Smooth Talking Stranger - Page 31

"I don't find him all that attractive." He moved upward, parted my thighs, and I gasped as I felt his teasing fingers slide over me. "You ever been massaged this way, Ella?" he whispered. "No? Lie still . . . you're gonna like this, I promise. . . ."

And my body arched in response to his eloquent hands, the tile walls echoing with the muted sounds of my pleasure.


The day after my mother had shown up at 1800, I felt uneasy, raw, deprived of necessary insulation. I put up a normal facade. My childhood had given me the ability to carry on as usual through anything, including a nuclear holocaust. But something about the visit, just the fact of having seen her, had set me off-balance.

Jack was gone the first part of the day, visiting a friend who had landed in the hospital after a hunting accident. "Wild boar," Jack had told me when I'd asked what kind of game his friend had been hunting. "Lots of accidents happen on a boar hunt."


"You have to do it at night when most of the hogs are moving. So you've got a bunch of guys running around the woods shooting at stuff in the dark."


Jack had gone on to explain that the friend had shot the hog with a twelve-gauge, approached him in deep brush thinking he was dead, and the hog had charged him before he could get out his sidearm. "Gored him near the groin," Jack said with a wince.

"Amazing, how testy those boars get when you're shooting at them," I said.

Jack had given me a playful swat on the bottom. "Have a little sympathy, woman. A groin injury's nothing to laugh about."

"My sympathy is entirely with the hogs. I hope you don't go boar hunting too often. I'd hate for my sex life to be compromised by your dangerous hobbies."

"I don't hunt boar," Jack told me. "When I bag a trophy at night, it's going to be in bed."

While Jack was gone, I worked on my column for a while.

Dear Miss Independent,

I got married five years ago to a man I didn't really love, because I was thirty and it was time. All my friends were married, and I was tired of being the only single one. The man I ended up marrying is a good guy. He's kind and sweet and he loves me. But there is no magic or passion in our relationship. I settled for him, and every time I look at him, I have to face it over and over again. I feel like I've been shut in a closet, and he's on the other side, and he doesn't have the key to unlock the door. We don't have any children, so I feel that if divorce him, I won't be hurting anyone outside the two of us. Something is holding me back, though. Maybe I'm afraid I'm too old to start over. Or maybe I'm afraid of the guilt I'll feel, because I know he really loves me, and he doesn't deserve this.

I don't know what to do. All I know is, I settled and I regret it.

—Restless Heart

Dear Restless,

We're all creatures of complex needs and desires. The only certain thing in a romantic relationship is that you will both change, and one morning you will wake up, go the mirror, and see a stranger. You will have what you wanted, and discover you want something different. You think you know who you are, and then you'll surprise yourself.

In all the choices in front of you, Restless, one thing is clear: love is not something to be thrown away lightly. There was something about this man, beyond coincidences of timing and opportunity, that drew you to him. Before you give up on the marriage . . . give him a chance. Be honest with him about the needs that aren't being met, the dreams you want to pursue. Let him find out who you really are. Let him help you in the work of opening that door, so the two of you can finally meet after all these years.

How do you know he can't satisfy your emotional needs? How can you be sure he doesn't long for magic and passion just as you do? Can you state with absolute certainty that you know everything there is to know about him?

There are rewards to be gained from the effort, even if it fails. And it will take courage as well as patience, Restless. Try everything you can . . . fight to stay with a man who loves you. Just for now, put aside the question of what you might have had with someone else, and focus on what you can have, what you do have, at this very moment. I hope you'll find new questions, and that your husband might be the answer.

—Miss Independent

I stared at the screen, wondering if that was the right advice. It occurred to me that I was worried about Restless and her husband. I seemed to have lost my grip on my usual position as dispassionate observer.

"Crap," I said softly, wondering how in the hell I had ever decided I should be advising people what to do with their lives.

I heard the sounds of Luke waking up in the crib, little baby-snuffles and yawns. Setting aside my computer, I went to the crib and looked in. Luke smiled up at me, excited to be awake, happy to see me. His hair was sticking up like a bird's crest.

