Return to Karen Wiesner’s award-winning Angelfire Trilogy, where you can read the stories of those secondary characters–and some new faces–in an all-new spin-off quartet. Timeless couples seek out the unconditional love and healing of an angel and the scorching heat of unending passion.
There are no scars like those inflicted in childhood, and no love like your first. Timeless couples Diane Hoffmann and Mikey Lund, Roxanne Hart and Jamie Dubois, Cherish Stephenson and Ty Foxx, and Sapphire Stephenson and William Decker seek out the unconditional love and healing of an angel and the scorching heat of unending passion.
Mikey Lund has spent thirty years being the odd man out and believes he only fell into being in a popular crowd as an adult because of a friendly association at Foxx Body Shop, where he’s the head mechanic. Truthfully, he’s been in love with most of his female friends from afar for years yet he’s never considered any of them truly an option for him. He’s spent a lonely existence, only imagining the perfect romance but never coming close to it. When Mike’s drop-dead gorgeous friend Diane Hoffman quits her job after learning her boss and long-term boyfriend Robert Drake is married with children, Diane comes to work at the garage. Afraid she’ll be weak if she relies on herself, she asks Mike if he’ll help her convince Robert she’s over him. Mike sees an opening to show Diane not all men are losers and creeps, unable or unwilling to be faithful to one special woman.
Diane is devastated about having unwittingly been “the other woman” for so many years and she’d determined to make a clean break from the unsatisfying relationship she’s had with her lying, cheating beau. Though she’s wallowed in her grief for far too long, packing on the pounds in her lonely misery, Mike is willing to help her put on a good show for Robert, who continues to pursue her. Diane has counted on Mikey’s friendship for years but never really saw him as boyfriend material before, partly because of how overweight he’d always been. But now Mike is fit and trim–and he’s the perfect “pretend” boyfriend…so perfect, she can’t help wondering if their amazingly sweet, sexy romantic relationship could last in the real world.
GENRE: Contemporary Romance ISBN: 978-1-922233-53-0 ASIN: B00IGMQZ7Q Word Count: 69, 104
Too tired? When is my boyfriend ever too tired to see me? We’ve been apart for longer than four months. An endless amount of time with hardly any phone calls! And now Robert is finally here and suddenly he’s too tired to be with me? Unacceptable!
Diane Hoffman started after her boss of ten plus years and her boyfriend almost as long as that. They both worked for Global Pharmaceuticals. Robert Drake was a “pharma sales rep”–a pharmaceutical sales representative who sold company products all around the region he was responsible for. His job involved a tremendous amount of travel. In an average year, he returned to the home office in New York City maybe three or four times. He traveled so much, he didn’t have a true home. He lived in various hotels. His job involved giving elaborate presentations that sold their products. He checked in by phone and email more frequently, of course, but even that couldn’t be personal enough for Diane.
Right out of college, she’d joined the company as the administrative assistant for District 2 sales reps. It was exactly the position she’d imagined for herself in college, and she loved her job. But even she had to admit that, since becoming involved with Robert, she’d been thinking about a lot of things she’d promised herself she wouldn’t even consider until she was thirty years old–long enough to enjoy her career satisfactorily. Thirty was the age she’d deemed crucial to start having a family before it was too late. Unfortunately, being in love made her want to be married and raising lots of babies. She’d turned thirty-one recently, and her dreams seemed to have come and gone in the ten years she’d been working for and loving her boss.
Wanting more from the relationship certainly qualified as the hardest part about being in love so deeply. Robert traveled so much, his argument against getting married had unfortunately made perfect sense to her this past decade. Having her happily-ever-after put on hold if they were married and he couldn’t be around much to be a husband to her and a father to their children would be infinitely harder than what they had been doing together. But I’ve been waiting in anguish to be with the love of my life. Hasn’t he missed me as much? Or is he being playful? He wants me to follow him to our usual hotel in town so he can surprise me?
After very little consideration, Diane decided that had to be why he’d returned after four endless months and immediately left her again. Usually, they enjoyed at least a day and night together before he had another presentation scheduled and had to fly or drive out again.
Grabbing her purse, figuring she was leaving only a few minutes early, she rushed out of the building in time to see Robert getting into his red Lincoln Town Car with the custom license plate that said Drake 8. Surprisingly, a cab pulled up almost as soon as she made it to the sidewalk. She hopped in. “Follow that red Town Car please,” she said, feeling slightly giddy. In seconds, she was questioning her decision, but ultimately she always came back to the same conclusion: Even if Robert was as exhausted as he’d claimed, he’d be thrilled to see her once she arrived in their hotel room.
The bottomless gap of time since they’d last seen each other had been so hard on her. She’d fallen into her usual funk whenever her sweetheart had to leave town again. This time, he’d been gone longer, checked in less frequently even at the company, and she always gained weight when she was depressed.
She looked down at her ultra-feminine, pale pink business suit. No denying it felt much tighter than usual. Would Robert notice how many pounds she’d packed on? Why do my mom and sister always have to send me so much fudge? I can’t resist it. I gravitate to the freezer constantly, sometimes without even thinking. Because it’s pre-cut into such small squares, I always eat more than I should. And I’ve gone through a truckload in Robert’s extended absence.
