/ Language: English / Genre:antique,

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Megan Hart


antiqueMeganHartSwitchenMeganHartcalibre 0.8.6918.9.20120ac45328-bbfa-43ef-8361-94ba492d7de81.0

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MEGAN HART

To my trusted crit partners, you know who you are.

To my family, for your support and love.

To my readers—without you, I'd have no success. Thank

you.

I don't write books without music. My thanks to the artists

and musicians who make it possible for me to sit at my

computer day after day and make worlds and the people

who populate them. Please support their work through

legal sources.

Don McLean, "Empty Chairs"; Joaquin Phoenix and

Reese Witherspoon, "It Ain't Me, Babe"; Joshua Radin,

"Closer"; Justin King, "Same Mistakes"; Lifehouse,

"Whatever It Takes"; Meredith Brooks, "What Would

Happen"; Rufus Wainwright, "Halelujah"; Sarah Bareiles,

"Gravity"; Schuyler Fisk, "Lying to You"; She Wants Revenge, "These Things"; Tim Curry, "S.O.S."

Contents

Title Page

Dedication

Author's Note

Chapter 01

Chapter 02

Chapter 03

Chapter 04

Chapter 05

Chapter 06

Chapter 07

Chapter 08

Chapter 09

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 01

Sometimes, you look back.

He was coming out. I was going in. We moved by each

other, ships passing without fanfare the way hundreds of

strangers pass every day. The moment didn't last longer

than it took to see a bush of dark, messy hair and a flash

of dark eyes. I registered his clothes first, the khaki cargo

pants and a long-sleeved black T-shirt. Then his height and

the breadth of his shoulders. I became aware of him in the

span of a few seconds the way men and women have of

noticing each other, and I swiveled on the pointed toe of

my kitten-heel pumps and folowed him with my gaze until

the door of the Speckled Toad closed behind me.

"Want me to wait?"

"Huh?" I looked at Kira, who'd gone ahead of me. "For what?"

"For you to go back after the dude who just gave you

whiplash." She smirked and gestured, but I couldn't see

him anymore, not even through the glass.

I'd known Kira since tenth grade, when we bonded over

our mutual love for a senior boy named Todd Browning.

We'd had a lot in common back then. Bad hair, miserable

taste in clothes and a fondness for too much black

eyeliner. We'd been friends back then, but I wasn't sure

what to cal her now.

I turned toward the center of the shop. "Shut up. I barely

noticed him."

"If you say so." Kira tended to drift, and now she

wandered toward a shelf of knickknacks that were nothing

like anything I'd ever buy. She lifted one, a stuffed frog

holding a heart in its feet. The heart had MOM

embroidered on it in sparkly letters. "What about this?"

"Nice bling. But no, on so many levels. I do have half a

mind to get her one of these, though." I turned to a shelf of

porcelain clowns.

"Jesus. She'd hate one of those. I dare you to buy it." Kira snorted laughter.

I laughed, too. I was trying to find a birthday present for

my father's wife. The woman wouldn't own her real age

and insisted every birthday be celebrated as her "twenty-

and insisted every birthday be celebrated as her "twenty-

ninth" along with the appropriate coy smirks, but she sure

didn't mind raking in the loot. Nothing I bought would

impress her, and yet I was unrelentingly determined to buy

her something perfect.

"If they weren't so expensive, I might think about it. She

colects that Limoges stuff. Who knows? She might realy

dig a ceramic clown." I touched the umbrela of one

tightrope-balancing monstrosity.

Kira had met Stela a handful of times and neither had

been impressed with the other. "Yeah, right. I'm going to

check out the magazines."

I murmured a reply and kept up my search. Miriam Levy,

the owner of the Speckled Toad, stocks an array of

decora tive items, but that wasn't realy why I was there. I

could have gone anyplace to find Stela a present. Hel,

she'd have loved a gift card to Neiman Marcus, even if

she'd have sniffed at the amount I could afford. I didn't

come to Miriam's shop for the porcelain clowns, or even

because it was a convenient half a block from Riverview

Manor, where I lived.

No. I came to Miriam's shop for the paper.

No. I came to Miriam's shop for the paper.

Parchment, hand-cut greeting cards, notebooks, pads of

exquisite, delicate paper thin as tissue, stationery meant for

fountain pens and thick, sturdy cardboard capable of

enduring any torture. Paper in al colors and sizes, each

individualy perfect and unique, just right for writing love

notes and breakup letters and condolences and poetry,

with not a single box of plain white computer printer paper

to be found. Miriam won't stock anything so plebian.

I have a bit of a stationery fetish. I colect paper, pens,

note cards. Set me loose in an office-supply store and I

can spend more hours and money than most women can

drop on shoes. I love the way good ink smels on

expensive paper. I love the way a heavy, linen note card

feels in my fingers. Most of al, I love the way a blank

sheet of paper looks when it's waiting to be written on.

Anything can happen in those moments before you put pen

to paper.

The best part about the Speckled Toad is that Miriam sels

her paper by the sheet as wel as by the package and the

ream. My colection of papers includes some of creamy

linen with watermarks, some handmade from flower pulp,

some note cards scissored into scherenschnitte scenes. I

some note cards scissored into scherenschnitte scenes. I

have pens of every color and weight, most of them

inexpensive but with something—the ink or the color—that

appealed to me. I've colected my paper and my pens for

years from antique shops, close-out bins, thrift shops.

Discovering the Speckled Toad was like finding my own

personal nirvana.

I always intend to use what I buy for something important.

Worthwhile. Love letters written with a pen that curves

into my palm just so and tied with crimson ribbon, sealed

with scarlet wax. I buy them, I love them, but I hardly ever

write on them. Even anonymous love letters need a

recipient…and I didn't have a lover.

Then again, who writes anymore? Cel phones, instant

messaging and the Internet have made letter writing

obsolete, or nearly so. There's something powerful,

though, about a handwritten note. Something personal and

aching to be profound. Something more than a half-

scribbled grocery list or a scrawled signature on a

premade greeting card. Something I would probably never

write, I thought as I ran my fingers over the silken edge of

a pad of Victorian-embossed writing paper.

"Hey, Paige. How's it going?" Miriam's grandson Ari

"Hey, Paige. How's it going?" Miriam's grandson Ari

shifted the packages in his arms to the floor behind the

counter, then disappeared and popped back up like a

jack-in-the-box.

"Ari, dear. I have another delivery for you." Miriam

appeared from the curtained doorway behind the front

counter and looked over her half-glasses at him. "Right

away. Don't take two hours like you did the last time."

He roled his eyes but took the envelope from her and

kissed her cheek. "Yes, Bubbe."

"Good boy. Now, Paige. What can I do for you today?"

Miriam watched him go with a fond smile before turning to

me. She was impeccably made up as usual, not a hair out

of place or a smudge to her lipstick. Miriam is a true

grande dame, at least seventy, and with a style few women

can pul off at any age.

"I need a gift for my father's wife."

"Ah." Miriam inclined her head delicately to the left. "I'm sure you'l find the perfect gift. But if you need any help, let

me know."

"Thanks." I'd been in often enough for her to know I liked to wander and browse.

After twenty minutes in which I'd caressed and perused

the new shipment of fine writing papers and expensive

pens I couldn't afford no matter how much I desperately

wanted one, Kira found me in the back room.

"Okay, Indiana Jones, what are you looking for? The Lost

Ark?"

"I'l know it when I see it." I gave her a look.

Kira roled her eyes. "Oh, let's just go to the mal. You

know Stela won't care what you give her."

"But I care." I couldn't explain how important it was to…

wel, not impress Stela. I could never impress her. To not

disappoint her. To not prove her right about me. That was

al I wanted to do. To not prove her right.

"You're so stubborn sometimes."

"It's caled determination," I murmured as I looked one last time at the shelf in front of me.

"It's caled stubborn as hel and refusing to admit it. I'l be

outside."

I barely glanced up as she left. I'd known Kira's attention

span wouldn't make her the best companion for this trip,

but I'd put off buying Stela's gift for too long. I hadn't seen

much of Kira since I'd moved away from our hometown to

Harrisburg. Actualy, I hadn't seen much of her even

before that. When she'd caled to see if I wanted to get

together I hadn't been able to think of a reason to say no

that wouldn't make me sound like a total douche. She'd be

content outside smoking a cigarette or two, so I turned my

attention back to the search, determined to find just the

right thing.

Over the years I'd discovered it wasn't necessarily the gift

itself that won Stela's approval, but something even less

tangible than the price. My father gave her everything she

wanted, and what she didn't get from him she bought for

herself, so buying her something she wanted or needed

was impossible. Gretchen and Steve, my dad's kids with

his first wife, Tara, took the lazy route of having their kids

make her something like a finger-painted card. Stela's

own two boys were stil young enough not to care. My half

siblings got off the gift-giving hook with their haphazard

siblings got off the gift-giving hook with their haphazard

efforts when I'd be held to a higher standard.

There is always something to be gained from being held to

the higher standard.

Now I looked, hard, thinking about what would be just

right. Don't get me wrong. She's not a bad person, my

father's wife. She never went out of her way to make me

part of their family the way she had with Gretchen and

Steven, and I surely didn't rank as high in her sight as her

sons Jeremy and Tyler. But my half siblings had al lived

with my dad. I never had.

Then I saw it. The perfect gift. I took the box from the

shelf and opened the top. Inside, nestled on deep blue

tissue paper, lay a package of pale blue note cards. In the

lower right corner of each glittered a stylized S surrounded by a design of subtly sparkling stars. The envelopes had

the same starry design, the paper woven with silver

threads to make it shine. A pen rested inside the box, too.

I took it out. It was too light and the tiny tassel at the end

made it too casual, but this wasn't for me. It was the

perfect pen for salon-manicured fingers writing thank- you

cards in which al the i's were dotted by tiny hearts. It was the perfect pen for Stela.

the perfect pen for Stela.

"Ah, so you found something." Miriam took the box from

me and carefuly peeled away the price sticker from

beneath. "Very nice choice. I'm sure she'l love it."

"I hope so." I thought she would, too, but didn't want to

jinx myself.

"You always know exactly what someone needs, don't

you?" Miriam smiled as she slipped the box into a pretty

bag and added a ribbon, no extra charge.

I laughed. "Oh, I don't know about that."

"You do," she said firmly. "I remember my customers, you know. I pay attention. There are many who come in here

looking for something and don't find it. You always do."

"That doesn't mean it's the right thing," I told her, paying for the cards with a pair of crisp bils fresh out of the

ATM.

Miriam gave me a look over her glasses. "Isn't it?"

I didn't answer. How does anyone know if they know

what they're doing is right? Until it's too late to change

what they're doing is right? Until it's too late to change

things, anyway.

"Sometimes, Paige, we think we know very wel what

someone wants, or needs. But then—" she sighed, holding

out a package of pretty stationery in a box with a clear

plastic lid "—we discover we are wrong. I'd put this aside

for one of my regular customers, but he didn't care for it,

after al."

"Too bad. I'm sure someone else wil." I wasn't surprised a man didn't want the paper. Embossed with gilt-edged

flowers, it seemed a little too feminine for a dude.

Miriam's gaze sharpened. "You, perhaps?"

I waved the flowered paper aside and shoved my hands in

my back pockets as I looked around the shop. "Not realy

my style."

She laughed and set the box aside. She'd painted her nails

scarlet to match her lipstick. I hoped when I was her age

I'd be half as stylish. Hel. I hoped to be half as stylish

tomorrow.

"Now, how about something for yourself? I have some

"Now, how about something for yourself? I have some

new notebooks right here. Suede finish. Gilt-edged pages.

Tied closed with a ribbon," she wheedled, pointing to the

end-cap display. "Come and see."

I groaned good-naturedly. "You're heartless, you know

that? You know al you have to do is show me…oh.

Ohhh."

"Pretty, yes?"

"Yes." I wasn't looking at notebooks, but at a red,

lacquered box with a ribbon-hinged lid. A purple-and-blue

dragonfly design etched the polished wood. "What's this?"

I stroked the smooth lid and opened it. Inside, nestled on

black satin, rested a smal clay dish, a smal container of

red ink and a set of wood-handled brushes.

"Oh, that's a caligraphy set." Miriam came around the

counter to look at it with me. "Chinese. But this one is

special. It comes with paper and a set of pens, not just

brushes and ink."

She showed me by lifting the box's bottom to reveal a

sheaf of paper crisscrossed with a crimson ribbon and a

set of brass-nibbed pens in a red satin bag with a

set of brass-nibbed pens in a red satin bag with a

drawstring.

"It's gorgeous." I took my hands away, though I wanted to

touch the pens, the ink, the paper.

"Just what you need, yes?" Miriam went around the

counter to sit on her stool. "Perfect for you."

I checked the price and closed the box's lid firmly. "Yes.

But not today."

"No?" Miriam tutted. "Why is it you know so wel what

everyone else needs, but not yourself? Such a shame,

Paige. You should buy it."

I could pay my cel phone bil for the price of that box. I

shook my head, then cocked it to look at her. "Why are

you so convinced I know what everyone else needs?

That's a pretty broad statement."

Miriam tore the wrapper off a package of mints and put

one into her mouth. She sucked gently for a moment

before answering. "You've been a good customer. I've

seen you buy gifts, and sometimes things for yourself. I like

to think I know people. What they need and like. Why do

you think I have such atrocities on my shelves? Because

people want them."

I folowed her gaze to the shelf holding more porcelain

clowns. "Just because you want something doesn't mean

you should have it."

"Just because you want something doesn't mean you

should deny yourself the pleasure," Miriam said serenely.

"Buy yourself that box. You deserve it."

"I have nothing to write with it!"

"Letters to a sweetheart," she suggested.

"I don't have a sweetheart." I shook my head again.

"Sorry, Miriam. Can't do it now. Maybe some other time."

She sighed. "Fine, fine. Deny yourself the pleasure of

something pretty. You think that's what you need?"

"I think I need to pay my bils before I can buy luxuries,

that's what I think."

"Ah. Sensible." She inclined her head. "Practical. Not very romantic. That's you."

romantic. That's you."

"You can tel al that from the kind of paper I buy?" I put

my hands on my hips to stare at her. "C'mon."

Miriam shrugged, and it was easy to see how she must

have been as a young woman. Stubborn, graceful,

beautiful. "I can tel it by the paper you don't buy. When you're an old lady, you'l be wise like me, too."

"I hope so." I laughed.

"I hope you'l come back and buy yourself that box. It's

meant for you, Paige."

"I'l definitely think about it. Okay? Is that good enough?"

"If you buy the paper," Miriam told me, "I guarantee you'l find something worth writing in it."

Chapter 02

Shal we begin?

This is your first list.

