Faith Holland put down her binoculars, picked up her clipboard and checked off a box on her list.Lives alone. Clint had said he did, and the background check showed only his name on the rental agreement, but a person couldn't be too careful. She took a pull of Red Bull and tapped her fingers against the steering wheel of her roommate's car.
Once upon a time, a scenario like this would've seemed ridiculous. But given her romantic history, a little footwork was simply smart. Footwork saved time, embarrassment, anger and heartbreak. Say, for example, the man was gay, which had happened not just with Jeremy, but with Rafael Santos and Fred Beeker, as well. To his credit, Rafe hadn't known Faith thought they weredating; he'd thought they were just hanging out. Later that month, determined to keep trying, Faith had rather awkwardly hit on Fred, who lived down the street from her and Liza, only to have him recoil in horror and gently explain that he liked boys, too. (Incidentally, she'd fixed him up with Rafael, and the two had been together ever since, so at least there was a happily ever after for someone.)
Gay wasn't the only problem. Brandon, whom she'd met at a party, had seemed so promising, right until their second date, when his phone rang. "Gotta take this, it's my dealer," he'd said blithely. When Faith had asked for clarificationhe couldn't meandrug dealer, could he?he'd replied sure, what did she think he meant? He'd seemed confused when Faith left in a huff.
The binocs were old school, yes. But had she used binoculars with Rafe, she would've seen his gorgeous silk window treatments and six-foot framed poster of Barbra Streisand. Had she staked out Brandon, she might've seen him meeting unsavory people in cars after they'd flashed their headlights.
She'd attempted to date two other guys since moving to San Francisco. One didn't believe in bathingagain, something she might've learned by stalking. The other guy stood her up.
Hence the stakeout.
Faith sighed and rubbed her eyes. If this didn't work out, Clint would be her last foray for a while, because she really was getting worn out here. Late nights, the eye strain associated with binocular use, a stomachache from too much caffeine It was tiring.
But Clint might be worth it. Straight, employed, no history of arrest, no DUIs, that rarest of species in S.F. Maybe this would make a cute story at their wedding. She could almost imagine Clint saying, "Little did I know that at that very minute, Faith was parked in front of my house, chugging Red Bull and bending the law."
She'd met Clint on the jobshe'd been hired to design a small public park in the Presidio; Clint owned a landscaping company. They'd worked together just fine; he was on time, and his people were fast and meticulous. Also, Clint had taken a shine to Blue, Faith's Golden retriever, and what's more appealing than a guy who gets down on his knees and lets your dog lick his face? Blue seemed to like him (but then again, Blue tended to like any living creature, the type of dog who'd leg-hump a serial killer). The park had been dedicated two weeks ago, and right after the ceremony, Clint had asked her out. She'd said yes, then gone home and begun her work. Good old Google showed no mention of a wife (or husband). There was a record of a marriage between a Clinton Bundt of Owens, Nebraska, but that was ten years ago, and her Clint Bundt a) seemed too young to have been married for ten years; and b) was from Seattle. His Facebook page was for work only. While he did mention some social things ("Went to Oma's on 19th Street; great latkes!"), there was no mention of a spouse in any of the posts of the past six months.
On Date Number One, Faith had made arrangements for Fred and Rafael to check him out, since gaydar was clearly not one of her skills. She and Clint met for drinks on a Tuesday evening, and the guys had shown up at the bar, done the shark-bump test on Clint, then gone to a table. Straight, Rafael texted, and Fred backed him up with Hetero.
On Date Number Two (lunch/Friday afternoon), Clint had proven to be charming and interested as she told him about her family, being the youngest of four, Goggy and Pops, her grandparents, how much she missed her dad. Clint, in turn, had told her about an ex-fiancée; she'd kept her own story to herself.
On Date Number Three (dinner/Wednesday, in the "make him wait to measure his interest level" philosophy), Clint had met her at a cute little bar near the pier and once again passed every criteria: held her chair, complimented her without too much detail(That's a pretty dress, she'd found, set off no warning bells, unlike Is that Badgley Mischka, OMG, I love those two!). He'd stroked the back of her hand and kept sneaking peeks at her boobage, so it was all good. When Clint had asked if he could drive her home, which of course was code for sex, she'd put him off.
Clint's eyes had narrowed, as if accepting her challenge. "I'll call you. Are you free this weekend?"
Another test passed. Available on weekends. Faith had felt a flutter; she hadn't been on a fourth date since she was eighteen years old. "I think I'm free on Friday," she'd murmured.
They stood on the sidewalk, waiting for a cab as tourists streamed into souvenir shops to buy sweatshirts, having been tricked into thinking that late August in San Francisco meant summer. Clint leaned in and kissed her, and Faith let him. It had been a good kiss. Very competent. There was potential in that kiss, she thought. Then a taxi emerged from the gloom of the famed fog, and Clint waved it over.
