Excerpt

Chapter One

“Turn front, and face the camera, please, one-six-seven. And remove your hands from your hips.”

Kathryn Lamb shook her mass of Titian-red curls. “No way. This is how the models do it. Makes them look like they weigh only ninety pounds Instead of a hundred.”

The disembodied voice spoke again. “Our clients won’t be able to see you.”

“Hey, pal, the camera adds ten pounds, you ought to know that. I’m giving you a slenderizing three-quarter profile. If I face front, your clients won’t like what they see. Besides, I’m the one who’s paying for this service. What happened to ‘the customer is always right’?”

“I wouldn’t want to date you,” the voice grumbled under its breath.

“I heard that.”

“Okay, Miss Lamb…”

“Ms., please.”

“Whatever. You’re the boss. Okay, Ms. Lamb, face the camera-well, three-quartersinto it, and do your bit for humanity. You’ve got thirty seconds. Take a deep breath, relax, and when you’re ready, nod your head, and I’ll turn the camera on. When you see the red light, go for it.”

“Is my lipstick okay?”

“Never better.”

Kathryn inhaled, closed her hazel eyes for a second or two, exhaled, and gave the camera operator a firm nod, twisting her heart-shaped face toward him. “Hi, I’m Kathryn Lamb. I’m a high school drama teacher, and I love long walks on the beach, cozy fireside chats, and Welsh accents…” She doubled over in laughter.

“Houston, do we have a problem?”

“Sorry,” Kathryn said, beginning to hiccup. “This is so corny. I’ve tried really hard to say something meaningful, but the bottom line is that I did this to get the nosy neighbor from hell to quit asking me prying questions about my social life…excuse me.” She held her breath and tried to swallow, in order to chase the hiccups away, but the thought of trying to be serious and soulful while taking out a video personal ad sent her back into convulsions of hysteria. “The bottom line is that I don’t want to meet any guys for whom money is a reason for living, and I value humor…” Another hiccup. “Obviously. And intelligence. And I think a life without music is a sorry one. And I don’t want any guys with last names like ‘Quartermaine,’ or first names like ‘Dirk.'”

“Okay, Ms. Lamb, we’re done.”

“What???”

“That’s it. Your thirty seconds.”

“Are you one taco shy of a combination plate?”

“I beg your pardon.”

“No do-overs?”

“This isn’t gym class, Ms. Lamb. Didn’t you read the fine print on the Six in the City application?”

“Who reads fine print? And I don’t call what I just got, ‘personal satisfaction,’ which according to your service’s motto is guaranteed.”

“You’ll have to talk to the manager about that. Just step through that door when you’re ready. I’ll label the tape, and then you’ll have your personal interview and be on your merry way.”

Kathryn grabbed her tapestry bag and fished for her embroidered blue velvet makeup kit, a special promotion from one of the cosmetic companies. But it made her feel like a Tsarina, so she carried it everywhere. She checked her face in the Lancôme compact mirror, deciding that she could have used more lipstick after all, and should have re-powdered her nose.

Why did I let some looney tune stranger talk me into doing this, she wondered. I feel like such a moron. At least she was only out half the five hundred bucks it took to become included on the roster of eligible females at the Six in the City dating service. Kathryn’s younger sister Eleanor, a former bank manager turned mommy, had agreed to foot the balance of the bill. An early thirty-fifth birthday present.

Kathryn knocked on the beveled glass door.

“Come in.”

She entered the room just in time to catch a Nerf basketball in her tapestry bag.

“Which one of us gets the two points?” The speaker was a sandy-haired man, possibly in his late thirties, maybe early forties. Chiseled jaw with dimpled cleft, and pale green, almost sea-foam-colored eyes. Whoa. If the five dates you guarantee me look like you, I’ll get my money’s worth, Kathryn thought. He rose from his brown leather swivel chair and extended his hand. Big man, well over six feet – possibly even six feet three. “Hi, I’m Dirk Quartermaine. How’re you doing?”

Kathryn paled about three shades.

