Allie McGuffey knew a yuppie bar was a lousy place to find a hero, but she was desperate and rattled and very good at making do with what she had on hand.
Unfortunately, what she had on hand was pretty pathetic.
She shoved her horn-rimmed glasses back up the bridge of her nose with one finger and peered at the row of stools at the bar. Businessman. Businessman. Empty seat. Businessman. Businesswoman. Empty seat. Empty seat. Thug. Businessman.
She swallowed the lump that had been in her throat for the past fifteen minutes. Okay, fine, if that’s what she had to work with, she’d work with it. But it was going to have to be the thug because she was never going to have a relationship with a suit again as long as she lived. Even a relationship that was only going to last five minutes.
And he really wasn’t a thug. Exactly. Allie tried to drum up some enthusiasm before she made her move. His dark blond hair was shaggy over his collar, and his brown leather jacket had seen better days, and his jeans were authentic grunge, but he was big and clean and most important of all, he made a nice contrast to all the charcoal suits that looked like Mark. And what Allie wanted more than anything right then was not-Mark.
She knew she was behaving like an idiot, but given the life-bomb that had just exploded in her face, the fact that she was behaving at all and not sitting in a catatonic trance was a step in the right direction.
It had not been a good day.
Allie had hit the radio station doors that afternoon at her usual clip, banging them open like saloon doors. If they ever locked those doors, she was going to seriously hurt herself and probably break her glasses, but they never did since everyone had to be buzzed in from the street level four floors below. So she’d gone charging through as usual, happy to be there, and as usual, what seemed like forty people converged on her.
Allie beamed as they pounced, loving the feeling that WBBB couldn’t run without her, that without her there’d be dead air and dust. This was who she was, Allie-the-producer, Allie-the-brains-behind-The-Mark-King-Show, Allie-the-savior. She knew she was probably a little whacked to depend on a radio station for her identity, but considering all the other psychological problems running loose at the station, she was in relatively good mental health, so she didn’t dwell on it.
At first it was just Karen, the receptionist, who called out “Allie!”, but that alerted Lisa, her former student intern, who popped out of the hall looking miserable and said, “Allie, I–” and who was promptly pushed aside by Albert the financial manager who said, “Allie, the ratings–” and who was overrun by Marcia, the two-to-six barracuda who said, “Allie, I heard–” and who was shouldered aside by Mark, Allie’s ex-lover and present boss, who said, “I need to see you in your office. Now.”
Allie pushed her glasses back up her nose so she could see Mark better. The silence that settled over the reception area was a tribute to how bizarrely he was behaving. Usually he made his presence known through great effort: smiling, talking too loud, dropping names, laughing heartily in the wrong places. It was because he was insecure, and Allie had once felt sorry for him, but she didn’t now, having been dumped as his lover two months before when he decided he’d look better standing next to Lisa than he did with her. He was right, of course, but it still hurt .
Now he stood in the entrance to the hallway, quietly superior, and it was such a change that everybody shut up, and she followed him to her office without question.
Once inside, he closed the door behind her, went around to her desk chair, and sat.
Allie fought back a snarl. All right, she wasn’t territorial, but this was her office, no matter how tiny and cluttered, and her desk, and that was her desk chair, and he was making her a visitor in her own domain. So she scowled at him and said, “What is this?”
Mark crossed his arms and leaned back in her chair, which tilted so that he was almost horizontal to her vertical, and then he said, “There’s no good way to tell you this, Allie, so I’ll just say it. I know it’s going to be hard, but I also know you’re an adult and you realize that things change. People grow. Change is good.” He let his head fall back and addressed the ceiling as he began to wax philosophic, and while she waited for him to get to the point, assuming he had one, she considered how amazingly good looking he was, and how mad she was at him, and how much she wanted him back.
This was the great mystery of her life at present. He was an insecure twit, so why had she fallen for him and why was she still hung up on him? Why did she miss going to dinner with him and lying in bed with him, all the while listening to him talk about himself? Of course, that had been research for the show but still– As he droned on and she automatically began to edit his speech for broadcast purposes, the possibility dawned on her that what she’d fallen for was the edited Mark King she’d created on the radio, not the real Mark King who sat in front of her now, boring her to tears. And that what she was most mad about was that she’d created him, and then he’d taken her work to another woman.