You wil folow each instruction perfectly. There is no

margin for error. The penalty for failure is dismissal.

Your reward wil be my attention and command.

You wil write a list of ten. Five flaws. Five strengths.

Deliver them promptly to the address below.

The square envelope in my hand bore the faint ridges of

realy expensive paper and no glue on the flap, like the

reply envelope included with an invitation. I turned the

heavy, cream-colored card that had been inside it over

and over in my fingers. It felt like high-grade linen. Also

expensive. I fingered the slightly rough edge along one

side. Custom cut, maybe, from a larger sheet. Not quite

heavy enough to be a note card, but too thick to use in a

computer printer.

I lifted the envelope to my face and sniffed it. A faint,

I lifted the envelope to my face and sniffed it. A faint,

musky perfume clung to the paper, which was smooth but

also porous. I couldn't identify the scent, but it mingled

with the aroma of expensive ink and new paper until my

head wanted to spin.

I touched the black, looping letters. I didn't recognize the

handwriting, and the letter bore no signature. Each word

had been formed carefuly, each letter precisely drawn,

without the careless loops, ticks and whorls that marked

most people's writing. This looked practiced and efficient.

Faceless.

The paper listed a post-office box at one of the local

branch offices, and that was it. Since moving into

Riverview Manor five months ago, I'd received a few

advertising circulars, requests for charitable donations

addressed to two different former tenants and way too

many bils. I hadn't had any personal mail at al. I turned

the card over again, listening to the soft sigh of the paper

on my skin. It didn't have a name or address on the front.

Only a number, scrawled in the same languid hand as the

note. I looked closer, seeing what in my haste I hadn't

noticed before.

114

114

That explained it, then. This note wasn't for me at al. The

ink had smeared a little, turning the one into a passable

version of a four, if you weren't paying close attention.

Someone had stuffed this into my mailbox, 414, by

mistake.

At least it wasn't another baby shower or wedding

invitation from "friends" I hadn't seen in the past few years.

I wasn't a fan of being put on a loot-gathering mailing list

just because once upon a time we'd been in a math class

together.

"What's that?" Kira had come up behind me in a cloud of

cigarette odor and now dug her chin into my shoulder.

I don't know why I didn't want to show her, but I closed

the card and slipped it back into the envelope, then found

the right mailbox and shoved it through the slot. I peeked

into the glass window and saw it resting inside the metal

cave, slim and single and alone.

"Nothing. It wasn't for me."

"C'mon then, whore. Let's get upstairs. We have a

"C'mon then, whore. Let's get upstairs. We have a

threesome with Jose, Jack and Jim." She held up the

clanking paper grocery sack containing the bottles.

Every woman should have a slutty friend. The one who

makes her feel better about herself. Because no matter

how drunk she got the night before, or how many guys she

made out with at that party, or how short her skirt is, that

slutty friend wil always have been…wel…sluttier.

Kira and I had traded that role back and forth over the

years, a fact I would never be proud of but couldn't hide.

"It's not even eight o'clock. Things don't start jumping until

at least eleven."

"Which is why I stopped at the liquor store." She looked

around the lobby and raised both eyebrows. "Wow.

Nice."

I looked, too. I always did, even though I'd memorized

nearly every tile in the floor. "Thanks. C'mon, let's grab the

elevator."

She had to have been as equaly impressed with my

apartment, but she didn't say so. She swept through it,

opening cupboard doors and looking in my medicine

cabinet, and when it came time to eat the subs we'd

bought for dinner she made a show of setting my scarred

kitchen table with real plates instead of paper. But she

didn't tel me it was nice.

It was almost like old times as we giggled over our food

and watched reality TV at the same time. I hadn't forgotten

what a bizarre and hilarious sense of humor Kira had, but

it had been a long time since I laughed so hard my stomach

clenched into knots. I was suddenly glad I'd invited her

over. There's something nice about being with someone

who already knows al your faults and likes you anyway…

or at least doesn't like you any less because of them.

She had a new boyfriend. Tony something-or-other, I

didn't recognize the name. Kira had never mentioned him

in her text messages or occasional e-mails to me, but the

way she dropped it casualy into our conversation now

meant she wanted me to ask about him.

"How long have you been going out?" I leveled a shot of

Cuervo and studied it, not sure I wanted to take it. Once

upon a time I'd been able to toss them back without fear

of the consequences, but I hadn't done much drinking

lately. I pushed it toward her, instead.

Kira drank back the shot with a practiced gulp. "Since just

after you moved. A long time."

I didn't feel as if it had been that long, but anything longer

than three months was a record of sorts with her. "Good

for you."

She wrinkled her nose. "Whatever. He's good in bed and

buys me shit. And he has a fucking awesome car. He's got

a job. He's not a loser."

"Al good things." I had slightly higher standards, or at least now I did, but I smiled at her description of him and

wrapped up the papers from our food.

Kira got up to help me. "Yeah. I guess so. He's a good

guy."

Which said more than anything else she had. I shot her a

look. Times did change, I reminded myself. So did people.

When it came time to get ready to go out, though, the Kira

I knew faked a gag. "Gawd, don't wear that."

I looked down at my low-rise jeans. They were boot cut. I

I looked down at my low-rise jeans. They were boot cut. I

had boots. I even had a cute cap-sleeved T-shirt. The

hours of working out I'd been putting in lately were paying

off. "What's wrong with what I have on?"

Kira swung open my closet door and rummaged around

inside. "Don't you have anything…better?"

High school was a long time ago, I wanted to say, but

looking at her short denim skirt and tight, bely-baring

blouse, I figured my comment would be lost. I shrugged,

instead.

"I know you have hotter clothes than that." Kira

reappeared from my closet with a handful of shirts and

skirts I remembered buying but hadn't worn in a long time.

She tossed the clothes onto my bed, where they spread

out in a month's worth of outfits.

I picked up a silky tank top in a pretty shade of lavender

and a stretchy black skirt. I held them up to myself in front

of my ful-length mirror. Then I put them back on the bed.

"No, thanks," I said. "I'l wear what I've got on. It's comfortable."

Kira shook her head. "Oh, ew. Paige, c'mon."

Kira shook her head. "Oh, ew. Paige, c'mon."

"Ew?" I looked at myself again. The jeans clung to my hips and ass just right, and my T-shirt emphasized how flat my

stomach was becoming. I thought I looked pretty damn

good. "What's ew?"

"It's just, you know…" Kira trailed off and pushed her

way next to me to hog the reflection. "You gotta show off

a little bit."

I looked her over. Even in my stack-heeled boots, I stood

a few inches shorter. She'd grown her natural red hair into

long layers that fel halfway down her back. She never

tanned, so her dark eyeliner looked extrablack and the

fuck-me red lipstick even redder.

I looked in the mirror again, turning my chin to one side,

then the other, to catch my profile. My hair's blond. And

it's natural. My eyes are blue, but dark, almost navy. I

look a lot like my dad, which is one reason, maybe, why

he never bothered denying I was his.

"I think I look fine," I told her, but the faint sound of

longing slithered into my voice.

I spent my clothes budget on simple, brand-name pieces I

picked up off-season or in discount stores. I'd spent the

past few years building my wardrobe. Clothes for work

and casual wear that looked expensive enough to pass as

classy. I paired them with shoes I couldn't always afford. I

wasn't going to be Clarice Starling, giving away my

background with my good bag and my cheap shoes.

I looked again at my reflection and thought of the whisper

of satin on my skin. Going without a bra, how my nipples

would push at the fabric and force a man's eyes straight to

my breasts. Every man's eyes.

I picked up the tank top again and held it up. I smoothed

the fabric over my stomach. Kira gave me an approving

nod and slung an arm around my shoulders and bumped

me with her hip. "C'mon. You know you want to."

I did want to. I wanted to go out and get shit-hammered

drunk and dance and smoke and rub up on half a dozen

boys. I wanted to feel a hot, hard body against mine and

look for lust in a pair of eyes I didn't know.

I wanted not to worry about proving anyone right about

me.

I puled my tank top over my head and after a second's

hesitation, unhooked my bra. The satin tank top slithered

over my head and fel to my hips. My breasts swayed

under the smooth fabric. My nipples tightened at once, and

I shivered.

"Let me get you some makeup," Kira said.

She lugged her huge purse over to me and puled out pots

and tubes and brushes and glitter. I love glitter. I hadn't

worn glitter in forever, either. No place for it here, in my

new life.

"I'l do it." I wouldn't dream of sharing makeup that had

been on her face. No teling what germs could be passed

on that way. I waved her away and went into my

bathroom, where I rummaged beneath my sink.

I puled out my own box of tricks and treats. Lipsticks in

berry shades, eye shadows in rainbow hues. Lots and lots

of half-used black-eyeliner sticks and a few bottles of

liquid eyeliner. I shook one, thinking it must have dried up

after al these years, but when I unscrewed the cap with its

built-in brush, the makeup inside was stil smooth.

I painted a mask. It looked just like me, only brighter.

Bolder. More. Once, I'd worn this face every day. Once,

it had been the only one I had.

My makeup finished, I squeezed into the tight black skirt. I

left my legs bare. I'd be chily on the walk from the parking

garage to the bar, but hot enough inside once I started

dancing. From my closet I puled out a truly fucking

fabulous pair of pumps.

Kira had been bent over her phone, fingers stabbing out

messages, but her eyes widened and she reached for the

shoes. "Oh, wow. Steve Madden!"

"First pair I ever bought." I stroked the smooth black

patent leather. Four-inch heels. Most men couldn't have

told the difference between a Steve Madden shoe and a

Payless pump, but they looked twice when I wore them.

Sometimes more than twice.

I slipped into the shoes and stood, adjusting to the way my

center of balance shifted. My mother had taught me the art

of how to walk in heels this high. I used to raid her closet

as a kid and parade around the house in her shoes.

I smoothed the silky shirt over my bely and hips and

I smoothed the silky shirt over my bely and hips and

turned around to look at myself one last time in the mirror.

"Ready to go?"

"I guess so," Kira said sulenly. "Except now you look awesome and I look like shit."

"You look hot," I promised. What were friends for?

She was convinced, more because she wanted to believe it

than because I'd tried hard. "Okay, let's go get shit-

hammered!"

I saw him again, that dark-haired man. This time, he was

coming in as I was going out. We passed each other not

so much like two ships, as much as one ship passing while

the other crashes into an iceberg. I couldn't be offended

that his gaze slid over and past me, taking in the short skirt

and high heels without a second look. He had his head

down and was talking urgently into his cel phone. He

didn't have attention to spare me. And it wasn't his fault I

was trying so hard to pretend I wasn't looking back at him

that I ran into the edge of the door frame hard enough to

leave a bruise.

"Smooth move, Ex-Lax." Kira smirked. She hadn't even

"Smooth move, Ex-Lax." Kira smirked. She hadn't even

noticed it was the man from earlier that day. "Nice to see

you can hold your tequila."

I shrugged off the sting in my shoulder and didn't reply. His

sleeve had brushed my bare arm as he passed, and the

hairs on it al the way up to the back of my neck had stood

at that brief, simple touch. A slow, tumbling rol of

sensation centered in my bely.

He lived in my building.

Chapter 03

I shouldn't have been so surprised. I saw a lot of

Riverview Manor tenants at Miriam's shop, and in the

Morningstar Mocha, the coffee shop at the end of our

block. I ran into them in the post office and parking garage

and at the grocery store, too. Harrisburg's a smal city.

Even so, I couldn't shake the memory of those dark eyes,

that thick, dark hair. The brush of a shirtsleeve on my bare

skin. Fuck. I was horny, no two ways around it, and no

wonder. It had been ages since I'd had sex with anyone

but myself.

We had our choice of places downtown, but I wanted to

go to the Pharmacy. We took a cab since I wouldn't drive

after drinking, and the walk that was fine on a Sunday

afternoon in sweatpants would be too long to make at

night in heels…and shit-hammered.

The bar was packed, even for a Friday night. We pushed

through the crowd toward the bar, Kira leading. She

stopped abruptly and I ran into her. Someone ran into me.

Someone also grabbed my ass, but when I turned to see

who it was and possibly haul off and smack the shit out of

who it was and possibly haul off and smack the shit out of

them, al I could see was an ocean of possible culprits.

"Hey, Jack," Kira said, and I turned.

Shit. Jack had been the love of Kira's life our senior year, when he transferred in from another school. She'd plotted

and schemed for months to get him to ask her to the prom,

determined to get in his pants. It hadn't worked, so far as I

knew. I only knew that once Kira had keyed one of his

girlfriends' cars.

Kira didn't know Jack and I had fucked each other

senseless for about two months straight a few years ago. I

doubt either of us even cared anymore. But Kira would

have, so I tried to pul her away before things could get

ugly.

Besides, he wasn't alone. The woman with him had a beer

and she tipped it to her mouth, eyeing us with a smile. I

yanked Kira's elbow to pul her away.

"Ow," she said when the crowd closed behind us, cutting

off the view of him. "What did you do that for?"

"Don't cause trouble," I told her. "C'mon. Drinks."

"Don't cause trouble," I told her. "C'mon. Drinks."

"I wasn't going to cause trouble." She frowned and tossed

her hair, not caring she'd whacked some dude across the

face with it. He looked pissed. Not the way I wanted to

start the night.

"There wil be other guys here," I told her.

Kira just sniffed and crossed her arms over her chest. "Oh,

I know that."

The Pharmacy was almost always a total sausage party—

three guys for every girl, easy, and al of them horny and

looking to hook up. Chivalry had nothing to do with them

puling out their walets and plying us with booze. It was al

about getting laid.

"Oh, look," Kira said from beside me. "Talk about

trouble."

She was right. Trouble with a capital T. I stood taler in my sexy shoes and lifted my chin, straightened my shoulders.

"Helo, Austin."

Once upon a time, Austin and I had fucked like tigers. I

was wiling to bet he stil had the scars. I did.

was wiling to bet he stil had the scars. I did.

"Paige." His hair was longer, but he had the same grin, the one that parted thighs like the Red Sea. He didn't look

surprised to see me.

Austin wore a blue-striped shirt and faded jeans that

hugged his ass just right and hung down, ragged, at the

hems. Jeans like that should be outlawed on men like

Austin. His buddy, some guy I didn't know, wore an

almost identical shirt, but with brown stripes. He didn't

look half as good.

Behind me, Kira dug her fingernails into the skin of my

elbow. It stung, and I shook her off. "How are you?"

"Good. I'm good." His eyes shifted to Kira and back to

me. "Haven't seen you in a while."

"Haven't been home," I said, though home to me now was

an apartment on Front Street, not a trailer or a rented

house in Lebanon.

"Yeah. I know. Hey, Kira. I made it."

