The World is a Stage (Games of Love #2)
Highland Games athlete Michael O’Leary is famous for his ability to charm a woman right out of her pants. Maybe a little too famous. When he’s sidelined with a knee injury, his wingman pounces on the chance to take full advantage of Michael’s idle time.Trying out for the local adult-themed Shakespearean production seems simple, but there’s a catch. Michael must woo the notoriously demanding lead actress, Rachel Hewitt, thereby freeing his friend to pursue a courtship of Rachel’s sister.
Rachel hates the thought of handing over the lead role in her admittedly scandalous troupe to someone so wholly uneducated in the ways of the Great Bard. But she’s in a bind, and the only one who can step up is a man who looks way too good in a codpiece—and knows it.
To add insult to injury, he refuses to take the role until she agrees to take his place in some barbaric warrior race. She’ll do it, but not with a smile. Unfortunately, the hardest part isn’t antagonizing her Scottish foes. It’s resisting the one man who seems determined to line and cue her heart—forever.
“That is the third woman tonight who has taken one look at me and run for the hills.” Michael O’Leary dropped onto the stool and pretended to examine his reflection in the shellacked wood-grain surface of the bar. “I think I might be losing my game.”
Next to him, Peterson mumbled something incoherent, not paying the least bit of attention to Michael’s current downward spiral.
That wasn’t like him. Normally, Peterson’s favorite Saturday night pastime was watching Michael crash and burn—and doing it with unholy glee lighting up his smug little face. But tonight, he’d spent the better part of the last half hour on his cell phone, texting and giggling like it was his first prom.
It should have been a killer night for the both of them. Michael was wearing his favorite kilt. Peterson too was all dolled up, his recent buzz cut showcasing a tattoo of a dragon eating the side of his face. The ladies loved the kilt. The ladies loved bad-ass tattoos. These were the laws upon which Michael’s entire world was built.
“Seriously, bro. Have you ever seen my luck hide so far up a leprechaun’s ass?” Michael asked. He took in their favorite bar at a glance, the walls flaking with age and grease, the floor packed with bodies. “Something must be wrong. I think Mercury might be in retrograde.”
That did it. Peterson looked up and grinned, tucking his cell phone into his pocket and finally giving due attention to the pint of beer in front of him. “You never miss a chance to let us know you had your way with that famous astrologer, do you? What was her name? Madame Butterball?”
“Butterfly, you asshole. It’s literary.”
“I’ll bet it is.” Peterson swiveled on his stool, facing out, both his elbows propped on the bar. “You still seeing her?”
“The Madame?” No way. She’d been a little more unhinged than Michael preferred in a woman, always talking about how the colors of their auras clashed. He didn’t mind when a lady friend brought her work home with her, but there was no way his aura was pink. She had to be making that shit up.
“Nah. I’m footloose and fancy free,” was all the explanation Michael offered. “Why? Did you have something in mind?”
“Well…actually.” Peterson’s voice was like a little boy’s as he rubbed one hand across the back of his neck. That was where the dragon’s body and impressive male parts were located. The ladies loved that too. “I scored us tickets to a little thing they’re doing over at the Odyssey Theater.”
“Front-row seats, backstage passes, the works. We might even be able to get our way into the after-party.”
“That’s funny. I didn’t even know there was a band in town.”
Peterson opened his mouth to reply, but he was interrupted by a woman in a red, low-cut tank top. Unlike every other pair of heels in the bar, she took one look at Michael and brightened, going so far as to pucker her lips and lean in, allowing him a generous glance down the front of her bra. It was a bit forward, but Michael was as agreeable as any other hot-blooded man to such tactics.
“Darling, I think maybe you didn’t look in the mirror when you left the house,” she said. Pulling back, she dangled a pair of pink panties from her lacquered nail. Michael narrowed his eyes. Those weren’t just any pink panties. They were covered with tiny dancing princesses and cheerful green frogs.
Next to him, Peterson let out a strangled laugh.
Michael didn’t normally take great pride in his appearance. Sure, he was wearing his kilt tonight—but that was for the attention more than any attempt at fashion. He was the only one of their friends who ever wore the traditional gear off-season, when they weren’t working the Highland Games circuit. No one else had the balls—or the legs—to pull it off.
But even he balked at waltzing into the bar with children’s underwear clinging to the back of his T-shirt. No wonder he’d been striking out so bad. He looked like a fucking pervert.
“Oh, shit, Mikey. I’m sorry,” Peterson said, grabbing the underwear from the woman in red and shoving them into his back pocket. “I should have noticed before you got out of the car.”
“You planted those there,” Michael accused, knowing full well it wasn’t true. When Peterson had swung by to pick him up, there had been a load of laundry in the backseat. With two young daughters at home, Peterson had a hell of a lot of tiny pink things in his laundry.
“It happens to the best of us,” the woman said warmly. She made a not-so-subtle glance toward Michael’s empty ring finger. “You tell your wife to try fabric softener next time.”
