One of romance's hot new writers, Kelley St. John gives us a steamy contemporary in the vein of Lori Foster about a larger than life woman who's finally decides to take a leap into the wild side
- Grand Central Publishing
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Real Women Don't Wear Size 2: WarningDangerous Curves Ahead
By Kelley St. John
WARNER FOREVERCopyright © 2006 Kelley St. John
All right reserved.
Chapter One"To holidays," Ethan Eubanks said, lifting his Starbucks cup of espresso.
"To holidays," Clarise Robinson agreed, then added, "and sales. Lots and lots of sales." She picked up her peppermint mocha, complete with whipped cream and red sprinkles, and tapped it against his mug. Then she brought the cup to her mouth, laughed, then stuck her tongue in the center of the cream and captured every sprinkle.
"Amazing how you can be such an adult at the store all day, then completely lose every ounce of maturity with a single cup of coffee," he said, smirking. His turquoise eyes surveyed her over the top of his cup, but the tiny crinkles at the corners told Clarise he thought her childish antic was cute. Fine. Let him see her as his cute best friend this afternoon; tonight, he was in for a surprise. A big surprise. She fought the urge to wince, hating when the word "big" slipped into her vocabulary, even if only in her mind. "Curvy"-that was the better word. Ethan was in for a curvy surprise. She smiled.
"Okay, what's that for?" he asked, never failing to read her signals, even if he couldn't read her mind.
"I'm just looking forward to the company Christmas party tonight. I still can't believe you reserved the ballroom at the Civic Center. Nice move, boss."
A triumphant grin spread into his cheeks. "Nice try, Robinson," he countered. "That sneaky smile of yours has nothing to do with the Civic Center and everything to do with what you're wearing to the party. Go on, admit it; you're glad you bought the dress."
She placed her cup on the table and narrowed her eyes. "That thing cost me a week's commission," she argued.
"Don't go trying to pull that on me, Ms. Robinson. I'm betting you made enough to pay for that sexy number today, didn't you? You forget I see you in action on a daily basis. Every other department head wonders how you've had top sales for the past three quarters, but you're not fooling me. I've heard those women come in and ask for you by name, and I see your sales figures, remember? Moreover, I sign your checks. In truth, I'm beginning to think Eubanks Elegant Apparel can't afford you."
She laughed at that. "Right. Can't afford to lose me, you mean. My commissions may be high, but my sales are higher, and face it, Ethan, you can't live without me." She lifted her cup again, took a big sip, and silently wondered if tonight he might actually believe the statement. Would he see her in the slinky red dress and suddenly visualize the woman beyond the top salesperson? Beyond the best friend? Would he see that the girl behaving childishly right now was actually a thirty-year-old female with needs as big as ... well, as big as her boobs and her behind? Did he ever think of her that way?
She sipped the drink and lowered the cup. Problem was, the whipped cream still towering on the top of the liquid had ended up dotting the end of her nose and causing her best friend-slash-boss-slash-fantasy ... to laugh.
Clarise whisked away the cream with her napkin, though if she'd been at home, she'd have captured it with her finger and popped the sweetness in her mouth. Unfortunately, she wasn't home, and double unfortunately, she'd just let him catch her in another childish moment. Oh well, it was nearly Christmas. If she was going to behave like a kid, might as well do it at the right season.
"You're cute, Clarise," he said, and took another sip.
"I know," she said, trying her best to sound cocky.
He laughed again then asked the obvious. "You do love the dress, don't you?"
"With a passion," he admitted. "I swear, when you told me to buy it, I thought you'd lost your mind. I mean, generally, a Ben di Lisi isn't intended for a woman with my"-she paused, took a deep breath of air and forced a surge of confidence-"curves."
"I'm not touching that remark since it's bogus. Like you tell our customers at the store, beautiful garments are meant for beautiful women-of all sizes. And trust me; those curves were meant to be flaunted. The customers believe it; why can't you follow your own advice?"