My insides froze. I glared at her, but Kira gave me her

best dumb look. "What?"

best dumb look. "What?"

She'd told him we'd be here. I knew it. I could see it on

both their faces, their conspiracy, and I wondered how

he'd convinced her to tel him. I thought about walking out,

and the only reason I didn't was because he was looking at

me. Not her.

Kira saw it, too, and she gave me a narrow-eyed glare. I

wouldn't have put it past her to have set this up purely to

see the throw down between me and Austin, but I wasn't

going to do it. I was past those days. She ralied when

Austin's friend gave her a grin. It helped that he was cute.

Not as cute as Austin, but then realy, who was? Who had

ever been?

"What're you drinking?" Austin was already puling out his

walet to pay.

I wasn't going to turn down a free drink, not even from

him. "Margarita."

"I'l take a Slow, Comfortable Screw." Kira made sure to

lean in close so he could hear her. Her lips brushed his ear.

Austin leaned away a little, not enough that Kira would

notice. But I did. He introduced us both to his friend,

Ethan, who managed to tear his gaze away from Kira's tits

long enough to nod toward me without a trace of

recognition. Wel, what had I expected him to do? Say,

"Oh, so this is Paige?"

"So what are you up to now?" Austin asked me as Kira

and Ethan eyed each other.

"I work for Kely Printing." The last time we spoke I'd stil been finishing the degree I'd started when we were

together and taking care of some rich couple's kids. I

didn't ask him what he was doing, not for work and not

here in Harrisburg. I didn't want him to think I cared.

"What about your mom?" Austin moved closer, his arm on

the bar. "She stil working for Hershey? I haven't been to

the shop for a while."

My mom owns a tiny sandwich shop she inherited from

her dad when I was in high school. I'd worked in that shop

almost my entire life, running errands as a kid then

graduating to making subs and running the cash register.

Now I only helped if she had a big order to fil and deliver,

or a party to cater.

"She stil has it. She was working for Hershey but got laid

off."

Austin nodded. "I'm working for McClaron and Sons."

I had no idea who or what McClaron and Sons was, but

the fact he was working for someone other than his dad

surprised me into a reply. "What about your dad?"

Austin shrugged, then grimaced, and only because I'd once

known him so wel it had been like knowing myself did I

catch his hesitation. "It was time I got out of that job."

"But you're doing the same thing, right? Construction?"

Kira popped into the conversation and drew both our

attentions.

"Yeah, and some other stuff," Austin said, but didn't

elaborate.

Interesting. Austin had worked for his dad's business the

way I'd worked for my mom's—summers and after school

since he'd been old enough to carry a hammer. It had

always been the assumption that he'd take over the

business when his dad retired, and become a ful partner

business when his dad retired, and become a ful partner

some time before that. I'd figured he already was.

"What about you?" Kira sipped her drink, eyes on Ethan.

For someone with a boyfriend, she certainly seemed

interested in him, but then Kira was just one of those girls.

You know. The slutty ones.

"I'm a mechanic," he said. "For Hershey."

"Oh, that's a good job!" Kira sidled in between Austin and Ethan.

"It is a good job," Ethan agreed and drank from his cup

while his eyes wandered everywhere on Kira's body but

her face.

It was so easy, realy. They wanted to seduce us. We

wanted to be seduced, for a few hours anyway. I knew

what we looked like to them. Two girls in slinky outfits,

sucking back drink after drink and letting the crowd push

us closer and closer. There's no such thing as social

distance in bars. The music makes conversation impossible

unless you lean across to shout in someone's ear. The

crush of people means you have to fight for your own

smal space, and sharing it doesn't seem so bad after a

smal space, and sharing it doesn't seem so bad after a

drink or four.

When Austin's hand ended up on my ass, I didn't even

blink. It felt good there. Heavy, warm. He had strong

fingers to go along with those biceps. He smeled good.

Drakkar Noir. Despite myself and everything that had

happened with us before, I'd missed him.

Austin said into my ear, "Wanna dance?"

Our bodies had always worked just right together,

whether we were dancing or fucking. I was ready for both.

Leaving Ethan and Kira, he took my hand and puled me

up the stairs to the third floor, where the songs ran into one

another without stopping and al sounded the same. We

found a spot in the middle and started dancing.

The booze had made me soft and melty, but the music

wasn't. I wanted to slow dance. Austin wanted to grind.

We compromised with a little hip action that brought us

groin to groin, but when he tried to flip me around and get

up on me in the back end, I pushed away with a smile.

"You don't answer my messages," Austin said.

It was easy to pretend I didn't hear him with the music so

loud. I smiled and shook my head. He took me by the

arm, up high in the soft part that bruises easily. His fingers

closed al the way around it.

He moved in to brush his lips against my ear. "I've realy

missed you."

I inched away from him, but Austin grabbed my wrist just

as a bazilion watts of supernova bright light lit the entire

dance floor. Austin stil looked good. I must not have

looked like Frankenstein, because he reached to brush my

hair from my forehead. He smiled again as the lights went

down and the beat of the music started its rapid thump-

thumping, the same as my heart.

It was different when he kissed me. I felt different. His

mouth opened and I let him inside me. His tongue stroked

mine as his hand came up to curl in my hair. He didn't pul

it, though my body tensed in anticipation.

Austin nuzzled at my earlobe. "You stil taste the same."

Fortunately, I remembered the reasons I'd broken off our

relationship. Unfortunately, I stil remembered al the

reasons we'd ever hooked up. When Austin ran a fingertip

reasons we'd ever hooked up. When Austin ran a fingertip

down my bare arm along the sensitive inside flesh to press

his fingertip just over the pulse at my wrist, I knew he felt

the way my heart sped up at his touch. Time hadn't

changed that. Maybe it never would.

Maybe that was okay.

"Come home with me," Austin said.

"It's too far." Forty minutes I'd have driven in a heartbeat back in the day, just to get in his pants. It wasn't too far.

Just too long.

"Paige," Austin said with a grin like a shark. "I moved to Lemoyne."

Just across the river. Fifteen minutes, tops, if you drove

realy slow or got stuck in traffic. The world fel out from

under my fuck-me pumps, but Austin was there to catch

me. The crowd moved and danced around us, but we

stayed stil. I looked deep into his blue, blue eyes, made

bluer by the strobe lights.

"What the fuck," I said evenly, "did you do that for?"

"New job," he reminded. "Remember?"

"New job," he reminded. "Remember?"

I tried to recal if he'd said where McClaron and Sons

was, and couldn't. He should've told me, I thought, and

hated myself for being irrationaly angry. I tugged my arm

from his grip. "I have to go check on Kira."

"She's fine. She's with Ethan."

I tried to level him with a glare, but I'd never been able to

level Austin. He'd laid me out cold a thousand times with a

look, but though I'd practiced and perfected my steely-

eyed look of cold disdain, it slid off him like oil. I bit my

lower lip and lifted my chin.

"If he's anything like you, I'd better make sure she's okay."

"Paige." Austin's hand snagged my wrist. Puled me close.

"If she's anything like you, she can handle him."

The night it ended between us, we'd fucked up against the

wal of our shitty, third-floor apartment on Cumberland

Street in Lebanon. The red-blue lights of a cop car outside

on the street had painted the ceiling and wal over our

heads. He'd torn away my panties, tossed them to the

side, used his body to pin mine to the wal while his hands

side, used his body to pin mine to the wal while his hands

held my ass.

I bore the marks of that last encounter on my back for a

few weeks where a nail from a falen picture had gouged

me. I hadn't noticed the pain or the blood while we were

going at it. I never had found my panties.

It had ended but wasn't over. The plain truth is, with a few

drinks in me there was little chance of my resisting Austin.

Not drunk. Not sober, either. Why else had I moved so

far away?

"Hel, no," Kira said when I found her downstairs and

brought up the subject. She shook her head and looked

over my shoulder to where I was sure Austin was

watching. "You told me to never, never, never let you fuck

him again!"

I made myself stare at her, not look back at him. "I know.

But that was before."

"Before what?" Kira's lip curled.

"Before you thought it would be fun to invite him out with

us. I haven't talked to him in months. Since before I moved

here. But now here he is."

here. But now here he is."

"And looking utterly fuckable." Kira didn't lose the sneer, but her gaze flickered back and forth to my face and over

my shoulder. "You know, Paige, I've known him as long

as you have. He moved up here, wanted to know where

the good places to go were. I told him we were coming

here. I didn't know you were going to go home with him. I

thought you were over him."

"I am over him!" I looked over my shoulder and caught his

gaze, then turned away with hot cheeks and fast-beating

heart.

"Whatever."

"I'l give you my key." I looked back at Austin, now bent

in conversation with Ethan.

"Fuck, no. I'l get Tony to come pick me up!" Kira shook

her head and stumbled a little bit.

I reached to steady her and she clutched at my hand. "Wil

he come for you?"

"He wil if I fucking tel him to." Kira straightened, then

"He wil if I fucking tel him to." Kira straightened, then

swiped at her hair.

"I'l wait with you until he comes."

"Don't do me any favors," Kira said, then slung her arm

around my shoulder. "Paige. Don't forget what happened."

As if I ever could. "I'l be fine!"

"Don't let your pussy get you into trouble," she continued, warning me off what she'd falen prey to many times

herself. "He made you cry."

"Yeah." I let Austin's gaze catch mine when it turned

toward me and didn't look away. "Wel, he won't make

me cry anymore."

"He'l always make you cry," Kira said. "But go.

Whatever. He's got a magic cock. I get it."

Remembering the times she'd left me stranded so she

could go home with someone she met in a bar, I didn't feel

nearly as bad as she wanted me to. "I'l wait until Tony

gets here."

I could do that, at least.

I could do that, at least.

Going to Austin's place was one thing, driving with him

another. I wasn't going to get in the car with him after he'd

been drinking, for one, and for another, I wasn't going to

be stuck at his house without knowing for sure I'd be able

to get home.

He grinned when I went over to him, but I fended off his

kiss. "I have to wait for Kira to get picked up. I'l meet you

there."

Austin puled me close and nuzzled my neck exactly how

he knew I liked it best. "Just come with me."

"No." I pushed him slightly away. Drunker, I'd have given

in. More sober, I'm sure I'd have gone home alone. Stuck

in this midway point where I wanted to taste him again and

knowing lust is never as pretty the morning after, I shook

my head. "I'l meet you there. Give me the address."

Maybe things were different, after al.

Austin kissed me again, harder, and this time I let him. He

knew just how to do it, where to put his hands and his

tongue and how to bump me with his groin to make my

breath catch in my throat. My nipples throbbed, poking

breath catch in my throat. My nipples throbbed, poking

the silk of my shirt.

"Don't take too long." He stepped back, steady on his feet and not slurring his words. He reached as I turned and at

the last moment, captured my wrist with his fingers. I let

him tug me closer. "You're not going to bail on me, are

you? Like last time?"

Last time I hadn't had Kira to remind me that I'd vowed

never to go to bed with Austin again. Not that it was

stopping me. Last time I'd caled him just after two in the

morning and told him I wanted to come over, but when I

hung up the phone, good reason had won over the desire

for his hands on me. That had been months ago, before I

moved here.

"Are you stil angry about that?"

"I wasn't mad. Just disappointed. Do it again, I'l be mad."

He grinned and dipped his head to kiss me but stopped

short of my lips, just brushing them. "And disappointed."

His blue eyes bore deep into mine, and for half a minute

nothing else mattered. I felt Kira at my elbow, but I didn't

turn to look at her. I looked right into Austin's eyes when I

turn to look at her. I looked right into Austin's eyes when I

replied. "You won't be."

He let me go with another kiss and a nuzzle that sent

shivers marching along every nerve. I found Kira waiting

for me by the door. Oblivious to the crowd buffeting her,

she held her place instead of stepping aside until I showed

up to pul her by the elbow onto the sidewalk.

"You sure you'l be al right?" The chily night air had done a pretty good job of sobering me up, but I wasn't

reconsidering my rendezvous with Austin. At least not yet.

Kira nodded. "Fine."

She didn't look fine, she looked pissed off. I glanced out

onto the street. Lots of cops. No cabs. I'd only turned

away for a few seconds, but when I turned back to face

her, Kira's expression had turned stormy.

"You asshole!" She took a couple of steps forward, her

heel catching on a crack in the sidewalk, and stumbled.

Jack.

With an inward sigh, I went after her. Jack was with the

same woman from earlier and he did his best to ignore

same woman from earlier and he did his best to ignore

Kira. I saw him give his date a pained glance she

answered with a shrug, and they started walking.

"Hey, Jack! Jackass! Don't you walk away from me!"

"C'mon, Kira, don't." I didn't blame him for ignoring her. I was a little less pleased he was also actively ignoring me,

even though I knew it was realy for the best, al around.

"He's not worth it!"

"Fuck you, Jack!" Kira couldn't let it go, apparently.

Jack grimaced and puled his cap from his back pocket.

He put it on, but didn't look at her. We hadn't gone more

than another few steps down the sidewalk when Kira

launched herself at his back.

Jack stumbled forward as she slammed into him, her legs

and arms flying. She didn't actualy manage to hit him more

than once or twice, but the spectators leaped out of the

way of her drunken tornado performance. She was

shrieking insults, mostly stupid and incoherent ones.

Jack gave me an angry look that pissed me off. It wasn't

like I'd told Kira he and I had hooked up or anything. Her

issues with him were his own problem and had nothing to

issues with him were his own problem and had nothing to

do with me. He pushed her off him firmly and grabbed her

arm at the same time so she wouldn't fal. She kept trying

to hit him and missing.

"Stop it," Jack told her and gave her arm a little shake

before letting her go. When she flew at him again she

managed to knock his cap off. I stepped forward, wishing

I'd gone with Austin and left Kira to her theatrics alone.

This was a scene I realy didn't want to see.

"I hope your Prince Albert fucking rips out and you have

to piss through three holes!" Kira screamed.

"Kira, c'mon." I reached for her.

Kira alowed herself to be led away, stil shouting insults.

By the time we got to the parking garage the crowd had

thinned and we had a better shot at hailing a cab. I rubbed

my bare arms and shivered, but Kira had anger as her

cloak and she danced back and forth on the nubbly

pavement, waving her hands and muttering curses.

"He's not worth it," I repeated. "Jesus, Kira. What's wrong with you?"

"He's a jackass," she said sulenly. Her makeup had

smeared, her hair tangled. She needed to be in bed.

Fuck. I wanted to be in bed, and not alone. Yet here I

was, instead, babysitting her while she had a tantrum about

some guy she'd had a crush on a milion years ago but had

never even dated.

I didn't correct her, even though I didn't agree. "You're

drunk. Cal Tony. Go home."

