Winner of the Romantic Times Magazine Reviewer’s Choice Award for the Best To Love Again Book
Rather than suffer the humiliation of attending their high school reunion alone, Carol urges her two best friends to find dates wherever they can.
Carol is a buyer for an upscale department store and invites a friend from work. Suzanne is an anthropology professor who asks her attractive plumber to be her escort. Aimee is a bank manager who would rather just go alone, but inadvertently ends up with the former president of the math club as her date.
Even with the best of intentions, nothing about the reunion goes according to plan, but with a change in partners, Carol, Suzanne and Aimee all find a second chance to love.
TANGLED HEARTS was originally published by Kensington Publishing Corp. Copyright © 1993 Phoebe Conn
This edition published by AWritersWork.com 2010
Pasadena, California, Spring, 1995
“Whatever happened to love?” Suzanne paused to take a bite of spinach tortellini, but she didn’t miss the exchange of pained glances passing between Carol and Aimee. They were seated on the patio at Papagallo, one of the most popular restaurants in Pasadena’s newly refurbished Old Town. The spring day was so gloriously clear that in the distance the craggy peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains stood out in sharp relief. A redhead as vibrant as the dazzling day, Suzanne struggled to make her point.
“All anyone talks about is relationships. People report whether or not they’re in a relationship, or just ending a disastrous relationship, or hoping to meet someone for a committed relationship, but no one ever mentions love. I don’t think it’s a matter of sophistication either. I think everyone’s scared to death to admit what they really want is a lasting love.”
Carol pushed a crouton aside before spearing another forkful of Caesar salad. “We’re forty-seven years old, Suzanne. We’ve had a lifetime to become disillusioned with love.”
“It’s not just us though,” Suzanne complained. “It’s everyone. I know neither of you is home in the afternoon to watch Oprah or Phil but the few times a week I see their shows I can count on them having troubled couples, or lonely people longing to become part of a couple, and some expert who’s written the latest book on how to have a fulfilling relationship with the ideal mate.”
“All right,” Carol confessed, “I’ll admit to occasionally going up to the fifth floor to catch Oprah on one of the television sets on display. She’s become a cultural icon and while she doesn’t wear the clothes I buy for my department, many of her guests do. I can justify watching her show to survey fashion trends. I’ll agree with you, there are a lot of unhappy people in the world, and they habitually turn up on the talk shows.”
Aimee revealed her own tastes with a careless shrug. “If Oprah’s on on a bank holiday, I usually watch, but problems make for more interesting shows than blissfully happy couples would. You can’t blame her for choosing guests who’ll boost her ratings.”
Suzanne had to finish chewing a piece of roll before arguing. “Ratings aren’t the issue,” she insisted. “It’s the focus on relationships, rather than love that I think is so sad, and everyone seems to feel so emotionally battered. Just look at us. You’ve been divorced twice, Carol. Aimee’s been widowed and divorced, and I stayed in a loveless marriage for more years than I care to count before I divorced Frank. Was everything we were taught about love and marriage a farce? Am I wrong to expect more out of life than an endless series of tepid relationships? Doesn’t love really exist?”
Aimee’s hair had turned prematurely gray in her early thirties and she had never bothered to color it. She curled a silvery strand behind her right ear, a gesture she had developed in grade school where the three of them had met and sworn to be best friends forever. “I know it exists because I had it in such wonderful abundance with Steve,” she replied. “Because I missed it so bad, I was an easy mark for Bill. I wish I’d realized what a phony he was before we were married rather than after, but I’ve learned my lesson. The kind of love I had with Steve comes only once in a lifetime and I can’t tell you what a relief it is to no longer wait for it to happen again.”
Suzanne sighed. “I don’t think life is worth living without passion. I don’t know what I’d do if I thought I’d never make love again.”
Carol gave a lemon wedge a vicious twist and dropped it into her iced tea. “Please, you’re depressing me. Tell us about Perfect Match, the video dating service you joined. It has to be a far more amusing topic than our marital failures.”
