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Down and Dirty
A Dare Me Novel
By Christine Bell, Kerri-Leigh Grady, Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Christine Bell
All rights reserved.
Cat Thomas eyed the couple playing tonsil hockey across the black lacquer table and snorted with mock disgust. "Gross. Get a room, would you?"
They broke apart, cheeks flushed, and Cat swallowed a grin. She still wasn't totally used to her best friend and her brother pawing each other, but for all her bitching, she was frigging stoked. They were a great couple — which, to Cat's mind, was as about as common as a two-headed snake — and later this year, she'd be walking down the aisle as Lacey's maid of honor. Again.
"Sorry. Your brother is a perv," Lacey confided with a smile. She slipped off Galen's lap and back onto her own barstool, which was emblazoned with the face of quarterback Peyton Manning. If her friend had to sit on a Manning's face, Peyton was obviously the better option, but the decor of this particular sports bar seemed poorly thought out. Not that it had stopped Cat from spending ten minutes searching for a Tom Brady seat before finally agreeing to sit on Mark Sanchez. He couldn't throw for shit, but he sure was pretty.
"Yeah, I'm the perv," Galen said to his fiancée with a satisfied smirk. "You're the one who had me tie you to th —"
Lacey slapped a hand over his mouth and squealed. "Oh my God, shut up! You're totally going to embarrass your sister."
"Not likely," Cat said. "I won't be thinking too hard about it or anything, because ew. But I'm really glad to see he's loosened you up a little." She eyed her laughing friend and shook her head in amazement. Less than a year before, Lacey had found her groom, Marty, in the linen closet of their reception hall, balls-deep in one of her bridesmaids, a lifelong friend of both Cat's and Lacey's. That still made Cat stabby when she thought about it, but she managed to keep her wrath under wraps. Not because of her forgiving nature, but mainly because Lacey was blissfully happy now and settled with her childhood crush, who also happened to be Cat's brother, Galen.
Who woulda thunk it? Not Cat. In fact, the incident between Marty and Lacey had only confirmed what she'd always known: most relationships were far more trouble than they were worth. If Lacey hadn't caught Marty in the act, she'd probably still be with the loser, having the life sucked out of her.
That would never be Cat.
She took a long pull from the lukewarm beer she'd been nursing and glanced around the semi-crowded bar.
A man ... no, a giant had just stepped into her peripheral vision and derailed all coherent thought. She twisted in her Mark Sanchez chair to get a better look. The guy's head was turned, so she could only see his face in profile, but damn, that and the full-frontal body shot were more than enough. She sized him up with a practiced eye, calling him an easy six-three, two-twenty. He wore a threadbare white T-shirt that should've been as noteworthy as a bowl of oatmeal. Instead, it clung to his chest like it had aspirations of taking over for his skin. Hell, she'd have the same life goal. His chest was a dream, the contours clearly defined by the soft cotton. She could totes cling to him for a night.
In spite of her flight-prone ways, she'd never had a true one-night stand, and it was top ten on her bucket list. Maybe ...
She took a quick glance at the guy's face to make sure he hadn't caught her staring, then sent her gaze downward to size up the rest of the package.
And speaking of package, oooh mama. His jeans were as old as the shirt and had worn down in all the right places, clinging to his thick thighs and what appeared to be a sock ... no, a bunch of socks stuffed —
"Shane!" Lacey yelped, launching herself off her stool and scurrying toward him.
No way. There was just no. Frigging. Way.
But apparently there was a way because the sexy behemoth turned to face them full-on, and there he was.
He and Galen had met in high school when Galen was a sophomore and Shane was a freshman. They'd bonded over football and had quickly become the best of friends. The four of them had spent a lot of time together the summer before Galen went off to college, so Lacey had stayed in touch with him.
Cat had not.
Or at least, not intentionally. Once Galen had gone away, Shane had appointed himself as her official guardian and unofficial conscience. For the majority of her junior year, every time she'd tried to have a little fun, he'd shown up with a disapproving frown and an offer of a ride home.
Except that one night.
The memory — with edges far crisper than they should have been after all these years — rushed forward, and her face went hot. When Shane met her gaze over Lacey's shoulder, the half-smile stretching his firm lips had her itching to look away, which was silly. She was a grown-ass woman now. She could handle him.
She met his gaze head-on and willed the blood in her cheeks to chillax. It had been a while since she'd seen him, and the years had been kind to the lucky SOB. Generous, even. He looked fantastic, aside from those stormy blue eyes. Like him, they'd always been a little too intense, like he could see inside people's heads and read the thoughts they tried to hide.
"Hey munchkin, how's it going?" He gave Lacey a bear hug, and Cat tried not to stare at his biceps as they flexed.
