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Stripped Down by Erin McCarthy (1)

One

“I think you should all strip,” Lilly Ferguson said with a firm nod.

Rick Ryder raised his eyebrows at his friend. “Lil, you’ve gotten kinky in your old age.” They say if you live long enough you see everything, and hell, here he was at only twenty-eight, witnessing their most uptight female friend asking to see their junk at four in the afternoon.

She rolled her eyes at him. Which was reassuring.

Sullivan O’Toole looked unnerved from his position behind the bar. “What are you talking about, Lilly?”

“Hear me out.” Lilly was on a worn stool at Tap That, Sullivan’s bar in their hometown of Beaver Bend, Minnesota.

Lil was between Rick and their other decade-long friend, Axl, who was still in uniform, having just gotten off duty at the Beaver Bend police department, and who looked more like Rick felt—amused.

“What is there to hear?” Sullivan asked. “Damn, Lil, you just asked us to take off our clothes. Do we need to download a dating app for you?”

She threw a swizzle stick at him. “Not for personal reasons! Ew. Get your ego in check. I mean for a charity strip event. Like a Magic-Mike-style routine. We can call you the Tap That Dancers. You, Rick, Axl, Jesse, and Brandon. I’ll choreograph the routine and we’ll make a ton of money for breast cancer research.” Lilly smiled, looking pleased with herself as she tucked her dark hair behind her ear.

Stripping for charity. Much more in character than Lilly getting up close and personal with them. Rick gave her a grin, because he thought it could be a fun way to distract Sullivan from his heavy grief over the loss of his wife the year before to cancer. These guys were his best friends from way back when he had been known as “Little Dickie,” before his massive growth spurt and dedication to the gym. These were the buddies who had defended him when he had been the smallest guy on their intramural hockey team and had spent more time getting body checked into the wall than using his stick. Literally and figuratively.

He’d do anything to help any one of them, and right now, Sullivan needed a whole hell of a lot of help. He had been drowning in guilt and grief in the ten months since Kendra had died. “I’m in. I’ll dance all night for a good cause. Especially if I can wear a banana hammock. What man doesn’t want to strut on stage in some tight-ass underwear?”

He said it solely for a reaction and he got one.

Sullivan snorted. “Me. No. I’m not doing it, Lil. Forget it. I’m a father. It’s just fucking inappropriate.”

“Finn is not going to be at the show,” Lilly said dryly. “He’s fourteen months old. You’ll have plenty of time to embarrass him in a decade, but right now he is not going to care. Trust me.”

Their buddy just rolled his eyes. “Still not doing it.”

“I’ll do it.” Axl shrugged, taking his patrolman’s hat off and tossing it on the bar top. “I’d like to think we could pull in some cash making fools out of ourselves.”

“You’re a cop,” Sullivan said, pointing out the obvious. “That’s way too embarrassing. Have you lost your damn mind?”

Axl was even-tempered to the extreme. If he thought it was a good idea, Rick trusted that it was. “Have you seen the viral videos cops do now? I’m cool with anything for charity.”

“Whatever, dude.” Sullivan shook his head. “You’re all idiots.”

“When do you want to do this?” Rick asked Lilly. He’d never admit it, but he was into the whole idea. It would probably draw women in from neighboring towns and he was not a guy to turn down being objectified. He’d worked hard to have abs and he’d show them all damn day long.

“I was thinking August eighteenth-ish.”

Damn. That was two days after the one year anniversary of Kendra’s untimely and tragic death. The day of the funeral.

Sullivan’s nostrils flared. “Fuck that. No.” He made a move like he was going to leave his own bar.

Axl held his hand up. “Whoa. Calm down. So what, you’re just going to stay at home and get wasted by yourself that whole week?” Axl asked throwing it out there. “Dude, no. Let’s do something ridiculous and raise some money. Kendra would have liked that.”

Rick knew Axl had pushed a hot button and he waited for their friend to explode. But surprisingly, even though Sullivan’s jaw worked he just reached for a bottle of whiskey and started pouring shots. “Fine. You want to make asses out of yourselves, go for it. But I’m not doing it. I have to watch the bar anyway.”

Lilly eyed him, worry clearly etched on her face. Rick knew, without a doubt, that Lilly was in love with Sullivan and had been for years. She was watching him drink heavily and Rick knew it was breaking her heart. But she was smart enough not to go there with Sullivan. He wasn’t ready for anyone to care about him.

