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TO HELL WITH LOVE
By Sherri Erwin
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Sherri Erwin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI stood outside my sister's door for what seemed like an eternity, shifting a bottle of cheap wine in my arms and wondering about the odd earthy odor I'd picked up somewhere between leaving the car and going up the front walk.
I looked down. It figured. Shit on my shoe. Caked to my pricey stiletto heel, the last pair I would buy in a while. It seemed like an omen. I should run while I had the chance.
Bennie opened the door, wearing the tight little smile she reserved for guests that blossomed to the real thing when she saw it was me and not a pair of her husband's clients or one of the endless twits with whom she tried to set me up. "Kate! You made it. On time, no less."
"Early, in fact. And bearing wine." I passed her the bottle and hoped she wouldn't recognize the label as one from the three-for-twelve-dollars bin at the corner liquor store. Since trading glamour in New York for grit in Newton, Massachusetts, I'd given up my penchant for designer shoes and fine wines to better control my expenses. Glamour paid a lot better than grit, let me tell you.
For now, I made ends meet by working retail at a Country Curtains outlet, but my long-term goal was to open my own interior decorating firm.
"Come in,"Bennie said, taking the wine. "How's Mother?"
"Ugh." She loved to rub it in that I'd been bunking with our mother and stepdad, a temporary situation until I could get settled and find an affordable apartment. Since I lost my set design gig, Manhattan had become a tad pricey. I'd recently moved back home to save money. "Mother's the same as always. Why don't you visit? She never stops talking about the kids."
"She never stops talking, period," Bennie added. We shared a conspiratorial laugh as we made our way down the hall.
Bennie's Miss Clairol Strawberry Blonde hair was swept up in her usual dinner party chignon. Her elegant navy blue sheath made me feel underdressed, though I was wearing a perfectly lovely cream chiffon blouse and a violet silk skirt with hand-embroidered edges, last season's formal wear mark-downs from Filene's Basement.
"Rob's dying to meet you," she said, reaching for my hand as if to encourage me or, knowing Bennie, to force me to move faster toward the sacrificial altar. She couldn't bear to see me contentedly single.
"Rob? He's already here?" Only twits and relatives came early, an unspoken dinner party rule.
"He's smart. You said you like smart. A bio professor at Wellesley. And he's cute."
"And punctual." I shrugged out of my coat and hung it on the rack. "I guess you've forgotten that I also said I didn't want any more fix-ups after last time."
Last time, Bennie introduced me to her plumber after I'd made the mistake of mentioning that I liked a man who could work with his hands. He spent all night telling me what he could do to my pipes.
Bennie wrinkled her nose, ignoring my "no more fix-ups" protest. "What's that smell?"
"We better get to the kitchen before you introduce me around," I said, pointing to my feet. "Oops, sorry." Bennie blushed. "The gardener was trimming the backyard so I had Kristin walk Bert and Ernie out front today. I guess she missed a spot."
Bennie had wanted a small calm dog. Putting her faith in the word of an over-enthusiastic breeder, she'd ended up with both Bert and Ernie, a matched pair of pugs. And carpeted floors to protect from claw scratches, among other dog-inspired sins of design.
I followed Bennie to the kitchen, mourning the loss of my shoes before I even had a chance to view the damage up close. Ode to My Last Manolos. With any luck, I could wash off the shit and move on. I tried not to think of it as a metaphor for my life. I slipped off the shoe, an ivory satin slingback with mud caked over the crystals decorating the spiked heel.
"Give it here," Bennie said. "It's not too bad. I'll have it good as new in a sec."
True to her word, she worked her magic and handed the shoe back.
"Thanks," I said, checking the heel. No damage. Saint Bennie, the domestic miracle worker. "Good work."
Bennie didn't stop to acknowledge the compliment. Instead, she placed her hand on my shoulder and nudged me toward the living room. "Now let's go meet Rob."
"Give me a minute. Sheesh." I pulled away and took time to get myself together. Shoe on, hands washed, I was ready to follow her out to the formal living room.
Over at the bar, an antique cherry piece I'd salvaged for them off a stage set, Bennie's husband, Patrick, stood opening a bottle of something. A stranger who bore an uncanny resemblance to Bennie's pugs perched, not unlike the dogs, on the arm of the nearby overstuffed sofa as he made small talk with Patrick. "Hello." The stranger stood as soon as we entered. Well, at least he had manners. "Nice to meet you, Kate."
"Rob?" I said, feigning uncertainty to cover my blatant hope that he wasn't Rob.
He stood about two inches shorter than my five feet six. He had soft brown eyes and well-formed lips. Up close, his features weren't as pug-like as I'd first assumed. But the fact that he reminded me of a dark-haired garden gnome could be something of a setback. If only he hadn't chosen to pair his white oxford shirt with a green wool vest. I resisted the temptation to look around for where he may have left his pointed red cap.
