Prologue

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Thirteen-year-old Kiki Villanueva tried to ignore the goose bumps on her arms and the strange sensation on the back of her neck. How could a day feel so normal and so weird all at once?

She squeezed her eyes together, then opened them one lid at a time, lifting her face slowly upward.

The sky had never been such a deep color of blue before. She felt its magnetic pull as she sat with her cousin Chris, propped against the big shade tree in her backyard. From the corner of her eye, Kiki could see the odd look he was giving her. But she didn’t want to tell him she thought she was having one of her “feelings” again. Although Chris hated the idea, Kiki was certain she’d be proven psychic one of these days.

The sound of a bicycle horn startled her out of her thoughts. A new neighbor boy zipped by wearing a fresh bowl cut, and it reminded her of something important. “Did you see Cassandra? I can’t believe she cut her hair short, like a boy. I would never do that.”

“Never?” Chris asked. He loved to pester her with the “Never Game.”

“Never,” Kiki answered with her usual confidence.

“Even if someone gave you a million dollars?”

“Never.”

“Even if you could have twenty-five dogs?”

Kiki reached under her knees and scratched Mickey behind one of his big ears. “That one’s tempting but, no,” she said.

The puppy thanked her for her attention by jumping up and planting a sloppy kiss on her cheek. She giggled and wiped her face with her hand. Then she focused her wary gaze back on Chris, knowing he was biding his time. Since she’d started liking boys, he’d been winning this game.

“Even if you could marry a movie star? Anyone you wanted?” he asked, grinning and wiggling his blonde eyebrows up and down.

Kiki turned her head away and rolled her eyes skyward, noting the intensity once more. “Well, I guess hair does grow back.” She glanced toward Chris, expecting him to be gloating about his win, but he and Mickey were gone.

Suddenly, the tree behind her started to quiver and leaves fell all around, morphing into giant snowflakes before they reached the grass. Light still surrounded her, though the heavens had darkened to midnight blue.

 “Do you want to know of the man you will marry?” asked the trembling voice of an old woman.

Kiki jerked forward when she felt the vibrations on her back, but was too frightened to turn and face the voice, so she hugged her knees and shut her eyes.

“Yes,” she answered softly.

“Then, listen closely, so you will know him when he comes.”

Kiki awoke a short time later and was surprised to see she wasn’t in her backyard. When she stood, she realized it was Cassandra’s old playhouse behind her, instead of her own tree. Chris had been in her dream, but he wasn’t due back from California for another week.

Where had Cassandra gone?

As Kiki stepped through the back door into the laundry room, she heard Cassandra’s mother in the kitchen talking on the phone.

“Cassandra? Yes, she’s fine. I gave her the cutest haircut. She’s around here somewhere. Last time I saw her, she was with that pobrecita Kiki from down the street.”

Pobrecita? Since when am I poor?

 “Yes, Rolando’s daughter. The only child. Lorena couldn’t have any more… No, she found out after you moved away from Buenos Aires. It was the same for her sister Leticia. Like a family curse… Hmm? Of course, I remember. Rolando could have had any woman he wanted, but he had to have the beautiful Lorena, and now look what it’s gotten him. No sons, just that scrawny little girl.”

Scrawny? Ha! Kiki’s father always called her “Princesa,” and he knew a lot more than jealous Señora Calderon.

“No, her sister married the American… Yes, only one boy. You know, when those girls were young, everyone was after them, but God has blessed us with all the children we wanted, mi amiga.

I’m sure Rolando rues the day he broke up with you. And he won’t be around forever. With so little family, I don’t know who will take care of his daughter. She may be too bony to get a husband.”

Double Ha! Kiki knew her father didn’t regret anything. She’d seen the way he looked at her mother. As for Kiki, her mother always told her she was perfect just as she was. Besides, she knew she could take care of herself when she grew up, since she made excellent grades in school.

She wanted to march into the kitchen and give Señora Calderon a piece of her mind, but her mother wouldn’t approve of disrespecting an adult, regardless of the excuse. She tiptoed out the back door and held the screen so it wouldn’t slam behind her. Suddenly, she remembered her dream and ran home to make her list.


Chapter One

Los Angeles, thirteen years later.

Tell him or don’t tell him?

Mark Bennett sat on the exam room table, glad to be out of the silly paper dress and back in his own jeans and button-down shirt. For about the fiftieth time, he looked around at the posters of ear canals and dissected heart chambers. Why did doctors think normal people wanted to look at this stuff? He wished he’d brought the Newsweek from the waiting room.