She turned to Rick. “Do you think Brandon and Jesse will do it?”

Rick nodded. “Are you kidding? As long as you can work around Jesse’s schedule, he’ll be in. He loves the limelight.” Jesse was playing pro hockey, the only one of their group of friends to really pursue the sport. For the rest of them, it had just been fun. Rick had always been more into working with his hands than going hard core on the ice, even after he grew a foot and a half and gained sixty pounds of hard-packed muscle. Brandon was living in Chicago, working in finance and was a partier, living the single life to the hilt. “Brandon is always up for a good time.”

Sullivan threw back his drink, wincing at the burn. “This isn’t a good time. No one should be celebrating cancer. This is stupid.”

Rick and Axl both said nothing, knowing it would be Lilly who could get through to him. Lilly reached over the counter and rested her hand over top of Sullivan’s. He glanced down at it like her touch offended him.

“Sullivan. Listen to me. No one is celebrating cancer or death. We want to celebrate Kendra’s life. It’s been a horrible year for you, for her parents. For me, her best friend. I just want people to remember her before the cancer. She was sweet and fun and cheerful and she would love this. She really would.” She rubbed his hand. “Do you trust me?”

Sullivan wouldn’t look at her. “Of course. That’s not the issue.”

Rick could see him visibly swallowing, like his emotions were crawling up his throat. He felt some serious compassion for his old friend. “Think of it as a favor to me,” he told Sullivan. “If I can strut on stage I can finally put that stupid childhood nickname to rest once and for all.” He put his hands up, far apart, to indicate a very large cock. “No one is going to see me in some tight boxer briefs and have the balls to call me Little Dickie ever again.”

Seriously. Worst nickname ever.

It drew a snort from Sullivan. “Keep dreaming, Little Dickie.”

Rick stood up and put his hand on the snap of his jeans. “You want me to prove it right now, motherfucker?”

“Yes.” Sullivan crossed his arms over his chest in a blatant challenge.

Rick had no problem whipping it out. He’d spent a lifetime proving himself as the short kid from the wrong side of the tracks. He was used to backing his trash talk up with action, even if it was just getting razzed by his best friend.

“Oh, my God, no, stop!” Lilly put her hand up, her expression one of horror.

It made Rick laugh. “Are you scared you might like what you see?” he said with a grin.

“I’m sure I would be overwhelmed with lust and mouth-watering anticipation, yes,” she said dryly. “That’s why you need to keep it in your pants. I don’t want you to see me like that, desperate for some action.”

Rick sat back down, clapping her on the back. Lilly was nothing if not a good sport. Far as he knew, she wasn’t dating at all and she was fantastic at being able to hang with a bunch of guys. It wasn’t hard to see how Sullivan was able to obliviously take her for granted. “Maybe Sullivan was right and you need to download Tinder,” he said, giving her a wink so she would know he wasn’t serious.

“I will if you will.”

Fuck. He’d walked right into that one. “No, thank you. I meet women the old-fashioned way. In a bar. The gym. The grocery store. Live and in person.” He had to admit his vice was women. He wasn’t a huge drinker. But he couldn’t resist a pretty woman. Maybe because in his teen years he’d been convinced he’d never get the girl. Now that he had? He was a classic commitment-phobe who felt the need to sample every attractive and willing woman.

It was a problem.

“Hey, did Sullivan tell you who is moving back to town?” Lilly asked him, looking so sly Rick felt a flicker of concern.

He wasn’t going to like what Lilly had to say.

“Who?”

“Sloane.”

Yep. He didn’t like that. Sloane was Sullivan’s sister. Two years older than them, blonde, hotter than hell.

And the girl who had seemed to make a habit out of humiliating him in high school.

All while he had silently seethed, hating her, and himself for the fact that he had the world’s biggest crush on the mean girl. He’d jerked off thinking about her more times than he cared to admit. He might have even set a world record if he had ever thought to click a counter and contact Guinness.

“Oh, yeah? What brings her back? A sale on broomsticks?” he joked.

Lilly wrinkled her nose.

“Hey.” Sullivan handed him a shot. “That’s my sister you’re talking about.”

“Yeah, I know. The stuck-up one.” Responsible for the single most humiliating moment of his teen years, involving a case of mistaken identity at a party. Not that he cared anymore. He really didn’t. In some ways, it was amusing now to reflect back on it. But it hadn’t been at the time, and whether she even remembered it or not, Rick felt permanently connected to her by that horrible memory.

