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#1 NEW YORK TIMES Bestselling Author

COMING JUNE 11, 2019

April 28, 2009

Under Her Skin

Lone Star Sisters, Book No. 1

Lexi needs two million dollars, fast. Cruz needs her society connections. A fake engagement made in heaven?

Lexi Titan can just see the headlines. All of Titanville will be buzzing. Not that she has any other choice. Faced with exactly thirty days to come up with two million dollars, she is out of options. Marry Cruz Rodriguez or lose everything--the successful day spa she built herself, her tyrant of a father's respect. And the long-standing competition with her sisters for the family business.

Cruz has money, success, smoldering good looks--everything but the blue blood needed to become a true member of Texas society. If Lexi agrees to be his fiancee for six months, lending him her famous father's influence and connections, he'll hand her a check on the spot. And in six months they'll go their separate ways.

But neither one is prepared for their long-ago shared passion to throw a wrench into what would seem to be the perfect deal…

“A fabulous novel with a sexy plot and characters that are great fun to read about.“

The Romance Readers Connection

“Amazing – full of passion, family secrets and very emotional.”

Pink Hearts Society Reviews

"Susan Mallery has delivered a fun and exciting beginning to what I believe is going to be one great new series."

Manic Readers

4.5 stars! "One of the genre's brightest stars launches a new series in which parental love, or the lack thereof, is a major theme. As these reunited protagonists struggle emotionally, Mallery's characters are as vivid and real as always, which makes her stories emotionally satisfying. Don't miss out!"

RT Book Reviews

On the Lone Star Sisters series: "A powerful statement on family - what it is and what it means."

Lucile Nelson, Librarian

Chapter One

“It’s only two million. Is that going to be a problem?”

Lexi Titan forced herself to smile. “Not at all,” she lied, wondering if John, her banker, had lost his mind. Two million dollars? She had to come up with two million dollars in twenty-one days? Oh, sure. She would just go home and dig around for loose change in her sofa. There had to be a million dollar bill or two stashed under the cushions.

“You could always ask your father,” John said, studying the papers on his desk as if they were the most interesting thing in the world.

Lexi smiled. “Thanks so much for the information,” she said as she rose. Ask her father? Not likely. Even if Jed Titan was willing to bail her out, having to go to him would cause her carefully executed three year plan to crumble and die. “I’ll get back to you.”

“Soon, Lexi,” John told her, standing and shaking her hand. “You only have three weeks to come up with the money or you lose everything.”

Having the ability to sum up the disaster of her life in a single sentence was quite the gift. She hoped John appreciated it.

“I’ll figure it out,” she told her banker. “Talk to you in a few days.”

John looked uncomfortable. “Actually I’ll see you tonight, at your sister’s benefit.”

Where he would spread the news of her failure far and wide? “Are bankers like lawyers? Do you have to keep this sort of thing to yourself?”

“Yes,” he assured her. “There’s a code of ethics. I won’t say anything.”

She hoped he was telling the truth. “Then I’ll see you tonight,” she said, pretending an enthusiasm she didn’t feel. She picked up her purse and walked out of the elegant office.

Frustration and annoyance hurried her along the carpeted hallway. She ducked out the nearest exit and found her car in the parking lot. Once inside it was all she could do not to bang her head against the steering wheel. She could accept that bad things happened. What she hated was when they were her fault.

“You gotta be tough if you’re gonna be stupid.”

The familiar phrase spoken in her head by a voice from the past, made her groan. She was in really big trouble and she had no one to blame but herself.

Thirty minutes later she’d left Dallas behind and entered the city limits of Titanville. She ignored the sign that told her to go thirty-five and sped down the divided road. The crap pile that was her life got a little deeper when she heard a siren behind her.

Lexi pulled over and lowered her window. She waited until the deputy approached her car, then pulled off her sunglasses and sighed.

“If you’re going to arrest me, could you rough me up a little first? Then I could sue the department.”

“Because it’s a slow week?” the deputy asked.

“I’m running a little short of cash.”

“How much are we talking about?”

“Two million dollars.”

Deputy Dana Birch whistled. “I have a new twenty percent off coupon from Linens and Things in the car, but I don’t think that’s going to cover it.” She glanced at her watch. “Want to talk about it? My lunch break starts in fifteen minutes. I can meet you at Bronco Billy’s.”

Lexi nodded. “That would be great. I’m going to whine, though.”

