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Authors: Marilyn Brant

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Friday Mornings at Nine

BOOK: Friday Mornings at Nine
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Outstanding praise for Marilyn Brant’s debut,
ACCORDING TO JANE

“Marilyn Brant’s debut novel is proof that Jane Austen never goes out of style. This is a warm, witty and charmingly original story of a woman coming of age and finding her own happy ending—with a little help from the ultimate authority, Jane Austen herself.”

—Susan Wiggs,
New York Times
bestselling author

“Entertaining, sincere, real…well, okay, that the acclaimed author, Jane Austen, speaks across the centuries to beleaguered romantic Ellie Barnett is not quite
real
, but it is fun. An engaging read for all who have been through the long, dark dating wars and still believe there’s sunshine, and a Mr. Darcy, at the end of the tunnel.”

—Cathy Lamb, author of
Such a Pretty Face

“‘Where were the true Darcys?’ That’s the burning question bookish Ellie Barnett has been asking herself since high school when handsome, charismatic Sam Blaine first captured her heart—and then broke it. In this lively, clever novel by Marilyn Brant, Ellie is accompanied along the perilous path of romance by none other than famed novelist and formidable woman Jane Austen, who, for reasons of her own, has taken up residence in Ellie’s head. Ms. Brant wittily parallels the two women’s difficult journey to the understanding that love has the power to transform even the most selfish of men into a ‘true Darcy.’ This is a must-read for Austen lovers as well as for all who believe in the possibility of a happily-ever-after ending.”

—Holly Chamberlin, author of
The Family Beach House

Books by Marilyn Brant

According to Jane

Friday Mornings at Nine

Published by Kensington Publishing Corp.

Friday Mornings at Nine
MARILYN BRANT

KENSINGTON BOOKS
www.kensingtonbooks.com

This book Is Dedicated
To Five Extraordinary Women:
Mom and Grandma Lily

&

Wonderful Friends
Sarah Pressly-James, Karen Karris and Joyce Twardock

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Like a pair of siblings, when a second book comes along, comparisons to the first are inevitable. Sometimes the new darling is favored and fawned over. Sometimes the firstborn is preferred. Just as some people have a knack for appreciating every child equally while recognizing and valuing their differences, others would just as soon see the whole darn family move to another neighborhood (one, ideally, in a galaxy far, far away). And so it is with fiction.

From the author-mom standpoint, however, it’s incredibly exciting to introduce my second novel to the world. And while I may have a bit more experience this time around and know better what to expect before, during and after Release Day, this understanding has only reaffirmed how much it, indeed, takes a village to bring a book from idea to publication.

Friends who specifically helped me with structural plot points or read parts of this manuscript early on were Simone Elkeles, Eliza Evans, Caryn Caldwell and Heather Rebstock—thank you, ladies. Friends who read and critiqued the whole document were Karen Dale Harris, Erica O’Rourke, Sarah PJ and Laura Moore—my appreciation for your time and insights can’t be measured. Thanks, too, to Blythe Gifford for her help with 1970s-era song suggestions, and to Lydia Hirt for so patiently explaining the joys of social-networking sites to me. No small task.

As always, my gratitude goes to my friends in my home writing chapter, Chicago-North RWA, as well as to the dedicated staff at The Knight Agency, especially my agent, Nephele Tempest. I had to ask a lot of questions during the past two years, and the incredible team at Kensington was helpful at every stage. Huge thanks to everyone there! An additional note of appreciation to Karen Auerbach and Maureen Cuddy, who both talked me through the brave new world of publicity; Kristine Mills-Noble, who created such gorgeous cover art; Paula Reedy, who made the copyediting process easy and was kind enough to let me correct typos right down to the last minute; and, of course, my wonderful editor, John Scognamiglio.

More than ever, I had a truly kind and encouraging blog community this year—friends who kept me sane in the middle of chaos—and I thank everybody who visited “Brant Flakes,” left comments and participated in my contests. (A few extra hugs of gratitude to Erika Danou-Hasan, Josh Bobo, Pamela Cayne and Robin Bielman!) Many thanks as well to friends, librarians, booksellers and readers who sent me enthusiastic e-mails and took time to write such positive reviews of my debut novel. You’re priceless.

