“I think we’re missing the obvious here,” said Daisy Vashon as she set a tray of button cookies on the white, lattice table by the pool.
JW Sterling tried to ignore the fresh baking, but his gaze caught and held on the soft, vanilla layers and fluffy, chocolate icing.
“What’s the obvious?” he asked, promising himself he’d have only one this time.
He could barely speed-walk his way through two miles nowadays, and he feared he’d done his last stomach crunch on his seventy-eighth birthday. Disappointing, but reality, even for a former Green Beret and Army general. Giving in to the inevitable, he sat forward in his lawn chair, reaching for the biggest cookie in the center of the plate.
“He’s gay,” Daisy offered cheerfully as she sashayed back to her lounger.
“What?” JW sputtered, nearly dropping the cookie.
She turned and plunked herself down on the padded webbing. “He’s a little awkward, a little tongue-tied around women, and a man that fit and good-looking without a girlfriend?”
“He’s not gay,” JW protested vehemently, offended on behalf of his grandson. Gay might be a perfectly acceptable thing to the general populace these days, but Sterling men were not gay.
“Why not?” asked Hannah Sprite. She was lounging on a floating chair in the condo complex’s pool, a brightly colored one-piece bathing suit covering her still-toned, well-tanned, seventy something body. “Because he happens to be your grandson?”
“Because it’s an outrageous accusation, based on absolutely no factual information whatsoever.”
JW would admit that his newly discovered grandson, Morgan Holbrook, could use some manning up. But that’s what happened when a boy was raised by his mother and two older sisters without a male role model in his life. If JW had known of his existence before now, he might have steered him into the military. Basic training and military camaraderie would have done Morgan a world of good.
“He’s not gay,” Sam Finnegan commented mildly, glancing up from his own lounger, where he was working on his laptop. As always, a pair of glasses were perched on his nose, while a canvas fishing hat covered his balding head.
“How do you know?” asked Hannah.
“He’s a nerd,” said Sam. “Just like me.”
“I wouldn’t call him a nerd,” JW disagreed. “Maybe he’s young, and maybe he hasn’t exactly found his way in life.”
“He’s twenty-seven,” said Lizbet Blythe, the fifth member of their usual group, speaking from her own lounger next to Sam’s. A pair of designer sunglasses shaded her eyes, a floppy, straw hat keeping the Florida sun from her face. “That definitely makes him a late bloomer. At that age, I was already on the management training program at Pascott Mutual.”
“Why are you all so hell-bent on categorizing him?” JW bit into the cookie, enjoying the taste despite his deteriorating mood.
“He went to Berkeley,” Daisy pointed out. “And he rides a bicycle.”
“Berkeley is one of the top-rated computer science schools in the country,” Sam interjected. “Do you know what it takes to graduate first in your class at Berkeley?”
“Maybe he’s a savant,” Hannah mused from the pool. “One of those guys who’s brilliant at one thing and stupid at everything else.”
“Are you calling my grandson stupid?” JW demanded.
Hannah shrugged and flashed a smile. JW knew she’d been a beauty her entire life. That dimple, those straight, white teeth, and those sparkling blue eyes persuaded the world let her get away with anything. She’d never learned to censor herself.
“I doubt they can accurately measure his IQ,” said Sam.
JW harrumphed his acceptance of Sam’s statement. The two men had little in common, but they’d lived next door to each other in the Sunny Autumn Seniors Community in Port Aidin, Florida, for the past eight years. In that time, JW had come to grudgingly admire Sam’s intellect, even if his politics were left-leaning, while Sam seemed to have forgiven JW for driving a full-size SUV and having used deadly force in a variety of war zones.
“Why don’t you ask him?” Lizbet blithely suggested.
“I’ve known the man for exactly thirty-six hours,” JW gruffly reminded her. “I’m not about to ask him if he’s gay. He’s not gay.”
JW had only learned of his illegitimate daughter, Nadia, back in March. As a young soldier, during a brief stopover in Monterey, he’d had a weekend fling and never given the woman another thought. After Nadia’s mother died last year, Nadia had tracked him down, introducing herself as his long-lost daughter and telling him he also had a grandson.
JW prided himself on logic over emotion, duty over desire. But as a world-weary soldier who’d long since given up on having a family, meeting Nadia had touched him in ways he never could have imagined. He’d had no expectations, wouldn’t have blamed Nadia if she’d hated him for deserting her mother. But she hadn’t. Two months later, she’d sent Morgan to meet him.
“There’s one sure way to find out,” Hannah noted, bringing him back to the discussion.
“We are not asking him,” JW reiterated.
