Chapter 1 – Desperation

ANA

So far, my senior year doesn't suck.

Knock on wood.

My schedule this semester is loaded with four-hundred-level British literature courses, and I love every minute of it. Most of the works listed on the course rubrics are novels that I've already read at least twice, way before I even began WSU Vancouver.

I'm so glad that I got all of my gen ed courses over with.

From here on out, it's smooth sailing.

The only fly in the ointment is that I have to endure mundane evenings at Clayton's, a mom and pop hardware store located not too far off campus. Unlike my best friend and roommate Kate, who's actually working a paid internship in her field – journalism, I feel like I'm wasting my time doing work that any fifteen-year-old high school student can do.

Unboxing inventory.

Price mark new product.

Stocking shelves.

Ringing up customers.

On second thought, Mr. Clayton's five-year-old nephew could do my job.

But the blessing in disguise is that not only am I earning a weekly paycheck, but Clayton's is also forking over scholarship money on my behalf. They are the reason why I'm able to afford to stay in school since Mom and Ray don't necessarily have the best money management skills.

And the Claytons are great, so it's very easy to work for them.
It only gets awkward when Mr. Clayton's brother Paul shows up from Princeton.

Now he's a dick.

Paul's a decent looking guy and all, but he can't help but throw his weight around. It's as if he's making up for a tiny penis. Then there's the constantly flirting. I know there are sexual harassment laws against this sort of behavior, but Clayton's is a very small business and Paul is the owner's brother. The good thing is that I don't normally have to put up with him for longer than a week or two before he's back off to New Jersey.

That aside, I'll truly miss the Claytons next year once I graduate and leave Vancouver – but I can't wait to get a real job in my field. Until then, I guess I'll be mixing paint colors and restocking twine over in aisle eight.

"Ana?"

I look up and away from my task of rearranging small boxes of nails and follow the voice to find Mrs. Clayton standing before me. She looks heavyhearted, which is concerning.

Did I do something wrong?

"Mrs. Clayton?"

"Hey there. Would you like to leave two hours early tonight?"

I gape at her. "Really?"

"Sure," she says, now smiling. "It is your birthday."

She remembered.

I'm not one of those who are overly zealous to remind everyone of her birthday. I've always been rather low key about my name day, not making a big deal out of it whatsoever.

I was so laid back about my upcoming birthday, that Kate gave me quite an earful.

"How can you not take your twenty-first birthday off?

What the hell's wrong with you, Steele?!"

I promised her that we'd go out and celebrate it tomorrow. I'd rather go out to the bar or club on Saturday anyway. Saturday usually weeds out the too-wild Friday crowd. They'll be busy still nursing a hangover.

Mrs. Clayton surprises me and springs an envelope into my hand.
"It's not much. But Happy Birthday from me, Mr. Clayton, and Paul."

Paul?

"Oh, Mrs. Clayton…you really didn't have to do this. You and Mr. Clayton have already done so much for me."

She looks crestfallen and I immediately feel guilty for rejecting her gift. I quickly flip the script.

"Can I open it now?" I ask. She nods and I carefully unseal the flap on the back of the envelope. When it's open, I find a card wishing me 'the most splendid 21st birthday to a most splendid young lady'. I know that they have taken the extra time to pick out this card especially for me, which warms my heart. Inside is a twenty-dollar gift card to Barnes and Noble.

I launch forward and ambush Mrs. Clayton with a hug.

"Thank you. I appreciate this so much."

She sweetly chuckles but is too shy to return the embrace. Maybe it's because I'm currently restraining her arms. I quickly realize this and release her.

"It's our pleasure, Ana. I wish we could've done more," she utters with a trace of regret.

And she's obviously referring back to prior times when they've brought out cake in the break room for other longtime employees' birthdays, and the gift cards that they got were fifty dollars instead of twenty. I know this because Trevor who used to work here but has since graduated from WSU made sure to let everyone know that the Claytons got him a fifty dollar Playstation gift card for his birthday.

But none of it matters because I wasn't even expecting anything at all today.
And the icing on the cake is that the Claytons are sending me home early.

….

On my way out of the store, I texted Kate informing her that I would be home two hours early. Not that she'd care. I'm sure she's out clubbing with friends. It's no bother – I'll just stop at Barnes and Noble with my shiny new gift card on my way home and pick up a new book to start reading on the living room sofa.

After thumbing through a dozen books at the bookstore, I finally settle on The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It's a new book by British author David Mitchell. I'm more into the British classics, but there isn't much that I haven't already read in that genre. Now it's time for me to explore newer works if I am ever going to stand a chance in publishing. And plus, the synopsis of this new book looks very enticing. It's set at the end of the eighteenth century.

I finally pull up Wanda, my old beat-up VW Beetle, in front of the apartment. I look up at the window and as I expected, it's pitch black inside. Also, Kate's Mercedes is nowhere in sight.

It's sad, really…spending your birthday evening all alone. I could call José, but I'm sure that he's already found something more interesting to do on a Friday night by now.

I reach the door of my apartment unit with key in hand, and an extremely heavy backpack slung over one shoulder. One of these days, my back will absolutely hate me for all that I put it through, between carting around heavy boxes at Clayton's and lugging heavy textbooks all around campus.

I open the door and flip the light switch right by it.

"SURPRISE!"

I'm scared shitless.

My backpack slides off of my shoulder and nearly impales my right foot.

Kate along with our friends Tiffany, Sasha, Belinda, Gabe, and José – among many others, are laughing and cheering at my severely stunned reaction. There's a HAPPY 21ST BIRTHDAY ANA banner strung across the wall several feet above the television, an assortment of latex and mylar balloons, and those annoying hanging paper fans adorning the very tiny living room space.

I peep the kitchen and our dinette table is covered with a red plastic sheet, and on top of it sits a punch bowl and a variety of snacks. Next to said punchbowl is a selection of questionable glass bottles, which I'm certain are the ingredients of the special punch. Oh, and there's a keg taking up space on the floor right beside the table.

And I don't even know half of these people in our apartment.
There are at least fifty of them here.

Kate and Belinda run up to embrace me.

"What the hell," I gasp with terrified eyes.

"You almost ruined the surprise," Kate laughs. "We thought you wouldn't be home until ten."

"Wha..? Who..?" I'm speechless.

"It's your big twenty-first birthday!" Belinda chimes.

"We're getting you fucked up one way or another," Kate adds.

I narrow my eyes at her. "I told you that we were going out tomorrow. You didn't have to do this."

"Shut up," Kate scolds.

"Somebody, crank on the music!" a random voice shouts. And as if summoned by two handclaps, a pulsating club rhythm begins to envelop the small area.

I'm rather certain that someone in the building will be calling the cops up here soon.

"Who the hell is that singing? Cher?" José says to Kate as he squeezes in between the two girls to hug me.

"Lady Gaga, dodo," Kate snorts.

"Who?" José frowns, but then he quickly changes it into a fond smile for me.
"Happy birthday, Ana."

"Thanks," I sigh, still feeling the tremors of my initial shock.

José and I have been friends since he first started WSU two years ago. He's a year behind Kate and I. The two of us started talking and we found out that his dad and my stepfather Ray, whom I consider to be my dad, once served in the army together. It was pretty neat reuniting the two of them.

"So they let you off early, huh?" he says.

"Yeah. They never let me off early. Well…at least not two hours early," I pounder out loud.

"I'm glad you got here when you did. We all probably would've been completely smashed by the time you finally made it," Tiffany Fincher giggles off to the side. Tiffany is actually more of Kate's friend than mine. She is living proof that Kate prefers to be the smartest person by far in her personal group of friends.

God knows how the girl managed to score decent enough on the SATs to get accepted at WSU, or anyplace else.

Sasha House, Kate's other friend comes barreling in with a plastic red cup full of punch.

"Alright, birthday girl! Let's get this party started!"

"Woooooo!" the chorus of partiers sings.

"Wait…what's in this?" I frown at the cup, now in my hand.

"Don't ask! Drink it!" a faceless voice demands.

"Drink it! Drink it! Drink it!" voices chant in unison.

Oh no.

Someone please rescue me.

….

At this point, I am beyond three sheets to the wind, as well as many others around me.

"Ana," Belinda garbles, almost stumbling over me in the kitchen. I've decided to switch to water, a survival tip I've learned from Ray – among many others things, in order to avoid a morning full of regret.

"What the hell is that?!" she squawks.

"Vodka," I lie as I down the contents of my glass. My arms feel like pillows of lead.

"Oh," she says, stammering off.

I decide to leave the barrage of college kids who are now shouting when they believe they're whispering, and retreat to my bedroom.

I go in and I'm alarmed when I catch two people who I've never seen before in my life making out in my bed.

"Hey!" I call out. It's hilarious being drunk. You know that your speech comes out slurring, but there's absolutely nothing you can do about it.

