“Then let’s take the Brits suggestion and have dinner,” Jill’s brother, Steve said. “They won’t miss us. By the time we get back, they should have settled down a little bit.”
“We’ll get them dinner too?” Jacob asked.
“Shit, you’re paying,” Steve said.
They were half-way through a pitcher of Fat Tire before Jacob realized that Steve wasn’t just killing time. Steve wanted to check out his sister’s new potential boyfriend: Jacob. After chatting with their waiter, Dustin Kidder, about Katy, Steve ordered a couple of Pasquini’s calzones and another pitcher of beer. And Jacob waited for Steve to get around to what he wanted to say.
Dustin brought the calzone’s and beer before Steve’s demeanor shifted. Steve was ready to talk. Jacob shifted back in his seat to give Steve space to unfold his story, the story of his parents’ death.
The entire family was on vacation in Costa Rica when his parents and Jill went out for groceries. At nine years old, Jill went everywhere with her mother. As usual, they left Megan and Mike in charge.
But there wasn’t anything to take charge of.
The family had a cottage right on the beach of a small private cove. Steve and Candy were in the ocean when their parents left. Mike made a complicated sand castle complex and Megan read a romance novel in the sun. The afternoon slipped away. No one noticed that their parents hadn’t returned until it was getting dark.
Terrified, the siblings went to the police. Nothing. They called the consulate. Nothing. When news came, it was bad. The Costa Rican national police arrived near dawn. Their parent’s car was hit by a tractor trailer. The truck driver was swatting at a mosquito and swerved into their lane. Their parent’s rental car was destroyed. His parents were dead and Jill was missing.
Desperate for help, they called the father of a school friend, Senator Patrick Hargreaves. After the Senator’s intervention, the police reluctantly agreed to show Mike the wreckage and identify the bodies. To this day, Mike refused talk about what he saw.
Jill was just gone. Kidnapped? Stolen? No one seemed to know.
Senator Hargreaves told them to return to Denver. He would continue to put pressure on the consulate to find Jill. Grief stricken, they returned to their empty house in Denver.
Mike and Megan were in charge of the family. Their parent’s life insurance paid off the house, but not much more. Megan had just graduated from high school. She turned down her full scholarship to Regis University and went to work. Mike quit high school, took his GED, enlisted in the Army and sent every paycheck home. Steve and Candy continued at Machebeuf on a family tragedy scholarship.
“All the luxuries of a Catholic education,” Steve smirked.
“What about Jill?” Jacob asked.
“We were just getting our feet under us when Senator Hargreaves called,” Steve said. “Some friar found Jill among the congregation of a church in Costa Rica.”
“Yeah, he called it ‘angelic intervention’,” Steve said. “This guy met the whole family at an ordination. Through Catholic Charities, he was able to get Jill home in two days.”
“Wow,” Jacob said. He set cash in the bill folder and handed it to Dustin. He said to Dustin, “I don’t need change.”
“I’ll bring the rest of your food when it’s ready,” Dustin said.
“Thanks,” Jacob replied. Looking over to Steve, he asked, “Where was she?”
“Honestly? We don’t know,” Steve said. “She was healthy… seemed fine. The friar said that a farmer found her in his field. The farmer and his wife had other kids so they just cared for her.”
“Was she all right?” Jacob asked. “Did they hurt her?”
“No, she was healthy. She has a scar on her leg and the doctor says her leg was broken and set. She wasn’t malnourished. Except for the leg thing, she wasn’t hurt… in any way, ” Steve said. “She was kind of blank. She still does that when she gets really freaked out.”
“She went blank today,” Jacob said.
“Freaky, isn’t it?” Steve smiled at Jacob’s nod. “She was blank like that for a while, then wham, she was Jill again. She didn’t remember Mom and Dad were dead, where she had been all that time, nothing.
“I’ll tell you this,” Steve continued. “Mike’s looked for this farmer and can’t find him. He’s looked for the friar and can’t find him either.” Steve shook his head. “It’s like they never existed.”
“Now that IS freaky,” Jacob said.
“I guess I’m telling you all of this so you can understand. We are very protective of Jill. She’s like a special gift from our dead parents. They were great parents… really great.”
