“You’ll never guess who’s back in town, Lucy,” Cora Lee Watkins said as I handed her a menu.
“Turner Calhoun! Didn’t you kids used to be in the same grade?”
I nodded, ignoring the sudden silly flutter of my heart. “That was a long time ago. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Hot chocolate, please. He’s single again, but I doubt that will last. Every female under the age of sixty is going to be trying to get their hooks in him.” Cora Lee giggled.
“I’ll be right back with your hot chocolate,” I said and quickly walked away, trying to keep the memories at bad.
I’d had a crush on Turner Calhoun since I was twelve years old. It was funny, really — plain, mousey little Lucy Bishop in love with the town heartthrob. But I couldn’t help myself.
It wasn’t just that Turner was tall, with midnight black hair, dark twinkling eyes, and a wicked, lop-sided grin—he was actually nice, too. Turner never laughed at my stutter or made fun of my short, curly hair. When we worked together on the school paper, he always listened to everything I had to say.
For most of my high school years I’d been in fantasy mode where Turner was concerned, dreaming he’d see past my glasses and ugly outfits and fall head over heels in love with me. Of course it never happened. Turner dated girls like Marcy Gates and Suzy Shaffer, the school beauties, with their long, flowing hair and flawless skin.
Then we all graduated. Turner went away to college and then started a used car business. He’d become very successful. I followed his progress in our annual high school newsletter, which was also how I knew that his marriage had ended in divorce. But I had no idea why he’d decided to move back into town.
My feet were aching by the time I finished my shift that night. Not only had I dealt with the usual stream of customers, but also my boss, Tony, had wanted me to ‘jolly the place up’ for Christmas. So I’d spent a large part of my lunch break pulling the Christmas tree out of the storeroom and then decorating it, in between running around fetching pie and coffee and meatloaf. Cora Lee hadn’t been the only customer to comment on Turner coming home. In a small town like Homer, his return was big news.
I stopped at the grocery store on my way home and picked up the things Mom had asked for, suddenly fighting back the familiar depression that my exhaustion often brought on. It was almost Christmas—a time for fun, parties, being with loved ones. . . but not for me. I still lived in the same town, in the same house, as I always had. Mom still bossed me around the same way she had when I was five. And as far as I could see, there was no way out.
“Oh, quit feeling sorry for yourself, Lucy Bishop,” I muttered. “You’ve got plenty to be grateful for.”
As soon as I opened the front door, Mom yelled my name. “Lucy! Where have you been?”
“You needed me to stop at the grocery store, remember?” I said, bringing in the paper sacks and starting to unload them.
Mom grunted. “Well, it’s my book club tonight. I need you to fix my hair.”
“There’ll still be time after supper,” I replied.
“It’ll have to be something quick, I suppose,” Mom grumbled.
“How about tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches?” I suggested. She shrugged.
I forced a smile. Mom was seventy-eight years old. I’d been a late in life baby, born when she was forty-six. And to Mom, even though I was now in my early thirties, I’d always be a little girl she could boss around.
“Turner Calhoun is back in town,” she said, taking a seat at the kitchen table. “He’s bought that big old house Andy and Nancy Mayer had.”
“That’s nice,” I nodded as I stirred the soup, wondering if Turner would still bear any resemblance to the handsome boy he’d been the last time I’d seen him.
“He needs a housekeeper, four hours a week,” Mom said. “I called him and said you’d do it. You start tomorrow, three o’clock sharp.”
“Excuse me?” I stared at her. “Mom, you had no right to do that!”
She scowled. “Take that soup off the heat before it boils over, Lucy! And I had every right to get you a job as a housekeeper. You live under my roof, and you need to help pay your way, young lady!”
My hands shook as I poured the soup into bowls—I felt so resentful. I worked thirty-two hours a week at the diner and spent the rest of my time practically waiting hand and foot on Mom. But I often felt like nothing I did was enough for her.
After we’d eaten, I helped Mom arrange her hair into neat curls and then her friend, Tilly, arrived to take her to the book discussion group at the local library.
I took a shower and switched on the television. When I couldn’t concentrate, I switched it off again and slowly climbed the stairs. I flopped down on my bed and let my mind roam back in time, back to when I was a little girl.
