“But a real kitten on the inside,” Cassie said. “He’s also divorced. Recently, if I remember.”

“He and Clare split last year. I don’t know many guys your age who aren’t divorced.”

“That’s reassuring,” Cassie muttered. Warren was the best of the rather shallow pool of Shawn’s male friends and acquaintances. Shallow pools, as everyone knew, were usually the slimiest, too. This was exactly why she’d decided on the matchmaker.

“Warren’s got a couple of kids. His wife has custody.”

“Thanks, big brother, but I’ll stick with Dr. Dodson.”

“I appreciate the suggestion,” Angie said, “but I’ll pass on Warren, too.”

“If I think of anyone else, I’ll give you a call.”

“You do that,” Cassie said, although she didn’t expect he would. “On second thought, phone Angie.”

Chapter 4

Simon says: I can find the right mate for everyone. Even you! S imon kept Cassie waiting forty-five minutes on her next visit. His assistant, Ms. Snelling, had called the day after her first appointment. It was now Friday. Since she’d been on pins and needles for three whole days, an additional forty-five minutes didn’t bother her. Today would be when he’d announce whether he’d found her a match.

She couldn’t figure out how, based on their brief conversation, Simon would be able to match her up with the perfect man. Maybe, as Angie said, it really was all about his ability as a psychologist, his scientific study of her lengthy questionnaire.

For three nights now, she’d been like a kid at Christmas—only instead of sugar plums dancing around in her head she saw men’s faces. Men who were enthralled with her. Men who’d go through the same insulting rigmarole she had for the chance to meet her. Men who were just as eager for the very things she wanted—a home and family, security, a sense of belonging and a lifetime filled with love. And one of those men would be her perfect match.

“Dr. Dodson will see you now,” Ms. Snelling said in the same crisp tone she’d used on Cassie’s first visit.

Cassie bounded up from the chair as though she’d been ejected. Despite her eagerness, she tried to move slowly and calmly. When she entered his office, she found Simon sitting at his desk.

Without looking up, he gestured for her to sit, too.

Cassie did, perching on the very edge. She didn’t expect an apology for being kept waiting and wasn’t disappointed. When Simon eventually looked up, she noticed streaks of gray in his hair that had escaped her notice previously.

“What are your plans for Christmas?” he asked.

Of all the things Cassie had expected him to say, this wasn’t it. “Ah…I’m not sure yet.”

“Family plans?”

“Not really.” She hadn’t talked to her brother yet. Her mother and stepfather lived in Hawaii and it was unlikely that they’d fly in for the holidays. Her father…well, she hadn’t spent Christmas with him since she was five or six. “There’s just Shawn and me.”

“And Shawn is?”

“My brother. It’s on the questionnaire. He’s—”

“Ah, yes,” Simon broke in. “What did you do last Christmas?”

“Well, let me see…” She tried to remember where she’d been and with whom. Was it last year that Angie—

“This shouldn’t be so difficult,” he said.

“It was eleven months ago,” she snapped. His attitude irritated her. “As I recall, Shawn and I went out to eat. Angie, a friend of mine, was supposed to join us but at the last minute she couldn’t and we—”

“Yes, yes,” he said, interrupting her again.

“And what exactly were you doing?” she demanded.

His eyes widened. “I beg your pardon?”

“Where were you last Christmas?”

“As I indicated during our previous session, I’m the one asking the questions.”

Cassie made an effort to hold her temper. “I guess that slipped my mind. But I was allowed one question then, so I assume that’s the case today, and I’m asking it now.” She took a deep—and necessary—breath. “Where were you last Christmas?”

He exhaled slowly. “Right here in Seattle.”

“With friends and loved ones?”

“That’s more than one question.” He looked pointedly in her direction. “Shall we continue or not? The choice is yours.”

Knowing she was fighting a losing battle, Cassie tried to regain her equilibrium. “Yes, let’s continue, although I don’t understand what last Christmas has to do with anything.”

“That’s not your concern.”

“Are you always this dictatorial?” She realized she was asking yet another question, but she couldn’t stop herself.

“I am when I feel I can find the right match for a client. An exasperating one, I might add.”

“Really?” That was worth all the insults he could issue, Cassie decided. She slid so far to the edge of the chair that she was in danger of falling onto the carpet. “You actually have someone in mind?”

“I do.” This was said in a clipped, businesslike way.

She waited, but he wasn’t any more forthcoming than that.

