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  “In one tenth of a mile, take a right onto Sentinel Way,” my GPS system instructed and I frowned at the console. I needed to take a left, not a right, I was pretty sure of that...but I was directionally challenged on a good day, and only marginally better with my GPS, so I flipped on my blinker.

     “This does not look right,” I muttered to myself as the lanes funneled my big truck toward several guard shacks. “This is gonna be a problem.” 

     I took a deep breath, ready to put on the charm. My mother had always called it “advanced flirting,” while I saw it more as a necessary social lubricant.

     Rolling down my window and turning down the music, I ran a hand through my messy dark hair and pasted what I hoped was a winningly sweet smile on my face as the muscled, tattooed officer stepped from one of the booths.

     “Uh, I’m in the wrong place,” I offered stupidly, flashing him my teeth and wishing I’d taken the time that morning to apply just a little makeup, or even just to brush my hair. 

     “Where are you trying to get to, dear?” He asked with a big smile, his dark aviators obscuring what might have been pretty eyes.

     Ugh, I was “dear.” Just come out with it and call me a silly old lady already, why don’t you?

     “I’m trying to get home,” I squirmed. “I just dropped my daughter off at her summer job–it’s the building over–” I gestured quickly to my right. “I knew I shouldn’t have been listening to my GPS. It told me to turn right on Sentinel Way when I should have taken a left out of the parking lot in the first place.”

     He grinned at me, flashing nice white teeth. He was alarmingly handsome, and even more alarmingly young. Maybe twelve, and children were not my type.

     “Ok,” he said quickly. “So you’re not at all familiar with this area yet.”

     I shook my head. “Nope, but now I know which right turn not to take tomorrow morning!”

     He barked out a laugh and called out a complicated sounding set of commands to the guy in the other guard booth before pointing toward a gate arm up the lane and to my right. “Ok dear, you’re going to head over that way...just follow the path and there will be a sliding gate. You’ll go through that and then there’s another arm, where you’ll wait. Then another officer will come talk to you, and he’ll show you the way out.”

     I thanked him profusely, wishing him a lovely day, realizing that traffic was stacking up in all three lanes as everyone else waited for the officers in all of the booths to help me get myself together.

     Pulling away from the booth and flipping my blinker, I followed instructions carefully, passing under the arm and driving through the gate. 

     Only fifty feet after the gate sat another arm, firmly across the road, a flashing red LED strip along the bottom and a sticker that said the gate was magnetic, activated only by a card. (Presumably one with the top-secret security clearance I clearly did not have.)

     Smiling sweetly and flirting with it was obviously not going to do the trick. what? I sat there, window down, the late June morning sun beating in through my window as I waited for the mysterious officer. Minutes ticked by and I fiddled with the radio, sipping my iced coffee and shielding my face from the glare of the sun coming in through my open window. It was freaking hot already, for eight-thirty in the morning.

     A black SUV with blue lettering, POLICE, pulled up the drive and parked in front of me, on the other side of the arm. The officer who got out of the vehicle was tall and broad, tattoos snaking up his big arms. He wore a baseball cap and bulletproof vest, his sidearm in a holster on his hip, his mouth set in a flat line that suggested he was displeased–of course he was. Lost old women could hardly be the highlight of his day.

     “Took a wrong turn?” he barked, and I sat up a little straighter in my seat. 

     Mother trucker, I wasn’t wearing a bra. I tried to casually cross my arms over my chest.

     “Um...yes, sir. Stupid mistake: day two of my daughter’s summer job and I was in the wrong line when God handed out directional sense.”

     He didn’t even smile. Like not even a freaking crinkle. 


     “License, ma’am.” He held out a hand and I shoved a hand into the cupholder to retrieve the driver’s license I’d dropped in earlier. I fished it out, knocking against the huge cup of iced coffee in my nervousness and it went flying, drenching my lap in a sticky spray of caffeinated goodness. 

     “Dad blast it,” I muttered under my breath, stupidly close to tears of humiliation as he made a snorting sound that sounded an awful lot like he was laughing at me.

     The rest of the world knew me as a fashion designer, put together and faultless, married to a rising member of the Republican party. Said husband had been elected to congress the year before and we’d relocated from rural Alabama to the DC beltway for his job, and for heaven’s sake, I still didn’t know my way around this impossible thing the locals called The DMV.

     The very same husband had just announced he was leaving me for his congressional aide, only a few years older than our daughter. I’d been asked to please keep that to myself for the time being while details were sorted. 

     It wasn’t like he wanted to marry her, he said (though I wasn’t so sure she knew that), so for the time I played the role while I sorted through things for myself. 

     I’d agreed readily, maybe stupidly, not wanting to disrupt our daughter Blair’s life any more than it had already been, for something I had always been was agreeable.     

     My own squeaky image, something my husband had capitalized on for years, was due to a few things: 1) The silence inherited oil money can buy. 2) An expensive PR team. And finally, all-important number 3) The fact I hadn’t made a single misstep since I was twenty-one years old. I didn’t get into trouble or do stupid things, because I was too busy working. And I certainly wasn’t playing in the kiddie pool, for the love…

     “Preston.” The officer looked unimpressed as his eyes bored into the side of my head, trying to reconcile the mess in front of him with the symmetrical face he saw on the license. “Daphne Marie Masters-Preston.” He said my name like there was a punctuation mark after each word. He was biting off each one and spitting it out.

     “One and the same.” I raised my hand, my cheeks burning from the humiliation and I thought I saw his lips quirk into the tiniest smile, just out of the corner of my eye.

