Child psychologist Gwen Traynor has learned the hard way that “perfect” men aren’t always what they seem. After being dumped the night before her wedding, she’s understandably wary of diving back into the dating pool. But when she meets Alex Coughlin, she’s convinced her luck is changing. He’s smart, handsome, funny—an ideal rebound guy. She doesn’t intend to fall in love with him, but scintillating dates and mind-blowing physical chemistry have a way of winning a girl over.
Enter the ex…
Just as things are heating up with Alex, Gwen meets her newest patient—a precocious preschooler whose chaotic soap-opera-actress of a mother, Harmony, sounds an awful lot like one of Alex’s crazy ex-girlfriends. Mostly because she is one of Alex’s crazy ex-girlfriends. Unfortunately for Gwen, Harmony has a secret that plunges them all into a real-life daytime drama, complete with sex, lies, and Vegas elopements. With Harmony determined to reunite with Alex and Gwen’s ex-fiancé begging for a second chance, only one thing is certain: new loves and old flames are an explosive combination.
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Exes and Ohs
The first time I ran into Dennis after the infamous non-wedding, I was wearing a coffee-stained tank top, no make-up, and baggy red track pants that made my ass look as big as Montana. I ordered a double espresso, collected my change, turned around to grab a napkin, and lo and behold, there was the man who’d “needed to talk” after our rehearsal dinner six months before.
I should have known this day was coming. UCLA is a big campus, but the medical plaza is a small world.
It was not good. We gaped at each other, both of us mute and rooted to the sun-bleached concrete. His gaze slid away from mine, so I focused on the small blue name tag pinned to his white coat: Dr. D. Schell. We were standing, fittingly, in The Bomb Shelter, which is the café adjacent to the med school.
The silence between us stretched into eons. Stars flared up and extinguished in the heavens. Species evolved and died out. It became tragically apparent that the Big One was not going to hit right now, swallow me up into the San Andreas fault, and save me from the raw humiliation of this moment. I had to say something. Anything.
“How’s Lisa?” Those are the words that actually came out of my mouth.
He startled when I said her name. “She’s good. She’s…you know.”
I nodded at his left hand, which, although tan and sprinkled with thin dark hair, remained ringless. “Still not married?”
“No.” He scuffed at the ground.
“Good to know. And actually, as long as we’re on the subject, I still have a few bills I could use some help with. As you know.” I smiled at him, sweetly. The expression on his face suggested that I had sprouted pointy, glistening fangs. “The photographer, mostly. The engagement ring paid for the band and the catering, and I sold the bridesmaids’ gowns on eBay, but I took a loss, so…”
He flinched. Couldn’t bear to think of my platinum-set Tiffany diamond ring sparkling away in some second-rate West Hollywood jewelry shop. Poor baby.
He cleared his throat, pulled his Palm Pilot out of his pocket and commenced poking at it with the plastic stylus. One of his nervous little tics. That and pulling on his earlobe. “I want to help out with that stuff. I kept meaning to call you, but…”
“Lisa.” I nodded briskly. “I know.”
“Listen.” He finally raised his gaze, up to about my chin, as he gestured to the café counter. “Can I buy you something?”
“Like what? ” I planted my hands on my drawstring pant waist. “Chai? Latte? No thanks. You’ve done enough. Just pony up ten thousand bucks and we’ll call it even.”
His big brown eyes were those of a puppy cowering in the face of a rolled-up newspaper. “I deserve that. I know. Listen, Gwen, I never meant to—”
But I was already walking away. Strutting my stuff in red track pants and a messy ponytail, trying to make an imperious Miss Thang exit before I burst into tears. Which I did, approximately four minutes later, when I reached the campus botanical gardens and caught sight of the quaint little mission-style chapel across the street. A bride and groom were posing for photographs on the church lawn.
Late Friday afternoon was an odd time for a wedding, but sometimes the church and reception site were cheaper if you were willing to book a Sunday or a Friday. Just another fun fact I’d amassed on my long, meandering, and ultimately aborted trip down the aisle.
