“You need a life,” Carole said.
Leslie Baynton set her teeth, conjured up a smile, and
controlled the urge to throttle her older sister. “I have a life, thank you
“This?” A sweeping motion with one hand dismissed
everything in the cluttered apartment, including Leslie.
“It suits me.” As a defense, the words lacked punch. Leslie
didn’t entirely believe them herself. She knew from experience that nothing she
said would change what Carole thought anyway.
While the older sibling prowled, looking for something else
to complain about, the younger perched tailor fashion on her overstuffed sofa
and braced herself for the next volley of criticism.
At forty-seven, Carole Marsdon Salisbury looked sleek and trim
in expensive off-white slacks and a coral silk blouse. Leslie managed to
contain a sigh, reminding herself she didn’t really envy her sister’s looks and
sense of style.
She glanced down at the worn blue fleece that covered her
from neck to ankles. When she was ten and Carole twenty, Leslie had been in awe
of her sister s sophisticated beauty and had tried to imitate everything about
her from clothing to mannerisms. Carole could have been a high-fashion model,
she was that lovely and that perfectly proportioned. Leslie had inherited the
same flawless skin and blue eyes, but there the similarities stopped.
Carole was a stunning blonde. Leslie had been obliged to
settle for a sort of sand color. Her teen years had brought thick glasses,
braces, and a bra size that was, to say the least, disappointing. And she’d
stopped growing at five-foot-three instead of reaching the willowy height
needed to be a model, her earliest career goal.
Still, she hadn’t turned out so badly, and she’d come to
prefer loose, comfortable sweatsuits like the one she had on now to designer
clothes. She’d found better things to do than waste an hour every morning on
makeup and hair. She’d learned, too, that she would never have been happy with
a man like her sister’s stuffy husband, and she’d have hated the obligation to
engage in as much socializing as Carole and Mitch did. Since childhood, Leslie
had been cursed with extreme shyness around strangers.
There was, Leslie realized, only one aspect of Carole’s
life she still sometimes longed to emulate, the part that involved children.
Carole had raised two, a beautiful, talented, intelligent girl set to enter
her senior year in high school, and a handsome boy heading off to an Ivy League
college with both academic and athletic scholarships in his pocket.
Well aware of the futility of daydreaming about what she
could not have, Leslie broke off her reverie and cast a wary glance in her
sister’s direction. She was just in time to see Carole run a finger across the
top shelf of one of the five tall bookshelves that dominated the living room.
She made a face at the streak she left in the layer of dust, then moved on to
stand in front of Leslie’s desk and glare at her computer.
A moment later Carole’s scornful gaze shifted from the
compact notebook computer to its owner. “You ought to get rid of this . . .
thing, Les. I swear, you’ve turned into a hermit since you bought it.”
Leslie didn’t bother to remind her sister that she’d always
been a bit of a recluse. “The Internet is a great place to meet people,” she
Although she’d once wished she had just a fraction of
Carole’s ability to make friends, during the last few years Leslie had learned
to be content with her own company. The on-line chat rooms and digests she
could access on the Internet might have been designed with someone like her in
mind. Their very anonymity allowed her to be herself. More and more, lately,
she’d felt free to express opinions, even argue about issues that were
important to her. On-line, others respected her views.
“Meet people on the Internet?” Carole sounded appalled.
“Oh, that’s smart! Don’t you read the newspapers? Why, just the other day
there was a story—”
“I read the newspapers, Carole. I also watch television.
I’m not going to send my life savings to some scam artist with a Web site, or
invite a criminal into my home, or run off to have a mad passionate affair with
That last possibility, however, brought a tinge of color
into her cheeks, and Carole, for all her self-centeredness, saw entirely too
much. Concern flashed in her eyes as she took note of Leslie’s reaction.
“What are you involved in?” Carole demanded. “Some kind of
singles club? Oh, Lord! Don’t tell me you’re using the computer to download pictures
of naked men.”
“Hardly. I’ve never had any desire for that kind of cheap
thrill, and I’ve always avoided singles bars and their on-line equivalent.”
She had, however, more than a year earlier, joined a
discussion group for mystery fans. They e-mailed back and forth about books.
