E. J. Bastien set one steaming mug of coffee on the nightstand and gripped the handle of the other as she stared down at the woman asleep in her bed. What have I done? She never—okay, she rarely—took a woman to bed on their first meeting, and she truly never had let one stay the whole night. She was here for her son’s wedding, for God’s sake, and while she had secretly come to town a day early for a little R&R before facing the entire family and new in-laws, she had really only intended to enjoy maybe a glass of wine and a little dancing. Now, I’ve got some woman named Jinx in my bed, and I’m bringing her coffee. Perfect.
Jinx’s eyelids fluttered open, and she offered a slow smile. “Oh my God,” she said, the words running together. “A beautiful woman in a slinky robe…with coffee? I must’ve died last night and gone to heaven.”
And there, E. J. knew, was the reason she’d let Jinx stay—those laughing blue eyes, that Elizabeth Ashley voice, that flirty, slightly cheesy charm. She smiled at the memory of dancing in Jinx’s arms. “Good morning,” she said.
Jinx grinned. She rose onto an elbow, the sheet shifting to reveal the swell of a breast. “Morning.”
Suddenly shy, E. J. felt her cheeks flush. This was ridiculous. In her early fifties, she’d had at least an adequate amount of experience in this area. Maybe it was the face-to-face in the morning light that was throwing her. She handed Jinx the cup.
Jinx took a deep swallow, looking at E. J. over the rim.
E. J. took in the collar-length, dark chestnut hair that had felt so sensuous between her fingers, the slender, yet strong hands that had touched her so intimately, those full lips that—
“Mmm, very good,” Jinx murmured.
“What?” E. J.’s face grew hotter.
“The coffee.” Jinx raised the cup a bit. “It’s very good.”
“Oh,” E. J. said. “Yes. Well…room service.” She waved her hand, indicating the bedroom of her hotel suite.
Jinx took another sip and studied her. “Are you uncomfortable? Do you want me to leave?”
E. J. considered the question. Yes, she was uncomfortable, but no, for some reason, she didn’t want Jinx to leave. Odd. Normally, avoidance was her customary response to any kind of uneasiness. She cleared her throat. “No,” she said, briefly averting her gaze. “I’m just not sure of the appropriate thing to say.”
Jinx’s mouth curved into that slow smile again.
E. J. remembered the feel of those lips, their softness on her skin. What was wrong with her? Was this what waking up with a woman felt like? No, she’d awakened with Rhonda plenty of times, and it wasn’t like this. Maybe this is what waking up with a stranger feels like.
“Is that all?” Jinx held the mug in one hand while she lifted the sheet in invitation with the other. “C’mere, then. I’ll walk you through it.”
E. J. smiled. Yup, cheesy. She eased onto the mattress and into the crook of Jinx’s arm. She felt the warmth of Jinx’s skin through the oh-so-thin silk robe and down the length of her bare thigh. Playing along, she looked at Jinx as coyly as she could manage without breaking into laughter. “Now what?”
“Now,” Jinx said, drawing out the word. She dropped the sheet and tucked it around E. J. “We get nice and comfy.” She carefully switched the mug into her free hand. “We share a little coffee.” She swallowed a mouthful and held the cup to E. J.’s lips.
E. J. did the same, all the while watching Jinx.
Jinx reached across and set the mug on the nightstand beside the other one and settled back against the pillows. “And then,” she said, holding E. J. closely, “you tell me how amazing I was last night.”
E. J. burst out laughing. “Oh, really?”
“Uh-huh. Now, c’mon. You admitted you didn’t know how this went.” Jinx pulled her in more tightly. “You have to trust me.”
E. J. stifled a giggle. “Okay, then what?”
“Well, after you tell me how amazing I was, you tell me how I made you feel like no one ever has before, and how I touched you in places you never knew existed.”
E. J. shook her head. “I see. And then you tell me all the same things?”
“No, that’s not how it goes.” Jinx grinned at her. “C’mon. Do you want to learn this, or not?”
“Okay.” E. J. attempted a serious expression and turned in Jinx’s arms to face her. “How does it go again?”
Jinx rolled her eyes and sighed. “Amazing…made you feel like no one ever has…touched you in places…”
“Okay, okay. I think I have it.”
“All right.” Jinx looked into her eyes. “Go ahead.”
E. J. took a deep breath and tried to keep from laughing. “You…were so…What was it again?”
Jinx stared at her. “You are so bad at this.”
E. J. laughed again and tucked her head beneath Jinx’s chin.
“All right, never mind,” Jinx said, stroking E. J.’s hair. “How about we just go out for breakfast?”
Still smiling, E. J. lifted her face to Jinx’s. “How about if we just have breakfast here?”
Jinx remained silent, a half smile playing on her lips.
E. J. felt her body begin to respond to Jinx’s bare flesh, her closeness, her warmth. She quelled her desire to move against her thigh.
“That sounds,” Jinx whispered, “delicious.”
E. J. blushed. “You don’t even know what’s on the menu.”
“Mmm.” Jinx kissed her lightly on the lips. “I know what I’d like to be on the menu, but I have to get to work.” She sighed.
E. J. squeezed her eyes shut. “Ooooh.” The word came out on a disappointed moan. “I forgot it’s not the weekend.” She eased away from Jinx. “In that case, I need some distance from you.” She glanced at Jinx’s toned body. “And I need you to put some clothes on.” Wistfully, she ran two fingertips along Jinx’s jaw and down to the hollow of her throat.
“I’m sorry,” Jinx said. The words vibrated against the pads of E. J.’s fingers.
E. J. moved farther away. “You said we could go out to eat?”
“I was just thinking we could grab a bite and I’d still have time to run home, get a shower, and make it to work.” Jinx pulled the sheet up a bit. “But if I start nibbling on you for breakfast, I know it’ll turn into brunch. And then lunch…and then I’d lose my job and you’d have to support the family and the kids would go without shoes and milk money and I wouldn’t have any pretty dresses anymore and I’d get all needy and you’d get resentful and I’d call you mean and you’d call me ungrateful and we’d fight and scream and both end up devastated. And all because we didn’t go to breakfast.”
