He heard her words. More importantly, he heard the tone of her voice. There was no way to ignore it. The passing storm had left the power out, and with the heat of summer, everyone's windows were open.
But this argument was different than all the others. Jake Stanton tried to shut out the bellows of his neighbors. He had even switched rooms, trying to escape the sound of it. The rage he heard only incensed him. He had to fight the urge to go over there and pound Brad Jackson's face to pulp.
Libby Jackson was a beauty. There had been a time when Jake would never have let the fact that she was married deter him. He would have taken what he wanted and left them to clean up the mess, but this one was different. There was something about her that made him want more than to win the game. He wanted her to come to him.
In the past, the Jackson's arguments had been one-sided for the most part. He would lay down the law and she would eventually capitulate. Not this time. This time, Libby was having her say.
"Fat? I'm fat? You go to hell," she yelled. "I did it all for you, you and your high Catholic morals. I been breeding your kids for five years now. God knows I love my children, but I wanted to wait. You wouldn't hear it, you ass. No birth control in this house, you said. Three kids and one miscarriage in five years! How the hell am I supposed to be the skinny trophy wife you want if I'm always pregnant? You did this to me and I was weak enough to let you."
Not to be outdone, Brad yelled back, "You're a lazy bitch. This house is a mess. The kids run wild. I work my ass off to buy you everything you want and all I get when I get home is soggy grilled cheese and canned soup. What the fuck do you do with all my money?"
"I pay the bills!"
Each word she screamed was separated by a brief pause, each syllable punctuated with impotent rage. Jake tried not to look, tried not to see through that open window, but he had no choice. He was drawn to it like a spectator at a bloody train wreck.
Her face was red and her body shaking as she faced her husband in the center of their living room. Jake could see the way her chest heaved outward as she drew another breath.
"There isn't much left to buy you steak every night, Brad," she continued. "What do you expect with three kids? You don't have any idea how much it costs for food and clothes for them. You're never here!"
"Well, maybe," Brad retorted, "if you weren't so disgusting to look at, I'd come home more often."
Jake was on his feet, letting an unread book slide from his lap. The woman was shattered, the fight seeming to leave her. Her shoulders slumped forward and her hands covered her face.
The man was pleased with himself, seeing how his barb had hit like a punch in the gut. Jake thought that Jackson would have done her a favor if he'd just shot her and got it over with. Libby looked to be crying, her curvy body shaking and shuddering.
Jake paced away from the window. He had his fists doubled, just itching to beat Jackson into a greasy spot. Once more, he stalked back to the window as he wrestled with his need to avenge poor Libby and take for his own.
Libby's head came up; her hands dropped to her sides. Her face was utterly calm as her voice dropped so low that Jake had to struggle to hear it.
"No more," she said. "I'm done. I want you out. Get out and take the stink of your whores with you. Take your rules and your high-handed bullshit, take it all and leave. I can't live like this anymore. You hear? I want you out."
Brad took a step closer to her. Jake saw the way he tried to intimidate the woman, but she didn't give an inch. She even lifted her chin a notch higher when the man started to yell again. Jake knew a moment of pride for her, and a moment of blinding hatred for Brad.
"This isn't your house, fat ass," Brad yelled. "It's my money that pays for it. You don't contribute shit."
"I think you forget that it was my savings that made the down payment, Brad," she answered without missing a beat. "You didn't want to buy a home. You said it was too much of a liability, remember? I put the money down and I made every payment from that paltry pittance you call my allowance and the money I make selling cosmetics. Don't even think that you're going to take it from me or my kids."
"They're my kids, too," Brad returned.
"That's just a matter of biology. It takes more than sperm to make a father and you fell short years ago. Get out."
"Fine," yelled Brad. "Keep your house and keep the kids. In a month you'll be starving and on the streets. Don't bother coming to me for help because I'll let you rot."
She stood there for a long time after Brad stalked from the room. Her body was rigid, her face calm. She looked like one of those Greek statues, serene in her determination and resignation. Not even the noise her husband made as he rummaged through the house packing could move her. She only flinched once when he slammed the door on his way out.
That's when she finally fell apart. After the smoke cleared and the house was silent, she let it go. If there was anything Jake couldn't stand, it was to see a woman cry, and this one was crying buckets. He couldn't understand it. She was finally rid of the son-of-a-bitch. She was free. Why was she crying about it?
He was never one to get involved with other people's problems and he knew that this wasn't the time to start. The poor woman wouldn't welcome a visit from him right now. He clawed at his face, scratching at the stubble that he hadn't bothered to shave off this morning. The situation left him feeling like he should do something, but what?
