“You must have a wonderful mother,” Anne said.
“I did. She died earlier this year.” Julie paused as though it was difficult to speak of her mother. “Dad and I miss her so much.”
Anne gave the girl’s arm a gentle squeeze. “It’s harder around Christmas, isn’t it? Especially the first Christmas.”
Julie nodded. “Dad and I don’t have the tree up yet. We just can’t seem to muster the spirit. I’m hoping we can do it this weekend.”
Anne tried to think of a way to introduce her son into the conversation. “Roy isn’t much for celebrating Christmas. He’ll come to my place for the day, but only because he knows I want him to. If it was up to him, he’d be just as happy to go to the office and appreciate the fact that he isn’t likely to be interrupted.” It hurt a little to admit that, but it was the truth.
“Ebenezer Scrooge, is he?”
Anne smiled and matched her steps to Julie’s. “Yes, I do believe he is.”
“Oh, my!” Julie exclaimed, stopping abruptly. “Did you see that?”
“See what?” Anne looked around and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
“A fish just flew!”
“A fish flew,” Anne repeated, certain she’d misunderstood. “These young men throw them back and forth,” she reminded Julie.
“Yes, I know, but one just took off on its own—no one was standing next to it.” She shook her head uncertainly. “I must’ve missed something. Oh, there goes another one!”
Anne looked at the fresh seafood nestled on a bed of crushed ice. Sure enough, a huge coho salmon was spread across a display of large prawns. Just as she noticed it was out of place, the salmon sprang straight up in the air and started to spin tail over fins, as if someone had caught it on a line. Anne rubbed her eyes, convinced she was hallucinating.
“Did you see that?” Julie whispered.
“I did,” Anne said. “I think we should get out of here. There’s something strange going on.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more.”
Arms linked, the two women walked quickly out of the crowded market. Anne couldn’t believe other people hadn’t seen this startling phenomenon. But no one else had reacted at all, let alone with awe or astonishment.
Fifteen minutes later, they were in an Italian eatery off a side street. They sat at a small table with a red-checkered tablecloth; a half-melted candle stuck in an empty wine bottle served as the centerpiece. It reminded Anne of the inexpensive restaurants, usually situated in basements, that she and Burton used to frequent when he was in law school…. She cast off the nostalgia before it could trap her.
Anne and Julie both ordered a glass of Chianti with their spinach salads.
“I’m seeing Roy again tonight,” Julie said after her first sip of wine. “We…had dinner last night.”
“And on Wednesday and Thursday.” Anne had found this out quite by accident when she’d phoned the house to arrange her luncheon date with Julie. It had given Anne such hope, such encouragement. Julie had made a point of letting her know that her father had invited him on Thursday—but that didn’t explain Wednesday. Or Friday.
“We talked for a long time last night.”
Anne noticed that Julie’s hand tightened around the stem of her wineglass. She had to restrain herself from leaping up and shouting for joy. She wondered how much of their story Julie knew, so she asked, “Did he mention Aimee?”
Julie’s eyes held hers. “No. Is she the reason you suggested lunch?”
“Not really.” Anne shrugged. “I hope you don’t think I’m a busybody.”
“Of course not.”
“I’m so glad Roy’s finally met someone he can love.” Julie abruptly dropped her gaze and Anne realized she’d spoken out of turn. “Oh, dear, forgive me. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“I don’t know if Roy loves me—and it’s far too soon to know how I feel about him.”
“I’m so sorry. Please forget I said anything. I’m just a meddling mother who’s eager for grandchildren.” The instant those words were out, Anne realized she’d done it again.
“Grandchildren?” Julie’s eyes grew huge.
“Oh, dear,” Anne gasped. “I do seem to be having trouble keeping my foot out of my mouth.” She set her wineglass down, determined not to take another sip until she’d fully recovered from whatever had loosened her tongue. Every word embarrassed her more.
“I take it Roy was once in love with Aimee,” Julie said as the waiter brought their salads.
“He wanted to marry her, but she chose…someone else.” Anne hoped to avoid the more sordid details.
“Seeing how successful Roy is now, I imagine she’s sorry.” Suddenly Julie looked chagrined and lowered her fork. “Forgive me. That was a dreadful thing to say.”
Immersed in her own thoughts, Anne was confused. “Dreadful? How?”
“I didn’t mean to imply that the only reason Aimee or any woman would love Roy is because he’s successful.”
“I know you didn’t mean anything disparaging,” Anne assured her. “Besides, you’re wrong.”
Julie looked puzzled, and Anne felt obliged to explain. “Aimee doesn’t appear to have any regrets.”
“Then she’s happy?”
