Sexy Lips 66

Dakota Cassidy

Chapter 1

To: Writer66@heavenlyhookups.com

From: Goodoldboy@heavenlyhookups.com

Subject: No serial killer here

Dear Writer66

U sure r easy on the old eye. You have the purdiest lips I ever saw. I think I can take on a little fily like you. I’m no serial killer (your profile was funny). How bout you call me and well talk about it?

Love,

Martin

How about you utilize the old spell-check, Martin? Callie Winston thought. It’s a gift from Microsoft—make friends with it.

Did non-serial killers even know how to turn spell-check on?

Purdy lips?

Purdy? Good gravy. Martin was seriously offending her loyalty to the King’s English.

Callie eyeballed her e-mail inbox at “Heavenly Hook Ups,” an online dating site she’d joined, and sat looking in utter disbelief at the enormous amount of e-mail she’d received. Her research for the humorous column she wrote at the magazine California Hip had become a monster of epic proportions like overnight. Callie decided Martin could wait until later for an answer to his e-mail.

Callie’s hand shook as she was compelled to click on the next e-mail in a slew of them. They became a blur of black font as she read one after the other. This one was from a user who’d dubbed himself Manbeast and at first it made Callie snort. His userid was really kinda off-beat and she liked that.

Then Callie shivered. Manbeast? What the hell was a Manbeast? Only way she’d know was if she clicked on the e-mail and opened it.

She did so holding her breath and squinting out of one eye…

From: Manbeast@heavenlyhookups.com

Subject: A poem

So you’re a writer? I can write too. I wrote this just for you. I liked your profile. You’re hot. Your lips are sooo sexy. Please read my profile and e-mail me if you’re interested. I hope you like my poem.

Roses are red

Violets are blue

I think I want to get with you.

Love,

Manbeast

Callie twisted a strand of her hair as she pondered Manbeasts poem. I want to get with you?

Callie clicked on Manbeast’s profile, conveniently available for her to peruse, just to the right of his picture, which wasn’t horrible. Not a lot anyway. He was attractive in a…well, a receding hairline way. Yes, that was it. In a very receding hairline kinda way. Hair wasn’t exactly a prerequisite in Callie’s book. Okay, so maybe the wrap-around might have to go, but he was kinda cute and his poem wasn’t awful, could be called creative even, albeit not swoon worthy. As she glanced at his profile, Callie noted they had nothing in common other than the fact that they both read.

Manbeast read tech manuals and she read romance novels.

Not a huge gap by any stretch of the imagination, eh, Manbeast? Callie snorted. Oh, and he lived in Kentucky. A hell of a commute to sunny California. She did state California applicants only in her profile, didn’t she?

Callie re-read her entry into the dating world just to be safe as she looked at her picture and tried to understand how her lips could be considered even remotely sexy or for that matter purdy.

Writer seeks REAL Man:

I'm thirty-eight and single for the first time in 10 years! I’m a writer by trade and I'm really loving life. I like all sorts of stuff—stuff that you can only find out about if you contact me. I'm not into one night stands/bar hopping/bed hopping/ serial killers/ or health freaks. If you can't enjoy a bowl of ice cream without guilt then we can't hang out. I'm not a health nut, but I watch what I eat (most days) and I can wear jeans or a sexy dress. I'm low maintenance and take care of myself quite well, thank you. I love to laugh and talk and I swoon when a man behaves like a real man, and doesn’t just pretend to be one. I don't need oodles of attention and I'm not clingy—if you need to be the center of all things in my world—you need to look elsewhere, but affectionate is a good thing! I'd love to meet someone who has a good set of values—solid and unwavering—attractive is fine, but a good heart is BETTER. No PRETTY BOYS, please. I like my man to look like a man and I never share my mousse.

About Writer66 Dream Date:

I'd like to meet someone strong, and independent, who has his own place, likes to just have fun, loves animals and has good sentence structure ( I am a writer, LOL) and doesn't need me 24-7, but knows I'm there if it's necessary—someone who doesn't think smooth talk will get past me unnoticed and isn't Rico Suave slick. I don't need your money and I don't need you to fix my toilet, but I would like it if you are confident enough to do so. If easygoing, fun, love of life stuff is what you're into—then, take the bull by the horns and e-mail me! California residents only, please.

Yep, she’d very clearly stated California residents only and had pretty much covered the gamut of her desires in a date—she’d written it as if she were really looking for her dream man. Callie couldn’t very well interview men from Kentucky. Tyler, her boss at the magazine, just wouldn’t allow airfare on her expense reports.

Manbeast’s Kentucky residence made Callie decide to weed the rest of the e-mails out by location from here on out, thus trimming her response time to each of them and she would respond—to all of them. Callie couldn’t just ignore them, it wasn’t very good manners. Never let it be said she didn’t have proper cyber etiquette. Her fingers paused at the keyboard and then she let ‘er rip back at Mr. Manbeast with a snappy reply.

From: Writer66

Subject: Re: a poem

Dear Manbeast,

Roses are red

Violets are blue

You live too far away for me to “get” with you.

But thanks anyway.

Writer 66

Callie straightened in her office chair and giggled maniacally at her response.

Now that was fun. Get with that, Manbeast.

Leaning back, she grabbed the mouse again and skimmed just the locales of the profiles attached to each e-mail.

Bangladesh, Cairo, Zimbabwe, Iraq…you name it she’d received an e-mail from all corners of the earth and then some.

It would seem that the other half of the world needed green cards.

Callie sat back in her chair and gazed blankly at the computer screen, trying to catch her breath and glanced once more at the number off to the left that told her how many e-mails she’d received in response to her profile and picture on “Heavenly Hook Ups”.

One hundred.

One-friggin’-hundred e-mails in a day. Overnight…

Holy, hell. What was wrong with these men? It wasn’t like she was Tyra Banks…it must be the “I can fix a toilet” thing. All guys wanted a chick that could be a domestic goddess while looking like the Tool-Time babe. Well, they were sadly mistaken if they thought Callie’s thighs could compete with Pamela Anderson’s, but she just might skate by as a trophy wife for a sixty-year-old man.

Oh, this one looked good. ED2476 was from California and he was six foot two, blond hair, brown eyes. Well, she liked men with dark hair, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and Callie was in no position to refuse manna from heaven. His subject line caught her eye. It simply said, Wow…

From: ED2476

Subject: Wow…

Dear Writer66,

Something about your eyes speaks to me. I don’t have words to describe the message they sent. I want to know you. I want to learn you from the inside out.

Oh, by the way. Do you have any arms and legs? I’d like to see a picture of them.

Respectfully,

Ed

Yeah, wow.

Callie burst out laughing. What ED2476 wanted to know was if she was really five-hundred pounds before he took a chance on meeting her. Callie took another peek at the picture she’d placed on Heavenly Hook Ups. It was dreadful in her honest opinion. Just a head shot—it was all she was willing to put on the site for scrutiny in her ad. She’d had food in her mouth and had been caught off guard by an overzealous photographer at a Medieval Festival. Regardless, the picture seemed to be speaking to everyone from here to Bangladesh.

What in the hell were her eyes saying to these guys anyway?

They were big, black orbs of nothing with a little Estee Lauder shimmering gold for accent.

Callie cracked her knuckles and sent ED2476 a message back.

From: Writer66

Subject: Re: Wow

Dear Ed,

Nope, I have no arms and legs. I’m just one big head…

Limbless in sunny CA,

Writer66

Oh, was that too abrasive? Shit. It was too damn late now if it was. What kind of question was that? Did she have arms and legs? Good hell.

Men…

Callie took a deep breath and tried to remember most men were simple creatures, visual by nature. They wanted to see her entire package. If someone else asked her about her appendages she was going to ask to see their package.

Callie swiveled her chair away from her desk and looked out of the window of her office, gazing at the shoreline in the distance. The soft swell of waves never failed to soothe her when she was overwhelmed.

One hundred e-mails constituted overwhelmed.

This online dating thing had begun as a research project.

She was a simple columnist at a California magazine, fighting to keep her head above water with the hip and trendy up and comers who wanted her job and her column. At thirty-eight, Callie Winston struggled to be hip and trendy without being lame and farty. She swam with the little twenty-something vipers who thought they could replace her every day and she wasn’t about to sink.

Though, she did currently have a really good doggie paddle going on.

Callie sighed and twisted a long, dark strand of her hair as she tried to wrap her head around the “what now?” moment she was having over all of this damn e-mail. When she’d approached her boss, Tyler Atmore about doing this article for online dating he’d been less than enthusiastic.

