Beth Ann Bennet typed “male” in the box that indicated which gender she was seeking. Her best friend and fellow classmate, Jane Henderson, leaned over her shoulder and studied the university library’s computer screen in the afternoon sunlight. The cursor blinked, and Beth’s level of nausea rose with each flash.
“So far, so good,” her friend declared.
Beth seriously doubted it.
“This has to be illegal, or maybe just immoral.” She bit down on her lip again, the one she’d chewed until it’d turned raw and achy. “Somehow I doubt Professor O’Reilly had this method in mind when he told us to gather sociological data.”
Jane tilted her auburn head and gave Beth that familiar when-are-you-gonna-get-with-the-program look. She exhaled melodramatically. “For goodness sake, Beth Ann, this is research. It’s not like you’re going to get emotionally invested or anything. Heaven knows, you’ll drop the dimwit like a dead goldfish before he has a chance to ask any questions. Find an appropriate case study, get the info and get out. Kids’ stuff.”
“For you, maybe,” Beth said, wondering for the seven hundredth time why she’d let herself get talked into this. “You’ve playacted with your identity since you were—what, a toddler? I haven’t.”
Jane flashed a grin of discernible pride, which was combined in equal measure with deviousness. Beth’s spirits sank a notch lower. Why couldn’t she be more like her best friend? Jane was light years ahead of her in the deceit department.
“C’mon,” Jane said. “Next question.”
“Okay. Between the ages of…?”
“Well, you’re twenty-six, but you’ll be playing it younger of course.” Jane squinted at the screen. “Go for men in the twenty-five to thirty-five range.”
“Fine.” Beth typed in the information. “Located within…?”
“No further than a twenty-mile radius of your Chicago ZIP code.”
She keyed that in also, her pulse picking up speed.
“Now, check the ‘photos only’ box and click on GO. I want to see if the rumors are true.”
“You know as well as I do that this is a scam. I mean, seriously. Lady Catherine’s Love Match Website—Where You’re Destined To Find Your Perfect Mate?” Beth forced a laugh. “We may succeed in proving gender-role stereotypes are alive and well in the New Millennium, but there’s no way we’ll snag a guy who’ll prove true love can be found through an e-search.”
Jane smirked then aimed an index finger at the screen. “Scroll down and let’s get a peek at your—holy shmoly—fifty-four potential Love Matches. Not that I’m dying to be a bridesmaid or anything but—”
Beth elbowed her.
“Shhh. We’re in a library.”
Jane rolled her eyes in response.
Beth closed hers before threading her fingers through her tangled mop of light-brown hair. She felt the split ends snap.
She groaned and wished she could afford a decent haircut. But no. March meant paying off the final installment of her tuition bill and what she made at work could only stretch so far. Plus,
there were necessities like bread and peanut butter, staple items for a mom with a six-year-old. If everything went as she planned, maybe by June she could justify an appointment.
She opened her eyes and glared at the listing of eligible men, reminding herself that she had to choose one. They swam through her range of vision while the lyrics to “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places” flooded her brain. She tried to block out the tune and focus on the faces of her research subjects. Who’d make the best candidate?
Jane, quick study that she was, had zeroed in on someone already. “Oh, Beth. Just look at Number 16. Blue-eyed. Beefy. And he likes children.”
Beefy was right. He had muscles the size of overgrown cantaloupes. And, oh, he preferred blondes.
“My soul mate for sure.” She ignored Jane’s protests and scrolled further down the screen. She had one shot at this and refused to mess it up. “Number 23 has some potential, though. He claims to be athletic. And ‘spiritual.’ Into fast cars. Watches ‘Must-See TV.’ And he’s seeking someone in the skinny to slim range. Sounds like an ideally stereotypical guy.”
She kept reading.
“Except he’s proud of his Streisand CD collection, his Chia Pet and his Virgo perfectionism. These things could throw off the hypothesis.” Beth sighed.
Jane read the name. “Reverend Ezekiel Collins is not typical enough for you?”
“Moving on then.”
“What do you think of Number 37?” Beth said.
Jane wrinkled her upturned nose.
“Yeah. Me neither,” she conceded, “but I’m running out of options.”
Then she saw him.
She centered his profile on the screen. Read the bio. Reread it while Jane’s giggles bubbled around her. Heaven help her, but Number 49 was The One.
