“It’s no longer about Wolford nylons and Agent Provocateur thongs, Gemma honey.” Helen arched a brow at her before turning her eyes back to the road. “It’s all about informed decision making.”
“I can’t believe I let you drag me along.”
“You agreed last night,” she said quickly, obviously afraid Gemma was about to dig her rubber soles in and back out.
“Agree is a very strong term,” stalled Gemma.
“What word would you use?” Helen shot her another look, the kind she probably used on her class during a pop quiz.
“Decimate and coerce.”
“You fed me straight vodkas and then coerced me into this outrageous scheme. I was in no state to take responsibility for my mind.”
“Was that before or after you grabbed my arm and hissed, ‘My biological clock is spinning, Helly, it’s spinning down like a bloody stopwatch on Viagra’?”
“That’s my mother’s fault.”
“I’m sensing a theme here.”
“They raised me on good old-fashioned values—”
“Your parents were workaholics.” Helen gave her such a long frown, they nearly sideswiped a heavy-duty truck off the bridge as they crossed over into Brooklyn.
“Precisely.” Gemma was too accustomed to her friend’s driving to be overtly concerned with the near-miss. “So what’s up with them taking early retirement?”
“Oh, honey, is this still about them buying that farmhouse in Tuscany instead of moving back out here?”
“It’s a vineyard. That’s all Tuscany is, vineyards and potholed roads and a whole lot of nothing. And she tootled her fingers at me,” snapped Gemma in disgust. “When I pointed out that most people moved closer to their children when they retire and asked how she thought she’d have any kind of relationship with her grandchildren one day, she tootled her fingers at me. ‘We’ll pass that hurdle if it ever comes to it,’ she said. If…!”
“She’s going through a post-midlife crisis. She retired to a country whose national pastime is four-hour siestas. The woman worked her life away and now she wants to make up for it double-time, instant grandchildren and all.”
“Tootling. You forget the tootling and big fat IF.”
“She was the editor-in-chief for Glossy Gals for twenty-odd years.” Helen cut a teetering left down a narrow street of broad-leaved trees and brownstones. “If there’s one thing your mother probably knows, it’s the inner workings of a modern city girl. Emotional blackmail became redundant in the nineties, but nothing makes a glossy gal charge for the finish line faster than suggesting she might not have what it takes to win.”
“I wasn’t aware it was a race.”
“Of course it’s a race, honey, a race to grab a man before the best ones are either taken or damaged. You had a late start, thanks to Simon.”
“Simon was over five years ago,” groaned Gemma.
“Simon may be history, but the bastard ate up most of your twenties. He promised you forever and did a one-eighty halfway up the aisle.”
“Technically,” Gemma corrected with a smile, “he sent a text the night before.”
“From Helsinki! You may have developed a stiff upper lip from all those years in London, but I don’t buy in to this crap about a stiff upper heart.” Her words were harsh, but Helen’s voice was butter-soft. “I haven’t even met the lowlife scum and I hate him more than you ever allowed yourself to.”
“What was I supposed to do? Hold a grudge against the poor man because he changed his mind?” She’d done the next best thing. She’d put the Atlantic between herself and all that heartbreak. What happened in London, stays in London. A knee-jerk reaction, yes, but look how well it had turned out. “Simon and my wasted twenties are not the problem.”
Sure, the pickings might have gotten slimmer now that she’d hit her thirties, but that didn’t mean she was desperate. That also didn’t mean some ancient woman with a fake turban, crooked nose and glass ball could do anything about it.
“Thank God you realize there is a problem.”
“It goes like this. You got me drunk and took advantage of my vulnerability.”
Helen zipped into a parking space at full speed and slammed the brakes.
“Jimmie Johnson called,” moaned Gemma as she unplucked her forehead from the dashboard and snapped loose the seat belt that had left a rubber burn at her shoulder. “He needs his mojo back for the Cup.”
“Come on, grumpy, we’ve got a date with fate.”
Gemma opened the passenger door and stepped out, gazing up at the imposing brown-brick block of loft apartments. “So, how much do fortune-tellers make these days? Oh right, that’d be a hundred dollars per half hour.”
“You can’t put a price on love.”
Gemma decided against asking if that price was tax deductible as she followed through a double set of glass-paneled doors, her sneakers and Helen’s Jimmy Choos reduced to anonymity on the plush wool carpet. If—and that was a big if—she was going to consider any of this mumbo jumbo seriously for a second, the question burning her back pocket was the future of Perfect Parties.
