AT MARYA’S URGING, Francesca invited her mother to dinner the following week when she returned from Europe. She wanted to see her anyway, and had to, and doing it at one of Marya and Charles-Edouard’s dinners was an easy way to get together.
Thalia accepted with delight. She said she had had a fabulous summer. She had sent Francesca several e-mails and called her a couple of times, which was a lot for her. She rarely stayed in touch when she was away. She usually forgot her family when she was with her friends. And never the reverse. She had stayed longer than planned in Venice, and had a terrific time. And she thoroughly enjoyed the meal prepared by Marya and Charles-Edouard when she came to dinner. She still flirted with him whenever she talked to him, but she seemed a little less outrageous about it now. She had worn a black sweater and slacks instead of a short dress and high heels. They were halfway through the meal when she noticed Eileen’s absence. Francesca still hadn’t told her that she died. There was a long pregnant pause after Thalia asked about her.
“She moved back to California,” Ian said simply. “San Diego,” he informed her. No one else commented, and the conversation moved on. Francesca and Marya exchanged a long look that Thalia didn’t see.
“So what’s everyone planning now?” she asked over dessert. Charles-Edouard had made them a delicate pear tart. “Any trips? I’m going to Gstaad for Christmas,” she announced. Her friends in Venice had invited her to join them at their chalet there. It was one of the fancier ski resorts in Europe, and Thalia went at least once every winter, sometimes twice.
No one else had any major plans. The holidays seemed like light-years away to them. Charles-Edouard and Marya would be finishing their cookbook. Francesca was going to be busy at the gallery, and Chris had to get through the hearing for permanent custody of Ian, but he didn’t mention it to Thalia. That was hardly a pleasant plan.
Thalia had noticed the new warmth and closeness between Marya and Charles-Edouard. She asked her about it before she left, and Marya admitted it was true.
“Is he getting divorced, or did you just give in?” Thalia asked with interest. She had met several attractive married men in Venice herself. But she didn’t like playing on a team.
“His wife left him this summer and filed for divorce. I got lucky,” Marya said simply. She felt a little guilty having a man when Thalia wanted one so badly.
“You certainly did get lucky,” Thalia agreed in a plaintive tone. “I just don’t get it. You didn’t want a man, and I do. You get one and I don’t. Talk about upside down.” Marya didn’t want to tell her that maybe she tried too hard. And Marya hadn’t tried at all. Quite the reverse.
“Destiny perhaps,” Marya said diplomatically, but she believed it. “Things happen in their own time. You’ll get your turn,” she reassured her.
“I hope you’re right,” Thalia said with a sigh, as she put on a white jacket she had bought in Paris. As always, she was impeccably groomed and beautifully turned out, with exquisite pearl and diamond earrings and immaculately coiffed hair. She was enough to terrify any man. “I didn’t meet anyone even remotely possible this summer. St. Tropez is full of Eurotrash and Russians these days. And they’re all twelve years old. And everyone else in Europe is married, and cheating.”
“There’s someone out there for you,” Marya reassured her, and then Francesca came up from downstairs, walked her mother out, and put her in a cab. Even when she was pleasant, it was always a relief when she left. She was a lot of work, and it was stressful being with her. But Thalia got on well with Marya and Charles-Edouard, and was perfectly polite to Chris, which made her visits easier for Francesca. It was more agreeable than having dinner alone with her, which was always like the Spanish Inquisition. Francesca was tired when she went upstairs. It had been a long evening.
She spent the weekend in Connecticut with her father and Avery after that. He was working on a new painting and in his studio most of the time, which gave her a chance to go for long walks with Avery and relax.
“How are you all doing after Eileen?” Avery asked her gently, and Francesca sighed as she answered. She was still sad about it.
“We all miss her. She put a little extra youth in the group, despite her boy-craziness. She was more like a college kid than a grownup. I still haven’t told my mom, and I won’t. She doesn’t need to know. She’d just give me a headache about it, and it was bad enough. She was a real example of the kind of dating risks not to take. She would go out with anything that moved. She always thought it was safe, even when you could see it wasn’t. She had miserable judgment.”
“What about you? How’s your dating life these days?” Avery was worried about her. Todd had moved out more than eight months before, and Francesca had made no real effort to meet someone else. She didn’t seem to care.
“I don’t have one. I’m not even sure if I want one. I never meet anyone I’m interested in through my work. The artists I meet are all flakes, or pompous, or narcissistic. It just seems like too much work, and the clients who hit on me are always jerks. The nice ones are married.”
“You’re too young to give up,” Avery said firmly.
