Lois Cloarec Hart
Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
But the child that is born on the Sabbath Day,
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay!
~ Mother Goose
“Having trouble meeting that one special someone? Just give our Heartbeat Hotline a call. Fill out an easy questionnaire, and our unique computer matchmaking system will help find you your perfect match, just in time for the most romantic day of the year. You don’t have to be alone anymore! Let Badger 103.1 end your lonely nights and —”
“Aw, shut up!”
Dawn hit the off button on the radio with more force than was really necessary, but she couldn’t take another moment of listening to the unctuous announcer. He could preach to the multitudes who were desperately seeking mates, but she wasn’t having any part of it. She had given up believing in the whole concept of romance exactly ten months, two weeks, and four days ago — the night that her lying, cheating, scurrilous partner of sixteen years unceremoniously dumped her in favour of another woman.
Wan winter sunlight bathed the outlines of Dawn’s austere bedroom as she lay quietly, letting her mind drift as it did so often to that terrible night, and its aftermath.
Stunned, bereft, and utterly betrayed by Elaine’s callous dismissal, she stumbled from the house they had bought together, leaving behind everything but her wallet and car keys. When she showed up at the door of one of her dearest friends, Paul took one look at her, dragged her into his apartment, and forced a stiff drink into her hands.
He barely understood her through her wild sobs, but once he got the gist, he swung into action. Within half an hour, he dispatched their friends — Naomi, Belinda, Sue, Artie and Ray — to Dawn’s house. While Paul tried to comfort his distraught visitor, her clothes, CDs, computer and cats were retrieved, along with an odd assortment of items that would make Dawn wonder what her friends had been thinking that night. When she finally got an apartment and collected her things from where Ray and Artie had stored them in their garage, she found among them: an electric can opener, a floor lamp, several tattered dishtowels, an eccentric old footstool that she and Elaine had found at a yard sale, and half the contents of the medicine cabinet piled in a shoe box.
Grateful for her friends’ help, if somewhat baffled by their choices, Dawn never asked what had gone on that night, and it was only months later when she and Paul were out for dinner, that he let slip the fact that Elaine’s new girlfriend was already on the scene when their friends had gotten there. It made Dawn glad that she had declined any of the household furniture. She didn’t want anything around her new apartment that reminded her of her past life.
Where her and Elaine’s home had overflowed with everything from country kitsch to near museum quality porcelain collectibles, her new apartment was Spartan in comparison. Small chrome and glass tables accented the clean, spare lines of Danish furniture that graced the unadorned hardwoods of her living room; two high stools at a breakfast bar were the only sign of domesticity in the bare and polished kitchen; and a solitary set of rigidly aligned towels hung in the pristine bathroom. The apartment’s single bedroom didn’t even have curtains. Living eighteen floors up, Dawn decided they were redundant.
Despite his protests, she refused to allow Paul to help her decorate. Her only concession, and the only bright spot in the apartment, was the painting Paul bought her one autumn weekend at a harvest festival. It was abstract enough that it didn’t summon up any painful memories of hearth and home, yet emotive enough that she found a certain pleasure in the shadings of yellow, cobalt and white.
Dawn knew her friends worried about her. Paul chided her gently for living like a nun and Naomi coaxed her for months to at least consider dating again. Both suggested numerous eligible women, but she resisted all their efforts. It wasn’t that she was a hermit — at least not after the first six weeks. She went out for dinner with friends, saw movies, enjoyed museums, browsed bookstores, and almost every weekend she went into the city or out to the country with her irrepressible friends. But no dates, at least no official ones, though she was unable to completely avoid her friends’ disastrous fix-ups.
The sound of the phone ringing dragged Dawn out of her reverie. She scooted an insulted black cat off her pillow and glanced at the bedside clock radio as she reached for the receiver. It was almost nine thirty, well past her regular rising time, but not unusual for a Saturday.
“Hey, you! How’s my favourite Vestal Virgin this fine morning?”
Paul’s exuberant voice always made her smile. “Fine, and how’s my favourite Trappist this morning?”
“Oooh, not for me, girl! Those robes would so not do a thing for me. And those haircuts!”
Dawn could almost hear the exaggerated shudder over the phone. “Oh c’mon, Paulie. Nothing but men, hidden behind tall walls, isolated from the outside world...”
“With no talking, no singing, and no dancing? And don’t even get me started on that vow of celibacy. What medieval moron came up with that one?”
“Yeah. I guess that would sort of defeat your purpose, eh?”
“Do tell. So, m’dear, are you up for a little shopping today?”
With a small yawn, she briefly considered her weekend agenda. “I suppose so. I need to do some laundry before Monday, but there’s no hurry. What did you have in mind?”
“It’s a surprise. Just be ready by noon and I’ll pick you up. Ciao, baby.”
Before she could protest or press for more details, Dawn heard the click of disconnection. Shaking her head with amusement, she replaced the receiver. Whatever Paul had in mind, it was bound to be entertaining. Finding that both of her cats had now joined her in bed, she nudged the tabby.
“Hey, Miss Elly, do you think you can keep Maggie here out of trouble for a few hours? Don’t let her mess up my Saturday paper before I get home, okay? You’re still in my bad books from last time.”
A luxurious feline stretch and a dismissive yawn were the only answer she received as she pushed back the covers and headed for the shower.
Some time later, and well past the specified hour of his arrival, the intercom rang, and Dawn buzzed Paul in from downstairs just before she put on her boots. When his familiar knock sounded, she grabbed her down jacket, opened the door and broke out laughing at the sight of her friend. Dark, twinkling eyes and a mop of curly black hair were all that could be seen over top of the brightly striped scarf wrapped three times around his neck and face.
“Is it cold outside, or were you planning a bank heist this afternoon?”
He tugged down the scarf so he could answer. “Don’t laugh. My grandmother made this for me for Christmas, and right now it’s the only thing standing between me and hypothermia.”
Dawn frowned at her friend’s fashionable, but impractical shiny leather boots and light suede jacket. “Well, maybe if you’d actually dress for the weather...”
“And forego haute couture? Are you mad? Who knows who might see me while we’re out today? I can’t go ruining my stylish reputation just to avoid a little frostbite.”
“Okay, but I think you’re going to look less than fashionable when your fingers, toes, and ears fall off.”
Dawn closed and locked the door behind her, buttoning up her warm coat and digging her gloves out of her pockets. “So, where are we headed?”
Paul tucked his arm through hers as they walked down the hall to the elevators. “I told you, to do some shopping.”
“Uh huh. And are we shopping for anything in particular, or just browsing?”
“Sort of half and half.”
Dawn raised an eyebrow at the uninformative answer. “Paul, what are you up to?”
He waited until they had stepped into the elevator and were on their way to the ground level. “Well, it’s like this. Naomi and I were talking this week…”
“Uh oh. Nothing good can follow those words.”
“Don’t be silly. Anyway, we had lunch on Wednesday, and during the course of the conversation, your situation came up.”
“Your hermetic existence. Your state of prolonged celibacy. Your —”
“I get the picture. Paul, please tell me you’re not matchmaking. Tell me Naomi isn’t going to accidentally meet us somewhere, and coincidentally have an eligible friend with her.”
“Of course not. Give me some credit for subtlety.”
The doors opened onto the lobby, and they exited the elevator. Slightly ahead of Paul, Dawn heard him mumble, “Besides, that never works.”
She hid a smile. Lately, whenever she went someplace, her friends had the oddest habit of showing up with an unfamiliar woman in tow. It had taken her a while to clue in to what they were doing, but though none of the strangers had interested her, she had been grateful that her friends cared enough to try. It still amused her to remember the time that she, Naomi, and Belinda had gone to a movie, only to see Paul hanging out by the concession stand with a woman he introduced as a cousin visiting from out of town.
Paul did have a large extended family, but they were all cut from the same dark, stocky Mediterranean heritage that he was. The “cousin” was a lithe, blue-eyed, Nordic type, who probably wouldn’t know paella from pizza, and who, once Dawn had been maneuvered into sitting beside her, proved to be as dull as a block of wood.
“No, we decided that desperate measures were called for.” Paul unlocked his car and held open the door for Dawn to slide inside. She watched him circle around to the driver’s side, speculating on what, exactly, her friends were up to.
“Desperate measures, eh? Am I going to like these desperate measures, or am I going to run screaming into the night?”
He laughed as he started the engine and eased out into traffic. “Well, if all goes well, there definitely might be a little night screaming.”
“Paul...where are we going?”
“Alright, already. We’re going to check out some sex shops in the Village.”
“Sex shops? You’ve gotta be kidding.”
