Excerpt from THE PERFECT WIFE, August 2006

CHAPTER ONE

When the doorbell rang, Carly Alderson was sitting cross-legged on the Italian leather recliner in the den, watching a made-for-TV movie about star-crossed lovers, sniffling back tears and popping the remains of a lemon-filled donut into her mouth.

As the elegant gong resonated through the custom-built, plantation-style home her neighbors referred to as the McMansion, she froze in mid-chew.

Oh, God. Make them go away.

She was so not up for visitors. Not today, and especially not now.

Half of her wanted to ignore the interruption, reach back into the Tasty Dream Donut sack for the last chocolate �clair, sink into the cushions and fall back into a fictional sorrow, rather than think about her own.

But the rest of her, which unfortunately included the eight-and-a-half pounds she'd put on since her divorce had been finalized, hoped it was Greg coming home to tell her he was having second thoughts. That he'd made a big mistake--a huge one--and that he couldn't live without her.

News like that would be the first step in righting her world--the one Greg had sent spinning off its axis when he'd told her he didn't love her anymore and that after seven years of marriage he wanted a divorce.

In a fit of bravado, Carly had thrown him out of the house, then had all the locks changed. That bold move, as well as taking back her maiden name, had been Carly's way of letting Greg know what a divorce meant. That things were final. Kaput. Finished.

Of course, she'd only meant it as a bit of shock therapy, a way for him to see reason.

But so far, nothing had worked.

The gong sounded again, and nervous panic sent her heart rate thumping to beat the band.

What if it was Greg?

Needless to say, the desperate, I-need-to-save-my-marriage part won out.

She stood, and when she glanced at the telltale bag in her hands, her breath caught.

Oh, God. She couldn't let him find her pigging out. So she quickly shoved the telltale sack, complete with the remaining chocolate �clair, under the chair cushion, a trick she hadn't pulled out of her hat in years.

Then she rushed into the guest bathroom that was right off the den to make sure she didn't have any glaze or lemony goo smeared across her face. But as she looked into the mirror, she nearly collapsed in a frumpy heap on the hardwood floor.

Tear tracks had done a real number on her mascara, making her look like a raccoon with red-rimmed eyes, a pitiful little creature who was a far cry from the I've-got-it-all-together woman she really was.

Greg would probably think she was still pining over him, which had been true earlier this week. And yesterday afternoon. But the culprit this time had been a sad chick-flick, a real tearjerker, and....

The doorbell rang again, this time sounding as though an impatient Girl Scout with an armload of cookies was repeatedly jabbing an index finger at the button. Not that Carly had ever had a run-in with a Girl Scout who wasn't sweet and adorable.

Oh, for crying out loud. All right, already.

"I'm coming," she hollered, as she turned on the water in the bathroom sink.

She half-hoped whoever it was would get tired of waiting and just go away. But she'd neglected to pull her car into the garage after a grocery run this morning, so most people would suspect she was at home and in a back part of the house.

If she found a salesman--the pesky adult variety--at the door, she'd probably practice some of those fancy kickboxing moves and see if they really worked.

Of course, if it was Greg, she'd die of embarrassment. He'd never seen her looking so wretched and pitiful.

There'd been a time in her life when she'd looked that way, felt that way. But a lot had changed since she'd grown up, left home and gone to college. She'd gotten her act together and gained some self-control.

Yet if truth be told, she'd allowed herself to fall back into a few old habits lately, something she'd have to put a stop to before the extra weight made her feel as ugly and as worthless as she'd felt as a child.

In spite of the ability to shove the ego-shattering memories to the back of her mind, where they belonged, the words of her father crept back to haunt her. To whittle away at the perfect life she'd created for herself.

Damn it, Carly. Are you eating again? You're going to be as fat as your mother if you're not careful.

For cripes sake, girl. Can't you get a rearview mirror? If you ever need to haul ass, you'll have to make two trips.

"Stop it," she snapped to the chubby child within who refused to grow up and move on.

She reached for an embroidered linen hand towel, then rubbed at the smeared mascara.

A fist bam, bam, bammed on the door, something she might not have heard in any other part of the house, and a muffled voice yelled, "Open up, Carly. We know you're in there."

Okay. It wasn't Greg.

She nearly slunk back to the den, ready to ignore her guests. But she'd recognized the voice of Molly Jackson, who had a key to the house.

It's not as though the two women were best friends. After all, Carly didn't let people get that close. But when she'd been handed two sets of keys, it had seemed like a good idea to give a spare to a neighbor in case of emergency.

And Molly, who lived right next door, seemed like a logical choice.

"I can let myself in," Molly reminded her. "Come on, Carly. Open up. We've been worried about you."

The fact that someone in the neighborhood cared was a bit uplifting.

Carly took a deep breath, then strode to the entry, opened the front door, finding Molly and another neighbor, Rebecca Peters, on the porch. Stepping aside and allowing the women into the marble-tiled foyer, she caught the whiff of tropical-scented sun block as they entered.

