Heartstrings and Diamond Rings (3 page)

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It was impossible to state just how much of a pain in the ass the three of them could be, and Alison loved them right down to their claws of destruction and their six a.m. drag races up and down the hall. She hadn’t intended to adopt them, but maybe it was a good thing she had. The way her luck was going, they might be all she’d
ever
have.

She put on sweatpants, a T‑shirt, and a pair of flip‑flops and felt marginally better. She decided she was going to eat enough ice cream to get brain freeze, then warm her head back up with half a dozen vodka shots. And through it all, she intended to obliterate everything Randy from her phone, her Facebook, and her e-mail. If she got inebriated enough, when she got home, she’d head over to the forums at the Knot and spam them with
love sucks
messages, then grab a couple of issues of
Modern Bride
from her magazine rack and shred them.

Now,
that
was wallowing in misery.

Then Monday on her lunch hour, she’d head over to see Rochelle and pray the woman could work miracles.

A
t noon on Monday, Alison brought her car to a halt in front of a dreamy little two-story prairie-style house on the outskirts of downtown Plano. It was painted a soft, mossy green with burgundy trim, and its front porch spanned the width of the house. Ivy twined around the porch rails. The landscaping was a little scraggly and overgrown, but an hour or two with pruning shears and a weed eater would do a world of good. In spite of the fact that she lived in a contemporary condo, whenever Alison closed her eyes and dreamed of marriage and family, she was living in a house like this.

A lot of the houses in this area had been converted to office spaces—a lawyer here, a therapist there, a dentist, a yoga studio. A lot of those people worked downstairs, lived upstairs. If not for the small sign beside the house at 614 State Street that read “Matchmaking by Rochelle” with an arrow pointing around to the rear of the house, Alison wouldn’t have had a clue she was in the right place. She’d called ahead that morning to ask for an appointment. A man had answered who she assumed was Rochelle’s husband. He told her noon was fine, so here she was.

Circling around to the back of the house, she found a French door with a sign that said Please Come In. She opened the door into a large room that probably hadn’t been redecorated since the house was new. That could have been a bad thing, but it was all so charming that Alison couldn’t help smiling. A flowered sofa with curvy Victorian lines and brocade pillows filled one wall. Beside it, a slender, elegant lamp with gold scrollwork sat on a Queen Ann end table. The midday sun filtered through a big stained-glass window, casting a multicolored glow on the polished hardwoods. A lot of people might have thought the house was a little old, a little dusty, a little dreary, and definitely in need of repairs. But to Alison, a house like this was a home.

Then she glanced to the other side of the room where a man sat behind a desk. He looked up as she closed the door and rose to greet her. The moment their eyes met, she stopped short, feeling as if her feet were fused to the floor.

Oh, my God.

Alison knew she was a walking cliché—a woman who adored men who were tall, dark, and handsome—but she just couldn’t help it. She just accepted the fact that it was imprinted on her DNA and lived with it.

And, boy, was she living with it now.

He was at least six one or six two, with thick, dark hair and deep brown eyes. A hint of a five o’clock shadow darkened his face, giving him a rugged sensuality that made her think of winters in Wyoming in front of big, roaring fires. He wore jeans and a blue cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, revealing strong, tanned forearms. With a practiced sweep of her eyes she’d acquired through years of careful practice, she automatically took note of his left hand.

No ring.

There was only one explanation for this man’s presence here today. Not only was Rochelle a master matchmaker, she was also psychic. She’d read Alison’s mind, found her this incredibly gorgeous man, and had him waiting for her. Fifteen hundred bucks and he was hers.

Now
that
was service.

“You must be Alison,” he said, coming around the desk and holding out his hand, flashing her a friendly smile. “I’m Brandon. Brandon Scott.”

She shook his hand, and it was perfect—warm and smooth, his handshake firm but gentle.
I could get used to hands like these
, she thought, even as she knew fate would never allow her the chance to. This was the kind of genetically blessed man who never gave a woman like her a second glance.

He motioned to a guest chair in front of the desk. “Have a seat.”

She sat down tentatively, then looked over her shoulder. “Uh…I’m looking for Rochelle?”

He sat back down at the desk, his smile dimming. “I’m afraid she’s not here. Rochelle died of a heart attack two weeks ago.”

Alison blinked. “Died? But the person I talked to this morning—”

“That was me.”

