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Magical Kisses [A Jewels Of The Quill Valentine's Day Anthology]
by Jewels Of The Quill

Category: Romance EPIC eBook Award Finalist
Description: Rediscover the magic and romance of Valentine's Day! Six JEWELS OF THE QUILL AUTHORS offer stories featuring magical kisses--straight from the heart! A collection of love stories for readers to enjoy on Valentine's Day ... or any day of the year!
eBook Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: March 2009

eBookeBook

8 Reader Ratings:
Great Good OK Poor
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [403 KB]
Words: 84025
Reading time: 240-336 min.


"Magical Kisses is an anthology stuffed full of feel-good stories. It is the perfect Valentine's Day read. This book will join the other Valentine anthologies you have lined up on your bookshelves."_Dawn Myers for Writers Unlimited

"Once again the Jewels assemble their award-winning talents for this sextet of enchanting stories that capture the essence of Valentine's Day. Each offering is delightful; there are quirky characters and laugh-out-loud scenes as well as some poignant moments."_Donna M. Brown for Romantic Times BOOKreviews 4 stars!

"The authors of this anthology are true "jewels" of romance. A perfect Valentine read, this collection of six amazing MAGICAL KISSES will make you laugh, will make you cry and the heroes will definitely make you fall in love. While I liked all the stories, my favorite was "The Third Kiss" by Jane Toombs (Dame Turquoise), perhaps it was the fact that its my birthstone that made me prejudiced but the cute story of the magical third kiss from the person who gave you your first kiss sure caught my fancy more! It was heart warming reading about how the opposite sex goes from being obnoxious to someone we really can't live without. "Magic Kisses" by Carrie S. Masek (Dame Topaz) was also pretty cool, and the author and the heroine puts those blissful Hershey kisses to great use, and they definitely epitomize the best and most cost effective Valentine gift, not to mention the guarantee for a happy future in this tale. Basically this anthology by the Jewels of the Quill is about second chances at finding the love of your life?the perfect romance! Reading MAGICAL KISSES makes one feel reassured that it really is never too late for love. So this anthology would make a great Valentine gift for yourself?enjoy?Happy Valentine's!!!"_reviewed by Raakhee Suryaprakash for WRDF, Black Seal Rating (Fantastic Read. Definitely stays on my shelf.)


MAGIC KISSES

by Carrie S. Masek (Dame Topaz)

* * * *

Chapter 1

"Forget about a boyfriend." Eliza Fanelli glared at the pet carrier, sitting open and empty next to the couch in her new apartment. "I can't even keep a cat!"

Dangling four plastic bags from as many fingers, she stepped inside and kicked the front door shut.

She hadn't been gone for more than an hour. Where could the silly kitten have gone? "Here, Gandalf, here kitty, kitty, kitty." Shrugging off her coat, she tossed it on the couch and hauled her groceries into the closet-sized kitchen. She set the bags on the empty counter, took out a yellow box and rattled it. "Kitten Chow."

No answer, not that she expected one. From what she could tell, the kitten she rescued from the pound yesterday didn't have any voice at all. The little gray tom had stood when she paused in front of his cage. He'd silently batted at her finger through the bars until she asked an attendant to let her hold him. His purr started the moment the door opened. She should have realized then he had a thing against captivity.

Huffing a sigh, Eliza clicked on the light and opened the refrigerator. The sound always brought her old cat running. Unfortunately, at seventeen and a half, the pampered Siamese was too frail to move to the prairie wastes of Plainsville, Illinois. At least according to Eliza's mother.

"And of course I'm too young," Eliza muttered, slamming a quart of milk onto the top wire shelf. She was a little gentler with the eggs, but even after the yogurt, cheese and lettuce were all stowed away, the fridge still looked half empty.

The pantry was worse. Even though it was just a pair of shelves in the cabinet over the counter, one box of Cream of Wheat, one box macaroni and two cans of chopped tomatoes looked lonely inside it. Tomorrow buy sugar and salt and maybe some spices. Eliza glanced at the three pound sack of onions still sitting on the counter. And oil. Hard to sauté onions without oil. Vowing to write a list before heading to the market again, Eliza set the onions beside the tomatoes.

