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"Pineapple juice," Janine Murphy said, holding back her sister's light brown hair to scrutinize the two hick-eys on her neck. Or was it one? She blinked, trying to focus through the effects of a half bottle of wine on an empty stomach-the piece of her own bach-elorette party cake didn't really count. Two hours ago she'd eaten the exclamation points at the end of GOOD LUCK, JANINE!! But after reflecting on her and Steve's relationship most of the evening, she was beginning to think question marks would have been more appropriate.
"Drinking pineapple juice will make hickeys go away?" Marie met her gaze in the dresser mirror, her eyebrows high.
Janine nodded and the movement sent showers of sparks behind her eyes. She wet her lips and spoke carefully around her thickened tongue. "The vitamin D helps the broken blood vessels heal."
Marie screwed up her face. "When you put it that way, it's kind of gross."
"Good," Janine said, letting Marie's hair fall back in place. "Because it looks kind of gross. You're not in high school anymore. Besides, hickeys can be dangerous."
Her sister laughed. "What can I say? Greg's an animal."
Envy surged in Janine's chest. She'd been living vicariously through Marie's sensual escapades for years, listening to her adventures in between offering homeopathic treatments for bladder infections from too much friction, skin rashes from flavored body potions and strained muscles from unnatural positions. "Well, you better tell Greg to stay away from your jugular with those Mick Jagger lips of his."
"Always the doctor," Marie said with a wry smile.
"Physican's ass " She stopped and they giggled at her words. "Physician's assistant," she corrected primly, then fell back on her bed where they were sitting amidst stacks of gifts. Marie fell back too, toppling boxes, and they broke into gales of laughter.
Janine sighed and toyed with her empty wineglass. "Thanks for arranging the party, sis. It was fun."
"You're welcome," Marie said. "But don't lie. These kinds of things are always a roaring bore for the guest of honor."
She laughed-her older sister was nothing if not honest. Instead of basking in the glow of the spotlight, Janine had spent the evening nursing a bottle of zinfan-del, listening to a roomful of women talk about their fabulous sex lives. Someone had started a round robin of, "What was your most memorable encounter?" and when her turn came, she'd recounted a fantasy as if it had actually happened. She'd felt a little guilty about lying, but somehow, the middle of a raucous bachelor-ette party didn't strike her as the best place to divulge the fact that she was a virgin. Not even Marie knew.
Janine sipped her wine and reflected on her chaste history. Her virginity certainly wasn't a source of personal embarrassment. On the other hand, she didn't deserve to be pinned with the good-girl-of-the-year ribbon-given the right man and the right circumstances, she imagined she would have indulged as enthusiastically as the next person. She'd simply never gotten around to having sex. In high school she'd been too shy to attract a boyfriend. In her ten grueling years of part-time college and med school, she'd been too busy working and studying to be a social butterfly. And afterward well, afterward, she'd met Steve.
"I just wish you had let me hire some live entertainment," her sister said, breaking into her thoughts.
Janine flushed, relenting silently that her sense of modesty was perhaps above average. "You know that's not my style."
Marie scoffed. "After that story about doing it on a penthouse balcony?"
"Oh, that." Janine smiled sheepishly. "I, um, might have stretched the truth a tad."
"Like a piece of warm taffy."
Her sister laughed. "You have a great imagination-that part about you dropping a shoe really had me going."
The details were specific because she'd relived the hot summer-night scene in her head so many times. She suspected her claustrophobia made her fantasize about open spaces, and she suspected her celibacy made her fantasize, period.
"And I thought your penis was pretty impressive," Marie continued, her lips pursed.
"Thanks," Janine said a bit wistfully. "I didn't think it was half-bad myself." Marie's brainchild of seeing who could sculpt the best penis out of a Popsicle before it melted had been a big hit, especially after the wine had started flowing.
"I guess Steve was your inspiration."
Janine pushed her long hair behind her ears to avoid eye contact. "I got an A in anatomy."
Marie's eyes lit with curiosity. "Oh? Is the infamous plastic surgeon's operating equipment lacking?"
For all she knew, Steve's equipment could be as blue as her Popsicle prizewinner, but she decided to cover. "Marie, I'm not going to discuss my future husband's physical assets."
Marie pouted, then assumed a dreamy look, already distracted. "Can you believe that in less than forty-eight hours you'll be a married woman?"