“But I don’t understand. If Rochelle isn’t here—”

“Rochelle may be gone, but her business is alive and well.”

“So there’s a new matchmaker?”

“Yes.” A smile spread slowly across his face. “You’re talking to him.”

Alison couldn’t have been more stunned if he’d slapped her. Matchmakers were supposed to be little old ladies who offered you a cup of tea, then paged through a dusty book and magically located your soul mate. They weren’t supposed to look like a man who’d stepped right out of her daydreams.

“You?” she said. “
You’re
a matchmaker?”

“I’m Rochelle’s grandson.”

Alison felt a stab of sympathy. “Then she was your grandmother? Oh…I’m so sorry. Her death must have been such a shock.”

“Thank you,” Brandon said, his face darkening. “It was rather sudden. But my grandmother loved this business, and she wanted it to go on. I’ll be maintaining the clients she was working with at the time of her death as well as soliciting new business.”

Alison felt the strangest push-pull she’d ever experienced in her life. Under normal circumstances, she’d pay fifteen hundred bucks just to look at this guy for an hour or so. But allow a strange man to pick out a man for her? How incredibly weird was that?

“I’m sorry Mr.…uh…”

“Brandon.”

“Brandon. I don’t think this is going to work out.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“I was expecting a woman, so—”

“Ah, so you think only a woman can be a matchmaker?”

Wasn’t that obvious? “Well, you have to admit that a matchmaking man is a little…weird.”

“What makes you think a man wouldn’t be capable of choosing the perfect partner for you?”

“Well, no reason, really,” Alison said, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable. “Except that men don’t usually understand women very well. So finding them the right man—”

“You’re absolutely right. Most men don’t understand women. But I’m not the kind of man you’re used to dealing with. Trust me when I tell you,” he said with a sly smile, “I know women.”

If he meant “know” in the biblical sense, she had no doubt hundreds of women would like very much to be known by him. But when it came to a woman’s psyche, she doubted his understanding was much different from the average man’s. In other words, no matter what he professed, he was clueless about women.

He sat back in his chair. “You think I’m clueless about women, don’t you?”

When her thought came out of his mouth, Alison blinked with surprise. “I‑I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to. I’m also pretty good at reading body language.”

Oh, hell. Now he was looking at her body, which she’d never been terribly proud of, which made her want to slither out the door and never come back.

“I guess I’m going to have to prove it to you,” he said.

Her heart thumped. “Prove it to me?”

He narrowed his eyes and stared at her thoughtfully for a few moments. “I’d say you’re about…” He tilted his head. “Twenty‑eight, twenty-nine, but no older than thirty one. You’ve been in a couple of pretty serious relationships over the years, but they all ended badly. You want to meet new men, but you’ve gotten so cynical that you believe the worst about them before they even open their mouths. Lately you’ve started to believe it’s actually possible you’re going to spend the rest of your life alone.”

Alison swallowed hard, feeling as transparent as a plate-glass window. “You just described half the women in the Dallas metroplex.”

His eyes never leaving hers, he tapped his fingertips together thoughtfully. “You think about men all the time. I wouldn’t say it’s an obsession, but you’re definitely focused. For instance, when you shop for a dress, you don’t buy one based on what you like. You buy one based on what you think your man of the moment will like.”

She thought about evil three-way mirror at Saks and Randy’s big-butt proclamation. This guy was getting too close for comfort.

“When I say the word ‘bridesmaid,’” he went on, “you don’t think about a beautiful wedding. You think about the three or four ugly bridesmaid dresses cluttering your closet.”

Wrong. Two. That was all she had. Just two. And to be fair, the one she wore in Heather’s wedding really wasn’t ugly at all.

“And since you’re looking all the time,” he said, “it’s hard for you even to have a conversation with a single man without evaluating him as husband material.”

Alison’s heart jolted. “That’s not true.”

“Yeah? When you came into this office and saw a man sitting behind this desk, what was your first thought? Did you think, ‘What’s a man doing running a matchmaking service?’ Or did you scope out my left hand for a ring?”

Alison’s mouth fell open. “I did not—”

He held up his palm. “Hey, when you’re focused on finding the right guy, everybody’s a candidate. I get that. But now you’ve gotten to the point where you don’t trust your own judgment anymore, so you’re willing to pay somebody else to do your judging for you.”

