The Sublime Miss Paige is available from Siren-Bookstrand HERE.
THE SUBLIME MISS PAIGE
Copyright © 2013
This should have been one of the best weeks of Willow Paige’s life.
A whole new start in a whole new town. Last Chance was a forgotten burg in the Coachella Valley of California—a place where one could hide, yet close enough to the kitsch and glitz of Palm Springs that she could go there to party, if she ever chose to.
Gentrification was spreading to Last Chance. That’s what the realtor—her friend—Jaclyn had assured her. Over in Palm Springs and its environs, flippers were taking advantage of the newfound craze for mid-century modernism, the Jetsons architecture. The clean lines, the abundance of glass, the indoor-outdoor living style perfectly suited Willow’s mindset. Or, at least, the mindset she wished to have. She wanted a modern vibe, dammit! Willow longed to be supersonic and out of sight. After the humidity of Florida, she wanted the dry, wide-open vistas. The breathtaking views of the craggy San Jacinto Mountains were supposed to give her an expansive feeling, the perfect antidote to the muggy claustrophobia of the Everglades that had been her home for thirty-two years.
She had done everything in her power to get as far away from Florida as possible. Purchasing this rundown Searchlight Motel, throwing herself into the renovation. The poolside patio. The breezeways between the wings. The old-time supper club where she sat now, The Cavern on the Green, would be her jewel in the crown.
Now Willow sat in a white plastic Eames chair that was really quite uncomfortable, if stylishly retro. “Dammit, Jaclyn! I’m telling you, you don’t know Matt. At least the Matt that I’ve seen the past two years. You give him too much credit, thinking he’d care.”
Jaclyn sat patiently, her hands folded between her knees. Her real estate business was booming thanks to the alleged end of the economic downturn, but Jaclyn seemed to genuinely enjoy hanging around Willow and helping with the remodel. “I know I’ve never met him. But I feel that I know you. And I can’t see you marrying an asshole.”
Standing, Willow paced, swinging her arms and breathing deeply. “He changed, Jaclyn. I told you about how he cleaned the kitchen counter after I moved out.”
“Which he’d never once done.”
“Which he’d never once done before, but he did it that once to make sure I’d see the one pristine, perfect photo of the bimbo he was fucking that he set right in the middle of the shiny, clean counter.”
Jaclyn sighed. She was apparently perfectly content with her current asshole, a schlubby but tolerable guy who didn’t even get her a card for her birthday and spent all his time at monster truck rallies. Jaclyn rose from her burnt orange chair. “He was probably just reacting to you leaving him. He was just lashing out. This is a dog we’re talking here, Willow. Some men might be assholes about certain subjects, but he’d have to be the lowest of the low to be insensitive about a dog. Matt was her dad, too, right?”
Willow wanted to believe Jaclyn was right. She fingered a heavy glass ashtray that would be used for candies. The orange and sea-foam green motif of the supper club was supposed to be comforting, to hearken diners back to simple, reassuring days. She really, really wanted to believe Jaclyn was right, and Matt would at least have sympathy that their beloved Newfoundland dog of eight years had died of lymphoma. Only three weeks after diagnosis and boom, Stormy was gone. Willow had often felt that she loved Stormy more than she loved Matt, especially the past two years. For one, when she thought of Stormy she did not think of betrayal, viciousness, or lies. Dogs were gentle, with not a mean bone in their bodies. Stormy had always been there for her. Suddenly, she was gone.
If Matt couldn’t hit the mute button on the Hitler Channel or put down his drugs for that, well…it would really be no different than the emotional zombie he’d turned into the past two years. “Okay. I suppose you’re right. I should at least give him the benefit of the doubt.”
“Yes!” Jaclyn was a good cheerleader. “Willow, he’s going to want to know that Stormy passed. No man is that cold-hearted.”
“Unless the Hitler Channel is on.” Willow shouldn’t make fun of Jaclyn’s Fernando for his monster truck obsession. Matt was just as bad with his nonstop World War II shows, or any show that involved shooting a deer or elk. “He may not care what I do, but he’s going to want to know about Stormy.”
“Good. I’m glad you made up your mind. Believe you me, you’ll feel better once you tell him. If you didn’t tell him, you’d be just as bad as him. I know you. You’re better than that. Oh, and don’t forget about that collector coming by at five thirty.”
“Remember? I texted you. That Three’s Company expert who thinks there might be some collectible owned by Norman Fell around here somewhere.”
Willow was aghast. “Norman Fell? Isn’t he that guy who played the roommates’ super on Three’s Company?” The concept that there even was such a thing as a Three’s Company expert was almost funny enough to take Willow’s mind off her dog and her asinine ex-husband. There was a celebrity-obsessed culture in the nearby Palm Springs area, so it shouldn’t surprise her.
“That’s the guy. Mr. Roper. Well, you know that in its fifties incarnation as the Sunset Palomino Ranch, this place was a well-known swinging bordello. Maybe Norman had some sojourns here and this expert wants to profit off the memorabilia.”
