Jayla Anthony had it all.
At least, that’s what it looked like from the outside. But from the inside looking out, she knew there was much more to life than her current situation. And when she decides to press the reset button on everything she thought she knew with her newly divorced status, her new occupation, and her move to a brand new town, she hardly expects that to somehow end up including the young, handsome security guard from her company’s building.
Khalid Irving is a man on the come-up now that he’s found a steady, good-paying job, a better living situation, and most importantly, a better outlook on life after a few years of no real direction. And now that he feels like he’s on the right track, he’s ready to pursue the woman who stole his attention the second she stepped into his building, even if that means he has to become her client first.
Jayla knows the risk of mixing business and pleasure. Khalid knows how bad he wants her. And when the two finally get together, the chemistry is electric.
But just because the fire is there, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a few tough lessons to learn along the way...
(Note: While this book can be read as a standalone, it’s HIGHLY recommended that you read, The Games We Play: FWB Book 1, first!)
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After ending a relationship that left her emotionally and physically scarred, Ivy is ready to start fresh by taking a break from relationships and focusing on herself. While avoiding love and relationships she finds comfort in an unlikely place. Her new work assignment may put a wrench in her plans to avoid love.
Career driven and workaholic Grant has been under his dad wings since high school preparing to take over the family business. Now that he has become CEO he is determined to expand the company to every major city. His new contract has him focusing less on work and more on love. Never one to shy away from a challenge Grant is instantly attracted to Ivy and will stop at nothing to be with her.
Will Ivy open her heart and take a chance on love again or will she continue to keep her heart closed off?
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I looked at my phone. Another missed call from my mother. I was racing home from a hotel I reserved for the weekend. I needed a getaway from my life. It was spiraling out of control. I was becoming a prisoner of love. I couldn’t take it anymore. I parked I front of my apartment building and exhaled. I needed to take a hot shower and relax before answering the in answers calls from my parents. I have been keeping this secret from them long enough. Now was the right time to expose the lie I was living.
I opened my front door and dropped my keys on my kitchen counter. I turned on the light in my living room and there sat Kingston. I quickly tried to make a break for the front door but I wasn’t fast enough. He grabbed me by my arm and threw me over to my couch.
“Where were you?” He asked. I could tell he was upset. His nostrils flared as we waited for my answer. The longer I took the more upset he got. He balled his fists up and punched the wall behind me. “ANSWER ME!” He yelled.
“I needed to get away and clear my head. A lot has been going on with us lately.” I struggled to get my sentence out before he started to choke me. He was choking me so hard I turned purple in the face.
“Get away? Clear your head? You aren’t going anywhere. You will never find another man to love you the way I have! You hear me Ivy?! No one!” his voice bounced off the walls of my one bedroom apartment. I felt his bare hand come across my face and I couldn’t help but ask why I allowed this to go on for so long. It has been six years of mental and physical abuse.
I loved Kingston with all my heart. He was my first love. Since I was 18 he was the only consistent thing going in my life. At first he was my knight in shining armor then he changed. I always kept hope that he would one day become the man I originally fell in love with but I now see that isn’t going to happen.
He just recently graduated from college and felt it was time to take our relationship to the next level and move in together. I was slowly coming to terms that our relationship would soon come to an end. I decided to leave for the weekend only telling my best friend, Autumn where I would be. He blew up my phone and my parents causing them to worry and question my whereabouts.
“Don’t you ever threaten or try to leave me again. Now get up we are going to my house.” He ordered as he threw my jacket towards me.
“No” I said holding my neck. “I am not going anywhere with you. We are done. Leave before I call the police.” I yelled. I had reached my breaking point. No man should ever put his hands on a woman that isn’t love at all. I had to cover bruises causing me to miss work and ghost on my family. I was constantly looking over my shoulder whenever I was out because Kingston would pop up on me whenever he pleased. I was tired of living like a prisoner. I am young and I have so much life to live. Kingston snatched me by my neck and slammed me against the wall.
“You aren’t going anywhere.” He said through gritted teeth. Tears began to fall from my eyes. He threw me on the floor and began to kick me in my stomach repeatedly. All I did was lay there and cry until I couldn’t feel or think anymore. I kept telling myself this will be all over soon…
Aerospace engineer Elena Pyetrov lost her father in space 18 years ago. She finally gets her chance to continue his research and her ship crashes. Alien pilgrims lost their civil war and seek to colonize Earth. Within caves on alien world, the Knoonk execute their plan to genetically adapt to Earth and displace humans. Kidnapped to the closed cave system, Elena finds other humans subjected to Knoonk experiments. With time running out, she must dig deep to uncover the alien plan and stop them before humans face extinction.
