Excerpt: Better Than Before
Book 1: RightMatch.com Trilogy
“So, big brother, do you want to invest?”
Spence Wickham studied his youngest sibling, who looked like hell, unshaven and dressed in sweats, with lines around his youthful mouth and eyes. The cause of Cole’s appearance was the tiny bundle of pink pressed against his shoulder, his infant daughter, Ellie. That he was asking, in such dishabille, for a huge amount of money to start an online venture made the situation ludicrous. Then again, his baby brother was the total opposite of him; Cole made decisions and acted in ways Spence never would.
“Dating sites don’t work.” Spence leaned back in the kitchen chair, loosened his tie and undid the top buttons of his crisp, white shirt. He’d come to Cole’s place from work and was still wearing a suit. “Weirdoes sign up and most people don’t find a mate.”
Patting the child’s back, Cole walked the length of the dining area off the main room of his spacious apartment in an effort to quiet her. Despite his obvious fatigue, instant fatherhood seemed to agree with him. “How would you know? You’ve never done online dating.”
“I hate those sites.” Spence’s middle brother, Joey, slouched on a recliner about ten feet away, half- listening to them, half- watching a football game on a big screen TV. Though they all had different fathers and the age span between Cole and Spence was twelve years, the three of them were close. “All cops do. They’re full of stalkers.”
“You don’t need them,” Spence told him. “You’ve had women falling at your feet since you were a high school star.” Joey was the athlete of the family, with muscles and agility that had made him a spectacular football and baseball player at East High in the city of Rockland.
Joe snorted. “Not that it makes a difference now.”
Joey had been recruited by Syracuse University and on his way to the pros when he’d blown out his knee his junior year. In the end, the doctors decided he couldn’t play any more ball. Not much later, he’d dropped out of college. Spence and Cole had to pull him from the depths of despair—and several bars—more than once. He’d finally gotten his act together and became a cop like his dad, but the months following Joe’s injury were one of the few times in his adult life that Spence had felt powerless. And he’d absolutely hated it!
Bravado won out as it often did among the three brothers, and Joe switched gears. “At least I’m one of Rockland’s finest now. Not some blood-sucking money monger like you, Spence.”
Purposefully softening his tone but not enough to embarrass Joe, Spence said, “Yeah, and we’re proud of what you do.”
Cole crossed in front of Spence to put Ellie in the bassinet. A December sun, rare in upstate New York, streamed in through four skylights and warmed the whole place. Smells of baby powder and milk filled his used-to-be bachelor pad on the top floor of a building in Rockland’s yuppie community on Park Avenue.
While his brother fussed with the infant, Spence took another pass through the prospectus Cole had drawn up. He planned to hire a staff of three—an administrator to set up the site, an accountant to deal with money and a psychologist who would work with him to develop the profiles, then orchestrate the matches. The kid was smart, insightful and articulate, even if he was a starry-eyed romantic.
After Ellie had settled, Cole refilled his coffee mug and joined Spence at the table. “Global Industries will make a bundle if you back me.”
“Maybe.” His venture capitalist firm did well in nearly all of their investments, mostly due to Spence’s business acumen. The firm was his proudest achievement and the center of his life. “Are you sure the over-forty population is the best age group to target?”
“Uh-huh. Demographics show that’s when more than half the population goes to online-dating sites.”
Spence shook his head. “Hard to believe.”
“Just because you’ve given up on love, doesn’t mean the whole human race has.” Cole was always trying to change Spence’s attitude toward relationships. After Spence’s two failed marriages, that would never happen, but they both enjoyed the sparring.
Again, Spence examined the figures. “In this economy, will people have enough money to pay so much to join? You’d charge a hefty fee.”
“I’m going for an upscale clientele. There are enough free sites or those with smaller fees. I want to be different.”
“You always did, kiddo,” Joey put in, still staring at the TV. “Damn, Buffalo fumbled again.”
