“Love Match” Chapter One
“Didi, stop that!” screamed Jessica Durrell at the drunken bride-to-be. After polishing off her third bacontini cocktail, the attractively plump Didi had stripped down to her pink bra and was now go-go dancing to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” atop the bar. A penis pacifier swung from her neck.
“Your sorority girl days are over!” Jessica added as she pushed into the crowd gathering at Didi’s feet. She had been leading Didi and her pack of equally inebriated bridesmaids on a bachelorette pub crawl through the Mission District. The Galanga Room was the fourth stop on the itinerary and most likely the last. Normally, Jessica would not have cared about the display. She might even have egged Didi on and thrown a couple dollar bills her way. But once she saw patrons fumbling for their camera phones, she knew she had to be a killjoy. Didi was about to marry a conservative politician. An embarrassment like this would certainly make him think twice about his fiancée’s moral fortitude, not to mention her slight drinking problem—especially if the evidence showed up on the Internet.
Jessica was a matchmaker, whose job required her to meet lonely, desperate people looking for love and introduce them to other lonely, desperate people looking for love. She held the romantic notion that everyone wanted to love and be loved and had built her business, Love Match, on this belief. The company’s motto was “Single to soul mate in 30 days,” and she could proudly claim that eighty-five percent of the time, those words came true. Once she succeeded getting a couple on the path toward wedded bliss, she had to make sure they did not screw it up.
She leapt onto the bar and covered Didi’s pillowy cleavage with a pashmina. “Show’s over. Nothing to see.”
The bar patrons booed.
“I wanna party,” Didi slurred as Jessica helped her climb down. “It’s my last night as a free woman.”
“Think of marriage as a different kind of freedom,” Jessica said. “You can strip all you want—for your husband. And you don’t have to issue a press release afterward.”
Didi screwed up her blotchy, vodka-infused face. “Huh?”
“That’s okay, sweetie.” Jessica put an arm around her. “Now let’s get you out of here before any more skin’s exposed.”
Catastrophe averted, Jessica made it home just after two—but not before she circled the fast-food drive-thru, debating whether she needed something greasy to mop up the margaritas swirling around her system. She eventually decided against this hangover prophylactic, knowing that in the morning, she would crack open her eyes and regret that decision. And in fact, when she did wake up, she was glad she’d had the strength of will to resist. Still … an order of chili fries topped with fluorescent cheese would certainly have staved off the bongo drumming in her head.
She directed an eyeball to the bedside clock—6:04 a.m.—then to the gloomy sky outside the French doors. She groaned. Another typical San Francisco spring day. She resided in Sea Cliff: an upscale enclave near the beach, populated by rock stars from the sixties, old-money families, and new-money venture capitalists. Her ocean view may have been to-die-for, but the marine layer was often locked in for days, even weeks.
Across the room, she spotted her husband Larry, running a lint roller up and down a Brioni suit resting against a chair. He was trim with close-cropped, ash-brown hair. The track of lines on his brow, which had made him appear older than his forty years, had softened. He had taken to heart her suggestion to use moisturizer and dye his graying hair. Now he religiously slathered on pricey creams and made regular salon visits. He had even become a CrossFit junkie, whittling his love handles to nothing. She adored his transformation. She made sure to tell him he looked like a hot, thirty-five-year-old athlete at every opportunity.
Jessica propped herself up on an elbow and admired the meticulous way Larry folded the suit into his wheeled carry-on bag. His attention to detail was intoxicating. He never forgot a birthday, an anniversary or a name. His mind was sharp and analytical. He could easily dissect any problem, no matter how complicated, and offer many viable solutions. He had turned this gift for thoroughness into a career as one of the city’s top corporate lawyers. When he was not charging prohibitive legal fees, he helped Jessica with her company. He was her trusted advisor and unflagging supporter. Whenever she needed him to stand by her side and extol the virtues of Love Match to prospective patrons, he would happily oblige. She did the same for him, hosting his clientele at elaborate dinners, even helping his most demanding CEOs find love. They were a tight team. Every day she woke up beside her husband, she believed she was the luckiest woman alive.
“Going somewhere?” she asked, massaging her temples.
“Hawaii. I told you.” He smiled sympathetically. “Hangover?”
“A tiny one.”
He motioned to the glass of water and two aspirin on the nightstand.
“You are so thoughtful.” She gulped down the pills and water.
“You plus bachelorette party always equals hangover.” He added a razor and nose-hair clipper to his shaving kit.
“Won’t this trip be the …” She made a mental count. “… fourth in six weeks?”
“The pineapple king’s panicking. A competitor’s alleging antitrust violations. I need to sort it out.”
“Tonight’s the Women in Business Association’s award dinner. I’m the honoree for Entrepreneur of the Year. It’s all I’ve been talking about for the past week.”