Diane sighed, feeling ten times larger than she had a moment ago. She reached into her purse to get out her compact mirror. As she checked her hair and makeup, she wondered if her face looked fatter than usual. She made her hand into a shelf and put it under her chin. This is bad. What have I done to myself? Enough binge-eating! But maybe if Robert’s here, I’ll be able to control myself…at least until he has to leave again. Ugh!
Permanently dissatisfied with what she was seeing in the small mirror, she touched up her lip gloss and combed back her long, wavy mahogany hair, anticipating her arrival at their hotel in a few minutes. But when she looked up, she saw the cab was heading away from Manhattan. Up ahead was the bright red Town Car. Robert said he was so tired. What’s he doing? If he’s as exhausted as he claimed, wouldn’t he be going to the hotel to get some sleep?
Long minutes passed and she saw the Town Car signaling toward the off-ramp–toward New Rochelle! Diane frowned, totally confused. Were they following the wrong car? No, that was Robert’s license plate. Did he have a meeting? He hadn’t mentioned it and, as his assistant, she usually scheduled any appointment he needed, including those for dentist and doctor.
More time passed, and they were definitely heading out of the city. Diane wrestled with whether or not to continue with this spontaneous little surprise. She’d rushed out spur-of-the-moment, planning to follow him to their hotel. Robert clearly wasn’t going anywhere of the sort. So shouldn’t she call this off?
Though her heart fought her head, she couldn’t deny the vague sense of disquiet in her chest. She couldn’t define what she was feeling. Nevertheless, dread filled her until she couldn’t have spoken to say “Turn around” to the cab driver even though she desperately wanted to.
More than a half hour passed, and they were nearing New Rochelle. The cab driver periodically asked if he should continue following. She only nodded, experiencing a burning sensation in her heart. The Town Car entered a city Diane couldn’t remember ever being in before. She knew a lot of New Yorker’s moved here because it was an ideal place to raise a family.
What was Robert doing here though? Did he have family in New Rochelle? He almost never spoke of relatives. She’d gotten a strong impression the few times they spoke of family that something had happened–some kind of horrific rift–that brought him pain. And so he, and she, avoided the subject altogether. Or is that what I wanted to believe because the alternative was that he was hedging?
What am I thinking? This is Robert. My love. He’s a good man. I know him…
Her thoughts shut off as they entered a residential area with elegant, stately older homes. The landscaping was almost too perfect. Diane’s throat closed as an alarm wailed in her head. The Town Car drove into the attached two-car garage that opened just as he pulled up to the old-fashioned house. He has a garage-door opener for this home. Why? Why is he here? Who lives here? The red car parked inside the far right slot and, a moment later, the garage door started to come down.
The cab slowed, then stopped, and Diane felt the driver looking at her expectantly in the rearview mirror. Her gaze barely strayed from the house out the passenger window. The mailbox they were parked almost right next to said “Drake” with the address. That address burned into her brain even as she thought there could be only two explanations for why Robert’s name was on the mailbox: 1) He had family, a sibling or parents, that lived here and he was visiting them…and they allowed him to use their garage while he was here–though they were presumably estranged. Right. That sounds about as logical as a convertible on a rainy day. 2) He had family that lived here. His family. A wife…
Diane found herself rolling down the window of the cab, and immediately she heard the squeal of young children nearby. A young boy and girl appeared around the side of the house the cab was closest to, but then a female voice called for them to return to the backyard. A baseball-size lump filled her throat. Robert’s children. Robert’s wife…
“Lady, what do you wanna do?” the cab driver demanded impatiently, making her realize he must have spoken this same sentence more than once in an attempt to get her attention.
“Go back,” she whispered painfully. “Back to New York City.” Her lips wooden, she gave her address in the city.
The driver muttered dismissively, “It’s your dime, lady” and made a fluid U-turn.
Ten years. Ten years and nothing but lies. All of it lies. Robert Drake, the love of my life, the man of my dreams, is married with kids. He used me. I’m a…God please no!…a mistress.
Her mind was scrambling and she knew if she didn’t talk to someone right this minute, she’d burst into tears or unending screams. What would the car driver think of his passenger wailing all the way back to the city?
It’s my dime.
Diane got out her cell phone and called her best friend and roommate, Roxanne Hart. At the moment, she didn’t care what the driver heard over the rap music playing on the radio. She knew Rox was supposed to be packing for her trip to the Christian Dior Haute Couture show in Paris, where she would be modeling, but her friend sounded half-awake when she picked up. Diane and Roxanne had met at Columbia University in New York, as roommates then, too, and they’d been fast friends ever since. With her long white-blond hair, golden skin and killer body, Rox had been discovered as a model before she’d gotten a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in music. After securing her degree, she took up modeling full-time and her career took off.
“Roxanne…it’s over,” Diane said quietly, not looking at the cabbie.
Strangely, that was all she needed to say. “With Robert? Mr. No-Show?” her friend guessed immediately. “Where are you?”
“In a cab. Coming back to the city.”
“Hmm. How long until you’re home?”
“Forty-five minutes or so.”
“Okay. I’ll call Darlene and Cherish. We’ll be here when you get home.”
