CHAPTER ONE

 

THE STENCH of stale alcohol and sex hit me before I even opened my eyes. I lay there for several moments trying to figure out what was happening and hoping it was nothing more than the lingering effects of a bad dream. I knew it wasn’t, but I was holding on to the possibility a bit longer because reality was seriously going to suck. My bladder, on the other hand, had other ideas. It wasn’t going to allow me to hide. Slowly I opened my eyes and blinked several times until they adjusted to the bright sunlight streaming into the room. The bedroom looked like a tornado had touched down: pictures on the wall tilted, lamp overturned, clothes scattered, and shoes tossed aside with abandon. All proof of a night of poor choices, and if that wasn’t enough, the rumbling snoring sounds coming from next to me surely were. I turned my head toward the noise and slapped a hand over my eyes. Oh, you did it this time, Ben. You lost your goddamn mind. I splayed my fingers, took a quick peek, and groaned. Lying next to me in all his naked glory was my ex-husband, Hugh Bayard.

The weight of the situation crashed down on me like a ton of bricks, and I couldn’t get out of that bed fast enough. I stood beside the mattress, staring at Hugh, trying to get a grasp on how in the hell I’d come to be in bed with my ex. Then the thick alcohol-infused cloud lifted and the events of the night before came rushing back with humiliating clarity. Hugh’s invitation to dinner, the drinks—far, far too much alcohol, then… I groaned again. What an idiot. I knew better than to drink to excess, especially around Hugh. We sat at the restaurant, eating, drinking, laughing. I remember the tingling, thinking this wasn’t going to turn out well, then the next thing in a taxi heading to my place. Kissing, hands roaming over warm skin, clothes falling away….

How could I have been so stupid? I’d done the one thing I swore I would never do again—let Hugh Bayard back into my bed.

Embarrassment, irritation, and regret increased by the second. Then, just to add the cherry to the top of my emotional cocktail, I had to look at Hugh again. Even in sleep, the man looked polished. His dark salt-and-pepper hair, cut short enough that there was no bed head, his neatly trimmed beard, streaked with silver, accentuating his strong jawline. His features lay slack, giving him a softer look. If it was possible, Hugh looked even better asleep. Suddenly, without waking, he rolled, covering his head with the sheet. Irritation filled me again, and I snapped out of my lustful thoughts. How appropriate—Hugh Bayard turning his back on me after he’s fucked me.

I snatched up what clothes I could find and stomped into the bathroom. I gave in to the demand of my bladder, then took care of whatever had crawled into my mouth and died during the night. Minty fresh, I left the bathroom without a glance at my reflection. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like what I saw. Instead, I ran my fingers through my knotted hair, smoothing it down best I could. No doubt, I looked like a crazy man, but I didn’t care. Hell, it was only appropriate—I had the crazy all over me.

For once, my poor housekeeping skills were a bonus because I found my unfolded laundry in a basket on the coffee table. I rummaged through it, found clean underwear and jeans but no shirt. I searched the area—aha—my shirt from the night before was on the floor near the closet. I grabbed it, shrugged into it, and instantly regretted the decision. The cotton material still smelled of Hugh’s rich scent, which just irritated me all the more. It didn’t matter that I was just as guilty of the epically bad decisions. Hugh was the one who brought out this side of me. This was all his fault, and now his scent was all over me again. I hated it, but I’d rather cut off my left nut than go back in the bedroom and take the risk of facing Hugh again.

I found my sneakers beneath the couch and jammed my feet into them without socks. I found my wallet on the kitchen counter and shoved it in my back pocket. After one last look around, I fled the apartment. It was going to be a long, long workday, but first, I had to find something for the throbbing in my head or the day wouldn’t only be long, but painful.

 

 

THE FIRST hour at the Common Cure, the local restaurant and bar I’d been lucky enough to get employment at when I’d first come to the city, was pure hell. The drumbeat in my head had quieted, but that left me with nothing to do but focus on the bad choices I’d made. Epically bad choices, the little voice in my head clarified, whom I just as quickly told to shut the fuck up. Thankfully, around eleven, the lunch rush picked up before I could go completely insane. It was all I could do to keep up with the crowds rushing in with the hope they’d make it to the front of the line before their lunch break ended. The mass of people fighting each other for a meal during a New York City hour boggled my mind. Hadn’t anyone ever heard of a frickin’ sack lunch?

“Hey, Ben. What’s up?” Melanie, or Mel as I so fondly called her, popped up next me to check out the crab salad I was making. “You’ve been distracted all morning.”

