Read an Excerpt
By Sheila Roberts
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Sheila Rabe
All rights reserved.
There it sat, a Cloud Nine queen-sized luxury gold comforter with red ribbon appliqué and metallic embroidery. Forty percent off. It was the last one left. Tiffany Turner had seen it, and so had the other woman.
The woman caught Tiffany looking at it and her eyes narrowed. Tiffany narrowed hers right back. Her competitor was somewhere in her fifties, dressed for comfort in jeans and a sweater, her feet shod in tennis shoes for quick movement — obviously a sale veteran, but Tiffany wasn't intimidated. She was younger. She had the drive, the determination.
It only took one second to start the race. The other woman strode toward the comforter with the confidence that comes with age, her hand stretched toward the prize.
Tiffany chose that moment to look over her competitor's shoulder. Her eyes went wide and she gasped. "Oh, my gosh." Her hands flew to her face in horror.
The other woman turned to see the calamity happening in back of her.
And that was her undoing. In a superhuman leap, Tiffany bagged the comforter just as her competitor turned back. Score.
Boy, if looks could kill.
It would be rude to gloat. Tiffany gave an apologetic shrug and murmured, "Sorry."
The woman paid her homage with a reluctant nod. "You're good."
Yes, I am. "Thanks," Tiffany murmured, and left the field of battle for the customer service counter.
As she walked away, she heard the other woman mutter, "Little beast."
Okay, now she'd gloat.
She was still gloating as she drove home from the mall an hour later. She'd not only scored on the comforter, she'd gotten two sets of towels (buy one, get one free), a great top for work, a cute little jacket, a new shirt for Brian, and a pair of patent metallic purple shoes with three-and-a-half-inch heels that were so hot she'd burn the pavement when she walked. With the new dress she'd snagged at thirty percent off (plus another ten percent off for using her department store card), she'd be a walking inferno. Brian would melt when he saw her.
Her husband would also melt if he saw how much she'd spent today, so she had to beat him home. And since he would be back from the office in half an hour, she was now in another race, one that she didn't dare lose. That was the downside of hitting the mall after work. She always had to hurry home to hide her treasures before Brian walked in the door. But she could do it.
Tiffany followed the Abracadabra shopping method: get the bargain and then make it disappear for a while so you could later insist that said bargain had been sitting around the house for ages. She'd learned that one from her mother. Two years before, she had successfully used the Guessing Game method: bring home the bargains, and lull husband into acceptance by having him guess how incredibly little you'd paid for each one.
She'd pull a catch of the day from its bag and say, "Guess how much I paid for this sweater."
He'd say, "Twenty dollars."
"Too high," she'd reply with a smirk.
"Nope. Eight ninety-nine. I'm good."
And she was. As far as Tiffany was concerned, the three sexiest words in the English language were fifty percent off. She was a world-class bargain hunter (not surprising, since she'd sat at the feet of an expert — her mom), and she could smell a sale a mile away.
Great as she was at ferreting out a bargain, she wasn't good with credit cards. It hadn't taken Tiffany long to snarl her finances to the point where she and Brian had to use their small, start-a-family savings and Brian's car fund to bail her out.
She'd felt awful about that, not only because she suspected they'd never need that family fund anyway (that suspicion was what led to her first shopping binge), but because Brian had suffered from the fallout of her mismanagement. He'd had his eye on some rusty old beater on the other side of the lake and had been talking about buying and restoring it. The car wound up rusting at someone else's house, thanks to her. Even the money they'd scraped together for her bailout wasn't enough. She'd had to call in the big guns: Daddy. That had probably been harder on Brian than waving good-bye to their savings.
"Tiffy, baby, you should have told me," he said the day the awful truth came out and they sat on the couch, her crying in his arms.
She would have, except she kept thinking she could get control of her runaway credit card bills. It seemed like one minute she only had a couple and the next thing she knew they'd bred and taken over. "I thought I could handle it."
It was a reasonable assumption since they both worked. There was just one problem: their income had never quite managed to keep up with the demands of their life. It still didn't.
She sighed. Brian so didn't understand. All he did was pay the mortgage, utilities, and the car payments. He had no idea how much it really cost to live. First of all, they had to eat. Did he have any idea how much wine cost? Or meat? Even toilet paper wasn't cheap. And they had to have clothes. She couldn't show up at Salon H to do nails in sweats, for heaven's sake. What woman wanted to go to a nail artist who looked like a slob? Food and clothes were the tip of the expense iceberg. Friends and family had birthdays; she couldn't give them IOUs. And she had to buy Christmas presents. And decorations. And hostess gifts. Now it was June and soon there would be picnics at the lake and neighborhood barbecues. A girl could hardly show up empty-handed. Then there were bridal showers to attend, and baby ... No, no. She wasn't going there.