She sniffed and crossed her arms. "Oh, you don't care!

You're going to screw Austin. What difference does it

make to you if my heart is broken?"

I laughed and knew I'd made a mistake by the way her

brows puled low over her smeared eyes. "Your heart's

not broken. You didn't even go out with him. He doesn't

even have the Prince Albert anymore."

She glared at me. I thought suddenly she was maybe way

less wasted than I'd thought. "Did you fuck Jack?"

"It was ages ago."

"You fucked Jack?" Kira's fist clenched at her sides, then

"You fucked Jack?" Kira's fist clenched at her sides, then opened as her shoulders slumped. "I thought you were my

friend!"

"Kira, it was years ago, and you weren't—"

"That doesn't matter!" she cried, and I knew she was right.

"You knew how I felt about him! I loved him!"

I'd never loved him. At least there was that. "I'm sorry."

Kira whipped her phone from her purse and stabbed the

buttons with her fingernail. She turned her back to me. I

should've counted myself lucky she didn't try to punch me

in the face the way she'd done Jack. As it was, I was cold

and my stomach had begun to churn.

"Your sorry is shit." Kira spoke into the phone next. "It's me. Come pick me up. Yeah, I know what time it is. I'l be

waiting at Tom's Diner on Second Street. Harrisburg, you

'tard."

She hung up and stalked off down the sidewalk without

looking back.

"Kira!" She flipped me the bird without even pausing.

There was no way I was going to run after her, not in my

There was no way I was going to run after her, not in my

four-inch fuck-me pumps. I managed a hobble, though.

"Kira, c'mon. Wait."

"You're supposed to be my friend," she said, and the quiet affront in her tone was worse than an insult or a punch.

"God, Paige. Just because you can doesn't always mean

you should, you know? This isn't high school anymore."

I stopped trying to folow her. "No shit, realy? And caling

out some dude on the street when he's with another girl,

that's not straight out of high school?"

"That's different!"

"How is it different?"

"You knew how I felt about Jack!" Kira shouted.

We'd have attracted more attention if it wasn't Friday night

just after the bars al closed, but as it was we were just

two more drunk sluts fighting over a guy. In high school I'd

have shouted back at her, maybe even done a little hair

puling.

But as we'd already established, we weren't in high school

But as we'd already established, we weren't in high school

anymore.

I trapped my tongue between my teeth to stop myself from

shouting back, but even then my voice came out clipped

and sharp. "I said I was sorry. You weren't with him. You

never even dated him. And you weren't even speaking to

me at the time."

She faltered for a moment, her lashes batting and her

mouth working as though she meant to say something

realy awful but could only come up with "…Yeah, wel.

You shouldn't have."

I didn't point out the number of boys I'd liked that Kira

had fucked, or tried to fuck, or lied about fucking just to

needle me. I said nothing, just stared, and she at last had

the grace to cut her gaze from mine. She shrugged instead

of speaking.

If you're lucky, the friends you make when you're sixteen

stay with you for the rest of your life. If you're smart, you

know when it's time to let them go. I stopped walking. I

watched her walk toward the diner, where drunk and

hungry people would order eggs and stiff the waitress and

steal the silverware. I let her go there, even though she'd

been drinking and she needed a ride home and I couldn't

be sure the person she'd caled would come to get her.

Yeah. Some friend.

Chapter 04

"I'm realy glad you came," Austin said this as soon as he opened the door.

I said nothing.

He closed it behind me as I moved past him and into his

living room. I recognized the chair and the couch. It had

been mine, once. The chair had been his and he'd been

welcome to it, but I'd paid for that couch.

The couch didn't matter.

"You want something to drink?"

I turned to look at him, this boy grown into a man. "No. I

didn't come here to drink."

Austin smiled. "So, what did you come here for?"

I puled him forward by his belt. Two steps. He didn't

stumble, but he did put his hands on my upper arms. I

must have caught him by surprise. I looked up, up into his

face. But when he bent to kiss me, I turned my head.

"Let me guess," he said into my ear. "You didn't come here for kissing?"

"You can kiss me." I took his hand off my arm and put it

between my legs. "Here."

I looked at him, then, and his expression gratified me

immensely. His fingers curled experimentaly against me

and pushed at the soft cloth of my skirt.

Austin blinked, slowly. His smile didn't fade so much as

leak away. "Paige?"

"We both know what I came here for." I curled my fingers

around his wrist and moved his hand down to the hem of

my skirt, then up again to replace his palm against my

panties. "Let's not pretend anything else."

I thought, for one brief, strange second, he was going to

turn me down. The heat of his hand seeped through my

panties, but the flash of ice in his eyes left me cold.

Suddenly I had no trouble remembering why I'd left him.

He didn't let me pul away. "Fine. I'm not pretending."

"Good."

"Good."

"Good," he said. His fingers slipped inside my panties and found me already wet. Again, his gaze flickered. "Fuck,

Paige."

"Yes, please," I said.

He'd always been bigger than me, but in the years since

we'd broken up he'd gone from a bulky footbal player's

build to the harder, leaner muscled frame of a man who

made his living working with tools. He might have quit the

construction job with his dad's company, but whatever he

was doing kept him in tight, hard shape.

At first I thought he might not kiss me. We'd done it

before, fucked without kissing each other on the mouth.

We'd fucked angry, rough. We'd done it tender-soft, too,

and sweet.

So when Austin puled me closer and brushed his lips

across mine, I was already tense and waiting. He kissed

me softly and puled away. He looked into my eyes.

"I was sure you'd bail on me."

I frowned, not wanting to talk, and when I opened my

mouth he took my words away with another kiss and the

restless stroking of his hands. I'm not ashamed to admit I

stretched under his touch, so familiar no matter how long it

had been. We kissed for a long time, al the way up the

stairs and down the hal to his bedroom. I kissed him with

my eyes closed, trusting him to lead me so I wouldn't

stumble. We kissed the way we always had, but it was

different, too. We stopped just inside his bedroom door

and puled apart, both of us breathing fast and hard. I

couldn't remember how long it had been since anyone had

seen me the way he did.

I was made of feathers when he lifted me, but I became

flesh when he laid me down.

It was a new bed, new sheets. The smel of fabric softener

was the same, and my heart seized, going stil before it

lurched to life again. His mouth ate my gasp. He

swalowed my breath.

I'd worn clothes he could ruin without me caring, but

Austin didn't tear or rip anything from me. Kneeling

between my legs, staring at me on his pilow, he only put

his hand on my bely. The muscles jumped.

his hand on my bely. The muscles jumped.

When he smiled I almost couldn't remember what it had

been like not to love him, but I forced myself to. This was

not going to be anything but what I'd intended it to be. I

spread my legs a little as I inched the skirt up over my

thighs.

Austin put his hands to the hem of my shirt and lifted it to

run his fingers over the swel of my breasts. He looked me

over as if he'd never seen me before, like he hadn't once

spent long hours cataloging every inch of my skin.

I liked the way it felt when he looked at me.

When his gaze met mine, we both smiled, which was a

relief. There had been a moment at first when I thought this

might turn awkward. Either sentimental or angry. We'd

fucked a few times after I left him, and it hadn't always

been a good choice.

It probably wasn't a good choice now, but when he ran his

hands up the insides of my thighs, and a finger underneath

the elastic of my panties, I stopped worrying about it. I

arched into his touch, my eyes closing in anticipation. He

slid a finger along my clit, then another down to press

gently at my opening. That's when he stopped.

gently at my opening. That's when he stopped.

I looked at him. "Austin?"

He opened his pretty mouth, but al that came out was a

hiss of air as he pushed inside me. I groaned as he

crooked his finger against my sweet spot. He used his

thumb on my clitoris at the same time, the familiar double

whammy that had always worked for me.

"You like that?"

"Yes," I told him. "I like that."

He hooked his other hand into my silk panties and eased

them down one side at a time as he kept up the in-out

stroking. His eyes left my face to watch the motion of his

hand, and I was glad. I didn't want to watch him watching

me.

He stopped only for a few seconds, long enough to pul his

shirt over his head. I used the time to pul down the side

zip of my skirt, and he helped me off with that, too. My

shirt went next. We moved together, coordinated, until I

lay naked on his bed.

"Take off your pants."

I returned his hard stare. We'd never spoken much during

sex. Now we were practicaly reciting the Declaration of

Independence. I toyed with my nipples, teasing him as he

unbuttoned and unzipped. He wasn't wearing the loose

boxer shorts I'd expected, but tight boy shorts cut high on

his thigh.

"Nice underwear," I told him.

The old Austin smirk came back, and he stripped them off

quickly before getting back on his knees again. His cock

stirred, half-hard but rising, on his thigh. "Thanks."

"Did you put those on just for me?" I got up on my elbows

to look at him.

Austin just raised a brow. "What if I did?"

It wasn't the smart-ass answer I expected, and

consequently, I had no answer.

"Paige." His hand went stroke, stroke, stroke, and I was

hypnotized. "Open your legs."

I did, because I wanted him there. I thought he'd use his

hand, but Austin got on his bely on the bed, instead. He

wriggled up between my legs before I knew it, his breath

hot on my inner thighs and finaly, at last, my cunt.

I cried out when he kissed me there, but stifled it with my

fist. When he licked me, I drew in a breath that tasted of

my own skin. It had been a long time since a man had

gone down on me…since the last time I'd been with him,

as a matter of fact.

His lips worked my rigid clit as he pushed a finger, then

two, then three, inside me. Rough but not harsh. He found

my G-spot and I convulsed around his fingers. Pleasure

took my voice away.

I pushed my hips upward in lieu of command, and he

fucked me with his mouth and hands until I gasped and

trembled. Shaking, I looked down at him, nestled between

my legs. Passion had hazed my vision, but everything

became crystaline when he paused to look up at me.

"Don't come yet." Austin's voice had grown impossibly

deeper over the years. Now it went lower stil. His breath

drifted over my hot, wet flesh and the motion of his lips

tantalized me mercilessly.

He moved up my body and captured my wrists with his

hands as he pushed mine over my head. My fingers curled

around the wooden spindles as I stared him in the eyes. I

wasn't the same girl he hadn't taken to the prom, and I

wasn't the same girl he'd married. I was a different woman

now. But I held the headboard anyway, watching him as

he fumbled in his nightstand for the package of condoms

and slid one on.

When he moved back over me, one hand on his cock to

guide it inside me, I tensed. My eyes closed as he filed

me. When he moved, I moved with him. It was easy to

remember how.

He fucked into me slowly, then faster. He pushed up onto

his hands to drive his cock deeper, and I took the pain of

his thrusts and turned it into pleasure. My hands gripped

the wood. His eyes never left mine, not even when he slid

a hand between us to stroke my clit in time to his thrusts.

"Now," he grunted from between clenched teeth, "you can come."

I hadn't been waiting for his permission, but my body took

I hadn't been waiting for his permission, but my body took

it anyway.

"Say my name." His fingers left me and he pushed his face

into the side of my neck. "Say it, Paige."

I tipped into the swirling oblivion of orgasm, and I gave

him what he wanted with his name, if he could decipher it

from the moan. But I also let go of the headboard. My

nails raked his back as I came again, as hard the second

time as the first. Harder, maybe, because I was bringing

blood and he cried out as he pumped inside me as he

came, too.

Austin shuddered. His arms slid beneath me, clutching me

tight. He burrowed his face harder into my skin. And he

just held me that way for what seemed like a very long

time.

I had to unwrap my legs from around his waist after a few

minutes to ease the cramp in my hips, but I didn't unwind

my arms from around his back. His weight on me was

more comforting than claustrophobic. When he finaly

pushed himself off me, he only roled to the side with one

arm and leg thrown over my body.

Now he would sleep, I thought.

But he didn't. Austin moved to get rid of the rubber in a

nearby garbage can, then slipped right back to where he'd

been. His hand moved lazily up and down my body in

smooth, flat strokes.

"Paige."

"Yes," I said after a second.

"I thought you liked it when I was a little rough." His hand centered over my contented cunt, his fingers dipping into

my wel.

I wasn't squeamish about post-fucking cuddles or anything

leading up to a potential round two, but when Austin

stroked my pussy, I put a hand over his to stop the

motion. "Is that why you did it?"

He didn't look at me. His breath puffed hot on my

shoulder and he kissed me. His lips pressed my skin. His

fingertip settled on my clit and circled lightly. I'd had two

orgasms and my body wasn't ready for another, or so I

thought. As his hand moved, tension stirred inside me.

"Is it?" I drew in a breath but kept my voice even.

"Austin?"

"Wel, shit, Paige. Yeah. Of course." He sounded insulted.

I put my hand over his again, though what he was doing

was starting to work. "Look at me."

He did. I hadn't noticed the shadows under his eyes

before. Faintly blue, they made him look older. Wel, he

was. We both were.

"I thought you liked it rough, that's al."

"Did it look like I wasn't enjoying myself?" I didn't want to defend my orgasms to him. I didn't want to think he'd done

something for my sake that he hadn't wanted to do for his

own.

Pushing him off me, I got out of bed and gathered my

clothes. I dialed the cab company and arranged for a ride

home. Austin watched me without puling up the sheets or

making a move toward his own clothes. When I looked at

him, his expression had gone inscrutable. That was as

familiar as everything else had been, and I figured

whatever glitch in his operating system had made him ask

me those questions had been fixed.

"Why did you come over here?" he asked, loud in the

quiet. "Realy?"

I stepped into my panties and puled them up, then zipped

my skirt, too. "I came over here to do just what we just

did."

"Just to fuck me?"

"Yes, Austin," I told him. "What else did you think I wanted?"

"Nothing." He roled to grab the remote from the

nightstand and I discreetly ogled his ass and the sweet

backs of his thighs—places I'd bite, if I had more time.

"Forget I asked."

"Are you getting pissy with me?" I straightened my shirt

and ran my fingers through my hair to shake it into some

semblance of order. "No, you are not. Are you?

Seriously?"

"No." Austin, his jaw set, kept his gaze on the television.

"No." Austin, his jaw set, kept his gaze on the television.

He punched the buttons of the remote so fast I knew he

couldn't possibly be able to see more than a second or

two of each program before moving on.

"Because I'l tel you what, if you're going to give me an

attitude every time I come over here to fuck you, I'm not

going to bother anymore." I stepped into my shoes. "That

cake is baked."

Now he looked at me. "Huh?"

"That cake," I said carefuly, "is baked. Done. Over.

Finished."

"Iced?" One corner of his lips turned up, but only a little.

He was maybe the only person who'd ever realy "gotten"

me. It was why we fought so hard and fucked so good.

He knew every button to push.

"Yeah. Iced."

He shrugged, looking back at the television, but his mouth

stil quirked. "If you say so."

