No More Mr. Nice Girl

Excerpt

 

Chapter One

Don’t get mad, get even.

I’d never liked that expression, but since this morning, it had become my mantra. Of course, it wasn’t easy to figure out how I could possibly get revenge under these circumstances.

But now I knew.

Vaguely dizzy, I walked to Jeffrey’s nightstand.

In the last few hours, my life had become surreal, like watching myself in a movie.

Lifelong good girl Paige Tipton reached into the nightstand drawer, grabbed a fistful of condoms and threw them into her Louis Vuitton handbag.

Except I was Paige. And I was pissed.

I pulled the drawer out farther, ripped open a new box and dumped the Trojans into my purse. Anyone who knew what I was planning might have found this inappropriate, since my husband gave me the handbag for my birthday last year.

Poetic justice.

Tears formed in my eyes, as they did when he presented me with the gift. Why did he bother, considering how little he must have cared? Maybe he thought a two thousand dollar purse made up for what he’d done, somehow.

I tried to push away the sadness and humiliation as I glanced into Jeffrey’s drawer one last time. A few condoms remained scattered in the bottom. I laid my bag open on the bed, yanked the drawer from the nightstand and flipped it upside down.

 The purse was so full of latex I could barely make room for my lipstick and cell phone. I mashed it all in and clicked the clasp shut, telling myself I was closing the door on my old life. That life was a lie, and as of today, I’d learned the truth.

If Jeffrey wasn’t already dead, I’d kill him myself.

I marched to the dresser and jammed my diamond stud earrings—a Christmas gift from Jeffrey—into their holes. I hurried to the full-length mirror.

Was this really the hottest outfit I owned? Although it was a bright pink Stella McCartney that stopped at mid-thigh, the dress was basically a sheath with a Peter Pan collar. My mother gave it to me for my birthday.

I examined my prim-to-the-shoulder blonde hair, still cut the way Jeffrey insisted two years ago. What had I let these people do to me?

Your life wasn’t so hot in the first place, the cruel voice inside my head taunted. The voice was right, as usual. My life had been anything but hot.

I spent thirteen years in the best Houston private schools, trying to keep my permanent record clean. Then, on to SMU, where I’d made the dean’s list every semester, followed by the job my father “suggested” in a large accounting firm where his old friend was senior partner.

For two years, I designed marketing materials for accountants until I was sure I’d contracted a terminal case of boredom. Then Jeffrey entered my life and convinced me he was crazy about me, and I got swept up in the romance of it all.

The phone rang, jarring me out of my thoughts. I snatched the handbag from the bed and fished my cell out. “Hello?”

“Paige? Why do you sound out of breath?”

“Mother? I was…” I glanced at the pile of clothes on my bed. “Cleaning out my closet.”

“Oh. Do you want me to send Marietta?” Bunny Hadden never offered to help with manual labor personally, however, she was quite generous with her staff.

“No. I’m almost done.” The last thing I needed was Marietta snooping around. The one time I took a puff from a friend’s cigarette back in high school, she smelled it on me and ratted me out. I certainly didn’t want her to tell my mother what I was up to now.

I cradled the phone on my shoulder and opened one of the shoe boxes on the bed to reveal my kitten-heeled Jimmy Choos.

“Okay,” Mother said. “I won’t keep you. I just called to remind you about the luncheon tomorrow.”

“Yes. I’ll be there,” I replied automatically. I hated those luncheons. Why had I joined the Lone Star Ladies League? Oh, yeah, because it was good for Jeffery’s business.

“What’s that sound?” my mother asked.

I realized I’d been punctuating my thoughts by whacking myself in the head with one of my Choos.

“I was killing a bug.”

“A bug!” I felt my mother shudder on the other end of the line. “I’ll have Marietta call pest control.”

“No. It’s already taken care of.” I looked for the car keys, afraid to lose my momentum. I had to get going before Good Girl Paige stepped in and changed my plans for the night.

“Where’s my big boy?”

“Matthew’s at a sleepover.”

Matthew. My six-year-old son. The one reason I didn’t regret every bit of the last eight years of my life.

“Give him a hug from me when you see him tomorrow.” The master delegator. She rarely hugged her grandson herself.

“I will. Bye, Mother.” I disconnected the call, clutched my purse and raced to the garage.

But to get to my minivan, I had to squeeze by my husband’s black Mercedes SUV—the scene of the crimes. I reminded myself to call the dealership in the morning and put it up for sale. In fact, if I could avoid the questions from friends and family, I’d take it out to Montgomery County and torch it myself. I certainly didn’t want to peer into its cold glass eyes ever again.

It looked like him. It smelled like him. It picked up cheap whores like him.

Tension buzzed up my spine, exploding into my head. I’d spent the year since he died feeling guilty and inadequate as a wife. Wondering if I’d tried hard enough. Wondering if there was one more thing I could have done to make him happy with me.

My mind flashed back to this morning, when I had to drop Matthew’s class yearbook pictures at a print shop near the Astrodome. My van was at the dealership getting serviced, so I had to take Jeffrey’s SUV. When I rolled to a stop at the traffic light, I double-checked the directions in my lap to be sure I was going the right way, since I didn’t know how to use the GPS in Jeffrey’s car.

“Hey, you’re back,” a feminine voice called through the crack in the passenger side window. “Where’ve you b—” I rolled down the window. “Oh, I thought you were the guy. I mean, a guy.”

I took in the bad bleach job, cheap slutty clothes and high-heeled knee boots—in late May? In Houston?—as the words, “Honey, I’ve got to work late again,” reverberated in my brain.

“Do you know this car?” I asked. Jeffrey had gone on and on about the custom wheels when he’d bought it.

“Oh, no. My mistake.” The woman backed toward the curb.

“I’ve got forty bucks on me.” My heart pounded as I scrambled for my wallet. “And he’s dead, so you’re not getting any more out of him.”

The whore was a business woman, as it turned out. As soon as I showed her the money, she hopped nonchalantly into the passenger seat.

