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Tiger's Eye

Chapter One

Caitlyn slid her feet into the four-inch red heels and bent forward to buckle the thin straps around her ankles. Already tall, she felt like a Yeti in the damn shoes, but they were an essential tool of her trade. Three-inch heels were the minimum for strippers. Anything shorter and a girl’s legs looked like tree trunks and her stomach pooched out when she strutted on stage. It didn’t matter how slender she actually was, the heels made the difference.

The shoes she chose had a plastic, one-piece sole and heel. While not as elegant as heels made of wood or leather, the plastic didn’t flex as much and resulted in less strain on her back and legs.

She sat up and leaned back in the chair to take stock of her appearance. Sitting before the oval mirror in her costume, she looked like a little girl playing dress-up. Time to slather on the glam. Make-up was as essential as the heels in this profession.

A wry grin crossed her face when she realized she had labeled stripping as a profession. Of course, many of her co-workers did consider this their career, but not Caitlyn. For her, this was a way to pay for graduate school.

A hulking figure appeared in the mirror, his image looming behind hers. “You have any problems last night?”

The grin turned to a full-fledged smile. “No problems, Andre.”

He didn’t return the smile, but glared at her with an expression known to send hordes of burly men running for cover. He crossed his massive arms over his chest. “I have to leave early again tonight. I want you to promise you’ll have Mickey walk you to your car when you leave.”

“Save the menacing glower for someone who doesn’t know what a sweet guy you are,” she told him.

An imposing black man with a shaved head and piercing green eyes, Andre stood six-four and could bench press a Buick. His forearms were bigger around than her thighs, and a wicked scar from a knife wound bisected his left eyebrow. Despite his terrifying appearance, Andre was nothing but a teddy bear.

A big, gay teddy bear. He was perfect for strip club security. He could single-handedly repel a marine assault and never be distracted by the bouncing breasts around him.

“Don’t give me that, little girl,” he warned. “You tend to slip away without an escort if someone doesn’t keep tabs on you.”

“I leave after my set to go home and study,” Caitlyn pointed out. “You make it sound like I’m dodging a tail to avoid having my cover blown.”

With anyone but Andre, she would have winced at her choice of words, but he didn’t bat an eye or make an annoyingly inappropriate sexual comment. “Regardless of the reason, you need to have a security guard walk you to your car.”

Caitlyn scowled at his doggedness. She knew the guards were concerned about the dancers’ safety, but this was a high-end gentlemen’s club with a separate parking lot for employees. She didn’t relish the idea of waiting for a lull in club activity just so someone could walk her twenty-feet to her car.

“I’ll be careful,” she promised.

“Someone will walk you to your car,” he told her.

“Andre,” Mickey called from the doorway. “I’ve got to get another case of beer from the cellar. We need you out here.”

Andre gave Caitlyn another warning look before lumbering out of the dressing area.

“He means well,” Roxanne said, pulling up a chair beside Caitlyn. “I just keep reminding myself that.”

Caitlyn laughed. Andre tended to smother all the dancers with a misplaced maternal instinct. “He has the maternal instincts of an elephant.”

“Amen, sister.” Roxanne smiled and fluffed her short, dark hair one last time. “It’s off to work, I go,” she sang, giving Caitlyn a little wave she shimmied towards the stage.

Caitlyn turned her attention back to her make-up. Doing make-up for the stage was the same as applying it at home. You just applied more of it.

A lot more of it.

She coated her lashes with the wand of mascara and listened to the roar of the crowd. It sounded like a good audience tonight. A good audience meant good money.

Caitlyn greeted several other dancers as they moved around backstage. The relationship between the dancers was one of easy camaraderie. She’d been pleasantly surprised by the connection she’d made with the women of The Tiger’s Eye.

Satisfied with her make-up, she turned her attention back to her hair. She pulled the clips from the hot rollers and unrolled her hair. The waves pulled her waist-length, strawberry-blonde tresses up to mid-back. She chose a hairclip from her bag and fastened it in place, leaving long, curling tendrils loose around her face, creating a simple but artful and elegant look.

