Now, she’s stuck with a bunch of giggling women who are behaving as if they’re teenagers instead of actually being nearly thirty. She’s the youngest one here at twenty-four, but she’s definitely more mature than any of them. It’s even more frustrating because they’re all Muggles, so it’s almost like they’re speaking a foreign language when they discuss programs on the telly and coo over cinema stars and talk about musicians that Hermione isn’t familiar with at all. There might be just a smidge of truth to her mother’s claim that she’s more a part of the magical world than she realizes despite her frequent visits to the Muggle world for shopping and food. It doesn’t usually matter since she lets Grimmauld Place from Harry, which doesn’t allow her to have a telly, and she works at the Ministry, where the gossip is usually about Quidditch stars or wizarding bands, but she’s certainly noticing her lack of pop culture knowledge this evening.
When Emily, Moira’s maid of honor, attempts to put the party hat on Hermione’s head, again, she has to resist the urge to reach for her wand. She steps away to hide behind some of the other women because there is no way that her goodwill acceptance of the invitation to the hen party extends to wearing a hat shaped like a penis. It’s been bad enough having to participate in a pub crawl when she doesn’t like getting pissed, but now they’re in line at a place that is decidedly not a pub. Hermione’s never been to a strip club before because she’s never had the urge to watch a bunch of men taking their clothes off for money, and there’s a part of her that worries that anyone who performs in such a profession is possibly doing it under duress for some reason or another. She’s read Muggle newspaper articles about women forced into prostitution and erotic dancing, after all, and it could very well be the same for some of the men at these clubs.
“We’re going to see fit blokes taking off their clothes, Hermione. Why do you look like we’re facing an executioner?” Moira slings her arm around Hermione’s shoulder and grins at her. “You should have had something to drink, and then you’d be ready to enjoy this.” She suddenly stops smiling and her eyes widen. “Wait. Are you one of those lesbians? I never thought to ask. It’s completely fine if you are. We can always stop at one of the ones with girls for you.”
“I’m not a lesbian, Moira.” Hermione reaches up to rub at her temples as the line slowly begins to move forward. “I don’t support the objectification of anyone, male or female, especially if they are forced into such a career due to circumstances beyond their control.”
“I’ve had far too much to drink to understand what you just said,” Moira admits. “Can you use smaller words for us mere mortals who don’t have such a vast vocabulary?”
“Some of these people are forced into stripping because they have no other option, while others are deliberately given drug habits by men who take most their earnings,” she explains. “I don’t fancy the idea of giving money to someone who is a victim of circumstance.”
“We can always ask the manager to alert us to who the sober and willing dancers are,” Emily suggests, joining the conversation. “That way Hermione can only watch and tip the blokes who just like dancing or showing off their bodies. She won’t be morally outraged then!”
“Great idea!” Moira nods in agreement. “See? We solved it for you. Now get happier, cousin, because this is my last foray into ogling men as a single woman, and I want to have fun.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary, but I’m grateful for the offer.” Hermione does actually appreciate the fact that the two drunken women listened to her concerns and attempted to find a solution, and she wonders if she’s perhaps been too judgmental this evening. She’s going to have to try harder to at least pretend like she’s enjoying herself. “Have you been to this place before?”
“Yes. It’s very posh, and they have the best looking men, better than anywhere else around the London area. I don’t think any of their blokes are using drugs because they’re very fit and totally gorg!” Moira wiggles a little in excitement. “I was here two months ago for a co-worker’s hen party, and I really hope they still have the bloke who dresses up in the footy uniform. He’d even turn your head, Miss Priss.”
“I’ll be sure to pay particular attention to anyone in a footy uniform, then,” Hermione says, rather proud of herself for not making a rude comment about being called a priss. “I’m doubtful that my head will be turned but I give you permission to say ‘I told you so’ if I’m proven wrong.” It rarely happens so Hermione feels confident making the offer.
