And Mistress Makes Three
By Francis Ray
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Francis Ray
All rights reserved.
Not even in Gina Rawlings' worst nightmare had she ever envisioned this day would come. Last night, in the vain and foolish hope that she could somehow forestall what would take place at the stroke of midnight, she'd gone to bed before ten for the first time in years.
It hadn't worked.
Curled in a fetal position in her king-sized bed, Gina finally faced the gut-wrenching reality of what this day meant to her, to her two children. Robert, her husband of fourteen years, no longer wanted her. Today, the State of South Carolina, the City of Charleston, had granted him his divorce request. Clamping her eyes shut, Gina curled tighter under the bedcovers.
Fourteen years tossed away as if they were nothing. Her husband didn't love her anymore. The only thing that kept them remotely connected since he'd walked out eight months ago was their two children, Gabrielle and Ashton. Gina bit her lower lip.
Gabrielle, their thirteen-year-old daughter, blamed Gina for the divorce and wasn't shy about showing her displeasure with her mother. To Gabrielle's way of thinking, Robert was the best father in the world. It was easy to understand why their daughter thought that way. While Robert lived there he always let her have her way, overruling Gina's decisions — unless it dealt with money, and then it was a different story. Gabrielle was too young to realize it was easier to give in than set parameters.
On the other hand, Gina couldn't have asked for a sweeter, more loving child than six-year-old Ashton. Sadly, he seemed to have figured out that his father's fitness gym, Bodies by Robert, came before any of them.
In the months since Robert left, he'd canceled numerous weekend visitations with the children. They'd spent only one night in his new apartment. He always gave the excuse that the gym was short of staff or extremely busy. He tried to placate all of them by saying it was for Gabrielle and Ashton's benefit that he worked so hard.
Gina snorted, flinging the bedcovers from her body. Robert was habitually late with his child support payments. More galling was that when the money did come, it was never the correct amount. She'd stopped asking him about the discrepancies. When she did, he always made her feel small and like a failure.
Robert was always quick to point out that it was he, not she, who'd taken care of the family for fourteen years while she wasted money on one penny-ante home business venture after the other.
In the months since he'd left, he'd put a dent in her pride big enough to drive a semitruck through — because he was right, she had failed. What scared her and kept her awake most nights was that she was failing again.
She had countless failures in her life. Her attempts at home businesses so she could stay at home and be available if her children needed her were all disastrous. She'd spent more than she'd earned, and both she and Robert knew it.
Like Gabrielle, Gina blamed herself for the ruined marriage. The morning Robert told her he was filing for divorce he'd said she didn't excite him anymore. Stunned, she hadn't known what to say as he'd picked up his gym bag to leave. She'd recovered enough to ask him to stay so they could tell the children together. She'd never forget his response.
You tell them. At least you can do that much.
Gina shrank inside again as she had then. His carelessly tossed words had wounded her deeply and slapped her in the face. He didn't value her, thought her worthless.
To her undying shame, Gina had gone to the gym later on that day, determined to get Robert to change his mind, determined to do whatever it took to save her marriage. The children needed a father, and she didn't want to add another failure to a long list.
She'd dressed carefully in her prettiest yellow sweater and black pants, even worn makeup, only to find a slimmer, prettier woman wearing a midriff-baring top in her husband's arms. Robert had been annoyed, the woman smug.
You don't excite me anymore, and I can do better, he'd told Gina, not releasing the other woman.
Gina had quickly left, fighting tears and shame. Finally, she accepted what she had been trying to deny for months — Robert's all-nighters at the twenty-four-hour gym weren't all business. During their separation, so-called friends and acquaintances seemed happy to keep her informed about seeing her health-conscious husband around Charleston with slimmer, prettier women.
Gina did her best to act indifferent, but the gleeful or pitying looks on the persons' faces always made her aware she was unsuccessful. Since Ashton's birth, she'd gained more and more weight. Her weight last Christmas was 177 pounds. Forty-seven pounds more than what she weighed before her first pregnancy. Since then, she'd put the scale in the back of her closet.
On the other hand, Robert worked hard to maintain his muscular, toned body. In his eyes, it made up for the premature balding he hated with a passion. He'd let his sandy brown hair grow longer in a useless attempt to hide the hair loss at the top of his head.
While he lived his dream with the fitness gym he'd always wanted, Gina's dreams of a husband and family were shattered.
Aware she couldn't spend the entire day in bed, Gina sat up and slid her legs off the side just as the doorbell rang. Her heart thumped hard in her chest. Robert. Before the chime ended, she knew it wasn't her husband. Her ex-husband. He wasn't coming back.
The ringing phone on the night table startled her. She reached for the receiver. "Hello."
"Morning, time to get up. You have a guest at the front door."
Gina somehow felt worse at the cheerful voice of her best friend, Celeste de la Vega. Celeste never met a stranger and was perpetually happy.
"No excuses. Come on; we have an appointment."
