Prologue

I am not a needy person. I own my own home and a year-old Jaguar, and I singlehandedly restored a 1972 Ford Bronco and built a thriving business. I don’t need to be surrounded by people, take a plus one to a party or a pal to the movies. I can eat out alone, take a walk alone, and sleep alone. But I do need one thing—desperately, anxiously, almost frantically. I need to get laid.

I need hands, fingers, lips, and tongue caressing every inch of my body. I need to feel the touch of a woman, inhale the scent of arousal, feel the pulse of desire. I need to get lost in sensation, shut out the world around me, and be swept over the edge in waves of release. I need to bury my hands in thick hair, touch soft skin, travel over curves and valleys, and sink into warm wetness. I need to remember to breathe, forget my name, and lose my inhibitions. I don’t need to know her life history, her favorite color, or even her name. Actually, I would prefer not to know her name. That’s all I need. Pure and simple. But there’s nothing simple about it. Not at all.

I’m obsessed with sex. Okay, maybe obsessed is too strong a word, but I think about it all the time when my mind wanders, which, uncharacteristically, has been a lot lately.

I look at people on the street or in the office and wonder if they had sex last night. Or an hour ago. Was it wild and passionate or routine and perfunctory? Did old people still do it? I see a couple in their fifties just about every morning at the Coffee Klatch and just can’t imagine them doing it missionary, or any other style, for that matter.

When I see couples, gay or straight, I wonder how they can be that intimate, then sit across from each other and discuss the latest episode of Scandal over a BLT at Denny’s like it didn’t just happen. All I see when I look at people is how they look naked, writhing in ecstasy, sucking on some very private body part, or thrusting deep and hard, exploding in orgasm.

Like I said, pretty simple, right? I’m really good at bullshit and covering up the real truth. I’ve had lots of experience.


Chapter One

“Oh my, she’s hot.” Courtney’s voice somehow penetrated the music pounding from the massive black speakers thirty feet in front of us. “I’d do her in an instant.”

Courtney Saber was the closest thing I had to a BFF. We met in grad school when she saved me from a potentially very nasty situation. I was at a party and she saw a guy drop something into my beer when my head was turned. I’d taken two or three big swallows when she came up to me, pretending to be an old friend. She gave me a big hug and whispered in my ear, “The guy in the red shirt put something in your beer,” then released me and grabbed my hand and pulled me away from the bar. I was already starting to feel a bit woozy so I followed her without protest.

“Come on. Susie and Maxine would love to see you. Excuse us,” she said, and hustled me out the door and straight to the hospital.

I didn’t remember anything after that, but according to Courtney, they drew blood and called the police. The guy was arrested and after a two-day trial was found guilty of aggravated assault. He spent five years as a guest of the California penal system. Courtney was also one hundred percent heterosexual.

“What would Tom think?” I had to scream to be heard over the noise, referring to her husband of eight years and father to her three toddlers.

“I’ll tell you tomorrow after I fuck his brains out when I get home.”

I pulled my attention from the woman on the stage to look at Courtney.

“What?” she asked, exasperated. “Just because I think she’s hot doesn’t mean I want to do her. You should, Kiersten. I bet she’d rock your world.”

The “she” Courtney was referring to was none other than Tobin Parks, hottest musician of the last few years. Tobin was a mixture of Taylor Swift, Madonna, and Janis Joplin. She was often described as a seductress on stage and a heartbreaker off. She was recognized all over the world, and this was another sold-out performance.

She had no less than eight songs in the last year that had hit the number-one position in every list that meant anything and sellout crowds in every city on her world tour for the past three years.

How do I know this? Because Courtney recited those facts
and several more when she was trying to convince me to cough up two hundred and forty dollars for prime seats in the middle of row six.

“Come on, Kiersten. It’ll be fun. We’ll go out to eat at some trendy little place by the arena, then scream and swoon like we did when we were kids. I guarantee we’ll have a great time. Besides, you need to get out more.”

Little did Courtney know I had never screamed and swooned as a kid. Cried and sobbed, yes. Screamed and swooned, no. “And you’re sacrificing yourself to help out a friend?” I asked skeptically.

“What are friends for? It’s the least I can do.”

“You just want to get away from your kids.”

“Well, there is that, too,” she admitted, not seeming the least bit guilty.

