Copyright © 2013 by Erin McCarthy
“I double-dog dare you.”
Shawn Hamby stared at Eve Monroe-Ford and remembered exactly why they had gotten in so much trouble together back in the day as the only two girls on the tween racing circuit. Eve had grown up with brothers and was a master at taunting manipulation. Shawn had grown up with an indifferent sibling and was eager for camaraderie, with an inability to keep a straight face. The combination had resulted in broken bones and many a grounding from their honked-off parents.
“I’m not falling for that,” Shawn told her now with a laugh. “I’m not going to talk to a random guy in a fetish club because you dared me to.” She wasn’t twelve anymore, and she didn’t need to prove anything to anyone.
Which didn’t explain why she was here in the first place.
Damn. Maybe she hadn’t changed all that much.
“Oh, come on,” Charity McLain said, lifting her cocktail to her mouth as she leaned against the bar. “We’re here because of you, so you might as well have the full experience.”
They were here because of her, in a roundabout sort of way, and as Shawn looked around at the dimly lit club, she fought the urge to giggle, which was her usual reaction to situations that made her uncomfortable. How a book club meeting had resulted in her and three friends being at a place called The Wet Spot—and no, they weren’t talking about spilled beverages—she couldn’t imagine.
“All I said was that people don’t really do what the chick in that book was doing. I didn’t say let’s go to a fetish club and see if it’s true or not.” It had just been a little hard for Shawn to believe that their fiction selection for the month had any basis in reality whatsoever, regardless of how enjoyable a read it had been. Average suburban women didn’t just up and go to a sex club after years of lame sex and let a total stranger blindfold them. She was sure of it. Not in Charlotte, North Carolina. Not in a day and age when true-crime shows about serial killers and date rape drugs were on TV every day, all day.
Not only did it seem dangerous but it also seemed kind of silly. She wasn’t so sure what would be hot about having a man boss her around. Hell, she had that every day at the track, and it just frustrated her. There was nothing sexy about it in the least. Not to her anyway. Hence, the curiosity.
Harley, Charity’s twin, tucked her blond hair behind her ear, glancing around nervously. “Let’s just leave then.”
“No!” Charity rebuked her. “Shawn needs to admit that this is real, that people go to clubs like this.”
“I admit it,” Shawn said easily. She wasn’t exactly sure what people were doing here, or what drew them to the club, whether it was curiosity like the four of them, or a genuine interest in BDSM or other fetishes, but she’d seen enough.
There were only so many adult men and women being pulled on dog leashes she could look at before she lost it and started laughing. It wasn’t like she found other people’s choices amusing. It was that it just looked . . . fake. Like a movie being filmed. Like a giant skit being played out for her benefit. None of it seemed real, from the girl on the red velvet sofa allowing two different men to swat at her backside with a paddle to the extremely thin man who was shirtless and wearing nipple clamps, SLAVE tattooed across his chest, a lollipop in his mouth.
“This isn’t really what I pictured,” Eve said, scrutinizing the room. “I guess I thought it was going to be more tawdry. Nobody is having sex or anything.”
“Do you want to see people having sex?” Shawn asked, because she didn’t. She didn’t even really get the appeal of mirrors in a bedroom. Sex was not a spectator sport. Not that she remembered what sex was like, given how long it had been since she’d had it. Eve, on the other hand, was married to a sexy jackman, so she had no business being curious in Shawn’s opinion.
“No, I do not. I don’t even want to be here. My husband’s going to start to think our book club is a front for checking off items on my Bad Girl Bucket List. Last month we got drunk on margaritas and took a pole-dancing class, which was a huge leap from reading Margaret Thatcher’s biography. The month before, you goaded me into waxing my cooter, though Nolan wanted to write you a thank-you note for that one.”
Eve had a point. Shawn wasn’t sure how this kept happening. She thought it had something to do with the prevalence of wine at their book club gatherings and the fact that she and Eve felt every one of the five years they had on the twins. Or maybe they were just repeating their childhood of stumbling into Bad Ideas together, though she had to primarily blame Charity for this particular outing. She was the one who had asked Siri on her iPhone where to find a fetish club in Charlotte, and suddenly here they were.
“We can go at any time,” Shawn said. “And I get to pick next month’s book selection. Plus it’s my birthday month, so you’d better have cake for me.” She was turning thirty-three, which, while not noteworthy, was fairly appalling. “Red velvet.”
“Fine. I’m going to the restroom first,” Eve said, setting down her beer and heading off.
Shawn wasn’t sure going alone was totally wise, but Eve could take care of herself. She was known around stock car racing as having a razor-sharp tongue and no hesitation whatsoever in using it to slice offenders to ribbons. It was a talent Shawn did not possess. She was the goofy girl, the one who cracked a joke at the wrong time, the one who nobody took seriously.