E. J. enjoyed how easily this woman made her smile. “If I promise not to offer myself up as a croissant and cause all that, would you like to shower here and share some actual food with me here in the room? They make great eggs Benedict.” She rose and straightened her robe. “Since I kept you up most of the night, the least I can do is send you off with a full stomach.”
Jinx’s gaze glided over E. J.’s body. “You’re going to have to put something else on, too. That robe is a joke as clothing.”
“It’s a deal,” E. J. said, picking up a coffee mug and handing it once more to Jinx. “You get in the shower, and I’ll call room service. Then I’ll put on some serious clothes.”
When E. J. finished placing the order, she returned to the bedroom and dressed in a pair of designer jeans and a forest green silk blouse she knew set off her blond hair and emerald eyes. She had no intention of seeing Jinx again and liked the idea of leaving her with a good impression. She was just threading the French hooks of gold earrings through her lobes when she heard the shower turn off. She stepped back and studied herself in the floor-length mirror. She had planned to spend the day in her sweats, reading on the sofa until it was time to meet the family for drinks before the rehearsal, and that was still her plan. She would change again after Jinx left. For now, she wanted to evoke that slow smile a couple more times before they parted ways. More accurately, she wanted to feel the low simmer it evoked deep within her a couple more times. It was that smile that had drawn E. J. in the night before.
The bathroom door opened, and Jinx, fully clothed except for her bare feet, emerged, tousling her hair dry with a hand towel. Her gaze landed on E. J., and she whistled.
“Thank you,” E. J. said. She knew she looked good. Her physical appearance had never given her any doubt. Her mother had seen to that. She had fancied E. J. up, as E. J.’s grandmother had called it, and stood by beaming whenever anyone commented on how pretty she was. She even rewarded E. J. with extra TV time if she stayed pretty all day. E. J.’s mother had married into wealth and had caught E. J.’s father with her beauty and rehearsed style. E. J. knew it was how her mother measured a woman’s worth. As a result, however, E. J. spent much of her adulthood, particularly after her divorce, proving to herself her intelligence and her ability to succeed, rather than just be a pretty face. So much so she had worked right up to the day prior to her son’s wedding instead of arriving early to connect with the rest of the family. Her ex-husband’s new wife had made all the arrangements for the rehearsal dinner and everything else the groom’s side traditionally handled. E. J. wasn’t even sure what all that entailed.
“I should’ve known just covering you up wouldn’t make it any easier to get out of here.” Jinx closed the distance between them and dropped the towel onto the end of the bed. She slid her arms around E. J.’s waist. “You really are beautiful.”
E. J. smiled and finger-combed Jinx’s still damp hair into place. “Aren’t you sweet.” Reluctantly, she let her hands slip down to straighten Jinx’s collar. “But look at you.” She perused Jinx’s soft contours beneath snug black jeans and the royal blue oxford shirt that deepened the color of her eyes, the open buttons at the neck revealing that delicate hollow of her throat. “You look just as sexy as when you walked into the bar last night. I never had a chance.”
“Did you want one?” Jinx tightened her arms around E. J.
“Maybe not.” She really hadn’t. The moment she had seen Jinx, she had wanted to know who she was, know more about her, know her. In truth, though, as strong as her attraction had been, the real draw hadn’t been physical. It had been a pull, almost like gravity, a sharp tug somewhere in the recesses of her mind. Something easy, familiar, however airy-fairy that sounded, and yet, E. J. knew they had never met. She knew it was why everything felt so effortless between them, and it was the reason she couldn’t say those things, even in jest—especially in jest—that Jinx had teased her about.
Jinx had been amazing, but not just in her technique. She had known exactly what E. J. wanted, what she had needed. She had made E. J. feel like no one ever had, but not merely physically. She had made her feel seen, understood. Could she be more hokey? And she had touched her in places E. J. didn’t know existed. How could that be? In the nine years since her marriage to Marcus had ended, she had been with a reasonable number of women. She knew herself pretty damned well. After only a couple of hours of dancing and a few more of incredible sex, it was ridiculous to feel any of this, and yet there it was. Crazy.
She couldn’t say any of those things, though, not without sounding like a nutball—and not to this woman who she would never see again after a plate of eggs Benedict. E. J. felt a twinge of regret at that last thought, but she couldn’t say that either.
A knock sounded on the door of the suite. “Room service,” a male voice called.
Thankful to be saved from having to say anything at all, E. J. kissed Jinx on the cheek and stepped back. “Breakfast,” she said lightly as she turned to leave.
While she waited for the meal to be laid out, then signed for it, and tipped the attendant, E. J. kept an eye on Jinx.
She walked around the room, exploring the décor, testing the softness of the couch, brushing her fingertips over the crystal base of the lamp. It appeared as though she had never been in an upscale hotel before, and maybe she hadn’t. E. J. knew that not everyone lived as she did.
Jinx picked up the multi-function remote and closed, then opened, the vertical blinds that covered the picture window overlooking the large swimming pool five floors below. She turned the TV on and off and jumped up when the chair cushion she sat on began to vibrate.
E. J. suppressed a smile as she closed the door. “If you press the stereo button, we’ll have some music to eat by,” she said, walking to the table.
Jinx looked down at the remote and did as instructed. Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” began to play. “That’s nice.”
Still watching her, E. J. smiled. “Ready to eat?”
“Very,” Jinx said, settling into the chair across from E. J. She lifted the silver cover from her plate and inhaled the steam that rose from the dish. “Ooooh, that smells so good. I’m starving.”
“They have great food here.” E. J. dropped a napkin onto her lap.
“Do you stay here often?”
“I use the chain quite a bit for work.”
Jinx slid the ham off her eggs Benedict and set it to the side of her plate.
“Do you not eat meat?” E. J. asked.
Jinx looked up. “Oh. No, sorry. But the rest will be good.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t even ask. We could have ordered something else.”
“Really, it’s fine.”
“So, you’re a vegetarian,” E. J. said, surprised at her interest in learning more about this woman who ultimately was nothing more than yet another one-night stand.
