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By FERN MICHAELS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 MRK Productions
All rights reserved.
Soft night sounds and cool, whispering breezes at last persuaded her thickly lashed eyes to close in slumber. Stars shone in the black sky, and a mellow sliver of moon watched over the earth like a lonely sentry, protecting the lovers in the magic hush of the desert darkness.
Morganna lay quietly, listening to the slow, even breathing of the dark-eyed, raven-haired man beside her. From time to time she gently touched his cool skin to reassure herself that he was real. He was hers, totally hers, for now, forever, for all eternity. Nothing save death could take him from her.
He stirred, extending a muscular arm to bring her closer. She sighed contentedly as she laid her dark head on his broad chest, feeling the thicket of fine fur soft against her cheek. Imperceptibly his arm tightened and Morganna nestled closer, whispering soft words of endearment. She felt warm lips caress her bare shoulder and then heard her husband's soft murmur as he breathed her name. "Morganna ... Morganna ..."
"Hush." She placed gentle fingers upon his face, and he turned his head to press his mouth against her sweetly scented wrist. Her skin was smooth and warm, and even in sleep he was drawn to that place where her pulse drummed in a contented rhythm. "I am here, I'll always be here," she whispered. "Sleep, my love." The soft moan of her name on his lips drew her back to their lovemaking of a few hours past....
It was all there. Every last word, every last emotion. A little of her life's blood, a lot of sweat, and far too many tears. Her editor would genuinely like it, her publisher would find it salable, and her agent would pretend to love it for the fat advance payment. Her readers would not be disappointed; this was what a Rita Bellamy novel was all about. Love. Passion. Romance.
"I'm the one who's disappointed," she muttered sourly. Her eyes dropped to the last page still in the printer. It was good. Over the past twelve years Rita had become a best-selling author of romantic novels, progressing steadily from obscure little Gothics to historical novels of national notice. It had been said that in a Rita Bellamy novel there was a sense of soul touching. She knew her public speculated on what kind of woman their favorite novelist was, what erotic sensual delights she had tasted, what deep and meaningful relationships she enjoyed. Only Rita herself knew that her life was empty, had been empty, and that her soul had never been touched.
Rita ripped out the paper with a fierce jerk of her hand. It was all a sham, a farce, this living through her writing. Six more chapters and Passion in Paradise would be finished, right on schedule. Two weeks until she met her deadline. She was a pro; she would do it. She couldn't disappoint her editor, her publisher, her agent, and her readers. What did it matter if she disappointed herself?
Now that the love scene was finished, she owed herself a breath of fresh air to shake away the shadows her characters had created. When she returned she would get into the confrontation between the hero and the heroine before the "happy ever after" ending. One of these days she was going to write a book and leave the ending hanging in the air. Just like real life.
Leaning back on her hard, wooden chair, she looked around the cottage. It amazed her that she could write in such a dreary place. Without the aid of her thesaurus the only other adjective she could come up with to describe it was "dismal." Brett had taken everything, had demanded everything, at the time of the divorce. The divorce or his divorce, never their divorce or her divorce. Those were terms she had not come to grips with in the two years that had passed. Brett demanded the divorce, wanted to be free. He had found love, he declared, total all-consuming love. But his charged emotions didn't cloud his thinking where salvaging material assets was concerned. He traded on Rita's insecurities as a woman and the pain of her rejection, which he masterfully inflicted. Wounded, feeling a failure and guilty into the bargain, she had stood numbly by while he packed up the gleaming decorative copper, the antique wall hangings, the colonial furniture that was so homey and comfortable. He had even taken the plaid draperies and the huge, oval, hooked rug she had slaved over one winter while she had been trying to prove her domesticity at a time when her professional life seemed to revolve around finances and bigger and better contracts. Now everything was gone but her pottery collection. It would be a long time before she would forget the disdainful look in Brett's eyes when he passed over her treasured one-of-a-kind pieces of earthenware.
Rita rubbed her aching temples. God, why was she still feeling guilty after two long years? The dust had settled and she was on her own, making a living at something she loved. Maybe it wasn't so much guilt as the sense of failure. If she chose to see herself as the heroine in one of her books, she would have lost patience with the character before chapter three. How tragic and besieged could a character be without becoming tiresome?
She lit a cigarette, her fifteenth, or was it the sixteenth in six hours? She looked with disgust at the littered tin pie plate that served as an ashtray. Brett had taken the dishes as well as the ashtrays. It didn't matter, she told herself, for the thousandth time. The hell it didn't, she reconsidered, inhaling a lungful of smoke. She exhaled a steady stream, hating herself and her need to pacify herself with a cigarette. After two years the melancholy was wearing off, the anger setting in, and suddenly things that hadn't mattered before mattered now.
