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Suddenly Single Millie Criswell Wedded, bedded…and suddenly separatedUnable to cope with her dangerously seductive new husband's uptight family (how did he get to be so hot coming from that bunch?), Lisa Morelli is back home. Too bad there's no peace there, either!Lisa vows to stick to her newly single life, despite every female relative's despair at letting a catch slip away (after all, she's hitting spinsterhood–at 27!). But there's one small detail she hasn't counted on. Alex Mackenzie likes being married to Lisa. And he's wooing his runaway bride with everything from tight T-shirts and torn jeans, to motorcycle rides and tattoos!With this kind of temptation, how will Lisa resist returning to wedded bliss? Dear Reader, The wacky and wonderful Morelli family, whom you met and grew to love in Staying Single, the book that launched the Flipside line, is back and more engaging than ever. Or so I think! This time it’s Lisa Morelli’s heart that’s in jeopardy. This wild, unconventional woman must decide if her soon-to-be ex-husband, Alexander Mackenzie, is her Prince Charming or just another frog she’s kissed while trying to find the man of her dreams. And being married to the guy just seems to be complicating the issue. Of course, Lisa’s mom, the ever formidable and interfering Josephine, is on hand to guide her daughter down the primrose path to happiness. It’s what mothers do, after all! As always, I would love to hear your comments on Suddenly Single. Please write to me at P.O. Box 41206, Fredericksburg, VA 22404, or visit my Web site at www.milliecriswell.com (http://www.milliecriswell.com). Best always, Millie Criswell “What on earth are you doing here, Lisa? Is Mom okay?” “Why does everyone think there’s something wrong with Mom? That woman will outlive us all, Francie, and you know it.” Lisa sighed. “Mom’s fine. I’m the one with the problem.” Francie looked meaningfully at her husband, who took the hint. “I’ve got work to do,” he said before kissing his wife on the cheek and flashing her a smile full of promise. “Don’t be too long, okay?” After her brother-in-law had left, Lisa made gagging sounds, then said, “You two are going to make me throw up, if you’re not careful. Are you always like this? So sickeningly sweet, lovey-dovey and moony-eyed? I feel like I’m developing diabetes just being in the same room with you two sweethearts.” Francie grinned and said, “We’re newlyweds. What do you expect? I’m sure you and Alex behave exactly the same way. I’d bet money on it, in fact.” Not anymore, Lisa thought. “You’d lose. Alex and I have split. We’re kaput, done, finito. Turns out I’m not the marrying kind after all.” Suddenly Single Millie Criswell www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) ABOUT THE AUTHOR Millie Criswell, USA TODAY bestselling author and winner of a Romantic Times Career Achievement Award and a National Readers Choice Award, has published over twenty-five romance novels. She began her writing career when her husband uttered those prophetic words: “Why don’t you try writing one of those romances you’re always reading?” Knowing that her dream of tap dancing with the Rockettes wasn’t likely to materialize—due to a lack of dancing talent—Millie jumped on the idea with both feet, so to speak, and has been charming readers with hilarious stories and sparkling characters ever since. Millie resides in Virginia with her husband and her lovable Boston terrier. Books by Millie Criswell HARLEQUIN FLIPSIDE 1—STAYING SINGLE HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE 810—THE WEDDING PLANNER 863—THE PREGNANT MS. POTTER HARLEQUIN HISTORICALS 508—THE MARRYING MAN 579—A WESTERN FAMILY CHRISTMAS “Christmas Eve” To my brilliant and wonderful editor, Wanda Ottewell, who is such a joy to work with Contents Chapter 1 (#u036beebc-0a43-5ff2-96c7-0c9d0897ab5e) Chapter 2 (#ub506e7ff-de6b-5c55-b9af-bcb892de11b5) Chapter 3 (#u32cc0cb6-955e-5c2d-b968-2b15c7ea844f) Chapter 4 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 5 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 6 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 7 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 8 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 10 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 11 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 12 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 13 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 14 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 15 (#litres_trial_promo) 1 THE POSSIBILITY of pregnancy loomed ugly on the horizon for Lisa Morelli, as she knocked on her sister’s apartment door. Of course, Lisa knew her mother would be thrilled if it turned out that she was pregnant. The only thing in life Josephine Morelli wanted more than seeing her two daughters wed was to get her hands on a grandchild. Girl or boy, it didn’t matter, as long as it was healthy and had ten toes and fingers, though she would probably take the nine-toed variety if push came to shove. Her mother’s fixation on grandchildren was similar to the one she had about fiancés. Finding the perfect mate for Lisa gave her mother a purpose in life, but tended to make everyone else nuts. Her mother’s only criterion for potential bridegrooms was that they had to be breathing. And some of the old geezers Josephine had paraded before Lisa barely even met that standard. Morris Parker, her parents’ ancient accountant, carted an oxygen tank around with him wherever he went. Lisa had no doubt that it would have followed him into the bedroom, as well. Not that she was interested. There was something very unappealing about shriveled skin! Lisa’s sister would also be elated if Lisa was to find herself pregnant. Francie had been counting the days, and her birth control pills, until she and her new husband Mark Fielding could begin a family. But since they’d only been married a few months, the couple had opted to wait a while longer, which seemed quite sensible to Lisa. One never knew when one’s marriage was going to end up in the shitter. Nope. The only one who would have a conniption fit—translation: suicidal tendencies—if she was to find out she was pregnant was Lisa. And not because she wasn’t married. But because she was—to Alexander Hamilton Mackenzie, her mama’s boy, wimp-of-a-husband—wimp-of-a-handsome-smart-great-giver-of-sex-husband, she amended. Her soon-to-be ex-husband, if Lisa Morelli Mackenzie had anything to say about it, and she most certainly did. Plenty, in fact! Marrying Alex had been a huge mistake—one of many she’d made over the years. Lisa had always been impulsive and foolish when it came to men, and falling hard for Alex had been in keeping with her poor judgment. Lisa hadn’t expected to fall in love with the conservative mortgage banker. They were as different as night and day. But when she’d spotted him across the dance floor at Club Zero dressed in a three-piece business suit, no less, and looking totally out of place, her heart had begun hammering and had never stopped. He’d obviously felt the same attraction, for three weeks later they’d eloped and moved to Florida to live with his parents—her second biggest mistake. Every time she thought about how Alex had tried to placate his snotty, upper-crud parents she went ballistic. She didn’t display her Italian temperament very often, but when she got mad…Watch out! And she was mad as hell at Alex for what he had put her through. The Mackenzies made Bonnie and Clyde look like Ozzie and Harriet! No. Discovering that she was pregnant would not be a good thing right now. If ever. Timing was everything, and hers…well, hers sucked! Always had and probably always would. Besides, she doubted she would make a very good mother. She was too self-absorbed to share the spotlight with a baby, still too much of a child herself. At least, that’s what her parents had been telling Lisa for years, and she was beginning to believe them. Trying to please Josephine and John Morelli—impossible, in her opinion—was what had gotten her into this mess in the first place. Lisa hadn’t taken enough time to get to know Alex before marrying him. She’d only been dating him