She sipped the spicy drink, let the warm fluid coat her throat while she rehearsed her answer in her mind before uttering the words aloud for Ethan, and whoever was close enough to their table at Starbucks, to hear. "I do play this up at work," she said, then waved a hand down her abundant body. "I work with color, texture, accessories, to emphasize the parts that I want emphasized," she said, and refused to finish with, "and downplay the parts I don't." However, she did add, "I just don't generally wear something as-flamboyant-as that dress."
"Exactly," he said. "And I have no complaints whatsoever with the way you dress at the store, conservative, yet classy. Plus, your makeup is always flawless, and your perfected updo gives you the final touches for conveying sophisticated elegance, exactly the image we want to reflect at the store. Shoot, I can tell the women are merely buying all of the pieces so they can achieve your look."
She beamed. "Thanks."
"But," he continued.
"But what?" she questioned, glaring at him. "Don't ruin it now; you're batting a thousand, and I'm feeling pretty good."
One sandy brow lifted. "But you're always covered from head to toe, and in all honesty, if you're going to preach curve flaunting to our customers, you should actually flaunt some yourself, at least once a year." He grinned sneakily, knowing he'd hit a nerve.
Clarise swallowed. "Oh, I have no problem flaunting curves. It just isn't professional to go around showing a bunch of skin during business hours. Besides, it isn't how much you show; it's in the way you present yourself, with attitude and confidence. That's what I tell our customers."
"And the right clothes?" Ethan asked, naturally tying this conversation back to Eubanks Elegant Apparel.
"And the right clothes," she agreed.
"Hey, I was pulling your chain, and it appears I did a damn good job," he said, touching a finger to her cheek, which, Clarise could tell by the stinging, was obviously red.
"Look, they put out those cranberry bliss bars you love. I'll go get us some." He stood and walked toward the food counter, while Clarise watched him move. Lord, he looked good when he walked away. Then again, he looked good when he walked toward her too. Six-foot-plus of tall, sandy-haired, muscled male in a tailored suit and confidence galore was a mighty fine thing to see.
"Pulling my chain," she said to herself. "I knew that." But did he know that the reason it was so easy for him to pull her chain was because of how thoroughly he did pull her chain? As in, revving up her sexual awareness to a fever-high pitch without laying a single finger on her? And what was up with that, anyway? They were friends, plain and simple. So why did Ethan Eubanks find his way into each and every one of her sexual fantasies on a nightly basis? And how in the world could she keep up this friendship without his seeing that her mind, and occasionally her body, crossed over that invisible boundary that separated friends and, well, more than friends? Then again, if the red dress did the trick, maybe tonight, he would look at her in an entirely new light. An entirely new sexy, sassy and vivacious new light.
He got to the counter and turned around. "You want one or two?"
Dang, he knew her well. "You think I could squeeze into that dress if I ate two?" she asked, knowing good and well she'd have ordered two if she were on her own.
He winked. "I'm sure you'll look awesome no matter what you eat. You know that." Then he turned back around and placed the order.
"Yeah, I know that," she said, lying through her teeth.
He returned with two plates, one holding a single cranberry bliss bar, the other with two. After placing them on the table, he left to retrieve a knife, and within seconds, he'd cut the third bar in half and divided it between the two dishes. "One is never quite enough for me," he said.
She grinned. "Me either."
"Okay, so give me the scoop. Who are you going with tonight? I heard a rumor that you and Riley were hooking up," he said. "That true?"
Clarise nearly choked on the first bite. Her eyes watered, but she lifted her cup and managed to get the warm liquid working its way down her throat along with the lodged chunk of cranberry dessert. "Jake Riley?" she questioned. "And me?"
He shrugged. "Maybe I misunderstood, but I don't think so. He probably never got the nerve to ask."