It was a two-bedroom cottage set back four hundred feet from a gigantic natural lake in the mountains of Pennsylvania. She loved it and had fought to keep it as well as her home in Ridgewood, New Jersey. "I'll buy your share," she had said to Brett. "Mostly for myself, but for the kids too. Take what you want, but I keep the houses." Brett's lawyers had kicked up a fuss, wanting everything sold and split down the middle. But she had held out.
This was the first time she had come to the cabin since the divorce. She should do something with this place. Two years was a long time to leave it empty and now she was literally roughing it with her sleeping bag and camping utensils. Besides, she had come here to work, not to play at camping. The two sawhorses with the old door laid over them served as a desk, and her computer had been transported in the trunk of her Dodge SUV.
Crushing out her cigarette, Rita poured coffee from her thermos into a heavy mug. Fortified, she stared into space and contemplated her future and her past. Why couldn't she pick up the pieces and put the divorce behind her? Other women did; why couldn't she? Lately the wall she had built around herself was beginning to crumble. She knew it was time to get on with her life. To make a stand, to make decisions. But how?
"I just don't know you anymore," Brett had said, accusing her when he had demanded the divorce. That was another thing — he hadn't asked, he had demanded. He was in love. God, that had been almost funny, and it was a pity she couldn't have laughed. Instead, she had cringed, hating herself, feeling a failure, wondering where she had gone wrong. She had failed Brett. Reluctantly, she had agreed to the divorce, believing there was something definitely wrong with her, that in some way she alone was responsible for Brett's sagging ego and his midlife identity crisis. If she were a better woman, a true woman, Brett would never have sought a divorce.
Trouble had been brewing for some time. The financial rewards of her writing were a measure of her success, and she had naturally welcomed it. More than a measure of her success, her growing bank statements were a yardstick of her independence. This was something Brett couldn't deal with — or, apparently, live with. It had occurred to Rita after some revealing statements made by Brett that men equated money with power. If a woman had a dollar that wasn't given to her by her husband, she was exactly one dollar more powerful than he wished her to be. When a woman made thousands of dollars more than her husband and really had no need to ask him for anything, that made her thousands of dollars more powerful than he. Brett had been almost calm when he told her he did not need an over-the-hill forty-year-old writer of steamy sex in his life.
Her career had cost her her marriage, but she had not offered to give it up. She had paid her dues for over twenty years, and when she had finally succeeded in achieving something, becoming a person in her own right, he had no business to expect her to give it up so he could soothe his sagging ego. What about her ego? What about her wants and desires? What about her goddamned soul? Did he even know she had a soul and how it ached to be touched?
The cigarette scorched her fingers, reminding her that it was time to stub it out. Brushing her short, chestnut hair back from her forehead, Rita walked out to the back patio and surveyed her country home. It was beautiful. The Pocono mountains loomed above her, and the fragrant smell of pine and hemlock delighted her senses. She breathed deeply, savoring the pungent aroma. The acre and a half of pine-studded land and the cabin were all hers. Her name alone was on the deed. One of these days she would have to see about attaching the children's names on the crisp, legal paper. But not now. For now it was hers alone. Her eyes were dry when she looked at the brick barbecue she and Brett had built so long ago. And the clothesline with the rusty pulley. They had rigged that together too. A small outcropping of rock covered with dwarf pines and red maples made her draw in her breath in admiration. This wasn't exactly God's country, but it was damn close.
If the weather continued as it had, she would still be able to swim in the lake. The days remained warm, the breezes soft, the water only a shade colder than "bracing." Summer was over; the neighbors had already left for home taking their children with them. The beauty and the solitude were all hers, shared only by the man who was renting the Johnson cottage at the bend of the lake. Taking her light Windbreaker, she made her way down to the edge of the lake, her sneakers scuffing at the pebbles on the walk.
If work went well today, she would go into town tomorrow and order some furniture. Rita's clear blue eyes widened at this thought. It occurred to her that this was one of the few conscious decisions she had made in the last two years that had nothing to do with her children or her work. She smiled; it was time to lay old ghosts to rest. Time to see to her own needs and comfort. Rachel, her youngest daughter, would be coming up to the cottage soon, and she wouldn't like sleeping on the floor. Not modern, liberated Rachel.
She stopped herself from lighting another cigarette as she slowly walked along the shoreline. Perhaps she should jog. Rachel was always saying it was the best thing in the world for a thick midsection. Rita pinched her own waistline. She knew Rachel looked at her with critical eyes and had intended her remarks about exercise and running for her mother. A slight woman and considered quite attractive, Rita had taken to hiding her thickening waist with overblouses and casual shirts. Exercise was just too time-consuming. One of these days she would shed those extra fifteen pounds and firm up — if and when she felt she was ready. Her thick, curly, chestnut hair was her pride and the envy of most women. Rita considered it her one redeeming feature. To hell with blow dryers and curling irons. A professional haircut and a shampoo and a good shake of the head and it dried to perfection, framing her softly rounded face and accentuating her clear, blue eyes.