Chewing on a dark strand that had curled free of her ponytail, she checked under the sink, in the cabinet under the counter where she planned to put her pots, and even inside the oven. No kitten. "Gandalf, kitty, kitty." Crooning as seductively as she could, Eliza poured a little kitten chow into her palm and headed for the combination living/dining room. Scooting between the table and her scattered boxes, she first checked under the burnt gold couch. Lots of dust bunnies--next apartment, she was cleaning the place before moving in--but no kitten. No kitten under the coffee table, no kitten under the faded brown chair. No kitten hiding behind any of her boxes or in the two she'd already opened.

He wasn't in the bedroom either. Not under the bed or the dresser or hiding in the closet. Eliza's palm grew sticky from the cat food, and she was about to stop looking when she heard a vicious growl, apparently coming from the bathroom across the hall. She opened the door. A cold draft fluffed her hair. The growling grew louder.

A tiny kitten couldn't possibly make that noise. "Gandalf?" Eliza turned on the light and stepped into the room.

It was freezing, and it only took her a second to see why. The window above the shower enclosure was open.

The whole apartment had been freezing when Eliza and her boxes arrived earlier in the day. She'd dumped the boxes, turned up the thermostat and headed to the animal shelter without checking to see if any of the windows were open. After all, what kind of idiot left a window open in January?

Apparently the kind of idiot who never vacuumed under the couch. The window was too high for Eliza to reach without help, so she brushed the cat food into the toilet and ran to get a chair.

The four around the Formica table were a mismatched lot, but Eliza grabbed the sturdiest, a plain wood chair with a flat seat and even legs. She hauled it into the shower stall. It only took her a moment to realize why the previous tenant had left the window open. The darn thing was stuck. Even heaving with all her strength, she couldn't budge it.

Meanwhile, the growling had grown fiercer. Curious, Eliza stood on tip-toe and peered out the window at a lighted parking lot.

A dumpster hunkered below her second floor apartment. The growling came from a dark, bristling creature that looked like a cross between a wolf and a pit bull. It pressed its snout between the dumpster and the wall and scrabbled at the space as if trying to dig its way behind it.

A chill clenched Eliza's stomach. The window was awfully high, but open enough for a kitten to squeeze through. Had Gandalf managed to climb to the window, only to fall a story to the dumpster below?

Imagining broken legs or worse, Eliza gave the window a last, frantic shove, but before she could jump off the chair and run to Gandalf's rescue, a bellowed, "Out!" froze her hands to the window sill.

A tall, dark figure strode across the parking lot. He wore a knee-length, black coat that billowed open with each stride. She couldn't make out his features, but his head was bare, and light snow left sparkles in his dark hair.

"Out!" he bellowed again, this time right next to the growling beast. It lunged toward him snarling, but he held his ground. "No," he said in an even louder voice. Eliza could almost feel the intensity of the glare he aimed at the dog. The animal obviously felt it, too, because it whined and cringed, belly to the ground.

The man crouched and extended his hand for the dog to sniff. The stray flinched, then gave his hand a tentative lick. "There's a girl," he murmured. The dog thumped its tail, but when he stood, it bolted. Shaking his head, the man grasped the dumpster and heaved one end away from the wall.

A lump, a slightly lighter gray than the shadowed asphalt, huddled against the wall. The man crouched again and when he reached for it, the lump exploded into a hissing, scratching fury. Gandalf.

Swearing, the man caught Gandalf by the scruff of his neck and lifted him to eye level. Trapped by instinct, the kitten stopped fighting and curled.

"That's better." His rescuer stood, and the black clad shoulders rose in what had to be a sigh. "Next stop, animal control."

"No!" The protest burst from Eliza. The man's head jerked up. "He's mine," she called, hoping he could see at least her silhouette. "I'll be right down."

With his head tilted, she could see his face more clearly. It looked like he was frowning. He raised his voice to almost a shout. "Which apartment are you, two-oh-five or two-oh-seven?"

She was so flustered, it took her a moment to remember her new address. "Two-oh-five. I'll buzz you up."

