“What you need, dear, is a wife.”
Joss McNab gaped at her mother and immediately lost her ability to speak. Madeline McNab—a socialite with almost unheard of clout, arbiter of all things prim and proper, Southern gentlewoman and purveyor of, until now, sensible and practical advice—was suggesting something so utterly outrageous that it took a full minute for the shock to yield to anything resembling rational thought.
“Mama, are you having a stroke?” Joss said upon finding her voice. She wasn’t even seeing anyone, for Christ sake. And if she was, well, it would be a disaster just like every other relationship she’d ever had. Joss and her mother never—never!—talked about her dating life, mostly because it simply didn’t exist. But marriage? What the fuck? “Because I swear you just mentioned me and the word wife in the same sentence.”
Thick-skinned and with a sense of humor as dry as her daughter’s, Madeline’s smile brimmed with amusement. “I hope that’s not your clinical diagnosis of me, or I might actually be frightened right now. And yes, since you seem to have developed a hearing problem, I said you need a wife.”
For all of about four seconds, Joss pretended to consider the idea. “I see. You want me to marry some poor woman so she can sit at home waiting on me while I’m off working my sixty-hour weeks. Plus there’s all those out-of-town conferences. Throw in my routine functions, and it’d almost certainly be a marriage of one.”
Her mother’s blue eyes were laser beams. Clearly, she was insulted by Joss’s dismissal of her idea. “Your father wouldn’t have been half the doctor he was without me. I won’t pretend either of us was perfect, but we had a common goal, and I think we achieved it rather marvelously.”
Joss rolled her eyes, because she was quite sure most women wanted much more from a relationship than what her mother had settled for.
“I don’t think,” Joss said evenly, “it works that way anymore.”
She’d never fully understood, or approved of, her mother’s eagerness to adopt her husband’s goals and achievements so fully as her own. For that amount of selflessness, she must have loved him more than Joss could truly fathom. Joseph McNab had certainly been a magnetic, charismatic man—a giant of a figure in their lives. Indomitable, brilliant, big and good looking, filling up a room with his knowledge and with his physical presence. She didn’t appreciate until she was in high school that he’d been one of the South’s top heart surgeons in the 1970s and 80s. His name graced Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s department of cardiology, a fitting tribute considering all the time he’d spent teaching there, not to mention all the money he’d bequeathed to the school upon his death almost five years ago. Joss missed him, but she never understood how anybody could so thoroughly give up her own dreams for someone else.
She certainly hadn’t. In many ways, she’d become her father, exactly as her mother had triumphantly predicted many years ago. When she was a kid, her nickname had been Daddy’s Little Double or L.D. Their identical blond hair, sea-green eyes and square jaw rendered them near carbon copies of one another, but more notably Joss resembled her father in personality—she was a perfectionist, a high achiever driven to the point of exhaustion and obsession, someone who was happily unaware of everything peripheral. She lived in her own world and was completely fixated on her own needs and interests, which meant romantic relationships were doomed to failure. Within about three dates.
Joss sighed and took a sip of her coffee, which had finally cooled to a tolerable temperature. The mother-daughter Sunday morning brunch ritual always took place at Madeline’s six-bedroom colonnaded mansion in Brentwood, a wealthy enclave south of Nashville. Madeline had been left a wealthy widow, and Joss, a cardiac surgeon like her father, also wanted for nothing. He had left her his pied-à-terre—a million-dollar, three-bedroom condo conveniently located mere blocks from Vanderbilt, and he had left Joss’s mother plenty of money to see her through her remaining years.
The McNab women were not imperious about money nor did they obsess about it. A foundation in Joseph’s name took care of the family’s charitable donations, and if either woman wanted something, they simply bought it without any drama or preamble.
“As wonderfully as marriage might have worked for you and Daddy, I don’t have the time or inclination for a wife,” Joss said, determined to put an end to the discussion. “Or even a steady girlfriend. You know that, Mama. When was the last time I brought someone home for you to meet?” It had been years—since college, actually. That was when Joss still bought into the romantic misconception that she could have both a career and love, like most normal people. Like her father had apparently managed. But reality had inserted itself in the years since, as Joss began to realize she had little left to give after a long day in the operating room or teaching or schmoozing at the endless functions required of Joseph McNab’s only offspring.
