Secrets of a Shy Socialite
By: Wendy S. Marcus
So as not to ruin the surprise in the first book of this duet, Craving Her Soldier’s Touch, I’ve replaced the hero’s name in this excerpt with Hero. (Very original, I know!)
If there was an easy way to explain why she’d impersonated her identical twin sister, lured a man into bed under semi-false pretenses, then left town without a word to anyone, and not come off sounding like an insincere, inconsiderate, immoral hussy, it required more brain power and finesse than Jena Piermont had at her disposal.
“You’ve been home for two weeks,” Jaci, Jena’s twin, said, leaning back on the sofa and lifting her fuzzy-slippered feet onto the coffee table. “I think I’ve been pretty patient, but it’s time for answers.”
Past time. Where had she been? Why did she leave? How long would she be staying? And the biggie: Whose genetic contribution was partly responsible for her adorable six-week-old twin baby girls? Jaci didn’t know enough to ask about the impersonation part of Jena’s explanation dilemma. Soon enough.
“I’m almost done.” Jena arranged the baked brie and slices of crusty French baguette on two large plates and added them to the tray holding the crudité and pâté de foie gras. Never let it be said that Jena Piermont, of the Scarsdale, New York, Piermonts, was not a consummate hostess. Even while hosting her own fall from grace.
Now, to reveal the truth before the other invitees arrived at their little pow-wow. Unfortunately the news she most wanted to share, to discuss with her sister and get her advice on – the real reason she’d returned to town and would be staying for a few weeks – had to remain secret. If everything went as planned, fingers crossed, she could pull it off without Jaci ever finding out.
Jena swallowed then used a napkin to blot the unladylike clamminess from her palms. Grace under pressure. She inhaled a fortifying breath, lifted the tray and carried it to the coffee table. “Move your feet.” She arranged the delectable treats beside the sparkling water and bottled beer.
Hero liked his beer.
“Stop,” Jaci said. “You always do this when you get nervous. Flit around, straightening up, preparing snacks.”
Jena dropped the pillow she’d been in the process of plumping and rearranging on the loveseat.
“Just sit down.” Jaci patted the sofa beside her. “Tell me why you’ve been so quiet lately. What has you so upset? Before the guys get here.”
The guys. Jena considered excusing herself and running to the bathroom to vomit. But that would waste precious time. So she sat. She could do this, would do this. “I love you,” she reminded Jaci.
“I love you, too,” Jaci said, studying her. “Why do you look like you’ve got an olive stuck in your throat?”
Because that’s how she felt. Okay. No sense putting it off any longer. Tonight was the night. “Hero is the father,” Jena blurted out, her gaze fixed on her lap. “Of the twins,” she clarified – as if clarification was needed.
Usually talkative Jaci sat mute.
Jena peered over at her. “Say something,” she prompted.
“I’m…surprised. That’s all.” Jaci shifted on the couch to face her. “I knew you had a crush on him in high school.”
Not really a crush. More like a fascination-attraction-day/night dreamy type thing for the totally wrong type of boy. A silent plea for rescue from a mundane existence cluttered with more responsibilities than any teenager should be burdened with. An illicit mental visit to the dark side where the expectations and judgment of others meant nothing and Jena could indulge in the forbidden. Break the rules. Go wild. Have imaginary sex.
“And I’d thought maybe you were considering him as a husband candidate to meet the terms of our trust,” Jaci went on.
Never. Okay. Maybe once, or a few times during random episodes of pregnancy induced psychosis when out-of-control hormones caused gross mutations to the brain cells responsible for rational thought. Moments of weakness when Jena had actually entertained the possibility of Hero protecting her from the machinations of her brother, providing a home for her and their daughters, and taking care of the three of them.
But Hero didn’t want her, and Jena refused to be any man’s second best, which didn’t much matter right now, anyway, since getting married no longer occupied the top spot on her list of priorities. Staying alive for her daughters did.
“I had no idea you two were…” Jaci began. “I mean, I haven’t seen you together in years. Neither of you mentioned that you…kept in touch.”