Mark was still waxing. “So that’s why–”
Allie cut in, more exasperated with herself than with Mark. “Look, I’ve got things to do here so if you’ll just cut to the chase, I’ll get back to keeping you a hit.” Okay, that was below the belt, but he’d started the fight by sitting in her chair, the louse. Not to mention dumping her for a younger woman.
Mark sat up straight and put his palms flat on her desk. “All right, here it is. You’re not going to be working on my show anymore.”
The room spun around. Allie dropped into the remaining chair in the room and said, “What?”
“I’ve sensed a certain hostility since our break-up, and it’s affecting my performance, and so Bill and I have decided it’s best to put Lisa in your place since you’ve trained her. That way the show won’t suffer at all.”
Allie sat stunned.
Mark smiled at her and spread his hands, fait accompli. “Lisa is producing the show, starting now. It’ll be better for all of us.”
“All of us who?” She took a deep breath because she was pretty sure it was the not breathing that was making her dizzy. “Not all of us me. You have the prime time show. I’m the prime time producer. Unless I get the slot while you and Lisa move someplace cozy, this is not better for me.”
“Well, of course I’m not moving.” Mark sat up straighter in the chair. “I’m the talent.”
He was the talent? Then what was she?
“And you’re not fired or anything like that. We do appreciate what you’ve done,” he went on, and Allie jerked her head up, anger finally evicting her panic.
“Of course I’m not fired. Why would I be fired? This makes no sense.”
He plowed on through her anger. “And Bill’s going to give you another show to produce. I made sure of that.”
Good old Mark. Taking care of her. What a pal. She stood up, refraining from killing him where he sat only by Herculean effort. “Well, gee, Mark, thanks for the support and good luck in the future. Now get out of my chair.”
He stood, doing what she’d said by instinct. After two years of doing everything she said, it was probably a hard habit to break. He moved toward the door, brimming with patronizing good will. “Look, why don’t we go out for a drink? Just to show there are no hard feelings.”
She wanted to scream at him Of course, there are hard feelings, you jerk. If I could, I’d beat you senseless with one right now. But she was too adult for that, and too rattled, so she lied instead. Mark may have kicked her in the teeth, but she still had her incisors. “Sorry, I’ve already got a date. If fact, I have to go now. Maybe some other time.” She ducked out into the hall in front of him and escaped, trying not to cry. That would be a real mistake because she never cried, so if she did, people would probably assume somebody had died. And then she’d have to tell them that, tragically, Mark still lived.
Mark followed her, so she speeded up.
Karen yelled, “Allie” again as she went past the receptionist’s counter and this time shoved an envelope at her. “Bill–”
Allie took the envelope without slowing down, flashing the best smile she could under the circumstances, and bolted for the elevator with Mark still in pursuit.
Then Karen called out to him, too, and stopped him, and Allie caught the elevator and escaped to the street.
She’d been fired. She still had a job, but her career was gone with Mark. Allie stuck her chin out and tried to fake defiance–well, big deal, she’d just build another show around this new bozo–but it was no good. She’d spent two years making that show a hit, taking surveys, researching topics, devising contests, doing everything she knew to showcase Mark’s strengths. She’d majored in Mark King, and now he’d expelled her.
For a moment, outside the restaurant across from the station, Allie felt a moment of pure fear. What if she couldn’t do it again? What if Mark was right and he was the talent? What if she really was a loser? Nobody coming to her for help, nobody relying on her.
No. She’d find a way back. She gritted her teeth and went into the restaurant.
The hallway divided the restaurant from the bar, a sort of DMZ that separated the eating yuppies from the drinking yuppies. Allie stopped there and opened the envelope and found the kind of note the station owner was famous for: short, tactless, and to the point: “I’m taking you off Mark’s show and giving you to Charles Tenniel, the man taking over for Waldo Hancock. Meet him tomorrow, Tuesday, five o’clock, my office. Bill.”
Weird Waldo had the ten to two AM spot, the dead zone of radio. She’d just been demoted from producing the radio equivalent of Oprah to the radio equivalent of reruns of an infomercial. The place in her teeth where Mark had kicked her began to throb harder.
And her roommate Joe who was supposed to meet her wasn’t there to comfort her. The hell with it. She was going home.
