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If she had a fairy godmother, Frankie Silvera would be sending her a big ol' thank-you bouquet for giving her the perfect opportunity to make some of her naughtiest dreams come true.
Or maybe it was her creative muse.
This was the kind of place that definitely inspired creativity. The Las Vegas penthouse was a kaleidoscope of sensations. Neon lights glinted off sparkling chandeliers, sending colorful sparkles over the crowd of partyers. Dressed in everything from sequins to plastic, denim to silk, bodies filled the room, covering the leather couches, perched on chrome stools around the horseshoe bar and flowing onto the dance floor.
Accentuating it all were intense music, free-flowing booze and men. So, so many men.
And, oh, baby, they were gorgeous.
It wasn't just knowing that most of these muscular, sexy men were Navy SEALs that made Frankie's insides dance. It was knowing that somewhere among them was her dream hottie and the answer to all of her problems.
She just had to find him.
Frankie had barely turned around before a pair of arms engulfed her.
"Lara, this is so fabulous." Frankie leaned back to take a good look at the other woman. "Not as fabulous as you, though. Wow, you look great."
Not a lie. Lara Banks had always been gorgeous. Tall and exotic with big green eyes and a body that made men drool. But today, she actually glowed. Her white satin dress was short and sassy, her auburn hair cut at a wicked angle and her Jimmy Choos put her a couple inches over six foot.
"You look good, too. Thank you for being here," Lara said, as if she really meant it.
Not that Frankie would blame her for just being polite. Despite having practically grown up in Lara's backyard, it wasn't as if the two women had been close. Lara's parents had been high-society snobs with very specific ideas of whom their children could associate with, and the granddaughter of their housekeeper wasn't on their list. Not that that would have mattered to Lara. But Lara had been totally absorbed in dance, running away at seventeen to dance on Broadway.
It wasn't until a few months back, when Lara paid her first visit to her family's estate in eight years, that the two women had gotten past that awkward "I know you but don't remember much more" stage.
"Thanks for inviting me to the wedding," Frankie said. "I have to say, when you do things, you definitely do them your way. This is amazing."
"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you," Lara murmured, pulling Frankie close for another hug.
" Sure, you would. I just got you drunk and let you talk," Frankie said with a laugh. All it'd taken was a bottle of Patron and a tray of Nana's brownies to finally break through Lara's defensive shell.
Frankie envied the woman, blown away by how much in love she was with her SEAL. She liked to think she'd be able to pull that off someday. True love, happily ever after, lifelong sex. Maybe in a few years, after she'd reestablished her business, rebuilt her credit and lost five pounds. Maybe.
"You were wonderful. A friend when I needed one." Lara squeezed Frankie's arms before stepping back and fingering her necklace. "And thank you for the early gift. It's my something new, but I'll be wearing it all the time."
Frankie tilted her head and tried to smile. A couple of years ago, she'd been celebrated in various circles, written up in magazines and on her way to building a stellar reputation as a gifted silversmith who specialized in quirky elegance. People had been lining up for her jewelry, and she'd been doing great. She'd had a fat contract from two national jewelers and more orders than she could handle. She'd invested in new equipment and leased a studio so she wasn't working out of her apartment. She'd even treated herself to a hot-off-the-showroom-floor Mini Cooper S convertible.
She'd had the dream. Then she'd blown it.
Nine months ago, she'd gotten the dreaded block.
All of her creative juices had dried up. Everything she made turned out hideous. She'd lost clients, she'd lost contracts, she'd lost her lease.
Six months ago she'd moved in with her grandmother.
Now she was making quirky customized Christmas ornaments to pay the bills. She'd told everyone she was exploring a new phase of art, when in reality all she wanted was what she'd had before.
She eyed the necklace, seriously proud of how it had turned out. With its edgy geometric shapes of copper, silver and bronze, it was perfect for Lara. Apparently she could only create great jewelry if she wasn't getting paid for it.
"Three of my dancer friends asked me if you'd be here," Lara said with a grin. "They all want you to design special pieces for them, too."
"I'm not doing jewelry anymore," Frankie demurred, trying not to sound bitter. For a while she'd hoped that her creativity would be like a feral cat, and if she pretended she wasn't interested it'd sneak up behind her.
It hadn't worked.
But Frankie was sure her plan tonight would.
"I told the girls you'd say that, but they're stubborn. Be prepared to fend off requests." Lara glanced around, then gave Frankie a wicked grin. "And not just for jewelry. You're catching a lot of looks, girly."
