I DO, BUT HERE'S THE CATCH, page 1
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I DO, BUT HERE'S THE CATCH
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"You never met this man?"
"Mama, I told you, it's a blind date." Charli Rossi pawed through her jewelry box, a relic from her childhood, like almost everything else in the tiny bedroom under the eaves that she'd once shared with her two sisters.
She still remembered how proud and grown-up she'd felt at age ten when Grandma and Grandpa Rossi had given her the fancy box for Christmas. Now, twenty years later, the glossy ivory and gold paint had long since yellowed and chipped; the floral decals had mostly worn away.
"I can't wear any of this junk!" Charli emptied the jewelry box onto her narrow twin bed. "Mama, can I borrow your pearl studs? Please!"
"What's wrong with what you have?" Mama lifted a pair of blue enameled button earrings from the pink chenille bedspread and held them up to Charli's ears.
"Oh, Mama, I can't wear those!"
"Why not? Robby gave you these for your sweet sixteen," she said, referring to one of Charli's five brothers. "They suit you."
Charli glanced at her image in the dressing-table mirror, which had been in need of resilvering for as long as she could remember. Yes, she thought glumly, the dowdy earrings did indeed suit her. As did the dress she'd chosen, a matronly cornflower-blue shirtwaist printed with tiny white blossoms. The hem fell to an awkward level a couple of inches below her knees, too long to be youthful, too short to be, well, youthful. The low-heeled beige pumps didn't help.
Raven Muldoon, one of her three closest friends, always wore calf-length or longer skirts, and they always looked wonderful on her, casual yet somehow sophisticated. Amanda Coppersmith often wore short skirts with her elegant suits, exposing her knees and shapely legs. And Sunny Bleecker … well, Sunny had an eclectic style all her own, when she wasn't wearing her hideous, bright-pink waitress uniform.
Facing her drab reflection, Charli had to admit that the most flattering outfit she owned was the black tuxedo-like pantsuit she wore during high school concerts, while conducting the ninety-eight students in the school's elite symphonic band.
Her hair was dark brown and hung stick-straight just past her shoulder blades. This evening she'd parted it in the middle and pulled back the sides with simple tortoiseshell barrettes.
As for her face, she now wished she'd left well enough—or homely enough—alone. She'd experimented with a little blusher and a dab of rose-colored lipstick, and she wasn't used to seeing that much color on her olive complexion. Nor could she get used to the sight of her lashes glopped up with mascara. Just one more thing to feel awkward about tonight, to worry about.
She checked her watch. Too late to change clothes, even if she owned something more stylish, which she didn't. Too late to scrub off the makeup. "And your pearl choker, too," she told Mama, not waiting for permission, but racing out of her room to her parents' across the hall.
Mama was right behind her. "Take my pink cardigan. I'd lend you my good white one, but you can't wear white till after Memorial Day. And Easter isn't even for two more weeks."
Charli groaned inwardly. "I'm wearing the beige linen jacket Amanda helped me pick out."
"The blazer? That's too businesslike. He'll think you're a cold fish."
And if I wear your cardigan, Charli thought, he'll think I'm his mother. Or someone's maiden aunt, which was precisely what she was. To be depressingly accurate, she was now a maiden great-aunt, courtesy of her married nephew, John, who'd become the father of twins last year. Charli fumbled with the clasp on the choker.
"You've got yourself all worked up," Mama declared. "Let this strange man you don't even know worry about impressing you!"
Charli inserted the pearl post earrings as she sprinted downstairs to await the doorbell. The last thing she wanted was her blind date having to wait for her on the plastic-wrapped living room sofa, enduring Papa's interrogation. Halfway down the stairs she abruptly reversed direction—she'd forgotten her jacket.
"Well, knock me over, why don't you?" Mama complained.
"You don't have to follow me!" Charli snapped, veering around her to pound back up the steps.
"Don't talk to your mother like that!" Papa hollered from the kitchen. "Betty, leave the girl alone. She hasn't had a date in three years and four months!"