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“Beware what you ask for,” Elena’s father had once warned.
Those words rattled about her head while she squeezed out of the lunar shuttle’s sleep tube. As the drug-induced fog faded, she sat facing a narrow sky-blue corridor. The bizarre encounter with Jorgensen kept looping through her brain, making no sense.
Despite her pledge to the senator, Elena would soon be on the Moon base, away from all the politics. She hoped her lunar crew had checked out and provisioned Devereaux’s long-range spacecraft, though when she reached the Moon, she would perform her own checks. Then they would launch toward Jupiter. She smiled. This is finally happening, Dad.
Stretching, Elena closed her eyes, pictured her father before he vanished, and wished she could share this moment with him. She snapped on antiquated magnetic boots and struggled to put one foot in front of the other to reach the main cabin. Her seamless blue and red transport bodysuit was too tight, the stretchy material clinging.
Predictably, Marc Carlisle managed to finagle his way onto her lunar shuttle. At the last moment, he’d shown up with official documents showing that he was replacing one of the passengers transferring to the Moon base. That was when she’d decided on induced sleep for the two-day journey. I’m not going to let him pester me into taking him to Europa.
The ship lurched, tossing her against one wall and then the other. Wretched clumsy boots.
At least on the longer journey she’d have artificial gravity and other conveniences. She peeled one boot off the metallic floor, pushed it forward, and let it magnetically reconnect. Fighting the boots in zero gravity took all her concentration. That and the lingering haze of induced sleep delayed her recognizing the obvious. It was rare for a spacecraft to shift direction abruptly unless something hit it. The only things that came to mind were meteorites and space junk, neither of which would be good.
The boots resisted her attempts to move faster. By the time she reached the main compartment, the nineteen other blue-and-red-clothed passengers, many dazed from sleep, were already strapped in or struggling to reach assigned seats in one of five rows. These lunar miners, construction workers, a cook, and a few agrarians were all heading for the lunar base or a nearby settlement.
The view-screen before them showed a starry sky, mostly blackness. The pilot’s seat was empty and Captain Zak Pavlin was nowhere in sight. Elena thought there should have been a partition separating the crew from passengers, so the latter wouldn’t notice such details. To conserve weight and space, NASA had built the shuttles without dividers.
Nearby sat navigator Reese Paswitch. Her highlighted brown hair and eyeliner seemed overdone for a transit to the Moon; she was looking forward to a lunar wedding. Her fiancée sat in one of the passenger seats, gripping the armrests. Two crewmembers on either side of the controls, young recruits on a routine lunar transit, were both sweating. They looked as if they hadn’t slept in days.
In the co-pilot’s seat sat Marc Carlisle, looking as if he’d pulled all-nighters for a week. Elena sighed. She didn’t need their personal drama replayed in public. She hated shutting him down on their last night together, but she was tired of his insistence that she let him accompany her to Europa. Now he’d moved a step closer.
After they reached the lunar base, she would let him stew while she prepared her team. Then she would bid him farewell—again. Maybe this time they could leave on better terms.
The transport jolted to the left, forcing Elena to steady herself against the cabin wall. Her attention fell on the forward view-screen, which no longer showed a starry sky.
“What the … Jupiter?” She felt dazed, still recovering from the sleep drugs. Am I dreaming?
No, she was awake, all right. The magnetic boots were like having her feet encased in concrete. She grabbed hold of an empty seat and dragged her boots toward the pilot’s chair. Have I been asleep for six months? She checked her wrist-com. Two days had elapsed and she was still on the shuttle. “Where’s the Moon?” she asked Marc.
“Good, you’re up.” He reached for her hand.
Elena pulled away. Weariness and frustration swept across Marc’s face.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Somehow we diverted to Jupiter, months early.” Marc’s attempt to act calm was betrayed by his face, wrinkled with unsettling terror.
“How is this possible?” Elena scanned the jumble of controls and lights for evidence of what went wrong. The whole setup looked like something from the Smithsonian. The shuttle was a generation out of date, since the government refused to invest in space exploration. NASA had assured her that the weathered craft was sturdy enough to get them to the Earth’s moon. Not to Jupiter.
