“Thanks, Mama.” Seth Casella squeezed his mother’s hand. “Another great breakfast.”
Carmella smiled. “I’ll miss these meals with you when you go back to your own place.”
Seth had stayed at his mother’s house to recover from a stabbing at Legal Aid by the disgruntled husband of a client, but he was healing well.
“I’ll miss them, too. I’m going to try not to work so much this time around and come to dinner when you’ll have me.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.” Neither had heard the woman come in through the garage and enter the kitchen until she spoke.
Seth swallowed hard. Julianne Ford been visiting every day since his sojourn here. And her appearances were just about killing him. “Hi, Julianne.”
“Good morning, Seth.” A frown marred her brow. “How much longer are you going to be at your mom’s house?”
“I’m going home soon.”
Mama stood and hugged her. The two women had gotten close, even though Seth had blown his and Jules’ relationship more than one time—and now, for good.
“Hello, dear.” When Julianne sat at the table, they chatted some, then Mama asked, “Did you talk to Celia yesterday?” Celia Ford and Seth’s mother had been friends for decades and raised their families together.
“Yeah, Mom’s loving the hot weather in Florida. She said to say hi and she’ll call you soon.”
Seth stood. “Want some coffee?”
“Um, sure.” She addressed his mother. “Actually, I came over to ask you to go out to dinner, Carmella.”
“Not tonight, sweetie. I’m watching Tommy.” Seth’s oldest brother’s son.
“Some other time, then.”
Carmella’s phone rang. Her face brightened “I-I have to take this. I’m expecting a call. I’ll be back, darlings.”
His mother left, and Seth poured coffee in a cup labeled Julianne’s Mug. His hands were shaking, damn it, as he hadn’t quite recovered. Or was it Julianne’s proximity? “Here you are.”
She angled her chin to where his mom had gone. Her blond hair fell in one sweep at her shoulders and some slid over her forehead. “Think she has the power to make her phone ring?”
“No, she was waiting to hear from Rafe. I knew the call was coming.”
“Ah.” She studied him over the rim of her mug. He wanted to tuck that strand of hair behind her ear. “So, are you feeling better?”
“Physically, yes. I’m still not up to par, though.” He hesitated. Might as well tell the truth. “But I miss you, Julianne. Seeing you every day these two weeks makes me feel worse about our breakup.”
Her blue eyes darkened. The two of them pretty much had the same coloring. “For the record, our contact has made me feel bad about us, too.”
They’d grown up together. Playmates until junior high where they became friends, though it got awkward sometimes, like when they shared their first kiss. But in high school, they started going steady, and were a couple in college until they graduated. They’d stayed together when she went to Julliard for a master’s degree and he attended law school. How could she not miss him?
“So, how’s work going?” he asked to break the awkward silence.
Julianne had her own music therapy studio and was practically a violin virtuoso in her own right.
“Same as always. I still love teaching. Helping kids through music.”
She smirked. “Do you really want to know?”
“He’s fine. We see each other almost every day.”
“Funny, I haven’t noticed his car in your driveway that much.”
“Keeping tabs on me?”
Instead of answering, he asked, “So, it’s gotten serious?”
“Maybe.” She shook her head.
“You’re like a dog with a bone, Casella. You break my heart by sleeping with other women, then we split, but you can’t stand to see me with another man.”
“I’ve always felt that way. Remember Colin Camp in high school? Jack Carroll in college? Watching you with them was torture.”
“Yet you slept with one Sandy Baker junior year. And a teacher, for God’s sake, in college. More after that. You’re a serial adulterer.”
“I thought you had to be married to commit adultery.”
The joke fell flat.
She scraped back her chair. “You know exactly what I mean. Tell your mother that I’ll come back tomorrow.” Setting down her coffee with a thump, she stood and headed for the garage door.
Seth caught up with her in the mudroom. “Wait.”
Her back to him, she shook her head. But she’d stopped.
He moved in close so his body nearly aligned with hers. “Can’t we try again?”
She whirled on him then. Her face flushed and her eyes glittered. But not because she was turned on. Anger burned in her from head to toe. “You have to be kidding me! I finally got out from under my love for you. Do you honestly think I’d ever take you back?”
Stung, he leaned against the wall, insolently. “You have before.”
The slap came hard on his face. “Go to hell, Seth.” And she stormed out.
He rubbed his cheek. Everybody in his family thought he was the nice one, the giving and forgiving one. But they were wrong. At least where Julianne Ford was concerned.
With her, he’d been a real bastard.
Julianne strode into the house she’d lived in all her life. Two years ago, she’d bought it from her mother when Celia went to Florida to move in with her sister.
