It was six o'clock on Valentine's Day, an hour that should have marked the beginning of a celebration ––– the way it had when she and Robert were married. When Robert was alive. But tonight, on the most romantic day of the year, thirty-eight-year-old Anne Marie Roche was alone. Turning over the closed sign on the door of Blossom Street Books, she glanced at the Valentine's display with its cutout hearts and pink balloons and the collection of romance novels she didn't read anymore. Then she looked outside. Streetlights flickered on as evening settled over the Seattle neighborhood.
The truth was, Anne Marie hated her life. Well, okay, hate was putting it too strongly. After all, she was healthy, reasonably young and reasonably attractive, financially solvent, and she owned the most popular bookstore in the area. But she didn't have anyone to love, anyone who loved her. She was no longer part of something larger than herself. Every morning when she woke, she found the other side of the bed empty and she didn't think she'd ever get accustomed to that desolate feeling.
Her husband had died nine months ago. So, technically, she was a widow, although she and Robert had been separated. But they saw each other regularly and were working on a reconciliation.
Then, suddenly, it was all over, all hope gone. Just when they were on the verge of reuniting, her husband had a massive heart attack. He'd collapsed at the office and died even before the paramedics could arrive.
Anne Marie's mother had warned her about the risks of marrying an older man, but fifteen years wasn't that much older. Robert, charismatic and handsome, had been in his mid-forties when they met. They'd been happy together, well matched in every way but one.
Anne Marie wanted a baby.
He'd had a family ––– two children ––– with his first wife, Pamela, and wasn't interested in starting a second one. When she'd married him, Anne Marie had agreed to his stipulation. At the time it hadn't seemed important. She was madly in love with Robert ––– and then two years ago it hit her. This longing, this need for a baby, grew more and more intense, and Robert's refusal became more adamant. His solution had been to buy her a dog she'd named Baxter. Much as she loved her Yorkie, her feelings hadn't changed. She'd still wanted a baby.
The situation wasn't helped by Melissa, Robert's twenty-four-year-old daughter, who disliked Anne Marie and always had. Over the years Anne Marie had made many attempts to ease the tension between them, all of which failed. Fortunately she had a good relationship with Brandon, Robert's son, who was five years older than his sister.
When problems arose in Anne Marie and Robert's marriage, Melissa hadn't been able to disguise her glee. Her stepdaughter seemed absolutely delighted when Robert moved out the autumn before last, seven months before his death.
Anne Marie didn't know what she'd done to warrant such passionate loathing, other than to fall in love with Melissa's father. She supposed the girl's ardent hope that her parents would one day remarry was responsible for her bitterness. Every child wanted his or her family intact. And Melissa was a young teen when Anne Marie married Robert ––– a hard age made harder by the family's circumstances. Anne Marie didn't blame Robert's daughter, but his marriage to Pamela had been dead long before she entered the picture. Still, try as she might, Anne Marie had never been able to find common ground with Melissa. In fact, she hadn't heard from her since the funeral.
Anne Marie opened the shop door as Elise Beaumont approached. Elise's husband, Maverick, had recently passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. In her mid-sixties, she was a retired librarian who'd reconnected with her husband after nearly thirty years apart, only to lose him again after less than three. She was a slight, gray-haired woman who'd become almost gaunt, but the sternness of her features was softened by the sadness in her eyes. A frequent patron of the bookstore, she and Anne Marie had become friends during the months of Maverick's decline. In many ways his death was a release, yet Anne Marie understood how difficult it was to let go of someone you loved.
"I was hoping you'd come," Anne Marie told her with a quick hug. She'd closed the store two hours early, giving Steve Handley, her usual Thursday-night assistant, a free evening for his own Valentine celebration.
Elise slipped off her coat and draped it over the back of an overstuffed chair. "I didn't think I would and then I decided that being with the other widows was exactly what I needed tonight."
They'd met in a book group Anne Marie had organized at the store. After Robert died, she'd suggested reading Lolly Winston's Good Grief, a novel about a young woman adjusting to widowhood. It was through the group that Anne Marie had met Lillie Higgins and Barbie Foster. Colette Blake had joined, too. She'd been a widow who'd rented the apartment above A Good Yarn, Lydia Goetz's yarn store. Colette had married again the previous year.
Although the larger group had read and discussed other books, the widows had gravitated together and begun to meet on their own. Their sessions were often informal gatherings over coffee at the nearby French Cafe or a glass of wine upstairs at Anne Marie's.
