Read The Fixer Upper Online

Authors: Judith Arnold

The Fixer Upper (21 page)

A cloud of misery descended upon her. She hadn’t meant to pick a fight with Vivienne. Instead of sharing her giddy excitement with her ex-sister-in-law, she’d alienated her. If Vivienne wanted to smile at hairy Harvey, let her. Her idiot husband was off singing the Brandeis equivalent of “Boola Boola” with his buddies. Vivienne deserved to have a little fun, too.

Still, even after Libby apologized to Vivienne, forced down a slice of desiccated cheese to prove there were no hard feelings, and then left, telling Vivienne she had a lot to do that afternoon, she felt unsettled. The sky was a gentle
blue, the sun tunneling light down to the sidewalk between the towering apartment buildings as she strolled toward West End Avenue. Reva would be in a good mood when Libby arrived home, because she’d allowed her to invite Kim over. And tonight Libby would see Ned. She ought to be dancing home, bursting into song in the middle of the sidewalk the way Reva had the day she’d gotten her solo. But Libby felt uneasy.

Nerves, she thought.

When she arrived home, Reva and Kim greeted her at the door. They must have heard her key in the lock, because they were standing in the entry, gazing at her so hopefully her panic increased. “What did you break?” she asked as she tossed the mail—mostly bills—onto the table and removed her coat.

“Nothing,” they said simultaneously.

“We were just wondering…” Kim began.

“Please!” Reva added.

All right. They hadn’t broken anything. Libby could scratch that worry off her list.

“The thing is,” Reva said in a singsong voice, “Kim’s got a piano at her house.”

“And my mother said it was okay with her.”

“What’s okay?” Libby asked.

“Me sleeping over at Kim’s house,” Reva said.

Libby took a deep breath. The air carried a trace of chemical smell. It didn’t smell like an aphrodisiac when Ned wasn’t around. It smelled like turpentine.

Trying not to think about the smell, she analyzed Reva’s situation. The girl was supposed to be grounded. She
had
been grounded for a week. Kim was her best friend, and she had a piano. “A piano?”

“So we can practice
Tommy
,” Kim explained. “Reva needs the practice.”

Reva needed the practice the way Harry needed an ego.

“And my mother said it was okay with her. We already checked,” Kim continued, beaming her sweet, innocent smile. Libby had always considered Kim a good influence on Reva, smart and kind and obedient. But the girl was cunning, she acknowledged. Her innocent smile hinted at a fair amount of finagling.

“Let me call your mother,” Libby said. The instant the words were out of her mouth, she realized they contained her decision. If Reva were truly grounded, Libby wouldn’t be phoning Kim’s mother. She’d be saying no.

Her brain was kaput. The overloaded wiring had short-circuited. A morning with Vivienne and God was enough to erase Libby’s memory of punishments meted out.

She strode into the kitchen, grabbed the cordless phone and punched in the memory button for Kim’s number. Marise Noguchi answered, and within minutes she was chattering away about what a lovely girl Reva was, and how exciting it was that she would be singing a solo and Kim would be accompanying the chorus on the piano, and Reva’s sleeping over tonight would in fact work out to the Noguchis’ benefit, because Kim’s older sister was having friends over, and Kim always got whiny when her older sister was entertaining, but if it was all right with Libby, Reva could keep her occupied so she wouldn’t whine tonight.

“Sure,” Libby said. “Fine.” She could have suggested that Kim stay over at her place, instead, but since she was going to be out for at least part of the night—at
most
part of the night—she’d feel better knowing Reva and Kim were someplace that parents would be present.

She disconnected the call, turned and found the girls crammed into the doorway, staring at her with wide eyes. “Okay,” she said, and was assaulted by shrieks of ecstasy. “But you’ll go directly to Kim’s place and you’ll stay there,” she warned.

“I promise I’ll phone you every ten minutes,” Reva said, bursting into the kitchen and flinging her arms around Libby. The last time she’d had arms around her in the kitchen they’d been Ned’s arms. And she shouldn’t be thinking about that while her daughter was hugging her.

“Don’t phone me every ten minutes,” she said. “Just leave the cell phone on so I can reach you.”

“I promise. I promise I’ll leave it on until the battery dies.”

“And then recharge it.”

“You can always call the apartment,” Kim sensibly pointed out. “You won’t need to call Reva on the cell, because we won’t be going out.”