She turned around to go back into the street, but outside the door was Mark, greeting people who greeted him back like he was a celebrity. Which, of course, he was.
And he was going to come into the bar and find her alone after her big talk about a date because Joe was late again. Not that Joe would have been very impressive as a date, but he would have been more impressive than no date at all.
So she went into the bar to find a date, and there were all those suits and the thug, and she couldn’t face another suit, and Mark was coming into the hall from the street, and at least the thug looked like a change of pace, so she went over to him and said, “Hi!” as vivaciously as she could. She wasn’t vivacious by nature, so she sounded like she’d been sucking helium, but he turned and looked at her anyway.
Allie didn’t know what she’d been expecting. Maybe some fantasy guy who was even better looking than Mark, which, in all fairness to Mark, would be impossible, but this guy wasn’t even in the running. He had the kind of face that the big, good-natured kids in the back of high school English classes always have, slightly dopey and comfortable.
He looked nice. That was about it, but after Mark, it was pretty good.
Allie plopped her bag down on the bar. “So! You meeting someone?” she asked, still on helium, and looked over her shoulder to check on the Mark situation. All she had to do was keep the thug in conversation until Mark walked in, saw she was with him, and left.
Mark didn’t like competition.
“So are you?” Allie smiled like a telemarketer. “Meeting someone?” She sat down beside him, praying Mark wouldn’t come in.
And the thug said, “No. What are you doing?”
Charlie Tenniel had been contemplating his future when she picked him up. His immediate future looked complicated and possibly dangerous, so he’d decided that his best plan was to lay low, not make waves, do the job, and get out. Investigating the source of an anonymous letter to a radio station in Tuttle, Ohio, couldn’t be that hard. The station wasn’t that big. Hell, the town wasn’t that big. His biggest problem was going to be pretending to be a disk jockey, and how hard could that be? If his brother had done it stoned, he could certainly do it straight. And he’d made it clear to everybody concerned that he was only around for six weeks, tops. He had things to do, he’d told them, places he had to be in November.
He hadn’t decided yet exactly what place he had to be in November, but he was positive it was somewhere uncomplicated and remote. Especially remote from his father who had taken to asking weird favors lately. Like “check into this radio station for my old friend Bill.” This was what came of going home for his father’s birthday. From now on, he’d just send a card. And as soon as he was done, he was out of here and someplace else. Someplace where he could do something simple for awhile, like raise pigs. No, too complicated. He’d raise carrots. You didn’t have to feed carrots. Was there such a thing as a carrot farm? There had to be. All those carrots had to come from somewhere.
He stopped thinking when she squeaked, “Hi!”
Charlie blinked at her, mildly surprised. She didn’t look like the vivacious pick-up-a-guy-in-a-bar type. Her sharp brown eyes gleamed behind huge, round, horn-rimmed glasses, and her glossy gold-brown hair swung in a tangled Dutch Boy bob. There was nothing wrong with her nose or mouth either; good standard issue All-American Woman features. She just seemed sort of scrubbed to be trolling for guys. The long flowered skirt and oversized vest weren’t right for a pick-up, either. She looked like a nice, clean kid. Well, she was no kid. Early thirties easy.
She raised her eyebrows so high they disappeared under her bangs and batted her eyelashes. “So! You meeting someone?” She looked over her shoulder and flopped her bag down on the bar. It looked like it was made from very old blue flowered carpet. Charlie had never seen anything quite like it so he poked his finger into it. It was fuzzy.
“Are you?” She smiled at him again, a sort of strained, too-many-teeth, trying-too-hard smile. “Meeting someone?” She sat on the stool beside him
“No.” Charlie looked at her with interest. “What are you doing?”
“Picking you up?”
Charlie shook his head. “I don’t think so. This is not your gig. What are you really doing?”
The artificial smile morphed into a genuine scowl, and her perky voice dropped an octave. “I don’t believe this. Can’t you even pretend on the hope you’ll get lucky?”
“I never pretend. I’m the natural, open type.” Charlie considered moving away from her and then rejected the idea. If he left her, he’d never find out what she was up to. And besides, when she’d scowled at him, her voice had gone husky. She had a great low voice. He smiled down at her, trying to make her talk again. “Why don’t you just give me the drift, and then we can take it from there.”