I picked him up, hugging him close, and the contours of him fit me perfectly. Holding him, feeling his kitten-breath on my face, I was caught off-guard by a rush of joy.

By five in the afternoon i still hadn't heard from Jack. I was mildly concerned, since he always called when he said he would, if not sooner. We had agreed I was going to come up to his apartment and cook an old-fashioned Sunday dinner. I had given him a list of groceries to buy.

I dialed his number, and he picked up quickly, sounding uncharacteristically curt. "Yeah?"

"Jack, you didn't call."

"Sorry. I'm in the middle of something." He sounded weird, sort of gruff and pissed-off and harassed all at the same time. He had never used that tone with me before. Something was wrong.

"Can I help?" I asked softly.

"I don't think so."

"Do you . . . do you want to call it off for tonight, or—"


"Okay. When should I come up?"

"Give me a few minutes."

"Okay." I hesitated. "Turn the oven on 375."


After hanging up, I stared at Luke contemplatively. "What in the world could be going on? You think he's having family problems? Maybe business stuff? Why do we have to wait down here?"

Luke chewed thoughtfully on his fist.

"Let's watch the sock-puppet show," I said, and took him to the sofa.

But after about two minutes of classical music and dancing puppets, I was too impatient to sit. I was concerned for Jack. If he was confronting a problem, I wanted to be there. "I can't stand it," I told Luke. "Let's go up and see what's going on."

Slinging the diaper bag over my shoulder, I carried the baby out of the apartment, and we headed to the elevator. When we reached Jack's door, I pushed the doorbell.

The door opened promptly. Jack blocked me for a few seconds, his body conveying the tension of a man who badly wished he were somewhere else. I had never seen him look so upset. Beyond his shoulder, I saw the movement of someone else in the room.

"Jack," I murmured. "Is everything okay?"

Jack blinked, touched his tongue to his lips, started to say something, and stopped himself.

"Someone's here?" I suggested, trying to glance around him.

Jack nodded emphatically, with a flash of desperation in his eyes. I pushed past him and stopped as I saw Ashley Everson.

She was a gorgeous mess, her eyes smoked with heavy dark liner, cheeks slicked with tears, her slender fingers knotted around a wad of tissues. The pale, stick-straight locks of her hair needed a good brushing. I was struck by the contrast between her woeful little-girl expression and her stylish outfit, a short white skirt, a slim-fitting black top that conformed perfectly to her uplifted breasts, a neat little cropped jacket, and strappy sandals with four-inch heels. Photographed just this way, smudgy makeup included, she would have made the perfect perfume ad, a sexy waif.

I didn't think for one second that Jack had invited her there, or that he still wanted her. But I couldn't decide if this were a situation best left for him to handle alone, or if he needed backup.

I glanced at Jack with a quick grimace. "Sorry. Should I come back later? "

"No." He hauled me inside the apartment and lifted the baby from me as if he were taking him hostage.

"Who's she?" Ashley asked, eyes unblinking and round in a face so perfect, it might have been molded from Plasticine.

"Hi," I said, moving forward. "Ashley, right? I'm Ella Varner. We were both at Churchill's birthday party, but we weren't introduced."

She ignored my outstretched hand, glanced over my T-shirt and jeans, and spoke to Jack with patent bewilderment. "She s the one you left the party with?"

"Yes," I said, "Jack and I are together."

Ashley turned her shoulder to me, focusing entirely on Jack. "I need to talk to you," she said. "I need to explain some things and . . ." Her voice trailed away, syllables pressed flat by the weight of bewilderment as she saw the refusal in his cold face, the harsh grooves bracketing his mouth. From the subtle recoil of her body, I guessed she had never seen that expression from Jack before.

Faced with his impervious regard, she whirled around and finally spoke to me. "If you don't mind, I need some time with Jack. Alone. We have a history. There are issues. He and I are figuring things out."

Behind her, Jack was shaking his head and pointing at the sofa in a wordless command for me to stay.

