Jen clicked through dozens of beautiful faces matched to enthusiastic texts praising Soul Mates, an online dating service.
“Everyone gets a happily ever after, yeah right,” she muttered.
Finally she came to what she was looking for: a personal ad with the heading, “Trapped in Tiny Town.” She clicked to read more. “I’m a widowed, thirty-six-year-old white male. Current career and love of the outdoors keep me living in a small town.”
Jen skimmed over his interests; books and cooking were the only ones they seemed to share. “I’m looking for someone who’s able to see into the heart.” Corny weirdo, Jen thought. “Someone who knows herself, her strengths and weaknesses and isn’t afraid to say what she wants. Picture not necessary.” Jen reread the last line three times.
“They were right. That is interesting,” she said aloud. She took a mouthful of lukewarm coffee and hesitated over the “contact me” link, then shook her head slightly and clicked X. Tiny Town man disappeared.
They. Kyra Thomas and Chelsea Hamilton. Her friends. They were always hounding her about the great possibilities of Internet dating. Jen glanced toward a picture on the bookshelf beside her. A girl with long cinnamon-colored hair smiled from her perch on a huge driftwood stump. She had a pretty face—small nose, full lips, nice teeth and large gray-green eyes that matched the ocean behind her. The girl was tired of hearing about her face, Jen knew. She smiled wistfully at the photo. It was pretty though. Great cheek bones, in spite of the fact that the girl weighed almost three hundred pounds. It was a cruel prompt for people who wanted the “best” for her, reminding them to nag, “You’d be so beautiful if you just lost weight. Look at your face.”
In the past, Jen always managed to steer Kyra and Chelsea away from their favorite activity of trying to find her a man. Probably because they didn’t have faith, even with their infamous matchmaking abilities, that they could find somebody who’d see past her girth. But now that fat Jenni Robertson had transformed into slim and slender Jen? Now it was a whole new game, and nothing Jen said convinced them of the truth: she didn’t want to date right now.
Jen reached out and touched the girl in the photo. The glass was cold to her touch and the girl behind it kept smiling, unmoved.
She sighed and got to her feet. Twelve-thirty. She’d better move it, if she was going to get to her lunch appointment on time.
# # #
Warm air and the buttery scent of fresh bread greeted Jen as she burst through the door to Yum, an aptly named restaurant from the smell of it. Gale force winds propelled the rain in after her. A bright yellow plastic triangle showed a stick person falling onto his tailbone, and black lettering warned, “Caution, Floors Slippery When Wet.”
You think? Jen thought.
The laminate flooring in front of the door was slick with water, the rust-colored floor mat sodden and useless.
“Brrrrrrrr,” she said with a small shudder.
“Another bright, crisp fall day in Vancouver, eh?” someone said to her left. Jen looked up into the wry smile of a silver-haired woman, who was folding up an umbrella decorated with orange and blue cats.
“Yeah, no one gets liquid sunshine like us,” Jen said. The woman chuckled.
Jen brushed rainwater off her navy coat sleeves, and scanned the blur of chatting customers. Finally, across the room by a foggy multipaned window, she spotted Kyra’s trademark blond head bent close toward Chelsea’s shining chestnut one. Jen waved, but they didn’t look up.
“I’ll have the spinach salad with mandarin oranges, no bread, please,” Jen told the girl at the counter. “And an iced tea, no sugar.”
She handed the girl fifteen dollars. “Have a nice day. Keep the change.”
“You too. Thanks a lot.” The cashier took a frazzled second to smile at Jen.
“Beautiful and generous? There’s a combo a guy could grow to love,” boomed a male voice from behind her. Jen’s cheeks heated as people turned to look at her. She ignored the comment and grabbed cutlery.
“Hey Red, don’t leave. I was talking to you.” The words followed her as she dodged briefcases and terracotta planters of bushy plants to her friends’ table. It wasn’t until she sat down that she glanced back at the counter. The yeller was her age, give or take, and good-looking in an “I know I’m attractive” way that Jen hated. He was still staring. She smiled sweetly and flipped her middle finger, then turned back to her friends.
“And how are you guys?” she asked, setting her food down and easing her heavy backpack off, shoving it under the table.
“You’re so hostile,” Kyra said, laughing. “You’ll never meet a guy if you do that every time one talks to you.”
“He’s obviously a pig. He had it coming,” Chelsea said.
“Yeah, if he’s any indicator of the available guys out there, I’m staying single,” Jen said.
There was a second’s pause, and they all grinned.
“So what’s new, you guys? I tried to get your attention a zillion times—”
Chelsea shrugged. “Nothing much.” Then, as Jen hung her jacket on a nearby coat tree, she added, “That’s a great sweater, Jen. You should bring in Irish sweaters, Kyra.”
