Excerpt: Love's Funny That Way

 

Prologue

 

Jones Beach, Long Island, twelve years ago

 

“Check out the buns on that one.” Amanda Coppersmith elbowed the dark-haired girl lying next to her on the tattered chenille bedspread that served as a beach blanket. “He’s looking at you, Charli. Smile at him. Go ahead.”

“Amanda, will you stop? He’ll hear you!” Blushing through her deep summer tan, Charli Rossi dared a quick peek at the young man playing Frisbee several yards away.

On Amanda’s other side, Sunny Bleecker rolled onto her stomach. She pillowed her head on her arm and pushed short auburn curls off her face. “Stop teasing her, Amanda. If you think that guy’s so hot, go after him yourself.” She grinned. “If you have the nerve.”

“Is that a challenge?”

“I dare you.”

“I double dare you,” Raven Muldoon seconded, trotting up from the ocean, dripping wet. She dropped onto the blanket and butted Sunny with her hip. Her three pals scooted over to make room for her. “Who are we daring to do what?”

Charli leaned on an elbow. She whispered, “Sunny dared Amanda to talk to that cute guy.”

Raven sat up and looked around. “Which cute guy?”

“Don’t look!” Charli flipped onto her stomach and buried her face in her folded arms.

“The one in the neon-green trunks,” Amanda said, pointing.

“Nice buns.” Raven pulled aside the shoulder strap of her multicolored, racer-style swimsuit to check her tan lines. “I bet he’s in college. Looks about twenty.”

“An older man.” A speculative gleam came into Amanda’s eye. She tugged at her white bikini for the most alluring effect. “Maybe I will talk to him.”

“Yeah, right.” Raven reached into the cooler next to her for a cold can of diet cola. “You’re almost as shy as Charli. You just talk big.”

“Are there any Oreos left?” Sunny reached past Raven to paw through the tote bag crammed with snacks.

“What about you?” Amanda demanded of Raven. “I don’t see you asking any guys out.”

“I’m not shy.” Raven released her ponytail and squeezed seawater out of her long, honey-colored hair. “Just discriminating.”

“Yeah, that must be why none of us have boyfriends,” Sunny drawled around a mouthful of cookie. “Because we are so very discriminating.”

“What are you talking about?” Charli asked Sunny. “You have Kirk.”

Had Kirk.”

Charli, Raven, and Amanda exchanged looks of dismay.

Sunny sighed. She plucked another Oreo out of the package and simply stared at it. Her customary joie de vivre seemed to have deserted her. “It’s no big deal. Kirk’s going to Stanford next week. I just started that waitress job at Wafflemania. We knew all along it couldn’t last.”

“But I thought…” Charli bit her lip. “I mean, I thought you really liked him.”

“Sunny’s right to call it quits,” Amanda said, with her usual blunt pragmatism. “She just got a job here on Long Island. Kirk will be spending the next four years in California. Long-distance relationships are hopeless.”

“I’m sorry, Sunny.” Raven squeezed Sunny’s shoulder, reaching out, as always, in empathy and compassion. “I was hoping you two could work something out.”

“It’s no big deal, okay?” Sunny hurled the Oreo onto the white sand and flopped back down onto her stomach. “It’s not like we were that serious. I mean, he didn’t even ask me to go out there with him. I guess he’s looking forward to dating all those college girls.” When no one said anything, she added, “Anyway, I won’t be working at that greasy spoon for long. I won’t have to—it’s a great place to meet guys.”

Amanda said, “And one of these guys is going to sweep you off your feet and you’ll be engaged by Christmas.”

“Hey, it could happen,” Sunny said. “I bet I’ll land a husband faster at Wafflemania than you will going to Cornell.”

“But I don’t want to land a husband,” Amanda said. “I want a career.”

“Why can’t you have both?” Charli asked.