So, here we were, two closer to forty than thirty somethings almost within touching distance of the hottest woman I’d seen in a long, long time. I tried not to drool or stare as Tobin moved around the stage. She could shimmy, shake, bump, and grind like nobody’s business. She was tall, with a thirty-inch waist and thirty-four-inch inseam, information again supplied by Courtney. And my lord, she didn’t hesitate to use every inch of the stage as her playground. She seduced the crowd with romantic ballads and jolted us out of our seats with hard rock and roll. Every woman in the arena wanted to be her, and every lesbian wanted to be with her.

I had stumbled on an interview with her and newswoman Megan Caldwell on 60 Minutes last month. They were outside in a park, the camera shooting over Megan’s left shoulder.

 

“What’s one thing no one knows about you?” Megan asked, as if expecting Tobin to actually divulge something secret, something really juicy.

Tobin laughed and my knees went weak. Her smile was radiant and her eyes sparkled with mischief. I had to sit down.

“Thanks to the media, present company excluded, there’s not much people don’t know about me, Megan,” Tobin replied, dodging the question.

Megan prodded her. “Even more reason to tell us something.”

“I don’t understand the fascination people have with me. I’m just a singer.”

It was Megan’s turn to laugh. “Tobin, saying you’re a singer is like saying the president of the United States is just somebody’s boss. You’re far more than just a singer.”

The interview cut away to a segment on the early years of Tobin’s career. Several videos of her onstage in dark clubs with harsh lighting and bad acoustics preluded more recent ones of her at Madison Square Garden, the Superdome, Central Park, and several venues in Europe. Megan’s voice narrated several facts, including that Tobin still traveled in a large tour bus when she could very easily afford her own private jet.

“What about your love life?”

“My love life?”

“You have a pretty active social life.”

“Is that what they call it?”

“They say you have a girl in every city,” Megan said a little more seriously.

Tobin squirmed in her seat. “Well, don’t believe everything you hear,” she finally said.

“And what part is that?”

“I don’t kiss and tell, Megan.” Tobin held up her hands as if to say, “And you’ll never get it out of me.” When she winked at Megan I stopped breathing until the commercial began.

 

I have to admit that Tobin Parks was, in fact, hot. However, I’m a bit more verbally creative than Megan so would describe her as incredibly hot. She was in her mid-twenties and wore her dark hair short and spiky. Tonight she had on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt that showed her midriff every time she lifted her arms. Her boots looked like she wore them often, not just for show. Other than a leather bracelet on her left wrist, she had no other jewelry and probably weighed no more than a hundred and twenty pounds and didn’t have to kill herself at the gym six days a week to stay there. Whereas most performers had that carefully costumed casual look, Tobin Parks looked like she’d wear those same clothes to the grocery store. However, I seriously doubted she’d have any idea where to find the powdered sugar on aisle six. From this angle her long legs looked like she was much taller than the reported five feet nine inches.

So here we were being jostled by women at least ten, some twenty years younger than us. Courtney danced and sang while I felt completely out of place. I was not a rock-and-roller. Never have been and never will be. I was too self-conscious to move my body like the women around me, and even if I could, I had very little sense of rhythm. So while sixty-two thousand, four hundred, eighty-nine screaming fans sang, danced, and acted crazy, I prayed my eardrums wouldn’t burst while I lusted after the woman onstage.

The women in the rows in front of us looked no older than twenty—maybe. How in the hell did they afford the price of the tickets? When I was their age I was eating Ramen noodles and drinking store-brand soda. They were doing everything they could to catch Tobin’s eye. If they did, they could claim they had joined the ranks of the Tobin Parks fan club. That was just a euphemism for “I had sex with Tobin Parks.” And how did I know that? Courtney, of course. And how did I know Tobin would pick one of these women? Well, besides the fact that she was a very publicly out lesbian—it takes one to know one.


Chapter Two

“Hello, Chicago! I’m Tobin Parks.”

The roar from the audience pushed me back a step. We were performing at an outdoor venue, and I could only imagine the roar if we’d been inside. Sweat dripped into my eyes, and I blindly reached for the towel hanging from the mic stand. I took the opportunity to grab a swallow of my special concoction of chamomile tea, honey, and cinnamon to soothe my throat. We were only four songs into the show, and I needed to keep my voice strong. I’d been on this tour for seven months and had another three before it was over.