Finally, to my family—especially my parents, brother, husband and son—thank you for being so consistently supportive that I never, ever have to doubt my footing. It’s particularly wonderful to be married to a man so smart and secure that he actually helped me brainstorm plot ideas for a novel that dealt with infidelity—and with such good humor, too! I love spending my life with you, Jeff, and yes: “We may not be perfect, but we’re perfect for each other….”

Thanks, everyone.

If certain women walk straight into adultery, there are many others who cling to numerous hopes, and commit sin only after wandering through a maze of sorrows.

—Honoré de Balzac

Where there’s marriage without love, there will be love without marriage.

—Benjamin Franklin

Merely innocent flirtation, Not quite adultery, but adulteration.

—Lord Byron

1
Once Upon a Time…

Friday, September 3

T
hey met on Friday mornings at nine because that was the time when Tamara’s husband left for his law firm, when Bridget’s kids were safely in school and when Jennifer told everybody she had yoga.

Their meeting place of choice was always the Indigo Moon Café, on account of those signature butter-grilled double-chocolate-chip muffins and the mocha lattes.

Really, there was no second choice.

There’d been that one unfortunate February when the Indigo Moon’s owners, in an unnecessary display of prosperity and industriousness, remodeled the café’s interior (well, in their defense, there
had
been a regrettable plumbing incident the week prior), and the ladies were forced to meet at Bernie’s Java Hut on Highway 83 with those dreadful green vinyl seats and weak espressos instead. They tried to forget about that month.

But, on this particularly bright September morning, they sat in a corner booth at their favorite Chicago-area coffeehouse and diner—a familiar trio of married, forty-something, suburban moms in the eyes of the Glendale Grove locals—and settled into the comfort of a well-worn discussion: the demanding nature of their spouses and/or children and the difficulty in keeping their nearest and dearest happy.

Of course, like three very different sisters in an Oxygen Network production of a Grimm’s fairy tale, this morphed into an exhibit of markedly divergent mind-sets.

“Oh, please. You know he’s an insensitive prick half the time and a workaholic the other half,” Tamara ranted openly when asked about what had been going on with her lawyer husband. “He’s off on one trip or another, home just long enough to get laid, and then he’s flying out somewhere else a week later.” She snapped shut the café menu and huffed. “If it weren’t for the makeup flowers and the makeup sex, I’d have kicked his ass to the curb years ago.”

A blatant lie, incidentally. Tamara—unusually silent yet firm on this point—believed in marriage for life. And, also, she’d exaggerated the amount of makeup sex.

Bridget, keeping her usual disconcerted eye on her audience and feeling stabs of residual Catholic guilt for complaining at all, nevertheless had to get her family grumbles off her chest. “The kids are out of control,” she admitted to her friends. “They’re just at that
age
. And Graham always leaves it up to me to rein them in. It’s exhausting.”

The natural abstainer of the group, the quiet chameleon and the one whose knee-jerk response to any question could be described as committedly noncommittal, still contributed to the party line in her own way. “Nothing changes,” Jennifer remarked faintly. “Nothing.”

Their other-centric behavior at home (even acknowledging that their manner of servitude took different forms) had been an undercurrent in all their lives. It ran below the daily ticker tape of familial activity like an obligatory, perfunctory mechanism. Each had spent years doing little else, and almost as many repressing her resentment.

Of course, the suburban residents nearby would not have guessed this. They didn’t know these women, however dissimilar in temperament and appearance, had long ago agreed the world should be wary of pleasers who’d been burnt out by a lifetime of catering to others. But, even had they been privy to the ladies’ café conversations (which they most assuredly were
not
), they would’ve assumed if anyone were to bring up the subject of infidelity it would’ve been Tamara.

Auburn-haired by nature and toned from countless health club sets of tennis, she’d been described as “brash” and “outspoken” more times in her forty-three years than Hugh Jackman had been declared “handsome” or Daniel Craig “smoldering.” Should anyone in their group be accused of saying or doing the most outrageous things, Tamara would be the obvious choice.

But in that, too, curious onlookers would’ve been more mistaken than not.

Upon the arrival of her tall mocha-hazelnut latte with a double shot of espresso and extra whipped cream, Tamara merely launched into a chat about the start of the school year.

“Benji says he’s ‘super stoked’ about college. The UT campus is ‘really sick,’ which is apparently a good thing, and the city of Austin is ‘un-fracking-believably cool,’ so he’s happy.” She stirred her coffee with a couple of rough, almost angry swirls and took a few sustaining breaths. “He’s been there all of two weeks and he’s already dropping ‘y’all’ into his conversation like some fresh-off-the-ranch Texas cowboy. I hate it.”

