Violet McGinn stormed into her mother’s hospital room with her hair on fire.
Literally, as it almost happened.
“Would you please put out that candle!” she snapped, batting flames away from her long, dark hair as she dodged the dreadlocked stranger. He sighed and retreated to a far corner of the room, where a tie-dyed huddle was chanting something that sounded suspiciously like pig latin.
“Violet!” Moonbeam cried. “Baby, you made it!”
“Mom, my God!” Violet rushed forward and shoved a pile of silk scarves off the chair beside her mother’s bed. She dropped breathlessly into it and covered Moonbeam’s hand with her own. “I got on the first flight out of Maine after Butterfly called. What happened? Was it the stairs in front of the house? That one board I’ve been telling you to get fixed? How badly are you hurt?”
Moonbeam patted Violet’s cheek. “That’s my girl, always seeking. You never could ask just one question at a time. It’s so good to see you, sweetie. How was your flight?”
“Mom,” Violet said, trying not to grit her teeth. “What the hell happened?”
“Well, I was just telling Salmonberry, it was exactly like what you predicted in your vision.”
Violet frowned. “My vision?”
“Of course. The psychic vision you had when you visited for the Invocation of Isis.”
Violet stared at her mother, wondering what drugs they’d given her. And whether there was a dispenser in the cafeteria.
“Mom, what are you talking about?”
“You remember, dear. It was the last time you visited. We were outside on the porch and you were getting ready to leave and you had a psychic vision—”
Realization dawned, and Violet shook her head. “Mom, we’ve been over this a hundred times. I’m an accountant. I’m not psychic. There’s no such thing as—”
“Oh, Violet, don’t start this again. What happened today is irrefutable proof of what I’ve been saying for thirty-three years.”
“It’s irrefutable proof that the board at the top of the stairs was loose,” Violet argued. “I just happened to notice it, that’s all.”
She squeezed her mother’s hand, trying to get a grip. It was like this every time she visited home. Well, not exactly like this. Her mother wasn’t usually in the hospital, tethered to an IV pole, looking frail and bruised and a little stoned. Come to think of it, had Moonbeam ever been to a hospital? Even Violet’s birth had taken place at home.
Violet cleared her throat. “I checked out the data online for this hospital, and I was glad to see that patient-satisfaction scores, infection rates, and reported patient falls are statistically—”
“Oh, Violet,” Moonbeam interrupted. “Let’s not start with the numbers right now, sweetie. Tell me, is there a man in your life?”
Violet resisted the urge to beat her forehead against her mother’s bedside table. Instead, she looked around the room for anyone else who might deserve a beating. It wasn’t difficult.
“Would you please stop touching my mother?” Violet snapped, whirling to face the bespectacled man hovering behind her with a stick of incense in his hand. “I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to have anything on fire in here.”
He smiled. “Yes, but the elemental serpentine energy of the human body lies coiled at the base of the body, and when you’re in touch with your Kundalani—”
“Please don’t touch anyone’s Kundalani, right now. Please? Just give me a minute with Moonbeam, okay?” She turned back to her mother. “What are the doctors saying, Mom? Did you break anything? How long do you have to be here? Do we need to call a specialist?”
“Oh, Violet, again with the questions!” Moonbeam smiled drunkenly as she pressed her fingers against the back of Violet’s hand. “Always seeking, that’s my girl.”
Violet tried hard not to grit her teeth. “Mom—”
“I’ve broken my pelvis and a couple bones in my left leg. Oh, and two bones in my right arm, but that’s all. No, wait. There was something with my toe, too. Do you think I could get a prescription for medical marijuana?”
“Marijuana is beside the point right now. What does the doctor say?”
“He wants to rush me into surgery, but I don’t think that’s necessary. I joined this group on attitudinal healing and I know a man who does biodynamic cranial therapy, so maybe if I just—”
“Dammit, Moonbeam! You’ve broken at least half a dozen bones. A doctor told you that surgery is what you need. It doesn’t sound optional. Don’t you think maybe—”
“Violet dear, I want to do this naturally. I want—”
“It’s a major injury, Mom, not childbirth.”