Lillie and Barbie were a unique pair of widows, mother and daughter. They'd lost their husbands in a private plane crash three years earlier. Anne Marie remembered reading about the Learjet incident in the paper; both pilots and their two passengers had been killed in a freak accident on landing in Seattle. Lillie's husband and son-in-law were executives at a perfume company and often took business trips together.
Lillie Higgins was close to Elise's age, but that was all they shared. Actually, it was difficult to tell exactly how old Lillie was. She looked barely fifty, but with a forty-year-old daughter, she had to be in her mid-sixties. Petite and delicate, she was one of those rare women who never seemed to age. Her wardrobe consisted of ultra-expensive knits and gold jewelry. Anne Marie had the impression that if Lillie wanted, she could purchase this bookstore ten times over.
Her daughter, Barbie Foster, was a lot like her mother and aptly named, at least as far as appearances went. She had long blond hair that never seemed to get mussed, gorgeous crystal-blue eyes, a flawless figure. It was hard to believe she had eighteen-year-old twin sons who were college freshmen; Anne Marie would bet that most people assumed she was their sister rather than their mother. If Anne Marie didn't like Barbie so much, it would be easy to resent her for being so . . . perfect.
"Thanks for closing early tonight. I'd much rather be here than spend another evening alone," Elise said, breaking into Anne Marie's thoughts.
There was that word again.
Despite her own misgivings about Valentine's Day, Anne Marie tried to smile. She gestured toward the rear of the store. "I've got the bubble wrap and everything set up in the back room."
The previous month, as they discussed an Elizabeth Buchan novel, the subject of Valentine's Day had come up. Anne Marie learned from her friends that this was perhaps the most painful holiday for widows. That was when their small group decided to plan their own celebration. Only instead of romantic love and marriage, they'd celebrate friendship. They'd defy the world's pitying glances and toast each other's past loves and future hopes.
Elise managed a quivering smile as she peered into the back of the store. "Bubble wrap?"
"I have tons," Anne Marie informed her. "You can't imagine how many shippers use it."
"But why is it on the floor?"
"Well..." It seemed silly now that Anne Marie was trying to explain. "I always have this insatiable urge to pop it, so I thought we could do it together ––– by walking on it."
"You want us to step on bubble wrap?" Elise asked, sounding confused.
"Think of it as our own Valentine's dance and fireworks in one."
"But fireworks are for Independence Day or maybe New Year's."
"That's the point," Anne Marie said bracingly. "New beginnings."
"And we'll drink champagne, too?"
"You bet. I've got a couple bottles of the real stuff, Veuve Clicquot."
"Veuve means widow, you know. The widow Clicquot's bubbly ––– what else could we possibly drink?"
The door opened, and Lillie and Barbie entered in a cloud of some elegant scent. As soon as they were inside, Anne Marie locked the shop.
"Party time," Lillie said, handing Anne Marie a white box filled with pastries.
"I brought chocolate," Barbie announced, holding up a box of dark Belgian chocolates. She wore a red pantsuit with a wide black belt that emphasized her petite waist. Was there no justice in this world? The woman had the figure of a goddess and she ate chocolate?
"I read that dark chocolate and red wine have all kinds of natural benefits," Elise said.
Anne Marie had read that, too.
Lillie shook her head in mock astonishment. "First wine and now chocolate. Life is good."
Leading the way to the back room, Anne Marie dimmed the lights in the front of the shop. Beside the champagne and flutes, she'd arranged a crystal vase of red roses; they'd been a gift from Susannah's Garden, the flower shop next door. All the retailers on Blossom Street were friends. Hearing about the small party, Alix Turner from the French Cafe had dropped off a tray of cheese, crackers and seedless green grapes, which Anne Marie had placed on her work table, now covered with a lacy cloth. Lydia had insisted they use it for their celebration. It was so beautiful it reawakened Anne Marie's desire to learn to knit.
She wished she could see her friends' gifts as more than expressions of sympathy, but her state of mind made that impossible. Still, because of the other widows, for their sake as well as her own, she was determined to try.
"This is going to be fun," Elise said, telling them why Anne Marie had spread out the bubble wrap.
"What a wonderful idea!" Barbie exclaimed.
"Shall I pour?" Anne Marie asked, ignoring the sense of oppression she couldn't seem to escape. It had been present for months and she'd thought life would be better by now. Perhaps she needed counseling. One thing was certain; she needed something.
"By all means," Lillie said, motioning toward the champagne.
Anne Marie opened the bottle and filled the four glasses and then they toasted one another, clicking the rims of the flutes.
"To love," Elise said. "To Maverick." Her voice broke.