“Shit, it’s only eighty-two?” she said, noting the number on Jeffrey’s digital thermostat. “I wish my roommate hadn’t stolen my other shoes. The weatherman said it’s gonna get to ninety today.”

“It’s not the heat. It’s the humidity,” I said automatically.

Wait. Did I really want to know what this woman had to say about my husband? Maybe if I asked her nicely she’d take the money and go.

The hooker flipped down the visor and checked her reflection in the mirror. “It’s a shame about Jeff.”

Jeff? Nobody ever called him “Jeff.” My husband’s alternate identity drove home the point that he’d been living a double life. Suddenly, a pounding in my head joined the throbbing in my chest.

“He was a real hunka-hunka-burnin—” Her lips froze mid-Elvis when she saw the horror on my face. “Oh, sorry. What happened?”

“He flew to Dallas on a business trip and got into an accident in the rental car on the way back to the airport.” I tried to sound calm, even though I needed a paper bag to breathe into. “How many times did you see him?”

“Oh, too many to count. He was sort of a sex addict. Sometimes, he showed up two or three times a day. Not just with me. He liked variety, but mostly I think he liked the idea that he wasn’t supposed to be doing it.” Clearly, this woman was the Dr. Phil of Hooker World.

I took in a deep steadying breath, summoning my courage for the next question. “How long did you know him?”

“Let’s see. He was one of my first tricks when I got out here. I was seventeen, so—”

Seventeen?” My English muffin turned over in my stomach.

“I told people I was eighteen when they asked. I don’t remember if he did, though.” She shrugged. “I’m twenty, now. Shit, I can’t believe I’ve been doin’ it that long. Time flies, huh?”

“Huh,” I repeated, my mind reeling.

He couldn’t have. Night after night while I was at home trying to invent a dinner he wouldn’t frown at or a hairstyle he might compliment, he’d been getting it on with skanky whores?

I tried to remember the last time we’d had sex. How long had I let myself live in denial, thinking he was working too hard or we were in a temporary slump, or his equipment wasn’t working properly?

The closest I’d come to sexual contact in the last several years were the double air kisses with Betsy Landrey at the country club.

“He stopped coming about a year ago.”

“A lot longer for me,” I mumbled before it occurred to me we were having two different conversations. “He died a year ago.”

“I guess that explains it.”

I should have suspected this the day Jeffrey brought home the mother lode of Trojans. When I walked into the room unexpectedly, he’d claimed Lani, his office assistant, was sick, and he’d stopped at the wholesale club to get office supplies. He’d happened to “run into” a great deal on condoms.

Jeffrey at a wholesale club? I must have been delusional to go along with his explanation. “I guess that’s what he bought all those condoms for.”

“Oh, yeah. He brought his own. He used to make a joke about always being prepared because he was an Eagle Scout or something.”

I gave a half-chuckle, while I imagined taking a baseball bat to the truck I was sitting in. “He was an Eagle Scout,” I replied, as the woman stuffed the money into her boot and got out of the truck.

Damn you, Jeffrey. Damn you to Hell.

I came to, still standing in the garage. I forced my gaze from the SUV. How long had I been frozen here staring at it?

Smoothing my dress, I straightened my shoulders and headed for my minivan as I tried to conjure up the name or location of a seedy bar.

I hoped with every ounce of my being that Jeffrey would be watching tonight when I picked up some stranger and screwed his brains out. I wasn’t sure I knew how to screw anyone’s brains out, but I’d been an overachiever for the first twenty years of my life. Surely, I could figure it out.

And, wherever he was, this would drive lying, manipulative, control-freak Jeffrey out of his mind.

The sun was setting as I backed out of the driveway. I paused a moment to view the house. My Tudor style, made of stucco and river stone, was one of the few things I got my way about. Maybe because we purchased it before Jeffrey and I married, when he was still trying to please me.

I was aware that a five bedroom, fifty-five hundred square foot house was large to many people. However, after growing up in my parents’ massive federal colonial mansion, this place felt downright cozy. Jeffrey had wanted more of a showplace, but I fell in love with my Hansel and Gretel house, and he acquiesced, although he always referred to it as a “starter home.”

Screw you, Jeffrey. It’s my home now, my real home, and I’m keeping it.

When I reached the stop sign at the corner, my cell phone rang. The screen told me my friend Tina was calling.

Once she’d heard a blow-by-blow of the encounter with the hooker, all Tina could say was, “Jeffrey? Really?

“I can’t believe how gullible I was.” I swallowed hard, trying not to cry again. I reached the edge of my neighborhood and hung a right, unsure where I was headed. “I can’t believe I never questioned anything.”

Tina sighed. “You did what you were supposed to do, honey. It’s him you oughta be angry with, not you.”

“Oh, I’m angry enough for both of us.” I swerved around a parked car. If I didn’t slow down, Jeffrey and I might be roommates again. “It all makes sense now. You know, the day I walked in on him with the condoms I thought he’d gone and gotten some Viagra.”

“What?”

“I thought he was freakin’ impotent!” I saw the red light just in time and screeched to a stop. “I didn’t want to embarrass him, so I didn’t bring it up.”

“You and Jeffrey were living in a sexless marriage?”

“You’re not listening, Tina!” I yelled. “I was living in a sexless marriage. Jeffrey was getting his truck waxed two or three times a day.”

“Holy shit!”

“The one thing I held onto was the fact that he loved me.” I searched my glove compartment for tissues. “He talked me into marrying him. He told me I was the only woman for him. Oh, my God, I feel so stupid!”

“You’re not stupid, honey. You’re just—”

“You know, I was every bit as unhappy as he was, and I never once considered screwing around on him. I always put him first. Did he ever think about me when he was picking up prostitutes?”

“Where are you? You shouldn’t be driving right now.”

“I’d like to smash his whore wagon into a wall!” I slammed my hand on the steering wheel. The horn sounded and startled a jogger.

“You’re not driving it now, are you?” Tina asked, her voice deep with concern.

“No.” Moisture began trickling down my face, threatening to melt off my makeup. I needed to pull myself together. Guys in bars didn’t want weepy, mascara-oozing women. I sniffled loudly.

