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'Don't you think you should start getting dressed?'
Scarlet glanced up from the Sunday paper which she'd been pretending to read for the last hour or so. She hadn't felt like talking, especially since the conversation always came round to the radical choice which Scarlet had made this year. Her mother had initially supported her decision to have a child on her own by artificial insemination, but lately she'd been expressing the opinion that it might not be such a good idea.
Scarlet needed negativity at the moment like a hole in the head!
Okay, so the procedure hadn't worked the first two times. That was not uncommon, she'd been told by the clinic. She just had to keep on trying and sooner or later she would conceive. It wasn't as though there was anything physically wrong with her, except perhaps that she was getting older. Which was why she'd decided to do this in the first place.
'What time is it?' she asked.
'Nearly noon,' her mother replied. 'We really should make an appearance at the Mitchells' no later than quarter-to-one. I know Carolyn's planning on serving lunch around one-thirty.'
Carolyn and Martin Mitchell had been their friends and neighbours for almost thirty years. They had two children: a boy, John, the same age as herself, and a girl, Melissa, who was four years younger. Over the years Scarlet had got to know the family well, though she liked some members more than others. Mr Mitchell had not long retired and today was their fortieth wedding anniversary, a milestone which Scarlet knew would sadly never figure in her own life.
Janet King's heart squeezed tight when she heard her daughter sigh. Poor love. She'd been so disappointed when her period had arrived this week. It was no wonder she didn't feel like going to a party.
'You don't have to go,' she said gently. 'I could make some excusesay you're not feeling well.'
'No, no, Mum,' Scarlet said quite firmly, and stood up. 'I'm fine to go. Truly. Do me good.' And she hurried to her bedroom, thinking that it would do her good. She could have a few glasses of winenow that she wasn't expecting. She also wouldn't have to spend the rest of the day defending her decision to have a baby on her own. Because no oneother than her motherknew about her baby project. Frankly, she was sick and tired of her mum telling her how hard it was, bringing up a child on her own.
Admittedly, Janet King had first-hand knowledge of the subject, Scarlet's father having been killed in a car accident when Scarlet had been only nine. Scarlet knew full well how difficult life had been for her mother at that time, both emotionally and financially. Difficult for herself, as well. She'd adored her father and missed him terribly.
So, yes, she appreciated that raising a child without the support of a partner would be hard at times.
But not as hard as never having a child at all!
Just thinking about such a prospect made Scarlet feel physically ill.
She'd always wanted to be a mother, ever since she'd been a little girl. She'd grown up dreaming of one day falling in love with a wonderful mansomeone like her darling dadgetting married and having a family of her own.
Scarlet had honestly believed it was only a matter of time after leaving school before that happened. Her plan had been to marry young so that she could enjoy her children. Never in her wildest dreams had she envisaged reaching the age of thirty-four still single and without her Mr Wonderful anywhere in sight.
But that was how her life had panned out. Sometimes, Scarlet simply couldn't believe it.
Shaking her head, she stripped off her dressing gown then turned her attention to the outfit which she'd already laid out on the bed earlier that morninga purple woollen tunic dress, black silk polo underneath, black tights and black ankle boots. It didn't take her long to dressshe'd already showered and blow-dried her hairafter which she made her way along to the main bathroom to put her hair up and do her make-up.
Neither job took Scarlet all that long. At thirty-four, she had her grooming routine down pat.
The sight of the finished product in the large vanity mirror brought a puzzled frown to her forehead. Why, she wondered for the umpteenth time, had it come to this?
It wasn't as though she was an ugly girl. She was very attractive with a pretty face: cute nose, full lips, blonde hair and a good figure. Okay, so her breasts were on the smaller side, but she looked great in clothes, being tall and slender. On top of that she had a bright, outgoing personality. People liked her. Men liked her.
Despite that, she'd had a lot of trouble finding herself a steady boyfriend over the years. In hindsight, Scarlet now realised that her choice of career hadn't helped, but that hadn't occurred to her at the time. Not wanting to leave home and the Central Coast, she'd taken a hairdressing apprenticeship in the salon where her mother had worked, a move which had confounded a lot of people. She had, after all, achieved very high marks in her exams and could have pursued some high-flying profession such as communications or law, if she'd wanted to.
But becoming a journalist or a lawyer was not what Scarlet wanted out of life. She had other priorities which didn't include more years of studying and even more years clawing her way up the ladder to what some people thought of as success in life. At the same time, she did want an interesting job which she enjoyed.
Despite her teachers' warnings to the contrary, Scarlet had loved being a hairdresser, had loved the camaraderie with her co-workers and clients. Loved the feel-good feeling which came with completing a colour or a cut not just adequately but brilliantly. She soon gained a great reputation as a stylist and by twenty-five she and her mother had opened their own salon in a small shopping centre not far from Erina Fair. They would have preferred to locate their salon in Erina Fairthe shopping hub of the Central Coastbut the rents there were way too high. Because of their loyal clientele, their business had still been a huge success.
But only on the financial front. Scarlet eventually had begun to see that being a hairdresser with mainly female clients was not conducive to meeting members of the opposite sex. Being an only child with no siblings wasn't an asset, either. Maybe if she'd had an older brother
Not that she didn't try to meet men in other ways. For years she'd maintained a group of girlfriends from her school days and they went out regularly together to parties, clubs and pubs where, for some perverse reason, she would always be hit upon by the type of good-looking sleazebag who was only interested in one thingthough she didn't work this out till she'd been burned a few times.
One by one, she watched as her girlfriends found nice guys to marrymostly through their more diverse careers or family connections. Scarlet had been a bridesmaid so many times, she began to dread weddings, not to mention the after-wedding parties where her married 'friends' always tried to hook her up with some guy who was usually drunk and was only there to have sex with at least one of the bridesmaids.
