Genre = Contemporary Romance, Sweet Romance, Romantic Comedy

Never Give Up

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LENGTH:  67,000 words, 243 pages

Is there such a thing as being too perfect?

Dylan’s a genius when it comes to engineering and his bank account proves it. But he’s failing in the one area of his life that matters the most. He wants to remarry and has already waited twenty years to do it. Now he’s finally found the perfect woman, but marrying again is the last thing Dr. Sydney Hawking wants to do.  

Sydney can’t believe that her dating membership—aka her divorce gift from her friends—has brought such crazy chaos into her already chaotic life. And it only took one date with Dr. Dylan Maxwell to know she was jumping back in too soon. Yes, her divorce is now final. Yes, her ex-husband remarried the day after. The intelligent thing would be to quit the agency before Dylan gets any more ideas about her being his perfect match.

Read Chapter 1

Dylan’s mouth quirked as a familiar fire lit his sister’s eyes. Even the puppies climbing all over him couldn’t distract him enough to ignore it. 

He could hear Ian, their always irritated assigned driver, yelling at Kelly. He would never agree to this level of monitoring again. 

If any of the pet store’s employees had been hovering nearby, they would have heard Ian yelling, which was exactly the kind of attention Ian insisted they avoid. 

His yelling was a mood-killer too. Dylan felt sure the puppies were equally disturbed.

“He’s got to stop doing this. What’s taking so long? He’s been in there fifteen minutes now. Wrap it up and get back out here.”

Dylan knew the ‘he’ in Ian’s rant referred to him. Rio, his normal driver, would have been asking about the puppies and if he needed to make room in the car for one or two. Ian yelled about every stop they made when he was chauffeuring them around. 

Not that anyone’s yelling ever bothered his retired Marine sister. 

Dylan grinned when Kelly’s eyes narrowed into slits before she held the talk button on the old-fashion walkie-talkie Ian made her carry because he said he didn’t trust her phone not to get hacked.

In hindsight, they’d asked for too much. He’d agreed to the monitoring stipulation because it seemed logical at the time, and he hadn’t thought it would bother him. He was a homebody when he wasn’t working. Outside of visits to see his mostly adult children, Dylan didn’t socialize much. 

It definitely hadn’t occurred to him that Kelly would be the one mostly dealing with their constant shadow.

Growing up, she’d been the best older sister a unique younger brother could ever have asked for in life. Now she was the best security person slash bodyguard. 

One day he hoped to prove to Kelly that he was worth all the trouble she routinely dealt with on his behalf.

Kelly winked at him before speaking. “We copy you. Keep in mind that this is about relieving the stress our engineer is under, not creating more of it with your impatience. Dylan needs mental breaks, so that would be a negative on us hurrying. You’re going to have to trust me that my brother isn’t selling trade secrets to the two puppies in his lap. Circle the block and get a coffee. I’ll contact you when we’re done. Do you copy back?”

No response came for a few moments. Dylan raised an eyebrow.

“Ian’s shorts are perpetually twisted. I got this, bro. Play while you can,” Kelly ordered while she waited.

“I’m sorry I ever agreed to Ian.”

Kelly laughed. “Our torture is nearly at its end. Ian’s cussing me out right now, but he’ll deal.”

“I copy.”

Kelly held up the walkie-talkie, pointed to it, and grinned at her brother. “See?”

Her irreverent, but firm response to all the Ian-types occupying his world was only one of many reasons he’d happily hired his big sister to run his security when she’d retired from the Marines. People bossed him around less since she’d joined his team. 

The device crackled again. “You’ve got five more minutes.”

Kelly snorted and pushed the button again. “Negative. Fifteen more, and that’s my last word on the matter. Keep pushing and Dylan and I will make an afternoon of it.”

Then there was a silence that two yipping puppies filled with trying to get his full attention. Dylan used his hands to roll both of them every time they came back for more.

Knowing communication with Ian was done from his sister’s point of view, Dylan smirked when Kelly hooked the archaic communication device onto the sturdy belt of her jeans. Her chin lifted to indicate the pups who were now snuggling up to rest in his lap because he’d worn them out.

“What kind of pups are those? Their ears look strange on their bodies.”

“These are French Bulldogs—a very pricey breed, but cute and loving.”

