In the car on the way home, Danie smirked at Jessica until Jessica got sick of it and commented upon it.
“We all saw you dancing with Kevin Richardson,” Danie responded.
Jessica sighed in frustration. Danie and her damn speculating. “Danie, what the hell—?”
Aidan turned to his date. “Danie, I think you’re going too far on this one.”
Danie turned to face him, indignation in her violet eyes. “Am I the only one old enough to smell the sexual tension in this car? I mean, hello?!” She paused. “Come on, Aidan. You had to see it, too.”
“Kevin and his wife are just adjusting to life here in Gracia, and perhaps it’s not been easy,” Aidan postulated. “After all, the way of life here is a bit slower than it is down south in Los Angeles. That doesn’t mean he’s searching for a mistress.”
Danie crossed her arms over her chest. “With that woman, he should.”
“Danie, stop being so brutal,” Aidan chided. “You can’t judge someone until you know them.”
“Well, I don’t want to get to know that woman. I just have a hunch.”
Marjorie looked away from the window and spoke. “You know, Danie, I wouldn’t start scrutinizing other people’s relationships, if I were you. Doing that has quite a surprising way of making one scrutinize their own relationships, and I don’t think we should get into that with you right now.”
Danie’s lips pursed, but she didn’t say anything. She settled back into the seat, fuming. Aidan looked uncomfortable, but he remained silent.
Jessica couldn’t resist. “Thank you, Marjorie. It always takes a woman of substance to set someone straight.”
* * *
The next morning, lying in Aidan’s bed wearing nothing but a bemused expression, Danie brought up the subject again.
“Danie,” Aidan began as he pulled on some sweatpants, “I think you should leave it alone. Your sister has better things to do than to mess around with a married man.”
Danie glared at him, violet eyes filled with fire. “You are so close-minded.”
“I’d like to think I’m the kind of bloke that would know how to do the right thing. And encouraging your sister to become a homewrecker is most definitely not the right thing.”
Danie chewed on that. Aidan ventured to the bathroom to shave. Danie honestly liked him with a little stubble, but that was beside the point at the moment. She was more focused at the subject at hand—her sister’s sex life. She hated to see Jessica lonely while she herself enjoyed the sensual skills of her best friend. No matter how immoral that seemed. And the fact that Jessica never came out and said she was lonely was also nonessential.
Grabbing her orange silk robe, Danie stalked into the adjoining bathroom. Aidan was in the middle of scraping foamy shaving cream off his face with a razor. His longish brown hair was pulled back with a rubber band he’d picked up somewhere around the house. His lucid brown eyes were trained on his own image in the mirror before him. She remembered how those eyes had been smoky with lust not too long ago, and she knew how she would get him to see things her way.
She gently closed the door. That got his attention. He would have ignored her otherwise.
He spoke to her but he didn’t turn away from the mirror. “Danie, I don’t know why you want to keep pressing this subject. Jessica is old enough to pick who she wants to involve herself with. Don’t bother her about this.”
Men. They just didn’t get it. Danie placed her hands on her hips, her plan derailed for the moment. She would execute it in due time. But at this time, she was outraged. She had to handle that particular comment first.
“Aidan. Darling. Don’t you get it? Jess has just come out of that wretched masquerade that the masses call marriage, and she needs something to restore her faith in love, life, and sexual intercourse. And Kevin Richardson looks just the man for the job. He seems interesting enough…” If you know what I mean.
Aidan rolled his eyes and turned on the faucet. “You just don’t get it, do you?” He placed the cream-laden razor underneath the stream of water. “It wouldn’t just be sex. They would probably develop feelings for each other, then what would she be? A mistress to a very famous, very prominent, and very new member to our community.” He turned the hot water on and placed a rag under the faucet. Danie crossed her arms over her chest. “She would be doing to Kevin’s wife what Lawrence and his administrative assistant did to her. And it’s called adultery, by the way—not restoring one’s faith in life, love, and sexual intercourse.” Danie’s eyes narrowed. “Your words, not mine.”
As he wiped his face, Danie picked up a nearby towel and inched closer to him. She patted his damp jaw and saw that Aidan was still slightly wary. Well, it was now or never.
Danie stepped in front of him and loosened the belt in her orange silk robe. She brought him close to her, and he found that her naked body was still as warm as it had been when they had made love that morning. Of course, she thought of it as sex—but he wasn’t going to tell her what he really thought. He couldn’t think at the moment.
“Jessica wouldn’t be making a mistake,” Danie assured him, her voice in a low purr. “She just needs to have a little fun. And what’s hurtful about that?”
She loosened his drawstring and the baggy sweatpants went sliding down to the floor. Aidan hated that his nether regions weren’t listening to him, but they were at attention for Danie’s benefit. His vision swam when she wrapped a smooth, skillful hand around his stiffening erection.
