RELEASES Jan 15th!
Sterling was Liebe Falls' Golden Boy until he messed around with the Wrong Girl. Rejected and ruined, Paige had to leave town, too. Now they're forced home and have to work together. Never mind a second chance, do they have any chance?
Not In Her Wildest Dreams
Fun Fact: I originally wrote this book as a murder mystery--which isn't very romantic, so I rewrote it as an embezzlement scandal.
I had all the pre-orders loaded and ready in November. I sent out a few arcs and a deeply appreciated reader who had an advance copy emailed yesterday. She said a line of dialogue in chapter twenty-nine didn't make sense. "When did her dad die?"
I spent yesterday updating all the files.
This is Chapter Two in Not In Her Wildest Dreams. You can read Chapter One in last week's post.
Rosie, as Paige called her, was still out cold when Sterling pulled up behind Paige’s silver Mazda outside the house where she’d grown up.
He took in the most salient fact, that her brother’s truck was not here, and moved to carry the unconscious woman into the house. She was leggy but tall and gave him the workout he had feared he would miss because he was traveling.
He was breaking a sweat by the time he was walking down the hall. “Which room?”
“Mine. On the left. We had to throw out Dad’s mattress and the new one isn’t here yet. This is where I put her an hour ago.” The bed was already mussed.
Paige came in behind him and quickly pushed the edge of the nubby yellow bedspread further out of the way.
Sterling didn’t ask why the other mattress was ruined. Stuff happened during medical distress that was best not dwelt upon. He had heard through his parents about Grady’s latest heart attack and knew a woman had been in bed with him when it had happened. Not sleeping.
No wonder the woman in question was drinking herself into a blackout.
As Sterling settled Rosie, Paige said, “I can handle it from here,” and began removing Rosie’s shoes.
He was sure she could, but now that they were alone, he would steal a word.
He straightened away from Rosie’s musky perfume and gin breath. Then, because he’d spent his adolescence longing to penetrate these walls, among other things, took in Paige’s bare yellow room.
It didn’t look like he had always imagined it. No stuffed animals or rock posters, no lacy bras and flowery undies dangling from drawer pulls. The closet doors were cheap, hollow panels with chipped paint, the blue curtains were discolored to pale green at the edges. The gold carpet was worn thin in front of the dresser.
Nothing suggested a girl had grown up here—except that crooked heart carved into the footboard of the Canopied Princess Twin. Little vandal. In his house, defacing a Roy Collectible had been a hanging offense. He tried and failed to make out the initials gouged away beneath Paige’s.
Paige covered Rosie and started texting someone. Her husband maybe.
A gust of rain hit the window, drawing his glance to it and through to his grandmother’s old house in the yard that backed onto this one. At one time, a picket fence had separated the two yards, but it had disintegrated into a line of pick-up-sticks that was now just another contributor to the greater eyesore. The tiny bungalow was pushing seventy years old and showing it. The plugged gutters had caused water stains down the siding and the lawn hadn’t been mowed this year. The house looked worse than this one, which was saying something.
“I said you can go,” Paige prodded, unzipping the hoodie she wore and shrugging out of it.
“I heard you.” He reluctantly gave Paige his attention. He’d been putting off looking at her because, well, he might not stop. She was fifteen years older but still sleek as a mink in yoga pants and a clingy, long sleeved black shirt under a fitted purple T. It was a practical outfit on an intensely female woman who possessed thick lashes, elegant cheekbones, and a carnality-inspiring mouth. He didn’t like the bruise coming up under her pale cheek, or the fatigued slant to her shoulders though. It made her look like she needed someone to worry about her.
“I need to talk to you about something. You should ice that.”
She winced and touched her cheek. “Yeah, it hurts.” She moved to the dresser and tucked her straight, chin length hair behind her ear as she leaned into the mirror.
He had wondered, all the way from the Carolinas, what had made him lust from afar all those years ago, then make such a fool of himself. Whatever it was, he had convinced himself it wouldn’t happen again, but as he watched her bend just enough to push her round ass out, accenting her supple thighs and the shallow dip of her lower back, he felt a kick of desire right in his groin. It was a purely physical, animalistic want that emptied his mind so all he could think about was petting that ruthlessly feminine line.
