“Chase, I hate to tell you this, man, but you're screwed.” Those were the words with which Jordan Miller greeted his best friend and client when he walked into the Greene County courtroom that fateful April morning.
Chase raised one dark eyebrow at his attorney.
“You got the ball buster.”
Chase closed his eyes in disgust. The one judge I most hoped to avoid, the Honorable Brenda McMillan, a radical feminist who seems to live for putting men in their place. No matter the facts in the case, she always managed to find the man in the wrong and rake him over the coals. This was not likely to be an exception.
The two men took their seats at the front of the courtroom. Surely for something as simple as an uncontested divorce, the ball buster would not feel the need to live up to her reputation. Right?
* * *
Three hours later, Chase knew how wrong he'd been. The proceedings had given a new definition to the word 'screwed'.
“I can't believe she awarded Candace the whole house, both cars and half of my retirement,” he groused as he and Jordan stalked across the parking lot. Instead of getting into his – her car – he meandered to the playground beyond. “What the hell is that about? Candace cheated on me!”
“Be glad she didn't make you pay child support too,” Jordan replied, still looking a little shell-shocked.
“I'd have appealed that! There's no way I'm paying support on someone else's kid.” Chase sank into a park bench under the shade of a fragrant pine. A chilly wind blew through the perfumed branches, but the sweet scent brought no comfort. He tried to shore up his anger. Better anger than grief. But it was no use. Despair chewed on his guts. After ten years of marriage, the last thing he had expected was to find himself single, homeless and broke.
“You know something, Jordan?” he asked, his voice flat and dark.
His friend nodded sympathetically. “You've had a hard couple of weeks, Chase. Why don't you come over tonight? Jenn's making one of her gourmet dinners and, well, she said I should invite you.
Chase smiled without humor. “Tell Jenn I said thank you, but no. If I have to watch you two being happy together, and her pregnant too, I think I might just be sick. I need to be alone, Jordan.”
“I hear ya,” his friend said, smoothing down an errant blond curl. He stood. Then, without warning, Jordan laid a hand on Chase's shoulder. “Promise me you won't do anything stupid,” he said in a low, intense voice.
“I'm not going to let that bitch win,” Chase replied.
Jordan looked at him a moment, nodded, and then walked away. Chase gulped. Anger wavered, died. Looking to Heaven, he asked aloud, “What the hell am I going to do now?”
Eighteen months later
There she is. She IS working today.
Chase made his slow way through the bookstore, the patterned carpet muffling the sound of his boots as he made a beeline straight toward his target. From the back she didn't look like much; petite, slender and fragile, her wavy brown hair hanging loose nearly to her waist.
“Excuse me,” he said.
She turned. “Yes?” Then she recognized him and scowled. “Oh, it's you again. What do you want?”
Despite her less than welcoming reply, the girl whose name tag read Baylee never failed to make Chase's heart pound and heat rush to his groin. Striving for objectivity, he assessed exactly what about her features seemed so appealing. Is it her tiny stature and waif-like appearance? Is it her full pink lips and dainty, slightly pointy nose? Is it the pale, faintly blushing pink of her skin? All possible. But what really captured him was her eyes: huge brown pools that seemed to hold a depth unthinkable in one so young. And she was young; pushing the limit of too young for him, but if the sorrow in her eyes spoke true, in her life experience must nearly match his.
“I was wondering if the book I ordered came in yet,” he said, leaning his hip against the counter in what he hoped was a casual gesture. Right, man. You weren't good at casual BEFORE your life fell apart.
Chase angrily squashed down the arguing voice. I don't want to think about that. So, I'm divorced. So what? Lots of people are and it's been more than a year. I should be getting over it by now. I am, if my interest in this pretty sales clerk is any indication. But how does one start over after so many years thinking life was going to be a certain way? No, starting over is wrong. I'm a different man than I was before I found out my childhood sweetheart and best friend was actually a slut who'd been sleeping with another man behind my back.
Bayle punched the keyboard on her computer, her attention focused on the screen. Chase continued ruminating.
No more of that, man. It's over. Candace is gone, long married to her private investigator partner and the mother of his child. And if you don't want to end up alone with no family of your own, stop obsessing and get out there.
“Of course, your book hasn't come in,” Baylee said, turning to give him an uninviting glare. “You ordered it the day before yesterday. I promised to call you when it arrives, and I will. Now if you don't mind, I have work to do.”
“Don't be unfriendly, ma'am,” he urged. “I won't hurt you. I'd like to talk.”
