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Grace O’Bryan didn’t believe in ghosts. She also didn’t believe in witches, vampires, love at first sight, that there was anything real about reality T.V. or the ridiculous claim that you could lose ten pounds on the three day cabbage soup diet (she’d tried it twice). If you couldn’t see it, feel it, touch it, or taste it, then in all likelihood it didn’t exist. Which made for some very practical thinking on Grace’s part. Except for the one ripple in the otherwise smooth seas of her personal logic. Like her abuela Graciela, the Cuban grandmother Grace was named after, what she did believe in was curses.
How else could you explain tonight?
She’d waited a whopping two months for Brandon Farrell to ask her out, only to wake up this morning on her period. Not that that in itself was a problem. She wasn’t a have-sex-on-the-first-date-kind-of-girl. Nor did she suffer from bad cramps. But she’d also woken up five pounds heavier than she’d been last night (maybe she should have given the cabbage soup diet one more try). So instead of the outfit she’d planned to wear, she’d ended up borrowing her best friend Sarah’s little black dress. Sarah had excellent taste in clothes- the dress was a winning combination of elegant, yet discreetly sexy. Sarah was also a size larger than Grace and the dress had fit perfectly. At least it had fit perfectly back at Grace’s townhouse. It wasn’t until Grace had folded herself into her tiny red VW bug that she’d noticed the dress was a tad too short.
And now, thanks to some heavier than average Saturday evening Daytona Beach traffic, she was late for her date. She tugged on the hem of Sarah’s dress and opened the door to the city’s newest, most exclusive restaurant, Chez Louis, only to find herself nose to aquiline nose with Felix Barberi.
Grace sucked in a breath. It was a Dickensonian nightmare. Too bad the man standing in front of her was one hundred percent real. Grace might not subscribe to love at first sight, but substitute lust for love, and in Felix’s case she’d been a firm believer.
At first, Felix had been incredibly charming, despite his annoying habit of wanting to make out to Celine Dion’s number one hit, My Heart Will Go On. But Felix worked in the restaurant business and the brutal hours had strained their relationship and put a varnish on his charm. The ultimate strain had come when Grace had returned early from a business trip to surprise Felix on Valentine’s Day. She’d gone to his apartment with a bottle of red wine and a pepperoni and anchovy pizza only to catch Felix going at it with a dancer from The Topless A Go Go.
Grace didn’t know which was worse. The fact that Felix had cheated, or that the someone he had cheated with had a rack that must have cost six months worth of lap dances. The incident had confirmed however that The St. Valentines Day Curse was alive and well.
The St. Valentines Day Curse was a standing joke among Grace and her friends. Its roots went all the way back to third-grade at St. Bernadette’s Catholic School when Grace’s first boyfriend, Richard Kasamati broke up with her on the playground on Valentines Day. The uncanny thing was that over the years, no matter how serious a relationship she seemed to be in, Grace always ended up alone that day. If Grace began dating a guy in March the relationship might last a whopping eleven months, only to find herself alone again by the first week in February.
But joke or not, finding Felix in flagrante delicto with his topless dancer had been no laughing matter. Grace had driven back to her townhouse, packed up what few things Felix kept there (including his Celine Dion’s Greatest Hits CD) and ceremoniously dumped them on his doorstep.
That was nine months ago and she hadn’t seen Felix since. Although she had to admit the sight of Felix in a tux still make her mouth water. It was Grace’s one fatal flaw. She was hopelessly attracted to hopelessly attractive men.
Felix cleared his throat and straightened to his full height and since Grace was wearing four inch heels it put them at the exact same level. Felix wasn’t short, but neither was Grace.
“Grace, you look…” he paused, taking in the dress, the hair, the makeup, “you look fantastic!”
Felix’s eyes didn’t say fantastic. Felix’s eyes said hot.
Grace felt a moment’s vindication, but then her instinct for survival shifted into overdrive. Felix didn’t hand out compliments without an ulterior motive.
