I had everything a woman could want…
My husband, James. The house on the lake. Our perfect life. And then Alex came to visit. The first time I saw my husband’s best friend, I didn’t like him. Didn’t like how James changed when he was around, didn’t like how his penetrating eyes followed me everywhere. But that didn’t stop me from wanting him. And, surprisingly, James didn’t seem to mind.
It was meant to be fun. Something the three of us shared for those hot summer weeks Alex stayed with us. Nobody was supposed to fall in or out of love. I didn’t need another man, not even one who oozed sex like honey and knew all the secrets I didn’t know, the secrets my husband hadn’t shared. After all, we had a perfect life. And I loved my husband.
But I wasn’t the only one.
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The crackle of static and silence greeted me. Then, “Anne?”
I fended off my husband’s wandering hands. “Yes?”
“Hello, Anne.” The voice was low, deep, thick. Unfamiliar yet something about it made me think I knew it.
“Yes?” I said, uncertain, glancing at the clock. It seemed rather late for a telemarketer.
“This is Alex. How are you?”
“Oh. Alex. Hello.” My laugh sounded embarrassed this time. James raised an eyebrow. I’d never spoken to Alex. “You must want to speak to James.”
“No,” said Alex. “I’d like to talk to you.”
I’d already been planning to hand off the phone to James, but now I stopped. “You would?”
James, who’d been reaching for the phone, took back his hand. His other brow raised, the pair of them arching like birds’ wings. I shrugged and raised a brow myself, using the subtle nonverbal signals we’d forged as our private marital communication.
“Sure.” Alex had a laugh like candy syrup. “How are you?”
James stepped back, palms up, grinning. I cradled the phone against my shoulder and turned back to the sink to rinse off the dishes, but James nudged me aside and took over the task. He waved a little, shooing me.
“That’s good. How’s the bastard you married?”
“He’s fine, too.” I went to the living room. I’m not much of a phone conversationalist. I always need something else to do while I’m talking, but now I had no laundry to fold, no floor to mop. No dishes, even, to wash. I paced, instead.
“He’s not giving you any trouble, is he?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that, so I opted to assume Alex was teasing. “Nothing the whips and chains can’t take care of.”
His low chuckle tickled my eardrum. “That’s right. You keep him in line.”
“So…James tells me you’re coming for a visit?”
The hiss of static made me think we’d lost the connection for a second, but then he was back. “Yeah, that’s the plan. Unless you object?”
“Of course not. We’re looking forward to it.” A slight lie. I was sure James was looking forward to it. Never having met Alex, I wasn’t so sure about having him as a houseguest. It was an intimate proposal, and I wasn’t so good at intimacy on short notice.
“Beg pardon?” I stopped short.
Alex laughed. “You’re a liar, Anne.”
I didn’t, at first, know how to respond. “I –”
He laughed again. “I’d be the same way. Some rascal calls out of the blue wanting to be put up for a few weeks? I’d be a little concerned. Especially if half the things I’m sure Jamie’s told you about me are true. He has told you stories, hasn’t he?”
“And you’re still letting me come to visit? You’re a brave, brave woman.”
I’d heard stories about Alex Kennedy, but assumed most of them were exaggerations. The mythology of boyhood friendship, the past filtered through time. “So, if only half of what he’s told me is true, what about the rest?”
“Some of that might be true, too,” Alex said. “Tell me something, Anne. Do you really want me in your house?”
“Are you really a rascal?”
“A ragged one. Running round and round that rugged rock.”
He surprised me into a laugh. I was aware of an undercurrent there, a slight flirtation he was offering and to which I was responding. I looked into the kitchen, where James was finishing up the dishes. He wasn’t even paying any attention, uncaring about my conversation with his friend. I’d have been eavesdropping.
“Any friend of James’,” I said.
“Is that so? But I bet Jamie doesn’t have any friends like me.”
“Rascals? No. You’re probably right. A few scoundrels and a moron or two. But no other rascals.”
