Excerpt – Heartstrings

Chapter 1

Distant ringing, louder ringing. Pounding temples, cottony tongue. That noise! Joel Taylor reached for the phone to shut off the insistent sound. That damn ringing. He rolled in the direction of the infernal blasting from what seemed to be the middle of a large bed and fumbled for the phone. He scraped his other hand over his eyes and coughed to clear his throat. “Ullo?”


Leah’s high-pitched voice knifed into his forehead. Joel forced one eye open only to close it against the morning glare. No shades? Hadn’t he closed them last night?

“Mommy said I could call and wish you luck with your big speech.”

Leah’s eight-year-old excitement brought Joel to full consciousness. He squinted at the clock radio. Gawd! Past seven-thirty. “Thank you, Leah, but I can’t talk now. I overslept. I have to get ready.”

“Okay, Daddy. Bye!”

Joel rolled onto his back and winced at the shoulder tenderness he wasn’t expecting. Water running in a shower—from an adjoining room?—urged him to get moving. He threw back the covers and stood, unsteadily. Too much partying. Why his tongue was coated with flannel. He stumbled to the desk, peered bleary-eyed at the conference program and estimated he had just enough time to shower and dress before his first session. He’d skip breakfast. After he took two steps toward the bathroom, he stopped when the door opened. A woman, not his wife, smiled at him. As naked as he was.

Her voice coiled around his heart and squeezed it into a cold lump. “Joel, my darling. About time for you to rise and shine—or at least rise. Your session begins in forty minutes. Just enough time for a quickie, don’t you think?” She stepped closer and her hands caressed his chest before slithering downward past his waist.

Shock, and unexpected recall of the previous night’s, propelled Joel away from Roxy Bingham’s grasping hands. “You can’t be here. You have to leave.” His pulse thudded in his neck, slowly climbing the gallows of guilt as Roxy eyed him hungrily.

Embarrassed, he reached for the shirt draped across the back of a nearby chair, for any kind of barrier protecting him from her possessive glances. His pulse continued to climb as he watched her stretch languidly. What have I done? “You don’t belong here.”

She gave him a sly smirk. “Funny. You didn’t think so last night.” Roxy’s words slithered between a pout and a whine. “When we celebrated old times, new times, too? Remember?” She sauntered toward the window, stretched her arms toward the ceiling and arched her back as she looked out on the landscape twenty floors below, a human cat preening in the sun.

“Do your stretching away from the window.” He headed for the bathroom before she could reply. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her lean over the desk and pick up his wallet.

“Are these your kids—your family?” She studied the photo a moment. “Don’t worry, Joel. They’ll never know. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right?” She laughed.

Whatever else she said, he didn’t hear as he shut and locked the door, and turned on the shower. Bits and snatches of what she’d done, what they’d done swam into his consciousness. While he quickly lathered and then rinsed off the shampoo and soap, he wanted to wash away how he felt. He turned off the water and toweled his chest. Pain returned when he dried his back. He wiped the mirror clean and peered over his shoulder. In the foggy image, a bite mark crowned the top of his right shoulder. Four parallel scratches ran off his shoulder onto the middle of his back. He groaned. She did that?

A cloud of steam followed him when he emerged from the bathroom. Roxy sidled up to him again, still nude and smiling.

“Roxy. Put some clothes on. And get out of here.” He moved out of her reach, grabbed a pair of boxers from the dresser and a tie from the chair where he must have tossed it the night before.

He finished dressing, jammed his wallet into his suit jacket and grabbed his presentation folder. He was almost to the door before he remembered his conference speaker’s badge and pinned it onto the left pocket of his suit jacket. He slammed the door behind him and walked to the elevators, disgusted with himself, hoping that his guilt didn’t show. Five minutes to spare. Maybe over a quick coffee, he’d review his notes.

~ ~ ~

Three hours later, Joel merged with the crowd of veterinary conference attendees exiting the seminar rooms. As colleagues approached to congratulate him on his presentation, he allowed himself to be carried along with the crush of people heading down the escalator to the food court where the fast food restaurants were rapidly filling with hungry conferees.

