She’s used to baring it all . . . but baring her heart is a whole different story
Down on her luck and broke, Jennifer Dudley long ago traded dancing in the chorus line for swinging from a stripper pole to make ends meet. She’s hoping an offer to come back home and teach dance at her old performance academy will be the opportunity she needs to fix her life. When she moves in with and falls for a software developer with brains, a boyish smile, and muscles, she decides she might be well on her way to a second chance at success—and love. But her X-rated past may come back to haunt her, compromising her newfound happiness and hurting the ones she loves the most.
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Read an Excerpt
Jennifer heard a knock at her car window and slowly opened her eyes.
“Ma’am! Ma’am, wake up!” a baritone voice said. “This is a private parking lot. You can’t sleep here.”
She rubbed her eyes and slowly turned to find a police officer standing at her passenger side window. A frown was on his handsome, dark face. She slowly looked around her, realizing it was finally morning. A few people were walking along the sidewalk. She was no longer the lone car in the parking lot. How long had she been sleeping?
“Is the school open yet?” she croaked dazedly.
She rubbed her aching neck. After her cross-country drive and spending the night sleeping in her car, her body felt like one big knot. Her head ached, too. She would love to crawl onto a real bed, but she had already wasted her money on a crappy motel room while driving to D.C. and a deposit on a basement apartment she now refused to rent. The next place where she spent her last bit of funds would have to be cheap, clean, but safe. She’d make sure it. Until then, she just wanted to talk to Miss Yvonne.
“Oh, my . . . oh, my God!” she heard another voice squeal, making her jump in her seat in alarm. “Jen, is that you?”
The police officer squinted at a woman who was now standing beside him. He pointed to Jennifer. “You know this person?”
“Yeah, I know her! You do, too! It’s Jen . . . Jennifer Dudley. We used to go to the Academy together. We were besties, but I haven’t seen her in years!”
Jennifer stared in bewilderment at the woman. With her sleep-addled brain still struggling to orient itself, it took her a few seconds to realize who it was.
“Oh. Hey, Monique,” she said.
Monique didn’t look like the woman Jennifer was used to seeing in the music videos; Monique’s face was a little plumper and she had cut her long hair into a chin-length bob. Now waving and smiling, Monique didn’t look like the haughty pop diva Jennifer had heard rumors that her old friend had become. Monique actually looked sweet, even wholesome in her pale pink cashmere sweater, camel wool coat, and jeans. It was a relief.
“Jen, what are you doing here, girl?” she asked as Jennifer finally opened the door and shakily climbed out.
“Coffee,” Jennifer said, shoving her fingers into her matted hair. If she couldn’t get a bed to sleep in, she needed caffeine to stay on her feet. She was too tired to put on a mask of pleasantry or to answer questions. “I need coffee. And I need to talk to Miss Yvonne.”
“Oh, Miss Yvonne doesn’t get in this early,” Monique said, walking around to her side of the car. “She doesn’t usually get to the Academy until 10 o’clock. Bina is here though. She’s usually in the office bright and early. You should come in and say hi. She’d love to see you!” Monique grabbed her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I can’t believe you’re here, girl!”
“So everything is okay then?” the police officer asked.
She and Monique turned to find him gazing at them expectantly.
“Oh, yeah, Justin. Everything’s fine!” Monique said, waving him off. “You can head to the station now. I’ve got this, baby. No worries. I’ll call you later.”
Wait a minute. That’s Justin? Justin Mailer?
So Monique was back with her ex from the old days. Jennifer looked at him again—at his strong jawline, dark eyes, full lips, and muscular build that was visible even in his bomber jacket and uniform. Justin had definitely gotten hotter over the years. He looked like one of the Chippendales strippers back in Las Vegas.
I’d give him a second chance too, if I were you, Peanut, Jennifer thought with an appreciative nod.
She watched as he walked back to waiting cruiser before Monique tugged her hand, drawing her attention.
