“The smartest thing I’ve ever done was recruiting Max Stella to help plan your bachelor party.”
I looked over at my brother, Henry, after he practically sang this. He was leaning back in his plush leather chair, fresh vodka gimlet in hand, recently returned from a private “session” in a mysterious backroom location, and wearing the biggest grin I think I’d ever seen. He wasn’t looking at me when he spoke; he was watching three beautiful women onstage dance and strip to a slow, pulsing rhythm. “Gotta remember that next time,” he murmured, bringing the glass to his lips.
“I plan on only having the one,” I said.
“Well.” Will Sumner, Max’s best friend and business partner, leaned forward to catch Henry’s eye. “You, however, might end up in need of a second bachelor party if the current wife finds out about the professional dancer activities just now. From the looks of this place, they don’t just do the average lap wiggle around here.”
With a dismissive wave of his hand, Henry said, “It really was only a lap dance.” And then he smiled at me, winking. “Albeit a very good lap dance.”
“Happy ending?” I asked, teasing but mildly revolted.
Henry shook his head with a laugh and took another sip of his drink. “Not that good, Ben.”
I exhaled, relieved. I knew my brother well enough to know that he would never cheat on his wife, Mina, but he was still far more of the “what she doesn’t know can’t hurt her” ethos than I ever would be.
Although Chloe and I were getting married in June, the only weekend Max, Henry, Will, and I could all get away together for my bachelor party was the second weekend in February. We’d expected there to be some serious bribing for the women to agree to let us head to Vegas for a guy’s weekend over Valentine’s Day, but as usual they’d surprised us: they’d barely blinked, and simply planned a weekend trip to the Catskills together instead.
Max had chosen a high-end club to kick off the weekend of ensured debauchery. This place certainly wasn’t something we would have stumbled upon via an online search or a stroll down the Las Vegas Strip. To be honest, Black Heart didn’t look like much from the outside. It was buried in an innocuous office building a couple blocks off the heavy traffic of Las Vegas Boulevard. But inside—past three locked doors and two bouncers roughly the size of my apartment in New York, then deeper into the dark belly of the building—the club was posh, and positively vibrating with sex.
The enormous main room was spotted with small raised platforms, each one topped with a dancer wearing sparkling, silver lingerie. There were four black marble bars, one in every corner, and each specializing in a different type of drink. Henry and I had indulged in the vodka bar, also grabbing some caviar, gravlax, and blinis. Max and Will had made a beeline for the scotch. The other two bars offered an assortment of wine, or cordials.
The furniture was plush, dark leather. It was unbelievably soft, and each chair was large enough for two . . . in case any of us accepted the offers for a dance out on the main floor. Servers wearing anything from latex bikinis to nothing at all carried trays with drinks. Our hostess, Gia, had started the night in a lacy red chemise and panties with some elaborate jewelry in her hair, ears, and around her neck, but seemed to be removing something each time she checked on us.
I wasn’t a regular at this type of establishment, but even I knew this was no run-of-the-mill strip club. It was pretty f**king impressive.
“The question,” Henry said, interrupting my thoughts, “is when is the groom-to-be getting his lap dance?”
Around me, the others all responded with various words of encouragement, but I was already shaking my head. “I’m going to pass. Lap dances aren’t really my thing.”
“How is an unfamiliar and extremely hot woman dancing on your lap not your thing?” Henry asked, eyes wide with disbelief. My brother and I hadn’t ever visited a club of this sort in any of our business travels. I think I was as surprised to learn of his enthusiasm for them as he was to learn of my aversion. “Are you warm-blooded?”
I nodded. “Very. I think that’s why I don’t like them.”
“Bollocks,” Max said, putting his drink down on the table and waving across the room to someone in the far, dark corner. “This is the first night of your stag weekend, and a lappy is a requisite.”
“You may all be surprised to hear that I’m with Bennett on this one,” Will said. “Lap dances from strangers are pretty awful. Where do you put your hands? Where do you look? It’s not the same as being with a lover—it feels too impersonal.”
