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A new year generally starts out with me writing a few inspiring lines about how I'm going to lose five poundslet's be honest, it's tenand pay off all my credit cards and other high expectations like that. It's the same every January. But this year's going to be different. Oh, I still want to lose those extra pounds, more than ever, but for a different reason. I want a husband. And eventually a family. And that means I need a plan. Being a goaloriented person, I usually begin by identifying what I'm after (MARRIAGE!!) and then I work out a logical procedure for getting it. Which, in this case, includes looking good. (Not that I look bad now, if I do say so myself. But I'm talking really good. Are you listening, thighs?) Because, as I've learned in advertising, packaging counts. Putting all this into words is something of an eye-opener for me. I've come a long way from those college days when I refused to give in to what I called the "female escape route," like some of my friends. Cassie, Jamie, Rita and Jane all got married within six months of graduation, and as far as I could see, the only reason they did was because they found the real world more of a challenge than they'd anticipated, and used marriage as a cop-out.
Not me. Oh, no, marriage was much too conventional for me. I wanted to kick some butt in the business world first. Make a name for myself with my very own graphic arts firm. And I've done it! Now I feel like I've come full circle. I've accomplished a lot, and I won't minimize my achievements, but this Christmas I realized there's more to life than getting the Woman of the Year award from the Chamber of Commerce. So, last week I made the decision: Marriage! It's time to let a man into my life. Until now I've viewed relationships like
dessert. Nice occasionally, but not with every meal. My friends have been tossing potential husbands in my direction for years, and I've frustrated them again and again.
I'm too picky, that's what Rita says. Not true. I have my standards; every woman does. But my work's the reason I haven't married. I've poured my heart into making a success of Artistic License. For the past six years my focus, my talent and all my energy have been with the business. It's filled every waking minute. Then, this Christmas it hit me. I want more. I suspect this has something to do with losing Dad last June. Mom's still struggling, but then so are Julie and I. The holidays were really hard without him. Somehow, the celebration seemed empty and sad, and we were all kind of weepy thinking about the Christmas things he used to dogetting the tree every year and making a big deal out of hanging the decorations Julie and I made when we were kids. Reading the Nativity story on Christmas Eve. Putting on his Santa apron to carve the turkey. Things like that.
I'm so sorry Dad missed his granddaughter's first Christmas. I knew Julie's baby would help Mom through the grieving process, but I didn't expect little Ellen to have such a profound effect on me.
I've always thought of myself as the strong independent type. I haven't wanted a man around for fear I might be forced to admit I need someone. I don't know why I'm like this. (Then again, I'm not sure I want to know, either.) The point is, I feel differently now. It started when Julie gave me the baby to rock. I swear my heart melted when I held her. In that moment I felt something I can only describe as maternal instinct, and I realized this is what I want. This is what's been missing from my life. A husband, a family. With the right husband, I know I can have it all. Home, family and career. Plenty of women do it, and I can, too. Funny how a little thing like holding a baby can change a person's attitude. I'm ready. Past ready. Starting now, my life's taken an abrupt turn. What was vital a month ago has shifted to the back burner. So, yes, I admit it.
I want a husband and children. Obviously, what I need first is the man. (I plan to do things in the right order!) Mom always says that once I make up my mind I don't let anything stand in my way. I've set my goal, made my plans, and I figure I should find a husband in two, three months, tops. This time next year, I expect to be a married woman. (Maybe even a pregnant one!) Just how difficult can it be?
Sweat rolled down Hallie McCarthy's forehead, dripping in her eyes and momentarily blurring her vision. Using the towel draped around her neck, she wiped her brow. Although she'd promised herself she wouldn't, Hallie glanced at the timer on the treadmill. One minute left.
Sixty short seconds. She could endure that. With a renewed sense of purpose, she picked up her pace and waited impatiently for the buzzer.
The treadmill had all the bells and whistles, as it should, considering what she'd paid for it (plus the three designer running suits, color-coordinated with the treadmill). At the end of her workout a digital message would flash across the four-inch computer screen, complimenting her on a job well-done.
Donnalee had suggested she join a gym to meet men, and she would, Hallie told herself, once she was at her goal weight. But not now. She wasn't about to go prancing around a gym with thighs that resembled ham hocks. Which, she supposed, was something like cleaning her house before the cleaning lady arrivedbut she'd done that, too.