“Don’t you agree?” she asked, her breath on his ear.
Of course, the question was purely rhetorical, because both of them knew—Danie with growing triumph and Aidan with growing dread—that he couldn’t—and wouldn’t—answer. At least not until Danie was done with him and he could get his mind straight. And at the moment, with Danie’s legs holding him in place and her hot, naughty tongue exploring his neck (which she knew was his weak spot), his mind remained distressingly scrambled. When she moved her hips forward, allowing for him to enter her, he groaned and muttered, “Oh bloody hell.”
* * *
Meanwhile, downstairs, Jessica brought her mug of coffee to the table where Marjorie was reading the newspaper.
“So Aidan hasn’t come down for breakfast yet?” Jessica asked.
The brunette shook her head and turned a page in the newspaper. “No, he hasn’t. I haven’t seen him since he and Danie snuck upstairs early this morning.” Her brown eyes met Jessica’s. “I almost had to remind myself that I was staying at my brother’s house and not some shady motel out of a scene in a…in a…”
Jessica waved a hand. “I totally get what you’re saying.” She sipped her coffee with a scowl. “That’s why I plan to talk to your brother today about this more-than-complicated situation.” She paused as she noticed the irate gleam in Marjorie’s eyes. “Unless you were planning to talk to him.”
Marjorie’s face relaxed a bit, but her eyes were still like rock-hard earth. “Oh, no! I wouldn’t mind you talking to him, Jessica. As a matter of fact, I encourage it. You seem like a good influence on him. I give you full permission to smack him about some.”
The left corner of Jessica’s mouth turned up in a smirk. “And you have full access to kicking Danie’s ass. I think she deserves it at this point.”
Jessica picked up her coffee mug as Aidan sauntered into his own kitchen clad in jeans and a gray T-shirt. His long brown hair was gathered in a stubby ponytail at the back of his head. He kissed his sister on the top of her head as he passed by.
“Good morning to you, too, Aidan,” Marjorie said wryly.
“Did you sleep well last night?” Aidan asked from the open refrigerator door.
“Aidan William Channing Bloom,” Marjorie scolded. She winked at Jessica before Aidan spun around quickly, the milk in one hand. “The nerve of you to ask such a question.”
“What? What did I do?” His brown eyes were wide with innocence.
“Danie,” Marjorie said pointedly. “That’s what you did.”
Jessica nearly started laughing at Aidan’s expression, but she figured laughing was not going to help matters.
Aidan stopped next to his sister’s chair, placing the milk on the table. Jessica decided she’d help pile on the guilt and glared at him, too. When he felt Jessica’s eyes on him, he groaned.
“Look,” he began. “How many times do I have to tell you that I’m old enough—?”
“To stop thinking with your genitalia?” Jessica shook her head. “Men do that until die, my friend. There’s no escaping it—that is, if you’ve got your head on straight.” She patted his hand. “You’ve got a good head on you. I don’t want Danie to be the one to scramble it. Remember, this is a woman that just last night was encouraging me to go sleep with another woman’s husband.” Jessica went back to her cooling coffee. “Just think about that.”
Aidan placed the milk carton on the table and opened his mouth, then closed it when his sister looked at him pointedly. Jessica sipped on her coffee as Danie sauntered into the kitchen, a cheerful whistle on her lips. No wonder. She was probably elated because she’d gotten laid.
“Hello all!” she trilled, strolling to the refrigerator like she was at home.
No one said anything. Aidan was afraid his sister was going to kill him and Jessica was afraid she was going to swear aloud.
“So what’s for breakfast?” Danie chattered amid the silence.
“A great big piece of reality pie,” Jessica muttered. Marjorie kicked her under the table for nearly making her lose her composure. Jessica rolled her eyes and shook her head as if to say, “She was asking for it.”
“Jessica’s coming with me to brunch at Belvidere’s,” Marjorie declared to keep herself from giggling.
“Brunch?” Jessica asked. She was dressed to have a talk with Aidan at that moment, not rub elbows with prominent members of the city. Compared to Marjorie’s stylish deep blue wraparound dress, Jessica’s blue jeans and pewter V-neck sweater seemed grossly gauche and so…regular.
“You aren’t serious aren’t you?” Jessica continued.
Marjorie stood as Danie and Aidan looked on. Aidan appeared anxious. Jessica figured he was about to have it out with Danie as soon as they left.
“Of course I’m serious,” she responded. She took Jessica’s hand. “I’m going to need company, Jessica, since I don’t know many people here. And you’d be the perfect company.”
“But—but—” Jessica kept protesting, even as they were out the door and in her car.
Silence. Danie sat down at the spot Marjorie once occupied. She perused the paper a little, willing to ignore Aidan’s gaze on her. She figured he was still a little steamed—and not in the best way—about her maneuver in the bathroom several minutes before. Oh well. He’d get over it.
