16 Marsden Place
by Rachel Brimble
eBook ISBN: 978-1-623420-20-8
Sienna Lloyd’s sexy lingerie shop is a place where the town’s women visit and feel safe. When the shop is in danger of closing, Sienna has no choice but to move the shop to her home at 16 Marsden Place. The only problem is her new neighbor, the delicious but seriously uptight Jack Beaton.
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Sienna Lloyd eased onto the leather stool behind the shop counter and stared at the official-looking, buff-colored envelope in her hand. Ignoring the sense of foreboding stealing over her shoulders, she drew in a strengthening breath and jabbed her finger under the seal. Tearing out the letter, she darted her gaze over its formal script, her eyes growing with each word.
“No, no, no. An extra three hundred pounds…per month?” She crumpled the edges of the paper, and her throat dried. “How the hell can I afford that? You gutless piece of…you nasty son of a…” She shook her head, her eyes stinging with tears. “You bastard!”
“Darling, please.” Her mother strolled in from the back of the shop and tossed the latest copy of Playgirl down on the counter, centerfold up. “I’m trying to read here.”
“Read? How can you read at a time like this?” Sienna flapped the letter back and forth in front of her mother’s face. “You’re not going to believe what is in this, this thing.”
Snatching it from Sienna’s hand, her mother snorted. “Must be a marriage proposal to put that look on your face.”
“Ha-bloody-ha. My God, what am I going to do?” She pressed her fingers against her closed eyelids.
“What is it?”
A few seconds ticked by before her mother’s words bounced from the shop walls. “Bastard. Blood-sucking, business-ruining bastard.”
Sienna snatched her hands from her eyes. “I know. What am I going to do?”
Her mother tossed the letter on the counter. “He can’t do that, surely? That’s daylight robbery.”
“You can’t afford to pay that amount of money in rent each month. It’ll close you down, finish you off, put you on welfare—”
“Thanks, Mum. I get the picture.” Sienna leapt from the stool and marched around the counter. “I know for a fact a landlord cannot just demand an increase in rent out of the blue.” Clutching her hair back from her face, she continued, “I mean, an extra three hundred pounds a month for this place? Is he insane? Doesn’t he understand what this shop stands for?”
“Of course he doesn’t. My God, have you seen your landlord? If that man had any sort of sex life, his face wouldn’t constantly look like a slapped ass, would it?”
Sienna looked around the shop that meant everything to her. Sienna’s Sexy Solutions held her heart and soul within its four walls. “I have to do something,” she said. “I need this place. Potterford needs it. People who breeze through this town and look in my shop window assume I sell lingerie and women’s toys, but it’s so much more than that. It means more to me and the women who shop here. It’s a…a saving grace, that’s what this place is.”
Her mother came toward Sienna with her arms outstretched. “Come give me a hug.”
Tears of frustration pricked Sienna’s eyes, and she leaned gratefully into her mother’s embrace. She couldn’t lose the shop—she’d lost too much already. Her father’s image drifted before her mind’s eye: the blood seeping through his shirt, the cuts and bruising on his face. Beaten and left for dead. Gone forever in a single twist of fate. Nothing else would be taken from her. Nothing.
Exhaustion and fear settled around Sienna as she took in a shaky inhalation of Chanel Nº5 and the L’Oréal moisturizer her mother used. Looking to the front door, she said, “God, no wonder so many other shops on this rank have gone out of business if this is the way things are going to increase from now on. I won’t let him do this, Mum.”
Her mother sighed. “This place is a catalyst for the well-being of each woman in this town. Simple as that.” She gave Sienna a tight squeeze before holding her at arm’s length. “We’ll fight this, okay?”
The first inkling of Sienna’s endless reserves rose up inside her. “Everyone relies on me. Less than half an hour ago I promised Mrs. McGill I’d always be here for her. Now I could be gone by the end of next month.”
“Is that when the lease is due for renewal?”
“Yes. I have to do something. Now.” Whipping the letter from the countertop, Sienna brushed past her. “I took this place because it’s the cheapest I could find. Everywhere else was way over my budget.” She snatched up the phone and punched in the number at the top of the page.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to give Mr. Thomas a call, that’s what.”
“And tell him what exactly?”
