“Well, pffft.” Jen knuckle-rapped page fifty-four in the latest issue of Celebrity Magazine. “Get a clue, Romeo. You’re obviously doing it wrong. Even I could tell you that.”
“Who’s doing what wrong?” Candy’s thigh shifted languidly, her voice was drowsy. Jen envied her; tanning might be bearable if you were unconscious.
“Brent Maddox, and romance.”
Candy’s lips curved lazily. “Brent Maddox?” she purred. “Trust me, girlfriend. Tall, blond, gorgeous dude can do no wrong. Face it, babe, he is romance.”
“You think so, huh? According to this article, his love life’s a mess.”
One blue eye opened long enough to slide Jen a sardonic glance. “Right. And Mother Theresa was a Libyan terrorist.”
“Getting this straight from the stud’s mouth, pal. Listen to this: ‘Marriage? Maybe. If I ever find a woman more interested in me than my bank account.’ That is beyond bogus.” With a snort and a flick of her wrist, she flipped the magazine atop sections of the Sunday paper already littering the patio, then settled back on her chaise, closed her eyes, and let the sun beat down on her. Sunbathing was practically a sacrament here in the Golden State, but it was one she’d never gotten the hang of. Call her hyperactive, accuse her of an overdeveloped work ethic, but lying around catching rays was mind-numbing, not to mention a complete waste of time.
“And his statement is bogus, because?”
“Because if that’s what he really wants, he’s his own worst enemy. Seriously. If a man wants a woman to see past his money, he doesn’t whisk her off in his personal helicopter to his private mountaintop to feed her lobster and champagne.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Depends on the woman.”
“In this case, that supermodel, Daphne Carlson.”
“See? She probably does that kind of stuff all the time. You give me lobster, a magnum of Dom, and Brent Maddox all to myself on a mountaintop, you’re fulfilling fantasy number one on my top ten list of dreams.”
That wouldn’t be number one on Jen’s list, if she’d had a list, that is. Small-town practical to the soles of her size fives, raised by a woman who did most of her shopping via yard sales and discount racks, Jen figured a gourmet heli-picnic was grandstanding at its worst.
She jabbed a finger in the air. “Dreams. Fantasies. His problem in a nutshell. Brent sets up a fantasy with a capital F, then cries foul when some poor woman gets caught up in it.”
“And you know how romance should be done?” Candy grinned. “No offense, pal, but the woman who spent her last date in close-quarters combat with Bernie Wilkins at the Sundowner Drive-in probably isn’t qualified to advise Brent Maddox on his love life.”
“Got away with my clothes on, didn’t I? Gave him a black eye, too. Besides, pinpointing the flaws in Brent’s approach? No experience needed. Anybody with a nanoparticle of common sense can see his problem.”
“Common sense? No wonder you’re still as pure as the driven snow. Common sense and romance don’t belong in the same sentence. Brent Maddox and romance? That’s what I call perfect syntax.”
Jen scowled. “You say pure as the driven snow like I’m some kind of freak.”
“Honey, in this day and age, a twenty-eight-year-old virgin is some kind of freak.”
“According to you. Well, for your information, I have a very healthy libido. Great hormones. Is it my fault I haven’t met a guy who can tap into them? Can I help it if I want sex to be more than chemistry? Physical intimacy should involve an emotional commitment. Of some kind. Or other.”
Jen huffed, flopped over on her stomach. “Crap. Might as well face it, I’m a dinosaur.”
“But I love you anyway. Meanwhile, just out of curiosity, let’s have your Dear Abby for Brent Maddox.”
“Hm. Well, I’d tell him he needs a new approach. For example. He could load his date into a pickup truck, along with a bucket of hot wings and a six pack of Coors. Drive six hours to a national park and spread out a ratty blanket. Any woman who falls for a man after a butt-numbing drive, cold hot wings, and warm beer is hooked on the guy.”
“You know I’m right. A man searching for a woman who doesn’t see him as a payoff shouldn’t throw his bank account in her face from the get-go. Gotta admit, I expected Brent to have more on the ball.”
“You expected?” Candy chuckled. “Oh, I see. Like you know him personally.”