There she was—on the other side of the food court. Why did he allow Roxy into his room? Did I invite her? Angela’s sure to find out. The smile on Roxy’s face when she spotted him increased the guilty pounding of his heart, guilt for what must have occurred. In his bed. I’ve got to stay away from her.

Roxy edged around other tables and approached him with lunch for two on her tray just as two other veterinarians he recognized called Joel’s name. He grabbed a chair at their table. Roxy sidled between the men, smiling. Joel had no choice but to offer her the remaining chair.

“Great talk, Dr. Taylor.” The pudgy man peered at Joel’s name badge. “Thought you looked familiar. New Harbor, Washington, right? I remember. You run that big clinic on Cedar Island. Saw you at the state meeting in Ellensburg a couple years back. Wasn’t your wife with you—a blonde, in family practice?” His brows raised when he glanced at dark-haired Roxy, the curve of her breasts peeking provocatively above the deep scoop of her silk blouse.

“My wife, Angela.” Joel riveted his gaze on the man’s face. “She couldn’t get away this year.” He turned toward Roxy and introduced her, pretending to be the gentleman his parents had taught him to be. “This is Roxy Bingham, a former colleague, from Columbus. Ohio.” Former lover, his current problem with a capital P. Joel scooted his chair away from her as much as the scant space allowed.

“I see.” The other man smiled conspiratorially at Joel. “So, Roxy …” The man leaned toward her, his gaze trained on her cleavage. “What do you do in Columbus?”

“I run a little feline hospital there. The Cattery. Nothing so grandiose as what Joel has. What about you, uh, Dennis?” Roxy gave him a bold stare after checking his name badge. “Come to this shindig often? It’s my first time at the Western Regional. Usually, I go to the one on the East Coast.”

The Cattery, a fitting name for her practice. Joel fixed his eyes on Dennis and bit into his sandwich.

“Then, why’d you come here this year?”

“I heard Joel was speaking. He and I go way back. We were at Washington State together. Undergrad and vet school.”

Dennis glanced from Roxy to Joel before settling his gaze back on Roxy’s décolleté.

She sighed dramatically. “We’ve known each other since before he was married.” She placed a hand on Joel’s arm, as if to mark him as hers.
He rose abruptly from his chair, spilling his drink, and frowned. “Sorry about that.” He tossed several napkins over the spill. “I have to get to my next session.”

“But you have more than fifteen minutes,” Roxy protested.

Joel shook his head. “I’m a panelist. Have to touch base with the moderator about my Power Point.” He left, not caring how it looked to the people at the table.

His recall returned in flashes. Why did I let her come on to me? What was I thinking? Roxy had insisted on sitting next to him at the bar, in a slinky black dress. Mistake number one: talking to her, a she-devil in high heels. Her eyes had once mesmerized him. Still seemed to. He’d called her a spider when they were students, spinning her web around every man she wanted, and there were many. He knew he wasn’t the last before he graduated.

Their fling was short-lived and intense, brought on, he kept reminding himself, by Angela’s departure for med school in Seattle. Less than two months after it began, Roxy left him for someone else, and he went back to concentrating on his studies.

Until last night, when Roxy spun her web of overt sexuality and he fell for it. Again. He recalled offering to escort her to her room. But she had ended up in his room. Mistake number two. He couldn’t remember how much he had to drink before she’d begun kissing him, not taking no for an answer. And he’d reacted, gave her what she’d wanted.

It was just like her to get her way and he hadn’t stopped her strip-tease. He guessed she hadn’t wasted time sliding her hands down the front of his trousers as if she owned him, opening his zipper and cupping him before he pushed her onto the bed. Had he even bothered getting out of the rest of his clothes? She had whispered her pet name for him as soon as she shut the door and he’d reacted as if they were back in vet school. Why do I act like a randy stud horse every time she’s in range?

