Testing Kate (Little Black Dress)

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9780755341092: Testing Kate (Little Black Dress)

No one is better than Kate Bennett at playing by the rules–because no one has quite her knack for running into bad luck. Orphaned while in college, Kate handled her loss by graduating with honors and acquiring a secure job and a dependable boyfriend. But now, with her thirtieth birthday around the corner, Kate decides it’s time to shake things up. She quits her job, breaks up with her long-term boyfriend, and U-Hauls it across the country for her first year at Tulane Law School. Too bad nothing in the Big Easy is quite so easy....

Before she knows it, Kate finds her life turned upside down by a notoriously sadistic professor, a larger-than-life new boss–and two interested men who are sure that she’s The One.... But can either of the men in her life really know Kate, when she’s just getting to know herself? In a year of self-discovery, the most important lesson Kate may learn is that to change your luck, sometimes you have to change your mind–including what you thought was your dream.

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About the Author:

Whitney Gaskell grew up in Syracuse, New York. A graduate of Tulane Law School, she worked for several years as a reluctant lawyer before writing her first novel, Pushing 30, followed by True Love (and Other Lies), She, Myself & I, and Testing Kate. She lives in Stuart, Florida, with her husband and son, and is at work on her next novel.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
When I was twelve years old, I froze right in the middle of the three-meter springboard diving competition.

I’d been taking diving classes at the local YMCA. When I’d stand at the edge of the rough board, my toes curled over the end, and stare down at the sprinklers spraying over the surface of the water, the whole world would go quiet. And then I’d take three steps back, turn, balance my shoulders over my hips and my hips over my feet, lift my arms out, and then it was three steps back again to the end of the board. With one final bounce, I’d leap straight up and then out, stretching my body into an arrow and slicing into the cold water, feeling like a mermaid.

At the end of the summer, the Y hosted a fun meet called Splash Day. The swimmers raced like a pack of sleek dolphins, and the synchronized swimmers spun around and fluttered their hands in time to a Christopher Cross song, and the divers sprang fearlessly from the board.

But when it was my turn to dive—a forward half-twist dive I’d been practicing for months—I stood at the edge of the springboard, staring out at the crowd, at my parents sitting side by side on the wooden bleachers, and smelling the chlorine in the air, and I just . . . froze. I don’t mean that I had a moment of anxiety, or even that I decided not to dive and retreated back down the ladder. Oh, no. I was incapable of movement. I just stood there in my navy blue Speedo suit, shivering a little, my arms wrapped around myself in a hug, and I listened to the crowd first grow quiet and then, becoming restless at the holdup, start to call out either encouragements or barbed jokes, their voices echoing over the water.

“You can do it, honey!” (My mother.)

“Just jump already!” (Mr. Hunt, father of Bobby, who for some inexplicable reason wore sweat bands on his wrists when he swam the hundred-meter freestyle.)

“Damn, that water must be really cold!” (Mindy’s dad, Mr. Camp, who thought—incorrectly—that he was hilarious.)

The voices just made it worse. I don’t know why. I don’t even know what it was that stopped me from making the same dive I’d completed hundreds of times in practice, the dive I’d been so sure would secure the blue ribbon. But even as I told my legs to jump now, they refused to obey.

In the end, Ms. Hadley, my coach—one of those sturdy, capable women with a square jaw and bushy brown hair cut in a severe bob—had to climb up onto the board, take my limp hand in hers, and lead me down and away. As soon as my bare feet hit the wet tiled pool deck, I dashed for the locker room—disobeying the sign that forbade poolside running—where I sat huddled on the wooden bench while hot tears of shame dripped down my cheeks. It was the most humiliating moment of my life.

Until now.

As I sat in my very first class on my very first day of law school, only one terrified thought had crystallized in my mind:

Which one of us will he call on first?

Actually two thoughts, the other being: Please, please, please, God, please don’t let it be me.

Law schools are infamous for their use of the Socratic Method, where the professor singles out a student and questions him or her on the finer points of case law. And despite my performance anxiety that had been lingering since the diving incident seventeen years earlier, I hadn’t worried about the Socratic Method when I first applied to law schools.

Getting called on in class? Big deal, I’d thought, as I paged through the glossy admissions catalog.

But as I sat in the too-cold lecture hall for the first time, a queasy, oily fear slid through me. And I wasn’t the only one. Everyone around me was sitting a little too straight and rigid; heads were bowed over casebooks, eyes flickering around nervously.

Professor Richard Hoffman had finished his curt introduction to Criminal Law and stood leaning forward against the wood lectern, his flat gray eyes scanning row after row of students, all of whom did their best not to make eye contact with him.

Please don’t let it be me, I thought again. My hands tensed into two fists, the nails pressing into the tender skin of my palms. Please, please, please don’t let it be me. Not today, not when I hadn’t done the reading assignment, or even bought my casebook, for that matter. Not the one day of my academic career when I was completely and totally unprepared.