So, if he were honest with himself, he wanted to see Sloane and prove to himself she no longer held the power to make him a helpless mass of hormones the way she had back in the day. And maybe he wanted Sloane to see that he was no longer Little Dickie.

“I think Sloane has matured,” Lilly said. “You’d be surprised.”

“So what brings her back to Beaver Bend?”

“She has this crazy idea in her head I need help with Finn,” Sullivan said. “Which I don’t. I don’t need her leaving her life in the city behind because she feels sorry for me.”

“She’s your sister,” Lilly said. “She loves you and Finn. But also, she just got divorced, remember? I think she probably needed a change.”

Rick had known via Sullivan she was a trophy wife to her doctor husband, who was a dozen years older than them. That she had gotten a divorce was interesting. Sullivan hadn’t mentioned it. But then again, Sullivan was wrapped up in his grief these days. He hadn’t been sharing much of anything. “Never turn down family offering to help, Sullivan. And I hope she’s happy.”

He meant it. He didn’t really harbor ill will towards Sloane for what had happened when they were teens. Life moved on after high school and people changed. Grew up. Rick threw back his shot and let it burn all the way down his throat. He was grateful for the warning though. It would have sucked to have run into Sloane on the street one day. He just might still be capable of drooling over her.

Axl clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re happy she’s single, aren’t you?”

Yes. He wouldn’t mind a crack at her. One night with his teenage fantasy. But he scoffed because he’d never admit that shit out loud. “No. Of course not. I wouldn’t wish divorce on anyone.”

Unfortunately, his friends had known him too long.

“Stay away from my sister, asshole,” Sullivan said. “She doesn’t need your manwhore self messing with her head right now.”

“It’s not her head I want to mess with,” he said, grinning.

Sullivan’s nostrils flared. “Don’t push me, man. I’ll knock you the fuck out. That divorce did a number on her.”

So she hadn’t wanted the divorce. That was also interesting.

“When does she get back?” He wasn’t concerned about Sullivan’s threats. He wasn’t really going to go there.

“Couple months. She’s wrapping everything up in Minneapolis.”

“Interesting,” Rick said, because it was. “Does she need an apartment? I have one opening up in my building. Tell her to call my sister.” The shop he owed had several apartments over it and a tenant was moving out in several weeks. He was intrigued by the idea of working with Sloane overhead. In the shower. Naked. He cleared his throat.

“Man, still crushing on the cheerleader,” Axl said, lifting his eyebrows. “Dude, that’s pathetic.”

That was a little too close to home for Rick’s comfort. But he was determined to act indifferent. “What’s pathetic is how your dick is going to look up on stage next to mine.”

Axl snorted.

Lilly shook her head. “I should have known I just condemned myself to three months of posturing, penis talk, and a constant need to one-up each other.”

“That’s what you get for being one of the guys,” Sullivan said, pushing a shot glass over to Lilly.

Rick heard her sigh. But she took the shot like a champ.

He caught her eye and gave her a smile. Hey, at least they were together in their long-standing crushes on an O’Toole sibling.


“Happy Birthday!” Emily said, giving Sloane a big hug. “Oh, my God, this is so much fun!”

Sloane thought fun might be overstating it just a tad. Or a lot. Like a big-ass lot.

Sure, it had all the elements of an awesome thirtieth birthday party. Male strippers, old friends, and cocktails.

Cocktails which she was sipping faster than she should be because nothing about this particular night was standard fare.

The strippers were guys she thought of more as brothers than sex symbols, and the drinks were being poured by her father. Add in that the whole strip show was for charity in memory of her sister-in-law who had passed away a year ago almost to the day, with her brother still visibly wearing his grief, and none of it felt like a celebration of the big 3-0.

What it actually felt like was the very definition of awkward.

A sad, weird little mix of shit that didn’t belong together. Like her life. Like her and Tom, her newly ex-husband. And his brand-new boyfriend, Javier, who was so damn good looking it made Sloane feel even more inadequate than she already had when she learned her husband had been pretending to be straight for the entirety of their marriage. While dating Javier for the last six months of it.

Which no one here knew. Not even her father or her brother.

It was just not something she wanted to talk about. Or admit. How did you love someone for years and not notice something that fundamental about who they were?

Because she had always just wanted what she wanted.

Ever since her mother had walked out on them when she was five, she’d wanted something and she’d taken it.

