against the shower wall; he was going to be the death of me. Quickly, I washed the soap off of my body, dried myself with a towel and went back to the darkened bedroom, hoping I would be able to find a way to make Will change his mind about making love to me again. “Louise,” my name slipped from his lips in the most erotic whisper ever. Wrapping both hands around me, he pulled me to his chest, putting me right on top of him, our bodies touching in all the right places. Tangling one hand in my hair, he brought my lips to his, capturing them in a slow kiss, his tongue pushed against mine. Trailing his fingers down my sides and back, he stopped at my ass, squeezing it lightly. “Say it again,” he breathed into my parted lips. “Say what?” I asked, a little puzzled. “That you want me.” I smiled into the darkness. “Isn’t my body saying it for me? I know you can feel how wet I am, and we both know it isn’t from the shower…” “It is and you’re right, you are wet... But I loved the way you said it before. I want to hear you saying it again. There is

nothing sexier than hearing the most exotic woman in the world wants you.” Moving my lips to his ear, I said, “I want you, William. Now. All of you. Deep and hard inside me.” The sound of his hungry moan echoed in the silence of the room. It was so good to know that he was not wearing a mask now, and I wasn’t even wearing a blindfold. We still couldn’t see each other. But it was not needed. Right then and there, I just wanted to feel him, and I had no doubt that I would… Sitting up, he wrapped my legs around his waist and licked a line down my neck, to my breasts; his hard-on pressed tightly against my sex. Capturing one of my nipples in his mouth, he sucked on the soft skin and then blew on it, it felt like ice on my skin, which felt like it was on fire, making shivers of excitement and anxiety run through me. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I stood up on my knees, hovering over the tip of his waiting cock. Every inch of me trembled as I felt him slipping slowly inside me. Lowering myself to take him fully in, I found his lips with mine, kissing the delightful sounds escaping his throat. Heat splashed all over me, welcoming the new thrusts, shattering me into million small pieces. Will’s hands were wrapped tightly around torso, leaving no space between his body and mine. My hardened nipples scratched his chest, I dug my nails into the flesh of his back, making him groan even more. “Nothing will ever be as good as feeling you around me,” he said, scraping my shoulder with his teeth. His thrusts became

harder, wilder. But I didn’t mind it at all. Somehow, this time I didn’t care about tenderness or making it all slow and careful; I just wanted to feel the pure bliss that I knew would envelope my entire body soon, and leave my head spinning in euphoria. “Whenever my lips touch your neck, I can feel your blood pulsing rapidly through your veins, right under your skin; it’s like water rushing through the river to the fall. It drives me crazy, it’s a drug that I don’t have enough strength to resist.” He plunged deeper inside me, making me gasp for air. His stomach tensed against mine, I knew we were close… So close… “Faster,” I said, almost begging. “Oh, yeah? Like this?” He started pushing me down his length and then up again, increasing the speed of his thrusting, and taking the remnants of my blinded mind away. I felt too dizzy to think. “Yes,” I moaned, throwing my head back. “Fuck, you are so slick, it awakens the dirtiest of my wishes.” My nails dug deeper into his shoulders and all of a sudden, I felt lightheaded, high, welcoming the euphoric sensations, running through my blood, like a river of heat and bliss. Will’s face buried in my neck; the grip of his arms around me became even tighter, if that was even possible. He came hard inside me, his orgasm pulsing in tune with mine; it was just too good to describe with simple words. “Oh, God, Louise… We can’t keep doing this, this often, I’m afraid neither of us will be able to leave this bed if we keep it up.”

“I don’t mind staying here forever. I don’t want to go back to New York.” The moment the words were said, I felt like I was going to fall apart from the pain welling up inside of my chest. It was like being stabbed with a knife, right through my heart. Will kissed my shoulder tenderly, lowering me on to the sheets. “I thought I had already made myself clear about taking you back to New York — it won’t change anything. We will find a way to be together as much as possible, whether it is in or outside of the club.” Thank God, the darkness kept him from seeing my face. I smiled slightly, trying to force my tears away. “I know,” I said quietly. “It’s just that now and here it feels like we are living in the world that belongs to us, and only us. And when I am there… Nothing belongs to me, not even I belong to myself there.” Will bent down to my lips and kissed me again. “You don’t need to worry about this. I will come up with something to take you away from Drew.” “But you said that you couldn’t do that…” “Well, I’m sure there are ways to make him change his mind.” “What time are we leaving tomorrow?” “Ten at night. You will have an entire day to enjoy Paris.” “What about you? Do you have any meetings to attend?” “Unfortunately, I do. But we can have dinner together, if you want…” I sighed, turning my back to him. “I don’t think I can handle

another ‘blind’ dinner.” He laughed, embracing me and making me move closer to his chest. “Patience has never been one of your best qualities, has it?” “You know the answer to that question. I hate games, secrets, and waiting, more than anything else.” “Hopefully, you won’t need to wait too much longer for the moment we are finally ready to look into each other’s eyes.” I smirked, humorlessly. “Amen.” “Now, we need to get some sleep. I don’t want to pass out in the middle of tomorrow’s negotiations, and I don’t want you to spend the entire day yawning, trying to keep your eyes open while in the most beautiful city in the entire world. There are still too many places in Paris I’m sure you would like to see.” “Whatever you say, Mr. Secret.” When the new day began it was not how I had expected it to begin. The room was full of morning light, and Will was gone. I sat in the bed and smiled at the sight of another note left for me on the pillow next to mine. “Even the most beautiful of sunsets couldn’t be compared to what I see in you… I enjoyed last night more than any other night in my entire life. The smell of your skin, the warmth of your touch, the passion of your kiss — it will all stay with me, until the moment we are together again. There’s a place within my soul that had been empty

until the day I met you, and now, I can’t imagine losing you or leaving you alone. Because I know that after what happened between us, neither of us will ever be the same again. And I can’t help but admit that I like the new me, because whenever I’m with you, I feel more like myself, I feel alive again, and I feel happier than I have ever been, and complete; Louise, you complete me. There’s an image of you that always stays with me, lingering deeply within my heart, warming it and making it beat faster… You are my every thought while I’m awake, and every dream while I’m sleeping. You are every star illuminating the darkness of my night sky, and every time I look at you, I feel my heart swells with affection and longing… This is what I want to feel forever, for as long as I can breathe. P.S. I hope I managed to meet your expectations… Always Yours W.” I couldn’t help but smile at the last line of the note. I wrapped a sheet around me and went to my room to find my cellphone. “My expectations were exceeded,” I typed and sent Will the message. “Good to know, Miss Louise. I think I forgot to tell that you were amazing, and definitely beyond my wildest imagination...” I felt my cheeks reddening. I didn’t think I would ever be

able to feel that free and careless with anyone but Will. He was a man of stability in my life. In any other situation, I would have never believed he could be so passionate and reckless at times. No matter how little I knew about him, he always felt like a man of control. But feeling him losing it with me was the best feeling ever. My cellphone vibrated in my palm. A new message came through. “I ordered a breakfast for you, eat well and go for a walk. If you need Patrick, he’s waiting downstairs.” “And what am I supposed to do if I need you?” “Call me, I’ll be right there for you…” I shook my head at how unbelievably perfect our relationship, whatever that might be felt. Maybe even too perfect, I thought to myself. I was still a little worried about going back to New York. With my work at the club, I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to spend with Will. He said he would come up with something to take me away from Drew, but I doubted the old man would let me go just because Will said so. “Have you seen the pictures that I took last night?” Another message from Will asked. Shoot, I totally forgot about the pictures. “Checking!” I typed, running back to his room and looking for his camera. It was lying on a coffee table, along with a pink rose that I somehow didn’t notice before. “Oh, boy,” I whispered, stunned, looking through the pictures. Will was obviously good at taking shots. Every picture he took was well thought-out, focused on the right things, with just enough light to accentuate what he wanted to capture with the

camera. There’s no need to say that all of the pictures were very intimate and sexy. They didn’t hide anything, except for his face, of course; every inch of me was well seen on them, including the things that shouldn’t have been seen by anyone, but Will. “Nice work,” I typed a new message. “I knew you would love them,” was his response. “Always so damn self-assured!” “That’s who I am; I know what I want and I always know how to get it…” There was no doubt the message didn’t have anything to do with his photography. “Lucky me, now I also have you…” He typed as if he could read my mind even though he was miles away from me. My smile faded a little. Could I say the same about him? I knew it was more than physical attraction that pulled us together. But could I say that he was mine now? “Je suis tout à toi — I’m all yours,” said another message. Intuition, right… I went back to my room, took a shower, got dressed, had breakfast, and went outside, hoping I would be able to enjoy the beauty of the city even without Will by my side. The first place I visited was the Louvre. It took most of my day to see the extraordinary amount of pictures kept there, but I didn’t regret a single second of my excursion. After I bought a few

more souvenirs in one of the Louvre’s shops, Patrick offered to take me to the flower market. He said it was one of the most picturesque places in the entire city, so I agreed immediately. I brought Will’s camera with me, and I managed to take a few pictures of some flowers which I decided were probably the most beautiful flowers in the world, and even bought a small rose plant to take back to New York with me. Patrick said it was a very rare kind of rose. Its petals were snow white with a delicate red pattern on the ends. When I was just about to ask him to take me back to the hotel, Will called. “Hey, how are you?” He asked. He sounded a little worried, or upset; I couldn’t understand. “I’m great. Buying flowers and drinking lemonade.” “Sounds like fun… I’ve got some bad news to tell you.” “What happened?” “You will have to go back to the States without me. I need to stay in Paris for at least a couple more days, and Pierre promised Drew you would be back by the time the show on Friday night came around. So…” “So I’m not going to see you today,” I finished the sentence for him. “I’m afraid not. But I promise to come see you in New York, as soon as I get back.” My heart dropped to my feet. Neither the beauty around me, nor even the memories of the last night could take away the sudden pain, filling my heart and my soul. I felt like I was

suffocating, I couldn’t breathe. This is it… The end of my fairytale. “Louise? Are you still there?” “Yeah, it’s just that… I hoped we would be able to spend some more time together.” “Go back to the hotel, pack your things and stop worrying. I promise, you won’t even have time to miss me.” “I am already missing you though…” “I know. I feel the same way. I wish I could just come back to the hotel right now and hold you in my arms. I really wish I could…” “It’s okay, Will. You can’t ignore your work and your duties.” “I know, I will see you soon, Louise. I promise.” Too many promises, I thought to myself. I don’t need any of them, I just need you… “Okay,” I said into the handset. “See you...”

