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#SampleSunday: The Ex-Files Chapter 18

Finally! I’ve sorted out the plot thorniness that has been plaguing me since January and here’s a shiny new chapter for those of you who haven’t drifted away with better things to do. For anyone new to The Ex-Files, this is the deal: my daughter is getting married in August. I owe her a nice wedding since I’ve been a total Turtle Mom her whole life. My Once Upon a Wedding books are helping to finance her nice, modest, nearly-200 guest wedding (and The Fairy Tale Bride is 99 cents until the end of August for the wedding sale). I’m also finishing The Ex-Files in her honor, because she asked me to (six years ago, when she was in the Peace Corps in Madagascar, but let’s not quibble over time…you know what the Mayans said about 2012). Anyone who needs a refresher can click on the category The Ex-Files on the right sidebar. That will get you to the past chapters.

The Ex-Files Chapter 18

Emily had showed up for Sunday morning bagels without Phil. Again. I didn’t ask because she was in the mood for a fight and I wasn’t. She took one look at the pictures I had spread across the coffee table and said, “Can’t you skip one?”

“If she skipped one, it should have been Henry, not this guy.” Nick seemed a little grumpy this morning. He had slammed down the bagels as if they were a declaration of war instead of a peace offering.

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#SampleSunday – The Ex-Files: Chapter 17

Happy New Year!

Can you believe it? I’m actually putting up a new chapter! I know. I’ve been MIA for most of December. The holidays are like that for me. Too much to do, not enough time.

And then comes January 1st. A new year, a new set of resolutions. First one: finish up the The Ex-Files! I’ve learned a lot putting up my backlist books, and in order to have The Ex-Files on drafted, polished, edited, formatted and up for sale by August, I’m going to need to finish the draft in February (thank goodness there’s an extra day — 2012 is a Leap Year).

For anyone new to The Ex-Files, this is the deal: my daughter is getting married in August. I owe her a nice wedding since I’ve been a total Turtle Mom her whole life. My Once Upon a Wedding books are helping to finance her nice, modest, nearly-200 guest wedding (and The Fairy Tale Bride is 99 cents until January 7th for the Backlist Ebooks sale). I’m also finishing The Ex-Files in her honor, because she asked me to (five years ago, when she was in the Peace Corps in Madagascar, but let’s not quibble over time…it’s a new year and you know what the Mayans said about 2012).

My second resolution for the new year is daughter and wedding-related as well: my transformation from overly round sweatpants-loving Turtle Mom to elegant Mother-of-the-Bride. I have eight months. I hope it’s enough time.

Naturally, I’ll be updating everyone as to the progress. I’m choosing Wednesdays as wedding updates. I’m going to call it the Turtle Mom Wedding Whinesday. I’ll be going low-carb eating and high-impact exercise. There will be pain. And tears. Let’s hope I do my daughter proud at the end of it all.

Now, enjoy a new chapter of The Ex-Files in honor of the new year (you can catch up on the first sixteen chapters here).

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Ryan Parker

Chef, 33

Top Score: Good with kids – 10

Bottom Score: job – 4

Ryan smiled at me. “This was a good idea. I haven’t been out of the kitchen in forever.”

I know. That’s why we broke up.”

His hand tightened on my knee in a gesture I took as an apology. “I still miss you.”

My heartbeat sped up, but I applied the reality breaks. “When? In the five minutes between when your head hits the pillow and you fall asleep exhausted from cooking every waking hour?”

You once said you loved a man whose work was his passion and whose passion was his work.”

That was before I realized that you only have one passion in your life.” When I looked into his eyes, I couldn’t help but hold my breath and wish for him to tell me he’d learned he needed to make room for me between the pate and the steak au poivre.

He shrugged. “Business is a tough mistress. If I take my attention away from the restaurant for a moment, it will fail. And then where will I and my passion be?”

I remembered then, why I finally said goodbye. “Flipping burgers.” I kissed him. On the cheek, all my reignited feelings swirling down into a muddy affection encircled by a permanent hurricane fence with a big yellow caution sign. “You are much too talented for burgers.”

So, you think we may have a shot, now that you understand?” There was a gleam of hope in his eyes that made my stomach twist in regret. “I really do miss making eggs Diana on Sunday morning.”

I’d been so caught up in my own feelings that I hadn’t thought about his at all. He missed me. He really missed me.

I stood up. “Oops. Fire is going cold.” I poked around in the embers and threw in a few sticks, until the fire blazed up again.

When I turned around, I could see just past the casual smile he gave me to the very lonely and disappointed person inside. I knew that feeling well. It did not make me happy that I’d carelessly reopened the relationship box, only to slam the lid down on his feelings.

I’m sorry.”

He waved his hand and looked up at the sky. “No need. I knew this was just for an article.” He smiled sadly. “You have your passion, just as I have mine.”

# # #

Nothing? Not even a spark?” Olivia frowned. Her disappointment was clear.

Oh, there was a spark. He’s a great guy. He’s just married to his job. I want a guy who will be there when I need him.”

Olivia raised her eyebrows. “How naïve of you. After you’ve been married once or twice, you’ll realize that a man who can amuse himself is much easier than one who likes to stay underfoot.”

I laughed. “I only plan to be married once.”

Ah.” I had surprised her speechless. Very unusual.

Tandy stepped into the silence with her own harsh laugh. “Give me a busy man who pays the bills and has good life insurance any day.”

I looked at her, and couldn’t resist a jab. “Well, then, you shouldn’t be looking at Nick then. His work is sporadic and his idea of life insurance is wearing his seatbelt.”

It was a mistake. I could see the way she took my words and straightened up like I’d dared her to go after him. I’d forgotten that competitive streak that had made her go after every lead article, including mine.

She smiled at me, a look of pity mingled with joy. “That’s how he is around you, Diana. If I got hold of him, he’d be the new flavor of Photographic Monthly. And he’d have a million dollar policy.”

Olivia nodded. “He is good. I especially love these shots.” She put her laster pointer on the picture Nick had captured of Ryan and I standing by the fire, right after we’d realized a reunion wasn’t going to work. Ryan’s face had a distant, hungry look. My expression suggested I had just gotten off a Tilt a Whirl and was trying hard not to be sick.

He’s not good. He’s great.” I made a mental note to make sure I paid attention to where Nick was at all times. Otherwise, the world was going to know more about me than even my best friends knew.

