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Authors: Megan Hart

Bachelor Number Four

BOOK: Bachelor Number Four
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Chapter One

“I swear, I love my husband, but sometimes I just want to kill him.”

Utter silence filled the room that only moments before had been filled with the sounds of laughter and crunching popcorn. Barb, the woman who’d spoken, flushed. Arden Walsh froze with a chocolate sandwich cookie halfway to her mouth as every face in the room turned toward her. Did they want her to say something? Do something? She forced herself to eat the cookie as Lida, bless her, reached for the remote and rewound the scene, then used the remote to zoom in on the luscious backside displayed on the TV.

“Ewan McGregor has the finest ass in the universe, I swear. He wouldn’t even have to knock on my door. I’d catch him while he was still standing in the driveway.”

The room rocked with laughter. While moments before the continuous chuckling and innuendo-filled comments had sounded sincere, now they rang false. No wonder, Arden thought, turning her determined attention toward the film, which sadly was no longer showing naked male booty. What kind of downer was a widow on Ladies’ Night anyway?

“I need another drink. Anyone else?” She got up from the plaid couch and looked around brightly, ice cubes clinking in her glass.

A chorus of “No” greeted her, and she was glad because that meant she could take the trip to the kitchen by herself, eyes burning with unshed tears, throat clogged so tight she wouldn’t have been able to make small talk had she tried. In Lida’s disorderly kitchen she found the pitcher of sangria and filled her glass. She didn’t really want the booze. It made her melancholy. She swirled the soggy fruit around in the bottom of the glass for a moment before dumping it down the sink. She’d be better off with diet soda.

Rooting around in the freezer, Arden took the time to press a handful of ice against her eyes. The cubes burned, but not as badly as the tears had. At least
that
pain stopped when she took the ice away.

“Cucumbers work better for that than cubes.” Lida parked her butt at the kitchen table to scoop up a chip full of taco dip. “Mmm. Man, this stuff is fabulous. Try some.”

Arden shook her head and sipped from the soda.

Lida tilted her head. “Barb didn’t mean what she said out there. At least…she didn’t mean to say it in front of you.”

“I know.” Arden sighed and looked back into the living room, where the ladies were now hooting and hollering over a scene featuring another naked celebrity. “Don’t worry about it. I think they felt worse about her saying it than I did.”

“You’re missing the movie.”

“Yeah, which is sad, since it’s the closest I’ve been to a naked male behind in a long time. I know.” Arden tried to shrug her comment off, but it came out sounding too sad.

Lida let out one of her throaty, delightful laughs that had always made men’s toes curl. “Whose fault is that?”

Arden shook her head, emptied her glass in a hasty swallow and poured another. “Last I saw, Ewan wasn’t riding his motorcycle up and down Main Street.”

“You need to be a little more realistic.”

Arden fixed her eyes on her friend’s. “Lida, you know that’s not going to happen.”

“Why not? You’re young. You’re gorgeous. You’re available.”

Again, Arden sighed. She helped herself to some of the spicy dip and followed it with a swig of cola. “That’s…that’s not really part of my life any more.”

“When’s the last time you had sex with something other than Mr. Jolly?”

Arden spluttered and laughed. “Mr. Jolly?”

“Or whatever you call yours.” Lida grinned slyly. “I call mine The Joystick. What can I say? Bill’s out of town a lot. What battery-operated toy do you have in your nightstand drawer?”

“Um.” Arden bit her lip, but she and Lida had shared almost every secret since the seventh grade, and there was no way she’d be able to convince her friend she didn’t have any toys. “It’s a butterfly. It vibrates. And it doesn’t have a name.”

“And it’s not a man.”

Arden’s first sob leaked out before she could stop it, and the next hit her like a baseball bat over the head. Arden pressed her fingers to her mouth to stop them, but they refused to be held back. Tears squirted, scalding, and her throat burned like she’d swallowed hot wax.

Lida’s hand pressed hers, and Arden grasped it like a drowning woman clutching at a piece of floating driftwood. Then Lida pulled Arden into her arms, rocked her like a baby, patted her back and shushed and hushed her until spent, Arden sat back. Without a word, Lida handed her a handful of tissue and a full glass of soda.