Darlene Radcliffe was Diane’s other best friend. Cherish had become part of their circle in the last couple years, though Diane didn’t know her that well. She owned the flower shop Darlene worked. “Why?” Diane asked nervously.
“Look, you know I’m leaving for the Paris show soon. You’re gonna need someone who knows what’s going on so you’re not alone through this.”
Diane couldn’t argue. She’d never felt more alone in her life and she wanted to be surrounded with the people who cared about her now.
The rest of the cab ride was surreal and she barely had enough ready cash to pay the fare, making the cab driver even more impatient and rude with her considering how low his tip was. She stumbled inside the security building and into the elevator.
Oh, Robert. Not my Robert. He’s the perfect man. I fell in love with him within days of coming to work for him and the other District 2 sales reps at Global. He was so charming and mature. I’d never met a man like him, especially not in the small farm town I grew up in rural Wisconsin or in college where all the guys I dated were so childish and stupid. Robert always knew exactly what to say and do to make me agree to anything he suggested. He said he never intended to fall in love with me either, but we spent so much time together outside work that first year. The company frowns on inter-office romances. But his attraction to me was too strong to deny. Still, he said we had to be careful not to let anyone at work know about our personal relationship. He’s been unyieldingly stringent about that, even when several of our co-workers openly paired off.
Both Darlene and Rox came to meet her at the door, Darlene saying that Cherish was sorry not to be present, too, but there’d been an emergency at work. Roxanne’s face looked lined on one side, as if she’d been sleeping away the day instead of packing. Even her gorgeous eyes had dark circles under them.
“Where are Jace and the kids?” Diane asked, glancing Darlene’s way and feeling guilty for dragging her friend away from her young family over something so embarrassing. Over what? My life being finished? And now it’s to be public humiliation for my decade of blind stupidity.
Darlene waved her hand. “Jace is watching them.”
Her two friends led her to the sofa in the luxurious living room of the high rise apartment Roxanne’s salary as a supermodel easily afforded. Rox wouldn’t hear of Diane paying more than a third of the rent, since she’d been the one to insist she didn’t want to live alone here.
“Tell us everything,” Rox demanded without preface as they sat down, bracketing her.
Darlene spilled her guts to her friends, somehow managing to do so without sobbing her heart out. Some part of her felt numb with shock. This couldn’t be happening. She must have misunderstood somehow. I’ve been eating so much fudge in my misery. Maybe he noticed how fat I’ve gotten and he didn’t want anything to do with me.
Diane groaned at her own ridiculous thoughts. That’s insane. What an idiot I am. This isn’t about me. This is about ten years of deception! Ten years of being in the dark. Ten years of being someone’s fool.
Diane didn’t know her own mind. She wanted an explanation for what she’d seen, something simple–something she could fix herself, like going on a much-needed diet. How, without an ounce of discipline? I’ve never had any. Especially where Robert Drake is concerned.
“I gave him ten years of my life. He was so good to me. I love him so much. He’s so sophisticated and handsome. You should see him in his expensive suits…” She shook her head, her mind scattered and jumbled with too much at once.
“See him? We’ve never even met him!” Darlene hooted in disbelief, glancing at Rox. “Well, you did that once when you showed up at the restaurant he was trying to hide her in the back corner of.” Roxanne had said she’d wanted to see this reputed “prince” for herself.
“I knew something was wrong. All these months. He barely called this time. Checked in at the office with emails instead of calls. We haven’t seen each other since March! Or was it late February? And look at me. I’m so fat I barely fit in my clothes anymore!”
She jumped up and rushed to her bedroom to put on her go-to comfortable slobwear: loose terry cloth capris and a much-stained, oversized tank top.
Darlene and Rox followed her into the room. “He doesn’t wear a wedding ring,” Darlene pointed out, her tone gentle as she finger-combed her short cap of dark hair. “You told us he doesn’t wear any jewelry.”
Diane shrugged with extra force. “Some guys don’t. Some guys don’t like wearing jewelry.” Robert had always said that. She’d tried buying him a present once–a gold watch. He’d refused to accept it. He’d never accepted any gifts from her, not even on his birthday or at Christmas. He insisted that the price of living in New York City was too high and she needed to save her money, as he was, for the future. Their future.
“Oh my gosh…” she murmured, the truth dawning so bright, she felt as if her eyes were being burned right out of their sockets. “He didn’t want to leave a paper trail for his wife to find. That’s why he never accepted any gifts from me and never gave me so much as flowers. Why we went Dutch on everything. Why he wanted me to categorize his hotel in Manhattan as a work expense–his wife would never see the receipt because it only came through the office. He never came here to the apartment, not even when you were on assignment, Roxanne. He didn’t want anyone to see him. Anyone who might know him or know his wife and family. That’s why he always reserved tables in the darkest, furthest recesses of any restaurant, even when I visited him for a day or two when he was on a sale pitch. Mostly we ordered take-out.”
The expressions on her two friends’ face stunned her and she burst out in the midst of her realizations, “You knew! Both of you knew he was married!”
“Oh my good golly!” Darlene croaked, shaking her head as if she couldn’t believe this conversation–and how dense Diane had been. “Are you serious? You never had the slightest clue? Come on, Diane. I never met the guy and it couldn’t have been more screaming obvious.”
