"If you're looking for adventure, look no further." Edith teasingly picked up the glass bowl and held it out to Shayna. "I can't give you mud or rain, but I can offer you a no-strings sexual encounter. And I'm sure one of those jokers has a joint just waiting to light up. If they haven't already."
"No." Shayna laughed. "I'm good. Besides, you really think any of those lily-white people out there would even let me pick a key from their bowl?"
"Yes." Embry's reply was swift and held not a hint of doubt. "Which is why I don't want you going out there."
"But you're going to let your sister."
Embry didn't spare Edith a single glance. "I don't have any say over what she does."
"And you think you have a say over what I do?"
"No," he said quietly yet firmly. "I don't think it. I know it."
Shayna raised a brow. "Oh really?"
"Really," he said with force and a certainty that worried Edith. Had they...? No, Shayna would have said something. Wouldn't she? Unwilling to even contemplate the possibility, Edith tried to take control of the situation.
"Enough, you two." Edith set the bowl back down with an extra little bang in hopes of getting their attention. "This is a love-in, not war."
"Yes, Shayna." Embry smiled. "Let's make love. Not war."
Shayna rolled her eyes. "You are so corny."
"But you still love me," he teased.
"Keep thinking that. Anyway"--Shayna turned her attention back to Edith--"aren't you throwing a party?"
"Well, Irvin is, mainly." Which gave her ample time to hide out, just as she preferred. "I'm only making food and collecting keys."
"Speaking of food"--Shayna glanced over her shoulder to Embry--"I have a couple of more bags in the car. Be a sport and get them for me."
"Great, now I'm helping out too."
"Less lip smacking and more working," Edith said. "We need to finish the rest of the hors d'oeuvres. You can't have an orgy on an empty stomach."
"Fine," he grumbled. "Is it unlocked?"
"Yes." Shayna smiled sweetly as Embry stomped from the kitchen.
"Did you get it?" Edith asked as soon as Embry closed the door behind himself.
"Yes." Shayna reached inside the tan grocery bag and pulled out an even smaller plastic bag. She quickly slid it to Edith, who slipped it in her apron pocket without opening it to see what was inside. She didn't have to. She was the one who'd asked Shayna to purchase the prophylactics, knowing the other woman was bolder and braver than Edith ever would be.
"Now what did I say about those?" Shayna sounded more motherly than best friendish at the moment.
Amused, Edith dutifully recited what they had discussed. "No matter who I end up with, make him use them."
"I promise." Once again she felt like a child talking with her mother.
"Shayna." Sometimes the other woman's job at the local news station made her overcautious about the strangest things.
"I promise, no matter whom I end up with, we'll use the condoms. Happy?"
"Yes. And please remember that just because they call it a social disease does not mean it's very sociable. Do you dig?"
"Yes. I dig." A quick telling smile flashed across Shayna's lips. "That sounded all wrong coming from me, didn't it?" Edith admitted ruefully.
Shayna nodded but thankfully refrained from laughing. "Just a little."
Edith knew it was true. She was the unhippest person in the world. One would think that after years of being friends with the stylish and happening black woman, some of it might have rubbed off on Edith, but unfortunately it didn't.
"But that's okay. I love your white ass anyway."
"One more thing, before you get to getting. I think we should have some sort of signal."
Edith frowned in confusion. "For what?"
"For the party. You know I'm all for you exploring your wild side, but if you pick someone you'd rather not see naked, we need to think of a way to get you out of there and fast."
The six couples they'd invited were made up of their neighbors and friends, people Edith had known for a very long time. Out of the six men, Edith couldn't see a bad option, but she wasn't so sure the men would say the same about her. "Truth be told I'm more afraid of whomever I pick feeling that way about me and not vice versa."
Shayna frowned. "Who on God's green earth wouldn't want to be picked by you?"
"Have you seen the women in this neighborhood? They're all Stepford wives. Perfect, thin, beautiful." Edith looked down at the floor-length red-and-gold-patterned dress she was wearing and sighed. Even in the gorgeous dress with its billowy long sleeves and plunging neckline she was no Stepford.