“We don’t know.” Marc’s face sagged. “Maybe you can help puzzle this out.” His pleading look reminded her of the night they’d parted.
Approaching Jupiter should have excited her, but Elena struggled to absorb what was happening. She was near her destination without her team, no gear, in a shuttle that couldn’t survive out here. Preparation was everything. She shook her head. “The shuttle can’t travel this fast.”
Marc returned his attention to the controls and pulled up status charts. “Agreed, but we’ve been approaching Jupiter for hours. I’m open to explanations.”
Elena didn’t have any. She stared at the image of Jupiter, with the sinking feeling that she’d survived Jorgensen only to vanish in space like her father. Only one thing made sense, yet it didn’t. “Were you that desperate to be on my mission that you veered off course?”
“Whoa.” Marc threw up his hands and let out a heavy sigh. “We didn’t do this. The crew and I have been through forty-eight hours of hell. The controls don’t work. The pilot and co-pilot are checking panels for malfunctions. Tara L’Enfant is helping them.”
Elena had bumped Tara, an electronics expert, off her mission in favor of someone she deemed a better fit. Tara had taken the consolation prize, one rotation of work on the lunar base and ended up on this shuttle.
“Why are you at the controls?” Elena asked in a harsh whisper.
“I have pilot training.”
“Not for a shuttle.” Elena took a deep breath. She didn’t want another fight. “I want to speak to the pilot. Where is he?”
“He’s working on our thruster electronics. You’ll have to wait until he’s done. In the meantime, why don’t you sit?”
“Tell me what you know.” She stopped herself from adding that shouldn’t take long.
“Not a single switch, circuit or gear problem.”
Reese Paswitch sat nearby; her bloodshot eyes and knotted brow betrayed shell shock. Even her cheeks sagged, hardly the image she would want at her wedding. Passengers stared at the screen. Several got up and approached.
Elena tried to focus on the science, but her mind remained foggy. She couldn’t account for traveling so far so fast. Although her sponsors had exhausted every resource to find the fastest way to the outer solar system, even their long-distance spaceship couldn’t achieve these speeds.
“What do you make of this?” Elena asked, lowering her voice.
“We lost controls an hour into the flight,” Marc whispered.
The bulky control panel had no flashing lights. No displays hinted at anything wrong except for that Jovian mass ahead of them. “Why didn’t you wake me?” Elena asked.
“I tried,” Marc said. “You must have taken extra sedatives.”
To avoid you. A sharp pain stabbed behind her right eye. She dropped into the pilot’s seat and immediately her eyes felt leaden, ready for sleep. She took a deep breath and clenched her fists. “Not much, though my head’s ready to explode.”
Marc handed her a mug of coffee. “This might help. It’s a richer blend.”
Clutching the mug, Elena sucked in lukewarm coffee through a tube and hoped it would do the trick.
A half-dozen puzzled and scared passengers closed in around Elena as they pushed for a closer look. Worry spreading across their faces. She stood to get air. These passengers hadn’t signed on for the challenges and risks of flying to Jupiter. She didn’t want to add to their terror.
She handed Marc the coffee, placed her hand on his shoulder to steady herself, and leaned in to whisper into his ear. “I want a complete assessment.”
“Gladly,” Marc said, “but you’re not in charge until we land.”
“Neither are you. You should have stayed home.” Elena pulled away and stared at the growing image of the gas giant, Jupiter. Four-hundred-fifty million miles in two days. “Any chance that image and the instruments are wrong?” After all, this is a relic.
“The crew checked everything a dozen times. I’m sorry; I really did try to wake you.”
Elena’s knees trembled as she fought deceleration. “Any thoughts on how we got out here?” Out here?
Marc stood. He towered over her by five inches. “I’ve read theoretical treatises on space-time continuum and wormholes. I don’t know. Something bypassed all of our controls and pulled us toward Jupiter.”
“You’re saying we have no control,” said Wil Benning, the biggest of the passengers and a construction recruit hired for the lunar base. He pushed his way forward. “What the eff is going on?” He glared down at Elena.
“Are we crashing?” another man asked.
Passengers pushed closer, all shouting at once.
Marc faced the burly construction recruit. “Everyone take a deep breath. We’re doing everything we can.”
