Midge Ellis stared in shocked disbelief at her reflection in the bedroom mirror. ‘Hooker’ was the only way to describe her. It wasn’t even remotely what she’d had in mind when she’d grudgingly agreed to celebrate her birthday at the Lost Oasis, and she was beyond pissed to learn Susan Bolotnik had discovered it was her birthday by snooping in her medical records. Susan’s ‘but you’re my friend and I wanted to help you celebrate’ dowsed some of Midge’s ire, yet irritation still hovered at the fringes of her mind.
How am I even friends with these two?
Susan and her boyfriend slash BFF Jeremy had descended on Midge one day while she’d been enjoying a good book and a sandwich during her lunch break. They’d overwhelmed her with friendship. She’d yet to shake them in those six weeks. She hated confrontation and had had enough to last a lifetime. Midge didn’t want any more. It was easier to go with the flow and put up with crap than to deal with it. But for Susan to use her job at the base hospital to extract personal information had crossed a big line, despite her ‘good’ intentions. Midge was beyond tempted to file a formal complaint through Susan’s chain of command. Being a Navy corpsman didn’t give her the right to access Midge’s medical records.
Then there was Jeremy. A Marine didn’t go absent without leave and not expect some ramifications. From what Midge had heard, it hadn’t been his first time being charged with unauthorized absence. He’d deserved being busted from staff sergeant down to private first class. By all rights, she shouldn’t be associating with him. Even after all these years, she worried someone would try to pin something on her. Hanging out with a dirtbag like Jeremy would be a career killer. Plus, he was now a private first class and she was a staff sergeant. Fraternization was a big no-no, punishable by court-martial. It was the perfect excuse to send the two packing. But that involved the dreaded confrontation.
I am such a fucking wimp.
The thought made her want to cry. She used to be a hard-charger—the person who stood up for someone and did the right thing. Then she’d found herself caught in an impossible situation and her world had turned upside down. Few had remained her friends during and after the debacle. The ordeal followed Midge wherever she was stationed. In a world where everything was a mouse click away, her past was there, waiting to be rediscovered. She’d learned to lock herself away, keep her head down, do her job and not draw attention to herself. Once her current enlistment was up the next year, she was leaving the Marine Corps behind. Far behind.
Midge reached for the wig. She’d had enough.
Susan swatted her hand away. “Relax and get a grip.”
She tugged the red wig into place. Midge blew the flaming red bangs off her eyebrows then flicked them aside when that didn’t work. The get-up was outrageous and much too revealing.
“Please tell me there’s more to this somewhere.”
Susan’s glower screamed exasperation. “You look fabulous.” She tilted her bleached-blonde head to one side and smiled. “I should become a makeup artist.”
“What would the Navy ever do without you?” Midge let the sarcasm speak for itself while she evaluated the results of Susan’s over-the-top cosmetic work.
Where am I underneath all this makeup?
Heavy liner highlighted with a luminescent silver powder made her gray eyes enormous behind her black-rimmed glasses. Dark red lipstick gave her lips a lush, sultry pout.
She twisted away from the mirror and paced the confines of her bedroom. Walking to-and-fro always made her feel better. The problem with her circuit in the small room was the tell-all mirror giving her glimpses of the transformation from mild-mannered court-reporter to… Hooker from hell? Vamp? Wicked city woman?
The crimson wig was straight and heavy. The flipped-up ends brushed past her shoulders. Midge’s dark curls were stuffed under a wig cap that threatened to suck out her brain.
Susan had delved into her vast wardrobe for Midge’s transformation. The stylish, black silk tank top with a scoop neck felt like heaven against her skin. But the soft leather mini-skirt that looked cute when Susan wore it was much too short on Midge. All the tugging in the world wasn’t going to lengthen it. Though she and her nemesis were about the same height, Midge’s curves filled out the form-fitting clothes to the point of indecency. What was sophisticated on Susan oozed provocative on Midge. It was amazing the clothes fit at all. Susan’s body was H-shaped while Midge’s was hourglass.
The crowning touch to the evening’s ensemble was a pair of thigh-high leather boots with three-inch heels. They hugged Midge’s calves. With every step, their shush-shush told the world she was coming. A bell around her neck would have been less intrusive. The ensemble demanded male attention and forced a sway into Midge’s walk that made her want to crawl into a hole and die.
“I’m not wearing this. I’ll get arrested for indecent exposure.” Midge stumbled to the bed, sat and tugged at her left boot.
“You’re wearing more right now than you do when you’re at the pool.”
“I don’t go to the pool.” The boot refused to budge. “Can you see me swimming around in front of two billion twenty-year-old Marines? No way.”
“Yes, God forbid any man should see what a great figure you have underneath that frumpy uniform.”
Midge couldn’t disagree. It was part of who she’d become. She didn’t want anyone to notice her—at least no one in the Marine Corps community. It had been easy to be anonymous when stationed near a big city. Now she was in the fishbowl of a small town, living in Twentynine Palms. A person couldn’t go anywhere without running into an acquaintance. It made hooking up impossible.
