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Heart On The Line
By Judith Arnold
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLeaning out over the platform and staring down the tracks wasn't going to make the train arrive sooner. But Loretta leaned and stared anyway, and prayed for the 7:51 westbound to chug into the station so she could say goodbye to Nicky, climb aboard and go home.
She wished she could tune him out, but she'd learned long ago that her family was un-tune-out-able. "It's not like I care or anything," he droned. "It's your life. You wanna throw it away, that's your choice. It's nothing to me."
"I'm not throwing my life away," she argued. "Come on, Nicky. Today is my birthday. Back off."
"Yeah, it's your birthday. The big twenty-nine, baby. The last year of your youth. After thirty, it's all downhill."
"Maybe in your case," Loretta needled him. "You've sure gone downhill in the past few years."
He ignored the dig. "We're talking about you. Where the hell are you going with your life?"
Where the hell she was going with her life was back to Manhattan, if the damn train ever showed up. She wished Al had driven her to the station instead of Nicky. As the oldest, Nicky seemed to feel a special obligation to lecture his wayward sister. He loved playing the role of the wise elder, although his propensity for dressing like Gilligan, in plaid shorts and inverted sailor hats, disqualified him for any mantle of wisdom, as far as she was concerned.
"All I'm saying," he continued as she gazed desperately down the tracks, "is, your first reaction shouldn't always be no."
"I don't want to meet your friend, Nicky. Okay?"
"He's a dentist."
"Like this is a bad thing. I'm a dentist. Al's a dentist. Dad's a dentist. What's the problem?"
The problem was that Nicky, Al and Dad were dentists. Dentistry was the family trade, and her family's reaction, when she had militantly refused to take even a basic biology class in college, let alone anything that might smack of predentistry, was, "That's okay - she'll marry a dentist."
She had no plans to marry a dentist. It wasn't as if she was ever going to lose sleep over where her next plaque scraping was coming from. One of the reasons she'd become engaged to Gary had been that he was in advertising. A worthless occupation, according to her family, but what did she care? It wasn't dentistry.
So now her brother was trying to fix her up with a colleague. He thought Loretta would have a good time sharing drinks and dinner with some guy who got paid to stick his fingers into other people's mouths.
"Kathy vouched for Marty, didn't she?" Nicky reminded her. "She said he was nice."
"She said he was brilliant and he looked like Mel Gibson, only taller. Yeah, right."
"Are you calling my wife a liar?"
"I'm just saying maybe she was trying a little too hard to sell me on this buddy of yours. Tell me the truth. Does he really look like Mel Gibson?"
"Well ..." Nicky considered. "He's taller."
The distant rattle of the train tickled her ears. She perked up with all the excitement of a dog hearing the whine of a can opener.
"Just this once, okay? Let me give him your number. It's nothing to me, but you could do worse. You have done worse. Not to mention any names, but Gary. Okay? Marty Calabrese is a nice guy."
"Gary was a nice guy, too," Loretta argued, meaning it. Her family would never forgive him for having broken up with her at a late-enough date that they'd had to sacrifice half the deposit they'd put down at the Roslyn Harbor Inn, but Loretta had forgiven him long ago. In fact, once she'd gotten over the shock, she'd realized she was grateful to him for figuring out that if they didn't love each other, getting married might not be the wisest option.
"You know," she added, wishing the train would glide up to the platform already, "I don't need my brothers soliciting dates for me. I can get dates on my own."
"Yeah? When was the last time you were on a date?"
"Wouldn't you like to know." He would like to know, she admitted silently. He'd love to know that it had been weeks, months - and going club hopping with Bob from work one evening when he'd been between girlfriends didn't really count as a date, because they were just pals. Nicky would love to know that she was everything her family feared: twenty-nine and single, with no prospects in sight, no wedding bells ringing on the horizon, no suburban tract house and two-point-three kids in her foreseeable future.
She wouldn't object terribly to having a husband someday, and even a kid or two. She wasn't too keen on the suburban tract house, but she was sure her parents would give her a pass on that if she'd do the marriage-and-children thing. But God, the pressure! They just wouldn't let up - and now that she was twenty-nine, it was only going to get worse. Loretta didn't respond well to pressure. When anyone - especially her blood relatives - applied it, she dug in her heels. As long as they pressured her about marriage, she was going to stay single.
Nicky peered down at her, all six brawny feet of him, and gave her a smile that displayed his extremely white teeth. He'd be handsome if he took off the dorky hat and did something about the paunch budding above his belt. "It's just that you're my sister and I care about you. And it bothers me that you won't keep an open mind about things."
She wouldn't keep an open mind? Nicky and the rest of her family were the ones who were close-minded. But the train was squeaking to a halt at the station, and she saw no reason to get into an argument about open minds with him. "Okay, look. I've got to go," she said, sounding much too relieved.
"Yeah, well, think about it, would you? He's a really nice guy. It wouldn't kill you to spend an evening with a nice guy."
"Uh-huh." She rose on tiptoe to kiss Nicky's cheek, then started toward the door, trying not to sprint.
"You got your ticket?" he called after her.
"Yeah, I got it. Bye, Nicky. Thanks again for the book."
"Kathy picked it out," he reminded her.
"Well, thank her again for me." She stepped onto the train and waved, then entered the car and let out a long, weary breath. Though the car wasn't packed, most of the bench seats held at least one passenger. The only unoccupied seat was the backward one just inside the door. She dropped onto the stiff upholstery, stifled a groan and closed her eyes so she wouldn't have to view all the passengers staring at her from the forward-facing seats.
The book Nicky and Kathy had given her for her birthday was called The Secret to Success in Love. Her brother Al and his wife had given her a book entitled Two by Two: How to Find Your True Partner in Life. Her parents had given her a simple gold bracelet with a small heart-shaped charm hanging from a link. She'd understood the message they were conveying with their sweet gift: poor Loretta didn't have a man in her life to present her with a romantic bracelet for her birthday, so her parents had to step into the breach.
The gifts had prompted her to request a refill on her wine. It was her birthday party, after all, and if she needed vast quantities of wine to survive the day, so be it. If ever she'd shared her family's yearning for her to have a boyfriend, it had been today; with a boyfriend, she could have begged off the family barbecue her parents had insisted on hosting in her honor. Sorry, Mr. Wonderful is taking me out for dinner tonight, she could have said, and they'd have been so ecstatic they wouldn't have minded that she wasn't spending her birthday with them. Or else she could have brought Mr. Wonderful with her to her parents' raised ranch in Plainview, and he could have been her ally. He and she could have exchanged amused glances whenever the discussion veered to tartar treatments or quadrant cleaning, or her mother aimed sly criticisms at her: So, Loretta, are you ever going to get a haircut? or So, are people still threatening to tear each other limb from limb on that show you work for?
Excerpted from Heart On The Line by Judith Arnold Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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