“Technically, I’m a pescatarian. I do eat fish.” Jinx reached for a croissant and split it open with her knife. She slathered it with whipped butter, then added blackberry jam from the silver serving bowl between them. Without another word, she held it out to E. J.
“Oh,” E. J. said, surprised. Her eyes met Jinx’s as their fingers brushed. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” Jinx said. “For last night. You were amazing.” A tender smile touched her lips.
E. J. flushed with heat. How did Jinx do that? How, with one look, did she reduce E. J. to a puddle of need? She wished more and more they were still in bed. She shifted the thought. “Ah, so that’s how it’s done.”
“Exactly.” Jinx sat back in her chair. “Was that so hard?”
E. J. laughed. “Maybe I just needed it illustrated.” She took a bite of the croissant. “I take it you do this often.”
Jinx cut off a piece of egg and English muffin. “Every morning.” She took a bite. “This is delicious.”
Every morning? E. J. watched her. “I don’t mean eat breakfast,” she said with a smirk, suddenly understanding.
Jinx chewed and raised a questioning eyebrow.
“I mean go home with women from bars.” E. J. tried to sound casual. She slipped a forkful of her own meal into her mouth.
“No. Hardly ever. In fact, this is only the second time. And the other one wasn’t from a bar. It was from Tutti Frutti’s.”
“Oh, really?” E. J. chuckled. “Then how do you know all the rules?”
“I watch romantic comedies.” Jinx grinned.
E. J. eyed her. She didn’t know whether to believe her or not, but she supposed it didn’t matter. She would never see her again. She didn’t even know why she had asked. Now seemed a good time for a subject change to one with less potential for embarrassment. “So, what do you do that you’re off to this morning?”
“I’m a dog washer,” Jinx said, scooping up more eggs Benedict.
E. J. had never heard of such a thing. “You mean a dog groomer?”
“No,” Jinx said. She rested her arm on the edge of the table. “A dog washer. I wash the dogs, then turn them over to the groomers.”
“Oh. I’ve always thought the groomers did it all.” E. J. sipped her coffee. “Do you like it?”
“I do,” Jinx said, returning her attention to her food. “I love dogs, and it’s more like just playing in the water with them than a job. But then, miraculously, I get handed a paycheck every two weeks.”
E. J. chuckled. “You know what they say. Do what you love and the money will follow.”
Jinx nodded. “I’ve heard that.” She studied E. J. briefly, as though considering her next words. She glanced around the room. “You must love what you do a lot to live like this and not have to go to work on a Friday.”
E. J. thought for a moment. She didn’t exactly love what she did; she was simply good at it. “I don’t actually live this way.” She mimicked Jinx’s eye movement. “This is how I travel because my company makes my arrangements.” She did live well, but saw no reason to share that, and yet, she heard the words, “I live pretty nicely, just not quite like this,” come out of her mouth.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a regional director for a major retail chain.”
Jinx blinked. “So, what do you do?”
E. J. laughed. “I oversee our stores in northern and central California,” she said.
“Really? What stores?”
“I work for Bad Dog Athletic Apparel.”
Jinx’s eyes widened. “I love Bad Dog,” she said, her voice rising in excitement. “Although…” She became serious. “You know there’s no such thing. Right?”
“No such thing?”
“As a bad dog.”
“Ah, of course not.” E. J. laughed. Jinx’s lack of pretense was such a refreshing change from what she customarily encountered.
Jinx leaned forward in her chair. “I saw this shirt in a catalog once. I wish I had it,” she said, her features animated. “There was one of the bad dogs, of course—the German shepherd—sitting with a half-eaten package of steak on the floor in front of him and a woman standing over him with her hands on her hips. And underneath it said, ‘If only she’d gotten stuck in traffic.’” Jinx laughed, her eyes bright with amusement.
E. J. smiled. “I’ve always liked that one, too.” Mostly what she liked right now was the joy in Jinx’s face. “You didn’t buy it?”
“No. I wasn’t in a place where I could.” A shadow at the back of Jinx’s eyes rippled and shifted, then settled again. “I didn’t know there was a Bad Dog store here.”
E. J. wondered at the subtle diversion but followed it. “There isn’t. I’m here for a family matter.” She lifted her coffee cup to her lips.
“Your family’s here?” Jinx set her fork on her empty plate.
E. J. hesitated. “My son.” She held her mug in front of her. A drop of hollandaise sauce at the corner of Jinx’s mouth drew her attention. She waited for Jinx’s tongue to slip out and swipe it away. When it didn’t, she reached across the table and touched it.
As if in reward, Jinx offered her that slow smile, then sucked E. J.’s fingertip between her lips and grazed it with her teeth.
Arousal flooded E. J. She tightened her thighs. “You have to stop that,” she whispered.
“You started it.” Jinx’s tone was low.
E. J. pulled her hand back and laughed. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Talk about something to take my mind off…you.”
A wicked glint flashed in Jinx’s eyes. “Your son.”
The image of Jacob filled E. J.’s mind. She straightened. “Okay, that did it.”
Jinx cleared her throat. “You’re here to see him?”
E. J. took a deep breath and collected her remaining thoughts. “Yes. He’s getting married tomorrow.”
“Really? My niece is getting married tomorrow.”
E. J. tensed. No. It wasn’t possible. Was it? What were the chances?
“Wouldn’t that be cosmic if they were marrying each other?”
Cosmic wasn’t the word E. J. would use. Karmic, maybe—ending up sharing a family with one of her one-night stands. Traumatic, certainly, since no one in her family knew she was gay. She had always been afraid of upsetting Jacob, and there had never been anyone special in her life for it to matter—except maybe Rhonda. But that was over. As much as she was afraid to, she had to ask. “What’s your niece’s name?”
E. J. blanched and hoped her breakfast wouldn’t come back up.
The room was silent for a long moment. Voices in the hall approached, then faded away.
At the sight of E. J.’s pallor, Jinx reached across the table and squeezed her fingers. “Hey, are you all right?”
