Shore Lights: Chapter 2
Paradise Point, New Jersey - three weeks before Christmas
Rosemary DiFalco swore off men in August of 1992 and as far as she could tell, that was when Lady Luck finally sat up and took notice. All her life Rose had been waiting for her ship to come in and when it finally sailed into view she swam right out to meet it.
You didn't get anything in this world by being shy and you sure as hell didn't get anything by waiting for some man to hand it to you on a silver platter.
For longer than she could remember her mother Fay had rented out rooms in her ramshackle old Victorian house, sharing their living space with retired schoolteachers, penniless artists, and an assortment of hard luck cases whose only common ground was the bathroom on the second floor. When Fay died almost five years ago, she left the house to her four daughters, three of whom wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. Rose, however, saw possibilities lurking behind the cracked plaster and faded carpets and she bought out her sisters' shares and settled down to the hard work of building a new life for herself at a time when she needed it most.
She took early retirement then traded in her fancy condo on Eden Lake. She cashed in her 401K then plowed the proceeds into the house where she had grown up, a wreck of a Victorian that just happened to boast ocean views from almost every bedroom.
The Candlelight Inn was born and Rose never looked back. To her delight, she found that she enjoyed the constant parade of guests. She loved the challenge of staying one step ahead of the needs of a nineteenth-century house with a mind of its own. Most of all, she loved the fact that the Candlelight's success had made it possible for her to offer her daughter a way out of the mess her life was in.
Anyway you looked at it, this should have been a slam dunk. Rose needed help running the place; Maddy needed a job. The perfect example of need meeting opportunity.
So why did Rose wake up every morning with the sense that she was preparing for war? She had created an oasis of peace and tranquility for her paying guests, a place people came to when they wanted to leave the stresses of the real world behind. You would think at least a tiny bit of that tranquility might spill over onto the innkeeper's family. Take this morning, for instance. Maddy had been holed up in the office working on the Inn's website for hours now. Rose hadn't seen hide nor hair of her since they'd laid out the breakfast buffet in silence. They had exchanged words late last night over something so trivial that Rose couldn't even remember what it was, yet the aftermath had left her wondering for the first time if she had made a terrible mistake inviting Maddy and Hannah to come back home.
It was painfully clear they weren't happy. Her daughter was prickly and argumentative, more reminiscent of the seventeen-year-old girl she had once been than the grown woman pictured on her driver's license. And Hannah - oh, Hannah was enough to break your heart. The delightful little girl who had entertained Rose with her songs and stories last Christmas in Seattle was now a withdrawn and painfully sad child whose smiles never quite reached her stormy blue eyes.
Rose knew that Tom and Maddy's breakup had nothing to do with her, but decades of guilt were hard to ignore. She hadn't prepared Maddy for the real world of men and women. She had taught her how to balance a checkbook, shop for the best auto loan, and make minor plumbing repairs, but she hadn't taught her the fine art of living with a man.
The truth was, she hadn't a clue herself. Rose had grown up in a world of women, with an absentee father, three sisters, and more aunts and nieces than you could shake a bra strap at, and between them all they had about as much luck at keeping a man as they had at the slot machines in Atlantic City.
Some women were lucky in love. Some were lucky in business. .One look at the bare ring fingers and flourishing IRAs of the four DiFalco sisters and you knew which way the wind blew. Lucy, the eldest, said a DiFalco woman couldn't hold onto a man if she had him Crazy Glued to her side. Over the years Rose had come to realize the truth of that statement.
In the best of times love was a puzzle Rose had never been able to unravel. She had married a wonderful man, the salt of the earth, and still hadn't been able to find a way to hold onto love for the long haul. He offered her the world and she had found herself longing for the stars. She had a beautiful daughter who was bright and talented and loving yet somehow that wasn't quite enough for Rose either. She wanted Maddy to have everything she never had, to be everything she could never be, and when Maddy had turned out to be lacking the ambition gene, Rose's disappointment knew no bounds.
