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Authors: Dorothy Howell

Tote Bags and Toe Tags

BOOK: Tote Bags and Toe Tags
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Books by Dorothy Howell
 
HANDBAGS AND HOMICIDE
 
PURSES AND POISON
 
SHOULDER BAGS AND SHOOTINGS
 
CLUTCHES AND CURSES
 
TOTE BAGS AND TOE TAGS
 
 
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Tote Bags and Toe Tags
DOROTHY HOWELL
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
To David, Stacy, Seth, Judy and Brian
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The author is eternally grateful to the many people who generously gave their time, effort, and support to the writing of this book. Some of them are David Howell, Stacy Howell, Judith Branstetter, Seth Branstetter, Brian Branstetter, Martha Cooper, Hannah Dennison, and William F. Wu, Ph.D. Many thanks to Evan Marshall of the Evan Marshall Agency, and to John Scognamiglio and the talented team at Kensington Publishing for all their hard work.
C
HAPTER
1
A
whole new me. That's what I wanted.
Not that there was anything wrong with the old me, really. But there had been some comments. A few whispers. An occasional eyebrow bob in my direction. A couple of—
Well, anyway, a whole new me seemed in order.
After a run of not-so-great luck—long story—I knew I had to turn things around. So I did—big time.
I'd finally figured out—for now, anyway—what to do about the fact that, at age twenty-four, my life was almost gone and I hadn't accomplished much. Jeez,
thirty
wasn't that far away—and everybody knew it was all downhill after thirty.
So I, Haley Randolph, with my red-carpet-worthy dark hair, my enviable five-foot-nine-inch height, and my even-though-they're-mostly-recessive beauty-queen genes, had taken a giant leap forward in improving my life.
Even without that flash of brilliance, my personal things-were-going-great category looked pretty good, despite that patch of bad luck. I'd scored a huge chunk of change—long story—that kept me from roaming the parking lots at malls, asking total strangers for handouts—not that I would have actually done that, but still.
My best friend Marcie Hanover and I were giving killer purse parties and raking in the bucks. I had a fantastic apartment in Santa Clarita about thirty minutes, give or take, from Los Angeles that I'd fixed up just the way I wanted and absolutely loved.
Of course, my personal things-were-
not
-going-so-great category was stacked kind of high, too.
I still had my crappy part-time job at the crappy Holt's Department Store, bringing down a crappy seven bucks an hour, and the crappiest part was that the store management actually wanted me to wait on customers. I mean, really, come on. How much could they expect for minimum wage?
I was still slogging my way through college. The fall semester would begin in a few weeks and I'd have to register soon. I saw no need to overwhelm myself with a full load of classes. Or even a couple of classes. The one I'd picked out of the college catalog was plenty.
And, then, of course, there was my official boyfriend, Ty Cameron.
I wasn't sure which category he belonged in.
A few weeks ago, Ty practically put the smack down on me to move in with him. He'd made all sorts of fabulous—and I mean
totally
fabulous—promises. But, well, let's just say we're still living apart and neither of us has mentioned it since—not even on our flight home from Las Vegas.
I whipped my Honda into a parking lot a block off Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles, paid the attendant, and slid into a space near the entrance. The lot was packed, which wasn't unusual, and I was running late, which wasn't unusual either. I was meeting Marcie for lunch. She had a job at one of the banks on Fig, as everybody called it, in the financial district. She wouldn't mind that I was late.
That's
what good friends we were.
By the time I hoofed it a block to Fig, the office buildings had already let out for lunch. The thing about downtown L.A. is that anything goes, fashion-wise. Some women were decked out in full-on business suits and pumps. Others went for a trendier look. Still others dressed comfortably. Men had it easier, of course. It's hard to go wrong with a suit and tie, sport jacket and crew-neck sweater, or even a tie and shirt with the sleeves rolled back.