The dude and the chick stop sucking face and gape at me.

"Is this your room?" the guy says with a goofy expression.

"Uh, yeah," I say, glaring.
So get the hell out.

"My bad," he apologizes, immediately climbing out of my bed and assisting his mortified female accomplice.

I almost feel bad for impeding their upcoming action, but then I quickly remember that I haven't even had sex in my own bed – or any bed for that matter. So screw them.

After they close the door behind them, I stare at the mattress and contemplate if one can catch an STD simply from horny college kids frolicking on your bed.

That would royally suck to catch crabs and never have the benefit of riding a penis.

"Ana?!"

I hear my name being called on the other side of the door, but before I can respond, the door swings open. It's José.

"There you are," he says, relieved.

I sigh and shut my eyes as I finally take a seat on the edge of my bed with water glass in hand.

"I had to get out of there, man," I groan, taking another sip before placing it on my bedside table.

José closes the door. "I can't say I blame you. It's getting kind of wild out there," he laughs.

"Who are these people?" I sigh loudly. "Why are they here?"

He laughs again. "Hell if I know. I bet most of them are lowlife friends of Sasha."

"Ugh," I grunt in disgust. "Why is she even here? I don't like her."

"I figure you didn't. She's a rich spoiled brat with a dangerous rebellious streak," José says, sitting on the bed right beside me.

"Exactly," I say to him, raising my imaginary glass. "I wouldn't be surprised if she roofied my punch earlier. I feel like shit."

José ignores my statement. "Sasha House banged half of Omega Delta Phi."

"Gross."

"She's classless. I don't understand how Kate's friends with her," he ponders.

"Well, your guess is as good as mine," I say, dripping with sarcasm.

"So…last year, huh?"

I nod. "Where has the time gone?"

"Don't know, but I hope it doesn't keep going too fast. I'm going to miss you guys after you're gone."

"Aww," I smile fondly, placing a hand on his lap. He stares at it. "You'll do fine. You'll kick ass your senior year. Hopefully you'll come and see Kate and me in Seattle."

"I was thinking about finding a job there after I get my degree," he says matter-of-factly.

"That would be awesome," I beam.

"Yeah…I think I will," he now says confidently.

"Good," I smile.

"So do you have anything lined up there yet?"

I shake my head. "I thought I'd start my hunt the first of next year. Make appointments with few publishing houses for some informational interviews. Maybe even gain a few contacts. I already have two professors who've agreed to write me letters of recommendation."

"That's fantastic," José raves with slurred speech.

My heavy head makes it much more difficult to nod.
"I just hope I get into publishing."

"Is that what you really want to do?"

"I mean…I guess," I shrug. "I love books. Isn't that what you're supposed to be doing if you love books?"

"Well, you could be a writer. Hey…," he suddenly stops himself, drunkenly holding a palm close to my face. "Maybe I can be the photographer for your first best selling novel…huh?"

"Nah," I frown, slowly shaking my head. "I like to read, not write."

"Okay…well publishing it is, then," he laughs.

"I'll be unstoppable with my red pen," I say, pitifully holding up an imaginary writing utensil with my right fist.

"You will," José nods in agreement. "You'll be a beautiful, unstoppable female Zorro," he says, swinging a fictitious sword in the air in Z-formation.

"Yeah!" I bark out with feeling.

Suddenly, José's face glides towards mine. He's literally a nose away.

"Can I be your Bernardo?"

I frown. "Huh?"

"He's Zorro's sidekick. Well…except for the deaf mute part."

I'm seriously drunk and beyond confused.
I'm certain my face shows it.

"I have no idea what the hell you're talking about, José."

"You know what? Never mind," he says. Then he's slides his right arm behind my back.

"What tha…" I leap in place.

This feel wrong.
So wrong.

"Ana, you're an amazing girl. I don't understand why you're still single," he purrs.

I clear my throat and try to scooch away, but he follows me.

"José…"

"It's your birthday, and we're here in your room. Alone."

Fuck me.
No…on second thought, don't.

I'm feeling all kinds of creepy vibes. The sensation of nausea escalates the second his hand goes up and smooths down my hair.

"What are you doing?" I say with a raised voice.

"I've always adored you. I just never had the balls to tell you."

No! No balls!
I don't want to see yours, Rodriguez.

"You're smart. Witty. Hot as hell…" he rattles off.

"Don't…"

I can't even get the rest of the words out when he flops on top of me like a heavy, drunk ass fish.

"Hey!" I shout.

"Ana, please, " he begs, moaning into my ear. I'm in full-on panic mode.

"Get off me!"

I jolt him, but he doesn't budge.

"Ana, just let me love you. I promise to make you happy." His lips are now feathering across my cheek. José's not a big guy by any stretch, but right now he feels like four hundred pounds.

I'm so put off by the guy that I considered to be one of my very best friends.
Why is he doing this to me?

What an asshole!

I am very drunk and tired, but now rage sets in. I've garnered just enough energy to push him off of me and onto the floor.

"No!" I scream. "Get the fuck out!"

He gapes up at me like a petrified little kitten. He's practically scared sober.

"Ana, wait! I'm sorry!"

"I don't give a shit! Get the fuck out of my room! Get out!" I scream at the top of my lungs.

José scans the room and looks scared shitless that some will come barging into the room thinking I'm being raped. He attempts to stand so fast that he falls right back down on his ass. Eventually he slowly wobbles up to his feet.

"Ana, I'm so sorry…"

"Out!" I seethe.

He twists the door open, but I'm feeling so violated, so indignant, that I follow him out of the room. I'm practically breathing down his neck.

"Keep going!" I hiss.

"Ana," he says turning around to plead with me, but I shove him onward.

"Don't Ana me! Get the fuck out of my apartment!"

I catch a few heavy eyes staring at us, but I don't dwell on them for long as I aim to make sure that my creepy so-called-friend gets the hell out.

As we pass the living room sofa, I catch Kate too busy making out with some guy to even care that I'm in the process of kicking José out of our apartment.

Once he's on the other side of the door, he turns and looks at me with the eyes of a scared little boy, and not the same pushy perv who was just lying on top of me in my bed attempting to violate me. His lips start to move and I can sense that he's a millisecond from vocalizing his final plea.

But his attempt is idle as I slam the door shut right in his stupid face.

….

My birthday weekend was shitty.

I woke up the day after my party feeling like a freight train ran over me. On top of being sick, I was skived out – recalling what happened with José. All weekend, he alternately called my cell and the apartment phone non-stop. I refuse to talk to him.

Kate continued to wonder why I didn't feel like speaking to him, but I just brushed it off and said that I didn't feel like talking on the phone to anyone. I was too embarrassed to tell her about what happened. So instead, I decided to avoid him and the topic of him.

José and I were drunk. I'm sure he didn't mean to do what he did, but the fact remains that he crossed the line. I wasn't raped or anything, but I still felt violated.

So for the entire time on campus Monday, I prayed not to run into him.

As I sit in the lecture hall for one of my British lit courses, I quickly scan the emails on my archaic phone. I roll my eyes once I see the name José Rodriguez as one of the senders. I don't click on the email for fear of a read receipt. It'd be just like him to do it, too. I sigh.

When I continue to scroll down, I suddenly peep an email sent from the financial aid office.

Huh.

I open it.


From: WSU Financial Aid Office
Subject: Employer Scholarship
Date: September 13, 2010 09:17
To: Anastasia Steele

Dear Miss Steele,

We regret to inform you that the scholarship award you accepted before the start the fall semester is no longer active. We advise you to contact your employer for specific details or to correct any administrative errors on their end.

Please be advised that your student account currently has a balance. If you are unable to cover this balance in full, we encourage you to visit the financial aid office to explore other options for aid. You may also visit the cashier's office to be placed on a payment schedule.

Sincerely,
Kit Gibeau
Financial Aid Administrator


What the hell is this?

I'm gaping at my phone in the middle of lecture. This is obviously a mistake. Settle down, Steele. I take a deep breath. I'm scheduled for work this afternoon. I'll go in and Mr. Clayton will take care of everything. I put away my phone and try to pay attention for the remainder of class.

Lecture ends a little over an hour later and I check my phone again to discover a missed call from work. Whoever called left a voicemail, so I check it.

"Ana…Mr. Clayton here. Things are kinda slow here today. Why don't you take the night off and we'll see you on Wednesday. Take care. Mm…bye, bye."

Huh?

I'm thrown off yet again. They're giving me the day off? And they let me go two hours early on Friday. That's nearly eight hours of pay down the toilet.

I'm starting to get a little nervous. I need to settle this financial aid issue today. So I resolve to still go to the store to at least talk to Mr. Clayton about my scholarship.

After my final class, I head out to the parking lot and right over to my beloved hooptie Wanda – a very old fashioned…classic light blue (although a faded light blue) VW Beetle. I toss my backpack onto the back seat, jump in the front, and turn the key.

