Another exciting, exhilarating extravaganza. And I am exhausted." Ellie Barton rubbed her eyes and smiled up at her husband as he held open the door between the garage and the house. "Smudged mascara never felt so good."
"You know you love organizing these black-tie shindigs." Michael smiled back and dropped a kiss onto her forehead. "Admit it."
"It is nice to get out of jeans and sneakers," Ellie admitted. "See a bit of the world beyond Gymboree and Tumbling Tots. Talk about something besides Curious George and imaginary friends named Moodle."
"And you're a natural at it. My mom says you're turning into quite the society queen."
"I don't know about that," Ellie demurred. Her voice was still hoarse from straining to be heard over the brass band. "But I'm learning from the master. Fund-raising is the toughest committee, but your mother can get blood from a stone and not spill a single drop on her Escada. I just scurry around and do her bidding and everything magically falls into place."
"Any excuse to buy more Escada," Michael translated.
"Be nice. It's all for a good cause." Ellie furrowed her brow. "Wait. What was tonight?"
"Heart disease." Michael loosened his bow tie and reached under his tuxedo sleeves to unfasten his cuff links. "Next week is domestic violence, and next month is cancer."
"Right." She paused to clear her throat. "You know, I was thinking, it's great that we organize these galas to raise money and awareness and all, but I'm sure the women's shelter could use some hands-on volunteers, too. Once Hannah starts preschool five days a week, I could commit to that."
Her husband dropped back a step and asked, "Commit to what?"
"Whatever they need. Administrative stuff, sorting out donations, childcare . . . I'd like to really get involved."
Michael picked up the pace as they rounded the corner from the side hallway to their home's foyer. "Sweetheart, believe me, getting the Mayfair Estates crowd sloshed enough to write a big stack of checks is by far the best way to help that shelter. Besides, you know how much business I get through these committee connections." He threw her a wink. "The mortgage's not going to pay itself."
Ellie glanced up at the massive, custom-made crystal chandelier Michael's mother had commissioned from an artisan in France. "Right. We're one step away from living in a refrigerator carton under the freeway." She extracted a small tube of hand sanitizer from her evening bag. "Could you pay the baby-sitter? I'm going to go check on Hannah."
"I'll check on Hannah. You relax." Michael steered her into the master suite. "And lay off the Purell, woman, before we have to sign you up for a twelve-step program."
"Go ahead, mock me. But it's the height of flu season, and some of those city councilmen we shook hands with? Not exactly the picture of personal hygiene."
He grinned and kissed her freshly disinfected fingertips. "Howard Hughes in high heels."
"Speaking of high heels . . ." Ellie made her way across the bedroom and into the huge, mirrored bathroom, where she collapsed onto a carved antique rosewood stool and kicked off her strappy stilettos. She curled her toes against the cool travertine floor. "Ahh. Sweet relief."
Michael met her gaze in the mirror and shook his head. "I will never understand why you insist on wearing those things to events where you're expected to be on your feet for five hours. Aren't you in pain?"
"A little," she admitted. "But they look good. And I need all the help I can get these days."
"You look beautiful," he said immediately, and, Ellie noticed, a bit absently.
Not that she blamed him. She knew she was guilty of the cardinal sin of their exclusive gated community: she'd let herself go. Not entirely, not all at once, but since giving birth to their daughter three years ago, she'd abandoned the strict exercise, makeup, and moisturizer regimen of her early twenties. She was just too busy to devote all day, every day to the pursuit of personal perfection. The first crinkles of crow's feet were encroaching at the corners of her eyes. Breast-feeding had taken an undeniable toll on her figure. And sometimes she would spend an entire morning running errands and shuttling her daughter between play groups before noticing a coffee stain on her cardigan.
Michael caught her frown in the mirror. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." She stifled a small sigh. "Do you ever wish I'd get a little, you know, work done? Botox? Tummy tuck?"
"Don't start with that again." He rested his warm hands on her shoulders, then tugged at her zipper to peek at the label of her dress. "Size ten? Someone call Jenny Craig, stat!"
Her cheeks flushed. "Don't make fun of me! I'm the only double-digit-wearing woman under sixty in this whole neighborhood. Compared to all the second and third wives at the country club, I'm a—"
"You're a hell of a lot more interesting than the Stepford sorority," Michael assured her. "You're an original. First edition!"
"I don't want to be interesting. I want to be sexy and beguiling, and . . . God." She folded her arms on the bathroom counter and rested her chin on her hands. "I'm just so tired."
