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Chapter One

It was the kind of dull, dusty day that drags on forever and kills you with boredom. I stood in my late parents’ kitchen frying pork chops in my mother’s old cast iron skillet. Everything was still and quiet, except for the sizzle of the pork chops and the sound of a couple of flies buzzing around by the sink.

I flipped the chops, and then I picked up the flyswatter. Suddenly, I turned, hearing my boyfriend’s ‘68 Nova coming up the road. I set the flyswatter down again and shut off the burner, taking the skillet off the heat. Out on the porch, I let the heavy wooden screen door slam shut behind me. With a hand on my hip and my thin cotton dress waving in the breeze, I waited for him at the top of the porch steps as he pulled up and parked in the gravel drive.


He hopped out of the driver’s seat and stopped to gaze at me, a huge grin on his face that made it hard to stay mad at him.

“Hey, Gwen.”


“I know you got a cold one waiting for me.”

I frowned and turned back to the house to go get him his beer.

Damned man. I knew he’d been out carousing the night before, had already heard of his exploits from my cousin Walter, who worked as a bouncer at the local bar.

“Heard some gossip about you,” I told him, handing him an icy-cold beer.

He pressed the can to his forehead to cool it off before popping the top. “All right.”

“I hear you’ve been chasing you some tail.”


I looked at him skeptically, but his eyes were wide and innocent. “You know something, Gwen? I ought to put you over my knee, listening to them wild tales.”

I felt my pulse race, like it always did when he said such things to me.

“Well?” he asked me. “You gonna invite me in?”

Shrugging, I stood aside. “I guess so.”

He sat down at the kitchen table and I made him a plate. When I sat down with my own, he started sawing into one of the chops. He popped a piece into his mouth and smiled. “Mmm, mmm. Darlin’, you’re the best cook I ever knew, apart from my mama.”

“Thanks, Earl.”

“You ain’t still mad? Mad I didn’t come by last night? Aw, damn, girl, you know my buddy was in town from the army.”

“Naw, it ain’t that,” I admitted. “It’s just... I kind of missed you, is all.”

He smiled, pushing his plate aside. “You know I love you, Gwen.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Don’t sound so convinced of it.”

When I didn’t say anything, he climbed to his feet, skirting the kitchen table to take me in his arms. I melted into his embrace and laid my head against his shoulder. Reaching around him, I slipped my hands into the back pockets of his jeans. “I can’t hardly stand a night without you, Earl.”

“Is that right?” he asked, tipping my chin up so he could look me in the eyes. “Well, we’ll just have to rectify that, now won’t we, sugar?”

I shut my eyes, intoxicated by his words, by the tantalizing quality of his voice. I dropped my head but he gently grabbed my chin, demanding my attention. “When are you gonna wear my ring, Gwen?”

“Oh, Earl, would you quit?”

“No. I’ve been telling you for a long time now how I felt.”

I shrugged him off with a smirk. “What do you want with a girl like me, anyhow?”

“You better not say that no more. You’re talking about the woman I love.”

I glanced up at him. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, since he seemed sincere, and I was half-tempted to take him up on his offer, but the truth was, I was afraid to marry him, was afraid if I did, I’d be stuck in this crummy little hick town forever. “I’m sick of this place, Earl. Nothing ever happens here. I want to go somewhere, be somebody. I’ve been living in this shit-hole town my whole life and I’m just plain sick of it.”

“I know just what you mean, honey. This town can really wear on a person’s nerves after a while, but I’m telling you, Gwen, ain’t no place any better. You’d best stay here and marry me, and put all this searching for greener pastures behind you.”

“Easy for you to say. At least you’ve been out of this damn town a couple of times.”

“Yeah, but something always brings me back, and I think that something is you.”

He leaned down and kissed me. I swallowed hard, hungry for his touch. Something in my eyes must’ve tipped him off, and he tightened his embrace, crushing me against his chest. “Aw, hell, honey, I hope you ain’t got nothing to do for the next three or four hours.”

“What about dinner?”

