Jen Maitland had no use for handsome guys with easy charm — until she met Zach. He’s the perfect fake date to end her mother’s matchmaking scheme before it starts. Besides, he’d probably just use her and leave her like her ex-fiancé did. At least that’s what Jen tells herself. The only problem is that Zach isn’t as predictable as he appears…
Zach Coxwell hates commitment, but loves a challenge. Like the pretty bar waitress who turned him down flat for a date — only to invite him to her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Zach knows he can make Jen smile — and he’s betting that he can unravel her mysteries — even if he has to do it over candied yams.
A tofu turkey, a sister who threatens to have Zach’s love-child, the untimely appearance of a knitted avocado — and Zach’s discovery of her real motive — combine to turn Thanksgiving dinner into Jen’s worst nightmare. Zach, on the other hand, has the time of his life. And when he makes Jen smile, he finally finds a commitment he’s willing to make…but persuading Jen to believe him will take everything he’s got.
“Five hearts! Tender, sweet, and a lot of fun. A highly recommended read.”
The Romance Studio
“Five blue ribbons! A fantastic book.”
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An excerpt from All or Nothing:
“Are you gay?”
Jen glanced up from her toast. It was just before noon on a Friday morning and she’d thought herself alone in her mother’s vivid yellow and cherry red kitchen. She had been considering the problem of how to knit the skin of an avocado so that it looked real, but any internal debate about the pebbly merit of moss stitch would have to wait.
Her mom, as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as Jen was not, was leaning in the doorway to the hall. Natalie had “that look”, the one that meant trouble.
A casual observer wouldn’t have guessed that Natalie and Jen were related, much less that they were mother and daughter. While Jen was tall and slender with cropped dark hair, her mother was petite, curvy and possessed of what seemed to be several acres of corkscrew-curled auburn hair.
Jen’s mother had found her niche in the 1970’s and had decided to remain there for good. Natalie wore little round glasses, her jeans were worn, her sweater was hand knit (by Gran) and old enough to be embellished with many fuzz balls. She wore Birkenstock sandals all year around, baked the best whole grain bread, and persisted in starting earnest conversations with her children at unpredictable moments.
Jen had forgotten the earnest conversation bit when she’d accepted the chance to move back home two years before. She’d worked a double shift the night before at Mulligan’s, was due in for the lunch shift today and her feet were still begging for mercy. She wasn’t really up for having her soul searched, her chakras aligned, or the fiber content of her diet analyzed.
Jen tried not to show any of her frustration. She changed the subject instead of answering, a ploy that sometimes worked. “Hi Mom. The bread is really good this time.”
“Don’t you do that to me,” Natalie said as she advanced into the kitchen. “I know you well enough to see you putting your shields up. I want you to be honest with me, Jen.”
“I’m not putting…”
“You are. I can see you closing off the world. You’ve always done it, but now you’re better at it.”
Jen didn’t know what to say to that so she ate her toast. She toyed with her knitting while she did so. It flopped on the table, not looking like much of anything since it wasn’t yet stuffed. The pit of the avocado was done, because her plan was that the end result would look like an avocado cut in half. The round pit had been the easiest place to start. So, she had a purple golf ball with floppy frills around it and a lot of doubt.
Shouldn’t the flesh be more yellow around the stone? Should she use more than one color of yarn? She could ask Teresa how to change from one color to the next gradually.
Jen’s mom shook her head, which made her ringlets dance, then pulled out the chair opposite Jen with such purpose that she couldn’t be ignored.
“Well, if you are gay, then you should know that I’m okay with it,” her mother said with the compassion that characterized these discussions. “I’d just like to know — assuming, of course, that you don’t think that’s too much of a personal thing to ask.”
So much for the diversion plan. Jen wondered at the timing of the question. “Why do you want to know? Shouldn’t we have had this chat when I was sixteen?”
“I know, I know, and now your life is your own business, blah blah blah.” Her mother sighed and grimaced, then leaned closer. “But you might as well know, it’s because I need to decide what to tell your grandmother about Thanksgiving. You know, she’s always after me about whether you’re bringing a date or not.”
“Just tell her no. It’s worked before.”
“Not this year.”