"Rob. That's the name and the game," he said, reaching for the hand I'd yet to offer. "Consider yourself warned."
"Be careful or I might just steal your heart." He winked. "Rob, as in steal?"
Oh. God. I endangered my Manolos for a punspinning gnome? I smiled at Rob and cast a sideways glance at Bennie.
"I have to get back to the kitchen," she said. "You two amuse yourselves until the other guests arrive." Then she ran off.
I thought of ways to amuse myself. They didn't include Rob. They did include a slow, painful torture of my little sis.
When we were kids, she used to trick me into playing Barbie dolls with her by crying until Mother forced me to play. As a subtle form of revenge, I buried her Barbie dolls in the backyard. I figured that if I was trapped into acting out scenes with picture-perfect plastic dolls, I was calling the shots and Barbie's funeral had it all over Barbie's dream date, in my opinion. Bennie didn't agree. She cried all through Skipper's touching eulogy. But it was Night of the Living Dead: Barbie's Return that gave her nightmares for weeks. Those were the days.
By inviting me to her dinner parties, Bennie still managed to force me into play-acting. Fortunately for Rob, it was a whole lot harder to bury the guests in the backyard.
"Bennie says you've just moved back from Manhattan?" Rob asked. "I'm not cut out for city life. I like it right here, close enough to enjoy Boston but far enough out of the rat race."
"I've always liked a good rat race," I said, ignoring the way he patted the couch next to him as an invitation to sit down.
"So why'd you move back?" Rob asked.
"Interior design." He nodded, as if Bennie had handed him my entire résumé in advance. "I'm in genetic engineering, with worldwide recognition in plant research."
"Wow." I needed wine, but a glance at Patrick proved he wasn't exactly hurrying. He stood, poised over the bottle, taking time to clean his fingernails with the corkscrew. Ew. "Patrick, need a little help with that bottle?"
Patrick startled and looked up, a fierce blush spreading over his cheeks. "It'll just be a minute."
He reminded me a little of a potential love child of Laverne DeFazio and Richie Cunningham, streetwise with a boyish charm, not to mention the thinning red hair. Normally, he was more adept at hiding his inner DeFazio.
"My work is destined to impact the entire future of agricultural enterprise. But enough about tomatoes. Tell me more about what you did in the Big Apple." Rob, caught up in his own lame attempt at a humorous segue, punctuated his sentence with a snort-like laugh.
"I was a set designer for Darkness Eternal."
"Darkness Eternal?" he asked. "Was that on Broadway?"
Most people had heard of it. Most people found my work on a daytime drama a fascinating angle of conversation. Rob was not most people. He looked to be the sort whose television didn't get much use with the exception of Home and Garden Television, from which he undoubtedly picked up fashion advice from the other garden gnomes.
"All My Vampires, as we liked to call it around here," Patrick joked, approaching with glasses of wine. "It was a soap opera."
I snatched a glass and took a sip. An earthy Merlot. Nirvana.
"Vampires?" Rob looked lost. And a little frightened.
"It was a great show," Patrick said. "We got addicted around here."
"Alas, we got cancelled after a six-year run. The writers said their creativity had been sucked dry." Oh no, I'd made a pun. I hoped Rob didn't get too excited. "After that, all the other soaps were staffed and I didn't want to work an endless chain of stage shows. I like steady employment."
I needed steady employment. I wasn't getting any younger and the desire for stability grew stronger with every tick of my biological clock.
"Plus," I added, "something about starting over back on my home turf appealed."
I could hardly think what it was. The quiet charm and reliability of the suburbs that drew me back was now the very same thing pushing me away. Too quiet. Too reliable. I needed a shake-up. I needed ... something.
To be frank, some great sex would be nice, which was why I never protested too loudly when Bennie launched another of her set-up attempts. I kept hoping she would introduce me to the right guy and I'd at least get some action out of the deal. And if it led to more, so much the better. I wanted what Bennie had. House, husband, kids. A place to belong. A place of my own, with people who needed me as much as Bennie's family needed her. I'd almost given up on the idea of finding a suitable love match, but a family was not out of the question. So what if I didn't have a man? I could do it on my own, with the help of modern science.
Tradition be damned.
Unfortunately, one look at Rob and I knew the dry spell would persist. Tonight wasn't the night.
"The thing with tomatoes is ..." Rob had begun to explain the complicated process of growing the perfect tomato.
The doorbell rang, signaling the arrival of more guests. More guests meant less Rob, as far as I was concerned. I decided to make a break for it.
"I better get that," I said, and darted off to answer the door.
It was Paul and Rhonda Wiskowski, the owners of a mortgage company with whom Patrick, a realtor, did a lot of business. Fortunately, the Wiskowskis were late and we sat down to dinner almost right away, cutting down on the necessity for more pre-dinner small talk.
