“Thanks for seeing me,” Ann said.
Mariah smiled and motioned to the seat. “How did things go with Lincoln?”
“He was just as nice as you said.”
Ann threw up a hand. “It’s enough to make a good woman swear. Am I really that transparent?”
Mariah laughed. “No. I’m a trained listener for what’s not being said. Was the chemistry missing?”
Reluctantly, but being an honest person, Ann moved her head up and down.
Mariah shrugged. “It’s okay. Lincoln said he had a great time too, but even though he didn’t say it, I got a sense of him realizing the right attraction wasn’t there for him either.”
“Thank God,” Ann said sincerely, lifting her hand to her chest. “The guilt was horrible.”
“Guilt?” Mariah asked, laughing again. “It was a first date, Ann. You didn’t break an engagement.”
“I let him kiss me after our balloon ride. I don’t do that sort of thing—not usually. Mostly I was just being polite. But the kiss was… perfunctory.”
“Perfunctory?” A grinning Mariah repeated. “It’s so much fun having educated clients. They come up with so many clever ways to tell me a date was disappointing.”
Ann sighed. “My lackluster reaction to someone as great as Lincoln is not amusing to me. I feel awful. Lincoln spent all that money to meet me.”
“Well, stop feeling bad. He spends more money every month on his private gym membership that comes with trainers who keep him in that great shape. Lincoln is just fine, Ann. I’ll eventually come up with someone right for him.”
Ann nodded, but she was still unconvinced… and still not able to stop thinking about Cal. She wanted to call him to come see her just to see if his kiss still had the same devastating effect. But that would be counterproductive when she was trying to convince herself her reaction was about her and not about him.
Maybe she just needed more dating practice. More dates might help her develop some objectivity. Maybe an older, more appropriate man might stop her from dreaming about making love with a too young, inappropriate one.
“Can I try meeting someone else in that group of guys?”
“Sure. I still have your folder here at my desk,” Mariah said, opening a drawer.
Ann bit her lip as Mariah pulled out another sheet from the stack and handed it over.
“This is Greg Skyler. He’s an accountant with his own business. He practices Tai Chi and meditates. He likes rock climbing and hiking. You’re a great match physically. He’s in his late-forties—so just a few years younger.”
Pulling the bio sheet closer, Ann studied the man’s happy blue eyes. “He’s just as good looking as Lincoln.”
“Yes. Why do you sound so sad about it? Don’t you want someone as attractive as you are?” Mariah asked, letting her concern show.
Ann’s head whipped up. “You think I’m as attractive as all these men?”
“Of course I do,” Mariah said firmly. “I take every detail into consideration.”
“Sorry,” Ann said, feeling humbled by Mariah’s confident answer. “Who knew I’d be having self-esteem problems at my age? I was perfectly fine until I started dating.”
Ann was silent for a moment as she studied the photo, but the weirdness of it all got to her. “Why do intelligent women let men twist their insides into knots?”
“Because men give us orgasms?” Mariah suggested.
Fanning her now flushed face, Ann snorted before answering. “If that was all I wanted from a man, I don’t think I’d be having all these misgivings about the handsome ones. I’m still trying to find the most suitable companion to sit across the dinner table.”
Mariah smiled warmly. “That’s a perfect way to look at dating. A suitable companion is exactly what I’m trying to find for everyone in my database. Orgasms are just an important perk.”
It was still daylight when Ann got home from her dinner date, but only because she’d pleaded a headache and left right after eating. She had let him kiss her before they parted, just to validate her conclusions. Greg was a nice man, and nice looking, but he certainly didn’t seem to appreciate her sense of humor. Her lack of response to his kiss told her everything else.
The hours she’d spent fixing her hair and makeup now seemed excessive for her botched evening. It was that stupid video and the six pounds of stupid makeup she’d had on in it. With any date Mariah hooked her up with, she felt like she was visually competing with an image of herself that someone else had created.
So distracted was she by her regrets about the evening, Ann didn’t register her son’s car in her driveway until she pulled into the garage. At the curb sat a sleek, red sports car as well. She wasn’t great about identifying models, but the car seemed way too flashy for one of David’s part-time security employees to be driving. Most of the men he hired were former military or retired cops. They had normal cars judging from what she’d seen in their building’s parking lot.
And why was her son at her house tonight? The garage door was fixed. She was sure Cal had reported that back to David.
She walked through the kitchen, but saw no one. A quick search of the house didn’t offer any clues. Finally, she spied David in the backyard, pointing and talking to a nodding Cal, who was dressed up like he’d been out on a date as well.
Had he? The idea of Cal dating, especially after the way he’d kissed her in the garage, did not sit well with her. What kind of man drove such a flashy red sports car anyway? In her experience, the ones who were trouble drove that kind of car—ones who snagged skinny, bleached blondes with silicone breasts and filled lips.
“Stop it.” A quick head smack with her hand brought on enough pain to snap her out of her idiotic, jealous thoughts.
But what had she expected? Guilt and longing did not mix well or allow a person any inner peace. Hadn’t she already decided Cal was too young for her? Cal should be able to do whatever he wanted.
She was out running around, kissing other men. Cal had no idea she was going on Mariah’s dates only because she was trying to avoid liking him more than she already did.
