Chapter 1 Cynthia Amas was wide-awake long before the alarm
went off. She had spent twenty minutes watching the sun creep over the canyon wall, across the deck, and into the corners of her bedroom. It was autumn. One of those hot Los Angeles Octobers that would be the dog days of August in most places. Her mind had been racing, not only checking off the list of to-dos for the day, but also the events of her life that had led her here, to this moment, to this new venture. Her own love life, an often-exciting series of failuresâ€” â€”one short-sale marriage, many ill-advised flings, and one recent romantic encounter with the best man in an unlocked cloakroom at a wedding reception that literally lasted the length of the first dance, I mean it was an extended re-mix, but still hardly constituted
the kind of romantic resume to impress the lovelorn ladies and gentlemen she was hoping to woo as clients. How that cummerbund ended up inside one of the legs of her pantyhose, she’d never know, but it made for a hilarious moment in the conga line. He lived in Melbourne and it turned out he had a wife and two kids back there. And a dog. Maybe a kangaroo. Probably a mistress. There were no second dates on the calendar. And then there was Walter, who she’d met only a month ago and who seemed to be falling hard for her. Unfortunately, the feeling was not mutual. He was sort of a perfect guy—good looking, successful in business, lived in a great house that he’d already invited Cynthia to share with him. There was nothing wrong with Walter exactly, and that was the problem. He was devoid of idiosyncrasy—no spark, no spontaneity, no surprises. He’d never made a fool of himself, never made a dumb joke, and while she was prone to belting eclectic medleys out of the blue——from classic girl groups to the rock’s Black Keys to R&B’s Janell Monae to Adele to Billie Holiday——she’d never heard Walter sing a note, not even in the shower, which to her was unfathomable. When Walter discovered a tiny hole in his jeans, he immediately threw them out, despite the fact that, clearly, that glimpse of thigh
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was by far the sexiest detail in his entire wardrobe. To Cynthia it was a fortuitous entryway to a full-blown afternoon delight, but, “You must be kidding,” is all he’d said in a humorless deadpan when she’d tried to rescue the pants from the pile destined for the thriftstore. He was beyond safe, like he was walking through life in a suit of bubble wrap. Cynthia thought he needed his bubbles popped, but she was starting to think she wasn’t the one to do the popping. Despite all that, Cynthia had an undeniable knack for matching other people. She had hooked up half of her friends and somehow their relationships invariably blossomed into shockingly successful unions. A strong promoter of psychosexual healing, she was thrilled at the possibility of playing doctor feel-good professionally, writing her own prescriptions for long-lasting love and lust. The epiphany struck during her own short-lived addiction to online dating services. She got a quick education about every site and decided that she could build a better mousetrap. Mantrap. Whatever. She was also not-so subconsciously hoping that being a soul mate searcher for others might somehow lead to finally finding something lasting for herself. Like most people, she wanted true love and a lasting relationship, and deep down she knew she deserved it. She just couldn’t figure out why, every time she got interested
in someone, that elusive goal always slipped through her fingers. She rolled out of bed, wearing only a man-sized silk t-shirt, gray-green, incredibly soft, and barely long enough to maintain modesty, really the thing she felt sexiest in. It had been in her sleepwear rotation ever since Max left it behind. Even though he was long gone, and there had been plenty of others since, the garment was his enduring legacy. It had been washed a hundred times, so it couldn’t possibly still smell like him, and yet it somehow did. When it brushed against her skin, she recalled his skin, his hands, his everything...a sensation she obviously kept secret from subsequent lovers. Max wasn’t even the ex-husband. In fact, their affair had lasted only three months, but he was still the first one she thought of when she considered might-havebeens. She should have probably thrown the shirt out a long time ago, switched to something not infused with these kinds of indelible memories, but he’d gotten married and lived halfway around the world, so it was a fantasy devoid of any real-world significance. Plus, she knew why it hadn’t worked out...he was bad for her. She had a tendency to be needy around him, something that had never happened with any of the others. What they’d had together was so impassioned,
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so deeply romantic, so all consuming, the rest of her life had instantly fallen to pieces. And then, as quickly as it started, it was over, and Cynthia found herself alone, sifting through the wreckage. But that was years ago now, and she was over him. It was just a stupid shirt. Cynthia headed to the bathroom, then to the kitchen, where the day would begin: coffeemaker, laptop, action. The site had gone live at eleven the night before and she quickly checked the inbox: sixtytwo new items. BZZZZ...her mother calling. No way, click...straight to voicemail. Back to the task at hand. Quickly scrolling: junk, junk, bill, bill, junk, bill, bingo...a bona fide inquiry.
