Page 1

FALLING IN . . . AGAIN


From Losers to a Leading Man

THE UNEXPECTED PACKAGES OF LOVE After bad dates that included burping contests and a Three Stooges Film Festival, she’d given up on romance.

“Men are pigs.”

After my latest dating disaster, the name-calling was more than justified, and, to be perfectly honest, I thought I was being quite charitable by referring to the latest loser as merely a pig. I dropped my backpack on the floor, toed off my shoes, and sank onto the blue-striped, overstuffed sofa in the off-campus apartment I shared with my best friend.


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“They’re the slime on top of a stagnant pond. They’re pocket lint. They’re like parking spaces: all the good ones are always taken. They’re—” “Nicole? Is that you?” My roommate interrupted my tirade as she emerged from the bathroom where she was obviously primping for a late Friday-night date. Her ebony hair was twisted around a mass of hot rollers, and she had her left eyelash crimped in a metal curler. At five feet ten inches, she was my total opposite. In my bare feet, I stood at five feet and a smile, with honey blonde hair cut in a short bob. Last year, I’d finally taken the plunge and ditched my wire rimmed glasses in favor of tinted contacts that enhanced my green eyes. “You’re going to blind yourself with that contraption one day,” I cautioned. I grabbed the television remote, stabbed at the power button, and surfed through an endless series of “tell-all” shows. “Bad date last night?” she asked, picking up on my lousy mood. I gave her a “no kidding” look and rolled my eyes dramatically. “Mimi, it was beyond bad. It was beyond dreadful. It was approaching nuclear disaster.” I muted the sound and tossed the remote onto the coffee table. “Why can’t I just meet a nice guy with table manners who can talk about something besides himself? Is that too much to ask?” I flopped back on the sofa and released a huge sigh. “Nope, that’s not too much to ask at all.” She carefully released the eyelash curler and dropped it onto the small dining table against the wall of our combination dining/living room. “Maybe if you’d just—” “Just what?” I gave her a look that would have blistered paint. “Lower my standards? Recognize spitting as an acceptable method of social interaction between males? Enjoy wrestling matches?” Mimi’s mouth gaped in shock. “Did Freddy Jenson take you to a wrestling match?” “Yes, he did. And I think those two sat in front of us.” I pointed to the television and indicated a group of scantily clad women


THE UNEXPECTED PACKAGES OF LOVE 11 engaged in a catfight. “Oh, look, there’s our waitress from the Pancake Shack. I recognize her tattoo.” “I’m trying to be serious, Nicole. You don’t have to lower your standards. You just need to understand that love can come in unexpected packages.” Mimi reached up, pulled a roller from her hair, and set it beside the eyelash curler. “Such as?” I was eager to hear her suggestions since my own efforts at meeting men had led me to believe that I was a serious loser magnet. “The lobby of the veterinary school building? It takes brains to be a vet,” she offered. I shook my head. “That’s where I met Barney Larson. He took me to watch bulls being castrated.” I shuddered at the recollection of that evening, which was forever etched in my brain. “Eeewww.” Mimi made a face and continued pulling curlers from her head to release long curly strands of hair. “Then how about the music building? Some of those guys are really cute.” “Two words: Gregorian chants.” “Huh?” Mimi scrunched her nose and then shook her head, dark curls falling around her shoulders. “The campus radio station?” “I tried that. I spent an entire Saturday night listening to a guy record himself announcing the station’s call letters.” “Then I guess I won’t suggest the campus television station,” she said. “How kind of you.” “Then how about fraternity row? Or the theater department?” She ticked off her suggestions on her fingers. “Have you ever been to a burping contest? Or a Three Stooges film festival?” Memories of a drunken frat boy belching the tune to “YMCA” slid into my brain and right back out. “Mimi, I know you mean well, but you’re incorrigible. Face it; I’m destined to be single.” “Incorrigible, huh? Is that good or bad?”


