FROM FRIENDS TO FOREVER
Available July 1, 2009 on eHarlequin.com
They’d forged an unlikely friendship all those summers ago, the New England high school jock and the bookish teenager who didn’t fit in with her Hungarian circus family. Now Lili Szabo’s back in the States for a visit, and Tony Vaccaro's a widower with three young daughters. Heaven knows, he sees in Lili’s serene blue gaze the same generosity and safety he did then…but danger, too, to a lonely, hurting man overwhelme d with trying to keep his family – and sanity – intact.
Perched on a stool in a stifling New England kitchen that was not hers, chopping potatoes into a plastic bowl that not hers, either, Lili Szabo thought, Not exactly how I envisioned my life at this point, orphaned and alone and vulnerable to things like spontaneous invitations to visit American relatives who, with few exceptions, she either didn’t know or barely remembered—
“Are you done yet, sveetheart?” Aunt Magda yelled from across the room, and Lili glared at Self-Pity and said, You. Out. NOW. Finally it shuffled off, grumbling, and Lili smiled for her mother’s older sister.
“Go. Enjoy your party, everything’s under control.”
“In zis house? Nefer!” Magda Vaccaro said, her heavy accent as proudly worn as her sculpted blond hair and theatrical makeup, even though she’d left both Hungary and the circus life behind more than forty years before. Her normal attire ran to tight pants and even tighter tops, but today she dazzled in a mirror-and-sequin-encrusted East Indian dress of tent-like proportions, worn with high-heeled mules and much tinkly jewelry. Next to her flamboyant aunt, Lili felt practically invisible in her white eyelet sundress. But then, most people disappeared next to Magda, who didn’t need a spotlight, she made her own.
Then her Uncle Benny came in, Robert De Niro playing Santa Claus, to filch a sample of whatever Magda was setting out on a platter, stealing a kiss at the same time, and Self-Pity whispered, I’m ba-ack, and Lili sighed, suddenly weary of being the good one. The dependable one.
The cautious one.
“Any sign of Tony yet?” Uncle Benny asked, and Lili’s head snapped up. Of course, in an Italian family, Tony was a common name, he wasn’t necessarily talking about that Tony—
“Not yet,” her aunt said with a sympathetic sigh. “But zen, he hesn’t been on time to anysing since Marissa died. Such a shame.”
Okay, so they were talking about that Tony. Except after all this time it was highly unlikely that Tony still existed, anyway, even if he hadn’t been a recent widower – less than a year, wasn’t it? – or the father of three little girls. What on earth could she possibly have in common with him now?
What did you have common with him then?
There was that, Lili thought, pretending not to watch as Benny swooped down on a laughing Magda to give her another kiss, sending a wink in Lili’s direction as he strode from the room, a man happy in his world. And anyway – Lili slammed the next potato chunk into the bowl – if Tony was this late, maybe he wouldn’t show at all.
Marginally cheered, she stood to upend the potatoes into a pot of boiling water, watching them succumb to their fate, ignoring Self-Pity’s snickering in her ear.
“Do we have to go?”
His hands full of wriggling, giggling two-year-old – geez, it was like dressing an eel – Tony Vaccaro could feel his oldest girl’s frown from ten feet away.
“Yeah, baby, we gotta,” he said, even though putting on the everything’s-fine face wasn’t exactly at the top of his list, either. But nobody turned down an invite to his Aunt Magda’s annual birthday bash. And lived to tell about it. “Besides, it’ll do us good, to get out of this house. To interact with other human beings.” Dress yanked over a little blond head, Tony shoved a hunk of his own damp, too long, not blond hair off his forehead; Josie seized the moment to bounce off the bed. “Besides—” he grabbed the squealing toddler, bouncing her right back “—you got something more pressing on your social schedule? JoJo! Sit still, for cryin’ out loud, lemme get your shoes on—”
“Ohmigod. You can’t let her wear that!”
Tony shut his eyes. Exhaled. Twisted to face the scowl barely masking the still raw pain in Claire’s nearsighted eyes, the same pain that periodically throbbed in his own chest, that her mother had died and there hadn’t been a damn thing he could do about it, that his little girl was still hurting and he couldn’t do a damn thing about that, either.
That there’d been problems between him and Marissa, before she’d gotten sick, that had just laid there like a bleeping grenade between them, ignored until it was too late.
Then he noticed, framed by far too much light brown hair on either side of Claire’s shoulders, the beginnings of a pair of somethings that had not been there yesterday, and his lungs seized.