Edith was realistic when it came to her looks. She had lovely hair--the auburn color was unique, and it never failed to garner her a compliment or two whenever she went out. Her skin was healthy, marred only by the freckles sprinkled across her nose, but that was about where she drew the line. Her breasts were overly large, as was the rest of her size-18 body. She was fat. No sugarcoating it, and so not the type of person who inspired men to wish she picked their key. "Basically they're everything I'm not and more."
Unfortunately for Edith, Shayna wasn't one for riding on the pity train.
"Oh, stop it." Shayna smacked her lightly on the arm. "You are perfect and beautiful, and if I ever hear you saying differently, I'm going to take you over my lap and paddle you silly."
Edith gave her thin friend the once-over and smirked. Shayna's intentions were all well and good, but reality was a bit more prevalent. "You and what army?"
"Me." Startled, both women turned to the open door to where Grady was standing, grocery bag in arm, a frown on his handsome face. The tall brunet appeared anything but pleased. His hazel eyes were stormy, and unfortunately for Edith they were focused directly on her. "And I promise you, Edie, I won't need backup. Of any sort."
"Oh...I..." Damn, she had nothing. And for good reason, because if Grady said he'd do it, she knew darn well he would. Only problem was, Edith didn't think she'd put up much of a fight.
GRADY WAITED UNTIL Embry entered through the kitchen door he was holding open before he closed it and made his way over to where Edie was standing. As happy as he was to see her, he was really displeased to walk in when he did. There was nothing that fired him up quicker than hearing the lovely lady put herself down. "I believe you and I have had this conversation before."
"Wha--" Edie cleared her throat before trying again. "What conversation?"
From the corner of his eye, he could see Shayna edge past him with a small pot in hand and out of the line of fire. He always knew she was a smart lady. "The one where I told you to stop disparaging yourself."
"I didn't say it to you."
Grady frowned. Her hairsplitting annoyed him to no end. "I don't recall that being the rule."
"Sorry to interrupt," Shayna said from behind him. "But Embry and I are going to go ahead and put the fondue out and check the bar."
"Why do I have to..." Embry's words trailed off, then disappeared altogether, with only the sound of the swinging kitchen door as evidence the other couple had ever been in the room.
"What are you doing here?" Edie asked, apparently giving her brother and her friend as much thought as Grady was.
She was also avoiding the subject and deflecting like crazy, but Grady was going to allow it. This once. He could tell he already had her tilted off balance. There was no need to push her completely off center. At least not yet. "Helping your brother bring in the bags."
"No, not in-the-kitchen here. Here." --she gestured around her-- "at the party. I thought you guys were heading out tomorrow."
"We are." And it wasn't soon enough for him. This job promotion had been a long time coming. The only drawback, it was forcing him to move away from the town he grew up in and leave behind the people he knew and loved. "But I couldn't leave without saying good-bye to my friends."
Good-bye to you.
"And you thought a swingers' party was the perfect way?"
"We were invited and..." He chose his next words carefully. "I saw it as...a means to an end."
His answer brought a confused expression to Edie's pretty face. "I don't understand."
"Where are the boys tonight?"
"At my mother's. She's trying to get in some last-minute grandmothering before we leave town. By the way she's acting you'd think we were moving out of the country instead of just out of town," he said as he walked around her to the counter. Wanting to help, he set the bag on the counter, then began to unload it.
"You don't have to do that." Edie rushed to his side and placed her hand on the sleeve of his brown suede jacket. "You're a guest. You should be out mingling with the rest of the neighbors. This is your last hurrah after all."
"And I choose to spend it in here. With you." Grady looked down into the face of the only woman he had ever truly loved. "Is that so wrong?"
"N-no," she stuttered. "I take it that Marilyn's here as well?"
"Yes," he said flatly. "She went in the front door, and I came back this way to help Embry."
"You don't seem pleased about this."
Grady took the last item out of the bag and set it on the counter. Once he was done, he turned to face Edie. "Pleased about what?"
"The two of you being here. You know if you don't want to do this, no one will think less of you, especially me."
Grady leaned his hip against the counter and peered down at her. "I assure you, I don't have a doubt in the world."
"Really? Not even a little bit hesitant about sharing Marilyn? Some men would freak out at the possibility of seeing the woman they love with another man."