Chapter 18 I don’t think I have ever hated my life more than I did now. Which is saying a lot, especially after living in Paradise my whole life, and then being tricked into joining a cabaret after finally being free of that awful place; yeah, I had been through a lot but that was nothing compared to flying across the ocean, without Will. Knowing he was just behind the door was one thing, but going back to New York all alone was completely different. Lucy brought me dinner and a cup of tea, and since I didn’t have anything else to do for the next seven hours, I decided I might as well eat. Will didn’t call me the rest of the day. He did send a few messages, but I wanted to hear his voice more than anything else. It always felt more real to me than just reading texts. At one point during the day I thought I should just give it up and call him, but then I changed my mind. He could be too busy to talk to me, and I didn’t want to act like a lovestruck puppy, regardless of how strong the desire to hear his voice was. It was early Thursday morning when the plane landed in New York, and to make things worse, I was met with heavy rain. Christopher was waiting for me outside the plane. He brought an umbrella and accompanied me to the car, parked nearby. “I hope the flight was good, Miss?” “Yes, it was good,” I said, forcing a smile. “Are we going to the club now?” “Yes. Unless there’s somewhere else you would rather go

first.” “How about we stop at the coffee shop first? It’s so early, I think I need an additional dose of caffeine before sinking back into the craziness of Le Papillon.” He nodded, smiling. “As you wish, Miss.” Kate knew I was coming back today, but I didn’t have the slightest desire to start my day with a conversation with her, or worse — Drew. So I thought I could probably take a few more hours and enjoy the rest of my temporary freedom without rushing straight back to my birdcage. “Would you like to join me for a cup of coffee?” I asked Christopher, as we stopped at the coffee shop. “With pleasure,” he replied, looking at me through the rear view mirror. I checked my phone, but there were no missed calls or messages from Will. I started to worry. “He knows you are back and safe,” Christopher said; apparently he noticed that I kept looking at my cellphone. “How do you know that?” I asked, surprised. “Because I called him the moment your plane landed.” “Oh…” So Will knew I was back to the States, but he still didn’t call me. “He’s having a very important meeting today, Miss Louise. He said he will call you as soon as he gets the chance.” I smiled, both happy and a little embarrassed. “Is it really that obvious that I’m waiting for his call?” “You checked your phone no less than twenty times on the

way here.” I sighed, feeling my cheeks blush. “This is so complicated, Christopher…” “No, it’s not, Miss. It’s easier than you think. You just need more time to understand it and get used to it.” I looked at him thoughtfully, when suddenly, I caught myself thinking that if I had a father, I wished he could be like Christopher. “You know something, don’t know?” “About what?” He asked, paying for two cups а coffee and a piece of a cheesecake for me. “About everything.” Christopher smiled. “Why don’t we have a seat first?” We took one of the tables near the window. It was still raining outside, and considering the early hour, there were only a few other visitors in the coffee shop. “I don’t want Mr. William to be angry at me, but I feel like I need to warn you about a few things…” “What do you mean?” I asked cautiously. I didn’t like the sound of Christopher’s words. ‘I need to warn you…’ Warn me about what? “I’m sure there will be a day when Mr. William will have to tell you everything you want to know. I just want to ask you for a small favor — don’t jump to conclusions. No matter how upset you might feel, give him a chance to explain.” “Explain what?” “See, Mr. William is a very powerful man. But there are things that not even he can control. As well as there are people who

have so much more power than he does.” “I don’t understand…” “I’m not trying to make you understand anything right now. I’m just saying that there will come a time when you will need to show just how grown up and wise you are. And I know that you are a very wise girl, despite your young age, Miss Louise. And one more thing — there are people who have a lot of control over your life. But not all of them are bad. Some just don’t have any other choice than to follow the orders they get from people who have more control than they do.” “Who are the others?” “There’s a time for everything, Miss. Soon you will find out everything you want to know. Just be patient.” A nervous laugh escaped my lips. “Now I feel like I’m not going to be able to fall asleep, any time soon. You sound so serious. I am going to start worrying about every step I take.” “Just remember what I said. When the right time comes, you will see that your life is not just about black and white. There are other colors that you will need to see, even when it feels like you can’t see them.” “I will remember that. Thank you, Christopher. By the way, did you know that Will took photography classes in Paris?” “Oh, yes. Ever since he was a boy who could barely hold up the heavy camera, he has been in love with photography. When he was eight, his father presented him with his first camera. He even went to bed, holding it in his hands.” Christopher smiled. “He didn’t want any toys, cars, or robots. He just wanted to take pictures of

everything he saw around him. I think we still have the pictures he took when he was young. Some are really good.” “What made him decide to go into business then?” “His fate, I guess. And the desire to prove to everyone that he was his father’s son.” “Oh, so he took control of his father’s company, right?” Christopher nodded, smiling sadly. “He lost him about eight years ago. It was a huge tragedy for all of us.” “What happened? I mean his death was natural, wasn’t it?” Surprisingly enough, Christopher had been very open and honest with me today; I think it was the first time that I managed to get so much information from him. “Mr. William doesn’t like talking about his death. He doubts it was natural, and that’s the problem, because there was nothing to prove his father was murdered.” “How did his father die?” “His boat sank in the ocean, and he drowned. The police spent almost a week looking for the body and the remnants of the boat. Thank God, it didn’t get very far from the beach. At least we got a chance to bury the body, and not just an empty coffin.” “Oh, my God, it sounds so awful. I bet Will was devastated by what happened to his father.” “Yes. He spent years trying to find clues as to how the accident happened, but he always came back empty handed. He hasn’t given up the search, but I don’t think he will ever succeed. So much time has passed since then…” “What makes him think that it was a murder?”

“There are many things that just don’t add up in the police report. We still have them all, the police reports I mean. I don’t know how many times Will has gone through them.” “So it’s just Will now?” I asked, smiling. From the very first day I met Christopher, I knew he was not just a driver. He smiled too. “You got me there. I have known William since the day he was born. He has always been more like a son to me. When we are alone, I always call him just Will. Or Mr. Impossible. He hates me for doing that.” I laughed. “I bet he does.” Christopher looked at his watch and then at me. “I think it’s time to go, Miss. You have had a long night. You need to sleep.” “Yeah, you are right.” I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night. The flight went well, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Will. I kept looking through the pictures taken in Paris, both by him and me. Some made me smile, others made me blush. But thank God, I was the only passenger in the cabin, so no one could see me there. Lucy didn’t count, she only came by a few times to check on me, and left right after I told her that I was all right. I missed Will like hell… More than I had ever missed anyone. And now, that we had become so close, I couldn’t imagine being with any other man, ever. About twenty minutes later, Christopher stopped not far away from the club’s entrance. Not too close to be seen by anyone, but close enough so I wouldn’t get drenched in the torrential downpour we were having.

“Thank you, for everything,” I said, getting out of the car. “Do you have my phone number?” He asked, helping me with the baggage. “I don’t think I do.” I only had Will’s phone number in my contact list. “Give me your phone. Just in case you need anything, remember you can always call me.” He took my phone, punched in some numbers and handed it back to me. “Thanks.” I took the phone and put it into my purse. No one in the club knew I had a phone, and I preferred it to stay that way. “Good-bye, Miss Louise.” “Good-bye, Christopher.” I rushed to the front door of the club that I could just barely see through the wall of rain, pouring from the sky. If I didn’t know it was still morning outside, I would think it was late afternoon. The guards greeted me and let me in. The club was quiet and looked empty. I didn’t even hear anyone training. Did Kate give the girls a day off or something? “Louise, is that you?” I heard Drew calling. I cursed mentally, and turned around, trying to seem polite. “Yes, Sir. I’m back.” “Great. Did you like Paris?” He asked, coming closer to me. “A lot. Well, who wouldn’t?” “Indeed. What about The Crimson Moon? I hope its local atmosphere didn’t shock you?”

“Not at all. It was not exactly what I expected, but dancing there was okay. And they paid me well enough to not notice the difference between their club and ours.” “Good. I’m glad you had a great time there. Pierre was good to you, wasn’t he?” “Oh, don’t worry. He was polite and decent.” “How very refreshing for him,” Drew muttered. “Anyway, I’m glad to know that we will see you dancing tomorrow. The clients can’t wait to see you again. Some even asked me about you last night.” “They did?” “I think we should make a new billboard with your name on it. They would love it.” I didn’t like the idea, but I nodded anyway and said I was all for it. I was sure I was not the only person who wouldn’t like to see my face and my name on the club’s billboard. I could name at least one person other than myself who would hate it. Tess… “Do you have any pictures from your Paris show to share with us?” “Oh yes, I do. I will bring them a little later. Not sure where I put them.” “It’s okay. No need to rush.” Drew smiled, but I knew that he didn’t just ask me about the pictures out of curiosity. Will was right, he needed proof. We shared a couple meaningless phrases, and he let me go. Finally. I entered my room and immediately felt that something was

different about it. “Do you like the new color?” Kate asked behind me. “Jeez! You scared me half to death. When did you manage to repaint the walls?” They used to be white, but now there were light yellow, as if they were touched by the rays of the sun. “I didn’t really think white was your color. I hope you don’t mind me changing it for you?” “I don’t. If fact, I love it. Looks so much better than the white did.” Kate smiled, pleased. “Good. So how was your trip? No unexpected accidents, I hope?” “No. It was great. The show and the city, of course. I think it was love at first sight.” “Yeah, I know the feeling. What about the dancing team?” “They are cool girls.” “Even Julia?” “We didn’t have much time to talk. But I wouldn’t want her to be my boss.” Kate didn’t even try to hide her smile. “She’s a bitch. Everyone knows that.” “Actually, I think she could say the same about you.” She laughed. “Oh, no doubt she could. She has hated me for as long as I have known her.” “Why?” I took a seat on one of the chairs, and waited for Kate to sit down too. Something was telling me that she wanted to know more about my trip, and there were a few questions I wanted to ask her

as well. “What did they tell you about me?” Kate asked. She was wearing torn jeans and a black sleeveless shirt, her usually perfect red locks were a mess, but she didn’t seem to care. “Why do you think they told me anything about you?” “Because I know them. Well, maybe not all of them, but some ‘ladies’ are very talkative.” “Well, they told me you worked there a couple of years ago, and…” “And that I slept with the clients, right?” I nodded wordlessly. To my surprise, Kate didn’t look like she was offended, rather on the contrary — my silent response humored her. “I didn’t sleep with anyone. I only pretended I did.” “Why would you do that?” “Because back then, I thought it was the best way to punish Drew for sending me there. I hated the idea of leaving Le Papillon, but he wouldn’t let me stay. He said Pierre had a better job for me, and I didn’t have a choice but to go to Paris. Lucky me, I had never been forced to sleep with the clients. And you know why?” “Because Pierre was in love with you, I guess.” “Now I can see that they told you more than I expected.” “Well, don’t get me wrong… I wasn’t going to gossip about you, Kate. But there was a girl, Carrie. She asked me about you, and when I told her you are my boss, she just started spilling everything she knew or at least thought she knew about you. I wouldn’t have been able to stop her, even if I wanted to.”

