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Everybody, who knew him, loved Ben Laroux—especially the female population of Ministry, Alabama and surrounding counties. Ben had to admit that’d been a pretty accurate statement in his experience—right up ’til now.
It made no sense. Still uncertain how his few interactions with Sabine O’Connor had gone so badly, Ben tried to catch up to her before she stalked out the door. She’d shaken his hand with formal politeness but obvious disdain earlier, then she’d dismissed him completely.
The woman was magnificent, with black hair, pale skin, and the lightest blue eyes he’d ever seen; they were nearly silver. He watched as she stopped short just before exiting the building, madly digging through her purse.
“Looking for something?” he asked.
He might have been just a bit too close for comfort—her comfort.
Her head snapped up, and she nailed him with a level stare. “Let me guess; you found my phone?” The sounds of country music and laughter made it difficult to have a normal conversation.
“Now, why would you think I had your phone?”
“Because you’re grinning at me in a smirky, satisfied way, while I’m obviously panicking and searching for it.”
“I might have it,” he admitted.
She placed a hand on her hip and asked, “So, what will it take to get it back, and for you to leave me on my way?”
“Have dinner with me.” Well, she’d asked, hadn’t she?
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Okay. Give me your business card, and I’ll call you.” She nearly yelled to be heard above the din of music and laughter.
She’d probably toss his card into the trash on her way out. “How about I enter your number on my phone and I’ll call you to schedule?”
“Are you planning to stalk me?” It sounded like a bit of a challenge.
“Nah, I just want to figure out why you’re such a Ben-hater. I’m intrigued. If I fail to change your opinion of me, I’ll leave you alone. Scout’s honor.” He held up the international Boy Scout hand gesture.
She rolled her eyes in unmistakable doubt of his scouting background.
“You seem so certain you know my character.”
“It’s not so hard to figure out,” she said.
The certainty in her ice-blue eyes bothered him. Seriously, he’d not done anything to her, or anyone else he could think of that warranted this edgy hostility.
Did he detect a whiff of bourbon along with her Coco Chanel? “Can I offer you a ride home, or call you a cab?” His upbringing forbade him leaving a woman stranded at a bar without a ride.
She shook her head. “I’d planned to ride home with—a friend, but they didn’t show, so I’m going to call a cab.”
“Wait, somebody stood you up?” He tried to keep the shock from showing in his expression.
“What? Of course not.” She smiled then, apparently realizing how incredibly nasty her tone and demeanor had been toward him. “It was a—misunderstanding.”
“I’d be happy to drive you.”
“No, thank you.”
“I’ll wait here with you for the cab.” She didn’t seem like the type to get behind the wheel after shooting whiskey, but he’d hang around just to be sure.
He figured she realized by now the uselessness of arguing with him after their brief time spent together.
So, they stood just outside in silence as she waited for her ride.
“Nice night,” Ben observed.
“I want you to know that I appreciate what you’ve done for my family,” he said, and meant it.
She was a family therapist and had played a big part in helping his brother-in-law, Grey, and Grey’s daughter, Samantha, deal with some incredibly nasty stuff last year when they’d come back to town. But he’d not spent any real time with her, personally.
More silence. Alrighty, then.
The cab arrived just as the silence was wearing awkwardly thin. Ben cleared his throat. “It’s been my pleasure.” He grinned. “Looking forward to dinner,” he said as he opened the car door and tucked her into the backseat.
He couldn’t tell through the window if that was a wave or not. Ben decided to remain optimistic for now.
Perhaps he should write her off as unfriendly, or simply uninterested and trying to make her point but, in his experience, people didn’t go out of their way to be snippy and rude unless they had a reason. Really, something was up with this gal. It was odd, because his family members thought the world of her.
Why had she singled him out for such raw treatment? Who hated Ben Laroux? Go figure.
Ben Laroux was a handsome dog, no offense to the mostly sweet and cuddly four-legged creatures she’d met thus far. She’d met him briefly through her clients, the Laroux family, whom she thought highly of, and considered friends.
But he was one of those men. All charm and manners and white, straight teeth—like a wolf. She was all done with that kind of misrepresentation. They always started out just fine, until their phony representative took off for the hills, and left the real guy behind. Then, the handsome façade and invisible personality warts became evident. In her case, warts would have been a far preferable flaw than what she’d ended up with. She’d married her frog, who’d ended up a snake—a poisonous one.
Sabine hadn’t missed the adoring glances of women and greetings from nearly everyone around during the brief time she’d been in Ben Laroux’s company. He was evidently very popular. Small-town high school football quarterback popular. He was also very intent on her reaction to him. Like he hadn’t ever met anyone who’d displayed an unfavorable response to him. He’d clearly been confused by her lack of adoration and approval.
