The Beauty of a Second Chance

ImageExcerpts from:

The Beauty of a Second Chance. Ebook and paperback editions available at Amazon.

PROLOGUE

STAR TUCKED HER CHAMPAGNE glass inside the Boeing 757’s seat flap in front of her. “I can’t believe I dated one of the richest men in Italy for two months and I’m coming home with less money in my purse than I started out with.”

“You won’t be poor for long.” Casey slouched lower in the leather seat she had just snuck into. “I bet you’ll make a ton of money modeling in New York.”

“I doubt it. That city is crawling with pretty women. That’s why I was shipped off to Europe in the first place. My agent told me I needed foreign photographs in my portfolio to bump it up to a professional level—which is a joke because neither one of us managed to accomplish that.”

“We got experience,” Casey said.

Star laughed. “Too bad it wasn’t the kind we can use to book fashion campaigns. No biggie. I’m not going to let anything or anyone stop me.”

“From what? Modeling?”

Star looked into the ruby eyes of a serpent bracelet circling her wrist. “From marrying into a Central Park address.”

Casey released a wistful sigh. “I want to settle down and have babies, too.”

“I never said anything about settling.” Star reached for a Valentino jacket on the floorboard and shook out the wrinkles. “And I’m definitely not going to burden myself with all the crap that comes with having a family.”

“Family is what you make it,” Casey said. “I don’t know if I’ll stay with Jason, but I’m sure about one thing. If I have a daughter someday, I’m not going to be a nag like my mom. I’ll make sure we’re best friends.” She traced a thin purple line on her palm with her index finger. “And I’ll keep her safe from men.”

Star frowned. “You never told me how you got that scar.”

“That’s because I want to forget about most of the stuff that happened over there.” Casey removed a packet of honey-roasted peanuts from the armrest ashtray. “But I want to stay in touch with you and Joanne.”

“I don’t have time for friends.” Star removed a gold lipstick cylinder from the jacket pocket. “I need to get that Central Park apartment before my looks go, or I’ll end up in some dumpy rat-trap, working as a waitress again. As far as Jo goes, she seemed relieved to finally break free from her parents, and us.

“I’m glad at least one of us lucked out.” Casey opened the peanut packet. “Joanne will probably spend the rest of her life in Milan doing Vogue covers and living happily ever after with Alex.”

“Hey, we’re only eighteen.” Star applied the deep red color to her lips. “There’s still plenty of time to make our dreams come true.”

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We are about to begin our final descent to the JFK airport, before continuing on to Los Angeles…”

“I better get back to economy before the flight attendant catches me here.” Casey wiped her salty hands on her jeans and stood. “If I give you my mom’s phone number, will you call me after you find a husband?”

“I tell you what. Once I’m rich, I’ll fly out to L.A. and take you to lunch.”

Casey hesitated in the aisle.

“Stop with the sad puppy-eyes.” Star snapped her seat into the upright position. “Now that we’ve got that experience you talked about, everything should be easier. So, don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll see each other soon.”

CHAPTER ONE

16 years later

STAR STUDIED THE BEAUTIFUL BRIDE staring back at her in the full-length mirror. “Why am I so nervous, Jenny?” She placed a hand over the bodice of her satin gown and felt her heart pounding under the lace.

A brunette woman wearing a purple chiffon dress turned away from a window overlooking rows of folding chairs on the South Hampton lawn below. ”Could it have something to do with the fact you’re getting married for the first time at thirty-four, or that you’re wearing a white dress when you lost your virginity over two decades ago?”

“Screw you for bringing up the first question and screw anyone who thinks about the second one.” Star smiled as she tucked a wisp of blonde hair behind the diamond headband holding her veil in place. “Maybe I’m just excited I can finally stop worrying about money and relax with my soon–to–be husband.”

“Since Larry proposed, you have been obnoxiously happy.” Jenny stepped into heels dyed to match her dress. “You haven’t lost your temper with slow waiters, or taxi drivers that pass by your waving hand, and you haven’t threatened to punch anyone in months. It’s almost like I don’t know you.”

Star picked up a bouquet of tea roses and stared at the delicate flowers. “What if it doesn’t last?”

“What?” Jenny attached pearl studs to her earlobes. “Happiness?”

“No. Feeling safe.”