Frankie offered her trademark mischievous smile and twisted one red curl around her finger. She didn't need to look around to confirm that. A girl always knew when guys were checking out her ass.
"See anything you like?" Lara asked.
A room full of sexy guys with smoking-hot bodies?
What wasn't to like?
They were enticing as hell, but if she was going to get wild, she only wanted one guy.
"I'm here to celebrate," Frankie said dismissively. "Not to hook up."
"You're in Las Vegas, Frankie. Go wild. Have fun." Lara laughed. "Don't forget, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."
"Tempting, but I'm not the wild Vegas type," Frankie told her, keeping her secret dream just thatsecret. After all, she and Lara might have practically grown up together, but they weren't close enough for Frankie to share her hope of finding a guy she'd only seen a handful of times over the past ten years and seducing him.
Especially not when the guy was Lara's brother.
"You are so the wild type," Lara claimed, grabbing two glasses of champagne off a passing waiter's tray.
"Me? Wild?" Frankie pressed her hand to her chest and laughed before taking one of the glasses with a nod of thanks.
"Wasn't it you who was caught skinny-dipping in the high school swimming pool?" Lara sipped her bubbly and arched her brow. "You used to have blue hair and go to raves, right?"
"I just went for the dancing. And the blue seriously clashed with my freckles." Frankie grimaced. "But that's not wild. It just proves that I had questionable taste in hairstyles."
"Okay," Lara murmured. "So it wasn't you who constructed a metal elephant in the principal's office your senior year, led a protest against school lunches in sixth grade and had a childhood reputation for streaking."
Frankie pressed her lips together to hold back her giggle.
"Well, that streaking does show a wild side," she acknowledged. "Of course, I was three at the time."
She looked around the room, wondering if she could still pull it off. Granted, she wasn't three anymore, but she still had dimples on her butt. That had to be worth something.
"You work way too hard," Lara said, rubbing her hand over Frankie's shoulder. "Give yourself a break. Give yourself this weekend."
Frankie shook her head, forcing her smile to stay bright despite the tension spiking through her system. She'd spent the past six months feeling as if she were drowning and one day short of six months pretending she wasn't. So any acknowledgment of working too hard would ruin all of her well-developed pretending.
But the invitation to take the weekend?
That she'd be happy to take.
Both women turned toward the makeshift stage at one end of the penthouse to see a gorgeous guy gesturing.
"Looks like Dominic wants to dance," Frankie said.
"You wanna come dance with us?" Lara offered, her eyes not leaving her man.
"You go," Frankie said. "Have fun."
"Stick around for cake," Lara said, not needing to be told twice. In a blink, the other woman was halfway across the room, making Frankie laugh.
Finishing her champagne, Frankie watched the happy couple get down and bust some impressive moves. She wanted that.
Not just someone to dance with, although a guy who could match her moves would be sweet.
What did it feel like to be in that kind of relationship? One where two people could block out a huge room full of partying people simply by looking into each other's eyes?
Frankie watched Dominic pull Lara into his arms, their bodies keeping perfect rhythm even as he lifted her hand to his lips to brush a kiss over her knuckles.
It was pure romance.
And not why she was here, Frankie reminded herself.
She wasn't looking for romance or forever after, like Lara had been.
She was looking for a very specific guy. The one she'd had a giant crush on as a preteen, the one who'd inspired all of her teenage fantasies and quite a few of her sexier adult ones.
The one whoshe was positivewould turn everything around, if she could get him. Unlock her creativity and, with it, her confidence. Because lying to herself was only going to keep working for so long.
Accepting a second glass of liquid courage that tasted like champagne, she decided it was time to get to work on making this the best weekend of her life.
Not an easy task. She gave a soundless whistle, looking around. There were at least two hundred people here. Figuring it was a gift that all the guys were hot and sexy and made searching fun, she moved through the bodies to cross the room.
Whoa. Frankie narrowed her eyes, her heart picking up an extra beat and excitement dancing in her stomach.
Was that him?
She shifted to the right, trying to see around the crush of dancing bodies to the booths at the far end of the penthouse.
Sitting alone in a booth and looking as though he wanted to be anywhere else but in that room, her dream guy was nursing a drink. His mahogany hair was shorn with military precision. A navy blue sweater covered his broad shoulders, emphasizing his perfect posture and, from what she could see, a gorgeous chest.
He was even better looking now.
