I couldn’t believe he was gone. He was thirty-five, six years older than I was. Way too young to die. Then again, he didn’t die a natural death. He died a horrible miserable death on the streets of some third-world shithole, gunned down with several of the men he was trying to do business with.

Turns out they weren’t the respectable businessmen they had led Steve to believe they were, but high-end drug dealers trying to branch out into legitimate business. Their competition took the opportunity to eliminate them as business rivals and did a drive by, using machine guns. Four of them to be exact. Steve was hit seventeen times, lucky shots all, and they pretty much cut him in half. If it was any consolation, he didn’t suffer long, dead in minutes from loss of blood. I wondered if he thought of Jen, his beautiful wife, and their plans to start a family soon. I wondered if he had time for regret, to realize he should have been happy with what he had. Heck, he was already a millionaire many times over.

Steve wasn’t like that. He was obsessive, always looking for the ultimate deal, the one that would give him rock star status among his peers. He really thought this was it. He talked it over with me, as he had a habit of doing on all his deals. We were usually on his boat, fishing, just us. I’d look at him and just grin. “You really expect an intelligent answer? Shit, I don’t understand what you’re talking about most of the time. This stuff is giving me a headache. Now, are you out here to get Mr. Big or what?”

He’d grin back. “Mr. Big, definitely. Hey, did I show you my new rod? It’s supposed to be the best. Think it will help me any? Oh, and I know you don’t care or understand what I’m saying, it just helps me to say it out loud. Can’t do that in the office; the walls have ears.”

I’d just sigh. He’d fool with the rod that cost probably a third of my yearly income, get aggravated, toss it down, and pick up the old five-and-a-half foot rod with the almost antique Zebco 33 I’d given him, and start catching fish. In the time I’d known him, he’d probably spent ten grand on fishing equipment, not counting the boat. He never listened when I tried to teach him, and the fish had to just about commit suicide on his hook before he caught one, but he had a blast trying.

My time with Uncle Sam had taught me there was probably no safe place to talk. Any of the boats we could see might have equipment that allowed them to hear our conversations like they were standing behind us. Not to mention hacked phones, video and analyzing the conversation with lip readers, the opportunities were endless. I let him go, though. What he talked about had nothing to do with national security, or corporate espionage, so he was probably safe. I did venture an opinion, the first ever since we’d met.

“You need to think about this, dude. I’ve been where you’re going, and it ain’t Paris. People there would cut your throat for your watch and shoes. Hire security while you’re there and listen to them. Almost no one there is what they seem.”

He just laughed and tried to talk me into going with him. I politely declined.

After a few hours he gave up on Mr. Big and took consolation in Brother Bud. Jen frowned as I helped him out of his truck and into the living room, where we laid him on the couch. He was snoring in minutes. “Want me to help get him into bed?”

Jen smiled a sad smile. “Not really. Let him sleep it off there, and when he wakes up with a stiff neck and an aching back he might think about it before he does it again. I swear, Jaime, you bring out the best and the worst in him, usually at the same time. How do you do that?”

I shrugged. “Natural talent, I guess. Surely his other friends bring him home blasted some times.”

I didn’t know how to take her answer. “He doesn’t have any other friends, Jaime. All the rest want something from him, or he wants something from them. With those guys, you don’t just hang out. Every party is a business meeting; every social event is just an opportunity to network. It’s all about the Benjies, baby.”

“That can’t be true, when he’s around me we rarely talk about business. Most times it’s about huntin’, fishin’, the wild women we have known and bedded, the ones that got away, the ones we wished had gotten away. Hot cars, hot bikes, hot boats, normal guy stuff. When he does talk business, I don’t understand half of what he says, anyway.”

“And that,” sighed Jen, “is why he loves you. You could give a damn about his money, his status, or his acute business sense. All you care about is the good times you have when you’re together. Plus, you don’t hesitate to call him when he starts spouting junk. He loves you because you don’t expect anything but friendship from him. One of the best things that ever happened to him was meeting you.”

She looked at him and sighed. He had told me they were supposed to have a date night; business had been intense and he had been neglecting her. Not a good idea, because she wasn’t just smokin’ hot, she was blast-furnace hot. She’d been a model before she stopped after their marriage. She still worked out, still kept that hot body. Men walked into doors and buildings when she walked down a street. I knew, because I’d seen it. Besides the hot body, she had a perfect face, nice smile, pouty lips, blue eyes you could get lost in.

