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What a beautiful lie.
Under the dusky blush of sunset the Venetian was a spectacular beacon, polished inside and outa true Las Vegas gem. The air was sweet with late-summer blooms. Inside, the marble floors echoed as Danica Blue marchedanyone who knew her knew she didn't simply walk or strut or glide, but instead marchedto her destination within the grand hotel.
The engraved invitation was to an elegant late-afternoon tea, but Danica didn't harbor a shred of doubt that a raunchy bachelorette party awaited.
At the double doors of the Renaissance suite, she paused, going over a mental checklist. The chiffon-green tea-length dress she wore was simple and strapless, designed for just this occasionso she had no concern there. Despite the sunshiny afternoon, she'd driven to the Venetian with the top of her silver Porsche Boxster up to protect her wispy bangs and side-swept braid from the wind. With hair and makeup on point, that left her posture.
From the time Danica had been four and toddling around in her mother's high heels, trying to fill Temperance Blue's shoes even then, she'd been warned that sloppy posture ruined any look.
Danica quickly corrected herself. Chin up. Chest out. Peep toes of her strappy shoes pointed forward.
Smile, damn it. It didn't matter that she was combating the effects of neglected sleep, having lately worked almost obsessively. Her high-profile career and family rarely left her a moment's peace. Not to mention how hard it was to sleep now that she lived alone in her mountain-view mansion. Yet the place still felt cluttered and claustrophobic with cobwebby memories of what used to be.
Either get an exorcist or get away, had been her friend Veda's advice. Danica's idea of exorcising the place was throwing out the bed she'd shared with her ex, splurging on a new one and hanging a row of dream catchers above the headboard. But she'd also adopted the other half of Veda's advice, even though escaping to the administration complex at Slayers Stadium and working herself into a stupor sometimes left her irritable.
Not that anyone knew this, of course. It was Danica's secret and hers alonethat she was more tired and lonely than she let on and tired of being lonely.
She adjusted the extravagant orchid bouqueta thank-you token for the hostess, who was likely halfway toward bachelorette drunkennessin the crook of her arm and used the other hand to knock.
Pastel perfection greeted her as an usher guided her into the foyer and traded a dainty pink lace "freshen up" pouch, complete with hand sanitizer and mints, for the bouquet. It joined an array of bouquets in vases of varying shapes and colors, all of which paled in comparison to the centerpieces of luscious cherry-blossom branches that topped nearly every table. The wet bar was stocked, and there were hors d'oeuvres on china dishes and champagne in crystal flutes. Bunches of balloons, miles of ribbon and string lights added to the classy festivenessas if someone had commissioned Martha Stewart herself to transform the luxury suite.
And it was a total facade, providing cover for the heart of this shindig.
There were men here. Lots of 'em. Danica worked so closely with professional football players that she could practically sense the testosterone before the door even opened. The Las Vegas Slayers had christened her "the Ball Buster" because she fearlessly went toe-to-toe with men on a daily basis and knew what made them tick. The nickname had originated when her parents had acquired the team at the tail end of the previous season and appointed Danica as general manager. She wore the title with pride and used her law education and work experience in personnel management and public relations to manage her men with creativity and confidence. She was a fresh face in sportsa woman who posed for pictures for the paparazzi, was unflappable in press conferences and could work the media in ways no one understood. And when it came to managing her parents' franchise, she was full throttle.
Nothing was more valuable than the faith her parents invested in her. They didn't trust Danica's older sister, Charlotte, or younger sister, Martha, the way they did her. At thirty, she'd fully bloomed into their dream daughter. Danica could thank herself for that achievement. She'd learned at an early age how to read people and always knew just the right thing to say or do to be in their good graces.
The power that came with being admired and envied could make a girl feel invincible. Women wanted to be her. Men wanted to be with her.
If only that were enough for Danica. A high-powered career, tight friendships and a loving family were wonderful blessings. She was a daughter, sister, boss, friend but as of thirteen months ago, she was no longer a wife. Somehow being someone's ex-wife didn't feel like an adequate placeholder. Underneath it all she was still struggling to navigate single womanhood. Or maybe she was just restless, in need of a distraction.
A roomful of sizzling-hot male strippers probably wouldn't get the job done, but she was willing to get into the spirit of things. After all, her law-school friend Veda Smart would get married only onceshe'd put off committing to her jewelry designer Prince Charming for years while she played the field, because she was neurotically meticulous and wanted to be absolutely sure he was the right guyand now she was sure.
"Girls!" Danica called into the living room, where the guests were gossiping over drinks. "What's a gal gotta do to get an appletini around here?"