“It was Perfect Match that got me thinking about relationships,” Suzanne insisted. “I joined because I wanted someone to love and while I’ve met a lot of nice men, if I like them, then they don’t care for me. The ones who’ve liked me have been so enthusiastic I’ve felt smothered, and not wanted to see them again. I find dating so difficult at our age, and the men are equally ill at ease.
“Each member of the service has a profile describing their interests and the type of person they’d like to meet,” Suzanne went on. “The problem is, everyone says they love walks on the beach and romantic picnic suppers at the Hollywood Bowl, but when you meet in person, you quickly discover that’s not enough in common to get you through a single date, let alone a lifetime. I had one date with a man, he was bright and attractive, but we struggled through a miserably awkward evening before discovering the one thing we had in common was a love for Clavell’s KING RAT.”
“That was a great book,” Carol agreed, “but definitely not much in the way of common ground.”
“No, it wasn’t. The problem is, so many of the men are looking for women who share their interests rather than being willing to explore new ones. They’ll say they’re looking for an independent career woman, but then they’ll add that she ought to love golf, or tennis, and be available to take extended vacations.”
“I know the type,” Carol remarked. “What they really want is an independently wealthy woman with plenty of free time, who’ll cater to their every whim.”
“Yes, I’m afraid you’re right, but still, I keep hoping to meet someone special. I divorced Frank because I wanted a real marriage rather than a sham and it’s so depressing to get dressed up, excited about meeting someone new, and then continually be disappointed. I’m beginning to feel like a really clumsy trapeze artist who goes out each night hoping to complete a triple somersault to thunderous applause, but who keeps on landing face down in the sawdust.”
“Ouch, what a painful image,” Aimee murmured. She had finished her minestrone and set her bowl aside. “I can’t believe all your dates have been disastrous. Haven’t any at least been amusing?”
Suzanne stopped to think a moment and then nodded. “How’s this? One man suggested we meet for half an hour to have dessert. He said then if we didn’t like each other, we wouldn’t have wasted an entire evening.”
“He actually said that?” Carol asked.
“He was one of the first who asked to meet me, and he sounded interesting so I recommended Beckham Place because they have a friendly atmosphere and delicious desserts. The fellow was actually quite handsome, but a salesman, lots of showy gestures and insincere smiles. Our opinions clashed on every topic he introduced. Then, just before our thirty minutes were up, he reached into his pocket, withdrew several slips of paper, and asked me to draw one.”
“Now that’s original,” Aimee exclaimed. “What did it say?”
“That I’d won an additional thirty minutes!”
Carol laughed. “He must have picked up that trick in junior high. Well, what happened then?”
“I made the mistake of staying,” Suzanne admitted. “That second half hour was even more uncomfortable than the first after I told him I bet all the slips said the same thing. He denied it, but jammed them back into his pocket without showing them to me. Things went downhill rapidly after that and we got into a ridiculous argument about whether or not it’s wise for couples to live together before marriage.
“Now remember, this is a man I knew I’d never want to see again, and he wanted to debate modern living arrangements. I told him every study I’d read proved couples who lived together first divorced in greater numbers than couples who hadn’t and that I had no intention of increasing my chances of going through another painful divorce.”
“Spoken like the true scientist you are, Suzanne.” While amused, Aimee had a sympathetic smile for her friend.
“You’re missing the point,” Carol insisted. “By offering you the slips, he admitted that he wanted an additional half hour with you.”
“Really? I didn’t even consider that, but I didn’t hear from him again, and frankly, I was relieved. A great many men say they’re looking for petite blonds. They’d love you, Carol. Why don’t you give Perfect Match a try?”
Carol was dressed in a stunning black and amber print outfit by her favorite designer, Carole Little. A size ten, she often bought samples from the designer showrooms in the Los Angeles Merchandise Mart. She had excellent taste, and as one of the buyers of women’s fashions for Russell’s, a prestigious Southern California department store chain, she felt an obligation to dress well. Finished with her salad, she pushed up her sleeves and set her plate aside.
“I loved both my husbands dearly,” she swore with her right hand raised. “They were wonderful providers in terms of material goods, but so consumed by their careers neither had the emotional energy to devote to a family. Bob was a perfectionist I could never please, while Cliff always put his law firm first, leaving the boys and me to finish a poor second. I didn’t expect Cliff to spend more time with Bob’s sons than Bob did, but even if Cliff and I had had children together, I doubt things would have been any different.
