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Chapter One

He was late.

Lauren’s star performer of the evening was late, and by the looks of the snow piling up outside the hotel, he was either cozied up in some love nest because he had forgotten his promise or he was freezing to death in his car in an icy ditch. Either way, she couldn’t reach him by phone and he hadn’t tried to contact her. Relying on a friend of a friend’s cousin might have been free, but it hadn’t been smart.

When the snow started falling at noon, she should have known something would go wrong tonight. The fortune cookie that came with her lunch had warned her: You learn from your mistakes. You will learn a lot today. She’d written it off as crummy prophesizing at its finest. She wouldn’t be making any mistakes.
Lauren pulled the slip of paper out of her pants and tore it into shreds, then she wadded the shreds in a ball and threw it on the floor.

One mistake so far. She swallowed a scream and settled for stomping her foot. No more. She had reached her quota.

What were the odds she could find another a male dancer to jump out of a cake in the next fifteen minutes?

Lauren paced, checking her phone every time she turned and ignoring the nausea spreading through her stomach. The small changing room off the hotel lobby only gave her enough space to take a few steps before she had to turn, and there was less and less air. In the ballroom down the hall, over two dozen ladies waited for the evening’s entertainment she had promised to provide.

They were depending on her, and she owed them for all the help they had given. These ladies had busted their bums to raise money for her project the last couple of months.

She reached for the door at the same time it flew open.

Abby popped in, alone. “The dinner is fab, but they’ll be into the desserts soon. Any news?”

Lauren shook her head. Her phone screen remained abysmally dark and lifeless. “Nothing yet.”

“Call him again. Do something. These ladies are starting to prowl like caged lions in there, and it’s not going to be pretty if they don’t get something to appease their appetites soon, if you know what I mean.”

Lauren’s stomach twisted into a knot. “Keep stalling. All right?”

Abby shook her hair, revealing green and red stripes under the blond. She shut the door, leaving Lauren sinking in her unworthiness.

The Knitting Society of Sycamore Cove deserved this gesture.

Several months ago when Lauren first contacted groups and businesses in town to ask for support for the shelter, the knitters jumped at the opportunity to give back to their community. They wanted to branch out and change their image as stuffy old ladies who sat around, buried in yarn and drinking tea into dynamic do-gooders. After giving the cause their everything, Lauren thought they should have an especially fun end-of-the-year party. The society’s president agreed. A male dancer would be the whipped cream and a cherry to the evening.

Maybe there was a reason she couldn’t find a job in her field of studies and had been stuck as a waitress since graduating with her bachelor’s degree. Or maybe she simply needed to try harder. Lauren needed to show Sycamore Cove, and herself, that she was positively ingenious.

She did what any young woman in need of a hot, male stripper would do.

No, scratch that. She did exactly the opposite of what a young woman in this situation would do. Finding her brother’s number in her contacts, she made her second mistake of the evening.

“Hey, Cooper, it’s me. I’m in a bit of bind and could use your help tonight.”

Cheers and yells blared in the background. “I’m kind of busy right now.”

“Yeah. I understand. Remember that time you busted Mom’s crystal vase in the entryway and you blamed it on neighbor kids, and got me to back up your story? Get over here and help me with the cake or I’m telling her.”

“Is this…blackmail?”

“Be in the Portside Hotel lobby in ten minutes, or I’m calling Mom to ruin her cruise.” Lauren’s conscious twinged at blackmailing her brother. Then she remembered the time he shaved her Barbie’s’ heads.

No mercy in the Hall family.

Abby crashed through the door, snapping her back to the here and now. “They are antsy for the surprise, Lauren. What do we do?”

“Stall them. I have a guy coming, I promise.”

“That sounds so promising the way you say ‘guy.’ How about, the ‘hunky male dancer’ is coming? That has a much nicer ring to it,” Abby said. “Don’t forget, I have popcorn for us and these little sparkly-confetti shooters.”

“Keep your bra fastened. Our cake guy will be here in less than ten minutes. I’m taking a rain check on this performance, though.” Watch her brother jump out of
a cake and start to shimmy? Yuck.

“Suit yourself.” Abby waved her confetti shooter on her way out. “I’m off to stall. Some more.”

This would work.

Lauren had a Singing in the Rain-style cake, a pair of free stripper pants (one size fits most) and edible body oil—eggnog flavored for the holidays—ready to go. All she needed was a ‘stud-muffin,’ as the knitting society president had put it.

Her brother would have to do. Most women found him studdly, at least.

