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Maybe she should have seen it coming, but a girl just didn't expect to get knifed in the back by her best friends.
"Wanna repeat that?" Audra Walker requested in a smooth, calm voice. She was rather proud of that tone. It didn't show the anger or the gut-wrenching hurt she was feeling. She was sure her face, carefully made up for this evening of revelry and celebration, was equally calm. After all, hiding her true feelings was old hat to her.
She spared a glance at her surroundings. The Wild Thing was typical of most of the clubs Audra's friends frequented. The beat of the music and voices reverberated in time with teal lights flashing overhead. Places like this were always bright and loud and hadn't ever bothered Audra before. Then again, her friends hadn't been idiots before, either.
"You're just not into it anymore, Audra. Face it, you no longer qualify as a Wicked Chick," Suzi Willits said, her breathy voice as serious as it ever got. The buxom blonde shrugged one toned shoulder, making her ample breasts bounce under her leopard print tank top. "We might not mean much to you these days, but we do have standards to uphold, you know."
"The Standard of the Double D. Of course I know," she said with a roll of her eyes. Maybe this was a joke? They'd rib her for a while, then spring a congratulations-on-your-promotion present on her or something. To stifle the simmering panic in her belly, Audra shifted in her seat and breathed deeply. The scent of her friends' perfume was as familiar to her as her own.
"I'm the one who came up with it. Dudes and drinks, the Wicked Chick's tools of the trade."
"Right, so you know better than anyone how important it is to keepthose tools sharp and fresh, don't you?" Suzi challenged. It wasn't her tone that forced Audra to accept they were serious. It was the fact that Suzi waved away the hot guy who'd just signaled her to come dance with him.
Audra's gaze flicked from Suzi to Bea Tanner. Rather than meeting her eyes, the redhead kept her gaze averted, making a show of swirling a piece of mango through the froth of her margarita.
Audra thought about laughing in their faces. It'd be easy enough to toss back her drink, slide from the barstool and tell them both to kiss her ass before sashaying out of the nightclub. The only thing stopping her was the fact that Suzi and Bea were two of her closest friends. And while they might not be the poster children for loving support, the three of them had been hanging together since they were Wicked Chicks in Training at fourteen, doing junior high detention together.
Ten years later, and still a hard-ass with a bad attitude, Audra didn't have many friends other than Bea, Suzi and Isabel. Most people, both back then and now, looked at her and saw imminent failure. She'd never cared, since those three were always there for her. With her dismal upbringing, she'd always considered these women her family, albeit a little dysfunctional at times. Without them, she was just a hard-ass with killer curves. They'd been the ones to show her how to use those curves.
She glanced over as the last member of their little party rejoined them at the table. Slightly winded from her dance, the dark-haired woman gulped down her soda. Isabel Santos had been hanging out with Audra since they had both worn ruffled panties. Although not a member of the Wicked Chicks, Isabel had spent time with the other women off and on over the years. After school, though, Isabel had focused on her own career, while the Wicked Chicks had focused on enjoying life. At least, until Audra had the temerity to pursue an actual career.
"You're always hanging out with that Natasha chick now," Bea accused. She poked her silicone-filled bottom lip out in a practiced pout. Her newly colored titian hair framed a face that had graced a magazine cover, as Bea was always quick to point out. But the look on that face, half-sneer and halfdejection, assured Audra they were dead serious. They were kicking her out of the Wicked Chicks.
"That Natasha chick is a) my sister-in-law and b) my boss. And now she's about to launch a new lingerie line that is exclusively my designs." Which is what Audra had thought she was at the club to celebrate. Her promotion to head designer for Simply Sensual Lingerie. The achievement of her dreams.
"See, it's that kind of crap that's the problem," Suzi pointed out. "That's all we've heard this last year. You have to work. You have to study. You can't party with us because you have early classes. I thought it'd end when you graduated a few months ago, but now you're all about work instead."
"Oh, please," Audra scoffed, "like the two of you don't have jobs and responsibilities?"
Bea did tend to drift from job to job, but she always worked. Suzi cut hair in a high-end hair salon in San Francisco and Isabel's florist shop was flourishing.
"How come your jobs aren't the issue here?" Audra asked.
"We are able to maintain a balance between our jobs and our real lives," Suzi said in perfect imitation of an upper-class snob. "And what am I doing?"
"You're building a career," Bea pointed out quietly. She said it as if Audra were building a weapon of mass destruction, her voice a combination of bemusement, aversion and fear.
"Why shouldn't Audra build a career? She's a great designer. This is her dream opportunity. Aren't you excited for her?" Isabel asked in a surprised tone. Her gray eyes flashed as indignation built. "Don't you guys think you're being a little unfair?"
"Fair, schmair," Suzi shot back. "Friends don't let friends blow their prime years chasing careers. That's the kind of crap you do later after you've lost your sexual mojo."
Audra tuned out the inevitable debate between Isabel and Suzi over sexual status, aging, equal rights and staying true to friends. It was old news.
She bit back a scream. All she'd ever heard from her older brother was how her friends were trouble and would screw up her life. Isabel was always nagging her to set goals and prioritize her plans. And now she was hearing from her friends that she wasn't one of them anymore because she was trying to build a future. Not one damn person in her life was willing to simply accept her. All of her.
"I can have both a career and my friends," Audra insisted. Wasn't that the women's right of the new millennium? She could have it all? It wasn't as if Audra was looking to add a husband or anything stupid like that to the mix.
"I design lingerie," Audra pointed out, matching Suzi's sneer with one of her own. "That's hardly at odds with my Wicked Chick designation."