“There’s no need to explain anything, Darling. I’ve been living in this world for too long to pretend I don’t know how things work here. We always gossip about each other. That is how we get promoted, or a chance to have more time on our solos.” “Dirty world, I know. Do you know why Drew wanted to get rid of you? I mean I thought you had always been special to him. Then why would he suddenly want to send you away?” “I wish I knew the answer to that, Louise.” “Did you and Pierre…” “No, we didn’t. Even though I’m sure he wanted to.” “The night I told you Drew wanted me to go to Paris with Pierre, you were not glad to hear the news. Why?” “Because I couldn’t believe Drew wanted to make you go through the same hell I had to go through while living in Paris. As you already know, my trip was a little longer than yours. And no, I didn’t sleep with the clients, but I had to watch other girls doing the dirty job. Pierre knew I would never agree to sleep with anyone for money, but he couldn’t let me ruin his reputation, no matter how much he loved me. He said I would work in pairs with other girls, who didn’t mind letting men use them. So every time a new client ordered a private dance, I danced for him, but when the time for sex came, I blindfolded his eyes, and a new girl, dressed like me, took my place. I was not allowed to leave until everything was over, because when the client took the blindfold off, he needed to see my face, and not the face of a fake me.” “This is disgusting…” I shivered at the thought of sharing Kate’s experience.

Kate smirked. “Trust me, Sweetie, the reality was so much worse than the story.” “Have you ever told anyone else about it?” “No. Only Pierre knows the truth.” “What about the rumors? Didn’t you ever care about them?” “I didn’t give a damn. So even when Julia started spreading them, I only laughed at her. Because I knew for sure that unlike me, she slept with almost every client that crossed the threshold of The Crimson Moon.” “Did you know that she had and still has feelings for Pierre?” “It has never been a secret, at least not to me. I could see it all right through her. But I never hated her. I knew that one day, I would come back here, and here, she was no one, and I was the boss lady.” I laughed. “Talking to you was one of few things I missed about this place.” Kate looked at me thoughtfully. “You are a good girl Louise, you know that, don’t you? Just please, be careful with what you feel. Feelings don’t always do us good.” “Why would you say that?” “Because something tells me that you are one of those girls for whom there are only two sides of love — heaven and hell. And I don’t want your heart to be broken. You have a whole eternity to live and love, just don’t fall for the wrong guys.” Oh, she just didn’t know how close she was to the truth

about my attitude towards love. “Don’t worry, Kate. I’m not planning on falling for anyone, any time soon.” “Good. Because I think you are too young to let some beautiful bastard ruin you.” “I can take care of myself, you know? Don’t forget that my life has always been like a living hell.” “Love changes everything, Doll. You just don’t know how powerful its force can be.” Didn’t I? I think two days with Will were more than enough to know exactly what Kate’s words meant. She was right, love could be a hell, but right there and then I still wanted to believe that mine would be heaven. “I think it’s time for me to go,” Kate said, rising. “Jet-lag is a bitch and you need to rest before tomorrow’s training. Have a good day, Louise.” “You too, boss lady.” She laughed, heading for the door. “Oh, I just love people calling me that.”

Chapter 19 Talking to Drew and Kate, I totally forgot to check on my cellphone again. And of course, there were missed calls and messages from Will. “Where are you?” The first one said. “Are you all right?” Said the second one. “For God’s sake, Louise, call me back, ASAP!” Screamed the third one. Okay, so he was pissed now, and I didn’t even realize until this very moment that my conversation with Kate lasted a little longer than I had thought it did. I made sure my door was locked, and then I dialed Will’s number. “Finally!” Was the first thing he said, answering my call. “Where have you been? I thought I was going to lose my mind waiting for your call.” “Sorry, I got stuck in a conversation with my two bosses.” “Did it go well?” “Yeah, both of them wanted to know how my trip was, but since it was amazing in every sense of the word, I didn’t even need to lie about it.” “God, Louise, I was so worried about you. I thought something must have gone wrong, I even asked Christopher to go to the tomorrow’s show to make sure you were alright.” I giggled. “I bet he wasn’t thrilled with the idea of coming to the show.” “Not even close, but he said he would come anyway.”

“Tell him that I’m fine. There’s no need to test his moral boundaries.” I could hear Will laughing into the handset. “I miss you, you know?” He said after a short pause. “Same here… How was your meeting? Is it over? I don’t even know what time it is in Paris now.” “It’s around five in the morning.” “Oh, my God… I’m sorry for making you stay up so late. I’ve been waiting for your call since the moment the plane landed, and then Christopher said you were in a meeting, and I didn’t think I would be hearing from you any time soon so I just stopped hoping. I figured you would get ahold of me when you could.” “I’m sorry I didn’t call you yesterday. I don’t even know why I couldn’t make myself call you. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to you, I was scared of hearing your voice and feeling guilty for ruining the rest of the our short vacation.” “It’s okay. We are talking now, and I know that you miss me, so I’ll think of it as my revenge for your sudden disappearance.” He laughed again. “Serves me right, I know.” “My point exactly.” “What are your plans for the rest of the day?” “Well, I am in dire need of shower… So, I think I will shower first,” I said, intentionally pausing to make him think about me — naked and wet, in the shower, and to make him recall the memories we had made in the shower in our hotel. “Then, I’ll try to get some sleep, and maybe later, I will think about the rest of the

things I need to get done.” “Sounds like a very good plan… Especially the part about a shower.” I smiled to myself. “I wish you could be here with me…” “Oh, yeah? And why exactly do you want me to be there now?” “Well, you could at least hold the towel for me.” “And that’s it? Then I’d better stay in Paris for a few more days and give you more time to miss me.” “Hey, that’s not fair!” “Don’t you know by now that I never play fair?” I rolled my eyes, leaning against the pillows on my bed. “Just come back as soon as possible. I might even dance for you…” “Mmm… I can already imagine that. How about dancing in my bedroom instead of one of the club’s rooms?” The waves of excitement ran through me. “I’d love that.” “Consider it done then.” I didn’t really care about what he would have to tell Drew to get his permission to take me away for another day or two, I just wanted to feel his arms around me again, and nothing else mattered. “I think we need to end this conversation before it’s too late…” “And what do you mean by too late?” He asked, with a smile in his voice. “I mean when I’m no longer able to think about falling asleep, rather about doing things with you that don’t involve sleep,

at all.” He sighed. “All right. That makes sense. After all, I need to find strength to live without you for a couple more days. And if I keep thinking about taking a shower with you, I doubt I will be able to concentrate on anything but making love to you again.” My breath caught. Love… Making love to you again… Did he even realize how much it meant to me to hear those words from his mouth? I bet he didn’t even know that I wanted to tell him I loved him. Why does this have to be so damn complicated? “What are you thinking about?” Will asked. “I think it’s time to say good-bye,” I lied, trying to make my voice sound as normal as possible; in reality, there was nothing I wanted more than to scream in pain. What if we were never supposed to be together in the first place? What if it was just a dream, a game that was going to end very soon? “I hate saying good-bye to you, Louise. How about ‘I’ll see you soon’ instead?” “Yes, that sounds much better than good-bye. See you soon, Will.” I hung up the phone before my eyes could betray me and break into tears; I didn’t want him to hear me cry. He knew I was a fighter, and I preferred it to stay that way. Kate’s words rang in my head and I felt even worse than before my conversation with Will had started. I already let him in; I am already in too deep to turn back now… And I doubted it was possible even if I wanted to. I went to the wardrobe and opened a drawer where I kept my ‘secret’ things, including a pair of gloves that a stranger gave me

many years ago. I refused to get rid of them. They always made me think about one of my favorite memories. I still remembered meeting the stranger. I haven’t thought about him much recently, but whenever I did, it warmed my heart pleasantly, filling it with an invisible light that once made me look at my life from a different point of view. I was not a child anymore, and I still had no idea who the stranger was, but I was thankful to him for the few special moments we shared together. It was special because of the time he took to talk to me, and the fact that he cared enough to give the poor orphan girl a pair of gloves, even though he didn’t know me, he showed me that good people did exist, and he helped me turn myself into a new and better person: stronger, and self-assured. For some weird reason, I could easily imagine Will being the stranger from my past. Whenever he was around, I felt so good, just like I did the day I got the gloves… I put the phone into the drawer, and went to take a shower. I felt like I was about to pass out at any second, and my sad thoughts only made the desire to hide under the blanket grow. *** I slept for almost the entire day, until I heard someone knock on my door. Yawning, I looked at the clock on the wall and it said it was seven in the evening. “Louise, are you there?” I recognized Natasha’s voice. “Just a minute!” I shouted back, getting dressed in a hurry. “What is it, Nat?” I asked, opening the door. “Oh, I’m sorry for waking you, Lu. But I have an

emergency and I don’t think I can ask anyone else for help.” “What happened?” She looked around the hall cautiously, and then entered my room and closed the door behind her. “It’s Valery…” “Is she all right?” “That’s the thing that I don’t know… She left a couple of hours ago, and I haven’t heard from her since.” “I’m sure she’s fine. Is today her day off?” “No.” I frowned. “Okay… So why do you think she might be in trouble?” Natasha rubbed her hands together nervously. She was obviously thinking something that I was missing. “I know you and Valery used to be close,” she said, sitting in one of my chairs. “And I don’t feel like covering her ass anymore.” “You mean when she leaves the club without permission, right?” She looked at me, terrified. “How did you know that?” I sighed, taking a seat facing her. “I’ve seen her come back late a couple of times, and I heard her talking with a man who was obviously threatening her. I just figured she had some problems only he could help her with.” Natasha nodded, lowering her eyes to her hands that were trembling slightly. “His name is Rodger. And he’s the owner of one of the strip clubs.” “Does he want Val to work for him?”