He angled toward the elevators then detoured to the bank of phones and called Angela’s office.

“Phoebe, it’s Joel. Is Angie with a patient?”

The distinctive Irish accent of his wife’s nurse came through the phone clearly. “You’re timing is impeccable, Joel. Let me get her.”

He sucked in a breath, hoping he sounded normal. “Hi, babe.”

“Joel. How did it go, your big talk?”

He detected a smile in Angela’s cool voice, ever so controlled. “It went well.” He imagined her arms wrapping around him, warming him the way he wanted to be warmed, not like Roxy.

“Leah said you sounded sleepy when she called. I thought you’d have already showered and were raring to go.”

His throat dried. “I was at the bar pretty late last night—with people from school.” Don’t ask me who, babe, please. Could she detect guilt in his reply?

“I’m glad you had fun. Ben said all’s well at the clinic, and to bring home the latest on every species, your penance for making him to stay home.”

“I will.” He waited for his heart to stop racing and coughed to clear his throat.

“Joel, you’re not catching a cold from all that air-conditioning, are you?”

She can tell. Or maybe it was just his hoarseness. Stay in doctor mode, Angie. “Right. The air-conditioning. That must be it.” He glanced at his watch. “I just wanted to touch base reviewing my notes and gearing up for a panel discussion Ernie roped me into. One I wasn’t expecting. Next on the agenda.”

She sighed and said something to Phoebe before coming back on the line. “I hear you. Well, hurry home. The kids miss you.”

He nodded. “And I miss them.”

But, what about you, Angie? Don’t you miss me? If only you’d come with me this year. Then Roxy wouldn’t have happened. He ran a hand through his hair. Angela. He’d fallen in love with her when they met as undergrads. Angela, whose cool demeanor contrasted with his more open approach to life. Her warmth was so clear to those she cared for, to their friends, especially to him and their twins. Until lately. He sucked in another breath and cleared his throat, still dry. Why weren’t they connecting? He worried about that, more aware of it now that he wasn’t home, especially after last night. Is it me?

In his mind’s eye, he saw his two children. Leah, with his brown eyes, slightly-turned up nose and Angela’s honey-blond hair, a true combination of them both. And Josh, with dark brown hair and hazel eyes, a throwback to his paternal grandfather, dead before the twins were born. Josh was going to be tall, maybe even taller than Joel, if the size of the boy’s feet was any indication.

His children, born minutes apart, yet so different in temperament and looks. Josh, so quiet and studious. His son reminded Joel of himself before girls drew his interest. If the boy continued to get good grades, he’d get into any college he wanted. Leah was another matter, a social butterfly, already a beauty, just like her mother. Joel expected have to fight off the boys when Leah started dating, something he’d told her would not happen until she was thirty.

“Oh, Daddy, you are so funny. Mommy says I can go out on dates when I’m sixteen, remember?”

He had nodded, and said it would have to be a double-date with himself and her mother, to which Leah had laughed and tossed her corkscrew curls. “That will be fun, Daddy.”

More people strolled past the phone bank. “I have to go, babe.” He put down the phone when Angela hung up and touched his cheek as if to capture the kiss he hoped she had blown in his direction.

Why hadn’t he signed off as they usually did with “Love you lots” and her reply, “Love you more?” Maybe because he’d called her on the office phone instead of texting her or using her private line. He looked down the hall, hoping Roxy wasn’t nearby.

When she’d called his name, her throaty voice reminded him of a nightclub singer who smoked too much. He’d glanced at her curvy, five-foot figure and a whiff of her perfume had drifted his way, generating long-ago memories.

“It is you. Joel Taylor. Your hair is a little darker, not quite so coppery red, and with some gray at the temples, so distinguished looking. But not an ounce of fat on you and those big brown bedroom eyes behind your half-glasses.” She’d laughed suggestively. “I’ll bet your customers check you out when their animals need their meds.”