“The sixth row to the right. The young woman who didn’t seem to think it necessary to bring her textbook to class,” Professor Hoffman said.

Which row was I in? One, two, three, four . . . shit, shit, shit. He couldn’t possibly be . . . was he really? . . . oh, God . . . he was. . . .

I looked up and saw that all of my new classmates had swiveled around to face me, a sea of strangers, their faces stamped with relief that they hadn’t been singled out as the first member of our class to be called on.

Dumb fucking luck, I thought.

You know those people who fill out a sweepstakes entry form on a lark and end up winning a new flat-panel television, or who always manage to make it to the gate just in time when they’re running late for a flight, or who find priceless antiques for next-to-nothing in the back room of a dusty thrift store?

I’m not one of them.

I step in wads of gum the first time I wear a pair of shoes, and get stuck in traffic when I have an appointment I can’t be late for, and my first and only new car was dinged by a hit-and-run driver less than half an hour after I drove it off the car lot.

So it really shouldn’t have surprised me that I was the very first person to get called on by the professor on the very first day of class. It was just more of the freaky bad luck that had been hanging over me since the day I was born (which just happened to be right in the middle of one of the worst blizzards to hit central New York in forty years).

“Your name?” Hoffman asked.

My skin felt very hot and very tight stretched over the bones of my face, and my throat closed up. “Kate. Kate Bennett,” I croaked.

“Ms. Bennett, please stand.”

“Ex-excuse me?”

Hoffman sighed dramatically. “If you are not capable of speaking loudly enough for the rest of the class to hear you, you must stand. Up. Now,” he said. He raised his hand, with the palm facing up.

But all I could do was gape back at the professor, while the eyes of my classmates burned into me. And just like that, I was twelve years old again, frozen at the end of the diving board.
Twenty minutes earlier, I’d been standing on the Freret Street sidewalk and staring up at the imposing three-story brick facade of John Giffen Weinmann Hall. The morning sun cut down at a sharp angle, and I had to hold my hand up for shade to get a good look at the building that housed the Tulane School of Law, where I was now officially enrolled as a first-year law student.

I was sweating. Heavily.

Perspiration beaded up on my forehead, rinsing away the tinted moisturizer I’d so carefully applied that morning, and my white cotton T-shirt dampened under my armpits in two wet crescents.

Great, I thought, shifting my black leather knapsack on my shoulder and plucking the thin cotton of the shirt away from my skin. Nothing like making an elegant first impression.

It was only nine in the morning, but it must have already been ninety degrees in New Orleans. The late August humidity made the temperature even more oppressive, blanketing the city with a heavy wet heat that was causing my blonde wavy hair to rise up from my head in a halo of frizz. And I thought we’d had heat waves back home in Ithaca, those brief summer spells that baked the spring mud until it was dry and cracked. Graham and I would sit in front of an oscillating fan set on high, wet towels wrapped around our necks, and bemoan our lack of air-conditioning for those nine days a year when we actually needed it.

Back home . . . Only Ithaca wasn’t home anymore, and I no longer shared an old Victorian house, with a wraparound porch, poky kitchen, and hideous blue floral wallpaper in its one dated bathroom, with Graham.

Now I lived in New Orleans, in a shabby shotgun-style apartment on the corner of Magazine and Fourth, on the second floor of a converted Greek Revival house. The house had probably been grand in its glory days but had long since faded into a state of genteel decay. My apartment had no closets, the toilet ran nonstop, and when I walked barefoot across the narrow-planked wooden floors that ran from the living room to the bedroom, the bottoms of my feet turned black from decades of worn-in grime.

My new roommate was a cockroach the size of a rat, which had leapt out at me the night before when I went into the kitchen for a glass of water. I’d shrieked and dropped my glass, only remembering at the precise moment that it shattered on the black-and-white linoleum tiled floor that I still hadn’t gotten around to buying a broom and dustpan. After- ward, I huddled in my bed, giving myself the heebie-jeebies by wondering if the ticklish feeling on my arm was the roach climbing into bed with me.

“You said you wanted to get out of Ithaca,” I now muttered to myself. “And this is out. Hell, they even have palm trees here.” Palm trees were exotic, the stuff of vacation resorts and Miami Vice reruns.

Students streamed past me, most walking in small chatty clusters, on their way into the law school. I still had a few minutes before class started, so I held back and tried to figure out what the hell I was smelling. It wasn’t the sweetly Southern aroma of magnolias and mint juleps I’d expected but instead an odd odor of burned toast that hung in the air.

Just then, a tall, thin woman strolled by. She had a sleek dark bob that reminded me of Uma Thurman’s in Pulp Fiction, and she looked effortlessly elegant in slinky jeans, a slim-fitting charcoal-gray T-shirt, and black leather thong sandals. An equally tall skinny guy with spiky brown hair and a nose ring loped along next to her. He was gesticulating wildly as he talked, and the brunette threw back her head in appreciative laughter at whatever it was he was saying. I watched them turn into the law school, disappearing behind the heavy glass doors.