for a few weeks before agreeing to run off to that hideous wedding chapel in Las Vegas—her choice, not his. Alex was much too conservative to ever suggest such an outlandish thing. The man ironed his boxers, for chrissake! The minister—she used that term loosely—who had performed the wedding ceremony and his wife were former circus performers. They had conducted the proceedings while riding unicycles and juggling oranges back and forth between them. Alex had been hit on the right side of the head in a ride-by fruiting after reciting his “I dos” and had nearly been knocked unconscious, which would have proven disastrous for their wedding night—a truly memorable event, as it turned out. Lisa had taken precautions against getting pregnant. Condoms had been the dress of the day, and night. Of course, she knew condoms weren’t one hundred percent foolproof, but then, only abstinence was, and abstaining from having sex with Alexander would have been too Herculean a task for a mere mortal—horny—woman, such as herself. Sex with Alex had been fabulous, delicious, the best ever. It was what made her lose whatever sense she’d been born with—according to her father, that hadn’t been much—and toss caution to the wind. John Morelli had a low opinion of his youngest daughter’s ability to act rationally, and she certainly hadn’t disproved that notion by eloping on impulse. Her parents had been furious when they’d found out what she’d done, especially after discovering that the bridegroom was a non-Catholic, non-Italian, WASP-white-bread mortgage banker. Her hormones had always tended to get her into trouble. Upon reflection, it also probably hadn’t been a good idea to have had sex with Alex the night before she’d packed her bags, said goodbye to her witch-of-a-mother-in-law’s Florida estate and hightailed it back to Philadelphia, brokenhearted and alone, but much wiser. The one and only positive thing she had to show for her three-month marriage to Alexander Hamilton Mackenzie, besides the fabulous sex, was a great tan. At least, she hoped that was all. Banishing her disturbing thoughts, Lisa knocked on her sister’s apartment door again. When there was still no answer, she cursed beneath her breath. Lisa knew a lot of curse words; she was her mother’s daughter, after all. They didn’t call Josephine Morelli “The Terminator” for nothing! After spending one night under her parents’ roof listening to her mother wail about what a selfish, thoughtless daughter she had, Lisa was desperate for a place to stay and had come begging in the hope Francie would put her up for a few days, until she could find a job and get a place of her own. She hated asking her sister for help, especially since Francie was a newlywed, but Lisa was quickly running out of options, not to mention money. “She’s not home. Francie and Mark took a couple of days off and drove to Bucks County to look at houses. They left last night after work.” Turning, Lisa found her sister’s former roommate, Leo Bergmann, standing behind her. The blond man, who reminded her of a young Elton John, sexual persuasion and all, was holding a bag of groceries and smiling that friendly, welcoming smile he always wore whenever he saw her. “Hey, Leo! Do you know when Francie’ll be back from big bucks country?” Bucks County, land of stone farmhouses, quaint bed-and-breakfasts and assorted artsy types, was only a short drive from Philadelphia. Buying a house or property there definitely took big bucks, but her sister’s husband worked for the Associated Press as a photo-journalist so she knew they’d be able to afford it, if they were lucky enough to find a house they both could agree on. Leo shrugged. “Sunday night, I suppose. Why?” His eyes filled with concern as he took in her bedraggled appearance. “You look awful, sweetie. Has something happened? Is it your mother?” Lisa looked down at her soiled T-shirt and rumpled jeans. She hadn’t had time to do laundry for a few days. No surprise there! She was not domestic goddess material. “Hell, no! That woman’s healthier than the proverbial horse. On second thought, it’s sort of about my mother, but it has nothing to do with her health. Josephine’s skill is in making others sick.” Leo, who knew Lisa and Francie’s mother quite well—he’d been maid of honor at Francie’s wedding—nodded absently in agreement. “I heard you got married. Where’s your new husband? I’ve been dying to meet him. Francie tells me he’s quite the hunk.” Lisa sighed, feeling tired and alone. Damn you, Alex! Why didn’t you love me enough? “It’s a long story, Leo.” “I’ve got the time, and…” He pulled a bottle of wine from his grocery sack and grinned enticingly. She finally smiled back. “Why not? I can use some good vino.” Maybe it would drown the pain she was feeling. And Leo always had the best vintages to choose from. He was a collector of fine wines and had a pretty impressive cellar, though it wasn’t really a cellar in the traditional sense, but a closet that had been converted into one, with temperature control and pretty redwood racks. “Got any of those sugared nuts I’m wild about?” The blond man grinned. “Of course. I just stocked up.” He nodded at the brown bag he was holding. “Three cans.” “Why aren’t you and Francie working today? I thought you were trying to get that new business of yours off the ground.” Leo had recently started his own interior design firm and had hired her sister to assist him, after she’d been fired from her previous job as a publicist. Francie had a knack for landing on her feet, and Lisa envied her sister that. She usually landed on her rear, stuck like a too big butt in a too small toilet seat. Following Leo to his apartment door, she waited while he unlocked it. “Designing Women is doing great. Francie’s been a huge help. I’m so fortunate to have her working with me. But today’s Saturday, in case you haven’t noticed, and the store’s not open on Saturday. Francie thought we should be, but I had to draw the line at that. Weekends are for partying.” How could she have forgotten it was Saturday? Like her marriage, her mind must be going down the shitter, as well. “You’re my kind of man, Leo. Always have been.” “Well, sweetie, if I ever decide to go straight you’ll be the first woman I call now that Francie’s married. Oh wait, you’re married, too. Damn!” “Not for long.” His eyes widened. “Oh?” They entered the living room of the apartment, where Leo filled two wineglasses with a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon and handed Lisa one, then they both plopped down on opposite ends of the red leather sofa. “Do tell? And don’t leave out any of the gory stuff. It’s been boring since Francie left. I’ve had absolutely no one to gossip with at night.” Lisa sipped her wine thoughtfully. “I guess I shouldn’t have rushed into marriage, Leo. I was stupid, didn’t really think about what it might entail, like having to put up with Alex’s family, who are a total nightmare.” A major understatement, if ever there was one. “So the problem isn’t with Alex, but with his family?” “He’s to blame, too. Alex didn’t stand up for me, or take my side in anything. He just let that old bitch walk all over me and insult me.” And she would never forgive him for that. If there was one thing Lisa was, it was loyal, and she expected the same degree of loyalty in return. “Miriam hated me on sight. I thought in time I could win her over. Ha! That was a good one. The woman makes Leona Helmsley look like a saint.” The Queen of Meaner, Lisa thought. “Miriam objected to everything about me. She particularly didn’t like the way I dressed and was always calling me a hippie, which I think was a euphemistic way to say hooker. She insisted on taking me shopping, tried to make me buy clothes that not even my mother would be caught dead in. I’m not kidding, Leo. All her friends dressed so ultraconservatively, they looked like the Stepford wives come to life—monogrammed blouses with matching monogrammed purses, wraparound skirts, that sort of thing.” She shuddered at the thought. “Sort of a Night of the Living Dead look, huh?” “Exactly. When I refused to go along, she told me I was being selfish, that I was an embarrassment to Alex.” “That was cruel.” “Yeah, but not as cruel as her