Willow scoffed. “Like what? A bottle of Norman’s motion lotion? Oh, whatever. The guy can look around all he wants as long as one of us is with him.”
“Well, don’t take too long showing him Mr. Fell’s smut collection,” said Jaclyn, standing at the swinging glass door. “We’re meeting Fernando and his friend at Sprockets at six-thirty.”
“Oh, jeez,” whined Willow. She hadn’t particularly wanted to meet Fernando’s monster truck friend, but she knew that she “should” move on with her life. It had been four months since she had made the final break with Matt. Then she had had to deal with Stormy’s cancer, not to mention the myriad tasks and chores that came with renovating a motel. She felt she was probably going to have a heart attack from stress if she didn’t kick back, have a couple drinks, and allow some man to buy her dinner, even if he did talk about scaled-up dune buggies the whole time.
“He’s cute, I guarantee you.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m sure he’s cute. See you at Sprockets.” Willow waved. She knew Fernando. She had seen Jaclyn’s idea of “cute.” Not all men could or should be carved pieces of man candy, and it wasn’t any man’s fault he had a bald gene. But he could avoid the Bozo look by getting a trim around the shirt collar—and clipping the nose and ear hair wouldn’t be amiss, either. Willow just didn’t know how Jaclyn could sleep with Fernando.
But Willow was starting to wonder if she could sleep with any man, however. She had dated Matt for four years then had two years of relative happiness in marriage before everything fell apart. All told, it had been eight years since she had kissed another man. Just the thought of doing so creeped her out.
To get out of earshot of some workers who were hammering, Willow moved out by the pool that was fringed by palms. Her heart sped up at the thought of calling Matt. She had struggled on many occasions to refrain from calling him. She knew it wasn’t a good idea in general. This Matt wasn’t the man she had married. He had changed irrevocably. Yet why did she still long for him so badly?
She knew it was human nature to want to be loved, to be cherished, nurtured, and treated well. Matt was the most recent, or only, man who had done that. It was just natural to long for his kind tone of voice, to hear him call her “pussy willow,” to hear the dreaded “L word.”
He probably won’t answer anyway. He’s been screening my calls for months. Years. Oh, hell. I’ll just act casual, emotionless, and insensitive…like he’s done to me the past two years.
“Willow!” Matt was obviously surprised to hear her voice. No doubt he’s expecting one of his other bimbos. Already he was making getting-off-the-phone sounds. “Ah, I have to—”
Willow cut him off. “It’s okay, Matt. I won’t keep you long. I just thought you might want to know. Three weeks ago Stormy was diagnosed with lymphoma.”
For once, Matt was silent.
It occurred to Willow why he was so stupefied. “That’s a type of cancer.”
He must be in shock. Of course. That’s understandable. “Anyway, they gave her two months to live. But she took a turn for the worse after three weeks.”
“I had to send her to the Rainbow Bridge at the vet’s office. It was my only option, Matt. It would’ve been cruel to keep her lingering any longer.”
“Oh. Well, yeah. That would be cruel. Wow, that’s sad to hear. Say, can I call you back? I’m just saying goodbye to a guest. I’ll call you back in ten minutes.”
What? It was Willow’s turn to be stunned into silence. How important could any guest be compared to the death of a beloved pet? She had prepared to steel herself against Matt’s insensitivity, but this even took that coldhearted cake. “What?” she breathed. “Matt, you’re just incredible! Can’t whoever is trying to leave just hang tight for thirty seconds? Is he some damned bank president or something? Even bank presidents might understand that your dog passed away!”
Matt began to stammer. “Oh, hey, before you go. Can you remind me which company we used for our homeowners insurance? I can’t fucking find anything around here. There’s mold on the bathroom ceiling and—”
Willow punched the end call button so hard she nearly broke her thumb. Then she flung the phone into the pool.
Of course, she immediately knew her error and had to look for the long-handled net to fish it out. Damn! This is supposed to be my great, new life! Then why is everything so utterly screwed? She was so emotional she didn’t know whether to scream or cry. While she was patting her cell dry she bashed the toe of her flat shoe against some kind of stupid plastic bucket full of cement, and she howled like one of the coyotes she often heard in the desert at night.
The howl was a mixture of anguish and rage, and it rolled piercingly down the breezeway between two motel room wings. Several contractors who were surfacing the swimming pool froze and looked at her curiously, but Willow kept it up because it felt good. She wasn’t sure whether she would burst into tears or scream in anger at her soon-to-be-ex-husband. She stood with arms out stiffly at her sides, looking into the sky like an ape-man who had just discovered fire.
“Fucktard!” was the first discernible word that came from her lungs. As a few cement masons laughed at her, she sprung into action, heading down the breezeway toward the front lobby where her office was. “Fucking fucktard! Epic assmunching asshat!” It felt good to swear. She thought she recalled a news article that said swearing helped ease pain. “Fucking coke-snorting dickwad!”