On my signal Russ started the heavy beat of our next song. We opened big and closed even bigger with a mix of heart-pumping, raunchy lyrics with a little bit of rhythm and blues thrown in for balance. The song Take Me was one I had written several years ago as a ballad but with minimal chord changes, a heavier bass and faster beat I had bumped up to pure, raw sex for market appeal. It had rocketed to the top of the charts in record time and stayed there for months. When I sang it alone in my coach, the words were the same, but accompanied by only a classical guitar it was as emotionally raw as it got. No one had heard that rendition, and no one ever would.

When the song ended, I asked my stage manager to raise the house lights so I could see better. I hated singing into blackness, and having the lights up pulled the crowd even closer.

“Well, look at you,” I said to the crowd. “Don’t you all look nice?” The crowd whooped and hollered again. The thrill of tens of thousands of people coming to see me would never get old. The excitement in the air was palpable, the sense of anticipation in what was to come so thick I swear I could pull a chunk out of the air and swallow it.

“How is everybody tonight?” Again, the sixty-plus thousand made noise, a lot of noise. “How did you like Black Mountain? Aren’t they awesome?” I referenced my opening act. They were good, very good, and would be headlining soon. Their lead singer had put the moves on me a few times, and after I told her I didn’t mix business with pleasure, she moved on to Cindy, a member of my band. From what I could determine, they were both enjoying themselves. Casual hookups on the road were common when traveling more than three hundred days a year on tour. It was hard, if not impossible, to maintain any type of normal relationship. But what did I know about normal?

My exposure to normality consisted of profanity-laced yelling with more than an occasional slap thrown in, no pun intended, just because. I don’t remember ever eating anything green, if you don’t include the mold I cut off the end of the bologna or the edge of the stale bread. My diet consisted of whatever was in the charity box that my brothers didn’t wolf down the day we got it. My father managed to trade our food stamps for the cheap beer that filled our fridge, and I don’t even want to think about what my mother traded for their cigarettes. I was about twelve when I stumbled upon my older sister getting up from her knees in front of the neighborhood drug dealer. She was high for the next three days. Strangers drifted in and out of our trailer, and more than once I had to crawl out the bedroom window to get away from something I intuitively knew would not be good. My brother mimicked our parents, and I escaped into music. Needless to say, “normal” has many different definitions.

I introduced my band, starting with my drummer. Russ had been with me when we started banging out noise in his grandmother’s barn. Russ could be a WWF wrestler if he wanted to. His arms were huge, and he reminded me of the cartoon character Popeye. He always wore sunglasses, even inside, not because he thought he was cool but because he had some type of eye condition that made them ultra-sensitive to light. Earlier that evening I’d asked him, “Where are we again?” All the cities we’d been in had run together lately.

“Chicago,” he answered, laughing. “Don’t worry. I’ll remind you.”

Chicago? How in the hell did we get to Chicago? “I appreciate that,” I said honestly. Normally I slept or had my hands on my guitar when we were on the road, so I had little frame of reference as to our location. The Tobin Parks Band traveled in a convoy of seven Class A motor coaches and three semi-trucks. I had my own coach. Russ and Jones, my bass player, shared, which was comical as Jones was also well over six feet but as skinny as Russ was not. Jones was a diabetic, and even though he was missing three fingers on his right hand from a childhood accident, he was the best in the business and I was lucky to have him. Charity, my second guitar, was all of five feet nothing, with wild curly red hair and blind in her right eye. She doubled up with Cindy, our only female backup singer. The other members of the band shared the remaining three coaches.

Introductions complete, the next five or six songs went flawlessly, and I chatted up the crowd for a few minutes between each. It gave me an opportunity to scope out my after-show-wind-down entertainment. One woman in the fifth or sixth row looked like she would rather be anywhere other than here. She had shoulder-length blond hair and, even though it was hard to tell with this lighting, looked to be in her early thirties. She was cute, but if she wasn’t interested in my music enough to dance to it, she wasn’t interested enough for me. When our eyes met she looked away. Her friend, on the other hand, was cute but very definitely straight.

