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Kullen Manetti smiled at his widowed mother across the small table at Vesuvius.
Not bad. This had to be a new record. Theresa Manetti had managed to go through the main course before she'd brought up the subject. His lack of a better half was, after all, one of his mother's top-ten topics whenever they spent more than a few moments in each other's company.
Since his sister, Kate, had succumbed some six months ago to the charms of one bank manager by the name of Jackson Wainwright, leaving him the last man standing and holding down the "single" fort in their small group of second-generation friends, his unwed-ded state had become his mother's number one favorite topic.
But his mother, bless her, had just missed one very obvious point with her comment.
"Mom, I have lots of women in my life," Kullen reminded her.
Theresa's blue eyes narrowed just a bit as she stuck to her guns. In the last year, she and her best friends, Maizie and Cecilia, had arranged successful pairings for their three stubbornly single, career-obsessed daughters. Theresa had become far more confident about her abilities and her judgment than she'd been prior to this venture.
Granted, she did run her own business and had for a number of years. But on the home front, she was the quietest and shyest of the threesome, women she'd been friends with ever since they'd met—and bonded—in the third grade.
Maizie, a self-starting real estate broker, had spearheaded what she had initially referred to as Operation: Matchmaking Mamas. Cecilia had been the one who'd backed her wholeheartedly despite veiling her enthusiasm with a bit of sarcasm. But then Cecilia had always been a tad sarcastic.
As for Theresa, her way was to cross her fingers and fervently pray. On occasion, she would say something—completely unobtrusively—about wishing she could see her son and daughter settle down. Both Kate and Kullen were lawyers at what had once been their father's topflight family law firm. For all intents and purposes, Kate had been married monastically to her work for quite some time, while Kullen, equally as sharp, had somehow managed to be successful while still systematically enjoying the company of every attractive, unattached woman in a fifty-mile radius. He had no qualms about branching to outlying areas once his immediate supply was exhausted. No relationship—if it actually could be called that—went beyond a few weeks. Six weeks was the limit and those, in Kullen's opinion, were considered to be long term, as well as exceedingly rare.
It hurt Theresa's heart that her handsome, successful, dynamic son had no desire to find that one special woman who promised to turn his world on its ear and make him want to be—please, God—monogamous.
"A decent woman in your life," Theresa now qualified firmly.
Beaming, Kullen leaned in closer. "Ah, well, for that I have you," he told her, brushing a quick kiss on his mother's temple. "And Kate. And, of course, those delightfully charming, probing friends of yours, Maizie and Cecilia."
His mother, he knew, got together with the latter two at least once a week to play poker—allegedly. What they did, in actuality, was strategize. Now that Kate, Nikki and Jewel were spoken for, he imagined that the women were pressed for a new project. Well, much as he loved his mother and her friends—women he had thought were his aunts for the first ten years of his life—their next project sure as hell wasn't going to be him.
Theresa drew up her small frame and sat schoolgirl straight in her chair as she scrutinized her firstborn. Kullen was tall, dark and handsome, just as his father had been. Except that Kullen's features were finer, chiseled. Almost aristocratic in appearance. That he got from her. His wandering eye, well, that was anyone's guess.
He knew that tone. Knew, too, that it was in his best interest to cut her off as quickly as possible before she built up a full head of steam. He didn't want to end this pleasant lunch on a sour note. These days, the pace of his life had picked up, especially since one of the senior partners, Ronald Simmons, had retired last month. Consequently, he didn't get the opportunity to visit with his mother as often as he liked.
All things considered, he really did enjoy his mother's company. Theresa Manetti was kind, sympathetic and giving and he loved her for it. In true selfless-mother fashion, she put her family before herself.
His father, Kullen thought and not for the first time, had been an exceedingly lucky man. Unfortunately, Anthony Manetti had been far too consumed with his work to notice just how lucky he was. From its very inception, the family law firm, then known as Manetti, Rothchild and Simmons, had been his father's life, and it wasn't until he and then Kate had joined the firm that Anthony Manetti had taken real notice of either one of them.
Kate, Kullen knew, had had it particularly hard because, on top of being a perfectionist, their late father had been a chauvinist. Until his dying day, Anthony Manetti believed that anyone of the female gender—outside of a few outstanding women in world politics—was not as mentally equipped as a man in any field. Especially the law. He demanded twice as much from Kate just to put her on equal footing with the other junior lawyers in the firm.
Too bad, Dad. You had the devotion of two good
women and you never even knew it, Kullen thought, even as he verbally headed his mother off at the pass.
"Really, Mom, I would think that you and your ladies would be far more interested in tackling your own lives, or if you must, gang up on poor, lonely Cousin Kennon."
