Bertrice Small

Sudden Pleasures

The third book in the Channel series, 2007

To my editor, Kara Cesare, who said I could when I was sure I couldn't.

This one's for you, sweetie, with my grateful thanks.

Chapter 1

Screwed! She was royally, totally, and completely screwed. And all because that charming old man who had been her grandfather came from a generation that still believed in happily ever after. Ashley Cordelia Kimbrough, the richest woman in Egret Pointe, could have told you that there was absolutely no such thing as happily ever after.

'You can't find any way around his will?' she asked her attorneys for what was probably the hundredth time. 'Nothing?'

Rick Johnson and Joe Pietro d'Angelo shook their heads at her.

'You've still got eighteen months,' Rick said. 'A lot can happen in eighteen months, Ash. There's still plenty of time.'

'Yeah,' Joe chimed in. 'And it would have been a lot worse if we hadn't found out about Derek. If you'd married him, it would have cost you a lot of money, Ash. A lot of money. I would have thought a guy like that would have been smarter, but maybe it's just been luck that kept him one step ahead of the law. But once he started howling about the prenup, bells started going off around here.'

Ashley sighed. 'Thank God you two checked him out, but everyone seemed to think he was the perfect match for me. But then, what wasn't to like? He was tall, blond, athletic, well-spoken. He was a great dresser, and seemed to be well-fixed himself. Who knew that Derek Douglas Carruthers was wanted in Georgia and South Carolina for fraud? And that his real name was Elmer Oswald Leonard?'

'Let's not forget he is also wanted in Thailand, Italy, and Turkey,' Joe reminded her dryly. 'This guy was a con man extraordinaire, Ash. He's left a long trail of broken hearts and empty bank accounts in his wake.'

'So now I'm back to square one,' Ashley said. 'You know, guys, I'm starting to be known around Egret Pointe as the Bad-luck Bride. It's more than embarrassing.'

'Oh, come on, Ash,' Rick said. 'These things happen. Weddings get called off at the last minute all the time. No big deal.'

'This is the third wedding I've planned,' Ashley said, 'that's been called off at the last minute. The first one was the year after grandfather died. I was twenty-four, and really should have known better, but I didn't, did I?'

'None of us knew that Carson would run off with the best man two days before the wedding,' Joe said. 'Usually it's the maid of honor the groom runs off with, isn't it?' He struggled to hold back the smile that was threatening to burst forth. In retrospect it really had been a comical situation.

Ashley laughed. 'I thought it was so romantic that he was saving himself for our wedding night,' she said. 'Carson was really the nicest of them all, you know. I see him every now and again in the city. He finds these wonderful new young designers for me all the time. It's like he's trying to make it up to me. He's still with Peter, and they're very happy. They're even talking about adopting a baby.'

'You've got a good heart, Ash,' Joe remarked.

'Yeah, sure, but I've also got lousy taste in men. May I remind you of my second attempt at marriage? Chandler Wayne. Former quarterback for a pro team, and all man, all the time. I made damned certain he wasn't another Carson, and he wasn't. Not too inventive in the sack, but very enthusiastic,' Ashley said, enjoying the fact that her two attorneys were embarrassed by her frankness, especially as both of them remembered that it had made the tabloids when Chandler had died during a bout of autoerotic sex while in Vegas with his six groomsmen for a weeklong bachelor party.

Both lawyers had been married for a long time. Both had children who were grown and out of the house, or still in college. Both were obviously content, although Ashley knew that their wives were frequent visitors to the Channel. And very few women who visited the Channel did so for sightseeing purposes only. Most women visiting the Channel did so to satisfy their sexual fantasies. Ashley certainly did. Without it she would have gone crazy after all the Sturm und Drang in her life.

Her parents had been drowned in a boating accident when she was fourteen. She and her brother made their home after that with Grandfather Kimbrough at Kimbrough Hall. Their maternal grandparents were deceased, and there were no other relatives. Her brother had graduated from West Point, and as a second lieutenant been killed in Desert Storm at the age of twenty-three. Ashley was in her freshman year of college that year. She hadn't wanted to go to college because she had an idea to open a specialty shop in Egret Pointe. But Edward Kimbrough had insisted, promising to back her venture when she graduated.

With that incentive dangling before her like a golden carrot, Ashley managed to graduate in three years' time with a degree in business. It had meant no dating, no vacations, no life. But she had done it, and true to his word her grandfather had financed the elegant lingerie shop that Ashley named Lacy Nothings. He hadn't thought much of the idea, he told her candidly, but Ashley knew her market. Egret Pointe was no longer a dull small town. When grandfather had built Ansley at Egret Pointe, his first upscale development, everything had changed. The village, while maintaining its smalltown charm, had become more sophisticated.

Lacy Nothings had been a big hit, and a welcome addition to local shopping. And as its reputation spread, women from nearby towns came to the Egret Pointe store to purchase the alluring undergarments and night garments that the shop sold. Many were original designs. Many were handmade. And everything was of the absolute best quality. And then she had done her first catalog, and the orders began pouring in from all over the United States and Canada.

'Who would have thunk women would pay so much money for so little?' her grandfather had said, surprised, but actually pleased that Ashley had spotted both a trend and a need, and locked onto it. He hadn't always agreed with her, for Edward Kimbrough was a conservative man, but he had been Ashley's biggest booster.

And now Ashley was in the process of opening two new stores: one in an upmarket neighborhood in the city, and another in a similarly good location in a wealthy suburb. But everything was being threatened by this stupid clause in her grandfather's will: Ashley Cordelia Kimbrough had to marry by the time she was thirty-five or she would lose everything. Her home. The millions of dollars her grandfather had left her. And her investments, including Lacy Nothings, because her stores were originally a part of Edward Livingston Kimbrough's investments, and the monies she was using to open the new stores were part of the estate. They were hers to use only until she was thirty-five. If at that point she didn't have a husband, then Ashley would lose it all to SSEXL, the Society Seeking Extraterrestrial Life. Not that her grandfather had believed in life on other planets. No. He had done it to please his stupid girlfriend, who couldn't be satisfied that she would get a million on Edward's death. So he had

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