As Ally’s hair dripped, she swirled a wad of toilet paper over the bathroom mirror. Her plump face filled a wet circle—no new wrinkles this week, thank goodness. Looking down, she pinched her waistline. If this first date went well, she’d visit the gym three days per week, not just two.
In her bedroom, a turquoise blouse, price tag dangling, hung over a chair. Ally smoothed the placket—no need to iron, thankfully. The khaki slacks on the bed had been a Christmas gift from her ex, Meghan. Since their relationship expired slowly, the need to donate a decade of connections to charity never nagged Ally. In her closet, she rummaged for her brown shoes and slipped them on.
Last night, while twisting her hair, Ally’s best friend urged her to relax. Two of her coworkers advised the same at lunch yesterday. Chances were slim that she’d meet an axe murderer or someone who’d just filed for bankruptcy.
On the interstate, Pearl Jam blasted over the sound system as Ally rehashed her date’s profile blurb. A medical professional, five years older, a bibliophile, and an amateur chef. Very attractive as well. Is that what “too good to be true” really meant? Expecting Meghan to be perfect, or nearly so, hadn’t worked for either of them. For this beginning, or any other, Ally vowed to keep expectations realistic—or at least she’d try.
Despite sweaty palms gripping the steering wheel, Ally might still enjoy herself. She’d introduce a benign topic like the most recent book she’d read. Ally’s GPS ordered her to turn left off the ramp, but it wasn’t too late to drive home. A white lie about a sudden stomachache could hit her date’s inbox before she could type “cyberspace.” As she wiped her hand over her thigh, Ally sighed. It wasn’t like her to overreact; she wasn’t a giggly schoolgirl anymore.
The stoplight turned yellow. Ally applied the brake. Moments later, a rear impact lurched her Malibu forward. Her bumper smashed into the Volvo stopped in front of her. A pickup truck’s grille filled her rearview mirror. She leaned her forehead against the steering wheel and groaned, rubbing her neck. Why now? With a trembling hand, she opened her door. Even a bad date would be better than this.
A thin but muscular man in a tank top emerged from his truck. He pulled up his baseball cap and ran a hand through his sweaty hair. “Didn’t you see the light change?”
Ally sputtered, and then said, “Excuse me? I can’t rear-end myself.” She pointed at her sagging, cracked bumper. “Did I do that?”
“Look on the bright side. It’s still drivable.”
As Ally shook her head, her phone chirped from the dashboard. She’d worry about a new text message later. Instead, an accident had to be reported. A travel lane needed to be cleared. “If you’re going to argue, we’ll let the police sort it out.”
The man stepped up to her. “Let’s settle this over dinner instead. I’ll take care of things.” He smiled. “And you too.” He extended his hand. “I’m Tony. Sorry we had to meet like this.”
Ally rolled her eyes. The nerve. She turned to retrieve her phone.
The Volvo’s door swung open. A slender leg in dark slacks hit the pavement. Phone in hand, the woman stepped closer. “A yellow light means slow down and stop.”
Ally kept her distance. “I did.” Apparently, she had two accusers to fight. “Look at my car. Then tell him that.” She studied the woman’s features. Why did she look familiar? None of her friends drove a Volvo. “I’m in the middle. Literally.”
The woman raised an eyebrow. “One thing’s certain. It’s not my fault.” She dialed and put the phone to her ear. In moments, she said, “Yes, I need to report a collision.” As she recited the nearest address to the dispatcher, Tony stepped between her and Ally. He waited for the woman to hang up.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Tony said to her. He gestured toward Ally. “I told the other lady I’d take care of all this myself.”
“How? You own a body shop?” Her ruddy face now glistened. The woman’s voice rose. “Get over there.” She stepped toward him and stomped her foot. “Are you stupid enough to keep talking to me?” The woman knelt behind her car and studied the bumper. “This car is only a year old. It’ll never be the same.”
Feeling a need to evaporate, Ally opened her passenger’s door and reached for her phone. Her date deserved to know why she’d be late. She read the new text message and gasped. With one hand over her mouth, she turned. No wonder that woman looked familiar. Ally hadn’t recognized her modified hairstyle at first, but no one could fault someone for lacking dating-site poise at a time like this.
The woman, who Ally knew as Vickie, leaned on her fender. Ally could lift the mood—after all, the accident wasn’t her fault. With the text message open, she approached Vickie. “I’d like to show you something.”
Vickie turned. “Let’s wait for police, all right?”
Slowly, Ally shook her head and pointed at her phone. Vickie read the screen and looked up, eyes wide. “Good grief. Now you know I have a temper.” She laughed softly. “I left that off my profile.”
“I see why.” Ally moved her car to the shoulder. I’ll head home when the officer’s finished. As Vickie and Tony moved their vehicles, Ally checked her email. Minutes later, a marked car pulled up, lights flashing. Ally got out of her car.
Vickie stepped toward the policeman. Through his window she said, “This is cut and dry. Can you hurry?”
The officer undid his seat belt. He rolled down his window. “Ma’am, step over there. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
“I hope so.” Vickie joined Ally. “We wouldn’t need the police if that guy hadn’t been such a jerk.” She glanced at Tony, who had his phone to his ear.
