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There was nothing like a little bare skin to turn twenty adult men into drooling adolescents. Throw in a long, hard pole and a pair of glittery high heels, and they were a sad bunch of throbbing glands.
"Take it off, baby. Show us what you got."
As if she'd been waiting for those lovely and enticing instructions, the stripper offered a sharp smile and, quick as a whip, yanked her dress in half and threw it across the room.
Dominic Castillo listened to his brothers and cousins whoop and holler, half of them waving dollar bills as if they were winning lottery tickets and the stripper their prize. Once he'd have been right there with them, front and center. Not that he'd have to call out lame suggestions and wave money to get her attention. Nope, all Dominic needed was his charming smile to beat out all of his relatives for the sexy woman's attention.
But tonight his dollars were safe in his pocket and here he was, on the quiet side of the bar, sucking down a soda and wondering what the hell had happened to his life.
A yeardamn, six monthsago everything had been golden. He'd been a kick-ass SEAL rocking his way up the ranks, carrying out death-defying missions and loving every second of it. Women flocked to him; he had a great family and a brotherhood of SEALs who had his back and kept life fun.
Hell, he used to wake up most mornings expecting to see a big ole S on his chest.
He carefully shifted his head from one side to the other, glad his brain stayed put.
He'd gone on dozens of missions in his five years as a SEAL. His solid muscles and the scars were a tribute to his dedication to his career. He'd been hurt plenty of times. He'd dodged bullets, pulled shrapnel out of his boot and, on one memorable occasion, plummeted through the sky when the team's plane took on heavy fire.
Now he was sitting on his butt while his teammates carried out a mission he'd spent the past few months training for. All because of an equipment malfunction while he'd been fast-roping from a helicopter. When the cable snapped, he'd only dropped ten feet, but the impact had left him bruised, aching and sporting a severe concussion.
And feeling like a loser.
He blamed Banks. Lieutenant Phillip Banks, the biggest pain in the ass to ever earn the SEAL trident.
"I didn't think you were going to be able to make it until the wedding," Lucas said, watching the show with a bored look.
"Miss my little cousin's bachelor party? Bite your tongue." Dominic forced a smile for his big brother's sake. And, of course, to keep Lucas off his back. If his brother knew he'd been released from a doctor's supervision less than a dozen hours ago, he'd nag like crazy.
"You mean you didn't want to miss Lotta Oomph shaking her stuff," Lucas said, snickering.
"I've seen plenty of shaking in my time," Dominic replied dismissively, even while acknowledging that Lotta had an impressive shake. "Thirty states and eight countries, big brother. Can you top that?"
Lucas considered his beer bottle for a second, then tilted it and his head to one side. "Saw triplets pole dancing with their trained dogs in Reno once."
"Right down to their spots."
Dominic pursed his lips, imagining what that might have looked like, then gave his brother a nod.
"That's worth at least ten states, China and Mexico," he decided.
"I was in Mexico on a case two years ago. Gotta say, my job doesn't take me to many strip joints. Guess we know which one of us works harder."
As if, Dominic snickered.
Lucas ran Castillo Security. Providing private and corporate security for the past twenty years, Castillo was a family business, and it and their parents' ranch employed, well, the entire family. Four generations of Castillos lived in Seaside, the tiny town in Sonoma founded by Dominic's great-grandfather. From his grandfather Ramon to his little sister, Celia, they bred show horses, built security systems and provided bodyguards.
Dominic was a Navy SEAL.
The first, and so far the only, Castillo not pulling in an income from the family corporation. Which he'd worked damned hard for. When a guy grew up in a family as big as the Castillos', standing out wasn't easy. He'd never be as smart as Lucas or as sneaky as Marco. At six-four, he wasn't even as tall as Jose.
What he was was his own man.
The one everyone came to for help. Advice. Directions, even. He was hell on wheels when it came to directions. Handy, since he generally served as the point man and navigator for his SEAL team. Something he was proud of.
"Seriously," Lucas said, interrupting his mental back patting. "I thought Joe said you weren't gonna make it home for the party. What changed?"