The cab pulled up to her small house, and she took a moment to make certain no one was around—no cars parked outside or just down the street. A lamp shone through the curtains inside the cottage.
Sabine so rarely went out these days; her social life was almost nonexistent.
She paid the driver and went to work unlocking the three dead bolts. The porch light startled her.
“Hey, honey, did you have a good time?” Her mother’s lightly aging features were highlighted in the soft glow.
“Hey, Momma, you should be in bed.”
“I couldn’t sleep. It’s just like when you were a teenager.”
Sabine stepped inside and dead-bolted the locks. “I’m not a kid anymore,” Sabine reminded her mother.
“Obviously.” Her mother held her at arm’s length. “Nobody could accuse you of being a child. You are a beautiful woman and I’m so proud of you.”
Sabine smiled at her mother, her sweet, loving mother, who’d been through far more than any person should at the age of fifty-five. She hardly looked a day over forty-five, and no one believed they were mother and daughter.
Sabine hugged her mom and checked the back door, leaving the lamp on in the living room, as was her habit. The house had three bedrooms. Just enough for Sabine, her mother, and her sister, Rachel, whenever she turned up for an occasional visit.
As Sabine washed her face and brushed her teeth, her mind wandered back to the scene at the bar with Ben Laroux. As if she would have dinner with him.
The lower the profile she kept here in this sweet Southern town, the better.
The very last thing she needed was to bring anyone else into their small, comfortable life. Things had finally settled down into a peaceful routine.
Climbing under the covers and settling in with her trusty laptop, Sabine googled Ben Laroux. Though she had no interest in him as a potential date, he certainly was an interesting case study. If he did indeed plan to stalk her, she would be ready. Sabine knew who he was, but after their interaction this evening, admittedly, her interest had been further piqued.
The results were astonishing. There were thousands of hits upon simply entering his first and last name. He was a local attorney and philanthropist. He was also linked socially, to what must be, nearly every gorgeous woman in the state of Alabama, according to the images section of Google.
No wonder he seemed so surprised that she wasn’t interested. But she had known who he was the instant he’d introduced himself. In fact, besides meeting him at the Laroux home briefly a couple times, she’d been hearing incredible stories about Ben Laroux for awhile now.
A smile played about Sabine’s lips. After reading more about him, she better understood what a well-deserved trouncing of his ego she’d accomplished.
As before, when he’d been in her presence, even a brief period, his world had tipped slightly, and it unnerved him. Nobody tipped his world, at least not in a very long time. He’d planned to wait a few days before calling, but he saw her contemptuous ice-blue eyes every time he closed his.
Ben dialed Sabine’s number while he sat at his desk in his office, files piled all around. He’d shut the door, so he wasn’t disturbed. The line rang several times, then a pleasant and professional voice came on the line stating that Dr. Sabine O’Connor wasn’t available at present, and to kindly leave a message and she would return his call. Even her husky voice message caused an uncomfortable tightening in the zippered area of his jeans.
He ended the connection without leaving a message, unsure exactly what to say.
As he pondered the many possibilities, the blaring of his AC/DC Highway to Hell ringtone nearly made him drop the thing. “Ben Laroux.”
“Oh, it’s you. I didn’t recognize the number.” She must have done a call-back.
“I’m flattered that you haven’t hung up yet, Dr. O’Connor.”
“Don’t be. I guess you want to have dinner.” She sighed into the phone.
“Sounds like you’d rather catch an incurable disease. But dinner was why I called. Wouldn’t want you to think I had no follow-through.” He didn’t want to squander what would likely be his only opportunity to figure out what her deal was.
“I’m sorry?” He nearly fell out of his chair.
“I’ll have dinner with you.” Her tone was grudging, but he supposed he’d bullied her just a little.
“Glad to hear it, though don’t sound so enthusiastic.”
She ignored that. “I’m done here for the day, so I guess we could grab something quick. I’m starving, and you’ve assured me you’re not the lowest sort—” She stopped, as if unsure how to proceed.
Ben smelled her defeat at his hands and grabbed the lead. “Where are you? I know a little place—”
“I know a place.” She snatched control back and held onto it as if to keep him in check. She was only about five minutes away from his office and gave him directions where she wanted to meet.
Fifteen minutes later, seated with slabs of ribs and giant mugs of root beer, Ben was grinning ear-to-ear. “I like your place.”
Sabine held up her finger while she slugged her root beer, set it down with a clunk, then daintily dabbed at her lips with a napkin. He’d half-expected her to swipe her mouth with the back of her hand based on the gusto of her attack on the frosted mug.
“Thirsty?” He cocked up an eyebrow in question.
“It’s been one of those days.” She didn’t elaborate, only dove into the full slab of baby backs with an equal measure of enthusiasm.
This stunning creature ate ribs like a truck driver. He waited for the belch that never emerged. Still stunning, he decided. He’d only have been more impressed had that root beer been an actual draft beer. But she was driving.