     “Daphne Preston, as in Congressman Hunter Preston’s wife?”

     Double flipping fudge.

     “Guilty as charged,” I sighed, turning my palms upward.

     “I figured delicate ladies like you would have a driver,” he chuckled and I had the sudden, insane urge to reach out my open window and slap him. 

     Misogynist pig.

     “Delicate ladies like me?” I couldn’t keep the snark out of my voice as I gestured toward my outfit, which may or may not have doubled as pajamas. “Because I’m so fancy?” 

     I really, really wished I’d worn something cute that morning, but my alarm hadn’t gone off and Blair couldn’t find any clean pants to wear on her second day at work, because she could never be bothered to put away her laundry. So instead of getting myself dressed, I’d taken that fifteen minutes to help her find pants and pack a lunch for her. (Points for trying to Mom, even though it was getting me nowhere right now.)

      “From what my wife tells me, you’re very fancy.” 

     I couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic, but for the first time I noticed with some disappointment that there was a thick black band around his ring finger. 


     “She insisted on buying one of your dresses for our wedding and holy shit, that thing was expensive. I wanted to put a downpayment on a new house; she wanted a designer dress. She won, and I should have known then. She looked like a fucking cream puff in that thing.” He ran a hand over his eyes as if he needed to wipe away the memory. “She’d be so mad if she knew I’d met you.”

     I wasn’t even going to try to unpack that one. I was trying too hard not to be mad at him for insulting something I had designed, though the wedding dresses lately were not my best work. Possibly because they weren’t my work at all. For years I hadn’t been the one designing them–that was a collaboration with my assistant, hoping to make a name for herself when she struck out on her own.

     “If you don’t mind, sir,” I said, trying to keep a forced tone of politeness even though my teeth were clenched. “I really need to get going. I have a video conference call with my New York office at ten and, as you can see, I am hardly prepared for the occasion.”

     He grinned at me, a dazzling display of pearly-white teeth, and it occurred to me again that he was heart-stoppingly gorgeous. 

     Darn smoking hot mountain of manly goodness.

     “I don’t know about that,” he teased, handing my license back to me and letting his eyes rest just a moment too long on my chest. “This could be an interesting new trend. I suppose it has its merits.” 

     I sighed heavily, tucking my hair behind my ear before gripping the steering wheel with the same hand. Right now I wanted to be anywhere but here.

     “Right then,” he said, suddenly remembering he was a professional with a job to do. “Be careful you don’t ‘accidentally’ turn into this lot again.” His emphasis was heavy and pointed, intimating I’d taken a purposeful tour through his paved paradise. “This is the NSA and getting out of here again would be a much lengthier process.” His eyebrows lifted with implied meaning.

     I groaned inwardly, wondering if he was promising a strip search in a darkened room. For that I could almost be convinced to show up again tomorrow, even if this guy was a huge jerk, since Hunter hadn’t been interested in what was under my pajamas in a very, very long time.

     The gate lifted suddenly and he nodded at me once, the grumpy expression firmly back in place. I nodded back, putting the truck into gear and waiting as he got back into his SUV, backing into a small access spot in order to clear the way.

     My ears burned the whole way home, half an hour of driving in the insane traffic that never seemed to let up, no matter the time of day. 

     It was my own fault: I’d stupidly let Hunter do the house hunting when it was obvious we’d need to maintain a base closer to D.C. in addition to our home in Alabama. So he’d chosen a quiet, wealthy neighborhood about an hour’s drive from the city. It was beautiful and our property was spacious, the house far more than we needed, but since we had family money on both sides there was no issue with getting what we wanted. Or should I say, what he wanted, because I was happy with far less. 

     It drove me insane that I needed a housekeeper for the nearly eleven thousand square foot monstrosity. It could have doubled as an airplane hangar. 

     Since we had a housekeeper, we also had a yard service, a pool service, a cook, and a dog walker for the enormous Irish wolfhound Hunter had never even tried to keep under control. The one he’d left with me when he moved to Georgetown.

     Living an hour from the city was just inconvenient enough that Hunter kept a small carriage house there, closer to work, and while Congress was in session his trips into Maryland happened only occasionally, and only on the weekends at that. Lately they hadn't been happening at all, as all his out-of-office hours had apparently been spoken for by someone who was barely out of diapers.

     A glance in the rearview mirror told me I looked just as awful as I felt. My dark hair was in need of a touch up, a few strands of silver starting to peek out at my roots. 

     I was well past due for a manicure, my gel polish obviously grown out to the point it looked pointedly neglected, and my makeup-free face boasted a little hyperpigmentation on my cheeks, lines beginning to settle between my eyebrows and when I did smile, which was often, this weird new crinkling thing was starting to happen around my eyes. 

     Of all the days to look as old as I feel.

     Pulling the car into the driveway, I sighed as I stared up at the beautiful Georgian style home with its cobblestone walkway and cream brick exterior, the shutters painted a Provencal blue–very cutting edge in our Old Money area. It was every inch the fresh young politician’s home, at least until you opened the door and Carrick the wolfhound knocked you flat on your backside. 

     Carrick was the very reason we didn’t have people over. Ever. He was known to bludgeon people into submission with his enthusiasm, frequently interpreted as aggression.

     I had half an hour to prepare for the meeting with my New York office, so I gave my hair a quick spritz of dry shampoo, slapped a smear of foundation on my face and applied several coats of mascara to my lashes. Then I fished out the lipstick I used to pull double duty, applying some to my lips while I dabbed the same shade into my cheeks with my ring finger. 

