Pink Pearls

***

For three days people have besieged us to offer condolences and tell stories about my father, but tonight the house is finally quiet. The maids have put away all the left over food and washed the dishes; I saw Maria changing the linen in the room Aunt Stephanie used, and Tina just finished vacuuming the green runner on the grand staircase.

Everything looks just as it did before my father’s death. Oh, wait, that’s not true. Some people sent potted plants to the house, and they’re still in the living room. I think Aunt Stephanie appreciated them, but frankly I don’t. I’ve never enjoyed potted plants, maybe because I’ve always been too busy to care for them. Between two kids and a legal practice I’m stretched too thin as it is.

I especially dislike calla lilies, and I have no idea why. They’re very graceful, but I wish people had sent roses instead.

My family always loved roses best. My mother planned and tended a truly spectacular rose garden. I believe she had every type of pink and white roses known to man in that garden. My father didn’t especially like gardening, but after her death he hired a master gardener to take care of her garden. He loved her so much he couldn’t bear to see anything she loved neglected.

Some people seemed surprised to see my father’s casket covered in pink and white roses. Maybe they thought red would be more appropriate for a man, but in this case they’d be wrong. Pink and white roses always had special significance for my mother and father. Valentine’s Day never went by without Dad sending Mother a huge bouquet of pink and white roses.

I’m tired tonight, and I’d like to go to bed, but I know I couldn’t sleep. I might as well grab a cup of tea and start working on the thank you notes. I think I’ll sit in the living room which is my favorite room in the entire house. The mantel above the fireplace is unbelievably ornate and lovely. It was crafted in a day when people still took pride in their work, and it shows.

The chandelier is original to the house. I have no idea how old it is. It was hanging here forty years ago when my father bought this house for my mother, and the house was old when he bought it. He and Mother had to do a lot of renovations to make the house fit to live in. I wish I had asked them when the house was built, but I didn’t. That’s one of the things you don’t think to ask until it’s too late.

At any rate, the chandelier still sparkles as brightly as it ever did. My Aunt Stephanie was always after Mother to get something a little more up to date, but Mother always laughed and said she wouldn’t part with it for all the tea in China.

I still vividly remember sitting on the living room sofa and talking to Dad last Christmas Day. We, I mean me, Mark, and the kids, came home to spend Christmas with Dad. So did my brother and his family. Dad’s health had been in a steady decline since the previous summer, and we all knew he’d soon be joining my mother in Rivers of Life Cemetery.

Even now it hurts my feelings to think of how Mark behaved. He hadn’t wanted to come at all because he and my father had never gotten along. He wanted to stay home and play golf with Will Fowler, but I bullied him into going with me and the boys.

I certainly never expected him to act surly and rude to every single person he met. He smarted off to Dad a couple of times, but he stopped that fast enough when Dad gave him ‘The Look’. My brother and I used to mind him in a hurry when he gave us ‘The Look’. We knew he meant business when that happened.

‘The Look’ intimidated Mark even though Dad was an old man so he sulked and tried to ruin everyone’s Christmas. He caught a plane home right after lunch on Christmas Day. I think he wanted me to beg him to stay, but I didn’t. By this time everyone wanted him to leave. Including me.

I expected him to leave the boys with me, and that’s what he did. Joey idolizes his father and would have enjoyed a little private time with Mark, but Mark never offered. I guess Will Fowler is more important to Mark than his own flesh and blood.

Of course I always suspected Mark didn’t play as much golf with Will as he let on. Want to guess what I think he did? Well, she’s welcome to him.

When I got back from taking Mark to the airport I found Dad sitting alone in the living room. “Join me,” he called.

I remember I almost hated to. I figured he’d want to talk about Mark, and that was a subject I wanted to avoid at all costs. Dad had never said I told you so about Mark, but I know he must have thought it many times. He had practically begged me not to marry Mark. “He can’t make you happy, Chelsea,” he had said. “He’s shallow, self centered, and conceited. He also has a lazy streak a mile wide.”

My Mother hadn’t liked Mark either. “He reminds me of someone I used to date,” she had said. “Don’t get involved with him, baby. He isn’t good enough for you.”

I hadn’t listened to her any more than I listened to Dad. I thought the world had changed since they were young, and with the arrogance of youth I dismissed their advice and married Mark against their wishes.

I regretted it almost immediately. I think that deep down I expected Mark to be like Dad who always treated my mother like a princess. In fact, that’s what he called here. I still remember how he’d dash in the door at the end of the day. “Where’s my princess?” he’d yell, and no matter what she was doing my mother would drop it and run to meet him.

Mark lived in a world of his own with little room for a wife and children. I tried to make the best of it, and I guess there were some good times, but I can’t tell you how many nights I cried myself to sleep.