E. J. withdrew and rose. “Yes,” she said. “I mean…I don’t know.” She walked to the window and stared outside.
Jinx waited. She considered their conversation. What was the big deal? Why would it matter if E. J.’s son was marrying Andrea’s daughter? Was it what Jinx had said about being a dog washer? Does she not want her family to know she was slumming it? “Hey, it’s okay,” she said, twisting in her seat toward E. J. “My family’s not like me. I mean, they have money and know all the right people and…you know.”
“What?” E. J. turned to face her.
“Tiffany’s family. They’re like you.” Jinx gave an inward shudder. After what she’d experienced of E. J., she couldn’t imagine how she could be anything at all like Jinx’s sister Andrea, but E. J. seemed to live in a similar style, with her big, high-powered job.
E. J. grew still. Those gently sculpted features that’d held invitation in every expression, that soft gaze that’d caressed Jinx’s skin, hardened. “I know your family has money, but even if they didn’t…I’m not a snob.”
Jinx fell silent. It was too soon for a reaction like this. The very few women she’d spent time with over the past three years hadn’t gotten this mad until they’d found out the truth about her. “I’m sorry. I just thought…” Well, no need to repeat it. What she’d thought was already out, lumbering around the expensive suite, about to take a dump on the luxuriant carpet. “I’m sorry. My mistake.”
E. J.’s demeanor eased ever so slightly.
“What are you upset about?”
E. J. hesitated. She turned back to the window. “I’ve never told my son I’m gay. No one in my family knows.”
Jinx waited for some further explanation. None came.
E. J. stared out into the morning sky.
“I don’t understand,” Jinx said finally. “What does that have to do with anything?”
E. J. swung around, her arms folded across her middle, her shoulders drawn up tight. Incredulity flashed in her eyes. “I spent the night with you last night.”
“Yeah,” Jinx said cautiously. “I remember.”
“And now we’re going to be at the same wedding, in the same extended family.”
“And you’re afraid they’ll know?”
E. J. gave an almost imperceptible single nod, seemingly satisfied Jinx had finally caught up with her.
“Oh, I get it,” Jinx said. “Well, I was planning to wear my I-slept-with-the-mother-of-the-groom T-shirt, but I’m sure I can find something else in my closet.”
E. J. stiffened. “You think this is funny?”
“I think it’s a little ridiculous. How would anyone know?” Jinx shifted in her seat. “It’s not like we’re going to walk in together arm-in-arm. We don’t have to interact at all. I won’t even look at you if you don’t want me to.”
“You don’t understand, and I don’t expect you to,” E. J. said, her voice hard. “I have a lot to lose.”
E. J. was wrong. Jinx did understand. She understood all too well being rejected for things she’d done, for who she was. Not in the same way, perhaps, but she understood completely. “I get it,” she said softly. She walked over to E. J. “Look, we may not even cross paths tomorrow. There are going to be a billion people there, I’m sure.” She took E. J.’s hands in hers. “If we see each other, we’ll pretend we’ve never met and just be two of the billion. Don’t worry. I won’t cause you any trouble.”
E. J. lifted her eyes to meet Jinx’s. Her expression held confusion, gratitude, longing, regret. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Jinx offered her a smile she didn’t mean, then kissed her forehead. “I need to find my shoes and socks and get going,” she said quietly. “Thank you again for last night.”
E. J. nodded, her conflict still apparent.
In the bedroom, Jinx sat in the armchair and finished tying a shoe. She knew not to take this personally. E. J. wasn’t rejecting her. It was more complicated than that, and the issue was E. J.’s. They’d had a good time, briefly filled a void for one another, and now it was over. Jinx hadn’t let herself entertain any other ideas. She’d had no thought of dating this dream of a woman so far out of her league, no delusion of happily ever after, not even a hope of ever seeing her again. Jinx wasn’t looking for anything like that, regardless of how amazing E. J. might be. She had her hands full piecing a life together and learning how to live on her own. Besides, she had no interest in being someone’s shameful little secret. She’d had enough of that growing up. If all that was true, though, why did she feel such a heavy weight of disappointment settling in her stomach like an anchor at the bottom of the ocean?
“Jinx,” E. J. said softly from the doorway.
Jinx looked up.
“I’m sorry for my reaction. And I’m so sorry if I hurt your feelings.”
Jinx lifted one shoulder. “You didn’t,” she said without another thought. “It’s okay.”
“No, it isn’t. I don’t want to leave things like this.” E. J. crossed the room and knelt in front of her. “You are…Last night was…” E. J. searched Jinx’s eyes as though expecting to find the ends of her sentences there. She sighed. “I’ll never forget you.”
Jinx slipped her fingers into E. J.’s hair and let herself feel the sincerity of the words. She smiled. “Hey, there might be hope for you yet.”
E. J. laughed and pressed her cheek into Jinx’s palm. “Will you be at the rehearsal dinner tonight?”
Jinx brushed E. J.’s temple with her thumb. “Oh, no. I’m shocked I was even invited to the wedding.” The words were out before she could stop them.
E. J. looked up in evident surprise. “Why is that?”
Jinx paused. She really didn’t want to tell her the truth—at least not all of it—but she didn’t want to lie to her either. With E. J.’s son marrying into the Stanton family, Jinx figured she’d hear about all the bodies buried in the backyard before too long anyway, at least whatever version of the story Jinx’s sister chose to share. “Let’s just say I’m sort of the black sheep of the family. I don’t get to come to everything.” She didn’t bother to say that other than Andrea slamming the door in her face three years earlier, she hadn’t seen any of the family in over twenty-five years. She’d never even met Tiffany and had no idea why she’d been invited to the wedding. When she’d sent her RSVP and hadn’t received a phone call saying it’d been a mistake, she’d hoped it was an olive branch of sorts. I’ll know tomorrow.
E. J. rubbed her palm over Jinx’s thigh. “I can see that. You don’t seem anything like them.”
Jinx leaned down and kissed E. J. on the lips. “Thank you. I take that as such a compliment.”
“I understand. Andrea’s a little scary, isn’t she?”
“You have no idea. If I didn’t actually know where she came from, I’d swear she burst out of someone’s chest.” Andrea hadn’t always been that way, though.