A woman a few rows farther to the front was more than a little enthusiastic about our music. Her eye contact never wavered, which I’d always found very sexy. Shy or timid women weren’t for me. I didn’t have time or interest to persuade a woman to have sex with me. Seduction was not in my repertoire, and I don’t believe in it. I looked up the word once. According to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, seduction is the act of persuading someone to have sex with you. Where is the persuasion in two people wanting to have sex with each other? A cross reference in the psychology dictionary defined seduction as enticing someone astray from right behavior. Well, in my experience, sex was definitely the right behavior.

Twenty minutes later, when Russ started his drum solo, I stepped to the side of the stage. “Fourth row, middle, blue tank top, white pants, dark hair,” I said to one of the roadies. It was his job to ask whoever I pointed out if they’d like to come backstage after the show. “Come backstage” was a euphemism for having sex with me. Rarely did the women say no.

It always took me several hours to come down from the adrenaline rush from the crowd, music, and backstage meet-and-greets. The days leading up to the show were filled with interviews and promo spots. After the show was always several hours of the obligatory glad-handing with sponsors and radio and music personalities and those who had won contests to have their picture taken with me. By the time that was over, my face hurt from smiling, my hand from shaking, and spots were blinking in front of my eyes from camera flash. The band wasn’t quite as in demand as I was, but they too were pretty thrashed by the time everyone left. Typically the show would end around ten, and I would get back to my coach after one. Life on the road was tough and the music industry fickle, but I was at the top and did everything possible to stay there as long as I could.

We closed the show, and two encores, four beers, and a hundred photos later, the blue shirt and white pants were on the floor in my dressing room, and the woman from the fourth row was writhing on the settee about to come. An hour later I was back in my coach showered and sliding under the covers. I didn’t do drugs, I even hated taking Advil, but I did use sex as my drug of choice to sleep. Usually I was dead to the world until the next mid-morning, but tonight I was still keyed up. I lasted only a few minutes before I gave up and pulled a robe over my nakedness and sprawled out on the couch.

My coach was designed so the driver area was separated from the living area by thick folding doors. Frank had been driving me since I could afford him. He was reliable, safe, and, most importantly, minded his own business. We were on the road again, the rhythmic vibration of the big tires rotating millions of times as the Tobin Parks entourage snaked across the interstate highway system in the middle of the night.

I plucked the strings on my guitar, a tune I’d been working on beginning to take shape. I pushed the record button on my phone. I’d write the actual music later, but for now the chords and rhythm were my main focus. I strummed the strings as the lines on the road passed in the dark.

I felt uncharacteristically unsettled tonight. The show was good, one of our better ones as a matter of fact, but the backstage obligatory meet-and-greets had become more than a little onerous. Too many people expecting a piece of me, including Miss White Pants.

She was easy to please, but it took me longer than I expected to get into it, and maybe that was part of the problem. I felt like I was going through the motions and the motions had become repetitive and scripted. I almost said “Just forget it,” but the hit to my reputation and image would be ruined if she talked. It wasn’t her fault. She tried more than a few ways, but I knew what was or, more accurately, what wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t getting anywhere, and, tired of forcing something to happen, I just gave in and faked it.

Jeez, what was wrong with me lately? The grind of the road must be getting to me. I’d played over ninety gigs this tour and had another three months before it was over. Anyone who thinks going from one non-distinct city to another, day after day was glamorous and exciting had never done it. And they certainly had never done it for four years. Sure, I could afford to travel by plane, but that was another hassle I didn’t need or want. A private plane would eliminate most of that, but then there were hotels, hotel food, and sleeping in a different bed every night. My coach was my home away from home and my getaway from the world, the hassles of notoriety and the pressures to be Tobin Parks. No one entered unless invited, and when they did they didn’t stay long, and I never, and I mean never, brought a woman inside. When I wasn’t on the road, my rig was parked and I lived in an obscure senior-citizen mobile-home park on the outskirts of Elk City, Oklahoma.

Everyone at the Hidden Acres Mobile and RV Resort knew who I was. I’d found this little oasis and had worked to get approval from the homeowners association so I could become a part-time resident. The residents valued their privacy as much as I and never told a soul Tobin Parks lived in lot 214. If they had, the paparazzi would have descended like a forty-year flood and never left.

