Chapter One: "Snip-Snip"
Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, feet planted wide, scissors raised high, Abby frowned at her own anxious reflection. With a final, shaky breath, she scrunched up her face, closed her eyes, and pressed down on the scissors. A huge clump of hair the color of cocoa plummeted to the floor, a little "Oh!" escaping her as it did. She stared down at the scattered curls.
This was the right thing to do, wasn't it? She'd never done anything so daring. Radical, even. Yet, despite Alan Ainsley's reassurances that it would be fine, it made her a little uneasy. Not just cutting her hair, either. No, it was more about transforming her entire life.
"Oh, I am so silly. What's wrong with me?" Abby gave herself a shake all over, stomping her feet and fanning her arms outward. "'You never get anywhere without a can-do attitude,'" she said, quoting Mrs. Nathanson, her favorite English teacher. She stared at her hair, long on the right, chopped off on the left, and shrugged. It would grow back. Abby raised the scissors again.
Another great mass of hair cascaded down Abby's back and plopped onto the bathroom floor. Let's be practical. If I'm going to be Parker's dream girl, I have to look the part, right? Even with all her misgivings, she'd been professional and studied his website so she knew he preferred girls with short hair. Every single one of the women pictured there had hair medium-to-short, odd because the man appeared to be such a bon vivant.
"A reformed bon vivant," she said aloud because she really liked that word. She had a good French accent for someone who only took two years in high school. At least it sounded good to her. Tongue at the corner of her mouth, she cut off another inch, using the mirrors she'd set up on the towel rack so she could see. Thanks to the fact that Mom had been a hairdresser, she knew how to cut hair although you'd never guess it by the mess she'd made so far.
More hair fell. That's a good length. Better make it look nice. Trimming the sides and shaping the whole thing, she squinted at her reflection as she worked. Oh, wow, she looked like that kid on the can of paint-the Little Dutch Boy? Except, his hair was blond and very straight. Okay, maybe not such a good example.
Abby peeked into the mirror behind her and then took a step closer. Wait 'til Vee sees my hair. I am too a real journalist.
"Journalist," though, wasn't exactly the right word. She had a degree in English, not journalism, although a lot of good that did. Plain vanilla, that's what an English degree was; it got you nowhere and stood for nothing. Her book would be an exposé, so that made her an...
"Author!" She let the word roll around on her tongue. Alan Ainsley, an editor at Marbury/Paterson, Inc., a New York publishing house, liked her work so much he would surely be able to convince MPI's editorial committee to offer her a contract. There you have it. The title would be hers.
"Author." Abby stuck out her tongue and made a face at herself.
After that, she'd probably be socially relevant. Maybe they'll talk about me at cocktail parties. "Well, you know what Talbot says about a man's innate ability to settle down with one woman," she said in a deepened voice, dropping her chin to her chest as she spoke. She laughed in the breathy way she'd picked up a few years back watching that Marilyn Monroe movie-a-thon. Wouldn't that be great? People talking about her book. Imagine that.
"Abby, you up here?"
Veena's voice, a croaky alto, made her sound like a bullfrog with a bad cold. "In here!" Abby called through the half-opened door. She took another quick look at the new, shorter do and then whirled as Vee pushed her way in.
"Oh, no!" Vee's husky voice rose a full octave. "What did you do? Abby, your hair!"
"What I liked was your beautiful, long hair." Vee scooped up a strand and brandished it at Abby. "How could you do this?"
"I told you, Vee. I'm on a mission." Abby went around the woman, out the door, and stopped at the hall closet, searching for the broom. So much for support from a fellow writer. Why did Vee doubt her commitment to this project?
"Oh!" Abby jumped back as she saw the lizard lounging atop Vee's canister vacuum cleaner.
"Romulus is out of his cage. You promised me he'd stay locked up."
Vee peered over her shoulder at the green, scaly monster who watched them with a deadpan expression. "You've upset him."
Abby didn't know if she could stand another episode of what-the-animal-really-feels. "I apologize, Romulus." She reached around him for the broom.
"That's not Romulus. It's Remus."
