As the gentle slivers of sunshine tickled her face, offering a gift in the form of a new day, Martha Cummings slowly shifted her body to an upright position. Frowning, she stared at the slatted blinds, considering alternatives. If she immediately replaced these blinds with darkening shades, she could stave off the early morning encroachment of light, delaying each day’s onslaught.
But then she shook her head, deliberately forcing her feet onto the softly piled carpet, and pulled her silk robe around her slender body. No! As much as she dreaded each new day, she refused to capitulate to the forces of depression that hovered on the edge of her awareness. Hadn’t she always been able to regain control in every situation? And didn’t she still present a competent outward image to clients in her interior design business? And to her friends, hadn’t she retained her role as domestic goddess and hostess extraordinaire?
Of course, maintaining her self-control had come with a price.
She’d consistently stuffed down her feelings of rage, inadequacy, and sheer, unadulterated fear, even while maintaining that semblance of normalcy in every action she took. By now, she’d come to an uneasy truce with the hand she’d been dealt. In the beginning, she’d just known that her husband of more than a decade would come back to her.
Hadn’t he always come back before?
His affair with the tumultuous Amber Cushing had been an on-again, off-again rollercoaster ride for more than three years before Hal had taken that final step…Divorce.
One thing or another had usually drawn the two illicit lovers together after each volatile explosion, but in the end, Martha had firmly believed that her own persistent devotion would win out. When all else failed, Hal would come home, and the two of them would pick up the threads of their worn, but familiar lives. And go on.
But not this last time. Maybe because of Amber’s near-death experience, or perhaps Hal had finally learned of all Martha’s betrayals in the name of love. Her manipulations and even her secrets and lies might have dealt the crushing blows to their fragile connection.
Only Hal himself could know for sure what had finally tipped the scales in favor of his mistress. But by now, it was a completely done deal. Hal and his little paramour had been married in September, just three short months ago. And that particular piece of finality couldn’t be wished away!
Hence, the daily cloud of gloom that threatened to catapult her into the depths of despair.
But old habits die hard and Martha laboriously put one foot in front of the other, progressing slowly but surely toward completion of each necessary task. First, the hot, punishing forces of her shower massage, awakening muscles and relaxing the stress buildup.
Then, downstairs to present a warm, welcoming face for her nine-year-old daughter Meadow, who had her own demons and needed constant reassurance.
Meadow’s nightmares had triggered a resurgence of Martha’s barely suppressed anger, and as she comforted the child in the middle of the night, she imagined herself with the ability to shoot darts of hatred and recrimination in Hal’s direction. She even smiled sometimes as she conjured up fantasies in which her poisoned darts of rage seared through her ex-husband, toppling the perfect world he’d created with Amber.
Now as Martha scrambled eggs and buttered toast for her daughter, she surreptitiously studied Meadow for any new signs of trauma. Meadow’s placid, porcelain-like face intersected by that upturned mouth spoke of a normal morning with no hint of further symptoms. Martha sighed and breathed more easily. Maybe they had inched forward, just slightly, toward putting their loss behind them.
“How are you feeling today, Meadow? Isn’t today the day you visit your friend Chloe for that play date?”
Meadow nodded, chewing her toast slowly, but keeping one eye on the TV where the morning cartoons danced cheerily across the screen. Then, as an afterthought, she smiled at her mother, all the way from her eyes down to her lips. Compliance had become second nature to her after all these years of living with her mother’s focus on maintaining a pleasant façade. She knew better than to rock the boat.
And many years ago, Martha had decided not to insist that Meadow keep the TV off during meals.
Nevertheless, a niggling doubt crept toward awareness, as Martha thought about all those articles she’d read over the years. The ones that preached family communication during meals.
But, let them try to single-handedly run a household, and see if they keep up with that old tune!
Sipping her cup of coffee while she quickly restored order to the kitchen, Martha mentally planned her day. She had learned a very long time ago that the enemy of peace and contentment hid under a cloak of torpor. Taking active steps toward her goals, no matter how small or insignificant, served as her very best defense against depression. Depression wore the face of the enemy and hinted at failure. Martha could not afford to fail!
Sighing as the carpool mother drove away with Meadow in tow, Martha felt she could finally relax, confident that she had carefully maintained control while seeing her daughter off to a new and productive day. Maintaining a façade for Meadow’s benefit certainly took its toll!
Hastening up the stairs to her home office, Martha felt inexplicably drawn toward this latest project she’d chosen. As she opened her file of sketches and preliminary projections and booted up her computer, she reflected for a few moments, envisioning the finished product.
And as always, she felt grateful for the challenges of her work. And for the financial settlement that had eased some of her stress after the divorce! Certainly, Hal had been more than generous. Of course, she felt sure that guilt had driven that particular decision.
Nevertheless, she felt a glimmer of satisfaction whenever she reviewed her financial portfolio. She could spend more time with Meadow and could cut back on her own business.
So her decision to sign on this last client had taken her by surprise.
