Searching for Romeo by Salina Jivani

“Now. NOW! I need to get this off, NOW!” I grunted, tugging at my French tulle wedding gown. The faille bodice encased my belly with a strength that I imagined to be the equivalent of mummy plaster.
Searching for Romeo
Searching for Romeo by Salina Jivani
My youngest sister, Becky, materialized at my side, ensconced in a huge puff that served as her own wedding dress. “Liz, you’re going to rip it! And we have to walk down the isle in, like, two minutes!” She looked like a marshmallow, but I decided not to articulate this opinion as she hurled my veil over my shoulder to un-obstruct the culprit zipper that would put me out of my misery. “Ohhh, I need to pee soo badly! It’s gonna come out!” I squeezed my knees together, hopping from foot to foot as Becky’s hands deftly worked the stubborn metal. “That’d be a great view. A nice, big urine stain on a stark white wedding gown,” my sister Rachel smirked as she carelessly punched keys on her iPhone from her stance in front of the large, horizontal bathroom mirror of the Ritz. “It’s Old Lace,” I snapped. “Huh?” “Not white. It’s Old Lace. The color.” She lifted a tanned shoulder from her shoulder-less wedding dress. “Whatever. Same thing. Since when did lace become a color anyway?” “Same thing? Same thing?!” I cried near hysterics. “It’s not the same darned thing! Do you have any idea how much more I paid for this shade?” The material pressed on my bladder with the likeness of a tractor rolling over an industrial-strength water balloon. Or maybe I’d tied the sash too tight. Becky grabbed my shoulders. “Stay still! I can’t get it off if you squirm.” Rachel frowned at something on her screen then looked up long enough to regard me with a scowl through the mirror. “Well excuse me, Bride Kong.” My resolve snapped. But before I could exert enough energy from my lungs to show my middle sister just how much she was ticking the daylights out of me, my zip came undone. If body parts could breathe, I’m positive every organ in my body would have exhaled a symphonious sigh of relief. Ok, so maybe it hadn’t been the brightest idea in the world to buy a wedding dress a whole size smaller than my size zero waist. When I had waltzed into David’s Bridal and forced the snooty salesperson to alter the dress to a smaller size despite her unwillingness (I just knew I’d lose at least five more pounds on the new Abs Diet), what I hadn’t considered was the consequence of chugging three bottles of Evian an hour before I was due to walk down the isle in my Vera Wangs. Now with more lung capacity at my disposal, I stalked toward Rachel to demonstrate my true “Bride Kong–ness.” The extra steps took a toll on my dire efforts to contain my bodily fluids, but I guesstimated that I could go approximately fifty seconds before I’d lose complete control and gush like the Niagara. I halted a few inches from her back, speaking to her reflection in a slow, calculated tone. “I wasn’t the one who nearly disembodied my own cousin this morning for forgetting to call the limo driver, your royal bitchiness.” “Oh, it’s OK, really,” our cousin Melissa mumbled, cowering behind Becky. The Parker women’s temper was infamous for its explosive nature. But you’ll see more evidence of this later on. Sparks shot through my sister’s jade irises and she slammed down her phone, knocking over a large, open tube of black eyeliner. Liquid splattered over her peculiar fuchsia gown and the mirror. An ominous silence filled the bathroom. For a whole ten second, the trickle of water through pipes was the only sound audible. Rachel’s chest heaved in contempt. One breath, two, then another. A freaky shade of crimson replaced her normal pallor. “You bitch! Just look at what you did!” I sputtered. I probably had only fifteen seconds before I’d start leaking like a broken pipe. “You’re sabotaging my wedding, you brat!” I howled at the top of my lungs. My voice echoed off the iridescent wallpaper of the elaborate bathroom. “In case you’re forgetting, it’s weddings. Plural.” Rachel spun away from the mirror and faced me. Ugly black streaks ran in weird angles across her midsection. A few wayward drops had somehow managed their way across her right breast, making it seem as though someone with a sick sense of humor had purposely etched several nipples across her chest. You remember that Friends episode where Ross has three nipples? That’s what suddenly popped into my mind and it took everything in me to stifle a round of uncontrollable giggles—and not, mind you, because I was afraid of Rachel, but for the simple fact that right then, I didn’t have the capacity to support any muscle movement. The pressure in my bladder increased to an unbearable pain. I bent my knees and pressed my thighs together. I would have come back with a smart retort, but talking would mean exerting more pressure. After the slightest smidgen of reluctance, I scuffled toward the nearest stall. Just a few feet before my prized destination, my head suddenly jerked backward. My hand instinctively clutched at the source of my deterrent — my veil—just moments before a loud, portentous rip sounded through the bathroom. I turned around in slow motion. Somewhere in the distance, I was remotely aware of the bathroom door flying open. I didn’t get a chance to see the lucky spectator because I was too horrified at the sight in front of me. There, beneath my sister’s fuchsia-flowered high heel, lay half my veil—torn and dismembered like a seamstress’ reject. Red obscured my vision. “You!” I lunged at Rachel. Through her ugly pink veil, I clawed at her blonde chignon. Her updo cascaded out of the pins that had neatly kept it imprisoned. I heard a hysterical voice that oddly resembled my mother’s. “Dear Christ almighty! Someone…smelling salts…blacking out…!” A flurry of excitement swirled around me, but I didn’t dare release my hold on my sister’s hair. She had hers fingers wrapped around my throat. The restriction of oxygen oddly seemed to intensify the force of urine in my now near-ready-to-pop bladder. “Let go of each other! You can’t do this today!” Becky yelled as our cousin Melissa diffidently struggled to pull Rachel and me apart. A loud thunk sounded from somewhere in the bathroom, followed by a desperate cry from my mom’s older sister, my dramatic Aunt Barbara. “Beverly! Are you okay?! Holy mother in heaven! Call the ambulance! She’s passed out!” My mother’s strained voice carried through the commotion. “Smelling salts…someone… damned salts!” Aunt Margaret, Melissa’s mom and the eldest—and therefore the most senile—of my mom’s three sisters, lost the permanently etched look of confusion off her face long enough to scuttle to the pink purse strewn next to my mom. She pawed through it right before my vision started to blur. Black spots began to replace the red. “Rachel, let go. You’re going to choke her!” Rebecca wrestled to disentangle my sister’s long fingers from around my neck. “No! She always does this! She thinks she’s this…this famous celebrity just because she fucking walks around in fancy underpants and pops up in a TV ad once a blue freaking moon. And then she thinks the paparazzi have no one better to stalk than her. Like Tyler Perry and Usher and every other celebrity in the city of Atlanta are all dead! But really? Really, Liz? No one knows who the heck you are! That’s right. You’re just like the rest of us.” How dare! She was obviously so jealous. “Oh, for chrissake! Not this again!” Becky cried. “We’re getting married. We’re all ready to walk down that aisle. We all look lovely. ” She sang the last bit in a pathetic whine, then grunted as she tried to disengage Rachel’s paws off my neck. But my devious middle sister was too quick for her. She grabbed at the long strands of curls nestled neatly on top of my head. Suddenly, I didn’t know which pain was worse: the one in my lower abdomen, the one from her fingers wrapped like a vise around my neck, or the one pulsing through my skull from her relentless grip. “Lovely my butt! I look like a flamingo with the bubonic plague!” Rachel shrieked. “Well, that’s what you get for picking that hideous gown,” I managed between gritted teeth and restricted levels of oxygen. “I didn’t pick it out you moron—for the bazillionth time, they ordered the wrong freaking color!” Between the three pain points, I suddenly knew which one overpowered the rest. If I didn’t make it to the stall within the next few seconds, Rachel would never let me live down the day I peed on myself—on my (fine, our) wedding day. With renowned motivation and Herculean efforts, I released her hair, detached myself from her freakishly iron-like grasp, trundled past everyone and clambered into the closest stall. I barely made it out of my thong. But dear gosh, if I had to describe a single moment in my life when I’d felt relief as powerful as I did just then, settled on the throne of a public bathroom tearing at the feel of release, I wouldn’t have been able to think of any. The sensation was so wonderful that it was almost enough for me to forget about how my younger brat of a sister had managed to ruin my wedding day. Almost but not quite. Beyond the stall door, I could hear the cacophony of chaos. Rebecca, ever the loyal sibling and peacemaker, was vehemently admonishing Rachel for her rash behavior. Rachel, being her obnoxious egotistical self, was blaming everything on me. Another buzz of excitement came from the entrance of the bathroom, where I presumed my mom was still sprawled on the floor in her long baby-pink gown sniffing salts like Bobby, Aunt Barbara’s son, snorts…well, other things. I pressed my hands to my temple where a chunk of hair had come undone from my updo, for which I had paid enough to feed a small country. My rage returned. No way in hell was I going to let my younger sister get away with this. After fixing myself up as best I could without the aid of a mirror (minus zipping the god forsaken dress), I flushed the toilet and stormed out of the stall, my fury renewed. When I was a mere arm’s length away from Rachel’s throat, Melissa (damn her) grabbed me mid stride and spun me around. “Liz, don’t do this. You’ll ruin everything.” “Ha! It was already ruined the day I found out I had to share my wedding with her!” I jabbed an accusatory finger at Rachel’s nose. “Yeah, well you wouldn’t have had to share diddly if you had enough brain cells in that anorexic head of yours to know that no one can book a venue only three weeks in advance—in the middle of summer!” I heard a whimper near the entrance, where small crowd of my mother’s church friends were gathered around her frame. I could have sworn I saw one of them glance in our direction and do a hail Mary. “Yeah, well I’m not the dumbass who forgot to pay her down payment for the hall!” I retorted, making another feeble attempt to lunge forward and break through Mellissa’s impossible hold. Becky inserted her big cloud puff self between me and the flamingo look alike and held up her hands. “Well, now you’re both stuck getting married at my venue, on the day that only I was supposed to get married. I was nice enough to share my thunder with the both of you, for which—let me remind you— you owe me dearly. So suck it up, and don’t ruin this day for me, or else, I promise, I’ll be the only one walking down that isle.” The threat delivered the intended impact. Rachel and I stood quietly and pouted like two-year-olds who’d been sentenced to an eternity of time out and no chocolates. Becky peered at me, then at our stupid, dolt of a sibling. “Don’t you remember what the three of us went through for this day to become a possibility, let alone a reality? Don’t you remember all the time we wasted dating moronic men before we finally found our Romeos?” Count on Becky to embellish the truth with Shakespeare. Not that John wasn’t comparable to Romeo, I thought. I threw a grudging glance in Rachel’s direction. Our eyes locked. We both folded our arms and turned away. “Do you or do you not remember?” Becky pressed. “Answer me.” “Yes,” we both mumbled. Even the most severe case of amnesia wouldn’t be enough to wipe the horrid memories of what the three of us had endured before we’d found our “Romeos.” Just thinking about it made me break into a cold sweat. It was all I could do not to bolt for the door and coerce the priest into marrying me off before John could change his mind. Which is why I, Liz Parker, had begged my sisters (despite my love for the limelight) to share their special day with me. Prolonging the wedding any more to find our own respective venues would have allowed our men to mull over their matrimonial decisions a bit longer, which would increase the likelihood of a change in heart. Not that any of them had voiced anything to make us think they were questioning their decisions of monogamy. But I’m a strong believer in the saying “all good things don’t last.” And, dear friend, after learning what we’ve been through to arrive at juncture we are today, I’m sure you’ll darned well agree. Six months ago… Chapter 1 Indecent proposal ~ LIZ ~ “I just don’t understand why it’s such a big deal,” I took a calming sip of ice water and cleared my throat as I waited for a response from my boyfriend. The man I had imagined marrying. On a cruise ship. Setting sail into the Tahitian sunset. A live singer dressed in a black and white penguin-style suit intoned the words to Always by Bon Jovi as he crossed past our booth. Dulce, a popular Italian one in the heart of Atlantic Station, buzzed faintly with the sound of conversation. White c-shaped leather booths covered in taupe table linens spanned the room, and sheer curtains covered floor-to-ceiling windows, barely obscuring the outdoors, where hundreds of people ambled about in the November chill. Nick paused over his plate of chicken parmigiana, placed down his fork and knife and patted a napkin over his mouth. He licked his lips. “To me, it is a big deal. It’s a huge move, Liz. You can’t just expect me to make the decision because you feel it’s time.” I tossed my napkin down in front of me. The corner of it landed on my steamed broccoli. “We’ve been together two years, Nick. That’s got to account for something.” He reached across the linen covered table and placed his hand over my conspicuously bare left one. “We’re in a terrific relationship. Why do we have to complicate things by making it official on a measly paper?” I snatched my hand away as though he’d singed it with Lancome’s so-last-year lip stain. “It’s called getting married, Nick. And it’s something everyone does.” Nick leaned back and heaved a sigh. “Just because the whole world does it, doesn’t mean it’s right for us.” I threw my hands up and raised my voice an octave. “So what? We’re never going to get married? Is this it? Our relationship’s at the finish line?” Nick ran a hand over his face. His brown puppy dog eyes looked weary. “Can’t we talk about this some other time?” I jutted out my chin and raised my nose into the air in what I hoped to be a stern and serious expression. “No. I need an answer. Now. Where are we headed? What are we doing together if you don’t see yourself getting married to me?” Nick expelled a breath and fiddled with the grey Movado on his left wrist. “Why does it have to be rushed?” It was my turn to release a frustrated sigh. “Nick, I’m twenty-seven and I’m not getting any younger. My mother is breathing down my neck about grandchildren, not that we would have to worry about that anytime soon or anything…” Having kids was not on my list of priorities. I was fine with being responsible for only myself. And sometimes, I wasn’t even the greatest at that. “But what about your career? Isn’t it taboo to be married in your profession or something?” I rolled my eyes at him. Seriously, sometimes he was so clueless. “I’m a model not an actress. I do lingerie. Girls look at me and envy my body and guys look at me and, well…fantasize. I doubt my getting married would change any of that.” “Right.” He nodded but didn’t look convinced. “Look, can you leave all the technicalities of my career up to me? All I need is for you to make a commitment. I’ll take care of the rest. And I promise you won’t have to lift a finger for the wedding preparations.” I knew I sounded desperate, pathetic even. I was Liz Parker, after all. An infamous lingerie model that any guy in his right mind would be exultant to have a wet dream about. And here I was, sitting at an upscale restaurant in Atlanta, begging for the hand of a man that I’d spent two years of my precious life with. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He was supposed to be the one slipping a wedding ring into my champagne, getting down on his knees and professing his undying love and affection, making me the envy of every fairytale-adoring female in the room. Nick hesitated and seemed to be choosing his words. “I’m not saying it’ll never happen. I’m just saying I need some time to—“ “And that’s exactly what I don’t have!” I yelled, triggering several heads to twist our way. Nick flushed and I downed the remainder of my lemon water, wishing it had been a vodka soda. “Waiter!” I lifted my empty glass and swayed it around in the air. A random waiter dashed forward with a fancy metallic, condensation-laced pitcher, topped off my glass and scurried away. “And get me more lemon wedges!” I yelled at his retreating back. “Look, Nick,” I tried again. “I don’t have time. I’m twenty-seven—“ “Weren’t you born in nineteen-eighty?” I glowered. “Why does it matter?” Nick squirmed under my narrow gaze. “Well you keep saying twenty-seven but if you were born in ninteen—OW!” I plowed my heel into his shin. He gave a painful yelp and clutched his leg scowling at me like a wounded animal. I looked around to make sure no one had heard this exchange. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I hissed. “Trying to ruin my career? I’m twenty-seven! And actually, right now, my age should be the very least of your concerns!” I straightened my back, folded my legs and lifted my chin in what I hoped resembled another stern look. Nick had struck a nerve. The truth was that my age was a very big concern. It was because of my damned age I was stuck in this predicament. I’d pictured myself having a successful modeling career forever, but poor, oblivious, naïve me had completely undermined the age factor. Only lately had I realized that I had another year—two tops—in this industry and then I’d be as desirable as clumpy mascara to modeling agencies, let alone to Tracy’s Treasures, one of the top lingerie brands in the nation. Which meant I had to have a backup plan that was sufficient enough to fund my endless hunger for Jimmy Choos and Manolos. Backup plan, thy name is Nick. “You have to make up your mind. Right now.” I declared with renewed fervor. “Huh?” Nick stopped rubbing his leg. “What do you mean?” “I mean that you have two choices.” I paused, not able to believe what was about to topple off my tongue. “Either you get married to me, or we break up.” I held my breath waiting for the implication of my words to strike. It didn’t take long. Nick looked bewildered one second, then angry the next. “You’re giving me an ultimatum?” I swirled my silver bangles around my wrist and fixed my eyes on him. “Call it whatever you want. You have to make a decision and it needs to be now. Either you marry me, or else we walk out of here and never speak to each other again.” I paused, wondering how I could sweeten the deal. “I’ll even let you skip the proposal part.” Now I knew I sounded desperate. A very miniscule part of my brain—the one that considered other people’s feelings every so often—knew there was a possibility that I was being just a tad unreasonable. But the majority of my brain—the part that didn’t give a damn—was ruling. I resisted the urge to wring my hands in anticipation as I watched Nick sputter like a fish out of water. I went for a nonchalant look and examined my freshly polished nails, but really, I wanted to spring across the table, clutching Nick’s throat and shaking until I rattled out the phrase I was looking for: Will you marry me? Nick extracted a wad of bills from his black Armani wallet, tossed them on the table and stood. “Let’s go.” “Huh?” That so wasn’t the response I’d been expecting. My self-confidence faltered and panic spiraled through me. I knew exactly what was happening. But no way in hell was any man, let alone this one, going to be the one to dump me! If anyone was going to be doing any dumping tonight, it was going to be me. I was Liz Parker, after all. Nick was just some measly surgeon (okay, fine, one of the nation’s top, but who the hell cared?), who didn’t know how to recognize his blessings, even when they came slapping him in the face in the form of a marriage proposal by the sexiest lingerie model to walk the ramp. I clenched my fists and stood, mustering all the energy I possibly could, despite the weakness in my knees. “You think you get to call the shots? You’re going to walk out on me and you think that’s okay?” I hissed. “Liz what are you talking—“ “You listen!” I jabbed his chest. A gazillion pairs of eyes were suddenly watching us. “I’m leaving you! You got that? You’re not walking out on me, I’m walking out on you!” “Liz I—“ “It’s over.” I repeated. Now let the newspapers have a field day with who dumped whom. In fact, I decided at the whim of the moment, a nice photograph was worth a million words (or something like that). Those journalists worked hard for their paychecks, and if some lucky little bastard caught proof of my ingenious departure on their cell phone, they’d make a fortune. Before I could talk myself out of it, I grabbed the plate of Nick’s left over chicken and dumped the entire entrée over him. The meat did a funny little balancing act on top of his head before it headed to a more secure place on the floor—on Nick’s shoe. Pasta and sauce dribbled down his face and clothes. I tried to use ESP to tell the idiots watching us to whip out their cell phones and take a picture. Didn’t they know who the hell I was? Didn’t they understand that they could become millionaires overnight for a shot of this? Apparently not. All I received for my dire efforts were shocked stares. One woman with ridiculous navy-blue eye shadow and blood red lipstick even had the audacity to giggle. Stupid cow! I had half a mind to pick up the chicken from Nick’s shoe at toss it at her ridiculous face, but that would mean tarnishing my well polished nails and diverting my attention from the more serious matter at hand—my failure of a relationship with my idiotic, brain-dead boyfriend. As I stood there staring daggers at clown woman, I felt a sudden presence beside me. A man with the word “security” stamped in yellow across the left breast of his black polo shirt regarded me through a hooded gaze. “Is there a problem, miss?” I faltered. If only I could scream: Yes, officer, this imbecile is refusing to marry me, Liz Parker, the sexiest fucking lingerie model ever! Detain him now, please!” “Do you realize you’ve created a public disturbance?” Was he talking to me? Didn’t he realize how emotionally scarred I must be to dump an eighty dollar meal over someone’s face? Out of the corner of my eye, I was aware of the wait staff surrounding Nick as they proffered wet cloths and napkins—the waiter who had refilled my water was among them. (Funny he hadn’t had the time to deliver my lemon wedges but appeared as quick as lightning to take part in the unfolding drama). Nick hastily wiped himself off and threw another wad of cash—it looked like presumptuously a lot more money than he’d used to pay for our meals—on the table. I raised my chin in the air and tried to inject as much confidence as I could into my voice, “Sir, with all due respect, this is none of your business. This is a personal matter between my boyfriend” I jerked a thumb in Nick’s direction, “and me.” The man imperceptibly raised a thick, blonde eyebrow, which was the exact same shade as his buzzed hair. “Well if it’s personal, take it somewhere private.” Without forewarning, the guard grasped my left arm and escorted me toward the exit. At that precise moment, clown woman, cow that she was, decided to take a damned picture. She smiled at her cell phone screen as a flash of light bathed my face. I gave her the finger, which only served to increase the guard’s grip on my arm and the pace at which I was walked/dragged. “Ouch! Let go of me. I’m not a damned felon.” I heard rustling from behind and dreaded the fact that I would have to see Nick’s face again—especially since the plan was for me to triumph from the scene I’d created. Now I’d be at his mercy for a ride home…unless I wanted to take a cab. Damn my strategizing abilities. A few seconds later, I was pushed through the revolving doors of the restaurant and out into the cold November air. A view of my surroundings—lit, beautiful and littered with patrons—stretched out in front of me. The guard released his hold on me, exchanged a few mumbled words with Nick and disappeared. Nick gave me a hard look that almost made me shift under his gaze, but I resisted the urge to exhibit any sign of remorse. A lump of gravy still covered a receding spot on his blonde head (where Rogaine should have dwelled) causing his hair to sit flat. “What the hell was all that about?” I crossed my arms over my chest and tried to keep my teeth from chattering. “You’re not breaking up with me. I’m breaking up with you!” Nick shook his head and led the way to the car in silence. I examined his profile then looked away before he could catch me studying him. He wasn’t a terribly attractive man. Plain, really. He had a somewhat non-descript, concave oval face, a nose that was proportionately longer than the rest of his features (was he Jewish? I couldn’t remember) and dark, fairly striking eyes. If only he weren’t balding and five-eleven (a mere two inches taller than me, which wasn’t nearly enough when I wore my Louboutins) he would have been perfect. Bright side? His career as one of the top brain surgeons in the country stuffed his bank account with more than enough dough to make up for his physical deficits. As we walked through the crowd and against a brisk wind, we passed several kiosks, some featuring exotic ointments (if only Nick and I had been on good terms, I’d have stopped to see if they had those yummy scented ones that promoted sexual stimulation…), others exhibiting delicate, handmade jewelry, and still others boasting various types of incense and perfume. As a gust of wind blew my long, wavy russet hair across my face, I cursed myself for not having had the sense to bring a pashmina, or comfortable shoes. My pencil-thin heels chewed away at my feet with every lift. We finally reached the bottom floor of the parking deck where Nick’s black Aston Martin was parked in reverse. Once we were enclosed within the chill-protectant, heated and ventilated confines of the car, the awkwardness of the situation struck me full force. Why hadn’t I opted for the cab? I had, after all, just ended our relationship, and my apartment was a good twenty minutes from the restaurant. How could I ride home with someone whom I’d doused in sauce just moments earlier? I debated between battling for a taxi in the cold or sucking up my pride and enduring the twenty minute ride. My ego won. “Let me out.” Nick gave me an exasperated look and shook his head. “Liz, let’s just talk this out.” “There’s nothing to discuss. I gave you your options and you chose.” My nose inched another two centimeters into the air. “No. You thought I chose. Big difference.” I crinkled my nose. “Huh?” Nick breathed deep and seemed to be counting in his head before he released. “Liz, I wasn’t going to break up with you.” “You weren’t?” But wait a minute, if he wasn’t breaking up with me, that could only mean… ”Oh. My. Gosh! We’re getting married!” I slapped my hands over my mouth and waited for the tears to spring to my eyes (just like I’d heard every one of my friends describe). Nothing happened. I blinked fast…still nothing. I bit the inside of my cheek hard and managed to garner a few saltine drops in the corners of my eyes, but nothing impressive. Nick flipped down his visor and slid open the lighted mirror. After examining himself a few moments and muttering some indistinguishable things, he reached over and fished a napkin out of the glove compartment to wipe away the remnants of his dinner. I eyed him in bewilderment. “That’s it? You proposed and now you have nothing to say or do except wipe marinara off your head?” I didn’t mention it would have been a smarter move to focus some attention on his white shirt, which had soaked the red all the way through. Without even glancing my way, my beloved boyfriend (or maybe, fiancé?) piloted the car out of the lot and onto the highway. “Liz you’ve got to stop jumping to conclusions. I never proposed.” My exasperation mounted. “Ok so you didn’t break up with me and you haven’t proposed? Those were the only two options you had!” “Well, I gave myself a third one.” “What?” “Ignoring you.” “Well, fine then. I’m breaking up with you.” “Liz.” “No, Nick. If you want to keep this relationship stagnant then I’m out. My clock is ticking and I need a rock on this finger or else it’s over.” A long silence ensued and I glared at him, anxiously awaiting a response. The pause stretched out for so long that for a moment, I thought I wasn’t going to get one. Before panic could settle itself between my C cups breasts, Nick sighed. “Only under one condition.” “Only what under one condition?” He bit his lip. “We get married only under one condition.” Oh my God! I couldn’t believe it! I’dwon,I’dwon, I’dwon! I tried to keep from jumping for joy, and instead plastered a nonchalant expression on my face and spoke calmly as I stared out the windshield at a puke green highway sign. “And what condition is that?” “We get married in Vegas. You can invite one other person as a witness.” A Vegas wedding? Was he nuts? I jerked to face him again, nearly giving myself permanent whiplash in the process. “You’ve got to be kidding!” He lifted his shoulder but didn’t make eye contact or speak as he focused on switching lanes. I sputtered. “Do you know what you’re even saying? I’m a woman! I’ve dreamt about my wedding since I was sixteen, and you’re going to take the whole fairytale-come-true experience away from me?!” This time I received a sidelong glance. “Sixteen? Isn’t that a bit too early to be fantasizing about locking yourself down to one person for the rest of your days?” I huffed. “Oh, so that’s what a marriage is to you? A prison sentence?” “That’s not what I—“ I waved off his response, causing my bangles to clang together in protest. I had to think rationally. Here it was, exactly what I had been looking for — a proposal. Well. Okay. Not exactly a proposal. But, hey, what was that saying about the water glass? I had to be reasonable. If I pushed too hard, maybe he would change his mind, which meant that I would have to break up with him, and really I didn’t have enough time to man-hunt for yet another candidate. I had plenty of men who would be more than happy to have their way with me, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted someone serious who could support my lifestyle—forever. With my thirtieth birthday just a few months away (yes, so I had lied to him about my age—big whoop), I was short on time. Still, I couldn’t give in so easily. It would only prove my desperation. And if there was one thing that Liz Parker would be damned to be described as, it was desperate. “Why Vegas?” He shrugged and flipped on his right turn indicator. “I don’t want fuss.” I bit my lip hard in an attempt to hold back my words, and ended up drawing blood. Eww. The “fuss” was all I had dreamed about. It is what I had imagined, planned and perfected. It was the very reason why I wanted a wedding. I could picture amaranth Gerberas, white pillars decorated with lace, and glass panel fountains adorning either side of the center of the room where we would read our vows. I would wear a Carolina Herrara gown, which would hug my body down to the last curve as I walked down the rose petal littered aisle to the most attractive and sexually appealing man in the world – a retired GQ model. Retired, of course, so that he could fully devote his time to pampering me for the rest of his life. I twisted my lips and eyed Nick. Gosh, he really wasn’t GQ material. Now that I looked at him carefully and tried to visualize him without the streak of sauce precariously dangling from his chin, he was even less attractive (which would probably explain why I fantasized about Brad Pitt every time we had sex. What can I say? It’s better than faking). Focus, Liz. This is no time to rethink your decision. Ok, Vegas. So yeah, though I was giving up a lot, I had to think positive. Glass half full. I had a chance to make this work. I wouldn’t have to waste anymore time hunting for Mr. Right while my biological clock ticked miserably away, waiting to reveal the truth of my age to the model gods. Before I’d know it, I would be cast aside like a faded pair of holed up thongs and my modeling career would be over, leaving me broke and helpless. And then who’d adorn me with diamonds from Tiffany’s and a three carat marquise on my finger? It was a risk too large to take. A Vegas wedding would have to do. I’d just have to improvise my original wedding plans—the ones I had perfected over the years since adolescence. Of course my mom would freak out at the very thought of an untraditional elopement, which only made the idea all the more appealing. There was only one slight dilemma. “Ok, fine,” I spoke with determination and vigor, “But I have a stipulation.” Nick’s jaw line visibly tightened as he veered the car off the highway and onto the exit ramp that led toward my apartment. White highway lights gave way to dim, yellow street lamps. A drop of sauce had apparently escaped his earlier clean up attempt, and was dribbling down his temple. I pulled my attention away from its lazy crawl, and forged on. “Instead of one witness, I would like to bring two.” As I waited anxiously for his response, I pretended to smoothen my dress in a facade of disinterest. Meanwhile, my heart beat wildly against my ribcage. If it weren’t for the sounds of the engine and air, I was positive he would have been able to hear it loud and clear. Nick furrowed his brows warily. “And why is that?” “Because, it wouldn’t be fair for me to pick between my sisters. Naturally, I’d want them both to come along.” Was that relief I saw? “Fine.” The beating in my chest increased exponentially to an out of control cadence. I gloated in my victory and gave Nick a smug smile, which he hesitantly returned. It was finally happening. I, Liz Parker, was getting married! Just wait till my sisters found out. Chapter Two No pain, no gain ~BECKY~ “Breathe in…and release. Now, take another deep breath…” Sweat slid down my forehead and tickled my left brow. I struggled to maintain my posture, resisting the temptation to scratch. A few more seconds. “…and release,” the yoga instructor ordered. No, she wasn’t a real instructor—I mean she was real as in human but not actually an instructor-instructor. I was too intimidated by those. I was much more comfortable with the kind who instructed from a distance and couldn’t see and judge everything I was doing wrong. A far distance. Like Claire Bransen, who advised from behind the panel of my LED. With an effortless smile showing each of her thirty-two well polished, Crest-whitened teeth, and not a globule of sweat on her forehead, she shifted positions. It was impossible to look that perfect and composed after the set of asanas we’d just completed. Or really after even strolling to the mailbox and back on a pleasant spring day. Claire either had no sweat glands, or more likely, a team of expert makeup artists who jumped at every opportunity to fix her slightest imperfections. Either way, right then, Claire was not my B-F-F. I was begrudgingly about to follow her transition from cobra to downward dog, when the doorbell chimed clear through my bedroom door. Both relieved for the distraction and curious to see who was visiting at this hour — nearly eight p.m., I jabbed ‘pause’ catching Claire in a funny pose, her nostrils flared and mouth agape. I smiled, feeling a little more benevolent toward her, then bounded down the shag carpeted stairs. “Hey, babe,” Shawn, my boyfriend, pecked me on the lips then brushed past me toward the kitchen, clinging a plastic bag. “Hey, what a great surprise!” I chirped, locking the door and following after him. The scent of his body spray infiltrated the room and I suddenly became aware of my own stench and attire. I scowled at my baggy grey sweatpants and white tank. Shawn set down the plastic bag — which I could now see was from Subway— and begun to peruse the kitchen cabinets. “I called you on the way over. Is your mom home?” He sounded so…scornful. Or had all that sweat soaked through my brain and distorted my thinking? I ignored what was surely my imagination and smiled. “She was earlier, but she’s out with her friends now.” The look of relief on his face was apparent and definitely not a figment of my sweat-induced thoughts. Shawn and I had been dating only about two months, so I was still in the process of getting to know him, which was tricky sometimes. Like now. To distract myself, I retrieved a sealed bag of Kettle-cooked Jalapeno chips from the pantry and tore it open. Shawn examined the contents of the fridge. After a moment, he changed his mind and instead, filled two large glasses with cold water. “Have you ever considered moving out?” The question was so unexpected, that I nearly spilled my treat all over the rose-tiled floor. “No, not really.” I had tried to sound confident, but the words came out in a pathetic whine. I attempted to take a deep yoga-like breath, thinking of Claire, still waiting loyally for me upstairs in mid-bizarre stance. Was it my fault my sisters had decided to desert our divorced mother in exchange for their freedom as soon as they’d hit twenty-one? I’d stayed behind out of loyalty, and ok, a bit out of obligation. And fine, maybe a tad bit because of mom, who’d clung to me like she does to her Lysol wipes after a failed cooking frenzy. I liked the security of home and family. Plus, I wasn’t a serial dater and had no real need for privacy. In fact, I could count on exactly one finger how many boyfriends I’d had in the last six years. He’d been a charming exchange student from Australia. We knew that once he returned the distance wouldn’t work, but we’d made it last while we could. My face burned as I debated whether to share the justification behind my “bird in the nest” status with Shawn. He must have sensed my unease, because he set the glasses on the table, then enveloped me in a tight, reconciliatory hug. I breathed in the heady scent of his musky body spray. His chest was sculpted, hard. “I'm sorry, babe. I didn't mean to offend you. I only asked because sometimes I really miss you, and I was thinking about how great it would be if you had the freedom to be on your own, you know?” He paused and leaned back. “Are you sweating?” I pulled away, suddenly remembering my post-workout stench. Another reason I hated exercise. “Yeah, sorry,” I said, embarrassed. “I was doing the yoga workouts from that DVD you gave me.” I popped a chip in my mouth and chewed anxiously. Shawn pressed his lips together in contemplation, as though he was hesitant to say something. I chewed faster, then plucked and bit into yet another salty, pepper-flavored chip. I’d been addicted to this stuff for as long as I could remember. My father, a huge fan of jalapenos, hot sauce or really anything ulcer inducing, first discovered them when we were in middle school. I’d been hooked ever since. At one point, the grocery stores had stopped carrying them altogether, but by some miracle, they’d reappeared on the shelves and I’d instantly loaded up a year’s worth of the stuff. After situating himself in a chair and pulling out a paper-wrapped sub, he nodded at my snack. “All that salt and saturated fat won’t do those curvy hips any good.” I froze. My face burned. He’d noticed my love handles. No one had ever noticed them. Probably because I’d done a good job of hiding them—till now. “Here, try this.” He reached over and slowly extracted the bag from my hand, as though fearful of my reaction, then substituted a paper wrapped sub in my still open palm. I stared at it. “It’s a veggie sub on wheat. No oil, vinegar or mayo.” “Thank you.” I accepted the offering and sat. Shawn gave me a pleased smile and continued to polish off his own sandwich, which was probably just as healthy, if not more, than mine. “You know, if you continued eating like this, you’d be in great shape. That’s what you wanted, right? Once you get your diet in check and do those yoga moves daily, you’ll feel a difference.” I nodded, but couldn’t help eying the bag of chips lurking just a few inches away with a renowned sense of hunger. Whoever coined the phrase “you don’t appreciate what you have until you lose it” must have been in a situation similar to mine, because I sure was appreciating those chips just now. But Shawn was right. We’d met at the gym when I was at least five pounds more overweight than now and we’d become gym buddies ever since. I’d shared my fitness goals with Shawn and he’d shared his with me, and we’d vowed to hold each other to them. He wanted to get toned, I wanted to lose fifteen pounds. That was when I’d first started my membership and had the ardor of a beginner. You know the kind that’s typical at the onset of any new project or hobby, but fizzles with time? Well, fizzle it had. Right after the nights began to get longer and the temperatures dipped. Shawn was still going strong and now I foolishly realized how naïve I’d been to set such stringent and unattainable goals for myself. But let’s be honest, I was being lazy. Shawn was a great accountability partner and would help make it happen for me. “…don’t you think?” Shawn eyed me expectantly. I stared. What had he said? And how rude of me to not pay attention and instead, salivate at the sight of potatoes crisped by oil and soaked in sodium and unknown preservatives. I nodded at him and stuffed my mouth with a bite of sandwich to avoid speaking. Shawn grinned, his teeth sparkling clean with no hint of food. He was perfection. I wasn’t. I tongued at the ridge of a chip that was lodged between my canines. He looked into my eyes. “You are so beautiful, Becky. Together we’ll reach our goals and then maybe in the summer we can celebrate our success with a trip down south to Miami? A little reward for our hard work?” I brightened. “Miami sounds so great!” Then reality struck. I was a size six, and I was having a secret affair with Little Debbie and Lays, who remained ever dependably under my bed. I frowned at my tummy, which jutted out at me mockingly. I’d look horrendous in a bikini. If I had to point blame at anyone, I’d say it was definitely Rach’s fault that our pantry had a history of being jammed with chocolates, Twinkies, Bugles and everything in between. Problem was, while Rach never gained an ounce, the people around her did. “You’re a pear.” Huh? I nodded again, taking another bite of bland sandwich while trying to wrap my mind around this new tongue Shawn seemed to be speaking in. “You have a tendency to gain weight around your hipline, but you’ve got a narrow torso. Think of a pear.” He motioned with his hands. “We need to focus on your thighs. In fact,” he leaned to the side and pulled out a piece of folded paper from his shorts’ pocket. “This is for you.” I extracted the paper from his hand and unfolded it to reveal a list of foods: Brown rice, quinoa, Pita bread, muesli… I wrinkled my nose. What was all this? “Approved foods. The list I was just telling you about? Oh. “We’ll start small, but eventually you’ll get there.” Shawn stood and crossed over to the fridge to re-examine its contents. This time, it was his turn to wrinkle his nose. I tried to blink away my confusion, then gathered some courage and cleared my throat. “Sorry, what’s this list for again?” Shawn held out a container of chocolate Jell-o pudding with his thumb and forefinger, the way one would a dead rat, and dumped it into the trash can beside the sink. “Those are permitted foods.” Permitted? “I know it seems difficult,” Shawn said, inspecting a plastic container from the freezer that just happened to house my all-time favorite ice cream — Blue Bell Double Chocolate Chunk, “But hard work pays off.” I stared dumbly as he used a spoon to shovel the entire contents of the tub into the garbage disposal before tossing the container into the trash, which was now struggling to hold the contents of nearly our entire fridge. I cringed. Mom was going to faint. Instinctively I wondered if her salts were still in the bathroom’s medicine cabinet. And hadn’t Shawn said something about starting small? Panic rose in my chest and I stood, thankful to have at least been spared from ingesting the remainder of the dreadful sandwich. “Umm…can we just start small…for now?” I implored. Shawn lifted his eyebrows. “Come on, Beck. Remember, no pain, no gain!” I bit my lip and averted my gaze. Shawn sighed and set down a rectangular-shaped Tupperware on the once immaculate kitchen counter. No! Not the homemade white-chocolate-chip cheesecake! “Babe, I know it’s not easy. But think long-term. This will cling to your hips and increase your chances of heart disease.” Plunk. The container hit the trash, just like its predecessors. Shawn placed his hands on my shoulders. “Are we gonna do this together?” I looked at him and felt my heart being pulled into his soulful eyes. He cared so deeply for me and my well being. He had an abundance of confidence in me. I took a deep breath. “Yes, let’s do this.” A wide grin spread across Shawn’s face and dread replaced serenity as I realized that I had just committed myself to a boot camp of blood, sweat, and a chocolate-free existence. I should have just stabbed myself in the heart with a popsicle while I was ahead. Chapter Three Dennis the Menace ~ Rachel ~ “Mmm.” Kyle flicked his barbeque and Altoids tinged tongue into my mouth. The movie screen flickered a scene and the theater audience beneath us burst into loud guffaws of laughter. I loved movies. I lived for them. In my bedroom, I had a large black console that was flooded with DVDs, ranging with everything from Mary Poppins to Star Wars, and I’d seen every one at least five times. I collected them like collectors collected mugs, cards and bottlecaps. They were the one form of entertainment that could brighten my day no matter what. But right then, I was enjoying the little tingles shimmying down my spine too much to spare a glance at the scene unfolding. Without disengaging from Kyle, I lifted the armrest that separated us and pressed my body closer to his the best I could considering our awkward positioning. My thigh rubbed his and my breasts pressed up against his chest. Kyle’s breathing kicked up a notch. Silently, I thanked the lingerie lords that I’d remembered to wear my Wonderbra. I was also glad that we’d secured good “make-out seating,” because not a single soul noticed when I ran my fingers up oh so deviously up to Kyle’s fly. But before I could continue my travels into the world of undone zippers, a persistent vibration sounded from Kyle’s pocket for what must have been the trillionth time, permanently damaging the mood we’d been trying to build up throughout the night after every vibrating alert. Pulling away, I expelled a breath strong enough to blow the Dennis the Menace cowlick off any gentleman sitting ten rows down. Kyle fumbled as he fished the Blackberry out from his jeans pocket and silenced it before burying it back into his other pocket. I crossed my arms and stared straight ahead where Will Farrell’s on-screen wife gave him a verbal beat down at the dinner table. His school-age children, headphone clad and oblivious to the exchange, bobbed their head in time to “Ass and Titties.” “Pumpkin, I’m sorry.” “Sure you are.” I yanked the blue leather sling purse that I’d purchased at a deep discount from Plato’s Closet off the ground, causing it to protest loudly as it disengaged from the sticky floor. Several heads snapped in my direction, but I ignored the overzealous movie watchers and began to leave. Kyle grabbed my hand and tried to pull me back down to the seat, where a small village of chewed-up bubblegum wads awaited my butt once again. I threw him a deathly look and he released, albeit reluctantly. The space between his knees and the seat in front of him was limited, and I was forced to perform a crazy little penguin wobble before I was free from embarrassment and Kyle’s bony knees. Once I’d regained my dignity and space, I bounded down the dimly lit, popcorn littered steps and out the door to the main lobby. “Rach!” I heard Kyle behind me just as the scent of nachos hit my nostrils and made my stomach growl. It was shameless. Not ten minutes ago, I’d single handedly engulfed the contents of a medium-sized popcorn tub). The theater entrance was deserted, except for the workers behind the concession stand and the ticket taker, who was now pacing dejectedly back and forth as he chomped on a piece of gum and punched the screen of his cell with his ginormous thumb. I speed walked through the double doors and into the cool autumn air. Kyle caught up, half-walking, half-jogging to keep in step with my swift pace. “Honey, I’m sorry. It was work.” I halted a few feet from my car, and jabbed my key an inch from his chest. “Fifty times, Kyle? What? Someone needs their carpet cleaned at—” I grabbed his wrist “— ten-freaking-thirty at night?” “Pumpkin, you know how it goes. I mean, you’re practically glued to your cell phone all day.” I leered at him. He stuttered. “Plus, you know that my office calls get forwarded to my cell.” “Oh yeah? Why? Why is it so important for you to be on call all day and night? I don’t get it. Is it because God-forbid some snooty bitch accidentally drops red wine on her spotless carpet in the middle of the fucking night, she would positively die if you didn’t gallop right over and clean it right up? What would the world do if God forbid you put your phone away long enough to enjoy one freaking movie, ever!” I spun around and jerked open the door to my SUV, mildly aware that I was being completely mean. But I reminded myself that it was because of his stupid job, we’d had to meet directly at the movie theater, where Kyle had, not surprisingly, been a whole twenty minutes late. And not for the first time. Kyle wedged his body between the door frame and the jamb before I could slam it and drive off, as I had every intention of doing. “Pumpkin.” “Stop calling me that,” I snarled. “Not a second goes by without that thing going off. Isn’t it enough I have to wait till odd hours of the night and dawn—when normal people are at home watching re-runs of Married with Children or sleeping off a hangover—to see you?” “Pum—Honey, I’m really sorry.” “Yeah, well, then why does it never change? We always fight about the same stuff, but nothing ever changes, Kyle.” An over-crazed driver passed somewhere behind us, tires squealing, radio blasting, bass thumping obnoxiously enough to give anyone lacking super resilient eardrums a permanent migraine. Was it me or did Kyle’s face just go very pale? I started to follow the path of his gaze, but all I caught was a glimpse of a red-headed teenager behind the wheel before Kyle forcefully shoved me into my car, hopped in after me then slammed the door. We stared at each other from our odd-angled positions in the driver’s seat. An awkward moment of stunned silence ensued while I wondered what the heck had just happened. The expression on my face must have done plenty to communicate my bewilderment because one moment, Kyle looked like a fish out of water and the next, his lips were sealed tightly over mine in a forceful and noncommittal kiss. I shoved him off. “What the heck?” Kyle sputtered. After a moment’s hesitation, he gave up and slumped against the door, propping his head against the window and sighing the resigned sigh of a man who knows he has to either jump off the cliff or be pushed. “That was someone I’m trying to avoid.” I drew my brows together and twisted around in search of the car in question. “Who? The teenager?” Kyle looked confused. “What teenager? I’m talking about the guy in the sedan that just pulled past us.” I’d been so distracted by the noisy truck that I hadn’t seen the sedan. “Why are you avoiding him?” Another release of breath. I resisted the urge to pelt him over the head with my rear view mirror. I hated when people did that. Made you wait an eternity for an answer while you dangled on the edge of your seat. That’s where I was now, figuratively and literally. “You know what, forget I even—” “No, no. I want you to know. ” Kyle sat up and took my hands in his, massaging my palms with his thumbs. “You have a right to know everything.” I scrutinized his sullen face.“Ok, now you’re freaking me out.” He gave a nervous laugh and peeked out the rearview window. “It’s nothing serious. Just...I owe the guy some money. The one in the sedan, not the teenager.” “For what?” A thought suddenly struck me. “Oh no. You’re not doing anything crazy like dealing drugs, right? Because that’s serious—” Kyle keeled over with laughter, which convinced me better than probably anything would have, that I was way off. This, however, only peaked my curiosity. If he wasn’t doing drugs and he owed someone money, what possibly could it be for? Taking notice of my stern expression, he cleared his throat and continued, “I borrowed some money from a friend a while back, when my business started flailing because of the economic dip.” “But you’re doing well now, right?” We shared an apartment. Kyle helped pay his share of the bills. We even went on sporadic weekend getaways. If his business wasn’t doing well, I wanted to know where in palooza that money was coming from. “Yes,” Kyle hurried on, “I am now, and I had to peddle a lot back into the business to keep it afloat, but I still need to gather enough to repay him. It’s just…it would be a tad embarrassing to bump into him now, you know? And at the movies of all places. Does that make sense? It’s like I’m splurging on luxuries while he’s still waiting for repayment.” He studied me for a moment, then squeezed his eyes shut. “You think I’m a loser.” “I never said that. Has he asked you for it?” “The money?” Kyle shook his head. “He’s a good guy. He told me I could take my time with it, assuming I could repay him. But it kind of…well, it shames me to face him. I hate that I had to ask that favor…of anyone. But I wasn’t left with a choice—unless I was willing to let everything I’ve worked so hard for crumble in front of me.” I nodded, taking in this sudden disclosure. Guilt gnawed at me. Kyle had worked tirelessly for his success, and here I was, discarding his hard work and devotion. I’d been a grade-A bully. I should have been proud of his efforts, not angry with him—even if the phone calls did come at all hours of the day and night. During our date. A gazillion times. I bit my lip. I hated being wrong. And I hated even more saying what I felt compelled to say next: “I’m sorry.” Kyle looked stunned, then uncertain, as though he suspected I were joking and might pinch him. “I mean it. I know you work hard. It’s just that I want to spend time together. Alone. Just you and me, and no one else. Not even your phone.” Kyle repositioned himself so he could see me better. He ran his hand through my hair. “I understand, honey. It’s just that I can’t get away from work—even if I wanted to. I’m jealous of people who can come home and forget about their jobs. I’m linked to mine. Ball and chain.” I looked away. On one hand I understood, or thought I did, and on the other, I wanted to toss his phone out the window and run over it fifty times with my ever-dependable Michelins. And even moments later, as Kyle hugged me close and murmured sweet utterances into my ear, a part of me wondered if I’d let him off too easy. Chapter 4 Love and marriage ~ Liz~ “I have an announcement to make,” I declared, strolling into my mom’s living room. Becky’s psycho boyfriend was on the floor in a strange pretzel position. Becky, my not-so-flexible sister, who was struggling to copy him, lost her balance at the sound of my voice and tumbled to the floor in a miserable heap. I winced. “What the hell…?” Rachel appeared at my side, and popped a gummy bear into her mouth. I scrunched my face at her choice of a sugar-laden snack. I hadn’t even heard her enter. Becky straightened and brushed off her hot-pink exercise pants. “We’re doing yoga.” Rachel smirked. I cleared my throat before Becky could spew any more of her boring workout lingo. “I have an announcement to make.” Rachel poked her head into the fridge. “So we heard. What’d ya do, chip a nail?” “Didn’t you just get back from a dinner date?” And down a bag of gummy bears? I resisted the urge to add. I frowned at Rachel’s scrawny back. How the heck did she look so skeletal when she clearly had the appetite of a baby hippo? The fridge door slammed shut. “No, I got back from a movie date.” In my book, they were both the same damned thing. You ate before you went to the movies, during the movies or after; but regardless of when, you ate (well, maybe not me necessarily, but people in general). I bit my tongue to prevent myself from wasting precious breath to argue my point, despite Rachel’s challenging stare. Plus, I didn’t want to get into a stupid argument before my big announcement; it would only work against me and put a damper on everyone’s mood. “Well, are you going to tell me why the devil you made me drive all the way here at this hour? And it better not be something stupid. I have to get back to my apartment because I have real job—” I scoffed, ready to eject a snappy retort on how pathetic and delusional my sister was to consider bar tending a job. Mood be damned. “Listen you little—” “Ladies! What in heavens is going on?” My mom materialized at the entrance of the kitchen, right hand on heart, purse draped over shoulder, left hand clutching keys. I swear the woman can be sooo dramatic. From the look on her face you’d think we were aiming guns at each others’ heads and counting till three. Though I’d welcome a gun right about now. “Mom, perfect timing. I was just getting ready to make a very important announcement.” I took hold of her shoulders and emphasized the word “very,” shooting a dirty look at Rachel and hoping to draw curiosity from other more supportive family members. My efforts failed. My mom caught sight of Shawn where he leaned against the wall of the living room performing some bizarre stretches. He looked like he was butt humping the wall. Mom’s looked at him as though he were a massive cockroach she wanted to squish with the heels of her Mary Janes. Shawn, to his credit, didn’t flinch and continued his humping. “Mrs. Markham.” He nodded. “Miss,” she corrected. Shawn shrugged as though to say, ‘whatever floats your boat old lady.’ That was mom. Ever ready to remind the world of her recently attained status as divorcee. She’d left my dad after thirty-five years of marriage and taken on her maiden name of Markham, leaving the three of us to share our father’s surname. We all knew the divorce was imminent. After years of bickering, fighting, name calling and insults, my parents had finally decided to pull the plug on their marriage—at our cousin Lisa’s wedding. During a verbal bashing. In front of three-hundred and fifty guests. In the middle of the best man’s speech. Yeah. Not pretty. After a cursory nod at us and a quick peck for Becky, Shawn took his cue and departed, leaving us in the company of our beloved mother. We stared at her. She stared back. “What?” she shrugged as though she had no clue about our thoughts. “Why do you hate him?” Becky asked, flushed—whether from exertion or embarrassment was anyone’s guess. My mom set her purse on the breakfast table and frowned at the sight of sandwich wrappers, easily ignoring Becky. “Learn to clean up after yourself, young lady. And why in heavens is my entire fridge in the trash can?” Rach, ever the bottomless pit, scrambled to the trash and begin to sift through it like an alley cat at dinner time. “Mom! Answer my question.” This was too interesting to interrupt, though my undelivered news burned a hypothetical hole through my belly as I tried to contain it until I had everyone’s undivided attention. Which is near impossible in the Parker/Markham household, where there is never a dull moment. My mother expelled a breath and turned to face my youngest sister. “I don’t hate him. I just think you can do better.” That sounded like a quote from Parenting 101: What to say when your daughter dates a man who might be an ax-murderer. “So that’s why you give him the evil stare? Because I can ‘do better’?” “Rebecca, honey, I can’t explain it. It’s just an instinct. I could be completely wrong, but I just have this feeling about him. You’ll understand when you have offspring of your own.” My mother patted Becky on the shoulder as though she were soothing a growling pup. That was another thing about my mother—she loved to use the most unusual words. I mean, come on, ‘offspring’? What happened to babies, or kids, or children? Becky’s face fell. My mother, completely nonchalant to the demise of her youngest ‘offspring,’ began to clear off the breakfast table. Time to spring into action. I cleared my throat yet again. “Hello! I have an announcement, people!” Rachel, who (after twenty trips to and from the fridge) had retrieved a plastic bag containing cheddar cubes, looked at me from her reclined position on the couch, left hand clutching her cellphone. “What, you waiting for a drum roll? I don’t have all night. Spill.” I gritted my teeth. I no longer held control over my tongue. My inner animal reared its head. “Why? Is his royal highness, King Carpet the second, waiting up for you?” Becky made a snortish-choking sound before quickly containing her laughter, then sniffed and looked down ashamedly. My mother threw us both warning looks. I could already see the onset of a panic attack assailing her. I ignored her and smiled smugly at Rachel, who had turned Beetle Juice purple. She jumped up and flung the bag of cheese on the ottoman. A few cubes spilled out and bounced onto the spot free carpeting. I could see mom internally battling a decision on whether to rescue her carpet or her daughters, who were without a doubt treading toward a blood bath. We won. Within moments, Rachel was spitting distance from my face. Luckily, I have a good inch on her (four with my Christian Louboutain stilettos, which I, unfortunately, was not wearing). “Ladies, please!” My mother was fanning her face with her hands and leaning against the table. These were the symptoms that led to the big fainting spell. We knew from experience. Just then, her phone chirped. After only a second’s pause, she straightened, fished it out of her purse, gave a cursory glance at the caller ID and walked out of the room whispering incoherently to the caller—her work-in-progress black out forgotten. There was a God. I turned my attention back to my younger sister, who had presumably not blinked nor looked away from my snout. “What is your problem?” she snapped. Her breath smelled like a graveyard of rotten cheese, and it took all the willpower I could muster to prevent myself from pinching my precious, upturned nose. “Your stupid remarks are my problem,” I replied in an even-tone. “You’re just jealous.” Huh? Ok, I had so not seen that coming. “You’re just jealous of me. You always have been.” I blinked. What the…? “Jealous of what, exactly?” Rachel blew at her blonde, jaggedly cut bangs. Her green eyes were menacing as she stared me up and down. Clearly, the height factor had no impact on her. Who was I kidding? It never had. “Jealous that my boyfriend is cuter than yours.” “Puh!” This just proved my life-long suspicions. My middle sister, aka Rachel, aka crazy maniac, had been dropped on her head one too many times during early childhood. Must have happened during a fainting spell. Hmm…that would explain a lot of things… “See, I knew it!” Rachel clapped, snapping me to attention. “What? Knew what? That I’m jealous of your creepy, carpet cleaning boyfriend? You are completely insane! At least my man has a reputable career that makes him a shitload money.” Rach’s nostrils flared. Okay, admittedly Kyle was pretty cute—in an old man sort of way. He was a whole eight years older than Rachel and had a pretty good body (not that I’ve ever looked). And he didn’t have a quickly receding hairline, which was more than I could say for Nick. Still, I wasn’t jealous. Far from it. It wasn’t like I was tempted to seduce him or anything. Like that time in high school when I’d ended up in bed with that guy she was dating…Ricardo or something. “Yeah, well at least my boyfriend doesn’t need Rogaine—or Viagra.” That last part didn’t make any sense to me. Was she saying that I couldn’t turn Nick on? Or that he had erectile dysfunction? Neither made sense, hence adding credence to my dropped-on-the-head theory. “Whatever, at least my boyfriend proposed to me,” I replied smoothly as I ran a hand down my impeccable hair and met Rachel’s shocked gaze head on. “Liar!” Okay, so let me assure you this was not the way I had pictured my announcement to go. What I imagined was more like this: I walk in, everyone pounces on me, begging to hear my important news, I elaborately relay the events of the night as they hang on to my every word (of course I wasn’t planning on telling them anything about the ultimatum…or the truth about how it all really happened) followed by hugs and squeals of excitement (that from my mom and Becky—Rach is incapable of hugging or squealing) as they all congratulate me and tell me how happy they are and what a stunning bride I’ll be. This is what’s actually happened: my youngest sibling has me wrapped in a life-threatening hug while jumping up and down squealing (at least something went according to plan), Rach is gobsmacked and is staring at me as though she’s not sure whether to believe me or scream “bull-shit,” and my mom is nowhere to be seen or heard. “I’m so excited for you! When did this happen? How did it happen? Did you cry when he did it?” Becky squeezed my hands. Rach shoved Becky out of the way and grabbed at my left hand. “Where the hell is your ring?” Err…okay, so I had possibly forgotten that minor detail of my neatly woven lie. I panicked, trying to pick my brain for a plausible excuse. Thanks to my years of experience in fabricating lies, it didn’t take long. “I lost five pounds for my last shoot and the ring was too loose, so Nick’s having it re-sized.” There! I could tell from the expression on Rachel’s face that she was soaking it all up. “So when’s the wedding?” She was still speculative. Okay, so maybe she didn’t completely believe me. This was my chance to seal the deal. “Next week.” Rachel’s eyes turned to tiny slits. “Where?” “In Vegas.” I blew at nails and looked up in time to catch her derisive look. “You mean you’re eloping?” Well, when she put it like that… “It’s not exactly eloping,” I mumbled. “And you were planning on sharing this with mom because…?” Oh. Yeah. I forgot. I mean I didn’t really forget. I had remembered that tid-bit in the restaurant, but somehow it slipped my mind in all the excitement. Thank my lucky stars my mother wasn’t present. Under no circumstances could this marriage not happen. None. A terrifying thought struck me. “Rach…um…you’re not going to tell mom about…the wedding…right?” I hated sounding so pathetically desperate to my rival sibling, but my hands were figuratively tied. I had to be civil with her for only a week, and then I would be married and things could go back to normal. Rachel’s eyes glinted. “Well…” “Please! This means a lot to me.” Ugh. I might as well have gotten down on my knees and kissed that cow’s feet. And the little twerp was reveling in my misery. Oh, she was going to pay dearly. But right now, I had a bigger worry. I sported my best puppy face and pouted. “I don’t know, Liz.” Becky bit her lip and gave me an apologetic look. “I’m not quite sure this whole thing is a good idea.” Ugh! Not now, Becky! I wanted to scream at my rational younger sibling. Didn’t they see? Didn’t they get it? I had to get married—ASAP! My future security depended on it. “Look. I’m happy about this, and I’m going forward with it regardless of what anyone says. Now you can either try to make this difficult for me or share in my excitement. So, which will it be?” Becky looked hesitant, but gave a small nod. “I’ll think about it,” Rach folded her arms over her chest. Damn. I knew I shouldn’t have gotten on her bad side. Rach and I were cordial on a good day (when the moon was blue and the pigs were flying) and I really, really needed today to be that day. Think Liz, think! “That’s okay. Take your time.” I linked my arm through Becky’s and gave her a loving smile. “In the meantime, I’ll help you get started on some pre-packing so we don’t miss anything. How does that sound?” I was big on pre-packing. I packed two weeks in advance for any trip that required an airport visit, picking out my wardrobe, checking the weather channel, switching out clothes. It was so much more efficient and less frenzied than packing the day before. “Pack what stuff? For where?” Becky, poor little innocent creature that she was, seemed thoroughly confused, which worked perfectly for my plan. “Oh! How stupid of me. I completely forgot to mention it, didn’t I?” “Mention what?” Rachel asked, her brows furrowed. Then she quickly rearranged her features in a look of nonchalance, which only confirmed that she hadn’t meant to ask, but curiosity had gotten the best of her. I ignored her and spoke to Becky. “We’re going to Vegas!” “Who’s we?” Becky asked still confused. Poor soul. Drive it home, Liz! “Well, it was supposed to be the three of us. We need a witness, of course, and I couldn’t pick between the two of you, so I asked Nick if I could bring you both, and naturally, he thought it was a fabulous idea. But…” “But what?” Rach prodded. “Well, I’ll just call Nick and tell him to cancel a plane ticket and one of the room bookings at the Venetian. Of course, the trip was all inclusive, compliments of Nick. You know he would never expect you to spare a dime for any of this.” Rachel’s eyes gleamed. Her paychecks as a bartender didn’t allow her the luxury of affording very many vacations—let alone a stay at the Venetian. And come on, who would turn down an all-expense paid trip? “Let’s go, Beck. And did you know that they have these awesome shows and this amazing shopping plaza, of course, all on Nick’s penny…” “Fine!” Rachel yelled. I turned and raised my brows, trying desperately to maintain a passive expression. Rachel took a deep breath and tried to appear nonplussed. “Fine, I’ll come and I won’t say anything.” “Come where and say anything about what, dear?” My mother’s voice wafted out from behind me. Oh, shit. My eyes widened and I spun on my heel. There was a pregnant silence as my mother looked at each of us and awaited a response. Her puzzled expression would have been comical if I weren’t scared shitless about my devious sister spilling the beans. “Err…we’re planning on going shopping and Rachel wasn’t sure whether she wanted to come.” Rachel jumped in without a second’s pause. “Yeah, but now I’m coming. For sure.” Yeah, I thought, now that you have a golden ticket to the Venetian! But I didn’t dare look at her in fear that she would read my thoughts, change her mind and blurt out the truth to our mother, who would probably knock me over the head and then pass out. “That’s nice. I’m glad you girls are finally growing up and starting to get along.” Our mother brushed past us and into the living room as she started punching numbers into her cell. I could almost hear our simultaneous sighs of relief. I’d done it! Everything was all set. With the minor detail of my sisters’ attendance out of the way, I was giddy to get home and start planning out my wedding—one that would be absolutely unforgettable. Chapter 5 Fruit of the room ~ Becky ~ “No way in hell am I wearing this.” Rachel twisted to one side and studied her butt in the mirror. “I look like a life-size plum.” Liz crossed her arms, a dark frown on her face. “You’re not getting married, so it doesn’t matter what you wear. My big day. Remember? Learn to sacrifice.” “Sacrifice what? My dignity?” Rachel wheeled around again to face Liz. I surveyed my own reflection in the mirror. Rach was right. We looked like flounced up plums. In fact, I looked like a flounced up plum with love handles and an oversized plum butt, but I didn’t have the heart to voice my opinion and break Liz’s heart. That, and I didn’t care to be a part of the battle that was brewing under my nose. Liz blew a breath. “And how, exactly, would you be sacrificing your dignity?” Rachel stepped off the ad-hoc stage surrounded by a trifold of mirrors and pulled at the oversized bow on the front of her dress. “Because I’m being asked to pay two hundred and twenty dollars to have a gargantuan bow over my boob? I look like demented boob lady.” Well, now that she put it that way…I turned back to the mirror and cocked my head to the side. Point noted. But unlike Rach, I had a massive butt and love handles to accompany my demented boob. Sigh. I tugged at my hips as the argument waged on behind me. “…can’t be so nitpicky…” “…so selfish…” “…my wedding…” “…me looking like a battered eggplant…” My hips were definitely colossal. I couldn’t believe I’d allow my body to get this out of control. I could see myself in one of those donut commercials. You know the one where the lady trudges all over the city with a coffee in hand and a gigantic donut around her waist? Something about ‘don’t wear your breakfast’? Except in my case, I wouldn’t need the costume donut. My body had managed to create one all on its own. In fact, how depressing would it be if I were offered a job as the donut lady? What if someone in this very room was actually in advertising and on the hunt for the next donut woman? I whipped around and surveyed the room. A lady stepped out of a dressing room three doors down and gave me a curious look. I flushed and turned around, hurriedly trying to peel off the dress. Another lady walked in with a bundle of clothes in her arms. She, too, threw a nasty look my way, no doubt in disgust at my sloppy figure. Embarrassed, I rushed to struggle out of the dress. I nearly had it off, now if only I could pull it over my head. I realized just then that I was exposing my uber flabbiness to anyone who walked into the fitting room. They’d see every inch of fat on me while I, oblivious to their scrutiny, attempted to extricate myself from the darned dress. My cheeks tugged as I tried to disengage my head from the hole, but I only managed to get it halfway through. I couldn’t see a darned thing. Not even a speck of light. “You are just a selfish hog. You don’t deserve bridesmaids! No wonder you don’t have friends,” Rachel erupted. I winced. Too bad it was my eyes that couldn’t function and not my ears. “Uh…Liz? Rach?” I said. “Ha! At least I have a fiancé, which is more than your sorry ass can say.” “Hey, guys? I’m kind of stuck in this thing...” I tried again. “Ohh, that’s it you little—” “Ladies,” a sharp, haughty voice tinged with a British accent interrupted, “Is there something I might assist you with?” Sheesh kabobs. No one said anything. I cleared my throat. I could swear all eyes were on me. “Err…well, I could use some help with—” “Yes, please,” Rachel interrupted. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking. “You could start by showing us more attractive bridesmaid dresses—” “No! I like these!” “Well, you’re not paying for them so really—” “Ladies you are making a spectacle of yourself! We at De Bella Gowns pride ourselves on our ambience and client-friendly atmosphere. And you are demolishing that atmosphere,” she snarled. “See? Now you’ve ruined everything!” Liz screeched. I crossed my finger in my mind hoping she wouldn’t lunge at Rachel. “Me? You’re the one who has —” “Ladies, I will not tolerate this behavior in my store—” “It’s all her fault!” “Excuse me!” I blurted. “Can someone please help me out of this freaking dress!” There was a moment’s pause. Okay, now I could probably safely resume being extraordinarily embarrassed. A second later, several hands tugged and pulled and yanked until I was finally out. I heaved a sigh of relief. Three sets of eyes surveyed me as though a magician had spontaneously pulled me out of a hat. “I’ve been asking for help.” I blushed and scrambled to get my clothes back on. “Well maybe we would have heard you if Rachel—” “Ladies!” The shopkeeper clapped her hands in each of our faces. What the heck had I done? Well, besides nearly rip a two hundred and twenty dollar dress. I bit my nails. The lady, whose nametag identified her as Beatrice, surveyed us frostily through a slitted gaze. “Now, the three of you listen very carefully, or I promise to have security escort the lot of you out.” Definitely British. “I’ve had two women complain and leave the boutique due to your disruptive behavior.” Hmm… that probably explained the nasty looks…Still, I couldn’t help surreptitiously poke at the flab around my hip. Was it me, or did it feel flabbier after all the tugging? Had I somehow stretched my flabbiness? Oh, Jesus. It must have been the tub of Double Chocolate Chunk I’d eaten the night before. Or the donuts. Or, wait. It absolutely must have been the three Kit-Kats I’d downed before my morning yoga. I suppressed a strangled moan. Why couldn’t I control my appetite? The perturbed salesclerk glared at me, mistaken my growl to be directed at her before continuing her lecturing. I turned (as discreetly as I could) to glance at the mirror behind us. My gaze flashed between mine and Rachel’s derrieres. (Liz was not a fair comparison since she was as big as stick of celery.) Mine resembled beach balls in comparison to Rachel’s tennis balls (which would make Liz’s the equivalent of golf balls). “…now please take your leave. And you are not welcomed back at De Bella Gowns, ever!” the clerk announced with finality, as if she’d been instructed by Queen Elizabeth herself to ban us from Great Britain for our lack of shopping etiquette. We sulked out of the store. I’d like to amend that. I sulked out of the store while Rachel smiled smugly and Liz simmered in fury. A whiff of fries, pizza and Chinese food hit my nostrils simultaneously and I swear my stomach shifted under my blouse. The food court was lit up like a beacon (at least that’s what it looked like to me). Cashiers and staff in uniform bustled about behind tiled counters. A few of them donned chef’s hats and proffered samples to patrons who milled about from one eatery to the next. “Let’s go.” I caught Liz in mid-dagger shooting and dragged her toward Roman’s Pizza. My mouth watered at the sight of the melted cheeses and pasta that were visible through the plastic barrier. Liz wrinkled her nose and shrunk away as though if she inhaled hard enough, her nostrils would suck in the Penne and transport it directly to her thighs. On second thought, I realized I really shouldn’t indulge in calorie dense foods. Neither pizza nor pasta was on the list of approved foods Shawn had painstakingly compiled for me. (Neither were doughnuts or Kit-Kats, but let’s not talk about that.) I opted instead for a veggie sandwich on whole wheat from Blimpie and immediately regretted my decision when I sat across from Rachel. I tried not to cast ravenous looks at her plate as she dipped a curly fry in ketchup and chewed indolently. After a grief stricken moment, I took a bite of my sandwich and tried to imagine it was the juicy cheeseburger that Rachel was now digging her canines in. It didn’t work. I mean, how could it? You’d have to have an oddly creative imagination and nun-like discipline to completely delude your taste buds into believing a cardboard sandwich lathered in mustard tastes the same as a succulent, mouth-watering burger. “Want a bite?” Rachel asked holding out the burger and throwing me a strange look. I could feel my eyes widen, and for a short second, I seriously considered just a teeny nibble, but just as I was about to accept, a lady with wide hips and a large caboose hobbled through my peripheral line of vision causing me to recoil my outstretched hand. “No, I really shouldn’t.” Rachel looked utterly puzzled and it seemed I’d even managed to momentarily snap Liz out her infuriated state. “Umm…why not?” Rachel said. I hesitated just a moment. Surely Rachel was just being polite by feigning innocence and not stating the obvious—that I was in dire need of losing at least fifteen pounds. “Rach, come on. No need to pretend.” Silence and puzzled looks all over. “You guys don’t have to be nice. I know I’ve gained weight. I mean my hips are practically spilling out of my jeans.” Rachel shot me a bewildered look. In fact, even Liz looked befuddled, which really surprised me since I’d expected her of all people to fully empathize. “You’re nuts. But whatever, suit yourself,” Rachel took another bite of her fries and plucked a slice of tomato out of her burger. “Becks, where in the world did you get the idea that you hips are big? You don’t even have hips!” Liz said. Rachel snorted. “Yeah, you’re one to talk.” Liz straightened her back, dug her plastic fork deep into a lettuce shred and let go, letting it stand rooted like an obedient soldier. “Excuse me, I have to be thin to pay my bills, but there’s no reason for her to lose any weight. You’re already so thin, Beck!” Liz pounded the table and the fork soldier toppled onto the table hauling along with it the chunk of lettuce. “If you lose any more weight, you’ll look so gross,” Rachel grimaced. Surely they were mistaken. If Shawn saw and it I saw it, there was no way my sisters didn’t. “Thanks guys. I appreciate your kindness. Really, I do. But I can easily afford to lose at least fifteen pounds and then you’ll see the difference.” “Fifteen pounds and we won’t be able to see you anymore,” Rachel corrected as she polished off the burger and wiped her mouth with a napkin. Then, all of a sudden she froze. “So, Beck, how long have you been doing this dieting thing?” I didn’t immediately grasp the trail of logic behind this abrupt question. “Um…a week, probably?” Liz suddenly seemed leery, obviously catching on to something I still hadn’t. “And what about yoga? When did you start that?” “About a month ago? Or something like that.” Gosh, what was with them? “I knew it!” Rachel threw her soiled napkin on the table and it skittered a mere inch away from Liz’s salad. Liz scowled and pushed her plastic salad container away, clearly concluding her meal. “Knew what?” I looked at my sister, completely baffled. “It’s that scumbag that’s making you do this, right? What’s his name? Steve? Stephen?” “Shawn,” Liz pitched in helpfully. Rachel snapped her fingers. “You’ve changed ever since you started dating him. I knew that idiot was scum.” What the huh? “I’ve never liked him either!” Liz chimed in looking surprised. I had to admit the fact that my sisters actually agreed on something—probably for the first time in their lives—completely threw me for a loop and distracted me from their badmouthing my boyfriend. I debated whether or not to stick up for Shawn, afraid that if I did, the sudden bonding and tension-free atmosphere would fizzle away like flat soda. “You really need to dump him. What kind of an egoistic freak tells his girlfriend to blacklist burgers and fries? What a loser!” Rachel conceded. “Seriously, Beck, you could do way better than him.” Liz took a swig of her lemon water. Okay, I had to say something. Besides, it looked like their unified front was inarguably intact when it came to the topic of my taste in men. “He’s only trying to help me.” I took two straw wrappers and began smoothing them out with my thumb. “He really cares about my well being and he wants me to feel good about myself.” “You felt good about yourself before he came along,” Rachel snapped. “Yeah, and don’t fool yourself by thinking he’s doing it for you. He’s probably one of those men who’s completely obsessed with looks. He only wants you to change yourself so you’re good enough for him.” I started folding the wrappers together into an accordion. Liz’s theory completely didn’t make sense. “Why would he go through all that effort when he could date someone who’s already thin and perfect? If all he really cared about was looks, he’d be busy flitting off with the next available Barbie look-alike instead of sticking to me.” “Oh, you poor, delusional soul,” clucked Rachel. Liz was shaking her head, too. “Becky, he’s with you because those other girls would never be with him, let alone let him tell them what to do.” “Yeah, no one wants to date a chauvinistic pig who can’t dig his face out of his own ass,” Rachel snorted as she gathered trash onto a red serving tray. Liz sniffed her agreement. A frown played on my lips. I mean I knew I was the baby and all, but seriously, didn’t my sisters have even the slightest bit of confidence in my judgment? I would never date a chauvinist, and I did have confidence in myself. I just agreed with Shawn that a bit less fat and a little more toning would only help improve that confidence. Liz seemed to sense my apprehensiveness. “Beck, you could easily be a model. Maybe not a lingerie model maybe, since you’d have to starve yourself thinner, but maybe a—” “What the heck, Liz!” Rachel threw up her hands in exasperation. Liz broke her gaze from mine and glared at Rachel. “I’m telling our baby sister that she doesn’t need to lose weight.” Case in point. They still thought of me as a bawling infant. “No you’re not. You’re telling her it would be practical to be thinner if she were aiming to flaunt her near naked body around in bras and underpants in front of a bunch of perverted cameramen!” Oh gosh golly. As my sisters continued their bickering, I tuned them out. My focus turned to the sea of restaurants surrounding us, and I fantasized about the endless possibilities I could indulge in if I weren’t on this dunderheaded diet. If only I could convince my fat cells to zip up their hungry mouths. Chapter 6 Where art thou, Romeo? ~ LIZ ~ “What the hell do you mean?” I paced back and forth in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows of my loft-style apartment and ran a hand furiously through my beveled hair. “What the fuck do you mean, Nick?” “I mean,” came Nick’s calm, placating voice from the other line, “I won’t be able to make the same flight as you. Leave with Becky and Rachel and I’ll meet you directly at the hotel.” “That’s not what you promised!” A sigh. “Liz, this is work related. I have a medical conference that I committed to attending earlier this year. If Florida weren’t on the opposite coast, I would fly up with you no problem.” I dug the tip of my Louis Vuitton open toes in the golden-white Burberry carpet. “Well, why in the hell did you agree to get married this weekend, then?” “Well gee, Liz. I would have remembered if I hadn’t been held at emotional gunpoint when we planned it,” Nick retorted. “You mean when you proposed. Don’t you dare call it a plan in front of my sisters!” “Yeah, sure. Whatever you say.” I bit my lip and continued my trek around the living room, brainstorming how in the hell I was supposed to explain this sudden change to Rach. She would pounce on the opportunity to rub it in that my own fiancé hadn’t flown with me to our wedding of all places. I could already see the leer on her face. I paused near a blue geometric print, hip-length vase and rubbed my head. A strong migraine was in the works. A paper rummaged through the newspaper hole and I absently grabbed it before it plummeted to the floor. Now I never, ever read the paper. Like ever. But I was desperate for a distraction from this mess that was becoming my wedding day, and therefore a day that I would have to rehash in detail to some nosy person or another for as long as I lived. The headline on page one was pretty riveting: Governer engaged in sex scandal. Hmm. Juicy. And he wasn’t bad looking either judging from the enormous picture where he held up a palm against the flashes, a dainty woman clinging to his elbow, her jaw set firm. “Go with your sisters, and I promise I’ll be there first thing in the morning,” Nick said in a voice a desperate mom would use to placate a toddler out of the candy aisle at Walmart. “We’ll go to the chapel and get married. Simple.” Puh! Simple! Sure it was simple for him, but he had no idea what turmoil this sudden change would cause me. The picture on page four made me freeze. It was the one of me being escorted out of Dulce as I squirmed against the burly security dude, mouth wide open, face contorted. Nick was behind me, a piece of spaghetti dangling off his forehead. The headline read: Runway model rages food fight; authorities intervene. Stupid dimwits. I ripped the paper to shreds, opened the cherry wood cabinet above the stainless steel fridge and extracted a bottle of Advil. My irritation flared. “Can’t you at least fly out the same night and make it there Friday evening?” I could almost hear Nick’s nose twitching. It happened every time he got really, super annoyed. I was certain that I had pushed him past the patience threshold and crossed into the boundary at which nose twitching would ensue. “Hold on, Liz.” Nick spoke to someone in a muffled voice while I finished filling a tall glass with cold water. He came back on a second later sounding super miffed. “Liz, I gotta go. We’ll chat later. Just do what I said and I promise I’ll make it up to you. However you want, okay?” Well, the “however you want” did put an interesting spin on things. I made a mental note of it. I was sure it was a trump card that would come in mighty handy one of these days. Nick would pay dearly for bailing on me. I slung the phone carelessly onto the granite counter, uncapped the Advil, popped a pill, and took a long swig of water. Now all I had to do was make my fiancé’s absence look like it was no big deal. Maybe Rach wouldn’t make a huge topic of it. Yeah, sure. When chocolate has negative calories. I placed my glass in the sink just as my phone began to buzz. It was probably Nick again calling to apologize and tell me that he would skip the damned conference, because really what could be more important than… Oh, wait. It was Becky. “Hey, Becks,” I chirped. “Liz, what’s wrong?” “Nothing. What makes you think anything is wrong?” “I don’t know. You just sound like it.” I slouched to my suede sectional and slumped into it. “Nope. All’s well.” “Okay,” Becky didn’t sound too convinced and I resisted the urge to try and persuade her. When I try too hard, I give myself away — especially to Becky, who seems to have a radar for these types of things. “So what’s going on?” “You know the dress you dropped off? It’s too loose. I need to get it altered.” I sat up, confused. “Loose?” On my off day, I’d ventured out on my own and selected brides maids gowns for my sisters. I figured it would save me a ton of stress (not to mention embarrassment). I’d picked these stunning turquoise off-shoulder gowns with empire waists and flowing trains that really would look wonderful on anyone. Very Pippa Middleton. I’d veered away from anything with or resembling bows. And I’d remembered Rach and Beck’s sizes from our fitting at the previous boutique where we’d nearly got bowled over by the crazy British lady. Or I thought I had. “Becks, we got you fitted just a few days ago. You’re a six, right?” “Umm…I guess I was a size six. But this gown’s really loose…” “Already? Are you still doing that stupid dieting thing? Because really, you don’t—” “Liz, you know designers measure differently. A size six with one could be a size two with another.” Becky was suddenly defensive. Though she had a valid point, I couldn’t help noticing she’d cleverly dodged my question. Fine, it’d let it go for now, simply because I had a bigger monster to tackle, but Beck would have to answer to me sooner rather than later. I’d corner her in Vegas after the wedding when I could breathe easier. I examined my manicure. “What are you doing tomorrow?” Paper shuffling. “Umm…I’m free after four-thirty. Why?” “Let’s go back and try a different size for you.” “Okay. I’ll call Rach and see if she can come, too.” Gosh, did we really have to drag along my annoying middle sibling everywhere? Sometimes I feel like Rach and I are a divorced couple and Becky’s our offspring (Jesus, I sound like mom) and we’re constantly trying to be nice to each other for her sake. She’s kind of like the glue that attempts to keep us all together but miserably fails. Like the cheap, dollar store kind. I harrumphed my okay and picked at the tip of a nail. “Okay, so I’ll see you tomorrow at four-thirty. Food court.” Once we hung up, I rested my head against the soft fabric of the sofa and closed my eyes. I so needed a vacation. Maybe I’d make Nick repay me with a fifteen-day European cruise for our honeymoon—starting that Monday. Chapter 7 Married with children Rachel Going to the mall was such a stupid idea and a complete waste of a day, aside from the tiny perk that I got a chance to make Liz squirm about her so-called fiancé not flying fly up to Vegas with her for their wedding ceremonies. I mean, seriously, what kind of a loser a) elopes in Vegas and b) doesn’t even make an effort to fly in with his fiancé? Count on Liz to pick ‘em. If I hadn’t been so pissed off at Kyle and we hadn’t fought all night the day before, I would have been at home this very moment cuddled up naked with him watching reruns of Rizzoli & Isles in the confines of our room (or doing something much better, but I’m too upset to think about that right now). But no. My lame excuse of a boyfriend had to come home at six in the morning (Seriously, he’s taking this carpet thing too seriously. Besides, what the eff do you do till that late in the morning involving carpets?) without a single phone call as to his whereabouts. I had the entire day off—wait, correction—I requested the day off upon his insistence only to have him stagger into the apartment at the strike of dawn, mumble a greeting and tumble into bed like a defeated bowling pin. So, to sum it all up, I walked out on one moron to end up at the mall with the biggest bride-Kong in the world. Yes, I know, I’m so lucky. I should play the lottery. I jabbed angrily at a Candy Crush pawn on my iPhone as the sluggish couple in front of us took its sweet old time squeaking an empty stroller laden with shopping bags while their toddler scampered ahead pointing at every window display, screaming “Mine! Miiine!” Liz and Becky were carrying on an animated discussion about Lady Gaga and I was bored. Out. Of. My. Mind. If Kyle had even the slightest bit of game or nerve (or decreased libido), I would have suspected him of cheating. But I knew that was near impossible given that he wasn’t A) smart enough B) daring enough C) dumb enough, to carry on an affair behind my back. We all ducked past De Bella Gowns and walked to a boutique a few doors down called Snow White’s Closet, which Liz had apparently discovered a few days back when she’d conveniently decided to scour the mall solo. A cheery sales clerk approached us and I ended my game and shoved the phone into my shoulder sling. The lady wore a perky smile and her brunette hair was side swept into an updo. Little tendrils of hair framed the right side of her face and the maroon shade of lipstick she wore actually sat quite well with her complexion, complementing her brown, puppy dog eyes and the white skirt-and-blouse suit she wore. “Hello ladies, I’m Stella. May I help you find anything particular today?” Liz held out a tangle of plastic through which the head of a hanger poked out. “We’d like to exchange this for a smaller size, please.” “Sure, let’s take a look.” Stella walked to a nearby counter and lifted the sheath to reveal the horrid turquoise gown my tacky sister picked out. Seriously, who picks turquoise for their bridesmaids? I was positive Liz just was trying to make sure we looked as hideous as possible so she could look like a princess even if she decided to glide down the aisle half asleep in a Sponge Bob Square Pants nightgown. If she even knew what that was. Stella most definitely could not have survived in an acting career in Hollywood. Her face crumpled at the sight of the dress and I crossed my arms as I threw a nasty look at my eldest sister—who apparently had either missed the salesclerk’s expression, was pretending not to have noticed or had interpreted it entirely different than what it was meant to be, which based on what she said next, seemed to be the correct assumption. “Oh, don’t tell me you ran out! There were a ton in that corner rack just yesterday!” Liz’s hazel gaze scanned a place in the back of the room fervently. Stella plastered a fake smile across her face and shook her head. “Oh, don’t worry. We’ve got plenty left. Follow me.” Liz visibly relaxed and quickly walked behind the salesclerk while Becky sulked behind as the caboose. I rolled my eyes and dug into the pocket of my sling to check my phone. It read eleven-fifteen. And no missed calls. That could only mean that my moron boyfriend was still fast asleep probably creating a puddle of drool on my prized down comforter. I couldn’t wait to release some of the dragon breath pent up inside me. If only his lazy ass would wake up and call. I meandered around the shop pretending to take interest in the racks of elegant, delicate clothing. Of all the beautiful displays of vibrant and soft colors, my idiotic sister had to pick the most putrid one. I fingered a beautiful mauve colored ensemble. It had a lace shrug top that attached to a silk gown, which flowed to the floor in soft folds of shimmer. I could easily sneak a pair of ballet flats under all that fabric and no one would ever even know. I heard a delighted squeal (Liz) from the back corner of the room followed by the dim voice of the salesclerk. “Rach, come back here and see how stunning Becky looks!” I dragged my sneaker-housed feet, making my way to the back. I hated wedding stuff. It was so boring and dreadfully painful. What was the point in spending thousands of dollars and so much time on planning an event that would be over in an hour? Plus, how many guests would actually remember the party favors, floral arrangements or any other detail of the wedding ten years down the road (assuming the marriage lasted that long)? My point exactly. I lazily approached the trio. Liz, obviously becoming impatient with my pace, ran over and yanked me toward Becky, who was engulfed in the petrifying gown. It looked even worse on a human body than it did on the hanger. The material pulled and tugged at various corners of Beck’s thin frame making the dress appear crooked. I tilted my head to the side and attempted to straighten out the mess by jerking the material around, but was quickly shooed away by (guess who!) Liz. “What are you doing? You’re messing it all up!” Liz exclaimed as she “re-adjusted” the gown. Though this one didn’t have a gargantuan bow over the tits, it did have waves of red sequence running across the top half—almost like they were making a futile attempt to sprint off the revolting dress. A bubble of giggles rose up from my belly, and before I could control myself, they let loose and grew in force until tears of amusement streamed down my cheeks. Liz’s eyes instantly narrowed and she ground her molars. Stella seemed to be holding back her own hysterics by desperately clamping her mouth shut. She seemed relieved that someone other than herself could detect the comedy unraveling. Becky, on the other hand, threw me a desperate look, enough to silence my ten seconds of exuberance. I calmed and cleared my throat. “I’ll be out front.” I said and walked away before any of them could respond. Outside, a light spattering of people milled about. I spotted Spencer’s and, not having anything better to do, walked toward it. Inside the store, paraphernalia of all kinds, ranging from belly button rings to sex toys, littered shelves and countertops. I stopped in front of a black, diamond studded kit consisting of a mask, cuff and whip and cringed. My last boyfriend, Fred (the name itself should have been indication enough that we’d be perfect mismatches) decided to “surprise” me for Valentine’s Day. After promising an unforgettable night, Fred took me back to his place, fed me a beautiful dinner of steak, collard greens and mashed potatoes with peppered gravy—he’d used his spectacular culinary skills as a weapon to cloud my judgment when I agreed to date him—before taking me to his spotless room for dessert. To begin with, I’ve never been much into Valentine’s Day. It’s an overrated holiday that generates millions of dollars in revenue for non-sentimental, money hungry corporate monsters who can think about nothing except their bottom lines. Lastly, and as Fred learned later that night during his attempt to pleasantly surprise me, I wasn’t particularly into whips or cuffs (or chocolate whipped cream, for that matter)… Needless to say, that was the last day I ever saw him—the breakup was mutual and understood. He couldn’t do boring, and I couldn’t do kinky. Not seeing anything of interest, I walked past a shelf of unusual boardgames (seriously, who names a boardgame “What the F*ck”?) that a few teenage boys were perusing, toward the front of the store where an obnoxious ringing signaled my exit. I glanced in the direction of the bridal shop to see if my darling sisters had completed their horrid gown excursion when a voice suddenly stopped my Skechers dead in their tracks. “Yeah, well I’m home with you now, baby. You know how hectic it can get with these out-of-town seminars.” I spun in what seemed like slow motion toward the voice in question. Damn humungous potted plants in malls! Behind the one obscuring my view, I could barely make out the silhouette of a man and woman. If only they’d move an inch or so to the left, I could be certain… “I don’t understand. What out-of-town week-long conferences do you need to attend for cleaning upholstery? Oh, nevermind. I won’t understand it all anyway, but all I know is that the kids miss you, honey. Justin’s been so excited to spend time with you,” came the woman’s whiney complaint. I thought I knew…but I had to be sure. I inched around the enormous plant and glanced casually to the right to catch sight of the man’s face. Then, everything happened quickly. “Rach!” came Becky’s familiar voice from the left, which caused mystery man’s head to snap toward me. My jaw went slack as I came face-to-face with my lying, carpet-cleaning, very cheating, extremely married and apparently not bowling-pin-knocked-to-the floor-exhausted boyfriend. “R-R-Rachel!” Kyle stuttered as the confused looking, thin-framed, frizzy-haired brunette appeared at the crook of his arm, wearing—just as I suspected—a shiny platinum diamond ring on her left hand. Color flooded my face. “You fucking bastard!” The brunette’s eyebrows drew together almost till they were restructured into an odd-angled unibrow, and she (smart woman that she appeared to be) immediately let go of Kyle’s arm and turned to glare at him, her sky-blue eyes spitting ice. She was attractive in a homey sort of way. Maybe if she did something with that crazy hair and baggy clothes she’d look more modern day and less 1980s-ish. “You two know each other?” “Err—” “Not only do we know each other, we live together! In fact, this…this idiot,” I spat, poking a finger at Kyle’s chest, “has been screwing me for the last three months!” “Kyle, no,” she moaned. “Please don’t tell me this is happening again!” The woman went a few shades pale under her foundation and buried her face in her hands. Wait a minute, what did she say? Again? Maybe she wasn’t so smart after all. A teenage boy with freckles and messy blonde hair that covered his forehead and a bit of his eyes appeared next to the brunette (had I just seen him at Spencers?). He wore baggy jeans and a large, grey t-shirt with graphics that were indecipherable to me. “Mom, dad, what’s going on?” A gush of anger surged through me. “Oh, so this must be the son you’re being a pathetic father to.” Two pairs of persistent hands stopped me as I moved to dart toward Kyle, fists flailing. “Rach, I can explain!” The brunette hesitated just a moment, then, as if her hand had a mind of its own, it quickly raised and landed a loud smack across Kyle’s face leaving an embarrassing red imprint, which only minutely gratified me. If I were her, I’d have soccer kicked him in the good ol gonads. But hey, I’ll take what I can get. The lady immediately pulled her hand away and encased it in the other, as though shocked and not trusting that it wouldn’t yield an encore performance. She found her voice again and to her credit managed in a firm tone: “The only person you have any explaining to do is me! Justin, go to the food court with your friends. I’ll meet you there in ten.” Her son—well, I guess their son—looked down, mumbled something and slouched away. My heart went out to him. Poor guy didn’t deserve a scumbag for a dad. “But Elaine—” “Don’t ‘but Elaine’ her, you pervert. You’re disgusting!” Gosh, it felt good to gang up on this sleazeball. I lunged forward again, only to be restrained for the second time. So I gave up on my fists and used my feet instead. Thank goodness I’d taken soccer seriously as a teenager. My aim proved flawless and my right foot connected squarely with the ‘fruits’ of Kyle’s nether region causing him grunt and double over in agony. “Is there an issue, ma’am?” I looked up as a uniformed dude on a segway scooter rolled to a halt before us. Mall police? Really, these people existed outside of Paul Blart Mall Cop? Becky, spoke nervously from her place next to my left arm. “No, sir, we were just leaving.” Just as Kyle regained enough strength to scramble to his feet, and before anyone could ask any further questions, my sisters hauled me away from the curious eyes of spectators and out of the shopping precinct. *** “Do you really think that’s going to solve anything?” Liz examined her nails and brushed them against her lime green silk halter top as she regarded me through raised brows. “Yeah,” I took a swing at Kyle’s prized 60” 3-D LED TV with his prized baseball bat (autographed by Alex Rodriguez himself), “that jackass will have to clean at least three dozen more carpets before he’ll be able to afford this baby again.” The bat hit the TV dead center and an ominous sound ensued followed by several cracks spiraling from the center of the screen. Another satisfying whack and a small chunk off the side panel fell off. I dropped the bat, then thought better of it. Grabbing a red permanent marker off the floor near a box I’d labeled “toiletries,” I drew spiraly circles over Alex’s scraggly signature. Ding dong. Now who could that be? I swung the door open, ready to whack Kyle’s head off with the bat still firmly fixated in my hands. “Wait, don’t swing!” An elderly lady shielded her face with her hands. “Mrs. Ackerman!” I dropped the bat and it fell on my big toe. I hobbled around and rubbed the violated toe, willing the pain away. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Ackerman. I didn’t mean to scare you,” I managed through gritted teeth. “I just heard a ton of banging in here and it scared my Puss in Boots just right out of her wits.” Puss in Boots was Mrs. Ackerman’s old cat. Who was older was a complete toss up. “Ya’ll are making a ton of racket up here young lady. You gettin’ robbed?” She tried to glance around me, nosy old woman, but I blocked her view with my shoulder in fear that she’d call the cops if she truly knew what I was up to. It wouldn’t be the first time that our “innocent” Mrs. Ackerman would have complained to the authorities. On the bright side, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about walking too loudly over her head anymore or keeping my blow dryer off past seven p.m. “Hey Rach, do you want me to pack these?” Becky emerged from the bedroom holding up brand new bottles of Paul Mitchell shampoo and conditioner—Tea Tree, Kyle’s favorite—and winced as she caught sight of the room. “Yeah, thanks,” I said before turning my attention back to my intrusive neighbor. “I’m sorry Mrs. Ackerman, we’ll keep it down.” “You packing up to go—” I shut the door in her face, dusted my jeans, then surveyed my handiwork. Broken vases lay scattered on the linoleum floor of the foyer and shards of Gibson glass plates covered the kitchen. A few strategically placed holes along the walls with the aforementioned bat served as the finishing touches to my project. I still couldn’t believe I’d been stupid enough to fall prey to Kyle’s betrayal. All the long nights away, the incessant phone calls—gosh, that day at the movies. That had been his son who’d sped by us in the parking lot! What a sleaze ball. I was glad, and okay, maybe just a tad dismayed, that things had ended this way. I mean to imagine that I’d never guessed in the last few months that the man I’d shared a living space with was living another reality. I, for the first time ever, had the experience of being “the other woman” through no fault of my own, of course. Though I maybe could have been a little more alert as to Kyle’s whereabouts. “Well, the bathroom’s done.” Becky reappeared and maneuvered her way around the debris to place another large box on the already crowded breakfast table. “So, where’re you gonna go now?” Liz gave me a look that suggested she didn’t believe I could survive (or, rather, afford) to stay on my own. Though I hated to admit it, she was right. Any decent place would cost more than I could afford unless I decided to give up food, all forms of entertainment and…well, pretty much everything else. I loathed her for expounding upon my truth, but in all honesty, what could I say? Plus, all the anger and energy I had pent up had already been expended, leaving me in less of a mood to argue or retaliate. I shrugged and placed my hands on my hips. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll scope out a few hotels nearby or something.” There was a long pause. Liz bit her lip and Becky was giving me her you-poor-soul look. “Guys, I’ll be fine. I’ll figure something out.” Liz looked like she’d swallowed a lemon. She seemed to choose her words carefully and I knew what she was going to suggest before she even started. “You could…I mean if you really need a place to go…come stay with me.” God, this was pathetic! My nemesis sister felt enough commiseration to offer me shelter—knowing full well that if that were ever to happen, we’d both be in the papers for double homicide. I could see the headlines already: Sisters strangle each other to death—cohabitation unbearable. Is this what my life had come to? “I’ll be fine.” “You could always stay with mom…you know, until you find your own place,” Becky suggested, suddenly brightening. “And think about it, we’ll have each other, so it’s not like you’ll be stuck with her on your own. Trust me, I’d never suggest it otherwise.” I considered this for a moment. She did have a point. It would save me from living in a hotel (could you imagine how horrible that would be?) and I’d be able to put some money aside until I found something I could afford. I tried to make it look like I was giving the idea more thought so I wouldn’t appear too eager (or desperate) about the possibility. I mean definitely there were caveats to this arrangement. For one, I’d be living with my mom—which was only a notch better than living with Liz. Second, I’d no longer have my own space. I mean technically I would, but really I’d be living under someone else’s roof and be bound to their rules. And third, I’d be living with my mom (did I already mention that? Good, because I meant to repeat myself). “Oh for God’s sake!” Liz threw her hands up in the air and rolled her eyes heavenward, “don’t be so damned stubborn, Rach. You’re gonna need somewhere to sleep!” Just the opening I was looking for. “Well…I guess I could stay at mom’s…” A wide smile broke out across Becky’s face and she seized me in a big hug. Surprisingly, even Liz seemed relieved. Though in her dramatic thoughts, she’d probably already written me off to the streets of downtown Atlanta and imagined me bundled in a tattered blanket with a “help me” sign in hand—which, of course, could mean potential damage to her reputation and career. Everything always revolved around Liz—even someone else’s misery. “Ohh, this is going to make mom so happy!” Becky clasped my hands and jumped up and down. “She’s been so lonely since the divorce.” Liz cleared her throat into the resulting silence, picked up her keys and pointed them at the pile of boxes. “Let’s get the bellboy to load those into the car.” “Uh, Liz, this is Atlanta suburb, not New York.” And, though I didn’t dare say it out loud, I wasn’t as fortunate to be able to afford any dwelling in Midtown that would provide me the convenience of a bellboy—unlike my pampered sister. “What? You don’t have a bellboy?” Liz scrunched her nose like I’d just announced I have the chicken pox. Gosh, this was going to be one hell of a night. And the toughest part wasn’t even over. Chapter 8 Another day, another dollar Becky “Oh my, well isn’t this a rather lovely surprise?” My mother sat up on the couch and raised a brow at Rachel, assessing her with a mix of curiosity and suspicion. Wheel of Fortune, one of her all-time favorites, was playing on the TV and a short, squat lady with pigtails was buying a vowel. “So tell me, dear, what brought about this sudden…change of heart to come live with me?” A look that could only be described as loathing swept Rachel’s face for a millisecond and I had a fleeting fear that she’d curse us all to hell, throw her bags back into her car and dash away to the nearest lodging. Rachel had left soon after dad and mom separated saying she’d much rather live on the streets sharing a blanket with diseased mice than under the same roof with someone who was a control freak and overly oppressive. (I don’t need to tell you how that conversation ended, right?) I unconsciously clenched all the muscles I possibly could as I waited for Rachel’s response along with everyone else. (Liz had made a big scene about wanting to help with the move, but it was very obvious she’d stayed behind in hopes of witnessing this type of action). Rachel’s mouth twisted and I could tell she was biting down the urge to discharge a sarcastic remark. I held my breath. God if this is what it was going to be like living with mom and Rachel under one roof, I probably would never have to consciously attempt yoga ever again—thanks to all the stress, I was doing a great job covering all the components without even trying. Before I knew what was happening, I heard myself blurt, “It’s because of me.” Three pairs of shocked gazes locked themselves on me. Well, I really should say two. Elizabeth looked more irate than anything, probably because I’d disrupted the highlight scene of her night. Our mother muted the TV without moving her eyes from me. I cleared my throat, rummaging through my mind for a plausible explanation. “I thought it’d be nice to have Rach back here, so I asked her—” “Beck,” Rachel’s voice was firm yet soft. She threw me a grateful look and shook her head surreptitiously before bracing our mother with a more grim expression. Strange how alike they looked. The same grave look, the same stubborn chins, identical emerald-colored eyes spitting confidence. The only visible difference was that mom’s blonde hair was dry and brittle from years of chemical treatments and styling whereas Rachel’s still had the health and silkiness of youth. That and mom’s faint crow’s feet, besides which no other signs of aging were apparent. “I broke up with Shawn, and I just need a place to stay until I find something else.” Mother crossed her arms over her chest and I could almost see the last argument she and Rachel had playing on a movie projector over her head. “So pretty much what you’re saying is that you think you can decide whenever you want to walk in and out of here?” Rachel closed her eyes and expelled a deep breath. The fact that she was still standing around to listen to mom bitch spoke volumes about the seriousness of her situation. My heart went out to her. Seriously, couldn’t mom just let it go this once? “I mean, fine,” mother shrugged, “stay here as long as you need. But, let me remind you that so long as you’re here, you answer to me and abide by my rules.” “Mom, for crying out loud I’m twenty-eight—” “Ah-ah-ah. That is where you are wrong, my darling. I don’t care if you’re a hundred and fifty-eight; as long as you’re in this home, you follow my rules. Understand?” Now it was Rachel who crossed her arms over her chest. “And what rules, specifically?” Mother ticked her fingers. “One, you must be home no later than one a.m. If you’re running late, you call or text. Two, no intercourse of any kind whatsoever. No exceptions.” I snuck a glance at Liz’s scarlet-colored face just as Rachel turned to throw her a contemptuous look. She was the reason this rule existed. A few years ago, back when mom and dad were newly divorced and the three of us still lived under the same roof, Liz took advantage of having one less eagle-eyed guardian to watch over us and invited her then boyfriend, Brandon, home to…err…engage in coitus. To make a long story short, mom heard strange noises from upstairs when she returned from work early one day thanks to a migraine. Suspecting that a robbering ax murderer had broken in and stashed his dying fugitive in the room, she’d snuck upstairs, broom in hand only to be nearly blinded by the sight of my older sister completely naked in a compromised position on the white, chicy lounge sofa in her room, an oblivious Brandon splayed out below. Not a pretty scene. “Three,” mom continued, “no music or loud noises. Four, you have to pick up after yourself and take part in Sunday cleaning.” Rachel winced. I didn’t blame her. I till this day hadn’t gotten used to the routine of dusting every darned piece of furniture, mopping every inch of flooring, and cleaning parts of the house that weren’t visible to the naked eye (like the space beneath the TV console, for heaven’s sake!). But, it was one thing mom did religiously after attending church every Sunday. Thank goodness at least that wasn’t a requirement, though I did attend on occasion. “And last,” mom peaked her brows, “I reserve the right to create and enforce any new rules at will.” Gosh, the whole thing sounded more like a disclosure statement in an iron-clad contract devised by a top-notch attorney instead of an oral recitation of house rules. I almost expected mom to whip out a contract agreement from behind one of the tan couch cushions with one hand, a pen ready and poised in the other. “Any questions?” Rachel clenched her jaw shut, but I could see her running her tongue over the top row of her teeth, as she mulled over the conditions set forth. After what seemed like several minutes, she released a resigned breath and lifted a shoulder. “Fine.” Mom settled back against the couch cushions and smiled, picking up the remote. “Good. You can have your old room back and I’ll leave a set of keys for you on the breakfast table tomorrow morning.” With that, she jabbed the unmute button and re-immersed herself into the screen with Pat and Vanna. **** Living with both my sisters in the house had never been an easy feat for any of us. They fought, daily accusing each other of stealing the other’s clothes (usually Liz pilfering Rachel’s latest style of denim), arguing about who got to park in the driveway in the winter, bickering over bathroom timings, brawling about boyfriends being around too much and disagreeing about practically everything else you can (and cannot) imagine. But with just two of us in the house, things were much calmer. That’s not to imply that Liz was the problem. Liz and Rachel trapped together within the same four walls was. Luckily, I’d never had problems with either of them. Except when they fought. And I was thankful that even now, bathroom timings were going to be a non-issue for me and Rach since she wasn’t due at work until later in the day. My teacher hours, unfortunately, did not afford me the luxury of sleeping in. Which meant that I awoke tired and groggy the next morning after staying up till nearly one helping Rachel set up her room. She’d reclaimed her old one which was situated across the hall from the guest bedroom and right next to Liz’s former one. I showered, styled my hair and did my makeup as silently as possible, though it was common knowledge that Rachel could easily sleep through an apocalypse. I navigated my Civic into the nearly deserted faculty parking lot just a few minutes before seven and rushed inside to begin grading math quizzes—something I had intended to complete the night before. I was only slightly relieved it was Friday. We were one day closer to Vegas and Liz’s impending “runaway wedding,” as I’d secretly titled it, but I hadn’t even packed yet and we were due to leave on the red-eye tonight. I rubbed my temples and glanced down at another paper. “TGIF!” Melissa, my fellow fifth grade teacher and good friend trilled from the doorway. I lifted my eyes and gave her a wan smile. As always, Melissa was dressed to the nines in a black pencil skirt, a belted fitting grey top, silver jewelry and stylish boots with just the right amount of heel for the whole ensemble. “Oh girl, what happened to you?” Melissa perched her size two tush on the edge of my desk and peered down at me with large blue eyes, her blonde hair swinging forth to frame her oval face. I opened my mouth to speak but Melissa smacked her forehead, stopping me in mid breath. “I’m so dense! You’re worried about the conference, aren’t you?” I wrinkled my face in confusion. “You know? The teacher conference? The one everyone’s been talking about?” She leaned in closer and darted a look at the doorway before whispering, “I think they’re laying off again.” Oh yeah. That conference. I’d totally forgotten about it. Funny it’d consumed my every thought for the last few days and now suddenly within the span of the past few hours it had completely slipped my mind. My family could do that to me. It’s like I warped back and forth between two parallel universes that had no knowledge of the other with me as their