I was so tongue tied the first three times I was around her I could barely talk. She finally made me do three shots with her, and proceeded to tell me the dirtiest, nastiest jokes I’d ever heard for thirty minutes. I was laughing so hard I forgot to be shy, and we’d been friends ever since. I got an idea.

“You own any jeans?” I’d never seen her in anything but dresses and skirts.

“A closet full, why?”

“Got any boots? Cowboy boots, maybe?”

She grinned, for the first time. “Why Jaime, are you getting kinky? Because if you are, I have these thigh-high black boots that go great with my leather corset and flogger. If you mean regular boots, I have them in snakeskin, ostrich skin and plain old leather.”

After I stopped blushing and she stopped laughing, I asked her out. She seemed startled and asked me why.

“Because, Jen, you need to get out and let go. Let sleeping beauty lie and I’ll take you to a world you’ve never experienced before.”

She stopped smiling, and I rushed to explain. “I was going out tonight, a little club that I bet you’d love. You’re a very beautiful woman, and I’m sure ninety-nine percent of men in this world would grovel at your feet for a chance at you. I’m in the one percent here, Jen. I don’t trespass and I respect boundaries. All I’m offering you is a chance to have fun, let your hair down, maybe shake that fantastic rump of yours. I’ll watch over you. I’ll even take pictures, and you can rub it in when he’s nursing his hangover. You seemed down, and I thought I’d offer.”

“Will there be beer, and rednecks, maybe a bar fight or two?”

“The first two are a definite. No to the rest. You don’t cause problems in that place. It’s very painful if you do. Rough up a woman and the bouncers would have to fight through a crowd just to get to the guy. By the time they get there, about all they have to do is take out the trash. It’s a friendly couples’ oriented place, and they like to keep it that way. Just thought I’d offer.”

I rose from the kitchen table, and rinsed my coffee cup before placing it on the counter. Jen always joked that with my habit of neatness I’d make a fine wife someday.

“We’ll take the Jag.”

“We’ll take the truck. If you took that Jag, every good ol’ boy in the place would have to drool on it. Now, jeans and a nice shirt. And Jen, could you turn the heat down a little? The way you look right now, I’d get my ass kicked a dozen times trying to protect you.”

She stuck her tongue out, and told me to wait ten minutes. I told her I needed to go home and have a shower to get the fish smell off me and get some clean clothes. She grabbed my hand and led me to the master bedroom, something that made me very uncomfortable.

“Stand here!” She walked into his closet, a twelve by twelve room stuffed to the gills. Hers was twice as big. I heard her opening drawers, and she came back with jeans, a western shirt, and anaconda skin boots. I was led down the hall to a guest room with a large bathroom.

“Here you go. He bought those things new a year ago, right after he met you, and has never worn them. I didn’t bring you any boxers, so it’s commando for you, big boy. Now clean up, and meet me downstairs in twenty minutes.”

Steve and I were exactly the same size, down to shoes. The only difference between us was height. He was half an inch taller. Same hair, same eyes, people thought we were brothers most of the time. I showered, enjoying the multiple shower heads, shaved with the kit I found under the counter, and dressed. I had to admit I looked pretty good, for me. Well, they say clothes make the man.

If she tried to tone it down, it didn’t work. Those jeans looked so tight I was afraid if she sneezed she’d blow every seam. A western shirt, pale pink to match her lipstick, her mane of curls were pulled back into something I think was supposed to be a pony tail, but looked like a sexy mess. She had a white Stetson in her hands and bright red boots on her feet.

“How do I look?” she asked as she twirled.

“Trouble, you look like trouble.”

She smirked. “Exactly the look I was going for. Now come on.”

We checked on Steve, who was now hugging a pillow and snoring. Jen wrote him a note and placed it on the coffee table beside a bottle of water and three Tylenol. We took his truck, since mine was still at the marina. It was a brand new shiny Z71 four-door four-wheel drive hunk of pearl white and gleaming chrome. Well, I thought, as I drove to the bar, at least it was a truck.

