Relationships, Alison Carter thought, are all about modest expectations. As she watched Randy inhale the last of his honey glazed pork chops and drain his wine glass, then swivel his head to watch their waitress's ass as she passed by, she added, And that soul mate thing is a crock.
The more she repeated those mantras to herself, the better she felt. After all, there was nothing really wrong with Randy. They'd met at a party where he'd gotten too drunk to drive and she'd taken him home, and then they'd started to date. A sales rep with a big paper company, he had a townhome in Plano, not large, but bordering a somewhat prestigious area only a block from a golf course. He wore suits you couldn't tell from designer originals, and shoes that looked like real leather. He did drive an actual Mercedes, a few years old with a great big payment, but a Mercedes nonetheless.
"You look great tonight," Randy said, now that the waitress with the perfect ass had disappeared into the kitchen.
"Thank you," Alison said. "So do you."
She wasn't lying. He wore a pair of slacks, a sharply starched dress shirt, and a sport coat, looking as nice as she'd ever seen him, which really wasn't bad at all. In the candlelit ambience of the restaurant, he actually looked handsome.
As for her looking great, she wasn't so sure. Yesterday she'd spent ten minutes in front of an evil three-way mirror at Sak's as Heather convinced her that the dress she wore really didn't make her butt look big. Since junior high, Heather had always been one of those rare friends who never told her she looked good in something when she really didn't. Sometimes the truth was hard to swallow, but in the end it meant there was at least one person on earth she could trust. And if Randy truly loved her for her, did the size of her butt really matter, anyway?
They'd been seeing each other for nearly eight months now, and it had been a decent eight months. No, she didn't have hot flashes of pure sexual hunger whenever he kissed her. She didn't sit around at work all day doodling his name on a sticky note pad. She didn't always leap up to answer her phone when she knew it was him. But after she turned thirty, she decided there were tradeoffs she was willing to accept. She could wait for burning sexual attraction to strike her out of nowhere, or she could knock off the lottery mentality and go for the sure thing if it meant she might actually get to have the home, husband, and family she'd always wanted. It might not be great, but if they worked at it, it could certainly be good.
One day last week on her lunch hour, she'd seen Randy in a jewelry store at the mall. Then there was the phone conversation she'd overheard him having with somebody named Reverend McCormick. And then she'd spotted a Hawaii travel brochure on his desk at home. She brushed all those things aside, telling herself they didn't mean ring-wedding-honeymoon, only to have Randy tell her he had something very important to talk to her about and make dinner reservations at Five-Sixty, the hottest new restaurant in the Dallas metroplex. Oddly, the only emotion she seemed to be able to summon was relief. But that was okay. Relief beat the hell out of desperation.
The waiter poured them more wine, then took their plates. Alison cuddled up next to Randy and stared out the window. Five-Sixty sat at the top of Reunion Tower, fifty stories in the sky, offering sweeping views of the Dallas metroplex. Dusk was becoming night, and with every second that passed, the city lights grew brighter and more mesmerizing. In that moment, Alison truly believed there wasn't a more romantic place on earth. When Randy turned and kissed her, and she was surprised to feel a little of that first-date flutter she thought was long gone.
"Alison," he said finally, fixing his gaze on hers, "I think we've grown very close over the past few months."
Her heart bumped against her chest. This was it. After all these years, after all the wrong men, after all the blind dates, after all her waiting and wishing and hoping, she was finally making the leap toward matrimony.
"Yes," she said. "We have."
He brushed a strand of hair away from her cheek and stared soulfully into her eyes. "And I wouldn't even be asking you this if I didn't think our relationship was very, very strong."
Alison nodded. "Of course."
"Like a rock."
"Yes," she agreed.
"You're so beautiful. Have I told you that lately?"
She gave him a smile that said, Yes, but don't hesitate to tell me again.
"And you're open-minded." He pondered that a moment. "Very open minded, I'd say."
Actually, she'd never thought of herself as particularly open minded. But it was okay if he thought so, because that was a good thing...right?
He shifted a little, suddenly looking uncomfortable, and Alison smiled to herself. It was so cutely traditional for him to have a hard time with this. In fact, she was sure she saw him blush.
"I think Bonnie is open minded, too," Randy said.
Alison blinked. "Bonnie?"
"Yeah. And you seem to get along well with her."
