Enjoy this excerpt from ONE GOOD FRIEND DESERVES ANOTHER
In times like these, Marta Sanchez had to remind herself of how she felt when she tried out for the basketball team at Sacred Heart, the Catholic high school her parents had enrolled her in after moving out of Washington Heights.
Sacred Heart was nothing like her old middle school, a cozy nest of two hundred neighborhood kids, where the volunteer lunch moms served rice and beans and the whole place sang with Spanish. No, it had taken her about five minutes of walking through her new high school's halls, plastered with the school's shamrock emblem, to realize that the Fighting Irish basketball team was the center of social life—and the clearest, quickest way for an oddball like her to fit in.
She'd played basketball before, but these Maeves and Mollys were fearless and quick. Marta was thrown out in the first cut for being repeatedly knocked to the gritty gym floor. She practiced all summer and then tried out again her sophomore year only to be hip-checked out of the lineup by yet another competitor. So she nursed her bruises, pondered her weaknesses, and then practiced with her male cousins in the driveway of their Riverdale house. By then, she'd found her social circle with a group of brainy friends—but making the basketball team wasn't about social status anymore.
So when she entered the gym her junior year, even the coach rolled his eyes, which only stiffened her resolve. This time, when Marta got the ball and saw one of those sturdy blondes coming right at her, she turned her flank. The two collided. Marta absorbed the hit and budged—but didn't tumble. She hooked that basket with nothing but net.
Bruised, out of breath, and still standing at the end of tryouts, she faced the coach with her hands on her new secret weapon—her swiftly ripening, center-of-gravity-changing, and very fine hips.
The coach, with a little nod, allowed her on the team.
Now, as Marta climbed out of the taxi in front of the Three Dancers bar in SoHo, she silently bid a hasta la vista to lying Carlos and adios to darling Tito, forever gone from her life. She'd wasted too much time hiding in her apartment, dodging concerned phone calls from her friends as she nursed her wounded ego, a pomegranate Cosmopolitan, and the remote control. Having pondered her weaknesses, she'd finally come up with a perfect strategy. She'd signed herself up for a speed-dating event.
Marta swung into the hipster bar, adjusting the weight of her Italian leather briefcase and checking her cell phone for the time. She'd come directly from work, where she was elbow-deep preparing papers for the SEC concerning a complicated corporate merger, but she'd managed to pull herself out of the boundless depths of document review to arrive with five minutes to spare.
About ten women clustered on one end of the long bar. The sight gave her pause. The image of their cocktail dresses multiplied in the mirrored walls like the colorful splatters of a Jackson Pollock painting. Marta slowed her pace and tugged on the jacket of her brown suit, conscious of the hemline just skimming the top of her knee. She felt like a plain sparrow about to swoop into a flock of cockatiels.
A perky brunette stepped into view.
"Welcome to Big Apple Speed Dating! You must be Marta Sanchez. You're the last to arrive. So glad you could make it!" The brunette put a check on her clipboard and then, with a bend of her knees and a sweep of her hand, gestured toward the bar in a way that would do a Texas cheerleader proud. "Go ahead and get yourself a drink. I'll be talking to everyone in a few minutes, telling you all how it works and laying the ground rules. After that, we'll let the guys in."
Fixing her gaze on a top-shelf bottle of liquor, Marta braced herself for the long walk across no-man's land. She'd been told that this speed-dating event was for thirty-five- to forty-five-year-old single, professional men and assumed they'd be looking for single, professional women. Perhaps she'd miscalculated, for she passed at least one hair poof, two unnatural blondes, and three boob jobs—and felt herself sharply assessed and coming up thoroughly boss. She barely acknowledged the cute bartender before ordering a glass of the Glenmorangie single malt, neat.
While he poured the drink, she stared into the mirror behind the bar, trying to pick out her own reflection—brown hair, brown eyes, dark clothes—against the bar's dim background. She reminded herself that her well-laid plans had never failed her. She reminded herself that this was just a first stride in the process. If she just followed the road one step at a time—like she always did—it would eventually lead to a white picket fence.
Yeah, but next time I'm wearing a red dress and Christian Louboutins.
See? She had learned something already.
"New to this, aren't you?"
The gravelly voice emerged from the dim end of the bar. A woman, toying with the olive in her martini, leaned forward into a pool of yellow light. Her streaked hair was swept up and agreeably tousled. The stranger assessed Marta with eyes that crinkled at the corners and then gave her a rueful little smile.
"Yes, it's my first time," Marta conceded. "I didn't realize it showed."
"The clothes." She gestured to Marta's suit with the pick from the olive. "And the briefcase. Very nice, by the way. Louis Vuitton?"
"Ah." The woman reached under the bar and briefly hefted a slim tooled black leather job. "Tumi."
Marta gave it an admiring nod and then, raising her scotch in a toast, she took a healthy sip. From what she could see in the dim light, the woman was slim and well-tended in the way of executives who diligently spent lunch hours working out at the gym. The black suit was conservative, but a bit of red lingerie peeked just at the V of the jacket. Unlike the chicks clucking on the far side of the bar, this woman was more of what Marta had expected for an event billed for high-wage-earning professionals.