He glanced over at her, an unexpectedly serious look on his youthful face. “No, I’m really not. Naomi and I decided that one of the reasons you’re resisting getting back out there is that you’ve forgotten how much fun it can be. This is an easy way to remind you. Nobody will be demanding anything of you. No ghosts of the past will rear their ugly heads. There’s no implied commitment in just giving your credit card a little exercise. Maybe you’ll see something new, buy a few books, a video, a toy or two, and you’ll remember that it’s all supposed to be fun, not scary.”
“Jesus, it’s not like...I mean, I’m perfectly capable...I’m not...”
“Dawn, do you remember how we met?”
Startled by the non-sequitur, Dawn nodded. “Sure. It was at one of the Christmas parties at the bank. You worked in...her department at the time, and I had accompanied her to the party.”
Paul gave a grim little smile at Dawn’s reluctance to say her ex’s name. “I remember being surprised when I saw you. I mean, I knew that Elaine had a partner, but you weren’t at all what I expected.”
“Because the women she flirted with during business hours were always rather... Well, let’s just say they gave the impression they’d be more at home in the bedroom than the boardroom.”
Dawn snorted bitterly. Elaine’s incessant flirting had been a constant bone of contention between them, but her ex had always insisted that it was okay to look without touching. It was only after their break-up that Dawn learned how little that rule had really meant to her partner. “So you were surprised when she showed up with a skinny little mouse?”
Paul corrected her firmly. “I was surprised when she showed up with a woman who could converse intelligently and treat people graciously, and who was obviously devoted to her. I was surprised that despite all the evidence to the contrary, Elaine actually had such good taste in women. Do you remember what happened later that night?”
She did. Elaine’s supervisor, having had a few too many, decided that Paul was an excellent target for his thinly veiled insults. Too junior to complain and too out to hide his orientation, the young clerk might as well have been wearing a pink triangular target on his back.
“I needed that job. It had taken me seven months to even get my foot in the door, and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t let that asshole get to me. So I took it, and I took it, and I took it some more, until you heard what was going on.”
“I despise bullies.”
Halted at a traffic signal, Paul looked over at her, deep gratitude in his dark eyes. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone cut somebody to pieces so savagely and yet so politely. He had no idea whether you were complimenting or insulting him. By the time you were done, everybody was snickering at him.”
“Well, it helped that he was three sheets to the wind.”
“I thought Elaine was going to have a heart attack. Man, she hustled you out of there so fast you could see the contrails. I left about two seconds later. With my knight in shining armour gone, I didn’t want to be around.”
Dawn smiled. It had been the beginning of her friendship with Paul, but she had paid dearly once she and Elaine had arrived home. Her partner had maintained an icy silence in the cab home, but once inside their house, she let fly with both barrels. It sometimes amazed Dawn that they hadn’t broken up that night, but she pegged it now as the beginning of the end.
“It was a good trade.”
Paul glanced over, puzzled. “What was?”
“You for her. Ultimately, it was a good trade.”
Paul was young enough to be her son, but after the disastrous Christmas party, he called her to thank her, and asked to buy her lunch. That first lunch evolved into a weekly ritual as they found out how much they enjoyed one another’s company. Months later, when a position opened up at Dawn’s company, she pulled a few strings to get Paul hired. Away from his homophobic boss, the young man flourished and became a valued employee, with talent and ambition to spare. Of course, it was just one more thing that Elaine held against her, but then there were so many.
“Aw, you are a sweetie. But my point was to remind you of our history together. I owe you, but more than that, you’re my best friend. I hate what this break up has done to you. She was so unworthy of you, and I do not want to see you pining away for her the rest of your life.”
“I’m really not, you know.”
“You’re not what?”
“Pining away.” Dawn saw Paul’s skeptical glance. “Maybe I was at first, but I’ve had a lot of time to think since then. I know she wasn’t good for me. I’m not even sure if she loved me for the last few years we were together, or if I was just a habit she hadn’t bothered to break. But when you spend that long with someone, you don’t want to just throw it all away. I kept thinking I’d find the magic key to make it better, to bring back the excitement and passion of our first years together. Or at least to bring back the love and loyalty. And it’s hard to let it all go, you know. Even with what she did to me. Last month, when I was Christmas shopping, I kept seeing things that I knew she’d like and it hurt like hell. I finally had to stay out of the malls and finish up my shopping on-line.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Dawn shrugged. “All the firsts have been bad: first anniversary we didn’t spend together; the first birthday I hadn’t celebrated with her in sixteen years; first Easter apart; first Thanksgiving; first Christmas; first New Year’s. But it’s getting easier, honest.” She smiled at him and patted his arm. “And it’s because of friends like you and Naomi, and Belinda and Sue, and Ray and Artie. I don’t know what I’d have done without you all, even if you are a bunch of yentas.”
“Hey!” His protest was lost in a gale of shared laughter that lasted all the way out onto the freeway into the city. “Seriously though, it’s been almost a year. Don’t you think that it’s time you started to date again? I mean, if you were a guy, I’d tell you to just go have a wild and wicked weekend to jumpstart the old engines.”
“Figure of speech, sweetie. I merely meant that I know bed hopping isn’t your style, but you do need to get back into the swing of things. You don’t have to polish up the U-haul, but you should start thinking about asking a nice woman out for dinner, or accepting some of the invitations that come your way.”
“Hah! What invitations?”
Paul rolled his eyes, then jerked the steering wheel to the right as another driver cut into his lane. “Idiot.”
Dawn waited for her heart to slow down, as her companion blithely zipped in and out of five lanes of traffic. Driving with Paul was always an adventure; driving with Paul when he was on a quest was an assault on the autonomic nervous system.
“So what was I saying? Oh yes, you have to quit dodging all the passes that are thrown in your direction.”
For a brief moment, Dawn had a mental image of herself ducking footballs thrown by women in very tight football pants and cropped jerseys. Smothering a grin, she protested, “You make it sound like there’ve been a ton of women knocking down my door to take me out.”
“Actually, quite a number of them would rather stay in, but I digress. You and I both know that every time we go out, there inevitably seems to be a woman checking you out. What about when we went for coffee in the Market last week. You can’t tell me you didn’t notice that cute waitress giving you the bedroom eye.”
No, she couldn’t say that, because she had noticed the young woman’s attentions. And while she had been flattered, she had also been terrified. It had been so long since she had allowed herself to look at another woman, or to notice another woman’s interest. She didn’t know the rules now. Had things changed in the sixteen years since she was last single? Naomi and Brenda, both a good decade younger than she, seemed to have a whole different operating system.
“I...I guess I still have this little voice that warns me off looking at other women.”
“Hell, that’s not your little voice, that’s Elaine’s. How many times did she ream you out for supposedly checking out other women? Remember that time you told me about you two being out for dinner and some woman at another table was giving you the eye?”
Dawn winced. What was supposed to be a celebration of their thirteenth anniversary had turned into a fiasco. She hadn’t even been aware of the interested stranger, but Elaine had harangued her for days afterwards, accusing her of inviting the woman’s attentions in some way, and of constantly looking for someone better. With the advantage of hindsight, she understood that her partner had been projecting her own jealousies and insecurities, but at the time, baffled and hurt, she had worked for weeks to reassure Elaine of her love and fidelity. She had also gotten into the habit of wearing virtual blinders while she was out, so that her partner had no cause for complaint. It had become such an ingrained habit that it was tough to shed those blinders, even though her ex’s tirades were a thing of the past.
“I know what you mean, Paul, and I don’t contest that you have a good point, but what if...”
“What if what?”
She was silent for a long moment. “What if I make the same mistake again? I barely survived Elaine. What if I meet someone and fail to notice that underneath her surface charm —”
“She’s a rabid psycho bitch?” Paul flashed a grin. “Because I won’t let you. Go out and play around all you like, but the moment you think you might be getting serious, it’s time to bring the lady in question around for me to vet. If she doesn’t pass the Paul-exam, she’s outta there. I’ll toss her out on the street so fast her Gucci’s will fall off.”
“Uh huh. And where were you when I first met Elaine?”
“Playing I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you’ll-show-me-yours back behind Auden Elementary School with Nicky Constantine.”
The prompt answer left Dawn in stitches, and she allowed the humour to sweep away her doubts, if only for the moment. For the rest of the drive into the city, she ignored Paul’s driving and concentrated on what he had said. He was right. It was time. Probably past time, if she was honest with herself.
By the time Paul wheeled into a parkade only blocks from the Market, she had resolved to accept the very next invitation that came her way — assuming she could stop herself from freezing up or running away in a panic at the first sign of a woman’s interest. As they stepped out of the car, she turned to him and said, “Okay. You win.”
