Fast Women: Chapter One

The man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart figured that was par for her course since she’d been going to hell for a year and a half anyway. Meeting Gabriel McKenna just meant she’d arrived.

“Yes, I think you better to look into that,” he was saying into the phone with barely disguised impatience, his dark, sharp eyes telegraphing his annoyance while he ignored her.

It was rude to talk on the phone in front of her, but he didn’t have a secretary to answer the phone for him, and she was a job applicant not a client, and he was a detective not an insurance salesman, so maybe the regular rules of social intercourse didn’t apply.

“I’ll come up on Monday,” he said. “No, Trevor, waiting would not be better. I’ll talk to all of you at eleven.”

He sounded as if he were talking to a fractious uncle, not a client. The detective business must be a lot better than this place looked if he could dictate to clients like that, especially clients named Trevor. The only Trevor she knew was her sister-in-law’s father, and he was richer than God, so maybe Gabe McKenna was really powerful and successful and just needed somebody to manage his office back into shape. She could do that.

Nell looked around the shabby room and tried to be positive, but it was gloomy in the September afternoon light, even gloomier because the ancient blinds on his equally ancient big windows were pulled down. The McKenna Building was on the corner of two of the city’s prettier thoroughfares in a place where people paid big bucks to look out their windows at historic Ohio brick streets and architecture, but Gabriel McKenna pulled his blinds, probably so he couldn’t see the mess inside. The walls were covered with dusty framed black and white photos from God knew when, the furniture needed to be cleaned and waxed, and his desk needed to be plowed. She’d never seen so much garbage on one surface in her life, the Styrofoam cups alone would–

“Yes,” he said, his voice low and sure. The light from his green-shaded desk lamp threw shadows on his face, but with those sharp eyes closed, he didn’t look nearly as satanic. More like your average, tired, dark-haired, broad-shouldered, forty-something businessman in a striped shirt and loosened tie. Like Tim.

Nell stood up abruptly and dropped her purse on the chair. She went to the big window and tried to open the blinds to let in a little light. If they cleaned the place up, he could leave the blinds open to make a better impression. Clients liked doing business in the light, not in the pit of hell. She tugged once on the cord and it stuck, so she tugged again, harder, and this time it came off in her hand.

Oh, great. She looked over her shoulder, but he was still on the phone, those broad shoulders hunched, so she shoved the cord onto the windowsill. It fell off onto the hardwood floor, the plastic end making a sharp, hollow sound as it hit, and she leaned into the blind-covered window to get it, behind the chair that was in the way. It was just out of her finger’s reach, another damn thing out of her reach, so she pressed harder against the blinds, stretching to touch it with her fingertips.

The window cracked under her shoulder.

“I’ll see you on Monday,” he said into the phone, and she kicked the blind cord behind the radiator and went back to sit down before he could notice that she was destroying his office around him.

Now she had to get the job so she could cover the tracks of her vandalism. And besides, there was that desk; somebody needed to save this guy. And then there was her need for money to pay for rent and other luxuries. Somebody needs to save me, she thought.

He hung up the phone and turned to her, looking hot and tired. “I apologize, Mrs. Dysart. You can see how much we need a secretary.”

Nell looked at his desk and thought, You need more than a secretary, buddy, but she said, “Perfectly all right.” She was going to be cheerful and helpful if it killed her.

He picked up her resume. “Why did you leave your last position?”

“My boss divorced me.”

“That would be a reason,” he said, and began to read.

His people skills needed work, she thought as stared down at her sensible, low-heeled black pumps, planted firmly on the ancient Oriental rug where they couldn’t walk her into trouble again. Now if he’d been Tim, he’d have offered her sympathy, a Kleenex, a shoulder to cry on. He would have followed that up by suggesting the purchase of some insurance, but he would have been sympathetic.

There was a spot on the carpet, and she rubbed at it with the toe of her shoe, trying to blend it in. Spots made a place look unsuccessful; it was the details that counted in an office environment. She rubbed harder, and the carpet threads parted, and the spot got bigger; it wasn’t a spot, she’d found a hole and had managed to shred it to double its size in under fifteen seconds. She put her foot over the hole and thought, Take me, Jesus, take me now.