“Let me take you inside. We have coffee in the lounge and croissants and bagels if you’re hungry.” She looked Jennifer up and down. “We have a place where you can freshen up too if . . . well, if you need it.”
Jennifer glanced down at her disheveled clothes as she followed Monique to the Academy’s front door. She hadn’t planned to show up for her first day like this.
But I hadn’t planned for a lot of things, she thought ruefully.
She’d wanted to arrive fresh and eager and instead she was bedraggled and dog-tired. She looked and probably smelled like a homeless person. But the instant she stepped into the Academy’s lobby, all her misgivings and sense of inadequacy faded. She gazed around her, shocked to discover that besides a few minor improvements, the school still looked the same. The same portraits still hung on the far wall along with a dozen or so additions. The same inspirational messages and words of love from the Academy’s founder, Miss Yvonne herself, were painted behind the receptionist desk. Being here was comforting; it felt like home.
“So you never said what brings you here. Why’d you decide to visit?” Monique asked as they strolled down one of the halls. Jennifer trailed behind her, looking around.
“I’m not visiting. I’m supposed to work here. Miss Yvonne hired me as one of the dance instructors.”
Monique halted mid-step. “Uh, does Bina know she hired you?”
“I don’t think so. Miss Yvonne said she wanted it to be a surprise.” Monique burst into laughter, catching Jennifer off guard. “What’s . . . what’s so funny?”
Monique shook her head as her laughter tapered off into giggles. “I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you. It’s just . . . this is the third time Miss Yvonne has done this . . . brought in a new person without telling Bina, I mean. Bina’s the business manager around here and she’s still very Type-A.”
Jennifer nodded. She’d always remembered Bina being the organizer of their little crew, the big sister and leader. Bina always had a plan and knew how to implement it. It wasn’t surprising to hear she handled the business side of the Academy now.
“She hates it when Miss Yvonne throws her curve balls like this. She’ll be happy to see you, but don’t get offended if she’s a little put off that Miss Yvonne hired you without consulting her.”
Jennifer grimaced. Did that mean she was about to get fired before she even started her new job? She was about to ask Monique that very question when Monique turned and murmured, “Speaking of the devil . . . here Bina comes now.”
Jennifer followed Monique’s gaze and saw a curvy, model-type strolling toward them with file folders in her arms.
The years had been kind to Bina MacLaine. She looked as beautiful as Jennifer remembered, maybe more so.
“Jennifer!” Bina cried, beaming. “Is that you?”
Jennifer nodded and absently patted the bird’s nest on her head. “Yeah, it’s me!”
“Girl, give me a hug!” Bina said, holding out an arm and embracing her, crushing her file folders between them. “I’m so happy to see you! What are you doing here?”
Monique lowered her head, trying but failing to stifle her laughter. Jennifer anxiously gnawed her bottom lip.
“What?” Bina asked, looking between them, making her long curly hair sway around her shoulders. “What am I missing?”
“You might as well tell her,” Monique said, eyeing Jennifer.
Bina’s smile disappeared. “Tell me what?”
Jennifer knew there was no other way to say it or ease into it. She shrugged. “I work here now.”
ABOUT SHELLY ELLIS
Shelly Ellis is a NAACP Image Award-nominated women’s fiction/romance author and creator of the Gibbons Gold Digger and Chesterton Scandal series. Her fiction writing career began when she became one of four finalists in a First-Time Writers Contest when she was 19 years old. The prize was a publishing contract and having her first short-story romance appear in an anthology. She has since published ten novels and was a finalist for 2015 NAACP Image Award in the Literary Fiction Category, a three-time finalist for the African American Literary Award in the romance category (2012, 2016, and 2017), and a finalist for the 2015 RT Reviewers’ Choice Award in Multicultural Romance category.
She is married and lives in Prince George’s County, Maryland with her husband and their daughter. Visit her at her web site http://www.shellyellisbooks.com.
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