     The last thing I needed was Emily asking if I felt well, because I appeared...what was her word? 

     Oh, right: Downtrodden. 

     Bless her heart.

     With eight minutes to spare I dove into a simple white top and black pants, slipping classic diamond studs through my ears just as my computer chirped from the next room. 

     Friggin’ Emily the early bird, probably hoping to catch me with my pants down. I could just envision her sour expression. Emily was polished in ways that I was not, though I frequently put forth actual effort, and just seeing her in the office or on a video call often reminded me of my woeful shortcomings.

     I discussed fabrics, orders, staffing details and upcoming shows with my team for the next hour-and-a-half before breaking to slip into the kitchen and grab a cup of coffee.

     My initial success was due to the support of my wealthy parents. I’d been talented enough to secure a full scholarship to a prestigious school in Alabama, where my senior project drew the attention of a famous New York-based designer after one of my professors shared some of my looks with her. 

     But it was my oil barron mother and football royalty adoptive father who financed my foray into fashion, post-internship.

     Interning for Candace after graduation had been difficult, and that word was generous. 

     Blair was only six months old when I left for New York for a six-month internship. She stayed behind with my parents, while I moved into their two-bedroom apartment bordering Central Park and made my way over to the design office on Fifth Avenue every morning. 

     I spent every day of those six months missing my daughter and questioning every decision I’d ever made, but especially the decisions I’d made the past four years of my life.

     While I felt Candace had valuable things to teach me, and I made the necessary contacts, jetting all over the world to attend Fashion Weeks with her, we came from very different worlds. Her family had relocated from Germany decades earlier, when their presence had been unwelcome, and she was born and raised on the Upper East Side. 

     She was also perpetually single–not to say she didn’t put herself out there, but that meant she was also childless, and one of the most self-absorbed women I’d ever met. (That really was saying something, given the circles in which I’d grown up.)

     Me? I was a mutt. My mother was second-generation Albanian, but my father was anybody’s guess, since she didn’t speak of him and Jonas Masters, of college and professional football fame, had adopted me as his own after marrying my mother when I was six. He was the only father I’d ever known. 

     They raised me in rural Alabama, with a sprinkling of world travel, often taking me to New York to see the shows; to Greece for summer vacation; to Madrid when I turned eighteen, to have my first drink in a football stadium while watching a Real Madrid game from Jonesy’s box. 

     Daddy’s fascination with European football was unusual, given he claimed to be Alabama-born and bred. Maybe even more so now, given that he was the head coach at the University of Alabama, now that his professional quarterbacking days were over.

     As for Hunter...well, where to even begin?

     Hunter and I met at the beginning of my sophomore year of college and I was immediately drawn to him. He was the antithesis of me: Tall and blonde, outgoing and handsome, whereas I was short and dark-haired, quiet and pretty–just never pretty enough by most standards.

     It was my own stupid fault I got pregnant with Blair my senior year. I’d come down with a horrible late summer sinus infection and had visited the campus clinic for an exam and some antibiotics. It had never occured to me the antibiotics might render my birth control completely ineffective, and only six weeks later I was back home. 

     Hunter had cut me loose after learning I was pregnant and I’d rushed home to nurse a broken heart, made even more intense by hormonal fluctuations. 

     If anyone were to ask my advisor, I was home and attending classes under “special circumstances,” due to a medical issue.

     The plan was to complete my work from home, returning to school in the spring once the baby was born, in order to present my senior project. It was the project most of my grades hinged upon and thanks to a couple custom pieces I created for the wife of one of Daddy’s famous friends, I’d gotten crazy publicity and a good grade, followed by Candace’s offer of an internship in her New York office.

     By the time Blair was three, I was a reasonably established figure in fashion design.

     Now, my daughter nearing adulthood, I wondered why I’d ever let Hunter lure me back to Alabama. He had all but abandoned us for the second time and I couldn’t help but wonder, somewhat bitterly, whether he’d chosen to leave now that he’d attained the pinnacle of his career. It was what he’d always wanted and what his family had always pushed him toward, and he no longer needed me, though he certainly still enjoyed my money.

     I hadn’t been the best choice for a politician’s wife, but my family’s deep pockets went a long way toward helping with his campaigns, as his father had spent the last several decades drinking, gambling and whoring his way through the family fortune. (That was where the PR firm had initially come into play.)

     So here I was. After putting up with Hunter’s crap for years, he had decided he was done with me. Again.




     “Don’t be ridiculous, Daph.” Ava’s sweet voice laughed in my ear. “My Commanding Officer dragged me in with him for some kind of awards ceremony that I won’t pretend I understand, and I want to see my friend. You can’t possibly look as bad as all that.”

     I may or may not have just told her I looked like a troll living under a bridge.

     “Come on. I’ll even come pick you up. I know this great little dive bar just outside of Annapolis Junction. We might get stabbed in the parking lot, but they serve the booziest, wickedest margarita you’ve ever had in your life. You won’t be able to see straight until next Tuesday.” 

     That sounded kind of enticing. Of course, I wasn’t about to ask how she knew about a dive bar in a town filled with office parks, but at this point I didn’t care. It was a Friday night and I didn’t have to drive Blair to work in the morning. 

     “Fine,” I huffed. “Drag your fancy butt over here to pick me up, since you seem to know where you’re going. As for me, I accidentally turned into the NSA’s parking lot a couple days ago and I am not eager to repeat that experience. Well...most of it.”

