Heartstrings and Diamond Rings

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For Charlotte and Ryan,

the best daughter and son-in-law

I could ever have hoped for.

Thanks for all the wonderful holidays,

Saturday night dinners,

and family celebrations.

The fun is just beginning!

R
elationships
, Alison Carter thought,
are all about modest expectations.
As she watched Randy inhale the last of his honey-glazed pork chops and drain his wineglass, then swivel his head to watch their waitress’s ass as she passed by, Alison added,
And that soul mate thing is a crock.

The more she repeated those mantras to herself, the better she felt. After all, there was nothing really wrong with Randy. They’d met at a party where he’d gotten too drunk to drive and she’d taken him home, and then they’d started to date. A sales rep with a big paper company, he had a townhome in Plano, not large, but bordering a somewhat prestigious area only a block from a golf course. He wore suits you couldn’t tell from designer originals, and shoes that looked like real leather. He did drive an actual Mercedes, a few years old with a great big payment, but a Mercedes nonetheless.

“You look great tonight,” Randy said, now that the waitress with the perfect ass had disappeared into the kitchen.

“Thank you,” Alison said. “So do you.”

She wasn’t lying. He wore a pair of slacks, a sharply starched dress shirt, and a sports coat, looking as nice as she’d ever seen him, which really wasn’t bad at all. In the candlelit ambience of the restaurant, he actually looked handsome.

As for her looking great, she wasn’t so sure. Yesterday she’d spent ten minutes in front of an evil three-way mirror at Saks as Heather convinced her that the dress she wore really didn’t make her butt look big. Since junior high, Heather had always been one of those rare friends who never told her she looked good in something when she really didn’t. Sometimes the truth was hard to swallow, but in the end it meant there was at least one person on earth she could trust. And if Randy truly loved her for her, did the size of her butt really matter, anyway?

They’d been seeing each other for nearly eight months now, and it had been a decent eight months. No, she didn’t have hot flashes of pure sexual hunger whenever he kissed her. She didn’t sit around at work all day doodling his name on a sticky note pad. She didn’t always leap up to answer the phone when she knew it was probably him. But after she turned thirty, she decided there were trade-offs she was willing to accept. She could wait for burning sexual attraction to strike her out of nowhere, or she could knock off the lottery mentality and go for the sure thing if it meant she might actually get to have the home, husband, and family she’d always wanted. It might not be great, but if they worked at it, it could certainly be good.

Modest expectations.

One day last week on her lunch hour, she’d seen Randy in a jewelry store at the mall. Then there was the phone conversation she’d overheard him having with somebody named Reverend McCormick. And then she’d spotted a Hawaii travel brochure on his desk at home. She brushed all those things aside, telling herself they didn’t mean ring‑wedding-honeymoon, only to have Randy tell her he had something very important to talk to her about and make dinner reservations at Five Sixty, the hottest new restaurant in the Dallas metroplex. Oddly, the only emotion she seemed to be able to summon was relief. But that was okay. Relief beat the hell out of desperation.

The waiter poured them more wine, then took their plates. Alison cuddled up next to Randy and stared out the window. Five Sixty sat at the top of Reunion Tower, fifty stories in the sky, offering sweeping views of the Dallas metroplex. Dusk was becoming night, and with every second that passed, the city lights grew brighter and more mesmerizing. In that moment, Alison truly believed there wasn’t a more romantic place on earth. When Randy turned and kissed her, she was surprised to feel a little of that first-date flutter she thought was long gone.

“Alison,” he said finally, fixing his gaze on hers, “I think we’ve grown very close over the past few months.”

Her heart bumped against her chest. This was it. After all these years, after all the wrong men, after all the blind dates, after all her waiting and wishing and hoping, she was finally making the leap toward matrimony.

Thank God.

“Yes,” she said. “We have.”

He brushed a strand of hair away from her cheek and stared soulfully into her eyes. “And I wouldn’t even be asking you this if I didn’t think our relationship was very, very strong.”

Alison nodded. “Of course.”

“Like a rock.”

“Yes,” she agreed.

“You’re so beautiful. Have I told you that lately?”

