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Shame the Devil Sneak Preview

Shame the Devil Sneak Preview

Book 3: Portland Devils

Coming November 14, 2020.

The thing about Thor is, he’s great at swinging that hammer. But he doesn’t settle down.

Harlan Kristiansen may not be good at many things, but he can sure catch a pass. He’s an All-Pro at charming a room, too, and then there’s that Norse God thing. He can even figure out how to tackle a woman and save her from a charging bison.

On skis.

What happens when you drop that game-winning pass, though, and your house is too big, too weird, and too empty? When your dad’s a mean drunk, your mom took off a long time ago and stayed gone, and all your money can’t keep your little sister safe? You fall back on what you know, that’s what. Hey, somebody has to swim in the shallow end of the pool.

Jennifer Cardello is good at lots of things. She knows how to get the most out of the cheapest cuts of meat, how long after the expiration date you can still use any food, and how to be indispensable to her employer. And as for faking an orgasm? She could win an Oscar. But surely a woman who’s been trying to fade into the background for more than half her life so she doesn’t have to hear the whispers, a woman who’s lost her mom, is losing her job, and is sending her baby girl off to college—and trying to figure out how to pay for it­—is entitled to one unforgettable night.

In thirty-four years.

With a great guy she never has to see again.

Until old secrets get dug up, and new ones are born.

After that? It’s anybody’s guess.  

1 – ­­A Frozen Scrotum

Harlan Kristiansen had a famous vertical leap. Stood to reason. You didn’t get named Super Bowl MVP as a wide receiver without one. He’d never thought much about his long jump, but he was discovering his potential. There was nothing like 2,000 pounds of furious Black Angus bull bearing down on you to focus the mind.

It wasn’t actually a long jump. It was whatever you called it when one second, you were standing with your feet on one bar of an eight-foot-tall livestock gate and your arms over the top, and the next second, the bull that had been standing crosswise to you, so you could admire his profile all the way across the damn pasture, suddenly wheeled and sprinted straight at you.

What you did was, you got yourself untangled fast, shoved off backwards exactly as far and as fast as you could go, hit the ground, and rolled away at the same time the bull’s chest hit the fence, his hot breath just about in your face and the vibration of a ton of beef against metal bars and four huge hooves skidding on frozen ground rattling your bones.

Who knew cattle-watching could be an adrenaline sport?

He’d gotten out of the way. He hadn’t lost his step that bad. It surprised him, that was all. That was why, though, when Owen Johnson’s bearded face appeared against the sludge-gray sky of five o’clock February, it wasn’t as one of the five people you meet in Heaven, or even as a Mack truck of hard-muscled aggression anchoring the O-line, but as six-five and 307 pounds of sometime-rancher in a mud-brown insulated parka and black watch cap that had both seen better days, staring down at Harlan with the incredulity he normally reserved for rookie linemen who got themselves outrushed and asking, “Why the hell are you still on the ground? It’s eighteen degrees out here. Plus the wind chill. Getting dark, too. Unless you’re waiting to be pushed out on the ice floe now that you aren’t useful to the tribe anymore, get up.”

“Thanks,” Harlan said, climbing to his feet and not brushing off the tiny, nearly dry flakes of snow from his ass, because he didn’t want to give Owen the satisfaction. “I’m fine. Good of you to ask. Thanks for the warm welcome to Wyoming, too.”

“Also, you upset my bull,” Owen said. “He hit the fence. He cost me six thousand bucks as a yearling, and I’m going to be selling his semen for a thousand bucks a pop someday soon, you wait and see. You look at his ultrasound, that meat on him is marbled like the sweetest steak you ever saw. The heart of my breeding program, and now he’s hit the fence.” He sighed.

“Yeah, well, he didn’t do me any favors, either,” Harlan said. “I thought that was the one who was supposed to be me. Shouldn’t he like me, then?”

“He is you,” Owen said. “If you mean I named him after you. Marble Hill Ranch #11. Big, good-looking, and you’d swear he’s lazy right up until he goes to work, and then he remembers what he’s there for and gets it done. Put him in the pasture with those heifers in a couple months, and he’ll be the MVP. One of my guys swears he clocked him at fifty-four services in a day, and those cows will be hanging around looking for more. One hell of a libido. Also, it looks like he won this one.” He started to grin. Slowly. It was the kind of grin that told you this was going to become a story. An offensive-line story. Harlan was going to show up at training camp this summer and be met by pawing and snorting. He could already hear it happening.

Oh. The pawing and snorting was the bull. Big, black, and mad. The bull still hated him, apparently.

