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Showing posts by: Kieran Kramer click to see Kieran Kramer's profile
Wed
Mar 5 2014 12:00pm
Excerpt

Sweet Talk Me: Exclusive Excerpt

HE’S SURE GOT A WAY WITH WORDS…

The last person True Maybank expected to run into while picking up her wedding gown was country music superstar Harrison Gamble. Years ago, when they were small-town teens in Biscuit Creek, South Carolina, they shared a forbidden night of passion. Now that she’s about to settle down, True’s love affair with the handsome crooner is a thing of the past. Or is it? From the moment he says hello, she has to fight swooning like an adoring fan.

CAN SHE RESIST HIS CHARMS?

Today he’s rich, famous, and on every woman’s hot list. But back in the day, Harrison wasn’t good enough for debutante True. Since then she’s had her fair share of marital prospects, including the perfect Southern gentleman she’s about to settle down with. Is Harrison the only one to realize the mistake True’s about to make? Can the society girl and the sexy singer make music together—this time around?

Get a sneak peek of Kieran Kramer's Sweet Talk Me (available March 25, 2014) with an exclusive excerpt of Chapters 1-3. Click here to enter for a chance to win a copy of your own!*

Chapter 1

When country music superstar Harrison Gamble appeared on the sun-dappled sidewalk outside the hotel on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, the crowd roared its approval—everyone, that is, except True Maybank. She’d as soon scream as chase a pig around a mud pen. Maybanks didn’t holler. They believed in decorum. Tradition. Using something until it wore out. Keeping up appearances even when the world had gone to hell in a handbasket.

“Well, I swanny,” she murmured, her entire body filling with a prickly sensation. She’d never thought she’d see him again.

Behind her late great-aunt Honey’s oversized Nina Ricci sunglasses, she watched Harrison take his fans’ hysteria in stride, as if it had nothing to do with him, his smokin’-hot body, that sparkling white smile, the bronzed skin, sexy stubble, and those sideburns, which were longer than they used to be—just long enough to qualify for serious bad-boy status.

Move on, girl! You got a wedding dress to get home!

She circled the heavily policed chaos, risking her life in the street for a few seconds, and quickly began walking again, uphill. With her mother’s newly repaired vintage gown in her arms, it was as if Mama were walking with her, Mama with all her high expectations and impeccable standards. And here True merely hoped that the double-whammy dreamboat behind her—the first guy she’d slept with and her only one-night stand—wouldn’t somehow recognize her.

At the corner, she couldn’t resist a glance over her shoulder back down at the scene at the hotel. What a collage that would make. The thought crept up, wily and insistent, and she fought to dismiss it. But it was too wild, too alive …

It kept coming, the image, blossoming in her mind and taking over her body, making her fingertips buzz with the need to arrange. She would collage this memory. She would. It would be her best work yet.

And no one would ever see it.

Harrison signed an autograph and with a quick kiss to the crowd got into the back of a black Humvee. Two Taylor Swift look-alikes scooted inside as well. The car’s dark-tinted windows slid up, its front tires angled toward the street, and True’s arm began to sweat under the plastic bag.

Change, light, change!

Seconds later the Humvee whooshed past her. Two more scary-looking black SUVs followed behind.

Huh.

She took a deep breath. There. It was over. Harrison was the Big Bad Wolf to millions of captivated Red Riding Hoods, and once upon a time True had been one of them.

Admit it. You nearly got sucked in again today.

No. She wouldn’t think of him anymore. It had been a crazy minute in an otherwise fairly sane week. All she had to do now was get to the parking garage, find her car, and drive the four hours back to Biscuit Creek. Back to Weezie, her sister. To Carmela, her best friend. And to Dubose, the man she was to marry.

Back to the life that was finally falling into place.

A block later, a sporty aqua-blue coupe with darkened windows slowed to a crawl next to her, and the passenger-side window lowered a crack. “Get in, Miss Junior League,” Harrison said, his voice ringing out loud and clear.

True’s heart clanged like a fire station alarm bell, and she stopped walking.

She was seriously nonplussed. In Biscuit Creek, they’d say she was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. But True favored words like nonplussed, probably because she was a big reader. She had a book stuffed up the right leg of her Spanx right now, a dog-eared Agatha Christie paperback that didn’t fit into her pocketbook. That minimalist creation—a Target find, a faux yellow leather tote—was actually overflowing with three lipsticks of varying coral shades, a two-inch Velcro hair roller, travel hair spray, a pack of Kleenex, Juicy Fruit gum, her cell phone, a round hairbrush, a black Sharpie, her keys (which weighed a ton), a banana, a tube of Advil, a spare pair of sunglasses, and her ancient Cinderella wallet from Disney World, which had a rubber band around it to keep the cards and money from falling out.

“Well?” Harrison revved the engine. “You gonna get in here and tell me what you been up to all these years or stand there stiff as a poker and pretend you can’t see me?”

True pivoted on a heel to face the car. “I see you, all right.”

Daddy always said if you couldn’t run with the big dogs, stay under the porch. True wasn’t an under-the-porch sort of gal.

*   *   *

Harrison hid his amusement behind a cool stare, the one he dragged out when the higher-ups interfered too much with his creative vision or a fan overstepped her bounds, which was basically getting naked without asking him first.

That wasn’t going to happen with True. She was a lady—at least on the surface. But those snapping blue eyes gave her away. Beneath that prissy exterior, a sexy damned hellion wanted out. He’d seen her. He wished he could forget her—he’d written songs trying to exorcise her from his brain—but sometimes he still dreamed her arms were wrapped around his neck and her sweet body was beneath his.

Now she leaned down to peer inside his passenger window, a bulky garment bag slung over her arm. She smelled good, like some kind of magical spring flower in a secret bower filled with singing chipmunks and tweety little bluebirds. “I can’t ride home with you, even if I wanted to.”

Implying that she didn’t. Typical of her. She’d always been too proud for her own good.

“But we can talk,” she added. “Lemme buy you a Coke.”

Which meant any drink. Everything was a Coke in the South, especially in Atlanta.

“Not thirsty,” Harrison said back. “Gimme your keys. I’ll get my manager to drive your car all the way home.” Harrison had always wanted to show Dan around his old stomping grounds anyway.

True shook her head. “The last thing I expect you to do is come back to Biscuit Creek.”

No one expected him back. Ever. Which had always been fine with him. He went to LA. Aspen. Tropical islands.

“I don’t have all day to argue,” he said. “The paparazzi are hot on my trail. I gotta keep moving. So let’s drop the polite chitchat and get down to business. Knowing you, you can’t dillydally, either.”

True never sat still.

“I might as well stop by and say hello to Gage,” he added. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen him.” But he’d make the visit to his brother short. Harrison was due in the Hamptons at the beachfront home of an equally famous singer, a sexy, single woman who wasn’t looking for a serious relationship but wouldn’t mind the occasional fling and the publicity that went with it.

True hesitated. “There’s a lady about to cross the street, and she has a tattoo of you with a guitar in your hand walking down her belly into her pants.”

“My first album cover. People do all kinds of things with it.”

True carefully laid her garment bag on his car roof, then dug through an enormous purse and managed to pull out a huge set of keys tethered to a pink rubber ball with pink rubber spikes all over it. “All right,” she said. “I’ll ride with you.”

Score.

“That’s the ugliest key chain I’ve ever seen,” Harrison said to cover up how awesome he felt about her actually getting in his car.

“But I can see it, and feel it. It’s gushy.”

Gushy?” Such a True word. He lowered the window farther.

She dropped the keys in his palm, but even so the tips of her fingers brushed his, and he had an instant memory of those fingers trailing over his naked back, curling into his hair. “Only you would want a gushy key chain.”

She arched one eyebrow. “Lots of people like them.”

“Is that so? How would you know?” Teasing her had always been his go-to diversion when wild sex fantasies intruded. Of course, now she had a big rock on her finger. A really big one.

“They have a huge barrel of them at Walmart.”

Always the authority on things. She hadn’t changed one bit. But when had she started shopping at Walmart? And who’d given her that ring?

“Was the barrel empty or full?” he asked her.

“Full. There were hundreds. Different colors, too.”

“It would have been nearly empty if everyone liked ’em, though, right?”

“Maybe they just restocked.” She sighed. “Look, Harrison, could you let me in? Preferably before the rest of the world figures out you’ve escaped your guards.”

He unlocked the car door. “Like King Kong?”

“Something like that.” She yanked the door open, grabbed her garment bag, and slid inside.

“Let me.” He took the bag off her lap and laid it behind them. It was heavy and said CARR’S BRIDAL across the front.

Damn. She was getting married soon, from all appearances. Not that he’d ask.

“Thanks.” She had two little spots of pink on her cheeks when she pulled her door shut.

The window on her side hummed upward and shut—his doing. “I’ll drop the keys off with my team, and you and I will be on our way.” He caught a glimpse of her tanned calves and tapered ankles. Bad idea. Heat flooded his belly. “What’re you driving these days?”

“An Acura.”

“Really? You’re a loyal customer. Did you get a convertible this time?”

She gave him a sideways glance. “It’s the same car I drove in high school.”

Whoa. That surprised him. “Good for you, keeping it up so long. How many miles you got on it?”

She shrugged. “A hundred eighty thousand.”

“Still got some juice, then.” When his truck finally bit the dust, it had 245,000. “Nothing better than a reliable car.”

“Honey taught me how to look after things.”

He noticed that her hair was flipped out on the ends, the same way it used to be. “She still alive?”

True shook her head. “She passed on six years ago. Mama thought she was a liability, but that woman had game.” She sang the song “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” quietly in a husky-sweet voice:

Harrison could listen all day long.

“It was her favorite,” True said. “That and ‘S Wonderful.’”

“I’m really sorry.” He was tempted to put a hand on hers, but he didn’t, just in case she got all jumpy about it. “She was the coolest person in Biscuit Creek. She could work out a ukulele something fierce.”

True chuckled. “Yes, she could.” She looked down at her lap a moment, then back up. “You know how to get to I-40 from here?”

“I think I know my way around this part of the world.” He grinned at her, and for a minute he was eighteen again. “Damn, True.” He soaked her up, all that creamy skin, platinum-blond hair, wide blue eyes, and that pale mole near her mouth. “You’re still gorgeous.”

She fiddled with her sun visor. “You’re not so bad yourself, as you well know. Although I’m not crazy about the hair gel.”

He laughed and pulled out onto the street. “Me, either.” He made a right turn and waited for the bodyguard to catch up with him so he could hand him True’s keys. A few instructions later, and they were on their way. “My makeup girl insists on the gel. She was one of the women who got in the car with me today.”

“You don’t have to explain anything to me.” True squirmed in her seat.

Damn, she was nervous.

“I know I don’t,” he said, and put on his blinker. It felt good to drive. “I’m just talking. Gotta break the ice somehow.”

“Not really. We have no business talking to each other.” Her voice was soft. Almost sad.

It was his turn to shrug. “How’s everyone doing at Maybank Hall?”

“Ten years have gone by. Hasn’t Gage kept you informed?”

“Of course not. He’s too busy making crossword clues.”

“That’s a lot of catching up, don’t you think?”

“Well, why not? We’ll do it on the plane. Do you mind getting home a lot faster than you anticipated?”

Her eyes flew wide. “Please don’t rent a jet for me.”

“Rent-a-Jet. I like the sound of that.” He grinned. “It’s for me, not you, if that makes you feel any better. I gotta be in front of a TV before the Spurs game.”

“So you can do that? Just get someone to fly you wherever you want to go for whatever reason?”

“It comes with the territory. Country music’s been good to me.”

