Chapter One – Starting Over
CLAIRE RYAN PUSHED OPEN THE DOOR to Bibliophile and struggled to calm her racing heart. Once inside, she rushed over to a large, square table covered in the newest bestsellers and leant heavily against it as she struggled to regain her balance. Closing her eyes tightly, she breathed deeply and silently chanted “In two, three, four. Out two, three, four. In two, three, four. Out two, three, four”. She continued the breathing exercises she’d read about in her latest Zen book as she fought the panic rushing through her veins.
Fifteen years. That’s how long it had been since she’d done anything social by herself, and she wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to do this. She’d waffled all day about whether or not to come before finally becoming thoroughly sick of herself. It was just a goddamn book club meeting. It wasn’t like she was running the gauntlet. Well, not literally.
The last year had been spent in near isolation with only Chester, her Pitbull, for company. She had no friends, she was estranged from her family, and her relationship of 14 years had ended, leaving her alone. Claire had been determined to take the time to figure out what she was doing with her life, and the last year had been spent laying the foundation for living. For the first few months, she’d fooled herself into believing that she was actually living. She worked, she ate, she read, she went to sleep and she took care of Chester. That was it. That was the sum total of Claire’s life for the last 365 days. Today was the anniversary of her break-up with Charlie. It was no coincidence that she’d chosen it to re-enter the living world.
Slowly, Claire felt her chest loosen and her breathing slow to normal. Once she was certain she wasn’t going to pass out, she stood and smoothed her sweater down over her hips before standing straight and taking one last deep breath. On the exhale, she finally took a look around the store. Bibliophile was a small, local bookstore that catered to hardcore readers. It offered services for locating hard to find and out-of-print books and held regular readings, book clubs, and author events. For over ten years, Claire had walked by the store, but never once been inside. She’d done all of her shopping at the local Barnes & Noble, online, or simply checked books out at the library.
The store was actually a converted townhouse in the growing urban district of River Rock, Vermont. It was cosy, with row upon row of shelves housing books of every genre. The front of the building was dominated by a huge bay window with a clever display of books set up like a house of cards next to a sign announcing the store’s monthly event calendar. Perpendicular to the window was the checkout counter, which held a smattering of pens and bookmarks along with a Dell flat screen monitor and computer. The counter was neat and free of the usual clutter one tended to find in such places. In fact, as Claire scanned the entire store, searching out the club meeting, it was neat as a pin. The floors were oak done in a parquet style where the grain alternated direction. Cheery yellow paint covered the walls, which were lined with classic movie posters and playbills. The overall effect was modern vintage.
Hearing voices coming from the back, Claire headed in that direction. Just as she stepped into the aisle between New Releases and Popular Fiction, the single most gorgeous man she had ever seen stepped out of the row closest to the register and walked behind the counter. That fast she lost her breath all over again.
He was tall, well over six feet, with close-cropped, black hair that showed just a hint of grey at the temples. His face was almost harsh, with a strong chin and straight nose. Given the heavy shadow he was sporting at just past 6 p.m., Claire guessed he probably had to shave twice a day if he really wanted to stay smooth. He was older, probably in his late 40s, but extremely fit. His lean firm body was accentuated by the black T-shirt and black jeans he wore. The T-shirt lovingly accentuated his broad shoulders and narrow waist. Rugged. That was it. If she had to find one word to describe him, it was rugged. He had her body tightening in places she’d forgotten about.
Claire watched as he set down the stack of books he was carrying and reached for the mouse. She felt rooted to the spot. She knew better than to gawk, but he was stunning. She could stand there and watch him for ever. He moved with an unconscious grace that was almost erotic. His fingers were long and his hands were large yet surprisingly deft as he moved the mouse, clicking every now and then. From her angle, Claire could see that his eyes were a dark brown and she bet that if she got close, she’d probably have a hard time discerning the iris from the pupil. He mesmerised her. She couldn’t remember ever being so taken aback by a man. Not even Charlie, and he was the best looking man she’d ever dated.
