Rules of Lying

Rules of Lying

1st Place Winner of the Chanticleer Book Reviews Mystery & Mayhem Awards, Humorous Category!! 

In this award-winning humorous chick-lit mystery, a former best-selling romance writer tries to pick up the pieces of her life after getting her heart stomped on by her lying, cheating boyfriend, and returns to her hometown in Florida where she contends with family, reporters, hurricanes, wildlife, a hunky Texan cowboy, a drop-dead gorgeous doctor … and murder.

Chapter 1

When you grow up and get married, I hope you have a little girl who is just like you.

I was only four years old the first time my mother said those words to me, but even then I knew she wasn’t paying me a compliment. It was easy to figure out since she’d said it with a smirk.

Well, I showed her. I didn’t have any children, let alone a little girl just like me, I didn’t get married, and I’m not even sure I grew up. Emotionally, anyway.

My biggest fear is that while I was making life decisions based on my determination to thwart Mom’s hope for my dismal future, I gave her exactly what she wanted. What she really wanted. Not me grown up and married with a little girl just like me, but me alone, afraid to love or trust anyone. Me unhappy.

Was she really that sly, or could I finally be losing my mind, just as she’d predicted when I was fifteen? It was all so confusing, and sometimes I thought I’d already lost it. Like when I mentioned Mom’s smirk to four of my five sisters and received blank stares in response. They insisted they’d never seen it, though Katherine might have been lying. There was the tiniest widening of her eyes just before her pupils constricted to pinpoints and her gaze slinked away from mine. As for Charlene, the absent sister, I figured she’d seen it plenty. It was probably the reason she married at eighteen and moved across the country, never to return.

Charlene was the smart one, smarter than me, anyway, because although I moved out at sixteen and started building my self-esteem toward some semblance of normalcy, here I was back home again. Everyone was fourteen years older and Dad was no longer with us, but the family dynamic was the same. And Mom, who complained about me every chance she got, was secretly delighted I had returned.

I could tell by the smirk.

Which made the whole situation I found myself in much more agonizing. That my life sucked was bad enough, but to know I was bringing joy to my mother because of it was more than any daughter should have to bear.

*****

“HUSBAND WANTED: MUST DO YARD WORK!”

I stared at the sign I’d shoved into the ground two weeks earlier. Already it was showing signs of aging—though not as many as I was showing—and there hadn’t been a single nibble. Thank God for that. Because if there had been a nibble and the guy was halfway decent, I’d probably have to kill myself. Suicide might be a solution to my problem, but it wasn’t one that would make me happy. My mother, on the other hand, would jump for joy. Such a pitiful ending to my life would only prove that everything she’d said was true. All the more reason for me not to do it.

At this point I’d like to say I have no idea how I ended up here—but I’d be lying. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Not if you come from my family. My family has the lying thing down pat. As long as you follow the rules, lying is completely okay. In fact, it’s expected, and if you are any kind of decent person at all, you will certainly do it and do it so well that no one would dare suggest that what you say isn’t the honest-to-God truth. And as long as we’re talking about God, let me also say when it comes to my family, God is all for the lying thing. He must be since it was my mother, good Christian that she is, who taught us the rules of lying—through her actions, of course, not her words. Heaven forbid she actually admit to being a liar.

Of course there was no rule that would cover my lying about advertising for a husband. I could try using rule number one, that I was lying for someone’s own good, but I’d be lying for my own good, which isn’t allowed. That particular rule only covers lying for someone else’s own good. It doesn’t matter whose. We could even say it’s for the dog’s own good. At least my sister Katherine could say it and pull it off, I’m quite sure, since it’s often said by everyone (especially Katherine) that she hasn’t a selfish bone in her body.

But let’s forget about the rules of lying for now; they’re only important when defending deceitful behavior to family, which isn’t necessary if you never, ever admit to your lies. And that was exactly where I was sitting, and yes, I was a hypocrite. I’d condemned my sisters for lying, but here I was doing the same thing. In fact, it was a series of lies that landed me here, though not all were mine.
There were the lies told by my boyfriend Pete, the discovery of which sent me thundering from Los Angeles back to my high school hometown of Palmeroy, Florida, where I was met by my mother and sisters with open arms—and daily advice on how to fix my life.

Then there were the lies told by my sisters regarding Granny and the assisted living facility that resulted in screaming fits (mine) and outraged denials (theirs), reminding me of the reasons I’d left home to begin with. Coming so close on the heels of Pete’s deceit, which had made me feel like a fool, their lies had enraged me, and I’d hacked up the tenuous ties that bound me to my sisters. Since there is no such thing as eating crow in our family—one must admit to wrongdoing in order to eat the proverbial crow—I would rather starve than go crawling to my sisters for help.

Finally, there was the lie I’d told in a childish attempt to shock my family into silence. Not that it worked. Nothing can be so horrifying to my relations that it precludes all future advice or criticism, though my lie that I was advertising for a husband to help me out of my jam came damned close.
In my defense, I was just minding my own business when the whole thing began. Okay, so maybe if I’d done a better job of tending to business, the situation wouldn’t have arisen, but how was I to know? Who reads every word of everything they sign? Not me. Or at least I hadn’t. That could change.

I swatted at the mosquito circling my ear, one of the few places I hadn’t doused with bug spray. I looked around and for a moment I could see it all. The butterfly garden in the courtyard, trellises thick with coral honeysuckle vines. Hummingbirds would visit daily. Mockingbirds would nest in the woody stems. Butterflies would flit from leaf to leaf, laying their eggs. I’d have walkways and seating areas, maybe even a pergola covered by bleeding hearts where I could sit every day and smile, albeit ruefully, at the irony of the name of the flower that covered my sanctuary.

A bead of sweat trickled from my forehead down the side of my face, teasing the corner of my eye as it passed. I blinked it away and found myself staring at an abundance of weeds and straggly shrubs where the pergola had moments before stood so clearly in my mind. A feeling of despair tried to find a crack in the armor of optimism I’d sworn to keep myself wrapped in, but I wouldn’t let it. Something was about to break. I could feel it.

The thud of a heavy door shutting across the street was followed by the leisurely clacking of high-heeled sandals on the drive. Not exactly the break I was anticipating. I cringed, awaiting the commentary that was sure to begin.

“You know why you haven’t gotten any offers, don’t cha?”

I shaded my eyes from the ever-brightening sun to see my twice-divorced and thrice-married bleached-blond neighbor, Sheila, sauntering toward me, her margarita a perfect match to her greenish shorts and halter top. Ten a.m. and half drunk. This would be good.

“You don’t mention the word ssssexxx.” She slurred the word, holding it on her tongue as though it were a savored morsel. And it undoubtedly was, for those lucky enough to have a taste.