She stared at him long and hard. “I’m glad for you, Harrison,” she said quietly. “Mighty glad.”

He snuck another peek at her. “Are you?”

She nodded. “Of course. Think how proud you’ve made Biscuit Creek. Why, you’ve put us on the map.”

“Did I?”

“Most certainly. The water tower has your name on it.”

“Did you see to that?”

She blushed again. “Of course not. It was the mayor.”

“But you always were the civic-minded citizen,” he reminded her.

“Oh, I still am.” She looked straight ahead. Her earlobes had tiny pearl studs in them.

Harrison held back another grin. There was always something about True that put him in a good mood. Maybe it was how transparent she was. That was it. She wore her heart on her sleeve, and wary and practical as that heart was, it was a good one.

“Hey.” He leaned over to her. “Do me a favor. At the airport, put on a hat.” He pointed to the glove compartment.

She opened it, revealing a stack of sunglasses and two nylon baseball caps. “What?” A wrinkle formed on her brow. “Why?”

“A disguise, of course. Look out back. Someone’s on to us. Probably the National Enquirer.”

She twisted her neck to look, and hell if he didn’t enjoy seeing the swell of her breasts in that fuddy-duddy dress against the cream leather seat.

“How can you tell?” Her voice was a little breathy, and he felt a response in his jeans, which was wrong, considering who she was, but entirely understandable from a biological standpoint. So he wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it.

“Easy.” He sped up and switched lanes. “Watch what happens.”

She kept her gaze behind them.

“Did a black Volvo follow us?” he asked.

“Well, I’ll be,” True murmured. “It most certainly did.”

He switched lanes again, taking an odd satisfaction at hearing the wonder in her voice when she exclaimed that once again, the Volvo was keeping track of them, right on their bumper as a matter of fact.

Yep. Harrison really was famous. Although why he felt the need to make sure she knew, he had no idea.

“He should be ticketed!” she exclaimed. “Where are the police when you need them?”

“I don’t know.” It was fun playing a martyr, especially in a $160,000 sports car.

“It must be hell to be you,” True said.

“I suppose it is.” Harrison enjoyed her pity. “So you listen to my advice and wear that disguise, all right? Otherwise, my wife will be pissed when she sees a picture of us together.”

True whipped around to face him. “Your wife?”

He laughed out loud at the drama he’d stirred up, then suddenly felt sheepish. “I was just kidding. There’s no little missus. You ought to know better than to think there would be.”

“Of course I knew better.” True frowned at him. “Still, that wasn’t very nice.”

“Why?” He swung the car over to the airport exit. The black Volvo stayed with them. “What difference would it have made if I was married?”

There was a second of taut silence.

“It wouldn’t have made any,” True said. “It’s just that friends don’t tease friends.”

“They don’t? Who made that rule?” He followed a service road around to the back of a yellow Butler building, a hangar for a couple of Learjets. “You got a lot of rules, True. And the truth is, I don’t recall us particularly being friends anymore.”

What the hell. Let her feel a little embarrassed at dumping him. This was an opportunity he’d no idea he’d been seeking, but now that it was here, it felt good to get some things off his chest.

She pursed her lips. “I thought that by now—”

“I am over it,” he said, and pulled the car into a parking space. “Which is why we can talk about it. You’re never gonna leave Biscuit Creek, and I’m never going to tie myself down.” He shut the engine off. “Got it.”

“Harrison—”

He ignored her and opened his door. The photographer had already exited the Volvo, camera ready, the bag still on his shoulder. “Take a picture of me and my old friend together, Charlie, and I’m going to make sure my team puts you in the back row of every single press conference I give from here on out. And about the rock on her finger, it’s not from me. I’m trying to get her home to her beloved, whoever the poor sap may be. Is that clear?”

“Got it, Mr. Gamble.” Charlie didn’t look the least bit fazed. He was a real pro.

“Dubose is not a poor sap!” True said from behind Harrison at the same time, right on cue. “And I resent you for saying so.”

“You resent me? So what’s new?” Harrison kept his eyes on Charlie and winked. “And you’re kidding me about Dubose Waring, aren’t you? He’s a putz.”

“No, he is not,” she slammed.

He looked back at her in all her quivering, self-righteous glory. God, it turned him on. “When are y’all getting married?”

“None of your business!”

He pretended to be properly chastened, but from the withering look she sent him, she knew damned well he wasn’t.

“How about a couple snaps of you alone, Mr. Gamble,” Charlie interjected with a grin, “looking travel-weary. Is there a guitar in the backseat?”

“No.” Harrison sighed. “But since you came all this way, you can grab a few shots when I get out—and then you leave.” He glanced at True. She was clawing at her dress a little, wiping her palms on it.

It was odd, to say the least.

“Do you—do you have a paper bag?” she asked him in a squeaky voice.

“No,” he said, wondering what was going on.

“Nothing?” Her pupils were dilated.

Uh-oh. Not a good sign. Was she taking drugs, his True?

Surely not.

“True, baby, what’s wrong?” he asked her, his pulse speeding up.

She wasn’t his baby and never had been. But for one night he’d pretended she was.

True shook her head and fumbled for the door handle, her hands shaking. “N-nothing.” She got it open, stepped right on her giant purse, and jumped out, leaving the door wide open.

Harrison was already around the front of the car. “What is it?” When he caught up with her, she was shaking like a leaf, walking around in circles. And then a damned book fell out of her dress, a strange event he’d choose to ignore. He knew she liked to read, but this took the cake. “Are you diabetic?”

He held a finger up at Charlie. It meant, Stand by. Just in case this is a real-ass emergency.

Charlie didn’t move. His camera dangled from his hand.

True swallowed, crouched on her haunches, and cupped her hands around her mouth. She breathed in, then out. In. Held it. Then out.

Harrison put an arm on her back. “I’m with you.”

Her forehead was sweaty. Her spine curled, the muscles in her back trembling.

He pulled out his cell phone.

“No!” she cried.

“Yes.” His tone was ugly. He’d never been able to remain cool in a crisis. “We can’t mess around. You’re pale. Shaking. Something’s seriously wrong.”

She shook her head. “Let me breathe into my hands,” she said into her hands. Loud. So he could hear. Which was awfully considerate of her since he was now out of his mind with worry.

“Give me your camera bag,” he yelled to Charlie.

Charlie came running with it and handed it directly to True.

She grabbed it and put her whole face inside.

“What the hell is happening, True?” Harrison’s heart slammed against his chest.

“It’s just a panic attack.” Her face still in the bag, she fell back on her bottom. But it was a controlled fall, as if she was getting herself together again.

Harrison felt a slight—very slight—lessening of worry.

She lowered the bag. “I’m afraid of flying,” she whispered and flinched once. Twice. Like a bird that had hit a glass window.

And then she burst into tears.

“Shit,” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me?” He sat next to her and pulled her close.

She put the bag back to her face. “I thought I could handle it.”

Even muffled, her voice did something to him, especially those little hiccups. “You always think you can handle it.”

She didn’t say anything to that. Her arms looked so skinny, and her neck was just a twig, dammit.

“That’s right,” he said roughly. “It’s about time you just shut up and breathed, Maybank. Let the world run without you for a few minutes.”

Charlie backed away, his shoes making gritty sounds on the rocky asphalt.

Harrison rubbed his hand up and down True’s arm, which was warming up a little, and waited. Waited for her to perk up. Waited to feel remorse that he’d reconnected with her.

But it didn’t come.

Here he was comforting a woman who didn’t think he was all that special. In fact, she was sure he was the opposite. She believed he—Harrison Gamble, number one right now on the iTunes country chart—had major flaws.

Who’da thunk it?

“Don’t let my book get away,” she ordered him from inside her camera bag house, then added, “Please.”

But it was a feeble please. She was getting back to her old bossy self.

A jumbo jet coasted in for a landing above their heads, its wheels locked into the down position. Welcome back to real, Harrison thought, the smell of diesel in his nostrils. He might write and sing about the ordinary, the substantial—the stuff of life—but he’d been running from all that reality crap for a long time.

Funny how it managed to find him anyway here on a hot gravel parking lot with a mixed-up bookworm named True. He was sure after their effed-up good-bye ten years before that he’d be glad never to see her again. But he didn’t want to leave her this time, either.

Damn, that surprised him.

Sort of.

He cast a sideways glance at Miss Priss with her knees hitched up, ankles touching, and eyelids closed. Her arm was tanned, her knuckles white as she gripped the camera bag. But her lashes lay thick on her cheek, like the old days, the really, really old days, when she’d join him on the trailer park dock and tilt her face up to the sun to bask in its warmth.

He remembered the first day she ever caught a crab on that dock. She got so rattled, she tilted the net and the crab dropped out. It ran sideways, a little tap dancer, straight over her feet. “Ooohhhaaghh!” she’d shrieked, and fallen backward into the water.

In the Atlanta sunshine, he chuckled at the memory, threw a pebble, and watched it bounce. Nah. It didn’t surprise him at all that he wanted to stay.

 

Chapter 2

So True’d had a panic attack in front of Harrison. La-di-dah. She’d even cried for a minute, but those were tears of frustration. She never saw them coming, these unfortunate episodes—that’s what her doctor called them. Each time she was sure she was going to die. She just wanted to breathe, to stay alive, and she always felt like such an idiot afterward …

But she refused to care this time.

As far as she was concerned, Harrison could see her do other embarrassing things, too, like wearing white shoes before Easter—or worse yet, adding dark meat to her mama’s prizewinning chicken salad. She wouldn’t even blush. And why should she? Right now he looked like a roughed-up Brad Pitt, weary from a honky-tonk brawl or a night of hot sex. Or both.

“Thanks for getting my book.” She imagined him punching a drunk guy in the jaw and sending him sprawling across a table covered with beer mugs, poker chips, and playing cards.

“Not a problem.” He spanked all the grit off the cover and handed it back to her with one brow quirked and the tiniest vertical line on his forehead, right above his nose.

True couldn’t lie to herself anymore. She was secretly aghast that he’d seen her freak out—not the Entertainment Weekly A-Lister, but the guy who’d brought her to wild and utter completion on a beach when she was eighteen years old. It irked her that Harrison was the only person who’d ever witnessed her out of control.

Ever.

Yes, that meant the big O had never happened with Dubose. He didn’t notice, and she didn’t care. That was what a vibrator was for. It was a poor substitute for the real thing, but the real thing with Harrison had been a fluke. Right? An utter freak occurrence, like a 75 percent off sale on boots the same day your best pair gets chewed up by your dog.

“Are you sure you don’t want a drink?” Harrison asked. “We could stop off for a quick beer—”

“No, thank you.” After the barroom brawl, he’d probably kiss a girl up against a wall. Feel her up, too, while he was at it, his long, golden-brown hair hanging like a curtain to block the view.

“A Coke then?”

“I wish.” A bead of sweat popped out on her brow, and she swiftly wiped it away. “But somebody’ll recognize you in the drive-through. Chicken nuggets will go flying, and mothers will leave their children in the play area just to catch a glimpse of you. I’m fine, Harrison. Thank you.”

“I hope so.” He pulled out a pair of sunglasses and put them on.

Sickening. Truly sickening how good looking he was!

She picked up her book. “I really don’t like the page corners getting bent.” She didn’t like her life getting bent, either, so he’d better not try.

“Then put it back in your dress,” he said. “I don’t care.”

“Fine.” She knew she sounded starchy. But not caring was her new theme. Especially now that she knew he didn’t care. She looked pointedly at him and stuffed the musty paperback down her high scooped neckline.

Shoot. It wasn’t very comfortable. It felt somewhat akin to a mammogram plate wedged between her breasts. But the book would warm up, she was sure.