The woman had placed her hand on his arm, the bright red fingernails standing out against the white of his shirt sleeve, and she’d pulled him down to her level so that she could plant a kiss on his cheek. “It’s been too long.” She smiled at him. “Or don’t you remember?”

Her perfume had resonated with him, causing a physical reaction he couldn’t ignore and hoped wasn’t visible.

“Vet school? First year dissection lab?” she hinted.

“Roxy.” How could he forget? Roxy with the snappy eyes. That’s how Angie had described her. An animal in bed.

He’d moved his notebook to cover his crotch. “It’s been more than twenty years—a long time.” He’d looked at her and felt himself harden—just like before, like so many years ago. She hadn’t changed, no grey in her hair, no love handles on that body. If anything, she was more voluptuous.

She smiled at him. “So, did you build that practice you were always talking about, small and large animals?” She pressed up against him. With the crowd of people going up the escalator into the convention center, he couldn’t retreat.

He nodded. “What about you?”

“I have a small animal practice … in Ohio.”

“Married, Roxy? Kids?” He’d rubbed a finger against his wedding band, thinking of Angela and the twins.

“Yes and no, and yes and no. Didn’t work out either time. So, I’m free as a bird, the better to fly where I want, with whomever I want.” She pressed a nail against his ring finger. “Maybe with you, for old times’ sake? Like we used to?” She chuckled. “Or you’re your wings clipped, except when you’re not at home? Weren’t you chasing some blond sorority girl back in the day?”

“Angela Wright. We have two kids, twins.” What is the matter with me? He forced his mind away from images of himself and Roxy together.

She’d clucked her tongue. “Too bad, Joel. All that extra responsibility. Kids tend to tie a man down. Unless, of course, he doesn’t want to be.” She’d laughed as they walked toward his next session. “Or maybe you don’t want to be—tied down, that is.”

“What?” His pulse thudded an ominous warning. “I love my kids.” He removed her hand. “I have to go. I’m moderating this session. Nice to see you again, Roxy.” He’d picked up his pace when there was a break in the crowd and moved purposely toward the three panelists waiting for him near the dais.

After his duties with the presentation ended, he’d thanked the speakers and headed for the larger of the two banquet halls, happy to be sandwiched between two male colleagues. Both complimented him on his earlier presentation and asked questions about his practice, how it had grown and how he and his partner, Ben Edwards, divided their responsibilities.

“You’re lucky you were able to get away for this gig, Joel. My partners had to be bribed to let me come,” Perry Fletcher commented.
“Ben and I have an understanding. Whoever goes to a regional has to bring back all pertinent information so we can both benefit from the new knowledge. He attended last year. And I was asked to present this year. ’Course, he’s always interested in the surgery offerings. I stick with the general sessions, but we complement each other, in skills and orientation.”

They’d ceased their conversation when the evening keynote speaker rose. An hour later, Joel headed for his room, eager to review his notes and put up his feet.

He flopped down on the bed and placed his hands behind his head. Roxy’s comments about his children bothered him. He pulled out his wallet, opening to their pictures.

What was the matter with him? His body had reacted to Roxy as if he wanted her. Had he and Angie been taking each other for granted? Maybe they needed to get away, just the two of them. To get excited about each other again, like they used to be. She hadn’t even asked about attending this year’s conference. Was it her busy practice or the children? Or their recent disagreements? I love you, babe, you and the kids.

Beautiful and brilliant Angela. He loved to run his fingers through her long blond hair, those deep blue pools for eyes that saw so much, that reflected her love for their children and her satisfaction with her own work. But when had he last seen sparks when they were together? Those nights and weekends before they got married had been exciting, so much so that how they felt about each other hadn’t diminished until recently. Was this that seven-year-itch people talked about—hitting him a few years late? It was only in the last year that he and Angie hadn’t seemed to click. He sighed.

“Maybe I’m getting old,” he muttered. “Old and tired. Tired and old.” Except he hadn’t reacted to Roxy like an old man. “The universal male response,” he reminded himself ruefully. “Just shows I’m not dead yet.” But guilt that the woman had sparked such a strong physical reaction weighed on him.

