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Authors: Shelly Ellis

Can't Stand the Heat

BOOK: Can't Stand the Heat
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Can't Stand the Heat
SHELLY ELLIS
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
To the little one in my tummy, I'm proud of all of my
work, but you are—by far—my greatest creation. I look
forward to seeing the mark you make on your little
part of the world.
Acknowledgments
I've had people ask me what's the hardest part about writing.
Coming up with story ideas? Sitting down at your desk and toiling over plot lines, dialogue, and descriptions? Just getting the damn thing done?
I always say, “Unfortunately, no. Those are all the easy parts.” The hard part is getting your book off your computer screen and on bookshelves—as I'm sure many aspiring novelists can attest to. My own journey from computer screen to bookstore was a trying though rewarding one, and there were many people who helped me along the way.
First and foremost, I would like to thank my husband, Andrew. He's a no-nonsense guy with a big heart who is always there for me with a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen when I need to lament, and he is always there with a hug and a kiss for all of my successes. Thank you for being there. You're a wonderful partner, a great friend and I'm happy to travel on this journey with you at my side. I'm a lucky woman.
Next, I want to say thanks to my mom and dad—first cheerleaders. Mom, thanks for talking me into submitting to my first writer's contest and telling me my work was just as good as the books you read at the library. Dad, thanks for haranguing me at the kitchen table when I was 7 years old for not writing longer sentences for my homework assignments. After all, a writer has to start somewhere.
A special thanks to Mercedes Fernandez, my wonderful editor at Kensington. Not too many unagented authors can say they were plucked out of the slush pile and rewarded with a book series contract. I say it all the time—I feel like I won the lotto! Thank you for discovering my work, being a champion for the Gibbons girls and their craziness, and for your support, encouragement, and feedback. Also, thanks to the rest of the Kensington team (Editor Selena James, Publicist Adeola Saul and the sales and marketing team) for all your hard work. I am honored to work with you.
I would also like to thank the editors I've worked with in the past: Glenda Howard, Deborah Johnson Schumaker and Sidney Rickman. (Sidney, I wish I could carry editors like you in my pocket! My writing would definitely be a lot cleaner.)
I'm new to Kensington and still a babe in the book industry, but some authors have been very welcoming and encouraging and helped me shake some of my anxiety. Thanks to Cydney Rax, Cheris Hodges and Phyllis Bourne for your kind words over the Web.
I would also like to say thanks to the Washington Romance Writers. And to go way, way back . . . thanks to all my English and Journalism teachers who convinced me that I was meant to be a writer, as opposed to a civil engineer or a computer scientist. Though the other fields definitely came with better pay, this one has been a lot more gratifying (and I suck at math).
Thanks to the book blogs, book clubs, and review sites that have shown their support for my work in the past: OOSA Online Book Club, Urban Reviews Online, Eye on Romance, Shades of Romance, Night Owl Reviews, etc. An author's career can be made by word of mouth, so I definitely appreciate your words in particular.
And finally, thanks to the many family and friends that I didn't name individually because that would probably require a book in itself. (And I'd definitely get myself into trouble if I named some of you but not all of you.) Much love and many thanks!
Prologue
“L
auren?
Lauren!”
Lauren Gibbons had been staring blankly at her reflection in her oval vanity mirror, seeing her face glaze over into a brown blur as she became lost in thought. At her boyfriend James's angry barking, her image and the room suddenly came rushing back into focus.
“Huh?” Lauren murmured. “What?”
James sighed. “Did you hear anything I said?”
She glanced at the hairbrush she held over her head. She had forgotten it was there.
“I'm sorry, baby. I was . . . distracted.” She smiled apologetically. “I was brushing my hair.”
“So you can't do both at once?” James strode out of his walk-in closet, unbuttoning his shirt cuffs. “Too challenging for you?”
She slowly set the brush on the vanity dresser top and watched cautiously in the mirror as he paced around their four-poster bed.
He had plenty of room to pace—easily. Their bedroom was massive, with vaulted ceilings and enough square footage for eight California king-size beds. It was filled wall to wall with imposing mahogany furniture and decorated with artificially aged gold candelabras, sconces, and knickknacks. James said the decor made him feel like royalty, but Lauren had always had a very different take on the room. Like James, their bedroom made her feel crowded at all sides despite the expanse. She felt downright claustrophobic.