"Oh, sorry. My mistake." Back in the bathroom, Abby swept up the hair. For the first time, she thought that moving in with Parker Girard might be what Alan Ainsley said it would be: a vacation from all the animals. She liked animals, really, but Vee went overboard in her zeal to study different species' brain waves or, patterns or, whatever you called them. What was the current count? Dogs and cats. One very obnoxious parrot. A pair of lovebirds. A turtle, a hamster, and two rather free-spirited lizards. Apparently, the life of a pet psychic was not an easy one.
"So you're really going to do this?" Vee watched her, Romulus-no, Remus-in hand, her long, oval-shaped face even more mournful than usual. "You're going to move in with some guy who put an ad on Bernieslist?"
"That's what it's for, Vee. It's an on-line community. People do it all the time."
"You're not 'people.' Besides, it's a little more complicated than that."
Abby dumped her shorn hair into the wastebasket and returned the broom to the closet.
Like a lanky, anxious shadow, Vee trailed behind her. "It's not complicated at all."
She went into her bedroom, straight to where her Mac sat propped on an antique trunk she'd found over at the Rose Bowl Flea Market, very "Shabby Chic," especially with the little flecks of gold paint she'd added. She picked up the printed copy of Parker's ad and waved it at Vee. "He wants a roommate and a possible girlfriend, that's what it says. I think we're going to get along, so it looks like I'm going to be both." Considering how crazy she'd thought the idea was, she couldn't believe the confidence in her voice.
"My mother would not approve."
"Your mother wouldn't approve because she's such a feminist."
"Your mother wouldn't have approved either."
Abby flinched. Her mom had died nearly a year ago, but the pain remained, never far away. When the leukemia had first been diagnosed, Mom had found a church that helped her understand about God ... finally. Becoming a Christian seemed to comfort and strengthen her, so, who could fault her even if it wasn't something Abby could believe? She managed a deep breath. "That's true. Mom was pretty conservative. Still, it's not like I'm really going to do anything with this guy. It's research, Vee. You know that."
Vee set Remus on the floor and watched as he scuttled across the room and out the door. As she untwisted her straight, shoulder-length brown hair from the bun at the back of her neck, her long nose seemed to twitch with fear-for Vee, a normal reaction. "What if this Parker guy is an axe murderer?" She took the ad from Abby.
"Now, you sound like my mother." Abby crouched down and jiggled her mouse, waiting as Parker Girard's website blinked into view. "Well, at least he's a good looking axe murderer." She studied the young man's smiling face. His dark blond hair looked windblown; his keen, brown eyes seemed to search for adventure; the dimple in his cheek deepened the more he smiled, which seemed to be quite often, especially while he sailed the Santa Monica Bay, clubbed at all the hot night spots, or trekked around Africa. Yep, definitely a former bon vivant, a ladies' man to the hilt.
"Do you really think he's interested in a steady relationship?" Vee studied the ad as if it might yield some clue as to the mysterious Parker's motivation. "I mean, in every one of those pictures he's out having a grand old time with billions of girls. What makes him such a good match for your research?"
Abby took the ad from Vee and waited until her friend joined her on the floor. "You know as well as I what the criteria is. They have to express a definite interest in an ongoing relationship. Here." She pointed, following the words from the ad with the tip of her finger.
"'...that you're interested in a serious relationship (yes, even marriage). I've been doing the dating thing for so many years now. You'll see that when you check out my website: www.parkergirard.com.'" Abby swept a hand back in the direction of the Mac. "'After a while it gets old, so I'm interested in settling down with the ONE for me.'"
She looked into Veena 's gray eyes, hoping to convince her friend ... and maybe herself. "I've talked to him a lot by e-mail and on the phone. He's legit, Vee. And he's especially perfect since he claims to be reformed." Which was exactly what Alan Ainsley told her.
"So, you think he'll be just like all the others?" Veena raised long, scrawny fingers and began to tick them off one by one. "The guy from the matchmaker service. What was his name?"
"Right, Charlie. Boy, was he cute."
