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Coco’s Somewhat Excellent Adventures, Book 2:Graduation
by Cheryl Sterling
COCO TRUEHEART KICKED OFF her five-inch heels, rocketing one of them into a door. What in hell had she been thinking to wear them?
“Like they’ll make a difference,” she muttered into the emptiness of her butler’s pantry. She fumbled open a cupboard, pulled out a fifth of Smirnoff, and drank straight from the bottle.
Damn you, Phillip; she cursed her rat-bastard ex-husband. He’d always been a leg man, but no heel height in the world competed with the twenty-year-old barista he’d run off with, ending their marriage seven months earlier.
Coco didn’t want him back in her bed. God. No. She’d endured twenty-two years of the missionary position and rare orgasms to issue an invitation.
She had mailed him an invitation of another kind—to their son, Jack’s, college graduation party. On Jack’s insistence and because she didn’t want him to think both parents were losers.
And here she was, dressed up like a tart, with a hoard of guests about to arrive. Did she have time to change?
Coco slammed the bottle down on the countertop, determined to run the obstacle course of her house to reach the master bedroom. She’d have to pass by the hearth room, the great room, and traverse the gallery to do so.
Damn this house. She’d won it in the divorce decree, but hated living in it.
A figure blocked her escape.
“Closet drinking, Coco? I never took you for the type,” a male voice rumbled.
Damn, she’d been caught.
Coco looked into the warm brown eyes of Levi Joseph Brannigan. He’d taken over as business partner in her travel agency, Trueheart Destinations, when his wife and her best friend, Rose, died. “More like butler’s pantry drinking.”
“I expected better of you.” Brannigan brushed against her and returned the bottle to the cupboard.
A pang of regret rippled through her. On a base level, she’d hoped liquor would ease the discomfort of seeing her ex-husband again. But then, inebriation didn’t pair well with controlling her emotions.
“Extenuating circumstances.” Coco gestured to her dress, a bright red garment ten years too young for her. “What am I going to do?”
“Fix it. Why don’t you put on that yellow thing you wore the other day in the office? It goes well with your tan.”
She narrowed her eyes, looking for sarcasm in his words. The month before, he’d sent her to Hawaii to ensure the wedding plans of one of their biggest clients. She’d returned home with a beet-red sunburn. Two weeks later, the peeling stopped and a honey tan appeared.
Brannigan looked guileless, which worried her. His casual demeanor had deceived her more than once.
“I never should have bought this.”
“You look good in almost anything.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her through the second doorway, which led onto the porch. As they made a left turn toward the front door, he said, “Jack’s leaving for another part of the country, and you’re about to meet your ex again. It’s a wonder you’re functioning at all.”
Had she been so transparent? Lord, how could she hide her nerves from Phillip?
“Thanks. I think. Glad you understand.” They blew through the lofty foyer, nipped around a corner of the two-story gallery and entered the master bedroom.
Brannigan stopped and looked around. She’d forgotten if he’d been beyond the bedroom door in the twenty-five years she’d known him.
“This way.” Still holding hands, which comforted her in an odd way, she passed the California king bed, an adventure in loneliness, and dragged him into the walk-in closet.
“Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the donkey, this is the size of my first apartment.” He loosened his hold on her and scrubbed his hand through his brown hair. “You need to move to another house. You could pack a football team in here.”
“Jack said the same. Phillip used most of the space.” She waved at the empty drawers, closet rods and shoe racks. Her stuff took up a tenth of the space. “You know what a clothes horse he is.”
“That’s not all he is.” Brannigan frowned at his one-time friend’s infidelity.
A pain, duller than seven months earlier, jabbed her heart. “It’s not easy being replaced by someone half your age.”
“Four-ninths. I’ve done the math.” He slid a few dresses aside and pulled out a bright floral print with a sweetheart neckline. “Wear this. Show him the divorce doesn’t matter. You’ve gone on with life. Besides, the dress brings out the warm, chocolaty brown of your eyes.”
“Warm, chocolaty brown?” She pretended to gag. “Smooth talker. Your charm doesn’t work on me.” She held up the dress and stared at her reflection in one of the full-length mirrors. When had she aged so much?
“One can always hope.” He grabbed a spring-green dress. “Why not this one? It picks up the red you added to your hair last week. What? You think I didn’t notice?”
“It’s nice someone does.” She shooed him away. “I can take it from here. Go waste your personal shopper talents on whatshername.”
“Victoria,” he said with a goofy grin.
An itch rolled between her shoulder blades. She resented him dating again. It was too soon after Rose’s death.
Coco frowned. “Victoria, whom I have yet to meet. Is she coming? I invited her. We’re curious about your lady friend.” She made air quotes.
Brannigan glanced at his watch, a handsome Tag Heuer Rose bought him the Christmas before she’d died. “She’s in flight to Boston to meet a client. I’m to send her regards and suggest we have dinner together soon.”
