by Emily Forbes

'Let me get this straight. Richard proposed and you turned him down?'

Scarlett turned and leant in close to her friend's ear, taking care to avoid the spiky tips of Mel's short pixie haircut. 'Shh,' she whispered. 'I don't want everyone to know and I'm sure Richard doesn't either.'

Mel's voice hadn't been overly loud but this wasn't a conversation Scarlett wanted the rest of the girls in their party to hear. She worked with most of them and she didn't want to be the subject of rampant hospital gossip and she certainly didn't want to be the one to start a tale.

She flicked a glance over their group but most of the girls seemed to be more focused on getting inside the club than listening to her and Mel. Candice, the bride-to-be, was at the front of the line, the long white veil she wore making it obvious she was the hen on the hen's night. The veil was longer than her dress and Scarlett thought she looked ridiculous but what would she know, hen's nights were not really her thing.

Neither was fashion, she thought as she wriggled her toes, trying to encourage some circulation into her extremities. Her feet were killing her. She'd borrowed a pair of platform stilettos to team with her simple black dress. The shoes and her make-up were the only concessions she'd made to dressing up for the night out but the strappy sandals were proving to be a big mistake.

Scarlett's taste in clothing tended towards timeless classics, she wasn't a trend follower. It was a waste of good money, in her opinion, and her feet were now reminding her of her momentary lapse of reason. She couldn't wait to get inside and sit down. The short walk from the restaurant in Leigh Street to the Hindley Street club was about her limit in five-inch heels.

She couldn't believe she was keen to get into the club. Spending an evening at a male revue, especially one called The Coop, wasn't something she had ever done before and she could only imagine what the experience would be like—although if the guy on the door was any example she wasn't going to need to rely on her imagination.

Candice's name was on the door, allowing them to bypass the queue and giving them free entry. Apparently Candice knew someone who worked here and Scarlett wondered where on earth you'd meet someone who worked in a strip club, but as the cute young shirtless guy on the door ushered them inside she decided she didn't care, all she wanted was to sit down.

'I want to hear all about it once we're inside,' Mel said, as another buffed and shirtless male greeted them and led them to their table. The club was dimly lit and it took Scarlett's eyes some time to adjust to the lighting. A T-shaped stage jutted out into the centre of the club, the catwalk stretching into the tables that were clustered around the stage. A mirrored bar lined the far wall and a dance floor hugged the back wall and was already packed with young women dancing and singing. The noise level was high and almost unpleasant, but Scarlett hoped that might work in her favour. Perhaps the noise would make any sort of conversation impossible.

She followed the girls to their table, which was front and centre at the end of the catwalk, and sank into a chair. Jugs of bright green cocktails were delivered, promptly poured into glasses and passed around, and Mel waited only until everyone had a drink before she continued her interrogation.

'So Richard was lying in his hospital bed, recovering from heart surgery, working up the nerve to propose, and then you knocked him back?' she asked, as she sipped her drink. It seemed Scarlett wasn't going to get out of this.

'It wasn't like that,' Scarlett protested. Surely Mel couldn't believe she'd be that heartless.

'Don't tell me he was down on one knee beside his bed?'

'No.' Scarlett shook her head. 'He was out of hospital.'

'Well, that makes all the difference,' Mel teased. 'How did he take it when you said no?'

Scarlett could tell Mel was enjoying her discomfort but she had made her decision for what she knew were perfectly valid reasons and she wasn't going to marry the guy just because he'd had a mid-life revelation.

'He was okay. What other choice did he have really? It was my decision. He can't change my mind. I think marriage is overrated and it's not for me.'

'Don't let Candice hear you.'

'She already knows. Richard showed her the ring he bought me, he wanted her opinion.'

'He bought you a ring!?'

Scarlett nodded.

'What was it like?' Mel's curiosity took another turn.

