Almost a year ago, a few members of my critique group, Orange County Fictionaires, came up with a plan to create a series of Better Late Romances featuring main characters over the age of fifty. I’m so excited to bring my “Better Late Romance” to the world, but little did we know how much the world would change since our first planning session!
It’s a good thing our books are fictional because my characters live in a fantasy world where people still go to parties and kissing a stranger could conceivably happen. During the real spring of 2020, no responsible person in Southern California (where we live and where our stories take place) was partying. And if they were, I’m quite sure, no one would risk their life to kiss a stranger.
Will that world ever return? I’m not sure. What do you think? Will my story be outdated before it even hits the bookshelves?
Here’s the first chapter of my Better Late Romance, Half-Baked.
Halfway across the dark parking lot, Robbie stopped and tugged on his collar. “I hate these things.”
“The duds or the gala?” Maggie straightened her brother’s cheap clip-on bowtie and had a vivid flashback of decades past to the senior prom where she’d tried to smooth down Robbie’s cowlick. Balding had long since cured that problem.
The prom had also been held at this place, the Rancho Allegro Country Club. It seemed like a lifetime ago, and yet, here she was with her brother—again—in fancy clothes. It was as if she was on a spinning wheel revisiting the same places with the same people over and over again.
“Both,” he growled. “All these pompous posers looking down on the rest of us peons.” He shuddered.
She thought about pointing out his generous salary probably made him richer than most of the people attending the Mardi Gras party—not to mention in the world—but since she knew he hadn’t gone into medicine for the money, she pressed her lips together and strode toward the lights and sound spilling out of the club’s doors.
She flicked her gaze over him. “Why aren’t you wearing a costume?”
Robbie smoothed down his dinner jacket. “I am.”
“What are you supposed to be?”
“I’m Charlie Chaplin.” He held up his umbrella as proof. “Obviously.”
“Where’s your mustache? Where’s your hat?”
“Hey, I’ve got the umbrella. That’s enough.”
Her brother, the minimalist.
“I like your costume.” Robbie’s gaze flicked over her. “The blue wig should make you look like a smurf or Marge Simpson, but somehow you pull it off.”
Maggie fluttered her wings. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Tessa made it.”
Robbie’s smile tightened and a closed expression like a hood passed over his face.
She bumped him with her hip. “Why don’t you like her?”
“I never said I don’t like her,” he grumbled and tugged on his collar.
Maggie stepped in front of him to readjust his tie. Again. Even knowing it was a lost cause—he’d probably try and loosen it again the moment her back was turned. “You clam up whenever she’s around.”
He shrugged away from her. “It’s weird you’re friends, that’s all.”
She trotted to keep up with his long strides through the parking lot. “Why?”
“You’re nothing like each other. You’re you and she’s…she drives a Mercedes.” He tucked his hands into his pockets.
He shrugged again.
“A Mercedes isn’t a pimp-mobile.”
He elbowed her. “Come on, I have to show my face.” As head of the pediatric department, he was right. He looped his arm through hers and led her up the curb. “Thanks for being my date tonight.”
They passed the valets milling around the Teslas and Land Cruisers. Because Robbie didn’t believe in valets, they had parked in the neighborhood adjacent to the club. A honky-tonk jazz band began to play.
“No problem. I love free food.”
He smirked and shook his head. “I don’t get you.”
“Yes, you do.” She slid him a glance. “If not you, then who?”
“You’re right. I do get you, but I just don’t understand how you can spend all day around food and never get tired of it.”
“Do you get tired of helping children?”
“No, but it’s different.”
“No, it’s not. You save people, I feed them. We’re in the same line of work.”
They passed the valets—young, lean men in button-down white shirts and tight black pants—without looking at them. Their parents had taught them that trick—never make eye contact with someone who might expect a tip. Of course, since they hadn’t actually parked in the lot, they didn’t tip the handsome young men, but Maggie felt their questioning glances on her back as she followed Robbie up the stairs.
“Stop,” Maggie took Robbie’s arm.
She held out her hand.