Abby crossed her legs yoga-style and leaned against the chest, getting comfortable. She needed to help Vee past this point so her friend would chaperone her first encounter with Parker tonight at seven, just in case he was an axe murderer. "Definitely cute."
"Then the guy from the video dating service." Vee pulled her legs under the voluminous skirt she wore and hugged them to her chest. "Alec."
"Alec Roper aka Alec the Groper."
"Right. He didn't even last one night."
"For which I was so glad."
Vee raised a third finger. "Then the blind date with Reba's cousin, John."
Abby raked a hand through her dense, heavy hair, shocked by the shortness. I actually did it. Wow, I guess I am brave. "I liked John." She sighed, interlacing hands atop her head. "In the end, though, even 'nice' John had x-rated ideas. I mean, really! On the first date?"
"I remember." Vee scrunched up her face. "Uh, then the guy from your mom's church. That singles ministry."
"David Kennedy. So Irish, that one," Abby said in a poor imitation of a brogue.
"Right. What did you call him?"
Abby raised her eyes to the ceiling. "Mr.-I-Promise-We'll-Get-Married."
Vee held up five fingers. "Then the guy who picked you up at the Vons grocery store on Manhattan Beach Boulevard."
"A prime place guys meets girls. Richard Rockford was his name. The produce section gets the most action, you know."
Vee's frown deepened. "I know. You've told me that a billion times."
"You wouldn't know since you don't cook."
"Neither do you."
"I certainly do. I'm a great cook." Abby kicked off her shoes and checked her toes. The polish looked old and chipped. She ought to do a pedicure before the meeting tonight although, did she think Parker would ask to see her toes? Abby suppressed a giggle.
"Okay, who've I forgotten?"
"Hmmm." She looked around for the basket where she kept all her nail stuff and spotted it finally on the bookshelf. On hands and knees, she went in that direction and pulled it down, then came back to where Vee watched. "Uh, you didn't mention Philip DeCosta. The substitute math teacher I met when I subbed at Narbonne?"
"You're going to include him?"
"Of course. I'm listing all the ways young women my age meet guys. Despite the policies most companies have in place, it happens at work all the time." Abby began to scrub off the peeling pink color on her toes, the sharp smell of the nail polish remover filling the air.
"And in each of those cases you maintain the guys told you they were interested in a long term relationship?"
"Just like Parker. That's exactly what they said." She knew Vee needed to hear this again because of her worrywart personality so she tried to be patient.
"And in each case, they tried to get you into bed as quickly as possible."
Abby rubbed at her big toenail. "Despite the fact that I told each one I needed time to get to know them." The part about sex made the uneasiness flare briefly in her stomach. Would it really be all right, moving in with a total stranger just to research a book? It wasn't the same as going out on a few dates, was it?
"So that proves, what? Men are pigs?"
"It proves that men, who say they're sensitive and attuned to women these days, who say they respect women and only want to give them pleasure if that's what they want, who say they're s-o-o-o-o different than their chauvinistic fathers, are full of crap." Abby gave her head a vigorous nod as much to convince herself as Vee. "I just think men aren't being honest with themselves."
"And you're going to be the one to expose them."
"More like, show them the truth."
"And Parker Girard is the last nail in that coffin."
Abby jerked up her head as the cotton ball dropped onto the rug. "What a way to put it."
Vee's generous mouth dipped into a huge frown. "You don't like men. You want to bury them."
"I most certainly do too like men. Some of them."
"You're still upset about Ryan."
Abby made a sound both loud and impolite. "Vee-Vee-Vee! You've got to stop saying that, please!" She grabbed the cotton ball and lobbed it at the woman. "I'm over him! Very over. Do me a favor and be over him too? I get tired of hearing his name every time we have this conversation." She ignored the shrill tone that had crept into her voice.
"He broke your heart and suddenly you have to write an entire book about how men are all such jerks. It's revenge, pure and simple." Unfolding her thin, angular body, Vee lay down on Abby's rug. She folded her hands beneath her head. "You'd be better off coming to terms with the whole Ryan thing."