She caught a glimpse of herself in the Versailles rip-off gilt framed mirror behind the reservation desk. Grace had never thought of herself as beautiful. Her older brother Charlie had hogged all the beautiful genes. A better word to describe her was interesting. She’d inherited her mother’s big brown eyes (a plus) and her father’s Irish complexion (a negative- there wasn’t enough sunscreen in the world to keep her from freckling). Her shoulder length dark hair, usually an asset, wasn’t cooperating tonight. Her upsweep with the side swept bangs was supposed to be going for Julianna Margulies, Good Wife. But the humidity outside made her look more like Julianna Margulies, ER. She’d have to admit, though, Sarah was right. Too short or not, the dress did look good on her. Maybe Felix’s compliment was genuine.
“Thanks,” Grace said. “You don’t look too shabby yourself.”
It suddenly occurred to Grace that she’d never worn anything like Sarah’s little black dress when she was dating Felix. She’d always been more of a jeans and sneakers kind of girl. Maybe if she’d dressed sexier, Felix wouldn’t have been tempted to cheat.
It shouldn’t matter if she wore granny panties or tiny silk thongs. Cheating was about the cheater, not the person who’d been cheated on. How many times had she consoled Sarah with that exact same platitude?
“So, how long have you been working here?” she asked Felix.
Was she really making small talk with Felix Barberi?
“I was hired to open the restaurant. I’m the general manager.” He gave her a funny look.
“Congratulations, Felix. That’s great.” She meant it too. Why should she be a shit just because Felix was one?
“There was a big article in the paper when the restaurant opened last month. Lots of corporate types from all over Florida gunning for the job. My picture was on the front page of the local section. You sure you didn’t see it?”
Grace shook her head. What was she supposed to say to that? Polite small talk was one thing. It meant she was an adult and that she’d moved on. But she wasn’t about to throw her arms around Felix and give him a congratulatory hug.
“How’s your job going?” he asked. “Still working at that tourist shop?”
“Florida Charlies is a family business. Of course I still work there.”
“I saw a billboard the other day on I-95 claiming you now have the world’s largest alligator tooth on display.”
The alligator tooth display had been her father’s idea. Grace had found it tacky but she wasn’t about to admit that to Felix. “It’s pretty cool, actually. You should come by and see it sometime.” Who knows, maybe it belongs to a relative of yours.
Felix came in close. So close she could smell the starch radiating from his crisp white shirt and the expensive Acqua Di Gio cologne he always wore. A vision of writhing naked body parts (his and hers) made Grace’s pulse race. Then she remembered more writhing naked body parts (his and not hers) and her pulse raced again- this time in anger. She hated to admit it, but a part of her was still reeling from Felix’s infidelity. She thought she’d moved on, but seeing him again was like pulling the Band-Aid off an old cut only to find that that you’d accidentally ripped the scab off too.
“Grace,” he said in a low, intimate voice, “it’s me, remember? You don’t have to put on an act. I know how much you hate working for your father.” He placed his hand on her bare elbow. “Baby, you’re better than that. You have to break free. Be all you can be.”
Career advice from Felix Barberi? This was too much. She’d like to break free all right. Free enough to clobber him over the head.
Patience, Grace thought, trying to squelch Mal Genio. Which more or less meant ‘Bad Tempered One’ in Spanish. Her brother had christened her with the nickname at age five when Grace had kicked him in the shin after he’d told her there was no Santa Claus. The temperamental alter ego had proven convenient over the years. Whenever Grace did something she didn’t want to own up to she’d say, “Mal Genio did it!” It didn’t get her out of any punishments, but psychologically it made her feel better to know there was an inner demon inside her that she couldn’t completely control.
She regretted that she’d confided her job woes to Felix. But she couldn’t let Felix mess with her head. Not before her big date with Brandon. She stepped back to reclaim some of her personal space.
“Felix, I never said I hated working for my father.”
The smell of butter and garlic and freshly baked bread floated through the air reaching out to tentacle itself around her stomach. It smelled even better than Felix and his Acqua Di Gio. Grace felt herself sway. Five pound weight gain or not, she should have eaten today.
“I wish I’d known you were stopping by,” Felix continued. “I’m filling in for Pierre, the maitre d’, so I really can’t take a break right now. But maybe in another thirty minutes?”