Put those back, we can’t afford them, hammered inside his head as a tiny person strangled his neck, peppering his cheek with noisy kisses. Got him every damn time, those kisses. Tony looked at his youngest daughter, wrinkling her nose at him.
“What’s wrong with what she’s wearing?” he said.
Grinning, Josephine patted the ivory lace bibbing the red satin dress she’d somehow not only found in her crammed closet, but had demanded to wear as only a two-year-old named after an empress could. “I’m pretty, huh, C’are?”
Claire shoved her blue-steel-rimmed glasses further up on her nose. “Uh, Dad…that’s a Christmas dress?”
“And your point would be?”
“It’s July? She’ll roast. Not to mention she’s gonna get mustard and ketchup and crap all over it.”
“Don’t say c-r-a-p,” Tony said, wearily, finally getting the baby’s butt planted long enough to close the Velcro tabs on her glittery little sneakers – which even he knew didn’t go with the dress – before setting the baby on the bare wood floor. Like a wind-up toy, she chugged over to the toy chest Tony’d just filled to gleefully empty it again. “Especially in front of your baby sister,” he said, dodging Super Grover. “And the dress is gonna be too small by next Christmas, anyway, so what’s the big deal?”
Hands landed on hips, chewed fingernails dotted with her mother’s purple nailpolish. “Who the heck wears a Christmas dress to a backyard barbecue? Like, ohmigod?”
And who the heck was this kid? Swear to God, Tony never knew from one day to the next who was gonna come out of her bedroom door, like she was trying on different personalities to see which fit the best. The grief counselor said the Jekyll and Hyde thing was a coping mechanism. Tony’s money was on early-onset puberty.
“Don’t say ohmigod, you know your mother hated it. But hey, you wanna try getting the baby into something else, go for it. Call Daph, wouldja? We’re late.”
Claire stomped back to the door, bellowed “Daphne! We’re leaving!” then stomped back to Josie’s white dresser with a decided sway to her not-so-little butt that leached the blood from Tony’s face. If she was anything like her cousins, one day the baby fat was reorganize itself into curves and Tony was gonna be a dead man. As was any boy dumb enough to get within fifty feet. “Mama said she bought that dress for me,” she said, more quietly. “So maybe I’d like to save it for my little girl. Or something.”
This had nothing to do with the baby wearing the dress. What this was, was Claire’s wanting to stop her world from spinning out of control. Kid always had freaked out if God forbid they drove a different way to school, or changed a room color, or had spaghetti on Tuesday night instead of the usual Monday. Her mother dying?
Damn miracle she was functioning at all.
Wasn’t like he couldn’t relate, Tony thought as, baby shorts and T-shirt in hand, Claire hooked a zooming Josie around the waist and flung her back on the twin bed she didn’t even sleep in yet. He’d kill for “normal” again. For what he’d had – they’d had – even a few years ago.
“Hey, JoJo, let’s wear these instead—”
“No!” the baby said, arms crossed, matching her sister scowl-for-scowl as she pointed imperiously to the dresser. “Put back! Right now! I wanna wear this!” Then she scrambled off the bed – again – howling in protest as Claire grabbed for her. Again.
Tony’s cell rang. With a grimace at the read-out, he answered it.
“Tony?” his mother-in-law said. “Is that the baby? Is everything all right?”
“Yeah, Susan, everything’s fine. Minor fashion crisis, that’s all. What’s up?”
“Just making sure we’re still taking the girls tomorrow. Although we certainly don’t mind coming for them tonight—” Josie’s caterwauling ratcheted up another decibel or two. “Are you sure everything’s okay?”
“Positive. And forget it, you don’t need to be drivin’ down from Boston that late. I wouldn’t dream of puttin’ you two out like that.”
“You wouldn’t be putting us out, honey, you know that.” When Tony didn’t answer, Marissa’s mother switched tactics. Slightly. “Then…you don’t mind if we keep them Sunday night, too?”
“Nah, of course not. The girls love it there, with the pool and everything. Not to mention you guys spoilin’ them rotten,” he added with a slight smile.
“Just doing our jobs,” Susan said, her faux cheer wilted a bit at the edges. “You know, if we got them tonight, they could attend church with us in the morning, then go someplace nice for lunch—”
“Got it covered,” he said softly.