“Not exactly… She’s seeing him because of his connections with the police. Has anyone ever told you about a girl named Isabel, who was killed about a year ago?” “I know about her. What does Val have to do with the murder?” I didn’t want Natasha to know that I knew more about Isabel’s unfortunate death than maybe even she did. “The police said she was killed by one of our clients, but Val doesn’t believe it. She wants to find the real murderer. And I guess she knows who he is. And now, she’s trying to find evidence to prove it was he who killed her. That’s why she keeps seeing Rodger. He told her that the guy was a policeman.” “So Val is sleeping with him to get more information about the guy she thinks might have killed Isabel?” “Yes.” “Okay, that makes sense. But what do you want from me?” “I want you to talk to her. Tell her that playing with people like Rodger is not safe. Personally, I doubt he actually knows anything about the murderer. He keeps using Val for his personal interests, and something is telling me that it won’t end well.” I made a helpless gesture. “I don’t think she will listen to me. We are not as close as we used to be anymore. Besides, she hates me for some reason.” “That is no big secret around here.” Natasha smiled. “You are a great dancer, and we all know that Val had been the local star here; well, until the day you showed up anyway.” “I’m still not sure if I can help her somehow. Why don’t you go talk to Drew or Kate?”

She shook her head quickly. “That is not an option. They both know Val is up to something, and they are just waiting until they can throw her out, regardless of the reason. I don’t want to risk her losing her job.” “Well, I’ll see what I can do.” “Thank you, Louise. I knew I could rely on you.” “Don’t thank me, I haven’t done anything yet.” “Please, don’t tell anyone about this conversation. Not even Val should know about it.” “I won’t tell anyone, don’t worry, Nat.” She smiled, relieved and left, checking the hall before going out there. I inhaled deeply, trying to figure out my next move in this ongoing Tess puzzle. Of course, I could break my promise and go talk to Kate. I was sure she wouldn’t report Val to Drew, but something was telling me that there were other people involved, I didn’t know how or why, but there had to be other people, and I couldn’t let it turn into even a bigger mess than it already was. I spent the next day hoping I would find something about Tess’s secret investigation, but it was all for nothing. She came back to the club around midnight, but I didn’t get a chance to talk to her, and today was her official day off, so she left before I even woke up. The guards said there was a car waiting for her outside, and I wondered if it belonged to the mysterious Rodger. Will didn’t call me, so I sent him a message saying I needed to get ready for the show and that I wouldn’t be able to talk to him,

any time soon. No response followed, so I figured he was in another meeting. I took a few costumes from my wardrobe, hid the cellphone and went to the show room where Kate and other girls had already been waiting for me. Natasha was one of them. She looked a little worried and lost. I bet she knew that Tess had left the club again. “Did you talk to her?” I asked, coming closer. She shook her head, looking at Kate carefully. “No. She didn’t open the door when I came to ask if she was all right.” “Do you know where she is now?” “I guess with Rodger. I saw his car outside; he must have been waiting to pick her up.” “So my guess was correct,” I muttered. “Okay, let’s talk about it later.” I saw Kate coming to us, and I didn’t want her to hear our conversation. “Are you ready to shake your butts, ladies?” I smiled at her. “Always!” “That’s the right answer, Doll. You will have two dances tonight, one solo and one with Georgia, our new girl, and Linda. You’ve met her, right?” “I think I have. I saw her dance on the same night as my first show here.” “You will love working with her, she’s a great dancer.” Kate was right, preparing a new show with Linda was as easy as a pie. She was funny, she kept me in stitches the entire time we were working by joking around, or making silly comments about

the work the others were doing.” By the time we finished training for the day, I felt as exhausted as ever. Apparently, one night was not enough to get over my jet-lag. “Why don’t you go rest for a while?” Kate asked, watching me closely. “You don’t look very good. Are you sure you can handle doing the show tonight? You can always dance tomorrow night instead, if you want.” “No, I’m fine. Really. I just need another shower and food, lots of food.” She smiled. “Don’t eat too much before the show. We don’t want you to get sick on stage, do we?” “Don’t worry, I remember the rules.” “It’s hard not to when everyone thinks it’s their job to remind everyone about the damn rules,” Linda said, sitting down next to me. “You’d better not say that aloud in Drew’s presence,” I said, making Kate giggle. “Okay, girls, thank you for the training. It was freaking amazing! See you all in a couple of hours.” Kate took her CD player and left. I rubbed the back of my neck tiredly. I surely needed more sleep and maybe some Red Bull to keep me going. I grabbed my bag and headed for the café. Natasha followed me. “I got a call from Val,” she whispered, adjusting to my step. “What did she say?” “She wants me to meet her in the club.”

“What for?” “She said she can’t get out of there, and she needs someone to help her.” “Does she really think a girl like you can take her away from a bunch of guys dying to get into her pants?” “I don’t know what to do. I’m scared.” I stopped, looking around the hall. “Okay, this is what we’re gonna do. Wait for my show to end and then, I will go with you.” “But how are we supposed to leave without being seen?” “Kate trusts me. I’m sure she won’t mind us leaving to have some fun.” “You’d better be right. I have a very bad feeling about tonight.” “Tell me about it. Valery has never been good at following the rules, regardless of who was giving them. And after she started working here, she turned into a real walking disaster.” “Where should I wait for you?” “The show room will be just fine. I’ll find you there after I get changed.” “Okay.” *** The smell of cigarettes burned my eyes and nostrils. I looked around the overcrowded club with a name that I couldn’t even read, because it was written in Japanese. According to Natasha’s words, it meant The Dragon’s Kiss. Drunk and sweaty

guys were everywhere. They laughed and cheered the girls dancing on the stage, with their hands up in the air, holding the dollar bills. “Take this off, Doll! YEAH! Like this!” One of them screamed excitedly, watching a girl in a black mini skirt throwing her bra right in his face. “We need to find Val and get out of here, as soon as possible!” Natasha said, trying to out-scream the crowd. “Where do you think we will find her? Do you know where Rodger’s office is?” “It’s upstairs. Over there,” she replied, pointing to a staircase leading up to the second floor. “Okay, let’s go then.” Pushing our way through the crowd, we somehow managed to get to the staircase, alive, even though the visitors of the club were ready to eat us alive. Apparently, they were used to the girls being high and obliging here. “I’m scared to go up there,” Natasha said, catching me by the hand. “Me too. But if we don’t go there, we will never know if Valery is here. Come on, we can do this.” I smiled at her, and pulled her up the stairs. Two broad shouldered security guards were standing at the top of the staircase. They looked down at us, asking, “What do you want?” “Rodger is waiting for us,” I said, trying to seem as fearless as possible. I could feel Natasha’s grip around my wrist tighten.

The guards nodded and stepped aside, letting us through to the second floor that turned out to be the office as well. There were not as many people as there were downstairs, so it wasn’t hard to find Tess. She was sitting on a man’s lap, with a group of other girls around them. The man looked Arabian, so I was not sure if he was Rodger, the name just didn’t fit his appearance. He leaned closer to Tess and whispered something into her ear, making her laugh. They were sharing a cigarette, showing each other different tricks. She said, “That’s nothing. Here…” She took a puff off of the cigarette and tilted her head up, making her hair fall down her back. She formed her mouth in the shape of a perfect ‘O’ and puffed out three smoke rings. They grew as they floated up toward the ceiling. The Arabian man and the girls around him laughed. I felt a little dizzy from the amount of smoke flying around me. I shook my head, making my hair look as if I had just drained a couple of shots and headed for the leather sofa where Tess was sitting. “Valery? No way! Is that really you?” I blurted, pretending to be surprised she was here. At first, she looked a little puzzled, as if she couldn’t understand what I was doing there. Then her eyes traveled to Natasha, she turned to the man holding her in his arms and whispered something into his ear. He nodded and let her go, gesturing for his guards to let us out. “I can’t believe it was so easy!” Natasha said, excitedly,

following us. “The show hasn’t even started yet,” I muttered, already knowing that the man Tess was with would never let us go that easily. “Pretend we are going to have a drink,” Tess said, pushing me toward the bar. Oh, if only she knew how much I regretted coming here. I took a seat at one of the high, round chairs and waved for the bartender to come and take our order. “Three tequilas,” Tess ordered before I could even think about what I might actually want. The bartender nodded and filled the shots. “Do we really need to drink this?” Natasha asked, horrified. “Just do what she says,” I said, taking my shot. “To this unexpected meeting!” I said as loud as I could. I needed to make sure the guards watching us could hear me. “Cheers!” Tess raised her shot in mock cheers, then tilted her head back and poured it down her throat, draining the tiny glass dry. “Oh dear,” I heard Natasha saying. I hoped she wouldn’t puke. Her hand was shaking a little, but she still managed to swallow without coughing. “Should we come up with the plan on how to get out of here now?” I asked, smiling at Tess. She looked a little tense, and I bet we both knew we were in a whole mess of a trouble. She returned the smile and said something, but I didn’t hear her. I gestured for her to lean closer, and so she did.

“I said you shouldn’t have come here, Louise. If Drew finds out…” “I couldn’t let you die in this hell hole, so you can at least thank me for taking you away from that… Who is he anyway? And why did you call Natasha to come and get you out of here?” “It’s Rodger and he said he wouldn’t let me out until I agreed to dance for him. On the stage,” Tess said, nodding meaningfully to where the girls were stripping. “I told him I wanted a friend of mine to help me with the dance, and he agreed, saying it would be even better that way.” “Great.” I smirked humorlessly. “Why don’t we go to the stage then?”

