© 2018 PAMELA FORD. All rights reserved.

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OVER EASY excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Something really needed to change.

Unfortunately, as it was turning out, that something was my life.

I came to this unsettling conclusion one night when Megan, Bree, and I were lifting weights at Better Fit, the fitness club in Minneapolis where we had signed up for free, one-month trial memberships. Not because we wanted muscles (although they were a nice bonus), but because we wanted to meet men.

In theory, it was a great idea—there were lots of guys in the gym. But in reality, after twelve consecutive days of pumping iron after work, our plan had yet to deliver. Lots of muscles, yes. Interested men, not so much. All of the guys seemed to care way more about how many pounds they could power lift with their bulging, tattooed biceps—guns, they called them—than the three, attractive women in form-flattering spandex doing curls two feet away.

“Allie, this is not working,” Bree puffed out from the bench press that night, arms trembling as she pushed the barbell up.

“Maybe you should use smaller weights.” I reached for the bar to give her a hand.

“Not the exercise. The men.” She was lifting so much weight—for her anyway—I was surprised she had enough oxygen left in her brain to think about anything other than preventing herself from getting crushed beneath that barbell. Then again, Bree had been fixated on finding a guy ever since her boyfriend dumped her, so maybe the thought was simply a reflex action. Like blinking when you go out into the sun. Or jerking your leg when the doctor taps your knee with a rubber hammer.

Bree lowered the bar to its holder, then sat up and eyed a sweaty, overbuilt guy grunting as he leg-pressed what appeared to be three thousand pounds. Grunting. Believe me when I say this, guys, grunting is not a turn-on. If you can't move the weight without making noise, cut the poundage. We really, really don't enjoy picturing you creating a hernia. Or worse.

Bree shoved her short brown hair behind her ears, grabbed her towel, and strode across the fitness center toward the juice bar, all the while muttering under her breath. Megan and I exchanged a look and dropped into step behind her, happily leaving the weight machines, cross-trainers, exercise bikes, treadmills—and their panting inhabitants—behind.

Clearly it was time to regroup. And not a moment too soon, as far as I was concerned. I was running out of time. I needed to find a guy impressive enough to bring to my parents' forty-fifth wedding anniversary celebration next month. Not because it was a milestone anniversary, but because my whole family would be in attendance, and having a “keeper” on my arm would be the perfect way to show all of them that, yes, I had reached adulthood.

This whole idea came to me a few months ago, after my parents didn't tell me that my grandmother was in the hospital—dying—until she had been discharged, alive and well. I only found out when my mom called and said, “Allie, honey, good news. Grandma made it.”

“Made it where?” I asked.

“She didn't die.”

“Was that a possibility?”

“Oh, honey, we didn't want to worry you, but she's been in the hospital since last week—her lung again. The doctor didn't think she'd make it. Father Joe even gave her the last rites.”

For God's sake, I'm nearly twenty-seven. I'm enlightened and liberated (yeah, I understand that looking for a boyfriend kind of contradicts that), support myself (sure, Grandpa shoves a twenty-dollar bill in my hand every time he sees me but that’s not my fault), live on my own (okay, with a roommate), pay my bills (mostly on time), am informed about world affairs (more Twitter than CNN.com, but I'm working on it), and even run my own business (although I really need to get more customers—and I’m working on that, too).

And, yet, my parents and siblings still treat me like the baby.

I never get told the bad news until it's past. My dad can't stop himself from reminding me to floss. And it goes without saying that I sit at the kids' table for Thanksgiving dinner.

It doesn’t help that I come from a long line of overachievers. My oldest brother is a surgeon, my sister and other brother are lawyers, just like my parents—for once, could they try to be original?—and me, baby of the family, was supposed to be a veterinarian because I love animals. Except after graduating from college, I couldn't bear the thought of studying another day, let alone four more years. So I moved into a lower flat with Bree and started a pet grooming business, Flawless Paws.

Now I groom dogs. Big ones, little ones, hairy ones, bald ones, smelly ones . . . My parents are mortified. “Allie Parker, doggg groooomer,” is the way my mother says it, her voice sinking progressively lower with each syllable. Not that she has anything personally against dog groomers; it's a fine profession—for someone other than her daughter, that is.

Anyway, I was complaining about this to Megan and Bree when we were watching The Bachelorette and critiquing the prospective fiancés. “My family treats me like the baby,” I groused during a commercial.

“But you are the baby,” Megan said in her best this-defendant-is-guilty voice, because, yes, she's an attorney. And though she isn't nearly as know-it-all as my own family members who are lawyers, she does tend to think she knows best, which would be a bit irritating if she wasn’t usually right.  

“Hard to get around that when your nearest sibling is fourteen years older,” Bree said.

“And married,” Megan added.

That's when it hit me. The solution was so obvious, I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it before. If there was anything that would make my family begin to respect me as an adult, it was stepping into that oh-so-grown-up institution, marriage. I shoved a fistful of popcorn in my mouth as I mentally searched for flaws in my thinking—and found none.

“What I need is a husband,” I said.

“Hear, hear,” Bree chimed in. “But I'll settle for a man.”

This, of course, led to a discussion about where to find single men, which in turn led us to Better Fit and free, one-month memberships. It had seemed like such a perfect solution. The fitness center was full of men—and that was just what I needed.

So there we were, striding across the workout room like a team of race walkers in the national championship, about to embark on my favorite part of belonging to a fitness club—the juice bar. After we settled into tall chairs at the bar, Megan and Bree both ordered something new, a cucumber cooler, while I went for my usual chocolate milk, the perfect recovery drink.

The guy behind the counter was wearing a T-shirt made out of one of those moisture-wicking tech materials, the fitness center's slogan emblazoned across the front: Better Fit makes everything Fit Better. I couldn't argue with that; his biceps were bulging out of the arm openings and the shirt was so tight I could see the outlines of his sculpted six-pack abs.

