"Sure. You've got this 'I'm much too cultured and well bred to make an issue of it' air. You always look perfect. I admire that even when I hate it. It's not like you're all fussy and girly and stuff. You just always look good."

Aubrey stopped, mouth full. Then swallowed fast. "Oh hey, listen, I'm not coming on to you or anything. I like guys."

"Oh, I see. Then I suppose there's no point in us having a big experiment of our own." After two long beats, Dru's laughter burst out. She had to lean back, hold her sides as they ached from the force of it. "Your face. Priceless. It's the first time I've ever seen you speechless."

"That was good." Nodding approval, Aubrey picked up her wine. "That was damn good. I might just like you after all. So, are you going to talk Seth out of the watercolor portrait when he's finished?"

"I don't know." Would he finish it? she wondered. Or was he too angry with her to see her as he had? No, he'd finish, she decided. The artist would have no choice.

"If it were me, I'd wheedle it out of him."

"I think I'd feel strange having a painting of myself hanging on the wall. Besides, I haven't seen it. He was too angry to let me."

"Yeah, he gets all tight-assed when he's mad. Okay, here's a tip." Watching Dru, Aubrey rested her elbows on the table. "You don't want to cry. What you want to do is bravely battle back tears. You know, so your eyes get all shiny and wet and your lip quivers a little. Hold on."

She leaned back again, closed her eyes, took a couple of deep breaths. Then she opened them again, stared at Dru with a kind of wide-eyed, pitiful expression as tears swam into her eyes.

"My God," Dru murmured in admiration. "That's really good. In fact, it's brilliant."

"Tell me." Aubrey sniffled. "You can let one spill over if you have to, but that's it." A single tear dripped down her cheek. Then she giggled. "You start to flood, and he's all about patting your head and stuffing a paint rag or whatever in your hand before he goes into full retreat. Then you've lost him. But you give him the shimmery-eyes, quivery-lip deal, and he'll do anything. It destroys him."

"How did you learn to do that?"

"Hey, I work with guys." Aubrey swiped the single tear off her cheek. "You develop your weapons. You can bite the tip of your tongue to get started if you have to. Me, I can turn it on and off. Speaking of guys, why don't you tell me about that creep you were engaged to, then we can trash him."

"Jonah? Assistant communications director. West Wing staff, a man with the president's ear. Brilliant mind, smooth style, gorgeous face and a body made for Armani."

"This isn't making me hate him. Get to the dirt."

"It's not far under the surface. Washington social circles—my grandfather remains a strong force in Washington, and my family is influential. Socially active. We met at a cocktail party, and things moved from there. Smoothly and at a reasonable pace. We enjoyed each other, and we liked each other. Had interests and people and philosophies in common. Then, I thought we loved each other." It was never anger she felt when she thought of that. But sadness.

"Maybe we did. We became lovers—"

"How was he? In the sack?"

Dru hesitated, then poured more wine. She didn't discuss this sort of thing. Then again, she realized, she'd never had anyone who made her feel able to discuss this sort of thing.

Aubrey made it seem easy.

"What the hell. He was good. I thought we were good—but then again, lovers fall into the same category as friends with me. I don't make them easily."

"That'd make it hurt more when it gets messed up," Aubrey offered.

"Yeah, I guess it does. But I thought Jonah and I were good together, in bed and out of it. I was ready when he asked me to marry him. We'd been moving in that direction, and I was prepared. I'd thought it through."

Curious now, Aubrey tilted her head. "If you had to think it through, maybe you weren't in love with him."

"Maybe not." Dru looked away, watched the fluttering flight of a butterfly, listened to the quiet hum of a boat motor as someone cruised by on the river. "But I need to think things through. The bigger the step, the longer and more carefully I think. I wasn't sure I wanted to be married. My parents' marriage—well, it's not like your parents' marriage. But I felt, with Jonah, it would be different. We never quarreled."

"Never?" Pure shock covered Aubrey's face. "You never had a good shouting fight?"

"No." She smiled a little now as she realized how dull that would seem to anyone named Quinn. "When we disagreed, we discussed."

"Oh yeah, that's how we handle things in my family. We discuss our disagreements. We just do it at the top of our lungs. So you and this guy were good in bed, you didn't fight and you had a lot in common. What happened?"

"We got engaged, we had a round of parties and began making plans for a wedding set for the following summer. July because that was most convenient for our schedules. He was busy with work, and I was busy letting my mother drag me around to bridal shows. We house-hunted—Jonah and me, my mother and me, my father and me."