Galen stood and grinned. "I thought you weren't coming." He yanked his longtime friend into a one-armed man hug. "Did you make it in time to catch any of the fight?"
"Come on. You send me a ticket to your last bout before you retire, and you think I'm not going to show? Not unless there was a monsoon somewhere."
A couple hours before, Galen had defeated Manny Hermosa for the heavyweight belt in a third-round knockout. Even though Shane's job as a search-and-rescue specialist took him all over the world, Cat should've known he would make every effort to get here. He and Galen were like brothers, and that bond had held strong through the years in spite of them living on opposite coasts. Clearly his arrival was a surprise, though. No way would Lacey have left her in the dark on this.
"You were on fire out there. You sure you're ready to hang it up?" Shane asked, giving Galen that searching look that used to make Cat squirm when it was aimed at her.
Galen nodded and slid an arm around Lacey. "I'm old enough to have had a good, long career, and young enough that I'm going to walk away one hundred percent healthy with my melon fully intact. Not something a lot of fighters can say."
Cat doubted that was all there was to Galen's decision, but Shane seemed satisfied with that answer and turned his attention to her. "Mary Catherine."
He tipped his head but didn't move in for an embrace. That didn't surprise her. The handful of times they'd seen each other since he'd left town after high school, they'd circled each other like boxers in the first round of a fight, giving wide berth, sizing up their opponent's strategy. Sure, she covered her anxiety with bravado because ... well, because that was how she rolled, but being near him was unnerving at best. He threw her off her game, and she didn't like it one bit.
She took a sip from her glass to whet her suddenly dry whistle. "Hey, Shane."
"Still sewing clothes and breaking hearts?" he asked.
She clenched her hand tighter around her beer, quashing the urge to toss it at him. "Still playing superhero and boring the ladies?" she shot back. Why was it that whenever she was around him, she regressed ten years?
His response came slow, after a long look that made her wish she'd just kept her trap shut for once. "Well, definitely the latter. As for the former, I do what I can."
His self-deprecating response made her feel like a shrew for slapping back at him, but impulse control had never been her strong suit. Especially when it came to Shane Decker. That annoyed her even more, but her brother was eyeballing her hard now. The last thing she needed was another inquisition about why things were always so tense between the two of them. She blew out a sigh and vowed to keep things light and friendly. "Actually, not doing a whole lot of sewing anymore. I have my own line with Nash and Company now. Daytime separates and casual evening wear."
He waited, brows raised, for her to continue, but she pursed her lips, silently daring him to ask about her breaking hearts again. She'd been getting a lot of flak for her inability to commit lately, so him putting her on blast in front of the two people leading the charge? Made her want to stomp on his foot. She refrained, but it was a close thing.
Light and friendly.
"You planning to stay for the whole weekend?" she asked, trying not to look too interested in his answer. Due to his job, Shane rarely stayed in one place for long. Maybe this was just a quick drive-by show of support for Galen and tomorrow, he'd be on his way again. Please, God, and thank you.
"I wasn't sure I was going to be able to get away today until the last minute, so I don't even have a room yet. But no, I'm going to leave tomorrow afternoon." Relief rushed through her, but he continued, "Then I'm actually going to be staying in Rhode Island for a while."
Cat's heart thudded and she could feel Lacey — the only other person who knew about her and Shane's little hookup — staring at her, searching for a reaction. Determined not to give her one, she took a slow, measured sip of her beer.
"You're coming home?" Galen crowed, the delight plain on his face.
Shane nodded, casually snagging one of the stools from the next table and folding his big body onto it. "For a month. It's been a while, and the last couple times I've only managed long weekends, so I took a leave. My parents' thirtieth anniversary is coming up, and Mom's been hounding me about spending more time with the Reign of Terror. I had a ton of unused vacation days, so it seemed like a good time to do it."
The nickname Shane had given his twin five-year-old nieces was a perfect fit. Despite their plump cheeks and wide blue eyes that perpetually avowed innocence, they were a handful. Shane's sister and brother-in-law were awesome parents to the precocious pair, but most days, it was no easy task.
She conjured up her brightest smile and leveled it at Shane. "Yeah, I agree with your mom. More time with the twins is exactly what you need."
Lacey shook her head at Cat and muttered, "You're so bad." She reclaimed her seat across from Cat and turned her attention back to Shane. "So we get to keep you for a while! It's going to be wonderful having you back."
"I'm looking forward to it."
A flicker of something on Shane's face caught Cat's attention. Was there something more to this leave of absence than he was letting on? Maybe there was, but it was none of her business. She needed to focus on staying out of his way for the next month. It wouldn't be so bad. She'd run into him around town and probably a couple times at Galen and Lacey's, but she could use work as an excuse to stay scarce until he was safely back in California.
"And we're really glad you were able to make it for the fight. I know it goes without saying, but if they don't have any rooms left tonight, you can bunk with us," Lacey offered with a smile.