"No need." Still carrying the kitten by the scruff, he strode around the corner of the building and out of sight.

Eliza scrambled off the chair and hauled it back to the table. She didn't have time to move the boxes, but she hung up her coat in the coat closet--luckily the last tenant had abandoned several hangers in it--hid the empty pet carrier in the bedroom and threw a brightly colored shawl over the table's scratched top. It wasn't much of a tablecloth, but at least it added some color. She was pawing through her kitchen box, looking for some glasses--the least she could do was offer the man a drink--when he rapped sharply on the door.

At least it should be him. She didn't know anyone else in town. She stood and checked the peephole just to be sure. Gandalf, face enlarged and distorted, glared at her through the fish-lens.

Eliza threw open the door. "Thank you so much, I--"

"There are feral dogs all over this neighborhood." Gandalf's rescuer thrust the kitten at her. "You shouldn't let him outside."

No doubt about it, the man was definitely frowning.

Eliza took the kitten and cradled him in the crook of her arm. Obviously exhausted, the poor thing fell asleep. "I didn't let him outside. Gandalf escaped."

"Gandalf escaped." He did a single eyebrow lift, like Spock on the oldest Star Trek. "Picked the lock, opened the front door and made a run for it, did he?"

"He went out an open window," Eliza said, bristling at the sarcasm. "The one in the bathroom is stuck."

The frown eased into a sympathetic grin. "Yeah, the windows in this place are crap. Good luck getting the janitor to fix it." He paused and added, almost shyly, "Want me to close it for you?"

Eliza's first impulse was to say yes and step aside, but a belated attack of sanity stopped her. He was a stranger. A big stranger, she realized. He had to be at least a foot taller than her own five-two, with shoulders wide enough to mask his height. And he was dressed all in black like some kind of burglar, black coat--leather she now saw--black sweatshirt, baggy black pants, black boots. Wet with melting snow, even his hair looked black. He had a long face, with a largish nose and a good chin. And blue eyes, she suddenly realized, so deep a blue she'd initially taken them for brown.

The smile faded, and when he spoke, he sounded resigned. "Keep the cat inside if you can. If the dogs don't get him, the coyotes will." With a nod at Gandalf, he turned toward the stairs.

Had his shoulders actually slumped, or was that just Eliza's imagination? "Wait," she called. "Excuse my manners. Please, come in." After all, she did have the security system her mother had insisted on buying. All Eliza had to do was hit the panic button on her land-line, and it would automatically call 911. Besides, she'd seen the man in action. He'd sweet-talked a snarling fiend into a finger-licking puppy and saved her kitten, not the actions of a thief on the way to a heist. Or the sex-mad serial killer her mother was worried about now that her baby girl was living on her own. Eliza's instincts screamed that he was a good guy. If she didn't believe her instincts, how could she expect anyone else to? She held out her right hand. "I'm Eliza Fanelli."

"Brett Mason," he said. "Pleased to meet you." He covered the distance back to her door in one stride and took her hand. He had a good shake, firm and to the point, with no finger crushing or wrist yanking. Though it had to be below thirty outside, his hand was surprising warm. Eliza felt a twinge of loss when he let go and stepped inside. "Which window?"

"What?" Mentally slapping herself, Eliza tried again. "The one in the bathroom. But you want to sit down first, have a drink or something?"

There was that rising eyebrow again. Eliza's cheeks got hot. "I have milk and water," she babbled on, wishing she could stop, but her mouth just kept running. "And tea bags somewhere, if I can find them. Oh, and the tea kettle."

She knew she was spouting nonsense, but Brett seemed to understand. He nodded. If he felt like laughing at her, it didn't show. "Water would be great," he said. "It's a long walk from the dojo."

"Dojo?" Eliza perked up. She'd known he had a good reason for that outfit. "I didn't know there was a dojo here. Which martial arts do you practice?"

He smiled, and Eliza's mouth went dry. The smile lit his whole face, brightening his eyes to blazing. "Kung Fu, second-degree Black belt."