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I was tempted to throw my shoe at her, but I settled for a sofa cushion instead. She grabbed it in midair. “One more idea. Hear me out, okay?” she pleaded. “Like I have a choice?” “Patrick and I are going to the Save the Planet festival on campus tomorrow. Why don’t you come with us?” “Ooohh! A third-wheel pity date.” I slumped deeper into the sofa and picked the lint off a cushion. “That’ll be fun.” Mimi sat on the coffee table directly in front of me. “You know that Patrick and I never think of you that way. Come on, we’ll have a great time.” “Right.” My voice dripped with sarcasm. Mimi and I were best friends and loved each other like sisters, but I didn’t want to be dragged along on her date just so she wouldn’t feel guilty. “I can just imagine who I’d meet at an environmental festival. Those guys are into composting and recycling, and they look like Albert Einstein reincarnated.” I stood and turned toward my bedroom. “Thanks anyway, Mimi. I’m going to pile up in bed with a good book and try to forget last night ever happened.” Then Mimi played her trump card. “We have an extra ticket to the concert. That jazz band you like so much is playing.” She pulled the ticket from the back pocket of her jeans and waved it at me. “It’s yours if you want it.” I spread a plaid blanket under a tall oak and decided to enjoy the festival atmosphere. I had tried to fill my day with chores and studying, but by three o’clock I admitted to myself that I had failed miserably. After glancing at the concert ticket numerous times, I finally capitulated and rushed to make the four o’clock start time. As the band began its warm-up, I stretched out and gazed overhead at the cotton candy clouds. A head suddenly blocked my view, but the sun made it impossible to distinguish if it belonged to a man or a woman.


THE UNEXPECTED PACKAGES OF LOVE 13 “Is this spot taken?” Definitely a man—a man with a baritone voice that made my insides melt like chocolate left in the sun. When I tried to answer, I realized that my voice had melted too, and all I could do was shake my head. He spread his windbreaker on the ground beside me and plopped onto it. “I’m Rafe Shoreham,” he said, offering his hand. Yes you are. A lock of dark hair drooped over his forehead and his espresso-colored eyes stared straight into my soul. “And you are?” Oh dear heavens, the man had turned my brains to mush. “I’m Nicole,” I stammered and took his proffered hand. “Nice to meet you, Nicole. Are you enjoying the festival?” “It’s been...interesting.” I didn’t want to appear negative just in case he was a die-hard environmentalist. “Um...have you done any composting lately?” “Nope, never tried it.” “Recycling?” He leaned back on his elbows and stretched out his long legs. “I have one of those blue bins if that’s what you mean.” There was a trace of laughter in his voice. I studied him closely. He certainly didn’t look like Einstein, and he’d just admitted that composting wasn’t on his to-do list. Score one for the mystery man. “I have to admit, I’m not really into this save the earth stuff,” he confessed. “Oh, I do my part. I use that blue bin I mentioned, and I drive an economy car. I turn off lights when I leave the room, and just last week I bought some recycled trash bags. But I haven’t done any organic gardening lately. Couldn’t do much if I wanted to since I have a black thumb anyway.” He raised his hand, wiggled his thumb and winked at me. “I just came for the concert. I graduated last year and I’m back here in Raleigh on a recruiting trip for my employer. I thought this might be a nice change of pace