“Paige, honey, you’re scaring me. Do you want me to—?”

“No!” I wasn’t going to run crying to Tina or wallow in self-pity. Not anymore.

Don’t get mad, get even. Don’t get mad, get even.

“Where can I find a seedy bar?”

“A what?”

“Like where those bikers with the long hair hang out.”

“How would I know? I’m from Amarillo. And I married rich so I’d never have to see the inside of one of those dives again. What are you planning to do?”

When I rolled up to the stop sign, I heard Alice Cooper on the classic rock station singing “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” the perfect theme song for me. I cranked up the radio. Alice and I were turning over a new leaf.

“I’m going to find the raunchiest biker-dude I can and do with him what Jeffrey did with all those hookers.” I jammed my fist into the air like a teenager at a rock concert, and it didn’t matter that the busy-body soccer mom in the car next to me was staring.

“You’ve lost your mind!” Tina yelled. “You can’t pick up some crazy redneck! He could dump your body out in the woods, and we’d never know what happened to you.”

I was distracted by the night club signs. Why had I gone toward the Galleria? There were no seedy bars here.

“I’ll take a picture of the guy with my cell phone and send it to my e-mail. That way if he kills me, the cops can find him,” I said as I headed east.

For a brief instant, I felt calm. Serenely, beautifully calm. Okay, maybe crazy calm.

“If he kills you?” Tina yelled. “Have aliens invaded your body?”

“Maybe.” It made sense. I’d felt like I was being eaten from the inside out for years. The calm evaporated, replaced by manic determination. “I’m not going to be anyone’s doormat anymore, Tina.” I cranked the music until my ears rang. “No more Mr. Nice Girl!” I shouted before I disconnected the call.

 


Chapter Two

Unfortunately, my GPS didn’t have any listings for “dive bars.” After driving for half an hour, I found myself in Pasadena.

As I stopped at a red light, my eyes locked on a row of bikes in front of a building I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. The outside was flat and nondescript, the sign above the door small and washed out, making it impossible to read from the street. But this had to be the place. There were a dozen Harleys sitting out front.

Spying an empty, pot-holed parking lot across the street, I turned into it. Adjusting the rearview mirror, I checked my face. Not half bad considering the shock I’d received today.

As I approached the door, the decrepit building throbbed with loud rock music. Amazed those rotten boards held up under such an auditory onslaught, I tilted my head back and was able to make out the sign, “D.O.A.

As in “Dead on Arrival”? Great.

But I was committed. I took a deep breath, pulled the door open, and stepped in.

At first, the club was a blur of dim lighting, black leather, and smoke. As my eyes focused, the bodies and faces became clear—dozens of bushy-faced men dancing with women who hadn’t seen the inside of a salon in years. And dead center in the crowd was what appeared to be a female version of The Rock gyrating with the original “Witchy Woman.”

What a freak show.

A couple of patrons near the door swiveled on their stools and stared at me like I was a narc. I viewed the crowd and tried to imagine myself getting down and dirty—literally—with one of these men. They were so…unkempt. Marietta had always warned me never to have sex with someone I wouldn’t share a toothbrush with.

But maybe they weren’t as unwashed as they seemed. It might be a fashion statement, like the grunge look.

The door opened behind me. I had to get out of the way. I could do this. It was all about attitude. Trying not to fidget with the strap of my Louis, I headed for the last remaining bar stool.

I sat, my gaze wandering to the band—a skinny drummer, a guitarist-lead singer belting out a song, a wiry-haired bass player…

My eyes jumped back to the singer. Definitely a stand-out in this crowd. Thirty-something with long dirty-blonde hair, he was tall, broad-shouldered and sexy as hell.

As he sang, his lips seemed to move in slow motion behind the microphone. I could almost feel his stubble on my palms as I imagined sliding my hands up his unshaven cheeks.

My eyes trailed down his chest. His pecs bulged and danced under his t-shirt while his hands caressed the neck of his guitar. As the instrument swayed side to side, tempting bits of man-thigh flashed me from his ripped jeans. He couldn’t have looked better if he were wearing Armani.

With each strum, his pick scraped at my flesh, grazing my nerve endings, moving farther and farther south until...

His guitar screamed.

My body tightened, my thighs squeezing together, recapturing a long forgotten sensation.

This already beat the hell out of Betsy Landrey.

“Anybody home?” The not so feminine voice came from directly behind me. I whirled my stool to face a burly woman with a black Mohawk, who was tending bar.

I set my jaw and narrowed my eyes, hoping it made me come across as more hardcore. The woman clunked an ancient black phone on the counter in front of me.

“Do I have a call?” I asked sarcastically, so anyone listening would realize I knew how to handle myself.

The bartender threw her head back and cackled. “I figured you were here looking for a phone after your Barbie Car broke down.”

I saw a flashback of myself in my bedroom mirror. Yes, in here, I was the freak.

“Barbie has much longer hair,” I said, hoping she would go away quietly.

“Your VW Bug?”

“No.”

“Your cherry red Mercedes convertible?”

At least a convertible sounded more exciting, and I had to stop the woman before she got to “minivan.”

“I don’t need a phone.” I sucked in a lungful of second-hand smoke and tried not to cough. “Just give me a…” All I saw behind the bar were four kinds of beer and some whiskey bottles. “Bud Light.” Was that tough enough?

The bartender lifted a bottle and opened it with a flourish. “Our finest vintage.” She set the beer in front of me.

“Thanks.” I turned back toward the band.

They were playing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “What’s Your Name?” and the singer was staring straight at me. Or was he?

I eased my chin over my shoulder casually to see if there was someone else he could be eyeing. The bartender was the only person behind me and surely they weren’t an item. That would be so wrong.

My eyes snapped back to him, clinging to his every movement, mesmerized by the raw masculinity radiating from his body. I’d gone to a lot of concerts when I was young. This guy’s stage presence amazed me. Why did he waste his time in a crappy dive bar?

Every time he sang the words “little girl” he made eye contact with me and thwanged parts of my body that hadn’t seen action in a long, long time.