"Sweetheart, come on, you know you—Hang on." Michael broke off as a loud buzzing noise emanated from his tuxedo pants pocket. He extracted a small silver PDA, squinted down at the screen, then tapped at the keyboard. "Work. Hang on."
Ellie scrunched up her nose. "Again? How can anyone be thinking about real estate at this hour on a Friday night?"
"No one's thinking about real estate right now; they're thinking about the golf course where we're going to discuss the development deal tomorrow morning. We have to change our tee time." He placed the PDA on the bathroom counter next to her evening bag and returned his attention to her. "Now. Back to you. Where were we?"
She glowered at her own reflection. "I was bemoaning my lack of Stepford sultriness."
"Listen to me. You're the perfect wife. Especially when you're all charming like tonight, making small talk with the new investor about—who's that writer? Henry James?"
"Henry Fielding," Ellie corrected.
"See? Brilliant to boot. I rest my case." He emptied his pants pockets and peeled a pair of twenties from his engraved money clip. With his broad shoulders and dimpled smile, he was the epitome of tall, dark, and debonair.
Her scowl melted into a smile. "Did I ever tell you that you look like James Bond when you go black-tie?"
"Every time I break out this monkey suit. And that is why I married you. Sit tight, relax, and I'll drive Shannon home. Oh, as long as I'm out, I better fill up your car. Don't want you running out of gas tomorrow while you and Hannah hit the birthday party circuit."
Emboldened by his praise and loath to let a new dress and a professional hair-and-makeup job go to waste, Ellie sat up and blew him a kiss. "Maybe I'll take a nice hot bath and get warmed up for when you come home?"
His eyebrows shot up a fraction of an inch. "That's quite an offer. But I thought you were sleep-deprived?"
"Sleep is for the weak and the childless. That's why God invented caffeine. Besides, it's not every day a girl gets her chance with James Bond."
They heard footsteps in the hall, and Michael glanced down at his watch. "I should really get Shannon home. I promised her mom she'd be back by eleven. And listen, about the bath . . . hold that thought. Next weekend we'll leave Hannah with my mom and get a suite at the Fairmont. Order room service, get a massage . . ."
"It's a date." She quashed a twinge of disappointment.
"Baby, just wait 'til I get you alone. We are going to sleep all night long 'til we can't sleep no more." He jingled his car keys as he headed down the hall.
Ellie waited until she heard the door close, then shimmied out of her sequined black silk gown and turned on the faucet of the enormous jetted bathtub in the center of the room. She poured in some vanilla-scented bath oil, stripped off her bra and panties, and had one foot in the tub when Michael's PDA vibrated off the edge of the counter and onto the floor.
She was shocked he'd left it there. He prided himself on being accessible to his clients at all times. The tiny red light on the top of the screen was blinking insistently, so Ellie pulled her foot back out of the bathwater and minced across the room, hoping that the plastic casing hadn't cracked from the fall.
"You have one message waiting," the screen announced. Then an ominous exclamation point appeared. "URGENT!"
Her eyes widened. What if this was an emergency? A lot of Michael's clients had attended tonight's bash and most of them were as impatient as they were wealthy. She'd have to figure out how to get in touch with him right away. She clicked the scroll wheel.
You KNOW I'm always up for that. I'm wearing the red thong you gave me. Get over here and rip it off. Meet you in 5 minutes. Make me moan.
Ellie stood motionless for a full minute, blinking down at the screen until the letters blurred together into one mottled gray blob.
Make me moan.
This had to be a mistake. First of all, no one ever called Michael "Mick." He hated nicknames of any kind; even "Mike" was verboten.
Secondly . . . no. Just no. There was no way. Not Michael. Not her. System failure. Syntax error. Please reboot and download program again.
There were plenty of philandering husbands in Mayfair Estates, but Michael was the exception. Not that he'd never had the opportunity to cheat—she wasn't that naive—but he just wasn't that kind of guy. He loved his family, his work, and his golf clubs, in that order. He looked forward to their regular Sunday dinners with his parents and he called Ellie twice daily when he was out of town on business. Just last week, when he'd been in California on Valentine's Day, he'd had lilies delivered for her and a big stuffed penguin for Hannah.
But had he really been in California?
Ellie slowly raised her gaze to the mirror. She hardly recognized herself, trembling and naked, clutching the little silver square with both hands. Steam from the hot bathwater started to fog the reflection, but she could see angry pink lines lingering on her skin where her strapless bra and long, body-shaping underpants had cut into her flesh.