She lowered her head a little and stared at him over the rims of her glasses. “Look, the drift will take too long, and besides, it makes me look pathetic. All I ask is that you pretend to be having a drink with me.” He must have looked skeptical because she added, “I swear that’s it.”
Right. Charlie had been wandering through the world long enough to know that wouldn’t be it, that there would be complications. There were always complications, which was why Charlie had spent his thirty-four years learning to be light on his feet and fast out the door.
On the other hand, she wasn’t part of his current problem so there weren’t likely to be long term complications, and he had a free evening before he had to go poking around in other people’s business, so he might as well poke around in hers for awhile. At the very least, he’d get to listen to her talk. He shrugged. “Hell, it’s worth one drink just to find out what happens next.” He motioned to the bartender.
“Because I’m quite sure he will not come over here.” She looked back over her shoulder again.
The bartender came and Charlie said, “The lady would like . . .” He turned back to her.
“The lady would like to pay for her own amaretto and cream, Max.” She took a couple of bills out of her fuzzy bag and handed them to the bartender as she looked over her shoulder again.
“You got it, Allie,” the bartender said and moved away.
“Amaretto and cream?” Charlie frowned. “That’s disgusting.”
“At least the cream part is good for me.” She turned back to him. “Well, it should be skim milk, but bars never have skim milk.”
“That’s true.” Charlie drew back a little. “You know, you have the weirdest pick-up line in North America.”
“Pick up line?” She swiveled around on the stool and faced him. Her eyes sparked at him and her cheeks glowed rosy with outrage. Outrage looked very good on her. “This isn’t a pick-up line. The pick-up line was before, the one that didn’t work. .” She swiveled around again to keep lookout. “Oh, great.” She swiveled around to face him again. “There he is. Okay, here’s the deal. We’re together. Try to look like you haven’t just insulted me.”
“I didn’t insult you. I made an observation.”
“Well, stop.” She looked back over her shoulder again. “Oh, no.” She closed her eyes. Charlie saw her lips moving and leaned closer to hear her, but she wasn’t talking to him. “He’s going to go by. I’m sure he’s going to go by. I’m sure . . .”
A male model type stopped on the other side of her. “Allie! There you are. I–”
She jerked as if she’d been shot. “Mark! What a surprise. To see you. Again. So soon.” She looked at Charlie and said, very softly, “Oh, hell.”
Then she stuck her chin out and turned to smile at Mark.
She was doing pretty good, Charlie thought. Good smile. Pretty lame answer, but the smile and the chin would probably make up for it. He looked at the guy. Tall, dark, and handsome if you liked really pretty men. Very expensive suit. Tooth-paste grin. And the jerk was smiling that grin at her as if he knew she was in agony. Charlie shook his head at the situation and finished his drink. Good thing he wasn’t involved in this one. It was a mess.
“Let me buy you a drink, Al. It’s the least I can do.” Mark the jerk motioned for the bartender.
Max wandered back and put Allie’s Amaretto in front of her.
“No, no.” Allie’s mouth went lipless with stress. “I have one. Thanks, Max.”
“Amaretto and cream.” Mark laughed. “Good old Allie.” He sat down beside her at the bar and patted her on the back.
“Grrrrr.” It was a very faint low growl, locked behind her teeth, almost indiscernible in the babble of the bar, but Charlie heard it because she’d turned to him as she made it. “I’m sorry about this,” Allie whispered to him.
Charlie leaned forward and whispered in her ear, “Try not to look like a wounded basset hound.”
Allie flashed Mark a brilliant smile over her shoulder.
“I didn’t realize the two of you were together.” Mark paused for an introduction.
Allie kept on smiling like a half-wit, so Charlie took pity on her and extended his hand past her nose. “Charlie Tenniel.”
Allie started, but Mark took his hand with enthusiasm, gripping it in a he-man clasp. Charlie let his hand go limp. Mark smirked.
What an idiot, Charlie thought.
Mark was positively jovial. “Well, this is a coincidence. I’m Mark King. You’ve inherited my producer, you lucky dog. I’ve taught her everything there is to know about radio. You’re in good hands.”
Allie made that low growling sound in her throat again, and Charlie blinked at them both and then let Mark babble on about his own many successes, ignoring him for heavier thoughts. So much for diverting himself with Allie. Allie worked at the station with Mark the jerk. They were probably both in trouble up to their necks.