“Talk?” She raised one eyebrow and furrowed the other. “I have no time to talk. I'm working.”
“How about when you get off? I could take you out for a drink, or some dinner…”
Something flashed in her eyes. If he didn't know better, he'd say it looked like desperation. Or maybe despair. Whatever it was, it was intense. “I. Don't. Have. Time. For. Men.” Baylee enunciated clearly. “Now that we understand each other, will you please wander off, or do I have to call the manager?”
“I'm going, I'm going. Jeez, don't be so touchy. I wasn't hurting anything,” he griped.
Her gaze softened a fraction. “I know, sir, but I wasn't kidding. I don't have time for anyone. Seriously. You're wasting your effort.”
“Thanks for being honest, Baylee,” he said ruefully. “Here's my card. If you ever find time and you want to take me up on drinks… or dinner… or talk, call me.”
She gave him a sad smile and returned to stocking the bookshelf, her back to him.
Stung by her dismissal, Chase quickly left the store.
* * *
As soon as she could no longer feel his eyes on her back, Baylee turned away from the bookshelf and regarded the object in her hand. The little card, printed on black paper with a pattern of white music notes, read 'Chase Milligan, General Manager. The Music Room Club and Bar'. Baylee's eyes widened. So, my persistent suitor runs one of the hottest up-and-coming clubs in the Dallas night scene, does he? She recalled hearing that it offered fun, drinks, and music in a friendly, classy environment. I haven't gone out in ages, so if I've heard of it, it must be a big deal. Of course, my best friend's husband works there. According to Stella, her husband's place of business boasted three different rooms: one for local jazz bands, one for karaoke, and one for country and western artists. As manager of such a place, Chase must earn a decent salary. He's also influential, deciding which acts will be allowed on the coveted stages.
Baylee gulped. If Shelby ever found out she had shot down a man like Chase Milligan, her ass would be grass. As if it's not already. If Chase knew one thing about your life, he'd run for the hills. Quit daydreaming and get back to work. It didn't occur to her that when she had thought about him, it had been his first name running through her mind, along with the image of his auburn-haired, green-eyed gaze.
Chase stretched out on his living room sofa. The clock on the DVD player showed three in the morning, but he didn't feel sleepy. Normal, given that he'd gotten off work only an hour and a half ago. Working the club during prime time delivered a rush he couldn't deny, but it did take a lot out of him.
Looks like you're not as young as you used to be, eh, Chase? He grinned to himself.
He clicked off the television. It had been showing infomercials for the last half hour or more – since long before he stopped paying attention. He turned, flopping onto his back and propping both feet up on the arm of the sofa, the dirty off-white of his socks permanently stained from their contact with the inside of his chocolate-colored tooled-leather Ropers. The offending boots lay in a forlorn heap just inside the entry door of his townhouse. His matching Stetson rested on the entryway table, covering a small framed picture of his parents and the vintage Ford ashtray where he kept his keys. In this position, his belt buckle cut into his belly, and he unbuckled the silver oval, sliding his belt from the loops on his black Wranglers and dropping it to the floor. It landed with a loud clunk and Chase winced, hoping it hadn't scratched the pine.
He still felt uncomfortable. His Wranglers, though well broken in and all, weren't meant for lying down in. He thought about his bed, which waited for him just up the stairs. All he had to do was get up. That was all. But 3:00 a.m. was fast catching up with him. No way, Chase. Move your ass. Don't fall asleep on the couch.
He hauled himself to his feet, suddenly feeling every one of his thirty-two years… doubled. Groaning, he hobbled, heels and arches aching, through the bedroom to the bathroom where he quickly brushed his teeth. He had just enough energy left to strip down to his gray boxer briefs before stretching out on his bed and crashing like a doused candle.
* * *
Shelby Cole opened her kitchen door to a soft knock. “Baylee? Come in, darlin'. Look at you. What are you doing?”
“Is Shane home?” Baylee entered Shelby's immaculate, rooster-decorated kitchen with the flinching air of a beaten puppy.
“Nope, my old grouch took both kids to his mother's, so I'm on the loose. What's up with you, Bay?” Shelby glanced at her friend, dismayed to note that Baylee looked even more fragile and wasted than before.
“I hate to ask it…” she started, and then trailed off, looking away, her cheeks turning a delicate pink.
“Ask away, Bay. I'm here for you, honey.” Baylee closed her eyes. She seemed to be fighting tears. Shelby gave her a little hug. “Whew, girl. I'm sorry to tell you this, but you smell.”