"To chocolate!" Barbie made a silly face, perhaps to draw attention away from Elise's tears.
"And the Widow's champagne," Lillie threw in.
Anne Marie remained silent.
Although it'd been nine months, her grief didn't seem to diminish or become any easier to bear. She worked too much, ate too little and grieved for all the might-have-beens. It was more than the fact that the man she'd loved was dead. With his death, she was forced to give up the dream of all she'd hoped her marriage would be. A true companionship ––– and the foundation of a family. Even if she were to fall in love again, which seemed unlikely, a pregnancy past the age of forty was risky. The dream of having her own child had died with Robert.
The four sipped their champagne in silence, each caught up in her own memories. Anne Marie saw the sorrow on Elise's face, the contemplative look on Lillie's, Barbie's half smile.
"Will we be removing our shoes in order to pop the bubble wrap?" Lillie asked a moment later.
"Mom has this thing about walking around in stocking feet," Barbie said, glancing at her mother. "She doesn't approve."
"It just wasn't done in our household," Lillie murmured.
"There's no reason to take our shoes off," Anne Marie said. "The whole idea is to have fun. Make a bit of noise, celebrate our friendship and our memories."
"Then I say, let 'er rip," Elise said. She raised her sensibly shod foot and stomped on a bubble. A popping sound exploded in the room.
Barbie went next, her step firm. Her high heels effectively demolished a series of bubbles.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
Lillie followed. Her movements were tentative, almost apologetic.
Anne Marie went last. It felt . . . good. Really good, and the noise only added to the unexpected sense of fun and exhilaration. For the first time since the party had begun, she smiled.
By then they were all flushed with excitement and champagne. The others were laughing giddily; Anne Marie couldn't quite manage that but she could almost laugh. The ability to express joy had left her when Robert died. That wasn't all she'd lost. She used to sing, freely and without self-consciousness. But after Robert's funeral Anne Marie discovered she couldn't sing anymore. She just couldn't. Her throat closed up whenever she tried. What came out were strangled sounds that barely resembled music, and after a while she gave up. It'd been months since she'd even attempted a song.
The popping continued as they paraded around on the bubble wrap, pausing now and then to sip champagne. They marched with all the pomp and ceremony of soldiers in procession, saluting one another with their champagne flutes.
Thanks to her friends, Anne Marie found that her mood had begun to lift.
Soon all the bubbles were popped. Bringing their champagne, they sat in the chairs where the reader groups met and toasted each other again in the dimly lit store.
Leaning back, Anne Marie tried to relax. Despite her earlier laughter, despite spending this evening with friends, her eyes filled with tears. She blinked them away, but new tears came, and it wasn't long before Barbie noticed. Her friend placed a reassuring hand on Anne Marie's knee.
"Does it ever hurt any less?" Anne Marie asked. Searching for a tissue in her hip pocket, she blotted her eyes. She hated breaking down like this. She wanted to explain that she'd never been a weepy or sentimental woman. All her emotions had become more intense since Robert's death.
Lillie and Barbie exchanged knowing looks. They'd been widows the longest.
"It does," Lillie promised her, growing serious, too. "But it takes time."
"I feel so alone."
"That's to be expected," Barbie said, passing her the box of chocolates. "Here, have another one. You'll feel better."
"That's what my grandmother used to say," Elise added. "Eat, and everything will seem better."
"Mine always said I'd be good as new if I did something for someone else," Lillie said. "Grams swore that showing kindness to others was the cure for any kind of unhappiness."
"Exercise helps, too," Barbie put in. "I spent many, many hours at the gym."
"Can't I just buy something?" Anne Marie asked plaintively, and hiccupped a laugh as she made the suggestion.
The others smiled.
"I wish it was that easy," Elise said in a solemn voice.
Anne Marie's appetite had been nonexistent for months and she didn't really enjoy going to a gym ––– walking nowhere on a treadmill seemed rather pointless to her. She didn't feel like doing volunteer work, either, at least not right now ––– although helping another person might get her past this slump, this interval of self-absorption.
"We're all looking for a quick fix, aren't we?" Barbie said quietly.
"Maybe." Lillie settled back in her chair. "Of these different options, the one I could really sink my teeth into is buying something."
"So could I," Barbie said with a laugh.
"I realize you're joking ––– well, partly ––– but material things won't help," Elise cautioned, bringing them all back to reality. "Any relief a spending spree offers is bound to be temporary."
As tempting as the idea of buying herself a gift might be, Anne Marie supposed she was right.
"We all need to take care of ourselves physically. Eat right. Exercise," Elise said thoughtfully. "It's important we get our finances in order, too."