“So, it’ll be ‘Will Darcy’ then, eh?” Jane said. “Likes women of every hair color. Very open-minded of him.”
“It’s all there,” she whispered, marveling at the image of the man before her. “The sports interest. The standard descriptive lines. A professed ‘love of the outdoors’ and other oh-so-masculine pursuits.”
“You’re right. He likes camping. Yuck.”
“No mention of cooking together, dancing ‘til dawn or seeing sappy chick-flicks, like some of these other guys. At least we can’t question his honesty. No unusual club affiliations. And he even admits to having strong professional ambitions, although he doesn’t elaborate.”
“Definitely falls into an acceptable salary range,” Jane agreed, pointing to the numbers listed in the right-hand column.
“And just take a peek at what he’s looking for. Someone ‘attractive, college-educated, height/weight proportionate’—meaning almost anorexic.” Beth raised her eyebrows. “Someone ‘twenty-one to twenty-five who likes children but has no dependents.’ They all want a woman who’s young and unencumbered. I swear, this guy sounds like every blind date I’ve had in the past five years.”
Her friend gave her a scrutinizing once-over. “You’re slim, pretty, you’ve got great bone structure and those huge brown eyes, and you could pass for twenty-two without a second thought.”
Beth shrugged. So what if she looked young? One’s age wasn’t something a person could hide forever. “Maybe,” she said. “And I’m almost, finally, college-educated. But there’s still that little question of dependents…”
“He doesn’t need to know about Charlie or your real occupation or even your real name, Beth. Use an alias. Maybe that combination of your parents’ names—Charlotte and Lucas—that you pretended was your penname when you were ten.”
Jane tapped her chin. “Besides, you might as well try for someone you think is kind of cute. If all goes well, you’ll have to spend hours analyzing the guy. Maybe even a few studying him in person—without getting too close of course,” she warned. “It’s okay to have a little fun with your online profile.”
Beth shuddered. The things she had to endure in the name of science. Well, social science.
But perhaps Jane was right. If she had to do this final Sociology 369 “Gender and Society” project, and if she was in the quarter of the class that had to use the Internet as her main research tool, she might as well choose a subject who was at least tall, dark-haired and gorgeous. Nothing stereotypical about her own mate selection, of course, she thought. The irony of it brought the day’s first grin to her lips.
She lifted her fingers to the keyboard and clicked on the REPLY button to send Number 49 an email:
Hello, Will. I’m a twenty-two-year-old child psychology major, Beth began. She glanced back at her friend.
“Yeah, that’s perfect,” Jane said. “Use my major. It’ll explain your knowledge of children without giving anything away. I can fill you in on subject details later.”
Beth nodded. I love the outdoors and particularly enjoy playing softball, she typed, and then grimaced at the blatant lies. The guilt was already eating at her, but she had to think of her son. Nothing could get in the way of her providing for Charlie.
She continued writing, I’m hoping we might correspond and get to know one another better. My name is Charlotte Lucas and you can email me at…
In the Regents General Hospital cafeteria a few weeks later, Dr. William Darcy gulped his last swallow of the Mocha-Cappuccino De-latte Delight he’d gotten at the gourmet coffee shop nearby. Then he glared at his cousin. “No, I don’t want to bet a hundred bucks on whether or not you can catch a fish stick between your teeth.”
Bingley McNamara grinned, crossed his long legs at the ankles and propped them up on the metal chair to Will’s left. “Face it, Cuz. You’re intimidated by my varied and remarkable skills.” He tossed his last greasy fish stick in the air and caught it neatly between his incisors. He chomped down. “I’d have won,” he said around a mouthful of deep-fried pseudo-fish. “My talent frightens you.”
“The only thing about you that frightens me is your insatiable gambling habit.” Will leveled his most disapproving stare at the guy but, as usual, his cousin ignored him.
“Aw, c’mon. Everyone makes a wager now and then.”
“Only if ‘now and then’ means every fifteen minutes.” Will scanned his watch. “Go. Get out of here. Although this may be a foreign concept to you, I’ve actually got a job.”
“I’ve got a job,” Bingley said, sounding indignant. “It’s just a little less, oh, how should I put it? Obvious.”
“Overseeing your trust fund is not a bona fide career. It’s a sick obsession. Although how it manages to grow profits, despite your wagering addiction, is a mystery.”