Recalling the first day they’d met, over drinks in a nearby restaurant, Martha still felt the flush of intensity passing between them as they’d toasted their joint venture. Had that been an actual physical attraction, or had she imagined it? A novice when it came to sexual chemistry, Martha blushed now at the memory of that first meeting and of the emotionally charged meetings that had happened in subsequent weeks. What is happening to me?
Suppressing the feelings, Martha scrolled through her e-mails, reading each one carefully and replying to the most urgent messages. Finally, feeling slightly edgy, she closed her Internet connection and reopened the file folder. But hovering near the edge of the visual representations stood the ever-present fantasy image of her client, Zachary Lowenstein. She could almost feel his presence, with those intensely black eyes, that square jaw intersected with a slightly amusing smile, all framed so perfectly by the disheveled dark hair. And he was single!
She’d estimated his age from his appearance at that first meeting, but had recently recalculated, realizing that despite his financial successes and business accomplishments, his actual age had to be adjusted downward. She’d finally discovered this last detail a few weeks later. And had blushed at her own designs on this obviously much-younger man. Well, actually, only about ten years younger, but certainly totally unsuitable!
Unsuitable for what? She asked herself now, with some amusement. And anyway, all of her mental meandering had been just that…Fantasy exercises designed to alter her own unpleasant realities, offering an imaginary life when her everyday one fell short of the mark.
Putting the fantasies on hold, Martha concentrated on the final stage of Zach’s project.
They met in Zach’s downtown condo a week later, going over the final plans, including the delivery of the furnishings they’d selected together. His style choices leaned toward the minimalistic, while Martha’s personal preferences included collectibles and lots of chintz on big overstuffed furniture. But Martha enjoyed their differences, relishing in her visualization of this very masculine space. She had poured her soul into these designs. Not that she didn’t always completely absorb herself in a project, but with Zach’s, everything seemed different somehow.
She heard herself describing the details to Zach, as if from a distance; while her lips opened and closed almost mechanically with each phrasing, she felt the heat of desire suffusing her body. Whew! I’ve got to finish this job and move on! What’s happening to me?
Suddenly aware of a chasm of silence between them, she met Zach’s quizzical gaze and realized that he had spoken. Embarrassed and flustered, she tried to regain her composure. “I’m sorry, Zach, my mind wandered for a minute. What did you say?”
Grinning, he repeated his invitation. “Want to join me for dinner tonight?”
She almost refused, but then thought that might seem odd. So she agreed, stifling the urge to project more into this. After all, it would be a simple business dinner!
She followed in her car and pulled up next to him in the parking lot.
He had chosen a little bistro a few blocks away, and as the hostess seated them in the secluded table, she wondered if all of this had been prearranged. Then chastising herself for even imagining such a thing, Martha hid her face, now red with heat, behind the menu. After all, if he set this up in advance, wouldn’t that imply that he has designs on me? And isn’t that a ridiculous thought!
“Are you okay?” Zach peered behind the menu now effectively shrouding her face, his dark eyes dancing with amusement.
Oh, my God! This is all a big game to him! Martha struggled for the poise that seemed to have deserted her. Finding something resembling her usual casual ease, she murmured softly.
“Everything’s fine. I really like this place,” she added, glancing around the room, noticing for the first time that all the other tables seemed full. Maybe it was sheer accident after all, finding themselves stuck over here in what seemed to be a clandestine setting. Now blushing even more for fantasizing about Zach’s motives, she slid down in her chair, hoping that her every thought and feeling weren’t plastered all over her face.
“Marty,” he began again, casually using the nickname that she hadn’t heard in the longest time, and triggering memories of a distant past when someone had called her that. She could visualize that younger version of herself, strolling along the beach, holding Hal’s hand.
Abruptly brought back to the present by Zach’s voice, she startled slightly as he continued.
“I’m sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable in any way.” Suddenly serious, he fastened his gaze upon her.
Was this a game, too? “It’s all right,” she insisted. “I’m afraid that this….” She waved her arms around the room, as if to embrace the intimate lighting, the ambience, and finally, their secluded setting. “It’s all very lovely, and it’s just been a long time since I’ve enjoyed such a treat. I’m afraid my life has been all business for awhile now, and this just reminded me that there is life after work.” She hoped her tone and words belied the shakiness of her insides, and that her face didn’t reveal how much this whole thing meant to her.
“Well, if that’s true , then you’re long overdue!” Gesturing for the waiter, he placed their orders, and then requested a bottle of very nice, very old wine.
Impressed, Martha suddenly decided to just enjoy this little moment in time. Later, she could take the memory out and treasure it, reminding herself that sensuality and beauty still existed in the world. Even for Martha Cummings, rejected wife and lover.
Then, over the next couple of hours, she sat back, watching him orchestrate the most lovely, ambient evening she’d experienced in a long while, from the wine on through each course and finally, topping it all off with that decadent dessert!
As they finished the last bite and sipped the final drop of brandy, they heard the music softly emanating from the nearby lounge. Their eyes met, and by unspoken agreement, they rose together, meandering slowly between the other tables until, almost magically, they found themselves on the dance floor. And like everything else about him and this perfect evening, their dancing seemed light and airy, as if their feet had sprouted wings.