“I shouldn’t have come tonight,” Arden said, voice as hoarse as a frog’s croak.

“Bullshit. You should’ve come six months ago, when I invited you the first time.”

“I wasn’t ready then. I’m not so sure I was ready tonight.” Arden looked back into the living room. More hooting told her they’d switched to another raunchy movie. She looked around the kitchen, overflowing with bowls of dips and chips, platters of brownies and cookies, bottles of booze and beer on every counter. “I should go home.”

Lida stared at the wobbling ceiling fan for a second, then at Arden. “Why, you got a date with your butterfly?”

As quickly as she’d wept, Arden burst into laughter. She and Lida guffawed and giggled, until the commotion made everyone else get up to see what was going on.

“What’s so funny?” asked Marla, a divorcée in her late thirties.

“Yeah, dish.” Candace popped open a beer. “It better be good because I’m missing Orlando Bloom on the big screen.”

“Oh, hush…why bother? That baby boy’s got all his clothes on.” This came with a grin from Barb, who reached over to help herself to the last few scoops of taco dip.

“We were just talking about Arden’s lack of sex life,” Lida said.

Again, Arden broke the uncomfortable silence so she didn’t have to face it. “Really, everyone, it’s okay. We can talk about it.”

Barb reached over and squeezed her hand. “Only if you want to, honey.”

Grief, embarrassment, gratitude—a swirl of emotions overwhelmed Arden. She hadn’t met any of these women until tonight. All friends of Lida’s, they’d been getting together for monthly ladies’ nights for a couple of years—years Arden had lived away with her husband. She’d agreed to come with trepidation, uncomfortable at jumping into a tightly knit group, but Lida had assured her she’d fit in. And, for the most part, until the injudicious comments had ground the party to a halt, she had.

In between movie scenes of their favorite actors, preferably scenes in which said actors were scantily clad or not clad at all, the other women had joked and complained about the men in their lives, or lack of men. While vocal in her appreciation of Ewan’s butt and Antonio’s abs, Arden hadn’t joined the complaints, good-natured though they were. It felt disloyal to talk about Jason, to complain about the foibles that had seemed, at the time, to be enough to make her pull out her hair, but in retrospect were laughably minor.

She’d spoken proudly of her two girls, six-year-old Maeve and eight-year-old Aislin, and she’d reminisced fondly with Lida about their high school adventures. But she hadn’t said much about her husband. Now, looking around the room at the faces of these women, she took a deep breath and spoke. “I need to get laid.”

For one more moment silence hung in the air like a crystal glass falling from a dish-soap slippery hand—and just like that glass hitting the floor, the silence shattered when confronted with more guffaws of female laughter.

“Oh honey, don’t we all?” Gail patted her generous hips. “Work off some of this the old-fashioned way!”

They were all looking at her like they expected her to say more, and to her own surprise, she did. “Jason died a year and three months ago. Um. I haven’t had sex…I guess I haven’t had sex in a year and six months. And the last time…well…” Arden took a drink, thinking of how they’d tried to make love and only been able to cuddle. “It wasn’t exactly like the movie we were watching earlier.”

Barb nodded. “I understand, honey.”

“It’s not that I haven’t thought about it,” Arden said hurriedly. “Sex, I mean.”

“Obviously not, if you bought yourself a butterfly,” said Lida, eliciting a hoot of approval from the ladies gathered in the kitchen.

“I’m sorry. I must be ruining the mood.” Arden stood, but the women surrounded her.

“No, girl, not at all. This is Ladies’ Night. We’re here to ogle the buns of hunky men, gorge on chocolate and drink ourselves sillier than we already are. Seems to me you’re in exactly the right place.” Marla grinned and held up her plate of dessert.

“And since most of us also spent a portion of the time complaining about our husbands, current and ex,” Candace put in, “I also think you’re in the right spot. Because if you don’t have a reason to be supremely pissed off with the man you married, none of us do.”