While Henry insisted that Will had obviously never had a good lap dance, Max stood to speak to a man who seemed to have materialized out of thin air at the side of our table. He was shorter than Max—which wasn’t uncommon—and graying at his temples. He had a face and eyes that carried the kind of calm that told me he’d done a lot, and seen even more. His suit was dark and impeccable, his lips pressed together in a thin line. I registered that this must be the infamous Johnny French, whom Max had mentioned on our flight in.
Although I’d assumed they were talking about making arrangements for me to get a dance, I watched as Johnny murmured something and Max turned to stare at the wall, his face tight. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d ever seen Max look anything but relaxed, and I leaned forward, straining to understand what was happening. Henry and Will remained oblivious, having returned their attention to the now-naked dancers on the stage. Finally, Max’s shoulders relaxed as if he had come to some kind of conclusion, and he smiled at Johnny, muttering, “Thanks, mate.”
With a pat to Max’s shoulder, Johnny turned and left us. Max returned to his seat, reaching for his drink. I lifted my chin toward the doorway Johnny had stepped through, behind a black curtain. “What was all that about?”
“That,” said Max, “was about the room that is being prepared for you.”
“For me?” I pressed my hand to my chest, shaking my head. “Again, Max, I’m going to pass.”
“The f**k you are.”
“You’re bloody right I am. He told me you’re to head down that hall”—Max pointed to a different doorway than the one through which Johnny had disappeared—“and head to Neptune.”
I groaned, leaning back in my chair. Although this club seemed like the best of its kind in town—or anywhere for that matter—on a list of things I wanted to do tonight, getting a lap dance from some random Vegas dancer ranked barely above eating bad sushi and getting violently ill.
“Just walk down the hall like a f**king bloke and get your knob rubbed by some girl dancing on you.” Max stared at me, his eyes narrowed. “Are you taking the piss with this whingey shite? It’s your f**king stag weekend. Act like the man you used to be.”
I studied him, wondering why he seemed so firmly planted in his own chair while he encouraged me to leave mine. “Did Johnny give you a room to visit as well? Aren’t you getting a lap dance?”
He laughed, tipping his scotch to his lips and mumbling, “It’s a lap dance, Ben. Not a f**king trip to the dentist.”
“Asshole.” Lifting my drink, I gazed at the thick, clear liquid. I’d known going into this that there would be women, and booze, and probably some activities that might push the limits of legal, but the truth was, Chloe had known this, too. She’d told me to have fun, and her eyes had never shadowed with worry or mistrust. They had no reason to.
I brought the drink to my lips, downed it, and muttered, “Fuck it,” before standing and heading to the hallway. My companions for the evening were—surprisingly—classy enough to not cheer at my departure, but even still I could feel their attention on my back as I made my way to the hallway to the left of the main stage.
Just beyond the doorway the carpet changed from black to a deep, royal blue, and the space felt even darker than it had out in the main room. The walls were the same velvety black, and there was just enough illumination from tiny crystal lights on the wall to light a path ahead of me. Along one side of the long hallway were doors with the names of planets on them: Mercury, Venus, Earth . . . Down at the end, at the door labeled Neptune, I hesitated. Would there be a woman already inside? Would there be a chair for me or, worse, a bed?
The door was ornate and heavy, like something out of a castle or, fuck, some sort of creepy Gothic basement sex dungeon. Fucking Max. I shivered and turned the knob, exhaling in relief when I saw that there was no iron cross or handcuffs, and no woman inside yet, only a long chaise with a small silver box in its center. Tied to the box with a silky red ribbon was a white card with Bennett Ryan written in neat script.
Great. Random Vegas Dancer might already know my f**king name.
Inside the box was a black satin blindfold and a sliver of thick cardstock with the words Put this on written in black ink.
I was meant to put on a blindfold for a lap dance? What was the point of that? Just because I didn’t want one tonight didn’t mean I didn’t recall lap dances past. Unless the format had changed in the past few years, getting one meant looking, not touching. What the f**k was I supposed to do if I was blindfolded when she came in? I sure as shit wasn’t going to touch her.