"Austin." I waited until he looked at me. "Don't make me

"Austin." I waited until he looked at me. "Don't make me regret this, okay? You know what this is."

He shrugged again, the brief glint of a smile fading. His

finger stabbed the remote as he cycled through al bazilion

cable stations. I thought about kissing him before I left. I

even took a few steps toward the bed, but when he turned

to look right at me, I stopped.

"I'l let myself out. No, no, don't bother getting out of bed,"

I said, though he hadn't done so much as shift. "I'l do it."

I was already out the door and into the hal and at the head

of the stairs when he caled after me.

"That's not al it is!"

I stopped, my hand on the newel post of his stairs. There

were half a dozen retorts, but none of them made it past

my tongue. At the bottom, the smooth banister shoved a

splinter into my palm and I muttered a curse as I plucked it

free. That would teach me, I thought as I let myself out of

his house and onto the street, where the cab was already

waiting.

Chapter 05

Daylight teased the sky by the time I made it home. I paid

the cabdriver and ignored the way he ogled my thighs

when I stepped onto the curb. I didn't want to be sorry I'd

gone to bed with Austin even though I'd said I wouldn't.

The sex had been too good, as good as it can be only with

someone who already knows you, but I'd started a new

life, with a new job and a new apartment, in a new city. I

wanted new habits, too, and Austin was definitely not one

of those.

I wanted a man who'd gone to colege. Who had a career,

not a job. One who owned a car and paid bils on time

and wore clothes that matched. A professional man, not

one who smoked and drank and cheated, or one who'd

run up the credit card and skipped out into the night

without leaving a note. Not one who wrecked my car

because he didn't have one of his own.

I wanted a man, not a boy in a man-suit.

You're unfair to me, Austin had accused me more than

once. I'm not like those guys.

Those guys. The men my mother dated. No, he wasn't like

those guys. At least not mostly. But I'd always been

waiting for him to turn into one. Maybe he was right and

I'd been unfair, but he'd done his share of shitty things even

when he knew they'd hurt me. Hel. I'd done the same.

My heels sounded very loud on the marble tile as I passed

the front desk, empty at this hour. I'd occupied the

elevator alone, dressed to kil, more times than I could

count on both hands. Tonight, because I knew I looked

ridden hard and put away wet, a hand shoved its way

through the doors just before they closed, and I had to

share it.

"Thanks," said that man I'd seen before. "I'm too tired for the stairs."

He slouched, eyes half lidded, in the corner opposite and

just behind mine. His shoulders lifted with a sigh that

became a yawn, prompting one from me I hid behind my

hand. He looked at me with a half smile. Conscious of the

fact I was sure my lipstick was smeared and my eyeliner

smudged, I smiled back. We both turned to face the front,

but I felt the weight of his gaze on me, could see him

looking from the corner of my eye. Unlike before, this time

looking from the corner of my eye. Unlike before, this time

he wasn't too distracted to notice me. When I turned my

face, just slightly, he was studiously watching the blinking

white numbers showing the elevator's progress.

I had to bite my lower lip against a smile. He was seriously

eye-fucking me. Who doesn't get off on being noticed?

It took a very long time, it seemed, to reach the first floor.

He moved past me without touching me, but my skin

prickled as though he had. He stepped out of the elevator

and I let out the breath I'd been holding. I'd seen him twice

now. Three times? It must have been the charm, because

unlike al the others, this time he was the one who looked

back.

"I missed you."

I'm already diving into Austin's arms when he says it. A

week was too long to be away from him. His parents had

taken him from me, stolen him to go to visit family for a

funeral. At nineteen, he's plenty old enough to stay by

himself, but they'd insisted he go along to pay his respects.

I think it's more like they don't want us fucking our way

through every room in the house while they're away, but I

can't blame them. They'd have been right. I wouldn't have

can't blame them. They'd have been right. I wouldn't have

felt comfortable going along, even if they had invited me,

but a week is an eternity in the summer when the only thing

I have to look forward to is long hours with Austin's mouth

on mine.

His arms slip around me, hold me tight, and his hands run

down my back to grip my ass. Nobody's watching, and

would I care if they were? I'm just so frigging glad he's

home, it's worth the risk of parental discovery to have him

squeezing me. His cock nudges my bely.

He really did miss me.

"I brought you something."

"What?" I already have my hands out, expecting a snow

globe, a T-shirt. A magnet, maybe. Something he picked

up in the Pennsylvania Turnpike gift shop.

Austin hands me a smal box with a lid. Inside it is a

package of paper, not note cards but stationery. I lift a

page and hold it to the light. It's soft on my fingertips and

has a faint design of flowers pressed into the paper. I give

him a look.

How did he know?

How did he know?

"It reminded me of you." Austin gives an awkward shrug,

as if his admission embarrasses him. "You like that sort of

thing."

I do. Tablets and note cards and pretty papers. I always

have, but this is the first time someone's ever noticed or

given me something as pretty as this. "I love it."

"When's your mom getting home?"

My mom's been working weird shifts at the Hershey plant

since she got pregnant. Because it's summer, her brother

Lane is home from colege and taking over the shop, and

I've been putting in more than my share of hours there,

too. I haven't seen her much. I'm not sure if she's avoiding

me, but I know I'm trying not to hang around her too

much. She's only got another month or so before she

pops, and I can't even begin to imagine what's going to

happen then.

"Late." I snuggle closer, my knee going between his and

my cheek fitting just right into the place over his heart.

Austin pushes me so he can grin down into my face.

Austin pushes me so he can grin down into my face.

"Good."

The apartment isn't big enough to make the chase much of

an effort, but we manage to work up a sweat as I dodge

his grip and duck behind the big wooden rocking chair to

keep out of his grasping hands. Not that I don't want to be

caught. Just that it's fun to make him catch me.

When he does, his mouth slants over mine, his tongue

probing deep inside. He's got me so hot already. Hot for

him. His hand goes straight between my legs, no fooling

around now, and he cups my pussy through my thin cotton

shorts.

The rocking chair, set in motion by our mock struggle,

bumps my ass as we kiss. I grab the back of it to stil it,

then push Austin from my mouth and shuck out of my

shorts. I'm wearing the tiny bikini panties he likes, but

those go, too.

I lift my T-shirt up over my breasts, no bra covering them,

and settle into the chair. I spread my legs. He's watching,

jaw slack and eyes gleaming. He doesn't move.

He's eaten me out before, though I've never asked him to.

It's always just…happened. But it's al I've been thinking

It's always just…happened. But it's al I've been thinking

about for the past week, his mouth and tongue and fingers

fucking me until I come. Every night while he was gone I'd

lie in bed, eyes wide open to the dark, and imagine him

there with me. I'd pretend my fingers were his tongue,

flicking my clit or sliding inside me, but it was never the

same.

My friend Kira says her boyfriend won't go down on her.

Not ever. He's al about the blow jobs but refuses to dine

at the Y. He's a pussy about eating pussy. I'd break up

with a guy who expected me to suck cock but wouldn't

return the favor, but Kira says she's in love. I think she just

doesn't know what love is.

Austin's friends, the guys from the footbal team and the

men he works with at his dad's construction company,

would probably say they don't go down on their

girlfriends, either. I wonder how many are teling the truth?

I wonder if Austin tels them about me, if men talk about

their sex lives in the same detail I do with my friends. I

wonder if he'd admit he makes me come with his face

between my legs, or if he'd deny it.

"Austin." My voice is low and slow, almost not mine. His

gaze jerks up. I put my hands on my inner thighs and open

gaze jerks up. I put my hands on my inner thighs and open

myself wider to his sight. "Use your mouth on me."

He's already on his knees before I finish. I gasp when his

hot, wet mouth finds my skin. When his tongue strokes

over my clit, I grip the arms of the chair and toss back my

head, my back arching. It feels so good it almost hurts.

The chair rocks me into his mouth again and again as he

licks and kisses and sucks. When he puts a finger inside

me, then two, I come hard with a strangled shout.

I look down at him. He's smiling, ful of himself. I touch his

hair and want to tel him how much I love him, but

something about the way he's looking at me makes me

suddenly shy. I want to close my legs, but his head is

resting on my thigh and I can't without pushing him away.

"What?" I sound nervous, because I am. "What are you

looking at?"

"You." Austin kisses my thigh.

I push him onto his back on the floor and straddle his legs

until I can get his belt open and his pants down. His cock

springs free, nice and thick. I take it in my hand and

stroke. He's already got a little pre-come dripping, and I

stroke. He's already got a little pre-come dripping, and I

lean forward to taste him.

"Fuck!" His hips jerk and his hand tangles in my hair.

"Paige, God."

"What?" I want to put him inside me, but we don't

have any condoms handy and there's no way I'll go

bareback.

"Nobody…"

I frown and sit back on my heels, my grip tightening on his

prick. "Nobody what?"

What the hel did he get up to while he was away?

"Nobody does this like you," Austin says.

He thinks he's giving me a compliment, but I let him go and

grab up my shorts. I make sure to grab my panties, too.

Don't want to leave them on the floor for my mom to find.

"Nobody, who?"

"Huh?" He lifts his head to stare, then sits when he sees my expression. "What's the matter?"

I stab the air with my finger. My throat is tight when I

swalow, and I blink away the burn of tears. "Nobody

does what like me? Suck cock? Nobody, who? Who else

is sucking your dick, Austin?"

"Nobody," he says and must realize how it sounds,

because he scrambles to his feet to come after me when I

stalk down the hal to my tiny bedroom at the back of the

apartment. "That's not what I meant, baby."

"Don't you ‘baby' me." I grab my robe from the hook on

the door so I don't have to try to get into my clothes while

we fight.

His hands come down on my shoulders and turn me,

reluctantly, to face him. "I just meant that the other guys,

they tel me their girls don't do the stuff you do."

I guess that answers my question about if they talk about

sex. I don't smile, don't lift a brow, just keep my face

stony. Austin pushes my hair off my shoulders.

"That's al I meant. That nobody…that you're so great."

"Great at sucking cock?" I frown, even though I'm glad to

know he thinks so.

know he thinks so.

"And other things." He teases me back toward the bed

and I let him until we're both lying on top of the quilt my

grandma made me.

Austin strokes down my body and kisses me. When his

hand finds my pussy again, I know I'm wet from earlier.

His fingers slide against me. His breath is hot on my neck

as he pants. His thumb presses my clit and his fingers

move inside, then out. Against my thigh, his cock presses

hot and hard. He moves his mouth to my nipple and sucks

gently, and though I came just a little while ago, desire

gathers in my bely again.

"I missed you," he says again.

"Did you?"

Austin nods against my neck. It seems stupid to be angry

with him now, or to worry about if he cheated on me while

he was gone. I know he did, once or twice, when we were

in high school. Hel. I cheated on him, too, if you want to

count the times he thought we were on and I thought we

were off and vice versa. But not since graduating, not since

we both got ful-time jobs and a ful-time relationship.

we both got ful-time jobs and a ful-time relationship.

He fumbles for the rubbers I keep in the box in my

nightstand and puts one on. I could help him, but I'd rather

watch just now. He rols it on over his cock, his teeth

clamped onto his lower lip in concentration. Then he

moves up my body and centers himself before pushing

inside me.

I groan; I can't help it. I fucking love this, the sex. His

weight. His prick so hard and thick and long inside me,

so long it hurts sometimes when he fucks me, but I like

that, too. He's got muscles in his arms from all the

heavy lifting and I grab one as he thrusts inside me.

I lift my hips to meet him and his bely presses my clit

every time we move together. Orgasm doesn't build, it

tears me down. I'm coming again when he starts to move

harder and faster, and I know Austin's coming, too.

It doesn't always happen that way, that we finish

together, so it's sort of magical and leaves me sleepy

and contented and cuddly, after. He loops an arm

around me when he's thrown away the condom. We lay

on my bed, spooning, and his breath ruffles my hair.

"Paige," Austin says. "I want to ask you something

important."

And then we're on the ocean, in a boat that's going

down.

As the cold, dark sea closed over my head, the sound of

the alarm bels ripped into my ears. I took a deep breath,

even though I was underwater. I kicked, the tight clutch of

the waves around my ankles becoming the tangled grasp

of sheets around my feet as I opened my eyes and

fumbled, without seeing, for the phone.

"What?" At this hour I couldn't be expected to be polite,

could I?

"Paige?"

I blinked, not wanting to look at my bedside clock's

numbers. It was way too fucking early to be up. "Arty.

What's the matter? Where's Mama?"

"Mama's stil sleeping. And Leo's at work," he added,

though I hadn't asked. "I'm hungry."

"Make yourself some cereal." I stifled a yawn and

"Make yourself some cereal." I stifled a yawn and

pondered giving in to a hangover that wouldn't have

bothered me with just a few more hours' sleep.

"There isn't any."

"No Cheerios? No Raisin Bran?"

My little brother, the only other sibling I'd ever actualy

lived with, made a familiar noise of disgust. "I don't like

those kind."

"Then I guess you must not be that hungry." I was hungry,

but didn't feel like getting out of bed at the butt-crack of

dawn to fix toast. "Arty, it's too early to cal me. What did

I tel you about that?"

"Can't you come over and make me some pancakes?" His

little-boy voice sounded very far away. I pictured him in

his Spider-Man pajamas, bare feet swinging because his

legs weren't long enough to reach the floor. "Please?"

Maybe if I kept my eyes closed I'd fal back to sleep. I

snuggled deeper under my soft blankets. "Buddy, I don't

live there anymore. I told you that. I told you I couldn't just

come over whenever you caled."

Silence.

"But I miss you," Arthur said in a tiny voice.

I sighed. "I miss you, too, buddy. How about I come

down and take you to the movies sometime soon?"

"When?" At nearly seven, the kid had been reading since

he was four and could tel time on an analogue clock, a

skil that sometimes stumped me. There wasn't much that

slipped past him. "Today?"

"Not today, no. Maybe later this week."

"When? When?"

I couldn't think straight and just tossed out a day.

"Wednesday?"

"Saturday. Sunday. Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday.

That's a week!"

He sounded so dismayed I hated to laugh. Laughing, in

fact, hurt my head. "Not quite. Five days."

"That's too long!" Arthur's voice pitched high enough to

"That's too long!" Arthur's voice pitched high enough to

dril my tender ears.

"You've got gymnastics on Tuesday, and Monday I've got

an appointment in the evening. Sorry, buddy. You have to

wait until Wednesday. Besides," I said, offering an

incentive against despair, "the new Power Heroes movie

comes out on Wednesday. How about that?"

"Okay." He didn't sound convinced, only resigned. "But I'm hungry now, Paige."

"Cereal. Or have a snack from the drawer."

"Mama says no snacks from the drawer until after

breakfast."