He rolled his eyes but placed his hand in hers and gave her their secret handshake, the one they’d come up with right before Maggie had started kindergarten. He’d been the one to take her to school because their parents couldn’t leave the bakery. When she’d started to cry, he showed her what he called their very own secret handshake. It meant that they would always be there for each other.
Originally, The Lodge, as locals called it, had been constructed for hunting back when Rancho Allegro had really been a ranch and coyotes and mountain lions were nearly as plentiful as the bunnies that now terrorized the gardeners. Strange how the gentlest of the creatures were the ones who actually survived urbanization.
They passed through the wide heavily carved wooden doors In the lobby, several people vied for Robbie’s attention all at once. Maggie, a baker without food, and therefore a nobody, wandered off to peruse the refreshment table, not necessarily because she was hungry, but because she liked looking at beautiful food displays.
Her feet, clad in ballet flats, were silent on the shiny tile floor. A chandelier as big as her dining room table hung over the hall and cast scattered light over the guests.
When she reached the refreshment, Maggie had to stop herself from whistling in admiration. The caterers, men and women dressed in black, moved like perfectly choreographed dancers around the room bearing trays that looked more like portable art than appetizers. Edible art, the phrase came to Maggie’s mind and rested there. Could she try and copy any of this in her bakery?
Her fingers itched for her phone, but she’d left it at home. She wished she could take pictures of the tables. Did Robbie have his? Undoubtedly. He was available to his patients twenty-four/seven. She searched for his gleaming head above the crowd, but when she spotted him surrounded by a cluster of beautiful people, she decided not to interrupt him. Like a poorly behaved puppy, he needed, but despised, socialization.
Who were the caterers? Maybe she should skirt around outside to catch a glimpse of their van. Hopefully, it would have a logo on it. Her nose wrinkled when she spotted asparagus spears wrapped in a flakey crust and a piece of bacon. She would never understand the compulsion to ruin perfectly good baked goods by partnering them with vegetables.
“What, no donuts?” Tessa, dressed as Florence Nightingale, appeared at her side. “They should have hired Maggie’s Muffins.”
Maggie turned and gave her friend a hug. “Maybe next time.”
Robbie was right, they were an unlikely pair. Maggie was a tall, red-headed buzzard while Tessa was as blond as Tinker-bell and just as pixyish. But why was Tessa wearing this unflattering costume? The black dress and white apron did little to show off Tessa’s darling figure and the cap was hideous. For Tessa, a successful clothing designer, it was an odd choice.
“Really?” Tessa’s eyes lit with excitement.
A small thrill passed through Maggie. “Robbie said he’d recommend me.”
Tessa smiled and said, “That’s great,” but her gaze darted around the room. Was she looking for Robbie? Or someone else? After not finding what or whom she’d been searching, her attention and a critical eye returned to Maggie. “The costume looks really good on you.”
“Thanks to you.” Should she lie and return the compliment?
Tessa flushed and straightened Maggie’s wings. “I love making beautiful things even more beautiful.”
Maggie glanced around the patio. The strings of lights over their heads cast sparkly reflections in all directions. “It looks fabulous here, doesn’t it?”
The D.J. called all the single men to the dance floor. A few obliged. When the Village People began to wail, “It’s fun to stay at the YMCA!” some good sports went through the motions, but Maggie turned her back. She wasn’t interested in single men.
“Yes,” Tessa said with a touch of pride. “My dad wondered if they were going to cancel because of yesterday’s earthquake, but the Lodge wasn’t impacted. Thankfully.”
Maggie’s thoughts flitted to the chandelier and she made a mental note to not be caught standing beneath it if another tremor hit. “Any damage at your shop?”
“Nothing I couldn’t take care of myself. How about the bakery?”
“A lot of rattling pots and pans, but not much else.” Which was amazing. The bakery was as old as she was—over fifty—and very few renovations had been made over the years.
Tessa bumped her with her hip. “We’re lucky.”
Maggie wished that were true. Her parents used to say she was their lucky penny, and she’d always felt that way…until Peter got sick. Sometimes it seemed like she’d been trying to win her way back into Lady Luck’s good favor ever since.
