The Widows of Sea Trail- Catalina of Live Oaks

The Widows of Sea Trail- Catalina of Live Oaks

Tragedy is inevitable in every retirement community. Many times, shortly after settling in, a spouse dies, leaving a grieving widow or widower to pick up the pieces. It’s a sad fact, but ask anyone you know in one of those neighborhoods and they’ll tell you time and again of a grieving widow left alone in an unfamiliar place.

Sea Trail Plantation, being the remarkable size that it is, has many such stories. In the first book of The Widows of Sea Trail, we meet Catalina, a devastated woman who finds the courage to start over and begin living again.

It’s been four years since Cat’s husband died and she can’t seem to get over losing him. A rash promise she makes to her mother has her taking a hard look at herself; it’s time for a makeover. Then on a whim, her screwball friends talk her into casting a spell using an old oak tree on a golf course. For her mom, she promises to go on six dates before her mother’s upcoming birthday. For her friends, she promises to do a little magic with the help of a tree.

As Cat brutally assesses the changes that need to be made if she’s to fulfill her promises, she is shocked to realize that she is ready to find someone new, to see if there could possibly be a man who can make her happy again. Three months isn’t a lot of time to get back in shape and to get out and circulate, but without exception, Cat has always kept her promises to her mother. And maybe, just maybe, finding true love can start with believing in a little magic.

Prologue

The Covenant

It’s Friday the thirteenth and our mission is to find the oldest oak tree on the Plantation. According to Miller Pope’s book, Tales of the Silver Coast, A Secret History of Brunswick County, there is a section of the Old Post Road now preserved as a golf cart path right here in Sea Trail Plantation. George Washington traveled this route in 1791 during his southern tour. The road was built in response to a decree from King Charles II in 1673, so surely there must be a tree old enough for our purposes close by.

Being avid golfers, my crazy friends and I knew exactly where that portion of the old road was located. It was along the tenth fairway of the Maples Course. And, as today was the day that we were assured would be the most successful sorcerer-wise, we were ready.

Yesterday we begged T.J., the assistant pro in the golf shop, to let us start on the back nine, then pleaded with him to give us the first tee time so we wouldn’t be making fools of ourselves in front of everyone.

“Do you have it?” I asked Tessa.

“Yes, yes,” she replied, “of course I have it. I told you I’d get it didn’t I?”

“I thought you’d forget,” I muttered. “And how about you Viv, did you make the philtre?”

“Yes, I did. I made it last night after finally finding the rose oil at Scents Unlimited.”

“Great! Let’s get going!” I cried out, gleeful in my excitement. I didn’t know what excited me more, the off-the-wall tomfoolery we were up to, or the golf match with my best buds. Tessa and Viv were also widows. I had met them on the Plantation shortly after my husband had died. All of our husbands had died within a month of each other four years ago. The grief had been unbearable until we’d been able to share it, to gather the waves of sadness and ride them out together. From that our friendship had grown into something special. We’d all had nothing to live for, so we’d been more open, willing to share things we weren’t able to share with anyone else.

I stomped my foot on the pedal and spun the golf cart around, going behind the clubhouse and in front of the snack bar on my way to the tenth tee. Tessa followed in a cart behind me. We looked like three zany women trying to beat the dawn.

Viv was sitting beside me nursing her third cup of coffee. Since it was barely seven, I clicked my tongue at her, “So much caffeine. You’d better be careful not to dehydrate yourself.”

“Honey, don’t you worry about me, come noontime I’ll start on the Splendade, and you know I’m good for several gallons of that stuff before bedtime.”

Viv was forever watching her weight and lately had taken to putting lemon juice and a package of Splenda in water to make sugar-free lemonade. And she drank it like, well . . . like water.

I chuckled as I reached down for my own drink, spicy Zing Zang Bloody Mary mix sans the vodka. I liked to start my mornings off with something that made my eyes pop. Plus, it was filled with potassium.