Allie certainly looked like she was in trouble. She turned bleak, questioning eyes on him. “Is this true?” she whispered. “You’re my new DJ?” He nodded at her and she closed her eyes. “We were just discussing that,” she lied as she turned back to Mark.
Charlie picked up her glass of cream and handed it to her. “Here you go, Boss. Glad to meet you, Mark. This the place everybody at the station hangs out?”
“Pretty much. Convenient, right across the street, you know.” Mark smiled broadly while he sized Charlie up with obvious confidence. “So have you two known each other long?”
Allie put down her newly empty glass. “Oh, it seems like it.”
Charlie brought his mind back to the problem at hand. “Don’t chug cream like that.” He took the empty glass from her. “This isn’t skim milk, you know. This is the real thing, the hard stuff. Max, another amaretto and cream for the lady. In fact, just bring over the bottle and drive in the cow.”
“A comedian.” Allie nodded her head. “Five guys sitting at a bar, and I pick the comedian.”
“What?” Mark leaned closer to catch what she was saying.
“She thinks I’m funny.” Charlie put his arm around Allie and gave her an affectionate squeeze. She was a lot softer than he was prepared for, so he left his arm where it was for awhile. “Funny is the basis for any good relationship.”
“Maybe that’s what was wrong with us, huh, Allie?” Mark looked soulfully at her.
What a goof. “You two were once . . .” Charlie wiggled his eyebrows at Allie. “You never told me that.”
“It never came up.” Allie glared at him from the curve of his arm.
“You’re a lucky man, Tenniel.” Mark was still trying to recapture Allie’s attention, but she missed his meaningful looks because she was glaring at Charlie.
Charlie beamed at them both, enjoying the situation. “That’s what everybody keeps telling me. Actually, it’s not luck, it’s skill.”
Mark tried again. “So how did you two meet?”
“In a bar,” Charlie said. “She picked me up.”
“Allie did?” Mark looked astounded.
“She begged me to buy her a drink.”
Charlie nodded. “Happens to me all the time. Animal magnetism.”
“Oh, a joke.” Mark looked relieved. “How did you two really meet?”
“I picked him up.” Allie took a deep breath. “The truth is–”
Charlie pulled her tighter, momentarily shutting down her lungs. He could see no good reason for Mark to know she was vulnerable. “The truth is that she sat down next to me, and I looked at her and thought ‘this is a good-looking woman,’ and we started to talk, and we’ve been together ever since.”
Allie jerked her head up and stared at him, and then she smiled, and Charlie smiled back by reflex, caught by the intelligence in her eyes and the warmth in her wide, soft mouth. Then she leaned toward him, and he bent to hear what she said.
She was almost nose to nose with him. “You are a good person. I forgive you for insulting me.” She patted his sleeve and then disengaged herself from his arm.
Charlie missed her warmth. “I didn’t insult you.”
“How long have you two known each other?” Mark asked.
“Eternity,” Charlie said.
“But it seems like only a few short minutes.” Allie glared at him again and then she leaned back , her attention caught by something over his shoulder. She signaled someone away, and Charlie turned just in time to get the impression that someone was doing a fade from the doorway into the hall.
So Allie had a secret. Life just got more interesting all the time. And of course that meant that he was going to have to stick with her until he discovered her secret. He’d been hired to find all the secrets at the station. It was his job. It was his duty. He looked at Allie, her hair shining like old, dark brass in the warm light of the bar.
It was his pleasure.
“So, where’s Lisa tonight?” Allie leaned on the bar in a lousy attempt at languid unconcern. “What a shame she’s not with you. We could all have dinner together.”
Careful, Allie, Charlie thought.
“Lisa’s at the station.” Mark frowned. “You’re right. It is a shame. This would be a great chance to meet Charlie.”
“There’ll be other chances.” Charlie finished his drink. “I’m not going anyplace. Except to the top of the ratings.”
Mark decided that was a joke, too. “Heh, heh, heh.”
Mark had a laugh like an asthmatic horse, and Charlie wondered if that was why Allie had left him. Listening to that laugh would be reason enough for anybody to leave him. Which brought an ugly thought. He’d have to be very careful because if Mark was any indication of his radio competition, he would go to the top of the ratings. That would be bad. One of the basic tenets of undercover investigation was not becoming a household word.