Was I the only person at this goddamned school who didn’t know anyone?

“Excuse me,” a voice said. I pivoted around to see who it belonged to.

The man standing there was roughly my age—late twenties, or possibly early thirties—and he was gazing at me expectantly. He had short dark curly hair that rose in peaks over his high forehead. His nose, peeling from a sunburn, was a little too big for his face and his chin was a little too long, but he had the brightest blue eyes I’d ever seen. “Are you talking to me?” I asked.

“Yeah, actually, I’ve been trying to catch up with you since we got off the streetcar,” he said.

I had heard someone calling out after me as I’d trekked across campus. But since I didn’t know anyone in New Orleans, much less anyone at Tulane, I’d assumed that whoever it was wasn’t talking to me.

“I’m sorry . . . have we met?” I said. I looked at him a little closer. “Actually, you do look sort of familiar.”

“If I had a dime for every time a woman said that to me. I used to think it was because I was starring in everyone’s sexual fantasies,” the guy said. “Let me guess, I look just like the brother of one of your friends. Or the friend of one of your brothers.”

I laughed. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t have a brother.”

“No? Really? That’s usually it. Well, then maybe it’s because we live in the same building.”

“We do?” I asked. I hadn’t met any of the other three tenants in my new apartment building. I hoped he wasn’t the person who lived in the other second-floor apartment. Every time I stood on the narrow landing at the top of our shared staircase, fumbling with my key and sticky dead bolt, I could smell cat urine wafting out from under his door. And then, last night, while I was trying to fall asleep after my run-in with the gargantuan cockroach, I’d heard what sounded like someone over there tap dancing, their steps reverberating through the cheap hardwood.

He nodded. “Yep. I live in the bottom right apartment. I saw you leaving today, and we were on the same streetcar. I was right behind you. We both had to run to catch it. . . .”

I nodded. “Oh, right. That must be it.”

Now that he mentioned it, I did have a vague memory of someone getting on the streetcar right behind me, joking with the driver as he boarded. I’d taken the rattling green streetcar from my stop at Fourth Street all the way up St. Charles Avenue to the Tulane campus, gawking out the open window at the Greek Revival mansions we passed along the way, sitting like dowager queens on their carefully manicured lawns.

“But that’s not why I was trying to stop you. You have a . . .” His voice trailed off, and he looked uncomfortable.

“I have a what?”

“A . . . thingy. Um. Something. Stuck to . . .” He made a vague gesture toward my hips. “On the back of your skirt,” he said. He blushed and averted his eyes.

I reached back, brushing at my skirt, trying to figure out what he was talking about, what was causing him such obvious embarrassment. And then I felt it.

Oh. Shit.

There was a maxipad stuck to my ass.

I could feel the blood flooding to the surface of my skin as I peeled the pad off my skirt and stuffed it into my knapsack. It wasn’t used—thank God—but still. Still. I’d just walked across the entire campus with a sanitary napkin stuck to my skirt.

“Ah. Um. Thank you,” I said stiffly, trying to regain some smidgen of dignity. I glanced nervously at the law school, wondering how many of my new classmates had seen me. Would I spend the next three years known as the Maxi Girl? “Well. Um. I’d better get to class.”

“Are you a law student too?” the guy asked.

Too? Oh, no.

“Please tell me you’re not a first-year law student,” I said, briefly closing my eyes in the hopes that he would disappear. When I opened them, he was still standing there, looking a little confused.

“Yeah, I am.”

“Of course you are,” I said dryly. “Because this wouldn’t have been sufficiently mortifying otherwise.”

At this, he laughed. It was a nice laugh, full and deep.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. So you’re a One-L too? I don’t remember seeing you at orientation,” he said.

“I wasn’t there. My U-Haul truck broke down in Pennsylvania. I spent three days outside Pittsburgh waiting for a replacement,” I said.

“You didn’t miss much,” he said. “They made us wear name tags.”

“Yeah, but now everyone knows everyone else,” I said. “Except for me.”

“You know me.”

“No, I don’t, actually.”

“That we can remedy immediately. I’m Nick Crosby,” he said.

“Hi, Nick. I’m Kate. Kate Bennett,” I said. I sniffed again as the burned-toast aroma became even stronger. “What is that smell?”

“What smell?”

“You don’t smell that? It’s smells like burned toast.”

“Maybe someone burned some toast,” Nick suggested.

“I don’t think so. I smelled it earlier, when I was leaving my apartment. Unless people are burning toast all over the city, all at once,” I said.

“Did you know that carob trees smell like semen?” Nick said.

I blinked. “What?”

“I thought we were having a conversation about things that smell weird.”

“No. Just the one smell,” I said.

“Right, sorry. So what classes do you have today?”

I consulted the slip of paper the school had sent me over the summer. “This mornin...

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