“Why do you want to work for us?” he said, and she smiled at him, trying to look bright and eager, plus the aforementioned cheerful and helpful, which was hard since she was middle-aged and cranky.

“I think it would be interesting to work for a detective agency.” I think I need a job so I can hold onto my divorce settlement for my old age.

“You’d be amazed how boring it is,” he said. “You’ll be doing mostly typing and filing and answering phones. You’re over-qualified for this job.”

I’m also forty-two and unemployed, she thought, but she said brightly, “I’m ready for a change.”

He nodded, looking as though he wasn’t buying any of it, and she wondered if he was enough like Tim that he’d recycle her in twenty years, if after the passage of time, he would look at her and say, “We’ve grown apart. I swear I haven’t been interviewing other secretaries on the side, but now I need somebody new. Somebody with real typing skills. Somebody–”

The arm of the chair wobbled under her hand, and she realized she’d been pulling up on it. Relax. She shoved it back down again, clamping her elbow to her side to stop the chair arm from moving any more, keeping her foot on the spot on the rug. Just sit still, she told herself.

Behind her, the blind rustled as it slipped a little.

“You certainly have the skills we need,” McKenna said, and she forced a smile. “However, our work here is highly confidential. We have a rule: we never talk about business outside this office. Can you be discreet?”

“Certainly,” Nell said, pressing harder on the chair arm as she tried to radiate discretion.

“You do understand that this is a temporary position?”

“Uh, yes,” Nell lied, feeling suddenly colder. Here was her new life, just like her old life. She heard a faint crack from the direction of the chair arm and loosened her grip a little.

“Our receptionist is recovering from an accident and should be back in six weeks,” he was saying. “So October 13th–”

“I’m history,” Nell finished. At least he was letting her know ahead of time that the end was coming. She wouldn’t get attached. She wouldn’t have a son with him. She wouldn’t–

The chair arm wobbled again, much looser this time, and he nodded. “If you want the job, it’s yours.”

The blind slipped again, a rusty, sliding sound.

“I want the job,” Nell said.

He fished in his center desk drawer and handed her a key. “This will get you into the outer office on the days my partner, Riley, or I haven’t opened before you get here.” He stood and offered her his hand. “Welcome to McKenna Investigations, Mrs. Dysart. We’ll see you Monday at nine.”

Nell stood, too, releasing the chair arm gingerly in the hope that it wouldn’t fall to the floor, keeping her foot on the rug. She reached for his hand, sticking hers out forcefully to show confidence and strength, and hit one of the Styrofoam cups. Coffee spread over his papers while they both watched, their hands clasped over the carnage.

“My fault,” he said, letting go of her to grab the cup. “I never remember to throw these out.”

“Well, that’s my job for the next six weeks,” she said, perky as all hell. “Thank you so much, Mr. McKenna.”

She gave him one last insanely positive smile and left the office before anything else could happen.

The last thing she saw as she closed the heavy wood door behind her was the blind slipping once, bouncing, and then crashing down, exposing the star-cracked window, brilliant in the late afternoon light.

When Eleanor Dysart was gone, Gabe looked at the broken window and sighed. He found a bottle of Bayer in his middle drawer and took two of the aspirin, washing them down with hours-old coffee that had been awful when it was hot, grimacing as somebody knocked on his office door.

His cousin Riley loomed blondly in the doorway, doing his usual impression of a half-bright halfback. “Who was the skinny redhead who just left? Cute, but if we take her case, we should feed her.”

“Eleanor Dysart,” Gabe said. “She’s filling in for Lynnie. And she’s stronger than she looks.”

Riley frowned at the window as he sat down in the chair Eleanor Dysart had just vacated. “When’d the window get broken?”

“About five minutes ago. And we’re hiring her, even though she’s a window-breaker, because she’s qualified and because Jack Dysart asked us to.”

Riley looked disgusted. “One of his ex-wives we don’t know about?” He leaned on the chair arm, and it cracked and broke so that he had to catch himself to keep from falling through it. “What the hell?”

