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So much time had passed since Tracy Deloche had gotten it on with a man that last night she'd actually made a list of things she needed to do, just so she wouldn't make an embarrassing mistake.
"Shave everything that needs it." Now she paused beside her dresser to check that one off. An hour ago she had taken a long scented bath and made sure that not one hair, one patch of stubble, remained where it shouldn't.
"Insert diaphragm." She wasn't fond of number two. She'd been on the pill most of her adult life, but at her last checkup, the doctor had asked a series of questions, then recommended she take a break for at least a year. The woman, who was even younger than Tracy's thirty-five, had fitted her for a diaphragm, explained how to use it, then given her the prescription to fill.
Sadly, Tracy hadn't needed it until now. She'd taken care of those preparations, too. So what if thinking about sex this far ahead of time lacked a certain spontaneity? She was sure Marsh knew what she had in mind for their rendezvous. He was the one who'd called to say that Bay, his nine-year-old son, was staying overnight with a friend, so he could come to her house as soon as he dropped Bay off.
Most likely her chicken Caesar salad, even if she had learned to make a wicked delicious dressing last week, was not the lure. In fact, she doubted they would actually get to the salad.
"Change sheets. Uh-huh. Buy new underwear." Too late for that, but she had a zebra-stripe push-up bra and thong that would serve, although these days, most likely due to frequent laundering, both were snugger than they should be.
"Sexier that way." The minute the words passed her lips, she realized the excuse sounded like something Wanda, her fifty-something neighbor, would say. The thought that Florida Cracker Wanda might be rubbing off on her was sobering.
She crumpled the list and tossed it in the wastebasket. She had cleaned her house, bought wine for herself and a six pack of Dos Equis for Marsh. She'd selected the most seductive music in her collection and loaded it to an iPod playlist titled Seduction. She had turned on just the right number of lamps to enhance the deepening twilight. A wheel of Brie was baking in the oven, and hummus and chips sat on the kitchen table under plastic to protect them from the inevitable Florida bugs and humidity. Her skimpiest sundress clung to her hips and thighs, and bared a significant portion of her back, even though it was April and evenings could still be cool.
She was threading a sandal strap through a buckle when the telephone rang. Not her cell phone, the number Marsh and most of her friends used, but the landline in her kitchen. She considered abandoning the shoe, but she waited for her new answering machine to pick up first. When it did, a woman began to whine, then picked up steam and whined a little faster.
"Good ol' Mom." Tracy went back to the sandal and tried not to listen. Her mother's phone calls were rare, and one that didn't center on the past, most notably Tracy's failed marriage to one CJ Craimer, was as priceless as an invitation to a Brad Pitt wedding. Unfortunately, Tracy could tell from her mother's tone that nobody was going to pay good money for this.
"Mom, Mom," she said, shaking her head as her mother's volume increased. She tried to drown out the phone sermon with her own version. "'How are you, Tracy? How's life in Florida? Are you still enjoying your job? This place you're living sounds charming, if primitive. But I can tell you've found good friends and a purpose to your life.'"
She paused, her imagination having run its course, since she had never experienced that kind of real-life conversation with her mother.
In the kitchen, her mother's voice rose to hog-caller levels. "You know, this is all your fault," Denise Deloche screeched. "If you hadn't married CJ, everything he's done, everything he is, wouldn't matter to any of us!"
She must have been building to that, because the message ended. Tracy heard a dial tone, then the machine stopped recording.
After savoring the silence for a moment, Tracy filled it. "And how are you, Mom? Are you finding a smaller house easier to take care of, even if it's not in Bel-Air? Have you thought about starting a book club or buying a bike? Maybe saving to come and visit me?"
Even if her mother had been listening, Tracy had no qualms about asking the last question. Denise Deloche was as likely to come to Florida as she was to start a soup kitchen on her sidewalk.