     Ava’s laugh sounded in my ear like tinkling bells and I could see why Lincoln was so taken with her sweet, gentle personality. The woman had the patience of a saint, which was a good thing because he was a stubborn jerk who liked to push her buttons. But when push came to shove, Ava’s gentle art of persuasion was insidious, like a rising tide, sweeping away Lincoln’s objections.

     “I have it on good authority it’s the watering hole of choice for some of the sinfully attractive men in the area,” she chuckled. “Just don’t ask how I know.” 

     “Blair,” I hollered down the hallway. “I’m going out with Auntie Ava tonight. You ok ordering something through GrubHub for dinner? There are probably a ton of leftovers in the fridge, too.”

     There was a long pause before Blair answered. “Yeah Mom, no problem. Jake’s coming over to pick me up anyway, and we’re headed out. I’ll probably be home late.” 

     Thank God at least she was slightly more responsible than I’d been at eighteen. If she said she’d be home late, she’d be home late–but she’d at least come home.

     “Pants on at all times,” I called back and I heard the responding “Gah, Moooooom!” as I moved toward my bathroom.

     I showered quickly, wrapping up my hair in hot rollers before stepping in and washing carefully, so as not to get my hair wet. If nothing else, I would look good for my best friend, for heaven’s sake. It was truly all I had these days.

     Pulling a pair of black jeans from my closet, I sighed at the state it was in. I had no excuses for the catastrophe that was happening in my walk-in. I had the money to have a professional organize it, but I’d been too busy to have it done, so most of my clothes still sat in boxes, stacked up in the closet and waiting for me to unwrap them like presents on Christmas morning.

     I’d only just begun to unpack my summer things and I snatched a favorite grey t-shirt from the rack. It was soft from many washes and the faded cover of a Queen album graced the front, the V cut just low enough to showcase some of my better attributes, but not so low as to make me look like a desperate groupie.

     Did I go a little heavy on the mascara? Perhaps. I’d always been told my deep grey eyes were my best feature. They confused people and invited them in for a closer look and, screw it, Hunter didn’t want to look at them any longer, so an extra coat of Diorshow it was, for whomever did want to look at them. (Ava would approve.)

     Applying a light spritz of perfume to my neck, I hurried down the stairs with a pair of strappy green heels in hand. I was short–short enough to wear heels every day so that people wouldn’t call me a midget–and I was hopping on one foot to put them on as I answered the door.

     “Shit, Daph!” Ava looked genuinely shocked as she surveyed me. “How is it possible your boobs look better every time I see you?!” She wagged a finger in my face. “Spill the details, woman. Fat injections? Hyaluronic acid? Come on. Give it.”

     I couldn’t stop the grin that spread across my face. Forty was coming for me, hard and fast, and being told something was still giving gravity some sass made me feel a little better about myself. After all, it was no secret my self esteem had taken a beating lately.

     Pulling my equally pint-sized friend into my arms, we squeezed until it hurt, rocking back and forth in the entryway. It had been a while since I’d last seen her, but no matter how much time had passed our greetings were always the same: joyful, effusive and genuine. 

     Personal research led me to believe the friendships you end up keeping are the ones you never expected to make in the first place.

     “Blair!” Ava hollered up the stairs, an impressive set of pipes in a tiny body.

     Blair appeared at the top of the stairs and smiled down at her honorary aunt. “Auntie Ava! Mama didn’t tell me you were coming.”

     I just did.

     She stumbled down the stairs on her colt-like legs, her long honeyed hair flying behind her. When she reached Ava she folded her willowy body in half to hug her tightly and Ava looked up as Blair released her, running her fingers through my daughter’s long hair.

     “Look at you.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe you’re all grown up already. And clearly you did not get this…” she gestured toward my daughter’s tall, lithe body, “from your mother.”

     She turned to me then with a smile. “I’m taking your mother out for the night,” she announced, shooting a look and a conspiratorial wink at Blair. “I wouldn’t expect her back until quite late, so don’t call the cops if you hear some fumbling around down here. I plan to get her good and hammered.”

     Blair giggled. “Mama never gets hammered. Don’t be silly.”

     “A lady doesn’t,” I said, casting a warning glance in her direction. My southern roots ran deep and despite being of Balkan origin, my mother had whole-heartedly embraced the manners expected of a lady living in the deep south. She’d instilled them in me like a devout sister drilling Catechism into a group of bored four-year-olds. 

     Good girls don’t curse. 

     Good girls don’t drink. 

     Good girls don’t sleep around. 

     Good girls are modest and sweet and tasteful.

     “Tonight you are not a lady,” Ava said with an evil grin, and I smacked her playfully.

     “You were a southern girl for a minute,” I reminded her, and the grin stretched wider.

     “I was there too short a time to absorb the necessary nuances,” she reminded me and I remembered my joy at the age of eleven, when Ava’s military family had moved in across the street. “Besides, I barely lived there a year. It was enough time to appreciate some of the local color, but these days I’m a California girl through and through. Of course, your mama still thinks I’m a heathen.” She tossed her expertly highlighted hair, in enviable shades of caramel and warm sunlight. She was definitely a California girl: flawless.

     Blair pushed us out the door and told us to have fun and before I knew what had happened, Ava had easily driven the twenty minutes while I went into a heated diatribe over Hunter and his exploits. 

     She listened patiently as she parked the car on the street, pointing toward a rundown little bar I’d never noticed before. Probably because I’d never before driven into this part of town.

     “How do you know these things?” I asked, inclining my head toward the building as I crawled out of the low, expensive car. 