“I’m not against marriage,” Amanda said. “I’m just not fixated on it like Sunny is. We’re young! We just graduated high school. Let’s experience life before we think about settling down.”

Sunny wadded up her T-shirt and shoved it under her head as a makeshift pillow. “I figure I’ll really start experiencing life when I settle down with the right guy and we have a few kids. I want the kind of happiness my folks have. What’s wrong with that?”

No one spoke for several minutes. A seagull swooped down to claim the Oreo. A pair of giggling children ran past, kicking sand onto the blanket. The girls sat up and passed around a tube of sunscreen, anointing their limbs and one another’s backs.

Charli broke the silence. “We should help Sunny.” The other girls looked at her questioningly. “I mean, we’re her best friends, right? Getting married, having kids—it’s what she wants more than anything. We should try to find someone right for her. It’s how my grandma Rossi met my grandpa. Their families put them together, and they’ve been happy for fifty-seven years. Sometimes matchmaking works.”

“Now I’m worried about both of you,” Amanda said, glancing dubiously from Charli to Sunny.

Raven said, “I don’t know, I think Charli has a point. How long have we all known each other?”

“Forever,” Charli said, adjusting her modest one-piece swimsuit for maximum coverage. “Since kindergarten.”

“So that’s what?” Raven said. “Twelve years that we’ve been best friends.”

“The Four Musketeers.” Sunny’s perennial smile was back in place. “That’s what my dad calls us.”

Charli started French-braiding Amanda’s long, straight, pale blond hair. “My grandma Rossi calls us the Club Nuziale.”

“What does that mean?” Amanda asked.

“The Wedding Club.”

“Where’d she get that from?”

“I guess it’s ’cause we’re always talking about boys.”

“And that means we have weddings on the brain?” Amanda rolled her eyes. “That is so old-fashioned.”

“That’s my grandma Rossi,” Charli said, with a fond smile.

Sunny leaned back on her palms. “Old-fashioned doesn’t necessarily mean bad.”

“The Wedding Club,” Raven mused. “I kind of like that.”

“Oh no, not you, too!” Amanda threw her damp towel at Raven.

Raven tossed the towel aside and sat cross-legged, facing the others. “Or how about this? We’re the Wedding Ring.” She waited while her friends groaned at the double entendre, and added, “The thing is, we’ve been best friends forever. We’ve been through a lot together.”

“Even Amanda’s crush on Mr. Richards,” Sunny teased.

“Hey, at least I never had a thing for Jimmy ‘the Missing Link’ de Luca,” Amanda retorted.

The girls groaned even louder, and Sunny hollered, “I was twelve! I couldn’t take my eyes off that brow ridge! Are you guys ever going to let me live that down?”

“We never told anyone else.” Charli secured Amanda’s French braid with a hair tie. “Our secrets are secret.”

“The point is,” Raven continued, “we’ve always been there for each other, no matter what.”

“And we always will be,” Sunny vowed.

Raven said, “We know we all want to get married someday. Some of us want to get married tomorrow.” She gave Sunny a good-natured shove. “I like what Charli said about helping Sunny. I like to think we’d all pitch in and give that kind of help to any of us that needed it.”

Amanda wrinkled her nose. “What are you talking about? Like playing matchmaker for each other?”

Raven’s eyes lit with excitement. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

“Give me a break,” Amanda said. “We’re not the kind of losers that need help getting dates.”

The instant the words left her tongue, Amanda clamped her lips shut. But it was too late. In the charged silence that followed, no one looked at Charli, now seemingly preoccupied by the tufted pattern of the chenille beach blanket.

With gentle diplomacy, Raven said, “Well, speaking for myself, there are times I can use all the help I can get.”

“Well, speaking for myself,” Sunny stated, “I’m not so desperate that I need someone else picking my husband. Talk to me when I’m twenty.”

“So let’s agree to do that,” Charli said. “When Sunny turns twenty, if she’s not married, not engaged or anything, the rest of us will find her a husband.”