With confidence burning hot in her stomach, Sienna held up a finger. “Hello, may I speak with Mr. Thomas, please?”
“I’m sorry, but he’s in a meeting right now. I’m Mr. Thomas’s assistant. Can I help you?”
“Well, is it possible you could ask him to call Sienna Lloyd when he comes back into the office?” She threw her mother a triumphant smile.
“I’m…um, I’m sorry, Miss Lloyd, but Mr. Thomas did tell me to expect your call.”
Sienna’s smile dissolved. “He did?”
“Yes. Is this about the letter he sent regarding the rent increase?”
“I’m sorry, Miss Lloyd, but the rent increase stands. There is little else you can do but pay or foreclose.”
“That’s impossible. I—”
“Unfortunately, you signed a contract confirming either payment on the first of every month or a month’s notice of any changes made by you or Mr. Thomas. As you will have read in the letter, Mr. Thomas has allowed a generous ninety-day transition period.”
Sienna remembered her euphoric attitude at the time she’d signed the contract two years ago, her pure, unadulterated glee at owning her own store at just twenty-six years old. She’d been confident the business would go from strength to strength. Which it had until the recession, one that had no doubt motivated the new and astronomical rent increase.
She gripped the phone. “Surely by law he has to give me more notice. I can’t—”
“The contract is here in black and white, Miss Lloyd. If you wish to contest it, I recommend you hire a lawyer. I really don’t see what else can be done, or even if you will be successful.”
The woman was right. Though Sienna had been advised against it, the need to stay in Potterford with her mother, the need to have something concrete to build on, had overtaken any logical thought when she’d signed that lease.
“I see. Right. Thank you.”
“Miss Lloyd, I am so sorry. If there was anything I could—”
Sienna slowly hung up the receiver, desperation creeping up her body from the tips of her toes to her scalp.
“Well?” her mother asked. “What did they say?”
Sienna opened her mouth. Closed it.
“What did they say?”
She met her mother’s soft brown gaze. “It’s over.” Sienna’s body turned numb, but her mind whirled at a hundred and ten miles per hour as the pleasant little bubble she’d lived in the last two years burst with clear and unmistakable cruelty. “I’m going to have to close.”
“What? Why? For goodness’ sake, will you please at least blink? You’re beginning to look like a very weird and very grown up Cabbage Patch Kid.”
Blinking, Sienna groaned, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
“Talk to me, honey.”
“He was expecting my call. The bottom line is, if I can’t pay the new rent, I move out by the end of next month.”
“How can he possibly—”
“I signed the contract, Mum. I never thought…” Her words caught like barbed wire in her throat. “I just thought I’d always be okay to pay. That I could look after my business.”
Neither of them spoke for a few seconds, and then her mother sighed. “Look, I know you don’t want to consider your dad’s money—”
Cutting her off with a raised hand, Sienna said, “No. That money is yours.”
“It’s ours, and you well know it.”
“No. That money is supposed to last you the rest of your life. I’m not letting you use part of it to get me out of this. This is a blip. Nothing more. I’ll work something out. I always do.”
Her mother lifted her hands in surrender. “Fine. We’ll come up with some fail-safe promotions. How about we push the vibrators and play down the chocolate body paint?”
Sienna’s shoulders relaxed, and she managed a small smile. “I don’t want to push anything on anyone. If I need to, I’ll move out of here and find somewhere else. It’s okay. It’s not the end of the world.”
Her mother stepped forward and cupped her hand to Sienna’s jaw. “Really? Then why do you look as though it is?”
Sienna closed her eyes. “It’s a shock. That’s all. It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“Look at me.”
Reluctantly, she did. “What?”
“Have you considered this might be fate? A chance to take your life in an entirely different direction?”
Sienna shook her head. “Don’t start that again. I’m not going anywhere. I’m happy here. You know I am.”
“I’m not denying that, but things happen for a reason. Maybe this rent increase means it’s time for you to get the hell out of Dodge. Start making a life away from your old mum for a while.”
“No. I’m not leaving you.”
“What about that friend of yours? The one in London with the lingerie chain? He would snap you up in a heartbeat. What’s his name?”
“It doesn’t matter what his name is. I’m not going.”
