Read an Excerpt
"Hi, you must be Kim." Marie's red-haired receptionist extended her hand for a shake. "I'm Jane."
"Hi, Jane." Kim smiled politely, refraining from pointing out that they'd met a couple of times before. The first time when Marie moved into these offices, and Kim, Candy and Darcy had brought over flowers and champagne for an impromptu celebration. Then two weeks ago, when Kim had come by to pick up Marie for lunch. "Think it will ever be spring?"
"According to the calendar next week. But given that it's Wisconsin " She gestured to the counter across from her desk. "Help yourself to coffee, tea or hot chocolate. Is it snowing?"
"Not accumulating, but it's coming down, yes."
"Enough to foul up traffic and remind us it's still winter." Jane rolled her eyes, blue behind narrow black glasses. "Marie is finishing up with someone. She'll be done soon."
"That's fine. I'm early." Kim poured a cup of coffee she didn't need, since Nathan kept their apartment stocked with fresh-roasted beans from Alterra, and splashed in some milk. She was early because she'd been pacing nervously around her apartment all morning, too keyed up to get work done and not in the mood for anything else. Finally she'd figured it was better just to get going, drive slowly and hope for delaying traffic, which the snow had made possible.
Kim had been thinking about trying online dating for a while. She'd delayed, waiting for the perfect time, hoping Charlotte's Web would take off so she could come into a relationship from a position of confidence and financial security. However, with her thirtieth birthday looming, she realized a lot of years had gone by without a "perfect time," and that if she won the Carter bid and was no longer constantly teetering on the brink of insolvency, she might be too busy to date. Marie pressing her for an appointment now had clinched it.
"You can go in." Jane pointed back toward Marie's office, from which a younger woman had just emerged. "Marie's got a treat for you."
Jane waggled her brows. "One of our new listings. Adorable."
"Oh." Kim laughed uncomfortably, ducking her head when the woman Marie had been meeting with passed behind her. Being here made her feel exposed, as if she was announcing to the world that she couldn't get dates the normal way. Whatever normal was these days. Probably being here. She moved toward Marie's office, wanting away from Jane's black-framed stare. "Thanks, Jane."
"Nice to meet you finally."
"Right." She pushed into Marie's office. So flattering when people forgot they ever laid eyes on you. "Hey, Marie."
"Kim, how are you? Come on in." She beckoned warmly, elegant as always in a black pantsuit with cream accents and tasteful gold jewelry.
"Thanks." Kim stepped into the cozy office, decorated more like someone's favorite room than a place of business. Shelves lined two walls, with books, decorative pottery pieces and plants set at attractive intervals. Trust Marie to keep clients relaxed and comfortable in whatever way she could. "You've done fabulous things with this room."
"That's right, it was completely bare when you were in here before." Marie waved her toward one of the overstuffed chairs in front of her desk, and took the other one. "Have a seat, make yourself comfortable. I see you got coffee already."
"Not that I need to be any more jittery." She perched on the chair's edge, mug in one hand, Milwaukeedates.com paperwork clutched in the other.
"Trust me, everyone is nervous doing this. What did you think of the forms? Have any trouble?"
"Not really." She held them out to Marie. "I'm not into the whole self-pimping thing, but I did my best."
"Self-pimping? Interesting choice of words." Marie took the papers, glancing over at Kim before she read them. "I'll start with your description of yourself, then we'll talk about the guy you'd like to meet. Okay with you?"
Marie read while Kim got fidgety, sipped coffee, decided she didn't need more caffeine, held the cup down in her lap, got fidgety, sipped more coffee
"Okay." Marie shifted position, frowning slightly. "Your profile. You've described yourself well here ."
"But." Marie put the papers down and met her eyes. "You make yourself sound a little dull."
"I am a little dull." She held up her hand when Marie started protesting. "I don't wear makeup, I don't own sexy clothes, I rarely go out. Men who want that whole hot party-girl thing aren't going to want to waste time on a date with me."
"Most men only want that kind of woman in fantasy." Marie leaned forward earnestly. "Here they ask for honest women, loyal women, women with brains and with a sense of humor. You've got all that, but you make it sound as if you have nothing to offer. 'I stay home most of the time. I don't like crowds or noise.'"
Kim shrugged. "I want to be honest about who I am."