When the last of her unmarried girlfriends had found her future husband on an Internet dating site, Scarlet had tried that method, but it had been an unmitigated disaster. For some reason, she still seemed to attract the wrong type who only wanted the one thing.
Scarlet had never been a girl who liked sex for sex's sake. Not that she hadn't tried it a few times in her younger days; she had. But she had found the experiences so lacking in pleasure that by her twenty-first birthday she vowed to reserve giving her body till she really liked the guy she was with. Unfortunately, she'd really liked some of the good-looking sleazebags who'd successfully picked her up during her twenties. Even then, there'd been no bells and whistles going off for her in bed, leading Scarlet to the conclusion that maybe she needed to be deeply in love to enjoy sex. Either that, or she was seriously undersexed.
By the time she turned thirty, Scarlet had been so desperate to find someone to loveand who would love her in returnthat she'd made the mammoth decision to change careers. She went to college at night, gained her real-estate licence then applied for a job at one of the Central Coast's largest and most successful agencies.
It had seemed a good move at the time. Suddenly, she was surrounded by lots of eligible young men who thought she was the best thing since they had built the freeway connecting the central coast to Sydney. She had admirers galore, one of whom stood out from all the rest. Jason was an estate agent at a rival agency and a coastielike herself. A charming, extremely handsome guy who came from a local family and didn't try to get her into bed on their first date. Hallelujah! When they did finally go to bed, the sex, whilst not quite of the earth-moving variety, had been pleasurable enough for Scarlet to conclude she'd finally fallen in love, feelings which she assumed were mutual when Jason proposed to her on her thirty-second birthday.
Plans for their wedding were well underway when disaster struck.
It had been eighteen months ago, at their street Christmas party. Jason was unable to go with her, saying he had a work-related dinner at the Terrigal hotel which he was obliged to attend. She was showing everyone her engagement ring and having a wonderful time when John Mitchellthe party was at the Mitchells' house that yeartook her aside and very quietly told her the most devastating piece of information.
Her first instinct was disbelief and denial. It couldn't possibly be true: her fiance was not gay. He couldn't be!
It was the gentleness in John's voiceand the compassion in his eyeswhich finally convinced her he was speaking the truth. For it wasn't like John Mitchell to be that nice to her. Deeply distressed, she left the party straight away, sending Jason a text that she had to see him. She arranged to meet him at the park opposite the Terrigal hotel where she confronted him with John's allegation. He initially denied being gay, but she wouldn't let him lie to her any more, and he finally admitted the truth. He begged her not to tell anyone else, as he hadn't fully accepted it himself, and she hadn't, but she broke her engagement.
Christmas that year, therefore, was not very happy. Neither was the New Year. Totally shattered, Scarlet resigned her real-estate jobshe couldn't bear to run into Jason all the timeand went back to hairdressing where she hid herself away for the whole year, her spirits very low. She never told anyone the truth about Jasonnot even her mothersaying instead that she'd found out he was cheating on her. Her girlfriends were very sympathetic whilst encouraging her to keep on dating. But she simply hadn't had the courage to put herself out there again. She'd felt like a fool, and a failure.
Scarlet had been quite relieved when John Mitchell hadn't come home last Christmas. She hated the thought of his looking at her with pity again, or saying something crass like 'I told you so'. Apparently, he'd broken a leg climbing up some stupid mountain in South America and was unable to travel. She was relieved, too, that he wouldn't be at the party today. He'd planned to come, but his flight from Rio had been indefinitely delayed because of volcanic ash in the air. Fate was being kind to her for once.
Scarlet knew it was silly of her to feel awkward about seeing John Mitchell again. But she did.
To be fair, he was not an easy guy to be around at the best of times. Despite being a very good-looking man, John's social graces left a lot to be desired. Had a brilliant brain, though; this Scarlet knew first-hand, since they'd always been in the same classes at school, right from kindergarten through to their final exams. But being classmates and neighbours had not made them friends. John had never played with the other kids in the street, despite Scarlet asking him more than once. All he'd cared about was studying and surfingthe beach was a relatively short walk away.
Scarlet recalled how John had bitterly resented being asked by her mother to mind her on the school bus when bullying had become rife. Admittedly, he'd done it, even to the extent of fighting with another boy who had called her a foul name. He'd got suspended for a day over that, and a bloody nose as well, which hadn't exactly endeared her to him. Not that he had said anything directly to her. But when she'd thanked him, he'd scowled. Scowling at her was something he'd done quite often back then. She remembered once going to him for help with a maths problem in high schoolhe really had been terrific at mathsonly to be told bluntly to stop being so bloody lazy and work it out for herself. Naturally, she hit backScarlet was not a girl to accept such rudeness meeklyscreaming at him that she thought he was the meanest, most horrible boy she'd ever met and she would never ever ask him for help again, even if she were dying. A rather over-dramatic declaration, but she'd meant it at the time.
After graduating, John had gone on to Sydney university to become a geologist. She'd hardly ever seen him after that. He'd gone overseas to work once he had his degree, and only darkened his family's doorstep around Christmas, when he would stay for a week or two at most. Even then, he spent most of his time surfing by himself.
He did deign to attend the Christmas street-party which they held every year, and where their paths inevitably crossed. And, whilst John wasn't openly rude to her any more, their conversations were hardly warm or communicative. What she knew about his life was gleaned via his mother who belonged to the same quilting group as Scarlet's mother. According to Carolyn Mitchell, her son had become extremely wealthy in recent years after finding oil in Argentina and natural gas in some other South American country. He'd also bought a house in Rio, so it seemed likely that he wasn't coming home to Australia to live any time soon.
And wasn't getting married any time soon, either, Scarlet warranted. Loners like John didn't get married.