Dear Second Acts; First, let me say I’ve never done anything like this before. I never thought I’d need to. But lately I seem to be something of a loser magnet...guys who you really don’t want to still be there in the morning. Hunks of beef who pass their expiration date on the way home from the meat market. I mean, I own my own business—I’m a dog groomer to the stars—and I do get my share of A and Blisters Ryan effing Gosling and his Weimaraners drop by once a month), but the unattached guys are all wannabes, has-beens, agents, or downright Hollywood sleaze buckets.
Speaking of which, last Sunday morning I spent an hour hiding under my covers, pretending to be asleep, waiting for the latest king dork to compose a kiss-off note. What, did he want me to dictate the thing? Excuse me, would you like to borrow a thesaurus or something? I mean, the night before when he passed out, I opened the door to let the dogs in, thinking they’d crowd him out of bed in no time, but there he still was at dawn, struggling to string together the six or seven-word dose of poetic psychobabble he thought he needed to let me down gently. Don’t you get it, Shakespeare? I’m kicking you out. I mean, move it, some of us have lives. Anyway, I’m starting to think I may need help with this. Best, Sick and Tired in Beverly Hills Wow, thought Cynthia, I like this girl. Sick and Tired didn’t even bother to fill out the questionnaire. Cynthia remembered how long she’d spent coming up with it, avoiding the obvious questions that every dating site asks: likes/dislikes, musical tastes, last book read...blah, blah, blah. She preferred open-ended questions evoking longer responses that reveal personality. Short essays versus cookie-cutter multiple choice. Of course it would
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require more analysis and thoughtful consideration on her part, but that was what this boutique dating service would specialize in: personal attention. She wanted that same feeling she’d had while hooking up friends. . . helping good people find each other. It started in junior high. One time, it must have been in seventh grade, she was at Darlene Dalvecki’s house for a sleepover. There were a couple of other girls there too and someone brought up Brian Bickford. Darlene really liked him, but Brian was clueless. That night, Cynthia thought about it while the other girls snoozed in their sleeping bags. Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match. She didn’t know much about Brian. He was a super-shy kid. She could only think of two overlapping interests. Favorite band: The Ramones. Favorite drink: root beer. The next day at school, Cynthia hatched a plan. It involved Cynthia singing Rock and Roll High School while walking down the hall, getting Darlene to join in, then intentionally getting bumped into by Brian, causing his root beer to spill all over Darlene’s blouse, and then blaming the whole thing on him. He was so apologetic. He must have said he was sorry about two hundred times while he helped clean her up. Twentyfour hours later, they were a couple and stayed a couple until they graduated high school.
Cynthia wondered if they were married with a gaggle of kids now. Might be worth tracking them down on Facebook to get a testimonial out of them. In any case, this matchmaking thing has been with her for a long, long time. BZZZZ...her mother calling again. Nope, sorry, click. Cynthia slid the phone across the countertop.
Not now, Mom. Sick and Tired was her first client and, by god, she was going to get extremely personalized service. Cynthia also figured that Sick and Tired might have girlfriends in similar situations in the 90210 and surrounding zip codes. She looked down the list of other messages and there were more prospective clients. She poured a cup of French roast and fired off a reply to Sick and Tired.
Dear S & T, Thanks for the funny and insightful letter. I hear you and I can help. BTW, speaking of Hollywood, it’s not you, it’s some men who’ve gotten small. But not all of them. Let’s meet for coffee near where you work and we can make a game plan. Best, Second Acts Cynthia clicked on the next message.
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Dear Second Acts Dating Service, I’m a ridiculously successful hi-tech entrepreneur. I’ve been divorced for six years, but every time a guy gets a gander at the depth of my pockets, his gonads shrink like raisins and blow away in the breeze. Please send me a real man. Now. If not sooner. -Lonely in Brentwood Cynthia laughed. This was going to be fun.
Lonely Welcome to Second Acts. As God is my witness, you will never be lonely again. Frankly, my dear, I give a damn. -Second Acts BZZZZZZ! “Mom!” said Cynthia, rolling her eyes and taking a sip of coffee.
