Diana Mason strolled down Fifth Avenue, taking in the store windows festooned with cheery Valentine’s Day decorations. Pink and red hearts, Cupid with his arrows, and hosts of cherubs flanked candy-filled boxes, greeting cards, diamonds, pearls—all the things Madison Avenue had decreed that a woman could possibly want as tangible proof of her man’s love on this, the most romantic day of the year.
Give me a break, she wanted to scream, yet she hungrily drank in the sights.
It wasn’t a major-league holiday, like Christmas, but in the adult world it was bigger than Halloween and certainly Arbor Day. Her hardened, logical mind told her that like most holidays, this one was perpetrated on the masses to cash in on sentiment. But how much meaning could it hold when more than half the world didn’t even celebrate the day?
She held tightly to her purse strap, staring at the full-caret solitaire engagement ring in a heart-shaped, red velvet box in the jewelry store window. The carefully placed spot lighting made it sparkle—a contrast to the bleak day.
“Oh, Gary, that’s the one,” a pretty blonde woman cried, pointing to the same box. Her companion’s eyes were riveted on the accompanying price tag, his complexion going pale.
“Oh, I could just die for it!” the young woman gushed. Her grin was broad and proud.
“We just got engaged,” she explained.
Diana forced a smile.
“Oh, honey, let’s get it right now.”
“Well, okay,” he reluctantly agreed.
Diana watched as the woman pulled her fiancé into the store, and then she turned away, heading up the block once more.
The icy wind stung her cheeks, but she didn’t care. She bypassed the subway station, turned the corner and continued down 42nd Street. Right now she didn’t need the press of bodies, the stench of stale subway air, and the rabble of haranguing voices in her ears.
Feeling bad about a certain day on the calendar was just plain dumb, she decided. And it was just her luck to have this of all days off from her job. Her depression deepened as she realized how much she missed Rick. No, she didn’t miss him. She missed having someone to hold her in the night; someone to be there at the other end of the telephone line when she felt lonely. More painful still was knowing it was self-inflicted. But Rick had wanted a playmate, not a soul mate. Being a realist, she saw no reason to continue a relationship that had no future. And there was no new someone in her life.
Diana dodged a couple of panhandlers. Had Amanda Reynolds ever felt lonely? Try as she might, Diana couldn’t help but make comparisons with the dead woman. But unlike Amanda, Diana knew she had no hold on Jason’s heart, except for gratitude—perhaps friendship.
Eaten-up with cancer, Amanda had been Diana’s patient for two long weeks. Her rapid deterioration had been painful for even a trained nurse like Diana to witness. Her once-beautiful features were gaunt, her face twisted with suffering. During that time Diana had come to respect the woman’s husband. It was obvious Jason loved Amanda with every part of his being. And though there was no hope, night after night Jason had held Amanda’s hand, lovingly stroked her hair, and patiently reassured her.
After the funeral he had visited the nurses’ station on her floor, bringing flowers for the staff as a token of his thanks for the care they had given his wife. His eyes were haunted and Diana had invited him for a cup of cafeteria coffee. Of course he’d only talked about Amanda. But in the months that followed he had visited Diana one or two times a week until a casual friendship developed between them. They talked about their jobs, compared favorite authors, but one topic always crept into their conversation: Amanda.
Jason wasn’t even handsome. Balding, with glasses, and only average height, he looked every inch the high school English teacher, not the epitome of a romantic fantasy. But he had a kind, gentle way, a quiet voice, and an easy manner that encouraged trust. And like a schoolgirl, Diana found herself infatuated with this intriguing man who had loved so deeply.
With every step, Diana found her imagination wandering. What had Jason given to Amanda on Valentine’s Day? A single red rose; a book of poetry; perhaps a poem he had written himself. Why not? Even her name—Amanda—meant worthy of love.
Hot tears welled in her wind-burned eyes. You don’t need a rebound relationship, Diana reminded herself, walking faster. And neither does Jason.
Her toes were numb by the time she pushed through the door of her apartment building. Stamping her feet on the cracked tile, she checked her mailbox as she waited for the elevator. Once on board, she punched the button for five, rode the distance staring at nothing—trying to feel nothing.
Entering her loft apartment, she tossed her purse on the couch, flipped through the bills and junk mail once again. Another wave of self-pity coursed through her. There had been no card in the mail—no note under her door. And oh, how she had hoped there might be.
Drawn to the window, she bit her lip, absently gazed over the snow-dusted neighborhood. Disappointment? Why should she feel disappointed? To be disappointed one had to have expectations, and there was certainly no reason to have expectations. About anything.
Turning her back on the twilight, she was determined to purge all thoughts of Jason.
* * *
It was nearly 8 p.m. by the time Diana finished cleaning her already spotless apartment and ironed a stack of clothes. The phone hadn’t rung, nothing had intruded on her solitude.
Restless, she grabbed one of the poetry books she’d recently purchased and sat down at the kitchen table with a glass of Merlot. She opened the pages at random and began to read. With each page she turned her feeling of loneliness increased, a growing thread of anger flaring within her. The rest of the world was out there celebrating Valentine’s Day and here she was all alone, reduced to reading mushy poetry and feeling cheated.
You’re alone by choice, some part of her reminded. Cheated? What about Jason? How was he feeling on this, his first Valentine’s Day without his beloved Amanda?
Diana’s heart ached at that thought. How would Jason feel, deprived of the woman he so desperately loved? The memories of their all-too-brief time together would have to last him a lifetime. Knowing the impact of such a devastating loss made Diana feel ashamed. Here she was hoping Jason would be thinking of her when she hadn’t even given any consideration to him. His was a romantic nature. No wonder he didn’t want to acknowledge the celebration of love and togetherness.