Joss’s mother, never one to sit for long, was at the sink wiping down the counter for about the fifth time in the last hour. “I realize this sounds like it’s coming out of left field. Although, come to think of it…” She spun around, pointed a wet finger at Joss. “Your father was your age when we got married.”
Joss’s eye rolling began in earnest again. “I don’t need you reminding me I’m pushing forty, you know. Or that I’m going to die an old cat lady or something. Did we just time-travel backward a hundred years or what?” The truth was, her mother did often remind her she was becoming middle-aged, but this was the first time she’d ever suggested Joss should get serious with someone. And to skip right to marriage? “Next, you’ll be pushing me to produce a grandchild,” she mumbled around the rim of her coffee cup.
“Oh, don’t be silly, dear.”
But Madeline had that faraway look in her eyes, and her lips were pursed in deep concentration. She was thinking. Scheming. And that meant trouble.
“Oh, Lord, Mama. What did you do?”
“Nothing yet.” She threw the wet cloth on the counter, picked up the dry towel. “And I don’t mean you need a real wife, of course. Not while you’re married to your blessed work.”
“So there are other kinds of wives? Is that what you’re saying?” This definitely ranked as one of the weirdest conversations Joss had ever had with her mother. “Blow-up dolls? Mail-order brides? A computer avatar? What, exactly?”
Madeline threw the towel at Joss, her aim as accurate as ever. “I won’t even begin to try to figure out what a computer avatar is. Look, I mean a wife in name only. A companion.”
Oh, sweet Jesus. “I knew this conversation would devolve into sex. And I do not want to talk about sex with my own mother.”
“Oh, settle down, child.”
Madeline returned to their table, which offered a straight shot view through large sliding doors that led to the expansive backyard. The leaves, in full transition now, were a searing red and orange, and both women’s glances continually strayed to the bursting trees and their blazing carpet of leaves below.
“I’m not talking about sex,” Madeline continued, her expression mercifully blank. “Although, I do worry…”
“All right, all right. Fine. What I mean is, you need someone to take to all these functions you’re required to attend. A woman who can ease some of your social burdens. A woman who can set you at ease before these crowds you despise so much. She could help, you know, smooth things out and do all the unsung but indispensible things a wife does at these events. Believe me, I helped your father in a million different ways in his career. And you’re even more of an introvert than he was.”
I know exactly what would put me at ease before going to one of those rubber chicken dinners, Joss thought mischievously. An orgasm and a glass of bourbon! A fuck buddy was what she needed, not a wife, she thought wickedly. Then she looked at her mother, not a strand of silver hair out of place, lipstick perfectly applied, hands folded neatly on the table, and felt a prick of guilt for making fun of it all.
The two women were close; Joss told her mother almost everything. But now she regretted complaining to her last week about the new demands the school’s cardiology department had placed on her. As deputy chief of the department the past two years, she’d been largely able to buzz around in the background teaching a couple of second- and third-year classes on top of her surgical duties at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and her consults with patients. But the department’s chief had confided in her that he’d recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer and that he was going to have to hand over to her most of what she characterized as the ceremonial portfolio. It was unfair to label it ceremonial, she knew, because it was a lot of damned hard and vitally important work—graduations, recruitment of students and instructors, sponsorship courting, conventions, galas, speeches, receptions, fundraisers. It meant being the public face of the school’s cardiology department. She abhorred the idea of publicly waving the banner, but she’d given in rather easily. Partly because it wasn’t poor Stan Chalmers’s fault that he had prostate cancer. But mostly because the department was her father’s legacy, and she had to agree that her taking a higher profile was good for the Joseph P. McNab Department of Cardiology. It was her duty to help the school to continue to succeed and thrive.
“Mama, even if you have a point—and that’s a big if—you don’t just dial up a wife like ordering takeout, you know.”
“Of course not. You have to be discreet about the whole thing. Why, you remember the dean of the school in the late 1990s? Jim Hart? That wasn’t his wife who accompanied him to all those dinners and functions, you know.”
Joss vaguely remembered the couple from her own time as a medical student at the school, before she’d gone off to Stanford to further her surgical training. “All right. So that woman he dragged around was his mistress?”
“No, no. Not his mistress. His wife had died years before that. Karen was his friend, his platonic friend, who was always at his side when he needed a woman’s help. A social escort. He didn’t care what people thought, and of course, most people assumed they were a couple. But they weren’t. They were pragmatic companions.”