“Yeah, after dinner.” He sat back down and attacked his plate again and I joined him, glad he was so easily distracted.

* * *

Earl had incredible stamina, and I usually tired out way before he did, but this time I was determined to match his strength. He fixed his gaze on mine. “Dang, honey. Where’d all that come from?”

I felt suddenly shy and turned my face away. Earl got quiet.

“You want to take a shower with me?” I asked, hoping to distract him again.

“All right.”

I went into the little pink-tiled bathroom off my bedroom and started a nice hot shower. Once it was good and steamy, I stuck my head around the corner and called softly to Earl, letting him know it was ready.

He entered the bathroom looking like he was done for the night, but the sight of me standing naked before him must’ve changed his mind in a quick hurry, because he came toward me, a big grin on his face.

I slipped behind the shower curtain before he could get me and Earl followed me in and grabbed me. “You sure are a sexy little thing tonight,” he told me, picking up the bar of soap and lathering it up. He spread it all down my back, down to my butt and further down my legs. “Damn, Gwen, I think you’ve been working out on me.”

I nodded. “I have been trying to do a lot of sit-ups and leg lifts. Can you tell?”

He grasped my shoulder and turned me to face him, and then he took my hand in his, guiding it down until I was touching his cock. “What do you think, sugar?”

I made no response. Instead, I wrapped my hand around his dick and squeezed it ever so slightly. He grabbed a washcloth and soaped it up so he could finish me, could get me out of there and back into bed as soon as humanly possible.

I allowed him to lead me back to my rickety little bedstead, allowed him to dry me off and then press me down against the mattress.

“I’m gonna eat me some pussy,” he told me, instantly making good on his threat. I lay back amongst the pillows and gave myself to him, not doubting for a second he’d bring me to another orgasm in minutes. He sucked my clit hard, and it was almost too much to bear. I tried to wriggle out of his grasp, but Earl held fast, not about to let me escape before I climaxed again.

“Oh, Earl,” I moaned, using my hands on my own breasts and playing with them, something I’d never had the nerve to do before.

Earl sat back on his haunches, impressed by this new game I was playing. “I swear, Gwen, I don’t know what’s gotten into you tonight.”

“Just you, honey. Just you.”

Earl finished what he was doing and by then, I really was sated. I felt happy and sleepy, and we lay down together to watch TV.

The next thing I knew, it was morning.

* * *

Earl was gone by the time I woke up, but I’d expected that. It was Tuesday and he had his day job at the steel plant to go to. I sat up and reached for my robe, hanging on one of the bedposts.

The diner was closed today, so I had the whole day to myself. I wasn’t sure how I meant to spend it, though. I thought I might take a run up to Raleigh to do a little shopping, since I knew of an Asian market there that I hadn’t yet visited.

But first, to the bookstore.

They had a pretty good selection of cookbooks, and I grabbed one off the shelf to thumb through it. It looked like a good one, so I kept it. I chose a couple more books on Asian cooking and then I went to check out. Taking my purchases out to the car, I looked up and saw there was a lingerie shop next door.

Something – some little streak of wickedness – had invaded my soul, and I entered the lingerie shop. I didn’t quite know what I was after, but knew I’d recognize it when I saw it.

Ah. I was instantly attracted to the black satin corset. Not that I needed a corset, but I could see how undeniably sexy it would look on me. I reached out to finger the fabric, pull at the laces a little.

Earl would just drop down dead if he came over and found me wearing that.

“Pretty, isn’t it?” the saleswoman asked. “It’s good quality, too. Would you like to try it on?”

I nodded and the saleslady led the way to the dressing area.

As I tightened the laces, I caught my reflection in the mirror. The corset had seemed so heavy when I was just carrying it, but once it was on, it was surprisingly comfortable.

I knew the minute I got done lacing it up that I was going to buy it. It looked stunning on me, the black making a lovely contrast with my blonde hair and alabaster skin.

Hell, it even made my boobs look bigger.

Once I changed back into my street clothes, I brought it up to the counter. The saleslady brought me a pair of satin thong panties, suggesting they would look wonderful with the corset. She also recommended a pair of sheer black stockings.