She stared at the ring on her left hand, the cluster of huge diamonds perched atop a wide platinum band-a priceless heirloom that once belonged to Steve's grandmother. "Yeah, married." She wished the light-headed anticipation and breathless impatience she'd read about in Bride magazine would sweep down and roll away the stone of anguish in her stomach. Wasn't cold feet a malady for the groom?
Marie held up a troll doll wearing a bridal gown. "Ugh. Who gave you this?"
"Lisa. It's kind of scary, don't you think?"
"Well, she's still bitter over her divorce. She told me she ran her husband's Armani suits through the wood shredder and mulched her azalea bushes. Cold, huh?"
"Heeeey, what about this sexy little number?"
She had to hold her temple when she turned her head. Upon seeing the pink and black bustier and garter belt, she frowned. "Sandy."
Marie pushed herself to her feet, holding the outfit in front of her curvaceous figure, and posed in the mirror. "Why the attitude? I think it's hot."
Propping herself up on her elbow, Janine twirled a strand of honey-colored hair around her finger. Her split ends needed to be trimmed before the rehearsal dinner tomorrow-how would she be able to fit in an appointment? "It might have something to do with the fact that she assured me pink was Steve's favorite color on a woman."
Marie's mouth formed a silent O. "Well, she's his receptionist. She should know, I suppose."
"I didn't know," Janine murmured, feeling ridiculously close to tears.
"Oh, come on. You don't think there's anything going on between Steve and that bimbo, do you?"
She shook her head. "Honestly, I don't think he has enough sex drive to have an affair." Her fingers flew to her mouth. Had she actually said that?
Marie's eyes flew wide. "Oh? You should get drunk more often." She bounced on the corner of the bed, scattering more boxes. "Do tell."
Janine hesitated, wondering how much of her musings could be attributed to last-minute jitters.
"Come on," Marie urged. "I gathered that you and Steve don't exactly set the sheets on fire, but I figured it wasn't all that important to you."
"Should it be?"
"Important to me. Sex, I mean." Marie's eyes widened. "You're asking me?" She smirked. "Try to be objective, sis. Haven't you ever had a good relationship without great sex?"
"Let me think-no."
"You're a big help."
"Okay, I'm sorry." She crossed her arms and donned a serious expression. "What seems to be the problem? Foreplay? Duration? Frequency?"
"Frequency would cover it, I think."
"Hey, lots of couples abstain for several weeks before the wedding to, you know-" she pedaled the air with her fists "-shake things up a little."
"We've abstained for longer than a few weeks."
Marie's eyes bulged and she guffawed. "No, really." "Really."
"But you've only known the man for a year!"
Her sister's head jutted forward. "You've never had sex with Steve?"
"Unbelievable!" Jumping to her feet, Marie began pacing and waving her arms. "How come you never said anything?"
At the moment she was wishing she still hadn't said anything, and now she darn sure wasn't going to admit she was a virgin on top of everything else. "I started to mention it several times, but I was just too I don't know-embarrassed, I guess."
"So have you two ever talked about it?"
"I've brought up the subject lots of times, but he only said that he wanted to wait until we're married."
"Which explains why he proposed so quickly."
"And the fact that he loves you, of course," Marie added hastily. "Maybe you need to be more aggressive. You know, take the bull by the horns, so to speak."
She reflected on the few awkward episodes when she'd tried to make her physical needs known to Steve. "I've tried everything short of throwing myself at him."
"Hmm. Maybe he's truly trying to be chivalrous."
She pursed her lips and nodded. "And I'm glad he respects me. But it's more than not having sex. He gets angry when I bring it up, and he shuts me out. Sometimes he doesn't call for days afterward."
Marie let out a low whistle. "Sounds like he might have some hang-ups. Maybe he's burnt out from fixing all those breasts and butts and lips and chins."
"Maybe," she agreed.
"Well, you know he's a full-fledged hetero-Steve's other girlfriends weren't known for their, ahem, virtuous restraint."
Janine closed her eyes, suddenly sick to her stomach. "That's what worries me. I've heard him say there are two kinds of women-the ones you sleep with and the ones you marry."
Marie winced. "Uh-oh. Therapy alert."
Janine nodded, blinking back tears.
"So if you're worried, why did you say yes?"
She inhaled, then sat cross-legged. "Good question. I think I need another glass of wine."
