Whoever invented the debauchery of a traditional bachelor party ought to be slathered with grease and tossed in a sand pit. Matt Coleman worked his way down the length of the bar, tray full of beer jugs balanced precariously as he manoeuvred his burden over the rowdies crowding the floor.
There were too many bodies, too many familiar faces to cut and run like everything screamed for him to do. This wasn't where he wanted to be, not by a long shot. But his personal preferences didn't free him from his responsibilities as the oldest single male in his family.
His brother was tying the knot? Matt would take a trip into hell itself to make sure all the rituals and customs were followed. Even the stupid ones.
A loud roar sounded from ahead of him, and he hurried his step, hoping to control the damage before someone--probably one of his younger brothers--went totally out of control.
"To Daniel, who not only got his balls chained but sleepless nights with kids thrown into the bargain." One of the many cousins in attendance shook a stuffed bear in the air. The attached set of handcuffs rattled, and laughter rang out before he tossed the gag gift onto the table with the others.
Matt lowered his tray in time to see Daniel's response all too clearly. The familiar ear-to-ear grin his brother had worn for most of the past year proved he didn't give a shit his freedom was about to officially disappear into the sunset.
The music picked up, both in volume and tempo, and enthusiastic hoots rose from the males crowding the private room at Traders Pub. The door on the far side of the raised platform opened and a pair of long, slim legs appeared.
Someone yanked on his shirtsleeve. Matt leaned in close enough to hear Daniel above the rest of the boys' caterwauling.
"Strippers? You trying to get me killed?"
"I stopped at dirty dancers. Beth won't kill you unless you touch 'em." Matt lifted his shoulders briefly. "Face it, bro, this part of the party ain't for your sake anyway. You tell me the entire clan would accept your idea of a steak dinner and a brew down at the ranch, and I'll suspect you've found a bottle of Unca's moonshine and been sampling it on the sly a little too hard."
Daniel shook his head, raising his drink in salute. "I'm telling her this was your idea."
"Damn right, you give me credit. Had to book the entertainment in all the way from Red Deer." Matt forced a smile, clicking mugs with his brother as he searched the room for the three youngest boys in the immediate family.
Colemans filled the space. With all the cousins and second cousins living in the area, there was no shortage of similar-looking male relatives leering and waving at the pretty blonde strutting her way across the stage. She wore a milkmaid costume that didn't do much to cover her ample breasts. Matt took in the view for a moment before turning away with a sigh. Pretty girls all around him and he would still be partying with his hand once the evening was over. The notable gap in his love life, no, his sex life, was getting old.
Screw love, he wanted some out-and-out hard fucking. And soon.
The cheering got louder, and Matt rolled his eyes when he spotted the cause. Figured. Jesse and Joel, the babies of the family--although finally legal in all states and provinces--were front and center making suggestive gestures at the dancer. She squatted in front of them and preened while continuing to display her assets, and once more Matt wondered just what the hell those boys ate for breakfast that the rest of the clan missed.
Women lined up to lie down for the twins.
A hand landed on his shoulder, solid. "Well done, Matt. Where were you when I was having my bachelor party?"
Matt laughed at his brother Blake, the oldest in the Coleman "six pack". "You didn't trust me to organize things. That's why you had Leo set up your party. And if I remember correctly, the police got called well before midnight--what more did you want?"
Blake grinned as he eyed the second woman crossing the stage, this one a brunette wearing a schoolgirl costume. "I'm not complaining. Still, I think Jaxi would have gotten a kick out of this kinda thing."
Matt slapped him on the arm. "Guys only. Just because your woman is atypical and doesn't mind seeing other girls kick it up..."
"Hell, she can dance better than most of these ladies," Blake teased, pulling away in time to avoid Matt's swinging fist.
Bastard was telling the truth. Although, Jaxi's mixed bag of talents and otherwise scheming skills were on hold for a bit. "She's doing most of her dancing with the babies these days, I bet."
The proud expression on his big brother's face had rarely left since May. "The girls are the cutest damn things. Swear they're gonna be as pretty as their mama. I'm polishing my shotgun already."
Matt gave him a pat on the back then headed toward the side of the room where a few of the cousins were swinging their mugs a little too hard. Blake and Daniel both wore the blissful expressions of men in love--and Matt was ready to beat someone to a pulp. He'd worn that expression himself. Fully intended to marry his high school sweetheart, until she'd proved the big city was more important than he was.
The party swirled around him, and he smiled and nodded at all the appropriate times. But when it came down to it, there wasn't a lot to smile about.
He'd satisfy the ache in his groin with women who were willing but not looking for more than a casual fling. Hearts couldn't get broken if they weren't involved.
Hope shivered. The skimpy outfit covered her breasts but not much more, and she prayed the two-sided tape currently tugging at her skin would keep the fabric in place. She'd put on a few pounds since the last time she'd worked a stage, and this costume would have been revealing on her former, less-ample figure.
A rush of adrenaline and fear pumped through her veins. Going down to not much more than skin and a blush had been fine during her college days to pay the bills, but she was supposed to be a mature businesswoman now. This wasn't the way to maintain a respectable image in most small-town eyes. Why had she agreed to this craziness?
Cash. Right. The cash she desperately needed.
The quilting shop had been open for only a few months and due to circumstances beyond her control, i.e. the sister from hell, her savings were nearly exhausted trying to make what should have been payments from two pockets.
Just get it done.
"I hope you remember I'm rusty. It's over six months since I did this on a regular basis," Hope warned the head dancer.
"Honey, you'll do fine. You always were one of my best. I'm so glad you agreed to help last minute." Trish pushed in one final hairpin and stepped back, draping the long wig extensions over Hope's shoulders. "Don't be worried. It's not like anyone can tell it's you, not with this costume. Plus, I've got you on stage second last--by that time all the guys want is to see you wiggle."