A hand would feel better. A big, warm male hand.

“There.” She hitched her shoulder and tried to think of Dubose. Washboard-ab and well-endowed-in-every-way Dubose—who had cold hands. But it wasn’t his fault. He got it from his mother Penn’s Puritan side of the family. “You can’t be too careful with print books these days. Heck, this could be worth some money in a few years.”

Harrison shook his head and held the passenger door of his car open.

True slipped inside and looked up at him. “Been in any fights lately?”

No. Why?”

“No reason.” She wouldn’t dare ask him how many girls he’d kissed up against honky-tonk walls since he’d moved away from Biscuit Creek.

“I’ll drive you home.” He got in the cream leather driver’s seat and put the car in reverse.

“Thanks,” she said, feeling guilty. Then remembered it was his idea to take her home in the first place.

“Not a problem.” He flicked on the radio. Then flicked it off immediately. His latest number one hit was playing: “Snack on This.”

“That’s a sexy song,” she said.

“Yep.”

“But people like it because it’s funny, too.” Like Harrison. He was flirty and fun. Real. Adorable, even—and she saved that word for special occasions. “The part about the Fig Newtons is cute.”

“Yeah,” he mumbled back.

She’d forgotten that he’d never taken compliments from her well. “How’d you come up with it?”

“You really want to know?”

“Of course.”

He gave a little chuckle. “Late one night, I couldn’t sleep. So I got up and had a handful of Oreos and some milk. I’d just drifted off when pow”—he made his fingers do a fireworks burst—“next thing you know, I was sitting up in bed singing, ‘That damned tootin’, Fig Newton, highfalutin girl of mine—”

“Junk food lover, undercover—” True sang.

“—I’m her Twinkie, and she’s MoonPie fine.” His velvety twang wrapped around True like a caress.

“Wow.” She felt short of breath. “Straight from the horse’s mouth.”

He grinned. “It’s your lucky day.”

Her heart pounded like crazy. “I heard a bunch of kids singing it yesterday. Yelling it at the top of their lungs coming out of Sunday School.”

Harrison stuffed a bunch of papers under his seat. His ear was red. “Some people might look at it as racy, but it’s meant to be pure fun, okay? That’s something you’ve never understood too well.”

True felt her whole face heat up. “I do, too, get fun.” Had he forgotten? She’d shimmied up and down his body like he was a stripper pole that night on the beach. She’d been so fun that it had scared her.

Harrison finished adjusting his mirror and looked over at her. “It comes off you in invisible waves. You and your mama both. Some sort of disapproval of the rest of the world.”

“That’s nonsense.” She felt it again—the old gap between them. Nothing had changed after all these years, and it made her sad. “I’m as fun as they come, Harrison.”

Or she wanted to be. Hadn’t he seen long ago how her life had been locked into place, and there was no room for maneuvering—except maybe once in a lifetime? That night on the dunes at the Isle of Palms had been her once. The cool sand, the full moon, the scudding clouds, his salt-spiked hair, her prom dress flung over a clutch of sea oats …

They’d had fun, all right.

“I like ‘Snack on This,’” she said. “A lot. So does the whole world. You’re the king of hick hop, and you’re gonna win a CMA easy with that one.”

“Thanks.” He stared out his own side window for a long moment.

She could tell he heard compliments all the time. It must suck not to suck—at least at something. She prided herself on being hopeless at whistling. And making cookies. They always burned. And she was short-tempered in the worst way. That was a biggie—not that she was proud of it.

“Can you get me home by five?” she asked, hoping to distract him from the funk that seemed to settle over him.

“I’ll have you there by quarter to four.” He sounded a little peppier.

“But you can’t—you’d have to—”

The sports car took off like a shot. It was a manual shift. No country boy worth his salt drove an automatic. They all learned to drive on tractors, as True had, as a matter of fact.

“I know a back way off the interstate,” Harrison said. They’d returned to normal, whatever that was. “The paparazzi will never find us.”

“Are you sure they’re looking?”

“They’re always looking.”

A car was better than a plane, True reminded herself as they took a curve at a ridiculously high speed. And it was impossible to have two panic attacks in a row, wasn’t it?

She sure hoped so.

“You okay?”

Her eyes popped open. “Sorry. Yes, I’m fine. There’s a couples wedding shower for Dubose and me at seven in Charleston. So we have to leave by six, and if I factor in time to fix my hair—”

“I’ll get you home in time, so stop worrying. I want you to tell me about what’s going on in Biscuit Creek. But how about resting a few minutes first?”

“I don’t need to.”

“I’d rather you try.” He flung her a quick look. “Whatever happened to you back there took a toll. Your voice is a little thin. Close your eyes again. Relax. We’ve got several hours to catch up.”

“Okay,” she said, “but only for a minute or two. I can’t sleep in a car.”

“That’s fine.”

She put her hand on the door rest, took a moment to be proud of the French-tip manicure she’d given herself—she hadn’t had a real manicure in years—and closed her eyes.

 

Chapter 3

Eighteen years earlier, True was on the porch with her father, which was her second favorite place to be. The honeysuckle bower at Sand Dollar Heaven with Harrison was her first. Harrison was her secret best friend. They’d met in front of Wyatt’s Pharmacy under the awning. Mr. Wyatt never turned kids away, even the ones like Harrison who didn’t always have money in his pocket to buy candy.

“Cumyeah, birthday girl,” Miss Ada called to her in her Geechee accent. “Time for your favorite dinner.”

Lunch was called dinner, and supper was the preferred name for the evening meal around these parts. True was excited about her pimiento cheese sandwich, sweet pickle, and potato chips.

“Give us another minute, Miss Ada?” Daddy asked their housekeeper. “I was just about to tell my girl something mighty impoh-tant. She’s ten today, old enough to heah some things.”

Daddy spoke with the same Lowcountry drawl as Miss Ada. So did Honey. They were white, and Miss Ada was black, but it didn’t matter. Lowcountry born and bred—your words stretched like taffy, curled like smoke, and lingered … saltwater sounds. For True it was like listening to a fairy language. Her people said “boe-at,” for boat. “Fohd,” for Ford, “coat” for court. And don’t ask them to say the letter H. “Ey-yuch” is what you’d get.

“Better make that birthday speech quick, Charlie Maybank.” Miss Ada had known True’s father since he was a baby. “True’s got to ride her bike to choir practice.”

“All righty, then.” Daddy stood up from the bench they were sitting on, and beckoned True to follow him to the top of the house steps. True leapt up and raced to his side. Her father surveyed the property with a look of utter contentment. “You got yourself a special piece of the world right heah,” he told her. “Better’n any birthday present your mothah’s gonna buy you on Main Street.”

“I know it, Daddy.” True looked out over the sparkling wide body of water known as Biscuit Creek. The brown-green reeds of the marsh fronting it held all sorts of treasures: fiddler crabs, pluff mud, egrets, and tiny wrens. “My favorite part is the water. I love when the dolphins come.”

“Me, too, sweetheart.” He put his hand on her shoulder. “You know why it’s called Biscuit Creek?”

“No, sir.”

“A long time ago, an old Sewee woman lived up the creek. She made hardtack for the travelers going through.”

Harrison said he was one-sixteenth Sewee. They played Sewee warrior and tribal princess all the time at Sand Dollar Heaven.

“And after a while,” Daddy said, “the other women—the settlers—joined in with their own recipes. But that Sewee woman started it all. So eventually the creek was called Biscuit Creek in her honor.”

“I love Honey’s biscuits,” True said.

“Don’t we all.” Daddy chuckled. “You know how she treasures her recipe? You have to do the same for this property. Don’t you ever let it go. And make sure you keep the Maybank name prominent in these parts. I know you’re gonna marry someday, but Maybank would make a helluva good first name, right?”

“Yes, sir, Daddy.” True could tell he wished he’d had a boy. “I don’t care what my husband says. I’m gonna be True Maybank forever.”

“No, no, no,” her father said. “You take your husband’s name, like a good girl. Maybe you’ll be True Maybank Waring. You marry Dubose, and bring our families together, then you’ll have done your mother and me real proud.”

She tried her best to look obedient. She felt sorry for Daddy. None of the women in his life listened to him. He called Honey his crazy spinster aunt, all because she refused to “settle down and behave,” Mama’s favorite phrase.

But Mama had misbehaved, too. Just last week, True heard Daddy and Mama fighting late at night after a party. Daddy found out that Mama had their new baby with another man’s help. Daddy told Mama she hadn’t behaved like a Maybank should. But Mama said he’d driven her to it by marrying her for her money and then slowly forgetting about her. Daddy cried. And Mama cried. And they both said they were sorry, and then Daddy pulled Mama onto the back porch and called her “Helen, my love.” True didn’t know what happened after that.

But she cried, too, from where she was sitting on the stairs. The next morning, she asked Ada what it was all about, and Ada said that all Daddy meant was that another man helped Mama pick Weezie up at the baby store. It was all in the past, Ada assured her, so it didn’t matter. But True was ten, for goodness’ sake. She knew babies didn’t come from a store.

Her father looked down at her with a slight frown. “Warings and Maybanks are the two oldest families in Biscuit Creek. And we’ve never married.”

“Why is that, Daddy?” True wasn’t too crazy about Dubose. He was a tattletale. Once she stole a piece of ham off his mama’s table before they were called in for Sunday brunch. And he told their cook. All because she’d sunk his battleship and beaten him at Go Fish.

“Rivalry,” Daddy said. “And none of us have ever fallen in love with each other. No Romeo and Juliet stories. But these are harder times. We could lose everything our families have fought for and stood for these past two hundred yeahs. It’s about time we unite, and you and Dubose would make a fine pair.”

“But I’m only ten years old, Daddy. So is he.”

“So?” He pulled out a cigar and lit it. “You just keep him in mind. You’ll both be grown up before you know it.”

“Yes, sir.”

After that, True’s father spoke to her on the porch every year on her birthday. When her twelfth one came along, she was wearing a bra even though she didn’t need one, and she had a cheap lip gloss from Wyatt’s hidden in the secret pocket of her purse. She was almost a woman, especially now that Harrison had kissed her—kissed her right on the lips—not three days ago. And it wasn’t anything like that kiss they’d shared when they’d gotten married two years before in their fake Sewee marriage ceremony in the honeysuckle bower. She didn’t know why things had changed between them. All she knew was that one day she was watching him, and his profile suddenly looked like the handsomest thing she’d ever seen. When he’d turned to smile at her, her heart had literally stopped in her chest and she couldn’t breathe for a second.

She was madly in love. And as soon as she could escape, she was meeting him on the dock at Sand Dollar Heaven. He had a birthday present for her.

Now her daddy said, “The sheriff was over at Sand Dollar Heaven the other day.”

“Oh?” True’s heart sped up.

“He told me he saw you there.” Daddy’s voice was low.

“I-I go there sometimes to play.” But True knew her mother wouldn’t like it. Not one bit.

“You won’t be going anymore. Heah? You’re lucky your mama doesn’t know.”

“But Daddy—”

“Sheriff said you were hanging around the younger Gamble boy. That’s gonna stop right now.”

“Why?” True felt all trembly inside. Did the sheriff see them kiss? “Harrison’s my best friend.”

“Enough of that talk.” Daddy’s brow furrowed. “You got plenty of friends from good families. His daddy just got arrested for bootleggin’. He’ll be locked up at least a couple years.”

True got tears in her eyes. “R-really?”

“It’s a sad story.” Daddy shook his head. “He had a still out in the woods.”

Was that what that collection of junk was—the one Harrison had always told her to ignore in the honeysuckle bower?

