Learning Curves - By Elyse Mady

Chapter One

Leanne Galloway no longer doubted the existence of hell.

She glanced around the crowded strip club, past the oiled, gyrating men and tables crammed with shrieking women—many, Lee thought, old enough know better. How had she allowed herself to be coerced into attending Gillian’s interminable stagette?

A question she’d posed repeatedly since the limousine pulled up in front of her townhouse full of giggling bridesmaids ready, willing and eager to share their vast knowledge on topics every modern woman should know with the bride’s backward academic friend. Brazilian waxing (essential), travel (if it didn’t say “all-inclusive” and “Caribbean,” you were better off staying home) and men (rich, tanned and hung being the key characteristics for partners of the opposite sex).

In other words, they had as much in common as a goldfish and a whale.

While it had been several years since she’d taken that undergraduate survey course in European literature, Leanne was pretty sure Dante’s Divine Comedy only described nine levels of hell. If anyone was taking bets, Leanne suspected she’d come across the newly discovered tenth level in this crowded, rollicking room. Maybe even the eleventh.

Large tables were scattered at regular intervals. Doors leading to private rooms dotted the back wall, their occupants—and their activities—obscured by dark shadows. Gaudy spotlights threw the circular stage into dazzling relief. It seemed like a typical club, but since tonight was the first time she’d actually been inside one, it was difficult to make comparisons.

Her usual haunts tended to be a little more pedestrian and a little more, well, clothed. As a respected academic-in-training writing a PhD dissertation on the masculine condition in late-Georgian literature, referencing exotic dancers in a journal article or lecture wasn’t the best way to ensure a smooth and predictable ascent up the tenure-track ladder.

That’s not to say she didn’t appreciate the male flesh on show tonight. It was a thousand times more than Leanne had seen in her own bedroom since Steven and she parted ways last year. Still as nice as it was to look at, she couldn’t help thinking how contrived it seemed. Mechanical, even. There was no way she’d ever get taken in by the fantasy these men offered.

A loud cry from the stage carried over the noise, distracting Leanne. “Come on, baby! Let me give it to you!”

Leanne watched as a woman, her cheeks flushed and eyes giddy, stuffed money into the dancer’s electric blue thong. When the bills were secured, the dancer began to sashay across the stage. Unabashed, the woman grabbed his firm butt and slapped it soundly before sitting down to the general acclaim of her friends.

I guess it takes all kinds. But Leanne couldn’t imagine ever getting that excited over a guy who shook his thing to Justin Timberlake, post-’NSync-serious-recording-artist or not.

Taking a sip of watered-down ginger ale to hide a small smile, she risked another discreet peek at her watch and swore softly. Damn. 11:47 p.m. Even if she pleaded headache, she couldn’t escape the hen party from hell for at least another hour without appearing totally rude. Double damn.

Not if she wanted to avoid yet another lecture from her mother on how she needed to let her hair down, get out from behind “those books” (her Mom always said it as though it was some sort of distasteful habit Lee had acquired, like drugs but less respectable) and meet a nice guy.

Of course, Lee knew without asking that the men on stage were not what Sandra Galloway would consider nice. Her definition involved being successful, rich and upwardly mobile. Looks were a bonus but if a man met the first three requirements, certainly not a deal breaker. And long-term, having the capability of fathering attractive and talented grandchildren about whom her mother could boast was on that list. Chiseled abs and the ability to feature in her daughter’s elaborate sexual fantasies were definitely not.

Her confirmed status as a singleton was just one more example of how Leanne never measured up, especially compared to Aunt Barbara’s golden girl, princess-of-the-world Gillian.

As if sensing the direction of Leanne’s thoughts, the bride-to-be looked across the table and glared at her.

“Having fun, Lee?”

Like having my nails pulled out with hot pincers, Gilly dear.

“Oh, tons. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

Reaching up to adjust her glitzy rhinestone veil, Gillian smiled tightly. “I hope you’re not too disappointed about not being in the wedding party. Like I told Aunt Sandy, I totally would have asked you but I had to think of the wedding photographs. It’s for