“She’s very special.”
“Trevor couldn’t stand us. He used to harass Jill to pick between us and him. He told Mike that he abandoned Jill and Katy because of us! Prick.”
Jacob shrugged his eyebrows at the obvious.
“We couldn’t stop her from being with Trevor but…. We’re always here for Jill.”
“I wouldn’t expect less,” Jacob said.
“Good, then why were you running away?”
Dustin brought three plastic bags filled with calzones, salads, and breadsticks to the table.
“Here’s the tea and the Raspberry Decadence,” Dustin said. He set a separate brown bag down. “Dude, you’ll let me know about Katy?”
Steve and Dustin did a complicated little hand shake that ended in a hand bump. “Yeah, I’ll let you know.”
Dustin grinned at Jacob.
“Thanks,” Jacob said.
“No problem, man. Any friend of Steve’s and such,” Dustin said.
The men began walking back to the hospital with the food.
“Running away?” Steve asked.
“I got overwhelmed. My sister and I are… not close. She does her thing in Hollywood and I do mine here. I guess your parents’ death pulled your family closer while my mother’s death drove me and Val apart.”
“It’s a lot,” Steve said. “If you stay with Jill, are we going….”
“I don’t have any problem with Jill having a family. I left my life and business in Maine to help my father. I know what it means to have family,” Jacob said. “I… This was our first date… It’s not even a date. We called it a ‘non-date.’ Just the zoo and lunch.”
“My sister’s a pricey date.” Steve laughed.
“I’d rather buy Christian Lobouton’s,” Jacob said.
Steve laughed. “Lots of guys try to get with Jill. If she’s willing to go on a non-date with you, she must be pretty interested.”
“Or desperate to get to the zoo,” Jacob said.
“I think she likes you,” Steve said.
Approaching the hospital, Jacob saw Jill talking to Dr. John Drayson outside the hospital. When she saw Jacob, she beamed. Jacob grinning in response. Even with his hands full of food, he managed to hug her ‘hello’.
“Katy’s going to be all right,” Jill said into his chest.
“I’m so glad,” Jacob said. He kissed her cheek.
“Me too,” Jill said.
“We brought dinner,” Steve said. “Your tea and Chocolate-Raspberry Decadence, sir.”
Dr. Drayson laughed. “Thanks”
“Would you like to eat?” Jacob asked.
Stepping back from Jacob, Jill was about to kiss him when Steve said, “Come on, Jilly. No make outs on the sidewalk.”
Jill laughed. She caressed Jacob’s cheek then followed the men inside for dinner.
Valerie Lipson opened the door of her Malibu condominium, their Malibu condo, and walked into the hall. Standing at the door, she gazed across the apartment to the pounding surf. She would miss this view.
Her eyes shifted to her engagement ring tucked into it’s Harry Winston box on the floor. People magazine said that Ronald Winston, Harry’s son, personally selected the yellow diamond. Wes paid a cool three and a half million dollars for perfection in a size seven. Valerie tugged her note from under the ring box and set it in front. Wes would see the note first.
One last check. Yep, she had everything.
Valerie pulled the door to the condo closed and locked the bolt. Holding the keys in her hand, she closed her eyes. If she had keys, she could always come back.
In one swift motion, she shoved the keys through the mail slot.
Standing, she picked up her suitcase and walked to the elevator. A trip home to Denver to reset her life. A fresh start. That’s exactly what she needed. Her BMW M3 convertible roared to life in response to the thought.
Flicking on her blinker, she felt real regret. She wished she could be what Wes needed. With a sigh, she merged into Pacific Coast Highway traffic.
How long was she engaged this time?
Longer than the last two…. Valerie counted the months on her fingers. Five months. Valerie’s shook her head. Three engagements, hundreds of men, and the red headed witch was still right.
Wes’s face flushed red when he asked: “Please marry me, Val. All I want to do is take care of you for the rest of my life.”
And the only thought in Valerie’s head was, “See Delphie, you were wrong! I can love someone other than Michael Roper.”
She squealed when he gave her the ring. They made Viagra love for hours. When Wes fell asleep, Valerie cried into her pillow.