“If your mama ever finds out you been over at Sand Dollar Heaven, you’d be off to boarding school the next day,” Daddy said in a scary voice. “She’d insist.”

“I’m not going to boarding school.” True could hardly fathom such a thing. Leave this house? Leave Biscuit Creek and all she held dear?

Never.

“I don’t want you to go, either.” Daddy spoke softer now. “But Weezie’s a handful already. Honey’s no easier. Your mama’s stressin’ about both of ’em. She can’t take any more. I need your help, little lady, keeping the peace around here.”

And she could tell Daddy really did. His eyes were troubled when he looked at her.

“Yessir.” She was frightened seeing Daddy so worried. It shocked her that he thought a twelve-year-old girl could make things better. But maybe she could. She had to try.

In that moment, she grew up. A lot.

He patted her shoulder. “Good job, honey. Now you have fun today.”

Behind a fake smile, True’s heart broke. It was the worst birthday she’d ever had. But poor Harrison. He had it far worse. What was it like to know your daddy was in jail? And then for your best friend not to show up when you’d told her you had a gift for her?

But birthdays, True finally came to understand that day on the porch, weren’t for herself. They were to remind her of her duty as a Maybank, which was why that night she wrote Harrison a note and told him she could never meet him at Sand Dollar Heaven again.

I hope you’ll understand, she wrote at one point, tears rolling down her cheeks. My family needs me to grow up.

She added a few more lines, and then she folded the note into a tiny football and tried to shove it in his locker at school, but too many people were looking. So she found Gage at the high school track and told him to give it to his brother as soon as he got home—without delay. She made him promise over and over. It was all she could do.

 

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***
Copyright © 2014 by Kieran Kramer.
***

Learn more about or pre-order a copy of Sweet Talk Me by Kieran Kramer, available March 25, 2014:

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USA Today bestselling author Kieran Kramer is a former CIA employee, journalist, and English teacher who lives in the Lowcountry of South Carolina with her family. Game show veteran, karaoke enthusiast, and general adventurer, her motto is, “Life rewards action.” Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and at her website.

Tue
Nov 5 2013 11:30am

Over the Moon for MoonPies

Sweet Talk Me by Kieran KramerToday we're pleased to welcome author Kieran Kramer, whose Sweet Talk Me is her first foray into contemporary romance—and it's set in the South, with a sweet-talking guy who makes the heroine all kinds of gooey. A different kind of gooey is found in the Southern snack MoonPies, which Kieran is here to talk about. Thanks, Kieran!

(And be sure to check out Kieran's new website, launching today, and learn more about the MoonPie sweepstakes she's hosting there!)

MoonPies. Yeah, I’m going there…right to the heart of Evil Snack Land, where sugar- and fat-laden delicacies dwell. MoonPies are marshmallow, chocolate, and graham cracker confections big enough to hold with two hands, so you feel you’re getting your money’s worth. They’re featured in my Southern contemporary romance, Sweet Talk Me, and for good reason. MoonPies are authentic Southern food with a long, colorful history.

If you’re like me, you’re going to want to know something of that history. Why? Because from now on, when you eat MoonPies, instead of feeling guilty, you can say with pride, “I’m supporting a product that has filled the stomachs and lifted the spirits of millions of hardworking people for almost a century.”

Take that, Dr. Oz!

In 1917 coal miners, who often couldn’t break for lunch, asked a salesman for the Chattanooga Bakery in Tennessee to invent a big, filling snack. One miner framed the moon with his hands to give the salesman an idea of how big that snack should be, which inspired the name. By the 1930s, the MoonPie had become the Southern labor force’s favored lunchtime treat, cheap enough to buy—they sold for a nickel—even when a man didn’t have much money in his pocket.

[Go on, indulge your sweet tooth...]

Thu
Aug 22 2013 11:00am
Excerpt

Say Yes to the Duke: Exclusive Excerpt

Say Yes to the Duke by Kieran Kramer

Janice Sherwood wants to marry for love, but she’s failed to make a match after two Seasons. Her parents, the Marquess and Marchioness of Brady, arrange to send her to the Duke of Halsey’s country estate as a short-term guest of his grandmother, the dowager, in hopes that she might win the duke’s affections. What they never could have imagined is that Janice would fall for the ruggedly handsome servant Luke, who lives in the stables and carries an air of mystery and temptation.

When Luke Callahan learns that he is the legitimate heir to a dukedom, he will stop at nothing to claim what is his. But first, he must begin a game of disguise to secure his rightful inheritance. Janice isn’t part of his plan. But by engaging her in this dance of deception, might he lose her forever?

 Get a sneak peek of Kieran Kramer's Say Yes to the Duke (available August 27, 2013) with an exclusive excerpt of Chapters 1 & 2.
 

Chapter 1

Lady Janice Sherwood—the one with the gorgeous older sister—had literally waltzed, however inelegantly, through several London Seasons and still hadn’t found a husband. Everyone knew what a proper young lady did when she wasn’t in demand. She rusticated in the English countryside in the hopes she’d be missed. And it went without saying that if she were wise, she’d develop her own magical charm while she was there—perhaps even catch the attention of an eligible gentleman in residence.

The chances that the dowager’s grandson, the fabulously handsome Duke of Halsey, would fall madly in love with Janice when she was to stay at his house as a guest of his grandmother were next to nil. But Janice’s parents, knowing the duke was to be there hovering about his prize horses, hoped the impossible would happen.

[Log in or register to read the full excerpt of Say Yes to the Duke...]

Fri
Feb 8 2013 12:00pm
Excerpt

The Earl is Mine: Exclusive Excerpt

Handsome, charismatic, and on the verge of becoming a successful architect, Gregory Sherwood, Lord Westdale, could have just about any woman he wants. So why rush to marry? So far there’s only been one woman he’s ever truly loved. But that was before she had a secret affair with his best friend…with the help of an unwitting accomplice named Lady Pippa Harrington.

Pippa may not have acted in her old friend Gregory’s best interests, but she’s always believed that the heart sets its own rules. This is why Pippa must escape her arranged marriage—fast—by fleeing to Paris, where she hopes to pursue her artistic passions. To do so, Pippa will need all the help she can get—from Gregory, the one man she isn’t sure she can trust…or resist…

Get a sneak peek of Kieran Kramer's The Earl is Mine (available February 26, 2013) with an excerpt of the Prologue and Chapter 1.
 

Prologue

The figure who slid into the Earl of Westdale’s coat every morning wasn’t happy. His name was Gregory Sherwood, and he had everything a man could want. But like a prisoner who can’t bask in a beautiful day outside his barred window, Gregory couldn’t enjoy his family, his wealth, or his title.

He was the legitimate heir to the Marquess of Brady. But he wasn’t his son.

And he was doomed to a lifetime of lies.

[Log in or register to read the full excerpt of The Earl is Mine...]

Mon
Dec 24 2012 1:30pm
Reprint

“Caroling Off-Key on Christmas Eve”: A House of Brady Vignette

The Earl is Mine by Kieran KramerWhile getting ready for the holiday season, Team H&H found this previously released story from Kieran Kramer's House of Brady Series, originally featured at Not Another Romance Blog. We hope you enjoy it! 

First, a special message from Kieran:

Holiday greetings, everyone! When I decided to write this vignette involving an off-key carol singer within the Brady household, I laughed out loud imagining it unfold—because I’m from a family of extreme singers! What does that mean? Well, we all love to sing, and we harmonize together so well that people often say we’re like the Von Trapp family from The Sound of Music, and they wonder why we didn’t have stage parents who made us form a group like the Osmonds. But my family just enjoyed singing for singing’s sake, especially around the holidays. Christmas Eve was a big deal because we’d all pile on a wagon that my dad pulled behind his tractor, and we’d go down the dirt road from house to house in the country neighborhood we lived in and sing carols.

I still remember being twelve and sitting in that wagon on a pile of hay. I remember looking up at the starry night sky and seeing one special star twinkling—I was sure it was the Christmas star. It was such a wonderful feeling, knowing that we were all together and singing and that the next morning, Christmas would be there…

Next thing I knew years passed, and I married a man who can’t sing his way out of a box! He’s so cute, though, when he does sing, and it makes me realize listening to him that the best singing is heartfelt. It doesn’t matter if you don’t sound real purty—just sing! Let your heart express in song what words can’t always do alone.

And that’s what I love most about music. It says things words can’t—and as a writer, that’s a pretty big thing for me to admit. But I’m glad to—I love music, and without it, my life would feel incomplete. And that’s a fact. Especially around the holidays, I want my Thanksgiving songs and my Christmas carols!

Now that you know where I’m coming from, I hope you’ll enjoy this scene I wrote from the heart (and I played Christmas carols while doing it):

Enjoy this story from Kieran Kramers's House of Brady Series, Caroling Off-Key on Christmas Eve. And look for the newest book in the House of Brady Series, The Earl is Mine, available Febuary 26, 2013.

Everyone at Ballybrook should be as happy at Christmas as I am, thought Marcia Lattimore, Lady Chadwick, and said a quick prayer that each resident, from the lowliest stable boy to the wine steward to her parents, the Marquess and Marchioness of Brady themselves, felt as loved as she did at that moment.

[Continue on to read Caroling on Christmas Eve...]

Tue
Dec 11 2012 12:00pm
Original Story

The Earl with the Secret Tattoo: A House of Brady Novella

The Earl with the Secret Tatoo by Kieran Kramer

The limited-time sneak peak at Kieran Kreamer's House of Brady e-novella The Earl with the Secret Tattoo has come to an end. However, you can still pick up a copy when it goes on sale on December 18! Plus, look for the second novel in the House of Brady series, The Earl is Mine, out on February 26.

Lady Eleanor Gibbs is shocked when she stumbles upon a tattooed London gentleman involved in an illicit embrace. Five years ago, a masked man bearing that same tattoo saved her and the six children of the Marquess and Marchioness of Brady from a band of thieves. Now, Ellie’s “hero”—better known as the notorious Earl of Tumbridge—appears to be no more than a common cad. When this master of seduction and corrupter of virtue dares to sabotage her marital opportunities, it’s more than Ellie can bear. What Ellie does not yet understand is that the inked scoundrel has a reason for ruining her chances for love: He wants her all to himself...

To learn more or to pre-order a copy of The Earl with the Secret Tattoo by Kieran Kramer:

Buy THE EARL WITH THE SECRET TATOO at Barnes and NobleBuy THE EARL WITH THE SECRET TATOO at AmazonBuy THE EARL WITH THE SECRET TATOO at iTunes

 

 

And don't miss the second novel in Kieran's House of Brady series, The Earl is Mine, out on February 26, 2013:

Buy The Earl is Mine at Barnes and NobleBuy The Earl is Mine at AmazonBuy The Earl is Mine at iTunes

Tue
Jul 31 2012 2:30pm
Excerpt

Loving Lady Marcia: New Excerpt

Loving Lady Marcia by Kieran Kramer

MARCIA GETS SCHOOLED…

Of the three Brady sisters, Lady Marcia has always seemed the girl most likely to lead a perfectly charmed life. But after a handsome cad breaks her heart, she swears off love and devotes her life to teaching girls at a private school. In spite of her family’s wish for a London debut, Marcia is happy where she is—until terrible news sends her back to the Brady clan…and into the arms of an unexpected suitor.

ON THE SUBJECT OF LOVE

A dark and dashing earl who knows Marcia’s past, Duncan Lattimore is surprised by what a fascinating and independent woman she’s become. Marcia, too, is surprised—by the fiery attraction she feels for Duncan. But why—why—must he be the brother of the scoundrel who broke her heart? Why must Marcia’s rival at school forbid her from seeing him? How can this lady possibly resist this fellow—when they know that it’s much more than a hunch…?

