Welcome to “Excerpt Monday”! Since it’s my turn at bat, I’m here to share my new Grand Central Forever Yours book, The Bottom Line!
The Bottom Line is a contemporary romance and the first in The Ladies Who Lunch series. My heroine is Mallory Hamilton, a woman with some scars on her heart. My hero is Ben Carpenter, the man she hires to renovate her home, a place badly in need of some TLC.
We pick up the scene as Mallory and her best friend, one of the Ladies, head to a church singles’ night.
One of the men gave her and Juliana a half wave, and Mallory smiled in return. Robert Ashford was here, so at least there would be one more familiar and friendly face. He tapped the shoulder of the guy next to him whose broad back was to the women and gestured his brown bottle Mallory’s direction. Then the man turned to look at them.
Ben Carpenter. Her carpenter.
“Wow.” Juliana nudged Mallory’s arm. “That one’s a looker. Tall drink of water, too. Think I might ask him to dance.”
“You can’t.” Was that a note of jealousy in her own voice?
“He’s the guy working on my house. Ben Carpenter.”
“You have a carpenter named Carpenter? That’s priceless.” Juliana stared at him for a few long moments. “You get to see him every day?” She let out a low whistle. “Maybe I need to find some projects for him to do at my house.”
“He’s got a full-time job and works on my house evenings. He doesn’t have enough time to do anything for you.”
“Careful, Mal…You’re sounding possessive, which makes me very, very happy. This one might have a chance. You already know him, and it’s obvious you’re interested.”
Mallory shook her head.
“Why don’t you give this guy a shot? The way he’s grinning at you, I’d say he’s interested, too.” She nudged Mallory with her shoulder. “Go on. Go ask him to dance.”
“I’m still having my wine.”
When Mallory took a sip, Juliana tilted her glass up so she’d have to finish it before snatching the glass from her hand. “You’re done now.”
Her throat burned from drinking the wine so quickly. “I can’t ask him to dance.”
“Sure you can.”
“I can’t! I’m not—he wouldn’t want me. At least not yet.”
“Don’t make me smack you for saying something that stupid.” Juliana shoved her with her shoulder, a little rougher than the last time. “Go. Oh…wait. Looks like you won’t have to.”
“What are you—” Mallory’s eyes flew wide. “Lord Almighty, he’s coming over here.” She swallowed hard before the reality of the situation hit her, calming her anxiety. “He’s coming over here for you, Jules. You look spectacular tonight, by the way.”
“Don’t I always?” She winked. “But I’ll bet you another drink he’s gonna ask you to dance, not me. He hasn’t taken his eyes off you.”
As if anyone would even consider her when Juliana was right under his nose. “You’re on.”
Ben stopped in front of them and smiled that lopsided smile that made Mallory’s stomach somersault. He was staring right at her. “Who’s on, and what are you on for?”
“Mallory just bet me—”
She stopped Juliana from being her wicked self and blurting out what they’d bet upon by kicking her gently. The woman didn’t have any kind of filter between her brain and her mouth.
“Hi, Ben. How are you?”
“I’m great, Mallory.” His gaze shifted to Juliana. “Hi, I’m—”
“Ben Carpenter. Mallory already told me all about you.” Jules held up the two wineglasses. “I’d shake your hand, but…”
“Double-fisted drinker, eh?” His chuckle was warm, but his eyes returned to Mallory.
“Not at these prices,” Juliana replied.
“You look nice in pink,” he said to Mallory.
Her whole body flushed hot in response to his intense stare. He was clearly choosing skinny, little her over Juliana.
Although Juliana was her dearest friend, whenever Mallory was with her, she felt rather invisible even before all the changes. Perhaps it was the long red hair. Natural red, too. Not a brassy bottle red. Her eyes were a sparkling green. Her Irish heritage shone through in her curvy shape. The only thing missing was the accent, and Jules could even affect one of those when she put her mind to it. Heaven knew she’d trotted it out to use on guys she met in bars just for kicks and giggles.
His hands were halfway in his back pockets, and he rocked on his feet as though nervous. She’d never seen this side of him before. “I don’t suppose you’d want to…I don’t know…dance?”
“You’re asking me?” Juliana laughed and held up the wineglasses. “Thanks, but my hands are full.”
“I wasn’t…Oh.” A nervous laugh made Mallory smile at his unease. “You knew I meant Mallory.” He turned those brown eyes on full power, melting something inside her. “D’ya wanna dance?”
The question came out so quickly, it sounded like one long word.
She took mercy on him and indulged herself in her only chance to ever be in his strong arms. “Sure. I-I’d like that.”
Ben let out a long, relieved breath. He hadn’t been that nervous since asking a girl whose name he now couldn’t even remember to the junior prom.
He stretched out his hand. “Then come on. Dance with me.”
After a moment of hesitation that made his heart skip a beat, Mallory put her hand in his.
