Authors: Lisa Desrochers
To my husband, Steven,
for turning out to be more amazing
than I could have ever imagined.
NCE AGAIN, MY
most heartfelt thanks goes to you, my readers, for taking the twisted journey to self-discovery with my poor, tormented characters. And to all the fabulous bloggers who have fallen in love with this series and helped spread the word, I am forever in your debt. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Thanks to my family, who has been an endless source of support and encouragement. My husband, Steven, is a rare gem. When we met in the basement of his fraternity house all those years ago, I knew he was hot, but I never imagined there was a heart of gold beating beneath that beautiful exterior. This isn’t the first book I’ve dedicated to him, and it won’t be the last. Love you.
I have been blessed with the most incredible group of publishing professionals in my corner. My omnipotent über-agent, Suzie Townsend, is a bona fide rock star. Amanda Bergeron is one of the kindest, most patient people I have ever met, and the fact that she’s my editor has made this process (even the hard parts) a joy. And everyone behind the scenes at New Leaf Literary and HarperCollins have made everything A Little Too easy for me, so that I can focus on my writing. I owe them all a bigger thanks than I can ever deliver.
To my amazing Harper NA sisters, Jay Crownover, Cora Carmack, and Jennifer L. Armentrout, thanks for paving the way, ladies, and for all your support!
And, once again, because my muse is a wannabe rock star, I need to send a shout-out to the musical inspiration for this book. My A Little Too heroes are all so different, and so is their musical embodiment. With his cowboy boots and warm-honey drawl, Harrison was primarily inspired by Brett Eldredge’s “Don’t Ya.” Sam grows a lot in this story, and that evolution is most embodied by Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger.” And all things Bruno Mars are the underlying theme of the entire book.
drizzle pricks my face as I stand in the poorly lit parking lot of the Fremont Pharmacy with my roll-away suitcase. I’m picking at my cuticle and trying to figure out how everything I touch lately seems to turn to shit, when Jonathan’s black van rolls up to the curb. He quirks a pierced eyebrow at me in the rearview mirror as I wrestle my suitcase into the back next to Kevin’s drums and slam the door. I climb into the passenger seat and yank my seat belt. It yanks back and I growl in frustration as I fling it at the window.
say ‘fuck you’ to that lady! I said
you.” I toss my hands in the air. “She was there to buy
hearing aid batteries
and they’re taking her word over mine!”
Smoke curls up from the tip of the cigarette pinched between his thumb and finger as he takes a drag and drops the van into gear. “The customer’s always right.”
I pull the seat belt more slowly and click it, then thunk my head into the headrest a few times. “Just put a big red stamp on my forehead. ‘Samantha West: Failure at life.’ Washed up at twenty-one.”
His tongue pokes at the labret through the corner of his lower lip as he fights a smile. “You’re not really a failure at
. Just most aspects of it.”
I drop my head against the headrest as he pulls away from the curb. “Thank you very little, Jonathan. You sound like my mother.”
“So . . . you called, I came. What now?” he asks, flicking a glance my direction as he weaves through city traffic toward the highway.
From the way his tousled dark hair is flat on one side, I know I probably woke him up with that call. “I was hoping I could crash with you till I figure everything out?”
I don’t add that might take a while. Since my parents threw me out last month, I’ve had this sinking feeling that maybe they’re right. Maybe I
a total fuck-up who will never amount to anything. I just never thought, after a lifetime of Mom micromanaging my very existence, she’d give up on me so easy.
I’ve been staying at my best friend Katie’s since then. It was okay while she was home on break, but when she left to go back to school for spring quarter, it got weird. For the last few weeks her parents have been dropping less-than-subtle hints that it might be time to go, which all came to a head yesterday. I left a load of laundry in the dryer, and when I remembered to check it, it was gone. I found it folded neatly into my suitcase in the guest room with a note inviting me to leave.
Jonathan’s eyes scrunch. “Listen, Sam. You know if it was just up to me you’d be in, but Kevin has been kind of pissed that you’ve crashed there so much without paying rent.”
Jonathan is front man for a local indie band, Hell’s Gate, and I met him almost a year ago when Katie took me out to help me forget about my cheating boyfriend. It worked. Jonathan always brings a groupie home from his gigs, and the night we met, that groupie was me. But we have an understanding now.
It’s been a party pretty much every night since then, though, either after hours at whatever bar he’s playing or at his place in Oakland after a gig—which is really why I flunked out of school. It’s hard to haul your ass out of bed for eight o’clock class when you just fell into it at four. Especially when said bed is at Jonathan’s apartment in Oakland, which is over an hour from school.
Kevin is Jonathan’s drummer and apartment mate—and the one guy in the group who’s never liked me. Probably because he made a play and I shut him down.
“I sleep in your room. It’s not like I take up space or anything.”
He takes a drag off his cigarette and flicks the butt out the window as he exhales. “Yeah . . . about that. You remember Ginger?”