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m not. I miss having someone in my life, but I don’t want a mismatch like I had with Todd, and figure it out five years later. You invest four years, figure out he’s the wrong guy, and then have a year of grief, and break up, and it breaks your heart. And five years go down the drain. I’m finding it a little hard to reenlist.”
“I hear Todd’s engaged,” Avery said cautiously.
“Yes, he is. Brave guy. He was suddenly in a big hurry to get married and have kids. God knows if he’s marrying the right woman. All he wants is a brood mare and someone to take to the Christmas party at his law firm. I’m not the type for either.”
“That’s a little harsh on both of you,” Avery said gently. She liked Todd. Just not for Francesca. She had never thought it was right, even in the beginning when they did. Avery had never thought he was interesting enough for her.
“Maybe it isn’t,” Francesca answered. “I don’t know what I want anymore. Arty, conservative, married, not married, living together, not. It’s all so goddamn complicated, and at this age everyone is damaged. They’ve all been screwed over by someone else, and so have I.” She was thinking of Chris when she said it. He readily admitted to being relationship-phobic, and she was beginning to feel that way too. “Maybe I’m too comfortable by myself now.” She’d been desperately lonely at first without Todd, but she wasn’t anymore. She liked doing what she wanted without having to consult anyone. “My roommates keep me company. I have Ian as the token child in my life, my artists to drive me nuts, they’re kind of like having permanent adolescents in your life. Why do I need a man?”
“When was the last time you had sex?” Avery asked her bluntly. “You might not want to give that up quite yet at thirty-five. It’s kind of nice.”
“Oh that.” Francesca grinned sheepishly. “I don’t even miss that anymore. I just turn it off.” It had been more than a year since she and Todd had stopped sleeping with each other, and having sex, before he left. “And I don’t have to shave my legs.”
“That’s attractive,” Avery teased her. She was worried about her. She seemed turned off, or shut down. It had taken her longer than expected to get over Todd, and it had obviously been a more traumatic disappointment than Avery thought it would be at first. But five years was a long time. And her struggle to keep the gallery and the house had been frightening for her.
“I do want to do some new things though. I’m going to Art Basel in Miami this year, just for the hell of it. I’m not showing there. And next summer I want to go someplace other than Maine. I had a great time, but it reminds me too much of Todd. They’re his friends, not mine. I don’t know, maybe Europe next year. But not with my mother,” she said, and Avery laughed. They both agreed that Thalia was high maintenance, and traveling with her would have been a nightmare for Francesca. “Maybe I’ll take a trip with Marya next year, if she’s not married by then,” Francesca said pensively. She loved talking to her stepmother. It gave her perspective about life, and she was so kind. She was a terrific friend.
“Is Marya getting married?” Avery looked surprised.
“She might. She hasn’t decided yet. She and Charles-Edouard are in love. He’s getting divorced.”
“That’s interesting. They’re terrific together. You know the old saying, there’s a lid for every pot. You just have to find yours.” The trouble was that Francesca wasn’t trying, and it wasn’t going to fall down the chimney in a white beard and red velvet suit into her arms. Avery remembered too easily all the men she had gone out with before Henry, the bad relationships she’d had, the disappointments, the heartbreaks, and the good relationships too. Avery hadn’t been desperate to get married either, but she did want to find the right man to spend time with. She never settled for less. It had taken her until she was fifty to find him, and the minute she met him, she knew Henry Thayer was it. That hadn’t happened to Francesca yet, and Avery hoped it wouldn’t take her as long. At least she was enjoying her life in the meantime. But Avery couldn’t decide if Francesca’s roommates were a good idea or not. They kind of blunted her hunger for meeting anyone, and it was too easy to just content herself with being with them, with no relationship in her life.
Her father came out of the barn that was his studio then, and smiled at both women as he put an arm around their shoulders. “How’s my favorite business partner?” he asked as he kissed his daughter. “Are we rich yet?”
“Maybe next year.” Francesca grinned. But the gallery was doing well. Better than it had the year before. Little by little, she was building the business, and it was making a small profit, more so than before, although not a big one yet. But it gave her hope. She was hanging in.
Before she left Connecticut after the weekend, Francesca promised to invite them for one of Charles-Edouard and Marya’s world-famous dinners, and her father was thrilled. He liked them both, although he had only met Marya twice, and Charles-Edouard once, but he thought he was a great guy. And he loved the Cuban cigars he had shared with him, even if Avery disapproved of their smoking.