#SampleSunday: The Ex-Files Chapter 11

Time for another installment of The Ex-Files. I’m feeling like I need to push the envelope a little, but instead I’m playing it safe. I usually have this problem when I’m drafting a novel, but I don’t usually share my chapters so early. Since I am, I think it could be wise to get a little help on pushing Diana into personal insights on her tendency to nitpick relationships to death.  If you have some suggestions on how to get Diana further out of her comfort zone, please offer them.

OBLIGATORY STATEMENT: This is part of  the wedding promotion. I promised my daughter I would finish this chicklit novel (begun while she was in Madagascar in the Peace Corps, and mailed to her chapter by chapter…until chicklit died and I turned to writing my YA novel The Salem Witch Tryouts). She is now home, has earned a Master’s Degree in Public Health from the University of Michigan, and is engaged. So, really, I owe her.

Brief recap of the premise of The Ex-Files: Emily is a young woman with a life plan, who hits thirty without making her milestone of getting married. Her friends say she’s too picky and that she probably overlooked Mr. Right because he folds his socks wrong. Her boss says, “That would make a great story — write it.” So Emily is required to revisit her 7 longest relationships to see if she overlooked Mr. Right. And write about it for a national magazine. With the moral support of her two best friends, Emily is about to reexamine everything she ever thought was a must-have quality in her Mr. Right.

If you missed a chapter, you can catch up here:

The Ex-Files, Chapter One The Ex-Files, Chapter Two The Ex-Files, Chapter Three The Ex-Files, Chapter Four The Ex-Files, Chapter Five The Ex-Files, Chapter Six The Ex-Files, Chapter Seven The Ex-Files, Chapter Eight The Ex-Files, Chapter Nine The Ex-Files, Chapter Ten

 

Enjoy!

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Breakfast on the hotel balcony was just about romantic-movie perfect. Not too chilly, no splash of yellow in Henry’s egg white omelette.

Except for one persistent pigeon, and Nick, the morning foretold another great day for rekindling romance.

So, what have you planned for today?”

Henry’s question was casual, but I tensed inside. The bar was now set so high that a sea-salt scrub and a picnic in Central Park might not elicit the gleam that had lit his eyes last night.

Fortunately, the suite’s phone rang, and I escaped without answering.

The voice on the phone was smooth, polite, and solicitous. “What time will you be requiring your picnic lunch basket delivered?”

What time? The simple decision left me speechless. What if I chose a time too early? Too late?

Ma’am?”

Noon.” Can’t go wrong with noon. Unless it was too predictable?

Very good, ma’am.” Was that a hint of condescension? From the hotel staff?

Nick sat on the couch, organizing his case of lenses. “You better get ready, or you’ll be late for the spa appointment.”

Oh ye of little cash.” I wagged my finger at him. “They’ll come to us.”

He laughed softly in appreciation of the convenience. “Sweet.” He frowned at his lenses, and swapped out one for the other. “I’ll only need this baby, then. Until we hit the park.”

Shh.” I glanced to wear Henry sat sipping coffee on the balcony. “I haven’t told him yet.”

Worried about disappointing him, now that he’s having such a grand time?”

Nonsense. This is an assignment.”

He smiled. “Then why are you twisting your hair around your index finger again? I haven’t seen you do that since you kicked Henry to the curb.”

Crap. He was right. “I’m worried about disappointing Olivia if you must know.” Much safer to admit that small truth than the larger one. I’d climbed right back on the Please Henry at Any Cost Train. It was like I’d never jumped off.

He didn’t say anything for a moment, just lifted his camera and took a few snaps of me in my hair twirling misery.

Stop that. I haven’t even showered.”

He grinned. “You should, it’s a pretty great shower.”

Nick was right. It was a pretty great shower. By the time I’d done all the scrubbing, rinsing and repeating, the bathroom was filled with steam and the two masseuses were set up in the dining room and ready for work.

Henry was still in his robe. Being a man, he had not felt the need to shower and scrub before a sea scrub massage. After all, we’d have to shower again when they were through with us.

He seemed pleased at the sight of the two well-muscled and scrub-wearing professionals. His eyes swept over the supplies they had laid out, and a tiny frown appeared between his eyebrows. “Sea scrub, hmmm, not mud?”

And so it begins,” Nick murmured as he knelt to get the masseuses from an angle. “Hope you don’t lose as much hair as last time.”

Sea scrub is all the rage.” This was true, but it was futile. Henry disappointed was not likely to be convinced by the opinions of others.

He waved his hand, as if to dismiss my attempt to apology – not that I’d apologized, but clearly he’d taken it as such. “Of course. I can’t complain. I’m being treated like a king.”

Never stopped you before,” Nick murmured quietly as he moved to a new spot in the room.

The sea scrub nearly wiped away all traces of Henry’s disappointment – from my memory, at least. I tipped each of them $50, as Olivia’s assistant had instructed me to do. When Olivia got the bill for this one weekend, would she freak? Would I have to take the rest of my exes for fast food and runs in the park?

Maybe that kind of date would be a true test of whether or not the spark was real, or just VIP-treatment-induced.

After we had showered and dressed, we came out into the living room to discover that the elegantly packed picnic basket had been delivered, along with a tray of bagels, lox, and a silver coffee pot.

Henry’s eyes lit up when he saw the beautifully pink lox, but he frowned at the sight of Nick, shoving a liberally cream cheese slathered bagel into his mouth. “I think that was meant for us.”

Diana is on a low-carb kick. She won’t eat hers.” There was something challenging in the way Nick offered the truth. After all, he could have pointed out there was enough for five people on the tray. Why did he have to bring up my new low carb eating plan?

Really?” Henry looked at me.

The magazine did this article on low-carb, and it seemed like a good idea.”

I thought you were looking a little more trim. Good girl. Don’t want to let the pounds creep on as you get older.”

Nicked finished the last of his bagel and wiped his hands on a linen napkin. “You’re missing out on a great snack.” He grinned. “Isn’t free food naturally calorie and carb free?”

Henry put a thin layer of cream cheese on his bagel. It looked like onion, my favorite. “Leave her alone. She knows what’s important.” He piled lox on his bagel.

Yes. I do.” I gave Nick a squinty evil glare and poured myself a cup of coffee.

He lifted his camera, and murmured, “Twirling.”

I untangled my hair from my index finger and fixed myself an onion bagel, with lots of cream cheese. I ignored Henry’s little sigh of disappointment.

We’re going on a picnic to Central Park,” I announced. I didn’t care if he liked the idea or not.

His eyes lit up, though. “A picnic?” He glanced at the basket. “Packed by this place?” He smiled. “Better than a carriage ride, by far. I didn’t know you had such a romantic streak.”

