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"I might," Sadie Beecham said briskly, "bring someone home with me for Nancy's birthday party." Silence.
Sadie shook the cordless phone. "Mom?"
"Oh, honey." Her mother's voice was a mere breath down the line. "Have you met The One?"
"Mom! I've brought guys home before." Sadie stepped away from the beef bourguignon simmering on the stove for tonight's celebratory dinner and patted her damp forehead with a paper towel. Her bungalow's ancient air-conditioning wasn't up to the challenge of keeping the kitchen cool during the heat of a Memphis summer.
"Not in the last ten years, dear," Mary-Beth Beecham said. "The last one was that boy with the piercing in his lip."
Sadie shuddered. She knew her mother was doing the same. That was a long time ago. A brief attempt during her sophomore year at Princeton to prove she could tread the wild side just like any other coed. A theory she'd rapidly disproved.
"Okay, I haven't brought anyone home lately. But you've met guys I've dated. This is no big deal, Mom."
The last thing she needed was her parents acting as if they were meeting a prospective son-in-law. Even if that's exactly what he was.
Sadie opened the kitchen window in the hope of creating a breeze. On the back porch, her latest batch of plantscamellias and limoniumhad died in their pots, despite the expensive soil nutrients she'd fed them. The neighbor's cat must have been doing its business in them again.
"I want to know all about your young man," Mary-Beth demanded.
Sadie turned her back on the limp, browning foliage. "He's a doctor."
A squawk down the phone. "A doctor! He sounds wonderful."
Sadie couldn't help grinning in response to her mom's enthusiasm. "He's very nice," she admitted. He's perfect.
The doorbell rang. Phew, saved from descending into girlish chitchat, a skill she'd never mastered. "Mom, I need to go. He's just arrived. Meg gets back tonight, too, so we're all having dinner." Dinner for threeshe couldn't wait.
"Okay, dear, you go. Give Meg a hug for me, and tell her not to worry, we have her mom's party well in hand. And call me soon. I can't wait to tell people about this doctor of yours," Mary-Beth added archly.
Sadie puffed out an exasperated breath. "Mom, no need to tell the whole world." She was still fending off inquiries from her parents' friends about when she was going to win the Nobel Prize. Mary-Beth had made the exaggerated claim during her last visit, boasting about Sadie's brilliance as a seed biologist.
"Just your father, then," her mom soothed.
"Fine." Behind Sadie, another long trill of the doorbell suggested impatience. Then a thump on the door, and the handle rattling. Seemed Daniel was as eager to see her as she was to see him. Sadie's irritation evaporated. "Coming," she sang.
She set the phone back on its stand and hurried to the door. "Sorry," she called as she unlocked the deadlock. She flung the door wide. "Come inMeg!"
She just managed not to feel disappointed it was Meg Kincaid, her childhood next-door neighbor, best friend forever and now roommate, on the doorstep, rather than Daniel. "Welcome home! I wasn't expecting you just yet Why didn't you let yourself in?"
"My key's buried somewhere in there." Meg indicated the trundle suitcase next to her. She hugged Sadie. "The flight landed an hour early. It's so great to be home. Six weeks was way too long even if it was Paris." She stood back as Sadie maneuvered the case over the threshold for her.
Meg slipped out of the high-heeled red pumps that were part of her flight-attendant uniform and flexed her toes on the polished wooden floorboards. "Man, that feels better." She pushed her dark bangs off her face, an endearing, reflexive gesture that never achieved anythingher hair settled right where it had been. She'd flown halfway across the world, yet she looked as fresh and pretty as if she'd stepped out of a Cosmo article titled "How to Look Your Best, 24/7."
"I need a drink." She padded down the hallway behind Sadie. "Something smells good."
"I hope so. I followed the recipe exactly, so as long as Martha Stewart knows what she's talking about " Having missed out on the cooking lessons her mom had given her sister, Sadie wasn't as confident as she'd like to be.