When the quiet began to bother her, she commented brightly upon a sales ad in the paper. “Oh look at this! Sears is having a really big bed linen sale. This ought to be fun. I’ve been thinking about changing the color scheme in my bedroom—”
“Danie, we need to talk,” Aidan said sternly.
She knew what this was about and cursed Jessica and Marjorie for their meddling. She waved a hand in dismissal. “Oh, can it wait? I really don’t think—”
Aidan’s brown eyes were hard. Danie had never seen his eyes like that unless he was angry about something. He slid the paper away from her and sat down in the seat Jessica had once occupied.
“It cannot wait. It’s been going on for far too long.”
She knew what he was talking about. She had feared this day would come. Although a part of her grieved over the eventual lost sex, another part of her felt like her friendship with Aidan was crumbling because she dared to cross a line—and continued to play both sides even though it was detrimental to them both.
“Fine,” she said. “Say what you have to say.”
Anger simmered in Aidan’s somber brown eyes. “Stop acting like this is some offhand discussion. This is serious, Danie. Serious to me.”
Danie sighed, a long-suffering sigh that indicated that she would listen to him since he so adamantly insisted upon it. “Alright then. Say what you have to say.” She shook her head. “I don’t see what’s so important that you have to have your Fruit of the Looms in a bunch—”
“Danie, I’m in love with you.” Aidan said this as if he were trying to tear off a stubborn band-aid.
The blood drained from Danie’s face when it finally sunk in. What he said. How could he—?! “You are what?”
“You heard me. I said I’m in love with you. Do I have to say it again? Once was already embarrassing enough.”
Danie’s nostrils flared. “Oh no. I think I’ve heard enough.” She stood and slammed the chair under the table. “You fucking jerk. You promised me that this very thing wouldn’t happen. And now you’re telling me that it has!”
Aidan rose, too. “And you should have known that no one in his right mind would be able to keep a promise like that. Yes, people have sex without emotion everyday in this crazy world. But I’m not one of those crazy people, Danie.”
“I don’t give a shit what you think you are,” Danie snapped. “You promised me this, and here you are breaking your promise!”
“And how dare you force me to make such a damn promise right before you took me to bed?” Aidan countered. “Danie, any man would do what I did. You probably would have been better off pointing a gun at my head considering the circumstances. And shot me dead.” He slid the chair under the table gently. It was his chair and table after all. “It’s over, Danie. I can’t do this anymore. I hate to think we did what we have been doing for the sake of sex, but we did. I hope you can live with yourself, because I sure as hell can’t.”
With that, Aidan stormed out of the kitchen, leaving the milk on the table and Danie standing there, stunned.
* * *
At 1006 Esperanza Drive, a brand-new gold Toyota Camry stopped in the Richardsons’ driveway behind a blue Ford SUV. The driver of the Camry wasn’t worried about naming makes and models of cars; she was more worried about making it to the brunch at Belvidere’s on time.
When Midori Tsukimori made an appearance, she always drew attention to herself. The twenty-four-year-old was well used to the scrutiny. Being a former print model made one more than accustomed to the barrages of questions and the presence of watching eyes, and Midori couldn’t deny that her education in eminence was more than useful. She turned off the ignition in her car and placed the keys in a small purse. She stepped out of the car, clad in a simple jade-green dress accented by gold jewelry. Her long black hair flowed over her shoulders and down her back, making her look causal and distinguished all at the same time. She wore sensible low-heeled shoes, for she was one for comfort, and not torture.
The day was a bit warmer, so she didn’t carry a coat. Across the street at 1005 Esperanza, Aidan Bloom came out of the front door in a rush, seeming irritated. She yelled his name and he looked up at her. Even from there she could tell his eyes were stormy. Something had happened, and she wasn’t going to press the issue at the moment. She had more pressing matters in mind. But he waved, and mustered up a smile for her before he got behind the wheel of his gray sedan and drove off.
Midori turned to the Richardsons’ door and rang the doorbell. She could hear the chime go off inside the house. Footsteps neared and increased in sound. Midori folded her hands as the door was opened by Kristin Richardson.
Kristin Richardson, clad in a man’s dress shirt and jeans, didn’t look happy to see her. Her brown eyes cooled when she saw the petite half-Chinese, half-Japanese young woman on her doorstep. Not only did she seem intimidated by the stylishly dressed Midori, but she also seemed jealous for some reason. Midori didn’t have to think long and hard to figure out why.
But Midori had breeding. And with that came forced politeness. “Good morning, Mrs. Richardson,” she greeted her.
“Midori,” Kristin said simply. Midori noticed the venom in her tone and kept smiling. Much better than an open insult was a steady, dauntless smile. “Would you like to come in?”