The bride was tiny, disappearing in swaths of white lace that I recognized from the Modern Bride special issue on Vera Wang. The groom was tall, lanky, a little goofy. Both of them looked stunned in the afternoon sunlight filtering through green leaves. Shocked by the final fruition of all those months of strategizing and bickering over centerpiece ideas. They were married, for better or for worse. Off with the wedding gown and on with the rest of their lives.
I sat down right there on the sidewalk, rummaged through my bag until I unearthed my cell phone, and speed dialed my roommate (and would-be maid of honor) Cesca. At times like this, a girl needed to hear someone say things like “When he asked about the ring, what you should have said was, ‘Pawned it. Went to Hawaii and slept with a cabana boy.’”
What a girl did not need was to discover that she had forgotten to recharge her cell phone last night, and that she consequently had no battery power left.
Where was the justice? I was already pinballing around rock bottom. Literally kicked to the curb with no dignity and no Kleenex. Were a few ions of Nokia lithium really too much to ask?
I swiped at my eyes with the back of my arm and checked my watch. I had fifteen minutes until my meeting with my research adviser, who, much like a pit bull, would lunge for my jugular at the first sign of fear or weakness. I needed to talk to Cesca. Now.
“Come on.” I punched the phone’s power button one more time, praying for any sign of life. A little flashing red light. Anything.
The phone beeped angrily and gave me the technological equivalent of the finger–the “please charge battery” message. Then the illuminated screen went blank.
“Come on!” I pressed the power button again. Nothing.
A sleek black limo pulled up across the street. The Vera Wang brigade piled in amid a flurry of tulle. Guests streamed toward the parking lot, no doubt headed to a gala reception with champagne fountains and ice sculptures, where the groom would manfully blink back tears while toasting his new wife.
I couldn’t even get thirty seconds from Verizon.
So I did the only thing left to do. I hurled my cell phone into the middle of Le Conte Avenue, where it was promptly run over by a forest green Saab. The driver, a blonde beach bunny with dark sunglasses, honked her horn and flung her cigarette butt at me as she vroomed away.
The time had come to take a minute and ask myself: what had I become?
Since the night of my (unnecessary, as it turned out) rehearsal dinner, I had turned into the kind of woman who commits phonicide and willfully creates road hazards just because she sees a glowing, happy couple who apparently registered at Good Karma, Inc.
And the truly horrible part was, I missed him. He had lied to me, cheated on me, and humiliated me in front of a rented reception hall’s worth of friends and family, but I missed him anyway, and I could never admit it.
“Swear to God, Gwen, if a guy ever did that to me I would cut off his penis. And then FedEx it to his new girlfriend.” That’s what Cesca had said, and she had a point. Part of me knew that he didn’t even deserve my chilly courtesy—that what he in fact deserved was to have his nether regions severed, sealed, and delivered–but another part of me was still holding on to what we’d had: the sunny Sunday mornings brunching at Gladstone’s while watching the tide roll in. The post-sex, late-evening showers we took together, dueting “Summer Lovin’” at the top of our lungs. The safe, even spaces between his breaths when he slept.
We had been in love, you see.
Or, at least, I had.
But now “we” had been reduced to me, the dead cell phone, and the limo tracks of another couple’s dream wedding.
I heard footsteps on the pavement behind me as a long, dark shadow engulfed my little patch of sidewalk. I craned my neck around to see who had witnessed my curbside meltdown. Praying—to God, Buddah, Gaia, anyone who might listen—that Dennis hadn’t followed me out here.
Wincing, I forced myself to look up from the ground. My eyes skimmed over khaki pants, a blue button-down shirt, and the face of a man I’d never seen before. Mid-thirties, with dark hair and dark eyes. He seemed concerned.
“You look like you need to borrow a cell phone.” His voice sounded all deep and East Coast. The kind of guy who’d been on the crew team at prep school.
I blinked up at him, hoping we could both ignore the fact that my eyes were red and puffy. “What?”
“Do you need to make a call?” He offered up a silver Motorola with one hand, but his eyes never left my face.
“Oh. Not really.” I started tucking strands of hair behind my ears. “There’s no emergency or anything. I just wanted to call my roommate. To…tell her something.”