Huffing, her heart feeling ready to explode, Hallie gripped the sides of the treadmill as the timer counted down those final seconds. This last minute was proving to be the longest of her life.
Needing a distraction to take her mind off the physical agony while she raced toward an imaginary finish line, Hallie turned to look out her living-room window at the luxury condominium next door.
Hey, she was getting a new neighbor. A moving van was parked in front and a crew of able-bodied menvery able-bodied, she noted appreciativelyunloaded its contents. A big truck that probably required a step stool to climb into was parked behind it. The license-plate frame was one of those customized ones. Squinting, she was able to make out the words: BIG TRUCK. BIG TOOLS. Hallie groaned aloud and rolled her eyes. Men and their egos! Two muscular guys wandered into her line of vision, and she wondered if one of those good-looking hunks might be her neighbor.
Willow Woods, the condominium complex where she'd moved six months earlier, had all but sold out. She'd speculated it wouldn't take long for the place next to hers to sell. Especially since it was a three-bedroom unit, the most spacious design available. Must be a family moving in. She was definitely cheered by the thought of having neighbors.
The timer went off, and the treadmill ground to a halt. Hallie heaved a sigh of relief and rubbed her sweat-drenched face with the towel. Her cheeks felt red and hot and her short curly hair was matted against her temples. Her old gray sweatsshe didn't feel comfortable sweating in her new color-coordinated oneswere loose around the waist. A promising sign. The temptation to run into the bathroom and leap on the scale was strong, but she'd made that mistake too often and vowed she'd only weigh herself once a week. Monday morning, bright and earlythat was when she'd do it.
She'd lost five pounds in twenty-one days. The first two had fallen away easily, but the last three had been like chiseling at a concrete block with a tablespoon. She'd starved herself, exercised faithfully. She'd counted fat grams, carbohydrates, calories and chocolate chips to little avail.
Her best friend, Donnalee Cooper, claimed Hallie was putting too much stock in the physical, but Hallie believed otherwise. It was that packaging thing again. The men she knew based their reactions to womenat least their initial reactionson looks. It didn't matter if the woman had a brain in her head as long as her waist was tiny ..and her other assets weren't. Of course, attracting a man wasn't Hallie's only incentive for becoming physically fit. She didn't exercise nearly enough, had taken to skipping breakfast and was downing fast food on the run. Not a healthy lifestyle. Donnalee seemed unconvinced when Hallie explained this, though, pointing out that she hadn't worried about her health before.
Donnalee was single, although she'd had a brief disastrous marriage in her early twenties. To Hallie's delight, when she'd shared her goal of finding a man and marrying within the next twelve months, Donnalee had decided to join forces with her. She said that she'd never meant to wait this long to remarry, and like Hallie, she wanted children. But Donnalee brought a different strategy to their marriage campaign.
"Just be yourself," she'd advised.
"Being myself hasn't attracted a whole lot of attention so far," Hallie complained. That, at least, shut her friend up. Dating opportunities had dwindled to a trickle in the last few years, but she was determined to improve the situation.
Hallie showered and changed clothes, then phoned her mother who lived across Puget Sound in Bremerton, on the Kitsap Peninsula. Hallie and her father had been close, both in personality and in appearance, but it was from her mother that she'd inherited her artistic talent. Despite her ability, Lucille McCarthy had never worked outside the home. It had always troubled Hallie that a woman so genuinely talented would be content to do little more than keep house. Not until she was an adult living on her own did she recognize her mother's contribution to the family. Over the months since her father's sudden death, Hallie had come to appreciate her mother's quiet strength. At Christmas, she'd encouraged her to take up oil painting, and Lucille had recently begun a class.
The conversation went well, with Lucille cheerfully describing the portrait she'd started to paint of a sleeping Ellen. Afterward, Hallie wrote her weekly grocery list, threw on a jacket and hurried out the door, eager to finish her Saturday-morning chores. It was when she climbed into her car that she saw her new neighbor. At least, she thought he was the one. He was tall and not as brawny as she'd thought at first glance. Solid, she decided. All shoulders, with good upper-body strength. Handsome, too, in an unobtrusive way. In other words, seeing him didn't make her heart beat fasterwhich was just as well, since he was obviously married with children.