 Get a sneak peek of Kieran Kramer’s Loving Lady Marcia  (available August 28, 2012), the first book in the all-new House of Brady series, with an excerpt of Chapters 1-2.

Chapter 1
1814

A girl knows when her life really begins, and for fifteen-year-old Lady Marcia Sherwood, daughter of the Marquess and Marchioness of Brady, it was the moment she met the two Lattimore brothers.

When the first one took his seat in the Brady carriage, she had to clamp her teeth together to keep her mouth from falling open. If her friends at school could only see him. They’d never believe he was this handsome.

[Log in or register to read an excerpt of Loving Lady Marcia...]

Fri
Oct 28 2011 1:00pm

#ILovePrideandPrejudice: Pride and Prejudice Goes Viral

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and PrejudiceWhat would Pride and Prejudice be like if people had Twitter accounts back then? I’d love to find out. An event like the local assembly in Meryton would be a great topic for a hashtag and a flurry of Tweets!

(Not familiar with how Twitter works? Read a quick tutorial and then dive right into the fun.)

[Tweet, tweet!...]

Tue
Oct 18 2011 6:00pm
Excerpt

If You Give a Girl a Viscount: New Excerpt

If You Give a Girl a Viscount by Kieran Kramer

If life were a fairy tale, Daisy Montgomery’s stepmother and two stepsisters would surely be cast in the wicked roles. For years, they’ve made life miserable for Daisy. But when she discovers she has a godmother, she’s determined to ask her for help. Little did Daisy expect her godmother to play matchmaker with her very own grandson—who happens to be a viscount!

A freewheeling playboy, Charles Thorpe, Viscount Lumley, is bored with his wealth-seeking female admirers. Not only that, he’s been cut off from the family coffers. One day, on a bet, he rids himself of what little money he has left in his pockets and vows to solve problems using his wits alone. But when the Impossible Bachelor is confronted with Daisy’s plan to save her castle, the payoff is more than he could have bargained for. Sometimes, if you give a girl a viscount, you just might find love…

Get a sneak peek of Kieran Kramer’s If You Give a Girl a Vixcount  (available November 1, 2011) with an excerpt of chapters 1-2.

(Then, click here to sign in or register in order to enter for a chance to win a copy of the book!)

Chapter 1

On a sunny afternoon high in the left turret of a small, crumbling castle in the northwest of Scotland, Highland lass Daisy Montgomery scrubbed the hearthstones in her bedchamber and dreamed of finding her prince. He’ll make me laugh, she thought, wringing out her rag in a bucket of cold water. Then, as she applied all her muscle to the coal-black stone, I’ll make him laugh.

[Sign in or register to read an excerpt of If You Give  a Girl a Viscount…]

Tue
Apr 19 2011 4:00pm
Excerpt

Cloudy with a Chance of Marriage: New Excerpt

Every woman dreams of saying “I do.” Jilly Jones did—and years of a deeply imperfect marriage followed. Now living in London and working in a charming bookshop, the free-spirited Jilly is perfectly content with her newfound independence…until she meets a dashing naval officer who sparks her longing for a real happily ever after.

Captain Stephen Arrow is just home after years of service, and he’s in no hurry to give up his hard-won freedom. The meddlesome bluestocking Jilly Jones is exactly the kind of woman he doesn’t need…But there’s something about her that keeps drawing Stephen back to the bookshop. With her sparkling wit and understated beauty, she seems like a surprisingly real match for Stephen. But will a scandalous chapter in Jilly’s past stand in the way of their heated attraction? For this bachelor, nothing is impossible…

An exclusive extended excerpt of Chapters 1-3 of Cloudy with a Chance of Marriage (Available April 26, 2011) by Kieran Kramer.

Chapter One

Books  were Jilly’s great escape, but unless she chose to use them as missiles—which she’d considered but decided against as they were her source of livelihood now—even they couldn’t save her from the unpleasant task before her. She must stop the loud goings-on at the dead end of the cobblestone lane once and for all.

She walked up from a murky bed of fog that swirled thickly about her knees onto the front steps of 34 Dreare Street and knocked on the door. The sprawling three-story  house was situated on a scrap of lawn at a right angle to her own shop. A tattered skull-and-crossbones flag hung listlessly against the roofline while a piece of wood painted with the words house for sale leaned against the aged foundation.

No answer.

She knocked again and heard bumping noises and several loud male voices, one of them singing off-key.

Finally, the door opened wide. A gorgeous man with golden hair, dressed only in a cambric shirt and faded trousers, lofted his golden brow. “Thank God, it’s you.” His voice was like honey. “Miss Jones.” He swept a slow, warm gaze over her.

Of all the nerve!

Jilly was so taken aback by what she could only call his brazen maleness, she didn’t know what to say.

He chuckled. “I thought you might be the constable.”

And then he smiled and winked, as if he’d just asked her to meet him in the garden at midnight.

She blinked, which she was wont to do when she was flustered. “And . . . and how would you know I am Miss Jones?”

“Because you look terribly angry.”

He certainly didn’t. He looked the opposite. He looked happy, damn his hide.

“May I assume you’re the thoroughly undisciplined Captain Arrow?” she demanded to know.

“The very same.” He took out a cheroot and lit it. She’d meant her remark as an insult, but he made unruly behavior seem like an appealing state. “I only forgo discipline when I’m off duty, you know. What can I do for you . . .  Miss Jones?”

Really. He was too much. Did he honestly think a woman with any brains in her head would fall for that kind of nonsense?

“Stop saying my name as if—” Oh, dear. She  couldn’t finish that sentence, not if she  were to remain a lady.

“As if what?” He gave her a wide-eyed, innocent look.

“Never mind.” She forced herself to inhale a breath through her nose. “There’s a man hanging out of your upstairs window.”

Now it was his turn to give a short laugh. “Lumley, probably.”

She blinked. “Aren’t you concerned?”

“No,” he said around the cheroot. “It’s a trick of his.”

“Well”—she shook her head and tried not to make her hands into fists—“I find it hard to work when I see a man hanging upside down out a window.”

Captain Arrow gave her a charming grin. “You’re not getting angry again, are you, Miss Jones? We moved onto Dreare Street on the same day, after all. That’s a special connection, don’t you think?”

She huffed. “Your sign makes clear you’ve no inten­tion to stay. I do plan to make this my home. And I’m not angry. I want—”

“You want what?” Very well. She was angry. “I want to be able to look out my window and not see a man hanging upside down, that’s all!” She flung an arm in the direction of her store. “Who’s going to have a pleasurable browse for books when my neigh­bor holds parties night and day? You and your cohorts had just better not introduce any fallen women to the mix, or I’ll call the constable myself.”

“We already have,” he said, his expression angelic, “but the ladies leave discreetly through the rear so as not to cause a stir.”

Jilly gasped. “How dare you! The sooner you sell this place, the better.”

“I told you,” Captain Arrow said, “after the last let­ter you put through my door—”

“My fourth,” she interjected, running out of breath. “My fourth in six days.”

“Yes, your fourth,” he replied equably. “I had a cou­rier deliver you a note in return—”

“You call a drunken man who falls through my door a courier?”

Captain Arrow looked abashed—yet somehow not. “This is an unusually complicated house party, Miss Jones. I beg your patience. On the one hand, my friends and I are celebrating my safe return from my fi nal voyage with the Royal Navy, during which I captured a notorious pirate. He was a ruthless murderer, so you must grant—”

“Your noble deeds don’t give you license to disturb the peace!”

“Nevertheless,” he went on smoothly, “at this house party  we’re also mourning the fact that I didn’t receive the purse I should have. All that pirate gold seems to have vanished into other people’s pockets.”

“That’s your business, not mine—”

“Which brings me to the third reason for the  house party. There’s hope yet for me to become a rich man. I’ve suddenly found myself the proud owner of this tidy mansion, and as soon as I procure a buyer for it, I’ll be well equipped to make my way through the world as a landlubber. In the meanwhile, the  house needs chris­tening, don’t you agree?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “No. I don’t. It needs paint. And you’re ruining my business.”

He chuckled. “I’m ruining your business? I should hardly think so. Perhaps your business needs a propri­etress with a little more sport in her.”

He smiled, and one of his eyebrows flew up in a suggestive manner.

“Why,” she asked, ignoring his disgusting display of masculine allure, “would a respectable female wish to be sporting?”

“You’ll know once you try it. Come to my house tonight.  We’re holding a small theatrical evening.”

“Over my dead body,” she said, even though she adored theatrical evenings. “Let’s get back to the point that forces me to venture over here—you’re disturb­ing the peace, sirrah.”

“Hardly. We’ve had no one running naked down the street in the last two days.”

“Fancy that!”

“And not a single one of my guests has sung a word of any song outside.”

She put a finger to her mouth, pretending to con­sider his words, then dropped her hand. “You know, you’re right. They only sing in the house now—with the windows wide open. And sometimes”—she drew in a breath and said low—“the singer is wearing only a tricorne hat.”

“That’s Lumley again,” he said as if he were talk­ing of the weather.

Speaking of which, didn’t this unrelentingly cheer­ful man notice they had bad weather  here on Dreare Street? All the time?

Jilly’s heart was pounding so hard, she needed support. So she leaned forward and put her hands on either side of the door jamb. Captain Arrow leaned back a fraction of an inch.

“If I”—she whispered—“have to come over”—she pulled back to take a breath—“one more time—”

“Yes?” He leaned forward again. “What will you do?”

She closed her eyes a brief moment, then opened them and stared at him. “I’ll go mad.” It was as simple as that. “I’ll go stark, raving mad.”

Before he could answer her, she turned around and marched back to her store, directly through a plump cloud of fog that refused to be dispersed by the weak morning sun overhead.

 

Miss Jilly Jones.

Already Stephen adored her. He always did the out­liers. Perhaps because he was one himself. Of course, his new neighbor was doing her best to be true to type. She excelled at appearing bookish. Prim. A bluestock­ing with no sense of humor. A woman to be avoided at all costs.

But no other prim miss he’d ever met had grasped door jambs and leaned into his face as if she’d like to bite his head off. He was a sea captain used to giving orders, not taking them, by God. This cheeky Miss Jones showing up flinging commands about was some­thing new. Truth be told, he’d never met a woman as un­manageable, which made him admire her a great deal. It also made his blood hot for her. She was a challenge, that one. And Stephen never turned aside from a chal­lenge.

Hadn’t he risen to the challenge of being named an Impossible Bachelor not long ago with his three best friends, Harry, Nicholas, and Charlie? And he’d come out of Prinny’s ridiculous albeit amusing wager un­scathed, unmarried, and as unrepentant a bachelor as he’d ever been.

When Miss Jones left his front step, he instantly determined that he wanted to have a scorching flirta­tion with her. Other than sell his house, what else did he have to do?

He had a strict rule that he didn’t seduce virgins, so bedding her was out of the question. But imagine what creative machinations he’d have to go through just to steal a few kisses! Grabbing a delicious tendril of her hair and wrapping it around his finger would be practically out of the question unless he  were good . . . very good. And if he could slip a hand up her gown at least to her knee, then his short stay on Dreare Street would go from being mildly entertaining to memorable.

This was one war he’d have to be very cunning to win.

He was crestfallen when she entered the bookstore and pulled the door shut without looking back out to see if he  were still there. It was a good move. Pretend indifference to the enemy—shake their confidence. His own strategies would have to be put in place, he realized. Miss Jones was too substantial, obviously, to fall for his good looks alone, a fact which delighted him. Infatuated young ladies bored him.

He wanted a real dalliance. A real one, of course, engaged his mind.

