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Miranda Smith was looking for a stamp when she discovered just how good her husband looked in ladies' lingerie.
It was 5:30 p.m. on the coldest January 8 on record, and the Truro Post Office was already closed. But for Mirandawho was now conducting a room-by-room searchthe stamp was no longer postage, but a symbol of every New Year's resolution she'd ever made. And failed to keep.
One week into the new year she'd already given up on becoming a better daughter and reading her way through the classics. She wasn't going to wimp out on the only resolution she still had a chance of keeping.
Somewhere in this five-bedroom, four-bath, six-thousand-square-foot homewhich she'd just tossed like a petty thief looking for lootthere had to be enough postage to get her credit card payment in on time.
Miranda stood in the foyer outside Tom's study, debating her next move.
With less than twenty minutes to get ready for dinner at her parents', she should be heading upstairs to shower and change, not preparing to strip-search another room.
It was just a stamp, she told herself as she turned toward the stairs; paying an occasional late fee was not cause for shame.
Placing a hand on the banister, she took the first step. On the next step she decided next year's resolutions would include buying stamps regularly, which would definitely enhance her chances of eliminating late fees in the future. Or maybe she'd just pay the whole damn lot of them on-line.
As if she'd be making resolutions next year when she'd folded so easily this year.
The thought stopped her in mid-step, turned her around, and propelled her back down the stairs, determined to find a stamp or die in the attempt.
Marching through the foyer and into the study, Miranda snapped on the overhead light and crossed to Tom's desk. Finding the desk drawer slightly ajar, she pulled on the knob, gritting her teeth in frustration when it didn't budge.
Beyond impatience, Miranda wrapped both hands around the knob and yanked with all her might. The drawer sprang free and sent a packet of photos, which must have been holding up the works, spilling across the floor.
Miranda crouched down to gather them up. She duck-walked across the floor, cramming the photos back into the envelope, muttering to herself, and trying to figure out where else she might find postage in the next thirty seconds.
Until she actually looked at the photo in her hand. The one of her husband, the former linebacker, in a red satin bustier and matching bikini panties.
Her first clear thought was that there had to be some mistake. As president of Ballantyne Bras, her husband was expected to supervise the design, production, and sales of a comprehensive line of women's undergarments.
He was not supposed to wear them.
And yet here he was in a black lace teddy. And a fuchsia merry widowwith some woman's hand on his rear end.
Miranda squinted at the hand, trying to recognize it, but other than its French manicure and obvious familiarity with her husband's derriere, it could have belonged to anyone.
The next photo revealed Tom in a cream-colored thong that looked as if it had been custom made for him. Her head began to pound as she realized it probably had.
Unable to tear her gaze from the sight of Tom's rugged torso sheathed in such feminine trappings, Miranda gathered up the rest of the photos and pulled herself up into the chair.
She thought of all the times she'd seen her husband smile and wink and say "Hi, I'm Tom Smith, and I'm in ladies' underwear," and never imagined he was telling the truth.
Or that he looked as good in it as she did.
Drawing in one shaky breath and letting out another, she dragged her gaze from the photos to stare out the study window. Porch lights twinkled from the house across the cul-de-sac, and she could see snowflakes beginning to fall in the arc of a street lamp, though it was hard to fully appreciate the winter landscape with her brain so full of the vision of Tom decked out in Ballantyne's biggest sellers.
Her thoughts moved slowly, and she felt strangely detached, as if someone had swabbed her with Novocain. There was no sharp stinging pain, no specific point of impact, only a spreading ache of hurt and disbelief. And the sixty-four-million-dollar question: How could she not have known?
In this town where her family's business had been the largest employer for more than a hundred years, someone should have known . . . and blabbed. And yet until a moment ago, she would have sworn her husband's only interest in ladies' underwear was manufacturing it.
The images ricocheted through her brain, bouncing off each other, raising more questions she couldn't answer.
