Anyone but You Read online

  He walked past her and stopped to stare at the papers on the table. “You’re working. I don’t want to interrupt.”

  At least he had manners. “It’s all right.” Nina closed the door behind him. “It’s a terrible book. Boring. Turgid.”

  Alex frowned. “Turgid. He was the Russian, right?”

  Oh, terrific. “Not a big reader, I see.” Nina pulled out a chair from the table and took his arm to guide him into it. “Coffee coming right up. You sit until it’s done.”

  “I took science courses not lit.” Alex took off his tie and threw it on the table. Then he picked up a page from the book and began to read while Nina put a filter in the coffeemaker and poured in the coffee.

  Fred wandered over to him, and Nina turned to shoo him away, but Alex said, “Hey, Fred,” and leaned down to scratch his ears, and Nina forgave him everything.

  Alex was a nice guy. So he wasn’t brilliant. Big deal. It wasn’t as if she was contemplating a relationship with him; she’d already decided that would be ridiculous. What she needed was a friend, a neighbor. And Alex was nice to her and good to her dog. What more could she want in a neighbor?

  Fred looked as if he could want more. He nudged Alex’s hand, looking for potato chips, and then collapsed under the table from disappointment when none were forthcoming. Alex went back to reading the manuscript. “This is terrible,” he told her when he looked up. “Why is he writing about some dumb American prep school if he’s Russian?”

  “He’s not Russian,” Nina said. “You made that up. How much have you had to drink?”

  “Well.” Alex leaned back in the chair, keeping one hand on the table as if for security. “I had breakfast with my sister—Irish coffee. Then I had lunch with my mother and that’s always a strain, so I had two scotches. Then my stepmother asked me out for a drink, and I hate saying no to her, so I had brandy. Then my dad took me out for dinner.” He cocked an eye at Nina. “When my father eats, the liquor flows. I’m pretty sure I had three whiskies. Then he had the cab drop me off at home, and my brother was waiting for me with a six-pack.” He shook his head. “He just left and I laid down and the whole room sort of swooped and I thought of you. Pour some caffeine down me and I’ll leave.”

  Nina took two blue-checked mugs from the cupboard and put them on the table. “Couldn’t you have had seltzer with a couple of them?”

  “No.” Alex shook his head and then thought better of it. “Ouch, that hurts. I had to have something to drown out the refrain.”

  Nina sat down, intrigued. “The refrain?”

  Alex nodded, this time more carefully. “They all had different verses, but when we got to the chorus, they all said the same thing. ‘Time to decide on a career, Alex.’” He put his head down and looked mulish for a moment. “I don’t want to decide on a career. I think they’re pushing me.”

  Nina looked at him with disgust. She had the Peter Pan syndrome, sitting right here in her kitchen. She sighed and began to finish the job his family had started. Somebody had to. “Well, Alex, they may have a point. I realize twenty-five seems young, but—”

  “I’m thirty,” Alex said. “Today. Happy birthday to me.”

  Thirty? Dear Lord, and he still didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life? What was he doing now? Checking IDs? Singing in a rock band? Making sure the fries were hot?

  “Coffee?” Alex said and Nina checked back over her shoulder.

  “It’s still dripping. You’re thirty?”

  He gazed at her owlishly. “You thought I was younger, huh? Everybody does. No wonder nobody takes me seriously. And I’ve got a receding hairline and everything.”

  Nina squinted at him. “No, you don’t.”

  “Yes, I do.” He pulled his hair back off his forehead. “See? It’s creeping up on the sides.”

  Nina leaned closer. “Well, a little. But if you want people to take you seriously, choosing a career would be a better move than flashing a minimally receding hairline.”

  Alex groaned. “Not you, too. Listen, I’m happy doing what I’m doing. All I need is a cup of coffee and I’ll be ecstatic.”

  “Coming right up.” Nina got up and pulled the pot out from under the drip spout, feeling disappointed and stupid. She’d been attracted to him and that had been ridiculous since he was fifteen years younger than she was. Then it turned out he was only ten years younger, which was not as ridiculous although still ridiculous, but now he was also shiftless and evidently not too bright. Turgid as a Russian novelist? Okay, he was drunk, but still, this was not good. She turned to the table and poured coffee into the mugs, watching him reach for his before she said, “Be careful. It’s hot.”

  “Thanks, Mom,” he said, and she winced. “I’m kidding,” he said hastily. “Dumb joke.”

  “Probably not.” Nina put the pot back on the warmer and sank into her seat. “I’m practically old enough to be your mother.”

  “Not unless you had a lot more fun in kindergarten than I did,” he said, and Nina said, “I’m forty. Two days ago, as a matter of fact.”

  Alex nodded wisely. “It’s those years that end in zero that kill you. Twenty-nine was nothing like this.”

  “Thirty-nine sucked, too,” Nina said. “I got divorced.”

  Alex winced. “Sorry.”

  Nina shook her head. “No, it’s fine now. I have my own place, and I can do anything I want, and I love it. Last night after you left, Fred and I stayed up and watched The Great Escape until one-thirty. You can’t do that when you’re married. I missed out on a lot of great movies because Guy didn’t like it when I stayed up late. I love being single.”

  Alex blinked. “I watched it, too. Steve McQueen and the catcher’s mitt. You like old movies?”

  Nina nodded. “And James Garner. James Garner is great in that movie.” Then she frowned at him. “Now back to your problem. From the wisdom of my advanced years, I can tell you that waiting too long to start a career is a mistake.”

  Alex sipped his coffee. “You just starting one now?”

  “Going back to one I abandoned sixteen years ago,” Nina said. “I got very lucky and found a job in publishing after my divorce, but if I’d stayed at it, people would be working for me instead of me working for them. It took me six months to advance from secretary to assistant editor. One of the editors who has seniority over me is your age. It’s hard.”

  Alex shrugged and sipped again. “Why do you care? Age is irrelevant.”

  “Tell me that when you’re forty.” Nina put her mug down. “Come on, let’s work on your future. You said you liked science courses in school.”

  “I said I took science courses in school. I didn’t say I liked them.” He took another sip. “This is excellent coffee. What kind is it?”

  “Don’t try to change the subject. What do you like?”

  “People. Excitement. Noise. Color.”

  “Maybe we can get you in with the circus,” Nina said acidly. “Concentrate here. I’m trying to fix your life.”

  “You and my whole family. Why don’t we leave my life alone? I like my life.” Alex drained his coffee mug and then stared into it. “You know, this isn’t supposed to work, but I do feel better. Must be the caffeine.”

  “How are you supporting yourself now?” Nina asked, hoping for a direction to steer him in.

  “I’m a doctor.” Alex pushed his empty mug toward her. “Could I have another cup, please?”

  Nina blinked at him. “You’re a what?”

  “A doctor. Never mind, I’ll get it.” Alex got up and stepped over Fred to fill his mug from the pot before he gestured it in her direction. “You want more?”

  “No.” She didn’t want more coffee, she wanted to kill him. He’d known what she’d been thinking and had just played along to amuse himself. Turgid as a Russian novelist. How juvenile of him. Well, he was young, but not that damn young. “Very funny. I want to know why the hell your family isn’t happy with a thirty-year-old doctor.”