Book 3: Six Pack Ranch Series
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?
Daniel passed him another beer, but Matt didn’t think he could swallow. Holy shitwas the only thing currently filling his brain. The mug bumped his fingers, and he curled his fingers around the glass to stop it from tipping.
“You never seen a woman before, Matt? Because I think you’re drooling.”
“For a minute I thought…” He was seeing things. It had been six months since Helen had hightailed it out of Rocky Mountain House, swearing she never wanted to see a country road or smell a hay bale again for the rest of her life. But for a moment, just a moment, when the dancer had turned on the stage? He’d seen his ex-lover, her familiar body displayed to the noisy crowd of his kin.
Daniel leaned in front of him, forehead furrowed. “You okay? You look flushed.”
“Tell me I’m imaging things—that’s not Helen up there, is it?”
Daniel snorted in disbelief before he turned to examine the dancer. He shook his head. “It’s not Helen. Trust me, the woman said she wasn’t going to set foot in Rocky ever again. Why the hell would she turn up now on the stage shaking her tits for us?”
Matt chugged half the mug of beer to resist responding. Daniel didn’t need to know that last part wouldn’t surprise him. Helen had no issues putting her wares on display for more than one guy at a time. Even if her lover wasn’t around, which had made their breakup easier in a way.
Instead, Matt ignored everything but the woman on the stage. The teeny bits of fabric clinging to her were as close to being naked as a person could get. Plump, round breasts—heavier than his ex’s. In fact, the overall curves on the woman on the stage were more pronounced. Matt didn’t mind, not one bit.
Long hair pooled around the dancer’s shoulders, the strands covering her breasts for a moment, then flowing out of the way like a peek-a-boo screen. He wanted to run a hand over the swell of her hip to see if the glow was from the heat of her skin or if it was a trick of the light.
He rocked in his chair, willing his dick to settle down. There was still a lot left to the evening, and hell if he’d sit there with aching balls the entire time.
He dragged his gaze back up to the dancer’s face, confusion dogging him. She wore a small half mask over her eyes. Part of her costume, he guessed, but the silver material hid enough it was impossible to get a clear focus on her features. He swore there was something familiar about her, but just couldn’t nail down what.
Then she made eye contact. Even through the mask he could tell—she was staring directly at him. His breath caught, his cock jerked. Anticipation rose. She shimmied in his direction. Daniel nudged his arm, and when one of the cousins stepped between them, blocking his view, Matt rose to his feet without thinking.
She was still looking his way—as if seeking him out. The slow curl of her lips turned them to a sinful smile that made his body ache.
“I think someone likes you,” Blake teased.
“Think you’re the one who needs a fucking. You’ve been a bloody asshole lately. Why don’t you go say hi? Get her name and you can call her later and ask her out.”
“She’s a dancer at your party—”
“Who is staring at you as she’s leaving the stage.” Daniel pushed Matt. “I’m not telling you to jump her or anything, but dancers are allowed to have a private life. You saying you wouldn’t date a dancer?”
“Hell, that’s not it at all.” Matt didn’t give a damn as long as she was doing it of her own free will, and the group he’d contracted had a sterling reputation. “Forget it, okay? We’re here for you. All discussion of my sex life is over.”
Daniel waved a hand. “Fine. Do whatever you want. Just pointing out you’re a gloomy ass and we know how to drink without supervision.”
Blake nodded toward the far door. “And there will be some serious drinking and cards happening now, since I see Jon and Leo have finally arrived. Bastards cheated the last we got together, I swear they did.”
Blake rearranged the chairs at their table, totally ignoring the noise that rose as the last dancer hit the stage. All the earlier girls strutted onto the bar room floor to mingle, but Blake and Daniel seemed oblivious to the revealing costumes and flirty glances, instead breaking out a deck of cards and greeting their friends.
Matt wished he were so happily content with a steady female that he’d be blissfully unaware of the half-naked women, especially the one in the silvery wig. He glanced around the room, pulling on his party-organizer hat, but all the cousins were suitably distracted.
The pile of gifts on the table caught his eye. Most of it was strictly for fun, but there were a few things he figured Beth would want to see. Matt grabbed the bags he’d brought with him and stuffed the gifts away for safekeeping.
It only took a moment before he stood beside the card table, staring down at his brothers and their friends. “I need your keys. I’ll stick these in your truck.”
Daniel winked as he tossed them over then turned his attention back to the game.
Matt swung across the room as quickly as he could with full hands, dodging the chaos. The party seemed to be a success, although there’d been no fistfights yet and no one was out cold on the floor.
Of course, it was still early.
He wasn’t about to haul ass all the way to the front doors and back around to the parking lot—not when he knew the short cut. Matt ducked through the side door and waited impatiently for his eyes to adjust—the long back-hall lighting just bright enough to reveal the flash of a leg disappearing into a side room.
