Chapter 1 of Never Be Her Hero
The soon-to-be Dr. Della Livingston sighed as her cell phone went off again. She’d kept it with her today to take notes for her research, not to answer personal calls every five minutes. Glancing at the number being displayed on the ringing phone, she shook head and stared at the camera, forgetting for a moment what she’d been doing.
Deciding to be firm with her family, Della declined the call and sent it to voice mail, not that her voice mailbox wasn’t already full of her siblings current woe-is-me crap. She was the eldest daughter of five and her sisters had no boundaries where she was concerned—none.
When her phone rang again, she instantly declined the call again. It immediately rang a third time, but from a different phone number. Her sisters were starting to tag team with each other as if that would somehow lure her into answering at least one of them.
“Leave me alone. Irena’s pregnancy is not my problem. Don’t you realize I’m trying to work here? I have a paying job and everything.”
Her phone ringing for a fourth time prompted a screech of frustration. She picked up the phone, waited for the ringing to stop, and then turned it off. “There. Take that you… you bunch of small minded, small town nutbags. If I didn’t look so much like Dad, I’d swear I was adopted.”
Mad at herself for raging like a crazy person, she was pounding her forehead with her powered off phone when she heard sweet feminine laughter in the doorway. Her head turned as her boss and friend, Dr. Mariah Bates, walked into the room. “Sorry. It’s my crazy family. They don’t know when to stop.”
Smiling, Mariah reached out and rubbed her assistant’s arm in support. “It’s okay, Della. There are no clients in the office at the moment. You can always take personal calls when you’re not busy. If that was John or Mom calling me, I’d take the call.”
Della shook her head. “No, it’s not that kind of call, Mariah. It’s just my family being annoying. I threatened to call our hometown sheriff and file charges if my mother or any of sisters called the office here during business hours.”
Mariah laughed again. “I’m not concerned about any of that,” she said, hoping she had no reason to be. “I’ve known you for several years now, Della. I didn’t know your family bothered you this much. Normally, you only get this bummed over bad boyfriends.”
“Boyfriends? Yeah, I remember those. Maybe I’ll have one again some day.” A wry chuckle wrenched free. Della knew she was starting to feel sorry for herself—an emotional state she had no time to indulge. Feeling sorry for herself led to binge streaming TV shows while participating in a junk food orgy.
God, she needed a stern lecture… or maybe even a real friend her age who was going through what she was. She often envied Mariah’s more settled life, but revealing her melt-down to her hopefully future partner… yeah, no way was she doing that.
Della turned and bravely smiled at Mariah. She hated offering excuses for the people who were supposed to be supporting her to the one person who always had. “My entire family wants to drag me into Irena’s pregnant-at-nineteen drama. Frankly, I don’t want to hear from my mother about how it’s messing everything up. We all watched this happen to Martina—she’s the second oldest. That should have been lesson enough for my mother to insist all my sisters use good birth control.”
“Are you mad at your sister over her pregnancy?” Mariah asked.
Della grunted. “No, I’m not mad at my sister for making the passionate mistake of having the child of a man she loves. An unplanned event like that could happen to any woman. I’m mad at my mother for insisting the wedding be moved up to October. She’s only trying to keep the people in our hometown from doing the math when the baby comes ‘early’ next spring. Like that ever works to fool anyone. People always know.”
“Wait… isn’t your dissertation defense happening in October?” Mariah asked.
Della snorted again. “Yes. That’s why the phone keeps ringing. My mother wants me to move my final defense out, even though I’ve explained several times that I can’t. One of my directors is going on sabbatical. I’m not changing my date or anyone on my committee. I’ve worked too long and too hard. I’m finishing in October whether my family understands or not.”
“Of course you are,” Mariah said, putting an arm around Della’s shoulders to hug. She’d known Della’s family didn’t offer her much moral support, but from what she could tell, they weren’t offering her any support at all. In fact, they were doing the opposite. “I don’t blame you for taking a firm stand. Sometimes you have to put yourself first. Maybe as a compromise, you could at least attend the wedding as a show of support. Babies are hard on a new relationship.”
Della gathered up her things before shaking her head. “No. I can’t go to the wedding if it’s in October. I haven’t had a real date in six months and I have no guy friends. My family thinks I’m an unwed failure already. I won’t compound my sins by showing up completely alone.”
“You’re turning twenty-eight and about to finish your doctorate. Are you sure your parents see you as a failure?” Mariah asked.