The D.J. thanked the men and a Conga and line formed.
Tessa took Maggie’s hand. “Want to dance?”
“Sure, but first let me check my purse.”
Tessa winced when she saw Maggie’s old beat-up leather satchel. It matched the costume like a paper bag accessorized a tuxedo, but Maggie refused to be embarrassed. She loved her purse—she’d had it for nearly a decade. And yes, it looked like the poor country cousin among all the Coaches and Kate Spades on the shelf, but she didn’t care. She handed it to the coat check girl and, not knowing what else to do with the receipt, she tucked it in her bra.
Stephen strolled into the country club and sought out Tessa. Because of her diminutive size, she was often easy to miss. Most of the guests were wearing masks, but Tessa had told him she’d be wearing a Florence Nightingale costume. He spotted her talking with a tall, blue-haired yet beautiful butterfly. He watched Tessa’s companion tuck something into her bra. An unwelcome trill passed through him.
Because he was new to Rancho Allegro, Stephan only knew a handful of the guests. His uncle, Tessa’s father, was the president of the St. John’s hospital chain and had insisted he attend. Even though Stephen was probably now worth more than his Uncle Jack, Jack was still a difficult man to disappoint. The entire family, not just Stephen, kowtowed to the rich uncle…even when there were, now, wealthier cousins.
The D.J. invited all the single ladies to the dance floor. His gaze flicked over the crowd, wondering if the butterfly would dance. He didn’t see her, and his interest dimmed. As he crossed the patio, something crinkled beneath his shoe. Given the noise—the music, the chatter, the clattering cutlery—he almost missed it. What was it that people said about the sound of falling coins—everybody heard it because people heard what they wanted to hear? Stephen stooped and picked up the hundred-dollar bill beneath his shoe. Someone must have dropped it.
He glanced around at all the bejeweled people in their fancy costumes. Only one bald man wasn’t in a costume—although he was wearing a bowtie. Did he think that was costume enough?
In most crowds, someone would be frantically searching for the lost bill, but here, no one seemed to notice. Still, it had to have been an accident. He held it up and slowly turned, hoping someone would take note. Someone did.
“I’ll take that.” Mitch, dressed as a pirate, moved to swipe it from his hand.
Stephen tightened his grip on the bill and shoved it into his pocket, away from his cousin’s greed.
“Hey,” Mitch complained. “This is a fundraiser. I’m just trying to raise funds.”
Stephen tried not to roll his eyes. “If I can’t find the owner, I’ll give this to someone who needs it.”
“The hospital needs it, you loon.” He waved his saber at the party and came close to knocking off the fake parrot on his shoulder. “That’s why we’re here.”
“Put away your sword before you hurt somebody,” Stephan said. “This is a hundred-dollar bill. It cost, what? Three-hundred dollars to get in here? Besides, I already made a generous donation to the hospital. I’m going to give this to someone else.”
“Who?” Mitch scowled and adjusted his eyepatch.
“I’m going to give it to…” Glancing around the room, he debated: a valet? One of the servers? He could wait and donate it to one of the regular charities on his list: the Red Cross, St. Judes Medical Research, or Orange Wood Foster Homes.
But then it would weigh on him until he actually made the donation, and more importantly, Mitch might suspect he was keeping it for himself. Better to get rid of it immediately. His gaze landed on the coat check. One scruffy leather satchel stood out from the rest. He strode over to the bored-looking girl with two pig-tails on either side of her head behind the counter.
“See that purse,” he pointed at the satchel.
“This one?” Surprise for a moment overrode the girl’s bored expression. She obviously didn’t think a man in a Zorro cape would be interested in a scuffed leather satchel.
“It belongs to my girlfriend.”
“And now you’re a liar,” Mitch whispered in his ear.
The girl narrowed her lids and tightened her lips. “I can’t give out any of the purses unless you have a ticket.” Her piggy tails bounced when she spoke.
Stephen hurried to placate her. “I just want you to tuck this into it.” He pulled out the bill and showed it to the girl. “Can you do that?”