“I’m kind of disappointed,” Charity admitted. She and Harley were identical twins, but only in appearance. While Charity was outspoken and wore significant makeup and teased and highlighted her hair, Harley was quiet and completely natural-looking. When they stood next to each other, it was like seeing a before-and-after pageant shot of the little girls on Toddlers and Tiaras. “I was hoping for something more glamorous.”
“I think if you join one of those members-only clubs, you get glam. Otherwise you just get skimmers,” Harley said. “People dabbling in the scene. Not that I know anything about it, really. I’m just speculating.”
“None of these guys are even cute,” Charity complained.
Shawn would have to agree, except right at that moment, a guy came around the corner from the other room, and he wasn’t just cute. He was beyond cute. He was smoking hot. He was wet-panty-producing sexy.
“Hubba hubba,” she said, before she could stop herself. “Now there’s a fine male specimen.”
He was ripped, but not bulky, filling his button-up shirt and jeans to perfection. Just a perfectly hard, muscular lean man with a confident step and an intense stare that swept the room and landed on her.
“Oh, damn, he is hot,” Charity said.
“And he’s looking at us,” Harley breathed, sounding panicked.
And then he strode right over to them, his eyes locked on Shawn. On her. Yikes. She swallowed and tried not to fidget. She didn’t really want to do this. She wasn’t prepared to talk to a guy here. It was all just a dumb idea to even set foot in this place, and she certainly didn’t want to encourage any attention from a guy who would clearly be interested in areas outside her expertise and comfort level.
She would have to politely dissuade him.
Before he even spoke, his hand slid out and took hers, his thumb stroking across her palm, causing a shiver of arousal to take her totally by surprise.
“You should dance with me,” he said, already pulling her toward him.
So much for turning him down flat. Why the hell had she just agreed to dance? Because he was hot. And there was something commanding about him that appealed to her. Which was annoying.
“I’m Rhett,” he told her.
Of course he was. Shawn squeezed her mouth shut so he wouldn’t see her desperately trying not to laugh. She imagined using a fake name was what you did in a place like this, but seriously? Rhett?
“Well, then I guess that makes me Scarlett,” she told him.
RHETT Ford saw the dark blonde the minute he came around the corner. She was smiling at her friends, and she looked relaxed, casual, dressed simply in jeans and a purple sweater that had fallen off one shoulder. Her friends were dressed similarly, and given that he’d never seen her at The Wet Spot before, he suspected she was someone just like him—curious and turned on by kink, but not sure where to start.
Aside from the fact that he was immediately attracted to her, she also didn’t appear to be the type that he’d always gone for, and which had always resulted in total disaster. He had a firm habit of choosing the shy, unassuming girls, like the blond twin currently standing next to the woman who had caught his eye, and invariably he scared the shit out of every single one of them. They all ran, terrified. Like his latest mess of a relationship with Lexi.
So this was a conscious choice, to be approaching a woman who looked confident and amused by her surroundings. He didn’t even mind that she thought he was giving her a fake name. Though God knew, if he had a choice of names, he never would have picked Rhett. It had been the bane of his existence almost since birth. If he went for an assumed identity, he probably would pick Bill or Dave. No one could poke fun at a Dave.
Leading the woman by the hand to the back bar where there was a dance floor, Rhett glanced back at her. She was checking out his ass. Now that was promising. He had never actually hooked up with anyone he had met here, since for the most part, he had just been observing and working out his own personal sexual interests, but he was definitely intrigued by this so-called Scarlett. When they got to the small dark room, where only half a dozen people were moving to the baby-making music, he pulled her into his arms and studied her face.
She met his gaze steadily, her hands snaking up to wrap around his neck. He was tall, but so was she, and while he had to bend down to make eye contact, it wasn’t significant. Her eyes were an amber color, and they were shining with amusement and, if he wasn’t mistaken, attraction. As they swayed, his hands lightly on her trim waist, he gave her a slow smile.
“So what brings you here?” he asked her.
Her response wasn’t flirtatious, nor was it cryptic. It was just matter-of-fact. “Information.”
“Are you a reporter? A blogger?”
“No. We’re four women who like to be right. This is my friends’ attempt to prove me wrong.”
Interesting. Bored housewives? He couldn’t check her ring finger to see if she was married, but then again, if she was looking for a good time, she would take her ring off anyway. If she was, he would be disappointed. Married women weren’t his thing. He was loyal and committed to a single woman at a time, and he had no desire to serve as an itch scratcher for a restless spouse.
“I didn’t think people came to places like this. Apparently they do.” She gave him a wry smile. “So why are you here?”
He had no problem being honest. Another lesson hard learned. He needed to be up-front about his desires. “I’m looking for the right woman for me. One who likes to be led in bed.”
She gave a little laugh. “Oh, really?”
