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As she pulled up in front of the Rose Café on Magnolia Avenue, Kate Jones took a deep breath and looked around at the heart of Pleasantville. Heart. Probably the wrong word. The town hadn't possessed that particular organ when she'd left ten years ago. Judging by what her mother had told her in their last phone call, she feared it hadn't grown one in the intervening decade.
The street appeared the same on the surface, though was perhaps dirtier, its buildings grayer than she remembered. Warped, mildew-speckled boards covered some of the windows of the once-thriving storefronts. Very few people strolled along the brick sidewalks. The cheerful, emerald paint on the benches lining the fountain in the town square had faded to a faint pea-green. A reluctant grin crossed her lips as she heard Cassie's voice in her head. Welcome back to Pea-Ville.
Hers wouldn't be an extended stay. She had a job to do, then she'd drive away forever. Reaching for the door handle of her SUV, she paused when she heard her cell phone ring. "Yes?"
"Kate, I'm going crazy. Tell me you're on your way home."
"Armand, I've only been gone one day," Kate said with a laugh, recognizing the voice of her high-strung, creative business partner. "Besides, you were crazy before you met me."
"Crazy and poor. Now I'm crazy and rich and I can't take this kind of pressure. You are going to pay for leaving me in charge. Nothing that happens at Bare Essentials while you're gone is my fault. Understood?"
"Nothing's going to go wrong in two or three days. Tell me what happened so we can fix it."
"The shipment didn't arrive from California. We're down to one Bucky Beaver. And he was featured in the ad this weekend."
Oh, yes, the world would indeed stop revolving without their bestselling special toy. "I don't think it's a problem of catastrophic proportions. We sell lots of other products."
"None that were featured in the ad. I can see an entire girl's college softball team coming in to stock up for an out-of-town game, and finding the shelves bare." She heard Armand groan. "I see riots. Stampedes. Ten-inch rubber dildoes lobbed at my head until I am knocked unconscious. Imagine having to explain that to the handsome young police officer in his tight blue suit with his jaunty black cap when he comes in response to my frantic call." He paused. "Hmm… maybe this isn't such a crisis after all."
"Definitely not, but just call the supplier anyway."
"Maybe I should ask your cousin to use her connections…"
"Cassie's still in Europe. I think." Kate wasn't quite sure where her famous model cousin was working this week. She'd tried to track her down after getting her mother's news and had left messages with Cassie's agent and publicist. So far, no word. Cassie almost seemed to be in hiding. Another worry.
"So how's business today?" she asked.
"As thriving as ever," he replied. "Two different bridal parties came in this morning, hence the shortage of Buckys."
"I do love those wedding showers."
"Dewy brides and do-me bridesmaids. A delightful, money-spending combination."
"Absolutely. Now, have there been any calls for me?" She wondered if Edie had tried to reach her again from her new home in Florida. Their last conversation had ended somewhat abruptly.
Edie hadn't told her all the details of what some people in this town had put her through during her last weeks of residence. What she did say had made Kate wince. She gave her full opinion on the matter, though never revealing she knew the truth of Edie's relationship with Mayor Winfield.
"None that matter. But I warn you, if Phillip Sayre calls again, I'm stealing him for myself. So you better hurry your pretty fanny back here to Chicago."
"You're welcome to him. One date was quite enough for me. The man has a huge ego."
"You know what they say, big ego, big…"
"I think you mean big hands. Or big feet. In any case, I don't have any interest in finding out when it comes to Phillip. Who needs a big, sloppy real one attached to an arrogant, untrustworthy man, when a small, clean vibrating one with no strings attached is sufficient?"
Armand tsked, though she knew he wasn't shocked. After all, he was one of the few people with whom Kate felt comfortable enough to reveal her occasional less-than-nice-girl qualities.
"Playing with the merchandise?" he asked.
"Ah, you caught me. How can I sell it if I can't attest to its effectiveness?"
"As long as you paid for it first and weren't sampling the wares then putting them right back on the shelves."
Yuck! Kate snorted a laugh. "Okay, you win, you nasty thing." Armand always won in games of sexual one-upmanship.
"Besides, small vibrating ones don't have hands or mouths."