Fortunately, the line advances before Moira can respond. Hermione has to duck to avoid another attempt by Emily to put that blasted hat on her head, and she’s relieved when they finally enter the building. It isn’t what she expects. There are tables scattered around a main stage, but there are other smaller stages off to the sides that are more private. The bar is nicely equipped with stools surrounding it, and it’s much more tasteful than she expects. She follows the group for Moira’s hen party to two tables that are right by the stage. Wonderful. There’s not going to be much of a chance of ignoring what’s happening on stage if it’s right there in front of her.
After she sits down, she requests a glass of wine from the waiter, who is wearing tight trousers and nothing else. He’s very fit, so she can understand why women might enjoy visiting this kind of place, but she’s more embarrassed than aroused because she’s rather modest when it comes to nudity. She feels there’s a time and place for it, and taking drink orders just isn’t it. The other women are far more enthusiastic than she is, and she can’t believe the way they’re treating the poor man. While she can understand that it’s nothing more than men subject women to on a daily basis, she’s of the thought of being better than that versus joining the dogs by behaving like them.
From what Emily explained prior to the pub crawl, there is over an hour of performances on the main stage and then the dancers mingle with guests doing private performances. Hermione knows she’s going to be stuck through the main performances, but she will sneak out when the mingling begins because she has no interest in getting up close and personal with a stranger’s bits. When her wine arrives, she sips it, wanting it to last through the rest of this evening. It’s her first glass, since she drank water during the pub crawl, but she doesn’t want to order a second glass, even if it might make the next hour or so go by easier.
They’ve been there for about ten minutes when the lights flicker. The other people who have been standing at the bar or chatting amongst themselves take their seats, and Hermione supposes that means the show is about to begin. A good-looking older man takes the stage and welcomes them all. He points out three different hen parties, including Moira’s, and then he introduces the first act. Someone named Ramon who comes out wearing clothes like a Muggle construction worker. He starts moving to the music, and Hermione runs her hand over her face.
It’s going to be a long night.
It doesn’t take three dancers for Hermione to realize that hen parties must be an automatic target for extra leers and gyrations. Considering how many pound notes have been tucked into minuscule G-strings, she can understand why the dancers favor those groups. However, it is extremely annoying when she is part of one of those groups and has men trying to earn tips from her by grabbing themselves and flexing their arses in ways that she actually doesn’t find attractive at all, no matter how firm and muscular their arses are. After the fourth dancer actually steps onto their table to perform his moves, she needs a break. She whispers to Emily that she’s going to the loo, and she sneaks off for a little peace and quiet.
She actually goes into the stall and uses her wand to transfigure a seat cushion out of toilet paper. Once that’s done, she sits down and pulls a book out of her bag, reading two chapters before she decides that enough time has passed that the show should be nearly over. Hopefully, the group has been so enamored with the flexing bums that they won’t have noticed her disappearance. She tucks her book back into her bag and returns to the table.
“Where’ve you been?” Moira whispers, not taking her eyes off the well-built gentleman wearing a cowboy hat and little else. Hermione doesn’t quite understand the cowboy imagery, though she does remember her mother being fond of some Yank telly program about Texas several years ago. Maybe it’s some kind of homage to that.
“Had to use the loo,” she whispers back. “There was a line.” It’s a little white lie, so she doesn’t feel too guilty for saying it. Moira seems to accept it, which is what matters.
“I’m glad you’re back. I asked Kip, he’s the cute waiter, if the footy player was performing, and he’s actually the last act. Save the best for last and all that, I figure.” Moira wiggles her eyebrows and giggles. “Oh, I also drank the last of your wine because you were gone so long. I ordered you another drink, though. Kip is going to give you a Screaming Orgasm.”
Hermione looks at her empty wine glass and sighs. “Thank you for ordering me another drink, but I think I can do without a Screaming Orgasm, whatever that is,” she mutters, knowing that she’ll just request a glass of water when Kip arrives.
The cowboy finishes his act and is replaced by a police officer. Hermione looks around at all the screaming women and notices that there are also men mixed in the crowd. They’re screaming, too, and she just can’t understand why they all seem to find this entertaining. She looks back at the stage and tries to examine the performance with a less critical eye. It still doesn’t excite her. He’s sweating a lot, and the pouch of his underwear is too tight to possibly be comfortable. He’s an attractive enough bloke, but not her type at all, so she just doesn’t get the appeal.
