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Darkness had already dropped over the city as Sharon Lawrence drove home from work. The clock in her car said five-thirty, but the nearly empty streetsstreets usually packed with traffic coming from downtown Denver at this hourleft her feeling out of place. As if someone had ordered a massive evacuation, but she hadn't been told.
She laughed softly at herself and turned up the radio. Thirty-six years old and still letting her imagination run away with her. How many times had her mother warned her about that? Too many.
Braking for a red light, she studied the shops in a strip mall on the corner. One or two stray cars still sat in the icy parking lot, but most of the shops looked deserted. Everyone had plans for New Year's Eve. Everyone, that is, except Sharon.
She hadn't minded staying for the last-minute meeting with the new journalism department head at Arapahoe Community College. Heaven only knew she had nothing else to do tonight. Her daughters, Emilee and Christa, were probably home right now, getting ready to go out on the town with their dates. Sharon's plans were to spend the night with a good book and her cat.
She'd tried to ignore what day it wasnot an easy task in light of the party atmosphere that staff members and fellow faculty advisers had carried around all day. To Sharon, the holiday only meant that one year had slipped by and another loomed on the horizon. She hadn't been able to get excited about celebrations and resolutions for years.
She made a face at herself in the rearview mirror and accelerated carefully on the ice-slick streets, turning onto Sycamore a few minutes later. When she saw her best friend's car in front of her house and a dark-colored pickup behind it, she smiled with relief and silently blessed Adelle for pitching in at the last minute and agreeing to meet the contractor.
If not for Adelle, Sharon would have had to cancel the long-awaited appointment to measure the basement of her big old house. She'd been waiting for a month already and she didn't want to start over at the bottom of the contractor's list.
She pulled into the garage and gathered her things from the seat beside her. Inside, she found Adelle at the dining-room table, scratching Raoul, Sharon's cat, behind one ear and leafing through a magazine. Adelle's long, honey-colored hair curled softly on the shoulders of her silk blouse, and she kicked one slim foot gently as she read.
Sharon dropped her purse, briefcase and sweater on the kitchen counter. "Sorry I'm so late," she said, kicking off her heels and peeling off her suit jacket. "I owe you a huge favor."
Adelle closed the magazine and waved away her apology with one well-manicured hand. "Don't worry about it. Doug and I aren't leaving until eight."
"Did the girls get home?"
"About fifteen minutes ago. They're both upstairs getting ready."
Good. One less thing Sharon had to worry about. "Did they find what they needed at the mall?"
Adelle laughed and pulled Raoul onto her lap. "If they didn't, they bought a lot of stuff they didn't need."
Sharon would have liked to shop with the girls, but the meeting with Dr. Stevenson had thrown the entire afternoon off schedule. "And the contractor's here?"
"Oh, yes," Adelle said with a grin. She shook one hand as if she'd touched something hot. "No wonder you're going to spend your savings fixing up the basement."
"Funny," Sharon said with a laugh. Mr. Malone had to be at least sixty-five, and hardly what Sharon would call "hot."
"I'm fixing up the basement because it's hideous down there. It's a huge space, but only the laundry room has walls, and those are only half-finished. And you've seen that atrocious orange and brown linoleum someone glued to the concrete"
Adelle grimaced. "Yes, I have. But why are you doing it now?"
"Because the girls have been sharing a bedroom their entire lives and now that I can finally afford to do something with the house, I'd like each of them to have their own room."
"Okay, but Emilee's a senior this year. And Christa's only got one year of high school left. Before you know it, you'll be by yourself in this mausoleum."
"Emilee's not going away to college," Sharon told her. "She talked about it for a while, but she's decided to stay here and go to Denver University."
"Really?" Adelle looked surprised. "I thought she wanted to go away. But anyway, that's not the point." Adelle waved her red-tipped hand again. "You should listen to Doug. Sell this place and buy a condo."
Sharon stood and crossed to the kitchen, glancing at Adelle across the breakfast bar. "I don't want to sell. I love this house, and so do the girls. It's home." She pulled two mugs from the cupboard and measured instant cocoa mix into each, then filled the kettle and sat it on the stove.
"I just hope this guy you've hired is reputable. Maybe you should have let Doug check him out before you agreed to anything."
Sharon leaned against the counter and scowled at her friend. "The company comes highly recommended. Honestly, Adelle, I'm perfectly capable of taking care of business without your husband's help."
"Oh, I know you are. Heaven only knows you've been doing it long enough. But if having some workman prowling around your house on New Year's Eve is your idea of a good time, you've got big problems."
"He's not prowling, and tonight's as good a time as any. I'm not going anywhere."
"That's my point," Adelle muttered. "Doesn't it ever bother you that your daughters have social lives and you don't?"
Sharon rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Why should it bother me? I'm perfectly content with my life the way it is. Besides, I'm thrilled that the girls are so popular. I love watching them go out with their friends and get ready for their dates. I was lucky to have any boys interested in me. They have trouble keeping track of all the boys who ask them out." She sighed wistfully. "They're so different from the way I was at their age."