Snatching up his keys, Jake left the house. He thought that a drive would help to clear his mind and calm his anger, but two hours later, he returned feeling just as pissed off as before. He could see Libby's two older kids playing in their backyard. She must have gone to pick them up from wherever she'd left them earlier.
Smart of her to get them out before the big showdown, Jake thought. Libby was a good woman, always looking after her kids and trying her best to be everything that was expected of her. He remembered the day she'd moved in with her firstborn still an infant in her arms. His memory of that day was that he didn't remember a woman ever looking so beautiful.
Libby was quick with a smile, even when exhausted beyond words. But, as the song goes, a woman gets tired. Jake was sure that she'd reached her limit so many times before. This time, however, it didn't look like there was any going back. He hoped she didn't crack and let Brad back in her home.
Things were only going to get harder for her. Knowing Brad, he'd probably throw up roadblocks for the woman everywhere she turned. The guy was a bastard. It was beyond Jake's powers of comprehension how Libby had ended up with such a loser.
Jake shook his head at himself. Women were always his weakness. They were soft and sweet and smelled so good. They came in all shapes and sizes, everyone of them beautiful in her own way. They were always ripe and ready for his taking.
It was true that Libby had gotten bigger over the years, but she wore it well. She was curvaceous and sexy, with a hint of gentle innocence that Jake found especially appealing. Brad Jackson had to be the biggest idiot walking.
Now she looked especially tired when she carried her baby outside. Jake watched her struggle to herd two lively youngsters toward the door while rocking the wailing infant, but she never raised her voice. That pretty smile didn't appear, either. The woman must really be hurting inside.
The next day, as he drove to the office, Jake decided he had to do something to help. He couldn't just sit idly by while her world crumbled around her. There had to be some way to help her without upsetting her or making her feel like a charity case.
Her home didn't come cheap. It was smaller than most in his neighborhood. Even so, it was situated in an expensive area, surrounded by houses erected to be monuments to those who had "made it". It wouldn't be long before she would have to sell and move to something more affordable.
Move? That would spoil his plans. He looked forward every day to seeing her in the yard with the kids and that pretty smile on her face. Now he finally had a chance to get close to her. He would have to do something to keep her from leaving.
Libby was going to need a job. That wouldn't be easy for her with three small children to look after. What skills could the woman possibly have for the workplace? He'd heard enough talk at the office to know that child care didn't come cheap.
A plan started to formulate in his mind. It was just a glimmer of an idea that started to take substance as the day wore on.
Jake's businesses were thriving. Among them, he owned a growing advertising firm he had started some ten years earlier. He'd built it on the premise that his employees were the backbone of the organization. Without them and their talents, he would just be another small fish in a big pond.
Loyalty was a great commodity, and he earned that from his staff with the respect he gave and the benefits he offered. His new plan for Libby would add another perk for his people. All he had to do was sell it to her.
Jake didn't waste time. It wasn't in his nature. As soon as he got home, he walked across the lawn to knock on Libby's door. It was a harried woman that opened it. She looked as if she hadn't slept in a couple of days, but she was still beautiful.
"Hello, Jake," she said quietly. "I'm afraid Brad's not here."
"Fine with me. I came to talk to you. You got a minute?"
"Yeah. Sure," she said as she stepped back from the door. "Come in."
"I hope I'm not interrupting," he said, catching a whiff of food in the air. "I know it's mealtime, but this can't wait."
"No problem. Just let me check the kids."
After showing him to the living room, Libby disappeared down a hallway. He took the opportunity to inspect what he could see of her home. It was neat and orderly, as it always was the few times he'd been inside. The house was nicely furnished, comfortable without being flashy, with a homey feel.
Satisfied with what he saw, he waited patiently for her to return. She didn't keep him waiting long.
"Now, what can I do for you," she said, directing him to a chair.
"I've got a problem and I think you can help me out," he said. "I have a productivity issue at my business."
"I can't imagine how you think I can help," she said.
"It's a problem with absenteeism. My employees complain about inadequate child care and it seems that they are forced to take time off to deal with it. I need an expert on this and I know how well you look after your own kids."
"I still don't see how I can help you, Jake."
"Now just hear me out. I want to start a daycare at my building. There's plenty of space in the basement. I know a contractor who can see about putting in the necessary facilities, but I need someone who can oversee the project and then manage the daycare."
"You can't be suggesting me."
