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Goddess of Love, Page 3

P. C. Cast

Chapter Two

  S he never knew what to wear. How did most women do it? How did they figure out how to put the right clothes with the right hair with the right shoes? (Shoes! That was a truly nightmarish subject! She could never seem to pick out shoes that didn't look like a cross between someone's grandma and someone's cutesy two-year-old daughter. ) Pea pulled at her sweater (why did it look so shapeless? She did have boobs. Really!) and checked herself in the rearview mirror of her fabulous new car. Pea groaned. Her makeup looked wrong. She couldn't put her finger on exactly what was wrong about it, but it just wasn't. . . wasn't. . . wasn't anything. It wasn't cute or sophisticated or sexy. And why did the new eye shadow she'd just talked herself into buying yesterday suddenly look orangish instead of the lovely blushing peach color it had seemed to be in the store? Naturally the eye shadow now clashed horribly with her mauve lipstick, which was all over her teeth. Pea rubbed it off vigorously. Then she glanced at her hair. How could the sky be clear and there be zero humidity today in Oklahoma, but her hair was still capable of frizzing out like the puff ball on a dandelion? What had she been thinking when she left it down? With a sigh of resignation, she pulled the scrunchie out of her purse and wrapped it around her hair. Then she grabbed the plate of brownies and walked through the parking lot to the front door of the fire station.

  It didn't open. Were they closed? It was Saturday, but still. Fire stations didn't close. Did they?

  They'd been at her house earlier that day. And fires happened twenty-four seven. No way could they actually be closed. Had she gone to the wrong door? She stood there, chewing her lip and looking around what she had assumed to be the front entrance to the old fashioned brick fire station. Maybe she should just leave the plate of brownies. They were wrapped in aluminum foil; they'd be fine. And she had written a quick thank you note (signed by Chloe), so they'd figure out who they were from, and probably wouldn't worry about being poisoned by them or anything. Did firemen worry about being poisoned by thank you food? Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea.

  Pea chewed her lip some more.

  This kind of thing was exactly what Stacy had talked to her about time and time again. Stacy wouldn't just stand out here, undecided and pathetic with zillions of questions zinging through her mind. Stacy would have gone to the right door or whatever. Who was she kidding? The firemen would have caught one glimpse of blond and beautiful through the obviously two-way glass that framed the door (oh, great - were they all in there watching her right then?) and there would have been a mass rush to get the door open for her before -

  "Ma'am?" The door opened and a man she recognized as one of the guys who had carried the ladder to the tree looked out at her.

  "Oh, hi. The door was locked. "

  "Yes ma'am. It's always locked. You just have to ring the bell there on the side. "

  "Oh," Pea said, her face going hot as she saw the little sign over the doorbell that read PLEASE

  RING FOR ENTRANCE. "I brought Griffin these to thank him for getting my dog out of the tree," she blurted out and lifted the plate.

  "Hey, you're the lady with the tree-climbing Scottie!" He laughed.

  "Yep. That's me. "

  "Come on in. I'll get the captain. "

  He held the door for her and then motioned for her to sit on a bench that rested against the little lobbylike foyer. Pea sat and tried not to be too obvious about gawking around the fire station. About ten feet or so in front of her there was an arched doorway that led to the garage area where the fire trucks were kept. She could see the smooth cement floor and the front bumper of the nearest truck. To her right there was a counter that wrapped around to form what looked like a little communications area, complete with multiple-line phone equipment and complex radio stuff. The man who was sitting there nodded briefly to her and then went back to his book, which Pea recognized as Christopher Moore's latest.

  "I love Chris Moore's books," she said conversationally.

  He glanced over the top of the trade paperback and grunted.

  "I think he's hilarious," she said.

  "Yeah," he said, this time without looking at her.

  "Bloodsucking Fiends is my favorite, but I love Lamb, too," Pea said. By now she knew the drill. She'd try to make polite conversation, and he would make noises like he was pretending to listen to her. Men did it all the time. She had a theory that men only attempted to listen to really beautiful women - and then they were mostly only attempting to listen because it might get them into the beauty's panties. With women who were average - like her - they didn't even pretend to attempt to listen.

  "Yeah," he said absently, proving her theory correct. Again.

  Pea sighed and started to chew her lip again - and then stopped. She looked at the fireman. Actually he was only an averagely attractive guy himself. Kinda youngish, like in his late twenties - he was probably only a year or two younger than her. He had nondescript brownish hair and an ordinary face and body. Of course, he had on the fireman's casual uniform - navy blue T-shirt, with the Tulsa Fire Department's logo in gold, and navy blue pants - so that probably made him more interesting looking. But still. The guy was average. Like Pea. And suddenly, just like that, it started to piss her off that he thought it was okay to ignore her. That everyone thought it was okay to ignore her.