E. J. smiled. “That’s why you weren’t at the engagement party,” she said, her tone thoughtful. “And why I’ve never met you before?”
Jinx nodded. “That’s why,” she said. “Baaaaaa.”
The spark returned to E. J.’s eyes as she laughed.
At least now Jinx felt like she could leave without having ruined everything, though leaving was the last thing she wanted to do. “I really do need to go, baby,” she said gently.
In the space of a flinch, E. J.’s gaze went soft, then just as quickly, returned to normal. “I know,” she whispered.
At the front door of the suite, E. J. caught Jinx’s hand as she reached for the knob.
Jinx turned to her.
E. J. gave her a long look as though memorizing her. Then she kissed her.
As their lips moved against one another’s, Jinx listened to the soft music playing in the background. She wanted to remember it. “What’s the name of this song?” she asked when E. J. eased back.
E. J. tilted her head and listened. “‘Clair de lune.’”
“One more kiss?” E. J. said, gazing up at her. “Like the one you gave me right here last night?”
Jinx grinned, remembering when she’d knocked on the door and waited for E. J. to answer. Her heart had been pounding. She couldn’t believe she’d accepted E. J.’s invitation to join her back at her hotel. She hadn’t been with a woman in a long time, not since Val. She hadn’t wanted to be, but somewhere between that first look in the bar and E. J.’s whispered enticement several hours later, she’d decided maybe it was time.
She took E. J. in her arms, just like the night before, and covered her mouth with her own. The smoldering embers of the morning ignited instantly.
E. J.’s lips parted, and she took Jinx in, fully and completely, just like the night before.
They kissed long and slow and deliberately—just like the night before—but this time, Jinx knew she had to leave. This time, she knew what they’d shared was over rather than just beginning. Suddenly, she felt a deep ache of loneliness she hadn’t known since Val’s death. This time, though, she knew it wasn’t from the loss of Val. It was from the loss of something—someone—she’d never even had.
Jinx stood in the long column of wedding guests waiting patiently to move through the receiving line. The ceremony had been beautiful, the bride radiant, the mother of the groom irresistible—but Jinx had kept her promise. She’d even averted her eyes when E. J. was escorted down the aisle on the arm of an usher to her seat in the front row. Another woman and a second usher had gone next, closely followed by a man Jinx presumed was the father of the groom—E. J.’s ex-husband—and then came Andrea. Jinx had turned completely away as Andrea had passed, afraid that her mere acknowledgement of her sister might summon the hungry harpy within.
Nerves battled emotions, and Jinx felt faint at the invasion of both. Her invitation didn’t make sense. In fact, it’d made so little sense she’d almost decided not to attend. Andrea had shown absolutely no interest in having anything to do with her since she’d been home—none, zip, zilch, nada—and Tiffany didn’t even know her. Someone had invited her, though, and it was a foot in the door. She just hoped that door didn’t slam, leaving her maimed.
As the wedding day had approached, in addition to her usual nightmares, Jinx had several new ones in which Andrea flew at her, screaming and demanding her off the premises. She knew it was crazy. That would never happen, at least not in front of all the guests, because Andrea would never make such a public scene. Her mother, Jinx’s stepmother, and the queen of the high-society circle in her day, Nora Tanner, taught her daughter well in all matters of etiquette.
Jinx, on the other hand, had failed etiquette, along with so many other things, but she knew it was her mere existence that Nora found the most offensive. She felt a little queasy at the thought of Nora and wondered if she was the real cause of her nerves. Although no longer alive, her presence still lingered around the house and grounds where she’d reigned for so many years. Jinx could feel her—like the crackle in the air after a lightning storm.
Before Jinx had returned to town, she’d checked to see what she’d be up against in her attempt to mend her relationship with Andrea, and was relieved to find she wouldn’t have to deal with her stepmother. Nora had terrified her from the first day Jinx had set foot on this property at the age of five. Sure, she was now forty-five and had survived worse, including a shooting and a stabbing, but she’d still breathed an enormous sigh of relief when she’d learned she’d never again have to face the formidable Nora Tanner. Did that make her a coward? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it was just the part of her that still felt like the little girl who’d been forced to come live with a father who was a stranger and a stepmother who hated her. The memories weren’t all bad, though. There were some good ones of her father when Nora wasn’t around and, of course, those of Andrea when she had still been Jinx’s best friend.
The line began to move, and Jinx looked to its head. Across the vast expanse of lush lawn, the bride and groom, their respective parents, and the best man and maid of honor stood beneath a white canopy, greeting their guests.
Jinx steadied herself. This is it.
As she made slow progress along the lavender velvet ropes designating the path, she studied Andrea.
In appearance, she hadn’t changed much in the last twenty-five years. She was still slender, her movements those of a toned, fit physique, not simply of one thin from a strict diet. Her dark brown hair, like their father’s, held no gray, and her smile, though appropriately bright for the festivities of the day, was the practiced presentation she’d perfected so many years earlier. Her brown eyes had stopped smiling in her teens.
Jinx never knew why.
Tiffany looked remarkably like her mother, which wasn’t surprising. Everything about Andrea smooshed out any evidence of her husband’s input, whether in their child or in their life. After all, now that Nora was gone, they lived in Andrea’s family estate, her husband now held her father’s position as senior partner in her family’s law firm, and their daughter didn’t display a physical trace of his participation in her creation. Jinx remembered the ache of being so tangibly visible yet, at the same time, seemingly nonexistent. She looked at Andrea’s husband. With his own pasted-on smile and robotic gestures, he showed no signs of minding.
Tiffany’s smile was genuine, though. It not only touched her eyes, it lit her entire being. She greeted every single guest with authentic warmth, not the reserve with which her mother shook hands and kissed cheeks. Tiffany displayed the exuberance of the young Andrea, the eight-year-old Andrea, the ten-year-old, the twelve-year-old. What changed?