She glanced at the clock above the stage door. Thanks to her anal retentive nature, she had half an hour to kill before she took the stage. She always gave herself more time than she needed to prepare.

Despite the heels, Caitlyn stood and began to pace. She’d been so restless for the past few months that the sensation felt almost physical. As though she was coming out of her skin, but that wasn’t possible. Not for a half-breed like her.

Roxanne breezed off the stage wearing nothing but her g-string and heels, her face flushed with adrenaline. “It’s a live crowd,” she announced. “Looks like a bachelor party or a bunch of frat guys trying to look like they belong here. Gonna be easy money tonight.”

“I like easy money,” Caitlyn said, forcing a smile.

The backstage area consisted of a long, narrow space that ran the length of the building. Lockers for the dancers lined one wall, and the door to a private bathroom sat at the far side of the room. Brushing past Caitlyn, Roxanne moved to her locker and pulled out a small amber vial with a black screw-on top.

Caitlyn’s smile faded. “You don’t need that stuff.”

Roxanne rolled her eyes. “You do. You need to lighten up. Cutting loose every once and a while won’t kill you.”

Caitlyn chose to ignore the jab. “If Stewart catches you with that stuff one more time, he’s going to fire you.”

The club owner was adamant about keeping police out of his establishment. High class clientele--Stewart’s phrase for big spenders--did not frequent places that were raided by the cops. He’d caught Roxanne using once and had made it abundantly clear that the next ‘girl’ he saw with illegals would be out on the street in a nanosecond.

The arrogant jackass had actually used the word nanosecond.

“I won’t get caught,” Roxanne said, tucking the vial into her fist and heading toward the bathroom.

Caitlyn shook her head sadly, watching the buxom brunette strut away. Roxanne was so anxious for a hit she didn’t even stop to don a robe.

Not that it mattered. Caitlyn had seen more breasts in the three months she’d worked at The Tiger’s Eye, than she’d ever wanted to see in her lifetime. Hell, it was to the point she could identify a dancer by her breasts alone.

Sela swept by Caitlyn to take the stage with her nose in the air. Monica made a face at Sela’s back and stuck her tongue out, prompting a laugh from Caitlyn.

“I swear, that girl acts like she’s the prima ballerina for the Russian Ballet rather than a stripper at a titty bar,” Monica said.

Caitlyn snorted an inelegant laugh. “At least she takes pride in her work. And don’t let Stewart hear you call The Tiger’s Eye a titty bar.”

“Tomato, tomahto,” Monica replied. “And it’s not pride. It’s snobbery. She can’t stand that you’re more popular than she is. She was reigning queen of the stage until you showed up.”

Uncomfortable with compliments and Sela’s blatant jealousy, Caitlyn changed the subject, asking, “Is that dress new?”

“Mmm-hmmm.” Monica spun around causing the skirt to flare outward, revealing a long expanse of leg. “What’d’ya think?”

“I think you’re going to make a fortune in that thing,” Caitlyn replied.

“You mean, I’m going to make a fortune out of this thing,” Monica teased.

Monica’s good humor always amazed Caitlyn. An anthropology and sociology student, Monica worked the club as part of her thesis research, pretending to be a single mother of three with no education. Only Caitlyn knew the truth, because they attended the same school, a fact that made Monica extremely nervous. She feared Caitlyn would blow her cover and destroy her ‘immersion into the subculture’.

“I meant what I said before. If you’ll take the GED, I’ll help you prepare for it,” Caitlyn teased.

“I don’t need a GED to dance,” Monica insisted, shooting Caitlyn a murderous look. “Besides, not all of us are cut out to be bookworms.”

“You can’t dance forever,” Caitlyn pointed out, just to be annoying.

“I’ll think about,” Monica said dismissively. “How’s school? Are you ever going to finish?”

“No. I’m going to be ninety and still taking classes,” Caitlyn lamented.

