MAD, BAD, AND BLONDE by Cathie Linz
It was the perfect day for a wedding. Too bad the groom didn’t show up.
Faith West shivered in the beam of May sunlight streaming through a small window in the bridal anteroom of the historical Chicago Gold coast church. Fingering the rich white satin skirt of her wedding dress, she sat very still, unable to believe this was really happening to her. Alan Anderson, the man she’d agreed to marry, was late for his own wedding.
There had to be a reasonable explanation for Alan’s absence -- car trouble, a dead cell phone, maybe even an accident, heaven forbid.
Faith caught sight of herself in the large mirror on the opposite wall. A few wisps of her brown hair had escaped the confines of her upswept hairstyle and her blue eyes appeared haunted despite her perfect make-up. Did she look like the kind of woman a man would leave at the altar? Possibly. She was certainly no raving beauty. She was just a librarian. A librarian with a rich private investigator father.
Faith’s family flitted around her like a skittish school of fish, coming and going – offering help, offering suggestions, offering vodka. She remained calm in the center of all the chaos, strangely distant from her surroundings. The reality was she was probably going into shock and should accept the offer of alcohol purely for medicinal purposes.
The question was: What would Jane Austen do in this situation? Whenever Faith was in trouble, she looked to her favorite author for the solution. And Faith was armpit deep in trouble at the moment.
“I bet you scared the poor man away.” Faith’s pain-in-the-butt Aunt Lorraine interrupted Faith’s racing thoughts to declare. “A children’s librarian whose father taught her how to shoot a gun. A big mistake.”
Aunt Lorraine, also known as the Duchess of Grimness, was the bane of the West family’s existence. With her demon-like black hair and Hell-Boy eyes she was scarier than anything written by Stephen King. Not exactly the model wedding guest, but Faith’s mom had insisted on inviting her.
For a wild second Faith wondered if Allan had stayed away because he was afraid of Aunt Lorraine, having met her for the first time at the rehearsal dinner the night before. Maybe she was the reason he hadn’t shown up. Could Faith really blame him for wanting to avoid Aunt Lorraine’s stinging barbs?
Hell yes, she could blame him! How could Alan leave her sitting here wondering what had happened to him? How could he be so cruel? How could anyone, aside from Aunt Lorraine, be that cruel?
Alan wasn’t just anyone. He was her fiancé – a reliable and respectable investment banker she’d known for two years. They’d been engaged for the past eleven months. They were perfectly suited for each other, sharing the same interests, values and aspirations. Neither one of them was blinded by passion or prone to wild behavior.
That’s not to say that the sex between them hadn’t been good, it had been. Not great but good. She loved him. He loved her. Or so he’d said last night before kissing her.
Faith looked around. Someone had led Aunt Lorraine away. She was replaced by Alan’s shame-faced best man. “Alan just sent you a text message.”
“Where is he? Is he okay?
Instead of answering her anxious questions, the best man hightailed it out of the room, heading for the nearest exit and no doubt the nearest bar.
“Where’s my BlackBerry?” Faith asked her maid of honor, her cousin Megan who was like a sister to her. Faith and Megan were born two days apart, grew up within a few blocks of each other, and had been known to complete each other’s sentences. Their dads were brothers. Faith had only had one bridal attendant and of course that was Megan.
“I’m sure Alan has a good reason for being late.” Megan had always been the optimist in the family. “Maybe he was in an accident. Your dad is still checking the area emergency rooms.”
Faith’s uber-workaholic father owned the most successful investigative firm in Chicago. If Alan wasn’t in an emergency room, then her father would be tempted to put him in one.
“Where’s my BlackBerry?” Faith heard the edge of hysteria in her voice but couldn’t do anything to stop it.
“Here. It’s right next to you.” Megan handed it to her. Sure enough, there was a text message from Alan that had been sent two minutes ago.
“thought i wanted marriage. i don’t. i need to find who i really am. I want adventure and excitement. Don’t want u. Sorry.”
Alan hadn’t left her because she could shoot a gun. He’d left because he didn’t think she was exciting enough. She’d scared him away by boring him to death.
“What did he say?” Megan demanded.
Her cousin was her best friend but even so Faith was too humiliated to show her what Alan had written. Instead she turned the BlackBerry off with trembling fingers. “I’ve been dumped in a text message,” she said unsteadily. “And not just dumped, but left at the altar.”
“We never actually walked down the aisle.”
“Close enough.” Faith angrily wiped away the tears that were starting to stream down her face. “There are people waiting out there. Lots of them. And they’re all expecting a wedding.”
“They’ll all be on your side.”
That was cold comfort at this point. Faith welcomed the anger starting to surge through her. It kept the pain and humiliation at bay.