“Uh-uh.” Sunny raised a palm. “This deal has to be for all of us. No way am I going to be singled out.”

“Then it can’t be age twenty,” Amanda said. “I’ll still be in college at twenty. And I’m probably going to graduate school after that.”

“Twenty-five then,” Raven said.

“No good. I need time to establish a career first.” Amanda pulled on the oversize T-shirt that doubled as a beach cover-up. “Make it thirty or count me out.”

Sunny laughed. “Thirty! All right, I’ll help you guys find men when you’re thirty. Maybe my husband and five kids will help.”

Charli asked, “What if the one who’s, you know, being matchmade doesn’t like the guy the others choose for her?”

Raven gave it some thought. “Well… she has to give him a chance. A set period of time that she’s got to keep seeing him, as long as he’s interested.”

“Even if he’s, like, a pig?” Amanda asked.

“We’re not going to set each other up with pigs,” Sunny said. “We have to trust each other—like, even if you don’t think the guy’s anything special to start with, maybe your best friends, who know you better than anyone in the world, know better than you what you need.”

“Or who you need,” Raven added. “So how does three months sound? The one being set up has to go steady with the guy for three months before giving him the old heave-ho.”

The others murmured agreement.

“Do we tell the guy he’s part of a matchmaking thing?” Charli asked, clearly concerned about the technicalities, as if her turning thirty unmarried were a foregone conclusion.

“No way.” Sunny shook her head vigorously. “I’d die of embarrassment. It’s got to be done without him knowing.”

“Why will you die of embarrassment?” Amanda asked with a smirk. “I thought you were going to be the one with the husband and five kids by thirty.”

Sunny made a face at her.

Raven said, “We all have to agree to this pact. So think it over, everyone.” She followed this immediately with, “Okay, time’s up. Deal?”

“Deal,” Charli said.

“I’m in.” Sunny turned to Amanda. “How about it?”

“Oh, what the heck. It oughta be good for a laugh.”

Raven thrust her arm toward the others, initiating the group handclasp that had accompanied every solemn promise they’d made since kindergarten. Her friends followed suit, twining their fingers and holding firm. “The Wedding Ring is hereby established,” Raven intoned.

“Even though none of us will need it,” Sunny added.

 

Chapter One

 

“It was your idea, Raven.”

“How many times are you going to remind me?” Raven pushed away the heavy plate containing the crumbled remains of her corn muffin and leaned her elbows on the table. She faced Amanda’s smug grin straight on. “We were kids when we made that pact. Just out of high school. With stars in our eyes.”

Amanda adjusted the silk scarf adorning the neckline of her cranberry-colored wool pantsuit. “You seemed pretty darn serious about it at the time. You took a solemn vow, if memory serves. And it was all your—”

“Don’t say it again.”

They occupied their regular table at Wafflemania, a square four-seater tucked into a corner. With her back to the door, Raven didn’t notice Charli’s arrival until she pulled out one of the empty chairs and dropped into it, still wearing her loden-colored wool overcoat.

The passage of years had mellowed Charli’s plain, strong features. Right now, with her hair windblown and her cheeks pink from the cold, she could almost be called pretty, though Raven doubted Charli would ever think of herself as anything but Mr. and Mrs. Rossi’s shy, homely youngest daughter.

“I would’ve been here sooner,” Charli said, “but one of my symphonic band students needed help with a difficult piece.”

“Raven’s trying to weasel out of the Wedding Ring pact,” Amanda said.

Charli gaped at Raven. “But we all agreed! We made a promise to each other. We’ve never broken our promises. Not ever.”

“Nobody’s breaking a promise. I just choose not to accept your help in finding a husband, that’s all.”

A hand appeared with a bulbous coffee carafe. “It doesn’t work that way,” Sunny said, as she expertly refilled Raven’s mug. “You’re not allowed to back out now.”

“I don’t recall that particular stipulation.”