wanting me to chop off my hair and dye it blond, so I’d fit in better.” Leo’s eyes widened. “That gorgeous dark hair? You’re kidding.” “Afraid not.” “What about Alex’s father? Was he awful, too?” “Rupert, the magnificent?” Lisa shook her head and heaved a sigh, remembering all the glares and the disappointed looks the older man had cast her way. “The same, though not quite as vocal. “The Mackenzies are very wealthy. They had a different image of what Alex’s wife should be—white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, to be exact. And being a Southerner wouldn’t have hurt. “The fact that I was Italian and Catholic went against me from the beginning. They hated the way I dressed, talked, breathed. They hated pretty much everything about me. Guess I didn’t meet their exacting standards. I doubt anyone could.” Miriam had actually expected Lisa to wear white gloves to one of the tea parties she held for her lady friends. And Lisa had complied. Sort of. She’d worn elbow-length white gloves, accompanied by a sequined crop top. Lisa had known it would piss off her mother-in-law, but by that point she hadn’t really given a damn. “I’m sorry, sweetie. That must have been tough. I know what it’s like not to meet expectations. People can be quite cruel. What are you going to do now?” “Get a divorce, as soon as I can afford a lawyer.” Which, admittedly, could take a while, finances being what they were—nonexistent. “Are you working?” Lisa shook her head. “I tried to get my old job back at the bookstore, but they’d already hired someone else.” Actually, the manager of Carlton Books had looked horrified at the prospect of hiring Lisa back. Dick Lester, or Dick Less, as she liked to call him, sure as hell hadn’t minded pinching her butt whenever he got the chance. One day when she’d finally had enough of his sexist treatment, she’d punched the disgusting pig in the balls, thus ending her lackluster career as a bookseller and his as Philadelphia’s oldest living stud muffin. “I’m afraid I’m not qualified to do much, Leo, which is my biggest problem.” Lisa hated working regular hours and conforming to other people’s rules and regulations. Being an adult sucked, for the most part, which is why she hadn’t been too successful at holding down a job for more than a few months at a time. Leo reached for his wallet. “I can lend you some money if—” Lisa shook her head adamantly. “No, Leo! That’s very kind of you, but I won’t take your money.” Aside from his design-firm income, Leo lived off a trust fund left to him by his deceased parents. He was generous to a fault, and Lisa drew the line at accepting his money. “I still have a little cash left to tide me over until I can find a job. What I need is a place to live. I will not spend one more night under my mother’s roof. That woman is a nightmare. Can you believe she accused me of trying to ruin her life?” An impossibility, since Lisa was too busy ruining her own. Leo refilled their glasses and set the bottle of wine back down on the coffee table, and being careful to use a coaster. “From nightmarish mother-in-law to nightmarish mother in one fell swoop, huh?” “Something like that. I was hoping to find Francie home, so I could beg a room for a few days.” Lisa sipped her wine thoughtfully, wondering if she had enough cash for a cheap hotel room. Her credit cards were maxed to the hilt, due to the exorbitant airfare she’d purchased at the last minute to fly home from Florida. Of course, at that point she’d have paid any amount of money to leave Alex and his family. In fact, she would have walked home. “But she’s just married, sweetie. I doubt Mark would be thrilled by that idea. And you couldn’t really blame him. Third wheels suck when you’re in love and doing the dirty on a regular basis.” Lisa nodded, knowing what Leo said was true. As in love as Francie was with Mark, and vice versa, she doubted the couple would welcome her into their love nest with open arms. “Well, I’ll live on the street before going back to my parents’ house. It’s only January. It can’t be that cold at night.” Leo looked horrified by her suggestion. “Don’t be stupid! You can bunk here until Francie gets back. Her old room is still pretty much intact.” Breathing a huge sigh of relief, Lisa smiled gratefully. “Are you sure, Leo? I wouldn’t want to put you out or anything.” It was a bald-faced lie. She might not take his money, but Lisa didn’t mind putting Leo out, circumstances being what they were. She didn’t relish using Leo, or anyone else for that matter, but Lisa was an opportunist, and if an opportunity presented itself, she’d be foolish not to act on it. “It’ll only be for a couple of days, right? So you won’t be putting me out.” “Right,” Lisa agreed, but her mind was already working overtime, trying to figure out how to turn temporary into permanent. “I WANT YOU to stop packing that suitcase right now, young man, and think about what you’re doing.” Alex’s gaze lifted to his mother. Miriam Mackenzie was still an attractive woman, though the former Miss Mint Julep was definitely starting to show her age. She’d been looking tired and wrinkled lately, despite her many face-lifts and the strawberry-blond hair color from an expensive salon to hide the gray. He used to tease his mother that she could give Michael Jackson a run for his money in the plastic-surgery department, which had never gone over well. His mother didn’t have a sense of humor when it came to her fading looks. Alex and his mother had always shared a close relationship, though at times she was smothering and bossy, like now. Still, as much as he loved her, he loved his wife more. “I’ve thought a great deal about what I’m doing, Mother, and I’m leaving. I’ve got to try and win Lisa back. I love her, and I don’t want to live my life without her.” Clearly distressed, Miriam walked farther into her son’s room and took a seat on the edge of the antique tester bed, folding her hands primly in her lap, as any good Southern woman was wont to do. Her voice softened. “Lisa isn’t right for you, Alex. She doesn’t fit into our…your way of life. I thought that had become quite apparent these past few months. You can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, as the saying goes. Lord knows we tried.” Alex’s voice reflected his anger. “What’s apparent is that I’m a fool. I know Lisa isn’t perfect or acceptable by your standards, Mother, but she’s perfect for me. She’s like a breath of fresh air. You and father never took the time to really get to know her. If you had, you would have loved her as much as I do.” “But she has no social graces, Alex. Surely you realize that. She balked at every opportunity—to purchase a more appropriate wardrobe, to have dance lessons so we could take her to the country club, to—” “You tried to change her. I don’t know why I was so blind in seeing what your motives were from the beginning. I never should have brought her here, I can see that now. We were happy in Philadelphia. We should have just stayed there.” Miriam stood, a steely look of determination on her face. “That wasn’t the real world, Alexander—your world. You come from wealth and privilege. Nothing, including a change of geography, is going to change what you are or where you come from.” “Well, maybe I need to change. I’m not saying that I’m not grateful for everything you and Father have given me—the excellent Ivy League education and the opportunity to work in the family banking business. But it’s time I became my own man, made my own mistakes.” “You’ve certainly done that, son, now haven’t you?” Pausing in his packing, Alex looked back over his shoulder to find his father standing there. Gray-haired, broad-shouldered and as intimidating as ever, Rupert Mackenzie was a formidable force in the world of banking and commerce—and in his own family. And though Alex loved his father, loved both his parents, he wasn’t about to let them ruin his life. He’d already done a good job of that himself. “I’m twenty-nine years old. It’s high time I made my own mistakes. And I don’t consider having married Lisa to be one. You and Mother were very hard on her, criticizing every little thing she said or did. I tried to keep silent, to avoid confrontation, in the hope that