“Thought you said he had a good temperament,” he told Owen. “I thought that was why you bought him. Breeding for calm, you said. Makes the meat more tender or something when the animal isn’t skittish. I wasn’t listening too closely, because you get boring, but I seem to recall that. Also, I’m discriminating. I’m not servicing any fifty-four heifers.”

“He has a great temperament,” Owen said. “When he doesn’t have a frostbit scrotum. Makes him cranky. Thank God it’s not going to make him sterile. Protect your scrotum, is the lesson here. Don’t stand around in a blizzard with your balls dangling in the breeze, not when it’s two degrees out.”

“Ouch,” Harlan said.

“Yeah, you’d think you’d notice your testicles getting frostbitten. And that you’d have the brains to know that that’s what the shed’s for. He’s an idiot. Another reason I named him after you. What’s a country boy doing teasing the bulls anyway? Did you fall on your head when you dropped that catch? Also, what are you doing here? Thought you were spending this week in North Dakota.”

“I decided to visit you instead,” Harlan said. “Obviously. Surprise. I was waiting for you to show up.”

“Most people wait in the house when it’s eighteen degrees. What, your dad kick you out? What did that take, a day? Just because we didn’t make it to the Super Bowl? I told you to get your own place.”

“I have my own place.” He didn’t want to talk about his dad.

“The place is supposed to be in the hometown. They name the high school field after you, and you still won’t buy a place there?”

“It’s flat,” Harlan said. “It’s boring. It’s cold, or it’s hot. It’s North Dakota. They grow sunflowers. It’s hard to get excited about sunflowers.” And my drunk father’s there, he didn’t say.

Owen held up a gloved finger. “Eighteen degrees here, remember how I said that? And not a whole lot of nightlife. It’s Wyoming. This is your alternative vacation spot? You could’ve stayed in Hawaii. The Pro Bowl sucked, sure, but you can’t beat the scenery.”

He didn’t add the other thing. That Harlan could’ve headed back to Portland. Where he also didn’t own a house, but at least he rented one. It was big. It was also weird. And empty. And he wasn’t used to this week, or he didn’t want to be used to this week. The week before the Super Bowl, when you were so antsy, it was hard to sit still, when you were doing endless press appearances, being charming by the numbers, and waiting for Sunday.

It was supposed to be their threepeat. It was going to be somebody else’s win instead.

Somebody who hadn’t leaped for that Hail Mary and come down without it. And next season was too far away. And he was about to get further into his thirties.

Owen sighed. “Come in the house, Thor. Have a beer. We’ll get some dinner and play some pool.”

Harlan did his best to glare, even though glaring wasn’t his best thing. “Don’t call me Thor. And if I wanted to go to a small-town bar, I’d have stayed in North Dakota.”

“Yeah,” Owen said, sticking his catcher’s-mitt hands in his pockets and trudging toward the ranch house like the lumbering giant he was. “I don’t feel a whole lot like hearing what we did wrong, either, and I’m not even the one who dropped the catch. Nah, I bought a pool table since you were here last. We’ll be reclusive. Just you, me, my dad, my mom, my brother, his wife, and their boys. All four of them. Game room. Foosball, pool, a couple beers, and some kind of action movie on the big screen.”

“Ah,” Harlan said, feeling better already. “A quiet night.”

“Yep. Got my dinner conversation all ready. Never going to forget the sight of you flying off that fence backwards and hitting the dirt, your arms and legs going like a cartoon.” Owen started to grin, and then he started to laugh. “Oh, man, that’s a good one. My sister-in-law’s going to work that for all it’s worth. She calls you “the sexy Viking” when she wants to rile Dane up. Guessing she does some sighing when they’re watching you play, too. That’s what you get for being so pretty. She’s going to be teasing, getting all sparkly. Good for the marriage, I think is the idea.”

“What, I’m bait?” Harlan complained.

“How do you think they got four boys? Do your charming Thor thing, like you’re an arrogant asshole but at least you know it. She’ll love it. He’ll hate it, or he’ll act like he does. He’ll try to beat you at pool, too. If you let him do it, they’ll be having that next kid for sure. Nothing like the thrill of victory. What’s nine months from February?”

Harlan said, “No. Stop.”

“Can’t help it,” Owen said. “Breeding’s in my blood. Hey, at least they have their own house. You don’t have to listen. Also, Amy wants a girl. Call it your good deed.” He pulled open the oversized door on the log-frame house and added, “One tip, though. Tonight, when my nephews get hold of the pool cues? They get excited. You might want to duck.” 

 

 

 

2 – The Sponge Absorbs

Jennifer Cardello finished taking her boss, Blake Orbison, and his brand-new wife, Dakota Savage, through their newly redone lake house in Wild Horse, Idaho, and tried not to think it was her swan song.

