USA Today Bestselling Author Susan Stephens
Susan Stephens' Books
Second Chances. First love.
The Ladies Club...
When a hot billionaire property developer comes to town scouting for new properties to add to his collection, he doesn't expect to run into a woman who will turn him down flat. No one says no to Jack Castle. But then no one has piqued Jack's interest quite like Arabella Frost. Determined to get the luscious redhead to change her mind, Jack will stop at nothing, including seduction.
What Jack hasn't anticipated is that he will be drawn into Arabella's dangerous domestic situation, or that his priorities will receive a life-changing shake-up.
Arabella thinks she is successfully covering up the escalating violence at home, but she's fooling no one, let alone Jack. Having been told for years that she is fat and ugly, and with her confidence at its lowest ebb, Arabella must take on the hottest man in town and beat him at his own game. With the odds stacked against her, the outcome seems inevitable, but Bella isn't a member of the Ladies Club for nothing.
Please note: This is an unedited excerpt
“Don’t do it!” Jack hissed as the curvy redhead reached for the handle of the abandon-all-hope-all-ye-who-enter-here dress store. Pausing to get even wetter as the rain teamed down, she stared longingly for a few seconds at a silky red temptation in the boutique next door.
“Yes!” He thumped his hand on the wheel for emphasis, then swore as she disappeared inside the dowdy-dump dress store.
Even Jack Castle couldn’t have everything he wanted. Jack accepted with a wry shrug as he relaxed back in his car. And why should he care? He didn’t even know the woman. Had the controlling interest he’d recently acquired in a film studio made him a magnet for human drama? More likely it was the breasts. They were magnificent breasts...
He sat up as the redhead emerged from the store loaded down with carrier bags. She looked harassed—even more at her wits end, when a small, angry man accosted her. She appeared to know him, so Jack forced his white knight back inside the box, and resigned himself to watching the scene play out. The small man continued to shout, while the woman Reubens would have set up his easel to paint in the rain, did her best placate him. What had she done to piss him off? His hackles rose as the small guy pawed at her, badgering her until finally she gave in and reached inside her purse to bring out a gold card.
“Don’t do it!” he roared. This was going to end badly.
His jaw tightened as he watched the small man hurry away. He shook his head, feeling some sympathy for the redhead. She knew she’d been had.
But then she drew herself up and he smiled. She was a survivor.
Harold had scammed her again, telling her he would have to sell the last of her mother’s jewelry if she didn’t hand over her credit card. There was only her mother’s wedding ring left. He’d sold everything else, but no way was he having that ring to pawn. She could only comfort herself with the thought that Harold wouldn’t get far with her card. He’d already exceeded her limit, but now her credit rating would be zero, thanks to him. She was married to a cartoon cut out, drunken bully, who had never loved her, he’d just told her in the street. Harold Frost had no further use for Arabella Frost, he’d yelled in her face, as if she were hard of hearing—beyond the fact that he needed her to put her signature on a contract to sell their house, of course.
The house Harold was referring to had been in Arabella’s family for generations. The beautiful grounds had already been sold off to pay his debts. The land had been parceled up in lots and sold on for a song, like a dress in a thrift store. There was just the house left—the house Harold intended to sell off at the bottom of the market. He said he had to, or he’d go to prison this time for non-payment of his debts.
There wasn’t a day when Arabella didn’t wonder why she’d married Harold. The only answer she could come up with, was that she had been a hormonally driven, stupid, spotty, eighteen-year-old, with a horror of living forever with her parents. Harold had seemed to offer an escape route from spinsterdom—until he informed her that he loved the old house, and could see nothing wrong with living with her parents.
Her parents were dead now, driven to their graves by the son-in-law who’d sucked them dry, so there was just Arabella, and snooty, overbearing Harold, who owned a half share in everything she had—or what was left of it.
Why didn’t she leave him? The answer to that was simple too. She had nowhere else to go. She wouldn’t dream of imposing on her friends. And why should she walk out of her family home and leave it to Harold?
The fight didn’t end there. She wanted to bring the house and land back together. She knew this was a fantasy, but she was programmed, like the stubborn old cow Harold called her, to put right his wrongs.
Today of all days she could have done without Harold ranting. She was arranging a party for one of her closest friends and wanted everything to be perfect. Harold was doing everything he could to get in her way, though he wouldn’t complain when he brought his cronies along and they drank the party dry. The party was to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Arabella’s friend Miranda, and Randy, Miranda’s hot cowboy. Miranda was an emergency room doctor with zero hours to spare, so Arabella, had offered to arrange everything for her.