Another trickle of sweat took off for its life, running straight down to my jaw. I shook my head impatiently and the drop went flying, although it didn’t land, as I was hoping, on Sheila’s perfectly manicured, still-wet-with-polish toenails. Too bad. Sweat-plopped toes would have sent her scurrying back to her house, thus ending the how-to-catch-a-man advice I’d been forced to listen to ever since I moved in without one.

“The word husband implies it,” I said. “Married people generally have sex, don’t they?”

I regretted asking the question the instant it was out of my mouth. I didn’t want to talk about sex, probably because the only sex I’d had in the past two years was with a man who turned out to be a colossal jerk and the experience wasn’t one I wished to recall. Still, Sheila’s philosophy that men would do anything for the promise of sex and nothing without it rang a distinct bell. Wasn’t that what I’d been brought up to believe?

“Honey, sex is never implied,” Sheila said, rolling her eyes at my naiveté. “It’s either there or it isn’t, you know what I mean?”

Unfortunately, I knew exactly what she meant, and as I watched her return to her house shaking her head, the little voice in my head told me she had a point. Not that it mattered since I wasn’t looking for a husband.

I tapped my hammer against the side of the sign, expecting it to topple over since I’d only haphazardly shoved it into the ground to begin with, but it remained exactly where it was. This was the story of my life. If I’d wanted the sign to remain upright, it would have blown over with the slightest breeze, but since I’d decided to remove it, there would have to be a fight. I thought about taking all my frustration out on the sign, pounding it into the ground and then stomping on it, but I preferred to store up my anger until it exploded. Besides, fighting my way through the humidity each time I raised the hammer would tucker me out.

Sweat started down the side of my breast but was soaked up by my thin cotton tank top. The thought of an ice cold beer almost made me faint with longing, and I promised I’d have one the minute I replaced this sign with the new one that I’d decided in the last five seconds would read, “Husband Wanted: Must Work for SEX.” That should make my sisters swoon.

With a burst of irritation, I hit the sign full force. It not only came up, but broke away from the stake and went flying. I settled back on my heels and watched it land face down in my driveway.

“Y’all found a taker, I presume?” drawled a deep southern voice that rumbled with humor.

My stare began at his slightly worn but expensive leather boots and continued up a boot-cut style pair of jeans hugging very long, leanly muscled thighs.

A long, tall drink of water. Wasn’t that a Texan saying? Because if Texas was half as hot as Florida, I could see how that particular phrase could say it all. I was suddenly very, very thirsty, and my gaze was still glued to his thighs, or, rather, to something in that vicinity, something that was being hugged just as snugly as his thighs, something that was also long but not so leanly muscled.

Another Texan saying was trying to work its way into my head, but for some reason I was finding it hard to concentrate.

I dragged my gaze up to his face. His mouth curved into a grin.

I had the grace to blush. No, not grace. I seldom had grace these days, though I remember having plenty of it before my break-up with Pete. That’s what lies and deceit do to you.

“It’s true,” he said. “Everything does grow bigger in Texas.”

No point denying where my eyes had been; best to just move on. “Why would I assume you’re from Texas? A pair of cowboy boots does not a Texan make.”

“Maybe, but my drawl must have clued you in,” he said chuckling.

He shifted slightly, blocking the sun with his shoulders, and I got a good look at him. My first thought was he sure knows how to dress. His snug white T-shirt showed off his tan, not to mention his chest and abs. But anything would have looked great on him. He was as fit as any man I’d ever seen—tall enough and with muscles that were definitely there but not too bulging.

My second thought was darn. He had a closely cropped beard, and I’d never cared for beards, but maybe I could talk him into shaving it off once we were married.

Married? What was wrong with me? I reminded myself that I didn’t want to get married and besides, he hadn’t applied for the job. Surely, though, that was why he, a perfect stranger, was remarking on my sign.

Those thoughts—and more that I won’t mention here—were running through my mind while I took stock of the rest of him. He had a firm, angular jaw discernible beneath the beard, broad cheekbones, a somewhat crooked though attractive nose, and very kissable lips.

Huh? I snapped myself out of my lust daze, but not before it struck me that a husband might not be such a bad thing to have around. For some activities anyway.

I was still thinking up a retort when I saw that his muscles could bulge because the biceps in his arm was bulging now, now that he was lifting his arm to grandly sweep off his cowboy hat.

Good grief. He was bald.

Okay, so he was a near perfect stranger.

“I’m Hank Tyler,” he said with a friendly grin. “I’m rentin’ the house down the street. Wanted to introduce myself to my neighbors.”

I scrambled to my feet. Hank Tyler? He sounded like a character in a romance novel, and I should know since I’d written a few. Except none of my characters were Hanks. Hank didn’t go with the Duke of anything, and my heroes were always dukes. That thought was followed by the realization that I’d misread the situation. He wasn’t applying for the job that didn’t exist. Dang.

But how did he know about my situation? He asked if I’d found a taker. I glanced at the sign where it lay face down.

“I read about you in the paper,” he said. “You’re Jane Dough, right?”

My jaw dropped, and the latest dribble of sweat that had been running down the side of my face ran right into my mouth, the sight of which would surely make me irresistible to any Texas hunk. But I could hardly worry about such inanities now. What the heck was he talking about?

He shifted from one booted foot to the other, still completely at ease with himself, while I struggled to put together a coherent string of words. But in spite of my shock over his statement, the only thought that came to mind was a disappointed he isn’t applying for the job. I gave myself a mental slap. There wasn’t a job to apply for.

“The article was pretty good,” he said, his chocolate-brown eyes brightened by his smile. “You’re an author?”

“Ga-ah … ” I was in the throes of brain freeze, thanks to the flare of panic that took temporary possession of my mind. I forced myself to breath in and out until my neurons started firing again. Five seconds later I jerked myself back to reality. I had been an author—a USA TODAY best-selling author—until I got my heart stomped on and decided men were scum. Since then I hadn’t been able to write a romance my agent could sell. It’s one thing to tell the world you’re an author when you are actively selling books. It’s quite another when you aren’t. I’d been keeping my past a secret until I got my next book contract. Or so I’d thought.

“You look surprised,” he said. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know Palmeroy Times did a story on you? Jane Dough, all American girl, returns from fame and fortune in the big city to discover there’s no place like home.”

Right. No place like home, and I was so broke I might lose it.

No one had interviewed me for an article, because if they had, there wouldn’t have been one. Since returning to Florida with no book contract in hand, I’d learned how to stop an article dead in its tracks. It had to do with acting like an idiot, contradicting myself and everyone else, insinuating there were libel suits underway and, in general, behaving like a horse’s ass. Nobody wanted to spend time with an ass, especially for local community news.

Uh-oh. Now that I thought about it, I had gotten some voicemail messages from the newspaper, but I’d erased them as soon as I heard the words, “This is Palmeroy Times.” I’d assumed they were selling subscriptions and since I didn’t read the paper and didn’t have any money, pushing that delete button had been a no-brainer.