When the policeman is finished, the announcer steps back on stage and tells them they’re at their final dancer for the evening. Thank Merlin. She can’t use the loo excuse because the brightly colored mixed drink Kip brought her is still sitting there untouched, and he hasn’t returned with her water yet. Moira is practically bouncing in her seat, grinning at Hermione and nudging her with her elbow. This bloke must be something else if he left that big of an impression on her cousin, so she is just a little curious to see him so she can attempt to understand the appeal. The introduction is made, and she waits with everyone else to see this Lancelot bloke. When the curtain moves, he stalks onto the stage, because that’s certainly not just a walk. The audience is going crazy, so he’s obviously a favorite.
The lights illuminate him, and she blinks because she recognizes the face. She can’t place a name to it yet, but she definitely remembers seeing that face before. He’s not exactly handsome, because his face is more beautiful than masculine, but he has strong features that she finds aesthetically appealing. His hair is the color of caramel, and she can see green eyes when he scans the crowds with a slight smirk on his full lips. He’s working the crowd perfectly and knows it. There’s an arrogance about him that she hasn’t noticed with the other dancers, and he moves in a way that reminds her of a jungle cat in a nature documentary her father likes to watch. It’s almost hypnotic.
Some Muggle song begins to play, and he starts to dance. His movements are athletic yet graceful, and she can certainly understand now why Moira remembered him so easily. He’s teasing them all, still fully dressed, and he’s got everyone silent and almost breathless waiting for his next move. Hermione’s trying to remember where she’s seen him before, but she’s distracted by his dancing. He starts toying with the hem of his shirt, he smiles and spins, doing a movement that defies gravity. When he lands, the shirt is off. He’s muscular but not overly so. He obviously takes care of his body, but she can’t fault it because he’s beautiful. He’s still holding his shirt while he moves his hips, tossing out a wink or two to various audience members, then he stops by their tables.
Hermione bites her lip when he looks right at her and arches a brow, blinking at her for a moment. He stumbles momentarily before recovering, and it’s so quick she’d have missed it if she hadn’t been paying such close attention to him. He must recognize her, too, but she still can’t place a name to his face. He keeps dancing, tossing his shirt to a woman with bright pink hair before he does another complicated series of moves. Hermione finds her gaze drifting from his chest down his legs, lingering on his thighs and calves before she looks back at his face. He’s staring at her and smirks when their gazes meet, which makes her duck her head at having been caught.
“Hermione! Lancelot is staring at you. Look!” Moira is hissing beside her, tapping her leg as if that’s going to make her look up.
Finally, she does, fully aware that she’s blushing. He’s made his way further back down the stage, but he keeps glancing over towards her. By the time he gets back to their area, he’s toying with the bottom half of his footy uniform. She refuses to look away like a coward when he stares at her. His lips curl into a slight smile as he does a series of moves that result in him pulling the bottoms off. They seem to have been fastened with Velcro because they rip easily. Instead of a G-string, he’s actually wearing a tight pair of briefs that cover more yet seem even sexier. Moira squeals when he tosses the bottoms at Hermione and turns around, showing off his firm arse.
Hermione shoves the bottoms at Moira since she seems so interested in them, watching as he continues to prowl around the stage showing off his dancing skills and athletic body. He ends up back by their table, and she isn’t even that surprised when he kneels down and crawls off the stage onto their table towards her, not looking away from her despite the hands putting pound notes in the waistband of his briefs and sneaking squeezes of his arse. He leans forward, his breath warm against her ear as he whispers, “After the show, Granger,” before he pulls back and shows off his abdomen and groin area. She can’t help but look since it’s right there in front of her face, and she can say that it appears impressive if it’s real. He smirks at her as if knowing what she’s thinking, and she frowns at him because, really, she doesn’t need his crotch gyrating in her face no matter how appealing his physical form happens to be.