She gave him a smile that said,
Yes, but don’t hesitate to tell me again.

“And you’re open-minded.” He pondered that a moment. “Very open‑minded, I’d say.”

Actually, she’d never thought of herself as particularly open‑minded. But it was okay if he thought so, because that was a good thing…right?

He shifted a little, suddenly looking uncomfortable, and Alison smiled to herself. It was so cutely traditional for him to have a hard time with this. In fact, she was sure she saw him blush.

“I think Bonnie is open‑minded, too,” Randy said.

Alison blinked. “Bonnie?”

“Yeah. And you seem to get along well with her.”

Bonnie was a friend of Alison’s, but Randy didn’t really know her all that well. Like all men, he was far more acquainted with Bonnie’s breasts than her face. God bless Bonnie—she could sprout two heads and the men of the world would never know it. But why was Randy bringing her up now?

“Uh…yeah,” Alison said. “I guess we get along okay.”

“I assume you think she’s, you know…attractive.”

Yes. Bonnie was attractive. In a wide-eyed, short-skirted, body-flaunting way. “I…suppose so.”
What is he talking about?

“Anyway, I was wondering…” He inched closer and stared directly into her eyes, and her heart practically stopped. She stared up at him adoringly.

“Yes?”

“You. Me. Bonnie. What do you think?”

Alison just stared at him. “What do I think about what?”

He laughed a little. “You know. The three of us. Together.” He leaned in and kissed along her neck. “Seeing you with another woman would be such a turn-on.”

For the next several seconds, it was as if Alison’s entire circulatory system contracted, stopping the blood flow to her brain. Surely he must have said,
Will you marry me?
but somehow it had come out sounding like
Wanna have perverted sex?

“What did you say?”

“A threesome. You, me, and Bonnie.

Don’t just repeat it, damn it! Change it!

“When we were at that party at John’s house last month,” Randy said, “Bonnie seemed to be as open-minded as you are.” Then his voice slipped from soothingly sexual to blatantly carnal. “I think she’d go for it, don’t you?”

Alison yanked herself away from him. “Are you completely out of your mind?”

He stared at her dumbly. “What’s the matter?”

“What’s the matter?
What’s the matter?
” Alison sputtered aimlessly for a moment, words escaping her. Then she leaned in and spoke in an angry whisper. “That’s what you wanted to talk to me about?”

He shrugged. “Well…yeah.”

“You brought me here to ask me that?”

He looked befuddled. “Well, it is kind of a big step, so I—”

“What were you doing in that jewelry store three days ago at lunch?”

“Jewelry store? How’d you know I was at a jewelry store?”

“Just answer me. What were you doing?”

“Getting a battery for my watch. Why?”

Alison felt a wave of nausea. “You had a Hawaii vacation brochure on your desk at home.”

“I did?”

“Yes. You did. Where did it come from?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. It was probably junk mail.”

The nausea continued to roll in, like surf crashing over a rocky beach. “Okay, then. You haven’t been to church since you were twelve. So who the hell is Reverend McCormick?”

“Who?”

“Randy,” she snapped, “I overheard you talking to somebody named Reverend McCormick last week.”

Randy blinked. “Oh. I donated some of my old clothes to a church charity. Tax deduction. How did you—”

“Never mind.”

Alison dropped her head to her hands, feeling dumber and more deluded than she ever had in her life. How had this happened? What could she have seen in those bland brown eyes of Randy’s that made the concept of together forever seem like an actual possibility, particularly since he was still staring at her with a look that said,
Now don’t be too hasty

have you ever actually considered the advantages of lesbian sex?

“Randy, listen to me carefully. Are you listening?”

He nodded, a hopeful look on his face. Hopeful. What did he think she was going to do? Suggest a plan to catch Bonnie off guard in the shower?

“My answer is no,” she told him, her voice quivering with anger. “Now, that’s not just any old no. It’s no, not in a million years, not if we’re the only three people left on earth and I’m the odd woman out and it’s the only chance I have to participate in sex again for the rest of eternity. It’s that kind of no. Are you getting my drift?”

His face fell into a disappointed frown, as if he were a spoiled six-year-old who couldn’t understand why a spotted pony with a silver-trimmed saddle or a month-long tour of Disney World was out of the question.