“How’s that?” asked Lizbet, sitting up straight with obvious interest.
“We fix him up with a girl.”
Sam’s brows popped up in surprise.
“That’s not a good idea.” For reasons he couldn’t quite pinpoint, JW had serious reservations.
“You’re afraid I’m right,” Daisy told him with conviction.
“You see gay everywhere,” Lizbet told Daisy.
“Wishful thinking,” Hannah laughed.
Daisy grinned unrepentantly.
JW did a double take at Daisy’s expression.
What the hell?
Then he felt it—a wet sandbag smacking him upside the head. He glanced questioningly at Sam, who gave him a small, helpless shrug and a nod.
Daisy was gay? JW stared at the half-eaten cookie in his hand. All this time, he’d thought she was plying him with her baking because she saw him as a potential boyfriend. How embarrassing was that?
“Nerds crash and burn on dates,” Sam pointed out. “Just because a guy doesn’t hit on everything in a skirt doesn’t mean he’s gay.”
“Well, we won’t just pick some random woman and hope he takes the bait,” said Hannah. “It has to be the right girl.”
“What about a hooker?” asked Lizbet.
Sam choked out a cough then wheezed to recover.
“I mean, a call girl, of course. A nice, classy call girl. Nerd or not, he is a man.”
“We are not getting my grandson a call girl,” JW all but bellowed.
He couldn’t help picturing Nadia. What would she think if he fixed her son up with a call girl? What kind of a grandfather would do something so colossally irresponsible?
“Do you know any call girls?” Daisy asked Lizbet, appearing to be quite serious about the question.
“I hosted international businessmen for over twenty years,” Lizbet answered. “I cultivated a lot of contacts in that time.”
“You got them hookers?” asked Hannah with what looked like awe.
Lizbet counted off on her fingers. “Most common requests were five-star steak houses, strip clubs, hookers and cocaine. In that order.”
“Give me a break,” Sam interjected with obvious disgust.
But JW figured Lizbet was probably right. He’d spent his entire life surrounded by men who were away from their homes and families. They liked great food. They loved sex, and they sometimes succumbed to drugs. It wasn’t exactly admirable, but it was reality.
“Your gender is appallingly predictable,” Lizbet declared in a jaded, world-weary tone.
“Apparently not the nerds at NASA,” Daisy joked.
JW glanced to Sam, but he had fixed his attention on his laptop and didn’t respond. The icing on JW’s cookie was starting to melt, so he popped the remainder into his mouth and inwardly sighed with bliss.
Daisy might be batting for the other team, but she was still the best cook he’d ever met.
“I have three granddaughters up in Fort Pierce,” Hannah offered, pulling herself out of the pool. “I could get one of them to come down for the weekend.”
Water dripped from her one-piece suit, glistening on her arms and legs in the bright sunlight. JW might be over seventy, but he still appreciated the view of an attractive woman.
“He might like Chastity,” said Lizbet.
“I was thinking Kaitlin,” Hannah responded. She crossed the deck to where her beach towel was draped on a chair, wrapping it around herself like a sarong.
“I think Esmee might be gay,” said Daisy.
The other two women burst out laughing.
Daisy glanced back and forth between them. “What?”
“Esmee’s had a boyfriend for two years now,” said Lizbet.
“But I admire your optimism,” said Hannah.
“You women have completely lost your minds,” JW felt compelled to point out. He glanced at his watch, wondering how soon Morgan would return from his bike ride along the coast. The last thing JW needed was for his grandson to walk in on this ridiculous conversation.
“It’s not really up to us to choose,” Lizbet noted. She looked to Hannah. “Do you think they’d all come and meet him?”
“That might be a little awkward,” said Hannah as she carefully settled herself on a chair.
“You think?” JW drawled, with a disgusted shake of his head.
All this crazy talk was making him hungry, and he reached for another cookie. He could shuffle through an extra mile tomorrow morning to burn it off. It was kind of liberating to know that Daisy couldn’t possibly have romantic designs on him.
Daisy sat up, swinging her legs around the side of the lounger. “What we need is one of those computer programs. The kind they use on dating Web sites. You put in personality attributes and, poof, the computer spits out a match.”
“Those are bullshit,” said Sam.
The women swung their gazes to him.
“They should be illegal. Fleecing people out of their hard-earned money. A grade-eight math student could write a more complex algorithm.”
“How do you know that?” asked Lizbet, rising to her feet and tossing her hat back on the lounger.
Sam’s brow furrowed together. “Because I’ve checked them out.”
“Checked them out how?”
“I took a look at their source code.”
“You hacked into a dating Web site?” asked Daisy.
