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Stripped Down to the Bone

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As Charlie moved onto the stage to the pulsating lights and deep, thrumming music, she immediately sensed he was there. She could feel his eyes rake over her, stripping her defenses far more effectively than she could ever do herself. Frustration tripped through her at his stubbornness. Why couldn't he just leave it alone? Her working in a strip club had nothing to do with him. It was none of his business what she did with her life. He'd made that readily apparent numerous times in recent months.

Except now, he'd seemingly changed his mind.

Or at the very least, thought he deserved an opinion.

He'd been coming for a week. She wasn't sure how he'd managed to get a hold of her schedule, probably paid off the manager knowing him. He sat in the back, deep blue eyes furiously focused on her anytime she took the stage. Charlie ripped her bustier open as she worked through her routine, sarcastically hoping he was enjoying the show since he seemed so determined to watch all of hers, as she divorced her mind from what she was doing. She thought back to the previous Friday when she'd first become aware of his presence.

She'd been exhausted after the long day, dragging herself to the bus-stop, half-awake, when she was jarred by someone grabbing her arm and swinging her around.

Panicked, adrenaline stirring, she swung a fist at her captor, only to have it grabbed in a calloused, warm hand, and lowered gently to her side.

Looking up into the man's face, she was startled when her eyes met the equally azure gaze of her uncle's best friend.

"Bass?" She asked, disbelief coloring her voice.

"What the fuck were you doing in there Charlotte?" He asked, anger streaking his voice, making it raspier than normal, as both his hands clamped onto her upper arms. His hold was implacable, allowing no room for her to wriggle free, feral eyes locked onto her gobsmacked visage.

Charlie could only gape, dumbfounded at his presence. "Bass?"

"Bass? Bass?" He mocked as his hands shook her slightly, tightening upon her skin. She'd have bruises tomorrow and she was so far gone in this thing between them, that she relished the idea of him leaving marks on her. He shook her again, harder this time, pulling her frazzled thoughts back to him. "Is that all you can say? Why are you working in there? What the fuck are you doing stripping off your clothes?"

"It's none of your business," she said calmly, pushing the shock aside and deciding bluster was the best way through this standoff.

"Charlotte...," he started, only to break off, as a car came up next to them.

It was Misty, one of the girls she worked with. She stuck her head out the window, eyeing up the situation between the two. "Everything all right here Charlie?"

"Fine," Charlie said, firmly. "We were just finishing."

"Do you need a ride home?" Misty asked.

Charlie nodded, thankful for the sudden reprieve being offered to her. "That would be great."

"Dammit, we're not done here," he intoned, sharply.

"Yes we are. Go home Bass," she murmured, pulling from his grip, and walking around the car to climb in.

He had been there every night--he wasn't going away. Bass hadn't approached her after that, but like clockwork he arrived whenever she was set to go on and left after she was finished. Charlie hadn't really noticed, but she figured he'd been tailing her home too. It was just something the man would do.

After finishing her last routine of the night, Charlie walked to the changing room. She was tired and felt saturated with a combination of sweat, spray-tan, and body glitter. Charlie ran her hands through her wet hair, lifting it to let the air hit the back of her neck, enjoying the coolness against overheated skin.

"Good job tonight, Charlie," Misty said. "You're getting better."

She looked at the older brunette. "Thanks." What else did you say to that? It wasn't like she'd planned on ever being a stripper.

There must have been something in her voice, because Misty wandered over to sit next to her, patting Charlie's shoulder. "I know you don't want to be here kid. Most of us don't. It's rough at the start, taking your clothes off for a bunch of greasy old men or drunken frat boys. You're lucky hon, it's just temporary for you. When you've saved up the money you need, you'll be out of here and this will just be a bad moment in your life that you'll put behind you."

Charlie nodded, smiling wanly at the woman. Misty nodded in return getting up to return to her pile of belongings.