Yeah, right. Jake Riley was the Men's Department head and hot as all get out. While he was friendly toward Clarise, she'd never sensed anything beyond friendship. Then she thought back to this morning, when an elderly gentleman customer had wandered into the Women's Department and asked her opinion on a tie for his black tuxedo. Seems he was taking his wife to a Christmas party and wanted to dazzle her with a new tie. Clarise suggested a pink Tommy Hilfiger with shiny silver pinstripes. It was elegant and classy, and would play beautifully off of the man's wavy white hair and jet-black tuxedo. He had been so impressed with her recommendation that he'd taken Clarise back with him to the Men's Department and asked her to pick out an entire wardrobe that would "Wow" his wife. She did, then she allowed Jake Riley to ring up the sale. It was his department, after all, and she wasn't trying to steal a commission that should have been his. Jake had thanked her, and then he'd smiled, a smile that made Clarise's insides quiver for a second. It'd been warm, and genuine ... and sexy. Had it been more than a friendly smile?
"Hello," Ethan said, snapping his fingers in front of her face. "Do I take it something has happened with Riley?"
Clarise swallowed, then casually waved off the question. "No, of course not. We work together, and we're friends. If he mentioned something about taking me to the party, it was probably only because of that, and in any case, he didn't ask. Besides, I told Jake earlier this week that Rachel, Jesilyn and I had decided to make it a girls' night out. They're meeting me at my place, and we're all riding together."
He shook his head. "Those two are going to get you in trouble eventually, Clarise, and-" He hesitated.
"And?" she questioned.
He grinned broadly. "And I'm betting you'll love every minute of it, whenever you do decide to let yourself go and have fun." He popped a large chunk of cranberry bliss bar in his mouth, swallowed, then raised a crumb-coated finger as he spoke. "You really should consider going to Gasparilla for the corporate bonding getaway this time around."
She'd been wondering when he'd start hitting her up to go on the annual company trip. She'd declined last year. Actually, she'd chickened out yet again and let her younger sister, Babette, take her place, but she'd already decided that this January's trip would find her alongside all of the other department heads in Tampa, drinking, partying, having a good time, and setting her wild side free-assuming she actually had a wild side. God, she hoped she did. Then again, how could she be Babette's sister and not have inherited a bit of her always-willing-and-ready sister's genes? "I am going to Gasparilla," she confirmed.
"Well, it's about time," he said, polishing off the last of his cranberry bars. "You won't regret it. And truthfully, I won't either. I'm looking forward to the show."
"Clarise Robinson, unplugged," he said.
Clarise felt a sassy response was in order, but before she had a chance to speak, a striking black-haired woman in a winter white minidress-a Marc Jacobs, Clarise noticed-stopped beside them with a good inch of tone tan thighs showing between the hem of her skirt and the top of their table. She shifted from one leg to the other, and Clarise was instantly reminded of Sharon Stone's leg switch in Basic Instinct. If the woman had been sitting down, they'd probably get the same view.
"Ethan," Winter White gushed in a sexy half whisper, "is that really you?"
He swallowed thickly, then stood and gave her a cordial hug. "Rose, how are you?"
"Just fabulous, darling," she said, then backed up a bit and indicated her outfit, or perhaps it was her body that she was showing off. Both were quite appealing, and the woman knew it. Clarise bit the inside of her cheek and mentally dared Ethan to forget proper introductions. Thank God, he heeded her silent warning.
"Rose, this is Clarise Robinson, my friend and the best department head Eubanks Apparel has ever had. Clarise, this is Rose Tate. She's studying law at Cumberland."
And she's been in your bed, Clarise silently added, noting the way Ms. Tate was practically drooling over Ethan, who didn't seem to notice. Chalk one up for the friend at the table. Clarise smiled. "Nice to meet you, Rose."
Rose tore her attention from Ethan to the table, where two plates and two coffees obviously left her out of the current equation. She looked at Clarise and gave her one of those fake smiles that Babette classified as an I'd-love-to-slap-you-but-I-can't-right-now smile. As far as Clarise knew, she'd never been on the receiving end of one of those smiles. She couldn't wait to tell Babette.
Rose stood frozen for an awkward minute, then turned back to Ethan. "Well, it was good seeing you," she said.
"You too," he managed, but didn't sound nearly as enthusiastic.
"You should call me sometime," she said, then let her smile creep up a little farther and batted long black eyelashes.