"The woman I love hasn't been mine alone for a very long time now."
"Oh, Grady." Edie wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her head on his chest.
Stunned, Grady just stood there, his hands held out to the sides, floored at this turn of events. But surprise evolved to pleasure, and he drew her into his arms and held her tightly. He wasn't sure what brought this change on, but he was more than happy to take sweet advantage of it.
Unfortunately the moment didn't last long. Edie pulled back a bit and looked up at him, her big blue eyes glistened with tears. "When did you find out?"
"Find out what?" he asked, confused.
"About Marilyn. She's a fool," she said harshly. "She'd have to be to cheat on you."
"Marilyn hasn't cheated on me." At least he didn't think so. If she had, it honestly wouldn't have mattered. After the draining year he'd gone through to finalize the divorce, he really didn't care what she did. Their marriage had been over the day he found out it began on a lie. "But she hasn't been honest." Ever, it seemed. "And that's almost as devastating as an affair."
"Oh." To his dismay, Edie released him and stepped away. "I feel a little silly now."
"Don't. It was nice to know you cared."
"Of course I do. I've always..."
Grady grabbed her hand and kept her from escaping. "Yes?"
"Cared about you."
"I care about you too." He caressed the back of her hand with the pad of his thumb. Her skin was so soft, and he couldn't help but wonder if she would be this soft everywhere. He didn't get long to revel in the idea, because Edie pulled her hand back and nervously used it to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
"I know you do."
He could tell she was feeling uncomfortable, so he changed the subject. Besides, they'd have plenty of time tonight to talk about that sort of thing. "So did you get a chance to look at the information I brought you about the college? I know you're a little nervous about starting again, but it's never too late. I've always thought you'd make a good teacher anyway. I know I would have never gotten through high school without you tutoring me."
"Sure you would have. You were just too hard on yourself. Once you focused, it all worked out."
"Once you showed me how to, it did. Baltimore has some really good schools, just so you know, in case you ever visit someplace other than Chestertown." He tried to sound casual about it, but it was hard when he had so much on the line.
"Well, Irvin vetoed Washington College, so I doubt he's going to all of a sudden think driving two hours away to school is a great idea."
Grady frowned. "What do you mean he vetoed it?"
"Just what I said. He told me he didn't want me going back to school."
Irvin's audacity was sickening. If Grady hadn't already disliked the man before today, he would instantly despise him. "And you're going to listen to him?"
"I'm weighing the pros and cons."
"If you want to go, you should. Don't let Irvin or anyone else stand in your way. If you were my wife..." There were a lot of things that would be different if she were.
"If I were your wife what?"
"I'd support you no matter what you wanted to do." And he would be as proud of her accomplishments as he was of his own. Real men weren't threatened by successful women. Only cowards were.
"I know you would." Edie placed her hand over his tightly clenched fist. Until she'd touched him, he hadn't even realized he'd balled up his hand. Her simple touch eased the savage beast rising inside him. "Marilyn has taken more pottery, cooking, and art classes than anyone in the neighborhood."
"If it made you happy, it would make me happy."
Edie let out a little sigh and shook her head.
"That's what makes you that guy."
Grady furrowed his brow. "What guy?"
"The one all the girls fell in love with in high school."
He didn't have a clue what she was talking about, nor did he care about all the girls. Just one in particular. "Did you, Edie? Did you fall in love with me?" Because Lord knew he'd fallen in love with her.
"Oh." Her cheeks turned beet red, and she busied herself with the groceries on the counter. "I'm sure I had a crush on you back then, and probably every other boy in school too. I wasn't very particular."
Well, that wasn't what he'd been hoping to hear. "You flatterer, you. Seriously, stop it," he said as dryly as he could. "You're going to make my head swell."
She burst out laughing, as he intended. "You always know what to say to cheer me up. God, I'm going to miss you. And the boys"--a soft smile flittered across her lips--"are like the babies I never had. Who's going to help me in my garden this spring, and who will need me to mend their Boy Scout uniforms? And don't get me started on Halloween. I'm not going to have anyone to go trick-or-treating with. Oh, it's not fair. I'm really going to miss them. Miss all of you."
Not if he had anything to say about it. "You won't have to miss all of us."
