She was late. Samantha Peabody jumped out of bed and dashed to the bathroom. No time for a shower. She splashed cold water on her face, brushed her teeth, and pulled a comb through tangled red hair. God, what a mess. With five minutes to spare, she slipped into a turtleneck, sweatshirt, pants, and sneakers. On her way out, she grabbed a yoga mat and a protein bar, ignored the frantic meowing of her two fat cats, hurried down the steps of her brownstone on the upper West Side of Manhattan, and ran six blocks to the Y.
Breathless, she hurried to the reception desk. “Where’s the tai chi class?”
Without looking up, the blond-haired woman said, “Down the hall, third door to your left.”
Ten minutes late already. Taking a calming breath before opening the door, Sam slowly entered the room. Twenty pairs of eyes stared in her direction. The instructor, a tall dark-haired man wearing black slacks and shirt, looked at her in surprise. “You’re here for tai chi?”
Nodding, she edged in, trying to look inconspicuous.
“You won’t need a yoga mat.” He started to demonstrate one of the moves while new-age music played softly.
Feeling dismissed, Sam edged her way to the rear of the room, dropped the mat on a chair, and tried to find a spot for herself. Beads of perspiration dripped down her neck and back. It was a chilly April morning and she had seized whatever was handy. Now the turtleneck and sweatshirt were much too warm.
~ ~ ~
Jordan Hart rarely showed annoyance, but this latest arrival ticked him off. First, she was tardy. And second, she was garbed in the most garish colors he’d ever seen. An emerald-green turtleneck peeked out from under a hot-pink sweatshirt. The woman’s bright-red hair was pushed under a sparkly gold headband, which matched her gold sneakers. Purple sweatpants completed the outfit. The yoga mat she carried was also green. The crazy colors hurt his eyes. Where did she think she was going? A circus was the only place he could think of. He tried to avoid looking at her, thus minimizing contact, but her clumsy attempts to follow along made that difficult. She didn’t seem to know her left from her right. Hopeless, he decided. Absolutely hopeless.
At the end of the class, Jordan spent a few moments giving handouts of the tai chi moves he’d presented. He chatted with a few students he’d known from previous classes and welcomed newcomers. The late arrival was the last to leave. She approached hesitantly, clutching her yoga mat.
“Sorry I wasn’t here on time,” she mumbled, not quite meeting his eyes.
He shrugged indifferently and handed her one of the printed sheets he’d prepared. Tempted to say more, he held his tongue. Perhaps if he was lucky, she wouldn’t return. There was something familiar about her, though. Where had he seen someone with that bright-red hair? Whatever, he couldn’t remember, which was just as well.
Sam could tell the instructor didn’t like her. His expression was contemptuous, as if she’d broken some holy law by coming in late and bringing a yoga mat. She felt she’d met him before. But where? Nothing came to mind, and she decided it wasn’t worth pursuing. He was good-looking in a macho kind of way. Definitely not her type at all, especially in view of the scorn she saw in his eyes. Well, she didn’t care one iota about his opinion or the class. With her head held high, she left the room without any plan to return. She didn’t need him or tai chi.
Sam walked the six blocks back to her brownstone. No point in hurrying. She had an hour to shower and change, maybe even grab a bite for breakfast. Her job at the gallery started at ten. What a waste of money and time this morning had been, she thought, a frown creasing her forehead. The instructor had that superior air as if anyone who didn’t know tai chi was a complete loser. It brought back unpleasant memories of her ballet teacher. Her mother insisted Sam take ballet lessons at age seven. The ballet teacher told her mother that Sam was the worst student she’d ever had. “Now what’s to become of you?” her mother had said. “You’re much too tall for your age, and awkward, too.” Sam never forgot those words. The one bright spot in her dance experience was learning how to belly dance in college. There were no directions in that dance. No left and right movements, just moving to the music and feeling the rhythm. She’d even done professional gigs with her best friend, Beth Fuller, at several bachelor parties and the Blue Monkey restaurant, a venue owned by Beth and her husband, Sean.
Sam climbed the stairs to her front door and opened it. Her two cats, Mushi and Pepper, threw themselves at her, meowing piteously.
“Okay, okay, I’ll feed you.” Sam dropped the yoga mat in the hallway on top of several pairs of shoes, cat toys, and other clutter, and strode to the small kitchen to fill their bowls. Pulling off her sweatshirt and sliding out of her sneakers, she rummaged in the fridge for something to eat. The protein bar was long gone. Did she have time for an omelet? Glancing at the clock, she decided to simplify her menu and opted for toast, cheese, and a cup of peppermint tea.
By nine-thirty, she was on her way to the Finch/Peabody Gallery in the East Village.
