Thanks so much BellaMadonna, Roselover, and LJSummers for Beta'ing and pre-reading for me! Their input and advice was invaluable!
Ah, my head hurts. That's what I get for staying out until five in the morning. I fumbled blindly on the night stand for my phone, stuffing it in between my ear and the super-plush mattress, and answered with a muffled, "'Lo?"
"Mr. Masen? Jason Jenks. I have some paperwork in regards to your alimony disbursements that require your signature."
"What's she done now?"
"She wants to change from a monthly disbursement to every other month."
I sat up scratching at my head, trying to wake up and frowning at the newest development in "The war of the Masens." Tanya was livid that she'd been stuck paying me alimony, and had been doing anything she could to piss me off enough that I'd just tell her to take her money and get out of my life entirely.
Granted, that was a tempting thought, but without those monthly checks, I'd never be able to continue my music. I still hadn't made my big break yet, but I was confident that something would work out soon. Until then, those alimony checks were the only thing keeping me afloat, because heaven knew there was no way I was going to go back to the world of accounting. Her wanting to pay me every other month would put a cramp in my style. I'd actually have to start adhering to a budget or something.
I glanced up at the limited edition Howard Miller wall clock – the only thing I got in the divorce that was worth more than twenty bucks – and groaned. It was almost one o'clock and I needed to get ready to meet the guys.
"Try and contest it," I replied to Jenks. "I don't want to give up my monthly income." I got out of bed and rifled through my drawers for something presentable. It's not like we were meeting at the Ritz or anything. It was just a laundromat.
"I will try Mr. Masen, but you know how she can be when she gets an idea like this into her head."
I rolled my eyes. I had been married to the witch for two years. "Yeah, I know, but this is not a point of negotiation. She agreed to the payment schedule when the divorce was made final."
"I'll talk to you later Jenks. Thanks for working that out."
The less I could involve myself in all of Tanya's drama, the better. I had another gig tonight at a jazz club downtown. I hadn't played this venue before, so I'd need to make sure to leave early enough to get the lay of the land, maybe scope out the women at the bar – it'd been six months since my last date and the dry spell was getting to be a bit frustrating.
I hopped into The Lunchbox – the nickname Emmett had given to my old Volvo station wagon - and headed over to the dumpy little laundromat where we always hung out: The Suds 4 Duds.
My laundry was up to date, so I really didn't have anything to do at the place other than chew the fat with the guys. But then, that was really the point of hanging out at the laundromat anyway. It brought us back to our college days, and in some ways made us feel young again. Not that middle to late thirties was old, but still. Going to the 'mat took us back to when life was a little more carefree. When there weren't harpy witch ex-wives, or snotty-nosed kids, or women who were more successful than we were. Sometimes we'd wallow in the feelings of inferiority and dependency, but mostly we just enjoyed being kept men.
I pulled into the parking space between Emmett's beat up, old yellow Pontiac and Jasper's little silver hybrid. Carlisle's Mercedes was predictably at the furthest point away from the front door of the laundromat. I smirked thinking about how Esme, Carlisle's wife, insisted that he not park near any other vehicles, just in case someone opened their door too quickly and dinged the paint. He was so whipped. They all were. I was the only free-wheelin' one among us, though I was still a kept man and beholden to Tanya's checkbook.
That little fact burned me up. I never thought I'd have to rely on her like this. I'd always been an independent sort, but once we were married, it didn't take long to become accustomed to the lifestyle we led. She had just taken the reins of Bainbridge Pharmaceuticals from her father when we got married. We lived in the lap of luxury in a mansion in Bellevue. I used to drive an Aston Martin DBS, I never worried about being short on funds, and we ate at the swankiest restaurants in town.
When she kicked me out, I packed up my clothes, books, and the clock into my old Volvo and crashed with Carlisle for a couple weeks until I found my own place. I was extremely glad that I hadn't deep-sixed that car when Tanya commanded me to. Yeah, she tried to pull that, but I just moved it to a storage garage off of our property in Bellevue.
So anyway, after living the privileged life, it's tough to go back to being a poor schmuck driving a craptastic car and pinching pennies until they screamed. I guess you could say on one hand, my life really sucked, but then again on the other hand, I was pretty lucky to have married a rich woman with a wandering eye.
I pushed through the glass door and greeted my buddies with a few knuckle bumps and a handshake. There was only one dryer going but no one else was there except for us. "Hey guys, so what'd I miss?" I looked around and shook my head. I couldn't understand why we were still coming here. Carlisle was engrossed in typing gibberish computer code on his laptop, Jasper was scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad, and Emmett was farting around on his Droid phone, complaining about how he'd lost seventy parcels of land in some stupid game he was playing.