“Did you hear what happened to JoDonna?” Viv asked.

“No, what happened?”

“She had her purse stolen at the Pink Palace on T.G.I.F. night.”

“No!”

“Really. And it couldn’t have happened at a worse time, her driver’s license and charge cards were in it and she was leaving on a cruise out of Charleston on Monday.”

“Oh, good Lord! What did she do?”

“Well, she was at the DMV when they opened and then she and Skip high-tailed it to Charleston. They needed to be there by one, I think they made it by 12:45. Fortunately Skip had another charge card they could use on the ship.”

“Oh, man, what a way to start a trip!”

“I’ll say!”

“So who could have taken her purse? That’s never happened before.”

“I don’t know, but you’re right, we’ve never had to worry about anything like that before.”

“Mmm, mmm, mmm, what a shame,” I muttered. Then because it boggled my mind to think about it any longer, I changed the subject. “Hey, you don’t think that what we’re getting ready to do is . . . well, stupid?” I asked.

She patted my knee and smiled over at me, and in her sweet southern drawl said, “Why, we’ve tried everything else, Hon. Nobody is going to fault us for giving this a whirl.”

We both laughed joyously as I pulled up to the tee box. I stopped so sharply that Tessa, in her own cart, had to veer off the path and onto the grass to avoid hitting us.

“You need brake lights, Cat!” she hollered. “Either that or I need to stop tailgatin’.” The most graceful among us, she slid across the seat, stepped out of the cart and spun around to effortlessly pull her driver out of her bag.

“I think since we’re doing the Affecting Spell on you today, that you should have the honor of going first,” she called over to me.

I nodded and grabbed my driver, took a ball and tee out of my pocket and walked over to the tee box. We were playing from the red tees today and trying to be serious about it as we were all intent on improving our game so that hopefully, one day, we could actually play competently with someone of the opposite sex; someone we were all determined to find within a year’s time; someone who might just turn into a husband one day. Since I’d been a widow the longest, by two days, it was decided that I would be the first to cast the spell. I shook my head as I teed up the ball. I couldn’t believe that today, with the help of my friends, I was actually going to cast a spell for a mate.

It had been Viv’s idea. I think we might have been drinking at the time. Viv’s mother, who loved to read stories about mythology and wizardry, had named her only daughter Vivienne. Viv’s mom, a throwback to the sixties, was still known to mix a few potions every now and again.

According to legend, Vivienne’s namesake had been Merlin the Magician’s favorite student; some said he’d even been in love with the enchanting Vivienne. And for that very reason, he had neglected to be firm enough to instill the right attitude of wizardry in her. Vivienne, having decided that Merlin did not practice magic as she believed he should, that his was not the true wizardry, imprisoned the great Merlin for all eternity in an oak tree. She had come upon him sleeping under it and without much thought, had waved her wand and performed her dark magic. From that day forward, Merlin’s spirit was melded with the wood of the tree.

Viv, Tessa and I were on our way to fancifully weave the spell known as “Vivienne’s Circle.” We were going to appeal to Merlin through the elf living in the tree to reconcile us to new loves. Merlin, it was said, had the power to bring true love, because he knew all that love should be and all that it should not be. As it was believed that Merlin’s spirit lived in any tree that was over a hundred years old, we were calling on the elf living in the oldest Live Oak on the Plantation. Surely on the Old Post Road there had to be a tree at least a hundred years old.

I took a practice swing then hit my ball, hoping that it would land next to just such a tree as a sign that this folly was actually going to work and that I might magically find true love again. No such luck. I sliced and ended up in the bunker. I chalked it up to nerves.

Tessa patted me on the shoulder as I walked by, “It’s not terrible, you can get out and on the green from there.”

“Yeah right.”