“Relax.” Jenny fluffed out the hem of her gown. “ Unless your fiancée drops dead from a heart attack in the next twenty minutes, you should be fine.

An elegantly attired Asian woman rushed into the guest room. “Agnes insists on speaking with you before the ceremony.”

“Are you serious, Tessa?” Star tapped the bundle of roses against her leg, causing several petals to flutter to the floor. “Did she say what she wanted?”

“No.”

“Then tell her I’ll talk to her after the ceremony. I’m in no mood to deal with her right now.”

The wedding planner answered her cell phone, listened a moment, and slapped it shut. “It’s too late. They’re on their way up.”

“They?”

A silver-haired man opened the door and stood off to the side. An elderly woman dressed in a black Chanel skirt suit entered with the help of an ornate cane, and stopped in the center of the room. “I want to be alone with the bride.”

Star’s crystal blue eyes met her future mother-in-law’s faded gray irises. “What’s up, Agnes?” The woman’s fragile appearance hid a strong personality she had learned to avoid at all costs.

“We need to discuss family business,” Agnes replied.

Tessa glanced at her watch. “You have five minutes.”

“I will take as long as I want,” Agnes shot back.

Jenny made a squawking gesture with her hand as she followed the wedding planner out the door.

“What about him?” Star pointed to the man removing papers from a leather briefcase.

“Gerard stays.” Agnes nodded to her companion. “He has a document you need to sign before I let you marry my son.”

The man approached a vanity table covered with cosmetics and brushed the articles aside to set down a piece of paper.

Star ignored the Mont Blanc pen held out to her and read the top line. “Is this a joke?”

“No.” Gerard’s stern expression did not waver. “Mrs. Smyth wants you to sign a pre-nuptial agreement in order to protect the assets of her son.”

Star looked out the window. Her fiancée stood under a gazebo laced with lavender flowers, laughing with guests. “Does Larry know you’re doing this?”

“Of course not,” Agnes huffed. “Why would I ruin my only child’s wedding like that?”

The threat of tears surprised Star. She didn’t have anyone to make sure her big day was a happy one. Her father—the bastard—had abandoned her when she was a child, and her mother died last year from drinking too much cheap vodka. With no family or close friends to rely on, she had hoped Agnes would embrace her as a daughter when they met several months ago at Larry’s favorite New York restaurant, but the evening ended with the old lady muttering, ‘I don’t like you’, under her breath as they parted ways. “I’m not going to sign that.”

“You will if you don’t want Larry to lose his trust fund.”

“Go ahead and take it.” She pushed the paper away. “We don’t need it.”

The old woman studied her intensely. “Where do you think my son gets the money to buy you things?”

“From his company. MediaMatters. Larry’s the president.”

“Did he mention I am the sole investor and own fifty-one percent of his company?” A tight smile appeared among the wrinkles and held steady. “Did he tell you I’m on the board of directors and determine how much salary he receives?”

“No, but…” Star leaned against the vanity table to steady herself. “Larry told me he has a huge savings account somewhere.”

“His account is tied to the trust fund which I control and will continue to control until the day I die.”

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The cane stopped inches from where Star stood.

“It’s my duty to make sure my son’s inheritance stays intact.” Agnes tapped her finger on top of the document. “I have no intention of leaving this room until you make a decision.”

“That pre-nup would lock me into a future with no way to protect myself. If anything happened to Larry…” Star couldn’t bring herself to voice her worst fear. I’d be forced to find work as an aging model, or worse… an aging waitress… like Jenny.

“If you love my son, this won’t matter.”

Star’s gaze shifted back to the gazebo and the man she met last year at a Merlot booth while crashing a private wine tasting event at The Plaza. Larry’s thinning hairline and expanding waist did not catch her attention that day, but the invoice he signed to ship a dozen cases of a Napa Valley Reserve to his Central Park address did. She had quickly flashed him a dazzling smile that drew him into conversation. Her feigned interest gave way to genuine curiosity once she realized Larry was different from the other men she attracted. He didn’t bore her with his many acquisitions, or try to hustle her into bed. Instead, he told funny stories that made her laugh until a redhead with a possessive glare shot out of the crowd and headed their way. Undaunted, she had slipped him a napkin with her phone number and retreated. His call a few weeks later, explaining his newly single status, led to their first dinner date. Six months after that she moved into his apartment and three months ago she accepted his proposal. During that time, she never told her fiancée she loved him and yet… “Larry’s been my best friend since the day we met.”