Rhett wasn’t sure if he should be offended or not. He did know he was turned on. There was something very compelling about the way she never broke eye contact. What could be hotter than a woman submitting to his desires but doing so out of titillation, boldly? Nothing, as far as he was concerned. But he was getting ahead of himself. Which was evidenced by her dropping her arms to halt his creeping progress lower and lower on her back. He was at the curve of her ass when she reprimanded him, gripping his hand to stop it.
“Hey now, sport, watch the sticky fingers.”
Rhett grinned. “Don’t you mean wandering hands? I’m not trying to steal your wallet.”
“Whatever,” she said dismissively. “You know what I mean.”
“I do.” He kept his hands far above the erogenous zone, wanting to respect her limits. “So give me your number.” The song was almost over, and who knew what would be played next. She might use a booty-grinding song as an opportunity to leave the floor and return to her girlfriends. He didn’t want to waste time.
Her eyebrows shot up. “That’s a little presumptuous, don’t you think?”
“You never get what you want if you don’t ask.”
“How old are you?” she asked suddenly, putting more space between them as they swayed to the bass pumping R&B.
So that was it. She was older than him. “Old enough to know what I want.”
“You’re younger than me.” It wasn’t a question. She seemed certain of it.
“Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.” Might as well make his stupid name work for him.
She gave a short laugh, smiling at him. “Nice. Corny, but effective. What’s your real name, by the way? I only give my number to Clark Kent, not Superman.”
He liked the sound of that. She was going to cough up her phone number, and he was suddenly glad she’d shifted away slightly because he was getting hard. There was something about her that he found seriously arousing, and she didn’t seem intimidated by what he’d told her, which further turned him on. “It really is Rhett.”
A flicker of annoyance crossed her face.
But before he could pull out his driver’s license and prove it, her friend approached them. “Shawn!” she said, urgently.
So her name was Shawn. It suited her. Unusual, unique. The tomboy who grew up to be a sexy woman. Or so he would guess, given the muscle tone of her waist and arms, and the perky lift of her backside. This girl liked sports, or at least the gym.
“Sorry to interrupt, but we need to leave. Emergency. Let’s go, now.”
Shawn stopped moving to the music entirely and dropped her hands to her sides. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. We just have to go. Come on.” The blonde wouldn’t look at him at all, and when there was a hesitation on Shawn’s part, she actually took her friend’s hand and
pulled her away.
“Wait,” Rhett said. “I still want your number.”
But to his disappointment, Shawn just gave him an apologetic smile and a wave. “Nice to meet you,” she said, as she was dragged away.
Rhett was left standing on the dance floor having a whole hell of a lot of sympathy for Prince Charming when he’d been ditched. But unlike Cinderella, Shawn didn’t leave any clues behind.
“WHAT is going on?” Shawn asked Charity, fighting the urge to glance back at the hot hunk of man flesh she’d left on the dance floor. Despite ticking her off a little with his refusal to give a real name, she had to admit, her interest was peaked. Along with her nipples.
“We have to go because of that guy you were talking to.”
“What? Why? And where are Eve and Harley? And stop yanking on me. You’re going to pull my arm out of the socket.” Shawn followed Charity out the front door, the cold February air hitting her with a smack as she pulled on her coat that Charity shoved at her.
Eve was pacing to the left of the door, looking anxious. She darted her eyes behind Shawn. “He didn’t follow you, did he?”
“No. Why would he follow me? And what is the big deal about that guy?” Had Eve seen him on America’s Most Wanted? Was he a Gone with the Wind–inspired serial killer? First he dressed you in drapes, then he threw you down the stairs?
As they started walking toward the car, Eve said, “That was my brother-in-law. When I came back from the rest-room, I saw you with him. There was no way I could let him see me there. And there was no way I wanted him to know I saw him there.”
“Your brother-in-law? You mean, like, Nolan’s brother?” She could see how that would be more than a little awkward for Eve. It wasn’t just the corner pub they’d been in.
“Yes.” Eve beeped open her SUV and they all climbed in. She turned toward Shawn in the backseat and gave a snort of laughter. “Nolan’s little brother, Rhett.”
“That guy’s name is really Rhett?” she asked in amazement. Now she felt like a jerk for doubting it. “I thought he was making that up!”
“No, it’s really his name. He’s twenty-five years old and he’s in a sex club. Oh, my God, how am I going to look him in the face?”
“Twenty-five?” Shawn squawked, horrified. “Good Lord, he’s a fetus!” Who she had been contemplating pursuing so she could get a serious look at him naked. Her cheeks burned. “He looked older than twenty-five. He looked too hot to be that young. And I thought Nolan’s little brother was well, little. It never, ever occurred to me that the fake Rhett could be the real Rhett. You always talk about him like he’s seventeen.”
“To me, he might as well be. He’s Nolan’s little brother! What the hell was he doing there?” Eve asked, pulling out of the parking lot.
