Home > Stripped (Stripped, #1)(15)

Stripped (Stripped, #1)(15)
Author: H.M. Ward

I manage to force my lips into a smile. This game of his used to drive me nuts. Do you have any idea how long it took me to unearth the real Jonathan Ferro only to lose him because of that stupid—forget it. I know how to play the f**king game, too. I've mastered the craft of false flirting and sincere smiles that are as fake as Gretchen's boobs. I can handle this. I can outmaneuver Jonathan Ferro and be back at the club within the hour.

My voice is sultry when I speak, utterly controlled. "Perfect. Never better. You know, I wasn't going to say anything, but that little spat with your brother back there was kind of cute. I like how fast he derailed you. It was so noble of you to bend over and take one for the team." My chest feels so tight that my ribs ache, and I can't breathe, but I don't let the confident grin slip from my lips. This is a game with him, and I know he wants to get the best of me, but he won't. Not this time. Those words were lashes and they strategically struck him blow by blow until that fancy boy smile fell off his face.

I shoulder past him, intending to leave, when he laughs. The sound is light and carefree, like he thinks I'm humorous. I glance back at him to see his head tip to the side and his hands slip out of his pockets. That nervous, twitchy, finger thing he did back when I first met him is gone. There's no telling that he isn't pleased, with the exception of my heart racing like I'm about to be slaughtered.

"Actually, you'll be the one bending over and taking one for the team. You see, I didn't give Sean exactly what he wanted—this is a Ferro party and I have a reputation to uphold—so I made arrangements with your manager to keep the sluttiest girl he brought. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be you."

My hand flies, but before it strikes his cheek Jonathan catches my wrist. He holds it tight and tosses it aside like I'm trash. "You were always a cheap date, huh, Cassie?"

"Fuck you."

"Later, baby." He grins at me as he turns on his heel and heads toward the door.

"You'll never have me."

A grin dances across his face and he turns around to walk out backward. His fingers lift and point at me like twin pointers. "I'm not the one wearing just glitter, 'cause yeah, that top doesn't count. You pretty much fell out of it when you were rolling around on the floor with your friend before." He winks at me as he exits the door, "The stage is all yours, Cassie Hale. Knock yourself out."



Fuck. This can't be happening. How is it that things always go to shit when I need them to work out? Cassie Hale. Damn it. I slam my fist into the bathroom wall and swear. The old guy seated with the towels in the corner acts like I don't exist. I lean into the wall, curling my arm, and rest my head there for a second. It's f**king pounding.

Cassie. The last time I saw her, she screwed me over. I spilled my guts to her one summer when we were kids, and she told me all this shit and I believed it. Obviously, I got played worse than I thought. She's a goddamn stripper. The thought makes me sick. Even though I know she stabbed me in the back, I can't stand the thought of the other guys seeing her nak*d. It feels like someone reached into my chest, grabbed hold of my heart, and ripped the f**ker out. I can't breathe.

Why is she here? It's been years since I've seen her, years since she pulled her shit, so why is she sliding around on the floor? And why now? Fate's a bitch, a goddamn bitch.

Pushing off the wall, I walk over to the sink and wash my face off. I need to pull it together. She can't see that she has any effect on me at all. I take a towel from the guy and hand him a fifty, and say, "You didn't see anything."

"Of course." He smiles at me and pockets the cash.

When I hit the hallway, Trystan falls in step beside me. "So, Peter and the strippers..."

"There's only one left and he can take care of her."

Trystan looks at me weirdly, but doesn't say anything. He doesn't know about Cassie or any of that shit. All that stuff happened before I met him. I glance over. "Sean wants to rip your heart out."

Trystan laughs, "Sean needs to relax."

"Like that'll ever happen." I shove my hands into my pockets and push into the main room, looking for Peter.

"We need to get Pete to the private party room." A plan forms in my mind. I want to humiliate her and crush her like she crushed me. Maybe doing it this way is a dick move, but I'm an a**hole, so it's okay. The truth is, I can't fathom why she stabbed me in the back. I thought she cared about me, but as soon as she had the chance, Cassie bit me on the ass like a rabid dog.

I grab a few more guys as I track down Pete. Bryan Ferro is a cousin, and a couple of years older than me, and he falls in step with Trystan. The two of them will get me in more trouble than I'm already in, but what the hell. I mean, you only live once, right? Bryan is the kind of guy that can make anything sound like a great idea. The man has a golden tongue. He's a snake charmer. Any bitch will fall on her knees just to hear him talk. And Trystan is frequently followed around by a slew of topless women. Who wouldn't like that? Our group collects more guys as we walk through. The Trystan, Bryan, Jon trifecta is too much to pass up. Everyone knows, if you want to be where it's at to hang around with us.

Everyone except Sean. Where the hell did he go? I glance around, but there's no sign of him. Sometimes I wonder if he has ovaries, he's so damn moody. But then again, I'd probably be moody too if I got dumped by a hooker. Peter told me this crazy ass story and I'm seriously wondering what the hell Sean was doing. The guy is brilliant, and utterly insane. When he gets an idea in his head, there's no way to smack it out. Sean's taken too many shots to the heart. He's a walking corpse like the rest of us, well, except for my other brother—Peter—who's sitting in the middle of a group of guys, smiling like he's king of the world. Dumb f**ker, has no idea what he's in for.