Libby looked perplexed, almost embarrassed. He wondered what she was thinking, what it was that made her dark eyes look so scared.
"Yes," he said, "I am. I think you have what it takes to handle the project."
"Jake, I have no experience. The only jobs I've ever had were part time, and just whatever I could find to pay the bills while I was in college. All I've ever been is a wife and a mother."
"Yeah, but you have the experience that counts. You're a mother. And you have a college degree. Didn't you tell me once that you studied education? What more could you need?"
When she didn't answer, he decided to push a little harder, adding, "Unless you think Brad wouldn't approve..."
He watched her eyes, saw the way they hardened and gleamed. It was a dirty trick, adding her husband to the mix, but it was a card he knew would win the game.
"Brad's feelings are no longer my concern," she answered coldly. "He doesn't live here anymore, Jake."
"I'm sorry, Libby. I didn't know," he lied. "I just wanted to help my staff. If you don't feel up to it, I understand. I pay pretty good, though."
He had her and he knew it. The light in her eyes was nothing short of beautiful as she calculated what the income would mean to her family.
"I'll give it some thought," she said slowly. "To be honest, I could use a job right now. I'd have to find someone to care for my kids. They've never been away from me for more than a few hours. I'm not sure about that."
"Once the daycare is ready, you could take them to work with you. What better place is there than with their own mom?"
"True. All right. How much?"
"How does thirty-five thousand grab you?"
Libby gasped. Her eyes grew as big as saucers. It was pretty clear she wasn't expecting so much. The sum was small compared to what he was willing to go, but she seemed to think it was plenty.
"That's really generous," she said once she recovered her voice. "Why would you pay so much?"
"Because when you hire the best, you have to pay the price. Do we have a deal?"
Her face broke into a smile as she extended her hand, saying, "I'd be a fool to pass. Deal. When do I start?"
"The contractor comes in next Monday. You start then by showing him what needs to be done."
With a shake of her small hand, the pact was sealed. Jake left her house with a feeling of smug self-satisfaction, knowing that everything was falling into place. Since the day he'd first seen her, he thought she was too good for the world in which she lived. Now, he would have the chance to show her that. Now, he would take her in hand and give her the life she deserved.
The following Monday found him walking the expanse of the previously unused basement of his office building. The contractor, Ed Gordon, had his head cocked to the side while listening to Libby's ideas. Jake wasn't at all sure he liked the way the man was looking at her. The genuine way he smiled at her and the way his eyes kept sweeping her body was enough to cause Jake to rethink the decision to hire him.
He'd known Ed since high school days. They'd played basketball and football together and had even been good friends at one time. Until Marla had come along, that is. Marla was new to the school and completely infatuated with Ed.
She'd been the only girl that wouldn't fall over with her legs in the air for one of Jake's smiles. Jake was not a man to take that lying down, so he seduced her away from Ed. It was a juvenile thing to do and it had taken Ed a long time to get over it, but to Jake, it was just a game. Too bad Marla had taken it so seriously.
As contractors go, Ed came highly recommended. He'd built quite a reputation since returning to town only two years earlier. After high school, Ed had gone off to parts unknown. When he came back, Jake had been one of the first people he'd contacted, telling him that the past was dead and buried.
Jake had hired him on other occasions, but it might be time to find someone new. It seemed the past wasn't so dead after all. Some of that old rivalry boiled to the surface. Only because Libby didn't seem to notice the man's attentions did Jake keep the guy on.
She worked tirelessly. Rolling up her sleeves and doing manual labor didn't seem to faze her. When a crew came in to clean out the contents of the basement over the following days, she was right there with them.
As time went on, equipment was ordered and walls were built. Jake had given Libby a small office near his own where she could interview prospective teachers and talk to parents within Jake's organization. She had taken to the job like a born leader.
Through all of this, Ed went to her over every last detail. Jake watched his contractor use any excuse he could find to be near her. The man was shameless in his advances, but Libby didn't seem to notice. It wasn't until he heard through the company grapevine Ed had invited her to dinner that Jake decided to take a hand.
"Libby," Jake said as he walked into her office. "There's a new talent coming to town tomorrow that I'm trying to hire. He and his wife will be here all night and I was wondering if you would act as hostess while I try to convince him to take my offer."
"Tomorrow? Wish I could help, Jake, but I've got plans," she replied while looking up from her paperwork. "If it was any other night, I'd be glad to help."
"It can't be any other night, Libby. I only have tomorrow night to convince him. Besides, it's right up your alley. They got three kids and you could help convince them that this is the place to raise them."