He was the one. I’d take him home. No, I shouldn’t let him know where I lived. We’d go to his place—I hoped it wasn’t too disgusting—and have wild, dirty sex, just like Jeffrey did with his hookers. It would still count, even if I had chosen the cleanest guy in the bar.

At the end of the song, he slashed the pick across the strings, wrenched the microphone stand toward him and kicked his big macho biker boot at the crowd. The audience went wild, whooping and clapping and yelling.

He was hot. He was cool. He was perfect.

As he shook his hair away from his face and set his guitar gently on its stand, my palms broke out in a sweat. I’d never picked up a man, much less one I’d met in a redneck-biker-lesbian bar. He glanced over and caught me staring.

My chest tingled, warning me of the flush trying to creep up my neck. I twirled back toward the bartender.

She was wise-cracking loudly with a skinny, toothless man, who’d apparently never found anyone to share a toothbrush with. But I was going to share a toothbrush tonight if it killed me.

As I scratched nervously at the edges of the soggy Bud Light label, I tried to summon the courage to approach the singer before he left the building. He wouldn’t turn me down, would he? It wasn’t like he had more inviting options in a place like this. I’d walk to the stage and say—

“Hey, Doris. What have we got here?”

My lungs caught as the deep male voice sent fiery shivers down my back. My shoulders gave a little jerk.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” the bartender replied.

I steeled myself and spun around, coming eye to eye with the grim reaper on the rocker’s vintage Molly Hatchet T-shirt. My eyes crept from his hard torso to his hard shoulders to his semi-hard face.

He scanned me from head to toe. “Your Harley break down outside?”

Doris cackled loudly, causing several heads to rotate in our direction. She flicked a bar towel at him and walked off.

I blew out an annoyed breath. Was everyone in here going to give me a hard time? Although, I couldn’t be a shrinking violet if I was going to make this happen.

“Actually, I spent all my money on crack. My pimp got pissed off and kicked me to the curb.” There. Tough. Sarcastic. The new me.

The corners of the rocker’s full lips curved into a half smile, but he squelched it and pressed them together until he’d achieved an expression that reminded me of one of my high school teachers.

“Attitude will only get you so far in here.” He spoke to me like I was a teenager who’d earned a lecture. “This isn’t the country club.”

I set my jaw, attempting to match his expression. “You don’t know I belong to a country club.”

“Oh, yeah, I do.”

He had to be bluffing. “How many country clubs have you been to?”

“Enough to know the type.” He picked up the Budweiser Doris had set in front of him and took a swig.

Enthralled, despite his attitude toward me, I gaped at his impressive profile. He even drank cool. I had the urge to run my tongue over his Adam’s apple.

“Why are you really here?” he asked.

“I’m probably here for the same reason as all these other people.” I gestured around the room. “I don’t see you interrogating them about it.” I took a gulp of my beer, hoping it contained the courage to hit on him.

“I know why they’re here,” he replied. “They want to get drunk, listen to rock and roll, and take someone home for some raunchy sex.” His lips were really sexy when he said “raunchy sex.”

What the hell. I’d never see him or any of these people in my real life. And Jeffrey had already reached out from the grave and stolen my last shred of dignity. Why not lay my cards on the table?

“That’s why I’m here, for the s—” I couldn’t quite get it out.

He frowned doubtfully. As I peered into his surprisingly soft, grey eyes, I tried to achieve a come hither look. “Like you, for instance. I might pick you up for some…r-raunchy…s-sex.” Maybe he’d think I dragged the last two words out for emphasis.

He threw his head back and laughed loudly. “Am I being punked?” He turned his head one way, then the other, like he was searching for TV cameras.

Is sex with me so laughable? Humiliation pitched through me as I wondered if Jeffrey had laughed about me with his prostitutes.

No! I wasn’t a doormat anymore. New Paige was not going to give this guy the last laugh. I thrust my chin out and stared him straight in the eye. “What’s your name?”

“Dillon.”

“Okay, Dillon, I’m seriously looking for some raunchy sex tonight. Are you interested?”

“You’re a little young for me.”

“I’m 30 years old.”

“Yeah, well, you look eighteen, you dress like you’re six, and I’m not that much of a perv. But I’m sure there’s somebody here we can fix you up with.” He skimmed the room.

When he raised his eyebrows and tilted his head toward the back of the bar, I followed his line of sight to an old guy I thought I’d seen pushing a shopping cart near the hooker earlier.

“I don’t need a matchmaker,” I said. “I just need a bad boy for one night.”

He didn’t reply.

My mother always said money fixed everything. And it had worked with the hooker. “How about for forty bucks?”

“Forty bucks?” He scowled at me like I had a deformity. “You’ve got it a little mixed up, Country Club. In real life, it’s the guy who offers the girl forty bucks.”

“Then, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you.”

He grabbed his Bud from the counter and took another swig. When he set it down, he appeared to be contemplating the bottle.

My foot jiggled nervously. Was this really such a difficult decision? I wasn’t an ogre, for God’s sake!

“You’ve made a lot of assumptions about me in five minutes,” he finally replied. “What makes you think I’d have sex with a woman I just met in a bar for forty bucks?”

I scanned the room. A guy who hung out here wasn’t so picky. He was holding out for more cash. “A hundred?”

“Hmph.” Had he blown me off? I wasn’t sure.

“Hey, Dil, ah owe you a drank from last time.” The rural Texas drawl was even thicker than Tina’s. I turned to see a blonde woman scoot onto a bar stool a few feet away. She resembled the hooker from earlier, except shorter and about ten years older.

Dillon took a step toward her. “Whoa, Darla! I bet the cheetah never looked this good when it was alive.” He nodded at the woman’s Spandex animal print pants.

“You got that right, honey,” Darla replied, patting the stool next to her.

Dillon strolled over to her and began chatting amicably, apparently forgetting me completely. I felt more ridiculous by the second and a little hurt, which was silly, since I’d only met the guy a few minutes ago.

Doris sauntered up, eyed my nearly full beer, then followed my gaze to Darla.

“She’s got you outgunned, huh?”