Confused, he studied the calendar on his cell phone. “Honey, I’m sorry. Something screwed up. It’s not on here.”
“Can you reschedule the trip?” She slowly rolled out of their king-sized bed, revealing the extra-large Stanford t‑shirt she liked to sleep in. To call it ratty would have been generous. She wrapped her arms around him. “How will it look if San Francisco’s most successful matchmaker isn’t there with her love match?”
“It’ll look bad.” He kissed her forehead.
“It’ll look more than bad. Our marriage is a testament to the entire company. It symbolizes the promise of finding one’s soul mate and living a happy life. If you aren’t there, people might start to wonder about Love Match’s credibility … and ours.”
“I’d be happy to try, but there’s a time difference. No one’s up to call.” Larry withdrew and began scrolling through his phone.
She flopped back on the bed. “You could stay for the dinner and take the red-eye afterward. Or fly out tomorrow morning.”
He sat next to her. “The meeting’s confirmed for this afternoon. The entire board will be there. I have to fly out today.” He stroked her thigh. “I wish I could be with you.”
“I’ll just have to dazzle the business ladies myself.” She patted his hand. “Hey, what if I fly out tomorrow and join you? You keep the pineapple people happy and we turn the trip into a little vaycay. It’s been at least two years since Puerto Vallarta.” She brightened at the memory. “That was so much fun.”
“Fun?” he chortled. “You got an explosive case of the shits from eating street tacos and spent the whole time on the can.”
Jessica grimaced. “Well, maybe not that part.”
“Honey, this is a quick trip. How about when I get back, we plan a real vacation?”
“But I want to go Hawaii,” she said, examining her bare, olive-skinned arms. “I need some sun. Look at me. I’m positively sallow. A tan makes me look so much younger.” She smiled at the prospect; a tan took at least eight years off her thirty-six.
“You, sallow? Never.” He pushed her back, then nibbled her neck.
“South of France, Positano, wherever you want,” he said. “For a month.”
“A month? I can’t get away for that long.”
He sighed. “And this is why we haven’t taken a vacation in two years.”
She kissed him and wrapped a leg around his hips, drawing him into her. “Larry, you know how consuming the business is.”
“I know. It’s just …” He pulled away. “Maybe the business should consume you a little less.”
“How do you mean? I’ve been working like I always do.”
“You did miss my golf club banquet a few weeks ago and my sister’s surprise birthday party—”
“—which was the same time as the mayor’s wedding. He was one of my best matches ever. I couldn’t miss it.”
“And speaking of weddings, last month, after the Harcourts got married … remember what happened?”
She shook her head.
“You fell asleep in the middle of my hand-job.”
“God, Larry, it had been an exhausting week.” She frowned. “I didn’t realize you were keeping score.”
“Now we’re even.” He smiled. “Honey, look, I’m thrilled you’re passionate about your work. What husband doesn’t want that for his wife?” He rose and zipped up his luggage. “Forget it. It’s all good.”
Buzz. His phone went off. He glanced at its message. “My car’s here.” He gave her one last kiss before leaving. “Now think about that vacation. And remember to tell the gardener to water the new beds I planted.”
She gave him a perfunctory nod and said, “Love‑ity love you.”
“Love‑ity love you back.”
• • •
After showering, Jessica emerged in a cloud of steam, skin bright pink from enthusiastic loofahing. If she could not tan in Hawaii, she could at least scrub away her dull skin in San Francisco. The shower and the aspirin had only slightly cleared her head.
While attacking stray eyebrow hairs with tweezers, she could not stop thinking about what Larry had said. Have I been an absent wife?… Not possible. Our marriage has always been perfect. Something else is up with him. Maybe he’s going through a mid-life crisis … ah, that’s it. Poor man. He just needs more attention. She then promised herself to initiate sex at least once a week and to buy him that golf cart he had been lusting after.
Her cell phone chirped. She checked the I.D. before answering. “Penny, what’s up?”
“We have a situation at Mariposa Grill,” her business partner Penny Reese said.
“Get your butt here now!”
“I’m on my way.” She clicked off.
Adrenaline churning, she flung open a closet door and confronted shelves jammed with designer shoes and bags, and overstuffed racks of outfits, teetering on the brink of collapse. I’ve got to hire an organizer, she thought. After surveying the options, she yanked out a pencil skirt, fuchsia top and towering heels, then muscled the door shut. Organizing would have to wait for another day.
• • •
Please let there be a space, Jessica prayed to the parking gods while turning the BMW coupe onto busy California Street, in the heart of the city’s financial district. As she craned her neck from side to side, narrowly avoiding hitting a double-parked delivery van and a bike messenger, her prayers were answered. She spotted an SUV pulling away from the curb across the street, right in front of the Mariposa Grill. She U‑turned in front of oncoming traffic, kicking off a chorus of horn honking and raised middle fingers, then expertly whipped her car into the space. Score.