So much for her happy ending. Faith had continued to believe in her fairy tale wedding even when Alan hadn’t shown up for the pre-ceremony photographs, even when his best man had refused to look her in the eye, even when the minister had approached her privately to ask if she wanted to delay the proceedings.
“He’ll show up,” Faith kept saying. “You’ll see. He’ll show up. And he’ll have the lamest excuse for being late.”
Her belief in Alan and her faith in a positive outcome had lasted longer than it should have and was now as tattered as the lace handkerchief she’d nervously shredded with her beautifully manicured fingers.
Last night he’d claimed he loved her, yet today he didn’t want her. How did that work? Did Alan love her like he loved fine wine and the Cubs instead of the way you loved the person you were supposed to marry? Weren’t Cub fans supposed to be the most loyal guys on the planet?
Faith was having a hard time thinking coherently and she felt cold enough to get frostbite. The man she loved didn’t want her. She couldn’t think about that or she’d dissolve into a sobbing mess. But she could think of nothing else.
Her parents burst into the anteroom. “I finally tracked him down,” Jeff West said. His usually smooth brown hair was messed from him running impatient fingers through it. “The bastard took a flight to Bali an hour ago. One way.”
Alan has gone to Bali searching for adventure and excitement, because he couldn’t find any with me. So much for love and commitment. I guess those things don’t matter to him. I don’t matter to him.
What had she done to make him change his mind about marrying her? He couldn’t have thought she was boring when he’d proposed. So what had changed?
Would Alan have stayed if he’d known she was a crack shot with a gun? Her dad had taken her to the firing range and taught her himself when she was ten. Faith had never told Alan about her weapons training because she didn’t like to brag about the marksmanship awards she’d won. Maybe she should have. Maybe then he’d have thought twice about dumping her. Maybe then he’d have thought she was more exciting. A children’s librarian who had a gun and knew how to use it. Yeah, that ranked right up there on the excitement scale with…what?
What was Alan’s definition of exciting? Interest rates and the stock market? Sex in the middle of Wrigley Field? A blow job in Bali?
“You poor baby.” Faith’s mother, Sara, sat beside her and hugged her. “He seemed like such a nice investment banker.”
“There was nothing in his background to indicate he’d bolt like this,” her dad said. “I had him thoroughly checked out. Other than being a Cubs fan instead of a Sox fan, there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with him. He wasn’t seeing another woman, or another man, wasn’t defrauding the bank or his clients.”
“Maybe he just got a case of cold feet,” Megan said. “He could still come back.”
“And when he does I’ll beat the crap out of him,” Jeff growled.
Faith would have thought that her fiancé would be smart enough to figure out that dumping her at this late date meant there was no place he could hide. Not even Bali. Her father would track him down and make him pay…big time.
Only one person was more imposing than Jeff West and that was Aunt Lorraine who was now trying to push her way back into the room.
“Get rid of her,” Faith begged her parents.
“Gladly,” her dad said. “Do you think I haven’t wanted to make her disappear for years now? But your mother would never let me.”
“She’s my much older sister,” Sara said apologetically. “She practically raised me.”
“And she scares you shitless,” Jeff said. “Believe me, I get it.”
“She implied it was my fault Allan left,” Faith said. It turned out the Duchess of Grimness was right. According to Alan’s brief text message, it was obvious that he blamed Faith for being too dull for him.
“Your fault? That does it.” Sara glared at Lorraine who was still trying to get in the room but prevented by Megan. “She’s gone too far this time.” A curtain of fierce determination fell over Sara’s face. “Don’t worry, I’ll handle her.” She marched over and moved Lorraine out of the room.
Watching her mother’s totally uncharacteristic behavior, Faith realized anything was possible. Anything but her wedding. There was no saving that now.
“What are we going to do?” Faith asked her dad. “All those people are out there waiting. We’ve got the wedding reception at the Ritz-Carlton. You paid so much for everything.” Tears welled again but she dashed them away. Alan had said there were only a handful of people he wanted to invite. His parents were dead and he had no other close family. Since almost all of the guests were from her side of the family Alan had been perfectly happy to have Jeff foot the bill and her dad had done so with boatloads of paternal pride.
Again, what would Jane Austen do? She would take control.
“Tell the people in the church that due to circumstances beyond our control, the ceremony has been cancelled,” Faith said. “Tell them the reception is still on. Don’t cancel it. You might as well enjoy it.”
“That’s my girl,” her dad said. “We’ll get our money’s worth as a celebration of friends and family. And it makes good business sense since a lot of West Investigation’s top clients are also in the audience and will be at the reception.”
“Are you nuts?” her mom said, having rejoined them in time to hear Faith’s request.
“Probably,” Faith muttered.
“I was talking to your father.” She turned to face him. “Your daughter is suffering and all you can do is talk about business and money?”
“I could put out a hit on Alan,” Jeff growled, “but I’m restraining myself.”