“Just kidding. The name’s Bear Hart. You were a lot of fun in there.”

“That was you? You…!” She bit her lip to stifle the epithet that wanted to emerge. “That’s not very fair!”

“I like to get to know my clients in every situation, so I can get a better handle on whom to match them up with.”

“Are you Native American?”

“Only one-sixteenth. Why?”

“Your name is Bear Heart. What was your mother’s?”

“Fond of Shopping.” When Kathryn didn’t wince at his sense of humor, he relaxed a bit deeper into his chair and smiled warmly. “My real name is Walker, which is actually my mother’s mother’s maiden name. ‘Bear’ comes from my college days when every woman I went out with eventually came to the realization that I was not marriage material, but a real teddy bear as a boyfriend. Which worked out okay with me, since marriage is an institution to which I never wanted to be committed.”

I bet a lot of coeds cried on those big strong shoulders of yours. Kathryn kinda sorta wished she’d been one of them. Just to know what it felt like to bury her head against his…better change the subject because he was already giving her erotic fantasies.

“It’s okay, Bear. I’m not into animal husbandry.”

Walker laughed, a deep throaty sound. He seemed like a man who liked to grab life with both hands.

“Don’t worry, I’m not part of the package.”

That’s a damn shame. “Oh, call me Kitty.”

Kitty Lamb? That’s too cute.”

“My kids started calling me that a few years ago. They thought it was cruel, but I thought it was funny, so the joke was on them, and it stuck.”

“Kids?”

She chewed her lip, and gestured with her chin at the clipboard on his lap. “You read the book; you saw the film, Bear. I teach high school, remember.”

“Oh, of course. Sorry.” He leaned forward and stretched a long arm toward the coffee mug on the center of his desk, sending it teetering perilously toward a stack of manila envelopes.

“Son of a b—! ”m usually much more on the ball than this. Nice save!” he added, referring to his client’s lighting quick reflex.

Kathryn righted the cup and found a napkin on her side of the desk which she used to wipe up the single splotch of light-colored coffee that had made its way onto Bear’s file folders.

“Nervous, Mr. Hart?” she asked sweetly. Actually, there was something sort of endearing about his near-miss with the “Go, Big Red!” mug.

“I don’t think so. Preoccupied, I guess. Please don’t get the impression I’m a klutz. I was actually a helluva running back once upon a time.”

Walker was thinking of the damage her luscious curves were doing to that baby blue cashmere V neck she was wearing. He hadn’t missed how tight her jeans were when she walked in, either. How she managed to sit on the photographer’s stool and swivel around in them without cutting off her circulation, had been something of a miracle.

Mr. Six in the City followed his newest client’s eyes, noting that they were almond shaped, sort of like a cat’s, and with a bluish cast to them, although she’d listed their color as “hazel” in her profile. He decided it was better to think about something that didn’t give him disconcertingly erotic thoughts about her; he could get lost in those eyes. “I was also something of a ski bum in my misspent youth,” he said energetically, bounding into safer emotional territory, “before I decided to settle down and get my MBA. But one of the best places to check out the ups and downs of business administration firsthand, especially in February, is, of course, as everyone knows—a ski lodge.” He winked at Kathryn and noticed that she was trying unsuccessfully to suppress a smile.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Broke my leg in three places.”

“Oops.”

“Then I fractured my collarbone.”

“Ouch.”

“After the concussion, I finally gave up.”

“Probably a wise decision.”

Walker looked down at Kathryn’s application. “Okay, Miss Kitty,” he smiled. “You didn’t put down your age.”

“I was hoping you had a ‘don’t ask-don’t tell’ policy here.”

“Actually, I was just thinking that you barely look old enough to attend high school, let alone teach it.”

“That was a ‘nice save’ on your part, Bear…before you stuck your foot in your mouthentirely, I mean.”

He found it sweet that she was blushing a little. “Is there anything you want to tell me that you didn’t put down on your application?”