The words "red thong" flashed through her mind. Red thongs were for women totally devoid of insecurities and C-section scars. A red thong wouldn't hold in your stomach—it would emphasize your curves. Red thongs were for, well, vixens.
Vixen_MD. What the hell did that even mean, anyway?
And mbarton007? James Bond was Ellie's thing, a silly private joke they'd bandied about their marriage for years.
This was insane. Things like this only happened in movies and sudsy TV dramas. Vixens and red thongs were sordid subplots from someone else's life.
She took a deep breath and scrolled back through the message file to search for previous conversations between mbarton007 and Vixen_MD:
I'm so hot . . . Want you in the shower . . . I think I pulled something last night . . .
Finally, she couldn't bear to read any more. She placed the PDA back on the countertop where she'd found it. When she turned back to the mirror, she realized she'd forgotten to take off her diamond and emerald earrings.
Michael's mother had given Ellie the emeralds—the proverbial family jewels—on the night before her wedding, to welcome her to the Barton family. Her in-laws had treated her like a daughter since the moment she promised to love, cherish, and honor their son. Even though she was an Army brat with fashion sense that ran more toward secondhand stores than Saks, Michael's parents had never once insinuated that Ellie was anything less than their equal. They had opened the doors to Scottsdale society and made her feel secure in the cultured, cutthroat world in which Michael had grown up.
Ellie unclipped her earrings, stowed them carefully in their velvet box, and hurried toward the wall safe in the huge walk-in closet. Sealed inside these cold metal walls lay irrefutable proof that she and Michael and Hannah were a family: wills, passports, a copy of the lengthy pre-nuptial agreement she'd signed when she and Michael got engaged.
She spun the combination lock, opened the safe, and put the emerald earrings next to the
rectangular cases that contained the matching necklace and bracelet. Her pinky finger brushed the pre-nup and she snatched her hand away as if burned. Then she slammed the safe shut, turned off all the lights, and climbed into the bathtub, which by now was full to the brim. Vanilla-scented water sloshed over onto the slick marble tiles as she submerged herself up to her chin and listened to the overflow drain's steady, slurping gurgle.
She soaked for what felt like hours, staring into the dark, waiting for the familiar whirr of the garage door opening.
So? What did he have to say for himself?" Jen Finnerty demanded the next morning as she, Ellie, and Mara Stroebel power-walked the three-mile circuit around the Mayfair Estates golf course. The rising sun was still cresting over the mountains, and the women had bundled up in windbreakers and sweatpants against the cool Arizona winter morning.
"Nothing." Ellie faltered in her stride and took off her baseball cap, revealing bloodshot eyes ringed with faint purple half-moons. Her thick brown hair was gathered into a sloppy ponytail and her cheeks were sunken and pale despite the chilly breeze. Jen had always considered Ellie the optimist among them—she exuded a wholesome, girl-next-door sweetness—but today she looked utterly defeated. "I didn't know what to do. I stayed in the tub until the water got cold, and then I got into bed. He came in an hour later, and I just lay there, pretending to be asleep. Then this morning . . . I think I'm in shock."
"That would explain why your shoes don't match," Mara agreed.
Ellie stared down at her feet. Her left foot sported a white Nike, while her right was laced into a red Saucony. "Oh. Oops."
Jen shot Mara a filthy look, then squeezed Ellie's elbow. "Of course you're in shock, honey. Of course. Hell, I'm in shock. You and Michael are—"
"The perfect couple," Ellie finished dully. "A match made in heaven."
Jen winced. "You guys did seem happy together."
"Oh, we're ecstatic. Except for when he sneaks out at eleven o'clock at night to rip a red thong off some cyberslut." Ellie shook her head and lifted her chin. "Look, we don't have to talk about this now. I know you guys are busy and I'm supposed to be hitting you up for help with the cancer benefit."
"Screw the benefit. We'll get to that later." Mara pulled her long, shiny platinum blond hair back into a ballerina's knot. Despite what she often described as her "stultifying" job as a trust and estate attorney, she always looked like she could be starring in a prime-time courtroom drama. Even in their college days, Mara had had an air of total certainty and self-possession—except when it came to men—and while Jen refused to be bossed around, Ellie wasn't always so resolute.
"This is a code red, all-hands-on-deck emergency," Mara declared. "So let's get down to business. What are you going to do?"
From the Trade Paperback edition.