Pain stabbed through her at the thought of Charlie. She had no right to stand there and ogle this man. After what she’d done, she knew better than to indulge in such a pointless endeavour. In obvious approval of her decision, a wave of cool air swept across Claire as a bell rung and another patron entered. The breeze fluttered her hair and pushed her gently toward the back. Taking it as a sign, Claire scurried into the stacks to find her club meeting.
‘My biggest issue was that this was more book porn than romance. I mean, the author used the c-word relentlessly and they were always doing it. It was a real turn-off,’ the woman said for what had to be the fifth time. Inside, Claire couldn’t help but wonder at the paradox between her appearance and her prudish sensibility. She was rail thin, with bottle black hair, deep red lipstick, and a sparkling silver chain connecting the hoops in her upper lip and outer eyebrow. If anything, Claire would have been expecting her to champion the carnality of the book. It was judgmental, she knew, but there you have it.
‘Book porn. Hardly,’ scoffed the club moderator, a slim, middle-aged woman with long, blonde hair pulled back in a simple ponytail that hung down her back. ‘Book porn has no plot. It has no conflict or crisis. It has no character development. It simply jolts from one sex scene to the next. This had it all. The characters were well drawn. The plot was involved. The sex was graphic, admittedly, but given the fact that the main character was a vampire assassin, I think it was appropriate.’ She punctuated each phrase with large, round gestures as she warmed up to the topic.
Claire tuned out again at this point. She’d been only half listening to the discussion and she hadn’t been participating other than the one time the moderator had deliberately attempted to draw her into the conversation by asking her which of the book’s characters was her favourite. Thank God she’d actually read the book. It was J. R. Ward’s Dark Lover, and Claire had absolutely loved the story. She was already well into book two, but after that one answer Claire had only been half-heartedly tuned into the discussion.
It wasn’t that she had a problem with the group; she just had never been much of a joiner. She’d chosen this particular club because the one and only thing she had consistently done over the last several years was read romance novels. It had been the only outlet for her frustrated desire for sex. And, in the year since she and Charlie split, she’d read so many romance novels she’d run out of space on her shelves and had maxed her Nook’s memory out twice. So it had made logical sense to join a book club for romance readers. She figured she’d come out, maybe see if she could meet some nice, like-minded people, and just force herself to be around humans at least once a week. She wasn’t particularly optimistic, but she’d vowed to attend at least four meetings before giving up.
The group was an eclectic mix of young and older women. There was one lone man in the group, though Claire suspected he was gay. Unlike most gatherings of people, this group was very participative and she was sure she was coming off like a wallflower, but she just didn’t have it in her yet to really participate. It was a lot for her to even be at the meeting. What she really wanted to do was get up and browse the store. It had been so long since she’d been inside a real bookstore and not a revolving book-warehouse, she’d forgotten what a sensory experience it was, with the colourful book jackets and the smell of paper, ink, and coffee. Bibliophile was riding the trend of the 21st century bookshop and had coffee and snacks available. The sharp, chocolaty aroma of the brew was making Claire’s mouth water, and it looked like chocolate chip cookies to boot, but she could be patient until the meeting broke for refreshments.
Unlike the large, faceless chains with their impersonal cafes, Mr Rugged from the front of the store had made several pots of coffee during the meeting and stocked out muffins and cookies. There was a small, clear acrylic tin on the side table where everything was neatly arranged asking for donations to the coffee fund, and even from her seat across the meeting area, Claire could see that it was stuffed full of bills and coins.
The area where they were meeting was cosy, with a large rug and a low coffee table surrounded by big, overstuffed armchairs and plenty of folding ones to accommodate the group members. Claire suspected that if she came back when there were no meetings, just the table and armchairs would be in the centre, as neatly arranged as the rest of the store.