“No, no, really. I’m just peachy, nothing going on with me,” I grumbled without looking up. I couldn’t meet her gaze. She’d know something wasn’t right. She had an irritating way of knowing when I’d fucked up.

“Doesn’t sound like nothing is wrong, so spill it,” Mel insisted.

“I’d really rather not.”

“Too bad. You know I won’t let it go until you tell me,” Mel said, sounding determined.

That was okay—I was just as determined not to get into it. I wiped my hands on my apron, then made the mistake of glancing at Mel. My resolve faltered. Mel and I had hit it off instantly when we first met, even with our ten-year age difference. Melanie Knutson, with her blonde curls, bright blue eyes, and turned-up nose, looked much younger than her twenty-four years. However, beneath that sweet appearance was a motivated, single-minded, and dogged spirit intent on changing the world one goal at a time. Not only did she work full-time at the Common Cure, but she also took a full load of college courses, determined to be a social worker someday. Mel had grown up in foster care and was appalled by how some of those who were supposed to protect children failed miserably. She wanted to make a difference and was a huge advocate for reform to the current system. I had no doubt she’d do remarkable things.

“What happened?” Mel insisted. When I remained silent, she added, “Come on, Ben. I can tell you’re dying to get whatever it is off your chest.”

“I totally fucked up!” Robert, the dishwasher jerked his head around to gawk at us. Great! I gritted my teeth and lowered my voice. “I did something really, really stupid.”

“You didn’t call for bail money, so I seriously doubt it’s that bad.”

“I wish it was as simple as needing bond.” My body heated as unwanted memories from the night before flooded back. Hugh kissing me, fumbling hands on zippers and buttons. Skin, heat, pleasure…. I gave myself an internal shake. Mel was a good friend, but I had to get myself back in the present. I was sure she wouldn’t have appreciated me popping a boner while she was grilling me. I shoved the unwanted images away and took deep breaths, trying to get myself under control. I stole a glance at Mel, who was still staring at me with an expectant expression and tapping her foot impatiently.

“Fine! I slept with my ex last night,” I blurted.

Mel’s eye went comically wide. “What?”

She knew all about my disastrous marriage to Hugh. God, I couldn’t count the number of times I’d sworn to her that I wouldn’t touch Hugh again, not even with a ten-foot pole, so it was no wonder she was staring at me in shock.

“I know, I know. Hugh showed up unannounced, informed me that my mother is getting married. I mean, I was skeptical. I totally wouldn’t put it past my mother to make something like that up just to get me to come home. You know she just can’t seem to help herself from trying to find ways to dig her controlling tendrils back into me. But my mommy issues are for another time.” I blew out a pent-up breath. “He got me drunk.”

Mel arched her brows. “Sure he did.”

“I’m serious, Mel, he did.”

Mel waved a dismissive hand. “Whatever, Ben. Regardless of whether he did or didn’t, I’m insanely jealous right now.”

“About what?” I asked incredulously.

“You told me your ex is hot, hung, and rich.” Mel tilted her head, a blonde curl falling into her face. She blew it out of the way before saying, “On second thought, I think I kind of hate you right now. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve gotten any action?”

“No, and I don’t want to know, so zip it.” I scowled at her. “But you’re more than welcome to Hugh. Be my guest. Just let me know how great you feel after he bangs you, then turns his back on you once he’s satisfied.” I snapped my mouth shut as the anger began to bubble up.

“I’m sorry, that was insensitive.”

Sincerity filled Mel’s voice, but she really didn’t understand my reasoning. Mel focused so much on her goals that she had no desire to tie herself to anyone. She had no problem keeping emotions out of the physical equation. Sex for pure pleasure and nothing more. God, how I wished I could do the same thing. If only I could have compartmentalized like that. Unfortunately, I’d been in love with Hugh since even before I knew what the meaning of love was. I’d never been with anyone but Hugh, and the thought of being with someone else in the future…. I really didn’t want to think about it. “Apology accepted, but only if you’ll cover for me this afternoon? I’ve got an audition.”

“Seriously, Ben? You’re going to use my insensitivity for your personal gain. That’s low, man.”

“Yes, I am,” I told her and smiled broadly. “Now get back to work before you get us both fired.”

“This isn’t over,” Mel assured me. Nonetheless, it was for now—she was forced to get back to work when the crowd continued to swell and the manager began to shout.

