Hey, Ali. I found you a man.”
Allison Thomas blinked sleepily and thought about hiding her head under the pillow. However, the phone pressed against her ear might get in the way.
“Was I looking for one?” she asked.
“Sure. You’ve been bugging me for weeks.” There was a pause, followed by an impatient sigh. “Ali, it’s me, Harry.”
Ali pushed the pillow away and sat up. “Harry?”
Her sluggish brain pulled together random bits of information. Harry, the local handyman. Her business downstairs. How Harry had been teasing her with the promise of doing actual work for weeks on her business downstairs. “Are you finally going to build my shelves?”
“Nope. I’ve hired me a new guy. If this one works out, I think he’ll stay around and buy me out.”
Ali resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Harry was always hiring some new guy, and anytime an employee stayed longer than a week, Harry became convinced he’d finally found someone interested in buying his small handyman business.
“I hope that happens,” she said sincerely. “In the meantime, is he going to do some work for me?”
“Sure thing. I’ve already sent him over to start your shelves. I’ll be by this afternoon to check on his progress.”
“Okay. Great.” She was drowning in office supplies, cooking supplies, and mailing containers. She needed more stock space in her storage room. While Harry wasn’t known for hiring the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, how hard could it be to make a few shelves and paint some walls? She could probably do it herself if she had the time, which she didn’t. “When can I expect him?”
“He should be there any minute.”
“Okay.” Ali blinked, then sat up straighter in bed. “What? Like now?”
“Yeah. He left about fifteen minutes ago, but he’s walking.”
Ali glanced down at the soft cotton T-shirt that barely came to midthigh. Underneath she wore exactly nothing. Her hair was a mess. She was a mess, and not the least prepared for Harry’s helper. She swore under her breath.
“Next time give me a little more warning, Harry,” she said.
His cheerful reply set her teeth on edge. She hung up the phone, then scrambled out of bed.
It was nearly eight, and on a normal morning she would have been awake for hours. Or at least since seven. But work had kept her up well past midnight. Again.
Ali pulled off her sleep shirt and tossed it onto the four-poster, brass bed. She grabbed underwear, a bra, jeans, and a T-shirt that proclaimed her “Queen of Everything” and dressed. When she dug in her closet for sneakers, she found one and had to waste precious minutes searching for the mate. Damn. One of these days she was going to clean up the floor in here and get a shoe organizer, the kind with the clear front so she could see where everything was. Or, if she really went wild, she could hire one of those anal-retentive people who made their living organizing other people’s lives. That was what she really needed. A reorganized life. In the meantime she would settle for a pair of matching shoes.
“Gotcha,” she murmured, spotting a familiar green shoelace sticking out from under the bed.
She skipped socks and shoved her feet into the shoes, sidestepping the circling of her black-and-white cat, Domino. Ali then turned around to stare into the mirror. As usual, her long dark hair was a tangled riot of curls. On models in magazines the disarray looked artful. On her it looked like a scary “before” shot in a makeover. No time, she thought and rooted through the piles of clips, makeup, and jewelry on the top of her dresser until she found a scrunchy and fashioned a quick ponytail. She could imagine how awful she looked—no makeup and a thick bushy cat’s tail of hair. Not to mention the T-shirt and jeans faded from too many washings. Ali shrugged. She was busy, which meant she didn’t always have time to make a fashion statement. Okay, she never had time, and any statement she made shouldn’t be repeated.
Less than two minutes later she dashed out of the bathroom and headed downstairs, just in time to hear someone impatiently pounding on the back door.
“I’m coming,” she yelled, jogging through the stockroom.
But the person on her back porch wasn’t Harry’s mystery helper. Instead, her mother—tall, slender, and perfectly groomed—stood there, with a pale, leashed pig at her side.
Ali sighed. Most people were allowed to start their day with a cup of coffee and a few minutes to peruse the local paper. She had to face her mother.
“Took you long enough,” Charlotte Elizabeth Thomas said as she pushed past her daughter and into the rear room of the shop. “Miss Sylvie and I thought we’d stop by and have coffee after our walk.” Her mother’s gaze narrowed. “You didn’t even brush your hair this morning. And what is that you’re wearing?”
“Jeans, Mother. A denim fabric made into slacks for both women and men.”
“Sarcasm does not make you more attractive, Allison.”
Charlotte Elizabeth bent down and unfastened the leash from Miss Sylvie’s collar. The nearly albino pig trotted over to Ali and snuffled at her scuffed sneakers. Ali wasn’t sure if it was a greeting or a criticism, nor did she want to know. Charlotte Elizabeth turned and headed for the kitchen.