Evidently the reporter had gotten confirmation from someone else because the story had been printed. There was only one person in the world who enjoyed talking about me to reporters. My mother. My heart sank. God only knew what she might have said. Well, God and the rest of the county.

I shot a quick glance at Hank in time to see his sunny expression dim. A shadow of something I hadn’t seen in a while flitted across his face. It might have been compassion; I wasn’t sure.
He shrugged, a little less comfortable with himself. “I’m sorry I ruined your day. If it helps, I finished the article thinkin’ you were somethin’ special. I suspect most people did.”

I didn’t know what to say since I hadn’t read the article. On the other hand, I hadn’t been brought up to be rude, and not only was he nice looking, he was just plain nice. So I forgot about me for a minute, as difficult as that was with my present situation, and concentrated on him. No sense in his day being ruined too.

I offered a smile. “Thanks. It always helps to know someone’s on my side.” And it did. When you come from a family where you’re always the odd one out, having someone on your side makes all the difference.

“Well,” he said as he set his cowboy hat back on his head, “I really am your neighbor. At the end of the street on the other side. If you need help with anything, just holler.”

He took off down the sidewalk at an easy stroll. I was still watching him when a white Honda CR-V careened around the corner and headed straight for him.

Chapter 2

The CR-V was being driven by my friend Sue. Sue and I had met on the beach the summer before tenth grade, one week after my family had moved here. We quickly became friends after learning we shared the exact same interests: dating surfers with long hair, partying on psychedelic mushrooms, and rebelling against whatever our parents wanted us to do. We’d outgrown the first two, but we were still rebellious when it came to the status quo.

When I moved back from Los Angeles, Sue was the first person to show up at my door, having just divorced her husband of six years after finding him in bed with a bimbo who would have been jailbait if she hadn’t been married. We spent our reunion denigrating the two louts who had lied to us, creating another bond. Sue was quickly making up for lost time in the man department. I was living vicariously through her.

A collision between the CR-V and the six-foot tall Texan seemed inevitable but at the last minute, the car lurched back onto the street. In spite of almost being run over, Hank tipped his hat and smiled at Sue. When she cornered into my driveway, her mouth was still hanging open.

“Who’s the hunk?” Her long, thick, honey-blond hair was caught up in a ponytail that swished back and forth as she walked. She was wearing cut-off white jean shorts that would have made me look fat, a black T-shirt that would have made me look dead, and flip-flops that would have made me look short. It all looked good on Sue, though, because she was five feet eight inches tall, weighed one hundred twenty pounds, and had the body of an athlete. That was quite a feat considering she’d never done an athletic thing in her life. Unless you counted sex.

“New neighbor,” I said.

“Are you shittin’ me? Man, I may have to move into this neighborhood.”

Like that would ever happen. I could see Sue living here back in the day, thirty years earlier when the houses were first built with their wooded lots, expansive floor plans, and enough individuality of design to entice the vice presidents of the area’s burgeoning technology firms. Gated, with wide streets and sidewalks, large oaks and maples, and architecture that ranged from traditional to Spanish to country, the neighborhood had probably radiated a comfortable elegance, quite different from the cookie-cutter Florida-style homes that were popping up en masse during those years.
Now the gate was gone. Most, if not all, of the wealthy original owners had moved on to richer pastures, selling their homes to middle-income families who managed to maintain but not renovate. The result was well-built but outdated houses that weathered a bit more each year.

Sue’s parents would have moved the instant the first weathering began as they weren’t the type to deal with inconveniences of any kind. Neither was Sue. Her condo came with everything: a laundry service, a grocery shopping service, and a car washing service. If you could pay, you could play. And Sue, who made a good living as a mortgage broker, did play. I couldn’t see her moving into a house that required maintenance by the owner, no matter what neighborhood it was in.

Sue’s gaze was glued to the end of the street, and mine joined it. We watched Hank amble up his driveway. He turned in our direction and held up a hand. We both waved back.

Sue fanned herself. “I guess you met him, huh?”

“He introduced himself.” I picked up the sign and its stake from the driveway and started toward the garage.

“And?”

Sue was so close behind me that I expected her to trip on my heels.

“And what?”

“Who is he? Where’d he move from? What’s he do?”

“Hmmm. I didn’t find out anything about him; we were too busy talking about me.” I relayed our conversation to Sue, including the part about the article in the paper.

“Wow, I’m impressed. I didn’t see the article—just the Husband Wanted ad this morning.”

I stopped in mid-stride and Sue smacked into me. I turned my head and gave her a panicked eye.

“What do you mean you saw the Husband Wanted ad?”

“You know, in the classifieds. I was surprised; I didn’t think you were serious about that. What’s wrong? You look like someone punched you in the stomach.”

Someone had punched me in the stomach. Problem was, I had no idea who had thrown the punch.

“I didn’t run an ad.” Getting the words out of my mouth was an achievement considering I‘d gone into a catatonic state. The little voice in my head was saying this is what you get for lying. It seemed so unfair since everyone else in my family lied and nothing bad ever happened to them.

“You didn’t? But then who … ”

I shook my head in an effort to rattle some sense into it. Who indeed?

“Your mother?”

“She’d never cough up the money for an ad if she even knew how to place one, and besides, what would she say once I found out? That she was trying to help me? Huh!”

That got a chuckle from Sue because my mother has never helped any of her daughters with anything. She calls her lack of assistance tough love—she latched onto that expression the second she heard it on Oprah—but the truth was she just didn’t care. Besides, she always got Katherine to do her dirty work for her, and Katherine would never agree to run such an ad. She’d been begging me to pull up the sign, which I’d only shoved into the ground so my sisters couldn’t accuse me of lying about advertising for a husband. According to my younger sister, Marci, who thought the situation funny as hell, they’d literally been praying that no one would see it.

“But it is suspicious,” I admitted, “the ad and the article appearing the same day.” A horrifying thought occurred to me. “Do you think they mentioned the ad in the article? God, I wish I were dead.”

Sue nodded. “Guys are gonna start showing up, so—”

“Showing up! My address was in the paper?”

“Your address and phone number. The ad said to call first, but I’ll bet some of them don’t.”

Now I was mad. Someone had gone too far, and I wanted to know who that someone was. There had to be a law about revealing a person’s address.

“You know, Jane, I’ve been thinking …”

Sue was staring off down the street, and I looked in that direction too. Maybe Hank had come back outside, but no, nobody was there. I glanced back at Sue. She wore a dreamy-eyed expression.

“What?” I hated to ask.

“Maybe this was meant to be. Maybe you’ll meet Mr. Right. You know, all your problems will be solved, everything will work out.”

“Earth to Sue,” I said with a touch of sarcasm. Sue still believed in Prince Charming, so the idea that I’d be rescued wasn’t farfetched for her. I was about to present her with the hard facts of life and that I’d rather be dead than be rescued by a man, when Sheila’s garage door opened, and she backed out in her new BMW. Our heads swiveled in that direction.

