Heartstrings and Diamond Rings (9 page)

BOOK: Heartstrings and Diamond Rings
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“Yep. And you’re going to love him.”

Brandon sounded so confident that he might has well have said,
I found you a husband. Put on a wedding dress and be at the church at four
, which made the tiny hairs on Alison’s arms stand up with excitement.

“Good,” Alison said, trying to play it cool. “That’s good. Tell me about him.”

“I’ll e-mail you his photo and his information,” Brandon said. “Then you can get back to me and tell me if it’s a go.”

“But what if he doesn’t want to go out with me?”

“I already talked to him. He’s looking forward to meeting you.”

So he’d seen her profile. And her photo. And he wanted to meet her anyway?

No. She had to stop this. The worst thing she could do was act like a loser no matter how many times she’d lost.

“Just a minute…” Brandon said, and Alison heard the clacking of a keyboard in the background. “There. I sent it to you. Can you give me a call back once you decide?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“I already know what your answer’s going to be,” Brandon said, that self-assurance coming through loud and clear once again. “But I’ll wait patiently, anyway.”

She could actually hear the smile in his voice, which made a smile pop out on her own lips. His positive attitude was as contagious as the flu.

 “So he has a match for you?” Heather said after she hung up.

“Yes,” Alison said, trying not to sound smug. “He e-mailed me some information about him.”

Heather grabbed Alison by the arm and pulled her over to a nearby bench. “Let’s have a look.”

Alison swiped through a few screens on her phone and pulled up Brandon’s e-mail. “Okay,” she said. “His name is Greg Faraday.”

“Alison Faraday…” Heather said, trying the name out. “Okay. That’ll work.”

For a long time now, Heather had been insistent about first and last names sounding good together, an obsession that began about the time she’d dated a guy whose last name was Feather.

“He’s a pharmaceutical salesman,” Alison said. “Lives near the West Village.”

“Hmm. High-rent district.” Heather leaned in for a look, then raised an eyebrow. “Six-figure income, huh? Yeah, right. That’s what they all say.”

“This isn’t match dot com. These men are thoroughly screened.”

“How old is he?”

“Thirty-four. His profile says he wants to get married, and he’s open to the idea of having children.”

“Open to the idea? Does that mean he really doesn’t want kids, but he doesn’t want to say so?”

Alison rolled her eyes. “It probably means that he’s open to the idea of having children. Will you stop reading everything under the sun into this?” She scrolled down, pleased to see he actually admitted to liking action‑adventure movies and sports cars, and there wasn’t a word about walks in the park and heart‑to-heart talks while sitting in front of a roaring fire with a glass of fine wine. Finally. A man who didn’t pander to a woman just to get a date, then plop himself in front of Sylvester Stallone movies and NASCAR and holler at his woman to make him a sandwich.

“Oh, my,” Alison said, trying not to swoon. “He’s six feet tall.”

“Yeah? Subtract four inches for exaggeration, and he’s only five eight.”

“Once again,” Alison said impatiently, “these candidates are thoroughly screened by my matchmaker. He makes sure they’re telling the truth.”

She was surprised at how good it felt to say that. She finally had somebody on her side in the battle of the sexes, somebody who was looking out for her best interests. Somebody with a smart, discerning mind prescreening the men who wanted to date her. Never again would she meet a guy online and then find out later that he was tall, dark, and handsome only in a roomful of ugly albino dwarfs.

Then she scrolled down to the man’s photo, and the slow burn of excitement she’d felt for the past few minutes turned into a full-fledged bonfire.

“Wow,” Heather said. “Not bad.”

No. Not just “not bad.” He looked good.
Really
good. He had sandy brown hair, green eyes, and a nice smile. He looked pleasant and responsible and friendly, the kind of man she might actually be able to have a future with.

No. Stop. Don’t jump the gun. Last time you thought any old guy would do, you ended up with Randy.

“So are you going to go out with him?” Heather asked.

Alison swallowed the
hell, yes
that almost shot out of her mouth. “He looks like a decent candidate,” she said instead. “Why shouldn’t I give him a try?”

“Just watch yourself,” Heather said. “And remember First Date Protocol.”

“Always.”
Wherever you’re going, meet him there. If he rambles on about his mother, run. And no matter how hot he is, no sex on the first date.

Alison looked back at Greg’s photo and couldn’t resist feeling a little vindicated. “It looks as if my matchmaker may have come through for me, huh?”

“We’ll see,” Heather said. “Come on. Let’s go have that drink.”

