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Authors: Diane Barnes

Mixed Signals

BOOK: Mixed Signals
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MIXED SIGNALS
Ben starts to say something, but the waitress returns with our drinks, a beer for him and a glass of wine for me. As she places them in front of us, I notice a group of women at the bar checking him out. “I think they're into you,” I say, dipping my head in their direction. He turns toward them. One of them waves.
He looks back at me. “She's not bad,” he says. “Let's find someone for you.” We both search the room. Even though we're in a sports bar, there are definitely more women than men here, probably about four to one. “How about him?” he asks, pointing to a scraggly looking man with greasy blond hair and a long, unkempt beard. The guy's shirt and pants are stained. “Filthy, just like you like them.”
“Oh yeah, the dirtier, the better.”
“I can get pretty dirty,” Ben says in a flirty tone.
“Mmm,” I say, sipping my drink. “You are downright nasty in your color-coordinated outfits.”
Ben looks around the room. “There isn't anyone here who does it for you?”
A bunch of high school boys to our right are shooting spitballs at each other, two old men to our left are staring up at the television, and a really cute boy who looks about eight years old is having dinner with his mother in front of us. “Nope.”
He leans across the table toward me. “Not even me?”
I try to answer in a joking manner, but the look of fear that crossed my face may have already outed me. “Well, that goes without saying. Too bad you don't plug it in at work.” I wink at him.
“I'd make an exception for you . . .”
Books by Diane Barnes
 
 
WAITING FOR ETHAN
 
MIXED SIGNALS
 
 
 
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Mixed Signals
Diane Barnes
LYRICAL SHINE
Kensington Publishing Corp.
www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
To the extent that the image or images on the cover of this book depict a person or persons, such person or persons are merely models, and are not intended to portray any character or characters featured in the book.
 
LYRICAL SHINE BOOKS are published by
 
Kensington Publishing Corp.
119 West 40th Street
New York, NY 10018
 
Copyright © 2016 by Diane Barnes
 
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.
 
 
Lyrical Shine and Lyrical Shine logo Reg. U.S. Pat. & TM Off.
 
