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Beau Taylor wasn't sober, but he wasn't drunk, either.
Luckily, the Miami night was young enough for him to change that.
Drinking took the edge off. Drinking was good. Drinking was necessary.
How else could he survive in the toxic waste dump of his life without some sort of buffer between him and reality?
As the disgraced former governor of Virginia, Beau was only slightly higher on the social scale than, say, venereal warts, but after a couple of drinks—preferably scotch on the rocks—he could look on the bright side. People thought he was scum. That being the case, it was easy to fulfill their low expectations.
If he wanted a drink, he'd drink. If there were a party somewhere, he'd go. If he met a woman who was beautiful and willing, he'd screw her. Why shouldn't he? Because he'd disappoint someone who loved him? Easy solution there: no one loved him.
So he found his consolations where he could. Living in Miami, with its astonishing array of after-dark activities, helped. There were always clubs to discover and drinks and women to be savored.
He was momentarily between clubs, but no worries. A quick glance outside the limousine's darkened windows showed the Intracoastal Waterway streaking by and the city stretched out before him like a glittering jewel.
Man, he enjoyed Miami.
He also enjoyed being rich, one of the benefits of the beer distributorship his late father started back in the day.
Having money had its pluses, and riding in style was one of them. Every car should have plush leather seats, a fully stocked bar, a discreet driver and a privacy divider. Beau enjoyed riding in limousines.
Sabrina enjoyed riding him.
And she was good at it.
Sliding his hands up the shapely thighs straddling him, Beau gripped the flexing globes of her naked ass. Ahhh…nice.
Sabrina kicked it up a notch. Flashing a wicked grin, her long black curls wild and falling in her face, she pumped her hips nice and hard, taking him deeper into her body.
Worked for him.
Laughing now, she rubbed her jiggling breasts against his tailored shirt. It was all good. Nothing like a quickie in the car to loosen him up.
Then Sabrina slowed things down. Moaning loud enough to be heard on the other side of the divider, she levered herself up until only the sensitive head of his penis remained inside her.
Yeeeaaaah. That worked, too.
Her back arched and one of her walnut-tipped nipples skimmed his lips. Was that an invitation? Looked like. He sucked it, hard, into his mouth. She rewarded him with a high-pitched cry and impaled herself again, up down, up down, faster, harder, and the fun continued.
Except…the fun wasn't that much fun. Never really had been fun.
Beau let that nipple pop free, rested his head against the seat and wished again that he were drunk. Things were easier then. He didn't have to work so hard to feel alive or, depending on his mood, to sink into oblivion.
Oblivion was his own version of heaven, the blessed place where he hated himself just a shade less than he normally did. Oblivion—not another party—was his ultimate destination tonight. Too bad he couldn't seem to get there.
Staring up at Sabrina through half-closed eyes, seeing the straining column of her neck and the faint smile on her lips, he wondered why he always did this to himself. Always picked women with sparkling amber eyes, straight brows and fine cheekbones. Always wished he were just a little drunker or could pretend just a little more that these women were someone else.
It had never worked. Not once.
Maybe he should try harder.
Holding Sabrina's hips tighter, he pumped in a blind fury of movement, screwing her mercilessly until sweat ran down his temples and Sabrina began her chanting routine. Yes…yes…yes. Whatever. He just wanted to be done—with this, and with her.
Waiting only long enough to hear the surprised yelp that was his signal that she'd climaxed, he came, too. For five perfect seconds, relief—and it was only relief, not pleasure—surged through him. But then it was over, and nothing had changed.
Did that make sense? Was that fair? When he thrust so much of his emptiness into another body, why did it still fill him to overf lowing?
That emptiness always stayed, no matter what, or who, he did.
Jesus. He made himself sick.
He eased the limp Sabrina off his lap and onto the seat beside him, wishing he could shower or, better yet, spray himself with a bleach-filled pressure washer.
Like that, or anything, would ever make him clean.
Every sexual encounter these days—and there were plenty— ended this same way: with relief and disgust. Relief because his body had cooled a little, but disgust because he still hated himself and what he'd become, and knew he'd do it all again tomorrow anyway.
Disposing of the condom, he adjusted his boxer briefs, zipped up, rebuttoned his shirt and smoothed his hair. Great. Good as new. Oh, and don't forget the seat belt. He buckled up. Now he was ready for more partying.
