I SAUNTERED IN THROUGH DODY'S front door sporting a sublime smile and a mad case of whisker burn. Dody and Fontaine were sitting at the kitchen island having their morning coffee.

"Good morning, you saucy minx," Fontaine said. "Did that filthy scoundrel keep you out all night? Why, I do declare, he has sullied your reputation."

I kissed Fontaine's cheek. "I have indeed been sullied."

Dody hugged me. "Darling, that is simply delightful. Nothing puts the pink in a girl's cheeks like a good roll in the straw."

"Hay," I said.

"Hey, what?" She looked at me, waiting.

"Nothing. So did I miss anything over here last night?"

Fontaine shook his head. "Hardly, but I want every creepy hetero detail from your evening."

I poured myself a coffee, gazing up at the ceiling without really seeing it. Last night had been a slice of heaven, but I didn't want to share the details. I wanted to enjoy my lovely thoughts without Fontaine's crass editorial commentary. I wanted to dwell in the bliss of my wanton behavior before my brain kicked in with the inevitable reprimands.

"It was wonderful."

Fontaine held up his hands. "And?"

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"And that's all. I'm too sleepy to talk about it right now. Take me shopping later and I'll tell you more."

"Deal," Fontaine answered quickly. "And Penny wants you to call her. She said something about doing the laundry?"

I trotted up to my room, a spring in my step. I fluffed the pillows and plopped down on my bed, noticing that today it did not seem so maddeningly, mockingly empty. Last night had been sensational. And not just the first time either, which was a little urgent. (Hardly his fault considering the way I'd left him earlier that evening.) The second time was pure perfection, like floating on a silky mink raft in a pool of bubbly pink champagne, eating Swiss chocolates while Bradley Cooper massaged my feet. It was that good. By the third time, we were tired, so we had the lazy Sunday morning kind, when you have nothing to do but lie in bed and pass the time. I had forgotten sex could actually be fun. Just fun. I stretched, feeling twinges in muscles that had not been exercised in far too long.

I dialed Penny, and she answered almost immediately. We tumbled excitedly over one another's words.

"Guess what!"

"Guess what!"

"I slept with Des."

"I'm pregnant!"

"You are?"

"You did?"

"Holy shit!"

"Holy shit!"

Penny and I haven't giggled like that since sixth grade, when Scott Nickelson skateboarded right into a mailbox because she flashed him with her training bra.

"Why didn't you tell me last night?" I asked.

"I didn't know last night. I peed on the stick this morning. How did you end up in bed with Des?"

We volleyed questions back and forth in our own brand of sister-speak. I was excited for her - and grateful that I could be. I asked about due dates and baby names and what the future grandparents had said when she told them.

"I haven't told anybody yet. Just you."

"Really?"

"Yeah, I'm kind of scared. It's really early yet. Something could go wrong."

"Dody always tells me that worrying about something doesn't do any good. It only makes you worried."

"You're quoting Dody now? We need to get you out of there."

"Nuh-uh, not now. Ask me again in a week."

"What happens in a week?" she asked.

"By then I'll have discovered some incriminating evidence against Des and have to leave Bell Harbor."

"Like he murdered the Pullmans and has them buried under the deck?"

"Precisely. So are you going to tell Mom?"

"Not yet. I'd like to wait until the end of the first trimester. So don't tell her, OK? Don't tell anybody."

"Listen to you, little mommy, talking about trimesters. I'm so proud of you. And I promise I won't tell anyone, as long as you don't tell Mom about me and Des. I don't need her judgments right now. Deal?"

"Deal."

"Did I hear you guys are going shopping?" Jasper asked. I was sitting in the kitchen putting on my sandals while Fontaine tapped his foot and jangled keys in the doorway. He wore a white polo shirt and mint-colored chinos.

Fontaine nodded. "Yes, after we check on the construction at my house. They're installing the trim, and I need to make sure they're using the right wood. Why?" Fontaine said.

"Is Mom coming?"

"No, she and Anita are painting protest signs for their rally against putting in a second traffic light."

