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"DID TYLER MAKE THAT FOR YOU?"
Nicole Lord turned to look at the picture she'd posted on the wall of Mischief in Motion, her Pilates studio. Three large red hearts covered a piece of pink construction paper. A handprint had been outlined over the hearts. The hearts were wobbly and highly stylized, but still recognizable. Not bad, considering the artist in question was not yet five. The handprint had been traced by one of his teachers.
"He did," Nicole said with a smile. "I promised him I would bring it to work and show everyone."
Her client, a thirtysomething fighting her way back from a forty-five-pound pregnancy weight gain, wiped sweat from her face and smiled. "He sounds adorable. I look forward to when my daughter can do more than eat, poop and keep me up all night."
"It gets better," Nicole promised.
"I hope so. I'd always assumed once I started having kids, I'd want six." The woman grimaced. "Now one is looking like more than enough." She waved and walked toward the exit. "See you next week."
"Have a good weekend."
Nicole spoke without looking, her attention already back on her computer. She had her noon class, then a three-hour break before her late-afternoon classes. Which sounded nice until she thought about all she had to get done. Grocery shopping for surethey were out of everything. Her car needed gas, there was dry cleaning to pick up and somewhere in the middle of all that, she should eat lunch.
She glanced at the clock, wondering if she should text Eric to remind him to pick up Tyler from day care at four. She reached for her phone, then shook her head and sagged back in her chair. No, she shouldn't, she told herself. He'd only forgotten once and he'd felt awful about it. She had to trust him not to forget again.
Which she would, she told herself. Only these days he was forgetting a lot of things. And helping less around the house.
Marriage, she thought ruefully. It all sounded so romantic until you realized that hey, you not only had to live with someone else, but there would also be days when they actually thought you were wrong about things.
She was still trying to figure out in which order she was going to run her errands when the door to her studio opened and Pam Eiland strolled in.
"Hey, you," Pam called cheerfully, an oversize tote hanging off one shoulder.
Anyone who didn't know Pam would assume she had a clutter problem if she needed to haul around that much stuff in her bag. Those who did know Pam were privy to the fact that her actual handbag was fairly small and that most of the space in the tote was taken up by a soft blanket and a very weird-looking dog.
Right on cue, Lulu poked her head out of the tote and whined softly.
Nicole stood and approached them both. After giving Pam a hug, she reached for Lulu. The dog leaped into her arms and snuggled close.
"I see you're in pink today," she said, stroking Lulu's cheek, then rubbing the top of her head.
"We both felt it was a pink kind of day," Pam told her.
Lulu, a purebred Chinese crested, had white hair on the top of her head, by her ears and on her tail and lower legs. The rest of her spotted body was pretty much naked and an unexpected shade of grayish pink with brown spots. Her health issues were legendary and what with having no fur, she was chronically cold. Which meant Lulu had a collection of sweaters, jackets and T-shirts. Today's selection was a lightweight, sleeveless pink sweater trimmed with shiny gray ribbon. With money tight and her own clothes threadbare, Nicole found herself in the embarrassing situation of envying a dog's wardrobe.
Lulu gave her a quick puppy-kiss on the chin. Nicole held onto the warm dog for a few seconds more. Her relationship with Lulu was the least emotionally charged moment in her day thus far, and she was determined to enjoy it.
Pam, a pretty brunette with an easy smile, wore a loose short-sleeved dress over her leggings and workout tank. Unlike the other clients who came in for the noon class, Pam didn't walk over from an office. Nicole knew the other woman had held a job at her husband's company years ago. She understood how a small business worked and often gave Nicole sound advice. Aside from that, Pam seemed to have her days to herself. Right now that sounded like a dream come true.
"Who's coming today?" Pam asked as she pulled the blanket out of the tote and folded it before setting it in a corner of the room. Lulu obligingly curled up, with her long legs tucked gracefully under her body. Nicole knew the dog wouldn't budge until class was over. She supposed the sweet temperament and excellent manners made up for Lulu's odd and faintly sci-fi appearance.
"Just you and Shannon," Nicole said, clicking on her computer's scheduling program to confirm. She was actually relieved to have a smaller class. Lately she was so damned tired all the time. Pam and Shannon could have run the workout themselves, so there wouldn't be pressure to stay on top of every move.