The line continued its slow pace forward, and Jinx took in the groom, Jacob. Now, there was a composite child, one who brought forth both parents. He had his father’s height and athletic build, but E. J.’s coloring and finer features. She wondered if his eyes were the same captivating emerald green as his mother’s. She remembered E. J.’s darkening a shade or two with arousal. She shook her head. Knock it off. It wasn’t E. J. she was looking at. That was the problem, though. It was E. J. she wanted to be looking at. She could see her in her peripheral vision, standing right beside her son, and it was too tempting. She shifted her gaze away before coming back to Jacob. The setting sun glinted off gold streaks in his dark blond hair, and Jinx wondered if E. J. had the same highlights. She’d only seen her in the dimly lit bar and the darkened bedroom. Even the morning sunshine had been muted by the partially closed blinds. She had to know. She glanced at E. J., then did a double take.
E. J. stared straight at her.
Jinx tensed. She’d been caught. But wait a minute. E. J. was looking at her, too. Don’t the rules apply both ways?
E. J. broke the connection and turned her attention to the next guest.
Jinx looked back to Andrea. As the line continued to move and the moment of truth grew closer, her stomach churned. Was this a good idea, confronting Andrea in public? She wouldn’t see Jinx any other way, so it served her right. Jinx didn’t think Andrea was really the one she was afraid for, though. The public part was what would keep things from getting out of hand, she reminded herself. She stepped in front of Andrea’s husband.
He shook her hand. “Thank you for coming.”
She just smiled. Then she looked to Andrea.
Andrea was turned away, easing back from a loose embrace with the woman beside Jinx. Her focus still on the last remnants of the exchange, she reached in Jinx’s direction.
Jinx moved that last pace and took Andrea’s hand. It was warm and soft. Her heart beat frantically, and she trembled slightly.
Andrea’s gaze fell on her. “Thank you for—” Surprise flashed in her eyes—along with something else—before her expression closed and hardened.
“Hello, Andrea,” Jinx said.
Andrea’s manner frosted, and she looked at Jinx with a coldness Jinx had never experienced—and she’d experienced a lot. She cleared her throat. “Thank you for coming,” she said coolly, her mask back in place, her eyes sharp and brittle. Her message was clear. Jinx was anything but welcome.
“Aunt Michelle.” A tender voice broke through the tension, and a gentle hand pulled Jinx’s from Andrea’s. “I’m so glad you could come.” Tiffany drew Jinx the short distance to stand in front of her. “It’s so wonderful to finally meet you.”
Jinx felt the warmth of Tiffany’s embrace envelop her, but her attention remained on Andrea.
Andrea turned away, already focused on the next guest, as though nothing out of the ordinary had taken place.
Jinx inhaled deeply and regrouped. She gave Tiffany a squeeze before easing back. “It’s nice to meet you, too,” she said quietly. “You’re a beautiful bride.” She’d heard that in a movie once and had practiced it for today.
Tiffany smiled. “Thank you. I’d like to introduce you to my husband…” Her smile widened. “Jacob.”
Jacob eyed Tiffany questioningly but shook Jinx’s hand. It was obvious he’d picked up on something, but he evidently knew not to make a scene as well. He simply repeated the standard, “It’s nice to meet you. Thank you for coming.”
And then, there was E. J. right in front of her, stunning in her deep purple gown with its tasteful, mother-of-the-groom neckline. Her short blond hair—yes, streaked with golden highlights—stirred in the gentle breeze, a few wispy tendrils framing her face. “Thank you for coming today.” She squeezed Jinx’s fingers, a tender gesture. “It’s nice to meet you…Michelle.” Her lips quirked ever so slightly, and a teasing glint flashed in her eyes.
Her touch, her playfulness, maybe her mere presence, eased the tightness in Jinx’s shoulders. She relaxed. “Thank you,” she said, holding E. J.’s hand a second longer. “It’s my pleasure.” With reluctance, she released her grasp and made her way along the remainder of the receiving line.
As she emerged from underneath the canopy into the grassy area peppered with large round tables covered in lavender linen, she realized she’d broken out in a sweat. Droplets trickled down her spine and waves of heat wafted up her neck from beneath her collar. She slipped out of her blazer and let the early evening breeze cool her. The increasing distance from the receiving line slowed her heartbeat. So much for the olive branch. She approached the bar set up on the patio and ordered a Sprite.
She should leave. She knew that. With Andrea’s reaction being what it was—what, in reality, she’d expected—no good could come of any further interaction. Not here. Not on Tiffany’s special day. What about Tiffany, though? She’d known who Jinx was. She hadn’t seemed surprised by her presence. The name had thrown Jinx a little. No one had called her Michelle in…She didn’t even know the last time. Had Tiffany been the one to invite her? Why would she?
Jinx made her way along the landscaped divider that separated the yard from the pool decking, then stepped back beneath a large tree, letting its shadows from the setting sun veil her. She gulped down half her soda. Was she crazy to have come? What could she do, now?
There were a few people she recognized, more distant family members, but she didn’t dare walk up to them and say hello, especially now, knowing for certain how Andrea felt about her presence. She could maybe sit with some strangers and strike up a conversation, but she didn’t want to have to explain—or try not to explain—who she was in relation to the happy couple. Besides, that would most likely infuriate Andrea even more, because God knows who she could end up talking to. Another rush of anxiety hit her. Nope. Time to go.
She took a last survey of the backyard and fence line, and the arbored gate that led to the gardens—that magical place that’d transformed into so many fantasylands for her and Andrea, where they’d escaped for hours and could be anything and anyone they wanted—caught her attention. She felt its pull and had to see if they were the same. As she stepped into the gardens, the fragrance from the flowers around the archway filled her senses and fanned the embers of long-ago memories into a warm flame. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, basking in the same quiet relief that retreat into this space had always provided. The rest of the world fell away.
When she opened her eyes, though, she realized everything was different. The cement path that used to stretch out in both directions was gone, and instead, a brick walkway extended straight ahead, directly into the middle of the gardens. Bushes with large brilliant red, hot pink, and white blossoms lined both sides. Trees with bright pink blooms filled in the space behind. She followed the new path, taking in the beauty, breathing in the fragrance, reveling in the peace. She came to a fork and went left. She knew what she was looking for but doubted she could find it—if it was even still there. When she came to a second fork, she stopped and tried to get her bearings. Nothing looked the same.