After living with my parents, I don't know how anyone could think marriage is a good idea, but Peter's over there smiling like a fool.

"Jaded much?" Trystan says so only I can hear. I smile at him and shake my head, like he's crazy. "Just pointing out the obvious. The scowl on your face says too much man. Keep your thoughts to yourself, especially if you like this brother." He smacks his shoulder against mine and nods once. It's a warning, telling me to pull my shit together.

Wiping the bitter look off my face, I throw myself into the crowd. "Peter! My favorite brother!"

Pete smiles and hands me a beer. "Jonny! You weren't supposed to throw me a party. Sidney will kill me if she thinks I had a bachelor party."

"Do you see anything in here? No titties, no poles, no lap dances. It's utterly boring." I grab his phone and take a pic of the room. It looks like an ad for an old time bar, the kind where women weren't welcome. I shoot it over to his fiancée. "And you picked Sean to be your best man."

Peter laughs and has no idea what he's in for. "Sean can be a bitch when he doesn't get his way." All the guys around us laugh. We do a few rounds of shots, and I make sure Peter is off guard when I make the transition. "You're the best brother a guy could hope for, which is why there's no way in hell I'm giving you a boring-ass party like this."

"Jonny?" He gives me a look that says he'll tear me a new one later, but not now.

That's all the permission I need. I love Sidney, I really do, but she has to understand that this isn't personal. Grabbing his arm, I stand on one side and Bryan stands on the other. We flank him and pull him toward the door, saying, "Peter, I love you, man, but you're not marching into marriage without doing one last crazy thing, and that's why we're heading to the private party room."

Peter protests, but he won't make me feel bad. I'm an a**hole. I shouldn't do this to him, but I have to crush Cassie for what she did to me. I can't let it go. She's trapped, and I intend to make her suffer.



Fury rips through me like a whirlwind. My hands are clenched into fists as I watch him walk away. Briefly, I think about hurling a heel at the back of his head, but with my luck I'd kill him. I wander over to the stage and sit down hard on the edge. FML. Seriously. It can't get worse than this. Seeing Jonathan this way is humiliating enough, but add in the venom and it's nearly unbearable. I hold my face in my hands and lean forward, sucking in a deep breath before straightening up. I have to push him out of my head or I'm screwed.

This isn't the kind of job that I wanted, but I worked my ass off to get it and I'm not letting some Ferro twit throw me off my game so that I get tossed with the morning trash. I'm not trash. I don't let anyone treat me like I am, but Jonathan just blasted me to bits. My fingers drift to the scar on my neck. I remember everything, even though I said I didn't. I saw his frantic face and worried eyes. A piece of shrapnel sliced the side of my neck that day. Even though Jonathan tried to protect me, he couldn't do enough. He never thought he was good enough, and my moralistic high ground didn't help. If I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently.

At least that's what I tell myself when I'm upset, like now. How am I supposed to strip in front of him? Damn it. I push myself up and have a heart attack when I bump into Sean Ferro. A startled yelp bursts from my mouth before I stumble backwards. He reaches out and steadies me, asking, "Who are you?"

It's not the question I expected. "I'm sorry, I didn't see you there."

"I'm well aware of that, and, since you're obviously not vocally compromised, I expect you to answer my question."

Oh God, another Ferro a**hole that thinks he's entitled. The urge to roll my eyes and walk away is huge, but something about this guy makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. He's a little bit scary, in a serial killer kind of way. I bet he could dump my body in the Connetquot River and be back before they finish dinner.

There's a smear of sparkles on his lapel. It looks like a giant lightening bug tried to make out with him. He snaps his fingers in front of my nose like I'm a dog. "Are you mentally impaired? I asked you a question."

"I don't have to tell you jackshit." I turn away, but I feel his eyes on my back. It creeps me out. The guy is a bundle of nerves. He stares at me like he wants to snap me in half.

Sean takes a step toward me and I hear his shoe scuff the floor. My heart hammers harder, smacking into my ribs. I've heard enough about Sean Ferro straight from Jonathan—enough to know that screwing with him is a death wish. The guy got shortchanged when God was handing out patience. He's always angry, the beauty in his features hidden by the hard lines of his mouth and judgmental eyes. Seriously, like he's one to pass judgment on anyone.

"I think you do." His voice makes my skin prickle. It's the axe murderer reaction.

Spinning on my heel, I round on him with my eyes pressed into thin slits. "And that's where you're wrong. Just because you're a Ferro doesn't mean you can do whatever you goddamn want." Trying to swallow the lump in my throat, I stare at him. Cobalt blue eyes stare back. Although I expect my answer to evoke anger, the corners of his mouth twitch, as if he's amused that I have enough of a spine to talk to him. Arrogant prick. Guys like him think they own girls like me. Just because I strip doesn't mean I'm devoid of conviction. People fail to realize that. Sometimes people have more choices. Sometimes people are handed a f**king fortune while others fall face first into the dust, completely alone.

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