Barbara Bretton

Sneak Peek

Chances Are: Chapter 2

It took every ounce of Claire Meehan O'Malley's self-control to keep from dropping to her knees in front of Rose DiFalco and kissing her cocktail ring. She had been about to fake a heart attack in order to get out of that toxic dressing room when Rose unceremoniously kicked their collective asses out and not a moment too soon.

Claire had always believed her own family had the market cornered on dysfunctional behavior but after seeing the DiFalcos up close and personal she had to admit there was a new contender for the crown. Compared to the DiFalcos, both the Meehans and the O'Malleys were rank amateurs.

Those two old cows, Connie and Antoinette, looked like they were counting down the seconds. Claire crossed paths with them a few times a week, and she always found herself whispering a prayer of thanks that she didn't have to look at either one of them over a breakfast table in the morning. No wonder their families were so screwed up. Generation after generation of DiFalco women continued to pick the wrong men with unerring accuracy.

Not that Claire was being judgmental. The cousins were a likable bunch--most of them, anyway--but their romantic escapades and mistakes were, in some cases, a matter of public record. Maddy's own history was decidedly less flamboyant, but even she hadn't escaped her family's unbroken run of bad luck in love.

Gina and Denise were whispering together near an arrangement of rhinestone-studded Manolo Blahniks that cost more than her monthly mortgage payment. Suddenly she glanced around her at the Vera Wang dresses, the Manolos, and the unmistakable smell of money in the air. What the hell was she doing there? Saks wasn't her kind of store. She couldn't afford a pair of panty hose in this place, much less wedding party attire. Unless they somehow ended up outfitting the bridesmaids at Target, she would have to find a way to gracefully decline the privilege or tell her youngest that college was out of the question.

"I don't know who she thinks she is," Connie was saying, loudly enough for everyone in the store to hear. "She can't throw us out. She doesn't own the place."

"Take a look at my eye." Toni thrust her face in front of Claire. "Is there any blood?"

Neither one seemed the slightest bit disturbed that the tattooed girl from PBS was frantically scribbling notes near a Badgley-Mischka.

Claire was about to say something uncharitable and possibly unforgivable when the dressing room door swung open and Rose stalked out for a second time.

"Madelyn said she'll meet us in the parking garage and then we'll go to Bernino's for lunch." She glanced around, mentally counting heads. "Kelly and Hannah aren't back yet?"

"I haven't seen them," Lucy said, a faint frown pleating her forehead above her nose. Connie and Toni turned their backs and ignored the entire conversation.

"Kelly was going to take Hannah for some ice cream," Rose said. "I wonder if--"

Opportunity didn't have to hit Claire O'Malley in the head twice.

"I'll find them," she said, "and meet you at the cars."

"I'll go with you," Lucy volunteered. "It's a big mall. This way we can spread out."

"It's not that big," she said to Lucy as soon as they ducked out of Saks.

"As long as they don't know that, I'm safe." She winked at Claire. "You think you're the only one who needed an escape hatch?"

They ducked around a display of enormous Hummers that looked like SUVs on steroids.

"We're not usually like this," Lucy said, as they stopped to check out a map of the mall opposite Tiffany.

"Every family has a bad day," Claire said. It was easy to be magnanimous with Lucy, even when you didn't mean it.

"Actually we're on our best behavior." Her eyes twinkled up at Claire. "Hard to believe, isn't it?"

Actually it was, but Claire kept that observation to herself. "My sisters and I once cleared the parking lot at K-Mart with one of our fights."

"The one near Wildwood?"

"Nope," said Claire. "The big one up near A.C."

Lucy whistled low. "I'm impressed. I would think they'd pretty much seen it all up there."

"We put on quite a show," Claire said. "My sister Vicky had to wear a wig for a month afterward."

"I'm too much of a lady to ask for details," Lucy said, laughing, "but it sounds like we're all candidates for daytime television. Did you see the way our pierced friend has been taking notes? It terrifies me to think of what my sisters have told Peter Lassiter."

"Don’t you meet him tonight?" Claire asked, trying to keep the judgmental tone from her voice. She hated Peter Lassiter and his entire crew, sticking their noses into places where they didn't belong, asking questions nobody in her right mind would even consider answering.

"Seven-fifteen," Lucy said. "He wants to see the scrapbooks from the dress shop I owned on Main Street."

"Now there's something worth reminiscing about," she said. "Bet you don't remember that I worked for you."

"Don't I? You were far and away the absolute worst salesgirl I ever had."

Claire winced. "My people skills needed a little work back then."

"You made my sister Rose look like Madeleine Albright."

"Did I ever thank you for helping me find a new job at the bakery?"

"Yes," Lucy said, "and so did my customers. Those were three of the longest days of my life."

