“Merry Christmas!” she said into the receiver.
“You’re still in your room? Why aren’t you on the way over?” Josephine Bookman, Olivia’s best friend, sounded stressed. She always fretted over her parties, worrying each detail to pieces. Olivia often told her to throw some old records on the stereo, pour potato chips into a few bowls, and get the Twister game out, but Josie never listened. Poor thing. Twister was a marvelous ice-breaker. Even when there wasn’t any ice to break.
“Calm down, Josie. I’m on my way downstairs to do some mingling. Then I’ll head over to your house.”
“Mingle fast, okay? Whatever you do, don’t let Alice Parker corner you. She’ll start talking about her cats, and that could take hours.”
“They’re her family. She’s just lonely, Josie. It wouldn’t hurt you to listen to her sometime, too. You’d make her so happy.”
“It’ll be my New Year’s resolution. I promise to listen to Alice babble about Tinker Bell and Snowflake if you promise to get over here in half an hour.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t lollygag.” She hung up before Josie could answer. Josie may stew before her parties, but Olivia had a quirk of her own. She got so excited at the notion of seeing so many friends at once, she turned into a clumsy fool. What was the saying? Two thumbs on left feet? Something like that.
Fluffing her hair, she took a deep, calming breath and crossed to the bathroom to check her makeup a fifth and final time. She hummed Jingle Bells while dabbing Mariella Burani behind her ears. Olivia knew she sang off-key at church and during festive sing-alongs, but for some reason, in this large marble and tile room, she thought she sounded exactly like Barbra Streisand. Marveling at the vagaries of acoustics, she shut the light off and left the room.
Olivia picked her satin purse off the bed and climbed into matching high heel shoes. She turned off the stereo and all but one lamp in the sitting room, then left her suite, closing the door firmly behind her.
As she walked down the hallway toward the second story landing she looked over the mahogany railing, admiring the decorations in the vast entry one floor below. The chandelier had been dimmed, and soft light reflected off gold and silver ribbons and bows, making them appear fuzzy, as if she were looking at an unfocused photograph. Slowly descending the wide staircase, she trailed her hand along the banister. Wreaths, flocking, lights, candles, and miniature towns sitting on tables made the place feel like a fairyland. Her mother had outdone herself with decorations for this year’s Christmas gala.
Moving home had seemed natural after the breakup of her marriage to Sam Wallace. She’d shut herself in her rooms, planning to lick her wounds and heal her heart. Two days later Josie barged in and told her she’d wasted enough time mewling over a two-timing warthog like Sammy. Olivia readily agreed, and considered Josie’s suggestion that they go on a shopping spree absolutely brilliant. The two women spent a frenzied week in Chicago, giving the term ‘Windy City’ a whole new meaning. That was six months ago, and Olivia was still living with her parents, still trying to figure out what to do with her life. Leaving Chatham, Wisconsin, was out of the question. This was home. She knew everyone in town, and could only think of a handful of people she didn’t like. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, she slapped a palm on the newel post. Nope, she wasn’t leaving Chatham. She’d have to find her future here. Something would come along to spark her interest.
People wandered between rooms on the lower level of the large house. Olivia stopped and exchanged words with most of them. She plucked a glass of wine off the tray a passing waiter held out to her. Another uniformed arm offered a platter of hors d’oeuvres. She picked up a cracker topped with something, stared at it for a moment, and popped it into her mouth as she moved from the library to the living room. Not bad, she thought, and looked for more appetizers. She found several trays of food sitting on a table and sipped her wine as she picked up another mystery tidbit.
Olivia swiveled to survey the room, and as she did her clutch purse slipped from under her arm. She caught it but dropped the cracker. Oh Lordy, why do they always land upside down? Olivia glanced around in embarrassment as she picked up a napkin and bent to clean up her mess. Finished with her task, and certain that no one had seen, she turned and looked into a pair of amused gray eyes.
Good grief, what was he doing here? And why was he standing by her parents? Another lady, one she recognized, completed the grouping. She’d seen the man around town a few times the past couple of weeks, but had never spoken to him and didn’t even know his name. He usually wore jeans and sweatshirts, and was handsome in a rugged, outdoorsy way. He wore his dark hair a shade too long, and Olivia sometimes wondered if he’d bothered to comb it that day. Tonight, in his suit and tie and with his hair smoothed back, he looked like the Marlboro Man gone Wall Street. No, she corrected herself. He looked like a predator. A shiver raced up her spine.
“Livvy,” her father called out and waved his hand in the air, motioning her over. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Olivia bumped a table topped with full champagne flutes as she moved toward her parents. She glanced down and saw liquid sloshing over the sides of the Waterford crystal, but none of the glasses fell and broke. The tablecloth was probably a goner, though.
“Hi Mom, Dad.” Olivia brushed the air beside their cheeks, not wanting to get lipstick on them.
“Livvy,” her father said, “this is Professor Mecklenberg. Teaches at the college over in Deerwood. Professor, our daughter, Olivia.”