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Decker Riley strode into the busy sports bar in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, and looked around. Six-three and fit, he rolled his shoulders in an attempt to shake off the stresses of the day. His dark gray eyes scoped out the ladies in the establishment. A couple of beauties showed some interest. He smiled, they smiled back. Maybe next time, he told himself as he continued walking.
Suddenly he heard "Decker, over here!" from across the room. It was his cousin, Colton Riley, gesturing for him to join him. Decker smiled as he made his way through the crowd of Friday night revelers. It had been a few months since he, Colton, Juan and Will had gotten together. As he got closer, he saw that they had gone home after work and changed into casual clothes while he still had on his suit slacks and shirt. He'd left his tie and jacket in the car. Each of his three closest friends was married now, and things had changed between them. They had new responsibilities that didn't include hitting the clubs with their pals, or doing anything remotely fun like the way they used to, in his opinion. Sometimes Decker felt it was only a matter of time before they stopped making an effort to get together at all.
He sighed. That was probably his general dissatisfaction with life talking. Some part of him wanted what they had: a solid, loving relationship with a woman. He was thirty-four and had never been that lucky.
It was March, and March Madness was in full swing. The big-screen TVs at both ends of the huge room featured college basketball teams warring for a place in the NCAA's Final Four.
"What'd I miss?" Decker asked as he sat down at the table and accepted a mug of beer from Colton.
"Kentucky just kicked Michigan's butt," Juan Medina, a Mexican-American in his late twenties, said with a pained expression on his face. Decker knew that Juan was a fan of the Michigan Wolverines.
"Sorry, man," he said. "Maybe next year."
"Where've you been?" Colton asked as he moved the platter of chicken wings closer to him so he could partake of what was left.
"Tough day in court," Decker said, reaching for a boneless wing. He popped it into his mouth and chewed, relishing the spicy morsel. "So, how's life been treating you guys? Wives still got you whipped?"
They all laughed with the ease of friends who mercilessly teased each other on a regular basis. "You wish you were whipped like us," Colton said, gray eyes knowing.
Decker winced inwardly. His cousin had hit the nail on the head. "I'm perfectly happy dating different beautiful women every week. I'm not ready to have a ring put through my nose."
"That depends on who's putting the ring in it, my friend," Will Simpson, a tall African-American in his early thirties, said. "I bet if Desiree Gaines offered you a ring, you'd gladly let her put it in and lead you around by the nose."
"Don't mention that woman's name," Decker said defensively. "She's my one failure. She broke my perfect record."
"Let's keep this in perspective," his cousin said. "Desiree is an angel compared to the woman whose name we really dare not mention out of respect for your stomped-on heart."
"We're not going there," Juan said, grinning. "Back to Desiree. Come on, man. She crushed your record! Not only will she not go out with you, she won't even accept your flowers. How many times has she sent your flowers back now, ten, twenty times?"
"I'm wearing her down," Decker claimed with more bravado than he felt. "No one can resist this forever." He pointed to his face and preened, which only elicited groans of disgust from his less than appreciative audience.
"Maybe you're going about it the wrong way," Will suggested. He inclined his bald head in the direction of a group of young women gathered around the bar, chatting and giggling. "What do you see when you look at a pretty woman?"
Decker hesitated because Will tended to be a philosopher. He asked harmless-sounding questions, but he was rarely satisfied with simple answers. "Is this a trick question? What am I supposed to see, Will? I see an attractive face and body."
"Then you're not looking deeply enough," said Will. "Every woman has a distinct personality. You can't use the same old methods of seduction on every one of them. Desiree doesn't respond to a player. So you've got to figure out what she wants and give it to her."
Decker looked at Will and shook his head in exasperation. "What do you think I've been trying to do?"
"Get her into bed," Colton deadpanned.
"Eventually, yeah," Decker said, turning to face his cousin, who could have been his brother they looked so much alike. Both of them were tall, with reddish-brown skin, dark brown hair shorn close to well-shaped heads and the Riley gray eyes. "But I really care about her. Would I still be trying to get her to go out with me after almost two years if I didn't care?"
"I don't know," Colton said. "Maybe it irks you that she's holding out, and now it's become important to you because you can't bear to lose. You've never been a good loser, Decker."
"I know you're married to her sister, but could you be on my side in this?" Decker asked plaintively. "I'm beginning to think it's your opinion that I'm not good enough for your sister-in-law!"
"Uh-oh," Will said in anticipation of a fight erupting between the cousins. "Keep the comments civil, fellas."
"It's not a question of your not being good enough for Desiree," Colton said levelly. "I know you're a decent man. But Desiree doesn't, and you're not giving her the room to observe you and come to that conclusion on her own. My advice is to quit sending her flowers and quit calling her altogether."
Decker frowned. "Did she tell you to talk to me?
Is that it?"
Colton shook his head and sighed impatiently. "No, no one asked me to talk to you. But I'm doing it anyway. Leave her alone and let her miss you, Decker. Who knows? Maybe she'll miss the water when the well runs dry. Let's face it, at this point she's taking your attention for granted. Take it away, and see what happens."
Decker let Colton's words sink in. His cousin could be right. He had tried everything in his considerable arsenal to get Desiree to go out with him. Cards, flowers, emails and numerous messages left on her answering machine. And the only explanation he could get out of her as to why she wouldn't go out with him was the fact that she'd been in love once and her fiancé had died. She was, in essence, still in love with a man who had been dead for ten years. How was he going to compete with that?
He smiled regrettably at his cousin and said, "I've tried everything else. I don't suppose taking your advice could hurt."