"Some have tongues," Kate pointed out with a grin, remembering one of their more popular models of vibrator… a wagging tongue. Cassie had seen it during her last visit to the store in Chicago and had declared it the most disgusting thing she'd ever seen. When Kate had turned it on to show her what it could do, Cassie had bought two of them.
"I'm hanging up now. Be good," Kate said.
"Impossible. Don't you be good, either. It's bad for you."
Kate smiled at Armand's kissy sounds as she cut the connection. She remained in the driver's seat, missing Armand. He was the only man in her life she had ever completely trusted.
A shrink might surmise that it was because Armand was gay, and therefore not a romantic possibility, which allowed Kate to open up and trust him.
The shrink would probably be right. Trusting men had never been her strong suit. One more thing to thank Mayor Winfield for, she supposed. Not to mention the few men she'd dated over the years, who had never inspired thoughts of true love and Prince Charming. More like true greed and Sir Fast Track.
"So, do I get out or restart the car and drive away?" she asked herself, already missing more than just her friend and partner. She also missed her apartment overlooking the water. She really missed her beautiful, stylish shop with its brightly lit, tasteful decor, such a contrast to some of the more frankly startling products they sold.
Two stories high, with huge front glass windows, soft lemony-yellow carpet and delicately intricate display cases, Bare Essentials had done what everyone had sworn couldn't be done. They'd taken sex and made it classy and elegant enough for Michigan Avenue.
Yes, she wanted to be home. Actually, she wanted to be anywhere but here.
Could she really go through with it? Could she walk along these streets, enter her mother's house and go through her childhood things so her mother could list the place for sale?
Well, that was the one good thing. At least Edie had finally gotten out, too. Though Edie had taken frequent trips to the city, she'd resisted moving away from Pleasantville for good. No, it had taken Mayor Winfield's death, his subsequent will and some vicious gossip to accomplish that feat.
Kate thought she'd outgrown the vulnerability this place created in her. She wasn't the same girl who used to hide in the tree house to cry after school when she'd been teased about her secondhand clothes. She was no longer a trashy Tremaine kid from the wrong side of town. She and her cousin had bolted from Pleasantville one week after high school graduation, moving to big cities—Kate to Chicago, Cassie to New York's modeling scene—and working to make something of themselves.
Kate had long ago learned the only way to get what you wanted was to work hard for it. Being smart helped, but she knew her limitations. She wasn't brilliant. And as much as she hated to admit it, she wasn't talented enough to pursue her teenage dream of a career in theater, though she'd probably always fantasize about it.
No, common sense and pure determination had been the keys to achieving her goals. So she'd worked retail jobs by day and gone to school by night, taking business and accounting courses, sneaking in a few acting or performing credits when she could.
Then the fates had been kind. She'd met Armand, a brilliantly creative lingerie designer, at exactly the time when Cassie's career had taken off and she'd had the means to loan Kate the start-up money for a business.
An outrageous, somewhat dramatic business.
Combining her need to succeed, her innate business sense and her secret love for the flamboyantly theatrical, she'd dreamed up Bare Essentials. Though originally just designed to be an upscale lingerie boutique to feature Armand's creations, bringing in other seductive items—sexy toys, games for couples, seductive videos and erotic literature—had really made Bare Essentials take off like a rocket when it opened.
The fabulously decorated, exotic shop had taken Chicago by storm. With the right props, location and set design, what could have been a seedy, backroom store was instead a hot, trendy spot for Chicago's well-to-do singles and adventurous couples.
Coming back to Pleasantville should have been absolutely no problem for the woman who'd been featured in Chicago's Business Journal last month as one of the most innovative businesswomen in the city. Still, sitting in the parked SUV, she felt oppression settle on her like two giant hands pushing down on her shoulders. The long-buried part of her that had once been so vulnerable, made to feel so small and helpless and sad, came roaring back to life with one realization.
She was really here.
Taking a deep breath, she opened the door. "Home lousy home," she whispered. Then she stepped into Pleasantville.
As he sat gingerly on the edge of a plastic-covered sofa in the parlor of his childhood home, Jack Winfield considered committing hari-kari with the fireplace poker. Or at least stuffing two of the cow-faced ceramic miniatures his mother collected into his ears to block out the sound of her chewing out the new housekeeper in the next room. Sophie, the luncheon salad was unacceptably warm and the pasta unforgivably cold.