Yet thinking logically couldn’t dispel her sense of frustration.
This isn’t like you, she scolded herself, wiping at her eyes. But then, since meeting Jason her world had done a topsy-turvy number on her.
She closed the poetry book and set it aside on the table. She might as well go to bed. But Diana knew she couldn’t hide from her feelings in sleep, either.
A knock at her door caused her heart to race. “Diana?” came a familiar voice.
“Jason?” She fumbled with the locks. Trying not to appear too eager, she ushered him in. He looked tired—no, weary.
“I was hoping I might see you. Would you like some coffee, or perhaps a glass of wine?” she offered.
He took off his hat and shrugged out of his coat. “Thank you. Wine would be nice.
She tried not to stare at him as she puttered around her kitchen, grabbing another wineglass from the cabinet and some cheddar from fridge and crackers from the pantry. Still, she’d caught a glimpse of his eyes, sensing his grief and loneliness. Her own spirits sagged. But, she reminded herself, of all the places he could have gone, he had chosen to visit her.
They settled across the kitchen table and she pushed the plate of cheese and crackers closer to him.
He took a sip of his wine. “I’m sorry to just show up on your doorstep unannounced.”
“Don’t be silly,” she chided him.
“It’s been a . . . difficult day,” he admitted.
“It’s never easy to be alone on Valentine’s Day,” she agreed.
“My students tried very hard to make me feel—”
“Loved?” she supplied.
He nodded somberly.
“They’re good kids, but they can’t understand.”
Diana wanted nothing more than to comfort him with a hug, or even just to touch his arm in sympathy, but instead she folded her hands to keep them still. “The trappings of the occasion do tend to emphasize one’s emptiness. And platitudes and clichés about loves lost and brighter days don’t help much, either.”
Again he nodded.
“Maybe all we can do,” she continued, “is to feel what we feel and mourn the loss.”
He stared into his wineglass. “I wish you could have really known her,” he said quietly, not needing to explain to whom he referred.
“It’s ironic how fate can bring people together, only to tear them apart,” she said. “It’s hard to believe that the sorrow you feel will one day fade and you’ll remember only the good things about your time with Amanda. What better occasion than Valentine’s Day to reflect on those memories.”
His smile was tentative.
“You have a poet’s heart, Diana.” He was quiet for a moment, and then his expression became wistful. “We shared a night of dancing light. Amanda lit over a hundred candles all around our apartment. She’d bought almost as many roses, their scent permeating every room. And she wore a dress of antique lace. When I think of her, I try to remember her as she was on that night.”
Diana smiled pensively, feeling not quite as cynical as she had earlier in the day. She’d been right; this day meant more to Jason than cards and candy. “That’s a beautiful memory.”
His smile held more than a hint of sadness. “Yes, it is.”
His brown eyes locked with hers, seemed to study her. She smoothed her long, auburn hair, wished she’d put on a blouse and skirt rather than a sweatshirt and jeans. But then, she hadn’t expected a visitor.
The silence grew heavy.
“I’ve . . . I’ve always thought Valentine’s Day was more a celebration of commercialism than love,” she said. “After all, lovers and friends can always say what they feel on any day of the year.” She paused, and then, “but I wonder, without this one special day, how many would say what they really feel.”
“What do you feel, Diana?”
His question—and the intensity of emotion behind it—startled her.
In an instant she weighed the consequences of answering honestly.
“I’m lonely. And I worry about you. I hope one day you’ll find another someone like Amanda.”
He seemed to consider it. “It’s been almost a year—a long, lonely year—since I lost her.” For a moment his face was filled with an anguish that wrenched her soul.
He turned to face her. “The only bright spot was you. I’ve so enjoyed our talks. They distracted me from thoughts of her. And yet . . . I’m so grateful to you. You took such good care of her. You were with her for so many hours when I couldn’t be there.”
Diana’s hopes faded; he did only feel gratitude. She braved a smile. She couldn’t—wouldn’t—let her disappointment show.
“I’ve done a lot of soul searching,” he continued, “and I find I’m no longer content to live with just my memories.”
Startled, for a moment all Diana could do was blink. Then he reached for her hand, his warm fingers encircling her own.
“Amanda was an unselfish woman,” he said. “She told me she wanted me to go on with my life. She hoped I’d find love again.” He squeezed her hand affectionately. “You’ve been a good friend to me. You let me talk about her—grieve for her. I needed that before I could go on. And now,” he paused, and then, “I think I might be in love with you, Diana.”
Diana found it hard to speak. For so long she’d hoped he might feel this way, now she was afraid to admit her own feelings. And yet . . . . “I think I love you, too, Jason.”
He glanced around her cozy kitchen and , looked embarrassed. “I know this isn’t the most romantic setting but, would you be my Valentine?”
Diana was instantly on her feet, drawn into his welcome embrace.
“Oh, Jason. I’ve waited for this day.”
He looked at her with such tenderness. She let her eyes close, waiting, breathless as a teenager anticipating their first kiss. And she was not disappointed. His arms surrounded her and she felt safe . . . wanted.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, Diana.”
~ ~ ~
The immensely popular Booktown Mystery series is what put Lorraine Bartlett’s pen name Lorna Barrett on the New York Times Bestseller list, but it’s her talent–whether writing as Lorna, or L.L. Bartlett, or Lorraine Bartlett — that keeps her in the hearts of her readers. This multi-published, Agatha-nominated author pens the exciting Jeff Resnick Mysteries as well as the acclaimed Victoria Square Mystery series, the Tales of Telenia adventure-fantasy saga, and now the Lotus Bay Mysteries, and has many short stories and novellas to her name(s). Check out the descriptions and links to all her works, and sign up for her emailed newsletter here: http://www.lorrainebartlett.com
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