A struggling would-be writer who can't seem to get her life together, Grace avoids daily frustrations by disappearing into the pages of her book. There the characters she's created have become so real to her that she can no longer believe they're fictional. After all, she's lived with them since she was thirteen and one of them -a lusty, blue-eyed, accident-prone pirate- appears to have escaped into her world, set on causing trouble.
As true life begins to mimic the plot of her novel and the edge of reality blurs, Grace knows she can't live in both worlds forever. Sooner or later she'll have to face reality. If only she can figure out which is hers.
**For a limited time - the ebook is on sale for only 99 cents!**
This. Was too much.
It must be a sign.
Richard Downing sat across that small dining table, the pathetic, prissy little tea-light flame limning his supercilious face. I considered turning around and walking out of the restaurant. If I wasn’t cold, wet, hungry and hobbling along on a broken heel, I would have.
"Oh. Hello," he sputtered ungraciously.
I hadn’t been on a first date in three years and suddenly felt far too old to be doing this. Since Jack left before Christmas, I’d become accustomed to doing whatever I wanted, not having to worry about another person’s opinion. Certain people would tell you that I was always a slob, but I’d become more so now that I had no reason to be anything else. And I liked it, damn it!
"You’re late," he said.
"Am I? I lost my watch."
He looked at his own. "Twenty-three minutes late," he verified icily, like a father who caught me sneaking home after curfew.
"You’d better dock my pocket money then."
He winced. "I merely point that out so you know how long I’ve been waiting for you this time."
"Are we keeping score then?"
Was that a half-hearted smile? It might just have been trapped gas.
"Why don’t you…" his eyes skimmed the front of my sweater dress, which was soaking wet, and then all the way down to my snapped heel, "…sit down, before you fall down. No doubt you want some wine."
No doubt? What sort of thing was that to say? "Do you mean — would I like some wine? Or are you implying I’m a drunk?" What exactly had Marian told him about me?
He twitched his arms irritably, pulling on the cuffs of his shirt. "I was not implying anything. I’ve ordered a bottle of wine. As you see, it’s on the table. I’m not sure if you like red or if you’d prefer something else. If you want some, I’ll pour it. If not, I won’t waste any in your glass."
I slumped into the chair and sniffed. "Okay. But I can’t stay."
"Why? You’re here now. We might as well make the most of it. I suppose." Again, while he poured the wine, his gaze traveled over me in a meandering, thoughtful, partially appalled fashion. I sat up, attempting to regain some trace of dignity.
"It’s raining out, I came on my bike and I broke a heel. So you can stop looking at me like that."
"You’re all wet."
"I know!" I did just speak, didn’t I? Sometimes I wondered.
"Didn’t you bring a coat?"
Wait a minute – was that my mother dressed up in a man’s suit? "Of course."
"But you didn’t button it up."
"I was in a hurry and late. As you already said."
His lips were tight with disapproval and then he snapped out, "You’ll catch cold, if you go about in this weather like that."
Too annoyed for words, I grabbed the menu and flipped it open. I might have to take that from my family, but not from a perfect stranger. This was typical of the diabolical Marian’s schemes to humiliate me – a blind date with another of her sociopath acquaintances. Now I knew what she meant, when she suggested he’d "straighten" me out. He was all buttoned up, and I was notoriously unbuttoned. Now he felt obliged to lecture me about clothing choices and the weather. He had a bit of an accent, which I hadn’t noticed before, and he was a fidget, tapping the table, rearranging the cutlery, folding and unfolding his napkin. Tidying things.
"Dropped your napkin," he pointed out.
"I’ll get it in a minute."
Clearly it tortured him. His feet tapped, his fingers pinched at the tablecloth. Finally he ducked under the table to retrieve it himself, banging his big head in the process.
"I hope you didn’t do that to get a look at my legs," I teased.
He muttered something under his breath, so I looked up from the menu. He was a little red in the face, but that might have been purely from the effort of bending. "I couldn’t see your legs," he repeated moodily, passing the napkin back to me. "You’re wearing boots."