After the great credit card cleanup the Guessing Game method lost its effectiveness and she'd had to retire it. Hiding her purchases worked better anyway.
Her bargains weren't the only things she was hiding. In the last year she'd gotten two new credit cards, and they were both well used. Brian might panic if he knew, but there was no need for panic. She'd be okay this time. She'd learned her lesson. In fact, she was going to make a big payment on one of them this week. So, there was no need for Brian not to know about the purchases in her car trunk.
She checked the clock on the dash: 4:50. Brian got off at five. He worked at the Heart Lake Department of Planning and Community Development. It took him exactly six minutes to get from his office to their culdesac in Heart Lake Estates and another fifty-five seconds to park his car and get to the front door. That gave her seventeen minutes and five seconds to beat him home.
A little voice at the back of her mind whispered, "You wouldn't have to worry about beating your husband home if you were honest with him."
She ignored it and applied more pressure to the gas pedal. She could feel her heart rate picking up as two new voices began to echo in the back of her head.
Brian: That's a lot of shopping bags. Were you at the mall?
Tiffany: Yes, but I didn't spend much. This was all on sale.
Brian: You had that much cash on you?
Here the dialogue stopped because she didn't know what script to follow. Should she lie and say, "Yes, actually, I did," or should she say, "Well, I only charged a couple of things."
No, of course, she wouldn't use that last line. She wasn't supposed to be charging anything. She'd promised. But she didn't have enough money to take advantage of the sales. And if she didn't take advantage of the sales, how could she save money? It was a terrible, vicious circle.
She should take it all back. Brian probably wouldn't get that excited about the shoes or the dress anyway. Just show up naked. That was what her friends always joked. Even naked she couldn't explain about the new charge cards. Not these days.
Her best bet was to get home before Brian. She could make it. Her foot pressed down harder. She wouldn't buy anything more all month, and she'd take back the shoes. But the dress — fifty percent off, for heaven's sake.
Just get home and ditch the stuff. Then you can decide what to do. She roared off the exit ramp then turned right onto Cedar Springs Road. Ten more minutes and she'd be in Heart Lake Estates. The finish line was in sight.
Oh, no. What was this behind her? Her stomach fell at the sight of the flashing lights. Noooo. This was so unfair. Yes, she was going fifteen miles over the speed limit, but she had an emergency brewing here. And thirty was too slow. What sicko had decided you could only go thirty on this road anyway? It was probably someone who had no life, nowhere to be, no husband to beat home.
Once again a conversation started at the back of her brain.
Brian: Hey, I beat you home. Where were you?
Tiffany: Just out running some errands.
Brian: What's that piece of paper in your hand?
Tiffany: Ummmm ...
She could not, COULD NOT, get a speeding ticket. They couldn't afford it.
Heart thudding, she watched as the policeman got out of his patrol car. He was big and burly. Big men loved sweet, little blondes with blue eyes. That had to work in her favor. She saw the wedding ring on his finger. Darn. It would have worked more in her favor if he'd been single.
She let down her window and showed him the most pitiful expression she could muster. "I was speeding, I know, but pleeease don't give me a ticket. I haven't had a ticket since I was eighteen." Actually, twenty, but close enough. Parking tickets didn't count. Neither did citations for running stop signs. "I promise I won't speed again. Ever. If I come home with a speeding ticket ..." And a trunk full of shopping bags. She couldn't even think about it. She might as well throw herself in the lake and be done with it.
The officer regarded her sadly. Good, she'd won his sympathy. She looked back at him with tears in her eyes.
"Lady, you were going twenty miles over the limit. I can't not give you a ticket."
What? What was this? "Oh, God, please." Now she opted to shed the tears. They were wasted sitting around in her eyeballs. "My husband will kill me." How was she going to pay on her credit card if she had to use the money for a stupid speeding ticket?
"Don't worry," said the officer.
"Yes?" He'd had a change of heart. She was saved! Long live blonde.
"They take MasterCard at the courthouse. May I have your driver's license and registration please?"
Tiffany's jaw dropped. "What kind of a sick thing is that to say?"
"License and registration," he prompted.
She fished them out of the glove compartment and handed them over. "I'm so not buying tickets to the policeman's ball." She sniffled.
"We're not doing one this year," he said, and walked back to his car.
This was sick and wrong and unfair. That cop had no heart.
She should have told him she had to go to the bathroom. Then maybe he would have let her go with a warning, maybe even given her a police escort home. A police escort was the only way she'd beat Brian home now.