“Uh huh. I’ll go out on a date.”
Paul looked at her skeptically. “A real date? An official ‘let’s get dressed up and see where the night takes us’ date?”
“Whoa. I didn’t say I was ready for the night to take me anywhere, but dinner and a movie, or something along those lines is acceptable.”
He shook his head with a wry grin. “I guess it’s a start. Maybe we’ll find something this afternoon that’ll convince you that taking the night somewhere hot and steamy won’t kill you either.”
Shaking her head over his single mindedness, she fell into step beside him as they left the parkade. Strolling through the Market, then on to the Village, which was prime cruising territory under less frigid conditions, they spent the next couple of hours browsing through all manner of stores, from music to clothing to curio shops, but each time Paul tried to urge her into an adults only store, she balked. Toys, books, and videos hadn’t played any role in her relationship with Elaine, and in this instance, unfamiliarity bred apprehension.
When Paul finally tired of her reticence and firmly propelled her into the aptly named Desire’s Domain, she found herself assuming a near military posture. Arms behind her back, hands tightly clasped and spine rigid, she walked the aisles looking, but not touching. Curiosity soon won out, though, and she began to stop and examine the occasional item.
Her education had progressed greatly by the time she came to the vibrator section. Paul had wandered off in pursuit of his own interests, and there were only a couple of other customers in the store. Left to her own devices, she picked up an odd looking vibrator with a rabbit on the business end. Chuckling to herself, she pushed the on button and the rabbit thrummed steadily.
When Paul came around the corner and walked toward her, she pushed the off button, slightly embarrassed at having been caught playing with the toys.
The vibrator didn’t shut off. She tried again, pushing the off button more firmly, but still the rabbit steadily continued its dance. Frantically, she pushed the button twice more, with no results.
Dawn tossed the stubborn toy at a startled Paul and hissed, “Do something!”
He pushed the off button with equal lack of success. With both of them slightly panicked, he tried pushing other buttons on the toy, only to jump as the vibrator lit up and spun merrily around.
“For God’s sake, will you bloody well do something?”
“I’m trying, I’m trying.”
Dawn was sure she was going to die of embarrassment, and Paul’s snickers weren’t helping matters. She considered just putting the instrument back on the glass shelf, but the damned thing would probably bounce right off onto the floor. “You’re a guy; it’s a machine — take out the batteries or something.”
“Can I help you?”
Dawn stared at the Customer Service Specialist who had sauntered up to them. “No!”
Her refusal was overridden by Paul’s “yes” as he handed the toy to the clerk, who calmly turned it off and set it back on the shelf. Dawn bolted for the exit, not particularly caring whether or not her friend was with her.
He was hot on her heels, though, and practically doubled over with laughter by the time he reached the sidewalk. Hanging on to her helplessly, his whole body shook with guffaws. Finally, wiping tears from his eyes, he straightened up and tried to look repentant, as Dawn regarded him indignantly.
“You may think it’s hilarious, but I will never eat rabbit again.”
That set him off again, and Dawn stomped away. When she finally stopped at a corner for a traffic light, she looked back to see him talking on his cell phone.
Tucking the phone back into his pocket, he hurried to catch up. “I’m sorry. I swear you’ll laugh about this someday.”
A tiny grin curled up the corners of Dawn’s lips. It was pretty funny. It was also pretty humiliating, but as long as it stayed between her and Paul...
“Hey...you didn’t just call someone to tell them about this, did you?”
He shook his head, took her arm, and marched her across the street along with the other pedestrians. “Nope. I was just doing some quick research for you.”
“So you’re not going to tell anyone, right?”
Paul steered her into a right hand turn down the block. “I won’t, if you’ll come to one more store with me.”
He gestured to a store just ahead of them commandingly named Surrender, and she groaned. “No way. You’re not dragging me into another one of those places.”
“Trust me. A reliable source told me exactly what you need. We’ll be in and out in five minutes, really.”
“A reliable source?”
“Naomi. But I didn’t tell her about the wascally wabbit, I swear.”
Dawn dug in her heels, but though Paul was only a few inches taller than she, he was as solid as a tank. Within minutes they had entered Surrender and were heading straight for the vibrator section. Hanging her head, she refused to look up to see what Paul was picking out. When he led her to the check out, she obediently took out her wallet, but had no idea what she had just bought until they reached the street. Only then did she peek inside the brown paper bag.
“Naomi says it’s nothing fancy, but it’s highly reliable and effective.”
“Just the attributes you want in a vibrator.”
Paul chuckled at her mumbled words. “C’mon. Let’s go back to that coffee shop and see if that cute waitress is still there.”
By the time they reached the coffee shop, Dawn was simply grateful for a warm refuge from the cold. Taking a seat at an empty table, she didn’t even notice Paul making eye contact with the waitress who had served them the previous weekend. It was only when the woman appeared next to their table and beamed down at Dawn as she awaited their orders that the reality of the situation sunk in.
She began to hyperventilate. Paul looked at her in amusement and ordered for both of them, giving Dawn a momentary reprieve.
“For crying out loud, you don’t have to ask for her hand in marriage, Dawn. Just ask if she’d like to grab a bite or something when she gets off work.”
“Grab a bite? So she’ll know it’s a date, then? I mean, you and I grab a bite all the time. I grab a bite with Naomi and Belinda. I even grabbed a bite with the office supply sales rep when he was in my office last week. And what happens if we do go out? Do I take her to a nice restaurant, or just some place casual? Do I pay? Does she? Do we go Dutch?” She let her head fall to the table and moaned, “Why isn’t there an instruction manual?” She raised her head to see Paul staring at her in amazement.
“Good Lord, could you possibly complicate matters more? Just ask her out, and then go with the flow. You’re making it way too difficult. It’s really not that hard.”
“For you, maybe. All you need for a first date is a new shirt and a Trojan in your wallet. Women are so much more complicated.”
Paul tried his best to look insulted, but the laughter in his eyes gave him away. “Hey, I can be complicated. I’m a very deep guy... Oh, here she comes. Now straighten up and try to look... Well, try to look a little less flustered than you do right now.”
Dawn groaned, but did as he said. She even managed to summon a weak smile as the waitress set her latte in front of her. She was in the process of trying to read the nametag on the server’s shirt as she leaned across the table to set Paul’s drink down, when the waitress accidentally kicked the brown bag Dawn had placed on the floor when she sat down.
Before she could say anything, the waitress knelt to pick up the bag, the contents of which had been half ejected. Dawn wanted to crawl under the table as the woman — Claudia, according to her nametag — tucked the vibrator back into the bag. Blushing, she managed to muster a mortified grimace as the waitress winked and handed her the package, then turned and left without a word. The chortles coming from across the table made it clear her friend hadn’t missed a moment of the byplay.
“Oh, shut up. There’s no bloody way I’m going to ask her out now.”
“Are you kidding? Look at all you’ve learned about her already. She’s obviously got a good sense of humour, which will come in handy should you misplace your suavity halfway through the first date. She’s obviously not averse to toys, which probably means she’s adventuresome and open to new things. She’s diplomatic, which means she’s not going to be telling tales out of school. Always a useful trait on the morning after.”
Dawn fixed Paul with an icy glare. “How do you know she’s diplomatic? She could be back there right now telling every one of her colleagues what just happened.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
Dawn whirled around to find that Claudia had returned and was standing quietly behind her. Before she could say anything, before she could even decide if she was humiliated, outraged or just mildly chagrined, the waitress held out a piece of paper.
“This is my cell number. I get off at six tonight, and I know a really nice place where we could get some dinner, if you’re interested.” She glanced over at Paul. “Your friend is welcome to come, too.”
Paul shook his head and smiled. “Thanks, but I have plans tonight. And by the way, Claudia, my bright red friend’s name is Dawn Cooke.”
Claudia laid a hand lightly on Dawn’s arm. “I have to get back to work, but give me a call if you’d like to meet up, Dawn. I think it could be fun.” She turned to go, then looked back over her shoulder with a smile. “You can bring your little playmate, if you want to.”
Dawn slouched down in her chair, clutching her parcel and wondering if it were physically possible to die of embarrassment. She was about to suggest they leave immediately and never return, when she felt Paul’s hand squeeze hers.
“Hey, you did just fine. I’m proud of you.”
“Because you have a date. My little duckling is finally leaving the nest.” Paul gave a melodramatic sigh. “I knew this day would be coming soon, but you’re just never really ready for it.”
