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BREATHLESS ON THE BOULEVARD excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

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Nora Clark knew she was in trouble the moment she heard her sister’s voice on the phone. “Tell me I just misunderstood you,” she said. “Tell me this connection is so bad you didn’t really say what I think I just heard.”

 

“It’s the only answer,” Tess replied. “You have to take my place.”

 

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re not kids anymore. This isn’t a game.” Nora tightened her grip on the phone, paced across her small kitchen, and looked out at her tiny San Francisco backyard. She’d been supporting her sister for two years as she tried to build a personal shopping business. Now Tess wanted Nora to be the personal shopper?

 

Enough was enough. “Look, Tess, when your new, important client wants you to do a rush job for her son, the correct answer is, you get off that cruise ship and come home.”

 

“I’m on the Inside Passage, remember? Alaska? Open water. Icebergs. You don’t just jump off cruise ships up here. Besides, I can’t desert Liza. She only came along because I begged her to.” Tess’s voice turned pleading. “Please, Nora … I can’t afford to lose this account. Camille Lamont is such a famous author. She’s so connected, she could totally make my career. I can’t say no.”

 

“This is your business, not mine,” Nora said through gritted teeth. “If you want to help … this guy—”

 

“Erik. His mom said his name is Erik.”

 

“If you want to help Erik, you need to figure this out your—”

 

“I’m trying to. But I’m telling you, there’s no way off this ship except via emergency helicopter. And I doubt that shopping counts as an emergency. Please, Nora. He’ll never know you’re not me. We’re completely identical—”

 

“Tess, this is beyond stupid—”

 

“No, no, it’s smart actually. Think about it. If I make Camille happy, she’ll give me referrals, referrals mean I make more money. And more money means I get out of your hair—not to mention your house—sooner.” Tess paused. “Maybe then you’d have time to date.”

 

“Tess!”

 

“Nora!” Her sister mimicked her annoyed tone.

 

“Okay, fine, I’ll go to the appointment … and explain that you’re on a seventeen-day cruise—”

“No! What will Camille think when she learns I sent someone who knows next to nothing about personal shopping to meet with her son?” Tess groaned. “I can see this account waving goodbye already. You have to be me. Just pretend you’re me.”

 

“Absolutely not. Either tell her the truth or come back to San Francisco and meet with her yourself,” Nora said as evenly as possible. “It’s called re-spon-si-bility.”

 

“We’re practically in grizzly territory up here. Probably polar bear, too.”

 

Nora let out a snort. “I doubt the bear populations will be attacking you at the next port of call—or the airport, for that matter.”

 

“Nora.” Tess’s voice dropped low. “When Keegan called off our wedding, I thought I would die. I need this cruise. Even you said it was a good idea. The Lamont account is important to me, but I’m just not up to it yet. I’ve only been on the ship one day. What kind of a respite is that?”

 

Nora dropped into a kitchen chair as she tried to reason everything out. Tess had really hit bottom when Keegan dumped her. And though Nora had never been able to understand her sister’s devastation over losing that idiot, she’d agreed that time away might help Tess heal. Especially since their cousin Liza—the epitome of responsible—had agreed to go along. Maybe she’d rub off on Tess. Besides the cruise had already been paid for—it was supposed to have been Tess and Keegan’s honeymoon.

 

Still, that didn’t mean Nora taking her place was a good idea. “Tess, we may look the same but that’s where the similarity ends. I’m a physical therapist. You’re a personal shopper. You’re loose and carefree. I’m … not.”

 

“I’ll say.”

 

“What?”

 

“Sorry. Sorry.”

 

“Anyway, pretending to be you, even for one meeting, is like …  expecting apples to be oranges.”

 

“You didn’t used to be an apple. You just became one over the years.”

 

“I did not.” Indignation rose up inside her.

 

“Then why do you keep staying in that hospital physical therapy job when you hate it? Come on, I know your complaints by heart.” Tess’s voice took on a singsong quality. “Once people have surgery, all you do is make sure they can use a walker and get out of a chair, and then—boom!—they’re gone. Discharged. You never get to see rehab through to the end.”

 

“It’s important work,” Nora said.

 

Tess kept talking. “And what about that new sports medicine rehab center the hospital’s opening? They have to hire someone—have you even applied yet?”

 

The truth in her words irritated Nora more than the know-it-all tone of her voice. “Tess, when people grow up they discover you can’t have everything. You become—”

 

“Dull. But you don’t have to.”

 

Nora slowly counted to ten in her head. “Whatever. My pretending to be you is still beyond stupid. Switching places is something you do when you’re seventeen.”

 

“Or something you do when your sister really needs your help. This isn’t about Erik Lamont and you know it. It’s about keeping his mother happy. If she wants me to do a quick job for her son, I can’t not do it.” She let out an exaggerated sigh. “Nora—she’ll hire someone else.”

 

“Couldn’t you just call her and explain that—”

 

“Nora? Hello? Hello? I’m losing you.”

 

“Tess? Can you hear me?”

 

Silence greeted Nora’s words, and she raised her eyes to the ceiling in frustration. Pressing redial, she kicked into her spiel again as soon as Tess answered. “Just tell Camille you’re on a long cruise in Alaska. Surely she’ll understand that people take vacations.” She pressed the fingers of one hand to her forehead.

 

“I don’t want to risk it—she’s too new a client. How hard could it be to take my place just this once? Help me out with Erik Lamont.” Tess let out a laugh. “You never know, he could be cute …”

 

“Not even funny.” Nora stood, unable to stay seated long with the conversation twisting and turning the way that it was.