only common link. I plopped my head down, shaking it. “Oh, that’s right.” “We really should get going, especially if you want to get your hands on some chocolate glazed donuts. Those always go first.” Melissa continued to harp on about the rumors of the conference in hushed whispers as we approached the auditorium. The scent of donuts and coffee filled the air and my stomach gave a loud rumble. Melissa filled her plate with a donut, fresh cut fruits and a bagel lathered with cream cheese. I gave her an envious look. How was it possible to eat everything your heart desired and still look like that? It wasn’t fair. She was another Rach. I settled into a seat next to Melissa with a cup of dark coffee, sans my usual truckloads of creamer and sugar. God, the stuff tasted like dirt and water with a slight zing. How did people manage to drink coffee this way? “Why are you drinking it black?” Melissa examined the contents of my glass, her bagel loitering just a few inches from her mouth. The cream cheese lay tantalizingly on top, fluffy and creamy, like it does in commercials. I felt like a starving patron standing in line at a world-famous bagel shop that had just served its last bagel to the thin, attractive woman in front of me. As I wallowed in melancholy and envy, Dr. Greene, the elementary school’s principal walked up to the podium and ran through the agenda for the meeting. He was young, probably three or four years older than me, and always dressed like he was going to slip out the double doors at any moment to do a photo shoot for GQ. As it turned out, Melissa had been right all along (she gave me the “I told you so” look several times throughout the conference as though she’d proclaimed the world was round and I’d disagreed). The school was cutting back on costs and developed a “plan of action” to achieve this goal, including reducing paper wastage, keeping a closer lock on office supplies, not replacing staff lost through attrition and much more. The county budget, we were told, was limited and cost cutting measures were to be implemented at that level too. Everyone around me seemed to be enjoying the rare treats while I visualized my dark coffee to be a cup of rich cocoa with fluffy marshmallows melting into a rich layer of white froth. That topped mixed with the foreboding possibility of being laid off didn’t settle well in my stomach. Once Dr. Greene had assured us that there were (at least for the time being) not going to be any faculty layoffs and dismissed us all, Melissa Wainwright, Emily Wilson and Jane Bishop all fellow fifth grade teachers and good friends, decided to group in my class, since I was closest to the auditorium, for a post-meeting discussion. Melissa was married, but never spoke too much about her personal life. I figured either she was extremely content or…not. I hoped for the former, but the fact that she more often than not “forgot” her ring in the shower or on the kitchen counter made me wonder otherwise. Emily was soft-spoken, but one of the sweetest people I’d ever met. She’d recently tied the knot with her middle-school sweetheart and I’d never seen her happier. Jane on the other hand was the rowdy one of the bunch. Always hopping from one relationship to another like musical chairs. The problem was, even when the music stopped, Jane didn’t. Now, as they all filed in, she was finishing up a story about her latest conquest. Some Hispanic stud who used to work in porno and apparently had the Kama Sutra memorized front to back. I slipped into my purse and checked my cell (a habit that was now second nature every time I stepped away from my desk). There was only one missed call—from Shawn. My heart began to pound loudly in my chest. It wasn’t the good kind of pounding, either. Not the, oh-my-gosh-I-can’t-wait-to-talk-to-him, kind. No, it was more like the oh-shit-is-coffee-on-the-list-of-permissible-foods kind. I put the phone away and tried to fixate on the new topics of conversation — the credibility behind Dr. Greene’s promise of no faculty layoffs in the immediate future (Melissa), his cute behind (Jane), his sturdy hips (Jane again), mesmerizing aquamarine eyes (yup, Jane again) and plans for the upcoming Thanksgiving break (Emily). We broke our meeting ten minutes before the kids were expected to start piling in. With nerves strung tight, I jabbed in Shawn’s number, not wanting to delay the inevitable. “Babe,” Shawn huffed on the third ring, panting and breathless. I’d obviously interrupted his morning workout. “I forgot to mention it the other night, but we’re having a Thanksgiving party at work. You have to come.” I snuck a quick glance at the wall clock before retrieving my Hello Kitty calendar book from my tote and flipping through it. “When is it?” “The nineteenth at eight p.m.” I repeated it and penned in the event as Shawn’s voice broke through the connection again. “Listen, babe. You’re sticking to the diet plan, right?” I opened and closed my mouth trying to squeeze something comprehensible through, which resulted in a high-pitched, “Of course!” Through the connection, I heard metal settle against metal. “Good. I want you looking your best. These are my co-workers and my boss, after all. And I want them to see just how amazing you are.” I nodded as though he could see me through the wireless signal. “Remember, you represent me. Don’t let me down.” Shawn’s words echoed in my head through my daily lectures, lunchtime, at the end of the day as the kids departed and while I shuffled notes, worksheets and lesson plans for the substitute, Ms. Goldman, into the top desk drawer. It was strange. All this time I had nearly convinced myself that he was truly interested in making me look my best for my personal good, but today’s conversation hadn’t been about me at all. Did that mean Liz and Rach were right? Was Shawn trying to make me conform to his ideal? The pressure of his words and expectations settled heavily around my shoulders as I packed up and slinked to my car, a dozen thoughts and questions banging around in my head. My ability/inability to lose weight had become more of a challenge than anything, and I was determined to win at all costs to prove that I was capable of living up to Shawn’s near-impossible expectations and maintaining a flawless figure that would leave him slavering. A large frame bulldozed into me, causing my books and the contents of my bag to go hurtling all over the parking lot. “Ms. Parker, I’m so sorry.” I paused from jamming papers back into my bag to catch Dr. Greene squatting in front of me. Our eyes locked and my throat suddenly went dry. “Oh, it’s…totally fine.” Totally? Gosh, Becky, what are you? A valley girl? I pushed a stray strand of hair behind my ear and tried again as I stuffed several items haphazardly into my bag, including my Hello Kitty book (which, for some reason, suddenly seemed to embarrass me). “My mind was somewhere else. I wasn’t paying attention. It was completely my fault.” Dr. Greene examined me through his shrewd gaze. Gosh he had the darkest, thickest lashes and sexiest eyes I’d ever seen on a man. “I hope it wasn’t because you were worrying about this morning’s meeting.” “Oh, no! No, no.” I straightened and Dr. Greene handed me my books. Our hands brushed, sending tingles of pleasure through each of my nerve endings. “Good, because I want you to know that you’re talent I don’t intend on losing.” I flushed. “Well, thank you. I appreciate the reassurance.” Dr. Greene quirked one side of his mouth up and regarded me through bedroom eyes. “I’m on vacation the next few days,” I blurted to distract myself from the sexual tension (or at least I seemed to think there was tension. Or maybe I felt there was because of the sudden vision I had of Dr. Greene sprawled on top of me in bed.). “I remember. You going anywhere special with…someone?” Was there a hint of flirtation in his voice? “I…uh, no. My sister’s eloping in Vegas.” I resisted the urge to slap a hand across my mouth. I felt like a complete imbecile and had managed to make Liz look like one at the same time. Dr. Greene was probably wondering what someone with such poor family values was doing at his school. He’d probably retract his earlier statement if he could, I was positive. “Mmm. Sounds like fun. Don’t get into any trouble.” He gave me an easy wink, quite the exact opposite of what I expected. My palms grew sweaty, threatening to lose their grip on the books. I tried to give an effortless giggle, which resulted, instead, in nervous titters. “Hope to bump into you again soon, Ms. Parker. Enjoy your trip.” Just as Dr. Greene retreated back inside the building, Melissa’s voice greeted me. I tried to snap out of my statuesque-state as my friend came scrambling toward me waving her keys, her large brown bag bumped against a tiny hip as she came to a halt. “Was that Mr. Greene? Did he let anything else slip…you know, about the layoffs?” I shook my head, still trying to recover my voice. Melissa’s face fell, but she quickly waved her keys in front of her as though erasing her disappointment at my lack of gossip. “Oh, well why do you look so nervous then? Oh, never mind. I have to rush to a doctor’s appointment. Anyhow, we’re planning dinner tonight at China Buffet off Buford. Can you come?” By “we” she meant our usual group—me, Melissa, Jane and Emily. And though a buffet really would be screwing with my diet and the limited amount of time I had to lose weight before the Thanksgiving party, I heard my stomach grumble and head pound at the thought of going hungry any longer. I would prove to Shawn that I could lose weight, I promised myself. I’d work out like a maniac every morning until I sweated off all my fat. Sure, I told myself, I could do it. Right after I gathered enough energy from the buffet tonight. Chapter 9 What happens in Vegas… ~LIZ~ “You’re such a nasty hog!” I stormed over to the adjacent room and threw a wet towel at Rachel who was, until then, conveniently sprawled sideways on a full-sized sleeper-sofa watching a basketball game on a 50” LCD. “What the fuck?” she retracted the towel from herself, turned off the TV and jumped to attention. I thrust a finger at her just as Becky popped in from the adjoining workout room. “Did you forget you’re sharing a bathroom with two other people?” Rachel threw the towel back at me. It bounced off my terry-cloth turban and landed in a wet heap at my feet, which only infuriated me more. “Did you forget how to speak? Why are you always talking in riddles. Just tell me what the heck is wrong.” I grabbed a black, square pillow from the sleeper and smacked her with it. “What’s wrong is that you have no consideration for anyone!” Rachel grabbed a pillow. Smack! My brain rattled in my head. “I still don’t know what the heck you’re talking about. No wonder you’re a model. You have the sense of a five-year-old!” Smack, smack! “I’m talking about how you used three freaking towels, two for yourself and one for the freaking floor, leaving only one for me!” Smack, smack, smack! “I have no clue what the heck you’re talking about you crazy—” “Uhh, Liz…?” Becky looked sheepish. “What?” I snapped, ready to strike another blow at Rachel. “I, uh… put the towel on the floor. And I used another one to dry up. Rach only used one.” I stalled for a moment before realization dawned on me. “Beck, I appreciate you trying to play mediator, but please don’t cover up for her inconsiderateness. You haven’t even showered yet—” “I did. You were asleep.” Silence followed. Another feathered blow propelled me forward and I stumbled onto the sleeper face first. “Ahhh!! Stop it! Stop!” I covered the back of my head in defense. “You started it!” Rachel yelled, “You came in here and interrupted my game and blamed me for something I didn’t even do!” “Well you’re the one who always hogs everything so I thought it was you!” I stood up, twirled the turban off my head and vigorously started towel drying my hair. Rachel threw the pillow on the sleeper just past my shoulder and put her hands on her hips. “Yeah? Well maybe if you woke up before the day was half over you’d know what the hell was going on.” “Oh, yeah, like you should be talking.” “Oh, please. We don’t even compare. Go take a mud bath or something.” Rachel flopped back down and punched on the TV. Becky sighed. “I’m sorry.” I waved, dismissing the apology and strolled toward the bathroom as I tried to avert my fury by taking in the room for what was the first time since we’d arrived. Nick really had outdone himself by booking the Prima for my sisters. The room had a double door entrance that opened to an Italian marbled foyer, which held an elegantly adorned powder room. Situated past the foyer was a full bar with three leather stools and a 55” flat screen LCD HDTV with a semi-formal dining room featuring seating for four positioned off to the other side. My cell chirped Nick’s ringtone, Tearin up my heart, from the direction of the foyer. I managed to answer just before the last ring. “Liz,” Nick’s voice rang through the line sounding tense. Dread flooded through me. I squeezed the bridge of my nose and took a deep breath. “Nick, please, no bad news. We’re supposed to get married in about eight hours.” There was a long pause and I looked at my cell to make sure the connection still held. “No, no. No bad news. I just called to say I’ll be arriving in a few hours.” I breathed a sigh of relief. “Good. Are you going to come get me when you arrive?” “From where?” I turned to face the large gold-framed mirror of the powder room and rolled my head in its socket to ease out some of the tension that had crept in. At least I looked well-rested and relaxed. And my hair was doing a fabulous job of appearing silken and healthy (thanks to the extra deep conditioning treatments I’d scheduled at the salon before we’d left Atlanta). “From the suite you booked for my sisters. I had to stay in their room since you reserved the honeymoon suite under your name.” “Oh, sorry about that.” Nick sounded anything but apologetic. Probably because he wasn’t the one stuck sharing living space with an unappreciative brat. “And about tonight, why don’t you meet me straight at the chapel?” I pondered this. “That way,” Nick hurried on not giving me time to think, “the next time I see you, you’ll be walking down the aisle to become my bride. Plus isn’t it bad luck to see the bride beforehand, or something?” It wasn’t a bad idea, though this sudden emotional side of Nick grabbed me by surprise. Less than a month ago he was hesitant to get hitched and now, just a few short weeks later, he was more sentimental about the whole thing than me. “Fine, but make sure you move my things straight to our room as soon as you get here. I mean before you even step foot in the room. I have a ton of appointments throughout the day, so I’ll go straight to the chapel after my last one. Meet you at eight?” “Eight is good. See you then.” “Get your butt off the couch and get ready!” I stalked into the room and yelled at Rach as soon as I’d disconnected. “Why?” “Well, let’s see,” I put a finger in my chin and looked up at the ceiling as though deep in thought. “Because we only have a few hours to get ready?” This only seemed to confuse my challenged sister even more. “Isn’t a few hours more than enough time?” God, did I have to spell everything out for her? “No, because we have three appointments back to back and we have to meet Nick at the chapel by eight.” “What all are we doing?” Becky materialized wearing a bathrobe. Her wet hair hung limply around her shoulders. “Didn’t you already take a shower?” “Yeah, but I just finished working out.” I shook my head. Some things I’d never understand. I rifled through my suitcase for my leave-in hair treatment and squeezed a small amount into my palm. “We have a two o’clock spa appointment at Canyon Ranch SpaClub—” “Sounds like a place for cowgirls,” Rachel scowled. I rubbed the treatment into my hair and ignored her. “After that, we’re scheduled for manicures and pedicures and then updos.” Becky seemed impressed while Rachel looked like she was biting back a protest—which is the exact reaction I was expecting. I couldn’t remember my sister ever stepping foot in a hair or nail salon of any caliber, let alone one of the most expensive in a world-renowned city. If she expected a free ride to Vegas on Nick’s dime, she’d have to earn it—and I’d make sure she did. I raised my chin waiting for the objection. None came. “Do we have time for lunch?” Becky asked meekly. “About an hour,” I replied, eyeing a flamboyant wall clock. **** Twenty minutes later (which was a record for me, thanks to the fact that someone else would later battle my hair and makeup) we sat on a table at Riva, a restaurant enveloped by the magnificent pools of The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, waiting for our food. It felt like we were in the middle of a luxurious, albeit small oasis. The relaxed ambiance coupled with the inebriating scent of foods created a delectable atmosphere. Light conversation from surrounding tables and a breeze that carried only a hint of the November cold were the only reminders that we weren’t completely detached from reality. “Has anyone called mom?”Rach asked through a sip of her Lava Flow cocktail. “I did,” Becky fidgeted in her chair. She hadn’t touched her Diet Coke. “I feel horrible about lying to her.” I twirled a black beaded necklace around my finger and looked sideways at her. “It’s technically not lying. I mean you are here for an outing.” “Yeah, if the definition of an outing is to have your eldest daughter elope while your other offspring cheer her on,” Becky objected, “Plus, we didn’t win the airline or hotel tickets from a radio show.” “I’m surprised she didn’t question our story. I mean, who gives free tickets in threes?” Rach agreed, ripping a stray thread from a forest green t-shirt with white, fat text that read: keep watching me, I might do a trick. I seriously wondered where she found those shirts. She needed a closet makeover so bad it made my fingers itch with anxiety. It was no wonder she used to steal my tops for dates. I shuddered and refocused. It was strange that mom had so readily bought our fabricated story. I mean even if one of us had won three free tickets to Vegas (we’d told her Becky had, since she was the one who listened to all those corny morning radio shows), what was the likelihood that we would go together? The server arrived with our orders. “Um, I said no tomatoes. And no mushrooms either.” With my pointer, I pushed my plate back at him. The waiter looked apologetic. “I’m sorry about that, ma’am. Let me take care of that for you.” “And don’t pick it out of there—I want a new salad!” I called to his retreating back. My sisters looked at me. “What? He’s gotta get it right!” Becky took a bite of her dressing-less salad. “You know, mom has been acting a bit strange lately.” She barely concealed a wince as she gulped and it took everything in me to bite back my cruel comments and the string of curse words and destructive aura I had prepared to launch at Shawn, who no doubt was the perpetrator behind her sudden interest in flavorless foods. While I took pleasure in (and had become accustomed to) eating healthy, Rachel and Becky enjoyed it with the same gusto as a diner discovering a floating finger in his soup. I made a mental note to come up with some sort of vengeful plan for the person who was responsible for my baby sister’s discomfort. As soon as this damned wedding was over I’d be totally free (besides the secret renovating project I’d been planning for Nick’s home—we’d never lived together because of the convenience of travel to our work locations from our individual residences). “I mean,” Becky swallowed and patted a napkin over her mouth, “It’s almost like her mind is somewhere else. Like, the other day, I caught her room in this torrid mess. Her clothes were all over the floor and bed.” That got our attention. Rachel unburied her face from her Grilled Prime Burger with Vermont cheddar and I lifted my spoon from my Garden Tomato Gazpacho, which tasted heavenly on my tongue. “Are you sure she wasn’t just doing laundry?” Rach questioned, though her tone was doubtful. When mom folded laundry, nothing touched the floor. Everything was pulled from a white tall, oblong basket and folded into a small rectangular one, then carried to the closet where each piece was put in its place one by one. Becky gulped her Diet Coke and nodded. “Yes, because when I went on the room to check in on her, I found her in the bathroom, which was also a disaster, trying on all these dresses.” Rach and I stared at each other in confusion and this time, I spoke up. “Did you ask her what she was doing?” “Yeah. She said she thought she’d lost weight so she was trying to see if her clothes fit differently. Which, I guess makes sense. I mean people feel good after they lose weight, right? And they want to try on sexier clothes?” Rachel exchanged a dubious look with me as she sipped her cocktail and asked, “Since when did mom care about losing weight?” “Or wanting to feel sexy? Oh gosh!” I slapped my hand on my thigh as a light breeze ruffled the cloth of the khaki umbrella that hovered over our table. “Do you think Shawn’s put mom on a diet, too?” Rach threw me a spiteful look and Becky appeared utterly embarrassed. “No, of course not!” “Well, have you noticed her eating differently?” I questioned, “Or working out?” Becky worried her lower lip. “You know, I rarely bump into her at home anymore. I’ve been so busy with school and other things that I really haven’t had a chance to talk to her.” By “other things” I assumed she meant starving herself and stretching her ligaments into string cheese. But right now, that was besides the point. I mentally pushed more negative energy to Shawn as we all contemplated. “It just doesn’t make sense,” Rach continued, in deep thought. “Mom’s never believed in diets and I swear she doesn’t know the definition of ‘workout.’ ” Becky nodded and pushed her half eaten lunch to the side. “That’s what I thought, too. It’s strange.” The thought was buried to the back of our minds as we went through the process of having our skin scrubbed within an inch of our bones, allowing our nails to be sculpted and polished into fakeness and permitting strangers to pull and stretch our hair and skin in several directions to make us appear presentable and, if I may add, absolutely spectacular for my impending ceremony. Becky’s slight figure, which was only a few inches short of resembling my own miniscule frame, fit well into the turquoise dress I’d selected, and clung to her curves just right, if a little loosely than it last had. Her brunette strands were gathered in a loose, but sexy French twist and held in place by invisible pins. A few loose tendrils stylishly tickled her neck and framed her face. More stunning than her was Rachel, who had undergone a complete and breathtaking transformation (though I’d never, even with a knife aimed at my chest, admit it to her). Her hair silkily rolled about her shoulders in vertical curls that pulled just the right strands to frame her face and give her a touch of sex appeal. Her makeup was so perfect it looked almost natural. Her green eyes were more pronounced and looked wider and more attractive than normal thanks to subtly applied liner and mascara and her usually pale cheeks held just the perfect touch of blush. The bridesmaid dress actually made her (for once in her life) look like a groomed, sexy woman with just the right amount of curves. All in all, she didn’t look anything like herself. In fact, if I’d passed her on an empty street, I probably would have walked right past her (okay, maybe I would have ogled a little) without the dawning of recognition ever hitting my conscious. Though she’d griped, complained and muttered under her breath throughout our entire five and a half hour appointment, I had to hand it to her for not backing out. This getaway must have meant more to her than I’d expected. I knew that under the circumstances, my bridesmaids served no true purpose, but I’d be damned if I didn’t do all I could to salvage my wedding from becoming a completely off-the-wall, non-traditional, harried affair. I was clinging to what little I could to make my wedding day be as close as possible to what I had forever envisioned, even if it was by thin threads. I glanced at my own reflection in the largest of three neighboring full-length mirrors of the bridal suite and tried not to be smug. I looked magnificent. Beyond magnificent. I looked like a porcelain doll and a lingerie goddess wrapped in one. My curled updo dotted with faux pearls exposed my neck, making it appear more slender and casting attention to my dainty shoulders. The gown was a masterpiece of its own. Completely shoulder-less with silk folds that clutched my bosom in a delicate and fitting style, the gown cinched at the waist before swelling out in a Cinderella-like fashion. The lower part of the dress was embellished with hundreds of tiny 3-D floral appliqués which gave the dress a totally different appearance than anything I’d ever seen. All in all, I decided, Nick was one lucky guy. In fact, so stunned was I by my own good looks that I nearly gave into a panic attack as I considered whether or not I really wanted to devote the rest of my life (and my body and looks) to him alone. I mean it was Nick, after all. I could do so much better if only I had the time to search for someone with equal or greater wealth, a more attractive face and a similar personality. Which, seriously, considering the limited time I had and the rapidly dwindling number of chivalrous men left in the world (alive and single), I doubted I’d be able to do, say, before the age of fifty. “You look beautiful, Liz,” Becky gingerly fingered my full-length veil and I noticed the tears in the corners of her eyes. “Oh, Beck.” I pulled her in for a hug and was completely shocked to feel my own tears threatening and glad that Rach wasn’t around to witness our emotional moment. We’d stuffed a duffel bag full of our clothes and accessories and she’d volunteered to drop it off to our room before we headed to the chapel. I pulled away quickly before either of us could ruin our expensive makeup. Even though Nick was paying for every detail of the wedding from our flights to our nails to make up for the lack of a traditional ceremony, I didn’t have the time or patience to sit through another hour while someone grueled over my face — again. A few moments later as the three of us made our way toward the chapel, a flock of butterflies launched flight in my tummy. The curious looks passersby were giving us didn’t help any. Some hollered a quick congrats, others smiled and still others stared awkwardly as though we were acrobats in clown costumes doing cartwheels down the large, crowded hallways. Upon arriving at the Venetian Wedding Chapel, my nervousness heightened to a new level. The chapel was a lot larger than the space we actually needed for a small service, but through my web research, I had been instantly drawn to it and insisted Nick make arrangements to have our ceremony here. I took in the beatific 2500 square footage of the hall and suddenly the whole wedding seemed too larger-than-life for me to manage. I had to dig my seven-hundred dollar Angela Nuran shoes (also courtesy of Nick) deep into the plush carpet to keep myself from bolting. The lady Nick had booked through proffered the option of subdividing the room into one third of its original size for our miniscule ceremony, but I didn’t want to compromise its omniscient beauty in any way. Now, as I looked around at the intimidating décor, and glanced down at the overview of the pool deck—which housed several pools, hot tubs and even an outdoor shower—and garden scattered with plush and beautiful flowers and plants, most of which I couldn’t even attempt to identify, a sense of finality assailed me. After this moment, there would be no turning back time. And before I gave in to nerves and completely backed out of this arrangement, I had to get married. ASAP. I glanced around frantically. “Rach, can I see your phone?” I asked. A look very similar to nervousness crossed my sister’s features. “Why?” I breathed in to calm my nerves and while I usually would have darted a sarcastic remark, I found I didn’t have the wit or energy to scrounge one up. “I need to call Nick.” Rach averted her gaze. “Oh. Well, actually, I left it in the room.” Okay. That was odd. Rach was a phone junkie. Her leaving her phone behind was the equivalent to her functioning without a heart. Becky gave Rach a concerned look before she rummaged through her olive-colored clutch and handed me her iPhone. Seven fifty-eight, the screen flashed. My neck prickled. Only two minutes left. Which meant Nick would be somewhere close by since he’d never been late a day in his life. I quickly dialed but was put through to voicemail after just two rings. I tried again. This time it rang longer. My sisters gave me an expectant look. “It keeps going to voicemail.” I punched the End button and scanned the room in time to see a lady in a penguin-like suit holding a clipboard approaching. Her dirty blonde ponytail was slicked back tightly giving her a stern and polished appearance. “Ladies, is there something I can help you with?” She seemed rushed and irritated. “Yes, my fiancé booked this hall for eight p.m. He should be on his way any moment.” I noticed a small dazzled up group of people coming into view in the distance. They glanced around the room in awe for a few seconds before their gaze landed on us. “What the hell are they doing here?” I jabbed my bouquet pink and peach roses encasing a dabble of cream calla lilies in the direction of the group as they began to approach. Becky and Rach turned to look. Penguin lady ignored me and flicked a page on her clipboard. “Ms. Jenner?” her ice-blue eyes looked up at me questioningly. “Er…no,” I scanned the room for any sign of Nick, “Liz Parker.” She shuffled another few pages and then flipped through the stack again. “Ma’am, we don’t have any reservations for eight. Our next bride arrives at eight-thirty.” “Giselle!” A plump woman from the group who had graying cropped hair and a sequined red dress that glared in the light like a bright flashing strobe came bounding toward me, her arms outstretched. “You look gorgeous!” Before I could correct her or shift out of her way, she engulfed me in a bone crushing embrace. She held me at arms-length and examined me again. “Wow, Herbert wasn’t kidding when he said you were a looker,” she winked at me conspiratorially then grabbed me in for another tight hug. Herbert? Who the fuck? By now, the crowd around us had thickened and the other women who had entered with this crazed woman who seemed to think my name rhymed with another name for an antelope pulled my sisters in for generous squeezes. Penguin lady broke through the crowd to my rescue and regarded me through a leery gaze. “I thought you said you weren’t Ms. Jenner,” she accused. I pushed the red strobe light look-alike away and straightened. “I’m not,” I said more to the flabby woman than to Penguin Suit. Strobe light put a hand to her heart and her camaraderie backed away as though they’d just discovered we were radioactive. “Then I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you all to leave. I have a ceremony starting in,” she pulled her sleeve to reveal a chic black Movado, “twenty minutes.” I opened my mouth to state that she was obviously mistaken when all of a sudden a flash of purple came flying into my peripheral vision. “You slut! You homewrecker! How dare you!” A thin, willowy woman a grasping a very evident baby bump came swinging at me. Startled into shock, I stood immobilized, my reflexes frozen as her thin, bony hand connected with my face. An immediate hush fell over the hall as I, alarmed, clutched at my stinging cheek. “How dare you sleep with my husband, tear apart my marriage and then send me a fucking wedding invitation,” she waved a gaudy gold card in my face “Do you actually think you’ll get away with this, you fucking whore?” A few choice words formulated on the tip of my tongue, but I was too baffled to push them off. “Michelle?” Strobe Light stepped forward and narrowed her eyes, saving me the effort of speech. “Aunt Fiona,” the Michelle woman seemed somewhat astonished and, if my shock induced brain was functioning remotely correct, a tad uneasy. “I don’t realize you were expecting.” Michelle let loose a tense titter and clutched her belly possessively. “Yes. I’m…um…five months along now. It’s Herbert’s,” she clarified in case anyone had a speck of doubt. “Yes, well congrats, darling.” Strobe spoke without ever taking her gaze off Michelle, and gave the top of her belly a swift and firm pat. To everyone’s shock and alarm, a pink plaid pillow fell to the floor with a smooth whoosh revealing Michelle’s true, smooth abdomen. For the second time in as many minutes, everyone, including Penguin Suit, who was evidently enjoying the show enough to momentarily disregard her duties, stared in bewilderment. I couldn’t blame her. I fleetingly considered continuing my innocent charade of being Giselle so I could be privy to more action (though I wasn’t willing to endure any more assault). But before I could contemplate the thought further, I felt a persistent tug as I was pulled surreptitiously out the hall through a back door just as Aunt Fiona (Strobe Light sounds so much better) launched into a sermon about the sin of exploiting unborn babies for the sake of deceit. When we’d fled at least a hundred yards away from the chapel, Becky breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Wow, that Gazelle chick has some awful taste. Who does gold wedding cards?” Rach mumbled. “Giselle,” I corrected, suddenly feeling a sense of compassion toward the oblivious bride who, undoubtedly, would suffer a hellish journey through matrimony. The anonymous woman’s impending misery almost made me feel better about my own quandary, even when Becky revealed that Nick had never returned my calls—until I collapsed into bed later that night and realized that I might live the rest of my life as an old, broke woman with a collection of designer shoes as my only companions. Chapter 10 Three’s a crowd Rachel “Did you hear the news?” Tracy, our youngest (and ditziest) bar tender asked as she dried and shelved several beer mugs. “Unless you’re talking about the Lakers losing, no.” I scrubbed down the mahogany bar with a stained dishcloth that was dabbed with a hint of disinfectant, and itched the tip of my nose with the back of my hand. It was my first night back at work after my sister’s failed attempt at eloping, and we were in the vigorous and timed process of closing down at break-neck speed. Strangely enough, I didn’t feel any sense of exuberation at her demise. In fact, the whole episode only served to upset me even more as it went to prove that no decent man existed. In a way, Liz’s situation was a thousand times worse than my own; at least I’d had the opportunity to confront Kyle and deliver payback in my own, if ineffective, way. Nick hadn’t had an ounce of decency to call Liz back so she could give him a piece of her mind. And as nonchalant as she tried to appear, her jumpiness at the sound of anything that even remotely resembled a ringtone gave her anxiousness away. In her own form of payback, Liz had taken us on extremely generous shopping sprees—on Nick’s dime, of course. But after a day of shopping and pampering to her heart’s content, Liz administered defeat. Instead of capitalizing on the “free ride” for a few more days, she’d insisted on returning home for a seasonal photo shoot, which Beck and I both knew was a cover up. I suspected that between Brazilian waxes and French manicures, she’d plotted an evil, well-deserved revenge for her ex-fiance. Tracy spun around and popped her head into my line of vision. “You’re kidding! You haven’t heard a word all night?” I shrugged and tossed the washcloth into a basket, then swiped a dry one and began wiping down the surface. Tracy’s idea of news was never anything earth-shattering. It typically centered around who was sleeping with whom, who she wanted to sleep with next and how many professors she’d slept with to pass classes. “We’re under new management—starting Monday.” I stopped mid-swipe and turned to face her. I could tell from her smug look and the triumphant way she crossed her arms that she was delighted at having (for once) successfully stupefied me. The Mixer had been owned by a sweet, middle-aged couple since I’d started as a trainee. Mark Atwood, who treated the staff more like friends than employees, had done a smash awesome job of nursing the business into joie de vivre, with my help, of course. His wife, Sadie, a sweet, mousy-haired woman with a petite frame and buxom bosom was his right hand behind the scenes in ensuring everything ran smoothly and keeping Johnny sane through days when sports tournaments and the onslaught of weekend patrons turned the place into sheer madness. Four years ago, the couple was devastated to learn that they would never be able to conceive. As a result, they’d devoted their life and energies to their business, much like a parent dedicates them self to nurturing and raising a child. Which is why this news was an utter and complete shock to me, probably much more so than it was to the rest of The Mixer’s rookie staff who hadn’t worked but more than a few months—a year, tops—at the place. “Are you sure you heard right?” From the top of a nearby trash stand, I snatched a brown tray that had the remnants of curly fries and nacho cheese and stacked several dirty mugs onto it. “With my own two ears,” Tracy swore. “They had a staff meeting yesterday and Johnny and Sadie made the announcement themselves.” Pushing through the silver kitchen door, I pondered this a moment as I unloaded dishes onto a side space where Marco, one of our servers, immediately rinsed and loaded them into the washer. “You got anything else out there? I got a date tonight.” Marco was popular with the ladies. Although he was squat and not all attractive, his suaveness and sweet talks got him lucky on more than a few nights. He oozed his charm extra strong on the weekends, when the apartment he shared with his cousin became particularly overbearing with boredom, in hopes of landing a different pad to spend the night in. I dumped the remnants of the tray into the trash and handed it to him. “That’s the last of it. Hey, did you hear the news?” He smirked as he wiped down the tray. “Ah, so Ms. Tracy here’s filled you in, eh?” He gave Tracy a flirtatious wink, but she just rolled her eyes at him and continued wiping. “I just can’t believe it.” I leaned against the counter and crossed my arms, not caring about the water that was soaking through the back of my t-shirt from the contact. “I mean what would make them do such a thing? They love this place!” “Looks like Tracey didn’t do a good job.” Marco’s eyes twinkled. Was there not a single soul here who didn’t graze off gossip? “Mrs. Atwood’s expecting.” Of all the things he could have possibly said, this I most definitely was not anticipating. “What? That’s amazing! So I guess the docs were wrong all these years, huh?” It was Marco’s turn to give me a puzzled glance as he vigorously dried down the counters. I changed the topic. “So do we know who the new management is?” “Not yet. Some young dude. He’s stopping by later this week to get some things in order before the transfer of ownership.” Great. “Things in order” most likely meant changes. Right when I was stuck in a conundrum and needed to save every penny I could manage so that I could get the hell out from under my mom’s roof, some doofus decides to make life even more miserable for me. Maybe this would be a good time to start looking for a new job. Or pursuing my Masters. God knew a Bachelor’s was now worth toilet paper. But the latter would only mean more time spent cohabiting with my mom as I paid my way through course materials and student loans. I exhaled and Marco mistook this as a sign of melancholy. “Don’t worry. I’m sure it won’t be too bad.” Tracey burst through the door waving a paper in my face. “I forgot to fax the inventory to the package store and I tried to do it now but it won’t go through.” I attempted to suppress an inward groan as I pushed off the counter and followed Trace’s swinging hips to the office where the fax machine was whirring up a storm. “I did it like, a hundred times. But it just won’t go!” She loaded the paper into the tray to prove her point, jabbed several numbers and pressed the green START button. A moment later, the paper when through the scanner and came back out and the screen flashed “Successful.” “There, it did it again!” Tracey screeched in frustration as she grabbed the sides of her head. “What?” I asked, thoroughly bamboozled. “It doesn’t fax the paper!” She grabbed the sheet off the tray and waved it in my face again as proof. “See!” This was exactly why a bachelor’s was now worth shit. My exasperation mounted and I had the sudden urge to stuff Tracey’s face through the fax. “Exactly how many times did you try to fax this?” I shook the paper in front of Tracey’s perplexed face. She wrinkled her nose as though she was preparing to sneeze. “Like, literally? Like a bazillion.” Without another word, I marched out of the room and located the number for the beverage store, which was, luckily, open till late and took ten minutes explaining to the dingbat owner (who stubbornly insisted on preparing an order seven times our required amount) that we had accidentally employed an imbecile who’d never learned to operate a fax. Said imbecile (who, I was now convinced was related to the aforementioned owner) popped into view with a smirk, which confused me for just a moment before I saw who trailed her. “Why the fuck did you let him in?” I slammed the phone into its hook. “Rach, I’ve been trying to contact you,” Kyle pleaded as he unzipped his jacket. “Fuck off.” I veered around the bend from behind the counter and threw Tracey a contemptuous look. She gave a devious shrug before untucking her shirt from her jeans and skittering into the bathroom. “I’m getting a divorce.” Kyle held out a manila envelope with the words confidential printed across in red. “I want you back.” Momentarily stunned, I pulled open the envelope and skimmed through the documents. Of course, I had no idea what divorce papers looked like, but the expensive language and indecipherable words hinted that this was the real thing. Unless Kyle had gone through unnatural lengths to dupe me. Again. I handed the pile back to him and crossed my arms. “It doesn’t matter. We can’t be together.” Kyle’s shoulder’s drooped. “I know I screwed up. I should have told you I was married. But the truth is, my marriage was over the day it began.” He sat on a barstool and lay his arms on the wood. “I got her pregnant when I was twenty; she was only eighteen. We were scared shitless. And her dad was a sheriff—which didn’t help the situation. I’d dated one person before her, and all throughout our marriage, I had several affairs. I wanted to experience what I’d never had the chance to. But after meeting you,” he looked into my eyes, “I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. I realized that if I wasn’t happy, I couldn’t expect to make anyone else happy.” Ignoring him, I moved behind the bar to retrieve my keys, cell phone and wallet. I knew I was doing a great job of guising nonchalance, but my insides were in absolute turmoil. I’d never allowed myself to get as close to anyone as I had to Kyle, and now I was paying the price. “Yeah, well you should have thought of all this before you lied to everyone.” Just then, the front door thumped open bringing with it a gust of wind—and Kyle’s brunette wife. “God all mighty,” I muttered, as I cursed moronic Tracey under my breath. She must have forgotten to lock the door. “Kyle, we need to talk.” His wife—Emma? Elsa?—wrung her hands and looked nervously between the two of us. “Elaine, how in the hell did you find me?” Aha! Elaine. I knew it was something with an E. The woman—Elaine—bit her lip and glanced down at her plain black pumps. Today she wore a baggy purple mohair sweater, a matching hairbow and “skinny jeans” that didn’t even properly cling to her tiny thighs. “I followed you.” Kyle shook his head. “El—” “Wait, let me talk. I was thinking about what you said…”she cast an anxious glance at me and stared down at her intertwined fingers, “and I know our…err…issues in the bedroom have driven you away.” “Please, can’t we—” Elaine cleared her throat. “Let me finish. I know I’m not a real excitement in bed and I can understand that you would want to…experiment. So, I agree to your stipulation.” “You what?” Kyle spun around on the stool looking completely amazed. “Yeah, you what?” I “I think that…having a… threesome…” here she cleared her throat and flushed beet red, “wouldn’t be a bad idea if there’s a chance we could save our marriage.” What the…? I knew the pieces to this puzzle fit together very clearly. Kyle had given Elaine an ultimatum—to have a freaking threesome (of all things) or get a divorce—and she’d refused the former. He’d marched here, hoping to coerce me into bed using divorce papers as bait. But for some reason, I still couldn’t wrap my mind around the reality of the bizarre dialogue unfurling into my very ears. “And,” Elaine continued in what sounded like a practiced monologue and turned to face me, refusing me the opportunity to lunge at Kyle for deceiving me yet again, “it’d be fine if Rachel joined us tonight for our first…time.” My jaw slackened as a moment of silence punctuated the air. The only sounds present were those of the dishwasher, and the heater blowing tufts of musty heat through the vents. I swung my eyes to Kyle who, believe it or not, wore a hopeful, bordering on pleading, expression. My resolve snapped but I restrained myself from reacting immediately. I’d have to do this very carefully if I wanted to seek sweet revenge. “Bye, Rach!” Tracey emerged from the bathroom just then dressed in a slinky red dress that barely covered her ass. Kyle licked his lips and appraised her rear view as she sashayed out the door in three-inch black heels. Oh, I’d pay him back alright. I’d pay him back good. I bit my lip and tried to appear thoughtful. “Well…” Kyle’s attention riveted back to me and I could tell he was hanging on my every breath. Elaine, on the other hand, looked petrified. “I don’t really have anything going on tonight. So…I guess I could close up here and meet you guys at your place?” “Yes!” Kyle jumped up knocking the stool over in the process. The metal struck loudly against the brick-red tiles emitting a displeasing sound. Marco popped his head out the kitchen door. “Everything okay out there?” “Yup,” I called. Once Marco retreated, Kyle slapped his hands and rubbed them excitedly. “Okay, come on, El. Let’s go back to our place and…er…get things ready for Rach. I’ll text you the address, Rach.” I didn’t bother asking what exactly it was that he wanted to get ready. I had a sneaking suspicion it had something to do with a camcorder and tripod. “Okay.” Elaine shuffled her feet. “But what about those divorce papers?” Kyle grabbed the envelope off the counter, pulled out its contents and shredded it before our eyes. “Those were originals, right?” I asked as I seized the shreds from his fingers and tossed them in the trash. It was the least I could assure for poor, innocent Elaine whose relief was written as clear as crystal on her naïve face. “Of course. I had only one copy.” Kyle put his arm around Elaine and flashed a cheesy smile. As they headed out, I plotted retribution and located a number. The phone rang twice before a man answered. “Yes, I’d like to hire a male escort, please. Oh, and sir, please tell the escort to be extra attentive to the guy. His name is Kyle and he’s just discovered his bisexuality. As you can imagine, he has a ton of pent up sexual tension from years of denial.” I opened the text Kyle sent me with his address and a bunch of evocative phrases and rattled off the street to the man. Then, inspired by Liz’s vengeance for Nick, I drew out my final weapon—Kyle’s credit card, which he’d let me borrow to pay for movie nachos and drinks. I read out the card number and gave my consent for the charge. Feeling extra generous, I added a hefty tip. Then I called a local florist and paid for a thousand black roses to be expeditiously delivered to my beloved ex. “Would you like to add a message, ma’am?” the lady on the other end queried in a bored tone. “Yes, please. Write: Hooray—you’re out of the closet! Xoxo, pumpkin.” Chapter 11 Cheater, cheater, cookie eater Becky Personal trainers are a breed of their own. When one envisions a Thanksgiving get together, images of a cozy venue with elegantly dressed individuals might spring to mind, followed by images of festive décor in fall colors, a turkey with all the trimmings—and best of all, dessert. Perhaps a pumpkin or pecan pie. But among Shawn and his group of colleagues, I was the alien species who’d crashed the fitter-than-thou party. Everything from my scoop-neck black dress—which, thanks to Claire, fit a few inches looser than it had three weeks ago—to my food preference, was off from the “norm.” Apparently, some time after the Indians had harvested corn and crops and the nation had accepted a savory bird as its official Thanksgiving staple, we’d sporadically switched preference to tofu turkey and three-ingredient, sugar-free, gluten-free desserts . Or at least that’s what the night’s menu alleged. Had I been forewarned, I would have gorged my first two meals of the day instead of saving the calories for dinner. Apparently, even this well-concentrated approach at caloric consciousness was frowned upon by Tracy, a personal trainer and colleague of Shawn’s, who, unlike me, was dressed comfortably (much like everyone else) in low-riding jeans and a slim-fit bright orange sweater. I was the only outcast in pencil-thin heels, pantyhose and silver jewelry that hung from every limb. “If you don’t eat, your body will go into starvation mode and start storing fat,” she informed me gravelly as she sipped on something green and questionable (supposedly a detoxifying drink composed of cucumber juice and chia seeds), only one of many odd dishes claiming residence on the plastic table that was plunked in the middle of the gym. Yes, that’s right. The gym. We weren’t, like you would assume, at a nice restaurant or even in a decent party room or banquet hall. The party was being hosted amid elliptical machines, Bo Flexes and yoga mats, the latter of which seemed to appear at random every now and again with the unmistakable intention of tripping me. Why people would arrange to host a Thanksgiving party at a place they spent the majority of their waking hours was completely beyond me. Wasn’t the whole point of parties to relax and enjoy your surroundings? But maybe the minds of personal trainers worked on a different level. Maybe the constant ingestion of natural, wholesome foods encouraged a heightened sense of appreciation for all things natural—in this case, the smell of sweat and armpit odor. “If you’re trying to lose weight, your best bet is five small meals with two to three hour gaps between each.” Here, Tracy paused thoughtfully and swished the drink in her mouth. Like mouthwash. I resisted the urge to belch on my olive oil–sautéed green beans (the only food that held any remote resemblance to my memories of Thanksgiving). “Or you could do like they did in the earlier part of the nineteen hundreds and ingest tape worms.” Trying to be as discreet as possible, I rested my fork in my plate and forced myself to swallow. Well, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about binging later—my appetite was officially extinct. Maybe I could hire Tracy to be my official hunger deterrent. I’d never have to count another calorie again, or heaven forbid, snack on tapeworms. Not that I was doing a bad job at losing weight all on my own. In fact, I was seven pounds lighter and feeling fabulous, though, admittedly, a bit grumpy and lethargic from my limited consumption. In fact, I could feel my irritation flaring that very moment. But truly, the fact that I was conversing with Tracy at all was my own fault. Well, okay, Shawn’s, if you got technical. Shawn had long ago meandered toward a boisterous group of boy and gal pals, forcing me to mingle on my own. “You won’t get a chance to really get to know anyone if I’m standing around steering the conversation,” he’d justified, his eyes already scanning the room for willing conversationalists. When I’d spotted Tracy alone near the quinoa protein bars (no joke, such a thing does exist), I’d approached her and tried to strike up a light conversation about how I’d starved myself so I could binge tonight. Apparently, that was the equivalent of confessing drug trafficking to a cop. And gauging from our discussion so far, why she’d been hanging solo was now as clear as water (which was also, according to Tracy, an important key to weight loss—drink half your weight in ounces, daily). Now, my eyes wandered toward Shawn, as Tracy droned on about the parasitic abilities of tapeworms and how they lived off fat, allowing one to burn several calories while eating everything imaginable. My gut clenched; however, not from Tracy’s questionable character, but from the fact that Shawn’s hand was wrapped around the slender hip of a super attractive brunette. Or maybe the fluorescent lights overhead had caught her at a favorable angle. I crossed my fingers in hope. Tracy, lucky for me, chose that moment to satiate her hunger with mixed greens and mashed cauliflower—both excellent sources of fiber, she’d informed me with pride before she began heaping on a helping of each. Grabbing the opportunity at hand, I tossed my hair, straightened my shoulders and walked toward Shawn, who was now whispering something into the brunette’s ear. Whatever he said was enough to elicit a peal of appreciative laughter from her and she turned a charming shade of pink. Everyone else in the group seemed to be talking amongst each other, oblivious to Shawn and his companion. As I neared them, my steps faltered, and I entertained the thought of fleeing the party altogether. The way the evening was panning out, I doubted Shawn would even notice—until it was time to go home. As always, I’d driven. I gathered courage, took a deep breath, and tapped Shawn on the shoulder closest to the brunette. “Becky, hey.” Shawn seemed a bit surprised to see me, as though he’d forgotten I was there. He took hold of my arm and pulled me into the circle. “Everyone, this is my girlfriend, Becky. Becky, this is Stephen, Fiona, Ralph, and Suzanne.” So the brunette had a name: Suzanne. “Nice to see you all.” A few years ago at a women’s conference, I’d learned that the safest way to greet people was to use the word “see” instead of “meet,” in the event you were introduced to someone who you’d already met but didn’t remember. I smiled at everyone, taking special care to check out Suzanne, whose plate, I couldn’t help but notice, was filled with the healthiest pickings from the buffet. She’d piled one-fourth with “tofurkey” (I could’ve sworn that was a real word), another fourth with baked sweet potato and the remaining half with a medley of vegetables. Further to my distraught, I realized that the lights had not created an illusion of beauty. Suzanne was indeed very attractive. Her eyes, as aquamarine clear as the water in the pictures I’d seen of Bora Bora, were outlined tastefully with dark kohl on the upper lids and black mascara, which gave definition and allure to what I would assume, based on her hair color, were mousy lashes. Her figure was the perfect hourglass and her complexion was creamy with the slightest spatter of freckles over the bridge of her nose and under her eyes. To an untrained eye, the hint of her expertly applied blush could pass as the reflection from her red form-hugging sweater. Black tights clung to curvy hips and then well-toned thighs, which tapered down to petite size seven-ish feet, clad in silver ballet flats. “Nice to meet you, too, Becky.” Suzanne’s soft-as-a-petal voice snapped me to attention. She gave an awkward smile, making me realize that she’d caught me staring. “Wow, Nick. You never mentioned you were dating a bombshell,” a balding man with a dark goatee, the one Shawn had introduced as Stephen, said. For a moment I thought he was talking about Suzanne, but then he gave me a friendly wink and I suppressed a sigh of relief, feeling like a moron for even letting the thought cross my mind. Shawn was many things, but he was for sure not a two-timer. Though a moment ago, I’d been questioning the very possibility. Shawn shrugged and took a quick bite of couscous (I only knew because I’d seen the label on the buffet). “Yeah, I guess you could say that.” I smiled tightly in an attempt to disguise my disappointment and embarrassment at his blasé response. “He’s just being modest,” Fiona, a spike-haired blonde with dull, brown eyes, came to my defense. Ralph took a sip from a floral-rimmed plastic cup and nodded in agreement. I wanted to envelope them in bone-crushing embraces. “Of course she’s pretty,” Shawn finally confirmed, his eyes traveling down the length of me. “In fact, a few inches off here and there and she’d give Jessica Alba a good fight in a swimsuit competition, right babe?” He winked. My face froze. I’ve lost weight! I felt like screaming, but the words wouldn’t emerge. What was the point of tooting my own horn if he hadn’t noticed the three inches that were missing from my waist? Or the gap that, for the first time since high school, was present between my thighs. “She looks perfectly fine to me,” Suzanne said, and I noticed the slightest hint of a Southern accent. Shawn sidled up to her and pulled her to his side. “You are just too kind, darling. But if you really want to help Beck, maybe you could give her some pointers on how you got that killer figure of yours.” He turned to me. “Just two years ago, Suzanne was, what? Two hundred pounds? Somewhere close?” He looked for confirmation from Suzanne, who turned crimson and nodded. I was both relieved that Shawn’s malicious comments extended beyond me, yet horrified for Suzanne, who was suddenly the focus of scrutiny. “Wow.” Fiona put her two-inch, purple manicured fingers to her heart. “Honey, I never would have guessed.” And then in a loud, theatrical whisper, “Do you have any loose skin?” I’d had enough. I put my hand on Shawn’s shoulder and whispered, “I’m tired. Is it okay to head out?” “Right now?” Shawn was clearly torn between choosing to partake in the conversation unraveling or forgoing the worry of having to hitch a ride. After a moment’s reluctance, he bade his goodbyes, which consisted of hugs for everyone including one for Suzanne that seemed to last a few moments longer than the rest. On the drive home, as Shawn connected pieces of gossip to each person I’d met, my mind danced around the idea of confronting him about his flirtatious manner. After much thought, I decided to keep shut, fearful that I would come across as insecure and pathetic. Later that night, long after I’d brushed my teeth and scrubbed off the last vestiges of makeup, I lay awake to the sound of Shawn’s comments. Could it really be that I had a distorted perception of my body? In the mirror, I seemed OK—not perfect by any means, but not fat, either. Given, the standard for the ideal woman’s body had changed drastically within the last decade. Would I look infinitesimally better with a few pounds shaved off? Ok, maybe that was a stupid question. Who didn’t look and feel better after they lost weight? And I did, undoubtedly, weigh the most from me, Rach and Liz. Shawn’s ruthlessness might serve as grounds for a breakup for most women, but for me, the goading fueled motivation to try harder and prove my capabilities. That and I knew that Shawn, in his own twisted way, had my best interests (as well as his own) somewhere in his heart. My stomach grumbled in protest and I rolled over to silence it, but that only drew pressure to my forehead, where a migraine had been pounding for the last two hours. Hadn’t Tracy said that caloric restrictions could lead to weight gain, or something to that effect? I hadn’t had much the entire day and I certainly wouldn’t be able to get any shut eye at this rate. My survey of the refrigerator revealed scrumptious leftovers from the past few nights: lasagna, tuna casserole, beef stroganoff, and a few others that I couldn’t make out through the colorful Tupperware. My mouth watered as I plucked the container of lasagna, heated it and then carried it up to my room, where I cuddled into the sheets and delved into the al dente folds coated with ricotta cheese and meat sauce. I tried to guesstimate the number of calories in the dish, but after the last bite, the craving for something sweet was so overpowering that I grabbed the box of Chips Ahoy from under my bed and willed Shawn and my diet to hell. Chapter 12 An Italian affair ~LIZ~ “Moira’s been waiting to meet you.” The disdain in my dad’s voice was as transparent as a white t-shirt on a rainy day. “Er…yeah. I know, Dad. I’ve been really busy with work.” I wasn’t one to feign interest. I didn’t want to meet Moira. I hated Moira. I hated her name. Moira. It even sounded evil. And it wasn’t only me who hated her. We all hated her: Rachel, Becky and even Mom, though she faked nonchalance. Dad expelled a huge sigh. “Listen, honey. I know this isn’t easy on you guys. You know, me being with Moira and her being…um…fairly young and everything. But if only you’d give her a chance, I think you would really like her.” “Yeah, well, as long as you’re happy, I don’t think it makes a difference what we all think.” I tried to keep the bitterness from creeping into my tone but was unsuccessful in doing so. “Of course it makes a difference, darling. I want you all to like her as much as I do.” I flipped on my right indicator and turned onto L’ville Suwanee Road. Suddenly, I felt hot. I punched off the heat, rolled down my window and allowed the cold breeze to cut through my senses. Luckily, my hair was gathered in a slick ponytail, so I didn’t have to worry about messing up my appearance. “Well, gee, Dad. That might be impossible,” I said speaking up through the sound of the wind. “Or maybe not. I mean, let’s see. Moira and I are practically the same age, right?” I waved my right hand in front of me, clearing the air of that statement. “Or, sorry, I think she’s, what? Two years younger than me? In which case, I can give her a few pointers about which moisturizers prevent premature aging.” Dead silence. I cut off the slow poke in front of me, still waiting for a response. “Fine, sweet pea. I thought I could expect more from you. Especially considering that you’ve always been so open minded about age not being a factor in your own relationships, but I can see now that I was wrong to assume the same would apply to me.” If I were a dart board, dad’s words would have hit my bullseye. Guilt suddenly swathed me. He was right. I’d dated men of all ages, demographics and backgrounds. Each time, I’d mistakenly thought I was in love. There’d been Rafael, the guitarist with the nipple piercing and then Rico, the porn star, and then that older investment banker in his fifties who had been a riot in bed. What was his name? David? And then so many others in between. I’d seen them all. I still remembered each one with vivid clarity. I’d had a chance to make those mistakes. And if Dad wanted another chance at happiness, who was I to stand in his way wielding a big red stop sign? I took a deep breath and rolled up the window, allowing the car to settle back into an envelop of warmth. I hated what I was about to admit. “You’re right,” I responded, begrudgingly. “I’m being judgmental and Myra deserves a chance.” “Moira.” “Yeah, her.” “So does that mean you’ll set some time aside to meet her?” I pressed my lips together, still unable to believe what I’d managed to finagle my way in to. I really had to work on learning to choose my words. “Yeah, we’ll do that.” But I should have known my response wouldn’t suffice. “When?” my dad eagerly prompted. I could imagine his fingers poised above his Blackberry, ready to punch in a date and time. The divorce had been rough on us all. Even though Rachel, Becky and I had been in our early twenties and living on our own (except for Becky, who always seemed to gravitate toward home), the news had been unpleasant, yet, we all knew, long overdue. After thirty-five years of marriage, mom and dad had grown apart. And it had struck them the moment the three of us went our separate ways. The empty nest syndrome, except with an extreme repercussion—divorce. The announcement had come in the most unexpected, most humiliating manner possible. We’d been seated under a white canopy on Destin’s shore during my cousin Lisa’s afternoon beach reception. Seashell chimes, strung strategically around the borders of the tent, tinkled against the sound of the ocean waves. Servers strolled about with aluminum lidded entrees that carried lemon braised chicken and broiled fish with sides of wild rice and sautéed vegetables. Servers in white chef hats and starched white shirts monitored a table located in the back, which displayed plates of key lime and coconut cream pies. I remembered all this because I remember grimacing at the fact that the menu was a calorie-laden disaster. Someone tinkled their wine glass with the tong of their fork and everyone followed suit, creating musical cacophony against the sound of the chimes, cuing the bride and groom to perform their obligatory duty. Lisa looked longingly at her groom and obligingly leaned in for a passionate kiss. The guests clapped and murmured their appreciation before returning to their meals. Mom, dad, Becky, Rachel and I were seated at a reserved table nearest the stage. Lisa’s parents, Herbert and Barbara, and Lisa’s brother, Bobby, were at the table to the right of us. Bobbi, big into sniffing and snorting any and every drug imaginable already looked cross-eyed and dopey, like someone had conked him over the head with a tiki torch. As the best man wove his way toward the stage to make his speech, I could tell something was terribly amiss. Mom and dad hadn’t exchanged a word the entire day, which meant an imminent storm was brewing. The tension in the air was so thick, I could barely swallow my lemon water, let alone enjoy the few bites of fish which I’d allowed myself to indulge in (only after receiving affirmation from the nearest server that the oil content was zilch). The best man tapped the mic and looked up, making sure the resulting thump echoed throughout the speaker system. “Hello, friends and family of the bride and groom,” he started, looking out at the audience. He clutched a small index card in one hand and straightened the bow tie on his gray tux with the other. I snuck a glance at mom and dad. They were stock still and dead silent, their eyes fixed firmly on the stage. “Hope you all are enjoying the food. I know Chad here is envious of us all for eating so freely in front of him while he’s resisting the urge to tear down the table of key limes back there.” Chuckles. “Speaking of which, Lisa? You know that saying ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’?” Bobby slyly plucked something out of his pocket and a moment later stuffed his pinky finger into his nose, heaving a sigh. If I hadn’t known better, I’d think he was itching a scratch. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw mom mutter something under her breath. Her words were undoubtedly directed at dad. Rach noticed, too, because our eyes locked and I think our pupils might have even dilated at the same moment. It was a natural reflex. One that we’d developed after years of observing and recognizing the signs of a fast unraveling war. Little did we know that what we were soon to experience would be the granddaddy of them all. “Well,” the best man continued, “We always suspected Chad of having a second stomach in place of a heart.” More laughter. Dad coughed something under his breath and patted his mouth with a white cloth napkin. Mom threw him a murderous look and flushed red, at which point my curiosity peaked. I wanted to skooch closer to hear the exchange. The best man carried on, oblivious to the steadily increasing rumble from our table. He went on to conclude that Chad had proved everyone wrong about not having a heart when he’d fallen hard for Lisa, whom he’d met at roadside when her light-blue Kia experienced its first flat. When he asked her if she had a Stephanie, she’d assumed he was asking for a ménage a trois, and had kicked him in the shin before running for cover inside her disabled car. After Chad rephrased his question to make the request more comprehendible to my cousin, Lisa apprehensively allowed him access to her trunk (no pun intended), where the Stephanie lay, and offered to treat him to some homemade Chicken Gorgonzola, which happened to be one of his favorites, to make up for her rash behavior. By now, the rumbling had become an unabashedly loud, heated argument, which I could clearly hear. In fact, Lisa’s parents could clearly hear too. I knew this because aunt Barbara was looking directly at mom, her eyebrows creased in concentration as she nodded agreement to a comment my mom was making about my dad not appreciating her performance in the kitchen. In fact, I could swear she’d shot Uncle Herbert a dark look when my mom defiantly protested that this was a new age where men and women were to take equal responsibility for work and chores. And if my dad didn’t appreciate her culinary skills, he himself could very easily pick up a pan and whip together something satisfactory to his taste buds. The stupid or deaf (take your pick) best man, had his face stuck too far up his ass to take notice or care of the debacle taking place a mere ten feet away. “And so, my dear friend figured that any damsel in distress who could concoct a great meal was definitely a damsel worth keeping,” the best man concluded. “Shut up, Dick!” My mom clambered to her feet and hurled her napkin onto the table. Her voice carried strongly throughout the canopy (and probably the entire Destin shore) and cut through the pleasant sounds of beach life. The best man, mistakenly thinking she was addressing him, stood frozen, his mouth agog, probably wondering what the hell he’d said to elicit such a bold reaction. A hundred and fifty pairs of inquisitive eyes, manifest of curiosity, swiveled to regard us. Aunt Barbara, I could swear, smiled and gave a quick, indignant nod of approval before assuming an impassive expression. She was clearly enjoying this more than her only daughter’s reception. I snuck a quick look at my cousin. Her face was scrunched in confusion, and she was clinging to Chad’s arm as though she suspected my mom would at any moment pull out a grenade and bomb us all to smithereens. Bobby seized the distraction and snorted up a thumb full of powder, looking instantaneously gratified and buzzed. “Weddings rock!” he cried. For a brief moment, everyone gaped at him before turning their attention back to the main attraction. “Sit down, you’re embarrassing yourself, Beverly,” my dad muttered through gritted teeth. “You’re embarrassing me!” Mom was menopausal. Her hormones had probably picked that particular moment to go on a rampage—much to the appreciation of every gossip monger present. Dad’s jaw hung open, and I think mine did too (I sure as hell hope that idiot of a photographer, who was snapping pictures of me while I was trying to enjoy the few bites of fish I’d permitted myself, didn’t capture me at that moment, damn him). Mom, the epitome of decorum and etiquette, never made a scene of herself in public. “Thirty-five years is too damn long, Dick. Too damn long to put up with your shit! I want a divorce.” At which point my father pursed his lips and said, “I’ll call my attorney tomorrow.” At which point my mother tried to one up him by saying, “I’m going to call mine right now!” I didn’t have the heart to ask her if she actually even had an attorney. But my dad got the last word. “For chrissake, it’s Sunday, Bev. Good luck trying to get a hold of someone!” So as one couple was entering wedded bliss, another was slitting its matrimonial throat for hundreds to see. The irony of it now strikes me. I pulled my mind back to the present. Now I’d have to meet Myra or Meera, or whatever the hell her name was. “She’s free next week,” my dad urged. “Maybe the two of you could go for lunch. You know, get to know each other one on one.” “Um, yeah. Actually I was thinking that it wouldn’t be fair for me to meet her without Beck and Rach. Let me ask them what their schedule looks like next week and I’ll get back to you.” No way in hell was I going to meet this woman on my own. There were limits to how far I could be pushed, even when being encompassed with guilt. Plus, if I was going to be dragged into this, my sisters were coming down with me. “Tonight?” my ever persistent dad urged. “Yes, tonight,” I huffed. After I disconnected, my thoughts settled back into their normal routine of dwelling on my newfound misery, as they’d done the last few days. I still hadn’t heard from Nick, and my initial anger had now simmered to hurt and disbelief. My ego had taken a serious beating, though I would never in my wildest dreams reveal to anyone just how distraught the incident had made me. Distraught? Yes. Heartbroken? Hell no. I was never in love with Nick. (And, no, I’m not just saying that to feign indifference now that the chances of a wedding between us are nada.) I always imagined ours to be a marriage of convenience—well, convenient for me, anyway. I couldn’t work forever, nor did I have the inclination to embark on a brand spanking new career path at an age when most women were hugging babies to their boobs and fighting off cellulite. Not that I planned to do either. Nick was a natural option: he was wealthy, easy going, malleable and not very attractive (which meant a smaller chance of future infidelities, by my estimates anyway). But why or how he’d had the courage to stand me up at the alter and then refuse to answer or return my calls was beyond my comprehension. Many times, I’d been tempted to call him on his work number, but fear of unveiling an unfavorable truth always kept me from dialing. It had, of course, also occurred to me that Nick might be in grave danger. Maybe he’d been kidnapped by beings from another galaxy or maybe he’d met with a fatal accident. But wouldn’t there have been some confirmation by now —three days later—of Nick’s disappearance off planet earth? I maneuvered around a red pickup and turned left into Town Center Park. The park, which was normally populated beyond belief in the summer months, was now nearly isolated. Trees and shops outlining the park’s northern perimeter were lit with multi-colored Christmas lights, and lampposts that cast premature light into the evening held wreaths laced with red ribbon. City hall, a magnificent white marble structure, stood prominently at the center of the plaza. The clock on the building’s outer wall displayed the time: six thirty-three. Normally, under the current circumstances, I would not be out and about. I would be wallowing, as I had been doing secretly for the last three days, in misery with my two favorite men as of late—Ben & Jerry. But I’d been struck with a sudden craving for Italian. And not just for any Italian, but Ippolitos, a local Italian restaurant that could give Olive Garden a run for its business. Since I wasn’t a fan of dining solo, I’d decided to pick up the food (and maybe a bottle of wine) and grab a chick flick from Red Box. Inside the restaurant, the smell of garlic rolls and marinara permeated the air. My mouth watered. I hadn’t stepped foot in here in ages, and the fact that the restaurant had made it through the economic recession spoke loudly of its success among patrons. The hostess took my name, asked me for an autograph (see, normal people knew who I was!) and seated me while my order of Linguine broccoli (what? I couldn’t completely let myself go, could I?) was packed. As I waited at a wooden table with a white and jungle-green checked tablecloth, I could swear my jeans felt tighter than they had just moments ago. It seemed as though the air itself was infused with calories, fat and cholesterol. I stood up and began pacing around. Somehow I’d have to get back into shape in two weeks, when I was due for a winter shoot in Atlanta. There was no way I could afford to lose my job because of a few measly pounds, especially now that Nick was no longer in the picture. Tension pooled in my gut and I rolled my head from side to side to release the sudden stiffness in my neck. A loud guffaw of laughter caught my attention. A man in a corner table was chortling uncontrollably at something his dinner companion was saying. I froze. The aforementioned companion looked a little too familiar for my comfort: the grey suit, ramrod straight back, blond hair (very sparse at the top), right hand deftly holding a fork in a thirty-degree angle three inches away from a salad bowl. My breath caught in my throat. It couldn’t be. But it sure as hell was. I inched closer just to make sure. “Ms. Parker,” trilled a waitress, “your dinner is ready to go. Our apologies for the wait. We wrapped you some extra garlic bread.” Suddenly, everything happened at once. The waitress, all teeth and smiles, handed me a plastic bag; Nick craned his neck at the sound of my name, fork still poised over his salad bowl; and I felt as though the weight of the world had suddenly been compacted and stuffed into the white dinner bag. I struggled to maintain my composure and respiration as I handed my card over to the waitress, my eyes never leaving Nick’s. Without missing a beat, I sauntered over to my ex fiancé, raised my chin and placed a hand on my hip. My body was definitely on autopilot, because never in all the scenarios I’d envisioned this moment to be like, had I ever been this calm or collected. In fact, if my daydreams were to play out precisely, Nick would have had two red hand imprints across both his cheeks right about now. And he would have to surgically replace his own eyes. “Hello, Doctor Grey.” I crossed my arms over my chest. Nick stumbled to his feet, knocking over his glass of root beer. His companion bolted up to avoid the slither of the auburn liquid, but it was too late. He definitely looked like he’d had a big-boy accident in his pants. Nick was oblivious to it all. “Liz. Oh. Wow.”. My blood simmered. “Oh fucking wow? That’s all you have to fucking say to me? After you made me take off work to travel hundreds of fucking miles for the wedding that your ass never showed up for?” Ok, so this was more like the Liz I’d imagined. “Liz, I’m sorry. My phone —” “You know what, Nick?” My voice was just the slightest bit wobbly, but the tears were blinding. They weren’t tears of pain. They were tears of humiliation, of embarrassment at being cast aside like last year’s collection of mauve lip stain. I was beyond humiliated at being stood up by a pathetic loser whom I’d wasted two entire years on. “Just go fuck yourself. Because that’s the only type of fucking you’re good at anyway.” I spun on my heel to leave, but hesitated just a moment. I had to do one last thing—for old time’s sake. I sneered at Nick. Then, in one swift movement, I hoisted his salad bowl and dumped it over his head. This time, I didn’t wait for security escort. **** There should be a law against driving when you’re infuriated. It’s pretty much the same as drunk driving. Or texting and driving. Or driving when you’re ninety-three. I don’t quite recall how I made it to the car, or for that matter, how I even operated the car out of the parking lot and toward home. At a crosswalk, I nearly collided into a pedestrian (a lady with a neon orange parka and blue leggings who was walking her golden retriever—with that kind of fashion sense, I probably would have done her a favor). At a tricky intersection, I halted two centimeters short of bashing a stop sign, and as I was finally veering into a parking slot, I trumped the curb. Once safely inside my apartment, I threw my cardigan on the dining room table, ripped off my sweater and stripped out of my jeans, not bothering to pick up the trail of clothing. A Diet Coke from the fridge was my only companion (in my haste, I’d forgotten all about the wine and had conveniently left the Ippolitos in the car) as I sunk into bed in nothing except my Tracy’s Treasures bra and panties. The down comforter felt cool and comforting against my skin. I popped open my drink and took a deep swig. It felt like I’d just finished running a triathlon. The encounter with Nick kept replaying through my head. More than anything, I was upset at myself for breaking down in front of him the way I had. I was mad that he’d seen the tears and knew that he’d probably mistake them to mean something they didn’t. A part of me also regretted not allowing Nick to offer me an explanation. I deserved one after all, dammit. He’d said something about his phone. What about it? Had it fallen into the toilet? Had he left it behind at the conference? That would have been an issue, perhaps even enough to miss our wedding, specifically because it was a company-paid device. I closed my eyes and held the cold can of soda against my cheek. What if I had permanently damaged a situation that could have otherwise been repairable? But that still didn’t explain why Nick hadn’t called me after he returned from the conference. If he had time to make dinner plans with a friend (the man’s boisterous cackle could only suggest that the conversation had most definitely not been a work-related one. I wonder if they were laughing about me…), then he could most certainly call me to apologize and offer an explanation. Nothing made sense, or maybe I didn’t want it to. Maybe I wanted to believe that no man in his right mind would ever purposely give up a commodity like me. I wanted to hear that there was an acceptable reason behind the weekend’s events. I wished that Nick had been seized by aliens. At least that way I’d be on the news giving interviews, my ego fully intact. But no. Here I was, twenty-nine years old with nothing left of my life except a career that would probably fall to tatters in the coming months. Not only was my body a time bomb, but also my job, which seemed to be running in a parallel path alongside it. I fell asleep somewhere between these thoughts. I awoke to the sound of footsteps and loud voices from outside my window. I flipped on my bedside lamp. My pink high-heel shaped wall clock read eight-thirty. It was still early. I had a whole week to myself and absolutely nothing to do. I should have been on my honeymoon—the one Nick and I were supposed to book immediately after our wedding ceremony. The doorbell rang, and I sprang upright and instinctively covered myself with the comforter. Who the hell? I grabbed my cell from next to me and looked at the display screen. Thirteen missed calls. Two from Becky, nine from Nick and two from numbers I didn’t recognize. My phone had been on silent. I ground my head against the palm of my hand just as the doorbell emitted yet another impatient buzz. After snatching my white silk robe from behind the bathroom door, smoothening my hair and taking a deep breath, I yanked open the front door. “Nine fucking calls? Now you—” I stopped short. Becky’s bewildered face gawked back at me. “Ugh.” I stalked back inside. “Let me guess, Nick?” Becky closed the door behind her and I plopped down on the couch and crossed my legs. “He’s such a fucking moron. Why are you here?” Beck took a seat on the couch opposite me and squinted. “Were you sleeping?” “Napping.” “It’s almost nine.” “I know. I wanted to take a nap.” “I called you to see if you wanted to do dinner. When you didn’t answer, I got worried.” She forked over a plastic bag. “Jade Dragon. Steamed tofu with brown sauce, no sugar or oil.” Grateful, I took the bag and tore it open. Suddenly, I was ravenous. “Did he call you to apologize?” Beck shrugged out of her jacket and tried unsuccessfully to hide a look of pity. “Worse. I bumped into him at Ippolitos while he was dining with a friend.” Beck leaned forward, eyes wide, and whispered, “A girl friend?” I waved my hand and took a bite of tofu and broccoli. “Ha! If that were the case, you’d be visiting me in jail right now.” Beck grimaced, as though she didn’t doubt it. I wasn’t that bad, was I? Ok, so maybe I was a tad bit violent at times. “I told him to fuck off and then dumped a salad on him. Mmm. This tofu is delish.” Becky’s eyes widened even more. Sometimes I wondered how someone so innocent could have occupied the same womb as me. Becky was as tranquil as I was senseless. I handed her a small Styrofoam box and she extracted a crab Rangoon. I looked at her questioningly, surprised that she wasn’t counting every morsel. “It’s my cheat day,” she explained. “Did he tell you why he didn’t show?” “I didn’t give him the chance.” “Yeah, well, I guess between the screaming and the salad…But it doesn’t really matter anyway, right? I mean what possible reason could he have for…doing what he did.” I resisted the urge to wince. “Beck, you can say it. He left me at the alter. He’s a jackass. It’s okay, I’m over it.” “Really?” Beck looked dubious. “Yes, really. Hand me a Rangoon.” Now she looked extremely doubtful, but she slowly, obligingly handed over the box, as though it were a pack of explosives. “So…what now?” I shrugged. “I don’t know.” She took a bite of Rangoon and chewed thoughtfully. “Aren’t you off this week?” I lifted a shoulder and tried to shift the conversation. “Hey, you want to get some hot chocolate?” Beck scrunched her face. “Right now?” “No, silly, after we finish eating.” Beck popped the rest of the Rangoon in her mouth and plopped back against the plush couch. “Liz, how long are you going to do this?” I tossed my empty carton into the plastic bag and stood to retrieve a new can of Diet Soda from the fridge. “Do what?” “This. This is exactly what I mean. You’re eating like you’ve never seen food before, your place looks like a sty. This isn’t you!” I tossed her a can of Coke. “So what? For once in my life I’m living without reserve.” “Liz, I’m not stupid.” I bit the inside of my cheek. Unfortunately for me, my sister was right. She wasn’t stupid. And right now, I was tired of pretending that I wasn’t the least bit concerned about my future. “What can I do? I’ve ruined my life.” I threw my hands up in the air in a gesture of surrender. Beck gathered the trash and dumped it in the bin, then returned with glass cleaner and a paper towel. “Just three days ago, I was ready to spend the rest of my life with a man who is now the equivalent of a complete stranger to me. I have no social life because I’ve been too busy trying to lure said man into marrying me. Hell, I can’t even afford this fucking apartment without Nick’s help!” Beck paused her swiping of the coffee table. “Don’t you make six figures?” I nodded feebly. “Oh, dear gosh, Liz!” “I’m up to my neck in bills! I have no idea how!” Ok, that was a lie. All I had to do was look around me. The Tempurpedic mattress that kept me comfy and eliminated my chances of back pain every night (not that I’d ever experienced back pain before…); the thousand thread-count sheets (hey, you can’t get an amazing mattress and then cheap out on the sheets); the blue Desa rug I’d purchased for over a thousand dollars from Pottery Barn (the salesman told me it was made from individually dyed wool fibers and was hand tufted—whatever that means); and even my Kirby vacuum, which I’d paid over two thousand for (at that time, I never knew I’d have Blanca, my beyond amazing cleaning lady, who brought her own cleaning supplies and was supporting an entire village of aunts, uncles grandparents and children in Honduras with her meager pay). And we hadn’t even touched my wardrobe, where I’d easily invested the equivalent of a complete Stamford tuition. To top it off, my rent alone cost over four grand every month—perks of living in the heart of midtown. “My finance advisor said that if I want to repair my credit, we’re going to have to set up payment plans.” “I have an idea, but you’re probably not going to like it.” “I’m not exactly swimming in options at the moment.” I was near hysterics. Up until that moment, I hadn’t even considered my living situation. My salary was munificent, but my lifestyle was a bit…err…excessive. Financing and budgeting had never been my strong suits—I had my college report cards to prove it—which probably explained why I lived paycheck to paycheck in spite of my generous earnings. All in all, I was doomed. Becky put the cleaning supplies away and gathered my clothes from the floor. I noticed her jeans were a little saggy around the thighs, and when she bent, I caught sight of red granny panties. I didn’t even know granny panties still existed. Okay, so maybe I did, but seriously? Who ever wore granny panties anymore, except grannies? And I bet my La Perla bra that even some of those grannies would put my baby sister’s taste in undergarments to shame. I received a ridiculous discount at Tracy’s Treasures. Why she never took advantage of my resources was beyond a mystery to me. “I think you should move back in with mom.” Beck called from the laundry room as she threw my clothes in the hamper. The declaration nearly gave me an aneurysm. Coke flew through my nostrils and I swiped at it with the back of my silk sleeve. “Are you fucking kidding me?!” My sister reappeared and gave me a helpless shrug as she resumed her place on the sofa. “I told you you wouldn’t like it.” “Like it? That’s most absurd thing I’ve heard in…forever!” Becky popped open her can and took a slow sip. “Well, what else do you have in mind?” I gave her a stupefied look. “Umm anything except moving in with mom. Oh, gosh, and now Rachel’s there too? I mean I’m broke, not disabled.” Becky shrugged. “I thought I’d put it out there. What are you going to do all the way out here by yourself?” I traced my finger alongside the suede fabric of the couch. “Shop? Go out?” I winced. Okay, so maybe those weren’t the best ideas considering that I had to somehow find a way to stop spending money. But surely I could come up with something other than moving back in with my family. “It won’t be a permanent thing,” Becky pressed. I was silent. There was no way in hell I was considering this for even a nanosecond. “I’ll figure it out somehow.” Becky wasn’t giving up. “What’s so horrible about living with us?” I raised my eyebrows. Us? Now they were a team? “Beck, it’s not you, you know that. Mom has these…these…rules. And routines,” I moved my hands in circular motions. “I feel smothered. I don’t know how you do it.” “She’s not that bad,” Beck muttered as she set her can on a glass coaster. “I need my space. I don’t want someone breathing down my neck about what I ate for breakfast and whether I folded my laundry.” Becky frowned. “Yeah, I guess she can be a little overwhelming sometimes, huh?” My mom was a little of nothing. And that’s why I couldn’t bear even the thought of sharing a roof with her. I’d worked so hard for my independence. No way was I going to relive to my teenage memories by relying on her for shelter. Never ever. Not over my battered Manolos. Chapter 13 Tiny favor, huge mistake Rachel I’ve made many mistakes in life. Take for example my career path (or lack, thereof), the men I’ve dated, the time I attempted to beat a red light only to be pulled over by the cop who was not so obscurely waiting for culprits like me in a corner ditch. But none of these combined came even close to stacking up against my most current one—deciding to re-cohabit with my mom. Tuesday morning, as I shuffled through the pantry in search of my morning grub, I was reminded, yet again, about the foolishness of this decision. “Morning, honey.” My mom glided into the kitchen and gave me a quick peck on the cheek. She was dressed in black slacks and a baby blue u-neck sweater that wrapped around her noticeably slimmer form and wore a matching multi-layered, necklace. So Becks had been right; my mother was most definitely practicing some sort of diet/workout routine. But then again, it seemed that lately everyone in the house was (with the exception of, of course, yours truly). Which would explain why it took me twenty minutes to find something edible and non diet-ish to devour. I found my lucky victim—a pack of pop-tarts—buried in a recess of the pantry. It was a lonesome duo, imprisoned within the confines of a thin aluminum-ish wrap and wedged between behind a box of protein powder (Becky’s?) and Kashi cereal (blek!). “Darling, what are your plans for this evening?” Mom snatched her keys off the key hook (hadn’t anyone ever told her that key hooks were an open invitation for burglars?) and gave me an expectant look. “Umm…I’m working.” I bit into the pop-tart and swiped my mouth. Thankfully it was still edible. God only knew how long it had been sitting around. “Till when?” “Six.” I paused, suddenly wary of how safe it was to disclose this information to my curious, prying mother. Surely there was a calculated reason behind this line of questioning. “Perfect. I’ll call Linda and confirm.” She air kissed me and I caught a whiff of her favorite perfume, Estee Lauder, before she headed toward the door that led to the garage. “What? Confirm what?” She spun around. “I thought I told you.” Then she smacked her forehead with, what seemed to my perceptive eyes, practiced dramatization. “Oh, that’s right. I was going to tell you but with all the confusion the other night about the potluck selections for our book club meeting, I must have forgotten.” She retreated to the garage and I followed. “Okaaayy,” I said, still waiting for an explanation. Mom retrieved a pair of black pumps off the shoe shelf (no shoes allowed in the house) and slipped into them. “You know Linda from my church group, right?” I scrunched my eyebrows together, still trying to determine the direction in which the conversation was headed. “Um. No.” I didn’t even know she had a church group, whatever that was. Mom sighed as though I were the biggest waste of time. “Honey, Linda Brokowsky.” I gave her a blank stare. She rolled her eyes. “You’re doing dinner with her son, Chris.” “Uhhh, when did I make these dinner plans? And who is Chris?” At this, my mother pressed the garage button and laughed what sounded to my ears like an evil cackle. The whole scene reminded me of a witch fleeing her abode, leaving her hostage within its evil walls. I looked around for signs of bats. “You didn’t, dear. I did. It’s a favor I’m returning. She graciously hosted our last gathering at her place when it was actually my turn. I had a last minute emergency, you see.” She dug her cell phone out of her Coach handbag and began to dial. I quickly snapped out of my state of disbelief. “Mom!” I screamed. The cell phone tumbled out of her hands and hit the cement floor below. “I’m not dating some dude just because you owe his mother a favor.” Mom scooped her phone off the floor and examined it for damage (thank goodness Becky had invested in an Otterbox, otherwise I’d be in some serious trouble). “Now listen, Rachel Fiona Parker.” My mother fixed me with a stern stare. Ok, so maybe there were other avenues that would provide the same opportunity. If her look weren’t enough to stave off my stubbornness, the use of my full name, including the dreaded middle name given to me by my maternal grandmother, was enough to send off loud warning signals in my brain. “I’m asking for a favor. You know what this is, don’t you, honey?” Her indirect jibe at my current housing situation was not lost on me. “And in return, I’m asking for a very small, tiny, teeny favor. One that won’t take more than a few hours of your time. I’m not asking you to marry the man. All you have to do is go out to dinner with him. That’s all. Now,” she dusted my shoulders and continued, “will you or will you not help me out?” Damn Kyle. Damn his lies. Damn my inability to land a money-minting profession. Why hadn’t I aspired to be a doctor or lawyer or even a garbage collector? At least then I wouldn’t have been at the mercy of someone else. No, I take that back. Not just anyone else, but my conniving, plotting, calculated mother. Anyone else would have at least been somewhat tolerable. I bit the inside of my cheek to keep myself from bellowing a stream of profanity, and nodded. “Perfect, darling. I knew you’d come through.” Immediately the picture of happiness, mom’s face no longer held any trace of the evil witch who had reined just moments earlier. “Now, if anyone wonders, I’m meeting up Aunt Margaret at Publix. She’s making lasagna for or book club meeting tonight and forgot the mozzarella, so she made a run to grab it, but now she’s misplaced her keys and can’t remember if she locked them in the car, so I might be a while.” “It’s a miracle her head’s still attached to her body,” I muttered. Aunt Margaret, the eldest of mom’s sisters was one fingernail shy of landing herself in the looney bin. At times I was surprised she still remembered her own name, let alone us. Liz often jokes that she forgot to have more kids after Margaret, and frankly, some days I’m surprised she even remembers who Margaret is. Luckily her forgetfulness is simply age related and not indicative of a graver health concern. (Otherwise it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun to poke fun at her.) Luckily, mom didn’t hear me through the noise of the garage door creaking open. With two quick air kisses, she disappeared into her pearl colored Cadillac, calling “I’ll text you the details. Remember, six!” **** Libraries are not my favorite places. They don’t even rank anywhere in my top one hundred. Maybe for Becky, yes. Liz probably wouldn’t know a library if it jumped up and bit her on the nose. I? I just plain hated them. They reminded me of old women with knee-length skirts, busty bosoms and over sized spectacles with chains, not to mention that every library carried that same distinguished stench of must and dust that seemed universal, regardless of which library you visited and on what continent (let me clarify here that I can count on exactly one hand how many libraries I’ve ever been forced to step foot in—this time included). I was reflecting on these thoughts as I sat on a corner table across from Chris at the Duluth library. That’s right. My date for the evening. At the library. Chris was nowhere near as bad as I feared. He was much, much worse. My mom had texted me Chris’ number saying he would pick me up at six from the library (apparently, the place closed at eight on Tuesdays, lucky me). Either she had misheard or had purposely misconstrued the message. In either case, when Chris crawled into the library parking lot at six twenty in his banged up Ford Pinto, and not an apology on his lips, it was not to pick me up. He ambled out of his car and walked straight toward the building, pulling out his cell phone in the process. I looked down at my own cellular device, which was charging innocently in the center console, and prayed it wouldn’t ring. I crossed my fingers and legs and even stopped breathing for a few minutes as he walked right past my driver’s window. He was my height, maybe one-eighth of an inch taller. His hair was what I would call an organized mess, with tufts of dirty blond hair swerving this way and that around his head. He wore a white t-shirt with the word “Faithbook” displayed in a blue box (Faithbook, Facebook, get it?), followed by the words: “Jesus added you as a disciple.” My mom would have called a priest and married us right there. Of course, my phone did ring. And, despite my temptation not to, I did answer. And so here I was. Or really, here we were. I’d just endured a fifteen minute monologue on Chris’ religious preferences, various church-sponsored events he’d spearheaded to create awareness about Christ, and his aspirations to become a priest. I’d stifled a yawn, which was now dying for release, the entire time. “So, Chris.” I tapped my fingers over my mouth and discharged a quick one. “When did you want to leave for dinner?” He blinked. “Dinner?” His surprise made me uneasy, as though I’d just asked him to convert to Judaism. “Yeah, you know, like, going out to eat? It is dinner time.” “Oh.” Oh? What the…? We were silent for a long time. The awkwardness increased exponentially. Had I missed my cue to speak? Finally, Chris blinked again and responded, “I don’t do dinners.” Ummm what? Did he not eat? Did he not require grub to survive? And how, of all meals, could anyone skip dinner? It was as though I’d suddenly been transported to the twilight zone. I resisted the urge to grab this dude by his t-shirt and demand food. I was famished. If I didn’t eat soon, I’d probably make it on the late night news for hallucinating Chris to be a chicken thigh. I must have appeared utterly astounded, because Chris had the good grace to fidget and continue, “Dinners always lead to expectations.” My eyebrows slammed together. “You, know, like a…kiss?” he hissed the word with caution and glanced around nervously as though we were at the World Congress Center and he’d just been forced to utter the word “bomb.” I sputtered. “See? It’s already awkward.” Chris buried his face in his hands with great anguish. “That’s just it. You go out to dinner, and then you’re expected to share a good night kiss, and then the kiss leads to tactless temptations that are inspired by Satan himself. It’s all against God’s will. People just don’t understand that consummation is acceptable only after marriage. And there are certain…rules to follow when it’s meant to happen.” Flabbergasted. It had always sounded like a strange word, and never till that moment in time did I understand the appropriateness of its meaning. But flabbergasted is exactly how I felt. No denying it. I’d never in my life been a part of a conversation for which I had absolutely no response or retaliation. Not when I’d been sent to the principal’s office for planting a whoopee cushion on my seventh grade math teacher’s chair (I told her she wasn’t tricking anyone by her silent but deadly farts—lucky me sat only two feet away from her most popular emission spot—her desk), not when I’d gotten fired from that stupid eyeglasses store for sneaking a few samples of white contacts for a Halloween party (they were samples, after all—it’s not like I’d stolen something the store could make a profit from), and certainly not when I’d found out about Kyle and his infidelities (well, you know how that went). “I hope you understand,” Chris finished with a piteous look. Suddenly, I felt like a reject. I know, it’s crazy. A senseless thought. A thought that had no reason or right to be instigated from the crazy loony sitting across from me. But it was true. The way he was looking at me, eyes apologetic, head tilted sideways, mouth askew with a look that said “sorry, but no thank you,” I felt like a reject. The feeling jolted me to my feet. I muttered some words of understanding, claimed to be ravenous and departed without so much as a good bye. Chris called after me, saying something unintelligible to my ears, but I just quickened my pace. Just as I was crossing “safely” across the automatic sliding doors, I encountered a strong, impenetrable force. The next moment, I was sprawled across the floor. My head was resting on something hard and unfamiliar to my senses. A book. Five Temptations of a CEO. Around me were several others. Think and Grow Rich, Built to Last and some other one I didn’t catch the title of. “Ma’am, I’m so very sorry. I was looking the other way and didn’t see you. Are you okay?” Large brown loafers appeared before my face, and I was suddenly being pulled to my feet slowly and with care. On the way up, I came face to face with strong, firm thighs, a perfect set of sturdy hips (and a very promising-looking package) clad in blue jeans, a muscular chest covered by a plain white shirt (no Faithbook here), and broad, NFL athlete shoulders. I looked up the rest of the six inches, dying of curiosity to discover the face to whom this deadly-as-sin body belonged, and praying the whole time (Chris must have temporarily rubbed off on me) that it lived up to the standards set forth by everything that lay below it. I wasn’t disappointed. Standing before me was a perfect ten. Nice, healthy lips, prominent cheekbones covered in gorgeous tanned skin, deep, blue, hooded eyes and hair the color of Cadbury milk chocolate. Or black-peppered gravy (dinner was overdue). The man examined me with concern, probably because I’d been ogling him like a moron and had yet to utter a word. He probably thought I was mute or suffering a silent concussion. “Are you okay, ma’am? Are you hurt?” I nodded and he looked confused. “Yeah, I’m good.” I was surprised at my ability to emit a steady, confident-sounding response. “Sorry, I should have watched where I was going. And maybe walking would have helped.” Hunky let out a low chuckle. “Yeah, maybe. But no worries. I wasn’t watching either.” His voice was deep and seductive. He smiled at me, his gaze penetrating mine longer than what was probably considered socially acceptable. But lucky for him, I’ve never believed in conforming to social norms. This man was eye candy—and I, for one, was famished. Suddenly, I didn’t want him to leave. I wanted to be in his company, to soak him in, to have him help me feel stare-worthy and sexy and…non-rejectable. I wanted that confidence, that confirmation that I truly was truly as sensational as I and every man with a pair of eyes once believed me to be. Thinking quick, I scooped up the books from around my feet and handed them to Hunky. “Oh, you didn’t have to. Thanks.” Sexy gaze. “So,” I adjusted my sling around my shoulder and hoped that my hair wasn’t in complete disarray. I wouldn’t be caught dead fiddling and fussing with it like a love-sick puppy. Nope, not me. I wasn’t one of those women. But maybe a quick tuck behind the ear wouldn’t hurt. “Are you studying management?” I gestured at the books he now held against his chest. This time he threw his head back and laughed without abandon. “My studying years are over, thank God. I’m returning these for John, my brother. He’s doing some sort of research for this new business I’m helping him out with.” “Oh, that’s neat. So you’re a business man?” Now I was just grasping at straws, but I couldn’t help myself. Lucky for me, Hunky “Well, I guess you could say that. I’ve never really ran or owned one before, but I figure it’s never too late to start. Financial freedom, being your own boss and all that jazz.” I nodded my agreement, but I was, unfortunately at the end of my conversational string. “Well, I wish you and your brother well. It was so nice to meet you…” “Oh,” Hunky held out his right hand. “It’s Alex.” “Alex. I’m Rachel. It was really nice to meet you. And sorry again about the books.” “No worries. I’m actually glad I bumped into your—no pun intended.” I smiled. “Me too. Err, take care.” Please stop me, please stop me. “You too. Have a great night.” “Thanks. You do the same.” “Rachel?” I’d walked maybe four paces. “Yes?” Alex rubbed the back of his neck and looked at me sheepishly. “I know it might sound kind of crazy, but could we maybe do dinner sometime? Or even a quick coffee?” My heart soared and I could almost feel myself begin to levitate off the dreary carpeted floor. Finally, normalcy prevailed. A decent man who believed in dinner dates, and chivalry (and hopefully good night kisses). I tried to appear relaxed and not at all as elated and giddy as I felt. If I had been so transparent with my feelings, I’m sure I would have done something very Liz-like that would have caused Alex to quickly retract his offer, toss his books at me and run in the opposite direction. Like kissing him on the lips and asking him to run away and marry me in Vegas. Ok, I know, low blow, so sue me. But it was true. Men liked a challenge. So when Alex and I exchanged numbers that evening, I knew right off that bat that no matter how thrilled I was at the prospect of going out with him, I would not be the one picking up the phone to schedule our rendezvous. Chapter 14 Blood, sweat, tears Becky Parent teacher conferences are one of the most perplexing parts about being a public educator. Each conference has equal probability of going either really great, or really not. Wednesday evening, I stayed in late to organize student portfolios and gather notes on each child’s accomplishments, strengths and weaknesses. At six-twenty, when my eyes felt heavy and my stomach began its usual rumble, I gathered my belongings. As I shut the classroom door, Dr. Greene appeared around the corner, his shoes clacking lightly against the linoleum with every step. As always, he was dressed to the tens: clean, grey suit, crisp, blue shirt and a well strung, lightly patterned tie. He came to a stop when he saw me and a look of mild amusement passed across his features. “Ms. Parker. Still here?” I was immediately aware of my sullen appearance. By the end of a typical school day, my makeup was usually in residence beneath my eyes (and sometimes nose—don’t ask), my hair was disheveled beyond its original appearance and the state of my attire could only be described as passable. You’d think I cared for a group of toddlers. Daily. For twenty-four hours straight. I could never explain it, and yet that’s how it always was. So I could only imagine what a disaster I looked an entire three and a half hours after my usual departure time. I winced. “Are you okay, Ms. Parker?” Darn, he’d seen it. “Yes, yeah, I’m fine, thank you. Just ready to get home.” Dr. Greene nodded. “It is pretty late. I hope you haven’t been doing this all week?” “Oh no, no. Just tonight. I was working on conference notes.” Dr. Greene seemed lost in thought for a moment. “Can I ask you something, Ms. Parker? If you don’t mind?” He paused. “Actually, nevermind. You’re already late.” “Oh, no,” I squeaked. I cleared my throat and tried again. Something about this man unnerved me. “I mean, I’m really not late for anything. I can chat for a bit. “I shifted my bag from one shoulder to the other. He hesitated a moment and tugged his tie. “Well, only if you’re sure.” I nodded. “Great. Thank you. And um… it’s actually something a little private. Would you mind if we discussed in my office? I promise not to take much of your time.” I didn’t know whether to be scared, nervous or both. What could he possibly want to discuss in private? I followed Dr. Greene past the library, which was closed for the day and took a quick moment to fix my appearance in the reflection of the dark room’s windowed panel when I was sure Dr. Greene couldn’t see me from his peripheral. If I’d had another moment, I would have quickly reapplied my deodorant, which I kept conveniently in the zipper of my tote next to a miniature bottle of body spray, because I was absolutely positive I reeked of Expo marker and cafeteria food. Dr. Greene’s office was spacious, spotless and sparse, except for an economical wall clock and, on the corner of his desk, a white mug that read: I’m a principal. To save time, let’s just assume I’m never wrong. I’d been inside Dr. Greene’s office only on an as-needed basis and strictly for business-related purposes. This unexpected appointment, for some reason, didn’t feel very business-like at all. My palms were sweaty and I was certain that a wet spot was forming under my arms. Dr. Greene re-filed a folder and took a seat opposite me. “I’m sorry, again, to keep you even later, but I need a candid opinion from someone I can trust.” That I was about to be queried by my boss, the principal of the entire school, for an honest opinion made me anxious. My toes played tap dance on the floor. “It has been brought to my attention that some staff members are afraid of losing their jobs since that last conference. And though I can’t deny that there won’t be layoffs, I wanted to see if you’ve heard any rumors circulating that you think might harm morale even further. We have a school to run, a student body that we’re responsible for, and I want to make sure everyone’s attention remains focused on what’s important. And that means being transparent with the staff. I want to dissuade any rumors that are just that—rumors. So I need your help.” Oh gosh. The darned layoffs again. Even though Dr. Greene had all but given me a golden ticket to job security during my last run in with him, the rumors of late had been so vigorous that even I’d considered applying for jobs at a more secure entity. Maybe a private school or Montessori. “I’ve heard the usual,” I replied honestly. “Just the expected fear of layoffs and the possibility of no bonuses in the upcoming school year.” Dr. Greene leaned back in his chair and rolled his head from side to side. He had muscular neck, giving me the impression that perhaps beneath all the layers of clothing lay a muscled, well-defined body. I snapped myself to attention when his gaze suddenly penetrated my own. A bead of perspiration formed above my upper lip. “I’m going to have to break the news sooner or later, but I think it’s safe to disclose to you. We’re having our first round of layoffs next week, and we just learned that the county has mandated a larger number than we’d initially anticipated.” My gut clenched. My so called “golden” ticket didn’t look so promising anymore. Was there a reason why Dr. Greene had chosen to speak to me of all people? Was this a form of forewarning? I waited for some form of reassurance. This time, I received none. “I’m sure it will all work out,” I said, pulling my tote up closer on my lap. “Yes, you’re right. But there’s nothing else you feel I should know?” He studied me intently, and a fizzle of something erupted in the air around us. I wondered if he felt it too. I didn’t trust my voice, so I shook my head. Dr. Greene pressed his temples and I noticed for the first time how stress lines had etched their way under his eyes. Even then, he managed to look wildly attractive. I cleared my throat. “Well…” Dr. Greene jerked to his feet. “Yes, thank you, Ms. Parker. And I’m sorry, again, for keeping you so late. Make sure you get some rest tonight. Next week is going to be one heck of a carnival ride.” **** So torn was I between thoughts of my attractive principal and what I was now convinced would be my impending termination from Woodrow Elementary, that I didn’t notice Shawn’s grey Expedition in my driveway. “Hey, babe,” he greeted me when I stepped out of my car, lugging my tote behind me. “Hey, what are you doing here?” “Nice to see you, too.” He gave me a peck on the lips and followed me to the door, ever the perceptive one. “You staying for dinner?” Inside, there was no sign of my mom or Rachel. I tried to squash an overpowering feeling of disappointment. I was in no mood to be of company to anyone. All I wanted to do was to eat in bed and fall asleep to an episode of Scandal. “Actually, I’m taking you some place special.” Shawn’s eyes twinkled and my weariness begin to evaporate. “Where?” I envisioned an enticing dinner at Dulce or on the heated patio of Bahama Breeze. Heck, at this point, even Taco Bell would do. “You’ll never guess,” he sing-songed. “Now, go upstairs and change into comfortable sweats.” Sweats? The vision bubbles dancing above my head popped. I wasn’t so sure about this plan anymore. “Just trust me. You’ll love it,” Shawn said, and he pushed me up the stairs. **** For the second time in as many months, I was at the gym. My hopes for a decadent dinner had flown out the window when we’d pulled up to Subway (I swear no one would be happier if I never had to set eyes on that bright yellow sign ever again) and Shawn watched with an eagle eye as I forced yet another cardboard-tasting cuisine down my gullet. As the lady at the gym’s front desk checked us in, I wracked my brain for excuses of why I couldn’t work out. The simple fact that I’d groveled at work for more than twelve hours with little more than five hours of sleep wouldn’t be good enough for my boyfriend. No siree. Lucky me, exercise wasn’t in the cards. Instead, Shawn led me up the glass paneled railing and toward a closed door just past the bicycle machines. The place was fairly empty in proportion to the gazillions of machines and apparatus that were lined up in neat rows like disciplined militants. At least ten or twelve LED TVs lay suspended against the translucent front wall, beneath which was a clear view of a ginormous pool. Shawn tapped on the door twice then, without waiting for a response, turned the knob. “Hey, Shawn. Come on in and have a seat, man.” A guy dressed in a black t-shirt and gym shorts greeted us from his desk. “And you must be Rebecca.” He paused a moment. “Though I must say, you look a lot different than I’d imagined.” He darted a puzzled look at Shawn before clicking out of a window on his computer screen and standing up to shake my hand. “I’m Tony, one of the personal trainers here at Lifetime, and I’ll be working with you to help you achieve your ideal body.” Tony droned on something about a nutrition plan, target areas, BMIs and other terms that seeped through my brain and back into the musty air around us. My mind swam and a wave of dizziness overcame me. For a moment, I could imagine exactly what my mom felt like before one of her fainting spells assailed. A personal trainer? And me? What was Shawn thinking? As if on cue, Tony stopped talking. I sensed Shawn looking at me from the corner of his eye. I coughed. Shawn trekked ahead before I could speak. “This will be perfect for you, Beck. Tony’s one of our best. He can really help you get rid of the tougher fat.” I glared at Shawn. Tony glared at the both of us as though he were studying a new species of specimen through a magnifying glass. I was suddenly very curious to know exactly what Shawn had told him about me, or more specifically, my body, but right then, I had a more important task to tackle. Call it nerves, exhaustion, hysteria, the price of sleep, or whatever you want. But something inside of me was about to snap. I could feel my heartbeat pick up, a sudden burst of energy cascaded through me, and I felt as though I’d downed a dozen Red Bulls in one gulp. Then, I did something that was very unlike me. I stood, straightened my shoulders and looked Tony right in the eyes. “Thank you so much for your time, sir. But I don’t think this is a good fit for me.” Shock emanated around the room. I could literally feel it in my nerves. I didn’t wait for anyone to respond, just turned on my heels and headed out the way I’d come in. Shawn caught up with me at the elevators (I was too tired to take the stairs, call me lazy). “Becky,” he hissed. “Do you have any idea what you’re doing?” The elevator dinged and I stepped in. Shawn was fast on my heels. “I paid a fortune for Tony. He cancelled a personal appointment to meet with us.” We stepped out of the elevator. A migraine made its way down my temples, pounding a painful rhythm. I pulled my hair band out of my hair in hopes it would ease the ache. Outside, a strong gust of wind blew and I hugged myself tight. A moment later, I slipped into the driver’s seat of my car (yes, I’d driven—again). “Becky, do you know how rude you are being? Do you have any idea how you made me feel in there?” Shawn stood next to my door and crossed his arms, preventing me from locking myself in from the winter cold. Something finally snapped. I looked Shawn directly in the eyes. “You? You? Do you ever even think about anything beyond you? Have you ever thought about how you make me feel, Shawn? Or anyone for that matter?” Shawn’s jaw snapped closed and he looked at me as though he suddenly didn’t recognize me. And maybe he didn’t. He’d been so busy trying to make me to conform to someone I wasn’t, someone acceptable to his own standards, that he probably hadn’t even taken the time to know me. Though the person who had just surfaced certainly was not the real me. “You know what?” Shawn spoke in a low, calculated tone. “I don’t know what I was thinking giving you an early Christmas present and hiring one of the most desired personal trainers on the facility. You don’t deserve it.” An early Christmas present? “Did you think you were doing me a favor by getting me something I don’t even have an interest in? And as a Christmas present?” Shawn threw his hands up in the air and shook his head at me unbelievingly. “I go out of my way, hire a personal trainer, make him cancel another appointment from a client who is paying him probably double what I am, and you’re asking me if I’m doing you a favor?” I cocked my head and waited for a response. Shawn sputtered. “Yes, yes, I’m doing you a darned favor, lady. Come on. At least appreciate my efforts.” I grasped the door handle. “See, Shawn. That’s your problem right there. You’re only lying to yourself, because really the only person you were doing a favor for was yourself. I never asked to lose weight or join a gym or get belittled in front of a group of your teammates during a Thanksgiving party. All this time, I thought you were doing everything to make me feel good about myself. But really, you’re just trying to make yourself feel good about me.” Shawn shook his head and let loose a low whistle. “I…I just can’t…that you would…” “That I would what?” I prodded. “Speak up for myself for once? Have feelings? Be hurt or disappointed? I’m not your vanity project, Shawn. I like my body just the way it is. I don’t need to lose weight. I’ve been driving myself crazy over diets and workouts and calories and I thought I was doing it for myself. But I’ve lost ten pounds, in case you haven’t noticed, and I don’t feel any better.” Ok, so that last bit was a lie. I felt sexier than I had ever before. I could fit into my high school jeans (yes, I still had those) and could pull off tighter tops without the added bulge around my hips, but still, it wasn’t enough for Shawn. And now I was convinced it never would be. I thought back to the way he had embarrassed poor Suzanne in front of everyone, and realized that he would never understand. He didn’t respect anyone. Shawn straightened and regained his composure. “You know, Becky.” His voice was etched with disappointment. He rested his hand on my door, looked at the ground and shook his head. “I’ve been doing some thinking lately. A lot of thinking, in fact.” Any conversation that had that phrase, I knew, could never be promising, and I had a