Authors: Stephanie Rowe
Tags: #Ever After#2
Astrid grimaced. What was up with Ophelia and Emma's intuition this morning? Did she have a sticker on her forehead announcing that she'd had sex by the lake yesterday? "Nothing, I—"
"That's a total lie." Emma set her sketchbook down. Her blond hair was up in a loose ponytail, and her white blouse meant she was heading into Portland for work at the museum today. As usual, her only jewelry was a thin silver chain with a tiny emerald on it, and a ring on her right hand that was a simple silver band with a turquoise stone. Her only capitulation to spunk were the triple gold hoops in her ears that had crystal teardrops hanging from them. "Spill, girlfriend. What's up?"
Astrid shifted in her chair. A part of her wanted so desperately to tell Emma what had happened with Jason, but she didn't know how to confess. She was so used to being on her own and pretending to be fine, that she didn't have any clue how to open the female bonding door. Plus, what would Emma think if Astrid told her she had slept with a total stranger? She still couldn't believe it. She hadn't been with a man since Paul. To fall into Jason's arms was so not in her character, despite what people might think. She sighed, and decided not to broach the topic. "You don't know of any rentals in town, do you? Super cheap."
Emma gave her a sympathetic grimace. "I heard about you being evicted. That's a total bummer, but at the same time, you do deserve better than living over a mechanic's shop."
Astrid raised her brows. "You've been talking to Eppie?"
"Who hasn't been talking to Eppie?" Emma closed her sketchbook and leaned back in her chair. She folded her arms over her chest and gave Astrid a thoughtful look. "Seriously, Astrid, what are you going to do? Did you find anything?"
"No, but I'm sure I will. I have three weeks." But she knew it would be difficult. Her budget was almost nothing, and the only reason she'd been able to snag her current place was because the ancient landlord was still charging the same rent that he'd been charging since he'd bought the place thirty-five years ago.
"Well, you have a little extra money, right? Since you're not leasing workspace from Clare?"
"Yes, sure." Astrid didn't feel like explaining to Emma that with the decline in her jewelry business lately, she would have had to cut that expense from her budget anyway. There was no sense in dwelling. The only logical thing to do was to figure out how to fix her situation, hence her all night party with her jewelry and apartment listings. Yes, total failure so far, but she still had three weeks. And honestly, the whole thing with Jason was seriously distracting her from her work and living crisis. She was so undone by what had happened, and had no clue how to go forward. She cocked her head and looked at Emma. "Can I ask you something?"
"Sure." Emma plucked an M&M off Astrid's cupcake. "What's up?"
"Would you ever consider dating again?" Astrid didn't know the exact details of Emma's past, but she knew that something had gone horribly wrong with her marriage before she'd returned to Birch Crossing, where she'd grown up with Clare.
Emma's face paled, and she shook her head. "No way. I'm done." She held up her sketchbook. "This is who I sleep with at night, and that's the way it's going to be."
A book? Really? Astrid leaned forward. "But, don't you ever miss being held by a man? Don't you ever have moments when you wonder what it would be like if you met the right guy?" She hadn't thought she longed for intimacy, and she'd never spent nights imagining what it would be like to find a knight in shining armor. She'd been at peace with her life...until yesterday. Until Jason had reminded her of how beautiful it could be to feel cherished by a man. Was she wrong thinking that she could go through the rest of her life alone?
Emma sighed and set down her notebook. "I used to have that dream, and that's why I made the mistake I did when I got married. I wanted to be loved and taken care of so badly, Astrid. I wanted a family so desperately that I made myself blind to the truth and convinced myself that marrying Howard was the right choice. I'll never make that mistake again. Ever."
Astrid bit her lip and leaned back in her seat, knowing that was exactly what she'd done with Paul. She'd wanted the fairy tale. She'd wanted to be rescued from her life, and because of that, she'd made herself vulnerable to the wrong man and been burned terribly. She'd thought she'd learned her lesson, but even after all that, she'd almost made the same mistake again. For that brief moment with Jason, she'd almost let that same fantasy trick her into wanting too much, into allowing herself to feel the need for a man and a connection. With a sigh, she raised her coffee mug. "Some of us are just destined to be independent goddesses, don't you think?"
