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Jill Strathern left town for the big city and never looked back—until she returned home years later to run a small law practice. It turns out her childhood crush, Mac Kendrick, a burned-out LAPD cop, has also come back to sleepy Los Lobos. Even though Mac rejected her back in high school, Jill can't deny the attraction she still feels for him.
Now Jill and Mac are tangled in enough drama to satisfy the most jaded L.A. denizens—Mafia dons, social workers, angry exes and one very quirky eight-year-old make even the simplest romance complicated. And it all goes to prove that when it comes to affairs of the heart, there's no place like home. An unlikely pair...but a perfect match.
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New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery has entertained millions of readers with her witty and emotional stories about women. Publishers Weekly calls Susan’s prose “luscious and provocative,” and Booklist says “Novels don’t get much better than Mallery’s expert blend of emotional nuance, humor and superb storytelling.” Susan lives in Seattle with her husband and her tiny but intrepid toy poodle. Visit her at www.SusanMallery.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"I look like a freak," Shelley said as she plopped down in the chair and covered her face with her hands. "I'll have to move under the cover of darkness so I don't frighten small children."
Jill Strathern sat down next to her assistant and patted her back. "You're not a freak."
"You're right." Shelley raised her head and sniffed. "Being a freak would be an improvement." She gave a strangled sob.
"This is all fixable," Jill reminded her. "You're not scarred for life."
"My psyche is."
"I think you'll recover."
In fact, Jill was sure of it. Shelley had left work the previous evening excited about her appointment at a new and trendy salon. She'd gone in expecting some subtle highlights and a few layers. She'd left with a botched body perm, orange brassy color and a cut that could only be described as...unfortunate.
"You know what? I have a great idea." Jill stood and walked around her desk where she flipped through her electronic Rolodex. "I know exactly who can fix this for you."
Shelley looked up. "Who?"
Shelley sucked in a breath and for the first time that morning, hope filled her swollen eyes. "Anton? You know him?"
Anton, like Madonna, was famous enough not to need a last name. Two-tone highlights and a styling cost as much as a small imported car, but the rich and famous swore by his magic fingers.
"I'm his lawyer," Jill said with a grin. "Now let me call him and explain we have a hair emergency. I'm sure he can take care of everything."
Fifteen minutes later, Shelley had an appointment for early that afternoon. Jill promised to let her make up the time by coming in early for the next couple of days.
"You're the best," Shelley said as she walked to the door and stepped out into the hallway. "If you ever need me to do anything, let me know. I'm serious. A kidney. Have your baby, whatever."
"Maybe you could look over the brief I left on your desk," Jill told her with a laugh. "It's due first thing in the morning."
"Absolutely. Right this second. Thanks."
Jill chuckled as she turned back to her computer. If only all of life's problems could be solved so easily.
Two hours later, she looked up from her research. Coffee, she decided. A nice, little jump start to keep her brain going. She stood and headed for the centrally located lunchroom where jumbo carafes full of liquid energy waited.
On her way back, she detoured around to the other Willie. In fact, nothing to side of the offices where her husband, also a third-year associate, had his office. They'd been working so many hours the past few weeks, they'd barely seen each other. Her calendar was free. If Lyle's was, too, maybe they could grab lunch together.
His assistant was gone and his door closed. Jill knocked lightly once, then pushed inside. She moved quietly, not wanting to interrupt if he was on the phone.
He was busy, all right, but not with a call. Jill stopped in the center of the room. Breath left her body as the mug of coffee fell to the carpeted floor. She didn't remember letting go, but she felt the hot liquid splash onto her legs.
Her husband of three years, the man she lived with, worked with and cooked for, stood beside his credenza. His jacket was over his chair, his pants around his ankles and he was busily banging his assistant. So busy, in fact, he hadn't noticed Jill's entrance.
"Oh, yeah, baby," Lyle breathed. "Just like that."
But the woman saw Jill. Her face paled and she shoved Lyle away.
Later Jill would remember the silence and how time seemed to slow. Later she would recall the way papers had fluttered to the floor as his assistant scrambled off the credenza and jerked up her panty hose. Later she would want to kill Lyle. But right now she could only stare in disbelief.
This wasn't happening, she told herself. He was her husband. He was supposed to love her.