“We did an hour around the pond. The doctor said that with proper exercise, the heart condition won’t be a problem,” Charlotte Elizabeth called over her shoulder. “I prefer walking here, rather than in Los Angeles. The sea air is very refreshing, and there isn’t any smog.”
Ali trailed after her mother, following her into the kitchen, then watching as Charlotte Elizabeth worked, filling the coffeepot with water and pouring it into the machine. After she added six scoops of flavored coffee, she shut the front flap and hit the start button.
“I’m relieved to hear the positive medical news,” Ali said, trying to muster some enthusiasm and sincerity. They were, after all, talking about the pig’s heart, not her mother’s. But while Ali didn’t understand her mother’s devotion to the large, ungainly animal, Charlotte Elizabeth and Miss Sylvie were inseparable.
How did an otherwise intelligent, articulate person make such a poor pet choice? Why couldn’t her mother be like other people’s eccentric relatives and just collect dozens of cats or small dogs? Ali could understand the appeal of a stray. She’d had several herself over the years. But a pig? And not one of those cute miniature ones. Miss Sylvie was several hundred pounds of pale, sunburn-prone pork on the hoof, or whatever it was that pigs had.
Charlotte Elizabeth patted her pig’s large back. “I think this new sunscreen is going to work. Did I tell you about it? I found it in a catalog. I do so love mail order. The sunscreen is organic and practically guaranteed not to produce an allergic reaction. Something I worry about, don’t I, sweetheart?”
Miss Sylvie grunted in response.
“You could carry it here in the store.”
Ali looked at her mother. “The sunscreen?”
“You like natural products.”
“This is a sweet shop, Mother. Chocolates, cookies, scones, and muffins. Not a sunscreen kind of place.”
“I suppose not. Although it wouldn’t hurt you to expand. Speaking of which—muffins, I mean, not expanding—do you still have those low-fat ones in your freezer?”
“Yes.” Ali pointed to the freezer at the far end of the huge kitchen. “I baked about four dozen and sold maybe three in two days.”
Her mother opened the door and gazed at the labeled packages inside. “Three dozen is excellent. That’s seventy-five percent of what you baked. Not bad for a new product.”
If only, Ali thought. “No, Mom. I sold three muffins. I had to freeze the other forty-five.”
She’d learned her lesson. Low-fat anything did not sell well at Decadent Delight. People traveled great distances for her gourmet chocolate and when they got here, they didn’t want to think about healthy foods or saving calories.
“At least they won’t go to waste. I thought instead of a scone, I could start giving Miss Sylvie a low-fat muffin.” Her mother glanced up and smiled. “She does so like a treat with her coffee in the morning.”
Ali stared at her mother’s beautiful face. Charlotte Elizabeth had wide hazel eyes, a small nose, and a perfect mouth. There was a symmetry to her features that left lesser mortals feeling deformed in comparison. Despite being nearly sixty-five, her mother had smooth and practically wrinkle-free skin. Some of that was the result of carefully planned surgery, but most of it was just great genetics.
Ali, of course, took after her father.
Charlotte Elizabeth found the large container of muffins and took one out. She set it on a plate, then put it in the microwave tucked in the corner of the counter near the double metal sink. While she waited, she glanced through the open doorway leading to Ali’s storeroom and frowned. Her sharp gaze took in the stacks of supplies for the store, the office, and the kitchen. Unopened bags of sugar nestled up against boxes of mailing envelopes.
“That place is a disaster. You should get some shelves in there.”
“Funny you mention that,” Ali said, but figured there was no point in explaining the renovation was already planned. In fact, Harry’s helper should be arriving any minute. Please God, she thought sincerely, let him get here and rescue me from the force of nature that is my mother.
The microwave beeped at the same time the coffeemaker gave a discreet chime indicating it had taken grounds and water to produce warm, liquid magic. Miss Sylvie came trotting in from wherever she’d been and grunted with pleasure.
“Just a moment, darling,” Charlotte Elizabeth said. She cut up the muffin and blew on it to cool it down. Then she poured coffee into a saucer and blew on that as well.
“Did you ever treat me this nicely when I was a child?” Ali asked as she watched the ritual.
“Of course. Don’t you remember?”
“Not really. I think Rick and I got shortchanged. Miss Sylvie gets a lot more attention.” Ali was only half kidding. Did her mother’s behavior still fall in the “normal” range, or did it slip over into a more scary category? And was any of it due to old age? “Mom, have you been getting forgetful lately? Are you taking your hormones?”