But you’re anonymous now, her conscience whispered.
Standing, Midge studied her reflection through narrowed eyes. No one would recognize her. Hell, she didn’t recognize herself. A hookup would be nice, though. She hadn’t had sex since the incident. All the masturbation in the world hadn’t cut the edge on her horniness, and she’d masturbated a lot since she’d arrived at this duty station, lusting after a man she couldn’t have. Her rules forbade it.
Questions assaulted her… Can I get away with it? Will the wig stay in place? How will I face the guy if we run into each other later? Isn’t this lying? With the disguise, her hookup would never know it was her.
“These boots have to go.”
“No, no, no.” Susan’s bobbed hair bounced with every shake of her head. “Let’s get Jeremy’s opinion.”
Midge frowned at her. “I don’t care about his opinion. Why did you have to invite him anyway? You said girls’ night out. At least it was before you turned it into sluts’ night out. I’m not in the mood for Jeremy’s running commentary.”
The man never shut up, even when he was eating. Left to his own devices downstairs, he’d probably devoured half the contents of her refrigerator.
Susan laughed and leaned toward the mirror to blot her glossy lipstick with a tissue. “Cut him some slack. Being busted rattled him. I thought we could give him some company. Anyway, going out is a good stress reliever, right?”
She fiddled with the neck clasp on her halter-cut cranberry jumpsuit. Her adjustment deepened her cleavage.
Midge lowered her foot with an exasperated thump. “Jeremy needs to be rattled. If he keeps up his crap, he’ll be dishonorably discharged. I’m not in the mood to play babysitter to him tonight.” Or ever.
“He’s harmless, and don’t try to change the subject by starting an argument.” Susan shook her finger. “You’re trying to wiggle out of our big adventure.”
Midge glared at her. “I’m not comfortable with this. When you mentioned having some fun for my birthday, I thought you meant going to a movie in Palm Springs, not all this. It’s not me.” It never had been.
Susan whirled around and parked her fists on slender hips. “You’re impossible. You don’t date, you don’t socialize and you’re either squirreled up in this wannabe home or that damn bookstore.”
Anger flared to the forefront. Midge willed her temper to cool. “How dare—”
“Forget work, forget those stupid books, forget about being a mousy little court reporter…just for this one night.”
She grabbed Midge’s wrists, hauled her to her feet then let go. Midge flailed her arms for balance. Susan righted her before she fell.
“I want you to have some fun. Come out tonight and have the time of your life. Be someone else. Make this evening a birthday gift to yourself.”
On firm feet once more, Midge stood there, stomach clenching, heart pounding with a raw combination of rage, indecision and anxiety. She studied her reflection again—at the wig, the over-the-top makeup, the skin-tight mini—and knew true fear. She’d wanted to go incognito, not shout her presence to the world. This getup would garner too much attention. She couldn’t pull it off.
“I’d really rather stay home and read.”
“Seriously?” Susan screeched. “It’s your birthday. You need to go out and get laid.”
Midge wouldn’t argue that. But no matter how horny she was, relationships took too much energy. What she needed was a one-night stand. What she wanted was a forever kind of guy. She wanted a man who had her back, one for whom the past didn’t matter, a man who understood and supported what she’d done, one who didn’t condemn her for having done the right thing. Oh hell, she wanted that delicious-looking Kurt Davidson, but work relationships were off her list. It might be all right, since they worked for different agencies, but she still had to see him on an almost day-to-day basis. She wouldn’t risk it. But he was a sweet fantasy with his light blue eyes, sandy blond hair and a smile that turned her insides to mush. When they’d first crossed paths, he’d been somewhat attentive, sharing gum and mints with her. She’d been too tongue-tied to speak and too fearful of having attention on her in the office to respond. He’d said little to her since but had occupied the prime spot in her nightly fantasies. That was too much information to share with her pushy, so-called friend.
“Fine,” she snapped.
“Lovely.” Susan sniffed. “With an attitude like that, you can forget about getting laid.”
Midge looked her in the eye. She was crossing one line after the other. “You’re starting to piss me off.” They were well past that point.
“Because I want you to get out and have fun?”
“All I want is a normal life.”
“Then start living that way,” she replied.
Susan had a point. Normal was what made people happy. Midge couldn’t honestly say she was happy anymore. She watched her coworkers with their families and longed for that kind of life—especially children. She knew what she wanted, and maybe now it was time to go out and get it. She wasn’t going to find the man of her dreams by sitting at home every night with her cat and a good book…or by bringing herself off to images of a man she could never play with.
Midge tugged at the annoying boots once more. “Enough. I promise I’ll try to be charming and exciting, not nerdy and boring.”
Susan clasped her hands to her chest. “Thank you. One more thing… Let’s lose these.”
Before Midge could stop her, Susan snatched off her glasses and tossed them to the queen-size bed. Midge grabbed them and put them back on.
“Are you two done in there yet? It’s getting late.” Jeremy cracked open the door.