The woman spoke again in that whiskey-tainted, cigarette-smoker's voice. "Don't worry too much about them, hon."
"The competition." She gestured to the gaggle with her chin. "The guys that'll go for that type, well, they're not the kind you're looking for, believe me." The woman leaned over to offer her hand. "I'm Sophia, by the way. Sophia Martin."
"Marta Sanchez." Marta gripped her hand then slipped onto a barstool close enough to talk. "It's a pleasure to meet a co-conspirator."
"You a lawyer?"
Marta raised her brows. "Oh, you're good."
"Lucky guess. Where do you work?"
"I'm a partner," she replied, lingering on the word with delight, "at Sachs, Offsyn & Reed."
"Ah, yes—Sacks of Sin and Greed. I know that firm well." Sophia pulled a card out of an outside pocket of her briefcase and slipped it across the granite surface. "VP of Operations, Hodges Pharmaceuticals. We had a fire in a plant ten years ago. The lawsuit is still going on. One of your colleagues—"
"Bill Offsyn, yes." Marta handed over one of her own business cards. "I'm in corporate—not litigation—but I'm familiar with the case."
"I'll try not to hold it against you."
Sophia laughed, and Marta noticed the playful grooves around her mouth. They made Sophia look mischievous and a lot of fun, but also gave away the fact that her age was on the far end of the range. Marta thought it was a good thing for both of them that the event planners had chosen to keep the lights flatteringly dim.
"So," Marta asked, lifting her glass, "you've done this before?"
"Fifteen notches on my Manolo stiletto, hon."
Marta nearly choked on her scotch.
"Hey, the first five hardly counted. There's a skill to this, you know." Sophia glanced at Marta's briefcase. "You've got your list in there?"
Sophia raised one very cleanly waxed eyebrow. "Your list of Vitally Important Questions."
Marta felt her cheeks go warm. Of course, she had a list. She'd spent many a stolen hour this past week sitting cross-legged at her kitchen table with a mud mask drying on her face, trying to compose the perfect queries to tease out—in five minutes or less—everything she needed to know about a potential husband.
"Oh, hon," Sophia said kindly. "Please tell me it's less than five pages."
Marta clanked the drink back on the bar. "Six and a half, actually."
"You wouldn't say that if you knew my checkered past."
"Hon, I'll meet your checkered past and raise you two divorces."
"Oh, my. Does your list fit in that briefcase?"
"It fits in here." Sophia tapped her temple. "After all the hard time I've served, I've boiled it down to three basic questions: Does he have kids? Does he have an apartment? And does he have a job?" She mused a moment as she swirled her quickly disappearing martini. "Though I must say, the presence of kids is becoming less of an issue."
Surely she was joking. Not about the kids, but certainly about the job and the apartment. Marta watched Sophia's amused expression, trying to tease out whether Sophia was amused at her own joke, or just amused at Marta. The incredibly animated woman on the phone had assured Marta that she was going to meet a bunch of professional men. That meant a job. That meant an apartment.
A sudden raucous clanging made Marta all but leap out of her shoes. She swung around on her barstool to see the perky brunette shaking a huge brass bell like the one Sister Magdalene used to shock students into silence.
"Ladies, ladies, thanks for coming to our speed dating event tonight! For those of you who've never done this, here's how it works." The perky brunette gestured to a line of numbered tables like a game show host gesturing to a new washer-dryer. "You'll all be sitting here at individual tables, and then we'll invite in the men. They'll sit down, one at each table, and you've got five minutes to chat. Five minutes, ladies! Make them count! When the time's up, I'll ring this bell, and the men will shift to the right. It's that simple. At the end, you fill out the form sitting on each table to pick out the guys you'd like to see again. If he's asked for you too, then that's a match! We'll give you each other's email addresses, and you guys can take it from there. Got it?"
The cockatiels raised their drinks and made excited chirping sounds. Marta took a good, long slug of her scotch and then gestured to the bartender for another.
"All right!" The cheerleader pumped her fist. "You all seem like you're in a good mood. Don't forget to tip the bartender, ladies, Sam deserves it! You'll have a chance, halfway through the evening, to take an eight-minute break and order another drink. Remember, there's a two-for-one special tonight." The cheerleader glanced down at her clipboard. "Okay, I'm happy to tell you that you'll be meeting fifteen men tonight. Fifteen thirty-five- to forty-five-year-old single, professional men, ladies. Are you ready? Take your seats, get comfortable—I'll get the guys."
Santa Maria. Marta mentally made the sign of the cross. Sophia, with a gravelly little laugh, slipped off her barstool, hauled up her briefcase, and then took Marta firmly by the arm.
"Poor lost lamb." Sophia led her toward the closest tables. "The first time is always the worst."
Marta sank into a chair behind table number 15. "You were joking about the job and the apartment?"