     Lincoln was a collector and he made sure Ava had a fun collection of her own. His favorite thing seemed to be spoiling the woman who rocked his world–the one he’d nearly lost when he went through an intensive asshole phase. (A real doozy, even for him.)

     “Ah, you forget, my darling. My beautiful husband is a powerful man with many connections. There is nothing I cannot find out.” 

     There was that evil grin again.

     She grabbed my hand and hauled me across the street, and I narrowly missed being run over by an old pickup truck filled with landscaping workers. All of the men hollered something at us that I was fairly sure wasn’t complimentary, and rather than give them the finger, I stuck out my tongue–not that they could see it anyway.

     The smell of stale beer and cigarettes just about knocked me over when Ava yanked at the door and a small bell mounted at the top slapped against the lacquered face, the noise lost in the din.

     “Yuck,” I said as I surveyed our somewhat dingy surroundings. “This is why I drink at home.”

     “Keep that up and you’ll become an alcoholic,” she commented, and I was pretty sure she was only half teasing. “I know from experience, that is a slippery slope.”

     Boy, did she. 

     Ava rarely drank anymore and her husband avoided it completely after nearly losing her after a drunken rage. To be a little fair to him, he’d been under enormous stress at the time, but he’d compounded the matter quickly when she packed a bag and left him. 

     Ava caught the attention of the bartender and I admired how she owned the room so easily. She was confident and beautiful. She could easily knock years off her age and people believed her. Men still flocked to her like cold water on a hot day.

     It was hot outside and the humidity was trying to seep into the room, several small wall units struggling to keep up. And when it was this hot, there was only one thing for it: margaritas.

     The drinks were so cold and slushy and good and everything in the room was starting to slow down a little as I ranted on and on about Hunter and his toddler aide to Ava, who listened quietly, nodding at the appropriate moments. She was so focused, I knew, because the bar was loud and she was practically reading my lips.

     “So, I was going to interrupt you earlier,” she finally did interrupt, “but you were really on a roll there.” She was looking over my shoulder. “But there are a couple guys back there...and from what I can see, they are really hot...and one of them has been staring at you for like the last ten minutes.”

     I turned slowly, my courage high and my inhibitions low–thanks, tequila! 

     “Point,” I instructed, feeling a little wobbly, and she lifted a finger to point diagonally across the room, where a group of four muscular guys in jeans and tight t-shirts stood near a pool table, each with a bottle of beer in hand. They were looking at us like deer caught in headlights as they watched Ava point them out.

     “That one,” she said, pointing to the tallest one. He was wearing a grey t-shirt that nearly matched my own, ink crawling up his arms. 

     Slamming back a huge mouthful of my frosty margarita–ow–I marched over to the group of men, ready to give them a piece of my mind for the sake of women everywhere.

     As I drew nearer, the shortest one stepped forward. “Can we help you with something, ma’am?”

     Oh. Oh, crap. He sounded like a cop. But no, I was not going to let this stop me–not even my healthy fear/respect for men involved in law enforcement. (After all, remember, I’d grown up in Alabama, where one does not mess with the boys in blue. Not unless one wished to spend an evening in jail on forthcoming-yet-nebulous charges.)

     “I need to talk to that one about the scorch marks on my backside,” I hiccuped, pointing a finger at the man in the grey t-shirt, and I was already standing so close I nearly stabbed him in the chest with my finger. 

     When I drank, my feistiness came out.

     “I thought I recognized you,” the man said, and there wasn’t even a trace of a smile on his face. “I’ve been trying to figure it out for the last ten minutes, but now that you’re so close, I’m certain. I didn’t recognize you at first, without coffee all over your pajamas.”

     My eyes went wide and I almost sloshed the rest of my margarita on him. 

     This can’t be happening. 

     The hot cop. 

     I was ready. 

     “I should have known it was you, by that miserable scowl on your face. You really would have better luck with the ladies if you looked a little friendlier, you miserable grump.”

     His face lit up with a huge grin and, have mercy, it was like staring directly into the sun, blinding in all its glory. Those teeth, that hair, those eyes, that face–it was all unfair.

     “Being friendly is a liability in my line of work,” he responded, the smile still on his face, and I had to lean one hand against the pool table to steady myself.

     “It’s ok,” he said, noticing my lean, “I do that to the ladies sometimes. You wouldn’t be the first to go weak in the knees.”

     You arrogant little… I swallowed hard and splashed the rest of my drink in his face. It ran down his nose and plopped in slushy little globs on his chest. 

     He looked amused rather than shocked and my hand itched to slap him, but I was still holding my empty glass. The other hand was employed keeping me upright.

     “Does yer wife know yer out trolling fer easy ladies?” I almost slurred, a hiccup punctuating the end of my question, and his face fell. In fact, I could see the faces of the other three out of my peripheral vision, which was suddenly, weirdly razor-sharp. All three of them looked shocked, like I’d just said something I was going to regret, and I turned as quickly as the spinning room would allow me. 


     The smallest guy shook his head at me quickly, his eyes flicking to the guy who was towering over me.

     “Boys.” Grumpy’s voice was like ice, cold and unyielding. “I’d like you to meet Miss Daphne. She just happens to be Congressman Preston’s wife.”

     Oh, no. No, no, no. I was that for now, but he wasn’t supposed to out me like that. I jabbed an index finger into his firm, unyielding chest. 

     “Nuh-uh,” I warned. “That wasn’t fair.”

     “You just called him a man whore,” one of the guys said, shaking his head disapprovingly and I recognized the handsome, friendly officer from the guard shack. “That wasn’t fair either, so technically you started it.” 

     Ok, he was kind of right. 