"I couldn't agree with you more on that," Lillie said.
"Let's make a list of our suggestions," Elise went on. Reaching for her purse, she took out a small spiral notebook.
"If I'm going to make a list," Lillie piped up, "it won't be about eating cauliflower and going jogging. Instead, I'd plan to do some of the things I've put off for years."
"Such as?" Anne Marie asked.
"Oh, something fun," Lillie said, "like traveling to Paris."
Anne Marie felt as if a bolt of lightning had struck her. When they were first married, Robert had promised her that one day he'd take her to Paris. They talked about it frequently, discussing every aspect of their trip to the City of Light. The museums they'd visit, the places they'd walk, the meals they'd eat . . .
"I want to go to Paris with someone I love," she whispered.
"I want to fall in love again," Barbie said decisively. "Head over heels in love like I was before. A love that'll change my life."
They all grew quiet for a long moment, considering her words.
Anne Marie couldn't believe Barbie would lack for male companionship. They'd never discussed the subject, but she was surprised that a woman as attractive as Barbie didn't have her choice of men. Maybe she did. Maybe she simply had high standards. If so, Anne Marie couldn't blame her.
"We all want to be loved," Lillie said. "It's a basic human need."
"I had love," Elise told them, her voice hoarse with pain. "I don't expect to find that kind of love again."
"I had it, too," Barbie said.
Another hush fell over them.
"Making a list is a good idea," Elise stated emphatically. "A list of things to do."
Anne Marie nodded, fingering one of the suspended Valentine's decorations as she did. The idea had caught her interest. She needed to revive her enthusiasm. She needed to find inspiration and motivation ––– and a list might just do that. She was a list-maker anyway, but this would be different. It wouldn't be the usual catalog of appointments and everyday obligations.
"Personally I don't need another to-do list," Lillie murmured, echoing Anne Marie's thought. "I have enough of those already."
"This wouldn't be like that," Anne Marie responded, glancing at Elise for verification. "This would be a . . . an inventory of wishes," she said, thinking out loud. She recognized that there were plenty of shoulds involved in widowhood; her friends were right about that. She did need to get her financial affairs in order and pay attention to her health.
"Twenty wishes," she said suddenly.
"Why twenty?" Elise asked, leaning forward, her interest obvious.
"I'm not sure. It sounds right." Anne Marie shrugged lightly. The number had leaped into her head, and she didn't know quite why. Twenty. Twenty wishes that would help her recapture her excitement about life. Twenty dreams written down. Twenty possibilities that would give her a reason to look toward the future instead of staying mired in her grief. She couldn't continue to drag from one day to the next, lost in pain and heartache because Robert was dead. She needed a new sense of purpose. She owed that to herself ––– and to him.
"Twenty wishes," Barbie repeated slowly. "I think that works. Twenty's a manageable number. Not like a hundred, say."
"And it's not too few ––– like two or three," her mother said.
Anne Marie could tell that her friends were taking the idea seriously, which only strengthened her own certainty about it. "Wishes and hopes for the future."
"Let's do it!" Lillie proclaimed.
Barbie sat up straighter in her chair. "You should learn French," she said, smiling at Anne Marie.
"For when you're in Paris."
"I had two years of French in high school." However, about all she remembered was how to conjugate the verbs etre and avoir.
"Take a refresher course." Barbie slid onto the edge of her cushion.
"Maybe I will."
"I might learn how to belly dance," Barbie said next.
The others looked at her with expressions of surprise; Anne Marie grinned in approval.
"Lillie mentioned this earlier, but I think it would do us all a world of good to be volunteers," Elise said. "I've become a Lunch Buddy at my grandson's school and I really look forward to my time with Malcolm."
"Lunch Buddy? What's that?"
"A program for children at risk," Elise explained. "Once a week I visit the school and have lunch with a little boy in third grade. Malcolm is a sweet-natured child, and he's flourished under my attention. The minute I walk into the school, he races toward me as if he's been waiting for my visit all week."
"So the two of you have lunch?"
"Well, yes, but he also likes to show me his schoolwork. He's struggling with reading. However, he's trying hard, and every once in a while he'll read to me or I'll read to him. I've introduced him to the Lemony Snicket books and he's loving those."
"You tutor him, then?"
"No, no, he has a reading tutor. It's not that kind of program. I'm his friend. Or more like an extra grandmother."
The idea appealed to Anne Marie, but she didn't know if this was the right program for her. She'd consider it. Her day off was Wednesday and every other Saturday when Theresa came into the store. She had to admit that volunteering at an elementary school would give her something to do other than feel sorry for herself.
