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"A woman needs a man like a tuba needs a cucumber."—Chrissy McMullen, tenth grade marching band aficionada—astute but jaded at the tender age of fifteen
"McMULLEN," RIVERA SAID. I was juggling half an apple fritter, a cell phone, and ten million irate commuters when he called—an average Tuesday morning in L.A.
"Yes?" I steered with my elbow and set the fritter daintily on the napkin covering my just-above-the-knee silk skirt. It was the color of pomegranates, complemented to dazzling perfection by my delicately pleated carnation pink blouse, and absolutely spot free. I'm nothing if not classy.
"Sorry about last night." He had said he would drop by after his shift, but he hadn't shown. Which was just as well. The respite had given me plenty of time to steam my ensemble and moisturize my knees, which I often used to drive so I could finish off my breakfast. The remainder of the fritter waited demurely in its little paper bag on the passenger seat.
"You needn't be," I said coolly, ignoring the fritter's siren song. "I had a myriad of things to do." There was a pause, then, "A myriad?" Rivera's tone sounded vaguely amused.
"Listen, it's good of you to take the time out of your busy schedule to call," I said, "but I'm afraid I have a good deal of work to do this—"
"You're pissed," he interrupted.
"I'm a licensed psychologist, Lieutenant. I don't get—"
"I said I was sorry."
"Well, you don't sound sorry. You sound—" I stopped.
I had told myself a slew of times that Lieutenant Jack Rivera was no good for my quiet, inner self—or my body mass index. If I had a nugget of sense the size of a germ cell I would have drop-kicked our so-called relationship into the distant-memory bin long ago, but Rivera's got an inexplicable appeal. Something I can never quite put my finger on. It could be his little-boy love for stray dogs or his enigmatic smile, but sometimes I've got a bad feeling it might be something a little less cerebral and a little more . . . well . . . hormonal, like the way he fills out his jeans. Let's face it, every therapist worth her insurance-funded paycheck knows that despite flawless breeding and costly matriculation, we are, under it all, still instinctual beings—and I'm not dead yet, despite the obvious intentions of the cosmos at large and a good part of the L.A. community.
There had been two attempts on my life in the past six months. Those attempts had taught me some valuable lessons. Specifically, to keep my security system manned, and to stop at Yum Yum Donuts every morning before work. Life is short. I may not make the return trip.
A truck driver laid on his horn as I merged into the middle lane.
"Where are you? Are you talking on your cell while driving again?" Rivera asked.
A little spark of leftover guilt shot through me. I was raised Catholic by a mother who believed shame was the number one component in healthy child-rearing. "What?" I asked.
"Jesus, McMullen, are you trying to get yourself killed?"
I gritted my teeth and zipped into the right lane. My borrowed car was going to need fuel soon. It was a Porsche Turbo Cabriolet, and though it beat my little Saturn all to hell in the sexy department, it couldn't come close in the miles per gallon arena. "While I very much appreciate your concern, Lieutenant, I don't believe I need your lectures at this precise moment," I said.
"Are you on the interstate?"
"No," I said, and gunned the little roadster onto the exit ramp.
"You're lying, aren't you?"
"And this from a man who can't be bothered to fulfill his slightest commitments," I countered.
"It couldn't be helped." Rivera sounded irritable and a little distracted.
"Another fiancée emergency?" I asked, and knew immediately that I should have kept my mouth shut. Intelligent silence isn't a new idea . . . just an underrated one.
The phone went quiet for a moment, then, "You still jealous, McMullen?"
"Please," I said, and accidentally snorted a little. Must have been because my nasal passages were closing up. Classy women with Ph.D.s do not snort unless under grave physical duress.
"Listen, Rivera," I said, tone brimming with education and good solid bonhomie. "It's kind of you to call, but I really must get to work or—"
"I'll stop by tonight."
I punched the snappy little Porsche past a late-model Buick. "I'm afraid I'm otherwise engaged this evening, but I'll see if I can—"
"Yeah!" he yelled, ineffectively covering the receiver, then said to me, "About eight."
My smile was beatific. A shame it was wasted on the bald guy in the Buick who took that opportunity to flip me off. "As previously stated, I'm afraid I'll be unable to—"
"I'll bring Chinese."