Ooh, pithy. Why wasn’t anyone chiseling this down in stone?
“What’s the problem?” He reached out and helped me to my feet. His grip felt warm and steady, but not too tight. Obviously, he was practiced at making people feel comfortable and secure. I wondered if he was a doctor, like Dennis.
“It’s kind of a long story.” I hitched up my track pants and pasted on a smile.
He continued to stare, and I was feeling less comfortable and secure by the second. Finally, he nodded and said, “You’re Gwen, right? Gwen Taylor?”
I took two giant steps back and shaded my eyes with my hand. No matter how I squinted, this guy’s face did not ring any bells. “Gwen Traynor…why?”
Already my eyes were darting around, trying to find the best escape route. Had I been dumped by my physician fiancé only to be slain by a stalker from Banana Republic?
He laughed at my expression. “Don’t worry. We haven’t met, but I recognize you. I saw you in your office when I visited the mental health clinic.”
This did not go a long way toward calming me down.
He laughed again, and the corners of his eyes crinkled up. His skin looked tan and a bit weathered. Probably from all that yachting down at the asylum.
“I’m Alex Coughlin.” He offered his hand. “I’m the new trustee on the children’s clinic board. Dr. Cortez showed me around the new building this morning, and he took me by your office. We just peeked in, but I remember you. Dr. Cortez said you were one of his best new therapy interns.”
“Well, I try. When I’m not having meltdowns in front of the new trustees.” I sighed. “Listen–”
He smiled. “Don’t worry about it. I know how much pressure graduate school can be.”
“Oh yeah? What fancy degrees do you have slapped up on your wall?” I sized him up and took a guess. “M.B.A.?”
He blinked. “Maybe.”
“How do you know I’m not some nice anthropologist who just happened to wander into the medical plaza?”
I nodded at his wrist. “Anthropologists don’t wear Patek Philippe watches. And all that brushed twill–it’s a dead giveaway.”
“Damn. You psychologists have quite the eye for detail. All right, I admit it–I’m a preppy M.B.A. who wears an ostentatious watch.” He turned both palms outward. “What can I say? It was a gift from my mother, and it does keep good time.”
I willed my puffy eyes to deflate. I hadn’t worked up the nerve to flirt with anyone in the six months since Dennis had dumped me. But maybe it was time to dive back in the dating pool. Maybe all was not lost. Maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t have to grow old alone in Los Angeles just because I was an academic with a head for useless facts instead of a serene Modern Bride or a Britney Spears back-up dancer.
I smiled back at him, feeling attractive for the first time in weeks.
Then I glanced at the ostentatious watch. “Oh my God. Is it really five o’clock? I’m late for a meeting with Dr. Cortez.”
He paused for a second. “I just came from a meeting with him myself, so if you’d like, I could call and tell him you’re showing me around the campus. We could go grab a cup of coffee.”
My eyebrows shot up. “Are you asking me for a date?”
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
I looked at him, and then I looked at the chapel and the cell phone lying disemboweled on the pavement and shrugged. “Okay. Why not?”
“Such enthusiasm.” He followed my gaze to the Great Nokia Massacre of 2005. “You want to tell me why that cell phone had to die so young?”
“I might as well. You should know what you’re getting into.” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “That—I’m sorry, what was your name again?”
“That, Alex, is what eight months of wedding planning leads to.”
He looked confused. “But you’re not married?”
“Nope. I was all wedding, no marriage. I learned my lesson.”
“Got it.” He nodded. “Well, I don’t know about weddings, but I always thought it’d be nice to settle down, move out to a ranch in Colorado, have a big bunch of kids, and live happily ever after.”
“Really. Well…that sounds great, too,” I assured him. But inside, I was like, Good luck with those catering bills, suckah.
Yes, right from the beginning, the big red flags were there.
As we strolled two blocks over to Café Chou on Wilshire Boulevard, Alex called my adviser and told Dr. Cortez I was graciously providing a “walking tour of the campus facilities.” Shiny, late-model Boxsters and BMWs whizzed by on their way to Bel Air and Beverly Hills. I examined the fractured pieces of plastic and metal that had once been my cell phone and wished, not for the first time, that I could add a little impulse control to my life.
