Vradin, Chapter Twenty-Four

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I didn’t even think about condoms until the next morning. The sex with Tank curled my toes and brought mini-gasms like a muther just from the memory of it. I also felt healthier, stronger, and like the world was this beautiful dance that I could not screw up.

I was in such a stellar good mood that the realization that we hadn’t used a condom simply made me pause for a moment, and dismiss the concern of S.T.D.s with a “he seems healthy enough”, and the potential for pregnancy hit on my maternal chords.

Every woman has a maternal chord, at least one, though they may not sing out to the thought of children, just like every guy has a paternal chord. It’s the part of yourself that says, “This is my someone to protect, cherish, and help grow.” A little boy with Tank’s stubborn chin and his blue, tilted eyes with my naturally red brown mane of hair just made a spot in my heart all melty. I was pretty sure that this was the N.R.E. one of the girls at the club gushed about. New Relationship Energy, she claimed, was the single best reason for serial monogamy. Even as I recognized that I was acting like I was stoned out of my gourd, it was a happy feeling.

Tank and I had managed to crawl out of our sex nest in time to escort Jody to her dance studio. Carl had volunteered to escort her from there to the club and back to Tank’s place. Jody had hugged me before heading into the studio, whispering, “Hoo-yah, baby-girl! Get you some more good sexing tonight in my honor, you hear me!”

I laughed and blushed, and on the ride back, as we got closer to his house, Tank’s fingers slid up the inside of my thigh.

“You’re not wearing panties, like I asked, are you?”

I bit my lip and said, “You’ll just have to wait to find- oh, gods yes!” His fingers, gods above and below, those fingers of his as they danced in between my legs. I grabbed onto the door and his arm, and was panting in need.

The bastard played with me all the way to his driveway and into his garage. We did not make it out of his garage for a good long while, and as lovely as the seats in a BMW are, they are no where near as comfortable for sex as the steps leading into his house, the sofa in his living room, the island in the kitchen, or his bed.

Construction workers tend to wake up near the time strippers are getting home, even after bouts of incredible, blow your mind, epic cherry popping great sex. At least, Tank did, and was making pancakes for us when Jody and Carl got back in. The bell that rang when someone came up to the house reminded me that I hadn’t heard it ring at all yesterday, which seemed kind of weird with the way people were always coming and going from the house during my first stay.

Jody was in a mood, but what kind I couldn’t put my finger on. She got this way sometimes, called it being full of piss and vinegar, which never did make sense to me. There was snark and swagger and laughter and sass, but with an edge that could go unintentionally cruel right fast.

She plopped down into my lap, wrapping her arms around my shoulders as if I were a customer in the club. “Guess who popped their head in to the club tonight?”

I had a sinking suspicion my cousin was involved and dropped my forehead into her shoulder. “Please don’t tell me that Dan-”

Jody’s laughter cut me off. “Oh, that dried up old stick in the mud son of a bitch — no offense to your aunt — hypocritical holy roller wouldn’t dare darken his soul by looking in after a naughty girl like me! Nope, guess again!”

I lifted my head to study Jody’s over bright expression, and Tank asked, “The twerp from the night before didn’t bother you, did he?”

Waving her hand in the air with two fingers upright, she said, “Strike two! Oh, come on! Who wants to go for number three?”

“Elbbie knows he wouldn’t make it through the door, and he’s too much of a conceited ass to try knowing he’d fail. The only recent departure was Marie–”

“Ding-ding-ding! We have a winner! You want to know what scam that little cunt was trying to pull?” Before anyone could answer, Jody threw her head back with a dramatic toss of her hair, holding the back of her wrist to her forehead and taking a better hold of my shoulders. “‘Oh, Lydia, Lydia, please! It wasn’t my fault that I had to steal — twelve hundred dollars in tips — from my poor fellow exploited sister servers! I deserve my job back because I’m trying to make that right!'”

