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Dinner First, Me Later?
By Candy Halliday
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2007 Candy Viers
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAlicia Greene grabbed her bedside phone after the first ring and said, "I'm running late this morning, Alfie. I'll have to call you later."
"This will only take a minute, sis," her twin insisted. "I have great news."
Alicia sighed. One Alfie minute always equaled thirty Alfie minutes. And they both knew it.
"Then I'm putting you on speaker phone," Alicia told him. "You talk. I'll finish getting ready."
Alicia slipped on her blouse and buttoned it while Alfie rambled on about the new woman he'd met at Starbucks earlier that morning. She was stunning. Absolutely the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
"And you know I'm a sucker for beautiful women," Alfie said.
"I won't argue with that," Alicia said, and walked across the bedroom toward her closet.
He'd seen her at Starbucks several times before, but he'd never had the courage to approach her. She really was that beautiful. And she was a redhead.
"And you know I've always been a sucker for redheads," Alfie said.
"Uh-huh," Alicia agreed, and reached into the closet for her skirt.
They'd been the only two early birds at Starbucks on this particular Monday morning, so he'd finally found the courage to talk to her. He explained he'd always been an early riser. She explained she was an emergency-room nurse, and always stopped for coffee on her way tothe hospital.
"And, I hate to keep repeating myself," Alfie said, "but you know I've always been a sucker for nurses."
Alicia wrinkled her nose at any mention of the medical profession; her famous neurosurgeon ex-husband the reason for her frown.
Edward Carlton had fooled her completely during the entire year they'd dated before he proposed. Not once had Edward given her, or anyone else, any reason to suspect he was marrying her only to preserve his sterling reputation. If she hadn't caught him in a compromising position with their twenty-something Latino pool boy a year after the wedding, she might still be trapped in a tragic farce of a marriage.
That thought made Alicia shudder.
But she was past the ugly divorce now. Past her deep depression that followed the divorce. Past letting Edward destroy her self-esteem. Thankfully, past Edward Carlton altogether.
Alfie said, "Her name is Gwen, and I really think she could be the one." But a needy please-let-it-be-so sigh followed his statement.
And how many times had Alfie said that before?
Too many times to count.
Alicia refrained from pointing that out, however. If she argued, the conversation would quickly escalate into a full Alfie hour. She didn't have an hour to spare this morning. Not when her neighbor, Zada Clark, was on a matchmaking mission-Alicia being Zada's unwilling victim. And especially not when she intended to tell Zada at coffee this morning to back off and forget her matchmaking idea once and for all!
"Good for you, Alfie," was all Alicia said about her twin's great news.
"Good for you?" Alfie's disappointed snort blared through the speaker. "I've just told you I think I've met the love of my life this morning, and all you have to say is 'Good for you'?"
"I told you I'm running late," Alicia reminded him as she slipped her feet into her high heels. "Mondays are always crazy at the office. I'll have to call you later."
Another snort echoed through the speaker.
"Let me guess," Alfie said curtly. "The real reason you don't have time to talk to me is because you're hurrying off to have coffee with the Housewives Fantasy Club before you go to the office."
Alicia glanced at the speaker on the phone set.
Her twin's ability to read her mind always amazed her.
And yes, before she headed off to her real estate office, she planned to have coffee with the women in her cul-de-sac who were fondly known as the Housewives Fantasy Club for a very good reason. On Saturday nights when the guys in her cul-de-sac got together to play poker, the girls got together to share their most secret desires.
And yes, sometimes those secret desires were nothing more than a new pair of Jimmy Choo shoes or new wallpaper for the bathroom. But as with all good female friends who feel completely safe with each other, after a few glasses of wine, the conversation always ended up about sex in one way or another.
The one way or another she and her friends preferred just happened to be the fantasy way.
And better friends than Tish Jones, Jen Marshall, and Zada Clark had become to her, Alicia couldn't imagine. This certainly hadn't been the case six months ago.
Six months ago, she'd been depressed over the divorce. She'd been an outcast in her own neighborhood. And she'd been downright bitter toward Tish, Jen, and Zada, who were basically treating her like a pariah at the time.
"Those women wouldn't give you the time of day six months ago, Alicia," Alfie said, "and you know it."
Again, Alfie had said out loud exactly what she'd been thinking. Alicia frowned at the telephone speaker this time.
"What was it they said about you behind your back after your divorce?" He mimicked in a high-pitched voice, "Alicia Greene is what you'd get if you put Anna Nicole Smith and Pamela Anderson in a blender. Except with ten times the class, old family money, and an MBA from Harvard. In other words, every wife's nightmare."
Alicia walked over and turned the speaker off. "Yes, Alfie," she said when she picked up the phone, "that's exactly what they said about me after my divorce. And in retrospect, I really don't blame them. If you're relatively attractive, wealthy, and divorced, you don't exactly fit in with the suburban married couple's social scene."
"My point exactly," Alfie said. "So why is attractive, wealthy, and divorced you still living in the suburbs with a bunch of jealous housewives?"
