“What are you doing Saturday night?” Lulu’s protuberant green eyes, magnified by her round horn-rimmed eyeglasses, met Katie Charmaine’s light brown ones in the salon mirror.
The question set off Katie’s internal cupid alarm. Lulu had promised to quit playing matchmaker, but that was three fix-ups ago. “I’m not sure,” Katie hedged as she towel-dried Lulus red curls. “Why?”
“Well, I was wondering if you want to come over for dinner.”
Katie blotted Lulus hair, aware that the four other women in her kitschy pink-and-black beauty shop were actively listening over the drum of rain on the salons slanted roof. Not that they could help it; the Acadian-style Curl up ‘N Dye Beauty Salon was only slightly larger than the space shuttle. The two stylists chairs, the manicure station and the window seat waiting area were within such close proximity that all conversations were public property.
But then, most conversations in Chartreuse were like that, anyway. The close-knit nature of the community was both the blessing and the curse of living in the small Louisiana town.
Katie put down the towel, picked up a wide-toothed comb and eyed Lulu sternly in the mirror or, at least, as sternly as she could manage. Katie’s late husband used to say that her face was half angel, half pixie, and that she couldn’t look muster a stern look if her life depended on it. “When we have kids, theyre going to walk all over you,” Paul used to tease.
The fact he’d died before she’d been able to prove him wrong was the tragedy of Katie’s life. Pushing aside the thought, Katie slid the comb into Lulus hair. “You’re not trying to fix me up again, are you, Lulu?”
“Oh, no!” Lulu’s eyes rounded in faux innocence.
Bev, the tall, angular stylist dabbing a shade called Brown Sugar onto the retired librarian’s gray roots in the next chair, let out a disbelieving snort. One of Katie’s closest friends, the forty-something blonde winked at Katie in the mirror. “Lulu would never do that. How could you even think such a thing?”
Katie opted to ignore Bev’s sarcasm. “So it would just be dinner with you and your family?” Katie pressed.
“Well …”Lulu fiddled with the edge of the pink and black polka-dotted styling cape draped around her like a giant bib.”Not exactly.”
Just as Katie suspected. She worked the comb into Lulu’s short curls. “So who else, exactly, will be there?”
“Well. “Lulu blinked earnestly. “My Robbie just put porcelain veneers on a new patient from Hammond.”
“A male patient?” Rachel the manicurist looked up from Josie Pringle’s hangnail, her straight black bob swinging.
Lulu nodded, nearly jerking the comb out of Katies hand. “He’s single and he’s really nice and now he has a beautiful smile, so I thought I’d invite him over, too.”
“And you don’t call that a fix-up?” Katie demanded.
“Oh, no! “Lulu said. “The thought never occurred to me.”
Bev snorted again.
“You’re a terrible liar, Lulu,” Rachel said.
“Not to mention incorrigible,”Katie added.
“I don’t know what you mean.” Lulu turned up her palms and attempted to look baffled. Since it wasn’t far from her usual expression, it wasn’t much of a stretch. “I’m just inviting a couple of friends to dinner.”
“A couple of friends you happen to be fixing up on a blind date,” Bev said.
“Nice try, Lulu, “called Josie, an attractive thirty-nine-year-old brunette who was rocking her sleeping eight-month-old daughter’s stroller with her foot as she got her nails done.
“I think you should go, Katie,” said Mrs. Street, the elderly librarian.
“Yeah,” called Josie. “It never hurts to meet new people.”
Katie stifled a sigh. She knew her friends meant well, she really did, but she wished they’d quit trying to meddle in her life. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“He’s got beautiful teeth now,” Lulu said earnestly. “You know what good work my Robby does.” She flashed her own shockingly-white veneers, which slanted out like a row of Venetian blinds. Robbie really should have sent Lulu for orthodontia before slapping those puppies on her overbite, Katie thought for the umpteenth time.
She ran the comb down Lulu’s scalp, sectioning off the front from the back. “I really appreciate the thought, Lulu, but I’m not interested.”
“Still.” And probably not ever, she thought, tackling a snarl in Lulus hair.