“Okay.” He snapped his own phone shut and grinned at me. “He bought it. We are officially playing hooky.”
I closed my eyes and turned my face up to the golden sun. “How can something so wrong feel so right?”
“So you’re that kind of girl.” He opened the glass door to the coffee shop and ushered me into frigid, mocha-scented air-conditioning. “Fiesty.”
“That’s one word for it.”
He ordered a large coffee, black. I opted for herbal tea, as my system clearly did not need any more stimulants of any kind. We waited through a long, awkward pause at the counter while the server prepared our drinks, then found our way to a table by the café’s front window, where he shook his head at my phone and tossed it into the trash bin.
“Hey! I need that!” I protested. “I mean, I know I should have thought of that before I chucked it in the street, but I could still fix it…maybe.” The truth of the matter was that I couldn’t afford a new phone, but he didn’t need to know that I lived off a meager fellowship and a lot of boxes of orange macaroni and cheese.
He raised one eyebrow. “God himself couldn’t fix that thing. So who is this guy who drove you to such senseless violence?”
“Oh, let’s not go down that road.” I tried to avoid broaching this subject with strangers, as I tended to go off on long, frothy-mouthed, spirally eyed rants.
“We’re going down that road. Drink your tea and start talking.”
I flushed. “Let’s just say that he was not worthy of the many hysterical breakdowns I had over whether the wedding invitations should be white or ecru.”
“Really?” He shook his head, his eyes bright and intense. “How can planning a wedding be that bad? What’s to do? Call a few churches, buy a few cases of booze, end of story.”
“Ha.” I sipped my tea. “The bride needs a few cases of booze before she even gets to the bachelorette party. You have no idea. Guest lists, church decorations–”
“Come on. Church decorations? Buy a few rolls of crepe paper, some duct tape, problem solved.” His smile was so disarming that I forgot I was bitter for a second and smiled back. “I don’t see the need for hard liquor yet.”
“And then there’s the dress.” I covered my eyes and shuddered. “First fitting, second fitting, final fitting…”
“Yeah. You know, so the bodice stays on and the hem is short enough that you don’t trip.”
“Well, just buy some extra duct tape and you’re good to go.”
I rolled my eyes. “Of course. I can’t believe seamstresses all over America are letting their most precious resource go to waste on plumbing facilities.”
“I’m serious.” He feigned great earnestness and masculine consternation.
“Duct tape. Honestly. What would Emily Post say?”
“She’s dead. She doesn’t get a say.”
“Listen, I’ve seen the dark side of ‘I do,’ and it is ‘I don’t.’ Uttered the night before the ceremony, when the erstwhile groom decides that his true destiny lies with his ex-girlfriend, a massage therapist who makes popcorn mosaics on the side.” I waved my spoon for emphasis.
He looked skeptical. “Popcorn mosaics?”
“With shellac and spray paint and stuff. Apparently, it’s her true artistic calling.”
“What’s her medium? Pop Secret? Redenbacher? Does she have a corporate sponsor?” His laughter was contagious. For the first time, I was actually starting to appreciate the inherent absurdity of the whole situation.
“You know, I don’t believe that ‘true art’ and ‘corporate sponsorship’ mix.”
“I guess you’re right.” He rubbed the emerging stubble on his chin. “To keep it real, she’d have to get a grant.”
“A few well-placed patrons and she might be able to move on to her pasta period and take the L.A. art world by storm.”
“Yeah. And then on to rice, legumes—who knows what poignant sorrows lie within the humble lima bean?”
“Okay, you wanna hear my sad little story or not?”
He pretended to debate this for a minute. “I’ll hear the sad little story.”
“Very gracious of you. Anyway, long story short, my ex couldn’t resist the siren call of the his ex, and by the time the dust settled—”
“Don’t you mean ‘the kernels settled’?”
“—the only thing I needed duct tape for was to box the gifts back up and return to sender.”