"Aren't there any cereal bars in the drawer?" I bit back

another yawn. If I didn't get back to sleep in the next ten

minutes I was not going to be a happy camper.

"Yesss…" Even Arthur knew where I was going with this,

but he sounded like it might be too good to be true.

"Have one of those. They're cereal, right?"

"Can I tel Mama you said it was okay?"

"Can I tel Mama you said it was okay?"

"Sure." It wouldn't be the first time she'd holer at me for giving the kid permission to do something she'd have

refused. On the other hand, this was the woman who'd

alowed me to go to school in a pair of hand-me-down,

slip-on Candie's shoes in the sixth grade and bought me

my first package of rubbers in the tenth. She was a

different sort of mother to Arthur than she'd been to me.

"Now let me go back to sleep, okay?"

"Okay. Bye, Paige."

"Bye."

"I love you," my little brother said before I could hang up.

It wasn't the first time he'd ever said it, but suddenly the

memory of how he'd smeled as a baby washed over me

with enough force to push my eyelids open like snapped-

open blinds. How his hair had been so soft against my lips

when I kissed his little baby head, and how the heavy

weight of him had filed my arms and lap. How I used to

hold him while I watched hour after hour of bad TV, just

because he was so smal and sweet. Just because he loved

me.

me.

"I love you, too, buddy. I'l see you on Wednesday."

He had a seven-year-old's social graces and didn't say

goodbye again, just hung up. I put the phone back in the

cradle of its receiver and my head back in the cradle of my

pilow, but sleep had vanished and there was no getting it

back.

With a groan, I looked at the clock. Almost eight. And I'd

gone to sleep, what, just before six this morning? God. I

was so going to pay that kid back one day, maybe when

he was a teenager and prone to sleeping as late as he

could…yeah. I'd wake him up.

Unfortunately, my revenge was far-flung and I was stil

awake. I stretched and sat up, waiting for the rush and boil

of acid stomach or the pound of a headache, but aside

from a gnawing hunger, I felt al right. At least until I heard

the muted beep from my cel phone, which I'd left

abandoned in my sparkly purse under the pile of my

discarded clothes. I had to dig past my Steve Madden

pumps to reach it.

Five missed cals.

Five? Crap. I thumbed the keypad to check out the

numbers. I had voice mails, too, though without dialing in I

couldn't tel how many. Kira had caled me around 4:00

a.m. but hadn't left a message. That could be good or bad,

depending. One was an old cal from my mother I hadn't

deleted. The other three were from Austin.

Triple crap.

The voice mails were from him, too, half an hour apart.

The first two were brief "when are you going to get here?"

messages. The last one had come in around six-fifteen,

after I'd already gone to bed. It turned the corners of my

mouth down.

"Look, I know I've been an asshole to you in the past."

Then fifteen seconds of awkward silence, punctuated only

by the soft in-out of his breathing. "I'm sorry. I just…I was

a fuckwad, and I'm sorry. Cal me, okay? Please."

A few more seconds of silence and he added, "Please."

Is there anything more simultaneously pathetic and

arousing than a pleading man?

I couldn't bring myself to delete that message. I thought I

might want to listen to it a couple-twenty more times. I

thought I might want to get that statement, "Sorry, I'm a

fuckwad.—Austin Miller" embroidered on a tea towel

and wipe my hands with it.

It was the only time Austin had ever apologized to me for

anything he'd ever done. I wasn't sure it meant anything

now. Not after al this time had passed.

I didn't delete the message, but I didn't cal him back,

either. Instead, I hauled my sorry ass out of bed and

stumbled to the bathroom where I peed for what felt like

an hour and brushed my teeth and puled my hair on top of

my head in a messy ponytail.

I wanted to go back to sleep, but I knew better than to

expect to be able to. I was up for the day now. My

stomach rumbled and I took my last two slices of wheat

bread from the fridge, where I kept it to prevent mold, and

popped them into my toaster oven. I needed to hit the

grocery store in the worst way, though the state of my

finances meant it would be another week of on-sale tuna

and ramen noodles rather than steak and lobster. Ah, wel.

There was nothing new about that. I'd grown up thinking

There was nothing new about that. I'd grown up thinking

Kraft shels and cheese was gourmet fare.

While my toast browned, I sifted through the pile of junk

mail I'd brought in the night before. I tossed aside a few

catalogs addressed to the former tenant. I thought of the

note I'd had yesterday, the beautiful paper and the words

written in that fine hand. What had it said to do? Make a

list of flaws and strengths? I thought of it as I ate my toast

dry because I had no butter or jam.

You wil write a list of ten. Five flaws. Five strengths.

Deliver them promptly…

From the junk drawer next to my fridge I puled a yelow

legal pad and a stub of a pencil with a point rubbed to

softness by the creation of many lists. Chore lists, mostly,

or grocery. I'd never used it to detail my flaws and

strengths.

I tapped the pencil against my lips as I thought.

Proud

Stubborn

Independent

Independent

Smart

Curious

Determined

Conscientious

That was it. As far as lists went, it didn't feel complete, but

I couldn't think of more than that. So much for the ten, I

thought as I put away the pen and paper.

And the real question was, which had I written? Flaws or

strengths? Couldn't they sometimes be both?

I looked again at the tablet on the table. It had made me

think hard about myself, though it hadn't been meant for

me. I hoped the person it was meant for had better luck.

Chapter 06

I finished my shopping just before noon. I had only two

smal bags of groceries, the bare minimum to get me

through until payday. I'd left a few bucks in my walet on

purpose, though, for one reason. I didn't need a large

coffee with extra cream and a gooey cinnamon bun, but I

wanted them.

Located in the building adjoining Riverview Manor, the

Morningstar Mocha teemed with people out for a caffeine

fix. A few joggers, bundled against the cold, filed travel

mugs at the smal stand in the corner holding the sweetener

packets and jugs of milk and bins of creamer containers.

And in the corner, my corner, the seat I took because it

was in the smalest table and I was usualy alone, sat my

elevator eye-fucking buddy, Mr. Mystery.

Was it synchronicity? Or serendipity? His wasn't the only

familiar face there. I spied a few people from my building,

one or two I recognized as Mocha regulars, and of course

I knew the girl behind the counter. Her name was Brandy,

and you couldn't miss her. She chewed gum like cud.

I deliberately tried not to stare at him while I ordered my

I deliberately tried not to stare at him while I ordered my

coffee and bun, but he was stil there by the time they

arrived. Stil there when I'd dumped my mug ful of sugar

and cream. He wore a white, long-sleeved shirt beneath a

black concert T-shirt and worn jeans that suited him

nicely. His hair looked as if he'd run a hand through it a

few times or just roled out of bed. He had a large mug in

front of him, stil steaming, and a plate with the remains of

a bagel slathered with cream cheese and lox. He was

staring out the glass onto the street, empty but for the

occasional weekend-traffic car cruising slowly past. In

front of him sat a pad of legal-size paper, white not yelow,

and in his left hand he held a thick-barreled pen. A worn

leather bag rested at his feet as faithful as a hound.

The lighting inside the Mocha was golden and indirect, but

late-winter bright sunshine shafted through the plate-glass

window and across his face. I wanted to stare and drink in

the fine-featured grace of him. The casual beauty. The

crooked twist of his mouth as he bit down on his lip in

concentration, the furrow of his brow. The way his hand

curled around the pen caressing the paper.

Fortunately for me, he was stil staring out the window,

absently doodling, when two people in matching tracksuits

slammed into me and knocked my coffee and cinnamon

slammed into me and knocked my coffee and cinnamon

bun al over a couple, who looked as if they hadn't yet

gone to bed, sitting at the table in front of me.

The fitness twins were very kind. They bought me new

coffee and pastry and replaced the party-kids' bagels,

soaked through by my spiled drink. They did it al with a

fanfare that smacked a bit of "look at me, what a good

person I am," but they did it. I didn't dare look at the man

by the window until al the fuss and feathers had died

down. When I did, finaly, my fresh mug was burning my

palm and my eyes had blurred from the dip in my blood

sugar. I didn't want to shove the entire bun into my mouth,

but a dainty nibble wasn't going to get the goods down my

throat and into my stomach fast enough.

He glanced over at me as I was licking icing off my mouth.

He smiled. I paused, coffee halfway to my mouth, and

smiled back.

I thought for sure he'd say helo, but maybe without the

alure of my fuck-me pumps al he could manage was the

grin. Maybe he didn't recognize me as the woman from the

elevator. Or more likely, he didn't care.

He got up, papers and pen already tucked away in his

He got up, papers and pen already tucked away in his

bag, garbage cleared from the table. He slung his arms into

a plaid flannel shirt I hadn't noticed hanging on the back of

his chair and eased the strap of his leather bag over one

shoulder. He left the Morningstar Mocha without a

backward glance, which alowed me to stare after him

without fear of being caught.

He'd left a crumpled discard to the window side of his

chair, on the floor. With a quick glance around the now-

empty coffee shop to see if anyone would notice me being

a total snoop, I vacated my seat and took the one he'd just

left. It couldn't have been warm from his ass, or at least I

shouldn't have been able to feel it if it was, but I imagined

heat. I knew I shouldn't pick up the paper, or smooth it

out in front of me. I knew, especialy, that I shouldn't read

it.

But I did, anyway.

I didn't learn the secrets of the universe. I didn't even find

out his name. He'd mostly been scribbling and doodling,

with a few chicken-scratch phrases I could read but didn't

understand here and there on the paper. Looking over it, I

should've felt dirty. I only felt disappointed. But what had I

expected, a hand-written autobiography listing his

expected, a hand-written autobiography listing his

education, career and medical history?

Stil, I smoothed out the creases as I finished my breakfast

and folded the paper in half. Then half again. And again,

until finaly I'd turned a legal-size sheet of paper into a

palmful of secrets. It wasn't any of my business. I had no

right to keep it. It weighed there as heavily as a handful of

lead, and yet I couldn't manage to toss it into the trash.

I did wish, though, that I'd lingered over the coffee.

Riverview Manor doesn't have a doorman, and the front-

desk staff was there to accept packages and take care of

problems, not keep anyone from entering the building. The

building had security cameras in the elevators and on every

floor, but no real means of keeping anyone out who

wanted to be in.

Part of me wasn't surprised when I turned the corner of

the hal to see Austin waiting for me in front of my door.

Another part wanted to turn and run away. I lifted my chin

instead, wishing again I'd at least bothered to wear

makeup, though honestly he'd seen me look way worse.

"What are you doing here?" I bent to put my bags down

so I could pul my key from my purse. When I stood,

so I could pul my key from my purse. When I stood,

Austin's eyes were on my face, not my ass. Now, that

surprised me.

"You didn't answer my cals."

I fit the key into the lock, but didn't turn it right away. "I

meant, what are you doing here? "

"I caled your mom."

I unlocked and opened my door and pushed it, but didn't

go through. I turned to look at him. My irritation must have

been clear on my face, because he held up his hands right

away as though I meant to punch him. "My mother told

you where I lived?"

"Your mom always liked me."

I blew a sigh that fluttered the fringe of my bangs off my

forehead and then pushed through the door. I left it open

behind me, as much of an invitation as I could bear to give.

He folowed and shut the door. Softly, with a click, not a

slam.

I put my bags in the kitchen and kicked off my shoes.

Austin stood stil and watched me without making any

Austin stood stil and watched me without making any

move to sit. He looked around the apartment with interest,

then shoved his hands deep into his pockets and rocked

on his heels while I took my time unpacking and putting

away my groceries.

"Can I sit down?" he asked finaly, when I'd made it clear I wasn't going to offer.

"Do you have to ask?" I kept my back turned as I sifted

through the change from my walet. I found a Wheatie

penny and set it aside to put in my colection, then washed

my hands thoroughly with soap and hot water. Money is

one of the filthiest things a person can touch.

When I turned to look at him, he was stil standing. We

stared at each other across the expanse of my unimmense

living room until I nodded. He sat the way he always had,

legs sprawled, taking up as much space as he could.

I took my time cleaning the kitchen, wiping the counters

and scrubbing the sink with bleach-infused powder. I even

emptied the garbage pail and took the trash out to the

chute at the end of the hal. I expected Austin to be

restless or irritated by the time I came back, but he'd

found a copy of a Robert Heinlein novel inside the pile of

found a copy of a Robert Heinlein novel inside the pile of

books and magazines thrown into the straw basket next to

the couch and was flipping through it.

"It doesn't have any pictures," I said from the doorway.

Austin put the book on the coffee table. "This is nice."

He hadn't risen to the bait, though I'd made a point of

pushing one of his buttons. "The book?"

"The coffee table," he said, stil not rising.

"It was Stela's."

Austin nodded, like that made sense. "Glad I didn't put my

feet up on it."

It took me an actual five seconds before I realized he was

trying to tease me without pissing me off. He was actualy

just…kidding. I knew how to handle him trying to seduce

me or piss me off. I didn't know how to take that.

"I miss you," Austin said.

The words were hard to hear, and I don't mean because

he spoke too low, or mumbled. They were hard for me to

he spoke too low, or mumbled. They were hard for me to

listen to because I didn't know what to say. I didn't want

him to miss me.

I sat across from him, instead. The recliner's springs

sometimes poked through the faded material, though I'd

tossed a fleece throw over it. One did now, and I winced

as I shifted.

"I do," he said, as though my expression had been in

response to his statement and not a coil of wire in my butt.

"Austin." Nothing else would come out.

He shrugged. I hadn't falen in love with him because of his

way with words. Back then it hadn't mattered if he spoke

more with his hands than his mouth. Back then we'd both

been young and dumb.

"You look good, Paige. This place," he gestured, "it's nice."

"Thanks."

His hair used to be bleached almost white by the sun, and

he wore it so short I could see his scalp. When I ran my

fingers through it, my nails scraped skin. Now it fel

fingers through it, my nails scraped skin. Now it fel

forward over his ears and forehead and was the color of

wheat in a field, waiting to be cut. His eyes, moving over

my face, made me think he was waiting to be cut, too.

I almost couldn't do it. I mean, the night before I'd let him

put his tongue down my throat and his hands al over me.

When the warmth of him wafted over me, I wanted to

close my eyes at how familiar it was. How easy it would

have been to take him by the hand and lead him to my

bedroom.

I kept my eyes open, a lesson I'd been taught a long time

ago but had taken me a long time to learn. "I don't miss

you, Austin. Last night was a mistake."

"C'mon, Paige. Don't say that. We were always good

together."

"We haven't been together for a long time," I said, not

quite as evenly as I wanted.

"It's not just the sex." Austin leaned forward, too, his

hands on the knees of his dirty denim jeans. A white spot

had worn through just below his kneecap, not quite a hole,

but on its way to becoming one. "I didn't just mean that. I

but on its way to becoming one. "I didn't just mean that. I

can get laid anytime I want."