“They’re not exactly the CIA,” said Sam. “The only thing more bush league than their matchmaking software is their security programs. Add a few random lines of code, and I could match supermodels up with trash collectors, librarians up with rock singers.”
Lizbet moved to perch herself on the end of Sam’s lounger. “Have you done that, Sam? Are you messing with people’s lives on WebDate.com?”
For a split second, Sam looked guilty. “Of course not.”
Hannah moved closer to Sam. “Are you saying you could write a better one?”
“A better one what?”
“A better dating program,” Lizbet added, obviously following the train of Hannah’s thoughts.
“Easily,” said Sam.
He looked up, glancing between the two women. “Good what?”
“You write the program. Hannah can fill in her granddaughters’ profiles and see which one is a better match for Morgan.”
“I have granddaughters, too,” said Daisy.
Lizbet snapped her fingers. “Voilà. Between us, we find exactly the right date.”
JW knew he should launch another protest. Not that his opinion had ever slowed those three women down.
It didn’t seem right to let them loose on his grandson’s life. Then again, if Sam was right and Morgan was a nerd, he probably did have trouble meeting women on his own. He might very well appreciate some assistance.
JW was new to this game. But a good grandfather would step up and help out. Wouldn’t he?
Morgan Holbrook swung his rented bicycle into JW’s garage. He couldn’t bring himself to call the man “grandfather,” and he probably never would. This long-lost family reunion visit had seemed incredibly important to his mother, but Morgan found the whole thing an imposition and an annoyance. The nodes of commonality between him and a former four-star Army general were zero.
Morgan had just successfully defended his PhD thesis on advanced concepts in jet propulsion, and he was waiting to hear on a new research position at Berkeley. If the hiring committee asked for a second interview, he needed to be able to get there on short notice. Also, the further along he was on his latest research project, the better. Hanging out here in Florida, getting to know a gruff, testy, virtual stranger, while the heat and humidity melted his brain cells, was a colossal waste of time.
Not to mention the alligators. Why anyone, never mind slow-moving senior citizens, wanted to live in a state where gators ran rampant was beyond him. He’d dodged two of them during his ride through the park this morning.
He hit the button to close the overhead door, plucking his damp T-shirt away from his body as he moved toward JW’s laundry room. He had to admit, Sunny Autumn Seniors Community itself seemed like a comfortable place to live. By his count, there were thirty roomy, well-appointed condos in this horseshoe-shaped building. They were built surrounding a private pool and patio area that merged into a well-kept park which, in turn, connected to other buildings that comprised the broader complex. At its eastern edge, the park was across the street from the beach.
At the moment, Morgan could see JW and his friends outside by the pool. He recognized Sam, Lizbet, Daisy and Hannah. Sam, he liked. In fact, it might have been better all-around if Sam had been his long-secret grandfather. Genetically, it would have made more sense as well.
Sam was one of the original NASA computer scientists. Geniuses, all of them. Using little more than a contemporary wristwatch’s worth of computational capacity, they had put a man on the moon. What’s more, they’d brought him back again. Morgan and Sam had had a chance to talk during a barbecue last night, and Morgan had discovered that Sam had worked for NASA through both the space station and space shuttle programs. He continued to consult on the Mars rovers.
Morgan made his way down the hall to the main-floor bathroom and stripped off his T-shirt and bicycle shorts, securing the door behind him. It was probably just as well that he changed before seeing JW again. The man seemed to think exercise was only valid if it involved an obstacle course, camouflage fatigues and a bellowing drill sergeant.
Morgan twisted the tap to hot, musing that civilian life was definitely his choice. He’d much rather shower alone than with twenty-odd soldiers. He stepped under the spray, reaching for the bar of plain, white soap. His grandfather was a no-nonsense man. The facecloth and towels were olive green, while the striped can of shaving cream was right out of the fifties.
Morgan washed and rinsed, telling himself to quit whining and try to appreciate the visit. In two days he’d be back on the plane heading across the country to California. Between now and then, he could be polite to the old man, maybe learn something positive about him that he could share with his mother. Maybe, maybe, he would find something that the two of them had in common.
Morgan scrubbed the mud and dust from his legs and mused over strategies to make the rest of the visit less awkward. Perhaps JW liked vintage horror flicks or soccer games. Or maybe he could turn him on to Robotic Quest—though JW was likely more of a Metal Battle kind of guy.
There was a thought. The world of online gaming had most certainly left JW behind. Maybe he’d be interested in some good, old-fashioned, shoot-up-the-enemy action. It would be better than listening to another lecture on duty, valor and the American way. Morgan agreed that a military career was a perfectly valid and meritorious choice for many young men. Just not for all of them, and not for him.
