Tonight she was going to grab the almost unheard of luxury of an hour of privacy before she finally lost her mind. It was something she promised herself every morning, but it hardly ever materialized due to the endless demands of her family.
She deserved to look and feel human again for at least a little while. She thought that Michael should reap the benefit, too. He never seemed to notice that she looked a wreck most of the time nowadays, and he often made a point of telling her she was beautiful, but she looked in the mirror and just didn't believe him.
Her hair wasn't shiny blonde any more, it's current brown color dull and lifeless now she didn't give it all the attention that she once lavished on herself. She still kept in good shape, but now it was by running around trying to keep a lid on the chaos. Somehow, she could never find a moment for herself, and her appearance had suffered since the days when she spent so much time and effort trying to look beautiful so he would really notice her and finally pay her the attention she craved from him.
The stress and tension of the last few weeks spent finding, moving and settling into a new place had taken its toll on them both, with their lovemaking not only frustratingly infrequent, but rough, hurried and sometimes angry as their exhaustion drove them to fight more often than they were accustomed to nowadays.
It was always the same when they were forced to move. He felt guilty and she felt miserable as yet another promising little haven was left behind on the other side of the country because Max and Isabel decided it was time to move on. She knew how much Michael longed to put down roots with his family, just like she did, and he was equally angry and frustrated at having to move around so often, especially as the unpredictable demands of his new job kept him away from her and their children too much.
Sometime in the not so distant future, she knew, Michael was going to rebel and tell his alien siblings to move on without them. The FBI had shown no further interest in them in the years since they'd fled Roswell and they'd discreetly used their alien powers to cover their tracks. Michael wasn't complacent - he still kept a constant watch for their enemies - but the threat had faded as each new identity replaced the earlier ones, taking them farther and farther away from the original. Only the children's names had remained the same - they weren't yet old enough to be registered anywhere for school so there was no need.
Maria stepped into the tub and relaxed into the bubbles, feeling all her tensions drift away with the steam.
The walls were paper-thin in this rented house and she could clearly hear Michael on the phone in their bedroom, briefly checking in with Max or Isabel as the little group always did in an invariable evening ritual.
"Did you get the job?"
She recalled that it was Isabel's turn to be security central tonight, so the answer would undoubtedly be 'yes'.
Isabel was beautiful and efficient, but she had powers to help and used them without a second thought. Maria was always conscious of the contrast between them and sometimes, like now, wondered if Michael was secretly ashamed of her drab appearance and pathetically futile attempts to impose order on the domestic chaos in their household.
She sniffed forlornly and sank deeper into the hot, scented water.
There was a lot more respect in his tone of voice when he asked the question this time and Maria felt a twinge of jealousy at the alien girl's smoothly organised life.
Hearing Michael voice those words again had sparked off a memory in her head, of the time she'd complained to him that her Vegas audition had been for a stripper, not a singer as she'd mistakenly thought and he'd asked the same question of her, in the deadpan way that she knew perfectly well was a joke, but which had pushed all her buttons and made her mad. Michael had always known how to needle her, how to make her instantly burn with anger, frustration or lust then he usually stood back to enjoy the fireworks, but not that time, as she remembered
In her mind, she was transported back to their illicit visit to Vegas when Michael had bankrolled a 'lost weekend' for the group to have fun and forget their troubles. He'd brushed her off and ignored her the whole time, then phoned her from jail for bail money.
Their conversation unreeled through her mind like it was happening right then...
What if she had really called his bluff that time and taken the job
Maria: "Honeymoon suite - Margarita speaking
Michael: "Maria, it's me."
Maria: "Me, who?"
Michael: "Yeah, funny."
Maria: "Do you know where I was tonight? I was auditioning to be a stripper. Little, innocent me "
Michael: "Did you get the job?"
Maria: "You don't even care, but for your information - actually, yes."
Michael: "Oh, yeah, well, be sure to let me know where and when - maybe I'll come by and check you out "
(Maria bit her lip and narrowed her eyes.)
Maria: "Okay, Michael, I'll let you know the details as soon as they're finalised "
Michael: "Yeah, yeah. Whatever."
Maria: (Through gritted teeth) "You don't believe me, do you?"
Michael: "Is there someone else I can talk to?"
Maria: "We are talking."
Michael: "No, I can't. I'm in jail with Maxwell. What you need to do is shut your trap and get down here and bail us out."
Maria: "Wait a minute. If you're in jail, then that means that this is your only phone call."
(Maria hung up the phone)
Sliding down the wall, she wrapped her arms around her knees. How dare he? Well, he could just stay and rot in there all weekend, for all she cared.
She was sick of Michael brushing her off, not taking her seriously and ignoring her whenever it suited him, which was most of the time. Now she had the chance, she'd show him what he was missing he'd have no choice but to sit up and take notice, for once.
Retiring to the bathroom, she re-touched her make up and called down to the desk to arrange a limo
Twenty minutes later she was back in the fat guy's office. He was talking rapidly into the phone, but he waved her right in and didn't seem all that surprised to see her. He covered the phone with his hand briefly and winked at her.
"Come on in, honey, that's a great little asset. Park it right over there."
He went back to his conversation and when he was done, he turned to her.
"Well, well, sugar, back so soon. Changed your mind?"
He beamed at her benignly, but there was assessment in his sharp eyes.
Maria lifted her chin and stared right back at him. Before she could draw breath to speak, he carried right on talking fast, nodding approvingly at her.
"Dumped the boyfriend and came right back to find fame and fortune?"
