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"Please, Noreen. It will be fun."
"I'm not switching places with you, Arlene."
"We've done it before."
"I really need your help."
"No." Noreen Webster made a swift, dismissive gesture with her hand then turned back to her computer screen. She sat in her home office surrounded by a floor-to-ceiling black walnut bookshelf filled with hardcovers and paperbacks and a contemporary, clear glass desk crowded with miniature figurines, numerous stacks of papers and an assortment of Post-it notes. Framed covers of her seven published books were displayed on her wall next to numerous writing awards. "Now, go away. I have work to do." Noreen rested her hands on the keyboard ready to start typing but before she could hit a key, her sister spun her swivel chair around.
"Please, Noreen," Arlene said, her tone more urgent than before.
Noreen glared up at her sister. Except for the lack of glassesher sister didn't wear the thick, dark-framed ones Noreen favoredand the expressionArlene looked more determined than annoyedshe could be staring at herself in a mirror. And what she saw was a petite woman dressed to accentuate her curvaceous figure, with big, brown eyes, mocha-colored skin and a head full of light brown curls that she struggled to manage with a red headband. Of course, that's where the similarities ended, because Noreen would never be caught wearing a tight, short, red jean skirt and a bedazzled blouse that said Cutie Pie. Her sister looked like a high-school senior instead of a woman of twenty-nine. Although they were identical twins, they were on opposite sides of the spectrum.
Noreen glanced down at the dark pair of blue jeans and oversize T-shirt she wore. Even as children, the differences in their personalities were apparent. While Arlene had spent most of the day primping in front of a mirror, Noreen had been busy finding a quiet spot to read the novels she loved and disappearing into her favorite stories. Their differences became even more obvious when, after the age of six, they were no longer forced to dress the same.
Noreen looked up at her sister again and shook her head. "N. O."
"Just hear me out." Arlene held out her hands before Noreen could protest further. "Please."
Noreen sat back in her chair, placing her elbows on the armrest, and sighed, resigned. "Fine." She waved a finger. "But I'll only listen on one condition."
"That what you're asking me to do has nothing to do with Clive."
Arlene rested a hand on her hip, the bracelets on her wrists clicking together. "His name is Clyde."
Noreen shrugged, unconcerned.
Arlene frowned. "I think you say his name wrong on purpose."
Noreen blinked. "I guess I'm just hoping he won't last long. Just like the others."
"I don't know why you don't like him. He's different from all the rest." Her sister touched her chest. "I know it in my heart."
Noreen stifled another sigh. Her sister's "heart" was never accurate. Arlene had a terrible history with men. She seemed to be attracted to men other women sensibly left buried under a rock. She'd dated brutes, perverts, ex-cons and men who promised to leave their wives and never did. Arlene was unlucky in love, but Noreen couldn't blame her. She was unlucky in love too and had survived a bitter divorce to prove it. However, Arlene told everyone she knew that her perfect man was out there, and like a child who believes in fairies she never lost hope; Noreen, on the other hand, believed in Mr. Right as much as she did in Santa Claus.
"I wish you wouldn't be so cynical. You've only met him twice. He's always been nice to you, and look at the bracelet he bought me." Arlene held out her arm and twisted several bangles dangling from her wrist.
Noreen looked and frowned. "Which one is it again?"
Arlene pointed to a silver bracelet. "This one. He said it will bring me good luck and he never wants me to take it off. Isn't it beautiful?" She didn't give her sister a chance to reply. "He's sweet and handsome and charming," Arlene said in a dreamy voice while she toyed with the bracelet.
Noreen shook her head in pity. "Most jerks are handsome and charming. You should know that by now."
"And a lot of wonderful men are too. Look at the man your friend Suzanne married."
Noreen didn't want to. The recent marriage of her best friend, Suzanne Rand (now Gordon), who was also a writer, should have put a dent in her cynicism but it hadn't shifted. While she knew her friend was happy and her husband appeared to be a perfect match for her, their love seemed to be an exception. Like a pink rose that happens to grow in a bed of weeds. She didn't want to talk about her friend's wedded bliss.
"What do you want?" Noreen asked, eager to change the subject. "I'm listening as long as what you want has nothing to with CliveClyde," Noreen corrected when Arlene frowned.
"It does," her sister said then rushed on before Noreen could interrupt. "But if you'll just be quiet for a second I'll explain."
Noreen adjusted her glasses and nodded. "Go ahead."
Pleased that she finally had her sister's attention, Arlene grabbed a chair nearby and sat down. "He wants me to deliver a package to an eccentric client in St. Lagans."
"And I said I would. Everything is all set for me to travel next week, but I haven't been feeling well and don't think I can make it."
Noreen gave her sister a cursory glance. "You look fine to me."
Arlene bit her lip. "Today's a good day." She cleared her throat. "The thing is I think I might be kinda pregnant."
Noreen jumped out of her seat. "Kinda pregnant? That's impossible. You either are or you aren't."
"Sit down and just be calm."
Noreen remained standing, resting her hands on her hips. "Are you or aren't you?" she demanded.
Noreen sank back into her chair like a lead balloon. "I see."
"I think," Arlene added sheepishly.
Noreen's tone sharpened. "You don't know?"
"The first test said ‘yes' so I tried again and the second said ‘no.' The nurse told me I'm probably early in my pregnancy and getting false positives and negatives.
So I made an appointment with a doctor, but they can't fit me in until the end of next week. I just can't handle things right now. Clyde doesn't know and until I'm sure "
"So just tell him you can't do it."
"What reason can I give him? If I said I'm sick, he might want to take me to see the doctor himself. He's funny that way. Sometimes I think he keeps track of my cycle more than I do. But that's not the point. If I see a doctor he'll want to know why and I just don't want to have to tell him a bunch of lies."