Dr. Chuck Wilson breezed back in, staring into a file. Mark knew if the guy hadn’t been a friend of the family, he never would have chosen a doctor who went by the name “Chuck.” “Charles Wilson” sounded like a doctor. “Chuck” sounded like a furniture salesman.

“Okay,” Chuck said. “All the labs are back from last week, and I’ve examined everything I can examine. I pronounce you in perfect health.” He snapped the file shut with the usual case-closed-I-went-to-school-for-twenty-years doctor confidence.

“Really?” Mark couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice.

“You sound disappointed. Did you want a note excusing you from gym class or something?”

“You know, you’re a regular Patch Adams,” Mark said sarcastically.

“I was going for Hawkeye Pierce.” Chuck laid the file on a desk, then turned back and looked Mark squarely in the face. “Okay, you called my office and scheduled a thorough physical. You’re only thirty years old, and you’re not the hypochondriac type, so why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

After several seconds of watching Chuck stare at him, Mark took a deep breath and said, “I’ve…quit finding women attractive.” The doctor shook his head as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

Damn, I told him.

Chuck seemed to lose his power of speech for a few moments, which alone was worth the cost of the office visit. Finally, he asked, “So, are you coming out of the closet or—?”

“No. I’m not attracted to men either,” Mark answered, hoping Chuck could hear the annoyance in his voice.

“But the equipment worked last time you used it?”

The equipment? Mark glanced up at the framed diplomas on the walls. Had anyone in his family bothered to find out if Chuck really graduated from medical school? On the other hand, maybe they were better off with euphemisms this time. “Yeah, it worked. But that was a while back.”

Chuck’s eyes widened and he leaned closer. “How long?”

“I was going to talk to you about it on my last visit.” Mark tried not to wince as Chuck flipped the folder open and picked up a couple of pages, scanning the others underneath.

“You haven’t been here for nearly a year,” Chuck said. “That would mean it’s been a year and a half, two years?”

Mark was even more uncomfortable now that he remembered what a horn-dog Chuck was at fifty-something, even by L.A. standards. He always had a younger woman on his arm. “Yeah. A year…or two,” he said. “I didn’t write it on a calendar.”

Chuck eased down onto his stool, looking as if someone had just informed him last month’s one-night stand was pregnant with twins. “So you don’t find them attractive at all?” Maybe he was afraid it could happen to him.

“I can see that they are,” Mark answered. “But I don’t feel anything.”

“But it’s still in working order, like, when you wake up in the morning?”

“Yeah, it still works.”

Chuck breathed a sigh of relief and hopped up from his stool. “Maybe it’s a psychological thing. How’s the rest of your life? Your job?”

Mark hadn’t thought to connect the two before. “The same, I guess. Nothing’s exciting, or even very interesting, any more.”

“Are you a drug user?”

“No, not at all.”

Chuck rubbed his chin for a few seconds. “You may need to see a shrink.”

Mark couldn’t believe he was serious. “You know Bennetts don’t get their heads shrunk.”

 “Well, we can try you on an anti-depressant first.” Chuck pulled out his prescription pad.

“I thought they could cause sexual dysfunction.”

“Sure, but I’ll throw in a prescription for Viagra to go with it.”

 “Then, I would be a drug user.”

Chuck let out an exasperated sigh. “You’re as stubborn as your dad. Do you still have that dog?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Unconditional love. He may keep you from killing yourself.”

Killing myself? In five minutes, I’ve gone from ‘perfect’ to suicidal?”

Chuck shrugged.

 “I swear I’m not suicidal.”

“In that case, you can try another approach.” He tossed his pad onto the desk. “Do you work out?”

“Some free weights, and the machines at the gym, two or three times a week.”

“I want you to do something aerobic, like running,” Chuck said. Mark looked at Chuck’s waistline and wondered if he owned a pair of running shoes. “Join a competitive sports team. Didn’t you play baseball in college?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “What we’re going for here are endorphins, adrenaline, testosterone—oh, and take a vacation or do a different kind of writing. Stay away from D.C. for a while. Damn, looking at a bunch of politicians all the time could shrivel anybody’s balls.”

This got a little chuckle out of Mark. “I hope you sound more professional with your other patients.”

“Yeah, yeah. All they hear is ‘erection,’ ‘libido,’ ‘testicles.’ Aren’t you glad you’re special?”

“I guess so.” Mark scooted off the table. “Since you put it that way.”

 

~

 

Tell them. Don’t tell them.

Kiki walked with her eyes lowered as she and all four of her parents hurried through the Ministro Pistarini International Airport. “The parents” knew her too well. If she looked into her mother’s eyes or her Tía Leticia’s, they’d start asking questions and what would she tell them?