Maddy was a dreamer, same as her father. She followed her heart wherever it led and she never thought to leave a trail of breadcrumbs so she could find her way safely home. Maddy's unplanned pregnancy had filled Rose with a combination of elation and dread. She hadn't known Tom Lawlor well, but she did know that he had already earned his parenting stripes and wasn't in the market to add a few more to his sleeve. He was her age, after all, and she understood him even if she didn't approve.
But not Maddy. Not her day-dreaming, foolish optimist of a daughter. She hadn't seen it coming, not even when he spelled it out for her in neon letters a foot high. She had still believed they would find a happy ending, believed it right up until the moment Tom and Lisa flew off to Vegas for one of those quickie weddings in a chapel on the Strip.
She longed to gather Maddy and Hannah up in her arms and kiss away their tears, mend their broken hearts until they were better than new.
All of the things she didn't have time to do when Maddy was a little girl.
Instead there she was, a successful sixty-two year old businesswoman with the hottest B&B between Rehoboth Beach and Martha's Vineyard, trying to summon up the guts to knock on the door to her own office and see how her daughter was getting on with the website. Rose had bearded wild bankers in their lairs, charmed free advertising out of jaded local radio stations, spun pure gold from straw. Spending five stress-free minutes with her only child should be a piece of cake.
So what if she and Maddy had exchanged words last night. It wasn't the first time and God knew it wouldn't be the last. They were mother and daughter, hard-wired to get on each other's nerves. Nothing was going to change that fact, but she could make it better. She knew she could.
If she could just bring herself to knock on that door.
"Oh, no!" Maddy hit the backspace key three times then retyped the number. This was no time to screw up, not when the auction was sliding into its final minutes and she was struggling to maintain high bidder status over some surprisingly stiff competition from someone named FireGuy. You wouldn't think there would be so much action over a dented teapot but she'd had to raise her maximum bid twice in the last hour just to stay in the game.
The computer screen went blank. The hard drive grumbled then groaned. She held her breath until the screen refreshed itself and her new bid appeared.
"Okay," she said, grinning at her reflection. "That's more like it." Now all she had to do was ignore the fact that her mother was lurking in the hallway like your average peeping Tom and keep her mind on making sure that old samovar was waiting for Hannah under the tree on Christmas morning.
Priscilla pawed at the door. She looked up at Maddy with limpid brown eyes then yipped one of those high-pitched poodle yips capable of breaking juice glasses two towns over.
"Yes, I know she's been standing out there for the last ten minutes, Priscilla, and no I don't know why."
The door swung open on cue.
"Very funny," Rose said, her cheeks stained bright red. "I was polishing the hall table for your information."
"I polished it yesterday," Maddy said, one eye locked onto her computer screen.
"We polish daily around here these days," her mother said. The usual edge to her words was absent. "The paying customers expect it."
Maddy forced herself to relax. "I have a lot to learn about being an innkeeper. I bumped into the Loewensteins in the upper hallway last night and almost lost five years of my life."
"You'll get used to it." Rose hesitated then stepped into the room. She smelled like Pledge and Chanel No. 5, a combination that suited her mother down to the ground. "I don't want to interrupt you if you're working on the web site."
Maddy reached for the mouse to click over to a different, safer screen but she wasn't quick enough. Her mother leaned over her shoulder and peered at the image and the accompanying information.
"For Hannah?" Rose asked.
Maddy nodded, wishing she had faster fingers or a less curious mother. Asking for both might have been tempting the gods. "You know how she is about Aladdin. The second I saw this, I thought it would make a perfect magic lantern."
"I thought you'd finished Christmas shopping for Hannah."
"I thought so too, but she came home bubbling about a magic lantern she saw in a coloring book at school and - well, it's Christmas and she's my only child." She looked up at her mother. "You know how it is." Didn't you feel that way when I was little? Didn't you want to gather up the stars and pour them into my Christmas stocking?
"You spoil that child."
"She deserves a little spoiling. She's had a tough year."
"That teapot won't change anything."
Maddy had the mouse in such a death grip that she was surprised it didn't squeak in surrender. "I think I know what's best for my child." How could one five-foot tall woman reduce her adult daughter to the emotional level of a sulky teenager just by breathing?