The song finally starts to wrap up, and he stands up, caressing her cheek on the way, and he turns to make his way back up the stage to finish his act. She’s still trying to remember his name and how she knows him. He’d called her Granger, which makes her think it must have been from school or the Ministry. That means he’s a wizard. If so, why is he stripping in a Muggle club? There are so many questions in her mind, but she’s still flustered from the way he stared at her to really think at the moment. They obviously weren’t friends since she’d not have forgotten his name had they been. There aren’t a lot of people who call her by her surname, though, so that limits it some, but not enough. He seems to be close to her age, but he’s not in her year at school since she remembers all of her classmates. Maybe a year or two ahead?
“I need a drink,” she whispers to Moira, standing up once he’s off the stage.
“Sweetie, you probably need a fag after that! I thought he was going to pull you up there on the table with him for a few minutes. Bloody hell, Hermione. That’s some chemistry there!” Moira shakes her head and fans herself before she smiles smugly. “I knew you’d enjoy his performance.”
“You were right.” Hermione reaches up and pulls the ridiculous hat off her head that Emily must have put on her while she was distracted by Lancelot. She tosses the penis hat onto the table before making her way to the bar. “I need a glass of water, please.”
“Not something stronger, kitten?”
Hermione turns quickly when she hears someone talking to her. It’s him. He’s just wearing briefs and an unbuttoned shirt. “Who are you?” she asks, slightly resentful that she has to ask because it makes her seem forgetful.
“Oh, I’m hurt. You don’t remember me?” He gives her a wicked smile as he leans in closer. “What’s a nice goody-goody witch like you doing in a place like this?”
“I recognize you,” she tells him, not mentioning that she’s unlikely to forget such a pretty face. Seeing him up close without a performance happening, she’s able to notice more details about his face, like how long his lashes are and what appears to be three faint freckles beneath his right eye. “I should be asking what a wizard like you is doing in a place like this.”
“You recognize me, but you don’t know me.” He smirks at her. “Meanwhile, I could never forget this hair or that stubborn little frown.” He tugs on one of her curls and stares at her mouth before looking into her eyes. “I’m here because I’m working. In fact, we’d better move elsewhere or my boss might think I’m chatting you up. While I do intend to do so, it’s against the rules, so I can’t be too obvious about it.”
“Chatting me up?” She blinks but follows him when he picks up her glass of water and takes her hand. He leads her to a large chair in a dark corner of the club and urges her to sit down. “And you might know my name, but you don’t know me, either. What are you doing?”
“Private dance, kitten. It’s the only time we’re allowed to interact with guests.” He winks at her before he straddles her legs and begins to rotate his hips. “You’re welcome to touch, if you want. I don’t normally allow it, but you’re special. I don’t see a ring, but that doesn’t mean anything for most the women who come here. Are you single?”
“You really should stop doing that,” she murmurs, trying to focus on his face even as he moves his body in a sinuous way that makes her think of extremely naughty things. “Yes, I’m single, but what does that have to do with anything? Did we go to school together? I can’t imagine why you’d be working somewhere like this if we’d crossed paths at the Ministry. Unless…were you a criminal of some sort?”
“You ask too many questions,” he says, grinning down at her. “I must not be effectively doing my job if you’re able to think so clearly. I’m actually glad you don’t remember me, I think, and, no, I’m not a criminal. Why don’t you stop thinking for a few minutes and enjoy my dance, kitten?”
“You’re impossible.” She frowns at him. “And stop calling me kitten. I don’t know why you can’t just answer my question.” He leans down so that his face is close to hers, and she licks her lips as she stares at him. He groans softly, moving his head so that his lips are hovering above hers, then he quickly straightens up and turns around, dragging his fingers through his hair while he shows off his arse. She notices something near the waistband of his briefs, and she reaches out to tug them a little lower, dragging her thumb over a small Muggle tattoo that disappears even lower on his right arsecheek. “Slytherin,” she murmurs, tracing the lines of the snake until it goes too far for her to follow them without it becoming indecent.
“I know. It’s such a predictable tattoo, but I lost a bet with my mate, so I had to do it.” He reaches his hand back to grip hers, carefully removing it from his hip before he turns back around to face her. The bulge in his briefs seems to have grown, which does answer the question of whether it’s real or not, and she blushes when she realizes that she’s just been stroking his arse. “I take it back, kitten. No touching or I might end up losing my job.”