Misty had become a friend. She'd told Charlie that every girl who came to strip had a story, a reason they needed to make their living taking off their clothes. Misty was no different. She'd gotten knocked up as a teenager and with both her and her boyfriend having religious parents, they'd gotten married. Her husband had barely been able to hold onto a steady job, drowning in an alcohol bottle, while smacking her around at the same time. Misty had given birth once more before he'd up and walked out on them. Having no job experience to speak of, she'd ended up in the club, supporting herself and her kids the only way she'd been able to find.

It had been years ago, she'd adapted well enough, and she was still stripping most nights. Misty didn't complain much, only that it kept her from her kids, but that it was worth it to be able to have a roof over their heads with enough to eat, to be able to save up some money. That was all that mattered to her.

Charlie knew she was far more fortunate in comparison.

Gathering up her toiletries for the bathroom, she looked back at Misty, who had been a mentor to her during her time here, Charlie smiled and nodded at her in thanks.

Wiping a wet cloth over her face and skin, she cleaned off what gunk she could in the dank bathroom. The rest would have to wait until she got home and showered. Getting dressed in her tracksuit and heavy coat, she gathered her bag up and bid the other girls goodnight, before leaving through the backdoor to head to the bus-stop. While she'd been overheated in the club, the cold air hit her damp skin and made her shiver violently. Speeding up, Charlie had only gotten a couple blocks before she heard the sound of a car slowing down behind her. Clutching the pepper spray she carried in her pocket she looked over her shoulder, only to release the small canister when she saw who was driving the car.

Bass.

So he'd finally decided to approach her again.

He rolled down the window and leaned his head out. "Get in the car Charlotte," his voice grated, impatiently.

She sighed, ignoring him as she kept walking. "I'm taking the bus Bass. Just go home."

"Not going to happen; get your stubborn ass in my car."

Charlie vacillated for a few seconds, but eventually gave in, figuring it would be better to just get this over with. And she was cold, no telling how long she would have to wait for a bus to come. The car was silent during the drive. She noticed they weren't headed towards her university housing and Charlie knew he was taking her back to his townhouse. Her gut was churning as she gnawed her lip; she hadn't really been alone with Bass since he'd kissed her at Thanksgiving.

It had been completely unexpected. She hadn't thought he'd ever return the feelings she had for him. Having a crush on the man for as long as she could remember as a girl, it had morphed into something dark and heady as she'd grown older, lust pooling in her gut whenever she saw him. They'd been in the basement at her parents suburban house trying to root out another bottle of wine. The two hadn't been anywhere near drunk, but had enough liquor coursing through their veins to loosen them up and lower inhibitions. When he'd found the correct bottle, Bass had grasped it in his hand and turned suddenly. Charlie hadn't been prepared for the abrupt movement and he'd run into her, barely keeping a hold of the wine, as his other hand went to her hip to steady her. Somehow she ended up with the wall behind her and him leaning heavily against her. He'd whispered her name, breath hot against her skin. His eyes were electric as they bored into her own, before they'd shuttered and he'd lowered his face and taken her mouth, devouring her with his tongue and gently nipping teeth.

How long they'd kissed, she didn't know. She'd only been aware of the softness of his lips, the mingled taste of the wine, and the hot gush of wetness between her legs when he'd sucked her tongue into his mouth. Charlie had felt his erection and had come quite close to unbuckling him and urging him to lift her skirt and fuck her into the wood of her parents wine cellar. And Bass hadn't seemed inclined to end it.

The only thing that had stopped them had been the sound of her uncle's voice laughingly yelling at them from the top of the staircase, wondering if they'd gotten lost. Bass had pulled back from her, eyes wide, skin paling, as he set her back from him, still gentle for all he was thrusting her away from him like she was on fire. He'd said her name twice, shaking his head as if to remind himself who she was to him, what category he was supposed to keep her firmly entrenched in, before he'd walked around her and left the room, still holding the damn wine bottle.

Charlie had been devastated.

But after thinking about it, there had been a dim sense of elation too, as the situation had shown he wasn't immune to her. There had been no apology, no dismissal of the make-out session as something brought on by too much alcohol. Instead, there was an awareness between them now that wasn't diminishing no matter the distance he'd tried to put between them ever since.