She straightened abruptly, turning with a look that said, Hey pervert. Eyes up here.
Mirror. Shit. She’d seen where he’d been looking. The back of his neck grew hot and her bruised cheek grew darker.
“What do you want to talk about?” She slanted a dour look as she passed him on the way to the door.
Good work, Roy. He ran his hand over his rain damp hair, then dried it on his thigh as he followed her down the hall to the kitchen.
The house was one of those raised bungalow floor plans that had been all the rage about forty years ago, with two bedrooms and the rest of the living space upstairs and a full basement that savvy owners, over the years, had turned into rental suites.
She dug a resealable bag from a drawer and opened the freezer side of the refrigerator, filling the bag with ice. As she wrapped the bag in a tea towel, she prompted him with a look to answer her question.
“Dad was leaving some paperwork with Grady.” He pushed his fists into his pants pockets, feeling overdressed, which was strange for him. Power suits were always a comfortable uniform for him. But there were so many shadows of suspicion in the one eye Paige showed him, as she covered her cheek and leaned on the counter to face him, he felt at a disadvantage.
A very unusual sensation for him.
“This is his third heart attack,” he pressed on. “Each time the factory gets by without him while he recovers, so... Dad’s thinking it’s time to—”
“Force him into retirement. So you can take over at the factory. I wondered why you were here.”
“Why can I never visit my parents without everyone thinking I want to take over Roy Furnishings?” He covered his annoyance at that recurring accusation with a smile of patient boredom. “No. I have my own company, including a contract that starts Monday in Texas. Consulting,” he added when she quizzed him with a lift of her shaped brow. “Operations management. I help businesses in trouble turn themselves around.”
He was surprised she didn’t know that.
“So your father wants to run the factory by himself? Alone?”
“He did it before Grady bought in. He can do it again.” Will, Sterling assured himself. He was here to make sure of it.
Paige’s mouth pursed in thought. “Your father always regretted letting Dad buy in, didn’t he?”
He’d loathed it, loathed her father, but Sterling doubted saying so would encourage her to sell. He spun it. “Grady is a helluva salesman. Dad gives him credit for that, but Dad realized as time went on that he likes autonomy. It would mean a lot to him to own it outright again.”
She nodded, mouth still pouted like she was waiting for a kiss, but her gaze was stuck in the middle distance. She was only half here, which annoyed him. He wanted her full attention.
Really wanted it.
Focus. Shit. She was married. And he had an axe to grind with her. He gave his head a shake.
“Listen. I came home to see you, to make sure what happened between us won’t affect Dad’s buyout of Grady’s share.”
“Really?” She lowered the ice pack.
He shrugged. “It’s time to forgive and forget, don’t you think?”
Her surprise became something softer. An optimistic wonder that was so damned pretty it made his animosity slippery and hard to hold onto. It put him in danger of Doing It Again. Letting her get to him.
“You came all this way, after all this time, to apologize?”
He hesitated. “I, uh, think we should let bygones be bygones, yeah.”
Her brows came together, and her eyes narrowed. “Are you apologizing or not?”
He was willing to do almost anything to facilitate that buy-back, but.... He opened his palms, laughed a bit. “Come on, Paige. I was the one who was beaten and banished. But, hey, no hard feelings.”
“Oh, my God. You came here to forgive me, didn’t you?” She choked out a noise and pushed the ice pack back against her face. “You’re something else.”
He opened his suit coat, growing hot. Prickly. The old reel of frustration and anger and contempt played through him. That weird, stunned shock that not only didn’t she like him, she had actually gone out of her way to hurt him. Everyone loved him. He hadn’t done anything to deserve being set up, but she and her brother had taken pains to sick Grady on him and it still infuriated him.
He held onto his temper and firm, calm tone as he said, “Whatever problem you had with me fifteen years ago, I wanted to make sure we got past it, so it wouldn’t affect Dad now.”
