By Anna Kittrell
“How are you holding up over there?” Kayla asked.
Taffy waved through the center of the disassembled stripper cake wedged sideways between the bucket seats. “Still here,” she said, wishing she were back at the dorm. How she’d let Kayla talk her into this road trip was beyond her. Just two months shy of receiving her computer science degree, missing three days of instruction was risky. Missing it to accompany a stripper to a bachelor party at a Colorado ski lodge was just plain dumb. Even if the stripper happened her best friend.
“Hang tight, we’re almost there. We just hit Valentine, Colorado.” Kayla grinned through the opening in the stacked layers then straightened in the driver’s seat, her head disappearing behind the ridiculous pink plastic cake. The thing took up practically the whole car.
“Am I clear?” Kayla asked.
Taffy straightened her glasses and checked the car’s blind spot. “Yeah, come on over.”
Kayla switched lanes and exited. “SweetHart Lodge, here we come!” She squealed, squeezing Taffy’s hand through the cake.
“Hooray,” Taffy said, the word nearly a whisper.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?” Kayla breathed as she wound the car through the snow-covered mountains.
Taffy nodded. She had to agree, the scenery was breathtaking, as if they’d somehow traveled into a snow globe filled with snowdrifts and cedar trees.
“You awake over there?” Kayla asked, poking her face through the opening between them.
“Kayla! Watch the road. We’re on the side of a mountain for heaven’s sake!” Taffy frantically drummed on the cake.
“Calm down,” Kayla said. “It’s not like I’d drive this far just so we could Thelma-and-Louise off a cliff.”
Taffy smiled and shook her head. What a fun elementary schoolteacher Kayla would someday make—provided the little tykes were durable enough to withstand her.
The resort looked warm, inviting. Something straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting. Taffy let out a relieved breath as Kayla steered the car onto the level ground of the lodge parking lot.
“Admit it,” Kayla said as she opened the car door. “You’re at least a little bit excited about this trip.”
Taffy followed her friend to the back of the car. Kayla lifted the trunk. “And don’t worry, that stack of books will still be waiting on your nightstand when we get back—” She widened her eyes. “What is this?” She held up a thick book, gestured to the others scattered around inside the trunk.
“Calculus and its Applications?” Taffy ducked her head.
“This is a vacation, not an occasion to cram more knowledge into that genius brain of yours.” She lugged out the suitcases, slapped Taffy’s hand back from the books and slammed the trunk. “Come on, Taf. Sam paid for this entire trip—gas, food, the lodge—everything. The least you can do is have a good time.”
Taffy picked up her single suitcase, along with one of Kayla’s three. “I’m still suspicious about that,” she said as they walked toward the lodge. “I mean, Sam’s picking up the tab for both of us on the condition that you perform a striptease at his best friend’s bachelor party? Why would he do that?”
“You’ve obviously never seen one of my shows.” Kayla winked. “Sam’s been my Facebook friend forever. He’s a nice guy with more money than he knows what to do with. He wants to make sure his best friend Max has a good time before the wedding. Trust me, he knows the pasties and thong stay on, and that there’s no such thing as a ‘happy ending.’”
“Whoever heard of a bachelor party on Valentine’s Day? Isn’t that when the wedding should be?”
Kayla shrugged. “In this case it wasn’t possible. The bride’s mother owns a flower shop. Valentine’s Day is when she makes the most money, so they had to schedule the wedding for the day after. Having someone else run the shop was out of the question because, according to Sam, no one can arrange a bunch of naked ladies like she can.”
Taffy giggled as the attendant took their bags and held the door. A handsome clerk, name badge Nick, slid a SweetHart Lodge guest registry across the polished countertop. Taffy folded her jacket over her arm, then signed her name as Kayla recited telephone and address information to a woman clacking on a computer keyboard.
Nick read Taffy’s signature, a devilish grin on his lips. She cringed, knowing what he was thinking. The same thing everybody else thought: Taffy Sellars sounded like a stripper name. Pretending to adjust her glasses, she hid her face and walked to the window.
“Shall we?” Kayla asked, handing her a key-card to their room. Taffy tucked the card into her shirt pocket. “I have a dinner date,” Kayla whispered close to her ear.
Kayla nodded toward Nick and smiled. He lifted his chin and grinned in response. “I want you to come along. Maybe he has a friend.”
