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Reflections on Real Life Versus Fiction: Ken’s Question

For someone who’s been in the habit of journaling for nearly all of my life, it’s strange I did not take the time to write about the emotional phone conversations I shared with “Ken” in the months preceding the release of Water Signs. Perhaps because I was so busy channeling all of the energy and feeling into a fictionalized version of events, I didn’t believe it necessary. Besides, there is no way I’d ever forget them, no matter how hard I tried. For good or ill, the selective amnesia phase of my life is definitely over.

And given the personal, surprising nature of what I am about to share in this post, it would be damned near impossible to force myself to forget.

Sometime in July of 2008 — two months before the book was on the market — “Ken” and I made plans to meet for coffee one night after work, against my better judgment. While my heart wanted nothing more than to see him in person for the first time in approximately 13 years, my head kept telling me this was not such a great idea. In fact, it was a really bad one. Keep in mind, unlike the novel, “Ken” was still very much a married man.

And although as I’d admonished him “I hadn’t lost my moral compass” or my steadfast belief in right and wrong (to nip any erroneous notion of my motive for contacting him/writing the book in the bud, i.e. the desire for an affair), I still didn’t see any good reason to put myself in a potentially gut-wrenching and/or tempting situation. After all, I was not superhuman — I was a flawed human being, a woman who was just beginning to understand and appreciate the magnitude of my feelings for this man and the depths of the sorrow we’d inflicted upon each other (though he has me beat in this area; I never pretended my fiancé was my “platonic” roommate, knowing full well someone was relocating their entire life to be with me).

Still, I did sincerely apologize for the hurtful “Dear John” letter I’d mailed him all those years ago, under duress to end the relationship by a well-meaning, but nevertheless misguided parent. It tore me up when during one phone conversation, he described in great detail exactly where he’d been when he’d read it; his anguish was palpable as he relived the memory of standing in his living room in absolute pain, hurt and anger.

And all I could do was say I was sorry. I count this episode among one of the very few things I’d change if God allowed us to travel back in time. Regrets, I’ve had a few — and this is definitely one of them. But I’ve also forgiven the naive, confused 25-year old young woman who’d written that letter because she no longer wished to be the cause of discord between her parents. For that matter, I’ve long forgiven my mom, too.

This aspect of real life is explored in Chapter 13:

“No thanks, I’m not hungry,” she informed her mother, before rolling over to face Lori’s closet. Wasn’t it enough that she’d caved into unreasonable demands and broken Kenny’s heart? She was also expected to carry on as if he’d never existed? Here it was, the night before Thanksgiving and all she wanted to do was crawl under the covers, crying over what might have been; for all she knew, she could’ve been spending the long weekend with Kenny’s family in Ventnor, or driving and laughing with him in the car as they toured suburban Philadelphia on rambling, country roads. Instead here she was, lonely, frustrated, sad and angry—mostly at herself.

After all, Dad, Lori and Greg had all taken her side, offering complete support and encouraging her to follow her heart. Dad had even stressed on more than one occasion that Maddy could always talk to him whenever she felt the need. There was no question that, had she proceeded with the relationship, Mom would’ve accepted it eventually. But Maddy was self-aware enough to acknowledge the truth—she’d used her mother’s disapproval as an escape route when her own intense feelings for Ken had become too frightening to handle.

Looking down at the gold Pisces pendant in her hand, Maddy thought back to that beautiful weekend, and their romantic dinner at The Ship Inn. He had such an incredible way of making her feel as if she was the only woman in a room; being with him had been so easy. No pangs of inadequacy, borne out of some misguided notion of failing to live up to the accomplishments of her ambitious family. Ken saw her as that rare and complete woman—smart, beautiful, principled and sweet. She was everything he never thought he’d find. And towards the end, he’d nearly accomplished the impossible by edging Maddy ever so closer to seeing what had been clear to him from day one.

Anyway, when the idea of an after-work get-together presented itself, an internal battle raged within (should I or shouldn’t I?), though I ultimately agreed to it. Later that same night, “Ken” even emailed his confirmation on the date, place and time; he’d also been very forthcoming about his busy life as a sales executive with days that typically started at 8 a.m. and didn’t end until 8 p.m.

About two days before our scheduled coffee date, I received another email expressing his regret that — due to the fact that some corporate bigwig was flying into Fort Lauderdale the same day we’d arranged our little soirée  — he’d have to cancel. That his weekly Happy Hour ritual with local management had now transformed into a mandatory dinner with the big boss. And while this explanation seemed plausible, even probable, I knew instinctively it was not the real reason for his cold feet: based on our heart-tugging telephone correspondences I surmised that the real, raw emotion we’d mutually dredged up was also a significant factor, maybe even the only one.

Trust me, I was relieved. There was no good reason to break my heart all over again, and I knew that laying eyes on him once more in  person — with his piercing blue eyes; beautiful smile; masculine build; and deep, baritone voice — would only make me sadder about what might have been. It was one thing to verbally clear out past issues; quite another to stare at each other awkwardly over cappuccino in  a local cafe. Then there was the not-so-insignificant matter of someone seeing us in a town where there are six degrees of separation. Innocent or not, given our history this meeting would’ve been highly inappropriate.

Six weeks went by with no word from “Ken”. In my return email, I’d never mentioned anything about rescheduling; I simply wished him luck with his business obligations. On the Friday afternoon of Labor Day weekend (just weeks before the novel’s release), I’d just arrived home from work when my cell phone rang. The conversation went something like this:

“Ken”: “Daria, I needed to talk to you, to tell you the real  reason why I canceled our meeting.”

Me: “Do I need to sit down for this?”

“Ken”: “I’ve been having these very real, very explicit, passionate dreams about you, and it’s really freaking me out.”

Me: (heart in my throat) “Oh.”

“Ken”: “And the thing is, I don’t even remember you being that attracted to me. I mean, I was the 25 year-old guy with raging hormones and you — well, you just never seemed that into me. And yet in these dreams I’m having, you –”

Me: “Ok Ken, I get the picture.”

“Ken”: “So, I just can’t see you right now; I am just not ready to revisit that idea”.

Me: “To be honest with you, I’m not either. I was kind of glad when you canceled — not that I don’t want to see you, just that I see no reason to put myself through that. And one of us is married, so it’s not right.”

From there it evolved into another emotional exchange with “Ken” telling me how wonderful I was, how much he’s missed me, etc. At one point he asked if he could call me again, to which I replied:

“It’s a free country, Ken, and I can’t stop you from calling me. However, I can’t guarantee that when you do call, I will pick up the phone. I have to think about myself, too. And this is beginning to feel like emotional adultery. I’m glad we got to clear the air, but as long as you’re committed to another woman, we really shouldn’t speak to each other.”

To which he responded  by saying, “That’s what makes you so cool.” (Yeah, that’s me. A real cool cat!)

I should also mention that my heart was pounding furiously throughout the duration of this little exchange, which ended abruptly when he started to get choked up, before mumbling something about driving in traffic and hanging up the phone.

Still reeling, I took out the trash, retrieved my mail and tried to regain my composure. That’s when I noticed a voice mail message on my cell phone:

“Daria, it’s me again.  Please call me back — I have one more question to ask you and it’s the most difficult question of all. Don’t worry, it’ s not about getting together. Like I said, I am not ready to revisit that concept just yet (muffled laugh). Just please call me.”

And here, dear readers, is where we have another convergence of fact and fiction.

In Chapter 18, Ken, now a recently relocated resident of South Florida, dials Maddy’s number to initiate yet another dialogue about the wonders of his new state and the possibility of her joining him in his excellent adventure. Over a year has passed since they’ve seen each other, and Ken has a very pressing matter on his mind:

“Thank God I’m not the only one,” he replied softly. “Maddy, can I ask you something; please don’t get mad at me, but it’s just something I need to know.”

“What?” She braced for the query.

“Are you still a virgin?”

“Kenny! I can’t believe you’re asking me that!” For a moment, she thought about sharing all of her dating horror stories, but quickly decided against it; she wasn’t ready to give him the satisfaction of knowing he still ruled her heart.

“C’mon, Maddy, it’s me you’re talking to here; please just tell me.” His voice remained steady and calm.

“Fine—yes, if you must know! Yes, I am still a virgin! Does that make you happy?”

“Yes, because I still want to be your first—and only,” he confirmed softly. That led to another long silence as Maddy contemplated this simultaneously uplifting and confusing piece of information.

“Kenny,” she finally said, “I-I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“Say you want it to,” he pleaded.

“I do, but it’s just not that easy,” she sighed.

While for dramatic purposes, I embellished and altered this real-life exchange in the interest of more compelling fiction, the virginity question was indeed posed by both flesh-and-blood Ken and character Ken.

Almost 15 years after he’d made the original query, “Ken” called me back on that Labor Day weekend afternoon specifically to repeat the question. Bear in mind, we’d already disconnected the call amid a wave of overwhelming emotion, so for him to redial my number strictly for this purpose was a little unsettling. It was also deja vue, only this time we were both living in The Sunshine State.

I’d like to say I acted coyly, or simply announced with some indignation that my sexual status was none of his concern, but after first nervously laughing in reaction (and remembering the “first time” he’d asked me years ago), I was so taken off-guard that I gave a much more detailed answer than was necessary or prudent.

I did however, ask why it was so important to him — being a married man and all. To this day, I am not sure if I am buying his response, but it went something like:

“Sex is such a great part of life and you’re such a wonderful woman I just wanted to make sure you’re not missing out.”

Coming on the heels of canceling our coffee date due to “passionate dreams” about me, admitting he’s not ready to see me in person and having the audacity to inquire about my love life, this just didn’t come across as an honest answer. It also confirmed that, as long as “Ken” was choosing to remain united in the bonds of marriage with another woman, this had to be the absolute last time we’d ever speak. One thing I knew for certain: if I was a married woman, I would not be too happy if I knew my husband was participating in such intimate conversations with an old flame.

But in the age of the internet, there’s always email — and social media. And I would soon discover that “Ken’s” spouse was not above using a little LinkedIn deception to make a little mischief of her own.

More intrigue to come in another post.


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Random Thoughts on the Writing Process

A good Facebook friend and aspiring author/writer recently asked for my advice regarding the length of chapters. Is it something predetermined before even putting thoughts to paper (or keyboard to monitor)? Or is it advisable to just write and see how it all plays out?

An excellent question for sure, and one for which I am not entirely certain there is a correct answer. As I’ve noted many times, the process by which I wrote Water Signs was highly unusual and most likely, unrepeatable. In another post, I described the circumstances that opened the floodgate of memories that led to the steady stream of consciousness that ultimately resulted in a 435-page novel. The words literally came through me from a higher place, and in most cases, I didn’t have to consciously or deliberately think about the mundane mechanics of the work itself. I intuitively knew when to end one chapter and begin another — though most ended up being 20 pages or so in length.

With Sea To Shining Sea, I am attempting quite deliberately to maintain that 20-page chapter limit, since it was very effective the first time around. But there’s a little more to it than that. For example, one of the literary techniques I employed successfully in Water Signs was flashback — whether to an event long-ago or in the recent past. So I would in effect, finish a chapter — leading the reader to believe they knew everything there was to know about the events contained therein, only to discover some new insights about the same event(s) in the next chapter. This helped to create a little more intrigue and drama.

Keep in mind also that I am a creative type who knew from the start I wasn’t going to follow the traditional publishing path, i.e. jump through all kinds of hoops to entice a literary agent, including conducting research on my genre at a book store. With the advent of Print-on-Demand and social media, I realized that a new and wondrous vehicle to reach  my audience and achieve success awaited me. So I was pretty much unconcerned with “trivial” things like chapter length, outline, competing titles and authors within my category, market research and all of the other things publishing houses obsess over (and demand that their potential authors research on their own time, with no guarantee of getting the contract anyway).

So put me in the “just write it” camp. You can always go back and edit later. Write from the heart and get ‘er done. That’s my advice.

While we’re on the topic, some other fascinating things occurred during the evolution of Water Signs — and here’s where the fusion of fact and fiction was at its most enjoyable. When I determined (somewhere around Chapter Eight) that this book was actually going to come into being very soon, I decided to take a proactive approach and search for the person who inspired Ken. For the record, my best friend (on whom the character of Elyse is based, and the same one who was there when I had the reading that ended my selective amnesia about this guy) thought it was a terrible idea.  In fact, she tried her best to talk me out of it. Ironically, she’s bumped into “Erin” unexpectedly a few times this year at business functions — something that had never happened before in all of her 25 years of living in Boca Raton. But I will discuss that at length when I explore the female friendships of Water Signs.