feeling I knew exactly where this one was headed. But for once, I was prepared, in control. I let him continue, pretending to be oblivious to what was about to transpire. Shawn looked up at me. “I just don’t think it’s working out between us. You know I’m really into self image. I care about my body, and I see myself being with someone who cares about theirs. You can’t accept that you’re a bit…pudgy. I just don’t feel like we’re in synch. You know what I’m saying?” I was silent, letting the pudgy comment slide. Clearly, the man was delusional. At a hundred and twenty pounds on my 5’ 7” frame, I was considered underweight. I pretended to ponder for a moment. “You know, I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking myself, and I actually came to the same conclusion.” Shawn looked completely floored. I knew he’d been expecting tears, pleading, remorse, anything except what I was about to deliver. “When I think long-term,” I continued, “I don’t want to be stuck with someone who’s on the verge of balding, or has a cleft chin, or jutted knee bones, or a widow’s peak that reminds me of…what’s that dracula’s name? The cereal one? Oh, well, you know what I mean. I mean, can you imagine those genes being passed on to another generation? Too bad you can’t fix those when you go to the gym.” Shawn was speechless, probably trying to digest the fact that he had flaws, probably wondering if an alien species had taken over my brain. I shook my head and gave him a sorrowful look. Inside I was shaking. From anger or shock, who knew. Maybe it was a bit of both. Because this for sure this wasn’t me. This was the sleepy, delirious, discombobulated, ruthlessly rude Becky. The one who made an appearance extremely rarely, if ever. Maybe once every decade or so, if even then. But I was glad that she’d decided to resurface again today of all days, because now that the blindfold was off, I realized that staying in a relationship with Shawn would have been a huge mistake. I wanted to be happy, to feel desired, to get married to someone I loved and who loved me for who I was and how I was. “I have to thank you for one thing,” I confessed. Shawn raised his brows, let go of my door, folded his arms and looked down at me over the bridge of his nose expectantly, as though I were about to award him the Nobel for Boyfriend of the Year. “I want to thank you...” Shawn nodded, acceptingly, no doubt expecting a chain of compliments to follow. “Because now I know something I didn’t before. Now I know what kinds of jerks are out there.” With that, I slammed my door, and zipped out of the parking lot before my nerves gave up on me and I shriveled in a heaving, shaking mess. Chapter 15 A penny for a pauper ~Liz~ My first day back at work, I learned that I’d gained five pounds. I could tell something was off as I was getting dressed to leave for my photo shoot. My favorite pair of H&M skinny jeans didn’t fit the way they normally did. My tummy jutted out over the waist and my thighs felt taut against the fabric. Automatically, I cursed my dry cleaners, thinking they’d somehow morphed the fit. I’d been arguing with the owner on the phone (I never realized I understood Chinese until I spoke with him, because he definitely was not speaking English) when I’d walked into the studio and come face-to-face with a very disgruntled looking Marco, the Tracy’s Treasures photographer who had always been my absolute favorite to work with. Today, he wasn’t so pleasant. With every picture he previewed on his monitor, Marco tsked disapprovingly, which in itself was a figurative slap in the face. I was, and always had been, Marco’s favorite. Our shoots were fun, filled with lots of praise (for me) and several high-fives (for him). On this day, however, Marco was in a foul mood at the very sight of me. Several times, he asked me to suck in my tummy, stretch my arms into the air, and push out my ass. When all else failed, he produced a pair of ten-inch long heels (ok I’m exaggerating, but only a tad) and gruffly asked me to wear them to make my legs look better. Just moments after I’d left the failed shoot, my agent, Lorraine Gengis, an outspoken woman who was famous for her New York drawl and white Goldilocks curls, called me in an outrage. “Eliza-beth. What’s goin’ on thay? I heayd you gained, like, fifteen pownds?” “Lori,” I trilled. I’d just stopped at Panera for a salad—sans dressing, of course. I couldn’t risk gaining another ounce. “Err…no, no, not fifteen.” I gave a nervous giggle. “Nowhere even close. Just a few, but I think it’s water weight. I’m sure it’ll come off soon.” “Well honey, I ain’t gonna lie to you. It’s gotta come off soon. Like yesterday. You ain’t got agencies knocking down your door like they used to. You’re getting up there in age, ya know? Fresh blood and all. You know how the industry opewates.” On the way home, Lori’s words banged around in my head, and I chewed off my fingernails. When I got to my apartment, matters only got worse. I had a letter in the mail from the building supervisor. I was past due on the rent. How the heck that had happened, I had not a clue. Nick always took care of my finances. Heck, I didn’t even know what bills were owed or when. After applying fresh makeup and different (not winter-appropriate) attire, I paid a visit to the leasing office, hoping to finagle my way out of the situation with the help of my good looks, and okay, a bit of cleavage for good measure. To my dismay, I was greeted by what I swore was the ice princess from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—a snippity blonde in a pink shirt and a black skirt that came down to her knees. She gave me a once over from where she sat—a desk in the center of the office. Her hair was pulled back in a slick bun and icicle-sharp blue eyes examined me through clear plastic glasses. “How may I help you, ma’am?” she asked, surveying me in a way that made me feel extremely naked, despite the white, fitting trench coat I’d had the decency of donning. She squinted for a second and I wonder if she’d recognized me. If she had, she didn’t let on. I didn’t take offense. By her looks, I doubted she had a clue as to the trendiest lingerie brand on this side of the coast. “Um, well,” I proffered the letter I’d received and gave her the friendliest smile I could muster. “I got this in the mail and wanted to see if I could discuss my… situation with someone.” Her icy gaze flicked over the paper. She looked up. “And what situation is that?” “Oh.” I hadn’t even been asked to have a seat. For four grand a month, I expected to receive better service, granted it wasn’t me who had been paying the four grand. “I um…I lost my job recently and was wondering if there is a way we could negotiate the monthly rent?” Ice Princess blinked then turned and punched a few keys on her keyboard. “We don’t negotiate. In fact, Ms. Grey?” “Er, no. That’s my boyfriend’s last name. The lease is under his name. I’m Liz Parker.” Still no sign of recognition. “Stacey, you have a call on line one,” called a female voice from a corner doorway in the back of the room. “I’m with some…lady. Take a message,” called Ice Princess, AKA Stacey. I wanted to throttle her. She turned that icy gaze back to me, making my thoughts freeze, as though afraid she would hear them. Damn she had some power. “I see. Well, Ms. Parker, our records indicate that your lease is up next week. If you plan on continuing your stay here, we will need your boyfriend to come in and renew your agreement—that is, after you pay this month’s rent in full. And the rent would continue to be your current rate of four thousand a month.” My knees nearly buckled. I gave a firm nod before sinking into a plush leather seat to keep myself from blacking out. After a few silent deep breaths, I found my voice. “He’s out of town on business right now, but I’ll talk to him and see what he wants to do.” I very well could not afford four grand a month, which would mean that I would have to move out. A sudden thought struck me. “Out of curiosity, what information would you need if I decided to do the lease under my name?” I knew that apartments were pretty standard in what they asked for. Ice Princess rattled off a slew of things, out of which I caught the words “bank statement” and “credit score.” I bit the tip of my tongue. “Any other questions?” “No, thank you so much for your time.” I got up. “Ms. Parker?” “Yes?” “When can we expect your payment?” I rattled off a date and time, then hurriedly trudged back toward my building, fully ready to admit defeat. The truth was, I wouldn’t be able to make any payments. Lucky for me, my information wasn’t on file, so it would be Nick’s credit that would suffer. When I got home and crawled onto my sofa, my feet were numb from the cold and my face felt frozen in place. But I had bigger worries thumping at the forefront of my conscious. I had exactly two hundred dollars in my account, a job that was barely balanced on a tightrope, and no place to live. If Nick had timed his departure from my life to make sure I’d fall flat on my face, his timing couldn’t have been better. My worst nightmares were coming true. All at the very same time. Chapter 16 New to the nest Rachel Saturday afternoon, I awoke to the sound of a persistent pounding at my bedroom door. After my debacle with Chris, I’d been looking high and low for a place to live. With my meager pay, the only place I could afford was the basement of an elderly couple whose house smelled like a mixture of moth balls and pet odor. The basement was dungy and had one small window, which eerily reminded me of a jail cell I’d once seen in some movie. Moments like this, I wished I’d just caved and signed the darned lease. I rolled on my face and pulled a pillow over my head. “Rach! Open up! I have important news.” It was Beck. In my book, nothing except death and severely inclement weather (which, could potentially lead to death) were important enough to disturb sleep. Plus, I wasn’t due in at work until the evening shift, which meant I’d stayed up the night before catching up on my shows. I grumbled and buried myself deeper into the soft, white, cotton sheets. A moment later, I heard a jiggling sound from the doorknob and the door swung open. Ah, the old key in the lock trick. Growing up, I hated these doors for the very reason that all it took was a strategically placed pin to open them. My mom would always leave a pin-type key on her bedroom door sill in case of an “emergency” which, according to Liz’s definition, occurred every time she needed to borrow a pair of jeans from my room. For some reason still unbeknownst to me, she owned only fancy tops and bottoms. When it came time for, say, a picnic, a trip to the grocery store or a stroll in the park, she’d come banging down my door for t-shirts and denim, which I had an abundance of. In fact, I don’t think I owned a single dressy piece of clothing (minus the occasional lingerie, of course). “Rach, wake up! You won’t believe what just happened.” I felt a tug on my securely fastened pillow. I grumbled and attempted to pull the comforter over my head only to be stopped mid action. “Rach! You want to listen to this. It affects you. In a huge way!” The urgency in her voice combined with the fact that Beck never ever inconvenienced anyone except when in dire need, if even then, riled my curiosity. I begrudgingly turned on my back and rubbed my eyes, willing them to open and focus. “What?” I croaked. “What’s the news?” Becky’s face loomed over me. Her eyes seemed red rimmed and a bit puffy, but her features were laced with excitement. The combination didn’t make any sense to my sleep induced brain, so I closed my eyes again. “Rach! Liz is moving back in! With us!” I bolted upright. “WHAT?” Beck, oblivious to my mental state of shock, nodded eagerly and continued. “Yeah, she just called. Something about her lease expiring and bad credit, but she’s moving in! Can you believe that? I’m so excited! It’ll be just like old times.” She sprang up and twirled around the room, quite the opposite of what I felt like doing. Elizabeth? Under the same roof? The situation was getting worse than I’d ever imagined. It was bad enough that mom was constantly at my throat about picking up after myself, keeping room doors closed (can we say O-C-D?), turning off lights and going on blind dates (given so far there’d been only one, but who was to say that more wouldn’t follow?). With Liz added to the mix, I would be living my worst nightmare. “When?” I said. “Today! She’ll be here as soon as she gets her stuff together. Hey, do you want to come help her pack?” “Ummm…” Becky stopped dancing and put her hands on her hips. “Rach, you don’t look very excited.” Ding, ding, ding! I folded my arms across my chest. “That’s because I’m not.” “Rach!” “What? I’m not going to lie. It’s already claustrophobic enough living with Mom. Liz is the ultimate cake topper for this disaster.” Becky plopped down on my bed and hugged a pillow to her chest. “Come on, it’ll be fun.” I gave her a “for real?” look. And she sighed. “Okay, so maybe not fun per say, but it’ll definitely be entertaining. And think of it this way, it’s only temporary. Till she finds her own place.” Or I find mine, I thought. I jumped out of bed and, out of habit, grabbed my cell from its charge station. “Where are you going?” Becky asked. “House hunting.” I stepped into the white tiled bathroom and turned on the shower. “Rach!” “I have to move sooner or later, and I’d much rather it be sooner. Very soon.” I brushed my teeth and then tackled the shower. In ten minutes, I was bathed and dressed. Becky still hadn’t left. She was waiting on my bed, the TV turned on some home renovation channel and a photo album in her lap. Oh cripes. I already didn’t like the sight. I tried to quickly slip out the bedroom door. “Don’t you want to dry your hair? It’s thirty-four degrees outside.” “It’ll dry in the car.” I reached for the knob. “Oh gosh,” Becky cooed. She was studying something in the album, a wistful expression on her face. Gosh she was such a sap. “Come look at this.” “Rach, really, I need to get going. I have work—” “At six in the evening. You have plenty of time to house hunt. Come on, two minutes won’t make you late. Come look!” I threw my head back in exasperation and dragged my socks-clad feet back toward my youngest sister. Probably the only person in the universe who could convince me to do anything and everything she wanted. I peered over her shoulder at a picture of the three of us when we were five, six and seven. We were seated on a burgundy couch, me in the middle wearing my favorite teddy bear pjs, my shoulder-length brown hair unkempt and in knots. I had a cast on my leg and Liz and Becky each had an arm around my shoulders. Becky was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and Liz, fashionable even then, was dressed in flashy gold shoes, neon skinny corduroys and a white top with gold buttons. A memory instantly flooded my brain. “It’s the time you broke your leg because that stupid bully from school, Lindsey pushed you off your bike.” I smiled despite myself. “Yeah. She was a real bitch.” “And then,” Becky continued. “Liz found out and got all her guy friends to pop Lindsey’s tires and decorate her bike in silly string and eggs.” I chuckled. “Yeah. And then she made all the girls in our class call her Loco Lindsey.” Becky scrunched her face. “Really? I didn’t know that.” I nodded. “Yeah, I remember because my friend Samantha’s older sister was in Liz’s class. After that, no one ever messed with me. Apparently word had got around about Liz’s crazy temper.” “She has always been authoritative, huh?” I shrugged. “Putting it mildly.” Becky laughed. My cell phone rang. I fished it out of my sling and answered without checking the caller ID. “Ms. Parker?” It was woman whose voice I didn’t recognize. “Yes.” “I’m Amy Bogan from Bogan Attorneys at Law.” My chest tightened. An attorney? Calling me? “Ms. Parker,” Amy continued. “I’m representing Kyle Donahue in a lawsuit against you.” The blood drained from my face. “A lawsuit for what? That bastard was cheating on his wife—and he never told me he was married. If anyone should be suing anyone, it should be me!” There was a (shocked?) moment of silence. “I’m sorry, Ms. Parker. I’m not quite sure what you are referring to, but my client claims that you committed credit card fraud.” “Fraud? That shithead is delusional. How the hell can he accuse me of committing fraud? On what credit card?” As I spoke the words, a vague memory resurfaced. The roses; the male stripper. “On his American Express. The charges are from…” paper shuffled “…six hundred dollars for Flower Rama and three hundred and twenty-five dollars for Mr. Xcitement.” I was enraged. The gall of that dickhead. After everything he’d put me through. “How can he prove that I made those charges? How do you know it wasn’t him?” “The florist took down your name and info as did the other place. They also have recordings with your voice—for quality assurance purposes, of course.” Of course. Damned quality assurance. The attorney cleared her throat. “Ms. Parker, the reason I’m calling today is to see if we can settle this arbitrarily, without judicial intervention.” I paced the length of my room. Becky had put aside the album and was glaring anxiously at me. No doubt my end of the conversation had done justice in conveying the severity of the call. “Arbitrarily how?” I wasn’t even sure what to say. Was using your boyfriend’s credit card (okay, maybe ex-boyfriend) really a crime? What were the penalties? Had I annihilated my future chances of gaining a career? I got a sudden vision of me in a bright orange uniform with a ball and chain on my feet. “Well, you could pay the thousand and some odd dollars to take care of the charge. And an additional thousand for my client’s emotional distress.” “Emotional what? Did you not hear what I said? This man cheated on his wife! He has grown kids. He was living in an apartment with me. He’s mentally disturbed more than emotionally distressed.” “Ms. Parker,” the attorney replied a firm tone. “I don’t know the nature of your personal problems with my client. I’m calling to discuss the matter at hand. If you don’t wish to settle arbitrarily and in accordance to the terms set forth, I suggest you hire your own attorney.” The line went dead. “What was that about?” Beck’s voice jarred me out of my muddled thoughts. I threw my cell on the bed and buried my face in my hands. “That dick.” “Who was that?” Beck prodded. “I can’t believe this crap.” “What!” Beck was growing impatient. She looked like she was about to crawl out of her skin. “Kyle’s suing me for fraud.” “Huh? Why? How?” I took a deep breath and explained the whole story, right down to the way I’d asked the florist to phrase my message on the flower card. Becky grimaced. “It was a prank,” I protested. “He deserved it. In fact, that’s the very least he deserved.” “Who deserved what?” Liz stood at the bedroom door, a gold bag dangling from her fingers and a plaid red rollaway in her other hand. She wore a white t-shirt with the words Juicy emblazoned across the front in gold, a flowy pink cardigan and neon green leggings. As ridiculous as the combination might sound, and though I would never even in a hypnotic state admit it, it looked fairly decent on Liz. (Okay, I admit, I was probably still feeling a bit mellow from the picture Becky had shared, damn her.) “Liz!” Becky momentarily distracted from my dilemma, rushed forth and enveloped our eldest sister in a bone shattering hug. You’d think they’d reconciled after a lifetime apart, living on different continents. Sometimes I truly believed that all of the mushy, senti genes had been restrained in air tight cells from both Liz and me and released in a gush of DNA to Becky during her conception. “How did you get here so soon? I was going to come help you pack.” Behind Liz, a small army of Hispanic men grunted as they hauled boxes and other paraphernalia. “Oh. No point in wasting a whole day moving. Packing is so…boring.” Ironically—or not—Liz’s gaze settled on me as she uttered that last word. My fists curled and any last remnants of mellowness evaporated with my anger. Becky quickly changed the topic. “Well, I’m glad you’re here. We’re in a big time pickle, right Rach?” Realizing she’d left an open target for Liz to retaliate with a smart remark, she hurried on. “Kyle is suing Rach for fraud. He’s asking thousands of dollars.” That seemed to hit a nerve. Liz’s jawbone tightened. “On what basis is he suing you?” Becky, seeing a potential opportunity for Liz and me to join forces, barged ahead with the story. By the end of it, Liz was rigid and her chin had inclined up a few inches higher than usual. “No way in hell are we going to let that bastard get away with this.” Funny how my eldest sister thought it her birthright to make my life miserable, but the second someone else claimed that privilege, she was set to go Kung-Fu Panda on them. “What can we do?” Becky said, completely panic stricken. The same question had been running through my mind. I couldn’t afford my own place, let alone an onslaught of attorney’s fees. And even if I did have enough to settle the matter “arbitrarily,” no way ever was I going to give a tarnished penny to that loser. I’d much sooner drink rat poison. Liz set her bags in the hallway. “Pablo or Pedro, whatever your name is. Yes, you, with the tool belt. Come here and get this luggage. And make sure you don’t damage el wall-os.” Then, she closed the door, plopped herself in the middle of my bed and clasped her hands. It was like Loco Lindsey all over again. “Okay, so here’s what we do.” Liz started to outline a game plan that seemed very promising. As she began plotting and planning in greater detail, and a bubble of hope gave rise in my chest. Could there possibly be a way around this mess? Could I, with the help of my sisters, somehow trump Kyle in his sick game? Or were our elementary tactics only successful in elementary school? **** At eight o’clock, The Mixer was just beginning to fill with patrons. A football game, the Falcons the Patriots, had just begun so in between filling drinks and taking orders, I found my gaze riveted to the TV. “Hey, girlie” Tracy pushed through the wooden swing door to the bar and stuffed her jacket in a corner shelf, tossing her purse on top of it. And people wonder why identity theft is such a common problem. I mumbled a quick hello and made my way to a man who’d just seated himself. “One royal flush, please.” He looked familiar, but not recognizable. I wondered where I’d seen him before and resisted the urge to ask at the risk of sounding like a lame pick up line. Instead, I nodded and walked away, casting a quick glance at the screen. So far, Falcons were leading by five. Tracy sidled up next to me and leaned back against the counter. “Listen,” she whispered. I tried really hard not to roll my eyes. After the conversation with Kyle’s attorney, I was in no mood for gossip. “Don’t roll your eyes at me.” Tracy swatted me. “You want to hear this.” I mixed drinks as she continued. “You see that guy in the corner? The one who just ordered?” I stopped mixing, thinking that whatever Tracy was about to say might enlighten me as to why the gentleman looked familiar. “He’s the new owner,” she stage whispered. I nearly dropped the drink. “He’s who?” Tracy pursed her lips and nodded. “Pretty cute, isn’t he? Almost like a young George Clooney.” “Holy shit. I just completely…I didn’t even say hello.” Talk about a disastrous first impression. I’d barely acknowledged the man. Although the Atwoods had bid their farewell nearly two months ago, I hadn’t yet met the new owners, though specks of gossip here and there described the new management as relaxed and enjoyable. Six weeks out of the two months that they’d been managing the place, the owners had been traveling around the country, keeping tabs on a handful of other ventures they’d recently acquired. And so business had resumed as normal, and I’d completely forgotten that anything had changed, except maybe on Monday’s when I wouldn’t be called into Mr. Atwoods office to go through inventory and costs. “We can fix that.” Tracy grabbed me by the elbow and led me to the wannabe George Clooney. Is that why he looked familiar? I still couldn’t tell. “John!” John looked up from his cell phone, where he’d been tapping away on the screen, presumably texting. His face transfixed into a wide grin and he looked more familiar than ever. No, definitely not George Clooney. Someone else…but who? “Trisha? Tina.” Tracy pouted. “Tracy.” “Tracy,” John snapped his fingers. “Sorry, I’m not the best when it comes to names.” Tracy gave a flirtatious smile and cocked her head to the side. “No worries. I’m sure you won’t forget next time.” I wanted to gag. Remembering the purpose of our visit, she tugged my elbow and thrust me forward. The Royal Flush sloshed threateningly and I set it down in front of John before it went flying over his yellow polo. “This is Rachel. She’s worked here, like, forever. Ten years at least, right?” Tracy chomped on her gum and twirled a lock of hair. I wanted to lodge a sarcastic remark about her lack of math skills, but bit my tongue. I’d already neglected to greet the man properly, even as a customer. Lashing out at my dumb counterpart would be futile and counter productive to my purpose. I couldn’t afford to lose this job. Especially considering my current predicaments. John gave my hand a firm shake. “Ah, Rachel. Pleasure to meet you.” “Same here.” “I’ve heard quite a bit about you.” He took a swig, then squinted at me and nodded his approval. “My reputation often precedes me.” I was only half joking. I’d been known to toss drinks at ill-mannered men, which I of course charged to their tabs, on more than an occasion. It was my lack of tolerance for disrespect of any kind that had prompted my colleagues to label me “The Godmother,” though to be perfectly honest, it probably also had to do a bit to do with my seniority and the iron fist with which I ran the place; I knew the ins and outs of the business and I didn’t cut corners. When the Atwoods had opened, I’d been one of their first employees and completely new to the world of bartending. But I was eager to learn and eager to earn. So in no time, I’d perfected every drink (and even taken courses) and, when I’d gained enough confidence, I’d determinedly approached Mark with a proposal to renovate The Mixer from a mediocre venue to one that boasted décor and ambiance. Sullied carpet was replaced by hardwood panels; the entirety of the bar area, which was covered in tawny-colored wood that showed age marks, was replaced by rich, Peruvian mahogany panels; lumbar and glass shelves jutted out from a brick laid back wall; LCDs hung from every corner practical; and two-person booths with low-wattage steel pendant lights were inserted around the perimeter for added privacy (genius, I know, considering the percentage of men and women who meet at bars). I’d even gone as far as to polish up the menu with popular appetizers, like our famous dirty bird wings, breaded cheese bites, onion rings and endless chips and salsa. In the last year, we’d created special themes for each day of the week, except Saturdays and Sundays—our busiest. Mojito Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Wild Wing Wednesdays, Twister Thursdays (we played Twister, which was pretty entertaining with a bunch of drunks) and Flirty Fridays (women’s drinks on the house from nine-midnight). Business sky rocket and in under five years, The Mixer expanded from a start-up operation to the most happening place in Lawrenceville. A tall man that looked an awful lot like a lamppost, tall and lanky and very nondescript, took a seat a few chairs down and Tracy raced over to take his order, obviously in an effort to impress our new owner. The crowd was starting to thicken and the scents of appetizers tickled my nose and made my stomach grumble. Amidst the afternoon chaos, lunch had completely slipped my mind, which in it and of itself was completely uncharacteristic of me. Before the night-time mob arrived, I wanted to sneak into the kitchen and grab a few bites. “So, uh, John. Is it okay to call you that?” I didn’t even know the man’s last name, though calling him Mr. would have felt a bit too proper since he seemed to be only a few years older than I was. I pushed behind the thought that comparatively, even with just a few years’ difference, we were worlds apart in our accomplishments. Where would I be in a few years? Hopefully not paying off attorney’s fees. My stomach rolled again, but this time I wasn’t quite sure that it had a hundred percent to do with hunger. John nodded almost imperceptibly. “Of course. No formalities at all.” “It was nice to meet you.” John raised an eyebrow. “You leaving?” “Err…no.” How did I explain that wanted to steal some food from the kitchen before the place went bonkers? Mark and Sadie had been generous about meals, so much so, that when I was in the back kitchen, it felt similar to being at home, minus the individually wrapped snacks and junk food but plus the strict sanitation guidelines. And I wasn’t sure how John felt about his staff indulging in munchies during business hours, let alone for free. “Actually, Rachel,” John continued, saving me from an explanation. “I wanted to talk to you for a few moments about some business-related matters.” “Um. Sure. Now?” John stood and crossed behind the counter. “Yeah, if you have a moment?” I nodded. He pushed open the silver door to the kitchen. “Care for something to eat?” I wanted to jump up and down and do the Macarena. “That would be great.” Twelve minutes later, when I returned with a platter of dirty bird wings and a basket of onion rings, John was walking the room, mingling with patrons. I set the food and the table and resisted the temptation to sneak a wing. My mouth watered and before I could change my mind and scarf down a piece, someone to the right of me cleared their throat. I looked up to see a remarkable but familiar pair of eyes and a sly smile that made my heart beat a funny rhythm. “Rachel.” I shot to my feet. “Alex. What are you doing here?” Since our bump in/intro in the library, I hadn’t heard from Alex. Nor had I tried getting in touch, but still. I was pretty sure there was an unspoken rule requiring men to make the initial attempt. “I tried calling you,” he said, as if he’d read my mind. I was surprised to hear a hint of accusation in his voice, but the friendly smile didn’t falter. “Really? When?” I pulled my phone out of my jeans pocket. Not for a second did I doubt the integrity of his claim, call me stupid if you please. The tone of his voice and the intensity with which he was looking at him made me believe him. Alex shifted on one foot, crossed his arms and studied the ceiling as if in deep thought. “Well, um, Sunday. Sunday evening, to be exact. Twice on Monday, a few times on Wednesday…” he stopped, looking embarrassed. “In short, at least a handful of times.” I didn’t know who was more embarrassed: me or Alex. My phone had been working just fine. I’d been receiving incoming calls from everyone and all sorts of odd numbers, if the call from earlier this afternoon was anything to go by. Suddenly eager to prove my innocence and to dissuade whatever suspicions were most likely, and with good reason, swimming through his mind, I clicked on my call history and sidled up next to him to show him the display. I was instantly aware of his woodsy scent with a hint of Old Spice deodorant (Kyle was a big fan of Old Spice). His eyebrows scrunched together in confusion. “That’s strange.” He shuffled out his own phone and showed me his history, which did, indeed, showed several calls made to my name. I took the phone from his hand. “Let me see something real quick.”And there I found the problem. “You’ve saved 8-3 as the last two digits, but really it’s supposed to be 0-3.” “Oops. My bad.” Alex looked sheepish and I felt like a total and complete jerk for not having made any effort whatsoever to get in touch with him. “I, um, meant to call you the other day,” I started, lamely. “But you were waiting for me to call first.” I winced and gave a pathetic smile. Surprisingly, Alex chuckled. “Isn’t it silly how this courtship stuff works?” I nodded. “I’ve actually never been very good at it.” He shook his head and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Me neither. And honestly, I don’t care to.” He gazed at me. “I go after what I want.” A chasm of electricity shot through me. For a moment, I completely forgot where I was—until John decided to make an appearance and clamped a sturdy hand on Alex’s shoulder. “So, I see you’ve met the staff, little bro?” “Little bro?” I said at the same time Alex said “Staff?” Suddenly, it all fell into place. Standing next to each other Alex and John were very nearly similar, if not a hair-breadth away from being identical. John seemed a tad more proper and stern than Alex, but that could also possibly be because of my former acquaintance with Alex. Another realization struck me. Alex was my boss’s brother, which suddenly made the situation a little…different. Alex, however, didn’t seem the least rattled by this news. In fact, a wide grin spread across his face. “Rachel, this is my business partner and brother, Alex.” Well now it felt even more awkward. “Alex, Rachel, our main gal here at the Mixer. The Atwoods told us that you pretty much run the place.” My face warmed. “We know each other.” This came from Alex. John looked amused and his gaze pivoted back and forth between us. “It’s not what you’re thinking,” I thought I heard Alex mutter. John cleared his throat. “I was just telling Rachel that I wanted to discuss the business ideas you and I talked about. Shall we go to the back office?” For the next hour, we discussed business strategies, ways to improve the business and long-term goals. I shared some ideas I had, which both Alex and John seemed intrigued and pleased by. “I’ll be very honest with you, Rachel,” John said. “Alex and I busy with a few other ventures right now that require a lot more attention and oversight, and we won’t have the capacity to monitor the Mixer to the extent it deserves. So,” he paused and studied me for a moment. “I was thinking of hiring a managing director.” Alex nodded. My eyes fell on the desk, where a familiar-looking book peered up at me. It looked like one of the titles I’d knocked to the floor during my library encounter with Alex. I wondered if his hands had touched that book, poured through the pages. Had his eyes studied the words intently? I had a sudden inclination to learn the contents of the book. I wanted to be that book, as silly as it sounds. I wanted Alex to observe me, hold me, touch me. Okay, horn dog, keep calm. I forced my gaze away from the work and focused on what John was saying. “We’ve discussed the idea for a while now, especially since this is our first visit in the last six weeks since we’ve taken over. And I think we can both say that we’re very pleased with the efficiency and detail with which you’ve maintained the business and up keeping.” “So, Alex, since we seem to be in agreement, Rachel, we’d like to offer you first dibs on the position.” My brain suddenly shut down. Managing director? That sounded so…sensational. Like an actual career. Like something I would actually be interested in and good at. Like something I wouldn’t be ashamed of putting on a business card, assuming I got a business card. “Before you decide,” John said. “I want to explain to you that, given that you continue to help drive business, this position would over time likely not only be limited to The Mixer. We’re looking to expand our ventures within Georgia, and that will mean that gradually, your responsibilities would extend beyond the confines of this place. It also means that as we grow, so do you…and of course you will be compensated accordingly.” My mind was spinning. I could expand, grow, make a reasonable living—which meant that I wouldn’t have to live under mom’s roof till I was old, deaf and decrepit. John went on to explain the responsibilities entailed—pretty much everything I was already doing, with the exception of the added chores that would come as the businesses—and my role—expanded. “Take some time to think it through,” Alex said, leaning back in his chair and crossing his hands behind his head. “If you can get back to us by the end of the week, that would be great.” I nodded dumbly, still trying to process what a huge shift in direction this was. A day ago—heck, an hour ago—I couldn’t picture where I would be tomorrow, and now, such a short span of time later, a football field of possibilities had suddenly opened up behind a closed door. And all I needed to do to make the future a reality was say yes. I knew I should accept immediately. What if they changed their minds? What if they found someone more qualified for the job? But, as always, my pride was reigning. I held back my eagerness at the fear of sounding desperate—like someone who had discovered a lifeline. And though that was exactly what I was being offered, I’d be damned if I showed it. **** The next few hours passed in a blur, and before I knew it, it was midnight. Between orders, beer spills, an almost brawl and the chaos that comes with frantic staff members and a room full of football-manic fans, I’d completely lost track of time. I was functioning on auto, and after we closed the door and cleaned the last table, I collapsed into the nearest booth, squeezing my calves to alleviate my achy muscles. “Crazy night, huh?” I looked up. Till then, I’d forgotten all about Alex, or more accurately, I’d lost track of where he was, or if he was even still there. I pushed a wayward strand out of my face and back into my ponytail. “That might be an understatement.” Alex grabbed a bar stool, spun it around and straddled it. “Is it always this crazy?” I massaged the back of my heels. A sound of ecstasy bubbled up my throat, and I struggled to keep it contained. I didn’t want to reenact the Herbal Essences commercial right here in front of Alex, though if the way he was gazing at me was any indication, he would have more than enjoyed it. “Most weekends, yes. The football games, as you can imagine, make it crazier.” Alex nodded thoughtfully, and I could see the business wheels churning inside his head. He’d rolled his sleeves up to display muscular, tanned forearms and for a moment, I wondered how he spent his “business” time in California. How many women vied for his attention? How many had he been with? I had a sudden urge to want to know everything about this man, but I suppressed the urge to ask. “I have a few ideas.” Alex looked at me, but I could tell his focus was elsewhere. “I know it’s late, but, um, well, I was wondering…” I cocked my head forward, urging him to go on. “Do you want to do dessert?” I bit my lip and smiled. “Dessert sounds delicious.” Heck, anything sounded delicious right now. And although on a typical Saturday night like tonight I would be dying to be curled up in bed, my feet safely tucked in under the confines of a soft, comforting duvet, tonight, I had a unique energy about me. I was awake, excited, eager. Just being around Alex made me feel…different. A way I hadn’t ever felt before. There had been men. Plenty of them. And although I didn’t have a history with men as rich as Liz’s, I’d had a fair trail of them to experiment and test the waters with. None had exhilarated me to this degree. There was something about Alex. Something…genuine. He was the real thing, not an act. A true man, at least from what I could tell. Responsible, transparent, intelligent, not to mention the obvious—attractive. Attractive as hell. The wrap up process was over before I knew and though John gave Alex a look that looked a lot like a warning, he also threw me a quick wink, making me feel immediately at ease. I wondered if there were any rules about dating the staff—I’m sure there were, and I wondered if John would mention anything to Alex about it when they were alone next. It took us seven minutes to arrive at the nearest (and only) diner—Alex had graciously offered to drive and a bone-thin mousy woman in her late forties with thin, brown hair gathered in a bun, wearing old-style large frames, instantly appeared to gather our order. It was now nearing twelve-thirty, but the place was not nearly as empty as I’d suspected it would be. A cop claimed a corner booth for two, newspaper in one hand and a coffee mug in the other. A family of four occupied a center table, and just a few feet from us, a couple, probably in their early thirties, nibbled on a decadent-looking strawberry cheesecake. “So,” Alex’s baritone rang through my thoughts. “How long have you lived in Atlanta?” I sipped water through a straw. The iced liquid traveled down through my esophagus and I was instantly cold. I should have ordered no ice. “I was born here. We lived in Decatur about nine years, and then my dad, who owns and operates a few kids arcades, expanded out to this area.” “So business runs in the blood, huh?” Alex’s eyes twinkled as he looked at me over the rim of his glass. “It’s strange that you say that. I never made that connection.” To be completely honest, I hadn’t even realized my own knack for business management until tonight. The conversation with John and Alex had left me invigorated and my wheels churning even long after we’d discussed my ideas. When the Atwoods were in charge, I simply thought I was giving them a hand with the business while securing my job and ensuring my indispensability. It was odd to think that all this time, they’d held me accountable for their success. Why had I never realized this strength? “Did you take Business in college?” I shifted in my seat and luckily, mousy waitress chose that moment to reappear with our orders: a hot fudge brownie sundae (me) and a Reeces peanut butter cheesecake (Alex). After Mousy’s disappearance, it would have been easy to navigate to a different track of conversation. I could have very easily segued from Alex’s earlier question and eased into a more favorable point of discussion. But somehow, that didn’t feel like the right thing to do. I wanted to be honest and open. If my lack of educational experience would be a deal breaker, then so be it. I was not going to allow myself the heartache of getting attached to someone only to have things fall apart because of a silly mistake. So I took a bite of my sundae, letting the cool-warm dessert settle on my taste buds, relishing the sweet, gooey feel of fudge against my tongue and taking my time on allowing it to pass through my palate. “I didn’t go to college.” There I’d said it. I waited for a reaction, a look of surprise, anything, but Alex simply nodded, chewed and plucked at a peanut butter chip with his spoon, making me wonder if he’d even heard me. “You’re a natural. You want to try some?” I shook my head—I wasn’t a big fan of peanut anything—and tried to process the compliment. Alex was observing me. The intensity of his gaze made it hard to swallow, or focus on the decadency of my savory treat. I slide my dessert toward him to buy time and to return the offer. He lifted my spoon and took a bite, never letting his eyes waver from mine. “What? You seem…shocked.” I rearranged my expression; only then did I realize that I’d probably been staring at him as though he were a zombie from planet xenon. I don’t know what prompted me to let my guard down or utter what I said next: “I regret it. I feel as though it makes me less intelligent than everyone else.” Alex set his spoon and this time a look of surprise did cross his face. “You can’t possibly think that after what all you’ve accomplished at The Mixer. You were the Atwoods’ selling point during our decision period.” I scrunched my face in confusion. I was a selling point? Aloud I said, “How?” Alex swallowed and blotted a napkin over his lips. I noticed they were full, probably warm and firm and erotic, just as they looked. I wanted to taste the peanut butter on them. That was the second time tonight my thoughts had veered in to experimenting in areas that were otherwise very non-Rachel like. First the thought of reading a book (let alone being one) and then wanting to experience a food that I had no interest in. “John and I have several investments in various states—primarily California and Georgia. With the downturn of the economy, we withdrew money from some mutual funds my dad had put aside for us when we were still in college and reinvested it in a few flailing businesses that we knew we could turn around in a few years and sell at a profit. We came across the Atwoods’ listing on Craigslist and though the place isn’t hurting by any means, there’s a lot of potential. Opportunity to differentiate ourselves. Plus, it’s one of the more steadier investments that we’ve made, which makes it a dependable source of income.” Alex scooped another bit of his cheesecake and relished it a moment. I watched the firm movements of his jaw, and felt something stir down below. This was insane. Thankfully, Alex was oblivious to my inappropriate thoughts, and he forged ahead. “John was iffy about having several investments on opposite coasts. From a management and travel perspective, it’s not a favorable decision, but the two other investments we have here are both foreclosures that we’re going to fix up as the housing market heals, which means they don’t require attention at the moment. Traveling from California to oversee one business would have been absurd, but when the Atwoods assured us that you run the entire place with little to no supervision from them, we sealed the deal.” “Interesting.” And it was. I knew the Atwoods had loved me, but I had no idea that they held me in such high regard. Hearing this praise from someone else made me feel cheated. I’d felt worthless for so many years. I’d berated myself for not having a strong talent out of which I could pave the pathway to a career. In the few short hours I’d been with Alex and John, I’d received the recognition and direction I’d been striving for all along. More importantly, I’d realized my strong suit, my talent that I’d been hunting so deep and hard for—business management. The concept of taking something and making it better, helping it thrive and nurturing it to success excited me. That was probably why I’d never considered what I was doing as an actual job—it was all too much fun to be considered anything but a hobby. Alex set his spoon down and leaned back in the booth, his shirt stretching out across his firm torso. I dug down to the very bottom of my sundae and extracted a large chunk of brownie doused in gooey fudge and vanilla. “So you grew up in…?” “Alabama—the heart of Dixie.” “Ah. Would have never pegged you as an Alabamian.” Alex laughed. “It’s not too much different from the rural parts of Georgia, actually.” “Quiet?” “For the most part. We only knew as much as our backyard and a five mile radius. The grocery store, dining areas, movies and our church were all within a few minutes of our house. We even walked to high school. Well, until my sophomore year. That’s when Dad bought John a Corolla, and then our entire existence changed forever.” His eyes twinkled. “If I were to guess, I’d say that part of that change had something to do with easier access to girls.” The comment was light-hearted, but a spring of jealously still let loose within me, which, I know, is absolutely ridiculous. I mean we were talking about high school—which was decades ago—in a state he no longer lived in. And it’s not like we were dating or anything. “Oh yeah, the ladies favored the guys who had their own transport. It was different than dating someone who had to share a car with, say their mom or dad or even their younger brother.” He gave a devilish grin. “I take it John never shared?” Alex shrugged. “He didn’t, but it didn’t matter for long. I bought my own car the following year.” “Ah. Lucky you. I had to share with my younger sister, Becky, until she got her own job and I moved out.” “We were spoiled—not that it’s a good thing. But my dad grew up on a farm, and when he started middle school, he realized out how much he’d missed out on because his parents couldn’t afford much for him and my aunt, Alice. When we were born, he promised himself that he would live vicariously through us and afford us the luxuries he never got.” I quirked my mouth into a half smile. “My parents had a different philosophy. My dad was all about storing away for the future, a lot like a squirrel storing away for the winter, and my mom wanted us to grow up to be strong, independent women who didn’t need to rely on men—though she never worked a day in her life. So we pretty much had to pay our way through everything. If you wanted a car, you had to buy it—well, unless you count the first one they bought for my older sister, Liz—a beat up Kia that always smelled like battery acid. And then when she bought her own car, they passed it down to me—lucky, lucky me.” I purposely left out the fact that Liz was a lingerie model or that her first car, a five-series Beemer, was purchased at the start of her extremely successful career. Not that I didn’t trust Alex or think that he would be automatically more inclined toward my older more successful sibling as opposed to, well, me. Okay, so maybe it was just a little bit because of that. But, hey, can you blame me? I’d barely gotten my claws in. And let’s see: lingerie model, bar tender. You do the math. A thought suddenly struck me. “Where do you live now?” The waitress reappeared with our check and a sudden infusion of kindness that had been absent till now—the moment of tipping. I hated when wait staff pulled that. Despite being a fellow patron in the service business, I believed you had to earn the extra bucks. And mousy was not getting a generous tip for her wane efforts. Reaching into my sling, I extracted a few bills to pay my share, but Alex waved me away and pressed a black American Express card into the billfold. Darn. He’d probably tip well. On the plus side, we’d just successfully (at least according to me) completed our first date. Ok, so maybe not fully completed given the fact that I was hoping to indulge in some second-hand peanut butter, but still. It had been a perfect night. If you didn’t count the anecdote with Kyle. My mood dampened. “Everything OK?” Kyle asked. Our waitress, sensing a tip, quickly scuttled over, eagerly asked if we were still doing OK and swiftly swiped the payment from Alex’s clutch. “Yeah. Well, no. Not really. I mean, not in regard to tonight. Tonight is just great. Earlier wasn’t.” Alex looked puzzled. I took a deep breath and tried again. “What I mean to say is that this is great. I’m having a good time and the dessert was delicious and much needed. Thank you. I’m just a bit…preoccupied. That’s all.” “Anything I can do to help you become…unpreoccupied. If that’s even a word.” I laughed. “No, thank you. I’ll be fine.” Alex studied me a moment, taking a sip from his water. “Are you always like this?” “Like what?” “Guarded.” By this I was taken aback. I’d never thought of myself as guarded…just careful, which I guess could be a synonym for guarded. I folded my napkin into halves then fourths. My black polish was starting to peel. I was in need of a new coat, possibly a new color. Maybe next I’d try forest green. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that to come across as a negative thing. I mean, we haven’t exactly known each other long enough for you to trust me with the details of your life, I get that. I just think that there’s so much more to know about you. You intrigue me.” Those last three words echoed in my mind, making my skin tingle. No one had ever described me as intriguing—at least not to my face. “You’re right. I do have a tendency to be guarded. I guess that’s just my personality. I’ve always been this way, I think.” That was a bit of a lie. I’d been vulnerable plenty when I was younger, but much too young for it to count. Like when I was nine and our dog, Shabby, got hit by a car because Liz and forgotten to close the gate leading from the back yard to the street. I’d never forgiven her. I still remembered bawling into the soft dirt after we’d buried him and the restless nights and countless nightmares that had followed. A few weeks after his untimely death, when we’d had a family discussion over lasagna and beef stroganoff about getting another dog, I’d voted no. And no one argued or brought up the topic again. Then there’d been that time in middle school when my best friend Emma had moved to Kentucky. I hadn’t even known it was an actual state. I always thought it was the place they served fried chicken and warm biscuits. After several unsuccessful attempts to convince my parents to let me move with her, I’d given up, and instead, vowed never to have a best friend again. The waitress returned with our receipt, again flashing what I assumed was intended to be a dazzling smile. Her crooked, yellowed teeth and the prominent crow’s feet around her eyes took away from the desired effect. Alex completed the transaction and a few moments later, we were on our way back to the bar. An upbeat Maroon Five song crooned through the speakers and I reached over to turn up the volume at the same time as Alex. We laughed and the obvious tension surrounding us seemed to ebb. “One of my favorites,” I said over the music. “Same.” He looked over and grinned. “I hope I didn’t offend you by what I said earlier.” “No, no. Not offended.” I leaned back and closed my eyes, letting the music thrum through my ears. “Good, because I was hoping you’d be interested in doing lunch tomorrow.” I smiled and opened my eyes, holding his gaze. “I’d like that.” **** Good night kisses are the best invention of human kind. Whoever thought of them should have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. After Alex had parked and walked me to my car and said goodnight, he’d leaned in, ever so slightly. I took the bait and closed the distance between our mouths. I liked peanut butter. In fact, I think I was a newfound fan. As long as I could taste it the way I’d tasted it last night, directly from Alex’s firm, soft, warm lips, I’d eat nothing but peanut butter for as long as I lived. The next morning as I dressed for my lunch date, I was still thinking about the intensity of the kiss and the fervor with which we’d attacked each other. It must have been a byproduct of the lack of sleep combined with the fact that Alex was, well, super hot. If we’d been anywhere but a deserted parking lot, I was sure that the kiss would have just been the very beginning of a long, languorous night ahead. I jumped into a pair of low-riding skinny jeans and pulled on a black Aeropostale t-shirt that very nicely outlined my chest. A few strokes of the hairbrush, a dapple of clear lip gloss (Liz would have been appalled) and two strokes of mascara later, I was on my way down the stairs. My mom, still in her pink robe and matching slippers, sat on the couch, feet propped on the ottoman, sniffling into a tissue. The Titanic was playing on TV. I tried to quietly extract a pack of gum from the kitchen drawer nearest the sink, in no mood to conversate or commiserate, and was nearly out the door when Liz appeared in the kitchen arcway, wearing her silk pajamas and blocking my path to the garage. She stifled a yawn, then squinted at me. “Is that clear?” “Huh?” “Clear lip gloss. Are you actually wearing clear lip gloss?” Oh, right, the damned lip gloss. “How is it any of your business?” I stuck a piece of gum in my mouth and tried to swerve around her. She blocked my path. “And mascara? Oh no! Are you seeing that jackass again?” It took a moment to register who she was referring to. “No, I’m not seeing Kyle. Now move out of my way.” “Then who? I know you’re not going to work like that.” “No one!” “Fine, don’t tell me, but you’re not walking out of the house looking like that. I can’t let you risk my reputation.” Before I could protest, Liz dragged me into the powder room and whipped out a suitcase of cosmetics. I swear. I could have fit an entire weekend wardrobe in that box. “I’ve dressed myself all these years. How can my dressing suddenly ruin your reputation?” Liz ran a big, wide brush over my face then wielded a long metallic tube. “Because, dearest sister, the paparazzi are here, outside this very house. Because of me, of course.” In case I needed clarification. “They can’t see you like this. You’ll ruin my image.” She stepped back. Normally, I would have been livid at this vain attempt to make me look better, but the reflection in the mirror made me freeze. I looked…good. The blush was subtle, barely there (was it even blush?) and gave my skin a sexy slightly-tanned type appearance. And the red lipstick—gosh if I had known it red lipstick in that tube, I wouldn’t have let Liz within a foot of my face—but it actually looked sexy. All in all, I didn’t look anything like my usual self. And maybe today that wasn’t so bad. Or maybe I was just sleep deprived and a group of scientists had extracted my brain and donated it to aliens. “I could do more, but I’m in no mood to have my face chewed off. And if you are truly going on a date, you really should consider different clothes. Especially if you’re going, like, someplace nice,” Liz packed away her supplies and stowed them back under the sink. The whole scene reminded me of when we were younger and played dress up. Of course, it was always Liz doing the dressing up. One Christmas, my dad’s businesses had done especially well and our tree had been drowned by presents. Gifts wrapped in red, pink, gold, silver, purple, and green floated like an ocean over the white cotton snow, obscuring it completely. That year, Liz had gotten a humungous set of makeup. And so for the rest of the year, she forced me and Becky to be the customers at her “beauty shop” (which “opened” for business every time we were about to step outdoors, be it for grocery shopping or walking the dog). Though the makeup itself turned out pretty scary, what was even scarier was the Russian accent she adopted while she applied the paint. “Call me Anya,” she’d insist, flaring her arms about drastically. I think it was more this schizo-type personality than anything else that kept me rooted to the pink fold-up princess chair every time. “What are you guys up to?” Becky appeared in the doorway looking more gaunt than I’d ever seen her. She swung her gaze back and forth between me and Liz as though she expected us to extract swords and pull samurai moves at any moment and I could see dark patches beneath her eyes. She wore black sweats that hung loose, a wife beater that seemed to be looking frantically for meat to cling to and her battered unicorn Stompeez. Seriously. She bought them in college, and the eyes on the left one don’t even lift anymore when she walks. “Did you shrink yourself in the laundry, or did you buy clothes ten sizes too big?” Liz tugged at the wife beater. Becky ignored her and gasped. “Ohh, Rach, you look so nice! Where are you going? No work today?” “Nope. I’m off.” “Then…?” I looked at Liz, who was pretending very hard to be disinterested in our conversation. She twirled the cord around her straightner and busied herself with filing it away in a slim drawer. “Oh my gosh! You have a date!” “You could call it that.” Liz snuck a peek at me, but before Becky could weasel any more details out of me, my phone buzzed in my jeans pocket. “Ohhh, is that him? Who is he? Where did you meet him? Oh, no! It’s not Kyle is it?” “Do I look that stupid?” Okay, wrong question. Especially judging from the sneer on Liz’s face. I could tell she was formulating a smart response. I could see it rolling forward to the tip of her tongue. She opened her mouth and I braced myself to fire off a quick rebuttal to whatever she was about to utter. And then my mother walked in. We were squished like chickens in metal transport cages. And our mother hen, puffy eyes and red, bulbous nose, was looking oddly comfortable in our cramped confines. “Who are you dating, dear? Is it that sweet Christopher?” she sniffed. I held in a groan. “No, it’s not Christopher, Mom.” “Well, why ever not?” I’d never quite gotten around to telling my mother just how exactly well my date with Christopher had gone. “Who’s Christopher?” Liz was suddenly alert, eyebrows raised, mouth open. My back went rigid. “Oh, a sweet gentleman from church. Rachel went out with him, what, a week ago?” “I don’t want to talk about it.” I fished my phone out of my pocket. One text. Can’t wait to see you. –A “Was it that bad?” My mother snatched a tissue from the sink and blew hard. All three of us grimaced. “You set it up?” Liz asked, slack jawed. My mom nodded proudly. “You went on a blind date with someone mom set you up with?” Liz scrunched her nose at me as though I had an army of roaches crawling over my face. “It was a favor.” “Yes, indeed, dear. And thank you for that. Too bad it didn’t work out well. Though I’m curious to know why not…” “Yeah, what happened, Rach? Was he already hitched?” Liz sneered. “No, but he didn’t seem like the type to leave anyone at the alter, either.” Liz sucked in a breath. “What nonsense. Christopher is a devout Christian, I’ll have you know. A single Christian who would never jilt anyone at the altar. He’s a man of God.” My mother gave Liz a stern