“See ya soon, baby.”
Peyton didn’t turn around or even acknowledge the voice as she walked down the wide corridor.
“You’ll be back,” the voice said confidently, then ended the statement with a familiar, spine-tingling cackle.
Step after step took her farther away from this place, this hellhole, her home for the past nine years, two months, and eight days. She wasn’t looking back because she didn’t need reminders. She would never forget the chipped cement floors, block walls with peeling paint, the three-inch-thick reinforced windows, the hard, metal beds bolted to the floor with a thin mattress, scratchy blankets, and wafer-thin pillows. Almost every metal sink faucet in the place dripped, and the steel toilets were missing their lids. She never needed to worry about putting the seat down—there was none. Small tables were bolted to the floor below a four-foot shelf hanging crooked on the wall above the desk. Redecorating was not an option.
She had nothing in her hands as she moved silently over the floor. She’d walked in with just the clothes on her back and was walking out the same way, albeit forty-two pounds lighter. Habit and discipline made her stay on the right side of the four-inch-wide black stripe that ran the length of the corridor. She was leaving catcalls, well wishes, drama, conflict, mayhem, and bullshit. No more roommates who farted, barfed, and couldn’t stop talking or crying. Behind her were liars, cheaters, dopers, and those that would sell their body for a bar of soap—or to survive.
She’d had a first-row seat when pissed-off inmates threw feces at guards, spat on each other, and stuck each other with shanks made from an old toothbrush or comb. She’d witnessed beatings and heard things she’d never forget. No more strip searches, cell searches, and cavity searches. Three thousand, three hundred, fifty-four days subjected to being poked and prodded with black batons from impatient guards or those who got their power fix over those that had none. Three thousand days of nonstop noise. Even in the dark of the night when the lights were out, it was never quiet. Crying, coughing, talking, or fucking—it never stopped. Three thousand days of rising to a horn, eating, showering, and even shitting to a horn like trained animals or Pavlov’s dog—basic behavioral training.
Each step took her closer to fresh air, clean clothes, and hot, delicious food. Where she could lie on a soft bed, with fluffy pillows and clean sheets. A closet full of Nike shoes, Levi’s, and Ralph Lauren. Where she could have private phone conversations and hot showers any time she wanted. Every step, every foot, every yard brought her nearer a place where she could see warm smiles, hear genuine laughter, and enjoy loving faces around the table.
She stopped in front of a battered gray door, the lock as large as her fist. The man beside her sadistically took his time selecting the right key to slide noisily into the keyhole. The click of the bolt retracting was quieter than when it had slammed home behind her nine years ago. At that time, the sound had echoed off the walls, settled deep in her gut, had never left, a constant reminder of where she was—the Nelson Correctional Institute for Women.
The thick metal door creaked loudly, like a shrill train whistle, as it swung open. She waited patiently, focusing on keeping her face expressionless and her breathing steady. She fought the urge to bolt across the threshold and out the front door. She prayed this wasn’t a dream. It was the same fantasy she’d had for months after coming here. The ones she’d had in the last few months were similar but ended with the door slammed in her face—cruel, vicious laughter coming from every direction.
Peyton was poked one more time on her back, just above her kidney, this time much harder than necessary. Were they ever necessary?
“You’ll be back,” a harsh voice said, his tobacco breath suffocating her. “You all do.” He ran his stick suggestively down the crack of her ass. “And I can hardly wait.”
“Fore! Shit! Goddamn it! Son of a bitch!”
“Jill, relax. It’s just a game.”
“You think it’s a game, because you’re good at it.”
Leigh couldn’t help but laugh at her best friend of more than twenty years. They’d met in high school at volleyball tryouts and were complete opposites. Leigh was barely five-and-a-half feet tall, Jill almost six feet, with more than a few extra pounds. Leigh was a jock, and all Jill had going for her in the athleticism department was her height. Leigh’s blond hair secured in a ponytail through the back of her ball cap was a sharp contrast to Jill’s jet-black, so short people often mistook her for a man. Leigh excelled in just about every sport. Jill, not so much. She had heart and she tried, but without a certain amount of skill she was just a recreational athlete.