The situation was teetering on the edge of farce. I gnawed delicately at the insides of my cheeks, contemplating her. From what I could tell, Ashley Everson had sped carelessly through life and never considered the damage she caused with her hit-and-runs. Now it was all catching up with her, and she looked so wretched that I couldn't help but feel a reluctant stirring of compassion. On the other hand, I wasn't about to let her mess with Jack. She had hurt him once, badly, and she wasn't going to get the chance to do it again.

Besides . . . he was mine.

"She's not going, Ashley," Jack said. "You are."

I spoke to her carefully. "This is about your problems with Pete?"

Her eyes widened until I could see the whites all around the irises. "Who told you?" She pinned Jack with an accusing stare, but he seemed deeply absorbed in adjusting one of the tapes on Luke's diaper.

"I don't know all that much," I said. "Just that you and your husband have hit a rough patch. It's not an abusive relationship, is it?"

"No," came her frosty reply. "We've grown apart."

"I'm sorry," I said, sincerely. "Have you gone to counseling?"

"That's for crazy people," came her disdainful reply.

I smiled slightly. "It's for sane people, too. In fact, the saner you are, the more you'll get out of it. And it might help you to figure out where the problems are coming from. You may need to adjust your ideas of what marriage should be. Or, it's possible that part of the problem is the way you and Pete communicate. If you want to stay married, you might want to take a look at those things and—"

"I don't." It was clear that Ashley loathed me, that I had been judged as an unworthy rival. "I don't want to fix anything. I don't want to be Pete's wife anymore. I want—" Ashley broke off and looked at Jack with ferocious, imperious longing.

I knew what she was seeing . . . a man who seemed to be the answer to all her problems. Handsome, successful, and desirable. A fresh start. She thought if she could get back together with Jack, it would erase all the unhappiness that had transpired since she had gotten married.

"You have children," I said. "Don't you owe it to them to try to save the family you've created?"

"Have you ever been married?" she demanded.

"No," I admitted.

"Then you don't know shit about it."

"You're right," I said calmly. "All I know is that getting back together with Jack won't fix you or your problems. What you had with him is in the past. Jack's gone on with his life. And I'm going to take the liberty of speaking for him by saying that I'm sure he still cares about you as a human being, but nothing more than that. So now, the best thing you can do for Jack, and yourself, and everyone, is to go home to Pete and ask him what you can do about your marriage." Pausing, I glanced at Jack. "Did I get all that right?"

He nodded, his face relaxing.

Ashley made an infuriated sound. She stared hard at Jack. "You told me once you'd always want me."

Jack stood, keeping the baby comfortably tucked against his shoulder. His eyes were opaque. "I've changed, Ashley."

"I haven't!" she snapped.

His reply was very soft. "I'm sorry to hear that."

She grabbed blindly at her handbag and headed to the door. I went after her, frowning as I wondered if she should be allowed to run off in such a distraught condition. "Ashley—" I said, reaching out to touch her skinny arm.

She shook me off.

I saw that she was angry but in control, her face taut, her forehead puckered as if it had been embroidered too tightly. Her gaze arrowed to Jack, who had come up behind me. "If you send me away now," she told him, "you'll never have another chance. Be sure of what you want, Jack."

"I'm sure." He opened the door for her.

She flushed in anger. "Do you think you've got what it takes to keep him?" she asked me scornfully. "He'll put lots of mileage on you, honey. He'll take you on a fast ride, and then you'll get dumped by the roadside." Her gaze switched to Jack. "You haven't changed at all. You think going out with someone like her will make everyone think you're all mature now, but the truth is, you're still the same selfish, shallow as**ole you always were." She paused for breath, glaring at him. "I'm so much prettier than she is," she choked indignantly, and left.

As Jack closed the door, I turned to lean my back against it. Still holding Luke, Jack stared at me. He seemed bemused, as if he had found himself in unfamiliar territory and was trying to get his bearings. "Thanks."

I gave him a tentative smile. "You're welcome."

Jack shook his head, looking baffled. "Seeing the two of you together like that. . ."

"The past and the present?"

He nodded and sighed, the corners of his mouth pulling with a troubled grimace. Raking his free hand through his hair, he said, "You look at someone like Ashley, and you know exactly what kind of guy would want her. And I used to be that guy, and that bothers the shit out of me."

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