Cole’s concept was probably a solid investment. What’s more, Spence knew his little brother would succeed. He always had. Besides being a musical whiz, he’d had computer smarts and chose to go to MIT. After he’d graduated, he’d been hired by a large conglomerate and developed software for computer games. But a year ago, the medical student he was dating had gotten pregnant and had no interest in motherhood. Cole had talked her into having the child and giving her to him, renouncing all her parental rights. He’d also quit his job and had developed and patented a computer chip that proved useful for a variety of purposes; it had provided him with a solid nest egg. It wasn’t enough to front this online site, though, because he had to provide for his daughter’s future. But still, Spence couldn’t give in too easily. It was a sibling thing.
“Don’t you feel as if you’re cheating people? Everybody lies on dating sites.”
“Nope. One in five relationships start online, Spence. I’ll be helping people.”
“You are such a flaming romantic!” A thought occurred to Spence. Maybe he could make a game of this. “Fine, I’ll present your proposition to the board if you agree to a bet.”
Cole’s light blue eyes narrowed. When he was little, he’d fallen for a lot of Spence’s and Joey’s tricks and come out on the short end. “What kind of bet?”
“If I prove that people lie on these sites, you do free computer work for me for a month.”
Slanting a look at his daughter’s crib, Cole grinned. “And if I win, you have to babysit Ellie whenever I want you to for a month. No hired help.”
Rising from the recliner, Joey sauntered into the kitchen. After he’d gotten another beer out of the fridge, he sat down with them. “How would you do that—prove that people lie and get away with it?”
Spence thought for a minute. “I’ll conduct an experiment. I’ll join the site myself, as two different people—the real me, and as a guy the exact opposite of who I am. The former will get dates, of course, because he’s rich, but his success will serve as a baseline. I’ll also set up a totally phony persona. The bet is that he can get dates, too, thus showing a person can lie and get results.” He calculated terms in his head. “If at least six women want to meet the real me and six want to meet the other guy I pretend to be, I’ve won.”
Cole frowned. “Why would you do that? What’s in it for you?”
A half-formed thought popped into Spence’s head—that his suggestion had something to do with his disastrous marriages and bachelor existence, with proving his inability to sustain a long-term relationship wasn’t his fault but was simply the nature of love and romance. But he pushed the notion aside. As Cole had said, he’d given up on both of those things. There were times when he felt a hole in his life because of it, but he wasn’t willing to try again. “I’ll be proving a point. Getting the best of you. You know how I like to win.”
“I want you to get the site, Cole,” Joe said, “but I still think they’re dangerous.”
“I’ll take steps to make it safer, I promise.” Cole scrubbed a hand over his jaw and mouth. “But I don’t know about Spence’s deal. He could hurt the women he lies to.”
“I won’t let it go that far with any of them. When each of the women gets serious enough and asks to meet either of my personas, I’ll cut her off with some predetermined excuse to let her down easily. No one will suspect any different.”
Cole glanced around the apartment, cluttered now with baby paraphernalia. “I need some work I can do from here for a while. You promise nobody will get hurt?”
His brother’s naiveté never failed to surprise Spence. Cole lived in a world where people kept their promises and a person’s word was inviolable. Spence knew better, but he promised anyway.
Joe poked Cole in the arm. “There could be a benefit to this, kiddo.”
Spence had heard that tone before. It never boded well. “What?”
“Cole and I have been hoping you’ll meet a woman who gets past your cynicism.” His brows raised. “Maybe it will be one who likes the other you.”
Laughing, Spence shook his head. “That won’t happen. I don’t think there’s a woman alive who’s able to make me believe in lasting relationships again.”
“Joe and I can only hope.” Cole held out his hand to Spence. “It’s a deal, then.”
And Cole asked, “When do I get the money?”
Three months later
Spence’s BlackBerry vibrated as he sat in the conference room of Global Industries, listening to one of their clients, Jacob Henderson, explain how his company’s falling sales and business infrastructure could recover from its spiraling decline. All the partners in the firm understood that they might get important calls while in meetings, and it wouldn’t be considered rude if Spence checked his incoming messages. Besides, he’d already made up his mind about AllGreen Gear. The president and CEO simply didn’t have the expertise to revamp his company, and though Spence felt a curious kind of detached sympathy for guy, he certainly wasn’t going to vote to pour money into a venture doomed to lose.