Well, truth be told, he’d been more like completely disinterested in much but the bottom line—making money.

Whatever.

It wasn’t going to stop Callie from pursuing this—both guns loaded. She had nothing else left in her creatively these days—this was the dregs of her brain, the bottom of the friggin’ barrel brought on by one of those pop-up ads on the Internet she’d seen one night researching online. Her column was in danger of cancellation according to the bigwigs and this just might be cutting edge enough to keep that from happening. Callie fully admitted she wasn’t cutting edge, but she could be a dull knife…

She loved her column. She’d had it for six years now and she wasn’t giving it up without a knock-down, drag-out, hair pulling, wrestle in some lime Jell-O and that was just the attitude she used when she approached Tyler.

“Look, Tyler. This online dating thing is huge. There are more sites online than there are Viagra ads.”

Tyler looked up from his desk, tipping his glasses over his narrow, pointy nose and snickered. “So? Who gives a crap about online dating? Bunch of losers with no other way to get a date place an ad, tell all sorts of lies about themselves and show up looking nothing like their pictures.” Tyler’s features twisted into a sneer.

Whew, that was a strong statement coming from a man like Tyler. Somebody had been dipping into the online dating jar and had been left bitter about the experience…

“How would you know?” Callie asked suspiciously, because a force unknown to caution compelled her to dig at her shithead boss in any way she could.

“I don’t,” Tyler snapped just a bit too quickly. “I just know what I’ve heard through conversations with others.” He waved his hand as he said it, dismissing the notion that Callie just might have found out something personal about Tyler Atmore.

“Look, Tyler. I think I’ve got something here. The Internet is the newest and hottest way to find a date. No more lookin’ for love at happy hour in the local bars. No more inter-office nookie that has the potential to become nasty little sordid affairs. Yeah, it’s risky to hook up with someone you don’t know, but they have all sorts of precautionary measures to take before going on a date on the sites. You can have your pick of dates, pictures and profiles galore, sorta like a police lineup. Sure not all of them are truthful about who they are, but it’s the way the new millennium is dating and perfect for people who are tired of the bar scene.” For whatever reason, Callie pushed Tyler on this. Under normal circumstances, she’d back down and write another lame column on liposuction, but this could create real interest in her column again. Intrepid reporter delves deep into the underworld of online dating…Firsthand accounts of how to get started—what to expect—what not to expect.

Callie needed something to keep her head above water here. So she intended to document her own experiences and let her readers live vicariously through her. Maybe she’d get a little living thrown into the mix for herself too.

“So what are you going to do? Join one of these sites?” Tyler’s question was rife with incredulity.

Callie squirmed. Well, yeah. How else could she get an inside track to this? “Well, yeah. I’ll put up a snappy profile and my picture and see what happens. If I get lucky, maybe I’ll get a response or two and I’ll go out on some dates and find out what kind of results people are getting. What they’re looking for—what they’re expectations are.”

“You? Date? Have you had a date since you got your divorce?”

Callie bit the inside of her lip. Was her life so small that even her boss knew she hadn’t had a date? Shit. Callie shook her head. “Nope, but no time like the present, huh? I’ll be the magazine’s guinea pig.”

Tyler made a steeple of his hands under his chin and gave Callie the “don’t say I didn’t warn you” look. “As long as it doesn’t cost me a boatload of money, go right ahead. It’s human interest if nothing else. Help get circulation up and keep the expense report small.”

Small like your dick, Tyler? Callie grimaced at her thoughts and said instead, “Right. No problem. You won’t regret this,” as she zipped out of his office and back down the hall to her own, before Tyler took it back or she chickened out and wrote another penile implant column.

So here she sat—three days later, with more than a response or two, in one fine mess of cyber communication. Callie swung her chair back to face her computer with determination, prepared to tackle this with the intent of getting the real scoop.

Hookay, so she only had ninety-eight e-mails left to answer. No time like the present. Maybe looking at the profile before reading the e-mail might help her determine if the e-mail was going to scare the shit out of her or not.

Some of the profile pictures were too funny. What made a man put a picture of himself up with a feminine hand on his shoulder and the rest of said female’s body hacked off? It was just a smidge obvious that whoever owned the hand was once part of the couple and now she’d been obliterated from the picture, much like their relationship, Callie supposed.

Oh, now he wasn’t too bad. Callie glanced at tall, dark and semi-luscious’ profile. Six feet tall, brown hair, brown eyes, two-hundred muscular pounds. An accountant. His occupation screamed solid and secure. However, his userid made Callie cough.

Wenchhunter.

Ohh, and a big, studly wench hunter at that, Callie mused as she looked more closely at Wenchhunter’s pictures. Some of these men could really benefit from some help with their grammar and spelling. It would seem Wenchhunter fell into that category, because he wanted a woman who wasn’t clingy and injoyed life. A healthy set of mams was a high priority on Wenchhunters list too.

Callie glanced at her small breasts and winced. Well, her mammary glands weren’t winning any awards on their southbound destination.

Oh, God. Was this what they’d all be like?

Okay, it wasn’t fair to judge a man on grammar and his lust for mammary glands alone. Callie clicked on Wenchhunter’s e-mail titled “Look no further”.

To: Writer66

From: Wenchhunter

Subject: Look no further

Writer 66,

Has anyone ever told you, you have very sexy lips? How come your not writer69?

Gary

Cuz she was born in nineteen-sixty-six? Sex, it was all about the sex. Any innuendo that had to do with sex was not the way to this chicks’ heart, but what did she know? Callie hadn’t dated in thirteen years. Maybe this was the new approach of the millennium, but not with her.

Loser.

Callie’s fingers twitched, as did her right eye. E-mail made people bold and she intended to be just that right now in the sharp-tongued way only Callie knew how to do.

From: Writer66

To: Wenchhunter

Subject: Re: Look no further

Hi Wenchhunter,

Because I hate sex…

Frigid in sunny CA,

Writer66

Callie grinned. Oh, she had an evil tongue and it was bound to get her into some major trouble if she kept this up.

A small box popped up to the left of her computer screen, startling her. As a matter of fact several small boxes with glowing yellow lights popped up.

The instant messenger.

She’d forgotten that the site offered instant messaging as a feature. You could get to know your victims via bad come-on’s and all of the latest pick-up lines as you typed to one another in real time.

Oh, goody! More bad grammar and spelling to amuse her. Callie moved her mouse to one of the blinking yellow lights to find Alpha_Male’s profile staring at her. His very confident smile gleamed back at her. He had a suit coat thrown over his shoulder in the picture and he wore a very jaunty smile. Well, he was as good as any to start with. Callie tried to read his profile as she glanced at his type written message in the instant message box. “Hey there, you’re very attractive. I like your profile. Very strong and confident.”

Yeah, that was her, hotter than snot and more confident than a Victoria’s Secret supermodel in her thong and angel wings. Callie snorted and typed back. “Well thank you, kind sir.” He was, after all, fifty-eight, according to his profile. Addressing him as sir was definitely in order.

“Sir?” he questioned.

Oops. Had she offended him? Callie quickly tried to correct her mistake. “I was trying to be polite.”

“Are writers polite?”

Aren’t they? “This one is,” she answered back. Callie skimmed his profile and balked. Boy, he sure defined pompous, even if he did look pretty good for his age. Alpha_Male had the libido of a teenager, or so he claimed anyway. Only guys who were exceptionally self-conscious about other underlying issues were usually the ones who bragged about their libidos, and by the way—what alpha male boasted he was an alpha male? It would rather be like Callie touting she had boobs. She just did.

Alpha_Male typed, “So be polite to me, Writer66 and tell me your name.”

Yeah, sure. “Ernest Hemmingway.” Just call me, Ernie. Callie giggled again at her audacity.

“So are you a transvestite?”

Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on there. No need to get nasty, little big man. What kind of pot-shot was that? Alrighty then, we were bringing the big guns out now. Callie’s fingers itched and set sail without thinking. “You know, Alpha Male, I see in your profile that you claim you have the libido of a teenager. Is that via aid of Viagra or foot pump?” Callie clicked send with an oomph. Slam dunk, baby!

There was a long pause on the screen. Callie figured he’d just go away now.

And then again, maybe not. The words just below the small screen said Alpha_ Male was typing.

Asshole.

“You know, trying to flirt with you is like trying to charm a cop out of a traffic ticket.”