     I didn’t like him anymore.

     “I’m. Not. A cheater.” The big guy was right in my face, and I’ll be darned if he wasn’t even bigger than he’d been just ten seconds ago. He held up his left hand so his wedding band was right in my eyeball, and I had to work to focus on it. There was some kind of pattern etched into it, but I couldn’t make it out.

     “Neither am I.” I held up my left hand, shoving my wedding set toward his right eyeball. “But he left me for a congressional aide anyway.”

     There was a tug on my arm and I turned to see Ava, her face exaggeratedly apologetic. “I’m sooo sorry, gentlemen. When we planned on a night out, I’d thought it might last longer than twenty minutes. I’m afraid my friend here, and myself, are horrible lightweights. As you can imagine, we don’t get out often.” 

     The short one cracked a smile. “Not a problem, ladies. Jack was just talking about heading out.” He elbowed the big guy, and my face flamed when I realized my hand had made its way back to the tall man’s chest. It was possible I was actively feeling him up, his shirt soft but the muscles of his chest hard beneath my wandering fingertips. “I’m sure he can get you home safely.”

     There were a number of things I’d like to see whether this large man could conduct safely, but...ugh, of all the own personal police escort. Chances were good there would be no stop-and-frisk.

     Jack shot an evil glare at Guard Shack, who smirked back at him. 

     “I rode here with Marston,” the smaller man announced, pointing to one of the other men. “I’ll follow you in your truck and then you can take me home.” 

     Clearly he was speaking to my tormentor.

     “If you’ll give me a moment,” Jack was looking at Ava with an apologetic expression, “it would seem I need to clean up a bit. If you ladies would be so kind as to wait…” 

     He didn’t finish the sentence but as he moved toward what I assumed were the restrooms, I hurried over to the bar and ordered another margarita. If I had to be humiliated I was going to make sure I was good and smashed, so I didn’t have to remember it in the morning.

     “You are insane.” The voice was low in my ear and I turned quickly, accidentally sloshing more of my arctic drink on his muscular chest. He winced and rolled his eyes, taking a small step back. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

     “Not even close,” I said, tipping it back and wincing as the cold shot daggers straight into my brain. “I still remember too much.”

     He sighed, shaking his head as he grabbed a cocktail napkin off the bar and dabbed at yet more stickiness on his shirt. “You really are something else.”

     Was that a good thing? I couldn’t decide. With the way he was looking at me, chances seemed good it was not.

     Ava handed over the keys to her car and led the way to the parking lot. Jack followed, dragging me along by the arm, careful to temper his long steps so he didn’t drag me, since I seemed to have forgotten how to walk in a straight line.

     “You’re kidding me, lady.” His jaw dropped as he stared at the Alfa Romeo Ava had parked on the street. “A fucking Spider?”

     Ava smiled sweetly at him. She had always been full of surprises, and his jaw dropped when she responded, “Yup, not my favorite, but still a good one. The modified Corvette is still one of my favorites for AutoCross.”

     “You do not.” He was standing in the middle of the street, staring at her like she’d grown another head. “No way.”

     My friend had another admirer. I felt a bolt of jealousy zing all the way down to my toes, because I had never been the exciting one. 

     The one full of surprises. 

     The one who made men fall at her feet, begging.

     “Davis,” he hollered back across the street, and Officer Guard Shack turned. 

     “You hear that? This little thing does AutoCross.” He pointed at Ava and Guard Shack’s jaw dropped too.

     “You two are full of surprises,” he chuckled, stopping short of the car. 

     “Hey, wait…one of you is going to have to ride in my truck with Officer Davis–this thing only fits two.”

     Ava’s eyebrow arched and a tiny, wicked smile curved her full lips. “Silly me,” she sighed. “Daph, you’re up; I’ll ride with Officer Davis.” And before I could protest, she skipped back across the street, looking far more sober than she had just moments ago. (I was pretty sure I was being set up.)

     “You’re both trouble,” Jack muttered as he held open the passenger door for me, and I dropped into the seat with far less grace than I’d have liked.

     “I haven’t been trouble a day in my life,” I hiccupped and giggled at the same time. I truly had never been a troublemaker, but lately I’d considered getting into a little more of it. At this point I had nothing to lose, but he didn’t look like he believed me.

     Jack started up the car and tapped at the dash a few times, a frown creasing his handsome face. I hoped he didn’t notice, but I was totally staring at him out of what I hoped was the corner of my eye.

     “Stop looking at me like that,” he barked, flipping the blinker and pulling into traffic. Somehow he’d located my home address on the GPS and he handled the car easily as we headed in the direction of the two-lane highway that would take us most of the way to my home.

     I snapped my eyes to the road, which seemed blurry and indistinct. How had I been looking at him? I had definitely not been imagining running my fingers up and down what I knew were tight washboard abs and a delightfully defined chest. I shook my head to clear the visual, disgustingly aware of how pathetic I felt. It had been a long time, though I hadn’t thought I was upset about that. Hunter had never been anything other than a two-minute man and in his opinion, foreplay was something one read about in romance novels and was completely unnecessary in real life. That, judging by his practices, was what lube was for.

     Suffice to say, I had a purely physical and completely unfulfilling relationship with several pieces of plastic Hunter didn’t know about, but he wouldn’t have cared anyway.

     The highway was surprisingly empty and Jack drove with one hand resting easily on the top of the steering wheel, his eyes intently focused on the road ahead. I chose to say nothing, so as not to distract him, and from the passenger side mirror I could see headlights following us at a respectable distance. Surely it was Officer Davis and Ava, undoubtedly engaged in a very lively conversation. Ava was so bubbly and engaging and freaking adorable, she could get rocks to talk.