She would make this work. She was going to make this work. She had to make this work. She was going to love Wes.
The day her engagement to Hollywood producer Wesford Kapanski was announced, the blogosphere vibrated with nasty comments and vicious opinions. Perez Hilton posted a photo of Val and Wes a huge white X over them. Every night, Entertainment Tonight did the ‘Val Count’ for the number of days they were engaged. Vegas set the line at fifty to one that Val would marry Wes.
Val worked to love this man.
But no amount of love making, ocean views or expensive gifts removed her ever-present thoughts of Mike. Caffeine helped. Alcohol was better. But nothing ever really washed that man from her mind. This morning, she realized that becoming the seventh Mrs. Wesford Kapanski wasn’t going to cure her.
“You will only have one love, Val,” Delphie said to a sobbing Val. Mike left for basic training ten minutes before. “You will cause yourself great hardship if you can’t allow yourself to love him, marry him, and make him your world. He is your true love. Children born of love, like your parents’, are only satisfied with true love. There’s no more powerful force in this world.”
God. No one believed in true love any more. After six years of starring on a popular soap opera, Valerie knew everything there was to know about love. Men cheat. Men lie. And women suffer.
Not that she didn’t learn that from her father.
Delphie was wrong about her parents. She had to be wrong about Mike.
“Where you going, hon?” The clerk at Frontier Airlines ticket counter asked.
“Denver. The soonest available,” Valerie said.
“You’re Valerie Lipson,” the clerk said.
Valerie smiled her movie star smile. “Do you watch Our Loves, Our Lives?”
Surprised by the question, the clerk looked up from her typing. She shook her head. “My husband works for your father. Lipson construction. You look like your brother, Jacob.”
Valerie’s smile dimmed. Of course, Frontier Airlines was based in Denver, home of Lipson construction.
“I bumped you to first class on me,” the clerk said. “Your father’s been really great to us. He gave my husband a month off when each of our babies were born. He even cosigned on a loan so we could get into our house. My husband’s never been happier at a job. I…. I just wanted to say, ‘thanks’.”
Valerie smiled at the woman. Everyone loved her scumbag father. This woman couldn’t help it if she was fooled by the bastard. Valerie paid for her ticket and thanked the woman. She wasn’t going to go diva on a poor stupid airline clerk.
Looking at her ticket, Val realized she had a few hours before her flight. Walking toward security, Val waved to the bank of paparazzi photographers.
“Val! Val!” They screamed. “Over here Val.”
“Val! TMZ! Where you goin’?” The videographer for TMZ.com asked.
Val waved then started up the escalator.
“Where you going, Val?”
“I’m going home, boys,” she said. Then without even realizing what she was saying she murmured, “I’m going home to my husband.”
Like any great actress, Val didn’t respond to her own words. She smiled and waved again as if she never said a thing.
While her stilettos pounded the concrete passage way, her mind returned to Mike.
“I can’t just work for your father!” the 17 year-old Mike screamed. “I take a job with your father and I’ll never be my own person. You need a real man. Day by day, you’ll lose respect for me. I can’t live with that.”
“Please don’t go,” the 15 year-old Valerie begged. “I’ll work for my father! I can take care of your family. Let me take care of your family. Please don’t leave me.”
“Oh Val,” Mike said. “Oh honey.”
He wrapped her in his arms and they cried together. When morning came, he left for basic training. That was the morning Delphie made pronounced her fate, her curse.
Valerie ordered a cosmopolitan at the LAX bar. Finding a spot near the back, she opened a magazine. She slipped in her iPOD ear buds so that no one would bother her or her memories.
She was “Mike’s girl” to everyone in Denver. UCLA had given her a fresh slate. She started with UCLA boys, then graduated to producers and movie stars. One after another, she tried to find love again.
Mike would arrive at her dorm room in his dress uniform. He never cared who was there. He just wanted Val. More than once, he found her in bed with some random guy, and still he didn’t care. He’d just shrug and say, ‘What can I expect? I’m the one who left.’ But her promiscuity hurt him. He flaunted his own liaisons in return.
