Excerpt from WHEN SHE WAS BAD
“Want to get laid tonight?”
Jennifer Carman didn’t need to look up from her computer to know who was standing in her office doorway. Only one person would announce herself in such a manner.
Jenny hit save, swiveled her chair and smiled at the flamboyant redhead. “Let me check my calendar.”
She shot a cursory glance at the planner sitting open on her desk and shook her head. “Sorry. Getting laid isn’t on my schedule. And if it’s not on my schedule—“
“I know.” Marcee Robbens heaved a dramatic sigh. “It’s not going to happen.”
Dressed in a tailored navy suit, crisp white blouse and closed-toe shoes, Marcee looked every inch a corporate executive. But the devilish sparkle in her green eyes and the short skirt revealing a pair of fabulous legs said there was more to this CPA than a tax table and calculator.
Jenny lifted a brow. “I thought you’d be on the train and halfway to suburbia by now.”
Marcee laughed as if Jenny had said something ridiculously funny. “It’s Friday night. The last place I want to be is home.”
Jenny smiled ruefully. Marcee embraced the Chicago nightlife with a passion and always had something planned for the weekends. Jenny was usually so engrossed in work she barely noticed when Friday rolled around.
“A bunch of us are going to grab some dinner then hit the clubs.” Marcee took a seat in the leather wingback in front of Jenny’s desk and crossed one long leg over the other. “Why don’t you come? Clint from Legal will be there. He thinks you’re a real hottie.”
“Clint Daniels?” Jenny furrowed her brow. “The thin guy with the hair that always looks like it needs a trim?”
“Who cares about his hair?” Marcee’s cinnamon colored lips turned upward. “The guy has a really nice ass.”
“Clint does have a nice, uh, backside,” Jenny said. “But we can’t be talking about the same person.”
“There’s only one Clint,” Marcee said with a wink.
The man Jenny was thinking of had started with the firm last year and was kind of cute, if you liked that starving poet look. But the last time she’d talked to him he had a ring on his finger. “The Clint I’m thinking of is married.”
Marcee rolled her eyes. “You are so out of touch. He and his wife split last month.”
Jenny frowned. “And he’s already going out?”
“What’s he supposed to do?” Genuine surprise skittered across Marcee’s face. “Sit home and cry?”
“I can’t believe he’s put himself back on the dating block so soon.” Marriage was sacred to Jenny. If she was in Clint’s position, sitting home and crying was just what she’d be doing.
Marcee ignored the comment and tilted her head. “So, will you come?”
“I’d like to, but tonight isn’t good.” Jenny made a conscious effort to inject a note of true regret in her tone. After all, she did appreciate the invitation. “I already have plans.”
Marcee straightened in the chair, her eyes bright with interest. “A date?”
For a second, Jenny was tempted to say yes. Maybe come up with some farfetched tale about a visiting Prince and a stretch limousine. Or a sexy construction worker and a rugged 4x4. When she’d been a teenager, Jenny had loved to make up stories.
“Tell me about him,” Marcee urged, apparently taking Jenny’s silence for assent. “Is he hot?”
Jenny opened her mouth, then shut it, reminding herself she was an adult and lying wasn’t a good thing. Even if it did make a dull life more interesting.
“No date.” Jenny shook her head. “I’m helping my family clean my grandmother’s house tomorrow and I need to get to bed early.”
“Cleaning?” Marcie wrinkled her nose.
“I don’t really have a choice.” Jenny sighed. None of them did. They’d put the sad task off as long as possible. Sorting through Gram’s personal items and readying her house for sale had to be done. If only it didn’t make her death seem so, well, final.
Jenny’s heart clenched and she brushed away sudden tears.
Marcee’s expression softened in sympathy. “Is this your grandma who died in that car accident a couple of months ago?”
Jenny nodded and took a deep steadying breath. Gram had been a young seventy-five; active in her church and in the community. She’d been a good driver, too. But that hadn’t mattered. A speeding car had rear-ended her tiny import while she was sitting at a traffic light.