Even better, all three dropouts had come in early that morning. The studio had a strict twenty-four-hour cancellation policy, which meant she was going to be paid for five students regardless. She accepted her momentary pleasure even though the thought made her a bad person, and vowed she would work on her character just as soon as she figured out how to fix what was going on with her marriage and got more than four hours of sleep on any given night.
Pam had slipped off her sandals in preparation for class. But instead of putting on her Pilates socks, she turned to Nicole and grinned.
"Want to go to lunch?"
Pam's smile was infectious. Her hazel-green eyes crinkled at the corners and her mouth curved up.
"Come on," Pam teased. "You know you want to."
"Want to what?" Shannon Rigg asked as she walked into the studio. "I've had a horrible morning dealing with a mi-sogynistic idiot from the bank who insisted on continually asking to speak to my supervisor. When I explained I was the CFO of the company, I think he had a seizure." She paused, her blue eyes dancing with amusement. "I offered to send him a scanned copy of my business card, but he declined. Then I told him that if he didn't get his act together, I would be moving the company's four-hundred-million-dollar account to another bank." She paused for dramatic effect. "I think I made him cry."
Pam held out her arm, hand raised, for a high five. "You both constantly impress me. Nicole juggles her husband, her five-year-old son and her growing business. You're busy frightening men who really should know better. I, on the other hand, will pick out my dog's wardrobe for tomorrow and make biscuits from scratch. It's sad."
"I don't even know what you put in the bowl to make a biscuit," Shannon admitted as she gave her friend a high five, then turned to Nicole. "Do you?"
"Flour, water, something else."
Shannon laughed. "Yeah, that's where I would get lost, too. It's the something else that always gets you."
Nicole thought about how Pam had described her. Juggling sounded so perky and positive. Unfortunately most days she found herself cleaning up what had fallen and shattered rather than keeping her plates spinning in the air.
Okay, that was a confused and slightly depressing analogy. She really needed to think more positively. And maybe learn how to make biscuits.
Shannon had on a tailored sleeveless dress and three-inch pumps. Her legs were bare and tanned, her hair a glorious tumbling mass of auburn waves that fell past her shoulders. She wore expensive watches and elegant jewelry. She drove a BMW convertible. If Nicole could pick, she would want Pam for her mother and to be Shannon when she grew up.
Only at thirty, Nicole had a feeling she was about as grownup as she was going to get.
"Wait," Pam said as Shannon headed for the small dressing room next to the restroom. "I thought we'd go to lunch instead of working out."
Shannon already had her exercise clothes out of her gym bag. She turned back to Pam. "Not exercise?"
"Sure. We're the only two today. It's Friday, my friend. Live a little. Have a glass of wine, mock your uninformed banking friend and unwind."
Shannon looked at Nicole and raised her eyebrows. "I'm in," she said. "What about you?"
Nicole thought about her to-do list and the fact that she was behind on the laundry and had a stack of bills to pay and a husband who had walked away from a successful career in computer software to write a screenplay. She thought of the spinning and falling plates and how she spent her life exhausted.
She pulled the tie from her blond ponytail, shook her hair loose, grabbed her keys and her handbag and stood.
McGrath's Pub had been around nearly as long as the Mischief Bay pier and boardwalk. Shannon remembered coming here when she'd been a teenager. The drive in from Riverside had taken about an hour, if there wasn't any traffic. She and her girlfriends had spent the whole time talking and laughing, imagining the cute boys they were going to meet. Boys who lived by the ocean and surfed and had sun-bleached hair. Boys not like those they knew in high school.
Because back then all it took to get her heart beating faster had been sun-bleached hair and a retro convertible.
She liked to think that in the past twenty-plus years she'd matured.
As she followed her friends into the pub, her gaze strayed to the sand and the ocean beyond. It was midday and low tide. No surfers out there now. As it was also a weekday in February, there weren't any people playing volleyball. Despite the fact that it was probably seventy degrees.
McGrath's was a three-story building with outdoor dining on the main level. Inside there was a big, open bar. Pam led the way directly to the stairs. They bypassed the second-floor dining room and went up to the top-floor eating area.
"By the window?" Pam asked, already heading in that direction.
The big windows offered a view of the Pacific. Today they were partially open, allowing in some fresh air. When temperatures dropped to anything below sixty-five they could be closed and in the summer, they were removed completely.
Shannon sat across from Nicole. Pam settled next to Nicole and put her tote on the floor next to her chair. The perfectly trained Lulu would stay hidden until they left.