Noreen raised her eyebrows, surprised by her sister's reasoning. "And having me pretend to be you isn't a lie?"
"Come on, Sis. I need this. It will allow me to get checked out and have some time to think things through. Especially if I am pregnant. You'll be on the cruiseI mean I'll be on the cruise and he'll think I'm away and it will give me the space I need to sort things out. I really want to keep him in my life and this is my chance to really impress him."
Noreen looked at her sister's perfect figure and pretty face and knew that if Clyde was like any of Arlene's past boyfriends, he was already impressed. Noreen pinched the bridge of her nose. "Okay, aside from the fact that I've never thought it wise to have an affair with your boss "
"It's a relationship," Arlene corrected.
"Right," Noreen said, not caring about the distinction. "Why did he select you to deliver this package?"
"Because I'm special to him and he's trying to show it. He told me so. Three months ago he had another woman, Marnie, but she never came back and Clyde was really upset about it. He said I made him believe in people again. He's never asked me to do anything and he said he trusts me and no one else. I really want to do this for him. I don't want to disappoint him."
Noreen had never suspected her sister's recent job (she'd had four in the past three years) at an antiques dealership would cause such drama. She'd been working there for less than a year and within three months she was sleeping with the boss and now she was going on a special delivery assignment for him. It didn't make sense to her, but she knew it would be hard to talk her sister out of it.
"You know I would go if I could," Arlene continued. "But I haven't been able to focus and I don't want to mess this up. Clyde really means a lot to me. He sees me as trustworthy and smart. I've never been with a man who thinks that." Her eyes filled with tears. "Please do this for me. I'll pay you."
"I don't need money," Noreen said, determined to resist any persuasion, although she felt herself weakening.
"Please, just this once," Arlene said, wiping a tear away.
But Noreen knew from experience that was a lie. Arlene had been using that line for more than twenty years. "Noreen, just this once finish my project so I won't fail Chemistry," "Just this once substitute for me," or "Just this once, lie to Daddy about where I am," and Noreen had done it. Their mother had disappeared when they were six. Except for their grandmother, Arlene was the only other female in a family of males consisting of their three half brothers, their father and an uncle. But as she grew older Noreen wondered if she'd done her sister more harm than good by always enabling her.
"I would," Noreen said in a softer tone, "but the timing is all wrong. I'm busy. I have to work on my new book." She tapped the manuscript sitting neglected on her desk. She had to completely rework it. The thought of her career caused her further distress. Her sister's life was one minidisaster after another, but Noreen knew that her career would soon follow suit if she didn't do something fast. Unfortunately, her divorce hadn't just broken her heart, it had also deadened her creativity.
She'd lost the imagination to come up with plots that had great romance and happy endings. She'd always known she wrote fiction and what she wrote had little bearing on real life, but lately, whenever she tried to write, she felt as though she was writing lies and it was definitely affecting her productivity. She was a successful, well-paid romance novelist. Her fans loved her dashing heroes and feisty heroines and how they found perfect and lasting bliss. It had been nearly two years since her divorce and she still hadn't recovered. To her, love was a farce and all men deceivers.
Noreen knew men. Sometimes more than she wanted to. They were simple creatures who preferred playthings to complex women, and as long as their basic needs were met they didn't care who gave it to them.
Their father had taught her that. Her three half brothers had come from three different women. The women had all been grateful for the opportunity to have him in their lives. Her father, Vince Webster, was a magician when it came to women. She'd discovered his secret when she'd overheard a conversation he'd had with one of her brothers.
"Women are like toys. Treat them right, play with them on occasion and they'll make you happy."
And her brothers had proven it was sage advice. They were never without women and enjoyed their company. They never made promises and it appeared that the women didn't mind.
Sometimes Noreen wondered why she'd gotten married. Maybe because her mother hadn't. It seemed like a sort of rebellion and a perfect idea at the time. But she soon learned her ex was restless and that she could never please him. He never cheated on her with another woman (or man), thankfully, but he didn't have to. The art of adventure and taking risks was his mistress and, early in their marriage, after only eight months, he told Noreen she bored him. Their marriage probably would have ended then if Noreen hadn't felt guilty and decided to fund his adventures with the money she had made from her books. Now she had to pay the bastard alimony because he claimed he helped build her career.
She'd loved him but quickly learned that love wasn't enough. Being there for him when his mother died hadn't stopped him from missing her first book signing; cooking his favorite meals hadn't guaranteed he'd arrive home at night; listening to his hopes and fears hadn't meant he'd be there for her when her car broke down. "Call triple A," he'd told her that cold, rainy night when she'd gotten stuck on the highway in the middle of winter. That's when she knew that love was painful and made a person weak. Especially women. That's when she'd made a vow to never fall victim to it again.
Unfortunately, that revelation wasn't the right attitude for a romance novelist, and her sales numbers were beginning to slip.
Her work was still publishable and she hadn't had to make any major revisions to any of her manuscripts before, but even her writing friends, Suzanne Gordon and Claudia Madison, had begun to worry when they'd spoken with her more than two months ago.
"What's wrong with it?" she asked them. She rarely asked for their feedback on her work, but when her editor had said "something was missing," she'd wanted a second opinion. The three of them sat in a chic restaurant in the heart of downtown Durham.
"The book is good. Your work always is, but your editor is right, there's something missing," Suzanne said, looking tailored and finished in gray linen trousers and a pale green fitted blouse. She was the daughter of a prominent judge and a true daughter of the South so she chose her words carefully and always kept her features pleasant.
Noreen paused, recognizing the strange note in her friend's voice. "Missing?"
"Yes." Suzanne sighed, the sigh saying more than words ever could.
"The passion isn't there," Claudia clarified, finding no need to soften her words.