"Unless, of course, it backfires and she's happy that you're giving up," Juan joked.
"Man, why'd you have to go there?" Will asked. "Now you're gonna make him doubt himself even more than he already does."
"No, he's right," Decker said quickly. "There is the possibility that this will backfire. But at least I'll know for sure that she's never going to consider dating me, and then I can move on. That woman has had me in a holding position for too long. I haven't dated another woman in over a year because of her. I'm going to qualify for sainthood soon."
His friends got a good laugh out of that assertion, after which Colton said, "I don't think there's a chance of that happening." Then he gave his cousin a serious look. "So, what's your plan?"
Decker pursed his lips, thinking. "I'm going to send her one last bouquet tomorrow with a message that will state my case once and for all."
Colton smiled his agreement. "One last attempt, huh?"
Decker nodded. "And if she sends them back, I'm moving on."
There were solemn looks all around the table, true friends sympathizing with the plight of one of their own having to suffer through a case of unrequited love.
"Women can be so heartless," Juan said, shaking his head sadly.
"We're the real romantics," Will said, just before downing the rest of his beer and burping.
"But you know what Adam said when God gave him Eve," Colton put in with a smile. "Thank you, Lord. She's way better than apples!"
"Amen!" Decker said, laughing.
"Desiree, will you slow down?" Lauren Gaines-Riley complained loudly as she and her sisters jogged in a Raleigh park on Saturday morning.
Desiree glanced back at her older sister and grinned. "Nobody told you to party all night with Colton."
The day was bright and clear, the temperature in the low sixties. Lauren squinted at the sun before saying, "If you're going to party with anyone all night long, it should be your husband."
Desiree and her sisters got together every Saturday morning to exercise and catch up with each other's lives. Desiree, thirty-one, was single and a psychologist with a private practice. Lauren, thirty-three, was an architect. She was married and had a small son. The baby of the family, Meghan, twenty-seven, was single and a history instructor at a local university. The only sisters missing were Mina, twenty-nine, who ran a lodge near the Great Smoky Mountains, several hundred miles away, and Petra, thirty-two, a zoologist presently studying the Great Apes in Central Africa.
Desiree laughed. She observed the puffiness of Lauren's eyes and the haphazard way she'd piled her thick black hair atop her head this morning. Lauren was usually put together for every occasion. "Yes, but he could at least let you get your rest afterward. You look like you didn't sleep a wink."
"I'll have you know these dark circles under my eyes are well worth a sleepless night with my man," Lauren said, laughing, too.
"Let's not start talking about sex," Meghan protested. The shortest of the sisters at five-six, she had recently cut off her long black hair and now wore it in a sophisticated bob. "Let's talk about hair, as in do you like my haircut?"
"I was trying not to say anything," Lauren said, peering at her sister's haircut with a critical eye. "I hope you don't regret it like I did when I cut mine off a few years ago. Long hair can be more trouble to keep up, but it has so many more styling options. I didn't know what to do with my short hair."
"That's because you were so used to long hair," Desiree said. "I loved my short hair."
"Then why are you letting it grow out?" asked Lauren reasonably.
"Because I think I look more intelligent with longer hair," Desiree said.
Lauren laughed harder. "You have a doctorate in psychology. What does hair length have to do with intelligence?"
"We look on the outside how we feel on the inside," Desiree said. "Haven't you ever wondered why everyone has their own sense of style? Everything we wear, how we style our hair, it all depends on how we feel about ourselves. I think I look smarter with my hair in a bun. That's how I wear it when I'm in session. Looking intelligent makes my clients more confident in my ability to help them."
Lauren sighed loudly. "Wearing your hair up has no effect on your ability to help your clients. Your dedication coupled with your education and your willingness to give of yourself to everyone who comes to you for help is what makes you a good psychologist, my dear sister!"
"We all have little behaviors we rely on to make it through the day," Desiree said. "You, for example, have a habit of rubbing your left earlobe when you're thinking hard about something."
"I do not!" Lauren cried, brown eyes sparkling with humor.
"Yes, you do," Meghan confirmed. She looked at Desiree. "What mannerisms do I have?"
Desiree grinned at her. "You have a habit of shaking your leg nervously when you're sitting at the dinner table. And I don't know if you've noticed this, but you tend not to close things after opening them. You leave drawers open, cabinet doors, closet doors. When we were living at home with Mom and Dad, I used to go behind you, closing things. It drove Mom mad, but I don't think she ever caught you at it."
Meghan laughed heartily. "No, you're wrong, I know I have that problem, but I still can't shake it. I'll go behind myself to this day and close things hours after I've left them open." She looked at her sister with admiration. "That's why you became a psychologist. You're very observant of people."
"That and the cute boy she wanted to meet, who happened to be taking Psychology 101 at the time," Lauren quipped.
Desiree frowned, remembering how she had fallen in love with Noel Alexander her freshman year while sitting behind him in Psychology 101. He was tall and well built with the most beautiful milk-chocolate skin and dark brown eyes. She had been so in awe of him, she couldn't bring herself to walk up to him and introduce herself. If they hadn't accidentally bumped into each other one day while entering their classroom, they would never have met. Once Noel looked into her eyes, sparks flew and they were inseparable from that day forward.
"Why'd you have to bring him up?" she asked Lauren irritably. "I'm trying to forget I ever knew that creep."
Desiree picked up her pace. But her older sister was soon at her side again.
"You need to talk about it," Lauren said.
She and Meghan flanked Desiree.
Desiree sighed deeply and rolled her eyes. "I already told you two what happened."