“I’m used to it.” Dana sounded cheerful. “Now stop speeding. You know that really pisses me off.”

“Okay. Sorry.”

Fifteen minutes later Dana slid into the booth across from Lexi. It was early, only eleven-thirty, so the place was still quiet. Lexi had spent the time waiting for her friend studying the various Clint Eastwood movie posters on the wall. Bronco Billy’s celebrated all things Clint. His movies played endlessly on TVs scattered around, T-shirts and DVDs could be purchased and the “Do you feel lucky, punk” sundae was a regional favorite.

Dana ignored the menu. “What happened?” she asked. “Someone rip you the wrong way during a bikini wax?”

Lexi pretended she hadn’t heard the snarky question. Normally she and Dana had a great time snipping at each other about their very different views on female beauty. Lexi owned a luxury day spa and believed in making the best of what a woman had. Dana considered using conditioner on her hair during her daily three minute shower more than enough girly stuff for anyone. Lexi wasn’t sure Dana knew what mascara was for.

Dana wore her dark hair short, dressed in a uniform while at work and jeans and a T-shirt the rest of the time. They’d known each other since they were ten and Lexi had only ever seen her in a dress three times.

Dana leaned back in the booth. “Okay, you’re seriously upset. What is it?”

“I wasn’t kidding about the two million dollars. I need to figure out how to get it in twenty-one days.”

“Are you being blackmailed or something?”

That made Lexi smile. “You’re such a cop. No blackmail. Just me being stupid and greedy.” She sighed. “When I left my dad’s company to start my own business, I had that small inheritance from my grandmother. I got Venus Envy up and running but I was barely making it. I had no assets of my own, except my condo. Without the right balance sheet, being a Titan means a whole lot less than people think. Anyway, I was struggling. One day about two years ago, my banker called me. He’d found an investor willing to give me two million dollars for growth. The terms were simple—I would make payments. The guy didn’t even want a piece of the business. I used the money to buy the building and completely expand and redo my spa. It was a dream come true. But there was a catch.”

“There always is,” Dana said.

“The investor’s identity remained a secret and the loan was callable. He could demand full payment with only three weeks notice.” She shrugged. “The clock starts now.”

Dana swore. “Is it your dad? This sounds like something Jed would do.”

“I don’t know,” Lexi admitted. “I wondered that myself.” Jed Titan was a legendary Texas businessman. Had her father given her the loan only to call it back as a test?

“The reason I want to say no,” Lexi continued, “is that Jed isn’t subtle. If he was screwing with me, I think he’d tell me to my face.”

“Then who’s the guy?”

“I haven’t a clue. My banker won’t tell me.”

Dana snorted.

“What?” Lexi asked.

“Your banker. You have a banker. I know a little ATM machine by the grocery store, but we’ve never been more than friends.”

“Everyone in business has a banker,” Lexi said, but knew Dana didn’t believe her, even though she should. Everyone thought being a Titan meant something. Maybe it did—but whatever it meant, it wasn’t always good.

“What are you going to do?” Dana asked. “Seriously, I’ve got five thousand dollars in savings. You can have it, but I don’t think it’s going to help.”

“You’re sweet to offer, but no. That’s the irony. Everyone assumes the Titan girls are rich, but we’re not. Well, Skye has her inheritance from her mom but Izzy and I are just like everyone else. Living from paycheck to paycheck. Jed holds all the family money and he wants each of us to prove ourselves before we get a piece of the family business. That’s what the day spa was about for me. My grand plan to prove I could make it on my own. I’m not going to lose everything to some faceless jerk. I’ll figure out a way to get the two million. I’ll do anything. I don’t care what.”

Dana tapped the badge on her left breast pocket. “Careful there, little lady. You don’t want to break the law.”

“If I do, I won’t tell you about it.”

“Fair enough.”

The waitress appeared. They ordered burgers and fries, along with Diet Coke, because balance was important.

“I hate that I was stupid,” Lexi said when they were alone. “I hate that the most. I know better.” She sighed. “Okay, I’m officially not going to whine for the rest of lunch. What’s going on with you?”

“Your sister is a pain in the ass,” Dana grumbled. “Skye is having one of her fancy parties up at the house tonight to raise money for her foundation and expects me to attend. She knows I loathe that kind of stuff.” She rolled her eyes. “I have a friend who has a foundation. It’s like living in an alternative universe.”