“Not yet.” Susan dashed to the door and smacked it shut.
A muffled ‘ouch’ came from the other side. “You’re the meanest corpsman I’ve ever met. What happened to being kind and gentle?”
“I’m off-duty,” Susan replied. “Are you ready to see the new Midge?”
“If I say yes, can we get going? I want to hit the bar. Plus, this fucking cat keeps giving me the evil eye. He’s already scratched my hand, and I think he’s going to bite me or something.”
“Hades doesn’t bite,” Midge replied. But he was a pro at letting his displeasure be known. Susan and Jeremy had been on his hate list from the second he’d met them.
Midge wiggled her foot, trying in vain to get some breathing room between it and the leather boot.
Susan performed a drum roll on the dresser. “And now, for the first time in public…” She threw open the door and Jeremy fell in. He rolled to his back, laughing.
God, is he already drunk?
“Are you all right?” Midge wobbled toward him and was forced to grab the dresser to keep from crumpling on top of him. She still managed to slide down the wall and land on her backside with a thump.
Susan had always referred to Jeremy as her pretty surfer boy. His wavy white-blond hair was cut in the longest style Marine Corps regulations allowed. His eyes were blue-violet fringed with thick, dark gold lashes. Jeremy matched Midge’s five-foot-five inches, but what he lacked in height he more than made up for in muscle. If he spent half as much time working on his education as he did lifting weights, he might attain reasonable intelligence. While funny and good-natured, he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the pack. Instead, he excelled at being a testosterone-laden jerk.
Take a stand. Dump these two.
As she clambered to her feet, Jeremy’s laughter faded and his eyes widened in lecherous appreciation.
“Wow. If I didn’t know it was you—”
“Stand up, you idiot, and quit trying to look under her skirt.” Susan yanked on his arm, hauling him to his feet. “What do you think of her outfit?”
He ran a slow gaze down her body, making her feel dirty and shamed and damned uncomfortable. Just say no. These aren’t real friends.
“If I were drunk in a bar, I’d hit on you,” he declared. “Love the wig. Hot, hot, hot.”
“High compliments, indeed,” Midge muttered.
“Are we going or not?” Susan demanded. “If we hurry, we can get to the club before the DJ sets up.” She snatched her purse from the bed. “Once he starts spinning tunes, it’ll be impossible to find a table.”
Jeremy draped an arm around each of them. “If any guys from my unit are there tonight, I may have to tell them I’m dating you both.”
“Cut the crap. It’s irritating.” Midge shrugged off his arm and sank to the edge of her bed to remove the torturous boots.
“What’re you doing?” Susan screeched. “You have to wear those. They’re part of the outfit.”
Midge glared up at her. “I’ll wear your wig and this hideous outfit, but I am not wearing these boots. Give me your heels or I’m staying home.”
Faced with that ultimatum, Susan grudgingly complied. Wearing four-inch heels didn’t help Midge’s equilibrium, but at least her legs could breathe. She took a fortifying lungful of air and picked up her small black leather purse—a birthday gift from her father and stepmom.
“Let’s go before I lose my nerve and run for the shower to get this gunk off my face.”
“I’ll join you in the shower anytime, hot stuff.” Jeremy waggled his eyebrows at her.
The thought curdled her stomach. She curled her fingers into a fist, ready to plow it into his solar plexus if he dared come near her. A sibilant hiss from the doorway drew everyone’s attention and saved Midge from a response. Hades stood there, back arched, black fur puffed out and yellow eyes huge. He hissed again before leaping to his accustomed perch on the windowsill. Tail curled around his legs, he continued to watch her, emitting little angry chuffing noises.
“There’s a critic in every bunch,” Susan said. “And get these rid of these damn glasses.”
She had them off before Midge could stop her.
“Are you crazy? I can’t see without those.” She also couldn’t see what Susan had done with them. Everything was a fuzzy blob—like a picture in desperate need of focus.
“Put in your contacts.”
Jeremy edged toward the door, rubbing his right hand. He must have done something to deserve that scratch. Hades didn’t lash out unless someone he didn’t like invaded his space.
“I don’t have contacts,” she answered.
It was a lie, but she was careful about when and where she wore them—and certainly wouldn’t in this town. She kept her guard up for a reason. It was one of the things she’d sacrificed to keep attention off her—and one of her biggest regrets. In reality, it was a small price to pay for her peace of mind.
“You look like a nerd. No way.” Susan caught her arm and dragged her from the room.
“I can’t see.” Midge squinted. Her surroundings were a blur at best.
Susan gave her a little shove. “Go.”
“Don’t worry, cutie-pie.” Jeremy followed. “We’re your friends. We’ll take good care of you during your birthday bash.”
Midge winced. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
The Lost Oasis was within walking distance of her place, but maybe they could get a cab. Navigating the two miles without glasses and in four-inch heels wasn’t the smartest thing to consider, but if this night went further downhill, she was out of there. As a Marine, she’d handled worse on forced marches.
With ‘friends’ like them…