And Stephen had a brilliant mind. He chose not to emphasize that point when he was out of uniform. It was something to do with his need to relax, to disen­gage, to not be the leader always. As captain of a ship in the Royal Navy, he’d always been at the center of things, interconnected by necessity to every man on board. It was an exciting but exhausting way to live.

Perhaps he was addicted to lack of sleep, loud noises, near-death experiences, and chasing enemies. Set­tling down in a quiet, peacetime navy held no appeal for him, which was why he was leaving it, despite the Admiralty’s hope that he’d take command of a man-of-war.

Neither was he tempted to resign himself to a sub­dued gentleman’s existence on land, complete with a demure wife, several adorable children, and a second career in banking or international trade.

Give him lots of money—more than his pension was worth—so he could live beholden to no one. Give him noise and bluster. Boxing and  horse racing. Bawdy girls and boisterous men.

His own sailing vessel.

A pied-à-terre in Paris.

Give him something out of the ordinary.

Give him Jilly Jones.

 

Chapter Two

In the late afternoon of the day of her useless conver­sation with Captain Arrow, Jilly heard a loud popping noise from his  house. She looked up from smoothing a page in her nearly blank accounting book and saw a young man at a second-floor window drop a bag of water onto the pavement.

“Bull’s-eye!” the fellow cried.

A roar of approval went up from the group of well- dressed gentlemen gathered on the street.

Jilly sighed. For goodness’ sake, when would a con­stable ever arrive and throttle the lot of them?

“I often wonder,” she heard her clerk, Otis, remark to their lone customer of the afternoon, a small, el­derly woman perusing a copy of Pride and Preju­dice, “if Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth had a few secret trysts before they made their nuptial vows.” He chuck­led and looked into space. “Who could have resisted Darcy?”

“Well,” the elderly woman speculated, one hand to her lips, the other balancing the book, “I’m not sure—”

“If,” Otis interrupted her in dramatic tones, which made her nearly drop the book, “if Darcy  were too much a gentleman to propose an illicit liaison, then don’t you think Elizabeth must have been driven so mad by desire that she seduced him instead?”

The old woman stared at him.

“It’s quite a titillating thought.” Otis took the book out of her trembling hands and placed it back on the shelf. “It’s our only copy,” he confided to her in an earnest whisper. “Let me show you something  else.”

Dear God. Jilly watched her assistant sway gently down the aisle toward her meager collection of atlases, crooking a finger at the tiny woman to follow him. The shop would be bankrupt within a month if the mayhem persisted at Captain Arrow’s  house and if Otis didn’t learn to sell books.

Her father’s ex-valet didn’t seem able to part with any of them, except for the atlases, but what was Jilly to do? She  couldn’t cast him out in the cold, for heaven’s sake. He’d been devoted to her father and, after his death, her only trusted friend.

“You dress very well for an older man,” she heard the little lady rasp, “but you’re quite mad. Almost as mad as those people who live next door.”

A few seconds later, the bell at the front door tin­kled, and the door shut with a loud bang.

“And you have a lovely day, too!” Otis fl ung after their lost customer with all the sarcasm a frustrated, impoverished bookseller could muster. “That atlas was just the thing for you, if you’d only listened to reason. And how dare you call me an ‘older man’? I’m not a day over thirty.”

“Otis,” Jilly called in a warning voice.

He’d been thirty for as long as she could remember. He twisted around to face her, his large feet crossed in outrageous saffron-colored shoes, his tailcoat swing­ing madly.

“But Lady Jilly!”

“Miss Jilly,” she corrected him.

“Oh, dear,” he apologized. “But what am I to do? She  wouldn’t have appreciated Pride and Prejudice. She has no fire in her soul. I’m saving it for someone who has spirit, style, and good looks.”

Jilly blew out a breath. “Some of the worst villains and biggest fools have good looks,” she reminded him.

“Yes,” Otis returned smugly and touched the nape of his neck.

He believed himself to be quite good-looking, she knew. And he did have mesmerizing eyes, a jolting blue that was quite disconcerting. But he hardly filled his waistcoat, he was so thin. He also had knobby knees, a Roman nose that looked as if it had been bro­ken several times but hadn’t, wispy gray hair that cir­cled his ears, and a pate as shiny and bald as a baby’s bottom.

“I never said good looks alone.” He lingered on the last word, which was his tendency. “I also mentioned spirit and style. Or did you forget? Those gentlemen at the captain’s  house have them in spades.”

Jilly marched past him with a small square sign, which she placed in the window. “That isn’t spirit and style,” she said. “That’s what happens when you buy a cask of brandy and invite your debauched friends over to drink it with you until it runs out. We must start selling books soon, or we’ll run out of money.”

The sign promptly fell over, and she adjusted it again until it was right. “I need a ledge beneath the win­dow.” She brushed past Otis, wishing she had enough money to ask the carpenter who’d put in the book­shelves to come back and make the ledge. But she didn’t. She’d have to make do for a while, until profi ts started coming in.

Otis traipsed after her. “I abhor what Hector has done to you,” he said over her shoulder. “A lady should never worry about money. And she should stay far away from the taint of trade. We may thank Hector for this state of affairs.”

“Be that as it may”—she picked up a feather duster and swept it over a line of dictionaries—“please try to remember, the next time a dull, unattractive patron requests Pride and Prejudice, to acquiesce and allow him or her to purchase it.” She turned and faced him. “If you want to keep food on your plate.”

Otis made a moue of distaste. “I hate when you get dramatic. Of course I want food. Good food, too. It’s been a week since I’ve had a decent brioche.” He put his hand to his mouth, suddenly looking quite hungry. “I suppose I can part with Pride and Prejudice. But only—”

“No but onlys.” She strode past him with the feather duster and threw it in a cupboard filled with cleaning supplies, including a bottle of vinegar-and-water and the rag she used to shine the windows and the large, ornate looking glass her father had always had in his library. The rag she used to clean it was one of Papa’s old shirts, actually. She had a feeling he’d approve of her new endeavor were he alive to see it.

Comforted by that thought, she wet the rag with the vinegar-and-water solution and rubbed it in great circles around the looking glass. London was a smoky place. But even where she’d made a clean spot, the mirror appeared murky, able to reflect back only the meager gray light slanting through the shop windows.

The bell rang again.

“If you’ve come back for Mr. Darcy, you  can’t have—” Otis said in a singsong voice then paused.

“Him,” he finished in a whisper.

The glow from the lamp cast over the books went from a watery yellow to a deep, burnished gold in a trice. And no wonder. Captain Arrow, who until this moment hadn’t deigned to grace their shop, was now blocking the doorway and the scant light com­ing through it. Not only that, he was grinning as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

Maybe he hadn’t, which annoyed Jilly no end.

“Ahoy, Captain,” Otis said in an overly admiring voice.

The captain did have particularly gleaming white teeth set off by his swarthy tan, but Jilly did her best to ignore his sterling good looks. “I don’t believe we can help you,” she told her new neighbor, the rag still in her hand. “We’ve no brandy here. Only books.”

She knew it was self-pity making her churlish, but she  couldn’t seem to help herself.

“I’ve come to reinvite you to the theatrics,” the cap­tain said, ignoring her slight. “You and your assistant both.”

Otis bowed. “You do me a great honor. I am Mr. Otis Shrimpshire, bookstore clerk extraordinaire. And fashion connoisseur.” He waved a hand. “Not that it matters. Books are my business now.”

Captain Arrow seemed only slightly taken aback. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he said in amenable tones. “And marvelous shoes, if I do say so myself, Mr. Shrimpshire.”

“Please call me Otis.” Otis positively beamed at him.

Jilly pursed her lips. “Thank you for asking, Cap­tain, but  we’re not interested in attending the theat­rics.”

I am.” Otis elbowed her.

She sent him a dirty look.

“Do come, Miss Jones,” Captain Arrow urged her. “One must make merry occasionally”—his face took on a noble, serious aspect—“even a stalwart woman of business such as you.”

Woman of business. She was that,  wasn’t she? It was lovely to hear herself addressed with respect.

And stalwart. That was a good word.

“Yes, well—” she began, about to tell him that owning Hodgepodge was a massive responsibility she didn’t take lightly, then pulled herself up short.

He was making fun of her, wasn’t he?

There was a distinct twinkle in his eye.

“I’d rather be a stalwart woman of business than one of your silly lightskirts,” she snapped at him, and flicked the cleaning cloth at an invisible spiderweb. She would pretend it was the captain’s broad shoulder and that he was so cowed by her skill with the rag, he left her in peace and went home and became quiet and subdued for the rest of his life.

“The shocking female who owns this wretched store is right,” called an ugly voice from the door.

Jilly’s mouth dropped open. She ceased her rag-flicking and turned around to see who had freshly in­sulted her. A prune-faced elderly woman, her pinched mouth stained in cherry juice, shuffled into the shop and eyed them all with disdain. Her gown was elegant but unfashionable, and a small porcelain figure of a lady looking eerily like her—snooty and grand and diabolical—was hand-painted at the top of the Conti­nental dress stick upon which she leaned.

“Your  housewarming celebrations are ill-advised, Captain,” the woman continued. “You should take up your command again and go back to sea. The sooner the better.”

Jilly would have smiled triumphantly at the cap­tain, but she was far too wounded by the woman’s scathing rhetoric about herself to bother.

“Do tell me you three simpletons already knew that despite its exalted location in Mayfair, Dreare Street is considered an unlucky address,” the crone ut­tered, her words slithering out like a curse.

There was a dreadful stillness.

What a thing to say! Otis gave a small cry and blinked madly. Jilly wanted to speak, but once again, she  couldn’t find her voice. Captain Arrow appeared completely unperturbed. Perhaps his having dealt with pirates had something to do with that.

The woman thrust a withered finger toward Jilly. “You, Miss Jones, are the first to buy  here in over thirty years. And Captain Arrow, you’re the first per­son to voluntarily accept your inheritance. I know for a fact that your second cousin thrice removed at­tempted to give the  house to at least three other distant relatives of yours. None of them wanted it because it’s on Dreare Street.”

There was a beat of awful silence. Jilly’s head felt as if it would burst.

“No!” Otis flung a hand to his brow. “Why, God? Why us?” And he drew out an outrageously oversized lace handkerchief with which he covered his face and proceeded to burst into tears.

“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard,” Jilly said to the woman, her indignation of monumental propor­tions. “We live here now. And we refuse to believe such nonsense.”

She’d already had her fair share of bad luck. She refused to have more.

“Nonsense?” The woman walked over the thresh­old. “Did you, the owner of a bookstore with a ridicu­lous name, say nonsense?”

Jilly’s eyes widened, but she nodded. That small figure at the top of the cane seemed to stare malevo­lently at her.

The woman stamped her walking stick and shook Jilly out of her trance. “Lady Duchamp  doesn’t deal in nonsense. She’s too clever. And she knows that one should avoid fools.”

“Yes, but who are you, madam?” Otis asked.

The woman narrowed her eyes at him. “Why, Lady Duchamp, you idiot.” She turned to Captain Arrow next. “You’re disgustingly handsome. Aware of it, too, aren’t you? I’m sure you think staring at me as if you can see my underthings will charm me. But I’m not charmed. Not in the least.”

Jilly shared a look with Otis. Otis almost giggled but didn’t.

Thank God.

Captain Arrow stepped forward and kissed Lady Duchamp’s hand. “I find that women with tongues like adders usually have good reason for their vitriol, or at least did at one time. Consider me a friend should you ever need one, my lady.”