Bonnie was a friend of Alison’s, but Randy didn't really know her all that well. Like all men, he was far more acquainted with Bonnie's breasts than her face. God bless Bonnie--she could sprout two heads and the men of the world would never know it. But why was Randy bringing her up now?
"Uh...yeah," Alison said. "I guess we get along okay."
"I assume you think she's, you know...attractive."
Yes. Bonnie was attractive. In a wide-eyed, short-skirted, body-flaunting way. "I...suppose so." What is he talking about?
"Anyway, I was wondering..." He inched closer and stared directly into her eyes, and her heart practically stopped. She stared up at him adoringly.
"You. Me. Bonnie. What do you think?"
Alison just stared at him. "What do I think about what?"
He laughed a little. "You know. The three of us. Together." He leaned in and kissed along her neck. "Seeing you with another woman would be such a turn-on."
For the next several seconds, it was as if Alison's entire circulatory system contracted, stopping the blood flow to her brain. Surely he must have said, Will you marry me? but somehow it had come out sounding like Wanna have perverted sex?
"What did you say?"
"A threesome. You, me, and Bonnie.
Don't just repeat it, damn it! Change it!
"When we were at that party at John's house last month," Randy said, "Bonnie seemed to be as open-minded as you are." Then his voice slipped from soothingly sexual to blatantly carnal. "I think she'd go for it, don't you?"
Alison yanked herself away from him. "Are you completely out of your mind?"
He stared at her dumbly. "What's the matter?"
"What's the matter? What's the matter?" Alison sputtered aimlessly for a moment, words escaping her. Then she leaned in and spoke in an angry whisper. "That's what you wanted to talk to me about?"
He shrugged. "Well...yeah."
"You brought me here to ask me that?"
He looked befuddled. "Well, it is kind of a big step, so I--"
"What were you doing in that jewelry store three days ago at lunch?"
"Jewelry store? How'd you know I was at a jewelry store?"
"Just answer me. What were you doing?"
"Getting a battery for my watch. Why?"
Alison felt a wave of nausea. "You had a Hawaii vacation brochure on your desk at home."
"Yes. You did. Where did it come from?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. It was probably junk mail."
The nausea continued to roll in, like surf crashing over a rocky beach. "Okay, then. You haven't been to church since you were twelve. So who the hell is Reverend McCormick?"
"Randy," she snapped, "I overheard you talking to somebody named Reverend McCormick last week."
Randy blinked. "Oh. I donated some of my old clothes to a church charity. Tax deduction. How did you--"
Alison dropped her head to her hands, feeling more dumb and deluded than she ever had in her life. How had this happened? What could she have seen in those bland brown eyes of Randy's that made the concept of together forever seem like an actual possibility, particularly since he was still staring at her with a look that said, Now don't be too hasty--have you ever actually considered the advantages of lesbian sex?
"Randy, listen to me carefully. Are you listening?"
He nodded, a hopeful look on his face. Hopeful. What did he think she was going to do? Suggest a plan to catch Bonnie off guard in the shower?
"My answer is no," she told him, her voice quivering with anger. "Now, that's not just any old no. It's no, not in a million years, not if we're the only three people left on Earth and I'm the odd woman out and it's the only chance I have to participate in sex again for the rest of eternity. It's that kind of no. Are you getting my drift?"
His face fell into a disappointed frown, as if he were a spoiled six-year-old who couldn't understand why a spotted pony with a silver-trimmed saddle or a month-long tour of Disney World was out of the question.
"Maybe you just need a chance to think about it," he said.
"Randy," she said with a growl in her voice, "you're going to get up from this table right now. You're going to leave. And if you so much as glance back over your shoulder, I'm shoving you through the window. It's fifty stories to the ground, and I don't give a damn. Do you hear me?"
Randy drew back with a startled expression. "But why? Just because I had one little idea to spice up our sex life you didn't like?"
Alison's mouth dropped open. "One little idea? One little--"
"So forget I mentioned it," he said with an offhand shrug. "No big deal. We can still have regular sex. Just you and me--"
She grabbed him by his lapels and dragged him forward. "Get. The hell. Out."
"Come on, Alison," he said, a nervous laugh in his voice. "You really don't want me to--"
She leaned away and whacked him on the arm with her doubled up fist. "I said out!"
When she reared back to smack him again, he threw up his arms to ward off the blow. He scooted out of the booth so quickly he banged the edge of the table with his hip, knocking over his glass of Pinot Noir. The wine spread like a gigantic Rorschach blob on the white linen tablecloth. He stared down at it dumbly.