“I think you should get them. They suit you.”

“I can’t—not today,” Dylan said. “French Bulldogs don’t do well alone, even when you buy two of them. They want to be with their owners more than is possible for me to accommodate. Plus, I’m thinking I want a bigger dog—something lively and intelligent.”

“How about a Jack Russell Terrier? A friend of mine in the Marines had one of those. It wasn’t huge, but it was the smartest dog I ever saw.”

Dylan laughed. “Jack Russells are a bit too intelligent. It would be a blow to my ego for my pet to always be one step ahead of me.”

Kelly chuckled as she crossed her arms. “I don’t think you’re into ownership. I think you only want to play with a dog occasionally.”

Dylan lifted one shoulder and let it fall. “Owning a dog is a lofty goal for me. When I finally get one, that would mean I’ve reached a point in my life where my days are my own. I’m close to that now. When I get to that point, I’ll get a dog or two. In the meantime, this is the best way to experience the different breeds and get a feel for what I want. I have to pick the right one.”

“Not to question your Mensa level brain, Dr. Maxwell, but I believe calling one breed of dog ‘right’ is a subjective opinion.”

Dylan grunted. “What I mean is that I don’t want to get a dog that turns out to be more work than fun. I couldn’t return it and get another. That would break my heart after all this time. My monogamous views extend beyond my bed, Kelly. It’s best to be careful up front and commit to one I know I will want to be with all its life.”

Kelly chuckled. “Being selective is a trait I can respect, but one I don’t admire enough to emulate. I get lonely and like my bed warmed.”

So did he, but Dylan had long ago grown tired of temporary relationships. He didn’t do well with casual encounters. They always ended in the woman leaving in a huff no matter what he did or said. He viewed sex as a mutually satisfying act not subject to bargaining. It was like breathing or eating or any other basic human need.

Still… 

“I know you, Kelly James Maxwell. You’d be nothing but happy to find that perfect person to settle down with forever.”

“I like to think I have a large capacity to be faithful. My longest relationship lasted for several years before it ended. Like millions of other humans, I think I’m waiting to be inspired to settle down with one person. But until that magic event happens, I’m going to meet my needs the best way I can. I suggest you do the same, bro. It’s only logical, and I know you’re all about doing what’s logical.”

Dylan shrugged. “I suppose in most circumstances for most people that would be a healthy attitude, but…”

Kelly crossed her arms. “Yeah-yeah… not for you. You have to look for the perfect woman because that’s how you’re wired. No need to justify your pickiness to me. I’m bossy when I feel the need to be, but I’m not preachy.”

Dylan nodded again and smiled at his sibling. “I’m glad you came here when you retired instead of moving closer to our parents. I’m also glad you work for me. If you stay on, one day I’m going to make you wealthier than you ever dreamed of being.”

Kelly laughed. Not because it was funny, but because Dylan could actually make it happen. But even if it didn’t go as he hoped, guarding her genius sibling was still the second-best job she’d ever had. 

“More money would be nice, but you’ve already made me wealthy. You gave me purpose, acceptance, and the family I missed while I served my country. Not that I’d turn down a few extra million, but you don’t owe me anything.”

Dylan snickered. “At least let me buy you a puppy. We’ll call it an early Christmas present.”

Kelly grinned. This was a side of Dylan few people ever saw, which was too bad. “Like you, I’m never home either. It’s going to be a while before I can properly care for a pet. But unlike you, getting a dog was never my dream. If our parents failed us, it was in not letting us have a pet when we were kids. I didn’t care that much, but we all knew how badly you wanted one.”

“Mom and Dad said they knew I wouldn’t take the dog with me when I left home, and they were right. Even when I got married at eighteen, I still couldn’t have a pet because I traveled too much. Lily was in grad school and pregnant. In hindsight, I can see they made a wise decision.”

“Maybe it was wise, but it still broke your ten-year-old heart. Kids don’t get it until much later. Here you are in your forties and still pining for a dog. Now the only thing stopping you is you.”

Shrugging, Dylan stood and carried the now squirming bulldog pups back to the kennel attendant. “I’ll get a dog eventually. First, I need to get a wife. I miss having a wife more than I miss not having a dog.”

