The Lucky CharmBy: Beth Bolden
The Portland Pioneers Series
When Isabel Dalton was five years old, she proudly boasted to her parents that when she grew up, she was going to be a famous movie star. Mobs of adoring fans, endless red carpets, and a never-ending supply of rhinestone sunglasses would be hers. She imagined swanning around a glittering blue swimming pool, shaded by palm trees and a legion of Ken-doll lookalikes.
But much to her parents’ relief, it turned out that Izzy’s imagination was vastly more developed than her acting talent.
And not much has changed in that department, Izzy thought darkly as she attempted a tolerant smile that her date probably saw through in less than a second.
“So you’re actually in a band? Like a rock band?” From Graham’s puppy-dog expression to his pressed chinos (“Light starch only,” he’d informed her when, desperate for a conversation topic, she’d told him she liked his pants), he was about as far from a rock star as she could possibly imagine.
“It’s not a real band, actually,” Graham, the first guy Izzy had gone out with in eight months and thirteen days, admitted sheepishly. “It’s actually a game, but there’s this bar that makes it a whole event. Like karaoke, but with Rock Band, the game.”
He paused and she could practically see the enthusiasm bubbling out of his pores.
“They have a real stage, and everything. Every single downloadable song, too. You should come with me sometime.”
It was hard to fault Graham for having passion. It was also hard to fathom having a passion for a video game. This was what men her age did with their free time? Working sixty-hour weeks for the Pacific Northwest Sports Network didn’t leave her much free time, but if she had it, Izzy knew she wouldn’t be spending her Tuesdays playacting in front of a drunk bar crowd.
Izzy glanced down at the dry chicken on her plate and contemplated sawing off another chunk, because if she finished her meal, maybe this bad idea of a date would finally be over. It had been an epically terrible idea to accept Graham’s dinner invitation, but even she sometimes got sick of being alone.
So she’d said yes when Graham, the IT sub-contractor who’d fixed her work laptop, had asked her out, even though she’d known it would have been smarter to say no.
“What about you?” he asked, clearly underwhelmed by her own underwhelmed response to his favorite hobby.
“I’m head assistant to one of the executive producers.”
Graham cleared his throat. Maybe his steak was as dry as her chicken was.
“No, I meant, what do you do for fun?”
Fun. Fun. Izzy tried to remember the last time she’d had fun simply to have it, and couldn’t. Work wasn’t fun exactly, but it was sometimes rewarding, and always challenging. She loved seeing the look of pride on her boss’s face when she succeeded at yet another tricky, impossible task, but it wasn’t what she’d call fun.
Fun had really ended for her the summer when she was eleven. The hushed conversations, the worried looks she hadn’t understood. Her mother kneeling in front of her, bare head wrapped in a colorful, obnoxiously patterned turban, making her promise to be strong and brave.
At the funeral, she had decided that instead of a movie star, she’d be a doctor and never let another mother die.
That pipe dream had lasted until she was a freshman in college. Freshman Bio had killed it and killed it dead, and then she’d been lost again, aimless and goalless, until she’d come home during winter break and had caught her dad watching a Bo Jackson documentary on ESPN.
An hour later, tears still drying on her cheeks, she’d announced yet another career change. This time she’d be behind the camera instead of in front of it, but from the steady pride in her dad’s eyes, Izzy had known she’d found her new calling. Exchanging her pre-med classes for journalism, Izzy decided she was going to tell the stories that nobody else knew: the stories that made viewers cry and laugh and burn to be something greater than the sum of their parts. Then her dad died in a car wreck on an icy stretch of I-5, leaving her an orphan at the age of twenty-one, convincing Izzy even more of her path. She’d thrown herself into the last semester of school, determined that even if they were gone, she’d make her parents proud.
She’d been hired at the Pacific Northwest Sports Network right out of college, and now, six years later, she knew she’d gotten lost in the job, let it swallow her alive. It was hard to explain to people, especially strangers, that work was all she had left. Her family was dead. Her friendships from college had faded not even a year after graduation. And her dating life was virtually nonexistent. So if she worked long hours, who cared? She didn’t even mind that the entire office whispered about how pathetic she was, only that they did it behind her back.
“You mean what I do when I’m not at work?” she asked, horribly aware of the pity on Graham’s face. He’d obviously heard the office gossip, clearly after he’d asked her out, or else they wouldn’t be here tonight. And here she was, proving rumors all too true.
Really, that was okay with her. Izzy gave herself a little mental shake. He was just a stupid boy, who liked playing video games. Who cared if he regretted asking her out? She regretted saying yes.
“My boss, Charlie, and I like to eat,” she finally admitted. “We’ve been to every diner in the greater Seattle area.” Never mind that this was more Charlie’s hobby than hers and that after the first month, he’d made it a job requirement so she’d stop turning down his dinner invitations.
If only Charlie wasn’t sixty-five, balding, and forever expanding in the waistline, he’d have made the perfect boyfriend. They had the same dry sense of humor, the same lack of patience for fools and idiots, and he had a way of supporting her that didn’t feel anything like pity.
And he made her feel a tiny bit less alone.
Her cell vibrated and Izzy only hesitated a moment before plucking it from her clutch. She held it up and gave Graham what she was sure was a horribly fake shrug of regret. “I’ve got to take this. Sorry.”
From his decidedly annoyed expression, Izzy guessed she was an even worse actress than she’d believed.
“That’s fine. I’ll get the check and we can go,” Graham said, and the barely concealed sneer in his voice took her by surprise.
“Sure,” she said uncertainly, feeling the phone continue to vibrate in her hand. “If that’s what you want.”
“What I wanted was to have dinner with an actual human being. Not some kind of robot.”
Along with the flourless chocolate cake and crème brulee, humiliation was apparently also on the dessert tray tonight.
“Hey, you asked me out,” Izzy retorted, resorting to her last defensive resort—the withering tone that tended to leave men in the fetal position. “If you’d asked around, you already knew what I was like.”
Graham jerkily shucked a few bills on the table, clearly deciding the evening was over before the check even showed up. “Yeah, after I did. Stupidly, after you said yes. I thought you were just a pretty girl. Guess I was wrong.”
Izzy decided it was time for this farce to be over before Graham set feminism back another hundred years. “Guess you were.”
He shot her a look that was pure pity and then left, leaving a trail of interested gazes in his wake. Izzy glanced at her half-full glass of pinot gris and reached for it, taking a long, slow swallow, and then another. She didn’t have anything to prove—not to a room full of strangers, anyway—but her pride wouldn’t let her rush out after Graham. She wasn’t afraid to eat alone; she’d done it enough times.
It was only after her glass was empty and she was putting her coat on that she remembered the missed phone call.
The phone number wasn’t one she’d recognized. Wrapping her coat around her and heading out into the cold drizzle of February in Seattle, Izzy accessed her voicemail.
“This is Carol Steele, a nurse at the University of Washington Emergency Trauma Center. We have a patient named Charles Walker, and you’re listed as his emergency contact. Please call me back at (206) 555-9035 to discuss his hospitalization.”
Izzy’s stomach plummeted to the ground and her agonized half gasp left her reaction to Graham in the dust. She dialed the number with shaking fingers and wasn’t reassured by the information provided: Charlie had been admitted for heart attack symptoms.
He was her boss. Her boss and so much more. Her guiding light, her mentor, the man who’d taken a chance and hired her right out of college. Charlie, who had somehow found out about Izzy’s dad and had taken her under his wing when she was still numb with grief and shock.
Not Charlie, too.
“Isabel, leave it alone. I’m fine, I promise,” Charlie grunted as Izzy tried to rearrange the blanket that covered his prone form on the hospital bed.
“You had a heart attack.” The words tasted so bitter in her mouth she could barely spit them out. She wasn’t sure she could go through this again. It had been so stupid to become attached to him, to essentially use him as a father figure, when his future was as inevitable as everybody else’s. Someday, Charlie would die, too, and since she loved him, it would probably be sooner rather than later.