As if anyone cared about the food's temperature when its texture was the equivalency of wet cardboard.
"She'd never forgive me if I got blood on the carpet."
He eyed the poker again. Maybe just a whack in the head for a peaceful hour of unconsciousness? At least then he could sleep, uninterrupted by the prancing snuffle of his mother's perpetually horny bulldog, Leonardo, who seemed to have mistaken Jack's pant leg for the hind end of a shapely retriever.
"Sophie," he heard from the hall, "be sure Mr. Winfield's drink is freshened before you start clearing away the dishes."
"Sophie, be sure to drop a tranquilizer in his glass, too, so Mr. Winfield can get through another day in this bloody mausoleum," he muttered.
He rubbed a weary hand over his brow and sank deeper into the uncomfortable sofa. The plastic crinkled beneath his ass. Sick of it, he finally slid off to sit on the plushly carpeted floor. Grabbing a pillow, he put it behind his head and leaned back, wondering how long it had been since he'd relaxed.
"Three days. Five hours. Twenty-seven minutes." Not since he'd returned home to Pleasantville for this long weekend.
Jack didn't like feeling so caged-in. He needed to be home, in his own Chicago apartment, away from grief and the smell of old dead roses and talcum powder. Away from his mother's tears and his sister's complaints.
Actually, when he thought about it, what he really needed to bring about sleep and a good mood was a seriously intense blow job. Followed by some equally intense reciprocal oral sex. And finally good old, blissful, hot, headboard-slamming copulation.
He hadn't been laid in four months and was feeling the stress. It almost seemed worth it to call his ex and ask her to meet him at his place the next day for some we're-not-getting-back-together-but-we-sure-had-fun-in-the-sack sex.
Home. Chicago. Late tonight. And not a moment too soon.
Jack supposed there were worse places to visit than his old hometown of Pleasantville, Ohio. Siberia came to mind. Or Afghanistan. The fiery pits of hell. Then again…
"You're sure you have to leave tonight?" his mother asked as she entered the room. "I thought you were going to stay longer than three days. There's so much to do."
"I'm sorry, Mother, you know I can't."
Tears came to her eyes. If he hadn't seen them every hour or so since his birth, they might have actually done what she wanted them to do—make him change his mind.
Sadly enough, his mother simply knew no other way to communicate. Honest conversation hadn't worked with Jack's father, so she'd relied on tears and emotional blackmail for as long as Jack could remember. His father had responded with prolonged absences from the house.
Dysfunctional did not begin to describe his parents' relationship. It—and his sister's three miserably failed walks down the aisle—had certainly been enough to sour Jack on the entire institution of marriage.
Relationships? Sure. He was all for romance. Dating. Companionship. From shared beer at a ball game, to candlelight dinners or walks along the shores of Lake Michigan on a windy afternoon, he thoroughly enjoyed spending time with women.
Not to mention good, frantic sex with someone who blew his mind but didn't expect to pick out curtains together the next morning. Someone like his ex, or any number of other females he knew who would happily satisfy any of those requirements with a single phone call. Not calling any of them lately had nothing to do with his certainty that he wasn't cut out for commitment or happily-ever-after. It had everything to do with his father's death. Work and his obligation to his family had been all he'd thought about for several months.
"Why can't you?" his mother prodded.
"I've got to wrap up the mall project I'm working on. You know I've planned some extended vacation time in July. I'll come back and help you get things settled then." Unless I get hit by a train or kidnapped by aliens…one can hope, after all.
Nah. Trains were messy. And after watching the "X-Files" for years, the alien thing didn't sound so great, either. He really couldn't get into the whole probing of body orifices gig.
So, a summer in Pleasantville it would be.
Thinking of how he'd originally intended to spend his long summer vacation—on a photographic big-game safari in Kenya—could almost make a grown man cry. Pampered poodles instead of elephants. Square dances instead of native tribal rituals. The chatter of blue-haired ladies sitting under hair-drying hoods instead of the roar of lions and the crackle of a raging bonfire. Small town, pouting blond princesses with teased up hair instead of worldly beauties with dark, mysterious eyes.
He sighed. "I think I'll take a walk downtown. To walk off that great lunch." What he really needed was to escape the stifling, decades-old, musty-rose-tinged air in the house.
"Just be careful, J.J."