Jasper sat down next to me. "Remember how you told me that weddings and rings and stuff were expensive?"

I reached over and touched his arm. "I never should've said that, Jas. I was in a bad mood that day. I think Beth is wonderful, and you're smart to scoop her up."

Jasper nodded. "I know. But I was wondering if you'd help with the ring part. I mean, help me pick out something that looks nice but isn't going to break my bank."

Sentimentality overtook me. I threw my arms around his neck. "Oh, Jasper! I'd be honored."

He tensed. "Jeez, Sadie. It's not that big a deal. What's up with you?"

He looked over at Fontaine, who answered, "Sadie finally got laid."

Jasper nodded, as if that explained everything.

Tilly Mason, fourth-generation owner of Mason's jewelry store, greeted us at the door.

"Hello, Fontaine. Are you looking for some new cuff links?" They gave each other a double air kiss.

"I wish. But today we're here for something extra special. My brother here thinks it's time to tie the knot. We need something sparkly and fabulous that costs like something shabby and dull."

Tilly nodded. "I'm sure we can find something wonderful." She sat Jasper down in a velvet chair and pulled out a laminated chart, explaining about color, cut, clarity, and carats until he glazed over completely.

"Wait, what's the difference between color and clarity?" Jasper asked for the third time.

"Why don't we browse a little?" I suggested.

Tilly nodded. "Why don't you?"

Jasper peered into one display case. "What about these over here?" he asked hesitantly.

"Those are anniversary bands," Tilly said.

"What's the difference?"

"They're for anniversaries."

Jasper looked at me, silently pleading.

"What kind of ring does Beth want?" Fontaine asked.

"I don't know. I never asked her."

"You mean you haven't talked about this at all?"

"No, I want it to be a surprise."

"A surprise? Then how do you know she's going to say yes?"

I smacked Fontaine in the arm. "Fontaine! Of course she'll say yes. Don't ask him that."

Jasper's face flushed.

"Oh, Fontaine, now look what you've done," I scolded, putting an arm around Jasper. "I'm sure she'll say yes. She's madly in love with you. I can tell."

Fontaine hugged him from the other side. "Of course she will. I didn't mean that. So how are you going to ask her?"

"Ask her?" Jasper went from pouty to confused.

"Yes. How are you going to propose?"

"Oh. I don't know. I figured we'd go out to dinner or something."

"No, no, no!" Fontaine stomped his expensive Italian sandal. "That's so ordinary. It has to be more romantic than that."

Jasper shook his head. "Beth isn't into all that sort of stuff. She doesn't care."

"Every girl cares," Fontaine admonished. "The proposal story is one she'll tell over and over, so you need to make it good. Put some effort into it."

"Damn it, Fontaine. This is why I hate to tell you stuff. You blow it way out of proportion."

"He does," I had to agree. "But he's right about this one, Jas. It should be something memorable."

"Me asking her to spend the rest our lives together isn't memorable enough?"

"Not if you're sitting at some dingy restaurant," Fontaine scoffed. "And don't even think about putting the ring inside a dessert or a glass of champagne. I can't imagine what misguided Neanderthal came up with that idea."

"God, you guys! Come on. Could we stick to one thing at a time here? First I have to find a ring."

Tilly walked around to where we were bickering and set a tray of diamond rings on the counter. "Why don't you look these over? I think you might find something you like. That would at least give us a starting point."

We bent over the tray in a synchronized motion. There were a variety of styles, some beautiful and simple, others garishly large, and a few with diamazoid specks so tiny they looked like smudges on the band. Jasper zeroed in on one right in the center of the tray. It was gorgeous. Not too large, not too small, not too plain, not too elaborate. He picked it up. It sparkled in the light, sending prisms in every direction. We continued to look around the store, but he kept coming back to that one.

"I love this one, Sadie. But it's too expensive," Jasper whispered. "I've been saving up to buy my own restaurant, you know, but if I spend so much on a ring, it'll put me back months."