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from my hotel room.” “Me, too,” I admitted. “A change, that is, not a recruiting trip. I’m a senior.” “So you’ll be graduating next month?” He plucked a blade of grass and stuck it between the most luscious lips I’d ever seen on a man. “I wish. I’m in accounting and it’s a five-year program. I have another year after this.” “Good choice. Every company needs a good accountant; you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a job.” Silence threatened to settle between us and I smiled at him awkwardly. After months of dating the absolute worst of the worst, here was a man who had a sense of humor, didn’t seem hung up on himself, and hadn’t burped once. I wanted to get to know him a little better. “So...where’s home?” “Dallas. How ’bout you?” Just my luck. I’d met a real contender for Mr. Right and instead he was Mr. Thousand-Miles-Away. But before I could answer, the music started, and we were both absorbed in the soothing jazz melodies. When the last notes had died away, Rafe stood and pulled himself to his full six-foot height. He extended a hand and helped me to my feet. He gave me a sheepish grin and kicked at the grass with the toe of his boot. “I know we just met, but would you like to go somewhere for dinner? I noticed that the vendors here are only serving stuff like soy burgers and sprouts, and I gotta tell you, that won’t cut it for a boy from Texas.” An hour later, we were chatting over steaming plates of pasta at Nick’s Bistro, a cozy Italian restaurant a few blocks away. Rafe was so easy to talk to, and by the time we’d finished the last bites of a to-die-for tiramisu, I felt as if I’d known him forever. I wanted to spend more time with this intriguing man, yet a little voice in the back of my head kept reminding me that in another week he


THE UNEXPECTED PACKAGES OF LOVE 15 would be gone and I’d be back to the usual college boys. After Rafe walked me to my door and gave me a chaste kiss on the cheek that same little voice had calmed down a bit, and was telling me I should enjoy Rafe’s company while it lasted. Didn’t I deserve this after months of dating disasters? As I slept that night, my dreams were filled with images of a tall handsome cowboy who drove a compact sedan instead of riding a horse, and wrangled computers rather than cattle. When Rafe called the next day and invited me to lunch and an afternoon movie matinee, I jumped at the chance to spend more time with the man of my dreams. Man of my dreams? Where on earth had that come from? We’d known each other less than twenty-four hours and already I was thinking in terms of happily ever after. I gave myself a good mental shake, and convinced myself that my reaction to Rafe was simply a matter of contrast. Compared to all the college jerks I’d been dating, Rafe was a dream man. And soon the dream would end, so I’d better not get too attached. After lunching on hot dogs from a street vendor, we drove to the theater complex where I fully expected him to hustle me into the latest crime drama or action-adventure film. I was left speechless when he asked for two tickets to a popular new romantic comedy. “Hey, I’m in touch with my feminine side,” he offered, undoubtedly in response to my surprised look. Then he winked and added, “When I came to pick you up today, Mimi told me you’ve been itching to see this because you have the hots for the leading man.” “I do not!” I felt a blush creep up my neck and swatted playfully at his arm. “Okay, I’ll admit that I have wanted to see it, but you’d probably rather see that film about the international spy ring, so why don’t we just—” “Why don’t we get a bucket of popcorn, a couple of sodas, and just watch two people fall in love?” He gently took me by the


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elbow and led me toward the concessions stand. He stole another little piece of my heart at that moment, and I knew that when he returned to Texas it would be the most miserable day of my life. But I would survive, just like I’d survived all the bad dates in my life. I’d just have wonderful memories of this one instead of regrets. The movie proved to be even better than the reviewers had indicated, but I didn’t fawn over the leading man like I normally did. How could I when I had a man just as handsome and oh-socaring right beside me? That night, Rafe gave me more than a chaste kiss. When we stood outside my apartment door, he lowered his head and brushed his lips against mine. My legs felt like rubber and my pulse pounded like a thundering herd of cattle. When his tongue traced the seam of my lips, I parted them slightly and met his tongue with mine. A jolt of electricity sizzled right through my body, and when I opened my eyes to look at Rafe, I saw that his eyes had darkened with desire. Putting both hands on his chest, I pushed myself away. It was too soon for this kind of spark between us. We’d just met the day before, and here I was ready to suck his tongue out of his mouth. “Um...we need...I need to take this slow,” I said in response to the puzzled look on his face. “I...I....” I was aware that Rafe traveled frequently with his job, and I was most likely just one of many girls in many ports. I didn’t want to get involved in a relationship that was destined to end in heartache. But that didn’t stop my body from reacting to him in a decidedly lustful manner. He took both my hands in his and pressed a kiss to my knuckles. The look in his eyes told me that he understood. “Sleep tight Nicole,” he said, turning my insides to mush. Monday morning brought a return to the routine and to my heavy schedule of classes, but the day was anything but ordinary because I couldn’t stop daydreaming about Rafe during class. He