He was so critical! We got married on February 1. I wanted to do something nice for our first Valentine’s Day together so I planned to cook his favorite meal for him. I sweated bullets over that dinner, but I finally got it done and dressed myself in a sexy, low cut, black dress.

He seemed surprised that I had made the effort, but to his credit he thanked me for doing it. He had also bought me a nice card; no gift, but a nice card.

When we sat down to eat the first words he said were, “The steak is tough.”

From there everything went downhill. Nothing suited him, especially the dessert. “You put too much sugar in the frosting,” he complained. Since I had worked like a Trojan on that chocolate cake I burst into tears and ran from the table. He apologized, but I don’t think he ever understood why he had upset me.

He tried to criticize the kids as he did me, but I told him in no uncertain terms he was to keep his mouth off of them. The argument was so bitter he left for two days. When he finally came back I should have told him to take a hike, but I didn’t. Like my mother I always hoped things would eventually work out for the best.

Anyway, I went into the living room that night to join Dad who was drinking champagne. “Why are you drinking champagne?” I asked. “What’s the occasion?”

“I’m celebrating.”

“Celebrating what?” I halfway expected him to say he was celebrating Mark’s departure.

“I’m celebrating the fact that I’ll see your mother very soon.”

“Oh, Dad, don’t say that!”

“Chelsea,” he chided. “She took my heart with her when she went. Without her I’m only half alive anyway so be glad for me.”

I couldn’t feel glad for him because selfishly I wanted him to be there for me if I needed him, and I suspected I soon would. Christmas had forced me to admit that Mark and I were fast approaching a crisis in our marriage.

He held an ugly, orange case in his lap which he handed to me. “I want you to have these,” he said.

“But you’ve already given me a gift.”

“Yes, but this is different. Open it.”

I opened the case and literally gasped. “It’s Mother’s pink pearls!” My mother had worn those pearls practically every day of her life. As a teenager I thought she looked silly wearing them with casual clothes, but when I’d criticize her she always said, “Never you mind, Chelsea. Your dad gave these to me on our first Valentine’s Day together.”

Dad smiled at me; my astonishment probably amused him. He always had a flair for doing the unexpected. That’s one reason he was such a success in the corporate world, that and the fact he made good decisions faster than any person I’ve ever known.

“I suppose I should have buried her pearls with her,” he said, “but I couldn’t let them go because they seemed like a link to her. I intended to ask you to put them in the pocket of my jacket so I could give them to her as soon as we met, but I’ve decided she’d want you to have them.”

“But why?”

“Because you need them more. You settled, Chelsea. You were in such a hurry to grow up and get married you accepted the first man who came along, and you shouldn’t have. You should have waited for the love of your life to come calling.”

“Dad, not everyone’s as lucky as you and Mother. You two shared a special love, the kind that doesn’t happen too often.”

He looked at me in such a way I thought he actually felt sorry for me. “I think you need to hear the story of how your mother and I met, Chelsea.”

“Dad, I’ve heard it a million times before.”

“Yes, you have, but this time I want you to listen with your heart, not your ears.”

I thought maybe he needed to talk so I said, “Okay, tell me how you and Mother met.”

This is what he said.

***

Oh, how pretty! Madison pulled the sale paper closer to her face. She hadn’t put in her contacts yet, and she wanted to get a good luck at the pearls. Yes, just as she thought they were pink, a pale, pastel pink. She’d never seen a pink pearl before, and she just loved them. They shone with a luminous, delicate sheen, and she imagined how smooth and satiny they’d feel against her throat. She had never seen anything so beautiful. They would complement her skin so well. If she did say so her shell-brown complexion and blonde hair would look great with the pearls.

The price wasn’t bad either. The store only wanted fifty nine dollars for the necklace. She’d run over there at lunch time and pick it up.

Reality intruded with a vengeance. Lee had smashed her car last week so she didn’t have fifty nine dollars to spare on luxuries like pink pearls.

She heard Lee clomping down the stairs on his way to the kitchen. “Hey, what’s for breakfast?” he asked.

“Cereal.”

Lee grimaced. As Madison knew, he didn’t like cold cereal. “Let me get a bowl.” He rummaged around in the cabinet and then fixed himself come Cheerios. “What are you doing today?”

“Oh, I’m showing the old Dillard place this morning.”

“I hope you have good luck. We could use the money.”

This comment slightly irritated Madison. Lee hadn’t had a job in six weeks now. She had earned every penny that came into the house. Of course it wasn’t his fault the company he worked for had closed, but he’d made very little effort to find work. He told her he sent out resumes every day, but somehow she doubted it. He seemed perfectly happy to sit around watching TV all day or having coffee with his buddies.

