Lucy Parker celebrated her fortieth birthday by burying her grandmother. The following day, her only child would go off to college. And the day after that, Lucy would figure out what to do with the giant blank that was the rest of her life.
Lucy stood—wearing her only dark suit, too hot and too tight—on a grassy hill in the Applebury cemetery, between her beautiful teenage daughter and her fighting-old-age-with-all-she-had mother, as the crimson roses on Nonna Belladonna’s casket fluttered in the late summer breeze. They scheduled the funeral for early morning, before the baking summer heat took hold. A wicked heat wave gripped Massachusetts so the weather was already hot and humid, ripe for another miserable scorcher of a day.
An airplane zoomed overhead, leaving fluffy white contrails across the cerulean sky. Cars whizzed past on the nearby freeway. The world still turned even as Lucy’s life lost its axis, leaving her disoriented, wobbly, and shaken in her one good pair of shoes. The gleaming mahogany casket reflected the three Castillio women, surrounded by an ocean of mourners, blurry through Lucy’s tears. The ancient priest mumbled prayers, the same prayers they always used…dust-to-dust…eternal rest…perpetual light…blah, blah, blah. Her vibrant, vivid grandmother could not be in that box. She couldn’t possibly…
“Ma, do you have a mint?” Juliet, her eighteen-year-old, leaned over to whisper. Lucy dashed at her face, swiping the tears away, and shook her head. Her mother, Susan, leaned over Lucy to hand Juliet her designer purse. It probably cost more than the monthly rent on Lucy’s apartment. Juliet rummaged through and, in the front pocket, came up with a small, dusty white wafer. Juliet bit it and handed half to Lucy who absently stuck it in her mouth, as her eyes strayed to the scorched brown grass on the slight mound over her husband’s grave. Andrew. Already gone a year, and her a widow at only forty…
The mint dissolved on her tongue, leaving a bitter, chalky aftertaste. Coughing discreetly, she glanced at Juliet. Her daughter screwed up her face into the same expression of disbelieving disgust she made when Lucy tried to feed her baby cereal all those years ago. Give the bambino my pastina, Lucia! See how she likes the little stars…
“It’s a Tums!” Lucy hissed, swallowing hard against the chalky aftertaste. Susan and Juliet met her gaze, both of them dissolving into laughter on the spot with Lucy joining in. The three women embraced, holding each other up, in a tight huddle of grief and laughter, as the priest droned on and bumblebees buzzed among the flowers. Lucy raised her face to the sky, focusing on the fluffy clouds scudding across vast blue expanse. When the sunbeams pierced through the clouds, like a celestial wave, Lucy knew somewhere up there, Nonna laughed too.
* * *
After the service, as the family greeted fellow mourners under the shade of a nearby oak tree, Lucy’s stomach rumbled, reminding her she hadn’t had more than black coffee for breakfast. Maybe they could grab lunch after this.
Still so many people to greet. Everyone in Applebury knew Nonna. They all wanted to share stories and recipes as they reminisced through their grief. Standing under the shade of a sprawling oak, as the heat of the day crept upward, Lucy wanted to scream as her makeup melted off her face to puddle in her good pearls and her only good pair of shoes sank into the damp ground. Still, she plastered a smile to her face. She owed it to Nonna.
“Lucy, I’m so sorry.” Jack Hamilton stepped up, his wavy dark hair fluttering in the welcome breeze before flopping over his forehead, sunglasses hiding his eyes. He took her sweaty hand, pressing it between his own palms, surprisingly rough and callused. She wondered if he’d been sailing more since his divorce. “We all loved Nonna.”
“Jack!” She said, smiling at her former brother-in-law in his well-cut dark suit, hanging loosely from his broad shoulders. He’d lost weight since his divorce. “I haven’t seen you in ages. Not since…” Andrew’s funeral, she thought but didn’t say. His father handled the settling of Andrew’s estate, so she rarely encountered Jack. “How are you?”
“Your grandmother left you a rather unusual bequest we should chat about.” He sighed, rubbing his forehead, his mouth pressed to a thin line. His dress shirt gaped at the neck. “I wondered if I might stop by and talk to you sometime this week.”
What had Nonna done now?