Her friends knew how much she despised her husband’s frequent work absences, but now her son was gone as well. Although Tamara didn’t say it aloud, she’d never felt more alone. “I miss my baby boy,” she murmured.

“Your baby boy is going to be nineteen at the end of the month,” Bridget said gently, already three-quarters finished with her skim half-caf vanilla-mocha latte sprinkled with a generous dash of cinnamon. She struggled to show better portion control with her muffin but still nibbled nervously on a corner of it. “It’s gotta be hard to let him go, though.”
Especially since he’s your only child,
Bridget added to herself, but she tactfully avoided saying this aloud.

Bridget had three children versus Jennifer’s two and Tamara’s one. But, despite her thrill in seeing her youngest off to school full time this year (first grade!), Bridget worried more than any of them that, in the end, Empty Nest Syndrome might hit her hardest.

“Yeah,” Tamara said. “His birthday’s on September twenty-third. Same as the autumnal equinox. The day my world shifted on its axis and everything became simultaneously aligned and imbalanced, you know?”

Bridget replied, “I know,” although she suspected Tamara was being a bit dramatic. But, again, when a woman had just
one
kid she could be inclined toward overfocusing.

Jennifer, as usual, made few comments and none after this exchange. She nodded, however, sipped her small mocha-soy latte made with a squirt of coconut syrup and a hint of nutmeg (a combination from which she never deviated) and regarded the other two with an occasional distracted glance.

She’d been friends with the others for more than four years—ever since her younger daughter and Bridget’s oldest were together in summer cheerleading camp and Tamara, who knew Bridget from some community organization or other, helped them secure the park district gym for their practices. Of course, this was followed by infinite library and school district fund-raising events, where they’d been thrown in each other’s paths often enough to create a durable bond. Soon the trio had their weekly coffee date in place—an almost unbreakable commitment—which nowadays, because of conflicting schedules, was usually the only time they got together.

Thus, having witnessed it for years, Bridget and Tamara were well acquainted with Jennifer’s predisposition toward silence. They understood she wasn’t angry with them or even bored. But she’d been slipping into her reflexive introversion more readily than usual over the past three weeks, and Tamara had had quite enough of not getting Jennifer’s full attention.

“Something going on with you, Jennifer?” Tamara asked, noting the disturbing strands of gray competing with the streaks of blond in Jennifer’s hair. Tamara tagged this stylistic lapse as a form of neglect, feeling justified in her tough-love approach since, clearly, Jennifer’s distress had taken a physical turn.

Jennifer shrugged and took another sip of her coffee.

But Tamara persisted. “You’re not pregnant, are you?” She realized Jennifer was forty-one and her daughters both teens, but who knew these days? Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Lisa Marie Presley…they’d popped out their babies at whatever-the-hell age they wanted.

Jennifer’s blue-green eyes flew open and Bridget had to cough down half a gulp of vanilla-mocha.

“N-No,” Jennifer managed to reply, but even Bridget recognized the trepidation with which their friend answered.

“Have you, uh, gotten any new e-mails?” Bridget asked carefully.

After a long pause during which, in unison, they watched their waitress scurry into the kitchen and out of earshot, Jennifer confessed, “Yes,” her tone startling in its quiet intensity.

Tamara raised her coffee mug in a mock toast and beamed. “Whoo-hoo! Here’s to your old boyfriend. What’s the hottie got to say this time?”

“Shhh,” Bridget hissed, scanning the room for listeners.

“What?” Tamara rolled her deep brown eyes. “We’re the only ones in this section—nobody’ll hear. And, besides, it’s not like she’s gonna
do
anything with lover-boy David anyway.” Tamara turned to Jennifer. “Are you?”

Based on what Tamara knew, Jennifer had only received three e-mails from her college ex, which she always answered dutifully and overpolitely. Never a hint of impropriety. So, Tamara considered Bridget’s insistence on discretion rather extreme.

“Um. Probably not.” Jennifer twisted the corner of her brown paper napkin and dabbed at a coffee droplet on the table.

Tamara blinked at her. “
Probably
not? Are you fucking kidding me? You’re
thinking
of cheating?”


Probably
not,” Jennifer repeated, a tiny smile of the wry variety rising one millimeter—maybe two—at the edges of her mouth.