She looks at his face, meeting his gaze, and it finally clicks. She remembers after Malfoy called her a Mudblood, and the Slytherin who walked by her spot in the library and dropped a sugarquill on her lap without ever looking back at her. “Pucey. Adrian Pucey.” She watches him nod his head. He looks pleased that she remembers his name, and she can’t recall them ever even speaking during the few years they were at Hogwarts together. He’s a Pureblood Slytherin, though, and she knows he came from money because she remembers a Pucey being one of the Death Eaters killed in the war. His father or a brother perhaps? “What are you doing here?”
“Taking my clothes off for money?” He smirks.
“Yes, I can see that, though there aren’t any clothes to necessarily remove right now without violating a law,” she points out, glancing down at his tight briefs before focusing back on his face. “What are you doing taking your clothes off for money at a Muggle establishment?”
“You’re not going to give up, are you?” He shakes his head and leans down, continuing to move as if he were giving her a private dance instead of having a conversation. “Long story short: my father was a Death Eater, my mother died when I was fifteen, and the Ministry took everything after the war. I lost my position with the Magpies because management didn’t want the son of a Death Eater on their roster regardless of how good a player I was. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for those of us with that family connection, kitten. This pays well, and I’m good at it. Since I didn’t share my father’s inclinations, I don’t mind dealing with Muggles. Once I save enough, I plan to open a business with my cousin who’s been in a similar situation since the war. Pansy’s brilliant at planning events, and I’m good with a camera. Hopefully, there’s been enough time gone that we’ll have a chance to do it in our world, but we’re willing to do business with Muggles, if necessity requires it. So, does that answer all your questions?”
“Not at all, but it’s a start.” She reaches out to grip his hip. “Can you please stop that? I can’t believe people have treated you that way because of something your father chose. It’s as bad as wanting all of us dead because our parents aren’t magical. It’s hypocritical, and I won’t stand for it. Your cousin is Pansy Parkinson?”
“Yes, she is, and no, you can’t change the world. I know you probably want to try, I seem to recall that from school, but it’s not like it isn’t justified.” He straddles her legs again and actually sits down, leaning in towards her so his weight is on his legs instead of her. She can’t help but stare at his thighs and then gradually move her gaze upwards, lingering on his hipbones for longer than is appropriate. When he laughs softly, she raises her gaze to his face and tries not to blush. “I might not have the Dark Mark on my arm, but I didn’t try to fight against their side either. Neutrality can be just as dangerous, and I don’t like to think of how many people were killed at the end of my father’s wand that I might have been able to save if I’d made an effort and tried to stop him myself. Losing my home and vault is nothing compared to the loss of life he caused. Possessions can be replaced, and I’m not bitter about any of it, kitten. I appreciate your claws coming out for me, though. It’s been a long time since someone wanted to stand up for me, and they certainly weren’t a beautiful woman.”
“You shouldn’t be blamed for what he did.” She’s surprised by his attitude about everything, and she’s never heard anyone take his viewpoint about neutrality before, but she can admire that he accepts responsibility for his own actions, or inaction as the case might be. Still, she doesn’t think it’s fair.
“I don’t consider it blame,” he says simply, reaching down to take her hand. She lets him move it over his chest, her fingers twitching to touch on their own, but she doesn’t. She lets him guide her and watches his face as stares at her. “I’m not a new cause, Hermione. I’m a man, as you can see, and my choices are my own.”
“Are you really doing this because you enjoy it?” she asks, needing to know because she spent his entire act objectifying him the same way everyone else had, and she feels bad for it now that she realizes who he is and why he’s doing this for a living. She doesn’t care what he says. Kingsley shouldn’t have allowed the Ministry to take everything from the descendants of known Death Eaters unless there was proof they had also participated in those activities. She’s going to need to look into it when she goes to work Monday, that’s for certain. He lets her hand go, and she drags her fingertips down his abdomen through the hair below his bellybutton before she pulls her hand back.