“At least you can tell her no,” Lexi reminded her. “I’ll be required to attend. Not that I’m complaining. Maybe someone will drop a really expensive diamond necklace and I can pawn it.”

Dana raised her eyebrows. Lexi’s gaze dropped to the deputy badge again.

“Sorry,” she murmured. “You didn’t hear me say that.”

“Fortunately I don’t believe you’d do it. Look at the bright side. There will be a bunch of boring rich guys there. Maybe you can talk one of them into giving you a loan.”

“I’m not sure I’d want to give them what they would require for that kind of money.”

“There is that.”

Lexi brightened. “Come with me. It’ll be fun. You can mock everyone. You enjoy that.”

“No, thanks,” Dana said. “I have a date.”

“With Martin?” It was all Lexi could do not to roll her eyes.

“Why do you say it like that?”

“Because Martin is just like all the guys you date. He’s too nice and you boss him around.”

“I do not.”

“You do. You find these sweet, unassuming men who adore you and are terrified in equal measures. You completely control the relationship, then complain you’re bored. You need to find someone who will be more of a challenge.”

“So speaks the woman who hasn’t been on a date in six months. You’re not exactly an expert.”

“I have a career to think about. A business.”

Dana just looked at her.

Lexi dropped her head to the table. “That I’m going to lose in three weeks unless I come up with a miracle.”

“Your sister runs a charity. Go ask her for the money.”

“She won’t give it to me. She hordes it for disadvantaged children. You know Skye. She’s practically a saint. It’s annoying.”

“Tell me about it. At the very least, there will be good food tonight. You can bury your sorrows in appetizers with funny names. Just don’t drive drunk.”

Lexi straightened. “You so need a man you can’t push around.”

Dana grinned. “There’s no such animal.”

“There is and I can’t wait until you finally run into him. In the meantime I need to find a man I can push around. Or a miracle. At this point, I’d be very happy with a miracle.”

#

Cruz Rodriguez had never believed that cars and women had much in common. He loved cars—they were his life. But they couldn’t keep him warm at night...or in the morning. And even brand new, they never smelled as good as a beautiful woman about to surrender.

He climbed out of his silver Bugatti Veyron and tossed the keys to the valet. The kid stood there, staring at his car.

“J-jeez. You’re gonna let me drive that?”

Cruz looked at the car. “You going to damage it?” he asked.

“No, sir!” The kid walked closer, reached out a hand to touch the side, then pulled it back. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Cruz grinned, then moved toward the massive house. Now it was his turn to stare at the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

Lexi Titan stood on the porch of Glory’s Gate, talking to a couple he didn’t recognize. Even from this distance he recognized her long blond hair piled on her head, the delicately classic features of her perfect face. She laughed at something the woman said. The sound carried to him on the warm night air. It was a sound he remembered from a long time ago, just as he remembered everything about her.

He knew all about Lexi—statistics were easy to come by and he’d taken the time to remind himself about her. But he also knew other things. Like the way her skin felt in the shadows and how her breath caught when she couldn’t help herself. That she hated her real name, and saying it would make her eyes narrow and her hackles rise. He knew pride was both her greatest strength and greatest weakness, that she played to win and unless her back was against the wall, she lost with a graciousness he’d never mastered.

She was old money and breeding. He was a guy who’d fought his way to the top. There were still plenty of social doors that were closed to him. Which was why he was here. He was ready to get those doors open...by force if necessary. And whether she knew it or not, Lexi was going to help him.

He took the half dozen or so marble stairs up to the front of the house, careful to keep several people between Lexi and himself. He didn’t want her to see him just yet. He would determine when and where they met. He would have the advantage. A less confident man might wonder if she’d forgotten, but he knew she hadn’t. No woman forgot her first time.

Once inside the house, he took a moment to admire the architecture of the structure. It had been build in the 1940’s, when land was cheap and a man was judged by the power of his horses, the beauty of his women and the size of his house.

Twin staircases curved up to a second story landing the size of an airport runway. The entry glittered with light that reflected on the black and white tiles. A grand piano hugged one of the curved walls because what was an entryway without a grand piano?

Although he’d never been to Glory’s Gate before, he knew that the twenty foot ceilings were carved and that the seemingly impenetrable walls of the two living rooms and parlor actually rolled away, creating a massive space that easily held five hundred. Now he walked into an elegant room mostly done in gold and sage green, with touches of red. The center parlor had been set up with rows of armless chairs for the auction that was to follow the cocktail hour.

