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26.12.2018

DURING THE SHORT DRIVE TO the restaurant I tried not to think about what the wind was doing to my carefully styled hair, choosing instead to feel giddy at how Des had opened my car door back at Dody's. Richard never opened doors for me, not even when I was in labor. He was too busy worrying my water might break in his new Lexus. I shook my head. No thoughts of Richard tonight. I was on a date. A real, honest-to-goodness date with someone who knew me and asked me out anyway.

Des parked the car on the corner of Chic and Picturesque, in a section of Bell Harbor so quaint it was nearly in black and white. Historic buildings lined a tree-shaded, cobblestoned boulevard.

Des got out, and I tugged at the hem of my dress, wondering if he would open my door again. I pretended to fuss with the buckle on my shoe, stalling just long enough to see that he was indeed coming around to my side. Ah, chivalry! If there was a puddle, would he throw his cloak over it? Oh, wait. He wasn't wearing a cloak. Never mind.

The thought made me smile nonetheless.

"What's so funny?" he asked.

"Oh, nothing. I'm just happy we got such a great parking spot."

He looked up and down the nearly carless street. "Uh-huh."

His sporty BMW was low to the ground and my new FMPs were like walking on stilts. I struggled to get out of the car without twisting my ankle. What was I thinking, letting a tasseled-loafer-wearing gay man select my footwear?

Then Des reached out and took ahold of my hand, helping me from the car.

God damn! That Fontaine was a genius, making me wear these shoes!

Des's innocent touch sent a wicked chill through me. His grip was gentle but firm, with just the right amount of squeeze. And he didn't let go as we headed toward the restaurant. I bit back a girlish giggle and resisted the urge to swing our arms back and forth. Richard never liked to hold hands. He said he found it constrictive. Darn it, no more thoughts about Richard.

Des and I passed an artsy boutique with overflowing flowerpots sitting in front, and the bistro where I'd had lunch with Kyle and Fontaine. Across the street were a kite store, a candy shop, and an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor with red-striped awnings. The brick-paved sidewalks beneath our feet were spotlessly clean, and every few blocks rested a bench made to look like an old wagon wheel. And all the birds in the trees were chirping Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Well, that might have only been in my imagination.

"How does sushi sound?" Des asked as he pointed to a restaurant on the next block with a stone dragon near the doorway. "A friend at work said that place is good."

"Great," I answered, not wanting to admit I'd never had sushi. Richard's vast array of prejudices extended to any restaurant with foreign words on the menu, sufficiently ruling out Asian, Indian, and even some Italian places.

We crossed the avenue, still hand in hand, and went inside. The restaurant was elegant, with an ornate stone fountain in the center and a wall of tall windows overlooking the lake. It was beautiful and serene, so fancy it didn't even have a drive-through window.

A willowy gazelle with thick, gorgeous hair approached, batting her doe-like lashes at Des.

"Good evening. Welcome to Matsusaka's. I am your hostess, Eliza." She bowed her head.

I simultaneously felt invisible yet Amazonian. I tugged at the neckline of my dress.

"Thank you," Des answered. "We'd like a table near the window, please."

"Of course. My pleasure. Do you have a reservation?" She looked him over in a sensual way, and I heard the hidden message in her sultry voice. She'd said reservation, but what she meant was Lose the gargoyle in the red dress and meet me in the coatroom.

He nodded. "I do. McKnight, for two."

"Ah, yes, right this way."

Des pressed the small of my back, nudging me to walk ahead of him. But that would put me next to her. And quite frankly I wasn't sure I wanted him to see both her ass and mine at the same time. I would suffer by comparison.

The elegant Eliza led us to a cozy little table in the corner.

He pulled out my chair, scoring another point and helping me almost forget the wafer-thin hostess.

"Enjoy your time with us this evening." Her voice was tranquil and hypnotizing, almost making me forgive her for so blatantly coveting my escort. Our waitress appeared seconds later, handing us leather-bound menus. She was another reedy, black-haired beauty with gravity-defying breasts and a matchstick waist. Where did this restaurant get these girls? A lingerie catalog?