I liked his laugh. It was warm and gooey and unpretentious. The connection hissed and crackled again. I heard a flare of music and the murmur of conversation, but couldn’t tell if it was in the background or breaking through on the line.
“Where are you, Alex?”
“Germany. I’m visiting some friends for a day or so before I go to Amsterdam, then to London. I’ll be leaving for the States from there.”
“Very cosmopolitan,” I said, only a bit envious. I’d never been out of North America.
Alex’s laugh rasped. “I’m living out of a suitcase and I’m jet-lagged all to shit. I’d kill someone just for a bologna sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise.”
“Are you trying to win my sympathy?”
“I’ll make sure to stock up on white bread and bologna,” I said, the prospect of Alex staying in our house suddenly not as daunting as it had been before.
“Anne,” Alex said after a pause, “you are a goddess among women.”
“So I’m told.”
“Seriously. Tell me what you want me to bring you from Europe.”
The shift in conversation surprised me. “I don’t want anything!”
“Chocolate? Sausage? Treacle? What? I might have a hard time smuggling heroin or pot or prostitutes from Amsterdam, though. You’d better keep it legal.”
“Really, Alex, you don’t have to bring me anything.”
“Of course I do. If you don’t tell me what you want, I’ll just ask Jamie.”
“I’d say treacle,” I told him. “But I’m not sure what it is…does it come from a well?”
He chuckled. “It’s molasses. It comes in a jar.”
“Bring me that.”
“Ah, a woman who likes to live on the wild side. No wonder Jamie married you.”
“There’s more than one reason,” I said.
I realized I’d been standing still, chatting, for several minutes. Alex had so engaged me I hadn’t felt the need to multi-task. I looked again to the kitchen, but James had disappeared. I heard the mumble of television from the den.
“I was sorry I couldn’t make the wedding. I heard it was a blast.”
“Did you? From James?”
A silly question. From who else would he have heard it? Except James had never mentioned he’d been in touch with Alex. James had spoken frequently about his best friend from junior high school, though on the subject of their falling out he’d been rather more vague. He had other friends…but we were getting married and I have a habit of trying to make things better. I’d been the one to add Alex’s name to the guest list, uncertain even if the address I found in James’ outdated address book was the right one. I figured whatever had happened between them might be repaired with a little outreach. When he’d sent regrets, I wasn’t surprised, but at least we’d made the attempt. Apparently it had worked better than I’d known.
“It was a very nice wedding,” I said. “It was too bad you couldn’t make it, but now you’ll get to come for a long visit, instead.”
“He sent me pictures. You both look very happy.”
“He sent you…pictures? Of our wedding?” I looked at the fireplace mantel, where a framed photo of us still rested even after six years. I always wondered how long it was acceptable to display wedding photos. I guessed at least until baby photos came along to replace them.
That surprised me, too. I’d sent photos to a few of my friends who hadn’t been able to attend, but…well, we were women. Chicks did stuff like that, giggled over pictures and sent chatty emails.
“Well….” I trailed off, awkward. “When are you coming in?”
“I have a few details to work out with the airline. I’ll let Jamie know.”
“Sure. Do you want me to get him for you?”
“I’ll email him.”
“Okay. I’ll tell him.”
“Well, Anne, it’s almost two in the morning here. I’m going to go to bed. I’ll talk to you soon.”
“Goodbye, Alex –” He’d already disconnected, leaving me to stare at the phone, a bit taken aback.
There was nothing odd, not really, about him being in touch with James. Men’s friendships were different than women’s. My husband never told me about talking to Alex, but that didn’t mean he was keeping it a secret. It just meant he hadn’t thought enough of it to share. In fact, I should be happy they’d resolved their differences. It would be nice to meet James’ dear friend, Alex, the rascal. The ragged one, who ran round and round the rugged rock. The one who promised me treats from Wonderland. The one who called my husband Jamie, not James.
The one James had only ever spoken of in past tense.