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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
288 pages
Dec 2006

Promise Me Always

by Christine Lynxwiler

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Today’s my thirty-fifth birthday. And for the first time in my life I wish I were a man.

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t give up my Bath and Body Works lotion or my favorite pair of strappy sandals to be just any old man. But I’m thinking one with stocks, bonds, collateral, and a perfect credit history would be nice.

Then I wouldn’t be sitting in the lobby of my bank, worried silly, waiting to talk to a loan officer who has “concerns” about my application. Nor would I be vulnerable to the whims of a faceless financial institution that—despite warm television ads featuring old couples holding hands and little girls with puppies—tallies my worth or worthlessness, whichever the case may be, by the “-ED” words that describe me—unemployED, overextendED, widowED, and a host of others just as bad, I’m sure.

Forget the fact that I had opened my first savings account at Shady Grove’s most respected financial establishment when I was barely out of the Little Girl stage myself. Sentiment and nostalgia have nothing to do with the bottom line.

As if to back up my point about males having less to worry about, two chairs down from me, a man reads a book. If he were nervous like me, he’d have definitely paid the barber a visit and borrowed a suit from his uncle. But no. He appears warm and relaxed in his faded Levis, his bent head showing off brown curls that stop right above his shirt collar.

I, on the other hand, squirm on the block of ice that masquer-ades as a vinyl chair.

Why do places that make a person nervous have to feel like the inside of an igloo? I can understand a doctor’s office needing to be extra germ-conscious, but do banks have to follow the same protocol? So not only am I terrified, I get to be a frozen chicken, as well. My friend Rachel has been trying to instill in our Pinky Promise Sisterhood the habit of finding something good about any situation, but right now my brain cells are almost too cold to move.

Up until my boss, Bob, had informed me of the sale of Coble’s Plant Nursery to a large conglomerate two weeks ago, I’d been thankful to have a job. Not a job I loved, but one that kept my daughters and me clothed and fed. Who cared that I always scored low on those job satisfaction quizzes in women’s magazines?

I don’t have to worry about that anymore, because now, after five years as a hotshot, award-winning (if you count Employee of the Month) office manager, I’ve joined the ranks of the unemployed.

The conglomerate wanted to “start with a fresh slate” (read: “bring in their own managers”). So, I was at the mercy of the tight job market in my hometown. Since I had a little severance package, bless Bob’s heart, I decided to follow my dream and start my own landscaping company. My business plan was thorough, but I hadn’t counted on the loan officer having “concerns.” Nor had I counted on freezing to death in the process.

I glance over at the guy beside me again, while I’m rubbing my arms to get rid of the goose bumps. He looks up from his book to reveal a slightly crooked nose, as if it has been broken sometime in the distant past, and I’m almost positive that’s the end of a scar peeking out of the hairline along his forehead. His quizzical gaze meets my appraising one.

His eyes, deep blue and piercing, make everything else fade into the background.

I feel compelled to say something, even if it’s just a comment about the temperature, but providence steps in, taking the form of a gray-haired woman who appears in the doorway, and more than likely keeps me from making myself look stupid. She motions me to come.

I jump to my feet and follow her down the carpeted hallway to an open door.

The room—from the crossed swords on the wall to the statue of a toga-clad youth in the corner—gives me the creeps with its overdone grandeur. A short, black-haired man with a mustache turns as I walk in. I paste on a confident smile and try not to take it as a bad sign that he looks just like Hitler.

He nods toward the burgundy leather chair in front of his mahogany desk. “Have a seat, Mrs. Richards.”

“You can call me Allie.” I sink onto the chair and wait for him to sit across from me.

He doesn’t sit, nor does he call me Allie. Instead, he slips on his reading glasses and looks down at my application as if it were something unfortunate the dog left on his lawn. “Mrs. Richards, here at Freedom and Trust Bank, we’re very careful with your money.”

That sounds positive. But I have a bad feeling that the proverbial other shoe is on a collision course with the polished hardwood floor.

“Your work history with Coble’s Plant Nursery was—”

Naturally he emphasizes the word was. I’d recognized him immediately as a person who would kick you while you were down.

“—excellent, but your credit history does contain a few records of slow pay.”

I straighten. “Since my husband’s death a few years ago, I’ve had a couple of unexpected expenses. My youngest daughter had appendicitis—”

“I understand. Unfortunately. . .” He lets the word dangle in the air like a guillotine blade.

I press my fingers against the heads of the tarnished brass tacks that adorn the leather chair’s arms and concentrate on the nooks and crannies of the hammered heads.

