There must have been some telltale inflection in her voice because Lori picked up on it immediately. “Lesley, are you all right?”
“Of course.” It was always of course. Always some flippant remark that discounted her unhappiness. “We’ll get together later in the week.”
They chatted for a few more minutes. When they’d finished, Lesley knew it was up to her to make the best of the day. She couldn’t rely on her friends, nor should she.
She mulled over that realization, trying to decide what to do. Attending a movie alone held no appeal, nor did treating herself to dinner in a fancy restaurant. She sighed, swallowing the pain as she so often had before. She was sick of pretending it didn’t hurt, tired of being cheerful and glib when her heart was breaking.
A day such as this one called for drastic measures. Nothing got more drastic than a quart of chocolate-chip cookie-dough ice cream and a rented movie.
Lesley’s spirits rose. It was perfect. Drowning her sorrows in decadence made up for all that pretended indifference. Men! Who needed them? Not her, Lesley told herself again. Not her.
She reached for her purse and was out the door, filled with purpose.
It was while she was at a stoplight that Lesley saw the billboard. BRIDE WANTED. PHONE 555-1213. At first she was amused. A man advertising for a wife? On a billboard? She’d never heard anything so ridiculous in her life. The guy was either a lunatic or a moron. Probably both. Then again, she reasoned, she wasn’t exactly sympathetic to the male of the species these days. She’d been done wrong and she wasn’t going to smile and forget it! No, sir. Those days were past.
Still smiling at the billboard, Lesley parked her car at the grocery store lot and headed toward the entrance. Colorful bedding plants, small rosebushes and rhododendrons were sold in the front of the store, and she toyed with the idea of buying more geraniums for her porch planter box.
She noticed the man pacing the front of the automatic glass doors almost immediately. He seemed agitated and impatient, apparently waiting for someone. Thinking nothing more of it, she focused her attention on the hanging baskets of bright pink fuchsia, musing how nice they’d look on her porch.
“Excuse me,” the man said when she approached. “Would you happen to have the time?”
“Sure,” she said, raising her arm to glance at her watch.
Without warning, the man grabbed her purse, jerking it from her forearm so fast that for a moment Lesley stood frozen with shock and disbelief. She’d just been mugged. By the time she recovered, he’d sprinted halfway across the lot.
“Help! Thief!” she screamed as loudly as she could. Knowing better than to wait for someone to rescue her, she took off at a dead run, chasing the mugger.
He was fast, she’d say that for him, but Lesley hadn’t danced her way through all those aerobics classes for nothing. She might not be an Olympic hopeful, but she could hold her own.
The mugger was almost at the street, ready to turn the corner, when another man flew past her. She didn’t get a good look at him, other than that he was big and tall and wore a plaid shirt and blue jeans.
“He’s got my purse,” she shouted after him. Knowing she’d never catch the perpetrator herself, her only chance was the second man. She slowed to a trot in an effort to catch her breath.
To her relief, the second man caught the thief and tackled him to the ground. Lesley’s heart leapt to her throat as the pair rolled and briefly struggled. She reached them a moment later, not knowing what to expect. Her rescuer was holding the thief down, and as Lesley watched, he easily retrieved her purse.
“I believe this belongs to you,” her rescuer said, handing her the bag.
The mugger kicked for all he was worth, which in Lesley’s eyes wasn’t much. He was cursing, too, and doing a far more effective job of that.
“That’s no way to talk in front of a lady,” her hero said calmly, turning the thief onto his stomach and pressing his knee into the middle of his back. The man on the ground groaned and shut up.
A police siren blared in the background.
“Who called the police?” Lesley asked, looking around until she saw a businessman holding a cell phone. “Thanks,” she shouted and waved.
The black-and-white patrol car pulled into the parking lot. A patrolman stepped out. “Can either of you tell me what’s going on here?” he asked.
“That man,” Lesley said indignantly, pointing to the thief sprawled on the asphalt, “grabbed my purse and took off running. And that man,” she said, pointing to the other guy, “caught him.”
“Chase Goodman,” her white knight said. He stood up, but kept his foot pressed against the thief’s back as he nodded formally.
Lesley clutched her handbag to her breast, astonished at how close she’d come to losing everything. Her keys were in her purse, along with her identification, checkbook, money and credit cards. Had she lost all her ID, it would’ve been a nightmare to replace. Nor would she have felt safe knowing someone had the keys to her home and her car, along with her address. The thought chilled her to the bone.
There seemed to be a hundred questions that needed answering before the police officer escorted the mugger to the station.
