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"I have an idea," Laila Riley announced when she and Connie Collins turned up in Jess O'Brien's office at The Inn at Eagle Point on a Saturday night.
There was a twinkle in her eye that immediately made Jess nervous about what her friends had in mind. "Is it going to get us arrested?" she inquired suspiciously. Not that she was unwilling to take the risk, but she would like to know about the possibility in advance, calculate the odds and have a backup plan.
Laila grinned. "If there were anyone interesting working for the sheriff's department, we'd consider it, but no. This is just doing something outside the box, something none of us would ever consider unless we all decided to do it together."
"Do I dare ask?" Jess wondered.
"Online dating," Connie revealed. The lack of enthusiasm in her voice suggested that this had been Laila's idea and that Connie had only agreed because of the same boredom that had been affecting Jess's mood recently.
Jess, however, wasn't quite that desperate. "You can't be serious."
"Oh, but we are," Laila confirmed.
Jess studied the two women who'd invaded her office on a night of the week when most attractive, intelligent women should have been out on dates. Connie and Laila were related to her indirectly by the marriages of their siblings to hers. They were friends by choice despite the differences in their ages.
Connie was the forty-one-year-old single mother of a teen who'd recently left for college. Her younger brother, Jake, was married to Jess's sister, Bree. Laila was the thirty-six-year-old manager of the local bank and younger sister of Trace, who was married to Abby, Jess's oldest sister. Jess, at thirty, was the youngest. At times it seemed as if everyone in Chesapeake Shores was related to an O'Brien one way or another.
"Okay, now, let's think about this," Laila said, making herself at home by pouring a glass of tea from the ever-present pitcher on Jess's desk. "What are you doing tonight? I mean, seriously, here you are in your office when you should be out on the town, right?"
Jess glanced at the ever-present mound of paperwork on her desk. It was the worst part of her job. She was beginning to see Laila's point.
"And does that make one bit of sense to you?" Laila pressed. "What is wrong with the men in this town that the three of us are alone on a Saturday night? We obviously need to broaden our horizons. Put ourselves out there. Stir things up."
"And find some geographically unsuitable men who'll never be around?" Jess replied. "Seems counterproductive to me."
"I thought the same thing at first," Connie said, beckoning for her own glass of tea. Laila poured it and handed it to her. "But the sad truth is that boredom has made me more open-minded. For the longest time I couldn't wait until my daughter was grown and off to college, but now that Jenny's actually gone, the house feels so empty I can hardly stand it."
"And I've been mind-numbingly bored ever since Dave and I broke up three years ago, which is saying something, since dating him was about as stimulating as watching grass grow," Laila said. She sat up straighter. "Online dating is the perfect way to change the status quo. It's trendy. It'll be fun."
Jess remained unconvinced. She turned to Connie, who was known for being sensible. "Are you really in favor of this?"
Connie shrugged. "I can see some advantages."
"Geographically undesirable," Jess repeated with emphasis.
"Not a problem," Laila insisted. "It's a new local service. These men are all right around here."
Jess couldn't quite wrap her mind around either the idea or the fact that Connie was willing, if not eager, to try online dating. Looking her in the eye, Jess began, "But I thought " Her voice trailed off. She wasn't supposed to know that sparks had been flying between Connie and Jess's uncle, Thomas O'Brien. Her brothers Connor and Kevin both had sworn her to secrecy. She sighed. "Never mind."
Connie studied her with suspicion, but since it was a kettle of fish she clearly didn't want to dive into, she remained silent.
Laila, seemingly unaware of the undercurrents, jumped back in. "It's perfect, don't you think?" she asked excitedly.
"Are there any single men around here we don't already know?" Jess asked, still skeptical. "Isn't that precisely why we're sitting here on a weekend without dates?"
"The region does extend beyond the town limits," Connie conceded.
"It includes Annapolis," Laila explained, pulling a brochure from her pocket and handing it to Jess. "See, Lunch by the Bay. Doesn't that sound lovely? And that's all we'd be committing to, an occasional lunch with someone new. It has to beat waiting around to be noticed in the bar at Brady's. If I spend any more time in there, Dillon's threatened to name a barstool after me."