I bought the lot. I carried my new purchases with me and stowed them in the back of the car. I still had plenty of time to check out the Asian market and buy some exotic produce there.

Lotus root. I didn’t really know what to do with it, but knew one of the cookbooks I bought would tell me.

* * *

Earl didn’t get there until six that night, but he found me in the kitchen, trying out a new recipe.

He loved when I got creative, loved to taste and critique my efforts. I especially loved to make elaborate Asian dishes, and he always ate them up, no matter how many strange ingredients I put into them. Tonight was no exception, and he ate his dinner eagerly.

“What’s this thing, baby?” he asked, pointing his fork at a lacy looking item on the plate.

“Lotus root. I got it in Raleigh. Do you like it?”

“Yes, I do.”

“I got something else while I was up in Raleigh, too, but you’ll have to wait until after supper for that.”

I could hardly wait for the end of the meal so I could go and get changed. Earl took up his customary spot on the couch and popped a beer. He took off his boots and put his feet up, and he was in the middle of a gulp when I came down from the bedroom, dressed in the most knock-out little outfit he’d ever seen me in.

He almost choked on his beer. “Well, don’t you look good enough to eat?” He quickly set the beer can down and rose to meet me.

“You like it?” I asked.

“Are you kidding me? I’d have to be blind or crazy not to.”

I released a breath I didn’t even know I was holding, relieved.

“Well, turn around, darlin’, and let me see it.”

I smiled and twirled slowly around. I’d never in my life owned a thong before, but I loved the sensation of being exposed yet covered at the same time. I loved the way the silk stockings felt, too, hugging my thighs like they did. Once I completed my turn, I glanced up at Earl, who ran a hand through his hair.

“Wow, Gwen.”

“I put the panties on over the outside of the garters,” I told him, gaining courage. “That way we don’t have to take everything else off.”

I barely got those words out of my mouth when I found myself in his arms, his eager mouth on mine. His kiss was deep and urgent and I felt his erection as he pressed against me, one hand on my bare ass-cheek.

Emboldened, I broke off the kiss so I could back him over to the couch, and then I pushed him gently down onto the cushions.

“Earl. I’m going to fuck your brains out.” I sank down to straddle him and kissed him hard, pressing my bosom against him, delighting in the way my breasts mounded against the tight satin.

Never had I used such language before, at least not in front of him, and certainly not while we were making love. He pulled me closer and whispered in my ear, saying it was time to rise up off his lap and slip off my brand-new thong. I straightened up and hooked my thumbs under the elastic, while he pulled his tee shirt over his head and flung it aside before moving onto his belt buckle.

I swatted his hands aside and took over for him, undoing the belt and unfastening his jeans. He eased up so I could slide them down his legs and pull them the rest of the way off, along with his boxers.

His cock sprang free the minute I released it and I sank down to the floor on my knees. I nudged his legs further apart and took hold of it. “Mmm. What do we have here?” I asked, my little pink tongue darting out to tease the head of his dick. Earl arched under me and I took him in my mouth, my tongue still working the crown.

“Oh, Gwen,” he sighed, shutting his eyes and repositioning himself so he could lay his head against the back of the couch.

I worked him gradually, teasingly, just hinting at the pleasure to come. I slid my lips down his entire length and back out again while encircling the base of his cock with my thumb and forefinger. Taking his length again, I gently raked it with my bottom teeth, sending a shudder of delight through him.

He reached out and buried his hand in my hair, pulling me closer. I slipped his cock from my mouth and looked up at him. His eyes were closed and his mouth slightly open. I bent back to my task, sucking him, licking him, coaxing him ever closer to orgasm.

I felt the twitching against my tongue, signaling that he was going to spend into my mouth. I increased the pressure at the base of his cock and he erupted, his body rigid beneath my touch. I stroked him a few more times, milking every drop before sitting back against my heels with a satisfied smile.

Earl reached out a still-trembling hand and drew me to him. “I got some money saved up for the wedding, Gwen.”

I stiffened in his arms and pulled away. “What wedding?”