“Sister-in-law,” Gabe said, staring sadly at the chair. “Divorced from his brother.”

“Those Dysart boys are hell on wives,” Riley said, picking up the chair arm from the floor.

“I mentioned to Jack that we needed a temp and he sent her over. Be nice to her. Other people haven’t been.” Gabe stashed his aspirin back in the drawer and picked up several coffee-soaked papers. He used another paper to blot the coffee off and held it out to Riley. “You’ve got the Hot Lunch on Monday.”

Riley gave up on the chair arm and dropped it on the floor to take the paper. “I hate chasing cheaters.”

Gabe’s headache fought back against the aspirin. “If relationship investigation bothers you, you might want to rethink your career choice.”

“It’s the people not the job. Like Jack Dysart. A lawyer who thinks adultery is a hobby, there’s the bottom of the food chain for you. What a loser.”

That’s not why you hate him, Gabe thought, but it was late on Friday afternoon, and he had no interest in pursuing his cousin’s old grudges. “I have to see him and Trevor Ogilvie on Monday. Both senior partners at once.”

“Good for you. I hope Jack’s in trouble up to his neck.”

“He’s being blackmailed. So are Trevor and Budge Jenkins.”

“Blackmail?” Riley said, his voice full of disbelief. “Jack? There’s stuff out there that’s even worse than the stuff everybody already knows about him?”

“Possibly,” Gabe said, thinking about Jack and his total disregard for the consequences of his actions. It was amazing what a handsome, charming, selfish, wealthy lawyer could get away with. At least, it was amazing what Jack got away with. “Budge is apoplectic. Jack thinks it’s just a disgruntled employee trying to scare them. Trevor thinks it’s a prank and if they wait a few weeks–”

Riley snorted. “There’s Trevor for you. A lawyer who’s made a fortune delaying the other side to death.”

“Budge called first, and then Jack called to tell me it was probably nothing and set things up for eleven, so that’s the time I told Trevor. Trevor’s probably calling Jack now, saying, ‘If eleven isn’t a good time for you, we can cancel–‘”

“And Jack’s saying, ‘Hey, for you Trevor, I’ll clear my calendar.’ What a devious son of a bitch.”

Gabe felt a spurt of irritation. “Oh, hell, Riley, give the man some credit, it’s been fourteen years and he’s still married to her. She cracked thirty a while back and he stuck. He may even be faithful for all we know.”

Riley scowled at him. “I have no idea what you’re talking about–”

“Susannah Campbell Dysart, the defining moment of your youth.”

“–but if my choice is between the Hot Lunch and Jack Dysart,” Riley went on, “I’ll take the Hot Lunch. I was going to campus on Monday anyway, it’ll be on my way.”

Gabe frowned at him. “I thought you were working a background check on Monday. What are you doing on campus?”

“Having lunch,” Riley said, looking innocent.

Gabe’s irritation grew. Riley was thirty-four. Maturity was long overdue. “You’re dating a grad student now?”

“Junior,” Riley said, without guilt. “Horticulture major. Knows everything about plants. Did you realize that the coneflower–”

“So she’s what, fifteen years younger than you are?”

“Thirteen,” Riley said. “I’m broadening my horizons by learning about the plant world. You, on the other hand, are in such a deep rut you can’t even see your horizons. Come out with us, get hooked up–”

“With an undergraduate.” Gabe shook his head, disgusted. “No. I’m calling Chloe for dinner tonight. I will be hooked up.”

Riley shook his head, equally disgusted. “Much as I like Chloe, sleeping with your ex-wife is not going to get you out of your rut.”

“Much as sleeping with a college junior will not help you achieve adulthood,” Gabe said.

“Fine, be that way.” Riley stood up, affable as ever. “Give my best to Jack and the boys on Monday.” He picked up the broken chair and switched it with the one by the window and then left, and Gabe began to sort through the rest of the splattered papers on his desk. As an afterthought, he picked up the phone and hit the speed dial for The Star-Struck Cup, his ex-wife’s teashop. He could have walked through the door that connected the agency reception room to The Cup’s storeroom and talked to his ex in the flesh, but he didn’t want Chloe in the flesh at that moment, he just wanted to make sure he had access to her flesh later.

