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Book Jacket

1591453291
Trade Paperback
256 pages
Apr 2006
Integrity Publishers

A Girl's Best Friend, The Spa Girls Series #2

by Kristin Billerbeck

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

There are plenty of fish in the sea. But really, there’s not.

It’s not just our imaginations. It would be great if decent men were as plentiful as jumping salmon in a rushing river, but they aren’t. For every Mr. Darcy (and he’s married, incidentally) there are a hundred Mr. Wickhams. Or in more contemporary terms, for every one of Colin Firth, there are several thousand Hugh Grants. The odds are against us. But what can I say—I’m a romantic, and I can’t abandon the fantasy of Prince Charming altogether. What girl with a heart can? I mean, I’m not asking to feed the 5,000; I just want one good fish!

I should give up the dream. Especially now, when common sense dictates that anyone possessing an IQ might want to take serious stock. If I were in battle, the general would yell, “Retreat! Retreat, stupid!”

I did graduate from college—a good one in fact, so I definitely know better. I read that women’s brains have their neurons more tightly packed than men’s, and consequently we process things faster. Apparently, I’m currently experiencing a bad circuit. Or complete and utter synapse failure. I’m not quite sure which.

I scan the newspaper’s headline again and then clasp my eyes shut, hoping when I open them this will be all over. But I open one eye slightly, and then the other, and I feel my strength leave me when I catch sight of the words again.

“This is not happening.” I slink down into the overstuffed sofa and focus on the chenille texture. I hear myself cry out, though I have nothing left for tears. It’s sort of a dry heave of sobs, a pathetic remainder of what was once a full-blown emotional wave. I suppose it is time to be moving on from this existence. It’s too much work to cry anymore.

“I hope now you’ll listen to your father when he suggests a man. He only has your best interests at heart.” Mrs. Henry, our family maid, grabs the newspaper from me and crumples it before shoving it in a black plastic bag. She has always spoken to me like I’m four. But in her defense, I often leave the thinking to those around me. Why be bothered with petty issues like my opinions?

“No, please don’t!” I reach out for the paper, and she pulls the bag away. I try to show her my pink, puffy face for a little sympathy, but she just looks away. Mrs. Henry probably ouldn’t be moved by the average steamroller.

“Enough. We all make mistakes; now it’s time you got over yours.”

Mrs. Henry has never had a first name, though she’s been a fixture in our home for over twenty years. She dresses like Mrs. Doubtfire, exudes the warmth of a chilled cactus, and is under the distinct impression this is her home. Not ours.

I don’t have the strength to fight her today. I allow her to pick up my feet from the coffee table and pluck the graveyard of balled-up Kleenex into her bag, her hand pecking like a determined chicken.

I wish I could just get over it. I’d relish the opportunity, but I’m not made of hearty German stock like Mrs. Henry. I feel everything far too intensely. That’s always been my problem: an inordinate amount of emotions and guilt. A powerful combination of fuel to the explosive mental fire.

As Mrs. Henry drops the garbage bag for another task, I pull the newspaper back out and stick it under a decorative pillow. I smile at her when she looks at me and the bag. “The place looks great,” I say, feeling a tad guilty. Just a tad. Part of me still wants to run through the house dropping Kleenex like the bread crumbs in “Hansel and Gretel.” I am human.

I sneak another look at the picture on the newspaper and my stomach flutters again. I keep waiting for someone to come in laughing and say, “It was all just a joke. You’ve been punk’d!” But that’s not going to happen, and I keep having to stare at his handsome face, trying to reconcile my emotions with what the police have said is the truth.

“There’s a new Chronicle if you truly want to wallow.” Mrs. Henry pulls out the morning newspaper, all crisp and pristine in its fresh round of hatred. On today’s front page is the picture of me in a wedding gown, being carried off the fashion show runway.

“Jilted Jewelry Heiress’s Lover Jailed,” the paper shouts at me in charcoal black.

“He was not my lover!” I say to Mrs. Henry.

“But you are the Jilted Jewelry Heiress?” Mrs. Henry gives her best look of disgust and leaves the room.

It’s a good thing there’s nothing within reach for handy throwing!