Fishing the BlackBerry out of the inside pocket of his suit coat, Spence glanced at the email address. It was her—Number Six on the B List. The last in a string of women with whom he’d corresponded online in one short month, both as himself and as the average American schmuck.
“Spence?” The chair of the board addressed him when the client finished and discreetly left the room. “Would you like to give us your input?”
Bracing his arms on the sleek oak table, Spence leaned forward. “As you all know, I was against putting up the money for this project. An all-green business selling environmentally friendly products was timely a few years ago, but I was fearful that in an economic downturn that kind of venture would suffer.” Luckily, after the group had overridden his objection, he’d insisted and gotten controlling shares in the company so they could shut it down anytime. “I think we should cut our losses.”
Harold Samson, the partner who’d brokered the deal, sat forward too, mirroring Spence’s position. Now fifty-five, Harold had been a valued member of Global Industries for years, ever since Spence had brought in him and five others after his startup businesses had grown so big he’d decided he needed partners. They each took twelve-month stints to chair the group and plan and run meetings. All were highly skilled business people.
However, Harold had recently married a babe who was much younger than him. Since then, Spence thought, Harold had lost his edge. And it was one trait that Spence couldn’t tolerate—an executive’s personal life affecting his professional decisions. Spence’s mother consistently said he needed to show his softer side, but in the world of finance that was the kiss of death.
“Closing AllGreen is premature,” Harold began. “It’ll put a lot of people out of a job and we still have a chance to make the company a success.”
“It’s a business decision, not a social welfare one.” Spence scanned those around the table. “We can recoup the lion’s share of our investment if we act now.”
“I’d prefer to give them extra time.” Harold was more committed to this venture than Spence had realized. And the partners would listen to him because he’d brought in companies that made them significant revenue. However, AllGreen wasn’t going to be one of them.
After the vote was taken and AllGreen was given a month to come up with a new business plan, Spence didn’t balk again. They’d find out soon enough that he was right, and he’d probably have to go in and do the dirty work. Though Spence didn’t get off on destroying people or their dreams, he had a cool-headed ability to call a halt to a deal that wasn’t working. His forté had always been making the tough decisions, which was one of the few valuable lessons he’d learned from his father.
After the issue was settled, Lester, the current chair, asked Spence about Cole’s dating service, named RightMatch.com.
True to his word, after Spence had pushed the financing through, Cole had hired a staff and gotten the site up and running in about a month. Now it was the hottest dating service on the Net. And true to his word, Spence had joined as two personas, his own and Spencer Tracy Brewer, his real middle name—God bless his mother—and her maiden one.
They both garnered a number of winks, designed to let the patrons indicate they were interested in each other. He picked six for each of his profiles. He won the first half of the bet within days, as women flocked to meet the rich Spence right away. Those interested in his other profile—a construction worker, widowed, no kids but wanted some, who was looking for a girl-next-door type to settle down with—were more reticent to meet him, which was understandable. This group, as a whole, didn’t seem to have much confidence in themselves. That realization had caused him twinges of guilt, but he managed to squelch them. Overall, it had taken longer than he’d thought it would, but five women had asked to meet with him, and he’d dropped them under the ruse of being a widower who wasn’t ready to take the next step yet.
One more to go—Number Six—for the construction worker.
“The dating site is already a success. I know you had some concerns about investing in my brother, but he’s come through.” Spence rolled his gold pen between his palms. “It’s shocking how many people are willing to pay so much money for a date.”
“Leave it to you to say that.” The comment was made by another partner, John.
Given his good genes and the confidence that came with indisputable success, Spence had his pick of women from the glitz-and-glamour circles of the Rockland social scene. Though the town wasn’t the Big Apple, Rockland’s female component was interesting enough for him. The women he actually dated were a hell of a lot different from the one who was emailing him now. He pictured Marlena, the advertising executive he’d been seeing off and on for the last six months. Now she was his type—tall, slender, cool and sophisticated.
The meeting ended and Spence returned to his spacious office, with a view of the city’s skyline. As the founder and biggest stockholder of Global Industries, Spence had kept the headquarters in Rockland to be near his family. He didn’t like getting too close to anybody, but he couldn’t help himself with his brothers and mother. He often flew to New York where he’d set up another office and met the board or clients there, but he liked living in his hometown.
