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I'd trade every last one of you for a moment's peace and a dog that don't pee on the carpet.
–Glen McMullen, arbitrating his progeny's latest dispute regarding favoritism
Don't worry about me. I'm only your mother," said my mother.
But I was unruffled. It was 7:17 on a fine spring Saturday, and I'd had a rejuvenating yet relaxing afternoon at home.
I smiled beatifically into the phone, found my fabulously placid center, and refused to be dragged into a McMullen skirmish, or Weirdsville World, as I like to call it. I was past all that now, a grown woman, my mother's equal.
"I'll call you tomorrow. I promise," I said. My tone was as smooth as a dove's dulcet coo.
Maybe it was the years of higher education that had finally allowed me to overcome my clinging blue-collar roots. Maybe it was the framed Ph.D. that hung in my office in Eagle Rock, where I counsel the poor unfortunates of the greater Los Angeles area . . . or maybe it was simply my innate classiness shining through. But regardless, I was serenely anticipating a quiet evening with a gentleman caller.
"Tomorrow!" Mom's voice dropped to a boxerlike baritone, a sound reminiscent of my acne-infested adolescence. But I was uncowed. I was, after all, a licensed psychologist . . . and there were a couple thousand miles of windswept prairie and inhospitable desert separating us. "Tomorrow? This happens to be your brother's life we're talking about."
I tilted my head at the image of myself in the full-length mirror that was anchored to the back of my bedroom door. Not bad.
"I'm well aware of that, Mother, but Peter John is an adult now and must learn to work through his own self-imposed life crises." His current crisis involved a woman. Her name was Holly. In point of fact, Pete's last five dozen life crises had involved women. But this one had the added drama of an impending infant. My idiot brother was about to procreate.
"Don't you get uppity with me, Christina Mary."
"I assure you, I am not getting uppity," I said. "I'm simply suggesting–"
"I know what you told Holly."
My clever rejoinder withered on my lips. "I don't know what you're talking about," I said.
"You call that girl back," Mom warned. "You call her back this instant and tell her you're just a bitter old pill and that Peter John will make a fine daddy."
My lungs felt too big for my rib cage. It was the same feeling I'd had when I'd come home late smelling of boy and Boone's Farm's finest. "I'm sorry . . . um . . . bad reception," I rasped.
"Don't you hang up on me, missy. I talked to Holly just last night and she said–"
I rubbed the phone frantically against my skirt, then brought it back to my ear. "Sorry . . . going . . . tunnel."
". . . tell you this much, nobody's going to be talking about my grandbaby behind my back. It's a McMullen and it's gonna have the McMullen name if I have to cart that girl down the aisle on my back. I'm not just going to–"
"I'll . . . you . . . soon," I said, then frantically clicked the phone shut, tossed it into my underwear drawer, and closed my eyes.
It was 7:21 and I didn't feel quite so serene anymore.
I stared at myself again. My skirt was the approximate size of a Post-it note. And my push-up bra, though religiously true to its promise, squeezed out a little roll of fat beneath the black elastic. I looked pale and a little bit like I was going to throw up.
But that was ridiculous. I am, after all, a secure, intelligent woman. Comfortable in my own skin. Independent and happy to be so. Well educated and . . .
Closing my eyes again, I bent at the waist and refused to barf. Secure, intelligent women who are comfortable in their own skin do not hurl just because they're about to embark on a date. Secure, intelligent women greet their escorts with secure, intelligent smiles then make secure, intelligent conversation.
I straightened with firm resolution, tugged the abbreviated skirt toward my distant knees, and cringed. Maybe I should change into something less . . . naked. I turned toward my closet but stopped abruptly, remembering one basic truth.
Life is short.
Crap! My brother was going to have a baby. A baby! Which probably meant that I wasn't getting any younger.
And life is unpredictable. That singular fact had been proven to me with startling clarity some months earlier.
I'd been counseling a fellow named Andrew Bomstad. He was wealthy, attractive, and famous. Turns out he was also deceptive, perverted, and dangerous. Which was unfortunate. Even more unfortunate was the fact that he thought it amusing to chase me around my desk like a Doberman after a pork chop, then drop to the floor, deader than kibble.