Oh, Shawn had a funny feeling she knew exactly what he was looking for. She might not be particularly knowledgeable about the lifestyle, but she could pick up on a clue or two. “I think he was a Dom looking for a submissive,” she said, not at all sure how she felt about any of this.
“What?” Eve said, moaning. “Oh, shit, I’m going to die. I do not want to picture that. God!”
“I should have let you give him your number,” Charity said ruefully from the front passenger seat. “But I panicked.”
Still stunned, Shawn murmured, “I told him my name was Scarlett. I thought he was giving me a code name.”
As Eve cruised to a stop at a red light, they all looked at one another and burst out laughing.
“So what are we reading next month?” Harley asked.
Shawn figured it could only be a letdown after this selection. She settled back into her seat, shivering, and tried not to think about a certain guy who was too young for her, with the most intense green eyes she’d ever seen in her life.
It worked for about three whole seconds.
RHETT swiped a handful of nuts from the crystal bowl on the coffee table as he stepped over three of his nieces coloring on the floor, the smell of his mother’s enormous Sunday dinner cooking in her kitchen. Frowning, he searched the crowded room for his sister-in-law, Eve, wanting to discuss the plans they had going for the upcoming racing season.
But he had the distinct feeling that she was avoiding him today for some reason. Every time he got close to her, she disappeared, and other than a quick wave and a half smile, she hadn’t made eye contact with him once. It was weird.
A wail sounded from the carpet, and he realized that he had stepped on Georgia’s yellow crayon and snapped it in two. His niece was only three, and frequently at the mercy of her older siblings. Being the youngest of nine kids himself, Rhett sympathized with her.
Immediately, her older sister Jessa started mocking her. “Stop being a baby. Baby, baby, cry baby.”
“I’m not a baby!” Georgia’s face was red, her eyes and nose leaking fluid. Rhett bent down and scooped her up under his arm, slinging her back and forth.
“Sorry, G. My fault. I’m sure there is another Macaroni and Cheese crayon in this house somewhere.”
Tears trickled off into giggles.
He gave Jessa a look of reprimand. “Be nice. You don’t like your stuff getting broken either.”
Hearing his niece’s laughter usually made him smile, but he felt off today. Having a hell of a time falling asleep last night after going to The Wet Spot, he had woken up with a start and a giant boner that morning. He had dreamed of the woman from the club, Scarlett, aka Shawn. It was likely she’d never show up there again, and while her first name was unusual, without a last name or any information about her at all, he had no way to locate her. It was a huge downer because there was something about her that had gotten under his skin. Or at the very least, in his pants. He wanted her, and knowing he would never get her made him grumpy.
His brother had already picked up on it. “So what’s your problem today?” Nolan asked him as he let another niece, Asher, climb on his back.
“Your face,” he told him lightly, because that’s what you said to your brother. “Where the hell is Eve, by the way? I wanted to ask her if she’s talked to Evan about when we’re getting the car.”
“She’s around here somewhere. Probably in the kitchen. She loves Mom’s cheese balls.”
“I think she’s avoiding me,” Rhett said as he pulled Georgia up to rest on his hip. It made him concerned there was a problem with their plan. Last fall, Eve had quit her job as a PR rep for her brothers, both highly successful stock car drivers, Elec and Evan Monroe, to pursue her own career as a driver. She had chosen to try to tackle the truck series and was already a few weeks into her inaugural season. Rhett had left Evan’s pit crew to join Eve’s, knowing it would afford him more free time to pursue his own passion—dirt track racing.
If all this went south, he was going to be less than thrilled. Not to mention out of a job.
He didn’t really know his new sister-in-law all that well, since they had only fleetingly crossed paths over the past couple of years. It was just since she’d married Nolan a few months earlier that he had started to spend more time with her, but they weren’t particularly close. Maybe he was reading her wrong.
“You sound like a middle school girl,” Nolan said. “No one is avoiding you.”
If he hadn’t been holding Georgia, he would have called his brother a dick, but he was, so he had to settle for punching Nolan on the arm.
“Dinner! Find a chair,” their mother called from the kitchen.
They were easily twenty for dinner that night, which was still only half the family, but in a small ranch house, it made for tight quarters. Rhett tried to maneuver himself near Eve, but she hightailed it to the very end of the long folding table, which came out on Sundays to accommodate their large numbers. With six kids and Nolan between them, there was no way Rhett was going to get a seat anywhere near her.
He was not imagining that her behavior was off.
It did not improve his mood.
Nor did his mother’s decision to ask him about his love life.
“So I was hoping we’d see Lexi here tonight,” his mother said to him across the table, ruining his appetite entirely.
“We broke up,” he reminded her. “It’s been six weeks, Mom. Let it go.”
To change the subject, he turned to his sister Danny. “Give me the mashed potatoes.”
His sister made a face at him, and he realized that sounded way ruder than he had intended.