"Alex? - I mean um. Oh, he's not my "
"Great, that's a great career move. What does some small town kid know from a talented little lady like you? You're too short for a showgirl, but you sing great, so we can do something with that. S'matter of fact, this is a lucky day for both of us. Several of my girls have called in sick and it's left me in a real tight spot tonight. I got most of it covered, but I still got one late show booking to fill. You're just a gift from the gods, honey."
Maria's jaw dropped.
"What? Like, right now? That's it?"
"Well, I got no choice, do I? Now, let's say 300 bucks. That's not the real deal, sugar, but a special for tonight, 'cause I don't know anything about you and I'm takin' a big chance. If it works out for the both of us, we'll negotiate a formal contract tomorrow. Whaddya say? I provide the costumes and you provide the voice. There's a house band for the late show, just give 'em your music. Now, just to complete the formalities, dear, get your clothes off and let's inspect the assets. Make sure the audience gets at least a little of what they're paying for "
Maria crossed her arms in front of her chest, blushing scarlet, and shook her head violently even as he was speaking.
"Oh, no. No, no, no. I couldn't possibly. Not here. I-I'm not ready to do that cold. I'm a performer, I'll save it for the audience. "
The fat man sighed heavily, but there was a twinkle in his eyes.
"Okay, I guess I'm not going to insist this time, but you'll have to do it for the audience later Now, I know you can sing; I can see you've got a nice little figure, and if you tell me you got no communicable diseases, visible skin problems or unsightly blemishes ?"
He looked at her enquiringly and she shook her head, mute.
"Then we got ourselves a deal."
He held out his hand and she shook it. He fished in his pocket and pulled out a slim gold card case, extracting a couple of business cards to scribble something on each.
"What's your name, sugar?"
"Mar - Margarita Salt."
She blushed again as she just stopped herself from revealing her real name in time.
"Harold J. Nash, II. Call me Harry. Now, listen, honey, you go see my wife at this address - she'll fit you up with the costumes and go through your routines. I'll tell her you're on your way. Call the number on the other card and set up a rehearsal with the band before tonight's performance. It's two spots for the late show at the Pink Marabou Club - one 5-minute straight song, then a 10-minute singing strip to close. Bye, honey. Good luck."
He beamed at her again and lifted the phone at his elbow, clearly dismissing her.
Maria left the building in a daze and went to find the waiting limo. After giving the driver the address, she settled back to try to convince herself it really had happened. A chance to sing in a smoky, late night, supper club - something she always wanted to do - but the downside was that she had agreed to strip at the same time. Reality bit her painfully in the ass, but she couldn't back out now.
Going through with it would finally get his attention and prove to a certain 'Czechoslovakian' that she wasn't to be treated as an irritating distraction in his life any longer.
The limo pulled into the parking lot of a small collection of industrial warehouses on Catskill Drive. One of several signs on the nearest building said 'Stripped for Action - Showstopper Designs by Stella' and the impassive driver got out to open the passenger door. Maria gave him a generous tip and sent him grinning on his way.
Stella Nash grinned at Maria, too, when she collected her from the front desk and chatted all the way towards the rear of the building.
"Harry called to say you were on your way. You've done him a big favor by filling in for Mandy at such short notice. There's a whole bunch of his girls hit by this stomach bug today and he's frantic to find fillers. There normally wouldn't be a problem, but they were all at a bridal shower yesterday, so it may have been something they all ate "
She was a brisk, middle-aged woman with an untidy office full of designer paraphernalia and an overloaded message board. Signed photos of Fifties film stars covered the walls; swatches of fabric, coffee cups and design sketches littered every surface.
Maria explained that she had never done any actual professional singing yet.
"Well, I sang with a band back home and we were featured on a local radio show - but I've never...um...stripped before ".
"Okay, honey, take your clothes off so I can see what I've got to work with "
Maria was less reluctant to do this in the presence of another woman and obeyed with only a small, nervous flutter in her stomach, waiting self-consciously while she endured an unnervingly direct appraisal from head to foot. A completely detached, close-up, thoroughly professional, assessment of her body: it was one of the weirdest experiences she'd ever had in her life, even including the alien events she'd witnessed.
"Hmmm. Nice tits: small, but not too small - and high, that's good - and your ass is a nice round shape. Harry says you can sing. Okay, you aren't showgirl material, but you might do well in a specialty act. They're always in demand here. What's your act? Where's your music?"
Maria's head swam. Music - how the hell had she forgotten about the music?
"Um, sorry - I haven't got anything with me - I wasn't expecting to do this at such short notice. Is it going to be a problem? Harry said there's a band for the late show and I have to rehearse with them before the show tonight "
"Honey, you really are a greenhorn, aren't you? Never mind, Stella has fixed worse problems than this. Grab a coffee for us both while I think about it What? Oh, thanks. Cream and sugar, sugar."
Maria wandered off along the short hallway in the direction indicated and discovered a door into a large workroom filled with racks of glittering, feathery, colorful costumes.
In a well-lit area near the windows a couple of older women and a young girl were sitting in a space filled with sewing machines and presses. They all looked up with interest as Maria headed over to introduce herself.
"Hi... Stella sent me to get her some coffee ?"
The women were helpful and a few minutes later Maria carried two cups back to the office where Stella was at her desk conducting an argument with somebody over the phone. Sipping coffee gratefully, she gazed thoughtfully at a poster showing a line of high-kicking showgirls in feathers and little else. Several minutes of business talk passed, then Stella sat up and set her empty cup down on a stack of old fashion magazines and smiled at Maria.