I turned to watch her tee up her ball and take a practice swing. Tessa had the most beautiful swing, it positively flowed. She looked so loose as she swung the club. It seemed to arc so slowly that you imagined you were seeing the shaft stretch. I never thought the ball would go very far after she hit it, but it almost always did. She was an amazing golfer, except for putting. She hit a three-foot putt as if cross-eyed. It never failed to make me shake my head in wonder. It was astonishing how many easy shots she missed. But she did look really good doing it. She was tall and slender, and always minimally dressed for any occasion.

She wore loose flowing silks and never bothered with underwear, especially a bra. She certainly had no need. A double mastectomy had left her flat-chested and when she had decided to have reconstructive surgery, she patterned herself after her favorite actress, Ann Heche. She carried herself well, tall and proud, obviously a woman, even without the defining bumps on her chest. I had seen many a man stare at the outline of her newly fashioned nipples as they tried to poke their way out of the flimsy materials she wore. But it was not as if she was flaunting herself, she just liked to be natural. If she noticed men staring, she didn’t pay much attention. She liked her gauzy, colorful clothes and she wore them like a contessa. Which, coincidentally, was her first name.

Her mother had been a fan of Sophia Loren’s and had loved watching all her movies. One in particular had become her favorite, The Countess from Hong Kong. Her father had changed Countess to Contessa in an attempt to soften the stigma of implied royalty for his infant daughter. I watched as Tessa made contact with the ball. And damn if she didn’t get it on the fairway not thirty yards from the green.

Viv was next, so both Tessa and I scrambled for safety. Viv was known to let fly with a club every now and then. She didn’t mean to, she just couldn’t grip it hard enough. We tried many times to get her to cut her nails back so she could grip the club a bit tighter, but she wouldn’t. She placed her ball, found her stance and wiggled her hips back and forth. Tessa and I giggled. Viv always did that exaggerated shake before doing the real deal and it was funny to watch. Jane Mansfield couldn’t have done it better.

She hit the ball soundly. The thwack resounded all around and Tessa and I came out from behind the trees to watch it soar. It landed in the middle of the fairway, a hundred and fifty yards from the green. She was the one you wanted for Captain’s Choice. But the next drive, on the next hole, would be off—she was uncanny in that she smacked the hell out of the ball on the even numbered holes, and topped it on the odd ones. She often said her mom had made her a potion when she was a youngster that had made her nervous about odd numbered things. A few times we had taken her to new courses, blindfolded her until she was on the tee box, and true to form every time—she was disastrous on the odd numbered holes, and remarkable on the evens.

We all hopped into our carts for the ride to the fairway and to the mysterious, mystical mission of three desperate, fun-loving women.

Stopping close to my ball, we all got out and started checking out the trees. Talking about this earlier, we had figured that the larger the trunk, the more rings, and hence the older the tree was. So we were looking for the biggest, fattest tree trunk and we soon found it. Not four feet off the path was a huge Live Oak. Shielding our eyes and looking up, we could just make out the top branches against the Carolina blue sky.

“Looks like this could be the granddaddy of them all. What do you say? Is this where our little elf is hiding?” asked Viv.

I walked around the tree, carefully keeping my golf shoes from damaging the thick roots. The bark felt solid and impenetrable, like it could actually be a bit petrified. “Yeah, I think this will do. Surely it must be at least a hundred years old, maybe even a hundred and fifty.”

Tessa came alongside and stroked it. Everything she did was sensuous, even touching a damn tree. “Ladies, this is definitely our tree. Let’s do it.”

We all went back to our carts and pulled out the sorcery items we would need from our golf bags. I had the “fairy flags” which were essentially scraps of material. They were supposed to represent the remains of banners, banners that had been gifts by fairies to a man and a woman, symbolized by a dove on one side and by a unicorn on the other. They had to be mostly green, so I’d spent a lot of time looking. I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I found just what I needed at the Calabash Presbyterian Church’s yard sale.