I glanced away. How was I ever going to convince him to quit bringing it up?

As if reading my mind, he answered. “If you ain’t never gonna marry me, Gwen, then I think you ought to quit leading me on.”


“Yeah, you. Look at what you’re wearing. No woman dresses like that unless she’s trying to get a man to marry her, or she’s a whore.”

Eyes wide, I turned to him. “You calling me a whore, Earl Springer?”

“No, the other one.”

“I am not trying to get you to marry me, so you can just put that idea right out of your head.”

“Why not? What’s so wrong about me?”

“It’s not you. I told you that before, Earl. I just don’t want to get stuck in this town. I’m sick and tired of living here. I just want to move up to Raleigh and run me a Chinese restaurant or something.”

“Why can’t you do that here, sugar? Hell, you already got the diner.”

“It don’t matter where I try to do it, Earl. I ain’t got the money in the first place.”

“Then I’ll work harder, baby. We can close down the diner for a little bit and change it around, just the way you want it. I don’t want your dream to slip away, Gwen. You’ve always been there for me.”

I gazed into his eyes. He was being real, almost too real for me.

“You know I love you, baby,” he told me.

I stared off into the distance, trying to imagine myself anywhere but here. The fact that I couldn’t frightened me a little. My eyes met his again and he looked wounded, like my silence had hurt him. I felt awful about it and tried to smooth things over. “I’m sorry, Earl. You know I love you, but I don’t think I can stand living here the whole rest of my life.”

“Well, can’t I come with you, honey? We can get married, make it all legal and all.”

“Let me think about it a while,” I said, rising to my feet.

“Think about what?” he asked. “What’s there to think about?”

“Just... I don’t know.”

Earl bent down and started gathering up his clothes. I watched in dismay, and then I went back into the bedroom to change out of my pretty new corset. I looked down at myself.

Earl was right. I had no right whetting his sexual appetite the way I did if I had no serious intentions toward him.

When I came back into the living room, he was all dressed and on the point of leaving.

“I gotta go, honey,” he told me, giving me a peck on the cheek. “There’s a car broke down on the interstate I have to tow.”

 Feelings of guilt washed over me. Earl worked so hard, going to his regular job and then driving the tow truck several nights a week, a job that made me sick with worry. People wrecked out on the highway all the time these days. Hell, last year a state trooper even got killed when a drunk veered off the road.

When I thought about it, I felt pretty foolish. What more could I ask for? Earl was (so far) completely faithful, even though he’d had a pretty bad reputation as a lady-killer when we first got together. In fact, half the town predicted he’d end up breaking my tender little heart, but over the months he’d been with me, he surprised us all, forcing everyone – including me – to revise our opinions of him.

Besides, he was good-looking, too, and very kind to me. He was sweet and sexy and had made great strides in ridding me of my sexual hang-ups. Not every man would have the patience to do that, I knew.

He was smart, too, even though he played along with those idiot friends of his, sometimes pretending to be dumb as a box of rocks when he was with them. I knew he only did it to fit in, to set the other guys at ease. He wasn’t the kind of man to put others down and make them feel stupid just so he could show off.

I soon discovered he was not a man to keep beating a dead horse, either.

Over the next few weeks, he seriously cut back on his visits to me. He called every other night or so, and only came over about one night in five. Most importantly, he never again suggested I ought to marry him.

I guess he reckoned I was kind of like that girl in The Wizard of Oz, always thinking there was a better life somewhere else, and he was giving me a chance to figure out everywhere else was pretty much the same as here.

Like he always said, no place was really any better than White Swamp. Different, maybe, but not better.

* * *

I started going in to the diner earlier and staying later. Without Earl, I felt all the light had gone out of my life. I hadn’t realized I’d miss him so much, would long for his touch so persistently. I felt tempted to call him dozens of times, but forced myself to still my hand, much like a drug addict suffering withdrawals and trying to quit would do.

“What’s wrong, baby girl?”