"Come on, honey, let's get this show on the road "
Leading the way into the workroom, now empty of staff as it was getting late, Stella inspected a small stack of home-burned CDs on a shelf beside a mini sound system, beckoning Maria over to join her.
"Anything you know here, babe? Choose one to sing straight first off and one for your finale. You might think the audience probably won't be listening too closely to the music, but you'd be wrong. A lot of the regulars are connoisseurs of the art of stripping and appreciate a professionally presented act. Nothing too contemporary for this old place - the Pink Marabou customers aren't into the modern stuff - stick to something smoky by Sinatra or Ella and you really can't go wrong "
Maria shuffled through the stack and ran her fingers over the familiar song titles. Stella wasn't kidding. There was nothing later than the seventies, mostly old show tunes and standards or even TV themes. She hesitated over Hawaii 5-0, but passed on hastily. She didn't want the customers to die laughing, even though she was finding it hard to keep a straight face, picturing some of the surreal possibilities
"Still, the bottom line," her mentor winked saucily at Maria, "is that it's really what you want, what you like to dance to and what gets you in the mood to artistically disrobe "
"Harry said there was a band? Why do I need a CD?"
"The band has a play-list of classics for when there's an emergency and no time to rehearse, like now. So we fix it all up here quick first, honey; we can pull together some simple moves with a little class, while you sing whatever it is. You don't just stand there and undress like you're stepping into the shower. Although, come to think of it ? No, that's an idea for another time. We've got to hurry, now, there's less than two hours until you really need to leave for the band rehearsal. They're good boys; I'll phone them now so they can get there early and practice. The show starts at midnight. What have you chosen?"
"Well, to be honest, there's not too much that appeals to me, but there are a couple of songs here that might be ok "
"Let me see This one's an Ella classic - always a good choice. The other one - oh, that's a real old showtune; not even a standard. Yeah, well, it's an original choice, Margarita. Are you sure? Nobody's chosen that before to my certain knowledge, but that might not be a bad thing. Different. Okay, that's fine, honey. Not too complicated for the band, easy to stretch it out for the dance moves and the lyrics are a nice twist on the usual stuff. Yes - it might work out very well. Now we need a costume "
Two hours later, Maria was on her way to the Pink Marabou club, this time in a taxicab. Her costumes and make-up (on loan from Stella) were in bags beside her, the band knew what songs to rehearse and she had a set of simple, sexy dance moves all worked out to the tune in her head. All she needed now was the spotlight.
She'd tried calling everyone's cell phones, but they were all on voice mail, so she just left the time and place, no other details. If any of her friends was interested enough to check it out, then great, but if not - well, Maria DeLuca was ridin' high for once and just really didn't give a damn tonight. The neon lights of the Strip glittered and flashed, drowning the night, but were no brighter than the wicked twinkle shining in her eyes.
Las Vegas was ready to fall at her feet
When the cab pulled up, it was in front of the shabby, seen-better-days, 'Two of Hearts' wedding chapel; a curly neon sign flashed 'Pink Marabou Girls' over a door at the side of the Spanish-style building. Maria entered into a small lobby where the ticket-booth was literally filled by a large, bored, gum-snapping girl, reading an astrology magazine. A minute later Maria opened a door into a communal dressing-room and found herself eye to bosom with a six foot three inch, nearly naked, 300lb drag queen staring down at her with interest.
"You Mandy's replacement tonight, sugar? One of Harry's girls?"
She smiled up at the colossus, beginning to get used to yet another razor-sharp gaze taking her in from head to foot. So far it seemed she'd passed their tests, which was a long-overdue boost to her ego.
"Yes, I'm Margarita Salt. Stella sent me over early for a band rehearsal. I sing one song straight, then I sing again later and s-strip It's my first um professional engagement."
Maria couldn't stop a nervous giggle of excitement and fear, but her fellow artiste echoed it sympathetically.
"I'm Titus Androgynous. Pleased to meetcha."
They shook hands politely and Titus sat down in front of the vanity that ran full-length along the opposite wall beneath a mirror surrounded by bright lights in true theatrical tradition. Maria unpacked and hung her costumes up on the garment rail then hesitated, biting her lip. Titus waved her over to a battered sofa in a corner.
"Don't worry, sugar, everyone's a virgin the first time just relax and enjoy it! Nothing to fear here, the late show audience is just tourist parties and the regular, friendly drunks - sometimes too friendly, if you know what I mean. Any trouble, just yell for Dave the security guard, he's a real sweetie."
Maria was still taking in the impact of the coal-black Cleopatra wig, burnished gold eyelids, the three-inch sweep of thick lashes and a pair of crimson lips nearly as full as her own.
"Are you the star? Do you sing, too?"
"Can't sing a note, sugar. I'm the magician and emcee "
"Oh. Stella didn't tell me anything about the rest of the show - she was too busy teaching me the moves..."
"The Pink Marabou isn't the hottest ticket in town - in fact, it's a dump, but it's a variety show and it does pretty good business. It gets raunchier later on at the midnight cabaret. There's a lot more skin on show, then."
Seeing Maria looked alarmed, he grinned.
"Don't worry, honey, we won't expect you to give your 'all' on your first 'date'. Anyway, a little shyness can often be a real turn-on for a lot of guys out there."