Who had taken the pictures? Who did the female hand belong to? And how could a man who'd spent much of his waking life in a jockstrap and cleats look so good in a pale pink corset with tiny rosebuds down the front?
Miranda laid the pictures out on the desk. This was her husband. The man she'd met her first miraculous year of business school at Emory University. The man her family had deemed perfect for her . . . and whom she'd married fifteen years ago in the biggest wedding Truro had ever seen. The man she'd been trying to have children with for most of those fifteen years. The man who'd turned out to be somewhat . . . less . . . than she'd expected, but with whom she'd fully intended to grow old.
Icy tendrils of fear and dread wrapped themselves around her as she realized that no matter what happened next, her life would never be the same. If her husband wasn't who she thought he was, then who did that make her?
She fanned the photos out as a card player might, forcing herself to look at them again. Lifting the last one to the light, she studied the disembodied woman's hand resting so possessively on her husband's bare buttock, and a hot flash of anger melted some of the ice.
Another woman had fondled her husband's naked buns while he was dressed in women's lingerie.
Her stomach clenched, and she asked herself again how this could have happened. It was normal for married people to fall into their individual routines, normal for the excitement to dissipate after so many years together. It was not normal to miss something as big as this.
Had there been a "Gee, honey, I hope you don't mind but I really get off on dressing up in women's underclotheswhich is really convenient since I run your family's brassiere and lingerie businessand I especially like to do this with other women's hands on my butt"?
Had she smiled over the morning paper and her to-do list for the Ladies' Guild and Miss Rhododendron Prep program and said, "That's nice, Tom. Can you pass the preserves?"
She sat, still numb, staring out the window trying to see . . . something. Trying to imagine what in the world she was supposed to do now.
For a wild, wonderful moment she contemplated pretending she'd never found the pictures. She peered at the photos more closely, but couldn't find a date. Maybe Tom didn't even dress up like this anymore. Maybe it had grown old for him, like the white-water rafting and the iron man triathlons. Who knew how long those pictures had been stuck in the drawer?
Experimentally, she picked up the photos and dropped them in the wastebasket. Then she turned her back on the trash can and leaned against the desk with studied nonchalance. Okay, so her husband liked to dress up in women's underwear. And he'd never mentioned this to her. And he did it with other women. Okay. Things could be worse. Things could always be worse.
Miranda bent over to retrieve the packet of photos, which now had strips of shredded paper from the wastebasket clinging to it. She knew, without thinking, what her mother would say. "Make him give up Miss Manicure, Miranda. And do your best to forgive and forget."
Sure. Then they could get matching underwear madethey owned the company, after alland, and, well, she wasn't sure exactly what you did once you were dressed up that way with your husband, but maybe it would be fun. Just because she didn't dress up didn't mean she didn't have an adventurous spirit.
Maybe her mother had a point. Maybe she could just show Tom the pictures and ask who took them. Then she could ask him to explain why he liked to do that. And why he'd never mentioned it. And who the hell the woman with the manicure was.
Miranda set the packet of photos in front of her. Idly, as she tried to follow that scenario through to its logical conclusion, she peeled the strips of shredded paper off the packet and began to shuffle them around the desktop. Words began to leap out at her. Words that pushed the images she'd just confronted right out of her mind. Words like "Ballantyne" and "receivables," and the truly alarming "auditors to investigate."
With trembling fingers, Miranda retrieved more shredded pieces from the wastebasket and began to fit them together. They appeared to be part of a letter from Ballantyne's primary lender, and though there were some gaps, the end result was every bit as life-altering as the photos.
Not only did her husband like to dress up in women's underwear, he had put Ballantynethe company that had been passed down by the women in her family for generationsin a precarious position with its bank.
She couldn't seem to get any air into her lungs, and despite the snow outside, little beads of sweat popped out on her forehead.
The phone on the desk in front of her rang, and she jumped. Heart racing, she attempted to think lofty, composed, queenlike thoughts, as she'd been taught before her first beauty pageant. She pictured the crown on her head and imagined Bert Parks asking her the inevitable question about world peace, but she couldn't seem to catch her breath. Oh, God, what if it was Tom?