It wasn't a wish, exactly. Still, Elise claimed she felt better because of it. Helping someone else ––– perhaps that was the key.
The party broke up around nine-thirty, and after she'd waved everyone off, Anne Marie locked the front door. Then she climbed the stairs to her tiny apartment above the bookstore. Her ever-faithful Baxter was waiting for her, running circles around her legs until she bent down and lifted him up and lavished him with the attention he craved. After taking him out for a brief walk, she returned to the apartment, still thinking about the widows' new project.
She made a cup of tea and grabbed a notepad, sitting on the couch with Baxter curled up beside her. At the top of the page she wrote:
It took her a long time to write down the first item.
1. Find one good thing about life
She felt almost embarrassed that all she could come up with was such a plaintive, pathetic desire, one that betrayed the sorry state of her mental health. Sitting back, she closed her eyes and tried to remember what she used to dream about, the half-expressed wishes of her younger years.
She added a second item, silly though it was.
2. Buy myself a pair of red cowboy boots
In her twenties, long before she married Robert, Anne Marie had seen a pair in a display window and they'd stopped her cold. She absolutely had to have those boots. When she'd gone into the store and tried them on, they were a perfect fit. Perfect. Unfortunately the price tag wasn't. No way could she afford $1500 for a pair of cowboy boots! With reluctance she'd walked out of the store, abandoning that small dream.
She couldn't have afforded such an extravagance working part-time at the university bookstore. But she still thought about those boots. She still wanted them, and the price no longer daunted her as it had all those years ago. Somehow, she'd find herself a pair of decadent cowboy boots. Red ones.
Chewing on the end of her pen, she contemplated other wishes. Really, this shouldn't be so difficult . . .
It occurred to her that if she was going to buy red cowboy boots, she should think of something to do in them.
3. Learn how to line dance
She suspected line dancing might be a bit passe in Seattle ––– as opposed to, say, Dallas ––– but the good thing was that it didn't require a partner. She could show up and just have fun without worrying about being part of a couple. She wasn't ready for another relationship; perhaps in time, but definitely not yet. After a few minutes she crossed out the line-dancing wish. She didn't have the energy to be sociable. She read over her first wish and scratched that out, too. She didn't know how to gauge whether she'd actually found something good about life. It wasn't specific enough.
A host of possibilities bounced around in her head but she didn't bother to write any of them on her list.
Lillie was right; she needed to get her finances in order. She wrote that down on a second sheet of paper, along with getting her annual physical and ––– maybe ––– signing up for the gym. The only thing on the first sheet, her wish list, was those boots.
So now she had two separate lists ––– one for wishes and the second for the more practical aspects of life. Not that each wish wouldn't ultimately require its own to-do list, but that was a concern for another day. She closed her eyes and tried to figure out what she wanted most, what wish she hoped to fulfill. The next few ideas were all sensible ones, like scheduling appointments she'd postponed for months. It was a sad commentary that her one wish, the lone desire of her heart, was an outrageously priced pair of boots.
That was the problem; she no longer knew what she wanted. Shrouded in grief and lost dreams, her joy had vanished, the same way laughter and singing had.
So far, her second list outnumbered the wish list. It included booking appointments with an accountant, an attorney, the vet and a couple of doctors. Sad, sad, sad. She could well imagine what Lillie and Barbie's lists looked like. They'd have wonderful ideas. Places to go, experiences to savor, people to meet.
Anne Marie stared at her wish list with its one ridiculous statement, tempted to crumple it up.
She didn't. For reasons she couldn't explain, she left it sitting on her kitchen counter. Lists were important; she knew that. Over the years she'd read enough about goal-setting to realize the value of writing things down. In fact, the store carried a number of bestselling titles on that very topic.
Okay, this was a start. She wasn't going to abandon the idea. And at least she'd taken control of some immediate needs. She'd identified what she had to do.
Sometime later, she'd list what she wanted to do.
She ran her finger over the word boots. Foolish, impractical, ridiculous ––– but she didn't care. She was determined to have the things.
Already the thought of listing her wishes was making a difference; already she felt a tiny bit of hope, a whisper of excitement. The thawing had begun.
Eventually other desires, other wishes, would come to her. She had nineteen left. She felt as if the genie had finally escaped the lamp and was waiting to hear her greatest desires. All she had to do was listen to her own heart and as soon as she did, her wildest dreams would come true.
If only life could be that simple.
It wasn't, of course, but Anne Marie decided she was willing to pretend.