I thought the price was reasonable, but then again, I had pretty extravagant taste. My own engagement ring had been ostentatious and flashy, like my husband. It was sitting in a drawer back in Glenville. I couldn't possibly wear it, but I also couldn't bear the thought of getting rid of it. Someday, when all the bad karma of my marriage had evaporated, I planned to have the diamonds reset into a necklace.

"Maybe you could save up for it?"

He frowned. "Yeah, I guess I'm going to have to. The pretty ones are expensive and the cheap ones are stupid."

I patted his shoulder. "We can keep looking." But Mason's was the only jewelry store in Bell Harbor, and Jasper went on home, sad and dejected.

In spite of Jasper's blue mood, I floated around for the rest of the day on cloud ten. Richard called to say the kids were doing great and having a wonderful time. He didn't pick a fight or say anything irritating, which was remarkable considering the phone call lasted nearly five minutes. And I had a date to look forward to! At Des's that morning, before he left for work and I did the walk of shame back to Dody's, he had invited me out to dinner again. I had a brand new outfit, chosen by Fontaine, of course, and more frilly new unmentionables, chosen by myself. I had to draw the line at letting my cousin pick out my underwear.

But at precisely four o'clock that afternoon, Des called. I was on the sunporch with Dody where she was knitting a holster for her gun and telling me about the most fascinating e-mail she'd gotten from a Nigerian prince.

"Sadie, hi. I can't really talk right now. I'm swamped at work," Des said. "But I have to cancel our dinner. My cousin Charlie is stranded at the airport and needs to spend the night at my house. The next flight doesn't leave until seven in the morning so I'm kind of obligated to help out. I'm really sorry."

I deflated like a day-old birthday balloon. The unheard-of-relative-stranded-at-the-airport excuse? I wanted to believe him, but I didn't trust myself to ask for details. It could be legitimate. Or not. And I didn't have the courage to find out.

"Oh, that's OK. We can do it another time." I was angry at the tremble in my voice.

"I work the next two nights, but we can do dinner after that. OK?"

"Sure. OK." My tongue felt thick. I swallowed hard.

"Hey, I'm really sorry. I had fun last night, by the way."

Did you? Good for you, you big dumb jerk. "That's great," I mumbled.

"Shoot! Ambulance is here. I have to go."

I hung up, chucking my phone against the table, where it bounced and clattered.

"What's the matter, dear?"

I shook my head. "Nothing. Des is cancelling dinner for tonight."

"Why?" She knit one, purled two.

"His cousin is in town and he has to pick him up from the airport."

"Oh, that's a shame. But Harry and I are going to a curling exhibition tonight. You should come with us."

"Tempting as that is, Dody, I think I'll pass. I've got stuff to do. I bought some organizing books today so I'll just read those tonight."

"Are you sure? Oh, dear. You look so sad."

"No, I'm fine. I just miss the kids." I wanted to cry, the way the kids did when they bumped their heads or scraped a knee. But I was an adult. And big girls don't cry because someone cancels dinner plans. Even if it is someone they had just slept with.

Fontaine refused to let me mope or drown myself in sangria. He wouldn't even let me lie on the sofa in my bathrobe and eat the jar of Marshmallow Fluff I'd found in Dody's pantry.

"You need exercise and fresh air, sugar pie. And you need to stop wallowing. If he says his cousin was stranded at the airport, believe him. Innocent until proven guilty, remember?"

"That's not how it worked with Richard." I slapped away Fontaine's hands as he tried to pull the robe from my shoulders.

"Des is not Richard. There's no comparison."

"How do you know? I mean, what do we really know about this guy?"

"Hah!" He yanked away the robe. "We know enough. Now put on your shoes. You're coming with me to walk the dogs. I can't take them both by myself."

Reluctantly I did as I was told and soon found myself being yanked down the beach by Fatso. It was dark, with a bright full moon lighting our way. We could see into the various cottages as we made our way toward the pier, and Fontaine relished pointing out gross decorating choices made by the neighbors.

"Why do we need the dogs on leashes?" I finally asked.

Fontaine shrugged. "We don't. I figured I couldn't get you out of the house any other way."

I stopped short, the dog nearly jerking my arm from my socket. "Are you serious?"

"Don't you feel better, getting some fresh air?"