A bald woman sitting cross-legged on the floor at the foot of the bed cleared her throat. “Crystal power really is the best thing for restoration of universal life energy. Maybe if your mother waited for her ultradien ultradian healing response and then—”
“Hey, Raven,” Violet interrupted. “When did you get your medical degree?”
She brightened, looking like a happy chipmunk. “Actually, I was just recently certified as a divine spiritual healer online, and I think—”
“Unless there is now an MD after your name, this is not helping.” She turned back to Moonbeam and squeezed her hand. “If an orthopedic specialist thinks surgery is the best thing, that’s what we need to do.”
“But surgery is so invasive,” Moonbeam protested. “And I have readings booked out through December, so I need to make sure I’m there for my clients.”
“Can’t Butterfly take them?”
“Too mentally unstable.”
This, coming from a woman who believed Vipassana meditation could cure cancer. Violet sighed and put her head in her hands. Her mother was kind. Her mother was sweet. Her mother was the most sought-after psychic in Portland, Oregon.
And her mother was also a complete nut job. How was this going to work?
“I’m so proud of you for having this vision, Violet,” her mother chattered. “I always said you had the gift. Raven, didn’t I always say Violet had the gift?”
“You said Violet had the gift.”
As Moonbeam prattled on about crystal power and chakra alignment, Violet felt the familiar trap closing around her. She considered gnawing off her own leg to escape.
But she knew what she had to do instead.
She pulled her head out of her hands and looked up at her mother, blinking against the cloud of smoking sage coming from somewhere behind her.
“Okay, Moonbeam,” she said. “I’ve got a deal for you.”
There was never a point in Drew Watson’s childhood where he stood before his third-grade class and announced, “When I grow up, I want to own a male strip club.”
Yet here he was, thirty-five years old, making a damn good living doing just that.
“It’s not a strip club,” he explained for the hundredth time to the hulking man seated at the bar without a shirt on. “It’s just a regular bar Sunday through Thursday. A nice place to listen to music and grab a drink.”
“Right, but you do have strippers, right?”
“Male exotic dancers,” Drew agreed, running a rag over the same spot on the bar he’d been wiping for the last ten minutes. “We started offering it on Friday and Saturday nights after we had a bit of success bringing in some Chippendales dancers for a one-night show.”
At the other end of the bar, his dopey ex-brother-in-law grinned. “A lot of success. Tons! We made gobs of money. And now I get to dance. I always wanted to be a dancer, and now I get to be one.”
“That you do, Jamie,” Drew agreed, saying a silent thank-you to his ex-wife’s brother for devising the plan that had saved the whole damn bar after the divorce.
Not that Catherine had been pleased to have her younger brother stripping or her ex-husband running a bar where men threw their shirts at screaming women, but annoying his ex wasn’t necessarily a negative in Drew’s book. Plenty of other women were pleased. They flocked to the bar in droves, scheduling bachelorette parties and rowdy girls’ nights out, and slipping their phone numbers to Drew on a disturbingly regular basis.
It was totally worth the ribbing from his buddies, the raised eyebrows at high school reunions, the eye rolls from his straitlaced ex-wife, the occasional picketer, and the constant disdain from the owner of Miss Moonbeam’s Psychic Pservices next door.
“I sure would like a job,” sighed the shirtless man. “I’ve got my stage name all picked out and everything.”
“Try next door,” Drew suggested. “They’re hiring.”
“The psychic place? I’m not psychic.”
“Neither is the owner, but that doesn’t seem to stop her,” Drew said. “I meant the tattoo place, though.”
“But I want to be a stripper. I’d work really hard. You have all these cool lights and stages and poles and stuff, and it seems like a fuckin’ awesome place.”
“It is,” Drew agreed, “and I’ll definitely keep your application on file in case something opens up. Hey, Jamie?” He turned to his ex-brother-in-law, feeling oddly on edge. “Have you seen Miss Moonbeam today?”
Jamie shook his head. “Nuh-uh. I keep seeing people standing outside, staring at their watches and looking mad.”
