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Authors: Maria Murnane

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BOOK: Cassidy Lane
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“Do you have
a better idea?”

“Have you thought
about…I don’t know…telling him the truth?”

“Of course, but
I don’t know if I can stomach that. He’s such a sweetheart.”

Cassidy sipped her
coffee. “I think honesty is always the best policy. That way he won’t hold out hope that you’ll change your mind. Think of how many times you’ve held out hope for a guy because he gave you some excuse for why he couldn’t date you instead of just manning up and telling you he wasn’t feeling it. It’s a waste of time, right?”

Danielle gave her
a blank look. “I’ve never been in that position.”

Cassidy stared back.
“You haven’t?”

“No.”

“You’ve never been
dumped?”

“Not really, no.”

Cassidy set down
her mug and put her face in her hands. “You’ve lived a charmed life in the heartache department, my friend.”

“It’s possible. So
you really think I should tell Tristan the truth?”

“I really do.
If he’s in love with you, it’s not fair to lead him on, right?”

Danielle poured yet
more syrup on her pancakes—the remaining bites were now like lily pads in a pond. “OK, I’ll do it. I just wish the sex weren’t so good. I hate to give that up.”

“You’re like a
guy, the way you act with men. You realize that, right?”

“I’m aware. I’m
just not cut out for relationships. I excel at flings, though.”

The waiter returned
to refill their coffees, and Cassidy again cupped her mug under her chin. “I wish I could be that casual about dating. Either I’m totally smitten by someone from the get-go or I have absolutely zero interest. There’s never an in-between with me.”

“So? What’s wrong
with that?”

“I just wish
I could enjoy having fun without it always having to
mean
something. I’ve never been able to do that the way you can. Remember how many guys you were always juggling in college? It was like watching
The Bachelorette
.”

Danielle shrugged. “You
and I are wired differently, that’s all.”

“I just wish
I knew your secret. Men love you.”

“Please. Men love
you too. You get asked out all the time.”

Cassidy frowned. “Only
by guys I don’t find appealing. A couple of weeks ago I got hit on by a man who must have been sixty years old. Do I look like I should be dating men in their sixties?”

Danielle shrugged again.
“Some women like older men.”

Cassidy set down
her cup. “Please. He had one foot in the grave. I must be doing something wrong if that’s what I’m attracting.”

“Nonsense. It’s not
about doing the right thing or the wrong thing. It’s about chemistry and timing and a bunch of other factors that are out of your control. So don’t beat yourself up about where you are right now. Loads of people would cut off an arm to have your life.”

Cassidy tilted her
head to one side and smiled. “You’re a good friend, do I tell you that enough?”

“As are you.”

Cassidy lowered her
voice and leaned forward again. “I know you’re focused on your career right now, but do you ever worry

that you’ll
never
find the right guy and have a family of your own?” she whispered.

Danielle answered without
hesitation. “Nope.”

“You’re not?”

Danielle shook her
head. “I’m perfectly fine by myself. Most of the time I prefer it, to be honest. I have zero interest in a life of car pools and trips to Costco.”

Still leaning forward,
Cassidy lowered her voice even further, to a near whisper. “Can I tell you something?”

“Of course.”

“Sometimes, when I
see happy couples all around me, I wonder if maybe…if maybe I don’t have it.”

“What do you
mean?”

Cassidy swallowed. “I
mean that maybe…maybe I just don’t have
it
, that quality…or whatever you want to call it…that would make a man see me as, you know,
the one
.”

Danielle slowly shook
her head. “Oh, hon, you can’t think like that.”

Cassidy made a
sad face. “I know, but I can’t help it sometimes.”

“Cassidy, any man
would be lucky to have you. Trust me on that. You can’t let your mind play tricks on you. Hell,
I
would marry you.”

Cassidy laughed weakly
and picked up her coffee. “Thanks.”

“You’ve got so
much to offer
.
So much.”

Cassidy sighed into
her mug. “I know.”

“Do you? Do
you really? I mean, in addition to being smart, and kind, and witty, you’re a
bestselling author
, for God’s sake. Do you know how effing
cool
that is?”

“I do. Thanks,
Danielle.”

“You promise?”

Cassidy forced a
smile. “Yes.”

“Good. It’s important
to me that you realize that you have to be pretty freaking amazing to make it into my inner circle. My screening process is quite rigorous, if you haven’t noticed.”

Cassidy laughed. “I
have
noticed, and I’m honored to have been selected for membership in such an elite group.”