'Gorgeous,' she admitted. And it had been. A square-cut solitaire, over one carat in size, set in platinum. It was in a traditional setting and was exactly right for her, classic and expensive. 'Almost gorgeous enough that I wanted to accept his proposal.'

'So why did you say no?'

'I was thinking about saying yes but then he started talking about having kids and I freaked out. I don't want kids.'

'Really? How come I never knew that?'

Scarlett and Mel had been friends for years, since meeting on the first day of med school, but Scarlett hadn't realised she'd never shared her feelings about children. She supposed the topic had never come up before now.

'Kids are a huge sacrifice. Believe me, I should know. I've seen what my mother gave up to raise me and my sisters. I've worked really hard to get to this point in my career and I'm not done yet. I'm not going to give it all up to raise a family.'

Scarlett could feel the effects of the cocktails they'd been drinking on top of the wine she'd had at dinner. She could hear her words weren't as crisp as usual, a bit blurred around the edges, a bit of a lisp on the essess. She knew the alcohol had loosened her tongue too. She wasn't normally so forthcoming about her personal life but she and Mel had shared a lot over the years since they'd been paired as lab partners on their first day at uni. They had been the only two who hadn't already known someone—Mel had moved to Adelaide from Tasmania and Scarlett had been a mature entrant.

She'd felt years older than everyone else and hadn't been used to the social nuances of teenagers, even though she'd only just been out of her teens herself. Their isolation had been the only thing they'd had in common initially but they'd both recognised that it hadn't mattered. Over the years their friendship had grown until Mel felt, in a lot of ways, like another one of Scarlett's sisters, only a lot less trouble.

'But you don't have to have kids right now,' Mel countered. 'It could wait until you've finished your final exams.'

'I'd still need to establish myself in anaesthetics before I could take time off and Richard doesn't want to wait. He's forty-three and he's just had a major health scare. It's made him reassess his future.' Richard's recent heart attack and minor surgery had been a big shock to him at a relatively young age and Scarlett knew that coming face to face with his own mortality had been the trigger for his proposal and his reassessment of his priorities.

'You could get a nanny. And a housekeeper. The two of you could afford to pay for whatever help you want.'

'So I get married, have babies and then hire a nanny and a housekeeper.'

'Sounds all right to me.' Mel grinned.

Scarlett shook her head. 'Having or not having kids wasn't my only reason for turning him down. It just didn't feel right. It was more than just his desire to have a family. When he proposed it should have felt like a moment I'd been waiting for my whole life, but I remembered being more excited about getting accepted into my anaesthetics specialty than receiving a marriage proposal, and surely that's wrong. My heart was racing, but not with excitement, I think it was panic. There was no impending sense that this was the next stage of my life and I couldn't wait for it to get started. I could have married him but it would have been for the wrong reasons. At the end of the day, I didn't love him enough.'

She also knew that she'd been scared. Terrified even. She didn't want to have children with someone so much older and who had heart problems. What if he died and left her a single mother? That was exactly what had happened to her own mother and it was not what she wanted in her own future. She didn't love Richard enough to take that chance. It was easier to let him go.

She had thought Richard would be a safe choice, she'd thought he wanted the same things as her. She'd thought his focus was on his career and that because he was already in his forties he wouldn't want children. Wouldn't he have had them by now if that was the case? But when things had turned out differently from what she'd expected, she'd discovered that she didn't love him enough to change her mind. She didn't love him enough to risk everything she'd worked for.

'So that's it. All over?'

'It's the right decision. I know it is. I'm not even sure he loves me either. I think a lot of his plan for the future was driven by timing and circumstances and not so much by his love for me. He had never mentioned wanting children before his heart attack. I think he'd be marrying me for the wrong reasons too.'

Scarlett picked up her cocktail glass. The wait staff was well trained and had obviously been told to make the most of the break in the entertainment to keep the drinks coming. No sooner had one jug been emptied than another was delivered. Scarlett sipped her drink. She didn't really need more but she wanted to let the alcohol numb her a little bit. She didn't want to spend the night thinking about Richard. That chapter of her life was over and she wasn't planning on having any regrets.

