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Cari Summerton tucked her tiny daughter into the pink-swathed crib and whispered, "Mama and Daddy have some serious loving planned tonight."
She pressed a kiss to the sleeping baby's forehead, and felt a prickly ball of excitement just below her ribs for the first time since she'd gotten pregnant. Cari hummed as she tidied the baby's room, a saucy va-va-va-voom punctuated with a bump and grind that reminded her that she was twenty-eight, not the eighty-something she'd been feeling lately.
All that was going to change, starting tonight. She was done being depressed. She'd vowed to remember how to be a woman, not just a mother.
The sample packet of pills hidden at the back of her closet was an important first step. Her new hair color—Sassy Strawberry—was the second; a brutal but oh-so-effective bikini wax was third; and the pièce de résistance—a naughty nightie from Victoria's Secret—was laid out on her bed amid crisp white-and-gold tissue paper.
Jimmy was due home any minute now, and tonight would be about the two of them. Nothing more, nothing less.
Still humming, Cari sashayed to the bedroom, shrugged out of the jeans and sweatshirt she thought of as her mommy uniform, and pulled the naughty nightie out of its tissue. She held it up against her body and watched her reflection in the mirror.
She looked good. She'd had a tummy tuck when the doctors had gone in for the C-section—why not?—and was toying with the idea of new breasts for her birthday. Maybe she wasn't as tight as she'd been in college, when she and Jim had met over an exploding beaker in chem lab, but she wasn't bad for a mommy.
Not a mommy, she corrected herself. Tonight was about being a woman. She rubbed her naked thighs together and her reflection smiled a secretive, satisfied moue when she pulled on the nightie. The clock clicked over to 7:35 p.m. as she draped a long silk robe over her shoulders, knowing it showed as much as it covered. Then she ducked into her closet, unearthed the hidden foil packet and pressed out one of the four pink pills the doc had given her to try.
The sweet-coated tablet went down easily, leaving her with a fizzy aftertaste, as if she'd swallowed champagne. Cari's heart beat a little faster in her chest and her blood tingled beneath her skin, revving her juices, pumping her up, making her ready for her husband. Ready for some loving.
Headlights cruised up the driveway and the automatic garage door opener cranked to life. Jimmy!
Her pulse stuttered as she moved through their single-level home, turning off the lights in the side rooms and dimming the kitchen chandelier to emphasize the elegant tapers she'd lit at a table set for two. Pink fizz raced through her bloodstream when the kitchen doorknob turned.
She struck a pose, feeling feminine. Feeling beautiful.
The door opened and Jimmy took one step inside before he froze and his handsome face went slack with shock. "Cari?"
Power bubbled up, stealing her breath. She shifted so the lace rode up her inner thigh. "Hey, handsome. Wanna party?"
Jimmy's carry-on hit the tile floor with a thump. Heat kindled in his green eyes and his lips lifted in a youthful smile, one that reminded her of simpler times before mortgages and college funds. He cleared his throat. "I must have made a mistake. I thought this was my house."
She laughed and crossed to him, the thrill buzzing in her veins. She reached beneath his loosened tie and unfastened the top two buttons so she could touch his dark, springy chest hair. "Let's not tell your wife, okay?"
His hands closed on her waist, seeming to burn through the layers of cloth to her core. The rasp of lace against skin was exquisite torture, and the feel of his hard body against hers was like coming home to someplace new—familiar and exciting at the same time.
"No," he said against her mouth, and his breath tasted of spearmint gum. "You're my wife. My love."
The words squeezed like a fist around her heart, reminding her that this was Jimmy, the man she'd loved pretty much since the first moment she'd seen him across the chem lab, with his eyebrows singed off. She smiled against his lips as intense, overwhelming love washed through her with the strength of an orgasm. Suddenly, breathing didn't seem so important.
Then it seemed like the most important thing in the world.
Her throat closed. Her lungs locked. There was utter, unbelievable silence in her ears, in her veins.
Heat turned to pain in an instant. Help! she shrieked in her mind. Help me! She couldn't breathe. Couldn't speak.
Panicked, she grabbed on to Jimmy. Pain hammered alongside the fear. Why wasn't her heart beating faster? She couldn't hear it, couldn't feel it, couldn't really feel anything. She crashed to the floor and rolled onto her back, gasping for breath that wouldn't come.
Jimmy scrambled to her side and grabbed her arms. She saw a light flashing on the wall. He'd hit the security system panic button just inside the door.
They're on their way, she saw him mouth, and then her hearing cut back in and she heard him say, "Hang on, Cari. The paramedics will be here any minute. Just breathe. Nice and easy. Breathe!"
He'd said the same thing when she'd been in labor, but she'd been able to breathe then.
She struggled, head spinning, and managed to suck in half a lungful of air. She expended the precious oxygen on two words. "The pills..."
Then something went boom inside her, and everything drained away. Touch, taste, smell, everything.
The last thing to fade was the distant sound of her baby crying. "Shhh! Here comes the ad." Raine Montgomery dug her manicured fingernails into her palms, trying to act boss-like when she really wanted to sing the "Hallelujah Chorus."
On the other side of the conference table sat Jeffrey Wells, the sandy-blond, baby-faced child prodigy she'd hired fresh out of grad school to help her run the company. Beside him was Tori Campbell, the thin, dark-eyed young mother Raine had hired with no secretarial references whatsoever because she'd seen too much of her old self in the woman's defeated eyes.
Taking them on had been two of the smartest decisions she'd ever made. Tori kept her organized. Jeff helped bring her visions to life.
The three leaned forward in their chairs and stared at the flat-screen TV she'd set up in the small, richly furnished conference room. As they watched, a mid-afternoon talk show cut to commercials—a household cleaner first, followed by color-enhancing shampoo. Targeted advertising, aimed straight at the prized twenty-five to fifty-something female demographic. When the screen switched from minivans to a rose-hued shot of an attractive couple, Raine swallowed against a churn of anticipation and tugged at the cowl neck of her dark blue cashmere sweater. "This is it!"
She'd seen the short advertisement a dozen times, at various points during its evolution, but watching it broadcast on national TV was different.
It was real. "More than sixty million women in the U.S. suffer from libido problems," a sexy female voice said over the images of middle-aged couples holding hands. Kissing. Staring at each other over candlelit meals. The images were all clichés, but the marketing consultants had assured Raine the triteness would trigger warm, fuzzy feelings.
Damned if they weren't right, she thought, stifling a small sigh that she'd be headed home to an empty apartment after the impending office celebration wound down.
The images grew steamier, though still PG-rated. Then, the woman on the screen turned away from her partner, expression tight.
"Low libido is nothing to be ashamed of," the voice-over soothed. "Sometimes it's due to physical reasons. Other times there's no obvious cause. But this serious condition can undermine our relationships. Our self-confidence."
A small pink pill rotated on-screen as the voice said, "Now there's a new option for couples everywhere. Ask your doctor about Thriller today."
The final shot was one of lovers lying together in postcoital bliss, smiling.
But it wasn't that image—or the memory of how long it'd been since she'd experienced postcoital anything—that drove a giant lump into Raine's throat. It wasn't the sexy, feminine logo the consultants had spent six months polishing. It wasn't the short list of possible side effects—nothing worse than dizziness and insomnia—or the possible drug interaction warnings—none. It was the tiny words at the bottom of the screen.
A product of Rainey Days, Inc.
Thriller wasn't something she'd developed for her previous employer, FalcoTechno.
It was all hers.