Lauren collapsed in a fold-out chair, holding her head. The sounds of Christmas cheer filtered in from the ballroom. She had to pull this off. This town needed a new animal shelter—one with a no-kill policy and clean, roomy kennels—and she intended to prove she was capable of organizing projects for the betterment of society. Each minute that passed crawled on prickly pin-needle legs down her back.

Come on, Cooper, where—?

“I’m looking for Lauren Hall,” a husky, male voice said at the check-in counter. “There should be a cake…”

“That’s me,” she cried, running out. The friend of a friend’s cousin had arrived. “That’s me, I’m—” She halted her headlong flight, nearly slipping on the polished tiles.

Holy smoke from a Yuletide fire, her Christmas wishes had been granted. And then some.

A mouthwatering ginger with a trim beard and captivating, green eyes stepped toward her. Broad shoulders filled his wool coat, jeans hugged his narrow waist, and melting snow twinkled in his hair, lashes, and beard. He could be the sexy poster boy for the town’s tourist industry.

Those ladies wouldn’t know what hit them. They’d be knitting ties and crocheting handcuffs for him to tie them up with in no time. However, Lauren had a job to do. She stood as tall as her five-foot-one-inch’” frame and three-inch heels would allow, and told the hyperactive butterflies in her stomach to take the party elsewhere. Time to crack the whip, but sadly not the kinky kind.

He held out a hand. “Nice to finally meet you, I’m—”

“Here to make me a very happy woman,” Lauren said. Craning her neck, she smiled up at him. “Let’s get you out of those clothes.”

***

Gabe turned at the words ‘That’s me!’ to introduce himself. And his brain stumbled to a halt. Lauren Hall. His nerves buzzed as she hurtled toward him, a sizzling fireball of energy and excitement. Silky brown curls, pillowed lips in a wide smile, form-hugging black pants and white blouse begging to be unbuttoned. A rush surged through him, like diving in a pool for a race. The same shock of cold that electrified every inch of him and set him on fire for the chase.
Shit. He should have put on a better sweater. More cologne. An extra layer of deodorant.

Instincts jolted him to action.

“Nice to finally meet you, I’m—”

“Here to make me a very happy woman,” Lauren interrupted, not waiting for his name. Cooper must have told her he was coming. Her smile knocked him senseless again. “Let’s get you out of those clothes.”

It was all he could do to play it cool. The second she grabbed his hand, muscles through his back and stomach tightened and his heart kicked his ribs, sending blood to his woefully neglected lower extremities. Yeah. Those extremities perked right up.

He’d seen pictures of her, of course. Except the ones Cooper had shown him were of a younger, awkward high school girl and college student. The Lauren currently dragging him down a hallway was an entirely different story. She was all woman. Following behind, he admired the curves of her short stature. Her rich brown hair fell in loose curls to her shoulders, ready for him to lace his fingers through.

Cooper hadn’t talked much about his little sister over the years, except to mention having to beat up any guys sniffing around her or brag how much of herself she gave to her social causes. In his eyes, she was right up there with St. Teresa, but more untouchable.

Preconceived notions about the laid-back, friendly evening he had anticipated were thrown out the window by the eager pull on his hand. She seemed to have something in mind for him, and who was he to argue when a pretty girl told him to take his clothes off?

He had readily accepted when Cooper asked if he could lend a hand. He was still riding high from how well his interview had gone earlier that afternoon. His luck was changing from being laid off with no warning to stumbling on the perfect opportunity to move up as an analytics manager with the governor’s staff in Richmond. And now a very attractive woman was escorting him to a glorified closet with the promise of nudity.

The holidays just got a whole lot more enchanting.

“In here.” She motioned for him to enter the small room. Her cheeks were flushed deeper than before.

He stepped through the doorway, closer to her than absolutely necessary, and breathed in her floral-and-spices scent. Sugar. There was something very sweet in the room. Or the scent could be coming from her. His mouth watered.

“Where do we start?” He inspected the room. No cakes. In fact, not much of anything at all besides a box wrapped in plastic.

She closed the door, sliding sideways. Determined hands tugged at his coat. “We have to get you ready and in a hurry.”

“Hurry?” His coat flew toward the table.

She darted out from behind him. “I am so happy you showed up when you did, but I needed you ready ten minutes ago.”

“Let’s get rolling, then.” He rubbed his hands together, not that they needed warming. He couldn’t stop the grin determined to take over his face.

“That’s what I like to hear. I believe in jumping in and getting things done.” She pointed toward the corner. “There’s a changing curtain so you can get out of your street clothes. And I have edible body oil. It’s eggnog-flavored.”

“Edible, eggnog-flavored body oil?” And now his winter evening just got warmer.

“Yes. If you want it. To help with your performance, of course.”