“Gran saw some documentary on television and now she has this idea that maybe you’re gay and we’re hiding it from her.” Jen’s mother took a swig of her herbal tea. “She’ll love it if you are, I’ve got to say. She’s always insisted that I didn’t know anything about raising children, and you know that she won’t understand that being gay isn’t a lifestyle choice. It’s wired right in, we know that, but she’s going to think that you’ve gone and chosen to do this to annoy her or me, and that you can be persuaded to change your mind and be “normal” again, whatever the hell that is. I don’t even want to imagine that campaign.”
Neither did Jen. She ate her toast as quickly as she could, hoping her mother got lost on a tangent long enough that she could escape without answering the question.
The chances were slim, but it was worth a try.
“How many times have I told you not to wolf down your food?” Her mother fixed her with a stern glance, exactly the opposite of what Jen had hoped for. “I’m all for people expressing their own rhythms, but eating quickly only inhibits digestion. You, of all people, should be respecting your body’s natural needs.”
“Mom, I’m not sick anymore.”
Her mother sat back, smiling slightly as if Jen had said exactly what Natalie had wanted her to say. “Really? How would I be able to tell?”
“Check out my new hair.”
“Hair is only part of it. You mope around here like a ghost, or like a person with death sentence.”
“I was a person with a death sentence.”
“Was being the operative word. Past tense, Jen. You’re better now, all better from what the oncologists say. Last I heard, your prognosis was excellent. You’re one year clear.”
“That’s what I heard, too.”
“So, when are you going to do something about it? When are you going to act as if you’re alive, Jen, instead of marking time until you die?” Her mother leaned her elbows on the table and regarded Jen earnestly. “When exactly do we get the old Jen back?”
Jen swallowed the last bite of her toast and picked up her plate. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said with a shrug. “I’ve got a job and I go to work almost every day…”
“And what about going back to college?”
“I’m not sure what I want to do yet.”
“What about traveling again?”
“I’ve already waitressed in sixteen countries. I’m good with that as a lifetime total.” That wasn’t it and Jen knew it, but she wasn’t sure enough of herself to confess more to her mother.
Even if the woman had X-ray vision. She felt Natalie’s gaze following her and knew she wasn’t out of the kitchen yet.
“You used to have a lot of dreams and plans.”
Jen said nothing. Not knowing how long you were going to live had a way of short-circuiting long-term dreams and plans.
Her mother tried another tack. “And what about your friends? What about Teresa?”
“I stay in touch with Teresa…”
“But you don’t get together any more. You don’t go downtown and hang out with her as much as you used to.”
“Teresa’s really busy with her job. She’s CFO now, you know.” Jen chose not to try to explain that she felt so out of step with her old friends. It was like Death was sitting on her shoulder, making her unwelcome company among people busy being vibrantly alive. “And after all, I don’t care about power shopping or speed dating.”
“Why not? That’s what women your age should care about: clothes and music and parties.” Her mother took a deep fortifying breath.
“And men, Jen. You should be crazy for men. But you’ve shown no interest in men lately. Which leads me back to the question: are you gay?”
It took Jen only a heartbeat to see where this was going and how a little white lie could be useful. “Maybe I’m not sure.”
Her mother exhaled with impatience. “Then you aren’t. There’s no middle ground with sexual orientation. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think you are, anyway.”
It seemed that Jen’s inability to bend the truth was one constant in her universe. In a way, she was glad. “How would you know?”
“Hello. Don’t you remember who caught you kissing Mark Desilvo behind the garage on your thirteenth birthday party?
“Maybe I was curious.” Jen glanced up. “Maybe he wasn’t very persuasive.”
“That would explain why you cried your heart out every night for three entire weeks when Drew MacPherson broke up with you to date Annemarie Schultz instead?”
“That was pride,” Jen insisted. She rinsed her dishes in the sink. “Drew didn’t break my heart.”
“Maybe it was Joel, then?” Her mother asked lightly, continuing before Jen could answer. “Or was it Steve?”
Jen caught her breath and was glad that she had her back to her mother. “You remember everything.”
“I’m your mother. It’s my job.”
Jen pivoted to face her mother, feeling annoyed and defensive. “Is there a point to this? I need to get to work.”
Her mother shrugged. “I just asked you a question. Are you gay or not?”
“It seems as if you’ve worked that out for yourself already.” Jen dropped her mug and plate into the dishwasher, then let the door slam a bit more assertively than she’d meant to do. She felt like a cornered teenager, although that scenario was years behind her.