He spun the tap to off and stepped out of the shower, drying his chest and shoulders before wrapping the towel around his waist. The guest room was directly across the hall, and in two steps he was into the room. There, he dressed in a pair of black shorts and a black-and-white-striped T-shirt, combing his hair out of his eyes.
When he exited the room, he nearly ran into Daisy.
“Cookie?” she asked him, holding out a plate.
“Love one,” he responded, taking a roundish, vanilla cookie with what looked like chocolate icing in the middle.
“It’s a famous, family recipe.”
He took a bite. “Delicious.” It was probably one of the best cookies he’d ever tasted.
“Truth is I stole it from Hannah. The recipe was famous in her family.”
“It’s still delicious.”
“Does your mother bake?” she asked him, falling into step along the hallway toward the living room.
“Only with the cookie dough you buy in a refrigerated package.” Morgan remembered the Halloween and Christmas cookies from his childhood.
“That’s too bad.”
“They tasted just fine.”
“So, you were third in the birth order?” she asked as they crossed the living room toward the back entrance to the patio.
“Two older sisters,” Morgan said. “Step-sisters, actually. My mother married a widower when I was two.”
Daisy nodded her understanding. “I used to ride a bike. Growing up in west Texas, we rode all over the place. Then I turned sixteen and got a driver’s license. We had a Ford, a pickup. Do you have a car, or just the bike?”
“I have a car,” Morgan confirmed. It was hard to beat a bike for getting around campus and town, but he liked to venture farther afield, and it helped when you were picking up groceries.
He followed her through the kitchen. “Coupe. A little silver one. It’s ten years old. Why?”
“Just curious.” She stopped and peered at him for a long moment. “Would you like a glass of lemonade?”
He’d rather have a beer. “Sure.”
She pulled open JW’s fridge. “And you’re a teacher?”
“A researcher.” What was with the third degree?
“With a PhD.” She extracted a glass pitcher of pink lemonade.
“Seriously?” came JW’s challenging voice as he entered through the open doorway from the deck.
“I told you I’d successfully defended my thesis,” Morgan responded to JW.
But JW was frowning at the lemonade. “Give the man a brew.”
Daisy appeared to stifle a grin. She lowered her voice to a gravelly level. “Would you like a brew, Morgan?”
“Sure,” said Morgan. “Love one.” He couldn’t help but glance curiously at JW.
JW rolled his eyes. “Pink lemonade. What are we? Six-year-old girls?”
“Morgan drives an Aston Martin,” Daisy announced, setting the pitcher of lemonade back in the fridge and extracting a couple of cans of Budweiser from the door.
For some reason, Morgan found himself waiting for JW’s approval.
“I guess that company’s partly American owned,” JW allowed.
Morgan let the quasi-insult slide. “So, you like American cars?”
“Mustangs, Corvettes, what’s not to like?”
Daisy handed JW a beer then handed one to Morgan.
Morgan popped the top on the can. “Ever played Metal Battle? It’s a video game. Overseas war-based.”
“You like video games, Morgan?” asked Daisy.
“I do,” said Morgan, keeping his attention on JW.
“Is that where kids pretend to shoot people on a computer screen?” asked JW. He didn’t sound impressed.
“Or aliens,” Morgan elaborated. “Or zombies. In some of the games, you build things, like robots.”
“On a computer screen?” JW asked.
“So, none of these things really exist.”
“In the case of zombies, I’ve always considered that a plus.”
“And people think that’s fun?” JW looked doubtful.
“Some people do,” said Morgan, realizing he’d made a tactical error. JW didn’t want to play video battle games. He’d already done the real thing.
“Or we could take in a baseball game,” Morgan offered. “Or football. I’m assuming you like football.”
“Do you like football?” Daisy chimed in.
“Sure,” said Morgan, determined to be agreeable. “I love football.”
“There’s a college game tonight,” JW offered. “Junior college, but the local team is doing well in their division.”
“Sounds terrific,” said Morgan. “I’d love to go.”
“What are your favorite foods?” asked Daisy.
Morgan was confused. “Excuse me?”
“I thought we could all go out for dinner after the game. What do you like to eat?”
“Anything,” said Morgan. He’d spent most of the last ten years on a college campus. If you could heat it up in a dorm room, he could eat it.
“Burgers and brats?” asked Daisy. “Or are you more steak and seafood? Or, maybe you like ethnic food. Italian? sushi?”
“He doesn’t want sushi,” said JW.