Maybe she was wrong, but she was almost never wrong. Getting things right was the whole point of her.

Also, her Spanx were pinching. She may have done a little stress eating over the holidays.

“And the piece de resistance,” she told Dakota, leading them down the hickory steps and flinging open double doors to reveal a long room lined with windows and French doors that opened onto a snow-covered patio and lawn and the expanse of lake and mountains beyond, all of it a study in gray, black, and white on this winter day. “One stained-glass studio,” she said, “executed to specifications.” Pale bamboo flooring, cabinets and countertops of the same material, white paint on the walls, recessed lights in the ceiling for shadow-free illumination. Clean and pure and light, ready for creation.

Dakota stood still, rooted to the spot. Blake, though, muttered to Jennifer, “Great job. As usual. Thanks for getting it done.”

She waited fifteen minutes more, in the background, taking notes on her phone. What to add, what to get changed. Dakota didn’t demand, and neither did Blake. They just asked. Politely.

Blake was a great boss. Rich guy or not, former NFL quarterback or not. Too bad she had the strong feeling he wasn’t going to be her boss for long.

She knew Dakota was done thinking about the room when she started wandering around the studio, pulling gorgeous wavy panels of stained glass out of their racks and holding them up against the light, her movements decisive now, without the tentative quality that meant, “I’m not used to giving orders.” She was thinking about art, Jennifer could tell, even though she herself was the least artistic of creatures. If it wasn’t written down in black and white, she didn’t get it.

Never mind. Everybody had skills. She still had hers. She could use them. Unless she got a brain tumor, of course. Or had a stroke. She felt a little like she was going to have a stroke.

She fought down yet another surge of panic, longed for a bag of peanut M&Ms, and when Blake said, “Come up to my office a sec, would you?” she went. Because, again, her job.

Two long floors up, because this place had seriously over-tall ceilings, with Blake taking the steps two at a time—his bad knee really was better, then—and Jennifer trying to pretend she wasn’t gasping like a fish out of water after the thirtieth one. She followed him into his office, which featured another view of the lake and a piece of stained glass hanging right in the middle of it that still wowed her. It was a conch, with all its secret folds and smooth surfaces, the visible expression of a woman whose creativity sparked straight from her fingertips.

You know. An exciting woman.

“Take a seat,” Blake said, and then didn’t do it himself. Instead, he paced around the desk and looked out the windows, and Jennifer sat there, sucked in her stomach, felt the sweat popping out on her upper lip from the stairs and the nerves, and waited for it.

“Thanks for everything you did while we were gone,” he said again. “Everything with the house, and with the resort. I appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome,” Jennifer said. “I’ve never actually been laid off before. I’m sure it doesn’t feel as bad as I’m imagining. If you don’t get to it pretty quick here, though, I’m going to have to manage my own layoff. There’s such a thing as ‘a bridge too far,’ and that’s mine.”

Blake stopped frowning out the window and fiddling with a pen and said, “You’ve never been laid off? Never dropped the whole pack of burger patties onto the floor at McDonalds? Never even been on the wrong side of a budget cut?”

“No. I was a single mom. I always needed the job too much to mess up, and then I worked at the courts, remember? I was a file clerk. It’s hard to mess that up, as long as you can sing the alphabet song. I moved up until I got hired as chief clerk for the deputies, and then you hired me. They don’t fire you when you work for the state unless you really screw up, and when you need the job, you don’t screw up. Job security’s my thing. Was my thing, because the resort’s up and running now and has a good manager, you’re not going to be spending that much time in Wild Horse, and you don’t need an assistant here anymore. A property manager, that’s all, and I can get that set up for you. Just say it, Blake. Rip off the Band-Aid. I’m a big girl.”

Except that she’d given up her shot. The chief clerk vacancy at the courthouse, when Betty-Anne had finally retired. The job she’d put in for, the one that would have set her up forever, the one everybody had said was hers. It actually had been hers, but she’d passed it up, because Blake Orbison had moved to town, he was building a high-end resort the likes of which Wild Horse had never seen, and he needed a crackerjack assistant to help him do it. She hadn’t known one single thing about the rich and famous, and she’d known less than that about the NFL, but she’d known how to get things organized and get them done, she’d done exactly that, and it had been the most exciting two years of her life.

She had a great resume now. Too bad she didn’t live in LA. Also too bad she hadn’t thought of all this before she’d passed up that chief clerk job. Elizabeth Kempworth had it now, and she’d be hanging onto it until they pried her computer keyboard from her cold, dead hands.