Dropping down in the chair behind his big cherry desk, he clicked into his computer, which also received his personal email. He opened Number Six’s first.
The note was written this morning. Often, like this one, her stories were about her kids and dog. After he’d finished reading the tale about a nocturnal visit to the animal hospital, he sat back and stared at the screen.
Annie was more interesting than the other women who had wanted to meet him. For one thing, she was taking the longest to suggest a date, which was a challenge. She liked to cook, garden and was religious about environmental issues—she asked him if he switched off lights went he left a room, if he unplugged cords when not in use to save electricity and if he eschewed the use of plastic-bottled water.
She also was getting her master’s degree at a local college and worked at a spa when her kids were in school or busy with their father. It must be an issue of money, but he couldn’t ask, as they hadn’t disclosed that kind of personal information. He had no idea why she’d split with hubby.
They agreed not to share any baggage but inevitably revealed their backgrounds, which he falsified and he presumed she told the truth about. Their profiles and some of the emails discussed the kind of person each was hoping to date. Again he lied, and again, she was truthful. Now they were emailing on a regular basis about their daily activities.
He felt another spurt of guilt. She was a nice woman and he was stringing her along. But there was more to his unease than that simple explanation—damned if he didn’t like her, even worry about her sometimes. And who would have thought he’d find her and her stories about her kids and dog endearing?
Unwilling to examine that notion, or maybe because of it, he reached for the BlackBerry and punched in a number to make a date with Marlena. When she answered, he said, “Hi, there, gorgeous, it’s Spence. Got any plans for dinner?”
“As a matter of fact, I don’t,” the sultry voice over the phone line purred. “I was wondering when we’d get together again, Spencer.”
He glanced at the computer. “I’ve been busy.”
Pleased that Marlena had accepted, he made arrangements and clicked off. He had a meeting in fifteen minutes and should go over his notes on an impending deal where he planned to convince an unwilling company to go public, so he didn’t understand at all why he scrolled down his phone contacts and found Number Six’s cell number. He’d wheedled it out of her because he hoped talking to each other might facilitate her request for a date, which he wanted in order to end this charade. Now he admitted he wouldn’t mind hearing the voice that matched the picture she’d posted online. Maybe he’d call her after he got back from his meeting.
That he felt a jolt of anticipation at talking to her for the first time concerned him a bit. This hadn’t happened with the others. But he ignored the feeling and pulled up the next client’s file.
Annie Hopkins was so tired she could barely see straight. She’d been at the animal hospital all night with Jake, her beautiful but ill dog, a Shiba Inu. Her mother had come over to stay with the kids. Annie had gotten back at seven a.m. but had not been to sleep. To boot, Alex and Hope had the morning off from school because of teacher workshops, so they were home, and she couldn’t take a nap.
Her seven-year-old daughter, Hope, sat on the family-room floor with Jake. “Are you sure he’s okay, Mommy?”
A few months ago, the dog had gotten lost and she and the kids had put up flyers around the suburb where they lived, hoping someone would find their pet. After two weeks, they’d given up and mourned the dog’s loss. Then a neighbor had discovered Jake in the woods behind her development, starved and sick but alive.
All three of them, including her pre-teen son who tried hard to be tough, had cried when Jake had come home. They’d nursed him back to health with a ground beef–and–rice mixture the vet recommended and Annie made fresh every day. The problem was, now the animal wouldn’t eat regular dog chow.
“The vet said he’s fine, honey. It was the store-bought food I gave him that made him sick. I guess he’s not ready for it.”
Hope had inherited Annie’s light brown hair and hazel eyes, but her smile was all her own. As always, that smile filled Annie’s heart with joy. These were the best times of her life, when she could be with her kids and enjoy them.
Given that, she felt a bit bad of for starting a new job tonight at an upscale restaurant run by her best friend, Julia. Annie had planned to get a second job once she finished her graduate work. But after a vacancy on the staff had opened up, she’d had to take the spot before she finished her classes. Waitresses at Julia’s café made a good amount of money. That money would tide her over until she got the next thing she wanted most in life, a full-time, teaching job. As it was March, she’d already sent in applications.
