Mercy got to the restaurant before Deborah did, quite wet but somewhat less depressed. The mahogany walls, huge mirrors and turn of the century decor intimidated her, and she wondered if she smelled like pickle juice. It was one of those landmarks of historic significance, old brass cash register and all; once a saloon, it had survived prohibition by switching from booze to beef and probably hiding a speak-easy out back.

While Mercy was hanging up her coat, Deborah rushed in, slightly breathless. Her bright face cheered Mercy immediately. "Am I late?" she asked.

"I'm probably early. I couldn't take the correcting this morning."

"Don't tell me about it. Let's not talk about literature or writing today, for a change."

"What shall we talk about then?" Mercy asked. "Men?"

Deborah laughed. "You know, when I saw you as I came in, I thought you were in a bad mood."

"I was."

"What about?"

"Men." They both laughed.

"Are you sure this place is affordable?" Mercy asked as they sat down in a secluded booth.

"It's not as bad as it looks," Deborah assured her.

"It doesn't look bad exactly. It just looks like it's beyond the means of an assistant professor with two kids and a mortgage."

"What about the man?"

"Oh, he fixes vacuum cleaners."

Deborah laughed again. "You can't possibly be in that bad a mood!"

A waiter in a waistcoat arrived to take their order. Deborah chose a traditional turkey sandwich, but Mercy decided to make the visit worth her while and went for chicken marsala. "So what's the matter?" Deborah asked. "Besides the fact that the man is a vacuum cleaner repairman."

It was Mercy's turn to laugh. "I don't mind vacuum cleaners, but I do mind that he criticizes me all the time. And he falls asleep on the couch."

Deborah looked at Mercy seriously. "That's bad. A supportive partner can be invaluable."

"He seemed so nice at first," Mercy continued. "But how can you tell if they'll still be nice once you get them home?"

"Don't marry them."

"What?"

"Don't marry them. People try harder when they're not married."

Mercy had long been aware of a hazy partner figure in the life of one of Portland's big celebrities, but she had never wondered about the nature of the relationship, always assuming it was traditional. "You mean you aren't married?" Mercy asked.

"Please," Deborah said, shaking her head, her eyes alight. "Was. I learned my lesson."

"And now?"

"Now I have an illegitimate son and a live-in lover. Not particularly original, but apparently still material for scandal. My publishers always avoid mentioning my household arrangements in the 'about the author' blurbs. With a lot of women writers they tell you how long they've been married and how many children they have, but I'm too disreputable, it seems. Luckily. I mean, what does that have to do with the books I write?"

"Probably a lot. You said yourself a supportive partner was invaluable."

Deborah chuckled. "Yes. I don't have domestic squabbles stealing my writing time." Deborah shook her head and laughed outright. "Well, here we are, talking about writing again! I should have known we wouldn't be able to avoid the subject!"

Mercy smiled and lifted her light eyebrows.

On her way back to the office, she indulged in her original impulse and bought herself a bar of good German chocolate. The chicken marsala had been on the nouveau cuisine side, good but minimal. She opened the purplish wrapper and stuck a sinfully creamy piece in her mouth before shoving the rest in her bag. Sex and chocolate, huh? Mercy was obviously frustrated.