In the kitchen Meg absorbed the sparkling state of Sadie's glass-fronted cupboards and the clear counter. Her sigh was part satisfaction, part envy. "This place is so tidy when I'm not here."
"Boarding-school discipline," Sadie reminded her. "My secret weapon. Besides, it's not as if you're here even when you are here," she joked as she pulled a bottle of pinot grigio from the fridge. She didn't know how Meg managed to sleep at all between her party lifestyle and her job. She reached over to the counter, where three glasses were neatly lined up.
"Three glasses?" Jet lag or not, Meg didn't miss a thing.
Sadie busied herself pouring even amounts of wine into two of the glasses. "There's someone I want you to meet."
"A man? " Meg's squeal was gratifying. She grabbed the purse she'd slung over the back of a dining chair. "I'd better put my face on and get out of this uniformwe don't want your boyfriend thinking your best friend's a slob."
"You've never looked slobbish in your life and besides, he's just a friend." She didn't want Meg getting overexcited the way her mom had.
Meg tilted her head to one side. "Now you've got me interested."
What was that supposed to mean? Sadie had listened to friends revealing their I'm-in-love stories over many a glass of wine, but she realized now she'd failed to observe the nuances. She hoped she wasn't blushing. Top research scientists don't blush, she told herself sternly.
Meg took a slug of her wine and set her glass down. "Two minutes." She patted Sadie's arm, then headed to her bedroom. She'd never in her life freshened up in two minutes, so Sadie didn't expect to see her for a while.
She poured some wine for Danielpinot grigio was his favoriteand wiped up a few drops that had spilled on the stainless-steel counter. She rinsed out the dishcloth and tucked it in the wire basket in the cupboard beneath the sink.
The doorbell rang. Once. Briefly. That was Danielno impatient banging on the door or rattling the handle. A man confident in himself, who liked to do things right. Just like her.
No wonder she'd fallen in love with him so fast.
Sadie forced herself to slow her walk, but she couldn't contain her goofy grin as she opened the door. "Hey."
"Hi, Sadiebug." Daniel had come up with the nickname the first time they'd had lunch together. She loved it.
He stepped inside, his kiss landing at the corner of her mouth. Reminding her of the embrace they'd shared last night. Their first proper kiss, after a delicious dinner at the nearby Two Trees Grill, where they'd talked about their families, their ambitions, their mutual passionswork, Russian literature, 1980s rock music, running. Admittedly, running was a very new passion for Sadieshe'd better warn Meg not to look too surprised.
Afterward, Daniel had brought her home, and here in this very hallway had taken her in his arms. Then the kiss. Remembering, Sadie felt a warm glow inside.
Daniel had pulled away after a minute or so, looked into her eyes and said, "Hmm."
Which she took to be a male version of wow. "Hmm," she'd said happily back.
"How was your day?" Sadie asked as she led the way to the kitchen.
"Full-on. Our free diabetes testing was a crowd puller. The few spare minutes I had were spent preparing for my meeting with the SeedTech panel tomorrow." Daniel ran a medical clinic for low-income families in Memphis's Northside neighborhoods. But his interest in childhood nutrition had brought him to SeedTech, the botanical research firm where Sadie worked. Sick of always being "the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff," he'd joined the panel that reviewed SeedTech's research into medicinal plants, projects that in the long term would benefit poor people everywhere. Sadie had met him a few weeks ago when she presented her project to the panel.
"Mmm, dinner smells superb." Daniel lifted the lid of the casserole dish on the stove and peeked inside. "Not just a pretty face and an impressive brainshe can cook, too."
His grin made her heart flip. She would have loved him if he'd been ugly as sin, but his warm brown eyes and slightly-too-long hairhe worked so hard, he seldom found time to get a cutwere adorable.
He accepted a wineglass from her and clinked it against hers. "Here's to you."
To us. Sadie sipped her wine and smiled.
"Um hi." Meg spoke from the doorway.
Sadie beamed. "Meg, meet Daniel Wilson. Daniel, this is my best friend Meg Kincaid." She couldn't have said who she was prouder of. Please let them like each other.
