The other guys called out that they were ready. We resumed play, and after a few more fast serves and returns, the ball roared straight at me. I dove for it, returning it quickly over the net as I got acquainted with the sand. I rolled on my back, looked John straight in the eyes, and said, “As you American schmoes say, ab-so-fucking-lutely.”
“Cocky English bastard. Here for two years and you think you’re God’s gift to women.”
Hardly. But there was just something about Jess that made my pulse race. Okay, fine. My heart was sprinting anyway from the game. Still, she had a certain way about her that made me want more of her. Maybe it was her boldness, because let’s face it—most girls don’t just kiss you on the boardwalk and then walk away. The ones that do? Smart guys need to follow them.
I was a smart guy.
The roasted potatoes with rosemary seasoning were delicious and I told my mother so when I visited my parents that night. I lived in an apartment by the university, but I liked my parents, and I tried to have dinner with them once a week. The mission was made simple by them living a couple blocks away from the hospital where I volunteered a few hours a week, so I stopped by after a quick visit to the children’s ward with their dog, Jennifer.
Plus, I needed wedding intel and my mom was often a good source of celebrity whereabouts because of her job.
“This chicken is pretty much the best I’ve ever had,” I said, then speared a piece of broccoli sautéed with lemon. Jennifer, a bullmastiff–Great Dane mix, lay on the floor several feet away, a hopeful look on her big jowly face as she scanned for anything that might fall. She knew better than to lunge, though. I’d trained Jennifer myself after we adopted her from a local shelter four years ago when I was a senior in high school. She was phenomenally obedient because I’d relied on the best, using tips from Wednesday Logan, host of the popular dog training show I’m a Dog Person on the cable channel Animal World. Jennifer was also certified as a therapy dog, which meant she was well behaved enough to visit patients in hospitals, rest her snout on their beds, and endure lots of petting and loving. We’d just finished visiting some of the kids in the long-term care wing, and the dog had done her job brightening their day.
“Oh, stop,” my mother said and pretended to be embarrassed. But she was an excellent cook, and she knew it. Plus, it couldn’t hurt buttering her up.
“No, seriously, Diane,” my father chimed in. “I read an article today in Chicken Connoisseur that said Diane Leighton has officially been declared the best chicken cooker ever.”
“What else can I ever want for in life than to be a great chicken cooker? Besides a grandmother and thank the heavens that’ll be happening soon,” my mom said, beaming.
She hadn’t stopped beaming since my brother Bryan had emailed us all an ultrasound picture two weeks ago. His wife Kat was ten weeks pregnant, and expecting twins.
“It’s going to be like this for the rest of Kat’s pregnancy, right?” I said playfully to my father.
He nodded several times. “Every single day. She’s working through combos of twin names.”
“Chloe and Cara,” my mom offered. “Those are today’s picks. If she has two girls.”
“Obviously,” I added.
“Jess,” my father said. “How’s the star shooting business? Get any great pics lately?”
“Every day,” I said because it was true, and because I didn’t want my parents to worry about my job or my ability to pay my own bills. My parents were what you’d call mortgaged to the hilt. It wasn’t their fault, but it was their and our reality after my dad’s firm—through no fault of his own—had become a poster child for the kind of financial problems that typified the last recession, as in cooking the books.
When his firm went belly-up while I was in high school, they lost all their savings, and my college fund, so I had to pay all the bills myself. While my brother did well for himself running a successful company in New York that specialized in cuff links, tie clips, and money holders, I’d never once asked him for financial help, nor did I plan to. Besides, Bryan put himself through school with his job; I was expected to do the same. I had a camera, and that paid my way.
I didn’t want to stay on this subject for too long, so I moved to another one. “Mom, did you fill in on The Sandy Show this week?”
“Yes, the regular gal wanted to extend her maternity leave one more week,” my mother said. A freelance makeup artist, she specialized in last-minute avails and fill-ins for TV shows. It was a strange niche, but yet her ability to jump in at a moment’s notice put her at the top of most Rolodexes, including that of the producers at The Sandy Show, one of the top daytime talk shows. The host was friendly with Veronica Belle and Bradley Bowman, and had once joked on air that she could officiate at their wedding since she’d been ordained to perform ceremonies.