“So bossy, for crying out loud,” his mother said. “I hope you weren’t bossy like that with Lexi.”
If only his mother knew just how bossy he had been. The thought amused him.
Down the table, Eve started choking on her wine.
His nephew Simon whomped her on the back.
“Good Lord, are you okay?” his father asked her.
“Fine, fine,” she said, holding her hand up.
But then she made eye contact with Rhett and started, glancing away quickly.
What the hell?
“I just think,” his mother said, circling right back around to his failed relationship, “that maybe you’re not nice enough to your girlfriends. Nolan was the opposite, always falling in love in a minute, showering the girls with gifts, but you don’t smile enough. It makes the girls feel so insecure.”
“So I should smile more and I’ll nab an unsuspecting female? Okay, thanks, Mom.” He wanted to roll his eyes, but there was really no point. She meant well.
“You showered the girls with gifts?” Eve asked Nolan, her eyebrows raised, the corner of her mouth turned up in a teasing smile. “I don’t seem to recall that happening with me.”
“Oh, I meant when he was young,” their mother hastened to amend. “You know, cheap things, like teddy bears and chocolates.”
“I bought you leopard-print underwear and that crap wasn’t cheap,” Nolan told Eve.
“Nolan!” That was their mother, horrified.
Rhett grinned. He did enjoy a good Sunday dinner.
“Why are you so eager to marry Rhett off anyway?” Nolan asked their mother. “With me, you were always telling me not to rush into anything.”
“Because you were always impulsive, and you wear your heart on your sleeve. Rhett doesn’t attach very easily. It worries me.”
“Rhett is in the room,” he said, annoyed all over again. It wasn’t that he didn’t attach easily, nor was he opposed to marriage. The truth was, he was often guarded with women because he did attach. He was intense. Once he was in, he was all in, and he’d yet to find a woman capable of handling that facet of his personality and needs. They all eventually became frightened by his passion.
He was starting to conclude that he was just a whole lot of too much for the average twenty-three-year-old woman.
“It’s just because you’re the last one,” his sister Jeannie said. “Nine kids and eight are married. Mom wants to close the folder on her parenting.”
Yet another one of the joys of being the youngest.
Though most of the time, he didn’t mind it. His childhood had been happy, and his sisters had all doted on him, carrying him way past the age when he needed to be carried, and slipping him treats. He’d been their mascot of sorts and had satisfied their desire to role-play as mommies. But there was no question his parents had been a bit worn out by the time he’d been coming up, and he had never quite gotten over his resentment about his name. It had given him countless bloody lips and bruised knuckles on the playground when he’d been forced to defend himself against bullying.
Maybe he could let the whole thing go if just once his mother admitted that perhaps it had been a poor choice, but she didn’t. She still thought his name was the shit.
“She can do that whether or not I’m married. I have my own apartment. I have a job. A social life. It’s all good.” He glanced at Eve again, but she was cramming a dinner roll in her mouth.
“Speaking of social lives, or lack thereof. Eve, do you still have your book club?” Danny asked. “Can I join it? I would love to do something like that and get out of the house a little.”
Nolan laughed. “Eve’s book club is a front for getting together with her friends and drinking wine. She had it last night and they wound up in a bar.”
“I’m in,” Danny stated emphatically. “I need one night to be an adult. Who else is in the group?”
“It’s not a front,” Eve protested. “We read all the books and we do discuss them. It’s just, why not discuss them with wine, right?”
Nolan scoffed. “That still doesn’t account for the bar. And don’t tell me that was Harley’s or Shawn’s idea, because I seriously doubt either one of them would suggest it.”
Shawn? Rhett set his fork down and looked down the table at his sister-in-law. How many women named Shawn could there be in this town? Who had been in a bar the night before? With female friends?
“Are you suggesting it was me?” Eve asked hotly. “Nolan Ford, you are going to pay for making me sound like an alcoholic in front of your mother. It was actually Charity’s idea, because Shawn said that a place like that doesn’t exist.”
Rhett went still. The Shawn in the club had said virtually the same thing.
“Bars don’t exist?” Jeannie asked.
Shawn. Four girlfriends. Skepticism about a fetish bar.
Holy shit, Eve had been in the club the night before with the woman he had danced with.
Eve suddenly seemed to realize what she had revealed. “Oh, sh–, I mean, shoot. I mean, like a specialty bar. Never mind.” When she glanced at him, her cheeks were burning red, confirming that Rhett was one-hundred-percent right.
Whattya know. Rhett grinned at Eve.
While his initial reaction was one of mortification that his sister-in-law had seen him out at a fetish club, it paled in comparison to the rush of excitement and satisfaction he felt knowing that he now had a way to find out who Shawn was and where he might be able to see her again.
Rhett took the platter of sliced pork tenderloin his brother-in-law passed him and served himself a hearty helping. His appetite had suddenly returned, full force.