A few minutes later, they came through the door of McCaffrey’s. The early evening crowd was light, with soft country music playing. Tony leaned over the bar as they approached and gave Heather a quick kiss.

“How was the meeting?” he asked them.

“Your wife is a smart ass,” Alison said.

“Ah. Judith Rittenaur must have been there.” He smiled at Heather. “You just can’t keep quiet, can you?”

“I need something to entertain me during those damned meetings.” She rolled her eyes. “Now I know why the last treasurer embezzled two grand and disappeared.”

Alison started to pull out a stool to sit down, only to see a familiar face at the other end of the bar. She came to attention.

“My father’s here again,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “What’s my father doing here?”

“Uh…having dinner?” Tony said.

Alison looked at her father’s plate, and even at this distance, she could tell what was on it. And she was
not
happy about it.

“Has he been coming in a lot lately?” she asked Tony.

“Well…yeah.”

“And you didn’t tell me?”

“He kinda…swore me to silence.”

“Tony!”

“Hey! Haven’t you ever heard of bartender-customer confidentiality?”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Alison muttered. “Who do you think you are? A priest?”

Tony looked at Heather, and Alison read his expression loud and clear.
Poor Charlie is
so
screwed
.

“There’s bound to be something for me to do in the kitchen,” Heather said, already walking away. “Call me when the bleeding stops.”

A
s Heather hurried away, Alison walked down the length of the bar. “Dad? What are you doing here?”

He froze, his fork halfway to his mouth. “Oh. Hey, there, sweetie.”

“What are you eating?”

His fork continued its journey into his mouth, and he talked as he chewed. “What does it look like I’m eating?”

“Chicken fried steak and onion rings. My God. Do you have any
idea
how much fat is in those things?”

“Yep. That’s what makes them so damned good.” He grabbed an onion ring, swirled it in ketchup, and stuffed it into his mouth.

Tony looked over his shoulder as he poured a beer. “Hey, I tried to sell him on the turkey burger, but he wasn’t buying.”

“Only pussies eat turkey burgers,” Charlie said to Alison. “You want your old man to look like a pussy?”

“I want my old man to live to
be
an old man,” Alison said. “What good does it do for me to clean out your kitchen and fill it with decent food if you just come here and eat this stuff?”

“You’re a broken record, just like your mother was. Back then it was Dr. Whatever’s protein diet. If you ate carbs, you were going to die. I ate carbs. I didn’t die.”

“Cholesterol is different.” Alison slid onto a barstool next to him. “If your cholesterol is too high, your arteries will get all clogged, and then you’ll have a heart attack. Do you want to have a heart attack?”

“How about I eat some green stuff once in a while? Will that make you happy?”

“As long as the green stuff isn’t guacamole dip and a margarita.”

“Oops,” Tony said to Charlie. “Looks like she’s on to you.”

Charlie glared at him. “Hey, kid. Don’t you have some other customers to bother?”

Tony just smiled and moved on down the bar to set beers in front of a couple of the regulars.

“How was your doctor’s appointment this morning?” Alison asked.

“Like every other doctor’s appointment. They poke around on you, stick you for blood, tell you to pee in a cup, and send you home.”

“When do you get the results of your lab tests?”

“When they call me.”

“Which is going to be—?”

“When the phone rings.”

Alison sighed. “Are you taking your medication?”

“It gives me the runs.”

“But are you
taking
it?”

“Yes, I’m taking it.” He slid his plate toward her. “Here. Why don’t you eat some of these onion rings if you don’t want me to?”

“I can’t,” Alison said on a sigh. “They go straight to my hips.”

“Suit yourself,” he said.

But as he was pulling the plate back, she grabbed it. “Well, maybe just one.”

She doused an onion ring with ketchup and took a bite, feeling as if she’d just been transported to heaven. Good Lord—was there anything better than a big ol’ greasy fried onion ring?
Anything?

“So what’s new with you?” Charlie asked.

Alison started to tell him she was going on a date with a new man, but he’d only ask her where she’d met him. She couldn’t lie—her father had the eyes and ears of a human lie detector. And then the rant would begin. If he thought a guy who ate turkey burgers was a pussy, he’d definitely go off on a matchmaking man.

“Job okay?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah. Focus groups out the wazoo. Turns out people love chocolate-covered pretzels, but they hate pretzels with chocolate in the middle. Go figure.”

Her father stopped eating and looked at her. “Pretzels with chocolate in the middle? How do they do that?”

“I don’t really know,” Alison said. “Maybe the same way they get that cream in the middle of a Twinkie.”

Her father shrugged and kept on eating.