“I do.” Sunny winked at her coconspirators. “You guys remember that part, don’t you? Nobody’s allowed to chicken out when it’s her turn?”

“The ‘chicken clause.’” Charli slipped out of her coat. “How could I forget?”

Amanda flapped her elbows and clucked her little heart out, drawing stares from other diners.

Raven groaned. “Why me?”

“Because you’re the first one of us to turn thirty,” Charli answered.

Amanda leaned back with a wicked grin. “Didn’t think of that when you proposed this little scheme, huh? Did I mention it was all your idea?”

Sunny glanced around furtively—looking for her tyrant of a boss, no doubt—before perching on the edge of the vacant chair. Her sickly-pink polyester waitress uniform was as ugly and unflattering now as when she’d first stepped into it a dozen years earlier. Today it sported a coffee stain near the hem of the short skirt. Sunny’s long, wavy auburn hair was secured in a braid that fell halfway down her back.

“Did you tell her about the guy?” Sunny asked.

“You picked someone already?”

“Amanda found him,” Charli said. “He works with her.”

“Wait a minute.” Raven held her hands up as if to derail this runaway matchmaking train she’d set in motion. “I never agreed to this.”

“Sure you did,” Sunny corrected her. “Twelve years ago.”

“His name is Brent Radley. He’s the sales manager at Grasshopper,” Amanda said, naming the children’s magazine she published. “He’s outgoing, fun-loving, not to mention—” she sent Raven a pointed look “—a stone hunk.”

“If this guy’s so great, how come you’re not going after him yourself?”

“Two ex-husbands are more than enough for one lifetime, thank you very much.”

“Who says you have to marry him?” Raven asked. “Just have some fun. Your last divorce was final two months ago. When are you going to start dating again?”

“When and if I start dating again, I intend to steer clear of marriage-minded men. There’s no way I’m walking down the aisle a third time.”

“But the pact,” Charli said.

“The pact is for those of us who want a husband,” Amanda said. “In any event, Brent is thirty-four, never married, and I get the feeling he’s thinking about finding that special gal and settling down. I told him about you, Raven.”

“You didn’t mention the Wedding Ring pact, did you?” Charli asked.

“Of course not. He just thinks I’m setting him up with a friend.” She said to Raven, “He’ll be at your place at seven-thirty. Dress casual.”

“Tonight?”

“I didn’t want to give you too much time to work yourself up over it.”

“You set me up with a blind date? You know I hate blind dates!”

Sunny said, “Relax. You’ll probably have a great time. Brent’s the type to put you right at ease.”

“He seems like a really nice man,” Charli said.

“You two have met him?” Raven stared at her best friends. “You arranged this already, behind my back.”

“Just give him a chance,” Sunny said. “Hey, maybe you can hypnotize Brent to fall madly in love with you.” She wiggled her fingers along her line of sight and spoke in a monotone. “You are growing sleepy. You have an irresistible urge to make a down payment on a five-carat diamond.”

“If it were that easy, I’d have been married long ago. Now, if this Brent wants to quit smoking or lose weight, then we’re in business.”

Raven had been a hypnotherapist for six years, operating a thriving private practice out of her home. She gained tremendous satisfaction using therapeutic hypnosis to help her clients improve their lives, whether their aim was to eliminate destructive habits, overcome phobias, or simply improve their golf game.

From across the room, Sunny’s boss, Mike, caught her eye and gestured impatiently at a table of new arrivals awaiting service. Sunny grumbled, “Hold your horses,” and rose to her feet.

Raven sighed in exasperation. “All right. I’ll give him a chance. One date.”

“Three months,” Amanda said. “As long as he’s interested, you have to stick it out for three months. Now, who was it who suggested that rule? Oh yeah, wasn’t it—”

“Just wait until it’s your turn,” Raven warned.

“Even if I were in the market for a husband, I’m last in line. Charli’s next—she turns thirty in April.”

