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Howling At The Moon

 PROLOGUE

 

June

 

With an index finger, he moved the dial on the binoculars, and the blonde on the deck came into clear, knife-edged focus.  He drew in a sharp gasp. She hadn’t been lying about doing yoga in the nude.  When he’d first overheard the women chatting on the deck, he’d figured Sam had made her confession for shock value…not because she actually did it.  But here he was, seeing it with his own eyes.

          A breeze ruffled through his hair as he stood on the deck of the yacht, watching the buxom blonde posed with her arms overhead, her back arched slightly, her perfect face worshiping the sun.  Her double-D breasts jutted sunward, too.  Perfectly tanned, perfectly perfect.  Implants, of course, even though she emphatically denied it. They had to be.  Way too big and voluptuous for a petite woman like that.  Who did she think she was kidding?

          He smirked, watching as she straightened, placing her hands in prayer position, and lifting one foot to her inner thigh.  Did she really think she had privacy on her white-washed stone deck, surrounded by eight-foot walls on three sides…but open to the ocean? Of course, if she happened to look out through that opening, she’d see the yacht, but he doubted it would bother her.  She’d never suspect someone was watching her from it, would she?  And even if she did, she’d take satisfaction in knowing admiring eyes were enjoying her delectable nude body. 

          Suddenly she dropped her foot, then kneeled into what he recognized as child’s position.  Then gracefully, she rose to hands and knees and began to rotate back and forth, curling her back and then jutting out her rump.  Back and forth, back and forth.

          Jesus.  He felt himself hardening as he imagined himself positioned behind her gorgeous ass.  He knew she wanted it.  Little sex kitten that she was.

          He wondered what she’d look like as a redhead.


 

 

 

 

 

 

ASHLEIGH

1

Seven Years Earlier - February

 

The doorbell rang just as Ashleigh opened the box labeled “kitchen items.”  Doug had already left for his office in Charleston, leaving her to unpack the boxes and get their new lives at Salamander Cay off to a smooth start. 

Typical Doug.  He hadn’t taken a day off from his firm since they’d first put the down payment on the five-bedroom custom-built house in the new sub-division on Salamander Cay, just northwest of Isle of Palms. Despite lawsuits that had delayed ground-breaking for two years, Doug and his development company had finally won the battle—as he always did—and he’d realized his dream of building an artificial island off the coast of the plantation he’d inherited from a grandmother he’d never known.  And at last, they were moving into their new home.  Ironic that other families on the cul de sac had beaten them to it by eight months. Also typical Doug, the perfectionist, had caused delay after delay during the building process because, for example, one nail was a centimeter off from where he thought it should be.   It was exhausting.  But finally, here they were—first morning in their new home.

Navigating the moving boxes in the hallway, Ashleigh reached the etched-glass front door, and opened it to see an overweight woman with silky, long brown hair and an oval freckled face smiling at her.  A beautiful freckled face, Ashleigh realized.  If she’d take off about thirty pounds, she’d be a stunner.

“Hi,” the woman said, beaming a generous smile.  “Welcome to the neighborhood.  I’m Michaela, but everyone calls me Micki.” She stuck out a pudgy hand.

“Hello,” Ashleigh said, smiling back.  “I’m Ashleigh.” She took her hand.

Micki’s smile widened.  “Ah!  You’re a southerner!  Everyone else in “the tail” is from the north.”

Ashleigh pursed her lips.  “The tail?”  Had she missed something?

Micki let out a boisterous laugh, obviously delighted by Ashleigh’s confusion.  “The tail of the salamander!” Her brown eyes twinkled. “And I thought you were the builder’s wife; that’s what we heard, anyway.” 

The light bulb dawned, and Ashleigh smiled.  “Oh!  Got it.  Yes, I’m the builder’s wife, and we do live in the tail, don’t we?”  Doug, in his desire to be innovative, had constructed the man-made island to look like a salamander.  The technology, touted as the rich man’s antidote to climate change and rising sea level, anchored the island to the ocean bottom with a telescoping tether similar to those used by floating oil rigs. 

“The best spot on Salamander,” Micki said with a grin.  “I’m from Rehoboth, Delaware. Cat is from Minnesota…God knows why anyone would live in a place that cold.  And Sam hails from Virginia.  Are you a local?”

“I was born in Charleston,” Ashleigh said, feeling the usual butterflies in her stomach when people probed about her past.  She looked at the aluminum foil-covered tray in the woman’s hands. “What you got there?”

“Oh!” Micki thrust it at her.  “Homemade chocolate chip cookies.  I love to bake!”

Well, that’s obvious, Ashleigh thought, and immediately felt ashamed of herself. After all, she wasn’t the poster child of good health.  Super-model thin she might be, but that came with a price—bulimia.  Oh, not anymore.  With a year of therapy, she’d overcome that particular problem.  But sometimes, deep inside, she still felt like that insecure bulimic teen.

“Thank you.” She took the cookies.  Maybe she’d freeze them and serve them for guests.

