Anyone but You Read online

  Debbie hung up on him.

  Alex put the phone on the windowsill and leaned back against the fire escape again, trying to decide if he was depressed that Debbie was gone. He wasn’t. In fact, the only depressing part was that he wasn’t depressed. He should be depressed. Debbie was a very nice woman, but he didn’t care at all that she was out of his life.

  He was a slime. Worse, he was turning into Max.

  Still, he’d stuck it out with Debbie for six weeks. That was pretty good. Maybe next time, he’d find a woman who was happy just to be with him, cruising through life and the video store, without a need to produce more family obligations that would make him crazier than he already was.

  There was Tricia, the little blonde in the business office. She’d asked him to dinner once, but he’d turned her down gently because of Debbie. She seemed nice. Maybe Tricia would be more interested in food and Casablanca than in planning car pools and country-club memberships. Maybe he’d call her if he lived through his birthday tomorrow without being sent to prison for strangling a family member.

  The fire escape was cutting into the muscles in his back so he sat up and stretched and crawled through the window. The couch was close enough to catch a little of the breeze. All he needed was sleep. With any luck, he’d sleep through his birthday and not have to see anybody before he went back to work on Saturday.

  LATER THAT NIGHT, Nina relaxed on her overstuffed couch with Fred heavy and warm beside her, now redolent of both the dog shampoo she’d washed him with and the Duende perfume she’d spritzed him down with on a whim. He’d been annoyed, but she’d bribed him with gourmet dog biscuits, and he was happy now, sighing in his sleep while she watched Mel Gibson blow up something on TV.

  She had the sound off so she could watch Mel without having to listen to him, and the traffic rumbled faintly outside in the May night, punctuated now and then by the sirens of the ambulances heading for Riverbend General two blocks away, reminding her that humanity was close at hand. Best of all, Fred was warm beside her, and for the first time that day, she felt secure enough to turn her full attention to her problems. With Fred around, they didn’t seem so bad.

  One problem was her job. She’d started as a secretary to Jessica Howard of Howard Press, a woman whose beige-suited exterior hid a warm heart and an appreciative spirit, and within six months Jessica had promoted her to editor. That was good. Unfortunately, she was editing memoirs of upper-class stiffs who’d never had an original thought, and collections of essays by academics on topics so obscure that even if they were original nobody cared. “Did you ever think about branching out?” she’d asked Jessica. “Into fiction? Something popular like romance novels? I hear they do very well.”

  Jessica had looked at her as though she’d suggested prostitution. “Popular fiction? Not in my lifetime. I’ll pass Howard Press on to the next generation as honorably as it was passed to me.”

  Nina had repressed the impulse to point out that the press might not survive Jessica’s lifetime. In fact, if the figures she’d seen while she’d been Jessica’s secretary were accurate, Howard Press might not survive lunch. And it was such a shame. Jessica was a good person who loved books; she should have a successful press. Unfortunately, Jessica wouldn’t have known a bestseller if it bit her.

  Nina cuddled Fred closer. “Want to write a book, Fred? That dog in the White House made a mint, and she didn’t have near your class.”

  Fred snored and twitched.

  Nina kissed the top of his sweet-smelling head. “I’ll take that as a no.”

  Her other problem was the loneliness. It had been bad this last week, being in a new place and being so lonely. She’d been lonely before in the big house, but she was used to being lonely there. Her marriage had been a series of important parties and important charities and important career moves for her husband, but after the first couple of years, not much warmth and not much fun. She and Guy had laughed together at first, but then his future had gotten in their way, and the fun had stopped. That’s the way it was with professional men: they thought they were their careers and they forgot how to have fun while they built empires. And she’d been Mrs. Empire, feeling emptier and emptier until she’d finally gotten up the courage to leave Guy, to file for divorce and go looking for a life of her own, hoping for warmth and good times.

  He’d been stunned when she’d told him she was leaving. “Why?” he’d said. “I never cheated on you.” And Nina, annoyed that he’d missed how empty their lives had become, had said, “Good, I never cheated on you, either.” And Guy had said, “Of course not. You’re not the type. And now you’re going to live the rest of your life alone? You’re almost forty, Nina. You’re not going to find anyone else at your age. Why don’t you go get a facial? That always makes you feel better.”

  She’d thought he was wrong, thought it would be better once she had a place of her own, but she’d only been in the apartment a week when she’d realized what Guy had been talking about: lonely was lonely, no matter where you lived. He just hadn’t realized that it had been lonelier living with him than without him. She gathered Fred to her and put her cheek on his furry little head, grateful to have him with her.

  Her mother had been even blunter than Guy. “You’re leaving Guy just as your body’s going. You’ve put on weight, you’ve got crow’s-feet and I’m sure you’re sagging in more places than just your jawline. This is a mistake. Tell Guy you’ve changed your mind.” And when Nina had said, “No,” her mother had washed her hands of her. “Fine. Leave the money and society to be some drab, middle-aged divorcée. It’s your life. But don’t come crying to me when you realize what you’ve done.”

  Even Charity had put her two cents in. “Your mother’s an ice cube and always has been. Forget her. But I’ve got to tell you, Neen, it’s a jungle out there. Guerilla dating. Brace yourself.”

  Well, she wasn’t going to brace herself, because she was not going looking for another man. From now on, she was building her own life and staying as far away from men as she could. She had her career, her apartment, and now she had Fred, too.

  Fred stirred again, and Nina held him close. Now she had Fred to come home to, and he was all she was ever going to need. Fred would always love her and would never leave her. “We’re going to be together forever,” she told him. Then she fell asleep with her arms around him, his snores echoing in her ears.

  DEBBIE WAS LICKING wet, sloppy kisses on his face. “No,” Alex mumbled. “No, I don’t want kids.” He tried to push her nose away until somewhere in the recesses of his sleep-fogged mind he remembered that Debbie’s nose hadn’t been long and furry. Then he opened his eyes and screamed.

  There was an animal on the couch next to him.

  Alex sat up and the animal rolled off and landed on the floor with a thud.

  “What the hell?” Alex turned on the lamp, and the soft light flooded the room and showed him the thing at his feet.

  It was a basset hound with all four legs in the air, looking like inflated road kill.

  Alex bent down. “Hello?”

  The dog rolled over slowly, blinking at him in reproach. This dog was very good at reproach. In fact, this dog could make Hannibal Lecter feel guilty.

  “I’m sorry,” Alex told him. “You scared me.” He scratched the dog behind the ears, and the dog’s eyes closed as he gave a little doggy moan. “Where you from, buddy? Better yet, how’d you get in here?”

  He looked over at the apartment door: closed shut. That pretty well meant the window. He looked at the dog in disbelief. “You came in the window? What are you, Superdog?”

  He walked over and stuck his head out the window. The back gate was shut tight. “You must live here in the apartments.”

  The dog turned his back and waddled to the door, but Alex caught a glint of metal on his collar before he turned.

  “Wait a minute.” Alex followed him to the door and bent down to read the tag. Fred Askew, it said. 2455 River Dr., Apt. 3. “You’re one