And for almost a year, in private e-mails, she had been communicating with one
particular member of that group, a man named Chase. They’d gradually branched
out into other topics, discussing all kinds of things and always finding a
great deal of common ground.
For a while Leslie had been wary. She knew there were
potential hazards in intense on-line relationships. But when Chase did not
propose meeting in person, not even after they discovered that they both lived
in Maine, she’d decided she had nothing to worry about. In fact, just lately,
she’d begun to consider broaching the subject herself. She was curious about
him and suspected he was as shy as she was.
“Come over to the house for dinner tonight” Carole’s abrupt
words broke into Leslie’s thoughts. As usual, her invitation was more of an
order than a suggestion. “Mitch has already asked the bank’s new accountant
to join us. You’ll like him. He’s—”
“Oh, please. No more blind dates.” Especially not with men
Mitchell Salisbury, conservative banker, thought were suitable companions for
Carole wasn’t accustomed to being thwarted, and she reacted
with sarcasm. “Don’t tell me you already have a date.”
Goaded, Leslie chose to be provoking herself. “I prefer to
spend Saturday nights cuddled up to my computer.”
“Because I like things the way they are? Because I don’t
want to be a carbon copy of you any longer?”
Carole tried to stare her down, but for once Leslie managed
not to blink first. “Stop meddling, Carole,” she warned when her sister lost
this small test of wills. “When and if I decide my life needs reorganizing,
I’ll do it myself.”
Annoyed, Carole stormed across the room to pluck her handbag
from the table by the door. A pile of unopened junk mail tumbled to the floor,
landing atop a brightly colored advertising flyer that had already been there
for a few days. Tidiness had never been a priority for Leslie.
“Fine!” Carole declared. “I wash my hands of you.” But just
before she opened the door and sailed out into the corridor, she fired one last
salvo. “You have no idea what an embarrassment you are,” she said over her
shoulder. “You’ve managed to turn yourself into a stereotype of the old-maid
librarian living alone with her cat!”
“I’m not all that old,” Leslie muttered as she uncurled
from her position on the sofa and went to lock the door behind her sister. And
she wasn’t a maid, either. She’d been married, briefly, right out of high
school, something that still ranked as the worst mistake of her life.
Only seconds after Carole’s noisy exit from the apartment, a
large orange tabby emerged from behind the sofa and meowed a question.
“Yes, Dewey. She’s gone.”
The cat, unconvinced, conducted his own search of the
premises, curling his lip each time he caught a whiff of Carole’s scent.
“She feels the same way about you,” Leslie told him.
Smiling faintly, Leslie crossed to her desk and booted up
the computer. She composed a lengthy e-mail to Chase, allowing herself to vent
on the subject of Carole. Chase would understand. He seemed to have had the
same kind of love-hate relationship with his late brother, Jake, that she had
with her sister.
Chase was someone she could talk to, the one person in her
life who really paid attention to her and offered practical advice instead of
lectures. She’d never forget how he’d made her laugh after the previous week’s
debacle at work over the “big red book.”
A college student had appeared at her desk in technical
services and complained that he couldn’t find a certain volume by Thomas Pyles,
a history of the English language. When she’d checked and told him the library
did not own the book in question, the young man had insisted they did. He’d
used it before, he assured her. He even remembered that it was a big, heavy
book with a red cover. That it wasn’t listed as part of the collection didn’t
impress him. Leslie tried to help, spending more than an hour with the student,
only to discover that he’d used the Pyles book at another library entirely.
Instead of apologizing, he grumbled that the book ought to have been in the
Three Cities library. The last Leslie had seen of him, he’d been stalking off
in high dudgeon to file a complaint . . . against her.
Still fuming by the time she got home, Leslie had recounted
the silly, annoying episode to Chase. He’d put the situation back into
perspective for her with one witty remark. “Want to make a little wager that
when he finally finds that book it won’t be red . . . or read, either?”
For some reason, his response had tickled Leslie’s funny
bone. She’d felt a thousand percent better. Their relationship worked both ways
too. Leslie knew she’d been able to brighten Chase’s day at least as often as
he’d provided a sympathetic ear for her.