"At least you'd have a lasting legacy of your life in Chesapeake Shores," Jess teased. "Much better than having your picture on the wall of that stodgy old bank your family owns and that you're so attached to."
"Make fun of me all you want, but I really think we should do this," Laila insisted. "We're intelligent, attractive women. We deserve to spend time with exciting, successful men who aren't related to us."
"And I for one am tired of the Saturday night pity dinners at Jake and Bree's," Connie added with a shudder. "Ever since Jenny left, they expect me to come there and coo over the new baby. She's a cutie, but that is not how I see myself spending Saturday nights for the next who-knows-how-many years."
"I've had my share of those dinners," Jess agreed, "but at least I get passed off from Bree to Abby to Kevin and now even Connor."
"I don't even get the pity dinners," Laila said. "Trace and Abby just count on me to babysit the twins. If I'm not married soon, they'll probably move me in and make me a full-time nanny."
"You have a career," Jess reminded her. "I'm pretty sure you can maintain an independent lifestyle."
"Independence sucks," Laila declared.
"Amen," Connie added. "Not that I want some man controlling what I do with my life," she said emphatically, "but it would be nice to cuddle with someone in front of the fire at night."
"Say what you really mean," Jess said. "You want sex."
Connie sighed. "Don't we all?"
"So, are we going to do this?" Laila asked, tapping the brochure.
Though she was hardly known for her caution, Jess couldn't seem to keep herself from asking, "But what do we know about this company?"
"Only what it says in the brochure," Laila replied, glancing at the back page. "It promises discreet matches, handled by a psychologist who's been working with single clients for years. He's developed criteria for making sure that people have the same goals and values." She set down the brochure and regarded them earnestly. "Come on, you guys. What do we have to lose? If the dates are awful, we can laugh about them later over drinks at Brady's."
"I'm in," Connie said at once. "Jess?"
Jess glanced at the paperwork on her desk. It wasn't going anywhere. "What the heck! I'm in."
She turned and flipped on her computer, checked the link to the company's website and found it. "Nice design," she said approvingly.
"See, it looks perfectly respectable," Connie noted.
"And I love the picture," Laila said. "I'm pretty sure it was taken right on Shore Road. See, there's the town fishing pier off to the left."
"Aren't you worried that we could wind up being paired off with someone we already know, even someone we used to date?" Jess asked. "That could be humiliating."
"Or it could make us take another look at him," Connie responded, her expression thoughtful. "After all, if an expert thought we'd be a match, maybe we were selling the other person short."
"Or maybe the expert isn't all that smart," Jess countered.
Still, when the form for signing up appeared on the screen, she was the first one to fill it out. She considered the temptation to fake her replies just to see what might happen, but Connie and Laila forestalled her.
"You have to take this seriously," Connie scolded.
"We're expecting a computer and some so-called expert to do what we haven't been able to do on our own," Jess replied. "And you want me to take it seriously?"
"/ do," Connie said. "Because this could be my last chance."
"It is not going to be your last chance," Laila said fiercely. "If you're going to look at it like that, Connie, then maybe you shouldn't do it. Desperation is never smart when it comes to meeting men. We're doing this for laughs and a few free lunches, that's it. We need to keep our expectations low and just concentrate on having fun."
Jess nodded. Connie didn't look entirely convinced, but when Jess's form was complete, Connie immediately nudged her aside and took her place in front of the computer. Laila followed.
When the last form had been sent in, they exchanged a look.
"I need a drink," Jess said. "I'm in," Laila said.
Connie nodded agreement. "I think I'd better make mine a double."
One of the few things that hadn't changed since Jake had married Bree was that he, Mack Franklin and Will Lincoln continued to have lunch every day at Sally's. The lunches had started when Jake needed support after he and Bree had split up a few years ago. Now that they were together again and happily married, the lunch tradition had become an occasion for the three men to keep their friendship grounded. Will counted on these two men more than either of them probably realized.
As a psychologist, Will spent his days listening to other people's problems, but he didn't really have anyone other than Jake and Mack to listen to his. Even though the three of them knew just about everything concerning each other's lives, there was one thing Will had been keeping from them for a while now: his new business, Lunch by the Bay.