“We’re only trying to help, Tony,” Susan said, just as softly, and Tony sighed, because they really were. And the kids were crazy about them. Not to mention their two-story colonial in Brookline with the cook and the housekeeper and that pool. And besides him they were the closest family the girls had, Tony’s folks having both died within the past five years and his brothers and sister scattered all over the freaking country—
“Daph!” Claire shrieked as the seven-year-old came pounding into the room. “What on earth were you doing?”
“Gotta go,” Tony mumbled, cutting off Susan’s “Tony…?” His phone clapped shut, he slowly faced the child who looked most like him, with her dark jumble of curls and deep brown eyes.
Deep brown don’t look at the mess, look at the cute eyes.
“Daph, for God’s sake—”
“I was watering the ‘matoes an’ Ed got in the way of the hose, an’ then he ran through the mud where I’d just watered, an’ then he rolled in it…” The eyes lowered to the mud-splattered devastation from the chin down, then lifted again. “An’ then he shook.”
Ed, their affable, terminally clueless boxer/shepherd mix – their weirdly clean boxer/shepherd mix, having efficiently transferred ninety percent of the mud to the child – grinned up at him, panting.
“So I see.”
Her contrite smile punching dimples in round cheeks, Daphne held out grubby hands bearing a stack of smudged envelopes and catalogs. “Mail came.”
“Thanks,” Tony muttered as he took it, refusing to dwell on the muddy footprints Daph would have left in her trek to get the mail. Halfheartedly, he riffled through the usual assortment of bills, credit card offers and Don’t Let This Be Your Last Catalog! warnings from Marissa’s favorite mail order companies, frowning when he came to the slightly damp, oversize envelope from their lawyer—
“You want me to change?”
“What?” Tony glanced at the walking, cute-as-all-hell mudslide in front of him. “Uh, yeah, sweetie. But hurry, we’re sposedta be there by five.”
“Won’t take but a sec,” Daphne said, bounding down the hall to her room, as Tony clamped the rest of the mail under his arm to tear open the envelope from the lawyer. Inside was a short note on Phil’s letterhead, wrapped around another sealed envelope…addressed to him in Rissa’s handwriting.
“Tony,” he silently read over the loud rushing in his ears, “I have no idea what this is about, but Rissa asked me to send it to you when she’d been gone at least six months. I know it’s been more like nine, but frankly, I forgot about it until now. If you need me for anything, let me know. Phil.”
What I need, is a new lawyer, Tony thought, turning to Claire, who’d apparently – since the baby was still a vision in satin and lace – given up the good fight. “Let me dump this stuff on my desk, then we can get outta here, okay?”
Except he’d barely reached the small bedroom office at the end of the hall before he ripped open the second envelope and skimmed the letter.
“…I’m so sorry, and I know this is taking the chicken’s way out, but I just couldn’t figure out a good time to tell you…”
“Dad? You okay?”
The letter clutched in his hand, Tony wheeled on a frowning Claire, standing in the hall with the baby perched on her hip.
“Sure. Fine.” Swallowing back the howl lodged at the base of his throat, he crossed to the battle-scarred Melamine desk to stash the letter in the top drawer, then fumbled for the SuperDad switch in his brain before turning back, game face firmly in place. “You guys all ready to go?”
“You sound funny—”
“Somethin’ caught in my throat,” Tony pushed out, thinking…nine months ago? He thought he’d been through hell.
Turns out he’d barely gotten through the front door.
Fine. If Dad wanted to pretend everything was cool, Claire could, too. Except she knew when he was faking being okay and when he was really okay. Not that he’d been really okay since Mom died, but she knew he was trying his best. For their sakes. Because kids weren’t supposed to be sad, or something lame like that. Whatever.
Then he said they were gonna walk the six blocks to Aunt Magda’s and Uncle Benny’s, and she heard herself say, “Are you kidding me? You want us to die of sunstroke or what?”
“You’ve all got hats,” Dad said, sounding mostly normal again as he struggled to get the Empress – that’s what they sometimes called JoJo, on account of her being named after some dude’s wife two centuries ago – into her stroller. “I think you’ll survive six blocks. Think of it as being ecologically responsible.”
“Or cheap,” Claire grumbled with a longing look over her shoulder at their old Volvo wagon, sitting in the driveway. One fist wrapped around onto the stroller handle, Dad tugged a receipt out of his jeans pocket and handed it over.
“That’s how much it cost me to gas up the car yesterday.”
“Don’t—” He sighed. “Yeah.”