Nothing. Only silence.

I turn her again.

* Cough! Cough! *

This time she coughs, but she doesn't sing.

"Shit."

I turn her again.
No go.

"Wanda – come on," I groan.

I try again and then I just press my forehead against the steering wheel.

It figures. I got this piece of shit from José.
Sorry Wanda.
And just like this car, my friendship with José no longer works.

When I sit back erect, I am startled when I hear a set of knuckles rapping against the glass. I turn my head to the left.

Shit.

"Ana...you need help?"

It's José, and he's standing there looking like a lost puppy in desperate need to reconcile. I am two seconds away from telling him to go fuck himself, but I know that he knows this car like the back of his hand. It used to belong to his mom.

Without saying a word, I open the door and step out. José pops the hood, wiggles a few cables and then climbs in. After two pumps on the gas and a key turn, Wanda's a little hoarse, but she's finally singing. I sigh in relief as he steps back out.

"Thanks."

"No problem. Hey – I was wondering if we could talk…"

"Not now," I cut him off. I don't have the time or the energy to go there right now.

Dejected, he pitifully closes his eyes and nods in understanding.
"I'll catch you later, okay?"

I nod unenthusiastically in reply, climb back into my car, and take off.

….

The old rusty bells jingle the moment I pull open the glass door at Clayton's. It's a too familiar sound that I've even heard in my sleep at times. But what's not as familiar is the vague quiet and emptiness that permeates down these aisles.

Granted, Clayton's has never been as busy as the big box chain stores like it. This place is simply a modest mom and pop hardware shop. Still, Clayton's has been a pillar in this community for many years; a small business highly cherished by the locals. It's a wonderful business. But lately, things have gotten kind of slow around here.

As I make way towards the front counter, I almost wonder if anyone's working here today at all. I don't see Larry or Joe stocking any of the shelves. I don't hear the sound of the old-fashioned, long-toothed cash register ringing.

When I reach up front, I'm startled to find Mr. Clayton himself with his elbows propped up on the counter s and his face leaning against his palms. He looks absolutely miserable.

"Mr. Clayton?"

The sound of my voice startles him.

"Ana? I called you…"

"I know, I got your message," I say, interrupting him.

"Good," he remarks. But he doesn't look good.

"What's going on?" I say, looking around the store once more. "Where's everyone?"

He swallows and leans back against the counter.

"I tried my best…but business is just terrible."

My eyes grow wide and round. I'm trying to take in every single word that he's saying so that I'm not misunderstanding him.

"I've held things off for as long as I could. I just can't do it anymore. I am going to have to file for bankruptcy and close the store."

"What?" I gape.

Oh my God.

"Yep," he utters with a broken spirit.

I've never seen Mr. Clayton like this. He's never showed signs of being a defeatist since I've known him. He's always been rather positive. Gung ho, even.

"I really feel bad for those on staff who rely on a full-time salary. Joe, Larry, Margaret."

"That explains why my scholarship payment didn't take," I interject as a wave of terror takes over me.

He swallows. "I'm sorry, Ana," he says with sincere eyes and the deepest remorse. "I tried, but I just wasn't able to do it. I also won't be able to keep you on as an employee.

I know that this man's entire world is falling apart. But as he proceeds to tell me that I'm fucked and have no money to cover my final year of school as well as my living expenses, I can't stop myself from breaking down.

"Ana," he frantically says my name as he rounds the counter.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Clayton. I… We'll talk again later," I sob as I turn on my heel and rush out of there as fast as I can.

I don't want him to see me crying.
He has his own problems to deal with.

I hate myself in that moment. Here's this kind man and his wonderful wife about to lose their entire livelihoods, yet I can't control my own selfish emotions because I know for a fact that I'm going to have my work cut out for me. I'm facing having to drop out of college in my fourth year because my mother, my stepfather, or I can't afford the cost of one year's tuition.

I hop in my car and I'm relieved that Wanda starts up this time before Mr. Clayton has a chance to come after me and watch me completely falling apart.

….

"Is there anything you can do for me?" I ask out of pure desperation.

Mr. Gibeau, the small statured, salt-and-pepper-haired nice man from the financial aid office is extremely sympathetic as I sit before him in his office, but his sympathy does nothing to dissolve the pain that sits heavy in the pit of my belly. After plowing through his computer for every available option, the only thing he can offer me is a two-month grace period, followed by an affordable payment plan.

"It's a little too late to apply for student loans for the year. And I'm not very certain that you'd even qualify," he says regretfully. "Keep attending class and let's see where you land in two months. I suggest you use that time to either borrow from family or friends, or land another job before your first payment is due."

I'm devastated. On top of my heavy course load, I am now being tasked with begging for money while trying to scrounge for a new job.

I arrive home two hours later and I'm relieved that Kate's not here. No chance in hell that I'm telling her anything about my situation at Clayton's or my overall financial aid turmoil. My best friend is fortunate that she doesn't have to worry about money like I do. She comes from a well-to-do family, so she won't be able to relate to my plight.

I'm thankful that I at least have enough cash in the bank to keep up with my end of the rent so that she won't be suspicious. Still, I'll need more than that soon, or I'll be forced to drop out of WSU. Then everyone will know that I'm flat broke, and that would be a tragedy.

I awaken Kate's laptop on the kitchen counter and start to comb through the online classifieds to see if I can find a flexible job that pays enough for me to afford tuition.

Fuck.

I could just bang my head against the counter, but I keep my shattered feelings in check as I traverse from one web page to the next.

...

I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat trigged by a nightmare. I dreamed that I couldn't graduate with my friends and I ended up working some grimy dead end job in backwoods Montesano. I also lived in Ray's basement.

The tears begin to stream down my face at the very thought.

I exit my bedroom and find Kate's door closed. She's home. It's almost three in the morning, so I'm rather certain that she's asleep. Thankfully her laptop's still out here, so I fire it up and put on a kettle for tea.

Soon, I'm searching through a whole new list of jobs. My earlier search was unsuccessful. I've already done the math in my head and a fast food gig wouldn't even put a dent in my expenses. I need something that's both flexible with school, yet the hours are plentiful. It'll have to be a business that's open late, and I might even have to pull weekend hours in order to make up for lost wages depending on when I'm able to start the new gig.

I have a renewed urgency to find something pronto because my livelihood absolutely depends on it.

….

"Ana!"

I wake with a jolt. My cheek feels achy and flat. And wet.

Shit – I practically drooled all over this counter.

I gape at Kate as she takes me in wearing a concerned expression.

"Damn girl…what gives? How long have you been in here?"

I yawn and heavily sigh as I try to find my bearings after crashing hard and waking up suddenly. I'm relieved to see that Kate's computer is now in sleep mode, so she can't see what I've been up to in the wee hours of the morning.

"I was working on a paper for class," I lie. "I must've fallen asleep in the middle of it."

"Oh," she says with understanding. "Hey – I've been meaning to tell you about that guy Derrick who was at your party Friday," she says with a naughty smirk.

"Who's Derrick?" I frown, wiping my face with the back of my hand.
Sheesh…I feel nasty.

"He's the guy I was making out with."

"On the sofa?" I ask. I only saw the back of his head, anyway.

She beams. "You think he's cute?"

"Well, I wasn't able to see his face because he was too busy eating yours."

Kate laughs. "Well, I think he's kinda cute. And he has a decent sized cock."

She banged him?
What am I thinking – of course she did.

When Kate meets a guy she likes, she's ready to roll. She doesn't believe in waiting and letting things build up. That's why she's always crashing and burning. And I'm the one who has to listen to her whine and moan when things go south.

I roll my eyes at her. "Not interested."

"Ana Steele," she says, straightening up her posture and squaring her shoulders. "I'm making it my mission to finally get you laid this year."

I snort. "No thanks."

Miss Kavanagh, I'd rather get paid than get laid these days.

….

In between classes, I decide to leave campus to grab lunch. The dining hall's just way too expensive, and I have to be a little more contentious these days of where I eat until I land another job.

The tuna's on special today. I could get that on wheat and a bag of chips for five bucks.
But when I get to the sandwich shop off campus, the line is practically out the door.
I'm frustrated.

Well, it's either here or McDonald's, Steele.
I'd hate myself much less if I just stick with tuna.

I cave and wait in line. It moves at a snail's pace. It's times like these when I wish I had a smartphone to pass the time instead of this dinosaur of a contraption.

Damn, I'm poor.

Near the door, there's a stack of Portland Night Life free newspapers. I take one and begin thumbing through it.

I see an article about some struggling grunge artist-slash-rapper pushing their brand new mix tape. Next, there's a full-page spread promoting some lame vegan expo happening next week.

Oh, and look – Weed Smokers Unite.