When Chloe answered, her voice bubbling over the phone, he said, “It’s me.”

“Good,” she said, some of the bubble gone. “Listen, a woman was just in here buying almond cookies. Tall and thin. Faded red hair. Pretty eyes. Did she come from you?”

“Yes, but she’s not a client so you can skip the pep talk about how I have to save her. She’s Lynnie’s temp replacement.”

“She has an interesting look to her,” Chloe said. “I bet she’s a Virgo. Give me her birthdate.”

“No. Dinner at eight?”

“Yes, please. We need to talk. Lu thinks maybe she’d rather backpack through Europe this fall.”

“Not a chance. I paid her first quarter tuition.”

“This is your daughter’s life, Gabe.”

“No. She’s only eighteen. That’s too young for Europe by herself.”

“She’s the same age I was when I married you,” Chloe pointed out.

And look at the lousy decision you made. “Chloe, she’s going to college. If she hates it after the first quarter, we’ll talk.”

Chloe sighed. “All right. Now about this Virgo–”

“No,” Gabe said, and hung up, thinking about his lovely blonde daughter making plans to backpack through faraway countries filled with predatory men while his lovely blonde ex-wife consulted the same stars that had told her to divorce him.

He reached for the aspirin again and this time he washed it down with the Glenlivet he kept stashed in his bottom drawer, just as his dad had before him. He was going to have to do something about Chloe and Lu, not to mention Jack Dysart and Trevor Ogilvie and whatever mess they’d gotten themselves and their law firm into this time. The only cheerful thing in his future was that he’d be sleeping with Chloe later. That was always nice.

Nice? He stopped. Christ, what had happened to “hot?” It couldn’t be Chloe, she was the same as she’d always been.

So it’s me, he thought, looking at the scotch bottle in one hand and the aspirin bottle on the desk. I’m played out, relying on booze and drugs to get me through the day.

Of course, it was Glenlivet and Bayer he was abusing, not Ripple and crack. His eye fell on the photograph on the wall across from him: his dad and Trevor Ogilvie, forty years before, hands clasped on each other’s pinstriped shoulders, grinning at the camera which they toasted with martini glasses. A fine old tradition, he thought, and remembered his dad saying, “Trevor’s a great guy, but without me, he’d ignore his problems until they blew up in his face.”

You left me more than half the agency, Pop.

Not cheered by this, Gabe stashed both bottles in the desk and began to sort through the mess on his desk to find his notes. Damn good thing they had a secretary coming in on Monday. He needed somebody who would follow orders and make his life easier, the way Chloe had when she’d been his secretary. He shot an uneasy glance at the broken window. He was pretty sure Eleanor Dysart was going to make his life easier.

And if she didn’t, he’d just fire her, even if she was the ex-sister-in-law of their biggest client. If there was one thing he didn’t need in his life, it was more people making him crazy.

He was full up on those already.

On the other side of the park, Nell sat at her large dining room table in her very small apartment with two people who often made her crazy, and said, “And then as I left, the blind fell down with this huge crash and there was the broken window.” She watched straight-faced as her sister-in-law, Suze Dysart, hiccuped with laughter, platinum beautiful even while gasping.

“Maybe he’ll think it was somebody outside who broke it,” Nell’s other sister-in-law, Margie, said from beside her, her cheerfully plain little face as hopeful as always over the cup of coffee Nell had just poured for her. “If you never tell him, maybe he’ll never know.” She took a small silver thermos out of her bag as she spoke and topped up her cup with the soy milk she always carried with her.

“He’s a detective,” Nell said. “I hope to God he knows, or I’m working for Elmer Fudd.”

“Oh, God, it’s been too long since I laughed like that.” Suze took a deep breath, stretching her hot pink sweater to the max. “What are you going to do about the rug?”

