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Cassie Goodwin wondered if her face was as crimson as it felt. From a plastic cup she took a deep drink of cool white wine that had been smuggled into the library for the monthly meeting of the Red Tote Book Club. The sweet, sharp tang of the sauvignon blanc flowed over her tongue as the shocking words of the group's coordinator, Gabrielle Pope, still reverberated in Cassie's head.
I dare you to take the book that most spoke to you, that most changed you, and use the book's themes and the lessons to seduce the man of your dreams.
When Cassie had seen the ad posted on a local Web site about a book club for women who wanted to add a little spice to their entertainment reading, she'd been intrigued…and a little scared, not knowing what she might be walking into. But since the meeting was to convene in a public place, she'd told herself she would be safe. And that she could leave if she found the group to be populated with abrasive, subversive types who made her uncomfortable.
To her surprise, the four other women who had joined the group that first night were normal… boring, even—with the exception of Wendy Trainer, who had bounded into the room like a popular girl on the first day of school. Her disarming smile and witty chatter lured the other members—Cassie, Page Sharpe, Jacqueline Mays and Carol Snow—out from behind their sunglasses and nervous expressions.
Cassie had always been a voracious reader, but had never considered herself the book club type. For her, reading was a private pleasure, enjoyed in bits of precious leisure time here and there. For the short time she and fellow architect Mark Shapiro had dated, she'd barely had time to read her mail, much less an entire book.
But after Mark had unceremoniously dumped her, she was suddenly left with a lot of free time. Sagging under a battered ego, she'd tucked in many a chilly night with a good book to keep her company. And in the process, she'd rediscovered her love of reading. The Red Tote Book Club had come along at the perfect time for Cassie. The camaraderie over discussing classic erotic novels made her feel connected again… and the naughty content between the covers made her feel feminine again.
But the dare from Gabrielle, for the members to put words into action, had caught her by surprise.
And Cassie was still reeling over the fact that she'd been the first person in the group to pipe up and accept the challenge.
Mark's face had popped into her mind immediately, along with his parting words…
Sorry, Cassie—I think you're a great girl, but…I guess we're just not that into each other. Something's missing…
Meaning, she didn't turn him on.
His brush-off had blindsided her, left her flat-footed and speechless. Partly because she'd attributed Mark's friendly hugs and chaste good-night kisses to the behavior of a classic southern gentleman. She'd been content to let things simmer while they got to know each other.
Meanwhile, Mark had apparently mistaken her lack of sexual initiative for disinterest.
And when he'd broken up with her, she hadn't known how to tell him that, in fact, she lay awake every night thinking about the two of them intertwined. She'd been more attracted to Mark than any man she'd ever dated, but she'd held back because Mark was such a catch and she hadn't wanted to mess things up by coming across as promiscuous or desperate. Besides, they were in the same industry. Even in a city the size of Atlanta their paths still crossed occasionally and they had mutual acquaintances in the field of architecture. She had a reputation to uphold.
On the other hand, she missed Mark—missed his tilting smile and his zest for life. She'd agonized over approaching him and suggesting they give their relationship another chance. After all, they enjoyed each other's company and had much in common. They'd shared great conversations over meals they prepared together and during long hikes. But when Mark had looked at her with desire, it had left her so tongue-tied, she could only look away or change the subject. In hindsight, she hadn't given him any reason to think they would light up the sheets.
So many times since their abrupt goodbye Cassie had wondered how she could change Mark's perception of her, and now, Gabrielle had just offered her the framework.
"Earth to Cassie."
Cassie blinked to find fellow book club member Wendy waving a hand in front of her face. "Sorry—did I miss something?"
Their leader, Gabrielle, gave her an indulgent smile. "I was saying that since you spoke up first, you must already have a man in mind."
"I do," Cassie murmured, glancing around at the other women. They gathered in a forgotten room of the library, in low lighting and comfortable chairs. In the center of the table were decadent foodstuffs they'd each contributed to share—fruit, chocolate, pastries.
"Does that mean you're willing to go first?" Gabrielle asked.
Cassie took a deep breath, then nodded. "Yes, I'll go first."
"Excellent. Can you tell us more about this man you want to seduce?" Gabrielle prodded gently.
Cassie hesitated. "I don't want to get into specifics, but he's someone I used to date. I was half in love with him and I always thought we deserved another chance."
"Why did you break up?" Page Sharpe, a shy auburn-haired woman spoke tentatively, as if she didn't expect Cassie to answer her.
Cassie shifted in her chair. "I might have given off some wrong signals. I believe he thought I wasn't interested in…sex."
"But you were?" Jacqueline Mays asked. The woman's pale, anxious expression, intimated that she knew a thing or two about repression.
"Oh, absolutely," Cassie, said, fanning her hot face.
The women all laughed, as if they were surprised she had admitted it. Did she really present such a dull exterior to the world?
"What kept you from letting him know you were attracted to him?" Wendy asked. The furrow in her brow indicated that she might have more than just a passing interest in Cassie's answer.
Cassie took another drink of wine while she considered the question. "My older sister was promiscuous. I guess I erred in the other direction. I want sex to mean something. But with this guy, I guess I hesitated too long and missed my chance."
"It's never too long to wait if it's right for you," Ga-brielle assured her. "What makes you think you're ready now?"
"Distance has given me perspective," she said. "And the books we' ve read and shared in this room have made me realize that wanting sex is natural and healthy."
"And fun," added Wendy, licking chocolate off her fingers.
All the women laughed.
"Is there a particular book we've read you think might help you approach this man about giving your relationship another chance?" Gabrielle asked.