Ally gave Vickie a sly grin. “Yes, lots of people can be loud-mouthed jerks.”
“Are you insinuating that about me? Because I raised my voice a little?”
Shifting her weight, Ally bit her bottom lip. “I’m not insinuating anything. I barely know you.” She hesitated. “It’s better to call an officer, anyway.”
Vickie stepped closer and lowered her voice. “You’ve gotten the wrong impression of me.”
“I have? How?”
“Ladies, over here, please.” The officer motioned to them.
Vickie touched Ally’s arm. “It’s stress. I’ll explain later.”
Ally joined the officer and Vickie followed her. Tony stared at the pavement as the women gave their statements. The officer typed on his iPad and looked at Tony. “It’s pretty clear what happened.” He put on aviator sunglasses. “In the meantime, all of you should contact your insurance companies.” He glanced around. “Any questions?”
All three shook their heads. The women waited for both men to leave.
Vickie turned to Ally. “Instead of breaking the ice, we’ll research body shops.”
“I’d rather go home. My head’s pounding.” Ally rubbed both temples. “And I don’t have any Advil.”
“It’s no trouble. Besides, I got us off on the wrong foot.”
Ally pointed at her rear bumper. “Actually, Tony helped.”
Vickie laughed softly. She dangled her keys and shook them. “Let me treat you to dinner. A margarita will do wonders for your headache.”
“I didn’t mention a headache to get a free dinner.”
“And I’m not sure there’s really some Advil in my car.”
Ally crossed her arms. “Look, nothing’s invested here. Let’s call it a day.”
“I know I seemed rough earlier. But it’s stress.”
“Accidents have a way of causing that.”
“And other life events. If we see each other after tonight, it’s your call.”
The expression on Vickie’s face wasn’t desperation. It was matter-of-fact. And convinced Ally to take a chance. “In that case, you have a deal.”
Vickie thanked her. “I won’t let you down.”
“I’ve heard that a zillion times.”
“Haven’t we all?” Vickie smiled like her profile photograph and settled in her car. She rolled down the window. “Follow me?”
Ally laughed softly. “Not too closely.”
Minutes later, Ally parked beside Vickie. They entered Maria’s Cantina in step. The hostess led them to a table near the entrance. A server appeared with chips and salsa and returned with two menus. As Ally crunched down on her first chip, Vickie ran an index finger over the list of seafood selections.
“Who am I kidding?” Vickie closed the menu. “I always have shrimp fajitas.”
Ally pushed one of the salsa cups closer to Vickie. “Spinach enchiladas for me.”
Vickie dipped a chip. She held her opposite hand under it as she bit down. “Do you want to call your insurance company before we order food?”
“Let’s not talk about that. My headache’s gone.”
The server stepped up to their table and asked whether they’d decided. With her entrée, Ally ordered a frozen lime margarita, and Vickie asked for a Dos Equis on draft. In unison, they thanked her.
When her beer arrived, Vickie wiped the condensation off her mug. “What have you read lately?”
“I loved Gone Girl. But my all-time favorite’s on my profile.” Ally gave Vickie a sideways grin. “Remember?” A few salt crystals dropped from her glass before she sipped.
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Vickie tilted her head back, smug and sure of herself.
“And yours is Lord of the Flies.”
Tipping her mug first, Vickie sipped. “Would shipwrecked girls be as savage? We both know the answer to that.”
Ally laughed softly and nodded.
The server stepped up to their table, setting down a serving tray that included their drinks. She said she’d be right back with their food. Ally licked the rim and took several sips. “What is it about tequila? My God, few things beat it.”
Vickie raised her mug. “I’ll drink to that.” She sat back. “What beats agave juice is conversation for another time—I hope.”
Ally had to admire her boldness. A woman with nothing to lose still wanted to take a chance. “I guess it depends—like everything else.”
The server set down their dinners. She placed the sizzling cast-iron fajita pan next to Vickie. “Anything else, chicas?”
Ally shook her head. Steam wafted from her plate.
Vickie thanked her. “Not now, thanks.”
Ally turned her plate lengthwise. Vickie set a tortilla on her plate. She scooped fajita mix over it and spread it evenly. One by one, she aligned the shrimp vertically before rolling the tortilla. Ally couldn’t help admiring Vickie’s attention to detail—even while assembling a fajita.
Ally chewed a forkful of enchilada, spicier than she normally liked. She gazed up at the motionless ceiling fan and wiped her temple. God, did I smear my makeup? She looked at her fingertips.
“You look just fine.” Vickie speared another shrimp and tried to hide her smile.
Ally stirred her rice. Meghan had never been that perceptive.
Vickie looked up from her plate. “So quiet all of a sudden.” She pointed at Ally’s glass. Two sips remained. “Would another margarita help?”
“One road adventure today is enough.”
“Of course. I was joking.”
Ally sipped her water. “As a nurse practitioner, are you ever on call? Like a real doctor?”
“This week. One of my colleagues is on vacation.” With an eyebrow raised, Vickie asked, “What’s a ‘fake doctor’?”