EVE couldn’t look at Rhett without picturing him paddling a simpering female. It was pissing her off. She liked her brother-in-law, damn it. They worked together and were just starting to get to know each other. They were essentially starting a new business venture together, and she did not want to know about his sex life. It was like walking in on your parents having sex. Or seeing your husband’s father naked in the shower. She didn’t care what Rhett did in his private life, she just didn’t want images of it popping up in her head every time someone used the word “bossy.” Or “dominate.” Or “whip.”
There had to be some sort of mental trick she could use to disassociate Rhett from sex. Like every time she started to conjure up inappropriate imagery, she could think of dead rabbits or something. That might work.
As long as he never knew that she knew, they would be cool.
Speak of the devil, when she opened the door to the kitchen from the garage, having gone out there to snag a beer from the overflow fridge, he was standing there, smiling at her. He gestured for her to go back into the garage and then he pulled the door firmly shut behind him.
“So Eve, how did you like The Wet Spot?” he asked.
Crap on a cracker, how did he know? Never one to back down from what she’d done or a challenge, Eve just shrugged nonchalantly. “It was alright. A little under-whelming, to be honest. I take it you saw me there?”
“Nope. But I put two and two together, given that the woman I danced with was named Shawn, and she was with three friends out strictly to satisfy their curiosity, not pick anyone up.” He leaned against the door and crossed his arms over his chest. “But you saw me.”
“Yes, I did. And we don’t have to discuss it in any way. Ever.” It was cold in the garage, given that it was the beginning of February, so she gestured for him to move. “Now let me in the damn house, I’m freezing.”
“Who is your friend Shawn? That I danced with.”
Uh-oh. Eve recognized that look on Rhett’s face. She saw it on Nolan every night when he climbed into bed with her. Lust, plain and simple.
“I don’t think so,” she told Rhett. “You are not pumping me for information, because I have no idea if Shawn would be okay with that or not.” Though the truth of the matter was he was going to figure out who Shawn was soon enough, given that he was set to start racing at her track come spring.
Nonetheless, how and when Shawn wanted to encounter Rhett was up to her, not Eve. She would warn her, then Shawn could proceed however she chose.
“Oh, come on.” Rhett’s nostrils flared. “I could just go and ask Nolan, you know. He’d tell me before he’d even know why he should or shouldn’t.”
“That’s low, Rhett,” Eve told him with disapproval.
“I’m legitimately interested in her,” he said. “Please?”
Pleading sounded about as sincere on him as it did on her—which meant not at all. Eve snorted. “You met her for like sixty seconds.”
“So? How long were you dating Nolan before you married him?”
Ouch. The kid was good. She’d give him that. “Don’t be an asshole. Look, I’ll talk to Shawn and see if she’s interested in hearing from you, okay?”
His tense posture relaxed slightly. “That’s fair. Did she mention me at all?”
Eve grinned. Rhett had a crush. It was actually kind of adorable, except that the object of his alpha affection was one of her oldest friends. “Yes. Then she wrote your initials in a heart on her notebook.”
Nolan opened the garage door in time to hear this last annoyed remark from his brother. “Excuse me? Did you just tell my wife ‘fuck you’? I think you need to apologize or you’ll be eating my fist for dessert.”
Rhett was taller than Nolan, but her husband had bigger biceps. They glared at each other, chests puffed out. Good Lord. Eve rolled her eyes. Though she couldn’t really pull off the pious act since most of her childhood she and Evan had fought like a couple of rabid dogs. The fact that she was a female hadn’t factored in at all. There had been fists involved often, much to her mother’s dismay.
“It’s fi ne, babe. I deserved it. I was giving your brother a hard time. I know you find that difficult to believe, given how generally sweet and passive I am.”
Nolan raised his eyebrows and took a step back from his brother. “About what?”
“It turns out Rhett was in the same bar as us last night and he’s taken a shine to Shawn. He wanted to know how to contact her.”
“Really?” Nolan eyed his brother. “She’s too old for you.”
For some reason, that annoyed Eve. Shawn was actually a year younger than her. And while she one hundred percent agreed that she wouldn’t want to date a guy Rhett’s age if she wasn’t married, she didn’t want a man dismissing her or her friend as too old. It got her back up.
“That’s not the issue here,” she told her husband. “Men date younger women all the time, and no one says a damn word about it.”
“Sure they do,” Nolan protested. “Everyone says she’s a gold digger.”
“So they call younger women dating older men gold diggers and older women dating younger men cougars. Yet no one says anything about the men at all. That pisses me off.”
“I never called Shawn a cougar,” Nolan told her easily. “Frankly, my point was she’s too mature for Rhett. I don’t think he can keep up.”
“Hey.” Rhett frowned. “How exactly am I so immature? God, you and mom both. I have a job, an apartment.”
