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Bertrice Small

Private Pleasures

The first book in the Channel series, 2004

FOR KATHE ROBIN,

WHO LIKES IT VERY, VERY HOT

Chapter One

'I think Jeff is having an affair,' Nora Buckley said unhappily, looking about the kitchen table at her four friends.

The women of Ansley Court shifted uncomfortably, throwing quick looks at one another. It was a difficult situation.

'So.' Rina Seligmann, the oldest of them, finally broke the silence. 'What else is new, sweetie? I mean who hasn't Jeff hit on all the years we've lived here?'

The silence deepened appreciably with her words.

'Oh, my God!' Rina gasped as the truth hit her. She looked at Nora sympathetically. 'You didn't know, hon? You really didn't know? Shit! I'm sorry, Nora. I didn't mean…' Her voice trailed off.

'What makes you think Jeff is having an affair?' Carla Johnson, Nora's best friend, asked quietly. 'And don't pay any attention to Rina. She's got a big mouth, and a bigger imagination.' She gave Rina a sharp look.

Nora Buckley swallowed hard, her questioning glance encompassing the other four women at the table. 'Did any of you…?' Her voice trailed off.

'NO!' they all chorused with one voice.

'Then why did Rina say it?' Nora looked as if she was going to cry. She was a pretty woman with fading red hair and soft gray green eyes.

'Because,' Carla explained, 'there used to be rumors at the club about what a big flirt Jeff was. I suspect a few women even succumbed to his charms, but honey, it's all water under the bridge. No one took him seriously except one or two professional widows, or a divorcйe hot to trot. We sure never did. Now, what's got you so damned upset, Nora? Why are you so suddenly certain that Jeff is having an affair, and with whom, for heaven's sake?'

'It's someone at his office, or at least connected with his business,' Nora replied softly. 'He's in town far more than he is here, isn't he? He's been home once in the last ten days. Just once. I don't know what to do, or think.'

'And?' Carla probed as the others tried not to look too interested. Carla was the most sensible of them all. She had taken Nora under her wing from the moment they had met. Carla was no-nonsense. Nora was gentle, almost helpless except where her house and her two children were concerned.

'There have been more and more late nights when he does come home,' Nora said. 'And calls on the weekends to his business phone in the den. If I pick it up, the caller hangs up,' Nora explained. She sighed. 'I know the kids have more than consumed me, but raising children is hard work. Maybe I haven't been as attentive to Jeff as I might have been. And I've let myself go a little because I never seem to have enough time for me anymore. Suddenly I feel as if Jeff and I don't have anything in common. He's so distant when he is home. It's like he's paying his mother a reluctant visit instead of coming home to his wife and his family. He doesn't seem interested in us at all.'

Rina nodded. 'I think you've got it right, hon,' she said stoically. 'He's sure showing all the signs of a man on the prowl, and don't glare at me, Carla. What else can it be?' She reached for a jelly stick, and bit into it.

'How the hell did you get so smart? And how would you know such things?' Carla snapped. 'Sam is so damned devoted to you that it's sickening. You're the luckiest woman on Ansley Court, Rina, and you know it.'

'Hey, I read Cosmo and Ms. too,' Rina snapped back. 'I may be the oldest of us all, but I'm not dead yet by any means.' She took another bite of the jelly stick.

Her companions laughed. Rina was the only one of them who would really stand up to Carla Johnson. They were six years apart in age, but very much alike in character.

'But what am I going to do?' Nora wailed plaintively. 'I'm scared to death for the first time in my life. What if he leaves me?'

'Well, you have to consider if you're better with him or without him,' Tiffany Pietro d'Angelo, silent until then, said. 'Isn't that what 'Dear Abby' asks?' She was a pretty and petite blonde whose lawyer husband was in local practice with Carla's husband.

'I honestly don't know,' Nora said slowly, 'but if he's in love with another woman, I can't stand in the way of his happiness. But then, do I really want to throw away twenty-six years of marriage?'

'What have you got?' Rina asked bluntly.

'Got?' Nora looked confused.

'Yeah, got. In your name. The house? And if you're smart, you'll clear out all the joint bank accounts right away. Put 'em in your name,' Rina advised. 'And move your own bank account somewhere your husband doesn't know about. Jeff is at that dangerous age. When they get involved at this time in their lives they usually want to start all over again with the Jennifer.'

'Jennifer? You know her name?' Nora looked confused, and the others struggled to keep from giggling. Nora was really such a sweet innocent even after two kids and all those years of marriage.

'The Jennifer is what they call the young girlfriend who usually ends up being the second wife. The trophy wife,' Rina explained acerbically. 'Who knows what her real name is? Heather. Courtney. Madison. Who cares?'

The others giggled.

'So,' Rina repeated. 'What have you got?'

'I don't think I have anything,' Nora said softly with a sigh. 'The house is in Jeff's name. The only bank account I have is a joint one with Jeff. I pay all the bills associated with the house and the children. He deposits my allowance into it once a month. That's what his father did for his mother.'

'Jesus Jenny!' Rina exploded while the other three woman just looked disbelieving. 'I thought women like you went out in the fifties, Nora. You don't own the house? Not even jointly? You don't have some money of your own put aside for emergencies? Shit! I think that you are in really big trouble, hon.'

'Shut up!' Carla said. 'We don't know anything for sure. You're scaring Nora to death with all your talk. How do we know Jeff is having an affair, or that he's going to dump his wife for another woman? You're letting that damned imagination of yours run away with you. You all are!' She put a comforting arm about her best friend. 'Nora's just down in the dumps because Jeff is being a little worse than his crappy self. Mr. Workaholic. That's Jeff. Nora's lonely. Jill is finishing college, and working so she can support herself at law school. J. J. is graduating high school, and headed off to college in August. Nora's facing an empty nest. You know what I think, girls? I think Nora needs The Channel. I think it's time we shared our little secret with her.' She looked about, grinning conspiratorially at the others. 'Am I right? Huh?'

'Ohhh, yes!' Tiffany giggled. 'I just love The Channel? What would we all do without The Channel? I remember how I always hated Joe's poker night until you introduced me to The Channel. But now Joe can play cards till the cows come home for all I care.' She got a dreamy look on her pretty face, her slim fingers twirling a lock of her

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