"I'm working on my Brown belt in Aikido," Eliza managed. "Or I was in Chicago."

"There are some great teachers in Chicago," Brett said. "I used to train at the Flaming Dragon Dojo in Lincoln Park."

Eliza's heart shifted up a gear. She knew that dojo. It was only a few blocks from her mother's condo. "The one near De Paul University, right?"

His smile turned shy again. "Yeah, I got my masters from De Paul, Computer Science and Telecommunications."

"I went to Loyola," Eliza offered, gesturing to the logo on her sweatshirt. "Double major, Philosophy and Comparative Religions."

"Impressive." He sounded like he meant it. To hide her blush, she took his coat and hung it in the closet next to hers.

"Go on in and sit down," she said, nodding toward the living room. "The couch came with the apartment. It's ugly but not too uncomfortable."

"It's fine," he said and plopped down on the cushions. His legs sprawled under the coffee table--they were that long. "I have one just like it up at my place."

"You live here, too?" Eliza didn't know why she was surprised. "That makes us neighbors."

"I'm in three-oh-eight, with a spectacular view of the back of the Thrift Store loading dock." His smile turned conspiratorial. "If you want a better couch, I'll keep an eye on the donations and let you know when someone drops off a good one."

Eliza laughed and Brett did, too. He had a nice laugh, deeper than his speaking voice and rich enough to blow her diet. "I just might do that," she said. "Here, let me get you that water." She bent to lay Gandalf on the couch beside him, but Brett startled her by shooting to his feet.

"I'm allergic," he blurted.

His eyes did look a little red. Eliza squelched the remaining laughter in her voice. "No problem," she said. "I'll put him in the bedroom."

It only took a moment to settle the kitten on the bare mattress and get back to the living room. Brett was sitting again, obviously trying not to stare into her open box. Eliza grabbed two glasses from it and unwrapped the newspaper she'd used for padding. "I don't think there's any ice," she apologized over her shoulder as she hurried into the kitchen. At least she did have dish soap and a sponge. In less than a minute, she'd washed out the glasses, rinsed them and filled them up again.

"Thanks," Brett said, taking the glass and downing half of it in one swallow. He gagged, nearly bringing it up again. "Tap water?" he sputtered.

Instead of answering, Eliza took a cautious sip. The water looked fine, but tasted harsh and metallic, a little like Gary, Indiana smelled. Another reminder that she wasn't in Chicago anymore. "Tap water," she confirmed. She took Brett's glass. "How about some milk?"

"Thanks."

One glass of milk later, she showed Brett the stuck window. He didn't need a chair to reach it. He just slammed the palm of his hand twice on the window's wood frame, once on each side of the glass, and the window thudded closed.

"The humidity swells the wood," he said, stepping out of the shower enclosure. Standing there so big and strong, smelling of leather and melting snow, he sucked the air from the tiny bathroom.

Brett didn't seem to notice the lack of oxygen. He pointed to the metal railing inside the frame. "Rub bar soap on it. The window will slide easier."

"Thanks."

"I should, ah, get going." Okay, so maybe he did notice. "I should shower and, um, it's getting late. I've got to work tomorrow."

"Tomorrow's Sunday," Eliza protested, her fluster lost in a rush of indignation on his behalf.

Brett looked up and shrugged. "My boss is from Italy. I don't think he understands the concept of weekends."

"I have to do something to thank you." Eliza led the way to the front of the apartment and handed Brett his coat. "I mean," she added when he gave her a quizzical look, "you did save my cat and fix my window."

He shook his head. "You don't need--"

"I know," she said, brightening at the perfect solution. "After work tomorrow, come back here and I'll read your future."

* * * *

Read my future. Shit. It was all Brett could do to keep from swearing aloud. After six months in the social wasteland of Plainsville, the first halfway interesting woman he met turned out to be a fruitcake like his ex, Amy. He managed to say goodbye and, once the door closed, pounded up the stairs to apartment three-oh-eight, the mirror image of the one he'd just left.

The walls were still bare and he hadn't added any furniture except for the table holding his trusty desktop. The place looked more like a prison cell than an apartment. On nights like this, it felt like one too. Brett stripped off his clothes on the way through the living room and headed straight for the shower.

