That was the end. Everything neatly lined up and inventoried into banal columns of pots and pans, furniture, artwork, cars, and other meaningless, cold, silent property. Not the end she had envisioned all those years ago, but rather the end life had taken its sweet old time revealing as it winked and nodded along the way.
Shayna had spent twenty-five years married to Frank Chastain. A quarter of a century. They had undeniably been the best years of her life, she lamented, as she stalked, heels clicking, across the marble floor toward the bank of elevators. Oh, not just because of her marriage to Frank, no, no, no. That quarter of a century amounted to her peak years, her best years, now erased as her signature dried on legal documents.
Divorce was a cruel specter, with its public display of failure. She had begun to feel that it might even be worse than the death of a first love. Shayna never would’ve believed that reality twenty-eight years ago, but life lifted the veil once the downhill slide began toward one’s final destination. And, boy, that slide seemed to be progressing faster these days, seeming at times as if someone had cut the brake line.
Shayna Chastain waited for some of the occupants to unload from the elevator before gracefully stepping inside. As the shiny golden doors, peppered and marred with scratches and smudged fingerprints, pressed to a squeaky close, Shayna assessed her reflection honestly. The black sleeveless shift accentuated her still shapely, firm legs, slender waistline, and the curves she still had in all the right places. However, even black didn’t do much to diminish her D-cups. She winced. God, she hated gravity—except, of course, for that whole deal about not flinging off into outer space.
She smiled at her image. Cutting her blonde hair into a short-flipped shag had been an excellent idea. She didn’t care what Dani said. Shayna couldn’t do anything right in Dani’s book anyway—at least not anymore. Wasn’t that the curse of mothers and daughters? Shayna rolled her eyes. She wouldn’t know the answer to that.
As the elevator continued its descent, she focused a more critical lens; she could see some soft lines making an appearance here and there. The obligatory elevens, which she found herself reflexively fluffing her bangs to cover, and the expected laugh lines, but they really weren’t that bad yet and besides, it just made her smile more so they weren’t as noticeable. She had seen women ten years younger with more prominent, deeper lines than she had.
She nodded approvingly at the woman standing confidently in front of her. Not bad. Most of the credit probably went to good genes and the liberal application of sunscreen, but she allowed herself some accolades for maintaining it. After all, going to the gym seven days week counted for something, and at this stage of the game it seemed that things were falling faster than she could put them back where they belonged.
None of it was due to plastic surgery.
She had made that idealistic pledge in her youth, determined that she would age gracefully and not be ruled by vanity. Like she had known anything in her youth—obviously, that had been the raving of an age-challenged lunatic. She rolled her large, stormy gray eyes heavenward and realized, from the pinched brows and sideways glances of the other riders reflected back at her, that she had snorted out loud and not in her head.
Just then, the chime for the main floor dinged its release, and Shayna Montgomery Edwards Chastain exited the elevator from the law firm of Hopper, Horne, and Smythe for the last time. Walking tall in black suede heels, shoulders back, with purpose and confidence, she was now a free woman, unleashed into the world. More likely to be struck by lightning than to ever again wrangle a man into marrying her.
A sly grin lit her face. She’d rather be hit by lightning any day of the week.
Smoothly exiting through the revolving door, Shayna shook her head in deep thought. Who did Frank Chastain think he was, anyway? He was almost sixty-five years old and might very well marry his twenty-four-year-old mistress—a girl half her age. Shayna was no fool. The superficial allure of a woman in her twenties was obvious, but there had to be more to it, and that troubled her more than anything did.
What was it? How had youth beaten out what Shayna had always known to be a loving marriage built on trust and mutual respect? Their history was rich and layered with all of the complex subtleties not afforded to the young. You had to spend time developing and nurturing a long-term relationship that you wanted to last forever. It didn’t happen overnight and the payoff was wonderful when it worked out, or so she suspected.
The answer had been swimming around in her head for some time and she didn’t like it. At some point, Frank stopped wanting the same thing, stopped feeling the same way. Their paths diverged, and apparently he preferred the always agreeable, constantly smiling young girlfriend at his side. At least that’s how Shayna imagined it when she was alone at night.
Her lips twitched to a smirk. He just didn’t want a woman with opinions who was closer to menopause than puberty. She laughed aloud, not caring whether passersby believed she was off her meds.
He must have decided it was time to steal someone else’s youth, she decided ruefully. She hadn’t given their age difference much thought when she married Frank. He had been so charismatic and vibrant. He still was, but hindsight had her second-guessing a lot of things these days. She had become filled with more self-doubt and trepidation than she had felt since she was a child. The last three years had taken their toll, maybe not evident on the outside, but she could feel the hefty cost on the inside.