She was having some trouble breathing, but she was having no trouble sweating. Now that this was here, it felt bad. Specifically, she felt sick. That would be the final humiliation, vomiting on your boss as he fired you. She wasn’t going there.

“I’m not firing you,” Blake said. “I’m helping you find alternative employment.”

“Blake,” she said. “It’s the same thing.”

He scowled at her. “No, it’s not. OK, listen. I gave this some thought on the jet back from Hawaii.” A sentence that pretty much summed up their respective lives. “First, you take some comp time. Call it a week.”

“You don’t give comp time.”

“Sure I do. What do you call it when we finish something and I tell you to take a long weekend? Comp time. Meanwhile, I’ll make some calls and find you somebody else to work for. What do you want to do? This, or more of an office job?”

“Well, this, if I got to choose. This is the best job I’ve ever had. I told you so.”

He grinned. “Thought maybe you were just flattering me.”

“I don’t do that. You need to hear the truth. Who else is going to tell you, other than Dakota? But there aren’t a whole lot of challenging high-level assistant jobs in Wild Horse, have you noticed? Unless you’re calling the lumber mill, you’re going to strike out, period. Never mind, I’ll find something. That office job. Somebody’ll have one. Meanwhile, there’s unemployment. If you feel guilty, shell out some severance pay, because Idaho unemployment pays a max of four hundred a week, and I’m not paying the rent on that.”

Blake scowled at her. “See, this is what I’m talking about. You could flatter me a little. Or assume I give half a damn. Which is why I know you’re also helping pay your grandpa’s rent, now that your mom’s passed.”

“And once Dyma goes off to school in the fall,” Jennifer said, moving on from that with some semblance of briskness, “I’ll move in with Grandpa. Or we’ll both do it right now, if I’m making four hundred a week. Come on, Blake. Severance.”

“See,” he said, “I had a thought about that.”

She was still going for breezy and confident. He liked breezy and confident. You didn’t suck up to the boss, but you adjusted your manner to suit the job. “Except that you owe me,” she told him. “I was probably the most efficient woman in Wild Horse to begin with, and I’ve made strides, working for you. I’ve grown.”

Possibly in more ways than one. She knew she was turning red, and she felt the waistline of the Spanx digging into her flesh like the torture device they were. Why had she made those cheesecake brownies over Christmas? You couldn’t make them and not eat them, at least she couldn’t. Everybody knew that the better-looking you were, the faster you got hired, especially for the really good jobs. The kind of job there actually might be, now that Blake had elevated the tone in Wild Horse with the resort and the NFL and all. Possibly.

Probably not, though.

There had to be three hundred calories in each of those brownies. They weren’t just brownies with cream cheese swirled through it. Oh, no. They were fudgy brownies with a layer of cheesecake on top.

And she’d eaten so many of them. She’d put in a whole lot of extra time on the elliptical machine at the gym, working off her nerves, but still. That would take a lot of … ellipses.

Right. That was no more cheesecake brownies, then. Rigorous discipline.

“You have,” Blake said, and she thought, I have what? “You’ve outgrown Wild Horse, that’s for sure,” he went on. “Ever thought about Portland? And, yes, I’m paying you severance. Do me a favor.”

“Uh …” It took her a second. Maybe that was the relief. Or the panic. “Portland?”

“Yes,” he said patiently. “Portland. You know. Where I’m based. Where I used to work. Where I know people. I’d be offering you a job right now, but I’ve got an assistant there already.”

“Meredith,” she said.

“Want to work in development?” he asked. “We’re expanding. Maybe you’ve noticed. I could fit you in.”

“My grandpa …”

“You know what?” Blake said. “Dakota and I stopped by your house on the way here and had a talk with your grandpa. He says you should go for it. So let’s take that off the table. And Dyma’s going to the University of Washington in the fall, right? Early decision, so she’s all set.” He was talking right over her now. “Which is, let’s see, counting on my fingers … Oh, yeah. Two and a half hours from Portland.”

“Dyma doesn’t want me that close,” Jennifer said. “If she had her way, she’d be going to MIT, or the University of … somewhere ten thousand miles from here. Which is, of course, why I should be close, but never mind. I get it. Anyway, it’s Aeronautics and Astronautics. There’s a limited amount of trouble she can get into and still get that degree, and she wants that degree. Of course, she’ll probably get into every bit of that trouble, but like I said, never mind. My grandpa, though—of course he’s going to say I should go. His daughter died six months ago, though, and his only great-grandchild is leaving town the second she can. How’m I supposed to leave him, too?”

More panic. About all of it. Her life was changing too much, and now, she was going to have to absorb one more thing. She’d absorbed so much already, she felt like a sponge. At a certain point, you had to wring the sponge out.