Stopping by? Did Felix think she’d come here to see him?
“I’m meeting a date,” Grace said. “Maybe you’ve heard of him? Brandon Farrell? He’s been named Daytona Beach’s most eligible bachelor two years in a row by Central Florida Magazine. He’s my new boyfriend.”
Felix raised a brow.
Okay, so maybe that was a little over the top. Since this was their first date, technically Brandon wasn’t her boyfriend. Not yet anyway. But the petty side of her liked rubbing it in Felix’s face. See? I’ve moved on. With a mature man who knows what he wants!
“Of course I know Brandon Farrell. He’s a regular customer,” Felix said, “he also happens to not be here tonight.”
Grace began to feel uneasy. Brandon was running late too? “Well, can you just go ahead and seat me?”
“Sorry but we’re completely booked and there’s no reservation.” Although there was no one around to hear them, he lowered his voice. “When Farrell wants a table he calls ahead and we always accommodate him, regardless of how busy we are. I’ve been manning the phones all night and I can guarantee you he hasn’t called.” He gave her the same consoling look he’d given her earlier when he’d brought up the alligator tooth display.
“There must be some sort of mix up.”
“Grace, you don’t have to make up a story to come see me. The truth is I’ve been thinking about you too.”
“Felix, I really do have a date with Brandon Farrell.”
“Then why don’t you call and find out what’s holding him up?” Felix challenged. “Like I said before, Farrell’s an excellent customer. If he tells me to seat you, there won’t be a problem.”
Only there was a problem because Grace didn’t have Brandon’s phone number. She’d been so giddy when he’d asked her out last Thursday night after Zumba class that she hadn’t thought to get it. Come to think of it, he didn’t have her number either, but she didn’t want to admit that to Felix. She tugged on the dress again and tried not to fall off the unfamiliar four inch heels. Working in sneakers all day put a girl at a distinct disadvantage in the heel department.
“Um, funny thing, Felix. I don’t know Brandon’s number by heart. It’s programmed in my cell but I accidentally left it at home.” Not the truth, but not exactly a lie either. In her haste to get out the door, she really had forgotten her cell phone.
The house phone rang. Felix put a finger in the air to signal he wasn’t done with their conversation. “Chez Louis.” Was it Grace’s imagination, or did Felix suddenly have a French accent? “Yes, of course,” Felix said into the receiver. He glanced at her, his hazel eyes wide with amazement, “she’s right here.”
“Is it Brandon?”
Felix nodded and handed her the phone.
Grace squelched the urge to say I told you so.
“Grace, listen, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be able to make it,” Brandon said. “I had a rugby game scheduled for four. I thought we’d be done by six but the game went into over time and we just finished. I didn’t realize until now that I don’t have your number.”
Grace didn’t know which was worse. Her disappointment over the broken date or the embarrassment of being stood up with Felix as a witness.
“It’s okay,” she said, trying to sound mature. “Maybe we can do it some other time.”
“Damn, you’re being too nice about this.”
Grace wasn’t about to argue with that.
“I really want to see you tonight. The thing is… I’m heading over to this bar across from the field. I scored the winning try and the guys want to buy me drinks. I wish like hell I could get out of it, but they won’t take no for an answer. I know it’s not Chez Louis, but… maybe you could meet me there instead?”
Grace knew the bar he was talking about. She’d never been inside The Wobbly Duck but she’d driven by a few times. The outside looked like it was falling apart. Probably not the best venue for her shrinking black dress and her four inch heels. But the alternative was to go back to her place and spend the night alone, or worse, go back to the store for her book club meeting and have to face Sarah and Penny and Ellen and tell them she’d been stood up. On the other hand, if she went to the bar, she could show Brandon what a terrific sport she could be. Fifty years from now, at their golden wedding anniversary celebration it would be one of those cute “first date” stories to tell their party guests during the toast.
“I know the place,” Grace said. “Sure, I’ll meet you there for a drink.”
“Really?” he said with such boyish enthusiasm that Grace couldn’t help but feel convinced she was doing the right thing. The Wobbly Duck might not be Chez Louis, but she was still technically going out on a date with Brandon.