My neighbor to my left, Mr. Justin, claimed to be a retired CIA operative. We shared morning coffee, watched sports on his sixty-inch TV, and drank more than an occasional beer. Mrs. Foster, whose forty-eight-foot ugly monstrosity occupied lot 213 across the street, was a fabulous cook and always had a pot of something delicious on her stove. She also had fourteen grandchildren and talked about them constantly. Thankfully they never came to visit when I was there, or my anonymity would go up in smoke.

I’d spend my days puttering around my little yard, trimming bushes and replanting flowers in the pots that lined my drive. Mr. Justin and Mrs. Foster would take turns watering and tending them until I got my exhausted butt back home. Thus was my life at Hidden Acres. It still surprised me that after swearing for years I’d live on the street before I’d ever live in a trailer park again, this little gem was where I felt most at home. In my little twenty-five-by-eighty-foot piece of paradise I also felt most like myself, whatever that means.

I don’t speak for other entertainers, but I think most of us are very different people while doing our jobs versus when we’re not. I know I am. My job is to entertain, and according to Thefreedictionary.com an entertainer is supposed To hold the attention of (someone) with something amusing or diverting. That is definitely my job, who I am cloaked in Tobin Parks. What comes with that comes with any job. Expectations, responsibilities, and definitely a pay-for-performance position. People pay to see me, and if I don’t give them what they want, they’ll take their money somewhere else. Thankfully a lot, and I mean a lot of people want to see me. But that won’t last and I know it. So I retreat to Hidden Acres to return to some sense of normality.

Mr. Justin and Mrs. Foster don’t treat me like a multi-millionaire celebrity. They expect me to keep my yard neat and tidy and my garbage contained. They expect me to abide by the rules of the park, join bingo in the rec room the Saturday nights I’m in town, and be a good neighbor. And I do. I live for the time I spend here, and lately I’m finding I want to be here more than on the road. Just a common, every day, twenty-five-year-old woman sitting on her deck in Hidden Acres. But, like most grown-ups, I have responsibilities. People depend on me for their livelihood and I can’t let them down. I really do love making music, sitting in the quiet of my coach in the middle of the night in the middle of God knows where telling stories through song. I pick up my guitar and start to pluck a few chords.


Chapter Three

“No.”

“You haven’t even heard the proposal, Kiersten.”

“It doesn’t matter. The answer is still no.”

“She’s perfect for us.”

“I don’t care if she’s Princess Diana or Mother Teresa. The answer is still the same. We do not need her, and we definitely do not want to be associated with her.” Good God, how many times did I have to say it? Not that I had to convince Daniel, my chief marketing officer, of anything. I was his boss, Kiersten Fellows, CEO of this company. My company. The company I started with eighteen thousand dollars and a dream. My sweat, tears, and sacrifice. My word was sometimes the first word, but it was always the last. And today, in this conversation, the word was no.

Daniel had stopped in my office twenty minutes ago, bringing two large cups of coffee from the McDonald’s down the street. JOLT offices were three blocks east of the fast-food giant and one block west of a twenty-four-hour gym. My office was on the sixth floor, offering me a fabulous view of the park across the street. I allowed myself one trip to Mickey D’s once a month and religiously went to the gym every day of the month except Sundays. That day I rode my bike along the twelve-mile path bordering Clearwater Lake, about twenty minutes from my house. Needless to say, I like to keep active. I’d spent too many years of sweat and tears to have it all recede to my hips and ass sitting behind a desk every day. I’d walk to work if I could, but twenty-two miles was, admittedly, a bit far. However, I had pedaled to the office on several occasions on a weekend when I needed to get caught up.

It was Tuesday, a week and a half after Courtney and I spent an action-packed evening with Tobin Parks, and my ears had finally stopped ringing. How could she be exposed to decibels that high every night? I thought about it for a minute before I remembered the speakers faced the audience and she had those things in her ears.

I wondered where she’d performed this past weekend. In the lobby of the auditorium, the vendors had hawked everything from key chains to magnets to multiple styles of T-shirts, one of which had the list of cities on her current tour. I’d noticed Chicago was sandwiched between Cincinnati and Michigan and wondered if her stop in Michigan was at the annual women’s music festival. I think I read somewhere that it had been a few days ago. Or maybe it was next month. I wasn’t interested so I didn’t pay attention. For someone like Tobin, that was akin to a kid in a candy store. Talk about tens of thousands of women to pick from. I wonder if she…

“You okay?” Daniel’s voice shocked me back to the here and now. I blinked a few times to focus. “Your face is flushed all of a sudden,” he stated, concern in his voice.