“Somebody else, maybe,” she said, feeling as flustered as she ever had in her life. “But I thought that somebody was going to be Rochelle. I still think a woman would be best.”

“Because you still think a woman knows more about women than a man ever could?”

“No offense.”

“None taken. It’s a common misconception.” He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the desk, his gaze fixed on hers. “Tell me, Alison. Why is it that you’re not engaged, but you have a subscription to
Modern Bride
magazine?”

Alison’s face heated up with embarrassment. “That’s it. This isn’t going to work. A man who’s a matchmaker is just
wrong
.”

He smiled at her.

“No. It really is. Particularly since you haven’t been at this very long. Like, hardly at all. How am I supposed to trust you when you have no track record?”

He pointed to the mahogany staircase along the far wall that led to the second floor. “See those stairs over there?”

Alison turned around. “Yeah?”

“When I was a kid,” he said, “I used to sit on those stairs, listening to my grandmother talk to her clients. Most of the women were a lot like you. They’d been out there trying so hard to make the kind of love connection they’d always dreamed about, but they always came up empty. But my grandmother…” A smile passed over his lips. “She had a knack. An intuition. Almost a sixth sense about who belonged with whom. And no matter how skeptical they were when they walked through the door, six months later, when they were wearing a ring, suddenly they weren’t skeptical anymore. Was she a hundred percent right all the time? No. But she sure increased the odds for a lot of women to find good men.”

The sincerity he radiated seemed to waft over to Alison and wrap itself around her like a warm blanket. But the very reason she was here—because she didn’t trust herself when it came to making decisions about men—was precisely what kept her from feeling comfortable trusting this one.

“But that was your grandmother. I don’t mean to be negative, but are you sure you can do this?”

“My grandmother took tremendous pride in her business. If she didn’t think I was competent to run it, why else would she have willed it to me?”

Okay. So that was a pretty good point.

“What kind of guarantee do you have?” she asked him.

“No guarantee. I offer five quality introductions. If I made my services unlimited, would my clients make an effort to really get to know the people I match them with? Or would they give it a half-hearted effort, always assuming somebody better was just around the corner?”

“So I could give you fifteen hundred dollars and end up with no one?”

“That,” he said with a smile of supreme confidence, “is not going to happen.”

Everything about this man seemed positive and sincere. Even if she wasn’t quite sure he was up to snuff as a matchmaker, she didn’t doubt
he
believed he was. And because she was a little short on self-confidence herself, she really admired it when she saw it in somebody else.

“Excuse me,” he said suddenly, reaching into his jeans pocket. “Sorry. I need to take this call.”

Call? She hadn’t heard a ring. Then she realized he must have had his phone on vibrate.

He hit the talk button. He turned away a little, as if to make his conversation more private, but she heard him loud and clear.

“Brandon Scott,” he said, and then a big smile crossed his face. “Hi, Susan!” he said in a cheery voice. “So you and Jeff had lunch together. How did it go?”

Alison’s eyes may have been on a Victorian print on the wall to her right, but her ears were tuned to every word that came out of Brandon’s mouth.

“Wow,” Brandon said. “That’s great news! I’m so glad you hit it off.” A pause, and then he laughed. “Now you know that’s not true. I’m not better at this than my grandmother was. I’m just glad I was able to pick up on the work she’d already done with you and go from there.”

They chatted for a few minutes more, with Brandon admonishing Susan that no matter how much fun she and Jeff were having, next time she needed to watch the clock so she wasn’t an hour late getting back to work.

Alison felt a shot of envy. She wanted to be the woman on the other end of that phone who’d had such a great first date that she’d forgotten all about the time. Not once in her life had Alison done anything but muddle through a first date and pray there was more to the guy than bad table manners and a driving need to talk endlessly about his divorce.

Finally Brandon hung up and turned back to Alison. “I’m sorry. Now…where were we?”

Alison was still thinking about that phone conversation. Could he do for her what he’d done for Susan? Introduce her to a man who made time stand still?

“We were talking about your fee,” she said hesitantly. “It’s a little…high. I mean, compared to Internet dating…”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Think of it this way, Alison. Internet dating is like a ten‑dollar buffet. You pick out several things that look good, put them on your plate, and hope you can stomach at least a few of them. Matchmaking is like eating at the chef’s table at a gourmet restaurant. You put yourself in his hands and trust that you’re in for a five-star experience.”

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