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By Heather Macallister
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Jaron Darke rapped on the door of his mother's New York apartment. Life was good. He'd just been to a matinee reading of possibly the worst dreck ever to be foisted onto off-off - way off - Broadway. Bloated with conceit, Peter Edward Norris, or PEN, as he preferred to be called, had lost the vision of avant-garde and had delivered the merely banal. Even better, the members of the audience, fairly conceited themselves, hadn't figured it out.
Jaron would show them the way. There would be squirming, embarrassment, and above all, talk. PEN would denounce him.
Jaron could hardly wait. After the performance, he had immediately gone to a little hole-in-the-wall eatery near the pretentiously shabby "theatre" to compose the scathing lead for his column. It was there that he'd discovered paradise on earth.
He bent his head to the warm, plastic-covered plate he held, and inhaled. If his mother would ever open the door, he'd share some of the paradise with her.
The handle turned, and his mother, talking on her cell phone, swept open the door and gestured him inside. Jaron blew her a kiss, went straight to the table by the window and set his offering on it. He had just turned on the lamps when his mother approached.
"Jaron, Cokie's niece is visiting New York this week.
It would please me ifyou would offer to take her out on the town one night."
"`Out on the town'?" Jaron gave his mother a sardonic look as he gestured for her to choose one of the selection of Hawaiian hors d'oeuvres he'd brought for her to sample. Jaron was not a blind-date sort of person. He never had been.
"You know what I mean." Nora Darke reached for a grilled pineapple-coconut shrimp. "Pineapple?" She examined the tidbit before popping it into her mouth. "Mmm. Good. Pineapple hasn't been popular for a while. I can't think why not."
"Two words - fruit cocktail."
Nora's eyes widened. "I never served you fruit cocktail!"
"But you didn't protect me from it, either."
"Well, people would drown the stuff in garishly colored gelatin salads - and don't get me started on the horrors of whipped topping." She settled herself in her favorite overstuffed chintz chair.
Someday, Jaron would get her to change interior designers. "You'll find no whipped topping at this restaurant," he assured her.
His mother examined the tray. "Is this Thai?"
"Really! Hawaii is so early sixties." Nora cocked her head to one side. "Though I must say, those Pucci prints are looking fresh and new again." She glanced at him and reached for a piece of fried coconut. "You could use some color. Maybe a tie."
"Moi? This is my trademark." He swept his hand down his black suit and shirt. No tie.
"Trademark or rut?"
"Now, Mother. I mustn't disappoint my fans. I'm working tonight."
It was Jaron's habit to stop by his mother's apartment several nights each week before he went out to collect material for his newspaper column, "After Darke." Part of the New York social scene herself, Nora Darke proved a reliable trend bellwether. Jaron liked to bring her his "finds" so she could introduce them to her "group" - a group that had proved fertile column fodder.
"The coconut is good, but missing something, I think," she said.
"The peanut sauce."
"Ah." Nora dipped the sliver of coconut into the sauce.
"Not too much - it's spicy," Jaron warned.
Nora took a tiny bite, then closed her eyes and let her head fall back. "Wonderful. What else have you got there?"
"Fish ... balls?" She made a face. "Oh, how -"
She did. "Oh, my."
"A winner, you think?"
"Definitely. Who's the chef?" Jaron's lips quivered. "Ron Ho."
"How unfortunate. And the name of his restaurant?"
"Of course." Nora gave a slight shake of her head. "Do give him the option of changing it before we make him famous."
"Are we going to make him famous?"
Nora's fingers hesitated over the scallop and the crab claw, settling on the scallop and popping it into her mouth. She sighed and swallowed. "Oh, we must."
Good. Jaron smiled. That meant she planned to use Ron Ho to cater a party. Nora Darke's gatherings were legendary and always gave Jaron enough column material for a week. "You should have your party quickly - he won't remain undiscovered for long."
"It's nearly October. There's barely time to squeeze one in before the holidays." She wiped her hands on a napkin and reached for her ever-present agenda on the lamp table.
Jaron toyed with the idea of getting her a PalmPilot for Christmas, but his mother's set was still assimilating e-mail. Maybe next year.
Scanning the weeks ahead, she made a slight sound of distress. "No openings while Cokie's niece is still in town. No, you'll just have to take Bonnie out on your own."
Jaron had hoped he'd distracted her from the blind date proposal. "Bonnie? Is that her name? Bonnie the bumpkin?"
Giving him a reproachful look, his mother said, "I've met her and I think she's very sweet."
"Jaron - Cokie is my dearest friend, and I know she's wondering why I haven't suggested before that you and her niece get together."
"Because you know it will be a disaster?"
"Because you were dating Sydney."
He would have welcomed a break from Sydney. "Sydney and I did seem to be at the same places at the same times for a while there, didn't we?" They both knew that Jaron's mother had hopes of an art-gallery-owner daughter-in-law. They were terribly in fashion. Unfortunately, Jaron skewered the art world regularly in his columns, and Sydney had finally let it be known that he was persona non grata at her gallery.
He truly took no pleasure in the fact that her gallery had gone out of business shortly thereafter.
Nora sighed. "Well, I asked. My conscience is clear." His mother had abandoned the battle far too easily, thus arousing Jaron's suspicions.
Eyeing the rest of the hors d'oeuvres, she took a banana chip. "Have you heard anything more about the Dettlings' divorce?"
Jaron tensed. In his column he'd reported rumors about Dettling leaving his wife for the Corlani widow. It would be a coup to report it as fact. "Have you?"
"No," said his mother. "They're more Cokie's friends than they are mine."
Ah. A not-so-subtle reminder that Cokie was one of his best sources outside of his mother, and that it would behoove him to stay on her good side.
Jaron chuckled to himself. He liked Cokie. Come to think of it, his mother wasn't so bad herself.
She hadn't been the mothering sort when he was growing up, treating him much the same as she treated him now. But he'd never felt neglected. Looking back, he decided he'd had an interesting childhood, if one could call it a childhood. Impulsively, he leaned over and kissed her cheek. "All right. I'll take Cokie's niece out and dazzle her with my wit and charm."
"Thank you, Jaron. And don't leave it too late because she's going home this weekend."
He leaned back and mentally rearranged his schedule. "I'll give her a call. Where is she from again?"
"Cooper's Corner, Massachusetts."
"Never heard of it."
"It's in the Berkshires. Cokie's sister married one of the Coopers."
"Ah. And what does she do in Cooper's Corner, Massachusetts?" What did anyone do out in the middle of nowhere?
Excerpted from After Darke by Heather Macallister Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.