I forgot about Sue and thought about Sheila. Maybe I shouldn’t knock Sheila’s advice. She seemed to be doing okay for herself. She didn’t work, had a nice car, a beautiful wardrobe, and jewelry to die for. She’d also confided that she’d socked away quite a bit from selling the other two houses awarded to her following her divorces. Evidently she had a pretty good divorce lawyer and he had an equally good detective on his payroll. At some point I expected her to be selling the house across the street too. Sheila’s advice was probably good. The only problem was that I didn’t want to catch a man any more than I wanted to catch a disease.

Sue dragged her gaze from Sheila’s driveway and settled it on me. “Look,” she said, “I stopped by to offer you a loan one more time. Of course, that’s because I thought you must be desperate to run an ad, and it turns out you didn’t run an ad, but even so… Really think about it this time. A few thousand dollars and you won’t have to do anything except oversee a couple of day laborers who probably won’t do anything right. But at least you’ll … be in charge and you won’t have to spend all your time sweating in the dirt. And your property will be cleaned up before your homeowners’ association can levy that fine. I’ve got extra money in my bank account; you can pay it back whenever you’re able.”

I shook my head, knowing I was probably too stubborn for my own good. I didn’t know when I could pay the money back. If only I could sell a book … but so far, no good. With no prospects of extra money on the horizon and only a part-time job that barely covered my living expenses, I just couldn’t, in good conscience, borrow money and take the chance of ruining our friendship. Sue was the best friend I’d ever had, or at least she tied for that honor with Johnny Smith, my best friend from childhood. Though nothing alike in personality, their loyalty was unwavering, no matter what I did or said. Sue had even offered to help me clean up my lot, an offer that left us both breathless from hysterical laughter when five seconds after her offer, the dead shell of a cicada fell from the tree overhead to land on her toe and she ran screaming down the street. Sue is scared to death of critters, and Florida is chock full of them. Sue wouldn’t make it one minute working in my yard.

“Okay,” she said. “If you change your mind or need anything tomorrow, I’m just a phone call away. But you should keep an open mind. Really. I know you don’t think so, but one of these guys could be a solution for you. If you already have your mind set on a negative outcome, you won’t give anyone a chance.”

I arched my brows. “I’m open-minded. I don’t have any expectations.” I really didn’t. At least not when it came to men. After Pete, I’d pretty much decided it was better never to have loved than to have loved and lost, and I couldn’t see how a man who was so desperate for a wife that he would answer an ad involving manual labor could change my mind on that.

“Oh, please, Jane. You may not have any expectations but you’re as far from open-minded as anyone I know.”

“Really? Is that how I come across?” I couldn’t believe that was how I came across. I was a rebel, wasn’t I? Didn’t that mean I was open to anything?

“It’s how you are. Don’t get me wrong; I like you the way you are. But I bet you’ll be crossing these guys off the list two seconds after they say hello. You’re quick to judge, and it goes hand in hand with the part of you that never wants to try anything new.”

Okay, now we were down to it. Sue had been after me to go to the town-sponsored street parties with her and every time the subject came up and I declined her invitation, she said I never tried anything new. But going out drinking wasn’t new; it was old. And I was getting too old to do it. I wanted to spend Friday nights writing, and why should I have to defend that? I opened my mouth to reply, but Sue held up her hand.

“I know, I know,” she said. “We’ve been through this before. All I’m saying is just keep an open mind, okay? New doesn’t necessarily mean wrong.”

*****

I was out of food, so I squashed up my hair in a cap, donned some dark shades, and booked it to the store. I hadn’t seen the article Mr. Handsome had mentioned, but I wanted to keep a low profile just in case.

As I shopped for items on my list, I realized Sue’s insistence that I avoided new experiences irked me. Maybe it was because when I thought of someone who never tried anything new, I pictured a stick-in-the-mud, someone who couldn’t have any fun. I guess I was afraid that was me.

But was it really? I thought back to my four years with Pete. I was always trying new things then. Most of them were bad for me, but I hadn’t let that stop me even when I didn’t want to try them. Like cocaine. I was afraid I’d be instantly addicted to it or that I’d be one of those unlucky few who died from some weird heart complication. I tried it because I wanted to prove I was up for anything, but I didn’t like it. I felt out of control and when I’d started to come down from the high, the feeling was even worse. It had been a stupid thing to do, especially knowing I’d done it because of someone’s opinion of me, and I’d been lucky, as I’d been with most of the stupid things I’d done with Pete.

I didn’t think Sue was talking about things like that, though, and maybe she was right. I’d quickly gotten into my own little routine here. My house, my job, the way I dealt with family.

I reached for my usual brand of salad dressing and stopped short of taking it off the shelf. Maybe I should get a different brand, a different flavor. Try one I didn’t think I’d like. It was just salad dressing, and I might be pleasantly surprised. Besides, if I couldn’t take a chance with this, wouldn’t that mean Sue was right?

I scanned the shelf, reading labels. There were way too many of them, but red wine and vinegar caught my eye. It was probably the word wine. If I didn’t like it on my salad, I could chug it after dinner. Times were tough; it paid to be economical.

At the dairy case I checked all the brands of margarine to see if any had alcohol in them, but I was out of luck there. I picked up a brand that was as cheap as my usual, but which purported to taste more like real butter. Did I even like real butter? I didn’t know, but this margarine was new to me and I was trying it.

I went through my entire list that way. If there was another brand that cost the same or less than my usual, I got it. In the toilet tissue section, I congratulated myself for being so adventurous. I never would have noticed the new product otherwise. Not only was it the cheapest, but it had a special lotion to keep my skin soft.

I threw an extra package of that into my cart. Sue would have to eat her words.

Chapter 3

The next day was a waking nightmare. When I called Palmeroy Times, they insisted I had placed the ad. I’d supposedly signed the form, paid with a money order, and mailed it from my address. While I was still figuring out how one could sue oneself, the calls began—thirty-plus guys eager to be my new husband. I told three of them to get lost; they were just plain vulgar. And now they had my number and address.

About two-thirds went away willingly; they hung up when I answered no to the question about sex. The remaining handful seemed desperate for appointments. I didn’t want to make appointments since I had no intention of marrying a stranger, so I told them the position had been filled.

Sue showed up as I was finishing a ham sandwich and tried to make conversation. I tried back, but couldn’t concentrate.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asked. “You’re acting weird.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that. My entire life was weird right now. How was I supposed to act?
“You’re fidgeting like you can’t sit still,” she said. “Am I keeping you from something? Do you have a rendezvous planned with that sexy new neighbor?”

“I wish.” Actually, I didn’t wish. I couldn’t sit still because I had a rash on my you-know-what. I wasn’t exactly rendezvous material right now.

“Then what’s going on? I’ll find out, so you might as well tell me.”

“I’ve got a rash.” Or something.

“What do you mean?”