“Maybe you can stick the holey part under his desk,” Margie said, not stretching her flower-embroidered cardigan at all as she reached for an almond cookie. “If he never sees it, maybe he’ll never know.” She bit into the cookie and said, “I love these, but the woman who makes them is very stingy with the recipe.”

“If you could make the cookies, would you buy them from her?” Suze said, and when Margie shook her head, she said, “Well, there you are.” She turned back to Nell and pushed the cookie plate toward her. “Have a cookie and tell us about it. What’s the place like? What’s your new boss like?”

“He’s a slob,” Nell said, ignoring the cookies. “It’s going to take me the entire six weeks just to clean off his desk.” That was a good thought, organizing somebody’s life, getting back in charge of things. Time to get moving again, she thought, and sat still.

“Ouch.” Margie looked under the table. “What did I just kick? Why are there boxes under here?”

“My china,” Nell said.

“You haven’t unpacked your china yet?” Margie sounded scandalized.

“She’ll get to it.” Suze sent an unmistakable shut-up glare Margie’s way.

Margie, of course, missed it. “If she had her china out, she could look at it, and it would make her feel more settled.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Suze said, still staring at her with intent. “Mine’s out and it makes me want to throw up, although that may be because I’m stuck with Mother Dysart’s butt-ugly Spode.”

“I love looking at my dishes,” Margie said sadly over her coffee, which was not news to the rest of the table. Margie had more Franciscan Desert Rose earthenware than any other woman on the planet.

Suze finally caught Margie’s eye, and Margie straightened, smiling. Nell wanted to say, “Look, guys, it’s all right,” but then she’d just have to cope with both of them reassuring her again.

“Well, I think it’s wonderful,” Margie said, faux chipper. “This new job and all. You’ve always liked working.” She sounded slightly bemused by that, as if it were a mystery to her.

“I didn’t like working,” Nell said. “I liked running my own business.”

“Tim’s business,” Margie said.

“We built it together.”

“Then why does he have it now?” Margie said, and Nell wished Suze would glare at Margie again.

“Well, I’d like working,” Suze rushed in. “I don’t know what I want to do, but after fourteen years of college, I must be qualified to do something.”

Then get a job, Nell thought, impatient at hearing Suze’s lament again, and then felt guilty. Suze talked about work and didn’t do anything about it, but Nell hadn’t done anything, either, until Jack had called about the McKennas.

Margie was still obsessing about Tim. “Tell me you at least got half of those ugly glass awards he was so proud of.”

Nell kept her temper. Snarling at Margie was like kicking a puppy. “The Icicles? No. I left them with the agency. It wouldn’t have been fair–”

“Don’t you ever get tired of being fair?” Suze said.

Yes, Nell thought. “No,” she said. “And as for the new job, all I’m going to do is answer phones and type for six weeks. It’s not a career. Really, I’m fine. Stop worrying about me.”

“It’s a detective agency,” Suze said. “I thought that would be exciting. Sam Spade and Effie Perrine.” She sounded wistful.

“Who?” Margie said.

“A famous detective and his secretary,” Suze said. “I studied them in my film noir course. I thought Sam and Effie had the best jobs. The clothes were good, too.” She pushed the cookie plate toward Nell. “Have a cookie.”

Margie refocused on Nell. “Is your boss cute?”

“No.” Nell stirred her coffee and ignored the cookie plate and thought about Gabe McKenna. It was his eyes that what had made her nervous, she decided. That and the sheer weight of his presence, the threat of potential temper there. Not a man to mess with. “He’s tall and solid-looking, and he frowns a lot, and his eyes are dark so it’s hard to read him. He looks . . . I don’t know. Annoyed. Sarcastic.” She could see him as she described him, sitting behind his desk, ignoring her. “Actually, he looks like Tim.”

“That doesn’t sound like Tim,” Margie said. “Tim’s always smiling and saying nice things.”

“Tim’s always trying to sell insurance,” Suze said. “But you’re right, that doesn’t sound like Tim. Don’t get them confused. Tim is a loser. The new guy might be good. Anybody but Tim might be good.”

Nell sighed. “Look, he was very polite, but that was it.”