I reached over and unhooked Fatso from the leash and he bolted away. "Not really."

Fontaine let Lazyboy loose and we continued walking. The lights from Des's house came into view.

"Do you think you'd feel better if you got a look at this cousin Charlie so you'd know Des wasn't lying?"

I stopped walking again. "Tell me you did not lure me out here so I could peek in Des's windows!"

I saw the translucent glow of Fontaine's teeth as he grinned. "Of course I did. I don't give a shit about the dogs."

I turned around and started walking back to Dody's, but Fontaine grabbed my wrist.

"Come on, girlfriend. You know you want to take a look. And we're already here. Once you see this Charlie guy you're going to feel loads better. Trust me. Have I ever steered you wrong?"

"Yes."

"Puh! Not this time, I promise. And we have the cloak of darkness to hide our deeds. But if we stand here arguing, he'll see us for sure. Come on."

Fontaine grabbed my wrist, pulling twice as hard as Fatso had. We ran up to the edge of Alberta Schmidt's house, right next to the Pullmans', and crouched down in the shadows.

Idiocy-induced nausea gurgled in my gut. "Fontaine! What if he catches us?"

"We'll tell him we were just taking a walk."

"On his deck? This is ridiculous!" I hissed.

A woman's laughter floated through the darkness, and I froze. It sounded as if it came from Des's place. The sliding door from his family room to the deck was wide open, with light pouring out. Music was playing too.

From where we hid, we could barely see into the kitchen window. Fontaine shoved me back against the deck post as Des's head appeared. He must have been standing at the sink. He was talking, but we couldn't hear him clearly. Then he laughed at something and turned around. I felt filthy and ludicrous, spying on someone I'd been in bed with less than twenty-four hours before. Is this what I had been reduced to?

Fontaine pointed at Des's deck, indicating we should get closer.

I shook my head frantically.

Fontaine nodded just as frantically, giving me a rough shove and pushing me out into the shaft of light coming from inside Des's house. I nearly squawked with fear and took three giant leaps, bringing me to the edge of his deck.

I couldn't breathe for fear he'd hear me! What the hell was I doing? This was insane! I was insane. Damn you, Fontaine.

Fontaine took a look toward the window, then leaped, landing next to me and bumping against the lattice surrounding the base of Des's deck. It gave a horrific crack, and my chest exploded with fear. I punched Fontaine.

We squatted in the shadow, catching our breath. I could hear the woman talking, but not loud enough to make out the words. It didn't really matter what she said anyway.

"Maybe that's Cousin Charlie's wife," Fontaine whispered.

Maybe.

Fontaine pointed up. "Let's look."

I shook my head again. I was not going to pop up like a prairie dog to peek into Des's house! Listening was bad enough.

Fontaine scowled and rose up, his eyes peeping over the edge. I heard him gasp. And I knew I would have to look for myself. I rose up on trembling legs.

She was young and blonde and stood near the doorway with a glass of wine in her hand. Instant jealousy seared through every vein in my body. This was no one's wife. She was a plaything, a human bauble, to be admired and stroked. She must have been all of a size two, wearing a short little skirt and a tank top. Chunky bracelets adorned one wrist, and her hair was in a loose ponytail draped over one shoulder. If I were a man, I'd bring her home too. Skinny bitch.

Des came into view, and the earth dropped beneath me, like that moment a roller coaster begins its plummeting descent. He smiled broadly and poured more into her glass.

She giggled. "Hey, are you trying to get me drunk?"

"Oh, don't pretend it's the first time," he said, tapping her pert little nose with his finger.

I might have puked right then and there if not for the sound of familiar barking. Fontaine ducked and pulled me back down into the shadow. Lazyboy and Fatso bounded toward us, proving once and for all that dogs have no concept of time. We'd been with them ten minutes earlier, but they leaped around in a crazed barking frenzy as though we'd just returned from an intergalactic space mission! If we shushed them, Des would hear. If we ran, they'd chase us, and he'd spot us for sure!