The hot water thawed his feet and sluiced away the dried-on sweat, but it didn't do anything for his disgust. Eliza looked like such a nice girl, wholesome and normal in her ponytail, oversized sweatshirt and jeans. A little young--she had to be at least four or five years younger than he was--and too short, but with nice brown eyes and curly black hair. She was cute, friendly ... and a flake.

It was a curse, he decided, stepping out of the shower and toweling off. He attracted kooks and nuts the way magnets attracted iron shavings.

Wrapping the Superman towel around his waist, he strode to the bedroom and dove into bed. Eliza's promise to tell his future had killed his appetite. Still, he thought, picking up the latest volume of Kohta Hirano's Hellsing and settling down to read, it wouldn't hurt to show up at her place tomorrow after work. Even kooks had friends.

* * * *

At work, Max was more of a bastard than usual and kept the whole team slaving through lunch and dinner. It was after eight before Brett parked his Jetta in the lot behind the apartment building. He looked for Eliza's window, the one in the bathroom he'd closed yesterday. From the light shining through, it looked like she was still up, and she did say to come by after work. Wishing he'd thought to get her phone number so he could call first, Brett locked his car and headed for her door.

It opened on his second knock. Eliza must have been standing beside the door to get it that fast. She beamed up at him. "I thought maybe you'd changed your mind."

Brett resisted the urge to remind her he hadn't promised to come. "Max kept us late."

"Your Italian boss?"

"The one and only."

They both grinned at that. Eliza opened the door all the way and waved him in. She'd brushed out her hair. It hovered just over her shoulders and fluffed around her face. She was wearing some kind of dress, yards of fabric that covered her from her neck to just above her ankles. Not only did it hide her figure even better than the hip-long sweatshirt, the swirling pattern of red, black and yellow made his eyes hurt. Looking away, he handed her his coat. She took it and gestured toward the living room. "I tidied up a bit," she said, half-timid, half-proud. "It's a little better than yesterday."

Better was a matter of taste. Yesterday, the room had been full of boxes, perfectly normal for someone who'd just moved in. Today, the boxes were gone, and the room was full of the sort of doohickeys he'd expect in a fruitcake's apartment.

Candles littered every surface. The coffee table alone held three. Different heights and colors, at least one of them rose scented. The overhead light was off. Flickering candlelight and the filtered glow from two shaded floor lamps provided the room's only illumination.

The fringed tablecloth he'd seen the day before was still on the table. A poster of the earth in psychedelic greens and blues hung on the wall beside it. The wall above the couch held a picture of a big, white rabbit with floppy ears. Hello, Alice. Welcome to Wonderland.

Despite the antihistamine he'd taken before leaving work, his sinuses began to swell. "Where's Gandalf?" he asked, to avoid commenting on the room.

She blushed. "In the bedroom."

Brett couldn't help finding her reaction endearing. She was a flake, sure, but a damned cute one.

"Sit down," she invited, gesturing toward one of the mismatched chairs around the table.

He hadn't really noticed last night, but her furnishings were even cheaper than his. At least his fake wood table and chairs looked like they came from the same set. Hers was an eclectic mess. Two armless, wooden chairs, one metal folding chair better suited for a card table and a high-backed, upholstered chair that belonged at the head of a mahogany dining set, not in a rent-by-the-month, furnished-on-the-cheap apartment.

She waved him into the armed chair. "Can I get you something to eat or drink first?" she asked, still pink in the face. "I bought some bottled water, and I could throw together a salad, if you haven't had dinner."

Probably with bean sprouts and tofu in it. Brett had lost twenty pounds during Amy's raw food kick. The thought of rabbit food still made him shudder. He smiled to hide his reaction. "Water would be great."

Eliza hustled into the kitchen and came back a moment later with a plain glass filled with ice and water. Brett took a sip and smiled for real. "Thanks."

"I filled the ice trays with the bottled water," she said, sitting down in the plain wooden chair across from him. "I figured no reason to put bad ice in good water."