I roll my eyes and continue to parse the waste of ink and newspaper. I eventually stumble across the classifieds section. Nothing in here so far has me jumping out of my proverbial seat.

Appointment Setter.
Cutlery Sales.

I groan.

I see a slew of bartender and waitressing jobs, and a slight flicker of consideration hits me. Depending how long the business stays open each night and how busy they are, waitressing just might work.

The sandwich line finally moves along and I'm getting closer to the front. Just before I fold and discard the paper, I catch another ad.

Searching for smart cuties in desperate need of tuition.
Make an average of $500/night working just five hours.
Open 24 hours/7 days, we are a very flexible and classy organization.
Must be over 21.

'Smart cuties'?

And yes, I am desperate for tuition – but this looks sketchy as hell.

Could it be a sperm bank? No, impossible. No guy can jerk off for five hours straight each night. Maybe it's some lab where they pump you with non-ADA approved drugs like a poor little white mouse. Or maybe it's a black market organ ring.

If I don't earn money soon, I may have to give up a kidney.

'Classy organization'?

Well, this is in the paper. I'm curious what'll happen if I call. Worst case, I can walk out of there after saying 'no' with a good story to tell my friends later.

Much later…like after-I-get-a-new-job later.

….

After my third and final class of the day, I find myself pulling up to the Heathman Hotel in Portland.

Earlier, I tore out the ad that caught my eye with no real intention of following through. Instead, I went directly to the computer lab and continued on with my job search. In the middle of my quest, I suddenly remembered that if I don't get at least a few grand by Thanksgiving break, I won't be able to register for classes once spring registration opens. Three of the final four classes that I need in order to graduate traditionally fill up fast.

That's when I convinced myself that I needed to just bite the bullet and leave no stone unturned. I can't be overly selective on where I find my lifeline. So when I stepped out in the hallway of the library with the torn ad in hand, I said to myself – Yes, I am in a very desperate way.

When I called the phone number of the business searching for "Smart cuties", a sweet young female voice soon greeted me in a very professional manner. I inquired about the ad in Portland Night Life, and she asked me if I'm currently working. Instead of answering her question directly I started rambling, telling her that I'm a current a senior at WSU who would like to work part-time in the evenings.

The nice lady's voice lighted up and proceeded to tell me that I'm what they're looking for, and that I was also in luck today. She tells me about the by invitation only job fair currently going on until eight o'clock tonight at the hotel and that she was adding my name on the list.

I then said to myself – she sounds professional enough. If there's a job fair happening right now at a well-known and reputable Portland-area hotel, then I have no reason to be afraid. It probably won't be some skeevy photo shoot or a motion picture that I'll regret doing much later in life.

But before I agreed to go to the interview, I ask her what type of business this was.

"It will all be explained to you at the interview."

Whoa – what an elusive answer.

I got nervous all over again, but then I reminded myself that I didn't have to do anything that I didn't want to. Besides, I'd be forever curious about the job until I found out what it was all about.

What the hell.
Let's go check it out.

After agreeing to the three o'clock appointment, I stopped by the apartment, threw on an old brown skirt from high school, a white cotton button-up top, and fraying black flats before grabbing a few copies of my resume along with my portfolio binder. I couldn't get the thought of five hundred bucks a night after working just five hours out of my mind.

Who in the hell makes that kind of money still in college?
I don't even know why I'm actually going through with this – I thought to myself.

On the way to the Heathman, I had flashes of thought of me sitting on a couch across from some faceless fat guy – telling him where I grew up before he tells me to take off my top. Then he sends in some random well-hung black guy before bringing in the camera closer to film me losing my virginity. I shudder at the very notion.

Once at the hotel, I walk in and immediately see the sign that says –
Appointment Only Job Fair, This Way.

Once I enter the ballroom, I see nothing but attractive girls. Gorgeous girls – all very well dressed, wearing tight fitted skirts or dresses, and heels as high the top of the Space Needle. I could never walk in those shoes and not end up crashing on my ass.

I immediately feel insignificant. Even if I wanted the job, I won't be beating any of these girls. I lower my head, and the thought of leaving the site instantly occurs to me. But once I turn back towards the door, an attractive older redhead in a black skirt suit stops me.

"Hi, are you here for an interview?" she beams.

"Yeah…I…" I'm utterly frazzled. My mind's all over the place.

"Good. Are you twenty-one or over?" she asks.

I blink, "Ye…yes. I am. I just turned twenty-one on Friday."

She looks very pleased by my answer.

"I'm not sure what you're looking for, but I'm a full-time college student right now. I don't have that much work experience outside of working at a hardware store," I tell her.

The longer she stares at me, the more nervous I get.

Finally, she says, "Come with me."
I gape at her.

When I eventually kick into step and go after her, I catch a ballroom full of eyes critically sizing me up. I feel the most uncomfortable that I could ever remember feeling.

Hey, I've been waiting for hours! – I even hear one girl whine.

Perhaps this woman simply picked me from the bunch in order to escort me out of the hotel through the back alley. It might even be like that talent show where all of the contestants advancing to the next round get left in one room, while all of the losers get taken to an entirely different room where there are producers on hand to pass out tissues and hug those who are weeping ceaselessly.

The woman soon brings me into a small conference room that's set up as an office with a large wooden desk. She walks behind it as I stand beside the chair on the other side.

"Take a seat, sweetheart," she says, not even looking up at me but at her stack of papers on the desk. "I'm Lauren Moratti. I manage the business. What's your name?"

"Ana. Uh, Anastasia Steele." I'm a blithering mess as I sit down.

She looks up at me with amusement, lips pursed. "Well, aren't you just adorable – and with a sexy stripper name to match. It's perfect."

Oh my God…she's looking for strippers.

Suddenly, images of the girls waiting just outside of this room come flooding back in.

No wonder!

"Why don't you stand for me and give me a little twirl. Let me see you," she says.

Yes, that's exactly what this is all about.

I begin to feel the bile rising up my esophagus.
My pulse is throbbing hard against my wrists.

Just do what she asks and then tell her – Hell no.

I stand and start to turn.

"Not too fast, sweetie," she says quickly, and I immediately slow down.

I feel like a piece of meat being sized up for slaughter.

"Thank you. You can sit back down."

I comply.

"Do you dance?" she asks.

What a joke.

I laugh with a slight scoff. "No."

"Okay. So tell me a little bit about yourself. What did you do before coming here?"

Show her that you don't qualify. You're just a lame bookworm with no dance experience and not a single ounce of sex appeal.

I open up my portfolio in my lap and begin to ramble through it for a copy of my resume.

"No," she says, stopping me cold in my tracks. "I don't need it. Just tell me what you did," she says.

"I uh…I worked at a hardware store. I…I'm a student at WSU," I stammer.

"Vancouver?"

I nod. "Yes."

"I see," she says, contemplative. "What's your major?"

"English Lit."

"Hmm. So you want to write books?"

"I want to go into publishing."

She nods with a tight lip. "Alright. So tell me about your hobbies. What do you like to do?"

I have no idea why I'm even entertaining this right now. I have no desire to work at a glorified strip club. I've heard bad things about Portland strip joints – that they're dirty and the girls get totally nude – kibbles, bits and all. And the men are simply animals. I'd be afraid that I wouldn't make it out of there alive.

But with every nerve jumping in my skin and the nauseating feeling parsing up my gut, I still decide to humor her. She is nice and all. I'll simply lead her into a slow no – either from her or from me.

One of us is going to say 'No'.

"Uh…I love to read books."

"Really? Like what kind?"

"Mostly the British classics. Thomas Hardy. Charlotte Bronte…"

"Jane Austen?"

"Yes," I respond.

"I like her," she smiles.

I suddenly feel slightly at ease. I was intimidated at first, but Ms. Moratti seems rather nice.

"So I take it that you are looking to work nights and weekends, correct?"

Oh shit. She wants to talk shop, but I know for certain that I have no business even considering working at a strip club.

She is looking for a stripper, right?

"Look, Anastasia…"

"Ana."

"Ana…you seem like a very sweet girl. You'd be perfect at Zion."

I gape at her. "Zion?"

I've passed many strip clubs in the Portland and Vancouver areas, and I've never seen a building with a sign that read "Zion" in neon lights.

"We run a specialized restaurant business. We hire the world's top chefs, and our clientele is elite…extremely elite. You've heard of 'the black card'?"

I'm dumbstruck, completely at a loss.

"It's a credit card for the insanely rich. You have to be in a certain tax bracket in order to qualify…and even then, you can't apply for it. These people are hand-selected. All of our clients have black cards."

My eyes practically fall out of their sockets.

"So…you say that this is a restaurant business?" I ask with a soft, unsure voice once I find a fraction of my nerve.

She inhales deeply and exhales.
"Zion is an elite luxury gentlemen's club that's open 24/7."

The truth is finally out.
It's a damn strip club.