Agnes pursed her lips. “If you don’t sign, I will severely curtail my son’s monthly withdrawals from the trust, curbing your present lifestyle.”

A soft knock sounded.

“Are you ready?” Tessa asked from the other side of the door.

Star noted her future mother-in-law’s determination.

Musical notes from Mendelsshon’s Wedding March floated up to the second floor.

The knocking got louder. “Star? Is everything all right?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered.

“Call the wedding off,” Agnes announced.

Tessa opened the door and burst into the room. “I can’t do that. You have over a hundred guests waiting outside.”

Jenny ran inside and tripped on the carpet. “Did you change your mind about marrying Larry?”

Everyone stared at her, including Agnes who seemed delighted over winning such an easy victory. “No.” Star grabbed the pen and signed the document—already thinking of ways to get rid of the pre-nup. “Let’s get this party started.”

*       *       *

“What a gorgeous dress,” cooed a woman on the groom’s side of the aisle as Star passed by.

“I love the flower appliqués on the veil,” murmured another guest. “And those diamond drop earrings look like Tiffany.”

“Rumor has it she used to be a model.”

A camera flash went off.

“Was she ever famous?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” came a snippy reply. “I’m still mad at my husband for agreeing to let them get married at our beach house. He told me he couldn’t turn down Larry’s request since they’ve been friends since college, but I’m sure this was her idea. Attractive women like her always get what they want.”

Star walked along the petal-strewn path, oblivious to the comments following her progression until the music stopped and an unfamiliar voice made a comment from the front row.

“I’m glad that gold-digger isn’t getting a dime of Larry’s money.”

Star swung around and met the cool gaze of Larry’s ex-fiancée. After throwing away every photograph featuring the redhead, she thought she’d never have to look at Elizabeth again, but the bitch was back and sitting next to Agnes.

“I give it a year at the most,” Elizabeth continued.

Both women grinned at her like Cheshire cats.

Star turned to her maid-of-honor for support.

Jenny fussed with the sash gathered at her waste.

The minister coughed into his fist.

Star shifted her attention back to the gazebo looming in front of her and stepped up next to Larry.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here on the tenth day of April to join…”

“Your mother forced me to sign a pre-nup,” she hissed out of the side of her mouth.

“What?” Larry lost the goofy smile and his fair coloring drained to a chalky white.

“She threatened to cut you off if I didn’t.”

The minister opened his bible. “Marriage is a covenant of faith that endures all things…”

“And she invited your ex.”

Larry glanced over his shoulder and released a groan. “Liz must be mother’s Plus One.”

“Lawrence Charles Smyth, do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife for richer, or poorer…”

A snicker sounded from the front row.

Star clasped the roses tighter against her waist to stop herself from throwing them at the redhead.

“…until death do you part?”

“I do,” Larry responded enthusiastically as he reached out to hold her hand.

“Star Analise Petersen, do you take…”

According to the fine print, she couldn’t take anything. Agnes had made sure of that.

“…this man to be your…”

Her glossy lips eased into a smile. Hold on a minute. Why am I panicking? I just have to wait…

“…until death do you part?”

“Yes,” she replied, thinking of her mother-in-law. “I do.”

CHAPTER TWO

JOANNE OPENED HER EYES and saw raindrops sliding down the windowpane. She pulled the duvet over her head and sighed under the goose down comforter.

The bedroom door flew open.

“Are you going to come to my swim meet today? It’s my turn to be team captain.”

Bare feet slapped across the hardwood floor and stopped next to the king-size bed.

“I can’t make it today, Orsina.” Joanne listened for the sound of retreating footsteps, but heard water running off the tile roof instead.

Her daughter pulled back the duvet. “Why not?”

Joanne sat up and studied the delicate features that mirrored her own, and wondered how one explained the need for therapy sessions to a second grader. “Because I have a doctor appointment.”

Tiny arms crossed over Cinderella pajamas. “Barbara likes to watch me swim.”

“Please, don’t call your grandmother ‘Barbara’.”

“She told me to.” Orsina frowned. “Why you don’t like to watch me swim?”

