Operation First Date Chapter 1
HE’S BROKEN, BUT SO IS SHE. TIME TO BRING THEM TOGETHER.
Bitsy Walker is determined to do a thirty-day sugar fast.
Except all the other members of the Health and Happiness Society aren't quite as excited. To avoid an impasse, Bitsy promises to do something equally uncomfortable: go on a date.
Bitsy's odd neighbor and retired military veteran, Jim, has had her attention for a while. But a past full of trouble haunts him and overcoming his ghosts to ask Bitsy out may be more than either of them bargained for.
Can Bitsy and Jim give their budding romantic tension a chance?
This short story sequence is actually a novella based off of Hear Me Roar in the Health and Happiness Society.
Click here to read the other chapters!
"I propose a thirty-day sugar fast."
The choking gasps that followed my declaration were a tad on the dramatic side for my taste, but I'd expected such a response. That's why I kept my smile pasted on as I dared Rachelle to throw it back at me.
Not one to back down, her shoulders straightened. "You're crazy."
"What?" Lexie cried from Rachelle's laptop. "No sugar? Bitsy. Come on!"
I held up my hands.
"Calm down, everyone. It's just an experiment!"
"You've done dozens of these." Mira grabbed a carrot stick from a veggie tray sitting on my coffee table. She jabbed it at me. "Why do you want to do another one? Didn't you just finish one?"
"No." I swiped a few slices of cucumber and leaned back against my couch. "But I did one a few months ago, yes. It's . . . invigorating."
"That's not the word I'd use," Lexie muttered.
A voice piped up from my computer, propped up on a seat all by itself. Megan peered through the screen, hair in a braid on her shoulder and fingerless gloves on her hands. Her face had a sheen of perspiration.
"I think it's a terrible idea," she said as she wiped her face off with a towel. "But you already know how I feel about omitting entire food groups from your diet, Bitsy."
No surprise there. She had the most holistic view of food of all of us. I tried to keep up with her.
"This has nothing to do with long-term restriction, I swear. It's not about weight loss or inches or anything like that. I have no ulterior motive but to see if your experience off sugar is similar to mine. Nor do I plan to binge and purge."
Mira relaxed a little, as I knew she would. Weeks ago, I'd come clean to them about a few skeletons in my closet. Those skeletons were named bulimia, hiding, and binge-and-purge. It hadn't been pretty, but it had been cleansing. Now she watched me a little more closely.
I loved her for it.
"It's the same as cutting out caffeine, right?" My diplomatic response earned a hearty eye-roll from Rachelle. "The thirty-day sugar fast is designed to check in with your body. See if you're eating it because you're compelled or because you want it. They're two different things."
"Are you talking keto-style?" Megan asked.
"Of course not. Carbs aren't bad. I mean additional, added sugar. Treats, basically."
"My career field, in other words," Rachelle said.
"Exactly!" I cried.
Megan's expression morphed into contemplation. If I could get her on board, the others would follow. Megan, the queen of intuitive eating and listening to her body. This had nothing to do with dieting, and everything to do with the challenge. Sometimes, it was fun to try out new things.
"Thirty days?" she asked.
Rachelle's brow furrowed. "How am I supposed to do that? I run a bakery."
"A very fun challenge for you then," I said through a crunch of cucumber.
"C'mon, you've never been afraid of anything. Plus, you've made buttercream frosting so many times by now that you don't need to taste test it. You can tell if it's good by consistency alone."
She conceded—albeit reluctantly—to my point with a vague wave.
Realizing my time to nudge them into my world had come, I went for my final push.
"It's fun to try new, challenging things. Isn't it?"
"I'm in," Megan said. She sat on her floor, knees bent in front of her, forearms resting on her thighs. A squat rack loomed behind her. "As long as it's just for a fun challenge and isn't villainizing carbs."
"No villains here."
"Except for buttercream," Mira whispered, then giggled when Rachelle glowered at her. Her mirth ceased, but she turned to me with a twinkle in her eye. "I'm in, Bitsy. You know I'd follow you anywhere."
"That would mean giving up Pepsi."
"You're a monster," she whispered. "No!"