“Generally,” Blake said, “you leave by walking out the door and closing it behind you. He sounded pretty insistent to me. Today is the first day of the rest of your life and all that. And again, it’s Portland, not Beijing. Six and a half hours in the car.”

“Besides,” she said, not deigning to answer that, “I don’t know Portland. A lot of getting things done, assistant-wise, is your contacts. And I don’t have any there.”

He sighed. “I might believe you more if you didn’t sound so triumphant about being so unqualified. It’s going to be some football player, not Jeff Bezos.”

“Jeff Bezos lives in Seattle.”

He waved a hand. “Who cares. It’s not him. The guy I find isn’t going to be that picky. He doesn’t know what to be picky about. Or if you want that office job, I’ll find it. Either in my company, or somebody else’s. Something with a future. Nothing easier, because in case I haven’t mentioned it, I’m a successful guy with successful-guy friends, and you’re good enough to work for any of them. So come on. Tell me. What is it really?”

She stared down at her skirt. It was a navy-blue check. She wore a lot of navy blue. Redhead. Slimming colors. Et cetera. The outfit was new, though, which meant she probably shouldn’t have spent money on it, because she’d known this was coming. Realistically, of course she’d known, and she was nothing if not realistic. The skirt was fitted at the top, then flared, and it hit above the knees for once, because her legs were her best body part. Other than her breasts, but you didn’t emphasize your breasts at work. Or ever, actually. She was wearing black tights with the skirt, though, because she was serious. An assistant. In the background. She rubbed the fabric between finger and thumb for comfort, told herself it could be an interview outfit, and said, “I’ve never been a city person. Heck, I’ve hardly ever even been there.”

Shoot. She hadn’t meant to say “heck.” Nobody sophisticated said “heck.” Also not “shoot.”

Blake was leaning back against the desk, his hands gripping the edges. His voice was gentle when he said, “Then don’t you think you should try?”

“Uh …” She gathered the tattered remnants of her professionalism around her, stood up, and said, “Thanks for your concern. I’ll think it over.”

“Wait,” he said. “Something else. The Yellowstone Snow Lodge—that’s Old Faithful, winter version—wants me to come check them out and, I don’t know, post an Instagram picture or something. I told them I’d send my assistant first to see.”  

He had not. “I don’t need charity,” she said. “You’ve been my employer. Now you’re laying me off. Happens every day. I’m fine.” Now her face was really burning. A woman ought to be able to reach the age of thirty-four without blushing anymore. It was just that she hated, seriously hated, showing anybody that she wanted to run and cry, and she hated it more when somebody pointed out that she obviously needed help. She was competent. She was capable. She managed her life. She always had.

She just had to hold herself together for another two minutes, and she’d keep her dignity. Her positive, can-do attitude. Her professionalism.

It might not be much, but it was what she had.

Blake sighed. “You’re still working for me, and right now, I want you to check out the Yellowstone Snow Lodge. It’s probably about fifteen degrees in Wyoming at the moment, which is another reason this Southern boy doesn’t much want to drag his butt down there. Oh, and that it’s Super Bowl weekend, and they only have TV in the bar. They told me that like it was a feature. I spent half the playoffs on the boat, which means I missed half the playoffs, and I had to pretend I didn’t care, because I was on my honeymoon. And then, when I did watch, the Devils lost the AFC Championship. In the final seconds. I’m telling you that, even though I’m sure you already know, being such a good assistant and all. I don’t much feel like watching the Super Bowl in public, not to mention having a whole lodge full of strangers watching me watch it and asking me how I feel about it. Which is why you’re nominated. This weekend. Starting Friday night. Which is the day after tomorrow.”

“I don’t know how to ski.” She was not going to Yellowstone. This was ridiculous. Why couldn’t he just lay her off like a normal person?

“Weak,” he said. “They have snowshoes. You’re going. Friday to Monday. I need you to, because it’ll make me feel less guilty. It’ll give you peace and quiet to think about my offer, and your future. Maybe you could even examine your dreams. It’s possible. Then you can come back, take the rest of next week to set me up so I can live without you, and start on that comp time. Your last day is two weeks from Friday, whatever that is. Oh, and take somebody to Yellowstone with you. You’ve got a boyfriend, right? Take him. Meanwhile, I’m going to assume you said yes and start your employer search. Time to push the baby bird out of the nest. And before you say it—I’m not going to let you work for an asshole. Just some guy who got richer than he was expecting to, so you can have the satisfaction of setting his disastrously disorganized life to rights. I’m negotiating the salary, too. I’m your agent, and you don’t even have to give me a cut. Now go away and start packing. I’ve been on a plane all day, and this is a boring conversation.”