He called home again, but the answering machine picked up. He looked at his watch. “Hi, guys. You must be at Leah’s soccer game. Josh, how your softball practice?” He paused. “Angie, things are pretty busy here. I ran into more people from vet school. Talk to you later.” He lay back on the bed, trying to relax, trying to forget how Roxy had come on to him after Phil had called and invited him to the bar.

~ ~ ~

“Joel, a bunch of us are down here. We want to talk to you about your presentation, the one about the equine accident and how it built your reputation. Or are you so worn out you don’t want to reminisce about old times over a beer?” Phil taunted him.

“A beer would be nice.” Joel had warmed to the idea of catching up with old acquaintances. “How long will you be there?”

“Till I’m done with my beer. Some other people from vet school are here, too. Mitch just rolled in.”

“I’ll be right down.”

He’d laced up his shoes, run his hands through his hair and pulled off his tie. No need for formality in the bar.

When he arrived, Phil and Mitch were seated at a small table on either side of Roxy, staring at her cleavage as she told a story that had them both laughing.

Joel slowed his approach and angled toward the bar. Maybe he’d get a beer and go back to his room. He groaned inwardly that she was with them. How could he avoid her and still enjoy their company?

“Hey, Joel!” Mitch called out. “We’re over here.”

Joel headed for the table. “Not sure how long I can stay. I have a big day tomorrow.”

That’s when Roxy had begun clapping, her hands raised over her head. The rest of the table joined in and then clapping could be heard from around the bar. She’d smiled broadly and raised her glass to him. “Here’s to the conquering hero, who showed those California vets that us’ns from Wazzu know something about stand-out vet practice! Whoohoo! Joel!”

He’d felt his neck warm, but smiled at the acknowledgement. “Come on, guys, it wasn’t that big a deal. Ben and lucked into a situation, that’s all.”

“Come on, Joel. It was more than that. All that good stuff you do is finally getting recognized and—”

Joel interrupted. “Actually, Ben suggested that we talk to the ranchers about equine valuation and injury costs.” But he reached for Phil’s outstretched hand and pumped it enthusiastically.

“Admit it, Joel, it helped bring in customers,” Mitch insisted. “And I for one learned a lot from your talk.”

“Okay.” He nodded. “Glad what I said was useful. Where’s my beer?”

Mitch waved for the waitress. “Your first one’s on me.”

“I’ll buy the second,” Phil announced.

“Move over, Mitch.” Roxy reached for Joel’s hand. “Let Joel sit next to me. It’s been a long time since we dissected dogs together, right, buddy?” She bussed his cheek and slid one hand provocatively down his arm as she pulled her chair closer.

Her musky perfume wafted in his direction. Under the table, she rested her hand on his thigh and began to knead it suggestively.
“Mitch, Phil. How are you two?” He raised his glass, enjoying how it felt to have his presentation appreciated. But the crowded table prevented him from moving out of range of Roxy’s wandering hand.

She continued pressing closer to him, returning her hand to his thigh while she flirted with the other men. He tried to ignore where her fingers moved, but the tightness in his slacks told he had failed.

When the waitress brought another pitcher and Mitch filled their glasses all around, Phil spoke up. “How do you do it, Joel? You don’t look like you’ve put on a pound since vet school.”

“Angie and I run together or use our bikes every weekend—and when she’s at the hospital, I run our favorite route on my own.” Except we haven’t done that together or much of anything else lately. Her schedule kept her at the hospital too many nights, and demands on him at the clinic hadn’t helped. Maybe why I’m so horny.

Mitch laughed. “You still chasing her?”

“Oh, she caught him years ago, Mitch.” Roxy answered. “He’s the father of twins, too.”

He’d nodded, keenly aware of where her hand had slid. He picked up his beer glass. “Josh and Leah. They’re eight.” He reached down to push her hand away and pull out his wallet to show the kids’ pictures around the table. When he slipped his wallet back into his pocket, Roxy placed his hand along her inner thigh and squeezed his fingers before resuming her teasing.