Her mother was at her day and night to get rid of Lee. “You aren’t even married,” she had scolded just last night. “He’s a user, Madison. Why can’t you see it? He lets you keep him up, and he wastes your hard earned money whenever he feels like it. Didn’t he buy an expensive camera last week?”

Yes, he had, and she wished her mother hadn’t reminded her. She wanted her relationship with Lee to work. They had fun together, and as her mother constantly reminded her, her biological clock was ticking. She had to have a little faith in him. Undoubtedly finding himself unemployed had knocked him for a loop. He’d be fine once he got his feet on the ground. Surely she could carry on for a few more months.

She finished her own cereal and gave Lee a goodbye kiss. “See you later.”

“Yeah, later.”

He didn’t even bother to look up as she went out the door. Never mind. Some people just didn’t express their feelings as easily as others. Lee thought the sun rose and set in her. Hadn’t he said so many times?

She got into the rundown Buick she had borrowed from her father and drove over to the old Dillard place. It had stood vacant for two years now. No wonder. The old house had approximately six thousand square feet and needed major repairs. So far everyone who had looked at it had shaken their heads and hurried away. If she could close the deal it would be a nice feather in her cap, not to mention a fat commission.

The prospective buyer had already arrived. A sleek, black Mercedes sat in the rutted driveway. She saw someone sitting in the driver’s seat, but she couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman. She parked the Buick beside the Mercedes and got out. Childishly she crossed her fingers for luck. She needed this sale badly.

The Mercedes’ door opened, giving Madison such a shock she involuntarily gasped for air. The man in front of her stood maybe six three. He had dark brown hair and a pair of velvety brown eyes that reminded her of smooth, rich, milk chocolate. He also had a body to die for. Shamefully, she’d give anything to see how he looked without a shirt. She could imagine how the muscles would ripple under her fingers as she explored that vast expanse of male skin. He must spend a lot of time in a gym to get a physique like this.

He looked like her every fantasy come true, even better than the cover models on her favorite romance books. Her mother always said only idiots wasted time reading romances, but Madison didn’t feel that way. A little fantasy suited her just fine.

Her gorgeous prospect held out his hand and said, “Ms. Whitmire? My name is Joshua Brandon. We spoke on the phone yesterday.”

She’d rather not bother with showing the house. She’d enjoy standing here all day and looking her fill. Mentally she gave herself a good little shake. She had a boy friend who loved her. She also had a job to do.

She took Brandon’s hand and noted that he had a firm grip. She despised men with namby-pamby handshakes. A man should shake like a man, like he really meant it. She liked the shape of his hands too. He had long, slender, well-manicured fingers, but she felt several calluses on his palm. She wondered how he got them. A little thrill shot through her when she thought how nice it felt for him to touch her hand.

Her face flushed, annoying Madison no end. She was no love starved old maid, thank you very much. So he looked like a Greek god come to life. So she had seen him many times in her dreams. She had a sale to make. “Sha…shall we go in?” she stammered. Great. Now she couldn’t even talk straight.

She led the way to the front porch and thankfully unlocked the door. She had felt Brandon’s eyes boring into her back the entire way. In fact, she had a spot on her rump that felt as though it might burst into flames at any moment.

She stepped into the foyer and said, “The house has been empty for two years now, Mr. Brandon. I’ve had someone come in periodically to give it a scrub, but it is a bit dusty.”

Brandon’s eyes busily scanned the foyer. “I like the foyer, but I’d replace the slate with marble. I think it would look better with the architecture of the house.”

Madison quickly agreed. “That’s what I always thought too. The elegance of the staircase and the old moldings just scream for something more formal than slate.”

Brandon closely inspected the grand, curving staircase while Madison furtively inspected him. “The spindles are rotting. They’d need to be replaced.”

“Yes, they would, but isn’t the staircase beautiful?”

“Of course it is. Who covered the stairs with commercial carpet? This house deserves better. If I take it I’ll sand the floors down and refinish them. Then I’ll put an oriental runner on the staircase, maybe something in green or red.”

“It would be beautiful. Would you like to see the kitchen?”

He followed her to the kitchen and summed up his reaction in one word. “Disaster.”

The kitchen had nixed more than one sale. “Oh, I know it’s pretty bad, but if you started from scratch you could personalize it and get exactly what you want. I always thought red oak would look beautiful in here or maybe white if you wanted to go that route. Do you cook often?”

This seemed to amuse him. He grinned, causing little crinkles to appear in the corners of his eyes. “I have a reputation for cooking up things.”

