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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-offway offBroadway. 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 if you 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 wordsfruit 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 saladsand 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 muchit'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 quicklyhe 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."
"JaronCokie 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 Dettling's 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?"
His mother looked down at her agenda instead of meeting his eyes. A bad sign. "She's a plumber."
"Bonnie, darling," her aunt called. "Jaron is the son of my dearest friend. He's been kind enough to offer to take you to dinner tomorrow night. Please say you ll go.": Bonnie glanced toward the kitchen. "Sure, Aunt Cokie."
Her aunt beamed at her and spoke into the telephone.
If at that particular moment Bonnie hadn't been in the process of tipping the doorman for helping her cart some of the day's architectural salvage finds up to her aunt's apartment, she might not have been so quick to agree.
On the other hand, why not go out with this friend's son? After all, she was Bonnie Cooper, Berkshires' Blind Date Queen. She just hadn't realized her reputation had preceded her to New York.
Besides, maybe her aunt had other plans for tomorrow night.
Bonnie found yesterday's New York Times and carried it into the spare bedroom, where she spread several sheets over the carpet. Then she retrieved the paper bags from the foyer and emptied their contents onto the newspapers. What an incredible haul. She'd found just the right antique faucets, with intact connecting pipes, and even a cracked claw-foot tub with the exact feet she'd been searching for. What luck. She could ditch the tub, which she'd had shipped home, along with the larger items, and marry the feet to the tub her parents had been keeping for her in the basement of their hardware store. And then there were the two pull-chain toilets she'd bought on spec. They were in style againwho knew why, but they were.
This trip to New York was turning out better than she'd dared to hope. She'd found everything she needed for her next projectconverting the attic of the Twin Oaks Bed and Breakfast to a fifth guest room.
She was sitting on the floor, happily measuring and cataloging plumbing fixtures and fittings, when Cokie appeared in the doorway.
"So you had luck at the excavation auction?"
"Oh, yes. Just look at this." Bonnie held up a blackened, curved metal faucet and rubbed it with her thumb. Brass gleamed back at her encouragingly. Taking the hem of her T-shirt, she rubbed at it again, looking up when her aunt gasped. "What?"
"Don't you have a rag for that sort of thing?"
"After today, my shirt is a rag."
"But you re still wearing it!" Cokie fretted. "And getting who-knows-what from that nasty thing all over it."
"This isn't just any nasty thing. This is an early twentieth-century faucet, and handles with the original escutcheons." She pointed to the china pieces.
"Is that good?"
"Decorators charge their clients big bucks to install reproductions. This baby is the genuine article and I've got all the fittings with it."
"Yes, I see."
Bonnie grinned up at her aunt. "I arranged for the rest to be sent back to the store, but I didn't trust the auctioneer not to be bribed to 'lose this."
Cokie hesitated, then asked, "But, Bonnie is it, er, clean?"
"Oh, no," Bonnie answered cheerfully. "That's why I put down the newspapers." Her aunt made a small sound of distress. "Do you have any other auctions tomorrow?"
"Yes, do you want to come?" Bonnie's type of auctions and sales were quick and dirty and involved climbing around in torn-down buildings or wandering through warehouses filled with architectural salvage. Cokie's type of auctions involved gilded chairs and discreet bidding paddles. She wondered about going to Elizabeth Arden's for a facial and a manicure. Cokie looked hopefully at her.
"A manicure?" Bonnie laughed and used her thumbnail to chip away at some sludge in the screw threads of the faucet. "What for?"
"You're going out to dinner.
She'd forgotten. "That's right. With ?"
"Jaron Darke." Her aunt's voice held a reverential tone.
Should she recognize the name? Bonnie couldn t remember hearing about him, unless her aunt had mentioned his name on a previous visit. "Are we all going?"
"Oh, no." Her aunt smiled benignly. "This will be a chance for you two to get to know one another."
Bonnie refrained from pointing out that it was unlikely there would be a future use for knowing Jaron Darke. This was clearly a case of two friends wishful matchmaking, and she'd already agreed to go along with it. It was only for an evening and would make her aunt happyinadequate repayment for all the times Cokie had welcomed her on her buying trips. "So tell me about him. Is he some kind of big shot?"
"Bonnie!" Cokie pressed her palm against her chest. "Everyone knows Jaron." She spoke in a near whisper, as though afraid someone might hear that her niece was clueless about Jaron Darke.
"Everyone in New York, maybe, but I'm not from New York."
Her aunt gave her that look of slight surprise, followed by the dismissal Bonnie was accustomed to seeing when New Yorkers were reminded that there was a world outside the city. "Jaron Darke is a newspaper columnist."
"Really? What's he write about?" Bonnie screwed together three sets of nuts and bolts, then reached for a pencil. Her fingers were dirty, so she looked around for something to wipe them on. Finding nothing, she used her shirt, then made a note.
Her aunt sighed, and when she spoke, Bonnie noticed her eyes were closed. "He writes about everything. Movies, plays, restaurants, music, personalities, the mayor, certain issues, crime, squatters He's a social commentator."
"And why are people interested in his comments?"
There was silence, so Bonnie looked up.
Her aunt's lips were moving. She blinked several times. "They they just are!"
"Oh." Bonnie went back to matching fittings. At least this Jaron Darke would be able to hold up his end of the conversation. All Bonnie would have to ask was, "What do you think about " and he'd comment. She smiled to herself. She might even comment back.
The phone rang and Cokie went to answer it before she could tell her niece anything more about Jaron, not that Bonnie needed her to. She pretty much had this Jaron guy figured for a true-blue New Yorker very much of her aunt's social circle.
Bonnie was a small-town girl at heart and didn't fit in with her aunt's world, as much as Cokie pretended otherwise. She was always eager to have Bonnie stay with her and mingle with her friends, but after all these years she must know how unlikely it would be for Bonnie and a man like this Jaron person to hit it off.
It must have been because she was thinking of him, but when Bonnie picked up the pipe fittings for the faucet, there was the name, Jaron Darke, right in front of her.
He had a grease smudge across his forehead, but Bonnie brushed away the dirt from the newspaper and found herself looking at the picture above his column, "After Darke." Cute.
But cute only applied to the title. Jaron had a goatee and short, short hair and a supercilious expression topped by impressive cheekbones.
Bonnie had always wanted cheekbones to define her round face. Cheekbones would give her a haughty authority. She could use some haughtiness during negotiations.
Jaron Darke had haughtiness to spare.
Bonnie sighed and began reading his column.