Kiki had felt so positive about this trip until today, but now that she was leaving the people who’d cared for her all her life, and given her sound advice every time she’d asked for it, and taught her to be honest and forthright, she was having second thoughts about the truth.

She wasn’t used to lying or even omitting the truth. Kiki was what her Tío Karl called an “open book.” She wished her best friend Alejandra were here to run interference, even though Ali had told her many times that both her list and her fears were ridiculous.

Her parents, aunt, and uncle thought she was only going back to L.A. to spend time with Chris while the four of them went on their month-long cruise. And, of course, she couldn’t wait to see him, since in her heart, he was more a brother than a cousin.

However, there were much bigger reasons this time. Earth-shattering ones for her, but Kiki knew if she told the parents what she was thinking, it would only upset them. Her mother and aunt would feel responsible somehow and everyone would worry.

Her flight was leaving before theirs, so the parents walked her to her gate.

Adios, Hijita,” her mother said as she hugged her tightly. “Te quiero mucho.”

When it was her father’s turn to say goodbye, Kiki braced herself for the squeeze that always pushed the breath out of her. “I love you, and give Chris our love too,” he told her in his soothing, Ricardo Montalban voice. Sandy-haired Tío Karl, who stood several inches above the rest of the group gave her a big bear hug, then turned her over to Tía Lorena.

But her mother’s sister didn’t hug her right away. She stared deeply into Kiki’s eyes and Kiki knew she suspected something was up. There had always been a special connection between them, so much so that people said they were twins born thirty years apart.

Kiki gave her a big smile and embraced her. “Have fun,” she said enthusiastically. “And don’t forget to bring me something cute.”

Tía Lorena laughed and kissed her on the cheek. “You know I won’t forget, my munequita. And you make sure Cristóval is eating.”

“I’ll cook for him personally,” Kiki promised, relieved her aunt hadn’t asked any questions. She threw her arms around each of them one last time, then forced herself to board the plane.

She found her assigned row, noting the heavy-set, probably-American sitting by the window, reading the Wall Street Journal.

Since she’d viewed the scenery between Buenos Aires and L.A. many times, Kiki never requested the window, assuming there were other people who should get their turns. Besides, she enjoyed watching everyone as they came down the aisle, so she could guess why they were traveling.

Two men got on the plane in dress shirts and suit slacks as though they’d come straight from a meeting. They sounded American. She figured they’d come to Buenos Aires on business and were returning home.

A young couple, who were speaking Spanish to each other, managed to continue holding hands while squeezing single-file down the narrow aisle with carry-ons.

Honeymooners. The young woman’s arm brushed Kiki’s as she passed, and for a split second, Kiki was sure she could feel the intensity of emotion between them.

They’re perfect for each other.

 She kept her eyes on them until she heard the window-seat man groan. She glanced over at him, following his gaze to another couple coming toward them. The woman was holding a wailing baby in her arms.

Kiki’s row mate shook his head as they came closer. “Just my luck. I’m gonna have a baby a few feet away, and I’m sure it’ll cry the whole damn time.”

Kiki looked at him with the expression she usually saved for playground bullies. “A baby’s cry is the most beautiful sound in the world. It’s the way they first announce they’ve arrived.”

He stared at her as if she’d fallen off the circus wagon. “Can I have some?”

“Some what?”

“Some of the drugs you’re on.

Shaking her head, Kiki gave him the angry eyebrows she used on little boys who made fart noises with their armpits during class. The man looked unimpressed and went back to reading his newspaper.

After the door was closed, she reached into her handbag and unzipped one of the compartments, fingering the two slips of paper to make sure they were still there. One, she’d carried with her since she was thirteen years old. She didn’t need it, since she’d had the contents memorized for years, but knowing it was in her possession always made her feel as though her life was going to work out as she’d planned. And with her other worries growing stronger lately, that list was never more than a few feet away from her.

The second note had been added a few weeks ago when she’d gotten a feeling she should be back in L.A. The scrap of paper contained the time, date, and location of a secret appointment. The kind she’d never been able to bring herself to make in Buenos Aires. The one she couldn’t tell her family about.

And although she knew it wasn’t a curse that plagued her mother and aunt, she also knew that she had good reason to be worried about her future, even at twenty-six.

But, thinking about it made her sick to her stomach, so she focused her attention on the baby, now seated across the aisle from her in her mother’s lap.

She was probably only seven or eight months old, with auburn curls and an intelligent look in her brown eyes. As she gazed at Kiki, she extended one chubby little hand.