Tessa waved the olive branch she had surreptitiously clipped from a grapevine at Silver Coast Winery one night while riding on the road leading out of the vineyards. We had felt like naughty children, turning off the headlights and leaving the engine running while she ran up to a vine and clipped a two-foot length, then ran back to the car holding it high and smiling broadly.

Vivienne had the love philtre, a potion of rose oil and olive oil, symbolizing male and female mating. The other prerequisites were that we do this deed on a Friday, a Friday the thirteenth being the most favored time, and that we do the incantation while joining the fabrics together against the tree trunk.

“Where do you think we should do this?” I asked, sizing up the tree. “Does anyone know if it matters how long it has to stay here?”

“I don’t think it matters, so let’s just do it at eye level. Someone’s sure to come along and take it down no matter where we put it,” Tessa said. Vivienne nodded in agreement.

I stepped up to the tree and with a flourish took a pushpin out of my pocket. I had selected a green one because that was the color that was supposed to work best for a Venus project. The stupid incantation we had rehearsed and were supposed to chant as we “mated” the pieces of cloth was already running through my head.

I took the hunter green swatch with the dove in mid-flight and married it to the swatch that had a prancing unicorn over a teal green paisley background. They were facing each other now as if mating. I started the chant as I lifted them against the tree. Vivienne was walking around the tree sprinkling a circle of salt. Tessa was waving the olive branch back and forth while pouring the philter at the base of the tree. Together we all intoned:

“Oh wise Merlin, mighty wizard of Pendragon, magical defender and wise enchanter of the sword Excalibur, use your power to bring a love that is true to the woman holding the pin and pricking your skin.”

We repeated it two more times and then I pushed the pin through the material and into the bark of the tree. It wasn’t easy, I thought I would sprain my thumb getting it in. Then we all laughed, patted the tree and walked back to our carts.

“Are you sure there’s no vodka in your drink?” Tessa asked me, “because I can’t believe you just did that.”

“Hey, if it works, we’re doing it for you in a few months, next Friday the thirteenth. You’re next in line,” I chided. Then I looked around for Vivienne. She was on her knees picking up something.

“Viv, what are you doing?”

“I just found a four-leaf clover.” She walked over to where Tessa and I stood and held it out for us to see. We looked at the tiny green sprig in her palm. Sure enough it was a genuine four-leaf clover.

“Well, I doubt that it will help you on the next hole as that’s number eleven, but maybe you can birdie this hole with a phenomenal putt.”

And sure enough, she walked up to the ball, wiggled her ass and hit it right into the hole.

Chapter One

The Face Off

My mother, bless her heart, bit her lip and forged ahead, “Cat, you need to take better care of yourself, you’re beginning to look frayed around the edges.” I cringed at her brutal honesty.

I am Cat, short for Catalina, named after the island off California’s rocky coast. I had been conceived in the back seat of a Studebaker while my parents rode the ferry to the island, almost forty-six years ago, hence the appropriateness of my name. In my adolescent years I often wondered if they thought of that carnal act when calling me from across the street, down to supper, or into my messy bedroom for a lecture.

I sat at the kitchen table and stared at my mother who was never rude to anyone, much less one of her own. But instead of arguing with her, I appreciated the effort it had taken for her to brave the murky waters and try to revive me yet again. For I saw this as what it was, an attempt to get her daughter back to the way she had been before the tragedy of her husband’s untimely death.

Without saying a word, I got up from the table and dumped what remained of my fourth cup of coffee into the sink. Then I walked to the opposite end of the kitchen and found a wineglass. I walked over to the refrigerator, opened it and held the glass under the plastic spigot on the bottom of the wine box my brother and sister-in-law had attacked last night. After it was filled to the brim, I closed the refrigerator door with my hip, waved the glass in toast to my mom and said, “You might be right, I’ll go check it out.”

My mother stood and wrapped her arms around my shoulders then leaned in to give me a kiss on the cheek, “My birthday is in three months, you could give me the best present ever if you started dating.”