Diane looked at her oldest friends, blown away that neither of them had ever said anything to her like this before. “Did you know, Rox?”
Rox snorted, un-model-like. “Of course. Meeting him that one time solidified my guess.”
“But we’d only been dating a few weeks at that point. What could possibly have led you to that conclusion?”
With more tact than she usually had, Rox muttered, “It was pretty obvious even then.”
“Did everyone know?” By everyone, she meant their close circle of friends: Jamie Dubois or “Doobs” as everyone called him, Darlene’s husband Jace and her brother Brett Foxx, Brett’s relatively new wife Savvy, and Mikey Lund who worked at the mechanic shop Brett owned.
Neither Rox nor Darlene spoke, saying “yes” loudly with their expressions.
When Diane moaned in distress, Rox put her arms around her shoulders from the back. “Babe, would us telling you what was so obvious have changed anything for you? I mean, seriously? You never would’ve believed it. You were too stupid in love.”
Diane cried out, half spluttering, “Yes, something would have changed! I never had the slightest clue. It never occurred to me. I wouldn’t have imagined he was married for a split second. I didn’t see any of these obvious things. Not then. Not until now. They weren’t tell-tale to me. We never see each other. A couple times a year, if even. His absence is legitimate. I know–I’m his assistant. If he went home to his family between presentations…well, he didn’t log those vacations in with the company. He didn’t take them as work expenses.” Our entire relationship could be considered one long phone call–because that’s mostly where our love affair has taken place. But in the last four months, even that’s been few and far between.
Diane wasn’t sure which was worse: That she’d been in the horrifying position of “the other woman” or what her dearest friends must have thought of her. She wasn’t lying. The realizations she’d had a moment ago had never come before, never been triggered by anything Robert said or did. She’d been almost completely in the dark. Everything that might have led her to wonder if he had a wife and family had been accounted for–explained by one thing or another that was genuine, or at least had seemed utterly authentic.
“Can I ask…?” Darlene started.
“What?” Diane demanded, flouncing away from Roxanne and out to the freezer in the kitchen. She grabbed the Tupperware container she kept her ample supply of fudge in.
Darlene and Rox trailed close behind again. “Well, if you never guessed he might be married,” Darlene went on “what excuse did he give you for not marrying you this whole time?”
Rox jumped in, “Because he’d have been a complete moron not to realize you’re one of those nice girls who get married and have two point five babies.”
Darlene shuddered with a vocal protest at the idea of that “point five”. Diane was too busy prying off the lid of the Tupperware and going right for the peanut butter fudge she adored most. “He travels so much,” she defended with her mouth full. “Eleven months of the year, he’s somewhere other than here. It’s part of his job. He wanted to wait until he could settle down, put down roots with me. I wouldn’t have handled his absence as well if he was traveling all the time once we were married and had kids, and he knew it.”
“Yeah. He was just thinking of you,” Rox said, sounding like she was spitting. “Come on, Di, he’s a sales rep. What’re the odds of him ever ‘settling down’? Besides, the dude’s middle-aged, isn’t he? Forty or forty-five years old? His job is the best he’s gonna get at his age. It’s not likely he’d quit and find some desk job.”
Diane glanced at Darlene who appeared to be agreeing with Rox without reservation.
Another chunk of fudge filling her mouth, Diane shook her head. “I’m jumping to conclusions. I could be completely wrong about all this. What if he’s just visiting someone? A sister or parent?”
“You said his name was on the mailbox.”
“Okay, a brother or his parents?”
“Has he ever mentioned a sibling before?”
Diane swallowed a huge amount of the sugary concoction. “No. He never wanted to talk about his family. He implied there were painful situations. That something traumatic happened between him and his family that he wasn’t healed from.”
“Of course he did.”
“Look, it’s not that convenient,” Diane insisted, almost through her teeth. Rox was determined to cast Robert as an ogre here. “He’s never met my parents or sister either.”
“Did you ask him to?”
Diane shoved another square of fudge in her mouth, irritated. Of course she’d wanted the love of her life to meet her family. He’d never been able to get away. Even when they’d made plans, he’d canceled at the last minute, always with some job situation being the cause. She had wondered about that, but not too hard.
Her parents knew she and Robert had been dating for ten years and they’d asked almost constantly for the last nine and a half years of that time when they were getting married. Diane had worried that her parents somehow suspected their baby girl whom they’d raised with a solid moral compass was sleeping with a man she wasn’t married to. She’d always been afraid of them finding out the truth and dreaded more than once whether they’d know just by looking at her and Robert together that she’d relented in insisting they wait to have sex until they got married.
The fact was, Robert had seduced her completely. She’d known marriage wasn’t an option for a long while, but she’d loved him and she’d been committed to him with her whole heart and life. She’d believed he felt the same for her. So what did a piece of paper mean?
She’d given him her virginity barely a year into their relationship. The time before had been torture–as difficult for her as for Robert, who’d been beyond impatient for her to be ready.
Rox stepped closer, pushing the bucket-sized container of fudge aside. “Listen, babe, you didn’t wanna know the truth. You like your head firmly buried in the sand. As long as it meant he didn’t dump you, you wouldn’t have considered anything like this.”