I watched Darla’s semi-exposed breasts heave and fall as she jabbered away. Those bad girls might burst through the bra at any time and put someone’s eye out.

I checked out my own boobage. The sheath made it appear flat as a pancake, which wasn’t fair, since I had a decent pair of breasts. They weren’t huge, but in a low-cut top and a push-up bra, I was sure I could give Darla a run for her money.

Unfortunately, I didn’t own a low-cut top or a push-up bra. Jeffrey hadn’t approved of either. I hated him. And I hated Old Paige for letting him run her life.

To make matters worse, Dillon wasn’t so much as glancing my way.

Great. My own husband hadn’t wanted to have sex with me, and now I’d lost the rocker to a woman in Walmart clothes. I was completely unattractive to men in any sexual way.

Jeffrey wasn’t the problem. I was.

Defeated, I plucked some cash out from under the condoms in my purse, threw it on the bar, and headed for the door.

“Wait. Hold up, Country Club.” I paused as Dillon strode toward me. “Let me walk you out. It’s a rough neighborhood.”

So, he hadn’t forgotten me…and he was leaving with me, at least for the moment. It would probably be a good idea to take his picture on the off chance I managed a parking lot seduction.

As I opened my bag to get my phone, the toothless guy stood and knocked the purse from my hand. It fell to the floor, condoms flying every which way.

“Holy shit!” Toothless said. The canned music wasn’t as loud as the band had been, so a dozen customers turned to see what happened.

Someone yelled, “Woo-hoo! Barbie’s packin’ rubber!” Everyone laughed and cheered, and I felt my face burning bright red, though the bikers seemed to view me in a more positive light now.

As I squatted and began gathering the packets, Dillon knelt at my side to help.

“Gee, I’m flattered, but I don’t think I’m man enough for you, Country Club.”

I lowered my brow at him. It didn’t seem to faze him.

“We could have gotten by on these for tonight.” He held a handful of condoms out toward me.

I counted five packets in his palm. Unable to resist, I peered into his smoky, teasing eyes. Electricity crackled in the air between us. I could almost feel his naked body pressing against mine.

I certainly deserved one night of wild sex after the deprivation Jeffrey put me through, and it might still happen. Palming my camera phone, I snatched the condoms from Dillon’s hand and threw them into my purse.

“I think that’s it,” I said as I walked to the door.

 

~

Dillon hung back, questioning whether it would be wise to step through the door with her. This little debutante had stoked up a lot of old feelings and lit the match on a few new ones.

He’d like nothing better than to take her to his house and go through the entire contents of her purse. She looked so soft, and so cute, and so…pink. He spotted her the minute she walked through the door, and his Friday night suddenly got a lot more interesting.

What was it about this kind of woman that always grabbed him by the cajones and squeezed until he didn’t know his own name?

On second thought, he knew what the draw was. His mom had been telling him girls like her were off limits since he was a kid, and people always wanted what they couldn’t have, right?

He shook his head to get some blood pumping in there again. He wouldn’t let her go out to the parking lot alone. By this time of night, half the patrons of the D.O.A. were usually there—the half Doris had kicked out. And she wasn’t exactly selective in her clientele.

Country Club paused and glanced back at him before she disappeared through the door. Her clear blue eyes were calling him out, and shit if he could resist following her.

He hurried to the door and pushed it open. A flash of light startled him and he threw his hands in front of his face.

“What the hell?” Once he’d blinked the light from his eyes, he saw Country Club a few feet in front of him, fiddling with a cell phone.

“Sorry, it’s a new phone. I was trying to check my messages.” It sounded like a lie, but why would she try to take his picture? Unless she was on some sorority scavenger hunt and “guitar-playing biker-dude” was item number six.

“Is one of these yours?” She nodded toward the row of Harleys.

“Yeah, that one.” He pointed it out. “The V-Rod.” Why would someone like her be interested in his bike?

“Well, I’m parked across the street.”

As they walked through the dark parking lot, Dillon was dismayed to find nothing but vehicles. He’d been ready to see her safely to her car, maybe help her fend off some drunken rednecks. Taking her on alone was a whole different animal. Chicks like this were a deadly combination of catnip and kryptonite for him.

They crossed the street together and he followed her to a top-of-the-line van.

“Nice ride,” he said, as she hit the remote.

“Is that the only important thing in your circles? What someone drives?”

She seemed pissed off. Must have thought he was being sarcastic. She was pretty uptight for someone trolling for a one-night stand in the D.O.A.

“But not in yours?” He opened the door for her and ran his hand along the leather interior. “I heard this is the Rolls Royce of minivans. And you got all the bells and whistles, too.”

Her face softened and she tilted her head at him. “And how would you know about minivans?”

“I get around. You’d be surprised.” Yeah, she’d be surprised all right. But, she didn’t need to find out any more about him, or vice versa. Best for both of them if she got in her van and drove away.

She moved toward the seat, then stopped and turned. “You know, I... We...” She took a deep breath. In a swift movement, she captured his head with her hands, pulling him down for a kiss.

Resisting was the farthest thing from his mind. Instinctively, his hands curled around her back. Her sweet little tongue brushed against his lips, and he forgot why he hadn’t done this in the first place.

Cupping the back of her head, he pushed his tongue into her mouth harder than he meant to. She sucked him like a Hoover, and somehow squeezed everything from his chest to his groin.

“She can only cause you trouble.”

He let go and took a step back before realizing he’d heard his mother’s voice in a twenty-year-old memory. She was right, though. Last time he’d ignored her advice, they’d lost everything.

“I get the feeling you’re trying to do something you’ll regret in the morning,” he said. “You obviously have something to prove. I think you shou—”

With a “tuh,” she threw her purse onto the seat and poked her index finger into his pecs. “Why does absolutely everybody think they can tell me what I want, and what I’ll regret, and what I should do?”

“But you don’t have an axe to grind or anything,” he replied sarcastically. Yeah, there was definitely more going on here than Debs Gone Wild, Houston.

She blew out a loud huff and glared at him like she wanted to slit his throat.

