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Something was up.
Julia Martinelli had a funny feeling. She'd developed a sixth sense for these things by now. An uncanny radar for her mother's imminent romantic misadventures.
Her mother's invitation for dinner had sounded innocent enough. They lived in the same town, the place where Julia had been raised, and got together at least once a week for dinner or lunch, or just to say hello over coffee.
But for some inexplicable reason, Julia's skin went all shivery with goose bumps during this particular call. Something in her mother's tone signaled Watch out. Something's cooking. It's not just Mom's special meat loaf.
Julia didn't ask any questions. She didn't want to seem overly suspicious. Her mother had become very sensitive to any inquiries about her love life and Julia had to tiptoe around the subject these days, which wasn't easy. Her mother was a master at avoiding a straight answer.
"You're always imagining things, dear," Lucy Martinelli would claim. As if Julia was the one with the problemor "issues" as folks on TV talk shows liked to say.
Julia knew she did have a few "issues" about romance: the greatest one being, she couldn't find much of it. Not the kind she was looking for. Her mother, on the other hand, found more than enough for anyone. Especially a woman her age. Which was often a problem.
As Julia drove over to her mother's after work on Friday night, she was gripped by the same unnerving sensation, and the palms of her hands were clammy on the steering wheel. Was she only imagining things? She dearly hoped so.
In the small town of Blue Lake, Vermont, Julia's mother Lucy was known as "The Merry Widow"though technicallyspeaking, only two of Lucy's four husbands had died.
Marriages two and four had ended in divorce. Which did not bode well for husband Number Five, Julia thought, if and when he arrived. The odd-numbered husbands seemed to have a high mortality rate.
All things considered, it was more a matter of when than if. Julia just knew Number Five was out there somewhere, hovering on the horizon. A new chapter in her mothers relationship saga, which Julia often thought could provide more than enough material for some thick, juicy novel or a made-for-TV movie.
Married first to her high school sweetheart, Lucy became a at the tender age of twenty-one, when her young husband in a boating accident. She next married Julia's father, Tom Martinelli, a local attorney. That union lasted over twenty years, Julia knew now that her parents had stayed together because of her, both feeling out of synch with their spouse, committed to giving their only child a stable family life.
It wasn't an unhappy household, though even as a child Julia sensed something was missing between her parents. As a grown woman, she decided she'd never make that same choiceto stay stuck in a loveless relationship.
Her parents divorced while Julia was in college. Her father had since retired and moved to Florida with his second wife, Adele, a former elementary school teacher. They played a lot of golf and were ardent fans of the History Channelpastimes that had never interested Julia's mother.
Julia loved her father dearly and knew she took after him more in temperament, but she was still objective enough to see her mom was definitely having more fun.
Shortly after the divorce, Lucy took a weekend jaunt to Las Vegas with some girlfriends. There she met and married a retired Texas businessman, fell head over heels and walked up the aisle that very weekend in the tackiest of Vegas wedding chapels.
Julia had not been present, but the blurry instant photos told the whole story. Earl T. Walker was a lovely man, but much older than Lucy. He died from a sudden heart attack a few weeks before the couple's third anniversary.
Lucy inherited a sizable portion of Earl's estate, but there was nothing left for her in Texas. She'd never taken well to the wide open spaces and Lucy soon returned to Blue Lake. She'd never sold her house there so it was easy to settle back into the community, her old routines and connections. She found plenty of sympathy from her friends and from Julia. But at least Lucy had found some years of happiness during her brief third marriage, unlike some people who never find anyone to love.
Encouraged by that success, Lucy's next husband, number four, appeared with jaw-dropping speed. He was clearly a rebound match, with Lucy falling for the agent who handled the life insurance claim on number three. Before anyone could say double indemnity, it was back to the divorce courts.
Now, here they were. Lucy had lasted several years in the single life, but remained undaunted in her quest to find true love. All things considered, it seemed only a matter of time before Number Five arrived. Her mother was still attractive, in good health and rarely without a date on a Saturday night. She just had a knack for meeting men without even trying.
After all she'd been through, Lucy had never once spoken a single word against matrimony, or soured toward the institution in any way. After being twice widowed and twice divorced, she certainly had enough assets to live independently in fine style for the rest of her days. But marriage meant more to Lucy than financial security. Julia knew her mother's lace-trimmed valentine heart still yearned to find her perfect match, her "soul mate." She totally believed in the notion that such a man existed.
Julia didn't believe in soul mates. Or love at first sight, or any of those worn-out clichés, none of which could describe Lucy's romantic philosophy. Maybe she was too rational about male-female relationships. Someone in the family had to be.
Julia hadn't always been this way. Time and experience had worn down her romantic spirit and given her a more realistic view. Julia was actually a bit envious of her mother. Not of Lucy's addiction to walking down the aisle, but of her unflagging optimism. Julia was secretly starting to lose hope of ever finding Mr. Right. Or even Mr. Fixer-Upper.
Julia sometimes wondered if she really wanted a husband at all. Being perfectly honest with herself, she seemed to have reached the point when the only thing she really wanted was a baby.
