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Darcy Wolf couldn't decide whether the view of that one painter hard at work on the ladder scraping the old paint off a second-floor windowthe one that was so, um, soooo, well, you knowwas better with her sunglasses on or off. So she gave herself permission to experiment thoroughly.
On. Off. On. Off.
Still no decision. But lying here in her backyard on a chaise longue with a cold iced tea made just the way she liked itstrong, no sugar, brewed with mint that sprouted reliably in a bed by the housefeeling the sun, light and warm, not yet the blistering full strength of a Milwaukee summer, with virile young men clambering around her childhood five-bedroom Lannon stone home, well, she'd say life was good. And not to sound selfish, but she deserved a little "good life" after so many years bearing witness to pain and suffering and despair.
Once the painters were done, she would put the house up for sale and, at age twenty-six, finally get her life under way. Four years spent nursing her beloved father to a heartbreaking end when his cancer returned a second time to claim him. Another year after that nursing Greg, her boyfriend of four years, back to health from a head injury he sustained the day she finally broke up with him. A devil inside her still wondered if he'd subconsciously engineered the car accident to punish her or keep her with him, which turned out to be nearly the same thing.
She'd cared for her father devotedly, given him what joy she could, just as he'd given her his life and time and nurturing after her mother died, and she'd grieved over the inevitable slow end that had begun when she was a teenager with his first bout, was put on holdfor too few precious years of remission, and had begun again in college. She'd nursed Greg in the other directionaway from death and back to healthwith slightly less selflessness. After all that had gone into her agonized decision to leave him
But she couldn't beat herself up over that anymore. Greg was functioning on his own, nearly back to normal, and a couple of weeks ago she got up her nerve and repeated the ghastly breakup scene, feeling like dirt to cause the poor man even more pain. However, this time she did it at his house in Madison, where she'd lived for the past year while she'd taken care of him, so that she'd be the one driving right after.
Summer waited around the corner with hot, humid breath and long lazy limbs, but spring had come, and like the new shoots pushing determinedly out of the still-chilly earth, Darcy Wolf was going to bloom. Not here in Wauwatosa, an immediate suburb of Milwaukee, where she'd lived a quarter century plus one year, a city she knew inside out, but off and away, new horizons, new adventures, new life, new Darcy.
She took a sip of the tea, ice cubes rattling appealingly in the bright orange plastic cup she'd bought last summer to brighten her and her father's outdoor living while he could still be up and around. She could afford to buy cups made of gold now if she wanted, though she couldn't imagine why she ever would. Her father's death hadn't been a surprise, but his final gift had been. Money. Money he never so much as hinted he had, from his family and from Mom's family, from a lifetime of success as a wholesale jewelry salesman and from careful living. Her new independence had only just started to sink in. But already she had plans. Who wouldn't? She'd quit her dull job in Madison as office manager for a psychology practice, and as soon as the house was in presentable condition and then sold, she'd take off for distant lands. Or rather, distant states, living as she'd wanted to since she was a girl obsessed with maps and dreaming about travel. Two years in Seattle. Two years in Los Angeles. Two years in Miami. Two years in Bostonthe four corners of the country. She'd write about her experiences, volunteer, take ballet lessons, tap-dancing lessons, fencing lessons, learn to paint, to fix cars, to build furniture
And then? Eventually she wanted to go back to school and build on her education degree with a master's in school counseling. She'd be thirty-four and probably want to settle down somewhere permanently. Maybe she'd even come back here, though secretly she imagined herself becoming so chic and sophisticated that Milwaukee and Wauwatosa would seem like so much beer, cheese and sausage in comparison.
For now, in her backyard with iced tea and a whole life ahead of her tied down to no one, she had another important consideration: her hot painter needed a fantasy name so she wouldn't have to keep referring to him as Her Hot Painter. When she and her friend Molly Johnston were teenagers, poring over a name book to see what they'd choose for their eventual children, they'd discoveredand giggled endlessly over itthat "Garrett" meant "with a mighty spear."
That would do.
The newly christened Garrett scraped back and forth at a spot suffering from too many years of wind, rain, extreme temperatures and not enough extra energy from Darcy to deal with homeowner responsibilities. His biceps showed domed and hard below his sleeve, while triceps ridged the opposite side. The raised arm pulled up the hem of his white T-shirt and allowed an occasional glimpse of toned abdominal muscle.
The day before, and the day before that, he'd stayed later than the others. She'd spoken to him both times, casual worker-boss conversations. She'd complimented his work, he'd thanked her, they'd talked painting and nothing more. But he'd looked at her as if
As if, as if, ohhhhh, yes, as if. She loved that as if. She could definitely come up with a few delightful fantasy activities involving the two of them.