Not that she had anything against finding love. Just like she had nothing against stilettos. But try wearing five-inch heels for twelve hours straight while rushing between a walk-in refrigerator and three rows of industrial ovens in a converted warehouse.
Gemma hung back as Helen went up to the young man behind a state-of-the-art granite counter. The foyer was almost barren in that minimalist way that shouted dollar signs louder than a dozen antiques and Picasso-dotted walls. A black marble information board looming above the counter listed the residents.
With their occupations.
Doctors, opticians, physiologists, psychologists... “Huh?”
“What?” Helen handed over a pass card.
Gemma clipped the card to her collar. “This is not a residential building, is it?”
“Madame Hooch only takes clients at her office.”
“Of course. With a name like that, who would’ve expected an ancient hook-nosed woman and a rusted caravan parked in a field of daisies?” Gemma muttered as they made their way to the elevator shaft. “Not me, that’s for sure.”
Madame Hooch kept a suite of rooms on the third floor. Helen was ushered into Madame’s inner sanctuary first by a middle-aged assistant wearing gray slacks and a starched white top, who quickly returned to offer Gemma a cup of herbal tea.
“A coffee would be great,” countered Gemma with a smile.
“I’m afraid Madame Hooch doesn’t approve of artificial stimulants.”
Madame Assistant went to perch behind her desk and Gemma flopped onto a nearby couch. She rested her head against the stuffed cushion, closed her eyes and thought of all the Starbucks coffees she could buy for a hundred dollars.
Well, her father was always telling her to look toward the future and visualize her potential. He’d probably even approve of her paying someone else to do it for her. He was the ultimate champion of delegation.
She’d never admit it to Helen, but by the time it was her turn to be ushered into Madame Hooch’s sanctuary, her inner skeptic had fled to a shadowed corner and her blood hummed ever so slightly. If Madame Hooch saw big things ahead for Perfect Parties, she could consider financing and expand. And if Madame wanted to throw a gorgeous man into the mix, Gemma wasn’t about to complain. How long had it been, anyway, since she’d last had a hot date?
Twenty-five minutes later, Gemma had been dumped.
She stared across the narrow desk at Madame Hooch, who was indeed ancient, with snow-white hair pulled into a tight bun—although her nose was arrow-straight. “Wait just a darn minute. I haven’t even met the guy yet and he dumps me?”
“Eez a bad, bad time,” agreed Madame Hooch in her sorrowful tone. “Eet is—how you say—big achy heart.” She placed the Jack of Spades so it overlapped the King of Clubs and shook her head. “Eez a big love and the man, ah, he eez dark and so handsome, but—” she wagged a finger at Gemma, “—eez no good for you. He break your heart.”
Gemma glanced from the deck of very normal-looking playing cards to the shelf behind Madame Hooch where an opaque glass egg nested on a bed of black velvet. “Maybe we should see what your crystal ball thinks?”
With no indication that she’d heard, Madame Hooch turned over the next card. “Eez not all bad, no?”
Apparently not. There was the inheritance she’d supposedly come into. Would be nice to know what that was and where it was hiding. Not to mention which family member had gone and died recently without her noticing. Then there was the big promotion. Funny, considering she was her own boss. All the standard rubbish and nothing, nothing at all about the prospects of Perfect Parties.
“Aah,” exclaimed Madame Hooch suddenly, “now eez very good.”
“You see something about Perfect Parties?” asked Gemma, eager again.
Madame Hooch tapped a new card, the Nine of Hearts, and beamed a wrinkled smile at Gemma. “First the big breaky heart and then you find soul mate. How you say—tears before happy, no?” She turned another card, then deftly slid her hand over it and stood. “Time eez up. Goodbye.”
“But what about that card?” asked Gemma suspiciously.
“No card,” insisted Madame Hooch. “We finished.”
“We’re not finished until you tell me what that Joker means.”
“There eez no Joker.” Madame Hooch swept the cards into a stack and slipped them into her jacket pocket. “You come again soon. Goodbye now.”
Gemma briefly considered tackling the woman to the ground and rooting through her pockets. If only Madame Hooch were fifty years younger.
“And then she kicked me out,” finished Gemma as the elevator pinged open on the ground floor. “I should demand my money back.”