“Katie, honey, “Mrs. Street said gently from the next chair, “it’s been two years.”
Two years, six months and four days, to be exact, and if she turned and looked at the clock, she could pinpoint exactly how many hours and minutes had gone by, as well. Her life was divided into before and after 6:10 that fateful Tuesday morning. That was the time glowing on her bedside alarm clock when she’d awakened from a dream of Paul dream so real, she’d thought the pillow against her back was her husband spooning her to realize the doorbell was ringing. She’d gotten up and padded to the door, the dream still wrapped around her like a blanket, expecting to see the UPS delivery man with the new chair she’d ordered as a welcome-home surprise for Paul.
Instead, she’d peered out the sidelight window and seen two Marines in full dress uniform standing on her porch. A scream had started in her soul, pumped through her veins and burst out her throat. She remembered covering her ears—from her screams? from the doorbell? from reality? She still didn’t know—and running into the kitchen.She would probably still be there, rocking back and forth on the floor, her fingers plugged in her ears, chanting, “No! No! No! ” if Sue Greenley across the street hadn’t seen the military van parked at the curb. Guessing the awful reason, she’d come over, let herself in with the key Katie kept under the potted fern by the back door and sat beside her on the kitchen floor while the Marines had delivered the awful news.
“It’s time you got back out there, Katie,”Josie was saying now.
What was the point? A man like Paul didn’t come along twice in a lifetime. For most women, he didn’t even come along once. Paul had been the One. Everyone else was destined to be second rate, second choice, second best.
She was relieved to have the conversation interrupted by the jangle of the bells on the beveled glass door. She looked up to see Eula, the local real estate agent, step inside, bringing the scent of rain and a blast of humid July air with her.
Eula thought ladybugs brought good luck and always wore least one ladybug accessory. Today’s ensemble featured a blue ladybug-emblazoned scarf tied amid the wattles of her chinless neck.
“Hi, Eula,” Katie called, glad of the distraction. “Any news on who’s moving into the Ashton house?”
The whole town had been buzzing about the sale of an elderly couple’s home to a large Las Vegas consortium days earlier.
“No, but we’ll know soon enough.” The heavyset woman shook out her ladybug-printed umbrella. “I had to unlock the place for a fancy interior designer from New Orleans a couple of days ago, and she’s had painters and carpenters working through the night. I saw a Herwitz Mintz Furniture truck outside the house on my way here. Apparently the new owner is moving in today or tomorrow.”
A murmur arose among the women.”Why would someone buy a house they hadn’t even seen?” Rachel wondered.
“Maybe they just plan to use it as a vacation home,” Josie suggested.
“Why would anyone want to vacation here?” Lulu asked.
It was a good question. Chartreuse, Louisiana was not exactly a tourist mecca.
“I think its someone in the witness protection program,” Bev said, wiping a blob of hair color off Mrs. Street’s neck.
“Or maybe a mobster,” Josie said. “It’s obviously someone with money, and Nellie says all the businesses in Vegas are connected to the mafia.”
Lulu rolled her bobble eyes. “Nellie thinks she knows everything.”
“That’s because she usually does,” Rachel said. “At least about what’s going on in town, anyway.”
It was true. As the clerk at the town’s only drugstore, Nellie had insider information on practically everyone. Unfortunately, she also had one of the biggest mouths in town.
“Speaking of Nellie…” Eula closed her umbrella and turned to Josie, who was peering in the stroller at her baby. “I was in the drugstore this morning, and I heard you might have some news to share.”
Josie looked up. “Oh, yeah?”
“Nellie says you bought a pregnancy test yesterday.”
Josie’s mouth curved in dismay. “Nellie wasn’t even there! I made sure she was on her lunch break.”
“Nellie counts the EPTs and condoms before she leaves the store, and if any are missing when she comes back, she looks back through the security tapes to see who bought them,” Bev volunteered.
“Good heavens. Is that even legal?” Mrs. Street asked.
Rachel shrugged. “As long as her daddy owns the place, I guess she can do what she wants.”
“So are you expecting again? “”Lulu asked eagerly.
“Mercy, no! “Josie protested. “I didn’t buy the test for myself.”