Damn, even pissed off she was cute. And he could still taste her on the tip of his tongue. She reminded him of sugar cookies—the good kind, with icing like his mom used to make—and he could never eat just one of those.

He reached up and touched her cheek with his fingertips, barely resisting an impulse to rub his thumb across her pouty bottom lip. Her mouth opened slightly like she was ready for round two.

Need lurched through him. His crotch throbbed and he ground his teeth in an effort to regain control. Mentally shaking himself, he lowered his hand to his side and forced his eyes away from hers. Unfortunately, they trailed to the hem of her skirt, which exposed the bottom half of her smooth thighs. How easy it would be to slide his hands under that dress.

He hated to send her away, but he was sure if she did this, she’d beat herself up for it in the morning. Something big happened to her today. Best for her to go home and cool off before she made it worse.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “If you’re really determined, come back tomorrow night. I’ll say I was wrong, and I’ll give you whatever you want.”

She opened her mouth as if to argue, then her shoulders dropped, and she climbed into the driver’s seat.

Was she disappointed about not getting it on with him, or about not completing her mission? Whatever that was.

She exhaled and turned toward him, her face deadly serious.

“You know,” she said. “They don’t make Harley driving, long-hair wearing rock singers like they used to.”

Dillon burst out laughing and had to fight the urge to ask her to stay a while longer. She started the van and backed out without another word. As her taillights disappeared, his heart sank at the knowledge he’d never see her again.

“Nice knowing you, Country Club.” He headed back toward the D.O.A. wishing, for once, he didn’t have to play a second set.


Chapter Three

I was excited to be on my way to Le Bonnet restaurant near Jeffrey’s office. He never called and asked me to have lunch, and I was sure this was some kind of turning point in our marriage.

Had he booked a second honeymoon for us? Or maybe he’d decided to give marriage counseling a try. Or gotten a prescription for Viagra. Whatever the surprise, it had to be an improvement, and I was wholeheartedly for it.

When I slowed in front of the restaurant, Jeffrey’s black SUV was already parked at the curb. What a surprise! He hated waiting for me, preferring to be slightly late so he wouldn’t have to be the one sitting alone.

This was a special day, indeed.

As I drove past his vehicle, I glanced over, then did a double take. There they were, bigger than sin—my husband and a wild-haired blonde who was straddling him, jiggling up and down like she was having the time of her life.

Jeffrey saw me. He gave a cheerful wave, like I’d caught him pumping gas instead of a hooker. As I hit the car in front of me, the impact jolted me awake.

 

I sat up in bed.

Unfortunately, the dream wasn’t a figment of my imagination, except for the part where I’d caught the son-of-a-bitch.

How many years had I been his dupe? His wife in name only, while he enjoyed his harem of hussies? And who else knew?

If I found out through a freak occurrence, how much easier would it have been for Jeffrey’s business associates to learn the truth. And if they knew, their wives probably knew, which meant everyone at the Lone Star Ladies League may have been talking about us for years.

Since the episode with the hooker, a swarm of hornets had taken up residence in my spleen. This new humiliation sent them on a rampage, the stinging causing me to double over in pain.

More than anything, I needed to hurt Jeffrey like he’d hurt me, but he’d gone and died before I busted him.

I got out of bed, planning to go downstairs for a comfort snack. I passed by Jeffrey’s closet, then stopped. All his favorite clothes hung on the racks. And I’d felt so bad about his premature death, I’d never been able to take his music out of the CD player downstairs.

Hm...

~

Fifteen minutes later, I stood at the counter in my kitchen.

Several of Jeffrey’s expensive golf shirts lay in shreds at my feet, along with his favorite pair of Ralph Lauren boxers. I waited for the sense of satisfaction. It didn’t come.

Jeffrey had conned me out of the best years of my life, and I would never get them back.

I positioned the cutting board in front of me, pulled one of his easy listening CD’s from the pile on my counter and centered it on the board. For a music buff like me, destroying a CD was the equivalent of a librarian burning books. In fact, I’d enjoyed these three artists until I’d been forced to listen to them and only them every time Jeffrey was in the house. Now they’d become his proxies, still living under my roof.

Seizing the meat cleaver, I smashed the discs, while Psycho music blared in my head. Once I’d obliterated Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, and Sade, I threw the cleaver into the sink.

Dropping to the floor in an exhausted heap, I cried into my knees until I was dehydrated. I’d committed a musical massacre.

And I didn’t feel one bit better.

~

Dillon parked his truck in front of the River Oaks house where his mom had worked for the past five years. Averting his eyes from the Roman pillars and meticulous landscaping, he focused on the stone walkway as he hurried toward the front door.

This neighborhood brought back too many memories. He hated that she slaved at this shitty job. He’d been trying to get her retired and into the new house he’d planned to buy her since he was a kid. However, even though he had the cash for it, she seemed too set in her ways. Every time he mentioned house-hunting, she said she was fine in her apartment—the one-bedroom where she spent half the summer without air conditioning last year because of her lousy landlord.

Dillon’s jaw clenched at the memory. If anyone had earned some damn air conditioning, Maggie Hayes had.

He was about to ring the doorbell when he heard voices off to the right side of the house, one of them very familiar. He strode around the corner to where the kitchen door stood open, a couple of garbage bags on the side porch. As he approached, he saw his mom—busy as always—putting dishes away in the cupboards.

“Mama,” he said as he entered the doorway, trying not to glare at the ugly uniform. She’d always said black wasn’t her color, yet she was forced to wear it nearly every day of her life.

“Oh, you’re here already!” She smiled brightly. “I’m almost done.” Regardless of her clothing, or her practical short grey hair, her sparkling green eyes kept her from ever appearing plain. Of course, those eyes had gazed at him with love and pride every day of his life, so maybe he was a little prejudiced.

“Hello, Dillon.” Once his sight adjusted to indoor lighting, the lady of the house appeared a few feet behind his mother. Her superior tone infused him with the same edgy feeling he’d experienced as a kid whenever his mom’s employers addressed him.

She flipped her long blonde mane over her shoulder in a well-practiced flirt. Although she was about his age, she’d already had work done, her cheeks too stretched, her lips freakishly fat.