'Guys' Until that moment, Maria hadn't truly considered that there would be actual men watching her undress. Her stomach lurched. She mentally scolded herself - no DeLuca woman backed off from anything merely out of fear. She'd started this, so she'd damn well finish it. Meanwhile, Titus had carried on speaking.
"It's a 2 hour show. The order of acts is on the wall by the door. After the opening intro with two showgirls and a male singer, there's a comedian, then you're on. Then there's me - just a taster for my main act at the end of the show. There's another stripper besides you tonight; that's Bianca - she's only got one spot, but it's a long one closing the first act. There's an interval, then the two dancing showgirls with the other singer again and the comedian. Then it's your turn. I'm the headliner here this week; then I'm booked for a month in a swanky, exclusive downtown supper club. Could be my big break at last "
The two exchanged excited, conspiratorial smiles. It looked like they were ready to settle down for a cozy chat when Maria noticed the big, old clock on the wall and saw that time was growing short.
"Oh, wait - I have to rehearse with the band - where do I go?"
"Just follow the yellow brick road, sugar - right down to the last door on the right. You'll find the boys in the band ready and waiting See ya later "
Maria found herself in the 'wings' beside a slightly raised area curtained-off into a stage by faded crimson velvet drapes. The room was a decent size, the audience would be sitting at small tables and a long bar at the rear.
A couple of young guys were waiting for her behind a drum-kit and keyboard in a roped off the corner by the stage. No other signs of life or instruments were in evidence. They broke off their conversation as she moved out into a glare of lights. She walked over to them, pausing nervously on the edge of the stage.
The overhead lights dimmed and a dramatic spotlight suddenly found her as a harsh, disembodied voice over a squealing sound system blared loudly, making her jump.
"You Margarita? You're late - no excuses. Get your pretty little ass over here and let's go."
The keyboards man spoke to her as she stood in front of the microphone.
"Stella gave us your numbers and we came in early to get them down. Time's short. We'll take 'It Had To Be You' first, okay?"
"Okay - it's a standard arrangement, just take it real slow."
"Then let's go..."
Voice and instruments made it through smoothly enough, Maria gaining confidence all the time. She felt pleased with herself - her first professional engagement and it was in a real Las Vegas club...
"That's good, babe; now for the other one." Keyboards winked at her. "You'll move out among the audience for that, right? Wanna take it through straight first, then we'll put in the moves, for the lights and timing? Okay, from the top "
Without any further comment, the 'band' launched into the intro and Maria started to sing.
Back in the dressing room an hour later, Titus was nowhere to be seen but two very tall, twin redheads and a black-haired woman were sitting at the mirror, applying heavy stage make-up. They all had cheap, cotton robes over their costumes.
Both the showgirls looked her up and down then turned back to the mirror and ignored her, but the brunette watched with wary interest as she sat down and began to set out her borrowed make-up. Maria didn't have a lot of practice at this, but she hoped to get by. She watched the other girls in the mirror and tried to copy what they did.
"You're new. Where's Mandy?" The breathy brunette was curious and concerned.
"Um, some kind of stomach bug, I think. Stella said several of Harry's girls have gotten sick today "
"Oh, too bad. I'll call her tomorrow What's your name?"
"Margarita Salt. I'm a singer, but Harry was a girl short and so tonight I'm gonna be a a stripper, too."
"You a virgin?"
Seeing Maria's confused blush, the brunette grinned and re-phrased the question.
"I mean - is this your first time, honey?"
Both the other girls turned to look at her with friendly sympathy now. The atmosphere had definitely warmed up. She was showered with advice and tips as the girls reminisced about their own showbiz debuts just as if they were old troupers with years of experience instead of just a few months.
The sound system crackled into life and the disembodied voice Maria had heard earlier, complaining that she was late, spoke.
"Five minutes to go, girls. All ready?"
A bored, indifferent chorus of 'Yeah, Eddie ' rose too late. The intercom clicked off again without waiting for their response.
"Eddie, the lighting and sound guy. He's a pain, but only really interested in the technical stuff. The stage manager's off tonight, so Ed's filling in."
Maria's rising excitement was tingling through her veins, fuelled by the suddenly electric vibes from the other girls. Their blasé attitude had vanished as show time approached and now the showgirls primped and preened, shedding their robes to reveal their tiny, sparkling costumes underneath.
The redheaded twins were statuesque in high-heeled sandals; emerald green and silver sequined corsets revealed acres of golden skin. As the disembodied voice remarked that there were two minutes left until show time, they attached long, gauzy bustles to their hips and fixed tall, iridescent feathered head-dresses as the final touch.
They both blew kisses to Maria and left her alone with a leopardskin-clad, wild-haired brunette, who reached down into a woven basket and produced a long, lethal-looking snake in preparation for her act.
Maria recoiled in fright and the other girl laughed delightedly.
"Fooled you, too, honey just like the customers. Don't worry, Sammy here's not real - he's made of some special high-tech rubber and cost me a fortune. It was soooo worth it, he's really spiced up my act. I'm in demand now, that's why I only have the one spot here - I've got two more bookings at different clubs tonight after this one."
Maria's pulse rate slowed down, but only a little as she shyly stripped and slid into the costume she'd left hanging in its protective cover on the wardrobe rail since she'd first arrived. It was almost a parody of the classic 'sexy' dress - a long, tight, red satin, strapless column. High, pencil-heeled red sandals matched it.
It was also slit right up to her waist on her left side, making it impossible to wear panties or even a g-string...
Stella had earlier helped her apply fake tan and this had now developed into a honey-gold shimmer all over her body.
