“Spooked By Love”
by Lisa Scott
“Mommy, your tail’s falling off,” Chelsea said, as we stood on her friend’s front porch, twenty minutes late for her Halloween party. She looked up at me with her halo and wings askew.
I straightened them and then checked my costume. Sure enough, my long black tail was coming unattached. I sighed and pulled it off. Duct tape was not good for everything, after all. Just one more thing my ex was wrong about—that and his stance on exercise videos as a suitable Valentine’s gift.
I stuffed my tail in my purse. “Good thing I painted on whiskers, otherwise they might not know I’m a cat.” I hadn’t planned on dressing up for the party, but Chelsea had pouted long and hard enough to get me to do it. Faded yoga pants and a black turtleneck might not be the most creative ensemble, but I’m not exactly the sewing type. You work with what you’ve got, right?
“All the mommies will be dressed up. Daddy would do it,” she’d said, stomping her foot. Since the divorce, Chelsea had been fine-tuning the art of playing me against my former husband. The truth was, my ex would not have dressed up. But Chelsea had seen me sad so often over the past few months, I’d decided to be a sport and wear a costume. I had to remind her Mommy could be fun, before all those memories of our good, happy times spent together were forgotten.
Two big eyes and a unicorn horn appeared in the window next to the door. Chelsea’s friend, Danielle, let us in. “Come on! You’re late.”
Chelsea rolled her eyes. “Mommy’s always late.”
I couldn’t argue; it was true.
“Come downstairs—everybody’s here!” Grasping Chelsea’s hand, she led us toward the sound of music and the tinkling laughter of little kids.
We followed her down to the basement, filled with candy-crazed kindergartners chasing each other around the big, finished playroom. I scanned the room for the other adults and saw several women huddled around a table, casting curious glances my way. It didn’t take long to realize they weren’t in costume. In fact, they were wearing cute fall blazers, killer boots, and cuddly sweaters. They all looked very Mommy-chic; something I’d never been able to pull off.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and looked away from their smirks. Not only did I look unfashionable, I was the only guest over the age of five who was dressed up. Crossing my arms, I tried to blend into the corner. Maybe I could take my ears off and no one would notice. That’s when I remembered the whiskers and pink nose on my face. Perfect.
“Watch out, I think they’ve got a dog upstairs.”
I looked over at a man sitting at a table, holding a glass of cider and fighting back a grin. His brown eyes stood out against his green shirt. Nope, no costume on him, either.
I closed my eyes and forced a smile. “My daughter told me parents would be dressing up.”
“Sounds like she played a little Halloween trick on you.” He held out his hand. “Jeff Williams. Your daughter’s in Mrs. Davison’s class?”
I walked over and shook his hand. “I’m Marnie James, and yes, the little angel over there is my daughter, Chelsea.” I pointed her out.
He laughed. “Well, the devil next to her is my son, Trey. They make a good pair. Say, where’s your tail?”
I pulled it from my purse and held it up. “It hasn’t been the best night.”
He dismissed the idea with the wave of his big hand. “You’re dressed up as a Manx cat. Very clever. But you look like you need a drink.” He gestured to the table filled with sodas, cider, and juice. “Some milk, maybe?”
I rolled my eyes. “So, you did come to the party in character—as a comedian?”
He crossed his arms. “Nope, I’m not funny, just funny looking.”
But that wasn’t true at all. He was very handsome and funny—the perfect combination. I snuck a peek at his left hand and didn’t see a ring. It’d been a long time since a guy had caught my eye, and there I was, dressed as a cat. Not that I was looking. Nope, I had zero desire to date after fouling up my marriage so badly. I really hoped this guy wasn’t single, too; I didn’t need the temptation.
I flashed another look at his bare left hand. Maybe he was married, but he’d lost his wedding ring. Maybe it got caught on machinery at work and he couldn’t wear it. Maybe he’d been robbed. Yeah, that’s it. “So, it’s just you and your son here?” I asked, having never figured out how to subtly inquire if a man was single.
“Nope, there’s a whole room full of people here.” He laughed and I noticed the cute dimples in his cheeks. “But if you’re referring to my ex-wife, let’s just say she would have come dressed as an evil harpy queen, and I don’t see any of those here—at least not over the age of six. And you? Are you married?”
I shook my head. “No, I’m a single mom. Chelsea’s dad wouldn’t be caught dead dressed up at a Halloween party.”