“You do realize I had zilch to do with getting a...a...date. Jesus, I’m going on a date?” She glanced at her watch and her eyes widened. “A date in two hours? That’s barely enough time to go home, get changed, and get back here.”
“So wear what you’re wearing. If you’re meeting here after her shift, I doubt she’s going to be all dressed up.”
“But what about getting home afterwards? I can’t stay at her place, and if I ask her to take me home, she might think I’m extending an invitation. I’m not ready to extend any invitations.”
Paul patted her hand soothingly. “Take my car, little gosling. Just drop me off at Danny’s, and I’ll either stay in the city tonight or get one of the guys to drive me home. I’ll call you in the morning and let you know where I am, and you can bring my car back.” He grinned knowingly. “And give me all the salacious details.”
“No salacious details. I told you, I’m not ready for salacious. Good God, Paul. The closest I’ve come to salacious in the last few years is walking through the lingerie department at Wal-Mart. It’s been so long that if a woman stood in front of me and started undressing, I’d think she wanted her laundry done.”
“Oh, honey, you are in pitiful shape.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. I don’t know how to do this anymore. The whole world has changed since I last dated. According to Naomi, I’m not supposed to give out my home number or even cell, and I have to use an anonymous e-mail address if I want to chat with women. I’m not supposed to go dancing until the fifth date, though I have no idea why, and no inviting a woman to your home to see a movie, because that implies you’re ready to sleep together. And I can date more than one woman, as long as I don’t tell anyone, but if I start sleeping with one of them, then I’m ‘seeing’ her and can’t date anyone else anymore. How the devil do I keep this all straight?”
Paul was staring at her in astonishment. “Jesus. How the hell do women ever get together?”
“That’s exactly what I want to know.”
“Oh, sweetie, you have got to stop listening to Naomi. She’s getting you way too confused. Here are the simple ‘Paul’s Rules of Human Relations’. Follow them, and you’ll never go wrong. First of all, there’s no situation that can’t be improved by a cold drink and some hot music. Second of all, don’t over think everything. If it feels good, do it...just do it safely. Which reminds me, do I need to have a talk with you about safe sex?”
Dawn covered her face with her hands and moaned. “I cannot believe I am having this conversation with you.” She dropped her hands and glared at him. “I will be perfectly safe, because nothing is going to happen. There will be absolutely no exchange of bodily fluids — no way, no how.”
“That’s what you say now, but later tonight, when you’ve spent the evening in the company of a sexy woman and the tide is risin’ — if you know what I mean...”
“Stop right there. There will be no rising tides. And I am so not having this conversation with you.”
“Okay, okay. I just don’t want you getting carried away and not being prepared. Seriously, you’re right about the world changing since you last dated. And maybe it’s not quite as dangerous for you as for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s one hundred percent safe either. Maybe you don’t need to think about it tonight, but eventually you will. Better to think ahead while you can.”
Dawn nodded. She knew that Paul was only mirroring her frequent cautionary to him. Suddenly tired, she drained the last of her latte and looked at him expectantly. He followed suit and they gathered their things together. Claudia took their money at the register, and when she cocked her head in enquiry, Dawn smiled.
“See you at six?”
“At six. Sounds great. See you then.”
Dawn and Paul left the coffee shop and returned to the car. By the time they reached Danny’s apartment, there were only fifty-five minutes to zero hour. She said goodbye to Paul, endured more of his well-intentioned advice, and pulled out into traffic. Not wanting to be too early, she drove around aimlessly, killing time. As the minutes ticked away, she grew more and more nervous. Despite having the car’s heater turned way up, her hands and feet felt increasingly icy. Desperately she tried to give herself a pep talk.
“This is ridiculous. You’re forty-eight years old; you know how to do this. You’ve done it before. Okay, not for a long time, but the basics haven’t changed. You’re just going to pick Claudia up, go out for dinner, enjoy getting to know her a little, maybe have some stimulating conversation along with a good meal, then drop her off and go home. Simple as that. Nothing to panic about. Nothing at all.”
The deep, calming breaths weren’t working. The insecurities that had their genesis in her years with Elaine, and which had been exacerbated by the trauma of their abrupt separation, overwhelmed her.
“Why does she want to go out with me? What does she expect of me? What if I disappoint her? What if she tries to kiss me and I freak out? Oh shit.”
Without fully realizing what she was doing, Dawn turned the car and headed for the freeway home. It was only when she got inside her own door that she realized she hadn’t even had the courtesy to call Claudia and cancel. Irresolute, she stood staring at the cell phone in one hand and the crumpled piece of paper in the other. Finally, as her cats wound themselves around her legs, she turned the phone off and tossed the number in the garbage can.
“I guess it’s just you and me tonight, girls. Again.”
“You did what?” Paul’s disbelief rang through the phone line loud and clear.
“Please don’t make me tell you all that again. It wasn’t exactly my finest hour, and I admit it. I screwed up.”
“To put it mildly.” His sigh echoed down the line. “Okay, maybe you weren’t quite ready after all. But I’m sure going to miss going for coffee there.”
“I know you are. I swear I’m going to dig up my Elaine voodoo doll and stick pins in her all over again. She messed you up so bad.”
Dawn couldn’t disagree, but after a night of emotional self-flagellation, she was unwilling to deal with her perceived failures any longer. “Look, let’s just forget about it. Tell me where you are and I’ll bring your car back.”
“I’m home, but don’t worry about bringing it over right now. I’ll pick it up later.”
“No, I’ll bring it. It’s not fair to ask you to come out in the cold when you did me the favour.”
“Um, sweetie, I have company right now. Danny stayed over after he brought me home. Seriously, I’ll give you a call later and pick it up tonight, okay?”
“Okay. Talk to you later.”
“Will do. And, hon, don’t feel too bad. So the first horse threw you. You’ll get up on the next one, or maybe the one after that. Just wait and see.”
Dawn grunted an acknowledgement if not agreement, and hung up the phone. Stretching out on the couch, she resumed doing what she had been doing since she got up — moping, and listening to country music, which was perfect mope music. There was nothing like listening to a little Reba to underscore the blues. Throw in grandmother’s afghan to curl up under and a cup of vanilla maple tea at hand, and moping became a truly transcendent experience.
The sound of a Martina McBride song faded out and gave way to an overly enthusiastic announcer.
“Tired of playing the dating game? Convinced that life is passing you by and leaving you in the dust? Certain that true love will never find you? Don’t give up. Just give our Heartbeat Hotline a call. Take a few minutes to fill out a simple questionnaire and let our computers do the rest. We’ve brought thousands of people together, and we can do it for you, too! You’ve spent your last weekend alone, if you’ll just pick up the phone now and dial...”
Dawn pulled the throw pillows over her head, fruitlessly trying to block the chirpy sounds of the love pusher. If she hadn’t tossed her remote control at Maggie two hours earlier when the black cat wouldn’t stop pawing her CDs, she’d turn the damned thing off, but it took more energy than she could muster to drag herself off the couch and retrieve the remote.
With her head buried under the pillows, she missed the sound of a key turning in her lock. It wasn’t until a sunny voice sang out a greeting that she realized she had company.
Lifting the pillows, she glared balefully at Naomi’s smiling face. “Remind me again why I gave you a key?”
The cheerful visitor hung up her coat and kicked off her boots. “Because if you croak in your sleep some night, I’m supposed to come over and clean out all incriminating evidence before your mother comes by.”
“No, that’s what I’m supposed to do if you die in the night. The most incriminating thing I have around here is some old copies of Girlfriends, and even Customs wouldn’t look twice at those.”
Naomi bounced over and perched on the side of the couch, forcing Dawn to curl around her. “So basically what you’re saying is that your life is as bland as vanilla ice cream, and you’re in desperate need of someone to spice it up.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Uh huh. Maybe not in so many words. So...got anything to tell me?”
Dawn looked up at Naomi’s expectant expression and groaned. “For crying out loud. When did Paul call you?”
“About two seconds after you dropped him off at Danny’s last night. C’mon, you don’t have to tell me everything — well, actually you do. I want details, girl. How was it? How was she? Was it a one-time thing or are you going to see her again? C’mon, Dawnie, I’d tell you, if it were me.”
Knowing she would get no peace until she spilled the beans, Dawn told Naomi the whole story of her aborted date.
“Oh no, you didn’t.”
“I did. But I didn’t mean to, I swear. I thought I was ready. She seemed nice and all, but when push came to shove, I just couldn’t go through with it.”