Before she sent off her message, Leslie took a moment to
scan the return addresses on her incoming e-mail. Nothing from Chase. She
hesitated. He didn’t talk about his job, but she did know all about his current
family troubles. Sighing, she deleted what she’d just typed without sending it.
This was not the time to plague him with her problems.
As she logged off, Dewey suddenly jumped onto her lap, and
she cuddled his fat, furry body. “Chase is having a rough time just now,” she
told the cat. “He doesn’t need to read about any more of my petty grievances.”
She supposed she shouldn’t count on hearing from him at all until he’d sorted
things out, but she’d gotten used to having e-mail from him at least once every
day, used to having him around, even if it was only electronically.
Chase Forster had become a very big part of her life.
Uneasy in the aftermath of Carole’s criticism, Leslie
wondered if her sister might actually be right. Was she alone too much? More to
the point, had she somehow managed to fall for a man she’d never met?
No, of course not. What a preposterous idea! She and Chase
were just good buddies. Pals. If she was at times fascinated by what he wrote
to her, intrigued by the workings of his mind, why those were perfectly normal
results of friendship. Weren’t they?
* * * *
In another apartment some forty miles northwest of Leslie Baynton’s,
Chase Forster was just finishing a long-distance phone call. He said good-bye
to his parents, cradled the telephone, then stood frowning down at it, idly
stroking the dark brown strands of his mustache while he thought things
His folks were in their seventies and retired. They didn’t
want to go through the hassles of parenthood again. No surprise there.
Considering they hadn’t done too well at it the first time around, he ought to
be feeling relieved at their decision.
Too restless to stay still, Chase paced the confines of his
small, neatly kept apartment. “A place for everything and everything in its
place.” He’d had that drummed into him in the military. Now he couldn’t imagine
living any other way.
He paused in front of the window that overlooked the main
street of Fallstown. At this hour on a warm mid-August evening the street was
virtually deserted. The tourist season in the western Maine mountains was
winter, when the skiers came. This time of year the natives closed their shops
early and went home to enjoy the long evenings with their families.
Home. Family. Interesting concepts, but he wasn’t sure he
knew much about. them. The house he was about to move into with his nephew and
niece, fifteen-year-old Jeremy and fourteen-year-old Calico, was the same one
in which he and his late brother had grown up. It held a mixture of memories.
Some were good. Many were very bad.
Shaking his head, he left the window and wandered over to a
table that held two computers, the portable assigned to him by the state for
use in his work as a probation officer, and the PC he’d purchased shortly before
the department of corrections closed most of the local probation offices and
put the caseloads into a database. These days Chase worked from home, or out
of his car, when he wasn’t conducting business in various courtrooms and jails.
The personal computer drew him. He had never been a parent
and wasn’t sure how to go about becoming a good one, but he did have one
special person with whom he could share anything, including his concern about
his suitability to raise two teens. It had become automatic for him to use
Leslie as a sounding board. She was a woman with a lot of common sense, enlivened
with a quick and quirky intelligence.
Within a few minutes he’d composed a lengthy e-mail to her,
though he didn’t have to repeat the basics. Leslie already knew that Jeremy and
Calico’s father had died in a car crash two years back and that their mother,
Gwen, was serving time in the state correctional facility at Windham. Ten days
earlier, right after she’d been taken into custody to begin a four-year sentence
for writing bad checks, the kids had been sent off to Florida to visit their
“Jeremy is threatening to run away if he’s not rescued
soon,” Chase typed. “He reminds me of myself at the same age, a ticking time
bomb of frustration and hormones.”
Chase was certain all that explosive energy could be
channeled into safe outlets once Jeremy was settled in a stable environment. He
was a good kid at heart. Chase was sure he could reach him, teach him all the
things he himself had been obliged to learn the hard way.
“I just wish I knew more about raising girls,” he typed.
“Sometimes Calico makes me believe women really are from another planet.”
Chase put a after that statement to indicate he
was more or less kidding, added a few more sentences about his plans to move
out of his apartment and into the house his parents had been using as rental
property since their retirement, and sent the e-mail off into cyberspace.