Chapter 20 I wanted to kick Tess’s ass right now, more than I ever had in the entire time I had known her. Swearing, I kept walking to the stage, followed by Rodger’s guards watching our every step. There was no way we could just run away from the damn club. I don’t know what I was thinking coming here, but right now, it felt like the worst decision I had ever made. “Louise?” I heard a familiar voice calling my name. I stopped, afraid to move. My blood froze in my veins. Slowly, I turned around and met Mike’s questioning eyes. Mike was one of Drew’s security members; I immediately knew I was screwed. “Hey,” I said, trying to come up with a more or less believable explanation for being at The Dragon’s Kiss. “What are you doing here? Are you here with someone?” He asked, looking around. Apparently, Natasha and Tess had lost sight of me and I was all alone now, mentally preparing myself to kiss my job goodbye. Ugh, there was no way in hell I was going to give up so quickly, I just needed to come up with an excuse as to why I was there. “I…” “She’s with me,” I heard Will say behind me. I couldn’t believe my ears. I was just about to turn around, when his hands landed on my shoulders, making me stay still. “Good evening, Mr. Blair,” Mike said, nodding to Will. “Christopher will follow you out,” Will said to me. “But…”

“Go to the damn car, Louise,” he hissed into my ear, as if he was about to spank me for not following his order. I swallowed, trembling from head to toe. “What about the girls?” I asked, watching Mike leave. I was surprised he didn’t ask any more questions. “My people will take care of them,” Will said. The next second, I saw Christopher walking over to us. He took me by the hand, as if I were five, and pulled me to the exit. “What the hell is going on? And how did you know I was here?” I asked, stopping at the car. I couldn’t help but admit that it felt amazing to be out again. “Get in the car, Miss,” Christopher said, ignoring my question. He looked like he was pissed, and I couldn’t understand why. “Where’s Will?” “He’ll be waiting for you back at his house.” “What? We are not going back to Le Papillon?” “Not now, Miss.” I made a helpless gesture. “Great. Take me wherever you want.” Only now, did I realize that Will was not supposed to be back until the next day. So how did he know I was here? And then there was Mike and his weird reaction to Will’s words. He didn’t even try to stop me or to argue with Will. Mr. Blair, he called him. So he knew Will’s last name, and he was obviously not surprised to see me in his company. So what the hell was it all supposed to

mean? To my disappointment, Christopher didn’t lower the black window separating him from the passenger compartment of the limo. Wasn’t he allowed to talk to me tonight? Or was not I allowed to talk to him? When the car stopped at the porch of the house, he got out and went to open the door for me. “Is he angry at me?” I asked, trying to predict what was about to happen inside the house. “Rather at himself,” Christopher said, forcing a smile. I didn’t know what he meant by that, and I didn’t have time to ask any more questions, because the next moment, he closed the car door behind me, and went back to the driver’s seat, leaving me alone. I took a deep breath and mentally wished myself luck. Whatever was waiting for me inside didn’t promise anything good. “Will?” I called, entering the house. “In the office,” he replied; the sound of his voice echoed in the emptiness of the enormous hall. Slowly, I went to the open door from where I heard the voice coming, and there he was, standing with his back to me, facing the huge doors opening to the terrace. The wind was playing with the curtains, making his silhouette look a little mystical and maybe even a little scary. He was not wearing a suit tonight, but a pair of jeans with a white shirt; its sleeves were rolled up to his

elbows. “I thought I would lose my mind when I found out you went to The Dragon’s Kiss,” he said, almost whispering. “A friend of mine was in trouble, I couldn’t leave her alone.” “Do you even know what kind of a place it is?” “I have my guesses.” “Well, they are wrong!” He said a little louder than usual. He ran both hands through his hair and shook his head, as if trying to calm himself. I took a few steps closer, not sure what to say next. I knew Will was not wearing a mask now, and neither was I. And I was too tired of playing his secrecy games again, so I said, “Don’t you think it’s time to sit and talk?” He smirked and then laughed, turning slowly around. “Well, okay. Let’s sit and talk.” I don’t think I had ever been more surprised in my entire life. Will was looking right into my eyes, and I couldn’t stop starring, because I knew the man standing in front of me now. “You?” I asked, barely able to make myself speak. It was like traveling back eight years in time to the day I met the stranger at one of the train stations, only now he looked older and even more beautiful. My heart was beating so fast, and I couldn’t decide if it was real, or if it was just another dream that I didn’t know how to break through. “Hello, Louise,” Will said, coming closer.

I flinched. “Don’t!” “You remember me, don’t you?” This time it was my turn to laugh. “Well, of course I do! How could I not remember you? I have been dreaming about you for years! And though my memory couldn’t do justice to your appearance, deep down in my heart I knew you were real.” A lump formed in my throat. “What the hell is going on? Why am I here? Why are you here?” “Why don’t you take a seat?” He tried to touch my hand, but it only made me step back again. “You are not afraid of me, are you?” “I don’t know what to think. I don’t know who you really are.” “I can assure you, there’s nothing to be afraid of. No one will hurt you in this house, ever.” “It should be comforting, but it’s not.” “I understand, it’s hard to believe that after so many years you would see me again. But there are things that I need to explain to you… Before you start asking more questions.” “Yes, please. That would be so kind of you, Mr. Blair.” He leaned back, against the edge of his desk and crossed his arms, making the pain in my chest grow. I didn’t know what upset me more — the fact that he had been hiding himself from me for so long, or the fact that I actually trusted a man who I knew nothing about. “Please, take a seat,” he repeated again. “This is going to be a long conversation.”

I hesitated, realizing that there were only two chairs in the room, both right next to where he was standing. “Okay,” I finally said, taking one of them. “I’m all ears.” He had been watching me for an entire minute, no less, before he spoke again, “First of all, you need to know that no one will be looking for you tonight.” “Is that supposed to make me relax?” “Yes, because Drew knows you are with me.” “Okay, though I don’t know why you think it will stop him from coming for me.” “I’ll explain that later.” I crossed my arms, waiting for more. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him even for a moment. Maybe I was simply afraid I might miss something very important again, or maybe I simply couldn’t get enough of looking at him. God, he was so beautiful. How could I not recognize my stranger in him? “The story that I’m going to tell you started many years ago, even before you were born. Back then, I didn’t exist either. But my father did. And he was one of the children locked in Paradise in that time.” “What?” “The thing is that Paradise has always been a special place. And only special children were raised there.” “What do you mean by ‘special’?” “I mean children whose parents are too famous to have illegitimate offspring. Yes, almost all of you were sent to Paradise to avoid scandals that could ruin the families whose reputation could

be destroyed by the news of your birth.” “Did you say almost all of us?” “There are children whose parents just didn’t want them, but they don’t have anything to do with children like you. My father was one of them. His parents weren’t famous, they were just homeless alcoholics who could not afford another mouth to feed. When my father turned eighteen, he was allowed to leave. He found a job in one of the factories. He was supposed to clean floors and toilets, but he always wanted more out of life than that of a janitor. Poverty only made his desire for a better life grow even more. I’m not going to tell you his entire life story, but when I was old enough to know about it, he told me everything about his life in Paradise. Its children, whether they were special or not, had always been forced to wear those tracking devices on their legs. That is how I knew about your life the day I first saw you at the train station. I saw the red light flashing around your ankle, and I couldn’t just pass by. I stopped and started talking to you, already knowing almost everything about you. I made a promise to myself that I would take you out of Paradise. I don’t know why, but I suddenly wanted to do something good for you. There was something about you, about the look you gave me; it wouldn’t let me go. I knew there was only one place in New York where you could be living, and later that day, I went there and I found you. Well, not exactly. I only knew you were there, but I was not allowed to see you.” I swallowed back the tears that were beginning to fill my eyes. It was just too much to sit there and listen to what Will was trying to tell me. I rose to my feet and went to the terrace door to

breathe some fresh air. “Would they have let you see me if I were not special?” I asked without turning around. I knew Will didn’t follow me, and right now it was a relief. I didn’t want him to come any closer to me. “Yes. But Marlena told me I had no right to see or talk to you, at least not until the day you were free to leave Paradise. Though she did let me do something for you. She said I could send you letters and small presents, if I wanted to. I came back home and told my father about you. He said we couldn’t do anything to help you. I was so pissed. For the first time in my life I felt completely helpless. I hated the world they forced you to live in, because the stories my father had told me about it were far from good.” “Did you try sending me anything?” “Yes, I did. And this is what surprises me most, because as far as I can tell, you didn’t receive any of my letters or presents.” I frowned, turning around unintentionally. “How was I supposed to receive them?” “Through your mailbox, I guess. The only information they would give me when I asked was your name and the number of your mailbox.” Why the hell didn’t I ever receive anything from Will? I tried to remember where my mailbox was and then I realized that I didn’t even know that. “I never used my mailbox,” I said. “Maybe you didn’t, but someone else did. Because

whenever I called Marlena to make sure you received my letters and presents, she said you did, because your mailbox was empty.” “Oh, my God… You are right. I never used it, but someone else did.” Tess… “Do you know who it was?” “Yes, I do.” More tears pulled into my eyes, I turned back to the terrace, inhaling deeply. I remembered the day I met Will so clearly. I didn’t know how Tess knew about Will’s intentions to send me things, but she came to me and asked if she could use my mailbox to receive presents from her friends, and of course, I said yes, because I didn’t think I knew anyone who would want to send me letters or gifts. “What did you write in those letters?” I asked, remembering something else I had thought was just a trick of my imagination — the dreams where I found letters in Will’s house. “I was telling you about myself, my life, my work. I was telling you how much I wanted to see you again. The letters were not romantic or anything, considering the age difference we had. But I still wanted to keep in touch with you, especially after the promise I made to my father.” “Did he die around the time we first met?” “Yes. It happened about two weeks after that day.” “I’m sorry for your loss. I know it was awful for you.” “How do you know that?” Will asked, a little surprised. “You are not the only one here who has ways to get information. What did you promise him?”

“I promised him I would take care of you. I could have never imagined it would turn into something much deeper than friendship...” “Have you ever tried to see me again? I mean before the day you came to watch me dance.” “I haven’t. I knew I was not allowed to see you, and I didn’t want you to get into any trouble because of me. But I always knew where you were or what you were doing outside Paradise.” “Did you ask someone to follow me or what?” “Yes, I asked Christopher to look after you when I was not here to do it myself.” Oh, I see… At least now I knew why the man always seemed like he knew everything there was to know about me. “I spent a lot of time abroad, in Paris in particular. And then, one day, I received an e-mail from Christopher with the pictures of you. You looked so grown up and surprisingly happy. You were smiling in those pictures, and I couldn’t stop staring at you. Christopher said you were just about to leave Paradise and that they were going to send you to work in one of New York’s dance clubs. But he didn’t know which club they were going to send you to. This is how I found out about The Dragon’s Kiss. I asked Christopher to make a list of all the clubs in the city. I came back from Paris and he and I searched all of them, one by one. Until we found you in Le Papillon. It was the night of your show and I couldn’t help myself, I had to stay and watch you dance. You were so caught up in your dance. I was fascinated, as if I were spellbound by your every move. I knew I shouldn’t have been

feeling the way I did about you. You looked so young, so fragile, and so out of place there. I wanted nothing more than to scoop you up, take you out of there, and never look back. But once again, I was not allowed to. I went to talk to Drew and he said you were bound by the contract. So I didn’t have a choice but to pay for your private dance. I wanted to talk to you, I wanted to know more about you, even though it felt like I already knew everything there was to know about you. But I couldn’t make myself believe that you were just another dancer working for Drew, with no dreams of a better life, with no goal to fight for.” “Is that why you tried to get into my shorts that night?” He smirked. “It was one of the reasons.” I looked at Will again, and for the first time in hours, I wanted to get closer and ask him to hold me in his arms. I was so close to another breakdown, I didn’t know how much more I would be able to take without breaking into tears or running away. It was just too much for one night… “Can I ask you to leave me for a moment?” He nodded wordlessly and headed for the door. Only when he was gone, I let the damn tears roll down my cheeks. All the pain that I had ever felt, all the bad memories of my past, all the things I felt for Will — all mixed in one. I didn’t know what to think, I didn’t know where my pain started or ended. In fact, I was sure there was no end to it. There were still too many questions I wanted to ask, but right now, I felt like I didn’t want to know anything at all, I just wanted to be alone. So Will said my parents, or at least one of them, was

famous. Was it my father or my mother? Did they know where I was now? Did they know anything about my life? Now that I knew the real reason for their abandonment, I hated them even more. How could they be so heartless? How could they give away their own child, their flesh and blood? Did they have more children — children who wouldn’t ruin their lives and careers? So many questions… But did I really want to know the answers? Hell, yes, I did… Now more than ever I wanted to know all about the people who made sure my life was a living hell. And I didn’t care if knowing more would break my heart. It wasn’t my fault they didn’t want me, but it was their fault that I spent most of my life suffering, and I had no intentions of forgiving them, not in this lifetime…