Daniel drank in Meg's silky dark hair, her long lashes, porcelain-perfect complexion, her sweet smile His jaw dropped.
Uh, maybe not quite that much.
The natural pink of Meg's cheeks deepened, and her smile turned irresistible.
How ironic that the first fault Sadie should find in Daniel was his rapid amnesia about that great kiss they'd shared. From the second he met Meg, his manner toward Sadie had been no more than platonic. Warmly platonic, sure In a matter of days, Daniel and Meg were an item. Every time she saw him with Megand since they were at great pains not to exclude her, that was oftenher heart cracked a little further. What she felt for him, what she thought they'd both felt, radiated in his face whenever he looked at Meg.
She should refuse their invitations, but she found herself drawn to their relationship like a bug to a Venus flytrap.
"Things still going well with Daniel?" she asked Meg one Saturday afternoon as they wandered through a boutique on Beale Street in search of gifts for Meg's mom's sixtieth birthday. The party was only a week away.
"Wonderful." Meg held up a funky leather belt. "How about this?"
"Not sure if that would actually meet around your mom's middle. So you've been seeing each other, what, three weeks?" Three weeks, three days and eighteen hours, by Sadie's count.
Overhead, the Muzak played "Hopelessly Devoted to You."
"I know what you're thinking," Meg said.
Sadie's heart thudded. She'd been so careful to hide her feelings. "What?"
"That I always say things are wonderful at this stage. And I'll change my tune soon."
Sadie let out a breath of relief. Meg was infamous for her intense but brief relationships. Sadie couldn't remember the last time one of her boyfriends had survived more than six weeks. If Meg followed her usual pattern, Sadie just had to hold out another two and a half weeks, max.
Feeling guilty for even thinking that way, she held up a silk floral-patterned scarf. "Your mom would like this. It's pricey, though."
"I didn't send anything for Mother's Day, so it needs to be good." Meg took the other end of the scarf and spread the fabric. "Mom loves roses, I'll take it."
As they headed for the line at the cashier, Meg asked, "How did you know Daniel and I would be right for each other?"
"I didn't." Had Meg ever used the words right for each other before? Sadie shivered in the air-conditioned store.
"Then you're a natural-born genius." Meg fluttered her eyelashes at a male clerk, who beckoned them to another cash register without a line. "Of course, we all know that." She dropped the scarf on the counter. "Daniel says you're the smartest woman he's ever met." No envy, just awe of Daniel's every word. "We owe you big-time."
"Don't mention it," Sadie said with wasted irony.
The Muzak segued into "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do." A timely reminder to call her mom, who still thought Sadie was bringing a man to the party. She would phone home tonight and say she'd broken up with her doctor friend.
As if they were on the same wavelength, rather than different emotional planets, Meg said, "Guess what? I invited Daniel home this weekend, and he said yes!"
A knife twisted behind Sadie's ribs as she pinned on her widest smile. "Of course he did."
Sadie and Daniel finished work early on Friday. Meg wasn't flying that day, so by four o'clock the three of them were heading out of the city in Daniel's Toyota Priushe always tried to minimize his contribution to global warming. Weeks ago, when Sadie had envisaged this journey, she'd pictured her and Daniel up front, Meg in back. Instead, she was the third wheel, trying to be sanguine about the dopey looks being traded in the front seat. Comforting herself with the thought that the natural life of this romance was probably another week and a half at best.
"Are we there yet?" she chirpedin imitation of her nephews and niecesas they drove down Sanga Road in the heart of Cordova, once a small town but now an outer neighborhood of Memphis. She tried not to think about the disappointment her mom had struggled to hide on the phone at the news Sadie wasn't bringing a date. She just had to get through this without anyone figuring out that Daniel and her "ex-boyfriend" were the same man.
Her strategy was simple: put on her happy face and refuse to answer questions about her love life. If that didn't work, launch into a monologue about apomictic hybrid crops.