It was good to have Leslie to talk to, he thought, if only
electronically. He smiled to himself. He didn’t think he’d ever had a more
intense relationship with a woman, and they hadn’t even met face-to-face. He
was going to have to remedy that one of these days soon.
His curiosity had been piqued early in their correspondence.
They seemed to have a great deal in common. The nature of e-mail made it
possible to be candid, to share real communication instead of engaging in the
polite social fictions that went along with traditional dating.
While he waited for her to respond to his message, Chase
caught up on the criminal-justice digests he subscribed to on-line.
Periodically, he checked to see if there was any new e-mail. Finally, there was
one. From Leslie.
She commiserated with him over his concerns about his
imminent fatherhood. Then, at the end, she wrote:
“Maybe Calico needs a female role model.”
Good idea, Chase thought, hitting the reply key. He typed:
“Are you volunteering?” and sent the message back to Leslie.
Her answer came in a short time later: “No insult intended,”
she wrote, “but I think I’d need a little more incentive than instant
motherhood, tempting though that is, to quit my job and move halfway across the
Smiling at the exaggeration, since Fallstown was less than
an hour’s drive from where Leslie lived in Three Cities, Chase considered what
to say in his next message. He suspected Leslie wasn’t kidding when she implied
that the idea of instant motherhood held a certain appeal for her. He’d read
between the lines of her e-mail when she’d written about her relationship with
her sister’s children. She’d like nothing better than to have kids of her own
to take care of. She’d make a darned good mother too, he thought.
An idea popped into his head. He tried to shake it, but it
stuck, and the feeling built that he should yield to any impulse that was so
strong. In the end, he gave in and sent the message.
“How do you feel about acquiring an instant family?”
As soon as the e-mail was gone, he had second thoughts. He
tried to send a follow-up, but discovered he’d been disconnected. Then he
couldn’t log back on to the Internet. All the lines were busy. By the time he
got through again, Leslie’s answer was waiting for him.
“Is that a proposal?” she asked.
He hesitated, his fingers hovering over the keyboard. Now
that the subject had been broached, now that his initial shock at even
considering it had worn off, marriage sounded like a damned fine idea. A
two-parent household would provide greater stability for the kids. And he and
Leslie seemed to be compatible. He knew she wasn’t altogether happy with her
job. That probably meant she wouldn’t mind giving it up to move to Fallstown.
Chase abruptly pushed away from the desk. Was he crazy? He
didn’t even know the sound of her voice or what she looked like. They might be
wildly incompatible on a physical level.
He tried to tell himself that appearance shouldn’t matter,
but he knew damned well it did. They might not be talking about falling in
love, but if he was going to marry someone, he sure intended to enjoy all the
benefits of being a husband. That meant they needed to meet before they
decided anything, even if this would be a—what? A marriage of convenience? No,
that wasn’t right. More like one of those mail-order deals.
He started to send a simple dinner invitation, thinking
they could meet on neutral ground, but once more Chase found himself yielding
to impulse. As he typed he couldn’t control his grin any more than he could
edit the wording that popped into his head and came out through his fingertips.
Before he could change his mind, he transmitted the message.
“Yes, this is a proposal,” he’d written. “Will you be my
Chase leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. The die
was cast. His fate was in her hands. Unable to sit still, he stood and started
They’d meet. If they liked each other in person, and Leslie
agreed to marry him, they could tie the knot right away. All it took was a few
minutes in front of a notary. They could start working together to redecorate
the house. He figured they’d have at least a couple of days alone together
before Jeremy and Calico were due to return and move in with them.
Stopping stock-still in the middle of the room, Chase shook
his head to try to clear it. Maybe he was crazy. Even assuming Leslie agreed,
that was no way to start a marriage.
But this wouldn’t be a traditional marriage, he argued with
himself. And besides, Leslie might turn him down.
Chase glanced at the computer.
Maybe he’d jumped the gun a little, proposing like that.
Maybe he shouldn’t have tried to be cute with that e-mail-order stuff, even
though he thought she appreciated his sense of humor, just as he got a kick
out of hers.