“I do, sweetie, but… I drive you to ballet class. That’s our special time together.”

“I don’t like to dance.”

Joanne stared into her daughter’s deep-set, hazel eyes—the only physical trait Orsina inherited from her father, and eased back against a mound of pillows. Just like Alex, the color seemed to change from green to gray, depending on her little girl’s mood. This morning, they matched the ashen sky beyond the window.

A heavyset woman knocked on the doorframe. “Sorry to interrupt, but ‘Sina needs to hurry or she’ll be late for school.”

“Did you find my kick paddle, Sylvia?” Orsina ran up to their live-in housekeeper. “If I don’t bring it to swim class, I can’t be in charge of my friends.”

“I didn’t know it was missing.” The housekeeper steered the seven-year-old out of the room. “ If you’ve misplaced it, we better go and…”

Joanne listened to their conversation fade down the hall until a rush of wind whipped around the house, causing branches to scratch against the window. Passing storms reminded her of Venice and a ferry ride along the canal she shared with her husband sixteen years ago. A bitter chill had caused her to tremble aboard the boat that day as ancient churches and palaces towered overhead, and then Alex drew her into the warmth of his embrace, protecting her from the cold. His simple gesture made her feel truly loved for the fist time in her life.

Joanne studied the row of framed photographs arranged on her nightstand. The pictures showed her and Alex holding hands during their wedding ceremony on the shore of Lake Como, sunbathing in Sardinia on their honeymoon, and after years of wedded bliss, returning to their centuries old apartment in Milan with their baby, Orsina, wrapped in her arms. Her favorite image showed her standing beside Alex during a fashion shoot in Rome while their daughter played close by. Her career switch from working as a fashion model to assisting Alex as his wardrobe stylist allowed both her and Orsina to accompany her husband on most of his photography assignments. All three lived a dream existence until the Maldives job two years ago.

Joanne shoved the duvet aside and crossed the room. She stared blindly out the window and let in vivid memories of sitting next to Alex at his studio in Italy. They had been viewing slides for a perfume campaign when Alex received a phone call confirming the swimwear job. His handsome face lit up with excitement as he grabbed a notepad to figure out a schedule that would allow them enough time in between photo sessions to swim in the shallow turquoise waters surrounding the islands and walk along the beach.

“No.” Joanne buried her face in her hands, wanting the past to stay buried, but her story continued to unfold in agonizing detail.

A day before their scheduled departure, Orsina woke with the flu. Alex made arrangements to leave their daughter at home with relatives, but when the taxi arrived the following day to take them to the airport Joanne could not let go of her sick child. The decision left her in tears.

‘There is no reason for sadness, tesoro. I understand. Take care of our little girl and stay calm.’ Alex left her with a kiss on the forehead and what would be his final words to her. ‘I think of you every minute I am far from you.’

The commuter plane her husband booked for the final leg of the journey crashed eight hours later. The unimaginable call came that night, letting her know her soul mate had died. Inconsolable and tormented with anguish, it took months before a scar of apathy formed over her heart, making it possible to get out of bed and manage her days with a minimum amount of emotion and effort.

Tires crunched on the gravel drive below.

Joanne pulled the curtain away from the window and saw a petit figure exit a maroon Jaguar. “Sylvia, could you get the front door?” she called out. “My mother is here and I’m not dressed yet.”

Silence greeted her request.

Joanne slipped into a silk robe and walked down the hall to enter a princess-themed bedroom. The housekeeper and her daughter were rummaging through the walk-in closet, arguing. “My mother is here,” she repeated.

Sylvia stepped out of the closet, holding a swimsuit in one hand and a nose plug in the other. “Again?”

“I’m afraid so.”

They exchanged a wary smile.

“Where’s my kick paddle?” a tiny voice demanded from the closet.

A Teddy bear flew across the room.

“Go ahead and help Orsina find her things,” Joanne said. “I’ll go down.”

“Are you sure, Mrs. Santi?”

“Yes. I’ll be fine.” Joanne left the bedroom and peered over the second floor railing of the home her parents had bought for her to live in after she returned from Italy. Her mother stood boldly in the entryway, holding the front door key in her hand. “Good morning.”

Barbara Brooks looked up and frowned. “Sleeping in again?”