“If you keep having that kind of reaction when you hit the ball, you’ll never have fun.”
“So, this is supposed to be fun? How is this fun? You hit the ball, go after it, hit it again, go after it again, hit it again. See my point?” They shouldered their bags and started walking down the fairway. Jill brushed aside her observations of the game of golf, asking, “How’s the new job?”
Leigh didn’t like talking about it, afraid to jinx it. She had just been promoted to chief information officer for Cementic, a company that after years of success had finally cracked the Fortune 500 list. She’d worked at Cementic for twelve years, starting fresh out of MIT with her master’s degree in electrical engineering and information technology, as a senior programmer, working her way up the ranks to her current position. She was one of a handful of women in a senior leadership position at Cementic and, as much as she wouldn’t admit it to anyone other than Jill, had been determined to crack the final glass ceiling.
“It’s going okay.” Five months ago, Steve, her boss at the time, had notified the board that he was retiring. To anyone who didn’t understand the intricacies of successful executive transition, it typically took months to find a successor, and in the constantly changing world of information technology, profits and a high-visibility company made it that much more difficult. Finding the individual with the right skills, temperament, and personality to work in conjunction with the other leaders of the company was never easy. Leigh, along with, courtesy of the grapevine, three external candidates, had interviewed with at least seven people for the position. She was offered the job the day after her final interview.
For the past few years, Cementic had been undergoing a transformation, and they brought in several new hires to run senior leadership positions, people with levels of expertise that those who had grown up in the company did not possess. Other than one colossal failure, their strategy had been extremely successful, and Cementic profits and market share had soared. Shareholders were happy, the board was happy, the CEO was happy, and everyone wanted to stay that way.
“So, you actually play golf with those guys?”
Leigh had told Jill that all the senior staff golfed together at least twice a month. “It’s not just men. Caroline is the head of HR, and I’ve played a few rounds with her. I play with my boss in a few weeks.”
Jill punched Leigh’s arm good-naturedly. “It’s true. Deals really do happen on the golf course.” Jill was an attorney and had always been in private practice. Her area of expertise was environmental law and not office politics.
“As much as I’d love to think that the business world has evolved beyond that in the past twenty years, you’re probably right.”
“Especially in the male-dominated field you’re in,” Jill added, like Leigh needed reminding. “So that’s why you drag me out here week after week.”
“Yep. If I can’t use your body for money or sex, I’ll use it to help me fit in with my new peers.”
“You know, Leigh, you can use my body for sex any time.”
“In your dreams,” Leigh replied, giving Jill her own teasing punch on the shoulder. It was an ongoing joke between them. They’d started out as friends and would never be anything other than just that. They had no sexual attraction and certainly no sexual chemistry between them. They’d seen each other through more girlfriends than they cared to count, been with each other reveling in the excitement and happiness of new love, cried on each other’s shoulder in heartbreak, and shared a gallon of Rocky Road ice cream as they bashed the girl who had just broken their heart. Leigh had been Jill’s maid of honor in her wedding several years ago.
“Are you still seeing Tiffany?” Jill asked, lining up her next shot.
“Pay attention to what you’re doing,” Leigh said, not wanting to talk about her last girlfriend.
Jill settled her feet the appropriate shoulder-length apart and adjusted her hands on the grip of her club, looking from the ball to the pin one hundred and twenty yards in front of her. Jill’s first shot had gone wide of the fairway, and she’d be lucky to get her second anywhere near the green. Looking back at the ball she said, “Way to change the subject, Leigh,” just before her 5 iron connected with the ball.
“Yeah, baby,” Jill exclaimed, raising both arms, her club flailing over her head. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
Leigh shook her head. “See. What did I tell you? Don’t take it so seriously, and look how well you do.”
They walked another fifty yards, and Leigh pulled her 8 iron from her bag, settled in front of the ball, swung, and connected solidly with her ball. She watched it sail to the green in a perfect approach shot, landing approximately ten feet from the cup.
