Mike sat beside Jimmy stage-side, occasionally sipping a diet coke with a stack of one dollar bills in front of him. As the various dancers came on stage for their set, he set out two or three dollars for them to collect at their leisure, but otherwise his eyes roamed the room, keeping tabs on his people. Jimmy and Varanelli were definitely giving off flirty new-couple vibes, a development he hadn't seen coming. Cop Cody was chatting up a dancer at a side table; successfully, judging by her frequent laughs. Whittaker and Greg were throwing money onto the stage as if afraid to keep it a moment longer. McGreary had disappeared, probably getting a dance already. Joe was watching the show while being rudely stingy with his money. And Sam seemed to be getting along well with the new guy. Everything was fine so far, but the night had barely begun.
The open chair beside him suddenly held a brightly smiling Sam. "Hi, Mike!"
"Please don't tell me someone slipped a happy pill in your drink."
"I'm not drinking," she said.
"Then I can only surmise by your radiant expression that you really enjoy strip clubs."
"How was your flight back from Saint Louis?"
Mike shrugged, eyes drawn to movement by the door to a hall where McGreary was emerging with a satisfied grin on his face. Everyone was accounted for. Sam's elbow dug into his ribs. "So which of the stripper girls do you like the most?"
"If you're trying to buy me a dance, I have to decline. I'm busy supervising this gaggle of idiots."
"I'm just trying to figure out what you look for in a woman, Mike. Which of these ladies makes you go 'ooh la la'?"
"You're kinda weirding me out, Sam," Mike said. He saw a voluptuous woman leading a nervous Diego by the hand towards the hallway. Greg and Whittaker were laughing and clapping as he went.
"Can't I be curious?"
Mike glanced down at Sam. "Fine. Historically, my type has been the type of woman with a bit of a trashy side."
Her expression grew befuddled. "Trashy?"
"Just a little bit. You know, like, the kind of chick who would wear a white tanktop with a colorful bra underneath. Or homemade jean shorts and work boots."
Sam blinked rapidly as if her brain were rebooting. "Are you joking?"
"Not really. Think about it this way. My wife was best friends with Varanelli. You know right there that she wasn't high class. None of that tea and crumpets bullshit."
Her playful smile returned suddenly. "What's wrong with drinking tea?"
"Nothing wrong with drinking tea. I'm just saying that in the past I have gone for girls who couldn't properly be described as ladies. Too much eye shadow, hair all mussed up, that type of thing."
"In the past. What about now?"
Mike turned to do a quick head count of his people. "I'm not looking for romance, Sam. I want to focus on everyone staying alive."
"Of course you do," Sam said. "How about that woman talking to Sean McGreary? Do you like the tattoo sleeve? It's kinda hot, right? Makes her skin look dappled."
He glanced towards the woman in question. "Sure, she's attractive enough."
"That didn't sound very convincing. Tell me, who would you rate as the most attractive woman in the EDA?"
Mike froze in his scan of the room. "Aw, shit. Look, Sam, I'm not looking to date anyone. But if I was, it wouldn't be someone half my age. You're cute and all, but the whole princess vibe never did it for me."
"That is so not where I was going," Sam said. "But good to know. Jess and I are too young for you. Kendra isn't your type. So that just leaves Erica, Tracy, . . . and Cassandane. You know the game kiss, marry, kill? Why don't you play it with those three?"
After a pause to take the slightest sip of his diet coke, Mike made a shooing gesture. "I don't need any distractions. Go bother someone else."
"I heard Kendra talking about your suspicious behavior," Sam said. "I was a little worried it might be me. But I'm not the one you make special stops to pick up presents for."
Mike shrugged. "Look, it's important to cultivate good working relationships."
"How about we bring Kendra into the conversation?"
As Sam began to stand, Mike snatched her wrist and forced her back down in an impulsive motion. Her smug smirk grew. "Stop it, Sam."
"You like her."
"It's not . . . you are reading way too much . . . look, it's . . . ." Mike clenched his jaw. "If you tell anyone about your notion, I will make your life very difficult."
"Admit it's true and I'll keep your secret."
Mike shook his head. "I will admit that she's an attractive woman. And she is someone whose talent and vision I respect. That's all I have to say about her."
Sam nudged him in the ribs again. "Have you ever noticed how she laughs at your jokes and no one else's? I thought you were such a brown noser, but turns out it was romance in the air."
"Look, Sam, I'm not playing this game. I have a price on my head, I can't keep my soldiers alive, and I don't have any time to be messing around. Besides, even if I was interested, it wouldn't work. You don't date your supervisor, especially not in the military. I'm not exactly some great catch either." Mike took a gulp of his diet coke. "So stop being silly."
"You really think it's impossible? Everyone around here is hooking up like crazy. We're bored out of our minds, don't get to interact with outside people, and have to consider our mortality on a daily basis. I mean, Jess and Srinivas. I'm pretty sure Kendra is with Jimmy now. Trust me, Cassandane isn't a total ice queen."
"Go away, Sam."
"I'm a Centurion, too. You can't just order me around."
Mike lifted the stack of bills and waved them in front of the dancer who was looking down at them with a pouty face for being ignored. "All yours if you make the girl beside me motorboat you."
Sam's horrified expression disappeared into cleavage as two hands pulled her face forward and rubbed it around. When the stunt ended, Mike handed over the cash and thanked the woman for her service. Beside him, a subdued Sam scrubbed at her face with one of her shirt sleeves.
"That was a lot of perfume," she grumbled.
"And you've got glitter all over your face," Mike added.
"These are exactly the kinds of details Jess would want to know. I'm going to leave you alone now."