Ellen Markham, as her best friend affirms, just got handed the dream of half of the wives in America: her husband just told her to have an affair.
With her CEO husband, her kids, and her house keeping her busy, passion was never Ellen's first priority. But somehow her husband managed to make time in his schedule for it - with other women. Now he wants Ellen to believe that his reckless liaisons were nothing more than "just sex." In fact, he's so desperate to prove his point that he's challenged her to find out for herself.
After so many years, Ellen is hauling out her rusty flirting skills and following her free-spirited best friend into a world she thought she'd left behind at the altar. She might not have any more faith in this marriage, but she's about to find some in herself - and what starts out as "just sex" might end up being a second chance to find something better . . . .
Excerpted from the second half of Chapter One
“Do you really think this is helping?” Tom asked, voice low and tired. “If this is not - if we’re just going through the motions, tell me now.”
“Tell you now so what? So you can stop having to try so hard? So you can stop working at it?” She felt the sharp slice of her nails against her palms. More pain, almost familiar now, better than nothing. “Our marriage is too much trouble for you?”
“Damn it.” He shook his head. Helpless, hopeless. “What do you want, Ellen?”
Now there was the question: the only one that really mattered now. “I want my life back. I want our life back. The one I believed we had, the one where we were happily married.” She wanted the impossible. “Not the one where you got to run around and have sex with anyone stupid enough to have you.”
“I guess that makes you Queen Stupid then, doesn’t it? You married me.”
Tears flooded her eyes. Damn it, how could there possibly be any left?
“Oh, Ellen, I’m sorry. Shit, I didn’t mean...” His shoulders slumped. “I never meant to hurt you.”
Hysteria bubbled through the tears. “Well, you did a pretty good job of it.” She swiped at her face. “What did you think was going to happen?”
“You didn’t think,” she said flatly.
“It’s better than if I’d meant to hurt you, isn’t it? Than if I’d decided to go out wreck it all? If I’d thought, then it would have been deliberate. And it wasn’t. It was just...” His left shoulder lifted, fell.
“I don’t know. At least that way you would have thought about me at some point, rather than the fact of my existence being so insignificant that it didn’t affect your behavior in any way.”
“Ellen.” He said her name wearily, without any of the affection that used to warm his voice. “I didn’t think you’d find out. And I wasn’t sure you’d care if you did.”
She gaped at him, as shocked as she’d been when she’d called his room at the Chicago Hyatt at 1 a.m. to report a late night trip to the emergency vet and a girl – the voice had definitely sounded like a girl, now that everyone under thirty seemed like a girl to Ellen – had answered and all those small clues she’d ignored had all avalanched into place. Click, click, click, the puzzle suddenly solved, and the picture she hadn’t wanted to face coming brutally clear. “I wouldn’t care?” she repeated. She shook her head, unable to comprehend. Either he hadn’t learned a darned thing about her in all those years, he was a lot more stupid than his summa cum laude indicated, or he had a remarkable ability to delude himself.
Maybe all three.
It did not speak well for her own delusions that she hadn’t noticed it a long time ago.
“Are you implying,” she said, careful to keep the anger tamped down, her tone even, “that this is somehow my fault? That I didn’t make it clear enough to you that I cared whether you screwed somebody who wasn’t me?”
His gaze fixed on the innocuous landscape over the couch, a bright and breezy picture of a windswept shore that was surely thousands of miles from here, as distant from a gloomy Minneapolis December as the truth of their marriage was from the image the world saw. “Be honest now, El. You can’t say there is a whole lot of heat between us any more.”
“Heat?” she snarled. “You want heat?” Well, she wanted heat, too. Except heat, on her to-do list, came down somewhere below filling out yet another school form; fretting about their daughter’s new boyfriend, who was clearly way too old for her for all that he was technically only seventeen; and catching one full, precious night’s sleep.
Oh, she’d love heat. But mostly she’d like the time and energy for heat. “Aren’t we too old for heat?” she asked, almost too tired to get the words out. But she didn’t really mean too old. She meant too grown-up, too mature to put some quick flash of adolescent lust ahead of years of trust and companionship and commitment. And wasn’t that supposed to be a good thing?
“No.” He dropped onto the nearest loveseat. He braced his elbows on his knees, his hands linked, his head bowed. She saw the thinning spot, right at the top of his head, that he covered up with a ball cap whenever he could. Because the sun was bad for you, he’d insisted, even as they’d both known that it was vanity that had him tugging on the headgear. But she was fond of that bald spot, found the bit of scalp peering through endearing, liked to run her fingers over it.
He lifted his head, looked directly at her, his eyes intense. He’d spent much of the last three months with his gaze flitting away from hers. Too guilty, she’d assumed. Or maybe he just didn’t want to see her. Look at me, she’d wanted to scream at him. Now there was emotion there – but not remorse or shame or fear, none of the things it was her right to find. No, this was anger.
“Can you honestly say you don’t miss it?” He grabbed her hand so he didn’t have to look up at her, yanked her down on the settee next to him, and kept her there with a firm grip. It should have pissed her off, being hauled around like that. Did, she told herself, though he’d already done a thousand things worse to her.