"I'm sure you can." I got up, my arms folded across my

chest.

He got up, too. "I didn't mean it that way."

I wasn't going to bend. Not over the chair, not over the

bed, and not over this. "It doesn't matter how you meant it.

I think you should go."

"Same old Paige," he said with a shake of his hair. "Stil hard as nails, huh? Hard as a rock. Can't ever give me a

break."

"You don't need a break from me. Besides, you can just

get laid whenever you want. Look, Austin," I said when it

looked as though he meant to speak. "We can't keep

doing this."

"Why not?"

I studied him deliberately until I couldn't hold in the sigh

any longer and it seeped out of me like air from a nail-

punched tire. "You know why not. Because fucking

doesn't solve every problem. And we had a lot of

doesn't solve every problem. And we had a lot of

problems."

He crossed his arms and looked stormy. I didn't point out

the arguments we'd had about money, about religion,

about monogamy. I didn't remind him of the nights he'd

gone out for a few beers with friends and had come home

smeling of perfume and guilt, or that it didn't matter

whether he had or hadn't fucked anyone else, it was that

he was content to choose a night with his buddies over

staying home with me. I didn't bring up the times I'd said I

was studying for school when I was realy someplace else,

with someone else.

"I just want you to be happy, Austin." I meant it.

He leaned back and frowned more fiercely. "You want me

to be happy so you can feel better about yourself, that's

al. So you don't feel so bad about what happened."

The truth of that stung me like a wasp, smooth-stingered

and able to jab more than once. "I think you should go."

Damn him, he didn't. He moved closer and cupped my

elbows in his palms so I had to uncross my arms to push

him away or let him snuggle up close. I put my hands on

him away or let him snuggle up close. I put my hands on

his chest, but didn't push. His muscles beneath the tight T-

shirt were hard and firm. He leaned, and I didn't pul away.

If he'd kissed me, I'd have been lost, but if he'd ever

thought he knew me, he proved himself wrong again. He

didn't kiss me. He spoke, instead.

"I'm your husband."

I pushed my arms straight. His hands slid from my elbows

along my arms and fel away at my wrists. I stepped back,

my hand against his chest preventing him from folowing

unless he pushed me, too. Austin looked for a second as if

he meant to try it, but didn't.

"I have a folder ful of paperwork that says otherwise," I

told him.

"Okay, so not officialy. But you can't tel me—"

"I can tel you anything I want, so long as it's true," I shot back.

"Can you tel me it's true that you don't miss me, too? Not

even a little?"

"I miss fucking you," I said flatly. "The rest of it? Not so

"I miss fucking you," I said flatly. "The rest of it? Not so much."

Austin grinned and spread his fingers. "It's a start, right? I'l cal you."

"I won't answer."

"I'l cal again."

I pointed at the door, and he went. I waited until it closed

behind him before I gave in to the urge to sigh. What is it

about bad boys that make them so, so good?

I've known him since kindergarten. Austin. In my

elementary-school class photos, more times than not, his

freckled face is beaming from the row behind me. In one,

we stand beside each other, our grins showing the same

missing teeth.

In high school, we had nothing in common. Austin was a

jock. I was a gothpunk girl with multiple piercings and a

tattoo of a dragonfly on my back. We shared colege-level

classes and the same lunch period. I knew who he was

because of his prowess on the footbal field. If he knew me

it was maybe because I was one of the girls every boy

it was maybe because I was one of the girls every boy

knew, or maybe just because we'd been in the same

school since we were five. We didn't say hi when we

passed in the hals, but he was never mean to me the way

some of the boys could be. Austin never caled me names

or made crude invitations.

In the fal of our senior year, Austin went down under a

pile of boys pumped up with testosterone and fury. We

won the homecoming game, but instead of riding in Chrissy

Fisher's dad's 1966 Impala convertible, Austin took a red-

lights-flashing ambulance to the Hershey Medical Center.

He recovered, nothing miraculous about it. His body,

bones broken and skin torn, healed. Nobody ever said

he'd never play footbal again. Austin simply never did.

Nor basketbal, either, and in the spring, not basebal. By

then his chances of going to anything other than community

colege had vanished along with the scholarship offers, but

if he ever cared he wasn't getting a ful ride to Penn State,

he never said so to me.

And by then, he would have. By the time our senior year

ended, Austin told me everything.

We were an odd couple, but nobody shunned us for it. I

We were an odd couple, but nobody shunned us for it. I

didn't hear whispers in the hals. No jealous cheerleaders

tried to pul out my dyed-black hair, and no slick rich

jocks tried to convince him he was better off without me.

We didn't go to the prom, but only because we decided to

stay home and watch soft porn and fuck, instead.

When I told my mom we were going to get married, she

hugged me and wept. Her bely poked between us—she

was pregnant with Arthur, then. If she suspected I wanted

to marry Austin as much so I could move out of the house

as for passion, she didn't say anything.

When we told his parents, his dad said nothing and his

mother's eyes dropped to my waistband. She didn't ask

me if I was pregnant, and she must have been surprised as

the months of our marriage passed and my bely stayed

flat, but no matter how she might have felt about the

prospect of me as a daughter-in-law, the idea of a bastard

grandchild must've been worse.

I wore a thrift-store wedding dress and Austin wore a suit

of his dad's we'd paid the dry cleaner to take in. In

pictures, my thick black eyeliner and my spiked black hair

make me look pale, wan. Tired. Scared, even.

The truth is, I was happy.

We both were, I like to think. At least at first. Austin went

to work for his dad's construction business, and I kept up

work at my mom's shop. My granddad had died and it

was hers, ful-time, and now that she had Arty, she

couldn't spend as much time with it, so I managed the

shop.

We were happy.

And then, we weren't.

Chapter 07

When I was younger, the prospect of Sunday dinner at my

dad's had so excited me or stressed me out I'd vomit.

Never at my father's house—even when I was little I knew

Stela wouldn't approve of a puking kid. I didn't puke

anymore, but I'd never managed to get rid of the knots in

my stomach, either.

I popped an antacid tablet now as I sat in my not-

expensive-enough-to-be-impressive car in their half-circle

driveway of stamped concrete. This was the fourth new

house my father'd had in the past seventeen years of life

with his second family. Before that he'd lived in a stately

Georgian-style half mansion with his first family. He'd

never lived with my mother.

Birth-order studies claim that an age difference of six or

more years between siblings complicates the normal

oldest, middle and youngest personality traits by also

making each child an only. That's why, though I have five

half siblings and an uncle who's more like a brother, I'm an

only child. I've tried identifying with being the middle kid—

but what it comes down to, in the end, is I'm not.

The door opened and Jeremy and Tyler ran out. They

both favor my dad, too. Al of us look more like siblings

than we were raised to be. I was fourteen when Jeremy

was born, sixteen for Tyler. They're more like nephews or

cousins than brothers. I'm not sure what they think of me,

just that they're always glad to see me and aside from the

fact they're spoiled brats who could use a good spanking

now and then, I'm usualy glad to see them, too.

"Hey, Paige." Jeremy at twelve no longer ran to clutch at

my legs. He settled for a half wave with limp fingers.

Tyler, ten, was nearly as tal as me but squeezed me

anyway. "Paige, c'mon, we're going to play Pictionary.

Grandma and Grandpa are here already. So's Nanny and

Poppa."

"And Gretchen and Steve, too, I see." I pointed to the two minivans that belonged to my dad's kids with his first wife.

"Everyone's here," Jeremy said somewhat sourly, and I

gave him a glance. He'd always been a pretty upbeat kid.

Today he scowled, blond eyebrows pinching tight over the

smaler version of our father's nose.

I leaned back into my car to grab the gift, then locked my

car. It was unlikely anything would happen to it parked in

my dad's driveway, but it was habit. "Come. Let's go in."

I slung an arm around Tyler's neck and listened to him

babble on about school, soccer, the new game system

he'd found under the Christmas tree. He had never known

Santa to disappoint him. I'd stopped trying not to be

envious of that, even though I no longer believed in Santa

Claus.

Inside, Jeremy slunk to a chair in the corner and sat with

crossed arms, the scowl stil in place. Tyler abandoned me

to round up pens for the game. That left me to the socialy

torturous task of making nice with Stela's parents, Nanny

and Poppa.

Like their daughter, they weren't bad people. They'd never

gone out of their way to be cruel. I wasn't Cinderela. And

I understood, now, what it must have been like to try to

find a place in their hearts for their new son-in-law's

children, and how awkward it must have felt. A hastily

wrapped Jumbo Book of Puzzles and a prewrapped box

of knit mittens would always fal short in comparison to

exquisitely wrapped packages in shiny foil paper with

exquisitely wrapped packages in shiny foil paper with

matching bows, the contents new clothes or toys. I

understood. Spending Christmas at my dad's had been last

minute, haphazardly planned and rare. At least Nanny and

Poppa had made an effort.

It seemed easier for them now that I was a grown-up,

though it was more difficult for me. As a kid it had never

occurred to me they wouldn't like me. Now I was

convinced they didn't.

"Helo, Paige," George, also known as Poppa, said. "How nice of you to come."

He meant wel, but the unspoken insinuation of surprise

made me bite my tongue against the shout of "Of course I

came! She's my father's wife!"

But, like Stela herself, I could never hope to impress

them. I just wanted not to prove them right. So instead of

shouting, I smiled.

"How are you?" I couldn't cal him George, Mr. Smith

sounded absurd, and I would never cal him Poppa.

I'd been asking out of politeness, but he told me exactly

how he was. For fifteen minutes. And I listened, nodding

how he was. For fifteen minutes. And I listened, nodding

and murmuring in appropriate places, as though I cared. I

didn't know half the people he mentioned, but he acted as

if he thought I should. He never asked me about myself,

which was fine, because then I didn't have to answer.

Finaly, the game of Pictionary got under way. Gretchen's

husband, Peter, begged off, volunteering to take care of

Hunter, their three-year-old son. Steve and his vastly

pregnant wife, Kely, played, though, as did my dad and

Stela, al the grandparents and Tyler. And me. Jeremy had

disappeared. We split into teams, boys against girls.

"I'l sit out," I said when we'd counted up the teams to find the girls' side had an extra player.

"Oh, no, Paige, are you sure?" Stela protested, but not

too hard. She liked things even and square.

"Sure. Not a problem. I'l go check on dinner, if you

want."

Okay, so maybe I'd cast myself in the Cinderela role. Just

a little. But it was a relief to get into the kitchen and set out

platters of vegetables and dip, cheese and crackers.

Decorative breads and soft cheeses with pretty spreaders

Decorative breads and soft cheeses with pretty spreaders

that matched the platter. Stela loved to have parties.

I found the cold-cut platters in the garage fridge and

brought them into the kitchen to put them out on the table,

which was serving as a buffet. I startled Jeremy when I

came back in, and he whirled, can of soda in hand, from

the open fridge.

From the living room, the sound of laughter wafted. I set

the platter of meat on the table. Jeremy and I stared each

other down.

"You're not supposed to be drinking that before dinner," I told him.

"I know." His chin lifted. He hadn't yet cracked the top.

"I'm not going to tel you on you, kiddo." I turned to the

table and took off the platter's plastic lid so I could get rid

of the fake greenery around the edges. I knew how to

make things pretty.

"Don't cal me kiddo," he said.

I expected him to slink away with his stolen prize, but he

didn't. When I turned to look at him, he was stil playing

didn't. When I turned to look at him, he was stil playing

with the can, shifting it from one hand to the other.

"Something up?" I moved past him to the big, mostly

empty pantry, to pul out the fancy plastic plates and

plastic-ware, the matching napkins.

"No." Jeremy shrugged and disappeared up the back

stairs.

After that, the party realy started.

It was easier for me with more people there. Stela's

friends knew who I was, of course, and avoided talking to

me so they didn't have to deal with the awkwardness of

how to address their friend's husband's ilegitimate

daughter. My dad's friends knew me, too, but had fewer

inhibitions for some reason. Maybe because I'd known

them longer, or because they had no conflict of loyalty.

Some of them didn't like Stela much, and maybe that was

part of it, too.

Of my father's other kids, I saw very little. Gretchen, Steve

and I had never been close, even though it wasn't my

mother who'd finaly won our dad away from their mom.

Of course, their spouses weren't sure what to make of me,

Of course, their spouses weren't sure what to make of me,

either, and it was easier for us to be superficialy polite

without trying to get to know each other. Their children

were and would be my nieces and nephews, but I doubted

they'd ever think of me as an aunt.

"Paige DeMarco, how the hel are you?" Denny's one of

my dad's oldest friends. Fishing and drinking buddies,

they'd known each other since high school. He'd known

my mom, too.

"Hey, Denny. Long time no see."

"Yeah, and you a big-city girl now, too. How's it going?"

Denny gave me a one-armed hug.

"It's going great." It wasn't an entire lie. Most of my life was going great.

"Yeah?" He tossed back the dregs of his iced tea. I

guessed he was hankering for a beer, but Stela wasn't

serving booze. Not that I blamed her. Alcohol always

made a different kind of party. "Where you living at? Your

dad said someplace along the river?"

"Riverview Manor."

There was no denying the pride sweling inside me at

Denny's impressed whistle. "Nice digs. And your job?

You're not stil working with your mom, are you?"

"I help out once in a while, if she's got a big job."

Denny grimaced at his empty cup, but didn't move to pour

more. "What's she up to? She stil with the same guy?"

Questions my dad never asked. I was the only part of my

mother my dad needed to know about. He'd never said as

much, but I knew it.

"Leo? Yes."

"And that kid, how old's he now?"

"Arty's seven." I had to laugh for a second. "Wow. Yeah.

He just turned seven."

"You tel her I said hi, okay?"

"Sure."

We chatted for a while after that. The party got louder.

Stela reigned over it like a queen, even if she was claiming

Stela reigned over it like a queen, even if she was claiming

to stil be only twenty-nine. When it came time to open the

gifts, I thought about slipping out, but forced myself to

stay.

Stela sat in the big rocking chair in the living room, her

presents arranged at her feet and her closest girlfriend

beside her getting ready to write down the name of every

gift and its giver. Stela opened gift cards, packages of

bath salts, certificates for spa treatments. Sweaters.

Slippers. A new silk robe someone had brought from a

trip to Japan. She oohed and aahed over each gift

appropriately.

By the time she got to mine, my stomach had begun to eat

itself. The harsh sting of acid rose in my throat, burning.

My heart thudded sickly. I had to turn away to pop

another couple antacids and sip from a glass of ginger ale,

even though I knew the soda would ruin the effects of the

medicine.