“I do. Or did. We went to high school together.”
Candy jackknifed from lounging to standing at attention, blue eyes wide and locked on Jen. “Get out of town! You know Brent Maddox?”
“Knew. Past tense. More like past perfect.”
“Save the grammar lesson for someone who cares. You knew Brent Maddox!”
“A long time ago.”
Hot pink nails speared through a cap of platinum-blond hair as Candy sank back onto her chaise. The hair color was natural, and no, Jen wasn’t jealous. Brown hair was nice, too. A touch bland, maybe, like tapioca, but nothing to be ashamed of.
“Oh. My. God.” Candy shook her head. “What was he like?”
Stacking her hands under her chin, Jen hummed a lemme think. “To be honest, I didn’t know him all that well, because he was three years ahead of me. But he seemed friendly enough. Cocky. Cheerful. A touch wild—not so reckless that he got arrested, but rowdy enough that you were never quite sure what he might pull. Girl problems? That’s a laugh. He could’ve had his pick … did have … any day of the week and twice on Saturdays. What’s more, money wasn’t an issue, because until that estate lawyer located his family and notified them of their inheritance, he was as lower-middle-class as the rest of us.”
“Lower-middle-class to filthy rich. Must’ve been one hell of a ride.”
“Still, you’d think he’d remember how it was.” Jen shrugged and rolled over on her back again. “Oh, well. Not my problem.” Figuring subject closed, she squinted toward the sun. Why didn’t it just set, for God’s sake? Sighing in defeat, she abandoned any pretense at tanning, rolled off the lounge, and headed toward the sliding glass doors. “Think I’ll get a Diet Coke. You want?”
Candy was right on her heels. “Listen, I’ve got an idea.”
“What’s that?” Jen opened the fridge. “You want the Diet or some iced tea?”
“Whatever. Look, you said even you could tell him.”
“Tell who what?” Standing on tiptoe, she snagged a couple tumblers. “Ever wonder why they don’t hang cabinets so people who are five one can reach the top shelves?”
“No.” Candy’s knuckles rapped Jen’s head. “Pay attention. You said even you could tell Brent Maddox what he’s doing wrong.”
“So you should do it!”
Jen inhaled her first swallow of Diet Coke, carbonating her sinuses and clogging her airways. Coughing and sputtering, she goggled at Candy. Then, once she got her breath back, “You said I wasn’t qualified!”
“That was before I found out you and Brent were old friends.”
Jen set the glass on the counter with great deliberation. Got a firm grip on her BFF’s shoulders, and looked her dead in the eye. She spoke slowly and distinctly, as one might to a fractious three-year-old. “Brent and I went to the same high school. He was the most popular guy, I was president of the poetry club. Maybe, maybe he said ‘hello’ to me twice a year if we bumped into each other—and I’m talking physical contact here—in the hallway. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
Apparently not. “You can e-mail him!” Candy hurried off to the den, leaving Jen no choice but to follow.
“I don’t know his e-mail address, and even if I did—”
“His e-mail address.” Candy already had Jen’s MacBook Pro booting up. She gnawed her lower lip. “Hmm.” When she brightened, Jen groaned. “I know! You can send it care of Celebrity! Ask them to forward it to him.” Rubbing her hands together, she pulled up Jen’s e-mail account.
“I am not going to e-mail Brent Maddox with advice on his love life.”
“Yes, you are.”
Hands fisted on her hips, Jen shook her head. Was this the ultra-pragmatic girls’ gym teacher she knew and loved? How could you be best friends with a person for two years and not know she was completely bats-in-the-belfry?
“I am so not doing this.” Not in a million years. Not on a bet.
Then Candy smiled and said, “I dare you.”
Jen flinched, stomped her foot, fisted her hands in her hair and pulled. “Aw, come on, Candy! Not fair!”
Because, as anyone in town could tell you, Jen Casey was congenitally incapable of resisting a dare, no matter how ill advised. Which, of course, dares almost always are.
At the tender age of five Terry Sudman dared Jen to climb the towering oak in the Sudmans’ front yard. The up leg? Not bad, even with your heart in your mouth and your hair standing on end. The descent? High velocity with painful consequences. Jen broke her right arm in the fall, a closed nightstick fracture that earned her a nifty purple cast decorated by friends and family alike.