If the self-hatred didn't kill him first.
For now, he needed to get the everlasting bitterness off the back of his tongue, so he reached for his snifter of cognac and drank deep. He waited for his brain to fog, but…nothing. Shit. He drank again, draining the glass.
Sabrina, meanwhile, adjusted her negligible black dress, reached for her glittery little purse and found her lipstick. A few minutes of primping followed. "Where are we going now?"
Beau heard the slight slur in her words and hated her for it. Why was she drunk and he wasn't? Where was the fairness in that? Reaching for more brandy, he shrugged.
"I forget. We'll let it be a surprise when we get there."
No arguments from Sabrina, who closed her compact with a snap. "How do I look?"
He would have preferred not to see her again just now—if ever—but he did the polite thing and glanced over. By the dim interior lights he surveyed the skimpy-skanky black dress, the cleavage, the bare legs, the screw-me heels, the makeup and the hair. It was funny how she looked equally naked whether she was dressed or not. How did she manage that?
Sabrina waited for his answer and, focusing on her total package, he tried to frame one. The bottom line on this lovely lady was that she was vacant, shallow and soulless enough to be his ideal companion for tonight's debauchery.
Knowing she'd never hear the sarcasm in his voice, he raised his snifter in a toast and flashed a smile that felt as natural as shoving glass shards through his cheeks. "You look perfect—"
The sudden painful glare of headlights directly into the car was their first warning.
Then came the earsplitting screech of tires and a violent lurch strong enough to knock the drink from Beau's hand.
His seat belt tightened across his hips and his body jerked.
With a surge of full-blown panic crushing his throat, Beau whipped his head around to see Death barreling at them in a brilliant yellow glow bright enough to power two suns.
Truck, his brain registered. Semi.
The driver tried to veer the limo out of the way again, but that truck kept coming.
The impact took forever to come, giving random thoughts the time to flash through Beau's mind.
He was about to die.
Allegra would grow up without a father.
Tragic, but ultimately better for her.
The semi rammed into the side of the limousine with the earth-shattering force of a bomb and their screams rose up in a chorus of terror and agony.
As Beau's world spun out of control and then went black, one face filled his mind's eye. One beautiful image ushered him through the excruciating pain and fear and into the next life, if there was a next life for the sorry likes of him, which there probably wasn't.
He saw the bright amber eyes, heard the joyous laughter and felt the love.
Jillian. God, I loved you. You never knew how much.
She smiled at him and he rejoiced at what was now and had always been the most beautiful sight in his life.
And then he died.
Six months later
"Someone's leased the Foster place." Blanche Rousseau, vibrating with excitement over today's gossip, hurried into the kitchen with a brown bag of groceries in each arm.
Jillian Warner paused in her relentless kneading of bread dough and eased the curtains aside. Peering out the window over the sink, she surveyed the Foster place, perched atop the tree-dotted hill at the end of their street.
She half expected to see a moving van speed by, buuuut… no.
Nothing about the massive and weathered white house looked any different in today's midmorning light. The wide veranda still begged for a fresh coat of paint, and so did the columns. The bushes, as usual, were overgrown monstrosities that would soon reach out to grab unsuspecting children who wandered too close, and the windows were still vacant and eerie.
She was about to return to her dough when a distant flash of movement caught her eye. A big black dog—a standard poodle, maybe—rounded the Foster place, barking with excitement. Oh, and was that the tail end of some sort of SUV in the driveway?
Maybe, but who really cared?
Jillian let the curtain drop and attacked her dough again. They didn't have time for gossip when there was bread to be made and meals to be cooked for ten hungry guests.
Blanche, meanwhile, set the bags on the wooden counter and surveyed Jillian's progress with pursed bubblegum-pink lips.
Oh, Lord. What now? Jillian tried to concentrate on her task, but there was no ignoring Blanche—not the blue-beaded chain of her cat's-eye glasses, her white-blond teased beehive circa 1962 or her plump frame squeezed into electric-blue stretch pants and a matching jacket—especially when she got in a mood.
Finally Jillian looked up, exasperated. "What?"
"You need to ease up on that dough, honey," Blanche drawled, her lilting Louisiana tones thick with disapproval. "You trying to make shoe leather or dinner rolls?"
"This may surprise you, Blanche, but I've made a decent batch of rolls once or twice in my life."