The first time the three of them had played hooky and gone to lunch, Shannon had spent the entire time freaking out about Lulu. Now she saw the strange creature as the mascot for their friendshipodd, unexpected and over time, very comforting.
She turned her attention from thoughts of a Chinese crested to the restaurant location. The view should have captured their attention and left them speechless. Taupe-colored sand led the way to midnight blue water. A couple of sailboats leaned in to capture the light breeze, and in the distance container ships chugged toward the horizon and the exotic ports beyond.
But this was L.A. and amazing views existed around every turn. Whether it was a star sighting at a Whole Foods or the lapping waters of the Pacific. Instead of talking about the beauty of the moment, Pam passed out menus.
"There's a burger special," Pam said with a sigh. "Did you see it? If I get that, will someone eat some of my fries?"
"I will," Nicole told her. "I get the protein plate here."
Pam wrinkled her nose. "Of course you do."
Shannon knew the protein plate consisted of broiled fish and shrimp with a side of steamed vegetables. Healthy, sure, but the low calorie count was of more concern to the body-conscious, bikini-clad locals.
"I'll have a couple of fries, too," she said. They would nicely round out the salad she generally ordered.
Pam poked Nicole in the upper arm. "You're a stick. You should eat more."
"I eat plenty."
"Roots and grubs. Have a burger." Pam leaned back in her chair. "Enjoy your metabolism while you can. Because one day, it's all going to hell."
"You look great," Nicole said easily. "You're in terrific shape."
Pam's brows rose. "If you say 'for a woman my age' I'm pitching you out the window."
Nicole laughed. "I'd never say that. You're nowhere near a certain age. That's old."
So spoke the thirty-year-old, Shannon thought wryly. Time was going faster and faster every day. She couldn't believe she was only a few months away from turning forty, herself. She glanced at Pam and Nicole's hands and saw the wedding bands and diamond engagement rings winking back at her. Not for the first time, Shannon considered the fact that somewhere along the way she should have gotten married.
She'd meant to, had always thought she would. Only her career had been her first prioritya fact that the men she knew didn't like. The more successful she got, the harder it was to date. Or at least find a man who didn't resent her devotion to her career. Lately, finding someone interesting and appealing had started to seem nearly impossible.
She briefly toyed with the idea of mentioning that. All the articles she read said that she had to put herself out there if she wanted to meet a great guy. She had to be willing to tell all her friends that she was serious and looking. Of course, she had a sneaking suspicion that many articles in women's magazines were written by people who had no idea what they were talking about. Besides, she wasn't keen on pity. She was a successful, vital businesswoman. Hell, she was the chief financial officer of a company grossing more than a billion dollars a year. She didn't need a man in her life. Which wasn't to say she might not like having one around.
"How's my favorite young man?" Pam asked.
Nicole smiled. "Tyler is great. I can't believe he's turning five in a couple of months. It's going so fast. He'll be in kindergarten in September." She paused. "In a way, that will be nice. There'll be less day-care juggling."
As she finished speaking, her smile faded and a muscle twitched in her cheek. As if she were clenching her teeth.
Shannon hesitated, not sure if she should ask what was wrong. Because she already knew the answer. The three of them had been in the same exercise class for nearly two years. While she and Pam were faithful participants, the same couldn't be said for anyone else. For some reason, the Friday noon class tended to attract the flakier clients.
Which meant it had often been just the three of them. They'd talked between Pilates moves, had shared various ups and downs. Shannon knew that Brandon, Pam's youngest, had been a wild teenagerto the point of driving so drunk, he'd wrapped his car around a tree. Now he was a sober, determined student in medical school. She'd listened as Nicole had tried to explain her bewilderment that her stable, hard-working husband had quit his job to write a screenplay and surf. In turn, Shannon had shared the tribulations of her own personal life. Everything from the challenge of being the only female executive at a tech company to the difficulty finding a Mr. Right who supported her career goals.
While Shannon searched for a delicate way to ask if Nicole's comment meant Eric was still determined to conquer Hollywood, Pam plunged right in.
"He continues to be an idiot?" she asked.
Nicole wrinkled her nose. "He's not an idiot. He's
" She hesitated. "Confusing. I know it's been six months, so I should be over it, right? It's not that I didn't know."
Pam angled toward her friend. "Honey, everyone says they want to write a screenplay or be on American Idol or something, but no one takes them seriously. There are dreams and then there's real life. Eric has a wife and a son. He walked away from a great job to type and surf. Who does that?"
Nicole winced. "He's writing, not typing."