Francesca thought about it on the drive home, and once again Avery had given her perspective. She thought about what she’d said about dating, and finding the right lid. In her case she wasn’t even sure of the size and shape of her pot, let alone what lid would fit on it. She felt as though she had changed a lot in the last year without Todd. She felt more confident and sure of herself. She had come into her own without him, more than she had with him, which told her a lot about the relationship and herself. She wasn’t a half of anything now, she was a whole person. It had also done her good to have roommates and have to adjust to other people. As an only child, she’d never had to do that when she was young. She respected Marya and Chris, and they were all very different. And it was fun having Ian in her life. She’d never been that close to a child before. He was kind of a good introduction to it. Having kids didn’t seem as daunting now as it had before, as long as they were as cute as Ian, although there was no guarantee of that. He was about as cute as it got.
When she got home, she could hear noise in the kitchen, and went downstairs to see what it was. It was late for dinner, and they didn’t seem like happy sounds. She could hear loud noises and the clanking of pots. When she walked down the stairs, she saw her kitchen under six inches of water. Charles-Edouard was wearing a Panama hat and shorts, barefoot in the water, waving a cigar as he gave directions and asked questions. Marya was wearing Wellington boots and trying to help with a distressed expression. The kitchen table and chairs were in the garden with things stacked on them. And Chris was soaking wet in a bathing suit and sweatshirt, wading through the water and crawling under the sink, trying to locate the pipe that had exploded and flooded the kitchen.
“Oh shit,” she said, rolling up her jeans and taking off her own shoes as she waded in next to Chris. “What can I do to help? I’m sorry you got stuck with this.” He looked over his shoulder at her with a grin, and she felt guilty for not being there when it happened, and for all he was doing. This was exactly what Todd had hated about the house and why he wanted to sell it the year before. It was a very old house and things happened. Charles-Edouard poured her a glass of wine and handed it to her. It looked like a party in the midst of a flood. Charles-Edouard and Ian were having fun. The others weren’t.
“I got the water turned off,” Chris explained. “It happened while we were all out. It’s probably been running all day. We’ll have to find someone to get the water out of here tomorrow, and you need a plumber. I think this one is over my head.” As he said it, Ian took a leap off the stairs and landed in the large pool of water with a delighted splash.
“This is cool!” he squealed, and Chris told him to stop it or go back upstairs. Ian made a face and waded toward Charles-Edouard. There wasn’t much they could do about it that night, although Chris made a few more passes at trying to locate the leak and finally gave up. Francesca had been holding the flashlight for him under the sink, and she was soaked now too. Her jeans were wet to the waist.
“Have you all eaten dinner?” Francesca asked apologetically, and Charles-Edouard said they hadn’t. She suggested they all go to the nearest pizza parlor, or order Chinese takeout and eat it in her living room. And then she realized that Charles-Edouard and Marya couldn’t sleep in their own room that night. Their carpet was soaked through. She suggested they take her room, and she could sleep on her new living room couch. Marya resisted at first, but they had no other choice. And Francesca insisted she didn’t mind sleeping on the couch.
They opted for pizza and went out to dinner. They were chattering loudly, and all of them looked a mess. Charles-Edouard was still wearing shorts, Marya had left her boots on, and Chris and Francesca had put on dry jeans. Ian said he wanted to go back and splash in the pool in the kitchen and Chris said he couldn’t. They all had a good time, and went back to the house after dinner, in better spirits, although the kitchen was still a disaster. The water was slowly draining into the garden through the doors they’d left open, but there were still several inches of water covering the floor, and it had spilled into Marya’s room. At times like this Francesca wondered if she should sell the house. If Chris hadn’t been there to turn it off, the water would still be pouring out of the wall. She had said as much to him on the way back.
“You can always find a plumber, Francesca. It’s a beautiful old house. That’s not enough reason to give it up.”
“Yes, it is beautiful, and I love it. But it’s a lot for me alone. Financially and every other way.” Losing the income from one of her tenants had been hard too. Owning a house, particularly an old one, was a big challenge and a lot of work. “I’d miss it if I sold it,” she admitted. “I hope fixing that leak doesn’t cost a fortune.” Every time she got a little money put aside, some emergency came along and gobbled it up. The Pac-Man of life.
He walked her back to the living room then, and Marya and Charles-Edouard went upstairs to her room. She had changed the sheets for them before they all went to dinner. And Ian went upstairs to watch TV from his bed. When Chris had put bunk beds in their room he knew Ian would love sleeping on the top bunk. It wasn’t romantic, but it worked for them and gave him more space in his bedroom than a queen- or king-size bed, which he didn’t need anyway. He had no one to share it with. It was just him and Ian.
Chris sat down on the couch next to Francesca to relax. He was sorry he hadn’t been able to fix the leak in the kitchen, or stop the flood before it turned into a swimming pool. They both laughed at the vision of Charles-Edouard in his Panama hat and shorts, giving directions, and Ian leaping off the stairs to make a big splash.