I bit my lip and silently scolded myself. Richard flirted with waitresses in the most obnoxious fashion, insisting it was only to get better service. I never dared ask him which service he was referring to. But Des wasn't paying them any special attention. I mentally clunked myself in the head. If I let my insecurities get the best of me, I would ruin this evening before it ever started. Get a grip, Sadie.

Des took off his sunglasses, and I winced at the sight of his bruised eye. The swelling was gone, but a dark purple blotch remained. It was rather dashing, but I still felt bad about it.

"I'm sorry I moved that table in your foyer," I said.

He smiled. "I'll let you make it up to me."

"I thought I was making it up to you by going out to dinner."

"It's a start. Would you like a drink?"

Contemplating his not-so-subtle innuendo, I said "Yes!" with far too much gusto.

Des chuckled and picked up the wine list. "Red or white?"

He was asking me? Richard never – God damn it! I was going to purge Richard from my mind tonight if it took an exorcist to do it. "You decide."

I shifted in my chair, trying to cover up a little more leg with my red dress. It was a futile attempt, so I took my napkin and draped it over my thighs like a lap blanket.

Des perused the wine list, mentioning details about different kinds of grapes and eventually choosing something very pricey. I didn't have the heart to tell him that expensive wine was kind of a waste on me because I drank the cheap stuff just as fast. But if he wanted to impress me with his vast knowledge of vineyards in southern France, so be it.

I opened my menu after he ordered our wine. It was cryptically worded, and other than the California roll, I had no idea what any of it meant. Sashimi sounded like the move Dody did when getting on her bathing suit. Tempura was a type of mattress, right? And miso? As in miso horny?

"What looks good?" Des asked.

"Gosh," I lied, "all of it."

The wine came and I took a gulp from my glass as Des lifted his to toast.

I swallowed hard. "Oops, sorry." I lightly clinked my glass against his. "To…?"

He paused, as if measuring his words carefully.

"To new friends."

The whump in my chest felt strangely like disappointment. Well, what had I expected him to say? Here's to Sadie and her hot, rockin' baby-mama body? I forced a smile and clinked his glass again.

"Sure, to new friends."

The rest of my wine went down fast and easy, and I began to relax. Harp music mingled with the bubbling sounds from the fountain. We chatted casually about mundane things, such as how pretty the restaurant was and how nice the weather had been. This wasn't so hard. I could do this.

I picked up the menu again, and my momentary peace of mind fled. This actually wasn't going to work. I'd have to come clean about my Japanese-food ignorance or risk inadvertently ordering octopus and then having to eat it. "I have a confession to make."

Des lowered his own menu warily. "Yes?"

"I've never had sushi."

"You've never had sushi?" His good eye widened.

"No, I've never had sushi."

"How is that even possible? Don't you like it?"

"I'll probably like it." I set down my menu. "Richard hated fish. And rice. And Asians. And Mexicans who looked like they might be Asians."

Des took a sip of his own wine. "He sounds neat."

"He's a one of a kind. I hope."

Des ran a hand through his hair. "Do you want to go someplace else?"

"No, I like fish and rice. I just have no idea what to order." I lowered my voice. "And for the record, I personally have no issue with Asians or Mexicans."

He smiled. "I'm glad to hear that."

Then he explained to me about the intricacies of Asian cuisine. This guy was so smart.

"And we should probably have a little sake too. But be careful. It's very potent stuff," he warned.

"Isn't it, like, rice water?"

He shook his head. "Don't be fooled. It doesn't have much flavor, but it's got a hell of a kick."

"Sounds like my ex."

Des chuckled. "Mine too."

The waitress returned and we ordered. Des was cordial with her, but not the least bit flirty. I relaxed a little more and sipped my second glass of wine. Then, just for fun, I crossed my arms on the table and leaned forward, sort of setting my breasts on them in a maneuver Penny called "displaying your wares." She was a master at this, and every time she did it, some guy would buy her a drink. Of course, her wares were bigger than mine and hadn't gone through two pregnancies. As soon as I thought of that, I sat back up.

The sake was brought to us in a small ceramic bottle along with miniature cups. It reminded me of one of Paige's little play tea sets. Des filled one tiny cup to the brim and handed it to me before pouring one for himself. This time I waited to see if there would be toasting. Sure enough, he lifted his hand.

"To new adventures," he said.