“I am absolutely not coming along. I’m exhausted, and you should be too after that twelve hour drive. We’ve been on the road since midnight with no sleep.”
“Actually, I feel fantastic. I skipped my afternoon classes yesterday to sleep.”
“Well, I didn’t have that luxury. Thanks for the invite, but I’m taking a long hot bath followed by an even longer nap.”
Kayla grabbed Taffy by the arm. “I’m totally wearing my blue silk dress and silver sandals,” she squealed, guiding her toward the elevator.
Ben eyed the dish on the bar, picked through the candy. Be Mine. Conversation hearts had to be the stupidest bar food he’d ever encountered.
“One of the same.” He lifted his glass to the man behind the bar, who quickly refilled it with bourbon. “Thank you, bartender.” God, how Ben wished he were anywhere else. He took a long swallow. A few more of these, and he would be. He closed his eyes as the liquor blazed a warm trail from his throat to his gut.
He mentally scolded himself. It wasn’t everyday his little brother got married. He should be happy Max wanted him there to share his big day. He swiveled on the barstool, stretching his back. If only he could get out of going to the bachelor party tonight, the rest of the festivities wouldn’t be so bad. But no. There was absolutely no way he could skip out on his brother—their parents would never let him forget it.
He groaned inwardly, resolving himself to a night of jovial nonsense—a colossal waste of time. Time he desperately needed to spend in his Kansas City law office, preparing for trial.
Strippers. There’d probably be at least one, gyrating around the room, showing off the augmented body parts her fiancé paid for right before she left him for another man. Ben kicked back the last of his liquor and slammed down the glass.
A young woman rushed up to the bar, thumped her palms on the surface. “Bartender, can you help me please?”
The bartender glanced over, lifted a finger in her direction while continuing his conversation with a scantily clad blonde woman.
Ben shook his head in disgust. Why did the Barbie doll types get all the attention? Now that he’d broken the habit, he no longer understood the draw to such superficial women.
“Is there something I can help you with?” Ben asked the fidgeting brunette.
She snapped her gaze to him, her green eyes panicked behind the thick lenses of her black-framed glasses. “I need some soda. The kind they always say in the movies gets out stains.”
He grinned. “Club soda.”
“That’s it. Club soda—does it work in real life?” She pushed her slipping eyeglasses onto the bridge of her nose.
He looked her over. The thick glasses, dark hair yanked into a bun at the nape of her neck. Just the kind of girl he’d never looked twice at—before. But now, he was intrigued. Maybe this girl was his first step onto the path of inwardly beautiful women. But if he was going to change brands, he needed to know a little more about the product. A girl like that would have insight, answers. And he had to admit, she had a cute librarian-thing going on.
“I’ve never tried club soda on a stain, personally. But I always keep a couple of these handy.” He pulled a Shout Wipe packet from his pocket, handed it to her.
“Thank you,” she tucked it into the breast pocket of her long-sleeved denim shirt, her hand resting there, if stilling her heart. “I dripped hot chocolate on my friend’s silk dress while she was in the shower. I’ve got to get back upstairs, treat the stain and take the blow dryer to it, before she gets out.”
Ben patted the stool beside him. “Please, sit. Just for a moment.”
She glanced around the room. “I really need to get back.”
He grinned. “My name is Ben Reece. I practice law in Kansas City.” He pulled her gently toward the empty barstool as they shook hands.
“I’m Taffy Sellars. Computer Science major at the University of Oklahoma,” she said, sitting.
A smile tugged at Ben’s lips. “Did you say Taffy?”
She turned as pink as the conversation heart he’d tossed on the bar.
“It’s my nickname, but pretty much everybody calls me that. My little brother couldn’t say Stephany. When he tried, it came out ‘Taffy.’ And, well, it stuck.”
“Taffy…stuck. Good one.” Something about this girl sent the alcohol humming pleasantly to his head. “Taffy Sellars. Sounds a little like a stripper name.”
“Yeah. I’ve never heard that before.” Her eyes darted to the doorway.
He stopped mid-chuckle. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just that a girl like you obviously wouldn’t touch a stripper pole with a ten foot…pole.” How the hell did he get this drunk?
“Look, I’m glad I could amuse you, but I really have to run.” She slid from the barstool, headed toward the door. “Thanks for the stain fighter.”