My salivary glands tingled at the thought of Asian, but I infused my spine with pride and the memory of a half-dozen broken dates. Rivera was about as dependable as an offshore squall. "That's very considerate of you, but—"
"Don't bother dressing," he said. His voice was low and smoky. My ovaries perked up like a hound on a beef bone scent, but I'd been infused with . . . stuff.
"Listen . . ." I began, gearing up for a snotty answer, but he had already hung up. I stared blankly at my phone until the blare of a car horn yanked me into reality. Jerking the Porsche back into my ordained lane, I snapped the phone shut and tossed it on the passenger seat.
"Don't dress for dinner," I snorted.
Crumbs rained onto my lap from the rest of the fritter.
Did Rivera really think I had nothing better to do than wait panting by my door for him to show up with those sexy little take-out boxes from Chin Yung? Did he think I was desperate?
By the time the low-fuel light clicked on, I had worked up a full head of steam. I swiveled into the nearest gas station, selected a fuel choice that wouldn't require a third mortgage, and dragged a windshield scraper from its receptacle near the paper towels.
Standing there in my pomegranate skirt and classy but all man-made material sling-backs, I scraped ineffectively at the bluejay droppings marring the Porsche's windshield. The car had been loaned to me by a height-sensitive little myope who was dating my best friend and former secretary, Elaine Butterfield. But Laney had recently morphed into the Amazon Queen—long story—and left to film a TV pilot in some remote area of the Bitterroot Mountains. Thus I was left with her rightfully insecure beau and a long string of secretarial applicants who could neither type nor, apparently, think; I dared not be late to work, but there was one particularly large blob on the window directly in front of the driver's seat. It was the color of ripe eggplant, and I was out of washer fluid. Murphy's law had struck again.
"Here. Let me help."
I turned toward the gallant gentleman who had appeared near my elbow. He stood a little under six foot in his scuffed work boots and held a windshield scraper like a broadsword in his right hand. Blue fluid dripped from the netted sponge. A veritable good Samaritan. I stared at him. Good Samaritans are as rare as cellulite in the greater L.A. area.
"Unless you need to prove your independence or something," he added. He wore round, gold-framed glasses over aquamarine, heavily lashed eyes.
"I have a strangulation hernia from carrying salt down to my water softener," I said.
He studied me, head tilted, dark hair receding a little. "Screw independence?" he guessed.
I nodded toward the windshield. "Knock yourself out."
He did so, not literally, leaning over the hood and sawing with vigor. His blue jeans rode low on narrow hips and there seemed to be zero fat molecules hanging out at his waistband.
Turning the scraper, he squeegeed off the excess water and moved around to the other side of the car. His T-shirt had been washed to a soft, olive green and showed the tight flex of his triceps to his advantage.
"Thank you." I was trying to put the irritating memory of Rivera's absence and Asian bribery behind me, but I was still feeling fidgety and a little flushed. "You can leave the rest."
But he was already applying the sponge to the passenger side. "I'd rather commit murder," he said.
My nerves cranked up a little. Maybe it was the fact that I was late for work. Or maybe it was the mention of murder. The thought of manslaughter made me kind of jumpy lately. "What's that?" I asked.
"Leaving a car like this dirty," he said, and grinned at me over the sparkling windshield. "It'd be a heinous crime."
I studied him more closely. "Are you an attorney?"
"No." He laughed as if it were a preposterous idea. He had an intelligent aura about him, so I suppose I should have known better. "You?"
He nodded. "If I had a Porsche I'd swaddle it in bubble wrap and stow it in a climate-controlled garage. Even if I was a psychologist."
Maybe I should have informed him then and there that the car wasn't mine, that my own vehicle was just above rickshaw status, and that I had earned more money per annum as a cocktail waitress than I did as a licensed therapist, but my vanity was already feeling a little bruised. "I'm fresh out of bubble wrap," I said, and checked my watch. It was 9:52. My first client was due to arrive in eight minutes, and leaving Mr. Patterson with my current receptionist, the Magnificent Mandy—her choice of sobriquets, not mine—would be tantamount to cutting my psychological throat. "And functioning garages," I added.
"Tell me you don't leave it out in the elements," he said, and stroked the car's cobalt hood as if it were a cherished pet. Men are weird.
"L.A. doesn't have any decent elements," I said.
Dumping the scraper back into its receptacle, he wiped his hands on his jeans and rounded the bumper. "You from the Midwest or something?" he asked.