"Out!" Alison shouted.
He took two shaky steps backward, his shocked expression shifting to a vindictive glare. "Yeah, well, you know what?"
"That dress makes your butt look huge!"
A pure, unadulterated, I-hate-you kind of anger welled up inside Alison that she'd never felt before. As he spun around and stalked off, she closed her hands into fists and banged them on the table. The last wine glass standing shimmied a little, but she managed to grab it before it fell over. In three seconds she'd drained its contents and smacked the glass back down on the table, feeling the wine burn all the way down her throat. It hit her nauseated stomach like cold rainwater on hot lava, and she swore she could actually feel the sizzle.
She closed her eyes to try to gain back a modicum of control, and when she opened them again, she realized the restaurant had fallen silent, the waiters had frozen in place, and everybody was looking at her as if she were a rabid dog foaming at the mouth. She sat up straight and put her hands in her lap, trying to look calm, sane, and sensible. Judging from the fact that everyone was still staring, she wasn't succeeding.
The waiter walked tentatively back to the table, staying slightly more than arm's length away. "Uh...Madam? Will there be anything else?"
Yes. A gun so she could chase Randy down and blow him away. A big, fat box of Kleenex so she could cry her eyes out. A trench coat so everybody in this restaurant wouldn't be looking at her ass as she walked out the door, wondering if Randy had been right.
In the time it took for her to decide that the wine-red Rorschach blob on the tablecloth looked like a pissed-off woman castrating a depraved man, the waiter returned with the check.
The check. Well, crap. Not only had this been one of the worst nights of her life, now she had to pay through the nose for the privilege of participating in it.
She winced, paid the check, and left the restaurant. And sure enough, she felt the collective gazes of every patron in the place focused squarely on her backside. The moment she got home, she was burning this dress.
She went into the elevator and leaned against the wall, feeling a little woozy as she shot down fifty stories. But it wasn't until she stepped into the hotel lobby that it dawned on her that Randy had driven her there, and she had no way home.
No car, no fiancé, no hope, no nothing.
Alison trudged through the underground passage to Union Station, where she went to the surface again and sat down on a bench to wait for the northbound train. Anger had carried her this far, but now in the silence of the aftermath of her future going right down the tubes, she couldn't stop the tears from coming. God, she hated this. Sitting alone at a train station by an overflowing trash can beneath garish lights wearing a dress she now despised, crying her eyes out. Could it get any worse than that?
Then she felt something that made her realize that the answer was Yes, of course it can get worse. What were you thinking?
First came a few drops. Then a few more. No, no, please, no...
All at once she heard a huge thunderclap and the heavens opened up. She hurried to one of the pitifully small overhanging shelters, but suddenly the wind was blowing in mighty gusts, swirling the rain and drenching her. She stood there in dumb disbelief as the rain trickled down her face and soaked through her dress, turning her into a soggy, pitiful mess.
She remembered movies where everything on earth went wrong for the heroine, and then to seal the experience, she'd get rained on. Overkill, Alison had always thought. That never really happens.
When the train came several minutes later, she sniffed a little, dried her eyes with her fingertips, boarded a car, and plopped down on a seat. Evidently she looked really pitiful, because even the insane homeless people shied away from her.
Under normal circumstances, she’d walk home the few blocks from the15th Street station, but she didn’t relish the thought of doing it in the rain. She grabbed her phone, called Heather, and asked her to pick her up. Since Alison wasn't exactly radiating the excitement of a newly engaged woman, Heather started to worry, but Alison told her she'd fill her in when she got there. Just last week, Heather and her husband, Tony, had returned from celebrating their second anniversary in Las Vegas. Alison tried not to be pea-green with envy about that, but it was a hard-won battle.
You got the last good one, Heather. Hang on to him.
Alison thunked her head against the window, her thoughts a jumbled mess. This couldn't have happened. It just couldn't have. How had all her marriage dreams morphed into a scenario only a pornographer could love?
Easy answer. Because she was a fool.
Randy had never given her any indication that he was Mr. Wonderful. She'd just chosen to hope that maybe he was. He was merely a clueless degenerate who'd taken a wrong turn and wandered into her life. She, on the other hand, should have pulled off those damned rose-colored glasses the moment she met him and smashed them into a million pieces.