“Blake—” she began.

“Go away,” he said. “I told you. Boring. I’m a star. I don’t do boring. Besides, you’ve got plane tickets to buy, plus whatever other arrangements there are to get to Wherever, Wyoming, population two thousand. You think I took care of those? You’re wrong. That’s what I have an assistant for, so go away and assist me. We’re done.”

* * *

Once Jennifer left, absolutely not crying, Blake went downstairs and found Dakota.

She was standing beside the wall of windows, her hands against the glass, looking out at something that probably existed only in her mind, but when she heard his step, she turned and asked, “How’d it go?”

He grimaced. “About like you’d guess. Like I kicked a dog. And don’t say it. Wrong word. I’ve fired about a hundred people, so why do I feel like an asshole?”

“You said you’d help her get something else, though, right?” Dakota said. “And you’ve made her life better, just like you did with me. Well, when you weren’t making my life worse. I’m pretty sure you paid her a whole lot more than she was making before, anyway. I’m also sure she’s saved some of it. Except that there’s Dyma’s college, and she had to bury her mom, which costs more than you’d imagine.”

Blake said, “I know. I asked her if I could chip in, but she didn’t take me up on it. Took exactly one day off, too. Day of the funeral, and that was it. Hardest woman in the world to help. Other than you, of course. Irritating as hell.”

“Yeah,” Dakota said, “but that was because you didn’t want to help me.”

“I did too. I was extremely helpful. Constantly helpful.”

She snorted. “Anyway. How did she react to the Portland idea?”

“Like you said. Like there was no way. You sure she isn’t holding out for the boyfriend? Except that I said, take your boyfriend to Yellowstone, and her eyes didn’t exactly light up.”

“I don’t think Jennifer’s ever thought she could hold out for anything in her life,” Dakota said. “She’s sure never expected anybody to do anything for her.”

“What do you think about me setting her up, then?”

Dakota eyed him narrowly. “Like how? If you mean something besides the job, I think it sounds like Blake Orbison getting delusions of grandeur.”

Blake sighed, ran a hand through his hair, and perched on a stool. An extremely comfortable stool, which he was sure Jennifer had carefully hand-selected from among all the possible stools in the world, with the ideal rung to hook your boot onto. “I guess not,” he said. “I was thinking, set her up to work for some guy who’s perfect for her.”

“Called it,” Dakota said.

“Yeah.” He grinned sheepishly. “Stupid. Sexual harassment. Plus, she should have one of those good guys. Settled guys. You know. A little boring. And those kinds of guys somehow all got married back when the rest of us were— Well. Yeah. Not getting married. How about a widower? A widower would be good. Do I know any widowers, though? Why aren’t there more widowers?”

“Because they’re all over seventy? Or maybe you have no idea what kind of guy she should have. It’s possible. She probably doesn’t even know.”

“Maybe you could set her up, then,” Blake said. “All right, not with the guy, but how about one of those makeover deals? She dresses like she has no clue she’s that good-looking. You could ask her to go for a girl’s weekend, your treat, and make helpful suggestions. And pull out the credit card. That way it’s you, not me.”

“Except,” Dakota said, “that I don’t really have girlfriends like that. I practically have to watch a video just to put on makeup, and I have no idea how to make myself over, much less anybody else. Hello? This is me you’re talking to. Anyway, you just married me. You’re not supposed to want to send me away for the weekend already.”

She was scowling, but not really, so he pulled her into him, kissed her like he meant it, felt her up a little—the stool really was a good height—and said, during a break in the action, or possibly while he was unbuttoning her sweater, “I guess I’ll have to let her find the guy who likes her the way she is.”

“In overalls,” Dakota said, gasping a little, because his mouth had found her favorite spot on her neck. “And … painter’s goggles. And, uh … knee pads.”

“Yeah,” Blake said, getting rid of her bra. “Somebody sexy like that. How do you feel about doing it on the floor, darlin’?”

“I’m all … good with that,” she said. “As long as I’m not on the bottom.”

He sighed. “Well, a man’s got to sacrifice. Get those jeans off. If I’m going to be on the bottom, you’d better be all the way naked, because I’m going to need a view.”

After that, he got a little distracted from the Jennifer topic. He figured he’d give it a shot, though, the setup thing. He didn’t have to tell Dakota. Not unless it worked out. Then, he’d tell her for sure, because he’d have won.

And he did like winning.

 

 

3 – Fancy Free

Jennifer stopped at the gym on the way home. She wasn’t always the best about that, but better late than never. Because—job hunting. And never mind that her heart sank into her stomach and she got those panic flutters at the thought. You were proactive, that was all there was to it, and if you were going on interviews, you made sure your best skirt wasn’t tight around the waist. People noticed that sort of thing, and besides, she hated Spanx.