"No." Grady reached out and brushed his knuckles against her jawline. This was the opportunity he'd been waiting for. The chance to tell Edie about his divorce and the feelings he'd had for her all these years. Come tomorrow, he wanted to begin his new life, in a new town, with a new woman. The woman who should have been his all along. "Edie, I--"
The door from the living room to the kitchen swung open, and Edie jumped away from him as Irvin popped his head around the corner.
"Is everything copasetic in here?" Without sparing her a glance or a chance for a reply, he turned his attention to Grady. "Oh, hey," Irvin said with a smile as he stepped all the way into the room. "I was wondering where you were. Marilyn is looking very foxy. She's going to make someone's husband a very happy man tonight."
"Great," Grady said dryly. "I can't tell you how happy I am to hear that."
Grady shook his head. What an ass. Grady constantly felt the need to wash his hands after a run-in with Irvin. The man was just so slick-looking and definitely not in a good way. Irvin had seen Saturday Night Fever one too many times and somehow walked away with the strangest idea that if he tried very hard, he could in fact turn into Tony Manero. But Mother Nature and common sense disagreed.
Irvin, who was already a good seven years older than Grady and Edie, was not handling the advanced years well. He wasn't an ugly man; he just wasn't Travolta, so it was past time he stopped dressing like him. Man, Grady couldn't wait for the eighties to roll in and for this disco shit to die off already.
"Is there anything you need, Irvin?" Edith's voice was overly cheerful and as fake as Irvin's bad dye job.
"Yes, the party bowl. Everyone who's anyone is already here. It's time to get this show on the road." Irvin rubbed his hands together gleefully, leaving little doubt in anyone's mind he was extremely excited about the night's upcoming actives.
Grady watched him and wondered how Edie ever committed herself to someone so undeserving of her love as Irvin. Grady would never know for sure, but he had a good inkling it had more to do with family connections than it had to do with a love match. Grady would go to his grave believing Edie's father wanted to tie Irvin to his company for the long haul, which was why her dad had pushed her at the older man, even when they were in high school. Back then, though, Edie hadn't paid Irvin any mind. That changed, of course, after Grady and Marilyn married and they'd graduated. Hell, everything changed after that.
"So stop lollygagging in here," Irvin continued excitedly. "And let's get started."
"Fine, I'll bring it right out," she said a bit warily.
Grady wasn't the only person who noticed her tone. The slick smile Irvin had been wearing like a cheap toupee slid away. "Don't start, Edith. You agreed."
"And I'm not changing my mind. I just need a minute."
"Make it two." Irvin ran his gaze over her. "Fix yourself up before we get out there. We don't want anyone thinking they're getting a bum deal. No need for them to know the car's a lemon until they get it off the lot."
Grady's blood turned cold. Without thinking he took a step forward, his gaze focused on the man whose life he was going to take with great pleasure. Before he could get farther, though, Edie moved directly in front of him, cutting him off at the pass. "I'll do that, Irvin, and be along right after."
Her words seem to please the arrogant man who didn't realize he'd been seconds away from taking his last breath. "Make it fast," Irvin said, before turning and heading back into the living room.
"You should have let me--"
"No. I really shouldn't have. Violence is not the answer."
Edie had always been softhearted, but he wasn't so easily swayed. "It can be, if the question is asked correctly."
"He isn't worth it." He hated how her gaze shuttered as she spoke of her husband.
"But you are."
Edie smiled wryly. "Easy to be all heroic when you're leaving tomorrow."
"Let me assure you. There's absolutely nothing easy about leaving..." You, he added silently to himself.
"I have to go. We don't want Irvin coming back in here looking for me." She gave him a small smile. "He may not make it back out there if he did."
"No may about it."
"Animal," she teased, reaching for the bowl on the table. With the dish in hand she began to make her way over to the door.
"Yes?" she asked, turning around.
Grady reached into his pocket and pulled out his car keys. "You forgot something."
Her smile dimmed, and the lights left her eyes. "Yes, I did."
She made her way back and held the crystal out to him to set his keys in. But instead of dropping them on top of the others, Grady pulled the crystal out of her hand and set his car keys on the flat of her palm. "It's not for the bowl. It's for you."