“I had another bad night.” Joanne resisted the urge to retreat and descended the stairs. “It’s Orsina’s turn to be team captain for her swim class today. If you’re close to the gymnasium this afternoon, you might want to stop by and watch her for awhile.”

Barbara removed her Burberry raincoat and draped it over the banister, revealing an elegant skirt suit. “I’ll never get used to that name. Orsina. It sounds like a kitchen appliance. And a cheap one at that.”

Joanne stopped on the last step and gripped the newel post. Alex chose the name after seeing their infant’s sweet face at the hospital. Mi bella, piccolo orso, he had whispered. My beautiful little bear cub.

“You should address her by her middle name, Elaine. It’s more suitable for a young lady living in Malibu.”

“I like Orsina. It’s unique.”

“It’s foreign,” Barbara said. “Some of her friends tease her about it and call her a maid. Is that what you want for your only child?”

The unexpected revelation surprised Joanne. “She never said anything to me.”

“Never mind. I came to talk to you about something else. Do you have coffee made?”

“Yes. Why don’t you sit in the den? I’ll bring it out in a minute.” Joanne headed toward the kitchen.

“What do you have planned on your schedule today?” The agitated tap, tap of her mother’s heels hit the parquet floor behind her.

“I have a two o’clock session with my therapist.” She passed under an arched doorway and aimed for the stainless steel coffee machine.

“You don’t need to pay anyone two-hundred dollars an hour to tell you what your problem is. I can do it for free.” Her mother stopped next to her. “You have too much time on your hands.”

Joanne removed two china cups from the cupboard and set them on the granite counter.

“You need to get out of the house and do something. That’s why I’m here. To help you find a reason to put on nice clothes and apply make-up everyday instead of walking around like that.” Her mother eyed the robe and slippers she wore. “My friends are constantly asking me what you’re doing with your life. What am I suppose to say? Nothing? It’s embarrassing to have to sit through lunch after lunch and listen to them drone on about how wonderful their girls are doing.”

“I would prefer it if you didn’t talk about me at all.” She placed a silver sugar bowl next to the cups.

“I try to avoid it, but your name keeps coming up in conversation.” Her mother pushed the sugar away. “Our Ladies League president, Phyllis, told me her daughter is willing to invite you out for lunch to discuss various volunteering opportunities.”

“I did that last year for the PTA and spent my time listening to a group of mothers argue over trivial concerns like what time assemblies should begin, or what color to paint the handball-courts. I couldn’t wait until those meetings were over.”

“Then do something constructive with your academic knowledge. Rachael Horowitz’s daughter used her law degree to benefit children.”

“That woman harassed the school board until they fired the best teacher at Cabrillo Elementary. And this was after Ms.Wang explained that making her students do homework in class instead of letting assignments go home where parents got overly involved made it difficult for her to properly assess the children’s needs.”

“Rachael’s granddaughter ended up with a C in English and was removed from the Honor Roll because of that rule. Something had to be done.”

Joanne picked up the coffee carafe and filled both cups. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

“Then let’s discuss your father. He’s offered to set you up in an appropriate business for a woman of your caliber. What do you think about interior design?”

“That requires training and experience I don’t have.”

“I suppose it does.” Her mother took a sip of coffee while appraising her. “You could become a contributing editor for a magazine. You used to write such lovely pieces when you attended USC.”

“My degree is pre-law not journalism.”

“Then why don’t you…”

Joanne willed Orsina to find her pool gear and run downstairs, giving her a reason to end the conversation.

“If you don’t participate in your community, you’ll never meet a man.”

“What?” The statement snapped Joanne out of her thoughts. “Is that what this is really about? Me finding another husband?”

“You can’t wait much longer. You’re thirty-seven. The older you get, the less options you’ll have.”

“I’m not interested in falling in love again.”

“Love is for teenagers and idealistic fools. You need to meet someone who can buy you your own home and be a father to your little girl. My neighbor, Sophie, told me her nephew is getting a divorce. He’s shy like you so a dinner party would have to be arranged.”

“My husband died in a plane crash.” Joanne opened the cupboard and reached for a prescription bottle of Klonopin. “Am I supposed to forget about that?”

“Of course not.” Barbara set her cup on the counter. “Alex was a nice man, but it’s time you put on a happy face and get back out there.”

Joanne struggled to open the safety cap.