Since CJ had metamorphosed from the duke of developers to the king of convicts—taking Tracy's parents' substantial investments with him—Tracy had borne the brunt of their fury. Her father, who billed himself as "orthodontist to the stars," claimed that because of her, he would be straightening teeth until he was eighty. His second wife insisted Tracy was no longer welcome in their home. Tracy's mother was the friendliest of the three. At least she still spoke to her daughter, although mostly to berate her. The fact that Tracy had been clueless about CJ's business dealings and lost almost everything herself, including her husband, mattered not at all.
She rose, sandals buckled in place, and smoothed her skirt over her thighs. Tonight nobody was going to bring her down. In the past year she had faced and accepted her own stupidity and unwitting culpability. She'd been young when she married CJ Craimer, blinded by the diamonds he tossed in her direction, trained to find character in the cut of a man's suit and the country clubs he frequented. Besides, if CJ hadn't chosen real estate investment to make his mark, he could have been a successful televangelist. Her ex was charismatic and persuasive. CJ could make a killing selling banana plantations in Antarctica, and probably had. Sometimes, when she looked back on the years of their marriage and all the things she knew about his profound abilities and limitless charm, the only thing that really surprised her was that he had gotten caught.
Caught, tried, convicted, incarcerated.
"Great!" Now, thanks to good old Mom, instead of thinking about Marsh Egan, the man she might be falling in love with, the man she might be falling into bed with in a few minutes, Tracy was thinking about her ex.
"Bloodsucking leech," she said. She waited a moment to see if the description sent CJ's image fleeing. "Washed-up thug."
She shrugged and marched into the living room to fluff the sofa pillows and turn on one more lamp. As she fluffed, she gave herself a pep talk. "Now I'm thinking about Marsh. Goodbye old, hello new."
She ran out of pillows and chitchat. In the kitchen, she opened the wine and checked on the Brie, which wasn't quite finished, so she added a few minutes to the timer. The wine hadn't been in the cheapest bin at Publix, but it was a far cry from anything CJ would have ordered from one of his favorite Napa Valley vineyards.
She thumped the heel of her hand against her forehead, hoping to dislodge him. "Goodbye and good riddance, CJ. Hope the beans and weenies are yummy at Victorville. Maybe if you folded enough laundry today, they'll let you have seconds."
Why did she care if the wine had been on sale? Hadn't she learned anything in the year since her life in Bel-Air had been dismembered, buck by buck? Besides, she hoped the wine, like the salad, was going to be an afterthought later in the evening.
Much, much later.
She heard a vehicle slowing, and she leaned forward to see if it was Marsh's pickup. Darkness was falling, but she could see he had parked at the beginning of the short drive that led up to her cottage, effectively blocking her in. If she wanted to run, she was too late.
She sprinted to the bedroom mirror to make sure her hair was still okay. She'd left it down, where it slid straight and sleek past her shoulders, and she pushed one dark lock behind an ear, studying the effect. As she turned to view the side, she realized the pearl buttons that marched from waist to neckline were gaping just the tiniest bit. She shouldn't have washed the dress, despite what the label claimed. She shouldn't have tried to save a few bucks.
She heard rapping on her front door, and she adjusted the bodice and hoped it would stay. Then she crossed the living room and flung the door open.
Marsh's gaze traveled up and down before it came back up to rest on her face. "If I say you look like a million dollars in that dress, you aren't going to keep it on all night just to impress me, are you?"
She gave him the same smile she had practiced in front of a mirror at sixteen, the one that had snagged CJ years later.
She tossed her head and tried to toss her mother's phone call with it. "What makes you think I'd consider taking it off?"
He leaned over and kissed her. Casually. No tongue, but warm and sweet anyway. "Well, you might say I'm forever hopeful. Those papers are all signed. Now we've got nothing between us except whatever that dress is made of, and a shirt and jeans I can be out of in ten seconds flat. And my son is safely playing video games for the night."
She hooked the opening of his polo shirt with her index finger and tugged him close for another kiss, far less casual. He smelled faintly like lime and something deliciously masculine. She didn't want to let him go.
"Ah, the papers," she said, when she'd finished but hadn't released him. "Effective libido dampeners, weren't they?"