“So, I’ve had ample opportunity to see what marriage has to offer, and frankly, as far as I’m concerned, it’s nothing but heartbreak. I’ll pass on that, thank you, but I certainly hope for the best for you. I’m surprised you haven’t met someone exciting at the university.”
“There are some gorgeous men in my classes, but unfortunately, none is over twenty-five.”
“I’ll bet you’d enjoy dating younger men.”
“Not that much younger!” Tickled by the idea, Suzanne couldn’t help but laugh, but she went on to describe her situation more fully. “Cal State is predominantly a commuter school,” she reminded them, “so it has little sense of community either among
the students or the faculty. With the legislature constantly cutting our budget, much of the staff is too anxious about their jobs to have any interest in social life. As a tenured professor, my job appears to be safe, temporarily at least, but Anthropology, like most of the departments, now has a sizable number of part-time faculty.
“Some of those poor instructors teach a single class at several colleges and have such tight schedules they dash off campus the minute their office hours are over. While I still love my job, there’s little of the comradery between professors that used to make it so much fun.”
Envying her friends’ svelte figures, Suzanne left the last two tortellini on her plate and sat back to bush the crumbs off her ample bosom. She preferred wearing loose-fitting separates in earth tones to show off the magnificent silver and turquoise jewelry she had collected over the years, but she would have loved to look as good in a red linen sheath as Aimee did.
Carol noticed Aimee checking her watch, and glancing at her own, realized they were nearly out of time. “I don’t mean to change the subject abruptly, but the reunion is a week from Saturday and—”
Suzanne let out an anguished moan. “How can it possibly have been thirty years since we left dear old Cortez High?”
“Easy,” Aimee replied. Her memories of high school were a colorful blur, but she still recalled college vividly. She had met Steve in the student union her first semester at San Diego State. They had married two years later, the day after his graduation, and had spent seven of the happiest years of her life together. Then one night he had been killed in a fiery freeway crash on his way home from work. He left two beautiful daughters, and a widow who never stopped loving him. Tears stung Aimee’s eyes, and she hurriedly wiped them away.
“Forgive me,” she begged. “I didn’t mean to allow my thoughts to become so maudlin.”
“No, you needn’t apologize,” Carol assured her. “That we’re forty-seven rather than eighteen is painful for us all. That’s why what I have to say is so important. I volunteered to be on the reunion committee to make certain it would be as enjoyable an event as it should be, but it’s also given me an opportunity to learn who’s made reservations, and as of the first of the week, we’re the only ones planning to attend alone.”
“I thought we were going together,” Suzanne said.
“I swear for a woman with a doctorate, you’re maddeningly dense at times, Suzanne. Of course we can ride to the reunion together. We can lock arms and walk through the door together, we can sit together for what should be a delicious dinner, but the major portion of the evening is reserved for dancing. The committee has hired a marvelous band and I know everyone will want to dance until the manager of the Ritz Carlton turns out the lights. The only problem is, the three of us are going to be left sitting on the sidelines.
“Now I’m not suggesting that we can find love, or even a relationship, in little more than a week, but I do think we can find presentable men to serve as escorts so we can have a good time at the reunion rather than slap silly smiles on our faces and pretend that we are.”
Aimee gestured with both hands. “Oh no, I’ve had plenty of years to be on my own and I’m positive that’s a better alternative than just glomming on to any available man. We haven’t seen our classmates in ten years and it will be fun to catch up on everyone’s news. That will be more than enough entertainment for me.”
Carol had to hold her argument as their waiter appeared to clear their table. She had no interest in seeing the dessert menu, and neither did Aimee. They both ordered coffee, but Suzanne sent a longing glance toward the pastry cart.
“Would you care for some dessert, ma’am?” the young man asked.
Ashamed to be so transparent, Suzanne shook her head. “No, thank you. I’ll just have coffee too.” As soon as he had left to bring it, she lowered her voice to a whisper. “Don’t you just hate being called ma’am? I don’t know when it happened, so it must have been gradual, but I can still recall when waiters used to call me miss. Ma’am sounds so damn old.”
