Isabella Natale is living a double life. By day she turns out desserts in the family bakery. But at night she transforms into The Crimson Rose, Chicago's hottest exotic dancer, an enigmatic siren whose velvet mask and G-string drive men wild. Nobody knows about her secret--not even Nick Santori, the strip club's hot new bodyguard...and her first crush. He'd always treated little "Izzy" as just another sweet kid. But there's nothing sweet about his sizzling reaction to Rose....
So what's a girl to do but show the man of her dreams that while it's okay to look, it's much better to touch?
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August 31, 2007
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Excerpt from Overexposed by Leslie Kelly
For the first two weeks after he'd returned from the Middle East, Nick Santori genuinely didn't mind the way his family fussed over him. There were big welcome home barbecues in the tiny backyard of the row house where he'd been raised. There were even bigger dinners at the family-owned pizzeria that had been his second home growing up.
He'd been dragged to family weddings by his mother and into the kitchen of the restaurant by his father. He'd had wet, sticky babies plopped in his lap by his sisters-in-law, and had been plied with beer by his brothers, who wanted details on everything he'd seen and done overseas. And he'd had rounds of drinks raised in his honor by near-strangers who, having suitably praised him as a patriot, wanted to go further and argue the politics of the whole mess.
That was where he drew the line. He didn't want to talk about it. After twelve years in the Corps, several of them on active duty in Iraq, he'd had enough. He didn't want to relive battles or wounds or glory days with even his brothers and he sure as hell wouldn't justify his choice to join the military to people he'd never even met.
At age eighteen, fresh out of high school with no interest in college and even less in the family business, entering the Marines had seemed like a kick-ass way to spend a few years.
What a dumb punk he'd been. Stupid. Unprepared. Green.
He'd quickly learned...and he'd grown up. And while he didn't regret the years he'd spent serving his country, he sometimes wished he could go back in time to smack that eighteen year old around and wake him up to the realities he'd be facing.
Realities like this one: coming home to a world he didn't recognize. To a family that had long since moved on without him.
"So you hanging in?" asked his twin, Mark, who sat across from him in a booth nursing a beer. His brothers had all gotten into the habit of stopping by the family-owned restaurant after work a few times a week.
"I'm doing okay."
"Feeling that marinara running through your veins again?" Nick chuckled. "Do you think Pop has ever even realized there's any other kind of food?"
Mark shook his head. Reaching into a basket, he helped himself to a breadstick. "Do you think Mama has ever even tried to cook him any?"
"Good point." Their parents were well matched in their certainty that any food other than Italian was unfit to eat.
"Is she still griping because you wouldn't move back home?"
Nodding, Nick grabbed a breadstick of his own. For all his grumbling, he wouldn't trade his Pop's cooking for anything...especially not the never-ending MRE's he'd had to endure in the military. "She seems to think I'd be happy living in our old room with the Demi Moore Indecent Proposal poster on the wall. It's like walking into a frigging time warp."
"You always did prefer G.I. Jane."
Nick just sighed. Mark seldom took anything seriously. In that respect, he hadn't changed. But everything else sure had.
During the years he'd been gone, the infrequent visits home hadn't allowed Nick to mentally keep up with his loved ones. In his mind, when he'd lain on a cot wondering if there would ever come a day when sand wouldn't infiltrate every surface of his clothes again, the Santoris were the same big, loud bunch he'd grown up with: two hard-working parents and a brood of kids.
They weren't kids anymore, though. And Mama and Pop had slowed down greatly over the years. His father had turned over the day-to-day management of Santori's to Nick's oldest brother, Tony, and stayed in the kitchen drinking chianti and cooking.
One of his brothers was a prosecutor. Another a successful contractor. Their only sister was a newlywed. And, most shocking of all to Nick, Mark, his twin, was about to become a father.
Married, domesticated and reproducing...that described the happy lives of the five other Santori kids. And every single one of them seemed to think he should do exactly the same thing.
Nick agreed with them. At least, he had agreed with them when living day-to-day in a place where nothing was guaranteed, not even his own life. It had seemed perfect. A dream he could strive for at the end of his service. Now it was within reach.
He just wasn't sure he still wanted it.
He didn't doubt his siblings were happy. Their conversations were full of banter and houses and SUVs and baby talk that they all seemed to love but Nick just didn't get.And wasn't sure he ever would...despite how much he knew he should.
At least, he hoped he would. The fact that he was bored out of his mind helping out at Santori's and hadn't yet met a single appropriate woman who made his heart beat faster--much less one he wanted to pick out baby names with--was merely a product of his own re-adjustment to civilian life. He'd come around. Soon. No doubt about it.
As long as he avoided going after the one woman he'd seen recently who not only made his heart beat fast but had also given him a near-sexual experience from across a crowded room. Because she was in no way appropriate. She was a stripper. One he'd be working with very soon now that he'd agreed to take a job doing security at a club called Leather and Lace.
Forcibly thrusting the vision of the sultry dancer out of his brain, he focused on the type of normal woman he'd someday meet who might inspire a similar reaction.
He'd have help locating her. Everyone, it seemed, wanted him to find the "perfect" woman and they all just happened to know her. The next one of his sisters-in-law who asked him to come over for dinner and coincidentally asked her single best friend to come, too, would be staring at Nick's empty chair.
"Do you know how glad I am that your wife's knocked up?"
"Yeah, me too," Mark replied, wearing the same sappy look he'd had on his face since he'd started telling everyone Noelle was expecting. "But do I want to know why you're so happy?"
"Because it means she doesn't have time to try to set me up with her latest single friend/hair stylist/next-door-neighbor or just the next breathing woman who walks by."
Mark had the audacity