“Not even as a zombie?”
“Caught dead—zombie?” He sighed, running his hand through his hair. “Don’t worry, eight out of ten of my jokes work. The next one will be funny, I promise.”
I grinned. “I look forward to it.”
“Thank you, thank you very much, I’m here all night.”
Good, I thought, surprising myself. I laughed nervously and adjusted my cat ears. “I feel so stupid being the only one dressed up. It’s like I’m back in school and none of the cool girls will talk to me.” I gestured to the mommies across the room. I recognized a few from morning drop-off, but again, I was usually late and never had much time to chat.
“Maybe they’re allergic.” He shrugged. “Don’t feel bad. It just shows that you’re a fun parent. They probably feel dumb that they didn’t dress up, too. I wish I would’ve.” He looked me up and down in my costume and I wondered what he thought. His eyes met mine. “Is your hair really that gorgeous red, or did you color it for the party?”
I knew I was blushing beneath my whiskers. “No, that’s my real color. I hated it when I was growing up, but now I like it.” Every time I went in for a haircut, I heard the same thing from the receptionist: “What a beautiful color! Please tell me you’re not changing it?”
I always assured her no, and then she always asked me if it was real, like I’d never been there before.
Jeff and I chatted some more as we watched the kids play. They raced across the room with cotton balls on plastic spoons, trying not to drop them. They bobbed for apples and decorated pumpkins. They were having a great time; and so was I, even with my whiskers.
Chelsea scampered over. “Mommy, fix my wings!” I straightened her up and when she ran off, Jeff was gone. My heart sank. It had really seemed like we hit it off. But maybe he’d just felt sorry for me.
It was for the best, though. I couldn’t imagine ever having the courage to date again. I’d thought it was the real thing with Bill. How could I trust my instincts now? The hurt of lost love was more painful than being alone.
The way I figured it, just like I wasn’t meant to run a marathon, I wasn’t destined for long-term love, either. It wasn’t natural. Centuries ago, people died before they could get annoyed with one another. We’re living too long, that’s the problem, I often told myself. It was one theory, anyway. I had a few of them that I brought out from time to time to make myself feel better when chocolate didn’t do the trick. My clothes had gone up two sizes since the divorce just to make the whole thing that much more fun.
The kids were lining up for a whack at the cheery pumpkin piñata, when someone tapped me on my shoulder. “There. Now you’re not the only adult dressed up.” Jeff stood in front of me, with candy taped to his pants.
I raised an eyebrow. “What are you supposed to be?”
His smile fell and his dimples disappeared. “Seriously, you can’t tell?”
“Umm…” I shook my head, nibbling my lip.
Sighing, he pulled off one of the candies, and handed it to me.
“Smarties?” I asked, rolling the candy across my palm.
“I’m a smarty pants. Get it?” He swept a hand along the side of his body, showing off his impromptu look.
I covered my mouth to keep from laughing too hard.
He pretended to look offended, but burst out with a laugh. “Hey, I get an ‘A’ for effort, don’t I?”
I nodded. “Absolutely.”
“Good.” He sat down across the table from me. “So, I’m invited to a grownup Halloween party next weekend. Would you like to come? We’ve already got fabulous costumes.” He waggled his eyebrows.
I blew out a long breath. My heart was shouting ‘yes,’ but my brain stamped its foot ‘no’—kind of like Chelsea often did. “I don’t think so.”
My brain usually won that fight—just like my daughter. But that’s me—practical, pragmatic Marnie. My parents told me I’d rotate the toys I played with when I was two years old so I wouldn’t wear them out. Little Baby Wet-‘n-Sip got stashed away for a few days even though she was my favorite. I’d been denying myself pleasure from day one. Old habits dig in their heels over time.
Jeff snapped his fingers. “Wait, just a minute. I know what the problem is. I’ll be right back.” He dashed over to the big cauldron of candy and goodies set up on a banquet table, dug through the treats inside, and hurried back. He sat down and stared at me, all serious. Then he smiled, showing off neon-green vampire teeth. “Do you ‘vant to go out ‘vith me now?” he said, with a deep, sultry, Dracula accent.
I laughed so hard I thought I might hiccup. “Because you’re wearing fake teeth?”
Frowning, he lost the accent. “I heard women are really into vampires these days.” He shrugged. “Did my sister lie to me about that?”
