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By:Joan Swan

As he gripped the cool metal door handle, his muscles coiled tight, and his mind focused on the mission. But he sure as hell wished he were breaching a dozen terrorists with AK-47s in a Taliban stronghold instead of the lone, pretty, little Grace Ashby at a strip club.

He stepped into a foyer thumping with the sexual beat of My Darkest Days’ “Nature of the Beast.” Two walls were painted black, two covered in smoke-colored mirrors. A man who could have passed for three guys stuffed into one suit turned toward Josh. He looked Hawaiian or Samoan with a round face, dark skin, black eyes, and a buzz cut. And he was huge. At least three inches taller than Josh’s six foot one and tipping the scale at over three fifty.

“Welcome.” His voice was deep and flat and serious. “There’s no cover charge, but we have a two drink minimum. We ask that you be as generous as possible to the staff, seeing as it’s Christmastime and all.”

“How ’bout I start with you?” Josh drew cash from his pocket, offering the man a fifty. “I understand a friend of mine works here. Her name is Grace.”

The man’s dark eyes flicked to the bill, then back to Josh’s face, but his body never moved and his hands remained at his sides. “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t give out personal information on the girls.”

The girls.

Josh’s stomach twisted. The sweat gathering on his neck slid down the indention of his spine. He swallowed the ball in his throat and pressed the money into the bouncer’s massive hand. “I’m a friend, and I need to tell her something about her family.”

The man’s fingers curled around the money. “I just saw her out on the floor. But she goes by Nicole here, so don’t call her Grace. And don’t interfere with her work,” he warned, his voice growing hard, “or I’ll hurt you.”

Josh acknowledged the bouncer’s threat with a single nod, then took a deep breath, and strolled into the main club. He should feel relieved—he’d found her. But working the floor meant she was soliciting lap dances from spectators. He held on tight to denial while apprehension wound deep in his gut along with a hundred unanswered questions.

He immediately swept the club for layout, exits, and head count. A large, curved stage took up the most real estate, the glass base sleek and dotted with three stripper poles. Beneath the glass, lights faded on and off, making the floor glow in sensuous blues and violets, but the women dancing on the stage needed no enhancements. A blonde swayed on the far left leg of the stage, her major assets: enormous tits. A redhead writhed against the gold pole center stage, generous hips pumping. And a tall, leggy Asian woman rocked the stage on all fours to the right. Each wore nothing but heels or boots and a feathered or sparkling G-string.

Despite his distaste for these clubs, Josh’s blood heated and his cock tingled with a surge of lust, reminding him it had been way too long since he’d gotten laid. Like an idiot, he’d been holding out for Rachel. Since she’d jetted to the east coast with that head case, Ryker, Josh had been working too much to get into dating. And the whole one-night-stand thing worked better for him as a SEAL, when he’d only been in town for a few days before heading off on another mission. Now when he took a woman to bed, there was nowhere to hide the next day. Or the next week. Or the next month. And he hadn’t met anyone he wanted to promise he’d call in the future.

“Nature of the Beast” transitioned into something slower that Josh didn’t recognize, a song with a thick, sensual beat and nasty rap lyrics about pulling hair, a man of steel, and candy rain. The powerful beat throbbed beneath Josh’s feet and straight up his legs. On stage, three more women emerged from behind crimson draperies, while those who’d been dancing, pranced out of sight. The whole switcheroo had been both entertaining and smooth, and the new girls, wearing a variety of outfits covering all their assets at this point, moved with slow sashays and gyrating hips.

He pulled his gaze from the new performers and scoped out the bar, which filled one long wall of the club. He needed to get a look at all the women on the floor to eliminate the possibility that the Grace he was looking for worked there.

Two female bartenders worked behind the heavy, shiny wood expanse, wearing red lace corsets and velvet Santa hats. Two more women stood by holding trays, wearing some sort of elf suit. Their emerald-green skirts were trimmed in white faux fur and so short, their black-lace-covered ass cheeks showed. Their matching halter-style tops were cut deep in the front, exposing plenty of plump cleavage. And their boots—thigh-high, sleek, and black patent, like their low-slung belts.