“Yeah . . . ?” She’s a groupie who started showing up at our after-hours’ parties about a month ago.
“We’re kind of together, so . . .”
“No way!” I crack a smile. “You are
becoming a one woman man!”
He shrugs as he takes the ramp onto the highway. “For now.”
I shove his shoulder. “Hearts are breaking all over northern California.”
When I first saw Jonathan onstage, I thought he was gay. I mean, it was San Francisco, and he was just
pretty. Not only does he have gauges in his ears and jewelry all over his face (and other places, I discovered), but incredible blue eyes and ink on almost every square inch of skin. I found out later that night that he was definitely not gay, but as far as I know, he’s never brought home the same girl twice.
“So, what’s your general plan?” he asks. “I mean beyond the crashing at my place phase?”
“I need a job,” I answer, banging my head against the headrest again.
He glances at me and pokes at his labret with his tongue. “If you’re serious, I know Ben is looking for someone.”
“Ben? At Benny’s?”
Benny’s is a club in San Francisco where Jonathan sometimes fills in for the DJ, Big Pete.
He nods and flicks a glance my way as he weaves through traffic. “One of his girls is knocked up. He’s looking for someone new. You’re definitely qualified,” he says, his gaze flickering over my body. “It’s good money.”
“Benny’s?” I think about that and a terrified little thrill moves through me. “I’ve never danced like that before. I wouldn’t even know what to do.”
“You have the moves. The guys can’t keep their eyes off you when you’re on the floor at my shows.”
“But it’s a strip club, right?” My stomach tightens at the thought of dancing in a g-string in front of a roomful of horny men. And if Mom ever found out, it would totally prove to her what a fuck-up I am. “I don’t think I could do it.”
“It’s not a strip club. It’s a totally legit gentleman’s club. Dancing only. No stripping and no extracurriculars, if you catch my drift. He keeps it squeaky clean because he can’t risk getting it shut down.”
“Why would he get shut down?”
He cuts me a glance as he changes lanes. “Jaime works for him.”
“Oh.” Jaime is Jonathan’s connection—not that he’s into anything hard. Pot, mostly, and sometimes some coke.
He shrugs. “I know Ben would hire you on the spot.”
I slouch deeper into the seat. “I’ll think about it.”
A minute later he passes his Oakland exit without even slowing down.
“Where are we going?” I ask, sitting straighter and craning my neck back at the exit.
“Benny’s,” he says, shooting me a sideways glance. “If I’ve got to break it to Kevin that you’re crashing at our place, I’m gonna tell him you’re paying rent. But if I tell him that and you don’t, he’s going to expect me to make up the difference, which—sorry darlin’, as much as I love you—there ain’t no way I’m gonna do.”
“What do you think he’ll charge me?”
He negotiates the maze onto the Bay Bridge. “I pay nine, so . . .” He shrugs.
I feel my eyes widen. “Nine
He huffs a laugh. “No. Nine dollars.”
“Would I make enough at Benny’s to cover that?” I ask, chewing my cuticle.
He laughs again. “If you work out, yeah. Those girls rake it in.”
Jonathan gets off at the first San Francisco exit over the bridge and winds us through the city streets. When we get to Benny’s, we circle the block a few times and luck into a spot less than a block from the club. He cuts the engine and we pile out.
As we get closer to the club, I can hear the pound of a heavy bass rhythm. It’s shaking my bones from the ground up before we ever reach the door. Jonathan saunters past the short line to an enormous bouncer with a bald head, sunglasses, a dark bushy beard, and behind it, a neck as thick as a tree trunk.
Jonathan holds his fist up for a knuckle bump. “Marcus, my man!”
“W’sup, J man?” Marcus says, bumping him.
“This is my friend, Red,” he says, urging me forward with a hand on my back. “She’s going to be dancing here, so you look after her, ’kay?”
Marcus gives me a quick once-over and doesn’t laugh out loud, which I take as a good sign. His eyes flick back to Jonathan. “Nora’s gonna kiss you for bringin’ her tonight.”
Jonathan pulls a face and starts tugging me toward the door. “Fuck, I hope not.”
The pulse of the music makes the place seem almost alive when we step inside. It caresses my body and makes me want to move. The entrance is at bar level, which is the same level as the three stages across the room. But between them and the bar, down three stairs in the center of the place, is the pit. The tables down there are mostly full of people, drinking and shouting over the music, and I’m surprised that there are as many women there as men. It doesn’t seem at all seedy either. It could be any other club in the Bay Area . . . if you ignore the writhing blonde on the stage up front.