BZZZZZZ! BZZZZZZ! BZZZZZZ! She watched the phone vibrating, turning slowly on the marble surface. She knew that ignoring it was not an effective strategy. Her mother was a lot of things, but quitter was not one of them. She reached across the counter. Beep. “Mom, what
is it?” she asked impatiently, “Can I call you back? I’m kind of in the middle of something.” She sipped more coffee. Long pause. Wind rushing over the receiver, clearly in a car with the windows open or top down. “Mom?” “Now, Cynthia,” boomed a man’s deep voice over the sound of the wind. “Doesn’t a mother have the right to contact her only daughter even if said daughter is a spoiled-rotten brat?” What? Cynthia nearly did a spit take. “Well, well,” she said. “If it isn’t Mr. Dimples.” Max had better dimples than any man she’d ever met. Cheeks, obviously. Chin, Cary Grant-esque. But the two dimples in his lower back, or was it his upper butt? Whatever—somewhere between the gluteus maximus and the latissimus dorsi—just above where the jeans hung on his hips. She had never seen anything like them. Epic. Earth-shattering. Monumental. “How are you, Sin?” Sin. Oh, brother. He’d always called her that. And spelled it like that. “I’m good,” she said, trembling slightly and trying to concentrate on the laptop screen. She was suddenly acutely aware that the silk of Max’s shirt was making contact with her left nipple. She placed her hand on
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her breast in a bland pledge-of-allegiance manner, trying to extinguish whatever was stirring there, but that just made it worse. She inhaled sharply and shivered. Plink. Already another message from Sick and Tired:
Do you want to meet this morning at the Peet’s on Beverly? Can you make it by ten? Ten? She’d have to get moving. “Max,” Cynthia continued, “I’m in the middle of something. Why are you calling? Where are you?” “Heading south on PCH, Sin. Passing Topanga. I live in Santa Barbara now. Want to meet me for dinner at the beach? I’m at Shutters.” Shutters, of course. Cynthia imagined his curls blown back in the wind. She couldn’t believe it. This was not a good time. “So, you’re on vacation or something? Traveling with the wife and kids?” “No, Sin,” he said. “That union was kid-less, thank God. And besides, it’s over. Finished——in the history books. She never really knew me. Not like you know me. If this is any indication, in four years of marriage, she never discovered that birthmark.” Oh my God, thought Cynthia. How could you not
notice such an unusual birthmark? Granted, it was in a
private place and required a thorough inspection. Very thorough. But still. Another call incoming: Walter. Good God. Beep: ignore. It occurred to Cynthia that if Walter had a birthmark in that same spot, she would not have found it yet. If that is, you know, any indication. Max. She took a deep breath. This was so not a good time. She gazed out the window in the direction of Santa Monica. She thought about that weekend they’d spent at Shutters...the weekend that turned into a week. And then two. “Hold on, Max. I need to get back to you.” “How about just a drink, Sin? Remember those mojitos?” “What mojitos?” she lied, not willing to give him the satisfaction. Of course she would always remember how he “accidentally” spilled his all over the front of her and then licked it off and kept on licking. They could still taste the rum and lime on each other the next day. She could almost taste it now. Her heart was beating a little faster. “Max, I need to call you back.” “C’mon, Sin...for old time’s sake.”
How did I never notice how similar his voice is to Brad Pitt’s? “Max. I. Will. Call. You. Back.”
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“Okay, okay. It’s just that I can’t stop thinking about you.” “Poor baby. Goodbye, Max.” She hung up, shook her head, and focused on the screen, forcing herself to think solely about Sick and Tired so that she couldn’t think about Max for a moment. She replied to Sick and Tired:
Great. See you then. I’ll be wearing a red beret. Second Acts Dating Service was officially in business. Meanwhile, two hundred pounds of unabashed testosterone was hurtling down Pacific Coast Highway toward the luxury hotel that was ground zero of Cynthia’s all-time-greatest erotic adventure. She stepped into the bathroom, lifting the t-shirt over her head and dropping it onto the white-tile floor. She stared at it for a moment and then looked up into the mirror. She studied herself, remembering Max’s breath, his tongue, how he had worshipped every square inch of her. She searched for new war wounds that might disappoint him. Turning slowly, she caressed herself here and there, pretending her hands were Max’s. Her best assets were still good assets. She took a long
shower...taking refuge in the suds and steam. She closed her eyes and aimed the hot water directly into her face, entertaining the delusion that this might somehow wash away the fluster that swirled inside her head...the sweet confusion that had suddenly complicated everything.
Chapter 2 The bumper-to-bumper over the hill on Coldwater gave her way too much time to think, if you can call it thinking. She talked to herself, mired in a circular brain loop.