She was retouching her lipstick in the rearview mirror when someone furiously pounded on the roof of the car. She jumped, sending the plummy gloss skidding across her face in a jagged line.
“You almost killed me, lady!” a male voice said.
Oh great, another crazed cyclist who thinks he owns the road. She rifled through the glove box for a tissue. As she wiped her cheek, she became aware of the greenest eyes imaginable, framed by faint laugh lines, shooting daggers at her through the front windshield. The angry cyclist sat on his road bike and leaned his hip against the car for balance. He appeared to be in his late thirties, with a strong nose and a defined jaw; dark curls peeked out from his bike helmet. And he was clearly fit. How could anyone not notice the way his bright blue cycling jersey accentuated his biceps, or how his Lycra shorts hugged his crotch and tanned, sculpted legs? But it was those intense eyes that really leapt out. Jessica had seen them before; she just could not remember where.
“You turned right in front of me,” the cyclist barked. “If I hadn’t swerved, I would’ve been your hood ornament.”
She unleashed the full force of her megawatt smile as she exited the car. “I’m sorry. I wanted the space.”
He glared at the other cars speeding past, then turned back to her. “You people are a menace to society.”
Menace to society? She had been called many things in her life, but never had anyone accused her of threatening the social order. Whatever hold his eyes had on her, they lost their appeal; they were attached to an asshole.
“No need to get nasty,” she said. “If you don’t want to accept my apology, that’s your problem.” She marched toward the restaurant entrance, hoping he would read her straight back and squared shoulders as a sign to piss off.
A soft clicking sound followed her. She knew it was him. Apparently, he was not good at deciphering body language. A moment later he coasted past her, then maneuvered his bike around her in lazy circles while blatantly eyeing her, up and down.
He’s going off on me and checking me out? She was offended—yet weirdly flattered. “I’m late. Please move.”
“I didn’t accept your apology because it wasn’t sincere.”
“It was sincere. I certainly wouldn’t want to kill someone just for a parking space.”
He laughed. “Really? That’s not how it looked to me.” His mouth curved into a teasing smile.
Those eyes bore into her, and she could not resist smiling back. “I’ll be more careful. No future cyclists will come to harm when I’m behind the wheel.”
“Glad to hear it. You drive safely.”
Looping around her one more time, he shot a parting glance that radiated such familiar, devilish sex appeal her memory rattled loose. My God, is it really him? I thought he lived in Europe. Or did I hear he was dead? As he rode away, she stared at his butt cheeks, recalling how she used to spend hours studying their every muscled nuance. How she had longed to sink her teeth into them! After all these years, they still looked delicious. Yep, definitely him. Thrilled by this chance encounter with one of her teenage idols, she watched him disappear around a corner, along with all thoughts of his jerky behavior.
Penny poked her head out of the restaurant. “What are you still doing out there? Get in here.” She could not help taking her job seriously. At thirty-three, she was already on her second career. Prior to being Love Match’s financial officer, she had been a mortgage broker; and when the housing market tanked, she opted for selling dream lovers over dream houses.
Jessica turned to her colleague and took in the black sheath dress that matched her bone-straight, jet-hued hair. The only spot of color was her glossy red lips, which made her already pale skin seem ghostly. “You’ve got to stop dressing like that,” she advised her.
“Black’s chic,” Penny said, knitting her perfectly shaped brows.
“It’s chic, but we want our clients to feel like they’re going on cheery dates, not consulting a mortician.”
“Fine. Next time I’ll wear something technicolor. Now you coming in or not?”
Jessica’s eyes grew big. “You’ll never believe who I almost ran over just now.”
“I don’t care.” Penny grabbed her arm and tugged her inside the Mariposa Grill—a classic San Francisco restaurant of snotty career-waiters and artery-clogging steaks and chops.
“Hayden Korr!” Jessica said anyway.
“You know, the rock star? Had a couple of hits twenty years ago?” She sang a few bars, off-key. “ ‘… You’re mine, ’cuz you’re mine, till the end of time, time, time.’ ”
“Was he in Green Day?”
“No, but his band toured with Green Day.”
Penny cocked her head. “Is he the guy with the spangly suits and huge pompadour?”
“That’s Chris Isaak. Hayden Korr was more power-pop and not as old.” She giggled. “I had such a crush on him. In the nineties I went to all his shows. One time Debbie Waldenblatt and I saw him play at this private club. We pushed our way to the front. He was right there, all sweaty and sooooo hot.” She was practically breathless.
“I hate to intrude on your trip down hormone lane, but Cyrus ordered veal.”
Adulthood snapped Jessica back to the present moment. She remembered that two clients were inside on their first date, and it was not going well. “What?” she groaned. “I specifically told him to stick with food without a face.”