I glanced over to Frank, my breakfast cook, who’d been working here since I was a little girl. I realized I still had the coffee pot in my hand and Mr. McCall was waiting patiently for a refill. I shook my head and made my way over to Mr. McCall’s table, apologizing for keeping him waiting.

Later, when the breakfast crowd died down, I went back to the kitchen to speak to Frank. “Sorry I blew you off earlier, Frank. I still had customers waiting.”

“You been kind of… absent lately,” he told me.

I nodded. “I don’t know for sure, Frank, but I think maybe Earl broke up with me.”

“No. Oh, baby girl, I am so sorry to hear that.”

He attempted to give me a friendly, supportive hug, but I stepped away, knowing such a display of sympathy would be fatal to my show of bravado. “Oh, hell, Frank, it’s okay. There’re millions of fish in the sea, I hear.”

“Oh, now don’t be like that, Gwen; he’s a sensible boy, he’ll be back.”

* * *

I hadn’t seen Earl in over two weeks.

When I was working late at the diner sometimes, he’d call and leave me messages on my home machine to let me know he was still interested. Tonight when I got home, there was one there, and I hit the play button. Earl’s voice came on, just like I expected, but he sounded like he had a lump in his throat. “Hey, Gwen, it’s just me,” he said. “Give me a call some time.”

I hit the stop button on my answering machine. What he really meant was, he wanted to maintain contact without actually having to speak to me. Otherwise, he could’ve just called me at the diner.

Realizing he hadn’t been in for lunch lately, I wondered if he was getting his sustenance from some other source. Probably from Ella Mae Watson, I thought spitefully, knowing in my heart he’d never betray me like that. I damn near hit the erase button, but something stopped me, some panicky feeling that, if I did, I’d never hear the sound of his voice again.

Oh, what was I doing, anyway? I didn’t have the kind of money it took to pull up stakes and re-establish myself somewhere else. My inheritance had been quite modest and I’d plowed most of it back into the diner trying to make it a success.


I could’ve taken that money and left town if I hadn’t done that, but I’d just lost my parents and I wasn’t thinking too clearly. The diner was the only bit of normalcy I had left, and I’d clung to it like a life raft. Fixing up the diner and working it was what got me through the crisis in the first place.

That and being with Earl.

He took great pains to keep my mind off the tragedy at first, and once he sensed I was ready, he gave me time to grieve, time to mope around and feel sorry for myself.

If it wasn’t for Earl, I don’t know what I’d have done.

I smiled. He stubbornly insisted on paying full price whenever he ate at the diner, even recently, even though to him, we were practically engaged.

The next message was from my cousin and best friend, Vera. She, too, wanted to hear from me. I went ahead and dialed Vera’s number, fed up with being alone every night when I got home.

“Hey, Vera, it’s me, Gwen.”

“Hey, girl. Haven’t heard from you in a while. I hear you and Earl split up.”

I sighed. I’d been hoping people wouldn’t notice Earl and I weren’t spending all our time together any more, but of course, they did. It was one of the things that drove me craziest about this town, how fast gossip spread. Hell, I was surprised word hadn’t gotten out any sooner.

“I’m worried about you, Gwen. Why don’t you come on out with me and have a beer? We can shoot some pool and relax for a while, what do you say?”

Tears filling my eyes, I brushed them away impatiently. This was no time to cry. “You know something, Vera? I’d love to.”

“Great. I’ll pick you up in forty-five minutes.”

Once I committed to it, I was determined to follow through. I went into the bedroom and undressed so I could take a quick shower.

Catching my eye in the bathroom mirror, I squared off with myself. “You get a hold of yourself, Gwen Harper, and quit being such a big baby.”

* * *

Earl, leaning down to take his shot, happened to glance up when we came in the door. He tensed, looking knocked off his stride by my sudden appearance, but hell, we were bound to run into each other sooner or later. Glen’s was the only bar in town.

Earl glanced toward his group of friends. “Hey, Gwen. Hey, Vera,” said all his friends in unison.

Earl took his shot, and then straightened up. Not one to dodge a sticky situation, he faced me head-on and nodded. “Hey, y’all. Can I buy you ladies a beer?”