“As you should
be.” Danielle tipped her head. “And for the record, you know there’s no such thing as
the one
,
anyway. Please. What if the one guy in the whole world for you happens to live in Germany? Or Ghana? How the hell are you supposed to meet him?”

“You make a
good point. Funny how so many people seem to find their soul mate within a fifty-mile radius of where they live.”

Danielle took another
bite of pancake. “Now you’re making more sense.”

Cassidy leaned back
against her chair, feeling much better. “I’m sorry for getting dramatic there. I know I tend to do that every once in a while.”

Danielle shrugged. “Don’t
sweat it. You’re entitled; you’re an artist. You’re supposed to be temperamental.”

“You’re always so
even-keeled. Does
anything
rattle you?”

Danielle picked up
the syrup and gestured toward the waiter. “It rattles me when they’re out of this maple deliciousness.”

After brunch Cassidy
slowly ambled back to her apartment, knowing she needed to hunker down and get working on her novel, but not quite ready to give up the rest of her Saturday. Her eyes began to scan the storefronts along Amsterdam, searching for a practical excuse to postpone the tedious afternoon ahead. Did she need anything from the grocery store? How about CVS? Maybe some shampoo? Toothpaste? Anything?

Finally, her eyes
rested on a small nail and hair salon with a quaint wooden placard hanging above the door that said
ANNABELLE

S
in pretty blue lettering. Cassidy studied the sign. She’d walked down this block countless times but had never noticed this place before. Was it new? She peered through the spotless windows, which were framed by crisp white curtains dotted with blue and green flowers. She didn’t see anyone inside, which was surprising, given that it was Saturday afternoon.

Cassidy glanced at
her hands and wondered if she should get a manicure. When was the last time she’d done such a whimsical thing? She began to nibble on her thumbnail as she pondered the question, then yanked it away when she realized what she was doing. She held out both her hands in front of her with her fingers stretched wide, then raised her eyebrows. Maybe painting her nails would finally get her to stop biting them.

She doubted it.

She shrugged and
decided to indulge herself anyway. It would be fun to be pampered for an hour or so, and it would offer a temporary reprieve from the hours at her desk that awaited her when she got home. She pushed open the door and was immediately greeted by the gentle sounds of ocean waves and the delicious smell of…cinnamon?

Is that cinnamon?

“I’ll be right
there!” called a voice from the back. A moment later a short, plump redhead who looked to be in her midfifties appeared from the back room. When she looked up and saw Cassidy standing there, she stopped walking.

“Oh, pardon me.
I thought you were the deliveryman.”

Cassidy smiled. “Nope,
just a nail biter in desperate need of an intervention. Are you in charge here?” Was this Annabelle herself?

The woman put
her hands on her hips and frowned. “I am indeed, but I’m sorry, love, we’re not open for business yet.”

“Got it. I
was wondering how it was that I’d never noticed this place before.” Cassidy looked around the salon, which featured a line of reclining black leather chairs for pedicures, as well as several pristine manicure stations. It was a small space, but it had character. The hardwood floors and light-blue walls were lined with leafy waist-high potted plants, which gave the room the pleasant feel of a sunny backyard deck. Unlike the countless generically sterile mani/pedi shops all over Manhattan, this one was clearly a labor of love. Cassidy found it extremely charming. “Did you design this place?”

The woman nodded.
“I had a hand in it. What do you think?”

“I think it’s
beautiful.”

“Well, I hope
you’ll come back, then. Can I make an appointment for you? Doors open on Monday. I’d love to have you as my first client.”

Cassidy hesitated. She’d
learned from experience that she couldn’t commit to anything without first consulting her calendar. “I’ll have to see what I have going on next week. I’m sorry.”

“No worries, love,
I hope to see you again. Have a nice day.” The woman smiled politely and turned to return to the back room, clearly skeptical that she’d ever see Cassidy again. Cassidy couldn’t blame her, though. In this city there was just so much going on all the time that people overscheduled themselves—and as a result, they tended to be less than reliable, if not outright flaky, when it came to making plans.

It was just
how New York was.

Or perhaps it
was just how New Yorkers were.

Hmm.

Cassidy looked up
at the wooden sign as she walked outside, then during the slow walk home played what she called the character game, something she often did to spark ideas for her novels. She’d pose questions to herself about the people she encountered, then make up answers on the spot. Now she used Annabelle as a subject.