Charli bit back a nervous smile. Raven reached across the table and squeezed her hand. Charli needed all the support and reassurance she could get.

“Then it’ll be my turn.” Sunny picked up the coffee carafe. “My birthday’s July first. You won’t have to twist my arm.”

“Do us a favor,” Amanda drawled. “Don’t book the reception until you’ve at least met the groom.”

Mike started to stalk in their direction, prompting Sunny to hightail it to the unattended table. But not before she’d muttered, “I can’t believe I’m still working in this dump.”

Raven slumped in her chair, wishing she’d kept her big mouth shut all those years ago.

*

“THIS IS A great spot,” Raven observed, glancing around the interior of Stitches, the comedy club Brent had brought her to. Their table was right next to the stage.

“I have connections,” Brent said, with the warm smile she’d already become accustomed to in the half hour since he’d rung her doorbell.

Her pals hadn’t been lying. Brent Radley was personable, relaxed, and definitely—how had Amanda put it?—a stone hunk. Dark hair, blue eyes, six feet tall or a little over, lean and fit. He had the air of a man who knew he was attractive, usually a guaranteed turnoff. But he was also friendly and attentive, and Raven figured that was what really mattered.

She’d come to a decision as she’d changed outfits three times in nervous anticipation, finally settling on a long, pimento-colored silk dress topped by a beige crocheted vest. She’d decided that if her best friends in the world had gone to all this trouble for her sake, the least she could do was give the Wedding Ring scheme a chance. She’d worn a little makeup and carefully finger-styled her dark blond hair. Nowadays she wore it in a layered, chin-length cut with bangs, and on good days it framed her face in feathery, flattering waves.

The waitress stopped by their table, handed them menus, and exchanged greetings with Brent, who was obviously a regular. She took their drink order and moved on.

The interior of Stitches was a delight. The dark-paneled walls were covered with framed story-magazine covers dating back to the 1920s. All genres were represented, from lurid detective rags to science fiction, adventure, western, and even confession magazines. An eclectic mix of tablecloths and mismatched dishes lent an air of homey mayhem. Soft bluegrass music underscored the burble of conversation and laughter. Tantalizing aromas drifted to Raven’s nose: hot garlic bread, rich tomato sauce, fried calamari…

“I recommend the pizza rustica,” Brent suggested, leaning forward to point it out on the menu. “It’s called a personal pizza, but it’s about the size of a hubcap.” He spread his arms in illustration.

“Sold.” Raven slapped her menu shut. The waitress returned with Brent’s draft beer and Raven’s mineral water, and took their dinner order.

“You said you have connections here.” She sipped her bubbly mineral water. “Do you know the owner?”

“You might say that.” Brent caught someone’s eye and waved. “He’s my brother.”

Raven looked up to see a young man weaving among the tables toward them. He carried himself with smooth masculine grace and a proprietary air that told her who he was even before he stopped at their table and soundly thumped her date on the shoulder.

Without waiting for an introduction, Brent’s brother turned to Raven and said with grave sincerity, “I want you to know how much our parents appreciate your agreeing to date this pitiful specimen.”

She didn’t skip a beat. “It was the least I could do after they posted bail for me.”

An appreciative glint came into his eye, and Raven had the impression she’d passed some test. “You have his tranquilizers?” he asked. “Drool bib?”

“My trusty cattle prod’s all I need.” She patted the large shoulder bag hanging on her chairback. “That and a few brightly colored toys with round edges.”

“Nothing with small pieces, I hope. You ever see a grown man cough up Barbie shoes? It’s not a pretty sight.”

Grinning, shaking his head, Brent said, “Are you two finished?” but his brother didn’t even glance at him.

“I’m Hunter Radley.” He extended his hand and she shook it.

“Raven Muldoon.” She was acutely conscious of the texture of his skin, the repressed strength in his firm grip. After a moment she made herself pull away.