~ ~ ~
When Beth called that evening to check on her reaction to the class, Sam was tempted to tell a small fib, but she resisted. “I didn’t really like it,” she confessed. She explained, “I’m definitely going to the yoga class tomorrow night. Maybe that will work out better, and I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn.” Beth was the one who’d originally suggested tai chi. She’d told Sam tai chi helped with focusing and concentration. Besides, it was good exercise. Sam was always trying to lose those extra fifteen pounds she’d put on since college.
“By the way, what’s happening with your sister’s wedding?” Beth asked.
“You really don’t want to know,” Sam replied.
“But I do want to know. How bad can a wedding be?”
“My mother and Andrea are obsessed with this wedding. Andrea’s remarrying her first husband, Ben, after that disastrous second marriage. I’m to be a bridesmaid, and the fitting for dresses is this Saturday. Saturday is our busiest day at the gallery, and they well know I can’t make it. Of course, we had a huge argument.” Sam heaved a heavy sigh. “I thought they’d have a small wedding or elope or something. But no, this is going to be a humungous affair. What a pain.”
“Guess Sean and I were lucky to elope,” Beth said with a laugh. “We were following your example when you and Don tied the knot.”
Sam shuddered at the memory of that ill-conceived and disastrous marriage in her senior year of college. “At least you and Sean had a solid relationship before you got hitched. That’s something Don and I lacked.” For the hundredth time, she wondered how she’d ever agreed to wed the guy. The only memento from that fling was her last name. She could’ve gone back to her maiden name, but preferred the new one, probably because it was different and didn’t connect her to the rest of her family.
“Did I mention Sean’s cousin, Brice Leeds, is here for two weeks? He works at a museum in the Midwest and he’s in the city on business. I’d like to introduce you to him. You have so much in common.” Beth paused for a moment.
“Are you trying to fix me up again? My life’s too busy for a relationship,” Sam said.
“Of course not. I just thought it would be fun to go for dinner together, the four of us. Since he’s only here for a short stay, what’s the harm?”
“If it’s just a dinner date, that would be fine, but don’t plan on anything else.”
Beth continued, “Let’s have dinner Thursday night. Brice has no plans in the evenings. We can pick you up around seven.”
“Sure, why not,” Sam replied, without much enthusiasm. She almost knew how the evening would work out. Beth would turn on the charm and extol her friend’s attributes to whatever unlucky male she had snared to be Sam’s date. It never ended with the guy asking her out again. This was bound to be a repeat of that same experience. The best she could hope for was interesting conversation and a good meal.
“Listen, Sam, why don’t you wear that new black sweater when we go out for dinner Thursday? With those charcoal-gray slacks, it’ll make a super outfit.”
There was silence as Sam considered Beth’s suggestion. “You have ulterior motives, don’t you?” she finally said. “Please don’t push Sean’s cousin on me. I’m sure he’s very nice, but I don’t like trying to impress someone I haven’t even met. Don’t worry, I’ll dress appropriately.” She could just imagine her friend rolling her eyes and looking disappointed.
~ ~ ~
Thursday night wasn’t as bad as Sam expected. Brice Leeds turned out to be a scholarly-looking man in his late thirties with light-brown hair and black-rimmed glasses. They had much in common, and conversation ranged from the latest art exhibitions in New York City to a show he was putting together on Impressionist painters.
Leaving the Lebanese restaurant, Brice turned to Sam. “Why don’t I walk you home? It’s a pleasant night, and I’d love to continue our talk.” Beth and Sean were quick to agree.
His unexpected request caught Sam off guard. “Uh, sure, if you want to.” What had Beth said to him about her? “There’s a bus you can catch near my place to take you back later.”
It was settled. Sam wasn’t sure how she felt about this situation, especially when she caught the flash of triumph in Beth’s eyes. Something suspicious was in the air, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.
When they reached the brownstone, she turned to him. “Thanks for the company. I’d invite you in but my place is a mess.”
“I’m not a perfectionist. I would like to see your paintings though, and I promise not to notice anything out of place.”
What could she say? He behaved like a perfect gentleman, and she was eager to get his reaction to her latest geometric works. “Watch out for cat toys and piles of books on the floor.” She opened the door and ushered him inside. She would have to clean her place, much as she resisted the idea. It was embarrassing to view the messy rooms through another person’s eyes. “My studio is on the second floor,” she said, hurrying through the large kitchen and living room and up the back stairs.
“You have a good-sized area to work in,” Brice commented, appraising the spacious room. He focused on the bold geometric piece she was working on and nodded his approval. “I like the way you use color. Very provocative.”
She couldn’t help feeling pleased. “Thanks. It’s an experiment for me to work this large. I’d like to see if there’s a market for bigger pieces. Peter seems to think so.”
“Peter?” Brice looked confused.
“My partner at the gallery,” Sam explained.