She could handle pretty much everything for everyone but herself, Arabella concluded ruefully. Even her old friend the cosmos had turned against her. She had always been a fan of astrology, and had clung to her beliefs through thick and thin. Of course she had. She was stubborn. She was Taurus the bull. Sadly, the cosmos didn’t award brownie points to its fans, and Mercury was permanently in retrograde in her chart.
Casting one last yearning look at the red dress in the shop window, she turned away. It was well out of her price range, and probably wouldn’t fit. Heaving the parcel containing her sensible party dress into a more comfortable position, she hurried off to get on with her shopping.
He tensed when the redhead turned to take one last lingering look at the slinky, form-fitting dress he had wanted her to buy. It wasn’t just an eye-catching red dress it was the type of dress designed for women for whom life was an adventure. He cursed softly when the young female lawyer he was waiting for, knocked on his window, distracting him.
“Get in,” he invited.
“Why we couldn’t met in my office,” she complained, bringing a warm, damp smell inside the car with her, laced with some heavy perfume.
“I don’t have time,” he said. “As my lawyer, you should know that.”
With a sigh, she shook her head.
He forgave her. He liked female lawyers. They took no prisoners. He was a busy man. He didn’t have time to waste in anyone’s office drinking coffee and exchanging pleasantries.
“Here are the particulars for The Old Hall, and the land registry document you asked for.” She passed them over. “There’s only one hurdle.”
“Which is?” He’d hired the lawyer on the basis of her local knowledge. She went by the improbable name of Poppy Dash—cute name for a Rottweiler.
“The only sticking point is the old boot he’s married to, according to Harold Frost, the charmer who’s trying to sell you the house. They share the Old Hall jointly, but it’s been in her family for generations. He has right to half the legal title through marriage.”
“You sound as if you don’t approve,” he murmured as he leafed through the documents.
“I don’t. He’s vile. And even if his wife is as bad as he says she is, he shouldn’t be trying to sell the house behind her back.”
“You’re saying Mrs Frost knows nothing of my interest in the house?”
“It’s Lady Frost. The title’s hers too. He was a no-good throw back her parents chose for their plain, overweight daughter when she was eighteen, and for no better reason than he had the right background, I was told.”
He frowned. “And she agreed to that?”
“It was her best hope the lady at the cake shop told me. It was that or be left on the shelf.”
“A better prospect than being hooked up to Harold Frost, surely?”
“Some might say so, but living alone isn’t easy...”
Jack shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He didn’t want that sort of interest from his lawyer, and not just because Ms Dash wasn’t his type. Thin as a pin, with no flesh on her body, he had no desire to cuddle up to a Rottweiler at night. He kept everyone at arm’s length. If there was one thing life had taught him, it was that most people couldn’t be trusted, and even those he should be able to trust had to be handled with caution.
“If she doesn’t know anything about her husband’s intention to sell the house let’s keep it that way,” he said. “At least until we get some more information under our belt.”
“We could meet at the café next time?”
Ms Dash’s brown eyes were hopeful. Ignoring her suggestion, he glanced across the road, but the redhead had gone.
“Is that it?” he pressed, glancing at the door.
“Thanks for your work on this. I’ll be in touch.” He was already starting the engine. His lawyer got the message and left his car without another word.
The house he intended to buy could be classified as a stately home, though it needed a major upgrade. The work didn’t worry him. The property sat right in the middle of the country estate he’d bought up piece by piece from the various owners. At one time both land and house had belonged to the same estate, Ms Dash had told him, but Harold Frost had been steadily disposing of the land to pay his debts. Jack’s main home overlooked Central Park, but it was an impersonal space, full of meaningless belongings. He was looking for a change of pace, and the Old Hall would give him that.
Putting the state of the art engine into smooth, purring life, he moved into the light, small town traffic. The rain was still pelting down. He increased the speed of the windscreen wipers. He was looking for the redhead. She couldn’t have gone far—
He stamped his foot on the brake as some idiot banged on the hood.
He stared at her in disbelief. Switching off the engine, he powered out of the car.
Arabella flinched as the hunk with a scowl got out of the car. He did not look pleased, so she went on the offensive before he had chance to.
“Didn’t you see the sign? SLOW DOWN,” she spelled out pedantically, like a schoolmarm addressing a class of delinquents. She tried very hard not to register the fact that the man with the scowl was the most incredible specimen of God-given brazen masculinity she’d ever seen in her life. “Do you always drive like an idiot?”
“Do you always cross against the lights with an old lady in tow?” he countered in a lazy drawl that made her toes curl.
Admittedly, she should have waited for the lights to change, but she had seen the bus coming down the street, and as both she the lady she was helping, were loaded down with shopping and had rainwater dripping off their chins, barging across the road hadn’t seemed such a bad option.
“Why don’t you get in the car and keep warm while I pick up your scattered shopping?”