"Next time you should knock," he said as he bent over and grabbed his pants.
She had, she thought, too stunned to feel much of anything. Then she turned on her heel and ran from the room.
Forty-nine hours and eighteen minutes later, Jill decided that being buried alive was too good for Lyle. Still, she was due some serious revenge. Unfortunately, as she had no idea on how to get the revenge she so desperately needed, she contented herself with imagining him lying on the edge of a desert highway, gasping for breath as she zoomed by at a comfortable ninety miles an hour. She liked the vision of her soon-to-be ex-husband as roadkill.
"Lying weasel rat-fink dog," she muttered as she slowed at the bottom of the freeway off-ramp and turned west.
The lying weasel rat-fink dog was currently back in San Francisco, moving into what should have been her junior partner office with a window. No doubt he would celebrate what should have been her promotion by taking out his assistant, then seducing her with wine from the collection she'd put together, and carrying her off to what had been their bed.
Yes, it was true. Jill's day had gone from bad to worse. It wasn't enough to catch her husband in the act; later that afternoon she'd been fired.
"I hope Lyle gets a sexually transmitted disease and Big Willie falls off," she said aloud, before correcting herself. "Not exactly 'Big' Willie. In fact, nothing to be proud of. I had to fake most of those orgasms, you rat bastard lying weasel dog."
Worse, she'd cooked for him. Jill could accept a bad sex life, but to think she'd ducked out of important meetings so that Lyle could come home to meals she'd prepared really made her teeth ache.
She wanted to roll down the windows and scream into the sea-soaked air that she hated her husband and couldn't wait until their divorce was final. She wished she'd never met him, had never fallen for him and had never married him. But there was no point in frightening the seagulls on the sidewalk and the two old guys playing checkers in the park.
The only bright spot in an otherwise completely black situation was that Shelley's hair had turned out movie-star gorgeous. Something to hang on to, Jill thought as she pulled to a stop at a red light and looked around for the first time since leaving San Francisco. Really looked.
Jeez, she was back in the one place she never wanted to be. Obviously her string of bad luck had continued, she thought, as she realized she was the only person on the planet who really could go home again.
Los Lobos, California—a small, touristy coastal town where folks vacationed every year. You could get homemade ice cream at the local Treats 'n Eats, homemade pie at Polly's Pie Parlor, and the best fajitas in the state at Bill's Mexican Grill. Residents never locked their doors, except during tourist season. The pier was a national treasure and the Halloween Pumpkin festival on the beach was one of the biggest events of the year. For some it was paradise; for Jill, it was like being sentenced to serve time in hell. It was also something else Lyle was going to have to answer for.
At least the family home had been turned over to the Conservancy Society, so she was saved the humiliation of having to live in her old bedroom. The house where she'd grown up was in the process of being restored to its original Victorian prissiness, and so she was temporarily moving in with her aunt Beverly.
The thought of the older woman's gentle smile and potpourri-filled house pushed Jill's foot down on the accelerator. She drove through the center of town—such as it was—and came out on the south side. After making a series of turns, she pulled up in front of a two-story house built in the 1940s. The wide porch had an overhang supported by stone-covered pillars. Several worn pieces of rattan furniture filled the space and offered a place to sit and watch the world go by. Jill found herself in more of a "curl up and lick her wounds" kind of mind-set, but that would pass, and when it did she would appreciate the old rocking chair by the swing.
She parked in front of the house and climbed out. Aunt Bev must have been watching from the big bay window because she stepped out of the house and started down the stairs.
Beverly Antoinette Cooper, known as Bev to her friends, had been born into money. Not gobs and gobs but enough that she'd never had to hold a job, even though she'd spent a couple of years as a schoolteacher
when she'd first graduated from college. Petite, with fiery red hair and a big smile, she'd been the younger of the two children in her family. She'd moved to Los Lobos when her sister had married Jill's father and had decided to stay.
Jill had never been more grateful for the family connection. Her aunt wasn't one to judge or criticize. Mostly she offered hugs, affection and occasionally odd advice. Bev considered herself gifted—psychically—although the jury was still out on that one. Feeling better than she had since walking in on Lyle and his assistant going at it on his credenza, Jill walked around to the sidewalk, where she stopped and smiled.