As the train went underground and picked up speed, whizzing through the tunnel toward Cityplace, Alison thought about how other women were getting married and having families right and left. What was wrong with her?
Okay, so she hadn't exactly been a genius when it came to picking the right men. First there had been Tim Chapman. A few months in, she'd woken up one night to find him licking her toes. That she might have been able to overlook, but when he wanted her to wear six inch heels in the bedroom and carry a whip, she decided enough was enough. Then there were the two years she’d wasted on Richard Bodecker, who turned out to be gay. Alison might have realized it sooner, but since he owned a Harley dealership and spit a lot, she'd stayed in denial even longer than Richard himself.
And then there was Michael Pagliano, who scratched his balls in public. Just stood there in a movie line or whatever and scratched away, as if nobody was watching. But since Alison had been three months away from her thirtieth birthday and feeling a little desperate, she'd decided to overlook it. Then he took her to a five-star restaurant, which was good, and blew his nose on a cloth napkin, which wasn't. It was then Alison decided she couldn't close her eyes to his downside any longer.
Then came Randy.
So there they were. The men she'd been able to attract over the years. A clueless degenerate, a foot fetishist, a gay biker, and a ball-scratching nose-blower. She wasn't dumb enough to think all men were rotten, but she was beginning to believe she was a magnet for the ones who were.
Thirty minutes later at the 15th Street station, the pouring rain had lightened into a steady drizzle. Heather was there to meet her, umbrella in hand. She wore a pair of faded jeans and a white tank top, and the damp evening made her curly brown hair even curlier than usual.
"Uh oh," Heather said, as Alison ducked under her umbrella with her. "It's bad, isn't it?"
"If eight months of my life going down the tubes is bad, then yes. It's bad."
"Tell me what happened."
"Let's see. The Readers Digest version. Randy's an asshole, and I'm an idiot."
Heather winced. "Get in the car. Then I want to hear everything."
Once they were inside the car, Alison told Heather the whole story, and Heather's eyes grew wide.
"He wanted a threesome? With Bonnie?" She paused. "Well, okay. If a guy's a big enough jerk to want a threesome, of course it would be with Bonnie."
Tears welled in Alison’s eyes, and she hated it. Randy was not worth it.
“Oh, hon,” Heather said. “I know you had such high hopes. I’m so sorry this happened.”
“No. Don’t be sorry. What he did tonight saved me from wasting even more time on him.”
“That’s true. But it doesn’t stop it from hurting.”
And of course that made Alison cry even more, and Heather gave her a hug. “Randy’s an idiot,” she murmured, patting Alison on the back. “He didn’t deserve you.”
Alison nodded, even though she really didn’t feel like such a great catch herself right about then.
“You want me to go beat him up for you?” Heather said. “He’s bigger than I am, but I’m way more pissed.”
“Would you? That would be wonderful.” Then she sighed. “Nice thought, but maybe you’d better not. This night is bad enough already. I don’t want to have to bail you out of jail.” She eased away from Heather and dropped her head back against the headrest, feeling miserable. "I'm a dating disaster. I'm done with men."
"No, you’re not."
"Yeah, I am. I'm going to become a nun."
"You're not Catholic."
She rolled her head around to look at Heather. "I could adapt. I'm not too fond of kneeling, but I do like wine. Tradeoffs, you know?"
"What about confession? That won't exactly be a walk in the park for you."
"Yeah, maybe the first one will be a little lengthy. But once I purge the past ten years or so, the next ones will be a breeze. I mean, come on. After I'm a nun, what could I possibly have to own up to?"
"Oh, right. Like the moment a cute priest walks by, you won't be lusting in your heart?"
Alison sighed. "That's my problem, isn't it?"
"Doesn't matter if he's Mr. Right or not. I'll find a way to cram that square peg into that round hole or die trying. God, Heather. What's wrong with me?"
"Nothing's wrong with you. Randy's the one with the problem."
"But what if I end up with somebody even worse than Randy because I'm so desperate to get married that I'll settle for anyone?"
"You would have figured Randy out sooner or later, even if he hadn't...you know. Gone all pervert on you. Just be glad you're rid of him."
"And who am I supposed to put in his place?"
"Do you have to figure that out now?"
"Sometime before I'm eighty would be nice."
"You have fifty years before you're eighty."
And Alison knew what that fifty years was going to be like. A few years would pass. Then a few decades. And before she knew it, she'd be staring at some hairy-eared octogenarian over their morning oatmeal at the home and wondering how long it might take to get him to pop the question.