Kelly shook her head. “Dude, I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but even with all your money, shopping for the perfect wife is going to be a struggle. That face of yours draws women like sugar draws flies, but none of them can handle the real you. You want someone as smart as you. I think she needs to be tough enough to deal with your crazy life.”

“Which is why I hired professionals to help me surmount the problem of using random attraction as a tool. Bar hopping got women into my bed, but each morning after was the stuff of nightmares. I had to give that up before I grew too cynical about women altogether.”

Kelly chuckled as she answered. “Not that I’m an expert on happily-ever-afters, but using a dating service is not how love is supposed to work. Where’s the chemistry in an arranged match? Where’s the romance that I know you crave? I know you want that, Dylan. No one else probably knows, but I do.”

Dylan grinned. “I date for the same reason I visit pet stores. I haven’t found the best match for me at either place yet, but shopping keeps me hopeful.” He tapped his chest. “I’m following my heart. Both are out there. I know I will succeed.”

Shrugging, Kelly smiled at him. “You certainly deserve an A-plus for your optimism. I’d bet that fortune you promised me that any decent dog would make you a happy pet owner.”

Shaking his head, Dylan smiled back. “And I must decline your bet because I know you’re wrong. It wouldn’t be fair of me to take advantage of my cynical sister.”

Kelly chuckled. “If I thought you could hear me, I’d extend my metaphor to bed partners.”

“How so?” Dylan asked.

“Any willing woman in your bed would be better than having no woman in your bed. Physical happiness lasts for all of two seconds anyway. You take life too seriously.”

“Believe what you want, but I trust the process I’m following,” Dylan said as they headed to the door.

“Fine. You do you, genius brother of mine. You do you.” Smirking, Kelly shrugged as they stood shoulder-to-shoulder and searched for their ride. “Here we are in our forties talking about our dating challenges like we’re still teenagers. I think maturity coming with age is a myth.”

Dylan sighed and frowned. His hand found its way into the pocket of his slacks. “Maturity is subjective, and rarely has anything to do with age. What does it mean when we call someone mature? I doubt anyone could answer that question completely.”

Kelly snorted at his philosophical reply and let the matter drop. No one knew better than she did that Dylan got sarcastic and cynical when he got stressed. 

If he’d just bought the puppies, he would be in a happier condition, but changing Dylan’s mind took forever. Being obsessed with his own goals was one aspect of her brother’s character that had gotten worse over the years. 

In her opinion, something Dylan rarely let affect his decision-making, her brother had sacrificed too much happiness for too long. She watched him becoming more jaded with each passing year since her return. Outside of encouraging her genius brother to cut loose once in a while—something Kelly considered critical after doing twenty years in the Marines. Beyond that, she didn’t have a clue how to help him.

Dylan’s security currently functioned like the well-oiled machine she’d made it to be. She didn’t fear for Dylan’s life now, but she feared for his soul. Their mother advised her to keep out of his business. Their mother said Dylan had become the man he’d wanted to be. 

Kelly disagreed. Her new goal was to make sure her extraordinary brother learned to use his amazing brain to help himself. Inside the brilliant and successful engineer lived a lonely, over forty man who wanted a wife and a dog more than anything his money could buy. 

Kelly hoped one day someone not related to Dylan would appreciate the irony of that as much as she and her parents did.

* * *

Sydney stared out of her kitchen window as she tried to make peace with her newly divorced life. Part of her contemplation required ignoring her two best friends who were currently vying to become her worst ones. 

While she watched them in the window’s reflection, Claire frowned as Grace stretched the skin under her chin and viewed it with the camera of her phone. 

“Look at this. I’m getting work done for sure this time. At least two of my three chin rolls have to go,” Grace declared.

Despite her blue mood, Sydney smiled when Claire grabbed Grace’s wrist and lifted her phone hand above Grace’s head. 

“Look down at your face, not up, Grace. You’re squashing your neck against your chest. Everyone has a double-chin when they look so far down. See?” Claire demonstrated by nearly touching her chin to her chest.

“Yes. I see what you mean. You might want to keep an eye on that,” Grace said, as she lifted her face to look up at the camera. “Oh, that looks much better. What would I do without you, Claire?”