 “Hi,” he said. No way was he calling her “Ms. Lancaster,” like his mom did.

Four teenage boys lounged around the kitchen table drinking Cokes and munching chips, not bothering to keep the crumbs off the freshly scrubbed floor.

“Oh, Maggie? Someone’s supposed to come get the boxes I’m donating today. I don’t like those men tramping through here. Please take them to the curb before you leave.”

“Why, sure, Ms. Lancaster,” Maggie said in her professionally cheerful voice.

Dillon shifted his eyes toward the boys. Had any of them been raised with enough manners to volunteer to help a sixty-year-old woman with bad knees carry the bulging boxes?

No? He didn’t think so. She was only hired help after all.

“I’ll get those, Mama,” he said, stepping between her and the boxes.

“Thank you, Dillon. He’s such a good boy,” she said to her employer.

“Yeah,” the rich bitch replied, lifting an eyebrow toward him. “I’ll bet he is.”

Dillon pretended not to notice the innuendo and grabbed the bigger box. His mom lifted the smaller one and walked out with him.

“Tell me again why you’re here on a Saturday,” he said.

“Ms. Lancaster needed some extra help. They have company coming.”

Once they’d dropped their boxes on the curb, Dillon laid his hands on his mother’s shoulders. “Mom, you know you don’t have to do this anymore. Why don’t you let me take care of you? When I was working at J.S.C., you said you wouldn’t take my hard-earned money, but hell, since Jessie’s company went public—”

“That’s your money. You earned it by making a wise investment.”

A few years back, Dillon’s college buddy asked him to invest a few thousand in his startup. Jessie had been a scholarship kid with a single mom like Dillon, and the first friend he’d made at MIT. Dillon always lived below his means and saved scrupulously. But, he had a soft spot for his old friend. He invested in Jessie’s tech company more as a favor than anything else, but his good deed was rewarded in a huge way.

“If you don’t want to spend it,” Maggie added, “save it for when I go to the old folks’ home.”

Dillon rolled his eyes. “It’d be nice if you could enjoy some time off before you get there. Besides, there’s plenty of money for both of us. And a gigolo for you on the side, if you want one.”

Maggie burst out laughing. Dillon loved to make her eyes sparkle, even if he had to go for the gigolo joke to get there.

“I’m not sure I’d know what to do with one if I had him.”

“Come on, Mom,” Dillon said as he kicked the corner of a box with the toe of his boot. “Tell Ms. Lancaster where she can stick her boxes.”

She looped her arm through his. “Son, I’ve been working since I was thirteen. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have a job.”

Dillon sighed, determined to revisit this topic later. “Will you at least let me take you to lunch?”

Maggie glanced at his truck. “Thank goodness you brought the pick-up, so I don’t have to get on the motorcycle again.”

“You know you loved it. You were downright giddy when you got home.”

“Thrilled to be in one piece,” she replied as he opened the passenger door and helped her up. When she settled in, she smiled at him, her eyes crinkling in the corners. “Okay, maybe a little giddy.”

As Dillon circled to the driver’s side, he swore that by this time next year, he’d have his mom retired. And these silver-spooned assholes would be out of their lives forever.

~

I parted the front curtains as Tina’s SUV rolled to a stop in front of my house. Normally, she preferred the Jag convertible her husband Ted bought her as a wedding gift, since she’d married him specifically to get a car like that. However, the sports car was too small for today’s outing, and, like most of the women I knew, she refused to be “caught dead” riding in my minivan.

I took constant ribbing about my transportation choice from the members of the Lone Star Ladies League. I bought my first van when Matthew was born because it made me feel like a real mom, and I’d been uncharacteristically stubborn about the choice since.

Tina beeped her horn—an uncouth habit from her former life that she refused to give up, at least when she visited my house.

Although I’d met her briefly at various events, Tina and I became friends by chance. One day, we both happened to be shopping in the same boutique. She was cracking jokes the salesperson didn’t seem to get, but I found hilarious. That was seven years ago and she’d been my best friend ever since.

Maybe I should have shared more with her about the struggles in my marriage. But I’d never wanted to admit to myself how bad the relationship was, much less to someone else.

“Matthew!” I called up the stairs.

My son bounded down the steps two at a time. “Yea! We get to go to the Galleria!” His blue eyes shone with excitement.

To get him to cooperate, I’d told him if he shopped with us, I’d let him have a half hour on the ice-skating rink. When he reached the door, he performed his version of a happy dance. Had I ever been this enthusiastic about anything? Jeffrey certainly hadn’t been. Luckily, Matthew was his own happy-go-lucky little self.

By the time I walked out to the driveway and got into the SUV, Matthew was settled in next to a teenage girl.

“Paige, you remember my niece Ashley, don’t you?” Tina asked. “She’s visiting me from Amarillo this week.”

“Sure,” I said. I peered at the teenager, trying to find some semblance of the girl I’d met a couple of years ago. The Ashley I recalled had freckles and long honey-colored hair. This girl sported black lipstick and a bright pink spike. “Hi, Ashley.” I tried to act as if I didn’t notice anything odd.

Ashley lifted her chin at me in greeting, then put her earphones in and slouched into the seat, cell phone in hand. Matthew insisted on going back inside for his iPod.

Once the kids were jamming to their own tunes, Tina checked herself in the rear-view mirror and fluffed her shoulder-length auburn hair. She added another coat of gloss to her red lipstick then pulled out onto the street.

“My sister’s about to have a coronary,” she said as she changed lanes. “She can’t believe her daughter’s walking around like a freak. Ashley and her friends did her hair while Jeanine was at work. Wouldn’t you die?

“I don’t know.” I cut my eyes toward Ashley surreptitiously. I thought I heard Ozzie Osborne blaring through the earphones, and a pleasant wave of nostalgia swept through me. “At least she’s standing up and making a statement…and being who she wants to be.”

“Like you never did, you mean?”