We arrived forty minutes later at The Barn, a huge building designed to look like, take a guess here, a barn! Almost everyone outside ogled the truck, but when I got out and helped Jen step down, every guy immediately thought “What truck?” and ogled Jen. She knew it, and used to the attention, strutted into the place like she owned it. She had a death grip on my arm, so maybe she wasn’t as confident as she let on.

There is no other way to describe it, when we went through the door everything stopped and people just looked. The band hadn’t started yet, and the place, usually buzzing, went quiet. I just grinned, and kept walking, waving to Mary to bring me a pitcher. It wasn’t three minutes until she was there. She poured the beer for Jen, then ran mine all over the table while looking at her. I took her arm gently and stopped the flow. She looked down, flamed red, and started apologizing. Jen patted her arm. “Don’t worry about it honey. I was the same way the first time I saw Jaime.”

Mary looked from her to me, mumbled something and walked off, running into two tables before she made it back to the bar. I grinned. “Watch out, Jen. Mary is a switch hitter, and her on-base average is pretty high.”

Jen laughed. “She’s out of luck, then. I quit playing on both teams when I graduated from college.” It was my turn to choke on the beer.

I saw the friends I was supposed to meet, and waved them over, making the introductions. It took forty-five minutes and three beers before they relaxed, and by then Jen had them so charmed they would have killed for her. I’d seen her work her magic before, so I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. Then the band started up, and I grabbed her, hustling her to the floor for a two-step. It took her about thirty seconds to catch on. I learned she held a college degree in dance. That song rolled over into a line dance, followed by the Cowboy ChaCha. By then I was out of breath and dragged her back to the table, the pout obvious on her face. I grabbed Greg.

“I’m tagging out, brother. See if you can keep up.” She was pulling him out of his chair before he knew what happened. Thirty minutes later, she brought him back, huffing and puffing like he was about to have a heart attack. She actually sat and had a beer. Ten minutes later the band played a really slow song. It was a favorite with the crowd and they laughingly called it the Snuggle Special. She was out of her chair and tugging, so I went along. It was probably one of the most erotic things I’d ever experienced, and she had no idea. She molded to me, no dead space was allowed, swaying her sensuous body against me. The inevitable happened and I tried to pull back. She looked surprised, then grinned and molded tighter, even grinding a couple of times. I was in a daze when the song stopped and it took her a while to get me to let her go. When I did I instantly flamed red and took off to the bathroom, washing my face and arms with the coldest water I could get, trying to calm down.

By the time I was back she had Greg on the floor. I watched as she twirled and swayed to the music, her ballet training showing through. Poetry in motion was just a term to me until then. Then Barb tried to ruin the mood by getting catty. “Jaime, Jaime, you naughty boy. I thought you said you would never hook up with anyone married. Of course, what man could resist that?” She was staring daggers at Jen. Barb had been a spectacular woman, before four kids and three divorces. She was only thirty-four, and with the right makeup and lighting, she was still attractive. Not so much in the light of day.

She decided I would be lucky number four and made a run at me while she was still with number three. I didn’t tell her the thought of being intimate with her was enough to make my skin crawl. They didn’t make condoms that strong. I let her down easy, stroking her ego by telling her as wonderful as the offer was, I was going to pass. I had a hard and firm rule about married women. Leave them alone. When three finally caught her and kicked her to the curb, she had been hanging around the clubs, looking. She was getting child support from three different dads, and had won a little cash in the last divorce. My opinion was he finally just decided to pay her to leave him alone. So she didn’t work, living off her ex’s.

“It’s not easy, but it can be done, Barb. Her husband is one of my best friends in this world, and I would never do anything to make him think less of me. He wasn’t available and Jen wanted to go out, so here we are. It’s just harmless fun to her, and she’s having a really good time. Have you once seen her do anything inappropriate? She’s either at the table or on the dance floor in plain sight. The guys she’s danced with will have a tale to tell for the rest of their lives, holding a woman voted fourth most beautiful in the world at one time.”

“Bullshit! I’ve seen the way she looks at you, the way you look at her when she’s not watching. She’s infatuated, and you’re in love.”