“Maybe you just need a chance to think about it,” he said.

“Randy,” she said with a growl in her voice, “you’re going to get up from this table right now. You’re going to leave. And if you so much as glance back over your shoulder, I’m shoving you through the window. It’s fifty stories to the ground, and I don’t give a damn. Do you hear me?”

Randy drew back with a startled expression. “But why? Just because I had one little idea to spice up our sex life you didn’t like?”

Alison’s mouth dropped open. “One little idea?
One little
—”

“So forget I mentioned it,” he said with an offhand shrug. “No big deal. We can still have regular sex. Just you and me—”

She grabbed him by his lapels and dragged him forward. “Get. The hell.
Out.

“Come on, Alison,” he said, a nervous laugh in his voice. “You really don’t want me to—”

She leaned away and whacked him on the arm with her doubled‑up fist. “I said
out
!”

When she reared back to smack him again, he threw up his arms to ward off the blow. He scooted out of the booth so quickly he banged the edge of the table with his hip, knocking over his glass of pinot noir. The wine spread like a gigantic Rorschach blob on the white linen tablecloth. He stared down at it dumbly.

“Out!” Alison shouted.

He took two shaky steps backward, his shocked expression shifting to a vindictive glare. “Yeah, well, you know what?”

“What?”

“That dress makes your butt look
huge
!”

A pure, unadulterated, I-hate-you kind of anger welled up inside Alison that she’d never felt before. As he spun around and stalked off, she closed her hands into fists and banged them on the table. The last wineglass standing shimmied a little, but she managed to grab it before it fell over. In three seconds she’d drained its contents and smacked the glass back down on the table, feeling the wine burn all the way down her throat. It hit her nauseated stomach like cold rainwater on hot lava, and she swore she could actually feel the sizzle.

She closed her eyes to try to gain back a modicum of control, and when she opened them again, she realized the restaurant had fallen silent, the waiters had frozen in place, and everybody was looking at her as if she were a rabid dog foaming at the mouth. She sat up straight and put her hands in her lap, trying to look calm, sane, and sensible. Judging from the fact that everyone was still staring, she wasn’t succeeding.

The waiter walked tentatively back to the table, staying slightly more than arm’s length away. “Uh…Madam? Will there be anything else?”

Yes. A gun so she could chase Randy down and blow him away. A big, fat box of Kleenex so she could cry her eyes out. A trench coat so everybody in this restaurant wouldn’t be looking at her ass as she walked out the door, wondering if Randy had been right.

“No. Nothing.”

In the time it took for her to decide that the wine-red Rorschach blob on the tablecloth looked like a pissed-off woman castrating a depraved man, the waiter returned with the check.

The check. Well, crap. Not only had this been one of the worst nights of her life, now she had to pay through the nose for the privilege of participating in it.

She winced, paid the check, and left the restaurant. And sure enough, she felt the collective gazes of every patron in the place focused squarely on her backside. The moment she got home, she was burning this dress.

She went into the elevator and leaned against the wall, feeling a little woozy as she shot down fifty stories. But it wasn’t until she stepped into the hotel lobby that it dawned on her that Randy had driven her there, and she had no way home.

No car, no fiancé, no hope, no nothing.

Alison trudged through the underground passage to Union Station, where she went to the surface again and sat down on a bench to wait for the northbound train. Anger had carried her this far, but now, in the silence of the aftermath of her future going right down the tubes, she couldn’t stop the tears from coming. God, she hated this. Sitting alone at a train station by an overflowing trash can beneath garish lights wearing a dress she now despised, crying her eyes out. Could it get any worse than that?

Then she felt something that made her realize that the answer was
Yes, of course it can get worse. What were you thinking?

Rain.

First came a few drops. Then a few more.
No, no, please, no…

All at once she heard a huge thunderclap and the heavens opened up. She hurried to one of the pitifully small overhanging shelters, but suddenly the wind was blowing in mighty gusts, swirling the rain and drenching her. She stood there in dumb disbelief as the rain trickled down her face and soaked through her dress, turning her into a soggy, pitiful mess.

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