Piggy-tail girl’s nostrils flared, but she did as he asked.
“You’re a crazy person,” Mitch said.
“Crazy like a fox,” Aunt Miriam said from behind him. Approaching eighty, she looked and acted like someone nearly half her age. Her cheeks were flushed pink, her eyes bright, and diamonds sparkled in her ears and around her neck. Even her flapper dress seemed to shimmer. She snaked her arm around his waist and looped the other through Mitch’s arm. “A silver fox! How did two of my favorite boys ever grow to be so old and yet so handsome?”
Mitch flushed. “The same could be said of you, Mom.”
“Hush!” Aunt Miriam she shook her long cigarette holder in Mitch’s face. “I don’t want anyone to know I’m old enough to belong to you.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “You could pretend I’m your date.”
“I could,” Mitch said, pulling away. “But I won’t.” He gave Stephen the stink eye. “Let’s ignore her.”
“You can ignore me, but you better not ignore your wife,” Aunt Miriam said, nodding at the approaching Lydia, who was wearing a Queen of Hearts costume.
Mitch audibly groaned, but also grinned, as Lydia came to wrap her arms around her husband’s waist and lean her head on his back.
There were lots of things Stephen didn’t admire about his cousin, but he did envy him his long and happy marriage. Mitch had married ten years before Stephen and hopefully would be married for many years after. Lydia had been good for him.
“Can we get the couple who has been married the longest to take the floor?” The D.J. asked.
“How are we supposed to know that?” an elderly man dressed in a Joker’s costume called out.
“Everyone clear the floor for the couples who have been married for more than twenty-five years!” the D.J. boomed.
People shuffled around, making way for a crowd of couples.
“Everyone, give them a round of applause,” the D.J. called out. The audience obliged. “If you’ve been married for less than thirty years, you’re excused.”
Stephen turned his back on the D.J. and the couples circling the floor. He and Monica had been married for twenty-seven years. He didn’t like to think about it.
The butterfly he’d noticed earlier approached the coat check, fished into her bra to pull out a receipt and hand it to the girl. In return, coat-check girl handed the butterfly the beat-up purse that now carried his one-hundred-dollar bill.
His gaze met coat-check girl’s.
“Your girlfriend, huh?” coat-check girl asked.
Surely, this was a breach of some sort of coat-check etiquette.
Aunt Miriam perked up. “Your girlfriend?”
Mitch grinned. “Yeah, about that, Stephen?”
Stephen rubbed his chin and, on a whim, decided to go along with it. “There you are,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“For me?” The butterfly put her hand on her chest. Most of her face was covered by a jewel-studded mask, but her lips were full, red and her skin creamy and white. Definitely girlfriend material.
Stephen braced his shoulder, determined to carry through with his charade. “I want to introduce you to my Aunt Miriam and cousin Mitch.”
The butterfly blinked and took Mitch’s extended hand. “I’m Grace,” she said.
“Come on, Grace,” Stephen said, taking her hand and pulling her toward the dance floor and away from his aunt and laughing cousin.
Grace stumbled after him until they reached the dancing couples. “I don’t know who you are or what you’re thinking,” she began.
He silenced her by putting his finger on her lips. “Just go along with me, please. There’s a hundred-dollar bill in your purse for your trouble.”
“I’m not a prostitute.”
“I never said you were. Look, all I’m asking you to do is dance with me. Consider the money a gift.”
“No strings attached?”
“But only married people are dancing.”
She was right. Now, only gray-haired and stooped couples were on the floor. The D.J. thanked the octogenarians and most of them shuffled to their seats.
“Are you married?” Stephen asked, his voice suddenly loud since the music had momentarily hushed.
“Not anymore,” she said, her voice tight.
“Me neither,” Stephen said.
“And now, here’s to the new lovers in the crowd,” the D.J. said. The music shifted to an old Frank Sinatra song. “Strangers in the Night.”
“An oddly appropriate song,” Grace said. “Did you plan this somehow?”
He shook his head, placed one hand on her waist and took the other in his. She fit against him nicely and moved easily to the music. He told her what had happened.