“Where’s the pilot when we need him?” Wil Benning asked.
“He’s checking the equipment. Unless one of you has electronics or aeronautics skills, sit down and let the crew do its job.”
Elena couldn’t make sense of their velocity: two percent the speed of light. When her sponsors had brainstormed faster means of space travel, they’d brought in a Stanford physicist who discussed the Alcubierre Drive, a specially designed engine that creates a field around a spacecraft using exotic matter and negative energy that might allow it to bend the space-time continuum and move as fast as the speed of light. It had too many technical problems and no evidence it would work, so her sponsors dropped that option. Nothing else explained this speed.
Most passengers returned to their seats, except Reese’s fiancée who hovered over her. Elena sat in the pilot’s seat. She scanned the usual status reports on a small screen in front of her and turned to Marc. “Get me access to the view-screen’s history.”
He clicked a file on the small console before her, and up came the video. “What are you thinking?”
She played the video from an hour after takeoff and sped it forward. The shuttle veered away from the Moon, which zipped by. Then it lifted above the plane of the planets. Not believing the trajectory, she slowed viewing to real time and was stunned by how quickly they passed Mars.
She checked her wrist-com. It registered a two-day lapse, yet at the shuttle’s implied speed, the trip couldn’t have taken more than a day. She wondered why Marc hadn’t said anything. In fact, he’d mentioned two days.
To verify, she counted off a minute. The console’s clock registered two. Even Einstein’s relativity couldn’t account for that. She counted again to be sure.
The craft lurched right.
As others fell against metallic walls, Elena grabbed her seat belt. “What was that?”
“We’ve been getting bursts of movement,” Reese said, “as if someone else is navigating.”
Elena tried to bridge the gap between Marc’s feigned coolness, Reese’s panic, and the possibility that someone was tampering with time and the shuttle’s speed. The lights on the panel before her were either green or white. “How much fuel do we have?”
“That’s just it,” Marc said. “We aren’t using much—only enough for electrical and life support.”
“That’s crazy.” She decided not to share her suspicions until she knew more.
Reese tugged Elena’s arm. “You guys need to see this.”
Standing, Elena stared at an approaching moon, which looked pink, thanks to the screen’s enhanced color contrasting. It took a moment to register that this was her Europa, the ocean moon, as she’d imagined it. Her jaw dropped. Of course, Europa was a moon of Jupiter. Amazing.
The image quality was unlike anything she’d seen before—the lines and angles of angry ice pushed and shoved by Jupiter’s tidal pressure. Clarity was so sharp she could imagine reaching out to touch it.
Marc tinkered with the controls. “Zak!” he yelled into the communicator. “What do you have? We’re on a collision course.” He turned off his mike and turned to the passengers. “Everyone in their seats and buckle up,” he yelled. “Prepare to crash.”
“I’m on my way,” Zak said.
“What’s going on?” someone yelled.
“Sit and try to be quiet,” Marc said. “Elena, that includes you.”
Unable to take her eyes off the screen, she groped for the pilot’s seat. The stark image of crisscrossed pink lines grew, demarking broken ice sheets, until the cracked and haunting image of Europa filled the view-screen. They plunged through the negligible atmosphere. Giant blocks of ice rushed toward them.
A chorus of confusion welled up behind her. Passengers screamed. A construction recruit fell against the forward screen with a crunch. Keeping her eyes fixed on an approaching brown ridge, Elena grabbed for the seatbelts. “Do you have thrusters?”
Marc glanced over. “It’s a transport, not a fighter. Now get your seatbelt on and brace for impact.”
Elena tugged at the seatbelt a moment too late. The shuttle slammed into the icy surface, throwing Elena into Marc’s arms. Air squeezed out of her lungs. She couldn’t move. Her insides heaved. She pressed her eyes shut and begged for relief. Marc held on too tight.
“Leeeet goooo!” Elena’s voice trailed distant and hollow in her ears. She struggled to break free. She smelled sweat; Marc was as petrified as she was.
Lights blinked out. Elena fell against the view-screen and winced from pain in her left shoulder. Odd screams scratched at her ears, punctuated by elongated blasts and the thunderous crackling of ice … or the shuttle. Time slowed, though she knew that was an illusion.
Darkness engulfed them except for sparks from the control panel. The smell of toasted electronics filled her sinuses and left a metallic taste in her mouth. Despite the loss of power, the screen glowed reddish.
