Public Displays of Affectionby Susan Donovan
Charlotte Tasker has always been a good girl, so she married the most decent, reliable man she could find even though their love life was a bit on the predictable side. Thirteen years later, she's a widowed mom who runs her company, prepares three vegetarian meals a day for her children, and volunteers for just about every good deed in town. But no one knows that
Charlotte Tasker has always been a good girl, so she married the most decent, reliable man she could find even though their love life was a bit on the predictable side. Thirteen years later, she's a widowed mom who runs her company, prepares three vegetarian meals a day for her children, and volunteers for just about every good deed in town. But no one knows that Charlotte has a secret weakness for squirt cheese, erotic poetry-and the mystery man she lost her virginity to in a reckless roadside tryst, moments before she got engaged. They never exchanged names, and even now, Charlotte can't stop fantasizing about that spectacular stranger...
DEA agent Joe Bellacera isn't crazy about having to hide out in Minton, Ohio before testifying at the trial of a notorious drug lord. But he's handling it just fine...until he lays eyes on a fiery redhead and a hot little body he'd recognize anywhere. Joe's never had another woman like Charlotte since that day thirteen years ago. Now she's his neighbor-and strictly off-limits...
Amid the balmy, honeysuckle-scented breezes of a Midwestern summer, sense and sensibility are about to be subverted by an ice cream-loving dog, conspiring kids, and nosy neighbors. And when the Widow Tasker's fantasies meet the rock-hard reality of Agent Bellacera, let the fireworks begin...
“Sassy, smart, and sensual. Susan Donovan will steal your heart.” Christina Dodd, New York Times bestselling author
“Fresh, fun, and oh so sexy! Susan Donovan is gonna be a star!” Susan Andersen, USA Today bestselling author
“A perfect blend of humor, highly charged sexual tension, and emotional intensity. Susan Donovan is a must read!” Janelle Denison, USA Today bestselling author
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Public Displays of Affection
By Susan Donovan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Susan Donovan
All rights reserved.
Charlotte Tasker squinted into the afternoon sun, watching the Buckeye Moving & Storage truck lumber down the cul-de-sac. She turned toward her best friend.
"I guess if the world didn't suck, we'd all fall off, right?"
Bonnie Preston touched her shoulder in sympathy, and Charlotte managed a smile.
No, it wasn't exactly the end of the world when the neighbors next door got transferred. But one look at her son confirmed that the timing couldn't have been worse.
Matthew held the Techno-Spy binoculars up to his eyes, following the moving van as it disappeared in the distance. His narrow shoulders shook. Charlotte heard him sniffle.
"Why did they have to move?" he asked in a small voice.
"Mr. Connor got a new job in Columbus, honey. We talked about this."
"But why did they have to go?" The boy let the binoculars dangle from the cord around his neck and glared at his mother, his face contorted with the effort not to cry. "We're never going to see them again, are we?"
"Maybe we can visit someday."
"We won't. Ever."
Charlotte watched her ten-year-old stalk off across the yard and her heart ached for him. Another loss, another change, was the last thing their little family needed, and they all knew it.
As Matt slammed the front door with finality, a pudgy, sticky hand wheedled its way into her palm.
"So who's gonna toss with me now, Mom?" Hank looked up at Charlotte with a pair of deep blue, forlorn eyes, set in a chubby, freckled face.
Before she could answer, Bonnie's husband swooped down and lifted the little girl into the air. "I'll toss with you, Henrietta, but you gotta go easy on your fastball. I'm getting to be an old man."
Ned Preston threw Hank over his wide shoulder and marched away.
"Call me Henrietta again and I'll knock your block off!" she yelled through her giggles.
Ned looked back at Bonnie and Charlotte and grinned. "Hey, ladies, whaddya say I throw some veggie burgers on the grill, whip us up some killer fruit smoothies, and we meet next door in a few minutes? We got any wheat germ, babe?"
Bonnie chuckled and shook her head. "Not since about 1974."
"I'll improvise," Ned said with a wink.
The women stood quietly in the driveway for a long moment, Charlotte feeling Bonnie close to her side. She reached out for her friend's hand, found it, and pressed it tight. "He's a good man, Bonnie, even if he can't stop abusing me for my food choices."
She laughed at that. "He certainly is. And I guess after thirty-five years I'd better start thinking of this as a permanent arrangement."
Charlotte's smile faded at what Bonnie said next.
"I'm sorry Matt's taking the Connors' move so hard."
"He takes everything hard since Kurt died."
"He's not bouncing back the way Hank has."
"He needs more time, Charlotte. He's older than Hank. And it's only been —"
"Eighteen months, eleven days, and twenty-two hours."