“You know … a rash … or maybe blisters. It’s not in a place that’s easily examined by oneself, if you know what I mean.”

Sue gasped. “Oh, dear. Did you say blisters? Does it itch or does it sting?”

“Kinda both, I think. Why?”

“Well, you won’t want to hear the “H” word, but that might be what it is.”

I’d already been thinking the “H” word, and if my neighbor Alberto had given me herpes, I was going to have to kill him. I hadn’t gotten through a promiscuous adolescence, backed up by a decade of indiscriminate sex, only to end up getting herpes during what might be my one and only sexual tryst in my thirties. I was already annoyed at Alberto for buying the house across the street, his presence serving to remind me daily of that brief, torrid, humiliating affair. But if he had given me herpes?…?I wondered if termites released into his soffits could make it across the street to my house. I would have to check the Internet.

“There’s no cure, is there?” I asked.

“No, but I think there are drugs you can take to keep from having an outbreak. Outbreaks are caused by stress.”

Great. It flared up under stress. It was definitely herpes, then, because stress was my middle name. No way was I going to my family doctor about this. I’d have to get online and find a gynecologist who was as far away as possible but still within driving distance.

As I mulled this over, I noticed Sue’s bag. Rather, I noticed the bottle of tequila sticking out of it. I raised my eyebrows just as the doorbell rang. I checked the peephole; my visitor was Mark Brady.
Mark had been one of those long-haired surfer boys Sue and I had our eyes on in the tenth grade. Then we ended up on the same committee in our ecology class and became friends. Mark was still into ecology but now he had a Ph.D. and a research job in marine biology to show for it.

Mark’s a hunk—tall with a great body, thick blond hair and hazel eyes. When I moved back to Florida, he came by every evening to help me paint, lay wood and tile floors, hang ceiling fans, put in bathroom vanities, and make all the other improvements inside the house. I’d asked him why he hadn’t married, and he said he hadn’t found the right girl. Because he spent all his spare time helping me, I wondered if he thought I was the right girl. I hoped not. I did love him, but it was more like the love for a brother.

He dumped a newspaper and a couple of limes out of a bag onto the table. It was yesterday’s paper. Now I understood the reason for the visit, and I wished I hadn’t told Sue what Hank Tyler had said about the article. There’d be no escape now.

Mark grabbed the limes and took them to the kitchen, where he proceeded to cut them into wedges.

“How do you know I haven’t already read it online?” I asked while I pulled out the salt and shot glasses.

“Because you avoid reading anything about yourself,” was Sue’s quick reply.

So true. The thing I hated about the Internet was that you didn’t just get the facts, you got everybody’s opinion. Since most people didn’t bother to post a flattering opinion, the Internet was clogged with the unflattering ones. I’d made it a rule not to look myself up after reading the first review of one of my books, and I’d stuck to that decision.

“Why don’t I read the article aloud?” Sue suggested.

She set up shots for the two of us. Mark couldn’t drink alcohol because he’d been cleared to donate a kidney to his little sister. Not that he’d ever been much of a drinker. I was more of a light beer or wine person myself, but I could handle tequila just fine and I didn’t have to drive. Sue, on the other hand, could get drunk smelling alcohol, so even if she only had one shot, Mark would have to drive her home.

In preparation for what was sure to be embarrassing—regardless of what my new neighbor said—I went ahead and took my first shot. Sue began to read aloud, her voice sounding like that of an upbeat newscaster.

Bestselling Romance Writer Finds There’s No Place Like Home

In spite of her name, local resident Jane Dough has led a life that’s been anything but ordinary.

Leaving home at the tender age of 16, she went on to do things other girls only dream about: becoming a swimsuit model for a major sportswear brand, dating rock stars and millionaires, and finding success in her own right as a USA TODAY bestselling author of historical romances written under the pseudonym Janie Jansen.

“Jane was nothing like her sisters,” said her mother, Barbara Dough. “Not from the minute she was born. All her sisters had that nice, thick, curly dark hair and there was little Jane, completely bald.”

I closed my eyes. Why my mother would think anyone might find this tidbit of bald-headed information fascinating was beyond me, but then, I’d never had a clue what might come out of Mom’s mouth. Did I really want to hear the rest of this? I was pretty sure it could get worse. Much worse.
I opened my eyes to see Mark nodding, perhaps a little too enthusiastically.

“It starts out pretty good,” he said. “Women like to read about that kind of stuff, don’t they? Babies and hair and such … ”

I rolled my eyes and Sue read on.

“She was different in other ways too,” said Barbara Dough. “Always reading books. Used to walk up to the library when she was just seven and check out books all by herself. She loved reading biographies of women from the 1800s. I guess that’s why she liked those historical romances?…?but some of them were too racy. I remember when she was twelve she was reading one where the scullery maids were stealing the large cucumbers from the kitchen. I took that book back to the library myself.”

Sue dropped the paper, laughing so hard that she choked, and I just shook my head. The cucumber book is my mother’s only mental association with historical romances. When I read the book, I didn’t get the author’s joke. I just figured young English girls loved cucumbers and didn’t get to eat them in their tiny scullery maid rooms. But in every interview, Mom talked about the cucumber book, and the reporters must have gotten a kick out of it because they always used it in their articles.

The irony is that Mom’s retelling of the story made it appear as though she had wanted to protect me from shocking literature when in fact she wasn’t the least bit interested in what I read. The only reason she returned the book was because a lady from church who stopped by for a visit saw it on the coffee table and said it was inappropriate reading. The woman relayed the cucumber bit to my mother, who was promptly horrified. Not because I was reading the book, but because a lady from church knew I was reading it. No one asked the lady how she knew about the scene.

I reached for my second shot of tequila. Sue and I downed one in unison.

I tried to remember what other embarrassing things Mom liked to tell reporters, but it had been so long since someone had written about me, I couldn’t. And those other articles hadn’t mattered. They’d come out when I was trying to increase my readership, and any publicity was good publicity. But now? What possible good could come from an article now? I hadn’t published in two years.

“It adds a touch of humor,” Sue said. “Good journalism is all about holding the reader’s interest, and I for one think this journalist is doing a fantastic job.” She stopped abruptly, poured and downed a third shot, grimaced as she took some lime and salt, and went on.

“Jane returned home briefly when she was seventeen,” Barbara Dough reminisced. “But her father kicked her out when he found a naked man in her closet.”

“Oh, for crying out loud,” I wailed. “A naked man? Joe was barely eighteen. I sound like a degenerate, like a teenage prostitute doing men in the family coat closet.”

Sue giggled as she dropped the paper again. “Why have I never heard this story?” she said. “It sounds so … inneresting.”

Sue had never heard the story because it happened two days after we’d been busted for mushrooms on school grounds. Sue had a lot going for her—cheerleader, class president, future prom queen—and all her accomplishments would have gone away if she’d been expelled, so I took the blame. Sue’s father was pretty mad, though, and he warned me to stay away from Sue.