“No. You’re wrong,” Diane insisted. “I have to be wrong. I didn’t see what I thought I did.”
Her own words echoed back to her in mockery. What Roxanne had just said about how she loved to stick her head in the sand and hide from the truth couldn’t have been more accurate. She didn’t want to know this reality. Wilting like a flower under a relentless sun, she dropped into a chair. “What do I do?”
“You know, hon,” Darlene said with more tenderness that Rox usually displayed. “You know you can’t go on with this relationship now that you know the truth for sure…don’t you?”
“Do I know the truth for sure?”
“We will tomorrow,” Rox said, her tone unwilling to accept an argument. “Tomorrow we’re going back to that house and we’re gonna find out the truth. That’s that. If you won’t save yourself this time, I’ll do it for you.”
Diane knew how forceful Roxanne could be. She was a tank when she made up her mind. If Diane didn’t accompany her, she’d go alone after needling the address out of her with her clever manipulation.
I have to go along. I know I do. But Rox is right. She’s absolutely right about me. I don’t want to know the truth. Ever. Firmly buried in the sand is the most comfortable place for my aching head and too-forgiving heart.
* * * *
When Diane woke late the next morning, she found her eyes were as bloated as her body. Between endless tears and fudge, she was a mess. That’s not even the worst part. I want to talk to Robert so badly. I want to hear him tell me I misunderstood everything. I didn’t see anything I thought I did. I want to go through life with rose-colored glasses on.
And she fully intended to talk her best friend out of dragging her to New Rochelle. Unfortunately, by the time she emerged from her bedroom, Rox was already dressed, looking beautiful and ferocious instead of tired. She took hold of Diane’s shoulders and shoved her toward her own bedroom. “You are not going to see if your cheating boyfriend has a wife and family dressed or looking like that.”
“I am what I am. I’m fat and ugly. I can’t go anywhere. Why did you and Darlene let me eat all that fudge?”
Rox chortled. “Oh, we let you, did we? I hid it five different times, Lady Jane. You found it every single time.” Whenever Roxanne scolded her, she used that nickname.
Diane didn’t have the energy to fight her determined friend. When Roxanne got done with her, she was wearing designer jeans that somehow fit her bloated proportions and made her appear slim with a top that Rox had gotten from a big-name designer she was on a first-name basis with, flirty sandals, and wearing makeup so naturally no one could possibly tell how red and blotchy her face was beneath.
“Wait a minute,” Diane said in shock as Rox hustled her toward the door. “I can’t do this today. I have work.”
“I already called you in sick. We’re going. You’re not getting out of this, so stop trying. It’s time to wake up and move forward in your life. You’ve been in limbo for ten damn years already.”
“But I have been moving forward for ten years, waiting to get married and start a family with the man I love” was at the tip of her tongue. Then she realized, if Robert was married and had children with his wife, she’d been at a standstill from the moment her heart set itself on him.
What a waste. I love him so much though. How can I still love him so much? I want nothing more than for the chance to turn back time, not to follow him at all yesterday. If I’d called that off, tonight I might have been in his arms, hearing him tell me he loves me and someday we’d have the most beautiful house and children…
He already has both. With another woman. Oh, Lord, save the stupid! Me!
The drive to New Rochelle felt contradictorily endless and too short. Diane felt so sick, she was afraid to throw up inside the tight confines of Roxanne’s rarely used, custom lavender sports car.
It was nearly noon when they reached the same residential area Diane had seen from the backseat of a cab yesterday. As before, she could hear the squealing laughter of little kids. That sound got louder when Roxanne forced her out of the passenger seat and herded her to the front door of the stately home. Instead of invigorating her appetite and memories of childhood the way it usually would have, the scent of grilling meat made her stomach churn sickly.
Rox kept a firm hold on her arm as she pushed her index finger against the doorbell. Diane wanted to close her eyes at the sound of sandals on the other side of the door. The middle-aged woman who appeared when the stain-glassed paned door opened had a page-boy hairstyle that bounced lightly when she walked. She couldn’t have looked more like the girl next door if she tried. And I’m the bad girl. The other woman. Some married man’s mistress! Me!
“Yes? May I help you?”
She even sounds sweet and intelligent. I’m the dumbest person alive.
“We’re looking for a Mrs. Robert Drake,” Rox plowed forward, looking pleasant and casual. At the same time Diane wondered what she’d do without her friend, she wished she’d been allowed to stay home and sulk.
Abruptly, the most familiar voice in the world to her called, “The burgers are almost done. Where are those buns, my d…”
Robert appeared through a patio door Diane could see on the opposite side of the house. He held a grill spatula and wore cargo shorts and a polo shirt. In the background, the sound of kids playing enthusiastically carried through the open patio door. Robert. My Robert, who’s never, ever worn anything so casual in all the time we’ve been together. My Robert, a family man…
All the strength in her legs gave out, but somehow Roxanne held her up as the woman who’d opened the door turned back from her husband and said, “I’m Mrs. Robert Drake. What’s this about?” Though she still smiled, there was something wary in her tone now.