Drew had noticed the same thing, and it had him worried. Though he’d butted heads with the old bat quite a lot over the years, he didn’t want anything bad to happen to her. Not even if it meant he could nab her studio and expand the bar. Not even if it meant she’d stop harping on him about the exploitation of the human body. Not even after what she’d done four years ago, when—
“Does she still have those pet mice?” he asked Jamie.
“I think so. Why?”
“If something’s happened to her, no one’s feeding them. I’d better check.”
Jamie beamed. “That’s really nice of you, boss.”
“That’s me,” Drew said, digging some food scraps out of a nearby bus tub. “A regular Mother Teresa.”
The shirtless guy at the bar looked up. “Dude, you’re gay? I mean, I figured, with you running a male strip club and all, and I don’t have a problem with it or anything and I still really want to work here—”
“I’m not gay,” Drew said as he moved toward the door that separated his shop from Miss Moonbeam’s. “And it’s also not a strip club. And I’m also not hiring. But thanks for coming by. I’ll call if something opens up.”
Drew unlocked the door separating his bar from the psychic studio. As he stepped inside, he was greeted by a heavy wave of patchouli fragrance that nearly knocked him backward. Coughing a little, Drew stepped into the dimly lit shop. He detoured around the display of horoscope-themed key chains, lucky bamboo in colorful pots, and texts on telekinesis, moving toward the back where he’d seen the little white mice running in their wheel. He spotted them in the corner, their pink noses twitching in the dim red light that glowed from a lamp in the opposite corner.
“Hey, guys,” Drew murmured, stepping closer to their cage. “Look, I brought you some peanuts and some leftover spaghetti and a piece of lettuce.”
The mice stood on their hind legs, sniffing the air in anticipation. Drew pried the lid off and handed in the goods, arranging them in the green dish in the corner. The mice scurried gratefully over, selecting their first course with an obvious eagerness. Drew watched, smiling.
“What happened to Moonbeam, huh?” he asked, pressing the lid back in place. “She wouldn’t just leave you guys here alone, and she always tells me when she’s going on vacation.”
The mice looked up from their meal, contemplating the question. One of them dropped his noodle and pressed his front paws against the side of the cage, his whiskers twitching in response. Drew touched a finger to the glass.
A door rattled behind him. Drew whirled around, alert to the sound of keys clattering against the front door. He squinted in the half darkness, watching as the door eased open, spilling light onto the dusty floor. A figure emerged through the doorway, sunlight streaming in behind her like a waterfall. A woman, Drew realized.
A very pretty woman, he amended, noticing the long, dark hair, the perfect curve of her hips in fitted jeans that tapered down into tall boots with pointy heels like his ex-wife used to wear. Cashmere sweater in a nice champagne hue, an expensive-looking leather jacket. Drew couldn’t tell what color her eyes were, but he could guess.
Amber. Her eyes would be amber.
He took two steps forward, ready to greet her. But the motion must have caught her by surprise. In a flash, she screamed and grabbed a copper Buddha statue off the counter. He saw her eyes flash with aggression as she zeroed in on him in the dim light.
“Who are you and what the hell are you doing in my mother’s shop?”
Drew put his hands up in surrender. “Hey, relax.”
He saw her blink in the dim light as she gripped the statue in one hand. “Who’s that? Are you looking for money? How did you get in here? What do you want?”
He cocked his head to one side. “Drew. No. Key. Mice.”
He offered a smile, trying to look nonthreatening but knowing he probably looked like an unshaven ax murderer with an unhealthy fondness for ’80s concert T-shirts. “I was answering your questions. In the order you asked them.”
“Are you mocking me?”
“No. Are you going to kill me with Buddha? Because I think there might be a karmic law against that.”
He watched her hesitate, then sigh. She set the statue on the counter and fumbled for the light switch beside the door. She flicked it on, but instead of a bright poof of illumination, the light trickled out in dim mauve hues.
“Mood lighting,” she muttered, glancing up at the ceiling. “God bless Moonbeam.”
Feeling more confident she wasn’t about to beat him to death with a religious symbol, Drew took a tentative step forward, hands still raised in surrender. “I’m sorry, did you say Moonbeam is your mother? You must be Violet. She talks about you all the time. I’m Drew. I own the business next door.”
“You’re the tattoo artist?”