“Maybe he was fighting his attraction to you,” Suze said. “Maybe he was distant because he didn’t want to come on too strong but his heart beat faster when he saw you.”

Margie shook her head. “I don’t think so. Nell isn’t the type to drive men crazy on first sight. Men do that for you because you’re young and beautiful, so you think it’s that way for everybody.”

“I’m not that young,” Suze said.

“He was not attracted to me,” Nell said firmly. “This is a job only.”

“All right,” Margie said. “But you do have to start dating now. You should be married again.”

Yeah, because that worked out so well the last time.

“She’s right,” Suze said. “You don’t want to be alone.” She said it as if it were a fate worse than death.

“Although maybe not,” Margie said, staring off into space. “Come to think of it, it’s the men who always want to get married. Look at Tim, marrying Whitney so soon.”

Ouch, Nell thought, and saw Suze swing toward Margie, ready to snarl.

“And Budge can’t wait, he’s driving me crazy about setting a date.” Margie bit into her cookie and chewed, deep in thought. “You know, he moved in a month after Stewart left, so I never had much of a chance to look around. There might be somebody better.”

Nell was so surprised she almost dropped her coffee cup.

Suze put hers down in her saucer with a loud clink. “Marjorie Ogilvie Dysart, I am astonished at you. That man’s lived with you for seven years and you’re thinking about leaving him?”

“Well,” Margie began.

“Go for it,” Suze said. “Don’t think twice. If you need help moving, I’m there.”

“Or maybe I’ll get a job,” Margie went on. “If you like your job, Nell, maybe I’ll get one. A little one.” She made it sound like a kitten. “Not at the agency, though. Budge says the McKennas deal with too many low people.”

“Really?” Nell said, not caring. Margie’s Budge looked like the Sta-Puf Marshmallow Man and talked like a Moral Majority leader. “I’m amazed Budge lets you hang out with me, then.”

Margie blinked at her. “You’re not low. You’re just depressed.”

Suze shoved the cookie plate toward her to distract her. “Nell is not depressed. And speaking of Budge, if you’re going to stay with him, would you please tell him again not to call me ‘Suzie.’ I’ve reminded him over and over and he still does it. One more time and I swear to God, I’m going to break his glasses.”

“I just wonder sometimes,” Margie said, not paying attention. “You know. Is this all there is?”

Nell nodded. “I used to wonder, too. Sometimes I’d look around the insurance agency and think, ‘This is the rest of my life?‘ Then it turned out it wasn’t. Trust me, Margie, don’t push your luck.”

“You didn’t push your luck,” Suze said. “You married the wrong guy.”

“No, I didn’t,” Nell said. “He was the right guy for twenty-two years.” She stared into her coffee cup. “It’s not like he cheated–”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Suze said. “If I hear one more time about how it’s not Tim’s fault because he didn’t cheat before he left you, I’m going to throw something. He left you alone, and hurt you so much you don’t even eat anymore.” She stared at the cookie plate, visibly upset. “He’s scum. I hate him. Find somebody new and start a new life.”

I liked my old life. Nell took a deep breath. “Look, can we wait to see if I survive working for Gabriel McKenna for six weeks before I deal with other men?”

“Okay, six weeks, but then you date,” Suze said. “And you eat now.”

“I think we should unpack your china,” Margie said.

God, preserve me from those who love me, Nell thought, and drank the rest of her coffee

Five hours later, in his third floor apartment above the agency, Gabe would have thought much the same thing if he’d been thinking at all. After the day he’d had, all he’d wanted was sex and silence, and now he was halfway there, making only a vague pretense of listening to Chloe in bed beside him

“I liked the way she looked,” Chloe was saying. “Fine but strong. She’ll stand up to you.”

“Oh, good.” Gabe settled deeper into his bed.

“Well, you need that. And I looked at her birthdate on the application, and she is a Virgo, just like I thought. She’s going to be an excellent secretary.”


