"Another exciting, exhilarating
extravaganza. And I am
Barton rubbed her eyes and smiled up at her
husband as he held open the door between the
garage and the house.
"You know you love organizing
these black tie benefits."
Michael smiled back and dropped
a kiss onto her forehead.
"It is nice to get out of
jeans and sneakers," Ellie admitted. "See a
bit of the world beyond Gymboree and Tumbling
Tots. Talk about something besides Curious George
and imaginary friends named Moodle."
"And you’re a natural at
it. My mom says you’re turning into quite the
"I don’t know about that," Ellie demurred. Her voice was still hoarse from
straining to be heard over the brass band. "But
I’m learning from the master. Fundraising is
a tough committee, but your mother can get blood
from a stone and not spill a single drop on
her Escada. I just scurry around and do her
bidding and everything magically falls into
"Any excuse to buy more
Escada," Michael translated.
"Be nice. It’s all for a
good cause."Ellie furrowed her brow. "Wait.
What was tonight?"
loosened his bowtie and reached under his tuxedo
sleeves to unfasten his cuff links. "Next week
is domestic violence, and next month is cancer."
"Right."She paused to
clear her throat. "You know, I was thinking,
it’s great that we organize these galas to raise
money and awareness and all, but I’m sure the
women’s shelter could use some hands-on volunteers,
too. Once Hannah starts preschool five days
a week, I could commit to that."
Her husband dropped back
a step and asked, "Commit to what?"
"Whatever they need. Administrative
stuff, sorting out donations, childcare… I’d
like to really get involved."
Michael picked up the pace
and took her hand as they rounded the corner
from the side hallway to their home’s foyer.
"Sweetheart, believe me, getting the Mayfair
Estates crowd sloshed enough to write a big
stack of checks is by far the best way to help
that shelter. Besides, you know how much business
I get through these committee connections."He threw her a wink. "The mortgage’s not going
to pay itself."
Ellie glanced up pointedly
at the massive, custom-made crystal chandelier
Michael’s mother had commissioned from an artisan
in France. "Right. We’re one step away from
living in a refrigerator carton under the freeway."She pulled a small tube of hand sanitizer from
her evening bag. "Could you pay the babysitter?
I’m going to go check on Hannah."
"I’ll check on Hannah.
You relax."Michael steered her into the master
suite. "And lay off the Purell, woman, before
we have to sign you up for a twelve-step program."
"Go ahead, mock me. But it’s
the height of flu season, and some of those
city councilmen we shook hands with? Not exactly
the picture of personal hygiene."
He grinned and kissed her
freshly disinfected fingertips. "Howard
Hughes in high heels."
"Speaking of high heels…"Ellie made her way across the bedroom and into
the huge, mirrored bathroom, where she collapsed
on a carved antique rosewood stool and kicked
off her strappy stilettos. She curled her toes
against the cool travertine floor. "Ahh. Sweet
Michael met her gaze in the
mirror shook his head. "I will never understand
why you insist on wearing those things to events
where you’re expected to be on your feet for
five hours. Aren’t you in pain?"
"A little," she admitted.
"But they look good. And I need all the help
I can get these days."
"You look beautiful, as
always," he said immediately, and, Ellie noticed,
a bit absently.
Not that she blamed him.
She knew she was guilty of the cardinal sin
of their exclusive gated community: she’d let
herself go. Not entirely, not all at once, but
since giving birth to their daughter three years
ago, she’d abandoned the strict exercise, makeup
and moisturizer regimen of her early twenties.
She was just too busy to devote all day, every
day to the pursuit of personal perfection. The
first crinkles of crow’s feet were encroaching
at the corners of her eyes. Breast-feeding had
taken an undeniable toll of her figure. And
sometimes she would spend an entire day running
errands and shuttling her daughter between playgroups
before noticing a coffee stain on her cardigan.