“When I’m ninety, maybe I’ll admit to being old, but certainly not now,” Carol exclaimed. “Let’s concentrate on the reunion. I’m thinking of inviting one of the men I know at work. Casey’s one of the housewares buyers, and we’re good friends. I think he’d enjoy the evening, and it would save me from getting a wallflower complex. Isn’t there someone you’ve met through Perfect Match whom you could invite?”
“No. The men I’ve liked haven’t called me again, so I wouldn’t dare ask them to something as special as a reunion. There are other men whose invitations I’ve refused, and I know one or two who’d be thrilled to go, but it would be cruel to mislead them into thinking I have a romantic interest in them when I don’t.”
The waiter returned to pour their coffee and Aimee spoke as soon as he moved on to another table. “I agree with you, Suzanne. Women ought not to use men, any more than men ought to use women.”
“I’m not talking about using anyone,” Carol insisted. “All I want is for us to have friendly escorts so we can enjoy the party. At our last reunion, I was still married to Cliff. Suzanne was with Frank, and what was the name of the man you were dating?”
“Mark Simmons, but that might have been the last time we dated, and he soon married someone else.”
“All right, so he won’t do, but don’t you have some male friends at the bank?”
“Yes, I do, but like Mark, they’re all married, so they’re unavailable even if I were interested in them, which I’m not. You two can take dates. I’ve had years of practice and won’t feel out of place going alone.”
Carol pounded her open palm on the glass-topped table. “I don’t think you realize what’s at stake here, Aimee. We’re talking about having a great time, rather than a depressing evening. We’re bright, attractive, successful women, and we ought to have bright, attractive, successful dates. If you two can’t find them among your acquaintances, perhaps you ought to hire them.”
“Hire gigolos?” Suzanne gasped.
Carol looked around quickly to make certain no one else on the crowded patio had heard Suzanne’s outburst. Only one elderly woman was observing them, but she appeared to be merely befuddled rather than shocked. Carol smiled at her before turning back to her friends. “No, certainly not gigolos. I’m taking about escorts, there’s a difference.”
Aimee placed her napkin on the table. “I doubt it.”
Fearing Aimee was a lost cause, Carol renewed her efforts to win Suzanne to her side. “Do any of the part-time professors look interesting when they’re dashing by? Or maybe there’s a man in your neighborhood you’ve longed to meet. This is the nineties. Women ask men for dates all the time.”
“Younger women,” Aimee argued.
“Who’s the most attractive man you know?” Carol persisted.
Suzanne looked off toward the mountains and was amazed to discover she could actually count the individual pines growing along the crest. “An attractive man,” she repeated absently, and then began to smile with delighted surprise. “Matt Trenerry, my plumber.”
Carol put her hand over her eyes and moaned.
“Don’t be so hasty,” Aimee warned. “Didn’t you notice how Suzanne’s face lit up when she mentioned his name?”
“Suzanne has a Ph.D.,” Carol countered. “Do you sincerely believe she ought to date a plumber?”
“I don’t think whom she chooses to date is any of my business. Now tell us about him, Suzanne.”
Embarrassed, Suzanne needed considerable coaxing before she gave in. “Matt’s about our age, maybe six feet tall, with a trim build. His eyes are as blue as yours, Carol, and his hair is silvery gray like Aimee’s, but curly rather than straight. He’s very good- looking, but so unassuming in his manner I doubt he’s aware of it.”
“Is he single?”
“I really don’t know. He doesn’t wear a wedding band, but lots of men who work with their hands don’t as a safety precaution.”
Carol listened in amazed silence as Aimee encouraged Suzanne to invite her plumber to their reunion. While she doubted anyone would be particularly impressed with Casey, he was at least a buyer for a major department store chain. She touched up her lipstick, and fluffed out her short curls. Finally she got an inspiration.
“Why don’t I host a barbecue this Saturday afternoon? I’ll invite Casey, you bring the plumber, and Aimee can come by herself if she wants to. It will be a rehearsal for the reunion, and if it doesn’t go smoothly, we’ll have a week to straighten things out.”