“Yes, I’m fine.” I wasn’t but would be in a second, after I mind-slapped myself to pay attention. Daniel looked at me, the frown between his eyebrows the only lines on his otherwise smooth face. It made me uncomfortable that he’d seen my slip. I was always on, present in every conversation. At least I had been until ten days ago.

I couldn’t get Tobin Parks out of my mind. After her concert I’d gone home and spent the next hour reading dozens of headlines and articles about her. I’d spent the next fifteen minutes doing other, more personal things thinking about her.

“Kiersten?”

“What?” I snapped, more than my face feeling heat now.

“Tob—”

I interrupted him, my normally abundant patience rapidly disappearing. “Daniel, JOLT has an image, a brand, one that you and I have worked very hard to cultivate. You know how competitive the energy-drink market is. One wrong move, one small misstep, and we could find ourselves off the shelves and on an end cap at the dollar store. I will not let that happen. She has her own image, and it does not mirror ours.” My tone was harsher than normal, but I refused to budge on this, and the sooner Daniel accepted that fact the better.

“But she specifically asked for us.”

I hated when Daniel fell into trite reasoning. He was brilliant and fresh out of the country’s top marketing school when he came to work for me. That was five years and at least eight boyfriends ago. He was well over six feet tall, with blond hair and the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. His skin was tanned from his latest vacation, and he had the glow of new love.

“So because she wants us we should want her? What is this, fifth grade?” I asked a little too harshly. I hadn’t been sleeping well and my ankle was throbbing. I’d broken it two years ago playing rugby and had aggravated it in a game last week. I recognized the look on his face and shut him down before he had a chance to get started. “That’s final, Daniel. JOLT is not going to sponsor the Tobin Parks tour.”

 

v

 

Muttering under his breath, Daniel left my office. I sat down behind my desk, nudged my mouse, and my laptop came to life, the draft of the speech I was writing filling the screen. I was the keynote speaker at the National Beverage and Container convention, this year being held in, of all places, Bozeman, Montana. Last year it was in Boston, the year before that here in Chicago, and next year it would be in Washington, DC. How in the hell did they choose Montana?

When I was asked to speak, I readily accepted. JOLT was a sponsoring member of the trade group and had been since we first opened our doors twelve years ago. For many years I didn’t have money for lunch, but I knew the importance of networking, contacts, and allies. My speech would bore anyone that wasn’t in the industry, but I was proud of what I’d written so far. My final draft was pretty much complete. I just needed to add a few closing remarks, send it over to Angela, the head of communications for her editing magic, and I’d be done.

I had a great team helping me make JOLT successful. In addition to Angela, who I’d recruited away from Google, there was my assistant Bea Sanderson, a sixty-something woman with seven kids and nineteen grandchildren, who ran my office and my life like an army boot camp. I knew where I was supposed to be when and had everything I needed two days before every meeting. She renewed my season tickets at the symphony, my box seats for the White Sox, picked up my clothes from the cleaners, got me to the dentist twice a year and the gynecologist annually.

In a meeting earlier this morning, Randi, my CFO, had shared that our sales for this year were projected to be almost double what they were two years ago, and millions of dollars from year one. Some days I had a hard time keeping my eyes off Randi’s legs when she wore short skirts, but that was neither here nor there.

I never mixed business with pleasure. Never had, never been tempted, and never would. Not only was that bad business, but it was also playing Russian roulette. I would never do anything to jeopardize my professional credibility or the success of JOLT. It was my baby, my company, and hundreds, if not thousands of people depended on it. From the charities we supported to our employees, distributors, and stock boys, the success or failure of JOLT impacted many more lives than just mine. But I could still appreciate a good-looking pair of legs, and Randi had a pair that was outstanding. I wonder if she…

My phone rang, and I hit the send button to whisk my speech across the hall to Angela. “Kiersten Fellows.”

“Kiersten, darling, how are you?”