Somehow that sounded a bit strange, but she didn’t know exactly why. She didn’t know why he was staring at her so intently either. She hoped she hadn’t forgotten to button her blouse or something. She almost thought, no that was too conceited for words, but okay she thought he liked her looks. Those warm chocolate eyes had stared at her more than the house, and he hung on her every word.

“Ah… let’s go see the living room.”

He followed her down the hallway to a huge living room. “This is magnificent,” he declared.

Madison smiled. She had always thought it looked magnificent. “Most people don’t see past the dust and wear, but I’ve always loved this room, especially the fireplace. It’s huge.”

“Yes, and the mantel looks too wonderful to be real. They don’t do detail work like that anymore.”

He looked toward the ceiling and said, “I like the high ceilings too. Is the molding original to the house?”

“Yes, it is. You know, I always thought this room looked like something from a fairy tale.”

No doubt about it; she had captured his interest. Those chocolate eyes had locked with hers, and she couldn’t have looked away if she had wanted to. Why hadn’t she seen before now that they could penetrate your very soul? Yet, he didn’t make her uncomfortable in the least. “Do you believe in fairy tales, Madison?”

Wow, she hadn’t paid attention to his voice either. It sounded silky smooth and was filled with power and emotion. Good grief! Had she totally lost her mind? She had a sale to make. She needed to stop this fairy tale nonsense as quickly as possible. “No, I don’t believe in fairy tales,” she answered. “Would you like to see the study? It has some wonderful built in bookcases and a lovely bay window.”

Joshua ignored her offer. “Why don’t you believe in fairy tales, Madison?”

“Because I’m not a child.”

“Fairy tales aren’t just for children.”

“Yeah? Which one did you have in mind for adults?” Madness! She had a house to show. Still, she had to keep him happy.

“Hmm. Cinderella, I think.”

Madison suddenly laughed. “Walt Disney did Cinderella very well, but …”

“But what?”

Under the influence of those piercing chocolate eyes Madison told the truth. “The real world is cold and cruel, and fairy tales never come true. They give us high expectations that are certain to fail, and when they do we’re left with the ashes of our dreams and a bitter taste in our mouths.”

Joshua shook his head as a masculine finger stroked the side of her face, leaving a trail of molten fire everywhere he touched her. “You’re awfully young to be so cynical. What happened to you, Madison? What dreams never came true for you?”

Madison didn’t answer. She couldn’t. How could she tell him about Lee and how he had disappointed her? How could she tell him of the seemingly endless hours she had spent alone, waiting for the love of her life to make an appearance? Lee was handsome, no doubt about it, but even though she hated to admit it, her mother was right. Lee was a user. In her heart of hearts she had always known that. Why did it take a silly conversation with Joshua Brandon to make her admit it?

People like Lee would probably never change, and now thanks to Joshua Brandon she’d have to confront her feelings for Lee and decide if she wanted to keep him around or not. Somehow, she leaned toward not keeping him. How could she after she met her fantasy man parked in the driveway of an old house?

A warm, masculine hand reached for hers. “Are you cold, Madison? We should have a fire in that glorious fireplace.” He waved his hand gracefully toward towards the fireplace. “Can’t you feel the warmth? It’s a huge fire. I think the logs must be apple wood. Doesn’t it smell wonderful?”

Madison looked at the huge fire. It roared and crackled as it greedily consumed the big log inside, and the heat it threw off had warmed the room considerably.

“It’s beautiful,” she breathed. “It pushes back the cold so well.”

“Oh, the fire is beautiful,” Joshua returned, “but frankly your beauty puts the fire to shame.” He raised Madison’s hand to his lips and softly kissed it, causing little butterflies to flutter madly in her middle. Oh, how she had longed for the touch of a man who’d make her feel this way!

Joshua smiled at her, and she hoped every bone in her body wouldn’t just melt. “In a beautiful setting like this I think you need a more formal dress, Madison. Hmm. Let me think a minute.” He stepped away from her, but he didn’t let go of her hand. “Look at your dress,” he urged. “It looks beautiful on you. I think you were born to wear pink satin.”

Madison ran her hand down the gleaming expanse of pink satin. The dress kissed the floor, and she felt the train flaring behind her. The dress looked so beautiful she could scarcely breathe. She had always longed for such a dress, but in the modern world poor realtors didn’t have much occasion to wear a dress that looked as if it belonged in an elegant ballroom. Her shoulders were bare, but with the heat from the fireplace she didn’t feel the cold at all.

Joshua slowly removed the clip from her hair so it cascaded gracefully down her back. “Beautiful,” he whispered. “Just beautiful.” He tweaked one curl between his fingers. Madison had always disliked her hair because of the little waves in it, but she suddenly realized how pretty it really looked.