He’d come to be seen, to rub elbows with the Texas elite. To find a way in to their high-class society. A charity auction would allow him to announce his presence with subtlety and class. If he spent money here, he would be invited to other charity events. His name would be known. Over time, he would be accepted. At least that was the plan.

He went deeper into the room, ordered a Scotch, neat, from the bar, then looked at the people he knew by reputation alone. He knew the exact moment Lexi entered the room, was aware of her chatting with the guests. As he watched her move toward her sister, he wondered how she was going to react when she saw him.

Lexi Titan could give him everything he wanted. There was only one problem—ten years might have passed but he was still sure that when she saw him she would be far more interested in killing him than offering help.

#

Lexi hung back until the Senator had kissed Skye’s forehead and moved on. While she appreciated his great oratory skills, he was a known womanizer and she wasn’t in the mood to have some old guy patting her ass.

“Tell me why you do this,” she said by way of greeting. “Don’t you have enough money to do whatever it is you need to do with your foundation?”

Skye Titan, Lexi’s middle sister, took a sip of her champagne. “Do you want to know how many children go to bed hungry in America every night?”

“I’m having a bad day. Don’t make me feel small and worthless on top of that, please.”

“Sorry.”

The sisters hugged.

Lexi stepped back and studied Skye’s green gown. “You look fabulous. I resent the cleavage.” She glanced down at her own relatively flat chest. “I never got breasts.”

“They’re less exciting that you’d think,” Skye told her. “I didn’t think you’d come. You hate my charity events.”

“I don’t hate them. I support the cause. I’m not into all the small talk with the rich and powerful.”

Skye grinned. “I know it’s boring. But I need to raise the money. Just sending out a request for a check never works as well as throwing a party. How are you?”

Lexi thought about her desperate need for two million dollars, forced herself to smile and say, “I’m fine.” She didn’t, as a rule, lie to her sister, but this was different. There was too much on the line to risk telling the truth.

“You said you were having a bad day.”

“Just work stuff. Did Izzy come?” Izzy, Isadora, was their baby sister.

“Of course not,” Skye said. “Izzy hates these things more than you. She’s due back any day but for now she’s still on that oil rig off Louisiana.”

Working as an underwater welder, Lexi thought, wondering how it was possible all three of them were sisters. They couldn’t be more different.

“So who’s new on the party circuit?” Lexi asked. “Anyone flashing a lot of money they can’t explain?”

“Not really. Who are you looking for?”

Whoever was trying to shut down her business. The more Lexi thought about how she’d been offered the financing and then had it pulled out from under her, the more she felt set up. Had someone done it on purpose? Was she being played, and if so, by whom?

“I’m not sure,” she admitted, turning so she could scan the crowd. “Someone with a reason to—”

Her gaze slipped over well-dressed couples, groups in conversation, a man in a dark suit. The president of the second largest oil company was in the room, along with his wife.

Her attention returned to the man in the suit. There was something about him...something familiar.

He turned. If she’d been holding a drink, she would have dropped it. As it was her heart probably stopped. Years had passed. If she’d had a calendar, she could have counted the time to the day. Maybe the hour.

She’d spent the first six months hoping to run into him. Literally. She’d been prepared to take him out with her car. The second six months she’d been more rational. More willing to be objective. She wouldn’t actually kill him—she would just wing him and call it even. Since then she’d managed to nearly forget about him. He was no one. A mistake. She’d assumed their night together had meant something—it hadn’t and neither was he. Their time together was a blunder women had been making since Ug had beckoned Ugette into his cave back in the stone age.

“Who are you looking at?” Skye asked, then followed her gaze. “Oh, yeah. Him. That car guy. Cruz something. He’s very wealthy. Car dealerships, a chain of auto parts stores and a race team. Maybe a couple. NASCAR and something else. I can’t remember. He offered to donate and I accepted. Do you know him?”

Not a question Lexi was going to answer, she thought as she looked around for an escape. But there was nowhere to go.

She wouldn’t react, she told herself. For all she knew, he wouldn’t remember her. What had been a significant event in her life had probably been nothing to him. She was merely cheap date number 157.

It had been ten years and they’d both changed. The guy she remembered had worn jeans and a T-shirt, not a custom suit and imported shoes. Not that his face was different. He still had the kind of smoldering dark eyes that made a woman want to lose herself forever. Well, other women. Not her.