She had wanted Tom, pursued him heavily, married him, and now she had nothing. No job, no house, no husband, no dog.

That was one of the worst parts. Tom had kept her dog, Kate. She had cried and pleaded and argued with her lawyer, but Tom had bought the dog and he refused to relinquish her and it would have cost far too much to drag the divorce out. Losing Kate had possibly left a bigger hole in her heart than the end of her marriage. Actually, not possibly. It had. She missed her beautiful sweet Golden Retriever and how she always managed to look like she was grinning.

She did not miss Tom.

He could go fuck himself.

Or Javier.

She sighed, annoyed with herself for thinking about anything that sucked on her birthday, and sipped her mojito. “This is definitely awesome, thank you for doing this, Em. It was really sweet of you.” It was. Sloane had only been back in town four days and Emily and Becca had taken up with her like high school had just ended instead of it being twelve years since graduation. The three amigos back together. Half of the cheerleading squad at Beaver Bend Senior High.

Unlike when she was seventeen, and an entitled little bitch, Sloane had learned how to keep her mouth shut now and be grateful for her friends dragging her out on her birthday. Even though it was weird to see all of her little brother’s friends looking so grown up. In her mind, they were still fifteen and annoying little shits who kept trying to catch glimpses of her in her bikini every summer. It had been years since she’d seen any of them. Since Sullivan’s wedding to Kendra almost a full decade ago.

Her phone buzzed with a social media notification. A pic popped up of Tom and Javier kissing, looking adorable together.

Sloane wanted to die from mortification.

But then immediately felt guilty as hell to even have the flippant thought. Her sister-in-law was dead. Never to be present at something as awkward as this ever again. Awkward was alive. Awkward was nothing in the grand scheme of things. This was a picture on her phone. So what? Yes, he had cheated, which was painful. Yes, he was happier without her in his life. That stung. She hadn’t even been madly or passionately in love with Tom for the last few years. Hell, maybe she never had been. But they’d a friendship and she did miss that.

Mostly, though, she suspected it was her ego that was bruised, not her heart.

Damn it. She sipped her straw more aggressively and clicked to unfollow Tom. Moving on.

“Show time!” Becca said, pointing to the stage.

This could be interesting.

At the very least it showed promise to serve as a distraction from both her worry over her brother, and the world’s oddest thirtieth birthday. Sullivan was standing on the makeshift stage with a mic in his hand. He had apparently flatly refused to participate in this strip show, for which she was highly grateful. She could live her entire life without seeing her brother dance in his underwear. But he didn’t look good. There were dark shadows under his eyes and his hair was too long, his clothes unkempt. His son Finn appeared to be the only thing preventing Sullivan from losing it entirely the last few months, and even fatherhood seemed overwhelming to him at times.

A surge of emotion swelled in her chest. Moving back to her small hometown had definitely been the right thing to do. She was back home because there was nothing for her in Minneapolis post-divorce and this allowed her to help Sullivan with Finn. Her father had mentioned he was drinking a lot.

Her dad had done the same thing when her mother had left. But a year later, he’d gotten sober, gotten a bunch of tattoos, and opened this bar as some sort of ultimate FY to his ex-wife. O’Tooles didn’t really deal with emotion. They were all just really content to deflect and distract.

She and Sullivan both needed a reboot in their lives, though she was ahead of him in that respect. The thought made her grin. Right. She was just winning at life right here. Not.

Scanning the right of the stage, where the “dancers” were lined up, she frowned, curious. She recognized Axl, Jesse, and Brandon. They had practically all lived at the O’Toole house in high school because Liam O’Toole was well-known for having no rules after her mother moved out. Which made their house the hangout house, with Sullivan’s friends always present. But the fourth guy was a stranger to her. Tall, broad, tattooed. Muscular. Wearing a mechanic’s jumpsuit and a tool belt like nobody’s business.

She was surprised to feel instantly attracted to him. As in, she wouldn’t mind having that much man over her. And in her. The thought was startling. She hadn’t exactly been feeling sexual lately. Or sexy.

But it was like the winter of her sex life had started an instant thaw. Holy moly, the man was hot.

She leaned over and nudged Becca. “Who is that?” she asked. “The guy in the work jumpsuit.”

Becca turned and gave her a long stare before she burst out laughing. “Are you serious? You don’t know who that is?”