I look at the picture of me, with a wistful smile on my face as I’m literally swept off my feet, and the corners of my mouth actually begin to turn up at the memory. Even with the way this ended, I still feel joy well up inside me like a perfect soap bubble as it lifts to the sky, its slick rainbow sides glistening with color.

Well, more like the oily dregs in a puddle at the gas station, really. I look at that picture again, and note I look good. I’m happy. Even if it was brief, and a complete mockery of the emotion, it felt good.

Lilly Jacobs, my best friend and fashion designer, had begged me to do her fashion show.

“You’ll be the talk of San Francisco!” she claimed.

And wasn’t it the truth.

I know people don’t generally think of me as shy, but I don’t like the limelight. It’s been thrust on me daily because of my birth, but I would have been just as happy to be in the back, pinning models and guarding my father’s jewelry, which Lilly borrowed for the show. Really, I would have.

But then on that runway, I saw him. Oh, it was such a perfect, incredible moment. His eyes met mine, and everything that had passed between us was said in that moment. I love you, my eyes whispered. There is only our future now.

Maybe if I hadn’t been in the wedding dress . . . But when I’d first looked at myself in the mirror . . . that elegant gown, clinging in all the right places . . . If only I hadn’t had that Grace Kelly fantasy, maybe I wouldn’t be here now.

However, as it was, I jumped into his arms willingly.

“You’ve come back for me.”

“I never would have left, but I had to make something of myself,” he said, and we fell into a kiss. A stunning and vibrant kiss that made my body shout with joy.

“I love you, Andy Mattingly.”

It was the last thing I said before he whisked me off into the San Francisco sunset.

From there, things got decidedly worse. I started remembering the returned letters, the disconnected phone numbers, the postage due for my “Dear Morgan” letter. Those types of irritating things, like the bad, itchy tag in the back of a new, luxurious silk T-shirt.

“Why didn’t you answer my letters?” I demanded.

“I couldn’t contact you until I’d made it big, Morgan. You mean too much to me. I had to prove to your father I could provide for you.”

Oh, well, okay.

As he whisked me to the waiting limo, I realized his music contract must have come through. I was going to marry a Christian rock star. How cool was that?

Andy Mattingly wears charm like expensive cologne. It clings to him sweetly, masking his motives and blinding me with its intoxicating power. His words are like honey, and when they drizzled over me that day, I became paralyzed in the sticky film. My brain simply shut down and I wanted whatever he said to be true. It was so good, who wouldn’t want it to be true?

As we ran onto the street, breaking away from the security guards watching my father’s diamond pieces, I thought only briefly about my father’s worried face and Lilly’s fashion show becoming a spectacle. In my mind, I knew they’d rejoice for me and I sang that old Howard Jones song, “No One is to Blame.”

Andy Mattingly had rescued me from a life of social rudgery and familial duty. No longer would I have to answer to my father’s every whim or parade around in front of San Francisco matrons so they could inspect my father’s latest diamond acquisition.

I am free! I thought.

“Where to, Mr. Schwartz?” the limo driver asked.

“Schwartz? You stole Max Schwartz’s limo?” I was incredulous.

This should have been my first clue. He had indeed stolen Lilly’s boyfriend’s waiting limo and I was his accomplice. Not night in a shambles. It had been her turn. Her night to shine.

“What was I thinking?” I say aloud, tossing a Kleenex on the floor.

“You were thinking, ‘What I really need is a good spa date with my Spa Girls, but I want the big bed at the spa, and this is my chance. Because normally, my life is so perfect. I never get the bed to myself.’”

I look up to see my best friends since college, my Spa Girls: Lilly Jacobs and Dr. Poppy Clayton. Lilly is the designer who got me into this mess. Poppy is the accessory who helped her, convincing me I was the perfect showstopper.

Well, if that wasn’t the truth . . .

“You know,” I say accusingly to them as they approach. “If I hadn’t been in a couture wedding gown during fashion week, my humiliation would have been my own private misery. Perhaps even a figment of my imagination. But no—”

I hold up the paper for them to see. “No, being in a wedding gown made me the talk over San Francisco cornflakes. The west’s newest, dumbest blonde.”