"Our clientele's millionaires and billionaires," she continues. "All of the girls on staff are smart and very beautiful, like yourself. And like I said, our restaurant employs a heavy rotation of world-renowned chefs. You'd know some of them by name, but they are all anonymous for obvious reasons. Many of our clients come specifically for the food, believe it or not."

I'm finally ready to come clean with Ms. Moratti.
I've heard enough.

"I wasn't expecting this," I say nervously.

"I can tell," she chuckles. "But if you're interested, I'd like to offer you a job today. You can start tonight if you'd like. How does twenty dollars an hour sound?"

What?! Is she fucking mad? Hell, I was only making nine an hour at Clayton's. This is asinine. I need to tell this woman that I can't do this job.

"I…I'm not a dancer. I'm sorry," I tremble.

"Sweetness, that's not our dancers' pay," she smirks. "That's just what we pay the new servers. You'd be serving guests food and drinks. You said you're at least twenty-one…right?"

Whoa – their waitresses make twenty an hour? I'm pretty sure that's factoring in tips.

"Yes…I am."

"Excellent," She says with a smile. "So could you start tonight?"

"Wait," I interrupt my own response. "Does that starting salary include tips?"

"No. Whatever you earn in tips is above and beyond twenty an hour."

Holy fucking shit.
Twenty dollars an hour?
AND tips?

Let's face it: I'm fucking desperate. How many times have I joked during college about being so broke that I could swing on a pole for money?

You are officially at that point, Ana.

However according to Ms. Moratti, I'm not going to be pole dancing.
I'll only be serving food.

"I understand why you'd be nervous," she says to me in a reassuring voice. She retrieves her cell phone from the table and soon begins to perform swiping gestures with the screen.

"Our servers have a standard uniform that's extremely modest. In fact, we want all of our servers to maintain a modicum of innocence, at minimum. It's alluring to our clientele to have that stark contrast between our servers and the talent. That is the true essence of Zion, which is why I picked you out of all of those other girls back there," she beams.

Ms. Moratti slides her phone over to me. Hesitant, I pick it up. On the screen, I see a black mini dress that goes past the crotch about five inches. Whoa. But the good thing is that the entire top front is covered – no boobs showing. The sleeves stop at the elbows and there's white trim adorning the collar and cuffs. Just as she said, the uniform is relatively modest.

"That's what you'll be wearing. Another girl will take the client's order, and all you'll have to do is deliver their food and keep the drinks coming. If the client requests a dance on the spot, you simply retrieve the girl of their choice if they are available."

My word, this all sounds simple but it's still rather complicated.
I can tell by her expression that she knows I'm still not completely sold on the idea.

"Look, all you have to worry about is smiling and being as sweet as you look. If the clients like what they see, they will show you the in form of a fat ass tip."

I exhale as I place her phone on the table and slide it back across. She catches it mid-slide.

"Give it a week," she bargains. "If you don't make more money in that time than you've ever made and have fun while doing it, then you can leave Zion and work somewhere else. No hard feelings."

I take her words into serious consideration.

What's a week, Steele? The worst that could happen is that I make a little extra money serving food…even more than I would ever make waitressing anyplace else.

"But I promise, you'll definitely want to stay once the week is done," she smirks.

Somehow, I sincerely doubt that will be the case with me.
I know myself.
If it feels dirty or sleazy, I won't like it at all.

I'll hate it.

"So, what do you say? You want to give it a shot starting tonight? The sooner you get on board, the sooner you can finish up the week trial," Ms. Moratti tempts.

I take in a breath.
What the hell – I have nothing to lose here.

"Sure…I'll give it a shot," I say in a voice that doesn't sound so certain.

"Fantastic. First of all, I'm going to give you an office name," she says, now jotting down something on paper. "From here on out, every time you come in to work, you will go by London."

Is she serious?

"Aliases are something that we do for precautionary reasons. We like to maintain all our girls' anonymity. I even go by one," she peps. "My office name is L-Mo."

I squint. "Like Elmo? From Sesame Street?"
Is it because of the red hair?

She looks slightly irritated.
"No. L-Mo. Like J-Lo."

Uh, that doesn't make any sense.

"Oh," I exhale nervously.

If this entire traumatizing experience didn't seem like one great big joke, I'd laugh.

"I think London suits you. You know…the whole British literature thing," she beams.

I now have a fucking alias?
This is so insane that it sounds illegal.

"London has an air of mystique. Don't get me wrong – Anastasia is a hot ass name, but Anastasia Steele sounds like an orgasmic tropical storm."

I gape at her.
I've heard people say many things about my name – but never that.

She continues. "First of all, that's your real name – which we can't have. Secondly, it screams sex goddess. Now, I'm not doubting that's what you are outside of work, but we usually reserve the flashier names for the talent," she grins.

I blush. No, it's not the first time I've heard that my full name sounds like the moniker of a stripper or a porn star. Which makes this entire thing just that much odder. I'll be working at a gentlemen's club, yet I can't even use my real name.

"So, let's get you started on the paperwork. We'll also get you set with a uniform before you leave here today so that you can jump right into your first shift. You'll be training alongside Becky, one of our veteran servers."

My nose crinkles. "Is Becky her office name?"

Ms. Moratti nods. "Only office names from here on out. Welcome to the team, London," she smiles proudly. I smile in return, but my insides start to sink.

What am I getting myself into?

….

"This is a very exclusive establishment. I can only give you the GPS coordinates" – the redhead told me before I left the Heathman.

This forced me to key in the coordinates into Kate's laptop back at the apartment in order to find the exact location of the business. When I zoomed in on the map, the area appeared to be highly sketchy.

Oh shit – I muttered to myself.

Two hours later, I find myself in a Portland neighborhood where the old warehouse I just saw online now stands before me. This area looks so sketchy that I even fear for Wanda's safety, and that's never happened.

Ms. Moratti…oops, excuse me – L-Mo has informed me that even though it may not look like it, the parking lot and the area surrounding the building is protected by top-notch security services. She said that if anything ever goes down…if any of the girls are in danger, someone would come barreling out of the bushes to rescue me right on the spot. And although the thought is reassuring, it doesn't do much to calm my nerves in this very moment.

I soon see the lot that she told me about. What's comforting is that there's a few fancy-looking cars parked in a lot not too far from the building. I park Wanda all the way in the back, away from the rest. She's definitely an eye sore in comparison.

All of a sudden, a wave of fear washes over me.

What are you doing, Steele?

I turn back on the ignition and set to back out and return home.
But as I shift the gear into reverse, reality quickly hits me.

You're going to regret not finding out what's behind that door.

I know myself. I won't sleep tonight if I don't find out exactly what this job's all about.

It's just a waitressing job, Steele – and the uniform isn't that bad.
I mean it's even way more modest than Hooters'.

Worst case, I can still say 'No'.

….

I approach the door of the warehouse and knock twice, slowly – as instructed.

"Yes," an intimidating male voice vibrates from the other side.

I'm quaking in these uncomfortable strapped heels. And to think, I have to wear these all night long. My feet are going to hate me. I'm draped in a black trench coat that thankfully hides this short excuse of a uniform. I feel like a flasher.

"The red pill," I call back. I think back to just hours ago when L-Mo first gave me the directive and I gave her a very puzzled look in return.

"You remember the movie The Matrix," she asked.

I nodded.

"Zion is the last city standing after the war of man versus machine. The only way to escape the lie of the Matrix and journey into the truth of Zion is by taking the red pill," she said matter-of-factly.

Yeah, this is some weird ass shit.
I may be a nerd, but I am not a science fiction nerd.

I soon hear the clunk of a deadbolt. The door slowly opens revealing a monstrosity of a man standing at least six feet and eight inches tall of solid muscle. He's dressed in all black.

"Free your mind," he says in a voice that emits pure bass and reverberates every bone in my body. My seemingly ever-present emotion of regret returns with a vengeance.

He steps aside and I saunter in. As I scan the inside, I am so blown away that I barely notice the heavy steel door slamming and deadbolting shut behind me.

I am beyond awestruck.

On the outside, it looks just like any old ancient dilapidated warehouse found in large cities everywhere – once erected over a century ago during the manufacturing boom. The parking lot is a distance away, so anyone could assume that this building is and always has been abandoned for many, many years.

But the moment you walk inside, it's just like paradise. The stark contrast of the outside desolate surroundings of an abandoned building and its adjacent dingy lot that nearly takes up four dead city blocks, and then stepping foot inside of it – it's like a deity forcefully snatching you out of the jaws of hell and ushering you into the pearly gates of heaven.

It's simply breathtaking.

The air smells of lavender, polished leather, and a crisp musk. The atmosphere is beautiful and delicate, yet masculine all at the same time. And although the light is muted, the long, colossal lobby is adorned with a dozen massive lighted chandeliers that mushroom down and span outwards above me like giant jellyfish.