“Dating?” I said the word as if it was a foreign word I’d never heard before.

“Yes,” she said with a sardonic smile and a lift of her brow, “it’s when a man asks you out, you knock yourself out picking out just the right outfit while hoping all he has on his mind in getting you out of it.”

“Oh, dating . . . I do think I remember that,” I mimicked her humorous tone.

“Instead of sending me a dozen roses, go on a dozen dates for me.”

“A dozen!”

“Okay, maybe that’s too optimistic, half a dozen—six. Six dates in three months—that’s only two each month. Surely that big plantation you live on has enough single men that you can find one to take you out once every two weeks.”

“Six, six dates will make you happy?”

“Six dates will make me deliriously happy.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll see what I can do.” I was not about to tell her what Viv, Tessa and I had done just a few days ago back home. A staunch Catholic, she would see our little witchcraft as more than the shenanigan it was. But I did want to reassure her that Merlin was going to be working on the problem for us.

“No, you must promise.”

“Promise?”

“Yeah, otherwise you’ll just go back home and withdraw from living again, and for my birthday you’ll just send the roses.”

“I thought you loved getting the roses.”

“I do. But this year I want something different.” She reached up and stroked my cheek with the back of her fingers. I closed my eyes to absorb the silky sensation of her caress. Despite harsh detergents and years of scrubbing everything until it shone, her hands were always smooth and soft. “I want to see my little girl happy again. And from the day you turned sixteen that usually required that a man be in your life.”

“If I remember correctly, you weren’t too happy about me dating back then.”

“I had you when I was sixteen, so of course I wasn’t happy that boys were lining up on the front stoop. And neither was your father, if I remember correctly.”

“You do remember correctly.” I gave her a lopsided smile and kissed her on the cheek. “Okay, I promise, six dates in three months. But no qualifiers, Sean Connery’s happily married and so is Michael Douglas.”

“They’re too old for you anyway.”

“No qualifiers,” I said pointedly. Then as an afterthought I added, “In fact, I think ol’ Jeter Jones up the street might be happy to take me out for a burger.”

“He’s eighty-three!”

“Spring chicken where I come from.” I raised my glass again and smiled at her. She harrumphed and started clearing the dishes.

Merlin better come through I thought as I turned and walked down the hallway to the stairs. I made my way upstairs, careful not to slosh the wine on my mom’s new carpet then I headed directly to the guest bathroom. I shut the door and locked it. I remembered how I had developed that particular habit early in life. As a kid I had learned to always depress the button in the center of the chrome doorknob until it clicked. Otherwise my brother, who was known to dance a jig outside the bathroom door from waiting until the last possible second, barged in on me. No one would barge in on me now though, Mom was downstairs washing the breakfast dishes and Dad was reading the paper in front of the TV. Gimlet, my little yorkie, was asleep on my pillow in my old bedroom. I could primp, or not, at my leisure.

After putting the wineglass beside the sink, I braced my hands on the edge of the counter and hung my head between them staring down at the tiny pink and blue tiles in the floor. Slowly I raised my head and watched, as inch-by-inch, I saw a woman I didn’t know appear in the mirror. I had come up here for the truth, but now I was daring the mirror to lie, to tell me that Mom had it all wrong, that I was still as lovely as I had always been. The mirror wasn’t lying, I looked haggard and older than the woman I remembered being.

I was only forty-four; I looked every bit of it and more. Usually I looked much younger than my true age. I knew it was because of the grief that I hadn’t been able to shake. It had been four years since my husband had died of a sudden and massive heart attack and even though I had progressed from my lethargic, unmotivated existence to a pathetic tolerance of zombie-like routines, I was still not accepting this solo life very well. During our marriage I had never realized how many decisions had been made jointly. Now, making them on my own was scary. I never felt as if I knew all the facts anymore. And often I was so afraid I’d make a mistake that I simply did nothing.