Was this a rare form of flirting known only to the senior set? Insulting someone was the new way to flirt? Alpha_ Male had just let loose a good tweak and Callie was ready to go with it. Forget going with it—it flooded her in waves of irritation as her fingers clicked out a note back to Alpha, frickin’ arrogant Male. “Tell me one more thing, Alpha_ Male. Do you use the transvestite line at the senior citizens’ home at basket weaving classes as a way to pick up chicks? I think you ought to go back to charm school 101 and skip the crunches with the old foot pump.”

The screen remained blank. No reply from Alpha_Male.

Gee, too bad, so sad, you overbearing, pompous freak.

The earth was full. Go home.

Callie’s attention returned to the bigger screen and cringed. Jesus, the instant messages were like swarms of flies, popping up left and right and she didn’t have the foggiest idea of how to turn it off. She opted to ignore it in favor of the gigantic flood of e-mail she still had to answer. Not to mention the men who had “whispered” to her.

Callie had received three e-mails from Heavenly Hook Ups with the pictures and profiles of men who were too chicken to actually take the initiative and e-mail her, but chose to “whisper” their interest in her instead. It was an easy way to express your desire to communicate, yet get away unscathed if the party you were interested in didn’t express interest back.

Sissies.

Callie was going to ignore those now and spend her energy on responding to actual e-mails instead, skipping the men whose locations were undesirable, or at the very least sending a pleasant e-mail thanking them.

Scrolling the overflowing inbox of her e-mail a picture of a man with a gun caught her eye. Callie grimaced.

Boys and their toys.

Oooh, big toys too. That was quite the gun. A sniper rifle, she presumed. Well, shit, he must be in some branch of the service.

Callie clicked on Rambo’s profile before she opened the e-mail. Brian_SOF was his userid. SOF? Soldier of Fortune? Callie sighed. She didn’t need any warriors, thank you very much, but his picture captured her eyes anyway.

Daaaamn. He was cute. Sorta half devil may care and the other half all intense. His wavy, dark hair was cropped shortly above his ears and he had a sprinkling of stubble over his cheeks, chin and above his lip. A nice firm jaw, with a smile to match. He sure looked happy for someone who needed a big gun like that.

He wasn’t your typical hottie. This Brian didn’t have the slick look of some of the boy-toys she’d seen so far. But he was hot in the way only men who were secure could be. It didn’t look like he minded having his picture taken, yet he wasn’t posing either. The pictures weren’t of him bare chested and hamming it up for the camera. Just him and a gun…a big gun. He didn’t hold the gun like he was playing at being a tough guy either, rather it seemed a perfect extension of who he was and the job—whatever the job was—that he was doing.

Not a pretty boy for sure, kind of gruff and rugged, but playful.

A real manly-man this Brian_SOF.

Callie shivered as she ran her mouse over his profile. He probably couldn’t spell for all his testosterone and ammunition. As she read over his stats, she found herself sighing like a stupid girl in high school. Well, he was big. Like really big, He weighed nearly one-hundred pounds more than her and topped her by ten inches. Callie loved men who were tall and if they weighed a lot more than her, then her ass could only be an object that appeared smaller than it really was.

Hmmm, mmm good.

And he lived six flippin’ hours away. The site provided data on the distance between you and your potential interest, which was helpful, but she was getting an awful lot of mail from men who lived too far for her to interview.

This was beginning to push her buttons. Didn’t Brian read her profile? How much more clearly could she define California residents only? Rambo lived in Arizona and originally hailed from Mississippi.

A redneck. How predictable.

Even if he was a brick-shithouse redneck.

Callie opened his e-mail and began to read.

From: Brian_SOF

To: Writer66

Subject: Awesome

Hey writer66. I just had to drop you a note and tell you that your pic is awesome. I’d love to hear from you sometime.

Brian

Callie sat for a moment and thought about that. No one had ever called her awesome. Not that she could remember anyway. The word awesome glared at her and she smiled, but he still lived too far away to interview and it looked like he was in Iraq from the pictures she viewed in his profile, yet she felt a strange compulsion to e-mail him back anyway. What difference did it make if he lived in Arizona or Zimbabwe? Callie wasn’t in this to find her soul mate. She just wanted an article for her column that would bring in a flood of readers and keep her from being jobless. Truth be told, she was just a little flattered too…only a little and she couldn’t quite figure out why, she just was.

Brian_SOF’s picture and e-mail stirred something in Callie that she couldn’t define and didn’t want to. She didn’t spend much time looking at men because Frank, her ex, had ruined her ogling for good. No one since her divorce had made her libido do the dance of lust, yet Brian_SOF’s gave her a tingle. Still, it didn’t matter, Brian lived too far away so she could ogle all she wanted to.

Callie clicked reply.

To: Brian_SOF

Subject: Re: Awesome

Dear Brian,

Well, thank you! Your e-mail made me smile, but would you answer one question for me? Why would you choose to e-mail someone who lives so far away from you? I’ve gotten a lot of e-mail from overseas and out of state. The writer in me is ever curious. I live in the land of surfers and tofu lovers and a cute guy e-mails me, and he has lots of potential, but he lives six hours away!

It’s just not fair! Anyway, thanks for the kind words!

Writer66

Callie sent it with a smile and a sigh of resignation. This was about research, not a concentrated effort to actually find the man of her dreams. He didn’t exist—not after her ex, Frank the freak. She didn’t need any dates for like real.

Just guinea pigs. Little test mice to take out of a cage and toy with, then safely return. No harm done.

No matter that they might be as cute as Brian. Ah, well, what was a little harmless flirting over cyber space anyway?

Chapter 2

Callie pushed the gate open to her small apartment and let it swing shut behind her, anxious to leave the day behind. She stuck the key in her door and turned it, giving a cursory glance around at her plants on her small cement patio. They needed watering, but she was too tired to do it.

She shoved open the door to find her favorite mammal on the entire planet safely back in her apartment. Callie and her ex-husband of ten years shared custody of their beagle, Aston. Ludicrous, sharing custody of a dog to be sure, but nonetheless it was part of a divorce agreement that by far would go down in the history of divorces as the one closest resembling The War of the Roses.

Frank had fought her tooth and nail on everything, including Aston. He didn’t really love Aston. Aston was a possession, just as Callie had been.

“Hey, Aston. Did the mean old wicked witch of Beverley Hills get your nails clipped?” Callie referred to Frank’s latest high-maintenance hootchie as she stooped to scratch Aston’s floppy ears. She got a whiff of the expensive perfume that Frank’s honey bathed in and wrinkled her nose. Aston flopped down on the floor and sighed with a long snort. “I know just what you mean. She smells like a two-dollar whore, huh?”

Callie giggled to herself and rose to read the note she knew Frank would leave on her white tiled kitchen counter. She scooped the monogrammed stationary off her counter and stuck her tongue out at Frank. He’d been too busy house hunting with his floozy to make Aston’s grooming appointment. He’d make it up to her and pay for the next one.

Good, Frank, Callie thought, you do that right after your big-haired babe gets her manicure. She was too tired to even call him up and bitch over it—not that she did that anyway. Her protests were meek at best and Frank steamrolled them anyway. She sucked at confrontation.

Callie decided to shower and change, then slough through more of that damn e-mail. Last count was four hundred or so, minus the freaks, the really flat-out scary guys and the ones who lived in India.

Stripping off her clothes, Callie turned the handles in her shower to full blast and stepped in, letting the hard spray pound her aching muscles. She squeezed a handful of her favorite shower gel into her hand and lathered up.

For the first time in a long while, Callie looked down at her body, paying close attention to what she really looked like. What she might look like to a man that wasn’t Frank, who liked silicone boobs and bleached blonde hair. Ed whatever’s e-mail had stirred up some insecurity about her body.

And this mattered why? That was simple, because she had to date the men who were contacting her if she hoped to achieve her next column. She’d been very honest about her body type when choosing her stats on the date site.

Callie was average, plain and simple. Not fat, not skinny. No unsightly lumps, but no six pack abs either. Skimming her hands over her breasts with the gel, she paused to give them a good once over.

Okay, so they were small, but they were real. Surely that counted for something in the land of plastic? Sighing, Callie washed her hair and turned the shower off. Why should she give a rat’s fuzzy ass if the men she chose as lab experiments liked her body? She wasn’t sleeping with them, they were her unsuspecting prey.

Fodder for the masses.