Damn. He’d let her get away without asking her even one question about what made her kind tick—smart women, content with modest-sized breasts. On second thought, maybe it was best she’d walked away when she did. No way that would’ve come out right.
“Wait. Here’s a souvenir.” She turned in the doorway and he tossed the pink conversation heart to her. A memento to remind her how he’d insulted her and made fun of her name. Boy, he really was drunk.
Taffy yawned and turned down the bed. Hot bath out of the way, she looked forward to the long nap. She set her glasses on the nightstand, knocking to the floor the conversation heart from Ben. She picked it up, turned the little pink heart over in her hand. Be Mine. Did he mean it? Of course not. She was being ridiculous. Just like at the fifth grade Valentine exchange, when she’d read meaning into the boys’ cards that came in thirty-count boxes. A handsome man like Ben Reece—an attorney, no less—could have any woman he wanted, and more than likely preferred the leggy model-type. Kayla’s type. She popped the candy into her mouth and bit down, then unwound the towel from her hair. She jumped when the door banged open.
“To the bed, help me to the bed.” Nick swung Kayla through the door, cradled in his arms.
“What happened?” Taffy asked.
“We were ice skating by moonlight. I stumbled on someone’s lost scarf and sprang my ankle. Nick is taking me to the infirmary, but first I have to ask you the biggest favor ever. Taffy, you have to perform in my place tonight.” She winced as Nick set her on the edge of the bed.
“That’s not going to happen.” Taffy tightened her robe.
“Taffy, please, I’m begging you. I can’t even walk across the floor in this condition, let alone pop out of a cake.”
“Woah!”Nick widened his eyes.
“Nick. Will you excuse us for a few minutes?”
“I’ll be outside listening at the door,” he said, stepping into the hallway.
“Come on, Taffy. A deal’s a deal. No way Sam is going to foot the bill for this trip unless one of us pops out of that cake. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a couple thousand dollars lying around.”
Kayla was right. One of them had to hold up their end of the bargain, and Kayla obviously couldn’t perform.
“No one knows you here. Come on, Taf. I’d do it for you.”
Taffy knew she would. “I can’t believe I’m about to say this.” She dropped her head in her hands. “Okay. I’ll do it.”
“Thank you!” Kayla bounced up and down on the bed then flinched, grabbing her ankle.
“You’re welcome. Now settle down.”
“Hand me the red suitcase,” Kayla said. She unzipped it and spread the contents onto the bed. “Here’s the costume.” A tiny red thong and a bikini top with heart-shaped cups dangled from her finger.
Taffy’s heart jumped to her throat. “I’m not wearing that!”
“You have to. It’s the Cupid outfit.”
“Not the thong.”
Kayla sighed. “Okay then, Miss Modest, what do you suggest?”
She plucked the bikini top from Kayla’s finger, then picked through the pile.
Kayla crossed her arms. “You can’t mix Cupid with a harem dancer. It won’t work.”
“It’ll have to, or I won’t do it.”
“Fine,”Kayla huffed. “Go try it on and let me see.”
Taffy took the items into the bathroom, changed, then stepped out. She looked in the mirror, nearly falling to the floor in a dead faint. At least the veil partially covered her face. And the harem pants made her feel covered, even though she could see straight through to the pink hot-pants beneath.
“Let me strap on your wings.” Kayla motioned from the bed. “Perfect. Okay, now lean over.” Kayla scrubbed both hands through Taffy’s damp hair, teasing it with her fingers. “Now toss.”
Taffy rose, tossed her head then smeared on lip-gloss Kayla held out to her.
“Now buckle on these heels and get yourself to that party. Sam promised to have the cake assembled and ready to go. Don’t worry about dancing. Just wiggle your butt, shimmy your shoulders and wave your arms above your head. Guys love that.”
Taffy cinched her robe over the costume and picked up her glasses from the nightstand.
“Those stay here.”
“But I can’t see. I’ll twist my ankle on the way to the clubhouse, and then what will we do?”
Kayla chewed her lip. “Okay, but take them off before you climb into the cake.”
Taffy put on her glasses and wobbled out the door.
A stripper cake? Ben must’ve died and gone to hell.
The lights dimmed. Bon Jovi’s You Give Love a Bad Name powered through the sound system. Men catcalled and whistled. The four foot tall, pink and red cake…teetered. Ben rolled his eyes heavenward as a muffled female voice filtered through the plastic layers. It sounded like “Help me.”