She watched James in the mirror's reflection. James flexed his fingers anxiously and frowned, making his wrinkles even more pronounced. He seemed in a particularly bad mood tonight . . . agitated, perhaps, but it didn't take much to set him off these days. His quick temper was one of the many reasons she wanted to leave him. In fact, only seconds ago she had been wrangling over when she would finally do just
that,
before he rudely yanked her from those thoughts.
“I need to know what you plan to wear. I want to see it.”
Lauren turned slightly on the upholstered bench to face him. “Wear to what?”
“What do you mean, ‘wear to what'? I swear, if you were more focused on what's going on around you than on primping and preening in front of that goddamn mirror, I wouldn't have to keep repeating myself!”
She flinched. There it was: the feeling of the walls pressing in, of the furniture getting closer and closer, bearing down on her. Lauren closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She opened her eyes again.
“I just didn't hear you, James,” she began quietly, trying to placate him. “Calm down, baby. It's not that big of a deal. Just—”
“I was talking about the cocktail party on Thursday—a very important cocktail party, I might add. So don't tell me it's not that big of a deal! I expect very important clients to be there and I want to see what you're wearing. I don't want anything tasteless or too revealing.”
Tasteless or too revealing?
Funny, those same ensembles were what drew him to her in the first place. Back then, he had liked when she was sexy and alluring. Now, whenever they went out together, he acted as if she should wear a nun's habit or a burqa.
“You want to inspect my clothes?” She stood, shrugged out of her satin robe, and tossed it over the vanity bench. “James, give me some credit. I've been dressing myself since I was seven years old. I know what's appropriate and what isn't. I swear that I'll wear something nice. OK?”
“And I can only imagine what your interpretation of ‘nice' is. No, I want to see the dress. If it isn't right, I need time to look through that football field of a closet of yours to find something suitable. I want you to show it to me tomorrow. No later. Understood?”
Lauren clenched her fists at her sides. She was getting tired of this, of James ordering her around and acting as if he
owned
her. She had tried to ignore it at first. She certainly had enough incentive to swallow down her frustrations: the fifteen-thousand-dollar-a-month allowance, the Bentley parked in the driveway, and the sparkling trinkets he surprised her with on a weekly basis. But she couldn't keep quiet for long. She had reached her breaking point a few weeks ago and told him that she was tired of him giving her orders, and he had laughed at her. He had actually
laughed
at her. It had taken all her willpower not to walk out on him that very minute.
“Then I'm not going,” she said.
He took off his shirt and tossed it on their bed. “What?”
“I said I'm not going to the party!”
She pushed back her shoulders. At her full height—five-foot-one-half inch—she wasn't a very imposing figure. But all the same, she wanted him to know that she meant business, that she meant what she said.
“If you feel you have to approve of what I wear before you're willing to bring me in front of your precious law partners and clients, then . . . then . . . damn it, I'll stay home!”
He narrowed his eyes at her. His stare was glacial, meant to freeze all the willpower out of her. But she was too hot with anger to be intimidated by him tonight.
“Lauren, don't issue me ultimatums. You're not in a position to. Just be a good little girl and do as I say.” He raised his eyebrows. “All right?”
“You treat me like a child and it's getting old!” She threw up her hands. “In fact, it's past getting old! It's damn near ancient!”
Lauren's heart thudded in her chest. They had been together for two years, and half of that time she had made excuses for him and excuses to stay, but she finally had to admit it: Their relationship had to end. It was time to tender her resignation. She had fulfilled her role as James's arm candy, his young plaything, and he as her sugar daddy.
James gazed at her, looking both irritated and dumbfounded. “Lauren, I don't know what the hell has gotten into you, but if you don't—”
“If I don't
what?
If I don't what, James?” She blew an angry gust of air through her nose and crossed her arms over her chest. “Look, I'm through listening to you! I'm tired of putting up with all your bullshit! I'm done!”
“You're done? So you're done with me
and
my money? You're done with all those clothes in your closet? You're done with the trips to St. Bart's and Paris?” He chuckled. “I know you, Lauren. I know you better than you know yourself, sweetheart. There's no way you're done with me.”
And he's so sure of himself. He's so sure I won't walk away from him.
But she would prove him wrong.
“Go to hell, James.”