“I’m very grateful,” Lesley said, studying the man who’d rescued her purse. He was tall—well over six feet—and big. She was surprised anyone that massive could move with such speed. At first glance she guessed he was a bodybuilder, but on closer inspection she decided he wasn’t the type who spent his time in a gym. He had a rugged, outdoorsy look that Lesley found strongly appealing. A big, gentle “bear” of a man. A gym would’ve felt confining to someone like Chase. Adding to his attractiveness were dark brown eyes and a friendly smile.
“My pleasure, Miss…”
“Lesley Campbell. I go by Ms.” She paused. “How did you know I’m not married?”
Her thumb absently moved over the groove in her finger where Tony’s engagement ring had once been and she nodded. He wasn’t wearing one, either.
“Do you do this sort of thing for a living?”
“Excuse me?” Chase smiled at her, looking a bit confused.
“Run after crooks, I mean,” Lesley said. “Are you an off-duty policeman or something?”
“No, I work on the Alaska pipeline. I’m visiting Seattle for the next few weeks.”
“That explains it,” she said.
She hadn’t realized he’d heard her. “What I was thinking about you. That you’re an open-air kind of person.” She felt mildly surprised that she’d read him so well. Generally she didn’t consider herself especially perceptive.
Her insight appeared to please him because he smiled again. “Would you like to know what I was thinking about you?”
“Sure.” She probably shouldn’t be so curious, but it wouldn’t do any harm.
“You run well, with agility and grace, and you’re the first woman I’ve met in a long while who doesn’t have to throw back her head to look up at me.”
“That’s true enough.” Lesley understood what it meant to be tall. She was five-eleven herself and had been the tallest girl in her high school class. Her height had been a curse and yet, in some ways, her greatest asset. Her teachers assumed that because she was taller she should be more mature, smarter, a leader, so she’d been burdened with those expectations; at the same time, she now realized, they’d been a blessing. She had learned to be both tactful and authoritative, which served her well as a teacher. However, buying clothes had always been a problem when she was a teenager, along with attracting boys. It was only when she entered her twenties that she decided to be proud of who and what she was. Once she refused to apologize for her height, she seemed to attract the opposite sex. Shortly after that, she’d met Tony. It had never bothered her that he was an inch shorter than she was, nor had it seemed to trouble him.
She and Chase were walking back toward the grocery store. “You’re a runner?”
“Heavens, no,” Lesley answered, although she was flattered by the assumption.
As they were standing under the hanging fuchsia baskets, Lesley realized they had no reason to continue their discussion. “I’d like to thank you for your help,” she said, opening her purse and taking out her wallet.
He placed his hand on hers, his touch gentle but insistent. “I won’t take your money.”
“I’d never have caught him without you. It’s the least I can do.”
“I did what anyone would have done.”
“Hardly,” Lesley countered. The lot had been full of people and no one else had chased the mugger. No one else had been willing to get involved. She’d received plenty of sympathetic looks, but no one other than Chase had helped her.
“If you want to thank me, how about a cup of coffee?”
Lesley’s gaze went to the café, situated next to the grocery store in the strip mall. She’d just been mugged, and having coffee with a stranger didn’t seem to be an especially brilliant idea.
“I can understand your hesitation, but I assure you I’m harmless.”
“All right,” Lesley found herself agreeing. Chase smiled and his brown eyes fairly sparkled. She’d hardly ever met a man with more expressive eyes.
When they took a table by the window, the waitress immediately brought menus and rhymed off the specials of the day.
“I’ll just have coffee,” Lesley said.
“What kind of pie do you have?” Chase wanted to know.
The waitress listed several varieties in a monotone as if she said the same words no less than five hundred times a day.
“Give me a piece of the apple pie and a cup of coffee.”
“I’ll take a slice of that pie, too,” Lesley said. “I shouldn’t,” she muttered to Chase when the waitress left, “but I’m going to indulge myself.” She’d forgo the gourmet ice cream in favor of the pie; later she’d drown her blues in a 1990s Meg Ryan movie, where love seemed to work out right and everything fell neatly into place just before THE END scrolled onto the screen. If ever there was a time she needed to believe in fairy tales, it was today.
“Sure you should,” Chase said.
“I know,” Lesley said, straightening and looking out the window as she thought about the reason she was pampering herself. To her embarrassment, tears flooded her eyes. She managed to blink them back but not before Chase noticed.
“Is something wrong?”
“Delayed shock, I guess,” she said, hoping that sounded logical, and that he’d accept it without further inquiry. Funny, she could go weeks without dwelling on the pain and then the minute school was out and Tony and April weren’t around anymore, she started weeping.
“It’s just that today was supposed to have been my wedding day,” she blurted out. Lesley didn’t know what had made her announce this humiliation to a complete stranger.
“What happened?” Chase asked softly. His hand reached for hers, his fingers folding around hers in a comforting way.