"They're different from the way you are at this age, too," Adelle mumbled.
A dull ache started in the back of Sharon's head. She massaged her neck gingerly. "Please don't start with that tonight. I really don't want to do anything tonight but finish the book I've been reading. Even if I wanted a datewhich I don'tI don't appeal to men the way you do."
Adelle had beauty, brains and a sense of style that turned heads whenever she walked into a room. Sharon had never felt beautiful. She'd never attracted the opposite sex the way Adelleand Sharon's daughtersdid. She'd had maybe two dates all through high school and married the first man who'd ever shown a real interest in her.
Adelle pushed her thick, blond hair away from her face. "You know what you need?"
Sharon had no doubt Adelle planned to tell her.
"You need a man. Someone who'll bring some excitement into your life. Someone who'll get you out of this house once in a while."
Sharon scowled over her shoulder. "I'm not interested."
"You haven't been interested for five years. When are you going to get interested?"
"I had a man once, remember?"
"You had Nick," Adelle argued. "I'm not sure he qualifies."
Sharon laughed softly and leaned both elbows on the breakfast bar. "You're still more angry with him than I am."
Adelle gave her head a toss. "Yeah? Well, that's because he hurt you. But that's not the question. The question is, when are you going to start dating again?"
"If the right guy ever comes along"
"You always say that," Adelle cut in. "Most women in your situation would jump at the chance to meet new men."
"I'm not most women."
"That's for sure." Adelle propped her chin in one hand. "I honestly don't know how you do it alone. Two teenage daughters, a new career and this huge old house to take care of It's too hard."
"Have you really forgotten what it was like around here when Nick and I were married? My life is much better now than it ever was then. I waited on him hand and foot for fifteen years."
Adelle's expression shifted. "You should have gotten out a lot sooner than you did."
Maybe. Probably. The marriage hadn't been really good after the second year, but Sharon had been determined to stick it out. She'd struggled to hold their lives together until Nick realized just how boring she really was and moved on to greener pastures. A pasture by the name of Tanya, to be exact.
In spite of her own doubts about their marriage, Nick's betrayal and eventual desertion had hurt terribly. And no matter what Adelle said, Sharon had no intention of putting herself at risk for that kind of heartache again.
But she didn't want to let the conversation drift into those waters. She tried steering it back. "I've never understood how you do it with a husband. They take up too much time and energy."
"Not all men are like Nick," Adelle argued. "Doug makes my life easier."
"I think that's wonderful," Sharon said honestly. "But I can't even imagine it. Believe me, I don't do anything more now than I did when Nick lived here."
"You went back to school and started a new career," Adelle argued. "You don't call that more?"
Sharon laughed and filled the mugs with boiling water. "Okay. You win that one. But emotionally, there's no difference. I was always alone then. I'm alone now."
Adelle let Raoul jump down, then crossed her legs. "Which brings us back to tonight. You need some fun. Why don't you come with us?"
"With you and Doug? No, thanks."
"Come on. We're just going to a party in Denver."
"A party full of happy couples on New Year's Eve?" The last thing Sharon felt like. "Thanks, Adelle, but I really don't want to."
"I'm sure there'll be other single people there."
"Who?" Sharon asked, handing Adelle a mug and sitting down across from her friend. "Doug's grandmother?"
"No," Adelle said with a laugh. "She's got a date. You ought to try it sometime."
"As much as I appreciate your editorial comments about my lifestyle, I really don't need them."
"Maybe you do. If you don't make some changes, you're going to spend the rest of your life alone. Is that what you want?"
The question sent a spiral of panic through Sharon, but she forced it away. "What I want," she said firmly, "is for you to drop this whole subject."
Sighing, Adelle stood and smoothed her hands over the legs of her wool slacks. "Fine. Stay home if that's what you really want. I'll drink a toast to you and your cat at midnight."
"Raoul and I thank you." Sharon picked up her New Year's Eve date as he strolled past on his way to the lower level. Immediately, a happy rumble started somewhere inside him and worked its way out. He flopped onto her lap and licked her fingertips. "And don't worry. Raoul and I will be fine. Now, go home, give Doug a kiss for me and get into that slinky black dress you just bought. And try not to envy me. I'll be doing exactly what I want tonight," she said as she stood, Raoul in her arms.
Adelle snagged her coat from the back of a chair and hitched her purse onto her shoulder. "Fine," she said, walking to the door with Sharon following. "Delude yourself if you want, but don't expect me to believe you. You're not happy." Without giving Sharon a chance to argue, she stepped outside and closed the door behind her.
Sharon smiled for half a second, then leaned her back against the door. Silence surrounded her, broken only by Raoul's contented purr.
She pushed away from the door, crossed to the kitchen and started stacking dishes in the sink. But she couldn't get excited about housework tonight. Suddenly, her plans seemed a little less appealing than they had just ten minutes before.
Scowling, she paced to the window and stared outside at the snow. Adelle was wrong, she told herself. Completely, unquestionably wrong.