“Come on out, sugar.” A muscle-bound man with a bulging forehead tugged the lid from the cake and pulled the girl from inside it, throwing her over his shoulder. He slapped her bottom and stood her on her feet. She tripped across the floor, wildly waving her arms for balance. Or was she dancing?
She slid the little Cupid’s bow from her waistband and took aim at Max, the plastic arrow hitting him squarely in the groin. “I’m sorry!” she shrieked, nearly tumbling over as she stooped to retrieve the arrow from the floor. The girl was terrible. She stumbled around the room as if the harem veil was tied over her eyes instead of beneath them.
Ignoring boos and hisses, the girl shimmied her shoulders and wiggled her hips with no regard for rhythm. Then, in what appeared to be her finale, she climbed the side of the cake, attempted to crawl back in and got stuck, one leg in, one out. Losing balance, she careened over the cake and landed in a heap at Ben’s feet.
“Easy does it,” he said, rolling her over. Her veil had shifted to the side of her head, covering one ear. “Are you okay?” he asked, gazing into familiar green eyes.
“You should have seen the look on his face, Kayla. He thinks I’m a stripper. No offense.”
“None taken,” Kayla said, patting Taffy’s hand. “Maybe he didn’t recognize you with your hair down, without your glasses. Plus, if you were really as bad as you say you were, there’s no way he thinks you’re a real stripper. No offense.”
“None taken.” Taffy let her head fall to the table with a thump.
“Well, I hate to leave you like this, but my date’s here.”
She lifted her head. “Sam is your date?”
“Yep. We’ve decided to see what happens.”
“But where’s Nick?”
“Traction. He threw his back out carrying me to the infirmary.”
Sam strode to the table, helped Kayla from her chair and onto her crutches.
Taffy stood and walked to the window. Snow glistened like diamonds in the noonday sun. Couples strolled arm in arm, snowdrifts skirting their paths like icing.
Icing reminded her of cake, which made her a little nauseous. That, and the fact she’d misplaced her glasses. Sam had returned the robe, but her glasses hadn’t been in the pocket. She rubbed her bleary eyes and turned from the window. Her gaze landed on dark haired man alone at a table with what appeared to be a vase full of long stem roses. She squinted. Ben?
Oh no. He’d seen her.
“Hello, Ben. I didn’t see you sitting there.” She stepped toward him, her breath catching as she swept her gaze over his black tuxedo. A heart-shaped box of chocolates set on the table beside the roses.
“The roses are lovely,” she said, filling the silence.
“Not as lovely as the girl I bought them for.”
“She must be pretty special,” Taffy said, her heart sinking.
“She is.” He stood and pulled out the chair beside his. “Be mine.”
She stared at him, wide eyed. “Be mine…that’s what the conversation heart at the bar said.” Her insides melted like a snowball in the sun. He had meant it. She sat down as a waiter approached the table and poured a glass of Champagne for each of them.
“Chocolate, flowers and Champagne,” she said breathlessly. No man had ever given her even one of those gifts.
“You deserve it,” he said. “Taffy, you’re real. So unlike the superficial women I’ve had the misfortune of meeting in my profession. And in my life.”
She’d lucked out. He really hadn’t recognized her at the bachelor party. So why did she have the overwhelming urge to fill him in? She took a deep breath. “Ben. At the party last night. That stripper…was me.”
“You don’t say.” He raised an eyebrow.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but I’ve never done anything like that before.”
“I don’t know if I buy that. You had some pretty provocative moves.”
Taffy’s cheeks warmed. “I did provoke a lot of hostility.”
Ben eyed the roses and frowned.
“What’s wrong?” Now that he knew the truth, had he changed his mind about her?
“I’m concerned you’re not getting the full effect of the roses. Maybe these will help bring them into focus.” Ben slipped her eyeglasses from inside his jacket and placed them in her hand.
She put them on and stared at him wide eyed through the lenses. “You knew it was me the whole time?”
He folded his hands behind his head, leaned back in his chair. “I made it rain a little myself, back in college.”
“You? A stripper?”
“A guy has to pay for his Ramen noodles somehow.”
She smiled and sipped champagne.
“Care to accompany me to a wedding?” He rose, extended his elbow.
She stood. “I’d love to,” she said, taking his arm.
Tune in tomorrow for Tamrie Foxtail's beautiful story, "Chocolates, Flowers and . . .Twins."