“That was my apartment,” Nolan pointed out. “I let you take over the lease when I got married and moved in with Eve. And I’m not saying you’re immature, just not as mature as a woman who runs a dirt track almost entirely on her own.”
Ah, shit. There was no way Rhett wasn’t going to be able to figure out who Shawn was now.
Eve gave her husband an annoyed look and pushed him into the house. “I’m freezing. Plus, I want pie for dessert.”
The garage door swung down slowly on automatic hinges and Rhett leaped inside before it shut. “Wait a minute,” he said, the wheels clearly turning. “That was Shawn Hamby, wasn’t it?”
Eve didn’t answer, and she put her hand on her husband’s mouth before he could further blow it. But it was too late.
Rhett broke into a grin. “It is. There can’t be two women you know named Shawn who run a dirt track. Damn. Who knew the owner of Hamby Speedway was so freaking hot?”
“She’s too old for you,” Nolan said again.
Eve didn’t say anything at all. She just pulled her phone out of her pocket. She needed to warn Shawn she was about to be stalked by a horny member of her pit crew.
“YOU cannot be serious,” Shawn said, staring at her grandfather’s lawyer, Clinton Oiler, across the desk of her office at the track. “There is no way that is even legal.”
“Oh, I can assure you it is. Your grandfather owned this track, and he had the right to do whatever he wanted with it.”
Shawn fell back against her chair, sending it rolling a foot to the left and colliding with a box of leftover programs from the previous season on the floor. Her office was a contender for putting her on an episode of Hoarders, but she wasn’t detail-oriented. She was a big picture person, and she loved this dirt track, had loved helping her grandfather run it until his death three months earlier.
Losing Pops had been rough for her. She had known it was coming. He’d battled cancer for two years before losing the fight, but he had always managed to seem like he would beat it. Until the very end, he had still been at work, and she had deluded herself into thinking he would never be gone. Then in the blink of an eye, he’d taken a turn for the worse and he was gone. But what had comforted her after he died was that she had been entrusted with his legacy, this track. It was her home, her heart, her passion.
But apparently her grandfather had thought her passion was slightly misguided.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a joke? Pops had a sense of humor.”
“No, it’s no joke. You don’t inherit the track unless you’re married. Plain and simple.”
Married. Good God. Her grandfather was blackmailing her into marriage. Unbelievable. Shawn stared at Clinton, suddenly speechless. This was the most insane thing she’d ever heard.
The lawyer pulled off his wire-frame glasses and rubbed the sagging skin under his eyes. He and her grandfather had been friends for sixty years, and he probably knew him better than anyone. “We had several conversations about it, Shawn, and I have to tell you that I told Jameson I didn’t approve of this, but he was adamant. He thought that you spent too much time at this place and that you needed more balance in your life. He wanted you to be settled and have a family, like your brother does.”
Shawn blinked. “So forcing me to marry some dude off the street is going to give me balance? That makes no sense whatsoever.”
“I imagine he had Sam in mind, not some stranger off the street.” Clinton steepled his fingers and pressed them to his lips. “Everyone always thought you and Sam would get hitched.”
“Well, we didn’t,” Shawn said, pointing out the obvious. “And there was a very good reason for that. Sam cheated on me. Three times. Now I may be the forgiving sort, but even I know that three times is not the charm when it comes to infidelity.” She realized her hand was shaking and she was starting to think she might get sick. She sat on her hand to stop its tremors and regain some control. “I would rather stab myself in the eyes than marry Sam.”
“Oh, dear,” Clinton said. “I don’t think Jameson knew about the cheating.”
“I never told anyone. It’s a bit personal.” And humiliating. And so two years ago. She was completely over it, and frankly, was completely happy on her own, aside from the lack of sex. Rhett Ford popped into her head and she resolutely shoved his image aside. That was the last thing she needed to think about right now.
She had been embarrassed to realize that she was pleased and more than a little turned on when Eve had texted her that Rhett was asking about her and wanted permission to contact her. Shawn had said she would think about it, but truth be told, she had wanted him to do it anyway. She didn’t want to be the one who called the shots, because agreeing to it made her responsible. But if he pursued her and she happened to flirt back, well, then it wasn’t her seeking out dating a twenty-five-year-old. It was accidental cougaring. In her mind, anyway.
But she hadn’t heard from him, so all the mental gymnastics had been for nothing.
“Your grandfather figured Sam would be the perfect partner to help you out with the running of this place,” Clinton told her.
Sam couldn’t manage having an affair in secret so he certainly couldn’t keep on top of running a business venture. “That’s misogynistic and insulting. Why is it that no one can accept that women can run a business just as effectively as a man? God, racing is something I love, yet how many female drivers and team owners are there? A handful. It’s incredible.” Shawn freed her hand and shoved her hair back off her forehead.