“Oh, pfft. He was probably screwing her six ways to—”
“Joss! Jim was our friend. Don’t be churlish. And they were not lovers. Their relationship served a specific purpose.”
Whatever, who cares, Joss thought. If I ever have a wife, even if it’s a pretend wife, I’d better be getting something out of it between the sheets. “And what does all this have to do with me again?”
“It would be the perfect arrangement for you. A socially adept woman who could accompany you to this heavy load of functions you said you’re going to have to take on. She’ll have to be brilliant at conversing with people, of course. And she’ll need to be stylish, clever, witty—”
“Mama, please. You can stop with your Dear Santa list, because it’s never going to happen.”
“Just think about it, honey. She could make things so much easier for you at these events, and then at the end of the night, you simply go your separate ways. Most people are enlightened now, and it won’t matter in the least that you’re both women. And besides, you’ve been out since before college.” She rubbed her hands together with what Joss concluded was a little too much glee. “It’s simple, don’t you see?”
Joss didn’t subscribe to her mother’s elementary conclusions, because nothing was truly that simple, but she didn’t want to be here all day. “And what’s in it for Ms. Make Believe?”
A triumphant smile burst onto Madeline’s lips. “To be on the arm of my gorgeous, brilliant, talented daughter, of course.”
Joss took her mug to the Keurig machine and popped in another K-Cup. “Yeah, that’ll sure have them lining up down the street.” She couldn’t dam up her negativity. Mostly because it was one of the craziest ideas her mother had ever suggested. In fact, it was a shocker, and for a moment, she worried her mother was suffering from early onset dementia. Not that she’d have the guts to muse about something like that out loud. Not if she wanted to live to see tomorrow.
“Well, all right, I suppose those things are not enough,” her mother conceded. “I’m not sure what Jim Hart gave Karen in return.”
“Probably about six inches of—”
“Joss!” The ice in her mother’s eyes told her she’d gone too far.
“Perhaps you could take her on some nice trips or something. Take her shopping now and again. Let her drive your BMW. Give her a nice allowance. I don’t know what else.”
“Okay, enough. You make it sound like I’m trying to attract a candidate who’s about seventeen years old! For God’s sake, ‘let her drive my car’?” Joss returned to the table, her temper as hot as the fresh coffee in her mug. “This idea was ridiculous to begin with, and it’s getting more so by the second. I’m not interested. End of subject.” It was insane to think that some normal adult woman out there would actually be pleased to be Joss’s trophy, a kept woman who would be little better than a mistress.
Madeline sighed unhappily. “Fine. What would you like to talk about?”
“Want to go to the Titans game with me a week from Sunday?” Joss had been given two tickets by a fellow surgeon who’d forgotten it was his fifteenth wedding anniversary. His wife was not a football fan, which meant he’d had to get rid of the tickets in one hell of a hurry.
“Hmm. That’s the twenty-sixth of October. Don’t you have that birthday party to go to? For Jack Pritchard?”
Joss rubbed a hand over her face and groaned. “Oh, damn. I forgot about that.” Now she was definitely grumpy. Dr. Jack Pritchard was professor emeritus at the medical school and its longest-serving faculty member, even though he no longer practiced medicine or even taught anymore. A cramped office and a title had been given to him for life. He was surly and ill-tempered at the best of times, and Joss would rather pull out her hair one strand at a time than attend a seventy-fifth birthday party for the old coot. But all the department heads and sub-heads had been ordered to attend. “Why don’t you come with me, Mama? Pritchard at least tolerates you.”
Madeline had the audacity to laugh. “You couldn’t pay me to spend an evening with that old so-and-so.”
“You know, you could actually use a swear word once in a while. It won’t turn you to stone.” Madeline McNab was a genteel Southern woman—strong, fierce when she needed to be, polite to a fault—who belonged in the antebellum era. Swearing, or doing anything that resembled letting her hair down, was a rarity.
“Oh hush. You young people more than make up for my failure to swear. But you see what I mean? A companion could help make Pritchard’s party much more tolerable for you. Maybe even enjoyable.”
Joss buried her head in her hands. She should know by now that arguing with her mother was futile. If the idea of a trophy wife provided Madeline with a harmless little fantasy or some sense that she was helping Joss, then so be it, but Joss would never allow it to become a reality. She wasn’t that desperate. Or that much of a loser.
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