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The dance music pulsed through the floor and the lights flashed across the shadowy room. As the bare-chested men danced for the screaming women, Angie Lawson glanced at her cell phone to check the time. How much longer was she required to be at this bachelorette party?
She jumped when she felt someone tap her on the shoulder. Angie whirled around and saw the bride-to-be behind her. Brittany was dressed to attract attention from her fireengine-red bandage dress to the rhinestone tiara and veil perched on top of her long, coppery hair.
"Angie, you are supposed to be having fun." Brittany's whine seemed to pierce through the music. Her hands were on her hips and she tapped her foot impatiently. "You're my bridesmaid. It's practically required!"
Angie stared at her and then looked at the women standing on the table and chairs as they screamed for the wellendowed Tiger to take it all off. She returned her attention to Brittany. "This is what you notice?"
"And what are you wearing?" She gestured to Angie and gave a look of disgust. "It's a bachelorette party."
"There are half-naked men everywhere," she reminded the bride-to-be. "I didn't realize there would be a dress code."
"Absolutely, it is my party." Brittany flattened her manicured hand to her chest. "I am a personal shopper for an exclusive clientele and they're here."
Exclusive? Angie wanted to snort at the word. She had worked with some of the most accomplished and talented women in the Seattle area. The women here at Brittany's invitation were sloppy drunk and out of control. She was pretty sure one of them had tried to bite a stripper.
"Not only do I have to look good," Brittany said, "but so do my bridesmaids."
Angie glanced down at her clothes. She wore a glittery black tank, dark skinny jeans andwith great reluctance but her mother had insistedstrappy heels. There was nothing strange or offensive about her outfit.
She scanned the room, taking note of the other women in the upscale strip club that had been reserved for Brittany's bachelorette party. The guests were not like the flannel-shirt, thick-framed-eyeglasses and designer-boots crowd she knew. They weren't even the yoga-pants and organic-coffee group from the suburbs. The women wore flirty dresses and skintight miniskirts. The outfits were wild and sexy.
Oh. Those were two words that wouldn't describe her. Ever. Angie sighed and fought the urge to hunch her shoulders. Once again, she had dressed all wrong. She thought what she had worn was sophisticated and trendy enough that she would blend in. Instead she looked like a dark giant among the sugarplum fairies.
"I mean, really, Angie." She tossed her hands up with frustration. "What's wrong with showing a little cleavage?"
Now Brittany was really beginning to sound just like her mother. "Nothing." Angie shrugged. And it was a good thing she felt that way, since she was going to flash the whole world when she wore her bridesmaid dress. It was tight, shiny and barely covered the essentials.
"I give up. Just try to look like you're enjoying yourself," Brittany said as she marched off.
Angie froze at those parting words. She had made a valiant effort to get into a party mood but she was bored. And that was cause for worry. Actually, she hadn't been interested in any man since Cole walked out of her life. That was months ago and yet, watching these gorgeous men had left her cold. Why couldn't she enjoy watching a man dance? It didn't make sense. She was young and healthy. What was wrong with her?
"Don't listen to Britt."
Angie peered down and saw Brittany's assistant at her side. Cheryl, a petite and curvy blonde who usually wore jeans and animal-print tops, was dressed in a leopard-print tube dress and skyscraper heels.
"She gives unsolicited fashion advice all the time," Cheryl said with a weary smile. "She doesn't mean anything by it."
"It's okay. It doesn't bother me," Angie assured Cheryl, but the woman was already trailing her boss.
And it didn't bother her that much. She heard the complaint so many times that it had become white noise. Boyfriends had always wanted her to wear revealing clothes and well-intentioned friends kept trying to give her a makeover. No matter how much they insisted, she wouldn't give in. She knew she would never meet their expectations. What would be the point of trying?
She had learned to resist this type of help from a young age. Her mother used to make her go on shopping expeditions that felt more like death marches. Despite her mother's perseverance to create a girly look for Angie, it never stuck. Angie preferred the hand-me-downs from her brothers rather than the ruffled dresses and makeup.