"That does surprise me," Blanche muttered, now eyeing Jillian's work with raised brows. Clicking her tongue, she moved along the counter.
Jillian glared after her, irritated.
Sometime soon she'd have to break the sad news to Blanche— that she was not, in fact, Queen of the Universe here at the historic Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast outside Atlanta—but for now she'd let this latest insubordination pass.
Though she hadn't been listed on the contract for sale Jillian signed three years ago when she moved here from Virginia, Blanche had come with the B & B, just like the dormer windows, railed porch with rockers and twelve bedrooms.
Jillian was new to running the B & B and Blanche was…well, old. Since Jillian needed Blanche's experience and expertise, Jillian spent a lot of time swallowing her retorts.
Jillian floured the counter and reached for the rolling pin. "So who bought the house?"
"No one over at the grocery knows." Blanche rummaged in one bag and produced several dozen eggs and a couple pounds of butter. "Must be someone with a lot of money, though, 'cause that place needs some W-O-R-K. Maybe it's a nice man for you. Now that you're dating and all."
Jillian rolled her eyes. She'd wondered how long it'd take Blanche to raise this topic and was surprised it had required— what?—fifty whole seconds.
"I am not dating," she said, now using a floured glass to cut dough rounds and place them on the baking sheet. "I had one dinner with a man—"
"And coffee with him last week. Coffee plus dinner equals dating."
"I don't date," Jillian said flatly. "I meet the occasional nice man and have dinner."
"Very occasional." Blanche's backside poked in all its considerable glory from the depths of the refrigerator, where she was now arranging food. "Since this is the first man I've seen you have dinner with in three years."
Affronted because there was no need for such an unvarnished recitation of the sorry state of Jillian's love life this early in the day, she put the glass down and frowned at Blanche.
"You just focus on baking that chicken for lunch, okay?"
"No sex." Blanche emerged from the fridge and pulled a tragic face on Jillian's behalf. "No fried chicken. All work, no fun. No wonder you're so uptight all the time. You haven't got much to live for, far as I can tell."
Jillian laughed, but it was as hollow as most of her laughter these days. Something inside her had broken and, three years later, she still hadn't found a way to fix it. Maybe it was time to face the fact that the old Jillian, the happy one, was damaged beyond repair.
The funny thing was, she didn't really care. Here at the B & B, which she'd bought with her divorce settlement because she didn't want to return to practicing law and she needed something to do now that she was no longer the first lady of Virginia, she'd built something more lasting than happiness: peace, personal satisfaction and self-sufficiency. Even better, she'd found a mother's pleasure in seeing her child discover the world.
Wasn't that good enough?
She knew how to meet a payroll and balance the books, manage several employees, feed up to thirty people in the dining room, unclog a toilet, install storm doors and bandage scraped knees. Best of all, Allegra was happy and healthy.
Those were the important things. As long as they were on track, it didn't matter that Jillian felt dead inside—when she felt anything at all.
A clatter in the hall jarred Jillian out of her thoughts and she looked around in time to see Barbara Jean, Blanche's granddaughter, appear in the doorway.
Twenty-one and heading back to Vanderbilt in the fall, Barbara Jean spent most of her time marching to the beat of her own drum. Witness the orange and red hair, the multiple piercings and the iPod, which was always strapped to her arm. On the other hand, Barbara Jean was a straight-A student, levelheaded and responsible. She was, therefore, Allegra's well-paid and much-appreciated nanny.
Barbara Jean threw her arms wide in a flourish and bowed. "Make way for Princess Allegra!"
Jillian and Blanche, who went through this drill on a daily basis, snapped to attention and bowed as two-year-old Allegra sidled into the room, teetering on purple plastic prostitute-in-training slides with pink ostrich feathers across the open toes. Today's ensemble also included a pink leotard and tutu combination, a sparkling rhinestone crown and a blue magic wand with pink streamers.
"All hail Princess Allegra," the adults intoned.
Allegra blessed them with a serene nod. "You may rise."
Jillian crooked her finger at the girl, who came over. "Come here, Princess Allegra. Mommy's got something for you."
Sweeping her daughter up, Jillian kissed her fat little honey-with-cream-colored cheeks and swung her in a circle. Allegra screamed with laughter, revealing one Shirley Temple dimple on the left side of her mouth and tiny white teeth. After a few seconds of this silliness, Jillian set the girl back on her wobbly legs and ruffled her sandy curls.