A cacophony of terror jumbled signals to her brain. Emergency lights flashed on. Red splattered. Blood choked her throat. She was pinned by deceleration as the shuttle slowly broke through the ice.
Distorted screams tore at her ears. The screen presented a yellowish glow that illuminated sheets of ice flowing past. If the impact hadn’t destroyed the ship, ice pressure should have, yet they continued descending. Three bodies lay crumpled nearby. Elena couldn’t see faces.
Another body slammed against the view-screen: Captain Zak Pavlin, the pilot. Unable to lift her body, Elena slid closer to check his pulse. Nothing. Other bodies hit the screen. Acrid odors of blood, vomit, and electronics attacked her sinuses. Elena was amazed that she was still conscious, still experiencing all this.
Onscreen, the wall of ice turned into a brackish-brown slurry: a liquid ocean, as predicted.
Astonished by her own calmness, Elena strained to see. If only they had lights to penetrate the murkiness. I’m here, on Europa, Dad.
She sensed the sides of the shuttle bulging inward.
The shuttle continued its descent. The cabin filled with smoky haze. Her eyes misted and burned. She no longer saw Marc or Reese in the flickering lights. She drew her knees to her chin. Guilt tightened her chest, the nightmare of finding her brother Leo hanging by a rope after their father vanished. She hadn’t been there to protect him.
The ship stopped. Metal creaked. Everything fell forward. Voices echoed around her.
“Help!” someone yelled.
Elena covered her ears and cried out. She couldn’t hear her own voice. Icy water swept into the compartment. A thousand needles stabbed her flesh. She couldn’t see through the fog. Her entire body was on fire with frigid stabs.
Lights went out. Sparks flickered from the controls. Then even they vanished.
Darkness enveloped them.
Rita Calabrese is the guardian angel of Acorn Hollow—and of her lovable but exasperating "famiglia." She’s always fortifying her down-on-their-luck neighbors with secret deliveries of home-grown vegetables and ravioli alla zucca, sneaking cannoli into her gruff husband’s lunch, and meddling in (or, as she would say, “improving”) the lives of her three grown children.
But now, on the eve of her sixty-sixth birthday, Rita’s looking for a meaningful second act—and finds as a reporter for the local paper. Her profiles of Acorn Hollow’s eccentric citizens, including the soft-spoken biology teacher with a secret poison garden, soon make her the toast of the town. But when the beloved football coach is murdered and Rita’s investigation uncovers not only a messy love triangle, but also rumors of her ne’er-do-well son Vinnie’s involvement, she finds her newfound journalistic zeal on a collision course with her fierce maternal instinct.
Set in New York's bucolic Hudson Valley and sprinkled with Italian phrases and customs, "The Secret Poison Garden" includes eight mouth-watering, garden-to-table Italian-American recipes.
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Kneeling in the cool, damp earth, Rita Calabrese cast an appraising eye over her vegetable garden. At eight-thirty in the morning, the sun was just rising over the humpbacked mountain behind the sleepy Hudson Valley hamlet of Acorn Hollow. The russet leaves of the old oak filtered the light, sending it flitting across the basil, its leaves still shiny with the dew, and through the spiky forest of rosemary. Behind the rosemary stood her prized girasoli, which dutifully turned towards the sun.
She insisted on calling them by their Italian name. “Sunflower” was too prosaic, devoid of all romance and poetry. They were not mere sunflowers; they were her three prized girasoli—Marco, Gina, and Vinnie. She nourished them, and fussed over them, and prattled on endlessly about them to her neighbors.
They were just like her children. Only her real children didn’t always glow when she fussed over them, and they claimed to be able to feed themselves. Which was nonsense, of course. One could not claim to be a cook—an Italian cook, anyway—unless one could make nonna’s secret sauce. And she knew for a fact that none of them could. Nonna had only entrusted the recipe to one person—Rita—and Rita revealed only one ingredient per year, over steaming plates of lasagna on Christmas Eve, starting when her son Marco was thirty. The recipe had ten ingredients; Rita had only revealed six ingredients—the most obvious ones—so far.
If the girasoli were her children—her perfect, beautiful, intelligent children—the onion that sprang up in their midst was Susan, Marco’s impossibly slim new fiancée, all straight up and down, no curves, a cool green vegetarian. Rita had planted the onions in a clump behind the butternut squash, but somehow this one had escaped and implanted herself among the girasoli. How very like Susan.