That was more encouraging. "To new adventures." I nodded. Then I courageously tipped back the cup and drank it down in one swallow. The sake was warm, which startled me. And it heated up as it went down. I looked at Des in surprise, only to find him gaping back at me with an equally stunned expression.

"Wow!" I sputtered.

Then he started laughing. "Sadie, you're supposed to sip it. It's not a shot glass."

I looked at the cup in my hand. "It isn't? Are you sure?"

He laughed harder. "I'm positive."

"Oh." The warmth of the sake mingled with burning embarrassment, and I flushed from head to toe.

He shook his head and refilled my cup. "Sip it," he said again.

So I sipped it. But it was very tasty, and I still seemed to be drinking mine much faster than Des.

The tables around us began to fill with other diners as we talked and enjoyed our drinks. Then the food came, and I discovered I loved sushi as much as sake. So far this evening was going quite well. I mentally patted myself on the back. Either I was naturally charming and vivacious or the alcohol was giving me superpowers of seduction.

Des smiled brightly as I told him how Paige cried when she lost her first tooth because she was worried it might be her "sweet tooth." Then I remembered Fontaine's warning not to spend the entire evening talking about my kids, so I changed the subject.

"You have three sisters, right?" I actually remembered him saying a few things about them before, but this seemed like a nice, safe topic. And the more he talked, the more I could listen to that yummy accent.

He nodded. "Yep. Bonnie, my older sister, is a pediatrician. Shannon is the teacher, and Robin is a museum curator. No brothers."

"Two doctors in the house, huh? That's interesting."

He deftly picked up a piece of sushi with his chopsticks. "Bonnie and I were pretty competitive with each other, so once she got into Harvard I couldn't resist the challenge. It turned out to be a good thing for us, though. It forced us to help each other out since we were there and the rest of the family was in Illinois."

"Are you close now?"

He finished chewing before speaking. Had I been allowing myself any comparisons between him and Richard, I would have noted that my ex-husband frequently talked with his mouth full while Des did not.

"Yeah, we're all close," Des finally answered. "But I've been moving around a lot these last few years, so I don't see any of them that often. It's always good to visit home."

"What made you decide to do that local tenant…what's it called again?" I sipped more sake.

"Locum tenens." He shrugged. "Quite honestly, after my divorce I wasn't sure where I wanted to be. Chicago was home, but I kind of needed a break, you know?"

I nodded, and he refilled my cup.

"I had a bunch of job offers at the time, but nothing felt quite right. I didn't want to move someplace for the sake of moving. Then a buddy of mine suggested I try this for a bit until I found a place that clicked."

"And have you? Found a place that clicks, I mean?" I bit my lip, hoping he might say yes but realizing my question was totally Dody in caliber.

His smile was enigmatic. He took a sip of wine before answering. "Some places have more perks than others."

That wasn't quite the glowing endorsement I was going for, but then he winked at me and my breath escaped in a soft gasp. Damn, he was delicious.

The conversation veered to other topics. I told him about my foray into organizing, and he had the polite fortitude to act as if that was fascinating. While we talked, I tried to mimic his chopstick skills but wasn't having much luck. Mostly I kept pushing the sushi around on the plate. Every once in a while, when he wasn't looking, I'd pop a piece into my mouth using my fingers. I didn't have trouble with the wineglass, though. That was easy, and so I kept drinking it.

As Des talked and smiled, I marveled at my being on a date. With him. Tall, dark, handsome him.

But he was more than good-looking. He was kind and sweet and funny and bawdy. He laughed at my dumb jokes and told silly stories of his own about medical school and crazy things that happened in the emergency department. He asked me questions about my life back in Glenville and my childhood and family. I drank more wine and noticed he had a subtle crook to his nose, and that the tip of it moved the teensiest bit when he chewed. I looked at the little scar near his eye and wondered how he'd gotten it. Its paleness stood out amid the bruising. These were flaws, technically, but they made him more magnificently real. He wasn't some beautiful, glossy, anonymous creature running past me on the beach anymore. He was Des.

And I was falling for him.