you’d accept her in time. I never expected you to chase her away.” “A woman with backbone wouldn’t have been scared off like a frightened rabbit, Alex. You know that as well as I do.” Zipping his black-leather carry-on bag shut, Alex stood up and faced both his parents. “Lisa’s got more courage than most people I know. She’s not afraid of the world, hasn’t been cosseted and fawned over like a favored family pet, as I have. And she’s managed to survive, to do all right for herself. I admire that about her. I love her. And I intend to have her for my wife, one way or another.” “Tread carefully, son. There’s a lot at stake that you could be throwing away.” Eyes narrowed, Alex stared down his father. “If you’re threatening me with my inheritance, don’t bother. I know enough about the mortgage-banking business to start my own firm, and I doubt I’ll have any trouble finding a job in Philadelphia. Now that my assignment there has ended for Mackenzie Enterprises, I’m free to pursue my own interests.” “Are you resigning from the firm?” Alex’s father looked shocked, which was a shock in itself. Few things ever threw the old man. “I built that firm as a legacy for you.” “It appears that I am.” And no one was more surprised about that than Alex. Miriam stepped forward, placing her hand on Alex’s arm, and looking beseechingly at her husband. “You’re our only son, Alex, and we love you. We have only your best interests at heart. Surely you know that. Please don’t make a rash decision that could ruin your future.” “What I know is that I’m in love with Lisa and have been from the first moment I laid eyes on her across a crowded dance floor. I’m determined to win her back, no matter what I have to do. And trust me, knowing what her family is like, that won’t be easy.” His mother grew alarmed. “Why? Are the Morellis connected to the Mafia? Are you in danger?” Alex would have laughed, if he thought his mother was joking. Sadly, she wasn’t. “Not every Italian-American is a member of the mob, Mother. The Morellis are hardworking, upstanding people. I don’t think they’re related to the Sopranos.” “But you don’t know them that well.” “I know their daughter, and that tells me all I want to know.” Alex picked up his bag and headed for the door. “You’ll regret this, son, if you walk out that door,” his father warned. “And I’ll regret it the rest of my life if I don’t.” 2 LISA HAD BEEN WAITING anxiously all weekend for her sister’s return, so when she heard Francie’s voice on Leo’s voice mail Sunday night, letting him know that she and Mark were back, Lisa hightailed it down the hallway to Francie’s apartment. Mark answered the door, looking tired, well kissed and as disgustingly handsome as ever. Apparently the trip to Buck’s County had gone well, or else he and Francie had just engaged in a round of fabulous sex. She rather thought it was the latter. “Lisa, this is a surprise! What are you doing here? I thought you were in Florida.” “Sorry to intrude, Mark, but I need to talk to Francie. It’s about why I’m not in Florida—a long sad story, and one I’d rather not tell twice, if you don’t mind.” One she’d rather not tell at all, if she were truthful with herself, but Francie was going to ask probing questions and would expect direct answers. Though Francie was only two years older than Lisa, she took her job as big sister seriously. But then, Francie took most things seriously. She was the reliable, conscientious, mostly well-behaved daughter, while Lisa was the screwup. Her present situation was testament to that. “Sure, come on in. Francie’s in the shower. She’ll just be a few more minutes. Let’s have a beer. I’ll tell you about our trip to Buck’s County. We spent the weekend looking at houses and we think we’ve found the one we want, if we can get our price. The sellers seem anxious, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed.” “That’s great!” Following her brother-in-law into the kitchen, Lisa seated herself at the table, accepting the frosty beer mug he handed her. “I can’t wait to hear all about it. Did you take lots of pictures?” Mark’s eyebrow shot up in disbelief, and Lisa shook her head. “Stupid question to ask a photographer, huh?” “I took several rolls of film, but I haven’t had a chance to develop them yet. Francie took some nice shots with the digital camera, but I won’t steal her thunder. She’ll want to show you those herself.” Wrapped in a blue terry-cloth bathrobe, Francie stepped into the kitchen at that moment, her smile melting into concern when she spotted her younger sister. “I thought I heard voices. What on earth are you doing here, Lisa? Is it Mom? Is she okay?” “Why does everyone always think there’s something wrong with Mom? That woman is going to outlive us all.” Lisa sighed. “Mom’s fine. I’m the one with the problem.” Francie looked meaningfully at her husband, who was wise enough to take the hint. “I’ve got work to do,” he said, “so I’ll say good-night.” Mark kissed his wife’s cheek, flashing her a smile full of promise. “Don’t be too long, okay?” After her brother-in-law departed, Lisa stuck her finger down her throat and made gagging sounds. “You two are going to make me throw up, if you’re not careful. Are you always like this?” She shook her head, a bemused smile lighting her face. “Like what?” “Sickeningly sweet, lovey-dovey, moony-eyed and horny as rabbits? I feel like I’m developing diabetes just being in the same room with you two sweethearts.” Used to her sister’s outrageous remarks, Francie merely grinned. “We’re newlyweds. What do you expect? I’m sure you and Alex behave in exactly the same way. I’d bet money on it, in fact.” Not anymore, Lisa thought. “You’d lose. Alex and I have split. We’re kaput, done, finito.” “What?” Francie dropped into the chair across from her sister, a stunned look on her face. “What happened? I thought you two were madly in love with each other.” “Love wasn’t the problem, and neither was sex, which was fabulous, I might add. It was his parents. Alex changed once we got to Florida and began living with them.” Lisa detailed her treatment at Miriam and Rupert Mackenzie’s hands. “When he refused to stand up for me, I got fed up and left.” “But to leave without telling anyone, Lisa. They must be frantic with worry.” Lisa laughed, though there was no humor in it. “I haven’t heard a peep from anyone, including Alex.” And that hurt; it hurt a lot. After all, she had a cell phone. Of course, the battery was dead, and it had only been a couple of days, but still… “I guess he must realize, as I do, that our marriage was a huge mistake. I’m sure he’s relieved as hell that I left. It saved him the trouble of kicking me out.” Francie reached out to clasp her sister’s hand. “I’m sure that’s not true, Lisa. And you shouldn’t think such things. Alex loves you. I’m positive of that.” “How do you know? You only met him that one time, right before we moved to Florida.” “Because I saw the way he looked at you. You can’t pretend love. It was there in his eyes, for all the world to see.” “Oh, pleeze! You are going to make me throw up. I doubt there’s any such thing as love. Okay, maybe you and Mark have the genuine thing. I’m not sure what Alex and I experienced, probably lust. After all, the sex was fabulous—but you can’t expect sex to make up for all that was lacking in our relationship.” Francie arched a skeptical eyebrow. “Such as?” “We have nothing in common. Alex comes from money, oodles of it. He’s never experienced hard knocks, rejection or parental disapproval. He works for his father’s company; they think he walks on water.” “So what’s wrong with that? Lots of children work for their parents.” “The Mackenzies’ blood isn’t blue, France, it’s positively green, as in greenbacks. They’re into all sorts of social activities, like the country club and yachting. Hell, I can’t even swim. I nearly drowned in the kiddy pool at the club. Miriam was not pleased.” “But you knew about the differences between you and Alex before you married him. You knew he was a mortgage banker and a great deal more conservative than you could ever hope to be. In fact, I worried at your decision to elope. Alex was definitely different from the other men you’d dated.” Lisa was thoughtful for a moment as