“You didn’t want your aunt to catch you in your fib? How come?”
“I have a standard I’ve kept since high school. I don’t lie to my mom.”
She craned her neck to look around him, as if she was checking out his butt.
He tried to look over his shoulder. “What are you looking at?”
“I was wondering if your pants were on fire.”
He laughed. “I’m not a liar.”
“But you just admitting to lying to your aunt.”
“In general, I try not to lie.” He grinned. “But the rule is hard and fast for my mom.”
“So, why are you fibbing to your aunt?”
“It just happened really fast.” If he told her he wanted to give the money to someone who needed it—as her purse suggested—would she be insulted? Some people were touchy about money and about being on the receiving end of charity. He didn’t want to offend her, but he also couldn’t figure out what she and her scruffy purse were doing at this pricy event if she needed money. She was a riddle he couldn’t answer, and she intrigued him.
But she probably thought he was a lunatic. As well as a liar. Which he was. Sort of. Not usually, but she’d caught him in one.
Frank Sinatra’s crooning about strangers in love faded and the D.J. spoke into the microphone. “All of the couples on the dance floor—I want to see some smooching! Go ahead, don’t be shy! Plant a juicy one on your partner!
Stephen had intended to peck the butterfly on the cheek, but she turned at the last moment and his lips met hers. And once he started, he couldn’t stop.
A flurry of emotions zipped through Maggie. Should she push him away? Who was this impertinent, ridiculous D.J. to even suggest kissing…a stranger?
What had Sinatra been singing about? “Love was just a glance away, a warm embracing dance away.”
But…oh…was this what kissing was all about? How long had it been since she’d been kissed like this? Maybe never.
She’d loved Peter. She had loved kissing Peter. But near the end, the kisses had been so mixed up in grief and pain, they’d just as soon make her cry as curl her toes in pleasure…like this one did.
What must this person think of her? What made him think he could just kiss her like this? Maybe he kissed everyone like this. She couldn’t be someone special in his life since he had only just met her…but he hadn’t really met her, had he? It wasn’t as if they’d been properly introduced.
And she’d given him her middle name.
But this kiss, though…
She really should end it. This was exactly the sort of privileged behavior her brother and parents were always spouting off about. Rich people who thought they could do whatever they wanted with little or no regard for who they stepped on…or kissed.
Oh, this kiss. It was like kissing Clark Gable, or Gary Grant, or…Zorro.
He pulled away. She was grateful to see he wore a dazed expression.
Maggie touched her lips. “What was that?”
“That,” he said, “was worthy of an encore.” And he kissed her again.
This time, Maggie, forgetting all about social injustice or the people on the floor surrounding them who had started dancing to a song by the Beach Boys, leaned in and gave herself into pleasure. It rocked her world. Shook her to the core. Made her legs shake.
It took her a moment to realize that not only was her world rocking, but the lights stringing above her were wildly swinging. The band had stopped playing. Pillars bearing lanterns fell with a crash and glass shattered. The hospitality tent collapsed and one of the curtains fell into an open fire pit. The chandelier in the entry fell with the sound of tiny crystal shards dashing to bits.
And still Zorro held her in his arms. In fact, he tightened the embrace, making it more protective than sensual.
The lights went out. Women screamed and men shouted. All around her, panicked people pushed and pulled. Zorro grabbed her hand and pulled her through the chaos. She staggered after him, barely seeing through the smoke and din.
The damp and cold seeped through Maggie’s flimsy slippers as she crossed the lawn. He took her elbow and steered her through the parking lot, passing the valets who had gathered into a tight bunch beneath the now catawampus awning. Here, away from the party, the moonlight shone clearer.
Maggie blinked when she realized it wasn’t Zorro who had led her through the chaos, but her brother.
She wrenched her elbow out of his grasp. “Rob! What the heck?”
He stopped and stared at her. “What’s your problem?”
“I don’t have a problem,” she said.
“You sound like you do.” He stepped closer. “Who was that guy you were kissing?”
She floundered for an acceptable answer and finally came up with, “I don’t know.”
“And I have a problem with that,” Rob said.