Chapter 1

The doorbell rang while I was in the middle of writing to my husband, Richard. He had left for England only the night before, but overseas mail is slow and I told myself that I wanted him to get a letter right away so he wouldn’t be lonely. Of course, the real reason I was writing was because it would make me feel less lonely.

I pushed the intercom button. “Who is it?”

“Laura? Is that you?”

The voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. “Yes, this is Laura.”

“It’s Philip. Can I come in?”

I hesitated, more out of shock than anything else. I hadn’t seen Philip Dennis for at least three years, and I really wouldn’t have minded if it had stretched to four or five.


I pushed the buzzer so he could come in, then wondered if I should have. Philip had a knack for making me question every action.

I opened the door to my apartment, and watched as Philip came up the stairs to the second floor. He looked almost the same as he had the last time I had seen him. Maybe his hair was a bit thinner, I thought meanly, but that was the same ratty blue jean jacket. When he saw me watching him, he grinned that grin I used to find so attractive. I hadn’t known what “insouciant” meant until I’d met Philip.

As soon as he got to the landing, he said, “You look great! Better than ever.”

“Thanks,” I said, though I knew I didn’t look all that great. I hadn’t intended to go out that evening, so I was wearing my most faded jeans and a stretched-out red sweater. With anybody else, I’d have thought they were being polite. With Philip, I was suspicious. “This is a surprise.”

“Aren’t you going to let me in?”

I stepped back to let him in the door and closed it behind him.

“What a great place!” he said, looking at everything—the furniture, the pictures on the wall, even Richard’s sword, hanging above the couch. Philip pulled off his jacket and sat down, instinctively picking Richard’s favorite chair. I tried not to wince.

I sat down on the couch, a safe distance away. “I didn’t realize you knew my address.”

“I got it from Jessie. So how’s Rich?”

Nobody ever calls Richard by anything but his full name. “Richard’s fine. How’s Colleen?”

He shrugged his shoulders, always his favorite way to change the subject. I wondered if he could read me as easily as I could read him. Probably not. I hadn’t been nearly as important to him as he had been to me.

“So what brings you out this way?” I asked. Snow was predicted for that night, and though he had been born in Massachusetts, Philip never had been fond of winter weather.

“Actually,” he said, “I need a favor.”

“What’s that?” I said, half expecting him to ask me for a loan.

“Do you think I can crash here for a while? I know Rich is out of town, so you could use a man around. I’ll sleep on the couch, of course.”

That got me mad, and I wasn’t sure what I was madder about: that he would ask such a thing after all this time, the idea that I needed a man around the house, or his thinking that I would consider letting him sleep anywhere but on the couch. “I don’t think so, Philip,” was all I trusted myself to say.

“Look, Laura, I really need someplace to crash.”

“What happened to your house?”

“Colleen’s been a real bitch lately, and today I’d had it, so I decided to split.”

In other words, she had thrown him out. “Why don’t you sleep at the office?”

“I can’t. Vinnie and Inez are on the warpath. They want to fire me as it is, so I don’t dare sleep there.”

“You’re kidding.” Philip had cofounded Statistical Software, Inc., right out of college, and he was the author of StatSys, their mainstay software package. Though Vinnie and Inez were officially in charge, I couldn’t imagine them actually firing Philip. In fact, I would have thought that he’d have set up the company so they couldn’t.

Philip looked disgusted. “Vinnie got the bright idea that we should sell stock and let a bunch of ignoramus investors run the company. Now he and Inez want me to be Mr. Corporate, and you know that’s not me.”

“Not hardly,” I said. In fact, I had always suspected that Philip had founded his own company so he wouldn’t have to get a suit to wear to interviews. “But there must be somebody from SSI who can put you up.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? As much as I’ve done for them, and now they’re ganging up against me. They’re a bunch of losers anyway.” He did his best to look forlorn. “You’re all I’ve got.”

A few years back, I’d probably have fallen for it, but not now. “No, Philip.”

“Come on, Laura, it’ll be like old times. I’ll eat whatever you’ve got handy, and I don’t make much of a mess.”

I translated that to mean that he’d allow me to cook and clean for him. “No.”

“It won’t be for long. A few weeks, a month or two at most.”


“All I’ve got to do is to rattle a few cages at SSI and they’ll get off my back. Once I’ve got my job settled, I’ll be able to convince Colleen to let me go back home. They need me, all of them. How long can it take for them to realize that?”

“I’m sorry, Philip. No.”

“Look, I know it’s going to be awkward, after all we’ve been to one another, but I swear that I won’t come between you and Rich.”

As if he could! I was getting tired of being polite. “Forget it, Philip. You’re not staying.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s my house and I said so. I’m not going to argue with you.” Paw, the grandfather who raised me, had taught me that it’s never a good idea to get into a pissing contest with a skunk.

“At least let me sleep here tonight. You know it’s supposed to snow. And I left the car with Colleen.”

“Then you’d better get moving and find someplace to stay.” It sounded callous, but I knew that once I let him into my home, I’d never get him out again without the help of the police. And he had to have enough money to get a hotel room, if not with cash, then with a credit card. He just preferred mooching. And his next plea made me so mad I wished I had said something meaner.

“What about that Southern hospitality y’all used to tell me about, like in Byerly, North Carolina?” he said, in a Southern accent so patently false that it hurt my ears. Though we had dated for two and a half years, he never had bothered to figure out that “y’all” is plural.

“Since you used to refer to Byerly as the armpit of the universe, I don’t think you should be invoking its name now.”

“I was kidding.”

“Well, I’m not kidding. You cannot stay here. Not a month, not a week, not a night. In fact, I want you to leave now.”

“But Laura …”

I went to the door, opened it, and held it open.

For a minute he just sat there as if daring me to throw him out. But I guess he could tell that I would if I had to, because he finally got up.

“Jesus, Laura, what a bitch you’ve turned into.”

I didn’t answer, just kept holding the door.

“This is your revenge for my breaking up with you, isn’t it? I can’t believe you’d be small enough to hold that against me.” With the word “small,” he stretched to his full height, which was nearly a foot taller than me. “I guess you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.”

“That may be,” I said, “but I sure can take the asshole out of my apartment.” I shut the door firmly behind him, and loudly rattled the locks to make sure he knew that he couldn’t get back in.