Read an Excerpt
Ahead Of The Game
By Suzann Ledbetter
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneUrrt. Urt-urt. Urt.
The distinctive sound of a sofa skidding on the living room's hardwood floors snapped Zoey Jones's eyelids open. Well, the left one, anyway. The right went into spasms.
The digital clock on the bedside table read 6:17. In the morning, she presumed, although darkwise, 6:17 p.m. looked pretty much the same in February in Blytheville, Missouri.
Thump. Rata-rata. Clunk.
That would be, respectively, the coffee table scooting upside the sofa, the floor lamp's shade wobbling, and its weighted base zeroing in for a landing.
Zoey sandwiched her head between two pillows. That muffled the noise, but who, really, could sleep knowing Vesta the Vandal had snuck in the back door again to rearrange the furniture?
Okay, so her mother hadn't exactly snuck. She'd used the key Zoey had given her before realizing the side effects of Vesta's addiction to home decorating programs on cable TV.
Calling her mother a vandal was a bit harsh, too.
The damage Vesta wreaked during her predawn raids was more psychological than actual, except for the time Zoey body-slammed the entertainment center that had been on the other side of the room when she went to bed the night before. And the pratfall over a club chair that had migrated from the picture window to a couple of steps inside the front door.
The latter would have been a minor mishap, had Zoey not been lugging a fifty-pound sack of dog kibble whose string-stitched top required a hacksaw to open, but whose barely glued bottom seam split with one accidental bounce off the floor.
To be fair, when Vesta was in the throes of While You Were Out-itis, or Design on a Dime dementia, she dusted and polished and whisked all the crumbs from under the sofa cushions - as though any had had the chance to accumulate in the six months since Zoey had moved back to her hometown.
As obsessions went, it could be worse. Getting hooked on Trauma: Life in the E.R., for instance. Zoey shuddered. Impromptu furniture rearrange-ment paled in comparison to emergency tracheotomy practice, or your basic exploratory brain surgery.
"On the other hand," Zoey muttered as she threw back the blankets, "why can't she just take ceramics classes or beginning decoupage, like a normal, blue-haired, bored-out-of-her-gourd mom?"
Visions of whimsical, painted-plaster elves sitting on whimsical, painted-plaster stumps, and chunks of bad poetry glued on boards and preserved with sixty-two coats of shellac danced in Zoey's head.
If she still lived in the suburbs of Kansas City, they could be hauled out of a closet before her parents arrived for the weekend or holidays. Living a half block away from Vesta and Charlie meant such objets d'art would have to be displayed 24/7. Prominently displayed. Like props from a Disney remake entitled Snow White and the Nine Thousand, Six Hundred and Forty-two Dwarfs Do Haiku.
Zoey sighed and raked back the hair from her face. She wasn't quite at the tear-it-out stage, at least.
"Count your blessings," she said, pulling on a brown-and-orange 2X velour robe over her horsey-print flannel pajamas. Cross-dressing wasn't her thing, but neither was hypothermia. Clearance sale men's pj's and robes set new standards for hideous, but their R-factor more than made up for it.
Fuzzy pink bunny slippers completed an ensemble guaranteed to never grace the pages of a Victoria's Secret catalogue. As if she cared. Eighteen years of freezing her heinie off in lingerie hadn't kept passion's flame burning between her and her ex-husband. Best she could remember, they'd started flickering before he proposed.
If she'd learned anything from Stuart abandoning her and their daughter to go find himself in the Caymans, it's that life's too short to sleep in a thong. Or with a shallow, self-absorbed dickhead, even if he happens to be your husband.
Zoey stood, stretched and breathed in the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee. Her mother might be a bubble off-plumb, but she brewed the best cup of coffee in town. Maybe the universe. Sidling between the footboard and the two giant, unoccupied dog pillows crammed between it and the dresser, she followed her nose down the short hallway.
The door to her daughter's bedroom was closed. More than closed, actually. Shut in the typical fourteen-year-old-girl fashion that implied invisible death rays emanating from the jamb and a motion-sensitive booby trap wired to the interior knob.
Claire is a good kid, Zoey mused. An excellent kid. Tough, smart, funny ...
Heartbroken. A pretty, auburn-haired, brown-eyed Humpty Dumpty trying too hard to hide the cracks and holes her daddy left. It didn't matter that Stuart had always been a hands-off parent. What had been inevitable and, to be honest, a relief for Zoey had devastated her daughter.
Her hand hovered above the doorknob, then dropped. Once upon a time, tiptoeing in to kiss Claire's sleep-warm cheek said I love you, baby. Now it was first-degree burglary, felony trespassing and, in Claire's opinion, a form of child abuse.
A smile crooked Zoey's lips. I thought so, too, when I was her age.
A bona fide burglar, trespasser and, arguably, adult child abuser was bustling about the living room dressed in a NASCAR sweatsuit and low-impact aerobic tennies. The GoreTex tool belt Zoey had given her dad for Christmas rode Vesta's hips, making her look like a gunslinger who did a little carpentry work between shoot-outs.
The furniture stacked in the middle of the room resembled a vertical garage sale. Zoey couldn't decide if it was ironic or symbolic. After selling virtually everything she owned, including the house, to satisfy creditors after Stuart bought a one-way ticket to paradise (on credit), she had scrounged most of this stuff from garage sales, estate auctions and flea markets.
Her former, thoroughly despised Architectural Digest decor had been designed to impress the neighbors, Stuart's clients, his employers, random delivery drivers and anyone else who might have peeked through the entry's carved eight-panel door.
Stuart had had style, she supposed, but she'd felt like a docent in her own home. Even the utility room had had a theme, for cripes' sake. Maybe other working moms yearned for an olde English scullery replete with faux mahogany walls and cabinetry in which to wash, dry and fold their husbands' butt-saggy Jockey shorts.
Zoey Charlene France Jones had not. Ever.
Now nothing matched. The new-to-her castoffs blended in a cozy, hodgepodge collage sort of way. Like my life, she thought. A little nicked and scruffy around the edges, but mine to do with as I please.
Excerpted from Ahead Of The Game by Suzann Ledbetter Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.