Buying time, Dominic took a drink, the cola doing nothing to relax his aching muscles. A beer would go down sweet right now. A half dozen of them would go a long way to ease the pain racking his body. But the doctor had warned that severe concussions and alcohol were a bad mix for the next few days.
"The team is on a mission, I'm not. That means I could snag an extra week's leave and come home."
Lotta started her countdown, tossing her spangled bra into the rowdy crowd, then taking a few swings around her pole. Dominic made a show of watching, hoping Lucas would let the conversation die if he seemed fascinated by silicone so tight it didn't even sway as the stripper spun.
"Your team is on a mission and you're not?" Lucas asked, an intense frown creasing his brows. "What happened? Turning yellow?"
"I can still kick your ass." Dominic matched his brother's glower. Then he shrugged. "They didn't need me for this one. Plenty of them speak the language and I needed some downtime."
And a little distance.
There was no way in hell he could sit around the barracks, resting, while the team kicked mission ass.
The SEAL team was like a brotherhood. Every man had the other's back. Every man knew he was a part of the team, each one vital to the success of their missions. They lived together, they trained together, they fought together.
Sometimes it was the best deal in the world. Sometimes it sucked.
Dominic had grown up with five siblings. He knew that life wasn't always smooth, that all relationships had plenty of ups and downs.
What he didn't know was how to deal with a guy who wasn't a part of the brotherhood. Who didn't fit, didn't even try to fit.
Especially when that guy was, thanks to his irritatingly stellar record, now the ranking officer on the team.
Who was so by-the-book uptight that he made Dominic sit out on a hot mission because the helicopter launched at 0700 and Dominic's medical profile said he was grounded until 0830. Hell, they wouldn't even have reached their destination by then. He could have gone if it wasn't for Banks's uptight ass.
Instead, the jerk had taken the team one man short and left Dominic feeling like a let down loser.
He freaking hated that guy.
"I'm thinking about transferring," he muttered.
His eyes wide enough to pop out of his head, Lucas dropped his chair flat, the front legs hitting the floor with a bang.
"Out of the SEALs?"
Dominic had taken a bullet, broken multiple bones and was currently sporting bruises down to the bone over three-quarters of his body, not to mention a concussion hangover and a weak ankle.
But none of them hurt like the idea of leaving the SEALs.
"Hell, no. Just, you know, transfer. Virginia, Hawaii.
SEALs are based other places besides Coronado. I might like to see a few, you know."
"Because thirty states and eight countries aren't enough?"
"I saw this act in Oahu once. Erotic fire dancer." Dominic blew out a breath, then fanned his hand in the air as if cooling off the memory. "Let me tell ya, a woman who dances naked with a flaming baton knows her way around big, hot sticks."
Lucas winced and shook his head.
"Sad, little brother. If that lame story is the best distraction you can offer up, you've obviously got something bugging you." He waited a beat, as if giving Dominic an opening to confess. But Dom did the advisinghe didn't go looking for it. Finally, Lucas shrugged and lifted his beer again.
"You wanna talk, you know where I am," he offered.
Dominic nodded, even though they both knew he wouldn't take him up on it.
Not because he was such a snob that he couldn't reach out from time to time for a little guidance. But there was a reason he was the advice guy. In the family, on the team, with his friends. He knew stuff. Military stuff, girl stuff, sex stuff. Thanks to his nana, he even knew cooking stuff.
He stared at his drink, muscles aching and head throbbing.
It was a damned shame he didn't know what to do for his own stuff.
Two hours and three Motrin later he poured three cousins and one of his brothers into a limo. Patting the hood, he signaled the driver to hit the road.
Hands in the front pockets of his jeans, Dominic laughed as Marco popped his head out of the sunroof to serenade him with "Happy Birthday."
"It your birthday, big boy?"
He turned, grin in place, to watch the woman saunter over. Even fully clothed, Lotta still exuded sex the way some women wore perfume. Strong, heady and inviting.
"Nope. He's having a tequila-inspired calendar mix-up," Dominic told her.
"Too bad. I was gonna offer you a little birthday goodie," she said when she stopped in front of him. He wanted to tell her she'd be a lot prettier with about half as much makeup on, but didn't figure it was his advice she was interested in.
"I watched you while I danced."