“Maybe so, Barb. But say I did love her? So what? She doesn’t love me, and even if she did she’s so far out of reach I might as well try to grab the sun. I’m just grateful she’s my friend, and that her husband trusts us both. Think hard, Barb. Try to remember trust, and being worthy of it. It’s been a while, I’d wager, since any woman would trust you around her husband or him around you. You’ve had, I’m assuming, the total trust and love of three men already. How’s that working out for you? This is the only time I’m going to say this Barb, and after that you’re on your own. Time to change your spots, reevaluate where you are in your life, and change. You’ll never be happy, or make anyone else happy, until you do. You’re still attractive under that inch of makeup. Get out of the bars and wash that shit off. Show the world your real face, and you might find a man who loves looking at it. End of lecture.”

She stared as she got pale, red, then pale again. Then she surprised me by crying, little tears at first, then huge drops, followed by wracking sobs. I didn’t know what to do, and it hurt me to think I caused her pain, so I hugged her, which made the tears bigger. I patted her back until she went down to soft sniffles. I didn’t see it, but Jen had come back. She immediately dug a large wad of tissues out of her purse, and gently started cleaning her face while the sniffles stopped. Then she surprised everyone by taking her hand and leading her to the restroom, taking half the women at the tables with her.

Jen, thanks to her modeling career, knew quite a bit about makeup. When she reappeared with Barb, the transformation was amazing. Gone were the hard lines and thick makeup. She had makeup on, but it was subtle, flattering instead of hiding. Her hair was different, with a softer more natural look. I noticed her shirt was buttoned up, the first time in forever she wasn’t flaunting cleavage in your face. Oh, the top two buttons were still undone, giving tantalizing hints instead blatant advertising.

It didn’t take long for the guys to notice. A lot of them didn’t realize who she was until they were right in front of her. Men who had walked right by her in the past suddenly found themselves asking her to dance, and for the first time since I’d known her, she said no, a lot. It took me a second before I realized when someone asked her to dance she would look at Jen, and say yes or no according to her expression.

We wrapped up the night on a high note, and watched as Barb left with her female friends, and not with a random hookup. I just drove, listening to Jen’s contented humming. When she was really happy, she hummed without realizing it. We drove up to her mansion, punched the code in to the keypad, and I parked the truck in the garage.

It was two in the morning, and she told me in no uncertain terms I was spending the night. I’d been up almost twenty hours by then, and it sounded like a great idea. We managed to wake Steve enough to get him into bed, then I went into the guest room and crashed. It was ten before I woke up. I found Jen and Steve at the kitchen table, drinking coffee. Jen looked just as gorgeous as ever, and Steve still looked a little green around the gills. I grinned.

“Man, am I ever hungry. I think I’ll make some breakfast. Red hot sausage, eggs with peppers and onions, covered in hot sauce. Better yet I’ll make my famous breakfast chili, and pour it over the eggs and potatoes. Greasy, fried potatoes, if they’re not dripping when you serve them, you’ve done it wrong. And the eggs have to be runny, so the hot chili can finish cooking them and soak the flavor in. How ’bout a big bowl, Steve? You can wash it down with a Bloody Mary, with a few extra shots of tabasco sauce. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.”

Steve got progressively greener, until he jumped up and ran to the bathroom. I yelled at his retreating back. “Redneck wisdom here, Steve. Just because you bring a case of beer doesn’t mean you have to drink a case of beer. Now, how about breakfast?”

Jen swatted me on the arm, grinned, and then toasted bagels, with jams and cream cheese. It almost made Steve go back to the bathroom. I probably drank four cups of coffee. They bought the best, and had a maker designed by NASA. I think it even factored in barometric pressure while it brewed. Steve was back on the couch again when Jen took me back to my truck.

“I had a great time last night. Thank you. It’s been so long since I left the house for an evening that didn’t have an agenda other than having fun. I envy you.”

“Why, because I live a simple life? I probably make in a year what Steve makes in two or three days. I have to worry about bills, paying a mortgage and a car payment, wondering if my job will hold up or if I’ll be out on the streets if there’s a downturn in the economy. If Steve stopped bringing in money today, you could still live the same lifestyle you have right now for the rest of your life. Like the guy said, money won’t buy you happiness, but it will buy you the best brand of misery.”