They didn’t, not technically, unless stalking him on social networking sites counted. Some childhood habits – like an unhealthy interest in all things Hero – were hard to break. Jena picked at a chipped fingernail she kept forgetting to file down, preoccupied with caring for the twins and worrying about the future and Jaci being attacked… “It was one night.” She couldn’t look at her sister. “We met up at Oliver’s.” A favorite restaurant/bar where Hero and Jaci often hung out. And now for the worst of it. “He thought I was you.”
“What?” Jaci screeched. “You did not just say Hero took you to bed thinking you were me.”
She couldn’t change what’d happened or the outcome. All she could do was own up to it. She looked Jaci in the eye. “It was the anniversary of Mom’s death. I’d had a horrible fight with Jerald.” Their pompous, older half-brother who’d been aggressively trying to manipulate them into marrying any one of a dozen of his equally pompous business associates. “I had to get out of the house.” A.k.a. the Piermont Estate where she and Jerald each had a wing. “We’d spoken earlier and you were still so depressed over Ian returning to Iraq. I decided to surprise you with dinner.” And that’s how it’d started, with a kind gesture to cheer her sister.
“I ordered a glass of wine while I waited for the takeout and noticed Hero sitting across the bar. Alone. With a couple of empty, upside down shot glasses lined up in front of him.” Normally she would have simply blended into the crowd and stared at him from afar, attraction battling better judgment. But, “One of the bartenders noticed me and called out, ‘Jaci, take him home before I toss him out of here.’” Boy had Hero perked up at the mention of Jaci’s name. “At the time, it didn’t seem to matter who he thought I was, as long as I got him home safely.”
“You mean to tell me,” Jaci crossed her arms over her chest and stared at Jena, “during the ride in the Piermont limo, the walk from the parking lot up to the fifth floor, and while you were stripping off each other’s clothes it never crossed your mind that maybe you should clue him in to your real identity?”
Of course it had. But close proximity to Hero had caused an arousal spike that forced it away and relegated it to the spot where she stored all the unwelcome thoughts and memories she’d accumulated through the years, corralled deep in the recesses of her brain. Instead she’d allowed herself to enjoy his company and the freedom that came with pretending to be Jaci who balked at the rules and did and said what she wanted, when she wanted. Just like Hero.
For the first time in her life, Jena didn’t overanalyze, didn’t weigh the pros and cons or think about what a person of good moral character would do. Instead she’d focused on what she’d wanted, what she’d needed more than anything at that specific moment in time – comfort, a caring touch, a brief sojourn from real life – without a care for the consequences. And look where it’d gotten her. “I’m sorry.”
“It makes no sense,” Jaci said, pulling a pillow onto her lap and, playing with the fringe. “Hero and I don’t have that kind of relationship. We’re friends. We’ve never…” She grimaced. “I have to admit I’m a little weirded out by the whole thing.”
“If it helps, I made the first move.” An orchestrated meeting of their lips. Jena leaned forward to try to catch Jaci’s attention. “He tried to stop me.” A half-hearted, ‘We shouldn’t,’ milliseconds before he’d yanked her close and kissed her with the unbridled passion of a man releasing years of pent up attraction and lust.
Jaci smiled. “You little tigress. I didn’t know you had it in you.”
It’d been a quite a shocker to Jena, too.
Someone knocked on the door. Jena jumped.
“Quick,” Jaci said. “Why did you take off?”
“The next morning Hero went nuts, carrying on about what a mistake it’d been. Angry at himself for letting it happen, for ruining your friendship. Guilty because you were Ian’s girl and he didn’t poach.” Jena shivered at the memory of Hero in a rage, which was why she’d chosen to tell him about the twins with Jaci close by. “I knew I had to tell him. And I did.”
Him sitting on the side of the bed elbows on his thighs, his head in his hands, completely comfortable with his nakedness. Her standing in the doorway to the bedroom, fully dressed. “I said, ‘You didn’t have sex with Jaci, you had it with me. Jena.’ Rather than a whew or a yippee, he’d tilted his miserable face up, oh so slowly, and simply said, ‘Oh, God. That’s even worse.’”