I started twirling my hair again. I didn’t have a romantic streak. I had a job to do, and I’d done everything I could to create a weekend that would please Henry. And I had pleased him. So well that the rest of our relationship would be a fast slide into street cart gyros and day old donuts.

Henry had his good points, but I didn’t want to live a life of “remember when…?”

I glanced at the ornate clock that sat primly on the mahogany end table next to the couch. Four more hours. Once again untangling my finger from my hair, I lifted the basket. First, the picnic. Then, the goodbye.

#SampleSunday – The Ex-Files, Chapter Nine

Okay. Here’s Chapter Nine of The Ex-Files, as promised to my daughter as part of the wedding promotion. I’m posting late because I had to do this one from my notes.

As I wrote this chapter, I tried to think about what it would feel like to revisit an old romance? Would you wonder why you broke up with the jerk? Or would you wonder why you ever dated him in the first place? I think it would probably be a little of both if the relationship was at all serious. But maybe you have a different opinion. If so, please share.

CHAPTER NINE

Henry ignored Nick. I remembered, then, how often he had ignored Nick when we dated. The two of them just never got along. Tough. This was my job, and they’d both have to suck it up.

When Nick raised the camera to capture Henry’s unhappy frown, I moved just enough to ruin the shot. “Carriage ride is out. I have a job to do, and Nick’s part of that. We’re going to the comedy club.” I left Henry and his now puzzled frown behind as I headed for the curb to hail a cab. I’m pretty sure I heard the snap and whirr as Nick took multiple shots.

I thought he might call it a night. Henry had trouble wrapping his mind around the thought that anyone wouldn’t think his chosen plan brilliant. I was good with having an early night. There was always tomorrow. My job was to see if I’d missed anything, not to slip back into my meek mild role as the woman who said “Yes, Henry.”

I didn’t give in to the urge to look back, but instead locked eyes with a cabbie and gave him my best “pick me up or feel the wrath of Karma” look. He shot over to the curb. A little pulse of power shot through me. I am woman, see me hail a cab.

I reached for the door handle, but Henry got there first. I stepped back to let him open the door. “Thank you.” Was I thanking him just for opening the door, or for following my plan for once? Probably both. I didn’t need him to open the door, but I didn’t mind. Why some women thought it was a man’s job to open car doors always puzzled me. It’s a car door, not an iron castle grate. I slid over to let him get in, too.

I didn’t know you hated carriage rides.” He climbed into the cab, closed the door, and gave a crisp command to the cabbie with the address of the club. “You should have told me.”

His voice was so apologetically un-Henry like that it wasn’t until we pulled away from the curb that I registered we’d ditched Nick. I turned around to see him hailing another cab. He raised the camera to take a picture. I waved. Thank goodness for expense accounts.

The line to get into the club wrapped around the block. Henry scowled. “Are you sure you want to do this? Since you don’t like carriage rides – see, I’ve made note of that now that you told me –“ he grinned. “We could take a walk through Central Park. I know you like that. You used to drag me there every Sunday morning.”

I did like to walk in Central Park. But not at night. Still feeling the pulse of diva power, I shook my head and waved the tickets at him. “VIP.”

He leaned forward to read the ticket. “Whoa. Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” He took the tickets out of my hand and slipped them in his shirt pocket. “You really did go all out for this reunion.” He stared at me as if he’d never seen me before. “I like the star treatment.”

He got out of the cab, and leaned in to help me out. I remembered what had attracted me to Henry – his confidence was like an energy cloud around him. It could make anyone in his vicinity follow his lead without question. He was exuding mega confidence with those tickets in his pocket as he strode past the people in line. Naturally, the people in line were not happy to see us go straight up to the bouncer. They’d probably been waiting in line for hours just to get the chance to grab a table up close to the stage.

I held back a little as the bouncer gave us an unfriendly stare and crossed his arms. Henry smiled widely and flourished the tickets.

I heard a few people in line groan as the bouncer’s attitude instantly turned friendly. He moved the red velvet rope to let us pass. “I feel a little guilty,” I whispered to Henry.

That was always your problem, Diana. Guilt-induced hesitancy. Seize the day, I say.”

He frowned at something behind us and I turned to see Nick getting out of his cab. His eyebrows raised when he saw us and then he grinned as he loped over to catch up.

Do we really need him?”

This is an assignment. Who do you think paid for the tickets?” Technically, they had been a gift to my boss, so it hadn’t really been paid for at all. But, whatever. I could never afford this kind of treatment without an expense account. “If he doesn’t come with, all I can afford is hot dogs and a walk in the park.”

But you planned it. And I must say you’ve done a good job so far. I can’t wait to see what you have planned for tomorrow. I’m very impressed. I didn’t think you had it in you.”

Tomorrow. Fortunately, I didn’t have to answer him. The bouncer cut Nick off, and Henry stopped speaking. I could see he hoped that Nick would be denied entry when the bouncer said curtly, “No cameras.”

I started toward them, wondering if I was going to be stuck in the club alone with Henry – and 300 comedy fans, of course.

He’s with me, we’re on assignment for The Female Eye.” I explained to the bouncer.

He checked his list, and Nick’s temporary magazine badge. “Okay. You’re good. No pictures of the show.”

Not a one,” Nick promised. “I’m focused on these two lovebird VIPs.”

Lovebird? He must be really mad at me for leaving him to catch his own cab.

Henry, however, was so pleased, he even smiled at Nick. It wasn’t a pleasant smile.

By the time we’d found our table, Henry’d gone back to ignoring Nick. Just before he pulled out my chair for me, he took my elbow, and leaned in for a quick kiss. “Never mind about what you have planned for tomorrow. You had me at VIP.”

I sat heavily in the chair, making it awkward when he tried to push me closer to the table. I realized what the VIP tickets meant to him. He thought I wanted him back. Crap.

Nick took that moment to snap a photo of my face. I narrowed my eyes at him in warning. He grinned a grin that told me my face was just a little too transparent for my own good.

Henry, as usual, ignored the presence of a pesky photographer. Or maybe it made him feel extra VIP, because there was a gleam in his eye that told me I’d better keep that Wonder Woman power pulse going. I’d need it to say no when it came time to say goodnight…or not.

#Sample#Sunday: The Ex-Files – Chapter 3

As promised to my daughter (and as part of the extended Wedding Promo), I have begun the process of finishing the abandoned chicklit novel….the only novel of mine she has ever read.