My lips twitched into a smile. This guy could’ve been a new hot member of the Cullen family from Twilight, but I still wouldn’t go out with him. “I’m sorry, not even the sexiest, pointiest, vampire teeth could tempt me.”
He leaned across the table towards me, lowering his voice. “I’m a police officer. Are women into police officers these days? I’ve got the uniform and everything.”
I giggled—and I am so not a giggler. “I’m sure plenty of women have a thing for police officers.”
“But not you.” Pulling out his fake teeth, he cocked his head. “My ex constantly reminds me how thick I am, but I thought conversation and laughter were an indication things were going well, and that it would be safe to propose getting together. Have the dating rules changed again?”
I sighed, twisting open the package of Smarties he’d given me. “No, you’re doing quite well. You just picked the wrong girl. I’m not ready to get back in the dating game.”
He looked at me and nodded. “I see. You’re not just a cat, you’re a scaredy cat.”
I leaned back in my seat. “Hey, that’s not fair. I’m a cautious cat. Who knows what a little curiosity could do to me at this stage in the game?” I popped a Smartie in my mouth and winced at the tangy taste.
His voice softened. “You haven’t been divorced long, I take it?”
I shrugged. “Ten months.”
He looked surprised. “And you haven’t dated at all?”
I felt my body stiffen and shook my head. I stacked the round discs of candy on top of one another, concentrating on them instead of his chocolate-brown eyes.
“Have you ever heard the great advice I like to offer clumsy equestrians?”
I bristled. “This isn’t just falling off a horse. This is like crashing a plane. Imploding a building by mistake.” I flashed my hands in the air, mimicking an explosion. “I feel like that Valdez guy. I’m the captain of a ship who didn’t have a clue how to drive the damn thing.” And just like an oil spill, it’d take years to clean up. I knocked over my stack of candy and shrugged. “I can’t risk that again.”
With a satisfied look, he crossed his arms. “I think you were driving the wrong vehicle.”
I rolled my eyes. “And let me guess, you’re more suitable? A nice, fast, train?”
He sat back and looked offended. “I’m certainly not fast, I can assure you of that.” He set his hand next to mine. “So, your ex broke your heart. He was a jerk. You’re going to let him ruin the rest of your life?”
Pressing my eyes shut, I tried to hold back the tears, but my thick voice gave my emotions away. “I was the jerk. I ended things. He didn’t cheat, he didn’t drink—none of that. It just wasn’t working. After being so sure he was the one, turns out I was wrong.” I sniffed and looked up at him. “I don’t know how people get the courage to try again. I guess you’re right. I am a scaredy cat.”
He leaned toward me. “Who says you have to get married again? I’m certainly not going to. But you can still have fun.” He shrugged, like he was some financial guru offering stock advice on The Today Show.
I shook my head. “Then what’s the point? It’s just going to end up in a breakup instead. And that hurts, too.”
“But there’s no big mess. It’s a huge difference. That’s a lot of ridiculous pressure you’re putting on yourself. You won’t go out with someone unless you think it could end in a perfect, divorce-proof marriage?” He rolled his eyes, and I would have been annoyed if he hadn’t looked so cute doing it.
I shifted in my seat. “It’s not ridiculous, it’s smart.”
“What you need is a practice date.” He took out a business card and wrote on the back. “Here. This is my cell number. If you decide you want to go to the party next weekend, let me know. It’ll be fun; no crashing boats, no skittish horses, and no imploding buildings. Just a cat and a smarty-pants having a good time.”
I smiled at him, even though I knew I wouldn’t call. “Thanks.”
If he was determined never to marry again and just out looking for fun, he was the last person I should be going out with. Even though he was funny. And friendly. And handsome—really handsome.
The party was breaking up, so I rounded up Chelsea, and found her battered wings lying on the floor, along with a huge bag of candy. “Let’s go, kiddo.” I needed to leave before I got sucked into those incredible eyes of his. Who knew a kids’ Halloween party could be so scary for a single woman tucked in the corner with a hot stranger?
I hustled Chelsea out of there and got home to the comfort of my couch, hot tea, and fun-sized candy bars. They definitely did not provide the kind of fun I was longing for. They just left me with an unfamiliar twinge of regret and hope mingling in my chest.
And six hundred extra calories looking for a place to call home.