By the time I’d come along, my brother, John, had already left home and married, and my sister, Susan, was graduating from college. My birth had been a surprise, to put it mildly. Mom had been enjoying her empty nest and was looking forward to a life of bridge parties and quiet vacations with my father. I was never abused or neglected as a child, but I absorbed the fact that I was nothing but an unwelcome embarrassment at a very young age.
My parents were always tired—too tired to talk to me much or interact with me. Mom didn’t approve of jeans or brightly colored clothes, so I didn’t dress like the other girls. I wore ‘respectable’ crisp white blouses tucked into dark skirts, with sensible lace-up shoes. My hair was kept short. I felt like a freak and I had no friends, but I learned to be quiet and diligent and do everything I was told. Somehow, I’d never lost these habits.
I applied to colleges and was accepted at one, but two weeks before I was due to leave, Dad suffered a stroke. There was no way Mom could’ve coped on her own. Then, a few years later, Dad passed away and Mom wasn’t in great shape herself. So I’d stayed.
I loved Mom, but there were times I felt so trapped. I wondered what it would be like to have an apartment, a social life, and a wardrobe full of cute clothes, the kind Mom would throw a fit if she saw me in.
My thoughts turned to Turner and I gave a little moan of despair. I hated the thought of him seeing what a failure I was, seeing the pity creep into his eyes. ..
I spent the next day in a state of dread, and when my shift at the diner was over, I headed reluctantly over to Turner’s. Four hours a week wouldn’t be so bad, I told myself. And maybe Turner wouldn’t even be there. Maybe the way I should look at this was as a welcome break from Mom, taking care of a little light housework while I listened to the radio.
I couldn’t help smiling as I parked outside the house Turner had moved into. The Mayer’s old home was a large, red-brick place that looked like it belonged in an old movie. It would look beautiful decorated for Christmas, twinkling merrily with lights, I thought.
My smile faded as I rang the front doorbell, suddenly feeling nervous again. I took a deep breath and told myself not to be so stupid. / wasn’t a silly teenager with stars in her eyes anymore. I was a grown-up woman. And Turner was just as grown up—he could be balding with a generous beer gut!
Then he opened the door and my mouth fell open slightly as he smiled into my eyes. “Hi, Lucy.”
“Hi,” I managed awkwardly.
Turner’s hair may have been receding a little, but he was far from bald, and there was no sign of a beer gut. If anything, he was even more attractive than the boy I remembered. He was a man now, broader and stronger, with an added, sexy twinkle in his brown eyes.
“Come in,” he said. “Let me show you around and tell you what I need…”
As Turner proceeded to explain what my duties would be, I knew I was going to enjoy every minute I spent in his house. It was going to be hard work—no mistake about that—but the dusty, neglected rooms of the old house were crying out for attention, and brightening them up again was going to give me a lot of satisfaction.
Boxes of books and knick-knacks were stacked against one wall, and Turner needed me to unpack them. It was a similar story in the kitchen. A few pans and plates had been unpacked, but the cupboards needed to be scrubbed clean and then arranged with the cooking equipment that was still stored in boxes.
“I hope this isn’t too overwhelming,” Turner said.
I shook my head, smiling. “No, it’ll be a challenge.”
“You must think I’m a lazy slob, but I’m trying to expand the business, and it’s taking more time than I thought it would. . .”
“Your mother suggested four hours a week, but if you can manage a few more than that, I sure would appreciate it.”
“All right,” I nodded, pleased. This house would be such a welcome change from Herb’s Diner.
“How are you, Lucy?” Turner asked softly. “You haven’t changed much.”
That wasn’t much of a compliment and I forced a smile. “I’m fine.”
“You always stood out so much in high school,” he said.
“I guess so,” I replied, thinking of the horrible, plain clothes I’d been forced to wear.
“All the other girls were all about crazy hairstyles, too much make-up, and wild clothes,” Turner said. “You stood out like a little flower.”
It was such a nice and unexpected thing for him to say that I felt color rushing into my cheeks.
