Authors: Elyse Mady
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary
By Elyse Mady
Leanne Galloway has no time for dating; her focus is on launching her academic career. Dragged along to her childhood frenemy Gillian’s bachelorette party at a male strip club, she just wants to get through the evening—but she can’t help interfering when Gillian sends a note to a sexy dancer proposing a hot hookup.
Brandon Myles is working backstage at the Foxe’s Den to fund his post-graduate studies in dance, but he’s forced onstage when the headliner fails to show up. He feels a surprisingly strong connection with a quiet woman watching from a table full of tipsy bridesmaids, and he’s delighted when she appears backstage after his set.
After a scorching spontaneous encounter, Leanne and Brandon agree to go their separate ways. But they’re both grad students on a small campus, and avoiding each other and denying their attraction won’t work for long, especially when a jealous rival appears, determined to ruin both their academic careers.
I feel as though it was just last week I was attending 2010 conferences and telling authors and readers who were wondering what was next for Carina Press, “we’ve only been publishing books for four months, give us time” and now, here it is, a year later. Carina Press has been bringing you quality romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy and more for over twelve months. This just boggles my mind.
But though we’re celebrating our one-year anniversary (with champagne and chocolate, of course) we’re not slowing down. Every week brings something new for us, and we continue to look for ways to grow, expand and improve. This summer, we’ll continue to bring you new genres, new authors and new niches—and we plan to publish the unexpected for years to come.
So whether you’re reading this in the middle of a summer heat wave, looking to escape from the hot summer nights and sultry afternoons, or whether you’re reading this in the dead of winter, searching for a respite from the cold, months after I’ve written it, you can be assured that our promise to take you on new adventures, bring you great stories and discover new talent remains the same.
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Executive Editor, Carina Press
Leanne Galloway no longer doubted the existence of hell.
She glanced around the crowded strip club, past the oiled, gyrating men and tables crammed with shrieking women—many, Lee thought, old enough know better. How had she allowed herself to be coerced into attending Gillian’s interminable stagette?
A question she’d posed repeatedly since the limousine pulled up in front of her townhouse full of giggling bridesmaids ready, willing and eager to share their vast knowledge on topics every modern woman should know with the bride’s backward academic friend. Brazilian waxing (essential), travel (if it didn’t say “all-inclusive” and “Caribbean,” you were better off staying home) and men (rich, tanned and hung being the key characteristics for partners of the opposite sex).
In other words, they had as much in common as a goldfish and a whale.
While it had been several years since she’d taken that undergraduate survey course in European literature, Leanne was pretty sure Dante’s
only described nine levels of hell. If anyone was taking bets, Leanne suspected she’d come across the newly discovered tenth level in this crowded, rollicking room. Maybe even the eleventh.
Large tables were scattered at regular intervals. Doors leading to private rooms dotted the back wall, their occupants—and their activities—obscured by dark shadows. Gaudy spotlights threw the circular stage into dazzling relief. It seemed like a typical club, but since tonight was the first time she’d actually been inside one, it was difficult to make comparisons.
Her usual haunts tended to be a little more pedestrian and a little more, well, clothed. As a respected academic-in-training writing a PhD dissertation on the masculine condition in late-Georgian literature, referencing exotic dancers in a journal article or lecture wasn’t the best way to ensure a smooth and predictable ascent up the tenure-track ladder.
That’s not to say she didn’t appreciate the male flesh on show tonight. It was a thousand times more than Leanne had seen in her own bedroom since Steven and she parted ways last year. Still as nice as it was to look at, she couldn’t help thinking how contrived it seemed. Mechanical, even. There was no way she’d ever get taken in by the fantasy these men offered.
A loud cry from the stage carried over the noise, distracting Leanne. “Come on, baby! Let me give it to you!”
Leanne watched as a woman, her cheeks flushed and eyes giddy, stuffed money into the dancer’s electric blue thong. When the bills were secured, the dancer began to sashay across the stage. Unabashed, the woman grabbed his firm butt and slapped it soundly before sitting down to the general acclaim of her friends.
I guess it takes all kinds.
But Leanne couldn’t imagine ever getting that excited over a guy who shook his thing to Justin Timberlake, post-’NSync-serious-recording-artist or not.
Taking a sip of watered-down ginger ale to hide a small smile, she risked another discreet peek at her watch and swore softly. Damn. 11:47 p.m. Even if she pleaded headache, she couldn’t escape the hen party from hell for at least another hour without appearing totally rude. Double damn.
Not if she wanted to avoid yet another lecture from her mother on how she needed to let her hair down, get out from behind “those books” (her Mom always said it as though it was some sort of distasteful habit Lee had acquired, like drugs but less respectable) and meet a nice guy.