Like his sister and her two friends, his cousin Kennon was one of those exceedingly busy career women—she had her own decorating business—who maintained that they were far too preoccupied to invest themselves in a relationship. In his opinion, Kennon was perfect for his mother's next project.
He was not.
On the contrary, he, Kullen Manetti, was having a lot of fun and absolutely none of his so-called dalliances—his mother's word—were serious. Which was just the way he liked it.
This way, nothing got bruised. Not his ego, not his heart.
Both had been painfully battered once before, and it was more than enough for him. But it had happened so long ago and now felt like something he'd read about in a book or seen in a movie. Not real heartbreak.
Except that it was real.
But he'd been another person then. Naive and dumb. He liked himself better now: sharp, successful, with more than enough phone numbers of eligible young women.
Theresa tilted her head ever so slightly—a habit that Kate had picked up—and repeated with a smattering of confusion, "Our own lives?"
"Yes, last time I checked, neither you, Maizie or Cecilia were making any plans to walk down that flower-laden aisle—or even check into a hotel," he added with a mischievous, wicked wink, then asked, "Or have you been holding out on me?"
When he looked like that—especially with that grin—Kullen reminded her of Anthony the very first time she'd ever seen him, Theresa thought as a wave of affection washed over her. Back then, Anthony hadn't been so driven. Before life took over, Anthony Manetti had been romantic and fun, in addition to heart-stop-pingly good-looking.
She missed both men terribly—the boyishly charming man Anthony had initially been and the dynamic, brilliant man he became. She just wished he hadn't left her out of the second phase. In retrospect, their time together had been much too short. Anthony had been—and always would be—the one true love of her life.
"No, I'm not 'holding out' on you, Kullen. Being married to your father was enough for me," Theresa told her son. "I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I had my happiness." She knew that Maizie and Cecilia felt the same way about their late husbands. "It's the kind of happiness I want for your sister—and for you."
There was humor in his magnetic blue eyes as Kullen replied, "Oh, I'm happy, Mom."
Her son dated women whose IQ's rivaled those of three-day-old blueberry muffins and they both knew it. Gorgeous or not, the whole lot of them were what her generation had referred to as bimbos.
"Genuinely happy," Theresa emphasized. She tried to word it tactfully. "It's the difference between gorging yourself on a box of chocolates and having something substantial to eat that's nutritious and good for you. One does nothing but give you excess, artery-clogging fat, the other makes you healthy and strong, able to live your life to the fullest."
Kullen laughed, shaking his head. "Trust you to fall back on food analogies."
While Maizie had her own real estate company and Cecilia ran a high-end cleaning service, his mother had created an enterprise from her own outstanding talent. A masterful chef, his mother owned her catering business. The woman could make a feast out of a discarded old shoe and have people begging for more.
However, he had no intentions of his mother making anything out of him, least of all a candidate for a blind date.
"No offense, Mom, but I'm not a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. I've got a sweet tooth and chocolates suit my needs just fine." He looked at her with affection, knowing that she said what she did out of love and he couldn't really fault her for it. But he did have to be honest with her. "And I don't intend to change anytime soon."
Theresa was not discouraged. "Kate felt the same way."
"Kate wasn't happy," he reminded her. "I am." Long since finished with both his dessert and coffee, he moved both aside and leaned in closer to his mother. "Right now, you're batting a thousand, Mom. If you put me into the mix, you're going to see your average drop to five hundred."
Theresa sighed softly. "It's not even baseball season."
Kullen's amusement increased. He knew the effort his mother had made just to be knowledgeable about something that was near and dear to his heart, and he loved her for it. Had things turned out differently eight years ago, he might have married someone a lot like her. But then, he'd made a fatal error in judgment.
All ancient history, he reminded himself. He had since discovered that they'd broken the mold when it came to women like his mother. Another reason for him to remain a confirmed bachelor. Why enter a relationship where arguing and discontent lay in wait for him? He was far better off the way he was—free, and happy to be that way.
"It wouldn't drop to five hundred," his mother said with feeling. When he looked at her with a slightly bemused expression, she went on to say, "You're forgetting Nikki and Jewel." They were Maizie and Cecilia's daughters, both successfully paired with men who were nothing short of fantastic.
"No, I didn't forget Nikki and Jewel, and even if I did, you'd be here to remind me." He had no intention of going around and around about this. "Go out a winner, Mom," he advised. "It's always the best way. That's why the Seinfeld cast called it quits after nine seasons. They knew that it was nice to go out on top."
That could not win her over. Theresa pressed her lips together, wishing that Kullen would listen to reason. Worrying that something would go wrong in the very near future.
"This isn't a TV comedy series," she told him. "It's your life."
"Yes," he agreed pointedly, "it is."
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