“Heather and I just got back from a board meeting of the Preservation League,” Alison told him. “The home tour is going to be great this year.”

“I don’t get it,” Charlie said. “People pay good money to see inside other people’s houses. What’s with that?”

“It’s because they’re historic homes.”

“So’s mine, but nobody’s beating down my door wanting to see it.”

“Dad, your house was built in 1972. Not exactly a banner year for interesting architecture.”

“Good thing. I don’t like strangers in my house.”

“That’s because you’re a grumpy old man. Next you’ll be yelling at kids to get off your lawn.”

“Nah. I like kids. It’s adults I can’t stand.”

Her father’s crabbiness was nothing new. He’d been that way since Alison could remember, but underneath that gruff exterior was a surprisingly big heart and a giving nature. Not that there weren’t strings attached. He’d give a person the shirt right off his own back, but not before he told him exactly how to wash it, hang it, and wear it. Men didn’t come any more opinionated than Charlie Carter, and Alison was still in awe that he’d managed to find and marry the one woman on earth he couldn’t intimidate. The way the two of them had gone at it sometimes would have convinced a casual observer that divorce court was just around the corner.

Charlie, do I look like the maid to you? Pick up your damned newspapers off the bathroom floor.

Listen to me, Lorena. I don’t care if I end up weighing four hundred pounds. I want Bud. Not Bud Light. They made that Bud Light crap just to get girls to drink beer.

PMS? You’re damned right I have PMS! It stands for Pass My Shotgun, which means you’d better sleep with one eye open, buster.

Hey, Lorena! What the hell is with that new laundry soap? It makes my clothes smell like a freakin’ flower garden. Another man smells that, I’m gonna get my ass kicked.

But no matter how sharp the words were that they threw at each other, they seemed to bounce right off. As a child, Alison had never sensed animosity. The older she got, the more she understood the underlying fondness they shared, and by the time she was a teenager, she saw it as a dance of pure love. They’d hurl their half‑hearted insults, and then five minutes later Alison would glance into the kitchen to see her father goose her mother in the ribs as she washed her hands at the sink. She’d spin around and he’d pull her into a kiss, then slap her on the fanny as he headed back out the door.

And so it went for thirty-four years, right up to her mother’s last hours.
Find another woman, Charlie
, she’d said.
You’re not happy unless you have somebody to torment.
But Alison still remembered the tears in her mother’s eyes as she spoke, and the way her father had held her hand in a desperate grip, silently begging her not to go.

That seemed like a thousand years ago. Another lifetime. And her father had never even looked at another woman since then, no matter how often Alison encouraged him to. He said he and Blondie got along just fine by themselves, but the company of a golden retriever went only so far when it came to filling the void in his life. And as much as Alison loved her three cats, they couldn’t do the job for her, either.

“Gotta go, sweetie,” Charlie said. “Need to let Blondie out before she pees on the rug.”

“I’ll see you on Thursday for movie night.”

“Fine. But we’re not watching another one of those girly things. I’m still getting over
Titanic
.”

Alison frowned. “A ship sank. I thought you’d like that.”

“Yeah, and if that DiCaprio kid and Whatserface hadn’t gotten in the way, I might have been able to enjoy it.”

“Don’t worry, Dad. We’ll make sure there are cops and guns and car chases. And maybe some kung fu.”

“Now you’re talking.” Charlie slid off the stool and tossed a few bills on the bar.

“Promise me you’ll at least try the turkey burger next time,” Alison said. “With a side of coleslaw, or maybe a green salad.”

He made a face. “That sounds like crap.”

Sounded like crap to Alison, too, but she didn’t have clogged arteries. “You’ll thank me at your ninetieth birthday party.”

“No thanks. I don’t want to live to be ninety.”

“That’s because you’re not eighty-nine.”

“You need to stop worrying about me,” he said as he walked away. “I’m healthy as a horse, unless you count the damned hemorrhoids. I’ll see you on Thursday.”

“Hey, Dad.”

He turned back.

“What do you know about air conditioners?”

Charlie shrugged. “Enough to make sure they stay running. Why do you ask? Somebody need some help?”

“Not sure yet. Stay tuned.”

“You just give me a call, okay? I’ll hop right over.”

 

When Alison hadn’t heard from Greg by midafternoon the next day, she was starting to think maybe he didn’t exist after all and Brandon really had skipped town with her fifteen hundred bucks. She was up to her eyeballs in a report comparing consumer opinions about the crispness of their new peanut butter sandwich cookies. They had to be tough enough to stand up to milk dunking, but not so tough they cracked molars. Judging from the feedback on the prototype, something needed to change or Spangler Sweets was going to be paying a lot of dental bills.