“Of course. Is Tuesday afternoon convenient for you?” He nodded, dropping her hand. Despite the heat of the day, she missed his warmth. She gave him her home address and contact information before turning to the next mourner, her thoughts still with Jack. Her closest childhood friend married Andrew’s sister, making them all one big happy family. Fractured now, in the aftermath of Andrew’s untimely death. Once Jack and Jenny divorced, her friendship with Jack slipped under the excuse of their hectic schedules.
Life twists and turns, Bellissima, Lucy heard her grandmother’s voice in her head, and swallowed hard against the aching void in her chest. She hadn’t expected to miss Nonna so much, so soon.
“Darling, do let’s get going. I need you to drive me to Logan,” Susan murmured at her elbow. Her mother’s strawberry-blonde hair, cut short around her face, caught the sun, picking up the brassy highlights. She wore a sleeveless dress, in a size Lucy could only dream of, showcasing her tanned, freckled arms, muscled from all the golf she played in Florida. “I’ve got a tournament tomorrow.”
“And I need to finish packing, Mom,” Juliet chimed in from the other side, her fingers playing with the end of her dark braid.
Lucy nodded, as her sister-in-law, Jenny approached with her fiancée Barb, both wilting from the heat in their best clothes.
“Hell of a way to spend your birthday, hon,” Barb said as Jenny hugged her.
“We’ll celebrate next book club meeting, okay?” Jenny squeezed her hand before hugging Susan and Juliet. They chatted for a moment before the group headed toward the line of gleaming cars exiting the cemetery, all with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning blasting. Susan bustled down to Lucy’s compact, settling in and sipping from her water bottle as Juliet climbed into Jenny’s luxury SUV.
Jenny called, “We’ll drop Juliet home so you can take your mom to the airport.”
Lucy glanced around, surprised to see the vast sea of mourners already dispersed, just her and the ghosts left under the now baking sun in the graveyard. She lifted her hand to wave farewell but dropped it limply to her side. Her grandmother wasn’t there. Instead, Lucy hurried to her car without looking back.
“Don’t you want to go out to celebrate your birthday, even if it is a belated celebration? You turned forty. Don’t you want to live it up a little?” Jenny asked, in her habitual early morning phone call, several days after Nonna’s funeral. She meant well, though Lucy often felt like a rebellious teenager to her mother-hen routine.
“Not at all,” Lucy answered. “I have the whole day off and I’m going to enjoy it. I’m going to make Nonna’s summer sauce and read a book. Maybe even take a bubble bath.”
“Luce, all you do is cook…”
Lucy hung up the phone and tossed it aside. She crawled from the bed, leaving the tangled sheets in disarray, and tossed on frayed jean shorts and a torn Bon Jovi T-shirt. After all, who was there to see her? Who cared if her hair frizzed around her head, like a wild witch of yore? She headed out into the wiltingly-hot late August morning to the grocery store for sauce ingredients.
She returned from the store and clomped up the triple-decker stairs to her singles apartment. After Andrew’s death, Lucy no longer fit into her old neighborhood of affluent couples raising high-achieving kids, but she didn’t fit in here at the apartment complex either. Young singles or newlyweds used these apartments as way-stations to the rest of their lives. She’d boomeranged back here and didn’t belong. On the bright side, living in an apartment on the third floor helped her to tone up her forty-year-old thighs.
Still, she missed the familiar comfort of her former life, especially her expansive garden. She wished her tiny dull box of an apartment could accommodate a few planters, but it didn’t include a terrace or balcony. Even her droopy herbs on the windowsill gave up the ghost in the August heat wave.
“My grandparents grew the best garden, Frankie.” Comfortable on his sunshine-filled perch on the comfortable rocking chair in the corner of the kitchen, the white cat she’d named for her favorite crooner cracked open one blue eye before resuming his snooze.
“I remember eating tomatoes out of it—still warm from the sun—Nonna would keep a salt shaker in her apron pocket and we’d eat the tomatoes like apples. Not like these anemic things.” She waved the grocery store tomato. “Look at that—the height of tomato season and it’s still nothing compared to those delicious tomatoes my grandfather used to grow. Even the farmer’s market can’t match them.”
