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By Natalie Stenzel
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Intervention
We admit to our girlfriends that our love lives have become unmanageable.
IT WAS JUST ONE OF THOSE modern-day truisms. Rain only fell on weekends or umbrella-less weekdays; the monthly curse always arrived on Friday or Saturday; and Robyn always forgave her boyfriend no matter how badly he behaved. Some things in a girl's life just remained constant and Cassandra Smythe listed these three as basic no-brainers.
But here she was, in her St. Louis apartment on a sunny Saturday afternoon, curse-free - though soon due - and witnessing the impossible. Her best friend, Robyn Wesley, was pissed, determined and - finally, praise God - ready to swear off her male addiction.
"I mean it this time, Cassie. I'm never taking him back. I've put up with a lot from Alex, but not this."
"As a heart attack."
Cassie stared at her friend. Maybe she should have realized something like this would be the last straw. After all, in the three years Robyn had dated him, Cassie had watched, helplessly, as Alex proved himself an egocentric bastard in every clich�d manner possible. He hit on other women, took Robyn completely for granted and generally belittled or dismissed everything Robyn considered important in life. He rarely, in Cassie's opinion, even acknowledged Robyn's existence unless he needed money. And he frequently needed money.
But sainted, masochistic Robyn had borne up to every humiliating instance of it. Sure, she'd taken the occasional "break" from the relationship, but never, not until just five minutes ago, had Robyn dared to suggest to Cassie that she would actually dump the guy. And it had taken this?
"I still can't believe it." Robyn shook her head. "He actually called my work commercial schlock." She met Cassie's eyes. "Can you believe it? Just because I like to earn a paycheck with my artwork rather than starve in the streets."
"Totally mind-boggling." Cassie murmured it with feeling. She felt alarmingly like the straight man in a comedy skit, waiting for the punch line and yet hoping it wouldn't arrive.
"Exactly. Art comes in many forms and it's so intolerant of him to criticize just because the medium's less than traditional." She gave Cassie a fierce look. "But I don't care what he thinks. About me or my work. I'm good at what I do."
Shrugging off a guilty sense of irony, Cassie slid an arm around her friend's shoulders and squeezed. "Damn right you're good at it. You're not just an artist - you're an artist with an eye toward the future. A digital artist. A smart woman who knows the value of a cutting-edge medium for her talent. Displaying your work on Web sites like the ones I design will draw attention from surfers all over the world."
Robyn looked the tiniest bit hopeful. "You're sure?"
"Positive. Alex is just jealous because his own work isn't selling well. And you can't exactly translate sculpture into digital form." Cassie shrugged. "See? Professional jealousy. It's no wonder he was so rotten to you." Oh, damn. She hadn't meant to offer up a potential excuse for the parasite....
"Well, he can go pamper his own delicate little ego. I'm not crawling back to him this time."
Thank God. A healthy dose of bravado ... but which, if not bolstered, could shortly recede - Cassie scrambled to reinforce. "You bet you're not. Even if I have to sit on you this time, you are not going back to that guy. He's no good for you."
Robyn gave her a vulnerable look. "So you think I did the right thing?"
Cassie bit back every word she wanted to say, contenting herself with a firm, "Absolutely."
"Okay. So, okay, then." Robyn gazed around herself doubtfully, as though not sure where to go next. Not that their options were limitless.
As widely coveted as Cassie knew her apartment to be, with its lofty ceiling, decorative molding and hard-wood floors, it was also modest in size. Her income was such that the furnishings were spare, as well. Not counting office furniture, Robyn basically had a choice of overstuffed couch, ancient wooden rocker or one of two ladder-back kitchen chairs.
Realizing all this decisiveness had temporarily paralyzed her friend in thought and in movement, Cassie gently steered her toward the couch. Cassie swore she'd be supportive during this breakup, even if it killed her - and it might, if biting a hole through her tongue proved fatal.
Not that Robyn was a complete idiot. It was just that, like most addicts, she had a massive blind spot where her particular weakness - Alex - was concerned. Cassie could relate. She'd had a few blind spots herself.
Her ex-fianc�, for example.
Right out of college, Cassie had come this close to marrying a man she didn't love. At least Brad had worked up the nerve to suggest they call it off, even if it had been at the last minute. Her mother still hadn't completely forgiven Cassie for the expenses they'd had to write off, though Cassie had done her best to pay her back.
Even worse than the money and the humiliation, Cassie had had to deal with her mom's head-shaking and I-told-you-so's. She had always been convinced that Cassie - and every other intelligent female, for that matter - was better off without a man to clutter up her life. From beginning to end, according to her mother's logic, a man was always free to leave, while the woman was stuck first with the pregnancy and then with these funky maternal hormones that tied her to her kids no matter what. Lucky for Cassie, her mom had possessed more than her share of those lovely, funky maternal hormones. Cassie had always been able to count on her.
Soon after Cassie's graduation, however, her mom had moved to California, leaving a big void in Cassie's life, though they still maintained frequent contact. In many ways, Robyn had stepped into that void. She was like family now. The eccentric artist second-cousin or something. Unfailingly lovable, but at this rate, destined for the funny farm. Be nice, Cassie.
Forcing her focus to the here and now, Cassie watched, pityingly, as Robyn carefully seated herself next to Cassie on the edge of a cushion. Then Robyn glanced around blindly, half stood, then carefully sat again, her hands gripping each other as if for comfort.
Cassie's heart twisted. "Oh, honey. You're going to be okay. I promise. I know you've invested a lot in this guy, but I swear we'll get you through it. Only good things will come out of this. You'll see."
Robyn gave her a doubtful look, but relaxed a little into the cushions. "I don't know. I'm not as strong as you are, Cassie." She shrugged a shoulder. "You'd never have put up with half the stuff I did. Oh, no. You'd have kicked him out ... oh, God, years ago." Robyn stiffened, eyes widening in horror. "It's been years, Cassie. Years." And roll "Weakening For Alex" tape number three ...
Excerpted from Pop-Up Dating by Natalie Stenzel Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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