“Probably pay for a lot of cosmetic surgery,” Claire replied. She inclined her head toward Sydney staring out the window. “Pay attention to the conversation. Remember what we came to do?” When Grace lifted both hands in the air and stared blankly, Claire hunkered down and glared. “Don’t make me hurt you. You know we came here to cheer you up, Sydney.”

Grace turned away from Claire to frown. “She’s a woman with astounding legs and the breasts of a twenty-year-old. Every part of my body is losing its fight with gravity. I don’t feel sorry for Sydney—I envy her.”

Giving up, Sydney turned to face her annoying friends. These two weren’t women who politely left when they got ignored. These two were like vampire hunters. They knew how to hang in there until they’d driven the stake completely through the heart.

Today, they’d come to ‘help’ her deal with her divorce. Since she was dealing with it just fine, what help could they provide? Even if she counted shifting her focus from her divorce to them, that would still be a stretch. 

She wasn’t mad at Tom for divorcing her. She was only mad about his reasons.

And she was sick and tired of talking about something that was over and done. 

Sydney studied her friends. “I going to get my implants removed, Grace. They don’t match the rest of me and were a dumb idea. I wish I’d never gotten them.”

Grace ignored Sydney and turned to Claire. “Is she actually whining about being blonde and beautiful at fifty?”

Claire rolled her eyes. “No. Sydney is not whining. Her attitude is simply not filled with gratitude today. That’s why we’re going to help improve her tomorrow. Right?”

“I’m physically fit and that’s going to have to be good enough to get me through my golden years,” Sydney stated as firmly as she could. She wanted to make sure the two women who’d haunted her kitchen nearly every day since her divorce would finally see she was fine.

Sydney put her hands over her breasts and smirked. “Do you know Tom never touched these medical marvels even though he paid for them? I don’t know why I let him convince me that increasing the size of my boobs would make a difference to his interest in me.”

Claire snorted. “Like every other woman trying to save her marriage, you were determined to ‘try everything’. I think that’s admirable considering what Tom did to you. Boinking his administrative assistant is so cliché, especially since you’ve been sleeping alone in your master suite for so long.”

Sydney shrugged. “Which is precisely why I don’t understand why Tom wanted me to get fake boobs. He was the one who moved into the guest bedroom ten years ago. He was the man who said I was ‘pressuring him’ for intimacy. How is me asking for sex once or twice a month too much pressure? When we started out, we had sex three times a week, and I was fine with that. He seemed fine with that too. Why did our intimacy have to change so much? He never, ever gave me a reason.”

Grace lifted a hand. “I wish I could tell you, but my three divorces haven’t made me an expert on cheating men. Maybe Tom can only get it up for women under thirty. Maybe Tom paid for your boobs because he was hoping to rebuild you the way some men restore a classic car.”

Claire threw up both hands as a worst-case scenario occurred to her. “Maybe Tom was having an affair ten years ago when he moved into the guest room. Maybe he paid for a set of guilt boobs this year to help you start over when he realized things with Beth were getting serious.”

Grace snickered. “The man was cheating on her, Claire. Nothing Tom did was for Sydney’s benefit. But calling them guilt boobs? That’s a good one. Sydney is the third divorced woman I know who got breast implants just before their husbands walked out. Men must strategize about it at the gym.”

Sydney closed her eyes and tried not to think about her marital failure or the wasted compromises she made. Would her divorce become a statistic that Grace would one day quote to someone else? It probably would.

Out of loyalty to her husband, she’d never confided to anyone that Tom had an affair a few years into their marriage. She and Tom had gone to therapy back then to deal with his infidelity, and over time she’d forgiven him. 

Well, mostly she’d forgiven him. 

Does anyone ever completely get over such a thing?

After Tom moved into the guest room, physical love had given way to a platonic fondness for each other. They’d made an okay life together despite their lack of physical intimacy. Tom seemed content and she was only discontented in one issue, which is why she stayed. Well, that and for the sake of the children. 

“I admit Tom got my hopes up that getting a breast job might return our relationship to its glory days. His affair with Beth didn’t hurt as much as finding out they got married the day after his divorce from me was final. Why am I the only one grieving our failed marriage?”

“Because you’re the woman,” Claire said. “I grieved for both my relationships, even though neither was good. Being a widow gained me more sympathy. Being divorced makes most people wonder what the wife did to make her husband leave. It’s unfair, but it’s also still true.”