 

 

I STOOD outside the small rundown building and frowned. I checked the address again, and it was the right place. It wasn’t Broadway—hell, it wasn’t much more than a community theater that looked like it was on the verge of being boarded up—but I was desperate. I’d take what I could get. I’d exhausted and embarrassed myself trying out for role after role. It was the same “don’t call us, we’ll call you” response each time. And those were the nice ones. I’d finally broken down and hired an agent—sort of. Frank Wolfe was new to the biz, still in the process of building his clientele. It was the only reason I could afford him. What Frank lacked in experience, he made up for in enthusiasm.

Hot musty air hit me when I opened the door, and sweat instantly bloomed on my brow. I pulled a napkin from my pocket and swiped it across my forehead, hoping to look less rattled than I was. In the main theater, there were row upon rows of scarred wooden seats sloped toward the stage. The carpeted aisles were threadbare and stained. The place was nearly as shabby as my apartment, and it didn’t smell any better either. Even so, the familiar reactions that any theater evoked in me kicked in. My pulse sped up a notch, and butterflies took flight in my stomach. The place may not have looked it, but to me it was magical. I’d experienced the same reaction when my parents took me to my first Broadway show as a kid. I sat between them in awe, captivated by the lights shining on the stage, the glittering costumes, and the amazing backdrops. The actors onstage danced to the orchestra’s movements and melody, even when only speaking. Every detail of that enchanted night imprinted itself on my young mind. A dream sparked inside me, and I knew someday I would be an actor.

I studied the group of people milling around the stage. Maybe this was my chance. I squared my shoulders and walked confidently down the aisle. I’d put my dreams on hold for far too long.

An older woman, overly dyed red hair pulled into a tight bun with pencils stuck in it, sat at a table with papers scattered across it. She looked up when I approached, her lime-green glasses perched precariously on the tip of her narrow nose. She looked like she belonged there in that theater, quite the colorful character. She raked her eyes up and down me with a disapproving expression. “Honey, you’re about ten years too late for the starring role.” She chomped her gum, popped it noisily, then went back to rustling through the papers in front of her. “Next!”

Story of my life. Honestly, the blame sat squarely on my shoulders. I was kicking myself in the ass for not going after my dream sooner. I’d waited too long. “Umm, ma’am?”

She lifted her head slightly, her lips pursed. “You’re still there.”

“Yes, ma’am. Is there another role I could read for? I’ll take anything.”

She studied me for a moment, her expression not softening in the least. I held my breath, and sweat rolled down my temple. It felt like an eternity but was, in actuality, only seconds before she said, “Fine. I suppose you can read from the uncle’s lines.”

My heart started beating again, and a smile stretched my face. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” she said flatly. She rummaged through the papers before her and thrust out a crumpled stack. “Here’s the script. Start at scene two. Mike will read with you.” She pointed toward a metal chair on the stage. “Have a seat.”

I took the script with a shaking hand. I glanced at the paper, and for a moment, it looked like it was a foreign language. My excitement instantly turned to apprehension. I squeezed my eyes shut for a second, then studied the paper again. Oh, thank hell, I could read it, but the mini-freak-out had shaken me. My legs were trembling when I climbed the steps to the stage. Thankfully, I didn’t make a fool of myself and fall on my ass. Yet, with the way my throat was constricting, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to speak. A tumble down the stairs didn’t seem all that tragic right then. I forced my feet to move. I could do this. I took the chair as instructed and swallowed down the lump of fear in my throat. I can do this. Saying it enough times might make it true.

Mike, an older gentleman with a thick gray beard and sour expression, came to stand next to me. He started reading, but he was mumbling so badly, I was having a tough time understanding him. I said a little prayer and then scanned the script, trying to figure out where we were at and where my cue was. However, I missed it, because Mike cleared his throat and nudged my arm. I automatically started speaking. My voice was flat, and I sounded as if I was reading from an instruction manual rather than becoming the character. I tried to capture the essence of the uncle, but it was in vain. No matter how hard I tried, I simply wasn’t feeling it. Somehow, I got through it. The scene ended and I looked toward red-haired woman. By the way she was looking at me with a bored expression, I’d bombed miserably.

“Next,” she called.

Dejected, I left the theater. I’d never sucked that bad at an audition, including my first, which was really saying something. It had to be the reappearance of Hugh that had thrown me off so badly. It was the only explanation. My acting teacher had been a godsend, and with her help, I’d made great strides. It had to be Hugh’s fault. He had strolled back into my life, messed with my head, and shredded my confidence.

Bastard!