Today, she’d have to rely on the dismal supermarket produce to make her favorite recipe. Lucy loved summer sauce, a family recipe handed down to her from Nonna, who no doubt got it from her grandmother. Andrew hadn’t liked it much, so she hadn’t made it in years—since the first summer of her marriage, when she was swollen with Juliet and about to pop. She’d eaten it right before she went into labor. Today, she missed the taste—like summer captured on a spoon, the taste of her childhood with Nonna.
By half-past seven, she’d already salted the eggplant, smiling as she heard the echo of her grandmother’s voice in her head. “Always pull out the bitterness, bellissima. It’s like the salt in your tears pulling out the bitterness from your heart, no?” And her mother’s stern, disapproving tsk, as she flipped through endless accounting spreadsheets as she worked at the kitchen table.
Lucy chopped the bell pepper and zucchini before moving on to the onion. Tears prickled at the back of her throat and pooled at the corner of her eyes. Swallowing hard to shove the tears away, she plunged the onion into a bowl of icy water. Since Andrew’s untimely death and Nonna’s unexpected passing, she’d shed plenty of tears. Today wasn’t for crying. Today, she would make her grandmother’s summer sauce and eat a giant bowl of it, maybe two giant bowls. After that, she would think and plan and figure things out.
Like how to fill in the enormous blank that was the rest of her life.
She didn’t even know where to start. Everything overwhelmed her. She’d married at twenty-two and produced Juliet within six months of the wedding. Her life became an endless round of caring for a newborn and a house, following her military husband around from post to post before he’d retired two years ago. As they’d planned, they returned to their hometown of Applebury. She’d never been able to build her own career with their constant moving, which camouflaged the fact that she actually had no idea what she wanted to be when she grew up. Throughout their marriage, Lucy’d held down a string of part-time jobs but nothing to give her life purpose like being a wife and mother.
At only forty, she was too young to be a widow with an empty nest. Her stale marriage had gone flat as day old champagne. Andrew bored her, with his dull descriptions of office life and endless meetings. Over time, their love for Juliet became their only true connection. Driven to desperation, Lucy contemplated divorce and, just as she readied herself to end her marriage, her ever-considerate husband dropped dead of a massive heart attack in the middle of third floor accounting. And instantly, she transformed from a bored wife to a guilty widow with an empty nest, the rest of her life yawning blankly in front of her like an endless, barren canyon.
“Let’s see. Make a list. Get a career. Find a new place to live. Figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Should be easy, right, Frankie? Why not add world peace to the list?”
The cat flicked his tail and snoozed on. Not the best brainstorming partner.
“What was it Barb taught me? Break it down into manageable steps?” She stared at the blank beige wall above the kitchen counter for a few seconds but no manageable next step occurred to her. A dozen dizzying possibilities ran through her head—so much freedom bewildered and intoxicated her. Her hands shook as she chopped the mushrooms. The sharp knife slid dangerously toward her fingers before she caught it and placed it carefully on the cutting board. “Careful, bellissima. Knives are not good for fingers—they cut like a lover’s words in the heart.” She heard the echo of Nonna’s patient cooking instructions.
Once she finished chopping the vegetables, Lucy poured herself a glass of water from the tap, staring out at the bleak, summer baked landscape of her suburban apartment complex. From here, all the buildings looked depressingly similar, like the rows of coffins she’d had to choose from when Andrew died. Oh, they might boast some small, distinguishing detail—an extra window there, a railing here. But in the end, the denizens of suburbia lived their lives crammed into identical boxes. Homogenized rows of the living just like the cemetery held homogenized rows of the dead.
“My husband died, my grandmother died, and my daughter left the nest. I need to rebuild my life,” Lucy said aloud to the cat, now ribboning his way through her legs. Frank meowed back, whether in agreement or a plea for his crispy treats, Lucy couldn’t tell. She sighed, tossed some treats to the cat, and started sautéing her veggies.
“The oil is just to soften them up a bit, take away their thick stubbornness. But the real magic comes during their long soak in the pot, eh, bellisima?” her grandma instructed her in Lucy’s memory. “See, I have been in the pot a long time. I am soft now.” She would poke her middle and throw her head back with her rich, hearty laugh.