I am not sure if stubbornness is also a Pisces trait, or merely a personality foible, but I am the kind of person who — once I make a decision about something — cannot be convinced otherwise. For good or bad, I’m in.

So just like Madeline in Chapter 27 (after having a reading similar to the real ones I experienced, though altered a bit for dramatic purposes) sits down and pens a letter to Ken, I did the same with “Ken”. Though taken from real life, the one readers discover is a little more flowery and poetic than the one I wrote:

Dear Ken,

How are you? I can’t even imagine how you might feel right now, holding this letter in your hand. I mean, how long has it been? About a million years? And yet in so many ways, it feels like yesterday.

I don’t know what it is about 2008, but ever since this year began, I have had a palpable feeling that everything was coming full circle somehow. It took me a few months to realize exactly what that meant, but now I have no doubt it involves you—and some important things I’d left undone and unsaid. Things you really need to know.

It’s strange that you would be on my mind now; I can’t explain why this is suddenly the case since I hadn’t thought about you much at all over the years. For my own survival, I’d willfully blocked you out of my thoughts to the point where it was as if you never existed in the first place. There was just no way I could’ve been your friend, not in any sort of active way, at least. It was just too painful to see you with another woman, so I did the only thing I could do. You made your choice; I made mine. I even concocted a story to tell people whenever they would ask me why I moved to Florida. And the mind is such a powerful thing that I actually believed it myself.

Look, I know it is ancient history, but I am so very sorry for everything I ever said or did to hurt you. You were so good to me, so kind and caring. If I had a time machine, I am certain I would go back and make very different decisions where you were concerned. If I could go back with the knowledge I have now, I would understand just what I’d had in you. In many ways, you were so much more mature. You saw qualities within me that I was unable or unwilling to see for myself. And I never truly appreciated that.

You once told me that I inspired you; but the truth is you inspired me, too. I never realized just what a catalyst you have been in my life. These last fourteen years have been an incredible personal and spiritual growth journey, one that would not have been possible without you. While I’ve endured some pretty traumatic experiences (along with good ones), I can see now how every seemingly insurmountable obstacle, every hour of darkness, every tear shed in moments of anguish, have all contributed to making me the mature, self-adjusted woman I am today.

There are absolutely incredible people in my life that I am blessed to call friends, my writing career is finally in full swing and my health is excellent (warm weather definitely agrees with me). Perhaps most significantly, my faith is stronger than it has ever been in my entire life. I owe all of this to you. Ken, you opened my eyes. You made me realize that the world—my world—was more expansive and wonderful than I’d ever imagined.

This may or may not be appropriate, but I want you to know that no man before or after you has ever treated me with the same amount of respect, affection and concern. Sadly, at 25, I didn’t know what I had. You were everything I didn’t know I wanted. Yes, hindsight, as they say, really is 20/20. And no matter where you are or what you are doing, I hope it makes you feel good to know just how much you have positively impacted my life. At least, that is the intention of this letter.

Anyway, I am sure you are an awesome father, and I pray that you are well and happy. Take care of yourself and God bless!

Madeline

In this same chapter, I employed the literary technique of juxtaposition, to create more intrigue throughout the sections following the letter, which is where it also becomes a fusion of fact and fiction. Just like Maddy, I believed it safer to mail the letter to the home of the guy’s parents, who happen to live in the same town. But since I had no way of knowing how it all went down from there,  I had to use my imagination. Thus, in the very next scene, Ken’s mother Paula Lockheart is engaged in an active power-walk in her neighborhood, while musing about all of the recent events in her son’s life. This is also where we learn of Paula’s deep-seated affection and love for her son:

Paula Lockheart looked at her pedometer and picked up the pace as she conducted her customary late-morning power walk. An attractive woman in her late-60’s, she was diligent about remaining active and eating right to maintain good health. After all, she had two adorable grandchildren to see into adulthood. And now that her youngest son had endured a bitter custody battle and an acrimonious divorce, she was more determined than ever to support him and his offspring.

She’d always been so proud of Ken; from the time he was a little boy, he’d been her most affectionate and devoted son. Even as a newborn, she’d noticed something different—and wonderful—about her “baby.” His soulful blue eyes showcased a natural exuberance and passion for life. And despite their modest means, she knew from the very beginning that her fourth and last child was destined to be a success in every sense of the word.

So when she bumps into her mailman and enters her air-conditioned home with a stack of mail, she’s intrigued by the pink envelope addressed to her son, conspicuously missing the name of the sender, although bearing a return address. By this time, we’ve also found out that Paula is an intuitive mother who nevertheless makes it a practice to refrain from interfering in her children’s lives. Using more flashback, I have the character reminisce about Ken’s heart-wrenching dilemma many years prior when “the girl from Media” shocked him by actually relocating to Florida. Engaged to another woman, we learn that Ken had met his mother at the Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier to talk things out. And true to her nature, a sympathetic Paula listens but does not offer any advice other than to follow his heart.

The Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier, one of the places my characters head to when trying to solve a difficult challenge or make a heart-wrenching decision.

All of this, dear readers, is a product of my imagination, conjured up at this particular juncture of the story to flesh out the character of Paula Lockheart (whom we’d only known through Ken up to this point), and clue readers in to some other previously unknown events that had taken place.

However, Ken’s reaction to the news, and Madeline’s concurrent visit to Disney World with her mother is a blend of fact and fiction. In real life, my mom and I took a few days to head to Orlando during one of her visits here to South Florida. We’d left on a Sunday and came back on a Wednesday night, making the 2 1/2 hour trip via car. And the night we got back, I listened to my voice mail and discovered a message from “Ken”, recorded on the Sunday of our departure (so I must’ve just missed him) and apprising me of his mom’s calling to inform him of the letter.

But the little fantasy he plays out in his mind while waiting to leave the voicemail is an example of creative license on the part of the author:

Ken felt his heart pound in his chest as he listened to the familiar ring tone and eagerly anticipated hearing the sounds of her sweet voice again. A few moments later he did, though it was via voicemail, and not the live version: Hi, this is Madeline Rose. I can’t take your call right now, but it is really important to me. Please leave me a message and I promise to return your call just as soon as I can. Talk to you soon and have a great day!

As her outgoing message played, he felt for the first time in over fifteen years the welcome bolt of electricity igniting his soul and coursing through his body; suddenly, it was 1992 again, and he and Maddy were making out on his waterbed, while the moonlight filtered through the skylight above them.

His hands caressed her face as he gazed into her expressive amber eyes. Nestled beneath his body, he could feel her heart beating fast while he placed his lips tenderly on hers, and then eventually tasted the sweetness of her mouth with his soft, subtle tongue. Maddy sighed, returning his advances with equal amounts of passion and fervor. In the background, the sensual sounds of their favorite music amplified their desires, steadily leading them on a mesmerizing path of fulfillment for body, mind and soul.

“Kenny?” Her voice was a mere whisper as he nibbled at her ear. He brought his face close to hers.

“Yes?” Her fingers traced the waves of his blond hair as she made her request.

“I want you to make love to me.”

Happily stunned, but wanting to confirm the words he’d been longing to hear ever since meeting her, he studied her face for a moment before asking, “You sure, sweetheart? ‘Cause you know I’d like nothing better than to make passionate love to you all night. I just need to know it’s what you really want, too. Otherwise, it won’t—”

Madeline answered him with a kiss that left him breathless as he proceeded to slowly unbutton her blouse to reveal her delicate, porcelain skin and the black lace of her bra. He began to trace kisses down her neck, working his way down to the curve of her breasts as he gently moved his hands over her. In the next moment, he carefully slid the garment off of her body and shifted her on top of him as he moved onto his back in one smooth move.

With her auburn hair cascading past her shoulders and her fair skin gleaming in the soft light, she far exceeded any vision of beauty he’d previously held in mind, both as an adolescent and a young man sailing around the world. He reached around her back to unhook the last trace of clothing from her chest, barely able to contain his excitement as delicious thoughts of finally seeing and experiencing every inch of her petite, curvy body conflicted with genuine concern for this being her very first time, and his desire to make it as beautiful for her as possible.

The whole concept of the “first time” is one that weaves its way throughout the entire novel because it is inextricably intertwined with the traditional values the characters espouse — which are simultaneously a cause of tension and heartbreak via Ken and Madeline’s  inability to communicate effectively with each other.

Back to the voicemail.

The one Ken records in the novel is almost identical to the one “Ken” left for me. And the conversation the characters have the next morning — the first in several years — is faithful to the actual event.

More on the fusion of fact and fiction in my next post.

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More On The Men of Water Signs

In Maddy’s Men, I explored the fictional male characters Maddy dates before and after Ken’s entrance into her life — all of whom were based on actual people and circumstances. With this follow-up post, I want to touch upon one not previously mentioned, and expand upon one I already covered, Mark Donnelly, since the character merits more than two paragraphs. Ironically, he is also connected to Tag Russell, both in real life and fiction. It’s only through flashback however, that readers learn of this association.

Chapter 26 opens with Madeline approaching the Guard Gate at Journey’s End, a lovely community of single-family homes in Lake Worth, Florida. Her dear friend Audrey Solomon (based on an actual person, my treasured friend Martha J. Solomon) has arranged a luncheon in Maddy’s honor, to celebrate her new work promotion as a Content Manager for an e-marketing firm in downtown Fort Lauderdale (in another post, I will explain how this is a fusion of fact and fiction).

Being in the neighborhood again reminds Madeline of another joyful memory — that of her 40th Birthday Party, which took place in the Journey’s End Clubhouse:

Though initially not quite thrilled about reaching that particular milestone, Maddy perked up when she and Audrey developed the celebration’s original theme, incorporating a lifetime of the birthday girl’s most cherished things, from the Philadelphia Eagles to Italian wedding cookies. The catered event also included a deejay and personalized decorations,  including Madame Alexander dolls, original “books” written by Madeline as a child, and even well-placed packages of Tastykakes.

And yes, the above paragraph is true-to-life; Marti (Audrey) gave me the idea  for the party’s theme as we sat around the kitchen table over coffee one night at her house. As one creative idea led to another, I kind of got over the significant “number” aspect of the birthday, choosing instead to celebrate all of the people, places and events that had shaped my life up to that point. Besides, a girl can never get tired of hearing people say, “You’re how old? You look like you’re about 28!

Also true: my collection of Madame Alexander dolls; two journals I’d used to write my first “books” as a nine-year-old, complete with illustrations; Philadelphia Eagles & Phillies memorabilia, Tastykakes, soft pretzels, Italian wedding cookies and photos in Lucite frames everywhere.

More on all of this in another post, including the female friendships of Water Signs. But back to the men.

As she continues through the entrance on her way to Audrey’s, Madeline also remembers the recent past, specifically Tag Russell, a man she’d met soon after purchasing her new condo in Boca Bayou. A loan officer at the bank for which she worked at the time, Maddy knew him for nearly a year before ever actually going out with him:

For almost twelve months, she regarded his constant flirting as nothing more than a pleasant workday diversion; after all, Tag never behaved inappropriately, nor  did he initiate any gatherings outside the office.

Here’s where a significant public event makes a personal impact on Maddy’s life. When the horrific events of September 11, 2001 unfolded, she — like so many others — was engaged in what she thought would be another typical day at the office. Overcome with emotion, a hysterical Madeline seeks out the comfort of Tag’s embrace. In the aftermath of lingering fear and worry about the future — coupled with an intense desire to have someone special in her life — she embarks upon an ill-fated romance with the handsome charmer, who in the end breaks her heart:

The relationship’s failure had mainly been a function of Tag’s inability to move beyond the dissolution of his marriage and an early childhood tragedy — two events that had rendered him emotionally unavailable. A handsome man with wavy brown hair, blue eyes, a mischievous smile and ready sense of humor, he and Maddy shared an intense chemistry, along with a mutual affection.