Tiffany looked at the clock on her dash and ground her teeth. This was a nightmare. She was going to have to return the shoes, the top, the jacket, and the shirt. The dress, too.
"Aren't you forgetting something?" prompted that little voice.
Nooooo. And the comforter.CHAPTER 2
Brian's old mail Jeep was already parked in the driveway when Tiffany got home. She stuffed the speeding ticket in her purse and left her purchases in the trunk. As she hurried up the front walk she tried to come up with a reason she was late getting home so that she didn't have to use the S word. Brian still didn't need to know about the shopping, especially since she was going to have to take everything back so she could pay for that stupid ticket. Maybe not Brian's shirt. He had to look nice for work. But everything else.
She began to script her arrival.
Brian: What took you so long? I thought you were done at four today.
Tiffany: Something came up.
Brian: Yeah? What?
Oh, boy. What could she say next? A client, of course — she'd say someone had come into Salon H with a nail emergency just as she was leaving. Brian would buy that. It happened.
She hated lying to him, though. She never lied to him, except about money. Somewhere along their happily-ever-after road, her spending habits had become top secret. Really, there were some things it was better for him not to know. He'd only worry.
Like she was doing right now. For a nanosecond she considered calling her father and asking him to give her the money to pay for her ticket. Her birthday was next month. They could call it an early birthday present. If she had the ticket covered she could tell Brian why she was late, and in the next breath say, "But don't worry. It's paid for." Sadly, there was no point in calling Daddy. She still remembered his words to her after the great credit card bailout: "Baby girl, this is the last time I'm going to come to your rescue. You're a married woman now and you need to learn the value of a dollar."
As if she didn't know the value of a dollar. She knew it wasn't worth squat!
She sighed as she slipped in the front door. No sense asking Mom for help, either. Mom never had any money.
Tiffany found Brian already on the back deck. He'd changed into his jeans and was firing up the barbecue to grill hamburgers, their standard fare on the nights he cooked dinner. "You beat me home," she said, stating the obvious, and gave him a quick kiss. "I figured you would. You wouldn't believe the day I had." So far, so good.
"Busy, huh? That's good." Brian sounded more distracted than interested in how her day had gone.
That was normal lately; he had a lot on his mind. But it wasn't sex. The shoes really had been a waste. After two miscarriages, she supposed she couldn't blame him. What was the point?
Love was the point, of course, but sometimes, late at night, after Brian was dead to the world, she wrote a very dark script:
Tiffany: Brian, do you still love me?
Brian: I don't know. You can't manage money and you can't stay pregnant. What good are you?
That was always where the script ended because she still hadn't come up with an answer that satisfied her.
"How was your day?" she asked now.
He used to have plenty to say about work. There was always a contractor who was hounding him, a property owner trying to pass off plans for a garage as plans for a shed, someone unhappy over how long it was taking to get the permit for the addition on her house. But the local building slump was slowing things down at work and spreading insecurity through the office. Brian had mentioned it only once, when he was afraid she was starting to get carried away with her bargain hunting, but it seemed like for the last month, he'd been walking under a dark cloud. She'd ask what was new at the office and he'd say, "Nothing. What's for dinner?" Now he'd gone from "nothing" to a shrug.
"Is everything okay?" Tiffany asked, even though she wasn't sure she wanted to hear the answer.
"I don't know," he said, his voice heavy.
He went back inside the house. She followed him in and watched as he pulled hamburger out of the fridge and began pounding the meat into patties. Okay. So, they weren't talking about her day and they weren't talking about his. What were they going to do?
Make dinner. She washed her hands, then went to the fridge and pulled out onions, lettuce, and a tomato and set them on the counter.
"It's a good thing all the credit cards are paid off," he said.
Meanwhile, back at the fridge, Tiffany almost dropped a jar of pickles.
You'd better tell him about the credit cards now. And the ticket.
Oh, no. This was so not the time to dump that kind of news on her husband, not with the mood he was in. "Is there something you're not telling me?"
"Things are really getting bad at work, Tiffy." Brian gave a piece of meat an extra hard smack.
Getting? They'd already been bad.
"Two people got laid off today."
"Laid off?" she squeaked. They were barely making it now. What would they do if Brian got laid off?
He put the meat patties on a plate. "That's why I'm glad we at least don't have a lot of credit card debt anymore."
She nodded agreement. This was sooooo not the right time to give him any bad news. When would there be a right time? Probably never. What was she going to do?
Excerpted from Small Change by Sheila Roberts. Copyright © 2010 Sheila Rabe. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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