“Sienna, please at least think about it. You left school at eighteen, started working in retail and went from strength to strength. You were named national Salesperson of the Year when you were twenty-one, for crying out loud. Can you imagine what you could do in the city?”
“I’m not leaving you.”
Her mother jabbed her finger in the air. “There. You said it. You’re not leaving me. Do you really think I’m that helpless? That I can’t fend for myself? You’re my daughter. Where do you think you get your gumption from?”
“Then you know when I say I’m going to do something, I do it. I’m staying. Like it or not, I won’t leave Potterford after everything that’s happened.”
“I see. So, you’ll stay here looking after me, living alone for the rest of your life. Good plan, Sienna. Real good.” Her mother’s cheeks darkened. “You’re scared, honey. I get that. In order to grow, you have to face the fear of loss. It’s as simple as that.”
Sienna’s breaths grew harried as her frustration rose. “Did I say my decisions are logical? Did I? Maybe my need to look after you after what happened to Dad is completely irrational, but there it is. I’m staying. Now, can we talk about something else? Like where I’m going to move the shop?”
Her mother sighed. “You’re twenty-eight years old, sweetheart. You still have your life ahead of you, but time is running out to make the changes you need now.”
Her heart twisting at the sight of her mother’s tears, Sienna’s shoulders slumped. “Mum, I’m sorry. I know you think I need more out of life, but I don’t. I’m happy. And time isn’t running out.” She smiled. “Things happen when we least expect it. Who’s to say what will happen a year from now? A month? Right now, I want to stay here with you. Okay?”
“You need to get away from me and start building your life. Dad may be dead, but you’re not. Please. Take this opportunity and get out there.”
“Mum, stop this.” Sienna pulled her into a hug. “You don’t want me to leave. You want me to find a man willing to marry my stubborn ass and impregnate me with triplets, that’s all.”
“Triplets?” her mother exclaimed with a huff. “A boyfriend would be a start.”
Sienna laughed. “Been there, done that. Not really sure I miss it all that much, either.”
“All I’m saying is someone with your brains and looks shouldn’t be selling sex toys in a small market town like Potterford. You should be working for some hotshot company in the city by day and sipping cocktails in a fancy wine bar by night.”
Sienna pressed a kiss to her mother’s furrowed brow. “I love that you care about me, and I love that you think I should be doing more, but I want to stay here. I’m beginning to think I always will.” She held her hands at arm’s length and squeezed. “Now, come on, we need to start thinking. I’m here to stay. Shop or no shop. Man or no man. You might as well get used to it.”
* * *
Jack Beaton pulled into the driveway of his new home and turned off the engine. The late June sunshine lit up the house’s façade like an illuminated opportunity. The epitome of family contentment, and he hoped to God it would be. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a huge back yard, and a small front lawn. Pink rose bushes bloomed along the flagstone walkway to the dark blue front door complete with polished brass knocker. Small-town suburban life. Was it really him?
He swallowed. Maybe not yet, but it would be. For him and his daughters, he had to make this move work. They would be happy there—he felt it.
Jack swiveled around. Holly and Katy slept in the backseat of the car; the journey from the city had been uneventful enough for both of them to nod off over an hour ago. Was he being fair bringing them to a small town like Potterford? The ever-present doubt whether he’d done the right thing poked and prodded at his conscience, and he screwed his eyes shut.
It had been two years since their mother left, and for at least the last twelve months she hadn’t made any contact. That last encounter in court hadn’t gone well, and despite Jack trying his best to come to an agreement they’d both be happy with, his ex-wife Martina had continued to drink, so he was granted full custody. Now was the right time to start again, so Jack had packed the girls up and moved away.
Of course, if by some miracle Martina did want to see her children, they wouldn’t be hard to find. But for now at least, they were free. Peace, stability, and ultimately the children’s security—that was Jack’s goal from here on out. The bad times were two years in the past, and today he and the girls would build something new.
Opening his eyes, Jack got out of the car and into the embrace of the warm summer sunshine. The house loomed large in front of him, taunting him with its domestic appeal. His smile was slow in coming, but when it did, it stretched to a grin.