As added incentive, I am participating in the Clarion Write-a-Thon. Please consider supporting a writer (doesn’t have to be me). In fact, I strongly urge you to look at what Victoria Griesdoorn is offering for those who support her efforts to help Clarion fund another round of student-writers. You can win a prize if you sponsor Victoria, which is pretty cool and dedicated. Clarion is a great writer’s workshop, and that six weeks of my life helped shape my writing in ways I could never have imagined before I attended back in ’88.

Comments with critique are welcome, but no promises that I’ll follow anyone’s suggestions, no matter how brilliant. I’m a stubborn writer, to which my various critique partners and editors through the decades can attest.

Please note: This is a draft. There will be typos. Once I’ve finished the novel and revised it, I will: send it out to an editor; ask a cover artist to make a cover; and put it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble for the Kindle and Nook. You’re seeing the raw process behind book creation. If reading an uncooked story makes you squeamish, wait for the fully baked novel to appear at an ebook retailer near you.

If you missed Chapter One, you can find it here (or click on the Ex-Files or #Sample#Sunday tag) and you’ll see just those posts, for easier flow).

Enjoy!

CHAPTER THREE

At noon on Sunday I got my first inkling that last night was not going to go away very easily. Emily waited until she has settled on my sofa with a bagel and a big Mochaberry Latte—and without Phil–before she started. “So? Are you going to take the chance to become a writer or not?“

Six extra-strength aspirin and a double-espresso hadn’t put a dent in my hangover yet. I was not ready for this conversation. Nick’s eyes were closed as he breathed in the steam from the open top of his over-sized mug of chai. No rescue there.

Briefly, I considered pleading a blackout. But Emily would just have filled me in. With embellishment. “All I heard was an offer to rehash my love life for the readership of The Female Eye.”

Emily smiled sympathetically, but shook her head. “Diana, this is the opening you’ve dreamed of. This idea is hot enough to be a cover if you play it right. And it’s all yours.” It dawned on me, reluctantly, that she could be right. As hostess, she naturally didn’t drink as much as the rest of us. As my friend, she also recognized something I missed. Or didn’t want to see. The book was mine and no one could make me give it to Tandy. I had leverage. But did I want to use it?

How? Putting my love life on parade for the readers of a magazine devoted to women and their constant pursuit of goddess-hood? I don’t think so. Besides, she’d assign a staff writer—she said so last night.”

She told you she’d give you an assignment when you came to her with something only you could write.” Emily gestured with her bagel, threatening my gray leather upholstery with cream cheese. “I would say this is it. Not to mention the fact that it’s cheaper than therapy and you might find out why no one ever lives up to your standards.”

Nick interjected over his mug of chai at last. “Personally, I’d rather take a close-up of myself without my stomach sucked in than revisit my past loves.“

I agreed with him, but Emily had that stubborn look that meant she has no intention of dropping the subject. “If you got this assignment, wouldn’t it mean you’re that much closer to your goal? How many ideas have you floated past her Diana? How many great ideas has she handed over to Tandy. This one you control. It’s all in your little book. Ergo, this is an article only you can write. Olivia Wallace has to give this to you.”

Why me? Am I the only one who’s had a little trouble finding Mr. Right? I don’t see a ring on Tandy’s finger.” Tandy isn’t 30 yet, but since that argument might hurt my case, I sensibly refrained from admitting it.

Emily sighed as if dealing with a cantankerous child. “You’re the only one who’s kept such a detailed book!”

I don’t want to believe she’s right. If she is–if this is the way for me to meet my goal—can I really pass it up? Just because I would rather sit naked in a graveyard at Halloween being visited by all the famous ghosts of fiction—including Marley with his rusty chains and rotting flesh—than see any of my exes again? “I’m not even sure I think there’s any such thing as a Mr. Right, never mind an article only I can write. I’d settle for an intelligent man and an intelligent subject.”

I think of myself as very focused. Always have, ever since I was a little girl saving my nickels for a Barbie head to make up, style and curl to my heart’s content. Not that I wanted to be a hairdresser. No. My sights were set higher. But I liked the idea of trying out “dos” and looks on Barbie. Somehow it was easier to see what worked better on her disembodied head rather than on my own. Especially after I dyed her hair to match my own red shade. Could Emily be right? Was I not only potentially turning my back on Mr. Right, but also on the opportunity to write a cover article for The Female Eye?

Why not you? Isn’t that the question you should be asking? Maybe this is your purpose? Your destiny? The reason you were born with the unnatural ability to make such comprehensive To-Do lists.” A blob of cream cheese flew off Emily’s bagel onto the floor and she leaned down to scoop it up with her thumb.

Nick’s eyes opened at that outrageous claim. “Are you suggesting she might be the Ghandi of eligible women everywhere? She should give up her privacy? For what? To convince other women to scrap their standards and settle for the nearest approximation to a decent guy they find?”

How many people do you know who have documentation on every person they ever even thought of dating? She was born to do this. Besides, it will be fun-and if she writes it, she can make herself sound as intelligent, witty, and attractive as she wants. She’ll have to beat the Mr. Rights off with a stick.“

Fun?“ Nick was no more convinced than I, so I let them fight my internal battle. Because ever since last night all I could think was what if I did let the right man slip away, just because he wasn’t reliable at taking out the trash?

Well, fun in a painful, self revelatory way. Not that it is any surprise you don’t understand. The three of you,”—she had unconsciously included the absent Phil I noted—“think you can’t get serious unless the other person is perfect. Love is never about perfection, just about getting as close as possible. Do you have any idea how hard it is to live with someone who chooses to believe you’re perfect in between the disappointing moments you reveal your imperfect nature? God, sometimes it feels like having your skirt permanently stuck in your pantyhose.“ Her voice trailed off.

Well, I don’t think you’re perfect, but I love you anyway.” I knew it wasn’t much, me saying the instead of Phil. But knowing him, he’d be saying it before dinner. The two of them were the most disgustingly compatible couple I’d ever met. “And we all know I’m not perfect. But I’m hoping when I go in tomorrow the dragon lady has forgotten that I even had a birthday. Why else would I have wasted good Amaretto on her?”

Nick groaned. “Your birthday. I forgot why it was that my brain was banging around in my skull this morning. Hang on.” Without further words, he got up and left the apartment.

I didn’t need to ask why. Obviously he had made me something. Until he returned, I could always hope it was a tasteful photo of a snowy Maine landscape. He had been to Maine just last winter.

What do you think he made this time?” Emily reached for a poppy seed bagel, heedless of the seeds she was scattering on my sofa.