They went back and forth hurting each other until the summer between her junior and senior year, the summer everything went bad.
Her precious mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. And her mother’s true love? He fucked his secretary and was stupid enough to get the whore pregnant. Her childhood home was sold before she had time to retrieve her things. Mom and Delphie moved into that tenement on Race Street. Jake, her funny, kind, lovable, partner-in-crime little brother, managed to transform himself into a complete jock asshole.
And Mike was stationed at Fort Irwin in Barstow.
For six months of sheer bliss, she had Mike every weekend. Her parent’s divorce settlement included a forth of the construction company. Jake bought her portion the very next day. With her new found millions, she and Mike bought a tiny house in Monterrey. They were married on the beach by a minister. Jake and Mom received a picture of Mr. and Mrs. Roper kissing on the beach.
Val was in heaven. She didn’t make Mike her world. He was her world - her morning, noon and night. She graduated a term early just to be with him, near him. While her childhood family burned to the ground, Valerie and Mike rose like the phoenix from it’s ashes.
“Valerie Lipson?” A short, thin Hispanic man stood next to Val’s table. “Raphael Acosa from US magazine. I’m wondering what you meant when you said you were going home to see your… We couldn’t quite catch the last word. TMZ is saying that you are going home to your husband. Ma’am, everyone knows that you are marrying Wes. Are you and Wes already married? Are you married to someone other than Wes? US magazine would love to have an exclusive interview….”
Valerie stood so quickly that the man was forced to take a step back. Smiling her movie star smile, she said, “My brother lives in Denver. I’ve a family business meeting tomorrow. Gosh, I’m not sure what TMZ heard.” She shrugged. “If you’ll excuse me. I need to freshen up before the flight.”
“We’re sitting together on your flight, Val,” the reporter said. “We at US magazine wanted to show you our commitment to telling your true story.”
“Thanks. I’ll see you on the plane,” Valerie said.
She made a bee line for the restroom. Locking herself in a stall, she called her publicist. It was time to tell the truth.
“Ok, well this has been fun,” Mike said. “I got to get to work. Jill, you know how to get a hold of me right?”
Jill hugged her older brother, “Thanks Mikey.”
“Candy? You’ll remember to do that thing we talked about?” Mike asked.
“I watch ‘Val Count’ every night. We are up to one hundred and forty-nine engaged days.” Candy smiled to reassure her brother.
“Great. And you,” Mike pointed at Jacob, “I’d like a word.”
Jill shot a surprised look at Mike, then to Jacob. Jacob just smiled. Leaning to kiss her cheek, he said, “I’ll be right back.”
Jacob followed Mike through the hospital to the front door.
“Jill said you’re paying for everything,” Mike said. “And that the money lady asked Jill if she was trading sex for the hospital bill.”
Jacob took a step back. He shook his head slightly, “What?”
“I just want to know how you’re going to expect repayment.”
“I… I never thought about it.” Jacob flushed bright red. “I….”
“Good, that’s what I told Jill,” Mike said. “You haven’t heard from Val have you?”
Jacob shook his head.
“She’s been engaged a long time this time…. You think….”
“Honestly?” Jacob asked
“No,” Jacob said. “Val’s still Val inside.”
“I hope you’re right,” Mike said.
With a nod of his head, Mike walked toward the parking lot.
“What’s Val count?” Jill asked Candy.
“Mike is obsessed with this soap opera actress,” Candy said. “She’s engaged for like the third time. Entertainment Tonight is doing an engagement watch. I watch it every night then call him with what they say.”
“Who’s the girl?” Megan asked.
Megan jumped up from her seat and walked to the water cooler where Steve was standing. They shared a long look.
“I’ll tell you if even half of what they say about her is true, she’s a real bitch,” Candy said. “I mean, I don’t get it. Mike’s great looking, a wonderful person, amazing artist, but he doesn’t want to be set up, won’t go out with girls or boys for that matter. He’s just obsessed with this… prima donna actress.”
Megan closed her eyes. Turning around, she looked at Candy then Jill. It was time they knew the truth.
“Meg, what’s wrong?” Jill asked.
“Mike’s married to Valerie Lipson.”
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