A few weeks and a police investigation later proved that I had not been involved in the Viagra overdose that contributed to his cardiac arrest. But by then I had already banged heads with a dark police officer named Lieutenant Jack Rivera.
Rivera was LAPD down to his short hairs. He had the instincts of a pit bull and a sense of humor to match. He'd accused me of murder on more than one occasion . . . and he was going to pick me up for dinner at eight o'clock.
I felt my stomach bunch up like cookie dough gone bad. True, I thought, I'd dated some losers, but usually my beaus didn't threaten me with ten to life.
I looked at myself in the mirror again and began madly running facts through my head. Fact 1: Life was zipping past me like a streaker on speed. Fact 2: Rivera was hot. Fact 3: I hadn't had a date in . . . well . . . a while. Fact 4: Rivera was really hot. Fact 5: Life is short.
Maybe too short to be a chickenshit. Maybe too short to bow to fear. Maybe too short to spend every night like an aging nun with gonorrhea.
Perhaps I should slip out of the mini and meet the grim lieutenant at the door in nothing but a smile. And a cold sweat. I could feel the perspiration crank up already, creeping out from my underarms like frosty dew.
Better stick with the clothes idea. Even if I hadn't had sex for eighteen months, one week, and four days, I would probably remember the wheres and hows if the opportunity presented itself. Maybe it was just like riding a bicycle. Then again, Rivera wasn't like the little three-speed I'd pedaled down the back streets of Schaumburg, Illinois, as a kid. He was more like a Harley. Bad-mannered and snarly but with a tailpipe that made you want to drop-kick your inhibitions and hang on for the ride of your life.
Not that he was my type. My type used words like "sesquipedalian" and had an intelligence quotient somewhere in the range of the national debt. But my type hadn't come knocking much lately. Instead, my type had picked the lock, walked right in, and threatened my life with a butcher knife, after which point I had struck my type in the cranium with a telephone and screamed bloody murder. But that's another story entirely.
The point is, maybe it was time to take a chance on another type.
Besides, in a manner of speaking, I'd been dating Rivera for weeks already. Okay, maybe "dating" wasn't quite the right term. We'd been . . . sparring. And sparring with Rivera can be pretty much deadly.
But at least he was currently convinced of my innocence. Probably. Then again . . . maybe secure, intelligent women don't fantasize about boinking a guy who thinks they're capable of murdering their most illustrious client. On the other hand, Rivera had an ass like a plum ripe for the picking and–
Damn it! No. I wasn't some martini-toting cocktail waitress anymore. I was a high-class psychologist, and it didn't matter what kind of fruit the lieutenant's derriere resembled. What mattered was his intellect, his education, his sensitivity.
Good God, I had to cancel my date!
The thought hit me like a cartoon anvil. I spun around on my heel and gallumped toward the telephone on my nightstand.
Harlequin huffed and lifted his bicolored head from my coverlet, where he'd probably been drooling. Harlequin's a dog. The vet said he might be half Great Dane. The other half's up for grabs. Smart money's on something in the bovine family. He tracked me droopy-eyed from where he sprawled beside my new (well, new secondhand) ankle-strap Guccis. They had three-inch stiletto heels and sexy silver bows at the ankle.
I lifted the receiver, stared at my newly purchased footwear, and thought hard.
The truth crept insidiously into my consciousness and went something like this: One doesn't buy shoes with three-inch stiletto heels and silver bows at the ankle to wear while discussing the theory of relativity with balding microbiologists who wear bow ties and tube socks. One buys them for guys with fruity body parts. I chewed on my lower lip. Sometimes it helps me think. This time it only made me hungry. For beefcake in plum sauce.
I settled the receiver carefully back in its cradle. Eighteen months, one week, and four days stretched behind me like a mirage-inducing drought. Eighteen months, one week, and four days is a long time for anything that doesn't produce acorns.
Harlequin whapped his tail against my bedspread like a Major Leaguer testing his bat and tilted his boxy head at me.