"It's not like you've exhausted every possibility out there," Heather said. "You just haven't met the right guy yet. Give it some more time."
"But I've already tried everything! Singles bars. Speed dating. Video dating. Match dot com. E-Harmony. I've even considered setting fire to my own condo to try to meet a cute firefighter."
"Now there's an approach I wouldn't have thought of."
"Yeah, but it'd be just my luck that he'd be a firefighter who wore women's underwear or had a wife he wasn't telling me about." She sighed. "Do you understand how much I suck at picking out men?"
"Have you thought about letting somebody else pick one out for you?"
"No," Alison said with a wave of her hand. "No way. I've had enough bad blind dates to last me a lifetime."
"I'm not talking about letting your Aunt Brenda fix you up. That was a disaster."
Alison cringed at the memory. She'd never met a man before who grew marijuana in the back seat of his car.
"I'm talking about a professional," Heather said.
"Matchmaker? You mean, like one person who decides who you're supposed to spend the rest of your life with?" Alison screwed up her face. "Sorry. That's just weird."
"No, really. I work with a woman who went to this matchmaker in downtown Plano, and she set her up with a really great guy. She was engaged four months later and married within the year."
Just the words "engaged" and "married" in the same sentence made Alison's heart go pitty-pat. But she knew the truth. Nothing was ever that simple.
"Pardon my skepticism, but what's this friend of yours like? Tall? Skinny? Blond? Ex cheerleader? Trust fund?"
"Short, a little overweight, brown hair, ex-debate team, good job."
Now Alison was listening. Minus the debate team thing, Heather could be describing her.
Alison pulled out her phone. "What's this matchmaker's name?"
"Uh...I can't remember. Rosie...Roxanne...something like that."
Alison Googled "matchmaker" and "Plano."
"Oh, my God," she said. "Did you know there's a matchmaking service dedicated to finding you somebody to cheat with?"
"I guess that one's for later. Before I can cheat on a man, first I have to find a man." She flipped to another site. "And here's one called Sugar Daddies. They match rich old men with hot young women."
"Judging from these photos, barely legal." Alison poked the screen. "I'm still not seeing...wait. Rochelle Scott? Matchmaking by Rochelle?"
"Yeah. I think that's it."
"Hmm. Says she's been in business for thirty-five years. Nobody stays in business that long if they're not successful, right?"
"Oh, she's successful, if you judge by what she charges."
"How much are we talking?"
"That's the downside. She charges fifteen hundred dollars for five introductions."
Alison winced. Three hundred dollars per man?
Then she thought about the thousand dollars she'd once paid to spend a week at a singles resort in Florida. Instead of coming back with a man, she'd returned with a horrible sunburn and so many mosquito bites she looked like flesh-colored bubble wrap. She wasn't one to throw money around indiscriminately, but if the woman could actually deliver, it might be worth it.
She looked back at her phone and clicked through the website. "Listen to this," she said, reading from the woman's bio. "Rochelle Scott has a degree in psychology. She's been matchmaking for thirty-five years. Out of more than three hundred marriages, there have been only sixteen divorces." She looked at Heather. "That blows the national average out of the water. I'm going over there Monday."
Heather's eyebrows shot up. "Now, wait a minute. I just threw that out there as something to think about. You need to let the sting of tonight wear off a little before you hop right back out there."
"Nope. I'm thirty and alone, and it's bad. I imagine forty and alone is even worse."
"Doing anything on the rebound is usually a mistake. Forget about it for tonight. Come up to my place. Tony's working late at the bar, so we can trash talk men all we want to."
"Right. You have nothing to gripe about where Tony's concerned."
"Yeah? That's what you think. He still hasn't grasped the concept that dirty underwear goes in the hamper and that onion rings aren't health food. And don't get me started on his collection of Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions. You'd think they were the Dead Sea Scrolls the way he--"
"Heather, right about now I'd kill for a messy guy eating onion rings while he's staring at hot women in bikinis. Particularly if he looked like Tony." Her eyes teared up again, and she hated it. "You know, when we were both single, it wasn't so bad. But now...now you have Tony, and..." She sniffed a little. "I'm happy for you, Heather. I really am. But I'm really starting to feel like the odd woman out." She let out a painful sigh. "It sucks to be me."