Micki beamed.  “That’s not the only reason I came by. I’m having a little get-together this evening with Cat and Sam—Samantha.  She’s a woman, obviously, not a guy.  We call it our monthly ‘goddess night.’ Been doing it ever since we moved in.  Jeez, I didn’t think you guys were ever going to move in.  The house looks perfect from outside.” Her eager brown eyes glanced around at what she could see from the front porch.

Ashleigh realized how rude she’d been in not immediately inviting her in.  She stood back from the door.  “Please come in.  It’s chilly out this morning.”

Micki didn’t hesitate. Grinning, she stepped into the foyer.  “Wow!  This is gorgeous! And I thought our houses were stunning!”

“That’s why it took so long,” Ashleigh said dryly.  “Perfectionist husband wanting only the best.  For example, these tiles here in the foyer and kitchen came from a quarry in Pompeii at $2,000 per square foot.”

Immediately, Ashleigh realized how that sounded.  Bragging.  Why did she always do this?  What was wrong with her? 

But amazingly, Micki’s smile brightened. “Too cool!  Anyway, I’d love to have you join us tonight.”

Ashleigh led Micki into the enormous kitchen with its Italian granite counters, stainless steel appliances and the before-mentioned “Tuscan sand” Pompeian tiled floor and double-sink island.  “Have a seat,” she said, gesturing toward the mahogany bar stools.  “Want some coffee?”

Micki clumsily slid into one.  “Awesome!”

“So, what is this ‘goddess night?” Ashleigh asked, punching “brew” on the Keurig.

Micki’s brown eyes danced, and a dimple flickered in her right cheek.  “Well, it’s kind of hard to describe. Let’s just say it’s a way we let off steam.  De-stress.”

Ashleigh stared at her, waiting for her to go on.  The coffee maker sputtered and fragrant dark coffee streamed into a Polish Cermika Boleslawiec mug.

“Oh, you just have to see for yourself,” Micki said as Ashleigh brought the coffee to her.  “Cream and sugar…if you have it.”  Her humorous gaze flicked down Ashleigh’s trim body.  “You don’t look like you eat much sugar.”

Ashleigh’s lips quirked.  She liked this down-to-earth woman. “Not anymore,” she said dryly.  She took a china creamer from the cabinet and poured in some Half & Half from the refrigerator, then got out its matching sugar bowl filled with raw sugar.  “Hope this is okay.” She slid the creamer and sugar bowl in front of Micki along with a heavy stainless steel teaspoon.

“Cat and Sam can’t wait to meet you,” Micki said, adding several teaspoons of sugar to her coffee.  “So, will you come?  Appetizers and wine at seven.”

Well, why not?  Ashleigh smiled.  “Thank you. I’d love to come.”

Micki grinned.  “Great! I’m the second house down on the left.  You can’t miss it.  It’s the only house on the tail with dormer windows. I’m so excited you’re coming!”  She glanced pointedly at the foil-covered plate Ashleigh had put on the counter.  “How about if we break into those chocolate chip cookies?”

 

***

 

Ashleigh wasn’t sure how to dress for this get-together. She’d forgotten to ask.  Well, it was a pretty highfalutin’ neighborhood.  Her lips quirked.  Highfalutin. Her North Carolina trailer park roots were showing with her thoughts. She’d have to make sure things like that didn’t come out in her conversation with these obviously rich women.  Well, of course they were rich!  The homes on Salamander Cay started at 1.5 million. 

        But Micki had seemed down-to-earth and friendly, she reminded herself.  Not at all what she’d expected.  She wondered what the other two women on the tail would be like.

         She decided to choose something elegant yet casual for the goddess night—sleek black jersey slacks with a flowing silk top in sea green and teal, and her four-inch Jimmy Choo strappy sandals.  Thank God she’d had time to run to Mount Pleasant for a pedicure this afternoon.

         Ashleigh climbed the stone steps to Micki’s front door, her heartbeat quickening. Meeting new people always filled her with trepidation. All the lies she’d built since Doug had rescued her from that sleazy topless club in Myrtle Beach made her uneasy.  What if she slipped and betrayed who…what…she really was.  Doug would never forgive her.

         She rang the doorbell and a voice called out from inside.  “It’s open!”

         Ashleigh stepped into the foyer and saw that the lay-out was similar to her own—a dining room to the left, a formal living room to the right, and a grand staircase beyond leading up to the second floor.  But beyond that, the similarity ended.  No extravagant Italian tiled floors, no frescoed walls, no opulent lighting. Still, Micki’s home was warm and inviting—and fragrant with something cinnamon-scented.  More to Ashleigh’s taste, really, than her own home of where Doug had chosen everything down to the last silken thread of the peacock-hued $5,000 Turkish rug in the foyer.

       “We’re in the kitchen, Ashleigh!” the same voice called out. “Straight ahead and to the left.”