“I don’t expect you to do everything at once.” Deep lines of disapproval pressed into her mother’s brow. “You can start with something simple like attending a brunch tomorrow hosted by the Grossman Foundation. The Malibu Ladies League has been asked to assist them in spreading the word about a new art gallery they want to build. I’m the publicity chair. It’s my responsibility to find people to pass out brochures. I’m choosing you.”

“I can’t go. I have to take Orsina to ballet.” She removed the cap and upended the container. A dozen yellow pills slid onto her palm.

“The brunch begins at eleven. The dance class starts at three-thirty. You have plenty of time to attend both, and…” Her mother smacked her hand. “Stop running away from your life.”

The pills flew in the air and landed on the floor.

Barbara ground them into the tile. “You’re not the only person living with disappointment. You need to find a way to get over it, or at least find a better way to deal with it.”

Flip flops slapped down the stairs followed by the steady march of the housekeeper.

“I’ll pick you up at ten.” Her mother exited the kitchen and greeted Orsina and Sylvia in the entryway.

The front door opened and shut on the conversing trio.

Joanne knelt down to wipe up the crushed anti-anxiety medication and noticed one of the pills had rolled under the dishwasher. She scooped it out with her index finger and wiped off the dust before swallowing it.

CHAPTER THREE

“ONE–HUNDRED AND SEVENTY–FIVE POUNDS.” The nurse added the information to a medical chart labeled Casey O’Neil.

Stephanie snickered.

Casey ignored her daughter and slid the ten pound weight backwards on the scale, hoping to shed a few pounds in the process. The balance beam swung up and hit the top bar. “This can’t be right, Dr. Hansen. I weighed myself at home yesterday. The number indicator on my scale read one hundred and sixty-eight.” She tapped the smaller one pound weight further to the right in an effort to even out the beam. It refused to budge. “Maybe it’s out of tune.”

“We’ve been over this before, Mrs. O’Neil. Scales bought from department stores can be off by as much as ten pounds if they’re not calibrated correctly.”

“I know, but I couldn’t have gained more weight. I still fit into my clothes. Except for my new jeans. I think I accidently shrank them in the dryer.”

“O-M-G.” Stephanie grabbed a cell phone out of her duffle bag. “Are you seriously going to make me sit through this embarrassing freak show?”

Casey lowered her voice, “You’re here because I don’t want you hanging out with boys.”

“Those boys were Tiffany’s brother Steve and his friend, and we were like… only going to the Plaza to buy a stupid jacket.”

“High school students have no business hanging out with middle school girls, Steph.”

“Really? In the middle of the day? In a crowded mall? Seriously, mom. I’m fourteen. I can take care of myself.”

Casey bit down on her lip while her daughter read an incoming text. She had felt the same when she was a pretty girl like her teen—with light green eyes and a scattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. “Beautiful girls need to be extra careful. They attract a lot of attention and some of it can lead to—”

“Ewww. Gross. We were talking about shopping. Why do you always try to turn everything into a lecture?” Stephanie jumped off the plastic chair and tapped in a text while exiting the room.

The doctor cleared his throat. “Mrs. O’Neil?”

“Sorry.” Casey faced forward and moved the ten pound weight up a notch. The beam leveled out at 175. “When was the last time you had your scale checked?”

“An adjustment isn’t the issue here.” Dr. Hansen rubbed his forehead.

The nurse set the medical chart on the counter. “I weigh one-hundred and twenty-eight. Why don’t I try it?”

Casey changed places with her.

The nurse tweaked the beam until the bar straightened out at 128.

The room fell silent.

The doctor picked up the chart. “Your blood work shows your LDL at three hundred and twenty. We need to bring that number down. Your HDL is forty two.”

Casey smiled. “Finally a low number.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not good either. We need to bring that up.” The doctor removed a pamphlet on cholesterol from his clipboard and held it out.

Casey stuffed it into her shoulder bag. “I’ll read it later. The main reason I came in today is because I always feel tired.”

“How many hours do you sleep at night?” Dr. Hansen raised his pen.

“Seven to eight.”

“Perfect. Do you exercise?”

“No. I’m too bummed out about my weight.”

The doctor lowered the pen and reached for another pamphlet. “Endorphins released through sustainable and rigorous physical activity enhance a sense of renewed energy and well-being.”