Alex sauntered in and dropped onto the couch next to her, his adolescent body gangly and awkward. She mourned the loss of his childhood. And she was worried about him. For the past few weeks, he’d been sullen, cranky even, which wasn’t like him. Her ex, Keith, thought his moods swings were because he was approaching puberty, but Annie sensed more was bothering him. He wouldn’t talk about it, though, when she’d questioned him.
“How you doing?” she asked, mussing his hair, the same shade and texture as his father’s.
“Okay. We gotta go to school this afternoon?”
“Of course, why wouldn’t you?”
“I dunno.” He stood. “I’m going outside and toss my ball around.” Alex loved baseball and hoped to try out for the seventh-grade team next year.
“Put a jacket on honey. It’s cool out today.”
For once, he didn’t argue and grabbed a sweatshirt from the arm of the couch.
“Want me to pitch to you?”
He assumed a male indulgent expression. How had he learned that so soon? “You throw like a girl, Mom.”
“You can play for real with your dad tonight when you go over to his house.” The kids spent Wednesdays and every other weekend with Keith. He’d been a lousy husband, but he was a good father and rarely missed a set time with them. “Meanwhile, you could give me a chance.” She smiled at him. “I’ve been practicing.”
When Alex agreed, Hope stood. “I’m coming, too, Mommy. You can play with me in the sandbox afterwards.”
Willing away her fatigue, Annie followed them out, the dog in tow. Alex took up position at one end of the big backyard near a huge oak tree. Hope crossed to the sandbox, which Annie had filled yesterday with white sand. It was early in the season for that, but Hope had asked for it. Nudging away from all of them, Jake settled in the shade.
Annie had improved, as she’d indeed been practicing with Julia’s boys, and made several acceptable catches. Her pitching wasn’t bad either. One caught a strike.
“Hey, Mom!” Alex seemed startled. “You did great.”
“I told you I was better.”
After fifteen minutes of play, Alex lost interest. He’d taken a seat at one of the umbrella tables with his Game Boy, so she walked over to the sandbox. “Ready for a castle?”
“Uh-huh. I got out the molds for it.”
First Annie went to the house, turned on the water, then returned to Hope. Annie was really getting tired now, and the ache between her shoulder blades bordered on painful. “You make the turrets, Mommy.”
Holding up the hose, she said, “That’s why I got this, sweetie.”
Five turrets and one fairly lopsided castle later, Annie checked her watch. “Time to go inside and clean up, guys. Then I’ll fix you lunch.”
“Will you take us to school, Mom?” Alex asked. “The bus is so lame.”
“Sure.” Then she could get some sleep.
Just as the kids got inside, the cell phone in her pocket rang. She kept it with her in case one of the principals called about one of the jobs she’d applied for. Sinking onto the padded chair Alex had vacated, she put her head back against the cushion and answered. “Hello.”
She didn’t recognize the male voice. “Yes, this is she.”
Oh. Oh! “Spence, from online?”
Suddenly energized, she sat up straighter and tried to calm her pulse. “Hi.”
“You said I could call.”
“I’m surprised you did, though.”
“I read your email,” he continued. His voice was deep timbered and slightly husky. “Had a rough night?”
Nervous, she fiddled with her hair. Though she’d resisted the fortieth birthday present Julia and Lauren, her other best friend, had given her—a subscription to the hot, new online-dating site RightMatch.com—she was enjoying this particular match.
Spencer Tracy Brewer, given his first two names by a father who collected old films, was the only man she was in contact with now, and in a moment of weakness, she’d given him her phone number. Maybe it was because they emailed every day. Maybe it was because they discussed their beliefs, their goals, their deepest wishes, many of which they had in common. She had kids and he wanted some. He preferred a quiet out-of-the-limelight life, as did she. They both liked movies, casual dinners and walking in the city. But they hadn’t shared baggage, hadn’t shared ugly pasts.
And Annie had an ugly past.
“Annie, are you still there?”