"Good thinking." And worth copying. Brett spent a lot of money on bag ice. He made a mental note to dig out his ice trays and put filtered water in them as soon as he got home.

"Now then." She'd lost the blush and sounded almost professional. "Do you prefer Tarot or Palm?"

"Huh?" He'd just noticed the glass globe sitting in the middle of the table. It looked like a crystal ball.

"That's just decoration," she said, as if she'd read his mind. Brett relaxed slightly until she ruined it by adding, "I haven't learned how to use it yet. But I'm good with Tarot and even better with palms."

"Then palms it is," he said, rallying. "Which one do you want?"

She grinned. "Both."

Feeling ridiculous, Brett put both hands on the table, palms up.

"Your left palm shows the fate you were born with," she said, taking his left hand first. She froze when she touched him, just held his hand and stared into space. A chill ran through him. Her empty expression reminded him of a petit mal seizure. Before he worked up the nerve to ask if she were okay, she blinked and traced a line around the base of his thumb with a cool fingertip. "You have a good, strong life line here, just a little feathered at the top. You were sick as a child..."

Brett fought to hide the shiver her words evoked. He tried hard not to think about his childhood and the anti-seizure drugs that kept him zombied out from kindergarten through seventh grade.

She looked up and met his gaze. "...but got better in your early teens, right?" Mute, Brett could only nod. Luckily, she didn't seem to notice her insights were freaking him out. Looking back at his hand, she touched a point parallel to his thumb. "According to this, you should be remarkably healthy from now on ... except for the occasional allergy," she added with a grin.

Brett grinned back. He couldn't help it. When Eliza smiled, her cheeks puffed and dimpled and her eyes danced. Her smile was as contagious as the common cold.

"Let's see if any bad habits have changed that," Eliza said, switching to his right hand. Again her cool finger traced around his thumb. "No. If anything, your life line is stronger on your right hand." She looked up and met his gaze. "That martial arts training seems to be paying off."

Her brown eyes had gold flecks in them, he realized. They caught the candlelight and glittered at him. "How about my job?" he asked when the gaze lasted too long. "Am I going to get a raise soon?"

He expected her to hand out an automatic assurance that his career would be as good as his health. Instead, a crease appeared between her eyebrows. "I don't think you're in the right career." She spoke hesitantly, with an apologetic tone. Her finger hovered over the line in the center of his hand. "This line reflects your professional life. Your left palm shows a deep, long line. That implies you have the ability for a very rewarding and successful career. But see how frayed the beginning of the line is on your right? You're going to take several false turns before finding your true path."

How could she know? He'd worked for a local school system right out of college, managing their computer systems and fixing glitches. He'd loved the job and had hoped to make it a career until budget cuts ended the position. So he'd gone back to school only to end up in Plainsville working seventy hours a week for the boss from hell. "False turn" was a nice way to say "dead end" as far as he was concerned.

Creeped out, he studied her expression. She looked hesitant, concerned, as if she wasn't sure how he'd react to her words. "But your line gets stronger here, see?" Her eyes widened, her lips pursed, and damn, she looked so adorable, he wanted to lean over the table and kiss her.

Luckily, sanity prevailed. Then she looked up and grinned, and he wanted to kiss her all over again. "Once you find your calling, you'll do really well at it," she said in encouraging tones.

She looked and sounded sincere. Either Eliza was a world-class con-woman, or she really believed this shit.

Brett suddenly felt like kicking himself. Of course she sounded sincere. Con-woman or crazy girl, she would in either case. And after hearing him bitch about Max, it was hardly astonishing she picked up on his job dissatisfaction. "What else can you tell me?" he asked, half daring her to come up with another too-close-for-comfort revelation, half afraid she would.

She bent over his hand, turned it over and back again, and gently traced the length of his middle finger--a surprisingly sensuous move that made him reach for the ice water to cool his errant libido.

Finally, she looked up from his palm and said with clear envy, "Your wife is a lucky woman."

"Wife?" Brett blurted the word. So much for fortune-telling. Her third revelation was as far off the mark as her first two were dead on. "I'm not married."