Fontaine clutched my arm, digging his nails into my skin. I heard the screen door slide open. Never in my life have I so wished to spontaneously combust. This was about to become the worst moment of my life, and I've had some mighty horrendous moments. Footsteps fell on the wood of the deck and the railing creaked. Dody's traitorous hounds bounded up the steps. I pressed myself against the lattice.

Please, God.

Please, God.

"Are these your dogs?" The sex kitten's voice had a sultry huskiness to it. She sounded sensual, self-assured, and well-read.

"No, they're my neighbor's," he answered.

Oh, there he goes again! Just the neighbor. That was me. But she was no recruiter. He couldn't try that line on me again. This girl was built for one thing only.

Fontaine's breath was wheezing in and out.

"They're so cute. Look, they're all drooly and hairy. Kind of like you." She giggled again at her own incredibly lame joke while I hyperventilated and fought down the half jar of Marshmallow Fluff trying to spew back up my esophagus.

Des told them to sit. "This one is Lazyboy. This one is Fatso."

Sure, go ahead. Exploit my dogs for the purposes of your insatiable sex drive, you horny bastard!

Fontaine used the distraction to grab my wrist and pull me around to the side of the house. We scuttled toward the road, trampling through Joanna Pullman's carefully cultivated garden beds. Once at the road we took off running as if werewolves were on our heels. Then we burst into Dody's house and collapsed inside the door.

I couldn't catch my breath. But if I could've, I only would have used it to cry. And I didn't want to cry. Not over this.

"Sadie, I'm sorry," Fontaine began, but I cut him off with a flip of my hand.

"Save it, Fontaine. It doesn't matter."

"Of course it matters. And it's probably not what it looked like."

"It's precisely what it looked like. He stood me up for a better offer. But it's no big deal. He's a free agent. I just wish he hadn't lied."

"There has to be another explanation," Fontaine argued. "Maybe that was his cousin."

I shook my head. "Look, I've been through this before. I know the signs. We had one night together. It's not like he owed me something. He told Dody he didn't have a girlfriend. Maybe that's because he doesn't want one." I stood up, feeling one million years old. "I'm going to bed."

Lying on my lumpy mattress, I marveled at my self-control. I didn't feel that bad. Liking him had been so intense it was almost a relief to know he was no better than any other man. He was another lying sack of shit. Last night had been useful - the way going to the chiropractor was useful. Or getting your car tires rotated. I'd been serviced. Now I was good for another hundred thousand miles.

But as minutes turned to hours, feelings tore away at my emotional paralysis. It grew, a blazing inferno ignited by a simple spark. It's not as if I thought we were exclusive, but he shouldn't have lied! Was he whispering in her ear right now, telling her she was beautiful? Would he toast her a bagel for breakfast and try to undo her buttons while she got dressed? Probably, that despicable Scottish prick. He should be deported! Where was the number for the INS? I mean, seriously, didn't we have enough shitty, rotten, American guys around without importing foreign assholes from abroad? Our homeland security sucked.

Damn it! She was a baby! He was a pedophile! I bet he lured her into his car with Pop Rocks. I bet he trolled around the high school parking lot in his lab coat saying, "Why, yes, little girl, I am a doctor." Bastard. That rat-fucking bastard. And to think I had actually let my guard down!

This was Dody's fault, and Penny's and Fontaine's. They were all complicit, feeding me bullshit about there being good, honest, loyal men out there. What a crock of shit. He was no better than Richard. Cousin Charlie, my ass. How stupid did he think I was? Did he not realize I could see his house from my deck! God, not only did he treat me shitty, he wasn't even subtle about it!

On the heels of anger came denial. A glorious place to visit, but a dangerous place to live. It couldn't be true. He was sincere and trustworthy and dependable. There must be some sort of explanation. But the only explanation I kept coming back to was that tonight he picked her over me.

By morning, I had reached acceptance. This was really for the best after all. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and honestly, the suspense of waiting for him to cheat would have been a burden. At least I'd seen the man behind the mask early on, before I got too attached. And if nothing else, this experience taught me unequivocally that dating was not for the faint-hearted or the gullible. I was better off without some man cluttering up my life.