Of course, Lee knew without asking that the men on stage were not what Sandra Galloway would consider nice. Her definition involved being successful, rich and upwardly mobile. Looks were a bonus but if a man met the first three requirements, certainly not a deal breaker. And long-term, having the capability of fathering attractive and talented grandchildren about whom her mother could boast was on that list. Chiseled abs and the ability to feature in her daughter’s elaborate sexual fantasies were definitely not.
Her confirmed status as a singleton was just one more example of how Leanne never measured up, especially compared to Aunt Barbara’s golden girl, princess-of-the-world Gillian.
As if sensing the direction of Leanne’s thoughts, the bride-to-be looked across the table and glared at her.
“Having fun, Lee?”
Like having my nails pulled out with hot pincers, Gilly dear.
“Oh, tons. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
Reaching up to adjust her glitzy rhinestone veil, Gillian smiled tightly. “I hope you’re not
disappointed about not being in the wedding party. Like I told Aunt Sandy, I totally would have asked you but I had to think of the wedding photographs. It’s for posterity.”
Leanne tried to swallow a smile at the thought of the ostentatious nuptials taking place in two weeks. She’d seen pictures of the dresses at the wedding shower. If her goal in life was to look like a bargain-basement call girl in violet dupioni, she
be bitterly disappointed not to be included in the wedding party. Luckily, Leanne would do almost anything, up to and including being boiled alive in hot oil, to avoid that fate.
“I think I’ll survive.”
A flare of temper lit Gillian’s blue eyes and Leanne knew she was treading on dangerous ground.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bride in possession of a rich, straight man must be in want of a way to show it off.
Maybe that wasn’t quite what Austen wrote, but when you spent as much time as Lee did, living and breathing eighteenth century literature, she felt it definitely captured the spirit. And since Jane had been a pretty dogged contender in the single-girl stakes herself, Leanne was sure she’d forgive a few liberties for the sake of skewering a self-absorbed opportunist like Gillian Saunders.
They’d known each other since birth and disliked each other almost as long. Unfortunately, considering their mothers had been best friends since they’d met competing in the Little Peaches Beauty Pageant, they’d been fated to spend their childhood and teenage years thrown together. Birthdays, pool parties, sleepovers. Year after year, special event after special event, their childhoods captured by snapshots of them side by side. Gillian, always smiling pertly, her blond hair curled and flawless, played up to the camera with ease, while Leanne, tousled and tomboyish, faded into the background, a book clutched in her hands from the moment she could read.
Even now, the mismatch continued. Gillian was a former pageant princess with an up-and-coming career in real estate; Leanne a quiet, introspective writer and academic.
Of course, as Lee had learned only too well over the years, Gillian was also narcissistic and completely unfazed by notions of right and wrong. Stealing Leanne’s high school boyfriend just for the fun of it. Pawning off the work of others to pass her university classes. Screwing around with an endless list of one-night stands. Even backstabbing her so-called friends never gave her a moment’s pause. Leanne doubted there were few depths she would scruple to sink to, if it worked to her advantage. Gillian used her face and her charm to weasel out of the consequences of her bad behavior, always being sure to look the part of an innocent and incorruptible angel.
And the façade worked because six months ago, Jeremy Fields, one of Wellington’s most eligible bachelors, got down on one knee and asked her to marry him. In less than two weeks, she would be center stage at a wedding modeled after the late Princess Diana’s, only larger.
Gillian was everything Sandra Galloway wanted in a daughter and everything, right down to her manicured French nails, Leanne wasn’t.
Suddenly, one of the bridesmaids squealed.
“Oh my God! Did I show you what I got? Fourteen carats, with platinum accents.”
Holding out her wrist, she displayed a thick gold bracelet. The rest of the table oohed and aahed, but in the dim light, Lee couldn’t make out the details.
“What is it?”
“It’s a charm bracelet, silly. From Italy. Whenever I try something new, I mark the occasion.” She held her arm closer for Leanne’s inspection.
Tiny figures cavorted on the small medallion. She peered closer. One, two…three? And were they…Leanne didn’t know that particular move was possible in precious metal, let alone in real life!
Tamara’s voiced dropped to a confidential whisper. “Ty said it was the best threesome he’d ever had. In fact, he thinks it might be time for us to start seeing each other…
Leanne sprayed out a mouthful of soda at Tamara’s confession. Clearly, she was moving in the wrong circles, sexually speaking, if threesomes were now considered part of the casual sex repertoire. Call her old-fashioned, but her idea of a fantastic relationship sure didn’t include swapping partners just for the thrill of it.