“But all you had to do was go for dinner. A couple of hours max. You didn’t have to spend the night with her or anything. I mean, it might’ve been good if you had, but a simple date is a great way to start. When Paul called me, I was thrilled. We both were. So was Belinda...and Sue...and Artie...and Ray...and —”
Dawn yanked the pillow back over her face and screamed into it. When she finally lowered the pillow, she found a crestfallen Naomi staring back at her.
“I’m sorry, Dawn. It’s just that we’ve all been so worried about you, and we were so happy about you getting a date.”
“You’ve got to lighten up, Nae. You all do. It’s too much pressure. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be.”
“No, no more. No more accidental meetings. No more well-intentioned fix-ups. No more eligible cousins from out of town. I’ll either meet someone on my own, or I won’t. Either way, I’ll be just fine.”
“Women don’t just fall into your lap, Dawnie. You have to at least put yourself out there. What about putting your profile up on some of the on-line dating sites? I’ll help you. With a little creativity, you’ll be cyber catnip.”
Dawn pushed herself to a sitting position and took her friend’s hand. “Don’t you get it? I don’t want to paint myself as someone I’m not. I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, because I don’t want to disappoint anyone. Look at what happened last night. Claudia was a perfectly nice woman, and she probably feels like hell today because she had the misfortune to ask out an emotionally stunted idiot, who didn’t even have the manners to call and cancel. No one deserves that. I just don’t know if I have anything left inside to give to anyone else.”
Naomi looked at her affectionately. “You underestimate yourself. You don’t need to pretend to be anything but who you are. You’ve had a few rough breaks, but you’re pretty darned special, and just need to be reminded of that now and then.” She stood up. “Okay, I won’t push you, other than to suggest that you give some thought to putting your profile on-line. There’s no pressure that way. You can respond to interested women or not, as you see fit. Just think about it, all right?”
“Yeah, okay.” Dawn watched her friend cross the room to pick up the coat she’d dropped on the floor. “Hey, are you leaving already?”
“Sorry, but Belinda’s mother is expecting us for the afternoon. I just wanted to drop by for a few minutes to see what happened. I’ll give you a call tonight after we get home, okay?”
“Mmm hmm. Drive carefully.”
“Will do. See ya later.”
Dawn watched the door close behind her friend, then sank back into the couch. Letting the music wash over her again, she let her mind drift without direction, but it quickly returned to the previous night’s fiasco. Finally, pushing the humiliation of the whole experience aside, she decided to look at the incident objectively, and began a dialogue with herself.
“Okay, what could you’ve done better? Well, actually showing up would’ve been a good start. So why didn’t you? Fear. Okay, what were you afraid of?”
That gave Dawn pause as she tried to analyze exactly what she had been afraid of. It wasn’t Claudia herself. The waitress seemed like a perfectly nice woman, who probably would’ve provided a couple of hours of pleasant company.
“Expectations? Yeah, that’s it, isn’t it? What if I totally failed to live up to her expectations, and I’m not even talking about getting as far as the bedroom.”
The sense of failure that she thought she had beaten back in the months since Elaine had dumped her washed over her again, but for the first time it made her angry.
“God damn it, I’m sick and tired of letting that bitch continue to ruin my life. Enough is enough.”
Pushing back the afghan, Dawn swung her legs over the edge of the couch and sat upright. A wave of determination swept through her, but she was unsure where to focus it. She briefly considered retrieving Claudia’s number out of the trash and giving her a call to apologize and ask for another chance, but decided that boat had sailed. Fearful of what a justifiably angry Claudia would say, she decided that her nascent courage couldn’t withstand such an attack. Some day she would return to the coffee shop, apologize in person, and take her lumps, but not today.
Filled with the urge to do something constructive, Dawn considered her options. Naomi had suggested putting her profile on-line at dating sites, but she worried about the perils of Internet fix-ups. While she trusted her own instincts, she had heard enough horror stories to be extra cautious. The local newspaper carried a full page of personal ads on Sundays, and she was shuffling through the different sections looking for that page when the radio caught her attention.
“...and Badger 103.1 has the answer. We’ve played Cupid to thousands, and we can find your perfect match, too. It’s just a few minutes of your time in exchange for a lifetime of happiness. Try our Heartbeat Hotline. Just call 416-555-1031, and say goodbye to lonely nights, and hello to the love of your life.”
Scrambling for a piece of paper and pen, Dawn muttered the number over and over. “555-1031, 555-1031, 555-1031.” Jotting it down, she grinned in satisfaction. Then taking a deep breath, and not allowing herself any time to second guess her impulse, she dialed the number.
“CBGR, Badger 103.1. How may I help you?”
Well, you get points for having an actual human being answer the phone. “Hi, I’m calling about your Heartbeat Hotline?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll redirect your call to Kim. She’ll be able to help you out. Have a nice day.”
Dawn listened to the clicks on the phone as the call was transferred, and tried to ignore the rapid beating in her chest.
“Kim, here. How may I help you?”
“Um, yeah. I was calling to enroll in your Heartbeat Hotline?”
“That’s wonderful, ma’am. Let me open up a new file and we’ll get some background information. Now, have you been told how this works?”
“Uh, not really. I was just listening to your ad on the radio.”
“Well, it’s very simple. I’ll take down your information, enter it into our computers, and assign you a mailbox. When you’re ready to start, you call up the Heartbeat Hotline, enter your mailbox number, and record a short intro for others to hear. You can rerecord it as many times as you like. Our computers will automatically match you with those of similar interests, and provide you with the corresponding mailbox numbers each time you check in, which you can then listen to at your leisure. If you hear one that sounds interesting, you may wish to leave a message. At the same time, others will hear your profile and leave messages in your mailbox. You can choose whether to respond or to delete each one. We keep your profile on file, but there is no identifying information in your mailbox in terms of a phone number or address or anything. The only way someone can reach you is by leaving a message in your mailbox. Most of our clients either just use a first name, or make up a name for their mailbox. That’s entirely up to you.”
Dawn was reassured by the precautions, and a feeling of optimism began to grow. She could hardly wait to tell Paul and Naomi about taking her big first step.
“Okay, shall we begin? Let’s start with your name.”
“And what name would you like on your mailbox?”
“Just Dawn, I guess.”
“All right. Now your home and business phone numbers, and your home address, and remember —none of our clients will see these unless you choose to give them out.”
Dawn reeled off her address and numbers, and realized she was enjoying the sense of anticipation.
“Okey-dokey. Now some vital statistics...age?”
“Height and weight?”
“5’ 4”, and 117 pounds.”
“Alrighty then. Hair and eyes?”
“Um, silver-brown, I guess, and my eyes are hazel.”
“Isn’t this simple? Now we get to the good stuff. Interests and hobbies?”
“Let’s see...reading, music, movies, trying new restaurants, and cycling when the weather’s good. I like going to the theatre, museums, art galleries, and things of that nature, but I also like being outdoors in the summer, though I’m not much into sports. I like clubs and dancing, too, but not necessarily every weekend.”
“Excellent. You sound very well rounded. I’m sure you’ll find that perfect match in no time. Now, what about geographical area? Do you have any restrictions, or are you open to meeting anyone in the Greater Toronto Area?”
“GTA is good.”
“And what about potential matches? Do you have any ethic restrictions, for example only single white men or only Asian men, or anything of that sort?”
“No ethnic restrictions, but no men, either. I’m sorry. I should’ve said right off, but I’ll be in the GWF category.”
There was a moment of dead silence, then Kim said apologetically, “Oh, I’m so sorry. We’re only set up to match men and women. I didn’t realize you were...”
At any other time, Dawn would have politely apologized for the misunderstanding and hung up the phone. But it felt like it had taken her forever to get that far, and she had allowed her hopes to grow with each question. The dashing of those hopes was a much harsher blow than she would ever have anticipated.
“Then why the hell don’t your ads say ‘no gays allowed’?”
Kim sounded shocked as she answered. “Oh no, ma’am, we couldn’t do that. It would be offensive.”
“Well...yes, but our studies indicate that our audience falls into one main demographic —”
“Let me guess. Narrow minded, antediluvian, and still stuck in the eighteenth century? Well, guess what — they rarely burn us in village squares anymore.”
“Really, ma’am, there’s no call for that. We’re an equal opportunity employer, and our station policies strictly mandate openness and accessibility to all. We’ve simply never had a request for such services before. We certainly don’t mean to give anyone offence.”
“Well, you have...royally, and you can strike this listener from your demographic studies.”
“Please, ma’am, let me check with management and see if maybe we can open up a new category...”
“Don’t bother.” Dawn ended the connection and tossed the phone to the end of the couch. Crawling back under her afghan, she curled up into a ball, shame at having overreacted now compounding her earlier misery.