“No one is saying that. But even a small dirt track like this is a lot to handle, and while enthusiastic, you’re not the most organized woman on the planet.” Clinton looked around pointedly at the chaotic state of her office. “The season opens in two months, and if it isn’t successful financially, all of this will be a moot point anyway. Hamby Speedway will go bankrupt, and you’ll have to shut it down or sell.”
Shawn swallowed hard. She knew they weren’t rolling in profits. She had worried about it constantly for the last two seasons, and she was aware of every dime that went in and out the door at the track, but hearing it said out loud by Clinton forced her to admit the truth to herself, which was damn difficult. “I know it’s bad, Clinton, but I also know what I’m doing when it comes to this business, messy office or not.”
“The bottom line is the business is failing.”
Shawn winced. Hearing it put so boldly, all her fears, was hard to swallow. “So you’re telling me if I don’t get married, I’ll lose the track, and if I do get married, I could still lose the track?”
“Why aren’t you just a ray of sunshine today?” she said ruefully.
“Sorry, sweetie. But if you pull in some bigger names, you’ll do alright. You’ll make it through this year.”
“Only if I have a husband.” The thought made her more than uneasy. There was no man of her current acquaintance that she was willing to enter into a legitimate marriage with, and no man who would be insane enough to do it in a business-type arrangement. It wasn’t like she had much to offer financially, and she was not about to have sex with a man she wasn’t in an actual relationship with or was not attracted to. Besides, what man would agree to marriage just for some nookie? There were plenty of women giving the milk away for free because getting milked was a good time. So if a man was buying the cow it was because he really liked the cow, right? Not to increase his milk intake.
Great. She was thinking in farm metaphors. Which were just as sexist as what her grandfather was attempting to do to her.
Panicking again, she looked at Clinton. “I could just hire an actor, you know.” Not that she had that kind of money, but maybe struggling actors worked for cheap. Or she could pay him after she secured her inheritance.
“Why don’t I tell you the stipulations and requirements?” Clinton pulled out his electronic tablet and adjusted his glasses, amusing Shawn. The man was seventy, and he was using technology that made Shawn want to break out in hives. Tablets had everything organized and that scared her. She begrudgingly used spreadsheets, but most of her daily tasks where catalogued in her head, not anywhere else.
“Okay. Hit me. It can’t get any worse.” Basically, she was facing losing everything she loved unless she complied with her grandfather’s clearly nutty last wish. There had to be a loophole, a way around this whole mess. Because marriage wasn’t something you just jumped into.
At least she didn’t.
“You have to be married by the start of the season, April fifteenth.”
“That’s two months from now!”
“However, if you marry immediately, prior to February fifteenth, you will receive additional funds from the estate to hire a marketing director for the season.”
“That’s two weeks from now.” Shawn picked at the front of her sweater, suddenly uncomfortably hot. The idea of a marketing director was extremely appealing, she did have to say. But two weeks? It wasn’t possible. “By the way, why is this just coming to my attention now?”
“Your grandfather didn’t want to upset you in the immediate weeks after his passing.”
“How thoughtful,” she said weakly. It still didn’t change that she felt like she was eight years old again and was being punished for tormenting her little brother with wet willies.
“The marriage must be legal in the state of North Carolina, and it must last a minimum of one year. You must reside in the same house as your husband for at least the first six months.”
Gross. Even if she hired someone as her fake husband, she wasn’t sure she could deal with someone living in her space.
Feeling like her loopholes were rapidly disappearing, Shawn didn’t say anything. A sense of defeat settled over her. She was going to lose the track and then what?
This couldn’t be what her grandfather truly wanted for her. Unemployment and misery.
“Your husband must pass a criminal background check conducted by myself prior to the marriage, and he must be employed. He cannot be an actor or a stripper.”
That almost made her giggle. Almost. She really couldn’t picture her grandfather and Clinton discussing her blackmail marriage in such detail. The old buzzards were thorough, she’d give them that.
After that, she started to tune Clinton out as he passed a copy of the will across the desk to her, outlining the monies and insurance policies she would receive upon her marriage. She was numb. Stunned.
Even when the lawyer left with an apology and a look of concern, she just sat behind her desk, not sure what to do. What to think. Hell, there was really nothing she could do, was there?
There was no man she could or would marry.
A knock on her door had her jerking out of her stupor. “Yes?”
The door opened and a head popped in. Holy shit, it was Rhett Ford. Looking sexy as sin.
“Well, hey there, Scarlett.” He gave her a slow, naughty smile. “Do you have a minute?”
No, she really didn’t have a minute. Her whole life was basically crashing down around her, and she wanted to either scream or curl into a ball and cry. “Sure. Come on in.”
God, why did she do that with him? The last thing in the world she needed at the moment was to deal with a virtual infant hitting on her.
And yet, she’d invited him in, just like that.
He came in. Shutting the door firmly behind him.
Her heart started to pound unnaturally fast.
Lord, she was in trouble.