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The week-old text message read: Gone back 2 Jen. Been nice. Sorry.
Lizzie Gilbred sat on her family-room sofa, clicking the cell phone to reread the message from her boyfriendscratch that, her ex-boyfriendJerry, her thumb hovering over the delete button. It had been seven days. Surely the words were burned forever into her brain by now. She saved the message instead, then sighed and tossed the cell to the leather cushion next to her, where she knew she'd just pick it up again in two minutes.
She took a hefty sip from her wineglass, leaned her elbow against the sofa back and stared out the window at the snow swirling in the yellow security light over her driveway. The weatherman was calling for three inches of the white stuff to fall again tonight, casting a festive glow on the two-week countdown to Christmas.
Blizzard Bill the weatherman's words, not hers. As far as Lizzie was concerned, they could cancel Christmas this year and she wouldn't even notice.
She took another sip of her wine, feeling a blink away from jumping out of her skin. She'd returned late from the law offices of Jovavich, Williams, and Brent-wood, Attorneys-at-Law, as was usual for a Wednesday, and fought to stick to routine even though she'd felt anything but normal since receiving Jerry's cold text message goodbye. She'd kicked off her shoes at the door, removed her suit jacket, cranked up the heat, poured herself a glass of her favorite Shiraz, started a fire in the family-room grate, then sat on the rich leather sofa she and Jerry had picked out together. Usually at this point she went through her mail or reviewed the briefs or depositions she'd brought home from the office. Tonight itwas a brief she'd had one of the junior attorneys write up for her. But damn if she could make it through a single sentence, much less comprehend the entire ten-page document.
She thought about making herself dinner. She hadn't had anything since the bagel with jelly she'd half eaten at the office meeting this morning. But she couldn't seem to drum up the energy to reach for the television remote, much less that required to actually rise from the sofa and go into the kitchen to either heat a frozen dinner or open a can of soup.
So she sat staring out at the snow instead, wondering what her ex-boyfriend, Jerry, and his once-estranged wife, Jenny, were doing right then.
She groaned and rubbed her forehead.
She hadn't thought of Jenny as Jerry's wife in a long time. More specifically, for the past six monthsever since Jerry had left Jenny and appealed for a legal separation. One that had ended with his surprise text message and virtual disappearance from her life a week ago when she'd come home from work after retrieving the missive to find he'd taken everything he'd had at her house, including the waffle maker he'd bought her for her birthday last month.
What did he want with a freakin' waffle maker? Had he taken it to Jenny and said the equivalent of, Something for you, honey, to show how serious I am about sharing Sunday-morning waffles for the rest of our lives? Or, See, I even took back every gift I ever bought her.
Well, that wasn't entirely true. Because to take back every gift, he'd have had to go back six years, when he and Lizzie were the established couple on the verge of an engagement and Jenny had been the other woman.
God, she couldn't believe she'd let him do this to her again. Six years ago, it hadn't been a text message; rather, he'd left a quickly scribbled note on her car windshield, secured by the wiper: "It's over. Sorry." With it had been the announcement of Jenny and his engagement from that day's newspaper.
The cell phone chirped. Lizzie scrambled to pick it up, punching a button and answering.
She sank against the cushions and pulled the chenille throw up to her neck. Not Jerry.
"Hi, Mom. How are you?"
Lizzie made a face. Ever since her parents had announced their impending divorce, the War of the Roses Revisited had begun at the Gilbred house. Both of them, it seemed, were all for the separation. But neither was willing to give up the house. So her father had taken up residence in a downstairs guest room, and her mother went about life as if he wasn't there, up to and including a candlelit dinner with some guy she'd picked up at the country club last month.
Her father had had a fit and nearly clunked the guy in the head with one of his golf clubs, which her mother had tossed into the driveway after he'd taken advantage of an unseasonably warm day and gone out for a few rounds, missing an appointment with their divorce attorneys.
The clubs had gone completely missing the following day and Lizzie had gotten a call from her father asking her to help him find them since he'd had the set specially made. They'd finally hit pay dirt at a Toledo pawnshop, where they found them with an abominably low price tag until the new owner figured out that they must be worth more and jacked up the price while her father fumed.
But maybe her mother was beginning to come to her senses. Usually she began conversations with whatever outlandish thing her father had done that day. That she was actually quiet and appeared pensive was a positive sign. Wasn't it?
"How about you? How are you doing?" her mother asked.
"I'mjust sitting in front of the fire with a glass of wine."
"That's nice, dear. And Jerry? Is he there with you?"
She had yet to tell her mother that she and Jerry were no longer a couple. In all honesty, she had never told her parents that he was still married, even though he was legally separated at the time.
What a tangled web we weave, she thought. "Yes. Yes, he is," she lied.
"Hmm? Oh. Yes. Well, tell him hello for me."
Lizzie squinted through the window, making out a shadowy, familiar figure in the falling snow.
She instantly relaxed against the cushions. Her hot tenant of the past four months was walking up her driveway, toward the garage and the apartment above it that he was renting. She craned her neck to see around a large evergreen in order to follow his movements until he disappeared.
The voice at the other end of the line sighed.
"Are you okay?" she asked her mother. "You sound distracted."
Could it be that Bonnie Gilbred was rethinking her situation? That the reconciliation Lizzie, her sister, Annie, and brother, Jesse, hoped for was just around the corner? Just in time to make Christmas feel somewhat like Christmas again?