But there was a small kick of excitement in it, a quiver of female response to a commanding man. He’d never been sexier to her than when she’d heard him on the phone, swinging a deal, giving orders, taking charge. It was sexist of her, archaic. There just the same.
And at least he cared enough to be angry. For three months, she wondered if he had cared at all. Oh, he’d gone through the motions of counseling, the routine attempts at salvaging their marriage, but she didn’t believe he was doing it for her. He tried, or at least pretended to, because he’d finally realized what it all meant: angry kids, a bare and empty apartment, the division of the financial security they’d built so diligently, and the loss of someone to take care of the multitude of details Ellen attended to every day. That, she thought, was the loss he regretted. He missed his simple, neat, ordered life. But he didn’t miss her.
“Can you honestly say you don’t want that? You’re trudging down the street, another day, another list of responsibilities, and you pass someone. There’s a bit of smile, a little spark in a gray day, and you wonder.”
“We’re not here because you wondered, Tom.”
“Tell me you remember,” he said, with an urgency she hadn’t heard from him in years. “You meet somebody, and you wonder. Wonder what it would be like if you kissed them. Wonder if they’d let you. What it would be like when you touched them for the first time. And so every second of that day you’re more than you were before. Your life isn’t gray anymore. You see everything, you feel everything. Damn it, El, how can you honestly tell me you’re ready to give that up forever?” He still had her hand, still spoke to her. But he wasn’t talking about her, the wife who’d propped him up when he’d nearly botched his first deal, who worked at a tedious accounting job to support them while he earned his MBA, and who carried his children.
He was talking about some random woman he passed on the street who somehow gave him more than she did. “If you’re too old for heat, you’re too old for alive.”
And now he thought she was old. “Nice speech,” she said. Flippant, dismissive, desperate to hide how much he’d wounded her.
Tom blew out a breath and let go of his wife’s hand. He’d tried, hadn’t he? She’d wanted him to explain, but she hadn’t really cared about the real answer. She’d wanted her answer, of course, her way. That was Ellen, wasn’t it? Wanting it her way.
“I don’t know why you can’t get past this,” Tom said. “But I can’t go back and change it even if I wanted to.”
Even if he wanted to? Ellen opened her mouth to pounce but he was charging on.
“We could go bankrupt coming here and it’s not going to make any difference until you’re ready to move on.”
He was right, though Ellen couldn’t bring herself to admit it. “You want to quit, then?” She flung out the words. He would have to be the one to give up. Not her, not ever her. Sometimes, though, it seemed like it would be so much easier just to have it over. To stop fighting and start getting on with her life.
But he had to be the one to finish it. He was the one at fault and she wasn’t going to let either one of them forget it.
“No, I don’t want to quit,” Tom said. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? One more thing to blame on me.”
She had no answer for that. “I’ll see you next week.”
He tried one more time to explain. “It really wasn’t about you. Wasn’t even about them. It’s just about the rush. About feeling alive. I didn’t... care about them. It was just physical.”
“Just like a golf game, huh? A nice, sweaty couple of hours where you didn’t have to think about the job or the kids?”
“Yes, that’s it exactly.”
Before they’d married, she’d made sure they were compatible on so many levels. That they had the same views on finances, on children. Somehow she’d overlooked this completely. How could she not have known that vows were merely inconveniences to him, something that should not be allowed to spoil his fun?
“I just can’t get past it,” she said, her throat raw. It was the one thing he was right about: all the counseling in the world wouldn’t do any good until she was able to let it go. But she was caught in it, spinning around and around in that same dark whirlpool: He cheated on me. He cheated on me. “I just can’t.”
He frowned. “So have one yourself.”
“If that’s the only way to even things up. The only way to start with a clean slate. And maybe you’ll finally understand that it really is just sex.
“Have an affair.”
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It started when I was at a charity event, and Harry Belafonte was singing. It was a song I’d never heard before, called Skin to Skin, and it was the sexiest thing I’d listened to in a long time, all about that longing to feel another person’s skin against yours. I got a scene with two people at that moment, when that’s the only thing in the world they want. It was on a beach, of course – he’d just sung Banana Boat. I scribbled it on a program and put it away.
Months later, I got a first line, a gift that just popped into my head one day. “It had nothing to do with you,” her husband said. “It was just sex.” And that was when their overpriced, fashionable “marriage facilitator” had to peel her hands from around her husband’s neck.
I knew I wanted to explore that: could sex be “just sex,” or was there inevitably more to it? And, given all that was going on in my and my friends’ lives at the time I started this book (a long story, there) I was interested in writing about what happens when life throws you curve balls. Not little ones, either but big, sweeping ones that almost bean you on the way in. How do you find your way in life when it doesn’t turn out anything like you’d planned?
So there you go. I told you it was messy getting to a book.
It’s a darn good book, though. I hope you like it.
Just Sex was selected as Redbook Magazine's RED HOT SUMMER READ, which meant that a much longer excerpt was serialized over three issues. Not many books get selected for this so it was fantastic news!