"Sugar," I mouthed.
Rachelle tilted her head back slightly. "I'll do it," she drawled slowly, "on one condition."
Something prickled along the back of my neck. When she had conditions, nothing good resulted.
"You have to go on a date."
"What?" I screeched.
Megan fell backward, laughing.
"If I have to run a bakery and not eat sugar for an entire thirty days, you have to do something equally as challenging and uncomfortable. C'mon, Bitsy. It's fun to try new and challenging things." She mimicked my tone, looking happily self righteous. "Isn't it?"
A current of sheer annoyance streaked through me, but I couldn't give into it for long. Fine . . . that smug satisfaction was deserved. I'd been annoying about sugar during my fast earlier in the year.
But I couldn't back down now.
The entire Health and Happiness Society stared at me: Mira, Rachelle, Megan, and Lexie. I'd thrown down a gauntlet for them, it was only fair I complied too. I gulped.
"Fine. Agreed. If I go on a date, you will join me in a thirty-day sugar fast."
Rachelle grinned with traitorous amusement. She stuck out a hand.
"Let's shake on it. You prove your date, and we'll start the sugar fast the next day."
Mira's wide eyes were the backdrop to our firm handshake. The back of my throat went dry, although I pasted on what I hoped was a careless smile.
My hand dropped to my side with a little too much weight. A date? I hadn't been on a date in years. Nothing worth even remembering, anyway. Oh, there'd been a few here and there, so unmemorable that I couldn't recall names. Blind dates, mostly, arranged by friends that didn't want to go alone, or were determined to help me get past the divorce.
For the last few years, however, I hadn't even bothered. My two daughters and my cleaning business kept me plenty busy.
Who needed a man?
Finding a date would necessitate something drastic—like online dating. My stomach ached at the thought. Good grief, I'd rather go through the divorce again.
Or maybe I wouldn't have to get drastic.
My fickle neighbor Jim filtered through my mind almost immediately.
Any attempt to shove thoughts of him away met with failure.
He'd alluded once to asking me on a date, but nothing had come in the weeks that followed. After retiring from the military, his wife divorced him, then committed suicide. He hadn't been ready to attempt anything when we last spoke about it weeks ago.
But I realized that hope for me and Jim sat in the back of my mind like a bright, shiny thing. Time to turn away from that. No need to focus on what I couldn't control. Men, for one.
Jim, for another.
"Now that's settled." I turned to my agenda. "Let's keep going with our meeting then. Megan, I believe you had a video you wanted us to watch."
Everyone relaxed slightly as we turned our attention to the computer. Megan presented a video on safe techniques to protect your back when doing weights, a topic Mira and I had both requested.
But my mind was far from the video.
Instead, it strayed outside, to a certain neighbor that was mowing his lawn, a ball cap on top of his slightly graying head. Perhaps I wouldn't have to get back online.
That evening I dropped my yoga mat on the porch, left the front door open, and settled into a few minutes by myself. My back leaned against the house. Eyelashes fluttered closed. The dull drone of my dishwasher hummed in the background. The sweet scent of grass curled in my nose as I drew in a deep breath.
Okay. I could do this.
Operation Go On A Date With Jim commenced now.
If there was anything I knew about Jim, it was that he held onto his emotions like a submarine. He'd have to make the first move. Or maybe he'd be open to me asking him out, but I couldn't be sure.
Rachelle hadn't specified who had to initiate the date, anyway. Which is why I decided to download the Hearts On Fire dating app again. Part of it was insurance—rushing Jim to ask me on a date if he wasn't ready wasn't fair. No relationship needed that kind of pressure, even if I knew he was interested.
But also . . . I really wanted to do that thirty-day sugar fast.
If Jim failed me, someone else could be cajoled into a date.
Positioning myself on the front porch after the girls went to bed was strategic. Jim was known to putter around his yard at night—who knew why—and stop by to chat if he saw me. Me + phone + dating app + Jim = Phase One.
Or so I hoped.
"Arrogant," I sang to myself as I navigated the app again. "He may not even get jealous if I'm on a dating app."
But maybe he would.
