Sunday, February 9, 2014

Once Upon a Winter's Heart by Melody Carlson

Once Upon a Winter's Heart
Center Street (January 7, 2014)
Melody Carlson

Chapter 1

"Romance is officially dead," Emma Burcelli proclaimed as she reached for the last empty crate. She pulled off the lid and dropped several pairs of jeans into the plastic box, packing them down.

"That is so coldhearted." Lucy frowned as she handed Emma a small stack of wool sweaters. "Why would you say that?"

Emma looked sadly at her roommate—her soon-to-be ex- roommate. "Because my grandparents were the last of the true romantics and now my grandfather is gone." She let out a long sigh. "I honestly don't know what my grandmother will do without Poppi. Those two were inseparable. I doubt they ever spent a night apart."

"How old is your grandmother?" Lucy handed her the plastic lid.

"I think she's eighty-six now." Emma snapped the lid into place. "They just celebrated sixty-five years last summer. And they both seemed in such good health . . . I felt certain they'd make it to their seventieth anniversary." Emma stood. "But now Nona is having some health problems, and today she forgot to take her blood pressure meds. My mom's predict- ing Nona won't last long on her own. I've heard it's not so unusual, I mean, when a couple has enjoyed such a good marriage, that one partner follows the other within the year."

"I'm sorry about your grandfather." Lucy shook her head.

"And that's why I need to go. Nona was like a second mom to me when I was growing up, when my parents were so busy with their careers. I couldn't forgive myself if she passed on too without me getting to spend some time with her." Emma set the last crate onto the stack by the door. "But I hate leaving you in the lurch like this, Lucy. Are you sure you can find someone to share the apartment?"

"I already told you it's okay, Em. Family is important— you need to go. And there's always someone at work looking for something in the city. If I get a girl in here right away I can reimburse you for February."

Emma hugged Lucy. "Thanks for being so understanding." "Let me help you get this stuff down to your car." Lucy picked up a crate.

After several trips, the compact Prius was packed to the gills and it was time to go. Emma gave Lucy one last hug, blinking back tears. "I'm gonna miss you, Lucy."

"Me too." Lucy's eyes filled. "You better get out of here if you want to beat the commuter traffic."

"Yeah, and I want to get home before dark." Emma got into her car and, giving the old apartment complex one last glance, she waved to Lucy. Really, she reminded herself as she backed out the car, she was overdue for a change. She'd en- joyed her time in Seattle . . . at first . . . but these last couple of years had been nothing but disappointing. And she would not miss her job at all. Selling badly illustrated, poorly writ- ten, and overly sentimental e-cards was not the career she'd dreamed of while securing her degree in marketing. It was not what she'd signed on for when she'd joined the so-called up-and-coming Seattle marketing firm. They called them- selves BrightPond, but DullPond would better describe that company and the "boys" who ran it.

As Emma drove down the freeway she tried to distract her- self from feeling blue about Poppi by listening to the radio. But when an Adele heartbreak song started to play, she turned it off and let out a loud sigh. Okay, she knew it was some- what cold and hard to go around proclaiming that romance was dead, but that was exactly how she felt inside. Not only because Poppi had died, although that placed a definite excla- mation mark on her opinionated statement, but also because of her own personal experiences. Too many times she'd discov- ered that men like her grandfather were all but nonexistent. Truly Poppi had been the last of a dying breed.

Of course, she knew that Poppi would probably argue this with her. He would launch into a passionate lecture about how love was alive and well for those who were willing to take notice. "Just open your eyes," he would often say to people, "love is all around you." But Emma had never been able to see it. Poppi had been lucky in the romance arena. He'd met Nona, the love of his life, in Napoli shortly after World War II—the war that had devastated much of Italy. But despite losing family and suffering deprivations, they'd managed to hold on to this wonderful sense of optimism and hope and love. Shortly after marrying, they immigrated to America, starting new lives in Seattle near some of Nona's relatives. Later on they moved their little family to a small town in the mountains, and they opened a bookstore in the 1960s.

Her grandparents' story had always sounded so romantic to Emma as she was growing up that for years she believed something that wonderful and magical would happen to her . . . someday. In fact, she had fully expected it. But after more than a decade of disappointing relationships, most of which she preferred not to remember at all, Emma had grown seriously jaded about love and romance . . . and men in gen- eral. Most of the men she'd dated had proven to be self- absorbed, shallow, and immature. Whether it was just bad luck or bad choices, she'd eventually grown weary of dating in general. And over the years she'd become increasingly cer- tain that good, decent, chivalrous men, like an endangered species, no longer existed in the real world. True romance was only to be found in old movies and classic books.