Callie toweled off, twisting her hair into a knot on the top of her head and dug in her dresser for some silky nightwear. Her best friend Katherine didn’t understand her obsession with all things Victoria’s Secret. She never failed to remind Callie she slept alone, but Callie loved the feel of silk against her skin. One of her rare indulgences, one she refused to give up, sexless and partner-less though she might be.

Who needed a man when you could have silk pjs?

Aston traipsed into her bedroom and moaned, before flopping down at her feet. Callie slipped a toe under his belly and gave him a gentle nudge. “Was Frank’s hootchie that bad, buddy? What’s she doing to you anyway? Does she still call you sweetums? Ick. I don’t blame you for being disgusted.”

Heading to her desk in the corner of her room, Callie flipped on her computer and yawned as she waited to log on. She needed to handle some more of this e-mail and get some beginning stats. Night had settled and the inky black twinkled with stars, dotting the horizon over her apartment complex. Callie tugged the blinds closed and crossed her legs as she situated herself in her chair, turning on her desk lamp.

The moment she logged onto the site with her username and password the instant message boxes exploded at her in a rainbow of faces and profiles with blinking yellow lights everywhere.

Wasn’t there a way to turn this damn thing off? The site had a spot that displayed who was online and how many users were available for you to scam, er chat with.

Cool, but how did you turn it off?

Macdaddy’s face floated in front of her, enticing her to click on his picture merely because his userid cracked her up and his locale was convenient. She moved her mouse over his profile as he messaged her. “Hey, sexylips.”

Callie cocked her head. What was it about her lips? She just had to know. “Sexylips?” she typed back.

“Yuppers. You have the sexiest lips I’ve ever seen.”

Well, then Macdaddy had never seen Angelina Jolie’s lips, had he? “Thank you.”

“So you’re a writer?”

No, the userid Writer66 was all just a sham. Callie sighed. She was getting tired of answering the same questions over and over and she’d only just begun. She’d done plenty of that in e-mail when men asked if she really was a writer. “Yep.”

“What do you write?”

Eulogies? No, that might frighten Macdaddy and his profile was okay. He was nice looking in a soft way, but she couldn’t afford to reveal her covert status either. He was forty-two and lived nearby. He was sporting some pluses in his favor. Callie crossed her fingers that he’d be decent enough to go out with. “I freelance.” Which wasn’t a complete lie. She did help her mother write her Christmas cards every year.

Macdaddy typed, “Cool.”

“What brought you to the site, Macdaddy?” Callie asked, for what felt like the zillionth time since she’d begun this. Meaningless conversation suddenly made sense to her.

“I hate the bar scene. I want to find my soul mate.”

On Heavenly Hook Ups? That was reaching… ”And you think you’ll find that here?” Callie asked.

“I’m sure going to give it a try. That’s why I Im-ed you. We have a lot in common.”

Callie skimmed his profile again. Well, they both liked coffee. Certainly soul mates shared a good love of coffee. It went without saying…on the commonality scale that rated as a big, fat ten.

“So have you been on any dates?” Callie typed into the small box.

“Yes.”

“And?”

“And I didn’t find my soul mate.”

Duh. “So you’ll keep looking?”

“For as long as I have to…”

Callie sensed a loneliness in Macdaddy that she couldn’t pinpoint, but was decidedly there. Maybe she was just being sensitive to the fact that most everyone who placed a profile on Heavenly Hook Ups was probably lonely. With the exception of her, that was.

“What are you looking for in a man?” Macdaddy asked.

Callie scratched her head. Someone who didn’t sleep with anything that had fake boobs and bleached blonde hair and pitched a hissy fit when she chipped a nail? No, that sounded bitter and she wasn’t a lot bitter over Frank anymore. He was just a pig.

What did she want in a man? She hadn’t given that any thought at all. She only knew she didn’t want Frank or a derivative thereof—Callie hadn’t thought past that notion in two years since her divorce. “I want someone real. Someone genuine and faithful. Someone who will want me as much at fifty-eight as he does right now.” Callie’s answer surprised even her.

“Isn’t that what we all want?” Macdaddy asked.

Callie twisted a strand of hair before typing, “Yeah, I guess so.”

“What’s your idea of a romantic evening?”

Anything that didn’t involve her getting a divorce lawyer? “I’m not like most women, I think. I don’t need candles and wine and all the frills. I think it’s romantic if you just hold hands when you walk through the mall while you window shop.” That much was a true statement. She loved to hold hands and kiss…and she’d better stop this right now, Callie chided herself, but it couldn’t hurt to be honest while lab rat hunting, could it?

“I like to hold hands. Want to hold hands with me?”

Um, no, she thought. “LOL, “Callie typed instead, because she didn’t know what else to say and Macdaddy’s words didn’t just look needy, they felt needy.

“Are those your initials?”

“?.” Callie typed a question mark.

“LOL. Are those your initials?”

Callie laughed. She forgot that sometimes not everyone was as familiar with cyber-speak as she was. “LOL=Laugh out loud. It means, I think you’re funny.”

There was a pause in the screen and then, “What’s your name?”

Shoot. Should she give her name? It probably didn’t matter. She wrote her column using a pseudonym. “I’m Callie. You?”

“Mitch.”

“Nice to meet you, Mitch.”

“Nice to meet you too, Callie. Wanna have a cup of coffee sometime?”

Wow. That was quick, they hardly knew each other, but she had a deadline to make, so there was no time like the present and if she followed the guidelines set up for safe dating she’d be alright. Mitch wasn’t exactly a dream come true, but he was nice enough, hopefully he was harmless enough too. She wanted to interview all different varieties of men—every flavor at the ice cream counter. “Sure, that’d be nice.”

“When?”

Callie looked at her calendar on her desk with the cute cats on it. Huh, totally blank. Go figure. She could squeeze him in between mopping the floor and scrubbing the toilet. “Well, why don’t you tell me what your expectations of a first meeting are?”

“I just expect to meet you and have coffee.”

Oh, okay, so they weren’t hitting the sheets? Deal. “Sounds like fun. When would you like to meet and where?”

“How about tomorrow at say, five?”

Callie grinned. Gotcha in my clutches now, Macdaddy. “Okay, where?”

“There’s a coffee house on San Pedro. How about there?”

“Sounds great, Mitch! I’ll see you then.”

“Take my cell phone number, just in case you get lost or something comes up.”

Callie wrote it down and said goodnight to Mitch, heading back to her inbox to tackle more e-mail. Cool, she had a date.

Her first in thirteen years.

Yippee Skippee.

She could hardly contain her excitement. Now back to the business at hand. Answering e-mail and finding more interviewees.

From: PrinceCharming

To: Writer66

Subject: You are amazing

HI,

OMG you are GORGEOUS! We wrote briefly last week and now I know why you stopped, you are WAY out of my league. To say you are stunning is a huge understatement. Although I realize you are too good for mere mortal men and way out of my league, I wanted to take this opportunity to say that you are magnificently gorgeous. A true Goddess sent from Heaven to grace us all with your beauty and presence. I hope the man you ultimately choose realizes what a special gift God has blessed him with in you and he better drop to his knees every day and worship you and thank God for you. I hope you find all the love and happiness you seek and never settle for second best. My God you are so beautiful. I am 39, 6”1, 165 lbs, athletic, smoke/drug/alcohol free, funny, romantic, attentive, affectionate, caring, warm, loving, great kisser (LOL) and a retired United States Naval Officer now living in the California area. What do you think, pretty good? You are amazing.

Whoa.

Callie leaned back in her office chair and tried to remember having contact with Prince Charming, aka Goddess spotter. Oh! Maybe he’d e-mailed her prior to her placing her picture on the site. The response to just her profile alone had been a slow, steady stream of e-mail. Ten or fifteen tops, but when she’d placed her picture on the site the responses had picked up in volume and intensity. Well, actually, they’d exploded. How did you answer an e-mail where a mere mortal claimed you were a Goddess?

This was simply ridiculous. Callie Winston a Goddess? If she was such a damn Goddess, then why was she divorced? If she was a Goddess, dark haired and dark eyed as she was, then Callie could only imagine what these men would think of Frank’s squeeze. Goddesses were thin and blonde and waif-like and had names like Mandy and Candy.

As Callie read PrinceCharming’s profile, she realized that while they shared some things in common, she couldn’t go out with someone who thought she had Goddess tendencies. It was just too bizarre. Though maybe being a Goddess had its perks…

To: PrinceCharming

Subject: Re: You are amazing

Hello PrinceCharming,

Um, thank you for the very kind words, however, my Goddess status doesn’t allow me to date mere mortals. I’m joking…but, really, I’m just an average girl.