First Electronic Edition: September 2016
ISBN: 978-1-6165-0790-9
 
ISBN-13: 978-1-61650-791-6
ISBN-10: 1-61650-791-8
To Shirley: You taught me about strength,
courage, and playing the hand you're dealt. In my
heart, you are kayaking, skiing, playing golf, and
taking long, pain-free walks along the rocky Maine
coast again.
We love and miss you.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Wow! My second novel is published. A huge thanks to editor in chief at Kensington, John Scognamiglio, for liking
Waiting for Ethan
enough to publish it
and
a second book. Thank you to Rebecca Cremonese as well as the copy editors and proofreaders at Kensington who catch my mistakes. Thanks to my agent Liza Fleissig, who helped me become a published author!
Last year was a mad writing frenzy. I never would have finished this novel without help from my husband Steve, who cooked all our meals, stocked the house with chocolate and wine (very important!), and never complained about the things I skipped out on so I could write.
Molly, Lynda, and Ann, our writing retreat in Chicago got this story going. Your encouragement, and the support from the rest of our group: Vicki, Celia, Barb, and Carol, has been a gift I treasure. Susan Timmerman, your feedback early in the process helped me develop the story. My writing group at the Hudson library: Tiana, Martha, Jeanette, Neville, Steve, and Peter, is an invaluable resource who not only critiques my chapters but also coaches me on my public speaking skills.
Julie, thanks for letting me bounce ideas off you and for reading the manuscript.
Thank you to my sister Susan, who read a few drafts and offered enthusiasm and encouragement that fueled me through the writing process.
Finally, thank you to anyone who reads this novel. I greatly appreciate the support.
Chapter 1
“H
ave you set a date?” The phone line crackles with my mother's excitement. It's our regular Saturday morning call, and it's the first time we've spoken since Nico moved out. I twist the diamond around my left finger, thinking about how to respond.
My landlord, Mr. O'Brien, is the only one who knows Nico's gone. He left last Sunday, exactly twenty-three days after giving me the ring. Packed all his belongings in the back of his pickup during halftime and drove off near the end of the fourth quarter, minutes after Tom Brady was sacked. Mr. O'Brien watched the whole thing from his living room window. After Nico drove away, he came out to the walkway where I was standing and trying not to cry. He pointed to an oil spot where Nico's truck had been. “If he comes back, you tell him no more parking in the driveway.”
“Jillian, are you still there?” my mother asks.
I take a deep breath and relax my shoulders. “We haven't set a date yet.”
“I guess it will depend on the reception hall.” I hear pages turning and imagine her flipping through a calendar. “Dad and I are thinking of coming next month. I have a list of places we can visit.”
“Next month's not good.” I can feel my underarms getting sticky. “Work is really busy, for me and Nico both.”
“You work too hard. Can't you take some time off?”
Outside the sound of a snowblower starting startles me. I walk to my bedroom window and lift the shade. There are about five inches on the driveway that Mr. O'Brien and his grandson Zachary are clearing, and it's still coming down. I didn't know it was supposed to snow. I guess I haven't been paying attention to the forecast, or anything else, since Nico left. “Come in the spring when the weather is better. Nico will get Dad Red Sox tickets. Up on the Green Monster.” Nico produces
BS Morning Sports Talk
, a Boston-based radio show. Tickets are a perk of his job.
“I think he'd rather see the Bruins,” she says.
“We'll take him to a game at the end of the season.” Hockey goes for another three months. Nico will be back long before then. He is coming back. I'm sure of it because his favorite coat is still hanging on the back of the kitchen chair. That worn brown leather jacket is as much a part of him as his ever-present razor stubble. He never would have left it here if he didn't plan to return.
“How is Nico?” my mother asks. “Excited about getting married?” Outside, the snowblower stops.
“Nervous.” That's not a lie. Why else would he do what he did?
She laughs. “Can I talk to him?”
In the nineteen months that Nico has lived with me, she has never once asked to speak with him. My shirt is now soaked under the arms. I'll have to take a shower when I hang up. “He's not here,” I manage to say.
“Where is he?”
“At his sister's.” Also true. He called Monday after he left to tell me he's staying with her, his eight-year-old twin nieces, his three-month old nephew, and Baxter, the miniature schnauzer. My doorbell rings. “Mom, I have to go.”
I disconnect and rush to open the door. Mr. O'Brien stands there shivering in an unzipped Red Sox winter jacket and his grease-streaked blue baseball cap with the red B. I hold the door open for him to come in. He doesn't move. I swear he's looking at my ring. What he's thinking is so clear that there may as well be a thought bubble floating over his head:
Why are you still wearing that? He's gone and not coming back.
Finally he lifts his head. His watery blue eyes meet mine. Every time we talk, I fight the urge to get my tweezers and pull out the wiry dark hairs that stick straight out of his bushy white eyebrows.
“I need you to move your car to the end of the driveway.” He trudges back across the porch without waiting for me to answer.
The first six or so years that I lived on the left side of Mr. O'Brien's duplex, he liked me. Gave me tomatoes from his garden every summer and a break on my rent every Christmas. The day after Nico moved in, he stopped me on the staircase to the basement, where I was heading to do my laundry. “He's living with you now?” His expression and tone were the same as my mother's the day I told her I wanted to quit piano lessons. “More wear and tear on the property. Higher water bills. I'm going to have to raise your rent.” He tugged on the bill of his dirty Red Sox cap. “Two hundred more a month.”