And so, in preparation of the fourth datewhich would possibly be the date, when she finally slept with someone other than Jeremyhere she was, parked in front of his apartment, binoculars trained on his windows. Looked as if he was watching the ball game.
Time to call her sister.
"He passes," Faith said by way of greeting.
"You have a problem, hon," said Pru. "Open your heart and all that crap. Jeremy was eons ago."
"This has nothing to do with Jeremy," Faith said, ignoring the answering snort. "I'm a little worried about his name, though. Clint Bundt. It's abrupt. Clint Eastwood, sure, that works. But on anyone else, I don't know. Clint and Faith. Faith and Clint. Faith Bundt." It was much less pleasing than, oh, let's say, Faith and
Jeremy or Jeremy and Faith. Not that she was hung up on the past or anything.
"Sounds okay to me," Pru said.
"Yeah, well, you're Prudence Vanderbeek."
"And?" Pru said amiably, chewing in Faith's ear.
"Clint and Faith Bundt. It's justoff."
"Okay, then break up with him. Or take him to court and force him to change his name. Listen, I gotta go. It's bedtime for us farm folk."
"Okay. Give the kids a hug for me," Faith said. "Tell Abby I'll send her that link to the shoes she asked about. And tell Ned he's still my little bunny, even if he is technically an adult."
"Ned!" her sister bellowed. "Faith says you're still her little bunny."
"Yay," came her nephew's voice.
"Gotta go, kid," said Pru. "Hey, you coming home for harvest?"
"I think so. I don't have another installation for a while." While Faith made a decent living as a landscape designer, most of her work was done on the computer. Her presence was only required for the last part of a job. Plus, grape harvest at Blue Heron was well worth a visit home.
"Great!" Pru said. "Listen, ease up on the guy, have fun, talk soon, love you."
"Love you, too."
Faith took another pull of Red Bull. Pru had a point. Her oldest sibling had been happily married for twenty-three years, after all. And who else was going to give her romantic advice? To Honor, her other sister, if you weren't calling from the hospital, you were wasting her time. Jack was their brother and thus useless on these matters. And Dadwell, Dad was still in mourning for Mom, who'd been gone for nineteen years.
The wash of guilt was all too familiar.
"We can do this," Faith told herself, changing the mental subject. "We can fall in love again."
Certainly a better option than having Jeremy Lyon be her first and only love.
She caught a glimpse of her face in the rearview mirror, that hint of bewilderment and sorrow she always felt when she thought of Jeremy.
"Damn you, Levi," she whispered. "You just couldn't keep your mouth shut, could you?"
Two nights later, Faith was starting to think that Clint Bundt was indeed worth the ten minutes she'd taken to shave her legs and the six it'd taken to wrestle herself into the microfiber Slim-Nation undergarment she'd bought on QVC last month. (Hope. It sprung eternal.) Clint had picked an upscale Thai place with a koi pond in the entryway, red silk wall hangings making the room glow with flattering light. They sat in a U-shaped booth, very cozily, Faith thought. It was so romantic. Also, the food wasreally good, not to mention the lovely Russian River chardonnay.
Clint's eyes kept dropping to her cleavage. "I'm sorry," he said, "but you look good enough to eat." He grinned like a naughty boy, and Faith's girl parts gave a mighty tingle. "I have to tell you," he went on, "the very first second I saw you, I felt like I was hit on the side of the head with a two-by-four."
"Really? That's so sweet," Faith said, taking a sip of her wine. So far as she could recall, she'd been dressed in filthy jeans, work boots and soaked to the skin. She'd been moving some plants around in the rain, trying to ease the mind of the city councilman who was concerned over the park's water runoff (which, please, had been nonexistent; she was a certified landscape architect, thank you very much).
"I wasn't sure I was capable of speech," Clint now said. "I probably made a fool out of myself." He gave her a sheepish look as if acknowledging he'd been quite the love-struck suitor.
And to think she hadn't even noticed that he'd beenwell dazzled by her. That's how it went, right? Love came when you weren't looking, except in the case of the millions who'd found mates on Match.com, but, hey. It sounded good.
The server came and whisked away their dinner plates, setting down coffee, cream and sugar. "Did you see anything you liked on the dessert menu?" he asked, smiling at them. Because really, theywere an adorable couple.
"How about the mango creme brulee?" Clint said. "I don't know if I'll survive watching you eat it, but what a way to go."
Hello! Tingling at a 6.8 on the Richter scale. "The creme brulee sounds great," Faith said, and the waiter sped away.
