After unpacking, Ryan, Ashlee, Jessica, and Josh went for the Jacuzzi. The quartet had gotten so relaxed that they’d nearly forgotten that they were going to dinner at seven.
Jessica shooed Josh out of the master bedroom while she and Ashlee were getting ready. Through clouds of perfume and makeup, the sisters gabbed about things and filled the room with girlish camaraderie.
As Ashlee struggled to zip up her black satin tape bustier dress, Jessica, clad in a strapless bra and underwear, turned away from applying eyeliner to help her.
“Well, look at you!” Jessica exclaimed, hands on her bare, exposed sides. “You and your little black dress. I don’t know if I should let you out in this.”
Ashlee snorted. “Oh, right, Jess. I’m like eighteen. I can wear stuff like this if I want to. It’s not like Mom or Dad’s gonna see this.”
Ashlee paused, and looked Jessica in the eye as she pulled up the zipper. After a moment, they collapsed into laughter.
“Alright, your secret’s safe with me,” Jessica promised.
“Good.” Jessica went back to the mirror and raised the eyeliner again. After a humming moment: “Jess?”
Jessica applied eyeliner. “Yeah?”
There was a moment of hesitant silence before Ashlee spoke. She walked up to the mirror beside her older sister and peered at her reflection before looking into the eyes of her sister’s reflection.
“When you and Josh, you know…do it…do you…?” Ashlee trailed off and raised her eyebrows. Jessica’s eyebrows furrowed. “You know.” She nudged Jessica and Jessica nearly poked herself in the eye with the eyeliner. Ashlee giggled and Jessica couldn’t help laughing.
“What brought this on?” Jessica asked, trying her best not to blush.
“Well,” Ashlee began a little hesitantly, “Josh has been saying—to Ryan and I just happened to overhear—how nimble he is in that area…”
Jessica was exasperated, but mostly with Josh. Ashlee couldn’t help overhearing something; besides it was Josh who had said it. She almost couldn’t believe that Josh would be talking about their sex life to Ashlee’s boyfriend. But wasn’t it just like a guy? Talking up their sexual prowess. Men.
Lips pursed, Jessica went for her strapless polka-dot party dress with its fitted bodice and A-line skirt. She decided to be straight with her sister.
“He’s honestly not…bad,” Jessica said carefully as she stepped into the dress and pulled it up. “I mean, he’s not Fabio.”
Ashlee snorted with laughter. “Geez, Jess. That was a little harsh wasn’t it?”
“I guess the sex will get better as we get older. Marriage isn’t all about sex, you know. It’s about a partnership between two people who love each other.” Ashlee turned and raised an eyebrow. And they both laughed.
“So was he better than all the guys you’ve had?” Ashlee inquired.
Then Jessica did blush. “Ashlee! Geez.” The blush left Jessica’s cheeks pink as she remembered the picture from the shoebox. “There’s only been one other.”
With that on her mind, she picked out red pumps to go with the belt in the dress and slipped them onto her feet. Meanwhile, Ashlee turned back to the mirror to appraise herself. She tilted her head and after some careful consideration, donned a necklace and pushed up her bosom.
* * *
Standing in the lobby of Belvidere’s, Katie took in the classy surroundings from beside Nick. Her patterned kimono dress gleamed softly underneath the intimate lighting. She seemed a bit more complacent now that they were at the restaurant.
“This is a nice place,” Katie remarked.
“Coming here was a good idea, Claudia,” Nick agreed.
Claudia-Michelle, clad in black and red—black pencil skirt and necktie halter, red high heels and leather belt courtesy of a quick shopping trip in town—gave a slight nod. “Well, I figured we couldn’t go wrong eating here. I know the owner.”
As they came to the host stand, Katie looked at Claudia-Michelle incredulously. “You know the owner of the restaurant?”
“She’s her cousin,” Aidan supplied. “She owns the one in Gracia, California, too. Quite the moneymaker, as you can see.”
“How convenient,” Katie murmured, her resentment of Claudia-Michelle not waning in the least. She seemed to tolerate Aidan more.
The hostess came and whisked them away to their table, stopping conversation for the moment. They seated themselves, Aidan and Nick being chivalrous by pulling out the chairs for the ladies.
“This is nice,” Claudia-Michelle remarked. She leaned forward a bit to address Katie. She knew when a woman was intimidated by her and sought to eradicate it. “Is Nick always like this with you?”
“Of course I am,” Nick insisted. “I’m the perfect boyfriend.”
“That’s not what Claudia said,” Aidan joked, earning an arm jab from Claudia-Michelle.
“Stop causing trouble,” Claudia-Michelle scolded. “Nick and I never went out. We’re just friends.”
“That’s a good song, too,” Aidan countered. Claudia-Michelle just glared at him. Katie looked to Nick for his reaction and Claudia-Michelle decided it was time to change the subject.
“I don’t know what I see in you, Aidan,” Claudia-Michelle admitted, bringing her water glass to her lips. “You’re really not my type.”
Aidan leaned in and said, with the straightest face he could muster and his British accent wonderfully pronounced, “You just like my doggy style.”
Nick snorted so hard that the water in his mouth nearly came out of his nose. Katie covered her mouth with her hand to hide her smile. Claudia-Michelle choked and coughed uncontrollably. Some other restaurant patrons looked over in curiosity.