Since hiding out in her own house felt more foolish than her fit of jealousy, Ann took several cleansing breaths before heading to confront the two men in her life.
“Surprise. I’m here to foil your evil plans,” she called out, walking out the back door still in her shorter-than-normal, black dress and heels.
Her son suddenly looked incredibly guilty. Cal, on the other hand, looked like he was going to drag her to the garage again, or someplace else private. David was so focused on her unexpected appearance that he didn’t even notice Cal staring lustfully at her legs, but she sure did. The thrill she got from it had her calling herself all kinds of stupid under her breath.
“Why are you home? Megan said you had a date tonight,” her son protested.
Betrayed by a fellow female. Why should that surprise her? Her so-called friends did it to her all the time. “It was just dinner,” Ann said flatly.
Her son’s grin widened as his gaze took in her clothes. He elbowed Cal. “Don’t those look like date clothes to you?”
“They absolutely look like date clothes,” Cal agreed, crossing his arms.
Uncaring that David had no idea about her and Cal, Ann pointed a finger at the glaring man. “You have no right to pass judgment on me, Calvin Rodgers. You’re just as dressed up as I am. Are those date clothes you’re wearing?”
David’s stunned gaze now swung from her to Cal, as if finally taking in what the man was wearing. Her son was probably surprised by how rude his mother was being, but that just couldn’t be helped.
Ann rolled her eyes when Cal chuckled. David missed that too, because her son’s gaze was glued to Cal’s clothes as he inspected the man.
“If you must know, I’m dressed like this because I was trying to impress someone,” Cal said with total sincerity.
Ann rolled her eyes again—even higher this time. Curse Georgia Bates and her bad habits. They were obviously contagious. “Really? Did it work?”
Cal spread his arms. “You look like a woman who always tells the truth. What do you think? Do I look good enough for a date?”
Her narrowed, now irritated gaze had her son clearing his throat, trying to intervene… or stop a fight… depending on how you looked at it. Needing to defuse herself before she said too much, Ann turned to her still mostly clueless man child. “What’s up with the unexpected visit, David? Don’t make me call Kendra to find out about your shenanigans.”
David jumped and checked his watch. “It’s Kendra. I have to run. I’m supposed to pick her up in ten minutes.” He turned to Cal. “Don’t tell Mom anything, no matter what she says. It’s her Mother’s Day surprise.”
Ann frowned. “David, you know I hate surprises.”
“Normally, but you won’t hate this one. Be nice to Cal, Mom. He’s a terrible joker, but a really nice man under those fancy clothes he has on tonight.”
Ann looked at smirking Cal who ducked his head, trying to hide his amusement from David. She was tempted to say she’d already had a preview of what was under Cal’s clothes, but what kind of drama would that cause?
Instead, she turned her cheek up for a kiss and accepted her son’s quick hug before he ran off like the lying coward he was when hiding something from her.
She knew better than to ask Cal what this nonsense was about though. Men rarely betrayed each other. Unlike her daughter… but she’d deal with Megan later. She had creative ways of making her daughter suffer for such sins.
Cal waited until David’s car backed out of the driveway and sped down the street before he spoke again. “You sure look fantastic this evening. Hot date tonight?”
Momentarily ignoring the question, Ann looked over her poorly landscaped backyard. Now and again she dug a hole and transplanted something. That’s about as far as she ever got. Gardening was the one task her husband had done that she hadn’t been able to absorb.
“I’m home early, aren’t I?” Ann huffed out a breath and screwed up her nerve. “How about you? You’re pretty dressed up yourself.”
Cal put his hands in his pockets as he walked to her. “I got dressed up for you, hoping you’d be here, even though David swore you wouldn’t be. The truth is I wanted you to see me in something other than work clothes and a tool belt for once. I’ve been told I clean up pretty nice.”
She didn’t want to stare at him, but her eyes wouldn’t stay off his crisp blue shirt and navy slacks. “Are you wondering if how you look is worth the price of a ticket?” His low chuckle over her teasing sent her nerves joyfully jumping, especially when he stepped even closer to her.
“Actually, I’m wondering if I look good enough to kiss. You sure do.”
Ann sighed and dropped her gaze from his. “What am I going to do with you, Cal?”
“Are you taking suggestions now? My list is getting longer and longer.”
His cocky answer triggered genuine laughter. He was quick minded, good humored, and…
“You do clean up pretty nice, Cal. Want to stay for a beer?”
Cal reached out a hand and pushed her curled hair behind one shoulder. “Yes, I would love to stay for a beer. Would it scare you if I said I wanted to stay for breakfast too?”
Ann laughed. “Yes, it would. I don’t have enough beer to help me see that as a good idea.”
Cal grinned. “Okay. Can we at least dance in your kitchen? I love slow dancing. Do you like to dance?”
Ann groaned and then she heard it. That sound—that sound she’d heard twice before. She’d been the one who’d made it, and this time she wasn’t even kissing him.
“I can’t talk about this any longer,” she said, picking up his hand and dragging Cal along with her as she headed back to her kitchen.
His laughter over her cowardice filled up her backyard. “What’s wrong, Pretty Ann?”
She didn’t answer him. She didn’t dare. There was no telling what kind of nonsense would come flying out of her mouth.