It's sily to hold on to the past, but we al do it. I was

almost ten the first year I'd been invited to Stela's birthday

party. The paint had been barely dry in their new house.

Gretchen and Steven were living one week with their

mother and one week with my dad and Stela. I, of course,

mother and one week with my dad and Stela. I, of course,

lived ful-time with my mom and saw my dad on an

occasional weekend or holiday, a practice he'd only

started after leaving his first wife.

I'd picked out Stela's present myself that year, using my

alowance to pay for it. I'd bought her a silky red tank top

with a lacy hem. It was the sort of shirt my mom would've

loved and wore often, and she said nothing when she

helped me fold it and wrap it in some pretty paper that had

come free in the mail to solicit money for a charity.

I'd been so proud of that present. I'd been sure Stela,

who wasn't nearly as pretty as my mom but who tried

hard, anyway, would open it and put it on right away.

Then she'd smile at me, and my dad would smile at me,

and we'd al be happy.

Instead, she'd opened the box and puled out the shirt. Her

gaze had gone immediately to my father's, but men don't

know anything about fashion beyond what they like and

what they don't. She didn't put it on. She fingered the red

satiny fabric and peeked at the label, her eyes going a little

wider at what she saw. Then she put the shirt back in the

box with a thank-you even a nine-year-old could tel was

forced. I never saw her wear it, but I did find it in the

forced. I never saw her wear it, but I did find it in the

garage a few years later, in the box of rags my dad used

for cleaning his cars.

I wasn't nine years old any longer. I wasn't even a teen in

too-thick eyeliner and a too-short skirt. I'd learned how to

dress and how to speak, but part of me would always be

my mother's daughter, at least in Stela's eyes.

"Oh, Paige, what a thoughtful gift." Stela lifted out the box of paper and opened it to pul out the pen. She wiggled it

so the tiny tassel danced. "Very pretty. Thank you."

I let out a long, silent sigh. "You're welcome."

"Where do you find such pretty things?" Stela continued.

She turned to face her audience. "Paige always finds the

prettiest things."

That was it. Bels didn't ring, little birdies didn't fly around

on rainbow glitter wings. She'd said thank-you, and I

thought she meant it. That was al.

I stil managed to slip away before the party was over. My

dad caught me at the door. He insisted on hugging me.

"Thanks for coming." I'm sure he meant it, too.

"Thanks for coming." I'm sure he meant it, too.

I doubt there's anyone who does not have a complicated

relationship with his or her parents, so I'm not saying I'm

special or anything. Considering the circumstances of my

birth, I'm lucky to have any sort of relationship with my

dad. For the most part, at least, it's an honest relationship.

Except of course when honesty is too painful.

"Of course I'd come," I told him. "Why wouldn't I?"

"Of course you would," my dad said. "Wel, I'm glad you did. How's the new place?"

"It's great." With his arm stil around me, I wanted to

squirm away. "It's a very nice place."

"And the new job?"

The job I'd had for almost six months didn't feel so new

anymore. "It's great, too. I like my boss a lot."

"Good. You're up on Union Deposit Road, right?"

"Progress," I told him. "Just off Progress."

"Oh, right. Wel, hey, maybe I should swing by some day

"Oh, right. Wel, hey, maybe I should swing by some day

and take you to lunch at the Cracker Barrel, what do you

say?"

"Sure, Dad." I smiled, not expecting him to ever folow

through. "Just cal me."

He kissed my cheek and hugged me again, making a show

of making me his daughter. It was nice, in that way we

both knew was shalow but served its purpose.

The moment I got in my car and the door to the house

shut, my every muscle relaxed. I blew out another series of

long, slow breaths and lifted my arms to let my pits air out.

I'd be sore tomorrow in places I hadn't realized I'd

clenched. I was already getting a headache. I'd made it

through another big family event without anything going

wrong.

Chapter 08

Some consider the body a temple. As such, it must be

cared for appropriately so it may be used in the manner for

which it was meant.

Beginning tomorrow, you wil eat oatmeal for breakfast.

Sweeten it however you like.

Today, you wil consume three fewer cups of coffee,

replacing them with water.

Today, you wil extend your regular workout by fifteen

minutes.

Today, you will focus a conscious effort on your

cigarette smoking. You may smoke one cigarette only

once every two hours. You will do nothing else while

you smoke it. You will concentrate on my instructions.

You will think of the word discipline each and every

time you light up.

Finaly, you wil record your efforts in your journal and

describe your thoughts and feelings in detail, particularly

your thoughts on what "discipline" means to you.

your thoughts on what "discipline" means to you.

"Do this in memory of me, and go in peace to love and

serve the Lord," I murmured, mocking. "Wow."

The second note had been nestled amongst a scant handful

of bils and charity requests, and it had slipped into my

hand as though it had been written just for me. I hadn't

meant to open it, but something about the smooth, sleek

paper and lack of glue on the flap had been too tempting

to pass up. Hey, it had been delivered to me, hadn't it?

Even though the number on the front stil said 114, not

414, and even though I knew better, I'd read it anyway.

I stil had no clue what the hel it was, or meant. I turned it

over and over in my hands, then read it again. I closed the

card and stared at it, but I couldn't decipher its meaning.

Unless it had none. Maybe it was some sort of crazy new

diet or self-help plan. I'd heard of a new plan that hooked

members up with mentors. Sort of like a 12-step program

for food addicts, it was supposed to help to have a buddy.

It was the only scenario I came up with, but it didn't feel

right.

I lifted the card again, looking closer for clues. I caressed

the paper. It had the same rough edge, like someone had

the paper. It had the same rough edge, like someone had

cut one large sheet of paper into smaler sizes. No

signature, and delivered twice in a row to the wrong

person. Some buddy.

I kept the card safely in my hand. My fingers curved

around it and my thumb caressed the thick paper. I looked

at it again, the single sentence.

Discipline?

I stil didn't get it. I tucked the card back into its envelope,

restraining myself from sniffing the ink. I wasn't the only

person standing at the mailboxes, and I didn't want to

attract that sort of attention. I found the mailbox for 114

and studied it, too. The brass numbers were stylishly

weathered but not worn. There wasn't realy any mistaking

a one for a four or vice versa, even if the number on the

card itself were smudged.

"Excuse me." The woman next to me gave me a smile

meant to look apologetic but only looked annoyed. "I need

to get to my box."

"Oh. Sorry." I folded closed the note and tucked it quickly into the slot for 114, wondering if by some luck it

into the slot for 114, wondering if by some luck it

belonged to her.

She used her key to open a different box, though, and

puled out a thick sheaf of mail. Then she bent and looked

through the hole to the office behind it, but the mail carrier

had already moved down the row to the end. She

straightened as she closed and locked her box, then riffled

through her mail with a disgusted sniff.

"Nothing ever comes when it's supposed to." She didn't

say it to me, but I nodded anyway.

"I wish my bils wouldn't come."

She turned and gave me an up-and-down look as her

mouth twitched into a grimace masquerading as another

smile. Her gaze took in my coat, the same cut and color as

hers but not as nice, my legs, clad in nude hose, and finaly

settled on my shoes. They were the only part of me that

seemed worth her approval, but she raised a brow anyway

and just tossed off a fake little laugh as she stuffed her mail

into her Kate Spade bag and turned on her matching

pumps.

Bitch.

Bitch.

Oh, I knew what discipline meant to me, al right.

Discipline was what kept me from popping her in the back

of the head with the heel of my barely-passing-inspection

shoes. It's what kept my chin high and my mouth fixed in a

pleasant smile instead of turning down at the corners so the

tears would stay burning behind my eyes instead of

slipping out.

Discipline, or maybe it was pride. Or stubbornness.

Whatever it was, I had enough to spare.

I waited until she'd gone before I crossed the lobby and

pushed through the revolving door. Outside, gray and

overcast skies echoed my mood, and the breeze brought

the scent of cigarettes to me. I looked automaticaly,

wondering if I'd see someone pondering discipline.

"Ari," I said, surprised. "Hi."

Miriam's grandson tossed his butt into the sand-filed can

and shrugged his coat higher around his neck. "Hey,

Paige."

"I didn't know you lived here."

He grinned. "I don't. Just dropped off something for my

grandma, you know?"

I didn't know, but I nodded. "Tel her I said helo."

"Stop by the shop and tel her yourself," he suggested with a sweetly dipping smile.

It was nice to be flirted with, albeit without much heat. "I'l

do that. Have a good day."

"You, too."

I looked back as I crossed the aley to the parking garage,

and Ari was stil looking. Maybe there was a little heat,

after al. And what woman didn't like to be appreciated? I

had a much bigger smile on my face than I had before, and

it lasted me al the way to work.

I wasn't even close to being late, but I might as wel have

been because by the time I got to my desk, my boss had

already piled a stack of files on it. It could have been

worse. He could have been standing over my desk with

the empty coffeepot in his hand. He did that, sometimes,

though I knew he was as capable of making coffee as I

am. More, maybe, since he inhaled the high-octane stuff

am. More, maybe, since he inhaled the high-octane stuff

like it was air and I limited myself to a mug once or twice a

day.

Spying the empty Starbucks cup in the trash, I knew he'd

already had his first dose of the day. I was safe a little bit

longer. I could get the files ordered and put away without

him breathing down my neck. I decided to put the coffee

on anyway, though, just in case. There were many days I

could predict my boss's every move, from the midmorning

break when the bagel man came around, to his post-lunch

trip to the bathroom.

Today wasn't one of those days.

"Paige. Listen. I need you to get those files taken care of,

okay?"

I turned from the smal bar sink, where I'd been filing the

coffeepot with water. "Right, Paul. Of course."

Amazing how someone with only a community-colege

education could stil deduce simple things.

"Good." Paul nodded and smoothed his tie between his

thumb and forefinger while he watched me fiddle with the

thumb and forefinger while he watched me fiddle with the

coffeemaker.

I hadn't yet figured out if Paul hovered because he

expected me to screw up, or if he hoped I would. Either

way, it didn't bother me the way it would have some of the

other personal assistants on the floor. Brenda, for

example, liked to brag how her boss, Rhonda, spent most

of her time traveling and she barely had to deal with her.

She also liked to brag that she'd worked for Kely Printing

longer than that Jenny-come-lately Rhonda anyways, and

knew what she was doing, so why should she have to run

everything by someone else when she could get her work

done faster and better without interference?

I never told Brenda I found Paul's constant supervision

more comforting than annoying. After al, if he never

alowed me the autonomy to make decisions, I couldn't

exactly be held accountable for anything that went wrong.

Right? Even when Paul did his share of traveling, he never

left without making me a sheaf of notes and lists…lists.

I thought of the cards I'd found. Two, now. Two

misdelivered notes with explicit, mysterious (to me)

instructions. I could stil feel the sleek paper under my

fingertips. I regretted not taking the time to smel the ink.

fingertips. I regretted not taking the time to smel the ink.

With the coffee set to brewing, I turned to face Paul.

"Anything else?"

"Not right now, thanks." Paul smiled and disappeared

back into his inner sanctum, leaving me with the cheery

burble of the coffeepot and a bunch of files to herd.

This is what I knew about Paul Johnson, my boss. He had

a chubby, pretty wife named Melissa who sometimes

forgot to pick up his dry cleaning on time and two

teenagers too busy with wholesome activities like sports

and youth group to get into trouble. I knew that because

I'd seen their photos and overheard his telephone

conversations. He had an older brother, the unfortunately

named Peter Johnson, with whom he played golf several

times a year but not often enough to be good. I knew that

because he'd asked me to make a reservation for him at

one of the local golf courses and to cal his brother to

confirm the date. The request was slightly out of the realm

of my professional duties, but I'd done it anyway. I also

knew Paul was forty-seven years old, had earned his

MBA from Wharton, attended church on Sundays with his

family and drove a black, but not brand-new, Mercedes

Benz.

Benz.

Those were things I knew.

This is what I thought about Paul Johnson, my boss. He

wasn't a tyrant. Just precise. He held himself to the same

level of perfection he expected from an assistant, and I

appreciated that. He could be funny, though not often, and

usualy unexpectedly. He gave every project his ful

attention and effort because it pained him to do anything

less. I understood and appreciated that, too.

I'd worked for him for almost six months. He'd told me to

cal him Paul, not Mr. Johnson, but we weren't anything

like friends. That was okay with me. I didn't want my boss

to be my chum.

Though sometimes it felt as if al I did was make coffee

and file, my job did actualy have more responsibility. I had

documents to proof and send, invoices to fil out and

appointments to book. I did al this to leave Paul free to do

whatever it was that he did al day long in his lush, swanky

office. If hard pressed, I wouldn't have been able to tel

anyone what, exactly, that was. I didn't hate or love my

job, but it sure as hel beat working at a sub shop or being

an au pair, which was what I'd done while looking for a

an au pair, which was what I'd done while looking for a

job that would use my freshly minted degree in business

administration. If I never slung another plate of hash or

wiped another ass I'd be happy for a good long time.

There was another advantage to having a boss who

needed everything just so. He was wiling to do what it

took to make sure he got what he wanted, whether it was

leaving me a three-page e-mail of the week's work, or

taking five thorough minutes to describe to me exactly

what he wanted me to get him for lunch. Also, if he sent

me out to get him some lunch, he usualy treated me.

Today it was a pastrami sandwich on rye from Mrs. Deli.

Mustard, no mayo. No tomatoes, no onion. Lettuce on the

side. Potato salad and an extralarge iced tea with real

sugar, not what he caled cancer in a packet.

I met Brenda in the hal on my way back. She took one

look at the bulging paper sack from Mrs. Deli and sniffed

hungrily. She held a smal, boxed salad I recognized as

coming from the same guy who sold bagels in the morning.

I'd had one of those salads once, when I'd forgotten my

lunch and had been so desperate for food I'd been wiling

to use my laundry quarters.

"Gawd, Paige," Brenda said. "Lucky. I wish my boss

would send me out for lunch. Heck, I'd like to just get out

of this place for an hour."

Officialy, we got an hour for lunch, but since our building

was located in a business complex on the outskirts of the

city, by the time you drove to anyplace decent for lunch,

you'd barely have enough time to eat and come back.

Rhonda might not hover over Brenda, but she was a

stickler about office hours and break time. Everything has

a trade-off.

"Let me just drop this off with Paul and I'l be right down."

Brenda looked at the box of sadness in her hand. "Yeah,

okay. I've only got about forty minutes left, though."

"I'l hurry."

Paul's door was half-closed when I rapped on the door

frame. At the muffled noise, I pushed it al the way open.

He sat at his desk, staring at his computer monitor. The

screen had dissolved into a rapidly changing pattern of

expanding pipe-work, his screen saver, and I wondered

how long he'd been sitting there.

"Paul?"