  "Uh huh, Chris Moore is a great storyteller," Pea said. "Whenever I read his books I laugh so hard that I give birth to a whole litter of those flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz," she said sweetly.

  "Yeah," the guy said.

  "Wonder if there's something you can take to cure that. "

  Pea made a strangled yelping noise that probably made her sound like Chloe. Her gaze shot from the clueless average guy to the doorway of the garage, where Griffin was standing, arms folded, grinning at her.

  "Cure what?" the guy behind the counter said.

  "Nothin', Honeyman. Don't worry about it," Griffin said, still smiling at Pea. Pea swallowed and wished frantically that her face didn't feel so hot. Again. It meant that she was blushing a bright, painful pink color that there was no way to pass off as attractively flushed cheeks.

  "I was just, um. . . " Pea trailed off. What could she say she had just been doing? I was just being a total smartass because your coworker was rudely ignoring me. No, that wouldn't do. She raised the plate of brownies like she was making an offering at the shrine of the Forget-the-StupidThing-I-Just-Said God. "I brought you some brownies. As a thank you. "

  Griffin wrinkled his brow and Pea realized he didn't remember who she was. A-freaking-gin! It had been three and a half hours since he'd rescued Chloe from the tree, and he'd forgotten her. For the fourth time. Great. How totally and typically embarrassing. Pea stood up and quickly placed the plate on the counter - thinking that's what she should have done in the first place. Just left the damn plate there with the stupid note and gone on to dance class before -

  "Oh, that's right," Griffin said, recognition clearing the confusion from his expression. "You're my neighbor. Chloe the Scottie cat's mom. " He paused a beat and then chuckled before adding,

  "Pea. "

  "Yeah, Chloe and I just wanted to say thanks. " Pea pointed at the aluminum foil - wrapped plate, trying not to blush again, this time in pleasure, because he'd finally remembered her. "We baked brownies. Well, actually, I baked them. She and Max begged for a taste. "

  "Max, the real cat in the family?"

  Pea felt another ridiculous rush of pleasure that he'd remembered. "That's right. The one who's as good a climber downer as a climber upper. " Oh, no. Had she really just said climber downer again? She smiled gaily, hoping somehow he wouldn't notice that she was the biggest dork in the known universe. "You won't ever have to rescue Max. "

  "That wouldn't be a problem, ma'am," he said, pretending to tip an imaginary hat. "It's all part of the job. "

  "We just wanted to say thanks," Pea said, feeling herself getting caught in the blue depths of his e

  "Thank you, that was nice of you, and we always appreciate food around here," Griffin said.

  "Thank you," Pea said, and then realized she had thanked him several times and had now begun thanking him for thanking her for thanking him. Well, hell. "Okey-dokey then. I'll just leave the brownies. Don't worry about the plate. It's old. You can just throw it away when you're done. Or keep it. Or whatever. " Oh, God. She was babbling. "Well, thanks again. And you guys stay safe out there. " Pea gave Griffin a jaunty little salute and then bolted out the door. Her limited edition Thunderbird was a cream-colored sanctuary, which she decided was a perfect analogy since she had about as much social couth as Quasimodo. Pea closed the door and leaned her forehead against the steering wheel.

  "I saluted him," she said miserably. "I really shouldn't be allowed out in public without supervision. "

  Dance class, which had been Pea's weekly escape from the annoyances and disappointments of the world for twenty-five of her almost thirty years, didn't work its magic that day. She felt sluggish and Madam Ringwater, her ancient but timelessly competent ballet instructor, had to reprimand her sharply for missing basic movements. Twice.

  Pea couldn't stop thinking about Griffin.

  She knew it was silly and childish and unrealistic, but she was smitten. Her year-long crushfrom-a-distance had morphed into a full-blown close-encounter crush. She was an idiot.

  "Dorreth! Concentration, merci. I clearly asked for battement tendu jete and not the battement degage you so sloppily performed. " Madam Ringwater stamped her practice stick against the smooth wood floor of the studio and spoke sharply in her thick French accent. "Faites-l'encore!

  Do it again!"

  Pea gritted her teeth and began the delicate lift of her toe from the floor, trying to focus and move in time with the classical music.

  Griffin had smiled at her and met her eyes. Twice. Stacy had even said she thought he was interested in her, and Stacy should know. She was happily married to Ken-doll looking Matt, and men still showed way too much interest in her.

  Maybe she was right. Maybe he had been interested in her.

  Then Pea remembered how Griffin hadn't even really recognized her, for the fourth time, when he'd first seen her at the fire station, and her stomach sank. No. He was just being nice and polite like a fireman should be. What was it he'd said? It's all part of the job. But if she were gorgeous. . . or somehow memorable. . . maybe then his little almost-interest would change into real interest. And how was that supposed to happen? How was she supposed to become memorable?