I knew I had been hiding out, living in my head and cushioning my heart against losing memories and being careless about my appearance in a way that I never would have been before Stephen’s passing. With one hard look I knew that unless I made the effort to work my way back soon, I would lose myself forever. It was as if I had been sealed in the darkness with Stephen when he had been interred, instead of being left on the fragrant, cool spring sod wondering why the sun was still shining full and bright. Wasn’t it supposed to rain when someone you loved was buried, and completely removed from your life?

I stood staring at myself in the mirror. My mother was right, only “frayed” had been much too kind, “unraveled” was more like it. I decided right then that I was going to objectively examine my mother’s only daughter in the mirror and see exactly where the aging was coming from. Was it my hair, my skin, or just the light missing from my eyes?

I had heard it said that the first sign of middle age came when the jaw line became a jowl line, or when the chin began replicating itself. The lower edges of my cheeks were still tight, and other than a few freckles at the bottom of my throat, my neck was smooth and firm. I turned my head left and then right several times; the jowls were fine, and I only had one chin, for now. Apparently, I had skipped the first signs of aging and had instead, managed to move onto the other ones.

I lifted my hair. It needed coloring, and a thorough conditioning—it was dry, lackluster and drab, and maybe a tad too long. No, way too long. There were long strands of gray mixed in with my natural chestnut brown. The auburn highlights I’d put in years ago were interwoven, but the highlighted part was now just below my ears and the long neglected roots made it appear as if I was wearing a cap. How was it that I hadn’t noticed how bad I looked? Well, if I was honest with myself, I had to admit that Tessa and Viv had hinted about me getting a hairdresser’s appointment on many occasions. But I’d brushed them off with a flippant wave of my hand while they muttered between themselves that maybe it was still too soon for me to care about such things.

I zeroed in on the eyes staring back at me. There were a few crinkles at the corners breaking up the otherwise smooth texture of my skin, but they alone weren’t the culprits for the over-the-hill look. I lifted my brows and wiggled them. They had a nice arch, but needed plucking to define them. Were they getting thinner? I leaned in closer to see them better. Yes, there were now places that would need filling in. For the first time in my life I would need an eyebrow pencil. Damn! When had that happened?

I moved on to my nose. My nose didn’t look old; it actually looked kind of cute, except that it was red and chapped. When I cried, my nose needed perpetual blowing. I was still crying myself to sleep some nights and often allowing myself fifteen minutes in the morning to sob it out again. The flaky skin attested to the fact that I had not been so gentle with the nose blowing.

Down to the lips, they desperately needed lip-gloss. They were pale, and you could tell I’d been biting them again, a habit I had when I let them get dry. Stephen had loved kissing them, so I was forever slathering them with something slick to keep them moist and inviting. At one time it would not have been unusual to find six or seven pots of gloss and several tubes of lipstick in my purse. I was pretty sure there weren’t any in there now. Okay, so my lips weren’t as plump as was currently vogue, but they were full enough, and they could have a nice natural blush if I just started taking care of them again. I shook my head and chided myself. I should have paid more attention to the dryness this past winter; a little Vaseline at night would have been the only kindness they would have needed.

I stood back, squinted and tried to blur my face. My cheekbones could use some color, in fact my whole face could use some color. I was pale. Unusual for me as I had always sported a light honey-toned tan. My eyes were drawn to a faint scar under my right brow that I thought was ugly and obvious, but that no one else ever seemed to notice. It had become a habit to rub in a daub of yellow Max Factor Erase over the tiny line that never seemed to tan, before using my foundation. I didn’t even know where that tube was now. They usually lasted for years so I was sure it was in a drawer someplace back home.

I looked down at the tile floor again, remembering all the times I had counted the tiny squares as I had brushed my hair over my head to give it fullness as a teen. I counted twenty blue ones before raising my head to the mirror again. I pushed my hair away from my face and sighed. Yes, it definitely needed some work, it was limp and lifeless and reached all the way to my boobs—it was way too long. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d had it cut. Pushing it behind my ears, I gasped. And I think I actually jumped back. When had I gotten those granny ears?