“I know people who could do the job,” Faith’s paternal grandmother spoke up for the first time. Her blue eyes and high cheekbones proclaimed her Scandinavian heritage while her gelled spiky haircut revealed her rebel nature. “They’re in the Swedish mob.”
Jeff frowned. “I never heard of the Swedish mob.”
“Of course not. They’re very discreet. Not like the Finnish mob.”
“I appreciate the offer, Gram, but it’s not necessary,” Faith said.
“Well. if you change your mind, the offer stands,” Gram assured her.
“I’ll keep that in mind.
“You do that.” She patted Faith’s hand. “I’m sorry things didn’t work out.”
“Thanks.” She took a deep breath but felt the walls closing in on her. “Listen, you guys don’t have to stay with me. Go on to the reception and please give everyone my regrets but I just can’t…” She shook her head, unable to go on.
“You have nothing to be regretful about,” her mom said.
“Except regret at ever hooking up with Alan the Asshole to begin with.”
“Are you sure you want us to go?” her mom looked uncertain.
“Yes, I’m sure. Megan will stay with me, right?”
“Of course I will.
“See, I’ll be fine.”
“Of course you will…in time.” Gram patted her hand again. “A year or two should do it.”
When they finally left, Megan looked at her with concern. “Are you okay?”
“Not yet. But after a few majitos I will be. Now please help me get me out of this damn dress!”
* * *
Faith woke with a hammering headache and the sound of intense roaring in her ears. Her eyelids didn’t seem to want to open but she was able to sneak a peek through a narrow slit. The limited view was not enough to tell her where she was.
“This is your captain speaking. We’ll be landing in Naples in about an hour.”
Her eyes flew open.
“The flight attendants will be going through the cabin…”
Faith didn’t pay attention to the rest of the announcement as the events of the day and night before came rushing back. Left at the altar. Humiliated, broken-hearted, angry. She and Megan downing several mojitos at a neighborhood bar before heading to Faith’s Streeterville condo only to trip over Faith’s suitcases just inside the door. A matched set of luggage packed with carefully chosen outfits for her dream honeymoon to the Amalfi coast in Italy.
Alan wanted to spend their honeymoon elephant riding in India because his boss at the bank had done that and raved about it. Personally, Faith was not that fond of pachyderms. Had he left her because of that? Because she didn’t want to boogie with the elephants?
It wasn’t like her choice was dull or boring. Who didn’t like sunny Italy? Faith had longed to go to the Amalfi coast ever since she’d seen the movie Under the Tuscan Sun and watchedDiane Lane swept off her feet in the beautiful town of Positano.
She distinctly remembered shouting at her living room wall last night. “Alan ruined my wedding, but he’s not going to ruin this too! I refuse to allow him to mess up any more of my life! I’ll show you exciting and adventurous! I’m going to Italy! Solo! Solo Mio!”
Faith spent the last two years trying to please Alan. This trip was one of the few times she’d stood her ground and refused to back down. Once he didn’t get his way, Alan had completely lost interest and told her to handle all the arrangements. Gladly, she had – which was why she had possession of the non-refundable tickets and the rest of the travel reservations.
Megan had been supportive as always. “Go for it! I’d come with you but I can’t get away from work right now.”
Sitting on the plane, Faith felt as if she’d just woken up from a long drugged sleep. Unlike Sleeping Beauty, she hadn’t been brought back to life by a kiss from a handsome prince. Instead she’d been brought back to reality by the handsome prince screwing her over.
The ironic thing was that Faith was usually a worse case scenario specialist, always prepared in case things went wrong. One of her dad’s favorite mottos was ‘Expect the worst and if it doesn’t happen you’ll be pleasantly surprised.’ Her relationship with Alan was the one time she’d allowed herself to believe…and look what happened.
She ended up on a flight to Italy. Alone. Her first solo trip ever. But it was better than moping in her condo crying her eyes out. She’d taken action. She’d left the mayhem behind in Chicago, calling her dad and telling him she was fleeing the country.
There was no time to reflect further on her actions as the flight attendants prepared for their landing. Her arrival in Naples went smoothly as she cleared customs with no problem. Two aspirins and a bottle of Perrigrino water took care of the headache. Her rental car was ready…and so was she.
She was ready, right? She wasn’t going to let fear hold her back, right? She could do this. She would do this.
Faith put her iPod into the sound system and moments later Gnarles Barkley’s song “Crazy” blared out of the sporty little red Italian convertible’s speakers. She’d had to put her smaller suitcase in the passenger seat next to her since it didn’t fit anywhere else.