“Sorry, I’m zoning out. Jake’s better today. Right now we’re in the yard and he’s sleeping under the tree.”
“Uh-huh, I was playing with Alex and Hope.”
“The kids are home? What about school?”
She explained the morning off.
“After I read you’d been up all night, I was hoping you’d get some rest.”
“I will as soon as I drive them to school.”
“No, of course not. It’s, um, nice to hear your voice.”
There was a long pause. Jeez, should she not have said that? Email was much safer because you could think about what you wrote.
“I thought maybe it was time to take the next step, Annie.”
“I guess.” Annie still hadn’t decided how many steps she wanted to take with this man. Her insecurities had been heightened by her bad breakup with Keith, and even though two years had passed, she was still sorting things out. But Lauren and Julia said she should push herself, so she would.
“Actually, what I meant to say is I’m glad you called.”
“That’s what I want to hear. Your voice is different from what I thought it might be from your picture.”
“Not sure. I’ll have to hear it again—a few times probably—to decide.” His tone was teasing, flirty. Cute.
“Are you asking if you can call again?”
“Yes. I’d like that.”
“Great. Now I have to go. I’m meeting my mother for our weekly lunch.”
“How sweet.” They had that in common, too—devotion to their moms.
“Take a long nap. And rest tonight.”
“I wish I could. I’m starting a job at a restaurant in town and have to be there by five.”
“Why on earth would you do that?” She was surprised by his autocratic tone. “You already work at a spa, don’t you?”
“Yes, but after I finish school, I’ll need another job until the fall. If I wanted this one, and I do, I had to take it when a position opened up.”
“You work too hard.” His voice lowered a notch. “I worry about you.”
Now, that felt good. It had been a long time since a man had truly worried about her well-being. Keith had, at first, until their relationship had gone sour.
“Thanks, but I’ll be fine.”
Hope wandered outside and waved to Annie.
“I have to make lunch for the kids.”
“All right. Email me later.”
“I will.” She clicked off, buoyed by the call. Spence was like her in so many ways, wanting what she did, sharing her values. Maybe, just maybe, he was a guy she could date.
Spence might have had a rotten track record with women, but there was one in his life he loved unconditionally. His mother, Ellison Brewer Wickham Moretti Matheson.
As he’d told Annie, he tried to have lunch with her weekly when he was in town. Today, he’d brought takeout to her house. They’d spent a leisurely hour talking over her favorite pecan-crusted chicken salad and now sat on the deck of her modest home. The day was pristine with sunshine dusting the wrought-iron furniture and the wooden decking. Cole and his dad, Rick, a retired music teacher, were golfing, and his mother was caring for Ellie. After an hour of cooing and gurgling, the baby had gone down for a nap.
His mother sat with the sun glinting off her golden hair, still slim and pretty at sixty-five. Though she’d had a hard life, you’d never know it by her appearance. “So, are you ready to tell me what’s going on with you and the boys?”
Taking a sip of coffee gave him room for hesitation. She didn’t know about the bet and he wanted to keep it that way. “Has one of them said something to you?”
Cole didn’t have a speck of deception in his gene pool and never could keep a secret. He and Joey had called their youngest brother Snitch for a whole year before Ellison had found out about it and put a stop to their teasing.
“No, they have not! One thing about our lives together that did go well was the three of you have always been close.”
“Our lives were fine, Mom.”
She squeezed his forearm. He’d taken off his suit coat and was in his dress shirt, rolled up at the sleeves. “You suffered because of the wrong choice I made the first the time around.”
“But Joe Moretti was the best and treated me like his son. So did Rick.”
“Yes, I was lucky to find both of them. Unfortunately, your father still influenced you.”
Spence stared out at the wooded backyard. A deer peeked through the trees. Annie would love seeing it. Since he’d talked to her an hour ago, he’d been having a hard time getting her out of his mind. Her voice been rich and sensual. It curled through him like old Scotch.
He turned back to the discussion about his father. “I’ve grown out of his influence, don’t you think, Mom?”
“In some ways. But the armor you’ve built around yourself to keep from letting anybody hurt you is still in place. Even when you were married, Louisa and Jocelyn could never dent it.”
