Mother, Please! - By Brenda Novak & Jill Shalvis & Alison Kent
SOME THINGS WERE never meant for a daughter to see. April Ashton was fairly certain that watching her mother stride into her father’s company Christmas party on the arm of a man clearly half her age was one of them. The bright red, skintight, sequin-covered dress Claire Ashton was wearing would have embarrassed April enough—it had a neckline that plunged almost to her navel. But her mother was also flaunting a companion who looked barely twenty-five and had the body of a Chippendale dancer.
What was Claire thinking? Pushing her tortoise-shell glasses up to the bridge of her nose, April straightened her own simple black calf-length dress and backed into a corner while she searched the crowded ballroom for her father. Walt Ashton might have launched her mother’s midlife crisis, but he was not a subtle man and he wasn’t going to take this well. As the owner of Ashton Automotive, he was too accustomed to being in charge. He’d built his L.A.-based company with his own two hands. Now, nearly twenty-seven years later, it was one of the most successful chains of auto-parts stores in the western United States.
A hush rolled through the room. Evidently everyone was beginning to recognize the woman in red. It had taken them a few seconds; April understood why. Claire hardly resembled the woman she used to be. Since April’s mother and father had split up four months ago, her mother had lost thirty-five pounds, bleached her hair platinum-blond, acquired a tan even though it was winter, and cast aside her matronly wardrobe for…well, for something better suited to an actress on Sex and the City.
Not that April considered herself a fashion expert. She’d long known her brain was her best asset and didn’t bother much with fancy clothes or beauty aids. She’d never possessed the kind of curves that would turn a man’s head. Which was just as well. She’d learned that few men had egos that could tolerate dating a woman with an IQ above 160. Even the gold diggers her father warned her about had never materialized. She’d gone out with some of the physicists where she worked, but nothing romantic had ever developed. She and the men she dated invariably fell to discussing theories and models, and soon became nothing more than mutually respectful peers.
Suddenly, Rita Schmidt, from Accounting, who was standing not far away, seemed to notice the whispering that had replaced the initial hush. Craning her head, she stood on tiptoe to see what was happening. “Hey, isn’t that…”
Les Burrows, at Rita’s elbow, followed her gaze. “Oh, my God—that’s the boss’s wife!”
This comment elicited a whole storm of response from others in the same group.
“You mean his ex-wife….”
“They’re not divorced yet….”
“Believe me, that’s a mere technicality….”
“It’s no secret that Mr. Ashton’s been diddling his massage therapist for the past six months.”
A few chuckles resounded at the diddling comment, and April briefly considered slipping out the back. She didn’t know what was happening to her parents, why her father had strayed after so many years. But she had a lot of work to do at the lab and didn’t want to be here. Parties weren’t her thing. Give her a good book on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, challenge her to a heated debate on quantum physics, but please don’t ask her to dance….
She couldn’t leave, though. She’d promised her father she’d stay for the entire evening. He’d told her that Keith Bodine, the local plant manager, was looking forward to seeing her; she didn’t return Keith’s interest, but her father hoped someday she would. Besides, April was the only one who could keep some semblance of peace between her parents.
Sometimes she hated being an only child.
“I guess we’re going to be treated to another family fight,” someone else in the crowd whispered loudly, obviously unaware that April was standing so close.
April leaned to the left in time to see her father turn his head in her mother’s direction—at which point his eyes nearly popped out of his head. His girlfriend, Regina Parks, stood beside him, but that didn’t seem to matter. His face darkened to an unhealthy shade of maroon, and he started tearing through the crowd as if he’d strangle his estranged wife.
April abandoned the safety of her dark corner and intercepted her father before he could reach Claire and her muscle-bound date.
“Dad! Wait!” Bringing him to a stop by clutching his arm, she continued to hold on to him, just in case getting his hands around Claire’s neck