"Very well, then," I told him, using what has been referred to rather unkindly as my nose voice. I don't like dogs. They stink and they take up too much room on the bed. Of course, the same can be said of men, and I've been known to forgive them on occasion. "Don't give me that look. I'll go out with him." The tail whapped again, picking up tempo. "But I'm not going to sleep with him." He huffed a sigh. "And a guy like Rivera's not gonna wait around long. So don't get your hopes up." Rivera had brought Harlequin to my door a few months earlier. He'd been just a pup, but had still been the size and color of Aunt Mavis's prize Holsteins. He's gained a good twenty pounds and three inches since then. "But I don't care." I was shaking my finger at him. The textbooks don't list this behavior as one of the signs of insanity. But they've missed other benchmarks, too, such as dating men who name their body parts things like "Dreammaker." "He's not my type anyway. I'm a licensed psychologist. He's a . . ." There was a good half inch of pink inner lid visible below each of the dog's eyes. He made Eeyore look as giddy as Goofy. If I liked dogs, I would have spent half my day trying to put a smile on his lopsided face. "Well, never mind what he is. I know how you feel about him, so I won't cancel, but I'm going to dress casual . . . classy, but casual."
Harlequin plopped his slack-lipped snout back on the mattress with a groan.
Thirty-odd minutes and five pairs of pants later, I was back in the skirt and bra. But I'd added the Guccis, six fat hair curlers, and a layer of makeup.
"The shoes didn't match the pants," I said. My tone wasn't defensive. It's never defensive when I talk to dogs. That would be pathetic.
Harlequin tilted his head and gave me a loopy expression that may have suggested canine approval.
But why wouldn't he approve? My skin was clear and I was wearing a damned nice bra.
My legs looked pretty good, too. Little bows really add something to the overall appearance of an ankle. And it probably didn't hurt that there was a quarter of a mile between them and my rarified hemline.
"You chew these up and I'm sending you to live with your dad," I warned, slanting my head to get a straight view of my legs. Harlequin did the same. "Yeah, he spoils you now, but–"
Perking his wind-sail ears, he turned his head toward the door and emitted a bark deep enough to vibrate the floorboards.
I jerked my attention toward the offending portal. The cookie dough ball bounced from my stomach to my knees.
I wasn't ready for Rivera. My hair was still in hot rollers. My earrings didn't match my nail polish. And my tires needed rotating.
Another woof rocked my world.
Snatching my blouse from its place on the chair, I raced toward the bathroom, wildly assuring myself that Rivera wouldn't come early. He might be a hard-ass know-it-all cop who habitually accused me of heinous crimes and threatened me with incarceration, but he wouldn't be so cruel as to show up at my door a full . . . I glanced at my watch. It was 7:57. Damn it!
Harlequin barked again. I could hear his nails clicking on the curling linoleum as he frolicked in a circle near my front door. I yanked the hot rollers from my hair and tossed them into the sink.
My stomach roiled, but I ignored it, chanting, "Life is short. Life is short. Life is–"
The doorbell rang. Harlequin bayed. I froze like a dumbfounded mannequin. My stomach did a double flip, threatening to expel its contents by any means possible. The doorbell rang again.
I struggled into my blouse, buttoned madly, then opened the bathroom door a fraction of an inch. "Just a minute!"
Harlequin was hyperventilating. I was doing the same. I closed the door, braced my back against it for an instant, then used the toilet before it was too late.
It sounded like a freight train when I flushed, but I was beyond caring.
The doorbell rang again.
"Be right there."
Harlequin was barking nonstop. Barking and bounding. I could feel his euphoria in the soles of my sexy shoes every time he hit the floor.
My hair looked like it had been slopped on my head by a mad Impressionist. I had planned to wear it up when I'd vowed to go casual but classy. I wasn't sure what to do with half-naked and sweating like a water buffalo.
Maybe I shouldn't answer the door. Maybe Rivera hadn't heard me yell. Maybe if I was really quiet he'd go away and–
The toilet gurgled. I glanced toward it. Toilet paper was swirling madly toward the rim. My heart flipped inside out.
"Holy crap!" Rummaging madly between my vanity and stool, I jerked out my plunger and torpedoed it into the bowl.
Water spilled over the edge like toxic waste.
I whimpered something between a prayer and a curse.
Knuckles rapped on my front door. "McMullen. You in there?"
From the Paperback edition.