Thoughts of his exes made him angry. “Mother, Louisa cheated on me and Jocelyn decided our lifestyle wasn’t working for her—when she said at the beginning that was exactly what she wanted. They both lied to me. People lie all the time in relationships.”
Once again, he experienced an uncomfortable feeling about the bet he’d made with Cole—that it had come from his desire to somehow prove that the nonexistence of lasting relationships in his life wasn’t his fault.
“You never shared yourself with either of them, dear. It’s amazing that you let the boys in as much as you do.”
She was quiet, her expression troubled. “You don’t really let me in, Spence.”
“I think I do.”
“Not your innermost thoughts. Even with Joey and Cole, you hold back some.”
Swallowing hard, he took her hand. He hated upsetting her. “It’s hard for me to open up.”
“You could start by telling me what’s going on now.”
He felt his face redden.
“You’re jittery talking about this and you’ve checked your email several times since you got here. It can’t be a business deal, because you’re stone cold during those.”
He couldn’t lie when she was staring straight at him. Even when he was little, he’d evaded the truth when they had one of these conversations. “It’s a long story, Mom.”
Though he knew it was more than the time it would take to tell her. His mother would wholly disapprove of the bet and his online deception. Basically, he was ashamed to admit to her how he was deceiving a seemingly lovely woman. So he checked his watch. “And I have to get back to work.”
“Now there’s a fib.”
“Fine, I haven’t been completely open with you, but I can’t tell you anything yet. You might think less of me.…”
“Poor Spence. You don’t have to be so perfect, so in control, you know. Life is messy. You never could accept that fact.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“I won’t judge whatever it is. Your father did, but I won’t.”
“Another piece of the bastard’s legacy.”
Thankfully, Ellie’s cry came through the baby monitor. His mother stood. “I’ll get her.” Before she left, she bent down and kissed his cheek. “We’re not done with this yet, Spencer.”
“I know, Mom. Don’t worry about me.”
“Impossible,” she called out, heading into the house. “Impossible.”
The phone shrilled. Annie startled awake, sat up and then got a glimpse of the clock. “Damn it.” She grabbed the extension in the bedroom.
“Jules? Oh, God, I’m so sorry.”
“No problem. I was leaving the café and noticed you weren’t here.”
“I just woke up. I was at the animal hospital all night with Jake.” She explained the situation.
“You spoil that dog.”
“I’m a sucker for needy animals. I have to shower. I’ll be there soon.”
“Don’t kill yourself getting here,” Julia said. Her friend had always been solicitous, but since Annie’s divorce, she seemed even more concerned about Annie’s welfare. “No customers yet. I can’t stay, though, to see you. I’ll talk to you soon.”
Bounding out of bed, Annie raced to the shower, yanked it on and, after wrapping her hair in a towel, stepped inside. “Arrgh…”
The water was freezing. She needed to be woken up, but she wouldn’t have chosen to do it this way. As the temperature warmed, she kept her head forward and let the needle-like spray pummel her neck and shoulders, which were achy and knotted.
Luxuriating in the aqua massage, her mind drifted to how she would have preferred to be awakened. With a massage, but given by callused masculine hands—maybe Spence’s hands. The woodsy scent of his cologne would encompass her. She’d feel his body heat, his masculine presence behind her in the stall.
Laughing, Annie finished up and left the warmth of the water. Fantasizing about a man was so not her. She was probably doing it because he’d called this morning. After she dried off, she yanked the towel from her head and wiped a circle in the frosted vanity mirror. A very tired woman stared back at her. Circles under her eyes that hadn’t been there yesterday. Hair frizzing a bit from the moisture. Not bad skin for being forty. She shrugged, pulled back her hair, swiped on some concealer and blush, then hurried to the bedroom.
The one she’d shared with Keith. The one where she’d confessed so many of her hopes and dreams to that man, too, because she thought she’d be with him forever. Berating her romanticism, she dressed in the black skirt, white shirt and heels of the servers at the café, then she roused Jake. He yawned, nuzzled her hand and eased off the bed. Following her downstairs in his lumbering gait, the dog went out back to do his business while she got her purse, a light coat and car keys. After Jake came inside, she kissed his head and settled him in his bed and was out the door fifteen minutes after Julia’s call. She arrived at the restaurant a half hour late.