Shayna stopped to peer longingly at the Victoria’s Secret display window. Yeah, she knew Victoria’s secret all right: she didn’t use models over twenty.
Shayna giggled inwardly. Wonder what the effect on sales would be if Victoria used middle-aged models?
Imagining the reengineered display, she caught sight of her laughing, quaking frame in the glass pane. Although, Shayna had to admit, she felt confident that she could still pull it off—with the right lighting. She knew she only had seconds left before it all disintegrated and came crashing down around her ankles, but the window of physical beauty had not slammed shut just yet.
Leaving her musings behind, Shayna continued on her way to Gaetano’s, a fantastic Italian restaurant with a great lounge and bar. The atmosphere and décor were all very Tuscan, with calming water features and soft, sexy lighting throughout. Shayna appreciated the forgiving lighting more and more as time steam-rolled over her. But, hey, lower watts were good for the environment, too. She wasn’t totally selfish.
Her favorite part of Gaetano’s was that rumor alleged a local Italian family owned it. She had become good friends with the owner over the last eighteen months. His name was Sean Parker. That always made her giggle. Parker? Really? Didn’t there have to be an ‘o’ or an ‘a’ at the end of that to make it sound remotely Italian? Shouldn’t his first name at least be Tony or Alfredo? She had loved harassing Sean about that while they’d spent time getting to know each other.
Shayna had never been to Gaetano’s until her initial visit to Hopper, Horne, and Smythe. Leaving her attorney’s office in a dazed state after that first high-billable-hour meeting, she had stumbled upon the little gem among the monotonous and pervasive chain eateries and had immediately fallen in love with the quiet, unassuming atmosphere. Of course, Sean Parker was part of the appeal, too. She thought he was a good ten years younger than she was, though that was only a guess, because neither of them would divulge their age to the other.
He was a striking man: tall, very fit, with chocolate-brown hair and soft green eyes, and, of course, he had those lush, enviably-long, dark lashes that women would kill to have or pay good money to glue on.
The two had been verbally jousting and teasing one another since they first met. Shayna didn’t lie, so she would readily admit to a friend, if pressed, that she had found herself fantasizing about Sean Parker more and more as she had gotten to know him better. Of course, in her fantasies, she was always a much younger version of herself. Why did she do that? Why did she feel the need to airbrush her own fantasies? Now that was ridiculous. Men certainly didn’t do that! She chided herself as she pushed into her little Tuscan oasis, hoping that the owner would have time to celebrate her emancipation in a quiet, dimly lit booth.
She hadn’t invited any of her girlfriends, and she couldn’t decide if it was because she wanted Sean to herself or because she didn’t want to hear their recriminations later. Maybe it was a bit of both. Why did she even bother worrying about her friends’ opinions? Men high-fived each other when one of them snagged a younger woman, but women? Not so much, at least not her group of friends. Maybe she just needed a new group of friends. The wheels began cranking and grinding around the feasibility of that idea.
Oh, it didn’t matter anyway. Shayna didn’t think for a second that Sean was really interested in her in that way. She had felt an instant connection with him, but that was just lust, she told herself. He hadn’t so much as made a move on her the entire time she had been patronizing his restaurant. That said a lot, in her book. They just liked flirting, picking at, and teasing each other. It reminded her of the way she and her two older brothers pestered one another. That is, when they actually used to spend time together.
Besides, men Sean Parker’s age were definitely not interested in women her age. For crying out loud, men Frank Chastain’s age weren’t even interested in women her age!
Not only that, she had never been into one-night stands, which was all it would ever amount to with someone like Sean. She had only ever had sex with two men her whole life—as embarrassing as that was to admit. She was pretty sure Dani already had her beat on that. Not that it was a competition. God, no. It was just further recognition of how she had squandered her own peak years.
“Hi, Vlad.” Shayna waved to the bartender as she took a seat at the highly glossed mahogany bar. Vladimir Anosov. Thick Russian accent. Not that accents or ethnicity had jack to do with who could mix a great drink. It just served as another reason to love this place: an allegedly Italian family with the last name Parker, touting their Italian heritage and food, had a chef named Skip Wu, and a Russian bartender who could pass as Yakov Smirnoff’s twin brother.
And by the way, who the hell was Gaetano? Had there really been a Gaetano Parker on one of those family tree branches? She still hadn’t gotten a clear answer on that one, she giggled to herself.
Nothing made sense here, and yet for that very reason it did. Probably because most of her life didn’t make sense, and she had grown accustomed to the necessary and unnecessary incongruities surrounding her. Oh, how time loved playing tricks.