“My father shrugs and acts like he has no opinion my life. He’ll never defend my choices. My mother would use me attending the wedding alone as an opportunity to redirect all the pity she could in my direction. I’m not letting my parents ruin my achievement with their under-enthusiasm.”
“Oh dear,” Mariah said in sympathy.
“Right. Oh, dear sums it up perfectly, and honestly, my stress level can’t handle that right now, Mariah. I have to be clear thinking and positive about my research. I have to focus on my findings and how to speak intelligently about them. My dissertation defense is only two days before the wedding. It’s too much pressure to try to find a date too.”
“Hmm…” Mariah said, narrowing her gaze on her nearly defeated assistant. She hated seeing anyone in that condition, but it was worse to have to witness it up close in someone she cared about. “What if I got you a date for the wedding? It can be my graduation present to you.”
Della shook her head. “I can’t take advantage of any of our clients. They’d learn the horror that is my background. They’d lose respect for me and for The Perfect Date.” She shook her head again. “No, Irena can just get married without me. If they want me to attend, they need to have the wedding next year like they originally planned.”
Mariah smiled. “What if the guy I find for you isn’t looking for a ‘real date’? This would not be like what we find for our clients. I could promise the guy a free match in exchange.” She tapped her chin with the tips of her fingers. “I assume you’ll want someone close to your own age, but not younger than you because no telling what your parents would think then. Mature dates can hold their own better, but too old will get noticed as well. No, I think we better make him as close to your age as we can get.”
Della’s face crinkled in angst. “I don’t know. That sounds pretty pathetic. I’d still have to deal with the guy after.”
“Why? We make very good money helping professional people just like you, Della. You’re in a business crunch time in your life. Normal dating isn’t a real possibility. Your focus is on satisfying the committee and getting your doctorate. You need someone willing to be your escort for an important function. Come on… we set these up all the time.”
Nodding, Della closed her eyes and sighed. “You’re right, and that’s exactly my personal situation, but I still don’t think it’s a great idea for you to bribe a client into going out with me. You might lose the client if he gets traumatized by the wacky Livingstons of Outback, Kentucky.”
Mariah laughed. “I’ll take my chances. And you might be surprised. You’re beautiful, smart, and about to become Dr. Livingston in every official sense. You’re a prime candidate for the database.”
Della snorted as they started walking out. “I sure don’t feel much like Dr. Livingston right now.”
Mariah stopped Della in the doorway and put her hands on her shoulders. “Your judgment is impaired because you’re super stressed. This is a very reasonable thing given what you’re dealing with. It’s only the beginning of September. Give me a couple weeks. Let me at least try. If we have no takers, so be it.”
“Alright,” Della said, rolling her eyes as they walked down the hall.
It actually took her three weeks, but Mariah did manage to find two guys for Della. Though none were keen on being a date to anyone’s wedding, they all liked Della well enough to tolerate being her escort in exchange for two free matches from the database. She hadn’t gotten by with offering just one. While that was an ouch to her bank account, in the long run, it was still a good thing for Della. Some things were more important than making money.
Mariah intended to present her results to her assistant on Friday so she’d have the weekend to decide. It was Thursday and Della had left work early to meet with her doctoral committee. Since The Perfect Date wasn’t expecting clients this afternoon, Mariah locked the door to use the uninterrupted time to assemble a client package. Just because Della was an employee didn’t mean she didn’t deserve a thoughtful presentation of her possibilities.
She was deep into the work when her cell went off with a text. Thinking it was John back early from his latest job, she picked up the phone immediately to check. It turned out not to be the new love of her life, but the sender was almost as good. It was someone she hadn’t seen in a couple of months.
Mariah hurried down the hall in bare feet, not bothering to put back on her heels. She unlocked the door and hugged the man now giving her a sheepish look. “Elliston, I’m so glad you sent the text instead of just leaving. Della’s out this afternoon and I decided to lock myself in.”
He smiled and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m so sorry to disturb your work.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m always happy to see you. Come on back to the office. Excuse the bare feet, but I didn’t want you to leave before I got my shoes back on.”
Grinning over her teasing, Elliston stepped across the threshold, waiting until Mariah had relocked it behind him. “I should have texted you before I left my house. I took a phone call as I was getting in the car and ended up driving all the way here before it was finished. Texting you outside your office door was a spur of the moment decision I’m feeling a little guilty about now.”
Mariah took his arm and walked him to a chair. “Quit making excuses. I’m just happy to see you. Now sit and talk.”
Elliston sighed and reached for a relatively safe conversation topic. “Uncle John’s gone under again, I assume. He sent me a text when he couldn’t make lunch this week. Geez, I miss talking to him. He pays more attention to me than my own father does.”