“I wouldn’t know. You see—” Anne took a deep breath “—she’s married to my husband.” Although she tried hard to keep her emotions out of it, Anne heard the hint of bitterness in her voice. “I’m sorry, Julie, I meant my ex-husband.”
The linen napkin on Julie’s lap slipped unnoticed to the floor. “No wonder Roy has a problem with trust,” she whispered. “His fiancée, his father…”
“Now you know,” Anne said softly. “Roy wouldn’t appreciate my telling you, though.”
“I won’t say anything.”
Anne appreciated that. “Actually, digging up the skeletons in our family’s sad history isn’t why I asked you to lunch,” she said. “I want to get to know you better.”
“I feel the same way. I loved the picture you painted on the window. Dad says everyone’s talking about it, and Roy speaks so fondly of you and—”
“What did he say?”
“Well,” Julie said, beaming Anne a bright smile, “he brags about you.”
“My son brags about me?” Anne hated to sound shocked—but she was. Half the time, she felt as though she was nothing more than an obligation in her son’s life. He only tolerated her concern and seldom sought out her company.
“He’s very impressed with your work. He told me about several of your pieces he’s displayed in the building. He promised to show them to me on my next visit.”
“If you can get in,” Anne teased. It’d been a source of amusement, the trouble Julie had getting past the security guard.
“Ah, yes, Jason, protector of the gate.” Julie rolled her eyes.
Anne had witnessed for herself how committed the young man was to keeping the poor girl on the other side of the company doors. She stabbed at a piece of spinach, suddenly realizing what Julie had said. “Let me make sure I understood you correctly. Did you really say Roy has my artwork hanging in his office building?”
“That’s what he told me.”
This was news.
“Five landscapes, I think he said. You didn’t know that?”
Anne shook her head. “I never told him my pseudonym.”
“He must’ve found it out on his own,” Julie said evenly.
“I…I don’t know what to say. Part of me is pleased and another part is irritated.”
“But why? He’s proud of your talent.”
“I’ve told him a dozen times that I refuse to let him support me. I want my paintings to sell on their own merit. The last thing I want or need, especially from my own son, is charity.”
“I doubt Roy would display work he didn’t genuinely like.”
Julie meant she was overreacting, Anne thought. “You’re right of course.” To cover her embarrassment, she dug into her salad.
Julie reached for a warm sourdough roll. “I’m glad you asked me to lunch.”
“As I said, I want to get to know you—and I want to thank you for being so patient with my son.”
Julie lowered her head and struggled to hide a grin. “We’ve certainly had our ups and downs. He’s surprised me more than once.”
Anne found this curious. “In what way?”
“Dinner on Thursday night—to take one example. I made a pot of black-bean soup and he seemed to really enjoy it. Plain ol’ black-bean soup.”
Julie nodded. “A little. My twin sister is the real chef in the family, but I’m learning.”
“Are you close to your sister?”
“Very. She lives in Florida, but we talk almost every day via e-mail. I’ve told her about Roy.” Julie glanced down, as if she regretted telling Anne that.
Anne tried unsuccessfully to keep her tears at bay.
“Anne, is everything all right?” Julie leaned across the table and squeezed her hand.
“Of course it is,” Anne whispered, smiling through her tears. “It’s just that…I’d given up hope, you see. I’d convinced myself that Roy had completely closed himself off from love, and now he’s met you and the whole world looks brighter. Thank you, Julie, thank you so much.”
Julie shook her head. “You don’t have anything to thank me for.”
“But I do,” Anne countered. “Don’t you see, my dear Julie? You’re the answer to my prayers.”
The caterer’s staff delivered dinner and skillfully set the dining room table in his condo, adding candles and flowers to create a romantic mood. Before they left, Roy paid them handsomely and inspected their work, admiring the small touches.
He’d been looking forward to this evening with Julie all day. He’d longed to kiss her the night before and hadn’t. He berated himself for the missed opportunity. He’d sensed the disappointment in her and felt it himself.
He hadn’t experienced these primal emotions, these deep erotic urges, in years. They were a distant memory now. But with Julie…
The table was covered with an off-white linen cloth that had elegant gold edging. It wouldn’t have been his choice, but the caterer had brought it with her. A large candle inside a glass hurricane lamp, surrounded by poinsettias and sprigs of holly, adorned the center of the table. Again, that had been part of the dinner package. When he’d explained his requirements to Ms. Johnson and the caterer’s staff, he’d been assured that they’d be able to create the mood he desired. His trust had been well-placed; his home had never looked better.
Everything about the condo spoke of romance. The lights were dimmed and lit candles were arranged in strategic spots around the room. In the background, Christmas carols played softly. The stage was set. Roy, dressed in dark slacks and a gray cashmere sweater, checked his watch. Julie was due any minute.