“Mr. Parker is not here tonight, Miss Shayna,” Vlad offered, while preparing her signature drink, a sparkling water with lemon and lime wedges.
“Don’t sell yourself short, Vlad. I’m here to see you, anyway.” She winked. “Parker just gets in the way,” she said with a purr, leaning in as the curly haired barkeep handed off her drink.
“Oh, now, Miss Shayna. You know that I am a happily married man,” he teased. His twinkling eyes gleamed as he wagged his finger at her and returned her wink, playfully.
“Stop rubbing it in, Vlad. I already know all the good ones are taken!”
They laughed and teased some more, before Shayna carved a path to her favorite booth in the dining room. It was near the back, with a central view of a beautifully painted fresco of a pale yellow villa, cypress trees, and the surrounding gardens. Nearby, a fountain with a bronze patina echoed its soft, murmuring rhythms along with the flowing, smooth jazz filtering from the inconspicuous sound system. The warm, creamy-toned, amply padded booths provided privacy and intimate dining with their high-backed, semi-circular design.
As Shayna slid into her prime location, she couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the news that her handsome friend wasn’t working tonight. Maybe it wasn’t too late to call a couple of girlfriends. She exchanged pleasantries with her server and perused the evening’s menu. Decisions, decisions. Appetizer, entrée, and then dessert, or just skip the first two and head straight for the good stuff?
Just then, Shayna felt the luxurious padding in the booth shift and a familiar spicy scent tickled her senses. When she looked up, she saw Sean Parker smiling expectantly at her. She would have been lying if she’d said her heart didn’t skip a beat.
She couldn’t suppress her smile. “Vlad said you weren’t working tonight.”
“Oh, you know I’m always working,” he murmured, in a soft rumble.
“Apparently behind the scenes,” she teased, as she squeezed fresh lime into her sparkling water. “I imagine that’s one of the perks of being the owner. You can say you’re working even when no one knows where you are or what you’re doing.” She narrowed her eyes playfully and sipped her drink.
“You’ve got everything figured out, don’t you, Shayna Montgomery?” He raised his brow and waited.
His gravelly voice made everything inside her vibrate and tingle.
Shayna huffed and laughed. “Why on earth did you call me that?” She shook her head at him. “I don’t even remember telling you my maiden name.”
“Oh, you did.” He smiled slyly. “I just assumed you’d be changing it back, now that you’re a free woman and all.” He leaned casually back against the richly textured leather booth, and, resting one arm on the cloth-covered tabletop in front of him, tapped his fingers deliberately.
Shayna regarded Sean for a few moments. Something seemed different about him, but she couldn’t quite name it. She shook it off and cleared her throat.
“I suppose I could’ve taken care of it along with the divorce, but I never really thought about it.”
“Why? Don’t you want a fresh start?”
Shayna gauged her friend with piqued curiosity. “Changing my last name back to my maiden name, which by the way is just a different man’s last name, doesn’t change anything of consequence, except my signature.” She took a lingering drink and eyed Sean carefully. He licked what she imagined to be addicting, soft lips, while he continued the intentional drum of his fingers.
“Oh. You’re not a man-hater, now, are you?” He chewed at the inside of his cheek to quell a growing grin.
Now Shayna laughed aloud. “No. Hardly. I’ve always loved men. They’re so much easier to figure out than women.”
“Well, what do you know? We finally agree on something!” Sean chuckled, reaching for Shayna’s tumbler; he took a long, slow drink.
He had never done anything that bold before, and he eyed her the entire time. What was he up to? Or, more to the point, what did he think she was up to tonight?
Placing the glass on the table, he said matter-of-factly, “So, what do you say? Are you ready to get out of here, or what?” He watched her, and grinned as if her answer was a foregone conclusion.
Shayna crossed her arms under her ample breasts and cocked her head. “Or what,” she stated plainly.
Sean’s brows squeezed together, and she could tell he was carefully considering his next move.
“I’ve been eating here four and sometimes five times a week for the past year and half. Why would I suddenly want to do anything different?” she said, her expression challenging.
Sean shook his head. A warm, slow smile inched across his face, highlighting his dazzling smile and square jaw. For the first time she noticed the early shading of his five o’clock shadow. Did he always have that? She couldn’t remember. All she knew for certain at the moment was that his hard, heated stare had caused a heavy warmth to pool squarely between her legs. There was no mistaking his signals.
What an about-face.
