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Jolene ran a finger along the note her friend Cheryl had stuck on the front of her apartment door. Trent Riddell was back in town, and Cheryl had even found his unlisted phone number. Now, didn't that beat all?
She didn't know whether to spit nails or thank the Lord Almighty.
She settled on talking to her baby girl.
"Amanda Rose, what do you think about that? After all this time, I guess we're finally going to get to reconnect with Mr. Wonderful himself."
As she heard her words, thick with sarcasm, even she felt a little embarrassed. Being bitchy wasn't like her.
Of course, being ignored wasn't something she'd ever done real well, either.
"When do you think we should pay him a call, sugar? Tomorrow morning? Next week?"
The baby didn't answer her, of course, which was really just as well. There was no right time to introduce a man to his unexpected offspring.
But, come to think of it, there should be. Dear Abby or Emily Post or somebody ought to write some directions about stuff like that. If they did, she'd snap them up right away. She wasn't a fool, she needed all the help she could get.
Feeling the urge for a cigarette, she quickly snatched a piece of bubble gum from her cavernous purse. She pulled off the wrapper and chomped down hard. As sweetness infused her mouth, Jolene tried to pretend the jolt of sugar was almost as satisfying as that first rush of nicotine.
Yes, giving up smoking had been the right thing to do. Smoking was bad for her health. Expensive, too.
But somehow all she could think about was the sugar that was no doubt rotting her teeth that very minute. And she sure as heck couldn't afford to go to the dentist.
What she needed was a plan.
Well, there was no time like the present. She just had to dive right in. Make plans. Carefully, she dug in her purse again, this time coming up with her cell phone. After taking a deep breath, she dialed before she lost her nerve. She had to at least try.
Maybe she'd get lucky and only reach his voice mail. She really had no business talking to Trent. Especially since the last time they'd seen each other, well, they really hadn't done all that much talking. Their lips had been busier doing other things.
Besides, she had a very good idea that Trent wasn't going to be all that happy with her news.
His voice was brusque. Distracted. Downright rude. Well, at least he'd answered! "Trent?"
"Yeah. Who's this?"
Mildly irritated, she matched his tone and decided to stick in his middle name to show him she wasn't fooling around. "Trent Wallace Riddell, this is Jolene Arnold."
"Jo?" He coughed. "Hey. Um, how you doing?" His voice went from brusque to hesitant.
She knew why. He was afraid she was calling because she wanted to hook up with him again.
She did not. She just wanted to let him know that they were now bonded for life, thanks to a pint-size blond baby.
Or maybe Trent was afraid she had feelings for him. She did not. Well, not the romantic kind. Or maybe he was afraid that she wanted something from him.
She did. But it wasn't what he thought. She didn't want his loving or his kisses or his money. He deserved to know he was a daddy. And her daughter deserved to be claimed as a Riddell.
"I'm better than you, I think," she said with more bluster than an August wind. "I just heard through the grapevine that you're laid up something awful."
"Yeah. A bull got the best of me," he mumbled.
He grunted under his breath. "What isn't?" A little louder, he said, "I'm not too banged up."
"Arm's broken. A few ribs got busted up, but they're mending."
"Your poor body. You had a mess of bruises last time we saw each other."
"Did I? I don't remember."
Well, that was a bit insulting. Her cheeks flushed with the memories. They'd visited a while at Bronco Bob's when she was through with her shift, talking more with each shot of Jack. One thing led to another, that led to them getting naked on her apartment floor.
She cleared her throat and firmly instructed herself to move things forward. "I'm real sorry you got hurt."
"Ain't no big deal. Every once in a while, the bull gets the upper hand. It's all part of the job."
"You know I love it. But still I appreciate your concern."
Jolene heard the question at the end of his statement, and she knew what it meant, too. He didn't understand why she'd tracked him down.
They weren't all that close anymore. And they hadn't been close for years. Except for the drunk sex and such
Taking care to keep her voice slow and nonchalant, she ventured, "So, I was thinking maybe I could come by and say hey. You know, see how you're doing in person."
There was a pause, then she heard some shuffling. "There's no need for that."
"Actually, I think there is. I've got something we need to talk about."
"You do?" Obviously he was at a loss for words.
Just the thought of him at a loss for anything made Jolene smile. From the first day they'd met outside their houses on the way to kindergarten, that man had had confidence to spare.
Well, he wasn't the only one. She had confidence to spare, too. That was how she'd managed to have a good life for herself. It certainly wasn't because she'd been waiting around for cowboys to step up and take care of her.