Kyra rolled a bit of the soft wool at Jen’s cuff between her fingers.
“Well, they are warm and snug, but nah, I don’t think so.”
“Not enough cleavage showing?” Jen asked.
Kyra’s green eyes laughed. “You know me well, but, hey, considering you’re dressed like a logger, you look good.”
“Gee, thanks. Not quite the look I was going for, but I thought dressing warmly was weather appropriate. It’s hideous out there. My hair’s drenched. How come you’re not soaked?”
“Just lucky. It was bone-dry when I left the shop, but speaking of hair . . .” Kyra flicked a honey-yellow wave over her shoulder and tilted her chin. “What do you think? Two shades lighter. Does it work?” She gave them the other side of her profile.
“It must. I can’t see a difference. Isn’t blond just blond?”
Chelsea scrutinized Kyra’s sleek tresses. “Don’t be silly, Jen. It’s totally noticeable. It looks great.”
“Well, thank you. I can always count on you. Jimmy and I were just discussing that.”
Jen cringed. Why couldn’t Kyra call him James like he himself did?
“He thinks it’s amazing that I have friends that I’ve had since grade two.”
“It is kind of amazing, and it means I should be used to our coincidences, but I’m not—nice bag.” Chelsea motioned at Kyra’s bag, then at her own tucked beneath the table. The two leather-paneled bags were identical. “Winners. Thirty bucks.”
Kyra sniffed, indicating that she’d paid a lot more for hers somewhere else.
“Thankfully, I was left out of the matching clothes talk show you guys started in high school,” Jen said. “I had my own sitcom, Jen wears what fits, with riveting episodes like, ‘Gray sweatpants month,’ ‘Back in jeans finally week!’ and, the classic, ‘Oh no, I’m wearing a tent dress!’”
“You’re not funny,” Chelsea said, but she and Kyra laughed.
Jen raised an eyebrow. “So I see.” She dug into her food, and Kyra did too, after removing the top bun from her sandwich. Jen reached for the discarded bread, then pulled her hand back before taking it.
Chelsea noticed her restraint and gave a thumbs-up that Jen pretended not to see.
“So what’s keeping you so busy these days?” Jen asked Chelsea once her initial hunger abated.
“Same old, same old. Brianne’s twelve-going-on-fifteen. Dina’s Dina—I don’t know. They just aren’t toddlers anymore.” Chelsea fiddled with her watchband.
The movement caught Jen’s eye and made her smile. A watch on her wrist, a ladybug pendant around her neck that revealed a clock face if you opened its shining silver wings. Chelsea and her watch fetish. She probably had an alarm clock in her purse. Jen smiled broader and was about to make a joke, when something in Chelsea’s face stopped her.
“And my mom and Richard—” Chelsea interrupted herself. “No, never mind, it’s boring.” She stabbed a piece of tomato.
“Are you okay?” Jen asked.
Chelsea started to shake her head, then nodded. “Yeah, yeah, fine. Just my crazy mother’s stressing me out, as usual. And things are hectic for Ted. He’s pouring every bit of himself into the business right now. I’ve actually told him he needs to start being there for me and the girls, or we won’t be around for him.”
“You said that?” Jen looked at Kyra’s uneaten bread. She really should’ve ordered bread.
“I did.” There was something like pride mingled with surprise in Chelsea’s voice. “Not that it helped much. It’s really not his fault that everyone and their dog is moving to the suburbs and building a house. I may razz you about being single, but honestly, sometimes I think I’m the lonelier one.”
Jen frowned. “Yikes, Chels. Things are that bad?”
Chelsea started to reply, but Kyra interrupted.
“Oh, come on. Ted’s a doll. He totally dotes on you. Men are different than us. They need more space.”
“Well, I’m not interested in being the maid. And if it’s space he wants, it can be arranged.” Chelsea continued to rub her pendant’s chain back and forth between her finger and thumb, and something in Jen’s stomach clenched. She shot Kyra a look, but Kyra seemed oblivious.
“You don’t mean it. You guys are great together. And speaking of Ted, he’s that busy? Rats. I want to renovate again, and was hoping if I got quotes, he’d tell me if guys are trying to rip me off.”
“Chels, is that a tear? Are you crying?” Jen asked.
“No,” Chelsea said, rubbing a finger along the lower lid of her left eye with impatient speed. “Don’t be silly. My eye’s just irritated by an eyelash. And you’re totally right, Kyra. Ted is great. The kids are great. We’re great. I’m sure he’ll give you feedback, no problem.”