He should have asked to meet her first. Hell, he should have
run a background check on her. The more he thought about it, the more he
realized how little their correspondence had dealt in vital statistics. They’d
revealed opinions, feelings, emotions. In many ways he thought he knew this
woman very well. In others he was completely in the dark.
He knew Leslie lived in Three Cities and that she worked in
the technical services department of the local library. That meant, she’d once
told him, that she rarely had anything to do with the public. She knew what he
did for a living, too, though not many of the details. A lot of what he did on
the job was confidential.
Although they hadn’t exchanged ages, he was pretty certain
from references she’d made that she was in her mid-thirties, as he was, but he
could be completely wrong. For all he knew, she could be twice his age. Or only
in her early twenties. And he knew almost nothing about her family. She’d said
her parents were deceased and that she had an older sister. Mostly she’d talked
about her niece and nephew, as he had about his.
Chase threw himself back into the desk chair and stared at
the computer screen. Absently, he tugged on his mustache. Asking a stranger to
marry him, he thought, was certainly an uncharacteristic move for
cop-turned-probation-officer. Ordinarily he’d have been more suspicious. Asked
for more information. But with Leslie he’d let down his guard. They’d clicked
right from the first and he’d never stopped to question why.
Think positive, he told himself. After all, he’d been
contemplating asking Leslie to meet him in person for some time now, and had
only hesitated because he’d been reluctant to pressure her or invade her
privacy in any way. He supposed he’d been waiting for some kind of indication
from her that she’d like to get together.
A glance at his watch told him fifteen minutes had passed
since he’d sent that last e-mail. She’d have had time to reply to his
outrageous proposal by now.
This time his connection went through on the first try, and
he downloaded the latest e-mail from Leslie. He hit the key to display her
answer. It contained only one word:
Chase drew in a deep breath. Relief, he told himself.
Now it was time to get down to the nitty-gritty. He quickly
e-mailed back with his phone number, asking her to call him collect as soon as
she received it.
Ten minutes later his phone rang.
* * * *
Leslie almost hung up without speaking to him. Slick with
sweat, her right hand clutched the phone while the other left a damp patch on
the leg of her pale blue sweatpants. Her heart was racing double time. Her
throat felt dry as sandpaper left out in the desert sun.
“Yes, operator, I’ll accept the call,” she heard him say.
The voice was wonderful, deep and steady and warm as a cozy
comforter on a cold day. She swallowed hard and waited.
She cleared her throat. “Yes.”
An uncomfortably long pause ensued. Then he said, “You
probably think I’ve lost my marbles proposing like that."
“No more than you must think I have for accepting.”
“I’ve been meaning to suggest we meet in person.
“I guess we should probably do that now.”
She thought she heard a smile in his voice, and forced
herself to loosen the death grip she had on the phone. She was surprised but
grateful when her own voice worked. “That’s a good idea. When and where would
you like to meet?”
“As soon as possible. Would you mind coming here? I mean, it
only makes sense that you should visit Fallstown and take a look at the house
we’ll be living in if. . . if we go through with this.”
That did make sense. It also made her very nervous. She
hesitated so long that he spoke again.
“I’m not an ax murderer, Leslie.”
“You should have. Have you got a pen and paper? I’ll give
you the numbers of the Carrabassett County Sheriff’s Department and the Fallstown
Police Department. You call and ask them anything you want about me. Okay? And
have them verify the address I’m going to give you. It’s the house I grew up
in, the house I’m moving back into.”
She dutifully wrote down everything he dictated. Her hand
shook the whole while.
“Now hang up,” he said, “and call me back when you’ve
checked up on me.’’
“This is absurd. You wouldn’t have given me those numbers if
you had anything to hide.”
“All right, then promise me you’ll call them after you
finish talking to me. But call them, Leslie. For your own protection and for my
peace of mind.”
“I’d like to think I’m marrying a sensible woman.”
A laugh escaped her. Sensible? Of course. That had to be why
she was crazy enough to agree to become Chase Forster’s e-mail-order bride.
“Maybe that wasn’t quite the right adjective,” he conceded,
seeming to read her thoughts, “but you know what I mean.”
And she did. Which was why she was considering this mad
scheme at all. She felt as if she knew Chase very well indeed. Oh, there were
things they hadn’t discussed. Some of them were probably important. But she
didn’t think she’d ever known a man she’d dated in the usual way as well as she
knew Chase. And Chase knew her most deeply held beliefs as well as her pet
Careful, she warned herself. Until she met Chase in person
she had no way of telling if he’d been as truthful with her as she’d been with
him. He might have been spinning her a web of lies all these months. But she didn’t
“Leslie?” His questioning tone told her she’d been silent
too long. “Second thoughts?”
“And third and fourth. How about you?”
“Oh, yeah. Why did you say yes?”
“Because I’d like a family.” She’d wound the fingers of her
free hand into the phone cord, a sure sign of nerves. Very carefully, she
untangled them. “As my charming sister pointed out to me earlier today, I’ve
come close to turning into the cliché of the old-maid librarian who keeps a
cat.” Dewey was curled up on the sofa, sound asleep, oblivious to the fact that
his mistress was contemplating changes that would affect him too. “The cat
comes with me, by the way.
“If you can handle two teenagers, I think I can adjust to
“You’ve never met Dewey.”
“I’ve got to warn you,” Chase said, “that Jeremy and Calico aren’t
as well mannered as your sister’s kids.”
“I still like the idea of an instant family,” Leslie confessed,
“though I would like to meet Jeremy and Calico before we commit to anything.
And they should have something to say, too, don’t you think?”
“I think you and I should meet first.”
“Yes, of course.” She was surprised to discover she was
smiling into the phone. “You may not want to go through with this once you get
a look at me.”
“That bad?” There was no mistaking the teasing note in his
“You’ll have to wait and see,” she shot back. “And that’s
assuming you check out with the local constabulary.” The longer their
conversation continued, the easier Leslie found it to talk to him. It was
almost as painless as communicating by e-mail.
“I’m medium height with brown hair and eyes,” he told her.
“Shall I wear a rose?”
“I think I’ll recognize you without one. When do you want me
to come to Fallstown?”
“Is tomorrow okay? How about one in the afternoon?”
“Yes. Fine.” After he gave her directions, they broke the
Leslie stared at the phone for a long time before she
replaced it in the cradle. That had been easy, she thought. Too easy. Suddenly
she started to shake so hard, she had to sit down.
Was she out of her mind?
She removed her glasses and furiously cleaned the lenses
with her sweatshirt. The room was fuzzy until she put them back on. Then she
had to wonder, with considerable irony, if she was really seeing any more
clearly than before.
After a moment she sat up straight and squared her
shoulders. This was no time to doubt herself. Every instinct she possessed
told her that if she didn’t go and meet Chase, she’d regret it for the rest of
her life. How else could she decide, in a rational manner, whether to marry him
She was reaching for the phone, about to do as Chase had
asked and check up on him, when Dewey butted her arm with his head. He was
awake and hungry and making it very clear that she’d better drop everything
and follow him to the kitchen.
“What do you think, old boy?” she asked as she complied with
Dewey was indifferent to everything but the food in his
bowl. She might as well eat, too, Leslie decided, and fixed herself a light,
early supper. She took her time eating the turkey sandwich and a dish of
Cherry Garcia ice cream. Throughout the meal, her thoughts remained fixed on
Chase Forster. She ran through all the pros and cons, over and over again. She
kept coming to the same conclusion.
All fantasies aside, what Chase proposed had a chance of
working out well for both of them. It would be a partnership between friends,
the very best basis for marriage. They were two like-minded people joining together
for mutual benefit. Mutual love was not a prerequisite.
Chase had requested that she make two calls, Leslie reminded
herself when she’d finished washing the few dishes and returned to the living
room. She had a feeling he’d be disappointed in her, maybe even question her
common sense, if he found out she hadn’t done as he’d asked. Besides, now that
she’d all but made her decision, she was curious to see what more she could
find out about him.
Curled up on her comfortable sofa once again, with Dewey
snuggling in her lap, Leslie reached for the phone.