Chapter 21 I opened my eyes and saw the first rays of morning sun slipping into the room. Only when my vision got used to the brightness of the light around me, did I realize that something was wrong. I sat up in my bed, that turned out to be not my bed at all, but Will’s. I was in his bedroom now, and I didn’t even remember going there, let alone falling asleep. “Did you sleep well?” I turned toward the door and saw Will entering the room with a tray of food in his hands. He put it on a table near the window and came to sit on the edge of the bed. “Yeah, I think so.” I ran one hand through my hair, and looked at him carefully. He was still wearing the shirt and jeans that I saw him wearing last night. He looked like he hadn’t slept for days. “Did you bring me here?” I asked. “Yes. You fell asleep in my office, and I thought it was probably not the best place to spend the rest of the night.” Even with five o’clock shadow covering his cheeks, he still looked like the man from my dreams. All of a sudden, I caught myself thinking about kissing him. He was so close, and as always, so far away from me at the same time… “Where did you sleep?” I asked, looking at the pillow next to mine. It looked untouched. “In a chair, over there,” he said, pointing to a chair on the opposite side of the room. “You didn’t have to stay here all night.”

“I have spent too much time without you, Louise. I can’t stand even one more second away from you, especially when you are staying in my house.” Oh, God, his eyes… Until now, I didn’t have a chance to study them up close. Today they looked even more mesmerizing, looking right through me and seeing the depths of my soul that I wished I knew how to hide, but nothing seemed capable of hiding from their intense, gray gaze. Some invisible force was still pulling me to Will, and I didn’t seem to mind it, especially considering the hellish night I had had last night. I doubted I had enough strength to resist anything at the moment. “Do you have coffee over there?” I asked, nodding to the tray of food. “Yes, want some?” “Yes, please.” He went to the table, took the tray, and put it on the bed, in front of me. “There’s only one cup here,” I said. “I… Actually, I didn’t think about bringing a second cup. I’ll ask Christopher to make some more coffee later.” “Here,” I said, giving him my cup. “I don’t mind sharing.” His features softened a little. Carefully, he put his hands over mine and took a sip. “Thanks.” His eyes met mine again, he asked, “Are you still angry with me?” “I don’t remember saying I was angry with you.” “But you asked me to leave…” “I can’t get enough of looking at you,” I said, surprising

both of us by the unexpected honesty. “It’s not like you gave me much time just to look at you.” “Speaking of which… I think there are a few more things that I need to explain.” “Will, wait…” He flinched at the sound of his name escaping my lips, and so did I. For some inexplicable reason, it felt so good to say his name aloud, especially now that I knew exactly who I was talking to. “Is there anything you would like to ask me about first?” “Yes. How did you know I went to The Dragon’s Kiss? I didn’t even know you were back from Paris.” “It was supposed to be a surprise. I went to your club, but the guards said you and the other girl, Natasha I guess, had left. Fortunately, the taxi driver that gave you a ride had already made it back to Le Papillon, and was waiting for more passengers. He heard me asking about you and he told me where I could find you.” “You said that my ideas about Rodger’s club were wrong. What do you know about it?” “They sell their girls into sexual slavery. That’s why I was so pissed to find you there. But even more, I was angry at myself… For leaving you alone, for letting you leave Paris without me. I should have taken you away from Drew a long time ago, but I just thought that kidnapping you wouldn’t solve your problems, it would only make them worse.” Now I knew what Christopher’s words meant. Will felt like he was somehow responsible for me.

“I’m sorry,” I said, looking at him carefully. “I didn’t know anything about the reputation of that club.” “Of course, you didn’t.” Silence filled the room. Neither of us spoke, and even though there were many things I wanted to talk about, only one of them felt like the most important one. “Do you think it is possible to find my parents?” I asked. Will hesitated with the reply. “You know something, don’t you?” I guessed. “I do. But I don’t think you are ready to meet them, or at least one of them. Because I’ve managed to find only your father’s name. I don’t know anything about your mother.” I completely forgot about my coffee after he said that. I put the cup back on the tray and moved it aside, scooting closer to Will. “Please,” I said, touching his hand, “I need to know his name.” He looked at my hand touching his, and then at me again. “Do you know what I need most of all right now?” He asked in a whisper, as if he couldn’t make his voice go any louder. “I do. But I don’t think it’s a good idea.” His eyes traveled down my face and stopped at my lips. “We shouldn’t do this,” I said, moving back quickly. “It’s better to put some distance between us, at least until we both know we are ready to … take the next step. Besides, you were right — there are things that I still want an explanation for.” God knew I couldn’t let him blind my mind again, not now that I knew so much about the things I had been dying to know more about for years.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you or anything… I just can’t stay away from you, especially now that I feel like I’m losing you and I don’t know what to do to make you stay.” “There’s nothing you can do, Will. I just need more time to get used to… everything.” “So you still want to know more about your parents and the rest?” “Yes. Please tell me everything. Or I will find out on my own.” “Okay… So as for my mask and my secrets… I didn’t have a choice but to keep hiding myself from you, because there were people who knew that I had been investigating things from your past, and I knew they would be following my every step. That’s why I couldn’t risk exposing my identity with you, especially that I was sure you would recognize me if you saw my face.” “Are you talking about the people working for my father?” “Yes. And Drew is one of them. Until a few days ago, I didn’t know he was not exactly playing for their team, but forced to follow their orders. The thing is that he’s not just your boss, Louise, he’s your uncle. He owes your father for everything he has now. And no matter how much he hates the idea of lying to you, he has no other choice but to keep playing his silent role.” “Wait a minute… Last night, Mike, one of his security guys, he didn’t say anything about seeing me with you. Does that mean Drew knows who you are?” “Yes. I spoke to him right before we left for Paris. Not that I was going to tell him that you were leaving with me, but I told him

that I knew everything about you, even more than you do yourself. I also told him I knew who he is, and that if tries to hurt you, he will have to deal with me.” “Does he know that the night you came to the club was not the first time that we met?” “Yes, and it was one more reason to hide my face from you. Because Drew said that if your father or one of his men finds out that I’m visiting you, they will stop at nothing to keep me away from you.” “Why?” “Isn’t it obvious? I know who your father is, and I can prove your kinship. But you were never supposed to know his name.” “Is his precious reputation more important than my life?” “Apparently, yes.” “Okay, so who is he?” “His name is Fletcher Montgomery. He’s a senator, and if the polls are right, he may very well be the next president of the United States…” “No freaking way…” “I had the same reaction when I found out his name. He has a wife and two daughters about your age. His romance with your mother started right after he got married. He never loved his wife, their marriage was basically a sham to keep his family in the senate. It was about stacking the deck in their favor, or so to speak… He found out that his mistress was pregnant, but it was too late to make her have an abortion, and they couldn’t risk anyone finding out if

they killed her to dispose of the problem. So he found a way to take you away from her. I found a nurse who was working in the hospital where you were born. At first, she refused to talk to me, and I immediately knew that she was hiding something. She was from Mexico, and her permanent residency was about to end, so I had to talk to a few people to make sure she was able to stay in the US. As you may have already guessed, it was a fair enough price for making her talk. So she told me your father paid the doctor to tell your mom you didn’t make it through labor. A few days later, you were sent to Paradise. You know the rest of the story.” “So he has been watching me all these years just to make sure that I would never find out his name, right?” “I don’t think he was worried about it, there were no papers to confirm your kinship, and I bet he paid Marlena a lot to keep her mouth shut.” “But then he found out about you and your investigation, right?” “Yeah… One day, one of his guys came to my office, threatening me. He told me to keep my curiosity to myself, but of course, I was never going to follow anyone’s orders but my own.” Will smiled slightly. “So I kept looking for more information about you and your mom. Unfortunately, the only thing that I managed to find out about her is that her maiden name is Smith. But there are too many women all over the US with the same name to figure out which one she could possibly be.” “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.” “Exactly.”

“So she doesn’t even know I am alive, that I didn’t die while she was giving birth to me. I wonder if she has other children…” “Anything is possible. But hey, I don’t give up hope.” Will moved closer to me and took my hand in his, saying, “If you want, we can keep looking for her together.” I looked up into his eyes, my heart skipped a beat. God, I loved him so much, no secret could change that. “I feel like I need to rewrite my life from the very beginning,” I said, lowering my eyes to where our hands were touching. Will put his thumb under my chin, making me look at him again. “I will always be there for you, Louise. Just tell me what you want me to do, and I will do it.” I forced a smile, running one palm down his cheek. “I think you need to shave.” “Is that all you want me to do?” “For now, yes.” He nodded and kissed the back of my palm. “Do you want to take a shower, or…” The thought of a shower made us both smile. “I’d like Christopher to take me back to Le Papillon.” Will frowned. “You don’t have to go back there.” “Actually, I do. There are a few things I need to take care of before I decide what to do with my life next.” “Would you like me to go with you?” “No. I need to do it on my own.”