Gazing into the floor-length mirror, Maria saw that The Dress displayed the long legs and perfect skin she'd always dreamed of possessing. Revealed, in fact, much more of it than she was entirely happy about
The showgirls had generously helped with her make-up and her lips had a glossy, red pout, but it was the expression of fearful excitement in her immense, emerald eyes flashing from under thick, dark lashes, which betrayed her nerves.
Her hair had been caught up in a high cascade of blonde curls with fake diamond clips. She looked infinitely more sophisticated and worldly than she ever had before.
"Honey, you are stunning - the customers will just drool "
The snake-girl, Bianca, had been watching the preparations with interest; her encouragement and admiration was clearly kind and genuine. Maria went over to give her a very careful hug just as Eddie's sharp, disembodied voice called her name and told her that she had three minutes.
"Sadist - Eddie should have given you more warning than that, the little bastard."
"I don't mind - gives me less time for stage-fright, I guess "
Maria took a deep breath, cast a brave smile at the unfamiliar beauty reflected in the mirror, and tottered determinedly towards her fate. Nerves were starting to kick in and she began to feel sick.
By the time she walked slowly across the bare, back-stage area towards the heavy walls of old velvet insulating the stage, she was fighting a familiar stage fright. All the little butterflies had developed claws, tearing at her stomach. The deep, restless murmur from the supper crowd, overlaid by the loud, nasal voice of the unseen comedian winding up this part of his act, washed over her. The murmur changed to the swelling patter of applause and she saw the sweating man emerge through the curtains back into the wings, brushing past her without seeing her.
Her nerve suddenly broke and she turned to run, frantic to escape from the ordeal ahead of her. She simply couldn't imagine what insanity had made her decide to do this to herself in the first place
A vast, dark shape loomed out from behind the backdrop curtain and swam towards her through the dusty gloom, barring her path to freedom.
Titus greeted her with an approving pat on the bottom.
The heavy drapes muffled his sultry voice as he bent to speak softly near her ear.
"You're a knock-out, sugar. Even if all you do is stand there and pose in the spotlight, they'll love you. The voice is just icing on the cake, tonight. Go on now, baby. Show 'em what you were born to do Break a leg, Margarita Salt."
A gentle push and she was peering blindly out into a wall of darkness, dazzled by lights and sound. Reality fell away, leaving her in the grip of a long-awaited dream.
She found the microphone and carefully arranged herself so that she was half-perched on the tall stool awaiting her, some lingering instinct warning her not to reveal too much. The Dress fell between her legs, barely protecting her modesty, exposing her entire left side from waist to painted toes in one long strip of golden curves, but she instantly forgot that as the music swelled towards her cue.
The intoxication of singing swept her away, and she swayed gently to the slow rhythm, lost in the lyrics of 'It Had To Be You' as the smoky tones of her own voice captivated her once more.
The storm of applause broke over her and she awoke with a start, dazed and almost bewildered to find herself on a stage. Titus appeared and led her away, back into the wings, but he only tapped her lightly on the cheeks to arouse her to awareness of her surroundings before he pushed her back out there again to take a bow. This time she understood what was happening and smiled out into the darkness, the crowd's approval sparkling through her like a drug.
Then it was over and she was back in the dressing room, the redheads generously hugging her as if she was some favourite child taking its first steps unaided. Titus arrived, grinning, to congratulate her on her 'fabulous' debut, before sweeping off to emcee the beginning of the long, lucrative interval when the audience was forced to buy exorbitantly over-priced drinks.
Then Bianca was there, a whirlwind of affectionate hugs and promises before she had to run to her next gig. When she'd gone, Maria asked the others if there was any way to find out if her friends were in the crowd; one of the twins loaned her a robe and she sneaked out to look down at the audience from the empty lighting gallery above the bar.
Scanning the tables below, Maria found no sign of any familiar faces, either in a group or solo, so she returned to the dressing room and retreated to the restroom for some privacy with her thoughts.
Throughout all the excitement, she hadn't lost sight of the fact that it was all to show Michael that she wasn't just there to be used when he felt like it. If he wouldn't pay her any attention, then there were plenty of others who would.
Michael. Oh, Michael...
He just didn't care enough even to come check out her message.
She should have predicted that. He was here in Las Vegas for his own reasons, whatever they might be, and he'd straight out told her to stay away from him. She'd been stupid to think she could claim his attention when he had other interests to pursue. All Maria's pleasure in her own achievement suddenly drained away.
He clearly didn't want her around.
She just had to make herself face up to that fact.
A stray tear trickled down her cheek and she hastily blotted it with some tissue. No sense in smudging her make-up.
And what about her other friends? Where were they when she needed them? Nowhere in the building, she would bet Michael's last dollar Other interests would be keeping them away and she couldn't find it in her heart to blame them.
So what if nobody cared whether she lived or died tonight? This was Vegas, baby. City of Dreams. If one shattered, she would just damn well build another one, that's all. That's what the DeLuca women did...
Titus' knock on the restroom door, reminding her about the time, brought Maria's head up and plastered a determined smile on her face. She told herself that she was a hit already, without even having to take her clothes off. Her singing had made an impression on Las Vegas and maybe she could build a future on that. So what if she took her clothes off in public tonight, too? She'd given her word to Harry and, anyway, what had she got to lose now?
If Michael didn't give a damn, then neither would she.
There was nobody she knew out there to see her make a fool of herself, so she would let herself go and have fun for once in her alien-angst filled life.