…But no amount of concerts, Marlins games, Harley rides or pool-playing sessions at Gatsby’s could save this doomed relationship. Whereas Madeline fell in love with the highly successful, hard-working loan officer, the most he could offer was an occasional good time — on his terms of course. And when his insecurity about being twelve years her senior finally got to him, he ended the dalliance altogether.

This is all very reflective of real life, down to the physical description of the character. There were moments — albeit fleeting ones — when this guy would let his true feelings out, which, while indicative of genuine affection for me, were also admonitions to run as far away as I could, since he would only end up hurting me.

I should have listened the first time, but unfortunately an intense physical attraction tends to obscure the underlying, critical facts.This is also where Tag Russell and Mark Donnelly have much in common.

How else to explain why Madeline (like me) even has  anything to do with Mark after he stands her up for a SunFest date he himself initiates just the night before? Too damn nice, for one thing. But I digress.

That “Hey, I changed my mind about taking you to SunFest” scene in the novel mirrors my real-life experience, happening just around the time the married guy at the pool asks Madeline if she would go out with him if not for the small matter of his lifetime commitment to another woman (sorry to say, also true). At that point in my life, based on my dating adventures both in Pennsylvania and in Florida, I was beginning to think all men were vile creatures — with the only exceptions being my father, brothers, assorted family members and friends.  To some extent, I still feel this way, although thanks to having a solid foundation of faith and engaging in constant spiritual development, I’ve managed to keep from turning into a bitter man-hater — something I once feared might happen.

While I could find lots of women (and even men) to validate such a personality transformation based on legitimate grievances, the last thing I would ever do is give anyone else the power to change who I am. Not even a man who has hurt me deeply and in most cases, unnecessarily.

But back to the connection between Tag and Mark. Through Maddy’s reflections, readers discover that Tag and Mark had once worked together many years prior, and it is this acquaintance that ironically solves a mystery for her:

…Maddy had briefly reconnected with Mark Donnelly, who at first appeared to be very impressed with her budding banking career and obvious maturation. However, after three wonderful dates wherein they shared meaningful conversation as well as endless, passionate kisses, he disappeared again from her life. No goodbye call or farewell visit — just an abrupt departure after promising to contact her upon his return from California, site of his “all-boys” motorcycling vacation.

In an interesting twist, Tag had unknowingly referenced Maddy’s former flame many months later when the two of them attended that year’s SunFest (another irony right out of real life). Turned out, Tag and Mark had worked together in the lending department at First America Bank. And as Tag and Madeline browsed the multitude of artists’ tents at the West Palm Beach festival, he told her all about his unexpected run-in at Publix with the newly engaged Mark, who’d happily announced his impending fall wedding. Though she did not disclose the details of her brief romance, Madeline silently pondered if Mark’s fiancée had been the real reason for his disappearance the second time around. If so, it was certainly a strange and recurring pattern.

Interesting Side Note: Over a year ago, I met “Mark’s” first wife on Facebook via some mutual friends. And after getting to know her, I am still scratching my head over why he’d ever leave such a beautiful, vivacious woman in the first place. I don’t think I will ever figure out some men and I have given up trying. Learning the other side of the divorce story and tales of the various other women he’s hurt over the years (much more deeply than me) was rather eye-opening, to say the least. But as with “Tag”, I do wish him well.

Next post: Thoughts on the character of Ray Smith.

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Erin in Water Signs: A Boca Babe Embodiment of the Culture of Self-Absorption

More than any other character drawn from my own life in Water Signs, Erin Mahoney Lockheart owes about 90% of her creation more to a stereotype than an actual person. Yes, there is a real fiancée and wife whose acquaintance I’d made many years ago, and those recollections formed a starting point for the character sketch. However, after having spent so many years in South Florida, I felt very strongly about including a commentary about what I call our current “culture of self-absorption”, and it was this desire that led to the evolution of Erin.

Throughout Boca Raton and the surrounding areas, I’d seen, heard, witnessed and experienced enough examples of self-serving, egotistical and superficial behavior to write an entire non-fiction book on the topic.  But since I was penning what would in the end be a triumph of virtue, integrity, traditional values and true love over all sorts of formidable obstacles, I had to find a way to highlight this theme via plot and character. And it didn’t take long to realize that Erin was the perfect vehicle through which to do just that.

So it’s only in the early stages of Part Two that Ken’s fiancée even remotely resembles her real-life counterpart (whose name has been completely changed), although in what is most likely a very dramatic departure from reality, Erin absolutely hates football — one of the many contrasts between her and Madeline purposely created for dramatic reasons. Although Ken confesses his commitment to another woman to Madeline in an earlier chapter (more on that in another post), it’s not until Chapter 24 that readers — along with Maddy, who has reluctantly agreed to attend a BBQ at their condo — meet her for the first time:

From the moment she entered their two-story condo on the fifth floor, she felt a distinctive yet subtle hostility in the air, similar to the one that had greeted her at Kenny’s real estate office awhile back. And though physically attractive with a willowy figure, blue eyes and silky blonde hair, Erin definitely exuded a hard, urban vibe, notwithstanding her impressive career and level of education.

Yet it wasn’t her tough, Philly accent and her rough-around-the-edges veneer that most impacted Madeline; it was her pervasive coldness and attitude of indifference. She barely engaged Maddy in conversation, though Ken’s former flame conducted herself with as much dignity as she could possibly muster under the circumstances. And while Kenny did his best to facilitate the flow of conversation, it wasn’t long before Maddy wished she hadn’t accepted his invitation in the first place. When Erin abruptly excused herself to go to bed — claiming a migraine headache — Madeline resolved to banish all thoughts of Ken and Erin from her mind forever.

In Part Two, Maddy performs her own rendition of this heartbreaking song from my favorite musical, Les Miserables for a local dance studio production.

This incident instigates a thirteen-year, self-imposed, selective amnesia on the part of Madeline, embarked upon for the sake of her own sanity and self-preservation (it’s also a compounding factor in her bout with panic and anxiety disorder). She literally forces herself to forget that either one of these people even exists, just as I did in real life. It was just too painful to cope with, too unbearable to work through, even though, like Madeline, I had many sympathetic shoulders I could’ve cried on (while this isn’t really explored in the novel, I suppose for myself pride was also to blame for my reticence in sharing this devastating news with someone, anyone who loved me).

And since the story is basically told from Madeline’s perspective, that’s the last we see of Ken and Erin for a period of time, while Maddy endures the nadir of her panic and anxiety problem before solving it via a psychic; offers forgiveness to her old boyfriend Jake Winston when he calls out of the blue; and finds some career success via her writing and communications skills.

In Chapter 25, I do provide a bit of foreshadowing and embellishment using an event that truly is straight out of real life:

Taking a seat in a nearby rocking chair, Ken leaned back and closed his eyes as thoughts of Maddy permeated his brain. How was she doing? Had she gotten married yet? Was she still writing? He hadn’t seen a copy of The Good News Gazette in a while, though he’d secretly held onto the copy his mother had brought over to his house just weeks after Bonnie’s birth. That was before Erin had set up a home-based business and taken a corporate position in the creative department of a local cosmetics company.

Paula Lockheart had entered Ken and Erin’s home that morning, armed with a stack of newspapers and magazines, which she’d carefully set down on the coffee table before heading into the nursery. As Ken walked through the living room on his way to make breakfast, a photo of two familiar faces caught his eye. And when he picked up the publication to take a closer look, his heart was filled with pride and longing.

Beneath the headline, “My Brother, My Hero”, and the byline bearing the author’s name, Madeline and Louis smiled back at him, seated at a round dining table. Wow. She’d finally achieved her goal of becoming a published writer. He well remembered the endless conversations — by the ocean, snuggled up on the couch or wrapped up under the satin sheets of his water bed — during which Maddy would eloquently share her dreams for the future. In spite of everything, he still missed that connection.

And much like his real-life inspiration, Ken calls the editor of the paper in an attempt to obtain Madeline’s phone number, only to be dejected when she refuses to give it out. Instead, she offers to share his contact information with her newest writer and allow her to decide if she wishes to dial the number. Skeptical of whether or not she’d actually take the initiative to call, he is thrilled when a few days later, his former girlfriend’s curiosity gets the better of her:

Ken felt the same powerful eruptions within at the sound of her voice, though she gave no indication of her personal status, opting instead to update him about her parents and siblings. Madeline also omitted from the conversation her ongoing struggle with panic disorder, preferring to keep the tone light, so as not to solicit any unwanted offers of help or worse — an invitation to dinner at his home. The last thing she needed was an evening with Ken, Erin and their new baby.

Thus, we’re starting to learn a bit more about Erin indirectly, by way of her husband’s lingering feelings for another woman. Readers already know from Chapter 19 that he’d had some reservations about going through with the wedding, confiding in Madeline that part of his motivation for doing so was that “we didn’t want to live in sin anymore”. And it’s also in this chapter that we get a glimpse into Erin’s personality when he notes how “she kind of depends on me” since most of her co-workers were busy with their own families and social lives. There’s a distinct impression that for all of her high-powered business acumen, Erin is also very high maintenance. This is confirmed (along with their eventual divorce) in Chapter 27 via Paula Lockheart’s internal musings during an outdoor power-walk:

Too bad her former daughter-in-law hadn’t shared that opinion. Oh sure, in the beginning she used him like a security blanket after she’d accepted a lucrative position with an ad agency in Miami and relocated from Atlantic City. Oddly, for such a talented and successful girl, Erin had more than her fair share of insecurities, depending on Ken to provide everything from a social life to a comfortable place to live.

And while he was working hard as a mortgage broker and real estate agent by day, and taking classes in marketing and business at Florida International University four nights a week, she constantly harangued him over stupid things, like buying her the “wrong” gift or not spending enough time together. Paula sighed as she recalled one particular Valentine’s Day, when Ken had inadvertently provoked Erin’s ire by buying her rollerblades — even though she’d been asking for them for months. That had been just one in a series of troubling incidents that should have prevented her son from walking down the aisle.

In Chapter 28, we get Ken’s perspective on his now ex-wife, and the reasons for the dissolution of their marriage:

Then there was the negative influence of the Boca Raton culture. While an exceedingly beautiful city and desirable place to live, Boca’s downside was the extreme superficiality of many of its residents, some of whom held positions of power within the community, from the local paper’s society page writer to the plethora of ambitious millionaires that populated upscale neighborhoods like Broken Sound, Royal Palm and The Sanctuary. While Ken envied no one, content to focus on his own goals, Erin got caught up in the web of botox, breast enhancements and liposuction that characterized the activities of the city’s wealthiest females.

And as her business thrived, so did her vanity, leading her to undergo a seemingly endless parade of plastic surgeries, all to assuage her fears of growing older, and to help her keep pace with the women with whom she networked for both business and social purposes. After almost thirteen years of marriage, Ken didn’t even recognize her — or was it more accurate to say he was just beginning to?

As a direct result of her own self-centered behavior, Erin’s marriage ultimately implodes. For all of his genuine efforts to make it work for the sake of their children, Ken realizes that without her willingness to change, it’s a futile undertaking. For a woman who had it all — a devoted husband, two healthy children, a beautiful home and a thriving career — Erin expressed very little in the way of gratitude, opting instead to focus exclusively on the superficial side of life. Thus, her humble Southwest Philly roots, doting childhood, foundation of faith and hard-earned education are tossed aside for the pursuit of all things material. And in the end, it costs her dearly.

Am I stating as an author that it’s bad to attain things like fancy cars and designer clothes? Absolutely not.

What I am positing however, is the need to keep these things in perspective and not lose sight of what truly matters in life. Ken rises from humble beginnings to find impressive success in the corporate world, but it never alters the person he is inside. He remains faithful to the morals and values with which he’s been raised; the same is also true for Madeline, though materially she is not quite as successful.

To Ken, his children are a top priority; to Erin, they are sometimes an afterthought far behind her own wants and desires (though she does truly love them).  In this society we’re living in and specifically in South Florida, I’ve seen parents, divorced or married, more concerned about their social lives than their own kids’ well-being. I’ve witnessed the substitution of money and material things for time, attention and discipline. And I’ve even watched as middle-aged mothers disgracefully competed with their daughters for the affection of a man, or the wink of a stranger’s eye.