“Two hundred!” It was a 25 percent increase.
“Okay, one fifty.”
So now I pay more and don't get any tomatoes or December discounts.
I bundle up in my ski coat, hat, gloves, and boots and head outside to move my car and help Mr. O'Brien and Zachary with the shoveling. We didn't have to worry about snow removal last winter because Nico has a plow on his truck. He needs it because he leaves for work at four thirty in the morning and has to go in regardless of the road conditions. His show never gets canceled. Boston loves to talk sports.
“Where's your boyfriend with the plow?” Zachary asks. His voice is much deeper than I remember, and he must have had a growth spurt since the summer because he towers over me and his grandfather now.
Mr. O'Brien is bending over the snowblower, about to pull the cord that starts it. He straightens.
“He's away.” I'm focusing so hard on clearing the snow from my windshield that you'd think the task requires a doctorate.
“I hope he's back before the next storm,” Zachary says.
Me too.
* * *
When I go back inside, I have a message from my best friend, Rachel, inviting me and Nico to her house for dinner. Rachel has called four times since he left. I've ignored all her messages instructing me to call her back. I don't want to tell her about Nico because she'll hold it against him long after he returns. Rachel didn't think it was a good idea for me to let Nico move in, not without a ring. When the one-year anniversary of Nico's move-in date passed with no mention of marriage, she told me I needed to give him a deadline. I didn't, but I did tell him what Rachel said.
“What kind of deadline?” he asked. He was watching a baseball game, and he didn't take his eyes off the television.
“If you don't propose within six months, she wants me to kick you out.”
“Damn it, no!” he yelled.
“I'm just telling you what she said.”
He climbed out of his recliner and headed toward the kitchen for another beer. As he passed me, he said, “He walked the bases loaded and then Sandoval swings on the first pitch and hits into a double play. Inning over. No runs.”
I turned my attention back to my book, sure he had no idea what I had just told him, but five months later, after he proposed, he winked and said, “Now you don't have to throw me out.”
Even though I wouldn't have asked Nico to leave, it was time for us to get engaged. I'm thirty-four. He's thirty-eight. We'd been dating for six years. Rachel says every year spent dating in your thirties is like three years of dating in your twenties because by your thirties, you know exactly what you want. I don't know why she thinks she's such an expert. She got married at twenty-seven and was a mother by twenty-nine. She has three children now and is talking about having a fourth.
The day before Nico moved out, he and I spent the afternoon babysitting Rachel's kids. On the ride home from her house, Nico was uncharacteristically quiet. When we pulled into our driveway, he killed the engine and turned to me. “I don't think I can do this.”
The curtains in Mr. O'Brien's living room shifted, and the old man's face appeared in the window. “Do what?”
“The husband, father, family thing.”
I pulled my eyes off Mr. O'Brien and turned toward Nico. Even though the truck was parked, he had a death grip on the steering wheel. “What are you talking about?”
“I just—” He stopped talking and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I'm sorry, Jill.” Our eyes met. He had tears in the corners of his. “I don't want to be a father. I'd be lousy at it.”
“But you're great with Rachel's kids.”
Nico rested his head on the steering wheel. The motion lights clicked off, and the driveway turned dark. I touched his arm. “Hey, it's okay. You have a little case of cold feet. It's normal. I'm nervous too. We'll get through it.”
“Yeah,” he said. “A minor case of cold feet, that must be what it is.” Early in our relationship I might not have recognized his sarcasm, but I was an expert at identifying it now. He opened the driver's door. The lights snapped back on as he stepped onto the driveway. “I wouldn't be a good husband, Jill.” He slammed the driver's door with so much force that the entire truck shook. I unbuckled my seat belt but stayed put in the passenger seat, watching Nico as he made his way down the walkway, up the stairs, and across the front porch to our side of the house. If I hadn't seen him just leave the vehicle, I might have thought the retreating image was Mr. O'Brien, the way his shoulders slumped and his back hunched.
We didn't talk anymore about what Nico said that night. When I left for the tennis club just before noon the next day, he was settled on the couch watching the Patriots' pregame show. I got home about two and a half hours later to find his pickup filled with boxes of his belonging and his hideous orange recliner. I wanted to back out of the driveway, race back to the club, and smash fuzzy green balls all over the court.
Instead, I made myself get out of the car and on wobbly legs forced myself to go inside and hear whatever it was he was about to say. Nico was sitting on the couch watching the football game. On television, the sports announcer screamed, “And Brady's sacked. The ball is loose!”
Nico stood. “I'm sorry, Jill. I can't go through with it.”
The talking head on TV was still yelling. “Was his arm going forward or was it a fumble?”
“Fumble,” Nico said as he walked past me and out the door.
BOOK: Mixed Signals
6.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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