"You've always wanted to design sexy, wild lingerie," Suzi pointed out. And she'd know, since she and Bea spent years listening toAudra daydream about it, never once discouraging her. "Instead," Suzi continued, "you settled for vanilla-sweet nighties for virginal brides."
"Everyone has to start somewhere," Isabel interjected in Audra's defense.
Before Suzi could retaliate, Bea pressed her hands to the table, bloodred nails spread like claws against the faux leather surface.
"Enough of this crap." The mellowest of them all, her distaste for the bickering and one-upmanship was clear on her face. "Audra, this is an intervention. You either prove you're still one of us, or you lose your Wicked Chick status."
Isabel gasped. "You've got to be kidding." "Prove myself?" Oh jeez, it was junior high school all over again.
Suzi leaned forward with a challenging gleam shining in her midnight-blue eyes. "Prove yourself."
Audra rolled her eyes. "How? Outdrink you two? Dance topless on stage? Give up my job?"
Audra tossed the words out in an airy, unconcerned tone. But her insides twisted at the thought of either the first or the last. Given that she'd started her drinking in her early teens, she figured she'd done more than enough partying. That, and she'd watched what drinking had done to her mother, leaving her old and haggard-looking by forty. The booze wouldn't do Audra's skin, or her health, a bit of good. And she planned to keep both long into the future. Two drinks were her limit now, although she did a good job of hiding that from her friends.
And quit her job? Oh, God, no. She loved that job. Loved designing lingerie. She couldn't think of anything more satisfying than starting with a vision in her head, turning it into a reality and seeing a woman prance out of the boutique empowered by the result. They couldn'twouldn'tbe crazy enough to think she'd give that up. "How about all thr"
"No, much simpler," Bea interrupted with a dark look at the blonde. Suzi sat back with a huff and a roll of her eyes.
Audra waited. The music pounded a heavy beat around her, the cacophony of voices blending with the percussions.
"I dare you!" Bea began.
Oh, hell, she should have known.
"To do the next guy to come through the door."
"This is silly," Isabel stated. Her gray eyes flashed with rare anger. She crossed her arms over her chest, her sweater pulling tight to curves she tended to hide, rather than display like the other three women. "Haven't you outgrown that silly game? I thought your club was all about empowerment, not pressure. Audra's your friend. She doesn't have to do anything to prove herself."
A voice in Audra's head agreed. She didn't have to. Like drinking, impersonal sex had long since lost its appeal. She could have just as good a time with her vibrator as with most guys. And at least her "D-celled" friend guaranteed she'd come. Swear to God, most guys didn't seem to know the difference between the G-spot and a parking spot.
But if she didn't, she'd be saying goodbye to something vital. Not just her friendships were on the line here, Audra realized with a start. So was her sense of self. The badass, wild part of her seemed to be fading away. And she didn't have a clue what, if anything, she'd find underneath.
"Hey, no problem. I never mind scratching that particular itch."
Ignoring Isabel's disappointed look, she gave the girls a wink, tossed back the last of her strawberry margarita and straightened her shoulders. Turning on the barstool, she leaned her elbows back on the table, faced the door and sent up a prayer that the next guy through knew how to park.
Holy cow. She eyed the sexy hunk standing in the doorway and exhaled a deep sigh of appreciation. Oh, yeah, he'd not only know how to park, but she'd bet he was hell on wheels. Audra took inventory, starting at what she estimated to be size twelve biker boots. Her gaze took a slow, appreciative tour up well-worn denim, lingering on a few particularly worn places.
She continued her tour over a well-defined chest and m'm m'm goodperfect shoulders. The sleeves of the denim work shirt were rolled up to the elbows, and it was buttoned about halfway up to showcase that chest, wide and lightly dusted with a sprinkling of dark hair. How would that hair feel against her cheek? Soft and sensual? Wiry and erotic? Did it thicken as it meandered down his belly? Or did it taper to a very delicious point?
If he'd hurry up and walk through the door, she could find out. Anticipation made Audra antsy. She shifted in her seat and held her breath while her gaze rose to his face.
Oh, baby. Eyes half-mast, a wave of lust-induced appreciation crashed through her system. Now that was one hot man. Black hair tumbled around a face just this side of pretty. His full lower lip promised a sensual nature and, although she couldn't see his eyes in any detail, the man had cheekbones to die for. The only thing that saved him from being girlypretty was a stubborn jaw and his nose, obviously broken a couple times.
"Good thing I wore my sexiest lingerie, hmm?"
Bea laughed and gave an appreciative hum. Even Isabel mouthed "wow," although the look in her eyes still screamed disapproval. Not surprising, since Isabel had never been comfortable with casual sex. At Suzi's silence, Audra glanced over. The blonde didn't look thrilled. If anything, she looked a little pouty. The rules of the dare were that neither of the others could come on to the dare guy. Which put hot, tall and sexy off limits for Suzi.
Audra couldn't resist taunting her. "One small step for him, one giant orgasm for me."
Suzi grinned and started to say something, then her eyes widened and she winced.
"Oops," Bea said under her breath.
Stomach suddenly tight, Audra followed their gaze to the entrance where the hunk still stood in conversation with the bouncer just outside the arch that they deemed the official entrance for dares. Disappointment sunk like a chunk of lead in her stomach when she saw the source of her friends'horror. Shouldering the hunk aside was another guy. A nonhunky guy. A totally geeky, nonhunky guy. Audra's stomach turned, but did she see any way out of the dare? Not with her pride intact.
"Ya think he's got anything in that pocket protector you can get up?" Obviously trying to ease the tension, Suzi called the waitress over for a second round. "You'll need a drink before this one, Audra. My treat."
Was she supposed to be grateful?