"They aren't jealous of me now, and you know it," Alicia said. "We've all become good friends."
"Are you sure about that?" Alfie cautioned. "Jealousy is the only motive I can think of that would make your so-called good friend Zada try to fix you up with the likes of Jake Sims."
Alicia let out a deep sigh as Alfie ranted on about Zada's determination to fix her up with infamous retired Chicago Cubs baseball player Jake Sims. As in king of the tabloids Jake Sims, Alfie reminded her. A new model or starlet on his arm every week Jake Sims, Alfie complained.
Who also looks damn good in his underwear commercials Jake Sims, Alicia thought, but she quickly pushed that mental image out of her mind. And she definitely didn't mention the underwear commercials to her brother.
"And you're not without fault in this whole situation, either," Alfie accused. "You just had to sell Jake Sims the house directly across the street from yours!"
Alicia groaned. "You already know I had no idea who was buying the house, Alfie. His attorney handled the sale from start to finish."
"It doesn't matter," Alfie grumbled. "You can't deny I have good reason to be worried. The man's whole life reads like an episode of the Jerry Springer show!"
Alicia didn't try to argue with that statement.
The tabloids had kept Jake front and center for most of his life; his marriage to his equally famous supermodel ex-wife some fourteen years earlier; the birth of their baby daughter; the nasty divorce shortly after the child was born. But the tabloids had been in a genuine feeding frenzy from the moment Jake's ex-wife had been killed in a car accident eight months earlier. Not only had his ex-wife's drug use reportedly been the cause of the accident, but also the heated custody battle for his daughter that had been going on for the last six months between Jake and his ex-mother-in-law had kept the story front page on the tabloids.
That is, until a few weeks ago when Jake won temporary custody of his daughter-the reason Mr. Playboy had given up his penthouse in downtown Chicago for a less paparazzi-accessible gated community in the suburbs. Jake was old news as far as the tabloids were concerned now. Too bad Alfie didn't feel the same way.
"Alicia? Are you still there?"
"Are you still on your soapbox?"
"You bet I'm still on my soapbox!" Alfie fussed. "Why wouldn't I be on my soapbox when your new best friends are treating Jake Sims like he's the Second Coming? Jake Sims is every brother's worst nightmare!"
Alicia rolled her eyes.
"And talk about a fantasy," Alfie said. "If your housewife pals truly think Jake Sims is a changed man just because he won custody of his daughter, they really are living in a fantasy world. He didn't get the nickname 'Jake the Rake' for nothing!"
"All of which has nothing to do with me," Alicia reminded him calmly. "I told you. I turned the girls down flat when they asked me to help Jake get settled into the neighborhood."
"And what about the dinner party on Friday night?"
Alicia gulped-loud enough for Alfie to hear her.
"And you know exactly which dinner party I'm talking about, Alicia. Zada's dinner party," Alfie said, rubbing it in. "Are you going to turn that invitation down flat, too?"
Alicia frowned. "How did you hear about Zada's dinner party?"
"How do you think?" Alfie quipped.
Alicia frowned again. "And when did you talk to Tish?"
"Yesterday," Alfie said smugly. "When I couldn't get you on your cell phone, I called Tish."
"I didn't answer my cell phone," Alicia said through clenched teeth, "because I was trying to avoid another lecture from you about Jake Sims!"
"Well, you should have answered your cell," Alfie said. "All I had to do was ask Tish what exciting things were going on in Woodberry Park, and she was more than happy to fill me in on how Zada hoped to get you and Jake together at her party on Friday night."
"Remind me to thank Tish for that," Alicia mumbled under her breath.
Alfie said, "You are not going to that party, Alicia. Do you hear me? I forbid it!"
"Fine!" Alicia said. "If I can forbid you from seeing your nutty new-age therapist again!"
Alfie gulped-loud enough for Alicia to hear.
Alicia said, "Stop worrying about me getting involved with Jake Sims. It isn't going to happen! Besides, his daughter is going to be living with him, remember? Kids always hate me on sight."
"And dogs," Alfie mentioned. "Dogs always hate you on sight, too."
"Yes, Alfie," Alicia huffed. "Dogs always hate me, too. Would it make you feel any better if I bought the daughter a puppy as a welcome-to-the-neighborhood present?"
"Yes," Alfie said. "I think that would make me feel better. You pick the pup out at the pet store. And I'll be happy to pay for it."
Alicia ignored him and said, "No, what I'm going to do is tell Zada at coffee this morning to back off, and I mean it."
"And Zada's party?" Alfie pressed.
"After I give Zada a piece of my mind this morning," Alicia said, "the party isn't going to be an issue."
"Mark my words," Alfie warned. "Jake Sims will have his hand on your knee before Zada serves the main course."
"Mark this," Alicia said and hung up on her twin.
"Jake," Tish Jones said with a smile when she opened her front door. "I'm so glad you could make it for coffee this morning. Zada and Jen are already in the kitchen."
Jake followed Tish down the hallway.