Two hours later, Phil and Mitch left the bar. Roxy leaned against him as she downed another glass. Her hand was doing more than pressing and Joel gave up trying to ignore her.

“Give me your key, Joel. Let’s take this party to your room. You feel ready for some real action.” She’d leaned against him, looking like she wanted to kiss him.

He’d reached in his pocket for his key then stopped. “I don’t think so. I’ve got an early session tomorrow, an important session. Around eight.”

“Then, let me help you up there.” She’d laughed into his ear. “Forget my double entendre, Joel. I’ll just help you upstairs.” She moved away from the table. “You look a little tipsy.” Then she wobbled on her stilettos.

He grabbed her elbow. “I’ll take you to your room, Roxy. You’ve had too much to drink.”

“Ever the gentleman.” She leaned on him as they walked to the elevator. But somehow they ended up in his room.

Joel sighed, wishing it had never happened. Another day almost gone. He hadn’t seen Roxy since lunch. Good riddance. He could do without what she offered.

~ ~ ~

After the final afternoon session, Joel left the hotel and wandered down the Strip, eager to escape the noisy convention, wanting to reduce the likelihood of encountering Roxy. As he moved past the third casino, the dwindling sidewalk traffic looked more like tourists than conventioneers. He stuffed his name badge into his pocket and walked another block before turning into a small restaurant abutting a lesser-known casino.

“I’ll take a table away from the windows,” he said to the person seating the patrons. He ordered a beer and settled into a booth, relaxing for the first time all day. He took out his wallet and looked at his children’s pictures. In what danger had he placed them with his escapade with Roxy? Had he used a condom? He couldn’t recall and the maid had probably cleaned the room. He was married to Angela. He loved her. But could he hide what he’d done from her? She often said she could read him like a book, that his eyes told her what he was thinking. His heart beat faster. What would Angela say if she knew, what would she do? He’d never been unfaithful, never expected to be. Until Roxy slithered into his arms.

Why aren’t we connecting? Are we bored with each other? He liked to think that wasn’t the case. He knew Angela was unhappy about his increasing workload, the times he hadn’t made it home for dinner, the days he hadn’t spelled her when an emergency kept her at the office into the evening or at the hospital through the night. Her latest explosion had occurred over his absence the night of the twins’ recital three months earlier.

“Since when is a cow more important than your own children?” she’d asked indignantly.

He was mesmerized by the sparks in Angela’s eyes—sparks usually reserved for him when they were making love, but which now showed how angry she was.

“It wasn’t just the cow. I couldn’t leave the animal in that condition. And I had to talk to the farmer, too, about what we did and why, and how to dose the animal after I left. I was taking care of my patient. You know that, Angie.”

“You have Ben! Why didn’t you ask him to take over? You knew Leah and Josh were playing. You promised me—them, too! How do you think they felt when they saw me in the audience sitting next to an empty chair? For God’s sake, Joel. You promised me it wouldn’t happen again. Why isn’t your family first with you anymore?”

She had paced in their bedroom, too tense to climb into bed, too upset with him to respond to his overtures later that night when he apologized. Again. The space between them that night might as well have been an ocean for all the warmth he’d felt from her. When he had tentatively touched her shoulder to say he was sorry, she had snarled at him to leave her alone. He sighed, remembering their conversation.

“Ben was holding things together at the clinic. You know how things get. It was an emergency. You have emergencies, too, when Reed isn’t always available. I didn’t plan to miss the recital. It just happened.”

“Well, these ‘just happenings’ occur way too often. You know how I feel about being the only parent our children—they’re yours, too, you know—can depend on.”

“They can depend on me, babe. You know that.”

“For what? The money to cover the mortgage? To pay for college? What about the day-to-day events that make up a family and its memories? We’ve had so many discussions about this. Or don’t you remember? Maybe you don’t want to remember.”