Lucy tossed the ingredients into the pot, tidied up, and went about her morning as the sauce simmered, filling the tiny apartment with the rich scent of rustic Italian cooking and her memories of Nonna Belladonna. Towards lunchtime, she set a pot of water—as salty as the sea—on the stove to boil and stirred her sauce again.
“What do I wish for?” She wondered aloud to the cat, like a maiden in a fairytale. She and the cat spent an enjoyable few minutes, her tossing out more exotic wishes and him ignoring her.
“I wish for a handsome husband. No, I take that back. I don’t miss being married all that much. But I do miss the sex,” Lucy admitted to the cat. Having been neutered, the cat possessed no great interest in affairs of the heart. He tucked his head back into his paws and resumed his nap.
She did miss sex. She thought about Andrew and her greatest hits. There’d been the time in San Francisco; another at Disney World on the hotel balcony, so as not to wake their daughter; sunrise at the beach; thousands of times in the big cozy bed she’d sold because it wouldn’t fit through the front door of her apartment. Their varied and frequent sex life was the one constant in their crumbling, boring marriage, the bedrock, so to speak. And all she missed of it.
And now Andrew was gone. After she recovered from the first shock of her sudden widowhood, she missed sex the most.
“The problem is, where to get a convenient man? It’s not like they sell them at Wal-Mart or Costco. There is no Men R Us—well, not more than plastic body parts and I’ve already got plenty of those. They’ll do in a pinch. But they’re not the same.”
“That’s what I wish for! A lover!” She muttered before banging her spoon on the pot. Frankie, startled by the unexpected noise, leapt from his spot on the chair and streaked out of the kitchen, past a pair of shiny, polished black loafers.
Ali d’Angelo, Italy
Belladonna Rossi knew, just knew, this was going to be her year. Since before she could remember, she’d wanted nothing more than to be Queen of the May. Each year, the sisters at the Ali d’Angelo primary school selected the most virtuous girl in the village to lead the May procession through the town, honoring the Blessed Mother. After leading the faithful past stunning views of Toscana in the spring, following the life-sized statue of the Blessed Virgin borne by the strongest altar boys, the May Queen crowned the statue, before laying a bouquet of spring blossoms in front of a Renaissance painting of Mary being crowned Queen of the Heaven, standing beneath a blossoming orange tree.
Bella didn’t possess such lofty goals for herself. She’d take just being queen for a day.
For all her thirteen years, other village girls donned May crowns of woven roses and jasmine, carrying a matching miniature version on a silk pillow. Her day would come.
And this was it—finally her year, her turn to be Queen of the May.
Such an honor would mean she’d get a new dress. Bella knew just the one she wanted, in apple-green, trimmed with white lace, displayed in the window of the Innocentis shop in the village square. Her parents would close up the vineyard for the day and come to stand with the other town elite, mamma’s golden curls covered with her black lace mantilla, watching the children process. Bella imagined her proud parents, her perpetually exasperated mother gifting her with a rare smile, her stoic father wiping tears of pride from his eyes, her sister turning the color of her new dress with envy. She would school her features into a placid expression as she took the tiny woven crown from her handmaiden and gently place it on the Madonna’s head. She’d carefully place her hawthorn bouquet in front of the ancient painting, her head piously bowed, before leading her fellow students to the pews, songs of praise swelling around them.
“What has you in such a happy, dreamy mood this morning, mi bellissima?” Her father asked as he came in from his morning walk among the vines. Bella’s family owned the oldest of the local vineyards, the Bacio Belladonna. Bella herself was the vineyard’s seventh namesake.
“She thinks she’ll be Queen of the May this year,” Ava, her nosy little sister, answered for her. Bella glared at her before remembering the May Queen needed to be placid and ladylike. She smoothed out her features and bestowed her best smile on her Babbo. He grinned back, softening the lines on his tired face. Her mother handed him his strong morning coffee and he sank gratefully down into the chair beside her.
“I hope the sisters pick you, mi bellissima, for your sake.”
“Pick her? She argues with the sisters far too much,” Ava scoffed. When Babbo turned to speak to her mother, Bella twisted the skin on Ava’s forearm in a vicious pinch. Her answering howl drew the attention of both parents and Bella scurried out of the house to school.