Diane fixated on Robert, who’d halted in the center of the house and gaped at her in obvious shock and terror. The truth was displayed in that expression. There could be no mistaking it. He’d never expected her, his mistress, to show up at his home where his wife and kids lived. Diane had wondered a time or two whether he’d seen her following him in a cab yesterday. It was apparent he hadn’t. He never expected to be revealed in this way while relaxing with his beloved family.
As smoothly as a Jehovah’s Witness, Roxanne said, “We’re in your neighborhood today, sharing the Scriptures, Mrs. Drake. If you wouldn’t mind, we’d like to share some good news with you. We have some pamphlets in the car…”
Just like that, the door slammed shut in their faces. Rox hustled her to the car, obviously struggling because Diane didn’t feel capable of anything but collapse. Somehow she was in the passenger’s seat, all but incapacitated by shock.
Hours later, she felt sick to her stomach after too much fudge, ice cream, a greasy double cheeseburger, cheese curds and wine. She was curled up on the couch, verbally going over every second of the time she and Robert had spent together as a couple. There were so few of them. Most were memories of intimate, heart-stealing conversations. “My happiest moments these ten years have been spent with him, mostly on the phone. He was my whole life. He was my future. Now I have nothing. All the memories are tainted. Whenever I remember us together, I’ll see the shadow of his wife, those happy children…”
“His dripping grill spatula and gorilla-hairy legs in those shorts,” Roxanne added without the slightest bit of sympathy.
Diane barely heard her, though the picture of Robert’s naked–shockingly hairy, white body–filled her mind. “You know…” she mused, “he never answers the calls I make to him from my cell phone. I don’t have his home phone number. I never have had it, because he told me he didn’t have a house or apartment–just random hotel rooms–and I’m the administrative assistant of the whole sales division now, instead of a single district. How could he have gotten away with not giving a home phone and address to his employer all these years? He’ll only answer my calls when I call him from work and not even all the time then. Otherwise my calls go directly to voice mail and he calls me back later. The phone he uses for me must be a secret phone. One he uses only for me and his wife had no idea he even has it. He makes sure my calls never come in while he’s with that phone, which means he must hide it, maybe in his glove compartment. It is a work expense, too, now that I recall. That cell phone, I mean. That has to be why I can never get hold of him–not even for work-related things. Do you know how many times I’ve called his phone and left messages? Countless. He must hate having to wade through all of them when he’s finally in a place where he can listen to them without his wife overhearing. But he always does seem to have heard all of them. Funny because some nights when he calls from a hotel room wherever he’s staying, I’ll hear another phone ring. He always claims it’s not for him or the TV. How does a person live a double life like that and not feel like…like they’re suffocating or going crazy?”
“Like he’s a total creep and can’t meet his own eyes in the mirror? I can’t imagine,” Rox intoned.
“Oh my goodness, how often did we talk about getting married, having children together? Endless phone conversations that made me fall in love with him over and over. He went along with all of it whenever we talked about it. Every single time. Sometimes we’d go through a magazine and pick out furniture for our home once we got married and settled down. He was so serious about it all, so emotional about the prospect. So tender when we finally saw each other…” Diane paused to blow her nose and toss a tissue in the scattered heaps all around the sofa she laid out on like a beached whale.
“I wonder now, has he really been in Newark these past four months, closing a major deal and increasing visibility and sales volume of Global’s products with pharmacists, hospital personnel, physicians, patient advocacy groups, and retirement homes…?”
Roxanne rolled her eyes.
“Or was he off on some family vacation all that time?” Diane shook her head. “No, he must have been on the job. The paperwork for closing that one huge deal must be what was in that oversized envelope he left on my desk when he stopped at the office after his flight got in yesterday. Usually he gets home and stops at the office, then we go to our hotel. Instead, this time he rushed to the office, dropped off the paperwork and went straight to see his family from there. Was he hoping I wouldn’t be in my office and he could drop the paperwork off without seeing me? If that doesn’t prove where his loyalties lie…”
“Diane, please tell me you’re not seeing this through the eyes of the jilted mistress.”
Diane whipped her head in Rox’s direction again. “I don’t like that word. Do you know his wife never once set foot into Global Pharmaceuticals? Not once. Did he lie and tell her he doesn’t have an office at the company he works? He doesn’t have pictures of his wife and kids on his desk. He doesn’t have them in his wallet. I’ve noticed that. I looked in his wallet more than once at the hotel, hoping he had a picture of me inside. I even slipped one inside it once and he claimed he didn’t know and that it must have fallen out and a hotel maid threw it away. But why doesn’t he have pictures of his wife or kids in his wallet? Does he have a separate wallet for home and one for being with me? He puts mine in his car with his secret cell phone when he’s home?”
“He’s good. I’ll give him that,” Rox said. “In ten years, it’s obvious he never slipped except yesterday when you followed him. But it’s also obvious the clues were all there, sweet pea. How could you not have seen it? Not even considered it once?”
“I told you, I didn’t have a clue. Not even a shadow of it. He’s so good at keeping his life with me separate from his other life. I believed everything. I’m really dumb, aren’t I? How could I not have seen something? But I didn’t. I honestly didn’t.”