     The GPS directed us to turn left and Jack pulled carefully into the long, winding drive that led to the house. His eyes widened as it came into view, the impressive facade lit by flood lights recessed in the lawn. “This is what a congressional salary will get you, huh?” He looked impressed.

     “This is what family money and a successful design career will get you,” I said bitterly and immediately he clamped his lips shut. “Not that I was the one who wanted it,” I said, weirdly incapable of getting myself to shut up. “I’d be happy with a cottage and a cat. Instead, I got an empty castle with a dog no one can control.”

     As if on cue, Carrick set up a terrible howling inside the house and Jack’s eyes widened in alarm.

     “Don’t worry,” I said. “The electric fence is set so that he can’t even get out the front door. The back yard is his kingdom, much to the relief of the local delivery drivers.” That was a lesson learned the hard way, when Carrick cornered a delivery woman on the front steps. I’d found her clinging to the front of the house as if she could climb the brick. She’d had no idea he’d rather lick her to death than harm her. All he wanted was a scratch behind the ears and she wasn’t giving it. 

     She’d been dropping my packages at the end of the driveway ever since.

     Headlights swept up the drive behind us and Jack threw open his door, rolling up the window and rounding the car quickly to open my door. It irritated me that I was such a lightweight, since I’d somehow managed to get tangled up in my own seatbelt during the course of the short drive, and he pulled my hands away from the belt as he leaned over me, reaching over to undo the clasp. Something winked in the light as he leaned and I reached up without thinking, hooking a finger beneath the thin gold chain and pulling it from beneath the neck of his soft t-shirt. A small charm hung from the necklace and I focused on it hard, my vision still blurrier than I’d have liked. He’d gone still over me, heat radiating from his huge body as I drunkenly tried to study the design pinched between my thumb and forefinger.

     “First Brigade,” I whispered with a hiccup and his hand moved up to pull the small emblem from my fingers.

     “I’m impressed,” he said, backing out of the small space and holding out a hand to me to help me from the car. “You’ve heard of it.”

     “Long story,” I said, groaning as I tried to stand up straight. “I dated a First Brigade man for a minute after Blair was born. You guys are a mess.”

     His eyebrows went up almost imperceptibly, but I saw it.

     “He was a fucking disaster; there was no way it would have worked.”

     I clapped a hand over my mouth. Good girls did not say fuck. “Pardon my French. I shouldn’t have said that.”

     “Shouldn’t have said what?” His eyes danced with amusement. “That some douchebag you dated twenty years ago was a fucking disaster?” He laughed and his features relaxed, his lips pulling back from even white teeth in a genuine smile and I swear my pants burst into flame.

     “Good girls don’t swear,” I said, a little miffed, like I expected him to know my own secret inner code. “It’s not ladylike.”

     “Mrs. Congressman Preston,” he chuckled, his voice lilting and it sounded like he was teasing me. I made a face. “You really are a trip.”

     “Daphne.” I frowned at him and turned, tripping up the front steps to my house. 

     “Daphne the Disaster,” I muttered under my breath as I fished in my small bag for my keys and tried to fit the key to the lock. I was having trouble with my aim.

     “Thank you, Officer Thompson.” It was Ava behind me, her hand closing over mine to take the keys from me. Oh right, because I had a keyless entry. There was a series of confusing little beeps and the lock disengaged, so I stepped inside and turned slightly, expecting Jack to follow me inside for some insane reason. 

     Carrick sat just inside, weirdly silent, though his butt wiggled across the floor as he waited for me to give him the command that allowed him to assault me with fur and slobber and exuberance. It was the only command he knew, as it had taken me so long to teach him just that one that I’d given up after.

     “You’re welcome, ladies.” Jack offered a lazy salute, seemingly unperturbed by the giant beast of a dog looming just behind me, his eyes meeting mine just before he turned and headed down the few steps. 

     Guard Shack had pulled the huge Silverado in behind Ava’s car and had already moved to the passenger seat. I could see the glint of white teeth and knew he was grinning at one of us, or maybe all of us.

     “Ms. Daphne,” Jack said lazily, and my eyes snapped to him. “A pleasure once again. You’re even lovelier when you’re not wearing coffee.” I expected a smile but he looked stern again, even though he was definitely still making fun of me. I wanted him to take me seriously and I didn’t feel like that had happened yet, no thanks to my current state.

     Ava hustled me into the house and shut the door behind her, fanning herself dramatically as Carrick wiggled and whimpered, irritated that I hadn’t released him from his sitting position. 

     “Well,” she drawled, a huge smile on her face, her eyes dancing and it made me groan. Ava had been dying to see me with someone other than Hunter for years, harping on and on about how he wasn’t good enough for me and was too arrogant to accept it.

     “That was an interesting turn of events,” she said, putting a hand to the small of my back to propel me toward the sitting room I never used. I let myself be pushed, my heels clacking noisily across the marble and I held up a hand to slow her, reaching down to yank off both shoes, tossing them haphazardly aside.

     She shoved the heavy pocket doors aside, just as the dog trotted into the room on my heels, tired of waiting for me to give him his favorite command. He ambled over to one of the leather sofas and threw himself on it, sighing heavily as he rested his head on his paws and watched me with alternately wiggling eyebrows.

     “That dog adores you,” Ava remarked offhandedly as she moved toward the large lacquered cabinet at the back of the room. 

     Thank God someone does. 