“So tell me about your practice.” He was dying to know more about this woman who obviously could hardly stomach him, but had grudgingly agreed to share a meal—ribs at that.
“I’m a clinical family therapist. You know, people with real problems—addiction, abuse, marriages in trouble.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Sounds like heavy stuff.”
“Some of it is very heavy. But, I’ve got several patients who treat therapy like a nail appointment and use it to complain about pet peeves and gossip.” Sabine’s expression became guarded. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, I find it fascinating. I’ve got clients who do the same thing. They use litigation to annoy their neighbors. If they don’t like the color the neighbor painted the barn, then how better to irritate than to threaten a lawsuit against the barn’s owner? It’s not meant to pursue, just a well-placed letter from an attorney’s office. But it forces the barn owner to gain legal representation and spend time and money to defend the threat. See? We do have something in common.” He grinned, pleased with himself for finding common ground.
She nodded, reluctantly. “I can see that both our professions require a lot of time, energy, and paperwork and, when clients make light of our efforts for petty gains, it can be very frustrating, though I do realize those are the ones often in the most pain and crying out for attention.”
“Exactly. So, I’m wondering why I haven’t seen you around more, this being such a small town?” Sure, he’d known she lived here, but he rarely, if ever, saw her out and about.
“My office is tiny, and I work alone—no partners. I don’t get out much.” She shrugged.
“I would imagine it takes a lot of compassion and kindness to counsel those with such deep human conditions. The ones who come to you for the real reasons.”
“So, I guess you’re wondering why, if I’m such a kind and compassionate person, I didn’t treat you more fairly when we met?” She teed it up for him.
And he swung away. “An explanation would be nice.”
Finally, she pushed away the nearly-clean platter and noted her surroundings, as if she’d only just become aware of them. The crowd consisted mostly of men, a few with dates, but none who compared to her in looks, class, or anything within the ballpark. He recognized several of them—most of them. A few had nodded. She hadn’t seemed to notice.
“It’s a little slow this evening,” she said.
He knew it was because this place was a favorite of his too.
“Come here often?” he asked, wondering if she was formulating a reason for her former rudeness or had decided not to fill him in.
“Often enough to know it’s a little slow.”
The waiter had recognized her and addressed her as ‘Doc.’ But he’d also slapped Ben on the back and called him by his first name.
“So, are you going to tell me why you treat me like I slithered out from under a maggot-covered rock?” He’d been dying to get to the bottom of her response to their initial introduction.
“It has little to do with you, personally.” Then, her posture relaxed and a small smile formed on her lips. “I know this surprises you, but I’m not interested in your type.”
“You’re too good looking—”
“Thanks—” Ben cut her off and grinned.
She held up a hand. “I mean, women say yes all the time to you, don’t they?”
He made a face. “Not sure I want to hear this.”
“You’re so confident everyone will fall at your feet and adore you. You expect attention as your due, while the rest of us have to earn respect to gain notice.”
“Do you honestly think, with your looks, that you have to do anything but enter a room to get attention? That’s a bit hypocritical of you.”
“I work hard to gain respect, despite my physical appearance, and despite that I’m a woman. I often don’t get taken seriously because of how I look. People assume I’m successful because of my looks. So, it’s different.”
He could only stare. “Why did you agree to have dinner in the first place?”
“Because I was rude to you and you didn’t deserve it. I appreciated your bringing my phone back, though if I’d been less-fortunate-looking, I wonder if you’d have bothered. Maybe lost and found would have worked just fine.”
He ignored the comment because he didn’t want to analyze the truth of her words. But he’d seen her softening, the shame at her behavior toward him. “Well, I guess I should be honored that you even stooped so low as to meet me.” The way her mind worked bugged the crap out of him.
“You’re intentionally taking this the wrong way. I’ve been completely honest with you.” She seemed to be struggling with herself not to be rude, but unable to dig out of it.
“Honest? Your assumptions about my character, without even knowing me, and your pretty pathetic stab at minding your manners have been entertaining. Irritating, but entertaining.”
She lowered her head. “I’m sorry. Your reputation precedes you. I must admit to being somewhat—no—very—biased against you.”
He frowned. “Has someone been talking trash about me?”
Her face turned bright red. “I—I really can’t say.” She picked up her purse from the unoccupied chair and stood. “Thank you for dinner—and for returning my phone. I appreciate both. Can we part ways now?”
He waved off her attempt to settle half the bill and paid the check. They made their way out to the lot where they’d parked a few spaces apart. He climbed in the cab of his truck, shaking his head with wonder at her prejudice against him.
Ben started the truck and waved a hand as Sabine zipped past in her tiny, red sports car. He thought he could let it go. But damn if he didn’t mumble and curse all the way home.
End of Excerpt