Clint slid a little closer, putting his arm around Faith's shoulders. "You look amazing in that dress," he murmured, trailing a finger down the neckline. "What are the odds of me getting you out of it later on?" He dropped a kiss on the side of her neck.
Oh, melt! Another kiss. "The odds are getting better," she breathed.
"I really like you, Faith," he whispered, nuzzling her ear, causing her entire side to electrify.
"I like you, too," she said and looked into his pretty brown eyes. His finger slid lower, and she could feel her skin heating up, getting blotchy, no doubt, the curse of the redhead. What the heck. She turned her face and kissed him on the lips, a soft, sweet, lingering kiss.
"Sorry to interrupt, lovebirds," said the waiter. "Don't mind me." He set the dessert on the table with a knowing smile.
The bark made all three of them jump. Clint's elbow hit her glass, the wine spilling onto the tablecloth.
"Oh, shit," Clint said, shoving away from her.
"Don't worry about it," Faith said. "I do stuff like that all the time."
Clint wasn't looking at the wine.
A woman stood in front of their booth, a beautiful little boy dangling from her hands as she held him out in front of her."This is what he's ignoring because of you, whore!"
Faith looked behind her to see the whore, but the only thing there was the wall. She looked back at the woman, who was about her age and very prettyblond hair and fury-flushed cheeks. "Are youare you talking to me?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm talking to you, whore! This is what he's missing when he's wining and diningyou. Our son! Our baby!" She jiggled the toddler to demonstrate.
"Hey, no shaking the kid," Faith said.
"Don't speak to me, whore!"
"Mommy, put down!" the toddler commanded. The woman obeyed, jamming her hands on her (thin) hips. The waiter caught Faith's eye and grimaced. He was probably gay, and thus her ally.
Faith closed her mouth. "But I didn't Clint, you're not married, are you?"
Clint was holding up his hands, surrender-style. "Baby, don't be mad," he said to the woman. "She's just someone I work with"
"Oh, my God, you are married!" Faith blurted. "Where are you from? Are you from Nebraska?"
"Yes, we are, whore!"
"Clint!" Faith yelped. "You bas" She remembered the kid, who looked at her solemnly, then scooped up a fingerful of creme brulee and stuck it in his mouth.
"I'm so sorry," Faith said to Mrs. Clint Bundt (well, at least Faith wouldn't be saddled with that name). The kid spit out the dessert and reached for the sugar packets. "I didn't know"
"Oh, shut up, whore. How dare you seduce my husband! How dare you!"
"I'm not sedudoing anything to anyone, okay?" Faith said, more than a little horrified that this conversation was taking place in front of a toddler (who looked like a baby Hobbit, he was so dang cute, licking sugar from the packet).
"You're a slut, whore."
"Actually," Faith said tightly, "your husband was the one who" Again, the kid. "Ask the waiter. Right?" Yes, yes, get some confirmation from the friendly waiter.
"Umwho's paying tonight?" he asked. So much for the love she inspired in the gays.
"It was a business dinner," Clint interrupted. "She came onto me, and I didn't expect it, I didn't know what to do. Come on, let's go home, babe."
"And by home, I'm guessing you don't mean your bachelor pad in Noe Valley, right?" Faith bit out.
Clint ignored her. "Hi, Finn, how's it going, bud?" He tousled his child's hair, then stood up and gave her a sorrowful, dignified look. "I'm sorry, Faith," he said somberly. "I'm a happily married man, and I have a beautiful family. I'm afraid we won't be able to work together anymore."
"Not a problem," she said tightly.
"Take that, whore," said Clint's wife. "That's what you get, trying to break up my family!" She put her hands on her hips and twisted out her leg, the Angelina Jolie Hip Displacement look.
"Hi, whore," the little boy said, ripping open another sugar packet.
"Hi," she said. He really was cute.
"Don't speak to my child!" Mrs. Bundt said. "I don't want your filthy whore mouth speaking to my son."
"Hypocrite," she muttered.
Clint scooped up the boy, who'd managed to snag a few more sugar packets.
"If I ever see you near my husband, whore, you'll be sorry," Mrs. Bundt hissed.
"I'm not a whore, okay?" Faith snapped.
"Yes, you are," said his wife, giving her the finger. Then the Bundts turned their backs to her and walked away from the table.
"I'm not!" Faith called. "I haven't slept with anyone in three years, okay? I'm not a whore!" The little boy waved cheerily from over his father's shoulder, and Faith gave a small wave in return.
The Bundts were gone. Faith grabbed her water glass and chugged, then rested the glass against her hot cheek. Her heart was pounding so hard she felt sick.
"Three years?" said one of the diners.
The waiter gave her the check. "I'll take that whenever you're ready," he said. Great. On top of all that, she had to pay for dinner, too.