     She poured a seltzer water for me, pulling the stopper out of Hunter’s favorite bottle of scotch and pouring several fingers into a glass. She sniffed it carefully, then moved toward me with a glass in each hand, indicating we should sit.

     We each sank into a creaky buttoned leather chair and I brought the seltzer to my lips as Ava brought the scotch to hers. She wrinkled her nose after a small sip. “He has appalling taste,” she sputtered. “And not just when it comes to extramarital affairs.” 

     I snorted. We were back to my favorite subject of late.

     Setting her glass on the low side table, Ava tucked one leg under her petite frame and gazed at me seriously. “That man couldn’t take his eyes off you,” she said, not a hint of teasing in her voice.

     “Yeah, whatever.” I sighed. “Jack is married and Guard Shack isn’t an option, because I don’t date children.”

     “Guard Shack?” She laughed, covering her mouth with one hand. “You mean Officer Davis? You have to admit, he’s pretty cute. But Jack...” She fanned herself. “That is one tasty man mountain.”

     “I’m not interested. I have enough going on without adding any of that drama.” I gulped down another swallow of my drink and coughed a little when the bubbles fizzed in the back of my throat.

     “You’re not interested in that delicious wall of hot, brooding man? Nuh-uh. I saw you feeling him up at the bar. Nice try. Your fingers were telling a very different story, my friend.”

     I rolled my eyes at her, holding up my left hand and waggling my fingers until my engagement ring and wedding band clanged against one another. I’d never had them fused. “We’re both married,” I reminded her, a little irritated. My friend was not a slow study and I couldn’t begin to comprehend how this was evading her notice.

     “You are unhappily married, and if your husband’s actions have any weight here, Biblically not at all,” she said evenly, crossing her legs and leaning back in her chair. “I think we both remember that Hunter maintains a residence completely separate from your own.” She gestured around the room. “For all we know, Cassandra is living with him in Georgetown.”

     I made a face. I really hated that name–had always, but now with double vehemence.

     “How many times has this happened, Daph? You’ve been on your own for a long time.”

     My face crumpled and my shoulders sagged. I set the glass of seltzer on the side table and collapsed into the back of the chair, defeated. Ava had a point. This wasn’t the first time Hunter had messed around on me. In fact, I knew of three affairs during the course of our marriage and I was fairly sure there were others. Why I’d put up with them, I wasn’t so sure any longer.

     “I’m tired,” I said, and from the look on her face, I knew she understood that I meant I was tired in my soul.

     “I was too,” she said quietly, braving another sip of her drink. “It was why I left. Scariest and best thing I’ve ever done; I can’t imagine my life without Lincoln, and I’d have lost him if I stayed.” 

     She was probably right about that. Her leaving meant Lincoln took getting his shit together pretty seriously.

     She sat quietly with me, letting me chew on my lip and sigh as I took a tipsy moment to consider the reality of my situation. I’d been letting this go on for years and had no one to blame but myself. 

     “I’m pretty sure Hunter married me to avoid child support,” I said quietly, but Ava didn’t look surprised. She’d seen worse. “Daddy’s lawyers were closing in. And since he didn’t have any reliable family money to fall back on, he charmed my mama to get back to me, knowing he could also count on my family to provide campaign contributions for the long slog to Capitol Hill. We’ve always protected our own.” I said it bitterly, not bothering with the air quotes.

     Ava nodded. She was familiar with my kindhearted, giving mother and her philanthropic ways. 

     “You are a beautiful woman, Daphne,” Ava said softly, and I swallowed hard. I wasn’t used to compliments. Besides, I hadn’t felt beautiful in a very, very long time.

     “If the way Jack was looking at you tonight is any indication, and I know it is, you’ve still got it. Hunter is not it for you. You’re still young and gorgeous. You have life experience and you’re successful and accomplished. 

     “You can’t hold your liquor for shit,” she grinned, “but you have a heart of gold and a great sense of humor. Stop wasting yourself on Congressman Asshat.”

     I snorted, spraying my sinuses with seltzer and coughing into the back of my hand.

     Ava stood, abandoning the rest of her sub-par scotch. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” she said finally. “Lincoln is busy all day and I can only amuse myself for so long. I could use some company at the spa.” She looked pointedly at my nails. “And you need to spend some time on yourself for once.”

     Hugging her goodbye, I locked the door behind her and debated setting the alarm, deciding against it since I wasn’t sure Blair was home yet. We lived in what was probably one of the last completely safe neighborhoods left in America. There was zero crime in our wealthy community and we could have gone on vacation and left the door unlocked, returning to find everything in perfect order. If anyone broke into the house, they’d probably clean it.

     Carrick was at my side, pressing his huge head into my thigh to get my attention. His aggressive leaning was his not-so-subtle hint he wanted his dinner and my feet made soft slapping sounds on the marble, Carrick’s claws clacking alongside as I led him toward the back of the house to the laundry room and his food dish.

     Climbing the stairs to the second floor, Carrick hot on my heels, I paused at the landing to remember the moment I’d fished Jack’s necklace out of his shirt. Even three margaritas deep, I’d known what it meant when my fingers brushed the warm skin of his neck and he’d stilled over me. I’d felt the tension in the air, thick and unforgiving, and I’d heard him swallow hard–I knew I had, I couldn’t have imagined it and I knew it wasn’t a normal reaction.

     I sighed, shaking my head and grasping the banister to haul myself up to my room. I was being completely ridiculous, wasn’t I? 

     I would never see the man again.




Copyright 2022, Erin FitzGerald

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