  Didn't she remember how disastrous it was to try to pretend to be something she wasn't? All she had to do was to think back to her freshman year in high school, and like it was yesterday instead of a decade or more ago, she remembered all too well that

  humiliation. . . embarrassment. . . failure. . . .

  No. The past was the past. She was a grown-assed woman now. She shouldn't let that childish stuff still mess with her. But she did.

  With a huge effort, Pea pushed the memories from her mind and focused on her reflection in the wall-sized studio mirrors. She saw what she always saw. Plain, ordinary Pea. She had on her gray dance sweats, which were rolled down around her hips (which really weren't hips at all -

  she was too damn little to have those fabulous curvy, luscious hips she'd always envied in other women). Her ballet IS the pointe long-sleeved T-shirt was tied up just under her ribcage, exposing way more of her skin than Pea was normally comfortable showing. But this was dance class, and dance class was somehow on a different standard when it came to showing skin and such. She wished she had great boobs to fill out the top of the shirt, but she didn't. She had what Stacy's daughter had once called bumps. Little bumps. Her hair was, as usual, crazily escaping from scrunchie bondage, and brown tendrils of it were plastered against her flushed and sweaty face. She hated her hair. Truly hated it.

  Okay, but at least she wasn't all fat and saggy and out of shape. Truthfully she'd probably never sag. Her internal editor whispered nastily that was because she didn't have anything to sag, but Pea forced herself to ignore the voice in her head that was always so negative. It didn't really matter why she wouldn't sag - it just mattered that she wouldn't. Right? She didn't give herself time to answer the question; instead she took her mind down a path she rarely ventured. Maybe she did have something that could be worked into unique or memorable. Or at least maybe she could have something attractive about her, like Stacy kept saying. Maybe she just needed some direction so she could develop her self-confidence. She wasn't in high school anymore, and there were no hateful girls on the dance squad to humiliate her and call her names. She was a successful adult. Actually she had managed to attain self-confidence about several things: ballet, cooking, her job as program director of Tulsa Community College. She even had self-confidence about her ability to create a great home.

  She stared at herself in the mirror as she manically battement tendu jete-ed. Why was it so hard for her to transfer the self-confidence that permeated the rest of her life to her personal style and appearance? Was it just her past that was holding her back? Her fear that if she tried and this time, as an adult, failed, she would truly be forever doomed to the ranks of wallflower and undesirable dork?

  "Enough! We are fini for today, Dorreth," Madam Ringwater said, with a look of disgust. "You cannot concentre sur le ballet when your mind is on the boudoir. "

  Pea gasped and froze mid-toe lift. "But Madam Ringwater, I'm not - "

  The ancient dance instructor lifted her well manicured hand, silencing Pea. "L'amour fait des imbeciles de nous tous. Now go. Next time you will work twice as hard, oui?"

  "Okay. Yes. I'm sorry, Madam, I just. . . " Pea shrugged, not really knowing if she felt embarrassed or pleased. Impulsively she hugged the old woman before she grabbed her towel and hurried out of the studio. No one had ever said anything like that to her before! No one had ever even implied that she might be preoccupied with what went on in her bedroom. Maybe her life was changing.

  Well, she was willing - she was! She would. . . she would. . . Pea chewed her lip as she got in her car and backed out of the studio parking lot. She would not let this. . . whatever it was that had suddenly grabbed hold of her go. Pea drove aimlessly for a while, and then her eyes widened when she saw the big red-and-white Borders sign for the Twenty-first Street store. That was it!

  She'd go into the bookstore and research how to get some style - some sense of nonordinaryness. She could figure out how to cook a gourmet meal, change her oil, tear down old wallpaper and make a room look magnificent. She could even plan classes for the entire continuing education department at her college. Surely she could teach herself how to be less. . . less. . . dorky.

  Why had she not thought of it like that before? She knew the answer all too well. She had let the past rule her present. Pea wanted to slap herself on the forehead. Well, she wasn't going to let it control her future! Personal style wasn't some kind of dark, mysterious, unknown woman's territory that was off limits to her. It was just something she needed to learn. And this damn sure wasn't high school anymore. Post - high school and college she'd learned how to do all sorts of hard things. Successfully. Style had to be just another learnable skill. Sure, it was too embarrassing to ask someone like perfect, Barbie-like Stacy to teach her personal style, but couldn't she just read about it? Man, oh man! She'd been such an idiot! She'd already maybe kinda attracted an incredibly handsome man's attention who she'd been crushing on for a year. Didn't that mean she at least had potential to work with? Pea was going to make herself believe it did. She parked right in front of Borders and, like a woman with a mission, marched into the store.