She was jerked back to present as he turned the engine off, quite surprised to find they were in his garage. As Bass ushered her into his place, she took stock of it, still as organized as ever. Feeling his eyes on her, she decidedly ignored him as she perused the photographs he had displayed around the room, until she came to an inelegant stop at one specific image. It was from Thanksgiving, he had his arm wrapped around her and the two were fixated on each other, smiling. It had been taken earlier in the evening, before the kiss and Charlie found it interesting that he should choose to frame a picture of the two of them from that night.

They looked happy, at ease with each other, like a couple. Quite the opposite of how they were now.

She lifted the picture frame off the table, showing it to him. "You know what happened next."

He shuffled uncomfortably. "Yeah, I do."

"You think we could finally talk about all this?" Charlie asked, hopeful.

"I don't know. There's a lot of other things we need to discuss first that are more immediate than anything that may have happened between us."

"Like what?" She challenged.

He looked at her like she'd lost temporary control of her faculties. "Like the fact you're working in some dirty bar stripping off your clothes for money. Explain that to me and maybe we'll get to the other stuff later."

Charlie ground her teeth in frustration. Fine, she'd play his game, for awhile at least. And then she'd turn him on his fucking head. "Okay."

"Okay?" He questioned, taken off guard by her acquiescence.

"Yes Bass, okay. We'll do things your way, for now."

His eyes searched her face, before he nodded slowly. "Fine, I'll make you a snack and set out a t-shirt and some sweatpants you can wear after you've had a shower. You can use the one in the guest-bedroom. I'm sure you're eager to get that stuff off your skin and hair."

Charlie nodded reflexively. She'd forgotten the layers of sweat and product coating her body, the second he'd rolled up next to her in his SUV. Turning towards the hallway, she could hear him following her. Grabbing her bag and moving into the guest room she went directly into the bathroom and started the shower. Waiting for it to heat up, she took the time to comb her hair, before going out into the bedroom, finding the door shut and clothes he'd left for her.

She washed herself quickly, eager to be finished and talking with Bass. Dressing herself in his clothes, she glanced at herself in the mirror and huffed in exasperation; drowning in the over-sized material, she looked all of twelve years old. That wouldn't help her trying to get him to see past her age. Returning to the kitchen and seating herself on one of the stools, Charlie ignored the way he smiled at the sight of her in the baggy apparel, facial lines deepening as his eyes twinkled in amusement.

He'd made her a grilled cheese and he leaned against the counter waiting patiently as she hungrily inhaled it. Once she'd finished her last bite and wiped her mouth, he reached out to take the plate from her, setting it in the sink. Turning back to her, Bass appraised her silently. A few minutes passed before he finally broke the silence. "Why are you doing this?"

"Why do you need to know Bass?" She answered his question with one of her own.

"Charlotte," he said tiredly.

"First, tell me why you were in the club to begin with," Charlie said, curiosity having been piqued at his presence. He didn't seem the type--maybe when he and Miles were younger, but not now.

He cracked his neck in irritation. "A guy from our old platoon called me from the bar, completely smashed. His wife left him and took the kids; she couldn't handle the PTSD and depression any longer. He went to the club because it was the nearest bar to the dive-motel he was staying in."

She nodded, accepting the rotten luck.

"Now you answer me," he insisted.

She looked away from him, torn about it. Charlie knew if she wanted him to leave this alone that she'd have to come clean. "I need the money Bass. Why else would I be stripping?"

"You have a scholarship."

"I do," Charlie said, rubbing her temples, feeling the start of a headache. "But that just pays for my tuition; I work at the coffeehouse and in the administration office to pay for my room, board, and extraneous expenses."

He just nodded, waiting for her to continue.

She drew a deep breath. "There's a script-writing symposium I want to attend in New York City over spring break. And I got accepted into a creative writing study abroad program this summer in England. It's pretty amazing I even got in, they have quite a low acceptance rate for international students during summer."

He smiled, pleased for her. "That's really impressive."

She blushed, returning his grin. "Thank you. I really want to attend both of them. It'll be a huge help for my writing, but it's really expensive."