“No. I have no idea.” But Becca’s reaction made her frown and study him a little harder. He must have felt her eyes on him because he turned and his gaze locked with hers. She sucked in a breath. Dear God, he was sexy as hell. A strong jaw, a tidy beard, and an intensity that made her nipples instantly tighten in her cotton tank top.

Then he winked at her.

Basically, her inner thighs exploded with heat.

Forget thaw. Her girl bits had skipped spring and gone straight to scorching hot summer.

Flustered, she reached for her drink and missed, knocking it over. “Shoot!” She mopped at it with a napkin and snapped at Becca, “Well, who is it? Because I swear I’ve never seen that man in my life.” If she had, she would remember. He was a fantasy sprung to life. He was temptation to sin like she had never sinned before. He was confirmation that lust was real and she was still capable of it.

“That’s Little Dickie,” Becca told her, amused, adding her own napkin to the mess on the table.

Wait a minute. Sloane froze in the act of wiping the table to turn and gape at her friend. What? No way! You’re just messing with me.” There was not even the remotest possibility that man, that sexy as fuck man, could be Little Dickie.

“I’m not messing with you! He had a growth spurt starting his junior year that didn’t stop until he was about twenty-four.”

Stunned, Sloane swiveled her head to stare at him again, too shocked to even pretend not to be checking him out. “That was one hell of a growth spurt,” she murmured.

Little Dickie at fifteen had been shorter than his peers. Substantially shorter. At five foot nine she had towered over him, and he had been one of the repeat culprits checking out her chest, which was at his direct eye level. He had also been, while not precisely chubby, on the softer side. Baby cheeks and a little bit of pudge that had made him endearing and cute. Certainly no muscle tone. A nice kid, who lived in a ramshackle house by the lake, a little on the silly side, and sort of the mascot little brother to everyone. He had taken a lot of crap, especially playing hockey, because of his small size, but he had always seemed to take it pretty well, with a good sense of humor. He’d had the nickname Little Dickie for as long as she could remember and it had fit.

“Little Dickie is not so little anymore,” Becca replied. “And if rumors around town are true, that applies to all parts of him.”

Sloane snapped her head back to Becca. “Seriously?” I mean, was it really such a stretch to imagine that enormous and muscular man standing waiting to go on stage could be proportionate? Her mind was blown trying to juxtapose the awkward teen she had known against this mountain of a man. Late bloomer didn’t even begin to describe it.

But then Sloane felt her cheeks burn as she remembered a party her senior year in high school. A dark bathroom, mistaken identity, a hot kiss, and the shocking press of a hard cock against her thigh before the humiliation she’d felt when the lights flicked on without warning.

In those days, she had not had a good sense of what would be considered big versus small when it came to male packages but she had known that she was both scared and intrigued by what she had felt rocking against her.

Then she had felt nothing but horrified when she had realized she had kissed Little Dickie instead of her then boyfriend.

Apparently, the rest of him had grown into his cock. Like feet and hands.

Becca nodded. “Rick, as everyone calls him now, is quite the player. Apparently, he likes to share the wealth, so to speak.”

That was information she didn’t even know how to process or what to do with it. It certainly had nothing to do with her. And yet, why was she letting her gaze drift over to him again? And why did she feel so flustered?

“Shh,” Emily said, hushing them loudly. “It’s starting!”

“Thank you everyone for coming,” Sullivan said. “And forgive me for the mess you’re about to see. Just keep in mind it’s for a good cause.”

Lilly was standing next to Sullivan and she rolled her eyes at his wry tone. “Don’t listen to Sullivan, ladies. This is going to be awesome. I introduce to you the very sexy, very single Tap That Dancers.”

That made Sloane let out a snort. Tap That Dancers? Now that was some funny shit. The guys were being good sports about it, waving and smirking. Brandon was dressed in a tux and he blew some very suave kisses out into the audience. Axl had on stereotypical cop mirror sunglasses with his uniform and he slid them down to eye the crowd of now clapping and cat-calling women. Jesse was on the balls of his feet, like he didn’t know what to do with himself while not in skates. Rick was toying with the zipper on his jumpsuit, making Sloane admittedly curious what his chest looked like under there. Among other things.

The bar was packed. Tickets for the event had sold out.

Suddenly, Sloane’s birthday felt a little more intriguing than awkward.

Especially once the music started and Rick proved himself to have moves like Jagger.

Yep.

You left home for a decade and the whole world went mad.

Because, holy shit, she was hot for Little Dickie.

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