“Get over it,” Lilly says, plopping down into a chair and fingering a nearby Lladro figurine. “Life is full of bad surprises. Think of mine when I had to take a cab home that night. I mean, I get a write-up in Women’s Wear Daily, and I have to take a cab. What a letdown. So are you coming with us to the spa?”

I sit up on the sofa. “Actually, I’m not really up to a spa date. I was thinking about what I was going to do with my life now that I’m a convicted adulterer without so much as a trial.” Well, I may not be an adulteress, but I’m certainly guilty of extreme lack of common sense.

Poppy shrugs. “So you can do that at the spa. Ask Lilly—her life was crap a few months ago. The spa helped, right Lilly?”

Lilly purses her lips. “As Poppy so eloquently puts it, yes, my life was . . . less than stellar. The spa and thinking through things definitely helped. Come play with us.”

Lilly comes towards me, takes the newspaper from my hands, and gazes at Andy’s mug shot. “I gotta say, he’s a finelooking specimen. Even in a mug shot. If it makes you feel any better, I’d have gone willingly, too, Morgan. It’s not just that he’s handsome; he’s got that Tom Cruise charm, the kind that makes you say, ‘I know better, but what the heck?’”

“Come on and get ready. What else are you going to do?”

Poppy asks.

“The media might follow us,” I explain. I seem to have become Madonna overnight, with flashing bulbs and microphones stuffed in my face. It wouldn’t have been any big deal if I hadn’t been engaged to another man a few months ago.

But between one fiancé dying and this one going to jail, I am currently the Black Widow. Or more appropriately, the Spinster of Death.

Poppy shrugs. “So the press will see Lilly trying to sneak pickles and Diet Pepsi into the spa. It’s not like we have a lot to hide, Morgan. We’re far too boring for that.”

“I’m not bringing pickles,” Lilly fires back. “Nana made us biscotti. That new boyfriend of hers has her baking.”

At this point, my father comes walking into the room carrying a big, silver box. “Hi, girls,” he says absently, then bends over an outlet and plugs in the box. It’s a sign that reads (in sparkly lights, I might add), “San Francisco’s Jeweler. Your Jeweler for Life.”

“What are you doing with that, Dad?” I ask, knowing full well I don’t want the answer.

“The press is at my door every day hoping to get a glimpse of you, and look at this!” He lifts the newspaper and shakes it. “They don’t get the store name when they shoot the shop.”

He starts to shake his head. “But this way—” He drops the paper and holds up his index finger. “This way, they can’t help but show the shop name. If we’re going to get publicity, we should make use of it. Bring all these gossip-mongers into the shop and bam!” He slaps the box. “Before they know it, they’re applying for in-store credit.”

“Maybe we should just get a sandwich board made and I can walk around Union Square handing out flyers,” I suggest.

“Would you do that?” he asks excitedly, then notices my expression. “No, no, of course, you’re kidding. She’s kidding me, girls. She likes to make fun of her old man.” Then he wags his finger at me, though I notice he doesn’t relinquish his grip on the tacky sign. In all likelihood, the upscale merchants of Union Square will have his sign down in a week, but he won’t care; it will be long enough to serve his purpose.

I’m sure he factored all that into the cost.

“You know what they say, Dad. Any publicity is good publicity.”

“All my male customers are afraid to come in. They don’t want to be caught on the front page of the Chronicle. The least we can do is market new business—mine the ore, as it were.”

Then he drops his head, and his mouth comes open as he pauses.

I love his dramatic pauses; they’re meant to give you the impression that he just can’t bear to say what he must.

Naturally, he always says it, and if there ever is any remorse, I’ve certainly never seen it.

“You couldn’t get into the paper for getting engaged to San Francisco’s wealthiest bachelor like Lilly? Lilly, when am I going to see that boy in my store?” He holds up a finger before she can muster an answer, and I give him the look that politely tells him to shut up. Not that he usually listens, but I see him snap his jaw shut, and I feel a wave of relief. “Before you all go running off, I have something for you, Morgan.” He opens a velvet box and inside is an extraordinary blue diamond ring. “You need to wear this. We’ll get more publicity if you put it on your left hand.”

“But that’s not going to happen,” I tell him.