He saluted me with his coffee cup. “And you still have your sense of humor.”
We lost eye contact.
“I’m over it,” I agreed, lying through my teeth.
“You’re better off without him.”
“Totally.” I stared down at the speckled gold Formica tabletop, my thoughts turning inexorably to the wedding dress still moldering away in my closet. The bridal salon wouldn’t take it back. Apparently, all Amsale gowns were final sale, even if Dennis wasn’t.
Morning after morning, as I selected the day’s ensemble, I was greeted by the ivory silk reminder of my failure and disgrace.
Dennis had found bliss with a “less complicated” woman, some other euphoric bride-to-be would soon be flashing my pawned ring, and still I hung on to the hand-beaded fabric that tied me to a life I’d almost had. The life I’d wanted so badly that I’d been blind in my faith and careless with my heart. The life I’d wanted so badly that I’d–oh, God, the shame–literally begged Dennis not to leave when he said he was meant to be with Lisa.
On the sidewalk in front of the rehearsal dinner restaurant, I’d sobbed that my life could never be the same without him. And he had cleared his throat and said: “I love you, Gwen, but I need Lisa.”
Well, I’d been right about one thing. My life had never been the same since that night.
I yanked myself back to the date in progress and Café Chou and smiled at Alex in what I hoped was a winsome manner. “Let’s talk about something else. Like you, for instance. Let’s talk about you.”
He leaned back in his chair. “Fair enough. What do you want to know?”
“Well…what do you do with your time when you’re not playing hooky in the middle of the afternoon or stewarding the clinic?”
He groaned. “Stewarding the clinic?”
“Isn’t that what you do?”
“Technically, yes, but stewarding…it makes me sound like I smoke a pipe and wear an ascot and I’ve got one foot in the grave. I’m only thirty-five.”
I laughed. “Okay, then, what do you do when you’re not, ahem, charitably donating your time to the psychological improvement of young minds?”
“I’m a financial analyst and consultant.”
“Oh.” Pause. “That sounds really…um…”
“Boring?” He laughed. “It’s not as dry as it sounds. I love the challenge of turning around companies on the brink of disaster. Kind of like bailing out the Titanic with a hand bucket.”
“But how on earth did you end up working with the clinic?”
“I was tricked. One of my friends roped me into helping out on the board of a children’s charity, and somehow I just got sucked in deeper and deeper. And now I enjoy it.”
“Wow. That’s really generous.”
He shrugged. “Not really. It’s kind of a personal thing for me.”
Ah. I could see where this was going. “You have children?”
This question surprised him. “No. I’ve never even been married.”
“Obviously not, if duct tape is your idea of a pew decoration.”
“I almost got engaged once.” He seemed suddenly mesmerized by the bottom of his coffee cup.
I pounced. “Almost? What happened?”
He tapped his fingers on the table. “We went our separate ways before I actually bought the ring.”
“No way are you getting off that easy after I spilled my guts all over this table. What happened?”
“Oh, you know how it is with L.A. dating. She was beautiful, I was a sucker for a pretty face, neither of us had any common sense. One thing led to another and…we’re much better off without each other. The end.”
“Alex.” I tossed a sugar packet at him. “Come on. I got dumped for a box of Jiffy Pop. You gotta give me something here.”
“I’m not discussing this,” he said, hanging his head sheepishly.
I gave him a look.
He lowered his voice. He looked to the left. He looked to the right. “The woman I was dating—Harmony—”
“Like I said. L.A. dating. She’s a soap opera actress, if that tells you anything. I met her at a black-tie dinner for one of the companies I worked with.” He leaned in closer. “We were just different personalities.”
I nodded. “Which is the polite way of saying she was as crazy as the day is long.”
He shrugged. “She was a force of nature. A gorgeous, charismatic—and okay, crazy—force of nature. I made the classic male mistake.”
“Not reading the instruction manual?”
“Letting good looks get in the way of good judgment. I kept telling myself that a woman that beautiful had to have some redeeming qualities.” He was still communing with his coffee mug. “I saw what I wanted to see, instead of who she really was.”
