“Take that, Dr. Evil!” Amy Warren pointed a wooden spoon at the currently offending appliance—her toaster oven. A small gray cloud of smoke swirled upward from its frying innards, filling her stainless steel kitchen with the acrid stench of burnt bread.
The microwave was already erratically blinking error messages, and the clock on the stove had permanently hovered on twelve since the day Evan had driven off with his tall, slender and gorgeous boss. But she didn’t need either appliance to bake her special croutons.
“I’ll zap your sorry behind into the ether and back again,” she muttered, referring to her uncanny ability to royally screw up electrical appliances.
But it was really Evan she’d like to zap into infinity. How predictable—the machine didn’t respond to her dire warnings any better than the man. The toaster oven still smoked.
“If I could fix anything, I’d fix my damned life.” With disgust, Amy used the wooden spoon to yank the oven’s cord out of the socket.
The wall phone rang and Amy grabbed it, praying it was her Dr. Evil-Ex telling her he would be early and had time to pick up a new toaster on the way up the mountain.
“Ames, sorry, but I—”
No wonder she couldn’t fix anything. She lived in la-la land if she still thought Evan would come through. She crossed her eyes and looked down her nose at the overflowing sink, hunting for a frying pan amid the clutter. “I trust you’re calling to say you’re picking up ice cream, and you’ll be here on time. Josh has been waiting for you all week.”
“I’m still at the office.” Losing his apologetic tone, Evan quickly went on the defensive. “It’s a new job. I’ve got to show them that I’m willing to do what it takes.”
“Evan, I have to be at the café in an hour. It’s Labor Day weekend, our last big moneymaker. There has to be foodavailable for tourists to fling their plastic at.”
“My job is far more important than your sister’s little café. Leave the kids with your mother if you have to.”
“The kids can see Mom any day. They need to see you.” Using a pot holder, Amy yanked the charred croutons from the dead toaster oven. “How soon can you get here?” Propping the phone on her shoulder and waving a towel, she attempted to clear the air, literally if not metaphorically.
“I’ve got a dinner meeting this evening with some bigwigs who want me to attend a charity golf tournament in the morning. Tell the kids I’m sorry, and I’ll try again next weekend.”
Amy knew enough by now to recognize the lie in his voice. There had been a time when she’d meekly told herself she must be imagining his shallow selfishness. She no longer had to pretend that was true. “Tell me another, Big Boy. Hot Mama have tickets for a theater opening tonight?”
“Dammit, Ames, I have a life down here! Just because you want to hole up in the boondocks doesn’t mean I have to anymore.”
“Oh, and it’s my fault you had two kids and got stuck with this monster McMansion and had a job that paid well and meant something to the community when all you really wanted was to be a drone in the city, uh-huh.”
They’d had this argument so many times she could probably recite it backward. Come to think of it, it probably was her fault that Evan had made something of himself. On his own, he would still be droning his way up the corporate ladder, instead of possessing an executive office. She dumped the ruined croutons in the trash.
“You’re getting bitchy, Ames,” he warned. “You’re letting yourself go and reverting to your half-baked hippie days. Learn to play golf, fix yourself up, and you’ll find another man to pay your rent. Don’t take your frustration out on me.” He hung up.
Amy shoved an overlong lock of ash brown hair out of her eyes and scowled. A year ago, Evan’s comment would have cut her to the quick. She would have run to the mirror and stared at her flour-studded hair with dismay and wept her heart out.
Today, she saw her ex’s mean streak for the ego trip that it was. So, hooray for her side. She’d finally learned she’d spent too damned much of her life caring what Evan thought. Why bother explaining that perms, highlighting, and salon cuts cost more than two weeks’ groceries?
She despised perms and highlighting anyway, and she no longer had to care what he wanted.
She glanced around for a working timepiece and heard the grandfather clock in the foyer strike four. Sugar, shoot, dirty word.
Refraining from cursing for the kids’ sake hadn’t broadened her vocabulary, just made it more creative.
The phone rang again. She almost ignored the insistent clamor, but years of worrying about her mother’s health had her grabbing the receiver.
“Good news!” Marcy, the real estate agent, chirped. “I have a terrific prospect who loves your location. I’m bringing them out tonight.”
Amy slumped against the counter. She had all but forgotten the FOR SALE sign that had been in the front yard all summer. It had been weeks since anyone had even looked at the house. She’d given up chewing her fingernails at the thought of losing her beautiful home and started chewing her thumb in fear of bankruptcy. She ought to be jumping for joy, but panic took first place as she glanced around the chaos of the kitchen.
“What time are you coming?” she asked, turning on the hot water in the sink and searching for the scrubbing pad.
“I’ll wait until you’ve left for the Stardust. Probably around six. Make sure you leave all the interior lights on. I have a good feeling about this one.”
Amy tried not to wince as she hung up the receiver, but her stomach had just attempted a triple axel and plummeted to the ice. In an effort to de-stress, she punched the under-cabinet CD player to pop in her sister’s latest recording. The player opened, then immediately slammed shut before she could insert the disc.
“Dammit, my next house will run on kerosene!”
She already had her next house picked out, a wonderful cottage with character, not like this shiny mausoleum dedicated to a dead marriage. She simply needed to persuade the mill’s bankruptcy judge to take nada for it, and find a job that paid enough for her to fix it up.
Rolling her eyes at the fantasy, she resisted pounding her head against the polished cherry cabinet and dialed her mother to make arrangements for the children.
“Mommy, Josh is coloring on the walls!” Three-year-old Louisa bounced in from the family room, where she was supposed to be watching a video with her six-year-old brother.
Chunky and golden-haired like her father, Louisa reached up for a hug, and Amy’s heart nearly split in two. Frustrated, she wanted to stomp her feet and throw a tantrum. Instead, she reached down to give her girl a hug.
“Are we being a telltale?” she scolded gently, carrying her baby into the family room, where, sure enough, newly rebellious Josh had drawn stick figures in indelible red crayon on the apricot walls.
Reining in a cry of dismay, Amy closed her eyes and tried to put herself into his child-size nines. He was smart enough to know his father was skipping their visit—again. There was a For Sale sign on the front lawn of the only home he’d ever known. And his mother was losing her mind. She was certain that Josh, somewhere in his very bright brain, had a reason for personalizing the walls.
When she opened her eyes again, he was scowling at her mutinously.
“Is that your daddy?” she asked.
“No, it’s Tommy, and I’m going to punch him.” Which he proceeded to do, intelligently wearing the boxing gloves Evan had given him.
“Tommy’s sad and acting out, just like you are.” She needed to pick up toys, clear smoke out of the kitchen, and boil cinnamon to add a welcoming scent to fool visitors into thinking this was a happy home. Maybe she should light a cinnamon candle, burn the house down, and save herself the effort of moving all these things that would never fit anywhere she could afford.
Of course, if not fitting in was the criteria, she’d have to go up in flames as well.
Amy stuck her tongue out at the oil painting over the mantel, where Evan’s golden image taunted her with its confident smirk. Perhaps the painting ought to be the first thing to go up in smoke. That woman sitting beside him, with the carefully highlighted, styled hair, the glossy lipstick, matching manicure, and pearls, wasn’t her any longer. She didn’t know who that woman was.
But the portrait of bright-eyed Josh and giggling baby Louisa was too precious to destroy. She was such a sap for babies.
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