It was my mother, and her greeting always sounded more like “daaling” than darling. Why she called me darling was anybody’s guess. I thought that endearment was for lovers, not parent and child, but what did I know. She’d called me that my entire life.

“Hello, Mother.” Not Mom, but always, always Mother.

“I called to see if you’d bought your dress for Ray and Judy’s party next week.”

I hadn’t, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. “Don’t worry, Mother. I’ll be there,” I said instead. I’d received the invitation to the annual benefit gala in Boston from my parents’ closest friends three weeks ago. I’d tossed it on Bea’s desk the next morning, knowing she’d take care of everything. I hadn’t checked, but I was certain my flight was confirmed, a car service booked, and a hotel room secured for the event. If she could shop for me, I’m sure she’d do that as well. Instead I’d received a call from Joyce, my personal shopper, who had asked my preferences for the event, and two days later a box containing a dress, shoes, and accompanying jewelry arrived at my office. It wasn’t necessary for me to try anything on. Joyce had my measurements, but I reminded myself I should just in case. I’d had no appetite for the past few weeks, and my clothes felt more than a little loose.

“Are you bringing a guest?” That was my mother’s way of asking if I had a date.

“No, Mother. Not this time.” I’d made it sound like on previous occasions I had and this time was an anomaly. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Now, Kiersten, you know you’re welcome to bring anyone to the event.” That was my mother’s way of telling me it was okay if I brought a woman as my date.

“Yes, Mother, I know, and I appreciate it.” I did, really. My parents were completely supportive of my choice in dates, which was the complete opposite of my choice in careers.

The oldest of five, I was expected to follow in my father’s footsteps. I was programmed at an early age to study law at Harvard and join his firm as an associate partner, working my ass off filing briefs and muddling through boxes of boring tax documents until I became partner. I never had any interest in the law, other than staying out of jail, and thankfully the heat was off when my brother Marcus took my place.

“Are you seeing anyone?” That was my mother’s way of asking when I was getting married. All four of my siblings had tied the knot years ago, and to a woman like my mother, any woman over the age of thirty who wasn’t married was, well, it just wasn’t right. She was more than okay with the whole gay-marriage thing, but considering I was thirty-six my mother was quite concerned.

“Nobody special.” No one actually, but again, I wasn’t going to tell her that.

“Kiersten, I worry about you. Do you have your sights set too high?”

My sights set too high? What the fuck was that? Maybe I was living in a fantasy world, but I thought the person you fell in love with, married, and spent the rest of your life with wasn’t someone you lowered your sights to get.

“No, Mother. I’ve just been really busy.” I cringed, knowing that was the wrong thing to say.

“You have to make time. Your brothers and sister did. Life is more than nine-to-five, sweetheart.” I wish I could remember the last time I worked nine to five, or even seven to seven.

“I know, Mother, and I appreciate your concern, but I’m perfectly happy with where my life is right now. I meet people and go out, but my focus is on JOLT right now.” That and the fact that by the time I do get home, I’m exhausted. The last thing I wanted to do after a long day was make small talk to a woman who only wanted to get me into bed, however frightening and exhilarating it might be. I might think about sex all the time and need to get laid, but on most days the effort was just overwhelming. I made a note on my pad to research escort services, then quickly scribbled over it. However easy that would make my life, I certainly didn’t need to get caught up in a sting and have my face plastered all over the web.

“It’s just that your father and I worry about you.”

“I love you, and Father too, but I’m fine.”

“Really, darling, you work way too hard.”

“I don’t really have a choice, Mother. It’s my company.” The argument was common and old. We hadn’t had it in a while so I wasn’t surprised. It typically occurred around some sort of family event. The last time was when I missed my niece’s christening. There was a dock-worker strike, and thousands of pallets of JOLT were sitting idle on a ship in Long Beach.

“But can’t you assign things to somebody else?” my mother asked naively. She was clueless when it came to business, and that suited her just fine. Her job was to be a wife, mother, socialite, and philanthropist, all of which she performed exceptionally well.

“No, Mother,” I replied, much more patiently than I felt. “I have people to do things, specialists in their field, but the overall responsibility of JOLT is mine. I’m sorry, but I have to go. I’ll see you next week.” I hoped God didn’t strike me down for lying to my mother, but I could take only so much of her. And today that glass was full.