As she slowly but surely approached her thirty-second birthday, the biological messages to make a baby were flashing like a warning system gone berserk. She'd just about given up taking the traditional route of romance and marriage.
Julia had only once admitted this aloud to her best pal, Rachel Reilly. Rachel was the perfect advisor on the subject, having faced the same dilemma a little over two years ago when her fiancé had left her at the altar. She'd decided not to wait for a man to give her the life she wanted and had taken a courageous leap, becoming a single mother by choice as a client of a sperm bank.
Julia admired Rachel's courage and decisiveness. She often wondered if she could ever do the same. As it turned out, Jack Sawyer, the sperm donor dad, eventually sought out Rachel and their little boy. Miraculously, Rachel and Jack eventually found their own happily ever after.
Julia knew their story was a heartwarming fluke. She knew if she took that route, she'd have to be prepared to do it all on her own.
Every time she considered it, the complications of living in a small town where people still clung dearly to traditional ideas about marriage and child-rearing seemed too big an obstacle. Julia was a successful Realtor with a high profile in the community. Having a baby on her own would stir up a storm of gossip. Living under the cloud of her mother's misadventures had been enough public attention. Julia knew for certain she didn't want the whole town talking about her, too.
Her livelihood would definitely suffer. Not that she was materialistic, but she had to think about supporting a child.
Mulling over all these familiar questions that never seemed to have answers, Julia drove through the village toward her mother's house. It was a clear winter night in late February. A fresh dusting of snow made the winding streets and quaint houses look cozy and inviting, like an illustration from a picture book.
Julia knew practically every house on every lane from attic to cellar. And she knew the people within, the previous owners and the ones before that. She loved living in Blue Lake and was a perfect town-booster to newcomers searching for a country retreat or locating out of the city. Which was just the way she and Rachel had first met and become fast friends.
Rachel teased her now about running for mayor. But Julia wasn't interested in politics. Besides, she knew the job wouldn't work with the role of motherhood any better than her present profession.
As much as she loved Blue Lake, these days she'd started to regret never taking her chance out in the wide world, where she could be anonymous and private, casting her line in a larger pool of slippery, hard-to-reel-in bachelors.
Maybe the same rule applied to finding a husband as finding a house. Location. Location. Location.
How had she ended up here all this time anyway? She'd always meant to leave. But she'd married a hometown boyfriend right after college and by the time they divorced, her business was firmly established. And it also seemed important by then to stick around to keep an eye on Lucy. As an only child, she felt even more responsible.
Attractive and charming, in a field where she met new people all the time, Julia never lacked invitations from eligible men and even some that weren't so eligible. She joked to her friends that she'd dated every male possibility in a fifty-mile radius. But it wasn't really a joke and those relationships never seemed to lead anywhere.
All she really wanted was a mature, solid relationship. A meeting of the minds and hearts. Someone she could respect and get along with. Someone who wanted the same things in life she did. Was that so much to ask?
There had to be a spark, of course. Chemistry. Attraction. Julia wasn't so practical-minded that she'd skip all those heady feelings. Still, being totally swept off her feet scared her, because she knew it could never last. Case in pointher mother. Lucy was always being swept off her feet. Struck by lightning. Head over heels on a first date, before the waiter had even taken her dinner order.
Did any of it last? Of course not.
Julia knew it took a lot for her to fall in love. She knew that her unhappy marriage and divorce made her wary. Sometimes she thought she was too particular. She couldn't help it. She wasn't going to get married again just to show the world and herselfand maybe even her motherthat she could.
Meanwhile, her mother was exactly the opposite, in and out of relationships, dating and dumping or being dumped and moving on to the next partner. Her love life was a game of musical chairs and every time she landed, she was sure "This is it!"
Had her mother landed anywhere lately? Lucy hadn't mentioned dating anyone special that Julia could recall. But her mother was so chatty during their phone calls, Julia knew she may have missed some crucial information while multitasking.
Julia turned down Magnolia Way and pulled into the driveway at her mother's house. The depressing vision of herself at her mother's age, living alone, surrounded by cats, rose up to fill her mind. No matter that her mother didn't have any cats.
She pushed the image out of view. Her mother would doubtlessly ask about her social life tonight and Julia knew it was important to put a positive, upbeat face on the situation. When in fact, it was anything but.
Seven o'clock sharp, Julia stood at the front door, a box from the bakery in hand.A triple-layer chocolate cake laden with chocolate icing. Julia normally stayed away from such potent treats, but it was Lucy's favorite. Her mother was an unrepentant chocoholic, always had been, stashing candy bars around the house when Julia was growing up. She never knew where she might find them.
Julia had read somewhere that an ingredient in chocolate triggered the same hormonal fireworks in the brain that were set off when people fell in love. No wonder Lucy couldn't go a day without her Hershey's Kisses. If the little foil-wrapped version would keep her away from the real ones, Julia was all for it.
She knocked once and the door sprang open. As if Lucy had been standing in the foyer, waiting for her.
"There you are. Right on time. You're always so punctual, dear. You don't take after me that way."
It was a good thing, Julia thought. In more ways than one.