What a good girl. So much better behaved than that crowd who’d led Reva astray last weekend. “I guess I could do that,” she said, wondering if she actually would.

 

Thank God for healthy babysitters,
Ned thought as he left the apartment. Lindsay from the other end of the hall was over her strep throat and happy to empty Ned’s bank account by staying with Eric for a few hours. Eric had grumbled that he was too old to need a babysitter, but at least Lindsay didn’t smell of oatmeal, so he kept his complaints to a minimum.

Ned headed down the stairs at a sprightly pace. He’d had mixed feelings about moving into a walk-up, but walking down was a breeze. Eric liked to grip the railings and hurl himself down the last three steps of each flight, as if he were maneuvering some sort of indoor ski jump with lots of ninety-degree moguls. And given the difference in price between a walk-up and an elevator building, well, Ned could use the exercise.

He’d cleaned the apartment that afternoon. He’d dusted while Eric vacuumed—the kid liked noisy equipment with
wheels. Ned had also put a bottle of white wine in the fridge and left a bottle of red handy on the sliver of counter space between the stove and the sink. He’d even fluffed the cushions on the sofa.

Hell, what was he thinking? As promising as things seemed between him and Libby at the moment, exactly one week ago he’d been ready to write her off—or, more accurately, he’d been sure she’d written him off. He knew her, but he didn’t
know
her. Tonight he’d take her out for dinner and they’d talk…and if the talk went well and she wanted to return to his place, he had wine ready. And fluffed sofa cushions. And maybe by the end of the evening he’d know her a little better. His expectations went no further than that.

The doorman at her building stopped him, asked who he was and then phoned her apartment. “You can go up,” the man muttered, giving him a begrudging stare. Ned couldn’t imagine why he’d aroused the guy’s suspicions. He’d put on khakis and a gray shirt with a pattern woven into the threads that the salesclerk at the Gap had told him was really cool, and on top of that his dark gray wool blazer. He’d shaved, showered, shampooed, and shined his loafers. If he didn’t pass muster with the doorman, then the guy’s standards were too high.

Riding upstairs, Ned gave himself a final pep talk. If Libby turned out to be last week’s bitchy incarnation, he’d get through the meal and call it quits. If she turned out to be the smart, funny incarnation he’d seen when he’d first met her, and the past few nights when he’d worked on her fireplace, he’d be a very happy man.

At her door he paused. He felt unarmed. No tools, no solvent, no drop cloth. Just himself. Tonight he wouldn’t be the guy who restored Libby’s fireplace, or the dad with the kid who wanted to go to Hudson. He would just be…

Chill
, he ordered himself, then rang the bell.

Libby swung open the door, and he was glad to just be himself, a man taking a woman to dinner. She looked incredible.

Actually, she looked like Libby, only more so. Her hair was wild with waves but soft and lustrous, and she’d done something to make her eyes appear darker, emphasizing just how large they were. She wore black slacks that gave her legs a long, slender shape, and a matching black jacket over a white shirt that was more lace than fabric. Not to tear her jacket off and see what she looked like covered in nothing but tantalizing lace took all his willpower.

“Hey,” he said, hoping he didn’t sound as horny as he suddenly felt.

She smiled shyly. “Is this okay?” she asked, gesturing toward her outfit. “I didn’t know where we were going, so…”

“It’s fine,” he said, his voice catching slightly. God, did she have any idea how seductive he found her? Wasn’t there some sort of law that said mothers in their thirties weren’t supposed to be this sexy?

“Good.” She seemed a little nervous, her smile too bright. “Will I need a coat? How cold is it?”

“Kind of warm,” he told her, not bothering to add that he’d gotten a lot warmer in the past thirty seconds.

“Okay.” She stepped out into the hall, locked the door and slipped her key into a small black purse.

They waited for the elevator in silence. Still not a word as they got into the car, with its tasteful paneling and brass. If he didn’t speak soon, the heat and tension would overcome him and he’d do something stupid. “It’s not like we don’t know each other,” he said.

She shot him a quizzical look.

“I mean, we’ve gone out before, we’ve spent time together, we’ve kissed each other. This is just, well, dinner.”

Her smile lost its artificial brilliance. “Of course,” she
said, sounding relieved that he’d given them both permission to stop being nervous.