Before Gina could ask where, the line went dead. Sighing, Gina stood and shoved her arms into her robe. It was almost ten and past time for her to get up. The children would be up soon and want breakfast. She'd told them last night that they could sleep in instead of going to church. They didn't know she was avoiding the inevitable.
Leaving the bedroom on the first floor of the two-story home, Gina opened the front door and almost sighed. As usual, Celeste was stunning in a magenta-colored sheath that stopped mid-thigh. As an interior designer Celeste wore pants at work, so when off-duty she always wore skirts to show off her great legs. Gina felt every ounce of the weight she'd gained in her butt and thighs.
"Good morning, and stop frowning," Celeste said as she entered the house.
Gina closed the door. "If you weren't my best friend and I loved you, I'd be irritated at how good you look."
Dimples winked in Celeste's olive-toned face. "I could say the same thing, since I've always wanted to be tall instead of a midget."
It was an old argument. Celeste, at barely five feet, two inches, was perfectly proportioned, with sparkling black eyes, a generous mouth, and enough sex appeal for ten women. Her three engagements proved men found her attraction and elusive. "What's that in your hand?"
Celeste lifted the mid-sized shopping bag with Serendipity, the name of her interior design firm, emblazed on it. "Color charts, samples of cloth, tile, and carpet in tones of yellow and green, your favorite colors. It's a new beginning for you. You can redecorate the house the way you always wanted." Celeste wrinkled her pretty nose as she glanced around the paneled den with black leather furnishings and ugly black-and-brown plaid curtains. "Since I can get you fabulous discounts and help, we can have this place redone in no time."
Gina couldn't afford to spend any money at the moment. The home travel agency business she'd started shortly before Robert left was barely keeping her afloat financially. It was a delicate balancing act. And as close as she and Celeste were, Gina didn't want her to know how shaky she was financially.
Celeste succeeded at everything she tried and had no difficulty getting what she wanted out of life or men. Gina was the exact opposite. At thirty, two years younger than Gina, Celeste owned her own successful interior design firm, Serendipity. Men adored her. The men she had been engaged to were wealthy, successful, and wild about Celeste. Yet each time, Celeste had called it off. Any one of the men would take her back in a heartbeat.
"I'll think about it," Gina finally answered.
Celeste stared at Gina for a long moment, then said, "I'm not letting you out of this, so be warned." She set the bag on the black leather sofa on her way to the kitchen. "Gabrielle and Ashton still asleep?"
"Yes." Gina followed. Each woman knew the other's house as well as her own and felt comfortable in it.
Taking a tall glass from the cabinet, Celeste filled it with orange juice she took from the refrigerator. "You'd better wake them up if we're going to arrive on time."
Gina frowned. "What are you talking about?"
Celeste shook her head, causing her thick black unbound hair that stopped in the middle of her slim back to sway. "The pre–grand opening of Journey's End is today."
Gina held up her hand before Celeste finished. She didn't want to go anyplace ... unless it was back to bed to pull the covers over her head. "No, I don't feel like going."
The glass in Celeste's hand hit the counter. Her eyes glared. "And that is exactly why you are going."
"The children —"
"Will enjoy themselves." Celeste came to stand in front of Gina. "It's over. You hurt now, but you know it was for the best."
"Best that my husband divorced me?" she asked incredulously.
Celeste kept her gaze level. "You were roommates more than husband and wife. You didn't sleep together and the last time you made love was more than a year before he left. You said neither of you enjoyed it."
Gina looked back over her shoulder to ensure the children hadn't wakened and wandered into the kitchen. "The children might hear you."
"I notice you didn't correct me." Picking up her glass, Celeste took a sip of juice, her gaze direct once again.
Gina glanced away. Another failure. "Perhaps that was why —"
"Stop it!" Celeste snapped. Setting the glass down, she went to Gina. "It isn't your fault, so stop beating yourself over the head about Robert's inability to stick. He hadn't been here for you or Gabrielle or Ashton long before he took his sorry behind off."
"But I'm supposed to keep the marriage together!" Gina came back.
"And what book did you read that in?" Celeste asked impatiently. "Marriage takes two people for it to work. Stop laying the blame at your feet; heap some on Robert's thick neck he's so proud of."
Gina finally looked at her best friend. Celeste looked ready to fight, and it was for her. "I'm glad you're my friend."
"Same here." Celeste threw her arm around Gina's shoulder. "We deserve men who will cherish us, make us feel safe and naughty at the same time."
Gina had to admit that Robert never had. She'd been crazy about him in college. He was BMOC and co-captain of the football team. She'd thought she was the luckiest woman in the world when they started going together. Five months later she was pregnant with Gabrielle. "Is that why you broke each of your engagements?"
Celeste's face grew serious. "It wasn't fair to them or me. Thank goodness I realized it before it was too late. I was just trying to get Mama off my back."
