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Can you know what you want before you have it?
Or do you have to lose it to know for sure?
Mild-mannered Matt Coxwell has finally found something worth fighting for. In fact, it's only after he's left his marriage that he realizes he hasn't fought this hard for anything since he fell like a ton of bricks for his wife Leslie. How did their marriage shift from idyllic into idle? And is there any way back?
Leslie Coxwell, long rumored to be the most organized working mother alive, is suddenly having a tough time coping. Her job's in jeopardy, her teenage daughter has attitude to spare (well, that's not new), and her formidable mother-in-law has moved in unexpectedly...with two very large poodles.
She could juggle it all with the right motivation. Unfortunately her husband, Matt — the motivation for everything Leslie has ever done — turned into a sexy enigmatic stranger right before he walked out the door. Even better, he's gone to stay with his free-spirited ex-fiancé, the one woman who makes Leslie feel as sexy as dirty dishwater.
The only good news is that Leslie still has the greatest lingerie collection known to womankind and she's prepared to use it. After all, to give her marriage one more chance, to take the chance on falling in love one more time, she'll need all the support she can get...
Leslie tripped when the heel of her mule snagged in the carpet on the stairs. She saved herself from a nasty fall by grabbing the bannister, then kicked the shoes off with rare temper. She stumbled over one of them at the bottom of the stairs, winced, but kept on going.
The kitchen was as pristine as she’d left it the night before. Not an encouraging sign. The dining room might have been in a furniture catalog, it was so perfectly organized and clean.
Leslie’s heart started to pound. No. He couldn’t have just left. Not without saying a single word to her. Things hadn’t been fabulous lately, but he wouldn’t just walk away without a word after eighteen years.
She looked out at the back deck, which was perfectly dusted with undisturbed fresh snow, and told herself she shouldn’t have been surprised that Matt wasn’t on the deck in January.
The spare room! Why hadn’t she thought of that sooner? She pivoted and raced back toward the stairs, seizing the newel post to hurl herself up the stairs precisely as she had forbidden Annette to do.
That was when she saw their old reliable navy Samsonite suitcase, standing by the front door. Packed. Her gut went cold, because Matt’s briefcase—considerably thinner than it had been lately—leaned against it. For some strange reason, she glanced into the living room that they never used. It too was neat, the curtains still pulled against the night, but a cut crystal glass winked in the shadows.
Leslie froze, one foot up and one foot down, and fought to steady her breathing as Matt’s silhouette became clear.
He was sitting in the chair they had inherited from some auntie of his, a woman Leslie had never met. It was the only antique they owned and had a position of honor in the living room, although no one had ever sat on it.
Matt lounged on it now, bracing his weight on the back two legs of the chair as he rocked slightly. The Matt she knew would never have done that to an old, potentially fragile, chair. He was still wearing the dark Italian suit he’d worn in court the day before, the one that made him look like a model, though he’d shed the jacket. He’d rolled up his shirt sleeves, loosened his tie and unfastened the top button of the shirt. He was unshaven, rumpled and looked sexy enough to eat.
Matt’s smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and his was a decidedly roguish and alien smile. He sat wreathed in shadows, looking mysterious and unpredictable, two traits Leslie knew her husband did not possess. Her spouse had been reinterpreted as a swashbuckler; even the stubble on his chin looked newly dangerous.
There was a stranger in their living room, a doppelganger in her husband’s suit, a lost secret twin who might toss away the keys to the kingdom just for the heck of it.
And she didn’t know what to do or say. Her mouth was so dry that her tongue seemed to have sealed itself to the roof of her mouth.
One thing was for certain: this twin of Matt’s could conjure the same old black magic as the husband she knew. He glanced over her, his gaze heating. His smile became a little more wicked, and Leslie felt her knees melt. He could dissolve her reservations with a glance, could Matt Coxwell.
He was still drinking, something he never did to excess, or never had in the past. The amber of the Scotch gleamed in his glass as he took another sip.
Would the real Matt Coxwell please stand up?
“Looking for someone?” he asked, his voice rough and only slightly slurred.
“You. Of course.”