Anything would be better than that.” I don’t need to point to the small square of mattress ticking on the wall above her head, she had seen it often enough. The square of ticking had an upper denture plate glued to it—each tooth painted a bright neon color. “The Teeth of Life,” Nick called it when it presented it to me for Christmas two years ago.

When Nick returned, he carried an oblong, jewelry shaped box, wrapped in newsprint. And a toolbox. Unwrapped.

Emily and I exchanged glances, but neither of us dared say a word. A few years ago we might have expected a nice bracelet or necklace. After nine years of living next door to Nick, we both knew better.

Here.” Nick always grew diffident when he gave his art as a present. I considered it my practice for when I become a mother and my child brought me some hideous drawing to praise. If I ever had children, at the rate my timeline was crumbling.

It isn’t as if Nick isn’t a perfectly wonderful artist, because he is. At least, his photography is. And I have an oil painting of a blue glass bottle that he did when he was practicing with color depth in oil. I’ve told him he should do more of that. Nick says it would be easier for me to stop trying to change other people and work on myself. I know he’s only teasing, but I think sometimes he doesn’t appreciate the value of focus–unless he’s crouched for forty minutes under a bush waiting for the perfect raindrop to land and pearl on the underside of an early rosebud.

He’s got loads of talent–he could have a good job at any magazine, but he liked to work only when he needed the money. He could be good enough for a gallery show, too. But he wanted to wait until he was ready. I was beginning to believe that might be never, so I’ve asked him to will me his paintings. After all, someone should benefit from the beauty of his work besides the spiders and the dust bunnies in his apartment.

Unlike Emily, he does not like to give his gifts publicly. Probably because they reflect a very personal side of him. When I unwrapped the artfully painted newsprint wrapping paper, I found a necklace of…broken glass. “Thank you.”

I learned long ago to thank Nick for these gifts with a brilliant smile and very few words. Even an iron chain with amber, green, and clear beer bottle lips strung on it. I lifted it and held it in the vicinity of my neck, not daring to let the sharp edges brush against my skin.

Nick sighed and took it from my hands, ignoring the alarming clinking sounds his gift made when it moved. “It’s not a necklace, Diana. I made it to hang in front of your window and reflect light.” He held it up to demonstrate and suddenly I saw why he made it. The broken glass became jewel-like when the sun hit the colorful shards.

I love it.” It felt good to know I wasn’t flat out lying.

He must have been able to tell, because he grinned at me happily and pulled out the toolbox he had lugged along with him. “I’ll hang it.”

Great.”

As he worked, the glass splashed spots of colored light around the room. Pretty, but not very kind to a hangover-induced headache. He finished his handiwork, and like men everywhere, looked around for praise, just as a prismatic splash of light highlighted the bright turquoise book that sat on top of my bookshelf, next to my purse.

He picked it up and thumbed through it, almost casually. “Is it alphabetical?”

Chronological.” I let him thumb through a little more before I said more. “You’re not in there.” Emily shot me a look, but I just smiled at her—briefly. Smiling hurts when you have a wicked hangover.

I know. I was just wondering.” Liar. He continued to thumb. “How many men have you dated Diana?”

The red stars are the serious ones, the rest I threw back after one or two dates.”

He was quiet for a moment, counting. “Seven.” He thumbs through more. “About fifty in all, but only seven serious.” He stopped on a page and began to read—to himself.

Time to stop this game, before he decided to do me a favor and burn the thing. “Nick, you can read every page, but you’re not going to find yourself.”

He closed the book, and held it up accusingly. “Some of these pages have been ripped out.”

I beg to differ. They have been carefully cut out with a razor knife.”

Why?”

Because I made a mistake on the pages and needed to re do them.” I stuck close to the truth—I did spill coffee, and had the occasional tear on some of those pages. But Nick’s was not marred in any way. I just didn’t want to see the look on his face if he ever read what I’d written about him.

He put the book down and stood looking at me, as the broken bottle mobile sendt sparkles of color dancing over his rumpled white t-shirt. There’s something beautiful and intense about his dark eyes that made me glad I took the page out when I came home after my party. Then he shrugged, gathered his tools and headed out to return them to his apartment next door.

Emily barely waited until the door shut. “You have a page on Nick in that book, I—“

I bolted up and ran to the hall closet to rummage through my pocket for a moment. “Not any more. I cut it out.” I held it up. I should have burned it when I cut it out of the book. But I couldn’t make myself.

Why?” Emily was charmingly naïve when it came to the forgiving nature of others.

Paolo the narcissist didn’t like it, do you think Nick the best friend would?”

Would what?” Nick had returned more quickly than either of us expected. He looked at me, with my coat still in my hands. “Where are you going?”

My hangover had slowed all functions, including my excuse-supplying facility, so I stalled him for a moment by putting my coat. “I think I need more cream cheese. You and Emily both like lots with your bagels.”

Incredibly, he bought this excuse. Probably because he had a hangover as well. “Wait. I think you have another one in your fridge.”

Do I?”

Ever helpful, which made him somewhat easily diverted thank goodness, he rummaged through the fridge and held up the cream cheese I just bought yesterday. “Here it is.”

So, why don’t I have a page,” he asked, as he returned with the cream cheese. Okay, maybe not so easily diverted.

Emily stood up to take a closer look at my gift. After poking it here and there a few times, she gently set the string of glass into circular tinkling motion, the light into an eye-straining dance. “Is this made of broken beer bottles?”

Her diversion worked as my had not. Nick liked to talk about his art. “I found them in the park. I figured, why just throw them away—why not turn them into something beautiful.”

Nick, whatever is wrong with some nice glass beads from Niemann Marcus?”

Emily, you are bourgeois.”

And proud of it.”

I like it.” The fewer words said around Nick the modern artist, the better.

Emily looked at it once more and laughed. “Well, at least if anyone breaks in, this will be deadly as well as pretty.”

Nick blew an air kiss at Emily. “Just like you, my love.” They dated once. Not seriously—at least not that I could pry out of them. And believe me, I tried. But whatever was between them turned into friendship rather quickly, thank goodness. We’ve been friends for years and I don’t think I’d want to go on without them.

Which is why, once food, aspirin and espresso had finally begun to ease my aching head, I tackled Emily head on. “Why isn’t Phil here?”

She had explained his absence when she first arrives. Hangover. And I had bought it, until I realized, as she stood in the window light, that her red eyes were not from drinking too much, but from crying.

Normally Phil, Emily, Nick and I have breakfast together. Sometimes Nick or I, or both of us, might add a significant other to the mix, but the four of us have been a constant since Phil first swept Emily off her feet at a Tupperware party.