Michael caught her frown
in the mirror. "What’s wrong?"
a small sigh. "Do you ever wish I’d get a little,
you know, work done? Botox? Tummy tuck?"
"Don’t start with that
again."He rested his warm hands on her shoulders,
then tugged at her zipper to peek at the label
of her dress. "Size 10? Someone call Jenny Craig,
Her cheeks flushed. "Don’t
make light of this! I’m the only double-digit
wearing woman under sixty in this whole neighborhood.
Compared to all the second and third wives at
the country club, I’m a—"
"You’re a hell of a lot
more interesting than the Stepford sorority, "Michael assured her. "You’re an original. First
"I don’t want to be interesting.
I want to be sultry and sexy, and… God."She
folded her arms on the bathroom counter and
rested her chin on her hands. "I’m just so
"Sweetheart, come on, you
know you—hang on."Michael broke off as a loud
buzzing noise emanated from his pants pocket.
He extracted a small silver PDA, squinted down
at the screen, then tapped at the keyboard.
"Work. Hang on."
Ellie scrunched up her
nose. "Again? How can anyone be thinking about
real estate at this hour on a Friday night?"
"No one’s thinking about
real estate; they’re thinking about the golf
course where we’re going to discuss the development
deal tomorrow morning. We have to change our
tee time."He placed the PDA on the bathroom
counter next to her evening bag and returned
his attention to her. "Now. Back to you. Where
She glowered at her own reflection.
"I was bemoaning my lack of Stepford sultriness."
"Listen to me. You’re the
perfect wife. Especially when you’re all charming
like tonight, making small talk with the new
investor about—who’s that writer? Henry James?"
"Henry Fielding," Ellie
"See? Brilliant to boot.
I rest my case."He emptied his pockets and
peeled a pair of twenties from his engraved
money clip. With his broad shoulders and dimpled
smile, he was the epitome of tall, dark and
Her scowl melted into a
smile. "Did I ever tell you that you look like
James Bond when you go black tie?"
"Every time I break out this monkey suit. And
that is why I married you. Sit tight, relax,
and I’ll drive Shannon home. Oh, as long as
I’m out, I better fill up your car. Don’t want
you running out of gas tomorrow while you and
Hannah hit the birthday party circuit."
Emboldened by his praise
and loath to let a new dress and a professional
hair and makeup job go to waste, Ellie sat up
and blew him a kiss. "Maybe I’ll take a nice
hot bath and get warmed up for when you come
His eyebrows shot up a
fraction of an inch. "That’s quite an offer.
But I thought you were sleep deprived?"
"Sleep is for the weak
and the childless. That’s why God invented caffeine.
Besides, it’s not every day a girl gets her
chance with James Bond."
They heard footsteps in
the hall, and Michael glanced down at his watch.
"I should really get Shannon home. I promised
her mom she’d be back by eleven. And listen,
about the bath…hold that thought. Next weekend
we’ll leave Hannah with my mom and get a suite
at the Fairmont. Order room service, get a massage…"
"It’s a date."She quashed
a twinge of disappointment.
"Baby, just wait ‘til I
get you alone. We are going to sleep
night long ‘til we can’t sleep no more."He grabbed his car keys and jingled them as
he headed down the hall.
Ellie waited until she
heard the door close, then shimmied out of her
sequined black silk gown and turned on the faucet
of the enormous jetted bathtub in the center
of the room. She poured in some vanilla scented
bath oil, stripped off her bra and panties,
and had one foot in the tub when Michael’s PDA
vibrated off the edge of the counter and onto
She was shocked he’d left
it here. He prided himself on being accessible
to his clients at all times. The tiny red light
on the top of the screen was blinking insistently,
so Ellie pulled her foot back out of the bathwater
and minced across the room, hoping that the
plastic casing hadn’t cracked from the fall.
"You have one message waiting," the screen announced. Then an ominous exclamation
point appeared. "URGENT!"