        A different lay-out, after all.  Ashleigh followed her instructions, stepping into a huge great room with its enormous two-sided floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace that separated the room from the kitchen on the left.

        Three women stood around the granite island, two of them sipping wine. Immediately, Ashleigh realized she was over dressed.  The others wore jeans with white T-shirts depicting a grey wolf, a full moon and imprinted with the words, “Howling at the Moon.”

         What the hell?

         Micki’s warm smile lit up her face.  “Ashleigh! Welcome!  Don’t worry. We’ll order you a T-shirt.”

        The other two women, a blonde and a brunette, turned to her, smiling. The blonde looked vaguely familiar.

        “This is Cat,” Micki said, indicating the brunette.  “And this…” She looked at the younger one.  “…is Sam. If you haven’t already seen her on Channel 8 News, you will.  She’s Samantha Perelli, the entertainment anchor on the morning show.”

        “Yeah.” Sam grinned.  “In other words, I get all the fluff jobs.”

         So, that was why she looked so familiar. Ashleigh watched Channel 8 News, and now remembered how she’d thought Samantha was the typical blonde local reporter that every mini-market had.  Long on looks and short on brains. And not only that—her voice drove Ashleigh crazy.  Kind of nasally and mid-western.  Man, it sucks to be so judgmental. She needed to work on that; apparently Doug was wearing off on her after twelve years of marriage.

        “Ladies, this is our new neighbor, Ashleigh.  Would you like some wine, Ashleigh?”

        “White,” Ashleigh said, smiling. “It’s sure nice to meet y’all.”

        Sam smiled. “Ah, a real Southern belle.  I just love that Charleston accent. Micki tells us you’re a hometown girl.”

       She really does talk like that!  Ashleigh’s stomach tightened as she took the glass of chardonnay Micki had poured for her, but she forced a smile.  “Born and raised. And Micki tells me you’re all northern transplants.”

       “Well, if you call Virginia northern,” Sam said with a smile.  “It’s north of here!”

       Ashleigh smiled and took a sip of wine, trying not to grimace. She preferred sweet wines like a Riesling or Moscato but she knew if she’d asked for a sweet wine these women would see through to her pedestrian roots.  She probably should’ve asked for red instead of white, but she had to draw the line at room temperature wine. Doug, a wine connoisseur, had tried to develop her palate to an acceptable level, but hadn’t been too successful, much to his chagrin.

       She noticed though, that Sam didn’t appear to be drinking wine like the others.  Instead, she held a glass that looked like it held iced tea. Probably because she had to get up early to go to the studio.  She was on live every morning when Ashleigh turned on her TV.

        Micki brought out appetizers—spinach dip with bagel chips, cream cheese cylinders wrapped in pastrami, tiny crab cakes with dill sauce and an assortment of sweets—chocolate chip cookies (one of which Ashleigh had forced herself to eat this morning, and was, admittedly, delicious, oozing with milk chocolate still warm from the oven.) In addition to the cookies, a dense carrot cake slathered in rich cream cheese frosting held court on a stoneware pedestal and fudgy dark chocolate brownies towered on a crystal plate. 

       Ashleigh eyed the array of food and wondered how many other people had been invited to the party.  Surely Micki didn’t expect the four of them to eat all this.  But apparently so. A half-hour passed and no one else showed up.

       The four women sat at the dining room table, sipping wine and nibbling on the appetizers and desserts, and Ashleigh began learning about her neighbors. She realized she was enjoying herself, despite growing more and more perplexed.  What was this “goddess night?” And what was the significance of the “howling at the moon” T-shirts?

       As the wine flowed, so did the conversation, getting increasingly less inhibited. As far as Ashleigh could tell, this so-called goddess night” was nothing more than women getting together and venting about what was going on in their lives.  Sam, the only single woman, was bitching about her love-life…or…on the other hand, bragging about the great sex she’d had with her off-and-on Brazilian guitarist lover. Cat talked about the problems of raising twin teen boys, and how she felt like a single mother because her husband, a top executive at Char-Tech, a software company in Charleston, was always working. Micki lamented about her weight gain, and how no matter how good she tried to be, she always broke down and ate something laden with calories.  (She said this as she reached for another brownie.)

       A bitch session—that’s what this “goddess night” was all about, Ashleigh surmised. And why not? Maybe once she got to know these women better, she’d be comfortable enough to vent.  God knows she had enough to vent about. Of course, she’d have to be careful. She could never entirely open up to anyone.

       The evening sped by and Ashleigh was shocked when the clock struck midnight. Dear God, Doug would be wondering where the hell she was…despite the fact she’d left a note for him about her plans.

       As the grandfather clock pealed, Micki stood, a grin spreading across her face. “Okay, ladies.  You ready?”

       Mystified, Ashleigh watched as the others got up and stretched, then one by one, they headed out to the deck overlooking the Atlantic Ocean where a full moon bathed them in white-washed light.

        And as Ashleigh watched in astonishment, the other three women turned their faces toward the luminous moon and began to howl.

 



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