“Of course. It would probably be better if I waited on Kevin inside. It’s still a bit chilly outside.” She sashayed past Kristin, smelling of warm vanilla. If there was anyone in the world who could feel eyes boring in her head like a power tool, it was Midori Tsukimori.
Behind her, Kristin closed the door. The heat swirled up Midori’s legs and she was glad she came inside. She glanced around. There were a lot of warm colors and pieces of furniture that seemed right to curl up in. A peek into their living room indicated that they hadn’t put up their Christmas tree up yet. She would happily change her company, but she was inside nonetheless. Her breeding blanched at the tight silence that fell in between the two, so she strove to fill it with meaningless conversation.
“So I hear you’ve got an audition in New York for the next couple of days,” Midori remarked. “Kevin told me all about it. I was quite shocked that you weren’t coming to this brunch with him. A lot of Gracians will be there. And it’s not as formal as the banquet for Countess Marjorie so you would have been able to relax.”
Kristin walked across the shiny wooden floor and went to the phone and answering machine. She picked up an envelope and looked at Midori pointedly. “Kevin will be fine without me. I’ll just have to mingle with everyone some other time.” She placed the envelope back on the table.
Midori frowned. The source of this antagonism was not her arrival. Well, not completely. Then Midori remembered what her good friend Megami Takumi-Hill had said about the party. One thing in particular carried renewed importance: everyone had been abuzz with the event of Kevin and Kristin’s early departure. From what she had sensed about Mrs. Richardson, this had only added to her growing list of reasons why coming to Gracia was a bad idea.
“You know,” Midori began evenly, “it doesn’t take a genius to figure that you don’t like being here. But here’s a tip for you, Kristin: drop the act and start accepting your surroundings. There is no way in hell I’m letting Kevin stroll out the door just because you have a grudge against the place.” She heard a door slam. The polite smile reappeared in all its pristine glory. “I am a very determined person. And when I have someone as good and decent as Kevin walk into my school with the talent that he has, I’m going to fight to keep him. If you love him, you will see the good in what he does and not the paltry, two-cent roles you get whenever you can.” She lifted her chin and spoke just before Kevin appeared on the landing. “I hope we are clear, Mrs. Richardson.”
Fury smoldered in Kristin’s eyes. Kevin descended the stairs in a black sweater and jeans. He grinned when he saw Midori standing in the foyer of his new home. Her smile changed, but it was in her eyes mostly. She was happy to see him, and once again she noticed that he was a good-looking man. She knew that she wouldn’t be the last to think so.
“I think you’re going to be fighting them off with a stick,” Midori remarked.
Kevin chuckled. “You know how to make a man feel good, don’t you?” His lips quickly brushed her cheek in a friendly manner. She could smell the scent of his woodsy cologne and wondered if Kristin wasn’t right not to like the place. With a man like Kevin, they would be clawing for his attention and since he was married to Kristin, she had the suspicion they might succeed.
“We have to go, or we’re going to be stuck with horrible seats,” Midori told him. She was kidding, actually.
“Alright, Miss Tsukimori.” He rolled his eyes playfully at Kristin. “She’s a slave driver, but a beautifully dressed one.” The cheek buss he gave Kristin didn’t seem as intimate as it should have been to Midori. But then again, she could have been wrong. “Call me when you get there.”
“I will.” Kristin squeezed his arm before he went to follow Midori. “Have fun.”
He waved, and they stepped out into the chilly Saturday morning. It was when they were inside Midori’s car and buckled up that Midori spoke again.
“So are things going alright between you two?” Midori asked. “I noticed a little tension just then. And last night.”
As Midori backed out of his driveway, Kevin’s eyebrows lifted. “Last night? You weren’t there last night.”
She glanced at him before looking both ways. There were no cars passing, so she finished backing out. “I have many friends who went to the party. And no, they weren’t spying for me or anything. But they knew about your appointment, and I suppose that they were concerned.” She braked at a stop sign and took that opportunity to look him in the eye. “Kevin, I hired you because you were exactly what I wanted. You are humble, patient, and talented. You can be firm when you need to be. And children at this age need that. They also need a sense of humor and someone to know what they’re going through. They don’t need someone who doesn’t have any time for them. That’s why your relationship with Kristin is of my concern. Not because I want to gossip all over town, but because I know you would probably leave here if she pressed enough. And I don’t want that to happen. On the other hand, I don’t want to see your marriage fail by my doing.” She patted his hand. “I hope things work out for the better for you and Kristin. And if they don’t, we’ll figure out something when we get there.”
Midori drove off from the stop sign. “Good,” Kevin said. “I don’t want you to worry about Kristin and me. I understand where you’re coming from, but you need to stop worrying. It will take a little while, but we will settle in here. I promise.”