Her eyes widened. What
if this was an emergency? A lot of Michael’s
clients had attended tonight’s bash and most
of them were as impatient as they were wealthy.
She’d have to figure out how to get in touch
with him right away. She clicked the scroll
You KNOW I’m always up for that. I’m wearing
the red thong you gave me. Get over here and
rip it off. Meet you there in 5 minutes. Make
Ellie stood motionless
for a full minute, blinking down at the screen
until the letters blurred together into one
mottled gray blob.
Make me moan.
This had to be a mistake.
First of all, no one ever called Michael "Mick."He hated nicknames of any kind; even "Mike" was verboten.
Secondly…no. Just no. There
was no way. Not Michael. Not her. System failure.
Syntax error. Please reboot and download program
There were plenty of philandering
husbands in Mayfair Estates, but Michael was
the exception. Not that he’d never had the opportunity
to cheat—she wasn’t
that naïve—but he
just wasn’t that kind of guy. He loved his family,
his work, and his golf clubs, in that order.
He looked forward to their regular Sunday dinners
with his parents and he called Ellie twice daily
when he was out of town on business. Just last
week, when he’d been in California on Valentine’s
Day, he’d had lilies delivered for her and a
big stuffed penguin for Hannah.
But had he really been
Ellie slowly raised her
gaze to the mirror. She hardly recognized herself,
trembling and naked, clutching the little silver
square with both hands. Steam from the hot bath
water started to fog the reflection, but she
could see angry pink lines lingering on her
skin where her strapless bra and long, bodyshaping
underpants had cut into her flesh.
The words "red thong" flashed
through her mind. Red thongs were for women
totally devoid of insecurities and C-section
scars. A red thong wouldn’t hold in your stomach—it
would emphasize your curves. Red thongs were
for, well, vixens.
Vixen_MD. What the hell
did that even mean, anyway?
And mbarton007? James Bond
was Ellie’s thing, a silly private joke
they’d bandied about their marriage for years.
This was insane. Things
like this only happened on sudsy TV dramas.
Vixens and red thongs were sordid subplots from
someone else’s life.
She took a deep breath
and scrolled back through the message file to
search through previous conversations. Icy dread
seeped through her as she scanned the collected
works of mbarton007 and Vixen_MD:
I’m so hot…Want you in
the shower…I think I pulled something last night…
Finally, she couldn’t bear
to read any more. She placed the PDA gently
on the counter top. When she turned back to
the mirror, she realized she’d forgotten to
take off her diamond and emerald earrings.
Michael’s mother had given
Ellie the emeralds—the proverbial family jewels—on
the night before her wedding, to welcome her
to the Barton family. Her in-laws had treated
her like a daughter since the moment she promised
to love, cherish, and honor their son. Even
though she was an Army brat with fashion sense
that ran more toward second hand stores than
Saks, Michael’s parents had never once insinuated
that Ellie was anything less than their equal.
They had opened the doors to Scottsdale society
and made her feel welcome in the cultured, cutthroat
world in which Michael had grown up.
Ellie unclipped her earrings,
stowed them carefully in their velvet box, and
hurried toward the wall safe in the huge walk-in
closet. Sealed inside these cold metal walls
lay irrefutable proof that she and Michael and
Hannah were a family: wills, passports, a copy
of the lengthy pre-nuptial agreement she’d signed
when she and Michael got engaged.
She spun the combination
lock, opened the safe, and placed the emerald
earrings next to the rectangular cases that
contained the matching necklace and bracelet.
Her pinky finger brushed the pre-nup and she
snatched her hand away as if burned. Then she
slammed the safe shut, turned off all the lights,
and climbed into the bathtub, which by now was
full to the brim. Vanilla-scented water sloshed
over onto the slick marble tiles as she submerged
herself up to her chin and listened to the overflow
drain’s steady, slurping gurgle.
She soaked for what felt
like hours, staring into the dark, waiting for
the familiar whirr of the garage door opening.