"You're up next, Kate! Move it!" Marty growled.
Kate's belly instantly knotted into a tight ball of fear. Her heart rate shot up and her lungs began to labor to drag in air. Breathe, Kate, she commanded herself! Deep breath in, exhale slowly. Deep breath in, exhale.
Her mind was chaotic. It was a wonder she even managed to gather enough sense to focus on breathing slowly to keep from hyperventilating.
The man airbrushing the last of her 'costume' on, hurried to finish at Marty's prompting and finally stepped back. "You're ready."
She didn't voice the thought aloud. In the months since she'd 'agreed' to dance for Panas to work off her ex's gambling debts she'd learned it was a lot safer just to smile and nod like a good little slave and jump to do what she was told. If she looked sullen or moved too slowly she was liable to get slapped stupid. Voicing a complaint was just an invitation to get the shit beat out of her.
To the Russian mob that ran the operation, the Exotique', the 'weaker sex' just meant easier control and they weren't the least bit bashful about using their superior strength to exert it.
Her knees felt like the bones and cartilage had melted to the consistency of jelly as she stood up from the bench where the man had been applying her 'costume' and surveyed the results in the tiny mirror above her make-up table. Her hair, which she'd always worn fairly long, had grown nearly to her waist, she saw with a touch of surprise, but it still fell short of concealing her nakedness. It had been lightened from her natural medium to dark brown with auburn highlights to a shade of red she'd hated since the first time she looked at it.
She was a feline tonight. God only knew what breed of cat she was supposed to be---Liger?-her skin was hyena with dark stripes here and there.
She decided she looked like a walking camo for a jungle setting rather than any kind of cat from the wild as she dropped weakly to the stool in front of her table and quickly darkened the tip of her nose, gripping her eyebrow pencil in a trembling hand to sketch a wobbly trio of 'whiskers' on either cheek.
She'd gotten used to standing bare assed naked on the stage in front of a roomful of hooting men-as used to it as she was ever going to get-but the special 'treat' the management had in mind for the night had threatened to turn her bowels to water.
She was supposed to 'make love' to her feline 'mates' on stage-an 'artistic' imitation of the act in dance, she'd been assured, not in actuality, but the 'props' weren't merely stuffed animals like those Panas typically used. He'd brought in two very much alive, great cats-drugged, he'd assure her, almost to the point of unconsciousness, chained, but still alive-and still dangerous because they were straight from the wild, not even close to tamed or trained beasts.
Of all the bizarre things that prick, Panas, had thought up, this one was light years ahead of anything else.
For the first time in her life, she wished she was drugged-too high to have any idea of what was going on.
They were bringing the beasts onto the stage when she arrived and positioned herself for the opening of her act. She thought for several horrifying moments that she was going to pee on herself, or worse, as she watched the keepers lead first an enormous Siberian Tiger and then an equally huge African Lion out on the stage and secure the chains threaded through their bejeweled collars to an eye bolt embedded in the floor on either side of the stage.
Both cats staggered drunkenly, their movements slow, awkward, as if they were swimming through water. It reassured her a little, gave rise to pity she hadn't anticipated.
The tiger dropped heavily onto his side once the three men half dragging, half pushing him managed to get him within reach of the bolt to secure his chain.
It also reassured her to see that they'd only left enough play in the chain to allow him to lay as he was. She doubted he'd be able to get to his feet.
He was absolutely enormous, though. She'd had no idea the things were so huge.
And muscled. She could see the muscles rippling beneath his beautiful coat.
As tall as the Russian thugs were, she'd be willing to bet he would top them by several feet if he stood on his hind legs.
A shot of knee weakening adrenaline spiked through her when she discovered the cat was watching her through narrowed golden eyes. As dulled as they were by the drugs pumped into him, she saw a gleam of both intelligence and interest in those golden depths as he surveyed her with unblinking intensity.
She hoped to hell they'd fed him before they brought him out!
Shivering, she dragged her gaze from the tiger and watched the men securing the lion. Like the tiger, he was a magnificent specimen. His coat sleek and healthy, his mane thick and luxuriant, he was nearly as big as the tiger. He was also almost as 'brawny'.
And, like the tiger, he seemed far more interested in her than he was in the men moving around him.
The men stepped off curtain, but they remained well within her view.
She wasn't reassured by the fact that they'd taken up the poles with loops on the ends she'd seen animal handlers use to catch and control animals.
Stinging prickles of dread rippled over her skin as she heard Panas, just on the other side of the curtain that still concealed her from the audience, trying to work the almost exclusively male audience into fever pitch anticipation.
The noise from the audience rose to a volume that literally vibrated the wood beneath her feet.
The cats stirred uneasily, dragging their focus from her to stare at the curtains, their ears flicking and turning on their uplifted heads like miniature radar tracking dishes.