Susan Mallery

Under Her Skin

The first book in the Lone Star Sisters series, 2009

To those who serve…

with grateful thanks.


“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 ’N 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 sniping 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. One of his clients was willing to loan 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.”

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