Bass's brow furrowed. "So why not ask your parents for the money? You know they have it."

Charlie looked down, fingers tracing the grooves in the wood of the table surface. "I did ask them," she whispered.

"And?" He asked, already figuring the answer at her dejected tone.

"What do you think they said? Of course they won't give me the money." She didn't like airing her family drama, but Bass was an intrinsic part of their little dysfunctional familial unit and he was aware of the strain between Charlie and her parents. "Since I chose to major in creative writing, they refuse to help me. Adding an English major and a Latin minor meant nothing to them. Mom said they were poor choices and would never get me anywhere in life, and unless I changed to something concrete, they wouldn't help pay for anything. And in their world, 'concrete' means science, engineering, business, or computers."

"I'm sorry," he said, scowling.

She shrugged, trying to bury the hurt. "It doesn't matter, I'm used to it."

"You shouldn't have to be," he muttered angrily. Bass was confused about one thing though. "At the Labor Day picnic, wasn't your mother talking about Danny applying to a study abroad program in Germany next year?"

"Yes," she said, clenching her jaw tightly. "But Danny's studying engineering, and of course Mom and Dad approve."

Bass's lips thinned in displeasure and a hint of disgust. Nothing more needed to be said, he and Miles were perfectly aware of her home situation.

It was hard for her to keep the rancor out of her voice when she thought about it. She loved her brother, but he was used to being spoiled and having her parents undivided attention. It had been understandable when they were children with how sick he'd been as a baby. It had just never evened out as they'd grown up. She'd gotten used to it as a child and as an adult she'd simply accepted it as a fact of life.

That didn't mean it hurt any less though, knowing she would always come second to her little brother, in their parents' hearts

And part of her wondered if their roles were reversed and it was Danny studying creative writing, whether their parents would go ahead and pay for the symposium and study abroad. Charlie had nearly gnawed through her cheek the last time she'd seen her parents to keep from asking them. Before she could get too worked up about it, Bass reached out and squeezed her hand.

"I'm sorry; I wish Miles and I could fix it as easily as we could a scraped knee when you were a kid."

"Thanks," she said shortly, annoyed he'd found a way to work her age into another of their conversations. Clearing her throat, Charlie tilted her head to watch his reaction. "Now you know."

He nodded. "Yeah, I do."

She watched him for a few seconds. "You're not going to tell Miles are you?"

"Of course not; I wouldn't do that to you," he promised.

Charlie sighed in relief. "Good. He would just get angry and start something with my parents and it's not worth it."

He nodded. The room was silent for a couple minutes, before he spoke up again. "I don't want you going back there."

She had been expecting this. "Bass...," she said, but he cut her off before she could finish.

"I'll give you the money," he offered.

"What?" She asked, surprise (and shame), tinging her voice.

"You heard me."

"No," Charlie said, shaking her head vehemently.

"Are you that proud? That you won't take the money so you can quit this?" He asked.

"I'm not taking money from you."

"Why the hell not?" He asked, angrily. "You know I have more than enough and no one else to spend it on."

She looked away from him in consternation. "What's really your problem Bass?"

He exhaled harshly, eyes tired. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Why does it bother you so much that I'm stripping?

"I would think that was obvious," he rejoined sarcastically.

"It's not just that I've been working in a strip club, it's more than that," Charlie said, hoping she wasn't completely off-base. "You've been at the club every night for a week; you must have paid somebody to tell you my schedule. I can feel your eyes digging into me during my dances and I know you're following me home when I get finished."

"What's your point?" He asked shortly, crossing his arms.

Charlie bit her lip deciding to just come out with it. "Is it the general idea of me stripping off my clothes for money in front of an audience that bothers you, or just that I'm doing it for someone else other than you?"

His jaw fell open and she could see the denial in his eyes before he glanced away from her. "That's not it at all."

"Really?" She asked sardonically. "You're acting like a jealous boyfriend."

He gritted his teeth, eyes slitting in annoyance at this characterization, but as a grown man, he realized any rebuttal he made would just prove her statement true.