Michael was getting ready to proudly proclaim no affiliations whatsoever with the matrimonial state when he saw Peterson’s face school itself into a mask of bro-code acceptance. Taking this woman home would be easy. Michael could practically taste her tongue playing tonsil hockey with him, and he knew it would require only a few words to have her falling for a sob story of single parenthood and long, lonely nights.
But Peterson, the poor bastard, got out only a few times a month. He was the real victim of single parenthood and long, lonely nights.
“I sure will,” Michael agreed, heroically distancing himself from the impressive, rose-scented breasts. “My wife loves it when I give her housekeeping tips.”
The woman, oblivious to the joke, offered a disappointed and cock-shifting smile.
“Dude. Those kids of yours are some sort of lady magnet,” Michael said, shaking his head and tearing his gaze from the woman’s ass as it wiggled and shook its way across the bar. So close and yet so far away. “Can I borrow them next week?”
“Not on your life. The last time I let you babysit, Sammy spent the entire next week telling everyone what a dingleberry is.”
“She asked,” Michael protested, holding up his hands in mock defense. “You know it’s against my nature to lie to women. Especially cute, miniature ones.”
“Very funny. Just keep the poop jokes to a minimum next time, okay?”
Michael shrugged good-naturedly. Of all the jokes he knew, the ones dealing with bodily functions were by far the most four- and six-year-old appropriate. And they always went over well with his friend’s progeny. If there was one thing Michael knew, it was how to please his audience.
“You’re just lucky I didn’t tell them the one about the twin hookers in a cave.”
Peterson snorted. “No hooker jokes until they’re at least sixteen. Official orders.”
“Done,” Michael agreed, rubbing his hands together. “Now. What’s this about a concert tonight?”
“Well…” Peterson drew the syllable out, and Michael’s suspicions deepened with each passing second. “It’s Hamlet.”
“Never heard of them. And if it’s hipster music, you can count me out. You know how I feel about all those bands no one has ever heard of. There’s a reason, bro. And it’s rarely good.”
“It’s not a them, Mikey. It’s Hamlet. You know, Shakespeare? Thee and thou and the most famous playwright of all time?”
“I know who Shakespeare is.” Michael crossed his arms. He might have spent the better part of his twenties more focused on building up his body than his brains, but he wasn’t dead. “What I don’t understand is why you got me all hot and bothered if this was what you had to deliver. Where I come from, we call that—”
Peterson laughed and held up a hand. “Spare me the description, buddy. I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet.”
“Is there sex in it?”
“A whole orgy?”
“If we play our cards right.”
Michael laughed. “Okay. Now I’m listening.”
“It’s called Shakespeare After Dark. They do the original plays, all Shakespearified and stuff, but the actors are almost completely naked, and they add good parts to the story. You know. The good kind of good parts.”
“Define ‘almost completely naked’,” Michael said, instantly wary. Peterson was holding something back. If his friend was about to offer him a stage of half-dressed ladies, like any true friend ought, Peterson wouldn’t be so afraid to look him in the eye. “What’s the catch?”
Peterson paused and finally looked his way, and Michael felt his skin grow cold. The last one of his friends to have those big, soulful, ridiculous eyes was Julian. Julian, who now put on fancy pants once a month and escorted his girlfriend to a historical re-enactment ball where the women sucked a little bit of his manhood away each time—and he didn’t mean that in the good way.
Not that Michael had anything against Julian’s girlfriend, Kate. It was just hard to practice caber tossing on the field knowing his friend had something called a cravat in his practice bag. It was weird.
“I got the tickets through a friend of mine who’s in the show,” Peterson began. “A good friend.”
“What’s her name?” Michael asked, resigned. “And how does this end with me getting some much-needed naked time?”
Peterson’s eyes flashed with humor, but there was a firmness to his mouth that didn’t sit well. “Her name is Molly. Molly Hewitt. She plays Ophelia.”
“Good for her,” Michael offered. “Who the fuck is Ophelia?”
“It doesn’t matter, Mikey. The point is, she’s got a pair of front-row seats waiting for us at the ticket counter, and I intend to use them. And I need you to come with me.”
“So take Pink Panties back there,” Michael suggested, thumbing over his shoulder at the woman in red. “Or Julian. He loves that high-brow shit now.”
“Don’t be dumb. I’m not taking a random woman from the bar, and Jules has some big tournament in Seattle this weekend. Besides, I might need someone to help me out a little with a friend of hers. We’ll be man and manlier. Tit and tat. Please, Mikey?” There were those eyes again. He could see where Sammy and Pris, Peterson’s manipulative little monsters, got it.
“Fine,” he agreed, shaking his head ruefully. If there was an award for being the best wingman in the world, Michael was definitely in the running. Shakespeare—even naked Shakespeare—had to be about as bad as it got.
He kicked back the last of his beer and pointed the empty glass at his friend. “But you have to be tat. I want to be tit. I’m not agreeing to anything unless there’s at least one of those involved.”