“Most of the mom’s in Malibu take anti-depressants to keep their spirits up. It must work because they’re jogging all over the place.”

The doctor frowned. “Mrs. O’Neil, we’re talking about serious medication for anxiety disorders.”

“You saw how crazy my daughter makes me,” she added in a hopeful tone.

“These pills come with a list of potential side effects.”

“Maybe I could try them for a month and see what happens.”

The doctor shook his head. “If I thought you needed them, I would fill out a prescription, but you don’t have a chemical imbalance.” He sighed and then continued in a gentle but firm tone, “What you need is a healthy diet and daily exercise plan. I want you to start by walking. My nurse will give you a chart to help you keep track of the days and time. I also want her to set up an appointment for you with our nutritionist.”

Casey’s stomach growled. She took the paperwork and backed out of the room—eager to grab a slice of pepperoni pizza before her son’s baseball game.

*       *       *

Casey pulled her Honda Civic into the Little League parking lot and drove past a row of Mercedes, BMWs and Land Rovers. She found an empty space next to a dumpster, switched off the ignition, and hauled herself out of the driver’s seat. She hurried across the asphalt, avoiding puddles left over from the rain, and waved to her eleven-year-old son as he tossed a baseball back and forth with another boy in the outfield.

The image of gooey cheese melted on top of crispy dough led Casey to the snack shack where two blonde women stood inside gossiping about someone named Lisa. She took in their slim figures decked out in colorful Juicy Couture sweat pants and snug cotton t-shirts and suppressed a sigh. She knew their names, but Malibu moms were clannish by nature and usually ignored anyone outside their neighborhood. “Can I get a slice of pepperoni pizza?”

The taller blonde grabbed a stack of paper plates off a utility shelf. “We ran out yesterday.”

Casey pointed to a spinning rack of hot dogs. “I’ll take a foot-long and a soda.”

“The coaches don’t want the kids eating junk food before games.” The plates were set on the counter. “If your son is a Yankee, you’ve got Coach Scott which means only water or Gatorade.”

“Cody is a Diamondback.” Casey inhaled the buttery scent of chocolate chip cookies cooling in a display case. “Besides, the order’s for me. I haven’t eaten lunch yet and I’m starving.”

“We have Chinese chicken salad for the adults. It’s not on the menu since the type of salad changes every day.” The shorter blonde appraised her plump figure. “You look familiar. Does your son go to Grant elementary?”

“No,” Casey said. “He goes to Western.”

“We get a few of those kids every season,” the taller blonde explained to her friend. “They come from the outskirts of Malibu. The extended border allows those boys into our baseball district but not the school district.”

Casey’s cheeks burned. Even though there were pricey homes and several view-units in the more luxurious condominiums in her neighborhood, the majority of properties would be considered average living accommodations to these women. Her condo in particular would seem like a closet compared to the mansions they lived in.

“Wasn’t your son on our White Socks team last year.” The tall blonde reached for a box of plastic cutlery. “Cathy, right?”

“It’s Casey. And yes, Cody was on the same team as Brandon.”

“I thought so. My name’s Jill and that’s Eileen.”

“I know.”

They stared at her as if she was a stalker. This time she let the sigh out. “I’ll take a scoop of the chicken salad.”

Jill packaged her request and set it on the counter. “Would you like a Gatorade for your son?”

“No, thanks. I brought him water from home.”

Both women’s expressions melted into pity.

Casey grabbed the plastic container and made a beeline for the bleachers.

Cody appeared on the other side of the chain link fence. “Hey, mom.”

“Are you excited about today?” She folded her sweatshirt into a square and used it as a cushion on the metal bench.

“Heck, yeah. It’s my first big game in Majors.”

Casey returned his smile. Cody lived for baseball. From the time her son was a toddler, he watched Dodger games on TV with his father and asked endless questions about batting averages and sacrifice plays. Instead of using his allotted time on the family computer playing video games like his friends, he researched the best way to steal bases and throw curve balls. His room was decorated with posters of Sandy Koufax and Cy Young. And yet, he had spent the last fours years in Little League trying out and being denied the one position he desperately wanted to play. “Am I going to see you pitch today?”

“No. Coach Garret said he’d let me pitch at the next practice if I caught for a few innings.”

Casey opened the container and speared a piece of chicken with the fork. “Do you want to catch?”