What’s her full
name? Annabelle Carmen Donnello.

Where does she
live? Washington Heights.

Family situation? Married
with three grown sons, all stand-up men with pretty young wives, two precious grandchildren, and another one on the way. Her husband, who was her high-school sweetheart, works at a tire factory in New Jersey.

Education? One year
of Rutgers, then happily dropped out to get married.

Favorite food? Linguini
with white clam sauce, her own recipe, of course.

Secret talent? Sings
like an angel.

Biggest secret? Was
a virgin on her wedding night.

Dream job? Raising
kids, then opening up her own salon on the Upper West Side…called Annabelle’s.

By the time
she reached her building, Cassidy had Annabelle all figured out, or at least a fictional version of her.

Chapter Five

CASSIDY SPENT THE
next few days hard at work on her book, and before she knew it, Wednesday had arrived.

Today was the
day.

Drinks with Brandon
Forrester.

A few hours
before she was set to meet him, she decided to go for a run to clear her head. After spending all day cooped up in her apartment, she found the crisp air refreshing. She’d been staring at her computer screen, trying to figure out how to resolve a key issue between Emma, the protagonist, and Jeremy, her long-term boyfriend. The plot had finally begun to speak more clearly to her, but she still wasn’t sure she was ready to hear what it had to say.

Despite the fact
that it was the middle of the workday, the park was filled with people, some jogging, some walking, some just sitting and staring at the extraordinary human spectacle that was Central Park. That was what Cassidy loved most about the park, what she loved most about New York itself. The city was always buzzing, always bursting with energy, every street, every corner, every nook and cranny constantly offering a glimpse of life unlike anywhere else in the world. Where else would you see a tiny Ecuadorian grandmother merrily selling salted mango slices alongside a prepubescent hip-hop phenom hawking copies of his debut CD?

Cassidy played the
character game as she ran, beginning with a pretty brunette dressed in a crisp black pantsuit and holding a briefcase. She appeared to be in a hurry.

What’s that woman’s
name? Amber. Amber…Sullivan.

Where’s she from?
Philadelphia. No, Long Island.

What does she
do? She’s an architect. In Midtown.

What makes her
angry? When people don’t take her seriously because she’s good-looking. She wasn’t as attractive before she had her nose done. Was it worth it? She’s not sure.

What makes her
laugh? Anything her brother says makes her laugh. She wishes she were as funny as her brother. And as smart as her brother. At least in her dad’s eyes.

Pet phrase? Suck
it up, buttercup! Actually, her brother says that, but she loves it.

Dream job? Talk-show
host.

Secret talent? She
can do the splits.

Biggest secret? She
spent years in competitive cheerleading.

Cassidy had come
up with more than one idea for a character who wound up in her books during a run through the park.

Right now, however,
she was thinking about something else.

Or someone else.

She hoped that
when they met up in a few hours, Brandon wouldn’t be able to see in her eyes just how much she’d been looking forward to tonight.

After her run
Cassidy walked back to her apartment, stretching her arms above her head and trying to decide what to wear. Should she go subtle, with a nice pair of jeans and a cute top? Or glam it up a bit with a dress and heels? And what about makeup? On a recent excursion to Bloomingdale’s, the friendly woman at the MAC counter had convinced Cassidy to buy some smoky shadow she said made the green in her eyes “pop.” Cassidy had yet to open the box, doubtful she could successfully re-create the skilled work of the saleslady, and with no real reason for doing so. Maybe tonight was the perfect occasion?

Then she thought
of something.

Annabelle’s!

She’d completely forgotten
about the quaint nail salon until just now, but it seemed like the perfect time to get a manicure. She’d have to hurry, though. She quickened her pace and headed upstairs to shower.

“Well, hello there;
welcome back.” The owner stood up from her desk and approached Cassidy as she gently shut the salon door behind her. “What was your name, love? I didn’t catch it the other day.” Soft music and the scent of cinnamon again filled the air. Or was it something else? Whatever it was, it made Cassidy crave a sugar cookie.

“I’m Cassidy. I’d
love to get that manicure now, if you have time.” She looked around the room. Only one of the pedicure chairs was occupied, by a young blonde reading a magazine as her feet were being worked on by an equally young brunette. She didn’t see any other attendants.

The woman glanced
at her watch. “We don’t normally take walk-ins, but you’re in luck. I had a facial scheduled, but it looks like she’s stood me up.”

“You do facials
here too?”