Abby picked out a very pink polish because it would match her going-to-meet-Parker outfit, once she figured out the exact set of clothes. She tried to ease the stiffness in her shoulders. Vee probably had a point. At one time, she'd really thought maybe Ryan would be the one.
A tall brunette with hazel eyes and a lazy smile that sent electric shivers up her spine, Ryan came along during the final stages of Mom's illness. She spent so much time at the hospital, sitting with Mom, running errands for her, bringing her milkshakes when she could still drink them, that dating was the last thing on her mind. Yet, Ryan had treated her with such courtesy and respect, she felt drawn to him and comforted by his strength. And, okay, yes, she needed him to help her get through what was a devastating, impossible situation.
In the aftermath, with Mom gone, she thought Ryan understood her feelings, that she'd been clear about that stuff. She was certain she'd told him the nice-to-meet-you-now-can-we-go-to-bed attitude most men possessed left much to be desired. He even said he agreed. She was pretty sure of that.
She hadn't always felt that way, especially in college, but Mom must've influenced her because she started noticing how quickly men went down that path. Uh, like, immediately? So, women went through all that feminist stuff years ago-marching, passing laws, changing attitudes, and the like-for that? So men could get them into bed faster? It didn't make sense.
Ryan struck her as being more like the old fashioned men who'd haunted black-and-white television during Mom's childhood. A bona fide gentleman. A man who cared for the full Abby package: heart, mind, body, and soul. Who understood the pain that became part of her life as she struggled with Mom being gone. And she'd believed all of that about him, right up until he made his move.
One night, as they sat talking in front of a cozy fire, he tried to take advantage of the physical comfort she found in his arms, and had not backed down when she asked him to stop. No, instead, he'd whispered encouragement in her ear. It would be a release. It would help her forget. It would make her relax.
How low could you go?
"You're really going to not only transform yourself into the person this Parker guy says he wants, but you're going to sleep with him too?"
Abby's hand jerked, pink nail polish splattering everywhere. "Of course not!"
"But that what it says in the ad." Vee reached over to where the thing lay and read aloud. "'Of course, you'd have to sleep with me too. Hopefully, you'd want to.'" Eyes narrowed, she peered at Abby. "You can get all kinds of STDs from-"
"I am not sleeping with him!" Dabbing the carpet with a cotton ball soaked in nail polish remover, Abby didn't look up. "You ought to be ashamed, asking such a question."
"But he says-"
"I've told him on several occasions that I'd need time before I could make a commitment like that. I always say that, Vee."
"And that was okay with him?"
"It was. Would you relax?" She tossed the cotton balls into her wicker trashcan. "He seemed kind of embarrassed about the whole subject."
Vee rolled onto her stomach, hands propping her chin as she regarded Abby. "He sounds a little schizoid to me. One minute he's a sweet guy, the next he wants to sleep with you."
"You are just bound and determined not to like this, aren't you? Come on, I need your support. You know how much this book means to me. You know how important Alan Ainsley says this part of the story will be. Would you work with me here?"
"I'll go over to this guy's apartment with you. Don't worry. I wouldn't dream of letting you go alone."
"Great." She flashed a thankful smile. "I need to pick out my outfit and then go over my background."
"What background have you decided on?"
"Well..." Abby capped the nail polish, twisting her mouth from one side to the other. "I thought for Parker I'd be like him, the party girl who's tired of that lifestyle."
"So, you've been to Africa too?"
"No, I decided on Paris."
Veena's eyebrows shot up. "Hey, did you know I've been to Paris?"
Abby made her eyes rounder and then crossed them. "Duh!" She stood up, careful not to dig her still-wet toes into the carpet. "That's why I picked it. Tell me everything you remember while I try on a few outfits."
From the floor, Vee studied her as if she were a new species of insect. "You are one crazy kid," she said after a moment of this. "I really believe you'll succeed at this project ... if Parker Girard doesn't turn out to be an axe murderer."
Abby opened her closet and began to shuffle through her huge assortment of pink clothing. "He won't be. Trust me. He'll be just fine," she said with as much conviction as she could muster. It would be after all.
She was pretty sure about that.
Chapter Two: "Possibilities"