Candy pulled into the parking lot of Marie's office building at 9:59 a.m. She'd spent the last hour with a jittery administrative assistant organizing an after-work surprise birthday party for her boss, the CEO of the company. She was the type of person who made Candy wish for patience pills: an anxious perfectionist worrywart. "Are you sure they spelled his name right on the cake?" No, Candy was sure they hadn't, and she was thrilled because she loved doing a terrible job, which was why she was so much in demand. Some people.
She picked up her briefcase containing a file of notes and Milwaukeedates.com paperwork filled in the night before, admittedly at the last minute. She'd popped a bowl of popcorn and settled down with a glass of wine to dull her nerves over this whole process. Then she'd been faced with trying to figure out how to represent her entire personality for an online profile in one paragraph, and how to summarize what qualities she wanted in a guy in another paragraph, all the while sounding witty and sexy and fun and appealing, yet honest and substantive.
Popcorn gone, bottle of wine half-empty, Candy had given up in exasperation. She had a personality as varied as the parties she loved to plan: whimsical, prim, raunchyit ran the gamut. How to distill that into a neat sound bite without sounding as if she had multiple-personality disorder?
Exhausted and defeated, she'd finally decided problems like this were what she'd be paying Marie to handle, so she'd gone to bed and dreamed of marrying a guy with six heads.
Out into the frigid air of January, the harshest month of winter, though March won for the most wearing, Candy crossed an icy patch in the parking lot with the short, choppy steps people in winter states adopted to keep forward momentum to a minimum. Her breath sent mist streaming into the crisp, dry air, which swallowed the moisture gratefully. She was nervous, not entirely in a good way.
She couldn't let go of the feeling that she was cheating on Chuck, which was ridiculous because he'd left her to pursue someone else, someone he claimed matched him better, which had been the most bewildering part of the breakup. Candy didn't know any other couple that operated in such perfect unison. She and Chuck were so alike, and their minds ran in such complementary directions. She'd felt completely understood and accepted for the first time in her life.
Not that they never fought or disagreedif couples never fought they were either suppressing emotions or had nothing to say to each other in the first placebut in everything that mattered, the big things, the values, what they wanted and expected from a relationship, on all those things they matched better than she ever could have imagined.
On top of that solid foundation, they shared a sense of humor, taste in movies, food and books, and their sex life was good, too. In short, Chuck never stopped being interesting, sexy and exciting to her; she lit up like a lightbulb every time she saw his face, yes, even five years later. How could she hope to find that again? How could he have let it go?
Most people recommended a year for recovery. Hers had been hell, but she was nearly through it. Maybe taking this first step would be the best way to banish her fear that she wasn't ready, and her deeper fear that she'd never be able to remove Chuck entirely from her heart. When you loved someone that completely, gave yourself over, body and soul
Yes. But. Chuck was with Kate now, living in her house in Racine, as much as that still managed to hurt, and Candy refused to stay stuck mooning over what wasn't possible.
Plus, Marie's point about Valentine's Day was valid. Candy certainly didn't want to spend the day alone, reliving the hell of the previous year. And being part of a lame-duck collection of single women that night didn't appeal either. She wanted a date. A fun one, if not a really special one.
She entered the warm building gratefully, stomped snow off her boots onto the mat and turned down the hall to Marie's office. For the first three years Marie had operated Milwaukeedates.com out of her home, but she'd felt strongly that an office would up her professional cachet, so when the business started doing well she'd leased space downtown on Water Street, a gamble that had paid off.
Candy unwrapped the floral wool scarf from her neck, took off her black mittensmaybe she was old for mittens, but nothing kept her fingers warmerand smiled at Marie's receptionist. "Hi, Jane."
"Hey, there." Jane grinned, headset perched on top of her red curls, startling blue eyes blinking behind narrow black-framed glasses. "Marie's in her office, go on in. If you want tea or coffee help yourself."
"Thanks." She crossed to the counter where Marie had set up a generous selection of teas and coffees, regular, decaf and herbal, and poured steaming water over a fragrant orange-spice tea bag.
Behind her, the ring of the phone, then Jane's voice: "Milwaukeedates.com, how may I help you?"