As long as I knew her, my grandmother had crisscrossing lines over the pierced holes of her ear lobes. Now I had them! I tugged on one lobe and pulled it down as hard as I could, trying to stretch it out and make the tiny lines bisecting the pierced hole disappear. They did not. I grabbed some lotion from the Pond’s pump on the counter and massaged it in before pulling the lobe smooth again. The lines were still there, fainter, but still there. Lord, even my ear lobes were turning against me! I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to wear earrings in them all the time now or expose those awful lines to the horrified world. Only forty-four and look at those earlobes, poor girl, the biddies would whisper. The fact that my dainty little lobes were no longer smooth and unflawed struck me hard. I actually felt despair and had to fight a desire to just give up and let myself go completely. Mom was right, I was seriously frayed! What man would want me like this?

Is this what I had to accept after years of lotions, sunscreens, and careful diets? Could four years off undo everything? Was this what I had to contend with now, starlight clusters in the centers of both ears that matched my eye crinkles? I reached for my glass of wine. It was the first glass of wine I had allowed myself since Lent had begun. It was now Easter Sunday, and well past noon. It tasted great, I had missed this. Liquor of any kind helped to numb the pain, but I’d been careful, very careful. It would have been too easy to let myself slide into oblivion on an alcohol high when Stephen had died. So at least I knew the aging effect wasn’t due to frequent imbibing. I had been good about one thing at least.

And I didn’t smoke. I was just guilty of taking four years off from any kind of regular maintenance on my body. I had done only what was required to be minimally presentable. I bathed daily, well almost daily—there had been those days when I hadn’t even bothered to get out of my pajamas. Occasionally I had even shaved my legs and underarms. I had forced myself to shampoo my hair at least once a week during the worst times, but had not been eager to mess with it much. I usually just secured it with a big clip to the back of my head. I hadn’t taken the time to blow dry or curl it since the day of Stephen’s funeral. And even though most days I forgot to use deodorant, I did always remember to brush my teeth.

Suddenly I couldn’t believe that the girl who had spent so many hours before a date in this very bathroom, standing in this exact spot, could have let herself go like this. How could I not have cared a whit about what I looked like for so long? I realized then that I had let myself go because I hadn’t wanted to carry on. I hadn’t been ready to go on with my life . . . until now.

I smiled and the face in the mirror not only smiled back at me, but also looked years younger. Yes, it was time. Mom, in her own way, had decreed it.

Tomorrow Gimlet and I would go home, back to the house Stephen and I had built together. We’d had five wonderful months of retirement, of being on the golf course, going boating or kayaking, and cooking wonderful meals together before that awful day.

My mind flipped back to where I was the moment I had heard the siren. I had been sitting on our back deck reading and enjoying the late afternoon sun. I remember I said a quick prayer. It was something I had always done; something all good Catholics did whenever they heard a siren. I said a prayer for the one in trouble. Little did I know that at that moment I was asking Jesus to take my husband into his loving and eternal care.

It had been twenty minutes later that I thought I heard the doorbell. I quirked my head and listened. No, I must have been mistaken, I told myself. Then I heard leaves rustling, those same leaves that I was supposed to be raking. They were crunching underfoot as someone ran through them calling out my name. Tom, Stephen’s best friend, was as agitated as I had ever seen him. He ran up onto the deck and through panting breaths told me that my healthy, happy, physically fit husband had just had a heart attack while playing golf and was on his way to the hospital.

I shook my head to erase the memory of that awful moment and stared at the woman looking back at me while I gulped another swallow of the rich Merlot. I didn’t need to relive the next hours or days. I had already done that way too many times.