"Dude! Orangepeel and Landdad are killin' me here. They keep buying all my properties."
"What are you even talking about Emmett?" I asked. He furrowed his brow and looked up at me like I was an idiot.
"The Great Land Grab, duh? It's on my phone."
"Don't worry about it Edward; he's a closet nerd. At least I have the cojones to admit that I'm a nerd," replied Carlisle, pushing the dark-framed glasses he wore up the bridge of his nose.
"Hey, I resemble that remark. And I've got cojones, and two kids to prove it." Emmett scratched the back of his head and tucked his phone back into his pocket.
"Speaking of, how are Rocky and Ezzie doing?" Jasper asked, looking up from his notepad.
"They're good. I'm gonna have to light outta here at two-thirty to pick them up from school."
The conversation went around the circle with everyone giving a recap of their week. There wasn't much new to report, so Carlisle closed his laptop, pulled out the deck of cards he usually brought and began an elaborate shuffling routine. Jasper put his pad away and I pulled up a chair and cracked my knuckles.
"You suckers are going down. What are we playing for today?" Just as I asked the question, Emmett's phone started chirping. He shot of out his seat so fast the chair toppled over onto the worn out linoleum.
"What the...Hey! Where's he going?" I asked Jasper. He looked down at his watch and rolled his eyes.
"He's probably hoping to get a glimpse of Daisy."
"Daisy? Who the heck is Daisy?" I was thoroughly confused now.
"Just some yellow car that drives by here at the same time every week," responded Carlisle.
"It's not just some yellow car," bellowed Emmett from the doorway. "It's a new Chevy Camaro SS V8, and it is the sweetest thing. Rose won't let me get one," he finished pathetically.
"Come back to the table Em. It's just a car," I cajoled, though deep inside I wanted to see it too. I thought the new Camaros were sexy as all get out.
Emmett turned and gave me the single digit salute and turned back to watching the street. I was just about to sit back down when Emmett started whining. We all stood up and pressed our faces to the glass and watched as a canary yellow Camaro pulled to a stop at the intersection.
The silence was profound as we all stood there drooling over this beautiful piece of machinery. It was my dream to restore a Camaro with my dad, but he died before we had the chance. The new Camaro had a body design that hearkened back to the old '69 look, but with a futuristic feel to it. In short, it was a beautiful car.
We were all so engrossed in our admiration for the vehicle that we didn't register that it had turned into the parking lot of the strip mall and was pulling to a stop in front of the Suds 4 Duds. I swear, God must have put a strand of DNA into men's bodies that triggers paralysis and stupidity when an awesome car comes within viewing distance. A loud rev of the engine snapped us out of our fantasy-car-trance, and we scrambled back to our table.
Emmett had the good sense to start whistling and glancing between the ceiling and the woman as she walked into the 'mat with a heaping basket of clothes. She was here for business. She glanced at him with a smirk and saucily raised her eyebrow at him. He cut the whistle short and shrugged, flashing his killer dimpled smile in her direction. She shook her head once and continued down to the washers that faced the biggest dryers in the building.
We all tried to make ourselves look busy, but since none of us was actually doing any laundry, that was a bit difficult to manage. Carlisle cleared his throat and began dealing everyone into a game of poker. While the other guys focused on their cards, I kept stealing glances at the beautiful brunette Camaro driver.
Her long brown pony tail swished gently side-to-side as she sorted her clothes into three different machines. I couldn't help but be drawn from the end of her hair down to her shapely rear end. She was wearing a tight pair of black, stretchy pants that left little to my imagination. Her tiny white T-shirt clung to every curve and when she turned around after closing the lid on the last washer, I could make out the sweetheart shape of what was probably a utilitarian, white bra. It was when she crossed her arms, pushing her breasts closer together, and then leaned forward that I realized I'd been caught.
I shrugged, sheepishly and jerked my head slightly, inviting her to join our poker game. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she seemed to weigh her options. She turned away and for a moment I thought she would blow me – I mean us – off. Turns out, she was just getting some lip balm out of her purse. Again, I couldn't help but be transfixed by this beautiful woman as she pursed her plump, rosy lips and rubbed them together to evenly distribute the lip balm. I could almost feel how soft her mouth would be if I were to kiss her.
Trying to keep the lasciviousness out of my smile was harder than you would think. This woman was amazing, and she drove the holy grail of modern cars. She was appealing to me on so many levels it wasn't even funny and I hadn't even spoken to her – yet.
She further impressed me when she pulled up a chair, spun it around and straddled it. I'm pretty sure there was an audible "gulp" from the four of us already seated.
"Hello, gentlemen. What are we playing?"