she sipped her beer. “I guess I wanted to impress Mom and Dad, be the kind of daughter they wanted. You were getting married to Mark, and I wanted to share in some of the adoration and attention. Pathetic, huh?” Francie sighed, concern for her sister etched on her face. “Oh, Lisa…” “Or maybe I thought I had fallen in love and wasn’t paying attention to the differences in our personalities and upbringing. I don’t really know. I just know I screwed up. Big-time.” “What do you intend to do?” “Well, originally I was going to ask you for a place to stay until I could get things worked out financially, but then Leo pointed out that might not be a very good idea, so I’ve been staying at his apartment all weekend, trying to come up with a plan.” Eyes widening, Francie said, “You and Leo? Now there’s an odd couple if there ever was one.” Offended, Lisa stiffened. “What do you mean?” “Leo is a compulsive neat freak. Your messy ways will drive him nuts.” “Oh that.” She waved away her sister’s objection with a flick of her wrist. “He’s already made a few comments about water rings on the table and toothpaste caps being left off. Jeez! Leo’s worse than Mom.” “How long are you going to live there?” “Leo’s offer is only good for the weekend, but I’m hoping he’ll give me a permanent place to stay after he sees how well we get on. I’m trying to impress him.” “With what? You don’t clean. You don’t know a thing about wine. And I don’t need to point out that you’re the wrong sex.” Lisa made a face. “Like Leo, I like to party and have a good time. And we share a love of toffee peanuts, not to mention that I’m a big Cher fan.” “Yes, you and Leo are well suited in that way.” Francie shook her head. “I’m not sure, however, that peanuts and parties will be enough to lure him to your way of thinking, Lisa. It takes him a while to warm up to people.” “Maybe you can help. Put in a good word for me.” “I’ll see what I can do, but don’t expect me to work miracles. Leo knows you better than you think.” Lisa brightened instantly. “That should go in my favor then, right?” Clearing her throat, Francie hesitated, then nodded. “Uh, yeah, right.” ALEX DROPPED his black leather carry-on bag in the front hallway of Bill Connor’s Philadelphia apartment, where he’d arranged to stay temporarily. Bill was his former college roommate, and they’d always gotten along well, sharing similar views on politics, movies and music. The one thing they differed on was women—Alex admired them; Bill consumed them. “I really appreciate your putting me up, Bill. It’s been a long time since Harvard.” “What are old roommates for?” the lawyer said, nodding toward the kitchen. “Come on in, your room’s all ready. I admit I was surprised when you called out of the blue last night. It’s been what, three years since our last college reunion?” “Four, actually. Time flies when you’re having fun,” Alex said, sarcasm edging his words. Lisa had only been gone three days, and he missed her like crazy. He’d fought the urge to phone, to beg her to come back…fearing what her answer would be. He’d come to Philadelphia so he could reason with her, show her how much he loved and wanted her back. Grabbing two Bud Lights from the refrigerator, Bill handed Alex one and they headed into the living room, which reeked of Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware. Alex took a seat on the big brown-leather recliner. “And have you been having fun, buddy?” “I did for a while. I got married a few months back.” And it had been fun—fun, fantastic and fabulous. What the hell had happened? “No shit! That’s great. Congratulations! Who’s the lucky lady?” “Her name’s Lisa…Lisa Morelli. But…she’s left me.” “No shit! That sucks. For another guy? I’m sorry as hell, Alex.” Bill patted his friend’s arm consolingly. “If you need a good lawyer, let me know. I’ve got lots of experience in these matters.” Alex shook his head and sidestepped the topic of divorce. “I’m not exactly sure of the reason for Lisa leaving like she did. She just packed up and split in the middle of the night, no note, no explanation. The bed was empty when I awoke the next morning.” And after they’d made such glorious love, and she’d told him how much she adored him—it had added insult to injury. “Pardon me for saying so, Alex, but this woman sounds like an insensitive bitch. You might have dodged a bullet on this one. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.” Heaving a sigh, Alex replied, “That’s just it. Lisa’s not a bitch. She’s great. She’s impulsive, I’ll admit that. But she’s not the type to purposely hurt someone.” “So why did she leave then?” “My guess is that it had something to do with my parents’ treatment of her. You know how snobbish they can be. They never accepted Lisa, never thought she was good enough for me, and they let her know it, in many subtle and not so subtle ways. “Maybe she got tired of their rudeness.” Alex shook his head. “I don’t know for sure because she never complained or said a word. I know now that I should have stepped in and tried to smooth things out, but I was hoping they would resolve their differences once they got to know each other better.” “Man, it’s tough when your parents are involved. There’s that whole divided loyalties thing to consider.” “But that’s just it, Bill. My loyalties weren’t…aren’t divided. I’m on Lisa’s side, but I guess I never let her know that, not really, not like I should have. I screwed up, royally.” “Yeah, well after you’ve been married a time or two you figure these things out.” Alex’s eyes widened. “Are you telling me that you’re divorced? Hell, I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know you were married.” With his sandy hair, deep blue eyes and dimpled smile, Bill had always been popular with the girls at school. He flitted from one relationship to the next, never tying himself down long enough to get serious about anyone in particular. So to find out his friend had been married, not once, but twice, came as quite a shock to Alex. “It was brief—they both were. Each one of my marriages lasted less than a year. I wasn’t good at the whole matrimony thing.” Alex sipped his beer, then said, “I’m sorry to hear that. Are you dating anyone now?” “Yeah.” Bill grinned. “Annie’s a flight attendant. She’s gone a lot, which works out good for both of us. That way we don’t get on each other’s nerves. I like her a lot, but I like my space even more.” “I miss Lisa like crazy. I want her back. I’ll do anything to make that happen.” Bill’s lawyerly instincts came rushing to the fore-front. “Whoa, buddy! Don’t start talking like that, or she’ll have you by the balls before you know what hit you.” “I don’t care. Lisa’s the only thing in this world that matters to me. I just wish I’d let her know that. She probably hates me now, probably thinks I’m as shallow as my parents.” “It’s hard to know what a woman’s thinking, Alex. I find it’s easier not to even try. It’s just too damn frustrating. And being men, we usually end up guessing wrong anyway.” Alex shrugged, wondering if his friend was right. “The Eagles are playing the Washington Redskins tonight at nine. Let’s order in some Chinese and drown our sorrow in a few dozen beers while we watch the game. Things might be clearer in the morning when you’re not so tired.” Alex nodded. He was tired and confused and hurt. And he had no answers for any of the unsettling questions that kept popping into his mind. The only thing he knew for sure was that Lisa was gone, and he had to figure out a way to get her back. How he was going to do that, he wasn’t certain. He knew only that his future happiness depended on it. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN, you’re going to look for an apartment? You’re married. Have you forgotten? Married women live with their husbands. And they don’t live with other men, even if those men are fanooks.” At times like this, Lisa wondered why she visited her mother. It was too early in the morning to be driven insane, and Josephine definitely made her crazy with her unwanted opinions and advice. But after her talk with Francie the previous evening, she’d had the strongest urge to see her mom. Now, of course, she wished she had just taken an enema and gotten whatever it was out of her system. Lisa gulped down the strong, black liquid that her mother tried to pass off as coffee and replied, “I told you, Mom, Alex and I are through. I’m not going to live with a man who doesn’t respect me and is tied to his mother’s apron strings. I didn’t know when I married Alex that I was marrying a mama’s boy.” “How could you know? You barely knew the man.” Lisa winced at the truth of her mother’s words. “And so what if he shows respect? What’s wrong with that? A son should respect his mother. Look at your brother. Jack’s crazy about me. He’s a good boy, your brother.” “First of all, Jack is a teenager and should still be tied to your apron strings. Alex, on the other hand, is a grown man—a grown married man. He should have cleaved to his wife, like the Bible says. Go ask Father Scaletti if you don’t believe me.” Josephine was of the opinion that everything that came out of the parish priest’s mouth was gospel, so Lisa figured she might as well use it to bolster her case. “For someone who rarely goes to church, it surprises me that you would know what the Bible says.” Josephine took her daughter’s hand, her tone softening. “Why must you make everything so difficult, Lisa? You made vows with this man. Now you must try and work it out between you. Just because something isn’t perfect doesn’t mean you should throw it away. “Marriage takes work. No one said it was easy. You think your father and I didn’t have our share of problems over the years? We did. But we stuck it out, for better or worse.” Lisa heaved a dispirited sigh. “I knew you wouldn’t take my side, Mom. You never do. Now if it were Francie having the problem, things would be different. You always stand up for her.” “Your sister uses her head before she rushes into things.” “You mean before she rushes out of the church, don’t you? I hope you’re not forgetting the three failed wedding attempts you paid for before Mark Fielding came along to hog-tie and drag Francie to the altar.” “I’m not saying your sister can’t be stubborn, but most of the time Francie listens, something you don’t do. You think you know everything. “I tried to tell you that the kind of men you were dating were wrong for you. Who dates a female impersonator? Tell me that? But would you listen? And now that you’ve found a normal one, you want to get rid of him.” Exasperated, Josephine slapped her hand to her forehead. “If you met his parents, you wouldn’t think Alex was normal.” “I spoke to his mother on the phone, after you told us you had eloped. She’s a cold fish, that woman. I could tell right away. But I’m sure she loves her son the way I love you and wants him to be happy.” Lisa rolled her eyes. “Oh yeah. Miriam wants Alex to be happy, just not with me. She doesn’t think I’m good enough for him, Ma. And his father feels the same way.” Upon hearing that, Josephine let loose a string of curses, and then crossed herself to atone for her sin. “What is this woman, Mussolini, that she thinks my daughter isn’t good enough? I should call her up and give her a piece of my mind.” “It wouldn’t do any good. Honey oozes out of Miriam Mackenzie’s sweet Southern belle mouth. She looks right at you and smiles, and then pushes a knife into your back. I’ve got so many holes I should be leaking like a sieve.” From the start, Miriam had gone out of her way to cause trouble between Lisa and Alex. The woman was always bringing her son’s old girlfriends into the conversation, going on about how accomplished they were, how beautiful, how much Alex had adored them, trying to get a rise out of Lisa. She would probe for information about Lisa’s education, knowing her daughter-in-law had only a two-year degree from a junior college, or ask her about certain poets or composers in an attempt to make Lisa look stupid, which usually worked. Lisa was up on her Aerosmith and Bono, but didn’t know a thing about Bach or Beethoven. Crossing herself again for good measure, Josephine pondered her daughter’s comments, and then tried to reason with her. “I didn’t get along good with your father’s mother, either, before she died. God rest Carmela’s miserable soul. She was a nasty old woman, your grandmother. In fact, Carmela Morelli was so nasty that she made my mother, who’s no picnic, look like a saint.” “I heard that!” Grandma Abrizzi shouted from the living room, making Lisa smile. The elderly woman, who lived with Lisa’s parents, was a feisty old gal who said what she thought, shooting straight from the hip and rarely taking any prisoners. Lisa liked to think she was a lot like her. “But you didn’t marry Alex’s mother,” Josephine continued. “You married Alex. And I assume, since you went to so much trouble to marry him quickly and outside the sanctity of the church—” she kissed the gold cross hanging around her neck “—that you love this husband of yours.” Not about to give her mother any ammunition that the wily woman could use against her, Lisa hedged. “I don’t know. All I know is that our marriage was a mistake. As soon as I can afford to hire a lawyer, I’m going to file for divorce.” “That would be a sin, for more than one reason.” “Would you have me live my life and be unhappy? Is that what you want for me?” “I want all my children to be happy. I want what is best for you, Lisa. You know that. But in my heart I don’t believe that divorcing Alex Mackenzie is going to make you happy. In fact, I think it will make you very unhappy and you will come to regret it.” Lisa felt betrayed by what she deemed her mother’s lack of support and understanding. “There’s no point in discussing this further, Mom. We are not going to agree.” No surprise there! They rarely agreed on anything. Sighing deeply, Josephine shook her head at her daughter’s stubbornness. “So where are you going to get the money to rent an apartment?” “I intend to find a job to support myself. I’ve already decided that I don’t want any of Alexander’s money.” “Have you spoken to Leo about letting you live with him a while longer? You know you can always come home, if he says no.” “I know, Mom, and I appreciate that.” Not! “I’m going to talk to Leo this evening when he gets home from work. I’m sure he’ll expect me to be gone. He sort of hinted at that this morning. But Francie’s going to put in a good word for me today, so maybe he’ll be more agreeable by tonight.” “For all of Leo’s sins in the eyes of God, he has a good heart.” “Yeah. Let’s just hope his generosity and goodness extends to me.” “Living with a gay man is going to be awkward, no? What about his…” Josephine searched for the right word. “Friends?” Lisa shrugged. “That doesn’t bother me in the least. To each his own, I say.” “You young people have strange ideas. I don’t understand your way of thinking.” Now that was one statement of Josephine Morelli’s that she could agree with wholeheartedly. 3 “I REALLY APPRECIATE your letting me move in with you temporarily, Leo,” Lisa said, a week after her arrival. “You’re a real lifesaver. My own personal fairy godmother.” “Well, that sort of fits, doesn’t it?” he replied with a wink. The ability to laugh at himself was one of Leo’s greatest gifts. Lisa dropped the last carton of her belongings onto the living-room floor with a thud, amidst her teddy-bear and Barbie-doll collection, making Leo grit his teeth. “As long as you understand that it’s only temporary, Lisa.” The fussy man stared in obvious disgust at the mess she’d already created. “I won’t pretend, sweetie, that this was my idea. I invited you to stay here as a favor to Francie, who has assured me that you will be neat as a pin and looking for employment very soon.” Lisa crossed her fingers behind her back. The concept of “neat” wasn’t actually part of her vocabulary, so that would take a bit of work on her part. “Absolutely. Neat is my middle name. And I’m heading to the unemployment office first thing in the morning. As soon as I can get my hands on a computer—” Leo looked horrified that she might attempt to use his “—I’m going to post my résumé on one of those job-search sites on the Internet.” Of course, she needed to make a résumé first, but there was no need to mention that. Poor Leo seemed traumatized enough as it was. “Sounds good. I’m sure we’ll get along just great. Do you