Which is real? wondered Jen. The bitter side she rarely saw in Chelsea or this cheery optimism about her and her prince? Maybe both, she decided.
“It’s normal to have rough patches once in awhile. Ted’s a good guy, but you’ve been together forever. It only makes sense that you have to work things out occasionally,” Jen said.
Chelsea nodded and relaxed her grip on her necklace.
“And how are you and James?” Jen asked, emphasizing James.
“Oh, great. But you know how the beginnings of relationships are. All romance and wine.” Kyra took a big mouthful of grilled pepper salad. “Mmmmm, this stuff’s to die for. Try?” She waved a forkful, offering. Jen and Chelsea shook their heads, and Kyra continued. “Actually, I think he’s the one.”
Jen and Chelsea laughed.
“At least one of us believes that all romantic love is not in vain, that true love lingers just around the corner,” Jen said.
“And that men are worthy of our love,” Chelsea finished.
“Of course it does. Of course they are.” Kyra’s mouth tightened and her eyebrows knit together for a moment, but then, just as quickly, she seemed mollified by a new thought. “Hey, speaking of true love just around the corner, did you look up the Tiny Town man? Doesn’t he sound great?”
Truth or lie? “Right, speaking of that. Thanks for signing me up without my consent.”
Kyra and Chelsea didn’t even bother to feign remorse.
“But yes . . . I checked out his ad just before coming here.”
“And?” asked Kyra.
“But?” asked Chelsea.
“And? And he sounds better than most of the idiots you think would suit me, I guess. His last line is intriguing, if he means it. But . . .” Jen smiled at Chelsea for knowing her so well. “But it’s probably just a ploy to make women think ‘Ah, finally. A sensitive male free from our society’s body and beauty myths—’” Jen crossed her eyes.
“Does that mean you’re going to contact him?”
“Definitely not,” Jen said.
“Come on, what do you have to lose?”
“Gee, I don’t know. My time? My sanity? Who knows?” Jen propped her elbows on the table, and grinned at Kyra’s exasperated exhale.
“He could be the one.”
“I don’t believe in ‘the one’ anymore.”
“Of course there’s a one.”
Jen rolled her eyes. “Give me a break. You’ve had a new ‘the one’ every year or two since we were fifteen. By my count, you’ve had at least ten soul mates.”
Kyra’s green eyes narrowed to slits. “At least I try. At least I don’t hide behind a bunch of flab and resent it when men don’t like me, then lose weight and resent it when they do.”
“Kyra, stop . . . ” Chelsea’s soft reprimand was ignored. She twisted a strand of hair around her finger and watched her friends.
“Maybe I don’t have to have a man every minute of the day.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was saying, that you need a man every minute of the day—once in five years might be nice though. Seriously, a man can’t even say hello to you. Like that guy—” Kyra glanced around the restaurant until she laid her gaze on Jen’s admirer. “He seemed nice enough, and he was cute.”
As if sensing their glance, the man looked their way. Jen shielded her face with her hand, and studied her food.
“Stop looking! I don’t want him to think I’m remotely interested.”
“Let’s consider the source on that one.”
“Would you two please shut up? Everyone’s staring.”
A few heads had turned and two teenagers were laughing, possibly at them, it was hard to tell. Hardly everyone, Jen thought.
“I just don’t see why you won’t cut me some slack. Why the hell does it matter to you whether I’m with some guy or not?”
“It doesn’t matter to me a bit. I couldn’t care less if you—”
“Come on, you guys, come on. Don’t fight. Kyra, it’s fine for Jen to be single. Jen, it’s nice that Kyra has someone to love. Be happy for each other.”
“Good grief, Chels. You treat us like kids. ‘Don’t fight, guys. Be nice now,’” Jen mimicked lightly.
“Well, if you two wouldn’t act like adolescents—”
“Jen, if you’d give people, including men, a chance, they would like you,” Kyra said. “That was true before, it’s true now.”
“I’m sure.” Jen dismissed the compliment with the shake of her head, her face warm. “I know you’re just getting the last word in, but for what’s it worth, I meant the comment about your soul mates to be funny, but it came out bitchy. I’m sorry.”
Chelsea muttered something about crazy friends, and let go of the strand of hair she’d been mangling.
“Whatever.” Kyra shrugged. “I didn’t mean that thing about you hiding behind your weight either. I’m sorry.”
“Now, that’s better.” Chelsea patted Kyra’s arm. When she was finally rewarded with a grudging smile, she added, “And stop pointing out how fabulous you think Ted is, or I’m going to let you live with him for a few months.”
Jen and Kyra let out catcalls.
“Oh, be quiet. Be quiet.”