“Burgers and brats,” said Morgan. That seemed like good all-around football food.
“Okay,” said Daisy, looking satisfied.
JW looked happy, too. Good enough for Morgan. All he had to do was keep this up for another thirty-six hours.
When JW walked into Sam’s garage three days later, his four friends were clustered in a group, their rapt attention on a pair of computer screens.
Sam had always filled his double garage with an array of electronic gizmos and gadgets. But since they’d started Operation Matchmaker, as JW had dubbed it, the quantity and variety of gear had increased exponentially.
Hannah was shaking her head in obvious disappointment. “I truly don’t know where we go from here.”
“And after all our hard work,” Daisy groaned with exasperation.
“What happened?” JW asked, closing the door behind him, glancing from Daisy to Lizbet to Hannah, ending on Sam. The women were standing in a semi-circle, while Sam was perched on a folding metal chair directly in front of the computer screens.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the algorithm,” Sam stated with conviction.
“Except that it doesn’t work,” said Hannah.
“We don’t know it doesn’t work,” said Lizbet.
“What happened?” JW repeated, perching himself against a work bench nearby.
He still had reservations about the operation, but during the final day of Morgan’s visit, he’d become convinced the man needed assistance in meeting women. And Hannah in particular had worked really hard, gathering and logging information about her many granddaughters and great-nieces. JW now found himself rooting for success.
Hannah fluttered her hand in the direction of the screen. “That thing matched Morgan with Amelia Airhead.”
“Airhead?” JW rose to move closer, immediately worried by the nickname.
“That’s what her brother calls her,” Hannah explained. “And her mom, my niece Georgia.” Her eyes narrowed at Sam. “Amelia’s a cheerleader. And a ridiculous match for a genius.”
“The algorithm is solid,” Sam stated. “Better than anything you’re going to find anywhere else in the world.”
“We’ve only got thirty names in the database,” Lizbet offered in a conciliatory tone. “Maybe there’s not enough to choose from.”
JW knew he hadn’t done his part in populating the database. But he had no grandchildren other than Morgan, and no nieces or nephews to draw on, either. He’d tried to make up for it in other ways, making a hefty donation to the equipment fund, for example, and helping Sam move it all in and set it up.
“It’s a ninety-three-point-seven percent match,” said Sam. “I don’t care how many or how few are in the database, you’re not going to get much better than that.”
“What’s the next highest?” Lizbet asked.
Sam clicked a few keys. “Seventy-two even. Not even close.”
Everyone went silent.
Finally, Daisy looked to JW. “On the bright side, if the program works as well as Sam claims, you already know he’s not gay. Amelia’s definitely a girl.”
Looking in to her eyes, JW felt a pang of guilt. He could pretend to be open-minded, but he’d only be lying to himself and everyone else. Life was easier if you were a heterosexual. At the very least, it was complicated if you were gay, and sometimes it was downright dangerous.
“I wish I could say I didn’t care,” JW offered in a contrite tone.
For some reason, the words earned a smile from Daisy. “You’re an honest man, JW. I like that about you.”
“We’re not going to give up now,” Lizbet declared.
“Do we start from scratch?” asked Daisy.
“There’s nothing wrong with the algorithm,” Sam repeated, clearly growing offended by their lack of faith.
“I’m not saying we start over,” Lizbet clarified. “I’m saying we test it out.”
“Test it out how?” asked JW, not seeing a way to undertake it.
“You mean use these two as guinea pigs? Go ahead and match them up?” asked Hannah.
Lizbet gave an enthusiastic nod. “That’s exactly what I mean.”
Sam grinned and clicked a few keys.
“We carry on with the plan,” Lizbet continued. “Where’s Amelia living now, and what’s she doing?”
“She just graduated from U of Arizona.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” JW couldn’t help noting.
“Fine arts,” said Hannah. “I think she just squeaked through her classes. She cheers for the Wildcats.”
“They’re a fine team.”
“And she’s a beautiful girl.” Hannah sighed. “Last I heard she was planning to go to Hollywood and become an actress.”
“Hollywood is an awfully long way from Berkeley,” Daisy noted.
JW agreed with Daisy on that being a problem.
“But it’s right next door to Caltech,” said Sam.
“How is that relevant?” asked Lizbet.
Sam picked up the telephone receiver, grinning like a Cheshire cat. “We move the mountain to Mohammed.”
“Which one’s the mountain?” asked Hannah, glancing at the others.
“Hank?” Sam spoke heartily into the receiver. “Sam Finnegan here. Are you still interested in having me lecture this summer?” There was a pause. “I will. Yes. But I need a favor.”
End of Excerpt