“Well!” Allie slid off the stool. “We’ve got to be getting in to dinner. Wonderful seeing you again, Mark.”
Mark leaned forward to kiss her good-bye, and she tripped backwards to get away from him.
Charlie caught her. “Falling for me all over again, huh?” He tightened his arm around her automatically. Allie was soft and round against his shoulder, and she smelled like flowers, and he was in no hurry to let go. “Try to restrain yourself,” he told her. “We’re in public.”
She looked into his eyes and swallowed hard. “It’s your animal magnetism. I’m restrained now. You can let go.”
“I don’t think so,” he said, and kissed her.
He’d only meant to kiss her quickly and let her go, mostly to annoy Mark and, all right, because she had a great mouth. But she clutched at him in surprise and fell into his arms so the kiss was a lot more than he’d planned, a lot more warmth and softness and weight, and her mouth was cool and sweet from the cream, and he was a little dizzy by the time he remembered where he was and came up for air.
“What are you doing?” Allie sounded more breathless than annoyed when she pulled away from him.
“Making my move. Come back here.” Charlie reached for her, and she stepped back.
Mark looked disgruntled. “Well, really, Allie, you’re in public.”
“That’s lust.” Charlie smiled at him happily. “She can’t keep her lips off me.” Allie took another step back, and Charlie stood up to follow her. “Well, it looks like we’re moving on,” he told Mark. “Tell Lisa we said ‘Hi’.”
When they were in the hallway, Allie shook her head. “Who are you really? Satan? I’m being punished, right?.”
“I’m Charlie Tenniel.” He held out his hand. “I work with that stuffed shirt you used to date. I assume all you did was date. I’d hate to think that any woman I’d kissed in a bar actually went to bed with somebody like that.”
She looked down at his hand and sighed. Then she took it and shook it once and dropped it. “I’m Alice McGuffey, your producer at WBBB. It was nice meeting you, and thank you very much for helping me with Mark, but I have to go now. We can talk again tomorrow at the station. ”
She turned to go into the restaurant, and Charlie stepped around her to block her. The last thing he wanted now was to get dumped. There were too many things Allie could tell him about the station. He could probably get the information from other people, but other people didn’t have Allie’s voice. Or Allie’s mouth. If he had to listen to a lot of boring things about a radio station, he at least wanted to hear them in Allie’s voice, watching Allie’s mouth. “Where are you going?”
“To dinner.” Allie gestured to the dining room. “With my dinner date. The only perfect man I know.”
“Ah.” Charlie nodded at her encouragingly. “Your father. We should meet so he can see the kind of guy you’re working with.”
“No, he shouldn’t see?”
“No, he’s not my father.”
“No?” Charlie thought faster. “Gee, I’ve never met a perfect man.” He tried to look wistful. “I’ve always wanted a role model.”
Allie looked at him with disapproval, but he smiled at her and finally she gave up. “Okay, I owe you. You want to eat dinner with Joe and me? If you can’t, it’s perfectly all right.”
“Thank you.” Charlie held the door to the restaurant open. “I can’t wait to meet Joe, the perfect man.”
“Terrific,” Allie said.
Charlie followed her into the restaurant, a big room with too much mahogany and not enough light. Allie looked around the dimness and then smiled when a man across the room stood up and waved at her.
Charlie narrowed his eyes a little. This guy might actually be the perfect man. He was tall, even taller than Charlie’s six two, and classically handsome without being obnoxious about it. His jaw was strong, his blond hair gleamed, his blue eyes were warm, and the smile he had for Allie was real and loving.
“Your brother?” Charlie asked, and Allie said, “No,” and walked away from him. He followed her, trying to find something about Joe that wasn’t perfect and feeling vaguely annoyed.
Allie introduced them at the table. “Joe, this is Charlie Tenniel, the new ten to two DJ. I’m producing his show.”
“I heard. Karen called.” Joe shot Allie a look that appeared to be sympathy, but Allie had already turned back to Charlie. “Charlie, this is Joe Ericson, my roommate. He’s the station’s accountant.”