Grace blew out the breath she’d been holding waiting to speak. “How did you find out Tom and Beth got married? Claire saw the announcement in the Sunday paper and called me screaming about it. I didn’t know Claire’s voice could go up that high. My eardrums still haven’t recovered.”

“Stop talking about me like I’m not here,” Claire ordered.

Sydney grunted in disgust. “Beth wanted to share their wedding announcement on her social media, so Tom sent me a text on his wedding night. He said he didn’t want me hearing the news from someone else. He also told me—in the same text conversation—that he was getting a vasectomy. He assured me Luke and Cheryl would remain his only heirs.”

Claire frowned at the news. “I can’t believe Tom called you on his wedding night. What did you say back to him?”

Sydney snorted. “I asked why he and Beth married so quickly, and whose idea it had been. He never answered the question, just said goodbye in a hurry. If there’s any justice in the world, I ruined their conjugal bliss.”

Claire and Grace both gasped and then clapped. 

“That was genuine anger, Sydney. I’m so proud of you,” Grace declared.

“I agree. Trying to ruin Tom’s wedding night with his child bride was vicious, but in a good way,” Claire said with a smile.

Feeling proud of getting praise from both her divorced friends, Sydney smiled and took a bow. 

Is Beth pregnant?” Grace wanted to know.

Sydney shrugged. “Why else would someone so young be in such a legal hurry to tie Tom and his money to her? I’d bet all the retirement money I got to keep that Tom never even thought about getting Beth to sign a prenuptial agreement. If she dumps him, he’ll be in financial trouble of the worst kind.”

Claire’s eyes widened as she put a hand to her cheek. “All I can say is Holy Guacamole.”

“Only because you never learned how to swear like a real woman,” Grace said.

“Unlike you, I choose not to be crude,” Claire declared.

Grace leaned an elbow on Sydney’s countertop and put her forty-seven-year-old non-sagging chin in her hand. “Not that your breasts aren’t a work of art, because they are, but between paying for a new baby—and your new boobs—Tom could have bought himself a sports car. It would have been a much better investment for him. His fun would have lasted longer too.”

Sydney laughed a little, but she didn’t really find thoughts of Tom being a father again very funny. Luke and Cheryl might get a brand-new sibling soon. They were both in serious relationships themselves and contemplating families of their own. She couldn’t see her adult children taking news of a new sibling well.

Worrying wouldn’t change things. That was for sure. What was done was done. Tom was married to someone else. The life they’d had together was legally over. It was officially time for her to move on. 

Move on to what—well, Sydney had no idea yet. But she was used to dealing in unknowns. She was a scientist. It was her job to figure things out.

She smirked at her friends. “Buying a sports car never crossed Tom’s mind. If it had, he would have spent months warming me up to the idea. Instead, he spent a week dodging all contact with me until he finally worked up his nerve to show me the divorce papers he’d drawn up behind my back.”

Claire crossed her arms. “Of all you went through, Sydney, I think that was the coldest blow. You were together for decades. Tom should have talked to you before he drew them up.”

Sydney lifted a shoulder. “It doesn’t matter. I wasn’t shocked by them. All I asked was why he didn’t divorce me a decade ago when he moved out of our bedroom. As usual, I got no actual explanation. Tom said his new relationship was simply ‘one of those things’ that can happen. What does that mean? Was our marriage just ‘one of those things’ as well?”

Grace pointed her finger. “Now that’s what I’m talking about. A cheating spouse is not worth making yourself so miserable day after day. You need to get all your anger out as soon as possible. Talking to us is cheap therapy… and it will let you preserve more of your settlement. That’s a win-win, sister.”

“You and Claire both know I never wanted or needed Tom’s money,” Sydney said. It wasn’t something she normally said aloud, but she’d always been the primary breadwinner. “I’m only mad because I never saw myself being single at fifty. The plans I made for an early retirement are dust in the wind now. I’ll probably just work until I’m seventy or something.”

“Things could have ended worse. You could have been a widow. That happens to women your age all the time,” Claire reminded her.

“Yes. You’re absolutely right. My situation could be much worse,” Sydney said.

“Not that we’re wishing Tom had died instead of divorcing you,” Grace said with a wink at Claire.