At school, Bella waited all day for the announcement. After all, this was her last chance. She’d move on to secondary school next year, a shadowy holding ground between primary school and adulthood, where they didn’t crown May Queens. Bella sat next to her friend, Mary Teresa, and considered how to best appear surprised when her name was called.
“Who do you suppose it’ll be?” Teresa asked.
“Sister Gianna says it will be the most worthy girl in school so…” Bella shrugged, not wanting to appear too certain of her victory.
“Won’t be me, then,” Teresa laughed. “Did you do the reading…”
When the old Mother Superior made her slow, creaky way to the stage, Bella smoothed her hair with her hand and shushed her friend, cutting their homework discussion short. After several Hail Marys, the elderly nun smiled at the girls and said, “You must be anxious to hear who your May Queen will be. The sisters and I struggled with our decision, as we do every year. The girl chosen must be an example of a true Catholic woman, a model for the others to fashion themselves upon. This year, we’ve chosen…”
Bella uncrossed her legs to stand. She twined her shaking fingers in her uniform skirt and half rose out of her chair when the name the Mother Superior said registered.
“Maria Innocenti?” She gasped, dropping back into her seat with a bounce. “Did she say…?”
“Figures.” Teresa nodded sagely. “The Innocenti’s store is doing well since they started selling that chestnut spread. They made a big donation to the school, my mom said.”
“But Maria?” Bella said. There was nothing wrong with Maria Innocenti, a little round dumpling of a girl, her uniform always perfectly straight, never a hair out of place. Though she wasn’t at the top of the class, she did her schoolwork and spoke respectfully to the sisters. Dutiful and sweet. Everything that Bella—independent, headstrong, intelligent—was not.
* * *
Toscana bloomed in every direction. The day of the May Festival dawned bright and clear, with just a few puffy clouds for contrast in the perfect blue sky. Trees limbs waved in the spring breeze, delighted with their new jade colored coat of leaves. The fields faded from the intense emerald of early spring into the washed out chartreuse of summer. Bright red poppies dotted the fields like angel’s blood. Yellow wildflowers filled the valley below, interspersed here and there with purple sage blooms. Olive groves and vineyards tumbled down the side of the mountain like Lady Bountiful’s skirts.
And, at the moment, Bella loathed every single bit of it.
For today, Maria Innocenti would steal her rightful place as Queen of the May. Bella glared out her window at the perfect spring day. With a deep sigh, she turned away from the repulsive view of the verdant valley and struggled into her old pink dress. She detested pink. Over repeated washings, the vibrant salmon color dulled to a color paler than cherry blossoms.
Her mother, working by candlelight over the last several nights, let out the bust and down the hem so Bella could squeeze herself into it today. The hated dress flattened her generous bust and she couldn’t lift her arms above her shoulders. Bella spent the morning with her arms crossed over her flattened chest, glowering at everyone. Maria Innocenti wore a perfect white eyelet dress, her glossy hair in ringlets over her shoulders. Looks like a snowball. Mother Superior caught sight of one of her sharper glares and with a sweet smile, roped Bella into holding the pillow containing the tiny floral crown. Though Bella knew the Mother Superior’s intentions were kind, Bella now had to walk next to Maria, in her new spotless white dress, with her flawless hair. To add insult to injury, now she had to play handmaiden to the dumpling.
The seven-year-olds, dressed in their First Communion finery, led the procession on a circular route through the town, past all the shops, the tiny homes at the edge of the village, before winding their way around the outer perimeter. The children picked their way along the mountain path, their voices raised in praise. Bella kept her mouth tightly screwed shut. She didn’t feel much like singing.
Florence was a dark gray smudge on the horizon. Babbo told her it was only about thirty miles but, to Bella, it might as well be on the moon. She wished herself there. Anywhere other than here, next to the usurper who even sang perfectly too. The silk pillow made Bella’s hands sweat, the cloying scent of roses and jasmine coating her throat and choking her.
After what seemed an interminable parade, the procession entered the tiny village church. The sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows turned Maria’s dress into a brilliant jewel colored patchwork. Inside the medieval church, thick stone walls cooled the interior, even in the worst of summer’s heat. Intercessor candles, lit for someone’s special intention, flickered under the statues and artwork of various saints lining the walls. Candles, cloaked with red globes, burned perpetually next to the tabernacle and on the altar. The heavy scent of the incense clogged the air. A sense of timelessness and eternity pervaded the tiny chapel. They could have been medieval shepherdesses singing songs of praise to the Mother of God or worshippers in some distant, unimaginable future.
