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"So exactly when are you going to start dating, Alexis? I thought you had a big change of heart when I got married." Emily Wainwright, recently wed and soon to be a mother, accompanied her words with a sweet, teasing smile that Alexis would tolerate only from an old friend. Emily had been Alexis's bestie since elementary school, along with their other BFF, Sherri Stratton. The three of them were sitting around the table in Alexis's cute kitchen. Like the rest of the house, it was beautifully decorated; Alexis had really good taste. They were enjoying the lunch that Alexis had prepared when Emily had brought up what was once a sensitive subject. Sherri braced herself for a dose of Alexis's wrath, but it didn't come. Instead, Alexis laughed.
"I admit that I've been known to sidestep the dating scene, but I've actually been trying to do a little more socializing," she admitted. "And it's not the easiest thing in the world. Girl, dating is hard," she said emphatically. "Have some more salad?"
Emily was easily distracted by Alexis's offer of more crab salad and homemade rolls. Alexis heaped another helping of the delicious salad onto Emily's plate, while Sherri gave her another roll and refilled her lemonade. They loved spoiling Emily anytime, but especially now during her pregnancy. Since she'd eloped over Thanksgiving weekend and then moved to Chicago, they didn't have too many chances to dote on their girl.
"I'm probably eating too much, but this tastes so wonderful," Emily said happily.
"You can have anything you want, now that you're eating for two," Sherri assured her. Sherri was a doctor and spoke with authority on the subject. "You should gain about thirty-five pounds before delivery and you're nowhere near that yet. You've been taking very good care of yourself."
"I'm eating well and I'm still exercising and Todd keeps a close eye on me, whether I want him to or not." Emily sighed. Her new husband was a doctor, too, and his only desire in life was to keep her safe and happy. "And I'm actually eating for three," Emily said with a smile. "We just found out that we're having twins!"
After the exclamations of joy and excitement, Emily went right back to her initial topic of discussion. She was a biochemist by profession and nothing could deter her once she had marked out a path of inquiry on any subject. "Alexis, you vowed on New Year's Day that you were going to have a love life this year. You wanted the spare keys to the house on Hilton Head because you were going to meet the man of your dreams, kidnap him and spend next New Year's Eve having a passion-filled tryst. It's June. Halfway there. So what happened to those plans, Lex?"
Alexis curled her dainty upper lip in a gesture that was more snarl than smile. "Is it nice to rub people's noses in their fantasies? No, it's not. It's very mean, as a matter of fact." She rose gracefully from her chair and went to the refrigerator to refill the glass pitcher of lemonade. She always made the old-fashioned kind from scratch with fresh lemons and spring water. Hopefully being a good hostess would make her friend drop the subject. But her maneuver didn't work.
Emily patted the corners of her mouth with her linen napkin and held out her glass for more when Alexis came back to the table. "It didn't sound like a fantasy to me, Lex. It sounded like a declaration, a statement of intent. Your primary goal was to meet a suitable mate and develop a relationship."
Alexis didn't have a chance to refute Emily's remark before Sherri chimed in. "Not just a relationship, a marriage. I was there and I heard every word. And trust me, she's not doing anything that could possibly plant her feet on a trip down the aisle."
She and Emily laughed heartily, but Alexis didn't join in. She uncrossed her arms, which had been locked across her chest like an extra-tight sports bra. "It's not that funny, you two. I've dated enough lately to realize that the single pool is shrinking and stagnant and the likelihood of finding a mate is small. Infinitesimal, actually. So I've decided that I'm not looking anymore. I'm going to let him search for me," she said with a touch of defiance.
Sherri looked surprised and Emily looked thoughtful after Alexis made her announcement. She finished off her roll and took a sip of lemonade before speaking, but what she said let Alexis know that she was on her side.
"I actually think that's a good idea, Lexie. When you go out looking for something you almost never find it. I wasn't looking when I got together with Todd. He just kinda dropped into my lap. If the things you've been doing haven't been working, it's time to sit back and see what happens," she said. "What exactly have you been doing, by the way?"