Adrian is watching her with an intense expression on his face, but he blinks when she stops touching him and smiles. “Oddly enough, I don’t hate it. This is a posh place with proper rules and the owner looks after us. I’ve worked at places that weren’t like that at all, which is why I don’t want to lose this job even if I’m resisting the urge to just snog you rotten right now.” He caresses her cheek, his thumb brushing against the corner of her lips. “It’s against the rules, so I won’t. Other places, they expected us to earn extra money doing whatever the paying customers wanted, but I refused to do it, so I lost a few jobs before finding this place. However, I get off work at four, and I’d love to take you to this café nearby that’s open all night.”
“You’re, um, very good at it. The dancing and teasing thing.” She bites her lip and watches his face. “Seriously? You want to go for food at four in the morning?”
“Seriously.” He slides off her lap and stands up. “Say you’ll wait for me?”
“Adrian, you’re crazy.” She shakes her head. “I just watched you strip for an entire room full of people who would probably do just about anything to get you out of those briefs. I’m not the type to do this sort of thing, you know?”
“Maybe that’s what I find appealing?” He smiles slightly. “It’s just a meal, kitten. If it turns out that these sparks we felt, because I know you felt them too, were just from the performance, we’ll part as potential friends and call it a night. But if they’re not, why not give them a chance to catch fire?”
“Because they might burn us up? Playing with fire is dangerous.”
“If looked at a particular way, everything in life could be considered dangerous. Four o’clock, Hermione. It’s just another hour. Wait for me.”
This time, it isn’t a question, and Hermione can’t look away from those pretty green eyes. “I’ll wait.”
“I’ll meet you at the bar when I get off work. Just tell Matt that you’re waiting for me, and he’ll let you stay. He’ll probably ask you a dozen questions, too, since I never date customers.” He shrugs. “You’re not really a customer, though. You’re an old school friend that I haven’t seen in years. I think having a prior relationship, of sorts, trumps being a guest for one performance. Anyway, the boss has looked over here a few times now, so I know I’d better move on to mingling with other guests or he’ll get suspicious.”
“I should get back to my cousin anyway. She’ll be wondering where I’ve wandered off to.” She stands up and straightens out her skirt. She wonders if she should give him money for the performance if his boss is watching, but that feels awkward to consider paying him when they’re meeting later for what he’s calling a date. “I’ll see you at four.” She smiles and squeezes his shoulder before stepping past him.
“Damn it all,” he mutters, reaching for her arm and tugging as she starts to walk away. She turns towards him, and he pulls her closer, lowering his head so he can kiss her. She returns the kiss, moving her fingers into his hair and pressing closer to him. When they finally part, her lips are tender, her hands are on his back beneath the unbuttoned shirt, and they’re both breathing hard. All that from just one kiss? Maybe she should be worried about starting a fire.
“I’ve wanted to do that since I saw you sitting at that table, before I even realized who you were.” He grins down at her. “Now go find your cousin, kitten. I’m off to convince the boss that I’m too valuable to lose over a kiss.”
He doesn’t give her time to reply. He winks and makes his way to a man in a suit that is standing against a wall near the bar. Hermione touches her lips before shaking her head and walking back to her seat. Moira smirks at her and waggles her eyebrows as Hermione sits down. “Don’t say a word,” she warns, holding up her hand to ward off whatever nonsense Moira is likely to natter on about.
“But he kissed you! It was so hot I’m surprised the air conditioning didn’t start up!” Moira giggles. “Is he as strong as he seems?”
Thinking about everything Adrian had said regarding his life since the war and how his attitude seemed to be so positive, she nods. “Even stronger,” she murmurs, looking over to see him chatting with the man in the suit. The man is smiling and doesn’t seem unhappy, which is good since she doesn’t want him to get fired or anything. Adrian glances her way and his smile softens, which causes a twisting in her gut that she hasn’t felt in a long time. She looks away to find Moira grinning at her. Hermione sighs. “Oh, just say it. I know you won’t stop smirking until you do.”
Moira laughs. “I told you he’d turn your head!”
Hermione rolls her eyes but has to laugh. She thinks about their plans to meet after he’s off work and the sparks he mentioned that she can’t deny feeling herself. Looking at Moira, she smiles. “Yes and you were right. He certainly did.”