She plucked Susan and half a dozen other, more obedient onions. Then she selected the squash that most resembled herself—unusually short and squat, with a fleshy round bottom—and took it inside to roast and purée.
Rita was sautéing the onions when her informant called.
“The eagle has left the nest,” her twin said.
Rita leaned over the bubbling pentola and got an intoxicating whiff of sweet, buttery onions. “For how long?”
“It’s hard to say,” Rose said, “but she had both kids with her and was carrying several books and a few letters.”
Rita mentally calculated the time it would take Fay Galloway to walk to the library, evade the head librarian’s nosy questions, check out some new books, and then mail the letters at the post office. Forty-five minutes, she guessed. “Thank—"
“Gotta dash,” Rose interrupted. “I just got a hot tip that old Van Hollen is planning to sell. I’m going to corner that merman on his way to morning water aerobics.”
Rita sighed. Such was the exciting life of her childless twin, Acorn Hollow’s top-selling realtor and consummate dealmaker.
After adding the squash, parmesan cheese, broth, and herbs, Rita puréed the entire mixture and then poured the velvety golden liquid into two Mason jars. She placed the soup in a plain, unmarked brown bag, along with half a dozen homemade cranberry muffins, two ears of corn, four stuffed peppers, and a few gleaming McIntosh apples from the tree in the back yard.
“Luciano! Cesare! Andiamo!” she called, and her two enormous Bernese mountain dogs leapt up from the couch, snatched their leashes off the hook in the hallway, and bounded towards her. She always spoke Italian to her dogs, and sometimes she wondered if they understood more Italian than her children did. No matter when she called them, they always responded with alacrity, as though they were about to rescue a frost-bitten skier from an avalanche and revive him with a flask of whiskey. Her Bernese actually did carry little flasks around their necks, which everyone in Acorn Hollow assumed were just for show. Only Rita, her husband Sal, and the widow Schmalzgruben knew the truth. The flasks were filled with limoncello from Capri, which Rita sipped as she sat by the riverside on warm, sunny days, beneath the willow tree, pretending she was floating in the Blue Grotto. Sometimes she imbibed while chatting with her mother in the cemetery, and sometimes she would pour a few drops on the rose bush that covered her mother’s grave. Once in a while, she would offer some to the widow Schmalzgruben, who could often be found perched on the tombstone of one of her three deceased husbands, reading them the day’s headlines.
She donned a wool sweater to guard against the mid-September chill, snatched the brown paper bag, and slipped out the door with Luciano and Cesare in tow. After a brisk fifteen-minute walk, they arrived at a little stone house with a rusted tricycle in the yard. The rose bushes were neatly trimmed, and the windows sparkled, but the forced cheeriness made the spectacle somehow more pathetic. A broken-down lime green Cadillac sat on blocks in the driveway, and the picket fence was missing several posts.
Rita bent down and pretended to pick up after her dogs, all the while peering into the front window. When she saw the back of Ted Galloway’s blond head silhouetted against a giant screen filled with an indignant Judge Judy, she tiptoed up the front walkway and placed the brown paper sack by the front door.
She took the long way home, ambling along the riverbank, admiring the brilliant reds and yellows that marched up the flanks of Mount Esquiline, before cutting over to Main Street.
At this time of year, Homecoming mania had reached a fever pitch. From every lamppost fluttered red and purple banners; the bakery featured cookies in the shape of Acorn Hollow High School’s mascot, a giant squirrel. In front of Thompkin’s Pharmacy, a slender brunette and two young children were admiring a ten-foot tall purple squirrel. The brush strokes were wavy and menacing, the tail curling into the furthest corner of Thompkin’s store window. Rita was unnerved by the glowing red eyes and fangs, which were greedily gobbling a Mount Washington High hawk.
The brunette smiled and waved at Rita. “Hello, Mrs. Calabrese.”
Squinting, Rita came closer. Slowly, the figure of Courtney D’Agostino, her oldest son Marco’s Prom date, came into focus.
Luciano and Cesare sat obediently while Rita kissed the young woman on both cheeks. “Ciao, bella.”
"Bella" was perhaps an understatement. Courtney was tall and statuesque, with a long Roman nose and lively dark eyes. And she was not only beautiful. She was also intelligent and kind. Rita had always harbored a secret hope—well, perhaps not so secret—that Marco and Courtney would become an item. But, to Rita’s chagrin, they had gone to Prom as “just friends” and stayed “just friends.” And now Courtney was married with children.