“Madame Hooch didn’t kick you out,” protested Helen. “I don’t know what you’re mad about. You’re about to come into an inheritance and meet a gorgeous guy—”
“Who dumps me.” Gemma stormed out the glass door. “And that inheritance thing has already happened, wouldn’t you know, without me being a single dime richer that I know about.”
As she hit the sidewalk, a shiver crawled down her spine, setting the skin on her forearms tingling with goose bumps despite the late summer sun. Hopefully it was the last of Madame Hooch and her ridiculous predictions vacating her body as she left the building. But it felt as if the ice had wrapped around her bones and seeped into her veins.
“Phsst.” Helen came up beside her. “I’m talking about the man who comes after that loser, honey. You know—” she tapped Gemma’s arm with a manicured nail, “—some people might appreciate the advance warning.”
“Some people,” agreed Gemma succinctly, then turned on Helen with a growl. “Maybe those people who hadn’t been tossed out on their butt before learning what that Joker meant.”
“Joker?” Helen glanced up from digging in her bag for the keys. “There’s not supposed to be any Jokers in her pack.”
“If Madame Hooch bothered with real tarot cards, there wouldn’t be. But she doesn’t and there was.”
At the car, Gemma crossed her arms, rubbing hard for warmth while she watched Helen staring at her car keys. “You okay?”
“Yeah…fine.” Helen held out the keys. “Um, Gemma? Why don’t you drive us home?”
“I don’t have a license to drive a stick shift.”
“For goodness’ sake, you don’t need a special license.”
“Which is exactly what’s so wrong with the system.” Gemma frowned. Helen wasn’t one to hand her keys over to anyone, not even to Frank, who had the keys to everything else, including her heart. “Want to tell me what’s really going on here?”
“Madame Hooch saw a black cloud hanging over my car.”
Gemma laughed. “Probably while she was leaning out the window to watch you park.”
“This isn’t funny.” Helen pushed the keys into her hand. “I’ve been seeing Madame Hooch for years now and she’s never wrong.”
What wasn’t funny, thought Gemma, was how much that Joker still irritated her. If you were going to run a fancy scam shop, at least do it right. “So what, then? You’re never going to drive again?”
“Madame Hooch said the cloud should be gone by the end of the day.”
Before she could help herself, Gemma’s eyes turned up to the pale, blue sky above the Beetle. She snapped her gaze downward, beeped open the car and climbed in at the passenger side. There was a principle at stake here, a point to be proven.
A full five minutes later, Helen slumped in behind the wheel. “If anything happens, it’s your fault.”
“I can live with that.”
Helen turned the key and launched them into the stream of traffic to the sound of a hundred blaring horns.
Gemma slammed her palms to the dashboard and bit down hard on her lip. “One day, you’re going to get us killed.”
“If you’re so scared, maybe you should drive.” Helen turned wide green eyes on her and made a pouting face.
“Helen! Will you please watch the—” road. Rubber sideswiping metal screeched straight up her brain, then the Beetle swerved back into its own lane.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God…” Helen slammed the brakes and almost got another car up their backside. The blast of an angry horn got her moving, jerking the Beetle to the side of the road with a twitchy foot on the gas pedal.
“You okay?” asked Gemma.
Helen nodded. Her pallor was a few shades lighter than its usual olive.
Gemma put her head back against the headrest and did a mental checkup.
Memory. Madame Hooch and her damn predictions! Check.
“We’re fine.” She brought her head up and glanced over her shoulder to check on the car they’d swerved up against. The silver Audi Roadster had pulled into a long loading bay across the road and reversed until he was almost directly opposite them. The dent they’d carved into the bodywork fractured the sunlight that gleamed smoothly across the rest of the polished car. But the door was opening, that had to be good. “We’re fine.”
As was the man climbing out from behind the wheel. More than fine. He was tall, make that around six-foot-two tall, with broad shoulders beneath a tailored navy-blue suit. Thick waves of midnight-black hair framed his face in rough, uneven sweeps. Dark sunglasses hid his eyes but the rest of that face was pure rugged charm.
He put a hand across his brow as if to squint at them, then turned to hunker beside his car.
She must have sighed, because a moment later Helen asked, “You like?”
“What’s not to like?”
“This could work.” Helen waved a laminated card between them. “Because I’ve just discovered that my insurance expired two months ago.”