But maybe she had gone too far. Her mother thought Cole had lost interest because Angie didn't work hard enough on her appearance. Her friends weren't quick to shoot down the idea, either.
She didn't want to believe it. When they had first met at a gym, Angie hadn't been dressed to impress. She had been sweaty and in desperate need of a shower after an intense workout. And yet Cole couldn't stop flirting with her.
Even after that Cole never asked her to dress up and he didn't make any complaints about her customary ponytail or lack of pretty lingerie. He didn't suggest that she needed to wear tight clothes to reveal the hard work she put in exercising. He thought she was strong and sexy.
But maybe she hadn't been sexy enough
Angie cringed when she recognized the maid of honor's voice. She looked for an escape route but she was stuck unless she wanted to get on stage with the strippers. That wasn't going to happen. Angie sighed with defeat and watched Heidi approach.
Heidi was tall, rail-thin and her short dark hair made the most of her dramatic features. Her blue oneshoulder dress and stiletto heels would have gotten Brittany's stamp of approval. Just being near Heidi made Angie feel drab and frumpy. The only thing they had in common was the gold bracelet they had received as a bridesmaid gift.
"You need to keep me away from Robin," Heidi declared.
Angie wondered where it was written in the bridesmaid handbook that she had to be the referee? Heidi and Robin might be Brittany's sorority sisters but they hated each other. It was as if they were in competition over who was Brittany's favorite. Why anyone would spend energy on that was beyond Angie's imagination. And from what Angie could tell, Brittany seemed to genuinely enjoy pitting the two against each other.
Unfortunately, she wasn't surprised by this side of Brittany and wished for the millionth time that she had found a good excuse to get out of being a bridesmaid. But Patrick was the groom and her best friend since kindergarten. It was important to him that she was part of his wedding.
"I couldn't stand her in college," Heidi continued. "And she's even worse now."
"I admire your restraint," Angie deadpanned. "You're really doing everything you can to keep the drama out of Brittany's bachelorette party. That's a true friend."
"I know, right? I couldn't believe that Robin said the bridesmaid dresses are tacky. How could she say that? I love Britt's sense of style. I think the dresses are sexy and colorful."
Colorful? Angie bit down on her lip. Bile-green was a color, so Heidi was technically correct.
"And you can wear them again," Heidi informed her.
Angie nodded slowly. "Sure." But why would she want to go somewhere that required her to wear a bustier dress?
"Of course, Robin can't let anything other than designer touch her skin." Heidi crossed her arms and looked over her shoulder. "I think she's just bitter because the dress didn't come in vanity sizes. Her dress size is in double digits."
Angie gritted her teeth. This was exactly why she preferred hanging out with the guys. She was tempted to put Heidi in a headlock and tell her to grow up. It always worked on Patrick but she had a feeling it would cause a meltdown for Heidi.
The strip club plunged into darkness and the spotlight zeroed in on Brittany. "Oh," Heidi squealed as the DJ asked the bride-to-be to go on stage, "the strippers are going to give a special dance for Brittany. Go find a seat."
Angie watched Heidi run to the edge of the stage, teetering dangerously on her silver stilettos. She took a deep breath. So what if she wore the wrong clothes? Who cared if she was too shy to grope a man? It didn't mean she was sexually repressed, right? She could smile, clap and make sure everyone was having a good time. She was going to have fun tonight even if it killed her.
"What did she say about me?"
Angie jumped as Robin stood beside her. The woman's orange beaded halter dress was so short that at first Angie thought it was meant to be a shirt. "Heidi? She said the strippers were going to dance for Brittany."
"She was talking about me, wasn't she?" Her sleek black ponytail bobbed as she nodded her head.
"No," Angie lied.
Robin arched a perfectly groomed eyebrow. "She's just mad because Britt loved the bridal party spa and that was my idea. We all needed it, don't you think?"
Going to the spa had been a new experience for Angie. She had felt awkward in the hushed and ultra-feminine surroundings. The moment she had walked through the ornate doors, she had felt like a clumsy duck next to elegant swans. "You know, that was the first time I've been to a spa."
"No need to tell me that. I've seen your cuticles," Robin said. "But still, that event was designed to help the bride relax. And Britt has been incredibly stressed out."