Jules didn’t slam the door, though. She didn’t stomp her feet. But above all, she didn’t cry. Years ago, she’d promised herself she would never cry over Seth Casella again. Three months ago, she’d even made up a steady boyfriend, Jordan, so Seth would leave her alone. The ruse made her feel foolish but she had to protect herself.
She was dating, though. She picked up her cell phone from the counter, checked her texts and punched in a number.
He answered. “Hey, there, Julianne. You said you couldn’t get together tonight.”
“Yeah, my plans got aborted.” She’d hope to spend time with Carmella, without Seth hovering around them.
“Then are you free to meet?”
“Yes. How about The Hidden Cove Inn for cocktails at six?”
“Great. See you then. I’ll be the one with the big smile.”
She disconnected and looked out at the back lawn, not as big as the Casella’s but beautifully landscaped with bushes and trees. She and her mother had planted flowers which bloomed all summer, and now, at the very end of August, the geraniums and impatiens were even bigger and fuller than before. And on the deck, she’d put multi-colored ones in pots. The view soothed her.
But with the calm came sadness. As if in a trance, she climbed up the stairs, crossed into the closet and pulled out an album. Sat the big square brown leather book on her bed. The insert on the front read, Happily Ever After.
The first page depicted her and Seth as babies, with both their moms. Then preschool, entering the building holding hands.
The next was a play, where she was Cinderella and he was the Prince. He was the always the good guy. She leafed through the elementary grades and junior high, and finally the prom pictures for eleventh grade.
She’d been so happy that night. They’d talked about sleeping together afterward so she’d put on her best underwear, used some of her mother’s perfume and smoothed down the as-sexy-a- dress as her parents would allow. She and Seth had danced the night away, totally in love. Or so she thought. At the end of the prom, he’d gone to get the car, and when he didn’t show up by the time he should have, she went to look for him.
And found him kissing the daylights out of Sandy Baker, who’d attended with a group of girls…
Suddenly, Julianne came out of the Seth-spell and said, “What the hell am I doing?”
Damn, damn, damn. It was what she did when memories of them got to her. When he got to her. She rolled to her feet, spread the album on the bed, and proceeded to viciously rip out the pages. Then she tore each of them into pieces.
She’d wouldn’t wallow like this again. After disposing of the mess, she crossed to her closet and picked out a dress to wear tonight. Thinking about someone else was just what she needed.
Seth waited for his supervisor from work to arrive. He hated having to put her out, but his doctor forbade him to drive for another week and she offered to come here to talk to him in person.
He was going stir crazy.
The doorbell rang at four. He crossed to the foyer and let Ellen Danner in. They weren’t close friends but he liked her. About forty-five, married with two kids, she was tall and attractive. “Hey, Seth. You look better than I expected you to.”
“Thanks. Following doctor’s orders.”
“As if you’d ever do any harm to yourself or others.”
Having been hurt by Julianne’s remarks, he enjoyed Ellen’s view of him. They took seats on the sofa in the adjacent living room and made small talk for a few minutes. Then, Ellen gestured to the bag she placed in front of her. “So, we’ve got a backlog,”
“What else is new?”
“This time it’s serious.”
He frowned. “Because I’ve been out?”
“Partly, but in any case, we need more counselors and we still can’t get the funding for them.” The plight of social organizations that helped the poor.
“Can I do anything from home?”
“Yes, if it won’t tax your recovery.”
“Please, I’m going nuts.”
“That’s what you said on the phone. You’ve been with us a long time so I trust you with this. I brought a stack of case files. I was thinking you could go through them and prioritize them.”
“You mean rank the applicants’ misery.”
“I see it that way, too. If you don’t want this distasteful job, it’s okay.”
“No, I’ll try to be objective.” Not his strong suit, though.
“You’ll have to set up phone interviews. You’re still getting paid because your…injury happened at Legal Aid.” Her eyes clouded. “I’m so sorry for that. I know I told you that before, but I am.”
He squeezed her arm. “Ellen, I’m doing fine. It was no one’s fault but Malone’s.” The guy who stabbed him. “Did you get an alarm system put in?”
“Yeah. Of all things. We received an anonymous donation for it.”
“New York City. I have no idea why. We got a cashier’s check and a note telling us to use it for security.”
That seemed like Hayley’s hand. He’d ask her point blank.
“So, you’ll do this, Seth?”
“Let me know when you’ve decided on the first five we’ll take. That’s all we can handle now. And thanks. I’m glad you didn’t quit.”
“What for?” His hand went to his stomach. “A little cut like this?”
“Your injury was a lot more than that. You’re a good guy, not bitter about what happened to you.”
“That’s what they keep telling me.”