Dominic looked down, noting that all it'd take was a cold breeze across her thin blouse to bring their bodies into contact.
Then he met her eyes, the hot interest and hard edge. Message received.
"Isn't that a coincidence? I watched you, too," he said, giving her his most charming smile. He wasn't interestedyet another thing he figured he could blame Banks forbut he didn't believe in leaving women disappointed. He might not be going to give her a wild ride, but there was no reason not to make her feel good. In a fully clothed kind of way.
"Did you like what you saw?" she asked, her tone saying she had no doubts about that at all. She moved closer, so close that her ice-pick nipples stabbed his chest. Dominic had to wonder if she'd blasted those babies full of silicone, too.
"You do know your way around a pole."
"I do good work with long and hard."
"I don't doubt that."
Dominic looked her over again. He had a special appreciation for dancers. They were so damned good with their bodies.
Rethinking his body's aches and pains, he debated a little naked boogie with the stripper. He did a quick check to see if lust was stronger than bruises.
Nope. Not enough lust or too many bruises. Either way, he wasn't up for dancing.
"You interested in buying me a drink? I'll fill you in on some of my specialties."
The only reason the Castillo clan had vacated the club was because it'd been last call. Which meant the drinking destination Lotta had in mind was hers, his or of the rent-by-the hour variety.
Dominic loved women. Strippers, dancers, teachers, nurses. He'd dated them all. His only requirement was that the woman take the relationship as light and easy as he did.
He'd heard plenty of times that his sex life was better than most guys' fantasies.
But if he had one particular weakness when it came to the fairer sex, it was for dancers. Ballet, jazz, exotic, tap. It didn't matter. There was something about a woman who knew how to make the most of rhythm that drove him wild.
But even if his body had screamed otherwise, he just wasn't in the mood.
"Sorry, sweetheart," he said sincerely. "I'm not drinking tonight. Doctor's orders."
She narrowed her eyes, clearly wondering if that was a euphemism. Then she gave a good-natured shrug.
"You ever get released from those orders, you come back. I'll do a dance just for you." She skimmed her fingers up his chest, giving him a smile that promised that it'd be a dance to remember. Then she tapped her palm against his cheek and turned to go.
Dominic leaned back on his heels, his own smile turning a little cocky. He didn't get guys who bitched that women were a pain in the ass. Himself, he'd never met a woman who wasn't a pleasure, in or out of bed. All it took was a little charm and a friendly smile.
He watched the stripper walked away, her hips swinging a hot rhythm beneath her short skirt. For one second he regretted saying no. Then, as he shifted his weight, his body sang out a protest.
A part of him, mostly the part cozied up behind his zipper, wanted to call her back. Not out of undeniable lust or anything crazy like that. More to prove he could still make her see stars and sing hallelujah, even if half of his body was bruised and the other half a step up from numb.
As far as Dominic's dickand admittedly, his egowere concerned, he was a man with many talents, all of which made women sigh with pleasure. He was better at sex when he was half-asleep, totally drunk and/or straight off a ten-day mission from hell than most guys managed to be even in their wildest dreams. He was damned good-lookinga blessing owed more to the fine Castillo genes than any effort on his part. He was a formidable SEAL, a savvy sailor and a weapon the U.S. Navy should be giving thanks for on a daily basis. Okay, weekly. He was wisethe team always looked to him for advice, hence his call sign, Auntie. He was smart and good with money.
All but the first were characteristics his own sainted mother recited to any single woman she found worthy. And all, including the former, were reasons Dominic saw as vital to his goal of staying single. When a man was as blessed as he was, it'd be cruel to limit his gifts to just one woman.
He watched Lotta slide into her Miata and frowned.
Maybe a good time was just what Auntie ordered. A hot ride would be a nice distraction.
It only took him a second to brush it aside.
Resigned, he watched her headlights fade into the dark night and sighed. It wasn't his bruises or irritation that made him a bad bet tonight, he realized. It was the same nagging feeling that'd been dogging him for the last couple of months.
What the hell was up with that?
Dominic was a man who made a point to be satisfied. In every way, every chance he got. Some might say he specialized in it.
So why the hell was he so damned bored?
Bored, discontent and frustrated.
All new emotions, and not one of them welcome.