“Your insurance has expired?” repeated Gemma dully. “How the hell did you let that happen? Did you see that car he’s driving? It’ll cost a month’s rent just to get the damage assessed and that—” she nudged her chin toward the rear window of the car, “—that does not look like a man who’d go to some backstreet garage.”
“I know.” Helen was nibbling her lower lip. “I’ll have to pay in installments.”
“Why would he agree to that without ratting on you! Do you know what they do to you for driving without insurance?”
“This is where you come in.” She unsnapped her seat belt and shifted to face Gemma. “You’re going to charm the pants off him until he forgets his name, let alone this little scrape. By the time you’re done, he’ll think the installments were his idea.”
“I’m going to—little scrape—pants off—” Gemma sucked in a deep breath and started over. “You crashed into him. You go charm his pants off.”
“Frank will kill me.”
“I won’t tell if you don’t.”
Helen fluttered her lashes until a tear popped out. “I knew this would happen. Madame Hooch warned me and you refused to listen.”
“Madame Hooch caused this! If you’d been a little more focused on the road and a little less focused on her stupid—”
“You promised if anything happened, you’d accept the blame.” She fluttered a little harder to make her eyes shine with tears. “I’ve been with Frank eight years now, I’m totally rusty on flirt and charm technique.”
“It’s like riding a bicycle!” But Gemma felt her resolve softening. “Besides, you’ve got the sexy factor.”
“You’ve got the cute appeal. Come on, Gemma, men take one look at you and sign up for the Protect Gemma Corps.”
Gemma made a gagging motion in response.
“I’m not asking you to get hitched, honey. It’s just a date.”
“Hang on one darn minute. So, when you say charm the pants off, you mean offer sex in exchange for favors?”
“Of course not. But the man’s going to want something in return for being so nice about this little incident.” Helen flung open the car door and stepped out. Before closing it behind her, she dipped her head back inside to give a radiant smile. “A date, honey. Sex optional.”
Gemma scooted from her seat to join Helen by the front bumper of the yellow Beetle. Her gaze settled on the man across the street, still hunched beside his car and examining the damage. “But, what if he isn’t single?”
“Can we please deal with one problem at a time?”
The man pushed to his feet and looked straight at them.
“Go on.” Helen prodded her in the arm.
There was a gap in the traffic, but Gemma’s feet were glued to the asphalt. What was she supposed to say to him? Excuse me, sir, my friend over there’s going to need six months to pay off the damage, but I’ll make it up to you by allowing you to buy me dinner.
No date, she decided. A little pants charming, a lot of apologizing, a sprinkle of begging if need be, but that was it!
She took the next gap and darted across the road.
The man slid his sunglasses up his forehead to reveal silver-gray eyes. He was still a few feet away, but enough male magnetism radiated off him to curl her toes and melt the frost that had set in after leaving Madame Hooch’s building. She misjudged her speed and distance and almost ended up in his arms.
He reached out, caught her by the shoulders and gazed down into her eyes. “You’re okay? Feeling dizzy?”
“No, I mean yes—yes, I’m okay, and no, I’m not dizzy.”
“You’re British?” His grin fed to the tiny wrinkles at his eyes and parts of Gemma’s body gave a collective sigh.
When he released her shoulders, she stood back and breathed some steel into her spine. What was the matter with her? And how the hell was she going to charm the pants off this man without losing her panties in the process? That wasn’t going to happen. She did not trade sex for favors.
What had they been talking about? Oh, yeah… She shrugged and nodded. The long answer wasn’t exactly roadside chatter material. “I live here now.”
A quick glance over her shoulder showed Helen leaning against her car with folded arms. Huh. Somewhere down the line, her friend was going to owe her big.
Gemma pasted on an expression that, hopefully, contained the right balance of apology and wide-eyed innocence and walked around the man to assess the damage. Of the car, that was. His elegantly clad legs hinted at athletic muscles, long and streamlined but with enough bulk to fit his suit pants.
“We should probably swap insurance details,” came a husky drawl.
She zapped her eyes from his legs to the cracked paint of the horizontal dent that stretched the full width of the car door.
Gemma stood up straighter and pushed out what little she had. Her finger trailed the dent as she looked up into his eyes. “Thank God it’s just a little—” she gulped hard as jagged metal snagged her finger, “—scratch.”