I rose to my feet, took my jacket lying on a small couch and turned to Will, saying, “I’ll call you.” He nodded without even looking at me. I opened the door and headed for the stairs, hoping he wouldn’t try to stop me. Because I wasn’t sure I would be able to leave seeing his beautiful eyes, and hearing his voice begging me to stay. “Good morning, Miss,” Christopher said, waiting for me at the front door. “To the club?” He asked, opening the door for me. “Yes, please.” My heart was shattering into a million small pieces. I got into the car, seeing new tears beginning to blind my eyes. I didn’t want to leave, but I had to. There were people who owed me explanations, and I intended to get the answers to my questions, whether they liked it or not. “Shall I wait for you, Miss Louise?” Christopher asked, as he pulled up to the club’s entrance. This time, he didn’t even try to hide the fact that he gave me a ride. Apparently, my relationship with Will was not a secret anymore. “No, thanks. I’ll call you if I need anything…” “Miss?” “Yes?” “Don’t leave him,” Christopher said, turning around to look at me. “I wasn’t going to.” I got out of the car and headed for the club’s entrance. Everything felt so different there now, as if I had been away for years, and not just one night. I went to my room, hoping I would

be able to take a shower before Drew, Kate, or Tess came knocking on my door. I sent Will a message, saying that I was at the club. “I hope your day will be good. Let me know if you need anything...” “Okay.” No more than a few seconds after I finished my shower, I heard Kate’s voice behind my closed door. “Louise? Are you in there?” “Yes,” I said, opening the door. “We need to talk,” she said, hands on her hips. She didn’t look angry, she looked a little worried. “I think I know what you want to talk to me about, but there’s one person who I’d like to talk to first.” “How much time do you need?” “Not much I hope. I’ll find you a little later, okay?” She nodded and stepped aside to let me out of the room. I didn’t expect Tess to be happy to see me, but I also didn’t expect her to be angry at me. “What the hell were you thinking?” Was the first thing she asked, opening the door to her room. “Do you even know what kind of a place the damn club is?” “I do now.” “Oh, really? Did your precious Mr. Blair tell you about it?” “I’m not here to talk about last night’s failure.” “Then what do you want?” She stared at me with so much hate. I couldn’t believe I was looking at the same Tess I knew two

years ago. “Where are they?” I asked, looking around her room that as always was a complete mess. “They?” She repeated, puzzled. “The letters and presents that you have been stealing from my mailbox for years.” She looked genuinely surprised to hear that she had been caught. I was sure she thought her little discretion would never be revealed. “It was you stealing them, wasn’t it? Never mind, though. I won’t believe you, even if you swear it wasn’t your handiwork.” “Then I’m not going to deny anything,” she said, smirking. What a bitch… “Good, because I know for sure that you were the only person except for Marlena, who had the key to my mailbox. So I will ask you again — where is all of the stuff Will sent me?” “So you call him Will now?” She laughed, sitting in one of the chairs and lighting a cigarette. “How much did he pay you to sleep with him?” “Nothing. Unlike you, I don’t sleep around for money.” “Well, hell… That sounds almost like a slap in the face.” “The truth hurts, Sweetie, we both know it. But the fact remains.” I crossed my arms, watching her cynical expression grow even darker. Slowly, she rose to her feet and went to one of the bedside tables. She opened a drawer and took out a package of envelopes and threw them to my feet.

“Here, take your precious letters.” I didn’t feel like I would lose my crown if I bent down to pick them up. Unlike Tess, I knew other ways to show people where their real place was. I took the letters and turned to her again saying, “There’s only one thing I don’t understand… Why would you do that to me? Did you think I wouldn’t share the presents I was supposed to receive?” “You thought we were friends, didn’t you? But the fact is that I have never considered you my friend. I’m a fighter Louise. Just like you are. And in this war, there can’t be friends, ever, neither in Paradise, nor here. Remember that the next time you decide you want to call someone your friend.” “So are you saying that all this time you’ve been using me to steal things from me? Do you even believe that? Because I don’t. You were not just a stranger from the street. We lived in one room, we shared everything with each other, except for Will’s gifts of course. But I always knew that you loved money more than anything else on this planet. So tell me, Tess, was it worth it? Chasing after luxury, jewelry, and shoes that you have more than enough now. Does all of this make you happy?” I gestured around the room. “Do you feel like you got everything you wanted?” Her lips trembled, and it was the first time in forever that I saw tears glistening in Tess’s eyes. Not that she was going to cry in front of me, of course, she would wait until I left the room. She smiled, coming closer to me. “Yes, I have everything I want and need. And yes, I am happy, happier than ever.”

“Good to know, even though your words sound like a lie.” “So you think you know me, don’t you?” She took a step back and looked at me from head to toe. “Who do you think you are to teach me how to live? Yes, the day William came to talk to Marlena, I heard their conversation, and yes — that is why I came to you and asked you to let me use your mailbox. I was jealous, that’s it. I didn’t know why someone like Mr. Blair would start sending gifts to you. He didn’t know anything about you! The night I saw him here, I couldn’t believe my eyes. And when he paid for your private dance, I was more than happy to tell you about it, and you know why?” “I guess I do. You wanted him to believe that I was just another slut ready to sleep with anyone who could tip well.” “Well, yes, that covers most of it.” “Will said he had been sending me gifts and letters up until the day I was supposed to leave Paradise. But I didn’t receive any of that even after you left the orphanage. So who was checking my mailbox for you?” “I did it myself.” “What? Were you allowed to come back to Paradise? And you never thought about seeing me…” “I told you, Louise, there has never been anything but a business relationship between us.” “What kind of business are you talking about? For crying out loud, we were just kids, Tess! I just can’t believe you are so heartless. But you know what? I’m sure one day you will understand how pointless everything you have been doing is.” I

turned to the door and was just about to leave, when I remembered what Will told me about Rodger’s club. “Last night was the first and the last time I helped you get out of the trouble you so often find yourself in. Next time you want to know more about the guy who killed Isabel, find a better source of information than Rodger. He’s not going to help you, Sweetie. He will use you and then he will sell you like an unnecessary bag of shit.” I opened the door and shut it behind me, hoping Tess would listen to me. No matter how much of a soulless monster she wanted to be, I hoped she wouldn’t end up like her ‘friend’ Isabel.

Chapter 22 Kate was waiting for me not far from Tess’s room. Apparently she saw me going there. “Can we talk now?” She asked. “Yeah, I’m all yours for the rest of the day.” I tried to force a smile, but I think it looked more like a grimace. She laughed. “I’m not going to punish you or anything, but Drew has something to tell you.” “Drew?” I didn’t think I was ready to face my boss, aka uncle, but as always, I didn’t have a choice. “I thought you wanted to talk about last night.” “What about it?” Kate asked, as if she didn’t know I only returned to the club this morning. “Nothing,” I said, trying to understand how much she did or didn’t know. We entered Drew’s office and heard him talking on the phone, “No, I don’t need your trashy bourbon, I need tequila and whiskey! How many times do I need to repeat myself?” He hung up the phone, swearing aloud. “Sorry ladies, you were not supposed to hear that. Please, take a seat.” Kate and I did what he said. Unlike me, she looked a little nervous, and it was probably the first time that I saw her nervous in Drew’s presence. “I don’t think there’s a point in lying to you, Louise,” Drew said. “But I have both good and bad news that you might be interested in.” He and Kate shared a glance. “I guess there’s no need to tell that I know about your relationship with William Blair.

As well as I don’t think there’s a necessity to introduce myself again.” “No need to bother, uncle Drew. I think I know enough to save you plenty of time on explaining things.” “Everything I did for you, Louise, I did to protect you. Unlike you, I know my brother too well to believe that he would ever let you live without his watchdogs following you. Especially now that he knows you are under William’s protection.” “Did you know who I was the day you first met me?” “I didn’t know anything about your existence, until the day Marlena called me saying my brother wanted me to keep an eye on his illegitimate daughter.” “Are you afraid of him?” Drew laughed nervously. “I guess everyone is.” “So for how long exactly was my dearest father planning on keeping me here?” “He said two years would be enough. But I don’t agree with him.” “You want me to stay here longer?” “No. I want to let you go.” My mouth opened and closed, because I didn’t know what to say to his unexpected ‘kindness’. “Aren’t you afraid he will take his money back or whatever that is that made you follow his stupid orders?” “I have enough money to live without his financial support. And yes, maybe I’m still a little afraid of him trying to close this place. But I don’t want to keep you here forcefully. Children should

never be responsible for their parents’ mistakes.” “So you are letting me go, just like that?” “Well, not exactly. William promised me he would keep you away from your father’s life. And I hope you are not going to argue with that. Of course, you are free to stay and work here. But if you want to leave, you may leave.” So I was Will’s responsibility now. No wonder he was so pissed when he had seen me at The Dragon’s Kiss last night. “And if I decide to leave… Do I have a right to live wherever I want?” “Yes, of course. No one’s gonna make you live at Blair’s residence or anywhere else. You will be free to do whatever you want.” “With no one following me?” “Well, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. But if you promise to stay away from your father’s life, family, and career, no one will care where you live and what you have for breakfast.” “So it’s just that simple, huh? Forget about my father and move on. Is that what you want me to do?” “Louise, listen,” Kate said, coming to me. “What Drew is trying to say is that you are free now, live the life you want, and don’t think about your past. What’s the point in turning back, if there’s nothing but an endless hell behind you?” She was right. There was no point in trying to get my father’s love back to brighten the dark memories of my past, but a little revenge wouldn’t hurt anyone, right? “Okay, I will think about everything, and let you know

when I make a decision as to what I am going to do next.” Kate followed me out. “You don’t have to rush with making decisions, Sweetie. You are more than welcome to stay here, even if you don’t want to work for Drew anymore. He’ll still take care of you.” “I know. But I need some time to figure out what I want.” She smiled and hugged me tightly. “Be careful, okay?” “Always.” I went back to my room and called Christopher. “Hello, could you please give me a ride back to Will’s?” “With pleasure, Miss. I’m waiting for you outside.” “What? I thought I told you to leave.” “Yes, but something was telling me you would need me to come back soon.” I laughed. “Thank you, Christopher. I’ll be out in a few. And please, don’t call Will. I want it to be a surprise.” “As you wish, Miss.” I went to the wardrobe and took one of my favorite dresses. It was long, black and white, with an open back and a skirt that flew beautifully whenever I turned. It was time to dance for Will again. Only this time, it was supposed to be a dance with no mask on our faces, no secrets, or lies. I knew he had been waiting for this moment for a long time, and I couldn’t wait to show him just much he meant to me, whether I was going to stay with him or not… By the time I arrived to Will’s, it was almost night outside. There was no light in the windows of his house, and for a second I thought he was not waiting for me there.