Yes. A Tupperware party. They had both been roped into it by Phil’s sister—she wanted a pitcher, or a cake plate, or some such, and she quite shamelessly guilted them into coming. See, Emily is a New Jersey girl, and Tupperware parties are part of her shameful past. Secretly, she loves them. Apparently, so does Phil—he bought about $200 worth for his tiny apartment and his sister not only got her cake stand, or pitcher, but also some kind of salad spinner/storage device for her garden- (or greenhouse-, depending on the season)-grown Jersey lettuce.

Jersey lettuce that Emily and Phil usually bring to me, along with Jersey tomatoes. But today there is no Phil. And Emily has stuffed a big bite of bagel into her mouth to avoid answering me.

I waited until she finished chewing and swallowed. Before she could take another bite, I asked bluntly, “Did he leave you?”

Nick sighed. “Diana, the man has a hangover. Why must you jump to the conclusion that they’re on the verge of divorce?”

Emily?” It’s always my first thought. Even when my friends seem happily married. I hadn’t been able to tell my mother was unhappy until the day she left my father. And neither had he. Sometimes the ones who care most are the ones who don’t know until it’s too late. I wouldn’t let that happen to Emily and Phil if I could help it.

No.” She was as terrible a liar as she was a planner, so I was relieved to see that she spoke the truth. He had not left her. But something was wrong, I could tell that before she blurted out, “I’m thinking of leaving him.”

For a moment I couldn’t believe those words had come from her mouth. Emily was a firm believer in marriage and commitment. “Is he having an affair? Of course he was. The rat. I knew—“

He’s not having an affair.” She sat down, at last prepared to confess. “He’s forbidden me to quit work when we have children.”

Forbidden?” This is not a word one would associate with Phil. Tupperware party Phil, or Sunday morning breakfast Phil. He might lecture, reason, debate, but not forbid. Still, I knew the job—sympathize with Emily. “How dare he?” And then the full impact of what she said hit me. Children. “Are you pregnant?”

No.” She crossed her arms and declared militantly, “And with that attitude, he won’t be getting close enough to try.”

He’s just scared, Em.” Nick’s deep voice held a reassuring note. “He’ll get it. Give him a little time. Going from two paychecks to one would scare any guy as careful as Phil.” Nick knows we keep him around for a glimpse into the depths of the male psyche—what depths there are, anyway. But sometimes he showed real promise.

Listen to Nick, Em. After all, if a man who doesn’t consider where his next paycheck is coming from until the rent is due can understand Phil, we should too.” Even though I know Nick could be so much better than he is now, I still love him. Like a friend. Not like a lover. We’ve never gone down that road and thank goodness for that. I’m not good at relationships. I’m not sure why, because, as I said before, I am focused on the goal at all times. I just don’t seem to pick guys who appreciate that. My radar seems to seek out those men who are ambivalent at best about commitment, marriage, family, picking up their socks and putting them in the hamper at the end of the day, squeezing the toothpaste tube at the bottom rather than the middle…well, all that sort of thing.

Emily wasn’t mollified by Nick’s words, however. “I’m scared, too. What if I quit work and stay home for ten years and then the prick leaves me? I’ll have to start all over again.”

He wouldn’t do that.” Considering the number of divorced people we all know, this was an out and out lie. Still, Nick was working in empathy mode. Man-empathy mode.

In good female-empathy mode I stepped in. “Don’t say that Nick. Remember, you’re an honorary Success Sister and our motto is that men will do anything. At least he isn’t having an affair.”

What am I going to do?” Emily really wanted to know, and for a moment I didn’t have an answer. All I could see was Emily growing waddling-fat with child, while I couldn’t even find a husband.

After a good hard swallow, I csme up with a truly lame suggestion. “You have to make him see you’re right.”

Emily’s expression registered her disgust with my useless words. And then she smiled sweetly. “I will, as soon as you make your boss see that only you can write that article.” She took another huge bite of her bagel and glared at me.

Smart enough to know Emily was a lost cause this morning, Nick smiled sympathetically at me. “Unless she’s forgotten you ever had a birthday, Diana.”

You’re a good friend.”

Emily swallowed noisily. “Who likes to make deadly weapons into art.” She frowned at us both.

# # #

When I got into work on Monday, I could almost believe that the she-devil has forgotten all about the article idea, the book, the image of me in pink and purple. Two hours passed in blissful efficiency, as I crossed off the twenty queries I’ve decided to reject with form letters, the three phone calls to follow up about articles I’m expecting, the call to Cynna in Art, requesting a photo of a very surprised young woman, with a half smile and nothing else. As usual, she tried to convince me I wanted something else. Today, however, I am strong. I am righteous. We find a compromise.

It wasn’t until the staff meeting at eleven that I regretted I didn’t bring Nick’s gift for show and tell. I could have used it when the princess of darkness announced in front of everyone that she wanted to assign Tandy Baker to go with me to visit all of my past boyfriends as I re-rated their mate potential—for our readers, all 100,000+ of them.

I don’t even know where half of them are.” Even as I realized with a jolt that I was telling the truth, I wondered why I never thought to update the addresses. It occured to me that my friends and former roommates may have a point about my compulsive nature.

But there was no stopping this train with a few inconvenient facts. Tandy shook back her perfectly colored blonde hair. “Don’t worry, I’ll put research on it.” She smiled at our boss as if she wasn’t afraid of her in the least. Maybe she wasn’t not. She wasn’t the brightest of bulbs—she once told me that she thought plagiarism was an overrated problem. Apparently, in her view, the writer who is quoted without attribution should recognize the compliment and not make “too big a deal out of a missing citation or two.”

What if they don’t agree? They won’t want to be humiliated like that.” I was rapidly talking myself out of the assignment, I realized. But not the Queen of Darkness.

Everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame, don’t be naïve.”

I had toyed with Emily’s suggestion. But that was before I knew I’d have to negotiate in front of everyone. Still, it was Tandy Baker, or–“Then I want to write it.”

She frowned and stared at me as if she hadn’t ever seen me before. “You haven’t written for us.”

I remembered Emily’s words. This article will be written, I could read that in my boss’s eyes. “After all, isn’t this one article that only I can write? And didn’t you say you’d assign me a story as soon as I found that idea?”

Botox or not, she was frowning at my argument. “I found the idea.”

It’s my book.” For a moment I flashed back to the schoolyard and endless “Does not-Does to” arguments.

I could see the slightest flare of her nostrils as we both realized I actually do hold the critical ace. “Where is it?” I felt my rush of confidence begin to dwindle.