Up the block, I spotted Marcie coming out of the bank building where she worked. She looked great in a Donna Karan suit. I had on sandals, a yellow top, and check-out-my-butt white capris.
“I'm starving,” Marcie said, as I walked up. “Let's go to—oh my God, what happened?”
After only one quick look at my face, Marcie knew I had major news. See what great friends we were?
Not that I'm a drama queen, or think that I'm
all that
, but moments such as this required a certain amount of hesitation to allow the suspense to build. But right now, I couldn't hold back.
“I passed!” I screamed.
Marcie grabbed my arm. “You passed? Already?”
“Yes!” I told her, and broke into my own personal X-rated Snoopy dance. A guy in a convertible stopped at the traffic signal honked. I threw one last booty pop his way and he drove off.
“Wow, Haley, you said you were turning your life around, and you really have,” Marcie said.
In her official capacity as my best friend, Marcie had been the only person privy to my life-changing declaration of a few weeks ago—plus, I didn't want a lot of people to know if I couldn't pull it off and ended up falling on my face.
“How are you doing on your other changes?” Marcie asked.
Best friends can really be a mood spoiler sometimes.
Okay, the whole-new-me idea wasn't exactly
my
idea. A few weeks ago, I met a girl who was kind of weird and, honestly, not all that bright. I didn't really like her. She got on my nerves big time.
But she'd yammered on about how easy it was to change your life. She called it the “reverse world.” If you didn't like how things were going, just do the opposite. So that's what I'd done.
“Things are going good,” I told Marcie. “Really good.”
She gave me her I'm-your-best-friend-so-don't-lie-to-me look.
I hate that look.
“I'm working on them,” I told her.
In retrospect, maybe I'd overreached on some of the changes in my life. Like not eating chocolate and laying off the mocha frappuccinos—the best drink in the entire world—from Starbucks.
“When was the last time you had a Snickers bar?” Marcie asked.
Jeez, having a best friend this good was kind of getting on my nerves all of a sudden. I hadn't expected her to really hold me accountable for my actions, or anything. So what could I do but change the subject?
“I got a certificate,” I said. “Want to see it?”
“Sure.”
I dug into my totally fabulous Chanel tote and pulled out the certificate I'd earned after passing my final test. As of this morning, I was a graduate of UM, the University of Mixology—bartending school.
“Look,” I said, pointing. “It has a gold seal on it and everything.”
Marcie nodded appreciatively. “Cool, Haley. Really cool.”
Yeah, okay, I knew bartending school wasn't something I'd ever considered before. But my life wasn't going the way I wanted, so I'd taken this drastic step to change things.
UM seemed like a natural for me. After all, who would make a better bartender than someone like me, who loved to party? I went to all the best clubs. I knew lots of people there, and everyone knew me, of course.
“UM has a job placement service,” I said, slipping my certificate back into my tote. “I'll be working in no time.”
“Cool!” Marcie threw both arms around me.
“Way cool!” I said, and hugged her back.
“What's so cool?”
A man's voice spoke from beside us. I whirled and saw Ty Cameron, my official boyfriend, standing on the sidewalk. His office was nearby so I figured he was heading out for lunch.
My stomach did its usual flip-flop, just like always when I saw Ty. He was so handsome. Tall, light brown hair, gorgeous blue eyes, athletic build. He looked great in his suit.
Ty was the fifth generation of his family to be completely devoted to, out of his mind dedicated to, and unreasonably consumed with running the Holt's Department Stores. Yes, the same chain of stores that paid me a whopping seven bucks an hour—long story. Anyway, Ty wasn't content with the dozens of stores the family owned. He'd recently opened a boutique he'd named Wallace, after some ancient Cameron ancestor, and he'd just concluded negotiations for Holt's International—at least I think it's concluded; I usually drifted off when Ty talked about business.
Ty and I had dated since last fall. We'd had a few rough patches—okay, more than a few. But we were doing great now. Well, good. Kind of good.