The women's eyes locked. Bonnie squeezed Charlotte's hand even harder and tried to smile.
Then in tandem, the women turned their gaze to the split-level stone and siding house at 1232 Hayden Circle. With the plastic climbing toys and the BMX bikes removed from the lawn, Charlotte thought the house next door looked downright glamorous — and a little lonely.
She glanced at the red SOLD sticker slapped across the real estate sign, proof that LoriSue Bettmyer had successfully closed another deal.
"Any more dirt on who bought the house?" Bonnie gave Charlotte a sidelong glance. "Because I've got to say that LoriSue's been weirder than usual about this. Maybe a decade of bleach buildup has finally leached into her brain."
"That would explain so much."
As the two giggled like girls, Charlotte scanned the house and its sloped, painstakingly landscaped front yard. "Actually, nothing," she eventually answered. "It's strange. All the Connors said is somebody from First National signed the closing documents and the bank is listed as owner. They have no idea who is going to live here — and it's freaking me out. What if some psycho moves in?"
"Then Ned will have somebody to play with!" Bonnie slid her arm around Charlotte's shoulders and guided her back toward the house.
They walked up the drive, past a neat row of yellow tulips in full bloom, past the little clumps of lilies of the valley along the front walkway, and to the front door of Charlotte's tidy two-story Colonial.
Charlotte put her hand on the brass doorknob, then paused. She slowly turned her head. "Tell me I'm being paranoid, Bon. Tell me the new neighbors will be a nice family with two-point-five children and a gerbil."
"Hmm. Not sure about the gerbil, but I bet you'll love them, whoever they turn out to be."
Bonnie pushed open the door and ushered Charlotte inside.
"Besides. You've got to remember that Ned and I were a bit worried the day you newlyweds pulled up in your beat-up Chevette. And look at us now. I can't imagine my life without you and the children."
Charlotte looked closely at her friend, noticing the crinkles at her eyes, the damp sparkle at her lashes, and knew with certainty that she wouldn't have survived the last year without Bonnie and Ned Preston.
Joe Bellacera's mouth fell open in shock. Then he lanced Roger Hagerman with one of his trademark menacing stares.
But Roger already knew this was not going to be an easy sell.
"Minton, Ohio, Joe." He shuffled some papers on his desktop. "Population of just over twenty thousand souls. An hour or so from Cincinnati. Near the scenic and historic Ohio River. Good schools. Decent, patriotic folk."
"You might as well put a bullet in my brain now and skip the middleman."
Roger winced. "Only living people can testify in a court of law, as you know."
He watched Joe turn up the intimidation level of his stare, and though Roger tried to smile casually at him, he couldn't quite manage it. No wonder Joe Bellacera had a reputation for getting exactly what he wanted — whether it was convincing an informant to talk or a getting a woman he'd just met to eat out of his hand. It was his eyes. They could be pitch-black and threatening one minute and cheerful and sweet the next.
And though he'd known Joe since he was a kid straight out of Special Forces, the guy's intensity still managed to make Roger more than a little nervous.
Roger breathed a sigh of relief when Joe began to let his big body relax into the chair, his glare mellowing to a frown.
"So let's hear it, boss." Joe ran a hand through what was left of the heavy black hair that had been past his shoulders only days ago. "Who am I? What's my story?"
Roger reached for the dossier, flipped open the cover embossed with the Drug Enforcement Administration shield, and read aloud.
"'You're Joseph William Mills.'"
Joe let out a sharp laugh. "Jesus tap-dancing Christ! Mills? Could you possibly have been a little less Wonder Bread?" He shook his head. "Go on."
Roger stifled a chuckle, agreeing that the name hardly fit Joe's infamous Latin-lover looks. "We're going Middle America here, Joe."
"I'm all over it."
Roger laughed out loud at that. "You're a mystery writer trying to get published. You live off your investments. You work at home. Keep to yourself. Divorced. No kids. Moved from the city to start over. A private kind of person."
Joe mumbled something probably crude and probably in Spanish, Italian, or Greek or some combination thereof. Roger raised an eyebrow.
"Go on," Joe said, crossing one long leg over a knee. "This is good. I can't wait to hear the rest."
Roger scanned the file. "Hayden Heights subdivision. Soccer moms and corporate dads. We've done background checks on everyone and the place is squeaky clean. The house is a nice, modern split-level with four bedrooms, two and a half baths, a patio, and a pool. And it's all compliments of the U.S. Marshals Service." Roger winked.
"They owed me one."
"Plush. Give the marshal my regards. But why the hell do I need four bedrooms?"