"Uh, hi. We're...um...we...ah..." Carlisle stammered out. He'd never been the smoothest one of the bunch. He was socially stunted from years of living like a troglodyte in his basement working on computers; that and his complete and utter devotion to his wife, Esme, dropped his flirt quotient into the negative range.
"Poker. Welcome, my name is Edward. And you are?" I jumped in to rescue Carlisle from stuttering himself to death and extended my hand.
"Bella. Nice to meet you, Edward." She shook my hand and smiled. That one, innocent action caused warmth to spread through me like nothing I'd ever experienced before. She looked around the table, stopping on Emmett. "I know you."
"Yeah?" Emmett fidgeted in his seat a bit and shot a glance out the front window at her car.
"Yeah. It was you standing out here last week holding a basket of clothes, staring at my car, wasn't it?"
Carlisle had collected everyone's cards, reshuffled them and was dealing new hands. Bella looked straight into Emmett's eyes, picking up her cards one at a time, but never looking at them.
Since I was sitting next to him, I heard him curse under his breath and could feel the embarrassment rolling off of him in waves. "Uh, yeah. That was me. I'm Emmett, by the way. Sorry if I creeped you out, but your car is...awesome." He sounded like he was about to die of fan-girl-itis.
She smiled knowingly and nodded. "Thanks. It is a pretty sweet ride, though I've had better. So you're the piece-of-junk Pontiac, right?" Fanning her cards out, she picked one from the back and moved it to the middle, keeping her eyes down. I snickered as Emmett let out a "hmpf".
"She's a work in progress."
"Uh huh. That's what they all say. So we've got Edward and Emmett," she said indicating between the two of us. Then she pointed between Jasper and Carlisle and asked, "Are you guys Eldon and Egbert?" She smiled, then shook her head. "Sorry, that wasn't very nice."
"Naw, it's cool," replied Jasper. "I'm Jasper, and you might call this one Egghead," he said jerking his thumb toward Carlisle.
"Hey. There are very few men with my skill set," Carlisle retorted. "I'm Carlisle. Computer Invasion Specialist and Resident Geek."
"Aw, get over yourself Carlisle. You're a hacker," Emmett guffawed.
"I'm a consultant," Carlisle replied, his head down and a wide smirk firmly in place.
"Who belongs to the grocery-getter out there?" Bella smiling wickedly and glancing between Carlisle and me.
Carlisle immediately pointed at me snickering like a third-grader.
"Interesting. So you're the Mercedes?" She asked Carlisle. He nodded and mumbled, "My wife picked it out."
"Well, Edward," she said in a low, sexy voice, "I never would've pegged you as a wagon kind of guy." She smiled ruefully. Shoot me now.
"It's called The Lunchbox," Emmett relayed gleefully. Shoot Emmett now.
"Well, that certainly fits." The woman had super powers. The smile she threw my way melted my bones and filled me with a calm I'd never felt before.
"How did you narrow it down between me and Carlisle? What about Jasper? It could've been his." I was whining a little and it was horribly unattractive, but I couldn't help it. That car had been with me through thick and thin. It was the first car I ever bought with my own money.
"No. Jasper has "tree-hugger" written all over him. Though I think it's the Birks with socks that gave him away."
"Hey it's cool to be environmentally friendly."
She patted Jasper's hand as though she was placating a grumpy child. "Of course it is. I recycle." As we all chuckled at her uncanny ability to pick out the cars we drove, she took a closer look around our circle. "So I don't see any laundry baskets, what's up with this cozy little get-together at the Suds 4 Duds?" Bella asked.
The four of us looked blankly at each other for a moment. Then, realizing he had a wide open avenue for teasing me, Emmett broke into a large grin and announced, "Well, this is the weekly meeting of The Kept Men's Club."
"The Kept Men's Club?"
"Yeah, all our wives make more money than we do, so we've kind of turned into house husbands of a sort. This is just our way of staying connected with each other. We've all been buddies since college."
"So you're all married?" She looked around the circle, landing lastly on me. I could feel the tightness of annoyance lining my face as I tried to smile rather than grimace back at her.
"I'm divorced, but I get alimony from my ex-wife." It didn't sound quite as pathetic when I excluded the part about how I couldn't sustain my living arrangements without Tanya's money.
"What about the rest of you? What do your wives do?"
"My wife, Alice, is a clothing designer. She deals mainly with high-end celebrity clients, top-shelf weddings and that sort of thing. She also owns the A. boutique downtown."
"Wow! I have heard of her. Her designs are amazing." Bella smiled genuinely as she looked to Carlisle expectantly.
"My wife, Esme, is the Design Principal at the Cullen and Call architectural firm. She's really good."
"I believe it," Bella smiled. Wow. She had the most gorgeous, unassuming smile.
"And what about your wife, Emmett?" We all tried to keep the snicker to a minimum, but I guess we were unsuccessful in our attempts to contain our amusement.