The dressing room was empty; Titus and the showgirls had already left for the second act. Maria was relieved, she couldn't handle having to talk to anyone right then.
The Dress went back on the rail and she dragged the other costume out of the bags Stella had given her. This one couldn't be more different.
For a start, there was so much less of it
When she was ready, she inspected herself in the mirror and couldn't help but bite her lip nervously at what she saw, although the next minute a wide, reckless grin broke out all over her face. She'd had strong objections to the raunchy costume at first, but Stella had said the contrast with the old-fashioned song would be effective and now she saw that might be true
Black, soft, glossy, faux-leather clung to her, emphasising every curve of her body.
A short, low-cut dress, far too small, laced loosely together at the sides so that lots of golden skin showed through and, underneath, a matching black bra pushed her breasts up and together, so that she appeared to have an amazing cleavage. It was a great look for a girl who'd always felt short-changed in that department. Maria grinned happily at her reflection. Maybe it even eclipsed the aqua bra for 'stop 'em dead in their tracks' impact.
Spike-heeled, black, platform mules with pink marabou trim showed off her legs and long, slim thighs encased in sheer black 'hold-up' stockings.
She wasn't worried about revealing the g-string - she'd worn a tiny thong bikini to the public pool all year - there was no real difference in that. It was displaying her bare breasts that made her tremble with apprehension. Michael was the only man who had ever seen them and he was insanely possessive about them She blocked that thought right away. She also, until now, had secretly considered them his private property along with the rest of her body, but Michael had made it very clear that he wasn't interested in her issues, so he could just blow it out his ass. Anyway, it was all over between them after tonight, since he didn't care enough to be here.
Suddenly, the whole outfit felt uncomfortably hot and sticky and she couldn't wait to get out of it.
There was one more part of the costume to add before she left - and Maria was deeply grateful for it, even though she wouldn't get to keep it on for very long.
A slim, floor-length 'leather' coat buttoned up to her throat and a black fedora hat covered her hair, now stuffed into the crown out of sight. The effect was slightly mysterious and - she hoped - erotic
A shiver went up her spine as she realized what she was about to do, but she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. Maria DeLuca would never give up when she set her mind to something.
Eddie's disembodied voice came over the intercom.
"Two minutes, Ms. Salt."
This was it. No going back now. She drew a few deep breaths, but it wasn't enough to stop her head reeling dizzily for a moment.
She couldn't recall how she did it, but once again she'd made her way back-stage and Titus was waiting for her with another comforting pat and a wordless hug, this time.
He clipped a tiny radio microphone to her bra, then he went out on stage to emcee her intro and Maria started to shake uncontrollably as it finally hit her that she had irrevocably committed herself to strip her clothes off in front of a crowd of strangers- and not just strangers, but strange men
Titus was whispering in her ear again, but she couldn't take in the words.
Another gentle push, another wall of light and sound. A feeling of unreality came over her and for a moment she watched herself from somewhere high above as the applause died away to leave a breathless silence.
It seemed to go on forever as she stood frozen in the spotlight and stared out into the darkness.
The light slowly dimmed to a soft golden glow and music grew in the air around her. As the darkness retreated a little, shadowy figures appeared, seated around the rim of small tables crowded near the stage.
Maria felt unbearably hot and, without any conscious thought on her part, her fingers slowly began to unbutton the long, leather coat. She shrugged it off impatiently at last and it fell to the floor, pooling around her feet.
Ignoring the collective gasp from the audience, she reached up to drag the black fedora off and allow her long, blonde curls to tumble down over her shoulders.
Smoothing her hands sensuously over her arms and throat, running her fingers through her hair, she heard the low hiss of indrawn breath and an unexpected feeling of power shot through her at the sound.
Something new and raw awoke inside Maria and she slowly licked her parted lips in response, eliciting a deep groan from the darkness.
Eyes half closed in speculation, she languidly checked out the customers half-seen beyond the edge of the light, gazing enthralled from the nearest table, waiting avidly for her next move.
The music had changed to the familiar tune she'd chosen and now became louder and more insistent; the odd, jumpy rhythm drove her to strut her stuff cockily along the edge of the stage and back again, swinging her hips, giving them a great view of her leather-clad body.
Spotting the chair left deliberately empty for her in the dimness, she stepped off and picked it up to swing it lightly into the center of the small stage, straddling it so that the narrow back hid the view between her thighs revealed by her tight, raised skirt. It wouldn't do to give the goods away too soon. Only her miraculous cleavage was on display, resting on the back of the chair as she addressed the opening lyrics to her audience in an intimate, conspiratorial manner.
"Life upon the wicked stage
Ain't ever what a girl sup-po-ses."
She pouted at them.
"Stage door Johnnies are- en't raging
Over you with gems and ro - ses "
She stood up and twirled the chair around so she could rest one long leg on it to slowly roll the sheer black stocking down to her ankle. Then she slipped off her mule for a second while she removed it completely. Stretching the sheer material out to its full length, she slid it slowly up the inside of her naked thigh and heard another sigh from beyond the light.
Walking carefully over to the edge of the stage, she dangled the stocking over the nearest table and dropped it, staying for a second to watch the well-mannered fight for possession among the denizens of the darkness.
Targeting a young guy a couple of tables further along, she took a chance and held out her hand to him as she sang the next verse.
"When you let a feller hold your hand (which
Means an extra beer or sandwich),
Ev'rybody whispers: 'Ain't her life a whirl?' "
Struggling to release her hand from the grip of the guy she'd picked on (although she was really the one hanging on tight, to his embarrassment) raised a laugh from the crowd. A wave of warmth rushed through her - they liked her - they really liked her!