Mary, who managed the wait staff, was at the entrance. “I’m so sorry, Mary. This isn’t the way to make a favorable impression.”
“No worries. A table of four came in just before you got here. Want it?”
“I served drinks, so you have a minute.”
After Annie had stored her belongings, she went out onto the floor of Julia’s Café. The restaurant was well-appointed, with white tablecloths, maroon napkins and candles on every table. Working here was a big perk. Thank God for her best friends. Lauren Lanahan and Julia Camp were also wives of Keith’s cohorts from the country club, and the three couples had been tight. But after Keith had dumped her, the women had not. Refused, in no uncertain terms, to end their friendship.
That was when Annie had discovered the true meaning of loyalty. And in the two years she’d been divorced, the relationship among the three of them had become even richer.
After giving the new patrons time to enjoy drinks, Annie approached their table. Four people, dressed in chic clothes. She hoped they left a substantial tip. Maybe she could buy a new blouse for when she finally met Spence.
“Hello, everyone, I’m…” Her words trailed off. “Keith?”
Her ex-husband’s brows shot up and his features got taut. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here? You have the kids tonight.”
“They’re with a sitter. I have season tickets to the Broadway touring theater.” He glanced at the woman he had been engaged to before he met Annie, and had begun an affair with a year before he left her and the kids. Seeing Belinda Stevens always caused Annie’s insecurities to surface. She was the woman Keith should have married to begin with. His expensive suit complemented her silk sheath, his Rolex went well with her diamonds, and both had expensively styled hair—his dark and hers blond. Annie had to force herself not to tidy the wisps that escaped the clip at the back of her head.
Annie didn’t begrudge people their taste in fine things—she’d had them, too, when she’d been married to Keith. But no matter how dressed up she was, what plagued her, and had from day one with Keith, was a deep sense of inferiority to him. Oh, she’d tried to be what he wanted, but that had backfired and she’d ended up resenting that she couldn’t be herself with him.
“Excuse me a moment.” Keith stood, threw back his chair and loomed over her. “This is unacceptable.” Taking her by the arm, he dragged her away from the table to the coatroom near the entrance.
Stunned by his actions, it took her a minute to come to her senses. Before she could speak, his fingers bit into her arm and he whispered harshly, “Are you trying to embarrass me?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Those people at my table know you and I were married. They’ll think I don’t pay alimony or child support. It looks bad to have my wife working as a waitress.”
“Ex-wife.” She flung off his arm. “Number one, you don’t pay me alimony.”
“Because you won’t let me.”
“Number two, if you ever manhandle me like that again, I’ll call the police and have you arrested for harassment. And to answer your question, I’ve taken a waitress job at the café.”
“Nobody told me that. And I haven’t seen you here in the past.”
“What do you mean? Julia never told me you frequented the place.”
“Only a few times. And your friend wasn’t working then.” He scowled. “In any case, I’ll make sure Lance puts a halt to your employment here.”
Annie gave a sardonic laugh. “You won’t have any more luck with that than when you told him to tell Julia she couldn’t be friends with me.” Straightening her shoulders, Annie lifted her chin, even though she ached inside at the confrontation. She’d once deeply loved this man. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll find somebody else to wait on you. I’ll ask to work in the other room, too, so I don’t…what did you say?…embarrass you.”
Head held high, she started away, then turned back. “Oh, and Keith, don’t come to the café again. I’m not quitting.”
She strode out of the alcove, quickly, so Keith wouldn’t see how upset she was. And how angry she was at herself for her reaction to him. She’d thought, after all this time, she was past letting him… wound her like this with his ambushes.
What had she been thinking to get involved with somebody like him? A girl from the wrong side of the tracks should marry her own kind, her mother had told her, but Annie hadn’t listened.
At least now she’d learned her lesson. Now she was going to stick to men like Spence. Thoughts of the widowed construction worker cheered her up. Maybe she’d ask to meet him.