Julianne showered and dressed for her date in a calf-length deep peach skirt and matching T-shirt. But before she left, she went to a closet and fished out the journals from over the years in case she needed to remember something tonight.
She kept a record of her online dates from a service called RightMatch.com. Everybody told her these sites could be dangerous, but she didn’t want to date a colleague and she didn’t socialize much. She used to have Seth’s family in her life and that was enough. Besides, she knew a lot of people who’d met their soulmates through the internet.
You already met your soulmate.
Stop it, Julianne.
She opened the book. And looked back.
Two years ago: Tristan Long, tall, blonde, handsome, a lawyer in Hidden Cove, nice guy. The relationship lasted six months, but they didn’t have a lot in common.
Eighteen months ago: Mitch Preston, dark eyes, dark hair, a middle school music teacher, sweet. Too sweet, as it turned out. She’d written: Why can’t I fall for somebody like this?
A year ago: Carlo Monti, very Italian, she’d liked his possessiveness at first. Then he became overly controlling. Too bad, because the chemistry was great. He’d been the first guy she’d slept with since than Seth.
Six months ago: Drew Anderson, friendly, average guy, solicitous lover. But he was a sports fanatic, and all he wanted to talk or go see were sporting events.
There were two more, but she closed the book. Her online life had not been fruitful.
Maybe tonight would be better.
With still a half hour to go, her phone buzzed. Her sister, Liliana. Julianne clicked into FaceTime.
“Hey, sis, just checking to see how you are.” Liliana was dressed in a navy suit with a white blouse. Her light brown hair was pulled back in a bun, which accented her high cheek bones.
“Do you have time to talk?”
“Yeah. You still at work?”
Liliana was and undersecretary to the governor of D.C. She had ambitions and immersed herself in Washington politics. “Yeah, no rest for the weary.”
“Do you do anything outside of work?”
“Yeah, I go out.”
“That why you’re dressed up?”
“Uh-huh, I’m meeting a friend for drinks.”
She heard commotion, then said, “Hold on a sec.” From a distance, Liliana asked, “Do you need something, Mark?” A mumbling. Then, “Sorry Jules, I have to go. It thought I had time to chat, given the hour, but duty calls.”
“Don’t worry about it, we chat more soon.”
She and Liliana used to be best friends, growing up only a year apart, sharing all of their experiences, but had had grown apart in the last ten years. She was never a Seth fan, so that caused division, too. All that made Julianne sad tonight.
Fifteen minutes later, she walked into the Hidden Cove Inn, then entered the restaurant. Several people were sitting at the bar. One turned. And smiled. That must be Jason Zyzeri. He slid off the stool and walked toward her. He was tall and well-built, but not pumped. His hair was dark and his eyes light brown, she could see when he got closer.
“Yeah. Jason, right?”
“Yes.” He extended his hand. “Nice to meet you.” He looked around. “Let’s get a table.” He motioned to one then allowed her to go first.
When they were seated, a waitress approached them. “I’ve got a drink,” he said to her. “Julianne?”
“I’ll have a gin and tonic.”
“So,” he asked when the woman left, “What do you want to know about me?”
“Well, I know you like old movies, you work at a computer firm in Camden Cove, and that you have a dog you love.”
“That’s on my profile. What else?”
She’d given this some thought. “What makes you happy, Jason?”
“Long walks in the park.”
Her face blanked.
She laughed at the cliché. A sense of humor in a guy was a good thing.
“I like riding my bike in the morning. I love Italian food, red wine—” he held up his glass to prove it. “And I want a family. I didn’t put that down, so if you don’t, we can enjoy our drinks and part on friendly terms.”
“I want a family. I didn’t put that down either because the notion scares men away.”
“Yeah, parenting isn’t for sissies. I know that term isn’t PC, but it fits the bill.”
“Do you have any kids?”
His eyes crinkled. “A hoard of nieces and nephews.”
“Do you have any? Kids or other little ones in your life?”
“No. There’s only my sister and me. She has no children either.”
When Alessia, Seth’s sister, had been in her life, she her adorable nephews to spoil.
They traded more likes and dislikes, and at the end of the hour Julianne had set for herself, she reached down and picked up her purse. “Thanks for meeting me tonight. I enjoyed your company. I hope you felt the same.”
His eyes widened. “Do you have to leave now?”
“I’m afraid so.” She stood. “I have a strict rule for first online dates.”
“Have you had many?”
“You’re my first.”
“I’m honored. I’ll be in touch.”
“I hope so, Julianne.”
“Thanks. Good night, Jason.
What she didn’t see as she walked away was Jason’s hand fist, the dark scowl on his face. Nor did she hear the mumble arrogant bitch come from his mouth.