I shrugged. “I left home right after it happened; I didn’t see you again to tell you. But it was no big deal. My parents had been out of town and returned early. Dad pounded on my door, and Joe jumped into the closet to hide. Dad went straight to the closet, opened it, and there was Joe, naked as the day he was born.”

Except not exactly, unless he was born with a gigantic shlong. Joe being my first, I had no idea how he compared to everyone else, but he could have found fame in porno movies.

My poor father must have had quite a shock when he saw Joe standing naked in the closet, but I doubt it equaled the shock I’d had when Joe took my virginity. There were several attempts on two separate occasions and when it finally happened, I was certain I’d been impaled by a sword. This is probably the reason I don’t like medieval romances.

I shook my head to clear it of those memories. “I can’t believe my mother brought that up. I can’t believe she remembered it.”

“Why did your Dad think someone was in your closet?” Mark asked.

“Because Joe’s car was out front with a flat tire,” I said. “The thing is, the car would have been there with a flat tire regardless. Joe was planning to hitchhike back to his place, but I talked him into staying. So there was a fifty-fifty chance my father would have found zilch in the closet, but he didn’t trust me, so instead of bothering to ask, he marched in and looked.”

“Imagine your father not trusting you,” Sue said indignantly.

Mark let out a snort. “So if your Dad had asked, you’d have told him the truth?”

“Well, hell no. I was seventeen years old with a naked man in my closet. What do you think?” I downed another shot. I deserved it.

Sue picked up the paper again. She squinted, moved the paper up close, then held it at arm’s length.

It was a few more seconds before she resumed reading.

By the time Dough was 21 she’d moved to Los Angeles, taking on temporary jobs such as modeling. She even had a few bit parts in films.

Dough’s mother recalled those times. “I think Jane was waitressing in a topless bar when she met that Pete—you know, the rock star. I don’t think they actually met there, but that’s the job she had at the time.”

Please, God, just shoot me now. I didn’t realize I’d said it aloud until Mark patted me sympathetically on the back.

“We like you too much to shoot you,” he said, chuckling at my mortification. “And if you want to take off your top and serve the rest of this tequila, we won’t complain. But I will say that now you’re starting to sound like a degenerate.”

“But it’s so unfair. If only someone had asked me I could have told them I wasn’t topless. Only the dancers were.” I always explained that to people, but no one ever believed me. They just stared at my breasts.

“That has to be the worst of it, surely,” I said.

And it pretty much was. The rest was about my relationship with Pete. How he’d been a quickly growing phenomenon who proceeded to waste his money on drugs and good times, and that while he’d been out partying, I’d been at home writing and climbing the lists.

I grabbed the paper and studied it as best I could, considering the words were blurring. The article was the main feature on the local page, complete with pictures of Pete and me backstage at one of his concerts plus the cover of Dark Scoundrel, my fourth historical romance, the book that put me on the bestseller list.

I cringed as it hit me that I’d been outed. No one at work was aware of my former life, and I couldn’t hazard a guess as to what my co-workers would think, especially my conventional boss. Facing him would be embarrassing, if not humiliating. I wondered if he would let me go; reputation meant everything in business. I pushed that thought out of my mind. I could only handle so much.

I scanned the rest of the article. The last paragraph was about my present situation, and though it made the homeowners’ association sound like the bad guy, it also made me sound pathetic. I mean, was it possible for any female to be forced to marry someone for the manual labor he could provide and yet still be un-pathetic?

I took another shot of tequila and tried to put together some words. “I sound patetic.” I sniffed, thinking one of us should be crying for me.

“Patetic?” Mark repeated with a smile.

“Shut up,” I said.

“Well, I don’t see whas wrong wif the maids swiping the coocumbers,” Sue said, her slurred words somehow managing to sound miffed. “If there wasn’t enough dukes wif big peckers to go ’round …”

I tried to laugh, but I choked instead. Sue, who also read historical romances, knew that all dukes were young, rich, handsome, and hung like stallions.

Lord, how I wished I knew a duke.

*****

It was no surprise that I yearned for a good historical romance that night, and so I pulled out my dog-eared copy of Dark Scoundrel and read it straight through. Again.

The next morning I forced myself out of bed after too little sleep. I’d been thinking about an idea for a new novel. Well, mostly I’d been thinking about the hero. I’ll admit my handsome neighbor might have had something to do with my train of thought. There were certain parts of him that were very intriguing. I won’t say which parts.

I hadn’t heard from my agent, Rose Feldman, in a couple of months, so we were due to hook up. We stayed in touch just in case I managed to turn out a saleable manuscript. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write. I could write just fine—as well as I ever could anyway—but Rose couldn’t sell it. She said I’d lost the romance. Not a good thing to hear when you’re a romance writer.

“Jane,” came Rose’s raspy voice from my speaker after my line connected with hers. I heard the inevitable click of her cigarette lighter. “I was just thinking about you,” she said.

“Really?” Gee, how nice. She’d been thinking about me.

There was a beat of silence then, “No, not really. I always say that when I hear from someone out of the blue. Makes them think we’re on the same wavelength. Like anybody’s ever on the same wavelength. They don’t usually call me on it, but since you asked … I know how you feel about being lied to.”

Everyone knew how I felt about being lied to. I had ranted about it for weeks after learning the extent of Pete’s deceit. Fortunately, Rose had seemed to take it in stride, telling me it was fodder for writing. In my case that hadn’t proved true—so far.

I decided to get straight to it. “I’ve got a plot for a new romance. And it’s got a great hero.”

There was silence but for the sound of Rose blowing out her cigarette smoke.

“A duke?”

“Of course,” I said. “What’s a hero if not a duke? But this one is really special. He’s got a great character arc and a fantastic sense of humor.” I waited while Rose sucked in all the air between New York and Florida along with her nicotine fix.

“Does he still have a penis at the end of the book?” she croaked out.

I huffed. Mentally, of course. You make one little mistake in this business and they never let you forget it. Not that castrating the hero had been a mistake, at least not the way I’d written it.

“I told you it proved their love transcended the physical.”

“And I told you no one wants a hero without a penis, duke or not.”

My hackles rose. I’d put a lot of thought into that hero. “Someone might have, if you’d sent the manuscript out to more than one editor.”

“Jane, I didn’t need to send it to more than one editor. Thirty seconds after she finished reading it, the entire publishing world knew about it. They’re still laughing. You’re lucky everyone likes you, otherwise your name would be mud.”

“Everyone likes me?” I was pleased enough that the offhand compliment soothed my hurt feelings. A little.

“As a writer, not as a person. But no one’s gonna buy a hero without a penis, no matter what.”

“Okay, I get it.” Honestly. How many times did I have to apologize?

“Do you? Do you really? Because the next hero you wrote was impotent, and no one wants a hero who can’t get it up either.”