like to dine out?” Lisa was surprised by the question. “Of course. Who doesn’t? Why do you ask?” “I have a thing about dining out. I love it. And I hate eating alone. Francie used to accompany me. I hope you will, too.” “If you’re paying, I’m dining, Leo.” Lisa felt as if she’d just died and gone to heaven. Someone actually wanted to pay for her meals; that was more than fine with her. And Leo probably ate at all the best restaurants, which made his request even better. “And when I don’t dine out, I usually order in. I’m not very proficient in the kitchen,” he added. “Don’t worry about that. I love to cook. Baking is my specialty.” And she was damn good at it, too. Lisa didn’t do many things well, but few people could best her when it came to baking. She’d actually thought about taking some classes and trying to bake professionally but, like with most things, Lisa was better at dreaming than doing. As much as she loved her parents, John and Josephine Morelli had never encouraged either of their daughters to become academic achievers and turn the world on its ear. For Josephine, getting married and having babies was the greatest accomplishment a woman could strive for, and that’s what she was still encouraging her daughters to do. Fortunately, Francie had always been a go-getter and had made something of herself: she was a bona fide interior designer now. Lisa had lived up to her parents’ expectations of her, which were low to nonexistent, so in that regard she had accomplished something. Leo’s eyes lit up. “Do you know how to make chocolate-chip cookies?” She grinned from ear to ear. “My chocolate-chip cookies are better than orgasms. You will think Nirvana after the first bite.” “This I gotta see. Make me a list. I’ll run down to the market and buy everything you need to make the cookies. What else do you know how to bake?” Having just discovered Leo’s Achilles’ heel, Lisa smiled confidently, planning to make the most of it. LISA LEARNED the following morning that finding a job was not nearly as easy as filling Leo’s insatiable craving for sweets. The red-faced, little pip-squeak behind the counter at the unemployment office had handed Lisa a form, told her to fill it out and return it to him, then wait to be called for an interview. That had been forty-five minutes ago! At the rate she was going, she’d be too old and senile to work and would instead be able to qualify for social-security benefits. Not that she had anything better to do with her time—unless you counted watching Wheel of Fortune reruns on Leo’s big-screen TV—but she hated being made to feel like a second-class citizen. She wasn’t applying for food stamps; she was trying to find a job so she could support herself, for crying out loud! “Miss Morelli. Miss Lisa Morelli. Please step up to the counter.” Looking up when her name was announced, Lisa breathed a sigh of relief that her turn had finally come. “Here.” She began waving, then stood. “I’m coming,” she called out as she made her way toward the counter through the hoard of people waiting in line, openly coveting her good fortune. At the unemployment office the “you snooze, you lose” rule was firmly in effect. Mr. Pip-squeak had so many freckles that his face looked like one big red blob. He was looking over her work history and frowning deeply, which didn’t bode well for her finding a decent job. People tended to underestimate her abilities. “I’m afraid, Miss Morelli, that with your lack of experience, there aren’t many jobs available that fit your qualifications.” Lisa couldn’t keep the dismay from her face. “But I worked in a bookstore. That should count for something, shouldn’t it?” “That’s true. But we have no current listings for that kind of job. You are, of course, free to apply at the major bookstore chains, if you like. They always need help during the Christmas holidays.” As if she hadn’t already done that. Puleeze! And the Christmas holidays were still eleven months away. What was she supposed to do until then, hit the streets with a tin cup? “What we do have is a job at the Holiday House Motel. It pays minimum wage, but no benefits, I’m afraid.” “Doing what?” “Cleaning motel rooms, that sort of thing.” She fought the urge to gag. Just what she wanted to do with her life: change sheets that had been soiled from— Yuck! “Is that all you have? I must be qualified for something better than that. What about selling cosmetics?” She leaned over the counter. “See how carefully my eyeliner is applied? I’m very good at—” “Afraid not.” Rubbing his chin, he flipped through the thick stack of cards that listed all the current jobs that were available. “There is a job waitressing, but you don’t have the experience, I’m afraid.” “The good news is I’m a quick learner. Where’s it at?” “Little Italy. Delisio’s Deli.” Lisa’s face lit. “I’ll take it.” She grabbed the card from the startled man’s hand and headed toward the door. “Wait, Miss Morelli! I have to place a call, let them know you’re coming. You can’t just go there on your own.” “Don’t bother. Manny Delisio and I are old friends.” Sort of. “THAT’S THE FOURTH DISH you’ve broken in as many days, Lisa. You should be more careful. I’m not made of money, you know.” Old friends, my ass! Manny’s nostrils were flaring, and his new toupee was slightly askew. What Francie ever saw in the guy was beyond Lisa’s comprehension. Of course, Manny might have looked good when he was seventeen. He sure as hell didn’t now. It was at the tip of Lisa’s tongue to tell Manny that he was the cheapest SOB who had ever walked the face of the earth—or should she say, “slithered?” But then she thought better of it, owing to the fact that she needed this job and the money—not that there was much of it—that went with it. “Did you get Mrs. Paulie’s cheesecake? She’s a good customer, don’t keep her waiting. She’s waving at you. See?” “I’ll get it right now, Manny. And I’ll refill her coffee cup, too.” Lisa hoped she sounded suitably contrite and efficient, at the same time. “Good. Now get moving. We haven’t got all day.” Mrs. Paulie was her usual charming self when Lisa approached with her order. “About time you brought the coffee and dessert. The other girl who worked here was much more efficient. Are you new? You look new.” The old lady peered at her through inch-thick lenses. “Yes, ma’am. I just started this week.” “Thought so. You’re not as good as that other girl.” Deciding not to respond, Lisa had just started to fill the older woman’s coffee cup when a four-year-old boy ran by and kicked Lisa behind the right knee, causing her arm to jiggle. The coffee went all over the table, not to mention Mrs. Paulie, who began screaming at the top of her lungs. “Shh! Shh! I’m so sorry, Mrs. Paulie. I’ll help you clean up. There’s no need to scream.” “Stop, you stupid girl!” She pushed Lisa’s hand aside as she attempted to blot up the mess. “Look what you’ve done. I’m burned! I’m burned!” She jumped up from her chair, causing all the patrons of the delicatessen to look over, including its unhappy, scowling owner who was shooting imaginary bullets at Lisa. I am so screwed. “Are you okay, Mrs. Paulie?” Manny asked, rushing over with a handful of clean towels. The woman glared at him. “Do I look okay? I’m burned, and my dress is ruined.” Lisa thought the dress had been ruined before Mrs. Paulie put it on, it was that ugly. Orange sunflowers. Need she say more? “Go in the back and stay out of the way, Lisa,” Manny ordered. “I’ll talk to you after I’m done cleaning up your mess.” Without an argument, Lisa hurried to the kitchen, hoping to avoid the glares of the whispering patrons. She found Mr. Tarantino behind the grill, flipping burgers. “Hey, Mr. T. How’s it going?” She liked the older man, even though he smoked and smelled like three-day-old fish. And he liked the fact that she called him “Mr. T.” The old TV program The A-Team was one of his favorites. Having overheard Manny’s blustering, the grill cook smiled kindly. “Don’t worry about Manny, Lisa. He’ll get over it. He always does.” “I’m not so sure. He looked pretty mad.” “He and his wife had another fight last night. He’s always a shit when that happens. I’m better off not being married, I think.” Lisa smiled. “Thanks, Mr. T. I hope