They said their goodbyes and she handed the phone back to Felix.
Grace put on a fake smile. “Silly me! I got everything totally confused. We’re meeting somewhere different.”
“Grace, I know the… incident last February must have been a blow to your ego, but you shouldn’t let it drag down your self-esteem. I couldn’t live with myself if I thought I’d done that to you.”
Grace felt her face go hot. Of all the conceited…
“Good news, Felix. You can go on breathing because my self-esteem is just fine, thank you. Now, where’s your bathroom?” She needed to check out the hem situation. And touch up her lipstick. And empty her bladder. She certainly didn’t want to do any of that in the bathroom at The Wobbly Duck. She wasn’t even sure the place had running water.
He sighed and pointed down a hallway to her left. “Remember, Grace. I’m here whenever you need me.”
“Gee, thanks. I’ll keep that mind.”
Just a quick touch up and she’d be on her way to meet Brandon. After tonight the Felixes of the world would be behind her forever.
She took the first empty stall and pulled the tiny shrink-wrapped tampon from her black clutch purse. Trying to balance herself mid-air (Abuela had always warned her against the evils of actually letting any part of her anatomy touch a toilet seat she hadn’t personally cleaned herself) she tried to work the shrink-wrap off the tampon by wiggling it between her fingers, but the outer wrap didn’t budge. Grace blew out a frustrated breath and tried again, this time working the plastic more vigorously. Nothing happened.
Obviously, she was dealing with a defective product.
She fished around the bottom of her clutch to produce a lipstick, her driver’s license, a credit card, dental floss, car keys, and two pieces of unwrapped bubble gum. Ew, gross. She tossed the bubble gum and upended her purse, but no more tampons. There was no choice. She’d have to open this one.
She tried to use the edge of her car key to rip into the plastic but that only ended with her jabbing herself in the palm of her hand. She could always use her nails, of course, but she’d gotten a manicure for tonight’s date and she didn’t want to chip her color. Bringing the end of the tampon up to her mouth she gnawed on the plastic with her teeth. After a minute of struggling, the plastic finally gave way.
Still, someone in the feminine hygiene department of Proctor and Gamble was going to be the recipient of a very serious email come Monday morning.
She finished up in the stall and washed her hands. Huh. Something felt weird. It wasn’t her contact lenses, was it? She blinked. No, they felt fine. She rubbed her tongue against the edge of her bottom teeth. There was something stuck in there. It was probably a little piece of the plastic shrink-wrap that had dislodged itself while she’d done her beaver imitation. Good thing she always carried dental floss in her purse.
She checked herself out in front of the full length mirror. It was just as she suspected. The dress was too short. It had looked fine back at her townhouse with Sarah urging her on, but she could see now that she was showing too much leg. At least too much leg for Grace O’Bryan. Despite being a jeans and sneakers kind of girl, she did occasionally dress sexy. But this wastoo sexy and she wasn’t the kind of girl who could pull off too sexy without worrying that she looked ridiculous while doing it.
She grabbed hold of the dress by the back of the neck and twisted around to read the label. There was giant P next to the size. Of course. Sarah was barely five foot two. The dress was a petite. No wonder the cut felt strange. Kind of the like the plastic stuck between her teeth. There was nothing she could do now about the dress, but she could do something about the plastic. She gave a great big smile to expose her teeth and leaned her face into the mirror to get a better view.
What she saw made her freeze. There was no plastic stuck between her teeth to get rid of. What felt so weird was that a tiny piece of one of her bottom teeth was missing.
Grace snapped her eyes shut. This wasn’t happening. Maybe the lack of food today had made her delirious. Yes, that was it. She’d open her eyes and find the whole thing had been a mirage. She was like those people who wandered through the desert, dehydrated, and thought they saw a swimming pool, only instead of seeing something good, she’d conjured up something bad.
She took a deep breath and slowly opened her eyes.
It wasn’t a mirage, because there it was, staring right back at her. Her previously even row of straight white teeth was no more. Somehow, she’d chipped off part of her tooth while unwrapping a tampon.
Who did that happen to?
People who were cursed.