He did have an interesting face, a lived-in face, and seemed the type of person she'd like to know. Not romantically, of course, but maybe as a friend. She turned her attention from him to the two kids at his side. A girl and boy, who were probably about eleven and nine. Great-looking kids. The girl waved, her smile wide and friendly.
Hallie waved back, inserted the key into the ignition and drove off.
The moving van was gone by the time she returned an hour or so later. The two kids were riding their bicycles when she pulled into her driveway.
The girl headed her way, long coltish legs pumping the bicycle pedals.
"Hi," she called. "My dad just moved next door." She stopped abruptly and hopped off the polished chrome bike.
"So I saw," Hallie said, leaning across the front seat and removing her bags of groceries.
"I'm Meagan. That's my brother, Kenny." She nodded toward the younger boy, and as if on cue, Kenny joined his sister.
"You got any kids?" Kenny asked hopefully.
"Sorry, no." She balanced both grocery bags in her arms.
Some of the enthusiasm left the boy's eyes. "Do you know anyone around here who does?"
"Unfortunately, I don't think there are any kids your age on this block." Most of the couples who'd moved into the complex were just starting out. Hallie suspected there'd be any number of children in the neighborhood within a few years, but not now.
"Here," Meagan said, tilting her bike onto the grass. "I can help you carry those in." She took one bag out of Hallie's hands.
"Thanks." Hallie was touched by her thoughtfulness and said so.
The girl beamed at the praise. "Mom says I'm a big help to her now that she and Dad are divorced."
Meagan's expression grew sad when she mentioned the divorce. Hallie's heart immediately went out to herbut she couldn't help musing that her new neighbor was available, after all. It was an automatic reaction, triggered by her newly activated husband-seeking instincts.
Hallie briefly recalled her first impressions of him and decided then and there that she wanted someone with a bit more
finesse. A guy who drove a truck with a license-plate holder advertising his big tools didn't overly impress her. It wasn't only that, either; she'd seen what the movers had carted into his house. Sports equipment. Boxes and boxes of it. There didn't seem to be anything this guy hadn't tried. From mountain climbing to kayaking to scuba diving.
Hallie led the way into the kitchen, where she dumped her sack on the countertop. Meagan carefully put hers beside it. "Thanks again, Meagan."
"Are you married?" the girl asked.
"Not yet." But there were visions of entwined wedding rings dancing around in her head. She had a prospect, too. A man she'd just met yesterday, as a matter of fact.
"Well, gotta go have lunch. See you next weekend," Meagan said, rushing for the front door.
As Hallie started to put the groceries away, she saw that the message light on her answering machine was blinking. Probably her mother again, or her sister, Julie, calling to report on baby Ellen's latest adorable exploit. But what if it was him? Him being the new loans officer at Keystone Bank. Hallie had gone in on Friday afternoon to make her deposits and been introduced to John Franklin.
The minute she'd laid eyes on him she realized he was everything she sought in a husband. Tall, dark and handsome. Friendly, polite and clearly intelligent. He met all the basic criteria, including availability; she'd noticed the absence of a wedding ring. He was close to forty, she estimated, but that didn't disturb her. An eleven-year gap didn't make much difference, not at her age. She'd be thirty in April, three months from now. Surely she'd be engaged by then.
Unfortunately the message wasn't from John. It was from Donnalee, who sounded excited and asked Hallie to phone the minute she walked in the door.
Hallie rang her back. "You called?"
"I've found the answer," Donnalee blurted.
"What's the question?" Hallie grumbled in response; she hadn't had lunch and was never at her best on an empty stomach.
"Where do we meet the men of our dreams?"
"Hmm." Her friend certainly had her attention now.
"The answer's a bit complicated, so stay with me."
"All I ask is that you hear me out. All right?"
Hallie muttered a reply. This dating thing had been much easier in high school and college. Apparently she'd lost the knack. Oh, there'd been a few romances in the years since, most of them what you'd call short-term. One had lasted the better part of six months, until it, too, fizzled out. The fault, Hallie admitted, had been her own. Gregg had complained about her long hours and her total commitment to Artistic License, and she'd told him that wasn't likely to change.
"I found an ad in the Seattle Weekly for a dating service," Donnalee announced.