The summer she was eleven years old her brother, Thad, dared her to prove she was immune to poison oak. She’d marched into the woods, plucked a handful of pretty, shiny leaves, and scrubbed them viciously over her bare calves. Only to spend the next two weeks grounded, pink with Calamine, answering to “Lizard Legs.”
Smart people learned from their mistakes. So what did it say about her, when a scant hour later, Jen found herself staring at the cursor blinking atop Send?
Easing her hand off the mouse, she wiped a damp palm against her thigh. “Maybe we should let this sit overnight. You know, proof it again in the morning.” She gave Candy puppy-dog eyes. “Don’t you think?”
“I double-dare you.” Then, when Jen opened her mouth on another attempt at reason, “I triple-dog-dare you.”
Cornered. A triple-dog dare made sending that e-mail a matter of personal honor. Jen arched her eyebrows. Oh yeah? Ignoring the butterfly farm in her stomach, she raised an index finger, looped it down to the mouse, and clicked.
“Hah!” she said.
“Whoo hoo!” said Candy, and, “Now we wait for an answer.” She turned toward the kitchen. “I wonder how long it’ll take?”
That heady post-dare glow flickered and died. Jen’s gaze ping-ponged between the computer and the kitchen door. Crap.
Rising slowly, she trailed after Candy. Fought to convince herself she hadn’t been incredibly stupid. Again. Wondered if she had any hard liquor in the house. Fortunately, before she could grab the Jack Daniels and drink herself into a stupor, common sense rode to her rescue.
First off, Celebrity probably didn’t forward e-mails. They’d never have time to do anything else. And if, by some unlucky chance, they forwarded this one, Brent Maddox would be way too busy jet-setting and socializing to pay attention. Wouldn’t even recognize her name, so, BAM! Straight to spam. Or …. Or, he had a personal secretary to handle his all his correspondence and wouldn’t see the message at all. Ergo, she decided, blowing out a breath, she was in the clear.
Not quite. Because as it turned out, Celebrity Magazine didn’t forward Jen’s e-mail. They published it.
Subject: Private msg to Brent Maddox—please forward
No doubt it’s the teacher in me, but when I saw the article about you in the June issue of Celebrity Magazine, I had to write. Because, you know, education is my life. That makes it almost impossible for me to turn my back on anyone as desperately in need of remedial instruction as you seem to be.
Funny, you’re the last person I’d have expected to need tutoring in this particular subject. When we were classmates at Donnerton High, you earned a perfect 4.0 in romance for four years running. I’m not sure how you dropped so many grade points since then, but I am sure the ABCs and 123s will come back to you with a little help from your friends. So. Let’s get started.
The attraction: Is it you or your money? First, the knowns. One, you’re rich, and I believe we can safely say, the money’s no secret. Not with you jetting off to Bimini at the drop of a hat. Two, certain women—let’s call them … oh … gold diggers—will be attracted to your bank account like vultures to a wildebeest carcass. Your problem, as I understand it, is how to avoid the predators and hook up with a woman genuinely interested in Brent. The Man. The answer to your predicament is what we in the teaching profession call a no-brainer.
Leave. The wallet home.
Get a grip! Do you honestly believe your dates, even the so-called “good” girls, can see past the luxury you apparently can’t help throwing in their faces? (If this finance-based mating ritual stems from a compulsion, I recommend professional help.) Personal helicopters? Private mountaintops? What are you thinking, for crying out loud?
Like you need props? Twelve years ago, you were a busboy at the Blue Anchor. Had that cocky attitude, a beat-up Harley, and not much else. Yet you were knee-deep in blondes, brunettes, and redheads. Dopey smiles and yearning sighs dogged your every step. (Mary Jane Saunders bumped into walls for a week after her date with you, and she normally went for college men.)
Time to get back to basics, pal. Ditch the copter, haul out the Harley. You may not be first in your class anymore, but I bet you can make up for lost momentum. The Brent Maddox I knew would never flunk Romance 101.
Sincerely, Jennifer Casey