"No kidding? I grew up in Oshkosh. Wisconsin."
I nodded. "Land of the Packers and baby overalls."
"That's right," he said, and, wiping his hand on his jeans again, stretched out his arm. "Will Swanson.
" His grip was warm and firm.
"Christina McMullen," I said.
He smiled. Little wrinkles radiated from the corners of his eyes. "You miss the cold?"
Nice eyes. Kind. "Almost as much as I miss acne," I said.
"Yeah." The smile fired up a notch. He nodded toward the interior of the gas station. "My brother and I just moved down here a couple months ago."
"Movie script in tow?"
He laughed, ran his fingers through his hair; lightly tanned forearms, well toned. "Guess everyone has one, huh?"
"Not at all," I lied. "I met a guy just the other day who doesn't write anything but poetry."
He grinned at my astounding wit. "We're doing carpentry work to pay for an overpriced apartment in Compton."
Thus the nice forearms.
"Say . . ." He tilted his head again. His hair was straight and a little too long, just brushing the tops of his ears. "You're short one garage. I'm short on cash, maybe we could help each other out."
I gave him an apologetic look. "I'm afraid my cash isn't very long, either."
"We work cheap." He grimaced as he glanced at the scrap of paper he'd just fished from his back pocket. "Sorry. I guess Hank has our business cards, but I can write down my number if you're interested."
He did have nice arms, and I'd shelled out money for worse reasons. I'd once spent a hundred and twenty-seven bucks to have my hall shampooed because the carpet guy used the word "dearth."
There's a dearth of guys with decent vocabularies.
Will was already scribbling with the nub of a pencil he'd pulled from his jeans. I glanced at the number as he handed it over. Decent penmanship. A little slanted. If I remembered my handwriting analysis correctly, that meant he had a creative soul. Or was it psychopathic tendencies?
"Are you any good?" I asked.
He nodded, then grinned, hunching his shoulders a little. "Actually, we kinda suck."
Funny. Self-deprecating. Cute. Rivera, on the other hand, was irritating, conceited, and dangerous. Hmmm.
My phone rang from inside the car. I opened the driver's door.
"Call me sometime," he said.
I gave him an understated smile as I slithered onto the Porsche's buttery seats. And for a moment I almost felt sexy.
By two o'clock, sexy was but a distant memory. By six-fifty, I couldn't even remember what the word meant. My head was congested and I felt kind of dirty . . . but not in a good way.
The phone rang in the reception area. I waited for the Magnificent Mandy to pick it up. She didn't. I answered on the fifth ring.
There was a moment's hesitation before the phone went dead. I put the receiver back in the cradle, at which time my so-called employee poked her head into my office. Her face is as heart-shaped as a valentine, her hair short and dyed the color of cartoon lightning bolts.
"Should I have answered that?" she asked.
I tightened my hand on the phone and managed to refrain from lobbing it at her head. Good thing it was time to go home. "That might have been nice."
"Even if it's after six?"
I smiled serenely. "If it's not too much trouble."
"Oh, no." Her eyes were bubble bright behind glasses with little stars at the peaks of the black frames. I had hired her because of the glasses, thinking they made her look intelligent. I've made other equally idiotic decisions, but never in regards to secretaries. "No trouble. That's what you're paying me for, right?"
"I thought so."
She scowled, pressing her lips into an absolutely straight line. "You look tired. Did you have a hot date or—"
Her question was interrupted by the doorbell. She glanced toward it, thinking hard. Maybe it was easier with her mouth open.
"Perhaps you should see who that is?" I suggested.
She nodded snappily. "Good idea." Her platform shoes tapped merrily across my carpet and onto the linoleum. Her tights were Popsicle pink. "Hello."
"Good evening." The voice from the reception area sounded vaguely familiar.
There was a pause, which Her Magnificence failed to fill.
"I have a seven o'clock appointment."
No response, but I recognized the newcomer's voice now. Mrs. Trudeau. She'd been a client for some months. I had a feeling she thought me shallow and unprofessional. I'd spent a good deal of time and my best psychoanalyzing trying to convince her otherwise.
"I called yesterday to reschedule, remember?"
There was another pause, then: "Oh, crapski," Mandy said.
I plunked my head onto the desk and refrained from crying.