"I thought she had forgotten all about Aladdin."
"I don't know what gave you that idea."
"She's too old for this kind of make-believe."
"I suppose you would have advised Stephen King to get his head out of the clouds, too."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Keep your mouth closed, Maddy. For once in your life, just shut up.
She peered more closely at the computer screen in front of her and prayed Rose would take the hint. You spend three hours wrestling with cascading style sheets for the Inn's new website and there was no sign of the boss lady, but the second you flip to Shoreline Auctions, she appeared like magic right over your shoulder.
Well, there was no hope for it. Hannah, a devoted fan of all things Aladdin, needed a touch of magic and Maddy was determined to make at least one of her wishes come true. This samovar had seen better days but, polished and repaired, it would delight her little girl and that was the most important thing. With only five minutes to go until the auction closed, she wasn't about to lose high bidder status now.
"You're going to give her unreal expectations, Maddy. The sooner Hannah learns she can't have everything she wants, the better off she'll be."
Ignoring Rose was like ignoring a tsunami when you were trapped one hundred yards from shore in a rowboat.
"It's only a teapot, Ma, not the keys to a Porsche."
Rose made a sound that fell somewhere between a snort and a sigh. "That child needs a teapot like I need more rooms to clean."
Rolling her eyes in dismay over her mother's pronouncements had become a reflex action. The figures on the screen changed. Maddy groaned and quickly typed in a new high bid of her own. "That'll teach you to mess with JerseyGirl."
Rose whipped out her eyeglasses from the pocket of her pale blue sweater then slipped them on. "Tell me that's not the price."
"That's not the price." Unfortunately she wasn't lying. The final price was bound to be higher. She refreshed the screen and watched as the numbers changed one more time. "You're a tough one, FireGuy, but you're not going to win." She typed in yet another bid and pressed Enter.
"That's his screen name."
"What's wrong with his real name? Does he have something to hide?"
"I'm sure his entire life's an open book, Mother, but everyone on line has a screen name. That's how it's done."
Rose peered at her over the tops of her glasses. "Do you have one?"
"Of course I have one."
"I hope it's nothing embarrassing."
When Rose was in one of these moods, the name Betsy Ross would be embarrassing.
"I don't understand this obsession with on-line auctions," her mother went on. "You could drive over to Toys R Us and buy one of those sweet Barbie teapots for half the price."
"You're welcome to drive over to Toys R Us anytime you feel like it, Mother. I'm perfectly happy with Shore Auctions."
"Nobody should pay that much for a battered tea kettle." Rose's sigh sent middle-aged daughters across the Garden State ducking for cover. "Sometimes I worry about that child."
"Because she has an imagination?"
"You've filled her head with fairy tales. Where is that going to get her in life? She should be making play dates with her school friends, not dreaming over magic tea pots and flying carpets."
And people wondered why she had left home at seventeen. Maddy bit her tongue so hard she almost drew blood.
"Have you heard a single word I've said?"
"Every last syllable." Maddy turned from the screen. "Mother, if you make me lose this tea kettle to some bozo who'll use it to store fishing lures, I'll be forced to tell everyone in Paradise Point that your naturally red hair quit being natural around 1981." Rose opened her mouth to protest but Maddy raised her hand. "I have less than four minutes left in this auction. You can finish the lecture after I nail down the kettle."
It was the wrong thing to say. Maddy knew it immediately. If she was looking for the pathway toward peaceful coexistence, maybe it was time to stop and ask for directions.
"Mom, I'm sorry. If you'll just -"
But it was too late. Rose wheeled and stalked from the room and Maddy had no doubt the rest of the clan would know about her latest transgression before it was time to rinse the radicchio for the dinner salads.
She knew she should run after Rose and apologize. Give her a hug and crack some clumsy joke to try and break the tension that had been building between them, but the clock was ticking on the auction and if she left her desk for even a second, she would lose the kettle and her only chance to make Hannah smile again would be lost with it.
She had waited fifteen years to mend fences with her mother. Another fifteen minutes wouldn't hurt.