She eyed the Mallorific bar on the corner of her desk. She’d put it there that morning as today’s test to see how long she could go without ripping it open and snarfing it in three heavenly bites. She checked her watch. Two forty-five. If she went until three o’clock, she’d set a new record. Eventually—say, by the time she retired—she’d be able to go an entire day without succumbing to her sweet tooth in spite of the fact that she worked at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

The truth was that just about everyone who worked for Spangler Sweets was addicted to some product it produced, and most of those people were just a little bit overweight. Okay, most were downright hefty. A good percentage of her co-workers would probably accept regular home shipments of Choco-Pretzels or Coconutty Drops in lieu of health insurance and a decent pension. It was a daily struggle for Alison to keep her hands off the merchandise, which was spread far and wide throughout the building. On the other hand, it was nice to work in a place where she could stand next to her co-workers and feel thin by comparison.

She’d held this job for just over a year and loved it, particularly when she compared it to her last job. When she graduated from college, marketing jobs had been few and far between, so to pay the bills, she’d applied for the loan officer training program at Southwestern Savings Bank. After several years doing the most boring job imaginable, for which she was entirely unsuited, she’d gotten this job at Spangler Sweets and had been thankful ever since.

When her phone rang a few minutes later, she had to dig under mounds of paper and a Subway sack before she found it. When she saw Greg’s name on the caller ID, her heart kicked up a notch. Before she picked it up, she took a deep, calming breath through her nose and let it out through her mouth, which was the only thing of value that had stuck with her from the yoga class from hell.

As it turned out, Greg sounded nice. Normal. As if he’d never had even a passing thought about having two women in his bed at once, blowing his nose on a cloth napkin, or coming out of the closet. A few minutes later, they’d made a date for seven on Saturday night at Sonoma Bistro, a trendy wine bar in the West Village. He offered to pick her up. A nice gesture, but a violation of First Date Protocol would have doomed the date from the start. By the time she hung up, her faith in Brandon had risen. Just a little. No sense in getting all girly excited when so much could still go wrong.

“Hey, Alison.”

The voice was so close behind her that Alison nearly jumped out of her chair. She turned to see Lois Wasserman hanging over her like a vulture. Lois was approximately as wide as she was tall, a dead ringer for Rosie O’Donnell. Assuming, of course, that Rosie gained fifty pounds, bleached her hair, and then teased it into a fright wig.

Lois nodded down at the Mallorific bar on the corner of Alison’s desk. “You gonna eat that?”

“Yeah. I’m gonna eat it.”

“You are?”

“Yeah.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I’m sure.”

Alison turned back to her spreadsheets again, which should have been a signal to any member of the civilized world to turn around and walk away. Not Lois. She was clearly raised by those vultures she loved to imitate—a flock of overbearing, overeating creatures that had taught her how to circle unobtrusively, then go in for the kill. Several seconds later when Lois was still standing there, Alison turned back with a frustrated sigh.

“Lois. There are plenty more in the kitchen.”

“Plumbers are in the kitchen. The sink backed up all over the floor.”

“I thought you kept a stash at your desk.”

“I’m on a diet.”

“You’re on a diet, but you want my Mallorific bar?”

“I didn’t say it was a good diet.”

Lois shifted her considerable bulk from one foot to the other, still focused on that Mallorific bar, annoying Alison to no end. In fact, she annoyed just about everybody who worked there. Probably the only reason she still had a job was that, by some freak of nature, she just happened to be an amazing graphic artist. She could wear a wrinkled pea green blouse, a multicolored broomstick skirt, and flip-flops to the office, only to turn around and produce work so beautiful it made the bigwigs weep with joy. It was a mystery nobody had ever been able to figure out.

But right now, Alison had the most unsettling feeling that if she kept saying no about the Mallorific bar, Lois would peck her eyeballs out.

“Take it,” she said finally.

“What?”

“Take the candy bar.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Is it your last one? I don’t want to take your last one.”

“Yes, it’s my last one. On second thought—”

Before Alison even knew what was happening, Lois was on that candy bar like a vulture on a hyena carcass, ripping open the wrapper with a flick of her wrist and then digging her beak—uh,
teeth
—right into it.

“Sounded like you were making a date earlier,” Lois said as she gnawed through the gooey lump of marshmallow, cashews, and chocolate. “Were you making a date?”

“Yeah. I was making a date. Thanks for eavesdropping. How else would I know you care?”

BOOK: Heartstrings and Diamond Rings
4.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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