"Are you and Geoffrey coming to Billy and Roni's New Year's Eve party?" Dex asked.
Jolie Everett glanced at her older brother as they left Lewis Design through the back doorway of the strip mall they worked in. "When does it start again?"
"Seven. Everyone will be there. Even Keri and Joshua are up from Texas with their kids."
"I'm not sure, Dex. I haven't talked to Geoffrey. I...I have to go to Jag's house. Get the rest of my stuff." The fact was, her oldest friend and former boyfriend, Geoffrey Mullins, a successful lawyer her parents approved of, had been pressuring her so much lately for their relationship to become more than simple friendship, she'd been avoiding him.
As she and Dex emerged from the building, a strong gust of chilly wind, heavily infused with icy snow, slammed into them. They could be looking at blizzard conditions before the evening was through.
Jolie had started working for Angela Lewis-Mackenzie almost a year and half ago--replacing Keri at Kaleidoscope Office Services. Angela owned Kaleidoscope Office Building, which contained the two businesses she owned, along with Two Brothers Accounting, which was one of her many investments. In August, Roni, who worked as a graphic designer for Angela's other business--Lewis Design-- and Billy LaPointe had had their first child together. Roni had taken to motherhood instantly and decided to extend her maternity leave for another few months.
At first Dex had tried juggling alone all the work he and Roni used to divide, but then he'd asked Angela to let Jolie sub for Roni as long as she was gone. Jolie was finally using her college degree and loved her job, even if it wouldn't last. As soon as Roni came back, she'd be back next door with Aimee Channing at Kaleidoscope, where they made copies, typed and printed, and performed basic desktop publishing duties for small businesses in the La Crosse area. While Jolie had enjoyed the experience in office services, a part of her hoped Roni would decide to become a full-time mother so she could keep the temp position permanently. Angela had already told her the job was hers if Roni did make that decision.
When Jolie didn't look at her brother, he took a step closer to where she huddled in her jacket against the wind. "I know this isn't easy for you, honey. Maybe you shouldn't be alone tonight. Call Geoffrey if you can't come to Roni and Billy's."
Six months ago, she'd officially filed for divorce with the local county court. Dex had agreed to be the process server, but Jolie's husband, a wildlife photographer, was currently in a remote area of Africa on assignment. Even the première nature magazine Jag was employed by had little contact with him. Their phone and mail service in Africa were unreliable at best. His publisher had said he should be coming home soon though. Jolie knew best that their assignments could take him away for years at a time. The current assignment was going on two years. Dex would serve Jag the divorce papers as soon as he got home.
"Why did you marry him, Jolie? You had to know what it'd be like. You knew he'd never be here for you, and he had to know you're too much of a homebody to be circling the globe, living in the most remote areas imaginable. That's all Jag knows, honey."
It was ironic. Like most of the Everetts, Jolie had spent her life looking for stability and roots. Yet it was Jaguar Myrick--a man who was happiest when he was roaming around the globe, homeless and free to head off again at a moment's notice--that she'd fallen for like a meteorite hurling through space before its devastating crash-landing. As Jag's best friend through high school and college, Dex was absolutely right in his assessment. Jolie had known what her marriage would be like, yet she couldn't have stopped herself. From making the biggest mistake of my life.
"I really don't know what I'm up for tonight, Dex." Knowing tomorrow is my wedding anniversary. Jag and I have been married for three years, together for only a few months of that time. "Why don't you call my cell phone later. I'll let you know if I'm feeling better."
She hugged her brother. "Give Jordana my love in case I don't make it tonight."
He nodded, looking worried. Knowing he wouldn't let her go first, she stepped back and got out her keys. "Talk to you later," she offered.
"Call me. If you need talk about anything."
She nodded, then rushed to her car and got inside.
The shock of being out of the wind made her gasp. She pushed back her hood, shoving her key in the ignition and turning on the heat immediately. The howl of the wind seemed to fade into the background as she closed her eyes and prepared herself for what she was about to do. Make the final break. Take every part of my life out of what's left of Jag's here.