Squeals. Cheers. Then a rainbow of pastels surged forward as the women stampeded to her, with Veda leading the pack.
"Finally, finally, finally!" Veda wrapped her in a tight hug, then reared back with a grin. Over her frilly white cocktail dress she wore a tee that read Buy Me a Shot, I'm Tying the Knot. It was a little ironic since the Smarts were funding everything from the bachelorette party to the bridesmaids' gowns to the wedding reception. So technically she was buying her own shots. And just how many of those she'd already downed today was anybody's guess. "What took you so long to get here?"
"Speed limits." Danica thanked the server who appeared with an apple martini. The martini and a glass of champagne would be her limit. In an hour or so she'd drive to the stadium for a night of work.
She raised her glass high overhead. "This one's for the quirky, sweet, lionhearted bride-to-be. You inspire me."
"Really?" Veda's eyes were misty with tears.
"Really. You and Mekhiyou guys show me that love truly is patient and kind and everything that people want to believe but are afraid to. Be happy." Danica lowered the glass and drank with gusto.
Veda clapped and bounced on her toes, probably relieved that, one, Danica had actually shown up to the bachelorette party after weeks of waffling, and, two, she wasn't being a Debbie Downer. It wasn't that Danica didn't support Veda's engagement. It was that Veda had it lodged in her mind that having a divorced friend in the wedding party could project negative energy onto her marriage. Danica hadn't been particularly happy to be demoted from matron of honor to bridesmaid upon her divorce, but she understood Veda's eccentricities. Part of the reason the woman was her friend was that their differences kept their friendship in a sort of balanced-out harmony.
Danica knew that Veda, a socialite who'd found her calling in geriatric advocacy and worked at a retirement estate, was a gentle soul despite her tendency to be socially mystifying. Veda wanted her once-in-a-lifetime wedding to be a happy occasion. Who couldn't empathize with that?
"So, sistas," Danica said teasingly, resolving to pretend for a while that she wasn't the divorced oddball in the group, "where are the men?"
"What men?" Veda asked coyly as the others giggled.
"Come off it. As discreet as this tame so-called afternoon tea is, you're not fooling me. I've known you since law school, and part of your dream-wedding scenario has always been a wild bachelorette party. And since Kensie helped coordinate this, I'm sure she has something naughty up her sleeve." Danica gave Kensie, who was Veda's younger cousin and maid of honor, a knowing smile. In their circle it was still mentioned how Kensie's Hawaiian-themed high-school graduation party had been canceled once her parents had discovered that she'd sent out invitations that read Get Lei'd. "Plus, I sensed virile men the moment I came up to the suite."
"Fine," Veda said. "They're in the media room. Guess I can't pull one over on an attorney."
"They're getting ready for the next number." Kensie took her empty glass and passed it off to a server. "You missed the first one. Man, did they work it! It was incredible."
"Bummer." It wasn't that much of a loss to Danica, who had easy year-round access to Las Vegas's male revue talent like Chippendales and the Thunder From Down Under, should she ever want to indulge in that brand of entertainment. The urge had never struck her. She'd gotten married at nineteen and divorced at twenty-nine and was now too preoccupied with other obligations to get her kicks watching men "work it."
Besides, what would it do to her reputation to let people think that she frequented strip shows? What might her parents say? She couldn't quite picture their reaction because she'd never yet disappointed them.
That honor went to her sisters. At the moment it was Charlotte who was in the hot seat. Three weeks into the new season, she was still wading through sports-media infamy for having a tryst with a fellow assistant athletic trainer during the Slayers' training camp. Danica was doing all she could to smooth things over, but it wasn't easy. They were fire and iceCharlotte a rule breaker and Danica a rule maker. And sometimes it was only by the miracle of sisterly love that they coexisted in the same family.
"Well, we'll make sure you get extraspecial attention now," Veda promised with a giddy laugh as sultry music began to sweep the room. The women scattered throughout the spacious suite, cursing between laughs as they competed for the best seats.
Danica was headed for the bar when Veda grabbed one wrist while Kensie grabbed the other, and together they tugged her toward a settee that had been placed in the center of the living room.
The music switched tempo and four tall, dark and gorgeous men emerged, all dressed in firefighter gearprobably to tickle Veda's men-in-uniform fantasies. The guys were big on audience participation, and it didn't take long for Danica to be swept into the moment. Being sandwiched between two gyrating dancers who were as muscular as WWE wrestlers was fun. She could confess that. But even as she laughed and shook her booty and slid a crisp twenty-dollar bill into one man's underwear, she kept her to-do list in mind. Contracts to review. A meeting to confirm with the counselors at Faith House, the organization she'd founded to benefit at-risk teens. An appointment with her jeweler to pick up the sapphire earrings she would give Veda as her "something blue" on her wedding day.