“Time for Plan B.” Bree picked up her glass. “Nearly two weeks and not one nibble among the three of us. Clearly, we aren't going to find men here. And I need a man.” Bree may be a self-assured, beloved high school math teacher, but she sure doesn't do single well.

I had to agree. “If I'm going to have a potential life partner to impress the family at the anniversary party I can't afford too many more days buffing up.”

Megan shook her head, her curly dark hair bouncing. “Maybe we should give it a rest. Husbands are so . . . ugh.”

She had married at twenty-one, divorced at twenty-two, and wanted nothing more to do with the institution. But then, she was an attorney not a dog groomer, so try as she might there was no way she could totally relate to my concerns about being treated like a baby. Not that there's anything wrong with dog grooming. I'm just saying.

“You know how your arms feel stressed and shaky when you've lifted a really heavy weight too many times?” Megan said. “That's what marriage is like.”

“Too young,” Bree said.

“Wrong guy,” I added.

“Are you with us or against us?” Bree gave Megan a pointed look, then took a big swallow of cucumber cooler and grimaced as it went down.

I'm never sure what's in the different drinks the juice bar sells—generally carrots and lemon and radishes and stuff—which explains why I stick to chocolate milk after exercising. Bree eyed my glass. I tightened my grip on it and gave her the stink eye. She'd made her choice; she needed to stick with it.

Megan heaved a sigh. “Online dating?” she said without conviction.

“Church groups?” I offered.

Bree snorted. “Who do either of you know that online dating or church groups has worked for?”

I opened my mouth.

“And don't tell me about Joey Neander because he really, really is the only person ever who met someone at a church social.”

And Joey, as my Irish grandmother used to say, had a wee bit o' problem with the drink. So a teetotaling Baptist girlfriend was exactly what he deserved. “How about a young professionals group?” I asked.

“Gag,” Megan said.

“Coffee shop?” Bree proposed.

“Oh, please.” Megan took a big swallow of juice. Based on her expression, I didn't think she liked the cucumber cooler any better than Bree did.

“If you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem,” Bree said.

“How could I possibly be part of the problem?” Megan asked. “It's not my fault there aren't any single guys left.”

“Okay, Ms. Negative Force Be with You.” Bree held up her index finger. “I challenge you to come up with an idea, just one, for how we can meet single men ages twenty-six to thirty-five.”

“That's the only criteria? Twenty-six to thirty-five?”

“Intelligent,” I interjected. “Not necessarily rocket scientists, but smart enough.”

“Fun, but not party animals. And reasonably attractive,” Bree added.

“With decent jobs. After all, these are our future husbands, we don't want bottom dwellers.”

Megan ticked off the list on her fingers and asked, “Anything else?” as though once we had nailed down the requirements she'd be able to deliver the goods.

I rubbed the bridge of my nose, thinking. What sort of man would make my parents—I mean, me—happy? “I've narrowed it down,” I said. “What I want is an S man. Single, straight, sober, solvent, stable, successful.”

“And slung,” Bree added.

“That's hung,” I said.

“Whatever. He just better bring it.”

Megan almost choked on her juice, then nodded thoughtfully.

Bree and I exchanged a grin. This was great. Once Megan put her mind to something, the rest of the world better get the hell out of her way. I took a chug of my chocolate milk and waited, confident that a solution was only moments away. But as the moments stretched into minutes, I began to despair. Could it be that even one of the world's preeminent problem-solvers was stumped by this one?

Then Megan gave a Mona Lisa smile, small but so full of promise you knew she had an awesome idea, one so good it might just make you burst. She pressed her hands onto the counter and leaned forward. “When I was in college and broke—”

She stopped so abruptly, I knew she was having second thoughts about sharing what she’d been about to say.

“Yes?” I urged her.

“I’m not proud of this.”

“We’ve all done things in our youth that we regret.” Bree waved an impatient hand. “Come on, spill it.”

Megan blew out a breath between clenched teeth. “Okay. I used to put on nice clothes and sneak into continental breakfast at hotels.”

“You mean like, donuts?” I asked.

“Donuts, bagels, cream cheese, waffles—”

“We're trying to get married,” Bree said. “Not fat.”

Megan ignored her. “At almost every table would be some guy, alone, dressed to kill, fueling up for a morning business meeting.”

The meaning of her words hit me with such force I jerked upright on my stool. “And?” I asked, almost faint with the possibilities. Adrenalin surged through me and I felt renewed. How many hotels were there? How many continental breakfasts? How many men, glorious men, were at breakfast waiting to meet the women of their dreams over blueberry waffles and raisin bran?

“And, unlike the guys hanging out in hotel bars, the men at continental breakfast wear their wedding rings.” Megan grinned at us, then finished off her juice and triumphantly plopped her empty glass on the table. “Instant, irrefutable identification of marital status.”

Her words delivered the luscious fulfillment of a morning bun on an empty stomach.

“Omigod,” Bree said on an exhale. “You are so worth every penny of that six-figure income they pay you.”

“Did you ever get caught?” I asked.

Megan shook her head. “Look like you belong, act like you belong—”

“And you belong,” Bree said breathlessly. “But how—”

“Side door. Just fumble in your purse like you can't find your key. And when someone leaves—”

“You're in.” I couldn't believe the brilliance. “At the very least, we’ll get a free breakfast.”

“And at the very best, we'll meet eligible men,” Bree said happily.

Megan tapped her fingers on the countertop. “As your attorney I feel compelled to warn you—be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.”

“One can only hope.” Bree laughed and gave her head a shake.

“Amen,” I added. “Here's to finding the men of our dreams.”