Hope laughed. "Wiggling I can do no problem."
"Oh, hush. You've got curves I'd kill for. You ever move to full stripping, you'd make a mint."
As if. "Thanks, no. Dirty dancing is as far as I go."
"No worries. The guy who booked the party specifically said no full nudity." Trish shrugged. "I'm good either way, but the one thing I know is the guys enjoy variety."
Hope pointed at the wig on her head. "Which works well for me trying to stay undercover. Only, a mermaid? Really, Trish? When did you expand the costume selection from hard-working women into the fantasy realm?"
Trish patted her cheek teasingly then handed over a sparkling, sequined half mask. "Be thankful I didn't turn you into an elven princess for the night, pointed ears and all. No one will be staring at your face, anyway."
True. Hope arranged the mask over her eyes before sneaking another peek downward. Right about then, her sense of the ridiculous got the better of her. She had more than enough hips and ass for the guys to stare at. More than she wanted there to be, but the soft curves refused to diminish no matter how many workouts she put in. Not that she had much time for an exercise routine these days with everything she had to accomplish around the shop.
Trish kept babbling, but Hope had lost interest in listening. Just one step at a time. She was going to go out on that stage, shake her boobs at the gathered men. With the extra cash from tonight added to what she had scrimped together, she'd hit the bank on Monday and make her shop mortgage payment by the deadline. Done.
Of course, that to-do list didn't mention the paperwork she still had to complete when she got home tonight. Or the new stock she had to put out in the morning. But if she started thinking about her workload, she'd have no energy to dance, and after all Trish's hard work to glue this costume on her that would be such a pity.
She snorted at her own twisted joke. Hope glanced at the mirror again and fought back giggles. At least her concern that she'd be recognized had lessened now that her costume and mask were in place. Maybe that's why Trish had scheduled her to dance near the end--give the boys enough time to drink and the alcohol blur would help cover her features.
Money, that's all this was about.
The most intriguing part of this gig was the shimmering silver wig. She'd worn her hair short during high school, but over the past couple years she'd grown it out so she could wear it back in a ponytail. Dealing with a fancy do while working with customers or bending over a sewing machine was impractical. Still, silver instead of red? Her real colour was probably her favourite feature, but the instant change was amusing. She pulled on the kimono-style cover-up Trish had provided, then made a slow rotation to watch the artificial hip-length hair swirl around her.
Hmm, this could be enjoyable after all.
Another of the girls left the back room, the third to go. Schoolgirl Shelly was back, and she wiggled past Hope, laughing under her breath. "Hot damn--I wish I'd known who'd made the booking before I picked my costume for the night. That was fun, but more embarrassing than usual."
If Shelly thought taking off most of her clothes and swinging her hips for money was embarrassing, she was in the wrong line of work. Hope had never regretted her dancing days, even if it wasn't what she intended for her future. "Why more embarrassing?"
Shelly winked. "Because the bachelor's hooking up with a teacher."
Okay, that made sense. "You're kidding. Too funny."
"Hilarious, but you know what? There's enough Colemans out there you're bound to find a profession--"
"Colemans?" Oh shoot. She'd been so focused on the offer of the instant cash she desperately needed, the one question Hope hadn't thought to ask Trish was the name of tonight's client.
She snuck a glance through the doorframe. Familiar faces greeted her. Guys she'd gone to school with, guys she saw on a daily basis all over town. That part wasn't a surprise--she'd figured the crowd would be locals, but damn... Why had she thought this was a good idea?
The money. Every bit helped.
Staring into a sea of Colemans wasn't what she needed. And when she instinctively managed to find Matt in the crowd, life got just that much stinkier.
"You're up, Hope. Go give them what for." Trish's firm push between the shoulders was the only thing that stopped her from turning tail and racing from the bar without a backward glance.
Matt sat to the side of the room, laughing with his brothers as they joined together in that wall of impenetrable camaraderie she'd always admired. That's what family was supposed to be like, not cutthroat and undermining.
She only had a second to take him in. His dark hair was longer now, and a neatly trimmed beard and mustache covered his chin and upper lip. Oh God, he'd grown a mustache.
She loved what he looked like with facial hair.
Hope snapped her gaze to the ground and stepped forward in time to the music, resisting the urge to glance up and discover Matt's response. Of anyone in the crowd, he'd be the most likely to recognize her.
Ignoring the fluttering sensation in her belly, she lifted her arms to start her portion of the show. She had to concentrate on what she was doing or, substitute dancer or not, the guys would only be so forgiving. She shimmied her hips, forcing the front of her robe to gap, and the whistling began.
It wasn't difficult to get back into the swing of things. She still sang and sashayed around the shop when there were no customers--moving to a beat made her happy even though her days of dirty dancing were supposedly behind her.
She turned her back to the group before allowing another tease of skin to show, baring one shoulder. The robe clung intimately as the heat of the lights brought a slick to her skin. There had always been something ego-stroking about watching men respond. Even if the one guy she truly wanted was stamped off-limits.
"Oh, darling, shake them hips over this way."
The suggestions got raunchier, and the pulse in her veins increased in tempo. When she let the robe slip to her waist, revealing the tiny fabric seashells barely covering her breasts, the roof shook with their shouts.
The heavy weight of the silvery wig's long strands caressed her as she twirled and allowed the silk to puddle to the floor.
Matt's voice. Even in the crowd she recognized it. Hope lowered her eyelids to nearly closed, forcing the room to fade until individual faces blurred into nondescript, unidentifiable ovals.
If she didn't know where he was, she wasn't dancing her heart out for him, right?