When the strippers' attention turned to the bride-to-be, Danica slipped into the guest powder room to cool down and update the to-do list stored on her phone.
She pressed the phone against one ear and a hand against the other in an attempt to hear a voice-mail message from her assistant, Lilith. As she listened, a furious red haze descended over her vision.
"Will you be sitting in on tomorrow's meeting with Dex Harper? Marshall and Tem have him down for noon in the Slayers Club Lounge."
"The nerve of that guy!" When Danica had given the quarterback his walking papers, he'd proceeded to try to get reinstated. It wasn't going to happen. She'd told him so. Now he'd gone over her head to the people she answered toher parents, the team's owners.
She had to make a move and reestablish her control on the Dex Harper situation, which she couldn't do from a hotel suite that overflowed with liquor and strippers in varying shades of hard-bodied nakedness.
Offended and thrown off-kilter, she tossed the phone into her handbag and left the powder room without giving the mirror a glance. The strip show was in intermission now, with hip-hop music pumping down onto the party. The guests had flocked to the bar for refreshments and were raving about the dancers. Veda was now missing the tee she'd been wearing over her dress. One of the strippers would probably be taking it as a souvenir. Danica joined Veda and poured herself a flute of champagne.
"This is fun," Veda said, but the words sounded more like a question, as if she were asking for reassurance that throwing a wild bachelorette party was worth the risk to her rep should her conservative family get wind of it.
"Very. Does your boy know you and Kensie did this?" Danica asked. At her friend's worried expression, she hastened to add, "I'm not judging you. Just asking a question."
"Mekhi says he's fine with it."
"It's a little unsettling, that's all. These dancers remind me that there are so many men out theremillions!and the day after tomorrow I'm going to officially choose one. I've met only a fraction of the men in the world."
"Veda, you do realize it's not humanly possible for you to meet every man on earth." Danica chuckled, getting a nervous giggle in return. "There's a reason you said yes to Mekhi."
"Love. I love him." Veda poured a glass of champagne but didn't drink. She only eyed the bubbles rising to the flute's brim. "But couldn't love steer a woman wrong? I don't want to waste my life on a marriage to the wrong man."
Ouch. Danica blinked but wouldn't let herself make a big deal out of her friend's prewedding jitters. "I'm pretty good at reading people, V. And I see happiness at the end of your story. Mekhi loves you. You don't need to meet every man on earth if you've already found the right one."
Veda set down her glass. "Thanks, Danica."
A burst of laughter collided with a blast of music.
"Oh, no," Veda groaned. Kensie had hooked up her tablet to the sound system. Bouncing off the walls was a familiar disco song about a destructive relationship.
Embarrassment hit Danica like a blow to the gut. It shocked her, that the song's lyrics could affect her and that a friend could find humor in her failed marriage. The sheepish expression on Kensie's face told Danica that she'd pegged her right. It was a joke, and Danica was the butt of it.
"Kensie," Veda admonished. "Change songs. Right.
"Sorry, Danica," Kensie offered, obeying Veda's sharp order. "I was just goofing aroundtrying to get you to stop being so serious."
Veda made a slicing motion across her throat to shut up her cousin. She placed a hand on Danica's arm. "I don't know what to say."
"It's cool," Danica insisted. "The world's still turnin'.
I just wonder how anyone can stand to take their clothes off to this song."
A moment later came the sharp, sexy opening notes of a Def Leppard hit.
"This is better," Danica said with a sip of champagne.
"Much." Veda paused, her head cocked in thought. "Actually, I think I've taken my clothes off to this song."
The guests leered, and Danica finished her drink. Time to go. It took a few minutes to convince the group that work beckoned and she wasn't going home to wallow in self-pity.
"Don't worry about me," she told Veda, hugging her goodbye in the foyer. "I'll see you tomorrow for the rehearsal dinner. In the meantime, please go easy on the drinks. You don't want to be hungover during the rehearsal. It won't look good."
"Whatever you say, Miss Perfect. Oh! Wait right there." Veda held up a finger, dashed off and returned with a pink goody bag that she promptly stuffed into Danica's oversized purse. "Party favors. Night!"
There was something mischievous about the wink her friend added as she shut the double doors, but Danica was already switching to full work mode, shoving handsome strippers out of her thoughts. There was only one man on her mind: Dex Harper.