"You can't have things both ways Bass. You can't make demands on me and and expect me to listen and do what you want, and yet pull back on everything else."

The kitchen was silent for several long seconds. "I know."

"I'm not yours," she said, hurt filling her tone. "You've made that abundantly clear."

He went to answer, only to fall short, not knowing how to continue, instead glancing at his feet.

"I'm not yours," she repeated, eyes raking over him. "Even though I want to be."

His gaze swiftly shifted back to hers, shock flaring them wide. She could tell he had never expected it to be stated that baldly.

"It doesn't matter," he said softly. "I won't let it."

Closing her eyes in frustration, she decided to just come out and ask him about what had happened at Thanksgiving. For her own sanity, she needed to understand what was going on with them. "Why'd you kiss me?"

He swallowed hard, licking his lips. "Charlotte, I...," he started, hesitantly.

She cut him off before he could continue. "And don't even start some bullshit with you having had too much to drink. I know you Bass--I know how much your family's deaths torture you. Which means I'm well aware of the fact you never have more than a couple beers or glasses of wine in one evening."

His mouth twisted.

"You weren't drunk." A simple statement of fact.

Staring straight ahead, his eyes remained fixated on hers.

"Admit it."

After a few seconds, he nodded his head jerkily.

Exasperated, Charlie raked her hands through her hair. "Admit it!"

"What good will it do?" He growled angrily, a desperate twinge to his voice.

"Because, then I'd know," Charlie bit out. "Then I'd know it wasn't all on my side, that it wasn't all in my head."

Sadness and need etched her face as she pleaded with him. Charlie couldn't take this nameless, unspoken thing between them any longer. The situation had to change. Bass must have been able to read something as he stared at her, his eyes were like blue searchlights, looking for safe passage through this emotional minefield.

He sighed, his right hand rubbing his jean-clad thigh above the spiderweb shrapnel scars that decorated his skin. She knew it was a nervous tick he'd picked up in the aftermath of a vicious firefight in Iraq, while recuperating at Ramstein Air Base. It began as a reminder; he could still feel pain, thus he lived. Bass's nerves trumpeted his and Miles's survival, even as 'Taps' was playing at Arlington for the four guys in their platoon that hadn't made it out of the sun-scorched earth alive.

Charlie knew the story. She'd asked him about the tick when she was a child, and again after seeing the scars at the beach. He'd always put it off, told her he'd tell her when she was an adult.

She'd reminded him over the years, wanting the answer to an intrinsic Monroe mystery. He'd always fascinated her and she wanted to know anything she could about the man.

He finally told her when she was 18. Knowing she was contemplating joining the military, he'd held nothing back. His description of seeing his driver's face blown clear off--brain peeking through the ravaged remnants of dermis and skull--the ensuing madness of the fire-fight, bodies flying through the air only to be found later strewn along the ground--sand turned clumpy beneath them from the release of arterial blood--had been enough to give her nightmares for weeks. She'd dream of the fighting, of blood and brain matter painting her cheeks as it had done Miles, surging awake with pounding heart, always the same soul-destroying image burned into her retinas: Bass's faceless body slumped over the steering wheel instead of some nameless driver.

She'd sworn off military service after two nights of the nightmares.

Shaking herself, Charlie watched the play of emotions across his face. His hand finally fell to his side, clenching and releasing against the denim, as his eyes surveyed the room. His shoulders slumped at the inevitability of their argument.

"All right, you're already aware of it, so why not just admit it," he said, voicing his thoughts aloud. Taking a deep breath, his gaze meshed with her own. "I want you Charlotte, probably more than I've ever wanted anything, but I'm not good for you," he said hoarsely.

"You should let me be the judge of that."

"No," he stated, emphatically. Finally.

Her heart wrenching, she swiped her dry lips. "Bass...," she protested only to be cut off by him.

"I'm twice your age," he stated baldy.

Bitterness filled her. "I'm aware of that, you remind me all the time, anyway you can these days."