Kyra and Jen smirked, then Kyra disappeared to the lunch counter, returning shortly with a huge wedge of cheesecake topped with strawberries and chocolate.
“Dessert,” Jen said in an exaggerated, dreamy voice.
“Yes, Jen, that’s what they call this.”
“And just for the record,” Kyra said a few minutes later, licking a drop of chocolate from her finger, “any of the men I’ve loved could’ve been the one. Think about it. What if I chickened out, gave up, and missed out on the one who really was the one?”
Jen and Chelsea exchanged a look.
“What are we supposed to say to that logic?” Jen asked.
“Absolutely nothing,” Chelsea agreed.
“See, I’m right.”
“I wouldn’t go that far—”
Jen was interrupted by a muffled beeping sound coming from one of the purses. She groaned.
“Is that you, Chels?”
Chelsea nodded a bit sheepishly.
“What is it this time? You need to have a drink? Go for a pee?” Jen asked.
Chelsea shook her head. “You mock, but notice how I’m never the late one?” She silenced the alarm on her phone. “I’ve got to run and pick up the girls.”
“Seriously? I thought Ted was going to get them today.”
Chelsea tucked a wave of hair behind her ear and gave Jen an apologetic grimace. “Couldn’t. The girls have a dance recital, so he can’t work tonight. He asked if I’d grab them, so he can do a little more before he leaves for the evening.”
Jen groaned. “That sucks. It’s not like you get out that often. So what are we going to do without her, Kyra?”
“Well, actually . . .” Kyra studied her empty dessert plate.
“No, are you kidding? You have to go too?”
“I’m sorry. I thought Chelsea’d be staying longer. I accidentally made overlapping engagements.”
“But we just got here! I turned down other plans because we were hanging out.”
“I’m sorry, Jen. I just never get to see Jimmy during the day and since I was taking the whole afternoon off—”
“You’re dumping me for James?” Jen picked up her napkin, scrunched it, then placed it on her dirty plate.
“What does ‘James’ mean?”
“Nothing, nothing. Forget it,” Jen paused. “Are we still on for Saturday though? Shopping for a whole new wardrobe? I can’t believe it’s my one-year anniversary. I’m going to own more than one pair of jeans again, imagine!”
Chelsea blushed. Kyra tapped her pointer fingers together.
“Volleyball tournament. And I said they could have friends sleep over. Ted’ll kill me if I desert him with them after harassing him to stay around more.”
“Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Can we reschedule for Sunday?”
“Well, I was going to go to church—”
“Never mind, Jen. Sunday doesn’t actually work for me either, I just remembered. How about Monday?”
“I have to work—”
“Come on, Jen, please? You build websites at odd hours all the time. It’s not like Dave makes you punch a time clock. You work at home. Can’t you work Sunday instead? Church doesn’t last all day.” Kyra smiled with dimples at Jen, then looked to Chelsea for reinforcement. “Would you be able to come if it was Monday instead, Chels?”
Chelsea fidgeted with her watchband. “I think so, I think so . . . but I feel bad about today. What are you going to do?”
“Read for a bit, I guess,” Jen said, nudging her backpack with her foot. “Then hit the gym maybe.”
Chelsea’s eye rested on Jen’s stuffed pack. “You brought your library with you as usual? Well, I don’t feel quite so bad then.”
“Yes, that settles it,” Kyra said with finality. “Jen’s at eleven, Monday. It’ll be great, Jen. We’ll celebrate. It’ll be your day.”
“Sure. Sounds good.”
Chelsea squeezed Jen’s shoulder, her face wrinkling in another wordless apology, and then she and Kyra hurried to the door.
Jen looked at her watch. A whole afternoon to kill, and then a whole evening. She couldn’t believe she’d turned down plans with Dave and Lana for . . . this. She tapped through some downloads on her e-reader. Can Man Live Without God—interesting question, but she wasn’t in the mood. A book about sugar addiction—ugh, definitely not. The latest Jodi Picoult? Maybe—no. She finally settled on a graphic novel. Soon she, an elderly couple, and a group of women around her own age were the only ones left in the restaurant. She read for a while, but stopped when she realized she’d read the same page twice and still couldn’t recall what it said.
On the way out of the restaurant, a display of chips caught her eye. Corn chips. Jen looked at them for a long moment, then reached into her bag and rummaged for change.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Want to read on? I hope so! Enjoy your own BIGGER THINGS today.
Add BIGGER THINGS to your Kindle library (or the bookshelf in your living room!) as a single title HERE.
OR grab it as part of this 9-novel box set where secrets and suspense abound! Just .99 or FREE on KU HERE.
*At this time BIGGER THINGS is only available on Amazon (in paperback and Kindle formats).