“Not that business. The other one.”
Her eyebrow quirked. “You own the male strip club?”
He sighed. “It’s not a strip club, it’s a bar. We just happen to have male exotic dancers a few nights a week.”
“I know all about it,” Violet said, giving him an appraising look. “Moonbeam wasn’t pleased when you started bringing in the strippers. She’s really not pleased you want to take over her studio space to bring in more strippers.”
“Are you going to lecture me about my exploitation of the alpha body? Because if you are, can I at least put my hands down first? My arms are getting tired.”
She was studying him in earnest now, her eyes flitting over his features with something he might have mistaken for interest if she hadn’t just been on the brink of beating him to death. He decided to study her as well, taking in the long, dark hair, the sternness of her features, the eyes that weren’t amber at all, but the most remarkable, breathtaking shade of violet.
“Your eyes are amazing,” he said without thinking, then wanted to kick himself.
She widened them in surprise, then bit her lower lip. “Thank you. That’s how I got my name.” She cleared her throat, softening her voice a little. “You can put your hands down. Did you say Moonbeam gave you a key?”
“We have keys to each other’s shops so we can use them in case of emergencies.”
“How did you know about Moonbeam’s accident?”
“Moonbeam had an accident?”
Violet frowned. “What emergency were you talking about?”
“The mice,” he said, nodding at their cage. “No one was here to feed the mice.”
“Oh.” She blinked. “I didn’t even think of that. Thank you. That was nice of you.”
Drew took another step forward, genuinely worried about Moonbeam now. “Is your mom okay? What happened?”
“She fell down some stairs, but she’ll be fine. She’s in surgery right now.”
He watched her bite her bottom lip again, more worried than she seemed to be letting on. Should he offer a hug? No, definitely not. He’d only just met her, and she’d assume he was just trying to cop a feel. Not an unappealing thought by any means, but probably not the best move, with Buddha sitting there poised for bludgeoning.
“She’s not, um, having someone do this surgery at home, is she?” Drew asked.
Violet smiled a little at that. “Believe me, she’d be sprawled on the kitchen counter with a vision-seeker using shamanic cosmology to cure her broken pelvis if she had her way. I managed to convince her maybe an orthopedic surgeon was a better option.”
“I can’t believe she went for it.”
“Yeah, well, I struck a deal with her.”
There was an edge to her voice, something that made Drew wonder if she’d been forced to sell her soul to a pagan deity. Knowing Moonbeam, it was possible. “A deal?”
Violet sighed. “I’m going to fill in for Moonbeam until she’s back on her feet again. I talked to my employer, and they’re going to let me work from here for a month or two so I can help keep Mom’s business running while she recovers.”
“Your employer,” he repeated, assessing her in earnest now. Her hair was straight and glossy, and he wondered what it would feel like to slide his fingers through it. “What do you do? Besides the psychic thing, I mean.”
“I’m an accountant. In Portland. Portland, Maine,” she clarified.
“You moved from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine?” He laughed. “Didn’t want to hassle with learning to spell a new city?”
She flushed a little, but her eyes were still friendly. Guarded, but friendly. “Portland, Oregon, is 3,198 miles from Portland, Maine—one of the longest distances between two cities in the continental United States. I wanted space. Something new. Something…” She paused, her eyes flitting past the tie-dyed scarves, the glass jars of incense, the crystal ball on the corner table. “Something normal,” she finished.
“Normal,” he repeated.
Drew nodded, wondering whether she always bit her lower lip this much. His thoughts veered a little there as he considered how that lip would feel between his teeth as he nibbled softly, then traced his tongue over—
“But you’re here now,” he said, interrupting himself before he got too carried away. “Filling in for your psychic mother. You don’t look like a psychic.”
She straightened sharply. He took a step back, wondering if she’d reach for Buddha again.
Instead, she folded her arms over her chest. “What does a psychic look like?”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean that in a bad way,” he said. “I’m sure you’re a very good psychic.”
She looked away. “Right. Well, I just came in to grab Mom’s appointment book and assess the space. I’m thinking, if I move a desk in over there, I can do my accounting work during the daytime over in that corner of the shop and keep the psychic thing contained over here with the sofas.”