The dance floor wasn’t crowded, but there were enough other couples so he didn’t have to feel as though all eyes were on them.
Robert was leaning against the wall, grinning like a damned fool. He’d already teased Ben ad nauseam about how Mallory would fall in love with him while he fixed up her house. The joshing was probably Ben’s fault. He’d made what he’d hoped were subtle inquiries into how long ago Mallory had been divorced and whether there was a chance of Mr. Hamilton ever returning to the picture. Robert told him her husband had walked out without a word of warning almost a year ago.
The song changed right as Ben was about to show her that he really couldn’t dance well. Only country line dancing made him comfortable, usually because he was among a bunch of other drunk, wannabe cowboys and cowgirls who missed steps as often as he did. Thankfully, the DJ put on a slow song, the type that made holding her close acceptable. Since she seemed reticent, he guided her arms around his neck and set his hands on her waist.
She’s thin. No doubt the stress from the divorce, and it wasn’t as though he didn’t like what he saw. But he wanted to help her stay healthy. He’d already formed a game plan to fatten her up a smidge, aiming to do something he’d never done for another woman.
He’d cook for her.
After Theresa left, money had been tight, so he’d stretched dollars by learning to cook. Amber had joined in, learning along with him. She was good. He was great. He could make one of his specialties for Mallory.
Since when had he needed to think of lame excuses to get a woman interested in him?
Most women liked the way he looked. His ego loved how their gazes lingered and how often they approached him instead of forcing him to make the first move. He wasn’t a tomcat, but since his divorce, he’d taken a few of the more interesting ladies up on their offers of intimacy. They were one-night stands—always at their places—that meant nothing to him except a satisfying physical release. He’d left instead of spending the night. While he made sure they enjoyed themselves, he’d never once considered starting another relationship.
His first marriage had been hell, and Amber needed stability. He wasn’t about to start parading women in and out of his daughter’s life. The few liaisons he’d had were private, and he hadn’t truly thought of seeking out a new mate. Marriage was for other guys.
Then Mallory Hamilton had called to ask his help. A week of getting to know her while he fixed her foyer floor and put a new toilet and vanity in her downstairs half bath, and he’d found himself besotted.
As they swayed with the music, Ben couldn’t seem to get her to loosen up. Holding her was akin to dancing with an ironing board. He let his hands drift up to rub small circles on her back, and she slowly eased her rigid posture. By the time a second song began, she was relaxing.
“This is my favorite song,” he whispered in her ear so she’d keep dancing. Then he dared to press his lips to her earlobe.
When she shivered and nodded, he smiled, grateful she couldn’t see his grin. She might mistake it for smug instead of for what it was—relieved. Her divorce was still fresh. She’d need time and patience to learn to trust another guy. Although he wasn’t at all sure Mallory would be anything more than a passing fancy, at least her surrender meant he’d have a chance to find out if she could be something more.
Ben loved her scent. Light. Utterly feminine. He tightened his embrace, wanting to press her against him so he could savor the feel of her in his arms.
“I—I didn’t think you’d ask me to dance.” Her voice was hushed.
“Because of Juliana. She’s so much more…”
“You mean the redhead?”
“She’s so much more what?”
Giving her a squeeze, he rubbed his chin on the top of her head. She was a little bit of a thing. Couldn’t be more than a couple inches over five feet. Delicate. Feminine. “Are you fishing for a compliment?”
She bumped his chin when she tilted her head back to glare at him. “No! I wasn’t…I mean…”
Ben flashed her a grin. “I was teasing. But you’re prettier. Besides…I know you. I don’t know anything about her.”
“It’s a mixer. You’re not supposed to know anyone here.”
“I don’t like mixing much.”
“Then why did you come?” She’d stopped dancing, so he did the same. Her eyes kept searching his, making him wish he knew what she was looking for so he could try to be that man.
“I came because Robert told me you’d be here.”
When life gets tough and love is hard to find, four friends take their troubles to lunch. Surviving a failed marriage and an illness that almost takes her life, high school teacher Mallory Hamilton needs the Ladies Who Lunch more than ever . . .
After a year of upheaval, Mallory has had her fill of change-with one exception. Her house is a disaster, and she wants it fixed. Hiring a contractor to finish the projects her ex-husband started will help her banish the past so she can return to the life she had before everything went awry. But her contractor is sexy, sweet, and single, which threatens the peaceful, solitary life Mallory has planned for herself.
Ben Carpenter has had a hard time raising his daughter without his ex-wife’s help. His new client’s projects will give him the extra income he needs, not to mention afternoons alone with a gorgeous woman. Though their attraction is undeniable, Ben sees the fear and pain hiding in Mallory’s beautiful eyes. But how can he help her if she won’t let him in? Ben can fix just about anything-but can he fix Mallory’s broken heart?