Kathryn ran a manicured hand through her coppery curls. “I don’t know-I’m just looking to meet a nice guy, I guess. I was engaged to the fiancé from hell until the end of last year, and I’m ready to get back on the horse and do some serious dating. Ilike the idea of marriage, in principle, anyway. I want someone to come home to. I like how that feels, when it’s working. It’s just that it’s never worked for very long for me. My job is not exactly a great place to meet people, except for the divorced dads…but that gets too weird. I did that once, and it sort of freaked me to get out of the shower in the morning and ride to school with my date and my student in the same car. Try giving a kid a grade when he knows what you did with his father the night before. Probably heard you, too. As far as I’m concerned, the other teachers—and obviously the students—are off-limits. But then, I like a guy who looks old enough to shave.”

Walker reflexively stroked his jaw, ruminating on the tidbit Kitty had just dropped. Clearly, in the right company, the woman wasn’t exactly shy. He blinked, which is what he always seemed to do when he couldn’t quite focus because his train of thought had become derailed. It was sort of a mental “rewind.” “Okay. You said on the tape that you didn’t want to meet men for whom money is their reason for living.”

“Been there, done that, have the T-shirt. That was the fiancé, Lance. Rule number one: never date anyone named ‘Lance,’ let alone get engaged to one. Lance is what you’re supposed to do to a boil.”

“Why did you call off the engagement?”

Kathryn leaned back in her chair and gave Walker a sideways glance.

“I’m asking for purely professional reasons. For all I know, you could be one of those nut jobs who just toys with a man’s affections and then dumps him once he’s hooked.”

“I’m not that kind of girl. The problem was that Lance and I were both in love with the same person: Lance. He was the only guy at his fifteenth high school reunion who wasn’t follically challenged. And he was proud of it—to the nth degree. Lance couldn’t pass a mirror without stopping to check himself out. And one Saturday last November, when he used the Barne’s Christmas display window as a looking glass and actually said aloud ‘Damn! I look good!’ I realized the relationship was doomed. Besides, do you have any idea what it’s like to live with a man who buys more expensive conditioner than you do?”

“Actually, no, I don’t.” Walker gave his new client a warm smile. “Now, as our company’s name—Six in the City—implies, we guarantee you five matches with different men, all of whom will be selected in accordance with your criteria. Five bachelors plus you, equals six. Each time we match you with a candidate, his name gets written in on your card, which is kept in your file.” Walker waved a white four-by-six inch index card in the air.

“So, that’s essentially a five-stud card,” Kathryn deadpanned.

Walker maintained a poker face but his eyes fully conveyed the impression that he’d gotten her pun. “You can come in to the office and view their tapes, if you want to, after they phone you and identify themselves as a Six in the City client.”

“Basically, that boils down to a hundred dollars per guy; and if they spend more than that on dinner, which is easy to do in Manhattan, then I actually come out ahead of the game.”

“If you choose to look at it that way. I thought money was not a reason for living for you.”

“It isn’t. Just doing the math. Actually, only two point five of them need to drop a C-note.

The other half are on my sister’s nickel. “By the way,” Kathryn barreled on, “when you coyly suggested that I talk to the manager about not getting any personal satisfaction—that is your motto, isn’t it—personal satisfaction guaranteed—from the videotape we just made. Well, I’m talking to you now. I don’t think I got my money’s worth in there Bear, and if it’s all the same to you, I’d like a reshoot.”

“Personally—sorry.” Walker coughed when Kathryn rolled her eyes. “I’ve been running this service for a while now, and frankly, I think your tape is refreshing in its spontaneity. I’ll make you a deal. If you don’t derive any personal satisfaction from any of our five guaranteed fix-ups, I’ll either refund your five hundred dollars or offer you a reshoot, gratis, and we’ll start the whole process all over again. Care to shake on it?”