In the hospitals while her dad or Greg slept, or were otherwise unresponsive, she'd knitted, read, done crossword puzzlesin short, become an expert at passing time. And when she could no longer bear to read or to play word games, well then, sometimes she'd daydream in embarrassingly vivid and erotic detail. Weird, maybe, but give anyone as many hours in a medical facility as she'd had to spend, and he or she would get as sick of grief and pain and frustrationhers and the patient'sand need escape as much as she had. One handsome, brainy doctor and one buff, talented physical therapist had provided, er, stimulation. Her imagination did the rest.
Now that she was out in the real world breathing fresh air instead of eau de maladie, no longer trapped by four walls and tough emotions, she could devote even more timeguilt-freeto one of her favorite pastimes. In fact, she could imagine right now that
Garrett turned his head as if some receptor in his brain had picked up her thoughts.
Darcy didn't even try to pretend she hadn't been facing him, but she was glad for her sunglasses because it was possible he'd think she was asleep. Asleep holding her glass of iced tea. Sure. Why not. Uh-huh.
He nodded and touched the brim of his baseball capBrewers, of course, good Wisconsin manand then he went back to scraping.
Oh, my my. How busted could she get? But she was single, straight and certainly within her rights to look.
Except now that she'd looked, she kept wanting to look and then look some more, up the strong column of his back to his broad shoulders, imagining them flexing and contracting under the cotton of his T-shirt as he worked. Then back again to his nicely rounded butt and strong legs, which she could imagine in all sorts of quite pleasant positions, as well.
Maybe he was the ranch owner and Darcy-Anne, the feisty, abundantly cleavaged city girl who'd just bought the property next door
Or maybe he'd be the suited sophisticate at the bar, balancing a dry martini, who nearly swallowed his tongue when he saw La Darce strut in, several-times-pierced and poured into black leather
Or maybe the funky, long-haired student at the art museum who came upon her in a quiet out-of-the-way place, pleasuring herself, and kindly stopped to help
Garrett turned again, this time tipping his sunglasses down and shooting her a look over them.
Busted again. But she didn't turn away this time, either. She tipped her own sunglasses down and shot him a look over, too. Because why not? Who could sue?
A grin this time, a scraper raised in her honor. She wiggled her fingers in a little hello, took another sip of her tea to introduce the concept of moisture back into her throat and hummed a musical number.
Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my fan-ta-sy
She thought maybe he'd make a good corporate executive and she the CEO of a company threatened by his hostile takeover
Except, wait, hang on, hold it, stop right there.
She was twenty-six, she was female, she was straight, she was single, she had money in the bank, and now that the dark days were behind her, for once not a care in the world.
And not a single, solitary reason to keep herself from making this fantasy come true.
She gulped more tea. Even the thought had shaken her. And then it stopped shaking her and started stirring her instead.
No way. She couldn't. Because well, obviously, because
She didn't know why not. She just knew there was a "why not" and it was undoubtedly a good one. A sensible one. One any girl in her right mind should be able to come up with on the spot. Darcy's mind was too clouded by hormones and the giddy excitement of being launched out of grief and drudgery and servitude and out of a stale, stagnant relationship into the world of new male possibilities.
Molly. She needed to call Molly, her best friend from the day they'd met at Longfellow Middle School in sixth grade. Molly was sensible, practical, down-to-earth and had been a Rock of Gibraltar and a pillar and an Atlas in Darcy's world for years while it persisted in falling apart. A few sane words from Molly and the "why not" would be perfectly obvious to the point where Darcy would be embarrassed to have had the idea in the first place.
She got up from her chaise and sauntered past Garrett's ladder into the houseshe'd be talked out of the idea of seduction soon enough, so why not have a little saunter-ish fun in the meantime?aware his eyes were on her.
Well, she hoped his eyes were on her. She wasn't crass enough to check. In her mind his eyes were glued to her body and radiated approval over every female part. And then some.
Inside, she grabbed her cell from the top of the bookcase in the kitchen that still housed her mother's one hundred and forty-seven cookbooks, maybe three of which her father and she had cracked open after Mom died, and dialed.
"Do you not love this weather? You can count on Wisconsin to come up with a day or two of spring a mere two months after the season has started."
"Then straight into heat waves."
"Uh-huh. What's doing? I hear a problem in your voice." Darcy smiled. Could a man and woman ever get this close? She didn't think so. In her opinion sisters and best girlfriends had the stronger connection. "I could use some advice, yeah. There's this guy "
"Ooh, let me sit for this one" the sound of a scraping chair
"He's painting my house."
"I want him." She could see his legs if she stood next to the sink and peered out her kitchen window. She even wanted his legs.
"And you're calling me because "
"Talk me out of it."
"Uh-oh. Out of what? Hang onKyle, for God's sake, have I not said this a hundred times? You can have those after dinner. You want something now, have raisins or a banana, and don't 'oh, Mom' me. You'll thank me when you're eighty and still have your teeth and a reasonable waistlineI'm back, Darce. Talk you out of what?"
"Sedare you out of your mind?" Darcy recoiled from Molly's uncharacteristic near-shriek. "I'm calling you, so not quite yet, no. Tell me. Why is it a bad idea?"