 

“Why do you always discount the possibility of meeting another man? Kevin died five years ago—”

 

“How did we get from me impersonating you to my getting hooked up with some guy we don’t even know, and for all we know is an unemployed loser living off his mother or still in high school or something? Tess, sometimes you’re like a broken record.”

 

“So will you take my place?”

 

Nora huffed. “New song. Same broken record. No. How could I? What if his mom notices the difference?”

 

“Why would his mom be there? You’re shopping for him.”

 

“Well, his mom made the call. Really, Tess, I’d help you if I could.” She felt a tugging at the back of her shirt and turned to smile at her five-year-old son.

 

“Mama,” Danny said. “I think I found a new daddy—the right one. Come.” He pulled her with him toward the living room.

 

Tess kept talking into her ear. “Yeah, well, what happens if I tell his mother I can’t do it?”

 

“Hold on a minute, Tess.” She looked at Danny. “What?”

 

“I found a new daddy on TV.” His brown eyes shone with earnestness.

 

“You can’t just find a daddy on TV. It’s not that easy.”

 

“But you said if I found one to let you know.”

 

Nora sighed. Whatever had possessed her to say such a thing to him?

 

“He’s really nice.” Danny pointed at the television where Mr. Rogers was cutting construction paper with scissors and talking in his perfectly calm voice.

 

“Mr. Rogers? Oh, Danny, Mr. Rogers is—” Dead. “Uh—married already. Tell you what, sweetie, why don’t you go get a cookie and I’ll be off in a minute.” She watched him dash into the kitchen, then turned her attention back to the phone.

 

“Something wrong?” Tess asked.

 

“He’s looking for a daddy again. Found one on TV that he thinks is just right. Mr. Rogers.”

 

“God, he’s really getting determined about that. Maybe you should sign up for some online dating—”

 

“Stop.”

 

Danny hopped into the room munching on a cookie and she went back into the kitchen.

 

“Okay,” Tess said. “So I was saying, what happens if I turn this job down and Camille finds some other personal shopper who is ready and willing to help. Then she thinks, Wow, I like this new on-the-ball shopper girl who’s available whenever I need her. I think I’ll give her all my business. Just like that, I’ll have lost my biggest account. All because I didn’t meet with—”

 

Suddenly, silence was all Nora heard, and she knew the connection had dropped again. “Damn!” she muttered. She set her phone on the counter and stared at the cupboard, noticing for the first time all the dried milk spatters on the dark wood doors.

 

How did all this milk splash up here? And how could she not have seen it before? She grabbed the dishrag from the sink and began to wipe off the doors as she debated whether or not to call Tess back.

 

Her head felt like it was going to burst. She knew this account was crucial to Tess’s success, to Tess making enough money to support herself, to Tess ever moving out of Nora’s house. She exhaled. Which meant, keeping this account had to be as important to Nora as it was to Tess.

 

She picked up the phone and pressed redial. Her sister answered on the first ring: “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to get a signal out here.”

 

“Look,” Nora said. “There’s not much I wouldn’t do for you, but this … this … I wouldn’t know the first thing about what I’m doing.”

 

“It’s not that hard.” There was hope in Tess’s voice. “Liza agrees.”

 

Nora looked down at her T-shirt and leggings and felt ill. “For God’s sake, I don’t know anything about style, let alone being a personal shopper.”

 

“I’ll talk you through it—”

 

“You’re on a cruise ship with crummy cell phone connections.” Kneeling, she attacked the spatters on the lower cupboard doors as if the forcefulness of her effort would erase her frustration.

 

“There’s always ship-to-shore radio.”

 

Nora groaned and sat back on her heels. “I’m sure that’s a reasonable price per minute. Let’s just look at this realistically. What if he figures out I’m not you? What if his mother comes along on the spur of the moment? What if I do a really bad job and you lose the account anyway?”

 

“Nora! We don’t have any other choices.”

 

We? She pushed herself to standing and went into the front hall to inspect her reflection in the full-length mirror. Pulling her dark hair out of its ponytail, she shook it loose around her face. Yeah, she could pass for Tess without a problem.

The thought made her stomach take a flop. She wasn’t actually considering this ridiculous idea, was she? No way. Absolutely not.

 

“Nora?” Tess asked.

 

“One meeting,” she answered. Omigod, what was she thinking?

 

“Right. Two at the most.”

 

“Two? When did this happen?”

 

“If you have to buy him something, you’re going to have to deliver it,” Tess said. “No biggie. He tries it on, you say it looks great, you’re out of there in, like, twenty minutes.”

 

“You’d better be right. Okay. Two meetings at the most.” Nora felt the room begin to spin. “And you’ll talk me through everything?”

 

“Everything.”

 

Lightheaded, Nora sank down onto her couch. Across the room, Danny sat cross-legged on the rug in front of the TV, still enthralled by Mr. Rogers.

 

“But … what if he is cute?” Nora whispered. “And he wants me to buy him—” her voice dropped lower. “—pants. I don’t have to measure his inseam or anything, do I?”

 

Tess barked out a laugh. “No. He should know what size he wears. If in doubt, get a couple of sizes and have him keep the one that fits best.”

 

“I have to tell him which pants fit him best? Some guy I don’t even know? What if he’s cute? What if he’s, ahem, built?”

 

Tess laughed harder. “You just say they look fabu and get out of the house before he takes them off and asks you how his briefs fit.”

 

“No way. I can’t do it. I can’t. Really, Tess, I am not ready for this—”

 

Tess’s laughter reached hysterical proportions before she pulled herself together. “I’m kidding. You really do need to get out more. Clients do not come on to the personal shopper. It just isn’t done.”

 

“Right. I know that.” Nora let her head fall back against the couch.

 

“So, will you do it? Just this once … just switch places one more time.”

 

She knew better. She really did.