Performance? He swallowed a cough, clearing his throat. She didn’t need to worry about his performance. Heat spiraled up from his center. He stepped closer, and the white tube she was waving landed lightly on his chest.

She blinked up at him. Her sweet smell wafted over him. He couldn’t wait to get a taste. “Did you want it?”

“That depends on who’s putting it on me,” he said.

Her lips rounded in an ‘O’. “You want me to… All right. Let’s do it.”

“I’d be more than happy to put it on you as well.” He covered her hand with his own, loving how it fit under his larger one and the way she arched her back to look at him.

“Really? But later. Much later. Your clothes have to come off first,” she said.

“You really want me out of these clothes, don’t you?”

“Yes! Well, no. Not for me personally, but for the animals. That is, I don’t want to take advantage of you by getting a freebie, although I am grateful you are doing this for free.”

“Doing what for free?” Lending a hand for some cake situation, as Cooper had called it? As if he would charge her money for that.

“A striptease, of course.”

He froze. She hadn’t been joking about getting him out of his clothes. Not in the least. All the blood rushing to his extremities reached its final destination and he strained painfully against his jeans. An alarm went off somewhere in his head, but it was distant and easy to ignore.

He let go of her hand and tugged his sweater up and off. It fell to the floor. He stepped forward, closing the distance between them.

“First the clothes and then the oil, is that correct?” His voice came out ragged, her unexpected request trumping his self-control.

Tipping her head to meet his gaze, she fanned herself with her hand. “Sounds about right to me. Although, you can go behind the curtain if you’re bashful, which would be odd in your line of…Santa’s reindeers…” Her voice trailed off, but he hadn’t been listening.

The next article of clothing to go had been his t-shirt, which landed with a swoosh next to the sweater.

“Is getting close and personal part of your act? It is really effective.” Her gaze was riveted to his chest and torso. The extra swim time he had put in lately was paying off.

“This isn’t an act.”

“You probably say that all the time.” She was breathing as fast as a last-minute shopper running through stores on Christmas Eve. “Listen, to be sure, can you keep it up for half an hour?”

“Beg pardon?”

“A half an hour. Can you go for that long?” She opened the tube of body oil.
Images of all the things he could do to her while armed with the flavored oil sent him reeling. Only half an hour? “I can keep it up for longer than that, I promise.”

“It’s not too hard?”

He moved in close enough to feel her body heat, the scent of her perfume and sugary sweetness growing stronger. She gasped, stepping back until she hit the door, but her chest rose in invitation as he invaded her space. He placed his arms on either side of her to pin her in. Her lips were sinfully moist and eyes heavily lidded.

“It’s hard,” he breathed in her ear.

“Really? Any way I can make it easier on you?”

So many ways raced through his brain. He inhaled to enumerate a few of his favorites, but then another thought hit him.

This was his best friend’s sister. He couldn’t strip and engage in mutual oil rubbing. It went against all the rules in the guy handbook, despite the fact she was sober and clearly knew what she wanted.

Cooper’s invitation for him to stay for a week might have included the promise of drinking, partying, and playing the field, but the field didn’t exactly include Cooper’s sister. Especially if he got the job nearby in Richmond and wound up coming to hang out in Sycamore Cove more often.

She shivered, tilting her head to give him a better view of her neck and velvet earlobe. That he wanted to nibble on.

To hell with the guy handbook. Best friend’s little sister or not, when a beautiful brunette brought out the body oil, all bets were off.

“Tell me—”

Lauren was shoved roughly from behind. He reached instinctively as she fell forward, wrapping her in his arms to keep her from crashing to the floor. Something wet splattered his chest. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and creamy vanilla filled the air.

The door had been forced open, and a wild-eyed blonde poked her head through.

“Whoa, who blocked the door? Where’s the cake, for the love of consumerism? And what are you doing—I’m interrupting something, aren’t I?” the blonde asked. Irritation melted to surprise on her face. “The cake man. Wow, I am so glad to see you. Ah, Lauren, get it together and get this show on the road, right?”

“Abby,” Lauren yelled. She pushed free of Gabe’s hold. He let go, reluctantly saying good-bye to her soft breasts that had been pressed against him. “Two minutes. Two minutes!”

She began to shut the door, but Abby reached through and grabbed her. “Do you know how much he charges for private shows?”

“Out!”

Slam!

“Private shows?” Gabe asked.

“Ignore her, please.” Her gaze, which had been locked on his chest, flitted to the bottle of oil in her hand and back. “Oil problem solved.”
He stepped back. See-through blotches covered her breasts and white bra.

Lauren continued to stare, mouth open. Streaks of gleaming oil ran in rivulets across his chest and into his jeans.

