Unconditional, p.5

Unconditional, page 5



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“I’m gonna be your mom,” Valerie Welch remembered Kylie announcing recently, “when I grow up.” As if one Linda Cuthbertson wasn’t enough.

  It wasn’t that she didn’t have a good relationship with her mother, because she did. Valerie adored her mom, who at times could be the most fun and friendliest person at a party. She was also, at fifty-two, more stylish and comfortable in her own skin than most twenty- and thirty-somethings Valerie knew.

  And if Linda ever came to the realization that her daughter was twenty-five and not fourteen anymore, then those rough patches they still went through together would have been smoothed out beautifully.

  Once a week, depending on their schedules—because Linda’s was sometimes even fuller than her daughter’s—they would go out to dinner together. Her mother, who was an office manager in a dentist’s office close by, usually picked her daughter up at the library. Linda usually stopped off on the avenue to window shop, arriving on time.

  Anytime she arrived early, Valerie knew her mother was up to something.

  “I’m never reading this author again,” Linda said, surprising Valerie by appearing at the end of one of the fiction aisles like a seagull landing on the beach out of nowhere. She held the book up in one hand, letting it totter at a dangerous angle, as if it were covered with mud. “Seven hundred pages. First three hundred? Gripping. Last four hundred? Good Lord, what a mess! Guy took ten pages to describe a strawberry dish towel. Seriously?”

  Valerie smiled and kissed her cheek. “Hello to you, too, Mom. I’ve had that happen, too. So you’re returning it?”

  “I have to. It’s either that or gouge my eyes out.”

  Her daughter giggled and pointed to the long counter near the library’s main entrance when her mom tried to hand her the book.

  “Take that up there, Mom. They’ll check it back in for you.”

  “Oh, yeah. There’s a long line up there. I thought maybe my good daughter would…well, never mind.” Mom was teasing. Sort of. She clutched the oversized tome to her chest. “Ah, so where are we going for dinner? Want to try that new place, Lotus Flower?”

  “Hmm, yes. I like the name.”

  “Restaurant names can be deceiving. I don’t think this place is, though. Got a nice write-up by my favorite foodie bloggers online. Nice ambiance, great food, Asian-fusion. Whatever that is.”

  “Watch out, Mom.” Valerie waited until her mother backed up a step to gently push the book cart forward. It was the end of the day and she had just enough time to return that small stack of books to their proper shelves. “I’ll be done in fifteen minutes, okay? You want me to stop off at home and change?”

  “Stop off? No, honey, I think you look fine. I like that dress, actually. Really cute. There are much more pressing matters we need to talk about tonight. Like…” The corner of her mother’s mouth twitched as she adjusted the strap of her Coach tote on her shoulder. “…why on earth you would ever let Zed O’Neill back into your life? But, like I said, we’ll talk later.”

  Valerie froze, one hand poised with a book on a shelf, the other grasping the metal cart’s handle. She watched her mother taking a few steps backwards, then disappear to the right. Linda Cuthbertson was, and always had been, an attractive woman, but now she seemed to almost have the persona of an actress in a play. She was wearing dark denim jeans and wore them with panache, since she’d paired them with a black, clingy top, over which she’d worn a gold, brown and green satin shawl cinched at the waist by a brown leather belt. Completing the outfit was bling—cosmetic bling, because her mother didn’t buy real jewelry for herself, but hey, bling was bling—in the form of an array of necklaces and bangles dangling from her wrist. Her hair, which she permanently wore short now, was now a subtle, light ash shade of blonde.

  Why on earth would you ever let Zed O’Neill back into your life? So that was the question du jour.

  That meant dinner wasn’t going to be quite as much fun as Valerie had hoped.

  Even though it was Friday, the day the library allowed their employees to wear jeans, she had woken up and pulled on that breezy, maxi-length, paisley dress instead, the one with the rounded collar. Together with her floppy black hat and low black leather sandals, plus her own bangle-y bracelets, it had given her that just-so-Boho look that she loved. It would be cool for a hot Jersey summer evening, a night out on the town with her mom.

  But now discouragement crept in. Because, if she knew her mother, and she most certainly did, Mom wasn’t going to be popping open any nonalcoholic champagne bottles for her in celebration of Zed being back in the picture.

  Then again, that just wasn’t shaping up to be Valerie’s week. Not after the little tidbit her coworker, a sweet, older lady named April, who attended Lakeside Church, which Josh Coleman also attended, had shared with her. Something upsetting about the new guy’s past. To say she was disappointed was an understatement. It was hard, mentally, to connect him with his past.

  Because she shouldn’t have been dwelling on him, anyway. If she was serious about making it work with Zed this time, and she was, then she wouldn’t have kept reliving those moments earlier in the week, when he’d come up to talk to her. The way he’d looked at her, the way those smiles of his had made her feel, like something new and intriguing that had made her heart skip a beat.

  Zed. She couldn’t let anything jeopardize what she had with him. Not her mother, who in spite of how much she drove Valerie crazy, meant well. Not some good-looking newcomer in her life, who’d looked so downcast when he realized she wasn’t alone at the restaurant the other night.

  That night, from that moment forward, it had been hard for her to concentrate on playing with the band. The stage was barely enough room for all of them, and both the drummer and Valerie spent the night being squished between the other musicians. She kept looking from Zed, who sat alone at a table, having his drink and waiting for her, and Josh, who sat with a bunch of his friends, all of them talking and laughing.

  Now, in retrospect, she recalled what April had told her. That Josh might have looked innocent, but his past certainly wasn’t. Up until then, she’d actually considered calling her mom to reschedule their dinner date, allowing her to grab a quick sandwich or something before heading over to the church for movie night…and some conversation with someone new and captivating.

  Considering her life was complicated enough with her relationship with Zed, she opted against it. It was, after all, the wiser choice.

  So why did she feel as if she were missing something?


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