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By Susan Andersen
MIRA Copyright © 2005 Susan Andersen
All right reserved.
"Happy birthday, girlfriend!"With glasses raised, a multitude of female voices echoed the toast. Someone added,
"So, which one is this, anyhow — your thirty-second?"
Treena McCall looked at the group of women ringing the tables they'd shoved together to accommodate everyone and felt the corner of her mouth turn up. "My thirtieth," she corrected smoothly, although it was actually her thirty-fifth. That was a fact she'd just as soon forget, but the ache of muscle strain in her left calf due to a simple high kick in the final number made it tough to do.
Her friends hooted. "Sure it is," someone agreed with friendly sarcasm. A dancer named Juney nodded and said, "And this makes how many thirtieth birthdays you've celebrated?"
"Oh. Well. If you're going to be picky
" Her lip crooked up a little higher yet. "The truth is, I've decided to quit adding numbers and go straight to the alphabetical system
which I suppose makes me thirty-E. Tell you what, though, Juney. If you don't go there on mine, I promise to stay away from the subject on your next birthday."
"In any case —" Julie-Ann Spencer leaned forward from down the table to say " — I guess you won't be dancing the Crazy Horse Show for La Femme anytime soon."
There was an instant silence, since everyone knew Julie-Ann's remark — although offered in a friendly enough tone — wasn't made in the true spirit of comradery.
"Bitch," Carly murmured in Treena's ear, then raised her voice. "Is anyone at this table besides you still under twenty-five, Julie-Ann?" Rude catcalls greeted her question, and Carly gave the young woman a pointed glance. "Then I guess no one but your perky little self qualifies for the Crazy Horse."
"And that is sure as hell La Femme's loss," Eve said.
"Idiots don't know what they're missing," Michelle agreed.
But if Julie-Ann's intention had been to cast a pall over Treena's mood, she'd accomplished her mission. For not only would she never dance in the Crazy Horse, she'd be damn lucky if she passed the mandatory annual audition two weeks from now in order to keep the job she already had. Those eleven months off with Big Jim had cost her. His rapidly escalating illness had allowed her time only to take infrequent dance classes, and that sort of hit-and-miss practice simply wasn't sufficient for a Las Vegas showgirl to stay in shape. In little less than a year, she'd gone from being dance captain of the troupe to barely keeping her spot. Thirty-five might be the prime of most women's lives, but for a dancer it was nearly over the hill. There was nothing to look forward to but the slippery slope on the other side.
Age hadn't been something she'd given much thought to until she'd come back to the show, for the end of her career had always seemed far, far in the future. But as much as she'd like to ignore the way her career seemed to be hurtling toward its final destination faster than a Japanese bullet train, she'd awakened this morning to the realization that she was officially thirty-five. She knew that once this train got into the station, she'd have no choice but to get off. Unfortunately she wasn't even close to realizing her backup dream — that of someday opening up her own dance studio.
No sense dredging up the fact right this minute, however. It only served to exacerbate the itchy feeling of recklessness that had been building in her all day.
She heard a low, sharp exclamation from a male throat and an accompanying high-pitched feminine yip, but even as she turned to see the commotion going on behind her, her bare shoulder and back were suddenly drenched with a shower of melting ice. With a startled shriek, she jumped to her feet.
"Omigod, Treena, I'm sorry," said their waitress Clarissa, who was already bent down on one black fishnetstockinged knee, righting the empty glasses on her tray.
"No, the fault is mine," said a smooth, deep voice. A tanned, long-fingered hand cupped the waitress's elbow and assisted her to her feet. "My apologies. I should have made sure no one was coming before I got up out of my chair."
As soon as the cocktail waitress regained her footing, he turned to Treena. She had a quick impression of height, wide shoulders, and tousled, sun-streaked brown hair before the man whipped a handkerchief from the breast pocket of a black jacket she'd bet a week's pay had been fashioned by some brand-name, high-priced designer. Reaching out, he used it to gently blot the moisture from her shoulder.
"I'm sorry," he said, taking obvious care not to touch her with anything but the linen square as he daubed under her hair. He fished a dripping cube from her curls with his free hand, and his dark eyebrows met over the strong thrust of a nose that had clearly been broken at some point in his life. "The only saving grace here is that she was carrying empties when I tripped her up. Turn around. Let me get your back."
He spoke with such impersonal coolness that she automatically about-faced, and found herself staring at her friends who were all watching with varying degrees of wide-eyed or raised-brow fascination as he efficiently mopped the moisture from her back. That was when her own compliance hit her.
She wasn't docile by nature, and if he'd made even a single attempt to touch her in an inappropriate manner, she'd have cut him off at the knees so fast he would've been four foot two before he knew what hit him. She was used to deflecting that sort of bullshit from Stage Door Johnnies who thought because a woman danced topless in the final show of the night she was fair game for their wandering hands. But this man's flesh didn't touch hers at all. She felt him only as a heat source through the rapidly dampening handkerchief sliding over her skin.
"There." His voice sounded like a low rumble in her ear, and his hand dropped to his side. He stepped back.
"It's not perfect, I'm afraid, but the best I can do under the circumstances."
Excerpted from Skintight by Susan Andersen Copyright © 2005 by Susan Andersen. Excerpted by permission.
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