Cassie nodded. "Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence."
"A wonderful book," Gabrielle agreed, and the others chorused their approval. "But why Lady Chatterley's Lover?"
"I guess because Connie was proactive about changing her love life," Cassie offered.
"You mean, her sex life," Carol Snow, the loner of the group, said.
"Yes," Cassie agreed. "She saw Mellors, the groundskeeper, and she went after him. I suppose that's what I need to do."
"And do you have a plan for seducing your man?" Jacqueline asked.
Cassie bit her lip. "Not yet."
"Connie met Mellors while walking through the forest," Page ventured. "Is there a place where you can accidently-on-purpose run into your former boyfriend?"
A smile curved Cassie's mouth. She'd seen the firm that Mark worked for listed as a competitor bidding for a job her firm was also bidding on. "I can think of a few reasons for our paths to cross."
"That's a start," Gabrielle agreed, then addressed the group. "What kinds of things can Cassie borrow from Connie Chatterley's behavior to help guide her?"
"Connie made herself available to Mellors," Jacqueline said. "She went out of her way to let him know she was open to a physical relationship. She sought him out."
"Good. What else?"
"The fact that their relationship was secretive seemed to heighten the experience for both of them," Wendy offered.
Jacqueline nodded. "Men, especially, enjoy the adrenaline kick they get from doing something that seems forbidden."
"So take him by surprise," Page said.
"And be extra naughty," Jacqueline added.
A sense of excitement whipped through the room and Cassie realized that while the women were talking about her proposed seduction, they were already thinking ahead to their own plans. Only Carol Snow seemed to hold herself apart from the group's growing enthusiasm.
And Cassie wasn't without her own reservations. "But what if he… turns me down?"
"That's a risk you have to be willing to take," Gabrielle said.
"Yeah, what's the worst thing that can happen?" Wendy pressed.
"I'd be humiliated," Cassie said.
"But what's the best thing that could happen?" Page asked.
"Salvaging what could be a great relationship for both of us," Cassie said.
"So you have to be willing to put it all out there," Jacqueline added.
Gabrielle sat back and clasped her hands. "Lady Chatterley's decision to seduce Mellor turned into a wonderful, but problematic, love affair. Will you be okay if you're able to seduce this man, but a long-term relationship doesn't work out?"
Cassie's heart fluttered with teetering indecision for a few seconds, then resolve set in. "Yes. This is something I want to prove I can do, and this man is someone I'd feel safe with."
"Well, then…" Gabrielle smiled. "Good luck!"
"We'll be rooting you on from the sidelines," Wendy said. "Send us text updates to let us know what's going on."
"That's a good idea," Page chorused, and the group coordinated their text addresses.
"Are you excited to be first?" Jacqueline murmured.
Cassie nodded as anticipation flowered in her chest like an orchid. She suddenly felt so alive and so… self-aware. Desire quivered through her midsection. Her breasts felt heavy. She lifted the glass of wine to press against her heated cheek and thought of all the delicious things she had planned for Mark. She reached for a plump strawberry and considered its ruby perfection before sinking her teeth into it. The sweet juices flooded her mouth and she nearly moaned with pleasure.
It was as if she were tasting a strawberry for the first time.
I guess we're just not that into each other. Something's missing…
Mark Shapiro, Cassie vowed, would live to eat his words.
Mark Shapiro had both hands around a thick burger when his cell phone rang.
"Leave it, man," his coworker Steve Hamlin said with a wave. "Whatever it is, it can wait until after lunch."
Mark glanced at the caller ID as the phone flashed from the table. At the sight of the name CASSIE GOODWIN, his brow furrowed in surprise. Cassie had been on his mind ever since he'd seen her firm listed as a competitor bidding for the Belzer Tower job his firm was also bidding on. He realized that he missed her. But why would Cassie be calling after—how long had it been? Six months?
Steve glanced down. "Uh-oh. When an ex-girlfriend calls, it can't be good news. What if she's pregnant?"
Mark shot Steve a glare. "Trust me—if she's pregnant, the baby's not mine."
It wasn't that he hadn't wanted in Cassie's bed. She was a looker and smart as a whip, but she was just too…tame to get his blood going. After surviving a serious illness as a teen, Mark prided himself on having a passion for everything in life, and he wanted the same in his partner. At times he had detected chemistry between him and Cassie, but when he'd moved in for anything more than a kiss, he'd always gotten shut down. Still, he'd had his fantasies about her long legs and her full breasts—
"Wait a minute," Steve said, cutting into Mark's thoughts. "Doesn't Cassie work for Rugers and Associates?"
"They're bidding on the Belzer Tower project, too." Steve gestured. "Answer it. Find out what you can about their bid."
Mark frowned because Steve was the lead architect for their firm on the Belzer project. "I'm not going to spy for you."
"Man, you owe me for letting you go to the conference in Denver so you could go rock climbing. Besides, this kind of thing goes on all the time."
Mark wavered. He didn't like the idea of trolling for information, but he couldn't deny the sudden compulsion to talk to Cassie again. Knowing his phone was getting ready to roll over to voice mail, he connected the call. "Hello?"
"Mark? Hi, it's Cassie… Goodwin."
She'd always had a great voice, so warm and sexy. False advertising, he noted wryly. "Hi, Cassie. What's up?"
"Busy, like always," she said breezily. "I'm on vacation doing some spring cleaning around my house today and found a couple of things that belong to you. I could drop them off at your office some time if you like."
Meaning, he didn't have to actually see her if he didn't want to. He glanced up to Steve, who rolled his hand in an encouraging gesture.