He remembered. That was why she’d left for eighteen months when he was getting ready to propose, right after Ben married Danni. Angie was so afraid Joel wouldn’t be a fulltime husband and father and she would be left to do everything, just like her mother.

The last twelve years had flown by. Where were they now? Married ten years with eight-year-old twins. He and Angie’d had so many conversations about joint parenthood when they found out they were pregnant, and again after the babies were born. He’d taken a month off to stay home. Angie had needed him so much after the Cesarean, and he’d been happy to stay home to help her, to get to know their babies.

Ben came through at the clinic, taking on everything during that month. It wasn’t as though he wasn’t capable of running the place in Joel’s absence. But I hate to ask him—or am I too controlling? Over the years, they had worked out a system that covered vacations, scheduled at different times so that one of them was always available, or when a convention pulled one of them away for a few days.

But when had he stopped paying attention to the kids’ game schedule, to their recitals? Angie had rearranged her work days so as not to miss them. Why hadn’t he? And their date nights? How long had it been since they’d seen a movie together, without the children?

Was it before or after the kids started school? That had to be it, the kids’ activities. Joel sighed. But he shouldn’t blame the kids. It was his responsibility to make sure his marriage was solid. Wasn’t that something his mother had said before he and Angela tied the knot? That it took two people, in it for life, one hundred percent of the time?

Was that why he hadn’t stopped Roxy’s wandering hands—because he’d stopped giving one hundred percent to his marriage? He and Angie hadn’t made love, real love, for too long. He had responded to Roxy’s kisses and stroking as if they had never stopped seeing each other. Joel shivered involuntarily The black-haired vet endangered his marriage and the life he had built with Angela, with the twins.

Angie was the only woman he loved. He wanted to grow old with her. How could he face her, keep her from finding out what he’d done? He pulled off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“Are you ready to order, sir?” The waitress stood patiently at his table.

He looked up with a start. “Oh, sorry. What’s the house special?”

She told him.

“That’s fine. And another beer.”

He looked across the room. A couple in a nearby table were staring deeply into each other’s eyes, their hands reaching across the table to clasp hands.

He’d done that with Angela. His shoulder twinged when he reached up to feel the bruise Roxie had left. Angie’s going to know. She’ll see it in my eyes.

But he needed to hear her voice. Maybe if she could get a flight, they’d stay through the weekend for some adult R&R, just the two of them. Something they hadn’t done in a long time, something they should have done before he left for the convention. They needed time together, time to reconnect. Away from their busy practices. If they made love… What he wanted—Angie would erase what must have happened with Roxy.
After eating his meal without tasting a bite, Joel returned to the hotel and called his partner. “Ben?”


“Can you handle things for another three days? I know we scheduled some heavy-duty stuff for when I get back. But I want Angie to come down for the weekend.”

“Not to worry. We can postpone some of it. I’ll take care of the rest. How’s the conference?”

“Great, as usual. I snagged an extra book for you—of all the sessions, so you can check the stuff at your leisure. Some of my classmates were here. They liked my talk.”

“Good. Danni says hi. Did Angie tell you we took the kids to the beach the other day, first time in a week without rain? All four of them loved running around. And guess what?”

Joel stared at the picture of Angela in his wallet while Ben talked, trying to rub away the smudge of something dark that marred her picture.

“Danni’s pregnant. Angie confirmed it this afternoon. A new baby in about seven months, we figure.”

Joel grinned. “Congratulations!”

“Thanks. Danni’s trying to decide how we’ll add on to the house so the new one gets a bedroom without having to share, though it won’t matter much for at least a couple of years, unless it’s a boy. I’m hoping. I keep wondering how I’ll survive all that estrogen when the girls become teenagers.” Ben laughed.

“You’ll manage. Listen, I have to call Angie about coming down here.”

“Enjoy yourself. We’ll be fine.”

“Thanks.” Joel hung up and lay back on the bed. Now to call home.

“Taylor residence. Who is calling, please?”

“It’s me, punkin.” He smiled, knowing how hard Leah tried to sound grown up.