“That’s not true,” I said, recalling the next book I’d submitted to her, which she subsequently shot down. “He wasn’t impotent with the heroine—just with everyone else. It was romantic.”

“It was gross. Just write a regular hero. One with a penis that works the way it’s supposed to.”

I mumbled something, I wasn’t sure what. I was wishing I hadn’t called.

“Jane, this conversation tells me you’re still not ready to write romance. Go get laid.”

“I don’t need to get laid.”

Okay, maybe I did, but getting laid wouldn’t change my mind about men. Men were scum, but if I had to write them like they were Prince Charmings, I could. It was fiction, wasn’t it? And I was a professional.

Chapter 4

My rash was driving me out of my mind, and so I looked up herpes online. I couldn’t tell if what I had resembled what I saw, but those pictures were scary enough to make me want to find out. I did a search for gynecologists within thirty miles. Considering that healthcare was a huge industry in Florida, I was surprised there weren’t that many to choose from.

I struck out with the first five doctors I called, mainly because I refused to tell the receptionists about my problem. I was thinking I shouldn’t have to tell anyone but the doctor if I had a blistery rash that looked exactly like herpes. They were evidently thinking there was no way I was getting in to see the doctor unless I did. I had one phone number left on the list when I decided I’d better come clean.
The receptionist got the words good morning out of her mouth, and my mouth took off.

“I need to see the doctor,” I said, words tumbling out in a rush. “It’s an emergency. I’ve got this rash on my … you know, or maybe it’s blisters, I’m not sure. My friend Sue says it’s herpes, but how would I know? I mean, I’ve never had herpes, but it feels just like what they say it’s supposed to feel like, and I’m totally freaked. I wouldn’t ordinarily think I had herpes, but I had one-time sex with this hot guy who sounds like Javiar Bardem—okay, it was twice—and then he moved in across the street and since then he’s brought home two hundred women, so I’m really starting to worry that he has a bunch of sexually transmittable diseases. I’m sure the doctor is busy but this is an emergency—”

“I’m sorry,” said the brisk voice on the phone, “but I think you meant to call Dr. Forester. His number is 555-8189 and ours is 555-8198. This is Simply Suits in the mall. You didn’t mean to call Simply Suits, did you?”

My jaw dropped to the floor, which made it hard to talk, but if I could’ve talked I would’ve screamed, “Of course not, you idiot! Why would I call Simply Suits to tell them about my herpes?”

As I was trying to decide whether I should just hang up (which would be extremely rude according to the way I was brought up), the girl said, “Oh my God, is this Jane Dough? That’s what Caller ID says. This is Tina Coffey. Remember me from high school? I’m managing this place now. I never thought I’d be a manager, but I just love clothes. So what are you doing now? Oh, never mind. Sorry about the herpes. That’s a bitch.”

I managed to make it through two minutes of conversation with someone I couldn’t remember whatsoever while letting her think we had been best friends. Then I took a couple of deep breaths. I was an adult and I had an agenda, I told myself.

The next call went much differently. “Dr. Forester’s office,” said the receptionist.

“I’ve just moved here, so I’ve never been to Dr. Forester, but I have a rash on my?…?you know, and it’s really unbearable. I was wondering if there was any way Dr. Forester—of whom I’ve heard so many nice things—could fit me into his schedule.”

The very helpful receptionist gave me an appointment for that afternoon, and I gave her my insurance information.

Now I just had to get through the appointment.

*****

Dr. Forester’s office was fifteen miles away in a smallish, two-story, brown stucco medical building that had seen better days, and it had seen those better days fifty years ago from the looks of it. The tenants must have thought so too because a large sign at the entrance to the crumbling porte cochère announced their impending move to an ultra-modern medical plaza. I didn’t care how the place looked. In fact, the less distinguished the building, the less self-conscious I was sure to feel.

I was wearing a lacy pink thong with matching bra, just in case the doctor was young and good looking. He probably wouldn’t be asking me out, considering my problem, but a young, good-looking doctor … enough said.

The waiting room was packed with women who had never learned that it was rude to stare. Newcomers were collectively sized up and appraised from head to toe. I couldn’t get a fix on what they thought of me, and I didn’t care. My rash was driving me crazy, and the thong wasn’t helping.

When I finally met Dr. Forester in the examining room, I realized I could have saved myself the discomfort. He reminded me of Clarence, the angel who gives Jimmy Stewart a hard time in the old black and white movie It’s A Wonderful Life. He was of average height and weight, with some extra padding in the midsection. He had thick, unruly white hair and big, bushy eyebrows.

“So what seems to be the matter?” he asked kindly. I was too embarrassed to say.

“I’ve got … something,” I mumbled. I didn’t know whether or not to tell him of my suspicion. I decided I shouldn’t predispose him to that diagnosis.

“What?”

“I don’t know what. That’s why I’m here.”

“No, what did you say? You’ll have to speak up. I can’t hear as well as I used to,” he said, cupping his hand behind his ear.

Perfect. This wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have at all, let alone at ear-shattering volume. “I have something, you know, down there,” I said louder.

“Well, sure you do,” he shouted. “We’ve all got something down there, don’t we?” He let out a guffaw at his joke.

I didn’t want to seem like a bitch so I smiled—tightly—while he got over himself.

“Ahem, yes, well, let’s take a look,” he finally said.

I put my feet in the stirrups and scooted down the table while chanting my favorite mantra to myself. In twenty minutes this will all be over. In twenty minutes this will all be over. I’d been using that since the night before my first oral book report, substituting whatever period of time was appropriate. It worked, for the most part.

“Uh-oh,” he said.

I may not know a lot of things, but I do know that “uh-oh” isn’t something you want to hear your gynecologist say when he’s looking between your legs.

“What? What’s wrong?” I tried to steady my heartbeat by reciting “The Three Little Pigs” in my head. When I got to the third little piggy that had herpes, I almost flipped out.

“You have a fungus.”

Eeeew. That was even worse than uh-oh. “A fungus?” My voice was an octave above its normal range, so I took a deep breath and pulled it back down. “How did I get a fungus down there?”

The doctor stuck his head around the cloth covering my lower half. “What?” he yelled.

I shouted back, “How did I get a fungus down there?”

He stared at me, perplexed for a few seconds. “No, not down there. On your foot. It’s on the inside of your left foot. It’s just a little ringworm. You probably went outside without your shoes. Welcome to Florida. Get some of that ointment for jock itch and use it morning and night for six weeks.”

Jeez. Yesterday I would have been appalled to learn I had a fungus on my foot. Today I was relieved.

“What about the other?”

“Looks like a contact dermatitis rash,” he said as he got to his feet.

That was it? That was all he was going to say? I wasn’t paying someone to tell me it was a rash. That much I knew. Besides, that particular part of me hadn’t been contacted in months. From what I’d read online, contact dermatitis appeared immediately following the contact. Herpes, on the other hand, could show up at any time between contact and death.