Lauren then turned and walked toward the bedroom door, intending to march to one of the guest rooms. There was no way she was sharing a bed with him tonight. In the morning, when she had a clearer head, she would pack her things and make plans about what to do next. She could move in with her mother or one of her sisters. She still had a few culinary classes to complete, but maybe she could get a job as a cook somewhere. She was talented. Why not? Maybe she could finally pursue
her
dreams for once.
Lauren could feel the sense of claustrophobia waning. She felt freer, lighter with each step she took.
But that feeling abruptly ended when James grabbed the back of her nightgown, pulling the silk fabric tight across her chest, catching her by surprise. She heard one of the seams rip just as he seized a hunk of her hair. The pain radiated from her roots to seemingly every nerve ending in her body. Her hands instantly flew to her scalp and she winced and screamed.
She shrieked and kicked as he hauled her back through the bedroom door, making her lose her slippers during the struggle. Her feet left winding twin tracks in the plush carpet as he dragged her across the room.
James pulled her to her feet and she clawed at his hands and face, leaving a bloody trail along his cheeks and neck, but he made no attempt to fight her off. At six foot two, he practically towered over her and he outweighed her by almost one hundred pounds. He easily had the advantage. It was a fight she couldn't win.
She had no time to prepare or brace herself when he backhanded her across the face. It felt like he had taken a two-by-four and walloped it across her cheek. He slapped her again with the same force and she lost her balance. She grabbed for her vanity, clutching for its side to keep from tumbling to the floor. But both she and the vanity went crashing to the carpet. Perfume bottles, makeup compacts, hairbrushes, nail polishes, and combs went flying everywhere. The air suddenly filled with the acrid, sickening smell of several powerful scents released at once.
Lauren rolled onto her stomach and tried to crawl away from him. He was blocking the path to the door, so she tried to seek the safety of a corner near one of the bureaus, but he caught her by the ankle and dragged her back. Suddenly, James was crouched over her, slapping her, punching her, and shouting as he did it. His shouts were just as loud as her screams.
He was mostly incoherent, but any soul who was close enough to hear could get the gist of what he was yelling: She had no right to walk out on him. He was James Henry Sayers!
No one
walked out on him, especially a well-paid hooker like her.
Lauren fought at first, but she grew weaker with each punch. When she couldn't fight anymore, she crouched into a fetal position, waiting for the blows to end or for her to lose consciousness—whatever came first.
Then suddenly, the phone rang. As if someone had waved a magic wand, the deluge of violence abruptly ended. James glanced over his shoulder at the open bedroom door.
“I was . . . I was expecting this call,” he said with an eerie calm through huffs of breath. He sat back on his shins, licking his lips. “I have to . . . I have to take this.”
Her hands were still shielding her face, but between her fingers she watched as James slowly rose to his feet. He gazed down at her one last time, wiping the sweat from his brow.
“I wish you wouldn't talk so much trash, Lauren. I hate it when you mouth off to me. I deserve more respect than that.”
He turned to head to the doorway, tiredly dragging his feet as he walked.
“Go in the bathroom and clean yourself up. Then clean this place up, will you?”
He rubbed his sore knuckles and shut the door behind him.
Through the bedroom wall, Lauren heard James pick up the phone in his office. She lowered her hands and pushed herself to her elbows, then to a sitting position. Tears spilled onto her cheeks. She was trembling so much that her teeth chattered.
James had hit her. No, he had
beat
her. It was as if some switch had clicked on inside of him, and for the first time she had seen what was seething beneath his sarcasm, beneath his belittling. He was psychotic. He was a monster. She had to get out of here.
Lauren could still hear him talking on the phone in the other room.
Though her body was riddled with pain, though she could barely see through her burning red eyes, she rose to her feet. She limped toward the bedroom door and, after some hesitation, cracked it open, peering into the hallway. She could hear James more clearly now. He was laughing. Who would have guessed he had been beating up his girlfriend only minutes earlier?
The office door was ajar, but luckily the stairs were in the opposite direction at the end of the hall. If she was going to get out of this house, she had to do it now.
Lauren took a few steadying breaths, feeling her stomach tighten, feeling her muscles jitter. She was in pain, but she hoped adrenaline would carry her the rest of the way. On the third breath, she bolted—too terrified to look back.
BOOK: Can't Stand the Heat
13.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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