“Pah,” is all she said back, then lowered her brows. “I am the oldest resident on this street and the most put-upon. I despise everyone who lives  here and only wish they had more bad luck than they already have. I hope a tree falls through your shop window in a storm, young lady, drenching all your books, and as for you”— she shoved a finger at Captain Arrow’s chest—“you and your loutish friends . . . I hope the pox visits your house and kills you all.”

“What about me?” Otis looked terribly offended at being left out.

Lady Duchamp pointed the end of her stick at him.

“You, sir, are already so pathetic, I can think of noth­ing to worsen your lot in life. You are the epitome of failure and misery.”

Otis looked well satisfied with the insult.

The old woman turned on her heel and walked away at a snail’s pace. They could have easily gone after her to deliver their own insults, but Jilly knew—and apparently Otis and Captain Arrow did, as well—that such a harpy would be impervious to any barbs.

Another beat of silence passed, broken only by the sound of Otis whimpering into his handkerchief again. Finally, he lowered it and looked accusingly at Captain Arrow. “You’re a sailor, and sailors are terri­bly superstitious. What do you plan to do now that you know Dreare Street is unlucky?”

Captain Arrow shrugged. “Sell the  house as al­ways.”

“But who will want it?” asked Jilly. “Who’ll want to buy a  house—or books, for that matter—on an unlucky street?”

She felt such despair, she wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t burst into tears at any moment. But then she remembered how useless tears  were, and the despair hardened into a knot of defiance in her stomach.

Captain Arrow looked at her with the bland  con fidence of a man who seldom encountered misfortune—or if he did, quashed it. Perhaps with a broadside of cannon fire, or a saber, at the least.

“One can thwart any superstition by employing one’s wits,” he said. “I’ve defied every nautical super­stition there is without mishap. I’ve set sail on Friday, thrown a stone into the sea, stepped on and off a ship left foot first, and conversed with a ginger-haired per­son before boarding, all to no consequence. It shall be no different on Dreare Street. I’ll sell the  house and be on my way in no time.”

“You navy captains are so demmed confident!” Otis cried.

“And so should you be,” the captain insisted, slap­ping Otis on the back. “It’s a waste of time, putting credence in luck and superstition. One simply needs to use one’s own resources, and the world is your oys­ter. Is it not, Miss Jones?”

Of course, Jilly was reluctant to agree with him in any way, but she must. Here she was, the proud owner of a bookshop because she’d gone after what she wanted, which was wrong, according to the vicar in her home village. She was supposed to do only what the men in her life told her to do.

“You’re correct, Captain,” she said. “There is no such thing as bad luck. We make our own fortunes. Therefore, I declare with complete certainty that Dreare Street is not unlucky. Just because there’s an inordi­nate amount of fog in the morning, and a man next door who’s a disturbance to the peace, and no customers in Hodgepodge, and an evil old woman with a fright­ening walking stick—well, that  doesn’t mean it’s un­lucky. All that can be dealt with, I assure you.”

She crossed her arms and glared at her handsome neighbor. Woe to anyone who interfered with her plans for Hodgepodge. There was too much at stake for her to capitulate.

Thoroughly unruffled, Captain Arrow looked at her with a devastating smile on his well-defi ned lips—the kind of smile that would make any other woman swoon—and a slow-burning gleam in his golden eyes. It was as if he found her the most appealing woman in the world.

No doubt he looked at every woman that way, so Jilly refused to be flattered, even though her breath was a bit short and something depraved inside her wanted to eat him up, like a delicious pudding one licked off the sides of the bowl when no one  else was looking.

She must suppress that thought immediately.

“Excuse me, Captain. I’m busy.” The rag-snapping had lost its luster, so when her eyes lit upon a book of poetry, she determined to read a line. Any line. She opened it to a random page, held it beneath her nose, and read:

To His Coy Mistress,
by Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady,  were no crime.

My goodness! She felt scandalized, but better that than be required to look at Captain Arrow. She al­lowed herself to peek at a few more lines:

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest—

“Enjoying yourself, Miss Jones?” Captain Arrow’s honeyed tones broke through her reverie.

She slammed the volume shut, her face flushed and her temples damp. What a naughty poem! The cap­tain would no doubt adore it.

“No,” she said. “I’m not enjoying myself.” And she shoved the book back beneath at least ten others and made them into a neat pile. “I’m organizing my shop. It’s exhausting, time-consuming work.”

“All the more reason for you and Otis to come with me now,” her golden-haired nemesis said. “My friend Lumley has mixed a fine rum punch to fortify us during the performance. I assure you, our lady friends are absent, and every man is clothed”—Jilly turned scar-let—“and on his best behavior.”

Otis straightened his cravat. “I’m going.”

Jilly stomped her foot. “No, you are not.”

Otis stomped his foot back. “Come now. We need to welcome our new neighbors.”

“But we’re the new neighbors, too,” Jilly said.

“Exactly,” Captain Arrow replied, and held out his well-clad arm. He’d taken the time to put on a coat, a fine one that fit him like a glove. His cravat, she couldn’t help but notice, was a sartorial miracle. “An entertaining skit and one small cup of punch while you watch, Miss Jones. Perhaps we’ll bring better luck to Dreare Street if we all share a toast to it.”

She hesitated. Toasting their new abode did seem like a fine idea. Her father had taught her to toast when she was a small girl. Perhaps the ritual of toast­ing was just the tonic she needed to keep her more anxious thoughts at bay.

Besides, the captain’s boots  were shined so bright, she could see books reflected in them, which was a pleasant sight. Her determination to avoid the man was temporarily forgotten.

“Oh, very well,” she said, removing her apron. “Just one small skit and a cup of punch.”

It had been so long since she’d indulged in any amusements.

Too long.

Since well before she’d married the odious Hector.

She took the captain’s arm and prayed she’d con­tinue to believe he  wasn’t charming or intelligent in the least. She didn’t need a neighbor who would make her wish she  wasn’t trapped in a bad marriage to an awful man. And she most definitely didn’t want a neighbor who would uncover her secret—

That she was a runaway wife hiding from her hus­band.

 

Chapter Three

“Here is your seat of honor, Miss Jones,” Stephen said as he guided her to a faded armchair in the parlor where the theatrics  were to be held. He handed her a glass of punch. Their fingers tangled, and she fl inched ever so slightly.

“It’s quite mild,” he assured her, pretending not to notice her reaction to his touch. It was a good sign, even if she did think she abhorred him. “I’m directing this piece, so I shall leave you two to be our audience. We invited Lady Duchamp and several other neigh­bors, as well, but no one responded.”

“Then they are fools, Captain,” Otis said. “This is a lovely home. It’s large and rambling—quite lopsided, in fact—but it’s full of people with spirit, passion, and style.”

“Do you agree, Miss Jones?” Stephen  couldn’t re­sist asking her.

“I suppose I must,” said Miss Jones tartly, “if the compliment will hasten you back to your duties as stage director.”

He chuckled. “You’re rather a spitfire, aren’t you?”

“I’m nothing of the sort,” she said, and tossed her head.

He exchanged a look with Otis, who rolled his eyes, and left them. But from his position behind a potted palm near the front of the room, he watched Miss Jones focus on the stage. She was as guarded as ever, a vertical line on her brow. She took a tentative sip of the punch, and then several more.

No wonder. It was a delicious punch, Stephen’s own recipe.

Miss Jones’s eyes widened when he drew the cur­tain back and the actors appeared. His friends  were dressed as women with coconut breasts, grass skirts, and awful wigs (all of which Stephen had accrued in various ports).

Miss Jones leaned forward in her chair and watched the players avidly. Her eyes sparkled at their witty rep­artee, which Stephen had written on a piece of fools­cap that same morning. And then she laughed—a big, light, airy laugh—and clapped her hands madly at the conclusion.

Much to Stephen’s surprise, she’d turned out to be the type of audience member any playwright or actor would yearn for. In appreciation for her enthusiasm, the actors, led by Lumley, drew her up on their make­shift stage, which was really nothing more than an area of the drawing room emptied of furniture and rugs and flanked by standing candelabra. She immediately fell into the part they desired her to play, Queen of the Coconut Girls.

Otis begged to be allowed onstage as well, hopping up and down in his seat, so Lumley called him up and urged him to play the King of the Fire Dance.

Then someone began playing a set of small, primi­tive drums Stephen had purchased in the islands.

It was at that point, when Miss Jones began a lively dance, a wreath of flowers sliding off her head, that he realized his prudish neighbor was a bit tipsy. Of course, he’d planned for that. He’d had designs on her since he’d first seen her, but now—

Now he wasn’t so sure he should pursue them, at least that evening, not when she was in her cups.

Timing was everything. He knew that from the war. And now Miss Jones was pushing him out of the way to get to the window on the second fl oor so she could drop a bag of water on the target painted on the pave­ment outside 34 Dreare Street.

He was surprised he hadn’t noticed earlier that she had vivid black eyebrows made for drama. And glossy black hair done up in a tight knot begging to be unraveled. Her eyes, the startling violet-blue color of pansies, stared up into Stephen’s own with obvious plea sure.

“Watch this, Captain!” she cried lustily, and leaned out the window with her paper bag of water. The sun was just setting behind the massive holly bushes at the top of the street.

Plop.

“Bull’s-eye!” She yelled her delight then drew her head back in the window. “Another! Get me another!”

Lumley and his cohorts raced to get her another bag while Otis clapped madly.

Stephen yanked Lumley to a stop. “What in bloody hell did you put in the rum punch?”

Lumley shrugged. “The usual.”

“The usual? For a lady? I said to make it strong but not that strong. Just enough to make her somewhat malleable to the suggestion that she’s out of order ex­pecting us to be as goody-goody as she.”

Lumley had the grace to blush. “Well, you  can’t taste the rum. Not with all that delicious coconut milk and bits of orange in it,” he said defensively and paused. “I like your Miss Jones. She’s the most sport­ing female I’ve ever met. You should do everything you can to stop being such a vast annoyance to her.”

Stephen glowered at him, but Lumley didn’t seem to notice. His impatient, determined expression sug­gested he had more important things on his mind, such as filling paper bags with water. He moved on to do Miss Jones’s bidding.

“I think it’s time you went home, Miss Jones,” Ste­phen said in his best captain’s voice.

She frowned. “Whatever for? We’ve all night. Stand aside, Captain, and let the true merrymakers have their way.”

She looked at him as if he  were the dullest man on earth.

Stephen  wasn’t used to being considered dull. In fact, the assessment quite wounded him.

And he also wasn’t accustomed to insubordination. He hadn’t tolerated it on board navy ships, and he certainly  wouldn’t in his own  house.

“Your store,” he said to Miss Jones. “It needs tend­ing.”

“What do you know about it?” she said, fl agrantly defying him. “I’m the proprietress of Hodgepodge. I make all the decisions there.”

Well, then.

He turned a steely eye to Otis. “Doesn’t the store need attention, Otis?”

“Surely not, Captain.” Otis was wide-eyed. “It’s closed for the day.” And he turned his back on him and went skipping off to assist Miss Jones.

Good God. What was happening  here? What ever it was, Stephen didn’t like it. He didn’t like it the way a sailor doesn’t like a red sky in the morning, which signaled squalls ahead.

He maneuvered himself closer to his two guests, which involved squeezing in between them at the window.

“It is a late hour,” he lied. Somehow without elbow­ing anyone in the ribs, he managed to take his watch out and observe the face in an obvious manner. “And I’ve got an early-morning meeting. Do go home now, Miss Jones. You’ll escort her, Otis?”

About an inch from Stephen’s face, Otis gave a sloppy salute. “Demmed right, Cap’n.”

That was better. Sort of.