He smiled, though it wasn’t a merry smile. “I guess the staff slipped up and didn’t make your coffee this morning. Oh well.”
“I thought you liked making coffee in the morning.” Leslie hated how breathless she sounded. “Or I would have learned to do it.”
“Just like you learned to do everything else. Competent, efficient, organized Leslie Coxwell.” He saluted her again.
“Somehow that doesn’t sound like a compliment.”
He raised his brows in mock surprise and sipped of his Scotch. “Independent,” he added with emphasis. “Driven. Ambitious.” Funny but the list of her attributes didn’t sound that positive this morning.
He paused, as if waiting and though she knew it was an old trick, Leslie couldn’t help but fill the silence he left between them.
“You haven’t been drinking all night, have you?”
He shrugged. “What if I have?”
“I thought you might have come to bed last night.”
“Why? So you’d have the chance to toss me out?”
“Do I look as if I would have turned you away?”
He considered her, letting that simmering glance slide over her curves. Leslie felt her flesh heat, felt his gaze as surely as a touch, and was achingly aware of just how long it had been since they’d made the mattress squeak. He met her gaze finally, smiled slightly, then unfolded himself from the chair. He moved with athletic grace, as he always did, a grace that made Leslie want him all the more.
She gripped the newel post so she wouldn’t swoon at his feet and tried to remember why wrapping her tongue around his tonsils had seemed like a bad idea. He reached for his jacket, which was draped across the couch. Light glinted on gold and Leslie’s heart skipped that he was still wearing his wedding ring.
That had to be a good sign, didn’t it?
Or was he just so used to it that he’d forgotten it?
He crossed the floor to her and once she caught a whiff of his cologne, she couldn’t take a breath. He stopped right in front of her, his eyes glittering, then leaned closer. “I haven’t been drinking all night, not quite,” he whispered and she surveyed him, fearful of what he might say. “By the way, have you seen the paper this morning?”
Leslie frowned at the change of subject. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Everything.” He lifted it from the hall table and put it into her hands.
Matt was cocksure, though Leslie couldn’t imagine why. His manner would have been puckish if she hadn’t sensed a tremendous anger in him. Was it directed at her? What had she failed to do? She thought again of the triumphant smile that had lit his face when the verdict had been announced the day before and watched him for a long moment, unable to understand this man she had thought she knew so well.
“Chicken?” he asked, eyes bright with challenge, and she flicked the paper open without further delay.
She took a deep breath, knowing there would be a picture of a triumphant James Coxwell crossing the courtroom to shake his opponent’s hand, victor in a landmark court case that had, in an ironic twist of fate, pitted him against his younger brother, Matt. The press had gone wild when James had made that move and the flash from their cameras had been almost blinding.
But that picture wasn’t on the front page. Instead there was a file shot of Leslie’s father-in-law, Robert Coxwell—the potent patriarch: handsome, confident, successful and rich—with the headline “Prominent Former Judge Dead”.
She had to read the headline twice, it was so different from her expectation, then she looked to Matt for an explanation.
The glint in his eyes was definitely hostile. “I don’t suppose you heard the phone ring last night?”
Leslie shook her head, still confused. “No. You know that I unplugged the extension in the bedroom when that Chinese take-out place was assigned almost exactly the same number as ours—”
“My father phoned last night,” Matt said, interrupting her with a savage tone that she’d never heard him use before. “He summoned me to the house in Rosemount. I didn’t want to go, but he promised we’d never talk about the Laforini case again if I agreed. It seemed like a good deal at the time.” His lips twisted in a parody of a smile. “But he meant exactly what he said. We didn’t talk again and we never will.”
“I don’t understand.” Leslie glanced at the paper in her hands.
Dead? Matt’s father was dead?
“He killed himself, Leslie,” Matt said her tersely. “He committed suicide because I fucked up that case, the one he wanted so badly to win.” He shrugged, his eyes glittering. “In fact, as a special present to me, he killed himself while I was driving to Rosemount. He made sure that I found him while he was still warm.”