“Before I introduce you, there are a few matters we need to attend to.”

“Fine.” Her heart felt as if it had moved into her throat.

“My fee is thirty thousand dollars.”

“Yes, I know…That’s a lot of money.”

Simon glanced up. “I thought you were aware of my fee. If you can’t afford me, then I suggest you leave now and save us both a lot of time and trouble.”

The money was safely tucked in Cassie’s savings account. “I put it aside for a wedding, but obviously there won’t be one without a groom. I’m willing to make the investment.”

“Good. Then I’ll introduce you to John.”

“His name is John?” John was a solid name, implying that he was a solid man; she liked him already.

“Before I introduce you—”

“There’s a money-back guarantee, right?”

“I’ll explain that in a moment.”

“Okay, sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.” She wanted to capture every single detail of this meeting so she could repeat it all to Angie.

“I have three tasks I want you to complete first.”

“Excuse me?” She wondered if she’d misheard him. Cassie was waiting to hear about her perfect mate, and he was talking about tasks? What was this, homework?

“These are qualifying tasks,” he was saying. “I need to be sure you’re the woman for John.”

“But…no one said anything about needing to qualify.”

He ignored her outburst. “Once you’ve fulfilled these three simple tasks, I will introduce you to John. The choice is easy—do what I ask and meet the man of your dreams or keep your money and walk away now.” He sat back in his chair and clasped his hands, clearly regarding this as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

Cassie’s head reeled. “Do you ask this of all your clients?” she cried, almost positive he didn’t. Her nerves were quickly fraying.

“How often do I need to tell you? I’m not in the habit of answering questions.” He paused and looked her straight in the eye. “However, I’ll admit that I don’t ask this of every client. Only certain ones.”

“What made me so lucky?”

“Your motives. You expect to find the perfect husband, the perfect marriage and the perfect Christmas, correct?”

She remembered having said as much. She nodded.

“You’re asking for the impossible.”

“But…isn’t that what you promised?”

“No. If you’ll examine my Web site, you’ll see that I promise the right mate. The most suitable spouse. But that’s just the beginning. A happy marriage is about much more than the appearance of perfection.”

Others had found true love. Jill and Tom had, so why couldn’t she? “I can dream, can’t I?” she muttered.

“Yes, you can dream as long as your dreams are rooted in reality.”

“And you consider it your duty to drag me out of my happy fantasy and into the real world,” she said sarcastically.

“What I consider my duty is to match you up with someone who’ll spend the rest of his life thinking he’s the most fortunate man alive to be with you.”

“Oh.” She swallowed tightly.

“Do you accept the three tasks or not?”

She hesitated. She needed more information before she agreed to anything. “What are they?”

“I’m not asking you to swim in shark-infested waters, if that’s what you’re worried about. It’s nothing life-threatening.”

“I won’t have to eat anything disgusting, will I?”

He cringed. “Good grief, no. As I said, these are simple, ordinary tasks. It sounds as if you’ve been watching too much reality television.”

“Actually, I don’t. My friend Angie watches that stuff and then tells me about it the next day.”

He ignored her explanation and reached for a slip of paper on his desk. “Here’s your first task. I need you to volunteer for a four-hour shift as a bell ringer in front of the Southcenter Mall near Kent. Do you know it?”

“I know every mall within a two-hundred-mile radius of Seattle.”

“I have no doubt of that.”

Really, how difficult could a four-hour shift be? “Sure, that won’t be a problem.”

“It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving.”

“Great. The mall will be hopping.”

“There’s a quota the charity expects you to make, but I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with that.”

“Okay. What’s the second task?” The first one didn’t seem too hard; the next one was probably along similar lines.

“You said on the application form that you’re interested in a man who wants children.”

“I am.”

“Good. I’m going to give you the opportunity to spend an entire afternoon with the little darlings. You’ll be one of Santa’s elves for a picture-taking session at the Tacoma Mall.”

“An elf?”

“There’s a costume. I apologize, but it’s one of the requirements.”

“Okay, fine, I can be an elf.” She didn’t like the idea of wearing some silly outfit with tights and pointed shoes but she could cope. “And the final task?”

He reached for another slip of paper. “I also saw on your application that you enjoy cooking.”

“I do.” And she was pretty good at it if she did say so herself.

“Excellent. For your third task, I want you to cook Christmas dinner. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, salad, vegetables…that sort of thing. Oh, and two different kinds of homemade pie.”