Her eyes watered with the pain.
He brought his hand up to brush beneath her one eye with the pad of his thumb, then the other, his gaze never leaving hers. “Please, there’s no need to cry.”
“I’m sorry—” Her brain buzzed with this sudden turn. “It’s all a bit much. I can’t really think now. Did you say insurance? I suppose we… I’ve never had an accident before, this has never—”
His thumb slid down her cheek and away. “You’re in shock.”
“Yes! Yes, I’m in shock. Maybe I could take your number and give you a call later. When I-I’m no longer, um, in shock? If you get the damage assessed first and it’s not too bad, I could pay it off in installments rather than getting the insurance involved? I can barely afford the premiums as it is.”
He looked at her, the silence stretching until she was convinced he’d conned onto her. Then a grin tucked up the left side of his mouth. “Tell you what, why don’t you have dinner with me tonight and we’ll sort everything out then.”
Gemma widened her eyes on him. No. No…she’d already decided against this.
Nick Delaney blotted out the gorgeous, lilting voice so he could think straight for a second. Staring into those wide hazel eyes was a damn distraction, but he seemed to have difficulty looking away. That little beauty mark on the wing of her left eyebrow moved with the changing expressions on her face—he wondered where it’d sit when he—
Had he really just asked her out? Hot damn, he hadn’t just suggested that a strong arm and a nice dinner would make all her troubles magically disappear, had he? He didn’t do that kind of thing anymore. She wasn’t even his type, too blonde and too cute. Dead broke too, apparently. For a moment, he’d thought she’d been faking those tears.
His gaze rested on that lower lip of hers, then traveled up to the erotic beauty mark that had him reassessing his priorities yet again. “Why don’t we do the dinner tonight and forget about this unfortunate incident altogether?”
“I’d love to have dinner with you.” The worry in her eyes cleared. “But I insist on covering the repair costs.”
He shrugged. “As you said, it’s just a scratch. No need to tangle ourselves up in red tape or monthly payments. I’m Nick, by the way.”
“Gemma.” Her accent softened the vowels and rolled the name off the tip of her tongue. She held out a hand and he took it, shaking firmly but not letting go when he should have.
He couldn’t. He was drowning in her eyes and fighting off a thousand primal urges that had come on quicker than he could say, “Hot damn.” Nick didn’t have a single romantic bone in his body, he knew nothing about drowning in eyes and wasting time teasing his tongue around tantalizing beauty spots. Candice had made that clear to him when she’d slammed the door on her way out of his life last month.
“You don’t understand the first thing about women!”
“You never listen. You’re incapable of a two-way conversation.”
“FYI, if you want something to drape over your bed at night and shove into the cupboard come morning, get yourself a quilted cover!”
Then there was the coup de grâce. He’d been hanging out the window, his brain stupefied as he watched her climb into the cab, when she’d climbed back out to scream up at him. “You, Nicolas Delaney, are the missing link!”
Yet, here he was. Drowning in hazel eyes and fighting off the urge to wrap this woman in his arms and promise her anything to wipe the tears from her eyes. There were other urges as well, ones that started low and didn’t make it up past his belt, but Nick had taken a long hard look at himself after Candice had left and was determined to reform his ways.
Gemma slid her hand from his and smiled. “Tonight then?”
She’d already turned to leave when he remembered. “Wait.”
She froze, then glanced over her shoulder.
“Café Ital in Greenwich Village? Eight thirty?”
“Oh.” She looked stumped, then added, “Café Ital, sure, see you there.”
She crossed the road, leaving Nick staring after. What the hell was that?
She wasn’t coming, that’s what. He didn’t need a psychic to know that he’d just been stood up in advance.
Published: 26 Sept 2011
Can She Outwit Fate?
Gemma is on a collision course with heartbreak. At least, according to the fortune-teller her best friend drags her to see. Gemma doesn't believe a word of it, but when other predictions start to come true, she begins to suspect that gorgeous, gray-eyed Nick is the man foretold to break her heart before she can find her soul mate. Too bad she's never met a man she's wanted more, because now she has to get him to dump her before she falls too hard.
Nick has plans of his own. He's ready to settle down with Ms. Right, and everything points to the beautiful Gemma. He's determined to prove to her that he's the perfect boyfriend—even if she does seem to be trying her best to scare him off…