“Well, I’ll let you get busy,” he said. “If you need me I’ll be upstairs in my office.”
The next few hours flew by. I decided I should make the kitchen a priority and filled a plastic bowl with soapy water and began to wipe down every surface. I’d found a station on the radio playing Christmas songs and I began singing along softly. Time went quickly. I unpacked plates and glasses and found places for them, then scrubbed the old enamel sink until it glowed.
When the doorbell rang I glanced uncertainly down the hall, wondering if I should answer it myself, but then Turner came bounding down the stairs. I heard a brief exchange and then Turner walked into the kitchen, grinning and holding a large pizza box. “Do you like pepperoni?”
“Sure,” I nodded, suddenly realizing how hungry I was.
“You’ve worked wonders in here,” Turner said, looking around.
I put two plates on the table as he opened the box, and then we sat down to eat, serenaded by Christmas music.
It was only pizza, eaten in a kitchen with an old school friend, but I knew it would be a long time before I forgot this meal. And I knew my old crush on Turner was in danger of coming back to life. He hadn’t changed much either—he was still the sweet, funny, kind person I remembered so well.
“You know, this was a pretty good idea of your Mom’s,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t just hang up on her after all.”
I grinned, but then Turner apologized. “I’m sorry if that was out of line, Lucy.”
I shook my head. “Don’t worry about it. I know how overbearing my mom can be.”
“I’m surprised you’re still living with her,” he said.
“She hasn’t got anyone else,” I replied quietly.
“What about Tilly and Cora Lee?” Turner said.
I didn’t say anything. That was different—they were Mom’s friends, not her family. It was my job to look after her.
“I always hated the way she wouldn’t let you attend school dances,” Turner blurted out.
I stared at him. “You knew about that?”
“Oh, yeah. I think the whole school guessed.”
I flushed, hating the thought of everyone feeling sorry for me.
“I hope you don’t still let her boss you around,” he said.
It was silly, but I felt like I was on a cloud as I left Turner’s house that night. It had been so nice, talking to someone who actually seemed to like me and appreciate my company. Oh, I knew Turner wasn’t attracted to me or anything like that—I wasn’t his type—but just being around him had been so much fun. I was going over to his house again tomorrow to sort out the family room and help put up the Christmas tree. I couldn’t wait.
“You’re late,” Mom said, when I walked in the door.
“There was a lot to do,” I said, taking off my jacket. “I’m exhausted.”
“Well, hard work never killed anybody,” Mom remarked.
I smiled as I climbed the stairs. It would’ve definitely been a mistake to let Mom know I’d actually enjoyed myself tonight!
The next few weeks were unlike any Christmas season I’d ever known. Usually there was a forced quality to my Christmas cheer, as I struggled to meet Mom’s demands. Now, I had an escape. Almost every evening I was at Turner’s house, singing along to Christmas songs as I fixed us a meal.
We seemed to slip back into the habit of being friends, almost as if we’d never been apart. I loved talking to Turner and our conversations could go on forever and cover every subject under the sun—our hopes and dreams, likes and dislikes, favorite movies and music. There was no one else in the world who made me feel special and interesting the way Turner did.
One day we were chatting about our relationships with the opposite sex and Turner asked me if I’d ever been in love.
I frowned, hesitating. “I’m not sure.”
The truth was, I was slipping more and more into what felt like love with Turner. I knew that what I felt for him was so much more than a crush, but I couldn’t tell him that.
“There was someone,” I admitted. “I dated Harold, the manager of Hi-Valu, for just over two years. I guess at the time I thought I loved him.”
“What happened?” Turner sipped at the hot chocolate I’d made.
“He met someone else,” I said simply.
“Idiot,” Turner muttered.
“It just wasn’t meant to be,” I said quietly. “What about you. . .?”
He sighed. “It’s complicated, Lucy. Let’s just say my ideal woman hasn’t come along yet.”
“And what is she like—your ideal woman?” I was genuinely curious.
Turner smiled. “She’s attractive, sexy, and fun, with a sense of mischief, and she knows what she wants out of life and isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. But she’s also got a quiet side, and she’s loyal and sweet. . .”
“Naughty but nice, in other words,” I said.