Alexis gave her a grim smile that was less from humor than frustration. "I've been going out on some really bad dates. Really, really bad," she emphasized.
Emily's eyes widened. "Bad dates? How many and how bad? And what's for dessert? Wait a minute, don't tell me yet. I have to pee again." She pushed away her chair from the table and hurried to the bathroom.
Alexis had to smile as she watched her scurry off. It was hard to believe that less than a year ago Emily was a grouchy, rumpled academic with no interest in men whatsoever. After a surprise encounter with Todd Wainwright at her family's vacation home on Hilton Head Island, she and Todd fell head over heels in love. Now Emily was a newlywed with two babies on the way. She looked like a new person with her fabulous haircut, courtesy of Alexis, and a new wardrobe Sherri helped her pick out. Her beautiful caramel skin glowed with happiness and her demeanor was now anything but glum. She was cheerful and more outgoing than she'd ever been before. And it was all because she'd met and married her soul mate. Love could work miracles, if Emily was an example.
"What's for dessert? And what's up with the bad dates?" Emily was back, seeking truth and sweets.
"I have some homemade lemon bars if you refrain from asking questions." Alexis was an excellent cook and her lemon bars were better than any in the whole world. Emily was clearly torn for a moment, but she decided to play the mommy-to-be card.
"Sherri says I can have anything I want. And since your godsons or goddaughters are incubating inside me as we speak, I can't be denied," she said smugly. "So you can't make me choose between dessert and dish. Give it up or I'll whine," she warned.
"Oh, sit down. I'll tell you whatever you want, just don't make that horrible sound. You know I can't stand that," Alexis said grumpily.
"Good. I want two," Emily said, holding up as many fingers. When the pair of extra-big bars was set before her on beautiful pale green pottery, she grinned and took a huge bite. "So good! Now these bad dates How bad could they have been?"
This time, Sherri and Alexis locked gazes and burst out laughing. When they could talk again, Sherri wiped her eyes with her napkin.
"They weren't just bad, they were atrocious," Sherri said. "If I hadn't been an eyewitness to a couple of these so-called dates I would swear she'd been exaggerating, but I was there and I saw it all. It's just ridiculous what passes for dating these days."
"Sherri saw them? Were they double dates or something?" Emily's face was alight with open curiosity.
Alexis sighed loudly. "These would have to fall into the 'or something' category. Sherri was my wingman a few times. She'd go with me and sit at another table in case things went south and they often did. Like with that jackleg preacher," she said with a shudder.
"How did you meet him and what went wrong?"
"Are you sure you've got time to listen to this drivel? Because if I try to tell you about each one it could take all day," Alexis warned.
"I've got plenty of time. Todd is with Mama, helping her to organize the rest of the things she wants to move to Chicago. Closing a house you've lived in as long as she lived there is more than a notion. He won't mind if we take our time. He adores Momma and the feeling is quite mutual. They just love each other. So if you can find me something to put my chubby pregnant-lady feet on, I'm good to go. After I pee again," she said thoughtfully. "I think they take turns jumping on my bladder. They must be boys because sweet little girls wouldn't do that to their mommy."
Sherri looked wise and shook her head gently as Emily went to the bathroom once again. "Sydney got in a few good kicks from time to time," she said, referring to her little girl. "She liked music and she'd dance whenever she felt like it. She also seemed to respond to football games because she loved marching bands. If a game was on, she'd be marching along in my belly like a drum major. As you know, I was sure she was gonna be a total tomboy but she's turning out to be a regular little princess. She still loves football, but only from the stands. Soccer and dance are her main interests for now. And yep, she used to tap dance on my bladder with great frequency."
"You don't have to remind me," Alexis said. "We were with you every step of the way, if you recall."
Emily came back into the kitchen in time to agree with Alexis's last statement. "Let's elevate my mother-to-be can-kles, please. And then I want the real deal, no more stalling!" Emily said firmly.
"Fine, but don't say I didn't warn you, chick. These are some scary tales straight from the crypt of broken dreams. Don't blame me if you have bad dreams tonight."