Gina had met Ramona de la Vega on several occasions. The petite and elegant woman exuded charm and graciousness. Second-generation Puerto Rican, she had definite ideas about marriage and family. "She loves you and wants you happily married."
"I know, and that's why I haven't moved to Greenland or gotten an unlisted phone number. It helps that I can vent to you and Yolanda."
Yolanda, Celeste's older sister, had been a nun for twelve years, until five years ago when she renounced her vows to work with troubled teens as a high school counselor in Houston, where their parents lived. Yolanda was one of the calmest persons Gina knew and, if possible, more outgoing than her little sister. However, Yolanda hadn't the faintest interest in a relationship with a man, which left Celeste the sole target of her mother's matrimonial quest.
"Since I vent to you, that sort of makes us even," Gina finally replied. "You'll find the man you're looking for."
"And you'll find one who'll appreciate you."
Shock widened Gina's eyes. "My divorce was just finalized."
Celeste placed her hand gently on Gina's arm. "I love you. We both know this was only a formality. The marriage was over long ago."
Gina's hands clenched. "It's hard. I never saw it coming."
"I told you, I'm ready when you say the word to do a number on that convertible he's so proud of," Celeste said, dead serious. "We'll have an airtight alibi and two lawyers ready to defend us." Two of Gina's ex-fiancés were lawyers.
"It sounds tempting, but with my bad luck we'd get caught," Gina said. "Besides, I'm trying to listen to Pastor Carter's message and not do evil for evil."
Celeste made a face. They belonged to the same church. "The man does have a tendency to make you want to do better. So how about we just spray paint those fancy car rims?"
Gina almost smiled. Robert would have a conniption fit and come straight to her door. Her smile faded. "He's moved on. I have to do the same."
"And that's what you're going to do, starting now." Celeste gently pushed Gina toward her bedroom. "Get dressed while I get the kids up. We're going to kick your independent travel agency into high gear."
Gina let herself be pushed, hoping, praying, Celeste was right, that this time she wouldn't fall flat on her face. Again.
* * *
Today was a new beginning, Max Broussard thought as he stood on the wraparound front porch of Journey's End, the newest bed-and-breakfast in Charleston. And he was the proud proprietor. His once soft hands, now lined with calluses, clasped the top railing. With joy came a deep sadness because Sharon wasn't standing beside him, her beautiful face shining with love and happiness.
"God, I miss you."
He felt the soft brush of wind on his face and could almost imagine it was her sweet lips. It had been seven years since he lost her, three years since he'd stopped feeling sorry for himself, not caring about anything — he'd been at the top of the list of self-pitying people. It hadn't been easy finding his way back.
He'd blamed himself for not being with her when she needed him, hated all the time he'd wasted running after the corner office in the insurance firm he worked for and all that an executive position entailed. He'd always thought there would be time to start the family he'd insisted they put off, to take the vacation to Hawaii she had wanted.
None of those things had happened. He'd lost her after five short, pitiful years of marriage.
Tears no longer stung his eyes; the lump didn't form in his throat. He'd brought her dream of a bed-and-breakfast to life. There was a satisfaction in that.
He stepped off the porch and glanced around the lush green lawn. The three-story white Victorian sat one hundred feet from the street and gleamed in the mid-morning sun. The newly repaired concrete walkway led to the driveway that circled to the back of the house where the unattached garage was located.
To his eyes, the place looked restful. He'd tried to envision what Sharon would have wanted, tried to remember their many conversations of one day retiring and buying a B and B near the water just to keep busy and have a place for their children and grandchildren to visit.
There were no children, but the three-story house backed up to the Ashley River. It was as painful as it was pleasurable to be here, but Max felt a strange peace that he'd found in no other place since the day he'd rushed back from the airport after being unable to get Sharon on the phone to find her unconscious on the den floor. She'd never awakened.
"The caterers are almost finished setting things up."
Max turned at the sound of his aunt's soft voice. Sophia Durand was a tall, slender woman with strong features, and Max's favorite aunt of his mother's three sisters. She'd never been married or engaged.
She'd retired from being a principal at an elementary school in Memphis at the end of the last school term and had accepted Max's invitation to come live with him and help run the inn. It was she who had tracked him down and made him realize that he was dishonoring Sharon's memory by turning his back on life.
"How does it look?" Max asked as he came back up the wooden steps that no longer swayed with his weight.
Sophia shrugged. "It's pretty and tastes as good as the samples. They want to know if you want the trays set out or for them to serve."
Max opened the screen door for them to enter the house. A cool breeze from the ceiling fan and central air he'd installed greeted them. "What do you think?"
"You know I don't have a clue, but I'm guessing it would be better if the caterers served. You don't want people bunched up around the food. They're here to see what a great B and B this is," she answered.
"Good answer." He threw his arm around her shoulder. "I'm glad you decided to come and help me." (Continues...)
Excerpted from And Mistress Makes Three by Francis Ray. Copyright © 2009 Francis Ray. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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