“He must be in his room, Miss,” Christopher said, noticing me staring at the house. I didn’t remember where the windows of Will’s bedroom opened, but I hoped Christopher was right and I wouldn’t have to go back to the club. I entered the hall, illuminated with just a few lamps on tables, here and there. Then I remembered about the dress in my bag, and thought I would get changed first. I went to the office where Will and I had talked the night before. Surprisingly enough, it didn’t make any bad feelings awake inside me. In fact, there was only one thing that I remembered from last night’s events — the moment Will turned around and looked into my eyes. It was priceless. I changed into the dress and shoes that I brought with me, and headed for the room where I hoped I would find him. It felt like a déjà vu seeing him standing at the opened window, with the wind playing with his hair and curtains around him. With his hands in his jeans pockets, he looked more like a vision than reality. I tiptoed to where he was standing and wrapped my arms around him, feeling his chest rising and falling in relief beneath my touch. “You are back,” he said quietly, turning around. His eyes slipped down my outfit and he smiled a little. “Are you going to dance for me?” “I seem to remember you asking me to dance for you, in your bedroom. So I thought it was just about the right time to do it.

Do you have music in here?” “What kind of music would you prefer?” He kept staring at me, as if he couldn’t believe I was real and not just a trick of his imagination. “Any slow song will do.” He went to the record player hidden behind one of the cabinet’s doors and turned it on. The soft sounds of music filled the room. Will didn’t move, apparently afraid he would do something wrong. I came closer and put his hands on my waist. He was watching me wordlessly, not even his eyes could tell me what he was thinking. I turned away from his stare and leaned closer to his chest, wrapping one hand around his neck. I remembered the dance I had prepared for him for our second ‘private hour’. Only this time, it was not a pole I was going to use in my dance… Dancing around Will, touching him as if accidentally, I kept moving in tune with the music playing around us. He didn’t move or try to touch me. He was still watching me, as if trying to memorize my every step and spin. I could see the color of his eyes changing, darkening, and then becoming lighter again, when he turned his head to where there was more light. I felt like it was getting too hot in the room. His eyes were more than enough to turn me on in seconds, I didn’t even want to think about what his hands and lips could do to me. When the song was almost over, I stopped right in front of him, no more than two steps separated us. I was breathing heavily, and so was he, even though it was not him who was dancing. “Come closer,” he said, outstretching one hand to me.

I let him take my hand in his, and the next moment, we were standing very close to each other. Too close… I could see every small line on his face, his cheekbones, his lips, his jaw, his chin. I lifted myself on my toes, brushing his lips with mine. It was supposed to be just a tease, just a taste of something so familiar, yet forbidden. “I’ve been thinking of you all day,” Will said, caressing my lips with his breath. “I didn’t know if you were going to come back, but I tried not to think about the worst of scenarios. I was imagining you dancing for me, here, in this very room. I imagined kissing your delicious lips, stealing every small sound escaping them. I closed my eyes, and you were there in my head, like a vivid picture of grace and perfection.” He ran one hand down my neckline and then put it on the back of my neck, leaving nothing but a thin layer of air between our faces. I closed my eyes, leaning forward just a little, meeting his waiting lips halfway. As always, the kiss started off slow, as if neither of us wanted to deepen it, afraid of ruining the invisible magical wall sparkling around us. Will’s fingers trailed down my throat, then my collarbone; his lips followed them, pressing a kiss over my vein, pulsing beneath his lips. My hands tangled in his hair; every inch of me was aware of his every touch. “I want this dress off of you,” he said, reaching for the thin straps on my shoulders and pushing them down. It was not hard to take the dress off, so it took Will no more than ten seconds to get rid of it. He pressed his lips to the corner of my mouth and then

moved to my lips, taking my bottom lip in between his, sucking it. His hands traveled down my sides, and then my hips, pulling my lower body closer to his. There was no doubt about the need I could feel pulsing through his jeans, a hungry look in his eyes only confirmed my suspicions. He lowered down to his knees, kissing me all the way to where I needed him most, I moaned at how good it was to feel him kissing me like that again. He nibbled my hip bone, slipping the tiny piece of clothing down my legs. His tongue ran across my most delicate part, igniting the fire already burning inside of me. God, how on earth was I supposed to leave when it was all over? I sucked in a sharp breath, feeling his finger plunging inside me. Slowly, he stood up, still holding his fingers deep inside me and looked at me saying, “Tell me what you want, Louise.” The muscles of my stomach quivered at the idea of telling him what I wanted him to do. “Love me like you did in Paris,” I said, waiting for his reaction to my words. “With pleasure,” he said, looking right into my eyes. He didn’t say he loved me, but I don’t think words were enough to describe everything I could see in his eyes at the moment. And there, I could see love, pure and boundless. I took a step back and climbed on the bed, laying down with my hands above my head. I knew Will loved to see me that way. The corners of his gorgeous mouth twisted into a smile, like a real smile, not just a ghost of it, or a smirk, but a smile that I could die for. “You know me so well,” he said, standing next to his bed,

with his fingers fighting with the buttons of his shirt. “Ugh, the hell with them.” He tore the shirt open, making a few buttons scatter on the floor. He tossed the shirt away, his jeans and boxers followed it. And then it just all became one — his hand sliding up and down my side and belly, his lips wet and hot against my skin, his tongue drawing circles around my nipples, his teeth sinking into my flesh, sucking every inch of me. I felt every sharp breath he took, every quiet groan escaping his throat. He was trying to please me, and didn’t ask for anything in return. And I… Well, I couldn’t make myself speak, even though there was something very important that I needed to tell him. I could feel Will’s kisses getting hungrier as he moved down my body and to my clit, kissing it in the most erotic way, sending shivers through me and making all the rational thoughts left in my head fly out of the window. “So beautiful,” he murmured, crawling over me and then kissing me deeply. I reached up and wrapped my fingers around his neck, trying to prolong the mind-blowing kiss he was giving me. His hand reached between us bringing his arousal closer to where we both needed it now. Positioning himself against me, he pushed fully into me, making me cry out loud. God, I missed the feeling of him inside me so much. It was easy to adjust to each other’s moves, catching up to the rhythm of our bodies moving as one. Will’s chest was against mine, with not even a heartbeat standing between us. He buried his face into the curve of my neck, and pushed deeper into me, making my body arch in response.

There was no need for words. We could feel each other so well, as if we had always been together. Will’s mouth moved to mine and I knew the next moment I wouldn’t be able to suppress another moan, building in the depths of me. I was about to explode and he knew it, increasing the speed of his thrusts, with his hand grabbing my hip a little rougher than usual, but I didn’t seem to mind it, at all. I ran my hands down his shoulders and back, afraid to let him go, even though I knew I would have to leave soon… “Look at me, Louise,” Will said in a desperate voice. “You are not saying good-bye, are you?” Oh, God… He knew… He knew everything from the moment I came to dance in his room. He knew I was going to leave… “I don’t think I will ever be able to say good-bye to you,” I said, drinking in every small change in his eyes. He bent down and kissed me, softly this time, as if he knew that my words were not exactly what he wanted to hear from me. And with his every next move and kiss he was begging me to stay… The waves of pleasurable relief started flowing over me, so powerful and sweet. I looked up at Will, and he didn’t even try to close his eyes coming inside me, emptying himself, and filling me with his love at the same time. His moves slowed down, but he didn’t rush to pull out. “I want you to remember this very moment, Louise. I want you to remember the look in my eyes and the things you feel making

love with me. And before you leave, I want you to know that there’s a place where you will always be more than welcome — my embrace.” “Will you wait for me?” I asked, feeling my heart shattering. I didn’t know when I was going to see him again. I didn’t want to leave, but I had to… Smiling softly at me, Will said, “Whatever happens, you can always come back here, where I’ll be waiting for you, for as long as you need. And when you return, we will start right from where we left off…” *** The first rays of morning sun broke into the room. I have been awake for hours, waiting for the moment I would be ready to leave. But I still didn’t feel like leaving… I looked at the man sleeping quietly by my side and smiled. I knew he would be waiting for me. I didn’t even need to hear his words to be sure about that. He knew I needed more time to decide what to do with my life, and I was thankful for his patience and understanding. There were way too many messed-up things that needed to be changed. And one of them, was my future. I was free now. I didn’t have to follow anyone’s orders, I didn’t have to follow the rules. I could finally live the life I wanted for myself. And I was not going to scratch Will out of it. Because without him, nothing made sense. But for now, I needed to stay away from him, I needed to learn how to live on my own, without anyone trying to protect me, even though I was sure Will would

never stop keeping an eye on me. The best part about all of it was that our love for each other was stronger than any hurricane could hope to be. It was my shelter, my personal heaven, where I knew I would come to back one day… To be continued...

Acknowledgements First of all, I’d like to thank my family for their infinite patience and understanding. You know I can’t stay away from my fictional characters for too long, but I still love you guys more than anything in this world, and nothing and no one will ever be able to change it. Many thanks to my readers and friends who have been supporting me during my work on this book. Special thanks to Carine Verbeke for her help with French that I don’t think I would ever have enough patience to learn how to speak properly. I’d like to thank my amazing cover designer, Jennifer Munswami for another stunning cover that I still can’t stop staring at; and Heather Anne Davis – my editor – for everything she has done to help me with this book. You girls rock, but I guess I have already said that like a million times before. Many thanks to Judi Perkins for organizing Louise Release Day Launch Party and sharing the news all over the world. I hope you guys will enjoy reading this book. And I, in turn, promise to write more great books for you,

About the author Diana Nixon is a Bestselling Author of contemporary and paranormal romances. She was born in Minsk, Belarus, where she currently lives and works on her books. In 2008 Diana graduated from Belorussian State University. She has a Master of Law degree and speaks several foreign languages, including English, Polish and Spanish. Visit author’s website: http://www.diananixon.blogspot.com/ More books by Diana Nixon: Love Lines (Love Lines, # 1) Songs of the Wind (Love Lines, # 2) From Scratch (Love Lines, # 2.5) Diamond Sky (Love Lines, # 3) The Curse of Blood (Love Line, # 4) The Souls of Rain (Heavens Trilogy, # 1) The Prisoners of Dreams (Heavens Trilogy, # 1.5) Hate at First Sight Love Undone In Your Eyes Checkmate (Checkmate, # 1) No Strings Attached (Checkmate, # 2)


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