“How’s Reva?” he asked, realizing he hadn’t seen her lurking behind her mother. Maybe she’d been hunched over the computer, working on her Web site. Last Wednesday, Ned had asked Eric about what had him and Reva so occupied when Ned was stripping the paint off the fireplace, and Eric in turn had asked if he could pay for a domain name with Ned’s credit card. “I think it’s a surprise for her mother,” Eric had explained, “so she can’t get the money from her. She’ll pay us back, but she doesn’t have a credit card. You do. I’ll set everything up. You just have to let me use your account.”

Ned couldn’t stand in the way of a surprise for Libby, so he’d let Eric charge the domain name on his card. Yesterday, when he and Eric had been back at the Kimmelmans’ apartment, Reva had given Eric the money and he’d reimbursed Ned. Ned hoped the Web site would be spectacular, perhaps a grand apology to Libby for having gone to Greenwich Village without permission last weekend.

“She isn’t home,” Libby said.

“Oh? She’s been sprung?”

“She’s spending the night at her friend Kim’s house. I gave her permission.”

Then no one was home at Libby’s apartment. Ned could have gone inside. He could have torn off her jacket. They could have had wild sex in every room. They could have made love with their heads inside the fireplace.

His internal thermostat rose another ten degrees.

And then dropped back into the polar zone when he acknowledged that Libby hadn’t invited him in. A few brief words and she’d been out in the hall with him, locking the door. She hadn’t wanted to be alone with him in her apartment.

So she didn’t want to have wild sex in every room with him tonight. Okay. He wasn’t a maniac; he could accept that. They’d be civilized, have dinner, maybe kiss a little, and spend the night alone and bummed out.

He’d made a reservation at a romantic bistro in the neighborhood, a place with soft music and candles on the tables and no crowd of twenty-two-year-olds in spandex lined up outside the door. Libby seemed pleased by his choice. “I’ve always wanted to try this place,” she said as they took their seats.

They ordered—some sort of chicken thing for her, a slab of steak for him, a glass of chardonnay for her and an ale for him. He thought of the white wine chilling back at his apartment, and then thought of her apartment with its lack of children, and then he thought of her rushing him away from her door rather than inviting him in, and he stopped thinking about what would happen once they were done eating.

“So,” Libby said, her eyes the color of dark chocolate. “Tell me the story of your life.”

“In twenty-five words or less?” She smiled. He swallowed a bracing sip of his ale and tried not to let her eyes and her rippling hair and her smile distract him. “I grew up in Altoona, in central Pennsylvania,” he told her. “My dad’s a cop, my mother runs the house and one of my brothers teaches math and coaches lacrosse at a high school a few towns away. My other brother is an optician. He lives in San Francisco. Have I used up my twenty-five words yet?”

“No,” she told him. “I’m counting. Keep going.”

He laughed. His childhood had been stable and loving. He’d been a Boy Scout for a few years but quit when Little League took over his life. He’d devoured superhero comic books, collected stones that resembled arrowheads but probably weren’t, and walked the family dog when he got home
from school. He’d helped his father with household repairs and developed some excellent carpentry skills. He’d lost his virginity at seventeen—a birthday present from Jenny O’Neill, his steady girlfriend through high school. It had been without question the best birthday present he’d ever received.

He decided not to share that last detail with Libby. “I decided to become an architect,” he told her, “and I got a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania.”

“You’re an Ivy Leaguer?” She seemed surprised.

He supposed most Ivy Leaguers didn’t hammer nails for a living. He wondered whether his Ivy League degree would improve Eric’s changes of getting into Hudson, but decided not to bring up the subject. He didn’t want Libby’s job or his son to be a part of this evening. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a genius,” he said with a smile.

“Penn has one of the top architecture programs in the country, doesn’t it?”

“The undergraduate program was pretty comprehensive. I contemplated going on for a graduate degree, but…”

“But?” she prodded.

He couldn’t avoid every subject—and he shouldn’t. This was getting-to-know-you stuff. “I met Deborah, and we decided to get married, and we moved to Vermont.”

“Because her family was there?”

“She loved the place, and once I saw it I loved it, too. It’s beautiful up there. So…” He shrugged. What more could he say? That he’d been so crazy about Deborah he would have moved to Neptune if that was where she’d wished to live? That even as an undergrad, he’d always felt a little out of place in Penn’s architecture program, a working-class kid who enjoyed the physical aspects of design and construction more than the intellectual aspects?

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