Our current culture seems to have jettisoned the concept of growing old gracefully and dressing appropriately (albeit attractively) for one’s age. Our children are worse off because of it, and it’s well past time for good people to help swing the pendulum back. And I hope through my writing I can positively affect the discussion. In the meantime, I am forever grateful for my upbringing by loving parents who cared enough to spend time with, discipline and educate their children.

Fun Fact: The paper I used to write for was The Happy Herald, though at the time it was called The Happy Times Monthly. And yes, my first published piece was indeed titled, My Brother, My Hero in honor of my brother Ralph (Louis in the book), and featured a photo of us on the front page. If my scanner was working properly, I’d include that same photo here, but instead will post this one of the two of us in Deerfield Beach:

Ralph and I having dinner at Duffy's last summer.

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Dancing In The Sky Fundraiser for US Soldiers

In this photo: My friend Steve Monell expresses his gratitude at a Tea Party gathering in Fort Lauderdale.

Last week, I interviewed Neal Bellinger of Shopping For Soldiers Needs on The Liberty Belle Hour. This worthy organization does so much to support our men and women in uniform, including sending gift baskets and other essential items overseas. Please visit their website to learn more, and if you live in South Florida, consider attending their second annual Dancing In The Sky fundraiser, to be held at the Radisson Bridge Hotel in Boca Raton.

Your donation of $25 includes stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway, chefs tables, hors d’oeuvres, live music, dancing, raffles and other prizes. To help keep costs down, there will be a cash bar. Money raised from this particular event will be used to purchase brand-name products to be placed into gift baskets which will be shipped out for the Thanksgiving/Christmas/Hanukah Season. For more information, click here.

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Sneak Preview: Chapter One of Sea To Shining Sea

Just completed Chapter Four of my sequel, which unfortunately, is turning out to be a much more arduous — but no less rewarding — process than was Water Signs. While I won’t be publicly displaying the entire contents of the new book until it is available in paperback, PDF and Kindle, I thought it might be fun to tease my readers by posting Chapter One in its entirety. I sure hope you enjoy, and look forward to completing Sea To Shining Sea within the next few months!

Chapter One

Moonlight glistened on the tranquil sea as the taxi cab steadily cruised down A1A in Boca Raton. The weary traveler sprawled out on the back seat smiled as he took in the familiar, comforting sight; it felt as if he’d been gone forever, banished indefinitely to the frigid climes of the Great White North, without the benefit of having his most beloved companion by his side. This had been their longest stint apart since their marriage, and he’d hated every minute of it, in spite of the promise of an incredibly lucrative business deal.

“Turn right here driver,” Ken instructed, excitement welling within at the thought of his impending reunion with Madeline. Her passionate protests notwithstanding, he had insisted on taking a cab home from the airport, rather than drag her away from her lounge-singing duties at 34 East. While not entirely thrilled by the arrangement, he respected her desire to contribute to their financial well-being by employing her vocal talents to help draw Happy Hour revelers and late-night Friday traffic to the upscale establishment. Once a thriving business, 34 East had become yet another enterprise struggling to succeed in the midst of the current recession.

Maddy herself had been laid-off from her position as a content manager for a formerly prosperous internet marketing firm that catered to the cruise and travel industry. As creative as she was beautiful, she’d quickly set herself up in business as a freelance writer, editor, ghostwriter and social media consultant, expertly networking her skills at various local chamber of commerce and civic functions. In just a few short months, her efforts had led to an impressive, multi-faceted client list that included a romance novelist, a political action committee and a women’s health and wellness expert.

And while her income was steadily increasing thanks to these and various other projects, including her new internet talk radio program, Madeline jumped at the chance to sing professionally again when approached by the lounge-owner at a Delray Beach event. Although her marriage to Ken was blissful, as expected his ex-wife Erin was proving herself a relentless trouble-maker. From the moment the newlyweds returned from their joyful honeymoon in Italy—only to encounter two very hostile children who’d previously been accepting of their union—they’d realized the full extent to which their relationship would be tested. Singing was one way for Maddy to maintain her sanity by channeling her emotions into something productive.

Not content to simply hurt her own children in order to punish her ex, Erin had recently taken to playing the role of victim with the wealthy Boca matrons who comprised her favorite monthly business-leads organization, many of whom urged her to redress her grievances to a Palm Beach County judge. Taking them up on their ill-founded advice, she’d hauled Ken back into court on a few occasions to demand more child support.

As a result, Maddy became more determined than ever to pull her own weight and ease her new husband’s burden, eagerly accepting the offer to sing once a week at the club, with the option to add more appearances should she desire to do so. But her solo decision had led to their first disagreement as husband and wife. Though Kenny genuinely appreciated her enthusiastic willingness to add to their financial well-being, he’d hated the idea of work intruding on their weekends. It was bad enough he had to travel so much during the week—robbing them of even the simplest of pleasures like nightly dinner together—but  having to share Madeline with an audience, and thus lose even more precious time with her was downright depressing.

“Teddy bear come on, it’s not forever,” she’d pleaded with him one evening. “Look, times are already tough and with Erin making them even tougher, we have to do something. And I want to help you—I want to help us. I am your wife after all, and I am here to support you. The place still draws some wealthy tourists; between my performance fee and tips, I can make some decent money.”

They’d been curled up together on a lounge chair on the balcony off of their bedroom, gazing at the Intracoastal Waterway. As Maddy had made her case, she’d shifted her body on top of his, the better to look deeply into his piercing blue eyes. She knew she’d wear him down eventually with a blend of gentle persuasion and irresistible chemistry.

“Ok, you win again Madeline Rose,” he’d sighed, addressing her by her maiden name as a tribute to their courtship days. “But only on Friday nights. I want you all to myself on Saturday and Sunday.” His hands roamed through her silky, auburn hair as he spoke. Then gently bringing her face closer to his, he whispered, “Promise?”

“I promise sweetheart, only on Friday nights,” she’d replied softly before his lips met hers for another passionate interlude.

“Thank you!” Ken smiled as he offered his driver the required cab fare, plus a healthy tip. The man had been so courteous and efficient he wanted to tangibly express his gratitude for the good service. In these difficult times, it was even more important than usual. Of course, given the facts it was also 3 a.m., jet-lag had left him exhausted and all he wanted was to curl up under the covers again with Maddy, he was feeling even more generous now that he was finally standing in his own driveway.

Kenny rolled his suitcase behind him as he approached the massive double-doors just beyond the Roman columns of the front entrance. It was hard to believe that nearly a year had passed since he’d made this proud purchase, an impressive home that represented the culmination of a long-ago dream. Sharing the residence with Madeline as his wife made it even sweeter; he only wished his children could join them full-time, and not just when custody arrangements allowed. Every time Bonnie and Brian returned from another stay with their mother, it seemed Maddy was forced to re-establish their relationship, Erin having successfully eliminated all shreds of progress made during the previous visit.

He loved her all the more for patiently enduring his ex-wife’s machinations, but he was quickly tiring of Erin’s endless meddling. She had her millionaire Sugar Daddy; all the designer shoes, handbags and jewelry one woman could possibly use in a lifetime; and carte blanche to undergo any cosmetic procedure she desired. Why did she have to constantly undermine Madeline’s genuine efforts to be a good stepmother and role-model? Worse, why couldn’t she see the potentially irreversible damage she was inflicting upon her own children?

As Ken locked the door behind him and programmed the alarm, he reminded himself that at least for now, his kids were safe and happy. He’d spoken to them at length before boarding the Red Eye flight from Seattle, where they’d excitedly apprised him of all of the latest happenings in their lives, from baseball practice and ballet classes, to summer camp plans. He did cringe for a moment when they recounted all of the recent purchases their mother’s boyfriend had made for them, including diamond-stud earrings and Batters Box MVP tickets to the upcoming Marlins versus Phillies series.

While Kenny fervently desired a good life for his children, free from the obstacles that he himself had to confront, he also wanted them to appreciate the value of striving for a goal, and to experience the kind of character-building that naturally results from learning how to win and lose graciously. Now that his job demanded so much more travel, he feared somehow losing his ability to positively guide them at such a critical juncture in their lives, yet at the same time, he knew he must also provide for their material needs. And in a struggling economy, there was no way he could replace his current income with a comparable position that didn’t require flying to Vancouver three out of every four weeks per month. At least until this telecomm deal was signed, sealed and delivered, he was stuck.

Striding quietly into the kitchen, Ken pushed a glass against the refrigerator, filling it with cold, filtered water and crushed ice. Bringing it to his mouth, he took a good, long sip, thankful for the pure refreshment. Long plane rides always left him feeling dehydrated, but this flight had been particularly difficult, mostly because he dreaded sharing his latest business developments with Maddy. He silently prayed she’d be receptive to what he had to tell her.

Setting the glass in the sink, he returned to the foyer and grabbing a hold of the suitcase handle, lifted it over his shoulder as he made his way up the curving staircase. A moment later, he gingerly opened one of the white doors of the Master bedroom, his heartbeat quickening in response to the angelic sight before him.

Madeline was fast asleep; her auburn hair sprawled out across the cream-colored pillowcase and her petite hands tucked under her chin in typical fashion. She’d obviously been blogging again, if the telltale laptop occupying Ken’s usual place in the bed was any indication. Fanned out on the floor was Mark Levin’s latest book Liberty and Tyranny, and local a.m. talk radio star Talon Grant’s debut novel, The Neo-Traditionalist’s Tale, the contents of both she’d eagerly shared with him during their last phone conversation.

Kenny smiled as it occurred to him that this newfound life still felt like a dream, though they’d been married for six months already. And while it was true that Erin took perverse pleasure in every attempt to undermine their happiness, they were boldly facing each challenge as a united and very-much-in-love couple. The only things that slightly concerned him were Madeline’s recent complaints of fatigue, which she’d attributed to her busy project schedule and weekly performances at 34 East.

However, in her usual stubborn way, she’d vehemently rebuffed his suggestions to give something up as a means of remedying the situation. Ken of course knew better than to fight with her, notwithstanding his genuine regard for her health, but made a mental note to keep a close eye on the situation. Perhaps his latest professional development would turn out to be God’s method of forcing Maddy to take a break—at least he hoped she’d welcome it in that light.

He parked his luggage into a remote corner and sat down on the bed beside her, gazing at her quietly for a moment while she remained oblivious to his presence. When unable to resist any longer, he softly caressed her face as he leaned in and planted a sweet kiss on her cheek. Slowly, she began to stir.

“Mm, baby you’re home,” she whispered sleepily, a big grin spreading across her face. In the early morning light, her luminescent skin offered a striking contrast to her warm, brown eyes. She was a vision of silk and lace, arrayed in one of his very favorite pale-pink negligees; for a few minutes all he could do was stare at her appreciatively.

Then as if suddenly coming to her senses, she shot up in bed and threw her arms around him, intoxicated by the warmth of his body and the familiar scent of his cologne. “Oh Kenny, I am so glad you’re back; I missed you so much!”

“I missed you sweetheart,” he replied. “You didn’t think I’d stay away for long, did you? I couldn’t wait to get home and back into your arms again!” His voice was muffled between affectionate kisses along her neck, ear and temple while his hands roamed up and down her back, and through her satiny hair. Maddy lost herself in the moment, relishing the exquisite joy of another reunion.

“You feel so good,” she cooed, “God, it’s like you’ve been away for a month instead of two weeks. How’d it go?”

“It was interesting, to put it mildly,” he admitted. “And there is something very important I have to discuss with you Madeline.” His tone was suddenly serious, prompting her to break away to face him directly, her hands settled firmly on his chest.

“What is it? Is everything ok? You didn’t lose your job, did you?”

Ever since her own lay-off she’d feared the worst, in spite of all of her prosperity training. Though she’d been diligently self-employed as a freelancer ever since, she worried about Kenny’s ability to make the same transition in his line of work. True, Maddy’s blog and accompanying weekly internet radio show were also steadily gaining in popularity, but it would most likely take time before she could parlay these efforts into actual income. For now, they were strictly a labor of love, given the dire straits the country found itself in; adding Kenny’s valuable insights as her co-host in the not-too-distant future would be a fantastic turn of events, once the monetary rewards began to materialize.

Although things were admittedly a bit tougher now financially than when they first got married, they were managing; thanks to a demanding, self-centered Erin, Maddy was ever-increasingly determined to contribute as much as possible to the marriage. But the thought of Kenny losing his executive sales position was more than she could bear. He was such a diligent worker and talented producer there was no way the company could get along without him—unless of course they too were going under, like so many of the retail corporations that once enjoyed thriving businesses in the local malls and shopping centers.