“Oh, please. I got past it,” she said, moving into the dining area to push in a chair. “I got past being broke after you labeled me a slut and made it impossible for me to get a job in this town. I got past years of people talking behind their hands every time I came back here. I’m even prepared to get past you coming into this house with me today, no doubt stirring up all of that stupid talk again with every neighbor peeking past her curtain. It’s people like your father, making remarks in the frigging hospital, where everyone can hear it, who aren’t getting over things. If you think one of us is going to cause a problem in the buy-back, I suggest you start with him. In fact, you should go do that now.”
He didn’t move, only watched her through the space over the counter that separated the kitchen from the dining room as she hustled around stacking bills into a pile.
“So you’re not going to try to stop your father from selling his shares back to my Dad?”
She sent another baleful look at him from her one eye. “I’m not going to let Dad sign anything while he’s in the hospital stoned on morphine. You wouldn’t either. But I don’t hold grudges.”
“You just said you blame me for the talk about you, but I had nothing to do with it,” he pointed out.
“You told your mother I had sex with you! And that you weren’t my first!” Her tone rang with, What the fuck?
“That’s not what I said.” He held up his hand, feeling a pinch of guilt over the way his mother had interpreted his ‘I didn’t get her virginity’ remark: that he’d completed the act, but there’d been no virginity to be had. “And people were talking already, Paige. You started that yourself.”
“No. That’s not fair.” She held up a finger, stern and strong and with an anger that was deep enough and genuine enough to earn his full attention. “I was a kid, being teased by my brother and his friend about still being a virgin. They turned it into me wanting to lose my cherry to you and you’re the one who made it real by showing up and making me think you liked me.” She pushed the ice pack back onto her face and turned her head to hide her expression behind it.
He had liked her, in the way that was ninety-percent youthful lust. But he’d barely spoken to her before that evening.
“I guess putting it out all over town is what everyone expects from a Fogarty, though. So that made it okay to call me a whore?”
“Paige.” She was exaggerating.
“Men offered me money. Men. A forty-year-old stranger propositioned me in the grocery story. Do you have any idea how scary that is when you’re seventeen? So, yeah, thanks for coming all this way to forgive me for that. You’re a helluva guy, Sterling.”
She flipped him her middle finger then went the long way around the partition and came back into the kitchen, opening the freezer again to pull out a loaf of bread.
He drilled holes in her back, trying to ignore the unease crowding out his righteous anger.
“Maybe I should thank you,” she said, turning with a magnanimous smile that went flat very quickly. “Since Dad finally took out a loan and sent me to Seattle, once he heard I was the town bike.”
He winced. “You didn’t act like a virgin,” he reminded in a mutter and watched her eyes bug out.
“I kissed you back so I deserved to be treated like a paid sex provider? Called out as a slut and turned down for honest work?”
No, he begrudgingly acknowledged, squirming at the picture she was painting, but she had kissed him back. She’d seemed damned willing to have sex with him in his car in her father’s driveway.
He could still recall the way his heart had pounded like a pile-driver from the moment her brother had said, ‘She wants you to be the one.’ He’d been planning to just ask her on a date. Somehow a few laughing, excited comments had turned into a kiss and that had turned into so much trembling heat pressed against him, he’d nearly lost his mind.
Did she have any idea how much of a betrayal it had been when the yank on his collar had come, as Grady had dragged him from the car and wailed on him? She had set him up for that insanity. Had to have.
“You and your brother wanted to take me down a peg. That’s why you set up your Dad to find us like that.”
“I didn’t know Dad was here!” She made a contemptuous noise then needed two tries to put the bread in the toaster. “Lyle brought his car home from work to fix it and I thought Dad was at the bar or something.”
Her hand was shaking, making him realize that for all her bravado, she was deeply rattled. Which shook him, making him feel even more of a bully when he was the injured party.
“I didn’t even know you were coming over,” she reminded. “How could I have arranged for Dad to show up right then?”
Sterling didn’t know, and he didn’t want to believe her. If she was telling the truth, it meant he’d been wrong. Worse than wrong.
…made me think you liked me.
If she hadn’t been setting him up, she might have been genuinely carried away that night. Didn’t that blow a man’s mind? If their necking had been purely natural reaction, they’d been positively volatile.