Arden’s mouth dropped open, but she saved herself from looking too stupid by filling it with a mouthful of chocolate-frosted cupcake. She chased it with a swallow of diet soda. “I’m not… I can’t be… Oh, hell, you’re exactly right. I’m pissed at Jason for leaving me and the girls. I’m pissed at him for not going to the doctor sooner. I’m pissed at him because he never did learn to put his socks in the laundry, and now he never will.”

Saying the words felt good, and more tumbled out of her mouth. “I’m pissed because he used to snore right through midnight diaper changes, but couldn’t seem to fall asleep if I stayed up late reading a book. He never put the toilet seat down. He called me Ardie, even though I hated it. He never hung up his ties, just left them hanging on the back of a kitchen chair. And I’m pissed because he left us. Me and Maeve and Aislin, and he’ll never see them grow up, or go to the prom, or get married. I’m pissed because he’s not here and I still am, and it’s hard to be alone.”

Her voice hitched and the room swam, but this time the tears stayed away. Arden looked around at the room full of women, all of them nodding and none of them staring at her with what she’d feared most to see: pity. Empathy, yes, and compassion. But no pity.

Arden took a deep breath. “It’s been a year and three months since he died. And I’ve never said any of that to anyone.”

“Then I guess it’s about time you did,” Lida told her and applauded, then hugged Arden with one strong arm. “It’s okay to be mad.”

“Death doesn’t make anyone perfect, even though we’d like to think they are.” This from the mostly silent Pam. An older woman with soft gray hair, she gave Arden a smile.

“Are you going to cry again?” Lida handed Arden another tissue.

“I don’t think so. I’m going to eat another cupcake.”

The ladies gathered around her broke into another chorus of cheers. Arden stuffed her mouth with the luscious cake and patted her stomach.

“And it’s been
eighteen months
since she had sex,” Lida announced, making Arden blush.

Arden thought of her daughters, who’d become her entire life since she’d lost Jason. “I’m not ready for a relationship.”

“I saw you watching Ewan’s bare ass,” said Marla, wiggling her eyebrows. “You can’t tell me you don’t want a piece of something like that.”

Gail sighed and put her hand theatrically over her heart. “Who doesn’t?”

“All right. If Ewan shows up at my door, I’ll let him in.”

“And we all know how likely that is to happen.” Candace shook her head. “I agree with Lida. You should have no trouble at all finding a man to give you some action. You just need to pick the right one.”

“Good luck with that,” grouched Gail good-naturedly. “I’ve been looking for the right one for fifteen years.”

“Arden doesn’t want a boyfriend. She wants a bumpin’ uglies buddy,” quipped Barb, who ducked when Gail threw a paper napkin at her.

The idea had more appeal than Arden was willing to admit out loud. “C’mon, you guys, I’m a mom. That’s not me anymore.”

“A mom. Like having kids means you don’t need sex, too?” Marla shook her head. “No red-blooded straight male is going to turn you down because you’ve had kids.”

Arden wasn’t vain enough to think herself a beauty or insecure enough to believe herself a beast. But a siren capable of wooing a man for the sole purpose of sex? That had never been her role. Well…maybe once…

“She’s thinking about it,” said Gail triumphantly. “Look at her eyes!”

“No, no,” Arden protested. “I’m not, I swear!”

But she was. A face from the past had flashed in her mind. There was one time when she’d thrown caution to the wind, taken a chance. She’d played the part of the vixen in a way she’d never done since.

Lida reached up and undid the clip, sending Arden’s hair tumbling around her shoulders. “Red lipstick. Black stiletto heels. We’d have you fixed up in no time.”

“But what if it’s disappointing?” she asked aloud, scarcely able to believe she was even contemplating such a thing.

“Do your research, silly. Don’t just leap into bed with the first Romeo who buys you a drink. Get recommendations.” Gail laughed and thrust her hips back and forth. “You’re looking for Don Juan? Ask around.”

“You’re kidding.” But Arden clearly saw she wasn’t.

“You said yourself, you’re not looking for a relationship. Hell, after a year of no sex, you’re practically a virgin again. Find a guy you like who’ll take the time to do you right.”

BOOK: Bachelor Number Four
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