She'd been working and studying hard since she was sixteen and she had a few more years to go. She wanted to finish her studies and she wanted time to enjoy the fruits of her labour. She didn't want to be tied down at the moment. Surely that was a sign she wasn't ready for marriage. Surely that was a sign that it was time to have some fun.

'Let's talk about something else. I'm moving forward with my life, starting tonight.'

She looked around at all the women who were getting into the spirit of the evening, not just at Candice's table but throughout the room. She got the feeling she could let her hair down and not be judged. There was a sense of what happened in the strip club stayed in the strip club feel to the night. Maybe it was the effect of the green cocktails but Scarlett decided it was time to join the party.

Another round of cocktails had just been brought to their table and this time it was Scarlett who refilled their glasses before she turned her attention to the entertainment. Another set had just begun and the stripper on stage was young and athletic and, in her uneducated opinion, very good at his job. She felt slightly uncomfortable appreciating the 'talent' of the much younger men on stage but considering she was hardly the oldest female in the room, and she was certainly not the loudest in voicing her appreciation, she decided she would be rude not to enjoy the show.

By the time the set came to a close the green hue of the drink was starting to make her feel a bit nauseous. She wasn't used to drinking much, her job didn't really allow for it, and she knew if she didn't make sure to drink some water she'd regret it in the morning.

'I think I need something other than alcohol,' she told Mel. 'I'm going to the bar. Do you want anything?'

Mel shook her head as Scarlett pushed her chair back and stood up, pleased to find she could feel her toes again after resting her feet. She picked her way through the tables, dodging the good-looking, scantily clad waiting staff. She didn't want to make eye contact with them but there didn't seem to be any other polite place to look as she made her way across the room.

The bar staff was all cut from the same cloth as the waiters. They were all men, all shirtless and all cute. Not one of them had any chest hair or any body fat. They were all waxed and tanned and gorgeous and Scarlett gave them each a quick once-over before they had time to notice her.

The barman closest to her was slicing lemons. He was about three feet away and standing in profile to her. He had a sculpted jaw, small ears and brown hair, cut shorter at the sides and longer on top, that he'd obviously run some product through with his fingers to keep it spiked up. The deejay was playing a faster-tempo dance number now and all the barmen were moving to the music. Nothing choreographed, their movements looked natural and Scarlett wondered if they even knew they were dancing. She watched his hips as he kept time to the beat. His abdominal muscles flexed as he twisted to reach another lemon, drawing her attention away from his butt. His skin was smooth and tanned and his triceps tensed as he slid the knife through the flesh.

He finished dissecting the last lemon and scraped the slices into a bowl, using the back of the knife. He slid the cutting board into a sink as he twirled the knife through his fingers. Scarlett held her breath and watched as the light reflected off the blade. She gasped as he lost control of the knife and it left his hand and spun through the air. She watched it fall and waited for it to hit the floor, waited for it to stab into something it shouldn't.

It landed on the floor behind the barman, where it lay innocuously on the rubber matting. No harm, no foul, but he'd heard her gasp and before he retrieved the knife he turned to look at her. He grinned. A cheeky, quick smile that lit up his face and made Scarlett think he made a habit of mucking around and that he didn't mind getting caught.

He held her gaze and winked at her. Scarlett blushed and quickly broke eye contact but when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw him turn around to pick up the knife she automatically went back for a second look. His jeans had stretched firmly across his butt and Scarlett couldn't help but admire him. His buttocks were round and firm and the denim of his pants moulded perfectly to his backside.

She was still looking as he stood up and turned to face her, catching her by surprise. Her blush deepened and she couldn't pretend she hadn't been checking him out but luckily he didn't seem offended if his broad grin was anything to go by. He didn't seem to mind being stared at but, then, why should he? He was gorgeous and probably very used to it.

She didn't imagine she was the first woman to have been caught perving on him.