The instant she hit the road, all the other drivers seemed determined to hit her. She refused to let them. She’d handled rush hour traffic in Vegas not to mention on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago during construction season. The crazy Italian drivers didn’t scare her. Being alone on her honeymoon scared her if she thought about it. So she refused to think about it and instead stepped on the gas, cranked up the sound system and sang along with her favorite Bon Jovi CD “Lost Highway.”
* * *
Caine Hunter had his instructions. Keep an eye on Faith West, keep track of her actions and report them back to Chicago. He knew a lot about her already – children’s librarian, jilted bride, handy with a gun. Her team from the library in Las Vegas where she’d worked two years ago had come in second place in the city’s Corporate Challenge, an event where organizations compete in various sporting events. She’d aced the shooting event.
Caine was only mildly impressed. She still seemed liked a spoiled little rich girl to him, with her fancy wedding in one of the most prestigious churches in Chicago, a fancy banker fiancé, and a condo in Chicago’s trendiest Streeterville neighborhood. Not that the wedding or the fiancé had panned out for her in the end. Too bad, so sad.
No one had ever accused him of being the sentimental type.
He’d say this for Faith West, she didn’t drive like a librarian…more like racecar driver Danica Patrick. Driving in Italy, especially around Milan, was not for wimps.
Yet here she was, weaving in and out of traffic, music blaring. Was she really that reckless or just plain stupid? Hard to tell at this point but Caine aimed on finding that out…among other things.
* * *
Faith’s knuckles were permanently white by the time she reached the small town of Positano. The infamous road of ‘a thousand curves’ on which she’d been traveling clung precariously to the steep cliffs and was narrower than her parent’s driveway at home. That didn’t stop huge tour buses from barreling around blind curves, hogging the entire road and making her fear for her life and her sanity.
But she’d done it. She’d made it here. Alive. In one piece. Jane Austen would be so proud.
“Welcome to the Majestic Hotel, Mrs. Anderson.” Huge terracotta urns filled with flowers bracketed the reception desk adorned with colorful majolica tiles. The lobby, with its antiques and artwork, was a study of understated elegance. “We have the honeymoon suite all ready for you and your husband.”
Her stomach clenched. This was no honeymoon and she had no husband. But she did have sunshine, breathtaking views, and the scent of citrus blossoms in the air. “It’s Ms. West. Faith West. Not Mrs. Anything. I called ahead to explain the change…”
“Oh yes, I see the note here. I’m sorry for the confusion Ms. West. If you could show me your passport please.” He raised his hand and a uniformed bellman immediately appeared with her luggage. “Paco will take you to your room.”
She’d spent hours over the past winter, pouring over guidebooks and surfing websites trying to decide where to stay – the Grand Hotel in Sorrento or the Capri Palace Hotel on the island of Capri? But Positano had held her under its spell and, while she planned on visiting both Sorrento and Capri during her stay, this was her ultimate destination. The room didn’t disappoint with its private terrace displaying a colorful bougainvillea-framed view of the pastel sunlit town hugging the rugged cliffs that plunged down to the blue waves of the Mediterranean.
John Steinbeck was right. This place was “a dream.”
The dream was interrupted by the sound of her stomach growling. She needed to eat something and fast. The hotel dining room was serving for another hour Paco the bellman informed her in a sexy Italian accent, his liquid brown eyes gazing at her with Latin approval.
Faith was starving. But not for male attention. She handed Paco his tip and showed him the door.
She barely had time for a fast bathroom stop where she looked at the thick towels and large tub longingly before hurrying down to eat. Knowing that nearby Naples was the birthplace of pizza, she quickly ordered a pizza Margherite.
And waited. And waited. Other diners were seated on the sunny terrace dining area. Two guys in particular made a point of staring at her sitting all alone. She wasn’t pleased to see their food arrive before hers. They hadn’t even ordered Italian but steak and fries. The skinnier of the two men gave her a leering look. He poured ketchup onto his plate and then dipped a fry into it, holding it up and taunting her with it before chomped into it with gusto.
Normally Faith would have looked away and ignored him but she wasn’t feeling very generous toward the opposite sex at the moment.
Faith gave the man her best withering librarian look.
He responded by smacking his lips at her.
She made an Eww-yuck face.
He dipped another fry in the ketchup and waved it at her before sucking it into his mouth in one go. An instant later the man grabbed his throat and started turning red then blue.
Before she could react, a man smoothly moved past her and gave the choking man the Heimlich.
Faith sank into her chair. She felt guilty that while trying to impress her, the idiot had ended up choking and nearly killing himself. Was there some kind of Italian curse that was reserved for brides who came to the Amalfi coast without their grooms?
Then all thought went out of her head as she got her first good look at the rescuer. Dark hair, dark eyes, stubble-darkened cheeks and chin. A dark knight. A man meant to get a woman’s juices flowing.
He stopped at her table and stared down at her before saying with amusement, “I’ll say this, you sure know how to make an impression on a guy.”