Dex had no idea and she wouldn't tell him that the announcement he and his wife Jordana had made at their parents' home last night had been the straw that broke the camel's back. It hadn't been easy to see her best friends at Kaleidoscope having kids left and right. Angela and Kiowa had started it and now had two children, a third on the way. Aimee and Rob had followed. Shayna and Dakota had announced they were pregnant around the same Billy and Roni's baby had been born in August. The only hold-outs had been Dex and Jordana. They'd insisted they weren't ready to become parents and wanted to enjoy being an unfettered couple. But now, only a year and five months into their ecstatically happy marriage, the two were going to join the rest of their friends by starting a family. Dex had joked last night that they still had nine months to enjoy being newlyweds.
I'm alone, the way I always feared. It wasn't how I planned my life. I expected to follow in Mom and Dad's footsteps. Get married when I was twenty-one--just after I graduated college. Give up the modeling I've done since I was fifteen. I expected to have a child less than a year after the wedding and more to follow. Instead, at twenty-six, Jolie was watching life and love and fulfillment happening from a distance. Happy as she was for her friends and as much as she loved them all, she couldn't help feeling the weight of her own loneliness--on a daily basis lately.
As soon as Dex pulled out of his parking slot and waved to her, that familiar, concerned look on his handsome face, she forced herself to do the same. The sooner she got this over with, the better.
The last time she'd been in Jag's house had been six months ago, when she'd taken most of her things and moved into an apartment closer to work. She hadn't returned to the house since, and hadn't told Jag anything about her relocation. During their last phone conversation, she'd informed him she was getting a new cell phone. Because he hadn't contacted her after that, she'd never had the opportunity to tell him the number. It'd been easier that way. She couldn't have talked to him, couldn't have told him she was leaving because she couldn't deal with their marriage... the lack of one...anymore. So she'd opted to go on with her life as if Jag no longer existed as a part of it. And he probably hasn't even noticed.
When she pulled into the driveway of Jag's huge family mansion that had never felt like home to her and parked, she stared blindly through the blowing snow. Maybe our marriage is as over for him as it is for me.
Dex had asked why she'd married Jag. She'd never told anyone and maybe she hadn't had to. Forever she'd worn her heart on her sleeve. She'd had a crush on Jag for most of the years he and Dex were best friends. It'd never mattered to her that he'd always had four girlfriends at the same time, that he was a heartbreaker who barely seemed to notice the trail of bleeding hearts he left behind. He always moved forward, so how could he ever see what was behind him?
Then three years ago, days before New Year's, they'd seen each other at her parents' annual end-of-year shindig. He'd been home, visiting Dex. He'd told her all about his adventures, about the agonizing loneliness in deep jungles and isolated plains. The team became a family, and sometimes more. Temporary relationships helped fill the monotony, kept them sane. He'd told her that he and his long-time assistant Micayla happily "used" each other whenever they wanted. He'd also said that being home never felt like reality to him. It was more like a strange dream in which he lived more in a few weeks than at any other time, before he went out on a new assignment.
At that time, Jolie had no idea the time they spent together would progress to his house, from one night to days, and would shift from best-friend's-sister to utter romance. They flew to Atlanta and eloped. Jolie would never forget how furious her mother had been when they returned and announced to her family what they'd done. Whether Mother's anger had been directed at her or Jag, Jolie had never been sure. But her parents made it clear to their new son-in-law that they expected him to do right by their daughter or suffer the consequences. Even Dex had set himself against his long-time best friend. Obviously they'd all known Jag better than she'd allowed herself to.
While the days and nights had been pure fantasy between them, he hadn't bothered to mention he was going out on assignment soon. Obviously, she'd become part of the strange dream that wasn't a normal part of reality for him. He'd been in the bamboo forests of southwestern China for eleven months. His contact with her during that time had been true to the man--cocky and sure, always assuming everything was fine between them. She had no idea how she got through the agony of their separation so soon after the wedding.
He'd returned and her first words had been to demand when he was leaving again. The month he insisted he was taking off had sounded as wonderful as his reassurances that he loved her and he'd thought only of her during their time apart. But she'd known something was wrong then. Micayla called constantly, and Jag always took her calls in privacy.