Jody straightened back up and was nearly yelling in my face. “Twelve hundred dollars! Twelve fucking hundred dollars! And she thinks that just walking up to Lydia with the cash in hand and saying her fucktard of a boyfriend — the one who popped you in your head — was making her steal, she doesn’t know who she stole the money from — but she for damned sure knew how much she stole! — but since she’s giving the money to Lydia for Lydia to figure that out, she should have her job back, pretty fucking please with sugar on top!”

Launching herself out of my lap, Jody started pacing the kitchen. “Is that girl fucking stoned or what? Twelve. Hundred. Dollars! She stole all that at the club, and she wants us to trust her well enough to work with her ever again? Oh, hell, no! Twelve. Hundred. Dollars! That’s like, nearly four months rent for some of the girls we work with!”

I knew my jaw was gaping, but the enormity of what she was saying blew my brain. I was pretty sure Marie hadn’t stolen from me, but, “I’ll bet you it was mostly from Tanya and Gloria’s boxes, maybe some from the common bowl. Those two, Tanya and Gloria, were worried that they were starting to piss off clients because their tip counts had gone down so much in the past few weeks. I guess I’m really glad you made sure I got a locking box for my tips now. And Gloria’s still paying off the doctor’s bill for her little boy, may he rest in peace. And Prudence, she had a bad night the Thursday before Marie was fired but my tips were about the same. Twelve hundred dollars?”

“One thousand two hundred,” Jody confirmed. She took a deep breath and slumped down on to the stool next to me.

“So, I guess we know how you took it. Did Marie manage to make it off the lot in one piece?” I asked.

Jody let her head sag forward. “Lydia told us about the money after closing, though we all gave that bitch the cold shoulder when she showed up near to ten. I mean, really? She wants to talk business at the start of our busy hours? I wasn’t the only one asking if she was trying to find a way to light finger more than enough to cover giving back that twelve hundred. Twelve hundred dollars! Just — God dayum!”

“So what else did Lydia say about the money? I mean, she’s not the type to pocket that for herself, let alone pocket it and flaunt it.”

“Because there’s no way at this point to know who it was for, it’s being treated like it was dropped in the common bowl, and everyone who was working on a shift with Marie will receive a portion on their next shift, and something about how many shifts they worked with her.”

“Where’s my phone?” I asked myself, and got up to grab my purse out of Tank’s room.

“What for?” Jody asked.

“I’m going to call Lydia and tell her not to portion me into it,” I answered.

Jody pulled out her phone and handed it to me. “I just won a bet!” she said, smiling at me.

I frowned at Jody, but she was smirking at Carl. Carl was looking at me with a kind of proud happiness that seemed kind of strange. “What did I miss?” I asked, taking the phone and scrolling through the contacts to the club’s number.

Jody said, still grinning, “Carl got to hear a lot of the histrionics on the way here, and when I said no matter what you were going to turn down the money, he bet me dinner you’d let it be.”

Carl shrugged, and said, “Not quite, but close. I said that given how much grief had come to you recently, especially with what her ex did to injure you, that I wouldn’t think less of you for taking the money whether you thought it came from your tip box or not.”

I tapped the call button and told Carl, “That is kind of disturbing, Carl.”

Lydia picked up on the second ring. “Ladies Night, where it feels all right, how may I serve you?”

“Hi, Lydia, it’s Clare. Jod- Neveah just got back and filled me in on the details about Marie,” I said. Joe preferred for us to use our duty names whenever we were at the club or talking about the club, to keep us in the habit he said. The duty names were an idiosyncrasy of his, I think.

She cut in before I could say more. “You are being included in the distribution, and it will be ready for you on Monday.”

“Yeah, about that. It’s not my money. I have a lock on my tip box, and my tips were about the same as before Marie started working, but I did hear Gloria and Tanya saying they were short. I know you like to be as fair as you can, and without some way to prove beyond a doubt, I can see why you’d do things this way, but, well, if you can’t just split whatever you were going to send my way between those two, then just don’t count me in the calculations.”

There was a long silence following my statement, long enough I was afraid the connection had dropped. “You there, Lydia?” I asked.