After they retired to the comfortable living room and Emily's feet were propped on an ottoman, it was story time.
"I guess I should do this in chronological order," Alexis said thoughtfully. "That way you can see how my lovely hopes and dreams got smashed into bits on the ugly cliffs of reality."
Emily had to swallow a laugh. "You're still the queen of melodrama, aren't you?"
Sherri assured her that she was. "Some things never change."
"And you know this," Alexis said with a spot-on imitation of a royal wave. "Now, if you harpies would quit picking on me I'll tell Emily the sad tales of romance gone wrong. Sherri is my witness. I wasn't going anywhere alone with a strange man so I would have the guy meet me and Sherri would be there, too, discreetly, of course. Anyway, the first guy was a cousin of a very nice lady from my church. You know they always say that, when you want to meet someone, you should let your friends know so they can hook you up. And what's better than a church hookup, right? I was pretty sure that Mrs. Grice wouldn't introduce me to a serial killer, you know?
"His name is Herbert and he's a teacher. He's also getting a degree in theology, or so he said. Not good-looking, not bad looking, just average. No real personality, but he was pleasant enough until he told me I was the darkest woman he'd ever dated. And how surprised he was at how pretty I am."
Emily's eyes got huge and her mouth fell open. "Girl, no he didn't!"
"Oh, yes, he did. It was bad enough that he brought up the subject in the first place, but the dummy wouldn't let it go. He kept talking about it like I was the eighth wonder of the world or something."
Alexis was indeed the proud possessor of a complexion as dark as chocolate and as smooth as the finest silk. She was also extremely fashionable. She wore her glossy black hair in a short, chic style like Halle Berry's and it showed off her features beautifully. Alexis wore sleek, contemporary clothes in dazzling colors that brought out her rich coloring and made her look like the best-dressed woman in any room she entered. To some, Sherri, Emily and Alexis made an odd-looking trio. Emily was tall and brown, Sherri even taller and very fair skinned and Alexis the shortest of the trio with her chocolate-brown complexion. She had a hard time getting her head around the concept of being color-struck but there were still folks who clung to the idea that lighter skin was more desirable. It was so silly to Alexis that she generally just ignored the idea and all it implied. When she did stumble over someone who voiced their preference in pigmentation, it was like meeting someone who thought the earth was flat or who believed in alchemy. Alexis rarely encountered the outdated concept unless she was talking to someone who was really dense like Herbert.
Alexis could remember the exact moment when she knew Herbert was going to say something ignorant that would get him placed in her little red book of losers from which there was no hope of return. They met at the restaurant, which was his pick. It wasn't a four-star gourmet establishment, but it was nice enough for a first date, especially if the male wasn't foolish enough to expect after-dinner sex. That wasn't gonna be happening tonight or any other night, ever, no matter how needy she was. Alexis was her usual calm, reserved self, if she had to say so herself; she was ladylike and accepting of his humor; she contributed to the conversation in a friendly manner as long as it didn't veer into the ridiculous. When she caught him staring at her as if she possessed the secret location of the Holy Grail, she knew he was about to blurt out something she'd regret hearing and sure enough, he did.
"All the women I've ever dated have been either light skinned or very pale brown," he said.
Alexis wisely held her tongue because if she opened her mouth, she'd let go with a stream of vitriol that would land her on the local news at the very least, and quite possibly on the internet. Everybody had a cell phone these days; people who couldn't balance a checkbook knew how to upload scandalous videos to the web. Instead of lashing out at him, she adopted the expression she used when dealing with social misfits like Herbert. It was a bland, patient expression that gave away nothing but covered a variety of unpleasant reactions. To Alexis's delight, a large piece of lettuce had lodged itself between his front teeth and she wasn't about to tell him. It was much too pleasurable to observe his stupid grin with the random bit of greenery adorning it. He just kept rattling on, unaware of the fury that was mounting across the table.
"I've never dated anyone who couldn't go to a paper bag party," he confided. "But you're so pretty, they'd have to let you in even though you're so dark. Your hair even looks good, but it would be better long. How come you don't get a weave?"