The last thing she had been expecting was concern from him, and she was speechless for a moment—until she glanced at the spilled vegetables, and at the party favors glittering bravely on the road. “Oh, no!”
“Get in the car,” he insisted as she started scrabbling about on the road, trying to rescue all the stuff for Miranda’s party before it disintegrated.
She looked up into the most stunningly attractive navy blue eyes... eyes that were smiling wickedly. And then came to her senses. Did he seriously think she was going to get into the car of a complete stranger?
Don’t pretend you’re not tempted.
Are you kidding? He was the type of man with the body and rugged good looks that made it impossible to get close to him and not imagine what that body would feel like, or those big hands could do. But she had a clear mental image of the type of woman a man like him would want to get close to, and she wasn’t it.
“Get in the car,” he urged with more force as the rain pelted down. “I’ll take it from here,”
As he spoke he gave her a smile that touched places she hadn’t thought about in years, and a smile that only proved his strong white teeth were as perfect as the rest of him. His ruggedly handsome face with its thick coating of stubble, his tan, and the sheer size of him—all of it was impressive. The spread of his shoulders took her breath away, and that iron hard frame beneath his clothes, and beneath jeans rain-welded to his body—
What was wrong with her? She wasn’t judging a horse at the country fair.
Maybe not, but this man was as out of place on the High Street, as a Yak at a PTA meeting. What was he doing in town? She glanced at his car. Expensive. And at his shoes—cowboy boots? Top quality, judging by the tooling—and he had very big feet, big hands too. While her make-up was probably running down her face in stripes. Unattractively.
And now horns had started blaring.
She glanced around to see he’d abandoned his car where she’d thumped on the hood, and he seemed oblivious to the line of traffic building up behind it. He was more interested in painstakingly retrieving every single piece of shopping she’d dropped. Now she felt bad. She’d caused the problem, but the drivers were yelling at him.
Straightening up, he stared at her with a look that made those neglected parts spring to life again. “Climb in and I’ll give you a lift home,” he suggested, curving a grin.
“Thank you, but I’ve got my own car,” she said primly.
Complete lie. Husband Harold had sold her battered old car for scrap last week. They didn’t need two cars, he’d said. “And anyway,” Harold had added, “Our house is on a bus route.”
She wouldn’t have minded, but she had bought Harold’s car, along with everything else he owned, ate, drank, or wore, right down to the custom-made shirt on his back. She should have gotten control of things years ago, Arabella told herself with frustration as Sir Galahad eased onto one tight, hip.
“At least let me take you to your car,” he said.
Her invisible car?
As he angled his chin to stare down at her, the look in his eyes made her smile, for some reason, and then she laughed as he lifted his collar and icy rain tipped down his neck. He laughed too, when Harold would have hit the roof—just before he hit her. Harold blamed her for everything, including inciting him to violence, but this man seemed different. He had a sense of humor for a start, and had taken the dousing well—
The blare of car horns had reached fever pitch.
“Thanks for the offer of a lift,” she said politely, knowing it was time to move on.
“But?" he pressed, dipping his head to stare into her eyes.
“But it’s not necessary,” she explained. “My car is just around the corner—” Well, it was around someone’s corner.
“I still say, there’s no need for us both to get wet,” he insisted in the same attractive drawl.
“I’m already wet,” she pointed out.
The look he gave her made her cheeks flush red. He was just another aggressive male driver who thought he owned the road, she told herself firmly. She refused to be wooed by his expensively curated, misogynist charm—though, admittedly, she softened slightly when he handed back her shopping. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it.”
His slanting smile was so appealing she couldn’t be angry with him for long. Concern from a man was such a refreshing change. Flagging down the bus, she ushered the old lady across the road.
“I could offer you both a lift somewhere?”
“Are you still here?” she demanded, frowning up at him.
“Seems so,” he agreed wryly.
Staring up only made her realize how much smaller she was than he was. He was a lot younger too—
Think of all that vigor.
She didn’t have to. Her body had already registered that fact. She could supply the rest: he was brutally masculine, and dark enough to be described as saturnine, with thick wavy black hair and sharp black stubble that made him look like a pirate. He definitely saw more sun than she did, and his dark blue eyes were laughing in a way that made her heart leap.
He was dangerously charming.
Flattening her lips before her traitorous body could smile at him any more than it was already doing, she turned her attention to the old lady and saw her safely on board the bus. Jumping on the running board behind her, she left Sir Galahad in a street full of furious drivers. She did not need any more trouble in her life—not that Sir Galahad would be interested...
She turned to see if he was still there.
Oblivious to the fists being raised at him, her white knight was standing in the middle of the road staring after her. What were the chances of that?
“The Old Hall, please...”