“Hey, Dawn, you wanna grab some lunch together today? Some of us thought we’d try that new Thai restaurant over on 17th and you’re welcome to join us.”
Dawn barely glanced up from her monitor to shake her head at Paul, who was standing in the doorway to her office. “No, thanks, Paul. I’m pretty swamped here. As usual, Townsend wanted the profit and loss figures yesterday. They’ve got to be in to regional by Thursday, and the consolidated numbers have to be up to corporate by next week, so I’ll catch you later, okay?”
“Okay,” her friend agreed cheerfully. “Want me to bring you back anything?”
Dawn gave a mock shudder and grinned at the young man. “The last time you brought me something back, and by the way I’m still not exactly sure what it was, I burnt off the whole top layer of taste buds on my tongue. No thanks, pal. I’ll stick with my brown bag today.”
“Hey, I was just trying to open you up to new experiences, but it’s your loss. I’ll see you later then.”
With that, Paul’s dark head vanished and Dawn returned to the figures covering her computer screen. “Yep, just little old number-cruncher me. Nose to the grindstone, working to midnight me. One of these days, I’m going to stop crunching these numbers and start bashing them.”
The ringing of the phone interrupted her abstracted mumbling, and she picked up the receiver, cradling it against her neck as she continued to type. “Pennington and Brower Financial Services, Dawn Cooke speaking.”
“Yes. How may I help you?” The voice was unfamiliar, but Dawn immediately appreciated the sound of the woman’s husky drawl.
“Ms. Cooke, I’m Gaelyn Kerry from Badger 103.”
Instantly on the defensive, Dawn nonetheless felt acutely chagrined over the way she had spoken to Kim the day before. Guardedly, she said, “Yes?”
“Kim Browning told me about what happened yesterday, and I just wanted to call and apologize. It was never the station’s intent to discriminate in any way, and now that you’ve brought the problem to our attention, we plan to take immediate steps to remedy the situation. If you call back in a few days, we’ll have new categories designed to accept your information.”
“Uh, thanks...I guess. Though from what Kim said, it doesn’t sound like there would be much call for the changes.”
“Well, Ms. Cooke, we’re also going to make a point of including notice in our public service announcements that the Heartbeat Hotline is open to all, straight and gay. We can’t make any promises, but we truly hope that the Hotline will work for all our listeners.”
“That’s good news, and look, I apologize for going off on Kim. She was being so helpful and pleasant, and there was just no call for me to lose it like that. My only excuse is that I’d had a lousy weekend, and after getting my hopes up... Well, as I said, there’s no excuse. Would you please extend my apologies to her?”
“Certainly, Ms. Cooke. And if you’d like to drop by the studio in the next couple of days, we’d like to offer you a couple of tickets to the Keith Urban concert on the twenty-first. Just give the front desk my name, and if I’m not there, I’ll have left them in an envelope for you.”
“Aw, you don’t have to do that. Why don’t you give them to Kim? Tell her it’s my way of making amends.”
“That’s a lovely gesture, and I’ll certainly tell her that you offered, but I happen to know that she’s already got tickets. Why don’t you take them, and if you don’t wish to use them, you can pass them on to a friend, compliments of Badger 103.”
“Um, okay, thanks. What was your name again, please?”
“Gaelyn Kerry. I’m in the public relations department, and I’m usually around the building somewhere.”
“Great. Maybe I’ll drop over on my lunch hour, then. Thank you very much.”
“And thank you for giving us another chance, Ms. Cooke. Have a nice day.”
Dawn glanced over the slip of paper on which she had written Ms. Kerry’s name to the time display in the corner of her computer. 11:48. Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to go over today. Heaven knows I’ll be staying late tonight anyway, and a bit of fresh air might sharpen the old grey matter.
Closing down the program, Dawn got ready to go. She passed the station every morning on her walk to work, and she knew it would take less than ten minutes to get there.
In fact, she arrived in seven minutes, and when she gave her name to the receptionist, the woman nodded and placed a call. Within moments, a diminutive blond woman about her own age approached, hand outstretched and a genuinely bright smile on her face. “Ms. Cooke? I’m Gaelyn Kerry. Goodness, that was fast.”
“Dawn, please. And yes, I only work about five blocks away. Picking up free tickets seemed to be a good use of my lunch hour.”
The woman chuckled, and Dawn was struck anew by the sexiness of Gaelyn’s husky voice. It seemed incongruous in such a small woman, but the accountant thought it was probably an excellent asset for someone in public relations. Bet she could charm the grumpiest client with those bright blue eyes, too.
“Why don’t you come back to my office? I haven’t had a chance to put the tickets in an envelope yet, but I do have them available.”
Dawn followed the blonde, blinking a little in astonishment at the direction her thoughts had taken. For heaven’s sake! She’s probably been married for twenty years, and has three kids and a dog at home. She was so busy chastising herself that she stumbled when her guide abruptly turned left into an office.
“Are you okay?” Gaelyn asked with concern as she reached out a hand to steady Dawn.
“Oh yeah. Don’t mind me. Just breaking in a new pair of feet.”
The blonde smiled and gestured Dawn to a chair. While she shuffled through a big stack of papers and envelopes on her desk, the accountant took the time to examine the office. Three purses, a pair of high tops, two umbrellas, and a pair of Sorels were clustered around the base of an old-fashioned mahogany and brass coat rack in one corner. A large bulletin board on the opposite wall was covered by so many overlapping articles, cartoons and scrawled notes, that nothing could be seen of the cork beneath. Several pictures sat on the cluttered desk, including those of children, family groupings, and a very large, black and tan dog of an unidentifiable breed. An oversized, bright yellow cup decorated with a cartoon ape underlined by the simple word “mug” sat on a damp, coffee-stained napkin beside the messy blotter. And for some unexplained reason, a stapler straddled the edge of the garbage can.
The office had an invitingly rumpled feel to it, as if it had absorbed the personality of its inhabitant. It certainly was a far cry from the businesslike sterility of Dawn’s professional domain. Effortlessly charmed, she now stole a look at Gaelyn’s left hand.
Hmm, no ring, but with kids and a dog... Divorced, maybe?
“I know I put them here somewhere. Oh dear, I do hope you’re not in a great hurry.”
“No, no, not at all.” Thoughts of the stack of work awaiting her back at the office loomed, but Dawn resolutely put out of mind as she watched Gaelyn rise gracefully from her chair and cross the office to a file cabinet. Opening it, she immediately found what she was looking for.
“Here they are.” She turned around with a grin, and held up the tickets triumphantly.
Dawn rose to accept them, and stumbled on something jutting out from under the desk.
“Oh, no. I’d forgotten he’d left that here. I’m so sorry. I sometimes bring my dog Bocelli in with me when I have to do some work on a weekend. I was in on Saturday and forgot to take all his toys home.” She kicked the huge, rag bone, chew toy further under the desk, and handed over the tickets.
Dawn nodded at the picture of the mixed breed. “That’s Bocelli?”
“Yes. He’s a cross between a Newfoundland and a St. Bernard. Gentle as a kitten, but big as a horse. That comes in handy when I take him out for a walk. Muggers tend to shy away from things that can snap them in two, even if Bocelli's more likely to lick them to death than to bite. Plus, in a pinch, if I sprain an ankle or anything, I can always ride him home.”
Dawn was pretty sure from the laughter in Gaelyn’s eyes that she was being teased, but she didn’t mind. Responding to the woman’s engaging manner, she pointed at the other pictures and asked, “Are those your kids?”
“Oh, good Lord, no. Those are all nieces and nephews, nine in all. I’m the doting aunt who gets to spoil them terribly, and then turn them back to my sisters and brothers. No, I don’t have any kids of my own.”
That doesn’t answer whether she’s ever been married, or even if she’s family, but it’s a start. Impulsively, Dawn asked, “Have you had lunch yet? I was going to grab a bite before heading back to the office...” She stopped abruptly, appalled at herself for extending an invitation to a stranger. She steeled herself for a polite rejection, and was amazed when Gaelyn answered with another of her lovely smiles.
“I’d be delighted. Do you like Thai? There’s a new restaurant over on 17th that I’ve been meaning to try.”
Blanching at the thought of running into Paul and the gang from the office in the company of a strange woman, Dawn blurted, “Um, I’m not really in the mood for Thai today. How about Greek?”
“Demetrios’? Perfect. I love their salad and gyro lunch combination.”
Stunned at her unprecedented audacity, Dawn watched Gaelyn don her coat and boots, and grab one of the purses. She trailed the blonde out of the office and down the hall, still numbly clutching the tickets in her hand. Only the necessity of buttoning her coat made her remember to put the tickets away.