Eight weeks earlier, after months considering what to do next and thinking about relocating, Jack had driven farther and farther from the city and stumbled across Potterford. He’d been drawn to the small towns and tiny hamlets nestled in and around southwest England. And when he’d first pulled into Marsden Place, a strange peace had settled over him. This tiny and quiet cul-de-sac was what they needed; its circumference of picture-perfect houses with their whitewashed walls and slate-gray roofs would form a protective circle around him and his children. That was what these houses were built for. Families. Even families without a mother.
The location was also perfect. A quiet suburban town would be as attractive to Martina as a garden party to Ozzy Osbourne. She wouldn’t come within ten feet of the place.
Jack’s scrutiny next settled on the house next door. After making some discreet inquiries about his new neighbor, he’d learned the woman who lived at number sixteen was a young professional with a thriving business in town. The real estate agent hadn’t mentioned a husband or children, but even if his neighbor was the “career type,” she wouldn’t be able to resist falling in love with Holly and Katy. Everyone did.
And if she didn’t? Well, that would be too bad because, along with their father, they were here to stay.
Jack spun around. Bending down, he peeped his head through the open car window. “Hey, Pud’. Want to get out?”
Katy screwed a fist into her eye and yawned widely enough to display her tonsils before she gave a sleepy nod. “Uh-huh.”
Grinning, he opened the back door and lifted her from the car seat. “You sleep okay?”
“Yes.” She dropped her head into the crook of his neck, her face directed toward their new home.
Inhaling her warm sleepy smell, Jack pulled her close. “Do you remember this house from when we visited last week?”
“We’re going to live here.”
“Do you still like it?”
“Uh-huh. It’s pretty.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Relief swept through Jack’s chest. “We’re going to be happy here, baby. I promise.”
“I want to go in.”
“We’ll wait for Holly to wake up first.”
“Daddy? Daddy! Let me out, let me out.”
He shifted Katy’s weight onto his hip and went around to the other side of the car. “Well, well, well, guess who’s awake? It’s Miss Bossy Boots herself.”
Katy giggled, and Jack opened the door, greeted by Holly’s impenetrable glare, her arms steadfastly crossed. “Not funny, Daddy.”
He grinned and extracted her from her car seat, lifting her easily onto his other hip. “Sorry, Munchkin. You’re still kind of cute, though.”
She pouted. “I am not cute. Babies are cute. I’m four.”
“Okay, then you’re beautiful. How’s that?”
Her features softened. A little. “Nice.”
Jack bit back a laugh. “Right, Chalk and Cheese, shall we go and check out our new home?”
“YAY!” The girls punched the air with their tiny fists.
With a lion-esque roar, Jack ran toward the house with the twins bouncing up and down, happily screaming. At the front door, he lowered them to the ground, pulled the key from the back pocket of his jeans, and held it aloft.
“Are you sure? There won’t be any fighting over bedrooms?”
“No, Daddy,” promised Katy.
“No, Daddy,” said Holly. “Katy will let me have whichever room I want.”
He frowned. “Holly…”
“I will, Daddy,” interrupted Katy.
“I know, but that’s not the point, is it?” Both girls looked at him, confusion etched across their faces. It didn’t matter how much Jack tried to teach them to share and share alike; the twins’ way of doing things worked perfectly for them. So who was he to interfere? He shrugged. “Forget it. Let’s go.”
Slipping the key into the lock, Jack swung the door back on its hinges, and, like two bullets from a gun, Holly and Katy shot ahead of him and along the hardwood floor of the hallway. Jack stepped over the threshold himself and took a long, slow look around him; he ran his hand over the polished newel post of the staircase and smooth, creamy white walls. The place was spotless. So clean there was still a trace of lemon furniture polish mixed with new paint. A million miles from anything the twins had known before.
Their screams of delight and discovery echoed around him, filling him with satisfaction. Tomorrow they’d move their stuff from the old house and start making a new life.
“Daddy, come see.”
Following Holly’s call, Jack walked into the sun-filled living room, where she and Katy stood side-by-side holding hands as they peered through the glass patio doors.
“What are you looking at?”
“There’s a lady out there,” they said in unison.
“Where? In the garden?” He stepped closer and looked over their heads. “Well, look at that.”
Jack smiled as his gaze appreciated the toned thighs of the woman crawling across his newly acquired lawn.
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