look, but my sister didn’t notice. She was too busy glowering at me, obviously fighting the overpowering urge to resume the argument, but likely deciding against it because I had possession of a powerful truth that could have her on the receiving end of my mother’s wrath. Mom still had no idea that her eldest had been moments away from eloping in a city infamous for its sky-high rates of marriage and divorce. And if I was pushed hard enough, I wouldn’t mind being the one to break this oh-so-sad news to our beloved madre. My phone buzzed again. I was already running late for my lunch date with Alex and I was in no mood to stick around my looney family. I ducked past my mom. “Where are you going?” Becky called. “Lunch. I’ll fill you in later.” And with that, I was out the door and surrounded by the bitter winter air. Only then did I realize I’d forgotten my jacket. **** “Three sisters, huh? Sounds like a ton of fun. And if I haven’t said it enough already, you look stunning.” Alex smiled and thrust a white cloth napkin over his lap just as the waiter arrived with our food. He’d said it alright. But the effect of the compliment didn’t wane in the slightest with each time it was paid. We were at the Olive Garden off of Scenic Highway and the lunchtime crowd was in full swing. “Depends on your definition of fun.” I took a bite of my chicken marsala and relished the tickle of spices on my tongue. Alex laughed. “My brother and I hated each other till we both graduated college.” “Really? My sisters and I still hate each other. Okay well, to be fair, not both of them. Liz, the eldest, is the crazy one. Beck, younger than me, is cool.” “Hmm. So you’re the middle one. Is it true what they say?” “About the middle-child syndrome? Not in our house. My mom has enough attention mustered up for a whole ancillary of children. She makes everything about us her business.” He laughed. “I know the type all too well. Do you all live together?” I coughed and took a sip of my Coke. Alex had suggested wine to go with the Italian, but I wasn’t much of a wine person. “For the time being. I used to live on my own.” “Oh?” I hesitated, wondering how much was safe to disclose. It’s not that I didn’t trust Alex, more that I was embarrassed by truth, by my stupidity and vulnerability. And most of all, that something so stupid had happened with me—supposedly the sensible one of the three. Liz was the ditz and Beck was the emotional thinker. But me? I was the realist. Or so I had thought. I still couldn’t believe how blind sighted I’d been where Kyle had been concerned. “I used to live with my ex-boyfriend.” “Oh.” Alex forked his Grilled Shrimp Caprese and casually implored, “Were you guys together a long time?” “Two years. We broke up a few months ago.” He nodded and took a bite. “And I know what you’re thinking, but no, it’s not one of those temporary break-ups. It’s a done deal.” Alex nodded again, but didn’t look convinced. “He was cheating on his wife. I didn’t know.” “Oooh. Rough stuff.” “To put it mildly.” I briefed him on everything that had happened up until the night that I had hired the stripper. “And now he’s suing me for fraudulent charges on his credit card.” Kyle sat back. “Can he even do that?” I shrugged and set my fork down. I’d lost my appetite. “I got a call from his attorney yesterday. I either pay the charges plus an addition grand for emotional distress or fight him in court, which could potentially end up costing more.” Alex squeezed his lips together, and an image of them running over my body popped into my mind. I squirmed. Funny that even at a time like this, I couldn’t tear my thoughts away from him. “There’s got to be a loophole somewhere. I’m not sure that it’s completely illegal to do what you did, but again, I’m not well versed in law.” After a moment, Alex snapped his fingers and his eyes lit up. “But I do know someone who is. And I have a strong hunch that he just might be our man.” Chapter 17 Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar? Becky “Ms. Parker, it was a pleasure speaking with you.” Tina Morales, director of Oakland Montessori, stood and walked me to her door. I followed her past a fake ficus rooted in a large golden pot-like vase. “As I mentioned, we are looking to hire immediately, so we will be in touch with a final decision very soon.” “Thank you, Ms. Morales. I appreciate your consideration of me.” I hoisted the straps of my white bag further up my shoulder and gave her a firm handshake. “Oh, and Ms. Parker? One more quick question. For my notes, have you spoken to your current principal about your desire to relocate?” It was a fair question. One that I should have very well anticipated and been prepared for. But I wasn’t. I hadn’t mentioned anything of the sort to Dr. Greene, nor did I want to. I felt like I was betraying him, betraying my students. Walking out on them all. But surely everyone would understand my predicament? I took a deep breath and tried to infuse my voice with confident. Don’t make excuses, don’t sound guilty, don’t blabber. You’ll sound like a kid caught with his hands in the cookie jar. Though God knew, I’d very nearly perfected that art—minus getting caught—decades ago. Cookies were my favorite, but I hadn’t touched one in at least a month. And strangely enough, I no longer craved them. In fact, I no longer had an appetite. I was always achy from the gym workouts and usually too tired to scrounge up a healthy meal. Right now, the thought of food didn’t even make my stomach grumble, which was a good thing. Because suddenly, I had bigger fish to fry. “No, ma’am, but I plan on talking to him about it today.” “Good. We will need to interview him as a reference.” In the car, I pondered this new dilemma. How would Dr. Greene react? Would he be upset? Would his anger prevent him from offering a favorable reference? Twenty minutes later, I paid a quick trip to the restroom, freshened my make up and hair, spritzed some Very Sexy and then made my way to Dr. Greene. School was still in session. The day before, I’d notified Dr. Greene that I’d be arriving late today due to some personal matters that needed attention. I’d purposely phrased it that way to disillusion him into thinking that I was referring to womanly matters. The trick, as expected, worked, and he never questioned my plans (though I’d departed his office with soaked armpits and a flushed face). For some reason, anything that alludes to privacy where a woman is concerned automatically sets off warning bells in a man’s mind. I’m almost curious to know what goes through their heads. Do they think we’re having menstrual issues? A boob job? Artificial insemination? I’m not sure. But in either case, the trick always works. (I know because Jane’s used it many times and she swears by it.) Dr. Greene was typing away at his keyboard, a deep crease between his brows. He didn’t notice me until I was seated directly across him. He raised his brows from their precarious state and his whole face seemed instantly more relaxed. “Ms. Parker. What a pleasant surprise and a much needed distraction.” My face warmed and I immediately felt guilty. The news I was about to deliver would only add to whatever tension so obviously occupied Dr. Greene. He clicked a few buttons and then folded his hands. “So tell me, what brings you here this afternoon.” Was I sensing a hint of flirtation in his eyes? I clasped my hands in my lap and looked down, then coughed. I’d practiced my speech so many times. A different environment, new challenge, new experience, yadah, yadah, yadah. But now, I wasn’t able to grasp more than a few of my main points. I opted for bluntness in fear of looking like an idiot if I didn’t come up with something soon. I couldn’t think with Dr. Greene’s heated gaze on me. “Well, I um, wanted to let you know that I had an…I interviewed at another school today.” Tick, tock, tick, tock. I couldn’t gather the galls to look up. “Nothing’s official yet, of course, but I just wanted to keep you up to speed and let you know that I’m looking outside our district.” Dr. Greene nodded. Slowly at first, never removing his gaze from mine. Then finally, he exhaled and leaned back. He stuffed one hand in his suit pants and twirled a fancy ballpoint in between the fingers of his other. “I appreciate your giving me a heads up. Though I must admit, I’m more than a little surprised at your decision. As you are one of my top talents here, I want to ask, if you don’t mind, what prompted this decision.” “Er…sure. It’s really, I mean the layoffs are the reason. You mentioned that the numbers would be larger than expected.” “And I also said that you would not be impacted.” “Right. But the last time we met, you didn’t and so I thought…” I suddenly felt like a complete and total idiot. What had I been thinking? I’d been offered job security from the big honcho himself, and I’d run the other way. For what? Who was to say I wouldn’t be out on the curb if the new district underwent layoffs. I would, after all, be the newbie in a fish tank filled with more tenured sharks. Instantly, I was more aware of my clothes, about how my pants looked a size too big (because they were), how my sweater clung a little looser than it should have. My cheek tickled right below my eye. Did I have an eyelash? I swiped my face as surreptitiously as possible and made a conscious effort to straighten my shoulders and sit up higher. In the process, my knee bumped the desk, and Dr. Greene’s infamous mug came bouncing to the floor, spilling pens, pencils and erasers in its wake. Thank goodness it hadn’t shattered! Dr. Greene and I scampered to clean up and ended up bumping heads in the process. “Oh no, I’m so sorry!” I squeaked. Gosh this was a complete and total disaster. How many times in the last month had I had a normal meeting with this man where I either didn’t end up injuring one of us or look like the victim of a tsunami? Maybe it was a good thing that I’d posted out. At this rate, I’d probably end up getting fired for being a human hazard. “No worries.” Dr. Greene placed the mug back on his desk, then took his seat again and shook his head. “Getting back to our discussion. Whatever the case, reality is that no matter what I promise, Ms. Parker, I must begrudgingly admit that I, unfortunately, am not a fortune teller nor a psychic. So though right now I can promise you the everything under the stars, I’m not even sure of my own job security. We’re public servants, and so the control we hold over our destiny is very limited.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “That being said, if you wish to continue pursuing other opportunities, I will support you in your decision and will be glad to offer recommendations or serve as a reference.” I fidgeted the toes of my shoes against each other. “I…thank you.” I stood with as much bravo as I could gather and Dr. Greene walked me out. When I turned to thank him, he’d already disappeared behind the glass paneled door. Chapter 18 Liz the season to be jolly ~Liz~ Christmas is the only time of year the world feels alive. Lamp posts covered with wreaths and tinsel, houses decked out in colorful lights and décor, Christmas trees visible behind glass windows, it’s a beautiful time of year. But today, Christmas would be different. I could tell the moment I pulled my Dior sleep patch off my eyes and smelled…something awful. Downstairs, the house was in a ruckus. Smoke filled the foyer, growing thicker as I trailed it into the kitchen. My mom was waving a red and green oven mitt in front of the stove, Becky at her side with a bucket. The stove was doused in water, but the culprit pan, still billowing smoke, failed to reveal its contents. I coughed and waved my hands in front of my face, still not completely alert. I’d had a long night out with Margaret, the eldest of our cousins, but still single and a party animal, who had insisted on going to the new Bollywood lounge and bar in Norcross. The Indian music, booze and women dressed in cultural attire doing the Macarena were enough to keep us thoroughly entertained into the wee hours of dawn. I’d planned on waking up in time for Christmas lunch, when my mother would try relentlessly to force artery-clogging meals down our gullets, all the while chiding us that presents would be opened only after every last morsel was cleared off everyone’s plates. But now, thanks to fear of death by a house fire, I was up hours earlier than anticipated. As I launched into a fit of coughs, I mentally cursed my luck. I’d probably have bags under my eyes from lack of sleep and now, thanks to my mother’s culinary artistry, smoke-infused clothes. I wondered if I’d remembered to keep my room door closed. “What the…?” Rachel appeared next to me, groggy eyed and tussled. The eyeliner and mascara from last night was smudged beneath her eyes and made her lips look fuller than usual. (Or maybe that was because she’d ended up sucking face?). “It’s going to be okay. It will be okay.” My mother pulled up a chair and collapsed into it. Rachel, Becky and I exchanged a look. My mother was never known to be culinarily…errr…inclined. The meals she knew how to make and had years and years of practice concocting were edible and very rarely tasty. But trying new recipes was something she did only when an occasion called for it. Occasion thy name is Christmas. The desire to cook up a storm was probably also a result of all of us (minus dad, of course) being under the same roof after so many years. How many had it been? At least ten? “Smells like a dead fish in here.” Rachel opened the fridge, undid a carton of orange juice and took a long swig. “Eeewww!” I squealed. “How gross are you!” “Oh, sorry. I’m so rude. You want some?” She looked at me innocently, but I could see the gleam in her eyes. “Not with a ten foot golden pole. Get it away from me!” I swatted at Rachel as she took off after me, holding the damned container mere inches from my lips. “Stop, you prick!” I ran into the living room and buried my face in the sofa. Rach pounced on me, the damned container still in her hands. I waved my hand frantically behind me, trying to get her off. Suddenly, my hand came in contact with something prickly and sharp, and a moment later, I felt a greater weight on my back, followed by loud screams. Rach grunted. “My tree!” Mom’s shriek sounded like it was direct contact with my ear drums. “You’ve ruined it! You’ve ruined everything. Get off! Get up! Get out!” Out of my peripheral, I saw a big mass of green needles. A moment later, the mass was heaved off and a second after that Rachel’s fat butt was off my back. I scrambled to my feet and watched as Becky, ever the do-gooder, helped mom straighten up the mess. Thank goodness this year she’d opted for the fake tree that’d been stowed away in our attic as far back as memory could recall. Every so often, mom went on a Christmas high and decided to go through the tedious task of picking out a tree. This usually involved hours of grueling, going back and forth and driving the sales people crazy enough to where they’d leave us alone at the risk of losing a customer in return for gaining peace of mind. But since she and my dad had divorced, she had opted more often so than not, for the fake tree we’d used since we were little kids, what without the extra pair of hands for labor. “Are you both going to just stand there?” Mother’s eyes would spit balls of fire if we were in a game of Mario Brothers. Rach and I scowled at each other and reluctantly began plucking ornaments and paraphernalia from the otherwise spotless floor. Now, thanks to Rach and her stupid juice carton, which was now standing neglected on a side table (it was a miracle that she’d held on tight even when the tree had fallen on her—just went to prove her love for empty calories, or really, calories of any sort) a confetti of pine littered the floor, contrasting sharply with the just-vacuumed white carpet. “I can’t believe you two! You are grown women and yet you still act like blithering idiots.” My mother angrily pinned a glittery silver jumbo ornament on a branch then spun and jabbed her pointer at us. “Let me just tell you both one thing, and listen very carefully. If you behave like a toddler, then you’re going to get treated like one. Do you both understand?” Rach and I grumbled a reply as I straightened a bent wire/branch and Rach plucked debris from the carpet. “Good. So you both will partake in Sunday cleaning this week.” Rachel and I froze, but neither of us dared argue. My mother dusted her hands and inspected the tree. “It’s still lopsided.” This was said matter-of-factly, but beneath the calm, you could sense an oncoming tsunami of emotions. She quirked her mouth and touched a twig. “Yes, still lopsided.” Silence. Becky chewed her lip (a true sign of anxiety), her pony tail misplaced, her robe coming undone to expose a worn Hello Kitty t-shirt. My darling baby sister still held on to her childhood like a toddler clinging to his blankie. I always assumed that was part of the reason why she’d become a teacher, so she could always be surrounded by youth and innocence. Maybe that was also why she’d never left home. Hmmm…maybe when I was through with modeling, I’d venture into studying psychology. “So.” Mother turned to face me and Rach. “Lunch is burnt and the tree is lopsided.” Silence. Becky fiddled with her robe tie. Rach crossed her arms and tried to appear nonchalant. I examined the tree. It was not the least bit lopsided. “Maybe we can order out?” This from…you guessed it, save-the-day Beck. “No! We are not ordering out! We are celebrating Christmas with a homemade lunch and an upright undistorted Christmas tree! Is that so much to ask for?!” My mother stomped her foot, stepped on a stray ornament, lost her footing and fell on her bum. Rach smothered a giggle. The doorbell rang, saving us all from a blow up. I rushed to the door and swung it open without looking through the peephole. Anyone—even a burglar—would be a welcome distraction. Err…anyone, that is, except Nick. That’s right. At our doorstep was my ex-boyfriend, holding a bouquet of wildflowers and sporting the look of an abandoned puppy. I started to close the door, but Nick inserted himself between the pane and the door. “Liz, please. Just listen to what I have to say.” “Are you freaking kidding me?! Listen to you? To you? The jerk who left me at the altar?! You left me at the altar, Nick. You stood me up the day of our wedding! The biggest day of my life and you want me to—” I grabbed the wildflowers and thwacked them on his head. Petals spurted in all directions. “—listen to you?! I should be murdering you right now!” I turned and stocked into the kitchen. Surprisingly, it was empty, with only the lingering smoke to keep us company. Even the living room appeared spotless, with absolutely no trace of the earlier scene. It’s as though I’d dreamt the entire incident. Nick was at my heels. Where was everyone else? “How the hell did you know I was here anyway?” “Liz, please. I realize I made a big mistake. I just got cold feet. I’m just…it’s that…I felt like I was being pushed to make this commitment and it’s just…I was a coward. I’m sorry. But I want to rectify my mistake. Please allow me that?” I crossed my arms and blinked a few times. I’d imagined this scenario several (thousands of) times in my fantasies, minus the silk pajamas, plus heavy makeup, and maybe in a different setting. Suwanee Park in the springtime would have been better. I would have been in a spring dress—no, scratch that, a mini skirt with stilettos. And the wind would be blowing at just the right angel and I’d be the cause of car wrecks and people walking into each other all because they wouldn’t be able to take their eyes off me. And Nick would get out of his car, spot me, our eyes would lock and the whole world would watch as he’d walk up to me, get down on his knees in front of the fountain, tell me what a jerkwad he’d been and how he’d made the biggest mistake of his entire life and ask me to be Mrs. Doctor Grey. (Isn’t that what you call a doctor’s wife? They should have a special title for our kind.) But, I guess I had to make do with the situation. It wasn’t like I was dating anyone and I did have limited time to get married. Plus, with Nick, I would never have to be worried about finances. Heck, till now, I hadn’t even known what the word meant. “How did you know I was here?” “Stacey called about the past due rent and threatened to go to collections.” So he’d spoken to my BFF—Ice Princess. “She said that the premises had been vacated, but the rent was still due in full. I figured since you weren’t there, you might be here. And then your car’s parked outside so…” Just then, my mother waltzed into the kitchen in a belted, red knee-length dress. She wore a gold bracelet and matching studs. Her hair looked freshly blow dried with not a strand out of place. Her face was made up and her perfume preceded her, tickling my nostrils even while she was still three feet away. Channel. The scent always reminded me of mom and special occasions. Past Thanksgivings, fancy birthday dinners, New Year’s parties at Aunt Margaret’s, all the special things we used to do as a family when we were young and still under the protective wings of our parents. Bad times…but still good in their own special way. “Who was at the…oh.” Her face fell giving the distinct impression that she had been expecting company. Other company. “Hello, Mrs. Parker.” “Miss. And hello, Nicholas. What a surprise to find you here…on Christmas.” She threw me an accusatory look, but before I could say anything, Nick cut in. “Ms. Parker, look, I’m sure you’re very upset and I just want to say that I’m so sorry about Vegas and leaving Liz at the altar like that. I feel very—owwww!” I pinched Nick’s butt. Probably lacerated it in the process. But, unfortunately it was too late. My mother stepped closer to Nick, her perfume further assaulting my senses. She’d really doused herself in it today. Nick moved backward and accidentally stepped on my toes. Damn him. I held in a yelp and swatted him across a shoulder. He didn’t even flinch. His attention was still completely focused on my mother, who was now mere inches from his face. She’d really caked on the foundation. I bet if I stuck my finger straight in, it’d travel an inch before coming into contact with her face. And the hue was all wrong too. It was a shade darker than her skin (she’d probably lightened being indoors in this winter weather). Maybe if I came out of this alive with all my limbs intact, I’d treat her to a makeover—and a whole new collection of makeup. Maybe even a shopping spree to Sephora. “What is he talking about, Elizabeth? What alter in Vegas?” Oh fuck. Scratch Sephora. I was in deep shit. “Ummm…” Realization sparked her eyes. “The trip. The one the three of you went on. You were getting married?” Her hand flew to her mouth and she gasped suddenly, her eyes riveted to my tummy, where a tiny bulge of flab protruded from my usually flat abdomen, giving away my secret splurges on burgers, Haagen-Dazs and Ferrero Rochers. “You’re with child!” I didn’t know if I was more shocked or insulted at this accusation. Shocked that she would even think me stupid enough to get pregnant, let alone when my career was still thriving (well, okay maybe not completely thriving, but in some proximity to thriving), and insulted, well, for obvious reasons. I know I’d gained some weight but surely I didn’t look… I reflexively reached for my belly, which was an uber big mistake. “Dear heavens! I knew it! Do you have any idea what it means to raise a child, Elizabeth Eleanor Parker? It’s no walk in the park. Do you think I blinked and the three of you grew up? You don’t have any sense of stability, career, a husband for chrissake! This is a disgrace.” She collapsed into a chair, face in hands. “A child out of wedlock, dear Lord, father of—” “You’re pregnant?” This from Rach, who had changed from her rumpled PJs to her typical winter attire: jeans and a long-sleeved top. She looked as though someone had just told her we were moving to Zanzibar. In fact, even Nick eyed my stomach specutively. He was weaker in math than I’d give him credit for, because last I heard, babies were conceived immediately following sex, not ten months later. I cringed internally at the thought of what our kids would look like. Hopefully they’d get my beauty and his brains. If it went the other way around…well, that would really suck. “No, I’m not pregnant. Gosh!” Really, I mean come on. Wasn’t there some rule about not assuming a woman looked pregnant until she told you herself that she was? How insulting. Rach looked doubtful. Nick look relieved (Stupid moron. Maybe I should have tricked him into believing it. At least I’d be eligible for child support. Hmm. Definitely something to consider…). My mother sprung to her feet (or was it sprang?). “Then why in God’s name were you running away to get married?” On second thought, maybe the pregnancy act wouldn’t have been so terrible after all. I was starting to realize a lot more pros than cons. “What’s going on?” Beck appeared in the entryway to the kitchen, struggling to get a silver bracelet around her thin wrist. She wore a white A-line skirt and a dark blue blouse. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was getting dressed for work. Or church. I had some serious work to do on her. “Why are you so dressed up?” I asked. Beck’s eyes passed over Nick and she did a double take. “Elizabeth, answer my question and stop trying to divert the topic.” “Mrs. Parker, I can explain,” Nick said. “Quiet, young man. And for the second time, it’s Miss. You’ll have your chance to explain why you stood my daughter up at the altar, but right now I want to hear from Elizabeth.” It was like Judge Judy in our very own kitchen. Rachel, intrigued by the whole scene, snuck a pack of snack size potato chips from the pantry and munched loudly. I wanted to dump a carton of apple cider over her head. “I went to Vegas to get married because Nick didn’t want to make it a big deal.” There. All eyes swiveled to Nick. Rach stuck a yellow straw in a Capri Sun and took a long sip, then resumed munching. She could be a science experiment. Only God knew how she still managed to fit into her high school jeans with that hog-like appetite (why she still even had her high school jeans was a different topic to contemplate altogether). “Mrs. Parker I take full responsibility—” “Hush, you stupid young man. Any person I have to remind three times to call me Miss isn’t worthy of my daughter, anyway. Plus, I don’t need you taking responsibility for anything. Elizabeth Eleanor Parker, you are thirty years old—a grown woman. You don’t need to shoulder the blame for your actions on someone else. Whatever the reason for your desire to elope, you should have been forthright with me, your mother. The woman who gave birth to you, in case you’ve forgotten. I have a right to be a part of your wedding. When you give birth to your own children, you’ll learn what it means—” Ding dong. Becky’s bracelet fell to the floor. Mother immediately fluffed her hair, speech forgotten, and rushed past her to grab the door. Saved by the bell. But I wasn’t done with Nick yet. We still had to hash out…something. I didn’t know what. Did I want to be with him anymore? Was the financial security important enough to sacrifice my life (and my children’s looks) with someone who I really even wasn’t that in to? “Liz, listen. I came to apologize. I want to make this right. I want to make us right.” “Why? And why now? After all this time? We’ve been apart for more than a month, Nick. Why are you so worried about us now?” Nick shoved his hands behind his back and bowed his head. The can lights overhead glinted off his bald spot; I contained the urge to wince. “Better late than never…right?” He risked a peek at me. “And this time, we’ll do it right. A true wedding. However you want it.” I crossed my arms and tapped my toes. This was all too confusing. My mind was at battle with itself, my thoughts bouncing around like ping pong balls. On the one hand, here I was, being offered everything I’d ever wanted and exactly what I’d been fighting for all along. On the other, something was still missing. Ah, what the hell. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, right? I just had to focus on all the great things ahead—endless shopping sprees, fancy galas, a beautiful house, expensive car, a stunning five carat ring— “Where’s my ring?” Nick scrunched his nose. I raised a brow and he immediately straightened. “It’s coming. Custom made, two carat—” “Five.” “—Five carat marquise.” “Princess with pave on both on ring and band.” “Band?” I cleared my throat. “Band. Band! Of course, how could I forget.” Nick let out a nervous twitter. “Where will we live?” “My place?” “Edinburgh Country Club. Six bedrooms, five and a half baths. I want a three-story wrap around balcony, built-in elevator, marble floors and a personal salon. Oh. And a full-time cleaning staff and cook—certified, of course. I eat only clean foods.” “Sugarloaf Springs, five bedroom four bath—” “Uh uh.” “Edinburgh it is.” I quirked my mouth in a smug smile as we shook. “Well, Dr. Grey. When shall we make the announcement?” Nick opened his mouth just as my mother reappeared, a cloud of airy giggles and Channel. Behind her was a man I’d never seen before, followed by Rach and Beck. The man wore a brown suede suit with patches at the elbow, over a mustard shirt. He looked like a hot-dog. His face was a splotchy red and he panted heavily as he entered the kitchen. My mother, by contrast, looked like a glowing school girl who’d just been asked to prom. Or gotten laid. Yuck. Erase that. School girl at prom. We’ll stick with that. Probably some old man she’d helped out at the nursing home she and the church ladies frequented during the holidays. “Everyone, please meet Arthur Gespagos.” “Arthur, this is Liz,” she brandished a palm in my direction as if I were a prize on the Price is Right. “And my middle daughter, Rachel. And finally my baby girl, Becky.” She pulled Becky in for a side hug. “Pleasure to meet you darlin’s,” Arthur replied gruffly. His eyes stopped at Nick. Nick cleared his throat and extended a hand. “I’m Nicholas Grey.” “Doctor,” I put in. “Ah, a doctor, are you? Well, looks like today’s ma lucky day, then. You see, I got this strange thing on my face right ‘ere…” Nick politely leaned in to take a closer look and mother watched with a strange sparkle in her eyes. Rach nudged me. “What the hell is going on, you think?” I threw back my shoulders. “Well, not that it’s any of your business, but if you must know, Nick finally came to his—” “I don’t care about Nick,” Rachel hissed. “I’m talking about that man. Who the hell is he and what is he doing here?” “Well, from the way mom’s looking at him…” Something suddenly clicked in my mind. I turned to Rach, eyes wide. Her expression could have been a mirror image of my own. “No.” “What else could it be? The gym visits, the weight loss, dieting.” “Look at the way she’s looking at him. I could slip on that drool.” My mom gently probed at something on Arthur’s face and a sensual look passed through them. “Ugh! No way. He’s like, a thousand. Mom’s still hot.” “I think they’ve been dating for a while.” Rach and I both jerked to the sound of Becky’s whisper. “What?” I gasped. How could this have happened? What about dad? Okay, I know. They were divorced, but still. I couldn’t imagine my mother with anyone else. It was part of the reason why I couldn’t stand Marla, or whatever the hell her name was. Well, that and the tiny bit about her age. “Let’s go.” I yanked Becky’s hand. “We’ll be right back. I need to change,” I called over my shoulder to whoever was listening. “What about lunch? We need to cook!” my mother yelled. Once we were safely inside my room, I locked the door and turned to face Beck. “Who the hell is that dude?” “I’m not really sure. I think he’s the man mom’s been talking to on the phone. They must be dating.” “So she hasn’t said anything to you about this dude?” Rach blew a big bubble and it popped all over her lips (where the hell had she found gum? And when? Last I’d seen, she’d been chomping on a Dorito.) “No, of course not. I would have told you!” “I can’t believe this. I can’t fucking believe this.” I threw five tops and three pairs of leggings on my bed where another mountain of clothing already lay. “Yeah, the pink one’s too bright,” Rach conceded. “No, you dimwit, I’m talking about mom. I can’t believe she’s dating that ogre. He’s, like, twice her age. And he can’t even walk without wheezing!” “Hm. Wonder how he’ll survive sex.” “Rach, ughh!” Seriously, she was so gross sometimes. How could she even think about that, especially right now when everything was shifting completely out of our control? I pulled the pony out of my hair, shook my head, then pulled on a white, v-neck top over hot pink leopard-print leggings. Yes, I did it on purpose, so sue me. Actually, one Parker getting sued was more than enough. Which reminded me… “Rach, whatever happened about Kyle?” Rach sagged into a black hammock-like chair balanced on two metal poles and blew another bubble. “I hate him.” I swiped red lipstick across my lips and smacked them together (too bad Rach was preoccupied at the moment, otherwise she would have probably jumped out the window). “They’re setting a court date and his attorney said I’ll be subpoenaed.” “Oh no, Rach! Why didn’t you say anything?” Beck said. “Don’t worry,” I pulled a brush furiously through my hair. Too bad I didn’t have time for a shower. I felt absolutely yucky, but I was too eager to get downstairs and figure out what to do about the love bubble about to erupt between my mother and King Arthur. “I’ve got it all figured out. We’re going to take care of it.” “Liz are you sure about this plan of yours because, really, I can’t afford to get into any more trouble where that jackass is concerned.” Rach stood and dusted off her jeans. “I’m absolutely sure. Now, keep tomorrow night free. And don’t ask any more questions. Right now, I need us to focus on Mom and how the hell we stop her from going psycho over Ancient Arthur.” “Liz! You can’t interfere in other people’s lives. If they’re really dating—and remember, we don’t know that yet—and if he makes mom happy, well then, I think we should let them be happy, don’t you?” “No!” “Fuck no!” Becky sighed and looked at me and Rach with mild irritation. “How would you like if she meddled in your lives?” “That’s different!” I exclaimed. “Oh, yeah? How?” “It just is. Plus, don’t you want to see her and dad get back together?” A wistful look stole over Beck’s features and for a moment she reminded me of the five-year-old pesky sister who followed me around everywhere and snuck into my play makeup every chance she got. I almost wanted to retract my words. Of all people, the divorce had been most difficult on Beck. Or maybe she was just more vocal about her feelings. Truth be told, it hadn’t been easy on any of us, though we knew it was a long time coming. But still, I couldn’t imagine my mom with anyone else. Least of all the ogre occupying our kitchen. Arthur the Ogre. Yeah, much better than King Arthur or Arthur the Ancient. “That would be nice,” Becky finally replied. Her face fell. “But dad’s already with someone.” “Look. We can make this work. We can get them back together.” “Since when did you set out to solve everyone’s problems?” Rach asked. I ignored her. “Dad wants us to meet Meera.” “Myra,” Rach amended. “Moira,” Beck corrected. “Whatever the fuck. I don’t care, because he’s not going to be with her for long. We’re meeting them for dinner at his place on Sunday. We need to have our plan ready.” “You know, until you moved back, my schedule was never this packed.” Rach extracted her gum and observed it a moment before finally depositing it into a tissue. “Well get ready, missy. Cuz we got a lot of work to do.” **** Luckily, this Arthur guy had some serious culinary skills. By the time my sisters and I returned downstairs, he had a whole spread of everything from curried chicken pilaf to pecan pie. And lucky for us, everything smelled absolutely delicious. Though of course, I couldn’t touch any of it except for the salad and boiled veggies. I was down two pounds with at least another five to go. I settled in next to Nick who was tapping away furiously on his phone. When I tried to take a peek, he darkened the screen and turned it face down on the table, then gave me a tight smile. “Work. Never ends.” I gave a curt nod and spread a Christmas motif napkin over my lap. “I’ve decided I’m good with your proposition.” Nick stopped mid stride in loading a heap full of collard greens onto his plate. “Huh?” I sat up straighter and tried to whisper so that Beck, who was seated to my right, couldn’t hear. Rach, seated across from us, was unsuccessfully pretending to be in deeply engaged by Arthur’s speech about something called the Obamacare plan, but her ears might as well have been satellite dishes craned in our direction. “I am okay with getting married. But I want to be proposed to today. In front of everyone.” Nick looked like he was going to vomit in his wine glass. He gulped and nodded. Good. We were making some progress. “What about the ring?” I faltered mid-bite into my mandarin salad. Damn the ring. How could I have forgotten the most important part? I thought for a moment before swallowing and patting my mouth. Behind my napkin, I whispered “Ask permission from my mom today. You can formally propose later.” “What?” This was ridiculous. Arthur chose that moment to shut up and take a bite into his pilaf. I picked up my phone and texted. Ask my mom for my hand! Ask permission to marry me! Now?! I resisted the urge to groan. In ten minutes. Put your phone down now. Rach was giving us a curious look, but had the decency for once, to not call us out. I think it was because she was torn between keeping an eye on us and keeping Arthur occupied long enough to prevent him from devouring my mom’s hand, which seemed to be permanently glued to his mouth. I couldn’t take it anymore. “Eh ehmm. So Mom. You never really told us about Arthur. Are you guys…” My mother blushed and retracted her hand from Arthur’s oral imprisonment. “Arthur is—” “Your mother’s lover. Right, dear?” Becky coughed loudly. Nick tapped furiously away on his phone. I wanted to kick him. Rach dropped her fork. “Please excuse me as I step outside to barf up my pilaf.” “Arthur!” My mother blushed like a school girl who’d just been kissed for the first time. “I’ve loved her since the moment I set my sights on her.” “And we can all imagine how spectacular your eyesight must be,” Rach muttered. “And…ehem, dear. I’ve been looking for the right moment, but, well, I figure Christmas is as good as it gets…” With tremendous fumbling and quite an effort, Arthur nudged himself between his chair and my mom’s (he didn’t quite fully fit). After a lot of yoga-worthy breathing, he fumbled in his back pocket and got down on one knee. My mother gasped and clutched at her heart. A strange, involuntary gurgling noise sounded in the back of my throat (I’m pretty sure it was because all the words in my mouth were trying to scramble out at once). Rachel gagged. Even Becky looked completely dumbstruck. Stupid Nick, who had taken a momentary break from tapping wildly away on his phone, was the only one who seemed to be interested in, and even pleased with, the unraveling scene. “Beverly, will you do the honor of, ” cough, cough, cough. Arthur cleared his throat. My mother handed him a glass of water, no doubt anxious to hear the impending proposition. Arthur took a long, deep swig. We all waited. “Ahhh. Nothing like water, I tell ya. Anyhow, ma’ dear, where was I? Ah, yes. My Beverly, I’ve never known love so deep and I can’t imagine spending another moment of my life without you a part of it. Will you, my sweet Beverly do the honor or spending every waking moment with me for the rest of my life?” “Well, at least they won’t be married very long,” Rach muttered. Suddenly, I understood what people meant when they said “It was like watching a train wreck.”I knew what was about to happen, could see it in my mind’s eye (whatever that is), but not for the life of me did I have the power to stop it from happening. My mom jumped to her feet and clapped her hands. “Oh, Arthur, I thought you’d never ask! Of course I will. I will marry you!” My mother pulled a flushed (from elation or exhaustion, who knew) Arthur into a tight embrace the moment he grunted to an upright position. Before my brain had the chance to unfreeze, the doorbell sounded. Rach bounded toward the door like a puppy on a mission. Nick jumped in the air. He reminded me of a nervous cat. If he had cat hairs, they’d be sticking up wildly in all directions. I narrowed my eyes at him and hissed, “When are you going to do it?” “Huh?” Nick appeared distracted. “Propose. Now. It’s the perfect time.” Okay, so it wasn’t exactly the dream proposal. I was getting proposed to on the same day, hell, mere moments after my own bloody mother. I couldn’t stop my mom from making what was obviously a big mistake, but we’d get to that eventually. I had to remind myself that they weren’t married yet and that meant that there was still plenty of opportunity for reasoning to come shining through. And reasoning would come shining through. It would come blustering through with bright beams of blinding light. I would make damn sure of it. And maybe by then Arthur would… Anyhow, right now I had to get Nick to jump at the opportunity at hand, otherwise, something else was sure to happen and it’d be at square one, again. Plus it would be perfect to move in with him and start house hunting before the wedding. Gosh, there was so much to do. My knees began to bounce. “Do it now!” Nick jolted to his feet, causing everyone’s head to snap toward him. He cleared his throat just as a ruckus sounded from the foyer. No doubt Rach was assaulting whomever had chosen to bestow their presence upon our home. “I…um…ahem.” I kicked him again while maintaining a smile for our audience. “Mrs. Parker, I wanted to ask for…” deep breath. “For your daughter’s hand in m—” “Nicholas! Don’t!” We all spun around to the new source of distraction. A man dressed in a stiff, wrinkle-free, black suit stood before us, his hand outstretched dramatically in a stop signal. He looked suspiciously familiar. A scowling Rach stood behind him, arms folded across her chest. Apparently she’d lost whatever battle had ensued. “You cannot do this, Nicholas! I won’t allow it.” My heart dipped. Fury buried itself deep in my chest and my head tingled with anger. I shot to my feet, ready to battle this new obstacle in my plan. Hadn’t I been through enough? How could so many hurdles come in the way of one damned wedding? I’d endured everything imaginable, and I’d be damned if, after several months of insufferable derailment, I let my promising future slip away from me seconds before it finally began its proud choo-choo down the right track. “Who the hell are you?” The man jutted his scrawny chest out. “I’m Nicholas’s lover.” The world spun beneath my chair and a wave of blackness assailed my vision. No way in hell was this happening to me. Nick wasn’t gay! Mr. Suit took a few steps forward and suddenly I recognized him as the man with whom Nick had been dining the day I’d dumped food over his head at Ippolitos. “Yeah? Well then ask him what he was doing in my bed last night.” Oh. I hadn’t realized I’d said that last bit out loud. My mother gasped and fell against Arthur, who staggered into the chinette. I jumped to my feet and threw my napkin on the table. “Liar!” “My love, your fiancé, or whatever you want to call him, is the lying cheat. Tell them, Nicholas.” All eyes swiveled to Nick. He cringed and held his napkin in front of him like a shield. “Hmph. Cat got your tongue, huh?” Suit Man asked. “Well, let me show you a little something something that will…here.” He slid me his cell. Everyone crowded around. My mouth dropped. Becky gasped. Rach belched. On display for my entire family to see was a naked Nick locking tongue with the Suit Man, who was also naked. They both appeared flushed and intensely excited. My salad struggled to make a reappearance. “Lord almighty, turn that thing off!” My mother buried her face in Arthur’s chest. I slowly turned to Nick. “It’s, it’s…” He slouched into a chair, his shoulders hunched. “It’s true.” A collective gasp sounded followed by a high-pitched squeal. A few seconds passed before I realized that the squeal was coming from me. “How could you?” But even as I uttered those words, it all started to come together in my mind. Like automated puzzle pieces falling together on a computer screen. I was so stupid. How had I been totally oblivious to the months without sex, the refusal to commit, the light-out policy on the rare occasion I did coerce him into having sex. Suddenly, something struck me. “Are you Chris?” The Suit Man stepped back. He was such a drama queen. “How did you know?” I ignored him and spun to face Nick. “You pervert! You were thinking about while you fucked me?” Nick’s face drained of color and my mom looked like she was about to vomit up her own meal. It had been a one off instance. We’d come home after a Dinner and a Mystery event that had taken place in midtown. I’d found a Groupon for it and had to practically threaten Nick to come home with me. Now that I thought about it, I’d had to threaten him into everything we’d ever done. Yes, I’m ashamed to say, including sex. But I digress. We’d just stepped through the door, the alcohol from dinner still casting my brain under the spell of a pleasant buzz. I’d sauntered over to Nick, who was placing his suit jacket over a dining chair, and run the toe of my Louboutins up the inside of his calf. He’d stiffened, but I’d taken it as his simply being taken off guard by my sudden display of…ahem…desire (I could think of a much more crass word here). When he failed to respond, I sidled up closer, pressing my chest against his back and flicking my tongue at the nape of his neck. He jumped away instantaneously. “Babe, it’s been a long night.” The alcohol served as a buffer to what normally would have caused anger at this dismal response. After much cajoling and rubbing (in every sense of the word), I’d finally landed him in bed, with the lights out, of course. It was one of Nick’s many bedroom rules. The lights never stayed on, though he never did mind when particular articles of clothing did. Right when I was in the throes of an orgasm, Nick climaxed and uttered a very noticeable, albeit guttural “Chris, oh yeah baby.” I went stock still. So did he. We lay there, neither of us moving. “What did you just say?” I had to make sure it wasn’t the alcohol clouding my brain beyond comprehension, though if anything, its effect seemed to be subsiding. Nick pushed himself off me and begin to busy himself with getting dressed, at which point the lights usually come back on. Though this time, he didn’t turn them on. “Huh?” “You said ‘Chris, oh yeah, baby’.” “Oh. No, I actually said ‘Christ, oh yeah, baby’.” I’d let it slip at the time because, really, what I had heard hadn’t made a lick of sense, though neither did his practicing religion in the midst of something so…impure. But now, well now, it all made complete sense. My audience awaited my reaction. Becky was biting her nails, my mother was covering her face with a hand, but peeking through the slits of her fingers. Rachel was chomping away at something or another, never removing her gaze from me. I didn’t know what to feel. Quite frankly, I was more frustrated than anything. This put me back at square one. Everything I’d worked toward for the past few years was completely moot. I’d have to find someone else who had the financial wherewithal to support my demanding lifestyle, make sure we were compatible (this time, I’d be more choosy with appearance) and get married by year end if Mr. Right had any expectation of having children. No way was I getting impregnated in my late thirties when female metabolism sloughs off unwanted pregnancy weight at the speed a fat lady hula hoops. Apart from and a tad smidgen more than frustrated, I was humiliated. Of all the times and places this scenario could have played out, this was the worst possible moment. My mother, a woman almost twice my age, had successfully snagged a man and a proposal, and I, model/sex-icon/sexiest woman on the ramp (minus my newfound love handles), had somehow managed to turn my boyfriend of two freaking years into a tongue-licking, penis-craving man magnet. Rage swathed me. I bunched my hands into tight fists. The look of fear on Nick’s face was palpable. “I thought we could make it work,” he said to me. “My parents have been on my case about getting married and I thought that maybe if I tried hard enough, it would turn out all right.” “All right? All right? How long? How long have you been…gay?” I choked on the word, barely able to wrap my tongue around it. I felt like I was in a grand finale episode of Jerry Springer with the world watching on as humility clutched my destiny in its relentless fist. “I’m not really…gay. I mean I think I might just have been experimenting—” “How long!” I roared. Nick slouched further down on his seat. Any more and he would have looked like human putty on the floor. “A year and a half. Maybe give or take a little?” he squeaked. The numbers slammed through my brain. That meant that he wasn’t gay when we met. He wasn’t attracted to men until we’d started dating. Six months into our relationship, I’d turned him gay. I had actually turned a man gay. “You selfish, puny-ass, dick loving bastard. You led me on for a fucking year and a half?” “Liz, dear, mind your tongue,” my mom cajoled weakly. But I could see the unabashed disgust lurking in her eyes. She was a homophobe if there ever was one. I was surprised she was still bearing this out and not pinching her nostrils to avoid sharing the same oxygen as Chris and Nick. “Yeah, you two-timing punk.” That from Chris, who had his hand planted firmly on his hips. “I gave my all to you. My heart, my body, my Banana Republic lime green tie. And this, this is how you repay me?” “Chris, I…please don’t be mad. I love you. I really do.” Nick staggered out of the chair, unattaching himself as its second layer of upholstery. My mouth fell open. It was I who had been humiliated in front of my entire family, I who had wasted three-hundred-and-sixty-five days times two running after his puny ass, faking orgasms, keeping myself faithful, and he was apologizing to this, this, this deranged man who he’d probably met at a gay bar five weeks ago? Nick put his hands on Suit Man’s (I refuse to call him by name) shoulders and gazed at him deeply. “You mean everything to me. And I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make this right.” “No!” I leapt forward, snatching Nick by the shoulder. “You’re supposed to make things right with me! I’m the one you promised yourself to. I’m the one you were going to elope with. I’m the one you were going to propose to just five minutes ago before he came barging through the door!” Yes, a part of me was humiliated at practically having to beg a man for his loyalty and attention, but that just goes to show you how desperate I was. Around me, my hopes and dreams of a lavish life were splattering and squashing like tomatoes at a La Tomatina Festival. Nick darted me an apologetic look. My life was officially at an all-time low. For the first time in history, I had been unsuccessful in keeping a man wildly attracted to me, let alone begging for my mercy. I snatched the bowl of gravy off the table and (yes, you guessed it), poured it languorously over his head. Then I bid him and Mr. Suit good-bye forever. On the way out, Nick turned to me, a look of remorse embedded deeply in his features. “Liz, I really am sorry it turned out this way.” He waited a moment. “But I must say one last thing. I paid last month’s apartment rent, but I’ve asked the dealership to send your car statements directly here.” And with that, he was gone, arm in arm with another man. Chapter 19 The evil stepmother Rach “Hurry up!” I banged on the bathroom door and glanced at my watch. I’d been waiting forty-five freaking minutes. “I need to get my toothbrush and make up!” “Do you even own make-up?” came the languid reply from, you guessed it, Liz. “If you don’t open this damned door, I’m going to use the key!” My father, when he’d lived here, had been anal about keeping a thin, long “key” on top of the door to the master bedroom. It’d come in hand many times when he’d been locked out of the boudoir after an intense blow up with my ever-adoring mother. “No, no. No need for that. The door clicked and swung open. I started to enter when my eyes suddenly registered the sight before me. Liz stood stark naked, dripping water and wearing nothing but a smirk. “Agggghh!” I covered my eyes. “You’re shameless!” “You wanted in.” I heard her submerge herself into the rose scented bath, which was, I realized as I slowly removed my hand from over my permanently-scarred eyes, actually surrounded by tea light candles and rose petals. Frank Sinatra hummed a tune through a radio that was precariously perched on the edge of the tub. If I took a few steps forward, I’d be able to drive my older, pain-in-the-ass sister to an early and untimely death. Oh the temptations of life. The bathroom, after hours of grueling and scrubbing, was spotless clean, as was the rest of the house. My mother had a full army of three at her disposal and she had damn well taken advantage of every ounce of energy our bodies could produce. By the time she was through with us, my knees barely bent and my arms felt leaden. Despite these painful efforts, I noticed that my toothbrush lay tossed at the side of the sink, drowned in a puddle of water that had been non-existent just forty-five minutes earlier. Liz’s pink toothbrush stood victoriously in the toothbrush holder, raising its head proudly at me and flaunting its superior status to my used and abused Oral-B. I grabbed it, cleaned off the bristles and scrubbed my teeth until they felt smooth and grit-free. Liz’s eyes were closed as she hummed along to the radio. I plucked her toothbrush out of the holder stick it in a drawer and jammed mine back in. “What do you think she’s going to be like?” I nearly sailed into the ceiling. Her eyes were still closed. I could hear Becky shuffling around in the room next door. “Who?” I asked, though the answer struck me at the same time Liz responded. “Moira, duh!” “Don’t know.” I extracted lip gloss from my makeup pouch. Something bright orange and economical that I’d snagged from Walmart. In comparison to Liz’s golden retriever-size makeup caboodle situated on the sink, my pouch looked an anorexic poodle. And no doubt it held a lot less variety and excitement. Truth be told, I’ve never been much into the liners and shadows. At maximum, I’ll stretch myself to mascara. Blush was out of the question. Bronzer? Didn’t know what that was until I saw Liz dust it on her own cheeks the other day and slam it down cursing when she realized she was running on final supply. “She’s probably a slut.” My eyebrows shot up in the mirror and I noticed that they needed to be plucked. Groaning, I ruffled through my pouch for tweezers. We were due at my father’s house in an hour to have our meet-n-greet with the infamous Moira. I’d never spoken to her, let alone seen her. But from what I’d gathered from Liz’s amblings in the last few days, she was quite a looker and her motives for dating my father were questionable at best (because, you know, no one except Liz has the license to date anyone younger or decent looking) “I mean, what respectable woman snags a man forty years older than her?” “You?” I removed a stray hair and winced. “Pff. That was so different. Guy was actually hot. So what if he was dad’s age? He was rich and he didn’t have any kids.” “Like that would have stopped you,” I muttered, attacking another unwanted follicle. Liz suddenly sat up, the bubbles swishing around her barely concealed breasts. “You think she’s a gold digger?” The thought had certainly crossed my mind, but I’d refused to entertain it. I had an ample supply of problems in my own life without having to worry about the security of my father’s bank funds. I shrugged, my mind switching gears to my most recent run in with Kyle’s attorney. This last correspondence had taken place first thing that morning, the legal highness’s voice snapping through the morning cobwebs of my brain. “Ms. Parker, my client has advised me that you have not yet made any attempt to repay the amount you fraudulently charged on his card.” My eyes jerked open and I pushed my Kim Kardashian–style bangs out of my face as I scrambled to collect a coherent, terse, intelligent-sounding response. “I’m not going to repay him because he was a lying, cheating, womanizing, perverted imbecile!” Ok, maybe not intelligent, but at least I got points for coherent and terse. “Fraud is fraud. We’ll see you in court, Ms. Parker.” Now, as I ran glosser over my lips, something niggled at my mind. Something about the word “fraudulent” triggered a memory. But what? “She’s a bitch. I know it. Tonight, she’ll prove it.” Liz pulled the plug on the drain and began to rise. I was out faster than you can say “air dry.” **** Where my mother was chasing men not far from her great grandfather’s age, my father was hunting his prey on the opposite end of the birth spectrum. We’d arrived at his sprawling estate in Edinburgh Country Club twenty minutes past the promised seven-thirty. This thanks to Liz, who refused to step foot out of the house without her black Fendi wool-blend scarf, which apparently matched perfectly with her body hugging cashmere sweater and which she’d, of course, misplaced. We spent thirty-five minutes tearing the previously pristine house apart, our grueling Sunday cleaning efforts completely put to waste. Lucky for us, mom was out shopping for wedding gowns with Arthur. The whole idea of their getting married still completely unsettled me. I could imagine Arthur wheezing his way through the department store aisles. Stopping to catch breath, his hand planted on his knees, his face crimson with exertion while my mom gaily flitted between racks of bridal gowns, oblivious to his misery. Before us on the porch of 3475 Edinburgh Court stood a whole other problem. A petite blonde girl a few inches shorter than me swung open the barred French doors, her wide grin revealing a set of perfectly situated blazing white teeth. Against a tone of skin even slightly darker, the effect would have been blinding. Liz, ever the brainiac, stepped forth. “Hello, we’re here to see my dad and your older sister. I guess they’re not ready yet, huh?” The girl’s smile faltered. She fiddled with the tie of her solid grey halter top. “Um. I’m Moira.” The smile was back, this time accompanied by an edge. Silence settled around us like a thick airless blanket. Moira looked like a teenager, even dressed in black slacks, two-inch heels and covered in a full expanse of make-up. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Moira. I’m Rebecca. You can call me Becky.” Ever the savior. “And these are my sisters, Rachel and Elizabeth.” “Ah. And they finally bestow us with their presence,” came a booming voice. My dad swung an arm around Moira’s tiny shoulders and flashed a hundred watt smile. He looked radiant and younger than I remembered. His hair was slicked back with gel and he wore a grey polo (to match Moira? Ugh!) over khakis. “Moira, these are my lovely, busy girls. Thank you for taking the time to join us this evening.” We settled in the living room on burly couches that matched a red sheepskin rug, which lay beneath a wood-framed coffee table. The place smelled like lemon and…well, cleanliness. I’m sure this is the effect that mom groveled after every Sunday. A house that appeared non lived-in, as though it had materialized from the pages of a magazine and come to existence for the mere purpose of entertaining. Wait till she saw the wake of destruction (i.e. Liz’s entire closet plus a few thousand suitcases) that eagerly awaited her. My father took a seat on a recliner and plopped Moira, who looked scarily underage in comparison, on his lap. I would bet my bottom buck she still got carded. Stick her in a tank top and mini-skirt and hand her a piece of gum to chomp and guaranteed she’d look not a day older than 18. “Moira’s been so eager to meet you three.” Moira, on cue, flashed her blazing smile again. Liz cleared her throat. “Yeah. So, Moira, what year did you graduate high school?” “Elizabeth,” my father smiled nervously. “Let’s mind our manners.” Moira waved him off. “Oh, it’s fine, Rick. It’s a fair question. After all, Liz and I might have more in common than we think.” Ouch. I was sure this was meant to be delivered with full-on cattiness, but from Moira’s tone of voice and pleasant expression, it was difficult to be certain. “Class of oh four. What about you?” There was that glint in her eyes again. Liz’s jaw twitched. “Why, Moira, when you’re older, you might hear the saying ‘A true woman never reveals her age.’” “Okaaayy, ladies, let’s get some drinks in here.” My dad gently probed Moira off his lap and strode toward the kitchen. “Liz, do you mind joining me, dear?” Liz threw a sick smile at Moira and sauntered out of the room, leaving me and Becky to our defenses. Lucky for me, Becky leapt at the opportunity to make amends. “So Moira, how did you and dad meet?” Moira settled back into the recliner, which dwarfed her tiny frame and gave Becky a coy smile. “It’s actually a cute story. I was his real estate agent for this house.” Because my mother had gained our childhood home in the divorce settlement (plus a very generous amount in alimony), my father was forced to quickly relocate. He’d moved into Amber Woods apartment complex, which boasted a cozy community, remarkable pools and a humungous jogging trail. Not that he’d needed or ever used any of the amenities. The next we’d heard, he’d been expanding his investments into the Florida region and was house hunting in the opulent and reputable city of Suwanee, only a fifteen minute drive from us. Judging from the home’s tiled floors, cast iron ballisters, vaulted ceilings, spacious rooms and soft carpet, Moira had made a good chunk of cash in commission. Plus she got to enjoy the bounty of her labor at someone else’s expense. Talk about having your cake and eating it too. Liz’s theory about gold digging didn’t seem too far from reality now that the cards were laid out in plain sight. “So you’re a real estate agent.” Becky nodded, urging Moira. “Yes, on the side. When I’m not managing my boutique.” “You have your own boutique?” I asked. “Yes,” Moira actually blushed. “I bought it a few months ago when I started designing my own clothes. I actually attracted quite some attention on Pinterest—can you believe the power of social media?