Claire laughed. It wasn't an insult coming from Lucy. It was only the truth remembered with fondness. "Mine too," she said. "My mother told me I had to earn the money for my prom gown or I couldn't go. I figured if I worked for you, I'd get a store discount. Nobody told me you needed a degree in abnormal psych to sell dresses."

"Why do you think I hid in the workroom with my sewing machine and my dress form? It was dangerous out there on the floor."

"The way I see it, I was lucky to make it through that third day alive."

"I hope I still gave you the discount."

"You did," Claire said. "And you even lent me a gorgeous pair of satin gloves to wear with it."

"At least that's one story I wouldn't mind ending up in the documentary," Lucy said with pretend relief. "Now, if I could bribe my sisters and a few of my ex-husbands to be kind, I could breathe easy again."

They chatted easily about the dress shop and Lucy's dressmaking skills as they approached the door of the ice cream shop. Huge hand-lettered signs adorned the windows, singing the praises of peppermint crunch, rocky road, and black cherry bonanza.

"Hand-packed cones with sprinkles," Claire said, barely disguising her longing. "Do you think we have time?"

"Honey, if you think I came all this way to leave without a strawberry cone, then you don't know me very well."

Too bad Lucy wasn't forty years younger. This was one DiFalco she would love to welcome into the family as Aidan's new wife.

"Vanilla, sugar cone, chocolate sprinkles," she said, fishing in her pocket for a few singles as they approached the counter.

Lucy waved off her money. "It's the least I can do after the horror show my sisters put on for you."

"I'll check the back room and the bathroom. You watch the door."

"Take your time," Lucy said with a wicked grin. "Wouldn't hurt the lot of them to cool their heels in the parking garage."

TJ's reminded Claire of Farrell's, an ice cream parlor that had been popular back when she and Billy first married. The cheerful ragtime music. The old-fashioned soda fountain décor complete with faux newspaper clippings pasted on the walls. The wait staff was dressed in billowy white shirts, black pants, and suspenders and they exuded such all-American wholesomeness that she wouldn't have been at all surprised if they had been pasteurized, homogenized, and stamped with a freshness date.

She stood in the archway to the main dining room and scanned the crowd. It was the usual Monday mix of elderly shoppers gathering up their energy for the return trip home, a handful of teenage girls sharing a pair of hot fudge sundaes, young mothers with rambunctious toddlers and babies still in Snugglies or waiting in the womb.

Claire felt a pang as she looked at their ripe and burgeoning bellies. She had loved being pregnant. The entire experience had agreed with her. She felt better, ate better, slept better the five times she was pregnant than at any other time in her life. Her friends had complained about feeling sexless and ugly during their pregnancies, but not Claire. She had never felt juicier or more alive. Even Billy had noticed the difference and during those months their lovemaking took on a sweet wildness she still remembered.

Sometimes late at night when the bed seemed very wide and very empty, she took out those memories, dusted them off, and tried to call up a sense of how it had felt to be touched and held and almost loved.

They had tried hard to make it work but the odds had been against them from the start. Maybe if they had been a little older, a little smarter, they might have realized that before it was too late but, in her most honest moments, Claire knew she would make the same choices all over again.

They hadn't had a storybook romance like Maddy and Aidan, one of those moonlight and magic experiences that made great fodder for TV shows, but it hadn't been all bad. They had built a family together, brought five beautiful children into the world together. Despite the anger, despite the disappointments, they had been together at the end. They had been a family, a real one, imperfect and loud but real and lasting. For many reasons, that was something she would never regret.

She didn't understand women like Maddy who moved away from home and made new lives for themselves far away from family and friends. The thought was as alien to Claire as life without soccer would be to her son Billy. You grew where you were planted. Sure, you made adjustments, a little more light, a little less water, maybe a judicious pruning every now and then, but you managed. You did it for your parents and for your kids and as you grew older and a little wiser, you began to realize you did it for yourself as well.

When Maddy came back home with her tail between her legs, Claire couldn't help but wonder if that homecoming ever would have happened if Tom Lawler hadn't walked out on Maddy and Hannah. She was willing to bet her favorite earrings that Rose DiFalco's prodigal daughter would have stayed happily ensconced in some fancy penthouse in Seattle without a single thought for Paradise Point.

You're being a bitch, that small and annoying voice of clarity whispered into her ear. Her two middle girls, Willow and Courtney, joined the Army right out of high school in order to finance their college educations. How was that so very different from what Maddy had done? Sometimes the future ended up being somewhere--and with somebody--you would never know existed if you didn't take a chance.

One of the young mothers looked up and caught Claire's eye. They smiled at each other over the head of the woman's noisily nursing baby, one of those magical moments of connection between perfect strangers.