"I know!" I sighed. "It was a joke."
I snapped the menu shut. "How exactly do you know my sister?"
He was signaling for the waiter. "She’s sold several pieces of property for me."
I sighed deeply. Several pieces of property. Money, specifically the having of it in good supply, was a major criteria in Marian’s world, and I suppose she heard jackpot coins falling from a slot machine when she saw Mr. Handmade Stuffed Suit. "How nice."
Clearly he had no idea where he came from. That he was a figment of my imagination, belonged in my manuscript and shouldn’t be there in that fancy restaurant, polishing a fork on his napkin while he gave his very particular order, like the King of Siam.
"See," he grumbled. "Now you’ve caught cold." And he looked down his sizeable nose at me.
"I’ll try not to breathe on you. Or were you planning a big smooch later?"
He twitched uncomfortably in his chair, looked at his water glass and then asked the waiter to change it, evidently afraid some of my deathly germs were swimming in it.
"Would you like me to sit at another table?" I asked silkily.
I believe he actually considered it for a moment. Then his eyes narrowed, his gaze flicking back to me, finally realizing it was a facetious comment. The waiter turned to me, ready for my order.
So I gave it, making a decision to stay. Because I was hungry.
I felt the Pompous Ass studying me from beneath half-mast eyelids, as if afraid to look, but drawn to me out of macabre fascination. Once the waiter left, Richard pointed out that there was a hole snagged in my woolen sleeve, I’d lost an earring and had an eyelash on my right cheek. He went on to add that the rain was only going to get worse and it was very foolish to come out on a bike – especially in heels. All these things I was already aware of, apart from the fallen eyelash, which was disposed of by the brisk sweep of fingers.
"What are you?" I demanded, "The oracle of the obvious comment?"
"I thought you might care to know—"
"No, I don’t care to have my shortcomings pointed out. Thanks all the same."
We sat in brooding silence for several minutes. Finally he cleared his throat. "Your sister said—"
"I tried to tell Marian that I’m not in the market for a man," I assured him genially, so he wouldn’t get the idea I was a sad wench, relying on her little sister to set her up with dates. "I’ve had enough of all that. It’s too much trouble." I threw him a sideways glance. "I’ve only just got the bloodstains out of the wall from the last one."
He looked at me as if I’d just burped loudly in public.
"Joking." I laughed.
Again he didn’t appreciate my humor, but continued to assess the danger with a cynical eye. I was getting hot in my inappropriately wet sweater dress. "We’ll split the bill for dinner, of course," I added, trying to act all mature and solemn, now that my attempts to break the ice had failed.
"Because I’m a man—"
"I thought it was just the way you walked."
"—and I noticed your boots have been re-soled and anyone with money to spare would take a cab to their dinner date, instead of riding a bike. Which, by the way, has got some sort of grease on your dress. On a teacher’s salary, I’m quite sure you can’t afford to eat out often, especially not in this restaurant." Eventually he became aware of my scowl and added a tranquil, condescending, "Just being honest."
"I insist on paying half," I snapped.
Quietly he showed me the wine list and the price of that bottle of wine. Alone it was double what I had in my purse at that moment. "I don’t suppose they’d let me wash dishes?"
He gave me yet another sweeping, dubious appraisal.
"Go ahead then," I conceded. "But send me a bill for my half later."
"Fine." Never was the word formed so resentfully. He scratched the side of his neck, as if his collar and tie bothered him, while his eyes wandered across the restaurant – probably making sure there was no one he knew. After every sip of wine, he wiped the rim of his glass. He checked and rechecked the tines of his fork and continually touched his tie, presumably to make certain it was straight. I’d like to think he was nervous, but it seemed doubtful.
I wondered why the hell he was so desperate for a date that he let my asinine sister set him up. He may not be my type, but even I could recognize – begrudgingly – his manifold surface attractions. Surely he had any number of vacuous floozies eager to hang on his creaseless arm. He clearly preferred the submissive sort who told him how wonderful he was, while ironing his socks.