“You know better than that,” Monica told her in a tone that a mother would likely use on recalcitrant children. “A master’s in social work isn’t easy to get, but I can’t think of anyone better suited to the job. Just be sure to watch that big heart of yours. It’s a tough world out there and people will look to take advantage of someone as kind as you.”

“People look to take advantage of anyone,” Caitlyn commented cynically.

Monica laughed. “That is the sad and sordid truth.”

Sela strutted off stage and flashed a catty smile at Caitlyn. “I think I just made more money tonight than I made all last week. Try and top that one, Princess,” she said without stopping for a reply.

Caitlyn shook her head and commented, “She’s too young to be that bitter and hostile. I wonder what happened to her.”

Monica moved towards the stage for her set. “Didn’t I just warn you about that big heart? Stay away from Sela. She wants to eat you alive.”

Caitlyn followed Monica to the stage and stood in the wings to glimpse the crowd. The house was packed. From her vantage point, she could see Andre denying newcomers entrance. That meant the club had reached its maximum allowable patronage under the fire code. It had to gall Stewart to turn away paying customers, but his fear of law enforcement extended to the fire marshal.

Monica began dancing her first song, a slow number. The dancers always performed three song sets. They danced the first number completely clothed, stripped during the second number, and danced the third number in nothing but heels and a g-string.

Guess which dance made them the most money.

Watching Monica move, Caitlyn had to admit the woman had a natural talent for dancing. Under other circumstances, she would be working in a far more respectable location. Caitlyn could easily see the sociology student dancing off-Broadway, or maybe on a cruise ship. Despite Monica’s protestations that she enjoyed stripping as part of her immersion, Caitlyn knew otherwise. Anyone watching Monica’s eyes would see that. They were blank and distant as she swayed to the beat. Disassociated.

Of course, Caitlyn was the only one in the club who was paying attention to Monica’s eyes.

Unlike Monica, Caitlyn loved to dance on stage. She’d been surprised at the rush she’d gotten on her first night. Her enjoyment had shone through, and her reservations about her decision to work at The Tiger’s Eye had fled.

There was something savage and primal about erotic dance that called to her blood. Or at least the half of her blood she’d received from her mother.

She loved the pulsating beat of the music, the way she felt it in her bones. She couldn’t stay still if she tried. Her hips automatically rolled, and her body undulated to the pounding rhythm. Unlike the other dancers, her movements were never scripted, never rehearsed. Every night she danced differently, letting the music guide her steps and making her performance a celebration of life.

The heat of the lights against her skin reminded her of the warmth of the sun. She could easily imagine what it had been like for her mother’s people in centuries past, dancing naked beneath the hot sun in a pagan ritual honoring the gods. For the time she was on stage, she was more than just an outcast half-breed. She was connected to her ancestors. The curse of her tainted blood forgotten.

She loved the sensual slide of her satin costume against her skin and the erotic thrill that ran through her as she slowly revealed her body. Caitlyn reveled in the feminine power she wielded over the men who paid to watch her dance. Knowing they were watching, desperate to touch her made her blood sing and her head light.

Intellectually, she knew the animalistic thrill came from establishing herself as dominant. It simulated raising her standing in the Pride by making the males seek her for a mate.

Not that she had a Pride. But it didn’t matter when she danced, the rush was almost overpowering. It was heady and addictive. While she danced, the restlessness that plagued her disappeared.

Monica finished her set with a flourish and received cheers from the crowd. She sauntered offstage with an audacious wink at the audience.

She met Caitlyn’s eyes and winked at her. “Go get them, killer.”

Caitlyn waited for Stewart to announce her stage name. All the strippers used a fake name, but unlike most clubs, The Tiger’s Eye eschewed names like Nancy Nockers, Miss Behavior, or even Crystal Skies. Stewart assigned all his dancers the title of Lady and chose classic names for them. He believed the dancers’ names were an important tool in maintaining the image of an elite gentleman’s club rather than a strip joint.

She stepped closer to the stage, and an unfamiliar chill of apprehension ran down her spine