“I’m here,” she said, sounding kind of dazed.

“Are you okay? You sound kind of breathless. Should I get Jody to call Joe or-”

“No, no, I’m- No, that’s all good! I just- I- My goodness! I’m just so proud of you I’m actually crying!”

I was starting to feel rather offended. First Carl, and now Lydia, thinking I’d be some money grubbing bastard, knowing what Gloria was going through.

“You know, Lydia, that kind of sucks that you had such a low opinion of me,” I said, fighting a quiver in my lip. Damn it! I was not eleven years old and wanting Momma Lu to love me whatever it took all over again.

Lydia made a choking sound and full sobs came over the line. I pulled the phone away from my ear and frowned at it, thoroughly confused by the over the top reaction Lydia was having. Looking to Jody, I asked, “Did anything else happen tonight to stress Lydia out? She’s having a total melt down as far as I can hear.”

Jody shook her head, her eyes going wide as saucers. Both Tank and Carl seemed to have frozen in their tracks.

Then Joe’s voice came down the line, gruff and angry, “Who is this?”

I put the phone back closer to my face. “Hey, Joe, is Lydia okay? Did anything happen aside from Marie’s visit to put her so on edge?”

“Clare?” Joe asked after a moment.

“Yeah, yeah, this is Clare. What’s wrong with Lydia?”

Joe’s voice went very guarded, and kind of suspicious. “What were you two talking about?”

“Neveah told me about the thing with the tips Marie stole, and I called to make sure that whatever was being divided my way goes to Gloria and Tanya, because they’re the only ones I know who were down tips over the past month. And you know Gloria’s situation; it would be utterly cruel to take from her. Besides, even if any of it was mine, I’m going to be at T.C.C. for another year because of having to withdraw this quarter, and I’ll make back whatever I might have missed out on easily in that time, assuming you’re happy with how clean I keep my nose.”

Again, there was a whole lot of silence on the line. I was drawing breath to verbally poke Joe when he said, “I have run this club for a God be damned long time, and in those decades, I have never — before you — had an employee turn down a windfall of cash. I’ve had honest employees, but never ones that self-less. It restores a man’s faith.”

I did not believe that. “Joe, it’s not self-less. I earn my way; I don’t snag what someone else has earned, and especially not from people who can’t afford the loss. If this was a bonus that you were giving out, that would be completely different, but this was someone else’s money that got stolen from them. I have no claim on it.”

“Clare,” Joe said. “I hear what you’re saying. What I’m saying is that you are my first employee to have ever done something like this. I am impressed. In fact, I’m impressed enough that as soon as you’re cleared by your doctor, you can have your regular shift back. When will you know?”

I made a face, and said, “I have a check up tomorrow, and there was a bit of a thing the other night that may have set me back some. The ER doc thought that I’d likely have to be on light duty anyway for a week or two when I do have that return to work slip.”

“ER doc? Brawnley didn’t mention that you had been to the emergency room again.”

“Hold it. You and Carl talked?”

Joe snorted. “That’s as well a way to put it as any. Mostly, Brawnley wanted to make sure that there wouldn’t be any repercussions against Neveah for his escort. He said something about a stalker, and we went over the rules for him playing bodyguard at the club.”

“Stalker, right, that’s one way to describe the creepy guys. So, I will call you after my doctor’s appointment tomorrow, and let you know what the results are. How is Lydia? I’m serious, is she okay?”

Joe sighed. “Hope is a terrible burden sometimes, Clare. I won’t say more on it than that. I shall expect to hear from you before the club opens tomorrow, and I hope things go well at your appointment.”

“Thank you,” I said, and then there were the usual good byes.

Tank moved up behind me as I handed the phone back to Jody. He wrapped an arm around my waist and brushed my hair back from my face before resting his chin on the crown of my head. I felt the expansion and contraction of his chest behind me, and the heat of his breath on my forehead, and I leaned back into his hug.

There was a special kind of peace in that embrace.

Jody smiled at me with a tired, happy expression.

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