Finally the evening wound down and, regretfully, they walked to the parking lot.
He stood next to her as she unlocked her car door, and then, when she turned to him, opening her lips to say something socially correct, he covered her lips with his. She melted.
Her body seemed to move imperceptibly into his embrace and her curves connected with his musculature. I’m not imagining any of this! He really feels the passion, just as much as I do!
She drew back slightly, then, as if jolted into reality. Smiling apologetically, she murmured something about responsibilities awaiting her at home. She quickly slid into the driver’s seat of her car, glancing coyly up at him, and hoping she hadn’t totally messed up this project with her insane loss of control. What was I thinking?
He just stood there, watching her drive away, with that mysterious grin on his face.
Cursing herself under her breath, Martha drove home carefully, suddenly aware of how light-headed she felt. Too much wine and brandy!
Relief coursed through her body when she finally pulled into her garage, and as the automatic door closed smoothly behind her, she sat quietly in the car for several minutes.
Regaining some semblance of control, she entered the kitchen through the garage door and brusquely tossed her keys in the wooden bowl on the counter, while glancing around furtively.
“Hi, Mrs. Cummings,” a voice called out from the family room. Julie Powell, the teenager from next door, approached with a cheery smile on her face, to fill Martha in on Meadow’s evening activities.
A few minutes later, Julie left and Martha headed up the stairs. Alone to dream.
She didn’t see Zach again until their final walk-through on the finished project.
They met at the condo again, and maintaining her professional demeanor, she ushered him through the rooms, pointing out each detail and staying just far enough ahead of him to avoid intimate contact. When they reached the bedroom, though, she had difficulty hiding the nervous tremor that now filled her voice, and even as she fought the shakiness, she struggled to stay calm and focused. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, he was at her elbow, gently guiding her forward to the bed.
“And now, for the final test,” he whispered softly in her ear. And then, as he gently lowered her onto the down-filled comforter, he admired the way her golden curls spread out around her face, now flushed with desire. He leaned in and kissed her, just as he had on that night a few weeks ago. Only this time, she didn’t resist.
Caught up in the heat of the moment, Martha responded; and minutes later, their bare bodies entwined, she felt the glow of satisfaction, coupled with a small tremor of guilt. She had lost control! And not just with anybody, either, but with a client. But forcing away the self-recriminations, she sighed, giving in to the body tingling pleasure.
Afterwards, they tried out the bathroom, with its luxurious tub; then, dressed in fluffy toweling robes, they sauntered out to the terrace, where they sat at the little bistro table. And there they enjoyed the repast that Zach had served up. Wine and cheese on a beautifully handpainted tray, with a sampling of fruits on the side.
“So, am I to conclude that you approve of my designs?” She asked innocently, while she fed him a grape, barely suppressing the grin that lurked behind her smooth façade.
“Oh, definitely. I would say that your designs are superb! In fact, I have other designs I would like to propose, as well,” he added flirtatiously, aiming a tidbit of cheese toward her lips.
Martha spent the whole afternoon and evening at Zach’s, christening each and every room with him, until finally, when she packed up her briefcase and sketch pads and slipped back into her business suit, she bore little resemblance to the woman who had appeared here hours before.
She sang along with the CD player all the way home.
Next day, she woke up, humming a little tune as she hurried through her morning routines. And much later, when the phone rang, with his voice seductively whispering another invitation in her ear, she heard herself agreeing.
Her life now shaped itself around their meetings.
And she smiled a lot. As she walked through the aisles at the supermarket, or drove the carpool with Meadow’s little friends, she felt like a whole new person. She saw everything through new eyes, even the most routine tasks.
Could this be love?
She turned down new assignments, keeping her spare time open for Zach. On the weekend, he invited her to his beach house. She left Meadow with her parents, promising to return with many treats.
They walked on the beach every night, luxuriating in the wet sand between their toes.
They embraced in the moonlight with the sound of the waves crashing on the shore and held each other tightly, as if there were no tomorrow. Or even a yesterday.
They sipped wine or champagne every evening, making love in front of a roaring fire as the dusk slid down around them. They hid themselves away from everything and everyone else, as if the intrusion of others into their magical world posed some kind of threat.
Nothing this perfect can go on indefinitely, she told herself, even as she prayed that it would.
Later, much later, Martha looked back on this very brief interlude in her life -- her life after Hal -- and realized that its very dreamlike quality had rendered it magical. She’d floated through the days and nights with Zach, imbuing them with special effects, almost as if she were directing a movie. She could envision where she thought the plot must go and what each player should do at each point.
When it was over, because it had simply run its course, she felt stunned at first. As if someone had tricked her, or as if the actors had betrayed her.
But then, at long last, she reached a point where she could truly look back on it with some perspective, examining it through the lens of reality. She saw that she, Martha Cummings, had taken a risk and stepped out of her prescribed roles for awhile, and in doing so, had learned that she had the capacity to begin again. She could design a new life for herself, choosing the pattern of her days.
And she could love again.