Was it too late to get in no-Spanx shape before her layoff?

Yes. But still.

That was why, though, she did the stair climber, not the elliptical machine, on which you went more slowly when you got to a good part of your book and which was, let’s face it, the closest thing there was to dawdling along the sidewalk as you read said book. She’d been way too out of breath on those stairs today. She wasn’t any older than Blake Orbison, and if he could spring up them two at a time, she could at least not gasp like a dying guppy as she dragged herself to the top.

Right. Torture Stairs climbed, a quick shower, after which her face remained red but too bad, and one final stop at the grocery store where, tossing a pound of flank steak (Reduced for Quick Sale!) into her cart, she wondered at what point in her life she wouldn’t stop at the grocery store on the way home from work.

The point, maybe, when she was responsible only for herself, dressed in breezy, wide-legged trousers with a jacket thrown casually over her slim(mer) shoulders, having a quick meal of Chinese vegetables at a tiny hole-in-the-wall known only to locals before stepping briskly into the elevator of her modern apartment block, furnished with her usual cool, modern sensibility in tones of gray-blue and chalk-white.

(Ha. As if. Hey, it was a daydream.)

Should all that sound lonely and sad? Why did it sound good instead? Because Blake had made her think about it, that was why.

She’d spent so many bleary-eyed nights, when Dyma had been a colicky baby, watching 70s sitcoms on late-night cable. Turned down low, so her mom and grandpa could sleep. She’d held her red-faced, grumpy infant with her shock of black hair that always stuck straight up and her legs that stuck straight out when she was mad, which was most of the time, thought about waking up at seven for school the next day, which was in about four hours, tried not to think about how differently this was turning out from what she’d imagined, and watched Mary Tyler Moore in her perfectly neat, elegantly arranged apartment, with a big M on the wall that proclaimed that this was a space that belonged to her and only her, hanging out with her work colleagues who were like family, at a job that always looked like fun, then talking things over with her wisecracking best friend. She’d thought how incredibly glamorous that life would be, and how she wasn’t ever going to have it.

Mary’s life hadn’t actually been anything close to glamorous, she realized now. Less Sex in the City and Manolo Blahniks and more A Quiet Existence in the Midwest. Maybe that was the point, though. It had seemed attainable.

Well, in somebody else’s reality. Except that her life was fine. She’d done great. Everybody always said how great she’d done. Everybody except her mom, who’d said, only a week or two before she’d suddenly succumbed to the heart attack caused by the lupus that had plagued her for so long, “You should get out of here, you know, spread your wings. Once Dyma graduates, why not? What’s holding you here?”

“Well, you,” Jennifer had answered. “Grandpa. Everybody. Also, I have a great job now. Hey, this is my big step, right? I’m doing great.”

“Except that you’re still here,” Adele had said.

“I like it here,” Jennifer had answered.

Her mom had just looked at her. Now, she remembered that look as she threw a max pack of TP and a bag of coffee into her cart, then a packet of egg noodles and a pint of light sour cream, a half-gallon of OJ, two family-size boxes of not-quite-Cheerios and two gallons of milk—feeding milk goats would have been more economical than Dyma’s milk habit, and how could one teenage girl go through that much cereal? She added a few regular old white mushrooms, wondered what the fancy ones actually tasted like, threw in some anemic-looking February tomatoes, looked at the avocadoes, and looked away again. She didn’t need to be buying any avocadoes, fat-wise or money-wise. She didn’t need to be making beef stroganoff, for that matter, but her grandpa liked it, and she might be feeling a little bit guilty about even entertaining the Mary Tyler Moore idea. He knew about it, too, thanks to Blake’s decision to barge in and mention his plan before he’d even talked to Jennifer about it. It wasn’t like she was going to be able to put off the discussion.

She just wished her mom were still here.

Always.

Was it wrong to miss your mom so much, when she’d been struggling so long and had only been hanging on for the three of you? When you were thirty-four, with a grown child of your own?

It was just that without her, without that person who’d loved you always and would love you forever, you felt so alone. Your buffer against the world, your safe place … it was gone.

It wasn’t true. She still had her grandpa. She still had Dyma. Blake was going to help her get a new job. She was doing great. Lots of people were worse off.

She added some broccoli to the cart. Dyma had been making noises about becoming a vegetarian lately. Hopefully she’d wait until she started college for that. Broccoli was cheap in February, though. Good for you, too. Nutritious and low-calorie. It had that bristly thing going on, and all those little sandy particles, but never mind.