In the two years since he'd been gone on another assignment, photographing for a piece focusing on the over-hunting of the Nile crocodile in Africa, their contact had been almost nil. That she hadn't been living in his house and had a new cell phone number he didn't have no doubt made the situation worse. But Jag had made no effort to contact her through her brother and parents, or even through her cousin Andrew, who was on Jag's research team.
Jolie shook herself out of her funk and forced herself out of the car. With the key to the front door out, she walked carefully over the slick driveway to the sidewalk.
Even my former playboy brother is a family man now. He and Jordana will be having a baby soon. Would it have made my life any better if I'd gotten pregnant just after Jag and I got married? Jolie hated the immediate answer that popped into her mind. Yes. She wanted Jag's child. She wanted a baby with the only man she believed she'd ever loved. Even if their marriage was over, she wanted his child.
Jolie went straight to the bedroom and got out her remaining suitcase, shivering because the house was almost as cold as the outdoors. She'd left the furnace on only high enough to keep the pipes from freezing. Her cell phone trilled, and she pulled it out to see Geoffrey's number on the screen. She let the call go to voice mail.
Do I need love, do I need a husband, to produce a baby?
She gasped at her own shocking thought, especially when she considered that Geoffrey would love to step into Jag's place. He'd loved to marry her and have a family together. But, though she'd dated him for years before she and Jag fell in love, she'd never felt about him the way she did about Jag.
When she had everything in her suitcase, she found herself looking at the upholstered bed. Between the ceiling and the headboard was a line of four square windows without curtains, and below, three of the custom-framed photographs Jag was most proud of.
Dear Lord, they'd spent so little time together here as a married couple. She could never be comfortable in this house without Jag here with her. The first eleven months they were apart, she'd spent more time in her own bedroom at her parents' mansion than here. Jag hadn't liked that and kept asking why she wasn't there whenever he called "their home".
Why did he do it? Why did he marry me, risk my parents' wrath and Dex turning on him? How can he love me when he's never here? How can he love me when he's there, with the assistant who was or is happy to be "used" whenever the loneliness and isolation closes in?
Jolie grabbed her suitcase and stalked through the house, ignoring the tears slipping down her cheeks. She'd made it to the front hall again when she noticed the red light on the answering machine blinking. Someone called. She knew who had called, yet she couldn't stop herself from stepping up to the utterly masculine alder wood buffet the answering machine sat on. She pressed the button and tensed immediately when the machine date and time stamped the call as having come in a month before.
Seconds later, Jag's soft, husky, romantic voice said, "Hello, Mrs. Myrick. I was hoping to be able to talk to you, hear your voice. I've missed you, sweetheart. You have no idea. The good news is, I'm coming home to you soon. My flight lands in La Crosse on December 31st--just in time for us to usher in the New Year and celebrate three wonderful years together. I hope you want to celebrate the same way I do. I promise I'll come bearing gifts when you arrive at the airport to pick me up at six-thirty p.m.--your time, of course. Can't wait to see you, Jolie, my love. By the way, you never did give me your new cell phone number. Where have you been? You know I avoid contacting your parents or your brother whenever possible these days--keeps me out of a few dog houses, I suppose. Call my publisher with the number as soon as you can. I can't promise I'll be able to call again before I come home. Communication out of this area is nearly impossible. Anyway, I'll make it up to you, sweetheart. I promise."
The next message had been left just last night. "You're not there again," Jag said, his tone strangely worried. Had he realized something was wrong? "And you didn't leave your cell phone number with my publisher. Well, I don't have much time. My flight gets into La Crosse at six-thirty tomorrow evening. Here's the flight number... I guess if you can't be there, Micayla can secure a car for us. But I'm praying you'll be there waiting for me when I get in. I can hardly wait to see you, sweetheart. I know we have a lot to talk about. I have a lot to make up for. I...I thought you'd be there when I called this time. I hope..." A voice called in the background. Micayla? "Ahh, I really have to go. See you tomorrow, if I have any luck at all in the bank."
Jolie glanced at her watch to see it was after six o'clock. The airport was about a half-hour away. She could get there and only be a few minutes late... but she should bother? After all, Jag's precious "assistant" could easily take care of everything, the way she always had for him. Probably has just as well these past two years. Am I supposed to believe their convenient arrangement just ceased when he married me? How often did Jag talk about formerly wrong things seeming perfectly right and justified in a place where there was little hope, almost nothing else to keep a man sane?