Rebecca, an attractive woman in her late twenties, with brown hair and blue eyes, was, as usual, fashionably dressed--even wearing a swimsuit cover up. "We came to take you to the community pool."

"Are you kidding?" Carly, who normally didn't even head downstairs for breakfast unless she was impeccably groomed, glanced at the front of the man's blue T-shirt she wore, the one that had been in the dryer when she'd demanded Greg pack his bags and get out. "I can't go anywhere like this."

"You look fine for what we've got in mind," Rebecca said.

"That's right," Molly, who sported a white sundress, added. "You've been licking your wounds long enough, and we're taking you with us."

Oh, no. Carly wasn't going out in public. Besides, why should she join them at the community pool? She had a lovely pool of her own, complete with a stone waterfall, an outdoor fireplace, a hot tub, lush green plants and a colorful garden. "If you want to lay in the sun or swim, come on inside. We can spend the afternoon in my backyard."

"Not today. You've been holed up inside the McMansion for too long, and it's time to get out into the world again." Molly, whose long brown curly hair was swept up in a stylish clip, pointed to the circular stairway. "Go get a towel and a swimsuit and come with us."

"I'm not holed up in here," Carly lied.

Rebecca, her blue eyes sparkling with determination, crossed her arms. "There's life after divorce, Carly. And the sooner you accept that the better."

"I accept it." But what she really had trouble accepting was the fact that a month ago, Greg had started dating. And to make matters worse, he was seeing Megan Schumacher, a woman from the neighborhood Carly had once considered a friend.

It still stung, still hurt.

And it was so very hard to understand.

Carly had worked her butt off, trying to make Greg proud of her, trying to be the perfect wife in every way.

And Megan, a full-figured woman who could stand to lose twenty pounds, wasn't all that pretty.

So what did Greg see in her?

The small voice asked, "Better yet, what does Megan have that you don't?"

For a moment, she faltered, her pride taking a direct hit. But she refused to believe there was something in her that might be lacking. Not when she'd tried so hard to be everything a wife should be.

Maybe her handsome, hard-working, successful ex-husband was going through a mid-life crisis, assuming men did that when they turned thirty. Of course, she'd always thought something like that happened a decade or two later in a man's life, but nothing else explained what had made Greg decide he wanted out of the marriage. Not when Carly had worked so hard to stay in shape, to make Greg proud of her. To be the perfect wife, the kind of woman he deserved.

Why, even Greg's snobby mother, Vanessa, who'd been impossible to please, had begun to accept Carly--sort of. And she'd come to Carly's defense after they'd separated and tried to convince Greg to go home, to make things work.

But he hadn't wanted to.

"We're not leaving without you," Rebecca said as she placed her hands on Carly's shoulders, then turned her around, pushing her gently but firmly toward the stairs. "Go get your suit and a towel. We'll wait."

Carly would rather finish off that chocolate �clair, even if it was now smooshed by the cushion of the recliner, but she reluctantly did as her neighbors suggested. She wasn't entirely sure why, though. Maybe because they were right. She had been hiding, licking her wounds. And it was time she got back on track.

She had a lot going for her. A nice house, a generous divorce settlement. A body that, after she starved herself for a couple of weeks and worked out like a fiend, would be back in shape soon.

God forbid she keep oinking out on Tasty Dream Donuts. She'd be as big as her mother in no time at all.

A twinge of guilt reared its head.

Carly hadn't meant that in a bad way. She loved her mom and missed her, but the weight the middle-aged woman had been carrying for the past twenty-five years wasn't healthy and could lead to heart disease or a stroke. It had also kept her housebound.

Years ago, Carly, her sister and their mom had been close, clinging to each other through difficult times. But they'd all developed eating disorders, although Carly had overcome hers.

"Oh yeah?" that pesky, small voice asked. "What about that smooshed �clair resting in the paper bag under the cushion of the recliner?"

Okay. So maybe she might not have kicked hers completely. But with Greg gone, she'd rebelled from her rigid daily work outs and those brutal carb and fat restrictions. And to be honest, she was enjoying the temporary break. Maybe a bit too much.

But she'd get back on track.

As Carly climbed the circular stairway to her bedroom, she made a mental note to call her mother again this evening. It had been a week, and Carly wanted to check on her, maybe find out if the new diet program, a special study her doctor had encouraged her to take part in, was still working.

Her mother's obesity was slowly killing her, which is what the doctor had told her at the last visit. Her knees were going out on her, her cholesterol and triglycerides were dangerously high.

But that was something only her mom could do something about.

Carly had, of course, gone to great lengths not to let history repeat itself. And she wasn't about to let her eating habits get out of control.

But she wouldn't put on a swimsuit without a cover up, either. Not with the tummy pooch she'd developed over the past month. It had been a long time since she'd been anything but toned and lean. And the thought of having anyone see her imperfections was enough to make her sick.

Not in a binge and purge sort of way. That had been her sister Shelby's routine.

Carly's divorce had blindsided her, hitting her hard, knocking the proverbial rug out from under her. Greg and their marriage had been her whole life, but it was time to right her world and restore her battered self-esteem.

Besides, who would see her at the community pool?

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