They walked briskly down the street, dodging dozens of other office workers out on their lunch hour. Still somewhat shaken at her impulsiveness, Dawn said little, but was enjoying the sound of Gaelyn’s voice.
As they neared the restaurant, a large party of people was approaching from the opposite direction. Gaelyn grabbed Dawn’s arm and hustled her to the door. With a giggle, they slid in the entrance just ahead of the crowd and were seated immediately.
Smiling, Dawn toasted her companion with an empty glass. “You are a very handy person to have around, Ms. Kerry.”
Responding with a cocky grin, Gaelyn replied, “You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But my ex didn’t. The last thing she said to me before storming out the door with my grandmother’s Irish linens in her suitcase was that I was a no-good buttinsky.” She leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered, “I think she was just mad that I cut up all our credit cards after I found out she’d maxed every one of them to the limit. Took me two years to pay off the debt she left me with, but it was money well spent.”
She shoots! She scores! She’s family!
Dawn was sure she was grinning like an idiot, and she barely noticed when the waiter placed the menus in front of them and rattled off the day’s luncheon specials. She did notice the way Gaelyn’s hair just brushed her shoulders, and the way the woman perched her reading glasses on the end of her nose to scan the menu. She noticed that the blonde’s small, delicate hands never seemed to still for more than a few moments at a time, and she noticed the deep laugh lines around enchanting blue eyes. And that voice...that deep, sexy, bewitching voice with just a hint of a drawl...she could’ve happily listened to it all day.
Lunch passed swiftly, though Dawn had no idea what she ate. Instead she reveled in Gaelyn’s quick wit, and filled her soul with all the laughter that laced their conversation. When the blonde finally looked at her watch with reluctance and suggested they had both best get back to their offices, the accountant was shocked to see that it was past one thirty.
“Geez! Where did the time go?” Dawn fumbled for her wallet and waved Gaelyn off when she tried to do the same. “No, it’s my treat. I invited you, after all.”
“Then I’ll get it the next time.”
Dawn stopped counting out money and looked up at her companion. Suddenly shy, she asked, “There’ll be a next time?”
“I’d like there to be, if you would.”
“Yes. Yes, I’d like that a lot.” She laid down the money and drew a business card out of her wallet. She scrawled her home number on the back, then passed it across to Gaelyn, who borrowed the pen, and did the same on one of her cards. That formality taken care of, they stood for a moment just staring at each other. Dawn was sure that the trace of wonderment she saw in Gaelyn’s eyes was also in her own. A hovering waiter jolted them into moving, and as they left the restaurant, Dawn put her hand in her pocket. The feel of the tickets reminded her of what had brought them together, and she tugged them out.
“Hey, I happen to have two tickets to the Keith Urban concert. Would you like to go with me?”
“Keith Urban, eh? Sounds interesting. Are they good seats?”
Dawn looked at the tickets for the first time. “Hmm, eighth row. I guess they’re pretty decent.”
“All right. You talked me into it. Maybe we can go out for dinner before the concert, if you feel like it.”
“Absolutely. I’d love to.”
“Great. I’ve got to get back to the office. Talk to you later.” Gaelyn laid one hand on the accountant’s arm, smiled, then turned to go. Dawn stood still, watching her lunch companion walk away, until finally she realized that she was going to be very, very late getting back from lunch. Reluctantly turning away, she headed off in the opposite direction, filled with a deep warmth, which defied the bitterly cold wind that had picked up and was sweeping down the concrete canyons of the city.
Dawn had barely taken off her coat and settled back in front of her computer when Paul poked his head in her office.
“Hey, where have you been? I was looking for you an hour ago. Thought I’d find you with your nose buried in your work, and there you were...gone.”
Suddenly reluctant to share what had happened, even with Paul, Dawn prevaricated. “Oh, I just had to run some errands that took me longer than I thought. I’m going to be working late tonight anyway, so the company will get its daily pound of flesh from me.”
Paul snorted. “Like it doesn’t every day of the week and half the weekends. You should’ve come with us though, sweetie. That new restaurant is really good. You and I’ll have to check it out next week, once things slow down. The food is delish, and there’s one waiter there...ohmigawd... The way that boy fills out his apron outta be a crime.”
Laughing, Dawn tossed an eraser at her snickering friend. “Take your horn dog self out of here. I’ve got work to do.”
Paul left, but instead of focusing on the previous month’s sales figures, Dawn couldn’t keep her mind off Gaelyn. Much to her amazement, she realized what she had done. She had made a date...a date with a very attractive woman, who apparently thought the same of her. She hadn’t panicked. She hadn’t bolted and run. She had asked for a second date.
“Will wonders never cease?”
With those softly whispered words, Dawn forced herself to concentrate on her work, but the afternoon passed in a daze, and by the time the phone rang just before five, she was sure she would need to review the whole day’s work before it went any further up the chain.
“Pennington and Brower Financial Services, Dawn Cooke speaking.”
The voice was already intimately familiar, and Dawn leaned back in her chair with a big smile. “Hi. Are you finished for the day?”
“Just about. Look, I was wondering...I mean it’s still three weeks until the concert, and I thought maybe...well, I mean if you’re interested...maybe we could get together for dinner or something later this week.”
It was the first time Dawn had heard any hesitation in Gaelyn’s voice, and she realized that the woman wasn’t quite as self-assured as she projected.
“I’d love to.”
Dawn reveled in the hopeful sound of those words, and she laughed quietly. “I wish I could, but honestly I’ve got to work late. Someone, who shall remain nameless, was a huge distraction today, and I didn’t get nearly enough done.”
“Hey, I wasn’t the only one who lingered over lunch.”
“Oh, but it wasn’t just during lunch. For some reason I couldn’t keep my mind on these riveting sets of facts and figures. Can’t understand why.”
It was Gaelyn’s turn to laugh, and Dawn detected a certain exultant undertone.
“Oddly, I had the same problem this afternoon. Do you think it might’ve been something we ate?”
Dawn checked the immediate response that sprang to mind, and substituted a less ribald reply. “Could be. Guess we’ll have to be more careful where we eat from now on.”
“And also ‘what’.”
“I cannot believe you said that!”
“Oh sure, like you weren’t thinking it.”
Both women broke into laughter, Gaelyn managing to get herself under control first. “I’ll let you get back to work then. How late do you think you’re going to be?”
Reluctant to let go of the shared moment, Dawn nonetheless sighed. “Unfortunately, if I get home by ten tonight, I’ll be doing well. The first week of the month is always a bear.”
“You have my home number. Why don’t you give me a call when you get in?”
“Are you planning to sing me to sleep?”
“Something along that line.” Gaelyn’s voice had dropped to a near whisper. “Though I can’t guarantee it will put you to sleep, at least not right away.”
Dawn’s eyes widened at the blatant coquetry, but instead of panicking, she hungrily absorbed it. “All right. If I’m home by ten, I’ll give you a call.”
“Make it if you’re home by midnight. I suspect I’m going to have a hard time falling asleep tonight anyway.”
The soft click indicated the call had ended, but Dawn sat simply staring at the receiver, replaying Gaelyn’s words over and over.
What just happened there? Were we...did she really say...ohmigawd... That was flirting. I know it’s been a long time, but I remember flirting, and that was definitely flirting.
For the first time, Dawn began to worry. It all seemed to be happening too fast. She was too old for any “falling in love at first glance” nonsense.
Okay, let’s just slow things down here. You’re not going to call her tonight, and if she calls tomorrow, you’ll just say you got in too late and didn’t want to take the chance of waking her.
Reassured, but also disappointed, Dawn returned to her work. She deliberately made herself stay in the office until after ten, but when she reached home half an hour later, all she could think about was making the phone call. Forcing it out of her mind, she fed the cats, got washed up, laid out her clothes for the next day and was sitting in bed watching the eleven o’clock news when, without any conscious permission, her hand reached out for the phone. Quite incidentally, she had tossed Gaelyn’s card on the bedside table when hanging up her work clothes, though in truth she had no problem recalling the number, having read it numerous times throughout the day.
With a nervous glance at the time, she dialed the number.
“Hi, did I wake you?”
“No, not at all. It’s so good to hear from you. I wasn’t sure you’d call.”
The unalloyed pleasure in Gaelyn’s voice was balm to Dawn’s soul, and she relaxed back into her pillows. “Honestly? I wasn’t sure I should call either.”
“Because of the time?”
“No...well, at least not entirely. I was nervous.”