“So, are you going to answer my question or not?” Jill asked, knowing enough golf etiquette to not ask while she was taking her shot.
“Why not? I thought you said she was hot and a rocket in bed?”
“I said she was very pretty and very attentive.”
“Pretty, hot, attentive, rocket, same difference.”
Leigh rolled her eyes at the euphemisms Jill had chosen. “Because there is more to dating someone than a pretty face and skilled hands.”
“There is?” Jill asked. “I never had a problem with it.”
“Because that’s all you were looking for. At least until you met Joyce,” Leigh said, referring to her best friend’s wife.
Jill stopped and looked at her, surprise on her face. “And you’re looking for something else? When did this happen?”
“I’m not,” Leigh said, maybe a little too defensively.
“You need a wife, you know.”
Leigh glared at her. “I don’t need a wife.”
“See, that’s the problem, Leigh. You need one. You just don’t want to admit it to yourself.”
“No,” Leigh said carefully. “What I need—”
“What you need until then is some wild, raunchy, uninhibited, no-attachment sex. Hey,” Jill said, like she’d just thought of something earth-shattering. “How about the woman we saw filling the drink coolers when we got here? She was hot.”
Leigh started walking again, pulling her putter out of her bag as Jill shot a decent approach on the green, her ball, however, landing forty feet from the cup.
Leigh had to admit it had been a while since someone made her toes curl, and Jill’s idea was appealing, as was the woman she described. However, hooking up with the wrong woman could jeopardize everything she’d worked for. You never knew who worked for whom, who had the ear of someone who was important in your next career step. Leigh was planning to hold her boss’s job for seven or eight years before she moved on to a larger company. Maybe something in the Fortune 200.
“Am I right or what?” Jill asked as they stepped onto the sixth green.
“I don’t kiss and tell.”
“Bullshit, Leigh. Yes, you do. How many times have you woken me up at zero-dark-thirty telling me all about her?”
“Jesus, Jill. You make me sound like a frat boy bragging about his latest conquest.”
“No. We were sorority, and you’re simply sharing things with your BFF.”
“Shut up and putt. You’re away,” Leigh said, using the term that signified Jill’s ball was the farthest from the hole.
It took Jill five strokes to get her ball into the hole, whereas Leigh needed only three.
“So, what happened with Tiffany?”
“Nothing earth-shattering,” Leigh finally said, knowing Jill wouldn’t let up until she knew all the details. “She was a very nice woman but a bit dull. I was bored after a few weeks. She didn’t have anything original to say, and the only thing we had going for us was sex, so I ended it.”
Four men had just finished teeing off on the next hole as Leigh and Jill approached, so Leigh didn’t say any more. When the foursome started walking toward where their balls lay, she pulled her 3 wood from the bag and removed the Mickey Mouse head cover—a gift from Jill on her thirty-seventh birthday three months ago. “Now shut up and get ready to hit the ball. And relax.”
Peyton pushed the accelerator pedal on her cart as the two women approached the seventh tee box.
She’d been watching the two for the last several holes, her eyes immediately drawn to the shorter of the two. She was dressed in fashionable golf attire—dark shorts and a sleeveless white top. She was much shorter than her own five feet eleven inches and had blond hair. Light freckles sprinkled across her nose, and dark Oakley sunglasses hid her eyes. Her legs were tan and muscular, and her arms showed enough definition to indicate that she spent some time in the gym. She was wearing a white ball cap to keep the sun off her face, and her ponytail was pulled through the hole in the back. There was just something sexy about a girl in a cap.
The woman was more than a weekend hacker, the term used to describe someone who played golf only on the weekend, and poorly at that. But she did have good form and, with a few tweaks, could be an excellent golfer. The other woman was taller, her Capris were green, and her T-shirt had a large Nike swoosh across the front. Her swing was awful, which had resulted in her ball going every place except in the middle of fairway or close to the cup. However, from what Peyton had seen, they were having a good time. Having fun was just as important as the final score.