“I know I do,” Baylee burst out. “I… my shower is… not working and I… Oh, God. Can I please borrow yours before I go pick up Dylan? I'm sorry. I don't know what else to do.”
“Of course,” Shelby said, wondering what the real story was. Baylee's keeping way too much to herself these days. While she'd been a bit moody when the girls had met four years ago, in the last couple of months Bay seemed on the verge of breaking all the time. “Come on, girlfriend. Let's get you in the shower. Maybe once you're cleaned up, you'll feel better. Better enough to come out with us next week.” Keeping her arm around her friend's shoulder, she led her down the hall towards the guest bathroom.
“I… I appreciate the invitation, but…”
“No buts, Bay. I'm not taking no for an answer. Here.” She opened the linen closet outside the bathroom door and retrieved a sage green towel and a forest green washcloth. “Soap and shampoo are in the shower. Help yourself.”
“Bless you, Shelby,” Baylee muttered, stepping into the bathroom and closing the door behind her.
A short time later, far too short, a key clicked and rattled in the garage door. Shelby's husband Shane, tall with a shaved head, his handsome face resting in a habitual grumpy scowl, stalked into the kitchen. Their two small sons, David and Jonathan, sped past their father, intent on the television.
“Hello, Shel,” he said, planting a wet kiss on her lips. She wiped the moisture with the back of her hand.
“You're home early,” she said in a cool, neutral voice.
“What's up?” he asked, instantly on the defensive.
“Nothing,” she replied quickly, twining her arms around her husband's neck and looking up at him with soft, seductive eyes.
He squeezed her plump bottom appreciatively and when he spoke, there was amusement in his voice. “Okay, now I know something's up. What is it?” At that moment, Baylee walked into the kitchen. The shower, it appeared, had restored her somewhat. On the other hand, it put Shane immediately into orbit. “No wonder. What is she doing here? I told you I didn't want her here anymore.”
Baylee froze beside the black granite countertop. Her posture reminded Shelby of a rabbit trying to look invisible. Her eyes widened to huge pools of undefinable emotion.
“Be quiet, Shane. Baylee is my friend. I will invite her to my house if I want to.”
“She's a bloody mooch. It's my house too, and I don't want her here.” He glowered at the girl, his menacing expression even frightening to his wife. “And why's she all wet? Did she come here to talk? To offer to babysit? To bring a gift for our anniversary? No. She came to use our shower. To take from us again. And you just let her. What's wrong with you, Shelby? Can't you see she's using you?” With every word Baylee flinched more, drawing in on herself.
“That's enough!” Shelby yelled, stepping between her husband and Baylee.
“No, he's right,” said a wavering voice behind them. Both spouses turned to look at Baylee, who had straightened to her full height–a tiny 5'2”–and spoken. “I shouldn't have come. I'm sorry. I won't bother you again. Thank you, Shelby. You're a great friend. Please, don't argue on my account.” She passed them on the way to the door.
Shelby grabbed her arm. “No. Now listen here, Shane. You're acting like a big bully. Yes, Bay is going through some kind of hard time right now. I don't know what it is, but I want to help, because that's what friends do.” She half-turned towards her husband, poking a finger into his chest. “Life is uncertain. Someday I might need to ask someone for something, and I would hope they wouldn't say I was too selfish to deserve it. Now get off your high horse.” Dropping Baylee's arm, she took a step towards Shane, crowding into his space. “Baylee is welcome in this home any time she wants to stop by, and you, mister, can sleep on the couch until you've learned to get over your bullying ways.”
Shane visibly paled. Shelby smirked. It wasn't a card she played often, but when she wanted his attention the threat of the couch remained potent even after six years, two kids, and fifteen pounds. Apparently, my grouch still desires his wife.
“Now, Baylee, don't worry about Old Grumpy here. I'll set him straight. Come and visit any time. And I meant what I said about coming with us when we go out next week. You work too much.”
“Shel…” Shane interrupted.
“Quiet, you. You're in the doghouse with me. Will you come, Bay?”
Baylee shook her head sending her long brown hair tumbling. “I can't. I can't afford it.”
“My treat. And my mom will be watching David and Jon, so you can leave Dylan here. Dylan's such a good kid, I know she won't mind. Please say yes.” She squeezed the arm she was holding.
“We'll see,” Baylee replied, gently extracting herself from Shelby's grip. “I have to go. Thanks again, Shelby.” She slipped through the door and closed it softly behind her.