“Yes, dear, in
the back rooms.” She reached toward a tin mailbox painted with daisies perched on the wall, then removed a crisp brochure and handed it to Cassidy. “Here’s a list of all our services.”

Cassidy glanced quickly
at the offerings and blanched at the prices. No wonder they didn’t take walk-ins. Half of them would probably walk out once they saw how expensive the place was.

The woman put
a gentle hand on her arm. “We’re worth it, love, I promise. Do you still want that manicure?”

Cassidy hesitated for
a moment, then smiled. Why not treat herself for once? “I think so. Tonight’s a bit of a special occasion, and as you can see, I need some help.” She reluctantly held out her hands for inspection.

“Let’s have a
quick look.” The owner reached for Cassidy’s fingers and studied them. “Oh my, you weren’t kidding. You’re quite a squirrel, aren’t you?”

Cassidy felt her
cheeks get a bit warm. “I’m terrible.” She debated whether to confess that she’d only begun to bite her nails on a daily basis after Dean broke up with her, worried that it might lead to a conversation about her personal insecurities that she wasn’t ready to have. She’d done enough of her own amateur psychoanalysis, and it seemed pretty clear. Her fingers represented her biggest strength, but they were also evidence of her biggest weakness.

The woman pointed
toward one of the manicure stations. “Well, you’ve come to the right place. Why don’t you have a seat, and we’ll do something about that, shall we?”

“Sounds good.” Cassidy
was halfway to the table when she heard the door open, then slam shut, followed by the sharp sound of a woman’s voice—jarring the soft ambience of the salon.

“I’m sorry I’m
late. You can’t rely on
anyone
these days,” the woman said with an audible sigh.

Cassidy turned around
and saw a petite woman in the doorway, her hair an unnatural shade of black, her diminutive stature at odds with the scale of the disruption she’d just caused.

“Hello, Mrs. Polanski,”
the owner said with a pleasant smile.

Without smiling back,
the tiny woman took off her fur jacket and laid it over her forearm. “After such a stressful day, I’m
so
looking forward to my facial.”

Cassidy pointed toward
the door and mouthed
I’ll come back another time
as she held up the brochure in her hand. She’d call to make an appointment for next week, or at least try to remember to do so.

The owner smiled
at Cassidy, clearly grateful for her discretion in not calling attention to the situation. “Please do.”

As Cassidy quietly
slipped outside, her thoughts turned back to Brandon, and before she even realized what she was doing, she was nibbling on her thumbnail again.

Wearing a sleeveless
violet dress cut a couple of inches above the knee, Cassidy arrived at Diablo Royale seven minutes early. Suddenly feeling a bit like Patti and not wanting to look too eager, she strolled right past the entrance, hoping Brandon wasn’t behind her to witness her ridiculousness. She headed toward the water on West Fourth and wandered around aimlessly for about ten minutes, taking deep breaths and telling herself to relax and get a grip.

At 7:05 on
the dot she returned to the front of the restaurant. She smoothed her hair with her hands, checked her reflection in the window, then pushed the door open.

Brandon was sitting
at the bar, facing away from her. Just seeing the back of his head—not to mention those broad shoulders—made her anxious. She hesitated for a moment, then tentatively approached him.

“Hi, Brandon.” She
gave him a nervous smile.

He stood up
and offered his own easy smile back. “Hey, Cassidy, it’s good to see you again.”

Just being this
close to him sent a little shiver down her back.

Wow, he
is
good-looking.

They embraced in
a quick hug, which felt a bit awkward to Cassidy given that—outside of their brief conversation at the reunion—they were virtual strangers, despite their shared history. Brandon gestured to a stool. “What can I get you?” A glass of water sat on the bar in front of him, and Cassidy was impressed that he’d waited for her to arrive before ordering himself a real drink.

“I hear the
margaritas are pretty good here.”

“Sounds great. How
do you like yours?”

“Strong.”

He laughed. “Got
it. Anything else?”

“On the rocks,
no salt, please.”

“Coming right up.”
He turned toward the bartender and ordered two margaritas, and as he did so, she noticed the five o’clock shadow on his face. It was salt and pepper, like the thick hair on his head—and she couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to touch it.

Just then Brandon
looked at her and smiled, and she wondered if he’d caught her staring. She quickly looked down at her hands and wished her nails looked better. “So, what brings you to New York?”

“Nothing too exciting.
A client is suing a company that infringed on one of its patents.”

BOOK: Cassidy Lane
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