The physical resemblance between the brothers was immediately apparent, although Hunter was obviously much younger. Both men had dark, wavy hair, but while Brent’s was short and neatly trimmed, Hunter’s brushed the collar of his ivory twill shirt. The shirt looked soft with wear, and the top couple of buttons were undone, revealing a V of skin dusted with dark hair. The same dark hair was visible on the forearms revealed by his rolled-up shirtsleeves. She noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding band.

“How did you get to be called Raven?” Hunter asked. “With a name like that, I would’ve expected black hair.” He reached out to rub a strand of her honey-blond hair between his fingers. If any other man she’d just met had done that, she would have bristled at his impertinence. Somehow, though, she didn’t feel as if she’d just met Hunter.

“My mother was a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe,” she said, and waited to see if he’d get it.

He did, in record time. “‘Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore…’” His voice took on a hushed urgency. “‘Suddenly there came a tapping.’”

“You skipped part.”

“‘As of someone gently rapping.’” His knuckles thumped the table. “‘Rapping at my chamber door.’ Uh, something, something… ‘Quoth the raven—’”

The three of them finished in unison: ‘“Nevermore.’”

Brent said, “Isn’t there a Lenore in that poem? ‘The lost Lenore’? Why didn’t your mother name you after her?”

“My older sister beat me to that one. I’m not complaining.”

Hunter’s gaze lit on her hair, her eyes, her mouth. “I’m surprised she didn’t name you Annabel.” He said it quietly, his deep, mellifluous voice wrapping itself around the name in a way that raised gooseflesh all over her. In the mellow light of the club, she struggled to divine the color of his eyes. Blue or brown? They seemed to change with each breath.

Brent said, “Annabel? Now you’ve lost me.”

Raven swallowed hard and dragged her attention back to her date. “‘Annabel Lee.’ Another of Poe’s poems.” A heartbreaking love poem.

Hunter shoved his hands in the pockets of his faded jeans, looking suddenly ill at ease. He seemed almost relieved when the waitress materialized with the appetizer assortment Brent had ordered. “Lisa,” he told her, “no check for this table. It’s on the house.”

“I could pretend to argue with you,” Brent said, as he offered Raven the serving tongs, “or we could just skip over that part.”

Hunter’s grin was back in place as he told Raven, “Keep that cattle prod handy.”

Then he was gone.

Brent launched into a lively discussion of Raven’s work, asking how she’d come to be a hypnotherapist, what kind of training she’d received, what kind of problems she saw, proving that he wasn’t the kind of self-absorbed male who only wanted to talk about himself. Raven found that gratifying, but it didn’t help her concentrate on the conversation.

Brent hadn’t noticed. Thank God. He’d been blessedly oblivious to what had been happening between his date and his brother.

And what exactly had been happening between his date and his brother? she asked herself. The proverbial once-in-a-lifetime meeting of soul mates? Or simple sexual awareness?

As if sexual awareness, once acknowledged, could ever be simple. Whatever it was, it hadn’t been one-sided, that was for certain. Hunter had felt it, too. And it had made him as uncomfortable as it had made her.

With good reason, she thought, as she listened to the man her friends had chosen as suitable husband material praise her entrepreneurial initiative and order another Bass Pale Ale. Brent was a great guy if first impressions were worth anything. She was committed to seeing him exclusively for three months, provided he was interested, and from the way he looked at her, the things he said, she was pretty sure he was interested.

Lord knew she’d never willingly come between brothers by encouraging the attentions of one while dating the other. And if she read Hunter accurately, he wouldn’t be party to something like that, either.

The meal progressed uneventfully. The club lights dimmed and the stage lights sprang on just as their dessert dishes were being cleared. Hunter leaped onto the stage and grabbed the mike off the stand.

Something banged inside Raven’s chest.

Damn! she thought. Why can’t anything be simple?