Peyton had watched them tee off on the first hole earlier this morning, noting a few subtleties the blonde needed to change to make her shots more effective. She let her shoulder drop, twisted her hips too much, and needed to extend her follow-through a little more. When she pulled up beside them, and the woman turned to acknowledge her question, her heartbeat sped up.
In her position as part-time golf instructor, part-time beverage server, and general helper at the Copperwind Golf Resort, Peyton came in contact with women every day. Most were straight and some were lesbians, but she never took advantage of the opportunity in front of her. Not at work. Never at work. She needed this job too bad to screw up for, no pun intended, a simple screw.
The dark-haired woman gave the blonde a conspiratorial wink and stepped in front of her, blocking Peyton’s view. “You are my savior. What do you have in terms of an alcoholic beverage?”
“I’m sorry, but we don’t serve alcohol until eleven.” Peyton rattled off the selections from the dozens, if not hundreds of times she’d heard the same question. Little did they know that the resort kept meticulous records of the drinks their guests ordered, cross-referencing them to the names on dinner or golf reservations. Peyton reviewed the pairings for the day and always stocked their favorite beverage on her cart. These women were Leigh Marshall and Jill Bailey, and they both drank Diet Coke. However, she didn’t know which woman was which.
“I’ll have a Diet Coke,” the woman said, confirming Peyton’s research on their preferences. She turned to the blonde. “Since you’re winning, Leigh, you’re buying. And you make a lot more money than I do,” she added.
The blonde, now identified by process of elimination, was Leigh Marshall. She shook her head at her friend, and her genuine smile lit up her face.
Peyton choked on her breath and immediately felt the heat of embarrassment creep up her neck as she struggled to breathe.
“Are you okay?” Leigh asked.
“Yes, fine,” Peyton was able to croak out, the heat on her face increasing. Regaining her composure, she stepped out of the cart and walked to the back of the cart, where four Igloo coolers contained the drinks.
“She’ll have the same.” Jill used her thumb like a hitchhiker and motioned to Leigh.
Peyton reached over the cooler directly in front of her, lifted the lid, and reached inside. The action was habitual, but she knew it drew attention to the curve of her ass and her thirty-eight-inch-inseam legs. It generated large tips from the lesbians, equally generous ones from the men, and more than a few dirty looks from their wives. Peyton didn’t care. The last ten years she’d learned a lot of very, very useful things, one of which she used several times a day in her role, affectionately known on golf courses around the country, as the beer babe. Since the terms of her parole prohibited her from selling alcohol, she was the beverage babe. The tips were cash, unaccounted to the IRS, and went directly into her safe for just that—safekeeping.
“Thanks,” Leigh replied, exchanging a twenty-dollar bill for the cold cans. Ice slid down the side of one of the cans. Peyton reached into her pocket to make change.
“Keep it.” Jill waved off Peyton’s actions. Leigh’s head snapped toward her friend, and Peyton saw the look that she was too polite to voice. Even she had to admit a fourteen-dollar tip for two sodas was a bit excessive. Peyton was about to say as much, when a whistle and a wave from the men on the green to her left caught her attention.
“It’s fine. Thank you,” Leigh said. “Catch up with us later?”
“Certainly. Thanks again. Enjoy your game,” Peyton replied, not wanting to leave. But it wasn’t like they all planned to chat for the rest of the afternoon. Her job was done, and she needed to move on.
“She’s cute,” Jill commented, tipping her head in the direction of the cart driving away. “Speaking of wild, raunchy sex—”
“Yes, she is,” Leigh said. A word other than cute came to mind to describe the woman, but she refused to say that to Jill. If she did, she’d be deflecting Jill’s dare for her to ask the woman out. She wasn’t in the market for a girlfriend, but then Leigh realized that was a huge leap from having a quickie with the beverage babe, however drop-dead gorgeous she was. “But no.”
Peyton was much taller than her, close to six feet, and she obviously spent a lot of time in the sun. Her legs were long and tan, her clothes perfectly pressed and neat. She couldn’t see her eyes behind her Ray Ban sunglasses, but Leigh felt her piercing gaze. Her hair was very short, but she didn’t look overly butch.