Tandy’s cream blouse tautened on her shoulders, almost as if she was planning to race me at a sprint to whatever location I revealed. “At home.” Tandy relaxes, apparently she recognized that, for the moment at least, she was defeated.

Olivia scratched something down on her pad, looked at Tandy and shook her head. She didn’t look at me. “You can do it, then, Diana.” Unexpectedly, she turnd her head and her bright green eyes bored into me while I wished she had kept staring at her pad. “But if you screw it up, your ass is mine.”

She moved right on to new business, but I had no idea what it was. All I could see was that damn book and all those neat pages of notes. Maybe my friends are right and my list making is a demon to be exorcised. I forced myself to focus on the positive–I had my very first writing assignment, after seven years of patient work and a bucket load of planning. A simple little expose of the failures in my love life.

 

#Sample#Sunday: The Ex-Files – Chapter 2

As promised to my daughter (and on my blog), I have begun the process of finishing the abandoned chicklit novel….the only novel of mine she has ever read. This is part of the extended Wedding Day Promo plan.

As added incentive, I am participating in the Clarion Write-a-Thon. Please consider supporting a writer (doesn’t have to be me).

Comments with critique are welcome, but no promises that I’ll follow anyone’s suggestions, no matter how brilliant. I’m a stubborn writer, to which my various critique partners and editors through the decades can attest.

Please note: This is a draft. There will be typos. Once I’ve finished the novel and revised it, I will: send it out to an editor; ask a cover artist to make a cover; and put it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble for the Kindle and Nook. You’re seeing the raw process behind book creation. If reading an uncooked story makes you squeamish, wait for the fully baked novel to appear at an ebook retailer near you.

If you missed Chapter One, you can find it here (or click on the Ex-Files or #Sample#Sunday tag and you’ll see just those posts, for easier flow).

Enjoy!

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

When I returned to the party, no one appeared to have missed me. In fact, no one appeared to notice I’ve returned, apparently because the conversation centering around my life became engrossing without me there to defend myself. And amusing, too. The first inkling of the disaster to come came from Serena, another short-term roommate. “I found a great man from her reject list—she documented him meticulously. I think she dumped him because he didn’t floss every day.”

Everyone laughed, even the boyfriend stealer. Serena, unlike Allie, had had the decency to wait until I was done with a man to pick him up.

My boss, unfortunately, had her eyebrows drawn together—a sign of very deep and dangerous interest. This was not good. I hovered on the edge of the room trying to decide whether to break up the gossip or give it a moment to die a natural death. I have always projected a dedicated, professional appearance–no one wants to expose an unprotected belly to the head of The Female Eye. For a cowardly moment, I considered skipping out on the birthday bash and heading home to re-ink my missed goals in at the 32 year mark.

Before I could move, Nick shook his head at Serena. “I remember him. Wiry little guy with a mustache? So, does he floss for you?”

Serena actually blushed. Blushed. Over flossing. “Yes.”

You’re still seeing him? Why didn’t you bring him?” Allie, who was always on the prowl for new blood.

Serena, who had heard about Allie from me, shook her head firmly. “He’s mine now. I don’t want Diana changing her mind.”

She was talking about Wesley—a guy I’d dated exactly once. And I hadn’t dropped him because he couldn’t floss, but because he couldn’t kiss. Evidently Serena disagreed, and more power to her. But there was no way I was changing my mind about Wesley. I’d rather get a root canal than another kiss from the man with the drill-master tongue.

Change her mind?” My boss laughed, a bit late and entirely on her own. She stopped when everyone stared at her, and then said, “Diana doesn’t really ever change her mind, does she?”

Maybe she should.” Serena answered snarkily, “Prince Charming could be standing right in front of her and all Diana would notice was that his suit wasn’t pressed.”

I’ve told her a million times she’d be a lot happier if she stopped sweating the small stuff.” Allie—the girl with absolutely no detectable standards—offered a page from her own philosophy handbook. From living with her for a brief, chaotic time, I can attest that the small stuff to Allie includes thousand dollar phone bills and French men with expired passports.

If she wants to meet that goal of hers before she shrivels up into a prune she ought to go back and check those guys out again. Maybe she overlooked somebody perfect.” I had to concede no one would ever accuse Allie of overlooking a man. But I didn’t think that lent credence to her position.

My boss tapped her finger on her lips, a sign that she has had clamped on to an idea with the fervor of a terrier. “What a good article that would make.” Her eyes drifted toward me, and before I could duck away, she called out “Diana! Just in time. Where is that little black book of yours? I want to see it.”

She never seems to know how imperious she sounds, but no one else seemed to realize it, either. They all looked at me as if they expected to see my forehead split open and the black book…well, it’s aquamarine, actually…rise on a wave of cerebral spume.

I don’t have it.” My knees actually went weak at my lie, but once I’d told it I became committed to die for it.

I guess now is as good a time as any to confess that my boss is Olivia Wallace. The Olivia Wallace who can walk on water—at least the waters of the East River. At least according to those who live and die in Manhattan by her whim–and the current issue of The Female Eye, which are actually synonymous most of the time. I try not to use her name—much like those who avoid speaking the name of the prince of darkness. I trust her name explains why I was so willing to go to the wall with my lie.

Of course you do.” Paolo had stopped admiring his own profile in the brushed nickel water pitcher just long enough to make my solemn resolve mean nothing at all. He turned his brilliant smile on me as if he didn’t know I would rather eat glass than show my book to Olivia Wallace. I suspected he truly didn’t know. In the game of roommate roulette I often play, I have found actors to be an oblivious lot.

You always keep it—“ he reached over to unsling my purse from the back of my chair, and flipped open the front flap. Out fell my checkbook, a tampon, and the infamous turquoise book in question.

Actors may be too narcissistic to notice if your hem is torn when you ask them if you look okay, but they pay attention to little things just when you think they aren’t. Maybe Paolo was up for a Tootsie-like role when he lived with me? He certainly never noticed when the garbage needed to be tossed down the chute.

With a look of avid interest that would have made a pigeon drop a choice crumb, Olivia the Terrible held out her hand to him. “Let me see.”

If that wasn’t awful enough, before Paolo could oblige her, Allie leaned over the table and wrestled him for it. This was a match she won easily, as she wore a gauzy, loose blouse with a low neckline and the only thing that fascinated Paolo more than the sight of his own fabulous face is a pair of breasts swinging loose and free and close enough to touch. I hasten to add that I do not know this from personal experience, only from the close—and sometimes horrified–observation of a roommate.

