THE ONE I’M WITH – Chapter 1: Girls’ Night Out

Music blares from the Bluetooth speaker on my ddress-186249_1280resser, and I sing along at the top of my lungs as I buzz between my bedroom and the adjoining bathroom. Saturday’s long-standing girls’ night out tradition dates back to when my three best friends and I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, after our college graduation. This week’s get-together couldn’t come soon enough. Three spring redecorating jobs have kept me swamped for the past month and a half, and today I worked later than usual to wrap up a few odds and ends for my clients.

My gaze falls on the bedside clock. I slow my steps with a grimace. My ride should be here in ten minutes or so, and I still haven’t decided on shoes or jewelry to go along with the black burnout leggings and clingy thigh-length red tunic dress I’ve chosen for tonight. Normally I’d be waiting patiently on my front porch by now. But a last minute phone call right after dinner pushed the start of my night-out preparations back almost a half-hour.

Running my fingers lightly through my curly pixie cut, I duck into my closet and grab two pairs of shoes. I haven’t had a chance to wear the red heels yet, but the knee-high black riding boots would be a more sensible choice. Parking near Pack Square tends to be limited, especially on the weekend, and the boots will be more comfortable if we have to walk more than two blocks to the bar.

I put on one of each shoe and turn to the cheval mirror in the corner. Sexy sometimes trumps comfort, even if it means blisters the next morning. Hands on my hips, I lift my right foot up so I can only see the red shoe on my left. My eyes narrow, and then I switch feet. I alternate my view of the shoes a couple more times, no closer to a decision.

A phone call interrupts the music playing on my cell phone. I hobble over to my dresser and check the caller ID. My older sister, Beth.

Figures she’d call just as I’m about to head out the door.

My hand hovers over the phone. My sister calls me once or twice a month, sometimes more if I haven’t been diligent about keeping in touch. But tonight, given how crazy my week has been and how much I just want to relax with my friends and a cold beer, I don’t feel like talking to her. Pursing my lips, I press the button on the side of my phone and send Beth to voicemail. There will be time enough tomorrow to listen to her well-intentioned lecture on how it’s okay to stay home once in a while, that it’s time for me to focus as much on the direction of my personal life as I have my professional life.

Which is sister-speak for quit with the casual dating and commit to somebody already.

Easy for her to say. She married her college sweetheart, and two seconds after landing her dream job at a Manhattan talent agency, she popped out a kid who’s about as perfect as they come. Everyone expected me to follow suit.

Including myself.

But then life happened, and all my expectations evaporated.

Shaking my head, I banish those thoughts. Life is great. I like my life.

The doorbell rings, jolting me out of the morose track my mind almost took.

“Marissa!” a familiar voice shouts from my front hall.

I kick off the red shoe and half hop, half limp to the top of my stairs in time to see Caitlin wriggling her key out of my front door lock—all three of my best friends have a copy.

“Have you been waiting long?” I ask.

She glances my way, then shuts the door. “Just pulled up. But since you weren’t out on the porch, I figured you were still getting ready.”

I shrug. “Sorry. Client call ran long. How late are we?”

Caitlin consults her phone as she starts up the staircase. “We won’t be late if you can get your ass in my car in the next fifteen minutes.”

“I’m almost ready,” I say, holding my hands and backing down the hall toward my bedroom. “Accessories, and then I’m set.”

“And footwear.” She follows me into my room and props her hip against the side of my dresser.

I grab my other boot and pull it on, then head for my bathroom. “Find me a necklace and some earrings while I check my makeup.”

Caitlin rummages through my jewelry box. “So when are you going to put this money pit up for sale and move into town like the rest of us?”

“It’s not a money pit,” I call out to her.

“Not anymore.”

I pull a face, then apply a thin layer of lip gloss. My friends, along with my sister, don’t understand why I insist on living in this old farmhouse just east of the Chestnut Hill neighborhood, when there are so many great apartments in the center of Asheville. They forget, as Beth also does at times, that my home is also my livelihood. The time and money I poured into restoring, updating, and decorating every room in this house helped earn me spotlight stories, including a feature spread in six major home and garden magazines earlier this year. If my interior design business was booming before March, it’s virtually exploding now; my phone has been ringing off the hook ever since.

Plus, I like my privacy, and there’s plenty of that where I live.

Satisfied with my makeup and hair, I head back into the bedroom. “Are you planning to crash here after you drop me home?”

“Depends how close we make it to last call.” Caitlin holds out a long silver chain necklace and matching chandelier earrings. “You know, if you moved downtown, it wouldn’t be such a pain for somebody to haul out here every Saturday night.”

“It’s not every Saturday. One out of four, I have to haul into town to pick one of you up. “After slipping on the earrings and draping the chain around my neck, I face her. “What do you think?”

She assesses my ensemble from head to toe. “Nice. You might be the only redhead I know who can get away with wearing that shade of crimson. Planning to lure in a couple unsuspecting conquests tonight?”

“Totally calling dibs.” I wink at her as I grab my phone and stuff it into my purse. “I’ve had a bit of a dry spell.”

“Fine by me. But you might have to take it up with Ava.” Caitlin chuckles.

“I think I can talk her into backing off, if it comes down to it.”

We bustle downstairs and out the front door. After buckling into Caitlin’s Jeep, I fire a text message off to Ava and Mel, the other half of our fabulous foursome, to let them know we’re on the way. Caitlin cranks the volume on the radio, pulls out of my driveway, and heads into town.

#

An easy smile settles on my lips as we turn onto Asheville’s main drag, slowing to meet the speed limit. Tonight is all about relaxing after a long work week for all four of us. If I happen to catch the attention of the next lucky hottie, that’ll just be the cherry on top.

I prop my elbow on the edge of the window and rest my temple against my curled fist, scanning the parking lots as we pass. The sidewalks bustle with people of all ages—everyone from college students to thirty-something tourists, to older couples and retirees. Soon, Memorial Day weekend will kick off the summer season, as schools let out and people look to find cooler climes in the mountains. But even when vacation season hits its peak, it never feels crowded to me.

It’s proven a great place to live. Asheville boasts its share of nightlife, shopping, and entertainment. But it’s still pretty quiet, at least by my standards. The girls and I are satisfied with the handful of bars and dance clubs we frequent on Saturday nights. If we want to shake it up, it’s not too far of a drive to Charlotte for an overnight adventure.

My thoughts drift back to my sister’s phone call that I avoided earlier. Part of the reason I picked Appalachian State up in Boone was to get away from the big city life I grew up with in San Francisco. Beth never quite understood my desire for a quieter corner of the country, where I can sit on my front porch and hear birds instead of cars, busses, and trolleys.

I found peace in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Well, sort of.

A sigh escapes. Where is this crappy mood coming from?

“You okay, Marissa?”

Caitlin’s voice jerks me back to reality. She’s parked at the rear of a packed lot, under a light so we’ll have good illumination when it’s time to head home.

Realizing I’m fiddling with my hair, I flash a too-wide grin at her, grab my purse off the floor, and unbuckle the seatbelt. “Right as rain. Did we beat Mel and Ava?”

Caitlin glances at her phone, then checks her mascara in the visor mirror. “They grabbed the corner of the bar and ordered the first round.”

“Perfect.”

I fling open the door and hop out. Adjusting the neckline of my tunic top, I draw in a deep, cleansing breath. Caitlin flips her long black hair over her shoulder and links her arm with mine. We set off toward the sidewalk and our favorite bar down the street from Pack Square.