Angie wholeheartedly agreed with that. Brittany had a strong vision for the wedding and reception, but there were too many details to keep track of. Even with her highly efficient assistant and three bridesmaids at her beck and call, there had been a series of problems to solve. "Maybe if she started eating."
"Don't even say that!" Robin shook her head vigorously. "Not until after the wedding. She has to fit into that dress."
No solid foods for a week? It sounded like torture to Angie. "The dress fits perfectly. She doesn't have anything to worry about. But she should stop the liquid diet. It can make a person tired and irritable."
Robin's eyes widened. "You think Britt is irritating?"
She really needed to be more careful with her words. Didn't she know by now that the bridal party was a walking, talking minefield? All the competition, insecurities and petty jealousies. Angie already had a sneaky suspicion that being Brittany's bridesmaid wasn't going to strengthen their relationship. She needed to work harder if she wanted to stay friends with Patrick. "No, I said"
The hot pink stage curtains were ripped back and five strippers stood silently on the dark stage. They wore black neckties and low-slung leather pants. Angie jumped, startled, as the women around her went wild.
Robin raised her arms and whooped with delight as the first few notes of "It's Raining Men" played. Angie dutifully smiled and clapped as she watched the men start their routine around Brittany. The audacious choreography and frenetic lighting hid the fact that only a few were good dancers.
Angie's mouth dropped when she saw Brittany eagerly lay on the stage as one of the strippers straddled her. No one could accuse the bride-to-be of being shy. Brittany enjoyed the special attention.
The men had lean, athletic builds. Angie admired the hard abs and strong arms. She knew the work they had to put into getting sculpted bodies. They were attractive. Sexy. But she didn't feel the need to go crazy at the sight of them.
Perhaps it was because she worked as a personal trainer and was surrounded by muscular men every day. Or it could be that she felt self-conscious having a man gyrate in her face until she stuffed money in his sequined thong.
Or it could be none of those reasons. It could be that she wasn't acting as assertive and enthusiastic as the other women because she couldn't let go of her inhibitions. She tried that before. She had felt safe when she was with Cole. She knew she could be as outrageous and as daring as she wanted. She'd played out her deepest, darkest fantasies with him.
And then he dumped her. She was hurt and humiliated. Was she more mild than wild? Was she unable to compete with other women? She was afraid of the answer and had kept the sensual side of herself under wraps ever since.
Angie looked away from the stage as the knot in her stomach tightened and a flush of embarrassment crept up her neck. Not only had she felt safe with Cole, but at the same time, she'd also felt wild. She found it weird. No other man made her feel that way.
But she didn't want to think about that. She couldn't. It was better to accept that she didn't have a sensual side and move on. One day she'd regain her confidence. However, she wasn't going to lower her guard here, and definitely not with a stranger. It would be with someone she loved and trusted.
"Aren't these guys hot?" Robin yelled over the music.
"They are." Angie continued to clap to the beat as Brittany got to her feet and danced with the strippers. Some of her moves were downright dirty.
Robin elbowed her. "The bridesmaids get the next lap dances."
Angie lurched forward and her stomach twisted violently. "Up there on stage?"
"No, that honor is reserved for the bride. But you better pick one before Heidi grabs them all. Which one do you want?"
it doesn't matter." She knew what would happen. The more audacious the dancer, the more uptight she would be. She was going to be laughed at for her discomfort. She wanted to refuse the dance but she had to act like a team player. She studied the men on stage, hoping to find one who understood personal space and boundaries.
"I can't decide between the guy groping Brittany or the one in the back."
Angie looked at where Robin pointed. The guy reminded her of Cole, from his short black hair to his solid, muscular build. She felt a surprising flutter of interest as her gaze traveled down his smooth chest, defined abs and lean hips. He had power and grace. He looked a lot like Cole. In fact
She gasped and dragged her gaze to the man's face. She recognized the square jaw and full lips. The high cheekbones and strong nose. The short dark hair that felt soft to the touch. "No
"What?" Robin asked. "Are you okay? What's wrong?"