"Understood." Marie held up the page and shook it vigorously. "But this is maybe half of who you are."
Kim tried to keep from bristling, without much luck. "How would you change it? With some dating euphemism? Like when Realtors say 'cozy and quaint' and mean 'cramped and dingy,' instead of 'shy' I should say I'm 'serene' or I have 'hidden passion'?"
Marie dimpled a too-innocent smile. "Why, that's exactly what I was going to suggest. 'Hi, I'm Kim. Serene with hidden passion.'"
Kim's cranky outrage wilted into laughter. "Ew."
"We'll move on for now. Tell me about your past relationships. The main ones. What the men were like, what happened, etc."
Ugh. Kim wiggled farther back into the chair. "Well, let's see. First boyfriend, Sam, in high school. Geek like me, quiet, we both had horrible skin and a love for all things computer. That lasted three years. We broke up when we went to college."
"Our relationship had gotten too predictable and we both wanted to grow."
"Understandable. Were you sexually involved?"
"Yeah." Kim blushed. "Or something like it. High school, you know."
"I do. Who came next?"
"Josh, in college. We dated for a year, then he ended it. He was a physics and philosophy double major and didn't have time for a girlfriend."
"Ouch." Marie grimaced sympathetically. "Nice when you come first, huh?"
"Yeah, it didn't feel great." Kim adjusted the hem of her sweater, wanting to change the subject, but knowing Marie wouldn't let her off the hook. "I survived."
"Oh, well " She took a sip of coffee that suddenly tasted bitter.
"Hmm." Marie narrowed her eyes. "Something not so great."
"Tony." Kim let her head drop back against the chair. "Big, handsome jock, the kind of guy I'd get a crush on but never thought would be into me."
Marie lifted her eyebrows. "I'm not surprised he was."
"Yeah, well, I was suspicious, but he kept coming around." She put her mug on Marie's desk. "He was charming, persistent and surprisingly interesting to talk to. I got sucked in, started dressing better and wearing makeup. I went on meds to clear up my face. I looked good and felt great, and thought, Oh boy, the birth of New Kim! I loved the attention, not only from him, but from his friends. Seemed like wherever we went, they were watching me. I thought I was hot stuff."
"You are." Marie held up Kim's profile again. "You're selling yourself way short here. You should be"
"Wait." Kim shook her head, throat tightening. "Let me finish. I finally trusted him enough to let him in, to care about him. One night after he'd taken me to some horrible, loud party where I drank too much to be able to stand it, we went back to his place. He lived off campus, and his roommate wasn't there. We had sex all over the apartment all night long. Incredible sex, I-didn't-know-it-could-be-like-that sex."
Marie's frown crept back. She obviously couldn't figure Tony out any better than Kim had been able to. "And this was bad how?"
"Turned out he had a bet with his friends that I'd be better in bed than I looked. Apparently he considered himself an expert at being able to tell which geeky girls were hot in the sack."
"Ah." Marie's lips tightened. "I can see why you're not keen on the phrase 'hidden passion.'"
"Then it got worse."
"Since he won the bet, he had to beat his chest all over campus." Kim screwed her eyes shut. "I had guys lining up to ask me out for weeks after, thinking they'd get what he got. I'm sure it never occurred to them I'd actually started to like the pig and that's why I slept with him."
Kim opened her eyes, hating the quaver in her voice the story could still bring on. "I got over it. Mostly. But now I avoid any guy who seems more concerned with what a woman represents than who she is. That whole 'score at any cost' mentality."
"Your brother and new roommate."
"Bingo." She pointed emphatically at Marie. "Kent probably inherited his roving dick from Dad, who constantly cheated on Mom until he left her. I know there are better men out there. I just want to make sure I get the right kind. So if I sound boring on my profile, and my picture is plain, tough. I don't want to attract another shallow jerk. I want someone to love me for meno makeup, happy in a quiet life at home, geeking out with my computer."
She finished, a little out of breath, and waited for a reaction. Marie sat quietly, watching her as if she was trying to make up her mind about something.