Kiki’s heart squeezed as she reached across the aisle. The adorable cherub grasped one of her fingers.

Baby hands. Soft and warm, and a bit damp, possibly from being sucked on. As the infant studied Kiki, her mouth opened and the corners turned up. Feeling they’d made a connection, Kiki peered into the sweet little eyes, focusing all her positive energy into them.

Hermosita. May you live a life full of laughter and love. May you always know what a unique and special miracle you are—

The flight attendant came up the aisle, and Kiki was forced to reclaim her hand. The baby squealed her objection, echoing Kiki’s own feelings.

Window-seat man blew out an annoyed breath.


Chapter Two

For once, Mark had decided to try to sleep late, so of course his phone rang at 7:15 the next morning.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Buddy! Guess who!”

“I don’t have to guess, Ryan. You’re the only acquaintance I have who can’t keep the time difference straight between New York and California.”

“Can’t or won’t? And that ‘acquaintance’ thing hurts, man. I tell everybody you’re my best friend.”

Mark frowned at the phone. He is my best friend. That sucks.

“Hey, sorry I missed the golf tournament,” Ryan said. “I couldn’t get away from this damn magazine.”

“That’s okay. We played crappy without you. If you’d come, it would have been even worse.”

Ouch. Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.”

“No, ‘somebody’ didn’t get up at all.” Mark yawned into the phone.

“So, who was the celebrity you played with?” Ryan asked.

“Jack something from one of those soap operas—The Stupid and the Egomaniacal.”

“I don’t think there’s a soap opera with that name.”

“Well, if they were type-casting, that’s the show he’d be on,” Mark said. His roommate jumped on the bed and landed several wet kisses on his lips before he could ward him off.

“Do you have somebody there with you?” Ryan asked lecherously.

“Just Jack.”

“The soap opera actor?”

“No, my dog.” Mark was instantly in a better mood now that he remembered Ryan was only his second-best friend. He gave Jack a good scratching behind one ear.

“Oh, yeah, that hyper, hairy, slobbery mutt,” Ryan replied.

Mark examined Jack in extreme close up as he panted his hot dog breath into Mark’s face. He looked like a half-sized version of a wolf.

“He prefers the term ‘mixed breed,’” Mark said. “And you’d better watch yourself, Ryan. You can insult my wife, but don’t badmouth my dog.” Jack stretched out on his back, next to Mark.

“You don’t have a wife,” Ryan replied.

“And never will. That’s why you can insult her.”

Ryan chuckled and was on to a new subject. “So, you finished that investigative thing for the Post? I bet you’re glad to be out of D.C. Since you like California so much, why don’t you cover celebrities instead of politicians?”

“Because they’re idiots?” Mark replied, like it should be obvious.

“Oh, and politicians aren’t?”

Mark glanced up at the political biography section of the bookshelves that covered his bedroom walls. “No, they’re sleazes and crooks. That’s something I can sink my teeth into.” Jack turned on his side and faced Mark to get the other ear scratched. Mark brought his teeth together several times in a biting motion. Jack mimicked him, snapping at the air between them.

“Yeah, your bite is definitely worse than your bark,” Ryan said. Mark stifled a laugh, since he knew Ryan was oblivious to what was happening on their end of the line. “I hope you never have any reason to write about me.”

 “Don’t run for office,” Mark replied. “I already know enough for a five-part exposé.”

 “So do half the women in New York.”

 “In your dreams.”

“Well, yeah. Have you got any more assignments lined up?”

“No. I’m supposed to be taking a vacation. It was Chuck’s suggestion.” Mark could hear the annoying sound of packing materials being popped on the other end of the line.

“Dr. Chuck?” Ryan asked. “I hope that guy’s a better doctor than he is a golfer.”

“The jury’s still out.”

“He’s been your doctor for, like, twenty years.”

“But still. Anyway, I realized yesterday I don’t know how to enjoy a vacation, so I might as well take one of these assignments I’ve been offered,” Mark said. “I’ll have to go to Sacramento for a couple of days, and I’ll write it here. That’s practically a vacation.”

“I thought you didn’t like covering celebrities. In California, politicians and celebrities are the same people.”

“You have a point there.” Mark grabbed the extra pillow and shoved it up under his head.

 “Hey, I’ve got a better idea!” Ryan’s voice boomed through the phone again. “Since Marge Lindberger died—may the old bat rest in peace—we’ve been running guest columnists in her slot. You could do a couple of columns for us.”

“I don’t know anything about writing fluff. I don’t even know who the target market is for B.S. Magazine.”