“Hi, Daddy. When are you coming home? I want to show you what I made in school.”

“Soon. Do you know where I am right now?”

“Las Vegas. Mommy says there are showgirls. What kind of shows do those girls go to, Daddy?”

“The showgirls put on shows, punkin. Could you get Mommy? I need to talk to her.”

“Okay.” The phone clattered on the desk and his daughter’s sweet little voice disappeared as she shouted, “Mommy! Daddy’s on the phone.”
“Leah, your inside voice, please.” Angela’s warmth came through when she picked up the phone. “Hello, there.”

He wanted, he needed, he ached to take her in his arms. “Babe, do you think you could grab a flight from Seattle and come down for the weekend? I’ve cleared it with Ben. I want us to have some time, just us. It’s been too long since we’ve done anything without the kids.”


Can she tell from my voice? Why isn’t she talking? What was that noise in the background? The TV or Josh practicing his horn?
“I’ll have to call Norma. See if she can stay with the kids.”

“Call her, or maybe they could stay next door, with Doug and Cathy.”

“Maybe. Just a sec. I’m checking my hospital schedule.”

Pings from her i-Phone told Joel she might be entering in a new appointment—to see him.

“Let me call Reed and see if he’s willing to take over for me. He owes me some time.”

“Do that. Ben says Danni’s preggers again.”

“They’re both thrilled.”

Her silence gave him time to think how well his partner seemed to handle work and family responsibilities. Better than he.

“I’m surprised.” Her voice seemed cooler, more distant. “Are you sure you want me to come? I figured you’d be so tuckered, with your presentations and the sessions that all you’d crave is sleep.”

His pulse picked up speed. Will she know when she sees me—or can she tell already? Is that why she seems so detached? “I miss you, babe. Do I need any other reason?” He glanced at his image in the mirror. His eyes. The worry in them. No question. She would know by looking at him. “I love you. You’re my wife. I want to be with you.”

Her voice seemed warmer when she chuckled. “A good enough reason. Let me get back to you. After I check with Norma and Reed, and see about my flight.”

“Do that, babe. We’re done here at noon tomorrow except for some special seminars, and I can skip them. If you can make it by dinner time, we’ll have three full days before we go back home. Just think, time to sleep, and maybe not sleep …” He paused. “…And gamble a few bucks if you want or take in a show—I’ll check about tickets—and eat meals someone else cooks for a change, and …” He cleared his dry throat. “Make love, be together. Just you and me. Like before the kids.”

Her laugh sounded to him like bells pealing in clear mountain air. He let his breath out slowly.

“I get the message. I’ll call you back after I see what I can work out.”

“I’ll be waiting. Love you lots, babe.”

“Love you more, hon. Bye.”

His heart thrilled to hear her usual response. An hour later, she’d made the arrangements and called to tell him so.

Joel lay back on the bed. He closed his eyes and imagined Angie coming into his room, her blond hair floating over her shoulders as she moved into his arms. His heart speeded up as he relished how it would feel when he kissed her and stroked her.

A knock on the door interrupted his daydream. He glanced at the clock. After ten. He opened the door to a hotel bellman balancing a tray with two champagne flutes and an ice bucket out of which leaned a bottle of champagne.

He held up his hand to prevent the man from entering. “You must have the wrong room. I didn’t order this.”

“No, sir. But I was told to deliver it here.”

Roxy again? “No. Take it back. I don’t want it.”

“Yes, sir.” The man turned on his heel and disappeared down the hall. Two minutes later, another knock sounded. Joel opened the door. Roxy. Damn.

“Joel, darling, let me in.”

“No. Go away.” When her smile turned to a pout, he leaned against the door, preventing her from entering. “Find someone else to drink your champagne. Last night never should have happened. And it won’t be repeated.”

Before she could object, he shut and locked the door and ignored her knocking until it finally stopped. When he was certain she had given up, he called the desk to ask about extending his stay another three days. He prayed he never saw Roxy again.