"That's okay," Shane said. "If not here, they'll have one at Caesar's or something. No worries."
Galen gave him two thumbs up paired with a grin that was all male. "Thanks, buddy."
Lacey smacked his arm and blushed. "You're going to make him feel unwelcome."
"Babe, I've followed the prefight no-sex regimen for ten days now. I'm pretty sure something's going to pop if I have to go another night. We can make him feel welcome tomorrow. Or," he glanced at his watch-free wrist, "in like fourteen minutes if we go up and start now."
"Be still my heart," Lacey said, face still flaming.
Cat rolled her eyes and Shane barked out a laugh.
"Seriously, though, if you can't find a place ..." Galen's expression was sincere. In spite of his razzing, Cat knew — hell, they all knew — he would give his friend the shirt off his back if Shane needed it. They were like family, and family took care of one another.
Guilt pricked at her. Her brother had just won the last fight of his career. A career that Cat wasn't certain he was truly ready to give up. Surely he deserved to spend a little quality time alone with his fiancée to celebrate?
Lacey cleared her throat, eying her pointedly, and Cat glared back.
All right, all right. "Let's not get all in a tizz," Cat said, the world's fakest smile stretching her lips. "First, let's see if we can get him a room." She shot off another unspoken prayer, this one complete with mental gesticulation for good measure, and continued. "If not, I have two queen beds in mine. He can stay with me. No big deal."
No. Big. Deal.
Except when Shane looked at her, it felt like a big deal. The sound of the jukebox faded away, muffled by the beat of her heart in her ears, and the memory came again, unbidden. The drag of that mouth along her neck. The warm water lapping against her breasts. A full moon, fat in the sky, lighting his face. Clenched jaw, bodies rocking, Shane pulling away, with a whispered no.
"Yes!" Lacey smacked her hand on the table.
Cat jerked back, tearing her gaze from Shane's to face her friend.
Lacey's eyes were bright with excitement. "Awesome idea. Now that's settled, let's get another drink." She leaned back with a satisfied smile and raised her hand to flag down the blonde cocktail waitress in a purple bustier. "Shane, beer for you?"
"Sure." His voice was suspiciously husky and Cat wondered for a crazy instant if the whole mind-reading thing wasn't so far-fetched, but he seemed to recover quickly, turning his attention to Lacey. "Whatever's seasonal on tap is good."
The waitress took the rest of their orders and then made her way to the bar. The others chatted amiably about Shane's job and updated him on the latest family news and town gossip. Cat took the time to regroup, and when the waitress returned with the drinks, she was back on track. Shane was there. Big frigging deal. Whatever had transpired between them was old news. So why, all these years later, was she still acting like a teenager after a Bieber sighting? It was going to stop, here and now.
She threw back her shoulders, ready to dive into the discussion and behave like her witty, charming self, but she was saved the effort when some fans approached their table asking Galen for an autograph. Once the floodgate was opened, there was no closing it, and over the next hour, dozens of people stopped by for a picture or a high five. Her brother handled it so well and seemed genuinely honored each and every time, which made them love him even more. Invariably, once the female sect realized that Galen was very taken, they turned hot eyes on Shane and asked if he was a fighter, too.
"Nope. Just a regular Joe," he'd drawl.
The most recent group — this one, all ladies — was clearly out for a good time and didn't mind Shane's lack of pro-athlete status. One dark-haired chick separated herself from the pack and boldly dragged a stool up to sit beside him. "More like a G.I. Joe. Where'd you get all those muscles?"
Her skirt was so short that Cat caught a flash of rhinestones that were either appliquéd onto the front of a flesh-colored thong or part of the girl's attempt at vajazzling. Cat's professional curiosity required her to investigate further — even if she didn't design underwear — so she squinted hard, half-tempted to squat down for a proper look. If she eyeballed the girl's lady parts any harder, she was going to feel obligated to buy her dinner or something.
When she finally looked up, she found Shane staring at her with a bemused smile. She turned away, cheeks hot. So much for playing it cool.
"Well, Joe? You gonna tell me where you got all these fine muscles?" the vajazzler pressed, pouting as she leaned into him.
"Just like to stay fit, is all."
Cat looked at him hard. Was it her imagination or was he leaning away from those gargantuan breasts? Interesting.
The woman seemed to note that, too, and after a few more halfhearted attempts at flirtation, stood with a defeated sigh. "Well, this bar's pretty dead. We're going to find some action. Nice meeting y'all."
She tottered away on her knockoff Pradas and Cat turned to face Shane. "What's up with that?"
"What's up with what?"
Excerpted from Down and Dirty by Christine Bell, Kerri-Leigh Grady, Heather Howland. Copyright © 2013 Christine Bell. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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