“That’s the beauty of it. They’re a bunch of cynical, jaded jackasses. You’re perfect! We wanted someone to spotlight people who sign up for those high-dollar dating services.”

“Losers and lunatics,” Mark said, more to Jack than to Ryan.

“Exactly. That can be your premise. Our readership loves to laugh at stupid, crazy people.”

Mark chuckled. “Who doesn’t? Right, Jack?” Jack put a paw on Mark’s chest, confirming they were on the same page.

“I wish you’d quit talking to that thing like it understands what’s going on.” Ryan’s words were punctuated by more popping.

“Yeah, I’ll trade him in as soon as I get some bubble wrap to replace him. When’s the deadline?”

“You’ll do it?” Ryan yelled. “I need it for the next issue.”

Mark switched ears. “Next issue? You run a fluff magazine with a deadline that tight? You realize you should be planning for fall.”

“No, that’s the thing about us. We’re an up-to-the-minute, cutting edge kind of publication.”

“Sounds more like a seat of your pants, hanging by a thread, bird-cage liner.”

“Hey, we make money. That’s all my investors care about.”

Oh, what the hell. Mark shrugged. “You won’t be insulted if I use a pseudonym.”

“Not as long as you’re still your nasty, abrasive self—oh, I’ve gotta take this call. Buzz me later and let me know.”

As Mark pushed the off button, he looked back at the “hairy mutt” and baby-talked, “I’m gonna interview some lunatics. That’ll be fun, huh, Jack?” Jack snuggled up against him and let out a contented whine.

~

As she passed by the security gate at LAX, Kiki heard her name. When she saw Chris striding toward her, she dropped her carry-on and purse and took the last few steps as fast as her skinny high heels would allow. She threw her arms around his neck, as he gave her one of his bear hugs followed by a loud smack on the cheek, then picked up her purse and put it on her shoulder.

 “How’s my favorite cousin in the whole world?” he asked. He took the luggage pull in one hand, draped his other arm around her shoulder and guided her toward baggage claim.

 Kiki didn’t answer at first. Instead, she looked up into his familiar face, taking in the warm gold-brown eyes and the short-ish hair that might have been brown if he ever stayed out of the sun long enough. With his father’s coloring and those natural highlights, Chris looked like a walking ad for the Golden State.

“I’m good,” she said at last. She had to avert her gaze because looking at him was enough to make her want to pour her heart out about her fears, her plans, and her appointment. But he was smiling, like always, and she couldn’t bear to wipe that happy-go-lucky grin off his face.

Though Chris didn’t worry about much, Kiki knew he would worry about her. She was only a year older, and Chris had outgrown her by about seven inches when they were teenagers. But he was the optimist, and she was the worrier, so she always felt much older.

She suddenly remembered Chris’s dog wouldn’t be there to greet them when they got home. “How’s Hank?”

“Oh, he’s much better. The vet said he has to stay a few more days, then I’m supposed to keep him quiet for a couple of weeks.”

“I can’t believe he has his own heart specialist.”

“Yeah.” Chris winced. “Dad keeps saying it’s ridiculous for me to spend so much money on a dog doctor, but you know how it is.”

“Yes, I know,” Kiki said in a reassuring tone. The two of them had been born with the same extreme dog-lover gene.

As they left the airport and headed for Santa Monica, she made sure they stayed on the topic of Chris’s life to give her time to get over the urge to spill her guts. He told her about the linguistics classes he’d been teaching the past semester at UCLA and gave her more details about the part-time work he was doing as a dialect coach for a movie studio.

And he was especially excited about the restored classic Mustang he’d just bought. Kiki pronounced the light blue color perfect for him, but decided to pull her long hair back into a ponytail when the wind started whipping it around in her face.

“Oh, by the way, we’re invited to a party at the end of the month. One of the actors from the movie I’m working on is having it,” Chris said. He pulled up and stopped in a traffic jam on the 405.

“A Hollywood party?” Kiki gasped. “Oh, my God, I’m going to need a new dress.”

Chris chuckled. “How did I know you were going to say that?”

“Because you’re my primito and you know me so well Cristóval.” She said his real name with a dramatic flair, flipping the Spanish r and over-emphasizing the long e sound of the i. She reached over and pinched him on the cheek.

“I’m getting too old for you to do that Kiki, and since I drive a convertible now, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t,” he said. She gave him a disgusted snort. “You know,” he added. “Most people around here think I’m a pretty cool guy.”

Kiki threw her head back and released the unrestrained laugh she was famous for, causing passengers in two other convertibles to turn and smile. “Because they don’t know you like I do!” she replied. Chris cracked up in spite of himself, just as she knew he would since no one could resist a good Kiki laugh.