The thought startled me as much as the warm sake had. Because I had no business falling for anybody. It wouldn't be convenient or logical or wise. It wasn't part of my plan. I gulped another shot of sake when he looked down at his plate. I felt the stirrings of a panic attack. I'd had a few since finding Richard with the redhead but thought they were behind me. Apparently not.

The room spun. It was warm in here with all these people. I looked back at my date, in his ironed shirt with his hair all combed, and my anxiety doubled. This was too much. He was too much. Des, with his intense gaze rolling over me like hot lava, making me sizzle right to the bone. I wasn't ready for this.

But I wasn't sure it was up to me anymore.

The buzzy din of the crowd pressed in, and it got harder to hear what he said. But I wasn't listening to his words so much as watching his lips move. They were luscious lips, full but not too full. His dimples deepened when he smiled.

In the candlelight Des glowed bronze like a gleaming fertility statue. He took a drink from his water glass, and suddenly I longed to be that glass in his big, strong hand. Or better yet, to be the water, pouring myself into him.

Wait.

What?

Oh…no…

Oh, shit!

I was wasted.

Damn it! I was completely and totally wasted! Pouring myself into him? What the hell did that even mean? Crap, crap, crap! If I was drunk, how the hell was I supposed to keep on my little red dress? Full-blown panic descended.

I needed to eat more, quickly. Something to soak up the booze. But the chopsticks taunted me, refusing to bring food to my mouth.

I looked at Des helplessly. He smiled back, ignorant of the alarms clanging in my head. He needed to stop looking at me that way, as if I was interesting and desirable, because I was intoxicated enough to believe him. I was woozy and delirious. My head and stomach rolled in opposite directions. I was seriously drunk. And besides that, I was seriously drunk.

He leaned forward to say something, something illicit and persuasive, I was certain. He slid his hand over the table toward mine. He was about to ask me back to his place. And I would say yes.

But before he spoke, something caught his eye. He sat back abruptly and dropped his hand into his lap.

I felt the whoosh of cold air, and then I saw her. She was tall, with white-blonde hair and full, pouty lips curved into a seductive smile. As she sauntered toward our table, her clingy black dress did what clingy black dresses do best.

Des shifted in his chair. I saw his skin flush as he adjusted the collar of his shirt.

"Why, Des. What a surprise. Have you been hiding from me? What happened to your eye?"

He stood up, and she pressed herself against him and kissed the air near his ear.

He leaned away. "Long story. And no, I'm not hiding. I just haven't had time to call."

"That's a shame. You know offers like mine don't last forever."

The cold finger of reality goosed me in a most unpleasant fashion. It was like being out with Richard again. The woman's body language practically screamed they'd been lovers. Or if they weren't, she wanted to be. And she was stunning. I, on the other hand, had two children, a C-section scar, and 230 pounds of ex-husband strapped to my back. Why would Des be interested in a woman like me when he could have a woman like her? The truth was he wouldn't be. I must have made a mistake.

I downed another shot of sake and let it burn all the way to my gut.

Des smiled. "I haven't forgotten. But it's not the time to discuss it." He glanced at me. I crossed my arms and stared back, hoping I looked bored rather than despondent.

"Oh, I see. And who's this?" She reached out a well-manicured hand. "Hello. I'm Reilly Sommers."

I reluctantly shook her claw, but before I could respond, Des said, "This is my neighbor, Reilly. We're finishing up dinner as you can see. Would you excuse us? You and I can talk later."

A neighbor? Did he just call me a neighbor? Not a date or even a friend. God, I wasn't even an acquaintance. I was someone you borrowed sugar from. He had confirmed my fears. He wasn't interested. The sake roiled in my gut and nearly returned itself to the table.

"Of course. Sorry to interrupt. But don't forget to call me, Des. We really need to talk."

He nodded. "I'll call soon. I promise."

She slithered away, and I found myself wondering if she could possibly have anything at all on under that dress.

Des sat back down with a thud.

"Sorry about that. Now where were we?" His bright smile didn't reach all the way to his eyes. I considered blackening the other.

Where were we? We'd just gotten to the part about how I'm your neighbor.

I forced a smile in return. "I think we were about to leave, weren't we?"

His face fell. "Please don't be upset by her. I would've introduced you but – "

"It's OK," I interrupted. "We're only neighbors. It doesn't matter." How many times had Richard said that? "Don't be upset." As if my being angry over his bad behavior was the problem.