By now Andrew had called the Everett family and Dex would soon know Jag was home. And her brother literally couldn't wait to throw those divorce papers in his old friend's face. Jolie had been wondering how to keep Dex from knocking Jag flat on sight as well.
No, she had to go to the airport. She had to pick her husband up and then carefully explain to him that their marriage had been over for a long time--almost as soon as it'd started. They'd made a mistake...
Tears burned again behind her eyes. One way or another, she had to do this. She just wasn't sure how she'd survive the hours until it was done.
* * * *
Jolie's cell phone rang while she was making her way inside the airport. She pulled it out as she scanned the boards, searching for Jag's flight number. Despite the blizzard brewing, his plane had already landed. Flushed, she headed to Baggage Claim, smoothing her hair and wishing she had time to retouch her make-up.
"Jolie, I just got a call from Andrew..." Dex started in her ear. "You know Jag's..."
"So...do you still want the divorce?"
She swallowed, suddenly nowhere near as sure as she'd been when she filled out the paperwork and filed for the divorce. Think about the last two years. Think about the agony you've gone through, knowing Jag's idea of loving you might mean you're part of his non-real life--in which he tries to pack as much living into the "strange dream" as possible. I want reality. I want a husband. I want a child. I can have a child...with Jag. And he'll never have to know anything about it.
If their past reunion was any indication, he would want to make love as soon as they were somewhere private. And their lovemaking would go on almost non-stop for the better part of two days. All I have to do is leave out my diaphragm. I'll tell him I want a divorce as soon as we're settled in. He'll be gone on another assignment in a couple weeks, and he'll never have to know I'm pregnant with his child...
"Jolie?" Dex barked in her ear, making her jump even as she rushed down crowded halls.
"Yes. Yes, I want the divorce."
Dex paused for a moment. "Then we'll go ahead according to our plan."
"Okay. I have to go."
She hung up just as she pushed into Baggage Claim. Almost immediately, her gaze locked on Jag, standing so close to his assistant they might have been attached at the hip. Only his camera case separated them by scant inches.
Jolie was late, and Micayla was no doubt telling him to give up waiting for his wife and come home with her. I'm divorcing him. Why would I be jealous now? It no longer matters.
She felt stung by white-hot fire at seeing Micayla, tanned a deep bronze, muscular and absolutely honed from head to toe, her white-blond hair short, no-nonsense, wash and go. I'm slight, delicate, barely a wisp of insubstantial smoke next to her. I'm a homebody, she's all adventure. How did I ever think I could compete?
Feeling a strange sense of shame, Jolie slid her gaze over to Jag. Heat filled her body once more and made her feel almost dizzy as she saw how much leaner, stronger, older he looked than the last time they'd been together. He was only five years older than her, but, for the first time, his rugged lifestyle seemed to be wearing on him. His short, obviously newly trimmed hair was streaked with silver, as was the days' growth of hair along his strong jaw and upper lip. His face was all grooves and dark hollows. Never had she felt that she loved it more than at that moment. She couldn't even explain the urgency of the yearning inside her that seemed to erupt on sight of him.
But his eyes suddenly followed the direction of his assistant's suddenly venomous gaze, and Jolie couldn't think about the hate in Micayla's expression. All she could consider was Jag, dropping everything and rushing toward her. The shock she knew he must have seen in her face did nothing to dissuade him from claiming her fully. He swept her into his arms and kissed her deeply until she tasted the salt from the tears rampaging down her cheeks uncontrollably. Just like last time, she became a mess. Instantly. Irrevocably.
But she was mad as hell at him this time. She loved him so much, she could barely contain all the emotions bursting inside her. She felt almost numb from the overload surging through her.
"I had no idea whether you'd be here or not, sweetheart," he muttered thickly, relief clear in his thickly fringed, heather-gray eyes. "I think I would have died if you hadn't been. Thank God you're here."