There are gorgeous floral arrangements, gigantic tree plants, and sparkling crystal accents spread throughout, creating a scene of wonderment. It's how I imagined Manderley to be in Rebecca, but on steroids. The select artwork, either framed on the walls or in the form of standing classical marble-carved busts, looks to be worth more money then I'll ever see in a lifetime.

Along the right side of the wall just as you come through the door, there's a long magnificent, very immaculately polished spotless cherry oak counter top that's dressed with crystal beading around the outer parameter. The structure stands about chest-high, and the crystals surrounding it mimic the majesty of the chandeliers floating above.

If the camera on my phone still worked, I'd take a photo of this space and make it my desktop wallpaper. There's simply nothing like this place.

I'm so taken away by my dreamy surroundings, that I almost didn't notice the two very attractive and scantily clad women manning the counter – one blonde, one brunette. I wonder what it is that they actually do here. I don't see a cash register or an array of Club Zion t-shirts for sale hanging behind them.

These girls were obviously assigned to wear special uniforms, much different than the servers' apparel that I currently have on under my coat. Braless, their breasts are hardly concealed under the draping of glittery black fabric. They're both wearing what can only be described as a chainmail halter top/booty shorts romper. Both of their physiques are flawless.

Holy cow, these chicks are smokin' hot.
The rich guys who come here have one helluva welcoming committee.

I then start to feel extremely insignificant…not just in the presence of these girls, but here in this marvelous space. I will probably explode once I get a look at the actual club itself beyond this lobby.

No – I've never seen anything like it. This place has to be tens of millions of dollars. L-Mo did say that all of their clientele are either multi-millionaires or billionaires. This space definitely gives that exact impression, and then some.

Behind the counter, the gorgeous brunette asks, "Can I help you?"

I clear my throat. "Hi, today's my first day and I'm supposed to be meeting Becky."

Without a smile or further acknowledgement, Miss Brunette picks up the phone. Soon, a redhead who's not L-Mo emerges from the back and unlatches the chest-high door at the end of the counter to meet me on the other side. With her hair slicked back into a flowy ponytail, she's wearing the exact same uniform as mine, but it looks much better on her. She also walks more confidently than I do in super-high heels.

"London?" she beams once we are face to face.

"Uh…yes," I utter way too nervously.

She extends her hand and smiles. "I'm Becky. Welcome to Zion."
We shake.

I'm probably the taller of us two since Becky currently stands eye-level with me, yet her heels are much higher than mine. And although she may be shorter than me, she's way leaner than I am.

I truly need to lay off the bread

"Follow me," she instructs, leading the way from whence she came. I'm nervous when the other two girls silently study me as I follow Becky back behind the counter and through the back door. Once I've cleared it, Becky walks back a few steps and closes the door behind me.

The rear corridor doesn't look as bright and angelic as the lobby, but it's still beautiful all the same. It's how I imagine the back stage of a major theater production would look like.

There are streams of different colored lights emitting from different rooms in different areas as we stroll by. I see various large potted plants strung with white LED-lights lining the halls – but I'm certain that they're not real due to the lack of natural lighting back here. I spy the occasional chandelier up in the rafters, still very beautiful, but not as massive as the ones adorning the main lobby. I'm still just as overwhelmed in here as I was out there.

As I take in my new surroundings, Becky suddenly stops colds in her tracks – startling me.

"Relax," she sighs with a humored smirk. "This entire area is for employees only. Guests are never allowed back here. This is where you can unwind and recharge. We have so many wonderful amenities here. In fact, just about everyone comes to work hours before their shift starts, and then end up staying hours after the end of it in order to take full advantage of all the perks. Mr. Dark even has a full staff of massage therapists just for the employees."

My eyes narrow. "Mr. Dark?"

"Jay Dark. He's the owner of the place."

I'm even more confused than I was before. "So who's L-Mo, then?"

"L-Mo manages the place. Jay Dark's the big kahuna. If all goes well, you will never meet him," she says eerily.

I'm feeling rather uneasy.
"Is that his office name? Dark?" I ask.

Becky laughs. "No. His name is really Jay Dark. He's fucking loaded, and all of his friends are fucking loaded."

Oh.

"Many of his friends are clients here."

I have so many questions funneling through my brain right now, with no idea of where to even begin.

"Look," Becky starts, interrupting my thought. "Let's get you through the tour first. Then we'll address any questions that you have. I'll show you to the servers' boudoir where you'll have your own bench and storage locker."

"Servers' boudoir?" I inquire.

"The servers are in one boudoir, the talent – or dancers are in another," she clarifies.

"Oh." Then another thought crosses my mind. It's a question that I was eager to ask L-Mo back at the hotel, but didn't bother because it doesn't necessarily pertain to me.

"Are the dancers nude?"

Becky's expression is firm. "No…absolutely not. Zion is a very classy establishment. Also, the girls are not allowed to be touched by the clients unless they absolutely want to be touched."

I'm relieved, but yet I still have more questions.

Why do the dancers get paid so much if they aren't nude?
Why is Zion so exclusive?
What makes this place any different than any other run-of-the-mill sports bar with scantily clad, fit girls?

"Now that's not to say that the girls don't get naked in the private rooms," she adds.

I gape at her. "Private rooms?"

"Yes. For an upcharge, our members can get a thirty minute appointment with a dancer of their choosing in Private Row."

Private Row?

Just when I think the situation here gets better, it sinks right back into the damn toilet.

Ana, this is none of your concern.
You're just a server.

For quite a few times tonight, I will have to talk myself off of the ledge.

….

The girls I meet in passing as Becky gives me the grand tour were very friendly to the new girl. It helped to take the edge off, somewhat.

Eventually the tour brings Becky and I to the very impressive servers' boudoir. It actually looks like it could be the huge bedroom of some millionaire's stay-at-home wife. The space is also adorned with big beautiful chandeliers.

There are sections of mirrors lined up against the back wall. I catch a server girl nonchalantly standing in front of one of them and tugging down at the same black mini-dress that I'm wearing underneath this coat.

No use for that, girlie. That dress will remain short no matter how much you pull at it.

Believe me, I've already tried.

Becky takes me down an aisle of polished wooden doors subbing as lockers, or more like little fancy closets, that each line up edge to edge. Every door's surface dons a gold plate with a single name etched on it in black script.

Luna.
Darling.
Keesha.
Carla.

Holy shit – that's my mom's name.
I shudder at the thought.

My Carla may be a hopeless romantic, but she'd never work in a place like this.
In fact, she'd never work anyplace at all.
I mentally roll my eyes.

Pretty soon, I see 'London'.
Dang, that was fast.

"Here you are," Becky announces, handing me a fancy gold padlock with four combination wheels on the bottom of it. "The instructions are on that little sticker. Once you set the combination, that's what it'll be from here on out."

I nod and quickly parse the sticker. In an cinch, my combination is all set.
It's Ray's birth year.

Oh, the irony.
Ray would have a coronary if he ever saw me working in this place.
I quickly dismiss the thought.

"Why don't you go ahead and hang up your things." Becky opens my locker and I see three more uniforms hanging inside, along with tons of extra space for my coat, purse, and shoes – among other potential things.

This is fancy as hell. All of it.

I hang my purse up on the hook inside. I then finally unbutton and remove my trench coat and drape it over my purse. Becky closes the door and I seal it with my newly programmed padlock.

Becky gives me the remainder of the servers' boudoir tour, showing off the impeccable, high-class bathroom and shower area before leading me over to the snack bar, which is essentially a posh break room that can fit up to ten people. My eyes are now straining because they have been wide-open since I first stepped into this bewitching warehouse. Everything I see continues to push the envelope for my senses.

"Wait until you peep the employees' lounge. It's much bigger than this," Becky beams. The very notion astounds me. We eventually exit the servers' boudoir and she leads the way towards several other amenities.

"Down there is the employee spa. We have a full gym and dance room."

That explains why all of the girls who work here are in such good shape.
I'll definitely be taking full advantage of the gym – that's if I even work here for long enough.

"There's also an Arizona dry heat room, which is essentially a red light therapy room with menthol pumping through the vents. It's amazingoh, and it's a godsend for congestion," she raves. "And we also have a sauna. Many of the girls exit their boudoir just in their robes and head straight there. I'll be doing that tonight after my shift," she gleams.

I nod, beyond impressed that there's so much available here for the employees.

"On the other side is where you can get a massage. Set your appointments early because they fill up fast, and they're only open from nine in the morning until ten at night."

I recall her mentioning massages earlier, but I was more interested in discussing the mysterious Mr. Dark at the time. "And anyone who works here can get one?" I ask.

She nods with a big smile. "Yes, girl. And all of the therapists are awesome. They're all women, though. No hot, muscular men to feel you up," she says with a flash of disappointment.