My palms go clammy as I watch her. She shimmies down and lets some old guy tuck a bill into her cleavage, then smiles at him and gives him a grind of her hips as she stands. There are a few more bills hanging out of the low waistband of her white lace hot pants. Her loose white men’s button-down shirt isn’t actually buttoned, but rather tied in a knot around her rib cage just below her boobs, and it’s obvious she’s not wearing a bra. She looks freshly fucked, like she just crawled out of some guy’s bed, which I’m betting is her gig. But as I watch, I’m relieved to see that she doesn’t seem to be taking anything off as she waggles around the small stage.
We weave our way around the mezzanine to the DJ booth, and Jonathan gives Big Pete a bro hug: two sharp claps on the back, then break.
“Red!” Big Pete says. He holds up his fist to me and I bump it. “Good to see you.”
I hate that nickname. It’s so spectacularly unoriginal. But when I first started hanging out at Jonathan’s, one of the guys—I don’t even remember who—liked my auburn hair and started calling me Red. It stuck, so now that’s my name as far as any of them know. There’s another girl they call Thumper because of the sound she makes against Jonathan’s bedroom wall, so it could be worse.
Big Pete came by his nickname honestly too. He’s a mountain of a person. He also likes to live large, so that might be some of it.
“Why are the side stages dark?” Jonathan asks, gesturing to the blonde on stage.
Big Pete holds up his hands in an “I surrender” gesture. “Nora’s pitching a fit. She was already short one, and now she’s got girls calling in sick. It’s bad, bro.”
Jonathan shoots me a grin. “We might be able to help her out.”
“No fucking way!” Pete says, his eyes widening. He gives my shoulder a shove. “Red here wants to dance?”
Jonathan smiles and holds up his fist. “Fucking way, man.”
Big Pete bumps it with a grin at me.
“We gotta go find Ben,” Jonathan says. “He in his office?”
“Last I knew.”
We head to the back, and when we get to the bar, Jonathan flags down the bartender. “Two doubles. Jack Green,” he shouts over the music, holding up two fingers like a peace sign, then turns to me. “Ben is pretty cool. When he asks you if you have any experience, tell him the truth. Honesty and loyalty are his big things. As long as you’re straight up with him, you’ll get along fine.” He shakes his head. “Never try to fuck with him, though, ’cause I swear that guy has a built-in bullshit detector.”
The bartender’s back with our drinks. “On your tab, J,” she tells him, setting them on the bar.
He lifts his shot glass to her in a salute and winks. “You’re the best, Gina.”
“To making the rent,” I say, holding up my shot in a toast.
“Damn straight,” Jonathan answers with his signature boyish grin.
We knock back our shots, and Jonathan slams his glass on the bar a microsecond before me.
He grins. “You’re slacking, Red.”
I pull my hair behind me and twist it into a knot behind my neck. “My mind’s not really in the game, if you know what I mean.”
He reaches up and brushes a strand out of my face. “Nervous?”
I glance up at the blonde on stage as she swings around her brass pole. “Yeah.”
“C’mon,” he says, slinging his arm over my shoulders, then shepherding me through a door next to the bar.
I’ve only been to Benny’s once before, when I came with Jonathan to pick up his check. The club was closed and I waited up front, so I’ve never met Ben. All I really know about him is that he owns this club. I guess I’m expecting some gangsta guy, with jeans around his knees, dripping with gold chains. But when Jonathan knocks and opens the door to his office, I see he’s not that at all. He’s behind a big wooden desk, leaning back in a black leather office chair. There’s a glass wall looking out over the club, which I realize, from the other side, is that big mirror behind the bar. He looks up at us with a phone pressed to his ear and waves us in.
He’s probably fortyish and reasonably hot for an old guy. His white button-down is open at the collar and rolled up at the cuffs. The tails are loose over dark jeans. His black hair is slicked back and he’s got three deep creases across his forehead over thick eyebrows and intense brown eyes.
“Yeah . . .” he says into the phone. “I’ll take care of it. And let me know about those Giants’ tickets.” After a pause, he grins. “I know. Who woulda thunk. Thanks, Ron.” He disconnects and stands. “Jonathan.”
“Hey, Ben,” Jonathan says, reaching for his outstretched hand and shaking it. “This is my friend Sam West.” He tips his head at me. “She needs a job, and I knew you were short girls. Thought you might have a spot for her.”
There’s nothing soft in Ben’s gaze as it rakes over me, and there’s no lust. He’s all business, looking me over like a car he’s thinking of buying. After a second he nods at the sofa next to his desk. “Have a seat.” He drops into his chair and swivels it toward us as we take seats on the sofa. “Have you ever danced professionally, Sam?”
I shoot a panicked glance at Jonathan. “No.”
“Then what makes you think you’re qualified for this job?”
I glance at Jonathan again and he nods encouragingly, but doesn’t jump to my aid. “Well . . . I’ve always liked to dance. And I think I’m okay at it, so . . .”
His gaze sharpens. “You need to be pretty damn sure you’re more than ‘okay at it’ if you’re going to stand half dressed on a stage in a crowded room and really sell it, my dear.”