One: Second Acts is your second act. You’ve come a long way——from Dad’s death, to Stanford, to a Pepperdine MBA, to a successful career as a marketing executive at two major Hollywood studios, to death and rebirth by downsizing, to this exciting reinvention. You can’t let Max or anyone else screw it up. Two: Sick and Tired is as much your salvation as you are hers. Three: Max. Four: Max. Five: Max, Max, Max, Max, Max. Six: Have you lost your mind? You must not see Max under any circumstances. Seven: But this is MAX we’re talking about! Eight: Begin again. She decided that this might be a good time to call her
mother back. Ear buds in. Speed dial #1. Ringing... “Hello!” Her mom always yelled to be heard over the yapping of her three neurotic Shih Tzus. “Hi, Mom!” Yap! Yap! Yap! “Why are you yelling?!” she yelled. “One guess, Mom!” Yap! Yap! Yap! Yap! “So, what does it take to get one’s daughter on the phone?!” “Mom, we’re on the phone.” Yap! Yap! Yap! “Yes, but it’s too late! I don’t even remember why I called now!” “Oh, well, that’s good then...whatever the problem was has resolved itself.” “Who said anything about a problem?!” Yap! Yap! Plink. Text from Max. Actually, no text...just a photo. Cynthia squinted...the sun was hitting the phone’s screen and it was hard to make out. “What is that?” she said to herself, but out loud. “What is what?!” asked Cynthia’s mother. Yap! Yap! Yap! Yap! “You think I just sit around all day inventing problems to bother you about?!” Yap! Yap! Yap! “No...not at all,” said Cynthia, even though she was
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pretty sure her mother invented most of her problems. She also knew that she could not take the yapping or this conversation...especially the conversation. “Listen, Mom, you’re dropping out. I’m in the canyon. Let me call you back. No, in just a minute or two. Okay, bye. Okay, okay. Bye. Okay. Good. Bye.” Click. Once Second Acts really got going, she would find a man for her mother—someone willing to fill in for her at least part of the time. The traffic had come to a complete halt and Cynthia grabbed the phone. Max had sent a photograph of his hand, his left hand...no ring. His fingers were touching the raised numerals on a white door...the number 14. Simple, but as was always the case with Max, perfectly composed and considered. Fourteen was the room they’d shared at Shutters. She would never forget because they ended up staying for fourteen days. In addition to his other considerable talents, he was a master of long-distance foreplay. He was reaching through the phone, touching Cynthia exactly the way she wanted to be touched. She felt a little dizzy. The photo was like a portal to their past and she was instantly transported back to that first night. She remembered losing her sandals in the sand in the dark—one of her favorite pairs ever, but she didn’t care. At all. They sang soft harmony together,
winding their way up the path, weaving through the maze of hallways, and every time they realized they’d taken a wrong turn, they stopped to whisper and kiss. He traveled slowly from lips to neck to collarbone to breasts and southward, taking unpredictable, circuitous side trips, making her shiver...making her weak in the knees. The sun, the surf, the drinks, and her slightly sunburned skin——not painful, but ultrasensitive——created a sweet, tingling, coconut-flavored sensory overload. With each new corridor, more zippers unzipped and buttons unbuttoned. It took a while to find the right room and by the time they arrived, they were unhooked, untied, unfastened, and utterly unraveled—their clothes more off than on. Along the way, he made her laugh by sliding the key suggestively into lock after incorrect lock, before finally easing gently into number fourteen and, at last, mercilessly consummating the evening and shaking her to her core. Plink: Another photo, interior, room fourteen, fresh bouquet. When Max wanted something, he never, ever, ever gave up. BZZZZZ: Walter calling. Sorry, Mr. Bubble Wrap. Beep: straight to voicemail. Plink: Chocolate on pillow. HONKKKK! BMW behind Cynthia leaned on his
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horn. Traffic moving again.
Plink! She eased her foot off the brake, studied the curving road ahead, and glanced down at Max’s newest photo: A wider shot of the California King comforter—pure white, thread count off the charts, glowing like a cumulus cloud. Cynthia felt herself falling into it. This was the kind of soft-focus flashback she thought only occurred in the sappiest of Hollywood scenarios movies that she didn’t particularly like watching. But being in one was a whole different matter. She looked up and slammed on the brakes, stopping an inch from the bumper in front. She put the phone in her purse and threw it onto the back seat. Buy the Book to Read More!