But I wouldn't be angry at Des. At least not so he'd see it. He'd done a nice thing, bringing me out to dinner. He probably felt sorry for me, the poor lonely divorcee with the crazy aunt. I bet she put him up to this. Oh God. She probably did! That would be just like Dody. I took another gulp of wine and let its swirling powers overtake me. I was more than halfway to drunk, but I wanted to go all in.

He sighed. "How about some coffee?"

The catwalk-strutting hostess wandered by, and I watched her, wishing I looked like her instead of me.

"Sadie?" Des said.

"What?" My voice was louder than I expected.

"Would you like some coffee?"

Coffee? Hell, no. I wanted to dunk my face into a fishbowl full of sake and drink myself blind. But that might be rude, so I said, "Sure, let's have coffee." I swished my hand as if it held a magic wand that could (poof!) bring coffee.

Des signaled for the waiter. That should work as well. He started saying something about being in Bell Harbor, but it didn't make any sense to me. We were already in Bell Harbor. Maybe he was drunk too. Maybe that's why he was so blurry.

What was he talking about now? New assignments? Finally he fell silent. The weight of it crushed me, along with any lingering hope that he had been interested in me. Just a neighbor? Fuck him.

How naive could I have been? Of course he wasn't interested in me. Hadn't he already hinted he was on his way out of town as soon as he got a better offer? I had let myself pretend that this night was the start of something. But I was wrong. Again.

"Hey, Des. Hey, Sade." I heard Jasper's voice. It seemed far away, but suddenly he was standing right next to us. Damn. Was everybody at this restaurant tonight?

Des's response was terse. "Jasper, hi. What are you doing here?"

"Just checking out the restaurant competition," he answered. "Beth is in the ladies' room." He looked at me. "Sadie? What's the matter?"

That tipped the scale. I lost it and burst into tears.

"Hey! What the hell? Geez, Des! What did you do?"

I couldn't hear his response because I started crying harder and poured another cup of sake before Des pried it from my fingers. I let him take it and reached for my wine instead. I leaned back in my chair, confused by having the bed spins, which was totally weird because I wasn't in a bed.

Jasper said something, but it was warbled and nonsensical, so I ignored him. What did he know anyway? Stupid, naive Jasper wanting to get married. What a dumb-ass. Someday he'd probably end up living at Dody's with his kids too. Like me. He talked to Des for another minute, frowned at me, and then left.

Des stood up, came around the table, and started pulling out my chair, which was just plain rude because I was not done with my drink.

"Let's go home, Sadie." He pulled me up by the shoulders.

Walking through the restaurant lobby, I felt as if scorpions were attacking my feet. I tried to kick them away before seeing the satin instruments of torture Fontaine had made me wear. It was those fucking shoes. I took them off and walked barefoot to the car. I heard the woof of expensive leather upholstery compressing in my seat. I wasn't crying anymore but felt the cold trail of leftover tears as Des put the car in motion. All I wanted to do was take off that stupid dress and get into my lumpy bed.

Sometime later we pulled into Dody's driveway and Des stopped the car. He turned as if he wanted to say something, but I opened my door and climbed out, tugging at my hemline. God, I hated this dress.

His car door opened and shut.

"Sadie," he called after me.

I turned around reluctantly.

He held out his arm, and I saw my shoes dangling from his fingers.

Damn, I must've left them in the car. I could go in without them. It's not as if I'd ever wear them again. But Dody might want them for salsa dancing class.

I stepped gingerly toward him, realizing now how rough the gravel was under my bare feet.

He smiled, the rotten prick.

When I reached for my shoes, he moved his hand back so I had to step closer. I hesitantly took another step and reached for them again. Every time I grabbed, he moved his hand. Didn't he know it was pure meanness to taunt a drunk girl with pretty shoes? I stomped one foot in frustration and winced as the gravel dug into my sole. And soul.

"Ouch." My voice was petulant.

He chuckled and finally handed me my shoes. He turned me around by my shoulders and steered me to the front door.

"Are you going to be all right?" he asked.

"Peachy keen, jelly bean."

"OK. Go put yourself to bed, Sadie." Then he got in the car and drove away.