Of course, we don’t wish he’d died. Stop teasing her,” Claire ordered. “Can’t you see Sydney is grieving the loss of her marriage?”

Grace snorted. “Yes, Ms. Mary Sunshine. That’s why I’m being sassy with her. Her husband left her for another woman. That makes him lower than dog poop. He’s not worth grieving for.”

Sydney waved a hand. “I’m not grieving. All is I have is a severe case of sour grapes because the divorce ruined my later in life plans. I saw Tom and I going on adventures and taking art classes together. Now I’m going to have to do those things on my own, or with friends who feel sorry for me. Not that I’m hinting about you two or anything, but I may be calling.”

Their pitying silence after her outburst drained the last of her bravado. Friends were not substitutes for life partners.

Sydney was alone now. She just needed time to get used to it. Why did everyone think a woman had to be in a romantic relationship with someone, anyway? 

Tom hadn’t turned out to be her dream partner in life. And she hadn’t been his. She probably should have left him long ago. Maybe if she had, by now she’d have a more suitable person in her life. 

Given the current way she felt about men and marriage, Sydney was pretty sure that getting involved in a new relationship would feel like she was entering a level of hell right out of Dante’s Inferno.

She wasn’t Grace who serial dated hoping to beat the odds. She also wasn’t Claire who was too picky to date at all. Sydney’s outlook on romance landed somewhere in between. She’d muddle through the pain of Tom leaving until she made sense of her new single life. 

Coping was what she’d done all her life when a petri dish refused to yield the results Sydney searched for. Why wouldn’t using the scientific method work for figuring out her post-divorce life? 

Since science and logic rarely let her down, Sydney went with that as a plan.

Read Chapter 2

After several tense minutes of silence between the three of them, Claire loudly sighed. “We came to cheer Sydney up, so let’s stop talking about the terrible stuff and look on the bright side. At least all three of us are single, which could seem to others like bad luck coming in threes, but we don’t have to see it that way. Being divorced makes the three of us a kind of support group that other women would have to pay big bucks to join.”

“Great. Let’s charge admission to hear other people’s horror stories and get rich. Who needs real therapy? Not us. We have collectively survived six failed marriages. That makes us experts,” Grace said, and laughed at Claire’s sideways glare.

Undeterred, Claire went on. “You have so many great things going for you, Sydney. Your wrinkles flatter your face and your legs are amazing. Plus, Dr. Colombo did a wonderful job on your implants. Your girls droop just enough to look natural. It was worth every penny to go to the best plastic surgeon in Cincinnati to have your work done.”

Sydney chuckled without even a smidgen of humor. “Dr. Colombo tried to talk me out of getting implants, which is why I got the most minimal kind. In hindsight, I realize I should have listened to the only man who’d seen my breasts in a decade. Dr. Colombo said my original breasts looked great for a fifty-year-old. When he left the consulting room, the nurse told me his fiancée was over sixty and hadn’t had a thing done.”

Grace nodded. “That’s true. And you’re right. His fiancée absolutely has had nothing done. Georgia Bates was a military wife for years and years, which probably explains why most of the clothes she wears are straight off-the-rack. The woman could look absolutely fabulous if she’d let someone dress her.”

“Grace—really. You’re so snooty about fashion,” Claire accused.

“How did you meet Dr. Colombo’s fiancée?” Sydney asked.

Grace smiled. “I did some charity work with the very handsome and sexy Dr. Colombo, hoping to get him to notice me. I wore my Armani black dress, and my beautiful, but painful-to-wear, Manolo heels to impress him. Georgia and I had time to chat when she came over to warn me away from her man. She told me she and Brent met through the dating agency her daughter runs. It took two seconds of her company to understand how she snagged him. The woman has confidence to spare when she feels she’s right. She’s a lot like you, Sydney, only with a saltier tongue and fewer pedigrees.”

Sydney rolled her eyes but chuckled with genuine humor this time. “Maybe she’s like I used to be when I had to fight to get my work respected. It’s hard to remember ever being that bold now. And was I like that in my personal life? I don’t think I was, Grace. When I think about learning to deal with a new man, I just feel… old.”

Claire cleared her throat and motioned to Grace. “That’s our perfect segue, Grace. Give Sydney her present.”

Sydney’s gaze narrowed on their twin guilty faces. “What present? It isn’t my birthday, and Christmas is weeks away yet.”