“Her name tag said Peyton. Did you see the scar on her face?” Jill asked, her voice unnecessarily quiet. Peyton was at least fifty yards away now.
Leigh had noticed and had tried not to stare at the jagged line that ran from just beside Peyton’s left eye, down her cheek, and ended at her jawline. “Yes, I did. It’s hard to imagine that a plastic surgeon wouldn’t have sewn up a cut like that.” The scar wasn’t ugly, but it was noticeable.
“I suppose.” Jill shook her head in agreement. “It makes her look dangerous, in a sexy kind of way.” Jill raised and lowered her eyebrows to emphasize her point. “Wild, crazy sex,” Jill muttered under her breath loud enough for Leigh to hear.
Peyton parked her cart and handed the key to her relief. She had a lesson in thirty minutes and wanted a chance to review her notes before Steve Albert arrived. Steve, a newly minted cardiologist, was still under the misguided belief that all doctors played golf on Wednesdays. Peyton’s brother-in-law Phil, a neurosurgeon, had told her that with today’s health-care reimbursements, most doctors couldn’t afford to take Wednesdays off anymore.
“How’s business?” her brother Marcus asked when she stepped into the small office in the clubhouse. Marcus was thirty-one and looked like a young John Wayne, complete with a six-foot, four-inch frame. While Peyton was in Nelson, Marcus had married Olivia, who, at no taller than four feet ten inches, was as energetic and exuberant as the Energizer Bunny. After meeting Olivia, Peyton had wondered how in the hell they had sex, then quickly shut that thought down. She didn’t need that image in her head.
Marcus had met Olivia soon after Peyton went to Nelson. They’d been dating for a few years before he brought Olivia along on one of his visits. Olivia was warm and chatted constantly and obviously loved her brother. Marcus came alone for one visit and told Peyton he wanted to propose.
“I want to spend the rest of my life with Olivia,” he said nervously. “I love her.”
“Marcus, that’s awesome.” When he didn’t reply or even answer, she said, “So, what’s the problem?” Peyton knew there was more to the visit than he’d let on so far.
Marcus squirmed in his hard, plastic seat, and Peyton figured it out. She touched the thick glass separating them.
As a maximum-security prisoner, visiting day consisted of both parties sitting on hard round stools separated by bullet-resistant glass. The only way they could communicate, other than by using sign language, was through a telephone handset mounted on the wall beside them. Peyton knew all conversations were monitored when, during one of her parents’ early visits, an inmate slammed the phone back in its cradle and started shouting obscenities to the guards. She was taken away in handcuffs, still screaming about her rights to talk to whoever she wanted about whatever she wanted. Peyton, at first shaken by the ugly scene, quickly put it out of her mind. She had only fifteen minutes before the next inmate would occupy her seat.
“Marcus, I don’t expect, nor do I want, anyone to stop living their lives just because I’m in here. Your life needs to go on, and that includes being happy. If Olivia makes you happy, then you better marry her as soon as you can.” Peyton’s voice was firm. “Life is too short.”
Marcus’s marriage to Olivia had created a partnership with his new father-in-law as part owner of the exclusive club. When Marcus wanted to give Peyton a job after she was released, his father-in-law had adamantly refused. Olivia, Marcus had told her one afternoon as they were drinking iced tea on the patio, had stood up to her father and told him that Marcus would be hiring her, and that was the end of that discussion.
Peyton owed everything to Marcus and Olivia and would never do anything to make them regret their support when no one wanted to hire an ex-convict, especially a murderer. With her background as a collegiate golfer, she knew more than enough to be a competent resident pro. Copperwind charged one hundred and ten dollars an hour for a private lesson, and Peyton took home sixty of it. She currently had twelve regular clients and at least four or five others throughout the week.
“Good. Everyone’s keeping up. There was a backlog on eleven, but the foursome let the group behind them play through, and that moved things along.” In addition to her beverage duties, she reported back to Marcus about how the pairings were moving through the holes. Nothing killed the reputation of a course more than golfers griping about how they had to stand around on a tee waiting for the group in front of them to clear the hole.