What kind of restaurant did the Snow Lodge at Yellowstone have? Didn’t matter. A free restaurant, that was what. Maybe she should feel guilty about allowing Blake to send her off on this obviously trumped-up vacation, but she couldn’t. She was good at her job, she’d worked hard for him, and anyway, Blake was a grown man who did what he wanted. If he wanted to send her off to look at wild animals for a couple days, who was she to object? She’d be broke again soon enough, especially with Dyma’s housing to pay for—another stab of pure fear at that one­—unless she took him up on the Portland idea.

Which was impossible. It was crazy. She couldn’t do it. She didn’t even know anybody in Portland, and Portland rent was insane. She’d read about it. She didn’t even have a four-year college degree. Who was going to hire her for some Mary Tyler Moore job, whatever Blake said?

“Hey,” Stacey Bathurst said, and Jennifer jumped. She’d barely noticed she was at the checkstand, and had been loading groceries onto the belt by rote.

“Hey,” she said back. “How’s it going? How’s Isaac doing with his last semester?”

Stacey sighed and kept scanning groceries. “I keep telling him, you can still screw this thing up, buddy, and the U of I can tell you they don’t want some party kid, and they’re sure as heck not going to give you any money, and you’re going to be right back here working for nine bucks an hour, but he’s not listening. I know we were seniors ourselves once and exactly that stupid, but I can’t remember why. How about Dyma?”

“Not too bad,” Jennifer said. “So far, anyway. She wants out of here so bad she can taste it, though, so that helps. Also, you can’t work for NASA or whoever without a whole lot of school, and nobody else but U-Dub is offering realistic money, so that helps.”

She felt, as usual, about sixty-five years old. She was a good fifteen years younger than Stacey, and, no, she hadn’t been stupid when she was a senior. She’d been stupid before then, but as a senior? She’d been running home right after school so her mom could get to her swing-shift job. Starting dinner before her grandpa got home from the day shift, and taking care of the world’s most stubborn toddler, a child to whom the words, “Wait a minute” meant, “Let’s have a tantrum.” Trying to get her homework finished in between, and sneaking in half an hour to do some last-minute studying for the SAT.

“SAT prep should be a high-octane, full-on affair.” She’d read that on a test prep site. She’d laughed.

She’d gotten a scholarship too, though. She just hadn’t been able to make it work.

“So what’s new with Blake? What does the house look like? Do you have pictures? What did Dakota seem like, coming back from the honeymoon? On a yacht. In Hawaii. Can you even imagine?” Stacey asked, and the kid bagging the groceries almost visibly pricked up his ears. No surprise. Blake Orbison was the most exciting thing to ever hit Wild Horse.

“The house came out great,” Jennifer said.

“Is she pregnant yet?” Stacey asked. “I swear, that guy could look at me and I’d be pregnant, and I’m not even sure the equipment’s working right anymore.”

“They’re very happy.” Jennifer knew she sounded stiff, but how could she be anything else?

Stacey sighed. “I guess you have to be discreet, huh?”

“That’s the idea,” Jennifer said. “Good luck with Isaac.” And escaped.

 And, no, not because she was in love with Blake Orbison. He was an exciting guy, sure. He was a kind guy, too, under the swagger, but he was the most confident man she’d ever met, and she didn’t have it in her to push back the way he needed pushing. She liked him, but Blake would be work.

Dakota Savage, though? Dakota had enough spine for anything. The two of them always seemed to be on an adventure, and let’s face it, when you looked in the dictionary under “adventurous,” it didn’t bring up a picture of Jennifer Cardello. She wasn’t the type.

She was the type, though, who had Mark Mathison in her grandpa’s living room, watching TV with him and waiting for Jennifer to cook dinner.

“Hey, babe,” he said, but didn’t get off the couch.

She was so not taking Mark to Yellowstone. She was not. She was being Mary Tyler Moore. Footloose and fancy free. Even though Mary had died years ago, and the show had been over since the 1970s, which made the Mary-life she was wishing for the rightful dream of somebody who would be sixty-five now. She didn’t care. She was at least being Mary for one weekend, even if she had to have drama to get it.

She’d never done drama. Her parents had done drama. Not her. No, sir. She was the go-between, the smoother-over, the suck-it-up-and-get-it-done girl. She was a no-drama llama. Which was precisely why Mark Mathison was still on her grandpa’s couch, looking handsome, kicked-back, and sheriff’s-deputy-like, and she was exactly as not-single but not-married as ever, four years after he’d first sat his butt down there.

She could swear she heard her mom whispering in her ear, “You go for it, baby. Now’s your time. Make your move.”

It was time to own her redhead.

 

Coming November 14 – Preorder Now!

 

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