"Such a little virgin." Sophia tossed her briefcase on the floor. "Listen, Marta—it is Marta, yes?—part of my job in management is to make quick but accurate judgments about people, and I've got a good vibe from you. So here's what I'll do. I'll cut through the crap for you, all right? When these guys file in, I'll point out the ringers and dingers, you got it?"
"Sophia, I'd appreciate that," Marta said. "But how do you know—"
"Shh. Here they come."
The men poured in, drinks in hand, from an adjacent room. Marta scanned them quickly and, considering the conversation with Sophia, with more than a little dread. She perked up as she saw some promising prospects. One was an older man with a bit of silver in his hair, a well-preserved guy with a nice square-jawed face. Another candidate was dressed in a very expensively tailored suit and looked dashingly European. A third swaggered in sporting a fitted T-shirt. He was clearly an athlete of some type, with a quick half smile.
"Okay, here's the deal." Sophia leaned in her direction, keeping her voice low. "The guy in the Italian suit? With the swept-back hair? He's the ringer."
"What's a ringer?"
"The bait, hon. He's dashing, he's romantic. Every girl in the place is getting damp panties looking at him." Sophia hissed her breath through her teeth. "This one is particularly hot. I swear, they salt the crowd with at least one guy like this every time. The sight of him keeps us all coming back. But he won't make any matches to anybody, you'll see. Well, maybe to the blonde with the big boobs."
Marta felt a twinge of disappointment. He was clearly the best-looking guy in the group. As he sat down at the first table, he made a very Gallic shrug, and she heard what sounded like a French accent. Already, she was imagining a transcontinental relationship and sex on an airplane.
"Okay, hon, see the one with the silver hair? The nice-looking guy with the firm jaw? He's recently divorced."
"Sophia, come on."
"Look, his suit fits loosely around the middle, like he's not being home-fed anymore."
"Maybe he's just working out or losing weight."
"He's wearing wrinkled pants, like he left them in the dryer. And his tie isn't quite right. All a man like that is looking for is some easy tail."
Marta leaned back, disbelieving.
"Trust me on that one. Okay, the one with the good build?" Sophia chin-nodded to the athlete, just taking a seat at the fourth table. "He's a total dinger. Twenty bucks says he doesn't have a job and he's living with his mother."
"Sophia, you can't—"
"The jeans. They're ironed."
Marta noticed, with sudden alarm, that there was most definitely a crease in the denim.
"And that young one," Sophia added, "with the off-the-rack suit?"
The man Sophia referred to had a bright face, cleanly shaven, and Marta thought he looked cute, if a little puppyish for her taste. "No, no, you can't possibly knock him. It'd be like stepping on a kitten."
"Hon, the first thing he'll do is ask if you've accepted Jesus as your personal savior." Sophia fixed her with a direct, open look. "I'm not pulling your leg. I've met this guy before."
A strange, squeaking sound came out of Marta's throat. She glanced longingly toward the exit, imagining herself rising from this chair and fleeing the bar. Her boss, Nathan, was still at the office, running his fingers through what was left of his hair. The table in the conference room groaned under piles of papers in which were hidden the vital elements she would need to posit the argument that the SEC had no reason to step in and prevent the merger of these two rare-earth mining companies. How much nicer it would be to spend the evening ferreting out those precious little nuggets of lawyerly dysprosium, cerium, and yttrium—and lose herself in a world she understood.
"Oh, hon, I'm going at it too hard, I see that. But it's not all bad, believe me. Look, here's my best piece of advice." Sophia leaned even closer, for the guys were nearing their tables. "Go for the husky one."
Marta blinked. Sophia was nodding to a short guy whose thinning hair formed a Caesar-ring around his head.
"He has no confidence, none at all." Sophia's voice dropped to a hush. "Look at the way his gaze is darting around. He's taken stock of his competition, and he knows he hasn't got a chance with those party girls. A guy like that, Marta, he'll worship you. And I'm calling dibs."
Marta felt the muscles in her neck tightening. "Sophia, is this what you usually do at these events?"
"Honey, my goal is success." Sophia tugged on the hem of her suit jacket to show a little more red lace lingerie. "My goal is to find a marriageable man. My secondary goal is to avoid having my ego crushed by discovering on Monday morning that because I went for the obvious ringers and dingers, I don't have a single match."
Marta felt as if a one-hundred-and-forty-pound point guard had just slammed her off the court. Her ears rang. She couldn't breathe. She told herself she was not like Sophia. She told herself that it was date-weary cynicism she was hearing. She told herself that she shouldn't let Sophia's whiskey-voiced advice destroy her well-laid plans before she'd even started.
"Why?" Marta clutched her chest as the question wheezed out of her. "Sophia, why do you keep doing this?"
"Because I've got big plans, hon." Sophia plastered on a wide smile as a guy approached her table. "And I want my white picket fence."
From ONE GOOD FRIEND DESERVES ANOTHER by Lisa Verge Higgins. Copyright © 2012 by Lisa Verge Higgins. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
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