Leslie shook her head, unable to accept that even disliking Robert Coxwell as she did. “But how can you know for sure? Maybe somebody else killed him. Maybe someone broke into the house, or he confronted a burglar, or...”
“No, Leslie, this was his way of getting even with me for letting him down yesterday.”
Leslie looked at her husband, saw the mingled anger and shock and hurt in his eyes, and knew she couldn’t hold back the one question she had to ask. “Then why did you do it?” she whispered. “Why did you lose the case on purpose?”
She was hoping that Matt would deny it, that he hadn’t lost deliberately. For some reason, she could have accepted incompetence better than an unwillingness to comply with expectation.
But Matt’s eyes brightened to vivid green, a sign she recognized as a mark of his strong feelings. “Don’t you know? I thought you, of all people, would know. Don’t you?”
Leslie could only shake her head, because she didn’t understand. His lips tightened to a thin line and the shame she had felt in her dream, the certainty that she had let down expectations, flooded through her again.
Matt drained the last sip of Scotch from his glass, then dropped the empty glass into her hand so abruptly that she nearly let it slip through her hands. It was heavier than she remembered, smoother, and she barely caught it. He tilted his head to regard her, almost snarling. “I thought you of all people would get it. I had hoped that you would understand.”
“But I don’t.” As soon as the words left her lips, Leslie knew she’d failed a test, one she hadn’t even known she’d been taking. “Tell me.”
“There’s no point.” Matt’s lips drew to a taut line. He stepped past her, his manner dismissive. He straightened his collar and tie as he looked in the mirror. He ran a hand through his hair, ran a hand over the stubble on his chin with what might have been regret.
Leslie remembered the suitcase then, a bit later than was ideal, and a couple of points got together to make a line. “You’re leaving? Just because I don’t understand why you did what you did?”
She might not have spoken for all the response she got. Matt checked what looked like a computer printout before tucking it into his jacket pocket and reaching for the suitcase.
“There was a time when we would talk about things,” she said with some desperation. “There was a time when we would give each other a chance.”
“We were different people then,” he said softly, the murmured words breaking her heart.
She stepped after him, put a hand on his arm. “Where are you going?”
“To get Zach out of jail, of course.” Matt smiled then, looking more rakish than Leslie knew him to be. “But then, I doubt you’ll miss me anyway.”
“That’s not true...”
“No?” He considered her for a heartbeat, then suddenly caught her nape in his hand and kissed her. He tasted of alcohol and of himself. Leslie felt the stubble on his chin and smelled his cologne mingled with his own scent. she felt that old black magic stir between them once more. She had a heartbeat to realize that she wasn’t the only one savoring this long-overdue kiss.
Then Matt stepped away. “One last kiss,” he said, which made Leslie panic. He smiled that crooked smile, the one that melted her knees, which softened his retreat a little.
“Be good, or at least be careful,” he murmured as he ran his thumb along the line of her jaw. Leslie leaned into his caress without meaning to do so, loving the feel of his hand against her skin, yearning.
“Don’t go,” she whispered.
But he was gone, striding out the door with purpose, as if he had already forgotten her. There was an airline limo idling at the curb. Matt put the Samsonite in trunk, then made for the door to the back seat.
This had all been arranged in advance.
“Wait!” Leslie shouted. “Where are you going?” She was standing barefoot on her porch, which had a dusting of snow on it, her sapphire silk peignoir visible to all, and for once in her life, she didn’t care what the neighbors thought.
Matt turned back and grinned, as if he had been possessed by the devil himself. He gave her a look of such pure mischief that she dreaded his words. She always loved his affection for the truth, his ability to be candidly honest about everything, although right here right now, she realized she’d never been afraid of the truth before. “New Orleans.”
Leslie’s heart headed for her toes. “Are you coming back?”
“Why would I?” He waited two beats for her shocked response, then blew her a showy kiss—her husband’s cocksure twin—and stepped into the cab.
“You have to come back!” she shouted, but the cab was already at the end of the block and no one was looking back.
Excerpt from ONE MORE TIME ©2006 Claire Delacroix, Inc.
2006 - 2012 Deborah A. Cooke