Chapter Three

Kiki was on her own the next morning. Chris had left for Brentwood early, since he was arranging his dialect coaching around a fourteen-year-old actor’s public appearance schedule.

She brewed herself a cup of mate, and walked around the living room of Chris’s two-bedroom apartment. She’d been too tired the day before to examine the changes since the last time she was here. Chris still had his light denim couch, but “the mothers”—his and hers—had visited in February, and added some sand-and-sea artwork, a rug, and a couple of throw pillows.

It really had perked up Chris’s plain vanilla apartment, and the décor was definitely him. Even his surfboard looked just right, leaning in the corner. Kiki hoped her mother and aunt would do the same for her house when she settled down with her husband, since she wasn’t sure her self-decorating skills would carry over.

After a long shower, she sat down at the little dining table with some toast and the newspaper. She flipped through the pages, glancing at the headlines.

Too many political stories.

 Kiki didn’t enjoy politics because she liked to think people were inherently good, and the more she read about politicians, the more she doubted her belief system. She turned to the Arts and Entertainment section and a quarter-page ad caught her eye. The headline read, “Tired of Wasted Dating? Let us do the prescreening for you!”

Kiki suddenly realized that’s what she’d been doing—date wasting!

The ad claimed the company would screen members of the opposite sex for their clients before they met them. They even provided a choice of DVD or on-line streaming video for their members to see each other’s interviews. It sounded like a great time-saver.

She picked up the phone and called the number. The man at the dating service told her to come in and they could shoot her video the same day. She felt a rush of positive energy. Maybe this was the reason she’d had a feeling she needed to come to L.A. this summer.

When she hung up, she realized she should have asked whether the video would show only her head or her whole body. Better safe than sorry. She’d make herself over from head to toe.

Oh, and she’d have to call a cab, since she hadn’t rented a car at the airport. For a moment, she considered waiting until Chris could drive her, but he might not like this idea. In fact, Kiki could think of several objections he could make. Although he normally did anything she asked, this time, he might dig in his heels and refuse to take her, which would waste valuable “prescreening” time.

No, it’s best to keep my primito out of it for now.

~

Kiki’s sense of well-being was still with her on the way home from the Get Dated office. She felt pleased with the way her video turned out. The people who worked there had been nice, and the camera man was so inconspicuous, she forgot he was in the room. She’d been a little nervous at first, but once she’d started talking, she got on a roll and reverted to her usual candid speech.

Her Tío Karl always said, “Kiki, you talk by letter. Open ’er up and let ’er fly.” She was never insulted because it was the truth, and, besides, she knew Tío Karl never meant it in a bad way. He and Tía Leticia were Chris’s parents and Kiki’s God-parents, and whenever they were with her, they treated her as if she were theirs.

Kiki wondered what the parents would think of what she was doing now. Actually, she was sure all four would disapprove, but she was an adult, and it wasn’t their decision to make.

The phone was ringing when she walked back into Chris’s apartment. Chris answered it. “It’s for you, Kristina,” he said with raised eyebrows. “A guy.”

The dating service wasn’t supposed to give out her number, so she couldn’t imagine who was calling her. “Hello?” she said into the receiver.

“Hi, Kristina? This is Dave Worshell from Get Dated.”

“Yes, I met you at the office, right?”

“Yeah, um…the reason I’m calling is that there’s a reporter who’s doing a feature on our dating service, and he wants to interview one of our members. Would you mind talking to him?”

“Why me?” Kiki asked.

“Well…because you’re a teacher…yeah…and you’re used to answering questions.”

She couldn’t think of a good excuse to turn him down. “Okay, I guess.”

“Can I give him your number? He’s a legitimate journalist. We called the editor he’s working for.”

“Sure. Why not?” she replied.

“What was that all about?” Chris asked when she hung up.

 “It was the dating service I signed up for today.”

He looked as though she’d told him she’d been turning tricks on Hollywood Boulevard. “The what?”

“I signed up for a dating service. They’re very nice people, and they’re going to pre-screen potential matches for me.”

Chris shook his head adamantly. “People like you don’t sign up for dating services! You’re beautiful, educated, and you’re the one turning the men away, not vice-versa. Dating services are for losers.”

Kiki put up an authoritative index finger. “That’s a common misconception, according to the Get Dated brochure.” She pulled it out of her purse and handed it to him. “Everyone’s doing it, now. Look at these pictures. They’re all actual members.”