you’re right.” “Would you mind watching my burgers for just a sec? I gotta take a leak.” “Sure.” Taking the spatula from the man’s outstretched hand, Lisa began lifting the burgers to see how cooked they were. Unfortunately, her action caused the hot pad that was perched precariously close to the edge of the grill to fall onto the hot surface. It ignited immediately. Flames shot up from the cooktop toward the ceiling before Lisa even realized what was happening. She yelped, trying to remember what to do for a grease fire. “Flour!” She searched frantically for the canister. “Where the hell is it?” she shouted, becoming more panicked by the second as she watched the flames grow higher and hotter. “Mr. Tarantino, come quick! We have a problem.” Problem sounded so much better than towering inferno. But it was Manny who answered her call for help. He removed the fire extinguisher from the wall, which happened to be located right next to the door leading back into the restaurant, and just a few feet from where Lisa was now standing. I am so screwed! “Get back!” he ordered, then began spraying white foam all over the burgers and incinerated hot pad. The fire was put out quickly. After he was finished, Manny motioned for Lisa to approach the grill area. “You nearly burned down my restaurant.” Lisa swallowed. Her eyes burned, her throat hurt, and now her nerves twitched at the angry look Manny was giving her. “I’m really sorry, Manny. It was an accident. I didn’t see the hot pad.” “You see that fire?” He pointed to the grill. Lisa’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. “But the fire’s out.” “And so are you. You’re fired! Now gather up your things and get out. I can’t afford to have you working here. You’re not cut out for food service.” “But—” Lisa refused to cry. She wouldn’t. Not over a minimum-wage job. But she sure as hell felt like it. “I’m sorry, Lisa. I like you, but you’re a walking disaster.” LISA HAD BEEN CALLED many things in her lifetime, but never a walking disaster. It sounded ominous, undoable. Accurate? As she walked back to the apartment, the cold January air seeped beneath her red wool coat, creating a chill clear down to her bones, while a feeling of dread filled her at the prospect of having to tell Francie and Leo that she’d just lost her first job after only three days. “Crap and a half! Stupid hot pad. Stupid Manny.” Stupid Lisa! Leo was taking Lisa and Francie out for pizza tonight. Mark was out of town on assignment, and Leo thought that a “girls” night out would be fun, lumping himself into that category, as he so often did. So she knew they’d expect her to regale them about her first week of work. Francie had been proud of her initiative in finding a job so quickly, and Lisa hated to see the disappointment in her sister’s eyes that she knew would be forthcoming, despite the fact that Francie would try to hide it and act supportive. Like pantyhose a size too small, Francie’s support of Lisa was grudgingly given. She wanted Lisa to stand on her own two feet and make something of herself, instead of always screwing up and making excuses. Lisa was determined not to make any excuses this time. “IT WASN’T MY FAULT. The damn hot pad fell on the grill. How was I supposed to know that was going to happen? Your friend, Manny, is a real asshole.” Leo and Francie exchanged looks, then Francie said, “Manny’s not an asshole, just short-tempered and not very patient. And you did almost burn down his deli.” “Yeah, and I would have been pissed about that,” Leo said, sipping his beer. “I happen to love his Reubens and meatball subs. I’m getting hungry just thinking about them.” “How can you be hungry when you’re stuffing your face with pizza?” Lisa reached for another slice of the mushroom-and-sausage pie, then said, “I’ll check the paper in the morning to see if there are any other jobs listed.” She was not going to work at that disgusting motel. Lisa had promised herself that she was better than that. Dried sperm on dirty sheets was just not her thing. “I’m sure you’ll be able to find something, Lisa,” Francie said with a smile of encouragement. “You’re smart and clever. I bet there are lots of jobs you can do.” “Thanks. Unfortunately, the guy at the unemployment office doesn’t share your opinion. He pretty much indicated that I sucked.” “I have a friend who has a dog-walking business,” Leo said. “I’ll give Warren a call and see if he needs any help.” Lisa brightened. “I love dogs! That would be great. Thanks, Leo!” “So have you heard from your husband?” Lisa’s new roommate wanted to know, leaning forward. “You haven’t said much about him lately.” “Leo…” Francie cautioned with a shake of her head. “What? I’m Lisa’s landlord. I have a right to know. Plus, I like to gossip.” Sighing, Lisa shook her head. “No. Alex hasn’t called or made contact.” That wasn’t quite true. There’d been a few hang ups on Leo’s answering machine, and Lisa wondered if those might have been Alex trying to reach her. Though she had no idea how he would know where she was. She hadn’t left a forwarding address, and she doubted if he cared, at any rate. “Well, I’m sure he’ll contact you soon, Lisa. Just give him time. You wounded Alex’s ego. No doubt he’s biding his time and licking his wounds.” “His wounds? I’m the one who got trashed, remember?” Francie patted her sister’s hand. “Don’t get upset. You know better than anyone how weird men can be.” THE PERFECT EXAMPLE of that male weirdness was sitting over in the dark corner of the restaurant at that moment, spying on Lisa, Francie and Leo. Alex had been following Lisa around the last few days, in the hope of talking to her. He’d tried calling Leo’s apartment a few times after discovering, quite by accident—he’d been on his way to Francie’s apartment and had spotted Lisa entering the apartment across the hall—where she’d been living. But he hadn’t had the guts to leave a message, knowing it was extremely unlikely that she would return his phone call. Having decided that an up-close and personal confrontation was the only way he was going to get Lisa to talk to him, Alex had been following her until the opportunity presented itself. So far, it hadn’t. She was either with her family and friends, applying for jobs, burning down buildings, or hiding out. He, too, had been looking for work, though only halfheartedly. Alex had finally decided that rather than work for someone else as a mortgage banker, he would open up his own firm. He’d spent the last few days—when he wasn’t spying on Lisa, that is—researching locations for his business and talking to some of the contacts he’d made over the years in the banking industry. Alex was determined to become the kind of man that his wife wanted. Seeing Lisa, even from a distance, made his heart ache. And damn, but she looked good. Tonight she was wearing a tight black-leather skirt and fuzzy red sweater—the one he had given her for Christmas—and she looked hot. He sipped his beer, feeling his pants tighten. Lisa had always had the power to affect him this way, and she probably always would. She and her companions were laughing, and the sound of his wife’s high-pitched giggle made Alex smile. He hadn’t heard her laugh like that in ages and knew he was to blame. Why hadn’t he recognized her unhappiness and growing dissatisfaction with his family? Why had he tried to convince her to go along with his parents’ wishes, to placate them, as he always had? He’d known from the first moment he’d met her that Lisa was a free spirit. It was what had drawn him to her. She was so totally different from the other women he had dated. So why then had he tried to stifle that in her? Why had he tried to make her into something she wasn’t? Fear? Ignorance? An unwillingness to rock the boat? All of the above? “Oh, Lisa, I’m so damn sorry.” Suddenly, she turned and looked in his direction, as if she could hear him calling her name. But he knew, of course, that she couldn’t. He’d picked the table behind the slatted partition, so he could observe her, not the other way around. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/millie-criswell/suddenly-single/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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