Turner burst out laughing. “You could say that!”
It was impossible for me not to think about what Turner had told me about his ideal woman. It was pretty obvious that I was the last woman on his mind when he described the qualities he desired in a woman, and yet I definitely considered myself loyal and I was quiet, too. But nobody had ever used the words sexy or fun to describe me, and they probably never would. I was nice. . .but not naughty.
I looked at my reflection in my dresser mirror that evening when I got home, really studying myself hard. I had shoulder-length brown hair that I always wore in a ponytail, blue eyes, and a very ordinary nose and mouth. There was nothing about me that would turn a man’s head.
I frowned critically at my sensible navy blue sweater, wondering what I’d look like in something a little more daring, and then I released my hair from its ponytail and shook it loose, pouting into the mirror and wondering if I had a naughty side. Maybe if I wore a little make-up. .
“Lucy Bishop! What on earth do you think you’re doing’?”
The sound of Mom’s voice made me jump in shock, before whirling around to face her. “I-I thought you were at book club with Tilly and Cora Lee tonight” I said.
She walked into my room, staring at me accusingly. “You seem to be spending more and more time at Turner Calhoun’s. What’s going on?” “Nothing’s going on. There’s just a lot for me to do over there,” I said, feeling a prickle of warmth on my face. “Well, there’s a lot for you to do here, too,” Mom pointed out. “Just in case you’ve forgotten, it will be Christmas in ten days. John and Susan will be arriving with their families on Christmas Eve, and we haven’t even begun to get ready!”
By ‘we’ she meant me, I thought miserably.
Mom began to leave, but as she reached my door she turned and looked at me. “You do know that a man like Turner Calhoun would never be interested in some like you, don’t you?” she said.
Her words hit me like a slap in the face. Mom had always had the ability to destroy any sign of self-confidence in me very easily, often with just a look.
“Good,” she said, and left the room.
I tried to tell myself that maybe her words had been just the wake up call I needed. After all, Turner had never shown me anything but friendship. He’d chatted and we always found so much to laugh about, but he’d never shown any desire to kiss me. He’d never so much as reached out to take my hand.
I felt miserable as I walked around the mall the following afternoon, Mom’s list tucked into my purse. I had orders to buy gifts for my brother and sister, plus their spouses and children, and find suitable items for Cora Lee and Tilly. All around me, the world seemed to be having a good time—store windows glittered and sparkled, children’s faces were lit up, couples looked like they’d never been more in love.
My heart felt so heavy. I realized I’d done something very stupid. I’d fallen in love with Turner. Not in a school girlish way either. This time around I knew deep in my heart and soul that Turner was the man I wanted to spend my life with. And it was so crazy and pointless. I’d never be anything more than his friend.
I gradually ticked each item off the list and began to head for home, thinking of how Mom would probably criticize everything I’d bought even though I’d tried to stick to her instructions. Then she’d criticize the way I wrapped everything.
Negative thoughts about Christmas Day flooded through me. The house would be full—John and his wife Liz had three teenagers. Susan and her husband Jeff had a ten-year-old boy and an eight-year-old daughter. I was always responsible for keeping the kids entertained, and the lion’s share of the cooking usually fell on me.
A lump filled my throat as I visualized the Christmas of my dreams. I’d wake up in Turner’s arms, and he’d tell me how much he loved me. Then we’d open our gifts beneath the tree I’d helped to set up in his family room, and we’d work together in the kitchen fixing Christmas lunch. Not for a minute would I feel exhausted or miserable or disappointed. I’d feel treasured and loved.
The tears threatened to spill down my face and I stopped in front of a store window and groped through my purse for a tissue. I mopped at my face, taking deep breaths until I calmed down. I realized I was standing outside a woman’s clothing store and I gazed in through the window.
I’d never wear anything this store sold. For one thing, I didn’t have a social life, and for another, Mom wouldn’t like it. A sweater caught my eye—it was black, soft, delicate as a cobweb, and twinkled with a scattering of tiny silver sequins. Never in a million years, I thought sadly.
Out of the blue, a phrase suddenly popped into my head. Naughty but nice.