Stephen gradually moved out his elbows so neither one had any room left and waited for the two of them to figure out his silent message. Somehow, they never did—Miss Jones almost hit him in the eye with her own elbow—but after three more plops, she’d had enough and decided to go home.

“Not to tend to Hodgepodge,” she said, eyeing him askance when she rose from her perch. “But because I’m tired.”

She took Otis’s arm, and he patted her hand. “I am as well. I think.”

Stephen watched the two of them walk ahead of him toward the stairs. But Otis’s shoe, adorned with gaudy rubies and pearls no doubt made of paste, had lost a heel, a fact its owner hadn’t noticed until now. He was so busy looking for it, he knocked over a small table, whereupon a tumbler of punch fell and hit him on the head.

Miss Jones screamed when her friend sank in a heap to the fl oor.

Stephen immediately went to him, checking Otis’s head and bending over to listen to his breathing and his heart. He stood and grinned at Miss Jones to reas­sure her. “Don’t worry. He didn’t feel a thing, and I think he’s snoring, actually, so he  can’t be too bad off. I’ll get Pratt to escort him home later. You need to go home now.”

“Are you sure he’ll be safe for the nonce?” Miss Jones surprised him when she took Stephen’s much larger hands between her own and squeezed. “He’s my very special friend, Captain. Nothing can happen to him.”

Stephen—master flirt, commander of warships— was touched by her simple devotion to her eccentric companion. “He’ll be fine. I promise.”

“All right, then,” she said brightly, and dropped his hands. “We can go.”

Out on the street, he  couldn’t remember the last time a female had looked at him so—with utter trust. Women often looked at him with nary a bit of inhibi­tion, as she was doing now, as well. It stirred his blood. But the trust part disconcerted him. It made him feel noble, especially as she still had flowers in her hair and looked in need of saving.

“It was a fine party.” She yawned, and her bodice almost burst open with the effort, exposing the tops of her breasts. “What a shame it’s over.”

He thought back on the past week. He’d seen the way she’d peeked through her shop window to observe the boisterous goings-on taking place at his  house. No one looked that often without wishing they were some­how involved in the merriment themselves.

“Tomorrow is always another day for a party,” Stephen said, suddenly encouraged—encouraged in a heated way—by her bodice and by her unusual com­placency. He was a man, after all, a man who’d recently been on a long voyage with no women to charm him.

They stopped outside her door.

She looked up at him, and he was tempted—tempted even though if he were being sensible, he knew she was all wrong for him.

All wrong.

But the primal part of him reminded him she  wasn’t all wrong, was she? He saw her lips, plump and pink and half parted. Why shouldn’t he kiss them?

Encouraged even further by her utter stillness—so unusual for an unmanageable miss— he leaned in an inch—

And she stepped back an entire foot. Defi nitely out of kissing range. Even out of hugging range.

Miss Jones opened her door, pulled it almost shut behind her, and peeked out. “I enjoyed the evening!” she said airily, and gave him a brilliant smile.

He had that same utterly lost feeling he’d had the first time he’d let a line accidentally slip through a cleat, leaving a sail flapping uselessly in the wind and out of his reach.

“I’m, ah, glad you enjoyed the punch,” he said. “It’s a special recipe from the islands.”

“Oh.” That grin again. “It was delicious. But the fumes made my nose prickle, so I poured some into the dead potted palm near the stage after the perfor­mance.”

“You mean when you  were dancing and dropping bags of water . . . ?”

She nodded. “I was simply having fun. I think. I’m not quite sure. I’ve never had punch before. I feel—”

“Yes?” She had a certain longing look in her eyes that made him want to rip the door open and kiss her.

“I feel—” She hesitated and bit her lower lip. “I feel like . . .”

Dammit all, she felt as if she wanted to kiss him. He could tell.

She lifted her chin and suddenly looked noble and passionate, like Joan of Arc. “I feel like reading,” she said.

Reading?

She nodded avidly. “Oh, yes. I do it every night before I go to bed.”

Bed. She shouldn’t have said that. He imagined her in a high-necked cotton night rail with a long row of buttons.

She let out a pleased sigh. “Yes, every night I read.”

Of course, on the ship, he read every night, too. But he’d much rather read the curves and sighs of a warm, willing woman, any day.

“I’m reading mythology this week,” she went on. “I adore Hermes.”

“The messenger god?” Stephen was doing his best to turn away from thoughts of undoing her buttons one by one.

“Yes.” She grinned. “The book I’m reading now has impressive illustrations of him. In one picture, he’s standing with his fists on his hips and one knee bent, and he’s laughing. It’s as if he’s looking straight at me.”

Stephen saw her eyes turn dreamy, and it wasn’t about him. It was about that damned Hermes.

“I suppose you’re not in your cups, then, if you can read about the gods tonight.” He scratched his head, most disappointed.

“Me?” Her nose wrinkled. “In my cups? Whyever would I be?”

Stephen felt extremely guilty of a sudden. “No reason.”

“I’m beginning to think you had a secret plan,” she said stoutly. “I should have stayed more on guard this eve ning.”

“I’m a wolf, am I?”

She closed the door a fraction of an inch. “We both know what you’re after, Captain.”

He moved forward and said into the crack, “Come back out  here, Miss Jones, and tell me what that is.”

“No,” she replied in confident tones. “You already know.”

He sighed. “Can’t you be complacent again? As you  were just a minute ago when you  were yawning?”

“Complacent?” Her pitch  rose a notch.

“Yes, dammit all. Complacent.” He felt like knock­ing his head against the shop’s stone wall.

“I knew it!” she cried. “You were trying to ply me with punch, so I’d stop complaining about the noise from your house. Either that, or so I’d become another one of your fancy women.”

“Miss Jones.” She’d guessed correctly, of course.

“Don’t ‘Miss Jones’ me.” She huffed. “You’re a sore loser. You could at least admit I’m right.”

“Very well.” He blew out a breath of frustration. “You’re a shrewd woman. Impossible to fool.”

“And you’re an intelligent man to recognize that fact.”

All evening he’d been thinking about the moment their fi ngers had met around that glass of punch. She was ripe for a man’s touch, and he was heady with longing to be that man.

“Now let’s go back to how you looked when we were navigating the corner,” he said in a husky whis­per. “Happy. Sporting. Kissable.

There was a beat of silence, but it was cut short by her predictable bluestocking gasp. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” she hissed through the crack. “I told you I’ve no need to be sporting for you or anyone else. Nor shall I kiss you. Ever.”

The crack in the door became even smaller, but he noticed she didn’t shut it completely.

He leaned on the jamb and saw her eye, unblinking but narrowed. “It would be so much easier for both of us if you’d fall in line.”

That same eye grew wide and offended.

“Not in a million years,” she declared. “How can I sell books when you persist in tomfoolery? I enjoyed being Queen of the Coconut Girls and dropping those bags of water very much. But I’m wise enough to know there’s a time and a place for making merry, and doing so every night and day on a street where many other people live and work is not the time nor the place.” She paused a beat. “Good night, Captain. Please send Otis back when he’s feeling better, with both his shoes and his missing heel.”

She shut the door in his face.

In his face.

Stephen could hardly believe it. If anyone had done that on board his ship, they’d have been thrown into the ship’s brig. And when they were let out, made to scrub the decks with a tiny scrub brush until they gleamed.

 

Jilly leaned against the bookshop door and took a deep breath. Captain Arrow was a dangerous man. Thank God he was leaving Dreare Street soon.

Dancing on stage had made her giddy with delight. So had dropping bags of water out the window. Even walking home with the captain had made her happy. Possibly because he was breathtakingly handsome. And funny. He’d made clever jokes all night long, the kind that sometimes took a minute to ponder because his sense of humor was so dry.

Of course, she’d ignored them. She didn’t want him to think he was entertaining in the least.

She was on to his strategy: he’d confessed it him­self. He wanted her to fall in line, to make her more malleable, to turn her over to his way of thinking. He believed one could take part in revelries whenever one wanted to, whether one had obligations or not. He wanted her to stop complaining and join his party in­defi nitely!

Thank God she’d not succumbed.

“Oh, dear,” she muttered, and put her fingers to her lips. She  couldn’t help thinking about how close she’d come to seeing things his way, when he’d put his mouth so close to the crack in the door and said the word kissable.

For a split second, she’d had visions of them doing just that. But then she’d remembered.

Hector.

She was married already, and to a cruel, stupid man—a distant cousin, actually—who’d delighted in making her miserable while running through her fa­ther’s fortune. From his deathbed, Papa had acknowl­edged Hector was a crude sort of man, but he was also the true heir. He was kind to marry Jilly and not force her out of her own home,  wasn’t he?

Jilly shuddered. If only Papa had known Hector’s true nature. He was the opposite of kind.

But it’s all right, a stalwart voice in her head re­minded her. At least you’re free of him now.

Jilly’s mother had owned a small property indepen­dent of her husband’s estate. Thanks to the discretion of her family attorney, Hector had known nothing about it. Jilly had sold it off, along with a steady stream of precious family heirlooms, behind Hector’s back, to raise the funds to buy Hodgepodge.

And then she’d run away—in the middle of the night.

She’d been terrified, but the closer she’d come to London, the more exhilarated she’d become.

It was a new life for her. A new life for Otis, too.

Now she yawned and crawled into bed, comforted by the thought that someday she’d be able to go long lengths of time without thinking of her husband.

But she found she  couldn’t sleep, and not because she was thinking of Hector. She was thinking about Captain Arrow again. They’d never gotten around to making those toasts to Dreare Street, had they?

“And we probably never will,” she whispered softly to herself. “Not if his aim is to ply me with punch.”

Even as she said it, she felt regrets about what couldn’t be. Because the evening had been unlike any she’d ever known. Diverting, joyful.

With many plops.

She thought back to the sheer exuberance she’d felt dropping those bags of water. And before that, the dancing between the fl aming candelabra, surrounded by men in grass skirts.

Hector would have hated every minute of it.

But thinking of him again made Jilly’s chest tighten with fear and loathing, so she closed her eyes and clutched her coverlet close, only to slip into a dream about coconuts and drums. 

Copyright 2011 by Kieran Kramer 


 

Kieran Kramer was born in Washington, D.C. to an Air Force pilot father and actress/singer mother. Having worked for the CIA and as a regional feature story writer and health columnist for The Charlotte Observer, Kieran is now a stay-at-home mom. She’s been married to her naval officer husband, Chuck, for twenty-one years. Visit her on the Web at www.kierankramerbooks.com to learn more.

Tue
Apr 19 2011 3:00pm
Excerpt

Cloudy with a Chance of Marriage: New Excerpt

Every woman dreams of saying “I do.” Jilly Jones did—and years of a deeply imperfect marriage followed. Now living in London and working in a charming bookshop, the free-spirited Jilly is perfectly content with her newfound independence…until she meets a dashing naval officer who sparks her longing for a real happily ever after.

An exclusive extended excerpt of Chapters 1-3 of Cloudy with a Chance of Marriage (Available April 26, 2011) by Kieran Kramer.

Chapter One

Books  were Jilly’s great escape, but unless she chose to use them as missiles—which she’d considered but decided against as they were her source of livelihood now—even they couldn’t save her from the unpleasant task before her. She must stop the loud goings-on at the dead end of the cobblestone lane once and for all.

She walked up from a murky bed of fog that swirled thickly about her knees onto the front steps of 34 Dreare Street and knocked on the door. The sprawling three-story  house was situated on a scrap of lawn at a right angle to her own shop. A tattered skull-and-crossbones flag hung listlessly against the roofline while a piece of wood painted with the words house for sale leaned against the aged foundation.

No answer.

She knocked again and heard bumping noises and several loud male voices, one of them singing off-key.

[Read more...]