“Then Veronica launched into a diatribe about animal rights,” Penny said, shaking her head. “Everything went downhill from there.”
“The arts, breadmaking, Sudoku.” Jessica counted off the list on her fingers. “I warned her not to deviate from those topics.”
Charles, a waiter who Jessica always requested attend to Love Match clients, swung by with a shot of whiskey. “You’re gonna need this,” he said, tilting his head toward the dining room. “That couple’s doomed.”
“Not on my watch, Charles.” She downed the glass and gave it back to him. The alcohol’s fortifying magic coursed through her as she scanned the crowded dining room and spotted her quarry.
Penny squeezed her arm. “Good luck.”
Flipping back her hair, Jessica wended her way toward the agitated couple and arrived in time to witness Veronica Simms slam her fork onto a plate of roasted fennel.
“You’re an ecologically retarded, obnoxious ass!” said the redhead with the ever-so-slight overbite.
“You’re an uptight, boho wingnut!” Cyrus Russell retorted. He picked up his pink veal chop with his fingers, sank his teeth into it, and chomped with equal parts gusto and spite.
Veronica recoiled, fingering her bread plate as if debating whether to smash it on his head. “That’s it. We’re done.”
“So done,” he said.
In perfect sync they tossed aside their napkins and leapt to their feet.
Jessica glided in and placed her calming hand on their shoulders. “Veronica … Cyrus … let’s not forget why you’re both here.”
“Too late,” Cyrus said. “I already have.”
“You’re not the only one,” Veronica countered.
Jessica sized up her clients. Veronica was a fashionable, vegetable-loving gallery owner, and Cyrus a nerdy venture capitalist with a taste for undercooked animal products. Despite these differences, she saw something indefinable in this pairing that others could not. It was her job to make them see that suitability themselves.
“Then I’ll remind you.” Jessica pressed them back into their chairs, then sat between them. “It’s because you’re a …” She trailed off, while giving a prompting look to the reluctant Cyrus.
“… loveseeker?” he replied.
“And not a …” She looked at Veronica.
“… faultfinder?” Veronica said.
Jessica nodded. “Isn’t that why you both came to me? To free yourself of the intolerant and judgmental attitudes that have been the downfall of your past relationships?”
The chastened couple lowered their eyes.
“So you have differences. Who doesn’t? Until you rise to the challenge of overcoming them, happiness will forever elude you.”
A heavy silence descended on the table. Veronica nibbled a parsnip while Cyrus brushed crumbs onto the floor … their eyes everywhere but on each other. Jessica could feel her breath shortening with panic. She could not let love fail. What’s their common ground? Think, Jessica, think!
Veronica shifted uneasily in her seat. That was when Jessica noticed the garnet jersey dress that flattered her client’s curvy figure.
“I love what you’re wearing,” Jessica said. “Is that a Montague du Pres?”
“He’s my new favorite designer.”
She tapped Cyrus’s hand. “Well, did you know your date is one of his primary investors?”
“You’re into fashion?” Veronica directed the question at his veal chop.
“Fashion, art, music,” Cyrus said to his water glass. “I’ve always been a big supporter of talented people. Investing in the arts is investing in the future.”
“I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I became a gallerist.”
Jessica glanced from one to the other. “After lunch I’m sure Cyrus would be delighted to give you a preview of Montague’s new collection.”
“I’d love to see it.” Veronica lifted her eyes.
Sensing the mood shift, Jessica screamed inside like a cheerleader: C’mon, Cyrus! Close the deal … What are you waiting for? Close the goddamn deal! The moment crawled on. She had to restrain herself from shaking him.
Finally he met Veronica’s gaze. “I’d love to show it to you. He’s got a number of pieces that I know would look gorgeous on you.”
As the couple traded apologetic smiles, Jessica beamed with relief and satisfaction. Her work was done.
She found Penny in the bar, finishing off a cappuccino.
“You did it again, didn’t you?” Penny said.
“I was slightly off my game,” she admitted, dabbing at the faint moisture that had collected along her hairline. “Don’t forget to bill them extra for crisis management.”
“Did running into Mr. Aging Rock Star melt your brains?” Penny snickered as she gooped a crimson gloss, aptly called Demon Diva, to her lips.
“Actually, it was Didi Ashradi’s bachelorette party that’s got me a little foggy this morning. And there’s nothing aging about Hayden Korr. He looked positively yummy.” She could not help smiling at the image of him in his cycling-shorts glory.
“Sounds like someone’s going to be making a guest appearance,” Penny teased.
She scowled at her. “I don’t fantasize about other men when making love to my husband.”
“Maybe you should,” Penny said as she slipped off her bar stool and headed for the ladies room.
Jessica felt a flush creep across her face as she let Hayden Korr run through her imagination. No, no, I couldn’t. She shook the thoughts away. Larry would always be the star of the show.