After the townsfolk filed in, the priest sprinkled them with holy water, spattering the front of Bella’s hated pink dress and her cheeks with the cool droplets. The altar boys carried the statue of Mary into the Ladies Chapel, off to the left of the main altar. First, the May Queen would place her bouquet of roses in front of the pride of Ali d’Angelo—a painting of the coronation of Mary as the Queen of Heaven done by some Renaissance master nobody’d ever heard of. Her conscripted handmaiden handed off the small wreath of flowers from the pillow. The May Queen would secure the tiny circlet of flowers—always pink rosebuds twined with white jasmine— on the statue’s head before the young men of the village, dressed in their altar boy outfits, would hoist the statue up into the niche carved for her. They’d file into their pews, still singing, waiting for Mass to begin.
Bella extended the pillow toward Maria, who grasped the crown of tiny flowers, her hands shaking. She stepped forward to place the crown on the lowered statue’s head but her heel caught in the little dip in the rug marking the entrance to the underground crypt below. Every child in Ali d’Angelo knew to avoid the divot, just as they knew the stories of the wicked things living below. Maria stumbled and the miniature crown slipped from her fingers, toppling toward the sacristy floor. Maria froze with horror. Without thinking, Bella darted forward and snatched the blessed crown in mid-air, before it could hit the unblessed floor. The overstrained seams under her arms give way when she moved. She handed the crown back to Maria who gave her a shaky smile before turning away to place the diadem on the statue’s head.
Bella rolled her eyes. The altar boy stared at her, his chocolate brown eyes dancing with mischievous glee. Maria’s brother, Tommaso. Nearly 15 now. When had he gotten so handsome? His dark hair flopped over his forehead in a wavy fringe. He grinned at her and then, as Bella watched him, flushing with a heat she did not yet understand, he winked.
He actually winked.
Bella smiled. Suddenly the day didn’t seem so awful after all.
When Lucy spotted the shiny black loafers, she stepped backwards, banging her hip on the stove controls. She clutched the dirty wooden spoon to her chest, spattering her tattered T-shirt with red sauce. Jack Hamilton stood in the doorway, holding a small moving box, his battered black leather briefcase resting on top of it. He grinned at her, amusement lighting his green eyes, boyish and carefree, more like the Jack she remembered than the careworn adult from Nonna’s funeral. As heat crept up her cheeks, she smiled back automatically, hoping he hadn’t heard her ridiculous wish.
“I knocked. It was open.” He pressed his lips together as though trying not to laugh. He didn’t meet her eyes. She wasn’t sure if it was due to amusement or embarrassment—probably a little of both. Her cheeks grew warmer. “I brought those estate papers for you. The bequest I mentioned when I saw you the other day.”
“Oh, yes, I thought you were coming on Tuesday,” Lucy gasped, her heart still thumping hard in her chest. Did he hear her pronouncement? If he did, would he say anything? His blank expression showed no sign, his “lawyer face” sliding over his amusement like armor.
“It is Tuesday,” Jack answered, biting his lower lip, worry lines creasing his forehead.
“Oh well.” Lucy glanced at the cat calendar hanging on the refrigerator. It still showed last month. Whoops. Lucy gave the sauce a final stir, more to have something to do than anything else.
Don’t overstir, bellissima. You’ll agitate the vegetables and they will fight in your tummy, yes?
She turned from the stove and wiped her hands on her makeshift dishtowel apron. “Have a seat, Jack. I made summer sauce. Have some lunch with me.”
“I couldn’t impose,” Jack began.
“Don’t be silly! You’re too skinny now without Jenny to cook for you.” Jack hadn’t weathered the divorce well. His well-cut blue pinstripe suit hung off his broad shoulders. His cheekbones were sharp slopes in his too thin face and the bones of his collarbone pushed against his blue dress shirt.
With a shrug, he nodded and walked to the scrubbed pine table, laying the box on the end of the table and moving his briefcase into the chair next to him. He slung his suit jacket over the chair back and began rolling up his blue sleeves as he sat, before wrestling his red tie loose in one smooth motion.