Ally’s throat constricted. She had to be redder than a ripe cayenne pepper. She lowered her voice. “I didn’t mean it that way. Really.”
For a few minutes, they ate in silence. Ally wiped her mouth more often than she would at home. “I got food poisoning at another Mexican place. A modern case of Montezuma’s revenge.” She hesitated. “I was with my best friend, not a date.”
Vickie finished chewing. “Why is that my business?”
Ally shrugged. “Just saying.”
As Vickie finished her beer, her phone rang “The Entertainer.” “That’s why I can’t turn this silly thing off.” Looking at the caller ID, Vickie stood up. “Excuse me.” She hurried to the lobby near the cash register.
Setting down her fork, Ally inhaled deeply, rolling her shoulders. Her vacation last summer had been a Grand Canyon hike with her college roommate. Memories of rust-colored layers matched the restaurant’s southwestern décor—a comfortable analogy. Ally finished her margarita as Vickie returned to their table. Ally leaned back in her chair, trying to read Vickie’s demeanor.
Vickie reached for her wallet and opened it. She dropped two twenty-dollar bills on the table. “Got to go. I’ll explain later. Promise.”
Looking down, Vickie said, “It’s complicated.”
Ally ran her finger over the rim of the margarita glass, shaking her head. Oldest excuse ever. A bite of refried beans remained, but she set her fork on her plate. She balled up her napkin. At least Vickie made the decision easy—unlike hers about Meghan.
Moments later, the server stepped up to the table. “Dessert for you ladies?”
“No, the check, please.”
As she waited, Ally toyed with her spoon. A panorama of one-date women sifted through her memories. Once home, it would be too late to tell her best friend about another disappointment. But wouldn’t it be better to have a clear mind first?
Ally laid a five over Vickie’s bills. She thanked the server and went to her car.
With the khaki pants draped over a chair, Ally pulled a pink pajama top over her head and settled on the bed. Her calico, Olivia, greeted her with a head butt. Ally scratched behind her cat’s ear. “What would I do without my real girl?”
Vibrantly purring, Olivia curled up. Ally locked her fingers behind her head and lay back. As she stared at the whiteness overhead, Meghan’s face, with the goofy smile she’d loved so much, appeared—to taunt Ally for ending their stale relationship.
At her dresser, she opened the top drawer and retrieved a small frame. Meghan, with that same smile and blonde curls, stood in front of a general store near Lake Anna. No one forgets ten years. As she returned to the bed, Olivia looked up and meowed.
“Yes, girl. Meghan wasn’t meant to be.” Ally set the picture on the nightstand. “But will I get the ending I want?” On her iPhone, Ally typed her dating site password. When Vickie’s profile popped up, she closed it.
Her own profile alert showed two unread messages. Ally clicked on her account page and deleted her profile. She set down her phone and it pinged a new text. Probably her best friend—she’d been giddier about this first date than Ally. Talking about the latest disappointment could wait until morning. She moved Olivia closer to her pillow and turned out the light. As she rolled onto her side, the phone pinged again.
Allie reached for her phone. Vickie sent both messages. Sorry. Call tomorrow. I’ll explain. And: Had a great time. Treat you 2 dinner again soon?
Obviously, Vickie hadn’t considered her abrupt exit a deal breaker for Ally. Bolder still. Ally set down her phone and stretched out on her back. Tomorrow was only hours away. Too often, Ally hadn’t listened to Meghan as she should have. Although Vickie might not be “the one,” either, she wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Ally turned off the football game and rubbed Olivia’s belly, prompting purring. Ally smiled. If only she were that easy to please. “Kitty, I’ll give her three strikes. You agree?” Olivia twisted and stretched. “Glad we agree.”
On her phone, she listened to the rings. If Vickie had to work today, she wouldn’t have asked for a call.
“I’m so glad you called,” Vickie said.
“In a job like yours, things happen.”
Vickie hesitated. Her voice cracked. “True, but it’s not work.”
Ally waited. No need to ask.
“My father went into a coma last night.” Vickie’s voice trembled. “I thought about telling you, but family issues aren’t good topics for a first date. Bawling at the table isn’t too cool, either.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks. He’s had a good life. It’s cancer—so we wait.”
Ally softened her voice, hoping to sound as empathetic as she felt. Colon cancer had claimed her grandmother. “I understand. Take whatever time you need.”
There was a long pause. “Actually, another dinner would take my mind off things. He’s got a few more weeks.”
“Are you sure?”
“Very sure,” Vickie said.
“How about Wednesday?”
“There’s a great Cajun place on Patterson. Guidry’s. Six thirty?”
“My rental’s a Cruze. A white one—and it’s already dirty.”
Vickie laughed softly. “Just one more thing.”
“We both know this isn’t our first rodeo.”
“Let’s shoot for no regrets.”
Ally smiled wide. Too bad Vickie couldn’t see her face. “See you Wednesday.”
“Unless there’s trouble with Dad, it’s a date.” Vickie hesitated. “And thank you.”
“See you soon.” After she set down her phone, Ally closed her eyes, breathing deeply as Olivia purred.
Colorful foliage and crisp autumn air might be perfect backdrops for a new adventure after all.