Bingley snorted, guzzled his short Colombian espresso then sent Will a semi-serious look. “Listen up. Did you give any more thought to my proposition last month? Any bites online?”
Will turned his back on his favorite and only cousin, who—at present—he wanted to strangle to within a millimeter of the rich party boy’s life. He pitched the remains of their lunch in the trash then loosened his tie.
“And what if I have?” Will said finally, knowing he’d regret even considering Bingley’s latest ludicrous bet. But, dammit, he needed the help and he needed it now. “Are you prepared to follow through if I can get the lady to materialize?”
“Not just any lady,” Bingley reminded him. “A girlfriend who could take an active role in your precious clinic.” He sniffed. “That’ll give you a shot at wanting to be with her long term. I expect a five-date minimum, and I need to meet her before the second Sunday in May.”
“I know you don’t believe me, but I’m looking out for your best interests here, Cuz. Before I plunk my money into some do-good operation, I want proof that you’ve finally gotten a life outside of this, this…morgue.” He waved the arm with the Rolex attached to it in a wild loopy arc. “Evidence that you’ve scored a little balance in your daily life—among other things.” He waggled his brows suggestively.
Will marveled at how a guy who resembled him physically could act with all the subtlety of a Saturday-morning cartoon character.
“So keep the movie-ticket stubs from your dates,” Bingley said. “Learn how to use the camera app on your phone, or even grab your old Polaroid, and snap some pretty pictures of the two of you. Save her emails and make sure she shows up happy and talkative by my birthday. It’s on Mother’s Day, this year.” He tilted his head as if in deep contemplation. “Whoever this chick is, I wanna see her hanging on your arm with lovely-dovey eyes only for you.”
Will thought of the one woman he wanted, no, needed to win this wager with Bingley. Charlotte Lucas. If only she could be as amazing in person as she seemed online. A youthful but professional twenty-two-year-old future child psychologist. Bright, humorous and a sports enthusiast with a warm heart. Someone who’d fit in perfectly at the clinic, if he’d gauged her right. And someone he could tolerate for five dates outside of it.
She’d described herself as being five-foot-six with light-brown hair and brown eyes, but she held the advantage. She’d seen him—a scanned picture anyway—but he had yet to see her. Maybe, just maybe, after three weeks of cautious emailing, that’d change tomorrow. The clinic’s funding depended on it.
Still, this was a hell of a way to make a few million bucks.
“I’ve got to go,” he said. “My rounds start in a few minutes. Talk to you next week.”
“Catch you later,” his cousin said. “Don’t be a stranger.”
“They don’t come any stranger than you,” Will muttered, their standard childhood reply.
“I heard that.” Bingley smirked, his fingers scoring his thick brown hair, his lean legs sauntering on his way through the sliding doors.
Will sighed and took to the stairs. The guy never changed. There was always some weird bet, some eccentric agenda in Bingley’s quest to “feel needed” or whatever. But this time the ends might justify the means.
Will tucked the flap of his shirt into the dress slacks he’d worn for the administrative meeting today and readjusted his tie with a scowl. He missed his scrubs but formalities had to be observed with the hospital board.
“Hey, Dr. Darcy,” a ninety-year-old patient called from her bed on the second-floor east wing. “You my doctor today?”
“Wish I was, sweetheart,” he said, winking and making the elderly lady blush. “None of the patients on my roster could hold a candle to your good looks.”
“Oh, how you do go on!” She looked away, her head and hands shaking, feigning disbelief, but he could see teeth. She was grinning big.
Parkinson’s. Stage Two. He struggled to close his mind to it and move down the hall. The pain of dealing with deteriorating elderly patients would chew him up if he dwelled there. Even though the low-income moms he liked to work with were often in dire straits, it was still less agonizing to watch than the suffering of the elderly.
He slid into an empty room and flipped on the computer. He had huge plans for his clinic. He just needed to get the hospital’s final stamp of approval, which he could get if he could secure the rest of the cash.
The board had said so.
To get the cash, though, he’d have to get Bingley onboard. To get Bingley onboard, he’d have to get Charlotte Lucas.
He scanned his list of unread email messages, but didn’t see anything life-threatening in the subject lines. Clicking on Charlotte’s email address, he typed what he hoped would be a hard-to-resist invitation.
Will proofed it for errors, took a deep breath and clicked SEND.