Maybe moving back home had stirred up a lot of old behavior patterns, like her mother meddling in her life and Jen resenting it.
Unfortunately, waiting tables wasn’t going to be the key to her financial freedom anytime soon.
Not with those medical bills still unpaid. One of her chemo buddies – they’d had a similar schedule and had quickly realized they were both uninsured – had joked that if the cancer didn’t finish you off, the debt would. Now that she was healthy, Jen found the dark joke less funny.
Her mother, meanwhile, persisted in the day’s theme of choice. “If you’re not gay, when are you going to start dating again?”
“Maybe never.” Jen strode to the door, wanting this conversation over ASAP. She picked up her avocado and her needles and decided that she could stop into that yarn shop on her way to work.
Her mother smiled the sweet smile that made people – other people – underestimate her. Jen folded her arms across her chest in anticipation of a direct hit to the heart.
It was too late to run for cover.
“Steve wasn’t worth the trouble…”
“Maybe you should forget Steve, Jen.”
Jen had to admit that there was truth in that, but she wasn’t going to admit it at this particular moment. “Do you want me to move out?
Is that what this is about? Because I don’t have to get married to move out of here.”
“No, you don’t.” Natalie was annoyingly serene. “That was what I had to do, but you have a thousand choices. If you want to move and you want my help in any way, you’re welcome to it. But that’s not what this is about.”
“You aren’t going to tell me that I can’t be happy without a man in my life, not you.”
Natalie put her mug down on the table. “No, that’s not what I’m going to tell you. We both know that I’m not a really great source of advice when it comes to men, at least when it comes to marrying them. I like men a lot and do think that they do add something to your life, but that’s not what this is about either.”
Jen held her ground. Running away probably wouldn’t work. Her mother would follow until she’d had her say.
“What then?” Jen asked, hearing surly sixteen in her voice again. “What’s it about?” She fully expected a lecture on being purposeful or finding herself or getting in balance again, so her mother surprised her.
“It’s about being alone. I don’t care who you’re with, or for how long, I just hate to see you alone. Maybe lonely.” Her mother smiled softly. “You’re too wonderful a person, Jen, for me to keep you all to myself.”
Jen said nothing. She stood there and kept her arms wrapped tightly around herself. She felt her tears rise and wondered how the hell her mother could always see right through her.
Maybe that was her job, too.
Natalie got up and came to stand beside her. She raised one hand to Jen’s face and caressed her skin, her words as soft as her fingertips. “Look at your hair. It’s come in all curly.”
“I know. Might not last.” Jen’s voice was thicker than she’d expected.
“I thought for a long time that I’d never see you like this again.”
“Yeah. Me, too.” Jen met her mother’s gaze and the compassion she found there eliminated her frustration.
Just like that. It was a trick of her mother’s. Natalie knew how to give Jen’s sucker heart a squeeze and she did it now.
Natalie sighed. “And I don’t know what to say to you. I don’t know what to advise you to do, or even if I should butt my nose into your business, but it seems to me that you’re just counting off the days, Jen. You seem to have insulated yourself from the world in a way I don’t understand.” Jen dropped her gaze. “It seems to me that – I don’t know – maybe you don’t believe that you’ve got this second chance. Or that maybe you’re afraid everything will be snatched away again.”
Jen swallowed, painfully aware of what cancer had stolen from her. It hadn’t been just her breast. It had been her optimism and her sense of the future and her confidence; all of those had been sacrificed to the knife.
Every night, she looked in the mirror and saw the scar that would never stop reminding her of everything that was gone.
Every day, she walked among people who had no idea what it was like to have the foundation of your world ripped away.
Much less to fear that it could happen again.
Her mother touched her chin, compelling Jen to meet her gaze again. “But you’ve got this chance, Jen!” she said urgently. “It’s all yours. I don’t want you to miss out because you’re afraid to live.”
Jen took a shaking breath and tried to make a joke. “So, I should find a man and get married and have babies? You sound like Gran.”
“No, no, that’s not what I’m saying. I think you should get a date and have sex, lots of sex, because that will remind you that you’re alive and well.” Her mother grinned, looking young and mischievous. “I doubt your grandmother ever recommended that to you.”
“No, I think I’d remember if she had.”