“She’d have wanted you to go out with your friends and have a good time,” Marcee said in a persuasive tone. “You know she would.”
Marcee, the silver-tongued temptress. The thought brought the smile back to Jenny’s lips. Her friend had a way of making even the most irresponsible actions seem rational.
But this time Jenny wasn’t going to cave. She’d been out with Marcee and her friends and she knew the drill. Things didn’t get going until at least ten, sometimes eleven. Jenny hoped to be fast asleep by then.
Besides, the last time she’d gone out had been painful. Marcee had urged her to ask a cute guy to dance. When she’d finally gathered up her courage, her tongue had stumbled over the words. He’d stared at her as if she was from another planet. Her stomach knotted, just remembering.
“I still have a lot of work to do.” Jenny gestured a hand toward her computer screen. “Once I leave here I’m going straight to bed.”
“Going to bed beats sitting in a bar any day,” Marcee said with an impish smile. “I just hope you’re not sleeping alone.”
Marcee wiggled her brows and Jenny laughed.
“Is sex all you ever think about?”
Her friend’s smile widened. “What else is there when you’re young and single?”
There’d been a time when Jenny would have been horrified by such a comment. But now Marcee’s irreverence was one of the things Jenny liked most about her. Marcee’s freewheeling lifestyle might be totally at odds with Jenny’s upbringing, but she was fun.
“Sure you won’t change your mind?” Marcee pulled a compact out of her purse and peered at Jenny over the top of the mirror. “You always have a good time when we go out.”
Jenny rolled her eyes. Marcee made it sound like she was a regular party animal. Technically she’d only gone out with Marcee twice and each time she’d headed home after one drink. But Marcee was right, she enjoyed socializing with her single coworkers.
All of Jenny’s other friends were married with families. It had been fun to be around people who talked about something other than babies and husbands.
“I’m sure I’d have a blast,” Jenny said. “But tonight just isn’t going to work.”
“You don’t have to get laid,” Marcee said. “Unless you happen to run across some really hot guy and—”
“Marcee.” Jenny raised one hand. She could tell where this was headed and it was a place she didn’t want to go.
Talking about sex made her uncomfortable. Even when Jenny had been in a relationship, she’d considered what she did—or didn’t do—behind closed doors to be her own business.
“I can’t go tonight,” Jenny said. “Not for a drink. Or to get laid. I have to finish this audit.”
Marcee stared at Jenny for a long moment. “I’ll let you off the hook this time. But you, my dear, really need to get out and live a little. If you don’t, you’re going to wake up one day and realize you gave the best years of your life to a company that didn’t give a shit about you.”
By the time Marcee finished speaking her voice was loud and strident. Jenny had to smile. The only other thing she’d seen Marcee so passionate about was sex. “Tell me how you really feel.”
“Smile all you want.” Marcee stood and adjusted her short skirt. “But I’ve worked here a long time and I’ve seen it happen over and over. This company eats up dedicated people and spits them out. Trust me; working these long hours isn’t worth it.”
“It will be if it gets me that promotion,” Jenny said. “Rich told me today that he plans to name another manager before the end of the month.”
Rich Dodson and his brother, Chuck, ran the prestigious CPA firm founded by their father over forty years ago. On more than one occasion Rich had told Jenny how impressed he was with the way she dealt with her clients. In a round-about way he’d implied the next step up the ladder was hers for the taking.
Concern filled Marcee’s eyes. “You deserve to be a manager, no doubt about it. But that doesn’t always mean anything. Not in this company.”
“I’ll get it.” Jenny shoved aside a twinge of uncertainty. “Haven’t you heard that good things come to those who wait? And I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
The shoebox in Jenny’s lap overflowed with black and white photographs from a bygone era. The photo albums Jenny had already retrieved from her grandmother’s closet had been filled with pictures of family, but these loose photos all appeared to be of Gram and her friend, Jasmine Coret.
Jenny told herself she didn’t have time to look. Still, her gaze lowered and Jasmine Coret smiled back at her.