"Me? Yes, yes. I'm fine. Why wouldn't I be?"
Lizzie nearly dropped the phone when she heard a male roar on her mother's end. She absently rubbed her forehead and closed her eyes, wanting to hang up yet straining to hear her father's words.
"What in the hell did you put in this, Bonnie? Are you trying to kill me, for God's sake? You are, aren't you? Is it arsenic?"
Her mother's voice sounded much too joyful. "No, it's not arsenic, you old fool. I fixed the meat loaf the same way I always fix it. Your taste buds must not be what they once were."
"Don't hand me that b.s." There was a clatter of plates and then her father cussed a blue streak.
She heard a door slam.
"Mom?" Lizzie said.
Apparently Bonnie still had the phone to her ear, but wasn't much paying attention to the fact that she was having a conversation with her daughter.
"What did you put in the meat loaf?" Lizzie asked.
"Salt. Lots of it."
Lizzie smiled in spite of the exasperation she felt. "You know Dad's watching his sodium intake."
"I know. Why do you think I did it?"
Lizzie rested her head back against the pillow. "So is there a reason you called? I mean, other than wanting someone to witness your evildoing for the night?"
"I'm not doing evil. I cooked him meat loaf."
"Sure, Mom. Is there anything else?"
She could imagine Bonnie thinking for a moment. "Nope. I figure that about covers everything."
"Good. Oh, and next time you want a buffer between you and Dad, call Annie," she said, referring to her younger sister.
"Will do, dear."
"Good night, Mother."
"Good night, Lizzie."
She punched the button to disconnect the call and checked for any missed messages. None. So she read Jerry's text message before tossing the phone to the sofa again.
God, but she really was a sorry sack, wasn't she?
A sound drew her attention back to the driveway. Gauge had reappeared. He was wearing the same hooded sweatshirt and denim jacket he'd had on minutes earlier. She thought maybe he was leaving again. Only he wasn't carrying his guitar case; he was shoveling her walk.
She found the action incredibly hot.
All thoughts of her mother, Jerry and her missing waffle maker drifted from her mind. Replaced by ones related to the sexy drifter who had taken up residence in her garage apartment in August.
His name wasn't really Gauge. Well, his last name was, but his first name was Patrick. Lizzie folded one arm under her chin and took another sip of wine, the alcohol beginning to work its magic by warming her a bit even as she watched Gauge out in the cold.
She didn't know much about him. Her brother Jesse's ex-girlfriend, Heidi, had recommended him; Gauge was part owner of the BMC bookstore café downtown where Heidi used to work. He was a musician. A guitar player, if the case he carried and the strumming she'd heard coming from his place when it was warmer were any indication.
Their paths rarely crossed. She found his rentalways cashstuffed into an envelope in her front-door mail slot on the first of the month, and she made sure that any mail that was delivered for him was slid under his door.
That was basically it.
Well, that and the fact that he was exceedingly hot and she liked watching him come and go, with no particular preference for either, because both front and back views were worthy of a long glance and an even longer sigh.
She put her glass back down on the coffee table. Aside from a very brief crush on the drummer that had played at her senior prom, she'd never gone much for the artistic type. Career-oriented, driven guys were more her thing.
Of course, that was probably because she was a bit on the ambitious side herself. A bit? She needed to stop lying to herself. In three short years since graduation, she'd made it to junior partner at the law firm with a full partnership whispered to be in the offing in the not-too-distant future.
Of course, Jerry's disappearing act wouldn't help. She'd been counting on taking him to the office party next week to help cement her shot at the partnership slot. With, of course, no mention of his marital status.
Her friend Tabitha had suggested that perhaps she should play at being a lesbian. Lizzie had nearly spewed her iced tea at her over lunch at Georgio's, her favorite restaurant in downtown Toledo.
"What did you say?"
Tabby had shrugged. "Surely you know that being an unmarried woman of childbearing age hurts your chances of success in the workplace."
"And acting like a lesbian helps how?"
"For one thing, there's nothing guys like more than imagining a great-looking chicksuch as yourself getting it on with another woman."
Lizzie had snorted.
"For another, they'd be so preoccupied with the image that they'd forget about your biological clock and the fact that you may get pregnant at any minute."
"But there are no kids in my immediate future. The partners know that."
Tabby had given her an eye roll. "Sure. You think they believe you? They knowor think they dohow fickle a woman is. One minute she'll be spouting off about not wanting children, the next she'll be pregnant with quads."
"Don't be ridiculous," Lizzie told her friend.
But Tabitha's advice had made a twisted kind of sense. While she thought she was being treated as an equal at the office, there were small incidents that sometimes left her wondering. Like the men-only golf outings. Or the times she walked into a room full of male colleagues and everyone would go silent.
Then there was Jerry .
He'd been her first love. She had fully expected to spend the rest of her life with him when they'd met in college and immediately hit it off. It had been that sense of unfinished business, and his convincing argument that she was his first love, as well, that had compelled her to let him back into her life.
What a mistake that had been.
Lizzie forced herself off the couch and downed the remaining contents of her wineglass. That was it. She wasn't going to think about him, or work or anything anymore for fear that her head might explode.
She craned her neck, watching as Gauge finished the shoveling and headed up the stairs to his place.
No she shouldn't. To even consider going over there would be nothing but stupid.
Who was she kidding? At that moment it might very well be the smartest decision she'd made in a very long time.