Had he really waited all this time for her divorce to be final? Did he think he would reap the rewards of some slutty post-divorce phase of her life? She had never had a slutty phase and wasn’t about to start this late in the game. She decided to let him know that he wasn’t the only adult at the table.
“Cat got your tongue, Sean? Sounds to me like you have something planned for tonight. Why don’t you cue me in so we’re both on the same page?” she said, in a seductive tone laced with the hint of an unmistakable warning.
He shifted a bit and narrowed his gaze. Ambient, sexy, smooth saxophones and jazz guitars wrapped their warm, full-bodied textures around them while she awaited his answer.
Lowering his gaze, he responded, “There’s a new French bistro not far from here that opened a few nights ago. Thought we’d try it out. Celebrate new beginnings. We have a reservation.” He tilted his chin up in an obvious counter-challenge, still drumming his fingers on the table.
So, this was him asking her out for a date without actually asking. To say she felt turned on right now would be an understatement. She had always appreciated men of action rather than words. Actions were tangible; she could feel them, see them. Words, well? Blah, blah, blah.
“I can’t believe this French bistro will be nearly as entertaining as your ethnic eatery. Do they have an Asian chef? A Russian bartender? An owner with a conspicuously non-Italian surname?” She bit back a giggle and could tell he caught the subtle act of restraint. The expression on his face oozed carnal finesse. He looked like a predator that had selected its prey, but was choosing instead to savor, and play with it first.
Oh, boy, she was going to have to be careful tonight. She hadn’t had sex with another person in three years. That’s when she had discovered that Frank was cheating on her.
Sean deftly angled toward her, grinned lustfully, and teased, “Don’t worry, Shay, I’ll make sure you’re entertained.”
She felt her insides start to melt and knew she had to gain the upper hand, quickly. Grabbing her handbag and sliding smoothly to within inches of her hunky friend’s rugged face, she drew and held his stare. His breath hitched, his eyes dilated, and his nostrils flared slightly.
“Move,” she ordered in a soft, husky tone, her expression determined.
Sean swallowed, clearly cataloguing her features. They had never been this close. They were awash in comingling scents, feeling each others’ hot breath on hypersensitive skin, almost touching, relishing the dance.
Sean skillfully backed out of the booth to stand and gesture the exit to Shayna without taking his eyes from hers. She glanced at his outstretched hand and rose without accepting it. As they strode away from the booth, she felt his broad, strong hand at her lower back. She warmed immediately and smiled inwardly. Hands were one of her favorite features on a man. It didn’t matter how good looking a man was, if he didn’t have large, strong hands, well, just forget about it, because she couldn’t even bring herself to fantasize about a man like that. No, there was nothing better in this world than a man’s hands on her body. Shayna bit at her lower lip. Well, there might be a few other things in conjunction with his hands. She closed her eyes slowly, inhaling deeply, and unintentionally loosed a barely audible groan.
Sean leaned in next to her ear, feathering her neck with his sultry breath. “Did you say something?”
Shayna shook her head languidly, wishing at that moment that prayer really worked, because it was going to take a miracle not to unleash the sexual tension from her three-year dry spell on this unsuspecting man. Not that he would complain. She was fairly certain he could handle it, and then some.
Exiting the restaurant, Sean clasped Shayna’s hand and began leading her across the street. She pulled away.
“What’re you doing?” she asked.
“My car’s over there.” He gestured to the other side of the road. “There’s no sense in us both driving to the bistro.”
Oh, no, Shayna warned herself. It made abundant sense to take two cars.
“I’ll just meet you there. Give me the address.” She took a couple of steps away from him and waited for the location.
Sean had a peculiar expression; after a moment he dropped his chin slightly. Locking his amorous gaze on her, he casually tucked his glorious hands in the pockets of his black dress pants. His royal blue dress shirt, with the sleeves rolled just below his elbows, highlighted his corded forearms and his silver Breitling sports watch.
He claimed to work out as much as she did. She could only imagine the hard, well-defined playground shrouded under his tailor-fitted clothing. Everything about Sean Parker screamed prime, grade-A, full-grown man. The broad shoulders and narrow hips, his easy stance and the well-deserved confidence on display in the early evening moonlight.
She released a stuttered exhalation. Holy hell, Shayna, what are you doing? He moved lazily into her space until they were almost touching. In her high-heels, she was still a few inches shorter than he was. She raised her tentative eyes up to his smiling green ones.
“Are you afraid of something, Shay?” he baited, sexily, wetting his lips.
Her heavy lids dropped slowly, and fluttered a couple of times. She inhaled deeply as she attempted to get her head on straight and wake from the hazy dream that had enveloped her. “No,” she said breathily. “But you should be.”