Walker stood up and offered Kathryn his hand. She leaned across the desk, took it, and was surprised at its warmth and how even such an inconsequential contact made her feel. She felt the blood rush to her head. He came around to her side of the desk unshod. She noticed that he was almost a foot taller than she was, and had maybe a pound or two of “cuddliness” around his mid-section, but she liked that. He looked great. Not perfect, but perfect was always under suspicion. Perfect meant they probably liked themselves more than they would ever like you. Lance had been perfect. “Slightly cuddly” meant that you could indulge in spaghetti and the occasional hot fudge sundae—heck, even a beer in his company, and not feel the need to convert just so you could go to confession. Kathryn was never a salad person, no matter how hard she tried. She looked like a woman, not a waif, which is why she’d been so self-conscious on camera. Oh, there were plenty of wolf whistles from the Neanderthals in the streets, but those weren’t the kind of men she aspired to attract. Sooner or later she would have to face the fact that she did not have the wafer-thin looks of an elegant East Side matronette, although her kid sister kept trying to tell her that real men didn’t find stick figures attractive. Kathryn tugged on her pale blue sweater, to disguise what she thought was a tummy bulge.

She tried to detract Walker’s gaze, which had followed her hands, from her midriff. “Cute socks,” she offered. “What are those-dragons?”

“My mother sent them to me from Wales. She seems to have frozen my age at nineteen. When I was in college, I was into that sort of fantasy stuff. You know, dragons, druids. I used to be a big Tolkien fan.”

“That’s funny, so was I. My best friend in ninth grade, Melody Miller, used to have a basset hound named ‘Bilbo’—you know, from The Hobbit—and of course, because we had just learned what the word meant, we called the poor thing ‘Dildo.’ I remember coming home from Melody’s and telling my mother about ‘Dildo’ and she washed my mouth out with soap. A green bar shaped like a brontosaurus.”

“Creative woman.”

“It was left over from the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow. She was saving it because, like those angled toothbrushes, it could reach back into every corner of your mouth.”

“Do you mind if I pass judgment on your mother?”

“You could, but she’d one-up you. She’s a civil court judge in Brooklyn.”

Walker cleared his throat, then glanced back at Kathryn’s Six in the City application. “I see here, under ‘referred by whom,’ you just wrote down ‘a neighbor.'”

“Yup; our co-op’s very own version of Gladys Kravitz. You know, that nosy neighbor onBewitched? The woman who sent me to you lives in the penthouse and I run into her in the elevator from time to time. Very red hair-it’s a color not found in Clairol, let alone nature. Wears all her Estée Lauder samples at once, along with various dangly, bangly, jangly accessories that are vaguely Pre-Colombian, Pagan, and Pan-Asiatic. Sort of generic tribal. I’ve seen them in mail-order catalogues. And they usually clash with the pink designer cigarettes she smokes. I think she interprets “no smoking” signs as suggestions, rather than state law. Lots of flowy clothes in colors no redhead should wear—trust me. Lavender, fuchsia, persimmon. And don’t let me forget her blood-red nail extensions. Kind of like a Hadassah sister gone Celtic.”

Walker threw back his head and laughed in a full-throated burst of spontaneous recognition. At the same time, somewhere deep inside his head, a bell went off.She’s like me, it seemed to tinkle, then the sound faded into the recesses of his mind.

“Oh, and take it from me. That woman’s voice could cut corrugated.”

The corners of Walker’s mouth turned up ever so slightly. “And you trusted her referral of a matchmaking agency?”

“Put it this way, every time I see her, she launches into a litany of ‘What’s a nice girl like you doing sitting at home on a Saturday night? No boyfriend? So what’s wrong with you that you wouldn’t make some lucky man very happy?’ She told me she owns a dating service. I should become a client; I’ll meet the man of my dreams. I figured I’d shut her up by actually coming in and filling out an application. I don’t see her—by the way—so my guess that she’s a bit certifiable seems on the money. In any event, here I am. So she’s certainly the pushiest woman on the planet.”

Walker’s smile broadened. “True. And she’s more than a bit certifiable.”

Kathryn felt a furrow breaking out on her brow. “How’s that?”

His grin deepened into full Cheshire Cat mode. “I ought to know. She’s my mother.”