With little forethought, the same way she would have cared for Andrew or for Juliet, she poured Jack a glass of milk and ladled up a bowl of hot pasta and sauce. She set it in front of Jack with a napkin and utensils before turning to serve herself. She sat across from him, their knees bumping beneath the tiny kitchenette table crammed into the minuscule eating nook. Though her apartment always seemed tiny after her suburban McMansion, the kitchen seemed even smaller now with Jack in it. Lucy shook her head. Perhaps she just wasn’t used to visitors.
Jack sampled the sauce and smiled. “Just like Nonna Belladonna always made.”
“I’ve been cooking a lot lately. I’d gotten out of the habit of cooking from scratch. Relying on convenience foods is more like assembling meals.”
“It’s wonderful,” he assured her, taking another bite before asking, “How do you like living here?”
“Oh, well, it’s okay. Convenient to the shops and all that.” Lucy shrugged, glancing around at the tiny, depressing apartment. Twenty paces across and less than that wide. All in boring beige. “I don’t fit in here though. I don’t belong with the swinging singles and the newlyweds.”
“After Jenny and I split, I moved into Cider Hill View apartments—though there aren’t any views at all. But it’s the same. Apartment living doesn’t suit me either but it’s close for the kids. And it’s better than living with dad. Bad enough to work with him,” Jack said, spooning up more sauce. “How’s your job at the craft store?”
“It’s not enough to support me for the rest of my life but it’s fun for now. I like being creative.” She slid back in the chair and stood to serve Jack seconds. “We moved so much while Andrew served in the military I never seemed to be able to establish anything. When we came back here, I figured I’d wait until Juliet was out of high school before settling on a career. I guess I just sort of drifted. I can’t figure out what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life.”
“When we were kids, you were the bossiest of the bunch. I’m sure there is little you can’t do,” Jack smiled.
“The only thing I ever loved was cooking. That frustrated my mom so much. She wanted me to go into business or accounting and all I wanted to do was make summer sauce.” Lucy smiled and waved at the dishes.
“It was wonderful, Lucy. As always.” Jack spooned up the last of his second bowl of sauce and waved Lucy off when she reached for his bowl to ladle up thirds. “What about a restaurant?”
“Nonna would have loved that.” She didn’t feel any desire to own her own restaurant. “Lot of work though. More business than cooking for the joy of it. How about you, Jack? How are you doing?”
“I’m good,” Jack answered automatically, and then continued as if by rote. “I’m happy for Jenny about the engagement.”
“Me too,” Lucy said, when Jack fell silent.
“The boys love Barb. She’s great, who wouldn’t love Barb?” Jack said. Lucy admired how he kept the bitterness in his voice to a minimum.
“Yes, but how are you?” Lucy asked again, gently this time.
“Same old. Working for the old man, who’s never going to die. Teaching business law classes to bored undergrads at the community college.” Jack cleared his throat and tapped his long, slim fingers on the table. Lucy waited, knowing Jack’s tell for changing the subject. “I brought you something else.”
“Is it strawberry cannoli from Mike’s Pastry?” Lucy grinned. Jack’s main office sat in the heart of the city, within walking distance of the newly revitalized North End. In college at Boston University, they’d all gone on many a late night study run for the delicious, gooey pastries. Lucy still adored the sweet treats.
“Not today, I’m afraid. I appeared in court in Newburyport this morning.” Jack shrugged and Lucy waved it away.
“Well, whatever it is, it looks serious. Let me make coffee.” Jack slid back on the chair in seeming relief at the small reprieve as Lucy stood to brew the coffee.
“Did you know I was Nonna’s lawyer?” Jack asked as she set out mugs of strong coffee and a small plate of iced lemon cookies.
“Not until you mentioned it the other day.”
“Yes, she came to see me in the city—”
“Nonna came to see you in the city?” Lucy couldn’t keep the note of incredulity out of her voice. “By herself? How did she get into the city?”
“Yes, about six weeks ago. I don’t know how she got there. She brought me lemon cookies and asked me to be the executor of her estate.” Lucy blinked at him, too stunned to form words at the thought of her ninety year old grandmother getting into the city without anyone else’s knowledge or assistance.