She didn't think they'd exchanged more than ten words her entire life. But she'd watched him. As a kid, because he looked like the heroes she read about in school. As a teen, because he looked like one of the actors on her favorite TV show. And as an adult, because he looked like a hottie who'd burn up the sheets. Most of her watching had been from afar whenever he visited his parents' house in Maryland.
But now, here he was. Up close and about to get personal.
And, oh, my, was he hot.
Nerves danced in her stomach. It was one thing to dream about seducing her fantasy guy. She'd spent untold hours playing out the scenarios. She credited her artistic mind for the diverse variety of those scenarios, everything from Phillip staring at her blankly or laughing in her face to him looking at her with a combination of intrigue and desire in his eyes toevery once in a while, if she'd had an extra glass of winehis confessing that he'd been lusting after her for years.
She knew that scenario was far-fetched given that the last time he'd seen her she had been fifteen and going through the bohemian stage of her search for her personal art style. She'd spent months wearing burlap, shunning shampoo and was usually covered in burns from the soldering iron she used to make her avant-garde metal sculptures.
But hey, maybe she'd get lucky. In one form or another.
Frankie bounced across the floor in her beribboned Lu-cite heels, wondering if this was how Cinderella had felt when she'd spotted the prince at the ball.
Half delighted, half terrified.
And totally turned on.
Strippers, body shots, flashing lights and wild dancing. Las Vegas at its finest.
Otherwise known as one of Lieutenant Phillip Banks's many versions of hell. Right up there with email spam, traffic jams and drug kingpins with a taste for exotic torture.
A man who believed in discipline, he made a point to do everything in his power to avoid the first two and take down the latter.
Especially the latter.
Phillip stared at his drink, slowly twisting the glass this way, then that, while memories of his time as Valdero's unwilling guest flashed through his mind.
After he'd been captured on a mission gone wrong, it had taken his team three days to effect a rescue. In those three days, Phillip had experienced new levels of pain, discovered rage and reevaluated his beliefs about revenge.
For most of his life, his goal had been to be the best. To excel in all thingsschool, the military and the SEALs.
Now all he wanted was revenge on that sadistic son of a bitch, Valdero. And he planned to get it. He had the operation mapped out, he had a good idea who had sold out the team and he was ready to lead the mission to take Valdero down.
Phillip gulped his scotch with a grimace.
Hell, he'd even gone above and beyond the mandatory psych evaluation to ensureand prove to those in commandthat he was mentally capable of handling it.
He was ready.
Unfortunately, he was also in Las Vegas.
Frowning, Phillip looked around. He'd rather be in Coronado, studying strategy and perfecting his plan.
Under normal circumstances, he wouldn't think twice about doing an about-face and making for the nearest exit.
But this wasn't a normal circumstance.
This, God help him, was his sister's wedding.
A headache throbbing behind his left eye, he leaned his head against the back of the booth, watching the dancers wriggling all over the modified stage. He cringed when the leggy brunette in the middle did a wicked bump and grind.
"Helluva party," someone said, forcing Phillip to quit glaring at his dancing sister.
When he saw who was speaking, he automatically came to attention.
"The party, it's the wildest wedding I've ever attended." Lieutenant Commander Blake Landon winced as the groom got up on stage, too, showing an impressive bump and grind of his own. "Although I'm pretty sure I didn't need to see that."
Wondering where he could get his eyeballs sandblasted, Phillip could only grunt his agreement.
"You're not celebrating?" Landon asked, dropping into the chair opposite Phillip so his back was turned toward the stage. Phillip would have preferred that spot if not for his policy to always sit with his back against a wall.
"I'm sure Lara considers my being here celebration enough," Phillip responded, figuring that and an appropriate wedding gift were really all anyone could ask of him.
"That was a good thing you did, giving the bride away."
Swirling the ice melting in his second scotch that night, Phillip could only shrug. A year agohell, six months agohe'd been in what he considered peak form for a military officer. He'd trained hard, he was at the top of his game physically and mentally and he'd been completely unencumbered. He'd had no family to answer to, and his relationships with his fellow SEALs had been distant enough for him to do his job without any emotional baggage. And he'd been absolutely positive that he was on the right track.
He was reluctantly attending a tacky Las Vegas wedding with half of the SEAL platoon, his entire team and a sister he'd spent most of his life comfortably estranged from. And his right track? That had taken a sharp turn left.
"Sir?" he said, leaning forward, knowing his words would be easily drowned out by the loud music if anyone else were listening. "Any word on Candy Man?"