Then it occurred to Claire maybe she should cut Dad some slack, since this obviously wasn’t one of his better days. “C’n I push?” she asked, reaching for the stroller. Yeah, Josie could be a pain in the butt, but she could be really cute and lovey and stuff, too. And Claire tried to help out with her little sisters as much as possible, so Dad wouldn’t feel like he had to do everything. Especially since she’d overheard Nana and Gramps talking about how it would be so much easier on Dad if Claire and her sisters came to live with them. She loved her grandparents and all, but…no.
“Go for it,” Dad said, moving over so Claire could take the stroller.
“The walk will do us good,” she said, feeling all tingly inside when Dad’s hand landed on the back of her head. She looked up at him, smiling, letting out a little breath of relief when he smiled back. Even if it was the kind of smile that made Claire’s insides hurt. Basically Dad was pretty cool, if a little crazy sometimes, although they didn’t see the crazy so much now. As awful as Claire’d felt when Mom died? She knew it’d hurt Dad a hundred million times more.
Which is why she couldn’t tell Dad about how she’d found Mom crying one day, before they knew she was sick. Mom made her swear to never say anything to Dad, or anybody else, that it was a secret.
Claire didn’t much like keeping secrets – they always made her feel like when you want to throw up but you can’t because you’re in school or church or someplace. But Mom said it would only upset Dad, if he found out, so Claire said okay. And Claire never, ever broke her promises.
Even ones she was sorry she’d made.
Daphne’s hot – but clean – hand in Tony’s, they walked the six blocks underneath a bleached sky, the hot, sticky silence broken only by the stroller’s bumping over the cracks in the old sidewalk and Josie’s babbling. Not a leaf stirred in the sycamore trees fronting the sturdy New England Victorians, erected a century ago when families were huge and building materials cheap. The early summer humidity clung to everything like plastic wrap; Marissa hated this weather, the way her hair would always corkscrew into a tangled, frizzy mess—
The memory slashed through Tony like a rusty knife, reopening still-infected wounds, now rancid with disbelief and shock. His pace slowed when his aunt’s and uncle’s house loomed into view a half block ahead. How could he do this, go to some party and pretend like everything was fine when his guts were bleeding all over the damn place? But what choice did he have? Especially since turning back would mean facing a barrage of questions from Little Miss Never-Miss-a-Thing pushing the stroller.
So he’d do the playacting thing for a couple hours. At least the kids would get fed. One less thing to worry about, he thought as they approached the old brick foursquare where Benny and Magda had raised six kids.
Uncle Benny opened the door, immediately pulling Tony into a brief, but deadly, bear hug as a stiff-legged Golden Retriever and a cottonball toy poodle eagerly rushed the kids, woofing and yipping and wriggling and licking. From every corner of the house, laughter taunted him.
“You made it,” Benny said, clapping Tony on the back before Tony squatted to spring Josie from her stroller while the other girls hovered nearby. “We were beginning to think you wouldn’t show. Aww…gimme the little cutie,” he said, holding out his arms to Josie, who clung more tightly to Tony, shaking her head. His uncle laughed, not in the least offended.
Instead he grinned at the girls. “God, you two are getting’ so big! Unbelievable, huh? Hey – most of your cousins are upstairs. Even Stacey,” he said to Claire. “You should go on up.”
Daphne the Invincible was gone in a flash, but Claire hung back, forehead creased, eyes worried, obviously picking up on stuff Tony did not want her picking up on. Now or ever. Looping an arm around her shoulders, Tony wondered how soon they could leave. “Stace is here? So Rudy and them came down?”
“Just for the day, they had to find somebody to watch the inn for them.” Benny smiled for Claire. “Stace was askin’ about you, wonderin’ if you’d be here.”
Claire’s eyes shifted to Tony’s, torn. “Go,” Tony said with a little smile. And a not-so-little push. Because if he had a hope in hell of getting through the next couple of hours, he had to stay out of range of that all-too-knowing look.
“Hey, Tone,” Benny asked as Claire finally trudged off. “You okay?”
“Yeah, sure, I’m fine—”
His head jerked up, toward a voice he hadn’t heard in a thousand years and a pair of blue eyes as laser sharp as he remembered, and before he could catch his breath Josie wriggled to get down, then ran over to this woman she’d never seen in her life. Her arms wrapped around Lili Szabo’s knees, she looked up at her adoringly, and Tony felt like somebody’d just shoved him off a damn cliff.
Copyright 2009, Karen Templeton-Berger. All rights reserved.