Thanks for the ego boost here in sunny California,

Writer66

Callie shipped off a reply that she hoped would burst PrinceCharming’s illusions of all Goddesses. She began to read subject headers that caught her eye instead of the more typical Hello, hot stuff.

The subject line “Awesome” was there again and Callie’s breath hitched in her throat. Brian_SOF had replied back? She couldn’t explain it, but her heart rate sped up.

Just a little, mind you.

Callie opened the e-mail while she looked at his picture again. Damn him for being so cute and so far away. He’d have been a great subject to interview. Big, brawny man joins date site. Hotties need dates too. Come to think of it, why did someone as cute as Brian was, join an online dating site?

Because he wants to hook up and boink, Callie. He was in the service or whatever, so dating had to be tough in between picking bad guys off.

To: Writer66

From: Brian_SOF

Subject: Re: Re: Awesome

I didn’t mean any harm by calling you awesome and distance is relative to someone like me. Tell me about your writing. Are you published? What’s your name? Oh, and tell the tofu loving, surfer boys I said hey.

Brian

Distance is relative. Was age? Brian was two years younger than she was, according to his profile he’d never been married, but was no stranger to serious relationships. He had no children and he was a Gemini, whatever that meant in the scheme of soul mate searching.

But he thought she was awesome. In all of the e-mail she’d received, the comments on her bedroom eyes and sexy lips, no one had said she was awesome.

It wasn’t such a big deal, it was just a word. Shrugging, Callie replied to the gun-toting Brian.

To: Brian_SOF

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Awesome

I’ll be sure to pass that along to the surfer dudes. LOL. I write a column for a magazine, so yes, I guess I am published. I do dabble in fiction occasionally. Seems I’ve been writing a book forever, in one way or the other.

Callie thought about her writing ambitions for a moment. No one who’d e-mailed had asked her anything in depth about her writing, except this Brian. Which made him what, Callie? Sensitive? Caring?

Please.

But her negative thoughts didn’t stop her from continuing her e-mail.

Are you in Iraq right now? I see from the picture on the site you must be in some sort of military capacity? Are you stationed overseas?

Writer66

Oh, P/S. My name is, Callie.

Callie didn’t know why she needed to know where Mr. Top Gun was, she just did and sharing her name wasn’t a big deal, she guessed. His approach to her made her curious. He had a different take than the rest of the buffoons she was getting e-mail from.

Yawning, Callie took one last look at Brian_SOF’s picture.

He didn’t have to be so good looking, did he? And so young?

An older, more mature man who wanted forever, not temporary, was a much safer bet. That was if forever was what she was looking for. She wasn’t, she was looking for the scoop.

Callie was too tired to answer any more e-mail tonight and too tired to try and figure out soldier boy’s motivations.

Besides, she had a date tomorrow.

Well, aren’t you the captain of the cheerleading squad, prom queen and Shania Twain all rolled into one?

Clicking off her computer, Callie wished it were Brian she had a date with and then she thought, the one hormone she had left was affecting her thinking.

Repeat after me, Callie Winston. Dates are to be treated as lab rats.

* * * *

“I’m sorry, say that again? You have a what?” Callie’s best friend and editor at California Hip, Katherine Nix, said into the phone.

“I have a date. You know, like I meet a man and go somewhere with him? A date.” Callie responded with a chuckle at Katherine’s surprise.

“Um, yes, sweetie, I do know what that is, but do you?”

“Of course I do, Katherine. I’ve been on a date before.”

“But that was when big hair and ripped sweatshirts were fashionable, honey.”

Callie rolled her eyes as she hooked the phone over her shoulder and cleaned the toilet. “Look, it’s for my column. Research.”

Katherine snorted. “I thought you were just going to research the online thing, not do it.”

“What better way to get the skinny than to actually do it myself?”

“How very sacrificial of you.”

Callie twitched a little as she sprayed cleanser into her toilet bowl. “Look. I gotta be in it to win it, ya know. I can’t get people to talk to me and tell me why they’ve resorted to the Internet for a date if I don’t keep a low profile. I write humor, Katherine, I can’t think of a more amusing way to write this than to experience it myself. Some of these people probably don’t want anyone to know they’re even on an online dating site. So, I go on a few dates sorta undercover, I have some coffee and I get some readers. I’ve been on dates before. I know it was a long time ago. So what?” Callie flushed her toilet with satisfaction and set about cleaning the sink.

“Because dating is different now in two-thousand-five,” Katherine reminded her. “There are all sorts of things you need to be aware of and I don’t want you going alone.”

“Okay, I’ll bring you to meet Mitch, my date. I’m sure you’ll be very happy together.”

Katherine sighed. “You know what I mean,” she chided. “You make sure I know exactly where you are at all times and you better call me if he gets out of line, because I’ll whack his ass.” Katherine paused and took a deep breath. “Mitch, huh? What’s Mitch look like?”

Callie tried to draw up an image of Mitch, but Brian’s got in the way.

Crap. It had to be that gun he had in his picture. It was sexy or something.

“Mitch is a very nice man, who looks pleasant enough and so far, he’s the only man who wants to have coffee with me. So Mitch wins the booby prize.”

“How does this date site thing work anyway? Did you put your picture up?” Katherine asked.

“Yeah, I did and a snappy profile. I tried to be as honest as I could about what I want in a mate. I wrote it as if I were actually seriously contemplating finding my soul mate.” Now it was Callie’s turn to snort.

“You never know, sweetie. You could get lucky. How many responses did you get from this date site?”

“Around two hundred and fifty.” Give or take a few hundred.

Katherine’s whistle hurt Callie’s ear. “Jeeesus, Cal. I should have known, though.”

“Known what?”

“That you would line ‘em up.”

“The men?”

“Yes, Callie. The men. You’re gorgeous, all lips and eyes. The amount of response doesn’t surprise me one bit, but I’m not shocked it surprises you, sweet cheeks.”

Callie shook her head and ran a hand towel over her sink to dry the wet spots. “What does that mean? Of course, I’m surprised. Who wants to go out with a thirty-eight-year-old divorcee who has thighs that are spreading like Ebola?”

Katherine sniffed into the phone and it crackled in Callie’s ear. “Anyone with a brain, Callie. You’re a beautiful woman and you’re the only one who doesn’t know that. You just don’t pay attention to it because Frank taught you to stifle it. He was an asshole and his residual effect continues to haunt you.”

“Well, whatever. I’m going to knock our readerships socks off with this and shut Tyler up for good. That’s all that matters to me.”

“And maybe you’ll meet someone who will take you away from your Saturday night Love Boat marathons too. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, would please me more.” Katherine chuckled.

Lest Katherine forget the Love Boat was followed by Fantasy Island… ”I didn’t join this site to meet the man of my dreams, Kath. The man of my dreams is Aston. I don’t have a man of my dreams. I have the non-man of my dreams. He’s a beagle.”

“Look, I just want you to be really careful, honey,” Katherine interjected.

Here came the speech about naïve Callie taking the dating world by storm. Poor, sheltered Callie, married most of her adult life. Inexperienced Callie. Homebody. Non-party animal.

“Remember one thing for me, will you, doll?”

Callie rolled her eyes again and began to re-organize her medicine cabinet. “What’s that, Kath?”

“No glove—no love.”

Callie screeched with laughter. It echoed off the tile in her small bathroom. “Kath! I haven’t had sex in over two years and not with anyone but THE FREAK. I’m researching a column. I’m not having sex with anyone! Besides, I’m thirty-eight years old. I know not to have unprotected sex and I’m on birth control to regulate me. You know that.”

Callie heard Katherine’s derisive sniff. “Yes, that’s what we all say. No nookie and then we meet a stud and turn into a bad episode of ‘Sex and the City’. I just want you to be careful.”

“I’m having coffee not shopping for Trojans. Relax, Katherine. I’m not like most women who are single in this day and age. I haven’t been out in the meat market and I have no intention of sleeping with anyone but Aston.” Good hell. Sleep with someone…as if that were likely. Who’d want to sleep with her? There was no way she was showing her bare, naked booty to anyone but God.

Katherine laughed, a light tinkling lilt of a chuckle, a sure sign she was going to pooh-pooh Callie’s thoughts. “You’re a beautiful woman, Callie. Many men will want to sleep with you on this journey, believe me. I just don’t want you to sleep with them until you’re sure you know what you’re doing. You’re not the kind of girl who can sleep with someone and walk away scot-free.”