Charlotte Elizabeth set the saucer and the plate on the floor and stroked her pet. “If you’re trying to imply there’s something wrong with me, I won’t listen. I lavish love on Miss Sylvie because I don’t have grandchildren to spoil. I’m nearly sixty. I deserve grandchildren.”
“Sixty-five,” Ali said patiently, knowing she only had herself to blame for the tirade about to rain down on her like a winter storm. There would be flashes of both lightning and thunder, not to mention dark clouds and chilling temperatures. They’d been over this material countless times before. Why hadn’t she let well enough alone? So her mother had a strange relationship with a pig. Was that so unhealthy?
“Don’t try to distract me with the truth,” her mother said as she poured herself a cup of coffee. “As I was saying, if you had bothered to get married and have babies of your own like other people’s children do, I wouldn’t be alone. But no. You wanted a career and a business. I had to get a pig so I would have something to spoil and cuddle in my old age.”
Ali glanced at Miss Sylvie’s considerable bulk. The pig was cute, especially when her mother dressed her up in seasonal jackets and rakish hats, but she was far from a lap pet. “How exactly do you cuddle her?”
“You know what I mean.”
Actually Ali didn’t, but she figured it wasn’t a good time to ask. Nor did she really want to know.
“Do you want coffee?” her mother asked.
Ali nodded. She needed the jolt of caffeine to keep her wits about her. Charlotte Elizabeth was many things, but she wasn’t stupid. And she could be stubborn when she didn’t get her way. If Ali didn’t distract her soon, she was going to be hearing about the woes of being grandchildless for the rest of the morning. To make matters worse, Ali was less than a week away from turning thirty. Fortunately, Charlotte Elizabeth wasn’t one for keeping track of birthdays, and this year she would be in Los Angeles on Ali’s birthday weekend. With a little luck, her big “three-zero” would pass in unrecognized silence. Of course if Charlotte Elizabeth did manage to remember, Ali would never hear the end of it.
In Charlotte Elizabeth’s mind, turning thirty without a husband or even the hint of a man in her life was a fate worse than death. It was worse than a new wrinkle.
Ali’s private guilt on the subject of grandchildren didn’t help. In the recesses of her mind, she knew she owed her mother grandchildren and much more.
“You look very nice,” Ali said abruptly.
It was a feeble first attempt to change the subject, but the best she could come up with under pressure. Fortunately, it was also true. Her mother wore a pink jogging suit that should have looked frumpy and added the appearance of an additional ten or fifteen pounds to her slight frame, but this was her mother she was talking about. Of course Charlotte Elizabeth managed to look both stylish and reed slim. Maybe it had something to do with her having been an actress for many years. Charlotte Elizabeth always had the correct outfit for every occasion and the psychic knowledge to know exactly when to wear it.
“Don’t for a moment think that I’ve gone so senile that you can distract me with a silly compliment,” her mother said, glaring at her. “What about my grandchildren?”
Ali groaned. It wasn’t that she didn’t want a child. She did—desperately. But on her terms and schedule. Not her mother’s.
Taking a breath, she threw out another subject to distract her mother. “I really wish I looked as great as you.”
“You could with a little effort.”
“Time is the one thing I don’t have a lot of.”
“Time and effort aren’t always the same thing. You could get your hair cut or change how you dress. Take a lesson from Clair, who always looks elegant. She’s not too busy to make herself attractive.”
Ali winced. Done in by her best friend. Damn. To make matters worse, Ali couldn’t even claim her life was too complicated by comparison, either. Clair managed to be nearly as put-together as Charlotte Elizabeth while raising two kids, being married, chairing a major charity in Los Angeles, and occasionally assisting her husband in his winery. Oh, and she was pregnant. All Ali could claim was a candy store and a cat.
Charlotte Elizabeth studied her daughter critically. “You’re 5’6”, which isn’t model tall, but it’s not so short you have to worry about styles not looking right on you.”
Ali closed her eyes and sighed. Her mother was on a roll, and she had no one to blame but herself.
“You have my breasts and my legs,” Charlotte Elizabeth continued. “Both of which are spectacular. I can’t tell you how many times I was asked to pose topless. I refused, of course. It would have been tacky. But it wouldn’t kill you to show a little cleavage sometimes, or a bit of thigh. And you have lovely large eyes, dear. Take advantage of that. Get a makeover. Or I would be happy to—”
Miss Sylvie finished her morning coffee and muffin and came snuffling for more. The pig managed to do what Ali hadn’t been able to and distracted her mother. “No, darling. That’s all you get. You need to watch what you eat. Your heart, dear. Remember?”
Miss Sylvie’s little pig eyes seemed to dampen with disappointment. She went back to snuffle at the now empty plate.