“Shouldn’t you change too,” Madison breathed. “I think you’d look great in traditional black.”

“It is my usual choice. Do you like it?”

He stepped back so she could see him better. The basic black tux looked like a million dollars on him. It showcased that glorious chest and magnificent shoulders in such a way that her knees grew weak.

“Do you hear music, Madison? An evening like this calls for music.”

“Oh, but it isn’t evening yet. It’s only…” She broke off and stared out the window. Night had fallen, and lush, green, velvet draperies framed a window full of snowflakes. Somehow, the room didn’t look so worn and dusty now. The hardwood floors gleamed with a shine so deep it could blind you while every prism in the crystal chandelier sparkled and radiated light throughout the room. The ugly brown sofa had vanished, replaced by a graceful, old-fashioned, French piece upholstered in a white damask fabric.

Chopin still played softly in the background. It wouldn’t have surprised Madison to see a small orchestra in the corner, but no, she and Joshua were the only people in the room. “Champagne?” he questioned.

“Why, we…”

He turned to a delicate, gold-leaf table behind him and poured a thin, crystal glass gloriously full of champagne. “Try it,” he urged. “I didn’t get it at the grocery store, you know. This is vintage Joseph Perrier.”

“Even the bottle is lovely.”

“Indeed it is. The bottle design is based on an old bottle from the nineteenth century. They found it in one of their vaults.”

Madison willingly sipped from the glass. “It’s fabulous,” she cried. “It doesn’t taste anything like the grocery store stuff.”

Joshua chuckled. “It better not.”

He waved his hand again. “Look at the flowers, Madison. What do you see?”

“Roses. Masses of pink and white roses.” The roses filled every nook and cranny in the room, delighting Madison who drew a deep breath to enjoy their perfume. “They smell like my grandmother’s rose garden only better.”

Joshua smiled complacently. “I knew you’d love pink roses, Madison. They become you far more than red ever could.

She had another sip of her glorious champagne. Then Joshua took the glass from her. “The music is too lovely to waste. Shall we dance?”

Madison moved into his arms without a word. She feared to speak, for what would she do if speech broke the magic spell he had woven around them?

He gently pulled her against him as he warmly caressed her with his eyes. “Have I told you how beautiful you are? I might have forgotten to. When I look into your pretty face I forget all my manners, and I can’t concentrate. Well, why wouldn’t I? It isn’t often a man has the chance to dance with a princess.”

Oh he had called her a princess! No one had ever called her princess before! Madison laid her head on his shoulder and felt his lips graze her hair. She broke out in goose bumps that must have made him think she felt cold, for he pulled her even closer. Madison almost giggled. No woman could feel cold in the arms of Joshua Brandon.

She had no idea how long they danced together. Her feet felt as if they had scarcely touched the floor in spite of the clear, bejeweled high heels she wore. They looked as if they’d hurt her feet, but they didn’t. Wow! They did beautiful things to her feet too.

The music paused for a moment. “More champagne?” Joshua asked.

“Yes, please.”

Madison drained her glass; she had no idea how many glasses she’d already had, but it had to be a lot because her head had started to spin. The room twirled faster and faster around her, and she dizzily fell onto the pretty white sofa.

Joshua came and kissed her hand. He smiled at her and said, “Wait for me, my darling.”

Madison didn’t understand. Was he going somewhere? “Wait for what?” she mumbled.

Nobody answered, and the room went dark.

****

If her neck hurt any more she’d cry. Madison slowly, slowly raised it from the back of the sofa without opening her eyes. She must have fallen asleep on the couch, but why had the room gotten so cold? Had the heating system gone on the blink? Yeah, great, that’s all she needed. She already had a high deductible she had to pay to get her car fixed. She didn’t have the money to repair the heating system.

Her eyes popped open, scaring her to death. “Where am I?” she cried. Until she opened her eyes she had assumed she was at home. How did she get to this strange place?

She jumped up, and when she did she recognized the old Dillard house. My goodness what a dream she’d had! Oh no! She must have fallen asleep on the sofa! Mr. Brandon must have come and gone a long time ago. Feverishly, she grabbed her purse and searched for her keys. Maybe she could find a pay phone and call him. She’d beg him to come back over.

No, of course she couldn’t. It would be dark in a few minutes, and the electricity wasn’t turned on. A flicker of unease wafted through her. She had spent the entire day asleep in a deserted house.

Somehow, though, she didn’t really feel afraid. This house felt warm and welcoming in spite of the cold winter air and the layer of dust which coated everything. In fact, if she had the money she’d buy it herself. It was way too big for her and Lee, but she didn’t care if it was. Strangely enough, this house felt like home.

