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By Stephanie Bond
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I'm allergic to men," I announced to my three girlfriends between forkfuls of my wickedly garlicky Caesar salad.
Being accustomed to my somewhat obscure proclamations, their vigorous chewing proceeded unchecked. I looked from face to face to see who would cave first. My gaze stopped on Denise and she gave me an eye roll. I could always count on Denise to nibble at my conversation tidbits, however begrudgingly.
"Okay, Kenzie, I'll bite. Are you talking allergic in literal terms, or figurative?"
"Literal," I declared. "I am physically allergic to the male gender."
Cindy squinted. "Like ragweed?"
Jacki shook her head. "You are hopeless. You're allergic to feathers, mold, pollen, dairy products, rubber and now men?"
"Don't forget pet dander," I said.
Jacki pointed with her fork. "Kenzie Mansfield, you are a hypochondriac."
Admittedly, I was. My copy of Disease and Diagnosis was as dog-eared as were most women's copies of Kama Sutra. At different times in my life, I had been sure I'd had an enlarged spleen, Tourette's syndrome and a brain tumor. Even though those ailments had all been disproved by various and sundry tests, my extensive allergies were documented and real, so I clung to them.
"If I'm a hypochondriac, then you are delusional, Jacki," I said defensively. "You with your theory of choosing men by the shoes they wear."
Jacki bristled. "Hey, it worked for me. Ted and I have been going strong for two months. Plus Cindy and Denise have both met guys while testing my shoe theory."
The girls nodded with enthusiasm, and I bit into my lip. I'd missed out on a lot of fun with my friends while working crazy-long hours at Personality magazine. They all had boyfriends with nice footwear. I had no boyfriend and seemed to be developing an itch that I suspected was a result of inadvertent contact with our burly Italian waiter.
Jacki gave me a censoring look. "Besides, my theory is simply an extension of human tastes. I never claimed it was scientific - unlike this cockamamie allergy hypothesis."
"But me being allergic to men makes perfect sense," I insisted. "Instead of being attracted by male pheromones, my body now goes haywire. My sinus passages close up, my skin gets all blotchy - both of which are medically recognized clinical reactions, by the way."
Jacki was unmoved. "Did you develop this allergy before or after James dumped you?"
My back straightened. "I dumped James. But now I think my growing aversion to him was actually the onset of the man allergy."
One of Jacki's eyebrows shot up. "Personally, I think your growing aversion to James was the onset of sanity."
"That, too," I conceded. "But toward the end, I couldn't bear the smell of him, even after a shower." I wrinkled my nose. "And every time he came near me, my neck and chest got all blotchy."
"Do the men you work with give you a reaction?" Denise asked, clearly humoring me, probably to aggravate Jacki.
But I'd given that topic some thought. "No, but most of the men I work with are gay - I don't think they're emitting pheromones directed at me." I pulled a notebook from my purse and flipped through the pages. "For the past two weeks, I've been keeping track of my reaction to all men I come into close contact with - cab drivers, doormen, strangers on the elevator - and it seems that the more macho the guy, the more severe my reaction."
Our handsome dark-haired waiter materialized to leave more bread at the table. He winked at me, and I clawed at the instant skin irritation that developed. He hurried away.
"See," I said, extending the white underside of my arms, now red from scratching, as irrefutable proof of my rant.
My friends still seemed dubious.
"So, let me get this straight," Jacki said. "You're allergic to big, strong, alpha men?"
"Exactly." I sank back into my chair, relieved that she finally understood.
Jacki nodded thoughtfully. "There is a name for what you're describing."
I did a double take. "There is?"
"It's called being a lesbian."
Denise and Cindy cracked up, but I wasn't amused. I was, however, feeling a little desperate to explain myself. "Don't you see? I'm always attracted to the same type of guy - big and physical - and those relationships have all been disasters. My body has obviously developed this allergy to protect me from my own urges. It's nature's way of telling me that I need to settle down with a nice, quiet, unsexy guy."
The girls looked at me as if I'd grown a second head. If so, I hoped the new head had better hair than the first.
Then Jacki stabbed a chunk of romaine and scoffed. "I think you're freaking out because your birthday is on Thursday and you don't have a man in your life."
My uterus contracted. "That's ridiculous. I'm trying to explain what might be a revolutionary evolutionary concept. This development could change the human mating process as the world knows it!"
"Besides, I forgot all about my birthday," I lied.
In truth, turning thirty-one loomed more menacingly than any previous anniversary of moi. And the only explanation I had for the anxiety was that the year had flamed by so quickly, I was afraid to let it go. Since becoming an assistant to Helena Birch, editor-in-chief of Personality magazine, it seemed as if my unremarkable life was slipping through my worked-to-the-bone fingers. A typical day had me leaving my apartment in the dark and arriving home in the dark. If I was lucky, I got to see a sliver of daylight when I delivered towering stacks of reports to Helena's office on the thirteenth floor of the Woolworth Building. (My own office was a closet off a dark hallway.) Today was the first time in eons that I'd had lunch with my friends at our favorite sidewalk café. My indoor arms were ghostly pale next to their sun-kissed limbs, and I had to wear sunglasses against the unfamiliar reflective glare from the sidewalk. My entire body was under assault from the sunshine. And the handsome waiter.
"Well, we didn't forget your birthday," Denise said.
"We're taking you to Fitzgerald's if you can get away from the office Thursday at five."
I conjured up a smile, already dreading that conversation with Helena. My boss was determined to make Personality magazine number one in our demographic (young professionals earning over $45,000 per annum who spend a disproportionate amount of income on clothing and cars). Just yesterday we'd learned that we had clawed our way from number nine to number seven in circulation. Good thing, too, because this morning when I'd stared glassily into the mirror brushing my teeth, it had appeared for one brief second as if my eyes were turning nocturnal pink - ergo my spontaneous lunch invitation to my gal pals: my social life simply had to improve. "I'll be at Fitzgerald's," I promised.
Jacki smirked. "Good. But don't forget your antihistamine, Kenzie, just in case you meet a man."
Excerpted from Cover Me by Stephanie Bond Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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