Nodding, Mariah smiled. “Yes. John’s been gone four days now. I’m starting to miss him more when he’s not around.”
“Lucky him,” Elliston said, genuinely smiling at a woman he liked and cared about.
“I suppose… but you didn’t come to chat about your uncle. Why are you here?” Mariah asked.
Elliston puffed out his cheeks and blew out a nervous breath. “I’ve messed up. I’ve been on a hiatus from dating for a while like I told you I was going to be, and I’ve gotten a lot of work done, but…”
“There’s always a but,” Mariah said, laughing at his guilty look.
“Last month, my best paying client invited me to a private function he was hosting at this resort place. He offered to introduce to me some people there as a way of thanking me for my work. Apparently, it’s a couples thing. When he asked me to bring a date, I said “sure” off the cuff. Only one problem…”
“Time got away from you and you forgot to send me a request,” Mariah said, summing up.
“Saturday is very short notice, even for someone as cute as you are,” Mariah said softly.
Elliston made a face. “I know. Did I also mention that it’s an out of town trip? The resort is in Tennessee. I have to leave tomorrow around six to get there before they close up for the night.”
“I know. I know,” Elliston said, groaning over his error. “I could go alone, but then I’d just look pathetic, and that would probably affect the way my client saw me. Geez, I hate this stuff.”
“Yes. Pathetic…” Mariah repeated, grinning at the term. It also gave her idea. “Right. You wouldn’t want him to lose confidence in you in any way.”
“Right.” Elliston ran a hand through his hair again. He hadn’t been taking care of himself lately. It badly needed a trim. He’d stop on the way home. “I knew my chances weren’t good that you could help me, but I figured I’d ask you for a miracle anyway. You can’t get anything if you don’t ask. That’s always been my motto.”
“Well, I do owe you a big favor,” Mariah said, smiling her agreement. She leaned forward. “I may have a unique solution for you—sort of a tit for tat situation. If the woman goes with you this weekend, you have to go with her to a function as well.”
“What’s her function?”
Mariah laughed. “Her sister’s wedding. It’s in October. She’s the oldest daughter of five and soon to be the only unmarried person in her family. She insists she can’t go alone.”
Elliston snorted. “I get that. So she’s in the same predicament I am. She doesn’t want to look pathetic.”
“That was the exact word she used to describe why she could not go to the wedding alone.” Mariah shifted in her chair. “I’ve found a couple other guys willing to go with her. I was just putting her package together for a presentation tomorrow. I could add you to the top and pitch your case to her. I don’t think she’d mind.”
“I can tell you right now that I don’t care how old she or what she looks like or what she does for a living. There’s a spa weekend in this for her and all she has to do is hang out with me enough to pass for a date. I’ll toss in a couple hundred bucks for mad money. She won’t be out a dime for food or any fun she indulges in.”
Mariah chuckled. “Wow. That’s true desperation. If she picks you, my fee is a wash. You don’t owe me anything and neither will she. That’s my contribution to what I owe you.”
“Convenient and free—that’s what I call a truly perfect date,” Elliston proclaimed.
“Good to hear you think so highly of my help,” Mariah said dryly, rolling her eyes. “I better get a referral or two from you for this miracle if I pull it off.”
“Done and done again,” Elliston promised. “I know this is a blatant macho thing, but unfortunately that still applies to business between men. Can you tell me anything about her before she checks me out?”
Mariah snorted. “She’s a research doctor, turning twenty-eight, and beautiful enough to impress your client with your extreme manliness in nabbing such a woman. You’ll be happy to hear though that she’s currently ignoring her biological clock to focus on her work goals. Sorry she’s not an older woman, but that’s the break for getting a last minute date. You’ll have to take what I can get you—if I can get her for you.”
“If she says yes, I’ll be the most satisfied client you’ve ever had. Thank you, Mariah.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Talk’s cheap, son. Send me some paying clients.”
Mariah snorted and wondered how in the world she was going to ever sell a stressed-out Della on a whole weekend date with Elliston. If her mother was right about Della being physically interested, this could be a sticky situation.
Mariah didn’t think for one minute that Elliston was going to end up settling down with someone close to his own age. He’d been dating older women and liking them far too much. But he was man—and a man who hadn’t been dating regularly. Della would be safer with someone she knew less and didn’t lust after.
Mariah would hate losing a good client over Elliston sleeping with and discarding a woman she was thinking about making her future business partner.