‘OK, everyone. Great meeting. Next time, it’s The Devil Who Tamed Her by Johanna Lindsey. Evan has been kind enough to offer a 20 per cent discount to all club members on their purchases, so don’t forget to register at the front.’ The moderator stood up, signalling an end to the meeting.
Claire stood and started to make good her escape, only to be thwarted by the moderator.
‘Hi there,’ she held out a slim, well-toned arm. ‘I’m Jean. We didn’t get a chance to meet before the meeting started. It’s always good to have a new member and I wanted to be sure to welcome you.’
‘Thank you. I’m Claire,’ she said a bit awkwardly as she shook Jean’s hand. The woman’s grip was firm and warm. It had been so long since she had to interact socially that she didn’t really know how to continue. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t really join in that much, I …’ She shrugged as she ran out of anything to say that wouldn’t force her to lie to the woman.
‘Oh –’ Jean waved a dismissive hand ‘– no worries. You’ll warm up to us. We tend to be very vocal, and after a while you won’t be able to resist us.’ She grinned widely. ‘Well, I have to get home. My husband will be waiting for me. We’ll see you next time, right?’ She looked at Claire with a quirked eyebrow.
‘Yes,’ Claire said with a definitive nod. She would tough this out.
‘Good.’ she patted Claire’s arm as she moved off, calling over her shoulder, ‘Next time, you’ll lead the discussion.’
Claire stiffened and her eyes widened. ‘What! Oh no. Jean, wait.’ She started off after her, only to stop up short as she stubbed her toe on the coffee table.
‘Dammit!’ she muttered as she plopped down into the nearest seat and hugged her abused toe into her lap. Thank God for the boots she was wearing, otherwise she was willing to bet she’d have broken it.
‘Shit,’ she grumbled under her breath. She’d wanted to ease back into socialising, not get booted into the spotlight. She’d just have to talk with Jean about this next week. Right now, the coffee was calling her and she wanted to pick up some new books, including the club’s next selection.
Claire wandered Bibliophile browsing the various aisles and acquainting herself with the layout. Her fingers danced along the colourful spines the way children ran their fingers along the pickets of a fence as she absorbed the swish of the book jackets under her touch and her eyes swam with the colours and type. She was waiting for that spark, that hint saying this one. She felt the overwhelming need to connect to something, anything. She’d been alone for a long time now with just her books and her dog and she was tired of her own company. Surely one year completely alone was sufficient penance. Surely she could try to find a friend if nothing else.
The 14 years she’d spent with Charlie represented the absolute worst experience of her life. The relationship had been abusive on so many levels, and she hadn’t found enough scalding water to cleanse her of her crimes. She’d put him through the worst kind of hell and she’d done it wilfully. When he’d finally left her, the biggest relief had been knowing that she couldn’t hurt him any more.
At first, she’d been content to be by herself. She’d recognised that the world didn’t deserve her baggage. She was never going to do to another human being what she’d done to Charlie. It wouldn’t be fair to anyone. Watching someone slowly come to hate you was a chilling experience and one that haunted her.
She had only to look in the mirror to see the evidence of his pain and she was determined to go it alone rather than take the risk of hurting anyone else.
Being alone was easier said than done. She’d made it through the year she had vowed to do, but now there were some days where simply breathing hurt. Everything about her life was isolated. She lived by herself and didn’t know her neighbours. Her only companionship was Chester and as much as she loved him, he couldn’t talk to her. Her work as a diamond grader and jewellery appraiser was solitary and she could go days without interacting with a single co-worker beyond the perfunctory communication necessary to perform the work. She was no longer just alone, she was profoundly lonely. Hence the book club. She needed human interaction. If nothing else, she needed to be around people.
Claire continued along the last aisle spanning the wall at the front of the store until she found what she was looking for, the romance section. She quickly scanned the author last names until she found “L” and picked up the club’s selection for the next meeting. That done, she scanned the titles and randomly picked up books from her favourite authors. As she reached for one paperback, a book on the next shelf over caught her eye. The title, Finding Herself, all but jumped up and smacked her on the face. Its large, bold script against a plain black book jacket fairly blinked “look at me, look at me”.