Cherish every single one of these moments, Claire wanted to tell her. They'll be memories before you take your next breath.

But she knew the woman would never believe her. She was young and she might even be happy and she had all the time in the world.

Just like Claire had believed a long, long time ago.

"I want my mommy." Hannah's stubborn little chin lurched forward in a way Kelly O'Malley was quickly coming to recognize as trouble. "I don't want to be here anymore."

Kelly was smart. She was responsible. She went to Mass almost every Sunday. There was no way this could be happening. She held the door to the bathroom stall shut with her foot and wondered what she had done to tick off God so badly. There was no other reason she could come up with to explain how she had ended up puking her guts out in a john at TJ Sweet's while her future step-sister watched and probably took notes.

"I'm sorry, Hannah," she said, closing her eyes against a rising tide of dizziness. "I guess the ice cream didn't agree with me."

"Ice cream doesn't make people throw up," Hannah observed. "Ice cream makes you better."

"Well, this time ice cream--" She started to retch again but her stomach had long since parted company with its contents. Dry heaves were a nice change.

Hannah started to wail, big loud siren whoops of misery. If Kelly hadn't felt so horrible, she might have joined in. Of all the stupid times to get sick, this really had to be the worst. At least none of Maddy's scary aunts were here to see this. She could just imagine what they would have to say about it. She had no doubt that any time a female under fifty got queasy they started eyeing her waistline and whispering behind her back. The thought almost made her retch one more time but she pulled in a deep breath and willed her stomach to calm down. It couldn't be. Absolutely positively impossible.

Almost impossible, a little voice whispered. The nuns had been right when they preached celibacy--if you didn't count the Virgin Mary--as the only perfect form of birth control. Condoms, the Pill, diaphragms and coils and creams and foams--they all failed every now and then.

Funny how you could know something but not know it at the very same time. The statistics had been drummed into her head during sex ed over the years, those tiny little percentage point margins of error that could change your life forever but you never thought they had anything to do with you or the way you felt every time he walked into a room and gave you that special smile.

Those things happened to somebody else, some anonymous girl out there who wasn't as smart or as careful as you were. Someone who didn't have a full scholarship to Columbia or a game plan for the rest of her life. Seth was going to Columbia too which made it so perfect that it almost scared her. They would be together for the four years it took to get their undergrad degrees, then they would marry, work on their MAs and somewhere in the shadowy golden future they would finally start a family.

Hannah's wails turned into hiccups. The little girl looked up at her, eyes wide, and hiccuped again. Kelly couldn't help it. She started to giggle. The whole day had been surreal. Maddy's scary aunts. Her own aunt Claire looking like she wanted to make a break for it. Her future step-mother forced to stand there in her underwear. And now there she was, sitting on the bathroom floor at an ice cream parlor at snooty Short Hills Mall, watching Hannah go for the world hiccough record.

Hannah hiccuped one more time, then started giggling, too, and the next thing Kelly knew, the two of them were holding onto each other, laughing until their sides ached.

"I have to go," Hannah said when the laughter subsided. "Right now!"

"So go," Kelly said, starting to laugh again. "We're in the john!"

"No," said Hannah, that stubborn jaw beginning to wobble. "You can't be here when I go."

Kelly pulled herself to her feet and brushed off the back of her denim skirt. "Do you need any help?"

Hannah shook her head. "Go!"

"I'll be right outside," Kelly said, opening the door to the stall. "Shout out if you need me."

Hannah pushed the door closed behind her and Kelly couldn't help grinning when she heard the little girl fumbling with the lock.

"Leave it unlocked, Hannah," she advised. "I'll make sure nobody comes in."

She held the door closed with her hand and rested her forehead against the cool painted surface. At least the room wasn't spinning any longer. That was an improvement over the amusement park ride it had turned into a few seconds after she wolfed down some ice cream. The stuff should have a warning label on it. At least if you'd been starving yourself the last few weeks so you could wear that scrumptious strapless gown to the senior prom. That was probably the reason she had been sick. All that cold ice cream on an empty stomach would upset anyone's digestion.

And what about yesterday and the day before? You can't blame that on ice cream.

She heard the sound of paper rustling behind the door to the stall, followed by the snap of an elastic waist and mumbling. Hannah had recently turned five. Was that old enough to take care of things without help? She wished she could remember what had been within her abilities at that age but it was so long ago that the details were a blur.

"Everything okay?" she called out.

Hannah's response was drowned out by the sound of the toilet flushing which Kelly decided to take as a yes.

A minute later Hannah pulled at the door. Kelly let go and the two of them trooped over to the wall of sinks where Kelly lifted the child up so she could wash her hands.

"Soap," Hannah said, waving her fingers. "I need more."