Her aunt grinned. "Nice wheels." Jill glanced at the gleaming black BMW 545. "It's transportation," she said with a shrug. "Uh-huh. Lyle's?"
"California is a community-property state," Jill said primly. "As he acquired the asset after our marriage, it's as much my car as his."
"You took it because you knew it would piss him off."
"That's my girl." Her aunt glanced at Jill's shirt and raised her eyebrows. "Takeout?"
Jill looked at the stain on the front of the hundred-percent Egyptian cotton custom-made shirt she'd shrugged on over her jeans. The sleeves hung well past her fingers and she could have fit inside the garment two and a half times, but this was Lyle's special shirt that he'd ordered from Hong Kong at the tidy price of five hundred dollars. He'd owned four. The other three were tucked inside her suitcase.
"Burrito," she said as she rubbed at the brownish-red smudge just under her right breast. "Maybe some hot sauce. I stopped at Taco Bell on the way down."
"Tell me you ate in the car," Bev said impishly. "Lyle always did have a thing against eating in the car."
"Every bite," Jill told her.
Bev held out her arms. Jill hesitated only a second, then flung herself into the smaller woman's warm embrace. She'd been holding it together for two days, only allowing herself to deal with the logistics of packing up her world. All her emotions had been stuffed down until it was safe to let them go. That moment turned out to be right now.
Her face heated, her chest tightened and a shudder raced through her.
"I saw him doing it with her," she whispered, her voice thick with pain and the tears she tried to hold back. "At the office. It was so disgusting. He didn't even take his clothes off—his pants were hanging around his ankles and he looked ridiculous. Why wouldn't she make him get naked?"
"Some women don't have any self-respect."
Jill nodded. "At least I always made him get naked."
"I know you did."
"But that wasn't what hurt the most," she continued, her eyes burning. "He stole my promotion. I'd been working so damn hard and I brought in all that business and he got my promotion and I got fired."
The tears broke free. She tried to hold them in, but it was too late. They scorched her skin and dripped onto her aunt's shoulder.
"And what I really d-don't understand is why I'm more mad than hurt," she said, her voice cracking. "Why do I care more about my job than my marriage?"
Jill asked the question rhetorically. She had a feeling they both already knew the answer.
"Want to scratch his car?" her aunt asked.
Jill straightened and wiped her face with the back of her hand. "Maybe later."
"I made cookies. Let's go have some."
"I'd like that."
Bev took her hand and led her toward the house. "I've been doing some research. I think I might be able to put a curse on Lyle. Would that help?"
With each step, Jill felt her pain easing just a little. Maybe Los Lobos wasn't her idea of a good time, but her aunt's house had always been a haven.
"A curse would be good. Could we give him boils with pus?"
"We could sure try."
Two hours later Jill and her aunt had split nearly a dozen double-chocolate-chip cookies and had knocked back several brandies.
"I don't want to do anything malicious," Jill said, pretty darned proud she could say malicious, what with the way the liquor had heated her blood and turned her brain to foggy mush. "So instead of outright scratching the Beamer, maybe I'll just park it by the high-school baseball diamond. All those foul balls could make a real impact on it." She giggled. "Get it? Impact? The two meanings of the word?"
Her aunt sighed. "You're drunk."
"You betcha. And I feel pretty good, if I do say so myself. I didn't think I would. I thought I'd be depressed for days. I mean practicing law here." She grimaced and felt her good mood slipping away. "Okay—that goes on the do-not-think-about list. Not my new practice here, although I use the term loosely. At least that's just until I get a real job. Not Lyle. The divorce is good, though. I really want that. I want our marriage to never have been." She reached for another cookie. "Could we vaporize him? Would that technically be murder?" She sighed. "Never mind. I know it would be. I don't want to be disbarred. That would be too depressing for words."
Cookie crumbs fell on her shirt right next to the damp spot where she'd sloshed her brandy. She brushed at the crumbs only to smear chocolate on the shirt.
"I need to go clean up," she said, and put down the half-eaten cookie. "I didn't shower before I left San Francisco this morning."
As she spoke, she reached behind her head to grab her mass of curly, frizzy hair. While she'd showered the previous morning, she hadn't bothered with her usual blow-dry, flatiron, forty-seven-hair-care-product regimen required to tame her impossible hair.
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