Eliza jerked back as if startled by his outburst. She crossed her arms under her bust and said stubbornly, "Girlfriend then, and she will say yes when you ask her."

It was hard to concentrate with her breasts pushed up and out like that. "I don't have a girlfriend either," he snapped. Eliza's expression went from certain to deflated. "Not since grad school," he added, feeling like a heel.

Eliza shook her head. "That just doesn't make sense. Look." She drew a cool line across his hand, underlining the pad of flesh below his fingers. "This is your heart line. There's a little feathering at the beginning. That's normal, high school crushes and the like, but then it runs deep and straight on both your hands, a clear sign that you'll enjoy a single, life-long, committed relationship. Even with a life line as long as yours, you should have already met your true love."

There was so much concern in her gold-flecked gaze, Brett felt guilty for wondering if she were a con-woman. His new neighbor was a flake, sure, but a sincere flake. He did his best to soften his expression. "I've lived in Plainsville for almost a year. You're the first woman I've met between the ages of fifteen and fifty-five."

She shook her head. "That's impossible."

"Improbable, maybe, but true," he insisted. "Denise, the receptionist and only female employee at work, is in her mid-fifties. High school kids work the fast food joints. I once asked out a clerk at the video store only to find out she was playing in the high school pep band for Homecoming that weekend. She invited me to the dance after but..." He shrugged. "...I don't date children."

"Good for you!" Eliza blinked, as if her outburst surprised her as much as it did him. "I mean, a lot of guys seem to think the younger the better."

Brett snorted. "I'm not a lot of guys."

"I can see that." She went back to studying his palm. "With a palm like this and those fingers..." The way she ran her fingertip along his middle finger made the hairs on his balls tingle. Brett took another swig of ice water. "...staying single is a waste of your potential."

Brett would have laughed, if he hadn't been so stunned. "It's not like I'm some kind of chick magnet. Even in college, I didn't date much."

"You just need to meet the right woman," she said, the certainty back. "You're computer savvy, right? How about computer dating?"

"You mean those online matchmakers?" Brett shook his head. "I can't."

Eliza cocked her head. "Why not?"

"I just can't."

She must have heard the finality in his tone, because she didn't push it. "There must be someplace you can go to meet women."

"Where?"

"Here." She sounded as triumphant as her sudden grin looked.

"You want me to marry you?" Brett asked, incredulous despite a sudden surge in heart rate.

Her eyes bugged. "No. Not me." She sounded as panicked as she looked, a reaction that hit Brett like a kick to the gut. Something must have shown on his face, because she quickly added, "It's not you. I'm the problem."

Brett braced himself for the familiar, "Let's be friends" speech, but Eliza surprised him. She flipped over her hand. "See? My heart line is frayed and feathered from beginning to end." When Brett didn't respond, she added, "My mother's palm is exactly the same, and the longest relationship she ever had with a man was the two and a half years she was with my father. I'm pretty sure she only stayed that long because of me."

She caught his gaze and held it as if she could convince him by staring hard enough. "Your destiny is to marry your true love and stay with her always. Mine is to flit from relationship to relationship. That's why I'm sticking to cats."

"Cats." Of all the excuses he'd ever been given for women not wanting to get involved with him, "My hands look like my mother's" had to be the lamest. Though he didn't have the slightest romantic interest in his new neighbor--he preferred tall, leggy blondes--Eliza's rejection still hurt.

And she must have seen it in his face, because she took his hand again. "I'll be your Cupid," she said, a coaxing tone in her voice, like a mother offering a lollipop to a reluctant child. "I start classes tomorrow at UNAS, the University of New Age Studies. I'm sure to meet lots of great candidates there." Her expression turned thoughtful. "Today's the fourteenth, right? I'll find your soul mate by Valentine's Day."

"That's only a month away." He couldn't believe he was arguing over something so stupid.

She must have heard his doubt, because that little line appeared again between her eyebrows. "That's four weekends, eight, maybe twelve possible dates. Plenty of time to find you the right woman. I guarantee it."

"Or what?" Brett challenged.

"I'll marry you myself."

~--~--~--~ ~

* * * *

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