Again, Suzanne took a while to come up with her answer. “Well, I do have a dripping faucet on my service porch; so I have a legitimate reason to call Matt when I get home.”
“Do you have anything else that needs repair?” Aimee prompted. “After all, the longer you keep him working, the more time you’ll have to decide if you’d really like to date him.”
“No, I don’t think so, but I’ll look.”
Aimee took out her wallet. “I have to get back to the bank. Assuming you have the barbecue on Saturday, what can I bring?”
“How about that luscious chocolate cake of yours?” Carol pulled out a twenty dollar bill. “Do either of you have change?” She waited while Aimee added up what each of them owed, plus a tip, and then left her twenty and collected change from the pile of ones and fives Aimee and Suzanne had contributed. She rose and pushed her wrought iron chair back into the table. While her plan to find dates for the reunion had not gone nearly as well as she had hoped, it was at least a start and she was smiling as they walked out to the parking lot. It wasn’t until a valet greeted her as ma’am that she began to cringe.
Suzanne had to run an errand on the way home, but came through the front door by two o’clock. She carried in the mail, zigzagged around a carton of Pre-Columbian artifacts she had used in a class earlier in the week, and dropped two new magazines on the heap growing by the couch. She intended to read every one, but they arrived at a faster pace than she read and so the stack continually outstripped her best intentions to dispose of it. She tossed the mail on the dining room table and went into the kitchen to look up Matt’s number.
She got his machine, then took a quick inventory but failed to find anything other than the dripping faucet to report. Her breakfast dishes were still in the sink, and she rinsed and slipped them into the dishwasher, straightened the day’s edition of the Los Angeles Times so it occupied only a small portion rather than the whole top of her kitchen table, and sat down to sort through the mail.
Perfect Match sent postcards whenever someone asked to meet her and she was disappointed to find none tucked among her bills. She stopped by the center each time a card arrived, but so far, she had had more disappointments than pleasant surprises when she had viewed her prospective dates’ video tapes. When she had joined, she had been confident she would be one of the lucky ones the service featured in their advertising— women who met their ideal mate after only a few dates—but she was fast losing heart. She jumped when the telephone rang, and then, ashamed to be asking Matt to stop by her house under essentially false pretenses, downplayed the severity of her problem.
“It’s just a small drip,” she explained, “not an emergency that needs immediate attention.” When Matt said he would be right over anyway, she thanked him, hung up, and sent another worried glance around her kitchen. It wasn’t that she was a poor housekeeper. It was just that she had nowhere to store most of the materials she used in her classes, so they ended up in brown cardboard banker’s boxes stacked wherever she found room. The kitchen was free of the clutter marring the rest of the downstairs, however, and grateful that Matt always came to the back door, Suzanne poured herself a glass of water and tried to relax.
With Perfect Match, she had the advantage of not having to meet a man face-to- face until she had accepted his request to meet, or he had replied favorably to hers. Standing there waiting for Matt to arrive, she felt the same fluttering anxiety she had experienced whenever she had had to ask a date to a dance in high school or college. In high school, she had never succeeded in overcoming her fears to actually ask a boy for a date, and in college, she managed it only a time or two before she met Frank.
“That was such a long time ago,” she murmured wistfully and before she had managed to reassure herself that asking Matt for a date wouldn’t be as difficult as she imagined, he knocked lightly at the back door. She hurried to let him in.
“It’s just the faucet here on the service porch,” she explained and he walked on by her to check the problem. He tried both faucets, and noted the annoying drip. “It just needs a washer, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s all. I’ll have this fixed for you in a minute.”
Suzanne moved back into the kitchen as Matt went outside to his van to get his tools. Asking him out had seemed easy enough when she had been with Carol and Aimee, but now that she had to confront him on her own, she was terrified. What if he turned her down? She was sure he would do it politely, perhaps even regretfully, but it would be a rejection all the same. She would be so embarrassed she would never be able to call him again. She’d have to find a new plumber.
She heard him come in the back door and begin working, but she remained leaning against the tile counter. Matt had always been friendly, but watching him work would be torture. Afraid she was going to spoil everything, she rehearsed a dozen different descriptions of the reunion, but she doubted she could make it sound so tempting he would want to accompany her.