Besides, I had to get some prospects lined up. Although I tried incessantly to lie to myself, I couldn't deny that I felt a little, tiny, back-of-the-mind thrill at the idea of talking to men again. Like a second chance. I'd messed up spectacularly on my first marriage, which meant my second marriage could be far more functional.
Should that ever happen.
While the app attempted to reject my email address a second time, I growled at it. Seconds before I pitched it across the yard in frustration, a voice startled me.
"Another yoga night?"
The sound of Jim's voice filtered through my yard. He appeared from the shadows, a hose in hand. He tended to roam his yard at night, even more so than during the day. His restlessness drove me crazy. He clearly hadn't figured out what to do with himself in retirement yet.
His eyes widened at that—a move I should have earned an award for. Startling Jim didn't come easily. The man was a smooth ocean in the most turbulent wind.
"Forgive me if I'm wrong," he said drily with recovered poise, "but don't you need someone else in order to date?"
"Smooth. And yes. I'm arranging that right now."
To hide my laugh, I turned back to my phone. The app had finally pulled up, a logo with two shimmering hearts linked together by flames on my screen. It went to my old profile, one that Mira had made for me three years ago. I grimaced when I saw it.
Time for a photo update.
His eyebrows lifted halfway to the moon. He peered through the slants of my railing now, poorly hiding his curiosity. "You're doing online dating?"
His perplexed expression, complete with an unrestrained blink, forced my laugh.
"Because I need to find a date."
Understanding flooded his expression. "A wedding?"
The idea of attending a work function that required a date—at my own company—made me snort.
Jim pressed harder into the railing. "Then what on earth would drive you into the bowels of the internet for online dating?"
"Watch yourself, old man. It's not always as bad as you think. And I have a thing I want to do with my friends. They agreed to it only if I go on a date first."
"Are you wanting to murder someone?"
"Just a thirty-day sugar fast."
He muttered something under his breath, but I caught only the words insane and never understand women.
"So, you have to go on a date in order for your friends to do a thirty-day sugar fast?" he asked.
My fingers flew over the screen as I attempted to change some of the profile information, but sadly not much had to go. Aside from photos, my life had remained mostly the same. Children had that utterly grounding effect.
I frowned at the thought.
When the silence stretched too long, I looked up to see Jim frowning also. A little flare of hope reignited in my chest, but I carefully set that shiny thing aside also.
"Something wrong?" I asked innocently.
"Online dating isn't safe."
"It can be perfectly safe."
"You don't know who's behind those messages."
"Eventually I will if we meet up."
"That's another thing—"
"Jim." I held up a hand. "I'm just looking around. I'll go on a date, then I can start my sugar fast. It's pretty simple."
"Bitsy, you have two daughters to think about. What if—"
A flare of annoyance caught me by surprise. How did he do that? I swung wildly from one emotion to the next whenever he was around.
Radiant attraction to the depths of frustration.
"I know you're not about to suggest that I would do anything that would harm me, my daughters, or put their safety at risk," I said loudly. "I know you wouldn't do that, would you Jim? You wouldn't presume to mansplain something I'm perfectly aware of."
His nostrils flared as we stared at each other. He saw the silent words. This isn't your business. Because it really wasn't. As flattered as I felt at his concern, I had a handle on this. Besides, there was nothing so tantalizing as what he couldn't have, right?
At least, that's what I told myself.
Because I had probably come on too strong again. I couldn't help it. The words and attitude just flowed out of me that way. It certainly wasn't anything new.
When he stepped back, my plan to draw him in by holding him at bay fell flat on its face in a mud puddle.
"Right," he said. "Got it."
He materialized back into the darkness, taking my hopes of a date with him firmly with it. With a sigh, I stared at his house for far longer than I should have before I turned back to my phone. 45 messages awaited my inbox on the app, most of them years old, sent before my profile went inactive. A few hopefuls in the last few months, but mostly spam.
I sighed and clicked my phone off.
Who was I kidding? I didn't want to find a date on an online app.
I wanted Jim, my weird neighbor, to ask me out. Protective streak and all. Clearly, that wasn't meant to be. Well, I had no one to blame but myself.
Maybe I wasn't as ready as I thought.