Clarise didn't know who was gawking at Ethan more-Rose, or herself-while awaiting his reply. To her immense pleasure, he appeared very uncomfortable and didn't quite know how to respond to the woman's blatant invitation. Clarise, being a true friend, naturally decided to help him out. "Well, it was really nice meeting you, Rose," she said rather loudly.
Rose, snapping back to reality, mumbled a "You too," then delivered one more overly flirty smile to Ethan and, blessedly, walked away.
Ethan dropped back in his seat with apparent relief, picked up his cup and downed the remainder of his espresso.
"Another love casualty?" Clarise teased.
"You know, I think you enjoy talking about my relationship troubles entirely too much," he said. "I actually thought this coffee chat we would attempt to focus on you."
"And then, along came a rose," Clarise said, taking another bite of her cranberry bar. "What'd you do to her?"
"Nothing, we just didn't connect."
"Beyond physically, you mean," Clarise said, knowing Ethan's track record with relationships. Every girl he dated wanted to have his babies. Problem was he kept dating women who simply didn't understand him. They didn't know anything about his business, nothing about his background and nothing about how he and his twin, Jeff, had spent their lives trying to overcome living in Preston Eubanks's notable shadow. They wouldn't understand what an accomplishment it was that both of them had succeeded on their own, elevating Eubanks Elegant Apparel to one of the most distinguished retail clothing chains in the Southeast. Moreover, most of the women never spent enough time with Ethan to realize he was more than an intelligent businessman and good in bed. (Clarise was guessing, of course, on the good in bed part. Guessing ... and hoping to find out. Someday.) But in any case, how could these women know that he was witty and charming, if they merely tried to get in his bed? Clarise knew all about his wit and his charm, and she hadn't once tried to get in his bed. Dreamed about it, yes. Actually tried to do it? No. Not yet, anyway. And she'd have to be blind not to notice that each and every one of Ethan's former flames had that long, lean thing going. Did he ever consider the shorter, curvier and, consequently, friendlier version?
She felt the blush rise to her cheeks and dropped her face for another bite while she reined in her emotions. Then she decided to lighten the conversation, which was easy to do, given the name of his semi old flame. "So, was this the year of the flower, or what? I didn't even know about Rose, but I do remember the other ones. She makes four of the garden variety, right?"
He glared at her, picked up her cranberry bliss bar and took a bite, then dropped it back on her plate. "There were only three."
"Rose, Iris, Daisy and Verbena," Clarise chirped, clicking off fingers as she recited the names. "Sounds like four to me." Then she licked a bit of icing off the first finger.
Excerpted from Real Women Don't Wear Size 2: Warning by Kelley St. John Copyright © 2006 by Kelley St. John. Excerpted by permission.
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I like all the characters in this novel, and there was plenty to keep me interested. I can't wait for the next one. My only problem was that the author repeated too many of her main characters thoughts as fillers, which made me skip too many paragraphs.
In Birmingham, Alabama, thirty years old Clarise Robinson has had a successful career as the top seller and now head of the Woman¿s department at Eubanks Elegant Apparel. However, in spite of her early achievements and recognition, Clarise feels like a coward as she has made no efforts to obtain what she really wants her boss and best friend Ethan Eubanks to notice her as a beautiful woman he desires as much she craves him. --- Clarise vows to wow him at the company¿s annual gala during the Gasparilla Pirate Festival in Tampa. However, as she risks all, Clarise is hurt when she believes her wild sister Bobette made it with her beloved Ethan. Men¿s department head Jake Riley offers to ease her pain as he sees her as a lovely intelligent woman with beautiful curves and a delightful wit. Though tempted as Jake is a hunk, Clarise knows Ethan is the one for her, but she no longer wants him since he did her sibling though he now realizes that his best friend is also the woman he loves. --- This is an entertaining contemporary romance starring a likable male protagonist and an interesting female counterpart who is a combination sassy sexy sad sack. Though a bit of communication between the lead couple and her sister would have clarified the misunderstanding (and reduced the novel by about 50 ¿ 75 pages), fans will enjoy the escapades of a woman in love. --- Harriet Klausner