A current client? A prospective client? Maybe even the guy Candy would end up with. Would she be out with him on Valentine's Day?
Stomach churning with a mixture of excitement and dread, she strode to Marie's office, knocked and pushed the already ajar door open. The space managed to be professional and cozy, much like Marie herself. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, occasional books turned face-out, deliberately empty spaces on the shelves filled with plants, pottery or sculpture. Oversize chairs in warm brown tones, a burgundy-shaded Oriental rug.
Behind her desk, on the phone and beckoning Candy in, Marie stood in a fabulous teal suit whose cut elegantly camouflaged her extra pounds and deemphasized her short stature. She'd recently started coloring her hair a subtle auburn, which flattered her still-smooth skin and complemented her hazel eyes, today embellished by soft black liner and subtle shadowing. Marie was a lovely, warm person with a core of strength and determination which had gotten her through her stinking husband's betrayal and earned her every bit of her subsequent success.
Candy wanted to be her when she grew up.
"I completely understand, yes. And how did he react when you told him how you felt?" She smiled apologetically at Candy and gestured to the chair in front of her desk. "I see. And how did that make you feel?"
Candy sank into the cushy chair and arranged a couple of the bright pillows behind her back. The office was deliciously warm and smelled of lavender and orange spice, the perfect antidote to the frozen gray outside. Candy dipped her tea bag a few times and tried vainly to relax. Since her breakup with Chuck, in an attempt to mitigate the crushing grief, she'd thrown herself into work, dragged herself out of the house as often as possible, gone dancing, taken a cruise with her best friend, Abigail, traveled down to Chicago several times
and somehow she hadn't managed to slow down again. Not like when she was dating Chuck and was blissfully content with evenings at home watching TV, weekends spent sleeping late, staying in bed later and puttering around the house.
She kept the pleasant look on her face and sipped hot, comforting tea, telling herself the past was past and she was here in hopes of starting her futureromantically speaking.
"Right. I understand. Well, I'm sorry it didn't work out, but you have the date next week to look forward to." Marie bent to hit buttons on her computer and scanned the screen. "With Ted. Yes. Okay, talk to you later. Take care. Bye."
She punched off her phone. "That woman has gone out with and found something horribly wrong with practically every guy on our site. During our interview I thought she seemed a little wound-up, but I didn't see this coming. She needs about a year's worth of therapy, not a relationship."
"Oof. Sorry." Maybe Candy needed that, too. Or maybe she just needed another excuse to delay this moment.
"Anyway, this isn't about her." Marie came out from behind her desk and perched on the edge, beaming. "This is your time. We are going to find you someone absolutely fabulous. How did you do on the sheets I had you fill out?"
"Hmm." She held out her hand. "Let me see."
Candy pulled the papers from her briefcase. "I couldn't decide between answers. I think I checked all the options practically every single time. Do I like staying home or going out? Yes. Do I like old movies or contemporary? Yes. Do I like restaurants, bars, clubs, movies, museums or lectures for a favorite night out? Yes. What is more important, career or family? Both. And on and on. I'm hopeless."
"Hopeless?" Marie took the papers. "Let's call you well-rounded. Adventurous, open-minded, cosmopolitan."
Candy conceded the point. "Yes, better term than hopeless. But when I got to the introductory paragraph I splintered completely. I felt I could put up four different profiles."
Marie looked up from the papers. "What would you call those profiles? I mean if you had to classify them. What would those four different parts of you be?"
Candy blinked. She'd expected Marie to laugh, not put on her psychologist hat. "Well. One part of me is playful. Like a kid. The part that dresses up as Sally the Silly Fairy at kids' birthday parties. So one part I'd call goofy."
Marie reached back for a pad and pen and started writing. "Child at heart. Go on."
"Let's see." Candy sipped her tea, considering. "Another would be the part of me that likes to read, to do crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, play Scrabble, to curl up in front of a fire with a glass of wine and a good book I can later discuss, to take classes in things I'd like to know more about. Call her.the Professor."