Emma grinned and tapped her coffee against Astrid's. "Amen, sistah. Listen, when we're both old and doddery, we'll be the ones running around taking cruises in the Bahamas, while Clare will be stuck taking care of Griffin and pushing him around in his wheelchair so he can stock the shelves at Wright's."
Astrid laughed at the image of Griffin, who was a total male specimen, in a wheelchair. "So true. We have the freedom to live our lives the way we want without being accountable to anyone."
"Exactly." Emma grinned. "After all, just look at Eppie. After her husband died thirty-five years ago, she took over the whole damn town. The woman vibrates with life, right?"
"This is true." Astrid took a deep breath, feeling better. Emma was right. She was just fine on her own, and she had the freedom to take her life in any direction. She could go live in a hovel if she wanted to, because she didn't have to worry about taking care of a child or impressing a man. There had to be some condemned rental somewhere that she could live in, right? She didn't need much. Just a bathroom and enough light to work on her jewelry. "Total freedom."
"Of course." Emma grinned. "So, did I tell you what I decided last night?"
Astrid shook her head. "That you're going to quit that tour guide job you hate in Portland and start trying to sell your amazing artwork?"
"God, no. My creativity would dry up if I had the pressure of supporting myself with it."
Um…yeah…Astrid could relate to that. "But it's worth it—"
"I have to tell you what I decided." Emma leaned forward, her eyes glistening. "I can't believe I'm going to do this, but I'm going to—"
"Good morning, ladies." Eppie pulled up a chair and plunked herself down between them. "You two are just the women I wanted to see." Eppie was wearing a lavender and pale yellow sundress with a matching necklace, each bead almost as large as her fist. Her bright yellow and red polka dotted hat should have been a gross insult to the dress, but somehow, she made it work. She set a digital camera on the table. "You girls know how to work one of these, right?"
"Of course." Astrid chuckled and picked it up. "Eppie has gone digital. I love it."
"Yes, well, a woman must evolve if she's going to stay current." Eppie set her hand on the back of Emma's chair and gave the camera a seductive smile, tossing her head so that her loon earrings banged gently against her wrinkled cheek. "Take a picture, Astrid."
Astrid raised her brows at Emma, but obligingly took a picture of the seventy-something woman.
"And another." Eppie changed her pose, lifting her chin and giving the camera a haughty look.
Astrid took another one, and then six more while Eppie went through an assortment of poses. "What's this for, Eppie?"
Emma burst out laughing, and Astrid almost dropped the camera. "What? Seriously?"
"Of course." Eppie shot them both looks of disdain. "What? You think that just because I'm seventy-two I don't have a need for some hot loving? A girl can be independent for only so long." She stretched back in her seat, giving both younger women a satisfied smile. "I've had my fun, girls, and it's time to get a younger man to take care of me as I start to get older. A woman has to plan for these things, you know."
Astrid frowned. "But I thought you loved being single."
"There's a time and place for everything, Astrid, and the time has come for this sexpot to settle down." Eppie picked up the camera. "So, which one of you sparkling young things is going to meet me here at four o'clock today to show me how to use my new computer and get this loveforever.com thing started?"
Emma grinned cheerfully. "I have to be at work until six. Astrid? Are you around?"
As if she could deal with trying to get Eppie dating. She needed to get away from that scene, not involved in it. "I'm trying to find a place to live—"
"Nonsense. You can't do that all damn day." Eppie nodded. "It's a date. Four o'clock. I'll bring the beer. All you have to do is show up. Got it?" Before Astrid could reply, Eppie snapped her fingers. "I almost forgot, Astrid. I talked to Sam today, your landlord, in case you failed to retain that information. He said he got your message about wanting to stay in the apartment."
Astrid sat up, her heart racing. "He did? What did he say?"
"That you need to get a life. Living in his apartment is not the life for a sweet young thing like you."
Astrid stared at Eppie, her heart sinking. "Sam would never say that."
Eppie laughed and slapped her thigh. "Okay, you got me, I talked him into it, but he agreed it sounded good." She pushed back from the table. "Get a new place, Astrid. Live a little. You're turning into a shriveled old prune and that would just be a terrible shame for a gal with your zest."