Well, thank you so much for keeping the neighbors up-to-date. Where was the jacket? It was supposed to be on the back of her dressing-table chair—she knew she'd left it on the back of her dressing-table chair! She did a three-sixty in her room, rifled through her closet.
"Where's my jacket! Mama, did you move my jacket?"
"I didn't do anything with your jacket!" Mama screeched from downstairs. "Wear my cardigan. And take my pink straw handbag—it's on the shelf in my closet. There's the doorbell. I'll let him in."
Oh, God! Charli had counted on meeting him at the door and slipping out quickly.
Sounds of conversation drifted from downstairs. Charli heard Mama's high, grating voice, even louder than usual as she ushered her daughter's date into the house.
Where's that jacket! Charli dashed into the cramped, faux-wood-paneled bathroom and checked the robe hooks, from which dangled Papa's faded green terry robe, Mama's striped housedress and Grandma's support hose. No jacket. Perspiration gathered under her arms as she ran back to her room for another search. Could she get away without it? No. It was mid-April, and still pretty nippy at night.
As she tore her room apart, she heard Papa's coarse Brooklynese, along with a deeper, well-modulated, refined-sounding voice she'd never heard before. Papa must have said something Mama didn't like, because she started squawking at him like an angry hen. Grandma's Italian-accented voice joined the mix, snarling at her son and daughter-in-law to mind their manners in front of Carlotta's fella.
Carlotta's fella! Oh, God, please tell me she didn't say that!
Charli sank heavily onto her creaky little bed. She dropped her head into her hands. Why even try? She should have known back in high school, when she and her three best friends had shared the sacred handclasp that established the Wedding Ring matchmaking pact, that their efforts were doomed to failure, at least as far as she was concerned.
True, it had worked for Raven, even when she'd muddied the waters by falling in love with the brother of the man the other three had chosen for her. It had ended happily, though—Raven and Hunter had returned from their honeymoon that very day. The Wedding Ring's first success. But Charli wasn't Raven; she didn't have Raven's self-confidence, or outgoing personality, or looks. Charli didn't have anything to hold a man's interest.
Downstairs, the sounds of squabbling had ceased. Charli's nape prickled. If her parents weren't fighting, that most likely meant someone was engaged in conversation with "Carlotta's fella."
With a defeated sigh, she rose and shambled into her parents' room, where she extracted Mama's pink cardigan from the high chest of drawers. She descended the stairs, wishing this accursed date were already behind her.
"What line of work are you in?" she heard Papa ask.
The smooth, cultured voice answered, "I'm an attorney. I've been with Farman, Van Cleave and Holm for five years now."
"No kiddin'. You down there on Wall Street?"
At the bottom of the stairs, Charli took a deep breath. She composed her features and crossed the small entrance foyer to the living room, reserved strictly for company. It had always been res
Papa was doing his lord-of-the-manor imitation, holding forth from a chintz-covered wing chair. Grandma Rossi—the rotund, black-clad doyenne of the family—was perched on the other wing chair, her sensible shoes not quite touching the carpet, her iron-gray hair scraped back into its usual bun. Charli's gaze homed in on the gentleman sitting on one end of the shrink-wrapped sofa.
What struck her immediately was his maturity; he appeared to be around forty. The last time she'd gone out with a man—yes, over three years earlier—both she and her date had been twenty-six. That had been Tim McMurty, a divorced plumbing contractor and the son of one of Papa's fishing buddies. Tim hadn't called her again. She'd heard he'd remarried.
Charli stepped into the living room. Her date noticed her. After the first, fleeting instant, he concealed his disappointment like a gentleman, rising with a flat, polite smile, his hand extended. Charli wanted to slink back upstairs, pull her quilt over her head and hibernate for a month.