Aidan, though, seemed a little bemused by the reactions. “Oh, did I say that right? Nicole taught me that. Quite a jester, our Nicole is.”
Catching her breath, Claudia-Michelle imagined the young black woman and figured she’d be just the person to teach the jocular Aidan something so ridiculous. “That sounds a lot like her,” she managed. Taking in a ragged breath, she placed her water glass on the table top. “If you would excuse me, I think I need to compose myself.”
After Claudia-Michelle had left the table, Aidan commented, “The truth often hurts, doesn’t it?”
Glancing around, Nick made sure no one at the other tables was going to hear what he was about to ask, since it wasn’t exactly proper conversation at a classy restaurant. “Are you and Claudia…?”
Aidan’s eyebrows lifted. “Oh? Sleeping together? Why wouldn’t we be?” He grinned. “She’s quite the animal, if you can believe it. But I don’t talk about my sex life like the weather, so that’s all you’ll hear about it.”
Amused, Nick glanced at Katie. Her eyebrows quirked, but she didn’t say anything.
* * *
On the other side of the dining room, Jessica pushed back her seat and stood. “I have to go to the ladies’ room.”
Ashlee put her napkin aside and stood also. “I’ll go with you.”
Josh shook his head amusedly and turned to Ryan. “What’s up with women traveling in packs to the bathroom? Is that some prehistoric ritual passed on from generation to generation? And what do they do in there anyway?”
“We talk about sex, lipstick, and maxi pads,” Jessica retorted. Her sister joined her side. “We’ll be right back.”
In the bathroom, Ashlee went for one of the stalls while Jessica checked her makeup in the long mirror over the sinks. Already standing at a sink was a raven-haired woman in black and red. Rubies winked at her ears and wrist. Jessica freshened her lipstick as the woman stared at her.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” the woman asked.
Jessica looked at her as one of the toilets flushed and Ashlee came out of the stall. “No…I don’t…” Then she gasped as recognition dawned on her. “Oh, now I remember you. Claudia-Michelle, right?”
“That’s right. And you’re Josh Martin’s wife. Jessica?”
“Yeah. Gosh, it’s been so long since that Halloween party last October.”
Claudia-Michelle chuckled. “Only a few months, but it feels like longer.” She leaned against the counter. “So what brings you to Mammoth Lakes?”
“Josh and I are on vacation with my sister and her boyfriend,” Jessica answered. She introduced Ashlee to Claudia-Michelle, and Ashlee complimented Claudia-Michelle’s shoes. After Claudia-Michelle thanked her and commented on her necklace, Ashlee stepped aside to wash her hands. “So what are you doing here? From what Josh told me, you don’t ever take a vacation.”
“I’m working on a new project with a friend,” Claudia-Michelle explained. “I thought the change of pace might help to inspire our work. So it’s not really a vacation. More of a busman’s holiday.”
Ashlee dried her hands and Jessica said, “It was nice seeing you again, Claudia.”
“Likewise. Enjoy your dinner. Maybe we’ll see each other around somewhere. How long are you here?”
The trio walked down the hallway and back to the dining room. “We’re here until the end of the month.”
“Oh.” Claudia-Michelle seemed surprised. “Well, we’ll definitely run into each other again. But even if we don’t, I’m in cabin number seven. Just knock on the door and beware of the charmer who answers.”
“Charmer?” Jessica asked.
Claudia-Michelle explained and gestured to the dining room where her companions sat, perusing the menu. Jessica’s eyes followed her finger, and for a moment, there was a humming moment as she took the scene in.
Beside an empty chair that was obviously Claudia-Michelle’s a dark-haired man was sitting. His long dark hair was pulled back into a stubby ponytail that toyed with the collar of his white collared shirt. He was handsome, and from behind her Jessica heard Ashlee make a sound that seemed suspiciously like a purr. A redhead sat beside him, her glossy red locks flowing freely on her shoulders. She laughed and placed her hand on the person sitting beside her…
It was then that the world stopped. Jessica’s vision became tunneled, and it was focused on a single circle of light.
His eyes were was blue as she remembered. His hair was styled differently, but she could almost feel her fingers going through it, the silk sliding between her fingertips.
Watching every motion in this foolish lover’s game
On this endless ocean, finally lovers know no shame…
It’s him. There he is. After all this time.
Jessica’s mouth opened involuntarily, as if she wanted to call out his name…
Claudia-Michelle frowned and blinked when she noticed that Jessica wasn’t paying any attention to her. “Jessica?”
Ashlee stared at her sister quizzically. “Jess?” She waved a hand in front of her sister’s face. “Are you in there?”
He began laughing at something his dark-haired, handsome friend was saying. The redhead, who Jessica guessed was his girlfriend, just smiled politely but didn’t laugh. Oh, his laugh…
Claudia-Michelle placed a hand on Jessica’s shoulder. Jessica jumped and looked at Claudia-Michelle, eyes luminous.
“Um…” Claudia-Michelle began.
“We should probably be going,” Jessica said hurriedly, feeling like she had a slippery hold on her emotions. This would prove to be an awkward moment, being at the same table with her husband after this. “Bye, Claudia.”
Not able to protest, Claudia-Michelle watched them leave without a word. And wondered just what had happened between Josh’s wife and Nick Lachey.