“Can I help you?” a low voice asked from behind her.
Startled, she spun around.
A man leaned against a big tree trunk, his features veiled in the darkness behind the electric torch at the edge of the path.
Jinx’s heart beat hard. “I was just—”
This time when he spoke, she recognized the voice. It can’t be. “Luke?”
He stepped out onto the bricks, a broad grin dominating his face. The same twinkle Jinx had always remembered flashed in his eyes, and his once coppery red hair, now mostly gray, was still thick and full.
Before Jinx knew it, she was in his arms, her happy tears soaking into his shirt.
He hugged her tightly for a long moment, then held her away from him. “Look at you. All grown up and gorgeous. Last time I saw you, you were a gangly teenager.”
Jinx laughed through her tears. She wiped at her eyes. “God, I’m sorry. How embarrassing.”
Luke chuckled. “Oh, never you mind. If I wasn’t such a crusty old guy now, I’d be crying with you. It’s great to see you.”
Jinx got control of herself. She hadn’t even imagined Luke was still there after all this time, but then, of course, he could be. He’d started working on the grounds crew for her father and Nora when he was only eighteen and the girls were seven. His main responsibility had always been the gardens, so she and Andrea had become quite close to him. “Is Emmy still here, too?”
“Yup. She’s head of the house staff, now. And I’m head groundskeeper. We live in the main back house.” He motioned in the direction of the outer wall. Jinx’s father had built a caretaker’s residence on the property along with a couple other homes for the longer-standing employees on staff. “Your family’s been real good to us,” he said with a fond smile.
Jinx grinned at him, unable to stop. “That’s great.”
“You’re here for the wedding, I’d guess?”
“Yes,” Jinx said.
“Miss Tiffany’s a beauty, isn’t she? And the sweetest little girl, just like you and your sister when you were young.”
“I sometimes see the two of you running through here, playing like the rest of the world didn’t exist.” He looked around the gardens.
Jinx followed his gaze. “It’s sure different. I can’t even find my way now.”
“Yeah, your sister had me and my crew redo the whole thing when Mrs. Tanner passed. Said it was her way of making it her own.”
Jinx wondered if it was actually Andrea’s way of wiping out their childhood completely. Nora never spent any time in the gardens. It wasn’t like they were ever really hers. She nodded, sadness creeping through her.
“What you’re looking for is still here, though.” Luke winked at her.
Her heart leapt. “It is?” Of course he knew why she was there.
“Come on, I’ll show you.” He led her along the path she’d been on, made another left, then a right, and turned onto a much smaller, less obvious walkway. He turned one last corner and stopped.
Jinx stepped up beside him and stared up into the large elm tree in front of them. And there it was—their tree house. She grinned. “Oh, my God, it’s exactly the same.”
“I keep it up,” Luke said softly. “Put some fresh paint on every few years, replace any weak boards…”
Music started up from the direction of the main house but barely registered in Jinx’s awareness. She stared in wonder at the one thing of joy left from her past.
“She still comes out here sometimes, you know?” he said.
“Who?” Jinx studied him.
“Little Andi.” He turned to her.
Jinx laughed. “Do you still call her that?”
“Not to her face.” Luke chuckled. “I’m close to retiring in a few years. Want to keep my job. Nope, I call her Mrs. Stanton, just like everybody else. But in my heart, she’ll always be little Andi.” He slipped his arm around Jinx’s shoulders. “And you’ll always be little Chelle.”
Jinx encircled his waist, and they stood side-by-side, gazing up at the tree house. Emotion welled in her. “I can’t believe you kept it.” She choked a little on the words.
“Not me,” Luke said. “Your sister ordered me to keep it. Had us keep all the big trees, add some smaller ones, then fill in the rest with new bushes and flowers. But she told me privately she wanted the tree house to stay, and she comes out here periodically and goes inside for a while. But don’t you dare tell her I told you that.” He gave Jinx a warning glance.
Jinx laughed. “Your secret’s safe with me. She doesn’t want to hear anything from me.”
“Yeah,” he said on a sigh. “She’s had a mad on for you for a long time. But you’re here tonight.”
“Yes, I am, but I don’t have any idea how or why.”
He squeezed her. “Aw, where’s that little girl who believes in magic?”
She looked up at him thoughtfully and smiled. Yeah, magic. That must be it.
“Want to go up?” Luke nodded toward the tree house.
She grinned. “I do.”
As she pushed up through the trap door in the floor, she switched on the pocket flashlight Luke had given her and swept the beam slowly over the small area. In her memory, it was so much bigger. The checkerboard was gone—Luke had painted one on an old stump and hoisted it up there for them—but the bean bag chairs were still there. Granted, they were newer and bigger, but they looked like the ones from their childhood. A book lay opened and facedown on the upended crate acting as a table between them. She climbed the rest of the way in and stood. The smell was the same, the scent of wood mingling with the overall fragrance of the gardens below. She breathed deeply and went back in time to all the hours she and Andi had spent there, the games of Tarzan and Swiss Family Robinson, then the transformation of the tree house into a submarine or an outlaw gang’s hideout.
She took a step and slammed her forehead into a branch she didn’t remember being there. Ow. She grimaced and rubbed the spot, feeling a lump beginning to rise already. Damn, that’s going to leave a mark.
She ducked and crossed to the window that faced the main house. She opened it and looked across the gardens, between the other trees to the lights of the wedding reception. Music floated across on the evening breeze that ruffled her hair. She could feel Andi here with her, but no…There was no Andi anymore. There was only Andrea, Mrs. Stanton, mother of the bride, queen of the upper-class social circle, like her mother. Jinx turned around. Who ordered Luke to keep the tree house, then, and who still came up here sometimes? And why?
Jinx picked up the book and glanced at the cover. A recent Jodi Picoult novel. She remembered coming up here by herself during the years after Andrea had changed. She’d spent time reading, doing her homework, sometimes just thinking and dreaming—anything to escape the loneliness of the house. At least here she’d had the memories of her best friend.