Ha! She couldn’t even pay to have her car fixed, much less buy a house with a price tag like this one. Her nose twitched. If she didn’t know better she’d swear she smelled roses. Talk about a vivid dream.

She pulled her coat more firmly around her and locked the house. She’d stop on the way home and get some take-out for dinner. After spending the day dreaming of strangers with chocolate eyes she didn’t feel like cooking, and Lee loved Chinese.

She stopped at The Dragon’s Den, and when she wrote a check to pay for dinner she saw the date. February 14. Valentine’s Day. She had forgotten Valentine’s Day! Thank goodness she had remembered in time. She’d stop by the little discount store on the way home and pick up a card and a box of candy for Lee. He didn’t have much money this year, but he’d surely gotten something for her, a beautiful card if nothing else.

She bought her card and candy and drove home. “Lee? Where are you?”

“Coming,” she heard him yell.

He came running down the steps dressed to go out. How nice! He intended to take her out to dinner. “Hey, babe, did you sell the house?”

“Uh, no, not yet.”

“Too bad.” He gave her a quick kiss and said, I’ll see you later.”

“Why, where are you going?”

“The guys and I are going to Kelsey’s.”

“But…”

“You work some nights, Madison. You can’t expect me to sit around waiting for you. Why do you begrudge me an evening out?”

“Because it’s Valentine’s Day!”

“Yeah, I guess it is. I’m sorry. If I had remembered I wouldn’t have made this date, but I can’t cancel now. You understand, right?”

No, she didn’t, but she wouldn’t beg. He gave her a quick kiss and ran out the door. This wasn’t right! Valentine’s Day was for lovers, not hanging out in a bar with the guys, and by george she’d tell him so!

She ran to the window to see if he had gone. He hadn’t, but as she watched he opened his trunk and took out a heart shaped box and a bouquet of flowers. Her face flushed and tears welled up in her eyes. Guess Valentine’s Day really was for lovers.

That snake. That sorry, good for nothing snake. Madison wished she could call him the bad names he deserved, but she’d never cursed, and she supposed she wouldn’t start now.

Another thought struck her; he had probably charged another woman’s gifts to her credit card. Her anger spiraled in light of this new complication. She’d report her credit card as stolen. If he tried to use her number again he’d get a nasty surprise.

She made her call and ran up the stairs to the bedroom where she jerked all of his things from the closet and dresser drawers. She didn’t stop until the bed overflowed with clothes and shoes. Why, he had more clothes than she did, and she had bought most of them.

She took some garbage bags from the kitchen and stuffed everything inside. She wished she could just toss everything out of the window, but she wouldn’t because when he came back she wanted him to collect his things and get away from her condo as soon as possible.

Of course he had a key. Hmm. A good locksmith would fix that in a hurry.

She had to pay extra, but the man came and changed the locks within the hour. Why had she ever imagined she and Lee had a future? “Mama knows best,” she muttered. “She warned me.”

Now that her excitement had died down the evening dragged. What she’d really like to do is drive over to the Dillard house and … And what? Pass out and dream a romantic fantasy?

That was crazy, but the compulsion to go over there almost overwhelmed her. She remained at home only by a tremendous act of her will. She almost hoped she never dreamed anything so vivid and wonderful ever again. Waking up sucked, as her younger brother would say.

The shrilling of the phone startled her. “Hello?”

“Oh, hi, Madison, it’s Lee.”

“I know.”

“Have you looked out the window? It’s sleeting like crazy. Since the weather is so bad I thought I might spend the night with Jeremy.”

Madison peeked out the window. “It isn’t sleeting here. Just rain.”

“Oh, well it’s awful on the other side of town.”

“If I were you I’d hurry on back and get my things out of the street before the rain ruins everything you own.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I know, Lee. I know you’re two timing me with some little bimbo, and hey, that’s fine. Just don’t expect me to keep your garbage in my house. You can find it in trash bags lying in front of the condo. And by the way, don’t try to charge anything else on my credit card. I reported it as stolen. I also had a locksmith come over and change all the locks.” Madison chuckled. “I’ve been a very busy girl.”

“Why you…”

Madison hung up on him. She decided she might as well go to bed. Valentine’s Day truly was for lovers, but she didn’t have a single soul to celebrate with.

She went upstairs and put on her pink pajamas. She just loved them. They had a pale pink background with darker pink flamingos that stood on one leg scattered all over them. Yeah, they had fuzzed up a little, but who cared? She didn’t have anyone to impress.

The door bell rang, scaring her slightly. Surely Lee hadn’t come this quickly! She peeped out the window, and her heart started to thud when she saw a black Mercedes parked in front of her condo. Oh, how silly! She had spent the afternoon dreaming. She hadn’t danced with her fantasy man and drank champagne in a wonderful, light filled house.