Ever-positive Rachel, who is also my chiropractor, says I relax easier than any patient she’s ever had. I can lose myself in little details like that tiny water spot on her office ceiling and totally escape reality. The bad thing is, my technique only works short-term. So I can’t zone out long enough to miss the man’s next words.

“Since you worked in the office at Coble’s and not with the plants themselves, I see no actual landscaping experience listed here, other than a few summers when you were young. . . .”

I choke and turn it into a cough. When I was young? Last time I looked, I wasn’t ready to move into an assisted living home yet.

“When we consider your lack of expertise in your proposed business, coupled with your uncertain income and questionable credit history. . .” He pauses again and peers at me over his reading glasses. “It’s just not in our depositors’ best interest to approve this loan.”

My breath whooshes out in a feeble “oh.”

“Your business plan was very well thoughtout, though.”

He must have just remembered that you’re supposed to sprinkle some positive in with the negative. Too little, too late. He offers me the most insincere smile I’ve ever seen.

What traits does a person have to possess to qualify for his job? I can see the want ad now—DO YOU LOVE TO DISAPPOINT PEOPLE? WOULD YOU LIKE TO CRUSH HOPES AND DREAMS, NOT JUST AS A HOBBY BUT AS A FULL-TIME JOB WITH A GREAT SALARY AND BENEFITS?

“Mrs. Richards?”

My hands still grip the arms of the chair. The loan officer is looking at me. I think he’s trying to decide whether he’ll need to call security to get me out of his office.

I try to rub the nail-head impressions from the tips of my fingers with my thumbs while I consider all my options. Short list. Get a job.

Smoothing down the front of my black slacks, I rise to my feet. “If I could come up with more collateral. . . ?” Oh, that’s good, Allie. Nothing like a little groveling to top off a humiliating experience.

“No, I’m sorry. The decision is final.”

“I see.” I know I should say thank you, but I just can’t. Not if I want to get out of here before I disgrace myself completely. Biting the inside of my cheek, I march across the ornately decorated lobby with its vaulted ceilings and skylights, head held high.

“Careful with our money?”

I snort, and a brunette in an Ann Taylor suit and black heels looks over at me, a moue of distaste forming on her glistening lips.

I duck my head and hurry out to the parking lot as fast as my trembling legs will take me. Hot tears roll off my face like a tropical waterfall by the time I collapse into the worn driver’s seat of my SUV.

Why do I have to cry when I’m angry? When you’re rip-roaring furious, the last thing you want to look is weak. But tick me off and instead of blowing up, I’ll drown you with my tears. Sickening.

I grab a napkin from the console, swipe my face, and then rest my head on the steering wheel. Clasping the leather-wrapped surface with both hands, I bump my forehead against it gently. Bump. Steering wheels are harder than they look, but the mild discomfort seems a small price to pay for punctuating my current misery.

I don’t have a job anymore. Bump. I don’t have a loan for my dream business. Bump. I don’t know how I’m going to pay the bills. Bump. But I’m all that Katie and Miranda have left.

At the thought of my daughters, the appeal of a pity party wanes. Which is kind of sad, because it was going so well. I really had rhythm with the whole bump, bump, bump thing. Usually my pity parties are just unorganized messes. Kind of like me.

Oops. I guess the party isn’t over yet.

I rub my forehead and look at myself in the rearview mirror. The tears, still trickling, are leaving black mascara trails over my freckles.

Maybe if I’d cried in the bank, the little dictator wannabe would have been more sympathetic. On second thought, the mascara mixed with the red splotches under my runny makeup makes me look like a raccoon with allergies. I rest my head on the steering wheel again and close my eyes. It’s probably better I kept my dignity as long as I did.

A tapping noise brings my eyes open. “Are you okay?” Even through the closed window, the voice sounds deep and Southern.

I jerk my head up and groan. Of course. Mr. Faded-Levis-and-Gorgeous-Eyes. Out of ingrained politeness, I try to roll the window down, but the key is still in my purse, so I can’t. I open the door a crack. “I’m fine. Thank you.”

His eyebrows draw together. “You sure you don’t need any help?”

Not unless you’re looking to invest money in a start-up business. “No, I’m fine. Thanks anyway.” I shut my door, softly but firmly, then manually lock it. Can’t be too careful. I keep my head down, until the roar of an engine draws my gaze up, just in time to see my would-be hero astride a Harley in front of me.

A genuine smile touches my mouth for the first time since I entered the bank. It figures. No wonder he wasn’t afraid to walk up to a crazy, crying, raccoon woman in a parking lot. He apparently likes to live on the edge.