THE UNEXPECTED PACKAGES OF LOVE 17 was far more intriguing than tax codes. Yet, despite my attraction to him, I dawdled on my way home from my last class afraid he might call and ask me out again. Why was I so confused? I’d been lamenting my status as a loser magnet, yet here I had a real winner and I was avoiding him. If he called, would I go out with him again? The moment I stepped into my apartment, the blinking light on the answering machine caught my attention. I was across the room in three strides, and jabbed the play button to retrieve the first of two messages. “Hi, Nicole. It’s Rafe. I was wondering if you’d like to have dinner with me tonight at Nacho Mama, and then I could hang around with you at the library while you study. Give me a call on my cell.” Decision time had arrived. But before I returned his call and gave him my answer, I let the machine play the second message. “It’s me again, Nicole. I’m really sorry but I just got called back to the home office and I’m taking the three forty-five flight to Dallas. I’ll call you when I get back home.” A quick glance at my watch showed me that I was thirty minutes too late. Thirty minutes: the amount of time I’d spent browsing the magazine section at the campus bookstore. Thirty minutes earlier I’d been filled with confusion and doubt, but now I realized that the best thing to ever happen to me had just flown away. Save the Planet was a rousing success—again—and I was enjoying every minute I’d spent working at the Feral Felines booth. The last year had brought a lot of changes to my life. I had made a decision to stop letting life pass me by and to start living for the moment. So what if I hadn’t had a decent date since my last evening with Rafe? My life was no longer defined by the men I dated. Graduation was two weeks away, and I was preparing to start my career and life on my own. I had accepted a job with a lucrative


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CPA firm, which had terrific potential for career growth. As four o’clock approached, I hurried to the concert area and spread my blanket under the same tall oak as last year. Reclining, I watched the clouds morph in and out of familiar shapes, and dreamed about unexpected places, and a certain man who’d blocked my view. We had shared very precious moments last year—even more precious now in retrospect. After reality set in and Rafe returned home, he called as promised and we kept in touch via phone and email for nine months. But a long-distance relationship is difficult to maintain, and when the calls and emails began to taper off, I began to suspect that anything he might have felt for me was over. I still had some feelings for him, but it was time to move on and look for another Mr. Right. I’d almost found love in an unexpected place once before—maybe I could do it again. A slight breeze ruffled the grass as the band began its warm-up. I pulled a sweater around my shoulders and listened as they segued into their first tune. “Is this spot taken?” Could it be? No, it was just a coincidence that a tall man was blocking my view and asking the same question from a year before. He was dressed in faded jeans and a leather jacket, which hugged his body and showed off his physique to perfection. “Mimi told me I’d find you here,” he said, confirming my suspicion. “May I?” He pointed to the empty spot beside me on the blanket, a beseeching look filling his dark eyes. “Help yourself.” I shrugged my shoulders, unsure if I should assert myself and tell him to take a hike, or risk letting all the emotions I’d buried bubble to the surface again. “How’ve you been?” he asked and lowered himself to the blanket. “Graduation is getting pretty close isn’t it?” The spicy scent of his aftershave teased my nose and heightened my awareness of him. I was dragged back to the weekend we’d spent together a year before, and I could feel tears pricking my