The sun felt good. Her eyes dropped to her watch. She'd been working since seven and it was now past one. She deserved the break. Walking out onto the rickety boat pier, she inched her way past the missing planks. She wondered what Brett was doing with his new wife right now. She wasn't quite resigned to the fact that he had married a twenty-two-year-old. The lake, christened Lake Happiness, sparkled a deep, azure blue in the bright sunlight.
Sitting down on the end of the pier, she hugged her knees. See that, Rachel? Old Mom can still get her knees up to her chest. It had been a good day. She had managed to write the love scene she had been postponing. These days, she couldn't seem to find the heart for love and romance. Her own life was so barren, so indecisive and unfocused. She laughed aloud, a soft, throaty sound. Perhaps she should try her hand at science fiction? Yes, it was a good day. She had made a decision to buy furniture for the cottage, and she even thought she knew what she would choose. Not colonial. She didn't want a reproduction of what the cottage had been when she shared it with Brett. No, this time it would be something lighter, yet substantial. Not wicker; that always seemed so temporary to her. Something contemporary. Hefty pillows, eclectic decorations, bright colors with tinted glass and chrome. The kind of things she couldn't become attached to — nothing resembling family heirlooms. Bright, light, and crisp. That was the way to go.
When she went back to the cottage, she would complete the chapter, make herself dinner, and start the new chapter. Yes, it was a good day. Tomorrow would be better and the day after that better still. Slowly, she was coming out of her stupor and taking a good look at the world she lived in.
Twigg Peterson shoved his papers into an untidy pile and pushed back his chair. He had worked most of the night and again this morning, and he needed a shave and a shower. Reddish-gold hair stood on end like furbishes on a Valentine card, and he ran a long, slender hand through it, absently trying to smoothe it. The one thing he hadn't counted upon when he signed the lease for the cottage was loneliness. The owner had tried to tell him that summer was over and hardly a soul ever came up here during the fall and winter, but he had ignored the advice and signed the lease. There were times, like this, when he regretted his impulse to be alone, but he was sick of sand, sun, surf, and string-bikinis. By nature he was a social animal and gregarious. He missed having someone to converse with, to share a dinner with. He had taken a two-year sabbatical from the college where he was a professor of marine biology to study the relationship between killer whales and dolphins. He had spent eighteen months in the field, traveling from the blue of the Pacific to the black waters of the Indian Ocean. Now he had six months to write his reports as well as three articles he had promised to Marine Life and National Geographic. He wished he had a dog or a cat, someone. Something. Hell, at this point he'd settle for a goldfish!
Twigg Peterson had never been a creature of discipline; he preferred doing things when the urge came over him rather than waiting for someone else's schedule. Except, of course, when he was due in the classroom. Expressive green eyes and a winning smile made him a favorite with his students, and rarely did he ever have to ask for their attention. He was tall, athletic, and sapling slim. At thirty-two he felt he knew who he was and where he was going. He wore his self-confidence like a Brooks Brothers suit. One of his students, a precocious coed who had the hots for him, said he had a grin that made a girl just want to cuddle and snuggle with him. He had shied away from her after that, as well as several others whose interests were more for the instructor than the course. It wasn't that he didn't like aggressive women; he did. But "Betty Coeds" were hardly women as far as he was concerned. They were little more than girls, all giggles and Pepsodent smiles.
Twigg's eyes went to the cluttered kitchen with its seven-day supply of dirty dishes. He was going to have to do something about the mess or he wouldn't be able to eat without risking food poisoning. And, he was out of clean dishes. Baked beans out of a can only required a fork, and it was better than slugging into town and losing precious time from his writing. What he needed now was some exercise before he hit the sheets for a nap. A couple of laps along the lake would get his adrenaline flowing. Then a shower and a shave and he'd be a new man. Starting the iPod and adjusting the ear set, he hooked the modular miracle onto his belt buckle and left the cabin at a slow trot. He picked up speed as his feet left the rough, pebbled walkway.
Twigg was concentrating so intently on the music piping through the earphones that he didn't see Rita until he was approaching her as she sat on the far end of the pier. A human being and a woman at that! Not that Twigg wasn't aware Rita occupied the neat cottage with the long, sweeping, raised decks of aged cedar that encircled the house. He had known of her existence, but whenever he had seen her she had seemed so unapproachable, so distant, that he had been reluctant to make contact.
Excerpted from Balancing Act by FERN MICHAELS. Copyright © 2013 MRK Productions. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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