She sounded like a well-behaved child, but she didn’t look like one. Charlie began to wonder what Allie was like when she wasn’t behaving well in public. No. That sort of thought would add those complications he’d been expecting, and Charlie tried to avoid complications. They always seemed to find him anyway, but he tried.
“Charlie Tenniel.” Joe’s smile was open and admiring as he held out his hand. *”Are you the one they call Ten Tenniel?”
Ouch. He hated lying, but it was better than “no, that’s my brother, the drug dealing DJ.” He shook his head. “Call me Charlie.”
Joe kept going. “I’ve heard about you. I’ve got a friend down in Lawrenceville who was very upset when you disappeared. I’m looking forward to hearing you myself now.”
His smile was genuine, and Charlie liked him.
“Who in Lawrenceville?” Allie had already seated herself and picked up the menu. “I’m starving.”
Joe sat down next to her. “Rona. Remember? From that seminar we took?”
Charlie took the chair across from her so he could watch her.
“Right. You kept in touch with Rona?” Allie ran her finger down the menu list. “Pasta.”
“I keep in touch with everybody.” Joe tapped Allie’s menu. “Not pasta. I’ll do pasta tomorrow night. Get something here that’s a pain in the butt to make. You like pasta, Charlie?”
Charlie started. Joe and Allie were so in sync in their conversation he was a little surprised to be suddenly included. “Yep.”
“Come to dinner tomorrow night.”
Charlie beamed his best smile at him. “Thanks.” Another contact at the station. First Allie, then Mark, now Joe. And he’d only been in town a couple of hours. God, he was good.
Allie glared at Joe.
Joe mock-glared back. “Don’t look at me like that. I want to get to know Ten Tenniel.”
“Charlie,” Charlie said. “Just call me Charlie.”
Allie wasn’t sure how she felt about Charlie. He’d done a nice job of saving her from Mark, but he’d laughed the whole time he was doing it which made her feel like a dweeb. Of course, he had a point: panic was not a good look for her. Don’t do that again, she told herself and turned back to the problem at hand.
She now had to work with a guy who’d kissed her in a bar. This was not a good way to start a professional relationship, especially since he was quite a good kisser and it would be hard to say no if he ever suggested they try that again, and of course she’d have to say no because sleeping with the talent was not a good idea. Look what had happened with Mark. No, forget about Mark. Socializing with Charlie was not a good idea which was why she’d tried to look quelling when he suggested he eat with Joe and her, but Charlie didn’t quell easily. In fact, Charlie didn’t quellat all.
He did seem taken aback when he saw Joe for the first time. Allie considered her roommate as she sat beside him. Part of Joe’s impact came from the fact that he was such a good man, so everything he was sort of infused his face, and his face was perfect, so people just felt good looking at him. She felt good just looking at him now. She’d talk this whole job mess out with him later, and everything would make sense.
But Joe did have his faults. Food, for instance.
He’d picked up his menu and was studying it as if there’d be a quiz at the end of the meal, which actually there would be. He’d ask, “Too much oregano. And where was the basil? Obvious seasoning. Sure sign of a clumsy chef. What about the asparagus?” He could go for days on just a side dish. But for right now, all he did was gesture at the menu and ask, “What do you think?”
Allie prepared for the usual battle. She was still nauseated from the stress of the afternoon, so a large slab of dead animal did not appeal. But she had to eat or she’d pass out, and she had to choose something that Joe hated to make, or he’d be insulted. “Manicotti,” she decided. “The last time you made that you bitched about stuffing all that pasta.”
“Not manicotti. Mine’s better than here. Get a steak.”
“I don’t want a steak. I want pasta.”
“Well, don’t come home tomorrow and say ‘Pasta? We just had pasta’.”
Charlie looked from one to the other. “You guys been together long?”
Allie laughed at the annoyance in his voice. “You sound just like Mark.”
“Yeah, and speaking of Mark, what was that?” Joe frowned at her. “You and Mark having a drink together after he fired you?”
“Yeah.” Charlie frowned at her, too. “What was that? I was there, and I didn’t understand it.”
Allie slumped back in her chair, her lousy day returning in full force. “That was my worst nightmare. That’s why I picked up Charlie. I didn’t want Mark to think I still . . . you know.”
“We know.” Joe looked at Charlie. “She’s usually not this wimpy. In fact, she’s usually very confident. It’s just Mark that makes her act like she’s twelve again.”