Grace reached in her purse and pulled out a heavy, embossed envelope with a gold seal keeping it closed. “Being the exceptional friends we are, we got you a divorce present.”

“And you can’t refuse it,” Claire declared, taking the envelope from Grace, and passing it to Sydney. “It’s a temporary membership to The Perfect Date. You don’t have to go out on any dates, but you have to at least put yourself in their database.”

Sydney hung her head and groaned. “Noooo…” What in the world were her friends thinking about her? 

Claire shook the envelope. “You need to do this to prove to yourself that Tom didn’t do any lasting damage. Three months from now, it will expire and they’ll remove you. That’s three months of being able to say you’re doing something other than mourning the loss of a man who never gave you the bedroom attention you wanted and deserved.”

Sydney glared at the consolation prize from her friends. “I’m not swiping left or right for a causal hookup. If I ever get that desperate, I’ll go bar hopping. Or I’ll go to Europe and hire a consort for a week or two.”

Claire shook the envelope at her again. “A hookup in Europe is still a hookup, and you’re too old to go bar hopping. Some of those dating apps aren’t that bad. I’ve used a couple that cater to people our age.”

Sydney smirked. “What age are we, Claire? You and Grace are still in your forties. I’m fifty. If forty is the new twenty when it comes to dating, that would make fifty the new thirty. Should I date men no older than my children? Come on. That’s never going to work.”

“I know you’re a genius, but you still have a lot to learn about life, Sydney. Besides, your boobs will always be twenty. Maybe for their sake you could subtract a few years from your math and get a twenty-something guy with a lot of enthusiasm,” Grace said.

Claire chuckled as she shook the envelope again. “This dating agency service is not like any of those dating apps. This agency collects smart, wealthy men who want proper relationships with women. There is no swiping. According to their rules, propositioning someone on a first date could get you kicked out of their database. You’re free to refuse all dating offers and free to leave when the membership runs out. All Grace and I are asking is that you take this one tiny baby step toward mending your broken heart.”

“Tom didn’t really break my heart. He may have bent it a little, but I’m fine,” Sydney insisted as she reluctantly took the heavy envelope from Claire’s fingers.

Grace waved off her denial. “That genius brain of yours is working overtime to deny the obvious. Your cheating ex-husband broke something in you when he remarried. You should be mad enough to destroy him and that child bride of his. Instead, you’re a hot mess of woe-is-me stuff.”

“Grace…” Sydney said with a laugh. 

Grace pointed an accusing finger. “Don’t Grace me. This overly calm reaction is not the real you. Unlike your ex-husband, I’ve listened to your true-life woes… and I’ve read your stories. You kill fictional people all the time in your hobby novels, so I know you understand that wanting revenge is normal for humans. You also know how to create the outcomes your characters deserve. Now write yourself a happy ending to your divorce story.”

Sydney smirked. “Divorces are not happy. That’s an oxymoron.”

Grace stared her down. “That’s my point. Being divorced can be a good thing sometimes. Claire and I are proof that rebounding is possible. But if you end up alone and dateless after three months of trying, you can call your dating adventures ‘women’s fiction’ and sell your failure for a fortune big enough to make Tom wish he’d never left you. We all know how much Tom loved your hobby money.”

Sydney looked at her most outspoken friend. Grace had been encouraging her to leave Tom for years, but what would that have accomplished? She’d liked her husband enough to stay with him, so she’d stayed. Her one goal in life had been to have a normal family and relationship. She’d succeeded for a long time, but ultimately had failed.

Sydney stared back. “You exaggerate everything, Grace. Tom was never that bad.”

“Yes, he was,” Grace and Claire said together before looking at each other and smirking.

Sydney snorted. “Et tu, Claire?”

“What language is that?” Claire asked. She shoved Grace’s arm when Grace laughed beside her. “What’s so funny? I bet you don’t know either.”

Grace smirked. “It’s from a play, Claire. Julius Caesar said it when his best friend betrayed him.”

Claire gasped as her gaze swung to Sydney. “Do you think I’m betraying you?”

“No. And stop arguing, you two. Seriously. Tom wasn’t the evil villain you’re painting him to be,” Sydney insisted again, even though it was clear neither of them believed her.