“Sure, sure,” he said, feeling half the blood leave his brain as she moved past him, her hair brushing his bare arm as she strode toward the back of the shop. “Let me know if you need help moving furniture or anything.”
He turned and watched her bend down to flip a latch on the teak cupboard at the back of the shop. Drew reminded himself a gentleman wouldn’t stare at her ass.
Then he remembered he wasn’t a gentleman. It was an amazing ass, round and full and—
“Are you staring at my ass?” Violet asked without turning.
“You psychics ruin all the fun,” Drew answered, not feeling particularly embarrassed.
“There’s a mirror in the cupboard. I can see you staring.”
She grabbed the appointment book and stood up. Her gaze froze on the cupboard door and she got a funny, faraway smile. “I made this dent when I was eight,” she said, running her thumb over the gouge in the wood. “I threw a serpent mandala because I didn’t want to go to Iyengar class.”
Violet dropped her hands to her side and looked at him again. Tucking the book under her arm, she offered her hand to shake. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Drew.”
“Likewise, Violet,” he said as he engulfed her hand with his. She met his eyes then, and something warm and electric sparked between them.
Violet pulled her hand back and studied him for a moment. Then she shook her head. “A male strip club, huh?”
He sighed. “A bar. A bar that routinely hosts shows for male exotic dancers.”
“Right.” She shook her head again and tucked her hand into the pocket of her leather jacket. “I’ll let Moonbeam know you were taking care of Zen and Qi. She’ll appreciate that.”
“The mice. Their names are Zen and Qi.”
“Oh. Of course. Well I wouldn’t be too sure about Moonbeam appreciating the help. She’s not overly fond of me or my business.”
Violet smiled. “What’s not to love about scantily clad men writhing around on stage?”
“Exactly!” Drew said with more enthusiasm than he meant. Violet gave a knowing look, and Drew started to assure her he was perfectly straight. Then he decided against it. Nothing screams “closeted homosexual” like announcing to a strange woman that you aren’t gay.
Drew cleared his throat. “Hey, if you’re not doing anything tomorrow night, we’ve got a special performance at the club. The Men of Texas. They’re supposed to be pretty good. There’s an extra cover charge, but I could put your name on the guest list if you want to check it out.”
Violet looked startled. “Not really my scene.” She hesitated, then shrugged. “Maybe that’s a reason to do it.”
“You like butt rock?”
“Not a proposition. Or a medical condition. Butt rock, you know? Hair metal, glam rock, eighties power ballads, MTV, fist-pumping power chords?”
She shook her head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Drew grinned and began to pound a drumbeat on the countertop. Feeling Violet watching him, he launched into the chorus of the Scorpions’ “No One Like You.”
He half expected her to roll her eyes or walk away, but she laughed. “Butt rock, huh?”
He stopped drumming and looked at her. God, she’s beautiful.
“We can call it glam rock if butt isn’t a common part of your vocabulary.”
“What makes you think butt isn’t a common part of my vocabulary?”
“You know, I’m not sure this is a topic for a first conversation.”
She rolled her eyes. “Butt is totally a part of my vocabulary.”
“I’m sure it is. Anyway, butt rock… er, glam rock… is the best kind of music for male entertainers. The beat’s perfect, and the music tends to appeal to women in our target demographic.”
“You don’t say.”
Drew grinned. “So you want to stop by tomorrow?”
“How about if I put your name on the list, just in case?”
“Okay.” She nodded. “Thank you. I’d better get back to the hospital for visiting hours.”
She started to move toward the door, but her heel caught on the frayed edge of the Oriental rug. She toppled forward, and Drew grabbed her without thinking.
“Oh,” she gasped, looking up at him. Their eyes locked, and Drew was suddenly very conscious of the thinness of her sweater, the heat of the room, the flash of light in her eyes. In that moment, he would have preferred removing the skin from his forearm with a carrot peeler over taking his hands off her.
He let go of her and took a step back. “There you go,” he said, offering an awkward pat on the shoulder. “You take care.”
She blinked, then nodded. “Thank you. You, too.”
He watched her walk away, deliberately not staring at her ass.