That’s not to say she wasn’t all for sexual experimentation in a relationship. Well, a relationship with someone other than her vibrator. She liked to think she had as many kinky ideas as the next sexually aware girl, even if she hadn’t had the chance to try many—okay, any—of them out with a willing partner.
Adventuresome sex with toys and assorted paraphernalia? Absolutely. Mind-blowing sex in diverse locales? By all means. It wasn’t like she was hanging out for the white picket fence and a ticket to forever-forever land. She had her career to get underway and goals to meet, but was any relationship really worth it without trust and mutual respect? Without those crucial elements underpinning it, being single wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
She could fantasize about finding some hot, anonymous guy in a bar and dragging him off to a dark corner for spontaneous, no-holds-barred sex, but in real life things didn’t work like that. She liked to think she had standards for starters. And the chances of a man being overcome with lust for a woman whose looks rated as “pleasantly average but should get to the gym more” were about a zillion to one. Not with the Gillians and Tamaras of the world to catch his eye first.
Handing over some cocktail napkins so Leanne could clean herself off, Gillian smiled in pseudo-sympathy. “I forget how difficult this must be for you, listening to us go on and on about our sex lives. After all, I’m getting married, Jessi just got engaged and everyone else has someone to bring to the wedding.”
Gillian looked across the room as the dancer reached the climax of his striptease. Down to his g-string, muscles glistening with sweat, he moved acrobatically to the increasingly frenetic calls of the women pressing around the stage. “I mean, Aunt Sandy said you’re not even
right now. Not since what’s his name…Stewart?”
“Steven,” Lee corrected tightly. She hadn’t been heartbroken when her former boyfriend decided to put his career ahead of their lukewarm relationship and moved to Arizona for a shot at a coveted teaching position. Heck, he’d never even once entertained any of Leanne’s suggestions for spicing it up in the bedroom. Disappointing though it was to admit, their sex life had definitely been vanilla. All the same, being forced to endure Gillian’s triumph at her most recent romantic failure pained her.
“It must be so difficult,” Gillian went on undeterred, “knowing that at your age, your chances of meeting someone are like, totally next to zero.”
“Because once women reach a certain age, they’re more likely to meet a terrorist on an airplane or something than get married. It’s a statistic,” Brittany said solemnly, slurring the words.
“Do you even have sex?” Tamara asked, her face bright with curiosity. “Like, with a man?”
Since the chauffeur picked them up nearly five hours ago, the entire bridal party save Leanne had been drinking steadily, their inhibitions lowered by the fruity umbrella drinks they’d knocked back. Now, five sets of unfocused eyes looked at Leanne from around the table, waiting with bated, blurry breath in the hopes of a salacious and titillating confession.
Desperately seeking an escape, Leanne glanced wildly at her watch and prayed for deliverance.
11:53 p.m. Where the hell is Tony?
God damn it, when he got his hands on him, Brandon was going to throttle Tony with his own frigging thong. He needed to be onstage in less than ten minutes and was nowhere to be found. The applause and whistles escalated, and Brandon glanced down at his clipboard. At least T’Shaun was right on time. But Christ, what if Tony didn’t show up? He was their headliner for the week and by the raucous sounds coming from the house, he knew the ladies out front were in the mood to celebrate.
Moments later, T’Shaun hurried backstage. Pulling the bills from around his lean hips, he counted them out.
He whistled. “Man, it was a good night.”
“Jay said the bar and the door were both steady.”
“It’s the broads getting married. There’s four or five groups here and they’re definitely gunning to enjoy themselves before they get all cozy with the groom.”
T’Shaun grinned, flashing a set of even, white teeth, and sat at the makeshift dressing table, where he began to wipe away the makeup from his face and chest in preparation for his walkabout. Suddenly he stopped and looked around the green room.
“Yo! Where’s Tony?”
“No goddamn idea.” Picking up his two-way, Brandon beeped June, the owner of the Foxe’s Den. Since he’d been promoted to floor manager two years ago, she usually didn’t come down from the offices upstairs and onto the floor, not unless there was an emergency. He figured the no-show of their Saturday night headliner qualified.
A click and a burst of static came from the handset.
“What’s up, doll face?” June Fox’s voice was rough and gravelly with nearly sixty years of hard living, but behind the tough exterior lay a marshmallow softie who’d bend over backward for a friend.
Brandon liked to think he was included in that select number. He’d certainly been the recipient of her generosity more times than he cared to count in his seven years at the club. He’d lost track of the number of times she’d made him a home-cooked meal or given him a place to study. She even lent him the money for school once, when it looked like he might have to drop out for lack of funds. He’d worked an extra shift for the rest of the term to pay her back, but that was just the kind of woman she was.