Claire waved a hand at the envelope Sydney now finally held. “The men in The Perfect Date’s database will fork over big bucks to meet the right woman. If nothing else, bragging about being in that elite dating database totally will convince Tom that you’re not bothered by his disruption of your life.”

“Calling my divorce a disruption makes it sound temporary… and it’s certainly not. Tom leaving me to marry another woman feels more like the volcanic eruption that wiped out Pompeii. Tom escaped without me, and I feel like one of those petrified people who didn’t make it,” Sydney said, nervously shaking the pretty envelope.

Grace laughed full out. “Honey, no. Do not compare Tom to Mount Vesuvius. If Tom could cause a physical event in you of that magnitude, you’d still be married to him and hanging on with both hands.” 

Grace gave her a determined look as she clenched her fists in front of her to emphasize.

Claire giggled at Grace and nodded as she looked at Sydney. “I agree. And you’re not petrified. I think you’re in a self-induced coma so you can heal. I’m sure someone will come along and snap you out of that soon. Then all you will feel is relieved not to be married to Tom anymore.”

Sydney sighed loudly as she rubbed her forehead. “I love you both, but I need time to process your divorce gift. Plus, I still have to go to my regular work tomorrow.”

Grace grinned. “When you figure things out, you’ll soon realize that the longer you wait to act, the longer Tom gets to think you care about who he’s taking get-it-up pills to boink. Next time he calls or texts, you’re going to hear about how much a bag of frozen peas helped his swelling and why the vasectomy was the best thing he ever did. You can forestall all that by telling him you’ve joined The Perfect Date before he gets the chance to dump more of his remarried woes on you.”

Sydney laughed as she walked them to the door and closed it behind them. Her frustrated sigh echoed in her now empty house. 

She hated to admit it, but Grace was one hundred percent right. Why had Tom never volunteered to take any get-it-up pills for her benefit? Did he consider her unworthy of the trouble? Had he found her physically unappealing all those years?

She kept herself fit and kept up her appearance. Even long nights at work hadn’t kept her haircuts and manicures. Every time Tom ate dinner with her, she looked her best. 

After her breast enhancement surgery, she’d had to splurge on new clothes. When he’d asked for the divorce, Sydney would have said she’d never look better. How odd was that disparity?

And why was she suddenly asking herself the same questions that Tom had flatly refused to answer over the years when she’d asked him? Every time she brought the subject up, Tom told her plenty of married people outgrew the need to have sex. Only Tom had been wrong. He’d discovered the need for sex again… just with someone other than her.

Sydney smacked the thick white envelope against her other palm. Grace and Claire left her no choice but to play along with their plans even though she wasn’t really sure their divorce gift could be helpful. 

She shook her head and blew out a breath as she headed to her room. “Too much lab time. Too much writing. Too much keeping to myself. All I’ve got going for me at this point is a perfect set of fake boobs and the new wardrobe I bought to go with them. But dating again? No, I’m not ready.”

But…

If she joined The Perfect Date, she at least could text that information to Tom. She also might pretend to be excited by her dating future, even if all she really felt was dread and resistance. Even to talk about it, Sydney would have to actually sign up rather than merely pretend to do so. 

Was joining The Perfect Date worth being spared a future conversation with Tom about the value of frozen peas to his miraculously rejuvenated man parts?

“Avoiding that conversation would be worth doing nearly anything,” Sydney mused aloud as she tore open the envelope.

The Perfect Date Books 1 through 8

About The Perfect Date Series

The essence of all romantic comedy is that falling in love and navigating an unexpected romance is never easy or simple. Instead, it’s messy and emotional, and if you’re lucky, it’s also sexy and fun.

Some relationship professionals, like my character of Dr. Mariah Bates in this series, sincerely want to help people find their perfect love match. For the various heroines I’ve created, many of whom are older, Mariah’s going to need all the help she can get. Or maybe she just needs to step out of the way. You can be the judge.

NOTE ABOUT THE HEAT LEVEL:  I've taken a nearly-closed-door approach to the books in this series. The romance focus is on sensuality and I’ve packed a lot into these stories. I categorize them as "Sweet Romance" by today's industry standards, but these books are definitely on the "Steamy or Spicy" end of the spectrum. I do keep language to a minimum. 

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