Even Emma's parents seemed to have missed out in the love and romance department. For as long as Emma could remem- ber they'd bickered and fought over almost everything. The fact they were still together probably had more to do with the image they liked to maintain than real love. With highly vis- ible careers, her parents thrived on keeping up appearances. Although they shared the same building on Main Street, with her dad's law practice on the first floor and her mom's design firm up above, anyone who knew Saundra and Rob Burcelli per- sonally knew that this couple lived very separate lives. And any- one who knew them really well, like their close relatives, knew that Rob and Saundra slept in separate bedrooms. Emma's mom claimed it was due to Rob's snoring, but Emma knew bet- ter. And, really, it wasn't all that surprising. For as long as she could recall Emma had known and accepted that her parents' marriage was nothing like Nona and Poppi's.

Tired of these depressing thoughts, Emma turned the radio back on. Even listening to sad love songs was preferable to getting bummed out like this. But now that she was off the freeway and heading into the foothills, the Seattle station was breaking up. Plus it was starting to rain. Turning off the ra- dio, she knew it was time to focus on her driving. At these elevations and this time of year, it could be icy out here.

It was just getting dusky when she pulled up to Nona's house. The familiarity of the Craftsman style home glowing in the rosy twilight welcomed Emma just as it had always done. De- spite the frosty air, the bungalow's windows seemed to prom- ise golden warmth and respite and love. How many times had she and her younger sister arrived at this haven in search of refuge? Only now...things had changed. Poppi was gone.

She swallowed against the lump in her throat as she parked in front of the house. But as she got out of the car, she was slightly taken aback by the sight of her mother's late model Cadillac in the driveway. What was she doing here at this time of day? As Emma hurried up to the house, she grew worried. Had Nona's health gotten worse? Her mom had mentioned that Nona had neglected to take her blood pres- sure medicine yesterday. What if she'd suffered a stroke or heart attack today? It was bad enough that Emma hadn't been able to say goodbye to Poppi. But what if Nona was gone as well?

She ran up the porch steps and, knocking on the door, waited a moment before testing to see if it was locked, which would be highly unusual. Then Emma let herself in. "Nona?" she called softly. "Hello? Mom?"

"Oh, there you are." Saundra Burcelli rushed toward her, smelling like Obsession perfume and looking typically elegant in her pale blue cashmere sweater set and freshwater pearls. She held her arms open and hugged Emma. "Welcome home, darling. Did you have a good drive?"

"Yes," Emma said quickly. "Is Nona okay?" She peeled off her parka, glancing anxiously around the living room. Everything looked pretty much the same. Except that Poppi's recliner was sadly empty. She turned away, unwilling to break into tears again.

"Nona is fine. I made sure she took her medicine today. And she's resting right now." Her mom tipped her head to- ward the closed bedroom door on the other end of the living room. "It's been a long day for her. Tending to arrangements for the memorial service and all that. I told her that I could handle it for her, but she insisted on being involved with ev- ery last tiny detail. She wants everything to be just perfect for Poppi."

"I got here as quickly as I could." Emma hung her parka on the hall tree by the door. "And I can help her with everything that needs doing from here on out, Mom."

"I'm still surprised they let you off work in the middle of the week like this, Emma. And with such short notice." Saundra peered curiously at her. "I was under the impression you worked for some horrible slave driver."

"As a matter of fact, my boss refused to let me take time off." Emma stuck her chin out defiantly. "And so I quit."

"You quit?" Her mother's blue eyes widened in alarm.

"I've hated working there almost from the get-go." Emma lowered her voice and moved away from her grandmother's bedroom door. "I've been considering leaving them for over a year now."

"But in this economy, Emma? Can you really afford to do that?"

Emma shrugged. "I wanted to be free to help Nona. But not just for a week like you suggested. Now I can stay as long as she needs me. I'll help her with household chores and I can drive her to appointments and to the grocery store and whatever—just like Poppi used to do. And I can help with the bookstore too."

"Yes . . ." Her mom sounded doubtful. "And I'm sure she'll appreciate all that. But don't forget Virginia and Cindy still work at the bookstore."

"I know, but without Poppi around to manage things . . . well, the bookstore might suffer."

"But I don't like to see you sacrificing your career for—"

"My career was sacrificing itself." Emma ran her finger through some dust on the mantel. "That marketing firm was going absolutely nowhere, Mom. And I was going nowhere with them. I needed a break . . . a chance to regroup and refocus. You know?"

Saundra made an uncertain nod. "If you say so."

"What's that smell?" Emma sniffed the air. "Is something burning?"

"Oh, fiddlesticks!" Her mom turned to the kitchen. "I was attempting to make us some dinner and I completely forgot to—"

"You're cooking?" Emma tried not to sound too alarmed as she followed her mom through the dining room and into the kitchen.