“Sex is good therapy, Jen. I can recommend it on the basis of experience. An orgasm always makes me feel better about life, the universe and everything. And the ones you give yourself don’t have that same element of surprise.” Her mom smiled and returned to her mug, filling it from the teapot.
Jen had always suspected that other people didn’t talk so frankly to their mothers, and even after all these years of open discussion, her mother could still astound her. “So, Natalie’s tip of the day is that sex is better than masturbation?”
“Provided you orgasm, yes.” Her mother winked. “Get a date; you’ll see. Just let me know if you plan to bring someone home and I’ll make myself scarce.”
Bring someone home. Jen’s mind stalled on that concept. The thing was that she and her mother didn’t work with the same set of assumptions. “Mom, I’m not going to have casual sex in your house.”
“Then have formal sex. I don’t really need to know the details.”
“I mean, I’m not going to have sex with someone unless I’m in a serious relationship.”
Her mother sighed and frowned, then shook her head. “I should never have let your grandmother read you all those fairy tales,” she muttered, then looked up, her face pale and delicate within that halo of reddish curls. There had been a time when Jen had thought her mother must be an angel.
A thrice-married and thrice-divorced angel, with a child from each marriage and one son from before any of those marriages; an angel who was honest, creative, clever, and worked to her own unique moral code.
Maybe a naughty angel.
“Jen, this whole soul mate Mr. Right thing is a notion created by and encouraged by men to ensure that women remain virginal until they’re married, then chaste except when their husbands want something from them. It’s a notion that serves men, not women, and one that is – or should be – deader than a doornail. You can have sex with someone without an ironclad guarantee that you’ll be spending the rest of your life with him. Trust me. I know. Try it at least before you decide it doesn’t work for you.”
“Just because I can doesn’t mean I want to. I mean, what about sexually transmitted diseases?”
“You can spell condom: I know because I taught you.”
“When I was twelve.”
“It’s always better to be prepared.” Her mother rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Jen, I just want you to have some fun.”
“I am having fun.”
Her mother gave her a cutting look. “Do not lie to me.”
“Okay, maybe I’m not having that much fun. I just like to believe that I’m having fun. And I’m knitting up a storm. The avocado is my biggest project yet.”
Her mother heaved a sigh. “Lying to yourself isn’t any better than lying to me.”
“But it’s not that simple, Mom,” Jen said, feeling dragged into a conversation she wasn’t sure she wanted to have. “It’s hard to meet people, to meet men.”
“No, it’s easy to meet men. Your problem is that you’re trying to meet your so-called one and only, and you want to recognize him on sight.” Her mother came to her side again, and put a hand on her shoulder. “You can’t always tell a book by its cover, Jen, that’s all I’m saying. Just to mix our metaphors here, you need to get into the pool, if you’re going to prove that you can swim.”
“What if I don’t feel like doing any laps right now?”
“Then when will you?”
“Prove it,” her mother said, challenge bright in her eyes. “Bring a date to Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Mom! I can’t just order up a date, like you order a salad.”
“You don’t have to marry him, Jen. Just bring a date, a man who is reasonably presentable, to Thanksgiving dinner at your grandmother’s. That’s all.”
“No, that’s not all. I know you better than that.”
Her mother contrived to look innocent and failed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Bring a date or else what?”
Natalie grinned. “Or else I’ll start fixing you up myself.” Jen knew her horror at that prospect showed because her mother tapped the side of her mug with a fingertip. “There’s a very nice, if somewhat hirsute, young man working at the Birkenstock store, for example. I understand he writes poetry…”
“Nooooooooooo!” Jen shouted and flung herself out of the kitchen, only half-joking. She heard her mother laughing, but knew that this was a threat her mother would act upon. Jen made an escape to work as soon as was humanly possible, though her mother still got in one last shot.
“Remember that boy at the natural food store? He’s always asking after you…”
Oh no. Not the bass-player-whole-grain-aficionado who never cleaned his fingernails and wanted to walk to around the world to protest the living conditions…somewhere. No, no, no. Anyone had to be better than that. Anyone had to think more clearly than that.
Jen had to be able to find a date somewhere. She’d ask her older sister for help, just like she always did.
Cin would know what to do.
Excerpt from ALL OR NOTHING ©2007 Claire Delacroix, Inc.