Not really sure why, I wandered inside the store, then stopped and gazed around in confusion. I was surrounded by beautiful, sophisticated clothes and jewelry; the air smelled like perfume and an attractive blonde girl was approaching me with a smile on her face. “Can I help you?” she asked, her tone friendly.
“Um, I’m not sure,” I said. “There’s a sweater in your window. . .the black one. . .”
“Oh, that’s stunning, isn’t it?” she said.
Ten minutes later I was in the changing room with the black sweater and a few other items. I’d found a pale gray skirt that shimmered past my knees, another sweater that was an irresistible shade of blue, and a pair of black high-heeled boots.
As I tried everything on I wondered what had gotten into me. I asked myself the same question again as I paid for everything.
“Can I make a suggestion?” the salesgirl asked.
I nodded and she showed me a large pair of crystal teardrop earrings.
“These would compliment your new clothes brilliantly,” she said.
“I’ll take them,” I said.
For three whole days the clothes sat in the trunk of my car as I scolded myself for recklessly wasting so much money. But one evening after my shift, I found a little courage and changed into the black sweater. I added the earrings and released my hair from its ponytail, shaking it free around my face.
I let myself into Turner’s house and I glanced around. As usual, he was working upstairs. My routine involved taking care of any tidying up in the family room and kitchen, and then making a start on supper. Turner usually came downstairs and helped me while we chatted, and then we’d eat together.
Tonight, I dusted the wooden bookshelves, polished the coffee table, and vacuumed the patterned rug in the family room. I often fantasized that this was my own home I was cleaning while my husband was upstairs working in the office. I’d never confess my dreams to a soul. To everyone who knew me, I was plain, sensible little Lucy Bishop who still lived at home with her mother and had no life of her own. If only everyone knew how much I longed to please myself, to have my own home, to live the life of a free adult.
I put the vacuum cleaner away and began to make my way in to the kitchen. There was a large mirror in the hallway and I caught sight of my reflection and paused.
I bit my lip, suddenly feeling extremely foolish. The sweater I was wearing was far too dressy for an evening of housework and cooking—whatever would Turner think? He’d know straight away that I was all dressed up for him and feel sorry for me. I knew I had to change, but before I’d taken two steps toward the front door I heard Turner’s voice as he came down the stairs.
“Lucy! You look beautiful!”
I felt warmth flooding into my face as I forced a smile. “Thanks.”
“Are you going out somewhere tonight?” he asked, looking at me with admiration in his eyes.
I shook my head. “I-I just thought I’d wear something different for a change. I know I look far too dressy. . .”
“No, you don’t. You look gorgeous,” he contradicted me, grinning. “Far too gorgeous to sit in my kitchen eating pizza. Why don’t we go out somewhere?”
“Go out?” I felt a little rush of panic. “I can’t. Mom will be expecting me back.”
“We won’t be long,” he said. “Come on, Lucy. You deserve a little time off.”
Ten minutes later as Turner drove me into town, I was asking myself why I was so nervous. Hadn’t I wanted this to happen, wanted Turner to notice me and realize I was more than just a plain Jane? But I was nervous. I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t used to anyone wanting my company or being interested in me.
Turner looked at me as if he could read my mind. “Relax, okay? This is going to be fun.”
And somehow, over the next few hours, I did relax. We went to a casual restaurant serving home-style meals and were shown to a table for two not far from a Christmas tree glowing with tiny white lights. We both ordered meatloaf.
Turner grinned at me from across the table. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a while.”
“You have?” I couldn’t keep the surprise out of my voice.
He nodded. “I’d like to ask you a question. My parents are dropping in on Christmas Day. I thought that maybe you could come over in the afternoon?”
My heart leapt and I told myself to calm down. “To help out in the kitchen?” I asked lightly.
Turner hesitated. “Well, maybe a little, but I thought it might be fun to get together, and I know my parents would enjoy seeing you again.”
It was my turn to hesitate—the last thing I’d been expecting was for Turner to ask me to spend Christmas with him. I wasn’t sure what it meant.
I was afraid of reading too much into our relationship. I cared for this man and that made me vulnerable.