“Shh, no baby it’s nothing like that don’t worry,” he soothed, gazing into her expressive, hypnotic eyes.

“Thank God,” she sighed, holding his face in her hands and tracing the contours of his cheeks. “What is it then?”

Kenny started to answer, but as he feasted upon her ultra-feminine form and reacquainted himself with her alluring presence—a phenomenon that still elicited an intense, palpable longing from deep within—work was the farthest thing from his mind. Noting that one of her negligee’s spaghetti straps had slipped partially down her shoulder, he slid it off completely, before tantalizingly trailing his fingers, lips and tongue over her exposed breast, initiating a flood of familiar sensation throughout her body.

“First things first sweetheart,” he finally whispered huskily in her ear, their passion escalating.  Maddy let out a joyful laugh as he assertively guided her body back down into the plush pillows.

In the stillness of the early morning, Ken gathered Madeline close to him as she rested her head on his chest. No matter how many times they were together like this, it always made her feel so alive and invigorated, as if nothing and no one could ever come between them again—not even his ex-wife, in spite of her best efforts. Maddy knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Kenny loved her dearly, and that he harbored no regrets after his first marriage ended, a strange, long-suffering union that had been practically over from the time it began.

Still, she couldn’t help but worry that the inevitably and understandably rough transition period they were all undertaking—particularly with respect to her topsy-turvy relationship with Bonnie and Brian—could somehow deal a fatal blow to their fledgling, blended family. Most frustrating for Maddy was the constant necessity of having to start over with every new stay: just when she’d think she was making significant progress, the kids would return from Erin’s custody re-poisoned against her. Not too long ago, Bonnie had even accused her new stepmother of being the cause of her parents’ failed marriage.

Madeline had been standing at the counter preparing a nice tossed salad to accompany their dinner of steak and baked potatoes while Ken was busily working the grill alongside a chatty Brian. Alone with a preoccupied Bonnie, who’d just finished grudgingly setting the table at her request, Maddy sensed yet another forthcoming altercation, precipitated by the child’s refusal to utter anything but one-word answers in response to her genuine questions about school, friends and ballet classes. Having sufficiently taken enough abuse, a frustrated but patient Madeline placed the salad bowl in the refrigerator, then ushered Bonnie into the rec room, where she sat her down on the sofa.

“Bonnie, honey, it’s obvious to me that something is really bothering you. Why don’t you tell me what it is so we can talk about it?” she’d gently but firmly implored. A shiver ran up and down Maddy’s spine as she noted Erin’s icy glare in Bonnie’s expression; the girl continued to focus her steely gaze at Madeline, reflecting an undeniable and deep-seeded hostility.

“You’re the reason my parents broke up aren’t you?” she’d defiantly demanded. Maddy’s heart sank; how could she possibly explain the tumultuous events of the previous sixteen years to a child? In many ways, she herself was still mystified by it.

Madeline took a deep breath as she fought to control her conflicted emotions. Before uttering another word, she’d calmly reminded herself that her justifiable anger was best directed at the real culprit—Erin, not the confused, tormented little girl who was being so expertly manipulated by her own mother. Actually, when it came to Kenny’s daughter, sadness and a lingering degree of guilt superceded all else.

“Honey, why do you feel that way?” she’d gently inquired. Bonnie had remained stubbornly silent, her arms folded securely across her chest. For a few moments, no one spoke until the young girl finally blurted out, “Well aren’t you? My daddy left my mom to marry you! What else am I supposed to think?”

“Bonnie—no, that’s not how it happened,” Madeline replied softly, placing a hand on her shoulder. She winced when the girl immediately shrugged it off, but maintained her composure.

Determinedly looking into her eyes, Maddy continued.

“Sweetheart as your dad explained to you, your mom and him just weren’t getting along anymore. And that’s no one’s fault; sometimes grown-ups aren’t able to stay together no matter how hard they try to work things out. It was really hard for both of them to finally make the decision to get divorced, but it was their choice. No one else is to blame—not you, not Brian and not me. That doesn’t mean they don’t love you or your brother just as much as they did before; in fact, you and Brian mean the entire world to them. That will never change.”

The child had remained unconvinced, but before Maddy could say anything further, she’d heard the screen door open and in the next second, the ebullient sounds of Brian’s six year-old voice enthusiastically announcing the arrival of dinner. And when Ken entered into the kitchen a moment later carrying a tray of perfectly seasoned, well-done meat, Bonnie considered herself saved by the bell, immediately springing up off of the couch and running to the dinner table—but not before shooting a victorious smirk in her stepmother’s direction.

Temporarily defeated, a dejected Maddy had decided to keep the incident to herself, though it was difficult to maintain a happy façade throughout the course of their meal that night. The only saving grace had been Brian’s apparent eagerness to engage her in conversation, which Madeline surmised had been the result of Ken’s efforts during their father-son bonding time outside.

Later that evening, she had been surprised when Kenny returned from upstairs and announced he’d just had a heart-to-heart talk with his daughter before tucking her into bed. She’d been lost in thought in their heated swimming pool, holding onto the ladder and gazing out at the starry sky, unaware that he’d joined her. He swam over to the deep end and encircled her with his big, powerful arms, abruptly interrupting her musings and nearly causing her to scream out loud.

“Don’t worry sweetheart,” he’d comforted in his deep baritone, “Bonnie will come around—because I will not tolerate this kind of disrespect from her or her mother anymore.”

“You know,” Maddy observed sadly, “the thing that upsets me the most is how a mother could be so cruel to her own child. Yes, it hurts me deeply that Bonnie seems to hate me no matter what I do, but I am an adult. I can handle it. What I don’t understand is Erin’s callousness towards her own child; she’s the one who’s really suffering here.”

“Madeline that is one of the things I love most about you; your sensitivity towards others and your ability to see things from their perspective,” he’d whispered sincerely.

She turned around in his embrace to gaze into his eyes, which reflected his genuine appreciation.

“I love you Maddy; and we will get through this, I promise. Remember that morning at the Boca Resort when I promised I would always stand by you?” She nodded her head, remembering that milestone weekend when he’d asked for her hand in marriage.

“Well I meant it. We can conquer any problem that comes our way as long as we stay together.”

“Kenny when you talk like that, I really believe everything’s going to work out,” she’d softly replied.

“Sweetheart, the very fact that we’re married right now is a miracle in itself. We will get through this; just keep the faith.”

Back in the exquisite sanctuary of their marital bed, Maddy snuggled in closer to her husband, comforted by his warmth and masculinity. Although she still retained an air of independence, managing quite well for herself during his absences, it was always such a welcome relief to feel him next to her again upon his return.

But just as she was about to drift off into a restful sleep, securely in his arms, she suddenly recalled his attempt to break some important news to her before relentless passion had prevented him from doing so.

Her curiosity piqued once more, she asked, “So what was it you wanted to tell me before we got so distracted?” her laughter punctuated her words, as her hand slowly traced his chest. Beneath her ear, his heart was beating rapidly. He caught her hand and brought it to his lip for a quick kiss while his other arm held her close against his body. “There’s no easy way to break this to you baby, so I’m just gonna have to say it.”

“Ok, now I am really worried,” she replied, shifting in bed to face him. He stroked her hair as he studied her expression for a moment. “Kenny, please just tell me; this is torture!”

“Alright, baby, I’m sorry; don’t mean to keep you in suspense. You know that I’ve been working really hard to secure this telecomm merger with the Vancouver company right?”

She nodded her head.

“Well, the Board of Directors has asked me to spend about six months up there—actually, asked isn’t really the right word. The board won’t even consider approving the deal until I spend about six months up there overseeing their operations, spending time with management, making recommendations…” His voice trailed off while he attempted to gauge her reaction. She stared at him in shocked disbelief for a moment, just trying to absorb all of the implications.

“S-six months?” she finally blurted out. “You have to be away from home for that long? What about the kids? What about us?”

He let out a nervous laugh before responding.

“No sweetheart, you and the kids would come with me. They’re going to put us all up in a beautiful downtown Penthouse, with a gorgeous view of the ocean. It’s right in the middle of everything so you, Bonnie and Brian can go sightseeing, shopping, take a cruise out of the harbor…it’ll be fun.” He was offering his very best sales pitch but Madeline remained skeptical.

“Kenny, you know I support you one hundred percent and I want you to close this deal, but my God—six months? There’s no way Erin will go for that! Look at how much trouble we have now with local custody arrangements. And Vancouver is so far away! My parents and Louis are supposed to visit us this summer, and remember we were planning to spend some time at the Jersey Shore with everyone? I haven’t seen my siblings, or my nieces and nephews since the wedding, and—”

Maddy suddenly stopped herself, taking a moment to reconsider. Kenny just stared at her silently, simultaneously understanding her point of view, yet soberly aware of the reality of the situation. Under normal circumstances, he might have the latitude to refuse such a proposition, but God knew they were living in extraordinary times. Regardless, he was the man of the house and as such, he was going to do whatever was necessary to provide for his family.

“I’m sorry baby,” Madeline confessed softly. “I know how difficult this is for you and I will not add to your stress. You are finally my husband, which means I am standing by your side no matter what.” Her face brightened with each new positive thought.

“Hey, at least summer is coming up, right? It’ll give us a chance to ease into a cooler climate. I never did get a chance to travel up there when I worked for the bank. I remember how many of the managers would hop a flight from Portland after our conferences were over. They raved about how beautiful Vancouver was, just like you always do. So now I’ll get to see it for myself.” She smiled at him reassuringly.

“I love you so much, Madeline Rose,” Kenny whispered, obviously choked up. “Thank you for understanding.” With that he pulled her close to him and smothered her with kisses as the early morning sun streaked through the vertical blinds.

“So are you guys all packed?” Paula Lockheart asked as she arranged the final place-setting on the outdoor dining table. It was another beautiful South Florida evening, and the family had gathered for a farewell barbeque at Ken and Maddy’s home.

“Pretty much Mom,” Madeline replied, placing some condiments on a nearby buffet table. She looked up and smiled at her husband’s mother with a sense of wonder—this amazingly supportive woman had been a complete stranger to her not so very long ago. Now, here they were, bonded in real affection for both Kenny and each other, the respectful title “mom” effortlessly falling from Maddy’s lips in casual conversation.

Ken and his father were busily preparing burgers, hot dogs and chicken on the grill as Ken apprised him of the latest phase of his impending business deal. Patrick and Danielle had just phoned to announce they were running a few minutes late, but would be there soon. Maddy’s parents had been unable to fly down for the farewell dinner, but had made arrangements to spend Thanksgiving week in Boca Raton, when Ken and Madeline would be back from Vancouver for good.

“Maddy, thank you for being so supportive of my son. I know this is difficult for you,” Paula offered sincerely. “And I know it hasn’t been easy with the kids, either. My former daughter-in-law has proven herself to be quite vindictive. I must confess I never did like that girl, although I made it my practice never to meddle in my sons’ lives. I want you to know I am doing my best to get through to my grandchildren. What their mother is doing to them and to you is so infuriating!”

“Thanks, Mom,” Maddy smiled, “You have no idea how much your support means to me. And I think we’re slowly making progress.

“Actually I am shocked that Erin even agreed to let them spend two months with us in Vancouver. As soon as school is over, she and Bennett are going to fly out with them. After that, Kenny and I will have to go back and forth a few times until we’re finally home for good. Ugh! You know how much I hate flying—not looking forward to almost ten hours each way in a plane, but at least Ken will be with me.”

“I think it’ll be good for you to get away honey,” Paula continued. “You’ve been working so hard yourself, and I can see it has taken its toll on you. You’ve been looking a little pale lately. Are you feeling alright?”

Striding back into the kitchen with her mother-in-law close behind, Maddy opened the refrigerator door and pulled out a tray of sliced tomatoes, pickles and red onions.

“Me? Yeah, I am fine; just a little tired from juggling so many different projects. You know how tough it’s been since my lay-off, trying to at least match the income I made with my old company with my freelance work. It’s going well, but it takes constant effort to keep the pipeline full and keep up with the clients I do have.