Not that I ever formed judgments about people I barely knew. Whatever Marian said.
"Do you often go out on blind dates?" I asked, genuinely curious.
"Never," he replied. And he should have stopped there. "This was a favor to your sister. I had a free evening while the new floors are drying in my flat." As he spoke, he looked down, studying his watch again.
"I’m a favor?"
"She wouldn’t shut up about it until I agreed to take you out. I realized I couldn’t avoid her forever, so I may as well get it over with."
Well, he was brutally honest – had to give him that.
I wanted to laugh, but since that would probably result in another of his menacing, pervasive stares, I curbed the temptation. "Have you lived here long?" I asked, searching for convivial subjects to distract from the awfulness of our predicament.
"In England since I was fifteen. In Cambridge, just a few weeks."
No wonder I hadn’t seen him around before then. I would have noticed him in any crowd. "Where’s your phone this evening? Will it be joining us later?"
In reply he patted his jacket pocket.
"Aha," I muttered, darkly amused. "Never far away. And always on."
"It’s important for business," he said, as if explaining to a small child. "I have to be reachable."
The waiter brought our food, presenting Richard’s plate with a proud flourish and dropping mine to the table with a dour reminder that the plate was hot. Clearly I looked like the sort of person for whom the skull and crossbones sign was developed, or else, hearing Richard talk to me, he thought I was a few sandwiches short of a picnic. I felt another sneeze coming on, but fought it, fearing another lecture.
"But if you’re at dinner, can’t they leave a message on your phone?"
"People ramble. Sometimes they forget to leave a number. Or they don’t speak clearly. It’s more efficient to catch the call first time."
"So you’d rather be efficient than polite."
"Yes," he answered simply. "Polite is a nicety; efficiency is a necessity."
Shaking my head, I stabbed a fork into my pasta.
"That dish is very spicy," he warned, as if I couldn’t read the menu and didn’t know what I’d ordered. "You might want to—"
I took a large mouthful. He observed the mutiny, sitting very straight in his chair, fork in one hand.
"Perhaps you’d like some water?" he asked, eyes gleaming.
I shook my head and stubbornly swallowed the fire, felt it scarring my throat. The restaurant was suddenly all misty, and I felt my face glowing like hot coals. "I’ve had spicier, actually," I wheezed out, reaching casually for my wine glass.
He put down his fork. "Are you always so contrary and stubborn?"
"Are you always so smug?"
"No. It’s just the unfortunate shape of my face."
I almost choked on my wine, but there was no suggestion of a smile from him, just a subtle lightening of the eyes. "Ah," I said somberly. "I thought perhaps it was just my fault. Most things are."
"Yes. I can imagine."
"My sister didn’t warn you? I’m nothing but trouble."
"She said I’d have to find out for myself. But she did tell me you’re writing a book."
I was surprised. Marian once asked if she was in the book and when my reply was a resounding "no" she asked nothing more about it. I’d assumed she put it out of her mind since then, but apparently she still remembered my "hobby".
"What’s it about?" he asked.
"A child without a mother. And a mother without a child."
I’d never said that before, not even to myself. Usually, when asked to describe what my book was about, I blanked, unable to put it into words, but he effortlessly drew it out of me – just like that.
Nothing more was said about my manuscript. In fact, very little else was said at all. We ran out of conversation even before we ran out of wine and then I wanted to go home, put my wretched slippers on and sit by the fire with my cocoa, like any other chaste spinster. When I caught my raccoon-eyed reflection in the back of a dessert spoon, I realized why he kept looking at me so strangely. My mascara had run and my hair, as it dried, stuck out from my head as if I had my finger in an electrical socket. My lips looked swollen and red from the stinging hot sauce on my pasta.
Despite all this, at the end of the evening, he had the gall to suggest another date. Presumably to punish himself for whatever sins he’d committed in this life, or any other. I advised him, quite kindly I thought, against the idea.
"You are possibly the most irritating, repressed man I’ve ever met," I added, throwing his own condescension back in his face with, "Just being honest."
And we left it at that. He never did send me a bill.