From the corner of her eye, she noticed something poking out from the side of the crate. She squatted and picked up a stack of books. Treasure Island was on top. She opened the cracked and weathered front. Michelle Tanner was scrawled in her own child’s handwriting at the top of the inside cover. She went to the next one—The Three Musketeers, hers, also. Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre, The Hobbit along with a couple of titles from a mystery series she’d read in her teens. The last was Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, the book she’d been reading when she’d run away. She’d finished it years later. These books were all well used and tattered. She found a few more current bestsellers in the crate, but none showed the same wear and tear.
Jinx heard cheers and applause from the wedding guests and wondered how long she’d been away. She didn’t really feel any need to get back—it wasn’t like anyone would miss her—but she was afraid she was getting too drawn into the past. It was time to leave. She considered taking her books, but wondered if that would leave Luke in a difficult situation with Andrea. She returned them to the crate.
On the ground again, she slipped into her jacket she’d left draped over a bush, then turned and looked up to the still open window. In its frame, she saw Andi, aged eight, smiling and waving. “See you later, alligator,” she called.
From beside Jinx, her own eight-year-old image waved back. “After while, crocodile.” It was their customary farewell to one another, one adopted from their father when Nora wasn’t around. They’d shortened it to “Later, gator,” and “While, dile,” when they’d become more cool. Jinx smiled.
As she made her way along the side of the house to leave, she felt herself drawn to the servants’ entrance that led down a hallway to the kitchen and the back stairs. She inhaled the delectable smell of the meal being served to the wedding guests, reminiscent of those prepared by the Tanner family’s private chef years earlier, and she let the sounds of a busy staff comfort her. These were the people she’d always felt more connected to, more at ease with. In her younger years, this was the way she’d usually entered and left the house because it allowed her to go straight up to her and Andrea’s floor without having to walk through the ground level, where Nora was more likely to notice her. Later, after her father died and she’d been relegated to the small room behind the kitchen, this was the most logical way in and out.
She looked up the stairs, wondering how different the second floor was. Everyone was outside. I’ll just take a peek. At the top, she cracked open the door and peered down the long hallway. The past rushed in on her.
The color scheme was different. Newer carpet, some new chandeliers, but still, it was all the same. The floor she’d shared with Andi had a bedroom and bath for each of them, a play room, a library/homework/music room, and an entertainment room, with a big screen TV and sound system. Their father and Nora’s private quarters occupied the third floor.
She moved along the corridor, peeking into the different rooms. Some had obviously been used for the bridesmaids to get ready for the ceremony. And maybe the bride? Of course. This floor would have been Tiffany’s once Andrea’s family had moved to the estate. Her heart started to pound. She heard muffled voices. She pivoted toward the servants’ door.
Jinx froze, then turned slowly.
Tiffany rushed toward her from the doorway of Andrea’s old room. “I can’t believe I’m finally meeting you. I’m so glad you came.” She held the train of her wedding dress in a bundle in her arms. “I looked for you once the reception got going, but I couldn’t find you. Then I had to pee,” she said in a whisper and giggled. “So I came up here, and here you are. Oh my, I’m babbling. I’m so sorry.” She had stopped directly in front of Jinx and now stared at her expectantly.
Jinx had no idea what to say. “I…” Should she tell her she’d been in the tree house? No. “It’s…” She’d already told her it was nice to meet her in the receiving line. Hadn’t she? “How long have you known about—”
“Forever.” Tiffany seemed to vibrate with excitement. “Luke used to tell me about you and Mom when you were little. He had some old pictures. He always made you both sound like so much fun. You know, before you ran away and Mom…Well, I don’t know what happened to Mom. I love her dearly, but she gets a little crazy sometimes.”
Jinx chuckled. Well said. Before Tiffany could grab another breath and take off again, Jinx held up a hand. “You’re the one who invited me?”
Tiffany looked surprised. “Of course. It’s my wedding.”
“What the hell are you doing up here?” Andrea’s voice pierced the quiet of the hallway. “What the hell are you doing here at all?”
Jinx cringed. Andrea sounded so much like Nora. Loathing and contempt were an ugly mixture in her tone. Jinx hated it. She started to speak, but Tiffany’s hand on her arm stopped her. It was a good thing, since she didn’t have a clue what would come out of her mouth. She didn’t know what the hell she was doing there.
“I invited her, Mom. It’s my wedding. She’s my guest.”
Andrea’s burning gaze turned to ice, and she shifted it from Jinx to Tiffany. “It might be your wedding, young lady, but it’s my home, and she’s not welcome in it.”
Andrea was gone. All Jinx could see was Nora.
“I’ve wanted to meet my aunt for a long time.” Tiffany’s voice rose. “I told you that three years ago.”
Jinx had to hand it to Tiffany. The girl had guts. Jinx had never been able to stand up to Nora, nor had the younger Andrea, for that matter.
“And I told you…” Andrea stabbed a finger at Tiffany. “You don’t have an aunt.”
“I do have an aunt, and she’s right here, and you can’t—”
“You’re right,” Jinx yelled over the argument. She had to stop this. She was ruining this special day for both Tiffany and Andrea. She’d never wanted to do that. “I never should have come. I’m sorry,” she said to Andrea.
“No, you shouldn’t have. And you…” Andrea was back on Tiffany, “never should have invited—”
Jinx stepped between them. “Andi, I’ll go.”
Andrea went rigid. Her eyes flamed. Her jaw tightened. “Don’t you dare call me that.”
She hadn’t meant to—too much reminiscing, too many emotions. “Andrea. I’m sorry.”
“Get out. Get the hell out of my house.” Her voice rose again. “My mother was right about you. You’re nothing but trash that came from trash.”
The words cut Jinx as deeply and as painfully as a steel blade. One of Nora’s favorite phrases, now coming from Andrea, sliced her open, and all the memories of Nora berating her, telling her she’d never be good enough to be a Tanner, calling her whore’s trash, came tumbling out from that dark place she’d imprisoned them for so long. She couldn’t breathe.
“Get out!” Andrea screamed.
Jinx fled. As she rounded the corner at the top of the main staircase, she came face-to-face with E. J.
E. J. stared at her, wide-eyed, for the briefest instant before Jinx ran down the stairs and out the front door.