"Did I miss something? What's so funny?" Bella glanced questioningly at each of us before settling her gaze on Emmett.
"Uh, nothing. My wife, Rosalie, owns all three of the Pretty Kitty salons in town." He rubbed the back of his neck, a nervous habit of his, and his cheeks turned just slightly pink. It's not that he wasn't proud of his wife, but it was not what he'd expected when we were in college.
"Is it like pet grooming? 'Cause I don't think cats like baths very much."
Jasper began a coughing fit, while Carlisle turned away and covered his mouth. I didn't even try to stifle the bark of laughter that erupted from my chest at her innocent questioning.
"What?" she asked, appearing to grow more and more annoyed with our amusement.
"Uh no, it's not pet grooming. The Pretty Kitty specializes in Brazilian waxing."
Carlisle was wiping tears from his eyes, and Jasper had risen to get a drink of water. I was still chuckling and watching Bella as realization began to dawn on her lovely face. A tinge of color spread over her cheeks as she joined in with our laughter.
"Well, that explains that," she said smiling.
"What, explains what?" I pressed.
"Just...never mind," she replied. "So what are the stakes?" she asked Carlisle.
"Nuh-uh, pretty lady," Emmett said with a playful scolding tone. "We showed you ours, now it's your turn. What's your status and what, pray tell, brings you to our club house?"
Almost like a curtain closing on the final act of a play, I could see the smile fall from her face. I shot Emmett a warning glance, trying to communicate to him to take it easy.
"It's complicated, but I'm here today because my washer broke down," she said with a frown.
Emmett was rearranging his cards and said without looking up, "When is it not complicated? C'mon now, we're all friends here, right?"
I could see the battle raging in her mind. She was torn as to whether or not she wanted to bolt or talk. Seeing her knee bouncing up and down like a jackhammer had me thinking she was closer to running than talking, so I took it upon myself to try to shield her from Emmett's prying.
I punched him in the shoulder and scowled. "Shut it, Em. She doesn't have to say anything if she doesn't want to. Let's just get to the game, okay?"
"Ow! Son of a..." Emmett shot a dirty look at me while rubbing the spot I'd just nailed.
Bella gave me an appreciative smile and picked up her cards. We had played a few hands when Jasper asked about her car. Her lips twitched up a bit as she glanced out the window.
"It was one of the first off the line after the redesign. It's got the sport suspension, 21 inch performance tires, 426 horses, and it does 0-60 in 4.6 seconds."
"Manual or automatic," Emmett retorted quickly, testing the authenticity of her car adeptness.
"Pffft. Manual, what else? Why would you get a car like that with an automatic transmission? Who would want to give up the feeling of power you get every time you put that stick into gear?"
I may have whimpered at hearing the way she talked about her car. Emmett gave me a sharp elbow to the ribs and whispered a little too loudly, "Dude, she speaks car. She's perfect for you."
Upon hearing Emmett's comment, Bella's face bloomed in crimson embarrassment and I immediately felt bad. "Ignore him, Bella. He really doesn't have any kind of verbal filter."
"Uh, no that's okay. I...well...I'm married, so you know..." She trailed off, clearly uncomfortable with the subject matter. My heart sunk low in my chest as any hope that I might be able to ask her out on a date evaporated with that simple declaration. I'm married. That was the line I would not cross. Before I could tell her not to worry about saying more than she was comfortable with, Emmett had to go an open his big mouth again.
"Where's your ring?"
"Huh?" she replied.
"You're not wearing any wedding ring, I was just curious."
"Oh, well, I was changing the oil in my car yesterday and I guess I just forgot to put my ring back on." She shrugged like it was no big deal, and while I couldn't speak for the rest of the guys, I was secretly imagining her in a pair of cut-off shorts and a white tank-top, smeared with grease. I then immediately shut down that train of thought. There was no sense in torturing myself by fantasizing about a married woman.
"Is your husband not very good with cars?" Carlisle asked. He was particularly useless when it came to motor-vehicle maintenance, so he was sympathetic if that was the case.
"Uh, no, he's actually the one who taught me how." Her eyebrows were pinched together and her lips were still turned down at the corners.
"So why didn't he do it?" Jasper asked casually.
She was quiet for a while, her eyes cast down. She looked up and stared blankly past Jasper, then focused her eyes on mine. They were swimming with unshed tears and I wanted to give all of us, including myself, a hard kick in the pants. No one should make that woman cry, even unintentionally.
"He's been in a coma for almost three years."
A/N: YES! There will be more after the contest is over. Voting starts on the 8th, so if you loved the start of this and want more, let me know by voting and reviewing!I love and appreciate all your comments! Link to the voting is on my profile!