“Mrs. Marsh?” Matt came into the kitchen. “Do you have anything else you’d like me to look at? I hate to bill you the trip charge for just replacing a washer.”
While Matt’s hair had a silver cast, his brows and eyelashes were still dark brown, providing a handsome frame for his blue eyes. Appreciating his relaxed smile, Suzanne tried to reply in an equally casual tone. “No, the drip was the only problem, but despite the March rains, apparently our drought isn’t really over, and I didn’t want to keep wasting water.”
Suzanne wore her hair long and tightly permed. The sunlight streaming in behind her made the red waves glow with a golden shimmer and while Matt had always considered her attractive, there was something especially appealing about her that afternoon. She looked rather lost, and considering the fact they were standing in her kitchen, that made no sense at all to him. He had been called out on an emergency early that morning and had almost let his son, Dan, take her call. Now he was glad he hadn’t.
“Are you sure there isn’t something else?” he prompted.
“No, not a thing,” Suzanne insisted. As Matt wrote out his bill, she went into the dining room to pick up her purse and brought it back to write a check. She noted the amount he had charged, quickly filled in the figure, and handed it to him. He thanked her, slipped it inside his clipboard, and turned to go.
In that painful instant, Suzanne had a sudden premonition that even if he turned her down, it wouldn’t hurt her pride nearly as much as letting him go without making the effort to ask him to the reunion. “Matt?” she called.
His hand was already on the doorknob and he turned to look back over his shoulder. “Yes?”
“I was just wondering, well, are you married?”
Startled by such an unexpected question, Matt started to laugh, but he quickly caught himself. He came back into the kitchen and leaned his shoulder against the refrigerator. “How long have we known each other, Mrs. Marsh?”
Suzanne frowned slightly. “The first time you did some work for us was just after we’d moved here in 1975. A pipe was leaking beneath the garage and it took you all of a Saturday afternoon to repair it.”
Matt nodded. “I remember that job. If that was in ’75 then we’ve known each other twenty years. In all that time, has my marital status been a concern to you?”
Suzanne blushed as red as her hair. “No, never. It has absolutely nothing to do with your ability to perform the job.”
Matt could tell he was making Suzanne exquisitely uncomfortable, and he straightened up and adopted a more serious tone. “Good. I’m single, and since you asked, should I assume you’ve a reason other than plumbing for wanting to know?”
Matt was wearing a blue work shirt and Levis. Had she met him at Cal State, she would have mistaken him for a fellow professor, but that he was confident as well as attractive didn’t make her task any easier. She cleared her throat, and tried her best to sound as though whether or not he accepted her invitation meant very little to her.
“I had lunch today with a couple of friends I’ve known since grade school. We
went to Cortez High together too, and our thirty year reunion is next week. We decided it would be a lot more fun if we had dates, but if you’re busy, or don’t want to go with me, that’s all right.”
Matt was too shocked to give a coherent reply for a long moment, but during the uncomfortable pause, he saw Suzanne’s lower lip tremble and he realized just how difficult asking him out had been. “I didn’t go to Cortez High myself,” he replied, “but I’d be honored to take you to your reunion.”
Suzanne wasn’t certain she had heard him correctly. “You would?”
Matt laughed again, he had a rich, rolling laugh that encouraged others to join him. “Of course, you’re one of my favorite customers and I wouldn’t dream of disappointing you.”
“Really? I had no idea.”
Matt had been teasing her again, but she looked so pleased by his compliment he wasn’t even tempted to admit the truth. “Yes, you certainly are.”
Encouraged by his praise, Suzanne told him about Carol’s barbecue. “It’s so we can all get acquainted. Then we’ll be going to the reunion as a group of friends. It won’t have to be a real date.”
“Fine, that sounds like fun too.” He asked what time she would like him to pick her up on Saturday, and after thanking her for the invitation, left for home. Dan badgered him constantly about dating, but frankly, he just hadn’t been interested. Now he was tempted to call his son and tell him he actually had a date, even better, two. Then again maybe it was too soon to brag.