Ty thought I should be more understanding about his duties and responsibilities to the Holt's Corporation. I thought he should actually remember our dates, show up on time, and not spend the entire evening texting or phoning somebody because of some problem at Holt's.
Call me crazy.
Anyway, we were trying to work it out, although I didn't think it would kill Ty to put a little more effort into it.
“What is it?” Ty asked, smiling and waiting for an answer. “What's so cool?”
“Haley graduated from UM,” Marcie exclaimed.
I'd never gotten around to telling Ty I was going to bartending school—not that he'd have listened anyway.
Ty's expression morphed into disbelief, then to surprise, and, finally, into a smile again.
“You graduated from college? Already?” Ty asked.
Oh, crap. Ty knew I'd been taking classes to earn my bachelor's degree. Now he thought I'd done it.
“Why didn't you tell me?” Ty asked.
He threw his arms around me and pulled me into a big hug. He's so strong and he always smells great. Ty's way hot.
After a few seconds, I eased back a little. “Well, really, it's not—”
“Get a room, you two,” someone said.
I glanced around and saw Sarah Covington walking up to join us.
I hate Sarah Covington.
Sarah was the vice president of marketing for Holt's. She wasn't much older than me and already had her BA and made a ton of money so she could buy fabulous clothes and terrific handbags—which was reason enough to hate her—but she was all over Ty all the time. She was forever calling him about every tiny decision, every problem, every situation that came up. And the worst part was that Ty didn't get it. He thought the world rotated around Sarah Covington.
I snuggled closer to Ty and threw Sarah an I'm-being-a-bitch-by-pretending-to-like-you smile, and said, “Maybe we'll do that.”
Ty, of course, missed the whole exchange.
“Great news,” he said. “Haley just graduated from UM.”
Sarah's eyes widened in surprise. “The University of Michigan?”
The University of ...
what?
“They have a fabulous online program,” she said.
What the heck was she talking about?
“A friend of mine graduated from UM. It's very demanding. Quite an accomplishment,” Sarah said. “Congratulations, Haley.”
She said it like she really meant it—which just made me hate her even more.
“Was your degree in business?” Sarah asked.
Oh my God. She actually thought I'd graduated from the University of Michigan.
“Of course,” Ty said, smiling down at me. “Right, Haley?”
Oh my God. Ty thought so, too.
Jeez, what could I say? I couldn't announce that I'd really graduated from the University of Mixology and that up until a couple of minutes ago I didn't even know Michigan had a university—I'm not even sure where Michigan is. I'd look like a complete idiot—and a total loser. Ty would be embarrassed and that witch Sarah Covington would probably post it on her Facebook page quicker than Macy's took a season-end markdown.
So what could I do but smile up at Ty and say, “Yes, that's right.”
 
Thank goodness Ty didn't mention my graduation again—but it did kind of irk me. I mean, come on, for all he knew, I really had graduated from the University of Michigan's demanding online program. But he did ask me out to dinner a few days later and told me to dress to impress—like I ever dressed any other way—and picked me up early.
“Look at this,” he said as he stood in my living room dressed in a gorgeous Perry Ellis suit, crisp white shirt, and azure blue necktie that reminded me of the Caribbean, which I hoped he'd take me to one day but knew he wouldn't unless Holt's had a conference or something there.
Ty pulled out his cell phone, held it up, and made a show of switching it off.
“No calls tonight,” he said.
Oh my God. I could hardly believe it. Ty had never switched off his phone before.
“You do the same,” Ty said. “I want it to be just you and me tonight.”
For a moment, I was too stunned to move—sort of like when you spot the latest Chloe bag in a display case and hadn't thought it would be available for another few days.
Finally, I came to my senses and slipped my cell phone out of my bag—a terrific Gucci clutch—and turned it off. It felt great knowing we were both free from every distraction tonight. Maybe our relationship was taking a giant leap forward.
BOOK: Tote Bags and Toe Tags
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