“At the very least, you’ve never seen he wasn’t exactly a catch?”
Diane sat up, squishing a pillow tighter to her bloated middle. “Why do keep talking about his looks? He’s the most handsome man in the world. He’s so sophisticated…”
Roxanne barked. “Come on, have you ever really seen him? I mean, without the rose-colored glasses? He’s middle-age, closer to fifty than forty, and you’re only thirty-one. He’s old, Diane. He’s more than half bald on top and hairy as Chewbacca everywhere else, short–hell, he must be two or three inches shorter than you!”
“He’s barely an inch less than me,” Diane defended heatedly. It was true that since meeting Robert, she’d been wearing flats exclusively. He was so bothered by being shorter than her. He wore slight lifts in his shoes, insisted she wear flats, but when he took his off, she was again slightly taller than him.
“I don’t see anything that could make you find him attractive. Seriously, it’s true that he somehow manages to be in decent shape in clothes, but he’s not muscular in any way. What in the world do you see in him? You must be in love.”
“Of course I’m in love. But he is the most perfect man in the world.”
“Oh, Di, he’s just not your type. He’s not the right guy for you at all. It’s glaring.”
“He’s everything I ever dreamed of.”
Rox shook her head, dubbing her hopeless without the words. “It’s time for you dream bigger and better, Lady Jane.”
“Who else could possibly be more perfect for me than Robert Drake?” Diane threw the pillow at her friend almost as a gauntlet. Rox caught it easily. “Well, go ahead, Roxanne Hart. You’re always saying you’re so good at picking good men for all your friends, so you pick one for me. You chose Jace for Darlene years before anything serious happened between them, then predicted Brett and Savvy, and they all actually did pair off. What about me? What man would you pick for me?”
Roxanne chuckled, raising an elegantly arched brow. “That one’s a no-brainer, sweet pea. Mikey.”
Diane’s fudge and alcohol saturated mind whirled at the name. “Mikey? Mikey Lund? Our Mikey?” Mikey worked for Brett at Foxx Body Shop. He’d hung around with their crowd as long as Diane could remember. But Mikey…boyfriend material? While it was true that he’d forever had a crush on her, he’d had crushes on most of the women he’d come in contact with–probably all his life. Roxanne, Darlene, Savvy for sure. If he’d met Cherish Stephenson, Diane was sure he’d fallen for her, too.
“First of all, Mikey’s your friend, Diane. He respects you. Hell, he worships you. Better yet, he cares about you. He loves you. In case you haven’t noticed, he’s cute as the dickens, too.”
Diane’s entire face wrinkled. “Mikey? Mikey Lund?”
Rox grinned. “You haven’t seen him for a while, have you? Even if you haven’t, I’ve always thought he was beyond adorable. If he was in any way my type…” Her eyebrows wiggled suggestively. “Maybe.”
Diane shook her head, finding all of this unimaginable. While Mikey was the sweetest, shyest guy on the planet, he wasn’t…well, he was hugely obese and he drank like a fish! “He’s not your type, Rox, but somehow you think he’s mine?”
“Heck of a lot better choice than Robert Drake.”
Diane’s cell phone rang, and she fell off the couch unceremoniously in her haste to answer it. By the time she heaved herself up and retrieved it, smacking her head in the glass coffee table, Rox was roaring with laughter. Diane ignored her. In her clumsy maneuvers, she’d somehow seen the display with Robert’s name. Stumbling more than once, she ran into her bedroom to take the call. By the time she pressed the button and gasped, “Robert!”, she was breathing laboriously.
“Diane, please don’t hang up. Listen to me…”
A hand snatched her phone away, and Diane twisted to see her best friend hanging up and throwing her phone onto her bed angrily. Aghast, Diane spluttered, “I needed to take that call! How could you?”
“You little idiot. Why? Because of course you plan to take him back. What, after he promises to leave his wife?”
Diane was eying her phone, wondering if she could reach the bed in time to get it before Roxanne tackled her. No, she was in no shape to be cat-quick.
“You’re so stupid about this guy, Diane. He’ll charm you into believing one of his patented lies, and you know it. You can’t give him the chance to hook you in again. Even if he did leave his wife for you, is that what you really want? To break up a family? To be with someone who’s committed adultery for ten years? All while his wife is having his children and caring for them with utmost nobility? He’s done all this, lived two separate lives, without blinking an eye, so if you’re still telling yourself he’s a good man, think about that for a second. He’ll lie and cheat again once he makes you his wife instead, only this time some other woman will be his poor, unsuspecting mistress. I guarantee he’ll have another port in some other city in no time after he’s got you chained with a ring on your finger and a baby in your belly–if he doesn’t already.”
Diane gasped and shuddered at the same time. Sobs burst from her as her mind tried to rebel against every cruel word Roxanne said. Robert is mine… But he hasn’t been, has he? I’m nothing to him. Nothing but the mistress he tries so hard to keep hidden from his family. From his poor, unsuspecting wife. That poor Helen Housewife didn’t deserve to be cheated on so barbarously. And she’s probably just as oblivious to his affair as I was. He’s played her for a fool, just like he has me.