Patrick took his usual seat at the head of the table with Bennie at his right. Paul settled in next to Bennie and Rhonda assigned herself what she probably thought to be the next most important seat up near Patrick. I sighed and filled in near Paul, saying a silent prayer that Rob would choose to not stick dutifully by my side. When he sat down across from me, I was relieved, until I realized this meant I had to look at him all night. So much for prayers.
Bennie, a Martha Stewart aficionado, had set the table with a harvest theme. Dried autumn leaves interspersed with tea lights formed a line down the middle of the pumpkin orange tablecloth, a perfect match with Rhonda's hair.
Once we were all settled at the table, Rob attempted to start the conversation with a discourse on tomatoes. Rhonda, not one for polite listening, cut Rob off with an inquiry into Patrick's latest real estate development.
"Nothing's selling," Patrick said with a heavy sigh. "Twelve brand new houses with wooded backyards all clustered around a cul-de-sac and no one wants in."
"If only you could sell one. After one family settled in, the rest would go like that." Rhonda snapped her fingers and sent a long red nail extension flying into Rob's soup. No one seemed to notice. "Give it time."
"The problem," Patrick went on, "is that open floor plans are the new rage, but they make a house look too empty. Houses used to be divided into more rooms. It made it easy to picture a home life within the enclosed space."
"An established comfort level there is, to see a house that is actually a home." Paul channeled Yoda, complete with gray hair flying out his ears, between slurps of soup.
"So why not stage the houses with furniture accents?" I asked. All heads turned to me. "The Wyndham Park houses must be going for what? Half a mil?"
"Seven hundred grand and up," Paul said.
"Way up," Rhonda added.
"So what's a little extra investment? Maybe fifty thousand or so to do some superficial decorating, make the place look a little less empty." And that's when it dawned on me. Who needed stage sets when I had entire houses at my disposal?
"Why don't I come by tomorrow morning, take a look around?" I asked Patrick. "Give me a few days and I could have the place looking like something out of Better Homes and Gardens."
On their dime! If it worked, I could start my own business much sooner than I'd imagined. Good-bye Country Curtains, hello success! More important for my immediate satisfaction, good-bye Mom, hello chic city address. South end? Back Bay? The more family-friendly Beacon Hill? The sky was the limit. Provided I could work out the details. The sooner I set up residence, the sooner I could move ahead with satisfying my maternal instincts. Even seeing baby diaper commercials made me stop dead in my tracks lately, my heart racing in a way that only ads for sample sales had been able to inspire in the past.
"What's in it for you?" Bennie chimed in.
"Commission," I answered without a second's hesitation. "If I do the house up and it sells within three days, I take a thirty percent cut of your profit."
"Thirty percent?" Patrick's face flooded with color.
"We can work something out," I said. A few commission checks and a small business loan and I would be on my way to owning my own business.
"I work out." Rob injected himself back in the conversation, interrupting my reverie. "Kate, you should meet me at the gym sometime."
"Gym? I'm allergic." No way in hell. I rose to escape, er, to help as Bennie started clearing dishes.
"Have a seat, Kate." Bennie took the silver right out of my hands. "Patrick is going to help me in the kitchen."
Matchmaker Bennie was on the job. I sunk back into my seat and plotted my revenge. Fortunately, Paul took over the stalled conversation.
"If you could have dinner with anyone in the world," he asked, "past or present, who would it be?"
My first thought? Yoda. And here I was. Lucky me. My second thought was to ask Yoda to bring Han Solo. I was about to ask if fictional characters were allowed when Rob piped in first.
"Jesus." No surprise that he answered with the standard safe response for Christians everywhere.
"Good one," Rhonda said. "Let me think. Anyone in the world?" Seconds passed while Rhonda contemplated. "Ooh, I know. Neil Diamond."
"Neil Diamond?" Paul laughed. "Figures. At least you didn't say Tom Jones. I was going to choose Gandhi or Mother Teresa but since you're bringing Neil ... I guess I would say Jaclyn Smith."
"Jaclyn Smith?" Rhonda's voice reached a nasal zenith. "The Charlie's Angel?"
"Yeah." Paul smiled. "I always liked how she looked in that white string bikini."
Rhonda reached across to slap Paul's hand. "I doubt she fits in it anymore."
"I don't know. I bet she's still got it." Paul rubbed his fingers. "So we have Jesus, Neil Diamond, and Jaclyn Smith. I think we need someone else to round out the pack. Kate?"
Yeah, like someone born after Woodstock, perhaps. I didn't dare mention there was a more recent version of Charlie's Angels with younger babes and skimpier bikinis. Paul might not be able to handle the temptation.
Who to choose? I looked around the table in time to catch Rob's sanctimonious smirk. That's all it took. He didn't think I could do better than Jesus?
"I choose the devil," I said with a wicked, playful grin.
Excerpted from TO HELL WITH LOVE by Sherri Erwin Copyright © 2007 by Sherri Erwin. Excerpted by permission.
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