His heart took a few staggered, clunking steps as he absorbed that.
All this time, he had been telling himself she had felt nothing for him, but what if she’d been attracted in the same hormonal way? He’d not only rejected her, refusing to return her call, he’d been downright cruel, not caring about her shredded reputation. He’d been so busy wallowing in resentment that it had taken years for him to notice that the debacle had brought about the best thing that ever happened to him: Harvard and a life beyond Liebe Falls, Washington.
While the seventeen-year-old virgin had been fielding offers for horizontal work.
He pinched the bridge of his nose.
Judging by the filthy looks she was sending him, yeah, really.
How long had it taken Grady to figure out what was going on and put a stop to it? At least six months, because Paige had still been here when Sterling had come home for Christmas. She’d been hollow-cheeked and defensive looking when they’d pretended not to see each other in the grocery store. She’d been buying no-name spaghetti while he’d been picking up cranberry sauce and a pecan pie for his mother.
She pulled a tub of margarine from the fridge, dropped it and swore.
Fortunately, the lid stayed on. He bent and handed it to her. “Are you okay?” he asked, realizing how pale she was.
“No. I get clumsy when my blood sugar is low. I was going to eat at this café on the way to Seattle, but—” She sighed and turned to set the margarine on the counter, then took out a plate and a butter knife.
He took in her bowed shoulders. Her delicate build. He wanted to brace her, set soothing hands on her shoulders.
“Are you diabetic? Christ, you’re not pregnant, are you?” He was not a bully. Didn’t mistreat women. Ever.
“No,” she said, mouth curling disdainfully. “Just a stress case who drinks too much coffee and forgets to eat. And my reluctance to get pregnant is the reason my divorce was finalized last Monday. It’s been quite a week. You. This delightful conversation? It is such sweet icing on top of everything else, I can barely stand it.” Bitter loathing coated her voice.
“Are you serious?” She was divorced? That news cold-cocked him so thoroughly, his mind blanked for a full three heartbeats.
“About what? That talking to you is icing? No, that’s sarcasm.” Her knife scraped over the toast as she buttered, then she pushed a corner into her mouth and bit, slapped the cold pack onto her face again and turned to regard him, the light in her eye defiant, but sad at the same time.
“I hadn’t heard about your divorce,” he said, really, really thrown. Divorced.
Available, a sick voice whispered deep in his brain.
Fuck, what was it about her?
“Don’t beat yourself up.” She brushed crumbs from her lips. “You’ve only been in town an hour. You haven’t caught up to your mother yet. Be sure to tell her about this little ménage a trois when you do.” She jerked her head toward the bedroom where Rosie slept.
Sterling hung his hands on his hips, tipping his head back to send a humorless laugh at the stained ceiling. So bitter. Freshly divorced, too. Did any woman hate men more?
“Dad’s never getting that company back, is he?”
“I don’t know, Sterling,” she said tiredly. “I agree. My dad should retire, but...”
She only bit into her toast and hitched her elbow at the other slice, offering it to him.
He was hungry enough to want it, but shook his head, something else occurring to him. Did her divorce mean she was moving back here?
“Are you thinking about exercising the option clause?”
“To take over from him? God, no. I don’t want to be here today. Why would I move back here for good?”
“I hear that,” he muttered, rubbing the back of his neck, “But?” he prompted.
“Dad and I have talked before about his retiring early and it always looks like it will cause more problems than it will solve. For instance, if he leaves Roy’s, does Lyle get to keep his job?” She looked him right in the eye, like she was demanding an answer she already knew.
Sterling kept his teeth firmly clenched against saying, Not if I have anything to do with it.
Paige’s pained smile told him she knew what he was refusing to say aloud.
“If Lyle doesn’t have a job, his support payments to Brit dry up. Dad cashing out means he could pay off some of his own debts, but then what? He needs something to live on. So, honestly? My reasons for encouraging him to sell or not to sell will have nothing to do with you. That’s what you want to hear, isn’t it?”
“No, I want to hear that you’ll sell.”
She smiled without teeth. “And you always get what you want, don’t you? I’ve always envied that.”
~ * ~
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