Strolling a little further on, an older gentleman sat at a table with his equally aged wife and another couple, all of whom looked like upright, respectable senior citizens.
This time, she sat carefully on his knees and repeated the manoeuvre with the other stocking, leaving out the business of rubbing it over her thigh but draping it playfully round his neck and patting his cheek.
"Though you're warned against a roué
Ruining your rep - u - ta - tion "
She tapped her finger lightly against his nose and then rose to leave.
Thankfully, the old gentleman bowed gracefully over her hand and merely brushed a light kiss over her fingertips. Maria gave him and his amused wife a warm smile and returned to the stage.
"When you've played around
The one night trade around
This great big na - tion "
Wiggling her way jauntily back to her seat she bent over, knees locked straight, to give everyone a fabulous view of her ass, only technically covered by the narrow black thong.
The whole room erupted with a cheer.
Arching down still lower (and, oh, how her muscles were gonna ache tomorrow!), Maria took one step to the right and waved cheekily back at them through her legs - this time, the roar nearly raised the roof.
Standing up straight again, a little dizzy from the blood rushing to her head, she sat down on the chair for a moment to recover, crossing one knee primly over the other.
Cocking her head to one side, she sang slowly and ruefully directly to the audience:
"Wild old men who give you jewels and sables
Only live in Aesop's Fables "
"Life upon the wicked stage
Ain't nothin' for a girl "
Standing up, she stretched her arms slowly above her head, to a chorus of wolf-whistles, before she began to unlace the leather dress, singing more of the verses as she did so.
"I admit it's fun
To smear my face with paint,
To think I'm what I ain't "
Maria fluttered her lashes innocently.
"And I like to play a demi-mondy role
(lowering her voice an octave)
However, she had been taught a secret by Stella - the real fastener was concealed down the front seam and all she had to do was tear the Velcro strips apart and the dress would come off in a single action. She paused in a teasingly hesitant way, looking back over her shoulder while she sang the rest of the verse to the audience.
"Ask the hero does he
Like the way I lure
When I play a hussy
Or a paramour
But once the curtain's down
My life is pure "
" And. How. I. Dread. It!"
With a dramatic gesture, she ripped the seam and flung the dress away, then turned and waited, posing in a burst of genuine shyness with her hands protectively covering her bra and her g-string, for the noise to abate. When silence eventually reigned, Maria sadly sang the words that resonated with a special significance for her
"I've got talent but it ain't been tested -
No one's even in-ter-ested "
She tossed her head, so that her curls fell back over her shoulder.
"Life upon the wicked stage ain't nothing for a girl "
She knew the climax of her act was approaching and all at once her shyness vanished as the excitement and power flooded through her again.
One last time she paraded almost naked before her audience, shaking her ass teasingly at them, smiling blindly into the blur of customers clapping and cheering in the darkened room, before standing still in the middle of the now brightly lit stage to sing the final verse, with a wickedly teasing grin for them all.
"If some gentleman would talk with reason
I would cancel all next season "
She slid both hands seductively up over her body and across her breasts to grip the front of her bra, ready to rip it off using the same trick as before; ready to reveal the last secret of the night...
"Life upon the wicked stage
Ain't nothin' for a girl!"
At that moment Maria chanced to look over to one of the tables at the far side of the stage, straight into the brown, enigmatic, eyes of Michael.
Her mind reeled with shock that he had come after all but her body continued irrevocably on with the action she had already started.
Maria ripped away her bra
Instantly, the room was plunged into darkness.
A moment later she was scooped up, thrown unceremoniously over someone's shoulder and carried off stage through the gloom.
Outside in the hallway, the stage door closed behind them, abruptly cutting off the growing uproar as it dawned on the audience that this wasn't part of the act.
"Where's your stuff?"
Michael's voice was cold, sending a shiver of apprehension through the joy that had flooded through her at the knowledge that he had cared enough to come after all.
"Third door on the left "
She barely whispered it, but he heard and next minute Maria was dumped on her spike-heeled, mule-clad feet again in the empty dressing room. He held up one hand and the bright mirror lights flashed on. He watched her as she quickly picked up one of the twins' discarded robes and wrapped herself in it before collecting her personal belongings and turning to look defiantly at him.
Michael jerked his head at the door, impatiently reaching for her hand and pulling her with him when she hesitated for a second, trying to read his expression. The lights blinked out again behind her as they left.
Outside, in the bright moonlit night, a white, ultra-stretch limousine was waiting and she was bundled inside as he gave orders to the driver and then climbed in after her, drawing the drapes over the window behind the driver's seat and sealing them in luxurious, opulent privacy.
Maria curled up on the rear seats, while Michael faced her, sitting on the end of the bench seat along the side of the car opposite the bar. Neither even noticed the sumptuous interior, their attention focused so completely on each other.
There was silence for some time as the limo moved quietly off into the streets of Las Vegas. Maria waited for him to speak first, but finally realised that it wasn't going to happen.
"When did you arrive? I looked for you at the interval but I didn't see you "
"Musta been at the bar, gettin' a soda."
All she wanted to do was throw herself at him and kiss him senseless but his expression was still enigmatic in the dim glow of the interior lights. She couldn't tell what he was thinking and she wasn't really sure she wanted to, right then.
"I-I thought you hadn't come - that you didn't care "
"I care, Maria - I just - I told you I had things to do this weekend, guy things "
His control suddenly broke and he yelled at her.