Oh, okay. So now we knew what Callie would do in and out of bed? Callie shook her head. “Don’t worry about me. I promise not to shimmy out of my clothes and grab the nearest greased pole. Stop worrying, would you? I’m doing research. According to the sites match-up percentages, Mitch and I are an eighty-six percent match. I want to see if that’s true. That’s it. No glove needed.”

Katherine was silent for a moment and then she said, “Okay, where are you meeting?”

“A coffee house on San Pedro.”

“What time?”

“Five tonight.”

“I want to hear from you when you get home and I want to know that you’re safe. Take a different route home when you leave old Mitch, just in case he thinks he can follow you home. Make sure there’s good lighting and lots of traffic wherever you park. Call me if you need someone to get you the hell out of dodge.”

Katherine was making this far more complicated than it needed to be and Callie was beginning to feel as though Katherine were her parent rather than her best friend. “I promise to call you from the Motel Six when we’re done fucking like rabid animals in heat. After coffee, of course.”

Katherine’s gasp of air satisfied Callie enough to click the off button on her phone.

Callie didn’t need a big sister and she didn’t need anyone to warn her of the pitfalls of dating.

She wasn’t doing this to gain a social life. Callie was doing this to keep her position at the magazine and she was going to do it with sensitivity. She was doing this to prove that she could be just as much of a wonder woman as the wonder kids who were nipping at her heels, wanting her damn column and who would end up turning it into some vapid rambling instead of trying to reach the hearts of their readers.

It was called fighting to keep your head above water with the hip and trendy.

She’d be fucked and feathered if she’d let them win.

Chapter 3

Mace?

Check.

Louisville slugger?

Check.

Cell phone with nine-one-one on speed dial?

Check.

Well lit, positioned close to an exit parking space?

Check.

Callie was now officially ready for her first date since the dawn of man. She’d chosen to dress casually in a sweater and jeans. A long sweater and jeans. Callie still wasn’t ready to reveal her thighs, research or not.

As she pulled into the parking space at the coffee house, she scanned the cars to look for Mitch’s. He’d e-mailed her to tell her that he drove a Mercedes, powder blue. He said he’d wait outside for her.

Callie didn’t see a powder blue Mercedes anywhere and if Mitch had stood her up he was going to get a nasty e-mail. SPAM maybe…

It would kinda figure if her first research non-date ditched her. Callie was still grappling with why Mitch wanted to go out with her. It had to be her “I don’t need a man” attitude, which Callie felt she’d accurately portrayed in her written profile. Men liked self-sufficient women. She was just that, even if she had girlie tendencies. Or it was desperation—a far more likely answer.

Callie got out of her car and headed toward the entrance of the coffee shop, looking over the parking lot in the fading light.

“Callie?”

Her head shot up and she got her first gander at Mitch, waiting on the sidewalk. Tall and lanky, sandy blonde hair, with a soft, doughy look to his face, smiling at her like he’d just seen Jesus. “Mitch, it’s great to meet you!” Callie said with warmth and stuck out her hand, but Mitch pulled her into an embrace that rivaled a head lock. His cologne attacked her sinuses, clinging to them with the overpowering, powdery scent.

“It’s nice to meet you too. Thank God you look just like the picture on the site.” Mitch held her at arm’s length and his eyes did a once over, stopping at her thighs.

They were bulging, weren’t they?

“Wow!” he exclaimed. “I took a real chance that the rest of you was going to be as hot as your face. Guess I lucked out,” he chuckled, obviously pleased that he’d wandered out on a limb to meet her sans seeing her body parts.

And what did she say to that? Wow, thanks for taking the risk of a lifetime on me? I’m so glad I meet with your approval? It was coffee, not their betrothal. “Er, well, I’m glad I turned out okay for you, Mitch,” Callie said softly and smiled.

Mitch shook his head, a flap of his hair dancing in the cool breeze. “You’re more than okay. Shit, you’re beautiful. I was a little skeptical when I saw your picture. I mean, you look sooo hot in it. I figured it was probably too good to be true. Like maybe it was taken a long time ago. I can’t believe you’re thirty-eight. Good genes… Guess I got lucky tonight, huh?”

Mitch, Mitch, Mitch. If you don’t shut your mouth luck is going to take on a very decidedly unlucky turn for you. So let’s go drink a cup of shut the fuck up and get it on. Instead, Callie just smiled in the dimming afternoon light, because really, what could you say to something like that? Way to go, champ? Ya done good?

Mitch let go of her hands, and Callie fought the impulse to wipe them free of his clammy sweat. He turned around in a slow circle as people passed them, staring. “So what do you think?”

What was this? Did she have to rate him? On a scale of one to ten wet panties, you, Mitch get a…Hells bells. “I think you’re just fine, Mitch. Now c’mon and let’s get that coffee.” Callie slipped past him and entered the coffee shop, heading for the counter and avoiding answering his question in detail.

Mitch was right behind her, pressed closely to her back like a boil. His looming presence made Callie take a step forward, and Mitch followed her lead, right up her ass and placed a light hand on her shoulder.

Hookay, touching was out. No touching. Not even a little. It felt odd, intrusive. No man had touched her like this in more than two years. Callie rolled her neck, hoping Mitch would get the idea that her body was off limits. Mitch took it as a sign she needed a chiropractor. He began to massage her neck, griping her flesh in tight, kneading fists. “Neck hurt?” Mitch asked against her ear.

Only when you have it in a death grip. Thankfully, the cashier asked her what she wanted and Callie was able to step away from the octopus that was Mitch. “Coffee, please.”

The young girl gave her a questioning look. “Well, what kind of coffee, ma’am? I mean, latte, frappuccino, cappuccino, flavored, unflavored, hot, cold, low fat, caffeinated, decaf with all the trimmings?” She smiled at Callie as she took a deep breath and titled her head, waiting for an answer.

Callie pursed her lips. “Um, just plain old Juan Valdez, please. You know, you put the grounds in the coffee maker and bam, coffee?”

The young girl smiled again and nodded her head. “No walks on the wild side for you. Got it. One regular coffee coming up and you, sir?” she inquired of roamin’ hands and rushin’ fingers Mitch.

Mitch cleared his throat and coffee aficionado that he was, ordered a grande latte, Irish Cream, low fat.

Callie hiked her purse up over her shoulder and backed away from the counter, fully expecting Mitch to pay for her coffee after all that coppin’ a feel stuff.

“I’ll get it,” Mitch offered magnanimously.

What a man…

Mitch paid for the coffee and they found a semi-isolated table near the window. It was slow for the evening, everyone safe at home with their families, eating dinner. Callie took a good long look at Mitch under the brighter lights. He was pleasant enough to eyeball, but he wasn’t making her heart pound, or her hormones. “So, Mitch, tell me about yourself.” Please. So I don’t reconsider slitting my wrists.

Mitch winked at her and sipped at his coffee. His gold pinky ring flickered under the bright lights of the coffee shop. “I’m a CPA. Didn’t you read my profile?”

Studiously… ”I did,” Callie assured him. “I just want to hear it from you. I suck at numbers. I’m creative, not technical.”

Mitch leaned over the small table as though he were revealing a secret and smiled knowingly. “I can help you with all sorts of stuff. Money markets, CD’s, investments.”

Nah, it’s okay, Mitch. I got the booty from the ex. “Well, thanks. I’m all set, I think. So what do you like to do for fun? How does Mitch relax?”

“I love to watch the weather channel. That relaxes me.”

Callie coughed on her gulp of coffee. It was always good to know what Siberia was like this time of year. “Really? I don’t think I’ve caught the weather channel as of late.”

“I like the Game Show Network too.”

Mitch was just full of interesting little factoids then, wasn’t he? Oy. “How about movies? What kind do you like?”

Mitch smiled again, this time fully. He was missing a tooth way back yonder, and really that was okay. You didn’t have to have all of your teeth, just most of them. “I like documentaries and the more obscure things, like Cannes Film Festival stuff.”

Callie fought off a yawn. She was missing Ricardo Montalban for this? She could have coffee at home any damn time she pleased.

Research, Callie, research.

Mitch tugged the collar of his shirt and it rippled over his slim chest. “Why did you agree to go out with me, Callie? I can’t believe you did. You could have anyone you wanted.”