“Oh, honey. I’m sorry.” Jaci reached for her hand and squeezed.
“Wait, it gets better,” Jena said. “Then he’d slapped his hand over his mouth and with a muffled, ‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ he ran past me and threw up in the bathroom.” Intimacy with Jena had nauseated him to the point of regurgitation.
Another knock. Louder.
“Be right there,” Jaci yelled.
“So I left.”
“Why didn’t you come to me?”
Jena looked away. “I was humiliated and disgusted with myself. How could I face you? I’m so ashamed.”
“I love you, Jena. And while I’d prefer it if you have sex as yourself and not me, I will always love you.” Jaci stepped back and looked into Jena’s eyes. “There’s nothing you could ever do to change that.”
“Thank you.” Jena held back tears. Barely.
Another knock and an, “Open the door, Jaci,” Ian demanded. “Are you okay?”
Jaci wiped the corner of her eye with a knuckle. “He’s such a worrywart.” But she smiled when she said it.
“Hero’s with him,” Jena reminded her. “He doesn’t know I’m back.” And since she was staying with Jaci, who lived in the same luxury high-rise, she’d rarely left the condo in order to keep it that way. The one time interaction had been unavoidable, at the benefit for the Women’s Crisis Center, she’d pretended to be Jaci and he hadn’t given her a second look.
Jaci raised her eyebrows and sucked in a breath between her teeth. “Oh, boy.”
“You got that right.” Girding herself to face the men, well, one of the men, waiting in the hallway, Jena walked to open the door.
And there he stood. Hero. Magnificent.
Tall. Dark-haired. Broad-shouldered. Muscled in all the right places. The perfectly maintained goatee he’d had since the eleventh grade. She fought off a tremble of delight at the tingly memory of him rubbing it against her neck and nipples and…lower. God help her.
“He made it sound like you were a mess,” Hero said, sliding a roughened finger from her temple, down her cheek to her chin. “But you look beautiful as always.”
No. Jaci was the beautiful one, the perfect one. Even though they were identical to the point only a handful of people could tell them apart – two of them, their parents, dead – whenever Jena looked in the mirror imperfections and inadequacies overshadowed pretty.
The same old ache in her chest flared anew. He didn’t recognize her, never recognized her. Once again he’d failed to look deep enough to see the unique individual, separate from her popular, outgoing, life-of-the-party look alike. More than a privileged Piermont, a member of the social elite in a town fixated on status. More than the quiet, studious, rule-follower and people-pleaser others saw her to be. Jena. A woman, who deserved to be loved and respected and noticed for who she was. Not as philanthropic or wonderful as Jaci, but kind and caring and loyal in her own right.
Ian, Jaci’s fiancé of twenty-four hours, who had no problem telling the two of them apart, stood beside Hero, shaking his head in disappointment. “She looks beautiful because she’s not the one exposed to pepper spray in an elevator yesterday, you ignoramus.” Ian walked toward her, placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed in support. “Hey there, future sister-in-law,” he said and slid past her into Jaci’s condo.
“Jena?” Hero asked, baffled, searching her face for some identifier for confirmation.
How she’d longed to hear him utter her name that night, in the dark, in the heat of passion. Instead he’d tortured her with each, “Damn, Jaci, you feel so good.” Punished her with, “You are so special, Jaci. Do you have any idea how special you are?”
“Hi, Hero,” she said. “Come on in.” She turned to the side to make room for him. “Let’s get this over with.”
He took one long-legged step forward and stared down at her. “We need to talk,” he said quietly, stating the obvious.
He stood too close his deep brown eyes serious, his expression solemn, his scent making her weak, making her crave… “That’s why you’re here.” She backed into the condo, needed space, air. “To talk.” To have the conversation she should have initiated during her first week back in town. But appointments with doctors, hospitals and attorneys, taking care of the twins, and ensuring their futures had taken precedence.
He leaned in close. “Alone.”
So he could berate her for what she’d done? He couldn’t make her feel worse than she already did. To ask her to keep the circumstances of what’d happened between them a secret? Too late. “Jaci knows,” Jena said.