“And given everything that’s going on in our country, I am feeling a bit worn out from the fight, but I will never give in. I am also determined to create a career for myself in the new media; I am hoping my blog and internet radio show will attract the interest of Talon Grant, so I can actually make decent money at it. And who knows? Maybe Kenny can eventually be my co-host? That would be so fantastic!”

Setting the tray down on the counter, she glanced outside at her husband and his dad, obviously engrossed in jovial conversation no doubt centering on golf scores and Major League Baseball standings. A contented smile formed on Madeline’s face as she turned back to her mother-in-law.

“I never get tired of seeing them that way,” she sighed, remembering the father-son duo’s tumultuous history and ultimate reconciliation.

“Nor do I,” Paula agreed happily. “And you, my dear, are a big part of the reason why they do have such a good relationship now,” she added with sincere appreciation.

Although she cherished Paula’s words, Maddy felt her cheeks blush at the elder Mrs. Lockheart’s suggestion that she’d played such a pivotal role in this much-desired outcome.

“Oh, I think you’re giving me way too much credit,” she softly responded. “They would’ve worked things out eventually, with or without me.”

“No, I don’t see it that way,” Paula countered firmly, placing a hand on Maddy’s shoulder. “I remember Kenny telling me way back when how inspired he was by your family’s closeness, and how much he wanted that in his own relationship with his dad. Being around all of you, even for that short time really made an impact on him. And it’s obvious what a wonderful job your folks did with you. You are an incredible young woman. Don’t ever forget it.”

Maddy spontaneously reacted by embracing her mother-in-law with genuine affection.

“You’re the best, do you know that?” she whispered. “Thank you.”

“I mean every word, Madeline. I am so thrilled my son finally has a truly supportive spouse who really cares about his best interests, and the well-being of his children.”

She paused to look Maddy directly in the eye.

“And that is precisely why I don’t want you wearing yourself out by taking on too much. I worry about you too, you know.” Paula’s blue eyes reflected warmth and concern.

“I know,” Madeline replied softly. “And I really appreciate that. It’s true, between juggling my client projects, singing at 32 East and hosting internet radio shows, it does start to feel like overload sometimes, not to mention all the rallies I’ve been attending.

“At least I got to meet Talon Grant briefly at the last tea party protest I went to, and tell him how much I loved his book. You can borrow it if you’d like; one thing about Kenny traveling so much is it gives me time to read.”

“I’d like that,” Paula confirmed, just as the doorbell rang.

“Must be Erin dropping off the kids,” Maddy surmised, before heading in the direction of the foyer. She opened the door to find Ken’s heavily made-up ex dressed to the nines in a clingy, purple low-cut blouse showing off her artificial cleavage and a white, spandex mini-skirt. Her blonde hair was caught up in a French twist, with fringy bangs framing her angular face. She held an arm around each of her children, who seemed disappointed that it was their stepmother who’d answered the door.

“Hi guys!” she’d greeted them brightly. “We’ve all been waiting for you!” Ignoring her welcome, Bonnie and Brian rushed past her to hug their grandmother, who’d partially made her way towards the entrance. Once the kids had moved on to the lanier, Paula continued to observe the scene at the front door.

“Thank you for bringing them over Erin,” Maddy stated politely. “I know this wasn’t technically our weekend, but we wanted to say good bye in person since we won’t see them for three more weeks.”

“Just have them at school by eight tomorrow morning,” she retorted sarcastically before turning on her heel and striding back to her waiting silver Mercedes, which was idling in the driveway. As Madeline closed the door, she was surprised to find Paula standing beside her. “She is a piece of work isn’t she?” Kenny’s mother noted.

“In more ways than one!” Maddy giggled, suddenly finding the humor in the whole dilemma. “I wonder how much her latest procedure cost her rich boyfriend; sure hope it’s worth it, having to put up with her sour personality!”

Paula laughed and placing an arm around her daughter-in-law, walked arm-in-arm with her back into the kitchen, both of them oblivious to the stares of a spiteful Erin, who’d jealously witnessed their affectionate exchange from just beyond the bay window as the car pulled out to the curb.

The soft melodies of Maddy’s favorite love songs emanated through the speakers as she made her way down the staircase clad in her favorite navy blue bikini, a plush pool towel strewn over one shoulder. The kids were fast asleep, exhausted from an active evening of swimming and boating with the family; she’d just peered into each of their bedrooms to ensure all was well. Gazing at their peaceful forms bathed in the moonlight, she’d noted how angelic they appeared; if only they could find the same sort of harmony in conscious life.

Ah well!

One way or another, she was determined to create a healthy relationship with them, in spite of their mother. Right now, she was looking forward to some alone time with her husband.

Kenny had taken them all out on the speedboat after dinner for a fun cruise down the Intracoastal, while Maddy had insisted on staying behind. It wasn’t like her to turn down such an opportunity, but fatigue had overcome her and she’d secretly used the time to take a nap, reluctant to raise any of their concerns. Ken had enough to deal with already, and she certainly didn’t want her in-laws worrying about her either. But when he pulled her aside after their guests had departed, suggesting a private interlude in the pool, she’d happily accepted.

Striding through the darkened kitchen, she smiled as she looked out onto the screen porch, which had been transformed into a romantic getaway by a multitude of glowing candles and several arrangements of her favorite red and pink roses. Ken stood there smiling at her, dressed in red swim trunks, holding two glasses of bubbling Asti in his hands.

“Happy six-month anniversary sweetheart,” he greeted her, his trademark smile lighting up his face. Overcome with emotion, she accepted the champagne flute with one hand, and rested the other against his bare chest.

Gazing up at him, she noted, “You are the most wonderful husband any woman could ever ask for Kenny. I love you so much!”

“And I love you, Madeline Lockheart. I know how difficult the past several months have been, not to mention the prospect of our upcoming stay in Canada. It’s not what either of us expected and I know it won’t be easy for you being so far away from everyone. I just want you to know how much I appreciate your understanding and support. I finally know what a real marriage feels like. For that, I thank you baby.”

Temporarily unable to speak, Maddy just wrapped her free arm tightly around him and snuggled into his body. He leaned down and kissed the top of her head, slowly caressing her back and setting his champagne glass back down on the bar beside them. After doing the same with hers, he lifted her up into his strong arms and briskly strode down the steps of the shallow end, splashing his way into the pool until they were both submerged in the warm water.

“Kenny!” she laughed, “You’re gonna wake up the kids with all this noise!”

Unfazed, he simply drew her into a powerful, hungry kiss as he leaned against the wall, raising her up until her legs were wrapped securely around his waist. She ran her fingers through his thick blond hair, while she savored the sensual comfort of his embrace and the feel of his hands kneading their way up and down her back. In the next moment, she felt the strings around her neck loosening as he expertly undid the bow that helped hold her bikini top in place before releasing the clasp behind her back. Slowly, he peeled the wet material off of her and she shivered for a moment as her firm breasts were exposed to the cooler air.

But a second later, his warm lips and tongue captured one of her sensitive nipples while his tantalizing fingers expertly teased the other. Engulfed by the warmth of the explosive sensations overtaking her, Maddy sighed as he reached up and worked his magic, still holding her in place slightly above him with one arm.

Just when she thought she couldn’t stand it anymore, Kenny pulled her back down his body, until they were both standing in the shallow water. She slipped her hands beneath the waistband of his swim trunks, teasing him with her touch until he guided her to the part of him that ached for her exquisite caresses. Maddy smiled as he moaned in pleasure and simultaneously reached out for each of her thighs. Nearly dizzy with desire, he managed to slide his thumbs beneath the elastic of her bikini bottom, skimming over the most delicate, sensitive parts of her until—emboldened by her reaction, he gently probed his way deeper.

She cried out in pleasure, having temporarily forgotten her insecurities about making such noise when the children were around. He whispered over and over again in her ear how much he loved and wanted her, all the while increasing the intensity of his activity. Losing patience with constrictions of her bathing suit, he stopped only long enough to scoop her into his arms and situate her on one of the steps, where at last he pulled away the final barrier to full enjoyment. Maddy reveled in the indescribable sensation of the balmy water bathing her, leaning back against her elbows while Kenny knelt before her. Slowly raising one of her legs to his shoulder, he kissed his way back up her thigh, gauging her reaction by the urgency and frequency of her moans.

Mindful of her needs, he licked his way up her stomach, torso and breasts until they were face-to-face once more.

“Do you want to move to the chaise lounge baby?” he whispered.

She nodded her reply as he then lifted her off of her feet and out of the pool. Wrapping a thick towel around her, he dried off the excess water and chased away her shivers. In the next moment, she suddenly encircled his waist and just held him close to her.

“Kenny, do you promise me it’ll always be this way between us, no matter what?” she whispered.

“Yes, of course I do, sweetheart. You know that,” he soothed, enfolding her in his arms. “I’ll never let anything come between us, ever. I know you’re scared about spending so much time in a foreign place, but I’ll be right there with you.

“Just think, instead of being far apart for weeks at a time, I’ll just be going to an office for several hours a day, and then coming back to you.

“It’ll be so much better than what we’ve been dealing with. And you can still do your work and write your blog. Think of it as a new adventure.”

Maddy closed her eyes and did her best to envision a blissful, temporary life in Canada. She didn’t know why she was experiencing such an overpowering sense of foreboding, but even in the midst of these beautiful, intimate moments, she couldn’t quite shake the idea that something awful was about to happen. She tightened her arms around him, unable to get close enough until her felt her shiver again.

“Ok, I think it’s about time I warm you up again Madeline,” he announced in his deep, masculine voice.

He carried her to the chaise lounge, her form still wrapped securely in the plush pool towel. He lowered her carefully onto the cushion, where she watched with passionate eyes as he removed his red swim trunks. A moment later she giggled as he covered her body with his and began planting kisses over every inch of her. And by the time they joined as one in the romantic glow of moonlight, all worries had melted away, powerless against the force of genuine love and endless desire.

The Florida sun began its ascent above the horizon, streaking through the lush, tropical foliage and filtering through the vertical blinds of the bedroom, where the two intertwined figures slowly and somewhat reluctantly awakened to the new day. Ken rubbed his eyes before blinking them open to the sight of Maddy sprawled across his chest in typical fashion. He smiled as he stroked her hair, remembering the events of the previous evening out by the pool and later behind the closed doors of their room. Knowing she wholeheartedly supported him in spite of her fears, and had so willingly given herself to him in body, mind and spirit just made him fall in love with her all over again.

He prayed that in the end, their six-month excursion to Canada would result in a signed contract between the two telecomm companies. Actually from a business standpoint, things were looking very favorable; it was the US government that could prove to be the spoiler. Based on many heated conversations he’d had with his Canadian colleagues, he knew if Congress didn’t pass the FISA Act when it came up for renewal in a few months, it could spell disaster for both this lucrative deal and—much more importantly—the security of his country.

Sadly, there were scant few statesmen left in office, only power-hungry career politicians who would say and do anything to placate their kook-fringe base. Then of course there was the negative influence of a highly biased media that was all too eager to do their bidding by feeding into the electorate’s fears of losing their privacy.  After 9/11, it was exceedingly frustrating that so many Americans casually dismissed the urgent need to intercept communications coming into the country from dangerous, foreign terror cells, as permitted by the FISA Act. Recently, Talon Grant had even noted the urgency of the situation on his program, now that there was a President in the Oval Office who was not only sympathetic to Muslim extremists, but hell-bent and determined to disarm the United States as plainly evidenced by his rhetoric abroad.

Ken sighed as he wondered for a moment what his life would’ve been like had he chosen to make a career out of the Navy. There was a part of him that still wished he could defend his country in that capacity, as so many of his shipmates had gone on to do. Some had even paid the ultimate price for their patriotic devotion, a fact that haunted him nearly every day of his life. Then again, had he made a different decision all those years ago, he might not have ever met Madeline, or become a father to Bonnie and Brian. Still, he knew that he would once again contribute to the preservation of freedom in one capacity or another. He cared too much about his country and the perilous threats it was currently facing than to do otherwise. Momentarily, he had to focus almost exclusively on business but that was all going to change in the not-too-distant future.

“Mm, baby what time is it?” Maddy asked groggily, interrupting his thoughts.

“I think it’s about 6 a.m. sweetheart,” he whispered, kissing the top of her head. “We don’t have to get up just yet.”