“If it wasn’t for you, then who…” Lulu stopped in mid-sentence. Her eyes rounded. “Oh, lord—-Madeline?” she asked in a choked whisper.
Madeline was Josie’s seventeen-year-old daughter—exactly the same age that Katie had been when she’d…
The comb slipped through Katie’s fingers and clattered to the floor.
“Oh, no! “Josie’s eyebrows shot up in horror. She waved her hands back and forth and vigorously shook her head. “No, no, no! She’s barely seventeen. Are you crazy?”
Katie hadn’t even realized she’d been holding her breath until she exhaled.
“Well, then, who’d you buy the test for?” Lulu demanded.
Josie sheepishly nodded. “She got outside before I knew she was in heat, and I wanted to make sure that she wasn’t already in a family way before I paid the ridiculous fee at the poodle stud farm.”
Laughter filled the room. “Theres a poodle stud farm?” Eula asked.
Josie nodded. “Just outside New Orleans. It’s called ‘Who’s Your Daddy.'”
The women laughed again.
Pregnancy tests work on dogs?” Mrs. Street asked.
“I sure hope so,” Josie said. “It came out negative.”
Lulu’s forehead crinkled thoughtfully. “How did you get her to pee on the little stick?”
“I didn’t,”Josie said when the howls of laughter died down. “I took her for a walk and dipped it in the grass afterward. “Her brow pulled into a worried frowned. “You don’t think other people will think I bought that test for Maddie, do you?”
“Oh, no,” Bev said. “Not the way you and Marcus go at it.”
The whole salon roared. Josie had a total of six children—the youngest of whom began to squall in the stroller.
“I’ll have to skip the polish,”Rachel,” Josie sighed, pulling her hands out of the water bowl and wiping them on the towel. “The baby’s not going to give me time to let it dry.”
As Josie bent to pick up her baby, Katie knelt to retrieve the comb, which had slid underneath the counter. The bells on the salon door jangled again as she extended her arm and reached under the bottom shelf, her butt in the air, her short khaki skirt riding up her thighs.
“Is Katie here?” asked a deep male voice.
Oh, great. That was probably Derwin, the pompous, beer-bellied hair product salesman. Thanks to Lulus not-so-subtle hints that Katie was single, he stopped by in his pink panel van every week, even though Katie only placed an order every other month or so.
“She’s, uh, right over there, “Rachel said in an oddly breathy voice.
Terrific. He was getting a good look at her airborne backside–which would probably encourage him to stop by even more frequently. Katie grabbed the comb and started to rise, only to bang her head on the countertop. Wincing, she scrambled to her feet, turned around, and stared directly into a blast from the past.
No. No way. It couldn’t be.
But it was. The shiver of attraction skittering up her spine confirmed it. Standing in the entry way was not the bald-pated sales rep she’d expected, but Zack Ferguson–the boy who’d stolen her heart and broken it into a million pieces the summer after her junior year in high school.
Except he wasn’t a boy any longer. He’d been at least six feet tall when she’d known him, but he seemed to have gained another inch or two in height, and his once-lanky frame had filled out into the kind of broad-shouldered, muscular build that women fantasized about. His face had matured into a study of planes and angles, with a strong nose, a cleft in his chin and a five o’clock shadow, even though it was only two in the afternoon. He’d been cute as a teenager, but now he was devastatingly handsome–the kind of handsome that should come with a warning label, the kind that any sensible female would steer clear of, because he was no doubt accustomed to getting whatever he wanted from women.
He’d certainly gotten it from Katie eighteen years ago. The thought made her stomach tighten.
“Hello, Kate,” he said now.
Kate, not Katie. He’d been the first person to call her that, and at seventeen, it had been a heady experience. It had made her feel grown up and worldly, as if she were an adult whose thoughts and opinions counted.
It had been a seriously bad delusion.
Still, the sound of her name on his lips made her heart patter hard, like the rain on the salon roof, and it took a moment before she could make her mouth move. “Wh-what are you doing here?”
“I’m moving to Chartreuse, so I thought I’d come by and say hello.”
To find out what happens, look for Still the One in your favorite bookstore!