"A prune?" Astrid stared at Eppie. "I'm not a prune." Yes, she might be creatively drained and sleeping alone every night, but she worked extremely hard to stay fired up about life. A prune was something that was shriveling and dying. Not her!
"Actually, it's not a bad analogy," Emma said. "Compared to when I met you a year ago, you're a little prunish."
"What?" Astrid sat up straighter, shocked by their comments. "How can you say that?"
"Ophelia!" Eppie shouted across the store. "Is Astrid turning into a prune?"
"She wouldn't if she'd eat some damn breakfast once in a while," Ophelia yelled back.
Eppie shrugged. "See? Prune." Then her eyes gleamed and she turned on her camera. "Oh, I just had the most brilliant stroke of genius. Let's both go on loveforever.com. I'll spring for your membership fee. That'll be your payment for helping me."
"Oh, no—" Astrid winced as Eppie took a picture. "Eppie, stop!"
"One more. Smile," Eppie commanded. "Men prefer a woman who looks happy."
Happy? She was supposed to put on a show to attract a man? Not that Jason had needed fake happy. She'd been overwhelmed with her life when he'd come out to see her on that rock, and she knew it was their shadows that had brought them together. Not all men were so superficial that they needed some woman who was so shallow that all she could do was giggle. Jason had appreciated her. Not that she wanted him. Or anyone. "Dammit, Eppie. I'm not going to fake it for a man."
"Faking it? Who said anything about faking it?" Eppie's well-plucked eyebrows shot up. "Hell, Astrid, if a man isn't good enough to give you a real one, he doesn't deserve to have his ego stoked with a faked orgasm. Make him earn every compliment he gets."
Emma almost snorted her coffee, and Astrid would have laughed at the irony of a senior citizen lecturing her about faking orgasms if she weren't so strung out. "Eppie, please leave me out of this." Astrid shoved back from the table. "I don't want anyone. I'm just done. I'm not ready."
"Ready?" Eppie leapt on the word. "Ready since what? What did a man do to you, Astrid? What are you so afraid of?"
Astrid met Emma's gaze, and saw an empathy so deep it made her throat tighten. Emma understood. They didn't know each other's pasts, but Emma understood. For a moment, a real smile flashed on Astrid's face, and she suddenly didn't feel so alone.
"Astrid," Eppie interrupted. "Sit your butt back in that chair and have some girl chat. It's time to stop being an outsider and let it all hang out."
Fear rippled through Astrid and she looked at Eppie. Those old violet eyes were so vibrant and alive, so full of gossip and intrigue that Astrid knew she couldn't tell the truth. It would be all over town within minutes, and then she would never be able to move past it. She would see her past reflected in everyone's faces whenever they looked at her. "Let it go, Eppie," she said quietly. "Just let it go."
Then, with a brief smile of understanding at Emma, Astrid turned and walked out, needing her space. She didn't look back as she heard Eppie calling after her. She just wanted to get away. Loveforever.com? Dating again? She felt like choking as she hurried down the steps toward her car. Maybe getting evicted was a sign. Maybe it was time to move on. Maybe it was time to move to a new place where people didn't know her well enough to start to figure out that she was really a complete wreck, or to decide to interfere in her life.
But as she pulled open the door to her old car, she glanced down Main Street at her old office, which now had a For Lease sign on the door. She smiled as she remembered the hours of conversation she and Clare had enjoyed once she'd moved in as a sublessor into Clare's space. Her best creative work had been there, when she'd first moved into town. She took a deep breath and looked around the tree-lined street, at all the little shops that were so quaint and small. People who lived here stayed forever. This wasn't a town of transients. She didn't want to be a transient anymore. She wanted to be a forever—
Then she saw a shiny black Mercedes rolling toward her, and her belly tightened.
She swallowed as longing rushed over her, and she seemed to be stuck to the ground, unable to dive into the car and hide from him.
His car slowed down as his tinted window opened. Her heart racing, Astrid lifted her chin and turned to face him. He leaned out the window and grinned, that same magnetizing smile that she'd succumbed to yesterday. "Good morning, Astrid."