Chris glanced down at the head shots on the front cover. “Kiki, I don’t understand why you’re always so much more gullible here than you are in Buenos Aires! This is just like the time you paid thirty-five dollars for a fake map of the stars’ homes. They hire models to join these services so they can have pretty faces for the advertising. It’s not hard to find them in L.A., along with stalkers, axe murderers—”

 “I was a teenager when the map thing happened, and how often do you hear about an axe murder in L.A.?” She couldn’t believe he would bring up the map incident again.

“It’s not about the choice of weapons!” Chris yelled. “How can you be so smart and so ignorant at the same time?”

Kiki was shocked. Chris practically never raised his voice at anyone, and he certainly didn’t yell rude things at her. “I’m not going to discuss this with you if you’re going to scream at me,” she said, mimicking Tía Leticia’s tone as closely as she could.

It worked. Chris let out a loud breath. “Okay, can we please sit down and talk?” He pulled out a dining chair for her.

“Of course,” she answered, taking the seat he offered and watching as he sat down in the one to her right.

His tone became calm and business-like. “My main concern is your safety. I really believe L.A. has more than its share of weirdoes. My theory is that they come to stalk the movie stars and, when that doesn’t work out, they hang around and look for something else to do.”

She tilted her head and looked at him doubtfully. “Are you basing this on any scientific data whatsoever, Professor?”

Chris placed his hand over hers. “Kiki, it would only take one psycho, and I wouldn’t have you anymore.” He said it with such genuine emotion, she couldn’t make light of his concerns. Besides, he was looking at her from under his eyebrows and making that puppy face it was so hard to resist, although she pretended to be immune to it whenever possible. But, how could she be, when he looked exactly the same to her as he did when he was four years old?

Mira, Primito,” she said, as she turned her hand over and squeezed his in it. “I’ll let you know of any plans I make, and I won’t get into cars with these guys.” She thought for a moment. “I’ll only meet them in public restaurants, and whatever else makes you comfortable. And, I won’t go out without telling you first, okay?”

“Promise?”

“Yes.” Then she added quickly, “And I’m talking to a reporter tomorrow, but his credentials have been checked, and he’s not an axe-murderer.”

Chris threw his hands out in front of him. “Why would you talk to a reporter?” His voice was louder again.

“The dating service asked me to, for a story he’s doing.”

 “You know they chose you because you’re the only attractive, intelligent member they have, don’t you?”

“You called me attractive and intelligent in one sentence.” Kiki gave him a satisfied smile. “It almost makes up for the ‘ignorant’ comment before.”

Chris put his face in his hands, his elbows resting on the table. “I hope this is some local story, because Tío Rolando and Tía Lorena are not going to be happy if they find out about this.”

“You worry too much,” Kiki said. That wasn’t true, but she seemed to be bringing out the worrier in him today.

“Well…” he began. She could tell he was throwing in the towel on this conversation. “I’m hungry. Let’s go eat.”

“Sure, I’ll be ready in a flash.”

Chris stood up from the table. “I’d like to experience that, just once.”

~

 

Let’s see what we have here. Loser or lunatic?

Mark popped in the DVD and sat down on his brown leather couch, still in his navy golf shirt and khaki shorts from earlier that afternoon. Jack hopped up and took his place at the other end of the sofa.

“Wow,” Mark said when he looked up at his TV. The striking woman on the screen was already talking, so he grabbed the remote and turned up the volume.

“My friends call me Kiki.” He thought he detected a slight accent, and it—or at least something about her—was a turn on. He hit the pause button.

Although she was sitting on a stool, her slim figure was obvious in her snug skirt, which hit her just above the knee. She had one slender leg crossed over the other, and her calves were squeezed together like those 1940’s movie stars. Her chestnut-colored hair stopped at the tips of her breasts. Being the cynic he was, Mark wondered if this was an accident, but, not for long, because her dark brown eyes kept drawing his attention back to her face.

The eyes were huge, or maybe they only seemed that way because of the contrast with the lighter skin surrounding them. No, they were big all right, and he wished he could decode the message they were sending out to him through his TV set.

He noticed a swelling sensation down south and realized he’d reacted like he was watching porn. That was fast. Fifteen-year-old fast. He’d found the fountain of youth! Somebody call Ponce de Leon—whoops, too bad. He’s already dead. “I’ll just have to sit here and leer at her with you, Jack.”

Mark felt around on the couch for the remote he’d dropped, unwilling to take his eyes off the television. Why would a woman this beautiful need to go to a dating service?

He found the remote and hit the pause button again so she could continue. “Before I answer the standard ‘Get Dated’ questions, I want to let you know the qualifications I’m looking for in a future husband, so you don’t have to waste time with the rest of this video if it isn’t you I’m describing. It’s just that I’m a little psychic, and this list was given to me in a dream, years ago, so it’s very important to me.”