"How does that not bother you?" He asked gravely, hands sweeping through his curls in frustration.. "Our stages of life are completely removed from one another. We'd want different things."

Her tongue swept suddenly dry lips. "So you have thought about it."

It wasn't a question, his cheeks flushing lightly at his inadvertent admission. "Miles would kill me. It can never happen."

Charlie sought to change the subject, to try to get at the problem in a different way. "Why have you come to the club every night?"

He looked away briefly before meeting her eyes once more. "Because I want you to be safe; I can't stand the thought of something happening to you."

"That's not the only reason. Why did you bring me here?" She asked. "You could have easily dropped me at my apartment."

"I needed to talk to you without interruption and you have a roommate."

"And Miles has a key and comes over whenever he pleases," she replied, quickly. "You brought me here because you wanted me alone in your home, so you could have the control."

He didn't deny it.

She bit her lip before continuing. "And that's fine Bass, because I want to be here with you too. Simply put, I want you," she whispered, watching his adam's apple move as he swallowed at her confession. Deciding to go balls-out as Miles would say, she shouldered on. "So much I ache with it. I wake up wet and sticky, needing to fuck myself on my fingers to thoughts of what you'll look like above me, buried inside of me. I want your hands on my skin marking me, your cock in my mouth so I can learn your taste. I dream of the noises you make as you move, the sound of you groaning my name, and how it'll feel when you come inside me."

His eyes darkened, nostrils flaring at the images she painted, body slumping against the wall, clinging to the hard surface at his back. "Please...don't," he moaned. "Just don't."

She moved closer, head tilting at the picture he made. He almost seemed...afraid of her. No, she realized. Bass wasn't afraid of her, but rather what he wanted to do to her. Her heartbeat quickened at the knowledge, but she tamped down on the smile. It wouldn't do to gloat.

Not yet anyways.

Stopping in front of him, Charlie lifted her hand to cup his face. Palm against sandpaper-stubble as she ran her fingers along cheekbone. "I want to go to bed with you every night and wake up in your arms every morning. I want to fight over reading the sections of the paper and whose turn it is to do the sudoku puzzle."

Lips quirking at that, he let his head fall back to rest against the yellow wallpaper.

Fingers tracing his mouth, she continued, voice nearly a whisper. "I think about that kiss all the time, how it made me feel. When I'm in your arms, I'm secure; I know you would never hurt me and you would always do what you could to protect me. You said you want me safe Bass. There's no safer place than just being with you. That's what I feel when you hold me, when you kiss me," she said, her free hand coming up to trace his left nipple through the thin material of his shirt.

His eyes fell to half mast at the arousing touch. "Charlotte," he rumbled, voice so coarse it made her tingle.

Crowding him against the wall, she pressed her body full against his, feeling him hard against her abdomen. "And I want to feel that way again, all the time," she said, lips brushing against his as she spoke, wanting his mouth on her more than anything. His hands came up to cup her hips against him, eyes watchful on her face, alert to what she'd do next.

She waited though for him to make the conscious decision to breach that final infinitesimal space and kiss her. It had to be his move; she'd pushed him as far as she could. If anything was going to happen between them, Bass had to show his cards. Charlie saw the defeat in his eyes, mingled with desire, before his mouth came down against hers. He moved slowly at first, lips gentle, tentative. When her hands moved to link around his neck, his mouth firmed, slanting across hers. His tongue swiped a wet stripe against the seam of her lips, before delving into the moist cavern within. The feel of his tongue sliding against hers was supremely erotic and she couldn't help the needy whimper she released. He groaned lowly in response and wrapped his arms full around her, drawing her tightly against him.

They kissed until completely breathless, the need for air separating them. Drawing cool air into her lungs, Charlie opened her eyes to find him already staring at her. Against her will, she found herself blushing and he smiled devilishly at her. He wasn't pulling away this time. One of his hands ran up the length of her spine, cupping the back of her head and drawing her forward, he laid a gentle kiss against her temple.

She rested contented against him. "What do we do now Bass?" She asked, softly.

"I don't know," he sighed, brushing another kiss into her skin. "I just don't know Charlotte."