The dating service had been born out of frustration. He spent way too much of his time counseling singles on the relationships in their lives and way too little of his time nurturing any kind of relationship of his own. The name of the company, which had come to him in the middle of a lonely night, was meant to be ironic, if only to him. As much as he loved getting together with his buddies, he thought it was past time to start having lunch with people who wore dresses and perfume. Jake might occasionally smell like roses, but it was only after he'd spent a morning planting rose bushes for one of his many landscaping clients. It was hardly the same.
It was also, Will thought, way past time to stop carrying the torch for Jess O'Brien, youngest sister of his friends Kevin and Connor O'Brien. Over the years Jess had had ample opportunities to indicate even a whiff of interest in Will, but she mostly treated him like an especially annoying big brother.
Worse, since he'd become a psychologist, she regularly accused him of analyzing her because she had ADD. She didn't trust his slightest bit of attention, fully expecting him to turn her into some professional case study. None of his denials had gotten her off that ridiculous tangent. Since they were thrown together a lot, her suspicion made most of their encounters awkward and testy.
Which meant it was time to move on once and for all, no easy task in a town with a population under five thousand except when tourists and weekenders filled it during the spring and summer. Lunch by the Bay had been created not only to fill a gap in the Chesapeake Shores social scene, but also to save him from growing old alone.
He explained all of this to Jake and Mack, who stared at him as if he'd suddenly sprouted antlers.
"You're starting a dating website?" Mack repeated, as if checking the accuracy of his hearing.
"Exactly," Will said. "If you weren't so busy not dating Susie, I'd encourage you to sign up. You're one of the town's most eligible bachelors."
"You intend to use this site yourself?" Jake said, looking puzzled. "I thought you were seeing some psychologist who bought a summer house here."
"I was," Will said. "Two years ago. It didn't work out, which you would know if you ever paid attention to a thing I tell you."
"But you've been dating," Jake persisted. "I'm not imagining that. You've blown us off to go on dates."
"What can I say?" Will said with a shrug. "None of them have amounted to anything."
"I suppose it makes sense," Mack said eventually. "Susie is always grumbling about the dearth of available men in town."
Jake barely managed to swallow a chuckle.
Mack scowled at him. "What?"
"I thought she had you," Jake responded.
"We're not dating," Mack repeated for the umpteenth unbelievable time.
"And yet neither of you seems to be looking for anyone else," Will pointed out. "If I'm wrong and you are open to other possibilities, I can sign you right up on the new website. You're an ex-jock and a semi-famous sports columnist. I'll have you matched up with someone new by the end of the week."
Jake regarded him incredulously. "You already have clients?"
"About thirty so far," Will confirmed.
"Anyone we know?" Mack asked, then frowned. "Susie, for instance?" There was a discernible hitch in his voice when he asked, proving that there was more to that relationship than he wanted to acknowledge.
"I'm not at liberty to say," Will told him.
"When did you start this company?" Jake asked.
"Three weeks ago officially, though I'd been working out the criteria for matching people for a while. I finally incorporated, then put out a few brochures around town. I had no idea what to expect, but when the clients started signing up, I figured I ought to tell you all about it before you heard about it from another source. Someone's bound to figure out I'm the professional psychologist behind it. After all, there aren't that many of us in the area."
"So you're doing this to make money?" Mack said, clearly still trying to grasp his motivation. Before Susie, Mack had had absolutely no difficulty attracting single women, so he didn't understand Will's frustration.
"It could be a gold mine, yes, but that wasn't really my motivation," Will insisted. "I think of it more as a community service."
"Nice spin," Jake commented wryly. "You've already admitted that you're doing this so you can meet women. Couldn't you just have hung out at Brady's more often?"
Will shook his head. "That wasn't really working for me."
"What about church? I hear a lot of men meet women at church," Mack said. "Come to think of it, if I'd known you were this desperate, I could have asked Susie to fix you up. She has a bunch of girlfriends."
"I'm not desperate," Will said, offended by the characterization. "I'm being proactive."
Jake and Mack exchanged a glance. It was Jake who dared to ask, "What about Jess?"
Will stilled. "What about her?"
"You've always been crazy about her," Jake said.