Yes, she would just pick from the long line of studs waiting outside her apartment door. “Because you asked me?” Callie said tentatively, nervously.

“I still can’t believe you said yes. You’re gorgeous.”

“No, I’m average.”

He shook his head. “No, no you’re gorgeous.”

Hookay, Mitch, you win I lose. I’m tres fantastique.

Enough.

Ick. This had to stop. Callie wasn’t gorgeous and she didn’t want to be told every two seconds that she was. Callie decided to turn the tables. “So what made you choose to contact me, Mitch?”

“You want me to be honest here?”

No, tell me sweet lies. “Yes, of course.”

“Your lips.”

Her lips… ”My lips?” He’d mentioned they were sexy, but there had to be more than just two pieces of flesh that were shiny to attract him.

“Yep, I didn’t even read your profile before I was typing up an e-mail to you.”

Honesty was good—healthy in fact. “My lips,” Callie repeated woodenly.

“You asked,” Mitch said plainly. “I couldn’t stop thinking about them in fact.”

Nuff said. Callie didn’t want to know what he’d been thinking about her lips. Next subject. “So you didn’t even know if we’d have anything in common? You just contacted me because of a physical attribute?” Talk about premature cyber communication. Callie took another sip of her coffee and eyed Mitch.

“Oh, yeah, I looked at your profile afterward and we have some things in common, like this.” He held up his Styrofoam container of coffee.

Coffee and lips. Perfect together. “So have you been dating long, Mitch?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Here and there since my divorce, but nothing special.”

“Have the other dates you’ve been on been disappointing, Mitch?” Callie asked as she wiped her newly discovered sexy lips free of coffee with a napkin from the dispenser.

Mitch snorted and inched his hands across the table. “To say the least. Most show up and they look nothing like their pictures. It was taken like back in their prime, ya know? When they were still cheerleaders or prom queens.”

Mitch, here’s your sign. If the picture features your potential date mid-air in a split—with hair bigger than the actual pom-poms she’s holding, the picture is old, baby. Callie wanted to enlighten Mitch, but clamped her mouth firmly shut.

“The other half is totally boring. I haven’t experienced a complete connection with anyone, but I think that’s all about to change,” he smiled again, his watery blue eyes staring intently into hers.

Not on my watch, Mitch. “I’m sorry to hear that they’ve been disappointing, Mitch. What do you hope to find in a woman?”

Mitch looked tired as he answered, the lines around his eyes crinkled. “I want someone I can come home to. Somebody to watch a movie with. Someone who will ask me how my day was and really care to know.”

Shoot. Callie inwardly cringed. The loneliness she’d sensed prior to meeting Mitch was accurate and he looked like he’d told this story more times than not. Her heart hurt for him and she didn’t want it to because this was research, but Callie had always had trouble separating her sensitivity from the cutthroat attitude she’d need to have for this dating thing. She was one twisted bitch to go on this date, knowing full well she had no intention of doing anything more than gathering information. Stories she could relay to her readers that would make fun of these dates. “Have you been dating long?”

Mitch shrugged and took another sip of his latte. “About three years. I’m not getting any younger and I’m really tired of being alone.”

“Maybe that’s the trouble?” Callie asked. “Maybe you’re trying too hard?”

“Trying too hard?” Mitch appeared perplexed.

“Yeah, like going into these dates as if you might trip over your soul mate, instead of just looking to make friends? A connection on any level is better than none, right?” Callie couldn’t stand the look of desperation in Mitch’s eyes. If your soul mate found you at the local Starbucks, grande latte in hand, great, but the chances of that happening were slim to none. So why not fill your life up with friends? People you shared interests with?

“I don’t need any more friends, Callie. I want someone to curl up with at night.”

“I could loan you my dog, Aston. He’s a great snuggler,” Callie offered jokingly, hoping to diffuse this sudden intense turn in their conversation.

Mitch reached across the table and toyed with her finger. “I think I’d rather snuggle with you.”

For the love of God. How did they go from talking about the weather channel to this? “That’s sweet, Mitch, but we’ve just met.”

Mitch tugged on her finger again, wrapping his around it and said. “But I feel you, Callie and I think you feel me too…”

The only thing Callie was feeling right now was un-frickin’-comfortable. She didn’t feel Mitch. She didn’t feel this connection he so desperately wanted to experience with another person and she didn’t know how to tell him she didn’t. She definitely was depressed, though, if this was what the dating scene was sometimes about. Mitch was creating things that just weren’t happening on her planet because he so wanted to experience them.

With anyone.

Shit. Callie smiled for the umpteenth time and said brightly, “Hang onto that thought, Mitch. I need to go the ladies room.” Grabbing her purse and scooting out of her seat, she searched frantically for a restroom sign.

She rooted around in her purse for her cell phone as she shouldered her way into the bathroom and headed for an empty stall. Callie found Katherine’s phone number with the speed of light on her cell phone and pressed call.

“Callie?”

“Help me,” she whispered into the phone.

“Did he touch you? I’ll freakin’ kill him—”

“No!” Callie interrupted, “he’s talking about how he feels me.”

“He, what?” Katherine thundered. “He’d better get used to feeling himself minus his balls!”

“No! No, he didn’t feel me. He said he feels me.”

“Well, ask him how he feels about my fist up his ass?”

“Stop, Kath! He said he feels a connection or something.”

“Tell him to connect this and back the fuck off!”

“Katherine, help me. I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”

Katherine blew out a breath. “Oh, okay, so do you want him to feel you instead?”

“Arghh. No, I want to know how to leave without hurting his feelings.”

“Simple, you say, buh-bye.”

“C’mon, Kath. Help me be nice.”

“Okay, you go back out there and say, ‘wow, look at the time I have to go’. Fantasy Island is on.”

Callie started to laugh, despite her panic. “Kath, pleeeease.”

“Callie. You just tell him you have to go. That’s it. His feelings are going to be hurt no matter what you say if he’s feeling you and you’re not feeling him.”

Great. She was already a diva bitch—date one. Callie sighed. “Okay, Kath. Thanks.”

“Oh, and don’t forget to duck.”

Callie’s eyebrows rose. “Huh?”

“I said, duck, sweetie.”

“I don’t get what you mean?”

“He’s going to want to kiss you. Duck.”

Oh, hell…Callie’s shoulders sagged. “How do I avoid that?”

“Duck,” Katherine said again.

Callie tried to imagine Mitch’s lips on hers. Oh, no. Not. Nu-uh. She was ducking. “I’ll duck.”

“Good girl. Bye.”

Callie clicked her phone off and shoved it back in her purse. She stopped at the mirror and fluffed her hair. She didn’t know why it mattered if she was having a good hair day. She wanted to look good when she ducked. Her cheeks were flushed and her lipstick was fading. Time to call it a night. Just like the big girls do.

Callie straightened her shoulders and went back out to Mitch to tell him she didn’t “feel him” like he felt her. There was no connection—no chemistry—not even a little biology. Nada.

Mitch rose as she came to stand by the edge of the table. “Everything okay?”

“Oh, everything’s fine. I’m just tired, So I’m afraid I’ll have to go now.” Good, that was good. She was leaving and ducking.

“So soon?” Mitch’s frown was quickly hidden with a tight smile.

“Yeah, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize the time. I have to walk my dog.” Thank God for Aston.

Mitch’s eyes held hers far longer than Callie was comfortable with. She averted her own to dig in her purse for her keys, but Mitch jumped up and said, “I’ll walk you to your car.”

Just grand. “No, Mitch, you stay and enjoy the coffee. I’ll be fine.”

Mitch shrugged into his jacket. “No way. No date of mine is going to her car alone.”

Fab-u-lous. Callie nodded and sprinted to the door with a time an Olympic runner would cry in shame over. She scanned the parking lot with her eyes and located her car, stepping off the curb and walking briskly toward it.

Shoot, Mitch had long legs, he was right behind her, cupping her elbow and following her as closely as possible. When they reached her car, Callie turned to him and offered her hand and again, Mitch took it and pulled her close, hugging her hard.

“I had a great time, Callie,” he mumbled into her hair.

Callie thumped him on the back. “It was nice, Mitch, thanks for the coffee.”

“So?”

Um… ”So, what?”

“So, do you think we connected?”

Jesus… ”I—I—like you, Mitch and I’d love to have a friendly cup of coffee again sometime.”

Mitch’s arms fell away from her as he backed up. His face was slack and his eyes were dull under the parking lot lamp. “Okay, Callie. It’s what I figured, anyway. Thanks again.”