“Oh good,” she sighed, “I am still so sleepy.”

“Well, we both had a very active night,” he teased, running a hand up and down her back.

“Yes we did,” she purred. Then with another thought, she soberly observed, “This’ll be the last morning we’ll wake up in South Florida for a while.”

“Yes it is, but look at it this way sweetheart: we’ll be waking up in a gorgeous Penthouse suite overlooking the Pacific Ocean for the next several months. Seriously Maddy, you’re going to love Vancouver. It really is beautiful.”

“I just hope you have some time to show me around while we’re there; I know how hard you work,” she observed.

“Don’t you worry baby, for you, I will make the time,” he promised. “You have no idea how much I appreciate your acceptance of all of this. And I am going to do my very best to make it as enjoyable as possible.”

“I know Kenny,” she assured him, as she placed a few soft kisses on his chest. “Speaking of which, why don’t you go wake the kids up so they can get ready for school and I’ll go downstairs and make a special breakfast. You should spend a little one-on-one time since it’ll be a few weeks before you see them again.”

With that, she sat up and, reaching for her pink satin robe, tied it securely around her waist. He winced when she drew back the verticals, ushering in a flood of bright sunlight.

“Hey baby, take it easy!” he cried out in mock horror.

“Oh come on now sailor, you’ve dealt a lot worse than a 6 a.m. wake-up call,” she teased with a wink in his direction, before heading to the bathroom.

“It’s a good thing we’re on a tight schedule sweetheart; otherwise you’d be in big trouble!” he called out with a laugh before throwing on some clothes and heading down the hallway to greet his kids.

“I hate pancakes!” Bonnie announced as she entered the kitchen, dressed for school in a floral print sundress, her long blonde hair partially caught back at the crown with a matching pink headband.

The enticing aroma of percolating coffee filled the air as Maddy busied herself at the stove. She poured out the remaining chocolate-chip batter and it sizzled on contact with the warm surface of the frying pan. Expertly, she flipped the half-done pancakes over to finish cooking and piled the completed ones onto a waiting platter.

Unfazed by Bonnie’s comment, she simply replied, “Now that’s funny; I could’ve sworn I heard you telling your grandma how much you loved them! In fact, if I recall, she told me you ordered chocolate chip pancakes every time she and your grandfather took you and your brother to IHOP.”

“Yeah, well that was when I was younger,” the little girl clarified.

“Ah, I see,” Madeline mused. “Well then I guess it’s a good thing I am also making scrambled eggs and toast.”

Whatever,” Bonnie retorted sarcastically just as her father entered the room with a freshly bathed Brian, looking adorable in a pair of khaki shorts and a pale-blue polo top.

“Have a seat at the table son; I want to have a private talk with your sister,” Ken directed him, exchanging serious glances with his concerned wife. Maddy certainly respected the boundaries in terms of Ken’s right to discipline his children as he saw fit; she simply wished she’d had the opportunity to remind him that the child was feeling especially vulnerable, knowing it was going to be a while before she saw her daddy again. Three weeks to a little kid was an eternity. Madeline’s eyes followed them as Kenny put an arm about her and ushered her into the private dining room.

“Is Bonnie in trouble?” Brian asked with all of the excited curiosity of a boy his age.

“Don’t you mind other people’s business young man,” she scolded him with a hint of playfulness. “Drink your orange juice and I’ll bring you some pancakes in a minute.”

“Aunt Maddy?” he addressed her by the term they’d all agreed to when it had been decided that “mom” wasn’t entirely appropriate.

“Yes, Brian?”

“I love chocolate-chip pancakes. Thank you for making them for me!”

“You’re very welcome,” she replied, thrilled by his refreshing change of attitude.

A few minutes later, after Maddy had set a plate before Brian and poured some maple syrup for him, Ken and Bonnie returned from their summit.

“Madeline, Bonnie has something she would like to say to you,” her husband announced. The young girl’s eyes were still glistening with moisture; Maddy’s heart went out to her, though she maintained a calm, dispassionate façade.

“I’m sorry,” she finally squeaked out.

“Tell her why you’re sorry Bonnie,” her dad pressed her.

“I’m sorry because you went to the trouble of making my favorite breakfast, and I was rude to you,” she offered somewhat robotically.

Maddy crouched down to look her in the eye. Placing a hand on each of her shoulders, she assured her stepdaughter, “Apology accepted.”

She desperately wanted to give the girl a hug, but settled for stroking her cheek instead.

“So are you ready for breakfast now?” Bonnie nodded her head as Maddy led her back to the table. Their morning meal continued uneventfully until it was time for Ken to drive the kids to school, leaving Maddy to clean up the dishes and get ready for their new adventure.

“Is this the last bag?” the kindly older driver inquired of Ken as he watched him hoist a large, black expandable suitcase into the trunk of the white Lincoln Town Car.

“Yes sir, that’ll do it,” the young executive replied with a smile. “I’m amazed my wife managed to pack so lightly, given how long we’ll be gone. Of course, neither one of us owns many heavy fall or winter clothes, so I may have to twist her arm to go shopping in Vancouver once the summer is over,” Kenny winked at the man who chuckled at his remarks.

“If I may say so, your wife is such a beautiful, delightful woman it must be a pleasure for you to spoil her with a nice wardrobe.”

Kenny glanced over to the front entrance, where Maddy stood chatting on her cell phone with her best girlfriend Elyse.  He could barely catch his breath as he took in the sight of her, dressed in a chic black pantsuit—a blend of comfortable cotton and lycra—with a cropped, long-sleeved jacket and form fitting pants that perfectly skimmed her shapely curves. With her auburn tresses pulled back neatly into ponytail held in place with a rhinestone band; her rhinestone-encrusted fuchsia blouse and high-heeled black sandals, she looked like an ad for Vogue. Fashionable Brighton sunglasses completed her look.

“I am the luckiest man alive,” Ken smiled at their driver before walking away to retrieve his wife. Slipping an arm around her waist, he whispered it was time to go. She nodded her agreement as he ushered her in the direction of the waiting car.

“Ok, Leese, take good care of yourself,” Maddy urged into her cell phone, “And please, I know you detest technology, but jump on your computer every once in a while so we can stay in touch by email or instant messenger!”

Amused by their conversation, Kenny chuckled as she snapped the phone shut. “What?” she asked, feigning indignation.

“Nothing,” he replied teasingly, “You’re just incredibly adorable, that’s all.”

He planted a kiss on her cheek as the Lincoln pulled out of the driveway, bound for Fort Lauderdale International Airport.

The 737 soared through the white, puffy clouds, steadily moving in a northwesterly direction towards Seattle, the only brief stopover on their diagonal course across the United States and into Vancouver, Canada. Nearly seven hours had already passed since leaving South Florida, and thankfully, most of the flight had been incredibly smooth once they’d reached cruising altitude. Ken was a bit concerned that Madeline had spent the majority of the journey sleeping—highly unusual, given her fear of flying. He recalled her inability to stop talking, reading or doing crossword puzzles on their roundtrip honeymoon flight to Italy, in a successful attempt to distract herself. Yet inexplicably, this time she’d dozed off into a deep slumber before they’d even made it out of Florida airspace.

If this keeps up, she’s going to a doctor in Canada, he thought to himself. I wish I’d insisted on it before we left home. He glanced over at her petite form curled up against the window, his grey raincoat tucked in around her as a makeshift blanket. On an impulse, he reached out to touch her forehead, quickly determining the absence of a fever; her face however, was noticeably pale. Sensitive to his touch, she began to stir.

“Are we there yet baby?” she asked in a barely coherent voice. “We’re getting pretty close to Seattle; should be landing there in less than an hour sweetheart,” he softly replied.

“Kenny?”

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry I’ve been lousy company; I don’t know why I’m so tired. How could I be jet-lagged already?”

“All I know, Madeline, is that we’re scheduling an appointment with a doctor as soon as we get settled in Vancouver. I’ll ask my business colleagues for a recommendation, so you won’t have to wait an eternity to see someone.

“I just wish I’d listened to my better judgment and driven you to the Internist myself when we were back in Boca. We could’ve had a diagnosis and a remedy by now. You’ve been complaining of fatigue for weeks and I want to get to the bottom of it.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing serious, don’t worry,” she assured him, still somewhat groggy.

“Until we know for certain what the problem is, I’m sure as hell gonna worry about it,” he informed her softly, reaching out to stroke her hair. “You mean everything to me Madeline Lockheart, and it’s my job to take care of you.”

She smiled as she drifted off to sleep again, just as the jet began its initial descent into Seattle.

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Filed under Professional Experience, Sea To Shining Sea, Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal

Literary Technique: Flashback

Since this technique is such an important element in Water Signs, particularly in terms of creating intrigue, I decided to devote an entire post to its discussion. Given that readers know the ending of the story the moment they read the Prologue,  I had to employ every possible literary tool at my disposal to build suspense and maintain a good pace throughout the novel. I’ve noted most of them previously, but wanted to delve into the flashback technique in greater detail, since the entire work of fiction is, in essence, a series of smaller flashbacks within the context of one big 16-year flashback.

Part One begins in 1992, with Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey (i.e. Greater Philadelphia area) as the setting. The Prologue, set in Deerfield Beach in 2008 at St. Ambrose Catholic Church (a place where I regularly attend Mass), has just alerted readers to the significance of the nuptials about to take place between Ken Lockheart and Madeline Rose, “by the grace and mercy of God” and “at the end of a long, arduous and oftentimes broken road.” Considering I’ve now piqued their interest in the long  journey leading to this momentous occasion for my two main characters, I next had to focus on crafting an interesting, page-turning tale worthy of the intrigue generated from the outset.

Of course, as I’ve noted before, it helps that so much of Water Signs is based on real life, proving the maxim “write what you know”.  And in spite of a well-meaning editor/friend’s advice, I declined to change the geographic locations of the story from Southeastern Pennsylvania to Illinois, and from South Florida to Southern California, for this very reason (along with a few others). I didn’t have to agonize over describing unfamiliar locations, or researching the local culture and traditions of unknown parts of the country, and then trying to infuse them into the makeup of my characters.

I know what constitutes a Philly girl versus a suburban Philly girl versus a Boca Babe, and a South Jersey guy versus a South Florida guy. I feel passionate about Philly sports, food, culture and history. I’ve spent countless summers at the Jersey Shore in my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. I’ve lived in South Florida most of my adult life. Therefore, immortalizing these characters and settings was effortless. And the result is an authentic work of fiction that simultaneously uplifts, instructs and and occasionally tugs at the heartstrings.

However, I still had to make many necessary adjustments and/or embellishments to certain plot points because — let’s face it — sometimes actual events do not quite have the same dramatic oomph required for compelling fiction. Case in point: the night Maddy and Ken peruse his old US Navy photo albums while hanging out at his house (Chapters 4 and 5). While this is a true-to-life occurrence, it took place in “Ken’s” living room, while we were both seated on the couch in broad daylight, not in his bedroom in the late-evening, as is the case in Water Signs. I changed the locale from living room to bedroom and time period from afternoon to the almost wee-hours of the morning, to increase the sexual tension between the characters, as well as to test Ken’s ability to respect his new love’s clearly articulated boundaries, and in turn, her willingness to trust in his sincerity.

This incident is also a great example of the flashback technique, as although the scene begins in Chapter Four and continues into Chapter Five, it’s not until later in Chapter Five, when Madeline is cruising along the highways of suburban Philly conducting sales calls for her job, that we learn the full extent of what transpired during the previous night’s intimate moments. Prompted by the song, Just Another Day, she reminisces back to Ken’s recounting of his broken engagement, complete with raw emotional betrayal and visceral heartbreak. This gives readers another insight into Ken’s history, and his motivation in wanting to marry and settle down with his true love; it also offers a window into Maddy’s soul, and the extent to which her lingering insecurities, exacerbated by a previous relationship, will cause problems for her nascent romance with Ken.

Much later, in Chapter 31, as an older, wiser and recently reunited couple are cruising down Camino Real on the way to Ken’s parents’ home in the Royal Oak Hills section of Boca Raton, Maddy embarks upon a silent remembrance celebrating the history of her family. This provides readers yet another new insight into her character, and conveniently (for the author) lays the groundwork for future prequels featuring the entire Rose clan.

Look for the use of strategic flashback through the novel.