Saundra bent to open the oven door, using a dishtowel to wave away the smoke now billowing out. Meanwhile Emma turned on the exhaust fan over the stove and peered down at what looked like a blackened animal of some kind. "What is it?" she asked.

"It was going to be roasted chicken. But I forgot to turn the timer on to remind me to turn the temperature down. It was only supposed to be that high for five minutes." She scowled at the clock. "It's been at least forty-five."

"Oh . . ." Emma grimaced. "Is there any saving it? Maybe we could peel off the burnt layer and—"

"No." Her mom shoved the forlorn bird back into the oven and, firmly closing the door, she turned off the oven. "Fortu- nately we have lots of casseroles and other dishes in the fridge. Everyone has been very generous with your grandmother. I just thought it would be nice to have a roasted chicken, that's all."

"Maybe I should take over from here," Emma suggested. "I mean if you need to go home and fix Dad's dinner. Or do you ever do that anymore . . . I mean cook at home?" Emma's mother had never been into cooking, but even so she usually ate dinner with Rob.

"I know what you're thinking, Emma Jane. But it may in- terest you to know that my cooking skills have improved of late. I even took a French cuisine class at the community col- lege last fall." Her mom patted her platinum blonde hair into place as if she were getting ready to pose for the cover of a new cookbook.

"French cuisine?" Emma frowned as she reached for a dish- cloth. "What's wrong with learning to cook Italian food?" Emma had grown up hearing her father bemoaning the fact that his wife refused to learn how to make the simplest Italian dishes. Saundra Burcelli couldn't even make decent spaghetti. Of course, her mom's usual reaction to her dad's complaints was to angrily tell him if he wanted Italian food, he could go to his parents' house to eat. And sometimes he did, because everyone knew that Nona always had something delicious bubbling away in her little old-fashioned kitchen.

Her mom scowled. "What's wrong with French cuisine?"

"Nothing." Emma glanced around the messy kitchen. Hopefully Nona hadn't seen it like this. Was all this chaos the result of her mother's attempt to simply roast a chicken? "But, really, Mom, if you need to go home and take care of—"

"I do not need to go home," her mom said sharply.

"Okay . . ." Emma started clearing the counters and

straightening the kitchen, all the while wondering why her mother was in such a foul mood right now. Certainly, she was sad over Poppi's sudden demise . . . but then so was everyone.

"As a matter of fact, I do not plan to go home at all," her mother abruptly declared.

Emma paused from wiping the countertop. "Wh-what?"

Saundra turned away from Emma. Fussing with the old

spice rack, she meticulously turned each little jar to face out. "I wasn't certain you were coming, Emma," she said slowly. "So I have, uh . . . well, I've made plans to stay with Nona for a while myself."

"But I told you I was coming—and that I'd be here this evening." Emma dropped the dishrag into the sink and placed a hand on her mother's shoulder, forcing her to turn around, face to face. Locking eyes with Saundra, Emma was determined to get to the bottom of this. "You knew that, Mom. So why are you acting like you didn't? Or that you need to be here when you knew I was on my way? What's up?"

Her mother looked uneasy as she fingered her pearls, press- ing her lips tightly together as if trying to come up with an appropriate answer.

"What is going on, Mom?" Emma studied Saundra closely . . . something was not right.

"Nothing's going on." Saundra looked down.

"I can tell something's wrong. What is it?"

Saundra folded her arms across her front with a stubborn look.

"Does this have to do with Dad?" Emma demanded. "Did you guys get in a fight?"

"Fine. If you must know, I've left your father."

"What?" Emma blinked. In all the years . . . all the fights . . . her mom had never left her dad before. Not that Emma knew of anyway.

"You heard what I said, Emma. I've left him. I'm finished. I'm done." Her mother's lower lip trembled slightly as she reached for a tissue from the box that Nona always kept on top of the old refrigerator.

"But why?"

"Why?" She looked at Emma with teary eyes. "Because—

because it's over—that's why. And please, do not tell Nona about this. She is already stressed over losing Poppi and there's her blood pressure to consider. I don't want her to find out that her only son is a miserable excuse of a husband—not to mention a cad." And now she turned away and hurried from the room.

Emma just stood there feeling dazed. Poppi had died yes- terday. And now her parents' marriage was over as well? Not to mention Nona's health was suffering. What more bad news awaited her? She hadn't heard from her younger sister yet . . . hopefully Anne and her son, Tristan, were okay—although the recent divorce had probably taken its toll on both of them. Emma shook her head sadly as she opened the old fridge. Perusing the assortment of covered Tupperware containers and casserole dishes, trying to find something suitable for dinner, Emma realized that her family was quickly coming unraveled.

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