“No, but neither does anyone else. That’s why he made the deal with me.”

A blond boy wearing a black jacket with gold All Stars lettering stitched on the back walked past.

“Hi, Sam.”

The boy waved at her son.

“Sam made the All Star team last year as a pitcher,” Cody said.

Casey set the salad down on the bleacher. Even though Cody was always one of the best players in Little League, he had been had been passed over for All Stars the last several years in Minors because the coaches and assistant coaches always chose their sons to fill the three spots available on each team. Last year, four spots opened up, giving her son an opportunity to wear the shiny black jacket, but Cody was denied because of a technicality—his birthday passed the cutoff age to play in Minors by three days. It still rattled her that no one mentioned that at the beginning of the season when she could have easily signed him up for Majors.

“All right, men.” The umpire raised his hand. “Let’s play ball. Home team won the coin toss.”

“We’re up.” Cody ran to the dugout and sat at the end of the batting line-up.

Last in line. Making deals so he could pitch at practices instead of games. Catching because no one else would. Casey counted eleven fathers standing next to the bases, hovering by the foul lines and pacing in the dugout. One dad for every boy except Cody because his father couldn’t take time off work to fight for him. It was up to her to make sure this season would not be a repeat of the last few with Cody’s abilities and effort overlooked. The idea of confronting anyone had her dumping the salad into the trashcan and returning to the snack shack. She waited behind a line of boisterous kids and then ordered a hot dog, two Milky Way bars and a large soda. When she returned to her seat, Cody stood at home plate, fastening knee guards and a chest protector into place.

Casey glanced at the woman sitting next to her, “I can’t believe catchers need all that gear at this age.”

The woman jotted down names on a large score pad on her lap and then looked at her. “Those hard balls can come in at forty miles an hour. Last year one boy wore a protector that was too small and got nailed in the chest. It broke two of his ribs.”

Casey gasped and gripped the bleacher to stop herself from yanking her son off the field.

“Batter up.”

Cody played hard for six innings, diving on the ground and jumping in the air for wild throws. By the bottom of the seventh, the other team was down by two runs with a player on third. A home run would tie the game and add an extra inning instead of ending the game.

Crossing her fingers for a fast out, Casey watched the other team’s number three player hit the ball deep into left field.

“C’mon, Cody,” she yelled. “Get ready for…”

A stocky boy on third base took off and barreled down the line, deliberately slamming into Cody—who hit the ground with a thud and dropped the ball. Paralyzed with fear, Casey stared while her son sat dazed in a cloud of dust.

The hitter ran past third base and headed down the line.

Parents, players and the coach yelled, “Get up, O’Neil. Don’t let him score.”

Cody scrambled to his feet, scooped the ball into his mitt and twisted around to land on home plate a second before the boy ran across it.

Diamondback parents cheered.

Players ran onto the field for high-fives.

No one noticed Cody wipe blood from his nose with the sleeve of his shirt. Except for Casey.

Ten minutes later, her son walked up dragging his equipment bag. “We won, mom. Twelve to eleven.”

“That’s great, honey, but… are you okay?”

“Yeah. The coach told me I’ve got natural instincts for catching. He wants me to do it every game.”

“I thought you wanted to pitch.”

“Not anymore.”

“Why not? You’re the only one getting trampled out there.”

“Because catchers always make the All Star team.”

If they survive, she thought.

“Mrs. O’Neil.”

Casey swung around.

The Diamondback Coach approached and stopped in front of her.

She put her arm protectively around Cody. “Yes?”

“You have a great player here,” Garret said. “As of today, he’s my star catcher. That means he’ll have to use his own gear. Cal Sports in Agora gives a five percent discount if you mention my name.”

“I don’t understand. Why can’t he wear what he had on today?”

“That belongs to the team. I’m going to need it for a back-up catcher.”

“But…”

“See you at practice, young man.” The Coach tweaked Cody’s baseball cap and walked away.

“Did you hear what he said?”

Casey nodded while staring at the dried blood ringing the inside of his nostril.

“I’m the star catcher.”

“You sure are.” She led Cody toward the car, debating if should tell her husband he was paying for equipment they couldn’t afford so their son could play a position that made him bleed.

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Filed under Beauty of a Second Chance, Excerpts, Lori Jones

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