A perfect opportunity to check her out and judge if she deserved his attention.
She caught his eye in the mirror. He’d been the tonic she’d needed after a morning of self-doubt.
He turned to go then pivoted. “Coco?”
She looked up from comparing the two dresses. “Yes?”
“He’s not worth it.”
Her heart bumped up in rhythm. “I know.”
Brannigan disappeared. Coco hugged the dresses to her. Where would she be without his cockeyed optimism?
• • •
After she emerged from her bedroom, Brannigan dragged her down the gallery toward the kitchen.
“Awesome choice. Not many women can pull off yellow.”
“I feel like a daffodil.” She’d grabbed the V-cut dress because it showed off her cleavage, and she’d wanted to ooze sexiness, if for no other reason than to remind Phillip of what he’d rejected.
“You look good in anything,” Brannigan said.
Was that a compliment? She never knew with him. Brannigan could charm a nudist into wearing socks.
They entered the kitchen, a pristine white cavern with high ceilings, Spanish tiles and an island large enough to stage a production of Hamlet. Coco used the room on occasion, mastering Moroccan cuisine one week and ignoring it for take-out the other three. Phillip hadn’t cared as long as she set an elegant table whenever he hosted his colleagues. For those events, she hired a caterer.
Coco approached the woman now. “Kelly, is everything on track?”
“We’re almost done setting up outside. Alyssa is finishing the refreshments in the great room. No booze, right?”
“Not with Jack’s fellow graduates in attendance, plus various cousins. I’m not taking any chances with those who are under age. Thank you, Kelly.” She shot a glance at Brannigan, who liked an occasional Scotch.
“Damn, I forgot my hip flask.” He patted his pockets and grinned.
“We’ll celebrate later.”
After I survive meeting Phillip. She hadn’t seen him since the divorce. Would she maintain a cool façade or leap at him with a carving knife?
“Kicking a baby bird out of the nest is a thirsty business,” Brannigan said.
“You should know.” Rose had lived long enough to see both their daughters graduate.
“Speaking of which.” He straightened and a mixture of pride and concern played across his handsome face.
Coco followed his gaze.
Marcie, his youngest, approached them. Her husband, Scott, followed in her wake. They’d been married less than a year and had wed against Brannigan’s wishes.
Coco disliked the young man. He showed no respect for her goddaughter. For Rose’s sake, she struggled to keep the doors of communication open.
“Aunt Coco.” Marcie took her hands in hers and kissed her cheek.
“I’m so glad you came.” She nodded at Scott, who ignored them to wander over to a tray of hors d’oeuvres and help himself.
Marcie shrugged. “We had a late start.”
Which is no excuse for lack of manners. Coco squashed down the thought. Today was for Jack, not to drive a wedge between the couple. “How are you?”
“Fine. Everything’s fine. I’m putting in more hours at the studio, which is helping, and Scott is interviewing for jobs.”
Scott’s career path followed the route of a rollercoaster—twists and turns, ups and downs.
“In what field?” Coco stepped into the gap created by father and daughter not greeting each other.
“Project Management.” Marcie glanced into the hearth room, where topiaries flanked the main fireplace and the chairs lined up with architectural precision. She continued to ignore her father. “Where’s Jack?”
“The last I knew, he was out by the pool. I’m hoping it stays guest free, but boys will be boys, and I’m sure someone will be wet by the end of the day.” Awkwardness cloaked the room. “Why don’t you show Scott around and alert Jack his party is starting?”
“Sure. Come on, Scott. You need to see Aunt Coco’s pool.” Without waiting for her husband, Marcie headed for the patio doors opening off the hearth room.
Scott scooped up a handful of blue crab beignets and followed his wife.
Brannigan watched in pain and disgust. “She used to be so sensible,” he muttered with a shake of his head.
“I’m sorry. There’s no accounting for taste.” She hated to see his dismay and lightened the mood. “I tried to warn Rose, but she never listened.” A lie. She’d adored Brannigan the first time Rose brought him to the dorm room they’d shared.
“I had reservations about you, too.” The cloud lifted from his face.
“Have faith.” She handed him one of the beignets. “It will all work out, my friend.”
“Sometimes, it doesn’t.” He nodded in the direction of the foyer, where a familiar voice reverberated. Phillip. “Do you want me to stay? I’m awesome at moral support.”
Coco’s breath squeezed from her lungs. Her heart crashed against her breastbone, threatening to split it. She reached out, and her hand tightened on Brannigan’s arm. “I’m good. I have to see him sooner or later.”
“Are you sure? If nothing else, I can punch him in the face for you.”
Her smile wavered like heat vapor. “I appreciate the gesture. I’ll be fine.”
Brannigan nodded. “Don’t let the bastard beat you down.”
He walked away, leaving her cold and friendless.
Coco had dreaded this moment for months. She’d created Golden Globe winning screenplays in her head and had acted out most of them.
Digging her nails into her palms, she turned to greet her ex-husband.
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