He pulled her closer and trailed a chain of kisses to her earlobe. "You think so? My libido's been straining at the leash since pretty much the first time I saw you."
The papers were an agreement between Wild Florida, the environmental organization for which Marsh was director, and Tracy. She had agreed to put the land she owned here on Palmetto Grove Key into a conservation easement. She and Marsh had wrangled over terms for months, but in the end, she thought they were both happy with the result.
They had put the physical side of their relationship on hold for the duration. Now maybe they could find some happiness on that score, too.
Reluctantly she stepped back, and he held out a bottle. Tracy leaned over to check the label. "Wow, that's a really good Zinfandel. Too bad I just opened another bottle."
"Save this for another time, then."
"Let's not stand in the doorway all night. We have better places to be." She moved aside to let him in. She thought he looked yummy. The most casual man she knew, Marsh had still dressed up for her. The jeans were clean and appropriately faded, the dark green polo shirt looked new. He wore his sandy brown hair in its usual ponytail, but pulled back neatly. His perpetual Florida tan set off eyes the golden brown of his hair and a smile she could feel all over her body.
She smiled, too, and against all possible odds, her smile suddenly wobbled. She was nervous. She, Tracy Deloche, who, from the day she purchased her first training bra had been schooled in the fine art of leading men around by their noses. By the time she was sixteen, braces gone and ears flattened against her scalp, she'd graduated at the head of her class. Since then, she'd been fully confident she had a good shot at any heterosexual man in the universe.
And now Marsh Egan, Florida good ol' boy, self-confessed Cracker, tree hugger and environmental gadfly, was making her nervous.
She tried to remember if she'd felt this way when she set out to get CJ in bed.
Marsh crossed the room to put the wine on the counter between her kitchen and living room. "Do you know you have a message?" He reached up, and before she could stop him, pushed the play button on her answering machine.
Tracy made a flying leap, but it was too late. Her mother's high-pitched whine filled the little cottage again.
"Great, nothing like unleashing the demons of hell." Tracy heard her ex-husband's name four times before she managed to get to the phone. She hit Delete between another C and aJ. She was sorry she hadn't thought to do it before Marsh showed up.
"I gather that was your mother?" Marsh lifted a brow.
"Let's not talk about my mother."
"She sounded upset."
"She's been upset for a while now. She's stuck in upset."
"About your ex, I take it?"
"CJ would be the cause. But let's not—"
"Isn't he in jail? What's he done now?"
"CJ doesn't have to do anything. If they'd hung him instead—"
"They don't hang people in California." Marsh sounded like the lawyer he was. "New Hampshire and Washington, maybe. I can check and get back to you."
"CJ probably had business dealings there, but hanging wouldn't do any good. My mother's life changed, and, in her view, not for the better. Even if he was six feet under, she'd still be living in a two-bedroom bungalow on the west side of LA. She can't get to CJ to rant and rave, but she has my number."
"She's not the only one who's upset…." He laid a hand against her cheek and lifted her chin with his thumb. "You get a lot of these calls?"
"I've learned to ignore them."
"Maybe not as much as you think."
"I have some chips and hummus." She pulled away. "And a nice cold six-pack."
He took the cue. The haze of desire was fading. They needed space and some time away from talk of Tracy's ex to let it build again.
He poured a beer—she figured this must be a special night, since he wasn't drinking straight from the bottle—and she unwrapped the hummus and checked the timer for the Brie. She added three plump strawberries to each small plate and handed him one. Then she poured herself a glass of wine.
"Is it too hot to sit outside?" she asked as he dished up.
"It's okay out there, but it was heating up even nicer inside."
"I vote we cuddle on my sofa and see what happens."
She turned on the music as she passed the counter. Vanessa Williams began to sing "Save the Best for Last."
She settled beside him, and he put his arm around her shoulders. She took a sip of wine, then another.
"So, okay," he said, "is the wine helping? Chug it down, and I'll pour you another glass."
She rested her head against his arm and turned so she could see him. "I was trying really hard not to let my mother hook me. But it's kind of tough when I get the instant replay."