Hmm. He sounded quite reasonable and insightful. (For a man.) I couldn’t decide if this meant he had unlimited romantic potential or if, given that he had once dated a woman so good-looking that people were willing to overlook her full-blown psychoses, he was wholly out of my league and I should just give up now.
Further investigation was warranted.
The two of us huddled together. The passersby on the other side of the plate glass must have thought we were planning a heist.
“And? What happened?” I prompted.
He straightened up in his seat. “I shouldn’t say any more than I already have. It was a long time ago, and it’s not worth remembering.”
I nodded knowingly. “Bad break up?”
“Only if you consider finding another man’s sopping-wet boxers in your bathtub ‘bad.’ But on the bright side, I stopped being such an idiot about dating.” He placed his mug back into the saucer with a definitive, end-of-story clink. “So the short answer to your question is, no, I’ve never been married and therefore have no children.”
“But, you know, some people don’t get married before they have kids,” I pointed out. “Look at Calista Flockhart. Heidi Klum. Look at everyone.”
The J. Crew smile blinked on again. “We shouldn’t even get into this. I don’t want to scare you more than I already have.”
I made a big production out of bracing myself against the table with both hands. “No, no—bring it on. I can take it.”
“Just remember, you asked for it.” He met my eyes. “I’m old-fashioned. I’ve always wanted to find the right woman and get married. Big believer in two parents, family dinners, the whole Waltons scenario.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Ranch in Colorado and all.”
“Exactly.” And he got that look on his face that guys get after they watch too many McDonald’s commercials featuring precocious blonde moppets playing catch with their dads. “All that fresh air and room to run around. What a great place to raise a family.”
I signaled the guy at the counter for another tea. “Why Colorado? Did you grow up there?”
“Nope. Born and bred in SoCal.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. It just sounds nice—all the trees, the fresh air, the slower pace…”
“You’ve heard, of course, about the Colorado winters.”
“Sure! I’ll teach the kids to ski, take them tobogganing.”
“How many kids?”
“Oh, five or so.”
“Five! That ranch house is going to need a lot of square footage.”
He shrugged. “Real estate’s cheap, compared to Los Angeles.”
“True.” I narrowed my eyes. “And what about the mother of these five children?”
“Well, she’ll be home with them.” He started backpedaling almost before he finished the sentence. “It’s not a political thing, barefoot and pregnant and forced to bake pies. I just think that if you’re going to have children, you might as well raise them yourself. My mom was a single parent, and it was not a good scene. It’s nice for kids to have someone at home.”
“Sure, it’s nice for the kids. But what happens when happily ever after breaks down and Mom is stranded in the middle of nowhere with no job and no income while Dad takes off with some popcorn-obsessed chippy?”
He waited patiently for me to settle down. “No Waltons for you?”
“Can I get a ‘hell no’?”
We studied each other across the table.
“Hmm,” he said.
“Hmm,” I said.
He pushed back his shirt cuff and consulted the controversial Patek Philippe watch. “Listen. I’ve got to get back to the office, but I’d love to finish this discussion later. How about Friday night? I have Lakers tickets.”
I must have looked hesitant, because he added, “I solemnly swear not to chain you to the stove in the ranch house. Until the third date.”
I laughed. “All right, I’ll go. But I ain’t bringing no pie.”
We shook on it.
Later that evening, while I was finishing up some final case notes and preparing to go home for the night, a courier showed up at my office door with a small package and a release form to sign. When I unwrapped the box, I found myself staring at a brand-new, top-of-the-line cell phone. The thing weighed like two milligrams. The message included read:
Thought you could use the latest model—it’s shock absorbent. See you Friday.
He had attached the note with duct tape.
I sank down in my chair. My heart was doing a little flutter kick that I hadn’t felt in so long, I wasn’t sure if it was infatuation or the early symptoms of cardiac arrest.
I had survived the break-up with Dennis along with all the accompanying humiliation, despondency, and self-doubt. And now I was getting all melty and blushy over a cup of tea and a glorified walkie-talkie. It would appear I was ready for another spin of the roulette wheel of love.
The human heart is either really resilient or incredibly masochistic.
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