Bridget giggled uneasily.

Tamara laughed aloud, unwilling to take Jennifer’s claim with any seriousness.

Then the three of them—an unspoken question thickening the air—sat in silence for a full thirty seconds, considering who they’d say “probably not” to…if ever propositioned.

David had been the love of Jennifer’s life, The One for her, or so she’d been convinced in college. They were of a particular type: techie geeks who’d found their twin. A type not shared by her poetry-writing, Spanish-language-teaching husband, Michael, a kind man but one who’d never spoken Jennifer’s dialect.

Jennifer hadn’t told anyone, not even her friends, about the increasingly intimate nature of her e-mail exchanges with David. She’d been careful in her replies, but there were subtleties in his responses—and in her own—others wouldn’t pick up on. A suggestiveness hidden in private code. This secrecy made the tension and excitement inside her grow large and potent, like a psychedelic mushroom in a dark closet.

Bridget, meanwhile, had her own secret.

With whole days at her disposal now—the kids in school and Graham at work—she’d transitioned from occasional temping at Smiley Dental to regular part-time hours, which included Tuesdays and Thursdays from ten
A.M
. to two
P.M
., when Dr. Luke was in the office.

Bridget
admired
Dr. Luke.

This was what she kept telling herself. Only, sometimes, they shared these glances. Glances that were less about professional admiration, basic courtesy or general respect than about physical appreciation…and sensuality…and awareness.

For Tamara’s part, she’d been highly aware of her sexy, early-thirty-something neighbor guy—five houses down the block, on the left side. She had, on more than one occasion, joked that divorced men were getting younger and cuter all the time but, in truth, she’d also fantasized about this
particular
young and newly available man while getting personal with her BNY-762 Vibrating “Bunny.” (Her husband, Jon, was out-of-town
quite
often.)

Twice, maybe three times, though, Neighbor Aaron had sparked her desires even while she was in bed with Jon, a confession she forbade herself to make aloud.

“A quickie affair is a fun fantasy, but it isn’t
real,
and none of us would go through with it,” Tamara informed them with a certainty that would have been more believable had she not been fidgeting so relentlessly with her stirring stick.

Jennifer, paying full attention to Tamara now, said, “So you have someone in mind then? Someone who tempts you?”

Tamara squinted at her. “All women do. Especially if they’ve been married for more than a decade. Almost two decades, in my case. But no self-respecting woman acts on it. She’d know better. Husband or lover, it doesn’t matter. Men are all the same, especially once they get what they want.”

Bridget swallowed, not quite agreeing, but also not quite able to substantiate her disagreement with a logical argument. “Er, yeah. But even if they’re
not
all the same, even if they’re wonderfully romantic and different from any stereotype, there’s that whole ‘It’s a sin’ thing.”

Bridget may have been a lapsed Catholic, especially these last few years. And she may have only been going through the motions of attending church sometimes—for the kids, of course—but she still remembered all Ten Commandments with the same devotion she used to recite all ten ingredients in Sister Margaret Marie’s Perfect Spaghetti Sauce. Both had been burned into her brain for life during fifth-grade catechism.

Jennifer sighed, her slim shoulders hunched under the onerous burden of indecision. “Yeah. I’m not saying those aren’t problems. But what if—” She paused, shrugged, looked away.

“What if what?” Bridget needed to know. Their group had had plenty of deep conversations and, occasionally, some pretty racy ones in their three-and-a-half years of meeting weekly at the Indigo Moon, but none of those discussions had ever taken a turn like this.

“What if it were
more
immoral
not
to test the strength of our marriages?” Jennifer whispered finally. Then, in an unexpected flood of monologue, she added, “We’ve all talked about our husbands—the struggles we’ve had, the challenges and, sometimes, the wonderful things, too. We’ve all had ups and downs. But what if there’s a chance we made a wrong choice somewhere? Married the wrong man? Lived the wrong life? What if our
real
task is to make sure we’re on the right path? To know, once and for all, without question, that we’re where we should be.”

Despite eighteen years of marriage, Jennifer hadn’t forgotten she’d chosen Michael as her rebound guy after David’s desertion. And though she almost never spoke of it, not a week passed that she didn’t second-guess her decision…that she didn’t wonder if, maybe, she should’ve waited for David just a little bit longer.

BOOK: Friday Mornings at Nine
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