Roxanne hugged her as she cried T-Rex tears. Her tone was softer when she said, “You have to protect yourself, babe. You can’t see or talk to him again. You have to end the whole thing now. Don’t let him get his foot back in the door.”
“But I work for him,” Diane blubbered.
“You work for the same company. You don’t work for him. Can you transfer to another department?” Rox had barely asked the question before she was shaking her head. “Second thought, it’d be better if you got out of there altogether. You can easily get another job. And I heard from Darlene yesterday that Brett’s mentioned hiring someone to organize and handle the office duties at the body shop.”
“Receptionist? You want me to downgrade to receptionist? I’m an administrative assistant. I run an entire sales office. I make a…well, pretty good salary.” At one time, she’d commanded the salary she’d expected to once she got the perfect job as a college graduate. The company had been down-sizing continuously for the past few years though. She made nothing like she once did starting out.
“Oh, seriously, you’re a secretary there just like you’d be at the garage. Basically, you’d be doing the same job. Paperwork and phone calls. And Brett would probably hire you full-time. You haven’t done that for awhile now, have you?”
“But I love my job. It’s everything I went to college for.”
“Yes, and you’ve spent the last couple years terrified they were going to lay you off or fire you outright instead of cutting your hours left and right.”
“It’s mostly the sales reps they’ve been firing. They’re downsizing pharma sales reps. Mostly.” Robert’s job was the one she’d feared for the most, even as she’d wondered if it might mean they could get married sooner if he was fired or laid off.
“No, you said you thought your own job would be eliminated soon.”
Roxanne was right, but Diane didn’t want to see reason.
“You can’t see him again. You know that, right? You realize that?” Roxanne asked in a firm but strangely gentle way. “Because if you go back, you’ll have to act like nothing happened. You’ll have to face him over and over and somehow continue insisting it’s over to him. His betrayal will affect every part of your life, sweetie. You know that yourself. You’re not gonna be able to work with him without being crushed or catapulted back into the role of mistress.”
Diane shuddered, revolted at the word and its ramifications. “I can’t be that.”
“Of course you can’t. You’re not that kind of woman. But you love him so much you’ll cave if you see him. He’s seduced you consummately for ten years. His charm is your downfall.”
“My parents would be so ashamed,” she murmured. “They’re always talking about how New York will corrupt me. I guess I’ve proven them right.”
“It’s not your fault. You’re too sweet and innocent to have seen what was right before your eyes all this time. But now that you know, you can’t go back.”
Easier said than done. Roxanne held her, and Diane wanted nothing more than to go home to Wisconsin, where her plump mother would wrap her in darkly tanned arms and tell her everything would be all right. Whenever she was home, she felt like the world righted itself.
But they know. Mom, Dad and Penny all know about Robert. They’ve never met him, but they know we’ve been together ten years, that he’s my boss and he travels a lot. That he’s my whole world. What will I tell Mama when she calls next? She always asks about Robert. “When will we meet him? When are you getting married?” A skipping record every time.
At the prospect of admitting her relationship with this man she’d loved to the exclusion of all else–to the exclusion of my own morality–was over, Diane felt like she was suffocating. She had no future left without him.
Roxanne pulled back and clasped her face in her hands. “Look, Diane, I’m leaving the States tomorrow and I won’t be back for a week or more. You need to have a backup while I’m gone. Someone to call if there’s a Robert emergency. Unfortunately, Darlene and Jace are taking the kids to Buffalo to see their parents for the next couple weeks–they’re leaving Friday just like I am. Brett and Savvy are heading there with Darlene, too. They won’t be staying as long since you know Brett can’t take more than a short time being with his and Darlene’s parents. So they’re all out as your rescue options.” Rox sighed. “Cherish has family visiting her at her apartment, and she’s already stressed out about it, so she’s not really a good choice.” A grimace captured Rox’s expression. “I can’t see you calling him…”
Diane cringed at this tender area in her and Roxanne’s relationship. They almost never talked about Jamie Dubois because of something that’d happened years ago and yet still felt raw to Diane after all this time. She braced herself whenever Jamie came up in conversation.
Though Rox refused to say his name and Diane always knew she meant Jamie when she said “him” in that loathing tone, her friend went on as if she wasn’t in the least bit bothered…and Diane always told herself Rox probably wasn’t; she was. “That leaves Mikey. You know he’ll be there for you at a moment’s notice. You need this, babe. Promise me you’ll talk to Mikey instead of throwing yourself into the lion’s den again with Old Faithful.”
Taking a deep breath, Diane muttered dully, “You’ll talk to him first, won’t you?” Roxanne was too stubborn not to get her way about this.
“You know it. But I want you to go along with this. If you can’t protect yourself, you have to be willing to let someone else protect you. I can’t be here this time. You’re weak where this guy is concerned. Let Mikey handle it.”
Diane didn’t feel right about the prospect, in part because she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen or talked to Mikey Lund. It’d been months. She hadn’t thought about him once in all that time either, and now Roxanne wanted her to force him to step into a situation like this? The fact was, she didn’t know if she was ready for that any more than she was to let Robert go cold turkey. Still, Rox was right. She couldn’t see or talk to him ever again. That was crucial. Diane just couldn’t imagine how to shut off her heart and dreams like they were emotionless light switches.