Charlie nodded. “You should have been at the bar. She was practically incoherent.”
“I was not.” Allie stuck out her chin and tried to look strong and defiant, and Charlie snorted. She gave up then and dropped her head into her hands. “Oh, hell.”
Joe patted her head. “There, there. You have us.”
“Oh, good,” Allie said without raising her head. “That’s a comfort.”
“Now order,” Joe said. “And don’t screw up.”
Allie finally got Joe to agree that she could have the chicken fettucini since he wanted a taste of it himself. Chickens weren’t really dead animals, she reasoned, ready to contemplate anything except her future. They were more like protein with feathers. Joe and Charlie ordered prime rib, and Joe gave the waitress lavish instructions on their side dishes which she copied down word for word, having served him before. When the waitress was gone, Joe remembered that he hadn’t designed Allie’s vegetables, and Allie argued that she wanted hers plain, and he said that was no way to live, and they were off on one of their usual arguments with lots of laughing, when Charlie interrupted.
“So, how long have you known each other?”
“Four years,” Joe said. “Ever since she came to the station.”
Allie relaxed and smiled at Joe. “I was new in town and didn’t have a place to live, and he was at the station picking up the books, and his roommate had just moved out, so he said I could borrow the spare bedroom until I found a place.”
Joe grinned. “And then she came home with me, and we talked and laughed until two in the morning, and I said ‘Don’t find another place,’ and we’ve been together ever since.”
Charlie looked from Joe to Allie, and he didn’t look happy. Allie stopped smiling, wondering what she’d said that was wrong, not really caring as long as it wasn’t another major trauma to deal with. Then Charlie said, “I don’t get this. If Joe is the perfect man, why did you ever get mixed up with that clown, Mark?”
Joe blinked at him. “I’m the perfect man?”
“That’s what Allie says.”
Joe raised his eyebrows at her. “I’m flattered.”
Allied tensed. “Well, almost.” Oh, great, it was a possible major trauma after all. She shot a look at Charlie, prepared to jettison him permanently if he said the wrong thing. “Except for that one tiny flaw.”
“I don’t consider it a flaw.” Joe looked at Charlie. “I’m gay.”
Charlie relaxed and beamed at him in what looked like relief. He picked up a breadstick. “Good for you, but that doesn’t justify Mark. There must be other men in this town almost as perfect as you who like girls.”
Allie blinked at him. She had obviously missed something there, but since it wasn’t homophobia, she didn’t care what was going on in Charlie’s brain. It was a male brain. It was probably incomprehensible anyway. Look at Mark.
Joe sat back. “I’ve got to admit, I wasn’t happy about Mark, either.” He turned to Allie. “Why did you pick him?”
“I didn’t.” Allie tried to look unconcerned. “He picked me. I don’t know why.”
“I don’t either,” Joe said. “You’re not his type.”
“What is his type?” Charlie asked.
“Lisa.” Allie stuck out her chin in defiant unconcern, but unfortunately, she stuck her lower lip out farther.
“Don’t pout.” Joe bit into a breadstick.
“You owe Lisa, whoever she is,” Charlie told her. “She saved you from a man worse than death. You say ‘thank you very much’ the next time you see her.”
“Which should be any minute now.” Joe pointed his breadstick behind Charlie. “That’s them by the door.”
Allie looked up in time to see Mark wave and take Lisa’s hand and tow her toward them through the crowd.
The day from hell would never end. Well, she’d asked for it.
Charlie evidently thought so, too. “It’s a shame Lisa’s not with you,” he mimicked. “We could all have dinner together.”
“I know.” Allie pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose and steeled herself for the mess to come. “I know. If I’d behaved like an adult, I wouldn’t have picked up Charlie in a bar and lied to Mark. I deserve this.”
“Nobody deserves this.” Joe handed her a breadstick. “Eat. I’m with you. We can take them.”
“Hell, yes.” Charlie relented and patted her hand. “The odds are in our favor.”
“You in this, too? Good.” Joe handed him a breadstick, too. “We can always use another foot soldier in the fight against yuppie scum dweebs.”
“Lisa! Mark!” Joe stood up. “I was just telling Charlie all about you.”
Someday, Allie told herself, I’ll look back on this and laugh.
But not yet.