"Just what the HELL were you doin' in that place? You could have been in all kinds of danger, Maria what if I hadn't been there to protect you?"
Maria drew herself up as straight she could in the back seat of the limo, anger almost visibly radiating from her.
"Protect me? You told me straight out you didn't want me around! Then you brushed me off when I told you about my audition said you might check me out if you had the time."
A reluctant grin crossed his face and he shook his head.
"Yeah, well - I guess I should have known you'd go right out and do it, DeLuca."
"What did you expect? You made it clear you didn't believe me, so I I went out to prove I deserved somebody's attention at least, if I couldn't get yours ."
He turned serious again at that and frowned at her.
"You should have known it was a joke, Maria. I'd never say anything like that and mean it "
She sighed heavily. When it came down to the wire, there could never be anything less than the truth between them, however much it might hurt.
"I guess I did know - but I needed you to take me seriously for once and you - you just drove me nuts."
"I know I have a hard time showing it, and you'll never believe me anyway, but I do listen to you. I came to find you as soon as I heard your message. I was even first in the line so I could get a good seat "
His grin was suddenly wicked.
"It was worth the price of admission to see you - you're beautiful anyway, but tonight you were breathtaking "
Thrilled and disarmed by the rare compliments from him, but not quite ready to believe he'd take so calmly the matter of her stripping in front of other men - and perversely offended that he apparently did - she wanted to be certain he really had seen all of her act.
"Um you did catch both of my er songs, didn't you, Michael?"
His face darkened.
"Yeah, you were just incredible both times, amazingly hot - I'm not gonna forget that little leather number in a hurry - but know this, DeLuca - that was the first and last time you are ever going to flaunt your body like that in public. You are beautiful and you are MINE and no other man will ever get to see your secrets. Only me. Understand?"
Maria smiled with satisfaction. He really was jealous and she loved it. Stretching herself like a cat, sparkling green eyes still huge and shadowed by the heavy make-up, she gazed challengingly into his hot, intense, brown stare.
He leaned forward, waved his hand over her body, and the cheap cotton robe morphed into the clinging red satin dress
Maria looked down at herself in delighted surprise as he ran his hand slowly up her long, bare leg from her ankle over the curve of her hip to her waist.
Suddenly he was on his knees beside her, pushing her roughly down, tangling one hand in her blonde curls as he claimed her mouth with his own, parting her lips with his tongue and at the same time sliding his other hand underneath the red satin to explore her hot wetness as she moaned in ecstasy for him alone.
"Michael oh, Michael "
"Maria so beautiful and all mine Maria "
His voice echoed in her head and her fantasy blurred into reality as she felt gentle lips kissing her face and her name called softly.
" Maria "
She was back in the bath, with a smiling, naked Michael kneeling beside the tub.
He leaned over and kissed her, exploring her mouth with a gentle, leisurely hunger he hadn't shown since before they'd embarked on this latest move. Maria's response was to twine her fingers through his hair and deepen the kiss as the recent fiery passion of her fantasy softened into lazy sensuality as she remembered with delight that they had the whole night ahead of them for once.
Coming up for air sometime later, she smiled at her husband and pushed him gently away, gesturing for him to hand her a towel then standing up to step out of the now cooling water.
Michael wrapped her in the big, fluffy towel and began to stroke slow circles all over to dry her off, kissing the warm, rosy skin as it was revealed
Presently she spoke, softly teasing, as she leaned back against him.
"You have some nerve, Michael Guerin..."
"What? For kissing my beautiful, sexy, irresistible, wife?"
"I came in here for some privacy "
"I thought I heard you calling, but you were asleep and singing to yourself, so I just had to stay and listen "
"Singing to myself in my sleep? What excuse will you come up with next to use and abuse my body, hmm??"
"Other people talk in their sleep - only Maria DeLuca-Guerin sings in hers "
They both laughed softly, as he continued kissing her bare shoulders and caressing her most secret places.
"What were you dreaming about, Maria? I know you were dreaming of me "
"Oh? What makes you think I was dreaming of you, Spaceboy?"
Maria had a flashback to her fantasy and an idea about The Dream Dress. Maybe she would find the time to make that a reality a special private performance for Michael...
Meanwhile, he was still murmuring teasingly, his breath hot against her skin and his c*ock huge and insistent against her ass.
"I bet it was a hot one from the way you were moaning my name care to share? Maybe I could make a dream come true for you "
"You already made my dreams come true, Spaceboy."
He turned her in his arms and looked deep into her eyes.
"I love you, Maria. I love you so much it hurts. You're so beautiful and special and you're all mine - I'd be lost without you "
Then she was naked beneath him, writhing on their soft, deep bed as he rocked with her, pounded into her with all the love and fire she wanted and needed from him, taking them both to the heights of ecstasy that they only found in each other.
In the morning, she stared at herself in the bathroom mirror again, but with a different attitude from the night before.
She smiled at her reflection. Nowadays, even if her breasts weren't quite so perky and her belly wasn't quite so flat after 3 babies, his passion for her was no longer repressed and hidden, he showed it openly and his love for her and their kids was apparent in everything he did.
Then she recalled the 'what if' she'd indulged in the night before and her smile turned self-mocking.
What need had she of a fantasy like that when the reality had been so much better
Michael really had made her dream of singing in Vegas come true and he'd made so many more dreams come true for her ever since.
Maria knew that she loved Michael with all her being and was truly loved in return
Whatever else life held for them, happiness was theirs.