Oh hell, this route took him past the stage backroom. An instant shot of lust smacked him upside the head as he pictured in far-too-intimate detail the dancer in the silver wig. Imagined her hair swaying as she rode him like some wild bandito, her eyes staring through that mask—he could totally go for a few games in the bedroom if he got to play them with her.
He fumbled with the bags for a moment, hesitant to go forward. Feeling stupid, he was even considering going back and all the way around, like a child scared to brave the unknown ahead of him.
Being attracted to the woman wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t. If he happened to meet her, like Blake had said, he could at least talk to her politely.
Or was he so backward around women he’d forgotten how to do that?
The energy in his limbs from the internal pep talk lasted all of ten seconds. Long enough for him to square his shoulders and stride firmly down the hall. Long enough for him to step in line with the open door of a room where a quick, almost involuntary glance revealed a mess of makeup on the counter, clothing tossed over chairs.
And the flash of nearly naked skin as the woman he’d been salivating over earlier peeled the robe off her shoulders to be his own personal temptation. He couldn’t stand there and ogle her, but he couldn’t seem to walk away either.
Matt gritted his teeth, bracing himself to take the final steps to the exit door. A feminine gasp dragged his gaze off where he’d gotten trapped—her nearly naked breasts, dammit. He retreated in a hurry, smashing into the wall behind him as he forced himself to look at the floor.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I’m going.”
He rushed away, slammed a shoulder against the door and escaped through the exit into the warmth of the July evening air. His heart was still pounding like a freight train after he’d put his load away.
Shit. He was beyond pathetic. Now he was freaking out innocent women. He leaned on the door to Daniel’s truck, closed his eyes and took a long slow breath through his nose, attempting to calm his body and his mind.
All he could see was the dancer’s body, and his dick got hard.
This was bullshit. So he was attracted to her. Fine. He was an adult, she was an adult. He’d probably never see her again. High on the agenda was to find some way to burn off this fever she’d begun, but it was hardly her fault and not his either. He just had to move on.
Which meant for now, making his feet take him back into the pub and the party, which was so much not what he wanted to be doing. Frustrated, he yanked the exit door open far harder than he had to and someone fell toward him. The woman’s long red hair swung in a circle as she poured out the door—she must have been about to lean on the surface to open it when he’d pulled, and now she tumbled into his arms.
He caught her before she could be hurt. The light curses rising from her lips made him smile even as the warm skin under his fingers caused other reactions. Silky heat pressed against his body. She clung to his shoulders, fingers pressed into his muscles.
“Hang on, I’ve got you.” He placed her on her feet and she shuffled away, head down as she muttered thanks in a low tone.
God, it was her. His dancer, who he was already guilty of obsessing over. She was walking away and he couldn’t stand it. “Wait.”
She stopped, face still in the shadows, almost as if she were hiding. Fuck, he was doing it again. As good as stalking a stranger.
“I’m sorry—I keep apologizing to you, but it’s just…I wanted to say…” The range of suitable words in his vocabulary seemed sorely lacking so he just went for it. “I know it’s wildly inappropriate, but I have to tell you. You’re a very beautiful woman. That’s all. I wanted you to know that.”
It was cathartic to let the words escape. He had no idea what would happen next, but at least he’d been honest.
She swayed on her feet, then her head lifted, light shining off her cheek as she twisted toward him. “Thank you, Matt.”
He froze, every muscle gone taut.
That voice—familiar. Too familiar. He’d heard it a hundred times over the years at family dinners with his high school sweetheart. Listened to it on the phone when he’d called to speak to Helen. Oh shit. Oh shit, no.
Her name jolted out. “Hope?”
She finished turning and the beam of light from the overhead bulbs hit her face full on. No wonder he’d thought he’d recognized her. Her eyes were lighter than her sister’s, a pale blue like a summer’s morning sky. Right now they were open so wide he could have driven his truck through them.
“Of course. You mean…? But…” Her smile faded, her hands rising up to cross in front of her body as if she still wore that revealing costume. “I thought you recognized me. Isn’t that why you were staring, why you came to the change room? And now, you said that I’m attractive, and I thought maybe you weren’t coming to give me hell, but…”
She had thought he was hot for her because it was true, and didn’t that make him an asshole, lusting after his ex’s little sister.
All of a sudden he felt every inch the bastard he was. “I didn’t know.”
There was nothing he could say to make this better, but he had to try.
Confess you were a jerk.
“I’m sorry, Hope. I didn’t know it was you. I…” She shifted her feet uneasily, focusing on something to the side of him, her bottom lip caught between her teeth. Say it, fuckhead. Admit you’re a shit. “…I thought you were a stranger who liked me. I don’t usually go around pestering dancers, honest.”
Her chin rose and she looked him in the eye. “Please don’t tell anyone I was here.”
Then she spun and raced away into the parking lot before he could apologize anymore. Equal parts relief and guilt poured over him, and he really didn’t know what the hell to do.