“I’ll have to visit while I’m in town,” Brice said. Then he proceeded to spend time looking at her other paintings, making comments every once in a while. “You have an expressive style, very direct and personal. Is that the way you usually operate?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re the kind of woman who would be easy to get to know. You don’t play games or try to confuse people. Am I right?” Brice came closer, a knowing gleam in his eyes.
Sam felt prickles of tension in the back of her neck. Her heart began to pound, and her hands became clammy. Was he coming on to her? What had Beth told him?
“Look, it’s getting late and I have to work tomorrow.”
“It’s only ten,” he protested.
Sam wasn’t taking any chances. “Ten is late for me. There’s a cross-town bus at the corner that will get you back.” Without another word, she led him down the stairs to the front door. “It’s a pleasure to have met you. Enjoy the rest of your vacation.”
“I will see you again while I’m here,” he said. “What are your plans for the weekend? How about brunch on Sunday and a tramp through Central Park? We could squeeze in a museum visit as well. What do you say?” He sent her an ingratiating smile.
This was novel—a man who wanted another date. Or was his mind on something more than conversation? While she debated the question, Brice pulled her close, his hands on her waist.
The sudden move took her by surprise. “Wh-What are you doing?” she gasped, trying to twist out of his hold.
“C’mon, don’t be coy,” he said. “You can give me a decent kiss, at least.” With this, he bent his head and captured her mouth.
As kisses went, it wasn’t bad, but Sam was annoyed. “I don’t owe you anything.” She pushed him away. “And I have to work most of the weekend. I’m sure you’ll find other things and people to keep you occupied.” No way was she going out with him again. It would only end in a wrestling match.
~ ~ ~
“So, what do you think about Brice?” Beth asked Sam when she phoned the next morning. “You two certainly seemed to hit it off.”
“Beth Fuller, what exactly did you tell the guy? And don’t lie to me. He came on like a Mack truck . . . wants to take me out on the weekend, too. Well, I’m not interested in what I know is on his mind.”
Her friend chuckled. “C’mon, Sam, live a little. You’re like an old maid, the way you go to work every day and paint on your time off. Why not have a little fun for a change? As far as what I told Brice, all I did was show him some of the Blue Monkey photos.”
Sam knew exactly which photos she was referring to. “You mean the belly-dance number we did for the Christmas party. Right?” Now she understood Brice’s behavior a bit better. She’d worn a long black wig and a scanty costume which revealed more bare skin than she cared to remember. “He probably got the idea I’d hop into bed with him after viewing those pictures,” she said bitterly. “Well, it’s not my style and you know that.”
Beth heaved a long sigh. “You’ve been living like an ice queen for years. When are you going to melt? Did that marriage turn you off so much you don’t want to even try anymore? And don’t tell me anything’s going to happen between you and Peter. You’re just using him as an excuse not to date anyone. As long as you have good old Peter around, why bother making the effort?”
There was a long silence as Sam took in her friend’s words. Deep down, she knew Beth hit the nail on the head. “Okay, okay, you’ve made your point. Let’s change the subject. How’s your ankle doing?” Her friend had sprained it while running.
“Not so fast. Are you or are you not going out with Brice this weekend?”
Sam heard the challenge in Beth’s tone of voice. “All right, I’ll see him one more time. He wanted to visit the gallery, so ask him to call me tonight and I’ll give him directions. We can go out for dinner afterward. Are you happy now?”
“Sam, you know I only want what’s best for you. Why don’t you have dinner at the Blue Monkey? That way the four of us can spend time together.”
Sam pondered the idea for a few seconds. Actually, it might be the best scenario. With Sean and Beth around, Brice would have to be on his best behavior. “Sounds fine with me.”
~ ~ ~
“You work at that damn office night and day. When do you have time for me?” Lara Jensen hurled accusing words at Jordan over the phone.
Jordan’s features tightened into a grimace. Maybe it was time to end this current liaison. “I told you from the beginning that I was not available during the week. I thought you were okay with that.” Why were women so demanding? He was dead tired by the time he left the office, usually around nine or ten at night. All he craved was a dish of chocolate fudge ice cream while he watched the late-night news. Then he crawled into bed. He didn’t need a woman around, harassing him to spend more time with her.
Would a wife be as demanding as a girlfriend? That strange thought popped into his head, and was just as promptly quashed. He definitely was not in the market for a wife. Still, the idea planted itself into his brain like a stray seed blown by the wind. He couldn’t help thinking about his sister Lori’s easy-going attitude toward her husband’s frequent trips. Following that idea, could he assume that most wives overlooked their husbands’ busy work schedule as long as they were bringing in plenty of money? If so, marriage might not be as bad as he’d presumed. However, he was not about to exert any effort in that particular direction. Destiny would throw someone his way when the time was ripe.
As soon as his mind fastened on those last few inner words of wisdom, Jordan felt a strange, prickly sensation in the back of his neck. Could it be destiny giving him a warning? God, he hoped not.