Marie obliged, filling her lipstick-smudged glass from the bottle sitting on the dresser. "No more for me, I'm going over to Greg's later."
Janine swallowed a mouthful of the sweet liquid, savoring the slight tingle as it slid down her throat. "Why did I say yes? Because Steve is great-looking and he has a terrific future, and he's charming and he likes the same things I do."
"Harvesting herbs and practicing yoga?" Marie looked dubious.
"Okay, not every thing I like to do, but we're good together-you said so yourself."
"Uh-uh," her sister denied with a finger wag. "I said you look good together-blond and blue-eyed, you the flower child, he the Valley guy. But that doesn't mean you're good together."
This conversation was not making her feel better. No one at the clinic was more surprised than she when Steve Larsen, the hunky surgeon who had every woman in white shoes worked into a lather, had asked her out. Frankly, she'd anticipated losing her virginity rather quickly to the ladies' man with the notorious reputation, but instead, he had scrupulously avoided intimate contact.
"Steve's a gentleman," she murmured.
"Janine!" Marie said, exasperated. "You shouldn't marry the guy just because you think he's nice. Are you sure you want to spend the rest of your life with Steve Larsen?"
She'd lain awake last night asking herself the same question, wallowing in her concerns, trying to sort through her overblown fantasies of passionate love and what appeared to be a less interesting reality. "His life and his family are just so fascinating."
"You're fascinating," Marie insisted.
"I thought I was the one drinking. Sis, I have the most boring life of any person I know."
Marie lifted her hands. "I'm sure there are exciting things going on at the clinic all the time."
"Oh, yeah, flu season gives me goose bumps."
Marie crossed her arms. "Okay, I'll bite-what would you consider exciting?"
Janine studied the ceiling, smiling in lazy wishful thinking. "I'd like to be caught up in a passionate relationship with Steve-you know, where we can't keep our hands off each other. I want something irrational. Illogical. And highly irregular."
Her sister sighed. "Don't we all? If you're having second thoughts, you need to be proactive. Look in the mirror, Janine. In case no one's told you, you don't have to settle."
"Spoken like a true sister," she teased, but panic swirled in her stomach. She gripped her glass tighter. "And I don't feel like I'm settling most of the time. I love Steve, and I know sex isn't everything, but what if he and I aren't physically compatible?"
Marie angled her head. "Couples can work through those things, although Steve doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who would agree to see a counselor."
"You got that right." Steve prided himself on having his life together, from his thriving cosmetic surgery practice to his low golf handicap.
Marie quirked her mouth from side to side. "You're not married yet. There's still time."
Janine laughed miserably. "Right, I can just see telling Mother I'm canceling the wedding because Steve won't have sex with me."
"No, I mean you still have time to find out if the two of you are sexually compatible." Her mouth curved into a mischievous smile. "Where is Steve tonight?"
"The groomsmen gave him a bachelor party at the resort. He's spending the night there."
"Perfect! You said you'd tried everything short of throwing yourself at him, right?"
"Yeah," Janine offered, wary.
Marie held up the pink bustier and grinned. "I can't think of a better outfit to wear while throwing yourself at the man you're about to marry."
"But-" Her mind spun for a good reason to object, except she couldn't think of one.
"Try it on and see how it looks."
Janine stood and considered the outrageous getup while she sipped her wine. "I don't know if I can figure out all those hooks."
Her sister scoffed. "I have one of these things, although it's not nearly as nice." She glanced at the label and whistled. "Darn, Sandy must have dropped a pretty penny on this outfit."
"Steve obviously overpays her," Janine said, then immediately felt petty. Steve's receptionist wasn't to blame for the holes in their relationship. Maybe Marie was right-maybe she hadn't been vocal enough about her.needs.
"A little big," Marie observed, handing over the various pieces of the naughty ensemble, "but probably more comfortable this way."
Janine held up the lingerie, incongruous against her long, shapeless navy dress. A woman of twenty-nine had needs, after all.
"You're going to rock his world," Marie said over her shoulder.
She took her vitamins every day, she stayed fit, she read Cosmo she could do this. Besides, she was a summer-pink was on her palette. "Okay, I'll do it."
Marie clapped her hands. "What a story for me to tell your daughter."
"Not until she's fifty, or I'm dead, whichever comes first."