Someone’s self-esteem jar was half empty. Dammit all. “I’m sorry, Mitch.” Callie felt like shit, plain and simple. She couldn’t make herself feel something she didn’t.

“Nah, it’s okay. Take care, Callie,” he said as he headed in the other direction, his shoulders slumped and his stride slow.

Callie beeped her car and slid into the seat, turning the key in the ignition with a slow hand.

For fucks sake, this sucked.

As she drove home Callie replayed her date in her mind and decided Mitch belonged in the “trying too hard” file. He was sweet and needy and Callie was caught off guard by his direct approach. Mitch was rushing to find a soul mate, skipping past the getting to know you part.

Pulling into her garage, she saw that the time was seven o’ clock. You party girl, you. Callie was defeated, deflated and all of that after only one date. Mitch’s sad smile stuck in her mind’s eye and it wouldn’t let go.

Aston greeted her with a slow shuffle and flopped at her feet as she peeled her coat off and headed straight to her bedroom to change. Aston followed closely behind, sighing as she shed her clothes and changed into her nightgown.

Her heart felt bruised and sore over Mitch and quite frankly, it sucked, but she had a job to do and she’d have to set this experience aside in favor of the bigger picture. Mitch deserved someone who would love him totally and Callie just wasn’t that girl, but she hoped he found her soon.

Callie flipped her computer on with a heavy heart and settled in her office chair. Last count she still had quite a few e-mails to go and the thought depressed her right now. Callie didn’t want to hurt anyone, she knew that kind of hurt and even in her most angry of moments she didn’t want to inflict any kind of angst. Mitch was hungry for something she just couldn’t feed him. It was something she never expected to happen so quickly, this connection thing Mitch talked about.

Love at first sight just didn’t exist as far as Callie was concerned. It was better termed lust at first site. To know someone was to love them, faults and all. You didn’t know anyone if you’d just met them. Sometimes you didn’t know them if you were married to them for ten years either, she mused.

Logging onto the site, Callie moaned out loud. Aston responded with a grumble, puffing his cheeks out. “Look, Aston, I have fifty more e-mails! Okay, it’s early. I’m going to answer every damn one of these and get it over with,” she said to the empty room. Determined to do that she started at the top of her inbox and began to work her way down.

To: Writer66

From: Leftcoastlover

Subject: Can’t stop thinking about you

Hi Writer66,

I don’t want to sound goofy, but your lips look juicy. I just had to tell you that. I can’t stop thinking about you. E-mail me so we can write a love story.

LCL

Juicy? Juicy? Callie sat for a moment too astonished to type. And then, she responded before she could stop herself.

To: Leftcoastlover

Subject: Re: Can’t stop thinking about you

Tell me, LCL, what about that doesn’t sound goofy to you?

Ripe as a summer peach in sunny California,

Juicy lips AKA Writer66

Juicy lips. Callie caught a glimpse of her reflection in her flat screen computer and crossed her eyes at it. She did not have juicy lips and she didn’t even want to venture to guess what it would be like to go out with a guy who thought she did. Callie didn’t even care if she offended him with her reply.

Next weirdo, please.

To: Writer66

From: Thefridge240

Subject: Hello Angel

Dear Writer66,

You are simply the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen! Your eyes are gorgeous, dark and filled with mysteries I want to unlock. I am very intuitive and know you are a great catch! I believe in love. I am a professional businessman who owns a computer consulting company and support dental clients in the Minnesota area. I am a graduate student working on my Masters Degree in Information Systems and computers and have a very promising future. I am willing to invest in you because I know a winner when I see one.

God told me to join this dating service because he knew I’d find you…I know great distances hinder us, but I am willing to invest in you because I know a winner when I see one. My motto is a quitter never wins and a winner never quits.

I’m not a serial killer and I love ice cream. I know you’ll love eating some with me.

I have a full plate, my life is very busy, but you are a buffet I just can’t resist!

Jason

God better quit talking to Jason, or he’d better start listening more closely to his Rice Krispies. Jason’s approach was rather like the WWF. Winners never quit and quitters never win? Bulldoze your prospective dates was more like it.

Whoa, he was huge, Callie noted from his profile. My, hell, he was more than twice her size. His motto, quite frankly, frightened her. Inspiration struck in the form of a wisecrack as Callie shipped back an e-mail to Jason.

To: Thefridge240

Subject: Re: Hello Angel

Dear Jason,

I’m on a diet.

Starving herself to death in sunny California,

Writer66

Callie rolled her head on her neck and moaned. She was over a week into this and already she could understand why people were so skeptical about online date sites. She wondered briefly if other women got this kind of e-mail. How the hell could you tell if someone’s intent was genuine when they called you a buffet? If only he’d mentioned her thighs, they were a veritable smorgasbord.

Callie focused again on her task at hand. Answer as many e-mails as she possibly could tonight when the subject line Awesome flickered past her as she scrolled her inbox with her mouse.

Her stomach did the Riverdance. Brian had responded again and so was she, responding that was, with a nervous anticipation and a giddy thrill. Callie found she couldn’t wait to open his e-mail. She glanced at his picture, thinking that each time she saw it he was more handsome than the last.

Oy.

To: Writer66

From: Brian_SOF

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Awesome

Hey Callie,

It’s nice to have a name to put with the face. No, I’m not in Iraq right now, but I do spend a lot of time there. I had a small injury so I came home early.

I’m glad you wrote back. Tell me about your life. Tell me something no one knows about you and I’ll tell you something back.

Brian

He’d been hurt? Callie’s stomach revolted and she didn’t even think about why. She just needed to know what had happened and what “small injury” meant in Brian’s world. Callie responded without thought. It just seemed natural to inquire about how he’d been hurt and if he was alright now.

To: Brian_SOF

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Awesome

Oh, Brian! What’s a small injury and are you alright now?

Let’s see…something no one knows about me? I’m a girlie-girl at heart. I love all things Victoria’s Secret and I really can use power tools.

Your turn.

Callie

Callie clicked send without hesitation, and then slapped her forehead. Had she just told him her passion for silky nightwear? Well, who the hell did she think she was? All good girls knew it wasn’t appropriate to talk about what you slept in with perfect strangers. Leaning forward, Callie put her head in her hands and moaned for the third time that night. But then, she remembered that it was just a little harmless flirting and it was only e-mail…

Her inbox sounded with the tinkle of another e-mail five minutes later and Callie looked up, then smiled. It was Brian again. Her heart rate sped and her hands couldn’t get to her mouse fast enough.

She was an idiot. It was an e-mail, not the second coming…

To: Writer66

From: Brian_SOF

Subject: Victoria’s Secret?

Callie’s stomach sank. She’d revealed too much. He thought she was as slut. Of course she was a slut. She clicked open the e-mail with reluctance edged with fear over possibly seeing the word hussy in the text of Brian’s reply.

Hey again Callie,

The injury was small by even a chicken’s standards. I’m fine now and all recuperated.

I like that you can admit you’re, as you called it, a girlie-girl. There aren’t that many women I’d consider feminine these days and Victoria’s Secret rates high on my list of very feminine things.

Okay, now for my deep, dark secret. I’ve read romance novels for lack of anything else that I can get my hands on overseas. It beats nothing and they’re not too bad. LOL

Your serve.

Brian

Callie grinned and felt the rush of heat course over her cheeks. Brian thought she was feminine…she sighed, despite how lame it might seem to someone who got compliments like this on a daily basis and then, she tried to think of something interesting about herself that she could e-mail back. She was rather boring, all of her Victoria’s Secrets aside. Her thoughts strayed to what it would be like to wear something girlie for Brian.

Whoa. What the hell was that about?

Oh, man. This was uncharted territory and Brian wouldn’t want to see her in anything girlie anyway. However, she was feeling flirty, or she supposed that’s what this was. This light, easy banter, playing at cute and coy. It was easy on a computer screen because words were easy for Callie, on paper anyhow. Brian couldn’t see her and what she lacked in actual presence, she made up for in words. Words were her arrows, her hook, her safe zone.

To: Brian_SOF

Subject: RE: Victoria’s Secret

Romance novels, eh? Can’t say I know many men who willingly admit to reading them, but I understand your predicament.

Bubble baths…Sigh, I love bubble baths. It’s one of my favorite indulgences. Oh, and I’ve had a favorite pillow of mine since I was twenty that I still sleep with.

You owe me two…

Callie