"Don't you say that," Heather told her. "Don't you dare say that. You already have a good life. You have a great job. A nice place to live. Good friends. Money in the bank. And you're a good person who does nice things for other people. So it does not suck to be you."
Alison sighed again. "Is it really so wrong to want the last piece of the puzzle?"
"No. Of course not. I know how much you want to get married. I'm just saying that maybe you need to give the husband hunt a rest for a while."
"I would, except for that damned clock ticking inside my head."
Heather smiled. "He's out there, you know."
"Mr. Right. Your knight in shining armor. Your forever guy. You just have to be patient. One day, when you least expect it—"
"Don't try to cheer me up. I'd rather wallow in my misery."
"No problem there. I have a really nice bottle of vodka I've been saving for an occasion like this.”
“Will you keep me from doing something dumb if I drink too much? And yes, I’m referring to the state fair incident.”
“Of course. And did I mention I also have a gallon of Blue Bell Cookies 'n Cream?"
"Perfect. That's why I can't find a man, you know. My hips aren't big enough."
Heather started the car and drove the few blocks to the condo complex where they both lived. Alison ran up the stairs to her place to get out of the big butt dress. As she stepped inside, Lucy, Ethyl and Ricky galloped into the living room, leaped onto her Queen Anne chair, and started in with a whiny chorus of meows as if she’d been lost at sea for thirty years and had finally been rescued.
She turned her back to them and looked over her shoulder. “So what do you guys think? Does this dress make my butt look big?”
More meows. In her state of mind right then, Alison took that as a unanimous yes.
She grabbed cat food from the pantry. The cats did their usual serpentine around her ankles, then played musical bowls as she was dumping food into them. Lucy had always been the troublemaker, clawing her way straight up the drapes, then pouncing on Ricky’s head as he strolled by. He’d spit at her, she’d whack him with her paw, and then five minutes later they’d be curled up on the sofa in a wad of tabby cat nirvana. Ethel stayed out of the fray most of the time by plunking her hefty self on top of the bookcase in the living room, refusing to get involved in her brother’s and sister’s love-hate relationship.
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 sweat pants, 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 email. 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.
* * *
At noon the next day, 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 small, discreet 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, whom 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.
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. 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 leaned back in his chair, his elbows on the arms, his fingertips tapping 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?"
"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. "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."
She had to admit that analogy really hit home. After all, hadn't Randy very nearly made her barf?
"Still, it's a lot of money," Alison said. "I'm going to have to think about it."
"I understand completely. But I'm also sure you understand that matchmaking is a very personalized service, which means I can take only so many clients at a time. My schedule is booking up fast."
"I have room for only two more clients this month."
"But it's only the fifth."
"Exactly." He rose from his chair, came around his desk, and held out his hand. "It was nice to meet you, Alison. If you decide you'd like my help, give me a call. We'll talk more about what you're looking for in a man. If not this month, then maybe we'll see each other next month, okay?"
She rose and shook his hand. "Uh...yeah. Thank you for seeing me."
"Of course. You have my number. Just let me know when you'd like me to introduce you to your future husband."
With that, he sat back down, pulled out a file, and lay it open on his desk, moving ahead with business as usual. Alison walked to the door, each step a little slower than the last. Future husband. She loved the sound of that.
It wasn't as if she didn't have the money. But was it a smart use of her money?
She admitted to being a little impulsive, but it was usually limited to things like ordering octopus at a sushi bar, or dyeing her hair red. The fact that she'd even considered using a matchmaker was crazy enough. Could she actually spend fifteen hundred dollars to let a man find her a man? This could turn into a bigger disaster than her Florida trip, where she'd ended up as mosquito bait.
Or she could find the man of her dreams.
No. That was crazy. This was crazy.
She started to open the door, only to stop short, her hand on the doorknob. But if not this, then what? Was she just going to wait around, doing nothing, hoping for a man to stop her on the street and tell her he was the one?
Just take some time to think about it. A day, or an hour, or at least a few minutes...
Then she had a terrible thought. What if she waited until next month, and Brandon gave away her perfect match to another woman who hadn't hesitated to seize the opportunity?
Feeling a surge of conviction, she spun back around. "Brandon?"
He looked up. "Yes?"
"If I write you a check today, when can we get started?"
He pulled out his phone and hit a few buttons, then looked back up at her with those dark, sexy eyes, a smile of satisfaction playing over his lips.
"How does Thursday look for you?"