Though Jenny had never met the woman, she recognized her instantly. Jasmine had been her grandmother’s best friend when she’d been young and a picture of her had sat atop Gram’s piano for as long as Jenny could remember. She’d died when she was Jenny’s age but Gram had frequently said Jasmine packed more living into her thirty years than most people did in a lifetime.
Jenny held the colorized photograph up to the light. The stylish hat on the woman’s auburn curls sat at a saucy angle and she’d puckered her red painted lips for the camera, as if blowing a kiss to the photographer. She looked so happy and carefree that Jenny couldn’t help but smile back.
In the next photo, a handsome soldier in uniform gazed at Jasmine as if she was the only woman in the world. Jenny’s heart twisted. What would it be like to spark such adoration?
It didn’t seem fair. Jasmine’s life had been filled with fun, excitement and handsome men. Jenny’s life was filled with spread sheets, long hours and men who never gave her a second look.
“Get back to work,” Jenny’s seventeen-year-old sister called out from across the room
Jenny stared at the picture for a moment longer before returning it to the box. Annie was right. There was no time for a pity party. Not when there was work to do.
She’d just taken the last dress from her grandmother’s bedroom closet when she discovered another box at the back of the top shelf. Standing on her tiptoes, Jenny lifted it down carefully, wondering what she’d find this time. She’d already found a number of items Gram had squirreled away; a gift set of towels still in the cellophane in the back of the linen closet and a pair of brand new crystal earrings in a jewelry chest.
Jenny placed the box on the bed and lifted the lid, anticipation fueling her movements. But the moment her gaze settled on the decorative vase surrounded by shiny foil, a wave of sadness washed over her and she wished she’d left it on the shelf.
“It’s still in the wrapping paper,” she said almost to herself.
Annie, curious as a cat, scrambled to her feet and peered over her shoulder. “Isn’t that the vase you got Gram?”
“Five years ago.” Jenny caressed the deep red glass with a fingertip. “I bought it out of my first paycheck from Dodson and Dodson.”
Her grandmother had seen the antique cranberry vase in a store in Long Grove and had instantly fallen in love with it. Unbeknownst to her grandmother Jenny had gone back and bought it for her birthday.
Jenny lifted a puzzled gaze. “She never used it.”
Though she’d tried to speak matter-of-factly, Jenny couldn’t keep the disappointment from her voice. She thought she’d given her Grandmother something she liked…
“Are you almost finished?” Jenny’s mother bustled into the room and lowered an armful of bedding into a large cardboard box on the floor. In her mid-fifties, she looked like an older version of her two daughters. Although her hair had darkened from the honey blonde of her youth, her eyes were the same bright blue and her laugh just as infectious.
Life had been good to Carol Carman and it showed. She straightened and a questioning look crossed her face. “Jennifer?”
“Gram didn’t like Jenny’s gift,” Annie announced.
“I thought she did.” Jenny tried to smile but her lips refused to cooperate. “I guess I was wrong.”
“I’m not sure I know the gift you’re talking about.” Carol stepped over the pile of shoes Annie had been sorting and moved to the bed. “What was it?”
“A vase.” Jenny lifted the box for her mother’s inspection.
The minute her mother’s eyes lit on the cranberry colored glass, her lips curved up in a smile. “I remember this. You gave it to her the year we had her birthday celebration at Maggiano’s. She was so happy she cried.”
“So happy she took it home and shoved it in the back of the closet,” Annie said with customary bluntness. “That’s what I do with gifts I don’t like.”
To Jenny’s surprise her mother laughed.
“That’s what I do, too,” Carol said. “But my mother wasn’t like us. She was more like Jenny. She put things she treasured away for safekeeping, waiting for just the right time to use them.”
“I don’t do that,” Jenny protested.
Carol and Annie exchanged a knowing smile and Jenny could feel her face warm.
“I use what I’m given,” Jenny insisted.