Claire picked up the book, flipped it over, and scanned the blurb, only to thrust the book right back onto the shelf and turn away. That wasn’t a romance novel; it was an erotica anthology – about BDSM. She hadn’t bothered to pay attention to the tag on the shelf indicating the genre. She wasn’t interested in reading erotica; at least, that’s what she was telling herself since her fingers were almost itching to pick that book back up.
Over the last year, her reading selections had become more and more risqué. She’d grown up on the likes of Barbara Cartland where there was no sex at all or, if there was, it was a discreet sentence where the heroine very pristinely offered up her virginity. During her relationship with Charlie, when sex became less and less frequent, and especially after it was nothing more than participatory masturbation, she’d begun to read progressively more sexually explicit novels.
J.R. Ward’s Brotherhood series had been the answer to her dreams. Lots of graphic sex tied up into a love story. She’d masturbated a lot after reading one those books. If you could call what she did masturbation. Applying steady pressure to her clit outside her panties didn’t rank up there with what she’d heard of other women doing, but it got her off and that’s all she really cared about. However, racy romance novels were one thing, but erotica was something else entirely. But that blurb; it was as if it were seared into her brain. One sentence in particular had made her tingle … Join us as these women submit to their secret desire to be ruled by that one man, the one who sees inside her and pushes her beyond her inhibitions to pleasures she’s not even dared to fantasise about.
Every cell in her body was screaming for her to buy that book. So many times she had wanted to ask Charlie to do something to her only to be embarrassed and bite her tongue. So many times she had been frustrated at his tendency to just keep it simple and fuck her lying on their sides, rubbing her clit until she came, when what she really wanted was for him to get rough and fuck her like he couldn’t breathe if he didn’t take her. She craved hot, jungle sex, but had never had the courage to demand it. And truthfully, after a while, he’d only had sex with her because she was there and he wasn’t a cheater. She didn’t blame him for not putting any effort into it, but that didn’t do anything about her frustrated desires.
Almost against her will, she found herself backtracking and pulling the anthology off the self. For long moments, she just stared at it. The cover was compelling. The image was in shadows and quite artistic. A naked woman knelt in profile with her hands behind her back, tied with what looked like a scarf. Her nipples were hard and her lips were parted. She was blindfolded and her head was bent. Her posture epitomised supplication, but her arousal was obvious. Claire gripped the book so hard her knuckles showed white. She wanted to read it, but she was nervous. What if it was really perverted? Imagining what might be inside those pages, however, had her breath hitching just a bit and a slow flush sweeping through her limbs.
Claire darted a glance toward the front of the store where the cash register was located. There was no way she was going to walk up to Mr Rugged and ring that book out. That was like having to buy tampons or yeast infection medicine and the only cashier in the store was a gorgeous guy. She couldn’t do it. She might not be willing to talk to him, but she damn sure wasn’t going to embarrass herself in front of him.
With a sigh, she started to put the book back, only to stop abruptly as she caught sight of Mr Rugged finishing up his rearranging of the armchairs in the reading area. The flex and flow of his muscles as he moved made her palms itch to touch him. He didn’t notice her perusal as he took the last two folding chairs into what had to be a store room in the back corner, leaving the four leather club chairs as Claire had imagined they would be – perfectly lined up, one at each edge of the low, square coffee table.
Tingles flew through her body as the idea over took her. She could read it here. Bibliophile catered to readers. It was encouraged even. She’d just spend some time reading a few of the selections and make sure she put it back before she left. She didn’t have to buy it, and she didn’t even have to feel guilty because she was going to buy several books before she left.
Decision made, Claire slipped the book into her stack and headed back to the reading area. Settling into the furthest chair from the front, she set her intended purchases on the table and flipped to the first story.