"That's a lot of hunting."

"You have no idea. Then one night, we were at his apartment. We went to bed. While we were making love, I kept feeling something scrape at the small of my back. Eventually I had to stop. It was funny, really, I made a joke out of it. Then we turned on the lights and I went over the sheets. And came up with anoth

er woman's earring."

"Oh." Aubrey's face filled with sympathy. "Ouch."

"I even recognized it. I'd seen her wearing them at some event or other. I'd admired them, commented on them. Which is probably why she made sure to leave it there, where I'd find it at the worst possible moment."

"Bitch."

"Oh yes." Dru lifted her glass in a half toast. "Oh yes indeed. But she loved him, and that was a discreet and surefire way to get me out of the picture."

"No excuses." Aubrey wagged a finger. "She was trespassing on another woman's man, even if the man wasn't worth jack shit. She was as sneaky as he was, and just as guilty."

"You're right. No excuses. They deserve each other."

"Damn straight. So, did you tie his dick in a knot? What?" Dru let out a long sigh. "God, I wish I could be you. I wish I could, even for one single day. No, I got up, and I got dressed, while he started making excuses. He loved me. This other thing was just physical, it didn't mean anything."

"Christ." Disgust was ripe in her voice. "Can't they ever come up with something original?"

"Not in my experience." The instant, unqualified sympathy and support eased some of the rawness she still carried over it all. "He had needs, sexual needs that I was just too restrained to meet. He'd just wanted to get it out of his system before settling down. Basically, he said that if I'd been hotter, more responsive or creative in bed, he wouldn't have had to look elsewhere for that kind of satisfaction."

"And yet he lives," Aubrey murmured. "You let him turn the thing around on you instead of cutting off his balls and hanging them on his ears."

"I wasn't a complete doormat," Dru objected, and told her about the systematic destruction of Jonah's prized possessions.

"Nuked his CDs. That's a good one. I feel better now. Just as a suggestion, instead of cutting up his cashmere coat? I'd have filled the pockets with, oh, I don't know, say a nice mixture of raw eggs, motor oil, a little flour to thicken it up, maybe a hint of garlic. All easily accessed household items. Then, I'd've folded it up really neat, with the pockets to the inside. Wouldn't he have been surprised when he pulled it out of the box?"

"I'll keep that in mind, should the occasion ever come up again."

"Okay. But I really like the CDs, and the bit with the shoes. If the guy was anything like Phil about his shoes, that one really hurt. What do you say we take a walk, work off some of these cookies? Then we can order some Chinese."

It wasn't, Dru realized, so hard to make a friend after all. "That sounds terrific."

THE DINER was lit like a runway, and business wasn't exactly booming. Seth sat on the sun-faded red vinyl of the booth in the very back. Gloria wasn't there. She would be late.

She always came late. It was, he knew, just another way for her to show she had the upper hand.

He ordered coffee, knowing he wouldn't drink it. But he needed the prop. The ten thousand in cash was in an old canvas bag on the seat beside him.

There was a man with shoulders wide as Montana sitting on a stool at the counter. His neck was red from the sun, and his hair shaved so sharp and close it looked as if it could slice bread. He was wearing jeans, and the tin of tobacco he must have carried habitually in his pocket had worn a white circle in the fading denim.

He ate apple pie a la mode with the concentration of a surgeon performing a tricky operation.

The Waylon Jennings tune crooning out of a corner juke suited him right down to the ground.

Behind the counter, the waitress wore candy pink with her name stitched in white over the right breast. She picked up a pot of coffee from the warmer, breezed up to the pie eater, and stood, hip cocked, as she topped off his cup. Seth's fingers itched for his sketch pad.

Instead he drew in his head to pass the time. The counter scene—done in bright, primary colors. And the couple midway down the line of booths who looked as if they'd been traveling all day and were now worn to nubs. They ate without conversation. But at one point the woman passed the man the salt, and he gave her hand a quick squeeze.

He'd call it Roadside, he thought. Or maybe Off Route 13. It relaxed him considerably to pull it all together in his mind. Then Gloria walked in, and the painting faded away. She'd gone beyond thin. He could see the sharp bones pressing against the skin at the sides of her throat, the whip-edge blades of her hips jutting against the tight red pants. She wore open-toed, backless heels that flipped and clicked against her feet and the aged linoleum.


Tags: Nora Roberts Chesapeake Bay Saga Romance
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