“This house would be miserable without all of you,” she said honestly with a grateful look.
“You don’t get sick of all of us in your space? I wonder about that sometimes, and if I should get an apartment for me and Ian. But we’d miss you. It was kind of an experiment for me in the beginning. But it really works for us and it’s good for him. I think he’d be lonely with just me now.”
“And I’d be even lonelier. Having everyone here puts a little happy craziness in my life.” It had been an experiment for her too, and a financial necessity, but she loved their communal life.
“Me too,” he said, grinning, and then he turned to look at her. “You mean a lot to me, Francesca. I hope you know that. You’re a wonderful friend.”
“So are you,” she said shyly. “I couldn’t have gotten through all the Eileen stuff without you.” He nodded.
“You’re a godsend with Ian… and with me…” And then with no warning, he leaned over and kissed her, and she stared at him with wide eyes.
“What did you just do?” She looked as though he had hit her over the head with his shoe.
“I think I just kissed you,” he said, looking pleased with himself. He had wanted to ever since the night they were together after Eileen died, but it never seemed like the right time. He wasn’t sure it was now, but he had done it anyway. And he was smiling at her.
“I mean why,” she insisted. “Why did you kiss me?”
“Are you mad at me for doing it?” he asked, looking worried, and she shook her head.
“Not mad. Just confused. I thought you had sworn off relationships for life.”
“I did. Maybe I just changed my mind. It was just a kiss, Francesca, not a proposal. Relax.”
“I think I’m relationship-phobic too.” She was remembering the conversation she’d had with Avery the day before.
“No, you’re just bruised. That’s different. I’m bruised too. It doesn’t have to be permanent. It just takes time. You’ve probably been numb for the last year after your relationship with Todd fell apart.”
“Yes, I have been. I felt as though something in me had died, and couldn’t come back to life again.”
“It’s not dead. It’s just asleep,” he reassured her.
“How do you know?” she asked, looking intrigued.
“I’ll show you,” he said, and kissed her again. This time she laughed after the kiss. It was a nice kiss. She had liked it a lot. Maybe she wasn’t so dead after all, and he was right. “See what I mean? I think you’re starting to wake up.” He kissed her again, and she kissed him back this time and melted into his arms, and then she looked worried when they came up for air. It had been a passionate kiss this time. They were both heating up, and this was totally unexpected.
“What are we doing, Chris?” she asked, looking panicked. “I like you. I don’t want either of us to get hurt.”
“Maybe we have to take that chance. No pain, no gain. Corny expression, but unfortunately true. I think I’m willing to risk it for you.”
It took some adjustment of her thinking to wrap her mind around the idea. The great relationship-phobic of all time had come out of his cave. And so had she. But it was scary as hell.
“What about Ian? Would he be upset?” Francesca asked, looking worried.
“He loves you. I think he’d be pleased.” Chris had been thinking about that for a while.
“I love him too,” she said quietly. “I was thinking about it today on the way home. He’s a wonderful boy.” And then she looked up at Chris and smiled slowly. “And so are you.”
“You’re not so bad either. Why don’t we see where this goes. How about dinner this week?”
“You mean like a date?” She looked shocked.
“That’s the general idea. Dinner, you know, all that stuff. Maybe a kiss goodnight. How about Tuesday?”
“I suck at dates,” she said, looking nervous again. “I’ve given them up.”
“Yeah, me too. But I’m willing to try again with you.” He had known her for almost nine months, he liked everything about her. And he’d had almost a year to get comfortable and get to know her, and see her in situations that were real. He loved what he had seen and knew of her, and she was wonderful with his son. He couldn’t ask for more than that. It seemed like a reasonable beginning to him. What they had was based on friendship, not passion, or blind hope. They knew each other well.
“Okay,” she said quietly, feeling as though rockets were going off in her head. She had never expected this to happen between them. Nothing really had happened, but there was a glimmer of it, a possibility, and she wanted to take a chance with him. “What if it doesn’t work? Then you’ll hate me, you’ll get mad and move out, and I’ll never see you or Ian again. That would be terrible, Chris.”
“Yes, it would,” he agreed. “Let’s try not to let that happen. We’ll work it out.” She nodded and he kissed her again, and then he pulled himself away from her and stood up. She walked him to the door of her living room, and he smiled as he walked up the stairs to his own room. Ian was sleeping with the TV on, and Chris had a wild urge to let out a war whoop of glee. He had kissed her! She was a wonderful woman. He trusted her completely. And what better combination than two relationship-phobics who were scared to death? Better yet that they had started as friends.