"You must be Charli," he said. "I'm Grant Sterling." He was around six feet tall, with neatly trimmed, light brown hair and a direct hazel gaze that she suspected didn't miss much. He wore a heathery-gray silk blazer over a white linen shirt and gray slacks. No necktie—the shirt was open at the throat
She forced herself to return his smile. "It's nice to meet you."
Mama bustled in, carrying a tray laden with a Pepperidge Farm cookie assortment and her best china dessert plates. "Coffee will be ready in a minute."
"Mama, we can't stay for coffee," Charli said, scooting into the entrance hall and snatching her brown shoulder bag off the console table.
"I told you to take my pink straw handbag! That brown thing looks like luggage!" Mama set the tray on the coffee table. "You have time for a cookie. Sit. We'll talk, get to know one another."
"We have reservations," Charli blurted, and looked quickly at Grant, wondering if it was true. She had no idea where he was taking her.
He turned to Mama. "That's right, Mrs. Rossi. If we're even five minutes late for our eight-o'clock dinner reservations, we lose them. And with that construction they're doing on the Cross Island Parkway
, it could take us a while to get into the city."
"You're going to the city?" asked Papa, who hadn't been to Manhattan since John Glenn's ticker-tape parade in '62. "There's plenty of nice restaurants out here on the Island."
"You have time for one cookie," Mama insisted. "Sit."
Grandma spoke up. "Betty, they don't have time. Lasciarli andare! Let them go!"
Grant made a show of checking his watch. With a rueful shrug he said, "I'm afraid I'll have to take a rain check. Thanks anyway, Mrs. Rossi." He thrust out his hand to Papa, who heaved his bulk out of the wing chair. "It was a pleasure, sir."
"Likewise." Papa shook Grant's hand, clearly impressed by his manners. "When are you gonna have her home?"
Grandma tossed her arms skyward. "Carlotta's a grown woman, Joey. She'll be home when she's home."
He stabbed his chest with a blunt finger. "I'm her father!"
"She's thirty years old!" Mama screeched, while Grandma winced at her daughter-in-law's indiscretion. "She doesn't have to be home by eleven."
Charli thought Grant would be happy to have her home by nine, but all she said as she backed toward the front door was, "Don't wait up."
Outside, it was nearly dark, and cool enough that Charli was forced to put on Mama's stodgy pink cardigan. Grant opened the passenger door of the silver Infiniti sedan parked at the curb, and she slid onto the chilly, leather-upholstered seat. Neither of them said anything as he got in behind the wheel and pulled out, headed for the highway. Charli fought the impulse to apologize. This couldn't have been what Grant had anticipated when he'd agreed to this blind date.
What had Raven told him about her? And what on earth had made Raven think that a worldly, sophisticated man like Grant Sterling would be interested in someone like Charli?
Finally she broke the silence. "Thanks for helping me get us out of there. My parents can be a little … overinvolved."
"No problem. One of the hazards of living with your folks, I suppose."
Something in his tone needled her. "They need someone to take care of them," she said. "Mama and Papa are both in their seventies. And Nonni, my grandma, she's ninety-three."
Grant glanced at her as he pulled onto the highway entrance ramp. "So they were in their forties when they had you?"
She nodded. "I'm the youngest of eight children."
"Don't any of your siblings help out?"
"Not really. They all live nearby, but they're all married, with families of their own. They're too busy, so—" she shrugged "—it's up to me. I don't mind." Charli didn't tell him the rest, that in her family's strict view, "nice" unmarried daughters didn't leave home to set up their own households. It simply wasn't done. She felt compelled to add, "It's not as if taking care of them is my whole life."
"Raven said you're a teacher?"
"I teach instrumental music at Courtland Park High School. My alma mater."
Grant emitted a grunt of interest, feigned, no doubt. She sensed he was casting about for a politely enthusiastic comment, and that irked her. Her work gave her enormous satisfaction; it was the one arena in which she consistently felt confident, productive and appreciated. She might not be some hotshot Wall Street lawyer like Grant Sterling, but that didn't mean her career didn't deserve respect.