I laid the slip of fabric on the chaise, ignoring it as I stared at the wall. Minutes ticked by, and with each one I grew more convinced there was no f**king way I was blindfolding myself in this room.
I could almost hear the sound of my own irritation building. It sounded like a roar, a wave, a flame crackling. Closing my eyes, I took three deep breaths and then looked more carefully at my surroundings. The walls were a soft gray, the chaise a dusky blue. The room looked more like a dressing room at a high-end store than a room where men got what I assumed amounted to a lot more than just a dance. I ran my hand over the supple leather of the chaise, and only then did I notice the second note that had been buried beneath the blindfold inside the box. Written in the same script on the heavy paper, it said,
Put on the f**king blindfold, Ben, don’t be a pussy.
Fucking Max. Would I really have to sit here, captive, until I put on the blindfold and got this over with? With a groan, I lifted the black fabric, slipping it over my head and hesitating just a heartbeat before pulling it across my eyes. I was already plotting how I would get back at Max. He’d known me longer than almost anyone in my life other than my family, and was aware of how much I valued fidelity and control. Asking me to come back to this room and cover my eyes without knowing what was coming? What a f**king dick.
I leaned back against the wall and waited in annoyed isolation, my ears picking up sounds I hadn’t noticed before: the dull pulse of the music in the other rooms, the sound of doors opening and closing with quiet, heavy clicks. And then I heard the sound of the handle to my room turning, the door opening with the gentle slide of wood across carpeting.
My heart began to thunder.
As soon as I got a whiff of the unfamiliar perfume, I felt my back go rigid with discomfort. Other than the scent of the stranger, I knew nothing about who was in here and I hated not being able to see what was coming at me. She did something against the wall: I heard rustling, a small click, and then quiet, rhythmic music filled the room.
Warm, soft hands took hold of my wrists and gently but expertly positioned my hands so that they rested idly at my sides. No touching? No f**king problem.
I sat motionless as she slid over me, her breath smelling like cinnamon, her h*ps grinding on my lap, hands pressed to my chest. So this is how it was going to go: I would remain blindfolded, she would dance over me, and then I would leave? I felt myself begin to relax incrementally. The woman moved above me, her h*ps shifting against my thighs, her hands moving gently over my chest. I could feel enough of her body that the blindfold didn’t seem completely absurd, but if I’d been the kind of man to enjoy this sort of thing, being robbed of my sight would have been a hindrance.
But maybe Max knew this would be the only way this experience wouldn’t be unbearable to me. The thought made me want to kick his ass just slightly less.
The dancer rolled over me, h*ps rocking rhythmically with the music, undulating in small, suggestive circles. She leaned away, gripping my shoulders to anchor herself, and I felt the press of her ass on my thighs, the suggestion of her sex so close to my dick that I tried as carefully as I could to inch away, to push my body deeper into the chaise. And then she sat upright again, and I could feel the shape of her br**sts as she brushed against my chest. Her breath was warm and soft on my neck, and although it wasn’t unpleasant, per se, it quickly grew awkward. My initial fear that I would have to make eye contact, or smile, or appear to be here voluntarily dissolved, and instead I registered that this dance was for neither of us. Certainly she wasn’t getting anything but money out of it, and because of my blindfold, I didn’t even need to fake my enjoyment. I found myself straining to calculate how much was left of the song. It wasn’t one I knew, but the formula was clear and I exhaled the rest of my tension as the song started its predictable ramp-up to the end. Over me, the poor woman seemed to slow, her hands coming to rest on my shoulders.
When the song ended, the only sound remaining in the room was the stripper’s quickened breathing.
Is she going to leave? Should I say something?
With dread weighing down my stomach, I understood very clearly that maybe this was when the show really started. To my absolute horror, the stripper leaned forward and grazed her teeth across my jaw.
Then . . . I froze, a cloudy awareness starting to overtake my impatience.