“So I think you should fire Lynnie and make this Eleanor permanent,” Chloe said, her usual delicately suggestive voice blunt, and Gabe woke up a little. “Even before I knew Lynnie was a Scorpio, I didn’t trust her.” She shook her head. “I know she’s efficient, but she doesn’t take care of anybody but herself. That dark hair. Eleanor will be perfect for you.”

Gabe ignored the dark hair bit–tracking down Chloe’s free associations could take hours–to concentrate on the important point. “Chloe, I don’t tell you how to run your business, so butt out of mine.” Another thought intruded. “How did you see that application?”

“It was on your desk,” Chloe said. “I looked after you left. She has a Cancer moon.”

“If that means she has a nice ass, you’re right. Stay out of my office.” Gabe rolled away in the forlorn hope she’d shut up.

“I bet she was a real redhead once,” Chloe said. “There was fire there, I’d bet anything. But she’s all faded out now.” She nudged him with her elbow. “You could do something about that, put some of the fire back into her.”

“She’s going to answer the phone,” Gabe said into his pillow. “Unless AT&T inflames her, she’s out of luck.”

Chloe sat up and leaned over his shoulder, and he closed his eyes in pleasure at all that warm softness pressed against his back. Then she said,

“Gabe, I don’t think we should see each other any more.”

Gabe turned his head to look up at her. The moon came through the skylight and backlit Chloe’s short, blonde curls, making her look angelically lovely. Too bad she was insane. “You live next door. You work in the same building I do. You sleep with me several times a week. What’s your plan, blindfolds?”

“I’m serious, Gabe. I think it’s time we broke up.”

Gabe turned his back on her again. “We did that already. It was a success. Go to sleep.”

“You never listen,” Chloe said, and Gabe could feel the bed bounce as she rolled out of it.

“Where are you going?” he said to her, exasperated, as she struggled into her clothes.

“Home,” Chloe said, and Gabe said, “Fine. See you tomorrow.”

“Gabe,” Chloe said a minute later, and Gabe rolled over to see her standing at the foot of his bed, braless in her moons-and-stars T-shirt, her hands on her hips like a particularly demanding child. When she didn’t say anything, he propped himself up on his elbows and said with exaggerated patience, “What?”

Chloe nodded. “Good, you’re awake. You and I have stayed together partly because of Lu but mostly because there wasn’t anybody else we liked better. You’re a very nice man, but we’re not right for each other, and we owe it to ourselves to find our soul mates.”

“I love you,” Gabe said. “If you weren’t such a fucking whacko, I’d still be married to you.”

“I love you, too, but this is not the great love we both deserve. And someday you’re going to look at me and say, ‘Chloe, you were right.'”

“I’ll say it now if you’ll shut up and come back to bed.”

“I think this Eleanor is the one for you. I spent two hours on her horoscope, and I can’t tell for sure without getting her time of birth for her rising sign, but I really think she’s your match.”

Gabe felt suddenly cold. “Tell me you didn’t tell her that.”

“Well, of course not.” Chloe sounded exasperated. “I just found out about it before dinner. Look, I know how you hate change, so I’m setting us both free so you can start over with Eleanor and I can find the man I was meant to be with.”

Gabe sat up straighter. “You’re not serious about this.”

“Very,” Chloe said and blew him a kiss. “Good-bye, Gabriel. I’ll always love you.”

“Wait a minute.” Gabe rolled toward the foot of the bed to reach for her, but she faded away into the dark, and a moment later he heard the door to his apartment close with a finality that was rare for Chloe.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Chloe did exactly what he told her to do. This was clearly the hundredth. He fell back into bed and stared up at the skylight, depressed by the realization that his ex-wife had just dumped him again.

A shooting star traced its way above the skylight, and he watched it fade. Weren’t those supposed to be good luck? Chloe would know, but she’d just walked out. His future now consisted of an endless string of days spent coping with clients like Jack Dysart, keeping his daughter in college, chasing down a series of cheating mates, and watching his temp secretary destroy his office, all as a celibate. “I want my old life back,” he said and rolled over, pulling his pillow over his head to block out the stars that were responsible for his latest disaster.

Copyright © 2001 by Jennifer Crusie Smith. All rights reserved.

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