As sweet Amanda Rose gurgled a bit in her carrier, Jolene got to business. "How about I stop on by your house later on tonight?" After all, there was no time like the present.
Yeah. Just like Trent, she was gonna take that old bull by the horns.
"That wouldn't be a problem, would it? I won't stay long."
"Oh. Well, then. Seven o'clock would work."
"Great. I'll be seeing you in a few hours with bells on." As she looked at her tiny Christmas tree, chockfull of red and green lights, she smiled. "With Christmas bells."
"Hey, wait a minute, Jo."
She didn't miss the new hint of foreboding in his voice. "Yes?"
"I don't want to sound like an ass or anything, but I'm not really lookin' to start up a relationship or nothing."
She chewed on that ball of gum in a real effort to keep her voice even. "Don't worry, Trent. I'm not looking to start up anything, either." After all, what they'd started was sitting right by her side, looking as cute as a june bug in August.
After they finished their goodbyes, Jolene closed the phone and stood up. It was four o'clock. She had three hours to put herself together and look like the person she wanted to be in his lifehis friend. And, she needed to look like the person she already was: the mother of his child.
Trent hung up the phone and stared at it, bemused. Jolene Arnold. Well, now. He hadn't expected to hear from her.
She was a pretty thing, and always had been. Scrappy and thin. Curly blond hair, bright greenish-brown eyes, soft skin, and the kind of figure that made a man think about pinup girls. Oh, but she had a fine pair of legs. A great ass, too.
He'd seen many a man watch her backside in admiration whenever she took a walk downtown. Or when she waited tables at Bronco Bob's.
He would know, because one night he'd been one of them.
Of course, rumor had it that she'd made many a man happy, period. Even him, much to his shame.
For that, he was ashamed. His whole family had always had a soft spot for her, ever since she'd confessed at age six that no one had ever read her a story.
After that, both his parents had looked out for her when it became evident that no one with the last name of Arnold was going to do that job.
Now his mother would be jumping out of her grave and boxing his ears well and good if she had any idea how he'd treated Jolene. He shouldn't have given in to too much booze and acted on that very bad idea that had actually been very, very good.
But no matter what they sharedor how many things they shouldn't have doneTrent knew Jolene was always going to claim a soft spot in his heart. He'd met her on the way to the school bus their first day of kindergarten. Trent had been tagging behind Cal Jr. and Jarred, and she'd been tagging behind him.
She'd had on a red dress and black Mary Janes and a bow in her hair. He'd thought she was as cute as a button.
As the months went by, she'd taken to coming over to their house most every afternoon. Soon, she was almost like a Riddell shadow. Even Jarred didn't seem to mind if she sat beside him while he did his homework.
If they wanted to talk, she'd talk. If everyone was busy, she'd sit and color. She never mentioned her home, and one day when he was talking about it, asking how come they never went to her house to play, Junior had pulled him to one side and told him to shut up.
"Things aren't good over there, Trent. That's why she's here."
And his brother Jarred had gone one better. "Just be nice to her. And make sure she eats, too."
When he was small, he'd never really understood what was wrong. By the time they were in fourth grade, he'd had a real good idea of what went on in that house. And then, just when he was thinking that he needed to do something about her situation, his dad struck oil.
They'd moved into their current big house. Months later, Jolene had moved away when her daddy couldn't pay his bills.
He hadn't seen her in ages until he'd spied her working at Bronco Bob's. He'd hugged her tight and kissed her cheek when he figured out who she was.
After that, it was only natural to share a beer. And a couple of shots of Jack Daniel's. Next thing he knew, their talking led to his truck, which led to her apartment, which led to them getting stark naked and rolling around on the floor for a while.
Hours later, when the taste of Jack had turned sour in his mouth and the reality of what they'd done had hit him hard, he'd been embarrassed.
She'd been quiet.
He'd pulled on his jeans and had left in a hurry. Promised to call.
But he'd been lying, of course. No matter what city or two-bit town he was in, he didn't call after rolls in the sack. It wasn't his way.
So when she started calling him, he figured it would be best to ignore those calls. After all, he wasn't in love. And, well, he was "Trent Riddell" now. That name meant something. He was rich and he was famous.
He did not need some blonde from his past bringing him down.
But that didn't stop the moments on the tour bus or in his hotel room when he'd remember how sweet kissing Jolene had been. How her eyes had turned all sparkly when they'd reminisced about tromping through the fields back when they were small.
Luckily, it had only taken a couple of hours to not care anymore. Because even though Jolene Arnold had once been his friend and had even for a few hours been his lover she sure as hell didn't mean all that much to him now.
Really, she was just a memory.