"I'm sorry, but, like I said, I already have plans."
"That's okay," Jake said. "I understand. Your personal life comes first, and why shouldn't it? I'm sure I'll muddle through, somehow."
"Oh, please, Jake. If you don't get this guy, I'm sure there are a dozen more to take his place."
"Not with his client base," Jake said. "I was hoping to — well, it's nothing for you to worry about. I'm sure you're right. Things will work out."
As Jake turned to leave, Libby stopped him. He was never one to rise above a dirty trick. Not when it meant getting what he wanted.
"Jake, is there something you're not telling me?" she asked softly.
"Ah, hell," he said as he put on a disarming smile. "Just a rough patch. I'll manage."
"Is your company in trouble?"
He let the smile fade. It only took two steps to close the gap between them in the small office. Standing so close to her, he could smell the light fragrance she wore. It mingled with her own scent, the combination giving him the urge to touch her. But that would scare her off.
"I won't lie to you, Libby. I could use your help. I really need this guy."
"It's as bad as all that?"
"We lost a major client yesterday. This is still a small company. We can't afford to lose any more. I was just hoping we could cash in on this guy's connections, that's all."
"All right, Jake. I'll go, if you really think it's important. You know I'll help you any way I can after all you've done for me. I'll just have to make a call to cancel my plans."
"That's my girl," Jake said through a toothy smile. "I knew I could count on you. I'll pick you up at seven. Wear something nice. You do have an evening dress, don't you?"
He didn't wait for an answer. The perplexed look on her face said it all. It didn't matter to him what she thought. By the time the next evening was over, she would be eating out of his hand.
He'd watched her blossom over the past weeks. Every day had shown a new facet to her personality, and a new reason for his attraction to her. He liked the way she looked after her kids. There was something about a mother that seemed to him to be more sexy than anything the hard-nosed career women he knew could offer. This, he decided, was the woman for him.
Without a moment's hesitation, he knew she would feel it too. Jake just had to get her outside the work environment and away from her kids to show her. Libby was a woman that needed some coaxing, but she'd come around.
The next night, dressed for the evening, Jake walked across the lawn to knock on her door. She looked good enough to eat wearing a black dress that left just enough to the imagination. After turning to give the babysitter final instructions, she picked up her wrap and purse and stepped through the door.
Jake led her back to his house. Instead of walking her to his car, he held his front door open, waving a hand at the interior.
"What is this?" she asked as she eyed him with suspicion. "I thought we were supposed to meet that guy."
"To be honest, he signed on this afternoon. This is a celebration."
"Jake, I wish you had told me. I had to pay a babysitter. I better go send her home."
He reached out a hand to stop her. All he had to do was get her inside his house and she'd see that he was the one for her.
"Please, Libby," he said with a cajoling voice, "come inside. I have dinner waiting." When she hesitated, he added, "I'm in the mood to celebrate and I've no one to do it with. Just come in and eat. I don't want to be alone."
With a sigh she took a step forward. "All right, but just for a little bit. I have to get back to my kids."
Jake ushered her inside, hiding a triumphant smile. She was his now and there was no stopping fate. He inhaled her fragrance as she walked by him. She smelled of soap and the softest hint of perfume. The way she looked, the way she smelled could only mean that she'd gone to a lot of trouble to make herself alluring for him.
He had candles lit and the lights turned low. Miles Davis was on the stereo and wine was chilling in a bucket near the fireplace. The scene was set and the players were in place.
Appetizers were served in the living room. As he poured the wine, he asked her to have a seat. Libby seemed confused, acting as if she was uncomfortable, but Jake knew different. She knew exactly what was happening and he was going to oblige her.
His fingers touched hers when he handed her the glass. Libby's hand jerked, sloshing the wine onto her dress. Ever the gallant host, Jake was at her side, dabbing at the stain with a napkin. Just beneath the black silk of that skirt was the prize that he longed for and he thought he showed amazing restraint by not grabbing for it.
There would be time for that later, when she was more relaxed. As it was, she pulled her lap from under his hand. Her body's posture was one of rebuke, but her eyes said something different. Oh, she played at being annoyed, but that was all part of the game.
It was a game that Jake enjoyed, cat and mouse over hors d'oeuvres. She would pretend to be offended and he would be cajoling, teasing and glib. Then, when she tired of the game, she would surrender to the obvious victor — him.
"Let's eat," he said after their second glass of wine. "I don't think I've ever seen you look more beautiful than you do tonight. I'm glad you're here."