She would act like he was a stranger, then she would excuse herself. He would never know how hot the humiliation from that night...and morning...still burned.

“Good evening,” he said as he approached, smiling at Skye. “I’m Cruz Rodriguez. Thank you so much for inviting me, Ms. Titan.”

Skye smiled. “You’re more than welcome. Call me Skye. I hope you brought your checkbook. I’ll be shamelessly begging for extravagant auction bids later. But first I have to thank you for your generous donation.” She looked at Lexi. “Cruz is offering a weekend in Daytona in a private house with two days of racing lessons with his top driver.”

“Very impressive,” Lexi murmured, doing her best not to look at the man standing so close to her. She could practically taste him. Not that she remembered what he tasted like. It had been years. An eon, practically. He’d been an inconsequential blip in her life. Nothing more.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I should do introductions. Lexi, this is Cruz Rodriguez. Cruz, my sister Lexi Titan.”

His look was one of polite interest. Like she was the great aunt or something. As if they’d never met.

Great. He didn’t remember. She had spent hours of her life, possibly days, planning revenge and even death and he didn’t remember? Wasn’t that just perfect?

He reached out to shake hands. Lexi desperately wanted to avoid physical contact, but there was no way to do that and still be polite. Damn her upbringing. She sucked in a breath, prayed there would be nothing and allowed him to engulf her hand with his.

For a moment in time, she didn’t react. He was the stranger she wanted him to be. Then she looked at his face, at the strong line of his jaw, the firm, sensuous shape of his mouth and remembered what it had been like to be kissed by him.

Heat overwhelmed her. If she’d been twenty years older, she would have claimed a heat flash. Instead she had to ignore the tingling that nearly made her knees knock together and smile at him as if she didn’t feel a thing.

“Mr. Rodriguez,” she said coolly. “Nice to meet you.” She pulled back.

“Cruz, please.”

Interesting. That’s exactly what she remembered screaming around two in the morning.

“I’m Lexi,” she said, then eyed him, wanting to be sure he didn’t remember her.

A woman in a dark suit approached. Skye saw her. “Excuse me, that’s my catering manager. Let’s hope there isn’t a crisis.”

Then she was gone and Lexi was alone with her past. She turned back to Cruz, only to discover he’d moved on. She was left standing by herself in the middle of the party.

#

Cruz watched Lexi circulate through the crowd. She was careful to keep an eye on him, while trying to seem as if she was unaware of him. He was doing the same, but he was better at the game. He’d seen her confusion, followed by annoyance that he apparently hadn’t remembered her. He’d also felt the fiery chemistry he’d enjoyed ten years ago. Knowing it still existed made his job easier.

She was exactly what he needed—a way into the closed society of the Texas elite. It was the next logical step in his success and he would use Lexi to make sure it happened. All he needed was leverage.

She greeted a middle-aged man with thinning hair and a widening midsection. They spoke as if they knew each other. Cruz moved closer, staying behind a column so they couldn’t see him.

“Your sister has already pointed out several things I should bid on,” the man was saying. “Skye is ruthless.”

“And determined. Just remind yourself this is for a good cause, John. Give in, because if you don’t, she’ll make you feel so guilty, you’ll never sleep again. It’s why I come to these events. It’s easier than fighting her.”

John laughed. “You’re probably right.” He lowered his voice. “Are you going to ask her for the money? Doesn’t Skye have plenty of her own from her mother and her late husband?”

Lexi stiffened. Cruz saw her shoulders tighten and her hands clutch her glass. “I don’t want to talk about that here.”

John glanced around, as if making sure they weren’t overheard. Cruz was careful to stay hidden the shadows of a pillar.

“Lexi, you’ve been my customer from the first day you decide to open your day spa. I’m the one who talked you into the loan you’re having trouble with. I don’t want you to lose your business. You have to do something to get the money and fast.”

“I know that,” she whispered. “And I will. Going to Skye isn’t an option.”

“It’s two million dollars.”

“Thanks for the update. If you’ll excuse me, I need to freshen my drink.”

She slipped away. John watched her go, as did Cruz. But while the older man looked trouble, Cruz was only pleased.

Life was all about timing. The right deal at the right time. The right conditions for the race. He believed in being prepared and then ready to attack when the moment was right.

Like now.

Wild Hearts Under Her Skin Lip Service Straight from the Hip Hot on Her Heels

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