Bingo—lunatic. Did she really say, “I’m a little psychic,” on camera?

She took a small slip of paper from her lap.

“Oh, so that’s what a psychic list looks like, Jack,” Mark chuckled. Jack’s ears perked up at the sound of his name.

My future husband will be warm and friendly, and everyone will love him,” she said. “He’ll speak at least two languages. The dream didn’t specify which two. He’ll be blonde, with brown eyes, and play a musical instrument. Oh, and he’ll have a post-graduate degree. I don’t know in what.”

Mark wondered why it bugged him that he didn’t meet even one requirement on her ridiculous list. Maybe because she was so gorgeous. The first woman he’d found attractive in months, years maybe, and she was obviously a fruitcake, heavy on the nuts.

“Okay, let’s see. I’m supposed to talk about my favorites.” She folded the slip of paper and adjusted herself on her stool. “Well, I love the second-graders I teach—all of them, even the ones who make it difficult—and my dog Boby. One day, on the way home from school, I saw him wandering in the street and, when I stopped the car, he came over and looked up at me, like, ‘Here I am. Take me home now.’ It was as if he could tell by looking at me that I wouldn’t turn him away. Maybe he’s psychic too!”

She laughed, and Mark knew he’d had no idea before how beautiful she was. He caught his reflection in the mirrored clock on the wall and realized he’d been watching her with a goofy grin on his face. He straightened up and looked at Jack to see if he’d noticed.

Boh-bee. What kind of name is that for a dog?” Mark asked, in case Jack thought he was losing his edge.

Jack cocked his head to one side as if he was considering his answer.

“Oh, and I love chocolate,” Kiki continued. “But with no coconut or anything hard mixed in because I like to hold it in my mouth while it gets all gooey.” She closed her eyes when she said it, as if she were having a sensual experience right there in front of the camera.

She’d be good in bed.

“Least favorite things…hmmm… Oh, I hate movies with psycho serial killers or anything with cannibalism, so Silence of the Lambs is my least favorite movie of all time.” She shuddered. “And I don’t enjoy French food, even though everyone acts like it’s so good. Most embarrassing moment…” She shook her head and rolled her eyes.

“I guess that’s an easy one. When my cousin Chris and I were in high school, my family came for a few weeks to visit. He called some friends, and we went on kind of a double date.” At the memory, her gaze shifted off to one side, her head tilted a bit, and Mark thought she looked as though she was ready for a kiss.

She took a breath and straightened. “Anyway, after we left a party, we stopped at the convenience store for some snacks, including some nuts. We got back into the car, and I was telling my date about how much I loved peanuts. Chris kept telling me to be quiet, and I didn’t know why he was saying it, so, of course, I kept on talking because he’d made me angry. I even talked about how I loved peanuts covered in honey. I was thinking of the ones they have sometimes on the airplane, ‘honey roasted’ or something.

“Anyway, I must have said how much I liked peanuts at least a dozen times to my date. But, it turned out my English pronunciation wasn’t as good as I thought back then, so I’d spent all that time telling my date I liked ‘penis.’”

Mark laughed out loud. He could picture her innocently chattering on about honey covered penises.

“I was barely seventeen, and I was so embarrassed when I realized why he was laughing at me, I never wanted to see him again.”

She was amazing. She’d actually told her most embarrassing moment on video. Mark’s sister wouldn’t even talk about how she’d ended up wearing the same dress as another girl to her high school prom.

“Yes, let’s see. Dating history…”

Mark felt his ears perk up like Jack’s had a few moments before.

“I’ve had a couple of boyfriends I thought were serious at the time, but that was when I was younger. I’ve since decided that what I did with them was wrong.”

Wrong? Maybe they just weren’t doing it right.

“And I should be saving myself for my husband.”

He chuckled. He’d thought that phrase had gone out of style. She rambled on, and he was riveted. “I think it’s okay for men to be more experienced, but it’s not good for the relationship if the woman is. Men are naturally more possessive—kind of like little boys, not wanting other kids to play with their toys.”

Mark started laughing again. In fact, he had to press pause so he could laugh some more. This Kiki seemed to say whatever passed through her head with no concern for political correctness, whatsoever. If his sisters were here they’d be foaming at the mouths.

 He could hear Lindsay paraphrasing, “Men are childish, so we should cater to that childishness and forgo our own pleasure while they screw themselves silly.”

If Corinne and Lindsay ever got in a room with Kiki, they’d eat her for lunch.