Lucy smiled, then raised herself on tiptoe to kiss Julia's cheek.
At five foot ten Julia was taller than most women, including her mother, who was stood at a petite five foot three. It had been awkward to be so tall when she was a teenager. Especially before any of the boys had caught up. By now, she'd learned to live with it. Even enjoy it. She had the slim build and long legs to pull it off with enviable elegance. When she entered a meeting room for a tough negotiation, it definitely helped to meet her adversariesmost of them maleeye-to-eye.
Lucy helped her off with her coat and hung it in the closet.
"Don't you look nice," Lucy said. "I love you in red. Bold colors suit you, Julia. Not so much of that dull black and gray. They make a blonde look too washed out."
"Yes, Mom. So you've told me."
"And that necklace is nice, too. Very stylish."
Julia smiled at her mother's backhanded compliment. All her life, Lucy had been coaxing her to wear "bold colors" and not look so "washed out." Also to "accessorize." Though her mother usually said it more like a battle cryJulia! Accessorize!
Julia's tastes tended toward more subdued tones and few adornments. Especially for business meetings with bankers and lawyers. Her mother didn't seem to get it.
Today she'd been running an open house, and wore an outfit somewhere between "bold" and businesslikea wrap-style burgundy sweater, a slim gray wool skirt and black boots. Not her usual mode of dress, but she was pleased her fashion-conscious mother approved of it. Lucy, as usual, was dressed stylishly, in a print dress of soft fabric with long sleeves, and sling-back, high-heeled shoes. A bit fancy for their little one-on-one dinner, Julia thought. But she guessed her mother had probably been out today, at a luncheon or something. It didn't take much encouragement for Lucy to dress up.
Julia followed her mother into the kitchen and handed over the bakery box. "Here's some dessert, Mom. It should probably go in the fridge."
Lucy stared down at the box, as pleased and excited as a child. "Chocolate, I hope?"
"Do they even bake any other kind of cake, Mom?"
"They probably do. I never noticed." Lucy grinned and slipped the cake box into the refrigerator.
She took out a bottle of white wine and poured it out into two glasses that stood on the countertop, next to two platters of hors d'oeuvres.
"Try my dip," Lucy urged her. "It's goat cheese spread. A new recipe. Goat cheese is very gourmet you know," Lucy added.
"So I have heard." Julia smiled and spread a taste on a cracker. She ate out a lot more than her mother and also watched a lot of cooking shows. She was a bit better versed on the current stylish foods. Her mother's idea of exotic cheese had always been a jalapeño cheddar. It was amusing to see her tastes branching out.
"Very good, Mom," she said, though she did wonder why her mother had gone to so much trouble for one of their weekly dinners. Julia picked up her wineglass. "This is a pleasant way to end the week. Cheers."
"Cheers, dear," Lucy touched her glass to Julia's. It made a faint, bell-like sound. They each took a sip.
Then Lucy peered up at Julia over the edge of her glass.
"I just have to heat the green beans and finish the table," she said. "Oh and Lester is coming. He'll be here any minute." She added this last bit of information as if she'd just remembered.
Julia stared back, her expression resigned. She knew very well her mother had not just remembered. She was now sure this surprise guest starher mother's latest beau, most likelywas the entire reason for the get-together.
"I don't remember you talking about a Lester lately, Mother."
"Lester Baxter? I talk about him all the time. You just haven't been paying attention, dear. I know when you call me from work you're listening with half an ear or less."
Julia didn't answer. The accusation rang true. Though she needed a scorecard to keep track of Lucy's social lifeeven if she did pay attention. "We've been seeing a lot of each other lately," Lucy added quickly. "He's very excited to meet you."
Oh, dear. This sounded serious. Julia took a large swallow of her chardonnay. She didn't want to overreact. That would only make her mother defensive.
"So where did you guys meet?" She tried to sound casual and chatty, like a girlfriend, but knew it came out more like a friendly detective.
Her mother pulled open a cabinet door and began to take out dishes. "We met right here. In the kitchen. Romantic, right?"
Julia struggled to keep from rolling her eyes.
"Mom, you think everything is romantic. I suppose you'd think it was just divine if a guy came over to unstuff the garbage disposal."
Lucy stared at her a moment, then laughed. "Well, you must have been tuned in a few times when I spoke about him. You remembered that much."
Julia's mouth hung open. She'd meant it as a joke. A rather sarcastic one at that. Seemed the joke was on her.
"Lester repairs appliances?"
Lucy nodded. She went to the drawer next to the stove and counted out silverware. "Eleanor next door recommended him. The man I used to call, Stanley Alcott ? He retired. So when the disposal broke down, I called Lester. He came right over. Very prompt and polite. A real gentleman. Didn't leave any mess and he didn't overcharge. We got to talking, of course ." Of course there was talking, knowing her mother, who could learn a person's entire life story in the "ten items or less" line.
"He needed to order a special part and came back a few days later ."
Julia could just picture it. For Lester's second visit, her mother probably got a facial and a manicure and prepared a special lunch. Served on the good china.
She knew how Lucy operated once she had her eye on a man. Julia didn't need to hear any more.