But she couldn't think of a way to convey her pride that didn't sound defensive and unladylike, and the moment passed. It was just as well. What he must already think of her!
They didn't talk much during the remainder of the ride into Manhattan. Grant didn't even try to find a space on the street, but pulled into a pricey parking garage a half block from the restaurant he'd chosen. Charli's eyes grew round when she saw where he'd brought her.
"You don't like Japanese?" he asked.
"I don't know. I've never had it."
He showed no surprise.
"Well, I had a chicken teriyaki salad once. In a little bistro near the school." Charli had never set foot in a Japanese restaurant.
"It's strictly sushi here," Grant said. "No grilled dishes. Bad choice?"
He must have thought she was the most unsophisticated woman he'd ever met. Everyone ate sushi nowadays. It had been standard fare in New York for the past couple of decades. Raven and Amanda dined at the local sushi restaurant all the time. Amanda had actually taken a class to learn how to make it. Even Sunny, whose tastes ran to burgers and fries, had tried it a few times.
With a patience bordering on condescension, he said, "We can go somewhere else."
Charli's throat felt tight; heat stung her cheeks. "No. You made reservations. And—and I've been meaning to try sushi."
Grant's patience began to slip. "It's no problem. We'll go somewhere else." He hauled a tiny cellular phone out of his breast pocket and thumbed a button; it beeped. "Do you like steak?"
"I said I'd like to eat here, Grant." Charli pulled open the door of the restaurant and looked at him expectantly. After a moment he slipped the phone back in his pocket and held the door for her.
The interior of the restaurant was elegant and exotic, marked by soft lighting and clean lines. Lilting Asian music played softly in the background. Blond wood predominated, along with Japanese prints and silk hangings. The aromas were subtle, alien, not unpleasant. A kimono-clad hostess showed them to their table, which was set low to the floor in a booth separated from others by paper shoji screens.
Grant slipped off his loafers and placed them at the edge of the booth, leaving his feet dad in thin, charcoal-gray socks.
Charli looked at the low table in dismay. "We're supposed to sit on the floor?"
"When in Tokyo…"
There were regular tables, too,
He waited while she removed her pumps. Charli wished the left heel of her panty hose didn't have a small hole sealed by a dollop of clear nail polish. She experienced a funny jolt seeing her shoes set neatly next to Grant's. The little tableau looked deceptively intimate.
Grant offered his hand as she lowered herself onto the straw tatami mat that covered the floor. First she tried keeping her legs together, tucking them to one side, but that was awkward and uncomfortable. Clumsily she shifted into a cross-legged position, pulling her skirt around her knees.
With a fluid grace, he settled opposite her as a waitress arrived to present menus and take their drink order. She set down a small bamboo dish containing two rolled white washcloths.
"Have you ever tried sake?" Grant asked Charli.
"No, but I've always wanted to." This was, in fact, true, although she doubted he believed her.
Grant ordered the sake, and the waitress left them. Charli smiled lamely, racking her brain for something to say. "So you're one of Raven's hypnotherapy clients? Oh." She covered her mouth, wishing she'd kept it shut.
Her chagrin seemed to amuse him. "Am I supposed to be embarrassed about trying hypnosis to help improve my golf swing?" He handed her a startlingly hot washcloth and unrolled the other for his own use.
"Well, I guess not." She followed his lead, wiping her hands with the cloth and depositing it back on the little dish. "I just thought, you know, it's a kind of therapy. Maybe you didn't want anyone to know."
"God help me if that's my most intriguing secret. Let's see." He opened the menu. "The young lady has never eaten raw fish."
Did he have to put it like that? She'd been trying not to think of it as raw fish.
Call it sushi. Everyone eats sushi.
Against her will, her eyes strayed to the little display card on the table, showing photographs of the restaurant's various offerings, one of which was clearly octopus. A raw little tentacle with suckers and everything. She wondered if it clung to the plate when you tried to eat it.
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