THE UNEXPECTED PACKAGES OF LOVE 19 eyes. I blinked rapidly to hold them back, unwilling to reveal to him how much he had affected me. “It’s in two weeks,” I managed to answer, but my voice threatened to betray my emotions. He nodded. “You must be excited,” he continued, apparently ill at ease. “I guess you must be wondering why I’m back in town.” I shouldn’t have cared, but despite everything, I still had feelings for him that surged to the forefront and rattled my senses. This time it was my turn to nod, fearful that if I spoke again those tears would begin to fall. “My company promoted me and I’ve been reassigned to the regional office here in Raleigh. I start work on Monday.” My heart sank and the tears slid down my cheeks. He reached out tentatively and brushed the tears away with the pad of his thumb. “What’s wrong, Nicole?” Where did I start? With the myriad of emotions running through me right now? The aching I’d suffered when he’d left a year ago? The miles that would separate us once again? I swallowed hard, trying to contain the tears. “I have a new job, too. A great CPA firm made me an offer I couldn’t resist,” I explained. “That’s really wonderful! Congratulations! Do you start work right after graduation?” I nodded again and then paused before I let the other shoe drop. “I’m taking a week to visit my family and get everything in order, and then I’m flying to Dallas—” “Dallas? Why are you going to Dallas?” I paused a beat and then delivered the news. “The CPA firm is in Dallas. That’s where I’ll be living now.” And you’ll be living here. Rationally, I knew that Dallas was a big metropolis and the odds of just running into Rafe on the street were astronomical, but I’d harbored a secret wish that we could get back together again.


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My head told me that he was most likely involved with another woman and that was the reason he’d stopped communicating. But my heart Right now my heart was telling me that the best thing to ever happen to me had just slipped through my fingers again. Rafe exhaled a long sigh, and then he raked his fingers through his neatly trimmed hair. “Wow, Nicole. This changes everything.” I tilted my head to one side and stared at him quizzically. “Everything? What do you mean?” He scrubbed at the back of his neck. “I had no idea that you had a job offer in another town. So I suppose I’ll just have to make a counter offer.” “Counter offer?” I was puzzled by his comment, because I knew for certain that his company didn’t hire newly graduated accountants. “Yeah, a counter offer, but first I’ll need some pertinent information. What is your new job paying you?” I bristled immediately. “That’s really none of your business.” “It is if I’m going to make a competitive offer. Let me put it this way; what kind of salary would it take for you to turn down the job in Dallas?” I considered his question and stated an amount. “Hmmm. How about travel? Are you going to have to travel any with this company?” Part of my duties as a bottom-of-the-totem-pole employee would be to visit branch offices in other Texas cities and work with the various types of companies they served. Goldberg & St. Claire handled large cattle ranches, oil companies of all sizes, shipping concerns on the Texas gulf coast, aerospace and defense contractors in various parts of the state, and numerous computer technology firms that had sprung up in the wake of Internet growth. “Quite a bit at first,” I replied.


THE UNEXPECTED PACKAGES OF LOVE 21 He scratched his head, deep in thought. “Okay. That gives me what I need to know, so here’s my counter offer.” “Now? I mean, don’t you have to go back to your superiors and get authorization or something?” I might have been new to the corporate world, but I knew from my summer internships that there were procedures in any company. “I have full authority to do this.” One corner of his mouth pulled into a smile. “So here’s the deal: I can’t match the salary from the Dallas firm, but instead of dollars, how about dozens of hugs and kisses every day?” I gave him a puzzled look and started to interrupt, but he quieted me with a finger to my lips. “I can offer you travel, however. I’ll take you to the stars every night in my arms if you’ll give me the chance.” His words sent my pulse spinning. If I understood correctly, my dreams were about to come true. “What about insurance?” I asked, my voice husky with emotion. “You can be assured that I will do everything in my power to make you the happiest woman on earth, Nicole,” he whispered. “I was a fool to let you slip away. I could have made things work, but I got scared that you didn’t love me as much as I loved you.” “We were both fools,” I said, wrapping a strand of hair around my index finger in a nervous gesture. “But can we start all over again and make it work?” He shook his head and I feared I had lost him again. “I don’t want to start over. I want to pick right up from where we left off.” It was more than I’d ever imagined, yet everything I’d ever desired. Rafe was the man of my dreams. “I never expected to find love like this,” he said, brushing his lips against mine. “But sometimes the best things come in the most unexpected packages.” THE END

The Unexpected Packages of Love  

From the TruRomance Collection, Falling in Love...Again, comes a short story about a woman who has completely given up on romance.

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