Hunter welcomed the audience to Stitches and threw out a couple of one-liners to get them primed. He was so relaxed up there that even when his second gag bombed, he made a joke about that. Raven watched in awe, partly because she’d never in her life be able to do what Hunter was doing and partly because there he was, standing a few feet away, on a stage, under bright lights, and she could look at him all she wanted.

She was supposed to look at him. It would have been considered rude not to look at him. Greedily she followed every sexy, loose-limbed movement as he worked the crowd, drank her fill of that sheets-and-champagne voice.

“We have a special guest in the audience tonight,” Hunter announced, prompting her to turn and scan the darkened club for a celebrity face. “The one and only Annabel Muldoon!”

Raven’s head snapped around as a spotlight found her. She heard a few dubious murmurs—“Annabel who?”—and more than a few gasps of recognition, which should have struck her as hilarious. Brent obviously found the whole thing funny as hell. He was making a conspicuous effort not to crack up.

And everyone stared.

Hunter beckoned her onstage. “Come on up and say hi to your fans, Annabel! How about it, folks? Let’s get Annabel Muldoon up here!”

The crowd by this time had decided Raven was Somebody and responded with thunderous applause, punctuated by whoops and whistles of encouragement.

It was her worst nightmare.

Raven was breathing fast, trembling all over. Her hands were numb, rubbery lumps in her lap. She knew if she attempted to stand, her legs would never hold her. All she could manage was a little head shake.

Brent gave her a friendly shove. “Go on,” he chuckled. “The crowd’s going crazy. Have some fun.”

“Come on, Annabel, don’t be shy!” Hunter stood on the edge of the stage now, not eight feet away.

She looked up at him, struggling to govern her expression, praying that her misery wasn’t there on her face for all to see. She wanted to say something, anything that might put an end to this torture, but her mind had seized up, and her tongue along with it.

Hunter’s grin faltered for a fleeting instant as he stared at her. He backed away, signaling to the stagehand working the lights. The spotlight blinked off.

“Oh well, you know how skittish celebs are,” Hunter told the audience, who sent up a collective groan of disappointment. Someone booed. “Next time I’ll go through her agent. Now, let’s have a big hand for Richie Finley.”

The crowd complied and Hunter relinquished the stage to a massively obese man in an argyle sweater and corduroy slacks. “My name is Richard Finley,” he began, deadpan, “but most folks call me Big Dick.” One patron in back chortled at this lame opener.

Raven’s panic attack began to subside. She rubbed warmth back into her hands and concentrated on breathing slowly through her nose.

Onstage, Finley plodded through his act. The audience wasn’t very responsive, even when he got off one or two good lines, and Raven felt a stab of pity mixed with sheer awe at his audacity. Where, she wondered, did he find the courage? What wellspring of self-confidence allowed this man to stroll onstage under the glare of the spotlight and open his mouth?

Finley was followed by a dark-skinned comedienne about Raven’s age whose routine focused on growing up in her dysfunctional extended family. She fared better than her predecessor, thanks to flawless timing and eloquent facial expressions. By the time she gave a little wave and walked offstage, the audience was howling for more.

As a therapist, Raven was impressed by the way this woman had taken a painful episode in her life—her wretched upbringing—and turned it into something positive. It was as much a healing process as what Raven’s phobia clients experienced when she helped them face their fears and learn to control them.

She hoped her clients never found out what a hypocrite she was. She knew she’d never find the inner fortitude to confront her own crippling fear. Tonight was just one more reminder of her failure, and a particularly humiliating one at that.

The audience laughed uproariously at everything uttered by the third and final comic, a grizzled middle-aged guy with a foul mouth and a sack of dopey props. He was funny, but he wasn’t that funny. It slowly dawned on Raven that there were advantages to performing last. The audience had been loosened up by the first two acts and, most especially, by the liquor they’d consumed.