“We have quite a few women playing today.” Marcus was determined to increase the number of women in the clubhouse and had designed several specific programs especially for them to encourage membership.
“There was a pretty good pairing out there. Bailey and Marshall, I think.” Peyton knew exactly the names but didn’t want to give anything away to Marcus.
“They come in a few times a month. Marshall comes in during the week too and hits a couple buckets of balls,” he said, referencing the practice range. “She’s not too bad.”
Peyton nodded, not wanting to comment too much. “She needs a little work, but she’s better than most.” Peyton changed the subject. “The LGBT invitational is coming up. You ready?”
Three years ago, Marcus had started a golf tournament specifically catering to the LGBT community. He’d posted fliers in the bars and community centers around town and placed ads in every newsletter or magazine he could find that catered to the community.
Peyton had volunteered to be a caddie, and Marcus would assign caddies to teams. At last count, twenty-seven teams of two or four had signed up. The entry fee of one hundred and twenty-five dollars per person provided the golfers a tournament golf shirt and cap, four drink tickets, lunch for the day, and attendance at the awards dinner Sunday evening. The winning team received a trophy and bragging rights for the year.
“I’m excited to see how it goes. It’s Olivia’s favorite tournament, and it’s grown each year,” Marcus commented.
Peyton was still getting to know her sister-in-law, but she’d liked her from their first meeting. Olivia was the perfect complement to Marcus’ calm, staid personality, often finishing his sentences when she thought he took too long to finish them himself. She’d welcomed Peyton home with no hesitation and, unlike some others, never asked about her life behind bars.
“It’s mine too,” Marcus said. “Everybody just wants to have some fun and play golf without any hassle. Last year we had several that were transitioning from men to women, and it’ll be interesting to see how they’re doing this year.”
Peyton looked at her brother, trying to detect if anything underlay his comment. Marcus had been twenty-one when she went away, and she was still getting reacquainted with him. She had come out to her family in her late teens, and Marcus had been her biggest supporter. He still was, and he supported the LGBT community every chance he had. But a lot had changed in the nine years she was absent from the weekly family dinner table.
Her parents, Brad, a technical writer, and Maria, the chief nurse in the busiest emergency room in the state, had aged tremendously. Worry lines were deeper, and their dark hair now more salt than pepper. They had mortgaged their house to pay for her defense. Peyton lived in an apartment above her brother’s garage, and she gave her parents almost all her paycheck every week. She kept just enough for food and utilities and a few incidentals. It was the least she could do.
Her sister, Lizzy, had just turned ten when the doors of Nelson locked behind Peyton, and now that Lizzy was nineteen, Peyton hardly recognized her. In the years she was away, Lizzy had shaved her head, had six piercings in each ear, one above each eyebrow, and a bar through her nose. Tattoos started at the first knuckle on each hand and continued up her arm, shoulder, and chest as far as Peyton could see. When Peyton saw Lizzy the first time after she was released, Lizzy had told her, no, demanded, that she should address her as Elizabeth. Lizzy was a little girl’s name, and she was not a little girl. Peyton and her mother often talked about the anger and guilt Elizabeth carried like one of her angry tattoos. Maria had shared with Peyton how, in one drunken episode, Elizabeth had shared that she felt overwhelming guilt for Peyton going to jail.
Her other sister, Natalie, now twenty-eight and more than a little overweight from sitting behind a desk, was just getting back into the good graces of her boss, the district attorney. She had been instrumental in petitioning for Peyton’s release and had gotten her ass chewed, spit out, and handed to her because of it. Natalie’s fiancé at the time of Peyton’s conviction had dumped her via text the day after her sentencing. He was callous enough to ask for the ring back, and Natalie had gladly returned it somewhere inside a baggie full of dog shit from the local park. She’d since gone on to marry a neurosurgeon.
“Do you get any backlash from the other members?” Peyton asked.
“A few. Olivia told the ones who complained to get over it or go play somewhere else.”
Peyton gladly added another tally mark in the “Owe” column under Olivia’s name.