Kelly gave the dispenser another push and a ribbon of golden soap settled in the palm of Hannah's hand.

"We'd better hurry," she said, holding Hannah once again so she could reach the stream of hot air from the hand drying machine. "Your mom will be sending out a search party for us."

"I didn't eat my ice cream," Hannah pointed out with the relentless logic of a five year old. "It's still out there."

"It's probably melted. You can have ice cream with lunch."

She made it a point never to lie to a child. Kids might not be able to remember where they put their schoolbooks, but they never forgot it when an adult lied to them. They had to stop for lunch. There was no way they would drive all the way back down to Paradise Point on empty stomachs--not with her Aunt Claire in the group--and every restaurant in New Jersey offered ice cream for dessert.

Hannah tugged at her wrist. "I wanna go now."

She rinsed her face at the sink then made Hannah laugh as she angled her face to catch a blast of air from the hand-drying machine.

"So this is where the party is." Aunt Claire popped up in the doorway, a curious expression on her face. "We were getting worried."

"Did you see my ice cream?" Hannah asked. "I didn't finish."

"You didn't? My girls always finished their ice cream." Aunt Claire's gaze traveled from Hannah to Kelly. "How come?"

No, Hannah, please don't!

"Kelly had to throw up and she made me go with her."

Aunt Claire had a way of looking at you that made you feel like she knew what you were thinking before you thought it. As a little girl, she had seen her aunt turn that lethal look on her own kids many times and it had always made her grateful she didn't have any deep dark secrets to hide. She wished she could say the same thing now.

"Kel?" Her aunt could pack more into one word than anyone she had ever met.

"No big deal," she said. "The ice cream hit me funny."

Claire placed a palm against her forehead and looked deep into her eyes. Kelly wanted desperately to look away but she couldn't. Her aunt's touch was as familiar to her as her own heartbeat. Claire had always been there, right at the center of Kelly's life for as long as she could remember. Claire's door had always been open to Kelly and her dad. There had always been a place for them at the table, even during those times when Claire's own family life was turned upside down.

That was a long time ago. Kelly loved her aunt with all her heart, but Claire would never understand. Not in a million years. But Maddy would. She found herself wishing it was Maddy's hand on her forehead, Maddy's soft voice asking if anything was wrong.

"You're okay?" her aunt persisted.

"Sure I am. Why wouldn't I be?"

Claire studied her for what seemed like forever and she wished she could run into her arms the way she did when she was Hannah's age.

I'm scared, Aunt Claire . . . make it better . . . make it go away . . . .

Hannah elbowed her way between them and pulled on the hem of Claire's pale green cotton sweater. "Can we go now? Bathrooms smell funny."

Kelly took her future stepsister's hand in hers. "Come on," she said with a wink for her aunt. "I'm sure your grandma's plans for lunch include ice cream."

"Why don't you come over for supper tonight," Claire said as she elbowed the door open for them. "We haven't talked in a long time."

"I'd love to," Kelly lied, "but I have math club."

"Tomorrow then."

"I'm going over to Maddy's."

Oops. Wrong thing to say. Her aunt's face seemed to close in on itself every time she mentioned Maddy's name.

"Then Saturday morning for breakfast."

"I really want to, Aunt Claire, but five of us in the senior class are being interviewed for the documentary Saturday morning. We're the seventy-fifth graduating class and--"

"You're going to make time next week, Kelly Ann. I want to know what's going on."

She leaned over and pressed a kiss to her aunt's cheek. "Did anyone ever tell you that you worry too much?"

"No," Claire said, ruffling her hair with a loving hand. "You're the first." She straightened the collar of Kelly's shirt. "Your father doesn't know how lucky he is."

It hurt to hear those words and know how wrong they were. She had always been the good girl, the achiever, the one you could count on to do the right thing. When her cousins were screwing up and getting in trouble, Kelly the Good was snagging straight A's and being voted class president. Her cousins had messy boyfriend troubles, occasional acne, and their fair share of fender benders and blown curfews while Saint Kelly sailed along with the wind at her back.

The crazier things got in the O'Malley family, the greater the pressure Kelly felt to be perfect. Nobody asked her for perfection. Nobody had to. She had been hardwired that way from the start, in competition with some idealized view of herself that she couldn't possibly live up to. But that didn't keep her from trying. She liked the sense of order that came with following the rules. She liked making lists then checking off the items one by one as she completed them. She liked knowing her father and her aunt didn't have to worry that she was going to totally mess up her life by making some stupid, stupid, one time only mistake . . .

Hannah was watching her closely, those big blue eyes of hers taking it all in, storing it away until she got home and could tell Rose and Maddy every single detail beginning with the ice cream and ending up with Kelly hugging the porcelain receptacle.

Something to look forward to.


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