Wary, she picked up the phone and brought it to her ear.
"Miranda, I thought you were coming for dinner," Joan Ballantyne Richards Harper said without preamble.
Miranda unclenched at the sound of her mother's voice, which was not her normal reaction at all.
"You're supposed to be here at six-thirty, but your father tells me he saw Tom headed up toward the lake house about an hour and a half ago."
"The lake house?" She'd winterized the lake house just after Thanksgiving and hadn't been up there since. Tom hadn't mentioned being up there, either. Apparently there were a lot of things her husband hadn't mentioned. "But it's snowing." Through the window Miranda could see the flakes falling faster. What would Tom be doing at the lake house now?
"Rosalee already has dinner in the oven. I hope you're not going to be late."
"Well, um, actually, I don't think we're going to be able to make it at all."
"Miranda, that's not accepta"
"I'm, uh, not feeling well." She paused. It was the truth. "And Tom's got something going on." Another truth. "I've got to run. I'm sorry. I'll talk to you later."
Her mother's stunned silence rang in her ears as she put down the phone, but for once her mother's reaction was immaterial.
She absolutely could not sit here another second; would not sit here waiting for Tom to come home with some half-baked story about where he'd been and what he'd been doing.
Running on pure adrenaline, Miranda pulled on her coat and grabbed up her keys. Snow splattered against her windshield as she raced through Truro to the mountain road that would take her up to Ballantyne Bald. Winding upward, she tried to plan what she would do and say when she confronted Tom, but she was too agitated to form a coherent thought, let alone a plan.
When she turned off the paved road onto the gravel one that twisted the final two miles up to the lake, she saw headlights coming at her and was forced to hug the hard rock of the mountainside as the other car sped past. Through a layer of tears she peered out at the passing car, but the only thing she could see for sure was that it wasn't Tom's white Mercedes.
His car wasn't parked in the clearing between her and her grandmother's houses, and she didn't see it down at the edge of the lake where he often left it. The damp cold sliced through her wool coat as she parked in front of the house then trudged around to the back. His car wasn't there, either, but when she stepped up on the back porch, Miranda could see the glow of a light in the rear bedroom. Pulling the lake house key out of her pocket, she fit it in the lock, took a deep breath, and threw open the door.
Shit. Pumped for naked limbs and stammered apologies, what she got was an empty house and a strange sense of disappointment.
In the master suite the bedside lamp glowed and the coverlet had been pulled back, but the sheets appeared fresh and unrumpled. In the nightstand drawer, she found a half-empty box of condoms, something she and Tom hadn't used since she'd started trying to get pregnant, and Tom's Dopp Kit sat open on the bathroom counter. The damp sink with its glob of shaving cream told her he'd shaved.
Her husband had been here and it looked like he'd been expecting someone, but if they'd had sex, they hadn't bothered with the bed. And if he'd been planning on a quickie before dinner at her parents, where was he now?
Miranda thought about the car she'd passed on the way up, but other than confirming it wasn't Tom's, she'd been too preoccupied and had too little time to examine it further. Nothing that had happened tonight made sense, and as she went through the house pulling open drawers and looking inside cupboards, she began to feel more and more like Goldilocks outing the three bears. Or Alice in Wonderland stumbling through some X-rated looking glass.
When there was nowhere else to look, she shoved the handcuffs, the blindfold, the oscillating penis, and the crotchless panties she'd found into the garbage. Then, brushing the tears off her cheeks, she drove back down the mountain with one thought in mind: throwing Tom Smith out on his satin-covered behind.
Tom's butt wasn't at home when she got there. Nor did it come home later.
At midnight she stopped priming for confrontation and climbed the stairs to their bedroom where, for the third time that night, she began to open drawers. Though she was now braced to find satin or lace, she found neither. She didn't find anything in white cotton either, because Tom's drawers were completely empty. In the walk-in closet she found more of the same. Or was that none of the same?