Okay, so back to the world of the living and what I was going to do about my disintegrating good looks. Was I still the beauty I once was under all the neglect and misery of the last few years? I turned my head back and forth and continued my appraisal.

I focused on my best asset, my eyes. Despite the pain I had endured since that fateful day, they were still bright and clear—an unusual shade of blue. They drew one’s attention and held it. I had always known that and had played to it. As an insurance investigator, I had used it to my advantage. No one could look someone in the eye like I could and convey so much. They were the animation that made my face come alive. My smile was a killer, too. But I hadn’t done much of that lately. I leaned into the mirror and pantomimed a big smile. My lips framed teeth that were even, straight and white. Even on the very worst days, I had always managed to dig in the bathroom drawer for my toothbrush both morning and night. And I wasn’t ashamed to admit that a few times I had purposely found and used Stephen’s. But I could not remember my last visit to the dentist. I vaguely remembered canceling an appointment though, and not bothering to return the call when they’d called back to reschedule.

I turned my body and assessed the rest of me. I was wearing a bathrobe, so I let it fall open. Okay, so I needed some toning, I needed to build back some muscle. But for forty-four I was in very good shape. The showstopper here was my breasts. They were unique in that while they weren’t exactly huge, they appeared that way. They were full and round, jutting proudly from my chest. Ursula “Undress” Stephen would jokingly call me. The odd thing, and the part that had delighted Stephen and a few men before him, was that they were full and round all the way to mid-underarm. When I wasn’t wearing a bra or a carefully constructed bathing suit, they looked quite nice, plump and high on my chest with no drooping since the weight of them was so evenly distributed. But when I wore any kind of bra or structured top, the mass from the sides joined what was already out front and I became plentiful. Well, much more than plentiful. The double takes and blatant ogling I had received over the years attested to the fact that I was definitely well endowed. “Showstopper tits” Stephen had said when we were honeymooning in Tahiti, walking arm-in-arm on the beach, me in a skimpy bikini. Men noticed, and the women beside them frowned when they did.

I closed my eyes and remembered Stephen touching me, hefting my breasts, stroking the upper swells, and caressing the fullness, then thumbing my nipples until I became liquid in his arms. Tears leaked out of my eyes and fell down my cheeks as I stood in my mother’s guest bathroom. I wanted that feeling again. I wanted it desperately.

But all my wanting and naked yearning was not going to bring Stephen back to my bed and into my arms. It was time to move on, time to see if I could find that feeling again, or something as close as I could get to it with someone else.

Briefly, I wondered if the tables had been turned what Stephen would do, would he think he was ready yet? I had read in a grief guide that men often remarried sooner than women. The reason they cited was that if the grieving widower had been happily married, that he would soon focus all his efforts so he could recapture that feeling. A woman was more apt to be concerned with appearances. My logical mind figured that as Stephen had been happily married, surely he would have remarried long before now. So I should be good to go.

If I was going to do this I knew that I had to honestly assess my appearance and make the most of what I had going for me. I took another sip of wine. It was good, a balm to my spirit. I enjoyed the tingle it was giving me so I raised my glass to the reflection. “Here’s to you kid, let’s join the living and see how well we can put ourselves back together, shall we?”

I swallowed the rest of the wine in one gulp, set the glass down and let my robe fall to the floor, time for a shower and then it was off to the stores with mom. Tomorrow I would head south to my home at Sunset Beach and to Sea Trail Plantation, the resort community where I lived. I would call Karen at Totally Chic and arrange for the works. Head to toe, I would do a complete makeover. I would go back to my aerobics classes, I would walk on the beach, I would golf with Tessa and Viv whenever they wanted, I would kayak, I would bicycle, I would go shagging and line dancing, and I would find a man. A man who could make me feel good about myself again.

I stepped into the shower and as I did, I looked down at my leg. Oh my God, were those wrinkles on the side of my knee? Where had they come from? Shit! This was going to be harder than I thought. How did one get rid of those?

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