Jamming her butt into the chair, Willow rolled into a decrepit turquoise filing cabinet that had been there when she’d taken possession of the Searchlight Motel. She had shoved some important papers in here—maybe Matt’s stupid insurance papers were there. She would dearly love to hire a motel manager, but with only thirty rooms, she really couldn’t justify that. Besides, she had been a secretary before and during her marriage to Matt. If she couldn’t organize some damned papers…
What’s this? Willow’s anger at her dickhead ex-spouse went completely out the window when her fingers touched a worn, glossy piece of folded black cardboard that declared it was a menu. That would definitely be a great discovery to find an old menu for the Cavern on the Green.
However, the menu was for the “World Famous Sunset Palomino Ranch Bordello.” It must be from the fifties when the Searchlight was a bordello. They even had a tagline, “Not Just Sex—A Trip!” This was a potentially even better find. A bordello had a menu? This would be the epitome of kitsch. She could frame it for the lobby. Willow’s heart raced as she opened up the folded cardboard.
The Best Fillies in California!
Holy shit! There were menu items such as a Salt and Pepper Party, a 69 Party, a Pony Express, and a Filly Steak Sandwich. A fellow could, apparently, order a Trojan Horse, a Horse and Buggy, or have an Irish Cream Party conjured up for him.
Willow’s mind reeled, wondering at the meaning behind some of the menu items. A Feast at the Y seemed pretty straightforward. But what in the hell was a Sex on the Beach—doing it in a sandbox? And didn’t pretty much every man want a Low-Fat Delight? Of course, only if he wanted to avoid a Cream Pie or, God forbid, a Milky Way.
Reading the sultry and forbidden names made Willow’s heart slow, and a warmth spread between her thighs. It had been a very long time since she’d been toyed with anything close to lust or passion. She knew the hookers behind this menu weren’t in the passion business, but a little lust around now wouldn’t go amiss in Willow’s new world. Of course, it would be ideal if there were actual feelings behind it. That was probably too much to ask. Willow thought she might be ready for plain old lust again soon.
She didn’t have much experience with men. After all, she was only thirty-two and had wasted eight years on Matt. Her most arousing memory had been during a college break in Daytona Beach. She had witnessed two men doing unnatural, erotic things to each other in an alley. But boy, had she longed to join in. Great. My most sensual experience, and I was just a spectator.
She was excited by the activities suggested in the menu but also afraid of them.
Willow wasn’t even aware that her jaw was hanging open until a figure appeared in the office doorway. She looked up stupidly, making a noise that approximated “eh?”
The silhouette was delicious enough to take Willow’s mind off the menu for a few seconds. He was tall and lean, a “long, cool drink of water” as they said in the west. A drip of sweat rolled down between her breasts. This was one thing she already disliked about the Coachella Valley. She wasn’t slender enough to wear the fashions that the hundred degree June weather required, so she felt very self-conscious in sleeveless, low-cut shirts. She wore them nevertheless, because the air conditioning wasn’t functioning yet. And this man’s level, assessing gaze made her feel highly self-conscious. It was as though he had X-ray vision and could see her thunder thighs through her flippy miniskirt.
When he stepped into the office away from the backlit doorway, she could see he was a stunning man, with the chiseled features of a Marlboro stud. His closely-shaven auburn hair looked soft like a brush. Although he wore a button-down jean material shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows like some sort of professional, she could tell in an instant he was built, cut and carved like a turkey. “Mrs. Paige,” the man assumed, with a bit of a drawl. He almost sounded Irish.
“Miss Willow Paige,” she corrected him.
He reached out a hand for her to shake. “Steffen Jung.”
It occurred to her. This is the guy Jaclyn warned me about. The Norman Fell fan who was looking for smut magazines. This might be the artifact he’s looking for. Willow dropped the menu back into the file drawer and slammed it shut. She wasn’t about to sell the menu. She shuddered to think the menu had anything to do with Norman Fell.
Smiling artificially, she stood and shook his manly hand with her clammy one. “Yes. You’re the guy looking for some Three’s Company memorabilia.”
He frowned. “Three’s Company? That show with John Ritter?”
Willow was less self-assured now. “The show with Norman Fell?” It was more a question than a statement.
Steffen grinned seductively. “Well, Norman Fell was a member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. That would explain why someone would be here looking for some memorabilia of his.”
“You’re kidding me. The super on Three’s Company was a Rat Packer? Well, if I would’ve known that, I would’ve named a suite after him. Which artifact exactly are you looking for? I’ll let you know if I’ve come across it.”
“Well, as much as I’d like to find Mrs. Roper’s housecoat, I’m actually here to sign off on your building renovation.”
“Ah, excuse me? Sign off on what, exactly?”
“Oh.” Steffen took a business card from his front shirt pocket and handed it to Willow.
The card was steamy, having been against his chest. Automatically, Willow’s pussy shivered with delight, and she imagined she could smell his musky sweat emanating from the damp card.
Chief Building Inspector
City of Palm Springs
Oh, dear. He was here to inspect her plumbing, not ask for a Cream Pie.
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