Having morning coffee with two brunettes and a redhead used to mean one of his famous parties had lasted all night. But that was before his ex-wife's accident had turned his life upside down. And before Carla's death had set off a chain of events that would change the course of his life forever.
Doing what was best for his daughter hadn't been an easy decision.
The easiest thing would have been allowing Danielle to remain in LA and continue living with her grandmother, despite his own personal feelings toward his ex-mother-in-law. Ranatta Harper of the famed Harper Modeling Agency in Hollywood had been his archrival since the moment he married Carla. Marrying him had been Carla's one and only act of defiance against Ranatta, and one Carla regretted after her mother disowned her. Divorcing him, Ranatta had vowed, would be the only way Carla could rectify the situation. Sadly for him, for Carla, and for Danielle, Ranatta's hold on Carla was stronger than her new family bond. Carla had divorced him shortly after Danielle was born, taking Danielle with her back to LA.
Still, Jake had known that uprooting Danielle from her home, from her grandmother and her friends, and forcing her to live with a father she hardly knew would only add to the trauma of losing her mother. But Ranatta just had to push his buttons one last time.
When news broke out in the gossip columns that Ranatta was already lining Danielle up to step into Carla's supermodel shoes, Jake knew he couldn't allow that to happen. All of Ranatta's money and all of her power hadn't been able to keep Carla's autopsy report out of the papers. The high levels of cocaine found in Carla's system during the time of the accident had been broadcast over every media venue for weeks.
Ranatta had put Carla on the cover of every teen magazine available by the time she was thirteen, and where had that gotten Carla? Caught up in a world where image was everything. Where the pressure to stay thin and beautiful was constant. And where drugs were simply a way of life.
In other words, dead before her time.
He'd struggled for days over the decision to fight Ranatta for custody. And he'd argued for hours with his agent who was convinced that trading in his man-about-town image and his downtown penthouse to play Daddy Dearest in the suburbs would be committing TV-commercial suicide.
Jake had finally decided it was just a chance he'd have to take.
There came a time in every man's life when he had to step up and be accountable for the decisions he'd made in the past. At thirty-eight, Jake knew he had arrived at that time.
Exit Mr. Big Time.
Enter Mr. Housewife.
After the six long months he'd spent battling Ranatta for his parental rights, he'd finally been given temporary custody, with the understanding that the court was appointing a guardian ad litem on Danielle's behalf. He and Danielle would be monitored frequently over the next six months by a social worker. If the court was satisfied that Danielle was adjusting to her new lifestyle, and if he could prove himself a fit father, he would be granted permanent custody at the end of the probation period.
Thanks to the three women who had invited him to coffee this morning, a new and improved Jake Sims was ready to step up to the plate now-this challenge far more important to him than any baseball career had ever been.
That was the reason Jake suspected the three women had invited him to coffee this morning. He'd finally passed the crash course in Domestic Living 101 these three housewives had given him over the last few weeks. And yes, there had been a few testy moments while they were trying to whip him into shape, but he'd learned to keep his mouth shut and pay attention.
Like mentioning that he didn't see the point of rinsing every item thoroughly before placing it in the dishwasher-he'd sure received a lengthy lecture about that statement. Pointing out that he saw no reason for fifty different cycles on the washing machine hadn't been the brightest thing to say, either. That comment had resulted in Tish bringing poster board and markers and forcing him to write out his own "dos and don'ts" chart to hang in his laundry room.
But Jen's long list of Quick and Easy recipes had been helpful, and he'd also been assured that kids would eat anything as long as it was disguised well enough in a casserole. He didn't like to brag, but his Chicken à la King was getting to the point that it was almost edible.
The unlimited advice he'd received on child rearing was also valuable, though the thought of what it did take to be a good parent still had his head reeling. That vague "pick your battles" phrase still had him stumped, for instance. How exactly did a parent determine which battles to pick? He still didn't have a clue about that.
He'd finally come to the conclusion that as much as he appreciated each and every one of their helpful housewife hints, he could always rely on the standard Guy's Approach to Domestic Living as a backup plan. Namely: Eat out when you don't want to cook; call Merry Maids when you don't want to clean; and take the laundry to the cleaners if you can't figure out the damn dos and don'ts chart.
At any rate, the new house in the suburbs was ready now. Danielle was registered in a good middle school. And he was even signed up with a neighbor to carpool three days a week when school started in the fall.
All of my bases are covered, Jake thought proudly as he took a seat at Tish's kitchen table. As far as he could tell, there wasn't as much as a cloud on his domestic horizon that could possibly throw him a curveball now.
"Someone else will be joining us in a minute, Jake," Zada Clark said as Tish placed a cup of coffee on the table in front of him. Jen Marshall smiled and pushed a plate of fresh blueberry muffins in his direction.
Jake reached for a muffin, and Zada said, "We wanted you to meet the only other single person in our cul-de-sac before my dinner party on Friday night. Alicia Greene is the realtor who worked with your attorney on the purchase of your house."
Excerpted from Dinner First, Me Later? by Candy Halliday Copyright © 2007 by Candy Viers. Excerpted by permission.
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