“What about those placemats and napkin rings I got you for Christmas?” her mother asked. “I haven’t seen those on your table. Didn’t you like them?”
“I love them,” Jenny said. “I just haven’t had any company and—“
“See. You’re just like Gram,” Annie said with a superior smile. “Isn’t she, Mom?”
But her mother was too smart to be so easily drawn into choosing sides. Carol’s face softened. “All I’m saying is Gram loved your gift. Don’t think she didn’t.”
Jenny shoved the foil around the vase and replaced the lid on the box. She was too tired to argue. What did it matter now anyway? She held the box out to her mother.
Carol shook her head. “Gram would have wanted you to have it.”
Jenny sighed. She supposed she’d keep the vase. Though it was too formal for her apartment, she’d find a place for it. And every time she looked at it, she’d remember all the times she and Gram spent ‘antiquing’ together in Long Grove.
Happy times they’d never again share. A tightness gripped her heart and Jenny found herself blinking back tears. “I miss her so much.”
Annie lowered her gaze, her normally animated face uncharacteristically solemn. “She won’t be there to see me graduate next year.”
“She always joked that she’d dance all night at my wedding.” The lump in Jenny’s throat grew thicker as memories flooded back.
“She had a good life.” Her mother cleared her throat and her eyes shimmered with tears. She awkwardly patted Jenny’s shoulder. “Her car accident should be a reminder to all of us. We need to enjoy the here and now because we never know when God will call us home.”
“Carpe diem.” Annie nodded. “That’s my motto.”
Jenny knew she shouldn’t laugh but she couldn’t help it. Annie had never been particularly introspective and if the stylish teenager wanted a motto, “I’ll shop ‘til I drop,” would probably be more appropriate. “Do you even know what Carpe Diem means?”
Annie’s eyes flashed. “You think you’re the only smart one in this family?”
Her mother shot Jenny a you’d-better-take-care-of-this-right-now look.
“I never said you weren’t smart,” Jenny said quickly. Annie might have blonde hair, but they all knew she had a redhead’s temper.
Unfortunately the look on Annie’s face said she wasn’t about to be easily appeased.
“Valedictorian,” Annie spat the word. “Straight A’s. Big deal. At least I haven’t spent my high school years sitting home on the weekends. At least boys like me.”
“Boys like me.” The childish words were out of Jenny’s mouth before she could stop them.
“Girls.” Carol’s eyes flashed a warning. “I know we’re all a bit on edge, but let’s try and be nice.”
“I know what Carpe Diem means,” Annie said, apparently determined to get the last word. “And I’m never going to let life pass me by.”
“I don’t think there’s any danger of that.” Carol chuckled. “You seize every moment and then some.”
The irritation on Annie’s face eased at her mother’s obvious approval.
“I do my best.” Annie shot Jenny a smug look. She tossed her head sending her long hair cascading down her back.
“I know you do,” her mother said.
What about me? Jenny wanted to ask. Don’t you think I’m doing my best? But Jenny stayed silent. She already had a good idea what her mother would say. When she’d turned thirty last year, her parents had made it very clear that they thought she was putting way too much emphasis on her career. That there was more to life than professional success.
Which was all well and good, if she had a personal life clamoring for attention. But she didn’t. Other than Marcee, her friends were all married, most with kids. Her career was all she had and she was proud of what she’d accomplished.
She might not be good socially, but she was a dynamite accountant. That’s why, when her engagement had ended, she’d decided to focus on her strengths.
The problem was that many of her parent’s friends were already grandparents and her Mom and Dad were getting itchy for the pitter-patter of little feet. Hence the push for a “balanced life.”
Still, considering how supportive they’d been in the past, her parents’ attitude hurt. Sure she was working long hours and her social life was teetering on the edge of nonexistent, but she was also on the verge of success.
Jenny’s fingers tightened on the box in her hands. Why couldn’t they see that she didn’t have time to invest in a relationship now?
There would be plenty of time later for balance…once she got the promotion.
Uplifting, charming, and totally heartwarming stories