"Professor." Marie wrote it down. "I like that. Next?"
is the ambitious side of me, the part that loves organizing, planning, waking up every day knowing what I want to accomplish and knowing I will do it. Continually conquering challenges, beating back problems, making sure everything flows smoothly." She frowned, trying to come up with a title. "Battle-ax?"
Marie pursed her lips disapprovingly. "Superwoman."
"Superwoman!" Candy laughed. "That works, too."
"Is that it?"
no." Candy felt herself blushing and held the cup of tea close to her face. "There's one more."
Marie's eyebrow raised. "Ye-e-es?"
"It's the smallest part. I'm not even sure it really is a part of me, maybe just a fantasy."
"The part that would like to get dressed up for an absurdly expensive restaurant, to travel to Paris, Monaco, ski the Alps. To wear hot lingerie every day, and have the confidence to seduce a stranger in a bar merely by giving him the right look."
"Hmm, yes." Marie eyed Candy speculatively. "I can see her in you, but I don't think you've indulged her yet. Chuck sure didn't let you."
Candy's mouth dropped. "Didn't let me? What do you mean? Chuck was very supportive of whatever I wanted to do and whomever I wanted to be."
For one unbearable moment Marie just watched her, and Candy started feeling anxious as well as angry.
"Yes, sorry. I crossed the line."
Candy let out the breath she'd been holding. She had to keep reminding herself that her girlfriends judged Chuck unfairly, probably out of loyalty because he'd hurt her so badly. She didn't have much nice to say about Marie's ex-husband Grant, either, after he'd left her for some bimbo barely old enough to drink. "It's okay. I guess Chuck is still a raw topic. I'm not even sure I should be here. How can I fall for another guy when this one is still so special to me?"
"Oh, honey. I know how hard this is." Marie capped her pen, face radiating gentle sympathy. "Of course I don't want to push you to do anything you don't want to. But I think this is the right time and the right way. I guess I'll have to ask you to trust me."
"I do." She drank more tea to keep herself from breaking down and bawling. "I do trust you. I'm just a little."
"Conflicted?" Marie smiled warmly. "I went through the exact same thing after my marriage broke up and I was looking to date again. I had to force myself the first few times. Then it got easier."
"But you never found anyone."
"No. But looking did me a lot of good, made me realize that Grant not wanting me anymore didn't mean no one did.
And besides." Her smile turned wicked. "I didn't have Mil-waukeedates, and you do." Candy laughed. "Of course."
"So." Marie uncapped her pen again and poised it over the pad. "Let's call the fourth one Sexy Glamour Girl."
"Okay." Candy finished her tea, stronger already. Marie was really good at her job. "So that's me. How do I put all that together in a couple of paragraphs?"
Marie sat, eyes narrowed in contemplation, tapping her chin with a professionally manicured fingertip. "I have an idea. Kind of a wild idea, but."
"I'm all ears."
"Why don't you make four profiles?"
Candy let out a startled laugh. "Four?"
"I know, crazy, right? I'm thinking of it as an experiment to see which part of you men respond to the most. See which part you enjoy bringing to the foreground the most. It would actually be fascinating from a psychological standpoint."
" She made herself breathe. "I'm stammering apparently."
"Take your time."
"Would that be fair to the guys I was seeing? If I'm not really being me?"
"But you are being you." Marie pushed herself off the desk, headed behind it and opened a file drawer. "It's not like you're changing any part of yourself, just emphasizing one in each case. If the guy's got half a brain he won't think he knows you entirely because of how you present yourself on the site."
"I don't know, Marie." Candy was getting excited even as her sensible self told her there had to be disastrous aspects to this plan that she couldn't see yet.
"This will give you a chance to explore certain parts of yourself that might have been." Marie circled her hand, coaxing out her next word. "Underappreciated."
Candy put her hands to her temples, ignoring the second unreasonable jab at Chuck. "I need to think this through."
"Of course." Marie pulled out several sheets from a folder. "I have four sets of profile sheets here, one for each of you. You'll probably fill them out in half an hour this time."
"I haven't said I'd do it." She was turning the idea over and over. Instinct was telling her she was going to say yes, but common sense wouldn't let her yet. Four different women?
"Filling these out doesn't commit you." Marie held the papers across the desk. "You'll have a blast, especially given your talent for performing."