Courtney nodded in the direction of the mural. “Gruesome, isn’t it?” She laughed, and her sleek black ponytail swung back and forth.
“But it’s nothing compared to Mount Washington’s ‘installation art’ at the high school.”
“What do you mean?”
Courtney gave her an odd little smile. “I think you should see for yourself.”
Rita headed past the library and St. Vincent’s, up the hill to the high school. Catching sight of the town’s one and only fire engine, she picked up her pace, half-ran and half-walked past the flag pole, and flung open the doors to the entrance that led to the new swimming pool. No one objected when Luciano and Cesare skidded across the tiled yellow floor; no one noticed at all. They were all looking at one thing and one thing only: Coach Stiglitz’s shiny new Mazda Miata, suspended precariously over the pool, its doors wide open. A giant sculpture of a hawk hovered ominously above it, its outstretched talons hooked under the roof of the vehicle. Facedown in the pool was a papier-mâché figure. From where Rita was standing, she couldn’t quite make out the design that spread across the torso and legs—blue and gray swirls, some sort of nighttime landscape, she supposed, and a pulsating yellow orb. But, even so, the figure’s bright red hair and the numbers painted on his back were enough.
The figure was a likeness of the coach himself.
The incident at the pool dominated the conversation at Marco’s birthday dinner that evening.
“Let me get this straight,” Rita’s husband Sal mumbled as he shoved a hunk of stuffed pepper into his mouth. “It was just hanging there, over the pool.”
“That’s right, caro,” she said brightly, reaching over and wiping a grain of rice off his chin, “but please don’t talk with your mouth open.”
“Well how could it just hang there? Cars are pretty heavy, you know.”\
“It was being held up by a talon. A metal talon. Steel, I overheard the fire chief say.”
Sal harrumphed. “Sounds like the handiwork of a bunch of eggheads who want to study engineering at the U. They probably couldn’t catch a football if their lives depended on it.”
The hint of scorn in Sal’s voice rankled her. Yes, he was blue-collar, not a blueblood, as he frequently reminded her. And yes, his nursery was holding its own. Folks would drive from as far as Albany to buy Sal’s lovingly tended gladiolas, or to risk frostbite while cutting down a Christmas tree with a saw that—for liability reasons—was about as sharp as Rita’s nail file. But there was no need to disparage people with an education. After all, she herself had a bachelor’s degree in English, Gina was vice president of the local bank, and Marco was an anesthesiologist. Even ditzy little Susan, she had to admit, had a degree, even if it was from the University of Mississippi; she was a nurse at the hospital, which was where (to Rita’s everlasting dismay) she had met Marco. But Vinnie—Vinnie was another story. While Marco had created a health and wellness program for senior citizens as his Eagle Scout project, Vinnie’s idea of health and wellness was to smoke a joint with his friends down by the railroad tracks. Stress relief, he called it. And while Marco had been valedictorian and Gina had been fifth in her class, Vinnie’s sole academic achievement was just to graduate high school—and even that had been touch and go, with Sal muttering “fifty-fifty odds” and Rita clutching her rosary beads as the names of the graduates were read.
Vinnie, unfortunately, was his father’s son.
Forcing her lips into a smile, Rita turned to Susan, who was dissecting her food as though she suspected it were laced with rat poison. “What do you think?”
“About what?” Susan’s blank stare reminded Rita of the deer that had flung itself on her windshield on Passamaquody Mountain.
“About the coach’s car hanging over the pool. About the meaning of the floating papier-mâché figure. Is it a threat? A warning? Is it the work of criminal masterminds, common burglars, or teenaged pranksters?”
“Oh,” Susan said, somehow drawing the word into four distinct syllables. She looked terribly relieved. “Definitely pranksters. At my high school, our rivals kidnapped a half dozen of our principal’s fattest pot-bellied pigs and put them in the pool. When I went to swim practice the next day, they were just cavorting in the pool like it was the bee’s knees.”
She said the “bee’s knees” like it was a good thing, although Rita couldn’t imagine what would be so great about bees having knees. It just seemed like more surface area to sting her with.
“It was a hot mess,” Susan added. “All that sh—” She crinkled her nose and looked around the dinner table apologetically. “Pig poop.”