"You can't think of any reason?"
"Mmm, no." She sighed over his ankles, shins and thighs. "Not one."
"Honestly. For starters, he could be a psychopath, sociopath serial killer"
"True." Though odds heavily favored otherwise.
"or have horrible diseases"
"Ew. True." Her glorious swelling fantasy deflated a bit.
"or he could turn out to be one of those stalkers who can't let a girl alone after he's had her once, like what happened to Jody"
"Oooh, true." She cringed, remembering the hell their friend Jody had gone through after one date with a guy she'd met on MySpace. Police had been involved. 'Nuff said.
See? Calling Molly had been a good idea. "or he could be one of those vain, cocky guys who'll get vainer and more cocky after you land him, and brag to his friends that he got laid on the job by some lonely single chick"
"Blech. Ptooey." Darcy made a face like a child given nasty medicine. Fantasy leaking serious air now.
"Or he could be a nice guy who would like you as you really area smart, sweet, nice girland would be turned off by you initiating sex when you don't even know him. You could ruin a really good thing that was otherwise meant to be."
Darcy's nasty-medicine face smoothed. Now Molly was sounding like her father. And as much as Darcy had adored her father, nothing made her immediately want to be a teenage rebel again more than someone sounding like him.
She'd spent her life as a good girl because Dad refused to have it any other way. The one time she'd tried to express a little of the devil in her with a low-cut, ooh-la-la outfit she'd bought on the sly and sneaked on in the girls' room before school's opening bell, her father had found out. Hunky Evan Jacobus had practically drooled on the floor that day at school and the next, when she'd worn another very-unlike-her ensemble she'd borrowed from Tiffany Blatz. Darcy had gulped the male attention like a famine victim's first meal. See? She wasn't invisible to the opposite gender, after all.
Evan had even come over that night unexpectedly "to study" and had seen her in her regular appease-daddy clothes, and right in front of her father a question had risen from the murky depths of his teenage brain and emerged from his thin chapped lips. How come she'd been dressing so differently at school?
Daddy had not been amused. Evan didn't stay long. The clothes were given away to those more fortunate than Darcy.
And then there was Greg whom she'd met at a Summerfest concert before senior year at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, jealous streak a mile wide, threatened by his fifteen-year head start on life. He'd wanted Darcy to look sexy only in the privacy of his or her bedroom, which hadn't been often enough for her taste. But from his perspective, guys her age were everywhere and Greg didn't want them looking and he didn't want her to see them looking and, and, and
Darcy's fantasy started to reinflate. "I don't know. I still"
"Look, Darce, I know how much you need to feel you're breaking out of the mode you've been in. You've had some really tough years and made a lot of sacrifices that took a lot of strength. But selling the house and spending the next eight years moving around the country is plenty adventurous, though I think you don't realize how much you're leaving here."
Darcy rolled her eyes. "Can we save that lecture for another time? I don't need that one today."
"Yes. Okay. Hang onAnnabel, I told you to get ready for gymnastics ten minutes ago and you haven't even started changing. Go. I'm back, Darce. Man, that girl is going to turn my hair white and she's only four. What was I saying, now?"
"About me cutting loose."
"Right. Let's face it, Greg was about as exciting as a PTA meeting, and you"
"Hey," Darcy protested automatically, then frowned. Molly wasn't usually this cutting. Or this impatient with her children.
"Why else did you break up with him? I'm right. You know I am."
"Yes, but only I'm allowed to slam him."
"Okay. How about, 'Mr. Gregory Hinshaw did not encourage you to explore your own life.' Better?"
"Much." Greg had been gentle, wonderful, but yeah, set in his ways was an understatement. Cemented in his ways, maybe. "That works."
"So the point is, don't go overboard now that you're free. Remember, the kids in college who partied their brains out and ended up puking in the street every weekend were the ones whose parents absolutely forbade them to touch alcohol. Ever."
Darcy tapped her fingers on the rim of the sink. "I get it, Molly."
"I'm just saying. I don't want you to do something so out of character that you'll wish you hadn't."
"But it can't be completely out of character or why would I want to do it?"
"Because you've been bent too far in one direction, and now that pressure is released, you're whipping too far over to the other side. Trust me.You want danger? Throw out a recyclable, or park in a handicapped spacesomething more in your risk league. Leave seducing strangers to women who can handle the fallout."
Darcy growled loudly. Now Molly sounded like Dad and Greg. In stereo. Full volume. And unfortunately, even though she might be making perfect sense, out of sheer contrariness Darcy's desire to make use of Garrett's mighty spear tripled.
"Hey, you wanted me to talk you out of it."
"Yeah, I did. I did want you to talk me out of it." The legs in her kitchen window moved down a step. Darcy leaned over the sink to better admire their straight muscled length, raising her eyes slowly to where he kept the weaponry she was "soooo uncharacteristically" in the mood to test out. "But I'm pretty sure I just changed my mind."