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Her Private Dancer
By Cami Dalton
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTRACE MCGRAW FORCED his mouth into a smile as he tilted his spandex-covered pelvis toward the elderly woman, who bore a striking resemblance to Mrs. Rosenthal, his grandmother's eighty-nine-year-old roommate at the Happy Vale Assisted Living Center. No sir, his second night on the job wasn't turning out to be any less embarrassing than his first. Especially, with Mrs. Rosenthal's twin staring at his package and all but licking her chops.
The look-alike briefly turned to the woman next to her and shouted over the wailing country-western song, "Ooh-wee. Get a gander of this one, Marge. Is that a gun in your drawers, cowboy," she crowed to Trace, "or are you just happy to see me?" The old woman nudged her friend with her elbow then laughed mischievously.
Colored lights flicked wildly around the room while a haze of smoke hovered above the all-female audience. The din of their cheers and whoops of approval almost drowned out the bass beat pounding from the speakers like a dozen tribal drums. Trace surmised that unfortunately, the friend, Marge, had still been able to hear since she removed a five-dollar bill from her purse and said, "I don't know, Delores. I think we're gonna need a better look." Then she wiggled her eyebrows.
After his first performance last night on board the Mirage, a casino ship out of Miami where twice a week the women of south Florida ruled the high seas, Trace knew what to expect. Even still, he wasn't quite prepared for the speed and dexterity with which good old Delores moved. Before he could even blink, Delores had snatched up the money and started reaching for his costume.
Trace bit back a curse, but held his pose, not moving so much as a tassel on his fringed chaps. The fringed chaps that blatantly highlighted the bulge in his black briefs. Not easy considering the look in Delores's eyes, but Trace couldn't blow his cover now no matter how much he wanted to slap his hands over his groin and run back to the dressing room. Or jump off the ship. That would be fine, too, three-mile swim back to shore and all.
Five nights a week, the Mirage left port for international waters where the ship threw open its casino doors then aimlessly wandered the Atlantic for a few scheduled hours of gambling, drinking and watching Vegas-style reviews. Glitzy productions complete with showgirls. During the regular cruises, that is. On the Ladies Only nights, the entertainment distinctly veered into dangerous territory. At least for Trace McGraw, newest member of the dance troupe, the Ladies' Knights. Miami's answer to Chippendales.
He almost sneered at the apropos comparison, but somehow kept his stupid smile plastered in place. Damn, he hated this cover. And this story. And his editor, Manny....
Trace cast a quick glance at the other male dancers on the floor, and wondered if they'd ever felt the same bone-deep humiliation he was experiencing. Obviously not, if the guy dressed as Tonto and gyrating away with some woman's hand down his thong was anyone to go by. Disgusted with just how far down his career had actually plummeted, Trace mentally hurried Delores along and shifted his stance to counter the floor's subtle pitch and roll.
All things considered, though, he should probably look on the bright side. At least he didn't have to get completely naked. Wearing this damn butt floss was definitely torture enough without being forced to show the full monty. Of course, his suede vest alone, worn open and shirtless, was sufficient to have him blushing like the proverbial virgin in a whorehouse - not to overdo the whole western theme here. The ten-gallon hat, chaps and thong were merely a bonus.
Delores finally finished slipping the bill into the spandex at his hip when Marge piped up, saying, "My turn. You're not in any rush, are you, cowboy?"
"Of course not, ma'am," Trace answered, hiding his grimace along with another healthy sigh, while Marge searched for more cash.
It wasn't easy to pinpoint the exact moment that had led to this, but if he had to make a guess, he figured it was Christmas, fifth grade. The year his sister Gwen had given him the sound track to Saturday Night Fever. The same year Pittsburgh had its worst blizzard in history and the snow had fallen so hard he couldn't go sledding or even build a damn snowman. The infamous year he'd caught disco fever.
Bored out of his mind, he remembered splashing on some Aqua Velva - another pitiful example of what the females in his family considered a Christmas present - and dancing around his room like John Travolta Jr. in training for the Solid Gold olympics. If Gwen had just given him the sports-magazine subscription with the free football phone as he'd asked, he wouldn't be in this mess. Because if he'd never learned to dance, when his editor, Manny, had spotted him at a colleague's wedding reception six weeks ago, Trace would've been just like every other rhythmless white guy in the place who froze in panic when the music started.
The waistband of Trace's skimpy underwear snapped back into place like a rubber band and Trace snapped back to the present.
"Well. You're a big one, aren't you?" Delores glanced at her friend. "Did you see him, Marge?"
Marge rolled her eyes. "I'm old, not blind." Turning to Trace she said, "So what do they call you, big guy?"
"Probably Big Guy," Delores crowed, smacking her knee, and they both laughed uproariously.
Trace shook his head, and in spite of himself felt a grin tugging at his mouth. The frisky pair reminded him of the two old men from The Muppet Show. Watching them, he chuckled softly.
If any of his friends from the Herald could see him now he'd never live it down. Trace had been well on his way to becoming one of the paper's top investigative reporters when he'd gotten fired. Unfairly, in his opinion, as well as that of every other hapless male who'd ever been cornered by the boss's oversexed daughter, Jeanine. Now, thanks to his ex-editor and the vindictive Jeanine, Trace was lucky to even have his job at the Daily Intruder, which was saying a lot since he was presently employed in journalism hell.
Undercover as one of the dancers, Trace was investigating a tip Manny had gotten about male prostitutes on board the Mirage, and the middle-class suburban housewives who solicited them. Apparently a growing problem Manny felt would send the Daily Intruder's circulation skyrocketing. Obviously Manny was an idiot. An idiot who knew his readership and who'd threatened to fire Trace if he refused the story.
As much as Trace hated the assignment, he found himself reluctant to give up the finer things in life like food and shelter. And after his first night on the job, he had a hunch there was a much bigger story taking place on the decks of the Mirage.
It was a well-known fact the Mirage was owned by the supposedly retired ex-Mafia boss Angelo Venzara. Or Mr. V., as he was called by his employees. But last night when Trace had gotten lost and wandered near the hold, he'd seen enough to have him reassessing Venzara's supposedly reformed status. Specifically, the two armed thugs who'd been carrying an unmarked crate toward Angelo Venzara's private area of the ship.
A couple of calls to some of Trace's old sources confirmed that things onboard might not be all they seemed. In the past few months, the Mirage had made a number of hastily scheduled launches during its off-hours. And been spotted loading unmarked cargo during one of the cruise's island stops in the Bahamas. Even without his journalistic instincts cranking up to full alert, Trace had come across enough evidence to know that Mr. V. was up to something. And with his much-hated cover already established, Trace was going to find out. Because if he was right, it was a chance to get his career back, and that was worth anything. Even doing the electric slide in his skivvies.
A group of young lovelies a few feet away tried to catch his attention, banging their drink glasses on the table top and waving money from their hands like little flags. Trace laughed softly. Maybe he needed to get a better attitude. He had to admit that whatever this cover cost his pride it was more than made up for in horny women. After all, what red-blooded male wouldn't enjoy all these screaming females anxious for a chance to get him naked?
He tipped the brim of his hat to the two feisty seniors. "Thank you, ladies. It's been a pleasure," he said, genuinely smiling this time.
Excerpted from Her Private Dancer by Cami Dalton Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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