“What about my grandchildren?” Charlotte Elizabeth demanded again.
Ali didn’t know which was worse. The “I want grandchildren” speech or the makeover speech. “Leave me alone. If you want pretty, find a model. If you want grandchildren, go talk to Rick.”
Her mother made a moue of disapproval. “First, it’s not nice of you to say that. Rick is a lovely young man, but he’s my stepson, not my child by blood. It wouldn’t be the same.”
“So telling you to go rent a grandchild wouldn’t work either? I bet Clair would loan you one of hers.”
Charlotte Elizabeth sighed. “You know, I always tried to be a good mother. Wasn’t I there for you? Didn’t I bake cookies for you and always ask about your day?”
“You did ask me about school, but I don’t remember you baking.”
Charlotte Elizabeth considered. “All right, but I paid someone to bake, so there were always cookies at home. That counts.”
Actually, in Ali’s mind it did count, but she wouldn’t dare give that point away to her mother. “Find me a husband, and we’ll talk grandchildren. Until then, leave me alone.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wanted to call them back. She knew better than to issue a challenge to anyone in her family, especially her mother.
Perfectly shaped eyebrows arched toward perfectly trimmed bangs. “Really?” Her mother drew out the word for nearly four seconds.
Ali scrambled to regain lost ground. “No. I was kidding. Ha ha. Pretty funny, huh? Had you going, didn’t I?”
Charlotte Elizabeth was not moved.
Fortunately at that moment, someone knocked on the back door.
“That would be Harry’s helper,” Ali said. “Harry sent him over to build me some shelves.”
“Allow me,” Charlotte Elizabeth said and headed toward the rear of the building.
Ali stared after her and tried to figure out why her mother would care about the handyman. Charlotte Elizabeth preferred her world to move in an effortless manner. She didn’t want to be bothered with the details of repairs or construction. She just wanted—
Ali swore out loud and raced after her mother. Harry’s helper—did the poor man have a name?—was a new guy in town. Ali had just issued a challenge. If the man had most of his own teeth and no really large hump on his back or his nose, Charlotte Elizabeth might just try to—
Ali came to a stop. Too late. Conversation drifted in through the half-open storeroom door, and she could only stand there, frozen, humiliated, and eavesdropping.
“Tell me, Mr…. Baker was it?”
“Yes, ma’am. But you can call me Matt.”
“All right. Tell me, Matt, are you married?”
Ali closed her eyes and leaned against the doorframe of her storage room. This wasn’t happening. Really. If she just visualized another scene, another place, or perhaps even another time, she would find herself magically transported there. She would not be in her own place of business being humiliated by her mother.
Something breathed against her foot. She glanced down and saw Miss Sylvie checking out her shoe again. Apparently the muffin hadn’t been satisfying.
“I’m only asking because my daughter, Allison, is very lovely. She’s also single. Not because there’s anything wrong with her. She’s been busy.”
Strangled laughter forced its way up Ali’s tight throat. Busy? Was that the best her mother could come up with to explain her lack of male companionship? Busy? As in “If only she could get that last sock drawer organized, she could see to her personal life?”
Ali heard someone clearing his throat, and she guessed it wasn’t her mother. The masculine voice that followed confirmed her guess. “Ma’am, I’m just here about the shelves.”
“Oh.” Pounds of disappointment thickened Charlotte Elizabeth’s voice. “You don’t like women. I understand. Well, my son Rick is gay, although I think he’s in a committed relationship right now. My daughter is the stubbornly single one in the family.” She paused and then spoke confidentially. “You see, I want grandchildren.”
“Ma’am, I’m not gay. I’m here to build shelves.”
Ali could feel the flush of embarrassment on her cheeks. Even so, she forced herself to push away from the wall and step around Miss Sylvie. This had gone on long enough.
“Mother, leave the poor man alone,” she said briskly as she headed for the door. Obviously the only way to get through this incredibly humiliating moment was to ignore the fact that her own mother had hawked her like some used rocking chair at a garage sale. “Harry’s helper is here to put up shelves, not be tormented by you.”
She stepped onto the porch and smiled brightly. “Hi. I’m Allison Thomas. You’ve already met my mother.”
The day had dawned clear, and the sun was well above the horizon. Light flooded the porch, momentarily causing her to blink as her eyes adjusted. Then she had to blink because Harry’s helper wasn’t the usual brand of misfit he liked to hire. This guy—she blinked again and had to look up—was way too tall and way too good-looking.
“He doesn’t want Rick,” Charlotte Elizabeth said cheerfully. “So I guess he’s all yours.”