Not that I'd mind receiving a massage from a female. On second thought – I don't believe I've ever received a massage from anyone – male or female – ever.

"Why all women?" I ask out of curiosity.

Becky shrugs. "Mr. Dark's call. Maybe he doesn't want the girls getting distracted by any men other than the clientele."

That makes absolutely no sense.

"But what if the girl's bi? Wouldn't they be equally as distracted?" I foolishly remark.
Immediately, I want to slap myself.

Ana, Ana, Ana…

Becky giggles. "I thought about that, too. Again, I don't know why that's even a rule. It was simply my dumb guess."

Sheesh.

Something tells me that I'm going to have to dumb it all the way down in order to be able to adequately function here. Don't ask any more questions, Steele.

It's something that I've never had the capacity to do whatsoever.

….

"The servers here function as runners for all clients, regardless if they sit at one of your assigned tables."

Becky gives me the entire rundown as we both lean against the station where the back of the house delivers the finished plated orders to the front of the house.

Already I'm picking up on the restaurant lingo, impressing even myself.

You got this, Steele.

"We also act as expeditors, so it's very important to know how long your clients have been waiting for their meal before they so unkindly remind you how long they've been waiting," she chuckles. "Oh – and they will remind you, especially if their designated talent isn't doing a good enough job holding their attention. When you stay on top of the time, you're able to keep your chef and line cooks on the ball."

I nod in understanding.

"And make sure that you keep the drinks coming. Clients like their spring water, but they love their booze," she concludes.

"Got it," I say with a definite single nod.

"Good. I know you do," she beams. "So I'm going to do three tables and have you watch me. When we get to the fourth, then it's your turn."

I sigh. "Oh boy."

"It's easy, trust me. I'll be standing right there with you. The clients will know you're new and will be very patient with you," she assures me.

When Becky takes me onto the floor where all the clients are, I am breathless.

I couldn't have even dreamt of such a place. Hanging down the solid oak beams in the rafters are a legion of fantastical chandeliers with even more intricate detail than the ones in the lobby. The floors are of brown marble, complementing the wood far up above it. There are booths with table lamps along the walls. In the vast center, there are clusters of tan velvet couches arranged like a game of Tetris.

In the front of the floor, there's a raised platform with steps and a rail – a stage, if you will – topped with seductive draping like something found in a classy, old-fashioned burlesque club.

There's the spicy, pungent smell of rich cigar smoke in the midst of the impressive crowd, but no smell of cigarettes. There are so many men of different shapes, sizes, and colors – all in suits – being tended to by beautiful women wearing an array of seductive apparel.

It's rather obvious that those girls who are quickly moving about from table to table and are wearing exactly what I'm wearing are the servers, while the girls who aren't dressed like me and who're lingering much longer with the clients – laughing, leaning, and smiling broadly are the talent.

Then I spy one girl dancing on top of a sitting older gentleman who dines alone, as several other men envy nearby. The woman wears a beaded headdress draped over a sassy dark bob. Her dress is entirely beaded also…that's if you can call it 'a dress'. In reality, its glorified beaded dental floss. I get an eyeful of two low-hanging smiles in the form of jiggling ass cheeks peering from underneath the beading as she stirs her hips. The swells of the sides of her full breasts are exposed each time she winds her arms in concert with her hips.

This girl really rides the pulsating dance rhythm – and him – way better than Britney Spears did in her seductive Toxic video. I'm hypnotized. I've never seen anyone move like that before. But what I'm witnessing is not even close to being dirty, raunchy, or lewd. No…this girl is the epitome of poetry in motion. She's the very definition of it.

"Behold – Bambi," Becky utters into my ear. "She's the master talent here at Zion. Every dancer that comes on this floor is required to learn from her."

Wow.

I'm utterly speechless as I witness this girl's art. Becky's so kind to leave me be and lets me continue to take in Master Bambi's work.

I wished I could do that.

….

I flop down on the living room sofa after a long day.

Classes in the morning.
The ceaseless online job search in between.
The long ass lunch line.

There was the discovery of the ad in search of Smart Cuties.
The weird phone call followed by the nerve-wracking interview at The Heathman.

The shock of getting hired right on the spot.
The scary neighborhood of a seemingly abandoned warehouse, then discovering all of glory that's lies within.
The food service lingo…and tons of it.

Then there were the encounters with some of the most beautiful, smart and talented women I have ever seen. I simply can't get Bambi's seductive dance out of my head. Hell, every girl who danced out there tonight was better than good.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to work alongside Becky for the next three nights that I'm on the schedule. She was kind to let me take a little bit of the tips she earned while I trained with her. Her clients were really understanding and patient of the new girl. They absolutely adore Becky, so they were nice to me by default – I feel, although I almost fell on my ass. Twice. I really need to get used to walking all night in heels. Becky did mention that it'd take me lots of practice, especially since I'm not that used to wearing them.

Kate's not home yet, so I drag myself into my bathroom to shower and change before she sees me wearing my new uniform. If that were to happen, she'd absolutely pummel me until she gets all the answers – like the excellent reporter that she is.

I don't even want to go there with her.

….

The next night, I embark on day two at Zion.

Becky introduced me to some of the girls who weren't there on my first day, both servers and talent. Elaine is a veteran server who's been here even longer than Becky. She actually trained Becky. In between following Becky, I watched as Elaine worked her magic on the clients. She's super attentive, thorough, and always smiling. The clients love her.

"Elaine – sugar…bring me my favorite gin. You know the kind." – one client called out.

Then there's Starla. According to Becky, she's one of Zion's most requested dancers. She's probably one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. With thick blond curly hair, Starla is all legs in a red sparkly one-piece number that barely covers all of her unmentionables.

When Becky introduces us on the floor, Starla immediately hugs me – which I was not expecting at all. But then she darted from one client to the next, simply chatting and laughing it up with some, while seductively dancing for others. She does this until she eventually has to head back to Private Row for a string of appointments. I barely even saw her for the rest of the night.

I have no idea what Private Row looks like, nor do I want to know.

Sweetness, the pintsized mocha skin-toned bartender is easily one of my most favorite people here at Zion. She's very feisty and quick witted.

"All these rich motherfuckers drink like fish. I'll keep on serving them until their livers shrivel up and blow away in this room like a Arizona haboob, as long as they keep on tipping me good." – she quipped as I waited for her to place the finished drinks on my round tray. I laughed so hard.

Bambi is on the floor for a second straight night. Becky officially introduced us earlier in the back of the house just outside of our boudoirs. Bambi's truly a dancer extraordinaire and I haven't ceased to be mesmerized by her. More than once, I caught myself staring at her dancing for way too long.

"She's amazing, isn't she?" – Becky said to me when she saw me gawking.

Apparently, Bambi tutors all of the new talent.
She even offered to teach me a few moves.

Me!

But I told her that I was no way a dancer.

"I can make any girl look like a dancer, London Bridge. Let me know if you ever change your mind" – she beamed.

I pretty much told her – Thanks, but no thanks.
I'll just keep serving the food, thank you very much.

The clients were rather reverent of her, although some of them had the creepy-stare thing going on, which I can definitely relate to. And because there's the occasional super-weird client according to Becky, security is pretty tight and spread throughout the property to ensure that nothing crazy happens.

All in all, I feel rather safe here. The atmosphere is captivating, the girls are all beautiful and sweet, and the potential for me to earn enough money to pay for classes – both this semester and the next – is definitely there.

The tips I earned during the second night were very promising.

….

I catch myself falling asleep more than once during the hour and fifteen-minute class lecture.

The energy drink I downed beforehand might as well have been water. I stayed at Zion way longer than I needed to last night because I was too eager to keep learning the floor as well as well as the idiosyncrasies of the clientele. There are regulars that I already had the pleasure of meeting two nights in a row.

"You're catching on, London girl. You'll be a pro in no time!" – one of them said to me. This guy looked to be about Ray's age. I find it rather strange that certain dudes my stepfather's age and older have a penchant for letting some half-dressed, strange girl rub up against them. But who am I to judge?

So this morning I'm functioning off of very little sleep, primarily from my own doing. I'm supposed to be off today, but by me being so green and newly addicted to the atmosphere of Zion, I told Becky and L-Mo that I'd come in tonight for just four hours.

Why London, why?

Yes, I've been practicing calling myself by my alias in my head. It's because more than once, I almost corrected clients who called me the name showing on my nametag.

The moment my professor dismisses class I barrel the hell out of there.

"Hey, Ana," someone calls out to me as I exit the building.

It's José.

Jesus – not today.

"Hey José…I…"

He winces at me. "What's up with you? You look exhausted."

"It's because I am. I need to run home and take a nap," I say as I rush on, but he continues to follow me.

"Look, I understand, but I really want to talk about what happened at your party. Ana, that will never happen again. I really want us to be friends again."

I stop in my tracks and abruptly turn to face him.
"And I really don't feel like dealing with this right now," I sigh.