“Pig poop,” Rita repeated, stirring her soup and feeling slightly sick to her stomach. She supposed she should not hold Susan’s coarse language against her. After all, she had asked a question and Susan had responded truthfully. She continually reminded herself that Susan was a sweet girl, quite pretty, and Rita was sure some folks found her Southern accent charming. But when Rita looked over at Marco, she could not help but feel mystified. Surely, he could find someone more suitable. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a dazzling intellect and a silver tongue, and she was sure he would be a senator someday, maybe even governor. But she could not picture Susan at a fundraiser or a speech, except as the waitress handing out canapés.
If only he had snagged Courtney D’Agostino. Now there was a woman of substance.
Marco loosened his tie and rubbed the back of his neck, as though he could feel his mother’s gaze boring into him. “We have a date for the wedding,” he said suddenly, taking Susan’s pale, almost lifeless hand in his own and giving it a squeeze. “June thirtieth.”
“Really?” Rita could hardly believe her ears. “When I spoke to Father De La Pasqua, it sounded as though it was hopeless to find a date in June. It’s such a popular time of year.”
Marco and his sister exchanged a glance. Vinnie and Sal seemed not to notice. But Rita did. Oh, how she hated that fleeting, superior look that frequently passed between her two oldest children, as if they were members of a secret society that excluded her.
Rita’s spoon landed with a clatter in her empty soup bowl. “Who cancelled?”
“No one cancelled,” Marco said softly, staring into the depths of his bowl.
“So, how’d you get a slot at St. Vincent’s?”
“I didn’t.” His voice was almost a whisper.
“I don’t understand.”
“Mom, we’re getting married in Mississippi. At Susan’s parents’ church.”
“Susan’s Southern Baptist parents’ church?” She could feel her voice rising in spite of herself.
“It’s beautiful,” Gina said.
“Yeah,” Vinnie said. “I saw a picture on Google Earth.”
As she looked from one guilty face to another, Rita felt the weight of her children’s betrayal. They knew. They all knew. They were just waiting to break the news to her. She could tell that they were waiting for her to erupt any second. She had endured twelve years of taunts as the “lunch lady,” prepared thousands of trays of industrial-sized macaroni and cheese, and acquired a nearly permanent smell of bleach, all to get the discount so that they could afford to send Marco—the ungrateful, heathen son before her—to Catholic school. He was their best and brightest, or so they had thought. She had sacrificed so much for him, and this was how he repaid her.
But all she said was, “It’s time for cake.”
She headed into the kitchen and rummaged in the drawer for the birthday candles. Her hands shook as she flung the silverware aside, her fingers brushing the cheap plywood. The room was spinning, and she felt short of breath. Who were those people in the dining room? They were strangers to her. They weren’t the same kids that she had driven to soccer practice, and ballet lessons, and summer internships in Albany, even when it meant driving ninety minutes in the pouring rain on bad roads.
She grabbed hold of the Formica countertop and took a deep breath. After inhaling and exhaling a few more times, she felt steady enough to place the candles on the cake. But she did not merely let each candle gently sink into the dark chocolate ganache. No, today that would not do. She stabbed the cake with each candle, the wax slicing through the ganache, into the layer of almond mousse, and finally into the moist rich cake.
As she reached for the matches, she heard low murmurs coming from the dining room. Rita tiptoed to the other side of the kitchen and pressed her ear to the door.
She could hear Gina’s low, slightly raspy voice. “Honestly, Susan, don’t pay any attention to Mom. She means well, but she’s old-fashioned, not to mention just plain old. She’s never had a career, other than six or seven years of teaching high school English, and she doesn’t have any life of her own. She just lives vicariously through her kids.”
Rita tiptoed back to the counter. With trembling fingers, she struck a match, lit the candles, and then quickly snuffed out the flame. She watched as the smoke curled lazily towards the ceiling.
A smoke signal, that’s what it was. Like the smoke that emerged from the Sistine Chapel announcing that a new pontiff had been chosen. This, too, was the beginning of a new era.
Forget her volunteer work, her secret morning rounds, dog-sitting for Gina’s schnauzer, and sneaking homemade cannoli into Vinnie’s and Sal’s lunches. Apparently, none of that mattered.
A month shy of her sixty-sixth birthday, Rita was finally going to fulfill her childhood dream: she was going to be a hard-hitting journalist.