“Yeah, maybe.” My younger sister Whitney had always been her own person, regardless of what our parents thought. When she turned eighteen, she took off and was now living in Santa Fe, making jewelry with her boyfriend. At first, she’d drift through town occasionally for a visit, but never at the times my mother insisted she come. Once it became apparent Whitney wouldn’t be controlled, Bunny Hadden simply gave up on her daughter completely.

And, instead of being inspired by my sister’s free spirit and sense of self, I’d felt more pressure to be the perfect daughter for my parents.

I peeked back at Ashley. If I’d become a Goth or some other “freak” early on, would I be more of an individual? Would I have started thinking for myself? Made better decisions later when they counted? Or would I simply have followed all the other freaks until someone new came along to tell me what to think?

Last night, in the middle of my rampage, it hit me that Jeffrey may have been part of a pattern. My three college boyfriends, for instance, all seemed different at the time, but in hindsight, they were really Jeffrey clones—men who wanted to bend me to their will. They’d chosen me, and I went along.

I was a “yes” girlfriend. “Yes, we can go to the football game. Yes, we can hang out with your friends instead of mine. Yes, I’ll reprogram my radio stations to the ones you like.”

A “yes” girlfriend, and then a “yes” wife. Come to think of it, men without control issues never had any use for me. I’d started screwing up my own life many years ago. Jeffrey had only finished the job.

I should probably find a therapist.

~

A half hour later, we were walking through Haus of Plenty, a new store that contained as many departments as Walmart, but with merchandise ten times the price. The kids lagged behind. Matthew was pouting because we hadn’t gone straight to the rink.

“So, are you going back tonight?” Tina asked, as we strolled through the lingerie department.

“To the bar?” I whispered, checking to make sure the kids were out of earshot.

She nodded.

“No. Last night was already humiliating enough.”

If only I had the courage to go back. Dillon turned me down, but I was sure he’d enjoyed our kiss as much as I did. And when I’d watched him in the rearview mirror, he seemed sad to see me go. Or was I projecting my feelings onto him?

“Anyway, I can’t go. I have Matthew.”

We checked over our shoulders simultaneously. Ashley was holding a black leather corset in front of her. Tina rushed to her and snatched it away.

“Why don’t I show you two where the toy department is? You can hang out there while we shop.”

“Um, Tina…” I wasn’t sure I should let them go off together.

“It’s okay,” Tina assured me. “Ashley’s great with kids.”

“I don’t know—”

“I’ll watch him,” Ashley mumbled. When she took Matthew gently by the hand and smiled at him, I saw the sweet girl I remembered. A part of me yearned to go back to high school with Ashley and relive the last fifteen years of my life.

Tina ushered the kids away, while I perused the gorgeous underwear. Would I ever have any use for slinky lingerie again?

My eyes latched onto an alluring display of bright red push-up bras and matching lace bikinis hanging directly in my line of sight. I flashed back to Dillon’s grey eyes teasing me as he held five condoms in his hand. Then, in the parking lot, our lips touched and desire shot through my body and zinged me between the thighs. All he’d done was let me kiss him and he’d been the best lover I’d ever had.

Without stopping to think, I found my size in the bra and panties, slapped them on the counter and paid the sales clerk. The woman had just put my purchases in a bag when Tina returned.

“What’d you get?” she asked.

“Nothing. Some underwear. What are the kids doing?”

“Playing with trains. It turns out they both like to crash things.”

My cell rang. I switched my shopping bag to my wrist. As I fished in my purse for the phone, I realized I’d neglected to remove the condoms from last night.

“Hello.”

“Hey, Paige, this is Jennifer. You know how we had to cancel Kyle’s sleepover last weekend? We were going to do it next Saturday because we had a lot going on this weekend, but he’s chompin’ at the bit to have one tonight. Do you think Matthew can make it?”

Come back tomorrow night and I’ll give you whatever you want.

I tried to shove the thought from my mind. “I don’t know, Jennifer, he was at a sleepover last night…”

“You think he’ll want to stay home and rest, then?” She sounded disappointed.

“Oh, no, he’ll be dying to go. I just thought it might be a little much—”

“Come on, it’s Saturday. Let him live it up,” she said. “You’re only a kid once.”

Boy was that the truth.

Matthew and Ashley came up behind us. “Who’s on the phone?” Matthew asked.

“Ms. Riley.”

“Is Kyle having his sleepover?” He clutched my arm and jumped up and down. “Can I go? Can I go? Can I go? Please?” I was a sucker for those big blue eyes.

“Okay, Jennifer, Matthew will be there,” I said. “When’s drop off and pick up?”

“Can you drop him off at six and come get him at ten in the morning? We have to drive out to my mom’s for lunch tomorrow.”

“No problem. See you later.”

As Matthew celebrated with another happy dance, the most outrageous possibilities raced through my mind.

Dillon seemed like a man of his word. What if I really did become New Paige? I could get my revenge and close the book on what Jeffrey had done to me in the hottest, wildest—yet most appropriate—way possible. And I could gaze into Dillon’s eyes and feel the warmth of his body seeping into mine again.

If I were the kind of woman who would risk extreme embarrassment a second night in a row, which I wasn’t.

“It’s a sign from God,” Tina whispered as we walked toward the handbags.

“What?”

“You’re suddenly free tonight. You don’t think it’s a sign?”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “You think God wants me to fornicate with a rock-singing biker?”

“Maybe God’s a woman and she wants you to get your revenge on that jackass Jeffrey, like I do. Vengeance is mine, sayeth—”

“Last night you thought it was too dangerous.”

“He already had his chance to kill you and he didn’t take it. Besides, he sounds really sexy.” Tina didn’t know I’d taken his picture. If I told her, she’d expect to see it, and I wanted to keep Dillon for myself. My own secret dream man.

“He was.” I tried to imagine walking into the bar a second night in a row. How would I approach him without seeming ridiculous? “I can’t. I don’t have a thing to wear to that place.” I figured that was better than admitting what a coward I was.

A mischievous gleam appeared in Tina’s eyes. She threw her arm around me, squeezing my shoulder in a side hug. “You’re sure lucky you’ve got ex-white trash as your best friend...and wardrobe stylist.”