Nick and I have a bet. He says that Paolo is gay. Given how easily pretty boy lost his grip on the book, I didn’t believe it. If my whole life—the rest of it that hadn’t already flashed by earlier—hadn’t been passing before my eyes, I might even have demanded that Nick pay up right then. But ten bucks wouldn’t have gotten me far enough out of town to matter.

Allie smiled at Paolo and shook her boobs—pure corn fed and non-silicone—one last time to thank him. And then she sat back, opened the book and began to read. Aloud.

Her voice was a little high pitched and girlish, but her diction was crystal clear. “Sam Jamieson. Occupation: stock broker, 5+; Age: 32, 10; Appearance: neat, a little too trendy, 4; Listens: three yawns, good eye contact, 5; Talks: too much about business, 4; Husband Potential: 5, Pass.”

Pass?” Livvy the Terrible had been listening intently, her head cocked to one side. “Why pass? I’d have dated him.”

I don’t doubt that she would have. He was probably more her type than mine, given the boys she dragged to our office parties. In fact, she had given Paolo more than a casual glance during the long torturous evening of my birthday.

Diana has goals to meet, she doesn’t date for fun. She won’t serial date a man who’s not an 8 or above.” Everyone laughed as Allie thumbed through the book. I confess to a madcap, Lucille Ball type impulse to dive across the beautiful arrangement of radishes and white roses to recover the book, no matter the hit to my dignity, never mind my favorite suit. Unfortunately, I did not have time to give in to it.

Allie made a little exclamation and lifted the book high. “Paolo, you’re here.”

He looked surprised—and quite a bit pleased. “I am?” He glanced at me. “Did we date?” I could almost believe he doesn’t remember his opening salvo when he arranged to move in: “I don’t date roommates.”

Before I could answer, or ask for the book back, Allie read aloud a few choice conclusions I had not intended to share with fifty of my most intimate friends—never mind she who shall not be named. “Cute. Mixes white and colors in the laundry. Job prospects shaky. JF.” She puzzled over the initials for a moment and looked up to me.

Just friends.” I didn’t want to explain, but I didn’t want her to make up something to fit JF either.

Nick frowned at me and snatched the book from Allie’s hands. “Enough,” he said to her. To me, “I didn’t know you put your friends in here.” I knew he didn’t like the book—not since he’d read my entry for someone he’d fixed me up with once. He was of the opinion that I should, to quote, “Burn the damned thing, and send the ashes out to sea on a trash barge.”

Just her men friends, Nick.” Allie pouted, unhappy to have her entertainment stolen from her. She leaned over, to give him a private look down the front of her blouse. “Are you in there?”

Fortunately, Nick is semi-immune, having already had a therapeutic dose of Typhoid Allie, but I could see him waver—he hadn’t had a steady girlfriend in several months.

Of course he’s not.” With no time to waste, I crossed the room and snatched the book from him. “I met Paolo before we became roommates, a friend wanted to set us up.” This was a blatant lie, but I hoped if I talked fast enough, no one would notice. We had gone through twelve bottles of wine, after all.

Nick didn’t call me on the lie, probably because he had bigger issues. “Don’t trust me with your book, Diana?”

Not since you last threatened to burn it.” Which is almost the complete truth. I’d hate to have him burn the book, even though I have a back-up copy—this one is neater and more organized. But I’d have hated even more for him to read the entry under his name.

In desperation, I tucked the book into my bra—where it mad an unsightly jagged lump that everyone stared at in fascination. Before anyone—including my boss, could speak, I asked, “Anyone need more wine?”

Emily jumped into action, a bottle of white and a bottle of red in either hand.

Diana,” Olivia, dragon lady extrodinaire said with a smile, “This might make a good story. This book. What if you were to take another look at these men—you might have missed your prince charming?” Her lip curled slightly at the final words. After her last divorce, she had sworn off men for three weeks.

I didn’t.” I grabbed a bottle of wine and filled her almost full glass myself. “Let’s toast to Emily, for a great party.” Everyone dutifully raised their glasses and drank to Emily. I took it as a good sign that Olivia didn’t notice I’d topped off her red with a white.

Emily blushed and came unhelpfully to my defense, most likely to divert the attention from herself. “Diana is very thorough, I’m sure she didn’t cross off anyone frivolously.”

To Diana the thorough.” I lifted my glass in another toast. But though everyone willingly joined in, the subject was apparently too fascinating to be changed by a mouthful of good wine.

Allie smirked. “Well, I agree that Brian turned out to be a dud, but Serena is happy enough. How can you tell a guy is not “the one” if you write him off before you even date him?”

Since she was looking right at Paolo as she spoke, I glanced at him, too, worried that my entry might have hurt his feelings. From the abstractedly blissful expression on his face, I was certain he didn’t even remember that he was in my book. Or that I had a book.

Allie was engaged in her favorite game of footsie—no doubt she had bypassed Paolo’s knee and gone right for the family jewels. For a moment I was tempted to go over and take the delicate gold hoop in her nose and twist until it was a delicate gold pretzel instead. But then her expression changed.

When I glanced at Paolo, I saw he was smiling just like he used to when he’d eaten the last fruit on the bottom yogurt in the fridge. He was one guy who could play footsie right back, I guess. Maybe I shouldn’t have crossed him off so quickly? No. Any guy willing to meet Allie foot to foot—or wherever–in a restaurant was not my type.

Nick was definitely wrong about Paolo being gay. But he wasn’t in any mood to acknowledge that last night. He was staring at the book shaped lump under my blouse hard enough that I was afraid he’d reach in and remove it from my bra.

I like this idea. Tandy could do a lot with it.” The normally firm headshake that accompanies this statement during a staff meeting was a little wobbly.

Have some more wine,” I topped her up with more white until the color of the wine in her glass was just the barest of pinks.

Before I could propose another toast, Emily took charge. “Time to open presents.” She handed me a bright pink oblong with a purple bow. “Open mine first.” She didsn’t say, “I think you need it.” But she thought it loudly enough for me to hear. I opened the wrapping to find a good-sized bottle of a good quality amaretto, my favorite liqueur.

I really think we should do an article—“

Care for a shot of Amaretto?” Normally I wouldn’t have interrupted her for fear of being told to focus my section around some horrible topic like finding the cheapest manicure in town. I had ended up with a fingernail fungus last time, when I made the mistake of taking a writer’s article too seriously. She’d had four scotches and a half glass of wine, though, so I took the risk and splashed some in her empty scotch glass. Being the birthday girl, I drank straight from the bottle, praying that the night would be a blurred memory for us all.