"You're upset at me…I get it. But we've known each other for years now, and you know that I've never behaved like that. I was stupid and drunk."

"José," I groan. "What part of I really don't feel like dealing with this right now are you not understanding?"

"Okay…okay," he acquiesces. "But I've been miserable since you've cut me off. You're one of my very best friends, Ana. I'm so desperate to work this out that I almost told Kate all about it…"

"No!" I snap. "Do not bring her into this. She will fucking cut your balls off if she ever finds out what you did," I say in a stern warning.

He pretty much shrinks right before my very eyes.
"Alright," he murmurs. "But promise me that we'll talk soon. Okay?"

I nod. "Fine. I've gotta go," I exhale before turning on my heel.

This time, he doesn't follow me.

….

I get home at midnight. I was glad that I showered and changed out of my uniform at work, because Kate's sitting right on the sofa facing me as I come in.

"Hey…where've you been?" she asks.

"At the library. I had tons of research to do," I tell her.

She frowns. "Research? For what?"

Her question takes me aback.
Why is she asking for the particulars?

"A paper for my lit analysis class," I throw out there.

"You couldn't do your research from home on the internet?"

Sweet lord, Kavanagh – let it go.

"First of all, I don't have a computer…"

"But you've been using mine," she kindly reminds me.

I sigh and swallow hard.
Think, Steele…think.

"Yeah, but the library has all of the abstract databases that you can't access from home."

Brilliant.

"You needed to pull abstracts? Shit – remind me not to take that class during final semester," she groans.

And it's then when I know that she's finally going to take my word for it and move on to a different topic altogether. I also realize that I'm going to have to get even more creative with my excuses since I'll be coming home late every single work night. Kate believes that I still work at Clayton's, but she'll soon catch wind of the store closing down once the Claytons officially file for bankruptcy.

What will I tell her then?

She'd never understand why I'm moonlighting at some posh, secret billionaire boy's club featuring exotic dancers. Then I'll be forced to tell her all about my financial woes, and then she'll want to jump into the lake and rescue me from drowning. She'll even get her dad involved.

Oh no.

That's exactly what will happen because I know Kate Kavanagh.
She's a helpless fixer.

….

The following evening at work immediately came with the promise that there would not be a single dull moment today.

"Fuuuucckkk," Elaine groans as she meets Becky and I in the servers' boudoir before the start of our shifts.

"What?" Becky winces in concern.

"I just saw that asshole Stefan Neumann come in, along with three of his friends who've I've never seen here before – at least the ones whose faces I caught," she says in misery.

"Oh no," Becky painfully gasps.

"Who's that?" I glance back and forth between the two girls.
They temporarily ignore the clueless new girl.

"I just know that they're going to be a royal pain in my ass all night…collectively," Elaine says, rolling her eyes.

Wearing a sunken expression, Becky now turns to face me. "Stefan Neumann is a very powerful German businessman who now lives here in Portland. The bastard's filthy rich and is the stereotypical asshole who wants exactly what he wants. He practically runs every girl in the joint ragged for hours on end. And to make matters worse, he's a close personal friend of Mr. Dark's."

"Oh," I sigh.

Poor girls. Part of me knows that because I'm so new, I won't have to deal with this guy. But still, I can't help but feel terrible for them.

Suddenly, L-Mo comes breezing in.

"Thank God," she sighs. "You're here."

I'm uncertain if she's relived to see Elaine, Becky, or both.

"Mr. Neumann just got in," she announces.

"We know," frowns Elaine.

"We need all hands on deck, now," L-Mo issues out the order.

"Fuck," Becky groans.

"You too, London," L-Mo says.

I gape at her. "But this is only my fourth night on the floor. I haven't even started working solo yet." I begin to feel my body trembling in fear.

"I've been watching you. You're doing a spectacular job," L-Mo smiles proudly. "And besides, this will be good exposure for you."

She then turns to the other two girls. "We have a major VIP conquest client in our midst right now. Mr. Dark wants us to take extra great care of him. He's a commuter, but if we make it worth his while, he'll continue to make the three hour trip here to see us," she grins.

"A conquest?" Elaine squints. "Who – is it someone with Neumann?"

L-Mo nods. "Yep. Mr. Neumann brought along with him no other than Mr. Christian Grey."

She announces the name with much reverence and with eyes as round and bright as the sun, but all I can think is – 'Who?'

"Lord Jesus…" Elaine wheezes, clutching her imaginary pearls. She looks utterly awestruck.
"Are you fucking serious?"

"What!" Becky gapes simultaneously in extreme disbelief.
"He's actually here? Now?"

Am I supposed to know who this guy is?
Because I don't.

L-Mo grins and nods. "Mm hmm, and he's way prettier in person. We'll definitely have to bring out the big guns if we want to see more of him in the near future. It's his very first time here with us, so let's make it memorable. I even have Starla starting early tonight."

"And Bambi too…holy shit," Elaine lobs, apparently very anxious for the night to go perfectly as well.

"Yes, and I'm also clearing both of their schedules if need be. If Neumann or Grey wants them to dance in Private Row, Bambi and Starla's other appointments will be eight-sixed. Hell, if I could dance, I would – for Christian Grey, that is," smirks L-Mo. Both Elaine and Becky laugh out loud.

"Gotta run. Get out there as soon as you can," L-Mo calls back to us as she darts out of the room.

"I'm hoping that ogling at Christian Grey all night helps to softens the blow of me having to put up with Mr. Sprechen Sie Douche," Elaine quips as she rushes down L-Mo's same path. But before she leaves completely, she faces us one last time.

"Grey's young, brilliant, insanely rich, and sexy as sin to boot. I've heard stories about him," she grins fondly. "I only wish that he'd kidnap me and whisk me away to his palace in Seattle. A girl could only dream, right?" she giggles. "Well…I'll see you ladies out on the floor. We've got this – Neumann be damned!" she calls back in encouragement before she exits.

Becky is laughing hard before she lets out a dreamy sigh.

"Who's this VIP conquest?" I ask eagerly.

"All you need to know is that Christian Grey is a god on two legs," Becky utters, nearly panting.

"Okaaayyy," I drag out with a snort.

It's strange to witness three grown ass women completely lose their shit over some good-looking guy. I've seen plenty of attractive men in my life…some of them were even here at Zion. But I've never lost my mind over one.

It's just a man.

Why am I not amused? Maybe it's because I've taken in so many books that poetically describe magnificent, hyper-romantic men, that my expectations are severely too high because of it. I've never met a man in real life that made me feel that he was anything other than just a man.

"Let me give you some perspective," she starts, catching perfect wind of my dismissal. "He was featured in GQ magazine's Fifty Most Eligible Bachelors Under Thirty this year. There was one sexy, successful bachelor selected from each state. Grey was crowned Mr. Washington. And as far as I'm concerned, he by far surpasses the other forty-nine, even Mr. Hawaii – and Mr. Hawaii is more scrumptious than a pineapple," she growls, biting her lips.

"Well then," I laugh through my nose with pursed lips.

Yeesh.

"Grey dropped out of Harvard and started his company at the young age of twenty-one. That company is now a multi-billion dollar global entity. He has a huge headquarters in Seattle. And to think, a doctor and a lawyer adopted him when he was just a little boy. Now look at him," Becky muses. Suddenly, she blinks out of her trance when she catches me staring strangely at her.

She. Is. Nuts.

"You can tell that I'm a super fan, huh?" she blushes.

I giggle. "I'd say. I'll just let the girls who know more than me deal with that table, and I'll keep my distance. I wouldn't want to screw up the VIP conquest opportunity."

She clears her throat. "All joking aside, you'll probably want to stay far away from Neumann, anyways. He's rather um…difficult…to say the least."

"I gathered as much," I smile.

"We'll keep you working with some of the regulars that already know you. Elaine, me, and the other long-timers will handle Neumann and friends."

"Sounds like a plan," I nod.

I'm a klutz, especially when I'm extremely nervous. Management wouldn't want me anywhere near their VIP clients tonight.


A/N: Faithful readers – You're back! I'M back!

What do you think of the story so far?

Sorry that this first chapter is so long. I needed time to set the stage for the rest of the tale. Don't expect future chapters to be this ridiculously long, haha!

Next – Chapter 2, tentatively titled "Attraction", will open up with Mr. Grey's point of view. Find out what he really thinks of Neumann, Zion, as well as the clumsy new girl. :)

You've heard of the saying "the customer's always right?" Well it's true, especially when the customer is a gorgeous young billionaire. If you are Facebook friends with me, you've already seen a preview of an upcoming interaction. ;)

Make sure you check out my Pinterest board for "A Private Dance" (storietella/a-private-dance) and see the inspiration for Zion as well as Ana's server uniform.

I hope to take you on yet another fun journey.
Thanks so much for reading! – ST2