“I-I’d enjoy seeing your parents again, too,” I said. “But I’m not sure. My sister and brother always spend Christmas with me and Mom, and everyone will expect me to be there.”
“I understand,” Turner nodded. “But if you change your mind and decide you can get away, I’d love to see you at Christmas.”
His voice was soft and sent shivers tingling down my spine. We enjoyed our meal and then Turner drove me back to his house. I thanked him for a nice evening and he bent and brushed a gentle kiss on the side of my face. “You’re welcome, Lucy,” he said.
I couldn’t keep a silly grin off my face as I drove home. Could it be possible?
Could Turner really like me? I was no expert when it came to men, but there was no mistaking the way Turner had looked at me tonight. And he’d kissed me!
The smile faded from my face as I let myself into the house. Mom was seated at the kitchen table, glaring at me. “Just where have you been?” she demanded.
“I’ve been working,” I said, even though it wasn’t the exact truth.
“That’s not true!” Mom snapped. “I called Turner Calhoun’s house and I couldn’t get an answer. Where were you?”
“He took me out to dinner,” I said wearily, taking off my jacket.
Mom stared at me as if she couldn’t find words to express her outrage.
Then she shook her head. “I hope you’re not falling for Turner Calhoun, Lucy.”
“Of course not,” I lied.
“You’re hardly his type.” There was a trace of humor in her voice. “I’d hate to see you making a fool of yourself again, the way you did with Harold.”
“Good night,” I said, and walked past her, even though I knew she had more to say. I just couldn’t bear to hear it. The worst thing was knowing that she was probably right. Why would Turner be interested in me? He’d shown me friendship and , nothing more.
I cried myself to sleep that night, and as Christmas drew near, I couldn’t shake off my sadness. Somehow I made it through my shifts at the diner, but I was quiet and unsure around Turner, uncertain of his feelings toward me.
The day before Christmas Eve he smiled sadly at me as we said goodbye. “If you change your mind, you’re still welcome on Christmas Day.” I nodded, swallowing back the lump in my throat. Turner leaned forward and kissed my face, a quick, light kiss. “Merry Christmas,” he said.
The big day dawned bright and beautiful, sunshine sparkling off the ice-frosted rooftops and sidewalks. I rose early and made a start on coffee and cinnamon rolls. The turkey was in the oven before everyone else was up opening their gifts.
I joined in the laughter and the happiness that day with my family, even though my heart ached.
“Lucy, you’re a million miles away!” Mom remarked as I tidied up the kitchen after lunch.
“Sorry,” I muttered.
“It’s Christmas,” she reminded
“You could at least try to be cheerful.”
Susan came into the kitchen with some leftovers. ‘What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Oh, your sister’s still nursing a crush on Turner Calhoun,” Mom said.
“What?” Susan stared at me for a moment, and then burst out laughing.
Tears of humiliation filled my eyes. I pulled off the apron I’d been wearing to protect my clothes and turned to face my mom and sister. “I’m going out,” I said.
“Out!” Mom repeated. “But we haven’t had dessert yet!”
“I’ll see you later,” I said.
They stared at me in astonishment as I walked out of the house. A sense of freedom surged through me as I started my car and began to drive, and something Turner had said popped into my mind. His ideal woman was more than attractive and fun. She knew what she wanted out of life and wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself.
For the first time ever, I’d really stood up to Mom. As for knowing what I wanted from life, I definitely did. I wanted the freedom to make decisions for myself and a life of my own. I wanted Turner, too, but that was something I hardly dared think about. I wasn’t sure if he was destined to be my friend or much more.
The house I’d spent such happy times in over the past few weeks looked beautiful, all lit up with a Christmas welcome. I parked and began to walk up the path. Turner must have seen me approaching from inside because the front door opened before I even reached it.
He smiled at me and opened his arms. I walked straight into them. This time, his kiss landed on my lips. “I’m so glad, you could make it,” he said softly. .
I knew from the look in Turner’s eyes that we were much more than friends.
Three years have passed, and I now live with Turner in the house I once worked in as a housekeeper. We were married a few months ago. I’ll always remember the Christmas I discovered that I could be naughty as well as nice and found the courage to start a whole new life!