“Fine, fine. Wear it on your right. But if anyone asks, I am now the purveyor of the best blue diamonds in the United States. That’s just a taste. That’s three carats, VVS-quality surrounded in platinum. The ring can be designed to their taste.”

“Who’s taste, Dad? I’m not invited anywhere.”

He waves me off. “You will be. Slide it on.”

I put the ring on with a big sigh. “Happy?”

“You sure you won’t wear it on the left hand? Then, the newspapers would wonder if you were engaged again, and—”

“Dad!”

“All right.”

Lilly and Poppy are both staring at my dad with their mouths ready to catch the next fly that passes by. We’ve all known each other since college, but my dad isn’t usually in his sales mode when my friends are around. I guess he’s finally decided to tear the veil. All this time, everyone thought I was a princess. Well, even princesses have their calendar of duties.

“I’m concentrating on my business just now, Mr. Malliard, but when the time comes, you’ll know.” Lilly winks at my dad.

“I don’t understand this generation. Businesses, spa trips . . . Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned getting married and having babies?”

Silence.

So, Morgan,” Lilly finally says through the icy stillness.

“The spa?”

“I’ll pack my bags,” I say hastily as I reach for the newspaper in Lilly’s hands and head to my bedroom. Once inside, I let out a deep breath and slide to the floor on the Iranian carpet my father paid a fortune for. (“Six hundred knots per inch!” he boasted.) I lift the paper and look at Andy’s picture one last time. I keep thinking that with just one more glance, I’ll have the answers I need. But they aren’t there. Not before. Not now.

Sure, there were signs he was slick like a water slide, but truthfully, I loved his quiet bravado and mistakenly took it for the nerve he’d need to face music rejection in Nashville. I pictured him standing up to the country version of Simon Cowell, and my heart clenched for him under such pressure.

I was thankful for his solid personality and Bond-like arrogance.

What a putz!

Gazing around my professionally decorated room, I stare at all the “homey” touches given by the designer to generate the impression of warmth and comfort. In reality, someone could rip a picture out of Architectural Digest and it would feel more like home than this. I have lived my entire life like a piece of exquisite sculpture, careful not to disturb my surroundings or move from my appointed spot. I’m just one more piece of furniture.

I know my friends are waiting, but I suddenly feel like there’s so much to be gleaned from this bedroom. So much about me that I need to understand before I venture out into the world again. I pull myself off the floor and cross the room to the oversized, arched window. It’s a gorgeous day. Sun beams into the room, and I can see clear to the Marin Headlands. One thing about San Francisco’s fog, when it’s gone, the view is unparalleled. No one has a truer appreciation for a clear view than a San Franciscan who generally spends her days buried in a misty gray world. At least, the beginning and the end of the day are spent in soggy bookends of clouds.

From my window, I can observe the litany of city traffic below: the cable cars, the ferries on the Bay, even the halted cars lined up on the Golden Gate Bridge. I wonder how many of those people read the Chronicle this morning. I wonder how many know me only as the Jilted Jewelry Heiress.

As I look across the water to Alcatraz, it suddenly dawns on me that the jail I’ve created for myself is probably harder to escape than that jutting hard rock in the middle of the frigid, San Francisco Bay. Mine has Richard Malliard as the warden.

I’ve waited up here on Russian Hill, hoping for Prince Charming to rescue me. And when I finally let down my hair, I placed it smack in the hands of a con artist. What I’m seeing for the first time in my bedroom, with the absence of anything I’d really call my own without the decorator’s help, is that I have no idea who I am. I’m not interesting enough to rescue, is the sad fact of the matter, and I have made my own bed.

Okay, not technically speaking—Mrs. Henry actually makes my bed. But my mental bed? That’s all mine. A tangled mass of 600-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets that no one wants to bother straightening. The thing is if I don’t do it, no one will.

I stuff the newspaper into my desk drawer and pull out my designer luggage before realizing this is part of the problem.

I hate this luggage. My father bought it in Paris, hoping to impress someone, I suppose. Tossing the fancy stuff back, I yank out a duffle bag I got as a freebie and fill it with a few T-shirts and some sweats. It looks like something Lilly would bring, and this makes me smile.

Reality . . . here I come.