“Of...us, I guess. I can’t remember the last time I so instantly got along so well with someone, and it’s scaring the hell out of me.”
“Dawn, we’re just two new friends talking here. There’s no pressure except what you put on yourself. I like you. I enjoyed our lunch very much, and I look forward to seeing you again. I’m not looking for anything you’re not ready to give. If you’d rather cancel our dinner date for this week...”
“No. No, that’s not... I mean, it’s what you said. I really enjoyed today, too, and I want to go out for dinner. I mean, if you’d like to...”
Quiet laughter echoed down the line. “I’d like to. Do you think you’ll be able to break away from your office by Thursday?”
A wave of relief swept over Dawn and she closed her eyes in gratitude. She hadn’t blown it this time. “Thursday sounds great.”
“Why don’t you meet me at the station after work then, and we’ll figure out something from there.”
“Hey, I’ll have you know that Bocelli is plenty ticked at you.”
“Bocelli? How the heck did I get in Bocelli's dog house?”
“Well, I always take him out for one last time after ten, but tonight I made him go out at nine-thirty and he missed part of his favourite program. I explained it was all your fault, of course, so he’s going to have words with you when you meet.”
Dawn laughed softly. “And Bocelli’s favourite program would be?”
“The Westminster Kennel Dog Show, of course. He fancies himself the Joan Rivers of the canine set. You should just hear him run down the poodles, and don’t even get him started on Afghans. Sometimes I think I’ll never be able to show my face in the off-leash park again with the way he criticizes...”
Dawn snuggled further into her blankets and gave herself over to the pure delight of listening to Gaelyn’s voice. When they finally bade each other a reluctant goodbye, it was well after midnight and she could barely remember her earlier doubts. She knew her fears weren’t entirely vanquished, but for the first time since Elaine had tossed her aside like yesterday’s trash, she found herself willing to take a chance.
It had been three weeks since her first lunch with Gaelyn, and that date had turned into many more. In fact, Paul and Naomi were complaining that she was never home when they called, and both were getting increasingly nosy.
Dawn was torn between wanting to confide in her best friends, and wanting to relish the joy of a new beginning without the pressure of endless questions. She planned to tell them soon. She just wasn’t sure when exactly “soon” would be.
Paul took the decision out of her hands. Late Friday afternoon, he marched into her office, closed the door firmly behind him, and glared at her. She grinned, aware of what was coming. She had to give him credit. He had held out for nineteen days, which was some kind of a record for him.
“Okay, that’s it. I want to know all. Spill, woman. What’s going on, and who’s it going on with? And don’t even think you can tell me ‘nothing’ and ‘no one.’”
“Oh she’s definitely not ‘no one’, Paulie.”
The young man’s eyes lit up and he plopped into the chair opposite hers. “Details, sweetie. I want all of them. Who is she? What’s she like? How’d you meet? Are you sleeping with her yet?”
“Um, let’s see. Her name is Gaelyn Kerry. She’s in radio public relations. She’s my age, which I really like, because we have similar life experiences and it doesn’t feel like I’m talking to an alien the way it did when you set me up with your ‘cousin’. She’s smart, funny, wise, warm, charming, nurturing and generally just about the nicest woman I’ve met in many years. We met when I called in to use the station’s matchmaking service, and no, we haven’t slept together yet.”
Paul’s smile had grown and grown until her last statement. “What? Why not? She sounds perfect for you.” A slight frown crossed his handsome face, and he leaned forward conspiratorially. “Oh, is she kinda...um, you know?”
Dawn decided to play with him a bit. “What? Is she kind of what?”
“Well, not exactly well endowed in the looks department, if you know what I mean.”
She leaned forward, equally conspiratorially. “She’s as cute as the dickens. Gorgeous blue eyes, thick blond hair, tiny, but just the right size to fit against me perfectly when we’re dancing, and her voice...oh, Paul, her voice drives me insane. She was raised in the South before her family came to Canada, and it’s just about the sexiest thing I’ve ever heard.”
He slapped his hands down on the edge of the desk and blurted with bewilderment, “Then what’s the matter? Why aren’t you and she doing the dance of the flannel sheets?”
“Well, you are lesbians, after all. It seemed appropriate.”
Dawn chuckled, then grew more serious. “I’m not really sure, Paul. I think...no, I know I’d like to, but she’s letting me set the pace and I haven’t quite been able to go that next step. I guess it still comes down to a matter of trust. Well, trust and an ego that hasn’t quite fully recovered. After what Elaine did, sometimes I wonder what Gaelyn sees in me. Sometimes I even wonder what’s wrong with her that she wants to be with me.”
“Stop that.” Paul scowled at her. “If you don’t stop thinking like that, I’m going to be forced to beat you severely about the head and shoulders. Gaelyn sees what all the rest of us see — a wonderful, loving woman who was badly hurt, but who survived and had the courage to pull through. Sweetie, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but you were a total and absolute mess after that bitch left you. There were times I worried whether you’d ever be the same again. You had a long, long way to go to heal, but you’ve done it. Doctor Paul declares you fully healed and completely healthy again. It’s okay to love, and it’s okay to be loved. Trust me. Trust Gaelyn. But most of all, trust yourself.”
Dawn regarded her friend affectionately. “You’re right. I know you’re right. Can I tell you something?”
“Anything, anytime, always.”
She glanced up at the office door to make sure it was securely shut. Lowering her voice, she said, “I’ve been doing research.”
His dark eyes blinked. “Research? On what?”
“Um, sweetie, I think it’s like riding a bike. The fundamentals really don’t change much.”
“I know that. But I almost feel like a beginner again. I’ve been learning things that never played a part in my life with Elaine. For example, who knew there were so many different kinds of lubes and dams? And the last time I dated, safe sex wasn’t something most lesbians even considered.”
“Soooo...have you studied enough now? Are you ready to take the final exam?” He grinned mischievously. “I hear it’s an oral exam.”
Dawn groaned and searched her desk fruitlessly for something to throw at him. “God, Paul. That was so bad!”
“It was, wasn’t it?”
She could tell he wasn’t in the least repentant, but she didn’t mind. “Truthfully, I think I am ready. Up until now, though, we’ve always gone out somewhere. Other than picking each other up, we haven’t spent any time alone in her house or my apartment, which sort of puts a damper on exactly how physical you can get. Besides, it’s kind of scary letting someone into your personal space. You can tell a lot about a person from their home. What if she doesn’t like my place?”
“Well, if you’d let me put some colour in it...”
Dawn shook off his old grievance. “Yeah, yeah, I know. And I swear I’ll take you on a shopping trip one of these days soon, but not this weekend.”
“What’s happening this weekend?”
“Tonight, we’re supposed to go skating at the park and then out for dinner. Then the Keith Urban concert is tomorrow. She has to get some work done on Sunday, and I should probably catch up with a few things, too.”
“Dawn, listen to me. Call her up right now, and tell her that you want to make her dinner at your place. Didn’t you tell me you’d just picked up a new lesbian DVD or something?”
“Yes. Tipping the Velvet.”
“So invite her to stay and watch the movie with you. Don’t get any more specific than that, and don’t fuss too much. Just relax, enjoy yourselves, and whatever happens, happens. And if nothing happens, that’s okay, too.” He rose to go, but at the door he stopped and winked. “Wouldn’t hurt to put clean sheets on the bed, though.”
He disappeared before she could respond, and in the wake of his departure, she sat considering what he’d said. Finally, she picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number.
“Badger 103. Gaelyn Kerry speaking.”
“Hi yourself, gorgeous. What’s up?”
“I wondered if we could alter our plans for tonight a bit.”
“Sure, I guess. What did you have in mind?”
“I’d like to treat you to dinner and a movie...at my place.”
There was a brief moment of silence before Gaelyn answered. “I’d love to. What time should I be there, and what can I bring?”
“Don’t worry about bringing anything; I think I’ve got it covered. Does about seven sound okay?”
“Perfect. I’ve got a meeting in about two minutes, but I’ll call you later, okay?”
“Actually, I’m going to leave a bit early. I’ve got to make a few stops on the way home, so I’ll see you later.”
“Okay, that sounds great. And, Dawn? I’m really looking forward to it.”
With those quiet, heartfelt words, Dawn hung up. As she tidied up her office to leave, she thought about the previous year...a year of emotional lows that she never wanted to repeat, but a year which had brought her to a place she really liked, with a woman she was beginning to love. Paraphrasing Paul’s words, she murmured, “A long way to heal. A long way to go. But I made it, by God. I made it!”
As she turned off the lights in her office, a small smile graced her lips.
Now which drawer did I stash the good sheets in?