Her gaze devoured the length of his chest and then climbed inch by inch up, the heat in it going from spring in Greenland to full-blown heatwave in Georgia. She caught him watching her and a flush stained her cheeks.

“Did you come prepared for tonight, or do I need to loan you a…something to wear?”

Strange emphasis on wear. Had he come prepared? It was a good question in case things got really hot. “Yes, I have one in my wallet.”

“‘One’?”

“We can get more later. I agree, one won’t be enough,” he said.

“Wait, what are we talking about? What exactly do you have in your wallet?”

“A condom.”

“One condom? What are you going to do with a condom? There are two dozen women in the other room waiting for you,” she said.

He took a slow step backward.

“Two”—he choked—”dozen women?”

“Yes, the Sycamore Cove Knitting Society. Didn’t your cousin explain the show?”

“My cousin arranged a show?” I’ll kill him.

“Why do you think you’re here? But thank goodness you showed up. Would you believe I actually called my brother to blackmail him into doing the show?”

“Your brother?” he asked. “And the cake is…?”

“There.” She pointed to a large object in the corner, covered with a plastic sheet. “So if your jeans aren’t part of the show, let’s get them off you.”

Those words were seriously less thrilling than they should have been. He and Lauren were not on the same page. “What exactly was your brother going to do with the cake?”

“Pop out of it, of course. You don’t know my brother, but it would have been the highlight of the decade for me to make him do it. No offense to you and your line of work, but paybacks are hell, and he owes me big-time. No problem, I have a spare set of tear-away pants you can wear.”

All he could do was blink, processing the term “tear-away pants.” The situation was souring. “Lauren, there’s something I’d like to clear up.”

“Oh shit. You know my brother and you’re afraid of him, aren’t you?”

“I’m not afraid of Cooper, no.”

“Great. Okay. We are running so late. Jeans off, now.” She grabbed a bundle of shiny fake leather and shoved it in his hands.

The doorknob jiggled, and the blonde stuck her head in again, hissing Lauren’s name.

“That wasn’t two minutes. Give us the full two minutes,” Lauren snapped.

“Our ladies are getting antsy. They finished dinner and they want their hunk delivered.”

“Okay, we really have to talk,” Gabe said.

“No, we really have to get ready. See you out there,” Lauren said, pushing the other woman out. “And have one of the bellhops come get the cake!” She shut the door, turning her flushed face to his. “Do you think those will fit? They’re a one-size-fits-most.”

With the blood returning to his body and more importantly, his brain, things were finally adding up. Street clothes, body oil, two dozen women, and a really big cake.

If the ladies were finished with dinner, he was supposed to be their dessert.

He flipped open the bundle and snapped the fabric to reveal a pair of slim pants with press buttons down the sides. A red thong was included. A stringy, red man-thong with a big pouch hanging from the middle. He held it up between his fingertips for inspection.

“Lauren Hall,” he said, regret bitter on his tongue, “I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Gabe Nicholson, your brother Cooper’s friend from college. He sent me to help you with a cake, but I doubt this is what he meant.”

“Gabe.” Her mouth dropped open after saying his name. Blood drained from her cheeks. “Cooper’s friend, Gabe? You don’t look at all like the pictures I’ve seen. That also means you’re not…not…the friend of my friend’s cousin? Valentino il Grande?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Oh, sweet potato pie. Then you’re not the semiprofessional male dancer who loves animals and came tonight as a big favor?” She clenched her hands, a grimace marring her features.

“No. I’m sorry.”

“How would you like to become the amateur male dancer who loves animals and is doing me a big favor?”

“I don’t think so, no.” Gabe’s love for animals only went so far.

“Not even to save kittens?”

“Look, I don’t want to upset you, but this…” He shook his head. Putting on those pants and climbing in a cake wasn’t happening. He drew the line at threatening the future of his career.

“I’ll pay you.”

He moved to go.

“Wait, I have—” She rushed to her bag to find her wallet. Bills and coins spilled on the table as she counted. “Twenty-three fifty in cash, and maybe more tomorrow!”

“I would gladly take you out for a drink later, or save kittens in danger with you, but this?”

Grabbing his arms to prevent him from putting on his shirt, she gazed up at him. Soulful, coffee-bean-brown eyes blinked up at him, weakening his resolve. She must practice that look in a mirror. “I’m begging you, Gabe. You aren’t chicken, are you? You think these little old ladies will attack you?”

“No,” he said, spine stiffening. He was afraid of some things, but showing women a good time wasn’t one of them. “I’m no chicken.”

“Prove it. Go out there and show those grannies what you showed me here.” She took a deep breath. “I dare you.”

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