She told herself to wake up, resist, but his hard mouth covered hers again, and she was helpless against everything she felt for him. Only Jag did this to her. Even before he'd noticed her as anything more than his buddy's little sister, his presence turned her into a hopeless wreck. When he looked at her, her knees went weak. She couldn't think, couldn't do anything but want...his kiss, his touch, to touch him, to love him completely, beyond herself, beyond the universe. Magical...
His hands molded her back as he pressed her ever closer to him. Tight and tingly, her insides a jumble of melted, melded short-circuits and jolts, she wasn't surprised that the fingers she lifted to cradle his face...gently pushing him away just enough so she could breathe...were shaking violently.
"Jolie...I need you," he whispered, his rough cheek against hers.
She couldn't do anything but nod. She could feel the hard ridge of his sex against her abdomen. He was trembling, too, when he opened his eyes to hers. "You're even more beautiful than I remembered--and that doesn't seem possible. I missed these sultry, cobalt eyes. This mouth..."
His thumbs traced the fullness of her bottom lip, and she had to fight to keep herself from groaning, tasting him, doing any one of the things she would have done in the past. If we weren't getting a divorce... But, if I'm going to get pregnant, I need to do this.
"Where were you? You must have gotten my messages," he demanded, panting harshly from their kisses.
"I've been busy."
"You still should have let me know where you were. Your new phone number."
An icy sliver slid down her spine. Her jaw set as she thought, How dare you act like you have any rights to me at all when you've been almost incommunicado for two years? Two years you've been sleeping with your assistant to take the edge off your loneliness? What about mine? How can either of you look at me without feeling ashamed?
He shook his head. "None of it matters now. We're together again, my love."
She should have anticipated his kiss and pushed him away, but she didn't. The way it always did, the rest of the world fell away when his lips covered hers once more and his tongue teased the seam between hers. She opened and let him inside, shuddered at the taste of his man who'd seduced her so easily. If Mother knew... But then I suspect she did know and that was why she was so mad, so disappointed when I told her I married Jag because I loved him more than I've ever loved anyone.
Jag's hands eased down her back only an inch or two, but the pressure brought their hips together even tighter. The memories of their hot lovemaking the first time and the last stole her senses. She didn't have to wonder if his thoughts were in the same place when his mouth slid into her hair and he breathed in her ear, "I can't wait to make love to you again, sweetheart. I've waited forever for this night."
Unable to believe she could survive any more of his pleasurable torment, she burned with another type of heat a moment later--humiliation--when someone nearby grunted, "Get a room already."
Jag didn't suffer embarrassment. He chuckled and drew back. "You don't have any other plans, I hope."
The eager look on his face mortified her for all she'd considered. Decided. Jolie no longer knew how she could go through with her plans to make love with him as if nothing was wrong, then announce the divorce.
When she averted her gaze, Micayla was unfortunately in her direct line of sight, glaring at them haughtily, jealously, with her mouth twisted into an ugly grimace.
"You wouldn't mind driving Micayla home, would you, sweetheart?"
I'd rather drive her straight off a cliff. But if "home" gets her out of my face, I'd be happy to. "Of course not. It's on the way."
It wasn't until they made it out to her car that Jolie remembered her suitcase in the trunk. If Jag saw it, her plans--the ones she was no longer so sure about--would be thwarted in a hurry. She reached for his carryall. "Let me get this."
He started to protest, but Jolie threw him her keys. He nodded, smiling, and popped the trunk with the fob on the way to the driver's seat. Micayla put her luggage in the backseat, then hopped in. The two were talking when Jolie slid into the passenger's side of the car. She would have had to be blind not to notice how the two of them finished each other's sentences--sometimes it seemed like they read each other's minds. They'd been working together for over a decade. But Jolie had also never been so aware of the tension between the two of them before. Their words were uneasy and stilted.
Micayla would never feel the slightest guilt for their affair--the one that never stopped, even after Jag and I got married. But maybe he does feel guilty for betraying me. The look of discomfort that crossed his face when Jolie glanced from Micayla to him told him that something was off. Something different than before. "Does the car suddenly seem cramped with two women you've made love with present?" she wanted to ask him--and then Dex could slap the divorce papers on him...taking away her last chance of having a child with the man she knew for a fact she couldn't stay married to.