"Well, for one thing, you'll be meeting with the supervisory agent in Cincinnati, a guy named Rich Baum. He could really use your expertise while you're in town."
"Yeah, but we'll be meeting in his office, not my bedroom. What am I supposed to do with a place that big?"
"You can run around the house and dance to show tunes for all I care — just keep a low profile until the trial."
"That could be a while."
"We're well aware of that. We're just trying to make this as pleasant as possible for you."
"I still say shoot me."
"Not an option. The whole case against Guzman is built on your testimony about the year you and Steve spent inside."
"Guzman has a million-dollar reward out for your head, Bellacera."
"So if you don't disappear, you're a dead man. And years of hard work and countless taxpayer dollars are down the crapper. Not to mention you'll never get justice for Steve and his family. So you go. It's your job to go."
Joe said nothing for a long moment, and Roger watched the shadow of grief and rage pass through the agent's face. He hoped the downtime would allow Joe to come to terms with the murder of his partner, Steve Simmons, and his wife and son — as much as that was possible. Joe looked him straight in the eye and whispered, "When?"
"Three days. Stay in the safe house until then. Movers will come for your stuff day after tomorrow. Here." Roger handed him a manila envelope. "The usual — driver's license, Social Security card, retail credit report, passport, birth certificate, baptismal certificate, Visa, medical records, your airline ticket, and there's even a Clermont County Library card."
Joe peeked inside the flap, then grimaced. "Guess I'll have plenty of time to read."
"Good luck to you, Mr. Mills." Roger stood up to shake his hand, and he felt a big smile spread across his face. "And for God's sake, Joe — do us all a favor and stay away from the soccer moms."
"We have two minutes and sixteen seconds! Move it!"
Charlotte tossed her laptop case into the front passenger seat and revved up the minivan's engine, tapping her fingers against the steering wheel with one hand while clutching the Palm Pilot stylus in the other. She poked at the tiny keyboard.
Eight a.m.: Do the Gossards' regular grocery shopping and deliver their meal plan for the week.
Nine-thirty: Pick up the Raffertys' dry cleaning, drop off their little dust mop of a dog at the groomer's, then meet their pool restoration man at ten-fifteen. She could work on their weekly meal plan while she waited for him to finish his estimate.
She checked her watch and leaned out the car door. "Matthew! Hank! Let's get a move on!"
Back to her Palm Pilot.
Noon: A lunch meeting with the Jacobsens, potential new clients. The husband was an executive at Procter & Gamble and the wife was a tax attorney. They had two kids and zero time to manage their home life — ooh, how she loved people like that! They were the ideal clients for Multi-Tasker, Inc.
The van bounced as the children threw themselves into the backseats. Without looking up, Charlotte reeled off the usual checklist.
She heard the click of metal. "Lunches?"
"Matt, do you have your volcano?"
Charlotte's head snapped up and she looked at her watch. "You've got forty-five seconds, big guy. Do you need me to help you carry it?"
"No. I got it."
Watching Matt run into the house, she recalled how they'd stayed up until eleven finishing the earth sciences project and pictured all that hard work crashing to the macadam. Charlotte set aside her Palm Pilot and ran after her son.
Matt bit his lip in concentration as he took tiny steps out of the garage. She reached him just before the creation slipped from its cardboard base.
Matt smiled up at her. "Thanks, Mama."
Charlotte kissed his cropped head, stiff with way too much hair gel, and smiled. "You're welcome, honey."
They were now precisely two minutes behind schedule.
"After school we've got playtime from three to four and homework from four fifteen to five." Charlotte turned the van into the William Howard Taft Elementary drop-off lane. "Then you've both got Little League from six to eight. We're having falafel for dinner."
"Awful falafel," Matt mumbled from the backseat.
"I'd rather have monkey chowder," Hank said.
Charlotte reveled in the sound of her kids giggling. It didn't happen enough these days. "And, Hank, your coach called to say they've decided to move you up to the majors this year."
"All right," the girl breathed.
"The majors?" Matt's voice was high and squeaky. "But that's not fair! She's only eight! I didn't get in the majors until this year! That's totally messed up!"
"Dork butt," Hank whispered.
"Freak," Matt hissed back.
"That's enough." Charlotte was now third in line behind two other minivans. "Get your stuff together. Matt, do you need a hand?"
"Duh-uh! I'm not a total Dorkus maximus, Mother. I can carry one stupid little volcano!"
Seconds later, Charlotte slapped herself on the forehead. She'd just witnessed the painstakingly sculpted mountain of flour paste slide off the cardboard into a shapeless blob on the sidewalk. She bolted out of the van and knelt next to Matt, stroking his back as the car horns blared.