“Who is it?” she called through the door.

“Joshua Brandon.”

No! It couldn’t be, but she’d recognize that rich, smooth voice anywhere in creation. She wrenched the door open and fell silent. He was real, and he looked just as she remembered. No, actually he looked even more handsome in that form fitting, black shirt. Even though he’d covered it with a tweed jacket she could still see his muscled chest and rock hard stomach.

“Wha…what are you doing here, Joshua?”

“Oh, Madison, I came to find you of course. I asked you to wait for me, but when I got back you were gone. Did you know there are garbage bags full of clothes in front of your house?”

“Oh, but…” Madison didn’t know what to say. Maybe she had fallen asleep again. Yeah, that’s it. She was having another great dream.

“Madison, it’s raining out here. May I come in?”

“Yes, come in.” She wished the condo looked a bit more welcoming. She had only bought it a couple of months ago, and everything still looked bland and temporary. And stars above! She was wearing her old, fuzzy pajamas.

Joshua stepped inside out of the rain and took her hand as he passed her one perfect, pink rose. “I missed you.”

Suddenly, the condo didn’t look so bland to Madison. The walls no longer looked bare and basic, builder white. They glowed with a clean, crisp light, and her old blue sofa shone like a sapphire set in a sea of crystal clear light.

She didn’t remember changing clothes either, but she must have, for she now wore an ethereal, pink sweater that looked so feminine it absolutely took her breath away.

Joshua slowly leaned toward her. His eyes fluttered shut as he bent his head and grazed her lips with his own. “My perfect, perfect Madison,” he murmured.

Madison’s breath caught in her throat. Shyly she slipped her arms around his waist and laid her head on his shoulder, drinking in the masculine scent of tweed and the fresh, cool scent of the rain. “How did you find me?” she whispered.

Joshua laughed, a musical sound that tickled Madison and made her laugh too. “Phone book of course,” he answered.

Madison caressed the velvety petals of her beautiful rose as its perfume tickled her nose. “Why are you here, Joshua? Did you want to see the house?”

“The Dillard place?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, I already saw everything I needed to see. I’ve decided to take it.”

“I’m so glad. It’s a wonderful house. It just needs someone to love it.”

“Not just anyone,” Joshua countered. “It needs… Well, we’ll get to that later. Would you like for me to collect those garbage bags for you?”

“No, I would not.”

“Oh?”

Madison explained how she had caught Lee cheating.

“He’s a fool,” Joshua contemptuously dismissed Lee. “Let’s not talk about him ever again, princess.”

Princess! “Ah, may I get you some coffee? It’s cold outside.”

“You can show me where things are in the kitchen. Then you can relax by the fire. I think my princess could use a little pampering tonight.”

Madison hung up his coat and almost floated to the kitchen. She found some cups for Joshua and passed them to him. How funny. She had never liked those cups. She had thought they looked too thick and utilitarian, but tonight they looked cozy. She had never noticed how sweet that red band around the rim made them look either. As sweet and as cheerful as a red Valentine heart.

She went back into the living room and sat down in front of the fireplace. Of course it looked nothing like the one in the Dillard house, but truthfully it looked okay. Instead of looking stingy and small as she once thought, she now realized it projected a clean, contemporary look that went well with her sparkling blue and white color scheme. Oh, and look how pretty her pewter picture frame looked on the mantle.

Suddenly, the living room door burst open, and Lee rushed in, dripping rain and tracking mud everywhere. “How….how did you…” Madison couldn’t get a coherent sentence out.

“You forgot to lock the door you little fool. Now get your butt out there and bring my things back inside.”

“You must be joking! Do you honestly think I’d stay with you now?”

“I certainly do. She was nothing more than a fling. If you didn’t spend so many hours at work I wouldn’t have had to resort to such tricks. A man has needs, Madison.”

“Don’t you dare try to make this my fault!”

“Then whose fault is it?”

“Yours,” Madison yelled. “I worked long hours to earn money to keep you up, you leech.”

Lee’s face turned an ugly, mottled red. He crossed the room in three long strides, fist raised.

He never touched her though. The kitchen door flew open with a bang as a dark haired Viking roared out of the kitchen. Joshua! When did he take his shirt off? How did his hair get so long?

She shook her head to clear it. Of course he hadn’t taken his clothes off. Nor had his hair grown past his shoulders, but for a minute there he had reminded her of a bloodthirsty, savage warrior intent on destroying his enemies.

He planted himself between her and Lee and barked, “Stop right there!”

“Who the hell are you? This is between me and Madison. Get out.”