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Fun Facts about Water Signs

I will post the second part in my ongoing series about turning real life into fictional novels and/or stories very soon, but thought I would share these “Fun Facts” I’d put together last year for my Amazon and Facebook pages. Enjoy!

  • The character Madeline Rose is named for my grandmother and mother. Originally, I was going to use “Rose” for Maddy’s middle name, but decided it made an excellent surname for the entire family.
  • My confirmation name is Madeline, chosen by me as a young girl to honor my grandmother’s memory.
  • The shared birthday of Ken and Madeline, March 7, was my grandmother’s actual birthday. And while the real life counterparts for these characters don’t really share the same birthday, both are Pisces! 🙂
  • I wrote most of Part One using a different first name for the Ken character — the name of the real life person upon which this character is loosely based. Not wanting to lose any ground, I kept going until I finally settled on the name, “Kenneth.” Thank goodness for the “Find and Replace” feature on Word!
  • The name “Water Signs” was chosen for a variety of reasons, the most obvious having to do with Zodiac signs and the coastal locations of the story. However, since water is also a symbol of renewal in traditional religious faith and spiritual practices, the use of water imagery worked well for a 16-year personal growth odyssey. You’ll notice it throughout the book.
  • Chapters 21, 22 and 23 were culled from a manuscript I’d written about 10 years ago, and then thrown into a filing cabinet, never to be seen again until I sat down to seriously write the book in March, 2008.
  • A keeper of journals for over 20 years, I pulled them out to help me fill in details and flesh out characters, plots and circumstances.
  • Though I’ve been fully recovered from panic and anxiety disorder for 12 years, it still pained me deeply to have to go back and read my real life journals, which chronicle that awful period in vivid detail. Though I’d written in them faithfully on a daily basis, I’d never gone back to review them. So pulling them out after all this time was tough. To make it easier, I literally wrote the happy ending — the 2nd half of Part Two — first, then went back and filled in the story!
  • Technology progresses along with the novel, so we start off with the new phenomenon of “car phones,” work our way up to cell phones and beepers, and then finally to the Internet and website design!
  • To help set the time period from 1992-2008, I employed a lot of great music. During the summer of 1992, Jon Secada’s Just Another Day and Elton John’s The One, were two of my very favorites. You’ll see them and other familiar songs along the way.
  • Part One is laced with local Philly/South Jersey references including Herr’s potato chips, Wawa, Tastykake, Turkey Hill, soft pretzels and water ice.
  • The Philadelphia Eagles play a prominent role in Part One; the Philadelphia Phillies are mentioned to a lesser extent. With both teams, I tried to highlight the famous Philly/New York rivalries. Therefore, in one pivotal scene it’s the Eagles home opener against the Giants; in another, it’s the Phillies battling the Mets.
  • William J. Bennett’s Book of Virtues was actually given to me by my brother Paul (Damian) in 1994. The handwritten note inside the book’s cover that Madeline reads at the end of Part One are Paul’s words, verbatim.
  • The flashback scene where Madeline recalls breaking her arm in a football accident with her brothers and cousins is also from real life. My brother Mark (Greg) fell into me while trying to catch a pass, resulting in one nasty fracture. And yes, he really did give me his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album as a way of expressing remorse — a hot commodity at the time! I used to love the sketches inside the cover, especially the one of Marilyn Monroe.
  • Damian is Paul’s middle name; Greg is the name of one of my nephews. The name “Louis” has been a nickname for my brother Ralph for as long as I can remember; therefore, I gave his character that name!
  • My sister Carolyn reminds me of a close friend named Lori; thus, the name of Madeline’s older sister.
  • My dad’s middle name is Joseph and he is a retired general and vascular surgeon. And though in the book Dr. Joseph Rose is a neurosurgeon, the character is pretty true to his real life counterpart in every other way.
  • Monica Rose is based on my mom, whose photos as a younger woman remind me very much of Monica Crowley, making it easy to name that character!
  • The psychic Ann Claire is based on a real person, someone I actually did meet at a monthly women’s social and business networking organization. Madeline’s interaction with her that evening mirrors my own almost exactly; only her name has been changed.
  • Madeline’s conversation by the pool with they guy who asks her if she’d go out with him if he wasn’t married is also (unfortunately) a true-to-life incident.
  • One of the best things about being an author is the ability to infuse the characters with personality traits, physical qualities and talents that may or may not exist in real life. For example, Madeline and I are both former ballroom dance instructors, but only Madeline is a professional singer, too!
  • The Atlantic City restaurant, Frisanco’s, where Ken and Madeline share their first date is no longer in business. However, it was the setting for the actual date in 1992, along with the boardwalk and Trump’s Taj Mahal. And yes, the rolling chair incident really did take place!
  • Les Miserables is my favorite musical, which is why I had Madeline sing On My Own in the theatrical production she participates in with her dance studio in Boca Raton. It also dramatically underscores her circumstances at this particular juncture of the book.
  • My dad really does have his pilot’s licence and flew a Piper Cub for years. The aerial route over the Jersey Shore that I describe in the book was one of his favorites, especially when entertaining new passengers.
  • I created the beach picnic scene as another method of getting the two characters near water (in keeping with the book’s theme), and a way of conveying a bit of the Philly/South Jersey culture, via the foods they are eating, e.g. provolone cheese from South Philly. This is one scene that is purely fictional.
  • I used the fictional character of Erin Mahoney to represent what I perceive to be our culture of excessive self-absorption. While on one hand we have people who overextend themselves — often to their own detriment — in my experience many more are the opposite extreme. Their obsession with self tends to focus exclusively on the physical body and material possessions. Of the three Boca Raton transplants Ken, Erin and Madeline, Erin is the only one who loses sight of her values and becomes enveloped by the “keeping up with the Jones'” mentality.
  • Traditional values and a clear-cut sense of right and wrong are thoroughly ingrained in me, and I wanted my book to reflect that. Madeline does the right thing by hiding her feelings and stepping aside, thus allowing Ken to make his own decision about his future without any outside interference. Years later, he unexpectedly comes back into her life as a free man only because he and Erin failed to resolve their conflicts. The dissolution of their marriage is directly attributable to the two of them — and not anyone else.
  • I wrestled with a little bit of guilt over employing a psychic to help me overcome panic disorder in real life, but finally resolved it in my own mind as an answer to an oft-repeated prayer. I’ve been free of the disorder for 12 years now, and have absolutely no regrets. It doesn’t change my religious beliefs in any way; however, it is kind of ironic that someone who once feared psychics was actually healed by one!
  • The characters of Isabella, Mark, Elyse, Audrey, Carolyn and Robin are all modeled after real people. All names have been changed.
  • Sunfest is an actual festival that occurs every year in West Palm Beach. Mark calling Maddy to cancel their date at the last minute is also straight out of real life, as is their first face-to-face meeting in Mizner Park, and their evening at the Acapulco Grill and the Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier.
  • Ken’s roommate Kathy is a fictional character I created to set up another contrast between Madeline and other single women in the story.
  • Carmen is based on a personal friend, with whom I once taught at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Wayne, PA. While her name has been changed, the rest of the character is true to her real-life counterpart. Carmen also creates a contrast between Madeline and her peers, with Carmen assuming another “big sister” role in Maddy’s life.
  • Although the book is loosely autobiographical, it is definitely not a documentary. Not all of Madeline’s experiences are my experiences; some are actually gleaned from various conversations I’ve had with female friends who love to talk about the happenings in their lives!
  • Certain elements of real life experience have been embellished and/or used as a springboard to create more drama and intrigue. In many cases, I condensed the time period between events to tighten up the story. For example, Jake’s (based on a real person whose name I changed) phone call asking for forgiveness actually took place several years prior.
  • Even the closest families have their difficulties, and mine is no exception; I worked hard to create balanced portrayals while also highlighting the importance of forgiveness — another theme of the novel.
  • The Pisces pendant that Ken gives Madeline at the restaurant was just a literary ploy to reinforce the Pisces/water imagery, although I have eaten many meals at The Ship Inn in Exton!
  • Some plot points are left purposely vague. For example, I know of a woman who was raped on the beach by a former boyfriend. To give an added element of drama as well as a contrast between Ken and the rest of the men Maddy encounters, I created Ray Smith, an older guy who takes advantage of her. The point here is not about a crime being committed, but Maddy learning an important lesson about trusting her inner guidance. It also serves later on as a test of Ken’s character and Madeline’s courage.
  • Since we are all free to filter literature through the prism of our own biases and experiences, some may interpret the book as a repudiation of traditional values. As the author, I can assure you it is not. Quite the opposite: the true merit in striving to live up to one’s moral foundation lies in the fact that it is difficult. And it’s only through faith, forgiveness and endurance through the trials of life that we become better people and develop a closer relationship with God.
  • Although I wanted to, it just wasn’t possible to immortalize every good friend through fiction; likewise, there were some real life events that didn’t make the cut. Good thing, or the book might have been 800 pages!
  • The character of Cassie is based on my close cousin, Annie, who was also one of my “test readers” along the way.
  • I really did live with family friends when I first moved to Florida. They were wonderful people who opened their home to me for nearly two months, until I got on my feet. My mom really did grow up with the Rita character (last name changed), whose daughter Debbie has been my hairdresser for 14 years!
  • Elyse Lombard is based on a very close friend who is very much like another big sister to me. Our friendship grew even stronger as a result of a horrible tragedy — the untimely death of her five year-old nephew from brain cancer. This awful incident is referenced in the story. And yes, in real life, this friend loves to offer unsolicited fashion advice! 🙂
  • Audrey Solomon is also based on a dear friend with whom I also share a sisterly connection. She’s really a foot and ankle surgeon, wife and mom of two (though her second baby wasn’t born until well after the book was written).
  • Water Signs delves into sensitive emotional and physical territory — the kind of intensely personal matters most of us are reluctant to discuss. In addition to panic disorder, Madeline deals with overwhelming insecurites regarding the opposite sex and her own attractiveness; irregular menstrual periods; fear of physical intimacy and even pelvic floor dysfunction. Some of these are “borrowed” from friends’ experiences; some are my own experiences.
  • There is nothing gratuitous in my book, though there is plenty of “adult content.” Maddy struggles to live up to her values while trying to date in the modern world and deal with her own grown-up desires. The chapters involving older, divorced man Mark Donnelly are an excellent example of this.
  • I debated whether or not to include a consummation scene near the end of the book, but ultimately decided it was necessary in order to demonstrate the physical, emotional and spiritual growth of both characters. Still, I focused on making it more romantic (as opposed to explicit), by incorporating conversation and describing the setting in vivid detail. I am not as concerned about what the characters are doing as I am about how they are feeling and what they are thinking.
  • Having made the above two points, it was still not easy to reconcile my inclusion of intimate scenes with some members of my family. As an author and an adult, I knew most people would certainly understand and approve; however, as a daughter I was well aware that my parents still think of me as their little girl. I am happy to report my mom loved the book, though she was a little put-off at first. Now she’s my best PR agent!
  • The karaoke scene is also pure fiction; however, I used to sing karaoke a lot with some close friends at a little bar in Pompano Beach. Getting up to sing in front of a crowd really was a fear I wanted to confront. Leather and Lace and Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around were two numbers I used to perform with the bartender that worked there.
  • The nicknames Elyse bestows on Madeline’s parents — “Yaki” and “Tootsie” — are straight out of real life. A few years back, this friend and I took a road trip to Philly to visit my family. Though we were exhausted from the drive, my excited dad, who LOVES to take pictures, insisted we view his photo gallery from a recent trip to Italy. Thus, the nickname, Dr. Yakimoto, or Yaki for short!
  • My mom has a very dear friend she calls “Lolly,” short for Lauretta. My friend “Elyse” came up with “Tootsie” for my mom so they could be “Lolly-Pop” and “Tootsie-Pop.” Silly stuff, but fun nonetheless!
  • My grandmother really did leave me her engagement ring, a beautiful antique piece I wear every single day. Though many in the past had suggested I reset it, I steadfastly refused. And though I’ve worn it for years, I still get compliments!

Author’s Note: Family members mentioned in these bullets were excited about being immortalized through fiction, thus I had permission to use their real names. For reasons outlined in my copyright post, real identities of the other characters will never be divulged by me.

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Filed under Professional Experience, Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal