Hanging by a Thread

 

HANGING BY A THREAD
Red Dress Ink
ISBN 0373250762
November 2004

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Texas Gold contest finalist

Aspen Gold contest finalist

Single mother Ellie Levine’s lifelong goal has been to escape her Queens neighborhood. Not just from nine-to-five, but forever. And now, after years of crappy Seventh Avenue jobs, right as she’s poised to finally sink her Jimmy Choo knock-offs into an eat-your-heart-out position in a Big Fashion House, fate sucks her back to her old Richmond Hill nabe like quicksand. . .and to her old position as Duenna to the Deluded for her two closest friends, whose marriage is seriously on the rocks. Unplugging stopped-up sinks as the super for her grandfather’s rental properties isn’t exactly how she’d envisioned her life. Nor is stitching bridal finery for a horde of Fran Drescher wannabes. But when old flames, and old dreams, begin flickering back to life, maybe the life she thought she wanted isn’t as far off from the life she already has as she’d thought. . .

 

EXCERPT

  

REVIEWS

Hanging by a Thread

4 stars — "...Templeton’s tone is distinct, sharp-witted and tough. . .writing is fast-paced, flowing, and chock full of witty one-liners. . .twists will keep readers surprised and wanting to find out more. . ."
Romantic Times


"I love when a book surprises me. . .HANGING BY A THREAD has real substance and tackles difficult subjects. . .very strong characters. . .I enjoyed this novel very much.."
Rian Montgomery, chicklitbooks.com


4 1/2 stars
— ". . .Not for readers looking for fluff [or a] a candy-coated romance. Characters deal with hard issues. . .which add to the quality and reality of this novel. Ellie’s voice, her relationship with her daughter [and] her satisfying tendency to fight back when pushed. . .are endearing. . ."
Mary K. Bryson, curvynovels.com


". . .Templeton has whipped up a heroine to admire. . .classy style of sumptuous characterization, subtle humor, and cozy warmth. . .highly recommended."
Amy Cunningham, Romance Reviews Today

Granted, I've known how to sew since I was five. I can make up anything from a pattern, and I'm a magician at alterations, if I say so myself. I can rework and adapt with the best of 'em. But let me tell you, I've got more filled sketchbooks than you can possibly imagine crammed in my closet at home, without a single creative, original, hot idea among them. In fact, my design teachers at FIT kindly suggested I switch to merchandising, because I was wasting their time and my money otherwise.

So, yep, forget the designing. Somebody else can design. . .and I'll do the marketing. Because that, I am good at. Yeah, I know, most people would consider drawing the pretty pictures and playing with the fabrics the "fun stuff." But see, it's the whole philosophy of fashion that fascinates me so much: whatever it is that drives people -- women, primarily -- to wear what they wear. How we costume ourselves, choosing each article of clothing, each accessory, to telegraph to the world who we are. Or who we think we are. Or, in many cases, who we'd like to be. Even the most casually donned attire says something, if nothing other than that the wearer doesn't give a damn.

For me, the rush doesn't come from designing a garment, but from figuring out why it appeals. I mean, that scene back at the store? Honey, watching all those women get worked up got me worked up. Like fashion porn. And I got a real early start -- not to mention all the cute shoes I wanted -- hanging out at my family's shoe store in Queens when I was a kid. I learned early on that the relationship between a woman and what she chooses to put on her body is a sacred thing. And I knew I had to be part of it, even if I was woefully untalented.

So. Working for Nikky Katz is my dream job, for the moment. And until she figures out what to do with me, I get to do a little bit of everything. I can deal with a little yelling, a little craziness, now and then if it helps me reach my goal. . .

The phone rings on Angelique's desk. She answers it, says, "It's for you."

One day maybe I'll have my own desk with my own extention.

One day maybe I'll be able to get a phone call without my heart clogging my throat.
But it's nothing scary, only Tina, my best friend since she, her mother and two older sisters moved across the street from us when I was five. Tina's married to my other best friend, Luke Scardinare. His family -- he's one of six brothers -- and mine have lived next door to each other my whole life. Luke used to make my life miserable on a regular basis and I'd kill with my bare hands anybody who even thinks about badmouthing him. Which is the same way I feel about Tina, even though she didn't make my life miserable on a regular basis.

I realize she's asking if we can meet up at Pinky's, a bar a couple blocks from where I live. "I need to talk," she says, her voice giving nothing away, which is unusual for Tina because usually her voice gives everything away. Twelve years ago she says to me, "Does this lipstick make me look slutty?" and I instantly knew she and Luke had done it for the first time.

"Sure, okay. What's up?"

"I'll tell you when I see you. Seven okay?"

"Eight, eight-fifteen would be better." Her Queens accent calls to mine, buried deep beneath the Manhattan persona I apply like makeup every morning. "I gotta read to Starr at seven."

"Couldn't you skip it, just this once?"

Tina and Luke don't have kids, even though they've been married for five years already. They don't talk about it, and I don't pry, but I know Luke's mother, Frances, wonders. Tina's mother is blessedly no longer close enough to inflict direct damage. Although my guess is Tina and her sisters will be mopping up the fallout from their childhood for some time. On the outside, Tina's your typical smartmouthed Outerborough Broad; on the inside, thanks to Dear Old Mom, she's a tangled mass of insecurities.

"No, I can't skip it, I promised her this morning."

There's a tiny pause, like when a reporter halfway around the world doesn't answer the New York anchor's question right away. "Okay, fine," she says on a sigh, and hangs up. I'm tempted to feel guilty, until I realize if it was that important I would have heard it in her voice. Or she would have been sobbing and incoherent, like she was that time Luke and she broke up their senior year. Of course, they were back together before the weekend was out, although not before Tina had gone through three boxes of tissues and two pans of brownies. Not a fun weekend. Well, except for the brownies, which she shared.

Before I have a chance to cancel my guilt trip, I get another call. Angelique hands it over. Judging from her expression, I'm guessing she's finding this an interesting way to break the afternoon's tedium.

It's Luke this time. "You gonna be home tonight? I need to talk."

Gee -- you don't suppose these two calls are related, do you? And why, out of the approximately eight million relatives these two have between them, do they pick me to help them sort through whatever it is this time?

Because they always have, that's why. Because they know they can trust me.
I'm quiet for too long, I guess, because Luke says, "Shit -- Tina already called you, huh?"

And the cornerstone of my trustworthiness? An ironclad policy of not lying. Unless I absolutely have to. "Uh. . .yeah. She did."

That gets another "Shit" and a very heavy sigh. Then: "She say anything?"

"No."

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure," I say, thinking even admitting her wanting to talk is a probably a confidence violation. However, telling him we're meeting up at Pinky's definitely is. I can't help it, I've always been protective of Tina. Probably more than is good for her, I know, but I can't help it. Although my wanting to shield her from life's do-do is nothing compared to how Luke treats her. The term "spun glass" comes to mind.

"Hey," I say. "What's going on?"

"Gotta go, I'll talk to you later."

And he hangs up.

Luke and Tina. My very own reality show. With extra cheese.

"He sounds sexy," Angelique says after I hand back the phone.

Sexy? Luke? Yeah, I suppose. In that heavy-lidded Italian thug kind of way. Not that Luke's a thug, but put him in tight jeans and a T-shirt, dangle a cigarette from his lips, put lifts in his shoes, and you got it.

"Married friend."

"How married?"

"Very. Five years. To the woman who called earlier, in fact. They're nuts about each other, have been since ninth grade."

"Huh." Some keys click. "Bet that voice sounds even better in the dark."

She may have a point. However, since I've been listening to Luke since we were communicating in monosyllables and grabbing our Gerber teething biscuits out of each other's hands, I can't say as his voice has made much of an impression on me. Okay, maybe once or twice, in a weak, deluded moment, but not for a long time.

A very long time.

"He's a plumber," I say, don't ask me why. "Well, plumbing contractor. Works for his father."

"Hey. Plumbers make good money. And they'll never be out of work."

This is true. "But he's married," I repeat, realizing this is the first real conversation Angelique and I have ever had. And possibly the last, if I win the how-long's-she-gonna-last pool. "To my best friend."

After more paper shuffling and clicking, Angelique says, "So. You have a boyfriend?"

I don't have the time or energy to deal with a puppy, what on earth would I do with a boyfriend? This, however, doesn't stop images from springing to mind. Involving things one might do with boyfriends and various appendages attached thereto. I quickly, if regretfully, push the images away.

"Not at the moment. My old one broke and I never got around to replacing him." Then I then add, tempted to look around furtively and lower my voice, "I have a daughter, though."

Her dark eyes light up. "Me, too! How old is yours?"

"Five going on forty. Her birthday was last week."

"You got a picture?"

Do I have a picture, is the woman nuts? Like CIA operatives in a clandestine meeting, we drag out our wallets and compare children, I compliment Angelique on hers, already a knockout at seven. But let's be honest here, Starr is going through what I hope to hell is an awkward phase. God knows, nobody's going to mistake me for Catherine Zeta-Jones -- even at her most pregnant -- but my baby's skinny, she's nearsighted (like her mama), she's got all this frizzy black hair (like her Great-Gran Judith). . .poor thing looks like a myopic johnny mop.

"She looks very. . .sweet," Angelique says at last.

Sweet is not the word I'd choose to describe Starr, but my heart cramps anyway because I'm crazy in love with her. Even if she totally freaks me out at times. "Thanks," I say softly.

It's kinda nice, being able to talk about my kid at work. Not something I ever thought about when I was really single. I mean, please -- is "single mother" an oxymoron or what? "Single" implies "alone", and God knows, the one thing you're not once you've got a kid is alone. Anyway, it's not as if nobody knows about Starr, it's just that women who aren't mothers aren't real interested in hearing about your kids. Not that I blame them. If you're not living it, it's kinda hard to understand the excitement generated by that first dump in the toilet. Still. It gets old, pretending your children basically don't exist while you're at work. As if they're houseplants or something. Because, you know, we couldn't possibly be a hundred percent focused on our work if we're also worrying about our kids. Never mind that it is possible for some of us to do two things at once. And do them well, to boot.

Nikky suddenly bursts into the office, a frantic expression overriding the Botox. "Ellie! Darling! Come quick! You have to help me!"

Exclamation points whiz past my ears. "Sure, I'll be there in a sec, right after I get this cutting list done--"

"No! This can't wait! The Volare rep just called and said the company's discontinued the floral print! Which means I have to pick a substitute! And I've got stores expecting those sundresses in six weeks!"

Even I can see there's no turning off the panic button until the crisis has been resolved. Now, you might ask (understandably enough) why the woman can't just pick a substitute fabric and be done with it. Well, there are several reasons, number one being -- as you may have noticed -- Nikky's brain shuts down in a crisis. Two, since several hundred thousand dollars' worth of orders are riding on this particular item, the substitute fabric has to be chosen very carefully. And three -- and this is something almost no one else knows -- Nikky is colorblind.

Yes, it's very rare in women. And she only has trouble distinguishing greens, which is why you'll never see any green items in her line. But she wanted a bold rose print for this particular model, and roses have leaves, and leaves are green (at least, they were in this print), so she had to rely on someone else to "see" the green for her and make sure it wasn't some ugly baby poop color or something. However, I'd really like to get home on time tonight, which means I could do without the handholding routine. However, if I don't help her, Harold will get involved, and God knows--

"Problem, Nik?"

--nobody wants that.

Nikky schools her features before turning to her husband. "Nothing, just a little detail I need to work out with Ellie."

Droopy-lidded eyes give me the once-over; it's like being scrutinized by a jowly Kermit. Sparse strands of no-color hair cling to his liver-spotted scalp like drowning men to a life raft; underneath a white dress shirt and pleated suit pants quivers a large, amorphous body. I practically have to pin my finger to my lip to keep it from curling.

"It's that goddamn Volare, isn't it? I heard on the extention--"

A real jewel, this guy.

"--they pull a fast one on you, what?"

"They didn't pull a 'fast one', Harold," Nikky says wearily, "they just discontinued the fabric for one of the items, it's no big deal--"

"Goddammit, Nikky, what the hell's the matter with you? I told you to dump those shysters, didn't I? Right? Didn't I tell you that, after the last time they pulled this shit? How many times you gonna let those son-of-bitches do this to you before you find the balls to take your business elsewhere?"

Hanging by a Thread"Oh, get over it, Harold!" Nikky crosses her arms and meets his gaze dead on. When push comes to shove, she can stand up to him, I'll give her that. But at what price? "I'm not going to destroy a twenty year relationship simply because they canceled a fabric on me!"

"Why do you let these sons-of-bitches screw you to the wall over and over, Nikky? Why? I mean, Jesus -- when're you gonna stop acting a woman and start acting like a business person?"

Silently, she stares him down for several seconds, then turns to me. "Come on, Ellie--"

"You stay right there," Harold orders, jabbing a finger first at me, then his wife. "You're gonna get on that phone, and you're gonna tell those sons-of-bitches they will honor that order or that's the last one you'll ever place with them! Or better yet, maybe I'll let Myron give 'em a goose, let 'em know they can't get away with this shit--"

"You even think about calling the lawyer and you're a dead man! This isn't your business, Harold Katz, it's mine! And I will run it as I see fit!"

"Right into the ground, the way you're going! And since I sank every dime I had into this harebrained scheme of yours, I'll stick my nose in whenever I damn well like!"

By this point, I half expect to see the hair raised on the back of her neck. Mine sure as hell is. And you should see Angelique's eyes.

"And since I paid you back -- three-fold -- since then," Nikky says, barely above a snarl, "butt the hell out." Her gaze deliberately shifts to mine. "Ellie?"

I rise and follow, managing not to go "Ew, ew, ew" when I have to brush past the man. Who watches us, his little amphibianesque eyes burning a hole in the back of my head, before I eventually hear his footsteps retreat to his office.

How -- why -- the woman puts up with the man is beyond me.

Especially as I notice, when we reach her office, how shiny her eyes are.

I never know whether I should say anything or not, whether she'd welcome my sympathy or spurn it. Pride's an unpredictable thing. But while Nikky might be addlebrained and totally disorganized, at heart she's not a bad person. Medical plan or no, I wouldn't still be here after a year if she was. And nobody deserves to be talked to like that. Ever. Well, except Harold. Or your average despotic dictator.

Then she pulls the substitute swatches out of the Fed Ex envelope with shaking hands, and my conscience shoves me from behind.

"Nikky, I--"

But she shakes her head, cutting me off.

"I don't. . ." She clears her throat, then smoothes her hand over the polished cotton. The roses are similar to the original, if a bit smaller and redder. But the green is this yucky olive that brings to mind things nasty and distasteful. "I don't think this one's too bad, what do you think?"

"I think. . ." Oh, hell. "I think you should call the rep and tell him you're holding them to the original contract. Or you'll sue."

Nikky's head jerks up, the ends of her silver hair brushing her silk-clad shoulders. In her own, paralyzed way, she looks as flabbergasted as I feel.

"You agree with Harold?"

Since I'd always figured I'd have a better chance of agreeing with Rush Limbaugh than Harold Katz, you can image what this revelation is doing to my insides. "I think he. . .has a point. Even if I do have issues with how he makes his points."

That gets a short, airy laugh. "You don't have to be so diplomatic."

"Yes, I do. I need this job."

Another laugh, this one with a little more substance to it. Nikky sinks into her chair, a high-backed swivel number in a gorgeous flame stitch fabric. She twists the cap off a bottle of designer water, then digs a pill box out of her purse. Hell, if I had to live with Harold, I'd probably be scarfing down whatever the La-La drug of choice is these days like M & Ms.

She takes another swallow of water and replaces the cap. "Why?" she says, all smiles. Wow. Must be good stuff. "Why do you agree with Harold?"

"Because--" I pick up the substitute swatch. "Because this is total crap compared with the original. Because something tells me they are pulling a fast one. I mean, think about it -- why should they yank the pattern when you've got how many hundreds of yards on order? Unless--"

"Unless a bigger designer saw it and pulled rank. So they're only telling me it's no longer available. I have figured that out."

She doesn't seem particularly surprised. Or disturbed. I, however, am both. Her lips curved at my obvious distress, she gestures for me to sit, then takes a cigarette case from her desk; five seconds later she's calmly blowing smoke away from me. "Darling, in the scheme of things, six hundred yards is nothing. Especially if another house comes along and orders twice, maybe even ten times that, I don't know. . . ." A stream of smoke cuts through the air. "I can't really blame the supplier for wanting to make the other guy happy, right?"

"But you've been a loyal customer for twenty years. . ."

"Because they're willing to work with me and my smaller orders." She leans forward. "Sure there are other fabric houses I'd rather use. You think they'd give me the time of day?" The cigarette smoke stream jumps as she sinks back against the chair. Frowning, she brushes an ash off her left breast, then looks at me. "I've got more clout than some, less than others." A shrug. "You learn to compromise. Pick your battles. Contrary to what Harold thinks, pitching a fit isn't going to endear me to them. Or keep me in business."

"So you just. . .back down?"

"I prefer to call it playing smart. However. . ." Her fingers brush the fabric, then shove it away, as though it's toxic. "I may be second best, but I'm not stupid enough to pick something that's gonna make my dress look like the knockoff--"

Somehow, I manage to keep a straight face.

"--so we start over." Squinting, she crams the cigarette back in her mouth and says around it, gesturing toward the teetering piles on the long table over against the far well. "Hand me the Volare book, wouldja? Let's see what we can come up with."

I do, but as I root through the rubble, I have to ask, "But isn't it a little late to switch fabric on the stores now?"

"Like they care. You find it yet?"

I have, miraculously enough. I hand it to Nikky, who thunks it onto a six-inch pile of jumbled papers. Where they'd come from, I have no idea, since I'd just straightened up yesterday. "So," Nikky says, the cigarette dangling from her lips, pool-shark fashion, "We chuck the roses altogether and go with. . ." She flips through the book. "A plaid, maybe? Or something completely different, like. . ." With a grin, she turns the book around, yanking the cigarette out of her mouth with a flourish. "Hats. These are cute, right? Is there any green in it?"

I shake my head. She grins.

"Yeah, hats. It's brilliant." With a wink, she grabs her phone and punches a single digit. Ten seconds later she's going, "Lenny! Nikky. How are you? Good, good. . . Listen. Here's the deal. Forget the roses. . .yeah, yeah, I don't like this sample you sent over, it's very Target, you know what I mean? So instead, send me swatches of. . ." She randomly flips through the book, rattling off a dozen numbers. Then, as if she couldn't be bothered, "And this cotton with the hats. . .number 2376, just for the hell of it. They all available? You're sure? Great. And I can have the swatches tomorrow?" She gives me a thumbs up. "You're a doll, Len. Take it easy, now."

She hangs up, stubs out her cigarette, and smiles at me.

"I don't get it," I say.

A low laugh rumbles from her throat. "I know everybody thinks I'm a ditz. Including you, you're just nicer about it than most. But let me tell you something. . ." Again, she leans forward, and I see in her eyes exactly why she is where she is. "People let their guard down if they think you're stupid. Then they're the ones who do the stupid stuff, you know what I mean? Lenny has no idea which of these I'm really interested in. And by the time I clue him in, it'll be too late for anybody else to get one up on me again. And I think I like the hats better, anyway."

I think she's kidding herself. But hey, not my business.

"Anyway, so when the swatch comes, you'll scan it and send it to the buyers, tell them the other fabric came in flawed and this is what we're switching to, and that'll be that--"
Her eyes lift over my head, to her office doorway. The hair on the back of my arms bristles.

"Problem solved?" Harold asks.

"Yes, Harold," she says, then adds, "By the way, Marilyn left a message on my voice mail, said seven was fine, she'd meet us at the restaurant."

"How'd she sound?"

"Who can tell over voice mail?" Nikky says with shrug. But her mouth thins in concern. "In a rush, though. As usual."

"She gets that from you, you know. Never knowing when to stop."

That's okay, folks, don't mind me.

"Mar's a big girl, Harold. She doesn't need Daddy clucking over her like some Jewish mother."

"Yeah, well, maybe if the Jewish mother she's got was doing her job, I wouldn't have to," he says, then walks away.

I get up, making noises about getting back to my work so I can leave on time tonight--
"He would die if I left him," Nikky says softly.

"Um. . .what?"

"I know what you're thinking. That you can't understand why I put up with his crap. Well, I put up with his crap because he needs me. And what can I tell you, it feels good to be needed."

Okay, fine, I can buy that. To a point. Otherwise, how could I constantly deal with Tina's and Luke's string of crises? Why would I be here, for God's sake? But there's a difference between being needed and getting off on self-flagellation. And before I realize it's coming, I hear myself say, "But the way you let him yell at you--"

"That's right. I let him yell at me. Because I make the money and I bought the house in Bucks County and I'm paying for our daughter to go to NYU and yelling at me is the only way he can still feel like the protector."

Right. A protector who constantly tears down the person he's supposed to be protecting? I'm sorry, but this is seriously not working for me.

Hanging by a Thread"Oh, ditch the outraged expression, Ellie," Nikky says with a gravelly laugh. "It's all. . .posturing. He's never laid a finger on me. And he did put everything he had in this business when I started out. Everything. If I live to be a hundred, I will always owe him for that." Then she looks at me, hard, like a teacher awaiting my response on an oral exam.

"So. . .you're happy?"

Her laugh startles me. "God, you're so young," she says, and probably would have said more if her phone hadn't rung just then. Grateful for the interruption, I scurry out of her office and back to my cubby-of-the-week, wondering how fast I can get my work done, wondering what's up with Tina and Luke, wondering why a woman like Nikky Katz would be so willing to settle for. . .whatever it is she's settling for.

And thanking my lucky stars I'm not like that.

 

(c) 2004 Reprinted with permission of Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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