Several times patrons had approached her table, shoving paper and pen under her nose, requesting an autograph, much to Brent’s amusement. “My girlfriend’s a big fan of yours,” they’d say, or “I saw you on The Tonight Show. When did you get out of rehab?” Raven had found the easiest course was to simply give them what they wanted, and by the end of the evening, she’d turned “Annabel” into a distinctive, flowing signature.

After the show, Brent excused himself to visit the men’s room. Within seconds, Hunter materialized in the vacated seat, making her wonder if he’d been waiting to catch her alone.

She’d hoped she wouldn’t have to face him. He knew. She’d seen it in his eyes, for that scant breath of time before he literally took her out of the spotlight.

Before she could think of some way to make light of the incident, he looked her straight in the eye and said, “I’m sorry.”

She took a deep breath. “Let’s not have this conversation.”

Hunter leaned forward, folding his arms on the table. He looked down a moment, then back up at her, searching her eyes. “Raven. If I’d had an inkling that would make you uncomfortable, I never would’ve—”

“I know.” She felt her composure slipping.

“I figured, after all that kidding around we did…”

“But that was just you and me.” She twisted the napkin in her lap.

“Well, I really thought you’d enjoy getting up there and goofing around. You’re funny. And quick with a comeback.”

“This is just… something I’ve always had a problem with.”

When she didn’t elaborate, he said, “Performing in front of a crowd?”

“Well, public speaking. I’ve never even considered the idea of performing.”

He cocked his head, giving her a speculative look. “You should, you know. You’re a natural.”

Despite everything, that preposterous statement drew a chuckle from her. “Not in this lifetime.”

“Now you’ve done it. I can’t resist a challenge.”

The slow grin that accompanied this statement brought a return of those shivery goose bumps. Then the grin faded and he said quietly, “I really am sorry. It was presumptuous of me.”

“Yeah, it was.” She flashed a reassuring smile. “But no lasting damage was done. And anyway, it just reinforced what I already know—I have work to do.”

“On what?”

“On myself. It’s high time I learned to deal with this problem. Lalophobia, it’s called. Fear of public speaking. I can’t even give informal presentations or talk to schoolkids on career day.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a hypnotherapist.”

Hunter blinked. “No kidding.”

“Not as much fun as a comedy club, but it’s personally rewarding and it pays the bills.” Raven scanned the club, looking for Brent.

Hunter leaned back in his chair, watching her. “If you’re serious about working on your public speaking, every Wednesday is open-mike night here.”

“Open mike?”

“Amateur night. Anyone can go up onstage and play stand-up comic.”

“Thanks, but I don’t think I’m ready for the major leagues. I think I’ll start with something easier—like the State of the Union Address.”

He came to his feet. “Well, you have an open invitation if you change your mind.”

Suddenly Brent was there. “An open invitation for what? What are you doing, making time with my date behind my back?” he joked.

“I’m trying to persuade Raven to work up some material for open-mike night.”

“Great idea,” Brent said, apparently oblivious to her earlier panic attack. “Listen, Raven, you ever go cross-country skiing?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact. I have skis and boots, but I haven’t had a chance to use them so far this winter.”

“There’s this beautiful wooded park where I love to ski. I’m going out there on Sunday. You interested?”

“Sure, I’d love to.”

“Why don’t you join us, Hunter? Bring a date. After, maybe we can catch some dinner.”

Bring a date. From which she deduced that Hunter had no steady girlfriend. Raven cursed the glimmer of satisfaction she felt. She had no business thinking of him that way.

Hunter’s eyes flicked to Raven. She quickly looked away. “I guess so,” he said, “if it doesn’t get too late. I have to open the club Sunday evening.”

Brent asked, “Don’t you have someone who can do that for you?”

“Uh, yeah, maybe,” Hunter said, and Raven suspected he was as conflicted about this double date as she was.

“What the hell, I’ll let Matt open up on Sunday.” He smiled at her. “What’s the worst that can happen?”


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