“Are you sure it’s not herpes?” There. I’d said it. The dreaded “H” word.

“What?”

“Herpes!” I shouted. “Could I have herpes?”

“You have herpes?” He shrank back, as though afraid to stand too close.

“No! I mean, I don’t know! I mean, I suppose I could. I had sex with someone …”

“You had sex with your son?”

If I hadn’t been so worried, I’d have laughed out loud, as ridiculous as the conversation was. I deliberated on whether or not I should leave before the situation deteriorated further, but I hadn’t come this far to find out nothing. And the worst part was over, surely.

“Is there a test for herpes? I’d like to do the test for herpes, if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind,” the doctor said. “Just let me see if I can find it. I don’t do a lot of them. Most of my patients have enough sense to use condoms.”

I had sense too, but as far as I knew, they didn’t make a condom for someone’s tongue. You idiot, I told myself. The prospect of sex with Javiar Bardem after being sexless for almost two years had obviously knocked the sense right out of me.

The doctor rummaged through a couple of drawers and scanned the shelves of a cabinet. Then he went to the door and opened it. “Has anyone seen the test for herpes?” he shouted. “I’ve got this woman in here who thinks she has herpes.”

“Hey!” I said, but he was already out the door, closing it behind him. I could still hear him, though, and so could everyone else within a two-block radius.

“Jane Dough here thinks she has herpes,” he yelled out. “Has anyone seen the herpes culture kit?”

Holy crap! Was he really screaming my name out there within hearing distance of a packed waiting room? I did a frantic mental scan of the Health Information Privacy form, which might have worked if I had actually read it, but seeing as how it was a contract of sorts, I’d just skimmed and signed, as usual. I remembered a lot of worthless stuff about the people the doctor could leave messages with and verbose passages about signed releases, but I didn’t recall that shouting had been covered. But it had to be in there somewhere, didn’t it?

Maybe I was hallucinating. Maybe what I really had was syphilis and it had gone to my brain. I sat there stunned until I heard him yell my name again and something about having sex with my son.

I shot off the table and yanked on my thong and capris. I shoved my feet into my sandals and ran to the door. I cracked it open a sliver and peeked through just in time to hear a woman on the waiting room side of the open glass window say, “I think it’s so professional that the doctor is using the name Jane Doe so that none of us knows who that poor woman with herpes is.” She squinted at the door I was shielding my body with, as though she had X-ray vision.

“Oh, no,” said the helpful receptionist. “Her name really is Jane Dough, but that’s D-O-U-G-H. You probably read about her in the paper. She writes those sexy romances under the name Janie Jansen.”

For God’s sake! Had no one read that privacy act? The buzz of excited conversation from the waiting room competed with the loud ringing in my ears. For two seconds the word lawsuit flashed through my mind—before it was knocked out by the words reporters and herpes. I snapped myself out of my daze and concluded there was no way I was walking out past those women.

I grabbed my purse and ran to the window, the only other way out of the room. I could jump from the second story if I had to. I’d done it lots of times as a kid. It was one of those stupid things I did to prove I wasn’t afraid of heights, though I definitely was. My knees were paying the price now, and they’d probably break when I did it this time, at this age, but I didn’t care.

I flipped open the vertical blinds and almost fainted with relief. I was at the front of the building; the overhang of the porte cochère was directly below.

I slid open the window, straddled the sill, and paused while I asked myself if I really wanted to do this.

Hell, yes! was the answer. They might have heard my name, but they didn’t have a face to put with it—yet. What were the chances that most of those women in the waiting room had cellphone cameras? Pretty good, I was thinking, and those cellphones were probably pointed at the door in eager anticipation now. If my picture was in the morning paper with the word herpes in the headlines, I would probably have to kill myself.

I gulped in some air and chanted aloud, “In ten minutes this will all be over. In ten minutes this will all be over.”

I dropped about a foot onto the overhang and scrambled, half sliding, half tumbling down the sloping roof to the closest point to the ground. Crouching there, I peered over the edge to make sure no one was directly beneath me, and my body went so weak I almost fell over, head first. It was only about eight feet or so, but my brain didn’t seem to get it.

I pitched my bag to the ground, rolled over into a prone position, and slid my legs over the edge. I heard something rip, but I kept going, scooting farther and farther, fearing the moment that I would be so far over that I’d have to drop and hang by my arms. I didn’t think I could actually hang by my arms since I hadn’t worked out in ten years—okay, never—but I had no choice. Any minute I’d be forced to switch my weight to my arms. My muscles would fail, and I would fall. It occurred to me that I should have looked for a place where there was grass beneath me instead of concrete. Crap.

I heard a shout that sounded like, “Catch her!” I couldn’t tell where it came from but my bet was the open window. My heart was pounding so hard I was sure it would leap out of my chest. They probably thought I had robbed the doctor’s examining room and was making my getaway.

I decided I didn’t care if I hit concrete. No matter how much it hurt, I was getting out of there. I didn’t know if I could go to jail for fleeing a doctor’s office out the window, but I wasn’t sticking around to ask. I switched my weight to my arms and dangled for a moment. Then I let go—at the same instant that someone caught me and swung me to the ground. I turned around on shaky legs expecting to face a security guard, but that wasn’t what I saw.

He was drop-dead gorgeous, early thirties, and more than half a foot taller than me, with broad shoulders and thick, dark hair that was curling a little onto his collar. He had the most amazing gray eyes, and they were sparkling with humor. I took in his long white coat and the name tag that said Dr. Bryan Rossi.

Great. Now I meet a young, good-looking doctor.

He smiled, revealing one sexy dimple. My knees gave out and I stumbled. He caught me again, but this time he didn’t let go so fast.

“You aren’t trying to get out of paying your bill, are you?” He sported a curious grin.

“Certainly not!” I did my very best to sound indignant. In my experience that worked when you wanted people to mind their own business. At least it worked when other people did it to me. He let me go, and I straightened my clothes and myself in an attempt to look like anything other than a woman who had crawled out a second-story window and rolled to the ground. “In fact, I’ll pay them double if they’ll take my name off the roster and forget I was here.”

The grin grew wider.

“I’m serious. And don’t worry about the bill. They’ll get their money. They know where I live.”

I turned on my heel and strode off with as much dignity as I could muster, considering I’d lost one of my shoes. It was my favorite pair of sandals too, but I was so glad to get away without further humiliation that I told myself I didn’t care.

When I got home I went straight to the bathroom, tore off my clothes, and stood under the pulsating shower massage until what seemed like bedtime. I put the unfortunate incident out of my mind. Tomorrow would mark my first full day working my butt off to get my property in conformance, and that meant I needed a good night’s sleep.

As I was getting out of the shower, it hit me that in spite of all I’d been through at the doctor’s office, I hadn’t gotten any blasted medicine for my rash or herpes or whatever it was.

Dang!

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