Before Madison’s eyes Joshua seemed to grow even taller and broader. His chocolate eyes looked almost black, and they blazed with cold fire. “Madison is no longer any of your concern. You will leave this place immediately, and you will never come back. You will make no further attempt to contact her either here or in any public place. Have I made myself clear?”

His tone sent shivers down Madison’s backbone. She saw the look of fear on Lee’s face, but he refused to back down. “I don’t take orders from you.”

“For your sake I certainly hope you remember what I’ve told you. If not, you’ll be dealing with me, not Madison.”

“I live here. The police aren’t going to do anything to me.”

“Who mentioned the police?”

The menacing expression on Joshua’s face grew positively malevolent, and Lee caved in. He spun around and stalked out of the condo, slamming the door behind him.

Joshua turned to Madison as if nothing had happened. “I’ll get your coffee princess.”

“Wait. We need to talk.”

Joshua tried to take her hand and lead her to the sofa, but Madison pulled away from him and put her hands behind her. “Not until we talk.”

“Okay.” Joshua seated himself on the sofa. “Let’s talk, princess.”

“Who are you?”

“Why, I’m Joshua Brandon, CEO of Phartex International.”

“That isn’t what I meant, and you know it. Every single time I see you it’s like I’ve fallen into a trance. I know darn good and well we didn’t dance the day away drinking champagne at the Dillard house which by the way looked absolutely beautiful. I also know my condo is still virtually unfurnished, but tonight when you walked in I suddenly liked it. Have you hypnotized me?”

“Do you believe in love at first sight, Madison?”

Madison didn’t know how to answer. Until this morning she’d have said no in a skinny minute, but after spending the day with Joshua… “I… don’t know.”

Joshua laughed. “Of course you do. And so do I. The minute I laid eyes on you this morning I fell in love with you, and without undue conceit I think you fell in love with me too.”

“You must have hypnotized me. Why else would these weird things have happened to me?”

“You mean like dancing at the Dillard house?”

“Yes.”

“Princess, don’t you get it? Today you saw me through the eyes of your heart, and the heart doesn’t lie. Our day was every bit as wonderful as you imagined.”

“The eyes of the heart don’t make people imagine expensive champagne, roses, and a roaring fire, and they don’t make people imagine their condos look special when they really don’t.”

“Yes, they do.”

He spoke these words with no special emphasis, as if anyone would see their validity. The eyes of the heart. The heart doesn’t lie. Nothing, absolutely nothing like this had ever happened to her before. She doubted anyone would believe her if she should tell. The eyes of the heart. The heart doesn’t lie.

Joshua stood up. “I have to get my coat, Princess.”

Ha! Guess the fairy tale just ended. He was leaving because she didn’t buy into his nonsense.

Joshua fished around in his coat pocket and withdrew a small, orange case. “When I left the Dillard house this morning I went to see Simon Walters, my jeweler. I asked him for a specific item, one I thought my princess would like.” Slowly, he opened the lid. “Do you like them, Madison?”

The pink pears gleamed with a wondrous pink luster and looked like romance personified. She gently ran a fingertip across their shining surface. “They’re beautiful,” she breathed, “but what made you think of pink pearls?”

Joshua smiled so tenderly at her that Madison’s eyes filled with tears of joy. “I looked at you with the eyes of my heart, Madison, and I just knew.” He removed the pearls from their case. “May I put them on you?”

“Yes,” Madison whispered. She swept her hair to one side, and Joshua fastened the pearls around her neck.

“Just beautiful, princess. Will you be my valentine? Not just today, but for always?”

Through the eyes of her heart Madison beamed at the love of her life, and she kissed him.

***

As my father finished his story, I put on my mother’s pearls. “I listened, Dad,” I choked. The next day I called Mark and told him the boys and I wouldn’t be coming home. Truthfully, I don’t think he cared. He had stopped loving me long ago, if indeed he had ever loved me.

Right before Dad passed away he asked me to take his dog to the vet. He said she had a little cough. I expected old Dr. Anthony to treat Bonnie; instead I found he had retired and sold the practice to Dr. Russ Mercer. He was about my age, and when he walked into the room I took one look at his face and felt all warm and tingly.

We’ve started to spend a lot of time together. He isn’t the most handsome man I’ve ever met; Mark looks much better. Russ’s ears are a bit too big, and his nose is twisted to one side because he broke it playing football in high school. Yet, ever single time I see him I get stars in my eyes. I never ever saw stars when Mark and I were dating.

I’m not rushing into anything, but I believe I’ve finally found the same kind of love that my parents shared, a till death do us part and beyond love. I feel pretty sure my Dad would approve of Russ. Why else would he have sent a perfectly healthy dog to the vet?




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