—and I haven’t looked back since. Here.” Moira pulled a tablet from a secret compartment in the coffee table and punched a few things on the screen. Then she handed it over to me and Becky. A myriad of colorful tops and dresses in both pastels and vibrant hues sprung to action on the screen, the pictures shifting automatically every so often. I may not know a lot about fashion, but I could tell that the collection in front of me was ingenious. The colors, the angular cut of the blouses and dresses, the electrifying contrast of soft shades against metallic belts, solids surprised by a shock of sudden patterns creating attractive effects, the soft ebb and flow of superfluous material at exactly the most flattering areas on blouses. How could someone think so creatively? How could there be so many different ways to design articles of clothing? “These are beautiful!” Becky looked up with naked admiration. Moira flashed her an appreciative smile and reached for the tablet. “Thank you. Though I must admit, it’s tough keeping up with designing while running a Montessori full time. We’re so short staffed and it’s so difficult to find good, reliable talent. ” Clearly this gold digger idea was hitting dirt six feet under. Moira, despite her young age, childish appearance and questionable taste in men old enough to be her father, had a good head on her shoulders and a sharp brain to accompany it. “You own your own Montessori?” If Beck’s eyes got any wider, they’d surely pop out of her head and roll onto the floor like ping pong balls. “Oh no! I’m in partnership with two of my cousins. When we graduated college and the job market took a plummet, we pooled our savings together and purchased a run down building that was going for dirt cheap. One of my cousins majored in childhood education, so we were able to get the necessary certifications and accreditations. Initially, the business was building and so we had enough staff, but recently it’s like everyone’s suddenly discovered us. We’re understaffed but overflowing with newly enrolled students.” Moira paused. “I think your dad mentioned that one of you have some form of educational background?” “Yes!” Becky nearly leapt out of her chair. “That’s me. I work at an elementary school, but really, I’m looking for something more stable with the county job cuts just around the corner.” Moira tsked. “Yeah, I heard about those. Well, I can tell you that there’s definitely more job security with us than what you’d get working for government educational facilities. I mean, if you’re interested?” I’m surprised my sister didn’t fall to the ground and kiss Moira’s leather encased feet, she looked so tickled. The two of them continued to drone on and on and my thoughts flitted back to Liz. She’d been gone for a while now, and I wondered what she and dad were discussing. Certainly it didn’t take this long to fill drinks. I stood to excuse myself just as dad waltzed into the room, a mopey Liz trailing in his wake. With no longer any need to snoop around, I chose, instead, to peruse the room studying the many pictures splayed on the wall and throughout the media console shelves. Moira and dad in ski gear, dad enveloping her from behind as they both smile cheerily for the photographer. Moira and dad dressed in jerseys at a football game, Moira pointing a large Styrofoam #1 finger at dad and winking at the camera. Moira and dad at a black tie event, Moira dressed in a sky blue gown, her hair coiffed into a loose bun, dad smiling widely at the camera, his hand encircling her tiny waist. The pictures were taken in so many different places and settings, but each smile chipped away at my inhibitions just a little more. Moira might have a bitchy side to her and she may be half my dad’s age, but she definitely was not after his money, of this much I was certain. Dinner was pleasant enough, or as pleasant as it could possibly be with two strong-headed woman vying to outdo one another. There was the tug of war over the Panang curry where the entire watched in grim amusement as Moira and Liz simultaneously reached for the dish, then stared each other down until dad cleared his throat and threw Moira a pleading look, at which she begrudgingly released the dish and flashed Liz a smile frosty enough to freeze the Sahara. Liz, of course, never ate the curry, though she’d taken her sweet time spooning it into her plate as Moira ground her teeth and continued lodging icicle daggers at her. When it was time to bid goodbye, Moira embrace each of us in a warm hug, except for Liz, with whom she barely knocked pinkies as they shook hands. “I knew she’d be a bitch,” Liz declared as she examined her face in the passenger-side mirror. “I don’t think she’s after his riches,” I said, staring out the window. Liz spun around so fast, I was surprised she didn’t give herself whiplash. “How can you not see past that act?” “I agree with Rach,” Becky chimed in from the driver’s seat. “I actually really liked her. She’s a self made woman.” Liz crossed her arms. “Oh yeah? How so?” Becky filled her in on all of Moira’s remarkable accomplishments. Liz disregarded each with a flip of her hand or an unimpressed tsk. “That doesn’t mean that she’s not greedy for more. Dad’s totally blinded. I tried to talk some sense into him, but he just got really defense and starting doing that whole grunting thing he does when he’s upset.” The grunting was one of dad’s many traits that signaled the onset of an argument. Others included neck itching and involuntary lip twitching. Anyhow, Beck seemed as nonplussed as I was at Liz’s forward manner and attempt to talk “sense” into dad. The irony of Liz—Ms. Relationships Gone Awry— giving advice to anyone didn’t escape me. But it was useless arguing with Liz, so to keep the peace, and our sanity, neither Beck nor I said anything. The night didn’t improve. We arrived home to find mother pacing the kitchen in her silk lavender night robe. She looked ready to pounce on us. For a moment I thought that somehow she’d discovered our whereabouts and was prepared to kick our asses onto the sidewalk for comingling with a woman who was now dating her ex-husband. But that was wishful thinking. In fact that scenario would have been preferable to the news awaiting us. As we filed in, she clasped her hands together and broke out into a thousand watt smile. “I’m so glad you girls are finally home. I have great news. Arthur and I booked the chapel—we’re getting married this weekend!” Chapter 20 Peanuts and Kandi Becky As a young girl, I’d watched Cinderella religiously. With every new princess that Disney breathed life into, I fell harder in love with the prospect of marriage and happily ever afters. As Liz waved makeup brushes and eyebrow pencils, forcing each of us into her world of play and make believe, I relished moments in the confines of my own room where the white lace curtains my mom had retired to the storage room would morph into a beautiful veil as I played a blushing bride. The veil would drag out at least a dozen feet and I would look back compulsively to make sure it trailed just right. My teddy bears and stuffed animals admired me from the aisles, wearing smiles that I knew were simply minute reflections of the joy my friends and family would share when my special moment finally did arrive. I never imagined weddings to be anything less than surreal and beautiful. But that was before my mother’s wedding. Let me also pause here and say that I never imagined those two words to be spoken in a way that would imply a future event. Typically, when one thinks of their mother’s wedding, one might relate the phrase to an event that took place before their existence. A time unbeknownst to them and only brought alive by another’s memory of the occasion or through pictures. The fact that I was actually going to attend, let alone be a bridesmaid for this monumentous occasion, was difficult to digest. I should have known that the day would be a disaster the moment I awoke with a migraine (likely from job hunting into the wee dawn) to the sound of rain pellets pounding against the shingles. I should have known when I’d stuck my sugar-free bread in the toaster and returned to find it spewing fumes like a chimney. And if not by then, I should definitely have gotten a clue when I braved the rain, dress on, make-up done, only to break one of my long-loved and most comfortable pair of white heels as it hit the pavement at an odd angle. I was too tortured at the thought of rushing out to buy new shoes—or worse— borrowing one of Liz’s stilt-like ones for the rest of the afternoon. But with the ceremony just thirty minutes away, I had no choice. I settled on the latter and wobbled down the stairs like a toddler who’d only just discovered the wonders of mobility. A black Hummer limo whisked the three of us away in our red silk gowns. The gowns were actually quite lovely and mother had handpicked them for us with such care that even if they were half as unappealing as the one’s we’d purchased for Liz’s non-wedding, I would have gladly worn them. Mine, unfortunately fit looser than it had just a few weeks ago when we’d gotten fitted. The irony of life: when I’d all but practically begged my fat to melt off, it’d had clung to me like jelly on a donut, and now, when I wasn’t even trying, it was toppling off. I hadn’t stepped foot in a gym again after that fateful day with Shawn, whom by the way I hadn’t heard from since. The only thing that had changed was my stress levels. With the layoffs just around the corner and no word yet from my first interviewer, the only option left was the one offer presented by Moira, which wouldn’t have been so bad if Liz hadn’t despised her. The job stress wasn’t the only thing keeping my appetite at bay, however. That coupled with the sizzle of electricity I felt every time I bumped into Dr. Greene in the hallways or break room was enough to make me regurgitate my breakfast. At first, I thought I was imagining the tension in the air. When Dr. Greene started to avoid me, bending over water fountains at the very sight of me or walking into open doors to avoid crossing paths, I’d chalked it up to his being upset at my posting out. But at last Wednesday’s staff meeting, as I’d been groggily preparing dark coffee in Styrofoam cup, I’d caught him gazing at me from across the room with such intensity, that I could practically see pheromones streaking toward me. After three successive glances in which I’d caught him staring at me each time, I was convinced I couldn’t be wrong. My mother always said a woman’s instinct was her greatest compass. And mine was spinning out of control from the force of his gaze. That morning, as I painstakingly hobbled around in Liz’s heels, attempting to break into them, my mother had maintained a chipper persona, beaming and offering niceties to the various talents who bustled about primping her, taking pictures and delivering special gifts from the groom himself. The first was a handmade book with the title scrawled in sloppy writing: “30 Ways I Want to Make Love to You,” (ick!) written with love, by Arthur; next a heart-shaped block of gourmet cheese wrapped in red packaging; and finally a bright red negligee that made even Liz gulp and look away. “What does this dude do for a living?” she asked. “And is his heart in any condition to see you in that… thing?” Liz had been hell bent on breaking up the impending nuptials ever since mom delivered her special news. She’d Googled everything she could about the man and had gone the extent of paying a small fee for an online background check. According to the records, the gravest thing Arthur had done in his entire existence was drive 45 in a 35 school zone. When her plan bore no fruits, she’d resorted to making shameless remarks about Arthur’s appearance, everything from his protruding gut to his gigantic nose. As evidenced by our present-day itinerary, her plans had fallen flat. Now, we entered the chapel—the same one in which my parents had married thirty-one years ago—gaining reprieve from the January winds. As the musty scent of age and hymn books hit me, I wondered how different, or alike, the place was compared to then. I wondered if my mom thought at all about her first time getting married in this place to the man whose children she’d borne. I wondered if she missed him and if a part of her realized that she might be making a mistake by giving herself away to someone else. In the distance, I heard bustling and turned to see our dramatic Aunt Barbara pulling Liz and Rachel to her gigantic bosom like veterans who’d just returned from war. Then she charged toward me clunky pumps protesting angrily with each step. “My, my, Rebecca. You look a sight! Absolutely beautiful. But look at all these bones. You’ve lost so much weight, my dear. Have you been stressed about that nasty Shawn? That fellow was never good news, if you ask me. Told your mother that the first day I heard about him. Why, he tried to make his moves on my Lisa, too, before she got married, but that Lisa of mine could smell the skunk in him fifty feet away.” Right on cue, a waddling Lisa emerged from the women’s room, her belly as round as a yoga ball. I wondered where Bobby was, but figured he was grasping the opportunity to load up on illegal powders before being crammed into the pews amid blubbering relatives. “It’s like Macy’s during a midnight sale in there,” she huffed. “Oh my goodness!” I said, not at all having been aware of the good news. “Congratulations!” I enveloped her in a hug, or as much of a hug as was manageable with her bulging belly, and laid a hand gently on its firm roundness. “Did you find out what you’re having? Boy, girl?” “A girl.” She smiled and I noticed the purple rings of fatigue around her blue eyes. “Any day now.” “That’s exciting,” Liz chimed in. “So, will you be hiring a nanny?” Lisa scrunched her face. Aunt Barbara gasped. “A nanny? Why, whatever for, dear? I’m here. And Lisa doesn’t work.” “Oh,” Liz said. “I meant for, you know, the dirty work. Like changing diapers and giving baths and staying up all night.” She paused. “Gosh, I just can’t imagine being on call twenty-four hours a day. And the sleepless nights. And the crying and pooping and throwing up... ” She gave a strained laugh when she caught the nasty look Aunt Barbara was giving her. Lisa flushed. “Well, I…I just…this…this baby was not planned!” With that, she burst into tears and skittered out of the main lobby. If anger could melt flesh, Liz would have been a soppy puddle on the floor by the looks of Aunt Barbara. “Why, Elizabeth. I’ve never met anyone so daft!” Aunt Barbara cried, then waddled out the lobby, scurrying to move her thick frame after her daughter. Rach and I glared at Liz. “What? What did I say?” she cried. “And what the hell is daft?” “Dear, don’t use words like that in public, it’s not polite.” My mother materialized beside me and hooked her hand through my elbow, smiling broadly. She looked absolutely stunning in a floor-length white gown with a modest neckline and long, lace sleeves. Obviously, and fortunately, she’d missed the tail end of that exchange. “Nice,” Rach said, nodding in appreciation. “Very Grace Kelly.” “You look gorgeous, Mom!” Tears sprang to my eyes and I bit my lip to fight them from spilling over. “Not better than you did thirty-one years ago,” Liz grumbled. Mom ignored this. “Thank you, my lovelies. Now, the ceremony’s about to begin in ten minutes and I want all of you to behave. Am I making myself perfectly clear?” She looked directly at Liz and Rach. “Yes, ma’am,” they chorused. “Good. Well, now that we’re all on the same page, you all take your places.” She began to make her way into a nearby room where a photographer fixed Arthur’s bowtie before capturing a shot of him against a white-fabric background. “Oh,” she paused in the doorway. “Before I go, have any of you seen Aunt Barbara? She’s my matron of honor.” **** Barbara had, no surprise, retired from her role as my mother’s matron. Thanks to Liz, she was too busy attaching a brown paper bag against the lips of a panicked, heaving, red-faced Lisa. “Elizabeth, how could you?” my mother hissed as soon as Lisa’s doting husband, Chad, filled her in on the incident. Now, he hovered helplessly over his wife as she, between breathes, cursed him for impregnating her during a desire-induced state and spat at his nether region, which according to her, controlled the grey matter that was supposed to be located in his head. “It’s not my fault she got knocked up. I was just making conversation.” “Who in heavens will be my matron now?” my mother whined. “Umm…I may not know a whole ton about weddings,” Rach interjected, “but do you really need a matron? You have us, your bridesmaids. Isn’t that enough?” “No! No, it’s not enough, I want this to be perfect. Why don’t you understand this has to be perfect?” My mother sank into a nearby beige settee. “Arthur’s had heartburn all morning, my florist grabbed the wrong color of hydrangeas and now I have no matron.” “Sheesh, Mom. You’d think all these things going wrong would be an omen of the bad to come.” Liz said, grappling at the sudden ray of opportunity. My mother fell silent and her features clouded over. We held our breaths. “Or, it could be that great things don’t come easy,” she conceded, a huge smile slowly breaking through the emotional clouds. “My Arthur. He loves me so much, and every great story has a struggle. Maybe this is ours.” She stood valiantly, tilting her head back as though challenging the gods. “And in this love story, we shall prevail.” And with that she glided off in search of her knight in shining polyester. “Damn. I almost had her.” Liz plopped into the just-vacated seat. A lady in a baker’s uniform wheeled a three-tier cake into an adjoining room where a brief reception would take place after the ceremony. “She’s so dramatic,” Rach said, kicking off her heels and plopping into a chair adjacent to Liz’s. People started to file in to the chapel from the other end of the hall and a few finally began to trickle out from the women’s room. A loud click of heels followed by a stream of uncontrollable giggles echoed against the walls. A blonde in a red mini dress and white stilettos strolled past us, hooking hands with a man who, from behind, looked an awful lot like… “Oh Shawn, you’re such a sweet talker. But you’re gonna have to work harder than that to get into my panties in a public restroom. Those places are disease infestations,” the woman giggled. “No freaking way.” Rach sprung to her feet and craned her neck to get a glimpse of the couple’s faces. “It’s him,” I whispered. “What? Who?” Liz tugged on my dress, too lazy to stand. “Hey did you guys see the photographer? He’s pretty hot.” “I’m going to kick his ass.” Rach began to storm after the couple. I grabbed her by the sash. “Mom’s going to have a coronary. Just leave him alone,” I whispered. “Who!” Liz was all attention now, finally peeling her eyes away from the photography session in play. “What the hell is he doing here?” I could practically see the smoke billowing out of Rach’s ears. “Who!” “I hope he doesn’t ruin the wedding,” I bit the tip of my manicured pointer. “Who!” Liz demanded. “Shawn!” Rach and I yelled. At the sound of his name, Shawn whirled around. We locked gazes. He sneered, pulled the blonde closer to him and strolled over to where we stood. In the background, I could hear someone screaming, “I told you, he’s allergic to peanuts! Get me a new one, now!” I was only vaguely aware of the bakery-uniformed cake lady emerging from the room in a cloud of anxiety. Her phone beeped and she paused to talk in deep undertones to whoever was on the other end. “So we meet again.” Shawn surveyed me and although I hate to admit, I was pleased by the flash of appreciation in his eyes. No doubt he noticed the pounds of stubborn flab that had finally plummeted off. In fact, if I may say so myself, I was certain that I was slimmer than the blonde who now clung possessively to his shoulders. But just as soon as the pride had appeared, it was gone. I didn’t want Shawn to mistakenly think that I’d lost the weight because of him or because of any devastation over our break up. In fact, I almost wished that I were the same size as before and that he, for once, could appreciate me—even after the fact—for exactly the way I looked. “What are you doing here,” I retorted, my voice smooth and cold. Shawn’s smile was saccharine. “I guess your darling madre forgot to let you know that she invited me to her wedding?” Darnit. I’d told my sisters about my break up with Shawn, but hadn’t ever really had the chance to bring it up with mom. She must have invited him out of courtesy, figuring we were still together. Darnit, darnit, darnit. The object of my scorn pulled his blonde bimbo girlfriend closer and she fluttered fake eyelashes at me. “By the way, I don’t think you’ve met Kandi.” “That’s Kandi with a K.” Kandi giggled. I was under the distinct impression that Kandi with a K had too much Alcohol with an A flowing through the veins beneath her orangey-tanned skin. I only wished she’d been driving and got pulled over for a DUI on the way over. At least then I would have been spared the humiliation of dealing with either of them. “Get the fuck out of here before I call security on your ass,” Rach threatened through clenched teeth. Shawn threw his hands up in mock innocence. “What, I have an invitation. Oh, hold on, hold on. Here it is.” He plucked a rumpled, folded invitation from atop Kandi’s right breast, and she launched into another fit of giggles. Rach tore the paper out of his hands and he yelped in pain. “Ow. No need to get hostile. I’d hate to be the one calling security on you—at your mother’s reception,” he added slyly. “In fact, Becks, I’ve got to admit, I was a bit shocked at the invite given that you and I…well, you know. But then I figured you hadn’t wanted to break the news to your sweet mother. So I thought I’d do you a favor and do it myself.” “And now you’ve just proved that you’re stupider than I ever gave you credit for,” I heard myself say. “My mother knew you were scum the moment she spotted you. I was the only one naïve enough to believe that a jerk like you would be able to dig your face out of your own butt long enough to care about anyone else.” Someone clapped in the background, and I was certain it was Liz. “Rrrr, so there is a lioness underneath that tame exterior,” Shawn nodded, pleased, and for the first time, it struck me how sick he really was. He had no shame, no remorse for his behavior toward women. He fed off their submissiveness. Preyed on the weak and bred off their pain and humiliation, fueling his ego with it. “You never deserved her,” Liz growled, stepping in right beside me. “You’re a coward. You try to make up for your own flaws by making other people feel bad about themselves. You’re a bully who beats up on people weaker than you.” She edged forth toward him, and Nick inched backward. “Becky is too good for you. She’s sexy, smart and she’s got a great personality. All you are is a lump of muscle poorly disguising a bastard with weak character.” She cornered him against a wall, her eyes never straying from his. I’ve got to admit, even I was terrified by the look of pure detestation in my sister’s eyes. And Shawn, for the first time since I’d known him, looked like he’d rather have someone shoot a bullet through his manly parts than receive Liz’s wrath. I didn’t quite blame him. “If you know what’s best for you, you’ll leave right now. Or else, I promise you, this will be your least humiliating moment of the afternoon ahead.” Shawn failed to maintain his bravado and after a few moments of hesitation, tightened his lips and started to stumble toward the exit doors. But apparently, Liz was not through with him just yet. “Shawn, wait. You’ve come all this way. Don’t leave without having a bite,” Liz called. The cake lady, finally having completed her call, wheeled past us at a clipped rate, but not before Liz managed to grab a fistful of creamy decadence into her manicured palm. In what seemed like slow motion, she jammed, in pure Liz style, the cake, icing, pink roses and all, onto Shawn’s astonished face. A collective gasp echoed in the lobby. Everyone stood frozen as icing and vanilla softness clung to Shawn’s face for dear life. Some ill-fated clumps fell onto his shoes, and beyond the irises of his eyes, you couldn’t identify him. An icing monster, one that could surely prove to be a formidable antagonist in a children’s movie. I giggled at the outlandish thought, then tried to contain the laughter that suddenly bubbled up from my gut. Nick blinked slowly, icing circled his eyes and framed his lashes. Liz joined in my mirth, then Rach. Tears strolled down my cheeks and my belly ached. The spectators surrounding us no doubt were convinced we were either a) drunk or b) had lost our minds, or possibly c) both. The cake lady looked torn between tearing down the hall screaming or joining in the fun. She didn’t have time to decide. Just then, a man wearing a white shirt and maroon dress pants shifted forward from the group that had gathered afar. He pointed his finger at Rach, and she froze mid smile, a look of recognition passing through her face. “You! You’re the woman from the library.” He clearly had the wrong person. Rach hadn’t stepped foot in the library since she was…well, actually, I wasn’t even sure she’d ever stepped foot in a library. But Rach remained immobile, making me question my certainty. In the near distance, I could see Lisa had paused her cursing, tightly gripping her brown paper bag in anticipation. Well, at least she was okay. “ You’re the woman who wanted to …consummate with me.” He whispered the last half. Another audible gasp sounded throughout the lobby. We were quite obviously the feature performance of the afternoon. “You’re delusional!” Rachel retorted. “Your mom practically begged my mom to set us up. Me meeting up with you was a favor, okay?” “And in turn you tried to take advantage of a chaste Christian man.” “I asked you out to dinner! And that was only because we were supposed to be on a date and I was hungry and that damned library stank!” Okay, now it all made sense. “Chaste?” Liz muttered. “Doesn’t anyone around here speak English?” “And who the hell sets up a date at a damned library anyway?” Rachel huffed. “Curse words are not becoming on a woman’s tongue,” the man sniffed. Yes, I promise, he really said that. Rach must have been black mailed bad for her to have said yes to a blind date. I believed in goodness and religion, but sheesh, this guy was straight out of the corner page of the Bible itself. “You want to see unbecoming?” Rachel asked, a glint in her eyes. A moment later, Bible man was slathered in icing. He looked like Jerkwad # 1’s (aka Shawn’s) identical twin. The only distinguishing factor was his maroon pants. It was as Rach was applying the finishing touches to his nose when a loud intake of breath made us all turn on our heels to see my mother, looking like a dream in her gown and veil, sink down to her knees. “They’re doing it again. Dear God, they’ve ruined everything!” she cried to the ceiling. Drawn by the commotion, Arthur huffed out of the room right behind her a few moments later, pale and exhausted. Sweat poured down his face in rivulets, making his hair stick to his face and soaking his shirt. He put his hands on his knees and panted a few moments as he surveyed the scene. His eyes crossed over mom, then followed her track of vision to the mess splayed around us. His eyes bugged out of his face at the sight of the two men made up in icing, and then he clutched his chest. At first, I thought he was in severe shock, but a moment later, he plopped on his back beside his bride and managed to choke out a few words: “Call the ambulance, I think I’m having a heart attack.” In the distance I heard someone shriek “Holy Moses, my water just broke!” **** It’s amazing how fast things can go downhill. Within the span of ten minutes, Nick and Bible man scurried out of the vicinity, the paramedics arrived taking both Lisa and Arthur with them, the cake lady grimly forked over a bill for two three-hundred-dollar cakes (they bakery had two similar orders and had accidentally delivered the pink-rosed peanut one instead of the yellow-rosed non-peanut one) and the photographer, who insisted on full payment, retracted his demand when Liz flirted with him and accepted his invitation for dinner later that week. Yes, I know. Only Liz. And I wouldn’t even bet my Hello Kitty slippers that it was meant to be an altruistic gesture. After we delivered a weeping mom to the hospital, where the doctors confirmed that Arthur had indeed suffered a mild attack, and paid Lisa’s pink as a button baby girl, Anderson Rose, a visit (Liz was not allowed in) we rode home in silence, the muted tones of the limo’s speakers the only audible sound. I’m not sure if it was more exhaustion from the morning’s events or the fact that there would be hell to pay as soon as mom was in a more stable frame of mind. But for me the silence was welcome. It gave me time to reflect on Nick and validate that my decision to break up with him had been wise. In a strange sense, today had provided the closure I needed. Seeing the embarrassment on his face, the shame in his eyes, the shock reverberating through his body was a sort of repayment for all the discomfort he’d caused not only me, but all the victims before me. And yes, for the first time, I realized I’d been a victim. Abused not physically, but emotionally, by being treated as inadequate, unworthy and insignificant for my weight. But that was probably how all abusive men treated their significant others. In my room, the pillow felt welcome beneath my head, but my comfort was short-lived. The Titanic theme hummed from my cell phone and I glanced at the screen in momentary shock. “Dr.Greene?” “Rebecca. I’m glad you answered. I’m sorry to disturb you on your day off, but I have something important I want to discuss with you. Can you meet this evening?” **** Luciano’s was packed at seven-thirty. And my hands were still clammy at the thought of eating dinner with Dr. Greene when a waitress led me past the brick oven to a table where Dr. Greene sat thrumming his fingers. He leapt out of his chair as I approached and fixed his tie. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think he looked as nervous as I felt. “Ms. Parker, thank you for agreeing to meet with me on such short notice.” I gulped, wondering for the gazillionth time why we hadn’t met at a Starbuck’s. The ho and hum of the coffee place would have been a lot less formal in comparison to the Italian restaurant, nestled quietly in the corner of a busy shopping strip. To make matters worse, the dark tables, dim lighting and flickering candles only added a greater air of intimacy. In all the time I’d dated anyone, I’d never felt as nervous or aware of my surroundings as I did on this meeting with Dr. Greene. Not that I thought he’d try anything. And if he did, it certainly would not be unwelcomed… I kicked myself mentally and tried to focus on something less distracting than Dr. Greene’s intense gaze. Like the napkin on my lap. “I know this seems like a bit sudden, and I guess I could have waited till tomorrow, but…” I gulped. This couldn’t be good. What good news would warrant a random dinner with your boss on a Sunday? “Tina, the director from Oakland Montessori, emailed. She wanted me to comment on your work ethic, personality, teaching style, etcetera.” He took a deep breath and I held mine, wondering what type of feedback he’d given. Had he bad mouthed me to keep me on board? Or had he been stumped by a question and forced to answer unfavorably to honor the truth about me? I wasn’t exactly flawless. There had been plenty of times when I’d discovered toilet paper stuck to the bottom of my pumps while standing in the lunch line, or a speck of broccoli wedged between my two front teeth at the end of the school day. Not to mention that my makeup was never situated in the correct corner of my face. Lipstick would often be found smeared near my cheek and mascara, gosh don’t get me started on that. But when it came to my work ethic, I knew there wasn’t any room for complaint. I loved each child in my class, and I poured my energy and heart into what I did for my students. If I was lacking in that regard, well then, I was burning my midnight oil in the wrong profession. “I said…she’s going to extend you an offer. I told her that if she’s not generous enough, I’ll do better to make you stay. You should be hearing from her tomorrow.” I stopped breathing, letting his words reverberate through my mind. An offer. She was going to extend an offer. I was going to be given an offer. This is the news I’d been waiting for. And though a part of me felt relieved, the majority of me felt…deflated. I didn’t understand it. Not immediately anyway, until I started asking myself why. Why wasn’t I completely satisfied? What was missing? “Thank you,” I breathed. My eyes locked with Dr. Greene’s. Suddenly, I knew. I had invested a lot of time at Woodrow Elementary. I’d spent four years developing myself, training to be my best for me and for my students, and through it all, I’d had a great mentor, a great inspiration, a great support in Dr. Greene. But somewhere along the way, that respect and admiration and turned into something more. Something deeper than I’d ever known or cared to admit. We consumed our meals in tense silence, unspoken thoughts caressing our minds. I could see the battle of wills on Dr. Greene’s face. He snuck peeks at me then quickly averted his gaze every time I’d catch him. But the intensity in his gaze, the questions swimming within their depths were unmistakable. Women have instincts, and mine were blaring a loud horn. How could I have been so dense? Had Dr. Greene always behaved this way toward me? Had I been burying my face in a cloud all along? Now half hour after I’d received the news I’d been waiting for for months, I was more confused than ever. The thought of never again seeing Dr. Greene bothered me. I wondered if we’d ever bump into each other, if we’d keep in touch—or worse, if we’d go our separate ways, never to cross paths again. The last was especially unbearable. Later, as we sauntered toward our cars, the tension was blinding. I was sure that if we so much as rubbed shoulders, we’d both combust from the electricity thrumming within us both. The wind was mild, the sky dark. We stood illuminated under a lamp post. When the silence stretched out longer than was bearable, we spoke at the same time, creating greater discomfort. I started again. “Thank you for everything. I’ve enjoyed working with you, and I’ll be sure to wrap things up the next two weeks for whoever will be—” Dr. Greene silenced my lips with his finger. I was hypnotized by his eyes, that hooded gaze, those remarkable lips. Looking back, I don’t know exactly how it happened. All I knew was that a split second later, we were tongue tied, gasping for breath, trying to quench an unquenchable thirst. The distinct bulge of his lower regions hardened against me, indicating that things had gotten heated beyond imagination. I pulled apart from him, not sure what would end up happening if we continued. He put his arm against the hood of my car, cursed and looked down. For a moment I wondered if I was dreaming. “I’m sorry. That was way out of line. Been trying to control it but … Will you keep in touch?” I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. We bid our goodbyes with an awkward handshake while a part of me refused to leave that parking lot, that moment in time. I drove home on autopilot, my thoughts so deeply tangled, I almost didn’t hear my phone vibrating from the center console. “Rebecca, pull over.” “Huh?” I looked in the rearview. Dr. Greene was behind me. I pulled over onto the grassy shoulder. Dr. Greene opened my door and helped me out. Then, without any forewarning, he pinned me up against the door and continued our earlier exchange. When we came up for breath, he said, “I can’t bear the thought of being away from you. I can’t risk that we might drift apart. I can’t imagine not seeing you whenever I want. So I thought of a way to take care of that.” He smiled. “Will you be mine?” Chapter 21 Run, Forest, run! ~Liz~ Sports are meaningless occupations. Really, if you think about it, it’s just a ton of people getting paid shit loads of money to pounce each other to minced meat. And for what purpose? Entertainment? I mean, really, why not just pop a movie in the DVD? I was thinking this very thought as men of Amazonian heights shuffled back and forth across a glossy court, attacking and deceiving each other for a measly ball. My date, Anthony, watched mesmerized, eyes swiveling back and forth like ping pong balls, a hot dog frozen in place just inches away from his wide open mouth. He looked so unappealing in this stance that I wondered, again, why I’d agreed to a date with him. I wouldn’t be able to tell you his last name if you held me at gunpoint and — God forbid — threatened to bon fire my entire collection of Manolos. And now that I was thinking long-term, I couldn’t risk spending the rest of my life at these irritating ball games. Something told me that if we ever got robbed and it came down to Anthony choosing his LCD or me, I wouldn’t have a flying chance in hell—even stark naked and slathered in oil. At the non-wedding just a few weeks ago, he’d been utterly charming and wildly handsome, adjusting his camera this way and that, capturing the sensuality of every pose, making me mistakenly assume that beneath the layers of muscles lay a personality of a man who understood the sensuality of relationships. I’d watched hypnotized by the muscles bulging under the sleeves of his black polo, thinking that a man who had focused his career on working with newlyweds would be nothing but compassionate, caring and selfless. Which is why I’d imagined our first date to take place anywhere except a stinky stadium filled with barbarians who had sweat drenching their jerseys. Someone scored a goal, or whatever it’s called, and the stadium erupted in both boos and cheers. I plucked my iPhone from my red Prada and scrolled through my junk emails before emptying the folder. “You got this!” Anthony sprung from his seat, arms pumping the air. “You got this LeBron (name of player)! Come on home boy, dribble it down, dribble it down!” I stifled a yawn. A Facebook alert popped up on my phone: Megan likes your photo. I clicked the notification and it directed me to a picture of me from the jinxed wedding, posing with hands on hips and a demure smile on my lips. Gone, after much starvation and gum chewing, was the flab that had stubbornly taken residence on my hips, revealing the flat enviable waist I’d known all my life. “You look hot,” Anthony’s voice tickled my ear. I looked up, surprised to know that he’d torn his gaze away long enough to pay attention to me. Then I noticed that the players had cleared the court. “Thanks.” I shoved my phone back into the depths of the Prada. “No, thank you.” I looked up, befuddled. Anthony smiled and pulled me close. “I’ve had the best time with you today. You’re so cool!” I churned out a tight smile. “Thanks. I try.” “Oh, no. No, no. I mean I knew you were cool before today. I mean we’ve had some great conversations on the phone, but in person you’re so…cool.” I nodded, holding my smile tightly in place. It’s true, we’d shared several conversations over the last few weeks. Each one made me question whether Anthony was truly a promising pursuit or whether I’d lowered my standards just a little more after the debacle with Nick. After today, I was pretty certain it was the latter. Anthony had yet to ask me if I liked sports. When I’d agreed to go on a date with him, he’d left the location a “surprise” saying that he’d pick something he knew I’d love. And he was right. I loved college basketball the way I loved a hang nail. Or a root canal. Or a shot in my ass. He glanced at his watch. “Hey, tell you what, why don’t we grab a bite to eat before the game resumes.” Resumes? There was more? I was ready to call it quits on this so called date, but thought better of it. Maybe I’d wait until I at least got a salad out of it and then break the news to lover boy. After all, what was ten more minutes when I’d spent the entire day starving in thoughts of a meal at a fancy restaurant. And even then, hadn’t been offered water since we’d arrived here at this god awful mausoleum of sweat. We headed toward the glossy stadium floor but then stopped when we got about halfway across. Anthony spun around, a twinkle in his eyes. He nodded to someone behind me, and suddenly all thoughts of lettuce and cucumbers fled my mind as the stadium went dark and the crowd fell silent. A steady spotlight focused its bright haze on us, making me squint and impulsively shield myself. A techie looking man strolled over and pinned something to Anthony’s shirt. And that’s when things spiraled downward like a terrible plane crash. Anthony retrieved a black velvet box from his pocket and got down on his knees. Then in slow motion, he opened the box and said the dreaded words, “Liz, knowing you has been the highlight my life. We share the same interests, have the same ambitions.” Let me pause here and say that aside from the quick sexapades we’d shared, we had yet to discuss anything close to ambitions. In fact, the conversations of the past few weeks had rarely ventured beyond what I was wearing and what Anthony wanted to do with me and where. Which is why I was even more surprised when he asked what he did next. “I want to share in this happiness forever, Liz. And I know you do too. So…” He got down on his knees. “Liz…” He looked stupefied for a moment. “Parker,” I said. “Liz Parker,” he nodded as if he’d just understood the formula of electricity, “will you do the honor of marrying me?” His voice echoed confidently throughout the stadium. A few people whistled, and then it was pin drop silent again. Seriously, you could have heard a cricket fart. A thousand thoughts flew through my head. The first was that this would be all over social media. The second was that said social media could negatively impact my career and the third was that right now, I didn’t give a damn about either of the above. A rumbling broke out in the audience, and then the rumbling turned into a chant: “Say yes, say yes, say yes, say yes…” Anthony broke into a wide smile. “Say yes, Liz.” His eyes twinkled and I wondered if maybe he was a bit cuckoo for Coco Puffs. I mean, I’d known the guy all of two weeks and most of that time, we’d been busy bopping each other’s brains out. Besides my bra size, he didn’t know anything about me. And yes, to those of you who are wondering, I thought about saying yes to please the masses, and then privately breaking the news to Anthony. But I felt so trapped, so suffocated there with the promise of the media pelicans ready to pounce down and race to be the first to announce the news of my engagement, and then the “break up” a few days later, further tarnishing my reputation, which, let’s be honest here, my bank account couldn’t afford. “Liz.” I could see the spark of hope in Anthony’s eyes growing dimmer with each passing second. Here’s the strange thing about me. Every once in a while, I do something that even I don’t know I’m about to do. It’s almost like I have a second brain (which of course I don’t, or else I wouldn’t have failed calculus three times in college). I knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t say yes to Anthony. The words were at the tip of my tongue, waiting to be formed and released. So I took a deep breath, braced myself and ran like hell. Yeah, the last bit actually took me by surprise too. I didn’t know I was going to do it. I honestly didn’t. I’d envisioned more of a quick, I’m-sorry-but-I-really-can’t-because-I-don’t-love-you-or-know-you-for-that-matter kind of ending. But no, the next thing I knew, I was streaking wildly across the floor like a runner breaking for the finish line (except with three inch stilettos), or a bank robber risking a last ditch effort at escape while a line of policemen stood prepared to gun him down. And really, that’s a very fitting analogy because that’s kind of what ended up happening. A few moments after my and apparently my spectators’ brains registered what was happening, a sudden shower of everything from popcorn to hot dogs and yes, even ketchup and soda rained down on me. People booed, and screamed profanities and one guy, probably distantly related to Anthony, even asked me to marry him instead, promising a future in Cabo San Lucas as I scurried out the exit and toward the parking lot. And then, it struck me. Damn it all to hell, I didn’t have my car. While ducking between vehicles, in case Anthony had decided to follow in my pursuit, I managed to Google a cab service. When I was enclosed in the threat-free interiors of a yellow cab that smelled like hookah and some other questionable element, I laid my head back against the headrest and closed my eyes. The Turkish cab driver hummed a foreign tune in a voice that sounded like a cross between a howling wolf and a wounded puppy. But just then, even drenched in Cherry coke and ketchup, there was nowhere else I would have rather been. Chapter 22 A hot mess Rachel There are days I’m convinced that my sister was born to ruin my life. Today, this belief was confirmed. I was cozily nestled on Alex’s lap, jotting notes about inventory (OK, fine, so there was more rubbing than jotting going on, but you get the point), when the door flung open and who darkened the room with her presence than my very own, wild eyed, grimy haired, blouse stained older sister. Of all the times she could have chosen a solitary instance in her life to look like a hobo, she’d chosen that day. “Rach,” she panted. “I need your help.” Needing no invitation, she fell into the chair across from us and took a deep swig from the Fiji bottle on the desk. Which in itself was indication that something had gone terribly awry; nothing except Evian ever passed her lips. Evidence occupied two and a half rows of shelf real estate in our fridge. And she wreaked of…something really nasty. “Did you accidentally fall into a garbage truck?” I shut the door to keep our conversation from drifting out, which was probably a mistake because now we were enclosed in a room with The Walking Stench. Alex, sweet guy that he was, actually had the decency to offer a handshake. “You must be Rachel’s sister. I’m Alex.” “Yeah, ok. Good for you.” Liz nodded, ignoring his hand. She sprang to her feet and paced the room. Normally, I would have retaliated at her rude behavior, but at that moment, I was too busy trying to digest the sight before me to let the incident register beyond the shallows of my brain. Liz’s hair was completely disheveled and the back of her head had a big blob of something red and gooey. “Where the heck did you come from?” I asked, completely befuddled. “Tell you about it later.” She looked like she’d downed ten gallons of 5 Hour Energy. Her eyes were crazed and she couldn’t stop moving. Was she on … drugs? Now this was definitely a conversation I did not want to have in front of Alex, especially since this was his first encounter with anyone blood related to me. Of all days and all the ways they could have been introduced… I darted a dark glance skyward and was just about to ask my sister if somewhere between sleeping and posing in undergarments, she’d taken up the hobby of snorting weed, when the door swung wide open and in walked John. “Whoa. It stinks in…hey! You’re that girl from TV!” I knew guys were into porn and all that jazz, but I’d never met one who kept up with his lingerie ads. John snapped his fingers. “You were just on the news! I knew you looked familiar when you walked in.” “News? Liz, what the hell?” I screeched. “I’m just telling you, if you’re into the illegal stuff, you’d better haul ass out of here because we can’t risk having the police—” “What news?” Liz had gone pale. John squirmed under her speculative gaze. “Uhh…maybe it wasn’t you.” “What news!” Liz banged her hands on the desk, nearly toppling over the uncapped water bottle. John coughed. “Well, we were watching the college basketball game out there and I swear the girl on TV looked—” “Oh noooooooo!” Liz fell into the chair again and buried her head in her hands. “My career is ruined. Ruined! I’ll never be able to model ever again!” “Can someone please tell me what the hell is going on?” I slammed the door shut again and took a deliberate step away from my sister. “And while you’re at it, fill me on why you smell like decaying beef and when the hell you took up an occupation on the evening news.” “You’re a model?” John’s asked, his interest immediately piqued. Obviously he hadn’t heard a word of anything I’d said. “Was. I was a model. After today, I’ll never be able to walk the runway ever again!” Liz plopped her head on the desk and the glob of red made contact with her pink blouse. “I’m pretty sure that’s not true,” he muttered, surveying her behind. Her cell phone buzzed and she jumped. “Dear God, it’s Mom! She must have seen the damned news.” “Yeah, that was a real scene,” John said, then faltered when Liz silenced him with an icy glare. “But I don’t get it. When he proposed, why did you run?” “Who proposed?” Alex and I asked simultaneously. Liz sighed and filled us in on her debacle. “I didn’t even know him. We met two weeks ago and he was so boring and we didn’t even have anything in common. And then when I ran out on him, I realized I didn’t have a car and had to get a cab home and then didn’t have money to pay for the cab so I gave up my Movado.” “Wait, why didn’t you just come in here and grab some cash?” I asked. We all waited. Liz stared into space for a moment then smacked her head before plopping it back on the desk. “I’m the stupidest person alive,” she whined. “No arguing that,” I muttered. “I just need to get home,” she said, then paused. “No, not home. Not home. Mom’s there. Ohhh, this means another weekend of Sunday cleaning!” She buried her face in her hands once again and shook her head. Alex and John threw me a questioning look. Great. More opportunity to sound like my family was of direct lineage from the Looney Tunes. I sighed. “Whoever gets Mom upset, has to help with ‘heavy chores’ during Sunday cleaning.” At their confused expressions, I reluctantly continued, “Like scrubbing the trash bins, cleaning the tubs and disinfecting the toilet bowls. “Toilet bowwwls!” Liz moaned and plopped her head back down. She’d been doing them every weekend since she’d moved in. “Better make nicey-nicey with them now. Doesn’t look like you’ll be getting away from them anytime soon, dear sis.” I began to pat her on the back, then thought better of it. “Let me get you a change of clothes.” Luckily, I kept a few spare t-shirts and apparel in the back room just in case of accidents, which had happened more often than I cared to admit. Spilled drinks, food tray accidents and occasionally, butter fingers were only a few of the unfortunate incidents that warranted an extra closet at The Mixer. (One time, I’d been helping a woman who’d been dumped and had had one too many vodkas into the restroom when she decided to puke her guts out on me. Yeah, I know. The price of kindness.) “Can I stay here? I can help.” Liz looked up at me, suddenly hopeful. I’d never seen so much desperation in her eyes, but I couldn’t possibly allow her into the kitchen or near destructible material. Liz was as clumsy as a bear on stilts. Plus, we were heading out early to meet with Alex’s parents. Yes, that’s right. The big milestone moment. Things were getting serious and with Liz’s track record for today, I didn’t want her anywhere near me to spoil my first impression with the Warners. “Liz, you can’t just—” “Of course she can,” John interjected before I could interject any reasoning. And so it was settled. Little did I know that this defining moment would change everything forever. **** Mr. Granger was the strangest old man I’d ever met. He was a regular at The Mixer and always armed with an arsenal of dollar bills, like he was expecting an army of women to pop out of the crevices of the wood paneled walls and jiggle their boobs in his face. Luckily there were no strip clubs around town and Mr. Granger was too much of a gentleman to ever pay for sleazy entertainment. Plus, if he ever even did, he’d probably fall asleep halfway through the show. I knew this because his visits lasted all of thirty minutes before his eyes would droop and he’d be forced to hail a cab to his duplex down the block, gin tonic still wet on his tongue. Today, as I prepared his usual, I caught Liz chatting happily with John. He leaned in to hear something she was saying and a moment later they both threw their heads back in laughter. So much for working. Liz hadn’t lifted a finger since she’d arrived, except to fix her makeup. In fact, when she’d emerged from the backroom in my jeans (which were baggy around her hips) and pink Thor t-shirt, she looked like she’d stepped off the runway rather than escaped being pummeled to death by popcorn. As Mr. Granger made idle conversation reclaiming my attention from the happy couple and nearing his thirty minute mark, he surprised me. No dollar bills spilled out of his billfold today. Instead he retracted a black American Express. He noticed my surprise and chuckled. “I know. I got myself a credit card at last.” He leaned in. “It really ain’t mine anyway. The missus forced me to get one. Made me co-signer. Told her long as them collection agents don’t come huntin’ me down for nothin’, I’m fine as gold doin’ away with them George Washingtons.” I smiled at him and rang him up. But as I bid him goodbye, something struck me like a mallet striking a cymbal. And just like that, I knew that the case hanging over my head would no longer be the cause of missed slumber. **** That night, I had my very first out of body experience. It happened as John’s car wove through a long, windy path curving through miles of thicket and forest before grinding to a halt in front of wrought-iron gates like those of the Wyndham Palace. The acres of land, thicket and all, apparently belonged to the Parkers, who had invested wisely when it was selling for dirt cheap. After only a moment’s pause, the dark gates swayed open, revealing the largest mansion I’d probably ever set sights on. I heard Liz gasp from the passenger seat. (Yes, you heard right. We’d all decided to carpool. Since she seemed to be on a make-an-idiot-of-myself streak today, I figured I’d drag her along to ease some of my anxiety and use her denseness to make myself look better. Mean, I know, but hey, you’d do it too.) As John navigated the car around a cobblestone path circling a magnificent Grecian looking fountain, I began second guessing the black leggings and loose chiffon top that I’d embezzled from Liz’s closet. Luckily, she’d been too distracted flirting and fondling John to even take notice. The doors to the behemoth mansion were like something from a fairy tale. Thick, mahogany French doors with wrought iron grills. I’m pretty certain that classy porch light fixtures combined cost more than my mom’s entire house. After a quick moment, the door swung open and a short, stout lady with rosy cheeks and a graying bob stood smiling brightly at us, clad in a paisley cable knit sweater, cuffed pants and tan sling-back pumps. She was unlike anything I’d expected to pop out from behind those doors. To be honest, I was expecting a reed thin woman with crisp attire and expensive pearls to greet us through a steely stare. So you can only imagine my immense relief. “Hey, Mom!” Alex stepped forth, but Mrs. Warner had her sights set on me. “Goodness, you look even lovelier in person than in pictures. I don’t know how that’s even possible!” She enveloped me in a warm hug, completely ignoring her sons and Liz, which made me like her instantly. Mr. Warner was equally as hospitable and jolly and seeing him, it was apparent where John and Alex had stolen their lethal looks. After brief and informal introductions, Liz and I got busy in a kitchen that would make Martha Stewart drool, helping Mrs. Warner set the table while the men circled around a new tablet-like gadget Mr. Warner tried to discern. During a brief lull in conversation, I peeked over at them and Mr.Warner caught my eye. “The technology era is the wrong one for men of my kind,” he joked, winking at me. Conversation flowed freely in the magnificent formal dining room over a scrumptious dinner of Caesar salad, braised chicken and buttered rolls. We talked about my job, what Liz did. (Luckily, she was vague and left out the fact that she modeled in only stripper-worthy attire. Heck, I’ll even admit it; she was on her best behavior, which luckily worked in my favor anyway because at least I didn’t look like I belonged to a family of psychos.) As we helped ourselves to seconds, Mr. Parker divulged his early struggles and how he’d finally found his calling in garment imports before studying to become a civil attorney. Now retired, he managed the import business from a distance, reserving plenty of time to travel the world with his Mrs., who blushed at the mention of their many adventures together across the globe. Mrs. Warner managed her bakery in much the same way—from a distance—and I instantly vied for a love like theirs, where they each kept the other on center stage against all else. After a delectable dessert of homemade peach cobbler, the four of us, satiated and comatose from several helpings of Mrs. Warner’s delectable dishes, bid the sweet couple goodbye with the promise to return soon, including Liz, who apparently had already managed to somehow finagle a place in their hearts. Very un-Liz like if you ask me. Usually you can count on her to set everyone’s nerves on edge, guaranteeing the need for an emergency chiropractic therapy session immediately after. But as we wound our way back to town and away from the magnanimous Parker estate, I was beginning to notice that in the last few hours, Liz had exposed a side of herself that probably even she didn’t know existed. One that involved laughing without abandon, smiling freely and indulging heartily in a meal laden with trans-fats and carbs. Chapter 23 One down, two to go Becky Rach has this strange effect on men. I know, you would expect it to be Liz, and it often is—initially, at least. But if I really look back, it’s always been Rach who’s reeled in the hunks fastest—and kept them wrapped around her toes. Well, with the exception of Kyle, of course. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me when one Monday morning, a little over a month after my sumptuous dinner with Adam, new jolted me out of bed almost exactly two hours before my alarm. Well it wasn’t exactly the news, really, but the jarring of my cell phone against my eardrums. I’d stifled a yawn and rubbed my eyes before squinting at the display. Unknown number. I ignored it and silenced the ring, settling back in under the covers when the darned thing rang yet again. Same number. And my voicemail announced my name, so the chances that a loon, prankster or someone who was hearing impaired was out to ruin my morning z’s were likely slim. “Hello?” I yawned. “Hey, Becky?” “Hmm?” “Hey, this is Alex.” Pause. “Rach might have mentioned something about me?” He chuckled. “Well, at least I hope she has.” I sat up, suddenly awake. Boy had she. My sister had transformed from an impenetrable rock into a starry-eyed, daydreaming teenager within the span of a few short months thanks to this Alex man. She’d actually solicited makeup advice from Liz, making Liz nearly erupt into an excited frenzy during which she’d managed to drag Rachel to the mall, and return six hours later with an arsenal of makeup and yes, even fashion jewelry, enough to thrill an entire island of women for a whole three hundred and sixty-five days (by my calculations anyway). Then one day, I’d popped into Rachel’s closet to borrow a belt (mine no longer fit) to discover a whole slew of skirts, blouses and high heels hovering between forgotten t-shirts and jeans. The shocker was a pair of fish net stockings, which looked like they had been quickly discarded soon after being opened. I’d blinked then looked around to make sure I hadn’t mistakenly stepped foot into the room of my eldest sibling. But missing were the Loubitons and Tracy’s Treasure (And yes, Agent Provacateur, shhh. Not good to advertise the competition, I’m sure) undergarments strewn about. Which either meant that a) my eldest sister had bought a voodoo doll and warped Rach’s brain or b) my middle sister had fully embraced a new motto: dress to impress. I didn’t have to wonder long about which of my theories was true, because one night, after Liz hounded her ruthlessly about her newfound interest in painting face, Rach finally spilled the juice on Alex. In fact, she even had pictures on her iPhone, including selfies. That’s when I knew she was a goner. Rach never muttered more than a few words about any of her men. Her motto was “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” But obviously, all rules were moot where Alex was concerned. Which made me both happy and scared witless. I didn’t want to see Rach suffer through yet another rough breakup, especially after Kyle. For her, it was tough to trust people, and after the humiliation she’d suffered, I was afraid that one more failed relationship would cause her to give up altogether. I pulled my thoughts to the present and focused on Alex’s words. At first, I thought my sleepy brain was playing naughty tricks on me, but when I hung up, giddiness crept in, and I was as wired as I get after downing three shots of cappuccino. This was going to be a memorable day. I could feel it in my gut. But there was lots to do and very little time. **** In my excitement, I might have forgotten to mention that today was my last day of school at Woodrow Elementary. Next week, I’d be starting my new job as a teacher at Oakland Montessori. The last few weeks had been painful. The realization of how much I’d be giving up hadn’t quite struck me until later that day at the surprise farewell party my co-workers had sweetly arranged. Rumor was that it was Adam’s idea. (Using his first name still sent shivers down my spine.) Somehow, we’d managed to keep our dating status hush, but the sparks were practically visible anytime we were near each other. I knew because Jane elbowed me as I sipped lemonade from a pink Solo cup, jolting me out of my daze. “You got something you want to tell me, baby doll?” “Huh?” I tried to play dumb as I strolled down the buffet and plucked a few strawberries onto my plate, Jane hot in pursuit. “Don’t try to fool me. I wasn’t born yesterday and especially not where men are concerned. I know a lovesick puppy when I see one. And Dr. Greene’s been inspecting you the way I’ve been eyeing that red velvet cake over there.” I blushed and stiffened my lips, trying hard to contain my smile. Jane grinned. “Your secret’s safe with me, honey bun. Plus, you’re no longer staffed here, so get your freak on!” She ground her hips back and forth. “Shh!” I hissed. My gaze collided with Adam’s and I immediately glanced away, afraid that if I maintained contact, I’d somehow give away the naughty thoughts dancing around in my head. After the kids were dismissed for the day, I trekked toward my car with the last of my packed boxes and was surprised to find Adam leaning against the door. Whereas before he had been skirting his gaze, there was nothing subtle about the way his eyes now roamed over my body before grid locking me in a sultry stare. I was instantly nervous and excited. The mild March temperatures were a promised blend of the warmth to come and the cold to be abandoned. But today held a promise even greater. “Don’t leave,” Adam murmured, taking my hand into his large, warm one after we stuffed the box into my trunk. “I can’t stay. Especially not now. It could be so bad for you.” “I can’t imagine not seeing you every day.” “Then we’ll make sure you do.” I smiled, a feeling of bitter sweetness washing over me. “Deal. Speaking of, what are you doing tonight?” I was about to reply that I was free as a bird, when it struck me that there was actually quite a lot to be done. “Well, I kinda have some family stuff.” “Oh.” His face fell and I instantly wished I could retract my words. “Are you doing anything?” “Nah. Just finishing up here then heading home.” Home. It sounded so right. I could see myself cuddled up with him on the couch, munching popcorn and watching a movie, our hands seeking every excuse to brush against each other’s. In fact, that had been reality for the last few weeks. And today would be the first day we’d be spending the evening apart. It would be an entire twenty-four hours before I’d see him again. No precarious meetings in the corners of the hallway or quick lunches in his office. No accidental rendezvous in the parking lot or quick glances across the conference room. It all ended now. He released my hands and took a step back. “Well, Becky. It’s been a pleasure. Definitely won’t be the same without you.” I looked down, afraid I’d burst into tears. He kissed me lightly on the cheek. When I looked up, he was shuffling away. I watched him, the ache in my heart growing stronger with every step that separated us. “Wait!” Adam stopped in his tracks an expression of hope coloring his features. I paused just a millisecond before closing the distance between us. “If you’re not doing anything tonight, maybe you could pop by?” He looked relieved, then hesitant. “But your family stuff.” “I’d love for you to meet them,” I blurted. And then suddenly, I wasn’t so sure. Maybe things were moving too fast. Maybe I’d violated rule # 1 in Dating 101 by inviting him to meet my family so soon. Maybe this would be the beginning of the end. However, Adam looked anything but put off. In fact, he looked quite eager. “Are you sure?” I understood the connation of his question. I knew my answer would confirm that we were taking the next step in advancing our relationship. But apart from my initial hesitation, my heart carried no additional qualms. “Yes, please come. It’ll mean a lot to me.” He grinned, then buried his face in the crook of my neck. “In that case, darling, count me in.” **** The Mixer was a hopping hub. Or so I’d heard. Tonight, however, as I pushed open the wooden paneled doors to the bar, silence encased me. The soft patter of my ballet flats and a distant echo of water gurgling down a drain were the only sounds to be heard. “Rebecca, I’m so glad you’re here!” A tall, well-built man in his mid thirties strolled toward me, a big welcoming grin eclipsing his face. A few grey hairs and he could have easily passed as George Clooney’s younger brother. “Alex, so wonderful to meet you.” Alex pulled me in for a warm, friendly embrace, and the squirmy feeling in my tummy at the prospect of whether he’d be right for Rach instantly fled. Alex was completely genuine. I could feel it in his hug, see it in his eyes and his barely-concealed nervousness, which he made me feel both special and endeared. “I know this must feel like it’s all happening too fast. I mean, we’ve never met.” Alex pulled out a chair at a nearby table and I was instantly impressed by the homey, yet contemporary feel of the oak and mahogany trimmings of the place. Deep chocolate hardwood floors with oak tables neatly arranged throughout, illuminated by the retro lights dangling in precise places were definitely many rungs up from the dingy bars I’d seen in movies and read about in books. “Nice place you’ve got here.” “Thank you. Credit goes to Rach. She’s the brains behind this renovation.” I was instantly amazed and baffled. Rach? Our Rach? The one whose creativity ventured as far as Nikes and Cheez-its? I glanced around with newfound respect as Alex plunked down a large glass of fizzy Coke. “Diet.” He winked. OK, I was impressed. Attractive and attentive. He obviously paid attention to what Rach had shared about her family, and suddenly I was curious to know just how much she’d divulged. As I savored the cold, refreshing Coke and a basket of fresh fries (today was my cheat day), conversation flowed like smooth wine. Alex had a great track record of success. He’d majored in Finance at University of Georgia—one of Georgia’s best—and after graduating, he and his brother had wisely invested a good lump sum of cash, which they’d collected through oddball jobs and gigs they’d performed throughout college. His parents were retired. Dad, a former attorney who offered free consulting to those in need and mom a baker who owned a reputed neighborhood bakery that she occasionally visited to complete paperwork and provide oversight. If Rachel had been trying to hit the jackpot of men, she’d definitely landed the bull’s-eye. Alex was a ten out of ten in looks, intelligence and family background. To top it off, the respect with which he spoke to me was refreshing and restored my faith in men in general. Adam had already succeeded in proving that not all men were scum, no doubt, but his breed of men seemed rare and few. Alex was definitely a man of the same ilk—for Rach, I would have hoped for nothing less. The night was tranquil and brightly lit with stars as we ushered in balloons and décor, debating over placement and managing to scarf up snippets of food in between. Thirty minutes before ten, our first guests arrived—Alex’s parents. And they were every bit the delight I’d anticipated them to be. Mrs. Warner engulfed me in a warm hug against her ample bosom, her face flushed with delight. And Mr. Warner wore a look of pride on his face that clearly evidenced his love for his son and his support of this day. Trailing in their lead were mom and dad who, to my pleasant surprise, entered together. Moira was nowhere in sight, thank goodness. She’d conveniently decided to host a girls’ night, which was a good thing. Having her and Liz breathe the same oxygen would likely cause the air to combust, and I really didn’t want to risk anything ruining Rach’s special moment. And yes, by special moment, if you haven’t already guessed, I meant that Alex was about to propose to Rach. The news was still settling in my belly somewhere between the Coke and jalapeno poppers I’d just inhaled, but now instead of the earlier anxiety, a sense of calm and happiness flooded me. For the first time in a long time, everything felt right, everything was coming together neatly, like the teeth of a zipper meeting and then converging in complete precision. Liz and another man who could have passed as George’s secret child arrived next. Alex later introduced him as John, his older brother, and it all made sense. The chemistry between John and Liz was palpable, so much so that I was fairly certain if Moira had by some twist of fate decided to crash tonight’s party, Liz wouldn’t have bothered batting an eyelash and risking distraction from her new boy toy. I peeked at my watch and then checked my phone. Eleven minutes past ten and still no sign or messages from Adam. I busied myself with re-anchoring a few balloons that had escaped to the ceiling when a warm presence and low rumble made me pause. “Need some help with those?” A strong body gently pressed against my backside and a thick, jacket clad arm reached above my head to secure a stray bob of helium. The gesture was deliberate, calculated, sensual. Adam’s warm breath tickled my ear, the heat emanating from him and the unmistakable bulge against my derriere. I gasped in pleasure and forced every fiber of me to focus on keeping me upright. “Sorry I’m late. I received an emergency call from Jason’s parents.” I forced my brain to pull away from the sensations brewing in my belly. “Blackman?” “The one and only.” Jason Blackman was a trouble child if there ever was one. The kid was dreaded by teachers and students alike and his student file was as thick as the Yellow Pages. He’d spent a good part of the year in the principal’s office suspended for various offenses, including lodging curse words at his math teacher and bullying fellow students. “What’d he do now?” Adam taped the clad of balloons to the wall, then motioned for me to slide into a nearby booth for two. “Luckily, nothing yet. But Mr. and Mrs. Blackman have decided to take matters into their own hands before things get worse. They’re enrolling him in military school next year and wanted to gain a different perspective on their decision.” “What’d you tell them?” He studied me, his eyes loaded with desire and unveiled passion. Their intensity made my stomach bubble in anticipation. I held his gaze, forcing myself not to look away. This tango was exciting, rejuvenating, knee weakening. His irises were flecked with hazel, I noticed for the first time, and I was prepared to get lost in their depths like a mermaid diving into the ocean. “Ehem.” I jerked to my senses. “Dad!” “Hello, love.” Dad eyed Adam with a hint of wariness. “I was looking for you and noticed you were all alone here with…” Adam stood and extended his hand, “Dr.Adam Greene, sir. Rebecca and I worked together at Woodward Elementary.” Dad nodded. “What subject do you teach?” Adam chuckled. “Mostly discipline.” “Adam is the principal, Dad.” Dad came to attention and suddenly flashed Adam a thousand watt smile, his demeanor suddenly improving. “Good to meet you, son. I hope we’ll be seeing some more of you soon.” He winked, then stood tall and ambled toward Liz, who was had all but wrapped around John like a sushi roll. Without Moira around for distraction, dad had clearly reverted to protective-hunter mode. One tattoo, piercing or curse word and these men could be taco meat. Luckily Adam had passed the approval radar. I only hoped John hadn’t had any secret sex change surgeries. The lights flickered. Alex clapped his hands. “Hey everyone, thanks for coming out tonight. You all are in important to Rach and me in some way or another and I’m happy that you’re here to share this special moment with us.” He paused. “Well, let’s hope it’ll be a special moment. Would hate to see another Parker sister get drowsed in ketchup for saying no,” He winked at Liz. She booed him but joined in the laughter. A few moments later, the room was blanketed in darkness. Rachel entered. Her face registered complete astonishment as the lights snapped on, illuminating the faces of loved ones, then unabashed glee as Alex got down on his knees and proposed. She was awash with emotion, more in the last five minutes than I’d seen her express in her entire life. She covered her face with her hands and her gaze swept the room as though she expected someone to scream April Fools. When all she got were a sea of “say yeses” and thumbs ups, she nodded her consent and allowed Alex to slip on a beautiful pave ring with a bright, notably sized solitaire. The room erupted in applause and hoots, and soon the couple was engulfed by the crowd in a cacophony of felicitations and embraces. “Did you have any idea?” I asked as I crushed my sister in a bone breaking hug. “None at all,” she replied, her eyes twinkling. “And though I normally hate surprises, this one was the best yet.” Chapter 24 Burying the hatchet ~Liz~ My instincts are rarely ever off. I mean, rarely, ever. Take the time in high school that I knew, the moment my mechanical pencil ran out of lead as it hovered over my spit-clean Scantron, that I was going to bomb the exam. Not only did I fail miserably, but later, I burst into my dorm in a storm of frustration to find my boyfriend buck naked between the creamy legs of my best friend. And to set the record straight, I knew off the bat both of them were scum too, but at the time, I was foolish enough to think with my heart and jam socks into the voice of reason. Never again did I take a roommate (or mechanical pencils without refills). That day, my instincts won another steal from the lottery of intuition. Becky, Rach and I were sprawled throughout the living room amid a bed of magazines, newspaper cutouts, PCs and notebooks. “Look at this place.” Beck spun her laptop around and pointed to a fancy estate fronted by a fountain and garden in full bloom. “Yancey House. It’s right off Grayson-New Hope and accommodates a hundred. And look, they even have pictures of weddings they’ve done.” Rach studied the screen, head cocked to the side. “Or this one!” Becky exclaimed. A few taps on her keyboard and she swiveled the screen around again. “The Georgia Aquarium. How cool would that be?” “Not sure I’m sold on the idea of eating tilapia while a gang of its ancestors eye me through Plexiglas.” Rach twirled a pen around her pointer and middle finger. “Ugh, you’re doing tilapia?” I couldn’t stand the sight or smell of fish. My mom trudged through the room, looking sullen and wane. She plopped her purse on the dining table and extracted one of my Evians from the fridge. “Rough day?” Becky asked. Mom took a long swig and sighed. “Could have been better. Arthur’s finally back home.” “So…aren’t you supposed to be happy?” Rach looked confused. “Pff. Of course I’m happy!” Mom dismissed. “It’s just that things are…” “Difficult?” Beck asked. “Complicated?” Rach offered. “Rough?” I chimed in. “Different,” mom finished. “We’re supposed to be married. I mean, we would have been married, but somehow I’m glad, now, that we’re not.” The three of us stared at each other, acutely aware that we were treading on turbulent waters. One wrong word could send mom over the edge, swimming in the opposite direction to persuade Arthur to elope at the rise of dawn. “So now what?” Becky broke the tense silence. Mom shrugged and massaged her temple. “Now nothing. I thought I was in love with Arthur, but now, I’m not so sure.” She sat up and winced. “That doesn’t sound right. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great man. Just not for me.” She looked more defeated by this news than the realization of having lost Arthur’s partnership. “Maybe you were trying to create something that wasn’t there?” The words crawled out of my mouth, and Becky looked at me in unbridled astonishment. I must say, I surprised even myself with this intuitive speculation. The wall clock ticked. “But why?” Mom asked. “Maybe because you miss having a companion? Someone to share things with?” I ventured. Becky nodded. “That makes sense. Maybe you miss having a male presence in your life. You and dad were together for a long time, and then to suddenly have that part of your life missing can be difficult.” I immediately thought of Moira and felt ashamed. Perhaps dad had been seeking companionship when he’d met her, and when he’d sought our acceptance, I’d all but shunned her. No doubt she was a bitch, but deep down, I knew I could have behaved better, had I only tried. The last few weeks had changed my perspective of people in a large way. More accurately, John had changed my perspective. When I’d first met him at the Mixer, I’d mistakenly stereotyped him in the category of men who were born for one-night-stands. And honestly, I had been looking for nothing more. A wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am sounded just dandy to my sex-crazed brain. To my shock, John was one of the few men roaming the planet who apparently did not believe in a one-off night of lust. In fact, beyond the mild flirtation we’d engaged in that first night at the Mixer, he hadn’t attempted to venture further—which only intrigued me. Did there actually exist within him a man who was immune to my seductive charm? Was this a man who, despite his movie star good looks, respected women and believed in the sanction of relationships and monogamy? It couldn’t be. So I did what any other ego bearing woman would do. I made a pass at him to see what he’d do. That night, after his shift, we met at the Hyatt Inn a few block down The Mixer and I thought my shapely legs and come hither smile had finally paved their way toward the sensory nerves in his nether regions, but I couldn’t have been more mistaken. John took one look at me in my black negligee and immediately covered his eyes, apologizing profusely for having intruded at an inopportune moment. When I ran a lacquered finger down his neck and explained that the moment was extremely opportune, he gave a chuckle and shook his head. “I’m completely flattered, but I’m not that kind of a guy.” As he hugged me goodnight, I had convinced myself that he was a flaming homo, until I felt his distinct hardness against my belly. Luckily for me (and my nearly annihilated ego), the story didn’t end there. The hug turned into a full-blown make out session until John and I both couldn’t take any more. Then John did the unthinkable; he asked me out. In return, I did something equally as astounding and said yes. Needless to say, since we were now officially in a relationship and no longer two people looking to satisfy our primal desires, the rest of the night was tres rated R. And the negligee stayed on for all of about ten seconds before it was happily neglected in a corner under the bed, where I found it late the next afternoon. The events of that night still seemed so surreal. I’d never met a man so principled. Promptly, a monster of self doubt buried itself deep in my mind as I continued to question the strict rigor with which John had initially refused me. His refusal emblazoned my thoughts and made me squirm with uncertainty, so much so that when he and I met at Marcelo’s a few nights later, I couldn’t resist prodding him about his rejection. He smiled sheepishly, slugged a few sips of beer, then took my hand into his own, massaging my palm in slow, circular motions with his thumb. “ I’ve done the one night thing so many times. I’m just ready for something different.” He paused, then chuckled and threw his head back. “Ah, who am I kidding? Want to know the truth?” I nodded, now more eager than ever to learn about what made this irresistible man’s mind tick. “Ok, here goes. I knew that if we had a one-night stand, I’d fall madly in love with you.” His hands stopped moving against mine. In fact, everything around froze as John locked gazes with me. Those words coming from anyone else’s lips would have likely sent me scampering toward the closest exit, but with John, it was as if a grave thirst had awakened. I wanted to hear more. I craved more of his words, more of his affection, more of him. “So now we’re in a relationship, does that mean you won’t…fall for me?” I breathed, equal parts curious and fearful of his reply. His eyes grew intense and he remained silent. For a moment, I feared the worst. “If only you knew.” My heart thumped overtime at the connotation of his revelation. The waiter appeared with our orders, but for once, I wasn’t irritated or frustrated at the interruption. I’d gotten the answer I needed. It was written all over John’s face. No more words were needed, no explanation necessary. Our relationship had progressed so quickly into deeper territory. For once, I wasn’t afraid of the pull or the intensity with which we were charging ahead. It felt right. It felt natural. It was destined. I don’t know how I was certain of that, but something inside me just knew. My cell phone buzzed against my thigh, jolting me back to my current surroundings, unfortunately sans John. At least I’d be seeing him later that night. “Hey, Dad.” “Snookums. Have a moment to chat with your old man?” “Of course. You OK? You sound winded.” And distant, and not at all like my cheerful father. Becky, Rach and even mom came to attention. Huge sigh. Loud cough. “I’m out for a jog. Just wanted to let you know you were right about Moira.” My mind went blank. “Moira?” “I caught her stealing today from my safe. Well, I didn’t catch her, my surveillance cameras did. In the end, it doesn’t matter who did, I guess.” I had an urgent need to scrub the earwax out of my ears. “Stealing? Why would she steal? Isn’t she loaded?” “Yeah, that’s what everyone thought. Apparently, her businesses are flailing. Her boutique owes back rent and her Montessori is about to go belly up because of some mumbo jumbo about fraudulent certifications. It’s all over the local news.” “I just wanted to thank you, honey. If you hadn’t said what you did that night you came over, I would have never thought twice about adding her to my accounts when she asked. Luckily all she had access to were the codes to the safe, which only had a few grand.” As much as I would have loved to rejoice at this news and the fact that I’d never have to see snooty Moira again, sorrow for my father overpowered my joy. He’d been looking for companionship, I now understood, and instead he’d received a knife to the gut. Life’s a bitch. “You free in an hour, Dad?” “Of course, peanut. What’s up?” Was that a trace of hope in his voice? “Meet me at the Mixer in an hour? Let’s do wings and drinks.” **** “Great surprise,” John grinned widely and pulled me in a tight hug when Beck, Rach and I waltzed through the door of the Mixer ten minutes to seven. “I’m usually good at those.” I winked, reminiscing the last surprise I’d sprung on him. A lacey piece of undergarment that left very little to the imagination. I’d bought it online from Agent Provocateur. Now that I was back in shape and my job was firmly secure beneath by toes again, I was back to my usual splurging. I wasn’t oblivious, however, to the fact that my career was balancing on a tightrope. I’d have to think about my future, and soon. But there was a slight problem: I couldn’t imagine being anywhere except the runway. Through mounds of people and racket, John led us to our father, who sat slouched glumly in a corner booth wearing a black leather jacket and a big frown. A basket of steaming wings kept him company, surrounded by four large mugs of beer. The next thirty minutes passed in quick succession as each of us attempted our best to cheer him up. In the end, he was only slightly more upbeat than before. “Thank you,” he said as he drew us in for hugs. “You ladies are my angels.” After he left, the conversation lulled. “He looks like crap.” Becky plopped her chin on her hand. “Break ups suck,” I conceded. Rachel cleared her throat. “Speaking of which, I have some news.” We leaned in, grateful for a change of topic. “You’re pregnant!” I squealed. I knew it! No wonder they were rushing into a wedding. Heck, now that I thought about it, I wondered if maybe the proposal had been plotted all along. Why, the little sneak! I peered over the ledge of the table to get a sneak peak at her belly, which was still as flat as ever. Life truly wasn’t fair. “No, you dork. I have some news about the whole lawsuit with Kyle.” “Ohh,” Becky and I chorused. Well, at least I wouldn’t have to be hunting for any baby booties in the near future, or arranging a baby shower. Wedding planning was demanding enough without the additional hassle of a child on the precipice of arriving out of wedlock. “When are we pouncing?” I asked, suddenly business. In all the recent chaos, I’d forgotten all about the plan. “I’m ready whenever you are.” “Well, there’s a slight change in plan.” Rach animatedly filled us in on her recent findings, emphasizing her quick wits and investigative skills at every corner possible. When she finished, she turned to me. “Ready to rock n roll?” The ride home didn’t take but ten minutes, and soon we snuck past mom’s closed bedroom door—the lights were out— and into my room. “Okay,” I said, once we’d settled in on my bed. “Remember, no noise. Otherwise we’ll be busted. Kapeesh?” “Kapeesh.” Beck and Rach said solemnly, but I could see the glimmer of excitement in their eyes and all of a sudden, I was my teenage self, making prank calls to long-time crushes and ex-boyfriends. “Who is this?” Kyle’s sleep-ridden voice rang through my cell phone speaker. I’d blocked my number to make sure he didn’t recognize me on caller ID. “Mr. Donahue? This is Rachel Parker’s attorney, Marilyn Pink” I said in my best nasal voice. “I have some news you’ll be interested in.” Kyle cleared his throat. “Isn’t it illegal to call people on Sundays?” I gave a wry chuckle. “Teaching me the law, eh, Mr. Donahue? Tell you what, I’ll call back tomorrow. Guess you’re not as eager as I’d thought to hear about the barrel of quicksand you’ve just stepped your way into. Good night.” “Wait!” Kyle lowered his voice. “I mean, since we’re already talking, we might as well get this sorted out.” “Ah, so you’re not a hundred percent imbecile Ms. Parker makes you out to be, I see.” Rach grabbed a hot-pink fuzzy décor pillow and held it over her mouth to stifle a giggle. “Get to the point Ms. Pink. Whatchya got?” “Well,” I grabbed the notebook in front of me and rustled the papers against the speaker. “In looking at my documents here Mr.Donahue. I have proof that Ms. Parker was added to your American Express as an authorized signer back in October of last year, which means that your accusation of the charges being fraudulent are false.” “I never added her!” Kyle said. “Well, sir. If you go back to your credit records, you’ll see that you granted them authorization to send her a card. In fact, her first transaction is listed right here as being a purchase from…Grayson Janitorial Supplies? A bioenzymatic digester? Sound familiar Mr. Donahue?” Kyle cursed. “Tell you what. You drop the lawsuit altogether, and my client, out of goodwill, will not countersue you for false accusations and emotional distress, among other things; however, do be forewarned, Mr. Donahue, that should you decide to proceed further with other charges, we will take you and your business for every last penny.” Becky, Rach and I waited. I could hear Kyle breathing erratically, as though he were a frustrated bull locked up in a cage, a red bandana lolling outside. “You can’t do that!” “Well, sir, if that’s a challenge, I accept. As I understand it, my client performed tasks for your business for two years without any compensation, yet you’ve claimed her as an employee on your tax records.” “Hot damn.” “I’m afraid it doesn’t end there, Mr. Donahue. With what I’ve scrounged up so far, I’m sure we can pin a few more charges on you for good measure. And given the current profit you’re claiming for your business, by the time you’re through paying attorney’s fees, you’ll probably have to file bankruptcy.” “Jesus almighty! Fine. OK. It’s not like winning the damned lawsuit would help me wheedle any money out of that conniving thing, anyway. At her salary, I’d have to wait a year before I’d see a penny.” Rach lunged forward, but Beck smothered her mouth just in time. “And you damned attorneys aren’t so cheap, either,” Kyle continued. “I’m dropping the charges. Just…just tell her to forget it all. Bury the damned hatchet and let’s move on with our lives.” “I’ll need something in writing from your attorney, Mr. Donahue.” “I’ll take care of it tomorrow.” “Have it faxed to me by nine a.m., otherwise I’ll be seeing you in court.” I rattled off the fax number that Rach had supplied and hung up. “Marilyn Pink? Really? Let me guess, the Marilyn Monroe poster over there and the pink pillow?” Rach asked. But she was smiling and the look of relief on her face was unmistakable. “You’re welcome,” I scowled. “Wow, Liz. You really should consider acting,” Beck said, looking completely stunned. “For a moment, I was convinced you had a secret degree in criminal justice.” I blew my nails, polishing them on my blouse. “Yeah, well, one can say I have a few hidden talents.” “Yeah, the rest of them you bare for the world,” I thought I heard Rach mutter. I snatched a brush off my dresser and pulled it through my hair before binding it in a ponytail. My cheekbones had taken on their hollow look again and a sense of pride fluttered through me at the vast progress I’d made in my dieting regimen. Truth be told, I’d been so preoccupied with John lately that I really hadn’t had much of an appetite. I spun on my heels and clapped. “OK, now that we’ve dusted that mess away, next order of business is…” “Wedding planning!” Rach and Becky shouted. And within a few seconds, we transported our minds to happier thoughts of veils, garters and diamond bands. But not before we located Kyle’s address on the internet and egged his home rotten. Chapter 25 I got my mind set on you Becky “Mmm. Perfect.” Rach closed her eyes, relishing the dollop of whipped cream she’d just dipped into her mouth. She extended her fork to me. “Have a bite.” I obediently took a small bite and nodded my approval. The cake was indeed very decadent and soft, with creamy whipped cream and lush strawberries folded between layers of moist vanilla cake. “That’s, like, a thousand calories a spoonful.” Liz grimaced and squirmed away from the table. “It’s not going to jump up and bite you,” Rach frowned. “No many ca-o-ee. Freh foo. Freh ingredient. All healthy.” A petite Asian store clerk emerged from behind the bakery counter and waved a broom at Liz. “You try. Too skinny like broom. Men lie meat.” “My man’s vegetarian,” Liz sniffed. “He, you ty dee one,” the woman shoved a plate of something cakey and milky under Liz’s nose and I could swear my sister stopped breathing. “And bride, I gee you discount. You no worry.” Rach nodded absently as she reached across and dug her fork into this newly proffered treat, taking a generous heaping, then moaning appreciatively. It was mid June, only three weeks from the wedding and she was still scrambling to book vendors. With every day that passed, my anxiety increased, making me feel claustrophobic, but my dear sister, waltzing in late each night after her rendezvous with Alex, a complacent smile and faraway look on her face, didn’t seem the least bit bothered. I wondered why they didn’t just elope. It was obvious she wasn’t interested in planning a wedding. When I asked her this, she looked at me like I’d asked her to marry a tree. “Do you want to see me die before thirty?” she asked. “Because mom would definitely have my neck on a noose. Plus, Alex wants a wedding.” Normally, I would have been excited to wholeheartedly partake in the decisions, but today, a strange weariness crept over me, making it difficult to focus on anything at all. Today my mind was completely occupied with thoughts of Dr. Greene. In the past week, I’d barely heard from him. No doubt I myself had been absorbed in getting into the full swing of things at my new job, but I was immediately surprised when Monday, nearly a week ago, we didn’t say our usual goodnight. I’d waited till ten that night, the time that Dr. Greene usually tucked in and was ready for our hour-long chat, but by 10:30, my patience ran thin and I called him. No answer. I left a voicemail, then waited another thirty minutes. Just as I was about to give up and go to bed, my phone buzzed with a text. Sorry, sweetheart. Really tired. Catch up later? I suppressed my disappointment and replied back with a cheery: Absolutely! No worries. Sweet dreams. XOXO The next night, I’d waited anxiously again, only to get a similar cursory message: Blackman’s mom called. Long story, catch you up later. Really exhausted. Hope you understand? Love you. The rest of the week passed in a flurry of comparable excuses. Last night, when suspicion completely stole over my thoughts, I’d paid a surprise visit to Dr. Greene. Behind the door, I could hear him in intense conversation with someone on the phone. As he drew closer, he paused, then, “Listen, I’ll call you back in an hour.” The door swung open. “What a great surprise,” he tugged me to his chest, and instantly my defenses and suspicions scampered out the door behind me. “So you’ve been pretty busy, lately, huh?” I said once we were in the kitchen, fixing a snack and pouring sodas. Was it me or did his back just stiffen? “Yeah. You know how crazy it can be sometimes around this time of year. School’s about to wrap up but there’s always so much left to do.” I snuck a glance around his living room. Tidy as always. Not a thing out of place. I don’t know why I expected to find a stray pair of Victoria’s Secret panties on his couch, or maybe a lone earring on the kitchen counter. Though I would have loved to stay longer, I didn’t. As we’d snuggled down, munching on popcorn and sipping soda, watching the latest episode of Scandal, there was a heavy tension in the air. For the first time in his presence, I felt like an unwanted guest. So I collected my things and excused myself, pretending that I had a ton of errands still pending for Rachel’s wedding. To my surprise and disappointment, Dr. Greene didn’t force me to stay. Today all day, I’d sneaked peaks at my phone, but it remained quiet, the screen devoid of notifications or missed calls. My mind remained in a faraway place while the Asian lady and Rach bargained back and forth before finally settling on a number and working out the details of the cake. As we gathered to leave, I took one last forlorn glance at my comatose phone before slipping it into my purse. “Don’t look so sad. There’s always more cake for next time.” I did a double take. “What are you doing here?” Dr. Greene waved to the Asian lady and she nodded her head in understanding before disappearing around the counter. Dr. Greene settled into a chair and looked up at me. “I was invited by the bride-to-be herself. Don’t tell me all the fun is already over.” Rach nodded, a smile playing at her lips. What the heck was going on? When had Rach invited Dr. Greene for cake testing? And why hadn’t she told me? I looked between the two of them, then realized that even Liz seemed completely at ease with this “surprise,” which meant that she’d known too? Before my thoughts could swirl completely out of control, Dr. Greene tugged me to my feet and escorted me to the back of the bakery to the balcony, where wrought iron tables and chairs were spread out before a spectacular fountain view. The sound of rushing water and scenery of radiant sun calmed me, and I breathed in deep before facing Dr. Greene. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve been feeling very uneasy lately,” I said. Dr. Greene pulled me down into a nearby chair and we both looked out onto the view of the running fountain. “I know. And you have every reason to,” he said. “I haven’t exactly been very honest with you. But I thought I’d be in my best interest to wait.” Blood rushed to my face and my heartbeat quickened. So he was hiding something from me—it hadn’t been my imagination after all. “But you have to trust me when I say that I was coming from a good place.” I shook my head. “Nothing…I…it doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand what’s going on. How is it that you’ve been avoiding my phone calls for the last few weeks but all of a sudden Rachel calls you for some random cake tasting and you show up? I don’t get it.” The Asian lady pushed the door open just then, each of her hands holding a plate with giant slices of cake. She set the cakes down before us without a word and disappeared. “Tres leches. Ever had?” Dr. Greene asked, digging into his slice. I blinked. Here I was, confused and worried about our relationship, and this man was savoring his cake like it was the last slice on all of planet earth. “No,” I replied, pushing the plate toward him. “Not much of a cake person.” He dug his spoon into my plate and took a bite, mmm-ing as he swallowed. “You’re missing out,” he sing sang. I crossed my arms over my chest and tried to remain calm as Dr. Greene engulfed his cake and then started on mine. “Aren’t you going to tell me what’s been going on? Why you’ve been avoiding me?” I demanded. “Of course, darling. But before we get into that, try a bite.” He proffered a spoonful of cake. I started to shake my head, but he got out of his chair and walked toward me, holding the spoon right in front of my lips until I had no choice but to open. A smile played at the corners of his mouth. The cake was soft, milky and absolutely delectable, but I enjoyed it for just a second before a hard object descended on my tongue. I grabbed at a napkin—and spit out the most beautiful diamond ring I had ever laid eyes on. A triple ringed pave with a huge princess diamond in the very center, which at the moment had smudges of icing around it. Dr. Greene got down on his knees and suddenly, everything slammed together in my head and made sense, like a great big jigsaw puzzle that had connected to create one big beautiful picture. “Rebecca, I’d always heard of true love, seen many people experience it, but never did I imagine that I’d be one of those fortunate enough to live it firsthand. When I met you, I knew there was something special about you, and when I got to know you, I knew what; you were made for me. We were made for each other.” The wind rustled against a weeping willow and whispered through my hair. I combed back a strand of hair from my eyes and relished the moment. If there were a more perfect moment in the world, I was sure I wouldn’t live to witness it, because nothing, absolutely nothing, could measure up to this very moment in time. “And now that I realize this,” Dr. Greene continued, “I don’t want to live another moment without you. So, I humbly ask—and please say yes—Rebecca Parker, will you do the honor of marrying me and accompanying me through the remainder of my years in this world?” My eyes stung. Had ever more beautiful words been spoken? From a large window that overlooked the balcony where Dr. Greene and I stood, my sisters watched us. Liz smiled big and nodded. Rachel gave me two thumbs up. “Dr. Greene,” I said with a teasing smile, my voice wobbly, “Not only will I accompany you through the remainder of your years on this earth, but I’ll also haunt you in every lifetime hereafter.” Dr. Greene smiled, a look of relief and pure pleasure crossing through his features. “Darling, I wouldn’t have it any other way.” A tear slipped down my face as Dr. Greene slid the envy-worthy solitaire onto my ring finger. My sisters erupted in applause on the balcony along with the sneaky Asian lady who had obviously helped plot the entire scheme. She was smiling from ear to ear, clearly delighted to have secured prospect clients for an additional wedding, and I wouldn’t have stolen the opportunity from her for anything, just because she’d helped make this moment come to life. Later that evening, Dr. Greene and I sat snuggled between my mom and sisters, sipping wine as we recounted the entire evening and the past few weeks. It all made sense now why he’d been dodging me (busy ring shopping) and why he’d been nervous the other day when I’d shown up unexpectedly at his doorstep (talking to ring designer about completion date—yes, he’d actually gotten it designed!). My mom was beaming throughout the entire tale, twirling her pearls about her neck, and Rach looked pretty darn happy too. Liz, though thrilled, seemed completely distracted, her eyes glazed over as though she were miles away on a different universe. Chapter 26 Happily ever after… ~Liz~ So you’re wondering how it happened to me. The proposal, the grand plan. First off, it’s probably not at all what you’re expecting. Heck, I wasn’t even what I was expecting. While my sisters were picking out bands and DJs and stuffing their mouths with foods from every caterer under the moon, I was scared to death. Yes, that’s right. Scared. Shitless. Because for the first time in my life, I realized that I didn’t know anything about John. Not how much money he made or if he could afford my weekly stash of Sephora cosmetics or even if he puddled a lake of drool in his sleep. But that wasn’t the scariest part. The scariest thing of all was that I realized I didn’t give a flipping damn. I didn’t care if I had to live in a one bedroom apartment down the street from the rundown Kmart at the corner of BumbleFuck and Booneyville, or if I had to sacrifice my collection of (gasp) vintage jewelry or even—even—if I had to sacrifice never spending another penny on a pair of Manolos. In comparison to John’s companionship, these luxuries were suddenly silly and trivial. So I did what any previously scorned, humiliated and shattered woman would do. I stopped seeing him. I stopped answering his calls, stopped meeting him up for midnight funfests and avoided the Mixer like the plague. And it worked quite well for a while, except that I was more miserable and more lonely than ever before. The plan would have worked rather flawlessly. I would have either forgotten all about John (What? A girl can lie.) or died trying. But I would have succeeded one way or another if it hadn’t been for damned Rachel. She and her stupid dinner rehearsal. Did I know she’d invited the entire freaking world—including Alex’s great grandparents, his aunts and uncles and even his dying parakeet (yes, I am kidding about that one) ? Does a deer know when it’s about to be hit by an eighteen wheeler? OK, so maybe that’s not the same thing, but you get my point. Luckily I’d chosen to wear my still-in-tags Ralph Lauren evening gown, which clung to my curves like a second skin. I don’t know why the mood struck that day. Maybe I’d figured that it had been sitting around in my closet collecting dust long enough, maybe I finally felt slim and sexy enough to slip into it, but I like to attribute the decision to instinct. The story sounds so much more romantic that way. A small army of paparazzi had gathered out front of the chapel. I assumed someone had leaked the news of my appearance. They descended on me and my sisters like vultures, and I, glad at the chance to be splayed in a more favorable circumstance than the last time I’d been sought after—right after I’d gained ten pounds and a roll of gut leaked out of the top of my jeans on the front page of Women (with the caption: The way Parker “rolls”) — smiled, posed and displayed myself and my features in the most camera-friendly expressions possible. Inside, the chapel was filled with the animated chatter of friends and family, yet immediately as we entered, my eyes were drawn to John as though he were a magnetic force. I stopped dead in my tracks. John, ever the cool cucumber, prowled toward me, making small talk with a few people along the way, his gaze tickling my face. It was seductive, yet torturous. Exciting, yet excruciating. He stopped when we were only a few feet apart. Rachel had slithered off to Alex and Becky was off to my right, listening to Aunt Margaret preach the benefits of early post-marital pregnancy. Every few sentences, she’d get stuck and her features would contort in confusion as she tried to unstring data and facts from her poor old, muddled brain. Today, she wore a grey pump in one foot and a black peep toe in the other. Her earrings were silver but her bracelets gold. If was ever a soul more lost than Aunt Margaret…well, hell save us all. “Liz Parker. I thought the next time I’d see your face would be in the grocery aisle on the front cover of some girly magazine.” I lifted my chin. “Hello, John.” He grasped my elbow and guided me out, smiling pleasantly at a few elderly women as he spoke through gritted teeth. “A word with you in private, please.” “I have nothing to say.” My voice wavered just a tad, but I held my back straight and didn’t resist when John pushed my back against an isolated corner decorated with floral patterned wallpaper that must have been laid circa 1893. It was so dated, I could practically smell the dust bunny mummies. “You’ve been ignoring me.” “So you’ve noticed.” “My calls, my texts, me in the flesh.” “What do you want, John?” He moved his face in a few inches till our lips were centimeters apart. Thank God I’d had the sense to push an Altoids through my teeth right before we’d arrived. “I want to know why my girlfriend is all of a sudden ignoring me. I want to know what happened. What did I do wrong?” “Nothing.” John pulled his head back and gave me a puzzled look. “So…” “So nothing. I just need some space.” “Space?” “Yeah.” He paused and examined my face. Then nodded . “Ok. Yeah. Space. Got it. No rhyme. No reason. No explanation. Just space.” I held my breath. I wanted to have him. I wanted him back, but my stubborn ego was too damned proud to utter the words. So this was it. I was an idiot. A moron. The idiot who ran after gay men and begged them to marry me, but turned away attractive straight men when they chased me. “Thank you,” I barely managed to whisper before I whisked out of the chapel and into the evening. My heels clacked against the bricked pavement. I didn’t know where I was going. I let my feet do the leading. The tears burned my eyes and I hugged my arms around myself, thankful that the paparazzi seemed to have fled, probably figuring we’d be busy at least for a few good hours. “Liz!” I spun around. John held out something. A box. A small black velvet box. My breath caught in my throat. I forced my brain to calm down. There could be a number of things in that box. A necklace, a bracelet, a brooch. A…a… “I guess I can return this then?” He came forward and pried the box open. Inside gleamed a brilliant princess cut diamond flanked by two smaller diamonds in a pavee setting. It was elegant, rich and so…me. “John,” I breathed. “I was going to propose tonight. After rehearsal.” He took a few steps closer and snapped the box closed. “Haven’t been able to sleep. Wanted to make it perfect for you. I thought we wanted the same thing. I thought…I thought we loved each other.” “I — ” “He held up a finger. Just…let me finish. I don’t know what you’re looking for in life, Liz. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong or what’s pushed you away from me. I don’t know if you love me. I don’t know what you want in a man. But if you’ll give me a chance. I promise to make it right. I promise to be him. The man you can love. I promise to give you everything you want. Anything you ask for, it’ll be yours. I’ll never let you ache for anything. Just…just one chance.” I started to cry. Hot tears rolled down my face. “That’s just it. You don’t understand, John. I’ve never…this is really hard to say. But here goes. I’ve never, ever been in love with anyone, ever before.” I twirled my diamond charm around my wrist and willed the courage to look him in the eyes. “But that changed when I met you. I’ve been hurt before. And I don’t want to trust and be hurt again. So —” “So you ran. You ran because you’re scared. You ran because you didn’t want to risk your heart. Because you didn’t think we were worth a shot.” “Sounds silly now, but yes. Yes, I ran.” I looked at him. Sincerity shone in his eyes mixed with love and hurt. And I instantly regretted being the cause of that hurt. “So, what? You plan on spending the rest of your life alone? Because you never want to trust anyone? Because you never want to take a chance at something that could be beautiful?” I opened my mouth and closed it again. My one fear in life had been solitude. Yet now, that’s exactly what I was pushing myself toward. “What’s the worst that can happen, Liz?” I laughed. “Well, you could turn gay and stand me up at the altar.” He smiled and took my hands in his. “Never. Not even in your worst nightmares.” “You could cheat on me.” He tilted his head to the side. Then shook his head. “If everyone stopped making decisions because of what-ifs, the world would cease to exist. And to answer that, I wouldn’t dare do that to the future mother of my children.” I looked down. “Oh, wait. You do want children, right?” A feeling stole over me. A feeling I’ve never before experienced. A powerful yearning, a love, a desire. For John, for a family I could call my own. For more little Johns. How could I resist baby Johns? More love, more happiness? Who in their crazy mind would ever say no to that? “Yes,” I sniffed, then giggled. “I would love children. Your children. Our children. As long as I can join the gym and use whatever lotion preggos use to prevent stretch marks.” John blinked rapidly and licked his lips. “So wait. I’m confused. You want kids, but we’re not getting married?” “No. I mean yes.” “To what? The kids or marriage?” “Both!” I laughed. John looked puzzled. “So yes or no? To the marriage and kids?” I covered my mouth and laughed. “Yes.” John broke out in a grin and two dimples appeared, making him look absolutely adorable. Then he snapped the box open once again and dropped to his knees. “So, um, this isn’t exactly the way I imagined this happening, but then nothing where you’re concerned seems to be typical, Liz Parker. Looks like we’ll be needing this after all since you’ve decided to give this old bloke a shot. So, let’s try this the right way. Elizabeth Parker, will you do the honor of being my wife and risking your heart to me for the rest of our days left on this earth?” My left hand wavered as I offered it in John’s hand. “Yes, yes, yes. I would love nothing more.” He straightened to his feet and gave me a long, hard hug. “Nothing more,” I repeated. ***** And then I freaked. What if he realized what a huge mistake he was making and freaked and decided to break up with me? I searched high and low for halls that would be available ASAP—with no luck. The more I waited, the more I’d risk John coming to his senses. Fortunately, John had no desire for an outrageous wedding. In fact, he was focused more on honeymoon planning than anything else. So I handled the wedding details and managed to persuade Becky to share her reception hall with me. She had it for four hours and would probably use only an hour and a half, if even that. As luck would have it, two weeks later, the banquet hall Rach had supposedly “booked” fell through. Apparently, her deposit check had bounced and another more fortunate couple who was also searching last-minute snatched up the vacancy and had willingly paid twice the amount Rach had for the same booking. And that is how today came to be. In the corner of the bathroom, my mom began to come to her senses. I ignored Rach and straightened my veil, then examined my torn dress. “I’ve got needles and thread in my car. Lucky for you, I headed straight here from my meeting with Mrs. Larson. I’m doing the drapes for her master bedroom,” my cousin said. “Be right back.” “What about my dress?!” Rach whined. A felt a stab of guilt, even though this was totally not my fault. If Rach hadn’t made all those smart alack comments… I took a deep breath. “Rach, listen, I’m sorry. I’m just a bit—“ “Stressed. I know. Me too. This damned wedding has taken every ounce of my patience.” She dabbed a wet napkin against her dress, making the black smear even more. “If I have to hear anyone dish their opinion on peonies or whatever they’re called or force a morsel of anything down my throat, I will throw up on them.” She stopped the dabbing and put a hand to her forehead. “We really know how to fuck it up don’t we?” “Huh?” She laughed. “Me and you. I mean look at us. We’re about to get married, the biggest day of our lives, and we’ve managed to ruin our clothes, mess up our hair and make mom unconscious.” “A fart will make mom unconscious.” “Ain’t that the truth.” Twenty minutes later, with the aid of her three sisters, my mother finally came to her senses just as Melissa bustled through the door with a sewing kit small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Lisa shuffled in closely behind her, probably having heard about the commotion through the grapevine (or likely Melissa), grasping a beautiful stark-white wedding gown. “I bought two when I got married,” she huffed breathlessly. “Couldn’t decide which one I wanted, so I kept both.” “Oh darling,” my mother bustled over looking relieved, the color having finally returned to her face. “You’ll look lovely in this.” And to be fair, she was right. In another ten minutes, we were taking our turns down the aisles, veils repaired and dresses swapped. I went first, of course. The crowd oohed as I stepped forth. My dad smiled kindly at me as he linked my arm through his, eyes shining bright with pride and tears. I gave him a smile and lifted my chin high as the wedding march struck up and I glided down the aisle, rows of heads moving in unison with my progression. I was acutely aware of the electricity in the air. The awe and admiration in the eyes of those around me. Not a soul breathed, it seemed. But as I got closer to John, the world around me began to fade. He looked strikingly gorgeous in a tailor-made black suit, like he’d just stepped away from a photoshoot for Men’s Health or GQ. It might have been his looks and charm that had drawn me to him initially, but his personality captivated my heart — hook, line and sinker. I was still amazed about the feelings he’d awakened within me. A depth of emotion I never knew existed swept through me as he lifted my veil. My breath caught in my throat at the intensity in his gorgeous eyes and I barely comprehended a word I uttered as I repeated my vows. We kissed deeply at the end of them, and the crowd’s thunderous applaud jolted me to my senses, making me aware of my surroundings. I blushed as John and I released, then took our places toward the side as Alex moved to center stage. A moment later, a woman I barely recognized stepped forth in the doorway. My jaw nearly hit the floor and a sense of mixed jealousy and pride rolled through my body. There stood a completely transformed Rachel in stunning, white, off-shouldered gown that clearly showcased her delicate shoulder bones and enviable neckline. Her hair seemed to have been pulled back delicately in a half pony with loose tendrils framing her face. The back, I noticed as she closed the distance and Alex lifted her veil, was curled into large, sexy, voluminous bunches. No doubt by one the day’s fairy godmothers, Mellisa or Lisa. I could tell the guests were almost as enamored with her as they had been by me (Of course, I take the cake. No true comparison, realistically speaking.) Once Rach and Alex exchanged vows, staring at each other with googly-eyes throughout it all, they shuffled off to the other side of the stage and the wedding march struck up for the last time. The audience cast their attention to the entrance once again, and Becky, looking absolutely wow (guess she didn’t look so much like a marshmallow after all—at least from all the way here) glided down the aisle with my dad, who was now unashamedly dabbing at his eyes with a dark hankie. As he and Becky slipped past my mom, I noticed that she was staring. And not at Becky. Her gaze was focused on my…father. A few stray tears slide down her cheeks and she dabbed at them carefully with a tissue, then sniffed, her eyes never wavering from him. Later, at the new venue, our friends and family took turns toasting each of us newlyweds.. We laughed at their jokes, smiled as they wished us well, and on occasion, I admit, even shed a few tears at their heartfelt kindness. It was a magical night. And despite how only a few days ago I’d been worried about sharing this special moment with two other people, by the end of the night as the three of us took center stage and danced our feet off at Worth it by Fifth Harmony, I realized I wouldn’t have it any other way. I laughed as John dipped me and the photographer (no, not Anthony, but a different, more talented older gentleman who Rach had snagged off Craigslist), snapped a picture of us. I was here with the people I loved the most, who meant the most to me, and it was, though I’d die before I’d ever admit it, nice to see them all glow in their own happiness while I did in mine. When it came time for the bouquet toss, Rach, Beck and I climbed to the circular stairway to the top story of the reception hall, where we each took turns throwing our bouquets to the gaggle of ecstatic and eager women below. Jane, caught Rachel’s, a thrilled Aunt Mary caught Becky’s and, you’ll never guess who caught mine. My mom. She blushed and threw a coy look at my dad, who winked and crooked his mouth into a sideways grin making me want to throw up the braised chicken I’d indulged in just moments earlier. The two sisters grappled each other’s hands, squealing and jumping up and down like schoolgirls, making me wonder if perhaps the Parker family had yet to see more joint weddings in the distant future. If that wasn’t strange enough, at near midnight, just as John was hustling me away from the herd of drunk guests still partying away on the dance floor and toward our wedding suite, I caught my parents in the lobby bar, staring deeply into each other’s eyes over two glasses of champagne. Maybe they were drunk, maybe they were bored, maybe I was hopeful, but this much I can tell you: That night as I was enjoying every moment of my wedding night, one of the rooms at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta was seeing a lot of action from a former Mr. and Mrs. Parker. I’m pleased to say, however, that they were the least of my thoughts at nearly three a.m. when John and I finally called it a night. As we spooned, still naked and dewy from our exertion, his arms wrapped gently around me. I massaged his left hand in my right and felt the hard metal of his wedding ring. A smiled big and a swell of something now more familiar and welcome stole over my heart: Love. Because, after all, I’d finally found my Romeo.


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