"I'm so sorry, Mama." Matt's entire face was clenched tight and his already ruddy cheeks were on fire with embarrassment.
"It's okay, Matt. Let's just scoop this up and —"
"I've got it, babe."
Jimmy Bettmyer nearly flattened Matt in his effort to get his hands on the ruined project. Then he stood, towering over them in his expensive real estate agent suit, grinning down in triumph. "Tough break, little buddy." Jimmy then scanned the crowd of teachers, parents, and kids that had assembled at the accident scene, making sure everyone noticed his gallantry.
"Everything's under control," he said to the crowd, offering Charlotte his free hand.
She rolled her eyes and helped Matt to his feet. "Go on in, honey. I'll call your teacher to explain."
Matt slinked off, his head hanging, his gaze riveted to his shoes. Charlotte felt the fury rise when some of the kids snickered as he walked past. She wanted to take them all by the shoulders and scream, "Hasn't he been through enough?"
Instead she felt Jimmy Bettmyer's breath on her neck and turned to find him dangerously close. The instant his hip made contact with her side she leaped back and headed for the van. He followed her.
"Maybe I could come over and help Matt rebuild this tonight. He could probably use a little male engineering know-how."
Charlotte reached for the door handle as she scanned the crowd for Hank's bright red curls and shocking pink backpack. She was relieved to see her daughter chatting happily with a group of girls as she moved through the school's double doors.
Jimmy leaned into the van window. "Besides, we all know Matt's not the only member of the Tasker family who could use a little male companionship."
Charlotte turned to face him. Jimmy Bettmyer had been trying to get in her pants from the first day they'd moved to Hayden Heights, when his wife, LoriSue, had been six months pregnant with Justin. All these years later, he was still trying to get in her pants. In fact, Charlotte was sure the only reason Jimmy escorted Justin through the school doors every morning was to advertise his availability to the drop-off moms. The man was a predator.
And, apparently, a real slow learner.
"Jimmy, why don't you bless your own family with your male know-how and leave me the hell alone?"
When the driver behind her laid on the horn, Charlotte put her van in gear and pulled away from the curb. Jimmy jogged alongside, still holding the ruined school project.
"LoriSue and I are separated and you know it," he panted. "I'm only living with her because I refuse to give her possession of the house. It's the principle of the thing."
Charlotte said nothing but pushed the automatic window button and smiled as the pane of glass went up between them. Unfortunately, Jimmy stuck his arm in the window and had this to add: "You may be a vegetarian, but I bet a hot little number like you can't go too long without a nice piece of meat!"
That was it. She hit the brakes and got out of her van.
She raised her chin and looked up at him — a thirty-something former jock with thinning blond hair and a very unattractive smirk. "I'm not interested in you, Jimmy."
Charlotte was quite pleased that her voice sounded calm yet assertive — clearly the voice of a woman who had her act together. "In fact, I just plain don't like you. You basically ignore your kid. You cheat on your wife. You have no manners. And as far as your 'piece of meat' goes ..."
Charlotte let her gaze drop below Jimmy's belt, then shook her head. "Meat makes me nauseous. Now back off or I'm calling LoriSue to tell her all about this little encounter."
Jimmy's eyes narrowed and he gave her a nasty smile. "You know, Charlotte, someday you're going to beg for it."
She got back in the van. As she drove away, she heard him shout after her, "What the hell am I supposed to do with this volcano?"
The carpooler behind Charlotte told him precisely what he could do with it, and Charlotte laughed all the way to the Kroger parking lot.
Excerpted from Public Displays of Affection by Susan Donovan. Copyright © 2004 Susan Donovan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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.
Meet the Author
Susan Donovan's novels are witty, sexy, and entertaining—"brain candy for smart women," as she puts it. Her books include Not That Kind of Girl, The Night She Got Lucky and Ain't Too Proud to Beg. Susan is a former newspaper journalist with degrees from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and has worked as a reporter in Chicago, Albuquerque, and Indianapolis. Her other jobs have included fine arts fundraiser, freelance journalist, painted furniture artist, horse stall mucker, proposal writer, and aide to a U.S. Senator. Susan lives in rural Maryland with her family and dogs.
Susan Donovan's novels are witty, sexy, and entertaining--"brain candy for smart women," as she puts it. Her books include Not That Kind of Girl, The Night She Got Lucky, and Ain't Too Proud to Beg. Susan is a former newspaper journalist with degrees from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and has worked as a reporter in Chicago, Albuquerque, and Indianapolis. Her other jobs have included fine arts fundraiser, freelance journalist, painted furniture artist, horse stall mucker, proposal writer, and aide to a U.S. Senator. Susan lives in rural Maryland with her family and dogs.
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