"Okay." Marie got up with her usual grace and went around behind her desk. "I get what you're saying. I had two men picked out for you before this meeting. I still want to show them to you, and I want you to look with an open mind. If you're not interested, you can go online and choose whatever profiles you want. Just bear in mind that sometimes when we feel fear or aversion, it's not necessarily good instinct talking. It can be habit or baggage instead. Very hard to tell the two apart. Deal?"
Kim reached for her mug, fingered the textured porcelain and then took a sip. She'd only have to look. Nothing more unless it felt right. "Okay. I'll check them out."
"Good." Marie tapped a few letters on the keyboard.
Kim got up stiffly; she must have been tensing her body ridiculously tight. Not many people had heard the story of Kim and Tony, at least not from her. Since college she'd told only Kent, trying to make him understand why she hated the way he and his friends talked about and treated women, but he'd just insisted she didn't understand.
Yeah, no kidding.
"This is Troy."
Kim found herself looking into a pair of the deepest, darkest eyes she'd ever seen, jumping off the screen under a strong forehead and tousled dark curls. Handsome. Very. Wearing a Green Day T-shirt over broad, developed shoulders.
Immediate panic kicked in. She didn't want to go out with him. "He's nice looking. Sexy."
"He was adorable when we met. Gentle and very sweet. Smart, too. Works in IT, so you have computers in common. He owns a house in Whitefish Bay not far from the lake and lives there with his dog, Dylan. Solid career, and he's writing a book with Candy's fiancé, Justin, so they can vouch for him, too. I think he's worth giving a try."
Kim tilted her head noncommittally, sick with nerves.
"Take your time, Kim. This is not a speed test. You can stare at him to your heart's content in the privacy of your own home or ignore him completely. It's up to you. You have all the power in this situation." Marie tapped a few more keys and Troy's midnight brooding eyes disappeared. Kim felt immediate relief. "Here's the other man I thought might interest you. His name is Dale."
"Dale." She stared at the ordinary face filling the screen, and the pang of relief turned into a buzz of excitement. Light brown hair in a basic short cut, brown eyes behind chic frameless glasses that made him look professor-smart. He wore a dark suit that sat well on his shouldersall she could see of him. His expression was serious, but not grim. His eyes looked kind, and his lips quirked as if he was about to smile.
"He works for Johnson Controls as a consultant. Does a lot of traveling, all over the world. He's charming, educated, well-read, into yoga, skiing, sailing. Very interesting to talk to. I liked him."
"Skiing? Sailing?" She snorted. "Not really my speed."
"Honey, you're twenty-nine. You can't possibly have figured out everything about how you fit into the world. Maybe when you're ninety, but even then I'd have my doubts."
Marie had a point. Kim gazed into the warm brown eyes on the monitor. Something about this guy.
"Think about it. I can set up dates with both of them if you want, and if they want."
Kim imagined herself sitting across the table from Troy even for an hour. She wasn't sure she could do it. That handsome face would completely disconcert her. She'd babble, stutter and spill drinks.
"Kim." Marie's hand was comforting on her arm. "I know this is pushing you out of your comfort zone. Putting yourself out there is very hard. For you and for every single person that comes through that door, and if it's not, there's something wrong. Troy and Dale may not be the guys you pictured when you thought about signing up, but you don't have to marry either one of them. You don't even have to do more than look, exchange an email or have a quick cup of coffee."
"True." She wished that made her feel safer.
"It's a place to start. When you left your full-time job at Soka Associates five years ago to start Charlotte's Web Design, you took an enormous leap of faith, much bigger than going on an experimental date." She gave Kim's arm a squeeze. "This will be easy in comparison."
Kim nodded, experiencing a jumble of mixed reactions: fear, excitement, pride and an overriding desire to run home and hide in bed. But if she always gave in to fear she'd still be miserable at Soka. Still be dating Sam. Still the same old pimply, dowdy Kim.
Marie tapped a few more keys; Dale's face disappeared from the monitor but lingered in Kim's brain for a few pleasant seconds before Troy's dark eyes and lean features supplanted his.
Kim had come a long way. What hadn't killed her had made her stronger, and there was no reason she couldn't continue to change and grow, as Marie said, even if, God forbid, Charlotte's Web failed. She wanted a relationship, and she'd lose nothing by meeting with these two. Call it practice, if that made the hours easier to cope with. And if she babbled and stuttered and spilled, so be it. No animals or small children would be harmed in the having of these dates.