“Sure, Earl, if you want to,” I said, brightening a little.

Earl ordered up another round, abandoning the game. “You guys finish off,” he said as he paid the waitress. “Come on, let’s take a load off.”

I sat down, careful to make sure he was seated first and that Vera was between us.

Earl took a slug off his beer. “What’ve you been doing with yourselves, ladies?”

I just shrugged.

Vera stepped into the breech, answering for both of us. “Not much. How about you?”

“Just been looking for a new job, out by New Bern.”

Vera and I exchanged significant glances. All I wanted to do was cry, but instead, I took a healthy gulp of my own beer. I had no idea how to respond to his news, but Vera took care of that for me. “How come you want to go live in New Bern?” Vera asked, keeping her voice casual.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “The fishing’s better and I reckon I done wore out my welcome here.”

Suddenly, the quiet got uncomfortable. Vera rose quickly to her feet, muttering something about the ladies’ room. I watched her go, waiting ‘til she was out of earshot before I spoke. “What happened to us, Earl?”

“I don’t know, Gwen. All I wanted to do was marry you and you refused. Now how’s that supposed to make me feel?”

“I’m sorry if I hurt you. I’m just... going through a lot right now.”

“What set you off?”

“Fear, I guess. I just have to get my head straight.”

“Maybe it ain’t me you want.”

A fat tear rolled down my cheek, then another. “It’s not that. I just don’t know what I’m going to do with the whole rest of my life.”

“You’ve been bellyaching since high school about getting out of this town, and you never once gave it a shot. Not even when you had all that money.”

“I know.” When I glanced up, Vera was on her way back to the table, so I let the subject drop. Besides, I figured we’d done enough talking for one night.

Earl finished his beer and got up from the table. “Well, ladies, it was nice seeing you. I’ve got to go now, but you have yourselves a nice evening.”

“Good luck with your job search,” said Vera.

“Yeah,” I said, dashing away my tears. “Have fun in New Bern.”

If Earl wanted me to stew over his news, he certainly got his wish. As soon as Vera let me off at my place, I threw myself down on my bed and cried like a baby.

He was leaving me. I’d pushed him too far, and now he was leaving me. It was no more than I deserved and I knew it, rejecting him like that. I dried my eyes and got into my nightgown, wishing fervently that I’d just stayed home.

Not that it would’ve mattered. Some gossipmonger in town would’ve blabbed the news sooner or later.

* * *

Daryl, Wayne and Billy. All of them except for Earl.

I went to take their lunch orders, slightly put out by Earl’s continued absence from my little diner. Before our fight, he’d made quite a habit of coming around, just about every day.

It was bad enough not having him in the evenings, but now this?

I sucked it up and went over with a brave show of nonchalance. “Hey, y’all. What’ll you have?”

“Oh, the usual.”

I went back to put their orders in, watching them from behind the counter. I saw them glance at me from time to time and knew they were talking about me.

Damn this town, I thought. Someone’s always up in your business.

I stomped off to the kitchen, picking up the nearest object that came to hand, which was a coffee cup, and dashing it against the floor.

“Whoa. Hold on, baby girl. What’s the trouble here?”

“I’m the one who wants out of this town, Frank, and Earl’s the one who’s leaving. There just ain’t no justice in this world.”

He motioned to the prep cook to clean up the shattered cup and ushered me into my office. “What’s all this about leaving town?”

I suddenly felt ashamed. “I want to move up to Raleigh, is all.”

Frank looked at me with a hard squint. “What’re you fixing to do in Raleigh?”

“Maybe… maybe open me up a Chinese restaurant.”

Frank chuckled. “There’s got to be a couple of hundred Chinese restaurants up there. How are you gonna compete with all that?”

I looked away. “How should I know, Frank?”

“Now you listen to your Uncle Frank, darlin’. You better stay here and forget all these high-flying notions about running off to Raleigh. Raleigh ain’t got nothing we ain’t got here.”

“Except for a Chinese restaurant, I guess.”

“Then this’d be the perfect place to open one.”


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